Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels: Gary

Three Jewels[image] I recently got together with one of my sangha mates for a social visit, outside of the sangha, on the Upper West Side, for a snack-and-chat. (We’d intended to walk in Riverside Park, but it was a particularly sweltering day, so we opted to stay in the AC.) We caught up on various things in our personal lives, but since we share an interest in Buddhism and its expression in the Triratna-NYC sangha, we naturally discussed that. At some point he asked me a really interesting question, “What does taking refuge in the three jewels mean to you?”

It’s a great question, and really basic to Buddhism. The three jewels of Buddhism are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is, well, the Buddha. The image of a compassionate being, the example of enlightenment, the embodiment of the goal of ‘waking up.’ Not a god, just a person who some 2500 years ago achieved something that all Buddhists aspire to achieve. The Dharma is the path and the teaching, either his or others’, that lead to compassion, enlightenment, seeing the truth of reality, figuring out a way to live in a world that is marked by suffering (along with happiness) and impermanence and loss. The Sangha is the community of others on the same path, in their different ways, toward that goal. It may be the small group of people you see regularly and meditate with, discuss the Dharma with, and hang out in Riverside Park with. And it is also the worldwide community of Buddhists who are on the same path.

When someone becomes a Buddhist, one of the things they do is to ‘take refuge in the three jewels.’ This is not an à la carte proposition. There’s a formula, a fixed and traditional meaning. But there’s a lot of room for interpretation in it. What exactly does the example or image of the Buddha mean to an individual? What type of relationship to the Dharma does an individual have? How do they experience and access it? What does the person consider to be the Dharma? Is it just the Pali canon, or is it more expansive, with other Buddhist traditions or even art, poetry, nature, or quantum physics? What is the Sangha? Is it a small group of people you see regularly? Is it a sense of a global community of people you don’t know personally? Or can the Sangha be an ad-hoc group that you suddenly see as instrumental in your personal spiritual path?

I thought about that great question and answered, and the idea also came to me that this would be really good material for this blog. Rather than sharing my answers, which I suppose I’ll do at some point (and sort-of have above), I emailed several of my sangha mates and asked them the same question. This is the first installment of answers. This first post comes from Gary. Others will follow.

What does ‘taking refuge in the Buddha’ mean to you personally?
Consideration and emulation. Holding the key characteristics of the Buddha in my mind, and using them to influence my own actions. Acknowledging that the Buddha found/rediscovered something powerful, a positive way to approach the universe and the human condition, and striving to live by his example.

What does ‘taking refuge in the Dharma’ mean to you personally?
Making study of all sorts an integrated and daily part of my practice. This can run the gamut, from books by Sangharakshita to books on meditation, mindfulness, non-violent communication, and other topics by John Kabat-Zinn, Marshall Rosenberg, Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hahn, Eugene Gendlin, and many others. It may also include listening to talks on FreeBuddhistAudio, and even Krista Tippet’s On Being Podcast.

What does ‘taking refuge in the Sangha’ mean to you personally?
Acknowledging that the community is a powerful and critical component in my practice. The support and acknowledgement I get from my Sangha-mates nurtures and sustains me. Knowing my community is out there, even when I can’t make it to Sangha night, helps me to maintain my commitment to practice. The love I feel from my Sangha mates just feels right.

Thank you, Gary, for sharing!


Everything Changes: The Four Reminders

Tibetan-Buddhism-Wheel-Of-Life-07-00-12-Links-Of-Dependent-ArisingEvery human being knows that change is an absolutely inevitable part of existence. Every aspect of our lives is in a constant state of change – how we feel, whether we’re in good or poor health, what our physical environment is like, and which of our loved ones are with us. And of course every human being knows that, from our subjective vantage point at least, the ultimate change awaits us all; someday we ourselves will die.

This emphasis on impermanence leads many people to think of Buddhism as a dreary way of thinking, with that whole ‘life is suffering’ thing. (It’s actually more along the lines of “suffering exists.”) If that were all there is to Buddhism, that might even be an accurate portrayal. Of course it’s not all there is to Buddhism. As much as anyone else, Buddhists recognize that life is full of joy, full of opportunities for laughter, love, compassion, kindness, and generosity.

But no one, Buddhist or not, can deny that life is also full of suffering, precisely because we live in a state of impermanence. You would have to be truly delusional to deny that you will face the loss of people and things you hold dear, that you will be sick, that you will grow old, and that ultimately you will die. We even now know that impermanence isn’t just part of the human condition, but rather part of the entire workings of the cosmos. Continents shift, mountains rise and are eroded, species come about and disappear, stars burn through their nuclear fuel and die out. Literally everything you look at, for as far as you could see with the most powerful telescope, is in a constant state of motion and impermanence. If there is anything you could point to and label permanent, it would be impermanence!

Faced with this reality, we have two choices. We can live our lives in a state of denial, and set ourselves up for more suffering when the veil inevitably falls, or embrace it, and figure out a way to live and enjoy life despite the seemingly cruel truths of this universe that we’ve been born into. Buddhism is a system that embraces the latter, and offers tools to be brutally honest with ourselves about our state of being while still embracing the laughter, love, compassion, kindness, and generosity that are all very much possible, even critical, in a universe of impermanence.

In our sangha we recently completed a four week study and discussion of the Four Reminders. Also called The Four Mind-Changers, these are reflections that are meant to wake us up, to jolt us into recognition, not just intellectually but also emotionally, of the facts of life that are difficult for us to hold onto in our everyday lives. In a very pared-down nutshell:

  • The first is that, as human beings with the capacity for reflection and understanding, we can take advantage of our faculties to come to terms with impermanence. Simply by being alive, we have received a great gift, and a great opportunity.
  • The second is that we will die someday, and we don’t know when, so we should cherish the time and life we have, and use it to come to terms with our existence.
  • The third is that karma is real, that we live in a universe of cause and effect, both in our own thought patterns and in our external behavior. We can “life-hack” ourselves so that we create conditions for more skillful thoughts and actions.
  • The fourth is that samsara – the constant flux of existence – is “defective” if we view it through the typical human lens, which expects, even demands, permanence and constant happiness. The truth is we can’t make demands of the universe, and if we do, we’re only asking for more suffering.

There are traditional formulations of the Four Reminders, and traditional ways of thinking about and understanding karma and samsara, which probably would seem quite foreign to someone not brought up in Buddhist culture. In our sangha we’ve recently read Vishvapani’s modern, more accessible version of the reminders. They’re a great resource for people interested in a Buddhist thinking outside of the traditional cultural context in which they were first developed. Whether you take concepts like karma and samsara literally or metaphorically, the basic ideas of impermanence and cause and effect are hard to deny. From what might seem a dreary and depressing view of existence, there is the chance for a liberating change of heart and mind. All we have to do is be reminded.


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.