The Zen Precepts: “Do no harm.”

donoharmThis is the fifth in a series of posts on the Zen precepts. If you would like to start at the beginning, click here.

So far we have looked at taking refuge in the three treasures: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Those are prerequisites when one receives the precepts. The actual precepts themselves begin with the Three Pure Precepts: Do no harm. Do only good. Do good for others. As I mentioned in the first post in this series, I consider the Three Pure Precepts to be the trump cards for all of the following precepts. If one sees a conflict in any of the Ten Grave Precepts, these three can be called upon to resolve any such seeming discrepancy.

Do no harm. This is the basis of Buddhism in a nutshell, the bedrock upon which all of our practices rest. It fits in well with the concept of the precepts as a kind of medicine or inoculation against what we refer to as the Three Poisons: greed, hate, and delusion. It is perhaps not coincidental that Buddhism shares this bedrock concept with actual medical practice. If you cannot heal, at least don’t make the condition worse.

Doing no harm means less suffering for us and those around us. The first of the Four Noble Truths is often translated as “life is suffering.” The actual word in Pali, the language of the historical Buddha, was dukkha, which means something more like dissatisfaction, not-quite-okayness, things being generally “off.” Life doesn’t consist entirely of suffering, in other words, but it certainly comes up short of our expectations most of the time.

Someone asked once, “If ‘suffering’ is a poor translation of ‘dukkha,’ what’s a better one?” My answer was, “an eternal bad hair day.” I was partly joking of course, but there is also some truth to my response. Whether it’s your hair, your job, your spouse, your exercise routine – whatever – who among us is really ever fully, 100% satisfied with … well… anything? That sense of vague dissatisfaction pokes at all of us at least some of the time. Brad Warner calls this the “if onlies” in Hardcore Zen. We all have them. Some of our dissatisfaction can be as simple as uncooperative hair, but we also experience more profound suffering stemming from greed, hate, and delusion. And we can easily pass that suffering to others like a virus through our conduct.

A saying you hear in Buddhism sometimes is, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” This sounds like one of those platitudes you see on a bumper sticker, doesn’t it? How could suffering be optional? Well, the kind of suffering we talk about in Buddhism is primarily the self-created kind. As in our selves create this suffering through the constant yammering commentary in all of our heads: judging, evaluating, comparing, blaming, evading reality, finding things wanting. We all do this to some degree or other, and it colors our world in the same way that putting on green glasses would make everything look green. That spirit of hostility leaks out into the world through our demeanor and actions. Zen practice is about coming to the full realization of this self-created suffering by watching it come up in our minds.

Why would we want to get to know our self-created suffering so intimately? Because only by seeing the full reality of what we do to ourselves – and because of it, to others – can we begin to overcome it.

But beyond that, once we fully know the causes of our own suffering, we begin to more fully understand that everyone – all beings, not just human ones – experience the same kinds of pain and suffering that we do. By embracing our own experience of suffering we come to recognize that all beings, like us, wish to be free of suffering and pain. All beings wish to be happy. Unfortunately, some human beings pursue that wish for happiness through destructive means, and it can harm other beings in the process. Ultimately, creating harm never results in true happiness for anyone. It just furthers an endless cycle of pain and suffering, or samsara in Buddhist terms.

So the question is, how do we avoid creating harm? The key is awareness. In Zen we train our awareness gradually, little by little, by observing the mind in zazen. Somehow, over time and with dedicated practice, this trained awareness seeps into our everyday lives, and alongside a conscious practice of the precepts, we inevitably reduce self-created suffering. And when we suffer less, we are far less likely to harm those around us. I’m not sure how this works, but I can only tell you that it does.

A very simple and conscious way to practice nonharming “off the cushion” is to pay attention to that niggling doubt about a pending action or, more often, reaction. Ask yourself: “Will it cause harm?” Don’t force an answer. Let it bubble up from inside you of its own accord. You will know.

Training in awareness takes time, but like training in a sport or other physical discipline, we can get better at it little by little. Doing no harm – or at least less harm – brings us more freedom of mind and paves the way for the  second Pure Precept: Do only good, which I’ll talk about next time.

May you, and all beings, be happy.