Tuesday, June 20, 2006

'Breaking' the Precepts and the Grave Offenses

I have most likely mentioned precepts and grave offenses before ... somewhere ... but perhaps it deserves a spotlight as a 'main topic' for discussion. As always, read all the disclaimers about my legitimacy or lack thereof in spouting off on such matters and take what I write here with a grain or eighty-four thousand of salt. Or, in the feel of the jazz I am listening to right now on local public radio - Caveat emptor, baby!

A year or so ago I had the insightful pleasure and honor of being at a ceremony where a senior student was taking their vows to become a shramenera, sometimes referred to as a 'novice' monk. The ceremony included a great dharma talk which stressed that the precepts cannot be broken. We may falter and drop them or cast them aside, but we can always pick them up again.

Imagine that. Obviously not all monastic Buddhists have practiced that way, but I personally think it accords rather well with the Mahayana teachings about emptiness, Buddha-nature, and the like. Then of course, there is the issue of grave offenses, which I suppose are akin to the deadly sins of Catholicism. In the Pure Land tradition, for example, it is said that one who commits one or more of the grave offenses cannot enter the Pure Land of Bliss.

I suppose that if one sees an actual distinction between 'this-worldly' and 'other-wordly' accounts of the Pure Land, it may sound as if you won't get into the Pure Lander heaven when you die in this world. However, if one sees all worlds as manifestations of emptiness, then such distinctions of time and place between realms becomes meaningless. So what does it mean then when in the 18th vow we read:

If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offenses and abuse the right Dharma.

If we look at (Mahayana) Buddhism more broadly, the teaching arises again and again that there is no attainment necessary. Buddhanature is. Sunyata is. Tathata is. The Tao is. So it's about acceptance and letting go of our own delusions rather than achieving or fighting our way through the ups-and-downs of the ego. For some, this is more readily perceived in Zen teachings and practice, for some in one of the Pure Land traditions, for some in Nichiren, or Tientai (Tendai), or one of the Vajrayana schools, etc. In the Pure Land traditions, we can say that Amida is, or the Pure Land is. There is no real separation from Buddhanature, Sunyata/Tathata, the Tao, Amitabha (Amida) Buddha, or the Pure Land, only delusion, specifically the delusion that we are truly separate and distinct from the rest of existence (failure to realize dependent-coarising) and that any particular manifestation of form is permanent and unchanging (failure to realize emptiness). This delusion is what fuels the ego*, and gives rise to greed, anger, and ignorance.

Hence, based on our conditioned existence and karmic burdern (the collective consequences of previous choices and causality), we may fail to see Buddhanature (not your Buddhanature, or my Buddhanature, or the dog's Buddhanature - just Buddhanature. Transferring it to the Pure Land example, when we are captured by delusion and manifesting greed, anger (sometimes I think hatred is a better choice here), and ignorance, we cannot hear Amida. Or in the more traditional Pure Land format, we cannot hear the cries of the world. We cannot see the Pure Land. Someone whose mind is so filled with greed, hatred, and ignorance that they would kill oneÂ’s own father, kill one's own mother, kill an arhat, injuring the Buddha, or cause strife and division in the Sangha, is unable to realize his or her own Buddhanature or see the Pure Land. Only one who has extinguished the roots of the three poisons and sees reality-as-it-is beyond the fictions created by delusion can do so. But as rebirth of form is a continual process, emptiness teaches us that a person is never 'the same' from one moment to the next, so while during that manifestation of form clouded by ignorance one may not have realized the Way, the path is always before them.

The precepts cannot be broken, just sometimes laid down. We can always choose to pick them up again. The Pure Land (or Buddhanature, or reality-as-it-is, etc) is never gone, just sometimes forgotten. We can always choose to accept it again.


*my use of the term is as 'a sense of true separation from everything else' or '(a sense of) identity (based on this perspective)' as opposed to 'a reasonable description of an individual' or '(a) label (for a particular ephemeral subset of the continuum of form)'

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