The Paramitas II: Morality
The second paramita is sila, which means ethical behavior or morality. It includes a social code of behavior, called the precepts which is a key component of initiation ceremonies, priest ordination ceremonies, and ceremonies when a priest finishes his or her training. In addition there’s a formal recitation of these precepts as often as monthly in Buddhist centers around the world.
But codes of what is considered moral behavior change with time and from culture to culture. My teacher certainly realized this when he discussed with us the precept“do not sell liquor.” He pointed out that we should understand it to mean do not sell anything to someone which might intoxicate them including the idea that they should be attached to a moral rule or religious belief. This was at a time when our culture’s attitude toward sex outside of marriage was beginning to go through a radical change. My girlfriend and I had just been kicked out or our apartment a couple of blocks from Zen center because the apartment manager told us that she “believed in the sanctity of a Christian marriage.” How times have changed!
Two hundred years ago, the precept about sexuality for serious meditation practitioners (who were generally ordained) was one of celibacy, which has gradually morphed to “do not abuse sexuality.” And many Buddhist teachers have fallen down on that one, even in its revised form, during the short time Buddhism has been in this country. This suggests that mere recitation of a rule of behavior may not be very effective by itself.
How can we be deeply moral, beyond getting boxed in by any specific rule, so that we do not cause harm toward others? To do this, our feeling of connectedness to each other has to be stronger than our drive to satisfy our own needs at someone else’s expense.
It is definitely possible to move in this direction. Through a regular meditation practice we begin to feel connected to all of life, which is radically different from what twelve step people call co-dependence. As our meditation matures, we do not need others to be happy to be happy ourselves. And it’s good to remind ourselves that, as my teacher said, “there are no enlightened people, only enlightened activity.”
The Paramitas: Overview and Generosity
I’d like to spend some time exploring the paramitas or “gone beyonds.” I just spent a little time in a class I was teaching discussing how practice of the paramitas can result in a positive seeding of the Buddhist unconscious (the storehouse consciousness), which in turn can produce healthy plants. When these plants bear fruit in our daily lives, this can be quite transformative.
The primary paramitas are generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom. As Zen practitioners, we should not take each at its face value, however. As “gone beyond,” their value lies primarily in their ability to cut through, deconstruct, and demolish all our conceptual frameworks, ideas, belief systems and reference points- to pull the rug out from under our conventional understanding of each of them. The practice of each is meant to take us beyond dualistic thinking in which generosity is the opposite of stinginess, morality the opposite of immorality, etc. Getting caught on one side or another is a thought distortion that clouds our ability to authentically practice the paramitas and live placidly in a chaotic world.
Authentic practice of the paramitas entails removing our straight jacket of dichotomous thinking. Here’s an example: In our current political climate there’s a lot of focus on racial identity. But the bottom line is that there are no biological races. The black-white dichotomy was created by slaveholders who wanted to justify their ownership of, “inferior blacks.” My great, great grandfather Timothy managed to get to New York from Ireland during the potato famine of the mid-1800s. But since he was Irish, he was forced to sleep outside. Local Irish told him that there was a part of the continent he might want to move to, California, where he would no longer be treated as Black Irish, but could sleep inside, and not be discriminated against; which he did and it worked! So much for the black-white dichotomy!
Let me move on to each of the paramitas, finishing this piece by commenting on the first one, dana (generosity). We usually think of generosity as being focused on the well being of others, but non-dual generosity needs to include generosity toward ourselves. So many Zen students I have worked with over the years suppress or deny their own needs in their focus on being “generous.” When they do this, they dry up inside and its hard for them to be genuinely generous to others. Often these people are locked into the virtue of sacrificing their own well being to help others and this lock closes them down to a generosity which is beyond concept. In the Diamond Sutra, Buddha says to Subhuti, “If bodhisattvas act generously without concepts of generosity, their merit will be incalculable.”
Can we tap into a generosity beyond concept, a generosity that’s not based on trying to accomplish something or just be “good?” To do this we need to get to know our stinginess. If we are stingy in sharing our material goods, it is possible to be generous to this feeling of needing to protect ourselves and our resources- to practice seeing it and touching the fear that is at its root.
When we are stingy with money or goods, there’s always an underlying emotional constriction. Most likely our stinginess comes from one or both of our parents fears that were passed on to us. In my own case, I learned in my family of origin that deep and enduring happiness was directly related to material well-being. Even though I saw the inadequacy of that belief many years ago, it’s still in my unconscious and pops out on occasion. And I have practiced with it enough that I have been able to compassionately touch the underlying fear, and in most circumstances it loses its power when I do this. You might try practicing with your own stinginess in the same way. You may be surprised to discover how doing this enhances your own feeling of generosity toward yourself, your friends, and all beings.
In this piece and the next one, I am going to talk about healthy doubt as a tool for opening up beyond the limitation of our egos. In contrast to negative, reactive doubt, doubt which includes deep questioning can be an effective tool in moving through the layers of sediment that clog up our ability to fully appreciate our lives.
Our doubting mind has several positive features. For example, it may pull us back from making a choice before we have thoroughly examined alternatives. Many years ago I was trying to settle on a spiritual community to commit myself to in order to support my fledgling meditation practice. I wanted to practice in a context where I could get the most support in drilling into my psyche to discover the well of timelessness and the water of contentment that lies at its center. I went back and forth between the San Francisco Zen Center and the Vedanta Society, skeptically looking at each alternative as I weighing their pros and cons. This process of careful deliberation, as well as the doubting that went along with it, enabled me to choose a practice that has resonated with me for many years.
Unlike many spiritual practitioners who value belief rather than doubt, Zen practitioners are encouraged to question any and all beliefs. We don’t have a god or other authority figure that we need to have faith in. Instead, doubt is our ally, helping us weigh our choices and dive deep below any and all conventional truisms.
In many cases, doubting the authority of a specific spiritual teacher is very healthy. The role of a teacher is to encourage us to deeply search for something beyond the limitation of belief so that we may both overcome complacency and loosening preconceived ideas. This needs to include any and all ideas that are spiritual in nature. And sometimes we need to ask ourselves whether a given teacher is really helping us do this.
It is so easy to fall into “doubt denial” because we don’t want to pay the price of giving up our attachment to “received wisdom,” whether it be from a teacher, religious institution, or belief system.
Skeptical doubt in spiritual and psychological exploration, as in science, is healthy and useful. “Be a lamp unto yourself,” said the historical Buddha to his disciples as he was near death and they were crowding around to receive his final teaching.
Serious meditation practitioners are well served by doubt, especially if they can use their questioning to drill down below all the sediment that clogs up the spaciousness of the Buddha nature or clear sky mind.
There’s an expression in Rinzai Zen that faith and doubt are equally important in the quest to tap into that spaciousness and clarity—-faith that if we keep drilling, keep questioning, keep asking, we will, indeed tap into this spaciousness.
A healthy complement to this is to doubt in any and all beliefs that we get attached to along the way.
In my childhood I was exposed to my grandparents’ Catholicism in which faith is crucial and doubt suspect. I was also exposed to my parents’ Unitarian Church, in which doubt was crucial and faith suspect. I was encouraged to doubt all so-called religious beliefs or doctrines by my minister. And in Zen practice, faith and doubt are equally important. Or, one could say that it’s important that we have enough faith to stay with the process of deeply doubting so that we can move to a deeper level of being.
When you are locked into a specific emotion you might ask yourself, “Who’s upset? Who am I? Who is angry? Who is depressed? Who is nervous? Who is struggling? Who wants to be enlightened?”
This deep questioning can be very fruitful if we keep with it. “Keeping with it” or determination is the third leg of the Zen practice stool, the first two being doubt and faith per above.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher