Duty: The Selfless Practice

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I can not help but wonder about the simple word “duty” and why we do not hear it used so often in our contemporary speech. It almost seems like an eighteen century word used in a more nobler time to refer to action of the highest perfection of human nature. Duty being a responsibility to a higher cause, or to the state perhaps. But I am looking at this word with new light as I also consider the importance of the vows we profess when we step onto the Buddhist path seriously. It almost seems to me that we shy away from considering our practice as a duty rather then a wish fulfilling need. Duty may tug away from our notion of freedom even. If we are working to achieve a state of selfless practice, are we not also, through the power of vows, acknowledging the existence of duty as a force of our obligation to serve others?

What creates the realization of the sense for duty in our practice that transforms itself away from mere obligation? Is our understanding of how to act in our practice not from duty but from expedience reflecting how we think we should act as Buddhists? Is our practice self-serving in some aspects? Those whom their practice binds through conscience rather than by traditional expectations are doing so out of moral authority, and is for them a sense of duty from which the dictates of conscience flows. The power of this dutiful commitment arises out of having made a vow driven by a personal obligation to discharge our notion of social justice even when it is not commanded by higher authority or religious expectation. The “just person” living their vows does what he should do because it is just, and because justice is essential to the very being of a Buddhist practice. When we come to understand deeply how duty arises from living our vows we come to awaken to the immediate source of the obligation to act in a certain way. These intentional virtuous actions are the highest state of excellence of human nature. No matter what spiritual path you are on. Virtue, a component of duty, alone provides the motivation that allows us to extend an altruistic hand that embraces everyone with equanimity. It is the motivation that recognizes the “social-self”. Without this awareness, we do not have a Buddhist practice.

Plato considered virtue as comprising justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom. But without justice, he considered the other three as having little merit. The foundation for that thought was because justice concerns the relation of man to his neighbor. It is the recognition of the value of interconnectiveness and the dependence we have for the importance of other. You see, when we consider temperance and courage we are isolating these human traits for the well being of the individual. That is why showing justice entails duty which is the obligations to act in a certain way for the welfare of others. If the good of no other individual is involved, it seems to me that a person has no duty to be temperate or courageous, even when he possesses these virtues. This is the lesson associated with understanding how we can be “alone with others”, as Stephen Batchelor describes it. Our taking vows is for the benefit of all others, without whom there would be no reason to practice the bodhisatta ideal. I’m teaching from a Mahayana perspective here. Let’s not forget that I am speaking about duty not to an individual person or belief, but from the moral imperative encompassing ourselves AND others alike; the human condition. Acting from this perspective of duty, our actions consists in the submission of the will to reason and in overcoming contrary inclinations or desires, even our personal preferences.

Duty then challenges us to a life of inquire. If we fail to seek the truth of how the dharma is presented to us as we live our vows, we have no chance to awaken to the nature of our Universal human expression. So to live well is to do our duty through our practice and to set aside all contrary desires and obligations that act as inhibitors to a Buddhist life. We are not Buddhist when we are being other things unaware of our vows. Our Buddhist character must be present in each of the other roles in life we have undertaken: spouse, sibling, child, teacher, business partner, and any of the other roles we come to represent. That is our duty as we live our vows. We should not be conflicted or torn by competing loyalties or obligations which pull us in opposite directions. When our various roles command contrary action, duty is weighed by our conscience. When we come to value the encompassing and corrective lessons woven throughout the elements of the Eightfold Path, and understand the principles of moral and ethical justice reflected in the Four Noble Truths, we will no longer experience the ordeal of conscience from conflicting duties when our ego is at rest. We can always find an honorable path for our actions to follow when our sense of duty becomes second nature.

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