hearts that open

At the end of a retreat conducted in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, retreatants are invited to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings.  These are the lay precepts cast in terms of positive engagement by Thich Nhat Hanh.  At one level that is so; at another, they continue to contain elements of the “do not” found in all calls for ethical behaviours.  While the terminology is not as directive, the commitment to not kill, not steal, not engage in sexual misconduct, not speak in anger or untruthfully, and not to use intoxicants is very much evident.  It’s unavoidable really.  The first step of any practice whose intention is well being begins with restraint.

This aspect of ethics is a touchy one for many of us.  We don’t like being told what to do; even more, we dislike being told what not to do.  And yet, in the liminal space between moving forward and holding back, there may be something valuable that can emerge.

So today, I’m watching the many ways in which I can act with restraint, hold back, pause.  Not as a process of denying myself or others but rather as a practice of awareness, of not obstructing the possibility of something different arising.

kitty karma, part two

Some of you may recall my story about some kitty karma we generated a few months ago.  Our adopted cat Pumpkin, actually the neighbour’s cat found the al fresco service at our place was more reliable and settled into the metal storage shed.  The neighbour estimated her age at about 11 years and commented that she tended to get pregnant a lot.  I don’t know if that assessment was relative to most barn cats or a particularity he was assigning to this cat.  We had to admit that she did tend to look continuously bulbous at the belly.  So when she showed up with her Sprout, we weren’t surprised.  He is a handsome little bug which psychological studies would predict increases the attachment – and should he go to university, he would score higher grades, get better jobs, and be more successful than your average barn cat’s off spring.

Sprout and Pumpkin did well over the Fall and into the first snow.  We continued to provide fodder and began the process of taming the little guy with kitty treats.  I caught him at one point and even managed to get him to accept a few moments of cuddling.  Of course, honouring Pumpkin’s age, now 13 years, we made plans to get her spayed as soon as it was clear that Sprout was no longer nursing – which he was but he wasn’t going to let anyone know.  Then last weekend, Pumpkin began to seem somewhat out of sorts.  We took her to the vet – agonizing over leaving Sprout for a few hours without Mom.  The vet cleared her health-wise and we talked about the ease of having her spayed.  No worries.  She’d be in and out in a day and outdoors the same day.  Technology had changed dramatically, we were assured.  Well, you likely know the ending to this section.  Pumpkin died from the anesthesia.

There are many directions I could go from this juncture.  There is the self-directed anger and rage.  There is the other-directed anger and rage.  There is the heart-rending grief when I looked out the window that first evening I was supposed to bring Pumpkin home and instead watched Sprout on the deck staring down the lane towards the metal shed.  He sat there agitated between the draw of the food bowl and the habitual sight of his mother coming up to the house to feed with him.

It didn’t help that we were hit with a snow storm over the next two days and the temperature plummeted to -23° C  for two nights.  At 2AM the first morning of the storm, distressed and  unable to sleep, I looked down from the upstairs window expecting dismal darkness laced with freezing rain; there was Sprout bouncing in the snow banks and at daylight I chuckled to see the kitty-angels in the snow.  The next night when the wind was at its screeching wildest, I sat in the little unheated mudroom and listened to him mewling in the space under it; all I could hope was that my voice soothing him would help.  He survived the first night when temperatures sank to -23°C; I was convinced we would make it through!  He didn’t show up at his usual time for breakfast after the second night of deep freeze; I was convinced he was dead.

If Sprout were to live out my story of his life, he’d likely not survive.  Thankfully, he seems to be writing his own version of the Life of Sprout.  For the moment it seems filled with anxiety, wonder, adolescent demands for food, and refusal to listen to reason.  Of course, kitties are vulnerable at this age and skittish which makes it hard to cultivate a quick bond with him.  That introduces much uncertainty about his potential for survival and I am working on resting in the reality that there is only so much we can do.  He has food and water; the old barn is filled with warm old hay, and the shed has nooks and crannies to protect him from larger animals.

It should reassure me.  Sometimes it does.  And then it doesn’t.  What is fascinating is the way my mind grabs each sense perception and derives a conclusion.  I see him eat and think, “Oh, he’s going to be just fine!”  I don’t see kitty paw prints in the snow from the night before and think, “He’s dead!”  I try to lure him to me with treats and when he dashes away: “Oh, he’ll never survive!”  I watch him dive into snowbanks and the angels sing.

This is a fickle mind which writes tales of life and death from each split second.  It has no shame.  It will as easily destroy as generate.  It has a licence to kill and clone.  Thank goodness it cannot realize – make real – anything without the cooperation of the rest of the five streams, Four Foundations, Six Paramitas, Five Precepts, Ten Grave Precepts, and a raft of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas, and the Mahaprajnaparamita too!

that’s a fact

It’s been a bit of a fragmented week, hasn’t it?  I think I shared this on the Facebook Page: I’m in the clutch of data analysis for my Chaplaincy Project (has it been almost two years already!) and trying to let the Creative (Missing-in Action) Muse take charge of my life.  The final written project is not a huge volume of writing so, on the one hand, I’m not overly twisted about it.  On another hand, it is a challenge to pull together fleeting thoughts, aspirations, desires, and not let the ever-burgeoning ego swamp it all.  On another hand (remember Avalokiteshvara), it is fun to try to get a broth of Dharma and a thickener of applied practice to congeal into a tasty gravy.

I’m trying to be organized.  Having cleaned up the data which gave some interesting insights into the relationship between burnout factors, self-compassion, and spiritual congruence, I’m launching into the reams of articles on the Four Noble Truths, Dharma Seals, Koans for the Ill-informed (that’ll be me), and the current status of Mindfulness-Based Interventions.

This is an interesting edge, sewing together a seam of wisdom teachings and their practical applications.  More than that, it’s an attempt to create a robe that is a Western application of Eastern wisdom.  The issue of whether this has been a success or not is probably irrelevant.  There are camps and camp followers; ardent defenders of the faith and vocal lobbyists for the scientific method.  I tend to wander through both camps, adhering to neither but listening carefully for what might be helpful.  Mostly I hold to the belief that there is wisdom in both approaches, that they are supportive wings, and each can and has learned much from the other.

And then, sometimes, the data-gathers show there’s a long way yet to go.

A recent article by Grabovac, Lau and Willett in Mindfulness attempted to re-insert Buddhist Psychology into the foundations of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.  Grabovac and her colleagues did a good job of putting the Three Dharma Seals (impermanence, suffering and nonself) into the service of explaining the mechanisms involved in mindfulness-based interventions.  Drawing partially from the Abdhidhamma, they worked out a pretty good set of visuals that lead us through sense perceptions, attachment/aversion, and the generation of suffering and nonself.  I found their understanding of the implications of nonself is a bit wonky, but that’s not as critical as what comes next.

About halfway through the article, they address the role of Ethics (sila) in the cultivation of mindfulness.  After listing the five precepts, Grabovac and colleagues make what is likely one of most faulty statements of the intent of a practice founded in sila.

(O)ne of the major purposes of the ethical guideline is to reduce the baseline amount of mental proliferation, thus aiding both concentration and mindfulness practices… Leading an ethical life, in the context of the (Buddhist Psychological Model),implies that the meditator experiences less guilt, doubts, worries, etc. that can often be a source of mental proliferation.

I’m no scholar of the Dharma but I don’t think one can get more off-track than this.  In effect, they reduce Buddhist Ethics to a utilitarian process of feeling good.  In terms of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development that makes Buddhist (and Mindfulness-Based) practitioners capable of not much more than the second level in which we choose the “right” thing to do because it gets us something in return.  What Grabovac and friends have missed is that sila plays an equal role (if not more so) to Wisdom and Concentration in the triumvariate model of practice.  It is more than just doing something to get something in return.  And perhaps, this is where I find the teaching of Mindfulness-Based courses to be inherently limited if we stop, as most courses do, at symptom relief.

The ethics of a Buddhist Psychological or Applied Model requires opening to our interconnectedness (non-self is the start point).  The practice of the Five Precepts (or Five Mindfulness Trainings of Thich Nhat Hanh) is more than about avoiding a poor rebirth or ensuring some Thing for ourselves.  To miss this places the whole translation of Dharma into Psychology on very shaky ground.  In fact, I think it just collapses.

It’s disappointing that researchers who put so much into developing a bridge between the two worlds would have missed something so critical and obvious.  And in a journal of some repute, it concerns me that readers not well-versed in Buddhist thought will take the diminishing of Buddhist Ethics to a utilitarian role as a fact.  I haven’t seen an open challenges to this part of the article.  Perhaps it will come soon.

an asymmetric responsibility

We tend to get hyper-focused on the precepts themselves – the should’s and do not’s and the infringement of our presumed right to be whoever we are.  We pay little or no attention when committing to the Three Jewels or Three Treasures.  They are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha which are the container in which the precepts are carried.  When receiving the precepts, we also commit to being one with the Three Jewels but that seems to slide by without triggering much anxiety.

I remember standing in the center of the zendo along with four or five others getting ready to do what seemed like innumerable bows that go along with receiving the precepts or Five Mindfulness Trainings.  I had spent hours reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the precepts, For a Future to be Possible, sitting with the local sangha, and doing my best to write truly heartfelt glosses on each Mindfulness Training.  They told me what I already knew (as do precepts for anyone) but it was left to me to work out how that was going to manifest in my particular life.  So there I was percolating along in my head about the meaning of respecting life, being generous, not engaging in sexual misconduct, speaking mindfully, and attending to what I consumed when I heard the words, “We will now take refuge in the Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”

All my baggage careened into my frontal lobes as my mind came to a screeching halt.  Wait.  What?  Take refuge.  I’m becoming Buddhist?  Hold on.

This is common reaction having heard it repeatedly from many retreatants who consider receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings.  They often ask about the necessity to take refuge if one is not interested in being Buddhist.  Can the precepts by themselves be a necessary and sufficient condition for living an ethical and moral life?  Does one have to throw oneself wholeheartedly into the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as well?  One dharma teacher pointed out that the Three Jewels are where we turn to for refuge when we have fallen short of the commitment.  In other words, without the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha how would we know the nature of our failing?  I really didn’t quite understand this and perhaps the religiosity got to me at the time.

Over time, I think I’ve begun to understand that the precepts cannot exist outside the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  More than that, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are not signs of religious fervour but ways in which the precepts direct my practice.  If I use Roshi Daido Loori’s translation of refuge as “entering wholeheartedly without reservation,” then my practice of the precepts becomes one of giving myself wholeheartedly to the capacity of all beings to realize their bodhicitta, the accessibility of eternal wisdom to transform suffering, and the unstinting inclusiveness of relationships.  In that light, respect for life, for example, only makes sense when I can perceive and respect, without reservation, the Buddha in every person.  Generosity is only possible when I commit to a Sangha that is harmonious and boundless.  The respect for boundaries embraced by the precepts of sexual conduct, mindful speech, and consumption underscore the deep wisdom of all things being interconnected.  This level of open-hearted commitment is about responsibility for all beings and is the only choice available to us.

“The tie with the Other is knotted only as responsibility.  To say Here I am.”

Emmanuel Levinas

I’m still struggling through the philosopher Levinas’ view of ethics as responsibility which transcends all categories of the other person.  Ethics, in his view (and my limited one), is asymmetrical.  It pre-exists our knowledge of the Other and is independent of the actions, intents, beliefs, and identity of the Other.  Sounds suspiciously like the Bodhisattva vows… and a huge challenge to a mind given to picking-and-choosing where to deliver compassion.  But perhaps it is not as much a challenge if I take the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as the container of my practice.

Thank you for practising,


pressed precepts

There was one of those quirky “try this” posts on Facebook that sent me to three different websites from which I collected words and pictures that created the name of my band, its album title and cover.  Silliness that distracted me from something in a long day.  But I am intrigued that the band name is “Beacon Comm;” it was Beacon Communications which I thought sucked as a band name.  The church made my eyebrow raise but the words I had to use for the cover song were interesting: a box where I hang my hat.

This sacred place as a box where I hang my hat.  Fascinating.  Especially when this random set of information kept resonating with conversations I found myself in over the week.  Precepts, Mindfulness Trainings, Vows, Refuge, gravitas of commitment.

More than that, at dim sum lunch, a dharma friend and I puzzled over the reactivity we see in many people to the idea of taking precepts.  Not keeping precepts, because most of us keep them in one form or another.  Taking the precepts seems a huge breath-catching, show-stopper.  Somewhere between the shrimp shui mai and the steamed rice cakes, we stopped being puzzled about the reactivity and started digging into what it meant to actually live the precepts.

In 2002, I excitedly took the Five Mindfulness Trainings at a retreat led by dharma teachers in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition.  Over the years of reciting the Mindfulness Trainings, I’ve develop a deep affection for them and perhaps less for the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings when I ordained later.  Somehow the Fourteen seem just a bit more political and prone to a holier-than-thou attitude.  But we recite them too and do our best with them.  There are other sets of precepts one can commit to as well: Bhante Gunaratna transmits Eight Precepts – the standard five with three on speech.  And of course, there are the 10 Grave Percepts of most Zen orders – it’s actually 16 because you have to add the Three Refuges and the Three Pure Precepts.

Ironically, I think I only really understood what I was getting into when I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings.  Honestly, I can’t say I dug deep with the Fourteen MT’s.  And I gave it the best shot I had at the time with jukai and the 16 Precepts.

I have to think about all this.  It bothers me that we can’t separate the call to vow from a sense of belonging to a group.  The taking on of a way of living becomes conflated with a social identity.  Your mileage may vary and it likely has.

When I read this passage in Roshi Daido Loori’s Invoking Reality, I felt my discomfort articulated:

There are thousands of Zen practitioners in our country, many thousands who have received the precepts and taken refuge in the Three Treasures but who don’t really know what they’ve done.  They have no idea what the precepts mean.

“Hello, I’m Genju and I’m a precepts-taking addict.”

Roshi Daido Loori continues:

There is so much to learn.  The precepts are incredibly profound.  Don’t take them lightly.  They are direct.  They are subtle.  They are bottomless.  Please use them.  Press up to them.  Push them.  See where they take you.  Make them your own.  They are no small thing, by any measure.  They nourish, they heal, and they give life to the Buddha.

It’s a start.  It’s a box where I hang my hat.

Thank you for practising,


only this being

I don’t know when it happened but somewhere along the ragged path of managing the symptoms of Fibromyalgia, I realized something subtle.  FMS, as a disease, is a collection of sensations that signals my body’s physical reactivity; my dis-ease was a collection of mental reactivities to the signals sent as sensations from my body.  As much as I could, I understood the physiology and psychology of the former but I struggled with the implications of the latter.  Combined with the reality that there is no cure, I had to re-configure my practice.  It was no longer beneficial to use the panoply of wellness strategy to take away the symptoms.  Instead, I had to consider the possibility of transforming my dis-ease to something that allowed me to be in my life as it was (is?).  I had to let go of the disease/recovery model and take up one that spoke to living well, one that allowed me to embody dignity and gratitude.

All this may sound terribly rational and logical but it wasn’t.  The actual progress was in fits and starts with many side trips and time spent staring at dead ends.  Being a Bear of Limited Imagination I decided to use the Five Mindfulness Trainings as my map.  Respect for Life, Generosity, Respect for Sexual Boundaries, Mindful Speech and Mindful Consumption are Thich Nhat Hanh’s re-framing of the five precepts (do not kill, do not steal, do not engage in sexual misconduct, do not lie, and do not use intoxicants).  Practising with each Mindfulness Training (I like calling them MT’s for obvious reasons: all are contained in each), I began to develop a road map to negotiate through the difficult days.

When the dark thoughts visited, I confronted the reality of my mortality.  This life is limited in its time span and unpredictable in its endpoint.  It is only an illusion that we know how long we have.  This effectively rendered as nonsensical any thoughts of being cheated out of something.

When I was caught in my acquisitive and entitled mind, the practice of generosity was a powerful antidote.  When I wanted something different from what I had, I offered it to myself in a creative way.  It wasn’t always satisfying but it allowed me to develop a more realistic appraisal of what was possible.  Catching myself wanting more good days, I would try to notice the range in the quality of my days.  Finding myself in the thrall of my past, I tried to see what part of that past I still had in my reach.  Truthfully, the concrete shifts didn’t always work but something subtle began to happen.  Ironically, by allowing the wish for more, being generous with the humanness of wanting shifted my perspective in ways I didn’t expect.  It is OK to want something different from what I have; what is neither useful nor beneficial is going blindly after it.

Generosity played an equally powerful role when I was caught in the painful physical symptoms.  Giving myself permission to just be in pain without making demands to do something settled the reactive mind.  It clarified the decision-making about rest and the possible use of medications.  (Thankfully, I’ve not needed the heavy-duty meds to manage this .)  Allowing myself to take days off, re-arrange my schedule, even to sleep all day if necessary was a challenge.  It took a double dose of both generosity and mindful speech (No, you’re not a lazy, wimp) to peel off layers of self-criticism.

Speaking compassionately to myself when I couldn’t meet goals, cancelled gatherings with friends and family, or had to adapt to doing less at work was as much a challenge as being generous to myself.  It all seemed self-indulgent and unfair to Frank who bore the burden of the see-sawing finances.  But the harsh self-recriminations were not working.  I had to re-think my fierce independence and what it meant that I could no longer fly solo.  Along with compassionate speech, the practice of generosity meant allowing others to give to me.

The impact on our finances of my ability to work made Mindful Consumption a crucial practice.  I tend to take the deprivation route which only leads to impulsive spending.  Being skillfully generous became a central practice.  But it wasn’t just about money.  I had to be attentive to the way I consumed media images of what Life is Can Be Like, what can be had just for a small down payment, and all the slights of hand we encounter in our commercialized world.

It’s better these days.  I practice and play smarter.  The fact that I play is in itself remarkable.  The fact that I practice is non-negotiable.  When I talk to people about managing FMS “using mindfulness,” I go to great lengths to point out that mindfulness is neither magic nor a Theory of Everything.  It will not take away what is inherently part of being human.  It cannot explain why anything has happened; nor will it predict what will happen (even if you sit, stand, walk mindfully until the cows come home).

Practice, on the other hand, is different.  It is the essence of generosity.  It is allowing myself to be just who I am.  In this day, this moment, this breath, this being.

Thank you for practising,


Photo: The doll is a Compassion Katsina by Brent Brokeshoulder of the Tobacco Clan from Hotevilla Village.  Its crossed eyes, twisted legs and arms represent what is wounded or misshapen in us that needs compassion.

non harming

In the dimension of primary meaning all sounds are the sounds of the Buddha and all talk illuminates his teaching.  This is the vast and fathomless Dharmakaya.  It inspires us at each moment but nobody lives there, just as nobody lives exclusively in the worlds of harmony or individuality.

from The Practice of Perfection by Roshi Robert Aitken

At the end of most retreats, participants are offered an opportunity to commit to the path taught by the Buddha in a ceremony called “taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”   Along with the Three Refuges they also commit to the Five Precepts of not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not lying and not consuming intoxicants.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers the Five Precepts as Five Mindfulness Trainings and the phrasing is instructive.  Each Mindfulness Training begins with an acknowledgment that I am aware there is suffering, that the suffering has a cause, and that I am willing to take action to diminish the suffering by transforming its cause.  The First Mindfulness Training is reprinted below from the Plum Village site (these are the revised version which has caused a bit of stir):

Reverence For Life

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

There’s usually some objection, if not a full out panic, around the First and Fifth Precepts.  The push-back to the First Precept is often in the resistance to not eating meat, killing mosquitoes and harming others physically.  The Fifth Precept which addresses the use of alcohol gets its fair share of concerned protest related to the complications of socializing with friends and family.  I try to take the view that expressing these concerns strengthens our practice because we are aspiring to be fully engaged in the reality of our lives.

In a light-hearted way, non-harming or ahimsa is a constant practice living in a farmhouse shared over the years with a number of dogs, cats, and mice.  Not to mention the insects: mosquitoes, house flies, the vicious infestations of Asian Lady Beetles and earwigs!  And of course, all beings come with droppings.  I can handle the various poops of the larger beasts but mice and the health consequences of their droppings challenge my aspiration to achieve ahimsa.  For all our discussions, we have yet to agree on trapping them mostly because live traps make no sense in our situation.  Given the mice come in from the great outdoors, all we’d be doing is creating a shuttle bus route so they can go home to invite back their friends from far and wide.  “Look, guys, it’s no big deal.  Every couple of days, this little space capsule transports you back home for a visit!  How cool is that!”

There are various ahimsic solutions: stuffing cupboards with sheets of fabric softener, strong herbs, even (though I refuse to try this) clumps of cat pee-soaked kitty litter.  (Apparently the smell of cat pee tells the mice there are large predators in the house.  Right.  Blind mice could see the size of my cats!)  My solution, limited by time and energy, is to dive into the pantry and shelves, armed with bleach, soap and a strong scrubbing brush.  Until I figure out how to line the pantry and cupboards with sheets of tin so the little critters can stay out, it will have to do.  The reward is an opportunity to be happily fanatic about organizing my pots and pans (by size) and the tin and dry goods (by category though not alphabetically – yet).  And it keeps me away from the Devil Drink!

Who knew keeping the precepts could be so much fun!

Thank you for practicing,


PS:  There is a deeper issue around the First Precept of Ahimsa and Right Livelihood which I hope to dig into in another post.