Saturday, March 31, 2012

Make It or Break It

Make It or Break It...The subtle dance of Morality.

In Buddhist traditions, the Paramitas, or "Perfections," represent the culmination of certain virtues.  Rather than conduits to static rules, the Paramitas are seen as the live embodiment of certain virtues, and another translation for the word Para Mita is "that which goes beyond."  In my Zen study during the month of March, I concentrated on the Shila Paramita, or "Morality."  Mahayana Buddhism has a list of Precepts, or moral guides on the path, which are also experienced as the live embodiment of morality from moment to moment, using Upaya (skillful means) in each situation, rather than being seen as dogmatic commandments.  I humbly share my reflections on the Shila Paramita ("Morality") with you, after providing a list of all the Mahayana Precepts in case you are interested:

Three Refuges of a Zen Peacemaker

Inviting all creations into the mandala of my practice and vowing to serve them, I take refuge in:

Oneness, the awakened nature of all beings.
Diversity, the ocean of wisdom and compassion.
Harmony, the interdependence of all creations.

Three Tenets of a Zen Peacemaker

Taking refuge and entering the stream of Engaged Spirituality, I vow to live a life of:

Not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about myself and the universe.
Bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world.
Healing myself and others.

Four Commitments of a Peacemaker

I commit myself to a culture of nonviolence and reverence for life;
I commit myself to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order;
I commit myself to a culture of tolerance and a life based on truthfulness; and
I commit myself to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.

Ten Precepts of a Zen Peacemaker:

Being Mindful of the interdependence of Oneness and Diversity, and wishing to actualize my vows, I engage in the spiritual practices of:

1. Recognizing that I am not separate from all that is.
This is the precept of Non-Killing.

2. Being satisfied with what I have.
This is the precept of Non-Stealing.

3. Encountering all creations with respect and dignity.
This is the precept of Chaste Conduct.

4. Listening and speaking from the heart.
This is the precept of Non-Lying.

5. Cultivating a mind that sees clearly.
This is the precept of Not Being Ignorant.

6. Unconditionally accepting what each moment has to offer.
This is the precept of Not Talking About Others Errors And Faults.

7. Speaking what I perceive to be the truth without guilt or blame.
This is the precept of Not Elevating Oneself And Blaming Others.

8. Using all of the ingredients of my life.
This is the precept of Not Being Stingy.

9. Transforming suffering into wisdom.
This is the precept of Not Being Angry.

10. Honoring my life as an instrument of peacemaking.
This is the precept of Not Thinking Ill of the Three Treasures.


When reading Roshi Aitken’s words on Shila, the strongest echo for me was the concept of technically “violating” precepts to keep them.  In my practice of work, personal life, and Zen study, I am actively working on setting boundaries in order to make myself of best and most moral use to the world.  I found that through study of Shila this month, I can trust my inner source a lot more to make tough choices.

One most obvious example of keeping morality through violating a Precept is nonkilling. As Roshi Aitken points out, “an absolute position—say, of never harming the roaches in the kitchen—will probably lead to harm in our families.  But on the other hand, ruthlessly and endlessly exterminating roaches to protect the health of our children can lead to a wishy-washy kind of relativism” (28).  We also kill bacteria when we boil water, or simply when we take each step on the ground.  If we were to never kill anything, literally, we would not be able to exist.  This type of paradox came up for me in terms of Not Elevating Oneself and Blaming Others in one of the courses I teach, called Child Abuse and Neglect.

Just in the way that we must kill in some small way to be functional, life-affirming people, I needed to violate the Precept of Not Elevating Oneself and Blaming Others to bring safety and peace to others in my teaching.  My Child Abuse and Neglect course is the source of certification for two types of violence intervention.  It is also a very personal experience, far different from other courses.  For nearly two years, it has been seen as a safe and confidential space for students to explore tragedy, child protection, and human relationships, while sometimes coming to terms with abuse in their own lives.  I share my own survival story and manage to get us to laugh and enjoy each class session, while also examining touchy and harrowing subjects.  After our last class, a student confided that the girl sitting next to her, “Kate,” had been videotaping our class.  I had to first work with my shock, and then contemplate anger, before recognizing that problem-solving was required.  Almost immediately, I sent a strongly worded email of warning to Kate.  It was tough because I dread making people feel singled out or targeted, but Kate was obstructing the morally supportive and emotionally nurturing nature of our class environment.  I had to put Kate on notice that she had crossed a line, in the most kind and concerned way that I could, and I threatened to take further action if she did not stop her self-centered behavior.  While I technically elevated myself and blamed Kate, I did so in the least obtrusive way possible, while holding up the greater reason to her and in my gut.

I also found myself violating the Precept of Not Sparing the Dharma Assets, and trying to Not Elevat[e My]self and Blam[e] Others, in my attorney position.  In my full-time job, I legally represent children on probation who have education issues.  After experiencing my childhood best friend’s death around Thanksgiving, suffering the loss of Myoshin which our entire Zendo faced, and then watching my caseload pile up at this particular job, it has become a survival mechanism to set more stern limits and simply tell new clients and referral sources that I am not available.  It is definitely easier said than done.  My emotional state is typically strong in public, and at work, but once in a while, I am secretly hanging on by a thread.  After all this loss, I need to spare my dharma assets by refraining from sharing wisdom and knowledge with clients when there’s simply too much on my plate.  I feel guilty about this because I never want to deny anyone my help.  However, I know from Path of Service and from endless teachings from spiritual guides, that approaching service this way is also a matter of Not Elevating Oneself and Blaming Others.  As Roshi Aitken says, “If I have a tendency to be accommodating to other people, I can misuse this trait in a self-centered way as a means for personal protection” (31).  Egotism can be at work when I somehow think I am indispensible, and that my dharma assets are what hold things together.  Just as it’s crucial to be generous to add richness to the world, it’s key to also break this Precept and be self-protective of my assets to ensure that I always have something to give.

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