five precepts

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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Becoming a vegan again: Day 1

vegan-1I’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 groups 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 someone 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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When murderers meditate…

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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