Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Fourth Step

Right action (samyak-karmanta) can be translated as right conduct. “Samyak” (or samma in Pali) means either complete, perfect or right. Karmata means conduct or action. Karma is, of course, understood to be the result of action. So samyak-karmanta has a variety of possible meanings. One meaning might be a code of conduct to be followed to insure a desirable outcome. This meaning establishes the causal connection between one thing and another. An alternate meaning would be conduct which flows from what is already perfect. This understanding is the flip side of the first meaning. In the first we are working toward a goal or payoff through our conduct and in the second our conduct is a reflection of an already-realized goal.

Hakuin Zenji preferred this last meaning because he recognized that all beings are essentially Buddhas. The first line of his Song of Zazen says:

“All beings are primarily Buddhas.
It is like water and ice:
There is no ice apart from water;
There are no Buddhas apart from beings.”

As Buddhas there is nothing to attain so there is no goal.  Buddhas are not bound by karma since they are beyond cause and effect. We can of course choose to deny this assertion and continue to suffer by trying to attain the payoff. Our lives as well as our zazen practice reflects either choice. We either have the payoff or we don’t. To try to attain what we already have, by necessity, results in continued karma. But to accept our essential nature as Buddhas is to move beyond both attainment and karma.

The second line of Hakuin’s Song of Zazen says,

“Not knowing how close the truth is to them,
Beings seek for it afar—what a pity!
They are like those who, being in the midst of water,
Cry out for water, feeling thirst.”

“Sila” in Sanskrit means morality or ethical conduct but sila alone does not indicate on which side of attainment we exist. Many, if not most, structures of the Eight-Fold Path begin with Sila, (Speech, Action and Livelihood) moves on to mental discipline (Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration) and ends with wisdom (Understanding and Thoughts). My arrangement turns this around to reflect Hakuin Zenji’s premise of “Already.” The Sutras clearly state that prajna is beyond cause and effect and thus can’t be the result of prior actions. Likewise prajna is the ground from which all Buddhas arise. I accept this order as the proper placement for “Right Action”—not leading to wisdom but rather flowing from wisdom.

Within Buddhism there are five precepts which govern conduct. They are reflected in the following refrain:

1. I observe the precept of abstaining from the destruction of life.
2. I observe the precept of abstaining from taking that which is not given.
3. I observe the precept of abstaining from sexual misconduct.
4. I observe the precept of abstaining from falsehood.
5. I observe the precept of abstaining from intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause carelessness.

Many Buddhist traditions routinely recite these precepts. The refrain “I observe the precept of abstaining from ...” which begins every precept clearly shows that these are not commandments. They are, indeed, moral codes of conduct that lay Buddhists willingly undertake out of clear understanding and conviction that they are good for both themselves and for others.

No harm results from employing these precepts regardless of attainment. All such conduct benefits the giver and the receiver. The harm comes about when these measures are used to attain what is already attained. “They are like those who, being in the midst of water, cry out for water, feeling thirst.”
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