The paradox between living a life which I thought of as being "un-buddhist" and seeking awakening at the same time has been a particularly vexing one for me. The concept of right livelihood mentioned in the eightfold path always seemed rather narrowly defined. But more than that, I found it hard to reconcile participating in a world that thrives on indiscriminate growth with seeking a spiritual future. My parents were worried that now I would certainly never amount to much and buddies fretted that they could lose me as a friend.
Wanting to reject participation in this world brought with it some unpleasantness of its own. I'm not even talking about giving up material wealth, glory and comfort; without our pervasive Western expansionist paradigm we wouldn't have hygiene, (medical) science or the internet. Without the upward mobility created by the greediness of the bourgeois classes in Renaissance Europe, we wouldn't have equality, nor a middle class, nor the near eradication of starvation in the Western world. Of course, these things have also given us the militarisation of space, hydrogen bombs and global warming. But they have also changed our collective perceptions to such a degree that it is now more common than ever in the history of humanity to find people who are used to taking in multiple facets of a problem before making up their minds.
I would say that, in essence, the balance is in favour of a development toward "good", meaning empowering, healthy, directed at achieving win/win rather than toward "bad", meaning suppressing, originating in fear, or just plain evil. So, would I want to trade in this Western developmental perspective, the actions of which have so far turned out slightly more positively than negatively, for a new one that purports to have my awakening at heart, but that also discriminates against minorities, holds women in lower regard than men, is sometimes bound up in systems of patronage and has generally not evolved beyond the suffocating strictures of both monarchy and religion?
Besides, I've become rather enamored of the idea that the noble eightfold path as expounded by the Buddha is meant to apply to the path of finding awakening, not to any large-scale human organisation. As evidenced by the Vinaya (the rules that apply between seekers on the path while they are on retreat or in a monastery), even rules made by and for honest seekers can quickly become very complex if they remain tied to dogma. Morality is important for developing insight, if only for the reason that a mind filled with rage, sorrow or guilt is not a mind that easily yields itself to contemplation. But they can hardly be the only rules one abides by, just because one is a meditator.
At this point of course I can hear my parents and friends breathing a sigh of relief. I've basically admitted that mehh, maybe I'm not going to switch to wearing ochre robes and living in monasteries. But have my friends and parents relaxed too soon? Is there not a third alternative?
Apparently, i think that there is such a thing. I think that it flows naturally from the practice of meditation. I think it centers around examining every aspect of your life and living as consciously as possible. Making deeply personal choices and allowing yourself to fail and learn from these failings, I think is at the heart of being a serious Western meditator. I don't mind telling you that this is hard for me, personally. I would rather follow a set of guidelines that has been set out for me by people who have spent their lives debating the best way to live. But it seems that there is no such thing, at least not one that can satisfy both my sense of social justice and of personal freedom.
Also, as it happens, life is too complex (and too interesting) to let any collection of dogmas have the run of it. As in the matter of whether or not there is a god, the only intellectually sound answer is "I don't know for sure, but here's what I think..."
My friends and parents can rest easy.