Buddhist practice is often described as consisting of three main areas. These three themes, which are really one, are
— Buddhist ethics,
— and finally insight.
If you are the studious type, you may have encountered these areas by their Sanskrit names: shila, samadhi, and prajña.
Shila is the ethical support for our practice; samadhi comprises all that relates to meditation, and finally there is prajña, insight or wisdom. Prajña is the fruit of the other two, and it is the gate to direct experience of the Ultimate Dimension, the kind of experience that defies verbal description. In fact, it is entirely beyond the limits of the intellectual mind and intellectual discourse.
Today, we want to zero in on just the first of those three great areas: Buddhist ethics. What does the Dharma have to say about Right Action? How shall we live?
And when we ask that question, we discover that there are no Buddhist commandments. Instead the Buddha invites us to apply mindfulness to five fields of human conduct. These fields are traditionally known as The Five Precepts, but Thây prefers to call them the Five Mindfulness Trainings; they are after all different from rules, laws, and commandments. For one thing, they are not based on divine revelation. They are teachings which we can use to examine our own lives to see where we are living up to the highest standard and where we still need to make improvements..
If we drastically abbreviate the Trainings, they refer to no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no intoxicants. This highly condensed version is likely to lead to a serious misunderstanding: We learn only what we should not do, what constitutes Wrong Action. It is only by looking more closely at each of the Trainings that we discover the positive aspects embedded in them. Thus, “no killing” is the negative side of the coin. “Reverence for Life” is its positive counterpart. In a similar way, each of the five points contains a positive teaching that forms the antidote to the negative behaviours that are listed. With this understanding in mind, we see that each “prohibition” is in fact an invitation to strive for Right Action by abandoning Wrong Action.
Furthermore, it is important to realize that each Training actually governs an immense territory. As just one example of the vastness of each of the five regions, let us examine the Second Mindfulness Training, the one simplistically referred to as no stealing. We could easily fall into self-righteousness there. “No, I go shopping; I don’t go shoplifting. I don’t break into people’s houses to steal their I-phones. So I guess I’m alright with #2.”
Then, on further reflection, we recognize that “stealing” takes many different forms, including offenses far more damaging than straightforward thievery. There is, of course, the obvious kind of theft outlawed in the criminal code of Canada. But in our political and economic system, many forms of massive theft are deemed perfectly legitimate. Consider the wanton exploitation of irreplaceable natural resources at home and abroad. We are stealing the old-growth forests from our children and from the species that need these forests for the only habitat they can live in. We are stealing the childhood of boys and girls who are forced into child labour, and we are stealing the safety and even the lives of women in Bangladesh, forced into labouring in unsafe sweat shops for corporations that produce chic clothing for our children to wear on the first day of school. We are robbing future generations of air that is healthful to breathe, and of water that is non-toxic.
Inasmuch as these things are done by the society that we are part of, we also are part of these horrendous acts of exploitation. As a society, we are allowing corporations to ruin the planet for short-term gain, and it is our descendants and all living beings who will suffer the fatal consequences. We allow governments to favour the economy over the environment. The prevailing economic ideology teaches us at every turn that growth and increased consumption are good things. This message comes at us from all directions until we—and even our children—begin to believe in it and act upon it.
The looming environmental crisis is to a large degree the karmic consequence of flouting the second Mindfulness Training. When we sever the connection between economics and ethics, we create a monster that will eventually turn on us and on all life on earth. This monster is now stalking our planet. We have all seen disaster movies where some dreadful entity, usually from outer space, is threatening the Earth. But the very real monster that is now attacking the Earth does not hail from a distant galaxy. It was born and bred in our midst out of an economy that is devoid of ethics. One way to bring ethical conduct back into the global economy is to abandon the gospel of never-ending growth, and to replace it with policies that fairly distribute the wealth of the planet. An economy which operates in an ethical vacuum turns toxic. First it kills off those it exploits, and eventually it turns even on those who do the exploiting because it destroys the indispensible conditions in which homo sapiens and other high life forms can survive.
Bringing Right Action back into the economic sphere is not exclusively the moral duty of corporations and politicians. As individuals, we cannot actually extricate ourselves from the collective consequences created by the world-wide glorification and application of a rapacious system. The word karma means action, and the actions of our society are our actions, our karma. It does no good to bemoan the sickness of our society and the life-threatening diseases we have inflicted on the earth. When society is sick, we are sick. When society fouls the earth by extracting the most toxic fossil fuel from the tar sands in Alberta, our hands have tar all over them as well.
But is there anything we can do as a sangha or even as individuals?
Thây says “A sangha is a community of resistance,
resisting the speed, violence, and unwholesome ways of living that are prevalent in our society.” By coming together as a sangha, we can consciously, mindfully, counteract and slow down the headlong rush into perdition. We are a community of resistance, we can do that by means of adopting a mindful lifestyle and responsible consumption.
There is also something else that we can do as mindful individuals. Allow me to take a wide swing at this important point. Imagine the consciousness of the cosmos, of the earth, and all of its inhabitants, human or otherwise, as a great underworld that holds many secrets in its depths, precious secrets as well as terrible secrets. In Buddhist psychology, this deep underworld is called store consciousness, and it is really an unconsciousness. It is somewhat similar to C.G. Jung’s collective unconscious. Positive and negative seeds reside there.
And then there is our individual portion of store consciousness; it is intimately connected with the collective store consciousness. Every single time we look into our own depths, we can cause either positive or negative seeds to sprout in our individual mind consciousness. Mind consciousness is where our wakeful thinking and feeling happen. If something wholesome sprouts in our mind consciousness, we can water this sprout and strengthen it. If we discover, say, a feeling of selfless caring or of deep compassion, we can thank it for appearing in our mind consciousness, and we can look for ways in which we can grow this tender sprout.
This is part of meditation. Meditation is an activity; as such it may start with calming breath and body, and slowing the crossfire of automatic thoughts and feelings. That is a lovely stage of meditation, and we are entitled to enjoy it. But it is merely the preparation for the real work of meditation. If we do not move on from there to the active stage, we are not practicing mindfulness meditation. We may just be floating in mid-air without ever touching the ground to grapple with the down-to-earth job of dealing with our emotions, thoughts, and habit formations, including the three poisons which the Buddha identified as greed, anger, and delusion.
Some people strive to completely annihilate all mental processes while they meditate. They consider thoughts as unwelcome interferences and try to return to the blissful state as quickly as possible. But how can we possibly transform our mental formations if we just banish them? They’ve got nowhere to go; all they can do is drill themselves deeper into our alaya vijñana, our unconscious mind.
When mental formations arise, we have a choice. We can ask the formation to come back another time so that we can carry on with our pre-planned course of meditation. That is a legitimate option. Or we can take this opportunity to examine the formation right then and there. If it is a wholesome formation, we can strengthen it further. If it is of the unwholesome variety, we can observe its arising, its abiding, and its leaving. And while it is present, we can examine its roots and its consequences. Just shining the lamp of mindfulness on a difficult samskara already sets healing and transformation in motion. We need not try to repress the problematic formation. It is part of us and it is our responsibility to redeem it. So we welcome all visitors with a smile. When we look at our guest with compassion, we see how it suffers, how feverish it is, and we offer to cool its fever with a healing rain. Then, when the feeling has lost some of its heat, we thank it for its visit and we ask it to return to store consciousness and to continue its transformation there. If we are able to do this work of individual transformation, the whole cosmos smiles. Then a future is still possible. If all of the members of all of the sanghas and of other sincere spiritual groups engage in this transformative work, we can surely hope to make a difference. Through our individual and collective inner work we can create an enormous momentum to stem the destructive tide of greed.
One wise teacher said, “When you discover an addiction in yourself, do not be sad. Rejoice. You have discovered something that you have come to heal. This is the greatest spiritual work you can do in this life.” These words apply not only to heavy-duty addictions, but also to the less spectacular afflictions and habit formations that live within us. They apply to all those dispositions that the Buddha called unskillful—such as anger or a hint of greed. Anger is the seed of killing. Greed is the seed of theft, exploitation, poverty, epidemics, mass starvation, and the ravaging of the environment. Transforming such dispositions is a hugely important and active part of meditation. And it is not—decidedly not—a narrow and selfish pursuit: What we are able to redeem in ourselves, we also redeem in the collective unconscious because our consciousness is not separate. Just as individual drops of water form the oceans, so our individual consciousnesses constitute world consciousness and world conscience. This is how seemingly individual transformation benefits the entire universe. As part of the network of meditators, we can tilt the scales of Right Thinking and Right Action in favor of restoring hope.
When Thây wrote his book about the Mindfulness Trainings, he titled it For A Future To Be Possible, the implication being that these Trainings and the transformation they encourage have global consequences, and that without the five pillars of ethics there can be no long-term future. That is a grim outlook. But the flip side is very promising: If we manage to bring the ethics the Buddha taught into our own lives and thus into into the global setting, then our personal transformation will form the ground from which global results arise. If enough of us practice with this global intent, we can still hope to reach the tipping point that stops the interconnected moral and environmental decline so evident all around us. It literally promises us and all species a future to look forward to. The Five Mindfulness Trainings can lead us into this future.
If someone asked us to summarize the whole of the Dharma in the shortest way possible, what would we say? Well, one excellent answer would be this:
First, Do no Harm.
Second, Do What Is Good.
Third, Purify the Mind.
The Mindfulness Trainings start with “doing no harm,” and then invite us to actively “do what is good.” Abstaining from harm is a start, but it needs to be complemented by the second of the Buddha’s admonitions.
The third point, “Purify the Mind” explains that Right Action requires a change of heart that flows from meditation and mindfulness.
The Five Mindfulness Trainings represent the Buddhist vision for a global spirituality and ethic. They are a concrete expression of the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the path of right understanding and true love, leading to healing, transformation, and happiness for ourselves and for the world.
A mindful and ethical way of life arises naturally out of our awakening, understanding, and love. When awakening and love are strong in you, you won’t find it difficult to live according to these precepts. You won’t have the feeling that you have to practice the Mindfulness Trainings; rather you enjoy practicing them. Practicing shila with a lot of struggling and effort, with self-recrimination and harshness, is not correct.
Perfecting the practice of the precepts is not accomplished through hard work or struggle, but through the energy of compassion in you…. Once love is in your heart, you don’t have to do anything, you can practice the mindfulness trainings perfectly, very easily, without any struggle at all… It’s like a miracle, not hard labour. (from “Opening the Mind of the Cosmos”).
Presented December 2014 to the Buddha-Dharma Sangha on the Sunshine Coast, BC, “Awakened Heart of the Source.”