March 20, 2012

Wise Action: Anything Could Happen Next.

flickr user: Wonderlane

{part four of a series on the Noble Eightfold Path}

This week, I’d like to share some brief commentaries on the Five Precepts and the Five Strengths. These are not the Buddha’s Ten Commandments; they’re moral guidelines rather than strict, absolute requirements.

The Five Precepts are about noticing what actions tend to make us happy (and are therefore “skillful”)—and what “unskillful” actions tend to make us suffer. Phrased as a question, “What supports moving away from suffering and toward freedom from suffering?” Overall, the five precepts ask us to do no harm.

The Five Precepts

1. Refrain from killing.

In Pali, the first precept literally requests that we refrain from striking out at things that breathe. Does this mean being a vegetarian? Not necessarily. There are no absolute answers. The Dalai Lama eats meat every other day, after being told early in life that he needed it for his health.

Does this mean not killing a spider, or ants or other bugs in your home? That’s up to each individual to decide. What’s important is to look at the movement of the mind. (That’s all meditation is, really. Sitting still, paying attention, watching the mind, learning its tricks, embracing the beauty and the chaos of life equally.)

2. Refrain from taking that which is not given.

Notice how this is more subtle than thou shalt not steal. You’re probably not going to rob a bank. But taking office supplies for use at home might be an example of taking something that is not yours for the taking.

3. Refrain from sexual misconduct.

The Buddha didn’t go into specifics on this one. Have integrity in relationships. Choose an appropriate partner. And, within the context of monogamous relationships, be faithful. Again, let your intention be to do no harm to yourself or the other person.

4. Refrain from unwise speech.

Ensure that your speech is true, kind, not harmful, useful and said at an appropriate time.

5. Refrain from using intoxicants.

The fifth precept states, “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drinks which cause heedlessness.” However, in 2012, we have much more than alcohol to intoxicate us — including, but not limited to, illegal and prescription drugs, Internet, TV, rashly spending money, and thrill seeking.

Living in accordance with the five precepts is an act of generosity, as the purpose of the precepts is to be happy and kind. When we’re connected with the truth of suffering and the realization that clinging causes suffering, we want to live by the precepts. Unskillful ways fall away.

Stated positively, the five precepts ask us to (1) act with reverence for all forms of life, (2) be honest, (3) have integrity in relationships, (4) speak wisely, and (5) consume healthily.


Photo: Ashley Webb

I was sitting in my room the on Sunday afternoon, feeling a little self pity over some minor drama I’d experienced, when I checked my email and got the horrible news: a friend was on his deathbed in the hospital. He was too weak for treatment and expected to pass away within a short time. He was my best friend’s best friend, and she was there by his side for his final few days.

I saw O when I was in Austin last December, just three months ago. He looked and seemed lively and good. He was not drinking. He was an incredibly soulful, hilarious, big-hearted, alive person. We don’t know how long it had been since he had seen a doctor. Liver failure is not a sudden occurrence. He’d lost sixty pounds in two months. He was jaundiced, and his stomach distended.

Though he could no longer speak, my friend put the phone up to his ear so that people could say their last goodbyes. I told Orestes that I love him and he is an amazing person. I babbled for a while in English, but when I switched to his native language, Spanish, I think he understood. Twelve days after being admitted to the hospital, O passed away peacefully on Monday morning.

Anything can happen next, and you can be a pessimist or an optimist or a realist about it. Life is a paradox. Every thing matters and no thing matters. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.

May we all remember that we never know what will happen in this life. Not in one minute, or one hour, or one day or ten years. We have to be present and experience everything fully within this precious gift of human life. Human nature is to attach to people and things but we have to let go, let go, let go… of everything, including memories, our bodies, and all the experiences of this life.

The Five Strengths

Excerpts from Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön:

“The five strengths are the heart instructions on how to live and how to die. Whether it’s right now or at the moment of your death, they tell you how to wake up to whatever is going on.”

1. Strong determination is about connecting with joy, relaxing and trusting. It’s determination to use every challenge you meet as an opportunity to open your heart and soften, determination not to withdraw. When you was up in the morning, you can say: “I wonder what’s going to happen today. This may be the day that I die. The may be the day that I understand what all these teachings are about.”

2. Familiarization means that the dharma no longer feels like a foreign language. Developing wakefulness as your habit, your way of perceiving everything. We talk about enlightenment as if it’s a big accomplishment. Basically, it has to do with relaxing and finding out what you already have.

3. Seed of virtue is, in effect, Buddha nature or basic goodness. It’s like a swimming pool with no sides that you’re swimming in forever. In fact, you’re made out of water. Buddha nature isn’t like a heart transplant that you get from elsewhere. … Let yourself fall apart into wakefulness. … Searching for happiness prevents us from ever finding it.

4. Reproach implies that you see insanity as insanity, neurosis as neurosis, spinning off as spinning off. … Each time you’re willing to see your thoughts as empty, let them go, and come back to your breath, you’re sowing seeds of wakefulness, seeds of being able to see into the nature of mind, and seeds of being able to rest in unconditional space. … That’s the seed of bodhichitta ripening. You find out who you really are.

5. Aspiration is simply to voice your wishes for enlightenment. “May my compassion for myself increase. May I experience my fundamental wisdom. May I think of others before myself.” Aspiration is much like prayer, except there’s nobody who hears you.

It is a relief to know that O is no longer suffering and has left his body behind. I can’t help but think of how unfair and cruel life can be, but at the same time it’s so beautiful. O was and always will be a beautiful soul.

The last words of the Buddha, according to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, were:

“Disciples, this I declare to you: All conditioned things are subject to disintegration – strive on untiringly for your liberation.”

{Here are the first three articles in this series: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech}


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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