By: David Shi Shen-Xi
As we gain perfected readiness in understanding the core tenets of what we learn when studying many of the Buddhist principles, and begin to find them reflected in the lessons from our everyday experiences, our unconditioned conscious state will open up to a new beginning that drives the acquisition which helps us acquire an awareness of the wisdom they represent that shows us how the Universe reflects it’s reality all around us and how we relate to these individual expressions, and perhaps even allowing us to see the shadows also reflecting their unity with all other mutual relationships. During any explanation of Buddhist thought representing the beliefs of any specific Buddhist tradition, you will always hear of the important fundamental teachings of the Four Noble Truths as we have done from a pragmatic perspective so far. But in addition to these, there are other core principles that are teachings accepted by all traditions too. These are the principles of interdependent co-origination (or dependent origination), impermanence, no-self, and contingent-causality. There are others, but these are the core principles from which all others stem from. When I speak about the Zen teachings of the Chinese and Japanese masters as they speak about the nature of self and other, we can also find them discussing some or all of these core principles as well. Our legacy teachers speak about the enriching empowerment of nature, as well as the psycho-emotional self-help tools that can promote human flourishing. The study of history can bring the ancient Buddhist culture into contemporary perspective that all of us today can relate to, somewhat.
We need to be careful in how we study Buddhism, as in doing so we are really studying a REFLECTION of what the Buddha taught, not his actual thinking. While words are thoughts, we have to ask ourselves who’s thoughts. Just because a specific scripture is attributed to the Buddha, for example, they have become unverifiable from a historical perspective. That would be impossible as he is not here to explain away any misunderstanding we have of what we THINK truly represents his mind 2600 hundred years ago. In fact, the Buddha lived before Buddhism was ever developed into a philosophy and spiritual practice as seen through the eyes of an ancient Asian worldview, and now those views are challenged in order to reflect Western 21st century realities. Just like Jesus lived before Christianity was created into a unique theology. When we study Buddhism we must be keenly aware of what we are reading relative to how the subject or topic was most likely spoken of in the Buddha’s day. When we read a text in the Pali canon or other comparable source, if something said there by the Buddha could just as well have been said by a Jain or Brahman priest, then you put that aside as simply part of the broadly accepted worldview of the period. It’s not something unique to the Buddha’s dharma, you see. Although, the Buddha was like any of us and was no doubt influenced by the cultural expectations and moral structures of his time, they acted as the basis from which he sought ways to change things to reflect his awakened view point. We need to learn to apply “Buddhist math” in order to arrive at our own understanding of what it is we too believe that helps us make sense of this world we call home. By pursuing this process of math, specifically subtraction, we can start to separate out the generic cosmology and metaphysics of his time and space and use our days knowledge and technical tools including science to aid in a greater understanding of what it is he was teaching. And what remains standing can then be considered as what made the Buddha’s teaching so distinctive. This is also true when you study the precepts, as two human views are being confronted – the teachers and the students.
But a wise practice and understanding of the world around us is more than the intellectual understanding of the philosophical constructs underpinning these core teachings of Buddhism that we can recognize as dharma. The dharma is about application of the subject of the core principles, not just the language of these principles. And how we apply dharma is always situational. And such situational application is always contingent on the realities of our day, not necessarily the Buddha’s. After all 2600 years is a long time to be stuck in ideas and perceptions of how the universe was then, and how it is now. We are not learning how to be a Buddhist back 2600 years ago, we are learning how to see the world around us with 21st century eyes but through the constructive filters that have survived the test of time, and now passed down to us. Remember too that our teachers are also students, as there is no end to understanding how to find the dharma lessons in our contemporary experiences. Yet, Siddhartha provided frequent and compelling lessons on a wide range of not only philosophical thought, but also on social, political, and economic issues that impact the general welfare of all life on this planet. It should be of interest that the issues of his day, 2600 years ago, are many of the same problems we are dealing with still today. He taught about ineffective government, rankest politics, the disparity of accumulated wealth, and the difficulties involved in mature interpersonal relationships. He even spoke about integration and immigration concerns of his day. These are now subjects we are still confronting as is reflected in this years election cycle. He was a very modern man for his time. That his teaching extends so dynamically into “compassing and corrective intention of our effort” indicates that he was wise enough to appreciate the concerns of the ordinary people on the streets and in the homes, of all classes, not just those that flocked around him as monks and nuns. His concerns were those that can resonate with us in this new century, both spiritual and corporal. And with the numbers he was able to attract to his public lectures, considering some of the controversial topics he spoke about, he was clearly a social activist in every meaning of the word. In other words, he was an agent for change, both in his day and in ours now. He was a man awakened to the issues of his time that brings suffering to so many, but offering a path away from this social-suffering by skillful means, not just clamor.
The precepts are practical guidelines especially when articulated in positive language. As we navigate the moral and ethical dilemmas of modern life, the Buddha’s teaching can provide answers for today’s stressful world. The precepts honed over centuries of practice can transform that navigation into something frankly wondrous: the life of the Buddha realized as our own life, not just that, but in our very being. This is why many of us have chosen to put an image of the Buddha on our altars, so we are reminded of how we are though a relationship we have developed driven by what we accept as his showing us his perfected mind. He was an extraordinary person by any conventional standards. I think his state of enlightenment molded his character with a deep appreciation of all the various ways the Universe expresses itself, and an understanding of the nature of human emotion and psychology that gave him a deeper awareness of the causes to individual and social suffering. In all its aspects, not just birth, sickness, old age, and death. This is why the precepts reflects realities of the human condition.
We know that after his awakening, he chose to remain in the world teaching for almost fifty years, acting skillfully in response to the searching questions of his day. This is the nature of the Buddhist path. When we have mastered one situation, a new one presents itself and we are challenged to reflect on it with renewed thoughtfulness, using the tools we have developed to seek answers. In other words, we work to find the lessons as did he. He had plenty of opportunities to see how his teachings were making a difference and to correct, redirect, broaden, and refocus them when necessary to achieve excellent results. I can only image that over those fifty years, his teachings evolved to better meet the challenges that each new situation presented. You see, the Buddha set down a method and model that could promote human flourishing, and as he himself used these methods, he found what worked and what needed to be refined. He did this time and again throughout his long ministry. He lived by his one rules guided by his awakening to the truth of a contingent causal universe. He spoke rarely about some of the prevailing subjects our Western students seem to be more interested: enlightenment, rebirth, karma and transcendent conscious states of practice.
Because his experience as an astute social observer became fused with his wisdom, it is worthwhile to study his teachings about social and economic conditions in relation to a spiritual practice and an ethical life. Many of those that came to ask question of him were not monks. Many of the dilemmas they encountered then remain relevant as long as human nature does not evolve away from its current state. He had to address the hard questions that were of major concern to the people coming to his discourses. He was directly confronted, you see. We are spoiled today with our mass communication options where we get our information without having to go to the source most of the time. At least we have more options of how we choose to socially interact. We know from the legacy historical material that have come down to us that they flocked to him. As people would 500 years later to a man call Jesus speaking much of the same language as he did. He was in many ways, a superstar of the spiritual world in his Hindu culture.
One of the central observations Siddhartha made about the breakdown of the social fabric is that poverty is the chief cause of discontent, immorality and crime. Theft, violence, hatred, cruelty, financial trickery, all results from poverty. Poverty also restricts people from acquiring an education. It seems that ancient governments in India, like many governments today, tried to handle the social problems through a less then equal set of measures that restricted liberties and imposed restrictions mostly targeted to the lower classes. Siddhartha said that attempts to control and solve social problems in this manner would ultimately fail. He related this to building a dam to hold back the water, but the barrier will always need to be there, and there will always be a threat of the water’s spilling over or sweeping the dam away. Buddha said that if you want to eradicate social problems, the economic conditions of the people have to be improved.
When people are freed from their poverty, they rarely commit negative actions born from desperation. This may be why many of the precepts focus on inter-communication skills with others. He said this is nothing more then common sense. He did not just expound the lofty dharma; he also got pragmatic in his teachings. Sometimes he talked like a political activists, sometimes like a street preacher, sometimes like a CPA. Buddhism is a conduit for understanding the world around us. It is not ultimately about the Buddha at all, it is about us and how we are in this world in this very moment, not who or what we are. So the study of the precepts is really about transformation from who we think we are into a more profound awakening into how we can become a peaceful human being, that reflects how we are on the inside of our very being. And the precepts are the foundation for the vows we take each time we advance in our monastic life and practice.
Siddhartha described three virtues that are conducive to happiness. A person should have trust and confidence in their moral, spiritual, and intellectual values. He put these in a specific order of importance, I think. We are being challenged to think hard about what worldview we have been living our lives by, and make correction if necessary that reflects the ethics being echoed in the core teaching, as we find ways to navigate the path toward finding the energy that ultimately brings wisdom. To get there we encounter the importance of meditation, the moral and ethical guidelines of the precepts, the wondrous wisdom reflected in ancient and sometimes medieval practices, learning intentional ritual, the study of koans, and inspired dharma talks, but my experience teaches me that few practitioners are familiar with these more engaged social lessons of the Buddha. As teachers it is our task to speak about these often to our Sangha and in our community outreach. In these days with the breakdown of social values and a general discontentment with our way of life that is so distressing to so many, the Buddha’s social teachings are an especially important gift that practitioners can integrate into their practice, and into their communities. It is about engaging with others in real ways. The adoption of the precepts is one way to get us to focus on this important aspect of engaging others.
Because of the extent and accessibility of all types of communication tools available to us today, there is a window of opportunity open to make this wisdom available to a great number of people. It can be communicated in ways that are accessible and relevant. Most important, though, we must take responsibility for manifesting these teachings in our lives by engaging with others through example. The contingent Universe is about change. The energy we put towards our effort is about producing change. Effective change requires intentional and purposeful thought. A contemporary Buddhist practice is about working to promote effective and sustained change, not only for our own well being, but for the welfare and nourishment of all beings. It is about equality, it is about seeking social justice.
Buddhism is not about beliefs, but about engaging the direction “what we believe in” takes. We might need to strip Buddhism back to its bare skeletal form and begin again, with what we know today, not what “they knew a long time ago” and make believe it fits neatly into our world now.
It is up to us to take the legacy that has been passed on to us, and to energize it with new vitality so we can pass it along to future generations. When we only see Buddhism, we run the danger to be blinded by past reflections. Looking back is never a good option, but we can use past realities to form a perfected now.