Not Entering Nirvana

I gave this teisho Thursday night during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session.  You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.

In the Mahāprajñā Sutra Preached by Mañjuśrī, it says, “Virtuous practitioners do not enter nirvana; precept-breaking monks do not fall into hell.”

Case 24, Shūmon Kattōshū (Entangling Vines)

Last week we chanted a variation of the Sixteen Boddhisattva Precepts:

  • The Three Treasures:  Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha;
  • The three Pure Precepts:  ceasing from (or not creating) evil, doing good, and saving all beings (or working for the wellbeing of the whole); and
  • The Ten Grave Precepts:  not killing, not stealing, not misusing sex, not speaking falsely, etc.

These precepts—and particularly the Ten Grave Precepts—are Zen’s much abbreviated set of the traditional vows Theravada Buddhist monks throughout South East Asia have made for thousands of years.  They were formulated by Eihei Dōgen, the 13th century master who brought what became the Sōtō Zen stream from China to Japan.

Theravada Buddhism, also called the Way of the Elders, represents the first wave of Buddhism.  These are the crimson and saffron robed monks we see in places like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.  As you know, the Zen tradition is part of a later turn called Mahayana Buddhism.  Fully-ordained Theravada monks make scores, if not hundreds, of vows.  Like Zen’s Ten Grave Precepts, most are expressed as prohibitions.  Don’t do this; don’t do that.  Most monks in a country like Myanmar relate to their vows this way.  

When I was in Myanmar in 2013, there were monks everywhere, begging for their daily meals, just like Gotama Buddha and his followers did.  I seldom had food with me, so I would offer a few dollars.  Young boys accompanying older monks would take the money.  These young boys were “monks,” too, but likely only living at the monastery for a year or so, as a right of passage.  Unlike the older monks, they had not yet taken the vow that prohibits touching money, which the older monks take quite literally.

In our cultural context, most of us can’t relate easily to this aspect of the life of a Theravada monk.  If you know an Orthodox Jew, you probably have a sense of what this way of life is like.  There are many norms one must observe throughout the day, week, and year.  

To be sure, most Theravada monks and Jews who observe the Halakha do not experience these norms primarily as burdens or constraints.  Quite to the contrary, they find their joy and freedom in them.  Yet, if you are a conventional Theravada monk, the injunction against killing means you almost certainly are vegetarian.  Individual monks have some freedom to vary from that group norm, but the norm is quite strong.  

For most of us in the West today, this way of life would indeed feel quite constraining—at first, anyway.  Many of us bristle at lists of traditional moral injunctions.  They run counter to the “live and let live” and “no judgment” zeitgeist in the cultural context many of us inhabit.

What about the Zen Precepts?  Zen practitioners have the opportunity to make these vows formally, in a process and ceremony called Jukai.  For the most part, these are the same vows Zen priests make.  What does the Zen tradition have to say about them?  

Well, the koan with which I began should give you a hint that Zen’s orientation is a bit different:  ““Virtuous practitioners do not enter nirvana; precept-breaking monks do not fall into hell.”

In Zen, we actually approach the precepts from three different perspectives.  One is the perspective we just noted with reference to Theravada Buddhism and Orthodox Judaism.  It’s sometimes called the literal, or fundamental, perspective.  From this perspective, don’t kill means don’t kill.

The fundamental perspective is important for progressive people living in a contemporary (non-traditional) cultural milieu, like ours, to take seriously.  In these circles, hard norms are often regarded as naïve or backwards.  But we should wrestle seriously with the precepts from this perspective—to consider the merits of honoring a literal prohibition against particular conduct.  If I eat meat, and if I really reflect on the consequences of that—not just for my own health, but for other beings and the planet—I may see the logic and appeal of a plant-based diet in a new way.

And, yet, we are almost guaranteed to violate the precepts in their literal sense.  This sometimes happens because of human foibles and fallibility.  “To err is to be human,” as they say.  We can commit to honoring the precepts literally, and wholeheartedly try, but chances are we occasionally will act selfishly or speak unkindly of another person, despite that expressed commitment.  When we cause injury, we can acknowledge it, try to repair, and seek forgiveness—ideally, immediately and sincerely, without excuse, equivocation, or defensiveness.

But sometimes we break a precept in its literal sense because a situation puts two worthy ideals in tension, and we cannot literally conform to one without violating another, or without violating the same precept in a different way.  I was vegan during two long periods of my life.  Most of my friends knew this, so would prepare a meal without animal products when I came to visit.  From time to time, however, I was a guest of someone who did not know how I ate.  When I was offered a meal with animal products—even meat—I chose to eat it, without saying a word about how I normally ate.  The animal had already perished.  Refusing a meal offered so generously would kill something else, I felt:  joy.

This is the second perspective:  the relational perspective.  This is “situational ethics,” not as a way to avoid a prohibition, but because we must always be mindful of context, or what Zen-types call the Four Considerations:  time, place, people, and amount (or degree).  The animal has died, and there is no rewind button that will change that (time); I am in the home (place) of a new acquaintance who eats meat (people); and refusing even a small portion (amount) of what I am being served is likely to create more suffering than sharing in the meal.  Perhaps I’ll even have a chance to discuss my eating practices with this person at a later time, and perhaps she will be more open to my perspective, because she can see I’m not an idealogue.  Reasonable minds can differ here; there’s no clear “right” or “wrong” from this perspective.  The goal is to be compassionate and reverent, and to achieve those two objectives in some skillful way in the moment.

The koan with which I opened captures the third perspective from which we approach the Zen precepts.  These first two perspectives, the fundamental and the relational, are staple items in Western moral philosophy.  The third perspective—known as the intrinsic or unified perspective—is not a common feature of Western thought.  From the intrinsic perspective, there can be no killing, because there is no birth and death; there can be no stealing, because there is nothing to be stolen and no one to steal it; and so on.

This is Oneness; nonduality.  Even words like “One” and “nondual” fail to express it—as concepts, anyway—because all concepts divide.  This is Buddha nature.  The ground that is no ground.  From the intrinsic perspective, it’s impossible to violate the precepts.  There is no good and bad.  No judgment, really: not as a left-leaning meme.  Ultimately, as the Absolute.  

But here’s the thing:  the relative and the Absolute are one.  The fundamental and relational perspectives are themselves expressions of the ultimate, and they matter very much.  In Zen, we embrace and practice the precepts from all three of these perspectives.  We know that we can’t fall out of nirvana, because we are it, and yet this insight doesn’t grant us a free pass.  We express and honor our own and others’ Buddha nature by doing our best to do the right thing from a fundamental and/or relational perspective.

Just as we can’t fall out of nirvana, we can’t enter it, either:  We do our best to do the right thing, but we can’t gloat, or congratulate ourselves too much, or be too sure.  We don’t accumulate merit—or brownie points, or rewards in heaven—as we do our best to do our best.

Bernie Glassman—who was the teacher of my teacher’s teacher—gave a wonderful talk about the precepts over 40 years ago, which I recently read.  He said, “in studying the Sixteen Precepts, essentially we’re studying sixteen different ways of appreciating Buddha, appreciating the fact that we are buddha.  It always boils down to just seeing [this] one fact itself.”

We practice Zen to realize that we are Buddha; to realize oneself and all else as Buddha.  As this realization dawns and deepens, our actions tend to accord more and more with the spirit of the precepts; with Buddha nature as it manifests ceaselessly throughout the universe.  

With that thought in mind, let me end by reading the single footnote appended to this koan in Entangled Vines, the collection in which it appears:

The Japanese Zen master Hakuin once commented on this koan with the following verse:

Silent ants pull at a dragonfly’s wing; 

Young swallows rest side by side on a willow branch.

Silk-growers’ wives, pale in face, carry their baskets;

Village children with pilfered bamboo shoots crawl through a fence.

After hearing this verse, two monks who had completed their training under the great Zen master Kogetsu Zenzai decided to train again under Hakuin.

Not Entering Nirvana