The imperative shift to a wider application of the Buddha’s teaching intensifies his challenge to our self-centered human ways. We must come to grips, now or never, with our tendency to limit our compassion to family, friends, race, or nation state. Otherwise, despite our ideals, we will continue to follow, willy-nilly, a steady course of using up ourselves and the world.
— Robert Aitken, “Engaged Buddhism,” Journal of Spiritual Formation, Vol. XVI, No. 1
Robert Aitken, the roshi of the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist community in Honolulu, was introduced to Zen Buddhism in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. R. H. Blyth, author of Zen in English Literature, was imprisoned in the same camp, and it was there that Aitken began to study Zen. He returned often to Japan to study. A student of Yamada Koun Roshi, Aitken was authorized to teach in 1974. In his many books, he is known for his exploration of Buddhist ethics. When we interviewed him, Aitkin Roshi delighted us with his dry humor and provoked us to stretch our thinking. We were struck by an unusual mix—deep knowledge of, and faithfulness to, Buddhist teachings combined with a radical application of the precepts to the crisis of our contemporary world. Barbara Gates, Wes Nisker, Alan Novidor, Arnie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald were present at the interview. Andrew Cooper provided helpful consultations.
Inquiring Mind: Why do we have precepts in Buddhism? What is their intent?
Robert Aitken: Precepts are lights on the path. They give a kind of hard-edged specificity to the general teaching of compassion. In the Mahayana, three of the sixteen bodhisattva precepts are the so-called Three Pure Precepts: “Renounce all evil, practice all good, save the many beings.” These precepts, rooted in classical Buddhism, are derived from the famous gatha in the Dhammapada: “Renounce all evil, practice all good, keep your mind pure—thus the Awakened One taught.”
Of course classical Buddhism and Theravada, its direct successor, are concerned about saving all beings, and of course Mahayana Buddhism is concerned about keeping a pure mind, but notice that one stresses purity and the other saving. In Theravada Buddhism there is only one Bodhisattva, or Bodhisatta, and that is the Buddha himself. In the Mahayana, there are many archetypal bodhisattvas who renounce full enlightenment for themselves until all beings are enlightened. Dharmakara, Avalokiteshvara, Ksitigarbha, and so on, personify the ideal of saving. In turn, all followers of the way are encouraged to embody the Bodhisattva ideal themselves. Each of us is a Bodhisattva. The Mahayana precepts are thus bodhisattva precepts, guidelines for compassion, as well as for clarifying and purifying our minds.
The precepts were developed by the Buddha for the sangha. As he envisioned it, the sangha is not simply a fellowship of people with common aspiration, but the only vehicle of the Dharma. The precepts are thus not merely guidelines for individual character formation, but are intended to set forth the lineaments of the Dharma in its human form.
The first five precepts, the pancha sila, are shared by all Buddhists: not killing, not stealing, not lying, not misusing sex, and not giving or taking drugs. Probably the first four were taken over from early Hindu and Persian religions, and the fifth, not taking drink or drugs, was added in early Buddhist days. Other precepts were set forth, but these were added after the fact. Something would happen in the sangha and the monks would get together and say, “We ought to have a rule about this.”
IM: Is this situational ethics? That’s what the Buddhists are always accused of.
RA: There is no such thing as situational ethics! That is to say, our situational ethics rest on something, some common sense of what is right and wrong. Otherwise they wouldn’t work. The Buddha’s situational ethics rested on his recognition that all things are temporary and essentially empty, that we all depend upon each other and that everybody and everything is totally unique and precious.
If everything is essentially empty, that means that there is no soul. We are here only briefly, and that’s it! If everything is mutually interdependent, then during our brief sojourn we need to take care of each other if we ourselves are to be cared for. And if everything is totally unique and precious, then we are moved to respect every living being and to conduct ourselves accordingly. Given that kind of realization, you are in a position to say, “I will do this, and I will not do that.”
But precepts are not commandments. The intention is to show a way of practice rather than to impose perfectionist ideals. In Zen Buddhist practice, there are three ways to understand the precepts: from the literal point of view, from the so-called compassionate point of view, and from the so-called Buddha-nature point of view.
For the first precept, for example, the literal point of view is: Don’t ever kill anything. The compassionate point of view is: Avoid killing whenever you can, keeping in mind the interconnection of all beings—your own interbeing. The Buddha-nature point of view is: There is no one killing, no killing and no one to be killed; the peace of infinite emptiness pervades the universe.
You can’t have one of these points of view without the other two. It is, for instance, crucial to keep in mind the literal, commandment aspect of the precepts. In ordinary matters of keeping your house free of bugs, which, of course, is a great problem in the subtropics, we have a little scheme in our house. We keep a plastic bowl and a piece of cardboard which we use for deportation. We invert the plastic bowl over the cockroach, slip the cardboard underneath and take it outside. But if cockroaches are overrunning us, then we scatter boric acid powder or whatever is going to kill them. So with the compassionate overview, we must kill sometimes. With what spirit do we do this? This is where the Buddha-nature aspect comes in. I have a Buddhist friend who wacks the cockroaches and says, “Better luck next time!” Anyway, it is not with a vengeful spirit that one kills.
IM: In the Theravadan teachings they talk about intention. If it’s a kind of wack that has a wish for a better life behind it, then the karma is not so strong.
RA: I will never forget in the very early days at the Koko An Zendo, we were visited by a rather strange monk who came into the dojo with his kotsu, his little stick. You don’t usually do that in other people’s dojos because the master of a given dojo is the one who carries the little stick. But this monk carried in his little stick and the most enormous cockroach that I ever saw ran across the floor. He went after it with his kotsu while everybody else was cringing….
IM: Can you envision an instance where a being is so realized, that he or she has no need for precepts?
RA: I think it’s possible that a person is so evolved that she or he will respond compassionately to each situation. But that person will never say, “I don’t need the precepts. I am beyond the precepts.” If called upon to explain why, for instance, she took a certain action, she is very likely to point to the metaphysical basis for the action, that is, to the pertinent precept. It is dangerous, I think, to assume that I am so enlightened that I don’t need the precepts. Such an assumption is based on a perfectionist spirit which denies the ongoing practice, because practice and enlightenment are complimentary. They are really one. This is a uniquely Mahayana perspective that is particularly emphasized in Zen. Enlightenment, no matter how full and complete, is still a process. Practice, no matter how elementary, is the Buddha’s own work. We vow to enable bushes and grasses to become enlightened. That will probably take many eons, though of course they are fully realized as they are. The point is that there is no absolute and no relative in the great plenum. There is a saying in Zen Buddhism that Shakyamuni Buddha is still practicing somewhere and is only half way there. [Laughter.]
Some teachers that we can recall in current history have presented themselves as being so advanced that they didn’t need the precepts. And there was only trouble as a result.
IM: Yes. Whole communities have faced ethical dilemmas in the wake of that trouble. . . . That brings us to the concerns we all face together. What are compelling ethical questions for Americans today? To speak in terms of situational ethics, how would you describe our situation?
RA: Well, the system stinks. [Laughter.]
IM: Could you elaborate? [More laughter.]
RA: The acquisitive system stinks. In our society many things conspire to place one’s concern on self-aggrandizement and lead one to neglect others. Whole schemes, whole corporations and networks of corporations conspire in this way.
IM: Doesn’t Buddhism take it as a given that any society would be characterized by greed, hatred and delusion? How is this manifested in contemporary America?
RA: I think that the Buddha recognized that the Three Poisons are characteristic of secular society generally. He centered the practice among mendicants and in monasteries where the monks were forbidden to work. Lay people were drawn into the spirit of giving and the society was softened and sweetened. Perhaps a case can be made for social attitudes becoming more decent down through the ages through religious and other influences, and perhaps by a kind of general evolution. At the same time, technology has also evolved, and the instruments of the Poisons have become lethal on a mass scale, threatening all life. With the shrinking of the world through the development of instantaneous communication and rapid transportation, the old units of village, clan and guild, with their networking of mutual support, have broken down.
Gary Snyder wrote an essay in the late sixties called “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution” in which he very clearly set forth the point that if you are really a Buddhist, you are a revolutionary. I agree with him. In the context of modern times, the Buddhist is left in a very lonely position and must find friends and form sanghas as the only way to carry forth the Buddha’s teaching and to find liberation from anguish.
Superficially, we see problems of the inner city, problems of national defense and so on as isolated problems, but really they are all integrated.
IM: How are they integrated?
RA: The managers depend more and more on the poverty of the workers. The poorer the workers, the richer the managers. If the workers are not poor enough, the managers move their plants to where the workers are poor enough. As to national defense, it is simply wasteful. It diverts treasure from education, public health, social welfare, the arts, and from the construction and maintenance of transportation systems and public utilities. The poor suffer, we all suffer.
IM: Traditionally Buddhist ethics have focused on individual behavior, but you are talking about problems in the system itself. Do the precepts address our relationship to the acquisitive system? What does Buddhist understanding teach us to do about institutionalized problems? Do we refuse to participate? Do we protest?
RA: I think we must recognize that we are in the midst of a Buddhist reformation. In 1787, it would have been difficult for the French to say what they were going through because they were right in the middle of it. Something important is happening now and we’re right in the middle of it. Joanna Macy writes about how monks in Sri Lanka are taking their turns with the shovel in the Sarvodya Shramadana, the village self-sufficiency movement. That’s not what the Buddha taught. Monks don’t work!
Just as every religion has continued to evolve, so, it seems to me, Buddhism has been going through an evolution right along. Modern day Theravada is certainly not classical Theravada. The ancient Asian teachers would blink at the ways of the modern American teachers of Theravada! [Laughter.]
In the same way, in Mahayana Buddhism, the injunction that one doesn’t get involved in political and economic affairs has for the most part gone by the boards. In the traditional Mahayana, even the most highly placed Buddhist authorities would not question the basic system. We have examples of people like Hakuin Zenji pleading on behalf of poor fishermen and farmers to the lord of his province. But he didn’t even think of questioning the feudal system. In contrast, today we have Myohoji monks beating their drum for world peace at the Pentagon, organizations such as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship asking very penetrating questions about government and economics. And the rest of us individually questioning things such as the justice system and the control of nuclear wastes.
IM: Have your own teachers been comfortable with your questioning, with the evolution in your thinking and action?
RA: They never challenged me about it. But you know, we all are products of our times. And somehow within this frame, which is my body produced in this time and place, I want to express the Buddhist teaching as best I can. Yasutani Roshi, my own teacher, was a young man at the time of the Russo-Japanese War when the spirit of Japan was more jingoistic than any of us can imagine. That’s what he grew up in. So during the sixties when a young man in our zendo asked, “What if I should get drafted?” he answered, “If your country calls you, you must go.”
So as Yasutani Roshi saw it, when push comes to shove, you have to follow your karma and do-or-die for your country. But before then, he would say, let’s do our best to avoid such situations.
IM: And how do you see it?
RA: I see his point, but I would go to jail. Not so much to accomplish anything, but because I agree with Thoreau that the only honorable place to be at such time is in jail.
IM: Please tell us more about the stance of what you see as the revolutionary Buddhist.
RA: I think that the revolutionary Buddhist is an anarchist in the true sense of anarchism, that is to say the person who takes individual responsibility and lives the life of the Dharma as best she or he can within and beside the system. To do this, the individual must gather with like-minded friends.
I like the model of the so-called “base communities.” These are small groups of up to 15 members who meet frequently for sharing, planning and perhaps religious practice, who conduct a program of community service, or who might have individual projects. For example, the group might issue a newsletter on a particular theme, or manage a co-op, or do prison visitation or plan a festival. Or it might have a specific role in a political movement.
Catholic Worker houses and their networking system form a good example of the base community ideal in our North American society. Each house is autonomous, conducting its own program of feeding and perhaps housing the poor, but each is particularly inspired by the writings of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. So their programs are very similar, and they are in touch with each other informally and through their newsletters. Liberation Theology, primarily found in Central and South America, functions through base communities, sometimes just keeping the spirit alive through sharing, sometimes taking part in large political movements.
IM: How do base communities differ from twelve-step groups, consciousness-raising groups and the like?
RA: Base communities are not merely support groups, but are consciously established and maintained as vehicles of change within or alongside the larger community, much as sanghas were intended to be vehicles of conveying the Dharma to the world.
IM: Are there other examples besides the Catholic Worker?
RA: The Catholic Worker houses are base communities though the members do not generally use the term. Probably Peter Maurin was influenced by nineteenth-century anarchism and the work of Gustav Landauer and others who formed networks of what Landauer called the Socialist Bund communities. In the Spanish Civil War, the anarchists were grounded in eighty years of working in base communities. They formed grupos de afinidad which translates as “affinity groups” and conducted their campaigns through these more or less autonomous cells. The notion of affinity groups was taken over by the Movement for a New Society, and we who marched and demonstrated in the late sixties and early seventies were always organized in affinity groups for demonstrations. Each group had a spokesperson, a first-aid person and a security person. Each leader got special training, and we networked and made larger group decisions through the spokesperson.
Latin America and the Philippines are full of these little cells of people who are working together and networking with other cells. Marcos was overthrown as a result of the work of these base communities in the Philippines. The achievements of the overthrow didn’t last, but you can be sure that the base communities are still meeting and still working.
My impression is that in South and Central America base communities are really like-minded friends and friends with similar talents. They get together and find that they have an affinity for working with computers or they have an affinity for carpentry. Some of them get together to talk about religion, to pray together or to share together what’s happening in their lives. They find their little niche in that way and then network with others who have different kinds of affinities.
Now we need to form these affinity groups and set up our own systems, our own banks, our own stores, our own schools. This means starting from scratch. The affinity groups in South America didn’t pop out of a vacuum. They developed through many years of organizing. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.
IM: But isn’t there a danger that Buddhists will become ghettoized by removing themselves?
RA: I don’t favor the kind of co-ops that, for instance, the Krishna people have set up where you don’t get a job unless you are a Krishna. We must indeed avoid that kind of ghettoizing and exclusiveness, as well as the self-righteousness that comes out of it. I would like to see Buddhists helping with the leadership of an anarchist movement and encouraging, for example, Native American affinity groups or helping the Quakers and Catholic Workers. I see no reason why there couldn’t be base communities of mixed religious antecedents.
IM: You seem to be talking about social change based on changed values rather than movements to change political and economic relations.
RA: Real social change is grounded in a broadly held understanding that dana, giving, is the only viable engine of a sustainable society. Insofar as this is not clear, then, yes, change in society must follow from changed values. Some labor unions are choking on their own pork chop and others are being squeezed out or co-opted. Surely the base community could be an ideal when reorganizing labor. And certainly it is important to lobby for peace, social justice and the Earth. However, it is my view that such lobbying has its strongest appeal from groups that are themselves already turning the wheel in some practical way. Joanna Macy and her friends organizing the Nuclear Guardianship Project to protect nuclear waste sites would be an example. In other words, the base community is not saying, “The government should do this,” but rather, “We must take ourselves in hand and do it ourselves,” while networking with other groups who are doing it too. The Wobblies called this building the new within the shell of the old. I view individual sanghas as potential base communities and thus Western Buddhism generally as Indra’s Net for our time. And, of course, the temple sangha would have a central role.
IM: How do you counsel people to relate to the larger institutions of the society such as the draft or the tax system?
RA: Each person has to draw the line in her or his own way. I am not about to tell any young person what to do about the draft. During the Vietnam War, I was a draft counselor, but I never told anybody then what to do. There are all kinds of ways to draw the line. I myself have tried various levels of vegetarianism, and finally found the place where I feel most comfortable. I still eat eggs, I still drink milk, but don’t eat meat or fish or poultry. Somebody else might draw the line at not eating brains or tripe.
IM: Would you give us an example of your own process in coming to your own ethical stand.
RA: My wife and I were tax resisters for a long time, but we’re not now because we got audited and it was just too difficult. We felt that we had made our statement, and we were getting too old to do it anymore. If our circumstances were a little different, possibly we could continue. But, like most everybody else, we are hooked into the tax system in many ways. So it’s hard to simply not pay the taxes. But it’s very important to sit down and talk about ways, in that respect or this respect, that the system can be challenged. In our case, we try to keep our taxable income down as low as possible.
In the Chinese, the word for the step on the Eightfold Path that is usually translated as Right Effort means “essential.” The Chinese ideograph implies the life of the sage who eats a simple vegetarian diet of berries and nuts, lives in modest accommodations and uses simple transport—his or her own feet. It seems to me, this is the basic principle here.
IM: Voluntary simplicity. There’s a response to the acquisitive system.
RA: I’ve heard about people up in the wilds of the Sierras who, when they receive a tax form in the mail, buy a rubber stamp and a pad of red ink. They stamp “Deceased” on the envelope and send it back. I am not necessarily endorsing this practice!
IM: So people find their different levels of practice using the precepts as guidelines and through their own realization are pushed further and further toward right action in the world, revolutionary action.
RA: Yes. We’re involved in a process of broadening the responsibility for saving all beings to everyone. Of course character formation is very important in this process. But the notion that I must have a perfected character before I move out and question the imperfections of my society is fallacious, because my character is never going to be perfected.
IM: So from a Buddhist point of view, the imperative out of which a socially concerned person is compelled to act is the desire to save all sentient beings. I act as a Bodhisattva.
RA: It’s not merely that “I” wish to save “them,” but the realization, as Whitman said, “I am large; I contain multitudes.”
IM: Yes, I am them.
RA: And that we all must do this together.