Friday, December 2, 2011

the precepts

As a footnote to the rebels and rapscallions of spiritual life noted a couple of posts back....

Every spiritual persuasion contains its precepts, I imagine. Buddhism does and so does Christianity. I don't know about others, but how can you learn to play baseball without following the rules? So I imagine every spiritual persuasion has its rules and regs -- its precepts.

Don't kill, steal, lie, screw around unkindly, etc.

The precepts play a vital role and are often praised roundly for their effectiveness and truth. And some people take them on as a caveman might pick up a club ... as a means of assuring safety and protection and assault. Oh yoo-hoo -- you're going to hell if you don't follow the precepts!

As children, we learn from the rules, and the same is true for the precepts, I think. We learn to navigate well by learning the rules of the road. If you ask a cop, s/he'll tell you the rules are the rules and therefore you deserve a ticket for exceeding the speed limit or driving drunk. We learn the rules and abide by them and sometimes chisel them in stone ... there is only one true way and I've got a handle on it. This is the 'authentic' one true way. And all of this is OK for kids and, sometimes, cops.

But when it comes to the precepts of spiritual life, following the precepts does not quite account for the long history of why the precepts receive unstinting praise or insistence. Is that praise based on some lock-step agreement issued by the many? Are we to be hog-tied in a child's body based on regulatory chains? What happens when the kid is no longer a kid ... when the kid who followed the rules and regs becomes an adult? What of the precepts then? How are we to view them?

To use the baseball analogy, does an adult baseball player any longer abide by the rules? Of course s/he does -- it's the only way the game works smoothly. But the mind of the adult baseball player only knows what works. What was once chiseled in childish stone is now second nature (or perhaps first nature). It is what a baseball player does because it is what honestly works. It is alive. It may look the same as the younger players following the chiseled rules, but this is simply what it's like to be alive in the most healthy and nourishing way. It's what works. Virtue plays no role. It simply is what others call virtuous.

In spiritual life, I think, the precepts are simply a way of acknowledging a capacity to break the precepts. Don't kill -- and I am a killer. Don't lie -- and I am a liar. Don't steal -- and I am a thief. What is fine about the precepts is that they point towards a whole and complete life -- a life in which the rebels and rapscallions are every bit as much a part of the entire picture as the serene and peaceful adherents. It's just a whole picture, a whole life ... and that whole life, while not particularly extraordinary, is pretty extraordinary. It's alive ... and what is alive has no limits.

But although it has no limits, still there are things that work and things that don't. Anyone can be a charlatan and a liar with the precepts, but what's the point ... that's just consigning yourself to a perennial childhood.  No point in screwing up a perfectly good wet dream, right?

Dead precepts are OK for a while.

But being alive is better.

1 comment:

  1. I always enjoyed Bodhidharma and Dogen's approach to the rules: