Reverence For Life

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday, after our meditation period, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our discussion on the First Training, Reverence for Life.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, when the Buddha first offered the training, the wording was simply “to refrain from killing living creatures.” The traditional view was that the injunction was about the physical act: the mindfulness practitioner should not be the one who takes the knife to the chicken’s neck.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s reformulation for contemporary practitioners is more expansive, addressing our insights and intentions, as well as our behavior:

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. 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.

As I played with diagramming the First Training I realized it described two different ways the practitioner might move from investigation to insight to commitment to action. (My diagram is offered below.) Rather than a behavioral rule, the training is an encouragement to look deeply into our lives and the lives around us. Both Thich Nhat Hanh and the Buddha presume that human beings normally prefer enjoyment to suffering, for themselves and for other creatures. Once we see clearly we are creating unnecessary suffering, our behavior will naturally change.

My experience is that sometimes growing awareness leads directly to action. For example, after watching the movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” with little discussion our family increased our use of low energy lighting and other energy-saving measures. Sometimes, though, we face difficult choices and it is not easy to distinguish the path that most respects life. Do we protect the deer in Rock Creek Park or the native forest they are destroying? Do we maintain dietary practices that may separate us from families and friends (or may be contrary to our doctor’s recommendations? The Zen teacher Robert Aiken who was a vegetarian, was once served ham by a hostess at a dinner party who did not know his dietary preferences. To the surprise of his students, Aiken ate the ham. Later, when asked why, he replied, “The pig was dead and the hostess was alive.”

The second part of this training, which addresses “dualistic and discriminative thinking,” reminds me that reverence for life is more about deepening our practice than it is about accumulating scientific facts. We are able to see clearly and act with compassion when we are neither limited by our notions nor constricted by our fears.

You are invited to be with us this Thursday for our mediation, recitation, and discussion.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

Coming Home to Ourselves: A Day of Practice, May 11, 2013 at Blueberry Gardens, Ashton, MD

Still Water Special Tour of the Freer Gallery Buddhist Collection, May 18, 2013, at Freer Gallery, Washington, DC