2020-06-15: The Ethical Heart (1 of 5) Ethical Sensitivity
4:12PM Jun 15, 2020
So my friends, welcome to the beginning of this series of talks for this week. The topic is, that kind of the subject of the topic, is the English concept, which is often considered very important in Buddhism. But for which, oddly enough, maybe it doesn't have a good Pali equivalent or it's not what we think it is in the Buddha's teachings. And that is the word ethics. I am going to talk a little bit about the ethics in Buddhism. And it's partly a small response to what's happening in this country and around the world and the fight for justice and and to understand more deeply how we can respond and how we can be changed by what's happening in the world. Because without wanting to be changed, without thinking about how do we want to be different so we can be a person, a vehicle, an instrument, of support and betterment of what's happening in the world. Then there is a lost opportunity here.
So ethics, and so today probably leave more introductory words on this topic. In English, sometimes certainly was for me when I was young. The word ethics by itself probably doesn't, sometimes doesn't inspire. It doesn't. It's not a warm and kind of inspiring word for some people. Sometimes it's even an off putting word. But the adjective ethical, sometimes has very different, people have different associations with it. An ethical person sometimes seems like a person who has living from goodness, from integrity, and someone we can trust. Someone who lives by ethics seems like someone who's removed from themselves, almost almost like living by rules that they have to follow perhaps. And in the Buddha's language, if we use the word ethics to apply to the Buddha, I also would say he's less interested in ethics as an abstract concepts of moral principles and all that, as he is interested in the formation of ethical people. The creation of ethical people and his way of understanding people in many many times, especially having to deal with societal issues around him and the caste system, or class system, of his time, was by their actions. What are their actions? What are they doing? Are they doing actions which are ethical in nature? Or are they not? And that over and over again was his measure of people and seeing what they what they would do.
There is a Zen little Zen story that in Zen or I could say in Buddhism, myself, my Buddhism kind of I practice it. There are always two things, or maybe only two things. There is meditation, and then sweeping the temple courtyard. But the temple courtyard doesn't end at the gate to the temple. And this little teaching as ideas that in meditation is we wake up, we become sensitive, caring beings, awake, free. And then that's one thing, and then it's doing something for the world. Sweeping the world, cleaning the world, bettering the world, and sweeping the courtyard with the courtyard doesn't stop. It's not only limited to the monastery. The whole world's our courtyard. And this idea for me of sweeping is such an ordinary. I've done a lot of sweeping in monasteries, just an ordinary, wonderful morning activity. Most often we did it after meditation in the morning. Get up for meditation, and sometimes we do some morning chanting and then we go out and we sweep. And it was a wonderful way of kind of being present in the early morning clear, often cool air. This physical activity of sweeping, and there was a way in which we kind of just I kind of just entered into the world of sweeping, but it was sweeping in a simple ordinary way. But to expand that simple ordinary caring into all the issues of our life of the world, to care for social justice in a clear and engaged way, but you know, it comes out of our freedom in that simple way.
There's a story from my little book storybook called that monastery within, it goes like this. The title is this the True Self. "A woman came to the monastery, determined to ask the Abbess how she could discover her true self. She had assumed many identities over her lifetime. Most of them, identities others had expected her to have. When she presented her concern, the Abbess replied, since knowing the true self is so important for you, you should ask this question of someone who has fully penetrated this issue. We have a very learned monk here in the monastery, who has read every Buddhist scripture and the many commentaries. He studied with some of the greatest Buddhist teachers of his age. He has spent years meditating and has deep realization. Come, I will introduce you to him. The Abbess led the woman into the courtyard, where a solitary monk was absorbed in sweeping. That is him said the Abbess when you interested in the true self, it's important not to be abstract. Don't ask what the true self is. Ask him. What is his true self? Shyly, but with great hope, the woman walked up to the monk and said, What is your true self? The monk smiled and continued to sweep. Going back to the Abbess, the woman said, he didn't answer my question. Quite the opposite, said the Abbess. He gave you the most precise answer he could at this time. When he sweeps his true self is sweeping." So this is a kind of fanciful story. That actions, what we do, defines us or creates who we are or expresses who we are. And ethics has a lot to do with what we do. And on one hand and the word sila, which is often translated as ethics or virtue in the Buddha's teachings is explicitly but what we do, it's the actions of body and actions of speech. And those actions should be ethical in nature.
But there's more to what the Buddha is concerned with and just body and speech, he is also concerned with the inner life, with the mind, the heart, and how the quality of that, the ethical quality of that, he doesn't call sila. That has a different word that's associated with it. And that's an over overarching word or idea that really much better expresses or holds the English word ethical, ethics then sila does. And that's the word kusala. And kusala, k u s a l a, is often translated as a wholesome, wholesomeness or as skillfulness. And I'll talk more about this word as we go through the week. But this is a key word that in many ways is that it's used in the teachings of the Buddha is closer to our English idea of ethics and ethical. So rather than asking, is it ethical? The Buddhist word is, is it kusala? Is it wholesome? Is it skillful? And you get somewhat different connotations or associations with the word wholesome, than you do with ethical and that represents that maybe the difference between some of the Western orientations around ethics and the Buddhist ones.
So this idea of ethics, as I've said, word ethics doesn't have a good match in the ancient teachings of the Buddha. But that in itself is maybe not so interesting. But it's very interesting that what it implies is that not that Buddhists are unethical, but rather that what we would think of as an ethics in English, where we might take ethics out of and look at it as its own independent topic, is integrated into the whole Buddhist path. And the Buddhist path is an ethical path is a kusala path, is a wholesome path from the beginning to the end.
And the people who engage the development of the path of liberation in Buddhism, could in English be called, equally could be called, the development of the ethical path. That as we become more more liberated in Buddhism, we become more and more ethical. That it isn't that ethics is the beginning of the path, that sila just to start, you get your ethics in order so you can go and practice what's higher. The development of an ethical being, becoming ethical is part and parcel, intimately, integrally part of every step along the Eightfold Path, every step along the path to full liberation.
It isn't that this week has talked about ethics, that it's an incidental topic, that it's a topic that's kind of, you know, kindergarten Buddhism or or that is kind of ethical in a way that I think for some people might even feel oppressive. It's actually the ethical movement of Buddhism is an opening, is a liberating one because it's completely integrated, intimate, to the path of liberation itself. And, and that's one of the main points that I'd like to emphasize here is that is that what we call an English, ethical cultivation, ethical development, becoming a more and more ethical person, is in Buddhism, is inseparable from becoming more and more liberated, more and more awake. The two go hand in hand.
And so that's kind of the general introduction. And so we will talk about this as we build in some of the fundamental aspects of this ethical path of Buddhism. And also some of the principles that support it. Because to find our way to becoming an ethical person, to do the ethical things, has a lot to do with using our body as the instrument of knowledge, instrument of awareness sensitivity, this idea that the body itself is the vehicle for becoming liberated, vehicle for becoming ethical, is actually a very important part of this whole path. And how does that work? And what are the challenges and joys of this of really connecting here and using the body as the method, the vehicle, for becoming ethical, as opposed to let's pull out the law books of Buddhism and looking and see what the rules are, so we know how to be ethical. This is a very different orientation. It's cultivating ethical sensitivity for living a wholesome life that contributes to the welfare and happiness of all beings.
So, I hope this set will be interesting for you and valuable to go through this week on this topic. I'm certainly looking forward to talking about the different perspectives or aspects of this very important topic. Thank you.