Eightfold Path — Right Action – Part 1a

“And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex [or sexual misconduct]. This is called right action.” ( from wikipedia)

This is all very blunt. But what is the connection between these three things that we should have them listed under the one rubric, Right Action? Given that the whole point of Buddhism is to dissolve suffering, we can only conclude that killing, stealing and engaging in illicit sex cause suffering. Right Action then is simply to try not to increase suffering.

To set the tone of this discussion:

I am reminded of an incident that to this day often comes up in my memory. I know that we are always being told that it is unscientific to ascribe anthropomorphic characteristics to animals, but judge for yourself. I had use of a summer place on the Sunshine Coast. There was a set of steep stairs leading down from a cabin to a rocky shore. At the foot of the stairs, a cliff about twelve feet high, tangled all over with vines and small plants rooted in cracks in the rock. A small, wren-like bird had built a nest that clung to the cliff at about my eyes’ height. As I passed on my way to the beach, the bird, perched on a branch near the nest, chirping madly away not two feet from me, pleaded with me to save her children. The feet of one poor chick were sticking out of the displaced jaws of a garter snake who had it’s head resting on the edge of the nest. The snake, precariously but successfully clinging to the cliff, was totally within my power as it could not easily escape any action I might take towards it. There was a suspicious bulge some distance down the snake’s body which I surmised was the dead body of another baby chick.

A tableau punctuated by the mother bird’s impassioned chirping. What was I to do? I told the bird that there was nothing I could do. Both chicks were most likely dead. If they were not, I would be required to kill the snake in order to save them. The snake, well aware of the pleading of the bird, looked at me with what looked like a curious mixture of shame and pride: I am what I am and out of necessity I do what I have to do.

While I sympathized with the poor bird, I advised her that she needed to be more careful in building her nest. The bird, understanding that I would or could do nothing, turned all her ineffectual ire at the snake, forgetting me or any danger I might pose towards her. The snake carefully retreated, ungainly with two lumps in it’s length.

In the context of Right Action, I can only conclude that although there was suffering in the situation, it was unavoidable given the nature of the creatures involved. They all did only what was necessary. Nothing was done gratuitously. The snake was unavoidably a carnivore. The little bird would learn from its mistake. I everyday meditate on the fact that causing harm is unavoidable and all one can do is minimize it. Is what I do necessary?

source for the Taoist symbol above


Problems, Problems, Problems

I used to have this problem when talking with people. To be kind to myself I describe the problem as having needed to have the last witty word. A deeper level to the problem was that I needed to know everything because I believed, at an emotional level, that my duty was to fix all the suffering in the world. When I learned that I knew nothing, could know nothing, and so could not fix all the suffering (not even my own), I also eventually learned that it could not be my responsibility to fix everything. I could only be responsible for my own actions. I learned to shut up and listen. But old habits die hard. They sneak back in, into overlooked corners, when you least expect them.

While I had a good fix on a solution to the habit of talking too much and trying to find solutions to everyone’s problems, in my writing I suspect the old habit has crept back in, not as badly perhaps (we do learn) but probably enough to be off-putting. Specifically: when people have made comments on my posts, I have always made some quick comeback. This is not needed. It is enough that people have taken the time to read my post and have been kind enough to make comment. I get my say in the posts. Whenever anyone has commented, the exciting thing for me is that their ideas and observations have always inspired in me a fresh excitement and a renewed sense of possibility. There is no need for me to comment on the comments. So in the future, if anyone makes a comment I will not be replying. I will only listen. The only time I will reply to any comment is if the commenter uses a ‘?’. Question marks are a red flag. If you ask a question you might (or might not) get a reply. But whatever you say will probably inspire a post sometime in the future (although you might not notice) after I have digest your offered wisdom. So far, all the comment on my posts have caused me a lot of thought. So thank you.

If you wish to comment but don’t want to be public, feel free to contact me at ajbell@ajbell.ca.
I will not post emailed comments. And I will only (maybe) reply if you use a question mark.

Constant Editing, Revision

Earlier today a friend did me the service of critiquing my blog. If I understood him correctly, he had three major concerns: 1) That I seemed to be claiming that Buddhism was not a religion. 2) That if I wanted to be scientific then I had failed because my purview was too large and I was being too subjective. 3) That I made statements that were off-putting.

I write this blog in order to present my nascent thoughts to a generalized sangha, members of which I hope will rub away some of my corners by pointing out to me my errors of interpretation, or remarks of mine that might be misconstrued, or any other of my many failings they might find here in. So, my friend’s comments were and are welcomed, as would anyone’s be, as a useful spur to correct any of my errors of fact or clarity. Having been critiqued, I am needful of addressing his concerns so as to allow other readers a clearer view of my intentions. If nothing else I hope that this kind of exchange will inspire readers to more easily comment on any errors or vagaries they might see. Please do.

1) I do not think that Buddhism is not a religion. Of Course Buddhism is a religion. Religions are what the believers of them think they are. And I am perfectly happy to see Buddhism as a religion. In fact that is the way I came to it; liking its non-theocratic nature. Not to mention that Buddhism seemed to me to be more logical and concise than Catholicism (my mother religion) in its basic assumptions. In this blog I am trying to find out if Buddhism can be approached usefully from a scientific modality. In other words, my question is, Can Buddhism be a science? I am not claiming any success at proving the matter; this blog is merely a record of my mind’s processes as I think about the question. I do not yet promise anything rigorous. One observation may be useful: I believe that the apparent opposition of Buddhism as belief and Buddhism as science would be a duality and thus, in Buddhist terms, an illusion.

2) Of course I am not being scientific. I am merely trying, subjectively, to grope towards such a possibility. Trying to focus in. Recording every thought that seems relevant. Probably going down lots of blind alleys. No authority here. Know-nothing Zen.

3) The specific comment I made that was off-putting to my friend, who worried that I would lose readers, was my saying that every person I had ever met who did zen was improved by it. My friend said my statement condoned so-called zen masters sleeping with their students. I did not mean to imply this. My statement was not meant to say that anyone who had studied zen to any degree was instantly perfected. Nor did I mean to imply that anyone studying zen was improved to an equal degree over all aspects of their character and for all time. All I meant was that zen improves people to some degree in various parts of their character. Areas of a person that are more screwed up are more difficult to correct no matter what course of therapy, drug or religion they embark upon. The benefit of zen is that it does help. The question of a person in powerful position, whether a Roshi, abbot, or teacher, who abuses their power is a big topic, one with many facets, each one of which I will have to comment upon further.