A couple more questions from the readership:

I finished reading your book about a month ago and I really enjoyed it, I’m 17 and for the past 3 years I’ve been trying to figure out what life is all about. I started reading books on buddhism by tich nhat hanh, surya dass, and the dalai lama. But I was always a bit turned off by zen, Im not sure why, it just seemed really esoteric. Well, I was wrong. Your book was great, it painted an amazing picture of what zen is, and I’ve been trying to do zazen ever since. But I have a question, where do buddhist morals come from? In a religion that believes in a god or gods, they are the ones that decide what is right and wrong. How does zen make a distinction from what is moral and what is not?

You’re starting early! And I’m starting late because you asked me this over a year ago and I’m only just now getting to it. Now you’re 18 and you’ve probably moved on to cooler things than Buddhism. But here goes anyway.

Buddhist morality comes from the situation at the moment. I know whenever I say this people scream and cry and tear their hair out yelling, “That’s situational ethics!” As if that’s a bad thing. But I really don’t think it is.

I guess when people say “situational ethics” they mean an attitude where you change your ethical stance on a whim according to whatever suits you at the moment. Buddhist morality isn’t like that.

We have guidelines in the Ten Precepts. You can read all about those by downloading this pamphlet. But as it says in the pamphlet, Dogen said that the precepts were the habit of Buddhists, not their goal. Nishijima’s Q&A; at the beginning of this pamphlet really lays out the Buddhist view on morality way better than I’m able to.

In real life the proper course of action always presents itself clearly. But we are usually unable to discern it because we have a strong habit of shouting down our intuitive response with thought. Part of the reason we do zazen is to learn to ignore thought and pay attention to the intuitive response.

Morals are not decided by the opinion of the majority, even if that majority calls themselves “Buddhist.” As I’ve mentioned recently, there’s a tendency among American Buddhists to apply the precepts the way the Ten Commandments have been applied by some Christians, as a way to criticize or even ostracize others. It’s as if no one read The Scarlet Letter when it was assigned in ninth grade, or at least they didn’t get it. The point of the precepts is not that they be used as a guideline to judge whether other people are good or bad. They’re to be used as a guideline for our own behavior in times when intuition fails. But, as I’m sure I’ve said, intuition never really fails. But we do screw our bodies and minds up to the point where we become unable to see it clearly.

Another question:

I’ve been a Buddhist geek for a long time and have been sitting zazen every day for about a year. I’m also and electrician, a job that requires random drug testing –no problem. I was called in for one such test about a month ago and got a case of stage fright resulting in my inability to produce a sample and the subsequent loss of my job. This has been a problem for me since I was ten and, while I’ve noticed some improvement since I’ve been sitting, it’s by no means cured.

So, I went to my doctor, a man who I respect very much. He called it paruresis –a mild anxiety disorder. He wrote me a note to challenge the loss of my job and prescribed me some medication. One of these pills I’m now taking is Zoloft.

Here’s my question: While I haven’t noticed any effect on my sitting zazen, I worry that this kind of treatment will cheapen my practice and ultimately do more harm then good. What do you think? Again, I know you’re busy and I’m only asking your opinion because I’m between zen teachers and I respect your take.

I get questions like this a lot and I’m always a little hesitant to answer them. The reason I’m hesitant is that I really don’t know the people who are asking these things personally, so I can’t assess their situation in any reliable way.

In general, I’m pretty much anti-drug all the way down the line. I don’t even like taking Asprin, though I will take it sometimes. So I’m not a big fan of drugs like Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac and all the rest of the modern miracle cures for whatever ails you. I’ve gone through some serious depression in my life and I am sure that, had I gone to one of the kinds of doctors who deals in these wonder drugs during those times I’d surely have been prescribed them. Had that happened I’m certain I’d still be dependant on them to this day. So I thank God I’m just a little too old, so that those drugs hadn’t yet been invented yet when I “needed” them.

To me, your particular problem seems a bit simpler than it’s being made out to be. I mean, if it were me, I’d have gone out and bought a huge thing of lemonade and drank it all in one go. Or just sucked on the cold water tap in the bathroom for a few minutes before entering the stall. The biological urge would then overwhelm any stage fright. Still, having been prescribed the drug by a physician gives you more leverage to take action against your former employers. So I think it’s a good thing to have done in that sense.

In most cases I’d guess the problem is a lot simpler than the cure. Once when a friend of mine who was studying clinical psychology told me about the side effects of the various drugs her profession used, I said it sounded like tuning a piano with a sledge hammer. Maybe the one string you were trying to fix would get tuned up that way, but you’re gonna wreck everything else in the process.

Still, I want to be careful. There may be times when a medical solution is called for. But, to me, the decision to go for the medical solution is like the decision to declare war. It’s something you want to hold off on until there are absolutely no other options. Nobody was gonna stop the Nazis with diplomacy, so war had to be declared. But unless you’re up against someone like the Nazis it may be better to avoid declaring war. My take on the use of anti-depressants and similar drugs is like that.

I’m still in Ohio. Here’s the gig list again:

November 7th at 7PM I’ll be at the Akron Public Library downtown.

November 7th (same day) 0DFx (the hardcore band I played bass in in the early 80s) will play the Matinee in Akron after the talk at the library.

November 9th my movie Cleveland’s Screaming will be shown at the Beachland Tavern in Cleveland. There’ll also be live performances by 0DFx, CD Truth, Cheap Tragedies and This Moment in Black History.

November 10th 0DFx plays at the Spitfire Saloon in Cleveland.

November 12th I’ll give a Zen talk at Lambert’s Tattooing and Body Piercing (I kid you not) in manly, he-man Mansfield, Ohio at 7PM (Sponsored by the Mansfield Zen Center).

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51 Responses

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  1. Jinzang
    Jinzang November 10, 2007 at 3:53 pm |

    So who is the one suffering and who is the one taking meds??

    Even answering that question will not end your problems.

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