In the same way that all paths of practice end in making no effort, all guidelines for behavior end in no do’s or don’t’s. However, this journey takes place in the richness and messiness of daily life. For that reason, it’s a bit more difficult than meditation practice.
Guidelines for behavior inevitably bring us into the domain of morality. In the Tao Te Ching, stanza 18 (from Addis and Lombardo's translation) reads:
Great Tao rejected:
Benevolence and righteousness appear.
Learning and knowledge professed:
Great hypocrites spring up.
Family relations forgotten:
Filial piety and affection arise.
The nation disordered:
Patriots come forth.
From this perspective, moral guidelines are expressions of a disconnection from the mystery and immediacy of life. They arise to counter imbalances, but they generate imbalances of their own.
Right and WrongGone are the days of traditional societies, at least in most parts of the world, when everyone held the same over-arching worldview and consensus about right and wrong. Many people in modern societies would like to return to an absolute standard, a wish that often takes expression in various forms of fundamentalism, in set beliefs or in what are claimed to be universal truths. In a pluralist society, we rely on our own personal values. Our sense of right and wrong are frequently defined by context and perspective. Ironically, we are more likely to be dogmatic and strident in the advocacy and defense of these personal values than we are of generally accepted values. We seek to validate our stance and persuade (if not coerce) others to adopt it.
Group CohesionThis leads to a second function of morality: it provides groups with cohesion - a set of shared values and priorities that determine with whom we do or do not connect. This function is also intimately connected with reputation, with what other people think of us. In the world of social interaction and especially in the worlds of social media, our reputation, our “personal brand,” determines to a large extent which groups we belong to and which deem us worthy of consideration or respect. The cohesive function inevitably leads members of a given group to diminish (or dismiss) the values and priorities of other groups. Conflicting ideas about right and wrong and about what is true become the seeds of tension and conflict - conflicts that are resolved or fought out in the political, economic and social spheres. Hence, as the Korean monk Manhae wrote in Everything Yearned For:
Yes, I understand ethics, morality, law
are nothing but the smoke worshipping the sword and gold.
This function of morality with its attendant concern for belonging and reputation is in stark contrast to the morality and ethics of, say, Mahayana Buddhism, in which we find such guidelines as this one from Mind Training in Eight Verses:
When scorn and insult become my lot,
Expressions of some jealousy,
I alone accept defeat
And award the other victory.
Expression of Practice
In the context of direct awareness, this third function inevitably takes the form of “no do’s or don’t’s”.
Most of what I say and do is shaped by emotional and biological conditioning. Like the tectonic plates that make up the surface of the world, reactive patterns shift and move inside me in ways that I can neither control nor predict. These movements may open fissures in my personality into which I tumble out of control. They may cause massive earthquakes that shake me to my core as different patterns collide and fracture. The notion that “I” exist as a seamlessly integrated personality is a Platonic pipe dream.
When I follow my teacher’s favorite pith instruction, “Just recognize and rest,” a clarity arises. I cannot say what that clarity is. It is not something that I can point to and say, “It is this.” That clarity is, simultaneously, a knowing. My effort in life consists in living that knowing. I do not know where it leads, and it has led to some very difficult, painful and dark places. Despite the difficulties, there was always a sense of where the balance might be and I found a way through. I have also learned that when I depart from that knowing, problems arise and things go seriously wrong. (This leads quite naturally into the role of protectors and protector practice, a topic that I will take up later.)
Thus, my effort in life is simply to keep moving in the direction of balance. Any other aim seems arbitrary, contrived and self-serving.
In this approach to life, I cannot ignore what arises or what I encounter, nor can I shut out what is inconvenient. I cannot manipulate what I experience nor control what happens or doesn't happen. All I can do is meet what does arise, open and stand in not knowing until a way is clear. There is no guarantee that things won't turn out badly. When they do, I learn, and I learn at a level that makes a similar occurrence unlikely.
If I adopt or accept a set of guidelines that tells me what to do, I’m no longer living that clarity. I’m just following guidelines.
Why do I choose to live this way? Rilke, perhaps, said it best in Letters to a Young Poet: it’s not a matter of choice.