Religion and morality are not the same. Whereas religion grew out of a sense of wonder, morality developed from a need for order in a tribal context. Neither of these concepts needs a priesthood or ministry to ensure its survival. A sense of wonder is part of childhood, which is also when we develop our sense of right and wrong. At its most basic level this latter development is little more than learning what we can and cannot get away with, and progressing beyond this level does not depend on the intensity of one`s religious belief. Some atheists, agnostics and humanists display far higher moral standards than do some devoutly religious people. History is full of sad examples of religious fervour leading to the persecution and torture of those who do not conform to a set formula of belief. The sad fact is that hierarchies or priesthoods often have far more to do with wielding power over others than with ministering to people`s real needs.
As smaller tribes joined up to form larger ones, leaders learned to control their followers by exploiting both their sense of wonder and their fear of the unknown. Those who seemed to have a special insight into the mysteries of the cosmos were used by leaders to gain control over the minds of their followers. In this way, first of all shamans, then organised priesthoods were used to instil fear into people, making it easier for leaders to retain control over the populace. So it was that religion and morality came together. Priesthoods have a vested interest in exploiting people`s fears simply because doing so maintains their privileged position in society.
Since great religious reformers often threaten the monopolies enjoyed by hierarchies, they are seldom popular with existing religious setups. In this respect it is worth noting that the so called founders of the great religions would find it difficult to recognise those religions as they exist today as anything like what they had originally taught. Indeed, it needs to be asked if Lao Tzu did actually found Taoism, Shakyamuni Buddha found Buddhism or Jesus found Christianity. Certainly, with regard to Buddhism, we know that the Buddha was reluctant to found any organisation that might become an end in itself. Amongst other things, three aspects of his teaching stand out as illustrating this fact.
First, he was very careful to state that no one should believe anything he said simply because he had said it, but individuals should seek to prove everything for themselves.
Second, the Sangha was there to be used as a refuge and not as an arbiter of a set pattern of doctrinal belief or dogma.
Third, religious belief of any kind needs to be seen as a discardable vehicle or raft - as a means to an end and not as an end in itself.
Anxiety to preserve the teaching of a great religious leader inevitably leads to the formation of some kind of hierarchy ostensibly founded for this precise task, and temples, churches, monasteries and images will soon follow, all of them seeking to enshrine and preserve both the image and the teaching of the founder. With the passing of time hierarchy, buildings and images all become ends in themselves, with the result that people are more concerned with visiting such places as Kyoto, Bangkok and Rome to gasp in awe at the beauty of both art and architecture without the slightest interest in the teaching behind their creation.
Bearing all this in mind, it is, to say the least, interesting to realise that none of the great religious teachers down the ages has ever taught that lavish buildings and artifacts are an essential part of their teaching. The world is full of architectural wonders that have long since outlived the the religion for which they were created. Even where temples and cathedrals are still in use they are often used more by tourists than by members of the religion that created them. Indeed, dedicated believers often shun the opulence of such structures for the anonymity afforded by more humble meeting places.
Furthermore, attendance at temple, church or mosque is by no means an accurate measure of a nation`s moral fibre. Although church attendance in much of Europe is far lower than it is in the USA, the crime rate is lower in Europe than it is in the USA, and Europeans also tend to be more concerned about damage to the environment than do many Americans. In fact, it is often the less religious Americans who care most about such things, with many very religious people being very right wing and in favour of exploitation of wilderness areas for such commodities as oil and timber. Indeed, belief in such things as capital punishment, the right to bear arms, anti-abortion and the dominance of the male over the female all often go hand in hand with religious fervour. Here it is worth noting that statistics show that crime rates among churchgoers is virtually the same as that among non-churchgoers, and a religious person is just as likely to take drugs as a non-religious person.
The sad fact is that, in the world of today, religious belief has largely come to represent the judgement between right and wrong, which is something that is not found in the teachings of Lao Tzu, Shakyamuni Buddha, Jesus, Hui Neng, Dogen, Francis of Assisi, The Lady Julian of Norwich, Bankei and so on. Whereas much of what passes for religion wants us to believe that it is all about the fight against and the defeat of evil, all of these persons mentioned taught that the real problem was one of suffering through disharmony. Here it is worth noting that there is absolutely nothing in the original teaching of Jesus to suggest that he believed in Original Sin, a doctrine that did not become an essential part of Christian teaching until taught by Augustine of Hippo circa 400 AD. This doctrine is not found in either Judaism or Islam and certainly not in any other great religion.
Seeing everything in terms of absolute opposites such as good and evil is a sure path to intolerance. Seeking to impose our own concept of good on others can only lead to suffering. The Buddha taught that the real problem is one of harmony and disharmony, of wellbeing and suffering, besides which chain reactions are set in motion by both well-conceived and ill-conceived acts. What is there is there, and it is the way we use it that creates either good or bad karma. All opposites, all polarities, are inseparable; we cannot have light without darkness and vice-versa. In any one supposed absolute the germ of its opposite can always be found. Meditation is the means by which we come to terms with all this and with what actually is, was and will be.
Meditation is not there to be clung to as one might cling to a drug. Training is not about learning how to have a good meditation as opposed to a bad meditation, and it is not something we do in a certain place under certain conditions just as we work, play and rest in certain places under certain conditions. What happens during meditation needs to something that pervades our lives whatever we are doing, be it sitting, walking, working, playing or anything else. It needs to be realised that it is perfectly possible to be a first rate sitting meditator without being able to take any of that meditation with us into our daily lives. There is nothing 'wrong' with this kind of meditation. Indeed, sometimes it is a necessary therapeutic interlude for persons suffering stress. Nevertheless it needs to be realised that we are not trying to achieve anything during meditation, and that applies just as much to our working meditation and so on as it does to our sitting meditation. Since all are born with the Buddha Nature, what is their to achieve? Realisation is all that is necessary, and even that comes without us actually realising that we are in a state of realisation. Such is the koan of daily life, and it is what Great Master Dogen is talking about in his Rules for Meditation.
I was once amazed when a monk told me of a certain trainee that 'he was coming along very well'. Coming along from what and to where? Was he coming along according to that particular monk`s concept of what coming along is all about? When he already possesses the Buddha Nature, why does he need to progress either away from it or towards it? The reason why some Zen masters give trainees koans to ponder over is to guide them into not needing to depend upon such concepts as coming and going.
Uncontrived awareness of the meditative principle, the Buddha Nature, in daily life enables us to cope with progress and achievement, or the failure of them, without even realising that we are doing so. What is that I hear you saying? That`s all very well until we are faced with some horrendous situation. That is perfectly true. None of us knows how we would cope then. However, it is worth remembering that the Buddha died of food poisoning, often a painful condition. As he lay dying his main concern was for the blacksmith who had prepared the meal. He was concerned that this man should not be blamed for the poisoning. Beautiful temples, large monasteries, institutions and organisations may all be very well in their places; they may even inspire us; but we should always remember that the Dharma is not confined to such places and that the Sangha is a living being bearing that same Dharma forth into every corner of daily life. Getting married, remaining single, becoming a monk - these are choices we make. One condition is neither better nor worse than another. The only things that matter are that the Dharma continues to be taught and the Buddha Nature realised. If the monastic life, or any other form of life, ceases to be a conduit to these ends and becomes an end in itself, a mere tradition honoured through age old custom, then it has ceased to be a Sangha and has turned into a priesthood.
In this context it is helpful to be able to recognise the Buddha Nature in other people no matter how unpleasant some other people may seem to be. Even when we need to stand up to other people, to rebuke them or restrain them it does not mean that we have to cease seeing the Buddha nature in them. Compassion does not mean being soft with either other people or with ourselves. Compassion is knowing the difference between revenge and rehabilitation. Seeking punishment through feelings of revenge can only lead to more suffering on all sides. Making 'examples' of others only works when we see ourselves in the examples we are making. We all cause pain and suffering. Those we choose to call criminals are those who cause excessive amounts of pain. Revengeful punishment to the point where such people come out of prison seeking revenge on society for the pain they have suffered there is self-defeating.
All these considerations lead us to realise that our meditation, our Buddha Nature, our training needs to be here and now in our daily lives and not something we do when we visit a monastery, go on retreat or attend meetings. We are Buddhists in the workplace, in the home, in our daily lives or we are nothing at all, and we are not missionaries seeking to convert others, but simply trainees seeking to see the Buddha Nature in everyone and everything around us.
This is a theme that runs through the teaching to be found in the great sutras and in the lives of the great masters. Over 1200 years ago in China, when the young Hui Neng was chopping and selling firewood for a living, he heard someone reciting the Diamond Sutra. Although he was illiterate, he had a photographic memory, which enabled him to retain and recollect the words he had heard, and he was deeply impressed. So much so, in fact, that he sought entrance to a Buddhist monastery to train to become a monk.
Not long afterwards, when the abbot was devising a test to find out which of the monks was the best qualified to succeed him in his office, Hui Neng was still just a lay person chopping firewood and pounding rice in the kitchens. The chief instructor of monks, Shen Hsui, who was generally considered by most of the monks to be most worthy of all of them to succeed to the high office, entered the test by posting a verse on a wall.
Our body is the Bodhi-tree.
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.
Having asked for the verse to be read out to him, Hui Neng then requested that the following verse be pasted up on the wall beside it.
There is no Bodhi-tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?
Here in a nutshell was the essence of the teaching contained in the Diamond Sutra, and the abbot visited Hui Neng secretly at night in the kitchens to confirm him as his successor, even though Hui Neng was still a lay person and illiterate into the bargain. No amount of polishing and waxing of a well cared for motor car will prevent it from growing old, deteriorating and eventually needing to be replaced. The same is true of all sentient beings, all of which must eventually fade away in some way or other. The void is where the opposites are resolved in the realisation of the Essence of Mind, the Unborn, the Buddha Nature, call it what you will, and it is where the concept of the alighting of dust is quite meaningless. The difference between the teaching of Shen Hsui and that of Hui Neng is the difference between regarding meditation as an end in itself and that of seeing it as a vehicle.
Nearly 1000 years after the time of Hui Neng, this time in Japan, Bankei took up the theme of the Unborn Buddha Mind as being with us all as something we only had to realise, a task only made difficult by its very simplicity. Bankei poured scorn on those who surmised that women were less able to achieve this than men, or that monks could do it better than lay people. Not surprisingly, after Bankei`s demise, there was no mad rush on the part of the hierarchy in Japan to take up on his theme. Even though the Buddha founded no priesthood, it is often found in Buddhism by default as the great monasteries seek to protect their privileged position. The greater the potential for piety, the greater the potential for corruption. The position of Bankei in Japanese society is akin to that of the Poor Parson as described by Chaucer in the Prologue to his Canterbury Tales. The compassion of the Poor Parson and his devotion to the needs of his parishioners stands out in marked contrast to the grasping selfishness of both the Monk and the Friar.
Although declining church attendance and a dearth in temple building are often quoted as signs of declining values in society, history teaches us quite the reverse. All too often, lavish temples and full churches are symptomatic of a brutal and corrupt society in which the weak are oppressed and the wealthy imagine they can buy their way into eternity by the patronage of religion. Shakyamuni Buddha, Hui Neng and Bankei all taught otherwise. The Way of the Buddhas is to realise the Unborn within ourselves and then see it in every other sentient being.
from Now And Zen - Spring 2001