Sometimes Full, Sometimes Half Full

All of our actions however small, can have wondrous effects, says Norman Fischer, but only if we are wholehearted enough in our practice of ethical conduct.

Norman Fischer
1 January 2016
Photo by Yash Raut.

In classical Buddhism, as in all religious traditions, the spiritual life is seen as all-encompassing, embracing the whole of a person’s life. All our conduct, all our thought and feeling, all our relationships, encounters and decisions are part of the path. If we take the spiritual life to be the fullness of human maturity, as I believe it is, then spiritual practice can’t be something merely private and personal, limited only to a separate and special part of life.

In Buddhism, spiritual practice is likened to a tripod whose three balanced legs hold a bowl steady and firm. These legs are the three practices of ethical conduct, meditation and wisdom. They work together, each one holding the other two. Although it is easy enough to sit down on a cushion, you can’t really practice meditation without practicing right conduct. If your actions are thoughtless and crooked, your meditation will reflect this, and calm concentration will be hard to achieve. But if you go on with meditation anyway, you’ll begin to see the shadows that your conduct is casting on your mind and heart. You’ll feel these shadows as unpleasant and undesirable, and you’ll want to change your way of life. When you do, your meditation will deepen, becoming calmer, and some insight will come. You’ll have fewer illusions about yourself and will be able to appreciate yourself as you really are. Accepting yourself realistically, in turn, will give you more energy for your meditation practice. It will become clear to you that practicing ethical conduct is necessary because it directly affects every thought and action, small and large. In this way, meditation, ethical conduct and wisdom refine, deepen and balance each other, until little by little the vessel of your life stands strong.

When we sit down, we calm, clear and illuminate the mind. When we get up, we live our life in this world as an extension and expression of the beauty of our sitting.

In Zen, the practice of ethical conduct is both beginning and advanced practice. While new students are encouraged to conduct themselves straightforwardly in order to learn the practice, experienced students know that their conduct is the expression of their practice in the world-the most difficult accomplishment of all. In some schools of Zen the koans that come at the very end of the long course of study involve a thorough penetration of the ethical precepts, which are seen now not as simple moral rules but as profound spiritual truths.

Zen practice has two parts—sitting down and getting up. When we sit down, we calm, clear and illuminate the mind. When we get up, we live our life in this world as an extension and expression of the beauty of our sitting. Sitting down and getting up together comprise a full and mature human being, one who is receptive and open but also responsible and committed.

Although we recognize the importance of ethical conduct and believe we know the difference between right and wrong, how much thought have we really given to what right and wrong mean in this complicated world? Living an ethical life is not a simple matter. In addition to some understanding of the foundations of morality, living ethically takes a degree of courage and awareness that few of us have taken the time to develop. Have we considered ethical conduct as an active, thoughtful, challenging and ongoing practice?

It would be comforting to think that ethical conduct can be clearly codified, that it is founded on certainties, and that to do good is simply to conform to these certainties. Unfortunately, this isn’t so. Life is full of gray areas, and we are full of unexamined motivations and self-deceptions. We are much better off when we admit this and are willing to look at our conduct honestly, with as much awareness of our real motivations and the consequences of our actions as possible. The practice of ethical conduct requires that much honesty and awareness, for it is an ongoing exploration, a constant steering of a moral course that depends on accurate information, not theory and bluster. Fixed moral codes are always theoretical. They are vastly subject to interpretation, since no ethical norm can ever take into account all of life’s subtlety and complexity. Instead of focusing our effort on such norms, we need to pay more attention to what we feel, what others feel and what actually happens.

Our mistakes mature us and temper us; they fire us like strong pottery.

Given this indeterminacy (and it is already a mark of maturity to accept it, for only the immature hold fast to certainties), it makes sense that in practicing ethical conduct we are going to make mistakes, and plenty of them. We steer our boat by paying attention to the rocks and shoals. We know that once in a while, because the rocks are hidden, or because we weren’t watching, we are going to hit one, and that sometimes this is the only way to find out that it is there. Mistakes are not tragedies. Without them there’s no learning or growth. It is precisely our moral mistakes, much more than our moral victories, that deepen our sense of what ethical conduct is. Our mistakes mature us and temper us; they fire us like strong pottery.

Of course, this does not mean that we are casual about our mistakes, or that we don’t try to avoid them. A mistake that we don’t care about is a mistake we haven’t noticed, a mistake we haven’t learned from yet. We need to care deeply about our mistakes and to have sincerely terrible feelings about them-remorse, embarrassment, shame.

If the powerful negativity of a really bad mistake doesn’t come home to you, if it never sears your soul, then that mistake has been useless to you; it will not serve to temper and tenderize your heart. Once you fully feel the remorse for your mistake, you are ready to confess it, and then to forgive yourself. This process might take a good deal of time. Some really terrible mistakes may need to stay buried for many years, since feeling them might be too painful, at least for a while. But most of the time we do come to feel the effects of our mistakes eventually, and we find a way to forgive ourselves and move on-a little wiser and clearer about where we are going and what we need to watch out for.

Our mistakes are painful not only because they make us feel bad, but because they have consequences. As responsible people, we want to accept those consequences and not try to escape them. When we make a mistake, we admit it not only to ourselves but to others. We pay the price for it by apologizing to whomever we might have hurt and making all possible amends. We also resolve not to make the same mistake again, and we take steps in our lives to make sure we are able to stand by that resolve. If we make the same mistake over and over again, we haven’t really owned the mistake, been truly aware of it, forgiven ourselves for it and so been changed by it. We have just been playing out the terrible consequences of our continuing blindness-and in fact reinforcing it.

For some of us the practice of ethical conduct takes us through some pretty rough and narrow passages, and we crash and founder disastrously for some time. We may have to nearly drown before we are ready to be aware enough to forgive ourselves. We may have to hit bottom before we can float up. The Talmud tells the story of Eliezar ben Durdia, an awful sinner who sinned constantly and paid no attention to what he was doing. His favorite sin was fornication. One day a prostitute he was with turned to him, looked him in the eye and said, “You will never be forgiven for this!” Ben Durdia was deeply affected. He leapt up, ran outside, and threw himself down on the ground, tearing his clothes, throwing ashes on himself and weeping uncontrollably. He cried out to the earth to help him, but the earth would not help him. He cried out to the sky to help him, but the sky would not help him. He cried out to the planets and the stars, but they were totally indifferent. So he just sat there wailing for a very long time. Finally a voice out of the heavens said to him, “You have won life everlasting.” When the rabbis heard about this, they were furious: they had never heard a voice come out of the heavens promising them life everlasting. They who had worked so hard to be good, and were so good, had never received the reward that this miserable sinner received.

Forgiveness for our mistakes is always possible once we start to pay attention to what we have been doing, no matter how long it takes us. And sometimes, as this story shows, a person who has been unaware for a long time and finally comes to suffer horribly for it finds a deeper, more sudden and more moving redemption than the rest of us.

If there are no fixed moral standards we can refer to in all circumstances, and if mistakes are not only inevitable but even useful, is there no moral compass? Is ethical conduct a matter of trial and error-with the emphasis on error? Is our own eventual guilt and remorse following wrong actions the only way we have of steering our conduct?

I believe there is indeed a moral compass, one that all religious traditions recognize. The needle of that compass is kindness, simple human kindness. I am in agreement with the Dalai Lama who says, “My religion is kindness.”

More than a warm, fuzzy sentiment, kindness is the natural and powerful urge that wells up inside us when our vision of reality is deep and clear.

Bodhisattvas build their practice of ethical conduct on a vision of the world’s interconnectedness. They see with their wisdom eye of meditative insight that the world is empty of separation, boundary and cramped limitation and that it is full of connection, merging, warmth and embrace. The clear consequence of this profound spiritual experience is a feeling of kindness. Since we are all so closely related, all of us articulations of one body, one soul, how could we not have affection for each other? More than a warm, fuzzy sentiment, kindness is the natural and powerful urge that wells up inside us when our vision of reality is deep and clear.

We all recognize kindness when we see it or feel it, and we all honor it and are moved by it. We don’t need to be convinced. The fact that we are capable of kindness, of a pure and unselfconscious concern for others, is the certain center of our practice of right conduct. We can rely on kindness and on our good heart to show us how to act in the world. Although we may not always know whether a particular action is good or bad, whether it will lead to well-being or suffering, we can pay attention to our motivation, moving it in the direction of our natural kindness whenever possible. When this is not possible-when we find that we can’t shake our jealousy, anger, fear, greed or aggression-we can at least admit this and recognize that these feelings are not what we affirm, not what we want to use as a basis for our actions.

In the Maha Assapura Sutra, one of the many sutras in which he speaks of right conduct, the Buddha says, “We will not praise ourselves and disparage others on account of our purified conduct.” A crucial aspect of our practice of ethical conduct is that we refrain from cheering about successes and grumbling about others’ moral failures.

The Rule of Saint Benedict, the fifth-century monastic code that still governs all Christian monasteries, makes much of the virtue of humility, which is considered the cornerstone of the religious life. To be humble is to be willing to make efforts toward right conduct without measuring our success. The point isn’t to see ourselves as good or bad, worthy or unworthy. The point is to go on doing our best to be kind in our actions and clear about our intentions.

Hui Neng, the Sixth Ancestor of Zen, says, “I see and I don’t see.” When someone asked him what he meant by this, he said, “I see my own faults, but I don’t see the faults of others.” We are most thoroughly humble when we literally do not see the faults of others. This doesn’t mean that we are fools who don’t recognize wrong action when we see it-and if necessary, try to prevent it-but rather that we do this with passion for the good, not with a sense of judging or criticizing others. Even when circumstances dictate that we criticize others, we try to do so with a generous, nonblaming spirit.

In particle physics the search for the irreducible core of matter yields only a seemingly endless proliferation of parts. The more closely you look at the parts, the less easily they can be found-they seem to be indeterminate and relative to the very act of your looking. While on a gross level we can distinguish one thing from another, on a refined level no thing is actually find-able. Similarly, the more closely you look into your own conduct and the conduct of others, the less you will find a “me” to be right or a “you” to be wrong, and the less you will find a “right” or a “wrong,” a “good” or a “bad.” There is only the wide, true and deep effort to be effectively kind beyond moral judgment or discrimination.

Humility and kindness are good flashlights for illuminating the path of ethical conduct. But even if we are genuinely humble and perfectly kind, we don’t necessarily know what to do in a given situation. We also need practical, path-finding skills to help us see which way to go. Bodhisattvas are always working to develop this capacity to know what is needed in any given situation. Each situation is unique. What is right one moment may be entirely wrong the next. Ethical conduct is a wonderfully complex dance; in addition to a kind and humble heart, it takes intelligence, experience, feeling, common sense and a willingness to start fresh each time.

When Suzuki Roshi, the founder of our Zen lineage in America, was a young disciple, he had the job of bringing tea to his master. The first time he did this he filled the cup half full, as is usually done with handle-less Japanese teacups (so that the cup won’t be too hot to hold). But his master scolded him harshly: regardless of custom, he wanted the teacup filled to the brim. So Suzuki learned to pour tea in this way. One day a guest came to the temple, and Suzuki served the tea as he had been taught. Again he was scolded bitterly-a teacup should be filled only half full, he was told. Do you want our guest to burn her fingers?

Sometimes full, sometimes half full, depending on the circumstances. Skill is the sensitivity and readiness to discern what’s right in the circumstances that are arising just now.

Ethical conduct requires such skill, as well as kindness, flexibility, humility and a powerful appreciation of life’s complexity and fullness. Because of this, the practice of ethical conduct can be seen as the pinnacle of the spiritual life. Through it we express and live what we have learned and become. The practice of ethical conduct is both a tool for the development of our maturity and the very expression of that maturity, which is neither a state of mind nor an accomplishment, but an ongoing path toward understanding that is reflective as well as active. To be truly mature is to always make the effort to conduct and express ourselves with kindness, clarity, wisdom and beauty. In this sense, the practice of ethical conduct is fundamental to our maturity. All the other practices that we have discussed support, deepen and strengthen it.

We practice the sixteen precepts with the understanding that we are responsible for the whole world and capable of redeeming the whole world through our acts.

In Zen, the practice of ethical conduct is summarized in the sixteen bodhisattva precepts. Though these precepts are said to describe most profoundly—and also quite practically—the way a mature person conducts himself or herself, they are not understood as a clear and fixed code of conduct. Instead, they are approached as koans—as objects for contemplation and clarification through the lessons of our lives. Students work on the precepts one or several at a time—or sometimes all at once—using them as points of illumination to shed light on aspects of conduct. Precepts are understood as practices.

The sixteen precepts begin with the ancient Buddhist formula of taking refuge in what’s traditionally called the triple treasure of Buddha, dharma and sangha.

The Sixteen Precepts

1. I take refuge in Buddha (the principle of enlightenment within).

2. I take refuge in dharma (the enlightened way of understanding and living).

3. I take refuge in sangha (the community of all beings).

After these come the three “pure” precepts:

1. I vow to avoid all action that creates suffering.

2. I vow to do all action that creates true happiness.

3. I vow to act with others always in mind.

….Next come the ten “grave” precepts of conduct, which can be stated in both negative and positive form—as what to do and what not to do:

1. Not to kill but to nurture life.

2. Not to steal what is not given but to receive what is offered as a gift.

3. Not to misuse sexuality but to be caring and faithful in intimate relationships.

4. Not to lie but to be truthful.

5. Not to intoxicate with substances or doctrines but to promote clarity and awareness.

6. Not to speak of others’ faults but to speak out of loving-kindness.

7. Not to praise self at the expense of others but to be modest.

8. Not to be possessive of anything but to be generous.

9. Not to harbor anger but to forgive.

10. Not to do anything to diminish the triple treasure but to support and nurture it.

The sixteen precepts evoke the depth and power of human responsibility. The more thoughtful we are about our life, and the more we deepen our thoughtfulness through our spiritual practice, the more we see that the scope of our life is wider than we ever imagined. All our actions have effects that spread subtly throughout the world. This means that all of our actions, even the seemingly inconsequential ones, have huge implications. We practice the sixteen precepts with the understanding that we are responsible for the whole world and capable of redeeming the whole world through our acts. In Zen, there’s an old saying that expresses this: “When you pick up one piece of dust, the entire world comes with it.” All our actions, however small they may seem, can have wondrous effects, if only we are wholehearted enough in our practice of ethical conduct.

This same point is made in Judaism’s Hasidic teachings (and, I am sure, in the mystical teachings of all religious traditions). It seems that the Baal Shem Tov, the seventeenth-century founder of the Hasidic movement, was unmatched in the fervor of his prayer. He sometimes prayed with such passion that he would fall ill, and it was only the encouragement of his disciples, who loved him dearly and feared for his well-being, that kept him in this world. The Baal Shem loved God very much, but the real reason for his passionate prayer was that he felt personally responsible for the whole world. He felt as if his prayers, and his alone, were all that kept the evil and confusion of the world from inundating humankind.

I am sure that the Baal Shem realized that the world would not fall apart if he forgot to pray for one day; and yet, at the same time, his feeling of ultimate responsibility was quite real to him, and it must have given his prayer a power that helped him to live a life of depth and seriousness. We are all like the Baal Shem: the whole world really does depend on the awareness and good conduct of each one of us.

Excerpted from
Taking Our Places (HarperSanFrancisco) © 2003 by Norman Fischer. Reprinted by permission.

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.