The Art of Living:
[ For resources & links related to this sample chapter, please visit our Precepts Links page. ]
In This ChapterWe've just seen how the Buddhist path is based on wisdom, meditation, and conscious conduct (ethics). To be wise, to lead a contemplative life, calls for guidelines called precepts. Since the time of the Buddha, the precepts have preserved the continuity and vitality of the sangha. Indeed, initiation into many Buddhist sanghas, the beginning of formal practice, is done through transmission of the precepts. You take refuge in them, in a ceremony in which you also take refuge in the Three Jewels. (Taking refuge means affirming one's appreciation of and trust in them.)
Actually, for monks there are 254 precepts. Some schools have 58, for everyone; others, 16. So there are different ways to cut up the ethical pie. You could boil them all down to one, the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you'd have others do unto you. These precepts are cast from that same gold.
The five we'll study are the real nitty gritty: no killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, or intoxicants. You'll find the basic principles underlying them resonate with those of any religion, yet with some different emphases which you can apply to your own root tradition. Learn them. Practice them. Meditate on them. And see for yourself. They're the foundation of a path with heart.
Consider how widespread murder actually is: in America it's the #10 cause of death. And that's not counting death occurring (daily) on other levels ~ international (war), intellectual (censorship), spiritual (walking zombies and human beasts), and so on.
To Not Kill:
Reverence for Life
In a recent survey of the murder rate for American males age 15 to 24, per 100,000 people, the figure was 24.4; the next-highest country was Canada with only 2.6. America carries a rugged legacy, it's true. It's our heritage. You can hear the violence of our culture in daily speech. In my own profession, I always pause before I say the word "deadline," hearing its military origins (Civil War) still echoing today, feeling its adrenaline. Nor do I wish for my writing to knock my audiences dead. (I'd prefer my readers might just levitate an inch or two off the ground, now and then.) Others speak of making a killing in the stock market. And so on.
Whether or not you've served in the military, I'd say you're a veteran, given the profound penetration of war upon all our lives. For example, who hasn't met a veteran with scars others bear?
Central to Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain spirituality is the concept of ahimsa (Sanskrit, meaning "to do no harm; reverence for life"). It's the first step of the eight-fold path of yoga. Ahimsa led to India's adoption of vegetarianism and abandonment of animal sacrifice (although animals sacrifice persists in certain places). Jain followers take great lengths to observe ahimsa: monks filter water so as not to consume microbes. Priests wear white gauze masks so as not to breathe an insect in and don't walk at night so as not to step on a worm.
But, unlike Judaism or Christianity, this Buddhist precept applies not-killing to not only other human beings but all beings. That's a very genuine recognition. Animals and trees can't write the congresspeople who represent their district, but this Buddhist precept speaks on their behalf. Such reverence for life, for all life forms, isn't unique to Buddhism. It's essential, for example, to Native American spirituality, exemplified by its wealth of marvelous tall tales starring coyotes, otters, eagles, spiders, salmon, and bears, as well as humans. By broadening the horizon to embrace all of creation, the negative tense of "not-killing" subtly flips to positive: what a missionary physician stationed in Africa named Albert Schweitzer termed "reverence for life." And life manifests in many forms.
Look: a lion with a lamb, a leopard and a cow! The book uses the first of many paintings of the peaceable kingdom prophesied by Isaiah (11:6-9). It was rendered by a gifted Quaker minister and visionary named Edward Hicks. Reflecting dissension within Hicks' Quaker community, subsequent versions, such as this, with the Quakers in the background, show the animals growing restless and wary.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Albert Schweitzer, Christian missionary physician in Africa, thought of the basis for a new, rational, lasting, universal, spiritual, elemental but complete ethical value system. He called it "reverence for life." "A system of values which concerns itself only with our relationship to other people," he reflected, "is incomplete and therefore lacking in power for good."
"The fundamental fact of human awareness is this: 'I am life that wants to live in the midst of other life that wants to live.' A thinking man feels compelled to approach all life with the same reverence he has for his own. Thus, all life becomes part of his own experience. ... Reverence for life drives a man on as the whirling, thrashing screw forces a ship through the water. ... Reverence for life brings us into a spiritual relation with the world which is independent of all knowledge of the universe."
VegetarianismWhether you eat fish or fowl, greens or grain, if you eat mindfully, you cannot help but be aware of the life you're taking inside of you. Communion. The beet or carrot, for example, telling you what it means to live inside the earth, so moist, dark, and sweet. Or the lamb, being led to slaughter, sensing its fate, adrenaline of fright flooding its bloodstream.
I won't go into the valid health or environmental rationales for vegetarianism, which can be a totally viable diet if one has the option. Buddhists in certain terrains and economies don't have the option, and so eat meat. That's also an example of how it's up to each person to make terms with the precepts ~ how little or how much; how slowly or how soon.
Personally, I had a head start. As a little boy, my grandmother took me by the hand to visit a butcher. A kosher butcher, of course. That is, he exercised as much compassion as the act of slaughtering permits. I remember an animal hung from a hook, skinned. And intense eyes of chickens in cages. Feathers on the floor. Calmly, a man chopped up meat with a butcher knife, bones and all, thwack thwack thwack! How many people have even that much of an idea where the meat on their table comes from?
Some famous vegetarians: Pythagoras, Lao-tzu, Plato, Virgil, Ovid, Plutarch, Jesus Christ, Leonardo da Vinci, Michel de Montaigne, John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Leo Tolstoy, Susan B. Anthony, Horace Greeley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Hans Christian Anderson, H. G. Wells, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Mohatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Dick Gregory, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bill Cosby, Michael J. Fox, Paula Abdul, Drew Barrymore, Kim Basinger, Merv Griffin, and Scott (Dilbert) Adams.
Eventually, I came to vegetarianism out of my practice of Judaism and its resonance with my own sense of things. But it wasn't easy and was, moreover, a gradual process of elimination and substitution, taking years. With it came dozens of adjustments, from how I moved (lighter, calmer, slower) to its social etiquette. Today, I'm challenged to not be attached to vegetarianism the way I was to meat. Stay open. Unless you have a medical issue, don't refuse food that's offered to you.
AbortionSooner or later, abortion comes up in any extensive discussion of the first precept. Dharma can compassionately see the suffering of both the fetus and the mother. Japanese Buddhists have evolved a very interesting and unique practice. Many Japanese Buddhist temples will conduct a funeral service for an aborted or stillborn fetus (in Japanese "water baby"). Zen master and teacher Robert Aitken notes, "It's given a posthumous Buddhist name, and thus identified as an individual, however incomplete, to whom we can say farewell. With this ceremony, the woman is in touch with life and death as they pass through her existence, and she finds that such basic changes are relative waves on the great ocean of true nature which is not born and does not pass away."
Stone Jizo images such as this are often decorated with umbrellas, shawls, and toys to express compassion for deceased children and the unborn, as well as prayers for their well-being in the world beyond. Jizo is the bodhisattva who protects children and travelers ~ here children in transit to either rebirth or the Pure Land.
Every "Shalt-Not" Has Its "Shall"The precepts offer both a negative and a positive response to the human condition. Do's and don'ts. One reason they're phrased restrictively is because humanity has already developed bad habits. Yet though they may sound like confinements, they promote freedom. A positive outcome results: if I eliminate harmful behavior, everyone will be much happier, myself included.
Reverence for life is a natural, positive outcome of not-killing, for example. But all too often we cling to the negative definition. For instance, we define peace in terms of the absence of war, perpetuating dualistic thought. (My hero, Jewish philosopher Spinoza, says, "Peace is not absence of war. It's a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, virtue.")
It's important to be clear about how we define our terms. A non-violent demonstration might be so only because its members lacked weapons, for example. Pacifism, on the other hand, sees violence as only begetting more violence and, moreover, requires commitment to social change through the power of truth and truth alone.
Historical examples of pacifism aren't rare, but are rarely discussed. Examples of real peace deserve careful attention. King Ashoka hung up his sword and converted his military to peaceful uses, yet was never attacked nor faced internal revolt.
More recently, Mohatma Gandhi lead India to independence through pacifist demonstrations. (It's interesting that an African American minister, Howard Thurman, recounted his meetings with Gandhi to a young visiting minister named Martin Luther King Jr. And so the dharma wheel came full-circle yet again ~ Gandhi having been profoundly influenced by Henry David Thoreau who, in turn, was influenced by Indian ahimsa, nonharm.)
"In Buddhism the first precept of not killing, or harmlessness to living beings ... has a religious rather than a moral or metaphysical basis. By this I mean that it is grounded in our Buddha-nature ~ the matrix of all phenomena ... . It is in Buddha-nature that all existences, animate and inanimate, are unified and harmonized ... . To willfully take life ... means to disrupt and destroy this inherent wholeness and to blunt feelings of reverence and compassion arising from our Buddha-mind."
~ Roshi Philip Kapleau
While every "Shalt Not" has its "Shall," there are no detailed maps. Each is up to you to determine. Thus, for example, there's no magic formula for peace. As Quaker minister A. J. Muste (1885-1967) put it so well, "There is no path to peace; peace is the path." The path begins with awareness, mindfulness. Every day, don't we kill our finest impulses ... slaughter our higher instincts ... through our casual, willful ignorance ... investing in a culture of cynicism and violence? In defense, it's argued that aggression is a natural response. If so, that doesn't mean humanity can't evolve. As Shunryu Suzuki Roshi used to say, "Everyone is perfect, but could stand a little improvement."
Eliminate those negatives. Accentuate the positives. And embrace the fuzzy in-betweens of the Middle Way.
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You don't have to be a criminal to consider the precepts in your own life. Imagine you're at an airport to see your best friend off. All flights are running late. The area where you've been waiting has filled with people, then emptied out, then filled up again. You notice that aluminum suitcase someone's parked in the seat next to you is still there, and the owner's never come back. Okay, your friend is curious ~ and the brass tabs don't seem to be locked.
To Not Steal:
Trustworthiness and Generosity
Imagine your surprise as you open it up and see the suitcase's packed with neat stacks of $100 bills. You close it, quickly, and look around to see if anyone else saw. Sure, it's a perfect setup for a nail-biter suspense thriller ~ but what would you do? Give it all away at the airport, on the spot? Give it to Lost and Found, leaving the temptation to them?
Or would you split it with your friend? Say you found out it wasn't counterfeit. Would you still wonder about its karma? Maybe it was payment for some black-market transaction. Or blackmail ... or a ransom ... or a bribe ... What if you and your friend decide to split it in thirds, giving a third to a charity? Which charity? Do either of you have a charitable cause? Have you examined charities to find one where your donation will be put to good use, without it greasing bureaucratic wheels or lining somebody else's pockets? And so the uncertainty widens even further, and the money still sits there, like radioactive plutonium. (Would a lawyer be the solution?)
Fiction; make-believe. Yet don't we encounter similar situations every day, implicated in the invisible nexus of property and poverty, credit and cash, without even thinking? To drive the point home, here's a very simple example. As I write, there's an apple on my desk. Because I have this apple, you don't. It's true!
"Where you did not sow, do not reap."
~ African proverb, Igala (Nigeria)
"Because what is yours is not yours, how then can you regard what is not yours as yours?"
But maybe you do happen to have an apple right now. What then? Well, there must be other people who don't have the apples that you and I do ~ the whole world, in fact. So, like I say, if you have an apple, I don't. Suddenly, world hunger stares us straight in the face. We have apples; they don't. The problem is simple: The poor don't have enough ~ and the rich have too much. It's interesting how money and property makes interbeing become more vivid to our imagination. Given the awareness, the challenge is to learn to live simpler to consume less needless stuff, and to cherish what one has.
This means "recycling station" "or "recycled product." The three arrows represent Recycle, Reuse, and Reduce waste.
(The logo is in the public domain ~ and fittingly, for a Buddhist discussion of property.)
-->I know, all this might imply that everyone should immediately donate all their possessions to the poor. The funny thing is, deep down, most of us know it's true. But then the poor would have things that everyone else would no longer have, and the cycle of poverty wouldn't be broken. That would violate the Middle Way of harmony and balance. So we learn to not take more than we need, and not to take what's not ours, and to share what we have with those who don't, without going in want ourselves.
These are timeless truths, but our society seems to be presently suffering from amnesia. What's Buddhist, here, is emphasis on ...
I realize that after you've considered the political correctness of your purchases in terms of country or corporation of origin, it seems hard to do anything except to stay at home and count your fingers. But, as we've seen, thoughts are deeds. And with consciousness can come consciousness raising, the next step in any tipping of the scales of justice. When I use a computer, for instance, I'm aware of how its miraculous silicon chips are often manufactured under very harsh conditions, often by immigrant women. And that a byproduct is toxic waste. What can I do? I don't condone suffering or potential environmental degradation, yet I am mindful of the suffering that is still part of my landscape. And now you know, too.
- Compassionate awareness of property's potential for suffering or happiness.
- The realization that all property (things) is interconnected (as are deeds).
- Consideration of the karma created by the use to which things are put.
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Pardon my French, but in the common parlance of today the Thou Shalt Not here means to not screw around. That is, don't mess with the sexual surge that shaped us and throbs within us still. It's an elemental force, comparable to the intertwining of yin and yang. Daily, we interact with energy fields and physical reality in ways which are sexual, although we don't usually call them such. This precept, then, acknowledges the fundamental yin-yang dance of male and female and calls us to focus our mindfulness upon it, to let that energy flow for the good.
Respect, Intimacy, Trust, and Responsibility
These ethics address adultery, incest, and rape ~ things which threaten the fabric of family, woven of sexuality. Sexuality's a social issue, because our society is woven of families. (Chapter 19, "Happiness Is Not an Individual Matter: Engaging the World," discusses dharma family values and relationships.)
Our society's obsessed with sexuality, as you'll see from glancing at the tabloids at supermarket checkout stands. Look, too, at the ads. In our consumer culture, sex sells ~ everything from face cream to cars to violence. Since advertisers aren't known for hiring models that look like my Aunt Ida in Jersey, American women have starved themselves silly to emulate shadow-thin models, while men indulge in boyish fantasies. When a husband and wife look at each other in bed and don't see dream models, they roll over and lick their wounds of suffering self ~ and, presumably, go out the next day and buy more products, to fill the void. Superficial social conventions can't fully answer the complexities of life, and so the pain continues.
" ... our social conception has managed to supply shelters of every sort, for, as it was disposed to take love-life as a pleasure, it had also to give it an easy form, cheap, safe and sure, as public pleasures are. ... For one human being to love another: that's perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation."
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Respect is essential; respecting Self and Other as really no different. With that foundation comes intimacy. This is a core experience in Buddhism. Respecting life, all life forms, we enter into the heart of creation, gaining a greater intimacy with life. When two people have a long-term commitment to each other, then sexual intimacy can be one of life's most profound human experiences.
Maybe, alas, that's not been your experience. At the dawn of this century, for instance, for every 100,000 women in America, 84 have been raped. (The next highest-ranking country, Sweden, had 15 instances.) Then factor in the people touched by that suffering. But numbers can never express the trauma caused by rape, abuse, incest; nor can words.
The practice of mindfulness helps heal the wounds of abused sexuality; the sangha can act as support group. As part of the path of healing, veterans of sex abuse can vow to keep others from experiencing rape, abuse, or incest. Being responsible for ourselves, we're responsible for others. Healing others, we heal ourselves.
Sanghas, themselves, are vulnerable. Given the power of priesthood, the trust of taking refuge, the intimacy of meditation, and the fallibility of human nature, a sexual scandal in a Buddhist community isn't totally surprising, though no less unconscionable when it occurs. Love is not a toy.
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The Ten Commandments don't directly address lying, per se, but rather false witness. Yet it's there. The Talmud (Hebrew books of biblical commentary) say that no one should talk one way with his or her lips and think another way in his or her heart. This is so universal it hardly sounds any different in, say, Taoism: "Do not assert with your mouth what your heart denies."
Do Not Lie:
Deep Listening and
To lie is to automatically be dishonest about everything ~ to be indifferent to the truth. The Buddha is very clear about this. (Ready?) He says, "A person is born with an axe in his mouth. He whose speech is unwholesome cuts himself with an axe." So when we say, "love" in all sincerity, we actually bring love into the world.
True, Buddhism is aware of the inability of words to express spiritual truth. Yet, from a nondualistic approach we can find our Middle Way between speech and silence. I've expressed this third precept in terms of both listening and speaking. If some people say silly things, they've forgotten how to listen ~ to themselves and others. Listen ...
(picture courtesy of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Central homepage)
There's no secret to my craft of writing: it's writing and reading. Half of what I do is writing, and the other half is reading what I've written then rewriting what doesn't read right to me. Then I show it to other readers for feedback, then editors, and so on. So words always imply two activities: writing and reading; speaking and hearing.
As a person who uses words yourself, you're probably aware of your Inner Judge, right? You know, the one who says, "Who is this guy?! What's he asking me for? Sheesh! Let's get on with the show!" This voice judges everything, makes lists of likes and dislikes, and never forgets.
Meanwhile, every moment awaits us silently, unconditionally. To turn down the volume on your internal Judge Jim or Judge Judy, you only need to become aware of that inner soundtrack in the first place. You're constantly sifting through your experience (we all do), commenting on it like a movie reviewer talking to his- or herself in a theater ("Liked that: two thumbs up!" "Now why'd that happen? That was all wrong!" and "Uh-oh! Boring part coming up!"). And it's always past or future, reviewing or rehearsing, never present-tense.
"When you go to bear witness, it means that you go with no preconceived notions about what you'll see and what will happen. ... Bearing witness means to have a relationship. ... Out of bearing witness, out of that relationship, a healing arises. In what form, through what activity or event, through what person, I have no idea."
~ Bernie Glassman, Bearing Witness: A Zen Master's Lessons in Making Peace
One way to be in the present is to just bear witness to it. Right now, I pause to look out my window, and bear witness to how the buildings look more vivid in the misty morning fog. I bear witness to the unseen bird in the tree outside my window, its song mimicking the morning's mood and my mind. I bear witness to life. Try it yourself, anytime. Stop and listen to the life where you're living, as all of life, right now. What keeps us from being aware 360 degrees all around is our inner narrator, who fades down only when we shift attention from everything being our story to the more expansive reality of what is, things as they are, in and of themselves, seemingly without limit.
Sometimes when I overhear two people talking, I get the impression they're playing verbal tennis. The rules are: Person A speaks for three minutes, then person B gets to speak for three minutes, then it's A's turn again. Talking at each other, they're listening with their mouth, not their heart. I once participated in a workshop in which Joan Halifax Roshi introduced an exercise in bearing witness which provided a healthy, potent alternative. We broke up into twos and sat facing each other. My job was to make myself as transparent as I possibly could, dropping all my masks and just manifesting my deepest, truest nature to my partner. As I did so, my partner did the same for me. In silence, looking into each other's open face, we gave our undivided attention to the buddha nature we sensed. Then we each took turns telling the other what we experienced, with the same awareness. Then we took turns telling the group, and listening to everyone else. There was a common feeling of compassion and mutuality.
It is said that Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion, particularly in the form of Kuan Yin, can see the sounds of human suffering. Kuan Yin's Chinese name has two components: "gaze" (regard) and "sound." It is said she became enlightened through hearing.
If you believe in God, you might imagine you're a spy from heaven, acting as God's eyes and ears. Some Christian sects have maintained that life as we know it is what the Creator sees when looking into us. If the beginning was the Word, rather than argue over the wording, we might begin to hear It ~ whatever it happens to be, right now, clear as a bell.
Roshi Tetsugen Bernard Glassman has been leading people on Buddhist retreats on the streets of New York City's Bowery since 1991. They live for five days on the streets without money or change of clothes, learning from the unknown and the unexpected. And he's held retreats at the empty concentration camps at Auschwitz. Jews, Germans, and Arabs all come. At the outset, members of every group might criticize: "It shouldn't be done like this, but this way!" Meanwhile, he leads them all in on-site mindfulness meditation. By around Day Two, he's said people often wake up to the magnitude of the suffering still present, of those who worked as well as those who died there. When they access that, then healing energy can also arise.
Loving SpeechSpeech goes with listening. They both create karma. I think of Claude Anshin Thomas, a helicopter crew chief during the American war in Vietnam, and his karma, for example. Now a zen priest, in 1998 he embarked on a peace pilgrimage across America. By foot. In some cities, he and his companions were about to be run out of town until a dialogue began, and then they were invited to dinner instead. Midway in his journey, a media photographer approached him and asked, "If you don't mind, I'd like you to stand beside that tree so I can shoot you." Without a word, Claude just walked away. I hope the photographer eventually heard within himself why. (The prize word was "shoot.")
Gossip's a common red flag indicating that loving speech is absent. My dictionary defines gossip as trivial rumor. Gossip can be good or bad, but it's about some one or thing not present. Loving speech is about the present moment. It isn't as if we don't have opportunities to practice it. But a recent survey found, alas, that working couples spend four minutes a day talking to each other with concentrated attention; a typical parent and child engage in meaningful conversation for only 20 minutes a week. Speech can be a great meditation. Listening to ... and saying ... each ... word ... with ... love.
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In a strict Theravadan sense, this precept means no alcohol. Period. Alcohol can not only interfere with the practice of a monk or priest. By clouding the mind and releasing inhibitions, it could lead a practitioner to then proceed to break all the other precepts ~ killing, committing adultery, and so on.
Where's the Middle Way here? Recognition, perhaps, that abstinence forgoes pleasures on the one hand but harmful possibilities on the other. And awareness of the karmic implications. If I drink just a drop at dinner, then I'm acting as a role model for others, some of whom might not be able to have just a drop, or "hold their liquor."
It's like the opposite of the minimal amount of food the Buddha first ate following his asceticism: Just a few drops do not nourish but can destroy.
In a broader, Mahayanan interpretation, alcohol can be read as addictions. Here's the Second Noble Truth, trishna, craving: gotta gotta gotta have it. Following the Middle Way thus includes being addicted neither to righteousness nor to licentiousness, to neither good nor bad addictions. A few sanghas define the precept as "no intoxicants" and point out the word means toxic substances, leaving the door open for interpretation as to drugs. In most sanghas, this precept extends beyond alcohol to all drugs (including pot and LSD) and cigarettes, and, for some, even the gamut of junk foods, plus such poisons as toxic media. And it embraces mindful recovery.
The Eightfold Path Meets the Twelve-Step ProgramWhatever story of ruined lives it tells, alcoholism's but the manifestation of deeper causes, of which it's just a symptom. To frame it in primary colors, the United States spent nearly $150 billion at the dawn of the century on illnesses, premature death, car crashes, and crimes all caused by alcohol.
"Zen is the ultimate and original recovery program. It exposes our denial of true self and shows us how we've suffered because of our diseases of attachment, judgment, and division. It suggests a program for recovering our original nature and teaches steps we can take immediately. It shows us how all our other diseases and discontents flow from our fundamental denial of unity with each other and the universe."
~ Mel Ash
The recovery movement covers addiction in general, drugs as well as alcohol. But we live in a society of addictions. You can divide any roomful of people into two groups: those in denial and those in recovery. Food binges, the Internet, sleep ~ name your addiction.
The recognition of an addiction is just the beginning of a lifelong process. For people who have a hard time with emphases on God, higher powers (the eleventh step of Alcohol Anonymous), and judgmental, patriarchal mindsets in some recovery programs, Buddhism can provide a welcome relief, for forgiving one's self with compassion, rather than the Blame Game of shame or guilt. Mindfulness is synonymous with sobriety and health.
Media ToxinsI confess. I'm an accredited member of the media (in recovery). Today's papers tell you the date, crimes du jour, weather, and so on. "The news" seldom reports the three million other stories happening today; the good news. Mainstream media perpetuates a culture of cynicism. The Golden Rule of mainstream media is "He who owns the gold rules." And so, to spike circulation up and make stockholders happy, newsroom mottoes are "Sex sells," and "If it bleeds, it leads" (leads, as the Number-One Story). That rule, unfortunately, defines the media's role as mediating advertisers to readers, rather than readers to community, or furnishing us with news we can use. This is true too for TV ratings and movie box office. And so we're stuck with this Frankenstein monster of media on steroids.
For example, when the Dalai Lama was in America once, he'd been in a room where a TV was on. Glancing over at the screen, he'd see a pretty image, such as children dancing in a field of flowers. He'd smile, and look away, but when he'd look back again just a moment later and he'd see a terrible image, such as a man threatening another man with a chainsaw. Positive image, then negative image. And so it went, alternating light and dark in rapid succession. He concluded TV must make Americans really exhausted!
Of course, we don't notice how we're being manipulated ~ that's part of the agreement. We grow numb to the enormous strain our pumped-up media exerts upon our spiritual, psychic, and moral fiber. Think: at the dawn of the new century, an 18-year-old American will have seen 16,000 simulated murders, plus 200,000 acts of violence. (Ever have to remind yourself, or your kids, "It's only a movie!"?) Is this reverence for life?
I'm not proposing a ban on violent movies or games. No one but we ourselves turn the TV on. And it can be an addicting consumption, a plug-in drug. (By the way, have you ever noticed how television even talks to you? "We'll be right back! Don't go away!" Check it out!)
Toxins are all around. Caveat emptor: Buyer beware. Be aware: are you consuming something toxic to your well-being? Mindfulness can break the dragon's grip of addictions, change our consumption habits, support others in recovery, and, eventually, transform our toxic culture of addiction.
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Practicing the Precepts
"The Precepts are so fundamentally and eternally pure and spotless that you could not fully transmit their greatness if you painted them across the endless sky. They are so perfect that if the entire universe crumbled into powder, these supreme Precepts would remain indestructible."
~ Venerable Song-Chol
As Venerable Master Hsing Yun points out, we might consider three aspects to practicing the precepts: form, practice, and spirit. Form means grasping the idea. This whole chapter has been about the precepts' form. But once you understand the words, you must put them into practice. Then you'll see the inner spirit of the precepts, and can internalize them for yourself.
People often take refuge in only those precepts with which they're comfortable, on a one-by-one basis. This is in accord with the Buddhist tenet of weighing everything against your own life experience. Use your intuition. Listen within. And, anyway, to observe just one precept deeply is to ultimately observe all the others, anyway. They're deeply intertwined: lying to one's self (denial) and addiction, addiction and sexual abuse, sexual abuse and violence, violence and greed, and so on.
To practice all the precepts might seem to require monasticism. Yet you can follow them and still carry on with regular, rent-paying daily life. That seeming impossibility, however, is important to note. It's an aspect of another Buddhist tenet in which we're constantly asked us to consider the seemingly impossible ... a snowball of purity in a blazing furnace ... or the sound of one hand. As we'll see in Chapter 12, "See? Words Cannot Express: Zen," a school of Buddhism really familiar with the seeming paradoxes and illogic inherent in the Buddha's way is Zen. ("Illogical" to our dualistic mindset, that is.)
A zen approach recognizes three levels to the precepts. The first level is straightforward: Don't do harmful things, such as killing, for example. The second level asks us to recognize that we're killing all the time (crushing microbes, quenching flames, eating vegetables, and so on). (Being aware of this keeps us from being too self-righteous.) The third level asks us to recognize the impossibility of killing. Matter is never created nor destroyed. Destroy something here, and it pops up in another form elsewhere. This three-fold approach applies for all the precepts.
"To live by the precepts is to travel the Way of unity and harmony in which the road is smooth, the obstructions few, and the scenery strikingly beautiful. To transgress the precepts is to take a side road that appears interesting but which soon turns bumpy, becomes monotonous, and ends in the dead-end of regret and apprehension."
~ Philip Kapleau Roshi
The Precepts as a Mindfulness MeditationIn my own experience, the precepts reinforce my mindfulness, and my mindfulness illuminates my understanding of the precepts. They coexist beautifully. Within your ordinary mind is Buddha mind, as you discover when you do one thing at a time, mindfully. This takes discipline. The precepts cultivate conditions to further your goal. It's not an imposition from the outside but rather a means of realizing that no one owns your mind but you, an opportunity of learning how to live that freedom.
"Establishing a virtuous and harmonious relationship to the world brings ease and lightness to the heart and steadfast clarity to the mind. A foundation of virtue brings great happiness and liberation in itself and is the precondition for wise meditation. With it we can be conscious and not waste the extraordinary opportunity of a human birth, the opportunity to grow in compassion and true understanding in our life."
~ Jack Kornfield
Building upon an insight meditation exercise taught by American vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield, I'd like to invite you to make this Precept Mindfulness Month. (Actually, at least five weeks, one for each precept.) For one week, just notice the influence of the first precept in your life. Vow to bring no harm to any living creature through word, deed, or thought. Yourself included. Notice all the living beings in your world you might normally ignore. Weeds poking up through pavement. Bugs. Birds. Cultivate a sense of care and reverence for them. Houseplants and weeds are buddhas, too. Stones are, too.
Next week, observe the material things in your daily life, including money. How do you handle the objects that cross your path ~ yours and others? Do you recycle? Do you waste water in the shower? Are you energy efficient? Are you tempted by what's not yours? And you might make this week one in which to practice random acts of spontaneous kindness. Act on your friendly, benevolent impulses. At the end of the week, measure your wealth in nonmaterial terms. How many sunsets or dawns did you watch? How many times did you play with kids?
During Week Three, notice how often sex arises in your consciousness. Each time, ask yourself what's it associated with. Power? loneliness? compassion? stress? self-esteem? pressure? pleasure? You might be surprised. You can extend this into an additional week of observing your sensuality, sensing your senses, and seeing what pulls you in. Yet another week could be devoted to relationships. Do you view others as objects? Where do you withhold, where do you yield? Where do you respond as an equal?
Next, devote a week to deep listening and loving speech. Listening, see if you can completely give yourself over to it. Do you listen with an open mind, an open heart? Are you judging? ... rehearsing what you'll say? ... trying to show what a good listener you are? Speaking, listen to yourself. Do you see and mean each word? Try envisioning every noun, verb, and adjective in your mind's eye. Note how often you make frivolous, cynical and negative comments. And how often do you speak of things about which you really don't know first-hand?
Last, spend one week observing what you consume. Do you consume only things which promote health? When you have an urge to consume a little dose of poison, see what motivates your impulse. Refrain from smoking, drinking, or using any drugs, including caffeine. Notice your addictions and observe what beliefs they satisfy. Remember: Habits are habit-forming.
Personalizing the Precepts
If you're already practicing with a sangha, then you already have its set of precepts to live by. You can also adapt and personalize the precepts. The extended sangha of Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, call the precepts "mindfulness trainings," a means of keeping "our appointment with life." Here's a set created by author Celeste West:
It is my sincere intention to align and harmonize myself with the Blessing Way via these Five Cardinal Precepts:
- As a lover of the Way, I do not harm, but cherish all life.
- As a lover of the Way, I do not take what is not given or waste resources. I create abundance and fearless generosity.
- As a lover of the Way, touching the world, I do not misuse sensuality. I consecrate my senses in wonder and honesty and joy.
- As a lover of the Way, I do not use false or harsh language. I choose clear and respectful words ~ or maintain deep-listening silence.
- As a lover of the Way, I neither cloud this precious consciousness nor poison this precious body. I nurture my body with wholesome food, exercise, and rest. I cultivate my mind/heart/spirit in lucid relaxation time and in wisdom/kindness action.
The Least You Need to Know
- Along with wisdom and meditation, the precepts are an essential aspect of the Buddha's way. Precepts are ethical guidelines for conscious conduct along the Path. A skillful means of correcting behavior, they aren't constraints but rather a structure for living in harmony.
- To not harm implies reverence for life, all forms of life.
- To not steal implies generosity and trustworthiness.
- Sexual restraint implies respect, intimacy, trust, and responsibility.
- Abstinence from alcohol implies sobriety and health as well as freedom from addictions of any kind.
- Practicing the precepts is an essential aspect of Buddha's way, integral to meditation and wisdom.
- The precepts are purely personal. Listen to how they resonate within you.
- Practice of just one precept will lead to practice of all of the others.
[ For resources & links related to this sample chapter, please visit our Precepts Links page. ]
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