This morning I found a new comment to an old post from last April. The old post was on a lack of emphasis on the Precepts in western dharma centers, followed by a discussion in the comments about Precepts practice and why working with the Precepts is different from following the Ten Commandments. And here is the new comment:
"It's very simple, or at least it was before westerners began to complicate things and transformed the dharma, according to their own whims and desires, into a new-age "anything goes" kind of philosophy. Lol, rules like "don't steal, don't commit adultery, don't murder people, etc., are universal and exist in some form or another in almost every civilized society-we need them in order to function in the everyday, conventional world that we inhabit., no matter how much you dislike it."
This is similar to some comments left to more recent posts on our infamous misbehaving Zen teachers. The main points usually made are these --
One, morality isn't complicated; just follow the rules. Two, the only reason you western Buddhists think this is complicated is that you are a bunch of post-modernist New Agers who have imposed your "anything goes" philosophy onto Buddhism.
Actually, I believe the notion that "morality" consists of faithfully following some list of external rules is the "western" notion here. Certainly one can find rigid "moralism" in Asia as in the West, but I have read here and there that older Asian civilizations on the whole adopted a more situationist approach to law and morality than did the strict "by the book" approach favored in the West.
Much of our western attitude about following moral rules probably is a vestige of a belief that prevailed in western civilization for centuries -- that humans are inherently foul and wicked creatures who can be made "good" only by obeying God. The only alternative to obeying God's Rules, in this view, is obeying our own willful egos, and that always leads to ruin.
Western popular culture has softened up on that attitude quite a bit in the past century or so, but we haven't gotten around to re-thinking our "by the book" approach to morality.
Buddhism has an entirely different view -- we humans are not inherently evil. It's just that we are lost in a fog of illusion, and we thrash around doing harm to ourselves and to others because of our own ignorance. The antidote is enlightenment, waking up from the illusion, which unbinds us from the chains of ego and craving.
It is said that an enlightened being doesn't need moral rules, but naturally and spontaneously responds correctly to all moral questions. Of course, those of us still thrashing around in ignorance could use some guidance, so there are Precepts. But the Precepts are not meant to be absolute rules obeyed without question. Rather, working with them helps us grow in wisdom and compassion.
The point is, though, that a reactive "just follow the rules" approach to morality is -- and always has been -- contrary to what the Buddha taught. Reflecting on and analyzing moral situations in their infinite messiness is not some post-modern indulgence; it is dharma practice.
In the much-quoted-out-of-context Kalama Sutta,the Buddha taught us to not believe things just because they're written in authoritative books or spoken by authoritative teachers, but rather to determine for ourselves what is true. But if you read the whole sutta, it is apparent he is talking as much about morality as about doctrine -- Judge actions by whether they are wholesome and beneficial, or not. Don't just follow something written in a book.
I think the "just follow the rules" approach to morality is a kind of a crutch. Following rules does not require wisdom and compassion. Human history is full of terrible things done in the name of some greater good, done by people never taught to reflect and to feel, but to just follow rules.
In his book The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, Robert Aitken Roshi said (p.17), "The absolute position, when isolated, omits human details completely. Doctrines, including Buddhism, are meant to be used. Beware of them taking life of their own, for then they use us." An example of what the Roshi was talking about might be the murder of abortion doctors in the name of "life."
Dharma practice ain't for weenies, and going beyond the rule book requires discipline and self-honesty. But that's our path.