That’s my biggest challenge as a teacher of the dharma in the West at this time. The precepts have become a form. Not only in Buddhism—in all the religions. We speak very highly about morals and ethics, we bandy these teachings about constantly, but it’s not lived. I was listening to the author of a book about motherhood speak the other day, and the premise of her book is that although we talk about motherhood all the time, as a society, we actually don’t value it at all. In terms of its economic value, political value, and moral value, our society essentially gives it zero. She says that’s why so many women nowadays decide not to have children. And yet, everyone agrees that motherhood is so important. Well, if it’s so damn important, why don’t we value it highly? Why don’t we practice what we say? Mother this, mother that—yet we look down our nose at it. Her argument is that it’s the most important job on the face of the earth and it should be recognized as such.
It’s like the moral and ethical teachings: everybody wants them, but nobody wants to live them. People receive the precepts and start off with all of these idealistic, romantic notions about living the life of a buddha, and then they realize that when push comes to shove, they’re not doing it. They become disillusioned and discouraged, so they give up. They begin to embrace the opposite side of the whole thing in the same way that they embraced the precepts, which is simply idealistic.
We have to realize that to practice the precepts is to practice them when things are coming apart. We have to realize that it’s possible to turn things around. It’s possible to manifest understanding where there is only hate or fear. It’s possible to manifest love where there is only anger, resentment and hopelessness. These precepts are not something that comes out of the clouds. We don’t have a legend like the Ten Commandments appearing on the mountain. The precepts came out of the lives of men and women who, for 2,500 years, have practiced the Way. They come from people who have discovered, through practice, how to live in harmony with the nature of all things. The precepts come from the realization that there is an intrinsic goodness in all things, and that it’s possible to uncover that, to practice that. We can only do this in the face of the very difficulties that create the conflict—we can only practice in the midst of the fire.