The Buddha’s ethical trainings for laypeople have the power to bring about profound transformations. At present these teachings are available, but not readily accessible. To comprehend the words of the Buddha requires a broader context than our consumer culture provides. My purpose is to build a bridge so modern readers can benefit from these ethical trainings.
Who is the author and why should I listen to her?
What I’d most like to do is to save you some of the aggravation that I endured while finding my way to this path. In 1975, with tens of thousands of others, I tried to assuage my youthful dissatisfactions by being initiated (for $45, as I recall) into Transcendental Meditation ™ (TM). It was a choice between that and the psychiatrist’s couch. Within a few weeks of starting the TM technique, I felt much better, but I also suspected that there was more to this practice than the initiators were telling me. As is my habit, I went directly to the local manager, and asked about how to register for the next “class” or level of training. They patiently explained that I had to do my mantra meditation for 20 minutes twice a day for two years before I’d be eligible for the next course, which cost thousands of dollars and was held in Switzerland (I lived in NY at the time). This didn’t sound very promising, but I didn’t lose heart. In the 1970’s in New York, the spiritual supermarket was flourishing. Eventually, through a friend, I met a teacher who drew me in to a thrilling, if cultish, scene. For about two years I lived in a community of like-minded people, slavishly following a very charismatic female “guru”. When I saw clearly that the teacher’s need for personal power was working against any purity or value in our activities, I knew it was time to leave. A serious complication was that I had married a fellow-participant. Failing to convince him that there was life “on the outside”, I left the group and my first husband simultaneously. Recovery and divorce took the best part of a year afterwards.
The good part of that early phase was that, within the group, we meditated between two and four hours per day. Daily sitting meditation practice carried over into the next phase of my life, even though I now considered all spiritual teachers intrinsically dangerous. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that I discovered a meditation teacher I trusted. This certainly had more to do with my inability to trust than a shortage of good teachers. However, it was a relief to be among meditators again, and to be starting to learn what the Buddha actually taught. In time, my gem of a second husband also became interested in meditation and in delving more deeply into the Buddha’s teachings.
Starting in 1996, I joined a respected friend in co-leading a weekly sitting (meditation) group in suburban Washington, DC. Every week, we led a guided meditation and one of us introduced a single basic Buddhist principle. Over the course of a year, we talked about different related topics. To a significant degree, this was learning by teaching for both of us. We had good source material, and reliable scholars and experienced meditators to support our efforts. The questions and comments of the students drew us deeper into questioning and understanding the principles. In this way, gradually, I went from knowing the outline of Buddhist concepts to taking them on as my framework for living.
Over these years, until 2004, learning and teaching what the Buddha taught, along with practicing sitting meditation, changed my life entirely. While my personality didn’t alter drastically, a lot of rough edges were smoothed down. I became more sensitive to the needs of others, and more alert to my own strengths and weaknesses. My background anxiety dropped further into the background. I was lucky enough to participate in a 2½ year meditation teacher training, along with other leaders from around the USA. My network of supportive and knowledgeable friends grew. For me, there was no turning back; I had found my direction.
On reflection, it seems to me that the most helpful thing I can offer others is a clear description of the ethical teachings of the Buddha. There are scores of highly qualified meditation teachers, and many, many books about the various techniques. But there is very little written about the behavioral trainings the Buddha encouraged, and hardly anything directed at 21st century, “first-world” readers. So – here it is.