The seventh Zen precept of ethical behavior is about cultivating and encouraging self and others to be the best we can be. While rejoicing in one’s wholesome qualities and deeds is natural and health promoting, praising oneself or seeking personal gain at the expense of others arises out of a misunderstanding of the interdependent nature of self. The seventh precept is interesting because it suggests an exchange of self and others. It points out that one should not praise oneself while slandering others because to do so is to cling to self-centeredness. We are often afraid of other-centeredness because we feel that others will take advantage. In my experience, the opposite is true. When I open to others and am genuinely concerned for them, they will respond in kind.
Adults often carry strong judgments about others and express them with vehemence anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, homophobia and nationalism. Homophobia is really the only one correctly named, since the word points to an unacknowledged fear in the one making judgments. The use of the word “phobia” acknowledges that judgement of others is rooted in the person carrying the judgement.
We can break this precept silently by being ever so slightly judgmental about someone else’s looks, clothing, behaviour or beliefs. Every time we judge another, we are demonstrating the truth found in the phrase, “When there is one finger pointing, there are three looking back.” We criticize in others what we reject in ourselves.
What does “praising self” have to do with this? When we praise ourselves at the expense of others we set up a hierarchy in which we — not surprisingly — are on top. There is something interesting about this self-elevation. When we blame someone for being careless with our possessions, for example, a flash of satisfying anger flares up. At that moment we are innocent, pure, above the other. We have praised ourselves, even if we are hardly conscious of it, and it lasts for only a few seconds. That anger buzz can happen even when there is a very ordinary anger present.
As Zen trainees develop their Zen practice they move into a spiritual maturity, which takes them out of praising self at the expense of others and moves them into accepting responsibility. But it’s responsibility in a profound sense of the word. It’s responsibility that arises from deeply realizing our oneness with all beings. They take responsibility for their own situation.
“Wait, wait,” we say. “Aren’t those who conditioned us responsible for this present suffering?” In some ways this is true, but we will never be free if we stay caught in blaming others for our circumstances. It’s only by assuming responsibility for our whole lives that we become free and fully compassionate.
Suggested practice: The next time you notice yourself judging another ask, “What I am not tolerating in myself?” When you find the answer to that question, refrain from turning that judgment against yourself in the form of guilt.
Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-6500.