After hiking up Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park, many people take the Weakley Hollow Fire Road to descend. Near the bottom of the road, someone transformed one of the yellow trail blazes, or way markers, into a smiley face. This blaze is an apt metaphor for the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Like a trail blaze, someone has gone before us to mark the path they took and that they suggest we take. That doesn’t mean we have to stay on exactly the same trail. In fact, some of us may learn best by going off trail to find our own, parallel way, but the Trainings are a marked way that has led others to a desired destination.
Why do we need the Trainings when practitioners are supposed to find their own path? Couldn’t we just bushwhack our way down the path? We could, but according to Thich Nhat Hanh, mindfulness takes its most concrete form in the Five Mindfulness Trainings. By living in reverence for life, practicing generosity, stewarding our sexual energy, speaking and listening compassionately, and consuming with care, we find the transformation and insight that are the most rewarding part of the journey.
Popular culture increasingly speaks of mindfulness as being synonymous with awareness or being in the moment. And that is a critical start of the practice. But as our mindfulness increases and our awareness of our own nature and what is happening around us grows, the Mindfulness Trainings help us navigate what we experience so we can build our lives and our society more skillfully. Without them, we are left simply paying attention to our reactions without a chance to refine how we behave or transform our misunderstandings. As Mitchell Ratner, Senior Teacher at Still Water, reminds us: “A pickpocket is mindful, but is not practicing discernment or insight about what suffering his actions may cause.” In these times of tremendous confusion and change, practicing the Mindfulness Trainings can be a source of illumination for us about how we understand our situation and work our way down the mountain.
This Thursday, we will recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings and share our experiences with them. Why should we undertake to practice the Mindfulness Trainings? What does it mean to do so? What is the best way to practice them? How do you relate, or not relate, to these teachings?
The greater Washington area mindfulness communities will gather on January 7, 2017, to transmit the Five Mindfulness Trainings to anyone who wishes to take them, so we will also discuss this ceremony and any questions about it.
We hope you will join us.
Eliza King and Scott Schang
From For a Future to Be Possible: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh
In Buddhism, precepts [also called mindfulness trainings], concentration, and insight always go together. It is impossible to speak of one without the other two. This is called the Threefold Training—sila, the practice of the precepts; samadhi, the practice of concentration; and prajna, the practice of insight. Precepts, concentration, and insight “inter-are.” Practicing the precepts brings about concentration, and concentration is needed for insight. Mindfulness is the ground for concentration, concentration allows us to look deeply, and insight is the fruit of looking deeply. When we are mindful, we can see that by refraining from doing “this,” we prevent “that” from happening. This kind of insight is not imposed on us by an outside authority. It is the fruit of our own observation. Practicing the precepts, therefore, helps us be more calm and concentrated and brings more insight and enlightenment, which makes our practice of the precepts more solid. The three are intertwined; each helps other two, and all three bring us closer to final liberation….
In Buddhist circles, one of the first expressions of our desire to practice the way of understanding and love is to formally receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings from a teacher. During the ceremony, the teacher reads each precept, and then the student repeats it and vows to study, practice, and observe the precept read. It is remarkable to see the peace and happiness in someone the moment she receives the precepts. Before making the decision to receive them, she may have felt confused, but with the decision to practice the precepts, many bonds of attachment and confusion are cut. After the ceremony is over, you can see in her face that she has been liberated to a great extent.
When you vow to observe even one precept, that strong decision arising from your insight leads to real freedom and happiness. The community is there to support you and to witness the birth of your insight and determination. A precepts ceremony has the power of cutting through, liberating, and building. After the ceremony, if you continue to practice the precepts, looking deeply in order to have deeper insight concerning reality, your peace and liberation will increase. The way you practice the precepts reveals the depth of your peace and the depth of your insight.