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Lions Roar : May 2015
Are human beings basically good or basically evil? This isn’t a sensible question. Human beings are buddha, because life is buddha, all-inclusive. Understanding this, you know you have to forgive, although not forget. You know that you can’t go forth with vengeance and hatred, or with a sense of moral superiority. Because you are you and not someone else, you know that there will always be foul water in your mouth—that the evil deeds of others are yours as well, that they are ours col- lectively. So you protect and defend as you can, but you don’t condemn. Evil is part of all of us—and part of buddha too, according to the Zen teachings. There’s a line about this story of dying the great death that appears in The Blue Cliff Record, a Zen koan collection: “Where right and wrong are mixed, even the sages cannot know.... She walks on thin ice, runs on a sword’s edge....” Moral choice is fraught. The more you know and the more you appreciate about a given situation, the more fraught it is. At the beginning of this piece I mentioned drone attacks. Are they good or evil? Do they kill innocent civilians? Yes they do. But even when they don’t, are they targeting the right people? Who are the “right people”? If someone is forced, by social pressure and the threat of murder, to harbor a so-called terrorist, or even to commit so-called terrorist acts, is such a person worthy of being targeted? Is anyone? And who decides? On what basis? Can anyone, in this corrupt, unjust, unfair, confused world, claim a position of moral superiority? Is there anyone who can sit on a pristine throne of moral rectitude from which to proclaim the judgment of who shall live and who shall die? According to this commentary, not even the sages can say. They, like us, are walking on thin ice that might break through at any moment. Yet we must walk and run; we must make ethical choices based on our best understanding of and firm commit- ment to precepts and the goodness they represent. A verse on this story says: Even the ancient Buddhas, they say, have never arrived / I don’t know who can scatter dust and sand. In Zen, teaching is a dubious proposition. That’s why it’s called “scattering dust and sand.” Like Cuiwei, with his “ladleful of foul water,” Zen ancients recognized that all religious and moral systems, however necessary, must be taken lightly. They will always be partial and therefore potentially destructive in this checkered world. Even the buddhas, as Zen sees them, are still working on being able to understand their own lives, and ours, well enough even to be able to spread the half-truths that constitute Buddhist teaching. The three pure precepts of Zen come from the earliest Buddhism, long before Zen. They are: “To avoid evil, To do good, To benefit all beings.” We may not really know what this means. We may not know how to do it. But it is our commit- ment, the effort of our lifetime, to be carried out with energy, appreciation, forgiveness, non-condemnation, understanding, and grief. ♦ The Problem of Evil continued from page 81 house. 4836 Ellsworth Ave. Pittsburgh. A Kwan Um School Zen Center. ZEN MOUNTAIN MONASTERY PO Box 197, 871 Plank Rd, Mt. Tremper, NY 12457. (845) 688-2228,