STAN: I’m not as reluctant as Judy to use abstractions such as good, but I share her wariness about these abstractions. What really matters is what we do in any given situation. The Buddha always said: I teach the truth of suffering and the end of suffering.
He was not interested in metaphysical questions or philosophical questions at all. And Zen really does come from that deep Buddhist tradition, so insight into the truth of suffering and what can be done to alleviate suffering is primary. So what helps, what is helpful in a particular situation, what works (are the important issues.) It might be different sorts of things in different sorts of situations and with different sorts of people. That notion is so important in Buddhism that there is a word for it, a Sanskrit word …, which is usually translated as expedient means. We all understand means, ways (that) have been developed to help people and ourselves, but expedient is a very interesting word because there is obviously nothing absolute about any of this. It’s changeable, it’s provisional, it’s nothing to cling to, it doesn’t mean that if it worked yesterday, it’s going to work today. You have to be alert and caring and really paying attention.
DIANE: It’s interesting that expedient is a word where the connotation in English is negative.
JUDY: No, it isn’t.
DIANE: The connotation that I get is: It’s just expedient.
JUDY: Sometimes (this is called) skillful.
STAN: Yes, sometimes skillful means, which might be a better translation. Because it’s expedient, simply means that it works, but the other kind, really that’s not so bad. It doesn’t have to have an absolute value. If it works it works, of course. To work toward a desired end, it might have desirable side effects that are conveniently ignored because it’s expedient.…
JUDY: Or short-term advantage
STAN: So, let’s call it skillful means. That’s a much better word. Thank you, Judy, probably a much better translation because some skill is required. How do we develop this skill, this skill that’s necessary to really see what will work in a situation, or to use your word, what’s good to do here? What’s a good thing to do? Good, in the sense that it works. That really has some kind of positive energy, if you want, good in that sense. The act itself, even apart from the result of the act, the act itself, has in itself, a certain effect. People see you behaving in this way and say, “Oh, that’s wonderful; Oh, and she saved the life of this person also.”
JUDY: Two things come to mind, actually three, One thing was when you asked if your father was evil. When I see people who are behaving very badly, one thing that strikes me is how much they are always suffering. This kind of behavior is coming from their own personal pain and their own suffering, so it’s more like some people don’t have skillful ways to deal with their own suffering. My guess is that whatever your father did it was like that.
There was a very interesting thing on NPR this morning. This guy does brain research, and he’s interested in brains in criminals. He’s done all this careful study of sociopaths and murders and mass murderers. And then, his mother said: Why don’t you investigate your own family? It turned out that Lizzy Borden was a relative. I don’t know if Lizzy Borden was guilty, but there’s generations of genuine sociopaths, genuine murderers in his family. So he took all his living relatives, including himself, and did all brain scans and checked their genetics … He discovered that of all of them, he was the one who had the brain of a mass murderer. But there’s three things that it takes to be a true sociopath. One is this kind of insufficiency. The brain doesn’t censor your actions, so that you’ll act impulsively. You’ll act without any sort of way to restrain yourself.
DIANE: You have an actual physiological disability.
JUDY: Yes. The second thing is the genetic component. And the third is the kind of childhood you had. If you have an abusive childhood, and he didn’t have that. He had a wonderful childhood, so he is not a mass murderer. He’s a loving, fantastic guy, a major scientist. … That’s not saying that we shouldn’t put people in jail…. If you can’t control yourself, and you are causing tremendous harm, then people need to be protected from you. But when people do these horrible things, they are suffering. They wouldn’t be doing it, if they weren’t suffering. Even if they get pleasure from this, which some people do — some people get pleasure from, as you say, evil acts — even if they get pleasure from it, why do they want that pleasure? Because there’s some suffering going on.
DIANE: Acting out like a kid.
JUDY: It’s not even necessarily acting out. That’s the only way they can get pleasure because everything has been so screwed up in their minds. So, that’s how I see it. It’s not excusing anyone’s behavior. But it’s just saying that some people are not equipped to deal with the suffering they’ve received in this lifetime. Other people like you are great. I had a horrible childhood. I’m OK.
DIANE: I have to admit that one of the issues that comes to my mind is that there are a lot of people who have had difficult childhoods. Why do you turn out one way and another person turns out another? Are you going to suddenly flip at some point?
JUDY: That’s something that a lot of people study. There are also a lot of people who are sociopaths who didn’t have an obviously horrible childhoods, but there was some sense of love not being given, love being withdrawn. That’s one thing that came to mind. The other thing that came to mind was the whole issue of precepts. And you’re a little familiar with precepts. Did you take precepts? I don’t remember.
DIANE: No, I chickened out.
JUDY: There are many levels of precepts, and the precepts take the form of various vows. Just for your audience, I should say that they are not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, not to do bad things out of lust and not to become intoxicated to induce heedlessness…. As you know it can go up to lay precepts of 64 and monastic precepts, depending on the particular group, of over 200.
Different forms of Buddhism take different attitudes towards these precepts. (In) Theravada, if you’re a monk and you take monk’s precepts, (it’s) very strict. You do not do anything remotely resembling eating meat, for example, or wearing leather because that involves killing, even if you’re not doing the killing. Very, very strict kind of precepts. It’s interesting that a lot of precepts are about speech. Forty percent of the first 10 precepts are about speech. So there is this kind of strict way of looking at it.
For example, in some of the contemporary Japanese Soto style, they talk a lot about precepts. Thich Nhat Hanh does too. They have extensive analyses. They look inside themselves, and they might go through a whole day of looking at any way they might be interpreted as lying. In some cultures, precepts were just something you did (to give yourself a new status). I don’t mean status like high/low, but status like (that of) monk/layperson…. You didn’t take the precepts that seriously as precepts…. It’s more like this symbolizes a change in your status, so the precepts are not taken very seriously.
In our school, we were taught precepts (with) the saying: Know when they’re open and know when they’re closed. People can really cheat on that one. How many people do really bad things, thinking that what they’re really doing is good for people because it’s, hey, short-term good for them?
DIANE: Like drilling a mile deep in the Gulf?
JUDY: (The question is) who are they for? If your precepts are for you, if they are just to give yourself a better life in the next lifetime — if people believe in that — or to keep you from getting bad karma or anything like that, that’s not good. So, the real question about precepts is: Who are they for?
That means your precepts are not for you. They are for all beings, the particular beings that you’re faced with at the moment. In the example of drilling in the Gulf, there are all these beings in the ocean. You might not see them, but they’re there. What you’re doing is going to affect them. So, it comes back to the same thing: For whom? Not for me, for whomever is going to be effected. In our school, that’s the meaning of the precepts. Again, it’s not about goodness; it’s about expedient or skillful means of helping, and the motivation is not about me. It’s not about my sanctity or my goodness, or my good karma, or avoiding some kind of punishment in the next life or whatever….
DIANE: In other words, you’re saying it’s about alleviating suffering, doing what you can —
JUDY: You have to be careful because it’s not that there is an I and a you.
The Complete Interview:
- Part 1: Goodness Doesn’t Exist
- Part 2: Confronting Suffering
- Part 3: The Cruelty of Moral Codes
- Part 4: Compassion and Wisdom
- Part 5: No One Ever Finishes