The Precepts: What do you mean, do ‘only’ good?

abraham lincoln4This is the sixth in a series of posts on the Zen Precepts. If you would like to start at the beginning, click here. Apologies for the rather long hiatus this turned out to be.

We’re now on the second Pure Precept: “Do only good.”

And I’m sure you’re thinking, “Wait – what do you mean only good? That sounds impossible!” Buddhism often asks the impossible of us. That’s one of its many charms, but I’ll get to that soon enough.

I think a better question to start is, what do we even mean by “good” in the first place?

The first pure precept, “Do no harm,” is pretty easy, comparatively. If you can’t be of benefit, at least don’t be a hindrance. Or in more colloquial terms: if you can’t be nice, at least don’t be a jerk. As I’ve explained previously, the Pure Precepts serve as default precepts. If you see any apparent contradiction between the subsequent, more specific Grave Precepts, you can always fall back on the Pure Precepts to solve any conundrum.

So, if we take the first Pure Precept as a basis for the second, we can start to see an implicit definition of what we mean by “good.” Good is by nature non-harming, but it goes beyond that. Non-harming is merely passive, the absence of something. Good means doing. It’s active. When we receive the precept of doing only good, we don’t simply set our intention to be of continual benefit. Intention by itself is worth nothing, honestly. It’s a great idea, like the vague idea of “being a good person,” but there is no force behind it. Good means something specific in Buddhism. It means the active pursuit of beneficial action. As with all of the Precepts, if this were a mere tenet or belief or (God forbid) commandment, it would have no power.

But “beneficial action” still sounds kind of vague. So exactly whom are we supposed to be benefiting, and in what ways? For starters, being of benefit means mitigating suffering in whatever way possible, whether that be physical suffering, mental suffering, or the existential suffering that we all experience as a result of desire, clinging, and aversion. When we take our vows, we essentially vow to be of benefit to all beings via our actions.

Huh? All beings?

Yes, all of them.

Dude, that’s a lot of beings. How are we supposed to do that?

Welcome to those seemingly impossible tasks I mentioned. Except that it’s completely possible. Remember that quote from the Bible? I’m talking about the one where Jesus says that “Verily I say unto you: Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40, in case you’re interested). This works in Buddhism too, in a slightly different way. In our case, we look at beneficial actions (aka “good”) as inseparable from their context and consequences. That’s called karma. It’s nothing mystical or oovy groovy. It’s basic cause and effect.

One beneficial action has untold repercussions that we can’t even fathom. One beneficial action has no end. Even if we try to trace its myriad consequences, we can’t. That’s not even really our concern. As Dogen puts it, “the zazen of even one person at one moment imperceptibly accords with all things and thus fully resonates throughout time” (Dogen, “Bendowa,” from the Shobogenzo).

Yes, that’s right. Throughout time. And not just for zazen but for any beneficial action, commencing onward into incalculable beneficial results that continue on and on in a chain reaction. Same deal with detrimental actions. Yes there are tiny actions and huge actions, good and detrimental, and mixtures thereof, but regardless: incalculable results. “Inasmuch as ye have done it to the least of these…” ye have done it unto the whole freakin’ universe.

Literally, the outcome of the entire universe – through the accrual of actions, each with a particular outcome that leads to all successive repercussions and beyond – depends on you, and me, and everyone. I don’t need to calculate the merit of my beneficial actions, because I can’t anyway. Nor can I calculate the detriment of my poor decisions. But needless to say, they compound upon one another for good or ill.

It kind of works like compound interest in that way (which is, yes, calculable, but bear with me on this analogy). If I save $1 today, and another tomorrow, and so on, and keep putting those dollars into an interest bearing account, that money will eventually multiply through the mutually compounding accrual of both more dollars and more interest. Sadly, debt also works the same way. I think this is why people sometimes view karma or merit as a debt/reward system. But actions are nothing like money, so that view is too simplistic for something as vast as karma and the myriad results of myriad actions.

The point is, your beneficial action (“good”) has repercussions, ones that go on and on, interacting with other people’s actions and repercussions, for ever and ever, amen. That includes smiling at the mail carrier, or treating the lady behind the Kroger checkout counter like a worthy human who deserves kindness.

It’s all forever. Indelible. No take-backsies.

So yes, your actions literally benefit all beings. Or not, depending. The fate of the universe is in your hands. And everyone else’s too. Yikes! (Or “Yay?”)

But to do only good? There’s that word again. How can we do only good? How can all of our actions be of benefit 24/7?

The answer is both good news and bad news. (Don’t you love how Buddhism always has that answer, and it’s often the exact same news?) Here it is: You can’t. All of your actions cannot be of continual benefit all the time. We can’t possibly determine all possible direct consequences of our actions, much less the indirect consequences. The good news is: you don’t have to.

Taking the precepts means making the sincerest possible effort to actualize them in our lives. You have the responsibility, but also the privilege, of a human life. Receiving the precepts – any of them – as a guide to your actions doesn’t mean you will 100% follow them every second to the letter (as if we can determine what “to the letter” is anyway).

“Do only good” is a guide, a benchmark, a challenge, an orientation. We orient ourselves towards doing only good. We take upon ourselves the practice of doing only good. Practice doesn’t mean perfect. But you can’t be flaky about it either.

Wholeheartedness. This is the precepts in a nutshell. We do our dead-level best to live up to these vows. And when we don’t, it’s not for lack of trying. And we don’t go to hell for it if we screw it up. As in zazen when we find ourselves drifting, we just dust ourselves off, point ourselves back towards beneficial action as best we can perceive it, and keep on going.

We can’t do it perfectly, but we can’t fail either. That is the freedom that Zen offers us.


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