On Rules of Life

(This is an edited version of a discussion I had with my fellow Solitaries in the Community.)

“If you are to have a rule to guide you, who is to write that rule? You ask me to do so, but I am not qualified. I cannot claim to be any wiser than you, so I could not presume to formulate any kind of law for you to follow. Should Jesus write your rule? The teaching of Jesus must be the primary guide for any disciple. Yet Jesus did not give clear rules. Jesus gave us stories whose meaning is infinitely profound; and Jesus gave us sermons in which every sentence and even every word is pregnant with truth. We cannot reduce these stories and sermons to a set of laws…If you wish to formulate a rule you must listen to your own conscience and discern these principles. Write down with your own hand on paper what God has written with God’s hand on the human heart.” —Pelagius

I’m going sideways again, trying to ignore Old Man Zen over there in the corner, rolling his eyes.

I used to tell my Karate students, “Stop making up rules.” What I meant when I said that is a bit complicated to explain. I would watch them struggling to execute a movement and it would be painfully obvious to me that they had invented pre-set parameters in their minds which dictated how it ‘should’ be done. They had done this, though, without realizing that was what they were doing, or understanding the underlying principles involved. This created a kind of make-believe world in which the laws of physics no longer applied, and it made success totally unattainable.  It put them in a situation in which it was impossible for them to experiment or investigate by trial and error any longer, because they were too wrapped up in their ideas about ‘how it should be’. All their energy was spent in trying to enforce their own imagination on themselves, without any reference to the way things actually work. In Karate, the “primary guide” must be the laws of mechanics and physics; the principles of gravity, momentum (both linear and angular), acceleration, motion, and so on. In order to understand, the Karate student first has to observe. Observation has to come before discernment.

In terms of the Way of Christ, the ‘primary guide’ must be the Way itself.

Observation in real time has to happen before any ethical or moral choices are made; before any enlightenment or awakening can take place.

Jesus said, “Come and See.” Jesus was putting the disciples in a position where they had to observe. They had to shut their mouths, quiet their minds, and look! Not only that, but they had to go somewhere with him first. So, following my own advice (and Pelagius’s) I believe I have discerned the following:

First comes Trust— In order to find out, I have to enter the unknown. I have to go along with someone— not blindly; not gabbing on the way; not walking whilst texting; not pestering them to tell me where we are going. I have to keep my eyes and ears open and pay attention. Maybe I have to overcome fear or doubt in order to take the risk of following someone who only says, “Come and see.” I might even have justifiable suspicions that whoever it is will take advantage of my trust and get me alone somewhere only to rob me, but in order to find out, I still have to go along.

Next comes Observation. That means to really look!  Look around; look up; look down at the ground, and do it at all times and in all places, never stopping, even when I’ve tentatively figured something out.

Next comes Investigation. I’ve got to handle the material; fiddle with the doohickeys; flip the switches; turn over the rocks; lift the lids; turn the doorknobs; stick my toes in the water; taste what’s cooking.

Next comes Beholding. It’s hard to describe this one, but the word “Absorb” might work. It’s a sort of melding of Observation and Investigation, which in turn leads to understanding. It’s a discipline, and one that it’s easy to neglect. Without it, the next step will never be possible, though: Discernment.

Discernment is the act of holding space for clarity to emerge. It isn’t passive, but it isn’t active either. It feels like listening— sometimes with eyes shut and breath held. It’s what Pelagius meant (I think) when he said, “you must listen to your own conscience”.

Distillation (for lack of a better word) is what comes next.

Out of the emergent clarity, principles manifest themselves.

Wordless actualities— genuine; unfailing; steadfast; trustworthy. These principles are sincere, but not self-righteous. They can be tested in this way:

They produce the inner qualities of courage, kindness, generosity, and harmony.

So at the risk of producing a linear system, I’m going to list them in order like building blocks:

Trust, Observation, Investigation, Beholding, Discernment, Distillation.

At this point, Old Man Zen gets up from the corner to go pee, and kicks over my whole stack of blocks—

“Oh Look,” he says, “They’re only labeled on one side.”


Pelagius was addressing his words to people who had come to him asking for a rule, so my original reflection was coloring inside those lines. My prioress, Amma Beth, colored outside those lines in her usual inimitable way. I understood what she said as a kind of re-defining of the word "rule." Of course, my word-obsession took me right to the dictionary, where I discovered that there are two models in the case of the word "rule" itself. One pertains to authority and subjection to it, but the other pertains to a truth; a maxim; a principle.

I realized that I was operating entirely in the sphere of principle or truth, and not at all in the sphere of authority or law. I was so far outside that understanding that I didn't even realize until I read Amma Beth's comment that Pelagius was drawing the very same distinction that she did. I had produced a template describing my process on the path of discernment, but I hadn’t even considered the other half of the equation.

I realized that there is a step beyond the moment of sitting in the middle of my scattered blocks laughing at Old Man Zen's clowning around.

That step takes me into this wordless understanding:

Suffering and the light of unconditional love simply CANNOT exist together in the same space.

Zen teaches that suffering is a choice we make; a choice based on self-deception, but compassion (or 'unlimited friendliness') takes us right out of that context and renders it utterly irrelevant.

In that light, my understanding of methods and means becomes merely incidental, and a vast space opens for "practices to appear".

Old Man Zen comes back from the can and says,

"Huh. You might be onto something. Now go be useful."


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