Early on in George Eliot’s seminal Novel, Middlemarch, Dorothea says to her would-be husband, the dried-up scholar Mr. Casaubon:
“I have longed for some great purpose in my life that would give it shape and meaning.”
Looking at the sad struggles of our world and reflecting on this desire to have meaning in our lives, to devote ourselves to some great cause, it could seem that the Buddhist precepts are, at one and the same time, both too small to fit this great youthful vision and too great. In fact, of course, being human such vows are impossible for us to ever fully achieve.
The other day I watched that movie classic Groundhog Day. This, along with A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, and even the flawed Richard Curtis film, About Time, all tell much the same story of redemption, as the characters are able to see themselves in new light and get a chance to re-live their lives in richer and better ways, once they can see the frailty and error of their old self.
Allowing for our youthful and understandable desire like Dorothea to devote our life to some great romantic cause, in the words of Buddhist writer Susan Moon, “the precepts are an organizing principle of our life”.
Perhaps the universe will give us all the great causes to hurl ourselves at, but hopefully we will be lucky enough to avoid such major, heroic external challenges. Whatever happens to our life, whoever and wherever we find ourselves, we cannot shake off our own, in part illusory, but persistent, self that seems to follow us like a shadow.
For my own part, I have too often chastised myself for not changing the world, but overlooked the ever-present challenge of changing myself.
At the start of each New Year, many are encouraged to use this arbitrary ‘new start’ like Scrooge, to reflect on our old life and, with renewed insight into our human frailties, start over and live by different rules; setting resolutions for the ‘new-me’ to whom we aspire.
It seems to me our vows to adhere to the precepts actually give us not so much commandments to beat ourselves with, but rather, simply, in Sensei’s beautiful words, a way to “embrace our lives…cultivating the courage to live freely and creatively”.
As we sat through the night, at the Rohatsu Retreat to the city, and Paul and I prepared for our Jukai ceremony, I realised that the reason I had taken such a long time to wish to undertake such a ceremony was an expression of my own distrust.
In 1919, right after the horrors of World War 1, William Butler Yeats wrote, in his powerful poem, The Second Coming:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity”.
For me, like cargo sliding at night in the hold of the rocking ship, something had shifted. To my surprise I realised that, true though Yeats’s poetic vision is of things falling apart, I no longer needed to hold out on my island. Rather, the simple act of accepting the precepts, of acknowledging this compass bearing I was, informally, already on, was a way for me to say YES, to life, to, again in Sensei’s words, formally encourage my life to “vibrate in a new way”.
Of course nothing changes, no second coming is upon us, but, like the TV weatherman Phil Connors, in Groundhog Day, or George Bailey, the small-town man whose life seems so desperate he contemplates suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life, we always have a moment by moment opportunity to reshape our lives.
Those vows help me to stop being the jerk I sometimes feel, and reset the compass bearing, at least to aspire to be the Buddha I know I already am, underneath all that jerkiness, critical self-talk and confusion. The only caveat being that, unlike Groundhog Day, time really does pass swiftly by.