May 12, 2009

Do Not Harm

In this post, I want to return to highlighting and discussing the lines and ideas I found useful from The Engaged Spiritual Life, tonight I want to talk a bit about the precepts. For someone like me who is not a fan of rules, and who finds the idea of dogmatic sermons and commandments stifling, the precepts are a challenging facet of Buddhism. I often say that I love Zen, because of the freedom it allows me to explore my state of self and its interdependence with the rest of the world, so then how do I reconcile following a set of rules. This rigidity does not mesh with my philosophy.

But as Rothenberg says, the precepts are not a set Do’s and Don’t’s. He says it like this:
I like to think of the ethical precepts as providing training guidelines in another way as well, as establishing the very condition of safety that make training and learning possible. It is very hard to learn when feeling unsafe or threatened.

Following the precepts thus helps us not go down certain paths that typically lead to behavior that harms.
In other words, they are not saying Thou Shall Not Kill or face the consequences, but rather if you want to reach a state of awareness and understating, if you want a safe environment to further your learning that you should follow the precepts to the best of your ability.

Honestly, I don’t spend enough, or any time, contemplating the precepts and perhaps I should. That is why I am excited to work my way through some of the points he raises in the book.

The precepts are often open to a certain degree of interpretation, but most would agree that the first precept looks something like this:
I will be mindful and reverential with all life,
I will not be violent nor will I kill.

Avoid killing or harming any living being.
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
I shall endeavor to protect and take care of all living creatures.
In short, do not do harm to other beings. The idea of not passing on pain and harm is where Rothenberg focuses his attention:
The inner work with the first precept is to cultivate mindfulness and wisdom in relation to tendencies to harm ourselves and others and to cultivate lovingkindness as an antidote to hatred and aversion. We especially study the tendency to “pass on” the pain when we are in emotional or physical pain ourselves. As we shall explore, this compulsive and often unconscious reaction to pain constitutes “suffering.” We therefore examine, over and over again how, when we are in pain, we react with fear, anger, or blame and act in ways that we think will somehow alleviate pain.

One way to understand the precept’s centrality is to see how it guides us to respond to pain of any kind, (our own and others)- even if the pain was born of injustice and oppression- as much as possible without inflicting further pain on others or ourselves.
Reaction to pain causes suffering. When we are in pain, we react with fear, anger, or blame. The first precept says we should not harm others, so when we are in pain we should work on not passing it on.

I have to say it again: Respond to pain of any kind, our own and others, even if the pain was born of injustice and oppression without inflicting further pain on others or ourselves.

Simple right? Not for me. I have a tendency to lash out against opposing view points and thus cause myself to get more frustrated and thus suffer more. Whether it is corporate capitalism, right-wing conservatives, or religious zealot, I have a hard time not rehashing the pain they cause me back onto them or myself.

I see this precept as a way for me to try and not regurgitate the pain they cause, by lashing out at them, but rather trying to step back and recognize how they make me feel and react, and trying to stop the cycle of pain.

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