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Lions Roar : May 2015
It is true that in Zen there are precepts that describe moral rules not unlike those followed by any religion or ethical humanistic program—not killing, stealing, lying, and so on. But Zen teaching distinguishes three different levels of precept practice: relative (or literal), compassionate, and absolute. On the relative or literal level, we try to keep the precepts as written and simply understood. On the compassionate level, we sometimes violate a precept in order to benefit others. The absolute level proposes that there is ultimately no way to keep any precept, and no way to break it. All precepts are always broken and kept. This is nondual morality—beyond good and evil. Or so it seems. When the precepts are deeply considered, it’s clear that literal, compassionate, and absolute are only words, distinctions meant to help us appreciate aspects of the precepts we might otherwise miss. In the actual human world, we can’t avoid the choice between good and bad, because there is no absolute level apart from the relative and compassionate levels. Relative, compassionate, and absolute are ways of talking about the moral choices we make with these human bodies and minds, in an actual, lived, physical world. OF COURSE THERE IS a difference between good and evil. But we notice that not everyone agrees on which is which (though I believe that as a human family we are getting closer to unanimity on this point). Nor can we help but notice how much evil is perpetuated in the name of combatting evil. In Zen precept practice, the fundamental, absolute ground of ethics is being itself. Because we and the world exist, there are precepts. Things are. Life is. And in this, not being is also included. A moment of time arising is a moment of time passing. Being born is the beginning of dying. This is sad, tragic, and probably impossible for us to fully appreciate. Yet we can and do feel the immensity of being itself—and the strangeness of unbeing. Grounding our lives in this fundamental truth is the fruit of our practice. This is where the teaching of “no difference between good and evil” comes from. It is essential. But it can’t be taken out of context. When evil is perpetrated it becomes a fact of existence. When ISIS militants behead people in Syria and Iraq, or when children are used as suicide bombers, evil is being perpetrated. This becomes something that is. It is undeniable. We have to accept that this evil has actually happened. We have to somehow take it in, difficult as that may be, because it is now a part of our world, of our human life. This doesn’t mean we have to condone it or accept it in a moral sense, or that we shouldn’t do everything we can do to prevent it from happening again. It only means that we have to accept it as having happened. This acceptance is how I understand the absolute level. When evil exists, we accept it as existing, just as we have to accept a loss that’s happened to us, even as we grieve it. If we deny or refuse to accept reality as it is, we won’t be able to cope with it. We will keep on making the same mistakes again and again. Our losses, if we don’t accept them, can destroy our lives. To attempt to relieve our pain by identifying evildoers and vowing to wipe them out, as if that will remove the loss’s stark grip on us, won’t work. It will only add to evil’s mounting pile. What does “nondual” mean after all? I am not sure I entirely understand the concept. Some years ago I was invited to make a presentation at a conference whose theme was nondualism. I was surprised to find that to many of the speakers nondual meant “oneness.” I guess this makes sense—either it’s dual (which means two or more, like dual headlights) or it’s not dual, which means it’s one (or "One," as most of the speakers seemed to understand it). By this logic, good and evil as separate things would be dualism, two different things. Nondual would mean that good and evil aren’t different; they are one thing. But to me the concept of oneness is also dualism, because you have oneness on the one hand and dualism on the other hand. And they seem like two different things: “I agree with oneness. Dualism is a mistake.” This seems like dualism. Sometimes reality arrives as one, sometimes as more than one. Nondualism must include dualism. If nondualism doesn’t include and validate dualism, then it is dualistic! Saying it like this seems odd, but in actual living it simply seems to be true. Oneness would be: yes, this happened. A man was tortured to death. A child was born. Like all that happened or ever could happen, these are true, living facts, and as such I must accept them as real—good or evil, whether I like it or not. Dualism would be: wrong is wrong, and I am committed to doing what is good and right, not what is evil or wrong. In actual living, I can’t see any way but to embrace both of these ways of seeing. How else could we live a reasonable human life? ZHAOZHO ONCE ASKED TOUZI, “When someone who has undergone the great death then returns to life, how is it?” Touzi said, “She can’t go by night, she should arrive in the daylight.” In Zen language, “the great death” stands for the nondual sense of life as one. All things, good or bad, desirable or unde- sirable, express that oneness. To experience the great death is to see, face to face and for oneself, that everything is real, every- thing is true, everything is just as it is. Such an experience, if it In the actual human world, we can’t avoid the choice between good and bad. SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2015 56