Monday, February 15, 2010

Toward an American Buddhism

This morning I read the NY Times with my first cup of coffee, something I don't usually do. Perhaps that made me was more sensitive to the news about America it brought to me.

- A computer-guided rocket supposed to be able to strike within a yard of its target went wrong and hit a compound crowded with Afghan civilians, killing - among others - at least five children.
- In Elkhardt, Indiana, people who can't afford to buy houses are buying them for the tax credit. Economy stimulus gone wrong, perhaps.
- A neuroscientist who was denied tenure and shot three colleagues is found to have a history of violence.
Do you want to label these events with the three poisons? Greed, hatred, ignorance, take your choice.

But the day's news got worse on the inside pages. How security guards in Seattle watched the beating of a teenage girl without intervening. In the Business Day section, news of "dark scary content" I won't even hint at is now found on CNN. And to cap it, the Arts section reviews a book titled The Death of American Virtue, about Bill Clinton's impeachment trial. We all remember that, don't we? How he sat there not quite smiling and said that what he and Monica Lewinsky did was not sex.

Was that moment really when American virtue ended? I wondered. Was there ever an America characterized by virtue? This is a country founded on colonizing its indigenous populations - oh yes, there is an obituary today of a former chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Philip Martin. He brought his people out of poverty by attracting or building industries; they include two casinos, which take people's money by giving them cheap alcohol and fostering delusions.

Reading story after story I found myself imagining America as a disk. Half of it is dark, convoluted with the struggles of violence and greed and delusion. The other half is white, representing the ideal of life lived according to Buddhism's basic five precepts for behavior.

The precepts are simple and down to earth, though they can be interpreted carefully and thoughtfully. We are to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and intoxicants. They seem to be fundamentally about not harming - a basic manual for building safe, gentle communities. Indeed, it's hard to imagine any one of the stories above happening in a community where most people seriously aspired to follow these practices. Some monks recite them every day.

I can't figure out how to make members of Congress recite them daily. But it is interesting to think about. Here is a quote from a very nice, concise discussion of the Precepts by Thanissaro Bhikku:
The Buddha's path consisted not only of mindfulness, concentration, and insight practices, but also of virtue, beginning with the five precepts. In fact, the precepts constitute the first step in the path. There is a tendency in the West to dismiss the five precepts as Sunday-school rules bound to old cultural norms that no longer apply to our modern society, but this misses the role that the Buddha intended for them: They are part of a course of therapy for wounded minds.

In fact, it is interesting to think of our sanghas adopting this ancient practice of virtue. It is interesting to think of doing it ourselves.


  1. The Precepts are absolutely essential. It's foolish to ignore them, and most helpful to actually wrestle with them in your daily life. They're not black and white commandments, which is what people often assume.

    For example, what living being is able to completely not kill? Every breath you and I take kills off micro-organisms. I'm vegetarian, but I kill veggies, fruit, and other things everyday to stay healthy and alive.

    There are probably examples for each precept that contradict a strict, literal reading, but the point of having them as a center piece of your life is to constantly remain awake to your actions, to see how each action could impact others and the world around you, and to learn how to refrain, and be patient, much more than the cultural norms expect of you.

    It's actually harder to live the precepts in a non-dogmatic manner than to just follow them like laws. I've tried to just follow them like laws, for months at a time, and it's doable, but you still suffer a lot because life doesn't line up so neatly.

    Not sure why I'm writing so much about all this; I just feel that you're so right about the importance of the precepts, but also that it's important to work with them, and not just codify them as final solutions. (I don't assume you did in your post, but can imagine others will do so, which is where the "Sunday school rules" view comes from.)

  2. I love precept work and am currently re-reading Reb Anderson's Being Upright.

    What I love most is struggling to define conventional and universal meanings behind the precepts. When I say love, I really mean this keeps me busy, because this is the kind of love that can make me feel sick to my stomach.

    As a lay person in a dynamic world, I find myself in these limiting situations, which always require very relative interpretations of the precepts.

    I don't mean to make excuses for my poor behavior, but in this difficult city, I hope I make the best choice available, the choice that lets me sleep at night.

    Whenever I try and rationalize the precepts I start to feel a little paralyzed. I know that can't be the answer, the here and now.

    Strange to say, but I put a blind faith into Zazen, knowing that I don't always know up from down, but that sitting helps.

  3. Last Sunday, my niece asked me what are the 3 simple rules she can live by. I told her, like what I've been telling other businesspeople: Make sure that what you do 1) Doesn't harm people; 2) Doesn't harm animals; 3) Doesn't harm the environment. It's easy to memorize for 8 year old kids, businesspeople, and politicians.