Can Meditation Make You Morally Perfect?

Flavor AidToday I posted the following quote from my teacher Gudo Wafu Nishijima on my Facebook page:

Trying to obey the precepts is a hopeless task. The harder we try the more difficult it becomes. Gautama Buddha, Master Dogen, and the great patriarchs all gave up trying to obey the precepts. They found they could not obey the precepts by their conscious efforts so they worked on the problem from another angle. They found that when they practiced zazen every day their lives became simple and clear. They found in fact that they could not disobey the precepts.

In our life we must make our decisions moment by moment. They are instantaneous: they are dependent on the condition of our body and mind at the moment. Therefore when our body and mind are balanced and composed, our action reflects our composure. When we are `right’, our actions will also be right. So the only way to obey the precepts is to change our body and mind through the practice of zazen. When we practice zazen we resume our original nature—our Buddha-nature. We find ourselves in harmony with the Universe at every moment. In such a state it is impossible for us to break the precepts. When we practice zazen we become persons who cannot disobey the precepts.

A guy who routinely posts comments that are, shall we say, contrarian, immediately objected saying this was “dangerous” and an example of “cult-logic.”

His reasoning went as follows, “That means that anyone who practices zazen can claim to be able to disobey the precepts and do whatever they like, and it will all be ‘in harmony with the Universe’ at any moment. That’s precisely how cult leaders justify their selfish actions. Any act one performs can be justified and defended with this logic. All one has to do is practice zazen. and it’s instantly just fine.”

I understand his objection. But I read the quote differently. To me, the key line is, “When we practice zazen we become persons who cannot disobey the precepts.” The first four words make all the difference. They are, “when we practice zazen.”

My friend on Facebook imagines the meaning of this sentence is, “when we practice zazen for 40 minutes (or whatever) per day, then during the rest of our lives we magically become unable to break the precepts, therefore let me fondle you while you drink this cup of tasty Flavor Aid.” But that isn’t what Nishijima is saying. He is saying that during the act of zazen, it is impossible to break the precepts. I certainly can’t see any way to do it!

By repeating this action every day without fail, we change subtly. In my Facebook friend’s words, “one becomes more and more aware of one’s self-centeredness.”
This will not end up magically transforming you into someone whose actions will always be above reproach. That’s impossible. For one thing, no matter how good you try to be there’s always someone out there who can find fault with you.

Not only that, but nothing will ever erase what the Buddhists call our “ancient twisted karma born from beginningless greed, hatred, and delusion.” In other words, you’ll always have your specific “baggage” to use the preferred term of Americans these days.

I also can see my friend’s problem with the line that says, “When we practice zazen we resume our original nature—our Buddha-nature. We find ourselves in harmony with the Universe at every moment. In such a state it is impossible for us to break the precepts.” You could read this as a claim that zazen will transform us into someone other than who we are. Then you could use this as an excuse to act like a jerk and claim that because you regularly did zazen, even your jerk-type actions were in accord with Buddha-nature. But that would be ridiculous.

I read it a little differently. My take on it is this; in doing zazen we discover that at every moment we are in harmony with the universe, whether we know it or not. When we are in the state of being in harmony with the universe, we can’t break the precepts.

Now here is where it starts getting a little weird.

We are in harmony with everything, unable to ever be out of synch. And yet we behave like jerks sometimes. Dogen recognized this and said, “Even if the whole universe is nothing but a bunch of jerks doing all kinds of jerk-type things, there is still liberation in simply not being a jerk.” He also said that any teaching that does not sound like “don’t be a jerk” is not Buddhism.

There have been plenty of cult leaders who have claimed some kind of supernatural justification for acting like jerks. No doubt there will be plenty more. But that, in itself, is an example of being a jerk.

There is no state of Enlightenment that, once you’ve had it, renders you morally perfect. This is one of the reasons I so strongly object to methods of meditation and the use of drugs that are supposed to give you some kind of instant Enlightenment.

In fact, it’s just the opposite. A person who experiences a state of universal oneness without any context can actually become a bigger menace to society than they were before they had the experience. For one thing, you become more aware of how easy it is to manipulate people. It can be very tempting.

This is why the core of Buddhist teaching is “don’t be a jerk.” This is why Dogen says that if any teaching fails to include “don’t be a jerk” it ain’t Buddhism.

And yet, and yet…

This was Dogen’s big question, the one that drove him to do all that meditating. And the guy did a lot of meditation! But when he first started meditating, when was just a little kid, he asked the older monks, “The Buddha said we are all perfect just as we are, so why do we need to practice?”

The only magic in zazen is that it answers this question. We will resist the answer as hard as we can. For one thing, the answer is a logical contradiction. We are perfect and incapable of making mistakes, and yet we make tons of mistakes. And the only way to stop making so many mistakes is to stop being such jerks.

The obvious question, then, is, “What about (fill in the name of your favorite disgraced meditation master)? He meditated all the time and he was still a jerk!”

I can’t answer that question, except to wonder what that person would have been like if he hadn’t done all that meditating.

But that person isn’t you. Your job isn’t to figure out why he was such a jerk. Your job is to see why you’re such a jerk and then knock that shit off.

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If you’re in Los Angeles, come see me at The Last Bookstore on June 2nd at 7:3o

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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!

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July 1, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex at Now That’s Class!

July 4, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex TBA

July 8, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 7:30pm Talk & Book Signing

July 9, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 10am-3pm Workshop

September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat

September 14, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland Zazen and Discussion

September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat

September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat

September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A

September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat

October 3, 2016 Turku, Finland, Talk at the University

October 4-5, Stockholm, Sweden, Talk and 1-Day-Retreat

October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab

October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture

October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat

October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat



Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website,

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