Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Hard Question

This dilapidated man sits with his cardboard sign on the edge of a busy corner. Dirt and rain and car exhaust all in a dark marbled pattern on his face, his beard a matted mess. I find I can never avoid making eye contact with these folks, year in and year out, this country and in others - Spain and Ecuador, India and China, Bolivia, Peru.... And in eye contact there is connection, always. And then my unknowing and hesitation, questions about my being in relation to theirs, my action in relation to their being.

This being human is complicated sometimes.

What is right speech?

What is right action?


  1. Hi Kinzen,

    As a touchstone, I like to recall what Tao-wu said about the function of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion:

    'It is like a person groping backwards into the night for a pillow'.

    What do we make of that?



  2. You know, I've been thinking about this for such a long time. Yesterday, a seemingly mentally handicapped guy approached me and asked me for something I understood as "The supermaket?" (he didn't pronounce the words clearly). I answered him where it was, and then he asked me another thing which I didn't understand. So I said: "I don't know, I don't understand", and he started to walk to where I had pointed him. I stood there for a few seconds, wondering if I should help him get to the supermaket or not, or what.

    It was fear that prevented me from talking more to him, or walking with him (fear of strangers, of harm, I guess). But, at the same time, it was my own fear who thought that I should accompany him (my fear of not being perfect, of not doing everything I can). In the end, I believe, right action and right speech are those who arise when fear is gone.

    It's just that, sometimes, we aren't able to get rid of it.

  3. What is right... but a concept of the mind?

    I listen to my innermost heart... it knows what to do in each moment :) (though sometimes I am unable to hear it so I get back to rational judgement :)

  4. Kinzen,
    while we wait for the bodhisattva to answer (ups, sorry, Pablo, Harry & Rizal) here's mine:

    What is right speech?
    Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.

    What is right action?
    Abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from unchastity. This is called right action.

    This is practice and realization or, to put it in Hisamatsu's words:
    Whatever you do won't do, what do you do?

    What else do you need?

  5. Hi Do jana,

    In relation to our friend with the cardboard sign I wonder might a set of abstract, religious rules contribute further to the reticent confusion and fear so admirably reported by Bodhisattvas Pablo and Kinzen?

    I think such self conscious inaction is the very nature of 'missing the bodhisattva boat'. Being honest about it, and aware of it, is certainly the excellent practice of a Bodhisattva, and it is a strong theme (self awareness and critical self-evaluation) that I have noticed in my studies of Social Care.

    It's hard to know what the right thing to do is in any given, real situation. There is a dimensional difference between a real situation and some simple idea of what is 'right' in our very small heads at any given time.

    In the case of someone on the street, it may be right to give them some money or food, or it may be right to just walk on by (the person may use the money to buy booze or drugs etc etc). We generally do not know, although most social and care workers will tell you not to give people on the streets money as they are likely involved in drugs/ and or in begging rings (where they are being exploited by criminals/ people trafficers; they don't keep the money). It may be better to give them some food. This is the situation in Ireland at least.

    Groping around for the right thing to do with our limited human mind/bodies may be like sleepily groping behind ourselves for a pillow in the night.



  6. I had a student that kept bowing to me and calling me Roshi, I let him know that I would prefer he call me Miles and that I would much rather see his face than the top of his head. He was surprised by this and asked “But shouldn’t we treat our Zen teachers with deep reverence and great respect?”

    “Certainly…” I replied “We should treat all Zen teachers with deep reverence and respect, just as we should any beggar on the street.”

    He smiled and then bowed to me again, so I hit him with my stick.

  7. Hi Harry

    "In relation to our friend with the cardboard sign I wonder might a set of abstract, religious rules contribute further to the reticent confusion and fear so admirably reported by Bodhisattvas Pablo and Kinzen?"

    Well, as far as I'm concerned, yes. Those are not abstract, religious rules, they are teachings. Right Action and Right Speech are part of the Eightfold Noble Path, the one that leads to liberation from suffering (which, I daresay, is the goal of Buddhist practice).

    The Buddha defined this path in a explicit way (at least in the Pali Canon), so perhaps it's us who think too much and doubt things that are otherwise clear. Right Action and Right Speech are those things that are defined there. Let's practice them.

    Perhaps helping someone on the street or talking to someone on the bus have nothing to do with Right Speech or Right Action. Perhaps our desire to be something we're not (someone who saves the world, in my case) just causes us more suffering.

    As for acting out of fear, as I related before, that has to do with Right Intention and Right Effort, other factors of the path:

    "And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve."

    "And what, monks, is right effort?

    [i] "There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.

    [ii] "He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen.

    [iii] "He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen.

    [iv] "He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This, monks, is called right effort."

    It's all clear. Let's practice.

  8. Not to commit wrongs,
    To practice the many kinds of right,
    Naturally purifies the mind;
    This is the teaching of the buddhas.

    Hi Pablo et al,

    Master Dogen emphasised the first part of the old saying above a bit like the efforts towards 'non-arising' and abandonment/abstaining quoted by you and Do jana (minus the 'desire to').

    He seemed to emphasise the 'naturalness' of 'doing' right as being what is already happening naturally when we 'do not commit wrongs'. It might raise some interesting questions about the nature of 'right effort' (at least, it does for me).

    Miles (I'm afraid to call you anything else now!), what is it with you guys and sticks?



  9. Harry,
    The stick is just for punctuation. In fact, if you look at explanation mark carefully you will see that it is an International Symbol… of a hand holding a stick! ;-)

  10. As for the man on the corner…
    I too see him everywhere I go, different corners, different towns and different states. He may look slightly different or be wearing slightly different clothes, but he is always the same.

    He is the true manifestation of Avalokitesvara. Not some white jade rendering of Guanyin or robust gilded Kannon in the sanctuary, but the real deal. Unlike the idealized and sanitary imagery that only suggests that we should follow the way of compassion, he is the stark in-your-face reminder that as Wayfarers on the Bodhisattvas path we must live a life of compassion.

    Whenever you can not spare him a dollar, you might at least greet him as a friend.

    This one deserves a bow.

  11. This dilapidated man sits with his cardboard sign on the edge of a busy corner. A woman contracts Aids in the effort to support her drug addition. A child shows up at your door hungry.

    Right speech or right action depends on having the right view. How do we see these people?

    Who are they?

    Which one would you invite into you home?

  12. Here in Argentina we have the same situation that Harry sees in Éire, most of the people in the streets are being exploited or have an adiction.

    Giving money to someone that may be exploited, is a wrong action? Perhaps that money saves that person of being harmed by his/her exploiters.

    Giving money to someone that may spend it in drugs is wrong action? Certanly it will not help to cut the adiction, but at least the addict will not be forced to steal and harm another person to buy drugs.

    How do we know?

  13. Hernan,

    Yes, indeed. It's good to know these things and act according to what we know (if we can know).

    I think knowingly supporting crime rings is seriously dubious regardless of its short term effects on those who are involved (in helping one person we're perpetuating the problem for many others later on and also damaging the whole of society... and then there's everything that flows from that)... but, yes, I can't say that's always the right thing either. I can only rely on the actual, real situation and my limited reading of it.

    From a Buddhist perspective (and just to complicate matters!), there is also the matter of karma/volitional action: From that perspective an action (or inaction) is determined to be good or bad or neutral depending entirely on our motivation in doing it, not on the outcome or other factors (such as knowing, or not knowing, all the facts/potential outcomes of the situation).



  14. I am unsure about Harry’s karma/volitional action statement. While it is true that our own feelings about our action or inaction might be positive, negative or neutral and be totally dependent on our motivation (from a Humanist/Buddhist perspective) the actual Karmic consequences are totally beyond our judgment or knowing.

    I think there has been a lot of dualistic human-centric thinking going on in relation to Karmic consequences. We tend to think linear and mostly about ourselves, when karma is neither linear nor about ourselves. For example we may think that by digging up a plot of land and planting an organic vegetable garden that we have done something good for ourselves and the planet, but in truth in doing so we have destroyed the natural environment that our garden has replaced. This is good from a personal perspective and maybe even good from a societal perspective, but from a global perspective it is highly questionable.

    Don’t get me wrong here, I believe that an organic garden is far better than a non-organic garden or a parking lot, but we must still think globally when it comes to these things. As we continue destroy the planetary ecosystem through what we feel is “good” for us humans we have pretty well screwed it up for everyone else (i.e. all other sentient beings). So I believe that our Karma is much more than the results of our intentions.

    As the Christians like to say: The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

  15. Hi Miles,

    You wrote:

    "For example we may think that by digging up a plot of land and planting an organic vegetable garden that we have done something good for ourselves and the planet, but in truth in doing so we have destroyed the natural environment that our garden has replaced."

    In Buddhist philosophy 'karma' refers entirely to volitional action/sentient beings' consciousness. It's not a physical law. The 'natural world' (meaning here things not directly related to our volitional actions and their immediate effects in/on the individual actor) are seen as being governed by other processes. Put briefly they are:

    Bija Niyama - The order of germs and seeds.

    Utu Niyama - The law/order governing physical inorganic matter (the seasons, weather etc)

    Dhamma Niyama - The tendancy for things to right themselves.

    Citta Niyama - Order of mind/ psychic order.

    This is an old way of looking at things obviously, but it points out that the world beyond sentient beings' mental volition is not governed by karma; it's governed by natural laws like gravity, and all that clever stuff we know now. Karma is purely a mental law/order.

    This means that we cannot be sure about how our volitional actions will 'pan out' in these other causal 'realms' as they are not governed by the same law. We can guess, and we can predict based on data and past experiences, but we can't really be sure. What we percieve, and think/predict, and the actual situation are always different things (even when what we think seems to accurately represent the real situation).

    So, our intention in digging up a plot and planting the garden and the actual result, while clearly causally related, are dimensionally different in that, in terms of causation, beyond our volition/action they are governed by different laws/orders.

    The only thing we can be sure of to some degree, through pratice of course, is our own intentions.



  16. Hi Harry,
    When I first got into Buddhism I used to dwell quite a bit in the theoretical metaphysics of Hinduism and it’s influence on Buddhist teachings. So much of the Hindu metaphysical world view was developed to support both their caste system and the societal structure of the Brahmans. I became fully aware of the theoretical debates that ran between the Buddhists and the Hindus as well as the Buddhists and the Jains. The interesting thing to observe is how they were so different in the beginning and how they synchronized over time.

    I was always fascinated by the proposition that human societies could somehow exclude themselves from the non-dual world in order to get their societal order to somehow be excluded from everything else in existence. As you have pointed out, this sort of “humans are somehow excluded” or subject to “different laws” wrangling has led to an incredible array of convoluted theories that have kept theoretical metaphysicians quite busy, coming up with all kinds of tautological reasoning and subsequent terminology to support their egocentric notions.

    The notion that Karma is somehow not a “physical law” would automatically disqualify it from having any affect in the physical world. For example rebirth would have nothing to do with karma because birth is a physical process governed by the same physical laws as the rest of existence.

    I am familiar with the Niyama’s as the codified behaviors of the Hindu’s and how they were systematically incorporated into Buddhism as the Buddhists attempted to defended their awakened principles against the Brahmans dominant social order.

    However, I have come to realize over time, that there are really no limits to human vanity and our insistence that somehow our human world- be it physical, psychic or moral is somehow disjoined from all other principles and realities of the universe and therefore given special dispensation by order of our imagination’s decree. This is why I am a Zen Buddhist and not a Theravadan, I believe that without the all inclusive systematic sensibility of Daoist metaphysics, Buddhist apologetics are rather lacking in what the Buddha understood as the ultimate reality of being.

    If one were to reduce the Buddha’s teachings to fundamentals, they would realize that all aspects of his original teachings were connecting our understanding and behaviors to the principles of the physical world. Our existence, no matter how we would like to imagine it otherwise, is inseparably linked to our consciousness which is a primordial manifestation of our existence in a non-dual universe.

    Hope that wasn’t too wordy,

  17. Hi Miles,

    It's not really about vanity, separating humans from their obligations, religion or anything else as far as I'm concerned.

    'Karma' just describes a working of the human mind as opposed, say, a law of things falling down towards the earth in the same way that psychology describes something different to the law of gravity.

    It's common sense to have one 'law' which describes the working of human mental volition and one which describes gravity, because they are different things.

    Yes, everything is connected, but our mental volition is simply not the same as some of other the physical laws of the Universe. Human volition is just something that happens in our little human heads and, while it manifests into the world outside our little heads, we can't control or effect the universe with our tiny little human heads after or before we act or refrain from acting (and we can't control or change universal laws).

    The term 'karma' has come to be used to mean 'cause and effect' in general, but I think we can see that such a general idea of karma is of limited use because the universe does not follow one rule and it certainly does not follow one rule that is to do with human volition... that would be truly egocentric.



  18. Hi Harry,
    I can see where you are coming from and I have often mused about the workings of volition and how it relates to what happens in the “outside” world. At what point do my thoughts actually have any effect on anything? If karma is just about what’s happening in my head, then there is nothing to fret about! What mostly happens in my head is trying to remember what it was I supposed to be doing, instead of what I end up doing.

    In my way of thinking, all possible scenarios will have some form of karmic consequences, this is unavoidable. If I do something- there are karmic consequences, if I do nothing there are karmic consequences. Although, I would like to think that my thoughts do not directly affect anything outside my mostly empty head, I have seen too much evidence to the contrary. This not to say that I spend my evenings psychokinetically bending spoons, but I have come to realize that there really is no separation between what I think and the world my mind perceives. ..only thinking makes it so.

    I’m really enjoying this exchange and maybe we could make it the subject of another posting, or more than likely the subjects of many future postings.


  19. "... but I have come to realize that there really is no separation between what I think and the world my mind perceives. ..only thinking makes it so."

    Hi Miles,

    I think things about the world all the time, but many such thoughts and perceptions don't get acted out, and so they are not realised in the real world.

    Also, I think real things in the world have a real level of autonomy from our thinking: this is why we can't walk through walls despite not thinking about them.

    It seems to me that there is a very clear distinction between what we may think and what we actually do (this is good, cos, if people are anything like me in general then they think a load of old shit!) This includes thinking as a volitional action itself, and points to the difference between 'thinking' and 'non-thinking' as the old koan that Master Dogen liked is clear to point out.

    It's an interesting discussion alright. Feel free to make another post of it if we have wandered to far of the good path of the original intention!



  20. As regards how we should deal with the man with the cardboard sign ...

    We sit...and sit...and sit, and some of the Buddha-mind we "generate" through our hours on the cushion stays with us when we're not sitting. If we meditate enough, when we see the man, the correct response naturally occurs.

    Having a correct response worked out in advance - wouldn't this be the antithesis of Zen?

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