Zen Check 2022: Sila

Happy New Year, everyone!

I thought I would start the blog this year by doing a gut check on a few fundamentals. I identify as a Zen Buddhist, meaning that I adhere to the principles of both Zen AND Buddhism. Especially in the United States, Zen has become its own discipline — a way of thinking about the world that doesn’t necessarily depend on the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path. The core of Zen, at least to me, speaks to the incomprehensible mystery of our experience. There’s no way to adequately express our direct experience, and any system we use to transmit what we sense can only point to abstract concepts that we use to construct a shared understanding. Even Zen, as they say, is only a finger pointing at a reflection of the moon. It’s no substitute for looking up to see the moon for ourselves.

While Zen suits me as a way of thinking about the nature of existence and my own self-expression, Buddhism suits me better as a way of interacting with others. The basic tenets are fairly simple, contained entirely in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths can be thought of as a diagnosis for the fundamental problem of living. One: is there a problem? Two: what is the cause of the problem? Three: is there a solution? Four: what do we need to complete the solution? These four steps are applied to the inherent dissatisfaction we suffer with life as human beings.

One: suffering in life is inevitable. Two: this suffering is caused by our attachment to seeking out pleasure and avoiding pain. Three: suffering can end by training ourselves to let go of these attachments. Four: releasing these attachments can be achieved through the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Path is a set of eight principles that aren’t meant to be followed sequentially. Our development just doesn’t work that way. It does provide a framework to cover every aspect of our lives, though — from the way we think about thinking, to what we say, to how we treat other people, even down to our commitment of seeing things as clearly as possible. In most traditions, the Eightfold Path is divided into three essential of Buddhist training and discipline: sila, or ethical conduct; samadhi, or mental discipline; and panna, or wisdom. I’ll use this framework in my self-reflection. First up — sila.

The three steps in the Noble Eightfold Path that make up ethical conduct are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. The idea is that we express compassion and loving-kindness through what we say, what we do, and how we make our living. Our words and actions are the only way others can judge our intentions; no one really knows what’s in our hearts, so all they can do is watch how we behave. In my experience, if someone is only putting on a mask of compassion we can take a look at one of these three things to get a peek at what’s underneath.

That’s because ethical conduct rests on a foundation of wisdom and discipline, the other two virtues we develop through the Path. We can’t be compassionate without a proper understanding of what that means, or a focused commitment to living our principles through our actions. Each step in the path is developed more or less simultaneously as our practice deepens.

Right Speech means, mostly, refraining from lies, speech that promotes enmity, hatred and strife, malicious or abusive language, or useless gossip and foolishness. Words are one of the most powerful tools we have for creating our karma; our environment and relationships often take the tone of the conversations we have in our daily lives. If we lie frequently, we find ourselves in situations where the reality of things can’t be seen clearly. If we promote hatred and enmity, we find ourselves burning in the fires of conflict all the time. If we babble on without meaning, we find ourselves being readily discounted when we really have something to say.

I’ve had lifelong issues with my speech. Spending most of my childhood hiding from the disapproval of my mom has given me an instinct to misdirect people away from what I’m doing even when there’s no reason to. I’ve just internalized that people will think of me poorly if they knew what I was really up to, so the idea of honesty makes me uncomfortable. I also have a tendency to babble, wasting the time of other people with nonsense ideas or falsehoods. I like to think of this as “pooka-speech” or a trickster’s tongue, shaking people out of ruts in their perspective by delivering a rhetorical shock to the system. In reality, it’s honestly personal amusement and covering up for thoughtless speech.

This year I’d like to be a lot more careful and considerate in my speech. We live in a world of constant noise, and I don’t like the idea of making things worse by saying nothing of value. Even worse, it runs directly counter to my desire to bring people together if I’m providing a false idea of who I am or what I’m doing. Being more mindful of these impulses can help me to maintain “noble silence” more often and maybe channel my natural ‘whimsical falsehood’ instincts towards a better purpose.

Practicing Right Action means promoting moral, honorable, and peaceful conduct. It means abstaining from violence, theft, illegitimate sexual conduct, and dishonest dealings. In some traditions, this goes so far as being vegetarian; Buddhists should endeavor to avoid any action that promotes the suffering or death of any other being. For monks, the abstention from sexual conduct is the same as celibacy. For laypeople, the rules are a bit more relaxed but many still don’t eat meat or engage in sexual activity.

I’m not a violent person by nature, and I don’t take things that aren’t mine. I do eat meat, though I’d like to be a bit more mindful about that. It’s healthier for me and the environment to focus on a more plant-based diet, and it would be a good idea to avoid beef altogether. Burgers are just too good though, and the joy of cooking a perfect steak is one of life’s great pleasures. I fall down on Right Action mostly through procrastination and lack of follow-through, though. It’s very easy for me to forget a promise if I don’t take steps to note it somewhere other than my own head, and I know I’ve disappointed so many people with enthusiastic acceptance of a task only to be followed by radio silence.

This year, I’d like to take a more positive approach to Right Action by focusing on the tasks that help me build connections with others, and by actually doing the things I’ve committed to as best as I possibly can. I’ll have to be a lot more mindful about the habits that simply pass time, and think about the ways I can be more productive and considerate in my actions. To everyone I’ve disappointed by promising something I never delivered on, I sincerely apologize. It’s not a lack of interest on my part, but of discipline and willpower.

Right Livelihood means not making a living through a profession that harms others. It’s impossible to practice this and, say, be an assassin. Trading in lethal weapons, intoxicating drinks and poisons, killing animals, cheating, etc., are all things we just can’t do if we expect to be proper Buddhists.

This is one step of the path where I wouldn’t expect to feel very comfortable. I work in Silicon Valley, and one thing that’s become increasingly clear over the last few years is that many companies have no idea how to be responsible corporate entities. They shirk responsibility for the effect their products have on the online community, or seek ways to exploit their workers and customer base to extract maximum profit for minimum effort. Since this space is built on “disruption”, or rethinking how we approach everything from education to transportation, there are often legal blind spots in regulation that allow for heinous abuses.

So far, however, I feel really lucky. I try hard to find work in sectors I believe bring a net benefit to the world, and right now I enjoy being a part of a company that aims to provide educational opportunities to people who might not be able to get them otherwise. There are some things I don’t like about the business model, but my specific job is managing the community experience for various scholarship programs offered by my company and its business partners. I get paid to think about how to encourage people to stick with the program, connect with other people doing the same thing, and celebrate hard work paying off. It’s honestly great!

Elsewhere, I’d like to make sure my writing promotes virtues I believe in: healthy self-expression, compassion towards those of us who are different, and a positive, hopeful attitude about the world, its people and our place in it. I’d also like to learn how to be more open and honest through my writing, so I can be more comfortable with expressing myself truthfully and dealing with the reactions of other people. At the same time, I’d like to find a way to remind others that any truth found in writing is only a partial one; only direct experience can lead one to the complete and unvarnished truth. As much as I sweat writing and communication, it’s also important to remember that it’s an inadequate substitute for real experience.

Overall, I know I have a little ways to go in my approach to sila. I’m in a good place with my livelihood, but I could bring more mindfulness to my speech and actions.

Tomorrow I’ll be considering samadhi, or Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

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