At a recent Buddhist meditation class, the teacher led us all in a recitation of the five precepts. These are Buddhist ethical guidelines that describe the effort to live a harm-free life. When spoken out loud, the practitioner sets an intention not to kill or take life, not to steal or take that which is not freely given, not to use sexual energy to manipulate others or disturb intact relationships, not to speak in a manner that is harsh or untrue, and not to take intoxicants that will cloud the mind from seeing clearly.
The precepts are considered to be recommendations, rather than commandments, offering the practitioner some direction in life without the threat of a judgy God watching over. But it isn’t as simple as do it or don’t, if you feel like it. There is, in both Buddhism and Judaism, a sense of accountability.
In Buddhism, there is the well-known concept of karma, which identifies that there are future consequences for our moral actions. On its surface it seems like a cause and effect idea, where the choices I make now will produce likely outcomes. If I am a liar, people won’t trust me. If I steal, I could be arrested, etc.
But what happens if the transgression isn’t overtly realized? With no judgy God, is there accountability? I am coming think the answer is yes. I went to hear a talk the other night by Howard Cohn, who leads the Mission Dharma of San Francisco. He said the way to begin to have happiness–the kind the Buddha taught, that is lasting happiness–is to live a good life.
Cohn talked about the reverberations that come back to us from actions that are harmful. Whether these are thoughts, words, or deeds, if they are greedy, angry, or lustful, they result in our own agitation and suffering. To help quiet the mind, develop concentration and mindfulness, it is very useful to think and act in ways that produce more calm effects.
In this way, accountability is largely with yourself. You can create more suffering for yourself or not, based on the moral choices you make. The precepts described above give guidance on how to create less suffering for yourself and others in your daily life. In this essay on karma and reincarnation, it says that moral accountability is akin to other natural processes.
At its core, therefore, Buddhism has a sense of moral justice, though there is no overseeing arbiter or judge, and no judgment day as such. It might be better to see the process of karma as a natural phenomenon. If you look after a fruit tree carefully, pruning it at the right time and feeding it appropriately, good fruit ensues. If you fail to look after it properly then it will not bear fruit or the fruit will be sparse. In short, we reap the rewards of what we do that is wholesome, and suffer for what we do that is unwholesome.
In Judaism, there is a notion of responsibility which also speaks to the cause and effect of our actions. In the book, Everyday Holiness, which describes the Jewish spiritual path known as Mussar, it says, “We humans are unique among creatures in being able to anticipate consequences to the extent that we can, and as a result, we bear responsibility for our actions…the message here is clear that each of us is called upon to take responsibility now for what we will cause to happen after.” What matters most, Mussar teachers say, is how we relate to other people. So in addition to having responsibility for the moral consequences of our actions, we also must “bear the burden of the other,” or seek the benefit of the other in every possible circumstance.
As a parent, there is something that resonates with me in this concept of responsibility. I find myself every day doing things I don’t necessarily want to do, but that I do anyway to benefit my kids or my family. I have come to accept that I am part of something greater and even though I am sometimes frustrated, annoyed, or grumpy about my obligations, in my finer moments I am grateful for the role I play in this family unit.
I think this is probably a model for how I could come to feel as a human being in general, feeling connected to and serving the greater good of all people. And perhaps, as the Buddhists teach, not only for people, but for the benefit of all living beings. The teachers say this is the way towards happiness. Maybe even, a form of rapture.