Taking Only What is Freely Given

Taking Only What is Freely Given

Discussion date: Thu, Nov 16, 2023 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

This week, when we come together to practice on Thursday evening, we will give the spotlight to the Second Mindfulness Training, True Happiness.

True Happiness is Thich Nhat Hahn’s (Thay) modern translation of Buddhism’s second precept, which traditionally is rendered as refrain (or abstain) from stealing. In modern times, various Dharma teachers seeking to transmit a more true meaning of the Pali text have recast the English phrasing. In some traditions, the precept becomes simply “practice generosity.” In other traditions, those taking the second precept vow to refrain from taking that which is not given.  Philip Moffat, a Dharma teacher in the Theravadan tradition, offers this affirmative phrasing that incorporates both concepts: “To the best of my ability, I will take only what is freely given and vow to practice gratitude and generosity.”

Thay’s translation of the second precept, the Second Mindfulness Training, skillfully weaves these elements together by structuring the training to reflect the Four Noble Truths. We are invited to recognize and acknowledge suffering brought about by craving, and the causes of that suffering. We are given a path to transform that suffering: the practice of generosity. We are encouraged to take only what is freely given and to recognize our interbeing with others and the Earth. This is the path that liberates us to experience True Happiness in the present moment:

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and stop contributing to climate change.

 When I first began to practice in the Plum Village tradition, I considered the Second Mindfulness Training to be the “easy one.” I had a commitment to sharing “time and treasure” with those in need through my practice in other traditions. Certainly engaging in an act of theft or stealing in any form was not among my habits or within my value system.

Yet, it took an innocent children’s practice to awaken me to my own misperceptions about my practice with the Second Mindfulness Training. During a Still Water family retreat, another adult and I led the children in a practice called “Asking Nature’s Permission.” Here is how the practice is described in Thay’s book, Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness With Children:

During a walking meditation or a hike, invite children to find a place outside to which they are drawn. Invite them to approach this place in silence and to ask for permission to sit and just be there. They listen for a few moments to see how nature responds. They may receive a “yes” or a “no.” If the response is no, they can find another spot and ask again. You can explain that nature sometimes gives us a no because the area is not safe for us or something in that area needs protection. If they receive a yes, they spend a few minutes sitting quietly in the area they have chosen.

As we led and modeled this practice, it dawned upon me with a small shock that I was well established in the habit of taking, without any awareness as to whether I was possessing “something that should belong to others.” I began to reflect on the ways that I wasn’t necessarily “stealing,” but also wasn’t being mindful about what or how I took from nature or from other humans. The rock that I assumed was mine for the taking for pebble meditation – a worthy reason to collect a rock! – was not actually freely given until I asked permission. The commitment of my partner to fix the broken door knob may have been out of fear of straining the relationship. It was not a freely given commitment. Agreeing to take action on an ethically questionable order from a manager for fear of losing employment came from a sense of coercion, not free will.

I had been missing the essence of the training: taking only what is freely given.

When we aspire to take only what is freely given, it opens our practice with the Second Mindfulness to a broader awareness of suffering and its transformation. We are invited to cultivate clarity and insight into factors of exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression that may underlie the resources, relationships, or opportunities that are offered to us. We cultivate relationships based on safety, consent, and honoring of rights. We nurture our inner freedom from greed, craving, and selfishness. We train our thoughts, speech, and actions to reflect understanding and compassion. We develop contentment with what is given or offered in each moment, without grasping for more.

Most importantly, by taking only what is freely given, we manifest radical generosity in spirit and action. I feel that this type of generosity is especially important during these times, when society is riven by divides based on social values, politics, and global affairs. Through our practice with the Second Mindfulness Training, we can offer ourselves and  others safety, trustworthiness, and non-judgement. We can act from compassion and empathy, rather than greed, acquisitiveness, or fear.  We can be inclusive and offer non-fear, because we recognize the interbeing of our mutual survival and well-being.

This Thursday evening, after our sitting and walking meditation, we will begin our Dharma sharing exploring these questions:

  • Which aspects of the Second Mindfulness Training speak to you and why?
  • How do you practice “taking only what is freely given?”
  • Where are you experiencing invitations to radical generosity in your life?

This week is the second of our five preparatory classes for those interested in receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings on Saturday, January 6th, 2024.

You are warmly invited to join us this Thursday.
Many blessings,
Lori Perine

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Nov 16, 2023


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