Monday, February 11, 2008

Vows and Precepts

I came across a site on the Web that lists a set of "Daoist Precepts" that are drawn from a poem titled "The Song of Ch'an Dao Chia". They aren't bad in a "pop-psychology" sort of way, but I don't think that they are traditional in any sense or even terribly perceptive. But they did get me thinking once again about Vows and Precepts in general.


Vows are public declarations that a person takes when they find themselves inspired to follow a specific religious path. The important point is their public nature because they, to a large extent, remove a person from mainstream society and put them into a special category with different rights and responsibilities than ordinary citizens. In the case of Western monasticism, for example, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience set monks and nuns apart for ordinary people and gives them the the ability to live in communities.

"Poverty" allows them to pool their resources by living communally, which---to a certain extent---frees them from the more onerous parts of having to earn a living. "Chastity" frees monks and nuns from the entanglements that come from sex and reproduction, which again frees the members from significant financial burdens. "Obedience" creates the framework that allows individuals to live together with---at least in theory---minimal friction. The greater society views these three vows as so onerous that no-one begrudges allowing monastics exemption from some of the more intrusive demands of mainstream society: military service, taxation, and---to some extent---some of the random brutality of existence (I'm talking about what used to be called "respecting people of vows".)

When I was younger I often thought that these three vows should be changed to "Self-Reliance", "Birth Control" and "Responsibility". But as I got a little more experience, I realized that any group that really tried to live according to these principles would blow itself to pieces. "Self-Reliance" would result in individuals trying to horde resources for their old age. "Birth Control" would result in endless battles with and over sexual partners. And, "Responsibility" would create division in communities as individuals fought over what each believed was "the right thing to do".

Hermits like me don't have to worry about such things. To a certain extent we get to make our own rules but in exchange the ones we adopt have no almost no influence on how other people treat us. But the vows we adopt can still define our relationship with the outside world to a certain extent. In my own case I've decided to take vows to never own an automobile or fly in an airplane.

Not owning an automobile has freed up a lot of income, which means that I have a lot more freedom to take time off work than most people. It also means that I have more money to put into charity and hermitage renovation. Paradoxically, I think that it also has freed up a lot of my time. This comes about because it means that I simply "do without" a lot of things that eat up huge amounts of my family and friends time. If I cannot walk, ride my bike, get a ride or take public transit---I simply don't go.

I haven't taken my vows to get any sort of special benefits like people in monastic orders. And for the most part they are based on ecological considerations. But I hope that when people see that it is possible to live a very pleasant life without an automobile and that it is possible to be an intelligent, cultured man without having traveled by airplane---that it might get some folks thinking about their own lifestyle.


I realize that there is no real hard and fast difference between a vow and precept, but I like to think that the former is rule or regulation whereas the last is more of a generalized principle. So whereas I have made a rule to not own a car or fly in an airplane, I have some more general principles that I try to live my life by.

The first of these is to avoid being Puritanical in my outlook. I could easily slip into a "holier than thou" way of looking at the world because I think a lot of what people around me do is insane, delusional, feckless and irresponsible. But instead of allowing myself to indulge in self-righteous fantasies, I have gotten into the habit of whenever I see someone doing something I don't approve of, I immediately do a mental inventory of my life in order to find the similar things that I am doing. For example, I once passed an wino and it immediately occurred to me that I am as addicted to junk food like potato chips as he is to alcohol. The only difference is that my addiction is less damaging. My experience would indicate that it is pretty hard to be self-righteous when someone adopts this mental habit.

Another precept that I try to remember was given to me by a friend. He said "it's OK to screw up". What he meant was not that we shouldn't try to be better people, but rather to accept the idea that we all make mistakes and that we should have as much forgiveness for ourselves as we do for others. Another way of looking at it comes from a music teacher I had when I was quite young. He said "if you don't blow a few bad notes, you aren't trying hard enough". Which means that people who never make mistakes also never take risks or push the boundaries---which dramatically limits their lives.

I also try to make sure that I don't become addicted to discipline. If I allowed myself I could probably become someone who was quite rigid in my routines---meditated every single day, always ate very healthy food, exercised religiously, etc. I certainly know a few people like that. But I'm not sure that even if I meditated for hours every day I would be a much better person. I might be a bit more peaceful, but I suspect that this serenity would be at the price of losing a certain degree of insight I get from allowing my impulses to follow more of a "random walk" through life.

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