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Kannon (Guan Yin)

Right Action

Fourth Step on the Path

    The faults of others are easily seen, but one's own faults are perceived with difficulty. One winnows the faults of others like chaff, but conceals his own faults as a fowler covers his body with twigs and leaves.

        -- The Buddha (Dhammapada: XVII, 252) Theosophical University Press

At the outset it must be understood that the precepts given below are for ordinary, unaffiliated laymen. Rules will vary among different congregations. With certain reservations, whenever anyone joins a particular group he must obey that group's interpretation of the Precepts. Rules for monks and nuns and priests of both sexes are invariably more strict.

A pledge to obey Buddhism's five commandments, the Five Precepts, is made by everyone who officially joins the religion. Acting correctly includes not only following these basic precepts but also other obvious rules of conduct.

The Five Precepts require that we abstain from:

1. Aggressions, especially violent aggressions, against others.

2. Deceitful words or deeds

3. Illicit sexual activity

4. Theft

5. Use of mind-altering substances habitually, dependently, or to an intoxicating degree.

First, a caveat. Owing, perhaps, to the permission granted by the Buddha in the popular version of his death bed pronouncements, many Buddhist institutions have seen fit to make a few adjustments in the 'minor' precepts. In what some critics have called the 'Cannabis/Coitus Canon,' some American Zen centers have chosen to ignore the prohibitions against using mind altering substances and engaging in illicit sexual relationships.

Here, for example, is a list of the precepts exactly as they given in one American Zen Center:

1. Non-killing

2. Non-stealing

3. Not Being Greedy

4. Not Telling Lies

5. Not Being Ignorant

6. Not Talking about Others' Errors and Faults

7. Not Elevating Oneself and Blaming Others

8. Not Being Stingy

9. Not Being Angry

10. Not Speaking Ill of the Three Treasures (The Buddha, the Way, and the Priesthood.)

What happened to sex and drugs? We search the list in vain. Omissions such as this are designed to make Buddhism less intimidating to newcomers. This will not do.

The Back-to-Basics Pentalog requires us to take serious and constructive action in complying with all of the precepts.

l. Violent aggressions: Following the law of the land, we may take reasonable measures to defend ourselves or others who are defenseless, such as children, the aged and infirmed, especially if these individuals are in our charge. (Accepting the responsibility of guardianship requires the guardian to defend those entrusted to him.) If a threat against us can clearly be perceived as mortal, we can kill. What we can't do is commit a battery or a murder... not in any degree.

A person who complies with the commandment of nonviolence to the extent of refusing to defend himself clearly demonstrates an exalted spirituality; but such passivity is neither mandated nor, considering the scarcity of such saints, desirable. Persons who elect to protect their lives against unprovoked attack are not to be criticized for their actions.

For some reason the right of self-defense is difficult for many spiritual elitists to accept. The first precept does not confer exemption to military service. We are entitled to defend ourselves, but we are obliged to defend our country.

Unless we are dealing with cannibalism or the killing of any creature that possibly can pray, nonviolence should not be thought to extend to food sources. There, nonviolence means non-cruelty. Animals, whether food sources or not, must be treated humanely.

Many Buddhists around the world eat meat or fish and nobody can have a hamburger or a tuna fish sandwich without something's having been killed. Human beings evolved as meat and fish eaters and no fault attaches to such a diet. Modern vegetarians, however, in their own gentle ways are sometimes fond of regarding meat eaters as coldblooded murderers.

Yet, vegetarians require large tracts of land to grow their food and many animals may be killed or allowed to die of starvation when their habitat is destroyed by the plow or by the destruction of forests. Many insecticides are used to grow fruits and vegetables; and insecticides, by definition, kill living things.

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 12: Right Action, Page 1 of 3