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Kannon (Guan Yin)

Right Understanding, cont.

In Buddhism we say that the same man does not exist in two consecutive minutes. With each passing minute we gain new experience and information just as we simultaneously forget old experience and information. On Monday, we can recall what we had for lunch the day before, a week later, only a hypnotist can extract that datum from us.

Our minds proceed mechanically. The engine performs exactly in accordance with the external facts of its manufacture and its maintenance. We do not judge the engine's ego. It has none.

We therefore cannot submit anyone's ego to judgment. Righteous individuals are not rewarded with Nirvana because they have obeyed laws. Criminals are not denied Nirvana because they have broken laws. There are no egos in Paradise and that fact alone should bring us to our knees.

At first this might seem radically different from other religions such as Christianity. But consider the Christian position. Aside from being Biblically enjoined from judging others, Christians know that regardless of the seriousness of their sins, if they but repent and sincerely ask God's pardon, they are absolved of their sins. If even an Adolph Hitler is not necessarily beyond God's mercy, what then is the special significance of such terms as good and evil?

Egos are samsaric illusions just as good and evil are samsaric descriptions. We, as particular societal elements, usually apply such descriptions to persons or events according as they seem either beneficial or detrimental to us. What benefits us we consider good and we then tend to speak of that good as though it suffuses all society. "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." Or, as in that marvelous phrase of ministerial seduction, "If you take care of the shepherd, you take care of the sheep."

What passes as good and evil, then, is frequently nothing more than a shift in rights to money, power or pleasure. The shiftees and the shiftors determine which is which according to increase or loss in such samsaric valuables.

It is sometimes difficult to remember that when one man perceives another as his enemy he may commit terrible acts against him. This does not make him a devil any more than it makes his victim a saint.

2. Repentance

It is necessary to appreciate the difference between penitence and repentance. We are merely penitent when we are sorry for having allowed our cravings to become injurious either to ourselves or to others. Penitentiaries are places where people are imprisoned in order that they may sorrow and suffer for having failed to put the brakes on their cravings. When we are sufficiently sorry, sorry to the point of being disillusioned by and alienated from all that we have ever desired, we enter the Swamp. Still, we are not eligible for salvation until we repent.

Repentance goes beyond sorrowing for having craved injuriously and extends to the clear and unequivocal intention to change, to eliminate our cravings at their source, to be saved from ourselves.

The desire to repent must be heartfelt. We cannot fill out a form to be saved. We cannot hire a good lawyer to get us out of the Swamp. We can't be saved by inheriting money or by giving away what money we have. An outside influence - a holy man, a loving child, a sincere teacher, moving music or drama - may inspire us; but the resolution to change can only be formulated within ourselves. We must be aware of our past egotism; acknowledge and regret the damage we have done; desire to reform; recognize that the task is too great to accomplish alone; and appeal for help to the only being in the world who can help us, our Buddha Self or God.

Nirvana and Samsara occupy the same time and space. They are not located apart from each other. During all the days of our repentance we may never have left home. We may have gone to work every day, mowed the lawn on Saturday, and watched football on Sunday. (Life would not have been much different if we had gone to a monastery.)

Regardless of our spiritual condition, we remain physically present in the world. And in this world the problems of society, particularly the problems of crime and punishment, must be addressed. They are not, as we will see, easy issues to deal with. Even experts have trouble with them.

3. Crime, Punishment and Forgiveness

If Zen Buddhism had a modern-era patron saint, that saint would be Daisetz Suzuki. Professor Suzuki, largely through the good offices of Christmas Humphreys and London's Buddhist Society, brought Zen to the West singlehandedly. No one else's contribution comes close.

In the person of the lyrical priest, Thomas Merton, Roman Catholics also had a modern champion of equal fame as Suzuki. Merton, as it happened, showed a favorable interest in Zen Buddhism.

Fortunately for us, these two giants of religion carried on a lively correspondence. Their dispute about the actions of a certain group of Desert Fathers is a classic discussion about some aspects of the problems of good and evil, crime, punishment and forgiveness. Every Buddhist should be familiar with it.

The story at issue concerned a group of Christian hermit monks who lived in the Egyptian desert during the 4th Century. A band of robbers attacked one of these ascetics and his cries summoned the other monks who caught the fellows and took them to jail. When their abbot learned of the event he chastised the monk who had cried out for having been betrayed by his own thoughts - he had not immediately forgiven his transgressors - and for having placed such value on his possessions that he called out and caused the robbers to be taken to jail to suffer punishment. This monk, taking the rebuke to heart, immediately went to the jail, broke-in, and let the robbers escape.

Merton sided with the monk, or rather, it would seem, with the robbers. "So the outraged hermits are in reality much more to blame than the robbers, because precisely it is people like these who cause poor men to become robbers. It is those who acquire inordinate possessions for themselves and defend them against others, who make it necessary for the others to steal in order to make a living."

Merton did not itemize the "inordinate" possessions of these hermit monks that so inspired or coerced the robbers into stealing them.

Suzuki took the opposite view. "We are all social beings and ethics is our concern with social life. The Zen-man too cannot live outside society. We cannot ignore the ethical values."

Suzuki acknowledged all the virtues of non-attachment and simplicity but still thought, "The outcome of the 'great hermit's' inner goodness in releasing the robbers from jail may be far from being desirable."

What do we do, then, about good and evil when we understand why a person may have become a criminal and we feel compassion for him for having been brought by fate to his sorry state? What do we do with poor Baby B when he grows up and batters his wife and children? What do we do with him if he steals our car or murders our neighbor?

Nothing confounds people on the Path more than the questions of crime and punishment. We know that we ought to forgive someone who commits a crime against us. But does forgiveness by a victim mean that the criminal should not be punished by society? Are we justified in insisting that another victim forgive his transgressor? May we forgive someone and yet, in good conscience, assist society in punishing him?

A civilized society is composed of a mixture of men, some civilized and some clearly not. Within it, saints are in a definite minority. Civilized societies require laws and if not punishment in the sense of physical pain then at least in the sense of removal from society of anyone who breaks the laws or is otherwise injurious.

What is it that compels us to respect other people's lives and property and to keep the covenants of citizenship? Personal honor? No. Honor systems do not work. How many of us would pay our taxes in full or in part if there were no penalties for failing to pay? Worse, would we not brand the fellow who paid voluntarily as an unregenerate spendthrift? A society of saints requires no laws. A society of ordinary men cannot exist without them. Where there is crime, there must be punishment.

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 11: Right Understanding, Page 2 of 4

Last modified: July 11, 2004
©1996 Ming Zhen Shakya (Chuan Yuan Shakya)