Reverence for Life, The First Mindfulness Training

Reverence for Life, The First Mindfulness Training

Discussion date: Thu, Sep 08, 2011 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

Some years ago, I met a high-ranking Soto Zen Roshi who was staying at Plum Village. Knowing of his decades of intensive meditation training, I asked what had brought him to Plum Village. The Roshi replied that Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the few people he had ever met who is both fully open to the suffering of the world and also able to enjoy eating a cookie. He just wanted to be in Thich Nhat Hanh’s presence.

The Roshi came to mind this week as I reflected on the First Mindfulness Training.The Training begins:

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 minerals.

How we are aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, how we hold the suffering, is at the heart of the training. We usually respond to suffering in one of two conventional ways:

  • We open to the suffering and quickly become enmeshed in it. We feel the suffering directly as our suffering. We are agitated by the suffering. We narrow our focus. We want a fix for the problem right now. Or,

  • we distance ourselves from the suffering, we don’t let it in. Often, we are not even curious about the suffering of our families and loved onse, much less the suffering of the wider world. We don’t want to know too much. We are afraid of becoming enmeshed.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s life and the first mindfulness training point to another possibility. We can be with the suffering without being overwhelmed by it; we can respond with insight, compassion, and appropriate action. To respond this way, however, we must maintain an holistic awareness. In the training Thich Nhat Hanh explains:

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.

My understanding of the first training expanded when I went back to the original Pali version. The action that a practitioner is encouraged to abstain from is panatipata, which is usually translated as abstaining from killing. However, the word panatipata is composed of pana, which means vital energy or life force, and ati+ pat, which means to attack or cause to fall down. The underlying counsel in this training, then, is to not interfere with or undercut the life force. To do that we must be able to experience the flowing of pana in us and around us, as it continually manifests in all its myriad forms.

This Thursday evening after our meditation period we will recite the five mindfulness trainings and focus our attention on the First Training: Reverence for Life. We will begin by sharing the ways we respond to suffering. When do we become enmeshed? When do we distance? When are we able to be respond with clarity, composure, and compassion?

You are invited to be with us.

Below is the full text of the First Mindfulness training and also an excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on the training.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner

Senior Teacher

September 12: No Fee Introduction to Mindfulness Practice at Crossings in Silver Spring

September 17: Sycamore Island Social (boating and picnic dinner)

September 19: Smiling Like A Buddha — A 10-week workshop on Mindfulness at Crossings in Silver Spring

October 25: Thich Nhat Hanh Public Talk at Warner Theater in DC


Reverence For Life

The First Mindfulness Training

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 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.


Avalokiteshvara’s Hands and Eyes

from For A Future To Be Possible, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Thinking is at the base of everything. It is important for us to put an eye of awareness into each of our thoughts. Without a correct understanding of a situation or a person, our thoughts can be misleading and create confusion, despair, anger, or hatred. Our most important task is to develop correct insight. If we see deeply into the nature of interbeing, that all things inter-are, we will stop blaming, arguing, and killing, and we will become friends with everyone. To practice nonviolence, we must first of all learn ways to deal peacefully with ourselves. If we create true harmony within ourselves, we will know how to deal with family, friends, and associates.

When we protest against a war, for example, we may assume that we are a peaceful person, a representative of peace, but this isn’t necessarily true. If we look deeply, we will observe that the roots of war are in the unmindful ways we have been living. We have not sown enough seeds of peace and understanding in ourselves and others, therefore we are co-responsible. A more holistic approach is the way of interbeing. The essential nature of interbeing is understanding that “‘this is like this, because that is like that.” We only exist in this interconnected way. This is the way of understanding and love. With this insight, we can see clearly and be more effective. Then we can go to a demonstration and say, “This war is unjust, destructive, and not worthy of our great nation.” This is far more effective than simply angrily condemning others. Acting and speaking out of anger almost always accelerates the damage.

All of us have pain inside. We feel angry and frustrated, and we need to find someone willing to listen to us who is capable of understanding our suffering. In Buddhist iconography, there is a bodhisattva named Avalokiteshvara who has one thousand arms and one thousand hands, and has an eye in the palm of each hand. One thousand hands represent action, and the eye in each hand represents understanding. When you understand a situation or a person, any action you do will help and will not cause more suffering. When you have an eye in your hand, you will know how to practice true nonviolence.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Sep 08, 2011


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