I shared a reaction I had to a man who wanted to meet me as a friend, but just in case I had other plans he emailed to say he was not up for anything else. I hadn’t thought in that direction and reacted quickly. Reflecting deeply about it later on, I realized how his words grated on me in a very raw and vulnerable place, arousing fears of dependency and isolation.
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, commenting on the human condition of the ethical life, wrote: “[I]t is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”
Basically, what all precepts are about is how not to feel separate. When we talk about how we’ve misbehaved, we are highlighting those ways in which we have felt separate and behaved accordingly. Sometimes it’s simple, sometimes it’s subtle. Precepts practice shows me how often I define myself in relation to others or to external life. Defining myself in that way comes out of a sense of separation. Even getting up in the morning with the devout wish: I want to do good for others is itself a way of defining myself as separate, because there’s the I and the others. No matter how idealistic or generous that is, it’s the expression of a small mind.
Kosho Uchiyama Roshi wrote: “People think of their I as something that is determined from the outside, something which is balanced against other people and things.” He quotes Rousseau: “Any man, whether he’s a king, or a noble, or a millionaire, is born naked and poor, and when he dies, he must die naked and poor.” Then he adds that throughout our lives we are wearing certain clothes that function as our identifications: a smart woman, a man who provides for his family, devoted, childlike, giving myself to others. These identifications are like clothes that we put on and create an I from. They weren’t there in the beginning, and they won’t be there at the end. “To rely on others is to be uneasy. The abode of the self is only the self.”
Each time we look deeply into a precept it’s like a doorway, an invite to take off clothes of separation and be unclothed and exposed. It’s not just reflecting on what I did or unraveling my motivations, it goes way deeper than that.
Some people, in talking about a failure to align their behavior with a particular precept, often end their sharing with words like these: “Now I see that . . .” and add what they have learned. I’m suspicious of conclusions. An inquiry into who am I, which is the practice of precepts, is an everlasting question: What does it feel like with fewer and fewer clothes, resting only in the self and nowhere else?
Zazen helps us realize the reality of our life unrelated to what else happens in the world. Sometimes when I sit, I’m tempted to reflect on the latest headlines, think about the day, or strategize about the future. I’m still clinging to those outside relationships. Zazen says no, that’s not what I should fill my consciousness with, that’s not zazen.
One morning I sat as I usually do. At the end I got up and blew out the candle, and suddenly realized that this whole world is blowing out the candle and the candle is this whole world. That feeling continued for a while, not forever, but at that time there was just the whole world and everything was worth doing. Thinking about this later on, I realized how much I usually put myself in a separate dynamic from the world: Should I write more, maybe not, should I call this friend, what do I do with my hair, what do I do with my dog Harry, with the house, what’s the next step with Zen Peacemaker Order? When I do those actions as the whole world, everything is fine. Often, however, they serve to separate me from the world, enmeshing me in the world of I. I think we all experience the difference.
It reminds me of my outing with my dog, Aussie, in the Montague Conservancy. She met a pit bull and they played, flowed, and had a good time, till suddenly the pit bull seemed to remember who he was and tried to dominate her. There was a dog fight and the pit bull’s owner said regretfully, “That’s his nature.” That may be true, I thought, but is that our nature? Is it inevitably our nature to define ourselves solely as some subject or object in this world?
What are my hidden agendas for practice? Sometimes we want to get rid of bad qualities such as greed or fear. If we harm others, we should apologize. But often we apologize when we didn’t harm anyone; we seem to apologize just for being who we are. At that time the person we damage is ourselves. It’s as if there’s an ideal enlightened practitioner out there who never feels fear, never feels rejected, never feels lonely or isolated, never feels scared, and I’m not that person. Therefore, I’m not it.
We all have karma, we all have fear of things that affected us, so there’s a good reason for why I feel rejected or unacknowledged. Part of integration for me is: This is who I am at this moment. I respect that process. I respect that a chain of events brought me to this moment, and I am enlightened as I am—like Hyakujo’s fox.
As you remember, in that koan a Zen master gave the wrong answer to a question about whether an enlightened person is subject to karma and is reborn as a fox—a terrible fate—for 500 lifetimes. He gets to ask the same question of Hyakujo, who gives a different answer, and that ends the old man’s ordeal.
The old man gave the wrong answer—and that’s not the point. The koan isn’t about what was the right answer, the koan is this: OK, so you gave a wrong answer to a question many years ago and you were punished out of all proportion for it—so how do you live? It’s like saying that something terrible happened to me long ago, I couldn’t possibly have deserved it, I was a child, what did I know when I upset my father, did he have to beat me up for that? Did he have to abuse me? What could I have done better? It’s never about better or worse. You answer the koan by being the fox, being the person with that karma, fully being what you are right now.
We weave big stories around our karma. They make for great literature but not necessarily great practice. See the difference between a lived and fully embodied life, and your story about it. Live that life unconditionally. We don’t have to apologize for our lives. Apologize if you hurt someone, but don’t apologize for your life.