Like Words Together Reflections from the deep end of Practice.


Revisiting the Second Grave Precept

Be giving. Do not steal.

In the time since I first took the vow to not steal I've really come to reflect more on the giving side of this precept. Perhaps it is because I've really looked at the Seventh Grave Precept much more closely, where we're encouraged further more to give generously. With reflection I've considered more the ways in which I want to not give, to not share my time or energy. "Robbing" other people of those intangible things.

I've also thought about the times when I try to over-extend myself, wanting so much to please another person that I'm willing to deplete, "steal" the energy I need to stay healthy. For some of us it is far to easy to be giving to the point of self-harm (and there we go breaking the First Grave Precept). People like it when you give, but we have to be willing to extend that generosity to ourselves as well.

On the other side is recognizing that other people need to set boundaries like this. Taking advantage of someone who gives generously and then being frustrated when they say they cannot feels to me as though it would fall into being weighed by this precept. Working with it has made me more aware of how people share with me (in ways emotional, material, and otherwise) and how I am given the opportunity to respond in kind.

Because I've spent a lot of time reflecting on my veganism I've also come to see how this precept applies to my interaction with animals. Just as I should not take advantage of a person's good-nature and willingness to help out, I don't feel it is right to take advantage of animals, to be part of the industry that "steals" their calves, etc. It is more giving to to animals to nurture myself on a plant-based diet


Revisiting the First Grave Precept

Affirm life. Do not kill.

I wrote about the First Grave Precept in December 2007. It caused me to reflect upon my yoga practice, the Yama of ahimsa, and how I related to my husband at the time as well as students and co-workers.

In the nearly two years that have past my practice with honoring, affirming life has lead me to a divorce. It seems strange writing that, but in re-reading how the I saw the precept as being important for fostering honesty and supporting each other wholeheartedly, that's the truth of it. Staying married had not become a way for us to affirm who we are.

What has stayed constant, deepened, is my view of this precept as it relates to my decision to be a vegan. The first precept, to refrain from taking life and to affirm life whenever possible, is the foundation for how we work with all the other precepts. It directs how we interact in our life moment-by-moment, if we need any clarification we can always come back and ask ourselves questions directly related to this precept.

Is what I'm about to do going to harm another being, including myself, in any way? Is what I'm about to do something that will affirm the life of another being or myself?

Yes, I can look at honesty, intent to distract myself or others, generosity, anger, sexuality, gossip, self-aggrandizement, and speaking ill of other beings or the Three Treasures - in the end they all get held against the first precept. Am I harming or affirming life?

Following a vegan diet means that I am trying to nourish peace at a cellular level. After all, what I eat is what builds the very corporeal framework that lives this precept. Deciding that some suffering is acceptable to nourish myself with, turning a blind eye to the suffering of dairy cows so I can eat cheese isn't alright nor is pretending that there are "happy chickens" producing the eggs at the grocery store. I cannot pretend that suffering is somehow OK because the animal isn't actively being killed (at that moment) for the dairy or eggs. Yes, perhaps some chickens or cows suffer at a greater level than others, but I really don't think any of them can be considered happy; especially when they stop being "good producers".

I also choose not to split-hairs with non-vegan who insist on asking if I would change my mind if I owned and raised the chickens, etc. Even the arguing about the details detracts from the affirming, the honoring of life I am actively seeing. I am happy to explain why I choose to interpret the First Grave Precept as a reason for my veganism, I just don't seek to debate it.

I've come to see that I really don't need to sustain a healthy, peace-minded life by taking advantage of the fact that I can digest animal products. I'm easily capable of mindfully choosing a diet that translates to peace in every bite. From this place I know that I interact more compassionately to others. The peacefulness of my diet has helped me tremendously in learning to extend that same loving-kindness to myself. Even when I am frustrated I am more quickly capable of responding in a manner that seeks to actualize harmony because my life is fully nourished by the First Grave Precept.


The Grave Precepts

In preparation for Jukai on October 8 I am writing about the 10 Grave Precepts. These vows, along with 6 others, I will take in front of my community (Sangha) when I formally become a Zen Buddhist. I've known I want to do this since 2006, but it has taken me 3 years to actually take the steps to do this. I was particularly anxious about sesshin practice, but the two I've done this year have been as hard as I feared and better than I could have hoped.

In spring of 2008 I took these first vows. CK was there, as she was when I completed a women's retreat at the beginning of 2008. These moments had the feeling of great importance when they happened. It feels very deeply right and wonderful that she will be taking the first five precepts when I am taking Jukai. The first five vows we'll say together.

I did not post what I've already written about the first five of the Grave Precepts. I have just posted them now and will be revisiting them in current writing. These are not tasks we check off and move onto the next step towards Enlightenment, rather they are part of our continuous practice. Like zazen, like asana, like the breath.

The Ten Grave Precepts

The Three Treasures

  • Taking refuge in the Buddha.
  • Taking refuge in the Dharma.
  • Taking refuge in the Sangha.

The Three Prue Precepts

  • Do not create evil.
  • Practice good.
  • Actualize good for others.

The Fifth Grave Precept

Proceed clearly. Do not cloud the mind.

At first, when I saw the fifth precept written as, “don’t drink or take drugs”, I felt some surprise at seeing a precept expressed in a way that sounded to me like a commandment from the Judeo-Christian faith I had grown up with. After I saw the fifth precept written as advice to “Not cloud the mind”, the meaning for it gained greater clarity. It isn’t just an admonishment to avoid substances that might cause one to break other precepts, but advice to avoid anything that encourages us to be "clouded"; distracted and not present in each moment.

There is the obvious pain and suffering caused by by the misuse of alcohol and drugs. I grew up watching my step-father's functional alcoholism, hearing terrible stories of my father's alcoholic rages, and feeling deep anxiety when family gatherings encouraged drunken comments. All my life my father and step-dad chose to cling to their addictions to alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription drugs. That clinging hastened their early deaths by weakening their bodies beyond the ability to be repaired. For as many times as they each may have said they loved me in real life each of their deaths left me with the pain of knowing that the addictions were more important.

A clear as the danger of the misuse of intoxicants is to me, when this precept expanded beyond a simple directive around using alcohol or drugs I was able to clearly see the other ways my family preferred clouded, distracted minds. Eating to avoid the pain, dissatisfaction, and rage that simmered just below the surface of every family gathering. The gathering itself providing the excuse, as well as the means, to cloud the mind with food. Shopping, acquiring more things and more debt in a game of gratification, competition, and distraction. Gossiping, which itself is a separate precept, was also a way of clouding the mind along with television, romance novels, and endless, jealous scheming.

In my family food was an especially acceptable means of distracting the mind from the pain and dissatisfaction of the present. I watched the women, and often the men, in my family transition to obesity as adults regardless of how thin they had been as children. Regardless of any of the constant urging to be "skinny", to diet constantly, and to have stylish clothing that showed off a good figure everyone was encouraged to eat excessively at any gathering. Even if there wasn't encouragement, no one would think it unusual to want to have "just one more" piece of homemade candy even if you were already full beyond words. It was always just fine to want to go out for a sundae, indulge in "consumer therapy" (shopping), or indulge in a whole day of shopping and eating treats because the day had been stressful, upsetting. It was perfectly fine to complain about why the day had been stressful but there was never any direction on how to cope with it beyond eating, shopping, or other forms of immediate pleasure. Without any skills to truly cope with distressing emotions and situations I grew up to suffer greatly from depression, anxiety, and obesity by the time I was in my mid-20s.

After several years of cultivating mindfulness in my approach to food I've overcome the obesity and the health risks that have plagued the women in my family. By rejecting the food culture I was raised with I have created the space within which I can learn how to truly address the depression and anxiety caused by nearly 30 years of untreated PTSD. In smaller ways too I can continue to practice mindfulness; like buying fairly traded, organic chocolate and finding the cost of those luxuries causes me to reflect more deeply as to how I might turn to them as a means of distraction. Am I merely craving the sweetness of chocolate because I’m irritated, frustrated or bored? Am I seeking the clouding of my mind, choosing a momentary pleasure rather than stay with emotions that make me uncomfortable? The fifth precept invites me to reflect more deeply and try to bring light & understanding to places in my life where I am mindlessly seeking distraction.


The Fourth Grave Precept

Manifest Truth. Do not lie.

Not lying is a fundamental part of how we interact with others and ourselves. In general lies bring suffering and lead people to have less ethical behavior in other areas. I believe that it is important to cultivate deep honesty within ourselves and from that strive to be truthful in our interactions with everyone. I feel that the manifestation of truth must come from within ourselves first as we would not have the ability to be truly honest with others if we are starting from a place of delusion within. To manifest the truth we must move beyond merely projecting a caricature of ourselves, a persona we use with others while hiding our real selves. This level of self honesty is difficult because it is in the nature of our culture to not look fearlessly at the self but rather to hide, dissemble, or fabricate.

Although I have always found it to be very important that I be honest with others, I find it very challenging to be fearlessly honest when I look at my past. For decades I’ve minimized, repressed, and suppressed the reality of events in the past so they do not cause me as much pain. I find looking at these things with the eyes of fearless honesty is deeply painful and my mind would rather run to distraction. It has been very difficult to accept that minimizing the events is a way of lying to myself. By lying to myself that events weren't significant I am less compassionate and understanding of myself. I believe that in the past the less compassionate I was with myself, the harder it was for me to be compassionate with others. I find now it is still far easier to extend compassion and understanding to other than myself. I continue to practice with this by honestly reminding myself of the truth of my history, the need to be more self compassionate, and by trying to learn how to truly appreciate how far I've come.


The Third Grave Precept

Honor the body. Do not misuse sexuality.

It is easy to get caught up in the simple, pleasurable responses of the body but as passion cools there is a return to dissatisfaction with the world. Some people spend the majority of their time caught up in the cycle of sexual gratification and unhappiness with life. I’ve seen friends caught in this cycle change to where they see sex as just the means to get favors, material possessions, and other things they believe they need to either feel happier with life, experience more sexual pleasure, or merely because of the way misusing their sexuality makes them believe they have a kind of power. I don’t believe that feeling pleasure and desire is inherently bad, but to get caught up in it, trapped by and clinging to it isn’t healthy. There is great joy that can be shared just by being present to the simple, but profound pleasure of sex. Because of this, I think it shouldn’t merely become a distraction or just another entertainment.

I believe the third precept is vital because particular mindfulness around sex and sexuality is necessary due to the potential to cause grave, lasting harm should they be misused. The deep trust of relationships can be completely broken when dishonesty is tied to sex. When sexual abuse occurs on any level, at any age, the damage done is tremendous. When I read Daido Loori's writing on the precepts from The Heart of Being I especially was affected by his comments related to killing the mind of compassion. To me the potential to destroy or gravely damage the seeds of compassion in a person are very likely part of the consequences when sexual abuse occurs. A person may not suffer physical damage from a sexual abuse, but the compassion within them experiences a kind of death at having their life so intimately violated by another person. All other precepts must be especially observed in those areas where they overlap with sex and sexuality; there is just too great a chance for momentous suffering.

If one has experienced pain and or abuse the fear of being hurt may cause the mind to disconnect from emotions and sensation during sex. It requires fearless, vigilant attention and honesty to see this happening, to work through it requires involving someone else to pain that is more comfortably hidden. When people feel safe enough to be vulnerable with each other while also being profoundly intimate there is a synergistic act of honoring that opens hearts further, heals deep hurts in unexpected ways, and connects us to the greater force of Love in the universe.


The Second Grave Precept

Be giving. Do not steal.

The second precept starts for me with the idea of not taking what is not mine to take. This initial reaction to the second precept arises out of the foundation of "You shall not steal" from the Ten Commandments I was taught as a child. "Do not steal" sounds much the same, therefore, evokes the same internal response. It also immediately recalls memories to mind of punishments that came about from not respecting what another considered to be theirs (“That’s MINE”).

I find that the idea of "mine" unravels with attention; the essential nature of impermanence means nothing ever truly belongs to anyone since either the object or my body will eventually wither away. Although I recognize this, I also find that in order to function in the day-to-day world of a householder I simultaneously need to think of the house I live in as "mine", as allowed to me by the financial institutions that receive "my" money for the mortgage. The clothes I'm wearing, the laptop I write on, the books I read, the career which pays me money, all of these impermanent things are viewed as "mine" in order to denote responsibility for the objects or roles. Ultimately the view of something as “mine” and the accountability that accompanies that view must be based in a respect for the same type of view held by other people. This ensures that I do not steal.

When I expand my thoughts beyond the “Do not steal” part of this precept and move into what is involved with “Be giving” I move beyond the inherent absurdity of “mine”. To be giving means that I have a willingness to share not only my property, but my time, my knowledge, and any other resources I may have to offer. To be truly generous the heart needs to be open to the act of giving and not generate a resentment arising from a belief that others “steal” my energy or resources.


The First Grave Precept

Affirm life. Do not kill .

In 2006 I explored a life vow of observing the Yamas, the "restraints" of living recorded by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. When first considering a life vow I only focused on ahimsa, having already turned my own life toward harm reduction and creating space for healing. As I considered further I was drawn to start incorporating all five of the "restraints" into my life. Since making this life vow the first grave precept has become deeply entwined with my daily living.

As I worked with ahimsa, the first precept in the Yamas as well as Zen practice, I found that it was larger than I first thought. At first glance the prohibition against killing or causing intentional harm is what stood out. It also had the most obvious relationships with teaching yoga and in my marriage.

My awareness of physical pain, due to my own chronic pain, fully guides me when I am teaching yoga. I watch my students carefully checking not only for adjustments to alignment and posture, but to see if any of them are straining. Strain can lead to injury of the body, which may be an emotional injury as well. I encourage them to make great effort and feel the "burning effort", but with compassion and awareness of where they are in the present. I request that they not merely endure, suffering through class.

In my marriage the focus is on affirming one another and creating a space where we both feel safe to be our essential selves. I especially do not have a lot of experience being in a calmer, more nurturing environment and just the unfamiliarity causes me upset at times. I try to be mindful of my partner's needs as well as my desire to have my own needs met. When I'm having feelings of irritation I try to discuss them in a way that is not confrontational. I try to stick with difficult things even when I feel overwhelmed, making sure that I do not loose track of the reasons I married my partner or why I value him. I find it very difficult to be learning these skills at this point in my life, but extremely grateful to have any opportunity to learn them at all.

As I have worked further with the first precept my choices grow more deeply informed. A vegetarian diet became a vegan diet when I researched both the life of a dairy cow and the devastating effects of the industrialized approach to raising animals for food. The best course of action for me is to try and get entirely away from animals for food. Life is also affirmed when I choose fairly traded teas, coffees, bananas, and chocolate. I became aware not only of the human rights and environmental abuses that abound in these trade of these items, but of the true luxury of my having them here in Oregon. I became committed to nourishing my body, and therefore my journey, from the observation of this precept as I believe in order to practice at all I must begin with how the body that supports that practice is sustained.

I am mindful to bring the observation of this precept to my everyday work. When I am more mindful of this precept it affects how I interact with people. I try to check in with a quickly written e-mail to make sure my words won't bring harm. Now I try to take time before responding to something where I felt my anger or irritation arise, not reacting as instantly as I used to. This is more of a challenge as it is part of affirming life, but is counter to how I've done things in the past at work where I am usually focused on getting results. I've come to recognize that there are less harmful ways of achieving those results than letting people know I am irritated with their performance. I see this as a necessary part of my practice.