Posted by: madhyama | March 20, 2012

A Buddhist Spin on the Christian teaching; “Know them by their fruits”

Jesus was fairly clear that moral judgements should be based on the fruit rather than the tree or the seed. This is intriguing advice, somewhat counterintuitive and means that one cannot tell, with confidence, the good tree from the bad tree or the good seed from the bad seed. The metaphor is a powerful one and points to a wisdom teaching regarding the connections, the relationships, between the three elements.
And, the perspective can be applied to spiritual life. Naturally, if life offered only good fruit, that question might not arise, but if one’s life contains bitterness or prejudice, gloom, turmoil, anger, worry or prideful arrogance, these are disruptive factors to live with. Each of these unpleasant effects is difficult or impossible to address directly; but all have causal links to ‘seeds’ of personal, cultural, spiritual or ancestral verities and habits.
Spiritual life, as Zen master Dogen points out, begins with a study of the self. It makes a difference how we approach self examination: as a harm reduction effort (dealing directly with the bad fruit) or as a comparative effort with some ideal. Part of who we are is always some kind of balance between these two approaches. Some cultural ideals (such as foot binding or honour killing) merit redaction because the harm exceeds the benefit. But in general we are the inheritors, so to speak, of an orchard already formed. The ‘trees’ in our orchard ought to be tended carefully and scrupulously.
We bring a vast weight of habits of mind and body to each day, each moment. Jesus’s teaching reminds us that our attention should be directed to what actually happens, what is actually present in our everyday experience. This presence is both the fruit of certain seeds and the seeds for a future effect. The present can be viewed either way. Daily meditation can cultivate the vast stillness in which these initial conditions become familiar.
Those who look to the fruits of their behaviours in the stillness of meditation will perceive the subtle connections between their own thoughts and the nature and quality of their life. Just this perception is usually enough to uncouple the thoughts from the embodiments of habit.
My experience is that Christians who respond to Jesus’s teaching; “You will know them by their fruits”, benefit from Zen meditation. The connection between seed and fruit is the whole point. All spiritual beings aspire to a life that bears good fruit. Meditation is the efficient way to cultivate as much good seed as possible and to remove the really bad trees.
Zennists, who do a lot of meditation, should find much wisdom in Jesus’s advice. A meditative scrutiny which prioritizes harm rather than, for example, enlightenment, will very quickly bring benefits to daily life. Putting harmlessness at the centre of spiritual life replaces bitterness, gloom, anger or arrogance with positive effects such as love, peace, gentleness and patience.
Study the self. It’s simple and powerful, just like this teaching from Jesus.

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