Category Archives: Precepts

Speaking well

From MN 58, translated by Andrew Olendzki:

Such speech one knows to be
untrue, incorrect,
and unbeneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others
—such speech one does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true and correct,
but unbeneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others
—such speech one also does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true, correct,
and beneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others:
—one knows the time
to make use of such speech.

Such speech one knows to be
untrue, incorrect,
and unbeneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others
— such speech one does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true and correct,
but unbeneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others
—such speech one does not utter.

Such speech as one knows to be
true, correct,
and beneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others:
—one knows the time
to make use of such speech.

Why is that?
Because one has compassion for beings.

In sum, we should only say what is true, correct, and beneficial, whether or not it is welcome and agreeable to others. In both of those two cases, we have to gauge the right time to speak; in all other cases, we refrain from speaking, if we are to speak with compassion for other beings.

Interestingly, this sutta includes the case where we might say something untrue or unbeneficial because we feel someone else expects it. This might include letting people think we agree with them by nodding along, even when we know it’s not quite right. We have the option of abstaining; neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

If, to the best of our abilities, we filter our speech for truth and good intentions, we still have to consider whether our words will be welcomed. Even if they’re not welcomed, sometimes it is appropriate to say them. For example, friends could point out inconsistencies to friends, parents should guide their children, teachers strive to find ways to make corrections easy to accept by students.

Andrew Olendzki suggests: Try this out for yourself from time to time as the opportunity arises. Can you catch yourself about to say something untrue, and reflect upon whether it really needs to be said? I don’t think as laypeople we can set for ourselves the task of never saying something incorrect, but we can learn to pay closer attention to what we are saying and perhaps even the motivation behind our saying it. Remember the Buddhists are not as concerned with setting a high standard of always upholding ‘the Truth’, since such an idea is rather abstract and every moment and context is unique, but they are very concerned with investigating carefully our own behaviors and training ourselves to speak with greater integrity.

Andrew puts his finger on the important point – with awareness we can strengthen our integrity as reflected in our speech. We can bring our best intentions and words (and actions) together.

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Sobriety

Many years ago I had a conversation with a young couple who had just heard an introduction to Buddhist practice by Shinzen Young. Before long, one of them said, “But if we do this practice, it might change how we live!” I had to admit that this was true, and pointed out that it might gradually lead to wiser choices.

Most of us know that we could make improvements to our lifestyle, but we think about it reluctantly. Our idea of who we are is tied up with the most mundane habits, some of long-standing and others quite new. Our food preferences, our choices in entertainment, our relations with family members – these and many other factors add up to “who we are”. For this reason, a challenge to any part of this identification process can feel like an attack. If being knowledgeable about wine and appreciating a nice drop is a regular part of our day, thinking of giving it up can be upsetting.

The training recommended by the Buddha is designed to upset the status quo; it’s not meant to protect our comfort zone. Over time, we change who we spend time with, what activities we participate in, and how we think about our life. What principles are guiding our decision-making?

The fifth precept is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants that cause heedlessness.” Whole sectors of society would see this as an outlandish idea. Intoxication with drink or drugs is considered a reward for working, or a necessary part of relaxation. Many individuals self-medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs to avoid confronting the underlying causes of their unhappiness. Some people consider getting so high that they black out a standard form of fun. This is all very much a part of our general cultures. The Buddha points out that when we’re intoxicated, we don’t think straight; intoxication leads away from mindfulness and towards mindlessness.

You may say, “Well, I can drink or smoke dope without getting intoxicated”. In a relative sense this is true. One glass of wine may impair our judgment to an imperceptible degree. However, the first drink or toke makes the second and third ones more likely, and in no case does it improve mindfulness.

At a societal level, intoxication is associated with domestic violence, traffic tragedies, even murder. Because the consequences can be so serious, we ought to look carefully at what we are doing with alcohol or drugs. There are social programs that aim to mitigate the damage, but for our own integrity, it must begin with us examining our relationship to intoxicants. If we’re part of a social group that floats along on a sea of drink or drugs, how do we feel about that? Do we have other opportunities for social connection?

For most of us, reflecting on and discussing our drinking/drugging habits is a slow and gradual process. Shutting things down in one go is rarely sustainable. When we decide that we want to choose mindfulness over carelessness at every opportunity, quite a few of our habits may change.

 

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Less talk

The precepts on upright speech give us a wide range of opportunities to improve how we relate to each other verbally. In a nutshell, the instructions are to guide our speech by truthfulness, harmonious intent, gentleness, and non-blathering. But for me, probably the most important practice regarding speech is…silence.

There have only been a few moments I can point to in my own practice when I could see that something had changed. When I started not-saying what was on my mind, at least not right away, everything shifted.

There are a couple of parts to this. In a conversation with two or more people, sometimes if we wait, whatever we had on our mind is said by someone else. It’s best if people figure things out for themselves instead of being told by someone else, and a lot of us only figure out what we think by listening to ourselves talk. So lesson number one (for me) is WAIT.

This willingness to pause has other benefits. It has been my experience that if I listen with full attention to someone, they listen to themselves better and consequently speak in a more authentic way. Sometimes what we had been planning to say would have interrupted the flow the conversation, possibly pointing it back towards ourselves and our experiences or opinions.

Another good thing that can happen if we practice silence is that we are able to take in more information and form a broader picture of whatever subject is at hand. Many people need pauses built into their thoughtful speech. They deserve that space, and it is kind for us to give it to them. If someone is saying something we disagree with, we can wait until they finish, because they may end up surprising us. We can ask questions rather than arguing. If our goal is to understand rather than persuade, everyone benefits.

And, keeping silence conserves our energy.

Of course, there are people who have difficulty speaking up. They may be keeping too much silence already, especially if they are not-speaking because of fear or a lack of self-confidence. We can notice if this is the case and invite the quiet ones to share their thoughts, then wait for a complete response.

Listening is an important form of giving, and it is a powerful tool for loosening the grip of our self-importance.

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Non-harming with sexual energy

Moving along in our investigation of ethical living as a foundation for harmonious communities, the third precept is: I undertake the training rule to refrain from sexual misconduct.

We could argue long and hard about what exactly constitutes sexual misconduct, but the shorthand rule is to refrain from hurting anyone (including ourselves) with our sexual energy and actions. Egregious misconduct includes rape, coercion, and other prosecutable offenses. Less obvious versions include betraying established partners, misleading others, seductions, taking advantage of people who are vulnerable (impaired by intoxicants, or at a disadvantage by virtue of age or inexperience). People with authority over others have a special duty to protect those under their care.

Flirting and teasing form a tricky category because they can so easily tip over into humiliation and emotional cruelty. If we observe closely, we can see that sexual teasing or taunting is a form of bullying.

…what is the scope and purpose of this precept? The word kama means in Pali “sensual desire,” which is not exclusively sexual. It is here used in a plural form which comes close to what is meant by the Biblical expression “the lusts of the flesh.” Greed for food and other sensual pleasure is also included. Most people who are strongly addicted to sexual indulgence are also much drawn to other sense-pleasures. …For those with any grasp at all of Buddhist principles, the basic reason for such an injunction should be immediately obvious. Our dukkha — our feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction with life — is rooted in our desires and cravings. The more these can be brought under control, the less dukkha we shall experience. It is as simple as that. But of course, that which is simple is not necessarily easy.
(from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/walshe/wheel225.html)

Our feelings of love and sexual desire are often intermingled and can become confused. Love can sometimes be pure and unselfish, but sexual desire is usually about satisfying ourselves, physically and/or emotionally. Lust can provide us with a false feeling of power or of escape from our responsibilities. It takes patience to sort out when our desire to make someone else happy is overtaken by our own perceived needs.

Our sense of self is more closely tied to our bodies than to any mental qualities. Keeping our bodies safe and comfortable consumes a tremendous amount of energy. If we can practice awareness and acceptance of things as they are, just now, the urgency of our passing desires may be tempered.

As a wise friend said, once we refrain from harmful behavior, a whole world of wholesome possibilities opens up. For example, we can physically comfort others when appropriate. We can position our bodies and facial expressions to make others feel welcome, safe, and loved. Kindness is expressed non-verbally more often than not, and that is something we can observe in others and cultivate in ourselves.

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What’s mine? What’s yours?

Further to our reflections on ethical behavior, the second of the five precepts is: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.”

Different ways to transgress the second precept are (1) stealing (secretly taking what is not given), (2) robbery (taking what is not given by force), (3) fraudulence (laying false claims or telling lies in order to gain someone else’s possessions), and (4) deceit (using deceptive means to deprive someone of an article or to gain his money).

(from an essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi – http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/wheel282.html#prec2)

Most of us wouldn’t admit to doing any of these things, even in subtle ways, but it can still be a useful self-inquiry. Have we ever included misleading information on an application for a loan or a job? Do we help ourselves to whatever is available at work? If transport or other services use the “honor system”, do we abuse that? Are (possibly mild) forms of fraudulence or deceit required by our work?

By becoming conscious of the second precept we invite a specific type of mindfulness, a careful scrutiny of our own intentions and behavior. We can sharpen our perception of what others consider theirs and where the boundaries are. An awareness of our desire to have what others have can be brought into focus, and we might strengthen and refine our honesty. It could also give us confidence in maintaining an upright form of livelihood.

We are beset by desirable images that stimulate our greed. This is not stealing, but it may be the root motivation that could make taking what is not given seem reasonable. Keeping the second precept in mind might help us to check our greed by ringing the alarm when we notice it, allowing us to let the feeling pass without acting on it. Every time we do this, the greedy root is weakened.

All three of the unwholesome roots may be at work motivating a person to break the second precept. Greed or hatred can suffice, but must be accompanied by delusion if we think it’s OK to take what’s not ours.

We can also counter any impulse we might feel in this direction with acts of generosity. When we offer food, material goods, time, or friendship, we are opening our hearts to others; we are giving so others may freely accept our offerings. And generosity often inspires more generosity, in ourselves and others.

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Filed under Causes and results, General, Precepts

Moving along the path

All the different varieties of Buddhism share the same philosophical foundation: the four truths, the eight-fold path, and the principle of co-dependent arising of all phenomena. Where they differ is in the methods and practices used to realize the goal of liberation from suffering. The Theravada path is the oldest and most unadorned, and the initial and ongoing practices we emphasize are based on ethical behavior rather than surrender to a guru or other forms.

Within the Theravada scriptures there are many lists of wholesome and unwholesome qualities, but the most basic unit of instruction for laypeople is the group of the “five precepts”. These principles are undertaken as a lifetime practice in refining our words and actions, and they lead inexorably in the direction of freedom from suffering.

Here, a noble disciple, having abandoned the destruction of life, abstains from the destruction of life. By abstaining from the destruction of life, the noble disciple gives to an an immeasurable number of beings freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction. He himself in turn enjoys immeasurable freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction. This is the first gift, a great gift, primal, of long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and never before adulterated, which is not being adulterated and will not be adulterated, not repudiated by wise ascetics and brahmins. (from AN 8:39, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

It’s often true that the first item on a list carries the most weight. The category of “abstaining from the destruction of life” is the first precept and covers a wide scope of activities. Most obviously it means don’t kill people or other beings. The more deeply we investigate, the more we discern that the wish to kill or crush others is the root of the problem, and it comes up in our minds more often than we might like. When we learn to abandon the intention to harm any living thing, as it arises, we are liberating ourselves from a powerful negative force. Every time a thought of harming is interrupted before it can become action, we win a victory. As the Dhammapada says (Dhp 103, translated by Gil Fronsdal):

Greater in combat
Than a person who conquers
A thousand times a thousand people
Is the person who conquers herself.

The gift of safety that we have the power to give to other beings returns to us as a gift of purity, a moment of non-clinging. When we protect others from harm, we protect ourselves. The precept states that we should refrain from harmful activity, including things that might harm us. Having done that, we can move in a positive direction by finding ways to nurture life. It’s like walking in one direction, stopping, and turning to go in another direction.

We all have different triggers for thoughts of harming. We can get results if we start noticing them as they come up, and framing them as welcome challenges, as invitations to convert thoughts of harming to thoughts of preserving or nurturing life.

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The Golden Rule

Direct from the Pali canon, these words  are from SN 55:7, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

“What, householders, is the Dhamma exposition applicable to oneself? Here, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘I am one who wishes to live, who does not wish to die; I desire happiness and am averse to suffering. Since I am someone who wishes to live … and am averse to suffering, if someone were to take my life, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. Now if I were to take the life of another – of one who wishes to live, who does not wish to die, who desires happiness and is averse to suffering – that would not be pleasing and agreeable to the other. What is displeasing and disagreeable to me is displeasing and disagreeable to the other too. How can I inflict upon another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?’ Having reflected thus, he himself abstains from the destruction of life, exhorts others to abstain from the destruction of life, and speaks in praise of abstinence from the destruction of life. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to take from me what I have not given, that is, to commit theft, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to commit adultery with my wife, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to damage my welfare with false speech, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to divide me from my friends by divisive speech, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to address me with harsh speech, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. …

“Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: ‘If someone were to address me with frivolous speech and idle chatter, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. … How can I inflict upon another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?’

The beauty of this reflection is that it starts with considering how we would feel if someone treated us in specific, hurtful ways. It is easy to imagine how pained and angry we might be if we were attacked, robbed, lied to, etc. We might even enjoy exploring the sensations of righteous anger. But the essential step is the next one, to ask ourselves: How can I inflict on another what is displeasing and disagreeable to me?

This is an exhortation to examine how we would like to be treated, in these seven specific areas, and to pause and consider whether we are inflicting any of these behaviors on anyone else. This should include everyone else – slow service people, people whose opinions we disagree with, friends or relatives who try our patience – everyone.

We can refrain from harming others, discourage others from causing suffering, and take every opportunity to sing the praises of people (in their presence or absence) who refrain from these forms of harm. These are things we can do, not because anyone has said we have to, but because this is how we can refine our own behavior and thinking. We can change our relationship with the world and everyone in it, gradually diminishing any harm we might be causing and increasing whatever benefits we bestow. These can be our gifts to the people around us.

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