“It’s just temporary”
October 25, 2015
We cannot justify illegality by saying “It’s just temporary.” We cannot justify immorality by saying “It’s just temporary.” We cannot justify social inappropriateness by saying “It’s just temporary.” We cannot justify ecological irresponsibility by saying “It’s just temporary.” We cannot justify political oppression by saying “It’s just temporary.” We cannot justify injustice by saying “It’s just temporary.” “Its just temporary” cannot be used as an excuse for engendering dukkhā.
The Noble Eightfold Path is very frequently divided into three categories, pañña. (wisdom), sīḷa (moral discipline; virtue; moral guidelines) and bhāvanā (abbreviated from samādhi-bhāvanā; cultivation of the state of samādhi). I offer this to support the argument that to practice the Buddha-dhamma means striving (making Right Effort) to be virtuous.
The Five Precepts (Pāḷi: pañca-sīḷa) constitute the basic Buddhist code of ethics, undertaken by lay followers of the Buddha-dhamma in both the Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions. In fact, practicing the Five Precepts is part of the definition of being a Theravāda lay person. The Five Precepts are commitments to refrain from (Theravāda) or abstain from (Mahāyāna) taking life/killing, taking things not given/stealing, sexual misconduct, speaking falsely or unkindly/lying, and intoxication. Undertaking the five precepts is part of both lay Buddhist initiation and regular lay Buddhist practice. Lay Buddhists in the Theravāda lineages take the Five Precepts routinely as part of nearly every socio-religio-cultural event. These moral guidelines, these five virtues are to be cultivated in all our thoughts, words and deed. They are undertaken to minimize or eliminate dukkhā from one’s life and the lives of others, thus helping a Buddhist live free from remorse so that they can progress more expeditiously and facilely on the Noble Path.
But one doesn’t practice morality solely for one’s own benefit. The Buddha is said to have taught the five precepts out of compassion, and for the betterment of society. So too must we practice with compassion and for the betterment of society. For the elimination of as much dukkhā as possible from the whole world.
Sabbe sattā sukhitā hontu
Whatever beings there are: may they be happy!
Sabbe sattā averā hontu
Whatever beings there are: may they be free from enmity!
Sabbe sattā abyā-pajjha hontu
Whatever beings there are: may they be free from distress!
Sabbe sattā anighā hontu
Whatever beings there are: may they be free from affliction!
Sabbe sattā sukhi attānaṁ parihārantu
Whatever beings there are: may they live happily!
For the Buddhist, the Five Precepts are foundational, but they are not the entire moral code. Right Action is based on the Five Precepts, but is not limited to them.
Right Action certainly includes those acts and behaviors which are morally “right,” which are enumerated in the Five Precepts, but Right Action also embodies acts (and thoughts and speech) which are socially, legally, economically, ecologically, politically, and in every other way “right.” We need to remember the “problem” Right Action is meant to alleviate: dukkhā. So “Right” actions are those actions (words, thoughts and deeds) which alleviate dukkhā. Or don’t generate dukkhā.
If we are going to “act rightly” in the moral, social legal, economic, ecological, political and other spheres, then we must we must become Lokavidū, “knowers of the world.”
And that means we must cultivate and exercise Right Knowledge and Right Intent and Right Speech and Right Effort when considering any action. In fact, we must cultivate the full Noble Eightfold Path.
Morality isn’t a particularly popular topic these days. It seems like whenever I talk about living the “good” life, the moral life, people get huffy. They seem to think I’m talking "about" them, rather than "to" them.
A lot of people I talk with, mainly Westerners, are drawn to Buddhism for the meditation. In fact, meditation from several Buddhist traditions is being taught without any reference to Buddhism at all. There are some problems in doing that, but that discussion is for another time. What I want to point out here is that “meditation,” when understood and taught correctly, is moral practice. It is the whole of the Eightfold Path. Or rather, the whole of the Eightfold Path is meditation. Again, a topic for a different discussion. The point here is that we may sit for 20 minutes, or an hour or two out of the twenty-four hours of the day. We need moral guidelines for when we are not sitting. We need moral guidelines for that eight or twelve or sixteen hours we are engaging with other people.
Every society recognizes the importance of interactions and relationships. These are the warp and weave of the social fabric. And every society has “rules” in the form of laws and mores to guide and measure our actions. And to prevent injury, injustice and suffering. Societies differ in many ways, and the laws they enact, and the manner in which laws are made differ. But there are laws. And for the most part there are good reasons for the laws enacted. As Buddhists we have a moral obligation to follow the laws of the society in which we live. We have a moral obligation to embrace the social mores of the society in which we live. We have a Buddhist obligation to make ourselves aware of the laws and mores, and to understand their role in limiting dukkhā.
The laws of society may be categorized as “criminal” laws, those that deal with heinous acts, and as “civil” laws which are for the most part social guidelines to dukkhā free living. Some of these civil laws are written to protect people, such as building codes, fire safety codes, health codes, traffic laws, and so on. Whenever we undertake a project or an action, building a temple or driving a car, we as Buddhists, need to know and follow the laws.
Now there are many ways to circumvent any given law. I see this being done all the time by Bhikkhus with regard to the 227 precepts of the Patimokka. Still another topic for a different discussion. The point is, we need to be knowledgeable and mindful of the laws, and codes and rules, and the reasons for the rules. We need to be knowledgeable and mindful of the consequences, for ourselves and for society, if we don’t follow them. We need to be aware of the potential dukkhā, and perhaps the generation of dukkhā, we create when we don’t. Sure, we can put up a temple that doesn’t meet the building code, and we can justify our behavior by saying “Its just temporary.” But that doesn’t make it safe to occupy. We can drive on the wrong side of the road, and justify it by saying, “Its only for a short while.” But that doesn’t reduce the danger to other drivers, passengers and pedestrians.
I had someone propose a counter to my reasoning one time by invoking the doctrine of “anicca,” transitoriness, impermanence. Everything is in the process of becoming or dying, or arising, abiding and passing away. So everything is temporary. By that standard, life is temporary. So, one can justify murder by saying “that life was only temporary, anyway.” But impermanence is a description of reality, not a standard of behavior. We don’t measure the “rightness” of a thought, act or deed by how long it sticks around. The standard for rightness is dukkhā.
As I said at the begging: We cannot justify illegality by saying “It’s just temporary.” We cannot justify immorality by saying “It’s just temporary.” We cannot justify social inappropriateness by saying “It’s just temporary.” We cannot justify ecological irresponsibility by saying “It’s just temporary.” We cannot justify political oppression by saying “It’s just temporary.” We cannot justify injustice by saying “It’s just temporary.” “Its just temporary” cannot be used as an excuse for engendering dukkhā.
So think about the way you do things, the way you think about things, talk about things, and the ways you act. Are you thinking, speaking and acting in ways that are patently illegal, immoral, unjust and/or ecologically unsound? Do you justify this by saying “It’s only temporary.”
I offer these thoughts for your reflection and consideration.