April 04, 2012

Precepts as Practice in American Buddhism

This guest blog post comes our way from Charles Prebish, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and Utah State University. In the current issue of Tricycle, Prebish is interviewed by Linda Heuman (Read "Pursuing an American Buddhism" here). They had so many topics to cover in such a short time, however, that there were many items Prebish would have liked to discuss more fully. In the coming weeks two more blog posts by Prebish will be posted on tricycle.com. Prebish believes each of these topics has been, and will be, critical in the ongoing development of American Buddhism.


Precepts as Practice in American Buddhism
The Buddha uniformly and consistently spoke of a threefold training that included not simply spiritual practice, but also the ethical training which establishes and maintains it, as well as the wisdom that arises from it. Most often the ethical training is described in terms of the practice of “precepts.” This is significant because precepts are not practiced in a specific portion of one’s day, as one does with meditation, or within a prescribed ritual practice. Properly observed, precepts apply to the totality of one’s everyday experience. They fill our lives in every moment. So, in the broadest sense, precepts are practice in a far more comprehensive fashion than any single spiritual undertaking. The problem, though, is just how Buddhist ethical guidelines can be applied to daily life; and in specific terms, what adaptations must be made to accommodate the experience of Buddhist life in the West?

It is important to realize that Buddhist ethical guidelines, both for the monastic order and the laity, were preached with specific application to sixth-century BCE India. They did not appear as a discourse on theoretical ethics by the Buddha, but rather in response to serious breaches of conduct on the part of his followers. However, rather than presuming the early community to be a lazy, immoral group—which they certainly were not—we should be grateful for their indiscretions because these indiscretions have provided us with a clear glimpse into the ethical concerns that shaped the early community. Of course these fell into two categories, technically called vinaya and śīla, the former representing an externally enforced code, compulsory for all monks and nuns, that is as much concerned with the complete purity of the community, individually and organizationally, as it is with the ethics of conduct; and the latter representing an internally enforced ethical guideline around which any Buddhist practitioner might structure his/her life. In the earliest Buddhist traditions, there were two obvious ways for updating the Buddhist ethical tradition to reflect changing times and circumstances. The first involved the creation of commentaries on the precepts, and the various sects of early Buddhism preserved a rich heritage of these texts. The second involved creating amendments, or decisions taken outside the scriptural texts of the precepts that were appended as expressions of new situations not previously encountered. Unfortunately, in most Buddhist countries the commentarial tradition ceased rather early, and the application of the amended decisions seems not to have been applied since the thirteenth or fourteenth century.

As a remedy for the above dilemma, it was suggested as early as 1979 (in my book American Buddhism) that the Buddhist tradition in the West should once again employ the traditional practice of writing commentaries and using new ethical decision-making as a means of not only squarely facing the complex ethical dilemma of practicing Buddhism in the modern West, but also revitalizing the ethical framework of Buddhism generally. The response at that time was consistent and uniform, and almost completely negative. To an American Buddhist audience that was largely unfamiliar with the internal mechanism of the Asian Buddhist scriptures, the suggestion sounded like heresy. Nevertheless, within a decade, when the American Buddhist journalist Rick Fields delivered an address on “The Future of American Buddhism” at a conference in Berkeley in 1987, he anticipated eight features that he felt would be critical to the ongoing development of American Buddhism. All eight points were related to issues of Buddhist ethics, with the final one expressing the necessity for new lay precepts. In other words, he indirectly affirmed the need for the new commentaries. Although he did not suggest from what sources one might find the new ethical insights which might inform American Buddhism, many of the American Buddhist teachers, in a variety of sects and lineages, have taken up the challenge and begun mining Buddhist scriptures for just those commentaries.

I have been a staunch supporter of Stephen Batchelor's “precepts as practice” approach, so there's no need to again rehearse my staunch support for the precepts as practice approach. Yet I think it is important to understand that Buddhist communities composed of mostly Asian immigrant Buddhists value and utilize ritual practices, chanting, and faith-based observances in quite the same way convert communities emphasize sitting meditation. The mental focus and concentration required to carry out ritual practice in the proper fashion is every inch as demanding as śamatha meditation. But additionally, I think that the precepts as practice approach can additionally help bridge the gap between the Asian immigrant and American convert communities because, irrespective of the specific practice dictated by the individual sanghas, all Buddhists are obliged to follow the five vows of the lay practitioner. Those five vows are something we are all encouraged to do all the time. One cannot overestimate the importance of ethical concerns for the entire Buddhist community globally. In the more than 2,500 years since Buddha's ministry, the ethical concerns and challenges we face as global and American Buddhists have changed drastically, and we are indeed fortunate that scholars like Damien Keown have helped us better understand the contextual circumstances for issues never considered during Buddha's lifetime, like abortion, euthanasia, bio-ethics generally, sexual ethics, and the like. All of these issues fall under the category called “practice,” and they will continue to become more complicated as we move through this new century.

To sum up: If the American Buddhist tradition is to affirm the suggestion that precepts are an integral aspect of Buddhist practice, and of a Buddhist lifestyle that nourishes awareness of and respect for all living beings, then a new and modern ethical literature must necessarily be created. However, if that literature is to meaningfully address the conflicts and ambiguities that result from colliding with a modern world that the earliest tradition never imagined, and engage that encounter in a fashion that is truly transcultural and transnational, then it is essential for that new literature to reflect a kind of balanced relationship between scripture and practical application, so that American Buddhist ethics will be both current and textually supported.

Read "Pursuing an American Buddhism," an interview with Charles Prebish here. Discussion of this blog post, and the two forthcoming, will take place on the interview page.

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