Say what?

I undertake the training rule to abstain from harming living beings;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not offered;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from from sensual misconduct;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants causing heedlessness.

Of all five of the precepts, speech is the one that could most benefit from mindfulness. We have the opportunity to do harm or good with our speech more often than the temptation to harm living beings, take what’s not been offered, or do harm with our sexuality or carelessness from intoxication. Because we talk almost all the time (if we include internal talk), it can be a steady object for contemplation. The tone of voice we use, with ourselves and others, is a useful barometer of our state of mind. Our intentions are discernible through observation of the words we use, but only if we give it our attention. As a wise friend once said, “Listen to yourself!”

What are we listening for? To begin with, for truthfulness, which is the foundation for all right speech.

We are often careless with our speech because the momentum of life is so swift and strong. If we suffer from anxiety, it may seem that our train of thought is going at top speed all the time and we have to hang on for dear life. But as with most things, the more closely we look, the more things slow down and allow us to see more detail. We might start by listening for the general attributes of our speech: volume, register (high or low pitch), energy expended, physical resonances, pleasant or unpleasant aspects, points of tension, etc. Just observing the words running through us, as closely as we can, will shed new light, and perhaps (probably) allow us to make adjustments.

Once we start listening carefully, we can check for truthfulness. Many things we do, including speaking, are done by rote, without conscious thought. This is natural. But there is no reason we can’t develop our skill at being present for our everyday activities, whatever’s happening right now. This is the essence of mindfulness.

We can ask ourselves: the sentence I’m thinking or saying right now – is it true? Do I know for sure that it’s true? Or is it a useful assumption, a bias, a habit? If we look closely, we will notice that the truth is often “not sure”, or “I don’t know”. Can we get comfortable with not-knowing?

Not-knowing can bring us into the present; asking ourselves the question “is it true?” will lead to greater openness to what is actually happening. This state of readiness allows us to welcome experience as it comes. Are we willing to be less sure?

More on truthful speech and the intentions behind it in the next post …


Posted in General, Mindfulness, Precepts, Speech | 1 Comment

Taking care with sexuality

I undertake the training rule to abstain from harming living beings;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not offered;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from from sensual misconduct;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants causing heedlessness.

In most translations, the third precept is “abstain from sexual misconduct”, and all or most of the references in the Pali canon describe specific, harmful sexual transgressions to be avoided. But we can also think of the many ways that we experience greed through our senses and how our behavior changes as a result. This precept, broadly speaking, is about restraining sensual (including sexual) impulses that come up within our body/mind complex.

[All the italicised sections of this post come from an article titled “Buddhist Sexual Ethics” by Winton Higgins –]
The third precept about sexual misconduct is strictly superfluous – if in our sexual lives we act non-violently, do not take what is not freely given, do not deceive and do not act out of delusive and irresponsible mindstates, we cannot fall foul of the third precept anyway. Buddhism’s very tough sexual ethic would be complete without the third precept.

Mr. Higgins points out that if we abide by the other four precepts, then the third one regarding sexuality becomes irrelevant. It’s simply a specific case of applying harmlessness, truthfulness, etc. However, some of our strongest cravings are associated with sexuality, which is probably why there is a special precept addressing it. Sexual energy can move us to behave badly towards others in dramatic ways.

If we have a propensity to make fools of ourselves, to act stupidly and destructively – and we all do have this propensity – then we are likely to manifest it in our sex lives. On the other hand, each of us also has the opposite propensity to act out of friendliness, generosity and wisdom. With moral and meditative training our sex lives can powerfully express this propensity too.

Many relationship problems that come to us are based on an imbalance of power. Sometimes a work or family situation confines us in a hierarchy, but often we give others power over us, or we act as if we have power over others. We can and should be conscious of whether we’re making ourselves subservient or taking a bullying role; neither one is healthy for us or anyone else.

It’s worth noting that the Buddha’s five precepts are general enough to be beneficial in any human environment. Many cultures and sub-cultures have specific and powerful rules or traditions about who can marry whom, or even who we can eat with or visit. But the precepts contain no ethnicity-based proscriptions on activity. This minimizes confusion; we can check our motivation and know whether we are within the guidelines or not.

Ajahn Chah, the great Buddhist meditation master of modern Thailand, had a stream of newly-weds come to his monastery [to ask him to bless their unions]. He would tell them: ‘You have given your hand in marriage. Your hand has five fingers. Think of them as the five precepts. Practice the precepts in your marriage, and it will be a happy one. That is all you need.’

Posted in Causes and results, Compassion, Harmlessness, Karma, Precepts, Relationships, Sex | Leave a comment

Give and take

I undertake the training rule to abstain from harming living beings;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not offered;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from from sensual misconduct;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants causing heedlessness.

Moving on to the second of the five precepts, we consider greed and non-greed, or generosity, that exist within our hearts. To abstain from taking what is not offered is more than not stealing; it asks us to consider what makes something ours; it acknowledges that we sometimes make assumptions about what we’re entitled to that don’t match the assumptions of others.

At base, this precept addresses the ways in which our intrinsic greed can trip us up. In the early millennia of human habitation of earth, beings of all sorts died at spectacular rates. Those who survived were better than others at finding and consuming the things that would keep them alive, mainly food and shelter, and perhaps weapons. Of course, luck was also involved, but as a species, we all carry a genetic impulse to take what we can get, often without thinking about whether whatever it is will in fact enhance our existence. The impulse to consume food whenever it’s available is still strong in us, and it’s a rare person who will assist others before fleeing a burning building.

While this genetic tendency towards greedy behavior is still with us, so is an impulse towards generosity. These two streams aren’t necessarily at war with each other, its more as if we can choose which channel to use in a given situation. The more time we spend exercising our generosity, the stronger it becomes, and the more likely we are to default to that attitude.

As with all of the Buddha’s teaching, it starts with view; what lens are we using to perceive the situation at hand? Is the perspective “what’s in it for me?”, or “how can I help?”, or something else?

Those who are naturally generous are not necessarily well-off. In fact, a general observation is that sometimes the less we have, the more sympathetic we are to others in our situation, and the more inclined we are to share. Having a lot of wealth often (not always) engenders feelings of entitlement. In general, greed breeds more greed, and generosity causes more generous thoughts to arise.

In many countries, there is systemic support for greed as a motive. Corporations are bound to serve their shareholders, sometimes ignoring the public good. People in power are vulnerable to blind greed in holding on to their power. Our economies rely on greed as the engine of growth, and growth in the material sense is seen as the highest aim.

The Buddha lived in the knowledge that greed leads to suffering and that generosity is a form of freedom, and we can live in that knowledge, too.

Posted in Causes and results, General, Generosity, Non-taking, Precepts | Leave a comment


Staying with the first precept, I undertake the training rule to refrain from harming living beings, we consider a situation many of us would rather look away from, that is, how do we behave around the dying process, our own and other peoples’? It’s a subject that is often met with denial and can bring up our deepest fears, making it hard to remember that our words and actions may do more harm or good now than in other situations.

If we are present to hear an unwelcome diagnosis, whether for ourselves or someone else, can we overcome the urge to reject the news? Can we maintain enough openness to hear what’s being said? To ask questions? Do we reach out with (or for) a steadying hand?

Do we avoid funerals and memorial services because we don’t want to feel what we’re afraid we might feel? How hard is it to put another’s needs at the center of our awareness then?

Surgeon, author, and ethicist Sherwin Nuland said that at the time when decisions about life support and life-prolonging treatments are being made, “everybody becomes enormously selfish.” (quoted from Sally Tisdale’s excellent book, Advice for Future Corpses). It’s this selfishness that makes us forget our intention of harmlessness. There’s a misplaced sense that with our opinions and resistance, we are fighting for our lives, whether we’re considering our own treatment or a loved one’s.

It’s hard enough to be unselfish when we’re driving a car, how can we remember to be generous and patient when so much seems at stake?

The answer may be different for each of us, but here are some options in the positive direction: breathe deeply and deliberately, bring awareness into the body (away from the frenetic mind), maintain silence for as long as possible, allow whatever feelings are coming to wash through us unobstructed, observe as much as possible our own changing responses and those of others. Repeat.

Traumatic situations are traumatic because we don’t expect them, we’re not prepared for them. We can’t avoid the unexpected, but we can train ourselves to  intentionally process our thoughts and emotions in a variety of circumstances, which may help when those circumstances turn difficult. We can gradually turn a panic response into something more useful.

From author George Saunders: “As we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people … We get our butts kicked by real life and people come to our defense and help us and we learn that we’re not separate and we don’t want to be.” (re-quoted from Kathleen Noonan in the Courier-Mail, Brisbane).

The recent atrocities in Christchurch, New Zealand, gave us powerful examples of life-affirming responses to disaster and death. Prime Minister Jacinta Adern demonstrated a compassionate response, without being or appearing weak. As often happens in disasters, we want to help, to save, to soothe. This impulse is always present behind the interactions of every day. We are on the lookout for ways to protect and help each other. This is a basis for intentional harmlessness.

Posted in Causes and results, Compassion, Death and dying, Harmlessness, Precepts | 2 Comments

Back to the Beginning

We’ve been covering some lofty ground of late; encouragements (I hope) to deeper mindfulness and wisdom in our lives. These thoughts lead me back to where it all must begin, with our words and actions, our responses to the people we encounter, the attitude we bring to our world.

The precepts:

I undertake the training rule to abstain from harming living beings;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not offered;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from from sensual misconduct;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants causing heedlessness.

We might think of the precepts as beginner-level trainings, but how many of us fully embody them in every situation?

Each one of the precepts could be taken as a rule, but it seems more useful to undertake them as attitudes, as intentions. As we wash our face or brush our teeth, we can make the re-setting of these intentions a daily ritual. The longer we work with them, the clearer their value becomes and the more vividly we see the good that comes from keeping them, and the harm that results when we don’t. Our sensitivity to the wholesome and harmful effects of human interactions increases, which in turn can help our compassion and equanimity to flourish. Deep reflection and the absence of remorse are foundations for the growth of concentration and wisdom.

As we think about these guidelines, I’d like to give special emphasis to intentions. Our intentions cause us to grow or shrink, to make our hearts more all-encompassing or shut them down. This is a subtle conundrum, sort of like a decision, but rarely a conscious one. Within us is the potential to go with fear and struggle or to go with love and acceptance, and this choice gets made over and over again throughout our days. There is no landing dock on the river of choices; we swim from here to there, sometimes paddling in place, sometimes swimming strongly and with purpose. Sometimes we feel certain that our attitude is correct and other times we’re unsure. This is simply the nature of a human life.

We’ll start with re-visiting the first precept, considering what it means to harm living beings. A couple of recent examples that have come up involve the end of beloved pets’ lives. Unlike with humans (most of the time), animals are euthanised regularly. If a pet has been part of a family for some years, there is often a crisis around the timing; when does the animal’s suffering cross over into torment? It is hard to know, even for a veterinarian. How can we sort out our desire for our pet to live, our discomfort with their (apparent) suffering, practical considerations of care, and our reluctance to do harm?

We must circle back to inquiring honestly into our intentions. After we consult with trusted advisors, reflect on our own motivations, and allow the sadness that such decisions require, can we find a balance point?

Posted in Causes and results, General, Harmlessness, Precepts, Relationships | Leave a comment

Dharma in a nutshell

When we hear or read the Buddha’s teachings we might feel a spark of recognition and think, “Yes, that makes sense”. But what happens after that moment of understanding? Do we integrate and make use of our understanding? Is it possible to live in a more intentional way? To bring focus to our lives? To attend to what we’re doing in a way that develops our wisdom? How can we avoid the confusion and anxiety that starting each day with no particular framework can bring?

One answer is to understand and recall this formula:

  1. There is dukkha
  2. There is the arising of dukkha (samudaya)
  3. There is the cessation of dukkha (nirodha)
  4. There is a path leading to the cessation of dukkha (magga)

You may recognize this as a succinct summary of the Buddha’s four truths. It doesn’t say there is nothing other than this process, but it invites us to investigate how these factors function in our lives.

We can use these principles to reflect on our experience whether we are doing sitting meditation or just trying to be mindful as we go about our business. It starts with inquiring: what is our experience right now? Is there joy, peace, fear, anxiety, confusion? Is there a wish for something? Resistance to some aspect of what we find in this moment? If there’s peace, YAY!, we can continue as we are. We might reflect on whether there was some specific change that brought about the peace we’re experiencing.

Sometimes when we turn our attention inward we find that we are wishing, at a gross or subtle level, for things to be different from how they are. We don’t want the niggling pain in our back; we wonder why we have to deal with a difficult person; we feel tense but don’t know why; we’re worried about a duty or event in the future; we replay something from the past either to justify our actions or to re-write the script for a different (imagined) outcome.

If and when we find something identified as dukkha we can place it squarely at the center of our attention and attempt to discover what caused that feeling or sense to arise. Was there a specific event? Or are we interpreting something in a way that creates unease? We need to use our creativity to uncover the causes and conditions that bring about dukkha in our lives.

Once we’ve identified a cause, we can examine it fully, looking for any flaws in our reasoning or in our expectations. Can we discern any clinging that may be causing the dukkha? Do we believe that “it shouldn’t be this way”? If yes, are we able to experiment with loosening that clinging, perhaps by accepting that the world is not set up with the goal of bringing us personal satisfaction?

To develop our skills in perceiving dukkha and learning how to tease out its causes, AND figuring out how to release whatever clinging we’re experiencing, the Buddha’s 8-fold path is an effective instruction booklet. Meanwhile, we can memorize and recite the formula: dukkha – samudaya – nirodha – magga.

Posted in Causes and results, Compassion, Dukkha, General, Mindfulness, The 8-fold path | 3 Comments

Touch and story

This essay by guest Patrick Kearney is longer than our usual posts, but couldn’t reasonably be divided into parts, so please give yourself an extra few minutes and savor its full effect.

On a cold and windy day I am hanging out my washing. The wet material is heavy in my hands and the wind whips it about, sometimes slapping it into my face. What is most clear to me in this activity? Strangely, it’s not my struggles with my washing; it’s a memory of an incident that happened 10 years ago as it replays itself in my mind.

This is an experience that all of us might recognise as ordinary, yet it reveals something very interesting. The five physical sensitivities of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching present me with a world that is vivid and clear. Yet, what is most likely to take and hold my attention is the river of stories that flows through my mind, the sixth sensitivity. I live in and as my stories. When I come to practise meditation, I find that something as simple as tracking my breathing is an immense challenge. I cannot fully connect with my breathing because it feels like it is covered by cling-wrap, that it lies just out of touch. It is wrapped in the river of stories.

I live in my stories because they provide meaning, and I hunger for meaning. These meanings may be enormously trivial – “Coffee now or later?” – or deeply significant, such as those attached to the eruptions of my deepest emotions. But they refuse to let me alone, and will not respect my decision to stick to my meditation.

As I practise, it becomes clear to me that meaning is not something provided by the world. The meanings that define me and my world are complex constructions, the artworks of my mind, and the raw materials they are shaped from are the fundamental movements of attraction, aversion and delusion that emerge from depths far beneath my awareness. These meanings entangle me in “longing and sorrow” (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta Applications of mindfulness MN 10), and I find myself creating a world of pain, “burning with birth, ageing and death; with sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair” (Āditta Sutta Burning SN 35:28).

I need to step out of these stories and the meanings they weave, so I can begin to see them in perspective. Perhaps some meanings are destructive, and lead to harm and suffering for myself and those around me. Perhaps some meanings are creative, and lead to welfare and happiness for myself and those around me. I cannot find a perspective from which to assess them when I live most of my life inside them. Then what can I do?

I am entangled in the world of meaning because I spend most of my life in the sixth sense sensitivity. What if I made it my practice to live predominantly in the world of the five physical sensitivities, defined by the direct touch of the physical world of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching?

One foundational practice the Buddha teaches in Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is mindfulness of movement (iriyā-patha), where I ground my awareness on whatever my body is doing, now. This involves maintaining a simple, wide-open awareness of physical activity. Am I moving, standing, sitting or lying down? Am I reaching, lifting, touching or releasing? Am I seeing, hearing or feeling? What am I doing, now?

For example, I practise moving without making noise. Walking; shifting a chair; sitting down; standing up; putting things into and taking them out of a cupboard. I try to do all these normal, routine activities silently, and when I succeed I discover I am doing them mindfully.

Sometimes I find myself doing something noisily and clumsily. At that moment I check: was I mindful of body, just then? Or was I lost in my conceptual world? Usually the answer is, “Lost!” so the practice of moving silently becomes that of moving gracefully, where moving gracefully is based on cultivating a sensitivity to my moments of clumsiness.

This practice also uncovers my relationship to time, for when awareness races away from the immediacy of body it moves into time. By “time” I mean the felt reality of past and future. Time is real only in my concepts, the stories I tell myself that require a self who moves through a narrative arc from a past to a contrasting future. The body’s language is that of sensation, and the only story sensation tells is that of the immediate present. When I am grounded in the physical world, I am necessarily grounded in the present. This does not mean I cannot learn from the past or plan for the future. It means that I remain clear, during my memories and anticipations, that these stories are occurring here, in this body; now, as this body. Time then becomes my servant rather than my master.

Finally, as I learn to live within this physical world, this world already available and already touching me, I discover – or perhaps rediscover – the pleasure of immediacy. The pleasure of simply being here, in this place, with these conditions of light and shade, warmth and coolness, colour and form, touch and feel. There is a naïve simplicity in this pleasure, like the pleasure the Buddha remembered when he sat under the Rose-Apple tree as a child. This pleasure is more contentment than stimulation, and it opens the possibility for calm and integration rather than the restless search for stimulation that normally occupies my heart. It provides the foundation for the cultivation of samādhi, the unification of the heart/mind. It melts the cling-wrap that blocks me from intimacy and releases me from the bondage of the river of stories.

Patrick Kearney ( is a founding member of the Buddha Sasana Association and long-time teacher at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre (BMIMC, NSW, Australia)

Posted in Causes and results, Karma, Mindfulness, Patience | Leave a comment