If religion’s purpose is to help people find peace and strength and to live good lives, which I believe it is, it makes sense that people would turn to religion to explain why terrible things happen in the world – particularly terrible things that happen to individuals that apparently didn’t do anything to deserve it.
I spent last week at a conference for Soto Zen priests. There were 90 of us at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) gathering. We were defined as much, or more, by our differences as by what we held in common. In the 45 years or so that Soto Zen has been developing amongst western converts in America, priests and lineages have stayed quite true to the American ideal of individualism, freedom and innovation. Within lineages there has been some degree of conformity, but between lineages there are often vast differences, especially regarding priest training. For example, in one lineage it is expected that an ordained person will spend at least 7 years in a monastery before becoming an independent priest. In another lineage ordained people typically stay in the monastery for their entire lives. In yet another lineage, lay practitioners with jobs and families are ordained and become independent priests without ever living in a monastery or residential practice community. We are like a herd of cats.
This is why it is so remarkable that this group of priests is striving so hard to stay together – to find out what we hold in common, or what we want to hold in common. At first glance the only thing we could find was this: we all feel passionately about being priests. We all feel that we deserve to be priests, that being priests is one of the most important things in our lives, and that priests are vital to the flourishing of Soto Zen.
This is not much to start with, in one way. All of this passion could just be ego-delusion. We might just be clinging to a role or a label without much to substantiate our claim.
Nonetheless we keep up the dialogue with one another, constantly seeking for things we agree on and trying to minimize the divisiveness caused by the many things we passionately disagree about. Why? Why don’t we all just go our separate ways? It’s a free country. Nothing is stopping any of us from calling ourselves Soto Zen priests and functioning as religious leaders for anyone who cares to come practice with us.
The longer I am involved with the SZBA the more deeply I understand why we stay together. It is a difficult thing to describe, but this starts to get at the heart of the matter: together we can create something greater than any of us could create by ourselves. Or together we can create something greater than any of the lineages could create by themselves.
Exactly what this “greater thing” we are creating will be we don’t even know at this point. Nonetheless we can sense its character when we taste the satisfaction of completing a communal project – one that required us to speak up for our positions but also listen to others and find a creative way to function together. We can sense the character of this “greater thing” when we grudgingly learn to respect and even like colleagues that hold views very different from our own. We especially sense the character of what we are creating together when we feel the growing power and stability present in a group of peers that has tested, questioned and come to understand and trust one another.
Frankly there have been times when I wish I could simply set the agenda and the standards and force everyone else to comply. At other times I wanted to give up and take my toys home, feeling like whatever is being created together is so far from my ideals that it is irrelevant to me. I am grateful that I have not done any of these things. Even though at times I find myself thinking of a phrase I learned from a friend of mine, “It takes all kinds. Unfortunately.”
I imagine this is something like what the founding father felt when they created the United States of America against all odds. It’s really pretty amazing.
In working with the Precepts, I have found it useful to “translate” them for myself, using words that capture, for me, the flavor of how each Precept manifests in my life. I imagine that every person will have their own translation of each Precept, depending on their karma. Contemplate them and see for yourself! The official translations used at Bright Way are in bold italics; my interpretations follow, in plain text.
Do Not Kill – Cultivate and Encourage Life
Do Not See Anything as Separate from Yourself – See and Honor Every Being and Thing as a Manifestation of Buddha Nature
Do Not Steal – Honor the Gift Not Yet Given
Do Not Place Self-Interest before Consideration for Others – Trust That You Have All You Truly Need
Do Not Misuse Sexuality – Remain Faithful in Relationships
Do Not Use the Power of Sexual Attraction Merely For Pleasure, Or For Building and Maintaining Your Sense of Self – Negotiate the Intricacies of Human Intimacy with Care, Respect and Honor
Do Not Speak Dishonestly – Communicate Truthfully
Do Not Hide Your Mistakes or Your True Nature with Coarse Or Subtle Lies – Speak From Your True Heart
Do Not Become Intoxicated – Polish Clarity, Dispel Delusion
Do Not Take Refuge in Distractions – Cultivate the Clarity and Energy Required For Practice
Do Not Dwell On Past Mistakes – Create Wisdom from Ignorance
Do Not Dwell Unnecessarily On the Past or Future – Have Faith in Your Ability, and the Ability of Others, To Grow and Change
Do Not Praise Self or Blame Others – Maintain Modesty, Extol Virtue
Do Not Compare Yourself To Others – Honor Each Person’s Unique Process and Manifestation
Do Not Be Mean With Dharma or Wealth – Share Understanding, Give Freely Of Self
Do Not Worry About Lacking Anything – Take Every Opportunity to Be Generous
Do Not Indulge Anger – Cultivate Equanimity
Do Not Justify Self-defensiveness or Territoriality – Do What Needs To Be Done With an Attitude of Acceptance and Compassion
Do Not Defame the Three Treasures – Respect the Buddha, Unfold the Dharma, Nourish the Sangha
Do Not Give Energy to Skepticism or Cynicism – Cultivate Faith In, and Reverence For, That Which Is Greater
A friend of mine recently asked me how I view after-death experience.
This is a somewhat awkward question for a Zen teacher to answer. On the one hand I view after-death experience as irrelevant to how I decide to live my life. The Buddha aptly categorized the issue of what happens after death as a question “which does not tend to edification” – that is, to the instruction or improvement of a person morally or intellectually.1 Furthermore, the Buddha taught that the religious life has nothing to do with the answers to such questions and in fact the pursuit of the answers may fatally distract one from the critical task at hand: spiritual liberation and wisdom in this life.
On the other hand, as a Zen practitioner I am committed to facing everything in order to see the truth. When my friend asked his question, I noticed that I had been dutifully avoiding the question of after-death experience. This made me determined to examine my own thoughts on the subject – but not in order come closer to any objective truth about the matter, which I believe is difficult if not impossible in any case, and a distraction besides. Rather, I wanted to examine my own mind for what might be lurking there: feelings, assumptions, anxieties or judgments around the possibility of after-death experience.
It seems to me that the pivotal question about after-death experience is, “to what extent do ‘I’ experience it?” Clearly, whatever “I” there is that might experience something after death will not have a physical body, so this “I” will be substantially different than my before-death existence. The idea that our thoughts, memories, personalities, loves, intentions, etc. continue to manifest free of the body in some kind of soul or essence or “life-energy” seems preposterous to me. My personal experience has borne out the Buddhist teachings: our “self” is a flowing, dependently co-arisen phenomenon. We are who we are in dependence on and relationship with our physical form, our brains, our environment, our culture, other beings – in short, everything. There is no independent, enduring, unchanging thing we can point to and call the essence of our self. A different “self” arises for us in different situations, throughout the day, and over the course of our lives. Even if there is some kind of essence or life-energy in us, you can’t just pop it out of a body and that body’s context and have it remain a neat package of all the most unique and sentimental aspects of a person. This, frankly, seems to me like mere wishful thinking, especially when it is coupled with the belief that the neat packets of people-essence collect over time in a great repository where they experience everlasting life. However, this vision is the central tenet, the pivotal teaching, of many religions, so I am sorry if offend anyone by speaking frankly.2
Now things get a little trickier, because I personally know a few people – people I respect and trust – who say they have experience with spirits or ghosts. I do not have this experience myself, but I cannot easily discount it. How does the possible existence of spirits or ghosts fit with my view of after-death experience, if I don’t believe in a soul?
Notice that I did not state the view that we do not have any kind of life-energy that might separate from our body upon death. I simply proposed that such an energy is not going to pop out as an ethereal duplicate of our embodied sense of self, like all of a person’s essential programs and data get downloaded onto an invisible computer disk for complete transfer to another manifestation. It seems extremely unlikely, what with the way energy of all kinds usually dissipates when it is released. But who knows – maybe “life-energy” acts differently (although I hate to speculate about some previously undiscovered form of energy or matter). Maybe “life-energy,” when it is very strong, has its own gravitational pull and remains coalesced.
Even if we have some kind of life-energy that remains collected after death, perhaps even with some kind of shape and characteristics (let’s call it a spirit), what would be the nature of this phenomenon? Given our plentiful stories of forlorn or vengeful ghosts, I get the impression that persistence of a spirit is often the result of painful or negative impulses or mind-states, like the desire for revenge, an unrequited passion, or an inability to accept a difficult reality. Being pulled into a future existence (of some sort) by such unresolved issues seems to me like remaining in bondage. I hope that before I die I have managed to thoroughly examine my mind and heart and resolve anything that might clutch me to its bosom in the transition of death.
Still, it appears that troubled ghosts are not the only kind of spirit. Tibetan tulkus are supposedly the result of spiritual adepts who deliberately chose, upon death, to send their life-energy toward a rebirth in another human form (starting from the moment of conception). The advantage of doing this is that the reborn person inherits some of the dead adept’s spiritual strength and wisdom, and their ardent intention to be of benefit to others. It’s a “leg-up,” if you will, in the new being’s spiritual practice. If this is possible (and I am not saying it is), than it seems that a spirit can also be the result of selfless and positive impulses or mind-states, like a pure altruistic desire to be of service.
Should we aim to retain some kind of self-existence after death, especially if there is a potential to pay our good qualities forward into some other being (or beings)? I, for one, am not inclined to try, because I think this is a very tricky business. I strongly suspect that if we have a selfish motivation for lingering as a spirit or taking some kind of rebirth, we are enslaving ourselves – and I don’t think many of us will develop the spiritual mastery required to be free of all selfish motivation, especially during the transition of death.
If we can, instead, offer to pay our good qualities forward in an open-handed way, I think we will have all of our bases covered. That is, we can avoid lingering after death in the bondage of self-attachment, and we can also take advantage of any potential to put our life-energy to good use after our death. When we offer ourselves in an open-handed way, we are not expecting anything in return. We are not offering up the best we have only if we can be there to see it used. I don’t blame people for being rather obsessed with the possibility that they will have some degree of self-consciousness after death, it seems rather natural to wish for such a thing. However, in my experience self-concern is the recipe for suffering, while letting go of self-concern is liberation that allows for full life and intimacy with the universe. I view the transition of death as the ultimate opportunity for letting go of self-concern. And what happens after death? It is impossible for me to imagine the fate of human beings after death as anything but utterly mind-blowing and profound beyond imagining – because that’s my experience of the universe so far. Why would the nature of the universe change after death?
1 The Lesser Mâlunkyâputta Sutta, Sutta 63 of the Majjhima-Nikâya, http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/bits/bits013.htm
2 This is one good reason not to speak frankly. In fact I have great respect for many individuals who hold beliefs like the ones I describe, and I am sorry if I offend them. Still, I think that every once in a while it is good for each of us to speak our truth without restraint.