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future-possibleWithout a doubt, the 5 Mindfulness Trainings changes lives – it certainly did mine.  I first came across them in 1993 when Thich Nhat Hanh gave a retreat at Maple Village and spoke extensively about his (then recent) book “For a Future to be Possible“. In this book Thay offers commentaries on the trainings and there are also commentaries by other teachers as well. Looking back on it, this was a major landmark in my practice.

It has been several years now since Plum Village announced an update to Thay’s original formulation of the 5 mindfulness trainings.  Part of Thay’s genius as a teacher of Buddhism to the west is his uncanny ability to read the pulse of a culture and find words to which people in that culture respond. This is particularly true with his formulation of the 5 mindfulness trainings.

I have to admit that, initially, I somewhat resited the updated formulation of the 5 MTs, partly be cause I liked the old one so much.  My first response was “less is more” and I was not so sure I liked the greater number of words in the new formulation. But I decided to let this new version settle with me for a few years and I now feel quite differently about it.

I have listed the new and old Mindfulness Training side by side for comparison, with the highlighted passages indicating the most significant changes, interspersed with some comments.

1. Reverence For Life

New Old
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life.  Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world. Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.

In this training – and several others as well – some aspects of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings (specifically the second one, “non-attachment to views”) have been blended in.  Dharma osmosis has gone the other way in the past also. There was a time when the 14 MTs did not make specific reference to abstinence from intoxicants as it does in the 5 MTs, but the 14 MTs were later updated to include that (in or around 1998 I believe).

I am of two minds about whether or not explaining the causes of anger, fear, greed and intolerance as coming from “dualistic and discriminative thinking” is helpful. Doing so begs the question: “how can I be free from this kind of thinking”?  It also begs the question “what is dualistic?” These are good questions to ask, but they aren’t answered or directly addressed in these trainings. But perhaps that’s the point: to introduce some fundamental Buddhist teachings so that the reader will investigate them further.

Similarly, I wonder whether it is necessary to explain the causes of anger and intolerance in order to be committed to transform violence and dogmatism. People who commit to the trainings – initially anyway – may just wish to assert a determination to transform intentions and attitudes without being explicit about the method (the cultivation of openness and “non-attachment to views”).

On the other hand, the advantage of the new formulation is that it indicates the elements of a recipe that can be followed for realizing this goal. Following the textual trail of “non-attachement to views” in the Buddhist sutras opens many doors, not least of which is the Metta Sutra the last line of which reads:

“By not holding to fixed views, the pure hearted one, having clarity of vision, being freed of all sense desires, is not born again into this world”.

2. True Happiness

New Old
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming. Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well being of people, animals, plants and minerals. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

The practice of generosity is central to Buddhist practice.  Practicing just this training alone is a lifetime’s work.

Here again the training of “Living happily in the present moment” – also present in the 14 Mindfulness trainings – has made its way into the 5.

One striking element of this new formulation, for me, is the injunction at the end to help “reverse the process of global warming”. Clearly, climate change is the topical issue, one very dear to my heart and critically important for our planet and all its species. We are, without a doubt, at a turning point, perhaps a calamitous one.

The very mention this particular issue by name makes it clear that the meaning of these trainings depend on the context. They must adapt to the times – they apply differently in different circumstances. They are not “absolute truth”.

Hence the formulation of the 5MTs will change again in the future.  These words and encouragements are there to help us with our problems here and now.  If nuclear fallout ever become our top concern – let’s hope it doesn’t! – I expect the trainings will be revised again.

3. True Love

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future. Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.

Once more the last of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings is brought in to inform the 3rd (of the 5). It explains why true love (and not craving) needs to be the foundation for a sexual relationship. This must be a helpful addition.

But for reasons I don’t fully understand, many lay people seem to have objected to the addition of “made known to my family and friends” — as though keeping secrets about personal involvements is somehow a necessary part of sexual experimentation in 21st century western culture.

It is true, of course, that in some situations of cultural oppression – regarding homosexuality, for example, or even sex out of wedlock – keeping secrets about your sexual orientation or sexual activity may be a matter of life and death. But in that case, this training should be viewed as an aspiration to a world where all loving, long-term partnerships and commitments can be made known publicly without danger. These trainings have to be used wisely and in context.

My guess is that the primary intent of “made known to my family and friends” was to prevent the situations of unfaithfulness and betrayal – one where illicit sexual relationships are taking place.

Not only do I think “made known to my family and friends” is helpful, I would suggest that this 3rd mindfulness training be extended one step further: to explicitly include the manifestation of inappropriate emotional desires as well as sexual desires. Emotional intimacy with another person who is not your committed partner, particularly an intimacy not “made know to my family and friends”, can be just as threatening as sexual intimacy to the integrity of couples and families – perhaps even more so, in some situations.

This is why I am sorry to see that the phrase “To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others” has been deleted from the new version of this training. I think that this wording, which expresses respect for the commitment to others – emotional and sexual – should be reinstated and enhanced to include emotional commitments and the protection of emotional intimacy.

4. Loving Speech and Deep Listening

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

There are so many things going on in this new formulation of the 4th Mindfulness training, it’s hard to know what to say. The emphasis on reconciliation at both the personal and social level adds a certain consistency with the 5th mindfulness training that also considers communities and past and future generations.

The new formulation skillfully borrows from the 6th of the 14 Mindfulness trainings on how to deal with anger thus acknowledging that a significant amount of unmindful speech is born from anger.

The emphasis on cultivating the 4 brahmavihāras (sublime abidings) – expressed as “understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness” – as an antidote to anger appears for a second time (it appears the first time in the context of the 3rd training on sexual misconduct). As I indicated in a previous post, I find the word “inclusiveness” a rather felicitous choice for the idea most often translated as “equanimity”.

5. Nourishment and Healing

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

I love that this new formulation includes awareness of the desire to gamble.  I have myself often fantasized about what it would be like to be wealthy from a lucky 6/49 windfall and I confess to having indulged in the occasional ticket, despite my knowledge of probability theory.  Even though my fantasies were relatively wholesome, like “Would I build a retreat center?”  0r “Would I give the money away to those who need it?”, this way of looking at gambling – as a certain kind of toxic consumption that can poison the mind with greed and selfisheness – is really helpful. In addition it is useful to remember that the windfall from whomever “wins” comes at a cost – the suffering of the (usually) poor people who bought all the losing tickets. Viewed in this way, winning the lottery is a form of exploitation.

On the other hand, I regret the loss of the reflection on our ancestors. What we do and refrain from consuming has an effect – both on the past and on the future. Thay often says that what you do in the present can heal the past. And it can certainly benefit future generations to, for example, practice restraint from ingesting intoxicants.

The phrase “practicing a diet for myself and for society” was a powerful reflection for me: our place as descendants and our place as ancestors to future generations as well as our place in society as a whole was the contemplation of interbeing suggested in the new formulation.

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First, a few caveats.  I have the utmost respect for soldiers, past and present. My father was a soldier in a conscription army. My mother was married to a polish air-force pilot (before she married my father). My grandfather was a submariner who was killed just a few weeks before the Armistice.

Also, I am a pacifist, and I used to believe that being harmed is always a better alternative than doing harm. I still believe that, but, I now also believe there are some circumstances where the use of (or at least the threat of) military force may be necessary to prevent greater harm.  I would have enlisted my energies and resources to help with the war effort to combat Nazism, for example.  I may not have wielded a lethal weapon, but I wouldn’t have hesitated to work with Alan Turing to break the Enigma code, possibly the single most important allied action of WW II.

What I want to say here is not about soldiers, but about how we remember them. There is something disquieting about the way that many – politicians especially – use remembrance day to justify war and drum up nationalistic patriotism.

Take for instance the word “sacrifice”, often used in the context of Remembrance Day: “we honour the sacrifices made by our veterans” or “we thank our veterans because, if not for their sacrifice, we would not enjoy our freedoms today.”

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “sacrifice” is:

an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy

Hence a soldier who has “sacrificed” his life in war, has given up his life for something of greater value. That greater value being “our freedom” or “our country”. “Peace”, even, is sometimes alluded to as that virtue for which their sacrifice was made.

Leaving WW II aside for the moment, there are certainly reasons to doubt whether the 37 million casualties of WW I were “sacrifices” by that definition. Were there freedoms that would have been lost if not for that war? And was it not the crushing costs of reparations to Germany that sewed the seeds for WW II?

So, one reason I wear a White Poppy is that the Red Poppy has become a symbol for the sacrifices of soldiers. It is not clear to me that there was a greater good for which they sacrificed their lives. Yes, they died and suffered and we need to remember those tragedies.  But that need not be accompanied by dubious gratitude for their sacrifices. Soldiers, like the other victims of war, were first and foremost victims and, especially in WW I, victims of the propaganda that drove them to enlist.

But there’s a more important reason.  The White Poppy is a symbol of remembrance for all the suffering that occurs in war. There were many atrocities and much suffering in both world wars and the victims were not only soldiers, but also civilians. In fact, most (58%) of the allied casualties of WW II were civilian, not least of which, of course, were the victims of the Holocaust.

The Ode of Remembrance ,”Lest we forget” was originally a tribute to all the casualties of war. Yet the popular media now describes this as an event:

in memory of the thousands of men and women who sacrificed their lives in military service (CBC 2008)

There is a place to remember soldiers who did sacrifice their lives, in those situations where it was a sacrifice, and the heros whose courage and integrity are models. But, for Remembrance Day, I think it is more appropriate to remember all the suffering caused by war and reflect on the importance of seeking peace everywhere there is conflict.

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