25 December 2005

There are no rules

Buddhist Stupa - symbol of ultimate reality and the Buddha - photo by JayaravaI'm a Buddhist. When they find this out people often become curious about what I'm 'allowed' to do. Am I 'allowed' to drink, for instance, or 'allowed' to eat dairy products? What I inevitably say to these kinds of questions is that I'm allowed to anything I like, but that I have to live with the consequences of my actions. I thought I might take a little time and expand on this.

Firstly why do people expect there to be restrictions on me as a Buddhist? One etymology of the word religion is "that which binds". When we think of religions we tend to think in terms of commandments, God's binding rules, with the explicit threat of punishment for sinners. This idea seems to cause more harm than good, and I reject it. Buddhism tends to be associated with Buddhist monasticism and Buddhist monks are pretty obsessed with rules. But I am not monk, so those rules don't apply to me. So am I a libertine? Far from it!

Actions have consequences. We all know this at some level. As a Buddhist I try to develop awareness of the consequences of my actions. I try to be more self-aware, to be more aware of other people, and more aware of how the universe actually works. The combined result is that I see how my actions affect other people, I identify with the desire of those people to be happy, and I tend to be more generous and kind. This is a natural process. In reality we're not all separate and isolated, on the contrary we are infinitely interrelated and interdependent. Morality or ethics is about working on the social level of this principle. (I've elaborated on this theme in my essay on the Six Perfections)

Rules are funny things. Every rule is broken by someone at some time, and some of the lesser rules are broken routinely by everyone without thinking. Sometimes we may not agree with a rule, or we might not know about it. Many times we think that we are a special case, or that the circumstances allow or require that we break the rule this time. And so it goes. No sooner is a rule made than it is broken. And yet without rules our societies would probably fall apart.

Rules have either and implicit or explicit element of coercion in them. Do this, or else! In the Buddhist approach to morality there can be no coercion because that will simply inflict more suffering. The consequences of our actions are far more powerful than any police force, judiciary or penal system. They will always catch us up, always match the deed. Which is not to say that everything that happens to us is a direct result of something done in this life or a previous one. I think it can be useful to think of every action having consequences that we will have to live with, but I do not think it at all helpful to believe that everything that happens to us is a result of our previous actions. There is good doctrinal support for my view which I may go into at another time.

My own observation of cause and effect has led me to abstain from alcohol. Not because it clouds the mind, which it does; not because "Buddhists don't drink", some do. I don't drink because it causes me to behave in ways that I later regret. The consequences are painful for me and others. I also abstain from eating meat. Again this is not because Buddhists are vegetarians, some aren't; it's not for health reasons, because there are good health reasons for eating meat. I don't eat meat because I'm rather fond of animals, and I don't want them to be killed.

What do I do about those acts which I commit which end up causing harm, whether I intended it or not? I confess them, which is to say I express remorse for having caused harm. It's important to distinguish healthy remorse from Guilt which is the fear of punishment. Guilt itself is harmful. Confession doesn't absolve us, and it won't stop us living with the consequences of our deeds, but it helps to develop awareness.

So when I say "there are no rules, just consequences" in a way I mean just that. I don't think rules will help me be a better person. Only awareness can do that. As a member of the Western Buddhist Order I have made an explicit commitment to develop that kind of awareness. This apparent abrogation of rules is not a shrugging off of responsibility. On the contrary I am taking seriously the responsibility to weigh my every action of body, speech and mind, to see whether it is likely to cause harm to any living being.

When we develop awareness of the consequences of our actions, then we are bound far more tightly than any set of rules could ever bind us.
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