Martine & Stephen


Different Buddhist traditions will express and practice compassion in diverse ways.  In the Tibetan tradition there is the practice of the exchange of self for others.  In the Theravada traditions found in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma you will find the meditative practice of loving kindness and compassion.  In the Zen traditions of China, Korea or Japan, there is the vow of saving all sentient beings and the cultivation of the bodhisattva precepts that are laid out in the Brahmajala Sutra.

When I was in Korea living as a Zen Buddhist nun in a monastery, every fifteen days we recited the Brahmajala Sutra.  As my understanding of Korean improved I realised that this text was the source of the compassionate attitude that I found in the monastery, and influenced strongly the way in which my teacher, Master Kusan, would behave.  Whenever Master Kusan would meet an animal, he would pat it on its head, if he could, and say a few words in a soft voice.  Finally I dared to ask him what he was saying.  He replied that he was wishing for the animal to raise the mind of awakening, which is part of the forty-fifth secondary precept.  In this precept, a disciple of the Buddha is strongly encouraged to always produce a compassionate mind when he encounters any living beings and to wish them to be liberated from suffering.

In Korea every year many laypeople take the bodhisattva precepts anew.  The monks and the nuns as I mentioned above take them every fifteen days.  They are not seen as rules and regulations that must be taken once and adhered to for all time.   They are treasured as the foundation for an attitude of compassion to all of life.  At the same time it is acknowledged that one is only human, prone to make mistakes and revert to self-centredness so one needs to be reminded again and again of one of the essential components of the Buddhist path: compassion.

The Brahmajala Sutra has been the basic ethical text for Chinese, Korean and Japanese Buddhists for the last fifteen hundred years.  Ethics can be applied and followed for different reasons: to conform to society standards, out of fear for future punishment, out of guilt for original sin or out of compassion for life and to help life develop and grow.  This text shows us that the basis of an ethical life is compassion and awareness.  Compassion is set out very obviously and is often referred to in more than twenty-two of the fifty-eight precepts; awareness is implied in the way the various precepts are formulated.  Their aim is to make us reflect on our behaviour and how it can impact negatively and painfully on ourselves and others.

Early on in Korea I realised and experienced clearly the essential connection between compassion and ethics.  Often we were told the story of the monk and the flea.  How in ancient times when a monk found a flea at the beginning of winter, he could not let it outside but kept it warm and fed it over the winter and only released it when warm spring came.  In the summer in Korea there were flies and mosquitoes so we devised a method of catching them with a glass and a postcard in order to release them outside the room.  We found that we could not kill them intentionally, because we knew that they too lived and wanted to continue to live and also possessed the Buddha nature.  We felt they had as much  right to life as we did.  It might be harder to do this in a tropical country.

Many of the Bodhisattva precepts are about not harming, either oneself or others, or animals.  The first major precept is to ‘Refrain from taking life’.  It points out in great details that one should not kill oneself, nor cause someone else to do it, nor do it in a roundabout way, nor create the cause or conditions, nor the means to kill.  It is an exhaustive list that makes us reflect on the many ways by which we might cause harm.  We might not kill other people or any living creatures but do we cause them harm in any other way.  And if we cause them harm, how do we do it?  Do we do it in a round about way so we do not feel responsible for it?   Do we create the causes and conditions for causing harm needlessly?  These precepts show us that wisdom and compassion help us to reflect on our actions and intentions.  Then the precept explains why we should not kill and that is because the duty of a Bodhisattva is to be always compassionate and to lead others to liberation.

There are several precepts that investigate what it means to be non-harming due to a compassionate attitude.  The third major precepts, which encourages proper sexual behaviour, states that the reason for doing so is that otherwise perverted, indecent, indiscriminate sexual behaviour would cause compassion to disappear.  When one is in the power of lustful thoughts or feelings, can one reflect on what would be the compassionate things to do for all involved in that moment?  This precept  reminds us: “It is the duty of a bodhisattva to always present a state of mind which conforms to the Buddha-nature and to lead others to liberation by teaching them the pure Dharma.”   

The third secondary precept encourages vegetarianism on the ground that if someone were to eat the flesh of animals he would destroy great compassion and great kindness and the seed of the Buddha-nature.  To this day monasteries and nunneries in China and Korean are completely vegetarian.  Since it seemed more difficult for laypeople to be fully vegetarian then six specified fasting or vegetarian days a month were created as well as three special months of abstinence, i.e. times when one avoids animal food. 

The fourteenth precept is concerned with lighting destructive fires at certain times of the year and in so doing causing harm to living creatures. In Korea, in the monastery the fields were burnt only during the depth of the winter when all living creatures were dormant and out of harm way.  The twentieth precept wants us to save the lives of living creatures and to set loose those who are about to be killed.  To this day in China and Korea, Buddhists will go to the market to buy live animals, like fish and birds, to release them in the wild.  In ancient times in Chinese monasteries they were even spacious and separate pens for the different animals that laypeople had bought and brought to finish their days in a peaceful surrounding.

The tenth and the thirty-second precepts concern themselves with not keeping nor selling implements for killing such as swords and clubs which would refer to the clause about creating the means or the causes and conditions for harming or killing.  Once in the kitchen of a prosecutor in Canada, I was presented with the main mean of harmful offences in that region: a kitchen knife!  It was a sobering experience.  In the hands of a peaceful person, a knife was very useful; in the hands of someone in the grip of rage, it was very dangerous. 

The precepts also look at one of the psychological and emotional conditions for causing harm: anger. The ninth major precept urges us to refrain from being angry or quarrelsome and encourages us to be kind and compassionate.  It points out that out of anger one might abuse an animal or even hit an inanimate object.  It seems that human beings have not change much since ancient times as we might still find ourselves hitting the tyre of a car or bashing a computer keyboard!  The twenty-first secondary precept even argues against repaying anger with anger and taking revenge.   As an example, it singles out venting one’s anger on servants; nowadays it could be people in the service industry.  Who has not got hot under the collar and been rather vengeful and abrupt when faced with a representative of industry or government?  This again is considered to be abandoning a compassionate mind.

Another conditional factor for causing harm that is investigated is alcohol.  It is considered more serious to sell it (fifth major precept) than to drink it oneself (second secondary precept).  In the former one it is pointed out that alcohol is a conditional factor in committing negative and harmful actions.  It can lead people into confusion, which is opposed to the duty of a bodhisattva to cultivate brilliant wisdom in the minds of living beings. 

These precepts do not just help us to reflect on what is harmful but also on the cultivation of positive and beneficial activities.  The thirty-first precept asks us to rescue people from their difficulties and in the ninth secondary precepts one is encouraged to care well and provide for one who is sick as if that person was the Buddha himself.  It is pointed out that one should not fail to nurse or give assistance due to dislike and resentment.  If we reflect on this point, we can see that often we are not so comfortable visiting someone ill in hospital, maybe because we are not at ease in hospitals or because our friend is so seriously ill and diminished.  But if we raise a wise and compassionate heart, we realise that this friend is suffering all the time when this will make us only uncomfortable for thirty minutes or an hour.  I find that when encountering suffering, compassion will naturally arise and dissolve any ill feeling or difficulty there might have been with the person who is ill.

In my youth I had been an anarchist so in general was not enamoured of the banking system.  Once in Korea after I had become a nun, I was changing money in a bank and the bank teller gave me too much money back.   My first thought was to rush out with my windfall.  This was quickly followed by the compassionate thought that I could not take this money because the teller would suffer because of his error.  So I returned the money to him and explained the error. As the second major precept “Refrain from taking what is not given” tries to explain at length, it is not just plain and simple stealing that is referred to.  It is again looking at the means, the causes and conditions and the roundabout way in which one could achieve one’s aims of obtaining something that is not freely or consciously given.   One is reminded that “the duty of a bodhisattva is to make others joyful and happy by always presenting a state of mind  which conforms to the Buddha-nature”.    One does not steal because it is illegal but because if we acted that way it would be contrary to the Buddha-nature and awakening.  

There are three more precepts that deal with material possession and livelihood.   The twelfth secondary precept is about refraining from doing business with an evil intent; seventeenth is about not trying to extort money or goods through threats of violence or corruption with the help of well-placed people as this would be discarding a compassionate mind.  The twenty-ninth is about not holding an unwholesome occupation with an evil intention and for the sake of gain because again it would be contrary to a mind of compassion.  These precepts are very practical and try to cover all aspects of life.  They are asking of us: “What does it mean to live an ethical and compassionate life fully and extensively?”

Another important aspect of ethics that is mentioned in many precepts is intention.  ‘Intentionally’ and ‘deliberately’ are often used in these precepts.  It makes a difference if one does something intentionally or accidentally.  So it is essential to look into one’s own mind and heart to ask oneself, what is my intention when I act in this way?  If an accident repeats itself very often that causes harm, it would be important to investigate the conditions and the states of mind that give rise to the action, and to the result as well. 

A few precepts are about how we communicate and express a compassionate mind and heart verbally and what would be contrary to that.  This is investigated in depth from many different angles.  For example the fourth major precept is to “refrain from telling lies”.  It is suggested that one should not convey the impression that one saw something that one did not see or vice-versa through physical gesture or mental intention.  It is pointed out that even if one is not lying in words one might through one’s gesture or in one’s mind.  It is trying to make us be aware of subtle aspects of communication.  We do not only communicate though words. Moreover what kind of impressions do we convey?  What is the intention behind them? These precepts are not only about our actions but also about the subtle level of our intention and require of us to be fully conscious and present to what we are doing and intending.

There are three precepts about slandering.  The seventh precept is interesting because it suggests an exchange for self and other as in the compassionate practice found in Tibetan Buddhism.  It points out that one should not praise oneself while slandering others and the reason that is given is that “the duty of a bodhisattva is to take upon himself the slander directed towards others, to transfer whatever is unpleasant to himself and to give whatever good to others.  This is one of the challenge of compassion to let go of self-centredness to become other-centred.  We are often afraid of other-centredness because we feel that others will take advantage.  In my experience it is the contrary when we become more open to others and more genuinely concerned for others they will do the same to us and in that way self-centredness can start to disappear on both side.  By living from other-centredness thus balancing out self-preservation we show that it is possible to live that way and that it leads to harmony and creativity.

The eight major precept explores the connection between reviling someone and miserliness; how we should not be miserly in general and try to give whatever is requested of us if we can.  This precept points out that a miserly attitude can stop us from extending ourselves for others.   It might also make us harsh to someone in order not to give that person anything.  When we pass beggars in the street, it is useful to be aware that our mind will be very negative about them so we do not have to give them anything when we have so much more than them.  They ask very little of us and we cannot consider even giving that small amount.  Finally in the thirteen precepts one is asked not to slander someone baselessly and from an evil intent.  One might consider that we do not slander others in general but what do we do when we gossip.  How do we talk about others when they are not there?  Are we positive and constructive or are we the opposite?  Do we contribute to creating harmony and understanding or do we do the contrary?  Here it is pointed out that slandering others is not beneficial towards nurturing a compassionate attitude because it causes suffering.

The main message of the Brahmajala Sutra and of the bodhisattva precepts that can help us in our modern lifeis that the path of ethics is expressed as compassion in action and the path of compassion is based on an ethical attitude.

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