The October-December 2014 IMC Newsletter is now available.
The October-December 2014 IMC Newsletter is now available.
The avoidance of sexual misconduct is the third of the five cardinal Buddhist ethical practices. Sexual feelings and behavior are deeply rooted in our biology, psychology, and social life. After puberty, many people spend significant amounts of time thinking about and involved with their sexuality. Even celibate monastics can devote much energy addressing their sexual feelings.
As an ethical precept, the avoidance of sexual misconduct means striving to refrain from causing harm through our sexuality, even unintentionally. Rather than defining sexual misconduct in terms of any specific sexual behavior, the emphasis is on considering the impact the behavior can have on others and oneself. It means taking into account much more than the particular sexual activity one may be involved in.
Practicing with the third precept requires bringing mindfulness to some of the most intimate and personal areas of our lives. As such, great care and respect is warranted as we bring greater attention to our sexuality. In terms of sexual relationships, mindfulness includes considering the intentions, expectations, and commitments of everyone involved. Without clarity about these it is easy for people to feel disappointed, hurt, or betrayed. Mindfulness in sexual relationships also includes awareness and acknowledgment of any emotional vulnerabilities our partner may have. Past hurts may be re-triggered from what may, on first impressions, appear to be appropriate sexual relations. Mindfulness can also be extended to awareness of the wider social contexts for our behavior. Are commitments being broken with our sexual activity? Are there others—partners or relatives—who would be hurt?
Because the sexual drive can be strong enough to override a person’s wisdom, compassion, and common sense, help is sometimes needed to avoid engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior. The commitment to the third precept can provide this help. It is a safeguard from unexamined, impulsive sexual behavior. It is also a protection from later regrets or worse.
Our sexuality can be a part of the Buddhist path to liberation. Rather than something that is outside the purview of Buddhist practice, sexuality can be a rich arena for practice when we bring mindfulness and investigation to it. One way to do this is to consider our sexuality through the perspective of the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s most common description of the path to liberation. These eight practices are comprehensive enough to address the complexity of our sexual lives. Together they contribute to “Right Sexuality”.
Right View, the first practice of the Eightfold Path, is applying the perspective of the Four Noble Truths to our sexual intentions and behavior. The first Noble Truth asks each of us to consider whether there is any actual or potential suffering—to ourself or to others—connected to our sexual behavior. The second Noble Truth asks us to notice any craving or compulsion that may be part of sexual desire. The third Noble Truth is learning to recognize—even if just as a potential—the possibility of the cessation of any and all suffering connected with our sexual desires. It means to realize a peace and deep abiding sense of fulfillment that dissolves sexual compulsion. The fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Path; it is a set of practices that can bring this fulfillment.
Through practicing Right View we use our awareness of suffering to help us become free of suffering. When suffering and craving are not recognized, suffering can remain the backdrop for ones’ life. Recognized, we can begin to dissolve the backdrop.
The second practice of the Eightfold Path is Right Intention. Discovering the deeper and often subconscious motivations that drive sexual behavior and feelings is one of the very important ways to have Buddhist practice become thoroughly integrated into one’s life.
Right Intention means to avoid three forms of wrong motivations. These are intentions motivated by cruelty, ill will, and lust. Rape, coerced sex, and sexual aggression are examples of extreme sexual behavior that can be motivated by cruelty. Asserting oneself on one’s partner or ignoring his or her well-being can be driven by anger or hostility. Objectifying and disrespecting one’s partner can be a consequence of dominating lust.
Applying Right Intention in our sexual lives involves having our sexual behavior motivated by compassion, loving-kindness, and renunciation. Sexual behavior can be a valuable way of expressing appreciation, love, care, and respect for others. Having these as part of our sexual behavior ensures that sexual relationships are more than skin-deep affairs. They can be nourishing and nurturing of some of the best qualities of our hearts.
Renunciation is an important part of healthy sexuality. Renunciation is the capacity to let go of any desire which might cause suffering and hurt. Without being able to let go of sexual desire, there is no freedom. Spiritual freedom is not to be free to act on our desires; it is being free to choose wisely which desires to act on. It is to be free of compulsive desires.
The third step of the Eightfold Path is Right Speech. For our sexual lives to be an integral part of the Buddhist path it is crucial that we tell the truth. Sexual misconduct often involves deceit and secrecy, activities which undermine efforts to be mindful and transparent. To practice Right Speech in relationship to our sexuality means to be honest. Sexual relationships between people in committed relationships may not appear to have sexual misconduct, but, if there is no honesty, it cannot serve as part of the path of practice.
Next is Right Action. This is usually explained by the first three precepts, not to kill, not to take what is not given, and not to engage in sexual misconduct. To not take what is not given is very important in sexual relationships. It means not expecting or requiring one’s partner to agree to one’s sexual advances. It means avoiding any assertiveness in which one forces oneself on an unwilling partner.
Right Action is followed by the practice of Right Livelihood. This means we participate in the economic life of our society in ways that avoid causing harm. When Right Livelihood is applied to our sexual behavior it includes not paying for sex or pornography. It also means not participating in a line of work that perpetuates harmful sexual behavior and attitudes. For example, someone pursuing a path of liberation would not create sexualized advertisements. Also, they would not facilitate the sexual exploitation and dehumanization of others.
The next step in the Eightfold Path is Right Effort. One way of practicing this is to make an effort at cultivating skillful, positive states of mind such as happiness, contentment, calmness, compassion, and equanimity. These and other positive states are the primary source for having an abiding sense of inner fulfillment and well-being. In terms of our sexuality, developing these positive states of mind is an antidote to using sex to fill an inner void, anxiety, or depression. When we have the pleasure of positive mind states, the physical pleasure of sex may be less alluring or even necessary. Instead of a pursuit of pleasure, sexual activity can then be an expression of love and appreciation.
The seventh Eightfold Path practice is Mindfulness. Sexual behavior and sexual relationships are among the most complicated, multifaceted aspects of our inner psychological life and outer inter-personal life. Sex and sexuality involves hormones, social conditioning, beliefs, motivations, emotions, and the mysterious activity of “chemistry” between people. Sex is seldom about simple pleasure. To be mindful of our sexuality is to begin to unpack all the complexity it comes with. As the different aspects of this complex stew are seen clearly, we can learn where our freedom is found in relationship to it.
Right Concentration is the eighth and final element of the Eightfold Path. Here concentration is synonymous with a profound sense of calm and well-being. The mind that is settled and concentrated is said to be unified. This means there is a strong sense of integration or wholeness when we are concentrated. These benefits of concentration practice have a direct effect on our sexual lives. On one hand, we are much less likely to have our sexual desires motivated by the desire for recognition, belonging, security, approval, pleasure; or to avoid anxiety or unhappiness. On the other hand, it can support sexual intimacy as a vehicle for deep communication, respect, and love for our partner.
In Buddhism, monastics practice celibacy, a path which can be a meaningful and healthy path to freedom. The task for sexually active lay practitioners is to discover how their sexuality can be a meaningful and healthy part of their path to freedom. One way to do this is to apply the Eightfold Path towards a thorough investigation of our sexual lives.
The Summer 2014 IRC Newsletter is now available.
TAUGHT BY CHRIS CLIFFORD AND SENIOR IMC STUDENTS.
The Buddha’s most explicit path of practice is the Eightfold Path. This is a set of eight practical approaches to bring Buddhist practice into the width and depth of our lives. The Eightfold Path Program is an introduction to each of the Eightfold factors so participants will discover how to apply each set of practices in ways that are personally meaningful. Pre-requisite: completion of IMC’s Introduction to Meditation course or the equivalent.
1. 2-1/2 hour monthly meetings that include teachings, meditation, and discussions.
DATES AT IMC:
Introduction to the 9-Month Eightfold Path Program, Sunday, September 14, 1pm to 3pm
The Eightfold Path Program is full. Auditors are welcome to participate at the monthly meetings.
As we finish our second amazing year of running our retreat center we have a clearer understanding and vision of what will help the center thrive well into the future. Coincidently and surprisingly we have been given the opportunity to accomplish this!
Recently, the property next door went up for sale. It includes one forested acre with a 3-bedroom house. Owning this property will allow us to have more resident volunteers caring for our center and our retreats. This is probably the single most important step in creating a strong foundation for our future.
This new property will provide us the extraordinary opportunity to expand the natural setting for the retreat center. It also preserves the quiet and beauty of our retreat environment – the house is only 50 feet from our meditation hall!
The house makes an ideal residence for our teachers. It will offer them a better space to work, collaborate, and bring their families along as they teach retreats. It also provides housing for training the next generation of teachers.
The forested surroundings will give us more space for walking meditation and private reflection in nature. We can also use this additional acre to create a community room for study retreats and disciplines such as yoga and qi gong.
Purchasing this property has become a possibility! In July, a generous supporter purchased the house in order to provide us time to raise the money to buy it from him for the $750,000 he paid. Please help ensure that this opportunity doesn’t slip away—the sooner we can buy it the sooner we can use it and benefit from it.
We are confident our collective generosity will nurture our community-run center, bringing more and more benefits to our world. With your donations and good-wishes you can help IRC thrive as a retreat center and as a model for what is possible.
With much gratitude,
Gil Fronsdal and Andrea Fella
Click to see PHOTOS of the property.
~ Ways to Donate ~
By Check: Please write Friends of IRC in the memo and mail to:
Insight Retreat Center, 108 Birch St., Redwood City, CA 94062
The second Buddhist ethical precept—to refrain from taking what is not given— can be a source of happiness in a number of ways. For example, knowing we have not hurt others by stealing from them is one small form of the happiness that comes from this precept. Knowing that we’re a person others regard as trustworthy and safe, someone they don’t have to fear will steal from them, is another cause of happiness. And still another form of happiness is the joy of blamelessness and the contentment from having no remorse.
Motivated by a sense of our shared humanity, living by this precept can be seen as a gift. We live in the world with all people as family, and just as we would not steal from our own parents or children, we don’t take anything from others unless it is offered. In doing so we offer them the gift of harmlessness, safety and ease. Not taking what is not given is connected to the freedom of heart Buddhism points to. Our greatest wealth is in our hearts, and being free of the greed and selfishness that motivates most acts of theft is a prerequisite for uncovering that inner wealth. A heart at ease simply won’t steal.
By wording the second precept “not taking what is not given,” the Buddhist tradition presents a higher standard and greater clarity for ethical behavior than simply “not stealing.” From this standpoint, things have to be clearly and freely offered before we take something. This precludes relying on ambiguity, deceit, force, exploitation or intimidation to acquire what belongs to others. No matter how small or how low in monetary value, if it isn’t given, we don’t take it. When practiced thoroughly, this precept extends to not borrowing something without permission.
The second precept can also be applied to how and what we consume by refraining from buying anything that originates from people who haven’t given their labor or resources freely. So, for example, we wouldn’t buy clothes made in sweatshops where people are forced to work involuntarily. We would also avoid using natural resources acquired against the wishes and rights of the local people from where the resources came.
Not taking what is not given can also relate to services others perform for us. In the complexity of our interpersonal relationships, fear can easily motivate people to do things they would prefer not to do. Employees may feel they can’t say no to a boss’s request. Spouses may agree to do things they don’t want to because they fear straining the relationship. Silence should not automatically be taken as consent. Instead, we should ask ourselves if the other person is doing something for us out of a sense of coercion, or of their own free will.
In the Buddhist ritual where people express their intention to live by the second of the ethical precepts they say, “I undertake the training to abstain from taking what is not given.” Calling this a “training” implies one is working toward fully living by this precept. It is not a vow of ethical purity one is obligated to live up to. Rather it is an intention to sincerely train to become a person who lives up to it. When taken on as a training, the second precept can be separated into three kinds of training: in restraint, character, and understanding. These three elements are aspects of the traditional Buddhist trainings of sila, samadhi, and panna (virtue, meditation, and wisdom).
Restraint. Training ourselves to refrain from causing harm is central to Buddhist practice. When we refrain from taking what is not offered, we avoid confusing, harming or upsetting others. We ourselves benefit from having a clear conscience and knowing we haven’t given cause for people to be angry at us. We also have the satisfaction of not giving in to greed.
Training in restraint is a support for practicing mindfulness. When we hold back from the impulse to take, we then have the opportunity to look carefully at the nature of the impulse. What beliefs, emotions, and desires are behind it? What justifications do we use to take things that aren’t offered? Or if they are offered, are we taking for the purpose for which they are given? Perhaps pens or stationery are offered freely at work. However, this doesn’t mean we can take them home to pass out to all our relatives. For the practice of mindfulness, the stricter we are with the second precept the more opportunities we have for probing deeply into what motivates us.
In particular, it is useful to explore the role greed and selfishness play in our impulses to take what hasn’t been given. As the Buddhist path of freedom is a way to end greed and self-preoccupation, living with this precept helps us stay on this path.
Character. The second area of training is developing our character or basic disposition. Here the second precept becomes a precept of action by engaging in those mental and physical activities that transform us from the inside out. Living by the second precept is a prompt to practice generosity, goodwill, contentment, and freedom from attachments. As we behave in these ways more and more, we not only act ethically, we become ethical. Being ethical becomes part of our character as we develop greater mindfulness, empathy, happiness, and equanimity. All these combine to promote greater ethical sensitivity and care, and function as antidotes to the power of greed.
Every inclination to take or want something can be an occasion to practice greater mindfulness. For people who don’t actually steal, this can be done by bringing greater attention to subtle forms of taking what is not given, such as dominating a conversation, pushing to the front of a line, or failing to tell the cashier that we’ve been undercharged for a purchase. The precept can function as a “mindfulness cue.” Every time we have a desire to have something that wasn’t given, our commitment to the precept can prompt us to pay more attention to what is happening in our inner life and to recommit to living an ethical life. The second precept also offers the opportunity to train in contentment. We can search for ways to replace greed and desire with a sense of satisfaction with what we already have. We can also practice being content with what is given or offered to us without trying to get something more or something else. Contentment may be one of the most underappreciated supports for training in the path of freedom. It is well worth cultivating.
Because taking what is not given involves our relationships with others, the second precept can also be used as a means to bring greater attention to other people. When we want something belonging to others, we can take the time to allow our empathy to bring us a fuller appreciation of them and their circumstances. Exercising empathy strengthens and increases it.
A training closely associated with the second precept is generosity, or “giving what is not asked for.” Generosity can never be an obligation: giving based on obligation may sometimes be necessary, but it is not generosity. It can be very meaningful to explore ways to be generous. Whenever we are tempted to take what is not given, we can instead consider how to replace the temptation with generosity. Then take the time to feel nourished by this generosity. Our inner character changes for the better when we are so nourished.
Understanding. In addition to training in restraint and character, the third form of training is cultivating understanding. Internally, this means understanding our own motivations, values, and needs. Interpersonally it means understanding the consequences of our actions on others. This includes taking the time to learn about the consequences of our acquisitions and consumption even as they extend beyond what we see. In this wider context how might we be taking what is not given? How careful can we become in not doing so? The fact that sales people happily offer to sell us cell phones and computers does not mean that all the components of these devices come to us from freely offered sources. When children, in slave-like work camps in the Congo, mine the tantalum and tungsten used in our electronics, are our electronic devices really offered freely?
The three areas of ethical training—restraint, character, and understanding – overlap considerably. Developing one often develops the others. Developing all three brings forth the best qualities of the heart, all essential to a life of greater happiness and inner freedom.
The July-September 2014 IMC Newsletter is now available.
The intention to not cause harm lies at the heart of Buddhist ethical and spiritual life. The commitment to non-harming leads to a life committed to not killing, which is the first of the five precepts undertaken by Buddhists the world over.
The first precept has implications in many areas of our lives, some personal and others societal. Close to home it may relate to such issues as eating meat, hunting, having firearms, self-defense, and pest-management. Both at personal and societal levels the precept is connected to questions of abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. More widely, the first precept relates to questions about war, military service, capital punishment, the culling of wildlife, and laboratory research with animals.
The first precept is also intimately connected to our inner life as it relates to our motivations, values, emotions, and beliefs. To live by this precept is more than avoiding killing, it touches on our capacity for goodness—sometimes called virtue. Mindfulness, love, compassion, generosity and wisdom are all companions to the first precept. In addition, freeing ourselves from the distortions of selfishness, greed, or aversion creates the conditions for naturally wanting to avoid harming.
As a Buddhist practice, the first precept can be approached though the framework of the three areas of Buddhist training: training in ethics, in meditation and in wisdom. Traditionally called sila, samadhi, and pañña these three trainings concern how we behave, how we are, and how we see. As such, they support us like the legs of a tripod: we need all three to stay upright and balanced in situations that may challenge a commitment to non-harming and the first precept.
Training in sila (ethics) emphasizes the practice of restraint. This training entails restraining from killing, even ants in our homes. Some people include avoiding activities indirectly connected to killing, such as buying produce grown with pesticides. Restraint is useful in cultivating a number of important personal qualities. It develops will power, patience, the capacity to let go, and the safety of blamelessness. Restraint can also foster greater self-understanding; not acting on an urge can help us to see the urge more clearly.
In relation to the precepts, training in samadhi (meditation) involves developing the heart and mind so our inner life supports our ethical life. Traditional forms of samadhi training include meditation practices that develop mindfulness, concentration, loving-kindness, or compassion. Greater concentration, with the associated contentment, calmness confidence, and equanimity reduce the selfishness that lies at the root of most unethical behavior. Developing loving-kindness and compassion helps us consider and regard others in caring ways. These all contribute to greater ethical sensitivity and self-awareness. This, in turn, reduces the chances that we will act on the fear or hate which often motivate the impulse to harm.
Training in samadhi ensures that living by the precepts is not simply adhering to particular rules. When our virtues and beneficial inner states are developed, we are naturally motivated to act in ways informed by the precepts. When we are happy, mindful, and compassionate we are not inclined to kill. Rather, we understand that killing any living being diminishes our inner well-being and ease.
Training in pañña (wisdom) is developing our understanding and insight. One way ethical wisdom is cultivated is through investigation. When we are about to act contrary to the precepts we can stop to investigate the situation. In particular it is useful to inquire into three areas of our potential action, their intentions, their consequences, and alternatives to them.
For example, when our actions will directly or indirectly cause the death of a living being, we can investigate the intentions motivating the actions. Do the intentions support a path to awakening? Are we happy and proud to have these intentions? Is what we are intending to do worth the sacrifice of another life? How do we balance competing intentions? We may want to safeguard both the termites eating our house and our house. Are there times when we need to choose between the termites and house? Or, what about a situation where we are being physically attacked? How do we choose between not wanting to cause harm and the desire to protect ourselves?
Because these can be difficult questions to answer, it is important to investigate the consequences of killing. Too often people kill with a short-sightedness that fails to recognize the ripple effect of taking life. Using pesticides may successfully exterminate a pest, but too many times we have discovered later that the pesticide harmed other creatures and humans exposed to the pesticide. Killing an enemy soldier may seem appropriate in times of war but when we consider the ripple effect on the soldier’s children, family, and community, is war the best way to accomplish what needs to be done? By investigating and understanding consequences, the balance between self-care and caring for others may change.
We can also consider the consequences to our inner life if we take the life of another. Meditation practice reveals the toll that killing has on our inner life. When those who have killed other people or animals begin to meditate, it is not uncommon for them to experience difficulty in facing their past actions and working through the pain and regret. Until they meditated, the harmful personal consequences laid buried in their minds.
The third area to investigate when we are motivated to kill is to consider the alternatives. All too often people want a quick solution with clear results. But discovering the alternatives to killing sometimes requires research and creative problem solving. For example, instead of buying a gun to protect ourself, can we take the time to learn self-defense strategies that will keep us safe without needing a firearm? Instead of physician-assisted suicide, can palliative care reduce the pain? Instead of pesticides on our crops, can we choose to grow plants that are not threatened by local pests?
While killing can be done quickly and easily, the unexpected negative consequences can last a long time. Finding alternatives to killing may take much time and effort, but they do not leave the same legacy of suffering. Rather, alternatives to violence leave a legacy of peace and good-will.
The personal maturity that comes from the combined training in sila, samadhi, and pañña gives a person an internal guide for their ethical life. The motivation to live a life of non-harming becomes something we want to do; it becomes something we know enriches our inner life and the lives of those around us. Not only does it diminish the impulses of greed, hate and delusion, it also increases the presence of generosity, love, and wisdom.
In this way, living by the first precept is not only about what we don’t do. It is also about what we do. The Buddha associated the first precept with the practice of generosity in the following teachings:
Abandoning the taking of life, one abstains from taking life. This gives freedom from danger, freedom from hostility, and freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of living beings. In giving freedom from danger, hostility, and oppression to others one gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, hostility, and oppression. This is the first great gift. —AN 8.39
Just as not taking life is the first Buddhist ethical precept, so generosity is the first Buddhist virtue. When they come together, we can have firsthand experience that the first precept is less about following external rules and more about expressing generosity and compassion arising from within.
Unhindered: A Mindful Path Through the Five Hindrances
Gil Fronsdal’s new book is now available. It can be ordered through Amazon and maybe available through special order at a local bookstore. It provides a detailed discussion of each of the five hindrances. These are the mental states that present the most common obstacles to meditation. As such, all meditators should become familiar with the hindrances and how to work with them. The book provides instruction on how to turn the light of mindfulness directly on the hindrances so to transform them from obstructions to steps along the path of freedom. Overcoming the hindrances reveals the beauty of our hearts and the wisdom of a clear mind.
The January-March 2014 IMC Newsletter is now available.
Anyone practicing mindfulness knows there are forces in the mind that can make it difficult to stay attentive to one’s present moment experience. Ranging from weak to very powerful, these forces hamper our ability to remain mindful, develop concentration and have clear insight. They pull our attention away from our efforts to meditate. Even with the best of intentions to stay focused, these forces can propel us into the world of pre-occupation and distracted thought.
Rather than reacting to these difficulties as being “bad,” “distractions,” or personal failings, it is important to be mindful of them. In that they are happening in the present, they can be a basis for cultivating greater awareness and wisdom. They can become part of the path of practice, rather than a detour.
It is important to investigate the forces of distraction and agitation carefully to understand their nature and how they work. It is easier to find freedom from something when we know it thoroughly. Ancient Buddhist stories tell of Mara, the Buddhist personification of temptation and distraction, approaching the Buddha. Each time Mara arrives, the Buddha simply says, “Mara, I see you,” and Mara flees. Recognizing Mara was effective in bringing freedom from Mara.
Of the many forces of distraction, five are traditionally identified as particularly important for people practicing Buddhist mindfulness and meditation. Known as the five hindrances, they are workings of the mind that can hinder our ability to see clearly and our capacity to develop a stable, concentrated mind. The hindrances are sensual desire; ill will; sloth and torpor; restlessness and worry and doubt.
As you can see, the list is actually made up of seven factors, but four are always paired. One explanation for the paired items is that they represent closely related physical and mental factors.
The first two hindrances are related by being opposite qualities. Desire and ill will are both forms of wanting, albeit in opposing ways. Desire wants to have something, whereas ill will wants to push something way. The third and fourth hindrances are similarly seen as opposing tendencies. They both involve levels of energy or vitality. Sloth and torpor are low energy states while restlessness and worry are high energy states.
The fifth hindrance, doubt, is not specifically connected with any of the other hindrances or distinguished into physical and mental aspects. This is because doubt is often entwined with any combination of the other hindrances and can cast its influence in many ways on our whole being.
The wisdom needed for working with the hindrances is discovered through mindfulness of them. This wisdom is acquired slowly, requiring much patience. It also requires an interest in studying the hindrances as they appear. Reading about the hindrances cannot substitute for the time and effort needed to understand how the hindrances operate. As each person has his or her own path through the hindrances, you will have to find yours.
It is best to respect the hindrances and their power. This is not to acquiesce to them, but rather it is a way to overcome their sway. Through developing one’s mindfulness, the hindrances begin to lose their power. With the growth of wisdom, equanimity, and concentration it is possible to be free from their influence.
It is also possible to be free of the hindrances themselves; they do not have to be present. One’s mind can be hindrance-free. Without the obscurations of the hindrances, such a mind can become clear, perhaps like a translucent pond in which everything is seen clearly.
Buddhism recognizes a hindrance-free mind as a beautiful mind. In fact, for some people this mind is one of the most beautiful experiences they know. Because all other forms of beauty are perceived through the mind, when the mind is clear and peaceful, what we perceive will be perceived within this clarity and peace. It is like having the light turned on after living in the dark for a long time: the marvel of sight becomes more wonderful than whatever is seen.
On the path to freedom, the primary function of a hindrance-free mind is to teach us about non-clinging. When the hindrances hinder it is because we are clinging to something. When the hindrances are absent we are then free of their accompanying clinging. By seeing the difference between clinging and non-clinging we learn that freedom is found in non-clinging. When this lesson is learned well, we understand that clarity, peace, beauty and other experiences on the path to freedom are not the point of the path; they are stepping-stones to more and more thorough degrees of freedom from attachment.
The milestones along this path are measured by release from attachments. In relationship to the hindrances this may begin with letting go of anger, discouragement, or dismay that they are present. A further step is giving up judging oneself negatively because of the hindrances. Another signpost is letting go of any belief that justifies the importance of the hindrances. The most significant milestones is being released, even temporarily, from the hindrances themselves.
With a strong enough experience of non-clinging we come to a fork in our path. One direction leads to more clinging, the other to freedom. As practice becomes deeper the path of freedom becomes more obvious. At some point it becomes clearly the easier path. When we are new to practice it is clinging that may be easiest, one day it becomes non-clinging. Freedom supports further freedom. It empties the mind of obstructions and agitation until, in the beauty of the mind’s clarity, we are free of ourselves.
This article is an excerpt from Gil’s new book, Unhindered: A Mindful Path Through the Five Hindrances, which can be purchased on Amazon.com. Click through the Recommended Books page on our website when making a purchase on Amazon, and help support IMC.
The Spring 2014 IRC Newsletter is now available.
The Fall 2013 IRC Newsletter is now available.
The October-December 2013 IMC Newsletter is now available.
Buddhism teaches that personal practice and safeguarding our environment are closely connected. This is because both of these endeavors ask us to overcome the forces of greed, hate, and delusion. The intimate relationship between the world and ourselves means that when we properly care for ourselves we will care for the world, and when we do what’s best for the world, we benefit ourselves.
After his awakening, which took place as he sat outdoors underneath a tree, the Buddha continued to live and meditate in forests throughout his life. He explained that he did this for his own benefit and out of compassion for future generations. Because nature is a tremendous support for the path of liberation, the Buddha instructed his followers to meditate in nature.
Practicing mindfulness outdoors in nature cultivates a greater appreciation of the natural world. Building on this appreciation, a healthy respect for nature can come from understanding how dependent our lives are on the natural environment and how easily human activity can damage this support system. When the Buddha was alive, human impact on the natural world was evident mainly on a small, local scale. Today, the evidence of this interconnectedness is global—for instance, the greenhouse gases released through human activity in some parts of the world affect climates across the planet.
There’s an ancient Buddhist tale that tells of a mythic tree whose vast canopy provides shade and whose abundant fruit can be harvested freely by anyone. But when a greedy person stuffs himself with fruit and then breaks off one of the branches, the tree stops bearing fruit.
Another early Buddhist myth depicts an ideal world of abundance and ease that progressively falls into decay in response to the deteriorating ethics of the people who live there. The decline begins as people become greedy and continues with the gradual appearance of arrogance, lust, laziness, theft, lying, and violence.
These ancient myths no longer feel fanciful—they quite accurately represent our modern world. Rainforests have been clear-cut and the land can no longer support people living there. In some parts of the world the soil and water have become polluted with pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals, sickening nearby residents. The air in metropolitan areas is filled with smog, and children who breathe this pollution have higher rates of asthma and autism.
If we look closely, we can see that greed, hate, or delusion underlies all large scale human destruction of the environment. Greed drives exploitation of our natural resources, hate destroys vast lands through the ravages of war, and delusion perpetuates environmental harm when we don’t understand the impact our actions have on the natural world.
Of these forces, delusion (and its partner, indifference) is perhaps the most widespread and thus the most destructive. Even those of us with the best intentions can be blind to the effects our actions have, especially when the repercussions are out of sight, removed in space or time. For instance, large dams built in order to improve people’s lives have destroyed the watershed that sustained the very communities they were meant to serve. Cutting trees in the Himalayas in order to care for one’s family can have disastrous consequences when hundreds of thousands of people do the same thing. When farmers in Sumatra set fires to clear land, they neither know nor care much about the record air pollution that falls on Singapore as a result. One person thinks that his or her driving contributes a negligible amount of pollution, without considering what happens when that contribution is combined with the millions of cars driving in the same region. In the California Bay Area, for example, the smog from its 5 million cars kills trees in the Sierra Mountains, far out of sight of Bay Area residents.
Buddhism emphasizes the impact our individual actions have on our lives and the world around us, and it follows from this perspective that caring for the natural world begins with each of us. As practitioners on this path, it doesn’t make sense to ignore what we can personally do by relying on others to take responsibility for our environment. Instead we view our own actions as significant. Because of the staggering number of people now living on the earth—7 billion—the combined actions of many can either preserve vast ecosystems, or destroy them. If we fall into passive acquiescence in the face of environmental destruction, we give up our individual “response–ability”—our ability to respond.
Many of us can make the choice to consume fewer natural resources and to act out of compassion for the earth. Doing so doesn’t have to diminish the quality of our lives; it can increase it. We can choose to see reducing our carbon footprint not as an act of deprivation, but as an opportunity to gain the spiritual benefits of a simpler lifestyle. If the natural world is to be our teacher, as Buddhism suggests, maybe we can learn more by walking in a forest or a local park than by speeding by on the highway; perhaps we’re closer to the heart’s freedom when we sit undistracted in nature than when we’re plugged into our various electronic devices.
In each of our lives we’re presented with myriad opportunities to make small and large changes to reduce the negative impact we have on the natural world. When we make these changes as part of a spiritual practice, they support our spiritual growth. Contributing to the well-being of all of life can give joy and provide deeper meaning to our actions.
Still, as individuals we can’t make sweeping changes all by ourselves. Political action is needed to ensure that we all work together for sustainable usage of our natural resources. It takes public policies and laws to ensure that we all share in creating mass transit systems, reducing pollution, and protecting open spaces. History has shown that governmental action is needed as a safeguard against the nearsighted systems within which commercial and industrial interests often operate. Only governments have the ability to negotiate environmental agreements across many states and between nations.
So where does that leave us as Buddhist practitioners? When Buddhist practice is applied to our political efforts, generosity can be our motivation, goodwill and compassion our guide, and learning can replace our quick judgments. Guided by these wholesome qualities, political action can be passionate, energetic, and effective. Some people mistakenly believe that Buddhism, with its emphasis on equanimity, is incompatible with political action. But Buddhism doesn’t discourage political engagement. What it does discourage is divisive, hostile, and exclusively self-serving efforts at making political change.
There’s no doubt that human activity now challenges the health of our natural world more than at any other time in history. Unfortunately the damage to our environment has been increasing every year. If we are to reverse this trend, all but the poorest of us need to make changes in our lifestyle and patterns of consumption. Buddhism provides a way to embrace these changes as part of a path to freedom, peace, and compassion. Our ability to respond to these challenges is also our ability for spiritual growth. We can improve the quality of our environment while we deepen the capacity of our hearts.