273 - Ten Fields of Zen, Field Five – Precepts: Transcending Self-Attachment (1 of 3)
275 - Ten Fields of Zen, Field Five – Precepts: Transcending Self-Attachment (3 of 3)

This episode is the second part of chapter five of my book-in-process, The Ten Fields of Zen: A Primer for Practitioners. In the last episode, I described the central role of Precepts in Zen and covered the Three Refuges, Three Pure Precepts, and two of the Grave Precepts. In this episode, I talk about the Grave (serious, or weighty) Precepts three through eight. In the next episode, I’ll discuss Grave Precepts nine and ten, and talk more about how we work with Precepts.

Read/listen to Part 1 or Part 3
See all Ten Fields of Zen Practice

 

 

Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Ten Grave Precepts, Continued…
Do not misuse relationships – be respectful and compassionate
Do not speak dishonestly – communicate truthfully
Do not abuse intoxicants – polish clarity, dispel delusion
Do not dwell on past mistakes – create wisdom from ignorance
Do not praise self or blame others – maintain modesty, extol virtue
Do not be stingy with Dharma or resources – share understanding, give freely of self

 

The Ten Grave Precepts, Continued…

Continuing, then, with third Grave Precept (see Part 1 for an explanation of the literal, mental, and spiritual levels of each precept):

Do not misuse relationships – be respectful and compassionate

Literal Level: The traditional phrasing of this precept is “do not misuse sexuality,” but the spirit of it isn’t limited to interactions of a sexual nature. You can certainly use the power of sexual attraction to serve your own self-interest while harming others, but there are many forms of interpersonal power that can be misused. This literal meaning of this precept covers all kinds of manipulation, coercion, exploitation, and abuse of other people. It is important to be honest with yourself about your conduct in relationships, as we usually have plenty of excuses for our behavior when we try to impose our will on others.

Mental Level: It’s not such a clear line, sometimes, between the gross and obvious misuse of relationships and breaking the spirit of this precept mentally. You can use the influence you have over others in self-centered, hurtful, and unskillful ways that can cause terrible and lasting damage even if, outwardly, your speech or actions do not appear egregious enough to qualify as “abuse.” Keeping this precept means acknowledging the social influence you have in relationships and using it responsibly, whether that influence is based in sexual attraction, familial or intimate relationships, power imbalances, admiration, or affection. When you find yourself inclined to assert yourself in a relationship to get what you want, it helps to ask whether you have the best interests of the other person(s) in mind or are willing to undermine or compromise their interests to fulfill your own.

Spiritual Level: We feel compelled to use others or assert dominance because doing so can temporarily bolster our faith in ourselves. The responses we have demanded may reassure us we are attractive, loved, needed, respected, capable, or whatever other quality will make us feel fundamentally worthy. Asserting our dominance helps us feel powerful, secure, or superior. Ultimately, though, our relationships will never be able to convince us we are fundamentally okay. Only realizing our own Buddha-Nature brings lasting, unconditional peace of mind with respect to our place in the world.

 

Do not speak dishonestly – communicate truthfully

Literal Level: This precept is about not lying or cheating through your speech or actions. Lying is almost invariably harmful: If a lie is discovered, trust is undermined or destroyed. Even if a lie is not discovered, you need to worry forever that it will be. The precept mentions only speaking, but dishonest actions are generally going to require you to communicate untruthfully somewhere down the line, so speech and action aren’t really separate. Like the precept against stealing, the precept against lying might be interpreted as supporting the societal status quo, depriving those who are at a disadvantage of the opportunity to game the system. However, this isn’t the purpose of this precept. Again, if you have extreme need and must do something dishonest to survive, or help your family survive, then you are breaking the precept out of compassion (although there are still karmic consequences, potentially serious ones). Most of the time, though, people are not lying or cheating out of true need, but out of a desire to gain something, an effort to avoid accountability, or an unwillingness to experience discomfort.

Mental Level: You break this precept whenever you compromise honest communication for self-centered reasons. Recognizing when this is the case can be quite tricky. There are countless ways you can leave those around you with a less-than-accurate perception of who you are, what you think and feel, or what you have done or plan to do. Ways to break the precept against lying include withholding, hiding behind a persona, flattery, avoiding certain topics, or pretending to be okay with something when you’re not.

Spiritual Level: When we engage in less-than-honest communication or actions to get something we want, we are often motivated by the same existential lack that drives us to steal. Stealing and lying, especially at the mental level, are closely related. Often, though, our lack of honesty springs from fear, such as fear of rejection, fear of our inability to cope with consequences, or fear of some else’s negative reaction. Dishonesty can allow us to avoid facing our fear, but the fear doesn’t resolve on its own. Instead, through practice, we stop avoiding our fear, gain insight into it, and work to gain some freedom from it.

 

Do not abuse intoxicants – polish clarity, dispel delusion

Literal Level: Intoxicants are substances or behaviors which are unhealthy or even harmful, but which alter your state of mind in a way you find pleasurable or attractive. Sometimes the effects of an intoxicant are obviously enjoyable, but sometimes they attract you because they allow you to forget your troubles, numb your pain, or repeatedly stimulate some kind of reward center in your brain, providing a long sequence of small gratifications. What is common to all intoxicants at a literal level is they take a toll on your physical or mental health, whether large or small (many of them are literally poisons), and they all invite abuse and include the possibility of addiction. For any given substance or behavior, what differentiates moderate use from abuse or addiction differs by person, but the risk of abuse is always there. Abuse and addiction destroy many lives, which is why the Buddha recommended that his students abstain from intoxicants entirely. Modern Zen practitioners, whether lay or monastic, rarely live under a vow of complete abstinence from intoxicants, but this precept advises you to be very careful in your use of any intoxicant.

Mental Level: There are many substances and behaviors which are not inherently unhealthy or harmful, but which can be problematic when you indulge in them to excess.[i] Like literal intoxicants, mental and emotional intoxicants give you some kind of payoff but come with a cost when you use them too much. Examples abound: Fantasizing, video games, word puzzles, television, self-righteous pontificating, eating, shopping… the list goes on. Even otherwise beneficial activities like meditating, studying the Dharma, or helping family members can be used to avoid things you’d rather not face. It takes careful self-reflection to untangle your relationship to substances and activities that you find dominating your life to the exclusion of other things. This is “polishing clarity and dispelling delusion.” It can help to ask yourself, “In the long run, how do I want to have lived?” The momentary pleasure, gratification, or comfort provided by an intoxicant isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is unfortunate if it causes you to forget your deeper aspirations.

Spiritual Level: We may seek refuge in intoxicants because life presents us with practical, emotional, or existential challenges we don’t know how to deal with, or don’t have the courage to face. The wonderful thing about Zen practice is that it gives us the tools and the strength to face our challenges, fully understand them, and find a better way to deal with them than relying on intoxicants.

 

Do not dwell on past mistakes – create wisdom from ignorance

Literal Level: “Do not dwell on past mistakes” means not to speak unnecessarily about the mistakes and shortcomings of other people, or of yourself. There are undoubtedly circumstances where it is important for you to point out mistakes for the good of everyone involved, but then you are doing so out of compassion and will naturally be inclined to speak with kindness, gentleness, humility, and respect. You won’t say more than is necessary. In contrast, when you find yourself dwelling on the topic of someone’s shortcomings at length, or when your speech becomes tinged with bitterness or judgmentalism, you are probably serving your own self-interests by speaking. Human beings are complicated, social creatures; we can get gratification out of vilifying people, creating a sense of “us” versus “them,” blaming people for their misfortunes, analyzing one another’s flaws, and morbidly recounting social dramas.

Mental Level: You can easily break the precept “do not dwell on past mistakes” in your mind even when you manage to refrain from saying anything out loud. In fact, while speech usually generates more karma for self and others than silent internal dialogue, most of the challenge of keeping this precept is mental. Especially when it comes to nurturing resentments against others or wallowing in self-criticism, you can easily spend hours every day ruminating on past mistakes. You can strengthen your sense of separation from others, or even from yourself, by repeatedly contemplating the egregious nature of actions you perceive as having been hurtful, disrespectful, careless, or stupid; ruminating on how certain shortcomings prove a fundamentally malevolent or deficient character; or contemplating at length actions that ought to be taken to address the wrongdoing or inadequacy. Apart from developing habits of mind that run completely contrary to the goals of practice, what a waste of time!

Spiritual Level: We are inclined to dwell on criticism and resentment of others, or of ourselves, because of our social insecurities. We naturally fear isolation, rejection, judgment, or being taken advantage of by others. We are afraid that we are inherently inadequate, unacceptable, or unlovable. Fortunately, practice can put us in touch with our Buddha-Nature and give us a sense of security that is independent of conditions or the attitudes of other people. Based in this groundedness, we regard mistakes – our own, and those of others – merely as learning opportunities, thereby giving us the chance to create wisdom out of ignorance.  

 

Do not praise self or blame others – maintain modesty, extol virtue

Literal Level: This precept is about not speaking or acting in ways that bolster your sense of self at the expense of others. You can break this precept in many ways, including bragging, or criticizing others in a way that makes you look good by contrast (at least you don’t do that). It’s also easy to break this precept by defining yourself by characteristics that inherently involve relative comparisons, such as intelligence, wealth, physical attractiveness, skill, diligence, creativity, virtue, or even the depth of your spiritual sensitivity. There’s nothing wrong with being aware and appreciative of your strengths, but you break this precept when you create your social persona based on things that seem impressive or meritorious precisely because others are less so.

Mental Level: Just like the precept “do not dwell on past mistakes,” you don’t have to give voice to your thoughts about how you compare to others for them to have a negative impact. If you find yourself constantly measuring yourself against others – whether you think you measure up favorably or not – you are indulging in self-preoccupation and imagining yourself in competition with the rest of the human race. This strengthens your habit of self-centeredness and increases your sense of separateness from people. It also puts you in an inherently insecure place, because there is always someone who is going be better than you are, and any relative measure of worth can be lost.

Spiritual Level: We compare ourselves to others when we feel the need to define ourselves in ways we can rely on. We don’t know where to find reliable definitions besides other people – what is valued by others, what others think, or how others compare. Through practice, we can change our orientation entirely, learning to value in ourselves, and identify with, qualities that we can have in abundance without detracting one iota from the abundance enjoyed by anyone else, such as authenticity, humility, gratitude, good will, compassion, or patience. When our sense of self is based on these qualities, we don’t have to feel threatened by others and, in fact, we can readily celebrate the merits of others, thereby maintaining modesty and extolling virtue.

 

Do not be stingy with Dharma or resources – share understanding, give freely of self

Literal Level: In the context of this precept, “Dharma” means any truth or practice that relieves suffering or liberates beings, not just explicitly Buddhist teachings. Therefore, you are being asked not to be stingy with anything you could communicate or do that would be helpful to others, or with any of your resources, including material resources, time, or energy. Following this precept is very tricky, however, because you also need to take care of yourself and the people you are directly responsible for. The need in the world is so great, you could give away everything you have and exhaust yourself trying to help, but still there would be unmet need. Where do you draw the line? This precept does not give you a fixed answer to that question. Instead, to keep this precept you need to be completely honest with yourself and make the best decision you can every time you are met with the opportunity to be generous. Although situations are complex and there are no easy answers, you know it’s possible to give too much, and you know there are times when you are tempted to indulge in stinginess, prioritizing your own comfort, preferences, and security over the benefits of giving. Finding the Middle Way is an ongoing challenge.

Mental Level: You can break the precept “do not be stingy” by entirely avoiding situations which might call for your generosity, thereby not breaking the precept in a literal, observable way but still breaking it in spirit. How might you do this? Maybe you avoid people in need. Maybe you decline to be generous with someone because of what they might ask for in the future. Maybe you try to ignore the injustice, suffering, exploitation, and destruction happening in the world. Maybe you keep people at arm’s length, so they won’t end up wanting to be intimate with you, or so you won’t end up making an emotional investment in them. When you keep this precept, you “share understanding” and “give freely of self” and come to realize that these forms of generosity are often even more impactful than giving material things.

Spiritual Level: Our inclination to be stingy springs from the same sense of lack that motivates us to steal. When we steal, we are grasping for more, and when we are stingy, we are holding on to what we have for fear that we will find ourselves deprived. It’s easier to refrain from stealing, however, than it is to know exactly how much to give in any given situation. Through practice, we can access a sense of unconditional sufficiency that can alleviate some of the anxiety we might experience about deprivation and how we might cope with it. This gives us greater confidence, allowing us to more readily take the risk of being generous.

I’ll be back soon with the third episode in this chapter, I hope you’ll tune in!

 

Read/listen to Part 1 or Part 3
See all Ten Fields of Zen Practice

 


Endnote

[i] Or if you have a distorted relationship with them, such as your relationship with food if you are anorexic. In that case you are not overindulging in food, but may be overindulging in the satisfaction and sense of control that comes from denying yourself food. In fact, anorexia is dangerous enough to be considered a literal intoxicant/addiction, not just a mental one.

 

273 - Ten Fields of Zen, Field Five – Precepts: Transcending Self-Attachment (1 of 3)
275 - Ten Fields of Zen, Field Five – Precepts: Transcending Self-Attachment (3 of 3)
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