March 2016: Ethics and Values

This month’s dharma calendar theme is Ethics and Values.

The fundamental practice in Zen is to lose our self – to go beyond thinking, beyond the opposites of the world, beyond any idea of good and bad.

In order to lose ourselves in a way that benefits ourselves and the people in our life, it helps to have a good, strong sense of our self. Part of a good sense of our self is a good ethical framework – a sense of what’s healthy and unhealthy, what’s helpful and what’s harmful. Just as the structure of the zendo and the Zen form holds us, a good psychological and ethical framework allows us more ably to do the serious work of losing ourselves.

Zen is a spiritual path that doesn’t get into a lot of detail when it comes to that ethical framework. When I compare Zen to Catholicism for instance, we have very few stated ethical or political positions on the issues of the day – marriage equality, abortion, stem-cell research to name a few.

The ethics that come from Zen are less specific: looking truthfully at what’s going on in our lives and what’s going on in the world; compassion and loving-kindness for other sentient beings.

Because Zen highly values the place of deep quiet where good and bad don’t exist, it’s possible to mistakenly think that Zen is unconcerned with ethics. As important as that place is, Zen is bigger than that. Zen is system that includes rituals, customs, stories, a way of considering our life, a community of practitioners. A good Zen system shepherds us down to that place of zero, and helps us channel our energies properly on the way up.

I feel that part of my job as Abbot is ensuring that that system is healthy and ethical. For me that means proper checks on power, and a transparent decision making structure. It means creating a culture where respect for people who are different from you is prized. A system that values both non-attachment and healthy attachment, both the cool of zazen and the warmth of friendship, both wisdom and compassion. This has to be not only talked and written about, but a felt sense in the sangha.

Building a healthy and ethical system is a work in progress, at our Zen center and broadly in Zen in the West. I had a teacher who, despite his talents, had troubling ethical problems, and who encouraged a system that didn’t hold him accountable. That experience has made me aware of the power of the Zen system for good and ill. At PSZC many of us are working to shape a healthy Zen center that sticks to ethical principles. It’s worthwhile work, and very much part of our Zen path.

In that spirit, I’d like to introduce you to our Ethics Committee. The Ethics Committee (currently Joyce Hunziker, Beth Glennon and Carol Spangler) is on-call to respond to any ethics-related questions or concerns about our sangha. They also review our Teacher Ethics Statement and provide a yearly report to the Board. Feel free to contact them any time at