Misunderstanding the eightfold path and the precepts (sila)

21/09/2012

Disciples of Buddhism often misunderstand the teaching of the sila, as they are given to monks, and laypersons are free to accept them. In Southeast Asia laypersons can stay silent when a certain sila is recited in temples, knowing that they can’t keep it. The sila are just a guidance for laymen, or better for those who feel ethically insecure and do not possess wisdom (prajna). For the others their wisdom is giving them the right view on the precepts, as it leads them to the eightfold path. It is not the other way round. By keeping the precepts, one will NOT acquire wisdom automatically. Thus one popular distinction of the eightfold path into wisdom (referring to right view and right intention), ethical conduct (right speech, right action, right livelihood) and meditation/samadhi (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) is misleading because it suggests that the three divisions are on an equal level. You can clearly find out by watching those Buddhists who insist on the sila (and especially on right speech when they don’t like what is said) that they mostly lack higher wisdom, even when they do meditation a lot. So samadhi, too, is not a guarantee for wisdom. We find wise people everywhere who are neither Buddhists nor thinking of precepts or doing meditation. The way to wisdom is obviously not restricted to Buddhists.

The Buddha said in the Nagara Sutta that it is the “rightly self-awakened” of former times who followed the path. He then imitated this way to find out the truth about reality. It seems that the other awakened ones prior to him awakened before their life was thought to be a certain path.  So we should understand that the real Path begins when we are awakened and not vice versa. The Buddha had to do otherwise himself, but his life and struggle can teach us to avoid strict ascetism, for example. Nevertheless the Buddha awakened BEFORE he taught about a path, and he even refused to preach first, meaning that he was initially satisfied in being a pratyekabuddha (who doesn’t teach). WE do not have to mimic the Buddha’s life but instead can profit from the shortcut – by insight (meditation) we see through our illusions, discover emptiness and acquire wisdom. Then our path may become eightfold, tenfold, twentyfold or onefold – this is just a matter of definition and words.

What does it mean to look at the sila with wisdom and not trying to acquire that wisdom by sticking to their literal meaning? I give a couple of examples. Scientists found out that we lie a lot on a daily basis. No one seems to be an exception. A rule for always speaking the truth is therefore too abstract and unrealistic to be kept. It just means to try to stick to what we feel is “the truth”. Actually, it is impossible not to lie, and when you listen and watch carefully, you will know when praised Buddhist teachers keep their doubts for themselves or just stick to rhetoric that does not even make sense to them. A lot of lies are created to leave the liar in control of a situation.

Right Livelihood in the Eightfold Path includes not to breed animals for slaughter. As I said before, a farmer’s life is one of the most honest I can think of. It is not possible to feed all mankind without meat, and according to some reading of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Shakyamuni is said to have died from eating pork. We can find a lot of those contradictions in the Palicanon, even a foulmouthed Shakyamuni, e.g. when he scolded Devadatta. We can not take the words of the Palicanon for granted, we have to drop teachings which don’t make sense (anymore) and see their core just as a hint (in those two cases: to restrict our consumption of meat and our use of reproach). That’s why we call it a Path, s.th. going on, and not a status quo.

Another example is the rule against the ingestion of intoxicants, including alcohol. We now know that moderate drinking (e.g. of wine) can prolong life. Even if this wasn’t “true”, we also know that drugs which change the mind (perception) have led some people to deep insights. There are always exceptions from a rule. When the Buddha allowed medicine, he must have known that it may consist of alcohol and mind-changing ingredients. Nowadays anti-depressants keep people alive (by preventing suicide). But for some the non-prescribed drugs as wine or beer have a similar effect of soothing and motivating them. I could go on like this when taking further sila into account, which some lays like to follow at least on certain days, as not to sleep on soft and high beds (although that may just ease the pain of some elderly), not to use perfume (although some disgusting smells could be averted by a deodorant), not to visit musical and theatrical performances (as if there was no wisdom to be found in art). Not to speak of all the monks who accept money …

To explain why a soldier or a butcher can be a Buddhist will raise more concerns. It was widely misunderstood even in the zen scene (especially by Brian Victoria) that the prohibition to kill does not mean that no one could “rightly” do so. Whatever a civilian court may rule in such cases, a man of insight who has dropped his attachments and is able to kill without hate, greed, remorse etc. would actually be an ideal soldier. It is therefore not possible for those with prajna to accept an exclusive viewpoint where an awakened person would refrain from participating in a war or killing in self-defence or as assistance in an emergency. No one hopes for it, but when a necessity is felt, he or she is able to swing the sword without swaying it (without hate), as was taught by former zen masters like Takuan and Omori Sogen. We have to understand that the sila are made to make us ethically alive and survive and not to have us eradicated from the planet.

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