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Barbara O'Brien

Morality Versus Rules

By January 3, 2013

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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.

January 3, 2013 at 5:48 pm
(1) Xavier Paolo Josh Ledesma Mandreza says:

Dear M’am Barbara:

It’s been awhilst since I last made a Commentary here. For the past thirty-five years of my Life and coming from a conservative Roman Catholic and Christian Charismatic Family it really is quite challenging for me to ignore the Fundamentalist Mentality which was influenced upon me.

Indeed I have been raised to Live just that – no Questions. No But’s. Just Follow and you will be fine. Homosexuality is Evil. I’m Gay. Stop! Just be chaste because the Bible says so. End of Story. If you Suffer then it is God’s Will that you should Suffer. So did my Fundamentalist Christian Friends told me.

Now when I am currently trying to continue with my Practice that very same Mentality still haunts me….And my Ego keeps telling me that I will fail because of my background and what I did in the Past.

This is personally for me a Challenge. In which I am hoping that I – and we – could be able to Overcome soon. Thank you so much for this Helpful Piece. I’m sure I’d be able to get through. :-)

January 3, 2013 at 7:21 pm
(2) Steven Narbonne says:

Dear Xavier,
Where ever you are, that is where your next step will take place.

January 3, 2013 at 8:39 pm
(3) Lauren says:

Dear Xavier,

It seems you’re on your way…I would just suggest you look around beyond your immediate group and see how people in similar situations in different cultures have found their out of restrictive environments like yours.
Good luck!

January 3, 2013 at 11:42 pm
(4) buddhanonymous says:

I suggest the Middle Path- the Precepts are guidelines. I have been taught that the Precepts make it safe to practice meditation and to study. They are a door into the Other Shore.

An illustration of the function of the precepts can be seen in the aftermath of Buddhist teacher misbehavior- harm to students and the Dharma.

January 4, 2013 at 10:06 am
(5) Middle says:

Never give up bro, follow the Middle path. If the Buddha can achieve Enlightenment, we can do it too. You can do it.

January 5, 2013 at 3:21 pm
(6) Susan says:

Dear Xavier, I want you to know that the problem or situation that you have is a very common one–you are not alone! In your letter I sense a kind and loving person, and I encourage you to be as gentle and understanding with yourself as I am sure you are with other people. In a sense, we will never be “free” of our past conditioning–it is a part of us which makes us who we are today, but we can continue to change until the past becomes like the vapor trail of a jet. The jet is no longer there–the thread of cloud remains, and gradually dissipates.

As for the matter of your gayness, please look at the modern scientific discoveries about this subject. You will find that the hormonal environment in your mother’s womb began this condition. You really have no choice in this matter. What you can choose is your behavior in the present. Some gay Christians and Buddhists will not feel comfortable with anything except total celibacy, and others will either be monogamous or always treat partners with awareness and consideration. Forcing yourself to marry a woman, or hiding, or being cruel and judgmental to yourself or others is never the solution.

I wish you well in your meditation practice!

January 7, 2013 at 3:03 am
(7) Hein says:

Dharma practice ain’t for weenies, and going beyond the rule book requires discipline and self-honesty. But that’s our path.
Following the Precepts in a non-western way is challenging. And breaking away from a Christian mind-set about morality does not make it easier. In my practice I have found that meditation guides one towards a creative manner in dealing with morality. I suppose the discipline of meditation and general practice (including the Rules) as well as self-honesty goes a long way to assist one? Rules are there to serve humans and not vice versa. Or to put it differently; there is no inherent magic in the Rules. Perhaps it is easier to have an affinity (cannot think of a better word right now) towards the Precepts in Buddhism (and I always remind myself of this) than say Christianity and Islam insofar as the Rules in Buddhism have been formulated by humans rather than “handed down by God”. On the other hand; if one has a benevolent God one might be would be more incline to break the Rules. At least one study seems to point that way. Gods may be forgiving, but there is – as far as I know – nothing similar in Buddhism that would amount to “benevolent karma” (on the other hand there is also not “punitive karma”). And that is – I think – principal the difference between the God-centred religions and karma-centred religions of the world

January 7, 2013 at 2:32 pm
(8) John Bonnice says:

In any talk about morality and rules there should be a clear distinction between pre-enlightment morality and post enlightment morality. It does’nt seem that it is being made here?

January 9, 2013 at 6:49 pm
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

John — there’s no such thing as a “clear distinction” between pre-enlightenment and post-enlightenment. It’s not like like flipping a switch. Few people go from abysmal ignorance to enlightened clarity all at once. Usually, clarity comes slowly and subtly. In the Zen tradition, at least, it’s understood that clarity is never perfect and that anyone who claims to be “fully enlightened” is a fraud.

In most schools of Buddhism, when one formally makes a commitment to follow the Buddha’s path, the commitment is marked by receiving the Precepts. The practitioner does not merely “obey” the Precepts. Working with them is part of the training. In the traditional Theravada ceremony, the monk or nun receives each Precept with a vow to undertake the Precept as training. So it’s a personal commitment. Working with Precepts is part of the Right Action aspect of the eightfold path. Working with them mindfully, investigating one’s own motivations and intentions, considering how one’s actions impact others, is part of the path to enlightenment. The reactive following of rules just because they are rules doesn’t have the same effect.

January 7, 2013 at 11:40 pm
(10) buddhanonymous says:

About Xavier: My comment above was not directed to him, but at the main article. I see no difference between morality in a gay relationship and morality in a straight relationship. The question is, are the people involved committed to nurturing and encouraging each other to be the best they can be in the relationship- or is the relationship an expression of greed or anger?

About John: I do not understand a difference between pre and post enlightment morality. If a being causes harm to others, that being is not enlightened and should not be teaching.

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