Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dogen’s Shobogenzo: Ch 10 (I) Shoaku-makusa – Introduction

Shoaku-makusa is translated as "not doing wrongs". 

In Shoaku-makusa Dogen tackles the subject of moral conduct. He opens with the ‘Universal Precept of the Seven Buddhas’ poem below, emphasizing that it has been universally and authentically transmitted to all Buddhas and so it is the teaching, practice, and experience of hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of buddhas,” and noting that These words of Dharma of the Seven Buddhas always sound like the words of Dharma of the Seven Buddhas.”

The eternal buddha says,
                        Not to commit wrongs,
                        To practice the many kinds of right,
                        Naturally purifies the mind;
                        This is the teaching of the buddhas.

This Universal Precept supercedes all other Buddhist precepts. It may be easier to remember, but it is more difficult in practice. Why? Because you have to be rooted in practice to have a hope of knowing what "not commiting wrongs" and "practicing the many kinds of right" mean.

The Ten Grave Precepts are central to Buddhist practice, and at first glance seem easier than the Universal Precept for anybody and everybody to understand. But, if we think mindfully about it, the Ten Grave Precepts, in spite of their simplicity, are impossible to follow one hundred percent of the time. Moreover, the list of precepts seems, to me, to offer a false sense of security that we are in the right (or at least not in the wrong) without having to think carefully about our actions. Different Buddhist groups also sometimes add on or elaborate on the precepts. This seems to be taking more and more of the responsibility of thinking and acting mindfully on a moment-by-moment basis off the shoulders of the individual. (I tend to prefer the Eight-fold Path as a guide because it promotes contemplation of what right and wrong are in any given instance.)

The precepts were meant to be guidelines for action rather than commandments. The fact that they are guidelines recognizes that there can be conflicts between the precepts in certain circumstances, and that what the precepts are actually saying depends on how mindfully we think about them. For example, in my view, merely by existing I am indirectly responsible for killing even though that is not my intention. So, to me, I’m already breaking the first precept just by meeting the requirements that allow me to stay alive. Some might say the precepts only refer to direct action. Some might say that I’m going too far with this example, but shouldn't I at least be aware of the cost and feel gratitude for the opportunity of life?

As another example in which right and wrong are more obvious, there is a story about a Buddhist layman who lies to his children to get them out of a burning house. This layman directly breaks the precept to not lie in order avoid killing indirectly. Even a young child would intuitively know what to do under these circumstances and do it. But would an older man intuitively know if his life was spent following the precepts to the letter or thinking they only applied to direct action? Admittedly these are extreme examples. But having lost the naivety of a child, some people only see what they are used to seeing, do what they are used to doing...

In the story of Kyo-i presented in this Chapter:
Kyo-i asks, “What is the great intention of the Buddha-Dharma?”
Dorin says, “Not to commit wrongs. To practice the many kinds of right.”
Kyo-i says, “If it is so, even a child of three can express it!”
Dorin says, “A child of three can speak the truth, but an old man of eighty cannot practice it.”
Thus informed, Kyo-i makes at once a prostration of thanks, and then leaves.

In the rest of Shoaku-makusa Dogen relates what he thinks each line of the verse of the Universal Precept means and concludes the chapter with the story of Kyo-i and his thoughts on Kyo-i's understanding...

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