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What do our vows mean in a world without justification or framework Barry Magid May 9th 2020

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I’d like to begin this morning with a quote from Thomas Pynchon, who happened to share a birthday yesterday with Gary Snyder. I originally thought I would read something from Gary Snyder’s poems today, since I’ve been reading him for close on fifty years now. But Snyder’s poems, which talk about a kind of integration of man into nature, while in a certain sense are very reassuring and comforting, do not seem to fit with what’s going on at the moment, where nature is something that seems to have turned on us, perhaps in revenge for all these years of mistreatment.

I thought a Thomas Pynchon quote would perhaps be more in sync with people’s experience today. Thomas Pynchon: “Life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.”

I think that our experience is indeed of life or events being something that has befallen us these days, and we’re endeavoring to figure out what’s a kind of appropriate response to that, what kind of sense to make of it. How do you stay sane in a world that seems driven by accident rather than making sense?

I recently read a book by a Japanese psychoanalyst, Koichi Togashi, in which he says, “We’re all born without informed consent, that is, we have no idea what we’re getting into, and if we did, we would never agree to it.”

So the problem is how to face that kind of existential situation, and what role does practice or religion have with that? Now for a couple of thousand years, religion took its role to be to make sense of what was going on, and to ascribe a purpose or a justification to what seemed to be a cruel and random world. And the problem of what was called theodicy, was how do you reconcile the idea of an omnipotent and benevolent God with evil in the world?

Religions all made some attempt to give an answer to that, usually some variation on: In order to give man free will, God had to give him the capacity to do evil, and in order to have a world that obeyed physical laws like gravity, God had to create a world in which bricks can fall off of roofs onto the heads of innocent toddlers.

People got by more or less with those kinds of explanations for a long time, but I think they grew less and less satisfactory. It’s interesting to remember that the pagan world of classical Greece did not trouble itself with that question at all. They began with the idea that the world was a random and capricious and uncaring place. It was not made for men. And their theology was one of competing forces which they personified into gods, of which man was often kind of collateral damage, in a world that wasn’t made for him, and in a way that wasn’t designed for his benefit.

We can say that one of the things that characterizes the modern era is the collapse of theodicy, the collapse of religious attempts to make sense of the randomness or evil of the world, that gets summed up in Nietzsche’s expression that God is Dead. Where was Buddhism in all this? Well, Buddhism had its own versions of theodicy, particularly in some versions of its idea of karma, which often was expanded from a weird description of cause and effect in the physical realm to include something like a moral calculus, a balancing machine, that through many, many lifetimes, made good and evil balance out, to see the evil that happened to us is the result of bad actions, so that there was a justice in the system as a whole.

We see remnants of that even in a Zen text like the Bodhisattva's Vow, where you have lines like “Should others become a sworn enemy, abuse and persecute us, we should bow down and recognize that they are the merciful messengers of the awakened one who use devices to emancipate us from the evil karma that we’ve accumulated upon ourselves over past lifetimes, by our own egoistic behavior.”

Now it’s possible to read that verse in a more sophisticated way, by which we say that anytime we’re inclined to see the world in terms of us against them, it’s a lesson, a reminder of our tendency to fall into dualism and to separation, and so in that sense, it’s life acting like a teacher to remind us of the essential oneness of life. But I think for most of history, people, ordinary people, would tend to take those kinds of lessons about karma and reincarnation very literally, and really think that there was such a thing as merit, which could be accumulated from lifetime to lifetime, to balance out the evil karma of ourselves or our loved ones.

Up until very recently, most Buddhist services said we dedicate this merit to . . .and we would read the people on the list who recently died or were gravely ill. There was almost a kind of literal sense that the merit of chanting sutras and doing the service was the way monastics both justified their existence to the communities that supported them and gave back something to those people in this life and the next.

So all these were ways in which religion was taken to offer some kind of framework or consolation to the apparently obvious fact that Pynchon points out: That there is just so much accident to life, more than we can bear to recognize and stay sane.

So if we go beyond some version of theodicy, if we go beyond some kind of explanation to put up against all that accident, what are we left with? What does a modern version of our practice have to say about the sheer randomness, the danger, uncertainty, scariness, of this world? Well, on one level, not much. It leaves us to face these things much more directly, which is a very difficult task.

Our zazen, in one sense, provides us with a supportive, regulating community practice container, which allows us to face uncertainty and anxiety, and stay in the midst of what we would otherwise avoid. That’s a very real kind of self-regulating function that both our individual practice and the practice of being part of a sangha provides for us. But does it go beyond that?

I’ll invite us to think about it in our discussion: How are our four great vows a response to this dilemma? What does it mean in a world without justification or framework, to say that we will save all beings? Go beyond delusion? Master the dharma and embody the Buddha way? Let’s think about that together.

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