Writing a Good Commandment – June 4, 2011

I’m not in the religion business, but as a writer and communicator I’m intrigued with how the underlying revelation and message of the founder—Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, whoever—is interpreted through the religion’s formal structure and followed by its adherents. As in most things human, it matters what the words are and how they are used.

Every religion has a teaching and a text: the sermons of Gautama Buddha in the sutras, the parables of the Christ in the New Testament, the visions of Mohammad in the Koran.1 You can go back to the words that were written down very close to the time of utterance and say, “See, this is what he said.” But texts evolve rapidly when they are translated from one language to another. The New Testament went from Aramaic to Greek to English, and has seen numerous rewrites since then, while the Koran has stayed in its original Arabic. Yet the understanding of any text still evolves slowly over time, as scholars and preachers reinterpret the words, and as the words themselves acquire new meanings.2

So the choice for any would-be prophet is how to treat the words. Do you want to be as specific and exact as possible, hoping to nail down the exact behavior you’re promoting? Or do you want to be more flexible and general, hoping to engender positive behavior from your current and future followers? The former assumes that your adherents will act as programmable “meat robots,” following exactly the rules you prescribe. The latter requires you to place a large measure of trust in your adherents, that they have heard and understood the spirit of your words and will execute the intention faithfully.

Frank Herbert had the flavor of this in the Dune novels, with Duke Leto’s training of his son Paul: “Give as few orders as possible. Once you’ve given orders on a subject, you must always give orders on that subject.” In other words, it’s easier to lead by example and through the transmission of values than by giving specific instructions. This approach trusts in the intelligence and good will of your followers.

In religion, we can see the differences between these styles of commandment in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic reliance on scripture and the Buddhist reliance on understanding.

The Old Testament, especially Leviticus, is full of specific rules for living. What you can’t do on the Sabbath, what foods you must not eat, what sexual practices are forbidden, even how to cut your hair. The Koran picked up and amplified many of these rules. They are specific and eternal.

Take the injunctions against eating pork and shellfish. These prohibitions made sense in the ancient Middle East, when lack of refrigeration made all shellfish suspect and trichinosis was widespread in pigs and wild game. Adherents as a whole became healthier and stronger. Modern technology has since rendered these and similar dietary rules largely unnecessary, and yet modern practitioners still follow them. Some do it as a form of self-discipline,3 which is useful unless you happen to be starving to death by the seashore. Some follow so blindly and rigidly that the image or suggestion of a pig offends them and the game of football is offensive because the ball is covered in pigskin. Taking offense against the practices of others over rules that you are meant to follow will make you unpopular.

Earning interest on a loan is forbidden in the New Testament and the Koran. Christians have come largely to ignore the matter, and so the West developed the “time value of money” as a key component of finance. Our wealth has grown ever since. Muslims remain faithful to their injunction, and so their financial choices and institutions are constrained.

Compare all this specific and technical instruction with the teaching methods of Buddhism. Once a follower has absorbed and understood the realities of suffering and release in the Four Noble Truths,4 the rest is the general guidelines of the Noble Eightfold Path.5

Buddhism trusts the user to interpret and deal correctly with the details. For example, in the steps dealing most directly with ethical conduct and interpersonal relations, “right speech” is simply abstaining from lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter. There is no list of forbidden words or sentiments. Once you’ve heard the truth, you know when you are telling a lie and what divisive and abusive speech might be. Figure the rest out for yourself.

“Right action” is abstaining from taking life, stealing, and unchastity. And “unchastity”—a thorny area in any religion—is relatively loosely defined, at least for lay followers: getting sexually involved with those who are protected by their families, with those who refrain for reasons of self-discipline, those who are committed to another, and those with whom involvement entails punishment. That is, don’t get involved where sexual attachment would create division or abuse. For monks, the rule is simpler: it’s a form of discipline, so don’t get sexually involved with anyone.

“Right livelihood” is similarly general and obvious: don’t trade in weapons and instruments of death; don’t trade in people as slaves or prostitutes; don’t trade in meat or raise animals for food; don’t make or sell intoxicants or addictive drugs; don’t trade in poisons or products that kill.

In all of this, as well as in the other five steps dealing with wisdom and mental discipline, there is no cause for horror or disgust. You don’t swoon at the sight of meat or beat up cowboys and shepherds on principle because they raise animals for food. You simply realize that killing and eating animals—which exhibit intelligence and volition, and may possess a state of awareness similar to that of humans—is bad for your karma or spiritual balance. Besides, relishing a thick steak and pining when you can’t have one are forms of attachment to desire.

Buddhists, virtually alone among the major religions, seem to be able to coexist peacefully with neighboring faiths—with Confucianism, Taoism, and even Communism in China; with Shinto in Japan; and with native animism and even Islam in Indonesia. Being preoccupied with their own reactions to the causes of suffering and seeking release, Buddhists neither take nor give offense. And Buddhists have never engaged in a holy war.

Buddhism is also the only major religion that doesn’t have a god. Gautama Buddha is an exemplar, a source of strength, not an all-powerful creator and granter of wishes. While Buddhists acknowledge the existence of various gods and demons, and revere the near-godlike bodhisattvas who are one step removed from Buddha, they do not worship these beings as supreme entities.

Buddhism is today celebrated as an early form of psychology and as having therapeutic benefits. This is true in that the practice focuses on mental states and our conscious knowledge and use of them. Buddhism has more to do with the mind and the suffering it creates through attachment to desire than with the existence and eventual destination of some invisible part of us called “the soul.” In this sense, Buddhism is very modern and potentially timeless.

All prophets, both past and future, tell us stories and establish rules about what it means to be human and attain a proper relationship with everything else—the universe, the forces of nature, the forces of mind, other people, and the good influence that is a god or gods. How you do this depends on whether you trust your worshippers’ intelligence and understanding. If you trust them, you cite guidelines and examples, knowing they will be interpreted correctly. If you don’t trust, you give specific orders and injunctions, hoping they will be followed exactly.

Which approach has better stood the test of time?

1. A Muslim would object to this: the Koran is held to be the verbatim word of god as dictated by Mohammad to his companions, who wrote it all down. But when divine thought passes through the human mind to take form in a human language, issues of grammar and word choice cannot help but distort the original, immediate flash of understanding. This happens to writers all the time.

2. Anyone who doubts that words can change, even when they have exactly the same form and grammatical usage as when they were written down, should consider the English word “nice.” Today it means pleasing, agreeable, delightful. “She’s a nice person.” It can also mean accurate, exact, or skilled. “That was a nice shot.” But the original Latin root, nescius, combining the elements of “not” and “knowing,” meant ignorant or incapable. Middle English understood “nice” to mean foolish or stupid, and Old French took the word to mean silly or simple. Tell Chaucer that he’s a “nice guy” and you might get a black eye.

3. In the matter of self-discipline, there’s an anecdote about the science fiction writer Avram Davidson, a devout Jew. Once in visiting a friend on the Sabbath he walked up six flights of stairs rather than do the prohibited “work” of pushing an elevator button. This is taking a biblical injunction to extremes—and perhaps playing some mind games with it along the way.

4. The Four Noble Truths, in brief, state that (1) suffering exists, (2) it arises from attachment to desires, (3) suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases, (4) freedom from attachment and suffering is possible through the Noble Eightfold Path.

5. The Noble Eightfold Path is a guide to wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental discipline. The steps, in brief, are (1) right understanding and (2) right intention—contributing to wisdom; (3) right speech, (4) right action, and (5) right livelihood—contributing to ethical conduct; and (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration—contributing to mental discipline and effective meditation.