Saturday, April 19, 2008

Precept #8

“I resolve not to withhold spiritual or material aid, but to give them freely where needed.”
by Jon Laux

One of the great challenges of Zen is to integrate practice with daily life. Even if we do daily zazen and attend sesshin, most of our opportunities for practice will be “off the mat”. And daily life certainly slings its share of opportunities. That we call it “zen practice” is a gentle reminder that this work is never finished, never perfect; in each instant we do the best we can, that’s all.

Not long ago, I responded to a situation in a way that immediately disappointed me. On a Sunday afternoon last fall, I was driving home after several hours spent studying for an upcoming exam. The sun was going down and I was tired. As I headed east on Wacker toward the Lake Shore Drive entrance, traffic was backed up. An SUV had stalled in the left lane, and cars were merging to drive around it. A woman – presumably the SUV owner – was trying to talk to the drivers as they passed. Several drivers exchanged some words with her then drove on.

Finally, it was my turn. The woman asked for help: she was out of gas, and she and her nephew were trying to get back to Elgin. I believed her. I could have pulled over in front of her – I almost did. But I didn’t. Maybe I was nervous because of the line of cars stuck behind me, impatient and honking. Maybe I was anxious to get home and enjoy a warm meal. But mainly, the reason I didn’t pull over is that I just wasn’t there.

Most Chicagoans are well acquainted with the Panhandler Ritual: someone shakes a cup or asks for money, and you respond with whatever combination of fear, mistrust, calculation, judgment and compassion that you muster at that moment. Most of us have performed this ritual enough that it becomes an abstraction, like the half-hearted rolling stops that we make at stop signs. It’s easy to build up a callous so as to avoid looking directly at the situation before us. We’ve all heard numerous reasons not to give money to panhandlers, and most of them are no doubt justified in some circumstances. But these reasons can so easily accrete into rules that help demarcate the boundaries of self. Can we still abandon the rules when we see a need? Can we avoid switching into autopilot?

I drove on. Almost instantly I was filled with remorse. She just needed some money. Not five minutes earlier, I had paid $13 just for parking my car! Even though I drove on, thus solving “my problem”, that woman was still stuck there. Her problem had not been solved. And sitting in that SUV with an empty tank was a boy who was learning firsthand how Americans respond to the problems of their neighbors. I feel low.

As Sensei said during the last Jukai, we need to keep taking the precepts because we keep breaking the precepts. There is value in this. When I was 16 and wanted a driver’s license, I had to digest (and regurgitate) the DMV’s rules of the road. I’ve forgotten most of those rules. (Should you stop your car when a schoolbus is unloading on the other side of the street? Does the answer change if the street is divided?) Jukai gives us a periodic reminder of rules to live by. But it goes deeper. There are the rules of the road, and then there is driving safely. The precepts too can be seen as rules, but as another Sangha member wrote, the precepts actually describe mindful living. And they provide a feedback amplifier that can show us our mind at a given instant – usually when we’re out of step in some way.

When I was in high school, a popular yearbook quotation went as follows: “The trouble with life is that you get the test before the lesson.” The quotation really tells us more about the mindstate fostered by our schools than it does about life. If I had to do that day over again, I would have acted differently. But of course, that day is gone. We handle each moment in life with the karma that has brought us up to that exact moment. In hindsight you can earmark moments in your life that have been “pivotal”, what your motivations were, why you did what you did and why you are where you are now. But you cannot identify when the next pivotal moment will come or what it will look like. Hence the need for continued practice.

One faces similar challenges in the business world. I work in the insurance industry, where the annual performance of companies oscillates between pretty good and spectacularly awful. Insurance is predicated on the idea that similar-looking risks will behave similarly, and thus if you insure enough of them the group as a whole will behave somewhat predictably. This is true most of the time, but then there are the catastrophic events that nobody can foresee, the ones that can completely wipe out a company – think of 9/11, Katrina or asbestos lawsuits. The companies that lost money a few years ago will all tell you, “We’re a much better company than we were a few years ago.” But the only response I can find is this: wait until the next Big Thing happens. Then we’ll see. Until then, just keep working.

So... this article was supposed to be about spiritual and material aid. I wish I could say that after my experience last fall I began volunteering at a homeless shelter, or that I started a relief fund for people who run out of gas, or that I’m now in the habit of randomly dropping $20 bills on major roadways in case someone needs them. None of these things has happened. And yet, things are different. The experience was a flash point for me to examine the mind in daily life: how busy the days are, what’s important, what needs to be done but can wait five minutes, what to let slide. Having seen myself fail, I identify less with success.

Zen training is an ongoing process, and in many cases our efforts will be horrible blunders, ill-conceived in theory (if we have the time to theorize) and botched in execution. But if we pay attention along the way, each blunder can be a lesson, and the next effort might be a little less botched, a little more compassionate.