Category Archives: Precepts and Ethics

When Right Speech is Silence

empty(Image) We had quite a big snowstorm here in New York last week. You may have heard about it, or at least about the Onion’s brilliant satire of Mayor De Blasio’s portents of abject doom. Great stuff, and far more cataclysmic than what actually happened, at least here. (Sorry to our sangha mates at Boston; Aryaloka, NH; Portsmouth, NH; and Nagaloka, ME; who were hit for real.)

In New York, the greatest challenges came not from the storm, but rather from the panicked runs on delis, bodegas, and markets throughout the city before the storm. People were frightened by the hype, or at least playing it safe. If there was going to be nary a carton of milk or a loaf of bread in the Five Boroughs, most of us had little choice but to be swept up into the throngs packing every aisle, raiding every refrigerator case, and emptying every shelf.

So I gave in. My local market is called Westside Market. It’s got great food from around the world. Wonderful cheeses and breads and middle eastern spreads, great produce, rice and pasta, vegan and vegetarian meals. All gone, disappeared into the many bags and baskets making their way from aisle to aisle.

The really bad thing about Westside, though, is that it’s got narrow aisles. Not normal this-is-Manhattan narrow aisles, but crazy narrow aisles that barely one cart can fit down. And that night there were hoards of people pushing carts in different directions, each shopper moving to some secret choreography in their minds.

It was bedlam.

Which brings me to my dharma lesson of the night. When I arrived, I resolved to remain calm. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that only deluded expectations and (really) unrealistic demands I might make on my surroundings could shake me, not the surroundings themselves. So I was entirely in the driver’s seat, right?

Yes, I was, but I had a moment where I just simply forgot how to drive. I’d pushed through a knot of Columbia undergrads agonizing over brands of Greek yoghurt. I squeezed past the people ferreting out the French lentils; regular lentils would not do. I ran the gauntlet successfully, only to come up behind a woman, seemingly lost, parked right in the middle of an intersection thumbing through a shopping list, utterly unaware that she was blocking people in four different directions.

I stood there quietly for a moment, hoping she’d notice. She didn’t.

I cleared my throat a bit theatrically, hoping she’d hear. She didn’t.

“Ma’am? Would you mind moving a bit to the side so we can get by?” She stood there.

And that’s when I lost it, just for a moment. All of the anxiety I’d held bottled up, all of the annoyance at every single person I’d bumped into or been bumped into by, all of the buzzing electricity that everyone in that store and in the whole city felt… it all came bubbling up from inside me. I said something to her, not hideously awful or terribly vulgar, but certainly unskillful.

And absolutely no good came of it. She heard, but she didn’t move. I didn’t feel better about myself or my surroundings. The people around me weren’t given an easier path through the market. If anything, we were all dug in deeper. It was unskillful.

Setting aside the question of whether or not it was ever my place to “correct” this woman, standing obliviously in the middle of a store, blocking everyone around her, what could I (or anyone) have said? Was there a polite way to invite her to check her list somewhere else, a way of speech and body language that would:

  1. have presented the message in a gentle, non-confrontational way, since that usually works better,
  2. not made her feel bad about herself, since I had no way of knowing what was going on in her head and life,
  3. not given into my annoyance or made me look like a nasty, impatient jerk, since that’s always a good goal, and
  4. made things easier for her, me, and everyone else, since that should have been the whole point?

Probably, sure. If I’d been in a better frame of mind, less annoyed and anxious, more kind and charitable, and really creative about finding a way to communicate to precisely that person in precisely that situation, I might have been able to pull it off.

Again, setting aside the very important question of whether it was my place to do so at all. That’s a bigger knot to untie.

But I wasn’t in a better frame of mind, I was annoyed, anxious, and any kindness I might have had was a thin veneer stretched over a deep well of impatience and agitation. So the skillful thing to do would have been to keep my mouth shut, realizing that no good could have come out of my saying anything. Right speech would most certainly have been silence in this case.

I blew it, but I like to think I learned a lesson. Or at least been given yet another chance to learn an old, familiar lesson that’s expressed in the Serenity Prayer as well as the simple advice that sometimes it’s better to shut the heck up! Thankfully, I haven’t been in a similar situation since, where I could test myself to see if the lesson has stuck. But I’m sure it will happen, sooner rather than later.

After all, it’s supposed to snow again tomorrow.

Reflection on the First Precept

One of our sangha members is doing the Foundations in Buddhist Contemplative Care program.  As part of her studies, she does monthly reflection papers on the five precepts. The following is a beautiful and thoughtful reflection that she wrote on the first precept.

In the Triratna Buddhist tradition, which I joined in 2008, we recite the first precept as follows:

I undertake the training principle of not harming living beings, [Negative form] With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body. [Positive Form]

When I first heard the five precepts, this one felt like a ‘no brainer’.  I had been a vegetarian for years and remember secretly patting myself on the back and thinking “1 down, 4 to go”.

Now, 7 years on, I no longer have the view that I’ve ‘attained’ this precept in any real way.

I feel like the first precept is the Buddhist version of the Golden Rule, in that it ultimately covers all the other precepts.

    One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated. [Negative Form] One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. [Positive Form]

If I follow the golden rule, and don’t harm myself or others, aren’t I really following all the other precepts? Non-Killing/Non-Harming seems to incorporate not stealing, right speech, right sexual conduct, not taking intoxicants.  Concerned with my actions as an individual and wanting to practice the precepts, I simply try to take care in my everyday life.

In reading chapter Six of Reb Anderson’s Being Upright, The Teaching of the Two Truths, I was interested to learn about the conventional truth aspect and ultimate truth aspect of the Bodhisattva precepts.  Anderson points out, when we can move beyond the conventional, we can practice the precepts not as something external we impose on ourselves and create anxiety around, but as natural expressions of our understanding of life.

Reflecting on these two aspects, it seems that I focus mainly on the foundational conventional truth level and haven’t really explored or moved towards the “ultimate truth” aspect as yet.

I reflect on how I kill in the area of consumption.  The skincare and cosmetics I currently use are not cruelty-free.  There are other items in our home that are not environment- or animal-friendly. I’ve simply been purchasing the cheapest or most convenient brands, without consideration of impact. I am starting to make changes in this area now.  Clothing is another area I have considered, but haven’t made any changes as yet.  I buy from big box stores where the labels say “Made in China/India/Vietnam”.  I don’t know the conditions the workers have, or if they are paid fairly. Price is my main driver.  The savings I enjoy may actually be paid by other people across the planet.  People whose birth just happened to be less fortunate than mine.  Does this give me the right to exploit them?  Am I not killing their health, their life expectancy, their happiness by feeding my desire for cheap clothing?  And perhaps is this too simple a view? What if that sweatshop work is actually a better choice than the alternative?  Low pay and exploitative conditions vs. no pay and starvation?  What is the ‘right’ thing here?

 “A bodhisattva sometimes finds it necessary to break a precept in the conventional sense in order to fulfill the compassionate purpose of his or her life”.

This is another idea in Anderson’s book that stood out to me as I have some guilt and anxiety around my daily medications.  They are tested on animals.  I sometimes agonize over this. I see that I am not separate from any other being. We are all suffering together and there is no formula for ‘doing the right thing’ I can follow here.  I take these medicines to keep myself disease free and healthy so that I may work and contribute my time and resources to causes that help people and animals.  I’m not a bodhisattva, but I take comfort knowing that as humans, there are times we may choose to break a precept because we believe there is a ‘greater good’ to be attained.

Another area of killing I’ve reflected on this month is around virtual relationships.  Since moving to NYC, I use Facebook to stay in contact with friends and family.  I notice that since these relationships have transferred from the physical realm to the mental realm, my anxiety and tendency towards negative thoughts has increased.   I miss these people, and it seems like they’ve carried on with life just fine without me.  Who knew that they didn’t need me to live full and happy lives?!  My poor ego is wounded.  Instead of just reaching out, being vulnerable and saying “I miss you guys, let’s make time to talk”, I indulge in provocative posts and comments designed to solicit attention, even negative attention.  This pattern of seeking attention and validation, even if negative, is an old one rooted in childhood.  In Getting Unstuck, Pema Chodron speaks of shenpa, the “hook” or “urge” to indulge in unskillful habits.  I feel myself turning towards this shenpa, going to poison for comfort.  Am I not killing these relationships by engaging in behaviour that is essentially unkind, both to myself and to them?

When I moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I met two homeless men in my neighbourhood, and there are rich lessons for me in these relationships.  In my eagerness to “help them”, I have been challenged to reflect on what “helping them” really means.  For example, I agreed to call the hospital for some info for AR.  When I got it, I was so eager to tell him that I walked up to him sitting in his wheelchair and just blurted it out.  I failed to notice that he had, in fact, been asleep.  Instead of the grateful reception I was anticipating, he berated me for waking him up. I went through such a range of emotions. I walked away feeling guilty and embarrassed at my lack of mindfulness. Great lesson! Just because AR lives on the streets, doesn’t mean he deserves less common courtesy.  It may not be convenient for me to come back another time, but shouldn’t I have noticed he was sleeping and thought maybe he needs sleep right now more than the info I’m so keen to give him?  I need to look, notice and be mindful when approaching someone. Gauge whether they are ready to receive me.  And if I make a mistake, be humble, apologize and keep on trying.

Right Speech: The Apology

Buddha_KeyboardDuring one of the first meetings of the introductory course that I took with Triratna, one of the more experienced sangha members, someone who is “going for refuge” or asking for ordination, said something very profound that’s stuck with me ever since. We were discussing Buddhist ethics, in particular Right Speech, and she said that one thing she’d noticed since seriously practicing Buddhism is that she found herself apologizing a lot.

My initial interpretation was that she was doing more things that required apologies. Behaving poorly, creating discord, being rude, acting carelessly. All things that would call for an increase in apologies. You can imagine my confusion. If you’re following Buddhist ethics seriously, shouldn’t that lead to fewer instances of necessary apologies? What kind of Buddhist, or any ethical person, behaves in a way that requires a lot of apologies?

The answer, I’ve come to understand, is a normal Buddhist, and even one who is making progress on the path toward enlightenment. Apologies are difficult. Even when we’re wrong, and we know deep down that we’re wrong and owe someone an apology, it’s difficult to let go of ego and acknowledge: I was wrong. I was rude. I was a jerk. I am sorry. Letting go of that kind of ego is of course central to awakening in the Buddhist sense.

But the thing about apologies in a Buddhist sense, at least as I think I understand it, is that one can, and perhaps is even called to, apologize even when they’re not “wrong” but were a player in a situation that caused strife, anger, suffering. That’s a huge amount of ego-shedding. I don’t care if I was right or wrong, but I am sorry that there was a situation that created dukkha, suffering. The apology, I think, is a beautiful manifestation of Right Speech, speech that is honest, kind, and seeks to create harmony rather than discord.

I am writing this post on the morning after shooting off a nasty email. The details aren’t important. It’s not even important that it was late, I was in a cranky mood, and I committed the cardinal sin of hitting “send” before sleeping on it. I’m not entirely sure if I was totally or partially in the wrong in the situation that led to this email, but it really doesn’t matter. My speech (or email) was most definitely not Right.

So I sent a morning-after apology. I don’t know how it will be received, and I don’t know if the recipient will think, “gee, I was partly to blame in this.” But that doesn’t matter. The apology was liberating. It felt Right to say “I owe you an apology. I was rude, hostile, and aggressive, and you didn’t deserve that. I was wrong, and I am deeply sorry.”

I’m not sure if I would have done that if those words of my sangha mate weren’t echoing in my head. Maybe, but it’s equally possible that I would have clung to my ego and insisted that I was either entirely or at least partially in the right. Silly, toxic, unskillful thoughts. I hope my apology will lead to forgiveness, but I can’t control that. What I can control is my own behavior and speech (well, belatedly in this case!).

Being a Buddhist does lead to more apologies, to glimmers of non-ego where we’re not afraid to say “I was a jerk,” regardless of who else might or might not have been a jerk. And uttering those words is an absolute delight.

The Five Precepts as Gemstones

precept stones

My shrine at home is pretty standard for the most part. There’s a Buddha statue, with right hand raised and facing outward in the protection mudra. There’s also a bowl cradled in the left hand, which I think is characteristic of the Medicine Buddha, signifying healing. There are some candles and a bowl where I burn stick incense. The one piece of (I think) original flair is my “precept stone” bowl, although to be honest I have no idea if this was an innovation, or something I had seen somewhere and forgot about.

We’ve talked about the Five Precepts before, and anyone familiar with Buddhism knows them by heart and strives to live by them. They’re not commandments, but voluntary choices, a code of ethical conduct closely tied to the Right Action component of the Eightfold Path. There are a lot of English translations of the original, but they all go something like this:

  • I undertake to abstain from causing harm and taking life.
  • I undertake to abstain from taking that which is not given.
  • I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct.
  • I undertake to abstain from false speech.
  • I undertake to abstain from intoxicants, which cloud the mind.

At Triratna we also add a positive counterpart to each of the traditional precepts. If the negative formulations listed above remind us of unskillful behavior that we want to avoid, the positive formulations remind us of skillful behavior that we want to cultivate.

  • With deeds of loving-kindness, I purify my body.
  • With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
  • With stillness, simplicity, and contentment, I purify my body.
  • With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
  • With mindfulness, clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

A lot can be said about each precept, and some of them mean different things to different people. The first precept, for example, clearly suggests that we not go around killing people, but many Buddhists also extend that to animals, and so they are vegetarians or vegans. The one about sexual misconduct shouldn’t be confused with some sort of moralistic “sex is sinful” commandment; instead it means that sexual behavior should not be used to harm anyone, for example by interfering in a couple’s committed relationship or entering into sexual relationships that aren’t equal and consensual. The fifth precept, for some, means total abstinence from alcohol, but for others it means simply stopping after a glass or two of wine, or at least striving to remain mindful – in control, moderate – when drinking. There’s a great quote by Triratna’s founder, Sangharakshita, in his book Vision and Transformation, about the fifth precept:

“If you can drink without impairing your mindfulness (it might be said), then drink; but if you can’t, then don’t. However, one must be quite honest with oneself, and not pretend that one is mindful when one is merely merry.”

Back to my gemstones, part of my practice is, when I sit to meditate, to take each stone out of the bowl, hold it and look at its color, feel its weight, and recite the negative formulation of the precept. I’ve forgotten the names of some of the gemstones I chose, but they made sense as visual representations of each precept to me. The first precept is a lustrous silver, signifying that life is precious and not to be taken. The second precept is green, probably jade, because at least in the English language green is associated with envy, something that might lead to taking the not-given. The third precept is rose quartz, I think. Red is the color of passion, and the softened, gentle color of the rose quartz is a softer, gentler form of sexual energy. The fourth precept is the black stone, onyx I believe, and it reminds me that unskillful speech is dark and negative. The fifth precept is blue – no idea what kind of gem – and blue is the color of calm water or a clear sky, so a mindful, responsible, disciplined state. As I say each precept aloud, I place its stone in front of me. If I feel that I’m in a relatively safe place in regard to each particular precept, I put it to the left. If I’m in a state where I might risk unskillful behavior related to a particular precept, I put it on the right, as a reminder to be careful.

After I’ve finished my meditation, I gather up each stone, and recite the positive formulation, again trying to focus on the color and weight. Then I place it back in its bowl. Sometimes, if I think I really need the reminder, I put the stone in my pocket and keep it there for the day. I’ve gone to more than one party with the blue stone!

I don’t think this is standard practice in Buddhism, but it’s got meaning for me. Of course the particular ritual is unimportant, as long as it helps us act skillfully, and remain mindful.

The Five Precepts

handleaf[Image Source] If you’re not familiar with Buddhism, you may never have heard of the Five Precepts. They’re the ethical base of Buddhist practice, a sort of code that practicing Buddhists live by. They’re very closely tied to the Right Action spoke of the Eightfold Path, which, along with Right Livelihood and Right Speech, is part of the Ethical Conduct path of Buddhism. The Five Precepts are, in a word, central to Buddhist thought and practice.

In the West we’re quite used to commandments, and it’s easy to confuse the Five Precepts with some sort of list of commandments. They’re not. Nowhere in the precepts will you see a “thou shalt” or a “thou shalt not.” Instead, they’re formulated as choices, as voluntary undertakings, as decisions made by the individual because they make sense to the individual through practice and reflection, not because some cosmic (and potentially vengeful) being commanded them. Buddhists chant or recite them as reminders, as a kind of affirmation of the choice to practice.

The precepts have both negative and positive formulations, and in both, you can see how the practicing Buddhist enters into a kind of equal partnership with them. Take a look at the negative formulations first.

1. I undertake to abstain from taking or harming life.
2. I undertake to abstain from taking what is not freely given.
3. I undertake to abstain from causing harm through sexuality.

4. I undertake to abstain from false speech.
5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants that dull the mind.

Notice that they all begin with “I undertake to abstain from…” Not “I vow not to…” or even “I will not...” For many Buddhists, in intention and in actual behavior, they do amount to vows, but they come from a humbler place, a place that recognizes that we don’t always get it right, even with the best of intentions. That doesn’t imply a lax attitude toward the precepts, but rather a compassionate attitude to ourselves.

We’ll look more closely at each of the precepts in later posts, but here’s a quick summary of how they’re usually understood:

1. The first precept is related to the practice of avihimsā, which is nonviolence, harmlessness, the absence of cruelty. For many Buddhists, but not all, this means vegetarianism, or even veganism. The central aim is to abstain from causing suffering to other sentient beings, human and non-human alike.

2. The second precept is obviously about not stealing, but it’s also a little more subtle. It’s about not manipulating people into giving, doing or saying things that they don’t give, do or say freely and voluntarily.

3. The third precept does not take the kind of moralistic attitude toward sex that we often see in the West. There’s no sense that sex itself is bad or sinful, but rather that since it’s such a basic human urge, it’s very susceptible to being misused, to being the source of harm. Obviously this covers issues like rape or sexual abuse, but it also covers sex that causes harm or pain to another married or partnered couple, or compulsive sex that causes harm to ourselves.

4. The fourth precept is about telling the truth, but not just in the sense of not lying. Buddhists are very concerned with attaining a vision of reality as it really is, and speech is one way that we can (further) distort reality for one another, not just through lying, but also through exaggerating, gossiping, and speaking ill of people.

5. The fifth precept is about drinking and taking drugs. Again, it’s not so much that these things are sinful in themselves, but rather that they interfere with mindfulness, the truthful and direct experience of the here-and-now. Some people take the fifth precept as a call to complete abstention, while others (usually the ones with more self-control!) take it as a reminder to stop after one or two.

We’ll end with the positive formulations of the five precepts, the flip side of the same coin in each case.

1. With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body.
2. With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
3. With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body.
4. With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
5. With mindfulness clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

If the negative formulations are the stick, at least of a sort, the positive formulations are the carrot. They are the benefits that one may gain, “purified” body, speech, and mind that are not as vulnerable to the urges, the whims, the moods, the dissatisfaction, and the general uncertainty – the suffering – that we live with.

Right Tweets, Right Posts, Right Comments

Speak only the speechThe concept of Right Speech comes up a lot in the Dharma. One of the Eightfold Path steps or spokes is dedicated to it, it’s one of the Five Precepts, and it’s a part of various suttas, for example the Subhasita Sutta of the Sutta Nipata. That makes perfect sense. Today, as in the Buddha’s time one imagines, most of us do more day-to-day harm with our speech than with any weapon. We lie, we insult, we belittle, we speak without thinking, we say things that bring others to anger or indignation.

Truthful speech is a major part of Right Speech, but for most of us telling the truth is not terribly difficult. It might be uncomfortable at times, but we don’t (usually) outright lie out of habit, and we don’t (usually) have to make a special effort to tell the truth.

It’s all those other kinds of Unskillful Speech that are the real challenges! Thoughtless speech, provocative speech, insulting speech, belittling speech, gossip… And it seems that there’s no easier place to engage in all of that unskillfulness than on the internet.

Go to the comments of just about any article of an online newspaper, and you’re likely to find an insane amount of vitriol being flung back and forth between anonymous strangers. The article can be about anything; some people seem bent on turning even the most innocuous topic into a chance to vent their anger, their prejudices, their political tribalism, their sense of religious supremacy, their hatred for anyone who thinks differently than they do.

It’s entirely possible that some of these comments are nothing more than sport. People are engaging in a virtual conversation, not with other people, but with strange screen names that aren’t attached to real human beings. And maybe everyone knows the rules of the game, so no pain or mental suffering is actually caused.

I don’t really buy that. I’m sure it’s true for some, but for those of us who don’t spend a lot of time in comments sections, reading some of that is just depressing. And it’s hard to imagine that none of the anger that one sees is genuine, that the cycle of insult and counter-insult doesn’t heap on more and more anger, hatred, and ill will.

I used to be guilty of this on Facebook. If I found a gem of a gotcha article or meme that insulted people of a different political leaning than my own, I was all too happy to share it. This obviously wasn’t anonymous. I was sharing these things with people I knew, real human beings I’d gone to school with, or worked with, or friended for whatever reason. I suppose I told myself that I was in the right, and by sharing these things, I was making a case for that ‘enlightened’ position.

But that’s just wrong. How often do snarky Facebook exchanges turn anyone’s political opinions? And, in the un-virtual world, if we set out to explain our thinking on an issue, how often would we start with an insult? And hey, maybe, just maybe, my opinion isn’t the best!

So the first manifestation of Right Speech that I recognized I needed to work on was Right Online Speech. I’ve never been one for leaving anonymous comments, but I admit that I enjoyed a bit of snark in my Facebook updates. I’ve made an effort to put an end to that, and I’ve vowed not to read comments on online articles. Mostly I’ve been successful, but Practice will make (at least something closer to) Perfect.