Buddhist Ethics



30 Kushan Buddha

There are all sorts of precepts, rules of behavior, in different schools of Buddhism. Some are just for monks, others for nuns, and these are further pared down for laypersons. The basic formulation of the “four truths” that appears in early sutras include the eight fold path of “rights;” not legal rights as in the constitution, but these “rights” are about the right way to proceed, like right livelihood, right effort, right speech, etc.

But those are not the crux, the heart, of Buddhist ethics.

Nyogen Roshi says that Maezumi taught that no matter how smart and good, however benign, we will cause pain if we come from our unenlightened personal agenda. You can’t just memorize the rules. That might be ok as a guide, something to fall back on when in doubt, when you know you are in a confused state and can’t see clearly, but if it isn’t coming from you, from your very being, if you have an agenda, it won’t stick.

Zen teachings say we don’t pick and chose. No aversion or desire/grasping. That doesn’t mean we don’t discriminate. Our school teaches no self-deception, take responsibility. You know a kitten from a rattlesnake, as Nyogen Roshi says. Trust your mind to function.

We don’t ascribe to precepts and decisions about behavior as being driven from above, as is the case in many religions. It isn’t about guilt, praise and blame, standards of good and bad by fiat from the heavens. We aren’t concerned about some dictate about purity versus sin. It is about compassion, it’s about not letting our egos dictate the limits of our universe.

We can start by not indulging in the poisons: greed anger and ignorance. Buddhist ethics is about not being run by your desires and fears, your conditioning. That takes care of it. You do that, you come from that place, just pay attention without trying to fit your life, other people, the Universe, into your idea of how you want it to be, you will be ethical.

You wont justify and rationalize doing bad shit. You will do good shit.

Robert Lanza, one of the authors of the books “Biocentrism” and “Beyond Biocentrism,” gave a talk at the Hazy Moon Zen Center. He pointed out that there is no separation. No dualism. We are all one. As taught in Buddhism, no self and other. If you believe that, if you really get that, he said, why would I hit you? When I  hit you, I am hitting me.


Without greed, without fear or anger, why would you hurt others, why would you not care about the environment, why would you cheat, what would you do that would be unethical? Why would you be a republican?

‘Pay attention’ is the ultimate Zen teaching according to some. Be awake. No self-deception, no agenda. If you do that, you will function as a Buddha. A Buddha knows how not to cause suffering.

One thing I have noticed is that we often think our own suffering is the exception. Not necessarily worse than the suffering of other sentient beings, but somehow just different enough, special enough, that we and our suffering are exceptional in the sense of being exempt. Justified.

I do not mean to blame the victim. You probably did get hurt. We all live lives mired in samsarra, the relative material world of self and other, surrounded and embedded in delusion. Sometimes a firm hand, a strong stance is in accordance with the Way, with dharma. There are people who do very bad things out there, and we need to stand up to them. We need to be strong and brave in the face of injustice.

But more often than not, if it all seemed to go wrong when you thought you were doing the right thing, if it isn’t flowing (the great Way has no difficulties we are told by the ancients) you were likely indulging your delusions, delusions that we all often have a blind spot for, which is why they are called delusions.

When we decide that we have a good reason to not to be constrained by the niceties of avoiding anger and being responsible when we are causing others to suffer, we open the gates to hell. Look carefully next time you fall down and have to lift yourself up. See whether you somehow justified it, rationalized your behavior. This one was so different…it wasn’t fair…I just had to…

Yes sometimes we do just have to. That’s the practice. Being clear enough to know the difference between doing it because of our ego needs or because it is Dharma, the Tao, the Way. Having no agenda that blinds us. We discriminate, not because we want it this way or that, not out of desire/aversion, but because that’s how a Buddha functions.

That’s who we are  without delusion.

Or at least, so I am told by those who seem to know. I’m thinking it’s true. It fits what I see, anyway.

Nyogen Roshi says the ground of Buddha Mind, that is, our minds undistorted by the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance, our minds not limited by our ego driven need to protect ourselves against our fear, by our dualistic delusion of self and other, is compassion.


Avalokiteshvara, who became the female Guan Yin in China, hears the crying of those who suffer. That’s what the name means. She goes down into hell to comfort the suffering. She embodies compassion.

That’s old school Buddhism.




The Crown of Creation (?)


Here’s my current suggestion for the coolest animal (hint: it is not us, either despite of, or maybe because of, our awesome and dangerous brains and opposable thumbs):


Sounds impressive! Actually, despite sounding like the name of some hard-core conquering emperor, it means ‘slow step’ in Latin.

Less impressively, it is also known as the water bear.

But it is WAY more impressive than any marauding horde.

There’s a great chapter about them in the book “Animal Earth, the amazing diversity of living creatures.” I like this book; while limiting itself to animals (not plants, say, or bacteria, etc.) it has examples of all the major groups, and so despite our brain chauvinism, vertebrates are barely mentioned.

At 0.003 to 0.08 inches you can barely see it without magnification. They live in both marine and fresh water. These can be extreme environments and collections of water as thin as the layer of water on moss or on  “lichen encrusting a headstone.” There’s some likely in your immediate vicinity right now. Some are “herbivorous” eating plants and algal cells, others are predatory on small animals like nematodes (ubiquitous small worms). In marine waters they tend to reproduce sexually. In fresh waters, some are hermaphrodites and others can reproduce by parthenogenesis, meaning mother’s eggs just start doing their thing, no need for sperm. So, for those water bears there is no need for males.

But here’s the coolest part:

They undergo “cryptobiosis,” described as a kind of “death-like suspended animation.” The dehydrate over less than an hour and become what is called a “tun.” They use glycerol and a trehalose, a simple sugar to replace water molecules. The tun can tolerate:

Temperatures approaching absolute zero (much colder, it says, than liquid nitrogen)

Temperatures up to 120 centigrade or 250 degrees Fahrenheit (they can live in hot springs without being in this living dead condition)

“Huge doses of radiation”

A “hard vacuum”

Up to 600 atmospheres of pressure.


So, you think global warming is a threat to life on earth? Think again. Of course rats and roaches wont care either if our coastal cities are under water, our economies dive, millions starve from lack of water from loss of run off from major mountain ranges and destroyed habitats and ecosystems.

We will take down  ourselves, and a large percent of species on earth if we continue living as we have, but many will survive.

Earth has put up with more than we can dish out, and life has survived massive extinctions before (the book “The Sixth Extinction” will teach you about that, as will any good history of life on earth or a trip to a good natural history museum.)

This extinction is unique in that it is the first massive extinction done knowingly, out of pure greed and willful stupidity and self-deception, so some call it the Anthropocene (Latin for people fucked it up. Well, not exactly; it means the people’s period. Power to the people!).

So I worry less about earth or even life on earth than I shake my head at our arrogance and hurt for our kids and grandkids. Species come and go. Biology, evolution, is not romantic or sentimental. Life on earth  has the urge to survive, to grow and develop, to evolve, but it is not unidirectionally goal directed. We are. Let’s not fool ourselves. Our concerns about the environment are basically about us. Earth just finds us wordy apes petty, rude and annoying, not existentially threatening. In a few millions of years even our most toxic remnants will be dissolved, dissipated, and metamorphosed (OK some will take a few tens, or even hundreds, of  millions of years, but earth has deep time).

We’re not water bears; we’re not that cool. We are just an evolutionary experiment—fragile bodies with overblown, overly self-important, big wordy brains. Is there a chance that we will look up from our devices, our efficiencies, our clinging and our lusts, with our attention spans less than goldfishes, to see past our encrusted defense outer and inner mechanisms, be brave, and do the right thing? Judging from the popularity of certain republicans who thrive on greed, ignorance, fear and hate right now, I am not convinced. Judging from the reaction to them of many, to the wisdom of some I know and read and hear about, I am allowing myself some tiny sliver of hope.

Zen impartiality or not, I’d like my grandkids not to live in a seething hell of destroyed civilizations and ecosystems.


The Only Thing We Have To Fear; Happy Thanksgiving

I haven’t written on this website for a while for several reasons. Mostly I have been writing a fantasy novel for 8-11 year olds (or thereabouts) where themes that I have discussed in this blog are the subtext, but without any Buddhist, Zen or really scientific jargon. That’s the point of fiction; you explore new things in a way that is free and open, using intuition and imagination.

Also, I went to do research and visit friends and family in Paris.

Then a month later of course the horror of ISIL in Paris happened.

That was sad and disgusting and tragic, but what really got to me was the irrational reaction of so many people here in the USA (and somewhat elsewhere, of course): paranoia, xenophobia, racism, perverted values, willingness to destroy innocent lives; the wholesale and obvious caving in to the whims of evil deeds perpetrated by a handful of people.

I don’t usually discuss current events in this blog. The ethical dimensions of “no separation,” the teachings of Buddhism about compassion that I have discussed, say it all. Don’t get sucked in by greed and anger and you will probably get it right most of the time.

Fear is greed. Now, I am not talking about the rapid heart beat and even the involuntary jumping and screaming that might occur if you are surprised watching a suspenseful film, when an earthquake happens, or if you are indeed attacked by nefarious forces including bad guys (or a leopard). These reactions are pretty hard wired; yes, it may be that with deep enough enlightenment you can transcend these reactions, but they do serve an evolutionary purpose (that leopard).

And I am not talking about even more prolonged, perfectly legitimate reactions and concerns that can degrade into fear. You are concerned if someone dear to you is sick. It needn’t be that you are afraid for that person, you just would like them not to suffer. You miss a close friend when she dies. It needn’t become fear of death. You would rather be careful than deal with the pain of third degree burns. You aren’t afraid, it’s just that third degree burns really, really, really suck. You do not want the consequences that may occur if your drink and drive. You’d rather not die just yet, so when you are sick you dive in and you take medicine or undergo surgery or stop smoking or change your diet if it will help.

These are not really fears or actions based on fear; they are what a responsible, smart and wise person does.

Being spiritual shouldn’t mean you are dumb or uncaring. Going all Zen and avoiding “picking and choosing,” as the ancient Chan masters implored, means you don’t get attached to your view points, your desires and conditioning, it doesn’t mean you don’t jump in to save a drowning child. Just the opposite; maybe you’d rather not get wet. Maybe you are afraid to get involved, that you will fail. You do it anyway.

Maybe you are afraid. Tough. Do the right thing. That is not picking or choosing.

So, getting back to the terrorists.

If you feel one iota of fear because of the Paris attacks, you are deluded, selfish and you are a terrorist. Unless maybe if you were there and have PTSD. Yep, you are a terrorist in the same sense that you may be a Buddhist. It is your Way, what you believe in, the way of terrorizing and being terrorized. These go hand in had. Nobody terrorized, no terrorists. They lose steam quickly. Why blow yourself up if nobody goes ooh and aah?

I assume nobody reading this made the connection to the Syrian refugees that some of our politicians and it seems many of our countrymen did in the USA; that’s too over the top racist and incoherent for anybody sophisticated enough to find this website. I would think. I would hope.

I mean, the irony of during the season of Thanksgiving Americans getting self righteous about terrorists and genocide is a bit much. We built this country on murder, slavery and deceit! That is not a political statement or opinion, it is historical fact, whatever the Texas school board says.

Anyway, I had reasonable people, citizens of liberal West LA, tell me they were afraid to travel. That terrorism will get us. That Sharia law is coming to a town near you.

In 2013 about 10,000 Americans were killed by drunk drivers in motor vehicle accidents. That is almost three 9/11’s and about 80 Paris attacks. That happens here EACH YEAR. How do we know that is avoidable other than the fact that no one HAS to drive drunk? Because it used to be 25,000 killed by drunk drivers before tougher laws were instituted.

How do we know the reactions we have seen in the USA are racist? We didn’t suddenly round up white guys in pick-ups, even just right wing separatists with pick ups and fertilizer, after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma, killing some ten times more people than in Paris.

How do we know it is irrational? How many mass shootings in the USA have there been and we wont regulate guns? We hold that constitutionally  sacred, but we pervert the the first amendment to allow for unrestrained money in politics as free speech, and we allow lawless search and seizure because we are afraid of dying by terrorists of a certain kind.

My grandsons are more likely to be killed in school or by gangbangers, white guy mass murderers or homegrown white separatist terrorists, than Islamic terrorists.

Yet we go about our lives.

So if in your head, in your heart, even if you know better than to say it out loud because you are politically, socially and spiritually correct, you are afraid because of the Paris tragedy, don’t rationalize it. Face your delusion. You need to get centered. That fear is greed. It is poison and you make it happen.

(not you, or me, dear reader, we know better; I mean those other guys)

Fear causes pain and suffering for yourself and others.

It will kill and maim.

The terrorists are called that because it is obviously what they are after. Baiting us, edging us on. Making us terrorized. Afraid.

Don’t let terrorism win.

Don’t let your friends, neighbors, people talking at the supermarket or the gym let terrorism win. Stand against terrorism. Stand against irrational fear and loathing.

Be smart. Be strong. I am not a pacifist. Some people may need to be ushered into their next incarnation in a way that makes it that they don’t take a lot of people with them, causing undo pain and stirring up deep and abiding trouble. After all, if we don’t stop them when we can without selling out our values, we are in some way complicit.  The warrior spirit is to protect those who need protecting. Out of compassion, not fear or anger. I thought it appropriate when the Paris cops kicked down the right doors and I am only sorry the police dog was killed. OK, maybe they were a little afraid or angry. I won’t judge. I’m just saying don’t think it HAS to be out of fear and anger and selfishness.

Just like when you don’t drink and drive, you do that to take care of business. To protect yourself and others. You don’t have to think in terms of courage or cowardice.

The decision not to drink and drive does not require fear. Fear is extra.

Fear always is. Sure, in the moment of crisis there will be adrenaline flowing and resulting strong reactions. Shitting yourself, rapid heart beat, breathing shallow and fast, getting blood to the muscles, IQ dropping 20 points, are genetically encoded survival mechanisms that are reasonable and necessary. The reaction feels and looks a bit like fear, so you might be convinced you are afraid, but that is an illusion, a concept, a conceit, something extra. A phantom, a chimera. Such a reaction needn’t be fear and loathing. It is how we living organisms are built. We avoid noxious stimuli. Even single cell organisms do. And they don’t call it fear. They do what needs to be done. We needn’t mentally process that reaction and transform it into ongoing fear. We needn’t give it that name, (name the color, blind the eye) confer on it an intellectual gravitas, reify it, grant it the form and function of fear, then make subsequent decisions based on our manufactured fear, often creating self-fulfilling prophecies and a downward spiral.

We don’t let greed turn caution into a fetish. Fear and loathing is, as they say in Zen, ‘a head on a head.’ It is not needed and it always leads to more harm.

There was that story I told where they gave a hard time to Pyrrho, who taught a kind of early Buddhism in Greece that included non-attachment, when he was chased up a tree by wild dogs. They were wrong. He wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t “attached.” He had no silly notion that the teaching of non-attachment meant that dogs get to say when you had to be dog food. He just didn’t think becoming dog food was best use of his body at that time.

You know, like FDR said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” As a kid I thought that was dumb. Of course we had to fear monsters and bad guys and lightning, right?


So let this be a teachable moment. For ourselves our kids, our friends, the world. We wont succumb to fear. We know better. Deep in our guts, we really do.



Entropy, Ego, What’s the Point?


Rather than launch into a technical description of entropy and the relationship of energy and entropy lets try this first.

More entropy means more disorganization and more ignorance. Low signal to noise. Less information. Like static preventing the faithful transmission of data. Think of loud static on a radio when you are trying to listen to music on your car radio.


If I tell you I mixed up the numbers one through ten and put them in a bag, then I picked out two, say a 3 and a 7, all you know about the next one I will pick is that it is not a 3 or 7. So they are mixed up, disorganized, and we have a bit of ignorance about some aspect of that system. Relatively high entropy. If I throw in some letters or blanks into the bag along with the numbers, i.e. static, you are even less able to predict the next thing to come out of the bag!

Now I tell you I ordered the numbers from ten down to one. There are no blanks or letters. I picked out a ten. Next picked will be… nine! Very good. You had little to no ignorance. But I had to put extra energy into ordering the numbers compared to throwing them in the bag. I had to have some way to assure they stayed in order as well. Low entropy, but it took more energy.

Meditation can be seen as aiming for high energy, low entropy. But I am not sure that’s quite true for zazen. You’d have to ask a Zen teacher. Certainly “mindfulness” is like that.

A circle is low entropy. You know everything about it and it took energy to create it (minimally mental energy, in addition perhaps energy to move the pencil or program and run the computer).

Symmetry is not ignorance. True, by definition symmetry is present when you can’t tell something has changed, like someone else spinning a circle while your eyes are closed, so that seems like ignorance. But to do that experiment, you need to know that the experiment was planned and then do it! That’s a lot of knowing, organization and energy!

Information is low entropy. It takes energy to put 0’s and 1’s in some order and that is one aspect of what information is. Ordered dualism.

Meaning is how we interpret and experience information. It is our perspective on it. It is contingent to the max. It is easily colored by our wishes and desires, by our egos.

I just read that the Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who unified the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces (along with others, of course; anyway major physics achievement) wrote: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

That seems very nihilistic and depressing. Perhaps that’s how he meant it. If so, somehow he had dealt with it because some four decades after writing that he is still writing books!

On the contrary, that seems very Zen to me. And liberating. It relieves us of arbitrary values and goals. The kind the ego sets up to measure ourselves by, so we can achieve them and reassure ourselves. Except when we don’t.

What ultimate, objective, cosmic, universal, non-dualistic “point” could there be? Any point we could articulate would be a human construct, limited and contingent, a dualistic notion of use in only a very small corner of time and space.

Matthieu Ricard writes in his book “Altruism” that the ego is the crystallization of our identity. He writes that we try to protect it. That’s pretty good, but I am not sure that it is quite right. There is no single anatomic brain space that houses the ego. I think the ego is the process by which we protect our identity. The identity is our sense of who we are based on our conditioning (biologic and psychological, contingent on where and when we are). It is how we organize our sense perceptions and react to them. It is our karma, if you will. It is how we try to make the world comprehensible, to find a point. The ego is the process of having and wanting there to be a point. A point is like a location, a beacon, a polar star that the ego can refer to on the horizon to measure itself and its position by so it can better protect us as we cruise through the world of time and space, the world of the six senses.

So as the universe becomes comprehensible, what we comprehend may not be to our ego’s liking. It may not put our bodies (brains included) at the top of the heap. It may remind us that our limited sensory experience is a pretty pale reflection of the vastness of the universe. Of course comprehensible in this context means the forces of nature. The things physics studies. That which can be measured. It does not mean the whole shebang.

To be clear: I am not suggesting a lack of values. I hope you value compassion. I hope you don’t value your suffering and especially not the suffering of others. I am only suggesting not being seduced into thinking that is the “point.”

Or is it? We can chose to embody compassion, we can aspire to the low entropy high energy state. Is that the “point” of our lives, our minds, the dream, the whole show? Some think so. I admit to liking that view. But maybe that’s the point! It is a goal to like, admirable to be sure, but do I like it because it makes me feel better about myself? Is that my ego protecting me?

No “point”? Perhaps that’s kind of like “ordinary mind is the way.” Or the miracle is chopping wood and carrying water. You don’t need a “point” writ large to the universe to eat when hungry, or to be compassionate. That is the functioning of the universe. What needs to be added? What would be the point?



Ethics 101 and Louis CK



 Bowl by Rengetsu, a Japanese Buddhist Nun who lived in the late 18th and the 19th century. She was a poet, artist and as a youth learned ninja martial arts.


I am reading a great book called “Altruism” by the Tibetan Buddhist Monk, a former scientist, Matthieu Ricard. I highly recommend it. It is 700 hundred pages not counting notes (it is well referenced). I’m about a third through it, but I have already learned a lot.

There is a vast literature on the biology of ethics and morality in humans and other animals going back to Darwin.


There is a vast literature on the philosophical, psychological, political, professional, religious and social aspects of ethics and morality as well. Ricard covers a lot of that ground, but even at 700 pages by necessity he just skims some topics.

But we don’t need all of that to function (thank goodness).

Today I ran into a great summary of how to be, really all you need to know about morality and ethics, in Judd Apatow’s book “Sick in the Head.” In the book he interviews the comedian Louis C.K., who relates how on his show Louis once told his TV kid:

“don’t look into your neighbor’s bowl unless it is to check if they have enough.”

Louis C.K. says he tells his real life kids that “the reason we cut sandwiches in half is so your can offer somebody a piece of your sandwich. You don’t need the whole sandwich. Everybody in your line of sight, your offer it to them and if nobody wants it, then hey, you get a whole sandwich..”

Regarding the political and social aspects of ethics and morality, I’m not a liberal. There is much I do not see exactly the same way as many self-described liberals. But I often find myself on the liberal side of things because being liberal is most often about being fair. And kind.

I can even be kind of conservative about some things, though I am certainly not a political or religious conservative, because that viewpoint seems to me, at least in practice if not political philosophy, most often about greed, fear, and control and quite egotistically delusional. Conservatives generally seem to have an anal view of fair, a selfish view, and kindness seems an afterthought at best.

The conservative religious agenda is also often colored by some form of belief in the End Times, and justifies hate and greed by a appealing to a Father Deity who wants you to exploit non-believers and apostates and the earth with the same hard assed agenda he (or sometimes they) seems to have. What bitter irony.

Some Native Americans taught that we should act in accord with what will create lasting benefit for seven generations. Now that’s ethics.

So look into your neighbor’s bowl. If they have more, don’t get jealous, and don’t harass them either. As I have recently written, comparisons are poison. That’s not why you are looking.

If they have less, well, you’ll know what to do. Maybe it will be nothing, just allow them their dignity. But if you can do something, anything, however indirect, however little, then go ahead do it.

Get quiet and be kind. That sums it up.

And forgive yourself when you blow it. That will make it easier to really forgive others when they do.


 Love the earth and its magnificent living presence. Photo courtesy of Susan Levinson.