TEXT: By our daily difficulty in the preceptual life, we awaken to the presence of the myriad karmic obstacles
The preceptual life refers to the attempt to live according to the moral precepts and karmic obstacles refers to the complications and mess of life whereby even the best and fullest attempt to live a perfectly moral life is inevitably frustrated.
The precepts ask us not to kill, not to take what is not freely offered, not to tell lies, not to add energy to quarrels, not to gossip or slander, not to get involved in sexual misconduct, not to lose control of ourselves through intoxication, addiction or compulsive habits and so on. These are all inherently good things. We cannot praise them enough. How wonderful to live such a life. Any yet, when we come to the real business of living, we are soon implicated in all manner of conflicting urges and situations in which it is impossible to keep all precepts at the same time. What is good? Even if one were to do one's best one would still be caught in such dilemmas and a heightened moral sensitivity might even increase the number of problems as one tries to avoid situations of harm, weaving around them and embarrassing others in the process.
The import of the whole verse is that it is through the preceptual life - through the actual sincere attempt to live as moral a life as possible - that one comes to an enhanced or even full awareness of the tangled nature of the existential situation in which a human person has their being and performs life. The suggestion is that this coming to knowledge is a vital part of spiritual maturity - it is necessary. It is something that one has reason to be grateful for.
We can perhaps appreciate that in some degree this is part of the natural process of growing up. Young people come to adulthood, generally speaking, carrying ideas about how best to live. In particular, they may be seeking to live in a more ideal manner than their parents managed or better than seems to be current fashion in the society around them. As they get older and accumulate experiences they come to realise that ‘it is not as simple as all that’. They, hopefully, come to appreciate the fact that there are reasons, reasons why people act in ways that bring unfortunate consequences, reasons why people become enmeshed in situations that then oppress them, and so on. This is often portrayed as a loss of innocence, which it is, and this loss is lamented. However, while there is a charm particular to the innocent child, a charm that is delightful in its way, life asks more of one.
Some people may, indeed, pass much of their life acting the part of the charming innocent, but generally, though this may enable them 'to get away with murder', they leave behind a trail of less than ideal outcomes. Sometimes the superficially 'virtuous' person is less mature than the seemingly more worldly one. Hard knocks teach worldly wisdom and faith teaches transcendental wisdom and the bodhisattva needs both.
This is very similar to the theme of my book Love and Its Disappointment. One always loves, taking love in the broadest possible sense of meaning, but those loves lead one into complications and setbacks, disappointment and doubt. The question of life then becomes not, can one love, but can one love again? Can one go beyond the obstacle and live in the reality? ‘With the ideal comes the actual’ and it is the actual that enlightens, not the ideal. The ideal is a kind of fine delusion, and it is fine, but it is delusion, and the spiritual path must take one beyond it. That does not mean not having ideals, nor not attempting them, but it does mean learning from the experience of attempting to do so.
It is for this reason that in Amida Shu we attempt to keep the precepts while accepting the bombu paradigm. One extreme is to say that because one is bombu it is pointless even attempting to keep the precepts. The other extreme is to make accomplishment of preceptual perfection the criterion of a spiritual life. The latter makes it impossible and the former means that one does not learn and grow. Both equally are sabotage.
Life is full of irony and invidiousness. When two of one’s friends fall out, what should one do? There are a number of options all of which involve mess and some harm or cruelty. One might side with one against the other. One might hold back in a position of neutrality and be fairly useless to either. One might try to mediate and frustrate both parties. There is no simple solution. Or, the cat brings in a half dead creature that is evidently not going to recover. Does one take it from the cat or not? Does one care for it or ‘put it out of its misery’? One might have opinions (ideals) about what is the ‘right’ thing to do in such situation, but one has to face the karmic obstacle - the fact that whatever one does there is a downside.
There is a famous Buddhist story of two monks arriving at a stream and a geisha is standing wondering how to get across. One of the monks sweeps her up into his arms and carries her across. The two monks go on their way. Some time later, the second monk says, “How could you do that, given that, as monks, we are not allowed to touch women?” The first monk replies, “Oh, are ou still carrying her - I put her down at the stream.” This is a good story with a useful moral. However, if one penetrates a little more deeply, one can consider, for instance, the position of the second monk and his dilemma. Suppose he had arrived at the stream on his own. Should he break his precept and carry the woman across? What if he got half way across, fell, and she was drowned? How will he live with himself afterwards? Or the first monk, has he really put her down? Actions leave traces. The principle seems simple, but the human reality may be more messy. One may live a more or less renuncient life, but, while hat will reduce the number of occasions for such encounters, it will not eliminate them. The gaisha will still be standing at the stream waiting for one.
Becoming more fully aware of karmic obstacle changes the tone of one’s spiritual life. It brings the ‘great grief’ and the sense of bitter-sweetness, yet it is liberation. It is not tragic that life is tragic. True maturity is, like the lotus, rooted in the mud. The spiritual life is not just about being nice all the time and keeping oneself out of trouble. However, when we look at our own lives, we may well see that a great deal of our style of living and relating is essentially based upon such a motive.
Awareness of karma is a foundation of compassion in several ways. It yields a sense of compassion for the ‘villain’ as well as the victim. It gives one understanding of the sometimes seemingly bizarre behaviour of others and a meta-level appreciation that even when one cannot understand it, nonetheless, there will be reasons that one is blind to. When one sees in this way one falls into blame and condemnation much less readily. Similarly, one is not taken in by over simplistic solutions either in personal life or to the problems of the world. The sense of fellow-feeling is enhanced. We are all in this mess that is samsara and it is here that we have to live the noble life. When we go to the Pure Land we may have less obstacles and might get the hang of it more quickly, but even such know-how will need then to be tested by a return to the material world.
The meaning, therefore, is an invitation to us to feel some gratitude for the problems, complexities and difficulties that we encounter that are as those of all sentient beings. In this way we grow. We try to keep the precepts and, in the process we acquire wisdom. These are phases in the development of faith. Karmic obstacle is like thick cloud, but even the thickest cloud does not obscure the sun completely.