As the Dharma takes hold in the West, there will naturally be some cultural adjustment that occurs. Japanese Buddhism doesn’t look like Thai Buddhism, and Thai is distinct from Chinese in its expression. That’s no problem. Different cultures have different sensibilities, different climate, different aesthetics. In this Dharma Realm, it doesn’t really matter if one’s robes are white or red or orange or black.
What does matter, though, is practicing the authentic Dharma–otherwise, all we’re doing is staging a particularly boring play. Something to watch for as we begin our study and practice of Buddhism are people who seem to think that all Buddhism teaches is meditation. I saw a recent example of this in a Facebook group; an individual posted a passage from the third chapter of the Bodhicaryavatara, misattributed it to His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and explained in very disrespectful terms how he felt that this signified that Buddhism is nothing but an ego-trip and that we shouldn’t cling to the notion of being “good.”
The Buddha taught his practice as a threefold training that began with virtue, then moved on to the development of concentration (i.e., meditation), and finally to the insights arising from this practice, which provide a framework to become more skillful in the practice of virtue, which provides a firmer ground for our meditation, which allows for more subtle insights to arise, which…you get the idea. In the Pali Canon, this is perhaps most evident in the Culavedalla Sutta, in which the Bhikkhuni Dhammadinna expounds the Dharma thusly:
“This is the noble eightfold path, friend Visakha: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”
“Is the noble eightfold path fabricated or unfabricated?”
“The noble eightfold path is fabricated.”
“And are the three aggregates [of virtue, concentration, & discernment] included under the noble eightfold path, lady, or is the noble eightfold path included under the three aggregates?”
“The three aggregates are not included under the noble eightfold path, friend Visakha, but the noble eightfold path is included under the three aggregates. Right speech, right action, & right livelihood come under the aggregate of virtue. Right effort, right mindfulness, & right concentration come under the aggregate of concentration. Right view & right resolve come under the aggregate of discernment.”
It is hard enough to convince people that meditation is a worthwhile use of their time; in a culture that places value on speed, multitasking, and an almost slavish devotion to production metrics of one sort or another, asking people to slow down, focus on one thing, and examine the Mind is a hard sell. However, asking people to observe the precepts can sometimes seem like a fool’s errand. As a society, we value pleasure instant gratification, and an idealized perception of freedom–who are these fools with shaved heads to come and tell us that we have to live with restraint?!? Our friend from Facebook isn’t the first person I’ve encountered who believes that conscious cultivation of any sort of qualities is a perversion of the Dharma. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that while meditation remains a fashionable activity, any sense of morality is usually seen as old-fashioned, a way to control people through fear, or a later addition to the teachings.
Foolish. Foolish and dangerous. If we are adrift at sea, and someone throws us a life preserver and offers to pull us on board their boat, what kind of fool would we be to say “no” on the basis that we would just have to let go of the life preserver when we got on the boat, and we would have to leave the boat behind when we made it to shore? The kind of fool that flounders and drowns.
The Dharma is a path to a place beyond conception, where every conditioned item and idea–morality included–breaks apart. However, the Noble Eightfold Path is conditioned. It’s fabricated just like the thoughts that keep us bound to Samsara are fabricated; it’s manufactured just like the life preserver in the previous analogy is manufactured. It is something to hold onto when you find yourself lost in a sea of suffering. Clinging to the path is not, for the overwhelming and vast majority of us, unskillful clinging (and for those so advanced in the practice that it is, what are you doing reading this article? It should be clear by now that I’m most likely a madman. Go enjoy nirvana.).
To unpack the above analogy, virtue is accepting that this new way of doing things might keep us from drowning–we grab onto the lifesaver. Concentration is holding on while we swim toward the safety of the boat, and insight is climbing on board our rescue vessel. The whole thing becomes much more difficult, much more fraught, much more prone to failure if we skip the first step. Until final unbinding, there will always be the risk of broken precepts, lapses in attention, and intentions that don’t play out the way we hoped they would.
One final Sutta reference: in the Dhammaññu Sutta, the Buddha lays out the qualities for a monk “worth of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, [who is] an unexcelled field of merit for the world.” What are they? To have a sense of the Dharma, a sense of the meaning of the Dharma, a sense of oneself, a sense of moderation, a sense of timeliness, a sense of social gatherings and the decorum required for them, and a sense of the distinctions between individuals. All of these things have to do with virtue, and specifically with practicing the precepts in daily life. He doesn’t mention meditation at all in this passage–that’s how important it is to develop virtue. The precepts are our life preserver in this sea of suffering and uncertainty. Sometimes our grip may slip, sometimes we may let go entirely and have to work hard to secure ourselves again. That’s okay–we practice and fail and practice and fail, until that moment when we get it right. If you take nothing else away from this, understand that there is no effective meditation without virtue, there is no release from suffering without virtue.
Thank you all for your practice.