Ethics, or sila in Sanskrit, is the second of the six paramitas or practices of an awakening being called a bodhisattva. Ethics is at the very root of the Buddhist tradition. In fact, much of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching was an exhortation to turn toward wholesome actions and states of mind, and away from unwholesome actions and states of mind. In this he was extraordinarily successful, convincing even murders, petty thieves, and ruthless political leaders to take up a path of morality, peace and freedom. The Buddha taught many people to consider the consequences of their actions, so that they might realize how much of the difficulty they experience is a direct result of their own unskillful behavior.
This is the teaching of karma, the fundamental law that each and every intentional thought, spoken expression, and action has a consequence at some point in the future. It is a fairly complex teaching, which takes into account factors such as forethought, one’s motivation, and celebration or remorse afterward. However, at its heart, it is simply about doing good and not doing bad, offering compassion instead of aggression, helping and not harming.
Thus when the Buddha began teaching, monks and nuns committed to only 10 precepts or rules of conduct. Later, as difficult situations arose, more rules were added until the list reached a length in the hundreds. Even later, as the path of practice called the Mahayana emerged, some Dharma teachers began to emphasize the ways in which compassion spontaneously emerges from the experience of inter-connectedness. So, with that understanding, in Zen the precepts became vows rather than rules. They became expressions of intention to act from the realization of non-separation. Thus, some of the Mahayana schools reverted back to 10 precepts, though they are a different 10. These together with the refuges and the pure precepts are known as the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts. They are:
The three refuges
I take refuge in Buddha.
I take refuge in Dharma.
I take refuge in Sangha.
The three pure precepts
I vow to refrain from all evil.
I vow to do all that is good.
I vow to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.
The 10 grave precepts
I vow not to kill.
I vow not to take what is not given.
I vow not to misuse sexuality.
I vow to refrain from false speech.
I vow to refrain from intoxicants.
I vow not to slander.
I vow not to praise self at the expense of other.
I vow not to be avaricious.
I vow not to harbor ill will.
I vow not to disparage the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
For today, I’d like to focus on the third of the pure precepts. Taken as a whole, the three pure precepts carry a strong message. They imply that it’s not good enough to simply refrain from harmful actions and to perform skillful actions. To be truly skillful, one must also commit to a life of service. That is what it means to “live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.” This vow is the foundation of the bodhisattva way, a commitment to everyone’s welfare and an acknowledgment of the way in which their welfare is intrinsically tied to our own.
One my experiences as a hospice chaplain clearly demonstrates this dynamic. On one particularly intense day, I was told that one of my colleague’s patients might be close to death. Knowing that my fellow chaplain was out of town, I went to visit the dying woman and offer her spiritual support, though I felt I had little left to give.
When I arrived, I heard from the nurses that the patient was feeling a bit better, but that I was still welcome to pay her a visit. She was lying on a couch in her darkened room, seemingly asleep when I walked in. She awoke as I knelt by her side and gently spoke her name. I introduced myself, and told her that I was with the hospice team. The woman began speaking gently to me, but what she said was incoherent. She was a bit confused, as is common with folks near the end of life. Still, I asked permission to take her hand and continued talking to her.
At some point she seemed to wake up a bit more and asked “why here?” I replied, “I’m just here to bring you blessings.” “Ah, blessings. Blessings. Blessings!” She continued to repeat the word over and over again until I realized that she was offering me blessings. She had received my blessings and she was returning them, not just politely, but with enthusiasm. She held my hands strongly, looked into my eyes, and spoke emphatically, giving me her blessings. I had to smile and laugh and, after thanking her, I walked out of this woman’s room with much more joy than I had when I came in. This gift, from a woman who didn’t have much to give, was invaluable. She was a bodhisattva.
This is the kind of ethics that a bodhisattva practices, the kind of ethics that begins and ends with the recognition that we belong to each other in ways we cannot fully know. It is the kind of ethics that emerges from the wisdom that a skillful person doesn’t see oneself as separate from action or separate from others.
As Dogen wrote in Shoaku Makusa, a fascicle whose title translates as “Refraining from Unwholesome Action,”
…one moves from the aspiration for “refraining from unwholesome action” toward the practice of “refraining from unwholesome action.” As unwholesome action becomes something one is unable to do, the power of one’s practice suddenly appears fully.
What is the power of one’s practice? The power to give and receive joy, the power to live and be lived, the power to benefit all beings. That’s a pretty awesome power, if you ask me.
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