The Precepts Are the Mind of the Buddha

Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master By Brad Warner.  New World Library.  306 pp.  $16.95.

[This is the fifth in a series on Dogen’s Zen, inspired by Brad Warner’s new book paraphrasing fascicles of the Shobogenzo.  Earlier articles are here, here, here, and here.  My review of the book is here.]

I’ve spent much of my life as a Buddhist resenting the precepts.  From the beginning of my interest in religion, in fact, I’ve always felt it was about finding a relationship with absolute reality, not following a set of petty rules that told me how to live.  I never liked the Sunday School aspect of Christianity, and thought it was really about my relationship to God (which I couldn’t seem to establish).  When I finally found meditation, I felt it had given me the thing that I’d been missing in Christianity, and that was what I valued.

My first teacher, Larry Rosenberg, talked about the precepts some, and there was even a retreat when he allowed us to “take” the precepts if we wanted, and I did so.  (In entering a retreat in the Theravada tradition, we agreed to follow the first five precepts while we were on retreat, but that wasn’t hard; that was what the retreat was all about.)  Years later, when I sewed a rokasu and did lay ordination as a Zen student, I took the precepts in a public ceremony, and recited the ten precepts I was agreeing to uphold (some of which seemed pretty impossible).  But what I really thought I was doing was agreeing to lead a Buddhist life, which for me meant practicing zazen.  I was utterly devoted to that practice—it had saved my life—and felt no qualms about agreeing to that.[1]

I’d always liked the renegade monks, Ryokan and especially Ikkyu, whose poems concerning his love of wine and of sex were among my favorites.  I was also aware of the renegade Zen teachers of modern times, and their various escapades[2].  I didn’t think the precepts were central to Zen practice.

The only thing that ever reconciled me to them was the statement that I’ve used as the title of this piece, which one of my fellow students, now a priest, told me as her understanding of the precepts.  They would come naturally to someone who was actually a Buddha.  That made sense to me.  I was perfectly aware I hadn’t become a Buddha.

Then I read Brad Warner’s new book, and was brought up short.

Don’t Be a Jerk is his lighthearted paraphrase of the fascicle that Nishijima translates Not Doing Wrongs and Tanahashi Refrain from Unwholesome Actions.  I thought Brad had just used these words for his title because they seemed provocative and would capture people’s attention (maybe he did.  Who knows?).  I now think that in many ways this chapter is central to the book.  It was for me the most startling of all the chapters.  It’s had a major effect on how I see Buddhism.

Dogen had already pointed out that zazen puts us in touch with a deep wisdom that permeates everything, an intuitive part of the mind that takes us away from our discursive mind and lets us know, on a deep level, what to do in every situation.  Now he brings that certainty into the realm of morality.  “When you are in balance[3], you know right from wrong absolutely.  The state of enlightenment is immense and includes everything.”[4]

Dogen has already exhibited in this fascicle a rather sophisticated and—I would almost say modern—attitude toward morality.[5]  Evil doesn’t exist in the abstract for him; it happens only in the doing.  It therefore isn’t correct to label a person as evil; a particular action a person performs may be evil, but that doesn’t say anything about the person.  (“Being a jerk is something you do.  There is no jerk outside of you being a jerk.  When you cease to be a jerk, the jerk that you were when you were being a jerk vanishes instantly.”)  It does create karma, however, and influences your future actions.  (“By not being a jerk now, you create the cause of not being a jerk in the future.”)

But the sentence that really struck me—in direct contrast to what I’d thought about practice—was one right in the middle of the fascicle.  “At every moment, no matter what we are doing, we need to understand that not being a jerk is how someone becomes enlightened.  This state has always belonged to us.”

What a statement.  He’s saying that sitting practice and how you act are one thing.  He echoes that idea with one further on in the fascicle.  “Doing the right thing isn’t something you can understand intellectually.  It’s beyond that.”

But perhaps the most interesting thing in the whole chapter is something Warner brings up toward the end.  We think sometimes that if we can just cut loose and have a little fun sometimes, break a few rules, it will make us happy.  We also think that people who break rules in some major way and get away with it—who embezzle money or cheat people or murder somebody they don’t like—are thereby made happy.  But he says that at some deeper level that isn’t true.  The punishment for the crime happens simultaneously with the crime.  It might even precede it.[6]  Warner says in his commentary:

“The jerklike actions that we engage in have an instantaneous effect, both on us and on whomever or whatever we’re being a jerk to.  Sometimes we might even feel the effects of our jerk-type actions before we do them. . . .

“This is something you can see clearly if you just get quiet enough and learn to be honest with yourself.  We imagine that we can act like jerks and get what we want, thereby becoming happier. . . .

“But it doesn’t work that way.  When you’re a jerk, you know it even if you deny that you know it.  Because you know you were a jerk, anything you gain from being a jerk is tainted by that knowledge and can never be a source of genuine happiness.”

I have sometimes differentiated between what I call happiness and what I call joy.  Happiness—this is the view of most people—is getting what you want.  Joy—by which I mean a deep physical feeling, not something abstract—is being in touch with the way things are.  The problem is that happiness, almost by definition, involves abandoning joy (though they might coincidentally coincide).  If you’re striving for happiness, chances are you’re trying to change the way things are.

You’re also sometimes doing something you know you shouldn’t.

Dogen ends this fascicle with a famous Zen story that gets at the heart of all our problems about morality, ending with the punchline, “A three year old could say it.  But even an eighty-year-old has trouble doing it.”

That’s morality in a nutshell.  In some deep place, we know what’s right.  The question is: will we do it?

Warner’s final words nailed the attitude I’d always had about practice.  “A lot of people imagine that the point of Buddhist practice is to become enlightened just like Buddha did, and to know the complete truth of the whole universe.  Yet Dogen says the point of Buddhism is just to learn not to be a jerk. . . . He says that not being a jerk and become one with the whole of creation are the very same thing.”

This is the most startling and perhaps the most important chapter in Warner’s book.

[1] I had a long discussion with my teacher about drinking.  I’ve never been a heavy drinker but I’ve been a steady drinker, having a beer at the end of the day to relax and another with dinner.  My teacher said that taking the fifth precept—“I agree to refrain from intoxicating the body and mind of self and others”—was not a pledge not to drink at all, but a pledge not to overdo it.  I’ve never had a problem with that.  I don’t like the feeling of being smashed.

[2] These people are too numerous to mention.  Larry Rosenberg, my first teacher, often gave me a hard time about the wayward  Zen monks, and their contrast to the Theravada teachers, who weren’t so plagued by scandal.  “How come it’s always the Zen people who get in trouble?” he used to say to me.  “Why does that only happen in Zen.”  Because we’re more vital and alive than the Theravada people, I said.  They’re so wan and lifeless.  We’re also better looking.

[3] “In balance,” for students of Nishijima, is the state that we enter in zazen.  We don’t have to do it.  We don’t have to be good at zazen.  It just happens.

[4] These sentences are definitely a paraphrase, but they seem to get at the essential truth.  It’s actually hard to locate the particular sentences in different editions, but I think Nishijima renders these as, “[When] the Dharma is in balance, wrong is in balance.  When the Dharma is in balance, right is in balance.  This being so, when we learn [the supreme state of] anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, when we hear the teachings, do training, and experience the effect, it is profound, it is distant, and it is fine.”  Tanahashi has it, “As Dharma is all-inclusive, unwholesome action is all-inclusive.  As Dharma is all-inclusive, wholesome action is all-inclusive.  When you listen, study, practice, and realize unsurpassable, complete, perfect enlightenment, it is deep, vast, and wondrous.”

[5] I often have the feeling that Dogen is an astonishingly modern writer.

[6] Warner will talk about Dogen’s theory of time in the next chapter.  It’s another mind blower.