The Precepts as a practice of bearing witness Barry Magid October 22nd 2011

Bodhisattva's Vow

When I, a student of the way,
look at the real form of the universe,
all is the never-failing manifestation,
of the mysterious truth of the awakened life.

In any event, in any moment, and in any place,
none can be other than the marvelous revelation,
of its glorious light.

This realization made our ancestors and teachers,
extend tender care, with respectful hearts,
even to such beings as birds and beasts.

This realization teaches us,
that our daily food, drink, clothes, and protections of life,
are the warm flesh and blood,
the merciful incarnation of the awakened one.

Who can be ungrateful or not respectful,
even to senseless things, not to speak of human beings?
Even though they may be fools,
be warm and compassionate towards them.

If by any chance they should turn against us,
become a sworn enemy and abuse and persecute us,
we should sincerely bow down with humble language,
in the reverent understanding that
they are the merciful messengers of the awakened one,
who use devices to emancipate us from blind tendencies,
produced and accumulated upon ourselves,
by our own egoistic delusion and attachment,
through countless cycles of space and time.

Then on each moment’s flash of our thought,
there will grow a lotus flower;
And on each lotus flower will be revealed perfection,
unceasingly manifest as our life,
just as it is, right here and right now.

May we extend this mind to all beings,
so that we and the world together
may attain maturity in the wisdom of the awakened life.

When I, a student of the way,
look at the real form of the universe,
all is the never-failing manifestation,
of the mysterious truth of the awakened life.

In any event, in any moment, and in any place,
none can be other than the marvelous revelation,
of its glorious light.

These are the opening lines of the Bodhisattva's Vow, although, in a sense, a vow is a funny word to describe this verse, because it's not so much an expression of intention or of commitment, as it is an expression of a particular perspective, a way of seeing things. When I look at the real form of the universe, all is the never-failing manifestation of the mysterious truth. It's simply how it immediately appears to me, from this enlightened perspective.

One might say that Joko's way of practicing was to watch moment after moment how we don't believe a word of this, how in every event, in every moment, and in every place, we find ourselves making some judgment, making some criticism, making some act of approval or disapproval, some form of separation, where we stand outside the moment and pass our judgment on it. That judgment, for her, always comes back to an emotional reaction, of anger, anxiety, and we watch attention that arises in ourselves as we reject this moment, every moment that comes up for us, when we somehow find a way to reject it as not quite it. Rather than being the never-failing manifestation, we really tend to see things as the always-failing manifestation of the way things really should be.

The Bodhisattva's Vow goes on to spell out all the ways this perspective would manifest itself. “Who could be ungrateful or not respectful, even to senseless things, not to speak of human beings?” Well, most of us can be ungrateful and not respectful, especially to senseless things of our environment, and over and over again to human beings. It continues and tries to take this perspective to its limit and say that even if we encounter someone who is our sworn enemy, who abuses and persecutes us, we should bow down with humble language, a reverent understanding that they are the merciful messengers of the awakened one. What is the message? Again, it's this message of non-separation, and from this perspective, we ask if we can apply even to the situation and the people who are in that moment most opposite to us, who hate us and revile us, and who we naturally are inclined to respond to in kind, with anger or defensiveness, some kind of "Not me," reaction.

Joko basically said that moment after moment if we simply practice, with our actual, honest reaction to each moment, our anger, our attention, our anxiety, if we fully own that, that itself is the absolute, that is the one kind of true acceptance that we're capable of. We can at least start with the reality of our own anger, of our rejection of this moment. We can fully own and occupy that, at least. And I think that in general, it's a mistake to imagine that something like this, which gets called a vow, or more generally what we study in the precepts, can ever really be prescriptive for us, something that we try to do.

In the case of the precepts, they are a version that's come down to us from the Vinaya, the original monastic rules for the community of monks, who were living a life of non-possession and homelessness and rootlessness. And these rules were meant to set up a life that would manifest non-clinging, non-attachment. And so in that sense there is a community of rules and you could avow to obey them. But our practice really isn't like that, and our relation to vows and precepts isn't like that.

On one hand, we can use precepts to look at this Bodhisattva's Vow, that we can look at each one of them as an example of a place in which we're inclined to make some separation, make some rejection of the way things are, whether we put it in terms of killing or stealing, pushing away or grasping, misusing sex or drugs, elevating ourselves and putting down others. All of these things we could say are reminders in Joko's sense to watch how we’re rejecting this moment just as it is. That makes for a very sound and grounded way of personal practice. However, for most of us, I think it doesn't make clear how that reaches out ethically into behavior, without becoming a bunch of dos and don'ts.

I'm grateful to Lucas for continuing to send through the listserve pictures of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, because, for me, it keeps in mind the question: How does our practice of these precepts respond to immediate social ethical issues like the ones that are being raised down there? And I appreciate, also, the way Anne has helped serve as a kind of all-purpose gadfly in helping me think about the role of precepts, and the way Claire has served, as she always does, to be the one to try to hold all the different voices together at once. And it really got me thinking in terms of "What do I want a precepts class to be? How do I want the way we practice here to reflect what's going on in the world?" And not just at the level of internal psychologizing of our practice.

And so, somewhat tentatively, I've come up with what I think is a wonderful idea: I'm going to put it out there and see how it goes. I would like to begin to think of the precepts study and a rewriting of the Jukai ceremony to get away from the language of vows, or in the words of Aitken Roshi, "I take up the way of non-killing." I think the way that we actually practice with something like Occupy Wall Street is through a practice of bearing witness, and I think that what we do down there, what they're doing, is bearing witness to inequality. You hear a lot of curmudgeonly commentators saying, "Well, they don't have any proposals. What are their demands? What are they saying they ought to do?" That's not their function, and it's not the function, particularly, of a Buddhist group, to involve itself there, to say how we would want to reorganize or restructure capitalism. What we can do is go down there and simply bear witness to inequality, to say "We see this and we feel the pain of it." I think it's what groups like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship do when they hold vigils at San Quentin when there is going to be an execution. They go there simply to bear witness. They go there to bear witness to killing. When we go to an anti-war demonstration, we are there to bear witness to the harm that people do to one another. It's not that we've got a program that we want to enlist everyone in. We're not trying to go down there and say, "If you all acted like monks like us, you wouldn't have this problem." We aren't in a position to do that, but we are in a position of compassion, to suffer with, to feel with the pain of others, and to bear witness to it.

So I would hope that the precepts class -- I'll work with Claire in terms of the Jukai ceremony for next summer -- as a group together we can think through something about shifting the way we think of precepts from this level of vow to a form of bearing witness. And that bearing witness, again, would be internal as well as external. It would encompass something of the way Joko would look at Bodhisattva's Vow, because when I bear witness to killing, I bear witness to my own desire to kill, my own desire for revenge, my own anger, my own desire to eliminate what I don't want in this world. And I bear witness to stealing, I bear witness to my own greed. I bear witness to the fact that I live very well in the midst of a capitalist system that makes other people live very badly. I try to own my own participation in a system that produces this inequality. I think what's very important is that we don't take a self-righteous, us-versus-them attitude towards things like that. As Pogo said in the old days, "We've met the enemy and he is us." We always have to own our own participation in the system that produces all the terrible things that we bear witness to. We share the responsibility for them.

I hope this will serve as a beginning for us to think about our participation in something like Occupy Wall Street, to think about how as Buddhists we respond to events like that, and also to help us as lay practitioners, not following a way of monastic vows, to reformulate our sense of precepts in what I think happens now as a practice of bearing witness, to make it more relevant to the lives we're actually leading.

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