Fall Ohigan 2014: Conduct Matters

Hi Everyone,

As is a tradition here in this blog, I like to give a little Buddhism “sermon” at certain times of the year, including Ohigan since the first post in 2009. Ohigan (お彼岸) is a twice-yearly Buddhist holiday in Japan. According to tradition, it was started by the pious Emperor Shomu who felt the milder weather would be a good time to reflect on Buddhism. Ohigan literally means “the other Shore” which is a euphemism for Enlightenment. You’re crossing the shore of ignorance to the other shore of awakening and liberation.

In practice, it is a public holiday in Japan, and many people will visit their hometowns to pay respects to their ancestors. Since it is a public holiday, many offices and businesses will be closed too.

Anyhow, for this Ohigan, I wanted to talk about something that I was reminded of recently, namely this quote from an old post about Rinzai Zen monastic life:

As we review these [monastic] regulations of the monks’ hall, their meaning becomes clear. In other words, by regulating one’s behavior, one’s mind is also regulated. The Zen patriarchs were well aware of this.

Normally, when people think of Zen, they think of the opposite: Zen Masters who are “crazy” and wandering the world free to enjoy life, etc. But here, we see that the Zen monastic life is actually very strict. Professor Robert Buswell, who trained in a Zen (Seon) Monastery in Korea said the same thing:

The testimony of the Korean monastic community, however, suggests instead that a disciplined life, not the transformative experience of enlightenment [through meditation], is actually the most crucial to the religion.

In fact, even the Buddha stressed the importance of conduct in such sutra as the Maha-Mangala Sutta (SN 2.4) where he describes the “highest protection” in life as:

Giving, living in rectitude,
assistance to one’s relatives,
deeds that are blameless:
This is the highest protection.

Avoiding, abstaining from evil;
refraining from intoxicants,1
being heedful of the qualities of the mind:
This is the highest protection.

In each cases, it seems like the “secret” to Zen or any serious Buddhist training is conduct and discipline first, then meditation. In other words, by disciplining the body, you discipline the mind!

I thought about this recently, and started repeating to myself “discipline the body, discipline the mind” often. When I feel like spending money I shouldn’t, I repeat this phrase. When I am tired and don’t want to do dishes, I repeat this phrase. And so on.

To my surprise it works.

You see, I always thought the opposite: if I discipline my mind, my body will follow. But the opposite seems to work better: discipline the body first and the mind will follow. I was mad at myself because I was lazy and not disciplined. Then I realized the problem wasn’t that I was stupid, I just wasn’t doing it the right way. Once I did it the right way, my conduct improved a little.

Yogacara Buddhist teachings seem to reinforce this idea too because each action “perfumes” the mind and helps color your subsequent actions like a feedback loop.

So what does this all mean for your average Buddhist?

I think it means that any effort to discipline yourself and follow a wholesome lifestyle will pay off a lot more than jumping headfirst into something like meditation. People want to meditate for a stress-free life and such, but if you follow wholesome conduct, your life will be less stressful anyway plus you will have self-confidence. Meditation works best when you have a foundation of good conduct, not the other way around.

But it also means that if you are having trouble following a wholesome lifestyle, don’t get mad at yourself; just try another approach. Sometimes, a different environment, different friends or small change in habits can really make a positive difference. As the Buddha taught, all beings are capable of becoming Buddhas (i.e. “Buddha-nature” or hongaku 本覚), but maybe just don’t know how.

Conduct is also one of the Six Perfections of Ohigan by the way. 😉

But what does it mean to follow a wholesome lifestyle or to discipline yourself?

In the Buddha’s own words in the Metta Sutta (SN 1.8):

Do not do the slightest thing that the wise would later censure.

So in other words, try not to do or say anything you might regret later. If unsure, just don’t do it. You’ll thank yourself in the long-run, and you’ll enjoy a life that is protected. You don’t need Buddhist charms or amulets if you live a guilt-free, wholesome lifestyle. 🙂

Anyhow, happy (and wholesome) Ohigan everyone!

P.S. If you need more structure, then try following one or more of the Five Precepts (gokai 五戒) as a personal vow.

P.P.S. Double-post today. 🙂

南無釈迦牟尼仏
Namu shakamuni butsu

1 Yup, this means alcohol too, sorry guys. 😉

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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