Last week I was speaking about acceptance as a spiritual quality. Acceptance can be misunderstood if it's taken as an absolute social philosophy; it might then imply a state of apathy or complacency with no urge to act for the good of our society. When I was speaking about acceptance I was speaking about a quality of the heart. This quality of the heart exists in the social contexts of a society, a community and a family. The social context defines what is socially acceptable and unacceptable.
I like to compare the social commitment of being a Buddhist to that of being a member of a guild. If you have a guild of master builders - if you belong to the craftspeople in that guild- then you have certain obligations, certain skills that you have to develop before you are accepted and accredited by that guild. Your work has to be maintained at the standards that all the members agree upon; you have to have a certain ability to do your craft, and you have certain obligations to fulfil, standards to uphold. And if you do not meet those standards then the guild will strike you off its books. But also the guild will protect your interests and it will encourage you to sustain good standards or use better designs or whatever might be the case. And I think monasticism, or any kind of Buddhist culture, is something like that. It is an association of people who undertake to live according to certain values, who undertake a lifestyle commitment. They undertake the responsibility of being a Buddhist. This kind of responsibility or commitment gives form to our participation in community and supports all of us in our spiritual work.
Our monastic community has just finished what is known as the 'rains retreat'. It has indeed been raining. On Thursday, full moon day, we had our 'pavarana day', which is the last day of the Rains Retreat. On that day we came together, and performed a ceremony handed down to us from the time of the Buddha. All the monks and novices came together in a kind of sharing circle and each of us individually repeated a phrase in Pali which roughly translates as, "For anything that I have done which is against my obligations as a Buddhist monk, which is contrary to the training I am undertaking, please admonish me or please offer me some reflection or feedback". This creates an opening, an invitation to hear how we are seen by our peers. It's a reflection for each of us. We have lived together for these three months, practising meditation and sharing in the goodness of this sanctuary, all of which has been made possible through the generosity of our lay community. It has been a good time and I feel grateful for these three months. We also use reflections such as, 'Have I used my time wisely? Have I honoured the alms food of the lay people and have I honoured my monastic rule? Have I been sensitive to my fellow monastics?' - healthy reflections which help us to remember our heart commitment to the path of peace and our commitment to helping each other on this journey.
Our life in community is thus a training in body, speech and mind which encourages us to let go of selfishness and yet encourages to do our own spiritual work.
The Buddha and his disciples were unable to design as detailed a code of life for the laity as they did for the monastics because the lifestyles of the lay community were too diverse. Thus the teaching on ethics and social commitment was given in the context of social structures that already existed in the societies of those times. In those cultures if, for example, a couple got married, it was not only a relationship with another person, but also it was a marriage that brought the couple within the community of married people. They weren't just an isolated couple, but rather a couple who had joined a 'guild of married people'. And that implied an obligation. It implied a moral obligation, a familial obligation, and a communal obligation.
The whole community understood that obligation. And so the whole community could support marriage, through encouragement, through admonishment, through helping in times of sickness, and so on and so forth. So it wasn't just something that happened in isolation. These kinds of supportive structures are harder to find in modern urban society. For instance we might ask what is a partnership? Is there a 'guild of partners'? What are the obligations in a partnership? How is that defined and are there like-minded people who support such obligations? I think this is a very real difficulty in our culture. A place like this monastery and a group like this where many people come on a Sunday and meditate and reflect on Dhamma, is a vehicle for creating a supportive social environment for our Dhamma work. We as a community, as a group of human beings, can uphold certain traditional values. We can honour these values, and we can give each other feedback when traditional values are not honoured, when things become unacceptable. If we see someone who comes to the monastery and they are abusive, if we see a monastic who is not living by agreed monastic standards, then that is unacceptable. We need to express our disagreement in an appropriate manner.
When we speak of acceptance, we usually mean at the heart level. Acceptance is an inner strategy that allows us to be with life and respond to life with clarity. But acceptance is not an absolute social philosophy. At the social level some kinds of behaviour are unacceptable and our duty as members of this spiritual community is to go to the person who we feel is not living according to our agreed upon standards, to the lay person or to the monk, and to say that we have to talk about this. Inner acceptance allows for clarity of action. But if we are not aware of our inner world and attack from positions of righteous indignation and anger then the results will be messy and confused. So we always need to awaken to and honestly accept our own passions and defilements of mind. This is a kind of inner obligation and commitment. Self righteous indignation is a very destructive energy, an energy which can be used to justify anger, hatred and jealousy. We need the courage to speak out when necessary but we also need honesty to know our own feelings and intentions. In a Buddhist community the accepted ethical framework is the five precepts. The third precept encourages moderation as regards sensuality. This is a very broad precept which asks us to reflect on the way we conduct ourselves with regard to sensual experience. Specifically, it encourages the observance of sexual fidelity.
Adulterous relationships are thus against this precept. It is a precept which draws very clear boundaries so that anyone in a marriage or in a permanent relationship or anyone who is engaged or anyone who is underage or anyone who is a monastic or anyone who is living under the eight precepts, all of these people are out of bounds as regards sexual relationships. In observing this precept our responsibility, our obligation is to promote the harmony of existing social contracts and to care for those who are not of age or living under renunciant precepts.
Those who are committed to a religious life based on Buddhist principles have these kinds of obligations to each other. If anyone in our community, be it a monastic person or a lay person, is not fulfilling this principle of impeccability in relationship or if someone is being in any way promiscuous or abusive, it is our duty as a community to talk about that, to reflect on that. Not in a gossping manner but in a way which honours the precepts. And that requires courage and compassion.
This is a kind of social activism. It means speaking about things which are important. This kind of honesty can be very helpful if it is done correctly, not from self-righteousness, not from anger, but from the fact that we have an obligation to the well being of our community and its individuals.
The one quality the Buddha could never go against in his spiritual journey was the quality of truthfulness. Truthfulness is the heart of the religious life because enlightenment is about truth. Freedom is about truth and suffering is about ignorance, about not understanding. If there is someone in our community, be it in the monastic community or in the lay community, whose mind is justifying immoral behaviour it's very dangerous for that person. Unfortunately we humans have the ability to rationalise our delusions. We can be very clever with knowledge and ideas. Perhaps we have all seen occasions when a person is trying to admonish another and the other person is more clever with language and twists it all around. So cleverness ends up winning the day rather than truthfulness. There is the manipulation of words and language to suit the desires and fears of the ego. It is a cleverness which has the potential to do great harm to a person's spiritual life.
Precepts and moral guidelines are a common body of knowledge - a common agreement of obligations. When someone is acting in a way which is breaking apart existing relationships and they are using some kind of clever language, we can say, "Perhaps, but what about the third precept..." It is important that we have a common body of knowledge so that there are references beyond personal preferences. For instance, our monastic rules are a body of knowledge which is available not only to the monks and nuns but also to the laity. In a non-Buddhist culture most lay people don't understand the monastic rules but in Buddhist Asia people tend to understand the rules and then everyone knows the monastic and lay boundaries. When the boundaries are transgressed then there is a skilful reference point - a body of common agreements. This helps both those who are in positions of authority as well as those who seek guidance and leadership.
Sometimes teachers travel outside the boundaries of their own culture, outside of the constraints and obligations that help them reflect on their responsibilities. This can lead to situations where a teacher gets lost in selfish delusions and gets burnt-out or oversteps the boundaries of propriety.
If, however, there is a cultural knowledge of boundaries, roles and expectations then it is much more difficult for the teacher to follow self-deceptions. Teachers and leaders will sometimes lose the plot and blunder into areas of confusion. They get lost in their own over-estimations. They need protection too, don't they? So, we all need protection, we all need help because delusion is there, it deludes us into doing unskilful things.
Contemplating the first precept, the precept on not harming living beings, we see how difficult that is in New Zealand. To create Karori and Kapiti bird sanctuaries many possums, rats, cats and stoats were killed. Without the killing the native birds die off. What to do? One thing we can do is to make sure we don't throw out the first precept. If someone feels they have to transgress the precept they must think long and hard by reflecting on the necessity and value of taking life. Then they must be responsible for the decisions they make. If, however, the precept is completely thrown out it is easy for attitudes to arise that dismiss certain forms of life. The animal and plant realms are then considered purely in terms of human desires and human economies rather than in terms of compassion and care.
Have you ever perceived a spider as a pet? Children do this easily. Have you ever changed your perceptions from 'this is a useless thing' to actually looking at an animal with empathy, seeing it is a sentient creature that is trying to be happy in its own interesting way? This creates an entirely different relationship. It is quite beautiful. This can sound very utopian and impractical but the Buddha's teaching encourages us to cultivate a heart of love and turn away from the heart of alienation. Yes, we need to protect the environment from noxious weeds and so forth but let's not brutalise the mind with insensitive and violent attitudes.
The second precept is about non-corruption: I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking that which is not given. In our monastic rule we have various refinements around this basic principle of not stealing. For instance, if someone gave a monk a valuable object here in New Zealand worth $1,000 and then the monk went to Canada, by Canadian law that article would have to be declared and customs duties paid on it. But if he were to take that object, put it in his carrier bag and walk through without declaring it at customs, fully knowing that he was trying to evade taxes, the monk would have committed an offence of 'defeat'. This is known as a parajika offence. We have four parajika offences. When a monk has committed a parajika offence he has to disrobe - very serious. That kind of cheating would be an impediment to his spiritual life so the rule helps him to be very careful. Being careful in this way leads to a mind which is free from remorse, from from self hatred and free of the fear of blame.
These precepts point to a sense of impeccability as the standard of the spiritual life. The ethical teachings encourage us to understand the laws of the land and to determine to support those laws, because if we don't who will? This is our commitment to community. It is not just taking the easy way out or just going with the popular mood of the day, 'well, everyone else is taking things off the back of the lorry, why not? The office has lots of stationery.' That kind of mind is not an impeccable mind. A mind which follows dishonesty becomes a mind which is afflicted by guilt, fear or arrogance. It is not a mind that is going to experience the beauty of a peaceful heart.
The precept on speech is a very useful mirror to help us notice the motivations and intentions that lie behind our words. Wrong speech is: lying, swearing, destructive gossip, and stupid talk. Right speech is: speech which is truthful, speech which is beautiful, speech which is harmonious rather than divisive. Speech which accords with Dhamma. Speech can be very uplifting. For example when the Dalai Lama came to New Zealand his words were tremendously inspiring for so many people. On the other hand, when we hear someone speaking with a heart of hate and cruelty it can be very disturbing. So speech is very powerful either for the good of our society or for its detriment.
Now, with the precepts themselves, we can't always get it right, but we can reflect: speech which is truthful, speech which is beautiful, speech which is harmonious, speech which is according to Dhamma - Right Speech. We can take that into our hearts and minds. By reading over and contemplating a precept every day for some extended period of time that precept begins to echo in our minds. And then if we are talking with someone and discover ourselves distorting the truth, exaggerating or covering up the truth, the precept awakens us with the question "Why am I doing that? Why am I lying? Why do I need to distort the truth?" It awakens us to the truth of our motivations. If, however, we have no clear ethical boundaries or moral standards we can slide into unwholesome and unskilful behaviour that is harmful to both ourselves and others. The precepts thus become a way to protect us from the inner urges of insensitivity and selfishness, urges which we all experience but which only become harmful when we believe in their voices.
Using the precepts in this way we are able to ask ourselves, "What are my intentions" If I am being manipulative with someone or I am trying to cover up something that I've been doing or I am just exaggerating to make myself look better, where is that coming from? Is it coming from fear, from greed, or from some other unskilful place? And what's the result of that? Is the result good? Is the result peaceful? Is the result happy? When I speak in this way, is my mind confused?
On the other hand, when we encourage people, when we are sensitive to them, when we tell the truth, when we are able to own up to our mistakes, what is the result of that? Is that a good result or a bad result? Right speech thus becomes a part of the path to freedom. This is not easy. Most people find it difficult. We can easily believe deluded projections and dismiss someone with insensitivity and unkindness. Or we can can believe in some petty complaint and then poke someone in a heartless manner. Or we might feel jealous of someone's success and tear them down behind their backs - so many ways to close the heart and get lost in wrong speech. The empathy and love in the heart gets smothered and we end up feeling more and more alienated.
The precept on drugs is obviously very important, because a truly religious and spiritual life requires intelligence and focus both of which are harmed by alcohol and various recreational drugs. We are not asked to adopt a puritanical attitude, 'thou shalt not have a glass of wine with granny on her birthday', it is not that. Rather it helps us reflect on why we turn to these things and what effects they have on our lives. Do these things make us better people and more responsible members of our communities? And what about our poor old bodies? Is it a kindness to fill the body with various chemicals for the sake of pleasure or for the need to escape?
So the framework for a Buddhist guild, a religious guild, is the five precepts. Each one of us is slowly refining and deepening our use and understanding of the precepts.
For example the precept on harmlessness not only encourages us to live a life of non-violence but also a life of compassion. We work towards a deepening of that possibility. Much of Buddhist social philosophy is based on empathy. Empathy is a marvellous attitude which helps lift us out of selfishness and self-obsession. When we have a chance to give to someone and we feel the joy of helping someone and caring for someone, then they are actually giving us a lot. It's an irony isn't it? I have sometimes said to couples who have adopted a baby that the baby is very fortunate. They invariably answer, "no, no, we are the lucky ones". We only have about 100 years to live on this planet, 80-100 maximum. What is the purpose of life? If we can do something good for our society, for our planet and the beings on it then that gives life meaning. If that is the basis of our social philosophy then we can see more clearly our own manipulativeness or the rationalising of our actions to justify selfish ends. When harmful impulses arise we learn to be patient and not follow these energies but also we cultivate wholesome states of mind, encouraging compassion and kindness to blossom in our hearts. This is a lovely process in the spiritual life.
The advances in science as regards medical and agricultural technologies have created a complicated array of moral dilemmas that didn't exist at the time of the Buddha. For instance what is the Buddhist position on genetic engineering? Where is that covered in the five precepts? Perhaps there need not be a fixed position. What is important, however, is that our hearts and minds be freed from personal agendas based on greed and arrogance. Part of right speech might then be the ability to debate the issues that arise, to participate in the process of education that our whole society is undertaking. This would imply a personal commitment to become informed about the issues and then to think very carefully how one feels about these issues in the light of one's own ethical standards. This would give us the requisite qualities of heart and intelligence to enter into discussion and make a meaningful contribution to the moral direction our society.
In a guild of craftspeople there are responsibilities to the standards that are encouraged by the guild but also there are the joys of creating something of beauty that is an expression of one's craft. In the same way our Buddhist community has standards that we should live by and encourage in each other but also there is the expressive part of our being which is a part of the craft or art of living. To give something of oneself for the benefit of other beings is truly marvellous. At times our Buddhist emphasis on the practice of awareness can sound as though we are constantly thinking about ourselves; a very uninspiring way to live this life. If I've got nothing to give to, nothing to serve, no one to love, no one to care for, it's not balanced. The other extreme, of course, is to be so out there, so caring, so loving that I end up in hospital with a nervous breakdown. We need the balance of love for ourselves as well as the love of others. Perhaps then, the deepest standard that our Buddhist community can encourage is quite simply love for one another. Our sense of acceptance and our commitment to good ethics is always underpinned by the heart of loving kindness.