Buddhist thought is slowly seeping into the vernacular of of the so-called western world. It is no longer considered exotic to know the word 'karma' or to advocate for mindfulness; we know about the Dalai Lama and many of us harbour at least an aesthetic appreciation of Zen. In fact, the highly urbanized and refined minimalism so evident in the aesthetic staging of Zen is a powerful stimulant to tens of thousands of our companion citizens who have taken up the study of the Middle Way (ie Buddhist) practice. But we should never forget that the vast majority of western people will not become Japanese or Chinese or Vietnamese or Tibetan Buddhists. If there is ever to be a form of Buddhist thought that has a positively transformative effect in the western world, interested individuals need to examine the very basics of Buddhism.
Buddhism is full of fascinating takes on logic and morality and just what constitutes good behaviour. But under all that talk about karma and causation is the discrete notion of suffering. This is the core concern of Buddhism from its very beginning and one of the shared attributes of the myriad of Buddhisms.
Good Behaviour is defined many ways; 8-fold path, 6 perfections and many other schemas, but the basic recipe is the 5 Prohibitory Precepts. Lay Buddhists can embrace these and be assured that a moral life will ensue. The five are: not taking what is not given, not doing harmful things, no careless or hurtful speech, no abuse of sensuality and not to imbibe intoxicants to the point of heedlessness. What's interesting about this is: the initial template of good behaviour is that it involves cessation. Cessation means getting to zero; zero greed, zero harm, zero heedlessness in relation to speech, sexuality and intoxicants.
From the perspective of Buddhist practice, what we do in meditation is erode the edifice of our own suffering and at the same time almost eliminate ourselves as a cause of suffering. Basic Buddhism teaches that suffering is caused by craving, clinging and that whole domain of attachment. This ultimately means that every desire that prompts action causes suffering related to the degree of attachment to that desire. In meditation we deliberately seek to configure a presence in which desire has been reduced to near zero.
If Buddhist thought is ever to have real purchase in the west, a subtle shift will have to happen. Buddhist morality is centred on kindness being more important than rightness. Our western civilization is very compassionate and very generous, but it is also axiomatic that we accept great cruelty in the name of rightness. In a Buddhist morality the importance of punishment is diminished and our whole moral structure takes on a softer configuration. Meticulous morality becomes more of a scrupulous morality. This means less behaviour that is energized by fear and more behaviour motivated by a sense of personal value and balance. Meditation is the activity that allows that small shift to occur: initially as a recognition of its veracity and then as an evolving reference point for thought, word and deed.
Zen meditation teaches the techniques of reducing toward zero such internal activities as judgments, opinions and attachments of all kinds. When we pay attention to our breath, the mind trends toward stillness and calm. Having zero desire beyond breath and posture, there is little suffering. In meditation we reduce suffering in which we are complicit and by doing not-doing we are not the cause of further harm to beings.
Wayne Codling is a former Zen monastic and a lineage holder in the Soto Zen tradition. He teaches Zen style meditation in various venues around Victoria. Wayne’s talks and some writings can be found on his blog http://sotozenvictoria.wordpress.com
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*This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Satuurday, August 6