A Jack of All Trades: Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom

January 30, 2009 · 3 comments

So as I sit here with a cheekful of cherry Skoal, my green money candle and stick of some kind of incense burning, listening to somebody play Bach on the harpsichord pretty well, I thought I might write a little more about what D. T. Suzuki has been telling me about Zen Buddhism.

I read a bit at lunch today that resonated well enough to get my head nodding rather vigorously and the meatballs falling out of my sandwich.  The book I’m reading is called Zen Buddhism and it’s a collection of Suzuki’s writings edited by William Barrett.  The part I was reading at lunch is called “The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind”, and I’m about to start quoting from (and paraphrasing) it rather liberally.

But before I do, how about a quick digression to set the stage?  Whether it’s a penchant of Suzuki or merely Barrett’s editorial decision, this book has a lot about the historical journey of Buddhism from India into China, where it there became Zen.  I’ve mentioned this before, so I won’t get too far into it here, but suffice to say that Suzuki seems to have a pretty good handle on where the various branches of the Buddhist tree derive and separate from one another.  He often repeats that ritualization leads to stagnation and thus dead branches. 

One such example occurs with respect to the three subjucts of the Buddhist Triple Discipline:  Morality(sila), Meditation (dhyana), and Wisdom (prajna).

Morality consists in observing all the precepts laid down by the Buddha for the spiritual welfare of his disciples.  Meditation is the exercise to train oneself in tranquillization, for as long as the mind is not kept under control by means of meditation it was of no use just to observe mechanically the rules of conduct, in fact, the latter were really meant for spiritual tranquillization.  Wisdom or Prajna is the power to penetrate into the nature of one’s being as well as the truth itself thus intuited.”  [emphasis mine]

Suzuki goes on to describe how the three aspects of this (single) discipline became separated from one another into specific schools of study.  Basically, these three are meant to be practiced together – to balance one another.  Spending too much time specializing in the study of one is to forsake the others, and thus to forsake the entire point of the Triple Discipline.  Suzuki continues:

“That all these three are needed for a devoted Buddhist goes without saying.  But after the Buddha, as time went on, the Triple Discipline was split into three individual items of study.  The observers of the rules of morality set down by the Buddha became teachers of the Vinaya; the Yogins of meditation were absorbed in various Samadhis, and even acquired something of supernatural faculties, such as clairvoyance, mind-reading, telepathy, knowledge of one’s past lives, etc. and lastly, those who pursued Prajna became philosophers, dialecticians, or intellectual leaders.  This one-sided study of the Triple Discipline made the Buddhists deviate from the proper path of Buddhist life, especially in Dhyana (meditation) and Prajna (wisdom or intuitive knowledge).”  [emphasis mine]

This is the point at which my meatballs landed in my potato chips.  Suzuki goes on to discuss specifically the split between meditation and wisdom, which is exactly what I was thinking about and needed to read.  I can’t forego one for the other without becoming imbalanced in who I am.  In a very simple sense, my actions, thoughts, and feelings must be in harmony with one another – which corresponds directly to the balance among the practices of morality, wisdom, and meditation – otherwise I am not whole. 

Maybe that’s not as simple a statement as I would like it to be.  I think an elaboration would be more suited here than trying to break this idea down further:

Morality:  I was raised here in America according (more or less) to the Roman Catholic code of morality embodied in the Ten Commandments.  My parents taught me to be a gentleman – speak when spoken to, open doors for people, help little old ladies across the street – things like that.  I’ve got a pretty good handle on the rules of polite society (and how not to go to jail).  But if I simply follow these rules with no thought at all to the true moral underpinings – why it’s wrong to kill, why it’s wrong to steal, etc. – and go about my merry way doing whatever I like without transgressing these boundaries, then I’m a sociopath (or just an asshole).

Wisdom:  I chose to study philosophy because I like to think.  I like dialectical and analytical problems because they keep my mind exercised and sharp.  If taken to the extreme, I get completely lost in my books and in my head and never really do anything.  I spend lots and lots of time thinking about what’s right and wrong, true and untrue, what should and should not be.  I forget about reality and become completely absorbed in the hypothetical.

Meditation:  I enjoy yoga.  I like going to class and practicing at home.  I enjoy the breathing exercises and postures.  Yoga helps me get centered and clears my cluttered mind.  Some days, I feel that I would like to be a yoga instructor.  In order to become an instructor, (in my mind) I would have to spend years in study and discipline.  Lots and lots of meditation so that I become “completely” centered.  If I did that, I’d have to quit my job and live in poverty, even though I’d be “full” and “wealthy” “on the inside”. 

Any one of these, if taken to the extreme, automatically foregoes the other two.  And I don’t want to live that way; it makes me feel incomplete.  To a certain extent, I have direct experience with each of these – living as though that one thing (morality/wisdom/meditation) were the most important way to live.  In each case, I felt strange, though I couldn’t have told you why at the time (and probably would have denied it anyhow). 

So, without making this post any longer than it already is, I’ve reached this conclusion:  it really is ok for me to be a jack of all trades (master of none).

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott January 30, 2009 at 08:40

Meditation is King it allows me to see the world without so much ego involved and leaves me opened minded and able to think clearly enough to obtain wisdom. The wisdom I gain allows me to live what I think is a moral life. Without meditation I have way less of a chance to gain wisdom and live morally.


Katie February 2, 2009 at 16:22

Paragraph 7, line 5… typo! OMG I finally get to correct mensa! Watch now I will have a spelling erro in this post or something stupid like that!


niceguyted February 2, 2009 at 17:22

Corrected. Good eyes, Katie. There were actually two typos in that paragraph.

Do you want me to correct the typo in your comment, too, or was that intentional?


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