This is the first evening of sesshin. Since there will be a ceremony for transmission of precepts on Sunday, I’d like to speak a little about the precept of Chaste Conduct:
Encountering all creations with respect and dignity. This is the precept of Chase Conduct. I will give and receive love and friendship without clinging.
As some of you know, the seniors and preceptors have been dealing with this precept for a long time.
I looked up the old word, chaste. The synonym most used to describe it is pure. Nevertheless, the Merriam-Webster dictionary points out that pure differs from chaste in that purity implies innocence and absence from temptation, while chasteness implies control of one’s impulses and actions. So if one is chaste, one is not necessarily innocent and invulnerable to temptation; one can still be tempted, but one has the spiritual maturity to work with it.
Many years ago I read an article by Anthony Bloom, a Greek Orthodox bishop, about his vow of chastity. For him, chastity did not just involve celibacy; in fact, it was not even just about sex. It was about refraining from using another human being for his personal satisfaction, denying the other person’s full humanness for some personal gain or agenda, even something relatively small like proving himself right in a situation or validating his sense of the world. It was about refraining from experiencing another person in fragments or compartments rather than the whole that s/he is, and making use of one fragment to the exclusion of the whole.
I recall many years ago having a sick friend who spent much of her time in hospitals. One day she told me happily that she had met a man who seemed to love her very much. But aware of her physical limitations, she had her reservations. As soon as I heard this, I jumped. I belittled this new friend, I reminded her that you can’t trust anyone and that, in her state, she was too vulnerable. I can’t remember why I did this, perhaps I had just come out of a bad relationship myself. But I do think back to it as an example of what Bloom warned about, seizing an aspect of someone else’s life to validate one’s own feelings and outlook. I don’t know what happened afterwards, I can only hope she didn’t listen to me, because I certainly did not act as a real friend.
In our study of relationships over this past month, we’ve kept in mind that our main relationship is with ourselves. So what is my chaste conduct with myself, and yours with yourself? Please don’t use yourself for some agenda, for an objective, for some conceptual goal. The same thing once again happens: we focus on a small sketch rather than on the broad canvas. We focus on the part rather than the whole.
Someone recently said to me, in answer to my question how she was doing, that at that moment, instead of feeling like she was living her life, she felt like the battery charging it. She loved the contents of her life, she didn’t want to change what she was doing; it was how she lived that was the problem.
I find myself asking the same question. Am I living my life or am I acting as its battery? I, too, am not talking about making some big changes; I’m in agreement with my choices and decisions. But the question still remains, how am I living my life? Am I using myself for some agenda? Sure I have goals, dreams, I take on projects, I love to work. But is my life reducible to whether I meet goals or not? Is it reducible to what I achieved? I want to be a good person, writer, teacher, daughter—all very commendable. Is my life reducible to the roles I play and how well I play them?
When do I live my life and when do I become a battery? When do I befriend myself and when do I become a machine? I may like what the machine does, but it’s still a machine.
Henry David Thoreau strongly suggested that we refresh ourselves every morning. He also told us not to lose our soul. You can lose your soul through some big Faustian agreement, but more often I think we lose it in small ways: pauses not made, attentions not paid, the world invisible as we run to the finish line. The chick and the hen is a well-known metaphor for student and teacher. The student is the chick that pecks at the shell. When the teacher feels he’s ready, she pecks back and the shell breaks apart as the result of both their hard pecking. My teacher gives this another twist. He says that the universe is being born and reborn every minute, every instant. It goes peck peck peck peck all the time. Am I listening? Do I engage and peck peck peck peck back, or am I oblivious? How intimate am I with myself, that is the universe?
One of my favorite Zen poems comes from the well-known koan:
Attention! A monk asked Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?” Joshu answered, “The cypress tree in the garden.”
The first four lines of the appreciatory verse are as follows:
Eyebrow-banks snow tipped.
River-eyes embracing autumn.
Ocean-mouth booming out waves.
Sail-tongue drifting downstream.
What kind of relationship is this? What kind of intimacy helps you to experience your own eyebrows as eyebrow-banks, your eyes as river-eyes, your mouth as ocean-mouth and your tongue as sail-tongue? How do I see myself as all these things? Not just feeling sun or rain, but being sun and rain, with no subject-object relationship? This, for me, is the essence of chaste conduct with oneself.
 Book of Serenity.