August 30, 2014
It’s so easy to limit the definition of mindfulness to an avenue towards finding inner peace and well-being. While that’s true, it doesn’t end there.
The requirement of true mindfulness does not afford us the luxury of camping out within the gated privacy of our own hearts and minds. It requires us to include what’s happening outside of ourselves, and little-by-little, that means everything.
So today I am writing about the difficult and painful, about a different kind of climate disruption. Think of Michael Brown, James Foley and Trayvon Martin, that so many marginalized people only have access to the worst food, the dirtiest water, substandard education and healthcare, run-down homes (if they have homes at all), that our prisons are bursting with unprecedented numbers of young African American men, the militarization of our police, that racial profiling is real, and I cannot leave out the polar bears, butterflies and bees.
When I think about the myriad causes and conditions that were present for Michael Brown to have been killed in Ferguson, I can imagine the fear, pain, distrust, anger and resentment that created a big gaping wound of profound suffering. As I’ve watched the footage of the protests, the wound is obvious and palpable. No imagination is necessary. When we see this kind of pain, really take it in, we cannot unsee it. How it got there is probably ancient and not such ancient history; traceable and untraceable, knowable and unknowable.
In light of these terrifying and deeply disturbing events, I want to talk about morality from the Buddhist perspective. This perspective gives me hope and it gives me something I can do. It helps to transform my sense of helplessness and restores my balance. I’m not giving you a lecture in morality, I promise.
In Buddhist practice there are lists for everything. The Paramis, translated as the Perfections of the Heart is one such list. Generosity is the first and Morality is next. Morality is also addressed directly through Wise Action in the Eightfold Path, another foundational list. The bottom line is that we’re asked to live a life of non-harming, but how we define non-harming is different from one person to the next, from one community to the next, and from country to the next.
Here are the five guidelines the Buddha taught for lay practitioners like us that define non-harming, and set the intention for living a moral life.
1. Protect life by not killing anything that breathes
2. Be generous with our resources and do not taking anything that hasn’t been freely or directly given
3. Respect our bodies by not using sexuality in a way that harms or exploits ourselves or others
4. Take care in how we speak to others, guiding our language to be kind, truthful, useful and appropriate. Having good timing may be the most crucial of all. How many times have we said something truthful, useful and kind, but our timing was so off that what we said had nowhere to land or caused unintended consequences?
5. Maintaining a clear mind by not using substances to the extent that it causes heedlessness
What I appreciate about these guidelines is that they’re offered as a practice. Perfection is not required. The Buddha also points out through these guidelines that by protecting myself, I protect others and by protecting others, I protect myself. This, too, is a practice that’s worth thinking about.
I am under no illusion that by trying to live a moral life that violence, racism, and poverty will end. But if I end it in me, and you end it in you, we’ll have a little more peace.