Thursday, May 12, 2011

Pungent Roots [CORRECTED]

In response to the previous post about the bodhisattva precepts, a dear friend and dharma brother wrote on Facebook:

So no more garlic and onions?! What's up with that? I never understood that one.

Ah, the one about five pungent roots. Onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, and something I never heard of but I'm told it sometimes shows up in curry.

The Surangama explains this a little bit. If you ate these foods raw, it was thought to stir up bad temper. Cooked, they were believed to be aphrodisiacs. So these foods were blamed for making people argumentative or horny. For monks, this would present obvious problems, and so the Brahmajala forbids them.

I've met Buddhist monks and even laypeople who observe this precept strictly, along with other dietary restrictions (including vegetarianism). When I was doing a lot of cooking at Providence Zen Center, I bought a cookbook full of vegetarian recipes that excluded onions and garlic. This was regarded as a little bit weird: truth is, you will find onions and garlic, et al, in frequent use in PZC's kitchen.

This precept has given me many questions in numerous interviews with our school's teachers. How does this precept function? Does not desire arise in the mind? If we have no mind, is garlic in the hummus really a problem? It looks like many people just ignore the precept, is that correct? Are we lying when we shout that this precept "can be so kept" during the ceremony? Assuming we deal with it, how?

Even further, what about the Buddha, who ate anything that was offered to him on his begging rounds? There is even a legend he ate the finger of a leper after it fell into his bowl. (I think maybe that did not really happen.) What about Seng-T'San and his famous poem, in which he said, "The Great Way is not difficult, just avoid picking and choosing?"

My best conversation about this precept took place a while ago with Judy Roitman, JDPSN. Judy is a practicing Jew who also practices and teaches Zen. She shared with me how she relates to some of the very old and challenging aspects of Judaism, like having to read all of that harsh stuff about homosexuality on the day of atonement. She described several things that are still in use, yet do not have quite the same meaning or practical function today that they did in their own era. She described this as a "dialogue with our ancestors," in which there is respect and deep listening -- but we also are allowed to talk back.

So in treating the precepts with this spirit, receiving teaching from long-departed ancestors, what use can we make of this precept? For my own situation, it seems impractical to go to my mother-in-law's house and pick at the dinner she serves me for garlic or scallions. As it is, she is very accommodating about my preference for vegetarian food. Since we are using these precepts as part of Zen practice, we might ask -- not to introspect too much, but ask -- what is the so-called "behind meaning" of this precept and what are clear and compassionate ways to use it?

Seems to me what is useful here is to pay attention to what we ingest into our bodies, and note the cause and effect. What behaviors do I present when I skip lunch? How about when I eat junk food? If I have a glass of wine the moment I come home from work, do I get sleepy earlier? How does that affect my relationship with my spouse?

You can even move on from this and look at other stimuli. Erotic media? News programs that editorialize rather than dispense new information? That probably stimulates more foul temper in me than the leeks in my soup! How about gossip? (There are precepts about gossip, too.) Gambling? Do these things alter your behavior, and are you aware of the shift?

LinkThere is a middle way between ignoring this ancient precept and observing it so strictly that it creates new problems. For me personally, yes: my diet is changing, but not because some sutra tells me to eat this and not that; it is changing by itself as I vow to pay attention to food, drink, and stimuli, as it passes through this body. In Zen, we take these precepts not for our own purification, but for the benefit of all beings (which includes us).

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[Note: This post has been updated to correct a sloppy error on my part. There is a key difference between a practicing Jew and an observant Jew. I know better than that but was sloppy this morning.]


Hal Johnson said...

Sorry if I'm dense, but what is the difference?

Algernon said...

Help me understand your question?

Petteri Sulonen said...

Between observant and practicing Jews. I was curious too.

Algernon said...

Oh, that. Okay. Describing someone as an "observant Jew" implies they are orthodox, which Judy certainly is not.