Dear Still Water Friends,
When I was a teenager and young adult I understood “freedom” as the right to do what I wanted without external constraints. For me it meant not having my parents or other adults tell me what was allowed, and also not having the government tell me what was permitted.
Decades later I began to understand another kind of freedom, a freedom from reactivity and self-centeredness. Often our strongly felt desires arise from conditioning. We want what we want, we act as we act, because of how we were raised and how we have been treated by the larger world. In many areas of our life, our conditioned responses are not a problem and may even be beneficial. However, sometimes our “natural” responses may repeatedly cause suffering for ourselves and others. As we become aware of the conditioning, we can begin to make freer choices. Ajaan Thanissaro, a western-born Theravaden monk explains:
the Buddha advised exploring the possibility of freedom, …. You find [freedom] by looking at where it’s constantly showing itself: in the fact that your present intentions are not totally conditioned by the past. You catch your first glimmer of it as a range of possibilities from which you can choose and as your ability to act more skillfully—causing more pleasure and less pain—than you ordinarily might. Your sense of this freedom grows as you explore and exercise it, each time you choose the most skillful course of action heading in the direction of discernment, truthfulness, relinquishment, and peace. (From the essay “Freedom From Buddha Nature”)
It is in this sense of helping us to reduce our “natural” self-centered responses that Thich Nhat Hanh often presents the mindfulness trainings as a way of increasing our freedom:
The Mindfulness Trainings should be looked upon as the practice of mindfulness, and not as a set of rules. If you look at them as a set of rules, you are caught by what the Buddha described as the attachment to rituals and rules, and this is not a good thing in Buddhism. You should not be a victim of rules and rituals. So be careful when you study and practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Consider them to be an art of mindful living, and not something imposed on you to restrict your freedom. In fact the practice of the Five Mindfulness Trainings will help you to gain more freedom every day. (From a 1998 Plum Village Dharma talk)
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will recite together the five mindfulness trainings and focus our discussion on the first training, Reverence for Life.
In its original form given by the Buddha to his lay disciples it read simply:
I undertake the training to refrain from destroying living creatures (Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami).
Thich Nhat Hanh expanded the original wording to bring awareness to the indirect ways our thoughts, words, and behaviors contribute to the destruction of life and the environment:
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and our Earth. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination and non-attachment to views, in order to transform violence, fanaticism and dogmatism in myself and in the world.
In discussion of the first mindfulness trainings Thich Nhat Hanh often emphasizes that the five mindfulness trainings are not commandments, laws, or hard rules, rather they are helping us identify clarify the values or energies we want to nourish in our lives:
When we get lost in the forest, if we want to go home, we may rely on the North Star as a sign to help us know what direction we should take. Suppose we want to go north: we look at the North Star in order to go north. But we do not have an intention to arrive at the North Star (laughter). We don’t have to arrive there, we need just to go north. The same thing is true with violence and non-violence. We don’t have to be perfect in the practice of the First Mindfulness Training; in fact, no one can be perfect in the practice of the First Mindfulness Training.
Lord Buddha had to eat vegetables just like us, so we know that his dish was not completely vegetarian. And every time he walked and moved, he may have crushed insects under his feet. As a human being you have to walk, you have to eat, you have to drink, and that is why you cannot be perfectly non-violent. But the important thing is that you try to be as non-violent as possible, and you cultivate compassion, so that each day you become more and more compassionate, each day you become more and more non-violent, and that is an art.
We will begin our Dharma sharing exploring our experiences with the first mindfulness training. Has it (or might it) increase our freedom? Our compassion? Our joy?
You are invited to join us.