We've gone to all the trouble to outline the precepts and the Four Noble Truths. We're pretty solid on what they mean to today's practitioners and what Buddha meant when he said them. Why?
Because I'm about to go on a rant.
The biggest thing about Buddhism was that Buddha wanted us to step back from our lives and take stock, actively viewing what we do and why we do it. He wanted us to see how we go through the motions constantly and don't really see the world around us. He wanted us to be free of preconceived ideas about how we were supposed to act, stand, dress, be, NOT be.... he wanted us to be free, period.
And slavishly following the precepts is not about that.
It's the same idea that reading any other historical or religious work over and over again will give you grace or allow you in to heaven. The most you can hope for out of it is an insight about what you are reading or following. And if you have had an insight, that insight came from the distracted mind with its preconceived notions on what it understands. It is a "mind object". So the most profound thing discovered is nothing more than a distraction. You would want to toss it aside anyway.
That is not to say that the precepts don't have their place. I prefer their slimmed down cousins, The Noble Eightfold Path:
Wisdom (Sanskrit: prajñā, Pāli: paññā)
1. Right view
2. Right intention
Ethical conduct (Sanskrit: śīla, Pāli: sīla)
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
Concentration (Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi)
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration
from all of these will eventually come (under Wisdom, or prajna)
9. Right knowledge
10. Right liberation
But it is all basically the same. Be mindful of your actions. Be careful in your thoughts. Be compassionate with both as well, and don't seek to distract yourself or delude yourself with worldly shiny things or temporary pleasures. As they say in a rather famous movie "They're more guidelines, really."
I don't want to dump on people who cite these as a major formative thing in their lives. It is always good to have the structure, especially in a society where Eastern thought and Buddhist teachings aren't native. But when they are embraced as the way to enlightenment, you have run in to a major problem.
It isn't just these. Any literature often cited and slavishly read and followed without questioning, evaluating, re-evaluating, runs in to this potential problem. I've come to think of it as the "Cult of Literature".
I have been striving for a long time to find a sangha somewhere that I can call home. I realize the irony of desiring a sangha, don't think that is lost on me. But anyone who adheres to a philosophy or religion needs community. Our very nature as social animals calls for it, in fact.
The problem comes in when the community itself is full of people worshipping certain teachings of certain people. I use worship here in terms of hero worship, to clarify.
So many online communities constantly cite Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron as great teachers, and the way to help understand what is going on. Yes, they do have wonderful insights as to what might be going on mentally or physically for a practitioner, but it isn't a bible for what to do.
Let me be most earnest with people and say that I do not do dogma. I do not do religious texts, and I do not do "follow this because it's a good idea". I never have been, and it's probably why I butted heads with the ministers of my congregations many times growing up. It's why I'm not a Christian now. I dislike the idea that there is one perfect answer for everything, irregardless of the situation, the people involved, or the odd facts of what happened. To have a fixed response is to deny the dynamic nature of mankind, culture, nature, and time itself. Physics will not argue with me on this, as they have several lovely things that cover this. My favorite, because it is a mouthful, is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. We cannot know all things at all times about a single even or object. If science can't do it, then the far less specific practice of religion will not be able to either. Another name for it is the "Observer Effect", in which the nature of what is being observed is changed by the presence of the observer. This can be taken figuratively or literally, in that an individual viewing a system will automatically change mentally what is being seen to conform with their understanding of it. Literally it can mean that the individuals specific gravity, their position, the instruments they are using to observe, can all cause tiny changes in the behavior of whatever is being watched, so there will always be an air of uncertainty about what is being watched. We will never know how the thing really interacts with the universe because, by coming in contact with it, we change it.
Putting the physics away, this brings us to the people who read, reread, recommend and buy the calendars and bumper stickers for the very popular authors of the day. Why? Because they have the answers, and if you read enough of "When Things Fall Down" (disclaimer- I own this book and respect Pema Chodron for her work immensely, just not her fanbois and fangrrls) you will find that magical mental key that unlocks whatever has been blocking you from enlightenment and you'll be shown the way.
Each time I have ventured out trying to find a group to practice with, I've encountered the quoting and recommending of these books over and over again. It is the recommending I do not mind, it is the mentality behind the recommending that I do; "Here, if you read this you won't be lost anymore, this has answers!"
Except, that in so doing you have already failed once more. Because nothing outside of you has answers. Nothing outside of you can, because nothing outside of you exists. It's all a construct of your mind, and since you yourself do not exist, how can this book that you are holding have the answers? The book is static. Unevaluated, taken at face value, it does not allow you to discern how it fits in to your daily life. Taken as a means of practicing without introspection, it simply becomes more dogma to follow.
There are many who have probably gotten great solace out of the teachings in these books when followed in such a way. There are fantastic ideas in the books as well, and I do recommend several myself based on what a person appears to need to hear - but you see, even in that action I am presupposing who they are and what they need. They will not take away from those books what I mean them to. It's a tricky thing, a slippery slope. It is why I do not generally read treatises on Buddhism or popular authors.
I took to Zen Buddhism because they didn't appear to follow a set of doctrines mindlessly. They had a very practical view of the world; that is, that life will go on whether you're attempting to be enlightened or not, so you might as well make the two work together. Mindful cooking, mindful weeding, mindful washing dishes... these on a counterpoint with mindful walking and mindful breathing during zazen are simple. It's really hard to have a cult following about mindfully cleaning eggs off a breakfast pan. It's so ordinary. This is why I like it. There is no room for losing one's self in books or rules. If you aren't breathing, if you aren't in the moment, you pick yourself up and try again. And again. And again. No eightfold path, no precepts. Just the constant check of "do I recall the last time I consciously took a breath"? If not... well, try again.
Practical to the point of bare necessity. If it were huggable, I would.
I worry that in American where we are so tied up in 12 step plans and self help books and commandments and strict diets that guarantee us results, the true teachings of enlightenment get lost in our attempt to translate them, make them "meaningful". I've heard the rants about how it has become commercialized, but you cannot say this isn't true of any religion these days and therefor it's a moot point.
Here's the thing. Buddhism does not need Westernizing, or translating, or updating. That is because the main teaching remains strong no matter what words or mantras or practices are thrown at it: We are born enlightened. That means every dog, plant, housewife, government official and pro wrestler is a Buddha and has the chance to attain enlightenment. You cannot update something that is imminent, because it is already changing with the moment. The second you set anything to paper you have created a static thought that will struggle with the reader to be understood in the proper context. The best you can hope for is someone with the foresight to create a living document like the Shobogenzo that can roll with the times and be interpreted by each successive person that reads it as best they need in that moment.
What Buddhists are seeking is already there, and echoes back to something I had learned and recited many moons ago, when I was first breaking away from Christianity and trying out other religions - "That if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, then thou wilt never find it without thee. For behold, [it] has been with thee from the beginning; and [it] is that which is attained at the end of desire."
Eerily true, and coming from paganism, no less. It seems to speak to the kind of universal truth that the golden rule stems from; you have to have it in you already to make an action of it outside of yourself. End of story.
So when I joke and say that I am a bad Buddhist in these pages, it hearkens back to the fact that I do not follow the precepts. I swear, I drink, I dance, and I do lie or say nasty things about people at times. I try not to, and I try to forgive myself for it when it happens. I also try to remember to practice zazen every day, and not beat myself up when I go a week without remembering. The important thing to remember is that zazen is just a tool, the way that the precepts are a tool and the way that popular authors' works are just a tool, to trigger your mind in to realizing it's own Buddha-hood. That is all they are. It's not a blueprint that guarantees these things at the end of life, or a way to prove you are doing something correctly.
When I see some of these online groups, I am irritated. I try not to be. After all, I have been in that place of needing answers and not having any, and I certainly can't judge. I don't know why they need the info or why they've come to that place at that time. They are a part of me, a part that I can have compassion and empathy for but that in the end is unknowable. It is a struggle not to say "just breathe" and decry the adherence to books and authors and teachings and websites.
If I did, I would be giving in to dukkha... I would have an expectation of being right, the need to be going on the right path, and the need for them to hear and understand what I am saying the way the words have meaning to me. All of these would be incorrect and insulting to who they are and where they've come from.
Instead, I keep my mouth shut. I observe for a bit. And if it looks like I won't be able to get the kind of dialogue out of the group that I am searching for, I move on. Sometimes I leave a parting shot for someone to think about, in a moment of what's best described as sheer arrogance; my thought being to open up their perceptions a bit by offering a different take on what's going on. But most will only see what they want, be confused by anything else, and discard it if it's too confusing. I've been there, so I know this will occur.
In the end I suppose I laugh about being a "bad" buddhist, and I am smug about my distrust of books as anything more than something to think about while doing my own thing. There are other ways to end up on and travel the path that are not mine. But I cannot see how living for the writings of certain authors will serve as anything but a distraction from delving in to one's true nature in the end.
Perhaps I'll receive an insight on this while I'm forgetting to practice zazen again.
Thus ends Part Three. Not what I intended to do with my Saturday morning, but here you have it. My beliefs spread out like butter on a bagel, which I am loathe to do for fear of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, or even worse possibly offending someone. (But the imagery of which has now made me hungry.)
As with all things, I leave you with a grain of salt, should you need it. These are only my words and my experiences. :)