It comes very naturally to us to think about our life in terms of choices and decisions, to look back on our past as a series of right or wrong choices, ones that we’re proud of, ones that we’re regretting. We look to our future in terms of the decisions we will face, the choices we will have to make. In much of Western ethics there was a presumption that ethics was about helping us decide how to make choices. Competing theories, on the one hand emphasized whether a choice was good, whether it led to a good outcome, and to the opposite extreme, some theorists would argue that something is good in an absolute sense, regardless of what its outcome is. Both share a kind of assumption that what we were looking for was some kind of rational rule to follow to help us make ethical decisions.
There is a common-sensical level in which this preoccupation with good and bad decisions is evidently valuable and correct. But it’s so prevalent that we can forget that in our practice, we’re practically never concerned with making decisions, and the way practice is conceived of is not about that sense of outcome at all. What’s the alternative?
Rather than thinking about what’s the right or wrong thing to do, our practice begins by asking us to develop a certain kind of character and to adopt a certain kind of perspective and then trust how we will function from there spontaneously. That perspective can be thought of as one that generally recognizes our nature as interdependent and impermanent. That character is one that is based on that sense of non-separation, one that is based on a fellow-feeling, whether we call that empathy or love or oneness, but it’s not in any way based on an algorithm for rational decision-making, but rather it’s one way of perceiving what we are, what the world is like, what we see correctly, and responding from that perspective.
Nowadays we read a great deal about the benefits of meditation and there is obviously a level at which meditation pays off in terms of outcomes. But it’s really not at all about outcomes in the sense of becoming calmer or happier or more focused or less stressed or anything like that. Some of the folks who tout the benefits of meditation may in fact have a sense that the true benefit is the capacity to develop that deep acceptance of our nature as interconnected and impermanent, but what comes out of that acceptance is not a benefit in our usual sense of the word.
The reality of impermanence means that old age, sickness and death are not intrusions into our life but they are our life. The reality of impermanence means that we cannot base our equanimity on finding any safe, permanent, unchanging place or state inside or outside, and try to hold onto it.
Joko would say practice allows us to suffer intelligently, to suffer in the knowledge that impermanence is not a flaw, not a sign that we’ve done something wrong, but the very nature of what it is to be human. When we look at the precepts, the three pure precepts ask us to adopt this vision of recognizing our true nature and the ten grave precepts in a sense enumerate the things that flow from that sense of non-separation, non-killing, non-stealing, not elevating, not separating self and other in any kind of way.
In the literature of the old sutras, really only one decision is ever emphasized, and that is the decision to leave home, to become a monk. It’s a decision to have your head shaved and be ordained, and that decision means taking a leap into a new form of life which we then in some sense trust will act upon us and transform us. There’s a kind of recognition that everyone will make that decision for their own idiosyncratic and basically wrong self-centered reason, but that doesn’t matter.
The paradigmatic story is about a man who got completely drunk, and while he was drunk, had his head shaved and ordained to join the Buddhist sangha and the next morning the monks asked the Buddha if this was valid. Was this a true ordination if he made this decision while he was drunk? And the Buddha said that it didn’t matter. The only thing that matters now is that he has entered into the life. In a way we all make our decisions intoxicated in one form or another, maybe intoxicated on the fantasy of enlightenment or some such thing. It doesn’t matter.
It’s not so black and white for lay people. We don’t make that kind of single irrevocable decision to leave home, enter a monastery, shave our heads, give away all our possessions. In a certain way we burden our practice with the appearance of having a lot of decisions to make about how much to practice, where to practice, who to practice with, and we think that the quality of our practice will depend on making the right decision and response to all those different variables and choices and questions. But really none of that is what matters so much.
What matters is that we find in our practice something of a glimmer of this alternative to a life thought of in terms of outcomes, some taste of the reality of practice simply as experiencing our life as it is regardless of its content, regardless of where its going, regardless of any sense of how are we doing.