Finding Our Edges in Taking the Trainings

Finding Our Edges in Taking the Trainings

Discussion date: Thu, Jun 13, 2013 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

This week it’s time to recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings. After we do the ceremony, I’d like to step back for a moment instead of plunging into one of the trainings and ask us to reflect on the roles that ethics, morals and precepts like these play in our lives; to share what our edges are with taking trainings and vows; and to hear from you how they can help or hinder our spiritual journey.

Although I grew up allergic to religion, I’ve always had a strong sense of moral right and wrong. My family’s values were pretty absolute even though they didn’t come with a religious backing. To that add a strong dash of a Midwestern penchant for judging myself and others and also add a far-too-large spoonful of misunderstanding in the form of the mistaken belief that being “bad” meant being unlovable. The result was one very uptight little kid.

I took ethics to be solid and absolute, and over time they became quite suffocating. I saw many people who clung to them less because they served as a source of inspiration and more out of blind faith, fear and desperation. A great education and a loving family taught me to question and learn for myself. I didn’t abandon ethics or morals in rebellion, but I studied them. I still have a pretty strong innate sense of what’s right and wrong for me, but I’m also reluctant to vow absolutely to a fixed set of ethics or principles given my earlier experiences.

When I first learned about Buddhist teachings, my reaction was “these fit me—they feel right.” I’ve been trying them on ever since, including taking the Three Refuges, Five Mindfulness Trainings and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I don’t approach the mindfulness trainings as rules but as a set of hypotheses and theories, much like the theory of evolution is a theory, not a law. The trainings are suggestions based on millennia of observation that also fit my experience, but that are always up for new data, new learning, and better formulation. To the degree they are rules, they are proven by exception. To the degree I vow to follow them, I also test them, ask “am I sure,” and in hard times take refuge in them by trusting that with them, mindfulness, lovingkindness, and compassion, I will make more steps forward than steps backward.

I understand my vow is to try to follow and explore these ethics, not to be perfect at adhering to them. But this still makes me nervous. I still have a strong desire to be absolutist about the trainings, to judge myself and others over "noncompliance" with them, and a worry that I don the morals when they look good in public yet conveniently forget to put them on when alone.

So this week, I’d like to hear your experiences with ethics, precepts, and morals—the Five Mindfulness Trainings or others—and how they shape or don’t shape your life. What’s your edge with taking a vow or declining to do so? When is it OK not to follow a vow? Can taking and following a precept feel like an opening instead of a closing?

I hope you can join us to share your experience.

Scott Schang

From Mohandas K. Gandhi, “An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth”

The importance of vows grew upon me more clearly than ever before. I realized that a vow, far from closing the door to real freedom, opened it. Up to this time I had not met with success because the will had been lacking, because I had had no faith in myself, no faith in the grace of God, and therefore, my mind had been tossed on the boisterous sea of doubt. I realized that in refusing to take a vow man was drawn into temptation, and that to be bound by a vow was like a passage from libertinism to a real monogamous marriage. “I believe in effort, I do not want to bind myself with vows,” is the mentality of weakness and betrays a subtle desire for the thing to be avoided. Or where can be the difficulty in making a final decision? I vow to flee from the serpent which I know will bite me. I do not simply make an effort to flee from him. I know that mere effort may mean certain death. Mere effort means ignorance of the certain fact that the serpent is bound to kill me. The fact, therefore, that I could rest content with an effort only, means that I have not yet clearly realized the necessity of definite action. “But supposing my views are changed in the future, how can I bind myself by a vow?” Such a doubt often deters us. But that doubt also betrays a lack of clear perception that a particular thing must be renounced. That is why Nishkulanand has sung: “Renunciation without aversion is not lasting.” Where therefore the desire is gone, a vow of renunciation is the natural and inevitable fruit.


From Thich Nhat Hanh, "Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism"

Mindfulness trainings are practices, not prohibitions. They do not restrict our freedom. They protect us, guarantee our liberty, and prevent us from getting entangled in difficulties and confusion. When we fail, we lift ourselves up and try again to do our best. In fact, we can never succeed one hundred percent. The mindfulness trainings are like the North Star. If we want to travel north, we can use the North Star to guide us, but we never expect to arrive at the North Star.

Mindfulness trainings should be understood and practiced in terms of the Threefold Training: mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Mindfulness leads to concentration, and concentration leads to insight. The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are a concrete expression of mindfulness in daily life.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Jun 13, 2013


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