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Lions Roar : March 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2008 34 treading the path as “not very Buddhist.” But we should never let our fears about be- ing criticized by friends and family who don’t understand what Buddhism really is to stop us from acting the way we know a Buddhist should. Yet it is hard to know what to do sometimes. This goes for novices and so-called “masters” alike. That’s what the precepts are for. They give you something to fall back on when your intuition in a given situation seems to have failed. One of the problems we face as Buddhists in a Judeo-Christian society is that while the precepts sound a bit like the Ten Commandments—we’re not supposed to kill or steal and stuff like that—they actually come from a very different perspective. The Ten Commandments are a warning from an all-powerful, all-knowing God, eternally separate from ourselves, not to do certain things or else He’ll kick our asses. The Buddhist precepts are reminders to trust our own intuitive sense of right and wrong. They list a few common circumstances in which the proper way to behave is usually to follow a certain course of action, because there are very few cases when it’s right to steal or kill and so on. But even these are not absolute, and there may be rare times when the gravest precepts must be broken in order to do what is truly right. The precepts are meant as examples to show us how intuition usually works in these cases, not a set of rules we must follow to avoid Buddha’s wrath. Like our intuitive sense, the precepts come from ourselves. Our intuition never actually fails, even though we often think that it does. We only fail to hear it over the noise we generate in our heads. Our practice is intended to allow for the development of an intuitive sense of what should and should not be said or done. We all have this intuition. But we’ve learned how to shout it down with our thoughts and emotions to the extent that it’s sometimes impossible to hear that still small voice. In the end, Buddhist practice really is just that—it’s practice. We’re practicing to be Buddhists, hoping someday we’ll finally get it right. If we ever stop practicing, if we ever get to the point where we think we’ve got it all down pat and there’s no need for further improvement or refinement, that’s where the trouble starts. When I attended a precept ceremony at the San Francisco Zen Center recently, I was struck when the teacher asked the students if they would vow to keep each of the precepts “even after attaining buddhahood.” This is an important attitude to cultivate. There will never come a time when we don’t have to keep strict watch over ourselves at every mo- ment. Dogen said that our life is one mistake after another. The fact that we make mistakes isn’t so important. What counts is that we try and fix the mistakes we’ve made and try not to make the same mistakes in the future. All we’ve got to work with is this fleeting mo- ment, right here, right now. Even our deepest regrets about the past can’t do a damn thing to change it. We find our balance, lose it, and find it again. Over and over. Every day. The results of this practice may not strike everyone as how they envision a Bud- dhist ought to behave. But that can’t be helped. When I lose my balance and say what shouldn’t be said or do what shouldn’t be done, it is my duty to put those things right as best I can. Sometimes that means apologizing. Sometimes a spoken apology is the worst possible response. It’s up to me to make my best effort to sense what the situ- ation dictates without letting my own ideas get in the way. We don’t exist for the sake of ourselves but for the sake of those we serve. At the same time, we have to remember that the two are not really separate. When someone tells us that what we’re doing is “not very Buddhist,” we’re sending ourselves a mes- sage. Our practice will never make us perfect, when perfection is merely an image created by thought. Real perfection is just to keep on practicing. ♦ Our practice will never make us perfect, when perfection is merely an image created by thought. For information about admission to study at IBS and the IBS-Ryukoku exchange program Contact the IBS Registrar STUDY BUDDHISM IN KYOTO The Institute of Buddhist Studies & Ryukoku University Student Exchange Program Each year two students from IBS are able to study Buddhism at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, Japan. Program is open to degree program students only. www.shin-ibs.edu ® Institute of Buddhist Studies 2140 Durant Street Berkeley, California 94074 USA firstname.lastname@example.org 510-809-1444 MAR 18-41.indd 34 MAR 18-41.indd 34 12/19/07 2:34:44 PM 12/19/07 2:34:44 PM