Monday, March 5, 2007

Bad Buddhist vs. The Second Precept

I vow to abstain from taking things not freely given.

That's the short version of the Second Precept. I like it because it isn't afraid of the word "take," which evokes an appropriate sense of childishness: kids know when someone "took" something. Their sense of fairness is simplistic, but that's exactly what preserves its integrity. They might forgive you for taking their stuff, they might live with it just fine, but no way will they agree to say you didn't take it. You took it. That's a fact.

It's grownups who dance around with words and concepts, trying to avoid culpability. We construct our world so that we don't even need to notice how we steal from others, how our pleasures and conveniences come only at the expense of others' suffering and deprivation. We know about sweat-shop factories and coffee plantations, so we look for Fair Trade products or boycott The Gap/Old Navy/Banana Republic. Or maybe we don't — not if the store we shop at doesn't stock Fair Trade, or if we really really love that new pair of twill capris. We're conscientious, not fanatical.

Thinking about the uncompromising Second Precept, I sense myself surrounded by accusing children, millions of them, quite justifiably offended by my behavior. If you know it, how come you keep doing it?

Seems like a lot of this Buddhist practice comes down to that. I know, but I keep doing.

So should I take comfort in the fact that this is true of everyone, universally, not just me? Or is that actually a reason for despair? I listened to an episode of Melvin Bragg's In Our Time last night; it was about Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. There was some discussion of slavery, which was timely as this is the bicentennial anniversary of the British ban on slave trade. The bad news: everything the British (and Belgians, and other European empires) did — was already being done by Africans to each other. Not as brutally, and not on such a horrific scale, but yes, tribes on the coasts were raiding the interior for slaves to use and to sell.

This is what we do, as humans. This is what we are.

Except sometimes not. Following up on the Conrad episode, Melvin Bragg is doing a special on William Wilberforce, who drove the movement to end the British slave trade. It's a fascinating story: after Wilberforce's sudden spiritual crisis/conversion experience, he sought to convince Parliament to abolish slavery but was against giving working-class people any say in the matter; he was a thorough elitist and anti-revolutionary whose other obsession was a national "reformation of manners" to "stem the rising tide of immorality and vice" (uh oh). Eventually he learned to stomach working with the Whigs, and a popular movement grew, finally resulting in the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

What made this guy think he could bring about the end of a practice that was central to the British and European economy – the foundation of practically every empire in history? How did it even occur to him to try to get people to stop doing it?

And is such a thing possible now? What's happening in the anti-globalization movement — does anyone even remember the Battle in Seattle? What law or act or measure could happen now, that would have such a resounding and practical effect as the Slave Trade Act? Who has the confidence (or competence) to author an effective Stop Fucking People Over Worldwide Act, given the crazily tangled mess of world economies and interests and industries and cultures? What about unintended consequences and short term vs. long term solutions and false consciousness and hidden agendas?

Maybe this is why Thich Nhat Hanh expanded the Second Precept and added a focus on what we can and should do, as well as what we shouldn't:

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am committed to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

That gang of kids surrounding me is getting impatient. They tuned out as soon as they detected a preamble. "Blah blah blah blah stealing, blah blah blah blah anything that should belong to others" is what they heard. Good for them. But I'm afraid I'm still a long way from living up to their standards.
William Wilberforce: give him props for the end of the British slave trade. (And isn't he fancy?)

One of Dr. Menlo's Postcards from Seattle. See more at Exquisite Corpse.

Photo by Louis Beam

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