Zen Q&A How does Zen deal with morality? Is morality relative or universal? Barry Magid January 18th 2018

Raymond asks:

How does Zen deal with morality? Is morality relative or universal?

Barry responds: I would say morality is both relative and universal. It's universal in the sense that every culture has a morality, that morality is part of how we organize our human relations, our social relations to one another. We can no more imagine a culture without morality than we can one without language or without families. Morality is part of how we connect and relate. Aristotle said man is a political animal. He might as well have said a moral animal. By our nature, we have to have systems in place for relating and negotiating a shared life.

That being said, the content of morality varies historically and culturally, and there is no single morality or single principle that has always been adhered to. It is sometimes attributed to Machiavelli the insight that moralities can be incompatible. He wrote that one could either pursue the classical virtues, the kinds of virtues you'd see displayed in Homer's Iliad, the virtues of a warrior culture, or you could pursue the virtues of Christianity, but heroism may be incompatible with virtues that highlight meekness or compassion.

So we say that when it comes to morality, there are many differing goods of morality, some of which may be incompatible with others, and part of how we decide who we are and what we believe in is a matter of sorting through the differing sense of what counts as a virtue. What do we admire? Who do we emulate? What kind of person do we want to become? These are basic questions of morality. Morality is not just a matter of rules and prohibitions; it's a matter of ideals and our notion of what kind of life we want to live. What kind of person do we want to become? What capacities in ourselves do we want to cultivate?

Zen approaches this from the perspective of the dual insights of emptiness and interconnection. And from those realizations, a certain kind of morality naturally flows, or is said to naturally flow. In other words, that when you see the interconnection, really see it and feel it, of all beings, of all life, then a certain tendency to selfishness or competitiveness or separation naturally begins to fall away. Sometimes it's said that we realize we're all part of one body, and we have no more desire to steal or hurt or compete with one another than one hand feels the need to compete with the other hand or with the foot. They can only function to the extent that they recognize they're all part of a whole coordinated living system.

There isn’t any single historical manifestation of this realization. The Vinaya were a set of rules of conduct put together a couple thousand years ago in India for the original sangha around Shakyamuni. Those rules prescribed a form of life that was meant to manifest a morality based on non-attachment and interconnection and emptiness: a monk should live without possessions, without a fixed abode, without special relationships to one another or to family, and that form of life embodied a certain morality. But that morality underwent profound changes when Buddhism came to China and Japan. The monks settled down into one place, and the rules for monastic living became very different from the rules for mendicant monks.

As we in America develop lay practice, we don't have any fixed forms or rules to govern how we live. Instead, we use the precepts as a rough framework to examine our own selfishness, our own sense of separation, all the ways that our daily life may be organized in denial of interconnection or of emptiness. When we think of the precepts today, and we talk about non-killing or non-stealing, we're not addressing them primarily in literal terms, although of course they do have that level of meaning, but more on the level of not rejecting some aspect of life to which we're connected. We try to be aware of our sense of lack, of feeling separate, that there's something missing, that in some sense we feel like we need to steal from the world or others around us. These become complex psychological questions that we go into in precept study. They are the way we ask ourselves: How do we express the truth of no self and interconnectedness in our daily life, and how can we recognize the patterns of avoidance or control that deny that basic realization?

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