I Vow Not to Destabilize Society

Avery Schreiber

Starting soon, Angel City Zen Center will have a monthly Full Moon Ceremony. This is basically a Jukai ceremony, except rather than individuals taking the precepts, the entire community renews their commitment to them together. In both Jukai and the Full Moon Ceremony, participants make a public vow to devote themselves to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and to uphold the Three Universal Precepts and the Ten Fundamental Precepts*.

In Nishijima Roshi’s version of the Universal Precepts, the very first one is, “I vow to observe the rules of society.” (FYI, the other two are vows to observe the moral law of the universe, and to work for the salvation of all living beings.)

At the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC), they call what Nishijima calls the Universal Precepts, the Pure Precepts. Their version of the first Pure Precept is, “I vow to refrain from all evil.” This is in line with the most common version of the Three Pure Precepts which are, “1) Do no evil, 2) Do good, and 3) Save all beings.”

The oldest version of these precepts we know of appears in the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the historical Buddha compiled around 200-300 years after his death. It goes, “To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.”

Nishijima Roshi’s version of the Universal Precepts is based on Dogen’s essay “Jukai” or “Receiving the Precepts.” In the translation Nishijima did with Mike Cross, he calls these the Pure Precepts rather than Universal Precepts. The first of these is given in that translation as, “The precept of observing rules.” In Kazuaki Tanahashi’s translation of the same essay it’s given as, “The precept of observing guidelines.”

In Dogen’s original, the word translated as “rules” or “guidelines” is pronounced richigi. Since WordPress refuses to recognize Chinese characters I’ve put a graphic of it next to this paragraph. This is defined by the on-line Japanese-English dictionary Jisho as, “honesty; faithfulness; conscientiousness; integrity.” Other words used to define it include, rectitude, reliability, and dependability. So Nishijima’s version is closer in spirit to Dogen’s than SFZC’s, which harks back to earlier forms of Buddhism.

In broad terms, honesty, integrity, reliability and so forth are the rules of society. These are the basic things one needs to do in order to be accepted by society as a whole. When I worked for the Summit County Board of Mental Retardation, a mentally handicapped gentlemen I worked with named Gilbert used to like to shout, “You gotta follow the rules!” Gilbert looked a lot like Avery Schreiber and would drink as much coffee as he could get away with until the caffeine made him so hyper we’d have to cut him off.

Gilbert was right. You gotta follow the rules.

When Nishijima was asked what we should do if the rules of society were clearly morally wrong, he said that our duty as Buddhists was to work to change those rules. But he believed it was always best to try to change the rules by working within the rules themselves. If you’re living in North Korea or someplace like that this might not be possible. But you can’t read this blog in places like North Korea, so I’m gonna go ahead and assume that most of my readership is living in places where this is still possible. And, yes, that goes for my readers in the United States too.

One of the dangers that occurs when one works for social progress is that, in trying to make positive changes you risk destabilizing society as a whole. If you destabilize a society too much, you don’t get social progress, you get chaos. And chaotic societies are much more vulnerable to being taken over by power hungry dictators.

Human beings are animals. Animals don’t like change. Lots of animals will die if their environment undergoes rapid change, even if that change could be defined as an improvement. Humans are more adaptable than most other animals, but we are not infinitely adaptable. And we respond just as badly to sudden change as any other species.

It’s very trendy these days to cry out for revolution. And while being a revolutionary makes you look cool, revolutions are a dodgy game. Often a revolution ends up ushering in a regime that is worse than the one it overthrew.

This is why I think that observing social rules is good Buddhist practice. Whatever society you find yourself in, try to understand its rules and follow them to the best of your ability. If you find some rules that need to be changed, don’t just undermine them, find a way to change the rules that promotes positive progress rather than promoting chaos.

The human experiment is unprecedented in the history of this planet. For all we know, it may even be unprecedented in the history of the universe. I’m sure other lifeforms exist in Outer Space. But someone has to be the first ever to develop sophisticated forms of communication and technology. Maybe we are the first.

In any case, we can’t afford to treat this lightly. We have a tremendous responsibility to make the human experiment work. Our responsibility goes far beyond what is good for us as individuals.

We are a form of matter that has, over billions of years, at long last achieved sentience and self-awareness. That’s not a trivial thing at all. In fact it’s a miracle if ever there was one.

We have a responsibility to care for the civilization we have only just brought into being out of a long, long history of disorder and survival of the strongest and most selfish. We have a chance to bring about a new kind of cosmic order. It won’t happen in our lifetimes. But it could happen if we manage to keep our shit together.

Your individual contribution to all of this may seem trivial, but it’s not.

You’re not going to fix everything that’s wrong with society by yourself. And you’re not going to fix everything that’s wrong with society right now. There will be things that will not be fixed during your lifetime. There will be people who remain oppressed, who remain violated and who remain vulnerable to violation, there will be wars, and cancer, and hairstyles so stupid your descendants won’t be able to look at pictures of you wearing them without doubling over in laughter.

But that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to make things right.

You should, however, always be careful of the role your personal ego plays in your efforts to bring about positive change. Even when your intentions are as pure as they can possibly be, the ego can still hijack them and make them a source of its own aggrandizement. And you can still fool yourself into thinking the ends justify the means if the ends are “good.” But that’s never the case. Doing wrong now for a better future never produces a better future. It’s just doing wrong now.


* The Ten Fundamental (or Grave) Precepts are 1) Do not kill, 2) Do not steal, 3) Do not have excessive desires, 4) Do not lie, 5) Refrain from intoxicants, 6) Do not speak of past mistakes, 7) Do not praise self and berate others, 8) Do not be covetous, 9) Do not give way to anger, and 10) Do not disparage Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (the Three Treasures).

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