five precepts

The puzzle of “skillful” and “unskillful” as ethical terms

Man practicing piano in a darkened room, with the piano illuminated by a desk lamp.

One of the things that struck me as odd when I first encountered the Buddha’s teachings was the terms he used when he discussed living ethically or morally: “skillful” (kusala) and “unskillful” (akusala).

Maybe these terms are new to you. Or maybe they’re so familiar that you’ve stopped thinking about them. Either way, they are an unusual way to talk about morality.

The most common terms for describing ethical actions are good and bad, right and wrong, and good and evil. These are the terms most of us grew up hearing.

It’s not that the Buddha never used that kind language. Particularly when he was composing poetry, or when he was speaking to uneducated people, he’d use the word puñña, which means merit or “good,” and pāpa, which means bad or evil.

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But when he was talking technically, to serious Dharma practitioners — monks, nuns, and those householders who were dedicated disciples — he used these words “skillful” and “unskillful.”

No one can know for sure why Buddha chose those terms, but what might he have had in mind?

What is Skill?

So let’s think about what skill is. What does it mean to do something in a skilled way?

My understanding is that if you have skill you’re able to achieve something challenging that you set out to do. That’s the definition of being skilled.

So a skilled carpenter has the idea they’re going to make, say, a beautiful coffee table. And lo and behold, a beautiful coffee table appears. They have the skill to be able to create it. A skilled potter, wants to make a particular kind of pot. And because they’ve done a lot of practice, because they know what they’re doing, they’re able to make that kind of pot. They have the skill to accomplish what they set out to do. A person who lacks skill cannot do that. So that’s what it means to be skilled, or unskilled.

Skillful and Unskillful As Ethical Terms

Now, the Buddha used these terms, skilled and unskilled, in an ethical sense.

What does it mean to have skill in an ethical sense? Well, ethics is a part of practice. The Buddha talked about “the threefold training” which comprised ethics, meditation, and wisdom. These are three things we train in. Training itself is about developing skill, so there’s a consistent theme here.

What is the point of practice? What are we training for? The aim of practicing is to liberate ourselves from suffering. It’s to become happier, more content, more fulfilled, and to have more of a sense of meaning in our lives. It’s to have a better life, and, out of compassion, to help other people to have that experience as well. These are the things we’re developing skill in.

Ethics Is Not About Being Good

It might sound deeply contradictory to say that ethics is not about being good, but I think that’s a fair claim to make about ethics in Buddhism. The Buddha didn’t tell us to abandon greed, hatred, and delusion because they are evil, but because they cause suffering. He said that if they didn’t cause suffering, then he wouldn’t tell us to abandon them:

If giving up the unskillful led to harm and suffering, I would not say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ But giving up the unskillful leads to welfare and happiness, so I say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ (AN 2.19)

Skillful and Unskillful Qualities and Actions

Just as a carpenter shows skill when they intend to create a beautiful piece of furniture and are successful, so we’re ethically skillful when we have the aim of living in ways that free us from suffering and that help others be free from suffering, and are successful in accomplishing that aim.

We’re unskillful when we aim to be free from suffering but end up creating pain and confusion.

The thoughts, words, and actions that free us from suffering are skillful. Those that do the opposite are unskillful.

When the Buddha talked about ethics he pointed out that there were two trends in the mind. (See MN 19) The mind can act based on selfish craving, hatred, or a lack of understanding. And those things will lead to suffering. He called these “unskillful.”

The other trend is that the mind acts with mindfulness and exhibits qualities such as patience, courage, kindness, empathy, compassion, appreciation, and so on. These are things that free us from suffering and bring peace and happiness. He called these ethical qualities “skillful.”

So we’re acting skillfully when we’re exercising skillful qualities — that is, qualities that help us move closer to the goal of freeing ourselves from suffering. We’re acting unskillfully when we’re in the grip of unskillful states of mind that create suffering.

So this is what I think the Buddha perhaps had in mind when he was using these terms — skillful and unskillful — which seem, at first glance quite unusual.

Why This Matters

It’s an interesting shift of perspective to think about ethics in terms of skill. It’s quite different from how we might have been raised to see things. We may have been raised to see things in terms of good and bad.
We get caught up in the idea of people themselves being good and bad. But it’s only actions that can be skillful or unskillful. You can’t talk about an unskillful person because no person is entirely skillful or unskillful.

Lots of people think of themselves as being good or bad. They want to present themselves to themselves as being good, which I’ve described elsewhere as a disastrous move. And of course lots of people become convinced that they are bad, or unworthy, and usually they’re sadly mistaken. You may be one of those people, or you probably know some of them. And your impression of them is probably that they are lovely people with many fine qualities. They’re probably kind and thoughtful, and you probably benefit from being with them.

We’re all a mixture of skillful and unskillful qualities. No one is all one or all the other. And spiritual training — or at least a lot of spiritual training — is about, on the one hand, exercising and strengthening the skillful, and on the other hand recognizing and letting go of the unskillful.

Life Is Practice

And this is for me the most important implication of the Buddha’s language of ethics as a skill. Skills are to be practiced and refined. Life — our ordinary everyday actions, and even our thoughts — is where we train. Our mistakes — the times we make ourselves or others suffer — is how we learn.

We can include in our lives constant reflections: did my actions lead to suffering? How could I do this differently in the future? Is what I’m doing or saying now leading to suffering? How can I change what I’m doing? Is this thing I intend to do or say or think likely, based on my past experience, to create unnecessary suffering? How might I act differently? (See MN 61)

Our lives are lessons to be learned. As long as we keep learning from our ethical mistakes, those mistakes are useful ones, because they bring us closer to our goal of living with peace, joy, and meaning.

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The realm of giving and generosity

The specific meaning of “dana” is giving, which is related to the quality of “caga” (in Pali), or generosity. The one involves doing, while the other involves being.

While this distinction is useful in its comprehensiveness, in actuality generosity and giving, being and doing, are intertwined and inextricable. Being is itself a kind of doing, as you cannot help but radiate certain qualities out into the world. And every doing – at each endlessly disappearing and regenerating instant of NOW – is a microscopic slice of being.

Giving and generosity can be expressive or restrained. For example, we might give to our child or someone else we love fondness and affection (expressive), and we might also give the holding of our temper or our hand in anger (restrained).

The essence of generosity is that we give outside the framework of a tight, reciprocal exchange. Yes, we may give the coffee guy $2.50 for a latte, and we may trade back rubs with our partner, but neither is particularly generous in its own right. On the other hand, tossing the change from $3 into the tip jar is indeed generous, as would be doing an extra great job on that back rub when it’s your turn.

While “dana” often means something fairly narrow and specific – alms for a monk or nun, or donation to a teacher – in the broadest sense, we are generous and giving whenever we be or do in the territory these words point to:

Serve
Contribute
Donate, grant, award, bestow, make a gift of, bequeath Praise, acknowledge
Love, care, like
Sacrifice, relinquish
Devote, dedicate
Be altruistic
Forgive
Forbear, restrain yourself for the sake of others

Let’s consider some concrete examples; you give whenever you:

Pat an arm in friendship, sympathy, or encouragement
Put money – or a banana or chocolate – in the donation bowl
Relax your position and open up to the viewpoint of another person
Offer anything out upon the internet or in a newsletter, etc.
Try to help someone
Wave someone ahead of you in line
Try to cheer someone up
Make a gift
Write a thank you note
Love
Listen patiently when you’d rather be doing something else
Cultivate qualities in yourself that will benefit others
Change a diaper – at either end of the lifespan
Give some money to a homeless person
Express gratitude or appreciation
Vote
Volunteer your time
Tell somebody about something great

In particular, you are generous whenever you “give no man or woman cause to fear you” – in other words, when you live in a virtuous, moral way. In Buddhism, the Five Precepts are the common, practical guide to ethical conduct: do not kill, steal, lie, intoxicate yourself, or cause harm through your sexuality. Quoting Bhikkhu Bodhi, referring to the Anguttara Nikaya: “By [the meticulous observance of the Five Precepts], one gives fearlessness, love and benevolence to all beings. If one human being can give security and freedom from fear to others by his behavior, that is the highest form of dana one can give, not only to mankind, but to all living beings.

Last, perhaps as an antidote to the too-common practice of treating those closest to us the worst of all, the Buddha stressed the importance of honoring and caring for one’s parents, one’s spouse and children, and one’s employees and dependents. For example, in one sutta (discourse), offering hospitality to one’s relatives is one of the great auspicious deeds a layperson can perform.

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Mentorship and meetings

Eight Step Recovery

It has been one year since the first edition of “Eight Step Recovery” was launched, and Eight Step Recovery meetings have begun to spring up. I’ve just spent the last month in India talking about 12 step programs, and how the only requirement to attend them is the desire not to indulge in the substance or behaviour of that meeting. However for many Buddhists in India, the word God, has some negative connotations. And so it was a delight to introduce people to another meeting format that may help with their recovery.

Some of you who read my blog regularly will remember I posted a meeting format a few months ago, well now that I have had the opportunity to be in Eight Step Recovery Meetings daily for the past month, they have been refined.

Below we suggest a meeting format that has been tried and tested. Many people have benefited from these meetings and we hope you will too. We have suggested several types of meeting, while always including the Welcome, Meeting Guidelines, the Preamble, and reciting the five training principles in negative and positive form in call and response and the eight steps in unison. We would suggest you have the above printed out on cards – so that different people can read them out aloud.

Decide which meeting format will work for you. We also include suggestions of how to mentor people through the eight step model.

MEETING FORMAT

Welcome

Welcome my name is …….. and I will lead the 3 minute breathing space (AGE) this evening:
Become Aware of your body… Aware of sensation in the body… Aware of thoughts… Aware of emotions…
Gather your breath on the upper lip – in the abdomen – and let the contact of the breath calm your thoughts…
Expand the breath throughout the whole body. Let me hear everyone take a deep breath and expand it throughout the body.

I would like to remind all of us of our suggested meeting guidelines:

  • If there is more than one person there are enough people for a meeting.
  • The only requirement to attend this meeting is the desire to live your life by the five precepts, or training principles to train the mind.
  • Please respect people’s personal sharing – let what you hear stay here.
  • Be kind to yourself, and in turn be kind to others.
  • Enjoy your recovery.

We invite you to introduce yourself – and why you are here this evening. Please take one minute maximum – thank you. It is also okay for you not to say anything too.
After introductions, ask if there are any newcomers, and please welcome them.

Will somebody please read the preamble?

Preamble

This Eight Steps meeting explores recovery through the lens of the Buddhist teachings, and Buddhism through the lens of recovery. (If you are attending a 12 step meeting, this can be your expression of your 11th step and if you are not in a 12 step program, it can be another way to approach your recovery.) This is an extra meeting to compliment your recovery whatever that looks like.

For the next 1 and half hours or 2 hours we are temporarily going for refuge to the three jewels. What we mean by that, is as best we can we are placing the Buddha (not the person, but what he attained), the dharma (the  teachings of the Buddha) and the sangha (the spiritual community, which is us) at the centre of our thoughts. Those of us in recovery know too well that our addiction has often been at the centre of our thoughts.
So we begin with our moral inventory. (If a 12 step person is leading, you can say, just as in step three we turn our life and our will over to a god of our understanding, we are turning our life over temporarily to these three jewels.)

If you are Buddhist practitioner then please do the Pali first and let people know if it feels strange they can just listen. If you are not a Buddhist practitioner then please just recite the English as noted below.

Always do the negatives and positives as couplets in English, as it is valuable to reflect on what we are moving away from as well as what we are moving towards.

  1. I undertake to abstain from harming life – with deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  2. I undertake to abstain from taking the not given – with deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  3. I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct – with open handed generosity I purify my body.
  4. I undertake to abstain from false speech – with truthful communication I purify my speech.
  5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants – with mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind.

We will now say the Eight Steps together

Step One: Accepting that this human life will bring suffering.
Step Two: Seeing how we create extra suffering in our lives.
Step Three: Recognizing impermanence shows us that our suffering can end.
Step Four: Being willing to step onto the path of recovery, and discover freedom.
Step Five: Transforming our speech, actions, and livelihood.
Step Six: Placing positive values at the center of our lives.
Step Seven: Making every effort to stay on the path of recovery.
Step Eight: Helping others to share the benefits I have gained.

Here are several formats that can take place after the precepts and steps have been recited.
Format 1 (if you only have an hour – or you have a lot of people – we suggest you work through the steps weekly in the following way).

This evening we will focus on Step One: Accepting that this human life will bring suffering.
What does it mean for you to accept that this human life will bring about suffering, in the context of your dis-ease?

This evening we will focus on Step Two: Seeing how we create extra suffering in our lives.
How do I create extra suffering in my life?

This evening we will focus on Step Three: Recognizing impermanence shows us that our suffering can end.
What do I need to let go of in my life today?

This evening we will focus on Step Four: Being willing to step onto the path of recovery, and discover freedom.
How willing am I to step onto the path of recovery today? or What is one aspect of freedom I have discovered since being on the path of recovery?

This evening we will focus on Step Five: Transforming our speech, actions, and livelihood.
How can I begin transforming or continue to transform my speech, or actions, or livelihood? Just choose one to focus on.

This evening we will focus on Step Six: Placing positive values at the center of our lives.
What are some of the things that tend to occupy my thoughts ? What is the impact of having these thoughts at the center of my life?

This evening we will focus on Step Seven: Making every effort to stay on the path of recovery.
How can I make more effort to stay on the path of recovery?

This evening we will focus on Step Eight: Helping others to share the benefits I have gained.
What could I do this week to help share the benefits I have gained?

Format 2 – for longer meetings of 90 minutes to two hours.

For the next few weeks we will be exploring Step One. We will discuss every exercise, one exercise a week, and when a meditation or reflection comes up, we do the practice and discuss it after. We will work through each step in this way, until we get to the end of the book, and then begin again.

Format 3 – can be done in the shorter meeting and the longer meeting.

Format 4 – Book Study meeting:

Participants begin from the beginning of the book. They read a section for 15 to 20 minutes, and then discuss the text. When a reflection or meditation comes up, either listen to it from the book website or somebody lead it – and then discuss. Mark the page you finish on at each meeting, so you can begin from the correct page at the next meeting.

There are several ways of doing this. You can work through the book chronologically, beginning with the foreword, or you can ask someone to select a text that they would like to focus on. If the group is closed then it is appropriate to ask people to do reading at home and come prepared. However, there will be meetings that are open and people will drop in or not turn up every week, which is perfectly fine. Both kinds of groups can work. If it’s the latter we advise each week someone will need to read a piece of the book out, or as a group you can pass the book around and read from it for ten to fifteen minutes and then discuss the topic.

You can be creative with the formats – although every meeting needs to begin with the AGE, the welcome, the introductions, the preamble, and reciting the training principles and the Eight Steps. Some meetings you may like to introduce a speaker, by asking someone to tell their story of recovery, abstinence, sobriety and their connection to the Buddhist teachings.

ENDING THE MEETINGS

We ask the meetings are ended in the following way:

Transference of merit said in unison. We offer a couple of versions, and of course you may know other Buddhist versions of this text.

Version 1

May the merit gained
in my acting thus
go to the alleviation of the suffering
of all beings.
My personality
throughout my existences,
my possessions,
and my merit in all three ways
I give up without regard
to myself
for the benefit of all beings.
Just as the earth
and other elements
are servicable in many ways
to the infinite number of beings
inhabiting limitless space,
so may I become
that which maintains all beings
situated throughout space
so long as all have not attained
to peace.

Version 2

We come together in fellowship,learning to recognize and let go of our unskilled words, thoughts and deeds,quieting our minds through meditation and supporting each other on our path to freedom from suffering.
May the merit gained in my acting thus,go to the alleviationof the suffering of all beings.

Three minute breathing space, AGE (ask someone to lead this).

Ask for Dana (voluntary financial contribution) – nobody is paid. Dana is an act of generosity, showing an appreciation of the Buddhist Teachings. However there is no suggested fee, and nobody is turned away. There is no price to attend a meeting. And nobody should be made to feel uncomfortable if they don’t put into the pot. Just as recovery is a process, so is the act of generosity. Dana will pay for your meeting space, for materials, books, non-alcoholic drinks, and anything else you need. If you have a surplus, you might wish to give money to a participant who wants to attend a recovery retreat.

Notes on how to run meetings:

We ask that all meetings conduct abstinence of not having food, at meetings. Of course we welcome non-alcoholic beverages.
Meetings are peer led. Each group will decide on perhaps someone taking on responsibility for doing the welcome and asking people to read the preamble and lead the AGE, for a month or two. Make sure responsibility is shared.
You may want to close your meeting – this is the group’s decision. You may want to set up Eight Step Meetings for specific addictions, or more generally for substance abuse. This again is the decision of the people who set up the group.

Mentorship

The book lends itself for people to be mentored through the Eight Step Recovery. We suggest if you want to mentor someone through the book, that you have read the book and have worked through every exercise and reflection on your own or in a book study. If you take on a mentee, then it would be expected you take the mentee through every exercise and reflection, and discuss the answers. We suggest that all mentees, do the 21 meditations for recovery, which are free and available on our website. We recommend requesting that they do one every day for three weeks.
We also suggest that mentees are attending meetings. Meetings can include Eight Step Recovery, 12 step meetings or SMART recovery meetings. Additional meetings can include attending a Buddhist centre weekly, but not as an alternative while working the steps.
Here are some – questions for mentees to answer before beginning the step work:

  • Are you prepared to go to any lengths to get your recovery? If someone asks what you mean by this, then you can say are they prepared to do every
    exercise and reflection in the book. Are they prepared to give what you may suggest a go?
  • What does addiction look life in your life today?
  • What does Recovery mean to you?
  • Share your personal story of addiction. In terms of your conditioning, what you have struggled with? What are the events that have marked your addiction?

Remember there are also meditations attached to the book, so for some meetings you could choose to listen to a meditation and then discuss how the meditation was for you. There is a website listed at the back of the book where you can download all the meditations in the book for free.

Finally one breath at a time – with your recovery.

For a free sample chapter of Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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Becoming a vegan again: Day 1

Vegan-friendly icon, from By Peepal Farm Foundation - File:Vegan friendly icon.png, CC BY-SA 4.0,

I’ve been a vegetarian for over 30 years now, ever since I visited a slaughterhouse as part of my veterinary studies and saw an animal being slaughtered. I didn’t consciously decide to become vegetarian. It was as if the decision was made for me, deep down, and I just had to go along with it. And in 30 years I’ve never once been tempted to lapse.

And I’ve tried being vegan several times, sometimes lasting for a few years. It’s a natural and logical extension of vegetarianism. Really, there isn’t a lot of different between eating eggs and eating a chicken. In both cases a chicken dies, but in one case the chicken lays lots of eggs first. But I’ve found it harder to sustain.

There was the usual tussle between ethics on the one hand, and convenience and laziness and craving on the other. So ethics was outnumbered.

Anyway, we were discussing the Buddhist first precept (not causing harm) in an online Dharma study group that I lead, and mentioned my unease about eating eggs and dairy, and my faltering desire to be vegan again. Someone in the group connected veganism with my “getting myself on the cushion mantra.” This is an affirmation that I’ve been using to make sure I meditate every day: “I meditate every day; it’s what I do; it’s just part of who I am.” This has really worked for me. And when Chris connected that mantra with veganism, I realized I had the tool I needed to give ethics the upper hand over the other three.

So this Wednesday, the day after the study group, was the first day I had an opportunity to put my vegan “mantra” into practice. It went well until dinnertime, when I discovered that some cornbread that my six-year-old daughter had made (all by herself!) contained an egg. It was my bad: I hadn’t had a chance to talk to my wife about the vegan thing. So I’m counting that as Day Zero:

Day One went well. I’d talked to my wife — who also wants to be vegan — and since I was cooking that evening there were no problems anyway. When I was our for a coffee with a friend, I became aware that my local cafe has nothing vegetarian (apart from oatmeal!) but I’ve suggested to them that they make a vegan carrot cake. And an online friend suggested that I carry around snacks. He takes some emergency Clif Bars with him for times he can’t get a vegan snack.

So it’s been sinking in that this is just what I do now, and from now on. There will be slips. My father-in-law invites us round for dinner from time to time, and his culinary skills are very limited. Basically he can make pizza. So every couple of months I’ll have some pizza. I’m not going to ask him to change his ways. In the past that’s tripped me up, because I’ve gotten caught up in all-or-nothing thinking, where I’ll regard eating Lou’s pizza as me having crossed back from veganism to non-veganism, and then I think there’s no point carrying on with it. I’m not going to do that this time.

For protein this week, in the three meals I’ll be cooking at home, I’ll be having tofu, seitan, and tempeh. I’ve also ordered a book, Artisan Vegan Cheese, by Miyoko Schinner. I’m looking forward to trying it out.

Anyway, this is the start of Day Two. Going public about this will help me stay on track, as will counting the days (although don’t worry — I’m not going to do a daily post on the subject).

I’m looking forward to my first anniversary as a vegan!

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Karma confusion in Malaysia

Karma is one of the most misunderstood Buddhist teachings, even among Buddhists. For example, a number of medical students in Malaysia reportedly decided to quit their studies because they’d been told by a monk “that patients should not receive medical treatment for their condition as sickness is the result of their karma.” The had become convinced “that they should not become doctors as the act of treating patients [would] interfere with karma.”

The monk seems to be rather atypical, and “allegedly claimed that he had supernatural power and was able to tell the past and predict the future of the students.” It’s possible that he’s a charlatan, or even that he’s mentally ill.

But ideas like this do tend to pop up from time to time, and so here are a few arguments against this particular take on karma.

First, the Buddha specifically stated that not everything that happens to us in the present moment is a result of karma. He pointed to physiological and environmental factors as affecting us, as well as the actions of other people. The earlier Buddhist commentators enumerated a number of forms of conditionality that included physical causality (physical and chemical laws), biological causality (which would include things like viruses and other diseases), mental causality, karmic causality, and also a form of transcendental causality. I won’t go into all of this, but it’s clear that neither the Buddha nor early Buddhists believed that karma was the only thing affecting us. Certainly our mental states and the choices we make can affect our health, but even Buddhas get ill.

Secondly, the Buddha stressed compassion, himself took care of the sick, and encouraged his monks to take care of the sick. “Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick,” he is reported as saying.

Thirdly, following from this, there are ample provisions in the monastic code of conduct allowing for medicines. Our unnamed monk would be well aware of this!

Fourthly, the Buddha said that trying to figure out what’s the result of karma is an “unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness and vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.” Although perhaps it also works the other way around: that people who are mentally ill are more prone to have delusions about karma.

And lastly, if it was indeed the karma of sick people that caused them to be sick, then wouldn’t it also be their karma that brought them into contact with a doctor?

The Buddha taught compassion. He taught us to recognize that other people’s sufferings are as real to them as ours are to us. And on the basis of this we should empathize with others and seek not to cause them suffering but to relieve suffering when we can. Here’s Dhammapada verse 20:

All tremble at violence
Life is dear to all
Putting oneself in the place of another
One should neither kill nor cause another
to kill.

This is the Buddhist version of the Golden Rule.

And in the Saleyyaka Sutta the ideal practitioner is described like this:

There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his rod laid down, his knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings.

Now I’m sure that this monk would argue something like “it’s more compassionate to let being suffer from sickness because it allows their past karma to come to fruition,” but a view like that is very far from the kind of compassion that the Buddha advocated.

In a conversation on the now-defunct social network, Google+, Denis Wallez pointed out the corollary that is karma determines everything then it brings sick people into contact with doctors and suggested that the antidote to such gullibility (thinking here of the medical students rather than the monk) was to get people to read more of the Pali canon, which contains ample evidence to contradict the idea that the sick do not deserve treatment, and more importantly to encourage critical thinking. The Buddha himself, in the Kalama Sutta, famously encouraged us not to believe something just because some monk says so!

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Meditation or Drugs: The Downside of Cannabis

Cannabis leaf held up to the sun

New research shows that teenage cannabis use causes lasting damage. As well as the physiological damage, Buddhism suggests that drugs are  about avoiding experience rather than engaging with mindfully with it 

Some of the parents I know with teenage children who use cannabis are fairly relaxed about what’s happening. ‘It isn’t doing any harm’, one tells me. ‘Alcohol’s much worse.’ Others would really like their children to stop but are at their wits end. It’s OK, they say, but not in the house, not on weekdays, or only after you’ve done your homework.

I don’t envy them and no doubt the scientific study reported this week will fuel their worries. It finds that, true to the stoner stereotype, cannabis users have problems with memory, attention and processing information. Most worryingly, the IQs of people who start using cannabis before eighteen drop by an average eight percent, and the damage persists even if they later stop.

The cannabis users I know usually want to chill out, escape stress and access a state of mellow relaxation. Some say it’s natural: a herb, not a drug and an alternative to harried modern living. In fact, some believe, it’s rather like meditation. However, Buddhism has five main ethical precepts and the last is ‘abstaining from intoxicants’. This isn’t a rigorous prohibition, and Buddhists aren’t always strictly teetotal or drug-free. It’s a ‘principle of training’, as we say, that encourages people to avoid drink and drugs because they ‘cloud the mind’ and cause ‘heedlessness’.

The positive counterpart of the precept is the practice of mindfulness: the capacity to be fully present and attentive to whatever’s happening in our experience. In other words, Buddhism posits a choice in our mental lives between avoiding what’s happening if it’s difficult or troubling; and acknowledging or even accepting it.

People who use drugs to circumvent serious emotional difficulties are choosing avoidance, and the work of therapists is helping them to find alternatives to escaping their problems. But the Buddhist perspective is also relevant to those for whom smoking cannabis is just an enjoyable way to relax and be with friends.

This has become increasingly acceptable because it seems harmless. However, the new research suggests that, in the case of teenage cannabis use, that’s far from the truth. If the research withstands scrutiny, laissez faire attitudes will have to change. But alongside the physiological dangers are the emotional and psychological effects of drug use. The fundamental choice we all face is whether to inhabit a haze filled by dope smoke or some other form of sedative, intoxicant, entertainment or distraction; or to engage with our lives wholeheartedly, with all their frustrations and all their beauty.

This was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day slot on  29/08/2012. UK readers can listen to the audio here

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The Fourth Truth: There is a path that leads us away from suffering

Figure standing at the end of a path on a high point overlooking a lake

I used to be confused about why the third truth came before the fourth. And I realize now that if I could not accept or believe that there was an end to suffering, I would not have trudged the path. After all, I would not have known what would be at the end of the path—or if there would even be an end. If somebody had described to me the path that would lead me away from suffering before telling me that there is an end in sight for suffering, I would have most probably had an attack of horrified anxiety. And convinced myself that the life I was living was much more manageable than stepping on to the path that would supposedly lead me away from suffering!

The Four Noble Truths

The path that continues to lead me away from suffering is the threefold path of ethics, meditation and wisdom.

Threefold PathEightfold path
Ethics/VirtueRight Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
MindRight Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration
WisdomRight View
Right Intention

Ethics/Virtue

I cannot say how contented I have become, how much simplicity there is in my life, and how much stillness, too, since I have become more ethical. The five Buddhist precepts opened a door in my heart. They gave me tools to begin living my life differently. I remember becoming a mitra (a friend of the spiritual community) in my tradition. During my ceremony, I took on the five spiritual precepts. I knew as I recited them that they had given me a way to purify my heart. I took them on seriously, and recited the positive and negative forms daily for almost 5 years. Since my ordination in 2005 I have recited ten precepts daily. They have been the principals that have trained me to live my life with mindfulness. They are some of the tenets of right speech, right action and right livelihood: These are the five training principals that are universal to all lay Buddhist traditions. Many monastic communities can have as much as a 100 or more.

  1. I undertake to abstain from harming life. With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  2. I undertake to abstain from taking the not given. With open handed generosity I purify my body.
  3. I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct. With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body.
  4. I undertake to abstain from false speech. With truthful communication I purify my speech.
  5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants. With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind.

(The positive and negative precepts appear as cited by Urgyen Sangharakshita.)

Mind

After a week of learning to meditate, I walked out onto the street and thought the whole world was changing. I had “beginner’s mind.” I paused and chuckled to myself as I realized it was I who was changing and that there was no going back. I had a glimpse of seeing things as they actually were. Meditation caused a revolution in my physical, spiritual and emotional self. I began to walk, think and pray differently. The practice of metta, cultivating loving kindness for (a) myself, (b) a friend, (c) someone I do not know, and (d) an enemy, continues to revolutionize my life. People I thought I would never speak to have come back into my life, because this meditation allowed me to forgive my enemies in the fourth stage (d). The fourth stage cultivated compassion in my heart for my enemies. As the hatred melted away, my self-hatred also melted away, and I am a much happier person.

However, after my beginner’s mind began to fizzle, the real work began. I had to apply right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration to develop my meditation practice. I committed myself to the path of transformation. I began TO study, took up a daily meditation practice and went on retreats. In 2005 I effectively went for refuge, hence placing the three jewels at the centre of my life. The ideal of enlightenment (buddha), the teachings of the buddha (dharma) and spiritual community at the centre of my life (sangha.) I had a lay person ordination into the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. I was named Vimalasara (she who’;s essence is stainless and pure), took on the Bhodisattva vow, the ten precepts, and a visualization practice. My mind had most definitely changed; no longer were my decisions based solely on my sexuality, skin colour or gender. My decisions more and more are based on my going for refuge to the three jewels.

Wisdom

This part of the path, right view and right intention, brings me back to the fourth truth. I continue to develop my understanding of these truths. The Buddha says everything we experience has three characteristics, which are known as the three marks of conditioned existence. He says all life is (a) unsatisfactory, (b) impermanent, (c) unsubstantial, and nothing is fixed at all. These three marks have impacted my identity. I am not so attached to my female self, black self, or queer self. I used to experience everything through these filters. Hence I was often not open to others who were not female, black or queer. I was often judgmental and reactive. Although they had been part of my raft to help me along my recovery, if I was to continue to grow I had to let go of my fixed identities. They were at the centre of my life, and one could say I went to refuge them to them.

Letting go of identities meant I had to forgive those people who discriminated against me. Let go of those people who tried to label me with black stereotypes such as ‘intimidating, loud, aggressive, chip on my shoulder, athletic etc.’ I continue to learn to have compassion for those people who continue to discriminate against me. Without forgiveness, there is no room for wisdom. We must let go of fixed identities, thoughts and grudges. Integrate self and let go of self. Wisdom stops me from settling for the life I live now, which is much better than what it was 15 years ago. Despite how far I have come, I am committed to further understanding the truth. Training my mind, opening up to the possibility of real insight, letting go of self, practicing forgiveness and cultivating transformation, for me is a life time service.

Since stepping onto the path, the three jewels have become what is at the centre of my life. The majority of my decisions are based on going for refuge to the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha.

The Path

So I am on a path that leads me away from suffering. But sometimes I fall off, I stumble, and sometimes I choose not to walk it. But I always get back on. Fear can eat away at my faith and keep me off the path. But my faith can also eat away at my fear, and keep me on the path. There is no vacation from the spiritual life—I must strive on. If I reflect on the day I first walked into a Buddhist centre 23 years ago I know there is no alternative to the path. The Buddha made it simple with the eightfold path: live by these principals and we will gain insight and, perhaps even enlightenment.

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When murderers meditate…

Woodcut of Sakuma Genba Morimasa by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, circa 1820s

I wonder what kind of “meditation” Anders Breivik — who shot 69 people on an island in Norway last year, as well as killing another eight with a bomb — was doing?

According to this report,

When prosecutors Friday asked Breivik whether he felt empathy for others, the killer said he taught himself to dull all emotions – “from happiness to sorrow, despair, hopelessness, anxiety, fear” through meditation.

It’s possible that Breivik was not doing anything resembling traditional Buddhist meditation, which encourages compassion and non-repression of emotions. I’d be 100 confident that Breivik was not practicing lovingkindness or compassion meditation!

Traditionally, meditation is only one part of the spiritual path, and it’s accompanied with an ethical code that strongly emphasizes non-harm. Stripped of this traditional context, there’s no guarantee that meditation alone will make someone a better person.

It’s also possible to practice meditation in an unbalanced way that results in an unhealthy form of emotional detachment and a kind of emotional deadening. Sangharakshita, my own teacher, has mentioned seeing some early western practitioners of the Burmese Satipatthana Method becoming very detached from their emotions and from their physical experience. This seems to have arisen from their having misunderstood the nature of the meditation practices they’d undertaken (or perhaps they had a bad teacher or teachers).

But meditation can be used quite deliberately in ways that are at odds with the Buddha’s teaching. It’s said that samurai warriors would practice meditation in order to quiet the mind and make them better warriors, so this use (or mis-use, from the perspective of the Buddha-Dharma) of meditation techniques would not be new.

I’d encourage all meditators to practice lovingkindness meditation as well as mindfulness practices, and to consciously practice the five Buddhist precepts of undertaking not to kill, take that which is not given, commit sexual misconduct, speak falsely, or indulge in intoxication.

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Waking up to the truth

Buddhists touching the fingers of a giant Buddha statue.

A new monthly blog first Monday of the month by Vimalasara Aka Valerie Mason-John

My Ego

When I came to Buddhism 22 years ago, I would never have admitted to being an addict. After all I was doing what everybody else was doing in my work and social life. No one I knew  was in a 12 step program, or thinking about sobriety. We were in our 20s, happy go lucky and indulging in our hedonistic lives.

In fact when I first mentioned I was going to stop drinking, my friends were horrified. “What? Not even champagne?” How could I refuse such an offer? “Okay champagne only.” That’s how I became the champagne Queen. People knew not to offer me anything else but the fizz.

By the time I was 28 I got to a place in my life where I knew I had burnt copious holes in my brain. Something intuitively told me meditation was the answer, despite the fact I had never formally meditated before. However, I knew the brain was capable of developing new brain cells, and therefore it needed something like meditation, learning a new language or simply doing headstands to revitalize it. Meditation I thought was the easiest option.

Thankfully, visiting a Buddhist Temple was much more hip among my friends. After all, we all needed something to balance our lives in the fast lane.  It was safer than therapy, and not considered navel gazing. The fact I could go to meditation class, and go out clubbing all night after, was acceptable.

I drank Aqualibra and so nobody noticed I wasn’t drinking.  I could meditate for half an hour, get up from my cushions and feel high. I could go on a week retreat, and feel like I was tripping. My addict had found something else to obsess with. I hadn’t bargained for the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, or for reciting the five lay precepts, one of which was ‘abstaining from taking intoxicants.’

There came a point that I had to admit listening to dharma talks was having an impact on my life. Alcohol and stimulants began to fall away. Even some friends too, but most were inspired by the fact that I had found a natural way to be high. I got addicted to guarana,  a native American plant, and kola nut, an African caffeine bean. I had gone from being the champagne queen, to the Duracell battery, as I had more energy than anyone who had popped or snorted something.

I began to realize that champagne, stimulants and natural highs were all about my external ego. How sad was that? As soon as I realized this I began to let go. However, my root dis-ease, root addiction, was food. From the age of 16 I struggled with anorexia, and then became a chronic bulimic. I could not walk past a food shop, or a table of food without eating. I could not refuse food, and would steal and lie to get my choice of drug. I could not eat food without throwing it all up. And so I was on the pendulum of craving and aversion.

Amidst this whirl wind of partying, and natural highs, meditation had cultivated a gap. It was this gap, that led me to recovery. In the gap, I had to discover my own truth. That I was an addict, and I needed to change. Not just an addict to food, but I was addicted to life. I didn’t want to age, get sick or die. The irony was that I was living a life that could accelerate all of these things. I didn’t want to see the ascetic, the fourth sight of the Buddha. To witness the man begging, was too much of a harsh metaphor. It would mean having to let go of how I made my money, how I lived my life. I would have to question my ethics.

The four noble truths came to my rescue. Next month, some of the things that shaped me before I was graced with the Buddhist core teachings: The Four Noble Truths.

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Recovery Mondays: A Buddhist approach to recovery

Scrabble tiles saying "Decide, Commit, Repeat."

A new monthly blog first Monday of the month, by Vimalasara, a.k.a. Valerie Mason-John.

Why is it that so many people make new year’s resolutions, and two weeks later, they are off the wagon?

A study in 2007 by Richard Wiseman from the University of Bristol UK showed that 78% of those who set New Year resolutions fail, and those who succeed have 5 traits in common.

Men achieved their goal 22% more often when they engaged in goal setting, (a system where small measurable goals are being set; such as, a pound a week, instead of saying “lose weight”), while women succeeded 10% more when they made their goals public and got support from their friends.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Of course, the date the new year begins is dependent on the culture we come from; not everyone writes down their resolutions for January 1st. Most cultures do, however, mark the beginning of their new year by letting go of the old.

In fact, up until 1751, the new year in England and Wales began on March 25th, despite the fact that the order of months in the Roman calendar has been January to December since King Numa Pompilius in about 700 BC. Many countries in Asia mark their new year in the spring period, which seems more apt for new year’s resolutions, as the new cycle of life in nature is about to emerge.

Despite all this, the fact remains that millions of people all around the globe will be making new year’s resolutions on January 1st. These resolutions will range from abstaining from intoxicants or from over-indulging in food to paying off debt, getting physically active, or being less grumpy.

Apparently, the top 5 resolutions for 2012 are to

  • Be financially-savvy;
  • Read at least one book per month;
  • Eat properly;
  • Get enough sleep; and
  • Keep a journal of awesome moments.

Notice that none of them have anything to do with abstaining, which may be one of the factors that helps maintain a resolution. In Buddhism, we tend to think of vows—making a strong commitment to oneself. In the lay tradition there are five precepts that we can take and observe. A person may take only one or two precepts, or all five, precepts as a commitment to oneself to change. Though these precepts talk of refraining from an action, they are not commandments. They are what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “Training Principals” for the mind. Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Community has developed a positive antidote to each precept to help us train the mind:

  1. To refrain from harming living creatures (killing). With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given (stealing). With open handed generosity I purify my body.
  3. To refrain from sexual misconduct. With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body.
  4. To refrain from false speech. With truthful communication I purify my speech.
  5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness. With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify mind.

These antidotes could be seen as the remedy for keeping one’s commitment to oneself. Perhaps lending from Sangharakshita’s advice, when making a new year’s resolution for 2012, think about the antidote. And, most importantly, think about an action plan.

For example, the resolution, I will not overeat any more, could have the antidote, With serenity and courage, I purify my mind.

The action plan could be, I will seek help. I will record what I eat so that I notice exactly what I am doing with my food.

Awareness is the key to success when making a resolution.

Of course, we do not have to wait until the new year to change our lives. Some people use their birthday as a time of reflection. For others, fortunately or unfortunately, a tragic experience or threatening illness brings about period of reflection. However, after a period of time, we often find ourselves off the wagon again.

Buddhism, like many spiritual paths, can offer freedom from suffering if we are willing to open up to the core teachings of the Buddha. They can offer a way of living that enables us to stay on the wagon. Or in Buddhist speech, enable us to stay Mindful and Aware.

A short practice to enable us to become more Mindful

Take a long in breath – Take a long out breath
Observe a long in breath – Observe a long out breath
Become aware of the present moment
And Just sit –
Let your thoughts arise and cease
And Just sit – with heart/mind open to the present moment

Next Month – Exploring the first core teaching of Buddhism and Recovery. The First Noble Truth.

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