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I went to the Insight Meditation Center tonight. It's a Vipassana center in Redwood City. On Monday nights they have a 45 minute sitting followed by a 45 minute dharma talk.

Tonight's talk by Andrea Fella was about things the Buddha taught about ethical thought and behavior.

Many of the talks at IMC are eventually offered as audio files at http://www.audiodharma.org/

These are some notes about what Andrea said tonight.

The Buddha taught his 7-year-old son the following instructions:

  • Before you do something with your body, think about whether it will cause harm to yourself or anyone else. If so, don't do it.
  • While you are doing something, think about whether it is causing harm to yourself or anyone else. If so, stop doing it.
  • After you do something, think about whether it caused harm to yourself or anyone else. If so, talk about what happened with a spiritual friend (i.e., a friend who is also a Buddhist) and practice restraint in the future (i.e., don't do it again).

The above instructions also apply to anything you say, and to anything you think.

Trying to follow these instructions will cause you to develop mindfulness, concentration, and compassion. And you will develop skill in avoiding behavior that causes harm.

(I was thinking, while she was talking about these things, about how long it would take me to determine whether an action or speech would cause harm, and how few things I would do or say as a result of trying to follow those guidelines, and I thought to myself, "This must be why people who have been Buddhists a long time end up not doing very much at all." Which isn't universally true, it's more of a stereotype. But anyway, that's what went through my mind, and I was amused by it.)

(I was also thinking about how the instructions remind me of the Wiccan Rede, which I have seen as "an it harm none, do what ye will.")

Andrea went on to talk about the Buddhist Five Precepts:
1. Refrain from taking life.
2. Refrain from taking what is not given.
3. Refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. Refrain from false speech.
5. Refrain from taking intoxicants.

She mentioned that the precepts might remind a person of "Thou shalt not"s, i.e., the 10 Commandments. She said that the Buddhist approach to behavior guidelines is different though—there's not so much emphasis on blindly following the rules or moralizing, but the guidelines are there to help you decide what behavior is skillful (Buddhist jargon), that is, it avoids creating suffering, and what behavior is unskillful (it creates suffering). And that the way to approach the guidelines was from a position of mindfulness. I don't remember her exact words but they were something like: see what happens if you try to follow them.

(I'm not sure that I agree that "blindly following" the Commandments or "moralizing" about them is an inherent part of Jewish or Christian religion, although some people certainly do go there. But I do think that FOLLOW THE RULEZ OR ELSE YOU ARE BAD is a big part of my culture, and maybe it comes from Christianity being a big part of my culture. So I think that it was important for her to draw a distinction between that sort of relationship with rules or commandments or precepts and an approach that focuses on how the precepts can help you avoid contributing to suffering.)

She suggested that if you follow them, you develop more compassion. And she gave an example where she was engaged in a long campaign of attempting to remove invading ants from her kitchen without killing them, and she ended up paying close attention to how one of the ants was behaving, and as a result feeling compassion for the ants. (So, trying to refrain from taking life led to feeling compassion.)

I think it might be a while before I can apply this stuff to ants, but I admire her for her efforts. I really like the "think before/during/after acting" teachings. I still find it difficult to think about the precepts without getting all tangled up in judgementalism.

Andrea talked about another thing: making amends and offering forgiveness. One thing in particular struck me. She said that a traditional Buddhist prayer about forgiveness goes something like "I forgive you freely for any harm you have done me." But some people find themselves unable to say this without engaging in false speech, because they are still deeply hurt by some things that were done to them.

She offers two alternatives for such situations:
"I forgive you, to the extent I am able, for any harm you have done me."

Or if you feel no forgiveness at all yet, you can say you wish to feel forgiveness toward that person at a later point in time.

She suggests that any of these might move a person toward a more open heart.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 10th, 2009 06:17 am (UTC)
Wow Thanks for posting this!
Mar. 10th, 2009 07:20 am (UTC)

I'm taking a class series about the precepts right now. This past week we've been contemplating the first precept about non-harming, seeing how it works in our lives and how doing metta impacts that. It's been interesting to keep non-harming in my awareness. I have found myself noticing that when I act or react out of fear, it had a lot of potential to cause harm. I've had to make a few apologies for things I realized after the fact. It's been some good learning about how having compassion for myself allows me both to react less quickly and to forgive myself when I mess up, so that I can acknowledge my mistake with the other person and keep moving forward. Good stuff.

I missed your previous posts in the series, and will go look for them.
Mar. 10th, 2009 07:23 am (UTC)
The tag should take you to the previous posts.

Acting from fear is where I tend to cause harm too. And of course it's hard to interrupt the fear process to ask what might come of my actions.

I'm glad the class is being helpful to you!
Mar. 10th, 2009 07:46 am (UTC)
Yep, interrupting the fear process is hard. So far in my experience, practice really helps. The deeper I go with my mindfulness practice, the more I incorporate mindfulness into my daily life. I am finding myself more and more apt to be aware of what state I'm in at any given moment, and even if I can't fully interrupt it, I can more often have the option to sit with my feelings before responding. Then at least my internal process doesn't generate as many negative outward results.
Mar. 10th, 2009 06:04 pm (UTC)
I am getting better at being aware of my state of mind earlier on, too. Yay!
Mar. 10th, 2009 03:36 pm (UTC)
I found that my startle reflex was reduced with meditation. Thus, I didn't hop on the fear cycle so quickly.

I still don't deal well with overtiredness, in situations where overtiredness is unavoidable. I get too focused on getting things done so I can get rest when I'm overtired, and have a hard time thinking of how my actions impact others. Plus the whole reduced cognitive capacity is not helpful.

But, seeing that, I make allowances for that, and it arises less often.

Thanks for posting this. The Insight Meditation Center has been a blessing to me, from afar.
Mar. 10th, 2009 02:24 pm (UTC)
I like her a lot, just listened to a talk by her called "Practicing Happiness". Neat to hear it in person!
Mar. 10th, 2009 06:04 pm (UTC)
That's another talk by her I really like. I didn't hear it in person but I posted about it here:
Mar. 10th, 2009 04:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks. It's so true about how stopping the fear process is hard. Once it gets going I'm blinded to harm I may be causing and am in a self righteous haze of BUT I'M SCAAAARRRRREDDD!
Mar. 10th, 2009 08:19 pm (UTC)
I like the part about forgiveness. That you can hope (pray?) that you have the capacity to forgive someone in the future when you don't have it yet.

That's also acknowledging that you want your forgiveness to be genuine and not false. I think we're often forced to say we forgive when we don't really have it in us.
Mar. 11th, 2009 02:13 am (UTC)
[...] Buddhist Five Precepts [...] Refrain from sexual misconduct.

Interesting: do the Buddhists have a specific definition of "proper" sexual conduct vs. "misconduct" similar to the Christians (i.e., based on marriage or some parallel social custom to mark certain sexuality as "legitimate"), or is it more a question of "being mindful of the effects" - try not to make anyone's partners jealous, try not to "trifle with people's affections" by leading them on and then leaving them feeling let down, etc.?
Mar. 11th, 2009 05:27 am (UTC)
Buddhism is a massive world religion and different Buddhist groups have any number of different ways of interpreting the precepts. I know that some groups disapprove of homosexuality, for example, so presumably they would also disapprove of polyamory. On the other hand, polyandry is practiced among some people in Tibet, where there are a lot of Buddhists.

The kind of Buddhism I practice, at least as it pertains to lay people (as opposed to monks/nuns) is all about the "being mindful." Monks/nuns have a lot more precepts they are supposed to follow, including celibacy.

And I've never heard of anyone saying that there is any Buddhist precept of "Do not commit adultery," for example.

You might find this interesting. It's about an article about polyamory that appeared in an American Buddhist magazine, Tricycle:
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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