Just two weeks ago, in an otherwise excellent blog, a zen practitioner wrote, beneath a photo of two people at a bar, that “sometimes ‘skillful means’ requires oyster shooters and grotesque amounts of wheat beer”. Maybe. But this sounds less like ‘skillful means’ than ‘a skillful excuse’ to me. I prefer the advice of Master Thich Naht Hahn: “To persuade one person to refrain from drinking is to make the world safer for us all.”
While some approach the precepts from the view of prohibitions I prefer the following view:
The precepts are a condensed form of Buddhist ethical practice. They are often compared with the ten commandments of Christianity, however, the precepts are different in two respects: First, they are to be taken as recommendations, not commandments. This means the individual is encouraged to use his/her own intelligence to apply these rules in the best possible way. Second, it is the spirit of the precepts -not the text- that counts, hence, the guidelines for ethical conduct must be seen in the larger context of the Eightfold Path.
The first five precepts are mandatory for every Buddhist, although the fifth precept is often not observed, because it bans the consumption of alcohol. Precepts no. six to ten are laid out for those in preparation for monastic life and for devoted lay people unattached to families….
The above phrasing of the precepts is very concise and leaves much open to interpretation. One might ask, for example, what exactly constitutes false speech, what are untimely meals, what constitutes sexual misconduct, or whether a glass of wine causes heedlessness (from the 5th precept to not take intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness.).
There are four things that lead to the welfare and happiness of a family man in this very life. What four? The accomplishment of persistent effort, the accomplishment of protection, good friendship and balanced living…and what is balanced living? A family man knows his income and expenditures and leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, so that his income exceeds his expenditures rather than the reverse…by so much the scale has dipped down by so much it has tilted up, so the family man knows a balanced life.
The wealth thus amassed has four sources of dissipation: womanizing, drunkenness, gambling and evil friendship. Just as in the case of a tank with four inlets and outlets, if one should close the inlets and open the outlets, and there would not be adequate rainfall, a decrease rather than an increase of the water could be expected in the tank so that these four things bring about an increase…
For me this reads less of prohibition and more along the lines of balancing out one’s life. The sources of dissipation are negatives when brought to a specific extreme. The analogy of rainfall and the tank infers (to me at least) that there is a definite balance to be struck with the vices listed. “Womanizing” doesn’t preclude sex and neither does “drunkenness” preclude anyone from drinking. Instead it serves as a lesson in the balancing of extremes. A warning to keep things moderate. While these dissapations are hardly positive (they are framed as something that dissapates happiness, after all) in nature they are only viewed as a negative when they are abused or harm others.
So what happens after we spend all that time gaining knowledge and staring at a wall? Someone comes to learn from us and what do we do? We grab all that knowledge and force it upon the person. We toss quotes and terms and postures and chants. That is not teaching. That is throwing information and hoping that some will get lucky and stick. A good teacher needs to approach a student and determine his/her ability, intent and drive. Then from that assessment we teach to the individual and not at him. That is compassionate teaching and that is Zen.
With those thoughts in mind try to focus how you can practice from day to day without implicitly stating that another teaching is incorrect or unbalanced…and that sometimes “skillful means” requires oyster shooters and grotesque amounts of wheat beer.