Monday, July 14, 2008

The term 'Buddhist morality' is in a sense a contradiction in terms. This is not to say that Buddhists are immoral but that beyond the obvious guidelines of the precepts, Buddhists have no codified system of beliefs and behaviour that they apply to their daily lives.

It is difficult for us to get to the bottom of this state in the West because our culture is based in the logical rationalism of Greco Christian values and European Philosophy that constructs an imaginary vision of the world in each instant and responds to that vision. We believe in thinking and speaking.

Our thinking tends to go something like this:

'We can manufacture right or rightness waits in the ether, an option we can choose to do. Using our learned conventional wisdom, we can think about what the right thing to do is and then do it. If we continue to think carefully about our lives and how we lead them then act according to our moral code then we will lead good lives filled with good actions.'

As children we are always told to ‘Think before you speak’ or ‘Look before you leap.’

We believe in a rational, ordered universe governed by logic that we can to some extent control by our right activity according to how closely we follow our beliefs, our religious or philosophical system, the accepted cultural norms of behaviour.

While Master Dogen is clear that we should follow the rules and laws of our countries and respect our rulers, Buddhism is ultimately different from this:

Right action is not separate from the moment in which right action can take place.

It is not separate from the material world of that moment or the psychological world of that moment.

These divisive descriptions of material and psychological of action and the moment in which it occurs refer to a truth that arises only in one instant.

So how can we think about rightness then apply it. How can we make a judgment about what is right and what is wrong? The moment for right action to occur will have passed in the judging. The moment when we apply the judgement will be too late. We are thinking and analysing rather than acting.

This process of consideration is only a process and not to be confused with action itself that exists in a real dimension that alters the entire system of which it is part, what medieval monks might have called 'turning the wheel of the dharma.'

We cannot imagine rightness then execute our imagination to correspond to our thinking.

Then are we completely adrift without any moral compass, incapable of doing the right thing?

There is a famous story that Master Dogen repeats and comments on in the Shobogenzo:

Chinese lay disciple Haku Kyo-i was governor of the Hangzhou district.

He went to study Buddhism under Zen Master Choka Dorin.

Kyo-i asks, "What is the great intention of the Buddha-Dharma?"

Dorin says, "Not doing any wrong, only doing good."

Kyo-i says, "If that were it, even a child of three could understand it!"

Dorin says, "A child of three can understand it, but this old man of eighty cannot practise it."

Master Choka Dorin draws attention to the disparity between what we think of as right and wrong and how to behave and the reality of what may be right and wrong which can only happen in this moment now, undivided from the time and space of its occurrence.

The activity of zazen is a kind of opening, the act of letting all phenomena go, real and imagined.

In the moment of doing zazen we are not doing wrong but permitting the emergence of the reality of our experience which we can call 'right.' Zazen is the purest standard of not doing wrong. Through this profound act of relinquishing, we tame the spectacular display of our minds and are left focused and aware in the present.

When Master Dogen prizes those 'who learn in practise.' He means those whose zazen is the standard for their lives. Those who understand and practise zazen as not doing wrong. Throwing out what we think we know leaves our intuition free to work with what actually is.

This meeting of intuitive wisdom or Prajna with the truth of our lives that remains when we have extinguished the constructed world of our imaginations is the activity of Buddhas.

Focused and aware in this instant, bringing nothing with us and taking nothing away, responding immediately to what is happening now.

'Not doing any wrong, only doing good.'

My daughter of 4 can understand it but her Dad of 38 cannot practise it

(Given as a talk at Bloomsbury Zen Group 17/07/08)