The Lex Talionis and Desire
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
According to the lex talionis, the law of like retribution, the punishment should always fit the crime. "An eye for an eye," says Exodus' Chapter 21, "and a tooth for a tooth." It's one of those catchy aphorisms, cruel in its finality, that relieves us of the burden of thought. Yes, it may be true; but too often it upends jurisprudence and allows us to turn the Golden Rule inside out, providing the justification to do to someone what he's done to us. Don't get mad, get even.
In terms of our ordinary understanding of crime and punishment, the application of this law, so explicit in Exodus, requires actualization. The offense must be committed in real time, as a concretized experience, provable by any evidentiary product: forensic, the testimony of witnesses, a confession. Somebody has to do something. The punishment, likewise, is exacted in real time. Chop off the hand that steals; kill the violent; incarcerate the sociopathic.
No matter how vile they are, our thoughts, we like to think, do not constitute a crime. Yet, we know that when it really counts, thoughts matter. We can kill a man carelessly backing out of a driveway. But if we have purposely planned to kill the fellow, he will be just as dead, but we will not get off with financial penalties and probation. No, those early thoughts... that pre-meditation... will have us looking at Murder One.
But should those early thoughts abort their purpose, ah, then we say there is no foul for nobody can be blamed for simply thinking about crime. And if it were a crime we could always invoke Constitutional protection for we alone are privy to our thoughts and cannot be forced to incriminate ourselves. The idea of an omniscient god eavesdropping on our reveries seems a tad far-fetched even in this electronic age. And that he would charge and punish his humble devotees for mere thoughts is quite beyond comprehension.
In the mid-thirteen hundreds King Edward III of England corrected this plebeian notion when he added the startling dimension of thought to the Exodian model: the Countess of Salisbury, while dancing, happened to lose a garter; and as the king stooped to pick up the delicate bit of lingerie, he noticed a few smirking glances. "Honi soit qui mal y pense," said the king. Evil to him who evil thinks. Ouch.
What, then, are we to think about that "culpable thought" factor? Is thinking about doing evil as deserving... or less deserving... or more deserving of retaliation than actually committing the evil?
Catholics are required to confess even their thoughts of committing sin. Here, a thought seems to be as deserving. Protestants, in respect of privacy, seem to feel that if a vagrant thought counts at all, it is surely less deserving. (Protestants, after all, were mostly responsible for writing our Constitution). Nobody notices that Buddhists are supposed to regard a thought as being more deserving of punishment. Say, what? Buddhist eyebrows arch. But why should this surprise us?
Our religion stands upon the premises that the unenlightened life is a life of bitterness and pain and that the cause of this wretchedness is desire (a thought if ever there was one!) For as long as suffering defines anybody's hell, craving defines ours. Desirous thoughts can not only get us that Murder One conviction because we have acted upon those thoughts, they can embroil us in endless misery and torment just because we have thought those thoughts. This is not dogmatic fluff. This is bedrock Buddhism. These assertions are the First and Second of our Four Noble Truths.
And how do scientists, those knowledgeable fellows who collectively become an omniscient god's surrogate, regard this notion? Curiously, they seem fully to support the Buddhist position. Here is noted psychiatrist Karl Menninger on the subject:
"There are certain laws governing the activity of the conscience with which we have come to be familiar from clinical experience. One of them is that the ego must suffer in direct proportion to its externally directed destructiveness. It is as if that part of the destructive instinct retained within the ego had to carry on within the microcosmos of the personality an activity precisely comparable to that which the ego is directing toward the macrocosmos outside. If the individual directs an attack of a certain nature upon some person in the environment, the conscience, or super-ego, directs an attack of the same nature upon the ego. This formula is well known to us in social organization in the form of the lex talionis, the intuitive basis of all penal systems." He later adds, "One more fact or 'law' about the conscience: a sense of guilt may arise from other than actual aggression; in the unconscious a wish to destroy is quite equivalent to the actual destruction with regard to exposing the ego to punishment."
What to Menninger is a "super ego" is in many ways to us a Buddha Self.
Science, then, verifies what Zen avers: the First and Second Noble Truths insist that whether we fulfill our harmful desires or not, such desires come with nasty consequences. Others may suppose that they have until death's Judgment Day to learn if they shall be consigned to hellfire or if they'll be reincarnated into an even more loathsome creature. To a Zen Buddhist, however, there is no time to wait or waste. For us there is no labored re-parturition or post-mortem travail, and the moment is always now. Now we are obliged to work diligently for our salvation. Now we suffer and now we are redeemed.
What then do we do about troublesome desire? The notion that we eliminate all desire, however popular this is among the dabblers in our religion, is ludicrous. Desire is itself the source of motivation and when we attempt to achieve non-desire, we are compelled to circle back to it. We cannot exit the loop.
Neither is desire a series of numbered wishes existing solely on the negative side of some ethical abscissa... one that we can allow to retreat into nothingness' origin, as if that zero of desire were the Empyrean Void. The only cipher we find here consists in support of the contention that Buddhists are nihilists at heart, that we seek extinction of everything. In fact we seek to gain Nirvana and in that attempt much is desired and needs to be fulfilled. The Path is narrow and steep. Without a consuming desire to get to its top, who would climb it? Once there, we may well appreciate the peace of having no base thoughts at all. But we are speaking now of the way there, the climb, the struggle to attain that perfect innocuousness.
Those of us who are still tempted to turn categorical imperatives inside-out have to consider certain questions. "Is there a solution to the problem?" "Yes," says the Third Noble Truth. "And what would that solution be?" "The Buddha's Eightfold Path," stipulates the Fourth, "the Path in which the Precepts are embedded."
To the Zen Buddhist, for every "negative" action or desire there is a corresponding positive one. It is not enough to be guiltless of violence, we must also be kind - and that requires a little effort, i.e., a desire that manifests itself in a kind act's performance. It is not enough to refrain from stealing and lying, we are required to be generous and to speak whatever truth needs telling. And so on through those Precepts we formally accept when first we are admitted to Buddhist ranks. The goal is not to become a tabula raza, but a tableau that serves to illustrate the benefits of our Buddhist Way.
But altruism alone may not provide sufficient incentive. It is then, by considering the lex talionis, that we begin also to see the wisdom of our Path.
By two devices, our own Self casts us into aggression's samsaric hell: by projection and by introjection.
In projection, we cast our own satanic 'enemy shadow' upon individuals in our environment. If someone offends or irritates us or falls below our standards of fashion or decorum, we become contemptuous. If we seek to correct, we are insulting, not instructive, our choice of words being deliberately selected, however slyly, to be the most injurious. Our first victim is a conquered soul of one. Our second has an ally.
By the time our hurtful attitudes reach critical mass - involving a majority of those around us - we have lost the war. We find ourselves imperiously alone and alienated. A peptic ulcer suggests itself to us as a fit companion. As invitations to social functions cease to arrive, we discover that what we have lost in social appreciation, we have gained in blood pressure. Groups of people fall silent as we approach and barely suppressed glee greets our slightest discomfort. We brood about this as we lie awake nights. We suspect that we are being constantly ridiculed, and in this surmise we are usually correct. If we are unprincipled enough to record conversations secretly, we may learn how our associates question the sanity or the hidden motivations of any person who seems to tolerate us. We discuss this with a psychologist who, we note, will make quite a few car payments before he determines that we are not entirely paranoid. It will not surprise us to learn that we are as detested as those whom we despise, but what we will not accept is that their hostility is in any way warranted. They are bigoted, or jealous, or incompetent, or resentful of authority. It is because of their malice that we experience cardiac distress, insomnia or sexual dysfunction.
In introjection, the course we take when we are inhibited in expressing our anger, we unconsciously install in our own mind the person we regard as evil. By bringing this "devil" into ourselves, we convert a possibly peaceful precinct into a definite hell. If we believe ourselves to have been abused or unfairly treated, rejected or made to feel inferior, our hellish resentment smolders. The problem worsens in direct proportion to our inability to express our demand for justice. Perhaps we fear our opponent and his likely reprisals. Perhaps we fear the loss of social status or income that our objections would incur. Whatever the reason, we take our enemy into our own psyche and dispose of him there in ways we cannot dispose of him in a more public venue. We lock him in our soul's torture chamber and there we deal with him - the cause and the effect of our self-destructive behavior. Sometimes we clench our jaw and grind our teeth - crushing and devouring the enemy we have seized. (Our dentist is alarmed. Our doctor scribbles an Rx for tranquilizers). Sometimes we bang our head against the wall and give the fellow a good thrashing, or we become accident prone and "inadvertently" cut ourselves, giving him a few scars. Sometimes we get drunk and, our own ego being absent in blottoed oblivion, we display this devil for the stupid wretch he is and punish him further with a blinding hangover. Sometimes we drive recklessly and get him a citation that will land him in court, or we crash into a tree that will put him in the hospital. Sometimes we purposefully overeat harmful foods, become bloated and hypertense and give the villain a stroke, or we become obnoxious or lazy and cause him to become a pariah. Yes, we know how to give our devil his due.
Assuming that our introjected enemy has not required suicide by way of adequate punishment, we continue to remain engaged in our strange sado-masochistic liaison, the torturer and the tormented in a secret prison. Naturally, we keep our prisoner alive by force feeding him daily doses of our own swallowed anger and frustration. What lesson would be learned by having him wither away quietly in captivity?
Perhaps if we had been able to meet our opponent in fair combat, on a "level" playing field, or in a sincere, man-to-man discussion of our grievance, we would not have needed to travel this dangerous path. But all too often the map that diagrams our ways of responding has been acquired in childhood's terra incognita. As adults we can study the ancient chart, but of the landmarks and jottings, we remember little and understand less.
In either case, by projection or introjection, we are our own worst enemy. Suppose we awaken to this predicament. Suppose we realize that somehow we have overlooked this cause of our suffering. Suppose, even, that we consider that Zen Buddhism might offer a solution to the problems of attaining peace, joy, truth and freedom, that it can show us a way to be rid of our devils. How do we begin to effect the changes, not merely to correct destructive thoughts but to be free from even having them? The first requirement is that we understand that Zen is part of Mahayana Buddhism and that this vehicle, this Mahayana raft, is in fact a vehicle of religious salvation. (Strange how it seems so necessary to state what should be obvious.)
For Zen is a religion... not a social club or an academic exercise, not a casual 'way of life' or a serenely numb state of mind. However Daoist in style, Zen rests firmly upon the monument of Indian theology. Thousands of years of profound and nearly unparalleled spiritual investigation have created its base; and Daoism's accessibility and theological insouciance does not remove Zen from this philosophical foundation. We cannot ignore or discount our Indian spiritual heritage; and while Buddhism's domain ranges far afield, no image of it can exist anywhere without the presence of a supreme being or a supernatural ethical force. Zen is not an atheist's religion. Atheists have no religion: that is why they are atheists.
All too often Zen practitioners utter pious expressions that are devoid of belief and bereft of faith. They bow to incense and they bow to statues and they bow to ecclesiastical superiors. But they quickly deflect any suspicion that they are idolaters by explaining to onlookers that "the Buddha we bow to is the Buddha Within." When asked if they believe in God, they affect consternation. No! Certainly not. Visions of some wrathful God of Genesis or Job flash into their mind. The fury of an ulcerated bowel never occurs to them.
But when we speak of the Buddha Within we mean that Omniscient One who knows and understands the intention of every thought we have. Whether we call him Amitabha, Lord of Infinite Light, or Amitayus, Lord of Infinite Time, he exists within each of us and we cannot suppose that he is deaf, dumb and blind.
Mindless statements about "mind," of the Glory of Buddha Mind and the ignominy of ego mind, are too often made without any realization that what is meant by these terms is that heaven and hell exist and that they exist here and now and in our own mind; and we can live in one place or the other. For, unless we've been decapitated, we carry our heaven and our hell with us wherever we go.
Samsara's painful world is only that which is seen through the ego's narrow spectral band. It is easily eclipsed by the immensity of Nirvana. Our Great Physician, our Medicine Buddha, can cure our vision of its limiting delusions. But first we have to desire the eternal vision, and then we have to ask for it.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts