an asymmetric responsibility

We tend to get hyper-focused on the precepts themselves – the should’s and do not’s and the infringement of our presumed right to be whoever we are.  We pay little or no attention when committing to the Three Jewels or Three Treasures.  They are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha which are the container in which the precepts are carried.  When receiving the precepts, we also commit to being one with the Three Jewels but that seems to slide by without triggering much anxiety.

I remember standing in the center of the zendo along with four or five others getting ready to do what seemed like innumerable bows that go along with receiving the precepts or Five Mindfulness Trainings.  I had spent hours reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the precepts, For a Future to be Possible, sitting with the local sangha, and doing my best to write truly heartfelt glosses on each Mindfulness Training.  They told me what I already knew (as do precepts for anyone) but it was left to me to work out how that was going to manifest in my particular life.  So there I was percolating along in my head about the meaning of respecting life, being generous, not engaging in sexual misconduct, speaking mindfully, and attending to what I consumed when I heard the words, “We will now take refuge in the Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”

All my baggage careened into my frontal lobes as my mind came to a screeching halt.  Wait.  What?  Take refuge.  I’m becoming Buddhist?  Hold on.

This is common reaction having heard it repeatedly from many retreatants who consider receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings.  They often ask about the necessity to take refuge if one is not interested in being Buddhist.  Can the precepts by themselves be a necessary and sufficient condition for living an ethical and moral life?  Does one have to throw oneself wholeheartedly into the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as well?  One dharma teacher pointed out that the Three Jewels are where we turn to for refuge when we have fallen short of the commitment.  In other words, without the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha how would we know the nature of our failing?  I really didn’t quite understand this and perhaps the religiosity got to me at the time.

Over time, I think I’ve begun to understand that the precepts cannot exist outside the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  More than that, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are not signs of religious fervour but ways in which the precepts direct my practice.  If I use Roshi Daido Loori’s translation of refuge as “entering wholeheartedly without reservation,” then my practice of the precepts becomes one of giving myself wholeheartedly to the capacity of all beings to realize their bodhicitta, the accessibility of eternal wisdom to transform suffering, and the unstinting inclusiveness of relationships.  In that light, respect for life, for example, only makes sense when I can perceive and respect, without reservation, the Buddha in every person.  Generosity is only possible when I commit to a Sangha that is harmonious and boundless.  The respect for boundaries embraced by the precepts of sexual conduct, mindful speech, and consumption underscore the deep wisdom of all things being interconnected.  This level of open-hearted commitment is about responsibility for all beings and is the only choice available to us.

“The tie with the Other is knotted only as responsibility.  To say Here I am.”

Emmanuel Levinas

I’m still struggling through the philosopher Levinas’ view of ethics as responsibility which transcends all categories of the other person.  Ethics, in his view (and my limited one), is asymmetrical.  It pre-exists our knowledge of the Other and is independent of the actions, intents, beliefs, and identity of the Other.  Sounds suspiciously like the Bodhisattva vows… and a huge challenge to a mind given to picking-and-choosing where to deliver compassion.  But perhaps it is not as much a challenge if I take the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as the container of my practice.

Thank you for practising,


5 thoughts on “an asymmetric responsibility

  1. I love the quote from Emmanuel Levinas. As I understand it, Levinas is saying:

    – Responsibility is the only way we can tie our selves to the world (the Other)

    – This responsibility requires use to say, over and over, “Here I am.” This “Here” means HERE – right in this place, in this moment, with this consciousness. That is, to unfold ourselves fully in front of the Other. That is responsibility – to hold nothing back.

    That’s how I understand it, at least…

    • That’s how I understand it too. It is a struggle to be free of the other’s response, willingness to engage etc. I’m noticing how I am tied to the conditional – which of course is the source of my suffering.

      There’s much more but I fear Levinas – like Derrida and Lacan – are well beyond this Bear of Too Little Brain! 😦

  2. I was just going to post this comment on the previous post when I thought let me just check the others in this sequence… and glad I did because my thoughts seem better placed here:

    I took the 5 precepts but what I really wanted was a formal taking refuge… to me it was the complete opposite of what you describe here in terms of what created trepidation…I think there is so much richness in really, truly ‘taking refuge’ or throwing oneself fully into the three jewels. Now, as I type that it sounds a bit fanatical but to me it’s not an exclusivist kind of desire or zeal… whereas in some ways the precepts can have that edge to them… for me anyway.

    Thanks for these thoughtful reflections on the whole thing.

    • Hello, dragonfly! 🙂 I don’t think we can experience the richness of practice without throwing ourselves fully into refuge – in all meanings of the word. The ability to hold our capacity for deep awareness, our inherent and cutting wisdom, and our sustainable inter-relationships is our commitment when we take and receive the precepts.

      I understand your comment below. For me, committing to mindful speech for example, means I don’t get dragged into the whirlpool of mindless speech that happens because we’re just human and prone to that form of escape. As you say: Just me, doing my best given the circumstances.

      So nice to read you again.

  3. Why do the precepts have that edge to them for me? Because they seem like simple basic things that we all try to do to some degree in our regular life and to identify myself as one who has formally committed to basic things like not lying to me always contains the suggestion of a judgement that ‘other people’ are often not truthful or that I am somehow ‘more truthful’, when I am still just me, doing my best, nothing more or nothing less.

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