Poet Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’ tells us ‘You do not have to be good’. What a relief! But then we come to the Buddhist Parami of Virtue/Ethics. How do we juggle our innate desire to be good, our relief at being told we don’t have to be, and the call to practice vows of non-harming?
When we go on a meditation retreat, the first evening as we enter into silence, we take a vow to follow the Five Precepts. We promise to refrain from harming ourselves and others in any way. At first this basic list, which we’ll go into in more detail, may feel like a bunch of shoulds or commandments. But after a few days of meditating, something shifts. Being in silence with no eye contact, we develop a deeper felt connection. We move around the halls, dining room, dormitories and grounds in a spacious way, without bumping into each other. (Which is good because we can’t say ‘Excuse me’ or ‘Sorry’.) But there’s no sense of avoidance, just a companionable ease and natural courtesy. At times it’s almost the way birds move together in the sky — a murmuration. Through the extended practice of quieting, slowing down, centering and simply being, all these people who were strangers — who are still strangers in the normal sense of not necessarily knowing each other’s names or stories — have become a community of beings with a shared trust, understanding and intention. We call this a sangha. We are all of us supporting each other’s practice.
This deep sense of connection has a naturally arising ethical component. First because the everyday feeling of being an isolated fortress of individuation, and the fear, mistrust and sometimes harmful behavior that comes with it, falls away. And, second, the mindfulness that naturally arises in an unrushed and undemanding setting, makes it less likely to cause harm through being distracted or thoughtless. On retreat we naturally come to the true sense of the state or quality of this Paramita of Ethics.
But because we are not necessarily all that mindful or awakened as we embark on the retreat, we take these vows, these Five Precepts. We bring them front and center to our awareness. We may rely on them quite heavily to guide our behavior. And they may weigh on us like a yoke if we have some harmful habits in place. But we can trust that the weight will lighten, that the feeling of walking on eggshells to avoid doing harm will be transformed into gentle guidance — if not on this retreat, then the next, or the next.
As with all the Paramitas, or any of these Buddhist teachings, we are not on a fault-finding mission. We are not making ourselves over, getting rid of the ‘bad’. We are not force-feeding ourselves goodness or applying it like makeup, hoping for others to admire our virtue. This kind of activity is self-destructive. It makes enemies of all that arises. Instead it is simply noticing what’s true in this moment, and resetting our intention. It is a practice.
So let’s look at these Five Precepts. (Monks and nuns have more precepts to deal with for their lives in the monasteries, but we laypeople focus on these five.) With each of them, look at your own feelings. You might find quandaries and conflicting opinions. You can find peace in aligning your actions with your core beliefs. But if your beliefs are unclear, you may find a kind of peace in the ‘I don’t know’ mind, embracing uncertainty. In our 21st century westernized culture, it’s not unusual to feel there is a lot of gray area around some of these precepts. Or maybe not for you. Check it out! But whatever you find to be true, let it be your own personal attunement, and check the need to prosylitize and gain converts.
The Five Precepts
- Refrain from killing or injuring — We don’t want to cause harm to any being. For some, it means not knowingly killing or injuring another person or the family pet. For others it means not partaking in the killing of any being by eating them, the killing having been done on our behalf. And then, what about the killings done on our behalf in war? It might extend to giving spiders and insects an ‘escort service’ to the great outdoors. It might extend to not killing any being, even unknowingly. There is a story about a woman with a little broom who walked everywhere sweeping the space before her to assure that she didn’t step on any being. Just noticing how this vow sits with you.
- Refrain from taking what is not freely given — Don’t steal. Pretty simple, right? But there are many ways to steal, and some may not feel like stealing until more closely examined. For example, notice if you are taking up someone’s time without asking whether they are offering it willingly. This can happen a lot in conversations. Notice if you are assuming someone is willing to provide services. Perhaps you feel a family member owes it to you to take on a particular chore. This vow steps up our awareness of how much we might be taking for granted, especially from those we love. It might step up our heartfelt expressions of gratitude and our own generosity. This vow extends beyond individuals. Sometimes people who would never take anything from a person feel free to steal from faceless institutions, the government, large corporations. How does this impact us all in cost and security hassles?
- Refrain from misusing our sexuality — This is using our sexuality in a way that is harmful to ourselves or others. Of course, any forced interaction is a clear misuse. If you were ever violated sexually, then you know all too well the importance of this vow. But there are other lesser but still harmful ways of misusing our sexuality, such as using it as currency to gain power. Engaging in sexual activity casually has a long-lasting damaging effect of devaluing ourselves, feeling as if our bodies are objects for the fleeting pleasure of others. Think of a time when you may have misused your sexuality and the harm that it caused. If you are no longer using it in that way, see if you can develop enough compassion to let go of residual shame. Lesson learned. Often as we age, our hormones are no longer calling the shots. If they still are, then setting strong intention is paramount to overcome destructive urges.
- Refrain from lying — We may think lying is at times a kindness, but it clouds the clarity of our minds with the detritus of our unskillfulness. How to keep track of what we told people! Wise speech is truthful, kind and timely. If it is not all three of those things, it is better to be silent. We may lie by exxagerating to prove a point or pump ourselves up, creating a persona for others to admire. We may lie to gain some advantage. It’s valuable to remember that every lie has long term impact inside us as it disrupts inner calm. Fess up and live free! But do no harm in the process.
- Refrain from intoxication — When we get mindless from drinking or drugs, we lose our ability to distinguish what might be harmful to ourselves and others. And unfortunately we are usually not the best judges of how much we can handle. If you partake regularly, ask a family member or close friend to assess. What they tell you may not be pleasant, but it may be what you need to hear. If you have an addiction that is out of control, get the help you need now. That should be your top priority.
These Five Precepts are the core of Buddhist ethics and are intrinsic to any exploration of this Paramita. As you look them over and ponder them in your own life, notice how choices to act in an ethical manner set the wheels in motion to create ease, generosity and happiness.
As we continue to explore the Paramitas we will see how they work together and influence each other. But already we can see how Generosity affects Ethics, and vice versa. Deciding to be as ethical as possible is a generous act, isn’t it? If we refrain from harming in all these ways, everyone we encounter would have reason to be very grateful. And living ethically prompts a more naturally generous nature.