First in a series of posts trying to think through and share some “takeaways” from my recent graduate work and thesis about Soto Zen in the Meiji Period.
How have our recent Soto ancestors understood the Zen precepts? Work like Brian Victoria’s has shown us that most of them, including the great Nishiari Bokusan, took a position most of us would find reprehensible with respect to Japanese militarism, taking imperialist war-making as consistent with the precept against killing. Richard Jaffe‘s work has further shown that many of them, again including Nishiari, felt that priests who married were inexcusably breaking the precept against fornication.
It has been startling to me in my study of Nishiari Bokusan that with respect to these two precepts at least — killing and sex — he seems to understand the Zen precepts in exactly the opposite way as most American Zen students I’ve met do. For most of us, the precept against killing is a powerful teaching against war. For most of us, the meaning of the prohibition against fornication is ultimately about “not objectifying others,” and has less to do with any rules of sexuality so much as with a principle of respectful intimacy; in themselves priests marrying is no violation, sex out of wedlock is no violation, homosexuality is no violation. At issue is not the act but the mind, the attitude, the openness and intimacy and honesty, such that Robert Aitken could even suggest (in Mind of Clover, if I remember correctly — and I think I do remember correctly, as it burned itself into my young brain when I read it!) that in a one-night stand the precept against fornication might still be observed.
So what does this mean about the precepts? If interpretations can vary so dramatically, then where are the “teeth” of the precepts? Where does the “rubber hit the road”? Where in these precepts is there a religious and moral commitment that actually demands a certain response and forecloses others?
Zen precepts don’t have teeth, and that is the basic point of Zen precepts. They are not dogmatic but are adaptable, are not rigid but flexible, are not “commandments” but “appropriate responses.” We celebrate this adaptability of precepts.
But when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark. When we celebrate the adaptability of our precepts – the way they define no particular course of action for us – we miss the dark side of our flexible precepts, the fact that without particular actions defined for us, we are more than likely simply going to fall back on our previously conditioned responses.
Christopher Ives in a great book about Buddhist militarism in twentieth century Japan, Imperial Way Zen, relates Ichikawa Hakugen’s argument that if the precepts were more dogmatic — more fixed and less undermined by this principle of adaptability, flexibility, and responsiveness over dogma — they may have served to keep Japanese Buddhism from the disaster of war-enabling militarism. If it were clear that “not killing” just meant DO NOT KILL, it could not have been twisted into a defense of expansionist war-making. The flexibility doesn’t energize precepts, it undermines them, detooths them, declaws them, and leaves us just with whatever ethical positions the people around us are spouting.
Responsiveness and flexibility of precepts is all fine and good. Indeed, when Suzuki Roshi famously says after a jukai at San Francisco Zen Center that all of the precepts just conferred may need to be broken soon after the ceremony, it does seem fine and good — even charming. But what about when Nishiari Bokusan — against the backdrop of escalating imperialist wars — speaks of the “adaptability” of precepts in the same breath as he celebrates the principle of “killing one to save the many” and insists that to not kill when one should is to violate the precept against killing? Still charming? Still fine and good?
What are we left with in practice when the precepts don’t really guide us in any concrete way? It seems to me that we fall back on what we thought already, on how we have been conditioned prior to receiving the precepts. What we think of as “the appropriate response” is not something that comes fresh and clean out of some kind of radical presence, but is something that is conditioned by our past conditioning. So to say “don’t follow the precepts, just do the right thing,” is to render the precepts meaningless and to keep Buddhist ethics from actually transforming our sense of how to act. The precepts are a kind of empty space, and while the rhetoric of Zen precepts is that that space stays empty until filled by the needs of the situation, more often, I’m afraid, they just allow any preexisting views to come forth as the “flexible” or “appropriate” expression of precepts.
How else to explain Nishiari’s support of the imperialist wars as in line with precepts and modern American Buddhist tolerance for sex out of wedlock as in alignment with the precept against fornication? These positions are more about the values of the social context than they are positions somehow dictated or even informed by Buddhist precepts.
I remain committed to the Bodhisattva Precepts I have vowed to uphold and confer, so I don’t enter this swamp of problems to undermine the precepts or even to suggest that they don’t have transformative and moral power for many of us. It is quite interesting to ask myself why I think the precepts mean what they do, though — and then consider why it is that the conclusions I come to about the precepts look more like the generic ethical positions of my non-Buddhist American liberal friends than they do with the deeply-considered precept interpretations of our great Soto ancestor.
Where do my ethical views come from, really, and is Buddhism shaping me or am I twisting it?