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How Shall We Live?

First rough draft of a new chapter for the book. (Almost up to 58,000 words total now!)

How Shall We Live?

One of the perks of being an American in Japan is that many people want to practice their English on you. Strangers will come up and start conversations, buy you drinks or even dinner, just to chat.

You get to meet a wide cross-section of people. Usually it's just small-talk, "Hello", "Where are you from?", and so on. But one Osaka businessman gave me a interesting lesson in ethics along with a round of drinks.

I had come to an jazz club (called, charmingly, "Rugtime") to see my friend Eric's band play. Eric is a former Buddhist monk and acupuncturist, current elementary school vice-principal and drummer in several bands. During a break Eric and I were chatting, and an older Nihonjin gentleman approached us and asked in (extremely good) English if he could buy us drinks. We of course readily assented.

We engaged in some of the usual small-talk, and our new friend asked us our impression of Osaka.

Now, Osaka has a unique place in Japanese culture. It's known as the home of both gangsters and of comedians, and for its unique dialect. It's the place where people cross the street against the light and park their bicycles right under the signs that say "No Bike Parking" -- compared to other Japanese cities, that's wild behavior.

Osaka has always been a mercantile hub, and because its merchants were key to keeping the imports of foreign luxury goods flowing during the centuries that the shoguns ruled Japan, they were always granted a little extra latitude. So Osaka never quite fell fully into line with the social norms enforced in Tokyo.

I tried to explain to this gentleman how I liked Osaka's energy, its hustle, its willingness to make a deal and get down to business.

His eyes lit up. "Yes, yes! Let's do business. Make everybody happy!"

The idea that a business transaction should leave everybody involved happy is something that we rarely hear these days, drowned out by talk of quarterly profits and shareholder value. Going deeper and considering not just the customer satisfaction but the effects of our business dealings on broader world, we see what Jacob Marley learned only after his death: Mankind was his business.

In Buddhism, this is the concept of "right livelihood", a big part of Buddhist ethics.

To bring up the topic of ethics often makes us cringe. Most of us have been soaked in supernaturalist ethical systems that threaten or tantalize us with divine punishment or reward, either in this life or in an afterlife. And so once we get beyond the idea that God or Goddess is going to spank us if we are naughty or give us candy if we're good, we tend to tune out any ethical talk. We know that killing and stealing and the like are wrong, and we don't feel that we need to examine the topic much further.

For example, for ethical guidance many Pagans rely on some version of the Wiccan Rede: "An it harm none, do what ye will." But without deeply considering what does harm, and without a true understanding our will, the Rede doesn't offer much guidance.

And as Buddhism has entered the West, there has often been a focus on meditation and on theory rather than on the fundamentals of ethical behavior. But without that consideration, Western Buddhism is in danger of becoming nothing more than a feel-good system of psychobabble.

Rather than being a set of divinely dictated rules, ethics (when done right) is a philosophical discipline that calls us to deeply contemplate the question, "How shall we live?" It asks us to consider the long-term and subtle consequences of our actions, on others and on ourselves, and is a necessary foundation for a spiritual life.

Three-Eighths of the Eightfold Path

There are three elements of the Buddha's "Eightfold Path" that directly address ethics: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. In those spheres of activity -- essentially, anything that involves our interactions with others -- the Buddha called on us to refrain from what he thought were harmful and dangerous behaviors. The minimum recommendations are found in the "thou shall nots" of the precepts, the pansil ("five practices"). Those who formally convert to Buddhism vow to undertake to refrain from:

1) taking life (generally understood to refer to harming others in general)

2) taking that which is not freely given

3) sexual misconduct (in some versions, to refrain more generally from "abuse of the senses")

4) false speech, and

5) using intoxicants that cloud the mind

Some Buddhists -- especially those who grow up in a Buddhist culture -- take a lawyerly approach to the pansil, looking for loopholes. This is a natural reaction if they are seen as rules imposed by outside authority. But if we understand them them as foundation practices for personal development, then cheating the spirit of the pansil is only cheating oneself.

Toward this end, I sometimes think that the soul of the pansil can summarized in two rules:

1) Don't make trouble.
2) Don't settle for cheap thrills.

The motivation here is not fear of some divine punishment, but the creation of conditions that aid our practice. After all, it's difficult to engage in self-cultivation when you've got the whole town chasing after you because you stole some jewelry, used it to try to seduce a beautiful woman, and then beat up her husband when he objected. The "trouble" that you make will almost certainly come back around.

(We do have to look carefully at the line between "making trouble", and revealing trouble that already exists. For example, the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins, so foundational to the civil rights movement, certainly were troublesome for staff and management of these facilities, not to mention people who just wanted a quiet lunch. But the peaceful protesters were not causing trouble -- they were revealing the trouble that was created by segregation.[*])

[* Or consider the myth of the golden apple: Eris's gift doesn't make the trouble, it reveals the trouble latent in the jealousies and willingness to cheat of Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera.]

But even if you could get away with this sort of behavior without friction from others -- if you could keep it secret, perhaps, or if you had a position of power that no one could challenge -- the mental habits formed by such action are directly opposed to those we're trying to build, those that can liberate us from suffering. If we seek after the "cheap thrills" of mindless sex or drug use[*], or the adrenaline rush of violence or theft, we're agitating the very mind we're trying to calm.

[* Which is not to imply that all sex, or drug use, is mindless.]

But does this mean denying pleasure? In the Magandiya Sutta, the Buddha used a telling metaphor to explain: imagine a man suffering from leprosy, who can obtain a little temporary relief from the itching and suffering of his disease by scorching his skin over a fire. Then the leper is cured. If he now scorched himself, it would not bring any sort of pleasure or relief, but would be intensely painful.

We might also consider the way that sweet foods cloy the tongue, and make it difficult to enjoy the subtle flavors of food. When I was a child, I thought that when I grew up I would eat candy all the time, but instead I find that I enjoy food much more when sweets are a rarity.

It is said [??? -tms] that the Buddha took great delight in simply sitting and watching the sun set. Can we imagine that, having refined his perceptions, he enjoyed this as much as you or I might enjoy a night of carnal delights? Imagine the benefits -- free admission, no hangover the next morning.

Besides laying down the "don'ts" of the pansil, the Buddha recommended that we strive to cultivate the virtues known as the paramitas, or "perfections":

1) Generosity

2) Virtue, or uprightness

3) Patience, or tolerance

4) Diligence, or effort -- "gumption", if you will

5) Contemplation, or meditation (Dhyana)

6) Transcendental wisdom, or insight (Prajna)

However, the psychological impact of recommending abstract virtues is different than pointing out the concrete negative consequences of "bad" behaviors.

If you tell me that lying and cheating is liable to come back to bite me in the rear end, or that getting drunk every night will interfere with the meditation practice I'm trying to cultivate, you're appealing to my own self-interest, and may well get through. But if you suggest that I really ought to try to be more generous and patient and so on, it immediately sets up a contrarian thought in my mind: if I need to become more generous, patient, etcetera, then I suppose I must by nature be a person not possessed of these qualities, and so I don't feel like being one, and therefore to hell with the whole thing. It may not be a wise or sensible train of thought, but it is a very common reaction.

This is what Lao Tzu (or some other Taoist philosopher using his name) referred to when he wrote, "If we could renounce our benevolence and discard our righteousness, the people would again become filial and kindly." [Legge, p. 62] Many Taoist stories follow the theme of a Taoist sage gently chiding a Confucian for too much moralistic preaching.

Zen absorbed from its Taoist forebearers this skepticism about the usefulness of moral preaching. Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriach, cut through the tangles of ethical dilemmas with the characteristic Zen directness when he challenged another monk, "When you do not think good and when you do not think not-good, what is your true self?" []

And a story about the Zen master Hakuin tells how he, almost literally, cut through the ethical muddle with a direct illustration:

Nobushige, a samurai, came to see Hakuin and said, "I have heard some Buddhist teachers say that there is a hell, and some say that there is not. Please, tell me, is there a hell?"

The master looked at him with disdain. "What a fool you are to ask such a question! And they say you are a great warrior! Why, you look like a total buffoon to me!"

Outraged, Nobushige drew his sword. "Impudent monk! I'll have your head for such insults!"

As the warrior drew back his arm for the death blow, the master fixed him with his gaze and calmly said, "This, is hell."

The samurai stopped, understanding the master's lesson. He sheathed his
sword, and bowed deeply.

"And this," said the master, "is heaven."

A generous, patient, and compassionate heart can not be cultivated by rules, nor by supernatural teachings. The Taoist/Zen approach, instead, calls on us to get past our small egos and recognize our oneness with the Universe -- including our oneness with other sentient creatures.

The cultivation of compassion is recommended because it helps free us from our egos, from our limited sense of self. As the Chinese sage Hsieh Wen-Ching said,

"The reason why a man has thousands of troubles is because he clings to the idea of self: therefore, he schemes and contrives in ten thousand different ways. He alone wants to be rich, he alone wants to be honored, he alone wants to be easy, he alone wants to be happy, he alone wants to enjoy life, he alone wants to be blessed with longevity; and to others' poverty, misery, danger, or suffering, he is altogether indifferent. It is for this reason that the life-will of others is disregarded and Heaven's Reason neglected. Only be cured of the disease of egotism, and your heart will be broadened even to the vastness of infinite space, so that wealth, honor, happiness, comfort, health, longevity could all be enjoyed with others. And, then, the will to live will have its way, everything will have its natural longings satisfied, and Heaven's Reason will be displayed in an untold exuberance." [Suzuki and Carus, p. 33]

We might summarize these ideas as a third point:

3) Try to do those things that bring out your compassionate and patient side.

The paramitas, then, become less rules for behavior and more signs that let us know which parts of ourselves to cultivate. Every human is a mix of enlightened and unenlightened ideas and behaviors, wise and selfish thoughts; our task is to decide which of the voices in our head to listen to, and which ones to politely thank for their input, but ultimately disregard.

So are these three principles enough? If we refrain from making trouble for others, if we avoid self-defeating cheap thrills, and if we continually try to open our hearts, will our behavior inevitably tend to the wise?

Well, no. There is one more think required, a fourth principle -- but one so fundamental that instead of numbering it fourth, I'm going to steal a trope from the science fiction of Isaac Asimov[*] and call it a Zeroth Rule of Ethics:

0) Get your facts and your thinking straight.

[* Asimov's Robot series of novels and series features his famous Three Laws of Robotics; later in the series, he introduces a "Zeroth Law" that has priority over even the First Law.]

Much evil is done by those who think they're doing good work. After all, those who hanged the witches in Salem thought they were on the side of righteousness. In the pre-Civil War United States, many slave owners really believed that dark skinned people were incapable of handling freedom, and so slavery was in the best interests of the slave.

To do right, you've got to think right, to be an informed critical thinker. But so often, organized religion works against this end, demanding that we disregard any information that conflicts with established dogma, and forbidding questioning or criticism of ecclesiastical authority.

It is true that transcendental love can take us beyond ethics, and transcendental wisdom can take us beyond reason. But to get beyond something, you must go through it. Understanding that ethics is at the root of spirituality, and that critical thinking is a necessary component of ethics, we can reject any spiritual path that calls on us to substitute faith for reason.

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