Friday, July 15, 2011


 E. Ethelbert Miller asked, "What is the major distraction that often finds people 'straying from the path'?"

I can best answer this on the basis of my personal experience. In my last post, I mentioned the 10 Precepts, which are commonly found among many Buddhist traditions. They are taken by laity and monks alike, and I took them as a layperson or upasaka in the Soto Zen school with mendicant monk and peace activist Claude AnShin Thomas.  The first ten Precepts I took are as follows:

1). Do not kill.

2). Do not steal.

3). Do not engage in improper sexual conduct.

4). Do not lie.

5). Do not indulge in intoxicating substances.

6). Do not speak of other’s errors and faults.

7). Do not elevate self and blame others.

8). Do not be withholding, but instead generous.

9). Do not give way to anger.

10). Do not defame the Buddha, the Dharma, or the Sangha. 
 (In Thailand, the last five Theravada Precepts my guide Uthai took when he lived in the monastery---where young boys go if they want to continue their education---and before he briefly became a monk, were: 6). Only two meals a day, and none taken after mid-day; 7). No wearing of make-up or jewelry; 8). No amusements, no movies but TV was okay; 9). No sleeping on a "high" bed; and 10). No touching of gold (or money). In general, monks take over 240 vows.)  

I knew the Precepts long before I engaged in the formal ceremony, because all my adult life I've tried to live most of them. But the ceremony does make a difference in one's attitude---I experienced the same seriousness that I did forty-one years ago when I made my marriage vows. The ceremony made the Precepts feel as if they were truly a part of me.   

Whenever I describe these Precepts to American friends in the academic and art worlds, many of them balk and say, “I can’t do that” when they hear #5 (“Do not indulge in intoxicating substances” ),  #6 and #7 (“Do not speak of other’s errors and faults,” and “Do not elevate self and blame others”), and especially #9 (“Do not give way to anger”). 

In their honesty, they admit how difficult it is to be non-judgmental in our society---a society that encourages our being trigger-happy with snap judgments; a society that so often portrays the angry person as a powerful person, and regards finding fault as a proper intellectual activity that demonstrates our critical acumen, shows our intellectual superiority and, by virtue of that, feeds our egos. In this culture, then, it is difficult to let go of pride (naama), and anger, which is a form of violence and one of the three defilements, along with greed and ignorance. In Buddhist Ethics, Saddhatissa points out that, “By allowing anger to arise I am like one who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement and by so doing either burn or soil myself.”   Although simple and straightforward (and, of course, demanding), the Precepts embody the spirit of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the paramitas, and in them we can see the distillation of Buddhist metaphysics.

 And for me the Precept I must work most often on is anger. An anger that ever so often---but far less often these days after over thirty years of meditation--- arises from my (dualistic) conditioning to see things as "right" or "wrong," and then to judge things on that basis. Fortunately, I'm able to see my anger the instantly it arises, to know that anger is present in my mind, that it is impermanent and not me, and to psychically take a step back and study it until its energy dissipates and it disappears. That process takes place in a matter of seconds. And then I can act on a situation without anger, selfish desire, or attachment to results.

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