Tag Archives: killing

Getting Up from Your Seat

It is said that the Buddha did not immediately begin teaching after he awakened to ultimate wisdom. Several weeks passed before the Buddha arose from his seat, and it is believed to have been several months after that before he offered his first talk. Yet arise he did. And, in doing so, he again expressed his own unshakeable conviction that mankind is fully capable of transcendent compassion and inconceivable wisdom.3559084-Ruins_Sarnath

This is an important point to remember these days, when I often encounter people who worry about the state of the world and the people in it. They read the newspaper, watch television and talk to their neighbors and co-workers about unspeakable acts of violence and terrible natural disasters. They hear of murder and rape, and of theft on a scale so large that it becomes unimaginable. They talk of hurricanes, and earthquakes, and floods, and all manner of disease. They say to one another, “These things are wrong. The people who do these things are evil and the world is getting darker every day.”

Yet this is the same world that Shakyamuni Buddha spoke of when he said, “I and all beings are fully awakened on this day,” a day that is now celebrated as Bodhi Day, December 8th. He was not speaking of some world outside of this one. The beings that the Buddha spoke of are all beings; those of the past, present and future; those with and without understanding; those male, female and something else; those who are good and those who are bad.

So how do we discover this teaching for ourselves, right in the midst of so much troubling news? How do we learn to see the Buddha in every face, no matter how contorted or stunningly beautiful? In the 13th Century Dogen Zenji, a Japanese Zen Master, said “Without exception everyone is a vessel. Do not ever think that you are not a vessel,” expressing the same understanding as the Buddha, but in a different way.buddha bust That is, Dogen was pointing at each and every being as an expression of the great teachings of impermanence, emptiness and freedom from suffering. But you might say that you don’t feel free from this realm, that you are completely trapped in this world full of troubles and people with intent to kill. In one sense that is true; you are a function of millions and millions of conditions that happen in each instant, each dependent on the others. You exist only to the extent that you interact with the world around you, within you. Yet it is precisely because of this state of being caused and created by the myriad things that you are also completely free of them in each moment. That is, as an expression of the fully interconnected universe you are, in essence, stillness in the midst of motion. There is nothing you have to do to make this true. However, that truth explains why we sit zazen, the form of meditation which allows for transcendence of the moment through complete presence in the moment.

Now all of this may be starting to sound very theoretical. So I’ll offer an example. Take the example of spitting. Once I was walking along the street very early in the morning. It was dark, and I was in a town that I don’t live in, visiting a family member. I was wearing my work clothes, which to many people look like a karate outfit, and I had my hair shaved to something like 1/8th of an inch, what is referred to by folks in the armed forces as “high and tight.” A man was walking toward me in the opposite direction. I could tell that when he looked at me he didn’t like what he saw. I was a bit nervous as he approached, but decided that he didn’t look like he would get violent. Still, he came closer and yelled at me, “Go home, alien,” as he continued to walk past me on my left. Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw him turn his head toward me and spit. Thankfully it didn’t reach me. Yet it left a very strong impression. I have thought about that morning many, many times. And I’ve seen others spat upon. What is an appropriate response? Would it be different if it were a woman? Certainly, when someone spits at you, you might have thoughts of retaliating in some form. Certainly you can be expected to feel some “fight or flight” energy. But, actually, you express and experience the most freedom when you do not do anything. By not attacking the person or groveling to the person, you simply stand still and express your own powerful ability to be the skillful response. You allow that person who spit at you to completely receive their own consequences. You kill them with kindness.

This is not to say that the appropriate response is always to do nothing. Sometimes the most skillful thing is to do or say something. However, even then, you cannot relinquish your potential to express the stillness of the moment. Even then, you do not relinquish your authority to express the freedom that interconnectedness allows. Sometimes kindness expresses itself by not yelling at a spitter, and sometimes kindness expresses itself by stopping someone from shooting more innocent people. I’m reminded of an attack that took place at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee a number of years ago. The Rev. Chris Buice, pastor of the church, said of the shooter who had been subdued by the churchgoers that day, “He was a victim of his own hatred.”

So, when you learn about people that are doing great harm in the world, you can ask yourself what kind of response you want to offer. You can ask yourself whether you want to respond by offering kindness, freedom and skillful means to everyone you encounter, or by offering worry, and a sense of further separation and judgement. You can ask yourself how to best express your interconnectedness to them and to those that they harm. Then, just be it, knowing that the Buddha has already said that you can, knowing that the Buddha has already said you are.

It’s a Matter of Choice

Given that Americans are going to the polls this week, the topic of choice has been on my mind. How is it that I, or any practitioner, can skillfully discern when and how to take action? How is it that I, or any practitioner, can find the appropriate response to a situation or a decision when I fully acknowledge the continuously changing nature of the world? If there is no ground to stand on, how can I take a stand?

This dilemma reminds me of the koan of Nan-ch’uan (Nansen) and the cat. It’s said that Nan-ch’uan saw the monks of the East Halls and the monks of the West Halls fighting over a cat. He approached them, picked up the cat, and said, “If any of you can give me a reason not to kill the cat, then I won’t do it.” The monks were stunned and said nothing. So Nan-ch’uan cut the cat in half. Later, the Master encountered his disciple Chao-chou (Joshu) and asked, “What would you have done to save the cat?” Chao-chou put his sandals on his head and left the room. Nan-ch’uan said, “If you had been there, the cat would have been saved.”

Whether the cat was actually killed or not, we may never know, but one message from Nan-ch’uan is clear – failing to respond to the moment has its consequences. So you must say something, but what? If you simply apply your preference, you end up arguing with the other side. But is there an “other side?”

This is where the distinction between decision and discernment can be found. Typically, there are two practices that practitioners apply to any decision-making situation – zazen or seated meditation, and the precepts or ethical vows. So how is the great Master Nan-ch’uan upholding the precepts in this moment?

Pointing at the foundational teaching, Sekkei Harada Roshi said,

The meaning of the precepts is that there is no separation at any time, that we are one with all things. In other words, the true meaning of keeping the precepts is not to interfere with now…

However, the difficulty is in the details. In fact, this koan seems to fly in the face of one of the precepts. It is the first of the ten “grave” precepts which intones, “I vow not to kill.”

One way to think about it is that there are three perspectives on precepts practice: the ultimate, the mundane, and the maintained. And all three of them are necessary. Taking the ultimate view, there is no dualism at all and no conceptualization, so there can be no killing and no cat to be killed. From the mundane perspective, however, there was a being with fur and flesh, and there was a sword, both expressions of the ultimate. And then there is the cutting itself, a radical act of maintaining and upholding the precept in response to the delusion that presented itself at that moment. These three forms of precepts practice correspond to the three bodies of Buddha – Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya – and it is in the third, or transformation body, that we can study in order to see how the first two apply.

As Eihei Dogen Zenji describes it,

Carrying the self forward to confirm and verify the myriad things is delusion. When the myriad things come forward to confirm and verify the self, that is enlightenment.

That is to say, rather than deciding on our point of view and applying it to a given situation, we start by studying the way in which we are one with all things, and the way that causes, conditions and results effect one another. Then, an appropriate response will be clear.

Tenshin Reb Anderson Roshi puts it this way,

The precept of not killing life is not about restraint. It is about liberating our acts from delusion. It is concerned with awakened mind, which needs no restraint at all…

In other words, acting from the mind that recognizes the integrated nature of all things, and its manifestation in form and in activity, is inherently acting in accord with the precepts. There is no ground to stand on, and therefore no stand is needed. Instead, standing on no-ground we are an integral, skillful part of the great activity that is taking place in every moment. So, with this teaching in mind, I encourage you to put your sandals on your head, go out, and vote for a liberated life!

a monk's sandals