Half Moon Day: The Golden Cord

March 29, 2008

The Golden Cord

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Let us for a moment suppose you’re ill. You decide to go to the doctor’s in order to find out what exactly is wrong with you, what the cause is, and most importantly, how to get better. You sit in front of him and he pulls out his little torch, asks you to say “aaahhhh” and sees that your throat is inflamed and as red as a beetroot – it’s an infection. That is the problem. He then does some more tests and identifies the bacteria that are causing the illness. Then he prescribes a suitable antibiotic and gives you precise instructions regarding the amount to be taken and how often to take it. You then go home and start to take the medicine as directed. After completing the course you recover.

Now, it would be a very foolish person who would tamper with those antibiotics, thinking: “If I just take this ingredient out, and put this one in; and maybe take it on these days, but not on those….” That would not be wise. I know I wouldn’t tamper with the antibiotics because I don’t know the first thing about them! But I do know that many people take them exactly as prescribed and in doing so they are cured. That is all I need to know. I take them and I’m cured.

Unfortunately people are not so wary of tampering with the Buddha’s medicine, that is, his teachings. Our illness is suffering (The First Noble Truth), the cause is craving (The Second Noble Truth), and the medicine is the Noble Eightfold Path – the path of morality, meditation and wisdom (The Fourth Noble Truth). The Buddha’s teachings are the fruits of a perfected mind; a mind that was not tainted by greed, hatred and delusion – and so setting out to improve them would be like trying to ‘gild refined gold’ (to quote Shakespeare), and to alter them to suit our desires like melting down the gold and mixing it with excrement. Yet some people think: “If I just take this teaching out, and put this one in; and maybe take this precept out, and change the meaning of such and such….” The wise person leaves the Dhamma in its original state as found in the Buddhist Canon as he or she knows that through the millennia countless people have followed these teachings exactly as prescribed and have thus been cured of their suffering.

Say if you were on your way to the doctor’s with your poorly throat and just as you turned the corner you saw a little grubby old homeless man sitting hunched on a creaking stool outside the doctor’s gate. You try to creep past him hoping he won’t see you, but he does, and he smiles a toothless grin at you and starts muttering. You now find out he stinks. Then you look to his right and there’s a little sign which says: ‘SALE! Homemade Antibiotics! Tasty and Work Quick!!!!’ You frown and look back at the old man who’s excited because you’ve read his sign. Now, would you think: ‘Great! What a bargain! – I’ll take ten bottles!’ Or would you think: “You’ve got to be joking!” and go straight to the doctor? Of course there is no way you would buy those antibiotics for obvious reasons, after all, who is this man to be – in the first place – making his own antibiotics, and – in the second place – to be selling them?! He is in no position to do such thing! Luckily we know of the real doctor who can be trusted in these matters. Unfortunately there are many people who take hold of the Buddha’s medicine, tamper with it, and then sell it off as Buddhism. In many cases the resulting product will have hardly any resemblance to the Buddha’s original medicine, and may even make you sick!

We can think of many aspects of authentic Buddhism that have been altered and distorted or even scrapped altogether.

I used to have a friend who, when he was very young, had to take a course of medicine. And this medicine was absolutely delicious, I think it was banana flavour. Anyway, he took the course of medicine and, what do you know, IT ROTTED HIS TEETH. Luckily they were his first set, so he only looked like the old man of the above scenario for a little while. So the medicine tasted wonderful but it rotted his teeth. Some people like the flavour of Buddhism without the precepts. But it’s going to be more than their teeth that rot if they carry on taking that!

Virtue is the lifeblood of Buddhism. To disregard it is perhaps the most damaging alteration that can be made to the Buddha’s medicine. To take Buddhism without concern for the precepts is to take it from that little old smelly man instead of from the Buddha!

Ajahn Chah was once sat in front of a group of monks and he held his hands up about a foot apart, palms facing each other, fingertips upwards. Then he bent one hand towards the other and said: “You must bend yourself to suit the Dhamma” – then he switched hands – “don’t bend the Dhamma to suit you.”

If we compromise the precepts we compromise our ability to reach enlightenment. I remember speaking to a senior monk prior to my novice ordination and he said that the precepts “do a lot of the work for you”. They help us in so many ways. They bring joy; they bring mindfulness; they bring concentration; and they bring wisdom. They are there at the beginning, the middle and the end of the path. If we tinker with the precepts they lose their efficacy: we weaken or even destroy those barriers that guide us to happy destinations and stop us from going down dangerous paths. It is so crucial that we leave the precepts as they are and allow them to work on us in the way the Buddha intended.

One of the fundamental reasons for observing the precepts is to enable us to understand the workings of our minds. We go to the doctor to find the cause of our illness so that a cure can be administered. We come to Buddhism and we find that the cause of all our problems is within us; it is craving, which is rooted in ignorance. If we don’t come to know this cause we will never be cured. The precepts help us to dig down and find the cause of our suffering. They expose our craving, our ignorance and all the other unwholesome forces at work. We wish to take a drink of alcohol but we CAN’T. Then what happens? We are confronted with the desire that was driving those thoughts of wanting a drink. That desire smashes into the crash barrier of the precepts allowing us to CLEARLY SEE that defilement. Because that desire has not been satisfied there will be a moment of suffering, and here we see the link between craving and suffering. This is one of the ways they teach us.

As monks we keep a large number of precepts. This is one of the advantages of being a renunciate. I remember on the day when I ordained as a bhikkhu feeling like a giant safety net had been placed beneath me. I felt safe. The precepts would now protect me. Any monk serious about the training will NOT break those precepts. What’s the point in becoming a monk if you’re going to carry money and watch TV? (even when the World Cup is on!). It’s a slippery slope once you start weaving your way around the precepts and finding excuses to use money etc. I read of a monk who said that he needed to catch the bus so therefore he would have to use money. HOLD ON A MINUTE! That should be the other way round: ‘I cannot handle money so how will I travel?’ Once you start saying “Well this precept doesn’t really matter” where do you stop? If a monk starts going down this route before he knows it he’ll have a wife and two kids!

So the more precepts you keep the better. As part of our monastic discipline we observe the 75 Sekhiya rules. These govern how we present ourselves in public, as well providing us with detailed instructions concerning how we should go about eating. In addition to these, as Forest Monks, we undertake some of the ‘Dhutangas’ – the 13 ascetic practices. One of these is to eat ALL of your food from the same bowl. Now, the strict interpretation of this is that you must put all of the food you are about to eat in the bowl BEFORE you start to eat. Now, it’s Christmas time and I’m tucking into a delicious meal when I get half way through and find that, much to my horror, I forgot to put my mince pie in my bowl! It’s still in my bowl’s lid! AARRRGHHH! Now I can’t have it because I didn’t put it in my bowl before I started eating! So what do I do. Well I could follow my defilements and infringe the rule (it isn’t a compulsory one) and satisfy my desire but gain no wisdom; or, I can uphold the rule and observe my mind thrashing about wishing I had put the mince pie in the bowl, and see the clear connection between craving and suffering, thereby developing restraint, awareness and most importantly – wisdom! So of course I held to the rule and exercised mindfulness and full awareness and watched those thoughts and feelings come into being and pass away; hence wisdom was developed. One point to wisdom, none to craving.

The precepts help us to dig down and pull out the weeds from the depths our our minds and bring them into the open where we can see them. We can then see those forces in the mind that drive is to suffer. This is of such fundamental importance and it is something that only the precepts can do.

Combine this weeding out with clear mindfulness and concentration and you begin to see the impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless nature of these mental events and the mind subsequently releases itself from them. Such is the way to develop wisdom and happiness!

So, if the precepts are to fulfil their role as weed removers and as the barriers against which our defilements crash, they need to be reliable and solid; we need to establish a dedication to morality.

The Buddha once gave a particularly important teaching where he likened the teachings of past Buddha’s to flowers and the monk’s discipline – the Patimokkha – to a cord. He then listed those Buddhas who did not lay down the Patimokkha and those that did. He said that just as flowers when unconnected by a cord soon disperse, so too, where a former Buddha had not laid down the Patimokkha his teachings were soon scattered and lost as the winds of time blew. But then he said that just as when flowers that are connected by a cord stay together and remain, so too, where the Patimokkha had been laid down the teachings lasted for a long time. Gotama Buddha thankfully did lay down the Patimokkha, hence the existence of Buddhism today.

Now, of course the Patimokkha is for monks, but it is the principle that is important here. Whatever precepts you have, whether they are the five, the eight, the ten, or the two hundred and twenty-seven, they are a part of the golden cord that holds Buddhism together. We must each remain steadfast in our precepts and ensure that the cord of morality remains strong so that the precious Dhamma flowers are not lost.

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The next teaching will be on:

The New Moon Day, Saturday the 5th of April

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3 Responses to “Half Moon Day: The Golden Cord”

  1. Justin said

    I had to agree with you on this one. I sat at the local Zen center a few weeks back and the head teacher there said “practice the precepts 80% of the time” or something to that effect. As a Theravada Buddhist layman I was pretty shocked at that comment, and it made me appreciate the tradition that we are following. This type of thing is just what I need to hear on a Uposotha observance day. Be well in your practice.

  2. Tahn Manapo said

    Justin

    I heard of a group here in the UK that meditate together and then go to the pub for a pint afterwards! And we have to make do with a boring cup of tea….

    Tahn Manapo

  3. Mark Arthur said

    Lovely! (not the pint!)
    Having precepts to follow is like having calibrations for the heart…without them you can go all over the place. I find it interesting how thoughts – Mara – can come up with so many convincing arguments to attach to greed, aversion and delusion, convincing until one sees these thoughts for what they are: transient and insubstantial. Then one can say ‘I see you, Mara!’
    May we stay vigilant.
    Peace and joy

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