Filed in Zen (Chan)

An Ear to the Ground

Uncovering the living source of Zen ethics

Lin Jensen

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David Hilliard's The Lucky Coin


OPINIONS ATTRACT THEIR OWN KIND. Offer one and you get one in return. This can be true of even the most benign assertion. The fact that you like peaches obligates others to declare their preference for oranges. I do this myself frequently enough to wonder what attraction opinions hold for me. And I suspect that having an opinion is a way to stake out a secure and identifying mental territory for myself. Who would I be without an opinion?

When someone’s giving his view of things, I’ve caught myself taking a position before he’s even finished laying out his point. It’s a contagious sort of reaction that’s greatly magnified when an opinion concerns the moral right or wrong of something. Judgments on right and wrong are a nearly irresistible enticement to pick sides. And that’s exactly why the old Zen masters warned against becoming a person of right and wrong. It isn’t that the masters were indifferent to questions of ethics, but for them ethical conduct went beyond simply taking the prescribed right side. For these masters, the source of ethical conduct is found in the way things are, circumstance itself: unfiltered immediate reality reveals what is needed.

I’m sure you can appreciate how contrary this is to traditional ethics, even the more traditional Buddhist ethics. When I first encountered this teaching in Zen, I simply couldn’t get it at first. Among the farm people where I grew up you were expected to know right from wrong. And the right and wrong you were expected to know was of a consistent sort that could be recited, chapter and verse, when the occasion required it. Those who couldn’t do so were disparaged as ones who “don’t know right from wrong.” That’s how traditional ethics works: conduct is based on reference to fixed principles. But this approach is limited, because any fixed ethical principle is a generalization, while events are specific. A precept such as “Do not kill,” “Do not steal,” or “Do not lie” applies to a respective category of human behavior. Since an actual event isn’t a category, ethical precepts serve us best not as an immediate dictate of behavior but as an instrument of inquiry. Daishin Morgan of the Soto Order of Buddhist Contemplatives taught that the purpose of the precepts is “to guide us beyond their form in a legalistic sense to the spirit that lies behind them.” The precepts are something to live with rather than live by, and living with the Zen precepts is ultimately humbling, softening our hearts to accept our own imperfections and deepening our resolve to live without harm.

If I want to see clearly what’s happening now, I must put aside external points of reference. What’s happening now is neither what happened before nor what I might hypothetically imagine happening in the future. As Erich Fromm said, “Contact is the perception of differences.” While an ethical generalization is derived from perceived similarity, a discrete event is made specific by virtue of difference. If an event seems familiar, it’s a likely lapse in attention that makes it so. The Chinese Ch’an masters saw that the most unassailable right or wrong is also the most likely to lure us away from present reality, substituting in its stead a familiar and comforting perception. All of us on the neighboring farms, children and adults, gave homage to the ancient ethic of not killing. “Do not kill” was understood among us as an undeniable good urging us to preserve life. But when a farm cat I’d raised from infancy dragged herself onto the porch steps, its hindquarters and legs crushed beyond saving, I put her to death. And only afterward did I weep with regret at the life I’d brought to an end.

Once, my mother on her way out the door to a women’s tea asked me how I liked a hat she’d bought for the occasion. I thought the hat was perfectly horrid. She was such a beautiful woman. It seemed a shame to let her go looking that way, but I lied and told her the hat was lovely. Was I wrong to do so? I certainly broke the literal precept. But I would have violated the promptings of a sympathetic heart had I told her the truth. The living moment exposes the limits of principled behavior. Yet it’s also true that Buddhism has developed and stated certain ethical principles. The very first teachings of the enlightened Gautama included the teachings of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. And from these first teachings have been derived a series of stated precepts that Zen Buddhists accept and practice to the best of their ability. Most of these precepts will seem indistinguishable from the ethical principles of other religious and philosophical systems. Zen Buddhists formally vow to take up the way of not killing, not stealing, not speaking falsely, and so on, and these precepts combine to support the overriding Buddhist ethic of noninjury.

Zen ethical principles, like all systems of ethics, are derived from an exhaustive observation of life and are a synthesis of painstaking induction. So where does the critical difference lie between Zen ethics and other traditional ethical systems? It lies in the way a Zen Buddhist works with ethical principles. For the Zen Buddhist, an ethical precept is a question to be held up to the light of circumstance, an inquiry rather than an answer. And the nature of this inquiry is not so much the dubious enterprise of trying to figure out the right thing to do as it is an offering of an unaided heart. After all, it’s from this heart of ours that the precepts themselves once arose. At the threshold of choice, the Zen Buddhist trusts this ancient heart above all other authority. It’s not that the Zen Buddhist reinvents the ethical wheel every time he faces a new situation; it’s just that he goes back to the source itself. Ethics is not an invention but an expression of the heart’s core. What’s most needed in the moment of choice is an empty hand.

The person of right and wrong for whom right is always right and wrong is always wrong never risks an empty hand. I’ve discovered that when I advocate from a moral persuasion and I’m wrong, I can be pretty hard to take. But when I’m right I’m insufferable. My “rightness” leaves me vulnerable to my own arbitrary judgment of the matter. “A Place Where We Are Right,” a poem by the Israeli poet Yehudi Amichai, shows this consequence perfectly:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

(from The Selected Poetry of Yehudi Amichai, translation by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, University of California Press, 1996, used with permission of the translators)

Zen ethics is grounded in the realization that one does not know what’s right. This “not-knowing” is the refuge from which all moral action originates. It’s a refuge that can’t be relegated to the role of moral abstraction and remains a free and alive expression of the moment. What’s offered us in the place of moral certainty is doubt and love, which are nearly synonymous. Doubt wears the hard edges off our best ideas and exposes us to the world as it is. When the great Zen master Ikkyu was asked, “What is Zen?” He replied, “Attention! Attention! Attention!”

This very attention to a world that’s not of our contrivance is an act of love, for we can only love what we truly see. I can testify to this in the most mundane way, as can any of us. But here’s an example. I was once traveling in a car with a friend, and a mosquito kept buzzing around my face and neck until eventually I felt the telltale itch that told me the mosquito had fed. And then it appeared on the windshield of the car, its tiny body made translucent against the sunlight. I could actually see a little red thread of my own blood shimmering inside the mosquito, and I was touched with admiration and affection for this beautiful creature whose eggs would feed on an offering of my own body. I said to my friend, “Look, Ralph, you can see my blood in the mosquito’s body.” And before I could object, he’d smashed the mosquito with the flat of his hand, leaving nothing but a red smear on the glass. I don’t blame Ralph. I’d looked and he hadn’t. We touch here the crux of Zen ethics that equates simple mindfulness with the capacity to love. And what else is moral action if it isn’t compassionate responses? We don’t get love from principles; we get love from occupying the ground we stand on.

And the ground we stand on is a field without signposts, in which we must find our way without conventional supports. There is a passage in Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs that aptly describes the nature of our situation. Almiry Todd, a character who while describing a tree could just as well be describing herself, says, 

There’s sometimes a good hearty tree growin’ right out of the bare rock, out o’ some crack that just holds the roots, right on the pitch o’ one of them bare stony hills where you can’t seem to see a wheel-barrowfull o’ good earth in a place, but that tree’ll keep a green top in the driest summer. You lay your ear down to the ground an’ you’ll hear a little stream runnin’. Every such tree has got its own living spring; there’s folk made to match ’em.

While a Zen Buddhist may cherish and recite her preceptual vows each day of her life, she nonetheless learns to keep her ear to the ground, listening to her own living spring and trusting that above all else. She receives the waters unwittingly, the living spring flowing into her from all sides—the scrape of shoes on the city street, the studied precision of the cook cleaning the kitchen counter, the girl swinging her hair with a twist of her neck, the guard with his feet planted, an old woman’s cough heard from an adjacent room, a hand nervously clenching and opening, the tone a voice takes, a hesitation in mid-sentence, a child snatching at a pebble sunk in the creek. She doesn’t accumulate these bits and facts of life like evidence on which to base a judgment. She doesn’t accumulate anything at all, nor does she form an impression of what she sees and hears. She lets the waters enter her body like sap rising from roots. She trusts that the limbs will grow in their own way and that the leaves will unfold in time.

IT’S POSSIBLE TO DO GOOD and equally possible to do harm, and so we’re stuck with the necessity of choice and consequence. And no choice can ever be encompassing and conclusive because the moment is a movement and requires continual adaptation and adjustment. We can faithfully adhere to a precept, and yet end up doing irreparable harm. We can never trace the ultimate consequence of our choices, but it’s safe to conclude that whatever we decide to do will be fraught with certain error and fall short of the best intent. An old Christian story attributed to the Desert Fathers touches on this human fallibility. The story goes that a monk asked Abba Sisoius, “What am I to do since I have fallen?” The Abba replied, “Get up.” “I did get up, but I fell again,” the monk told him. “Get up again,” said the Abba. “I did, but I must admit that I fell once again. So what should I do?” “Never fall down without getting up,” the Abba concluded. Falling down is what we humans do. If we can acknowledge that fact, judgment softens and we allow the world to be as it is, forgiving ourselves and others for our humanity. The Buddha’s First Noble Truth—that suffering exists—is, in itself, a permission to be human and not demand more of ourselves than we’re capable of. Our compassion arises from our very fallibility, and love takes root in the soils of human error.

Knowing that we’re certain to make crucial mistakes from which suffering will follow, we seek moral redemption through sustained attention. We stay around to clean up the mess we’ve made. If we really want to keep the Buddha’s house in order, we can’t afford to hold anything of ourselves in reserve. To be truly and wholly present even for the briefest moment is to be vulnerable, for we have arrived at the point where the obstacle that fear constructs between ourselves and others dissolves. It is here that the heart is drawn out of hiding and the inherent sympathetic response called compassion arises. We cease seeking our own personal happiness at the expense of others, because we see that the suffering of others is our suffering as well, and we see that our happiness too is inseparable from that of others. This expansion of self is what it means to be whole: it’s what we truly are when the living spring of compassion wells up in us, watering the deserts of discord and distrust with a love that can’t be turned aside. Ethical response is just such an unasked and unimpeded flow; it’s not a talent I can perfect and carry around with me and apply to situations. It’s always new, always for the first time.

The old masters placed the site of ethics within the inward, instantaneous and entire grasping of circumstances, a living dharma not divisible into categories of right and wrong. We can know things most directly when we lay no claim to knowing anything at all. The Zen Buddhist does not ask what’s right and wrong but rather, “What am I to do at this moment?” She has no opinion to put forth. She has learned not to acquire answers, and so holds her question open wherever she goes.

Lin Jensen is the author of Bad Dog and the forthcoming Pavement: A Buddhist Takes to the Street (Wisdom Publications, Spring 2007). He is the founding teacher of Chico Zen Sangha, in Chico, California.

Image: The Lucky Coin, David Hiliard, 1995, C-Print, 60 x 24 inche

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I speak with my therapist frankly, telling her that I like sitting in the lotus posture, and that I like eating vegetarian, she says frankly that is a comment without conviction. Do you realize how important it is to be mindful and to affirm my vow not to kill sentient beings is, she asks. I suppose in my heart of hearts these opinions are that I have, have no real bearing on what is good and what is evil, and yet if they are morally sound, and have some bearing on what is psychologically and ecologically to my benefit it maybe that I have taken my pleasures too simply on face value, that is I do not gain insight into the relevance of such deeper questions on what is intended by right attitude, right effort, right practice and diet. Yet if it is my pleasure to let go of being willful I find that being of service to others is really the only way one can rid himself of the impediment of his opinions, by seeing that others needs are met, are part of this holy transference of emotions that serves the purpose of my pleasure bringing the greatest good.

myers_lloyd's picture

Gassho. Double gassho.'s picture

I can agree that Zen practice teaches us ethics and not a moral judgment of right and wrong. The Buddha felt very much the way Jesus that mankind was worthy of saving. Yet Zen Buddhism has the advantage of showing us our actions and letting us decide, rather than just examining different ways of changing our behavior. Buddhism teaches us that humanity has an essence which in it's natural form has the ability to transcend obstacles in the path so that we may make slow progress in taking small steps to the invincible world of eternity and life hereafter.

jackelope65's picture

As a parent, I liked to present my 3 children with guidelines and not fixed rules, allowing them to develop their own wisdom and judgement in each situation. Lin, I wonder if you could translate your guidance into a storybook for children and their parents.

candor's picture

Moral dilemmas are generally where people love to opine and debate vigorously, but dilemmas are not where people generally go seriously wrong in moral thinking, speech, and behavior. The mistakes in dilemmas are usually minor, except in rare instances where stakes are very high.

Where people go seriously wrong in morality -- almost always en masse -- is in being unduly influenced by culture and culturally accepted prejudices. Examples include genocide, slavery (human and nonhuman), and oppression of certain groups of "others" that the dominant culture has deemed "inferior" in a morally arbitrary way. The reason this is so pernicious and difficult to change is that, when everybody else does it or ignores it, it doesn’t seem wrong. In this way, we can be completely blind to perpetual atrocities that severely violate our most basic values.

This cultural blindness is where Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil” is rooted. Examples include the persecution of heretics by the Church throughout the world centuries ago. The persecution of “witches” in 17th century America. Human chattel slavery in the antebellum American South and subsequent racism. The second class citizenship of women in the United States until at least 1920 and traces of it still today. And of course, we haven’t even begun to address the insane violence inflicted on innocent nonhuman animals for our trivial preferences and traditions in food, clothing, and entertainment.

I’ve studied ethics for years, but the topics generally squabbled about, such as metaethics and which theory best negotiates dilemmas (answer: none, but theories are often useful in assisting us, depending on the particular case) are relatively unimportant compared to the pernicious effect of cultural bias in clouding the application of our most basic and universal underlying values to the moral issues of our day, often including our daily choices.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Cultural blindness is an epidemic of the third poison: ignorance.

19sdb47's picture

Thank you, Lin.
I found your writing clear and understandable
and I learned something new.

sschroll's picture


In deep gratitude I bow to the Buddha Lyn who always helps me open my heart.

Dominic Gomez's picture

What's not addressed is that ethics are culture specific. Buddhists don't live in a vacuum. We carry societal imprints from childhood, and these include instinctive responses to what goes on in our lives, in the world in which we live. Such is non-dualism.

melcher's picture

I found this piece to be one of he most thoughtful, open and beautifully written I've come across. What it expresses to me is that a life lived in full awareness flows in a manner like poetry, like art, responsive to every circumstance and not caged by rigid rules of grammar and conduct. Compassion is always the lesson we learn as we allow a plant to grow. Sometimes we have to pull the weeds.

marginal person's picture

The writer tells us opinions harden and become self-righteous judgments. The zen practitioner, holding no views, doesn't accumulate anything at all. She forms no impressions She has no opinions.. She just pays attention.The incomparable zen masters of old are cited and held up as models for us.
The author's reasoning can be viewed as being harmful and counterproductive..
Witness the recent scandals involving zen "masters". The type of perfectionism the author espouses: no opinions, no accumulation of data, impression-less, creates a type of idealism which contributed to the climate of perfectionism and self-hatred in which the abuse happened.
Aspirations are sometimes necessary but idealization is harmful. Better to recognize the fact that being human means accumulating data and holding views then to aspire to an idealized state, always just out of reach.

chrismannolini's picture

May I pop my head in and offer a view?
I found Lin Jensen's piece most interesting and valuable. I am fascinated by Zen and the idea of acting 'beyond' concepts and living truly in the moment. Such concepts would include what is 'right' and 'wrong'.
To me, someone who were to bash his or her partner is not living in such a moment as they are not truly seeing the other person. This indeed is most unskillful.
Certainly, to teach the choices available to prisoners is most helpful and beneficial, and to encourage them ultimately to truly see other people, beyond concepts, would ultimately be still more helpful.
This is an interesting article and has inspired interesting comments. Thank you to all.
- Chris.

safwan's picture

Abstract thinking may give us temporary but illusory satisfaction. The reality is that: Buddhism emerged to benefit humanity and to transform sufferings into enlightenment. In this perspective, that what causes sufferings, whether judgement, speech or action- is definitely wrong. Violence is wrong, compassion is right.

Buddhist literature points to the 3 Poisons: of Greed, Arrogance and Foolishness as being causes for sufferings. So, one's motivation based on the illusory ego-self is a cause for sufferings, and definitely "wrong" , in terms of consequences or cause-and-effect.

I think that ethics (in any society or belief) is defined by the system of accepted Values. Buddhism is very specific about the values it holds, focused on compassion, wisdom and actions to support and benefit others. The abstract view that generally speaking there is no boundary between right and wrong, contradicts the Eightfold Path based on what is "right".


margie.townsend's picture

I think that we are talking about kamma and intention. It is easy to get into a tangle because the way these intertwine is very complex and, for most of us, unconscious. Kamma controls the thoughts and emotions that arise in consciousness at every moment based on past conditioning and whatever current conditions have arisen - it is beyond our control and not self. Intention, however, is what we can consciously contribute to the actions of each moment. This is what determines whether conditioned thoughts and emotions will be reinforced, guaranteeing their future return when conditions are ripe, or weakened and finally eliminated. So the choice in each moment is how we will respond to that which feels so compellingly like ourselves but which is really beyond our control. It is a dilemma that can only be addressed through developing the skills to see clearly and renounce short term feelings of satisfaction (saying or doing that hurtful thing) for long term happiness (kindness and compassion). If this is true, morality can only be developed by being open to the direct experience of the unique qualities of each moment and then choosing to respond as best we are able at that time for the benefit of ourselves and others. The precepts can be seen as a guideline to help hold us back from what may seem to be the "right" response in the heat of the moment, but which would be something we will regret when we cool down. In this way they can be very useful.

gartrell's picture

Thank you for your response, Margie, especially your observation that the precepts can act as guidelines in the heat of the moment. Kamma can weigh heavily on us and distort our perceptions of what is helpful and harmful in any situation. In my own experience, conversations with trusted spiritual friends have been most helpful in seeing more clearly how to respond for the benefit of all involved. -- David Gartrell.

andmarsco's picture

I have rather an issue with your idea that we can choose to do good, Paddy. Well, we can, but not always, and particularly very often not when we are under pressure -- and that of course is when it tends to really matter. If you have ever, for example, lost your temper, and who hasn't, didn't you have the impression that you were not in control of yourself? If there is a choice here to become angry, it does not seem at all to be the same kind of choice as we have when we are, say, deciding between groceries. Anger can be like an unexpected storm that suddenly and without warning ravages the body, taking it over. What kind of choice do you think this would be, Paddy? To be honest, I am very very tired of this easy pop-psychology answer of "choice".

paddy's picture

Hi Lin, I struggle with your opinion around ethics. I find it grounded in the abstract and not helpful in the practical world. I have worked in maximum security prisons as a Buddhist chaplain and designed and run groups for men violent with their families. My simple take on ethics ( Buddhist ethics is its origin) which I use with great success with these men is as follows:
1. we have choices
2. we are responsible for our choices
3. we can choose to act in wholesome or postive ways to others and ourselves
4. we can choose not to harm others by our actions
5 we can choose to be aware of the impact of our actions on the world and ourselves

Buddhism can be a swamp of quick sand were we can disappear into the abstract and dance with it, it feels good and powerful and sometimes we feel superior in our ability to do that, but it is an illusion. A wonderful monk friend of mine said that those who say there is no right and wrong are in fact making a moral judgement. I would love to hear you explain your theory to a women who has recently nearly beaten to death by her husband. Paddy

buddhajazz's picture

Hi Paddy
I like your "simple" version of Buddhist ethics and believe that often the higher concepts of Buddhism need to be brought down the language ladder as Hayakawa an English prof of years back shared. It doesn't change the message; it merely simplifies it into a language best understood by the folks we are mentoring. Good job.

Betsy's picture

Thanks Paddy for this contribution, especially ethic # 5... As a Buddhist practitioner, choosing to be AWARE has special meaning and significance. Do you teach mindfulness to prisoners?

sschroll's picture

Dear Paddy,

I think what you teach the inmates in maximum security is very good.
When my 4 years old grandchild pulls the tail of the cat I tell him it's not ok, that I don't like that.

Buddhist teachings are expressed in many different levels, that was the wisdom of Buddha. Not everybody has the same level of understanding.

What you are saying doesn't contradict what is said here at all. Just in a different level.

In my experience the closest guarantee to not cause harm occurs when my heart is completely open and vulnerable, I'm not sure about what I'm experiencing in an action occurring in the world, so I listen and perceive with every cell in my body........and struggle to find the best compassionate response I can offer to the given circumstance. Life is in perpetual flow.