The Trouble With Precepts.


Three weeks ago, I 'took the precepts' in a ceremony to be ordained as a Lay Buddhist in the Korean Taego Order. The precepts are simple guidelines for living in peace with love and compassion. It was an important day and the precepts are part of something I've been taking seriously for some time. Going through the ceremony, along with the support of my Sangha family at the Zen Center, helped to set the precepts at the forefront of my heart and mind during each day. I will strive to maintain this fresh momentum.
It is one thing to have decided that I would strive to live a certain way. It is a wholly different thing to feel that practice soaking in. There are so many things, especially in our Western world, where we cut corners in our life without realizing it. We don't think about the way we live or conduct ourselves. The hospital is refreshing because saving lives and healing people is so important that corners are not cut; procedures are followed. But I've worked in so many places where the news that some big wig is coming to visit causes all kinds of cleaning and panic. Suddenly we had to do things the right way … for show. This is completely self defeating because the policies and procedures become like inside jokes rather than the right thing to do. We often fall into living our lives like this as well; acting a certain way only one day week or dragging the family through an otherwise ignored ritual a couple times a year.
Recently, I missed something at work. It was not the end of the world, but it was something that I was supposed to do in the tasks I had that day. Moreover, it was one of those things that should be a habit. Further yet, it is one of those things that has to do with regulations and me missing it could cast the consistency of the whole department in a less than perfect light. I got an email at home asking if I had remembered to do it, but just failed to write it down. Setting aside that the act of doing this task is so physically proximate to the place it is recorded that one would be nearly impossible to do without the other. I also knew that, as bad luck would have it, there were inspectors from our accreditation agency visiting the hospital that week.
My instant reaction was to just claim I did it. In the two days that had followed since I forgot, if no one else had found a problem, all was continuing to be fine. But the same instant, I knew I wasn't going to lie about it either. Even before the precept ceremony, it was not my style to cover my ass with a patently false statement, but the precepts were right there. It was mine to do right.
The next, even stronger reaction was to write some classically corporate email that 'toed the line' of claiming I hadn't forgotten, while at the same time not really saying anything one way or the other. I was formulating the lines in my head and tweaking sentences to strip away any thing actually committing to either side of the truth. Call it the Grey Flannel Man response.
In the end, because I had made a commitment to myself, I stuck with the facts. I had had a busy night. I had thought of the need to check the temperatures while doing something else, but had forgotten to do so when I moved on to the next task.
In the last couple weeks, I've also stopped myself a few times weaving the truth and silence to leave a particular impression. The Buddha spoke of the false speech of omission; when we speak truthfully in a strict sense, but what we have left out colors the 'truth' of what we've said. I never realized that I had a particular skill at this. I'm not anywhere near pathological, but to commit to the “Right Speech” spoke of the Eightfold Path is to be truthful in words and in silence. I revel in that I have committed to doing what I set out to do. But its a pain in the ass too. I'm not drifting through life avoiding the 'crunchy' details of the truth any longer. It is or it isn't. Its not the complete elimination of grey areas, but there are way fewer shades of grey.
Of course, I was reminded of the work I still have to do. Driving along Market St., ironically on the way home from the Zen Center, a car was traveling right next to me all the way along the river and passed the Water Treatment Plant. I figure if you're on Market St., you've probably been on Market before. And we all know that just before the highway two lanes merge into one. But this person just hung in my blind spot. At the merge point, she could have slowed down and gotten behind me. She could have sped up and made the merge well ahead of time. But … no … she panicked at the sight of the yellow paint, barely sped up and came in ahead of me. Now she wasn't that close. There was no risk of a collision. And it really wasn't overtly rude; just stupid. Nevertheless, before I could stop it, my right fist raised, a particular finger extended, and I let her know, approximately, how I felt about her driving. There was no reason to emote. There was no reason to judge her driving. There was no reason to feel indignant … but I did.
I think there is something about our modern society that makes us think we have the right to be first, the right to be in a hurry, and the right to be right. While that is a whole topic for another day, I don't have the right to think that I drive any better than anyone else. I could have slowed down to let her in. At least, I hadn't sped up to trap her. I lived in Detroit where the morning commute is a contact sport, but I got better. There is a middle path between black & white and a million shades of grey.
When the precepts keep going off in my head like a game show buzzer, I just have to get it, get up, and keep trying. When Barbarossa said “The Code is more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules” it was nearly a Zen statement. The trouble with guidelines, also their strongest asset, 'Guidelines' put the onus on the individual. No one is telling you what it right and wrong. There is no one looking down from above to judge your actions. You must decide on your own and follow through – live it. I've made a commitment to myself. The responsibility, and the stakes, are much higher. To paraphrase a second un-Zen movie, I can handle the truth.