Roitman & Lombardo Pt 3: The Cruelty of Moral Codes

JUDY: You have to be careful because it’s not that there’s an I and a you.

DIANE: Explain that.

JUDY: So, here’s my hand.

DIANE: Five fingers up.

JUDY: Right. So this finger is angry at that finger. Isn’t that stupid?

DIANE: They’re not going to get very far by fighting.

JUDY: … The point is they’re all on the same hand, so we’re all on the same planet, the same universe, so really we’re not separate. Anything I do is going to affect you. Anything you do is going to affect me. Chaos theory, right? A butterfly flaps its wings (in Brazil), and you have a tornado in Kansas…. It’s not I am helping you, it’s more like: Here we are. We’re not even in the same boat; we’re even more intimate than that, so that’s the precepts. When you really get that, then you’re not going to take short cuts. You’re not going to want to lie, you’re not going to want to kill, because if you lie, you’re lying to yourself. If you kill, you’re killing yourself.

DIANE: I think I get what you’re saying. To back up a little bit: If I think about being good you’re saying that gets in the way of me understanding that (you and are just two fingers on the same hand). How does it get in the way?

JUDY: Because you have this thing called goodness that you’re checking yourself against. OK, so a kid runs into the street. There’s the grandma, mom or dad or uncle (watching) If they stop for a second and ask: “Is it the right thing for me to run into the street?” Then he’s dead.

DIANE: Years ago I studied martial arts. What I really liked about learning to spar was that you couldn’t think about (what you were doing). Things happened so fast you had to learn to react instantly. So you’re saying that you can’t think about it. You have to just know what’s right. But there are a lot of people out there in the world who think we have to have moral codes.

JUDY: And how much suffering is caused by those moral codes? Look at your own life. You’re an out lesbian and look at what those moral codes did to your self- image when you were young.

DIANE: I’m not going to argue with that. (But) how do we keep from falling into the traps that our mere humanity create?

JUDY: Like self-delusion and all that stuff?


JUDY: Practice.

STAN: The moral codes, or the precepts, are a useful guideline if you’re not sure of what you’re supposed to do in a situation that requires consideration and judgment as opposed to (the situation where) the kid (is) running out in the street.

DIANE: Most people would run into the street.

STAN: Sometimes we do have to deliberate. You have a difficult choice facing you: Do I get an abortion, or do I not get an abortion? Then some kind of moral standards may be useful, to check it against those moral standards, and we do use the precepts that way. Another way of framing this is to look at the two major schools of ethics: One is rule based and the other is virtue based. The rule-based (school) is like the Ten Commandments or the precepts, and they’re taken very strictly: This is what you do; you simply follow these rules and you’ll be good, and everything will be all right.

DIANE: That’s my impression of some fundamentalist churches. I don’t know if it’s all fundamentalist churches and that may not be correct.

STAN: … By the time Zen Buddhism appeared in China, a virtue-based ethics had appeared. The two primary virtues that are cultivated in Buddhism, in Zen Buddhism certainly, are wisdom and compassion, which are two sides of the same coin. So how do you develop wisdom and compassion? One good way to do it is to practice meditation, and really look at things, really pay attention to things and develop the habit of mind of really paying attention to what is before you.

DIANE: This may be an impossible question to answer but is there any way you can explain meditation?

JUDY: Before explaining meditation I want to say a little more of what Stan was saying. You’re not just developing wisdom and compassion. Part of that wisdom is to see through your own mind, so your mind is not leading you around.

STAN: Wisdom is not a body of knowledge. It’s the wisdom of insight into your own nature and the nature of this world, a very fundamental kind of wisdom.

DIANE: So in other words, a person with a PhD might not have wisdom.

JUDY: Oh, definitely not.

DIANE: (laughing) Say the two (with) doctorates.

STAN: It’s certainly not a prerequisite….

JUDY: Wisdom means, for example, that it’s harder to fool yourself. When you are doing something out of self-interest, you can see that it’s out of self-interest. It’s harder to convince yourself that it’s not in your-self interest because you can really see your own mind as it works. You start seeing through your mind. We use this phrase don’t-know mind, which is an incredibly open mind, so you’re not bound by your preconceptions, by your self-delusions. You can walk through them. And compassion is the same thing. Compassion is realizing that you are not different from me. I don’t mean that you’re like me. We certainly look different. Our glasses are different. We have different sexual preferences.

STAN: In other words, compassion comes from seeing that reality, our interconnectedness, and that compassion is the natural reaction. Really the heart of this is some kind of meditation practice that develops that habit of mind, which is what a virtue is, it’s a habit. You might say it’s a good habit. …

DIANE: One of the things somebody said when I went to the Zen Center was that you were supposed to act and understand before thought. For some reason that made so much sense to me. So meditation is a practice, something you do every day or almost every day where you sit down somewhere… and you are doing something with your mind, going through a kind of a mind exercise. For the studio audience here, do we want to talk at all about what meditation actually is?

JUDY: There are a lot of different forms of meditation, so we can only talk a little bit about Zen meditation. And we can only talk about Zen meditation in our school, and even then, there are different forms of meditation, so I’ll let Stan start.

STAN: In our practice, the primary form of meditation is sitting meditation, which the Japanese call zazen, which is sitting zen. The world zen just means meditation. It’s from the sanskrit word dhyāna, which means meditation.

JUDY: Say dhyāna really fast. dhyāna (becomes) zen.

STAN: The Chinese pronounce it chán, and they like to shorten things to one syllable, so they said chan. Japanese pronounced that word … as Zen.

We have other forms of meditation, so we do prostrations, for instance, which involves the whole body, up and down, head down to the floor and back up again. The magic number is 108. We also have chanting meditation. The name of the school suggests chanting. The name of our school is Kwan Um, which is more familiar in the Chinese pronunciation Kwan Yin. Which means perceived sound. So Kwan Yin is the Bodhisattva who perceives the sound of the world, the sound of the world’s suffering and reacts with wisdom and compassion.  The chanting is a very important part of our practice and chanting is just perceived sound. You’re doing it with other people, so this together action is a very important aspect of our meditation practice. You certainly can do it solo. Judy has done many long solo retreats and is contemplating a 100-day solo retreat next summer. But ultimately you return to the group, you return to the world.

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2 Responses to Roitman & Lombardo Pt 3: The Cruelty of Moral Codes

  1. Pingback: Roitman & Lombardo Pt 4: Compassion and Wisdom | In Search of Goodness

  2. Pingback: Roitman & Lombardo Pt 5: No One Ever Finishes | In Search of Goodness

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