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January 13, 2013: “Buddhism Part Two, Precepts and Hinderances”

First Reading: The thought manifests the word

The thought manifests the word; The word manifests the deed;
The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character;
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let them spring forth from love
Born out of compassion for all beings.
As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.” 
― Juan Mascarov

Second Reading From Real Happiness: 
The Power of Meditation Sharon Salzberg

“It is never too late to turn on the light. Your ability to break an unhealthy habit or turn off an old tape doesn’t depend on how long it has been running; a shift in perspective doesn’t depend on how long you’ve held on to the old view. When you flip the switch in that attic, it doesn’t matter whether it’s been dark for ten minutes, ten years or ten decades. The light still illuminates the room and banishes the murkiness, letting you see the things you couldn’t see before. It’s never too late to take a moment to look.”

Buddhism Week Two: Precepts and Mind Hindrances

Today is the second of a three week sermon series on Buddhism. Last week, I did a very brief overview of the life of Siddhartha, including his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and subsequent teaching of what he realized there in the form of the Four Noble Truths. I told you that this week I would be focusing on the Fourth Noble Truth, which is The Eightfold Path of Spiritual Practice in Buddhism. Well, ya, turns out that was false advertizing. I realized that the Eightfold Path is going to require more than a week of study and cogitation for me to feel like I have enough of a grasp to talk about it yet. In the meantime, for today, I would ask you to join me in looking at the Five Precepts and Five Hindrances.

The Five Precepts constitute the basic Buddhist code of ethics in both the Theravada and the Mahayana traditions. The precepts were originally articulated in the negativa, or “Shalt Not” form, much like Judeo-Christianity’s Ten Commandments. However, since they are to be embraced voluntarily, they speak from the first person voice of the follower who chooses adherence. So, instead of “Thou Shalt Not______, the precepts use the form “I shall not____________” or, an even a better translation, “I shall undertake to abstain from____________.” (Move from rigidity to some flexibility intentional.) Further, over the years, as with all sacred texts, followers have provided commentary and new interpretation to help open up understanding, and I borrow heavily from those later reformulations as well today.

The five precepts, then, in an early form are as follows:

1. I undertake to Abstain from killing living beings;
2. I undertake to Abstain from taking that which is not freely given;
3. I undertake to Abstain from sexual misconduct; 
4. I undertake to Abstain from false speech;
5. I undertake to Abstain from distilled substances that confuse the mind.

Now I am going to go through each of the precepts reformulated into positive statements, and also add some of the broader interpretation for each. Some of these are from various dharma talks that I have read, filtered through my own thoughts. I also was struck by how all of these have parallels in the Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles, so I will mention those as well.

So, the first precept, “I will undertake to Abstain from killing living beings” becomes “I will undertake to respect all living things.” And a more broad interpretation yet is that this implies the intention to live in balance with all of life and with the planet as a whole. There is inherent in this precept the idea of respect for the interdependent web of all existence, UUisms 7th principle. Clearly, there is a recognition that life in all its complexity is to be honored and respected, rather than exploited for short time benefit, whether at the level of taking time to move the spider from the kitchen to the outdoors, or whether it’s a matter of fighting fracking or reducing dependence of fossil fuels. Buddhism reminds us that respecting and caring for the web of life is an important part of any spirituality, and the absence of it would be a red flag for me if I were shopping.

The second principle about not taking what is not freely given, opens up when we think of it as an opportunity to receive graciously what IS freely given, and to become generous givers ourselves, learning to operate from an abundance model rather than a scarcity model. Further, there is an implied ethic here not only of generosity and abundance in personal behavior, but also of economic justice in wider systems. If we start with the assumption that the worlds’ resources are here for the good of all, equally, then changing unjust economic systems falls under the umbrella of this second precept. The disproportionate portion of the worlds’ resources that we in this country consume has not been freely given to us by God or by the planet or by those with less. This precept reminds us of our ethical obligation not to take it; to become just consumers of power, wealth and resources. This might mean simpler living, more generous giving, more ethical consuming. It most certainly means a commitment to working for justice in terms of distribution of wealth, power and resources. Unitarian Universalism names the principles of justice, equality and compassion in human relationships, as well as the goal of world community with peace and justice…for all people. Not taking that which is not freely given.

The third precept has to do with abstaining from Sexual Misconduct. Turned around and teased out, I think it gets at the need for wholeness, respect and power balance in relationships. We have in our intimate relationships the possibility of blessing and loving one another into wholeness, or diminishing, humiliating and degrading one another. The UU principle here is certainly that of affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person regardless of where they fall on the incredibly broad continuum of gender or orientation or appearance or ability or age or anything else. And it’s not only in our intimate relationships, either. This precept certainly has to do with explicit sexual behavior, but it is also way more subtle than that, and starts at a much more basic level. I think it means refusing to objectify and use one another, even the stranger who gets on the elevator, by the quick and almost unconscious assessment of his or her appearance, and then the equally unconscious decision to render them invisible if we don’t like what we see, or conversely, to retain them as fodder for our mental or physical preoccupation if we do. Dehumanization, all of it. Refraining from sexual misconduct means withdrawing our energy and support, as much as possible from the cult of youth or beauty, no longer minimizing, even subtly or unconsciously those who do not fit into our simplistic categories.

The Fourth Precept has to do with abstaining from false speech. This is a big one and could fill an entire sermon of its own. Does anything get us into trouble in individual relationships or in community more quickly than our words? And of course what we say is only a part of it, because it is the nuance and non-verbals, the tone and subtle stuff that can really wreck havoc. There is a term in Judaism, Lashon Hara, which loosely translated means gossip. But it goes further than that because gossip often means spreading lies. More specifically, the definition of Loshan Hara is “true speech for a wrongful purpose.” And there are lots and lots of rules about how to know if you are falling into it, because it is so easy to delude ourselves about what our purpose is. “I don’t mean to speak ill but I am concerned about her…” “Maybe I shouldn’t say this but I just need to process… I just need to vent…” Now it’s important to say that these motivations may sometimes be true and the need to process may be legitimate, but we are also capable of using these as excuses to indulge ourselves in plain, old fashioned gossip and its attendant hit of delicious self righteous indignation or mollycoddled victimization if we feel we have been wronged, or just the fun of being “in the know.” And even if the reasons for the talk are legitimate, because yes, there is sometimes a need to deal with these things, but there is a time and a place, namely in private, directly with the person involved and no others. I have found for myself that, as a rule, if you start by saying or even thinking “maybe I shouldn’t say this…” then that’s usually a pretty good clue that you shouldn’t be saying it. Nothing threatens Sangha, beloved community, so completely as loshan hara. And here again, we have wonderful UU principles: acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations, and also use of the democratic process. And after use of that process, letting it go and moving on. Our words have the power to heal or to hurt. Choose wisely…

The fifth Buddhist Precept is to abstain from distilled substances. (Uh Oh!) Remember, these are voluntary! I think the affirmative, broad interpretation of this precept is to live a from clear, life-giving center, to operate from a calm, clear core, not allowing ourselves to become centered around any addictive substance or process. This one can also be really tricky because part of addiction, by definition, is that it tells you don’t have the addiction. Denial can gum up the works for a long time. So it is worth it to take an honest look at our own relationship with any potential source of addiction in our lives from time to time, and preventatively, to seek to live from a clear, life-giving center, to keep the channel clear. This is one of the places where meditation comes in as a preventative. I think the UU principles here are also the encouragement to spiritual growth, as well as the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I know this principle might not usually be thought of in this way, but I kind of think it works for addiction as well, which Jung said was a “spiritual search gone awry.”

OK, and now, I am going to step up the pace and finish with an all out sprint through the five hindrances, mind states that tend to move in and out like clouds for us. Given our unique temperaments one or two probably tends to be more common as a default pattern.

The first hindrance to watch for, just to observe and allow to pass, is said to be sense craving. You know, that “I really want something but I don’t know what” feeling that can come over us. It may lead us to the refrigerator or the liquor cabinet or the internet, you get the idea. None of these is bad in and of itself, but when the issue is this kind of restless craving, it is a different thing, and probably best monitored and allowed to pass.

The second mind state that can sometimes cloud the channel is ill-will or anger. And again, anger has a healthy place in life, too. It can alert us that something is wrong and needs our attention, and motivate us to healthy change. But it can also became a life draining habit of thought, maybe to protect us from going to the deeper place of hurt, or maybe it just becomes an addictive stimulant to keep us energized. It’s worth it to observe how it is operating in our lives from time to time.

A third mind hindrance can be torpor, or what some of the early Christian mystics called Acedia. I like the concept of Acedia because it lends gravitas and spiritual dignity to what some want to call plain old laziness. This is the mind state of the heavy sigh where it frankly just seems too effortful to come fully awake and engage passionately with life. It can put us on hold for long stretches and for some of us needs frequent monitoring and intervention, maybe just getting up and taking one tiny step to invert the momentum.

A fourth mind state where some folks tend to find a home is in any version of fear. It might be low grade chronic worry or full pop panic. It might be a general restlessness or just a tendency toward some degree of exaggerated vigilance. Again, the trick, I think, is to witness and observe and to know that this too shall pass. And even if it seems like it doesn’t fully pass, to know that it can lessen in intensity and be managed can take away some of the self fueling nature of it.

And the fifth mind hindrance that Buddhism identifies is called “Toxic Doubt” This is skepticism that has gone over the edge into cynicism. Its root is hopelessness. It can make us question everything we thought we ever valued. It too is best observed and allowed to pass.

Being a gentle, non-judgmental observer of one’s mind state is an important part of all this. When you know you are in one, you can work with it, and hopefully at least do some damage control. Working with the mind states also gives a better chance of making progress with the precepts because one is at least not unconsciously hamstrung at every turn.

And I will remind us that all of this comes back to the Triple gem. Those who “take refuge” in the triple gem are honoring the Buddha by seeking their own growth in buddhahood, through working with the dharma or teaching, and doing so within the context of Sangha, community, which is both transforming and transformed through each person’s dynamic presence. Here we call it spiritual growth through practicing the principles in beloved community. Once again, it’s the reality that matters, not so much the language or the system.