by Jonathan Owen
While Buddha was roaming India, anyone who happened to cross his path and be inspired by his euphonious speech could ask to join the Sangha. He would say, “Come forth, Bhikkhu,” and that signified the creation of a new life founded in ethical conduct, devoted to the taming of one’s mind.
With millennia of development behind us, our minds are still just as wild. Herein lies the impetus for a typical American twenty-something to adopt a similar life.
When we compare our lives with the practice instructions that the Buddha left us through his life story, I think most of us can relate to his youth in the palace. He had a good education, great food, dancing minstrels at the snap of finger. Likewise, with a stroke of our thumb we have enough entertainment to keep us distracted for years. This situation can be helpful if we follow in Buddha’s footsteps and use our experience to recognize that overwhelming material comfort is not genuine happiness.
Yet, due to these circumstances we’re challenged with the temptation to practice what my teacher Ven. Thubten Chodron calls Dharma Lite. That is, when the perfection of our samsaric dreams gets thrown just a little off-kilter, we go to a Dharma talk to learn some tools to calm down a bit, bliss up our minds by doing metta meditation or chanting a Chenrezig sadhana, and get on with our busy schedule. In sum, we might fall prey to replacing our Zoloft, weed, or nice music with the cushion (or adopt a mixed concoction of them all). This amounts to diminishing our dukkha of pain but increasing our dukkha of change.
It’s actually wonderful to be able to eradicate any suffering whatsoever and using spiritual practice to mitigate world-weariness is a useful method. I have much experience in this! But after a while it began to feel turbulent, like just another roller coaster ride. Left at this level, our practice will not bring us to the depth to which Dharma has the potential to penetrate and for which it is truly intended.
So what deepens one’s spiritual practice?
I’ve found that focusing on the practice of ethical conduct helps to avoid this pitfall. When I saw this wild jumble of dukkha I started to explore the nature of experience and how my actions affect it. It became clear that I needed to learn how to act. The Buddha said, “Do not commit any destructive actions. Perform only virtuous actions. Subdue your mind completely. This is the teaching of the Buddhas.”
By putting energy into following the first two instructions, the last one naturally follows. The teachings become more approachable and the higher trainings in concentration and wisdom become more manageable. Not so caught up in worldly concerns, we will be able to creatively greet the many challenges confronting our generation.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, reflecting that the 20th century was the century of bloodshed, says that this must be the century of peace and for that, the century of dialogue. How can we expect others to be open and honest with us if we ourselves do not have the integrity of heart that comes from being in alignment with the Dharma?
Inspired by the teachings of this simple monk and my other teachers, I thought a lot about how I wanted to be in the world. I wanted to be like them. I was a long way away.
So let me trace how I wound up training in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Don’t we all love our Dharma blossoming stories? When we serendipitously saw this or that flyer or book and, like being spun through a vortex, found ourselves unable to pull away from this pure spring of wisdom.
In my own case, it’s a very simple story. My brother said to me, “You should look into Buddhism. You’d like it.” And voila, I sure did. Of course, were you to ask me for my story in person I’d easily fabricate an hour of epiphany and happenstance.
I’ve been quite a confused person throughout my life, so was naturally delighted with the clarity of Buddha’s description of reality. I looked at my mind and thought that practicing the Dharma was something I must do. I looked at the teachings and saw that this was not something that could be done half-heartedly, so figured that if I wanted to do it genuinely I should ordain. Since I can remember, this has seemed to be the best way for me.
The monastic lifestyle certainly does not suit everyone’s disposition. Even if one’s personal spiritual ideal isn’t the monastic way of life, there is something to be said about the tangible, replicable model of monasticism. It gives us a reliable standard of ethical conduct and simplicity, as well as an exemplar for a sustainable community. These act as a mirror to reflect the confusion of our chaotic world. Stretching back uninterruptedly for 2600 years, the monastic Sangha is a profound testament to the power of the contentment, compassion, and wisdom that it embodies.
This is something we need now more than ever. A certain integrity comes with a desegregated life. There is no compartmentalization into social life, work life, love life, family life, creative life, spiritual life… just life unhindered, dedicated to the Dharma and to the service of sentient beings. As a natural outcropping of the Captain Planet ethic of our era – one of shared global responsibility and recognition of interdependence – I aspired to turn my life into that.
Yet, I squished this wish deep down and went through long periods of plain foolishness and the laziness of discouragement. Sound familiar?
For quite some time after I started studying and thinking about the Dharma, I considered myself “an aspiring Buddhist.” I didn’t think that I had the discipline, commitment, courage, or insight to wholeheartedly practice the teachings.
While I could see the devastating effects of killing and stealing, I was somehow unconvinced about the importance of shila. Instead, I was more intrigued by the teachings on “ultimate truth” – emptiness (whatever that means). Thus, I unwittingly plunged into a lopsided, idealistic understanding of the path, holding to some thought like, “Well, if emptiness is the supreme of antidotes and completely uproots all kleshas, why not solely think about that?”
These contradictions besiege our lives. On the one hand, all I wanted was to live the focused, blameless life of a monastic. On the other hand, I didn’t even get it… I mean, there’s no real being that can be harmed by me, right? Sure, there are beginningless lives when all beings are my mother, but when my own selfish actions cause suffering? Psshh…
Luckily, the Buddha and today’s teachers are very skillful; I couldn’t ignore that they highlight the importance of pure ethics in nearly all teachings. Even (nay – especially) those teachers who are known for unconventional methods and who fully proclaim non-dual wisdom as the means emphasize ethical discipline as being absolutely indispensable to the path, the very basis of all realizations. Guru Rinpoche himself said, “Descend with the view while ascending with the conduct. It is most essential to practice these two as a unity.”
It wasn’t until my own teacher taught on ethics that I started to consider it more deeply and realized that the only way I would really be able to gain an understanding of this magnificent teaching was if I just tried to practice it! The wish to practice morality comes down to the degree of confidence that physical, verbal, and mental actions have effects – that karma is real. I was encouraged to think deeply about how what I think, say, and do brings results that I will experience in the future and that my actions affect the well-being of others.
Eventually, the efforts of numerous kind people conspired to provide me with the opportunity to live in a monastery in Bodh Gaya, India for a study abroad program, during which we were asked to live by the five lay precepts (refraining from: taking life, taking what has not been freely given, sexual misconduct, telling lies, and from imbibing intoxicants). This was a very beneficial few months, and I started to see the peace, harmony, and strength of mind that are caused by holding precepts.
On returning, I went to Sravasti Abbey, the monastery founded by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron. Since living here I’ve taken the eight lay precepts (anagarika: these include the aforementioned five except refraining from sexual misconduct becomes celibacy, and in addition: not sitting on high or expensive seats; not eating after midday; and not singing, dancing, attending entertainments, or wearing perfumes or ornaments).
Trying to keep this set of precepts has been very helpful for my mind. The sheer delight of living in these precepts is well worth mentioning. There is a strong presence of joy that underpins even the tough times… it’s a child-like glee, but more calm and mild (jeese, it sounds to me like I’m advertising cigarettes). Further, I’m accompanied by a peaceful stillness, which I think derives from a newly arisen self-confidence; the steadiness of being certain that whatever I am doing, my intention is to not harm others.
Even when I transgress a precept, in my heart I am trying to keep them purely and through that, trying to create some positive force in the world – to engender happiness and the simplicity of being able to live harmoniously in a very large world of many different people, without fear of one another. I’m becoming sensitive to the reality of cause and effect, seeing that actions done with self-centeredness and without introspection form tension in my mind and my environment.
In addition to this, I have a stronger awareness of the Buddhas and my teachers. Excepting compassion itself, there is nothing more precious to me than this. This brings some relief, and I think I’m beginning to understand more clearly the meaning of taking refuge.
There are also more meaningful effects that will continue to bear results far into the future. The qualities of conscientiousness and mindfulness are becoming clearer and stronger. I am able to notice sooner when afflictions or negative thoughts flare up in my mind. Of course, there is still tons of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. These are sparking about almost incessantly!
But there isn’t so much confusion, guilt or fear in my responses to them. I now can more ably recognize them arising. Even if I don’t notice immediately or can’t figure out how to return my mind to a positive state, I can check whether I’m breaking my precepts or not. If I’m not, I can at least be happy about that. Then I can focus more energy on applying remedies to my destructive mental states. As it’s taught, precepts are like a dam that barricades the mind from being overwhelmed by kleshas.
I must acknowledge that this hasn’t been extremely natural for me. Nor has it been easy. For the first week or so after taking these precepts, it felt like I had swallowed a pill that was a bit too large and wouldn’t get all the way down. But with careful reflection again and again, I began to really feel blessed to have the opportunity to live my life according to these wise guidelines. What wonder!
The precepts themselves are not the only factor in my recent surge of happiness. I’ve also been living in a community of monastics who are an integral support for my learning about ethical behavior, and there is a perfectly pure and extremely skillful teacher here. These are essential, and I may well have lost my mind and my precepts long ago if not for their constant encouragement, exemplary model, and sincerity in practice.
Not to mention the teachings themselves! Ethics is just one branch of the Dharma, and I would have little motivation or interest in practicing it were it not for the teachings on bodhicitta, emptiness, dependent origination, etc.
There are many factors that are contributing to my enjoyment of these precepts. And no, I’m not on a constant bliss cloud – it’s up and down as always. We can never keep our joy amidst samsara’s waves.
One other benefit of trying to live with these precepts feels strange for me to write about. Still, as of late, I like myself. I used to get down on myself very often, but now I’m happy about what I’m doing with my life. This is infused by gratitude, seeing how many people are contributing to my ability to live and practice in this way. Thanks! I hope that my cultivation of this training in ethics may eventually benefit others.
It may seem confusing that these eight precepts include not singing, not eating dinner, etc. Don’t fret – dancing and watching movies are not naturally harmful activities. In fact, neither is taking intoxicants. These are included in the anagarika precepts as part of the wider Buddhist framework, wherein the mind is emphasized as the primary cause of all of our various experiences, whether pleasurable, miserable, or neutral.
It’s like this: the infinite variety of mental states that arise within our minds and constantly change each and every moment have incredible power; they are conditions for our happiness and suffering, as well as the way we interact with the world and other beings.
When regarding objects, people, or beliefs and concepts with a mind under the influence of misperceptions (for instance, that I absolutely must have this delicious fudge brownie! It is certain to appease my deepest desires! At long last, I will finally be satisfied and at ease!), it is less likely that we will be able to maintain a spacious, peaceful ambience of experience. These states of mind generally have the immediate impact of leaving us with an unpleasant, unbalanced feeling, and then from there we can act in all sorts of crazy ways.
We possess the potential to completely abolish all mistaken notions of reality from our minds plus the negative qualities they cause. We can extend our loving-kindness and understanding to include all beings and phenomena.
To foster the mental states that eventually lead to this, it’s helpful to live with precepts that regulate actions that aren’t naturally harmful. The first four of the lay precepts prevent one from carrying out naturally destructive actions. The latter four prevent one from fostering disturbing attitudes that limit the full experience of reality, and lead to actions which will cause suffering. Thus, holding them minimizes the ramifications of our uncontrolled minds doing as they please.
If we don’t turn the forces of mindfulness and introspective awareness in onto our own destructive tendencies, the state of the world will continue to plummet into an age of unprecedented dereliction and virulence. Inner transformation is actually a matter of survival at this point. When a group of individuals change it automatically transforms society. The power is ours.