In private conversations and on this blog I’ve made references to the relief of knowing what it means to “live an ethical life.” I say relief because, after decades of personal conduct marked by a self-absorbed drifting along the edge, Zen practice has given me simple guidelines with which to align thoughts and behaviours. What makes these precepts so remarkable is that they shift the responsibility for ethical conduct directly to me. They’re not God-given commandments; there’s no confession and forgiveness of sins as taught during my early years. Now the responsibilty is mine to adhere to freely adopted rules. Any breach or trespass is not punished, but calls me to become aware of consequences, make amends, and re-new my intention to live responsively.
“The Zen view … is that the natural person is ethical and that people often act in unethical ways because nature has been distorted or clouded by conditioning. … Ethics, far from being society’s protection against the natural person, are considered the signposts showing the person the way back to their original pure blissful nature which exists prior to corruption. In this conception, ethics are not restrictive walls: they are the ladder by which an escape may be achieved—the signposts pointing back to your true nature” (Brazier, 1995).
I am convinced that this principle is the key to why I became a Buddhist practitioner ten years ago (this October). My initial experience with meditation retreats and basic monastic training was unglamorous at best: no flashes of insights or tastes of homecoming. On the contrary, the first two months at an upstate New York monastery were marked by hard and seemingly frivolous work assignments, long hours of meditation during which I barely stayed awake, talks by teachers who seemed to speak in a foreign language, and rules of conduct that were not explained but meant to be lived-into. And yet I left there in late December knowing that I had glimpsed the Way, a path I’ve since named spiritual … and ethical.
In days to come I plan to unfold the 16 precepts “given” to me during a formal ceremony (called jukai) at my home monastery by a teacher who gave me a Buddhist name which has been my guiding motto ever since.
source: Brazier, D. (1995). Zen therapy: transcending the sorrows of the human mind. New York: Wiley, pp. 44-45. image: Charlton Heston as Moses.