The 5 Mindfulness Trainings Revisited

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.

Upekkha – Inclusiveness

In the new version of the 5 Mindfulness trainings from Plum Village there is a reference (in the third training on True Love) to the 4 Immeasurable Minds (Brahma Viharas or Divine Abidings). In Thich Nhat Hanh’s formulation they are are translated from the Pali as:

loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness

“Inclusiveness” is a particularly interesting translation for the pali Upekkha, usually translated as “equanimity”.  Upekkha (along with Mudita) is also often ignored in favour of Metta (loving kindness) or Karuna (compassion).

The question of how to translate this word came up in my french meditation class a few months ago. Some students were suggesting that “equanimity” in English could be translated by the French term “impassibilite” which means “impassiveness”.  “Right but not True”, Ajahn Chah might have said.  Some things about “impassive” (“calm”; “serene”) are close and some things are clearly not at all true (“without emotion”; “apathetic”; “unmoved”).

The usual translation “Equanimity” is preferred, I am guessing, because connotes the “coolness” of an extinguished flame – which is sometimes the image used to convey Nirvana. Serenity is also fine as a descriptive attribute, but somehow, none of these words get to the heart of Upekkha (it is a given, of course, that that no word is much good at getting at the ineffable.)

I am beginning to appreciate “inclusiveness” more and more because it encourages one to think of this as an attitude rather than as a psychological state to attain.  Inclusiveness means non-discrimination, really. It’s a receptive state of awareness of and acceptance of all phenomena such as they are – free of wanting things to be any different.

With Upekkha, the pleasant, unpleasant, good, bad, beautiful, desirable and undesirable are all contained – welcomed even – under the same umbrella of non-discriminative awareness.

May / June Buddhist Activities in Ottawa

We are incredibly fortunate here in Ottawa to have so many opportunities to practice and so many Dharma teachers ready at hand.  May and June 2010 are a particularly auspicious pair of months. Here’s the lineup:

Ayya Medhanandi 5-day Spring Retreat May 7-12 (Stillwaters Retreat Center, Lanark County)

Loving Kindness Retreat with Monastics from Blue Cliff Monastery May 15-16 (Dieu Khong Temple, Ottawa)

Ajahn Sumedho and Tisarana monks at Vesak May29th (Tisarana Monastery, Perth)

Ajahn Sumedho public Talk at the University of Ottawa, June 11

Ajahn Sumedho Ottawa non-residential retreat June 12-13 (waiting list only)

Reviews of “The Buddha”

A number of reviews have now been written about the recent PBS documentary “The Buddha” and I thought it worth while to devote a post to these comments.  (Note that the film can be viewed in its entirety from the PBS web site (if you are in the U.S.) or in 10-minute segments from YouTube if you are outside the U.S.  Then again, you can buy or rent it on iTunes.)

The New York Times weighed in with a somewhat cynical review that is typical of journalistic fare. The passage I found most saddening is:

… it seems unlikely that anyone who has even a slight acquaintance with the Buddha and his teachings will learn much here. And those already inclined to see Buddhism as a loosey-goosey religion that attracts Western space cadets probably won’t have their minds changed by “When this is, that is,” and Ms. Hirshfield’s wide-eyed statement on the miraculousness of drinking coffee from a mug.

In other words, the documentary fails to convert the un-initiated and fails to inform the converted with anything new.  There have been other comments of that nature on “The Buddha” Facebook page: several commentator felt the film was preaching to the converted.

The assumption behind these comments, I think, is that the purpose and value of a documentary on a religious figure is to “inform” (as in “provide more data”) or to convince – as if there were no other modes of understanding.  But Buddhism, by and large, is not a proselytizing religion and I didn’t at all get the sense that filmmaker David Grubin was trying to do that.  My sense is that he was trying to convey something about what Thich Nhat Hahn calls “The Miracle of Mindfulness”.

Of course, the film does have “information content” at one level (dates, stories, interview, narratives etc.) but I thought it was the form– the images, music and mood of the film as well the manner of being and speaking of the interviewees – that conveyed much more of the spirit of the Buddha – his thirst for freedom, his awakening and his motivation to teach – than anything that was said. That the NY Times reviewer condescends by labeling Buddhism a “loosey-goosey religion that attracts Western space cadets” because they see miraculousness in the ordinary, is, at most, proof that Gruben didn’t entirely succeed in communicating the miracle of mindfulness to everyone.

A more subtle critique of the film came from Clark Strand’s blog post “How to be a Buddhist in America“:

I found its treatment of the life of Shakyamuni, historical founder of the world’s fourth largest religion, haphazard, impulsive, and at times visually disjointed. It seemed it couldn’t decide what kind of film it wanted to be or what aspect of the Buddha’s message it most wanted to convey. Likewise, with the exception of the Dalai Lama and Tibet activist/Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, the panel of experts seemed to have been assembled at random, without much thought given to recent scholarship or any sense of modern Buddhist culture.

One does indeed wonder about how the panelists were chosen given the abundant and stellar firmament of Buddhist scholars and practitioners of all stripes.  It is true that there seems to have been a preponderance of Tibetan Buddhists, but I expect that a lot more people were interviewed than made it into the film. It appears to me that the editing of what the talking heads said was for the primary purpose of explaining the narrative of the Buddha’s quest and realization.  And that, I thought, they all did quite admirably.

Strand’s qualms with the movie, it turns out, have more to do with how Buddhism is being assimilated in America.  And with that I have more sympathy, though not a lot of understanding.

I found “The Buddha” problematic precisely because, as an American Buddhist, I still find Buddhism problematic–profoundly problematic. Even as I practice and teach it, I live in conflict with it. What do we do with a religious founder born to privilege who names his son Rahula (literally, “fetter”), abandons his wife and newborn child, starves himself within inches of his life, and thereafter preaches almost exclusively to a celibate order of men and (after holding out against them for as long as he could) women–women who are required to follow twice as many monastic rules as the men and are subsequently regarded as a threat to male monastic authority and, yes, male monastic celibacy?

My reply would be – does it matter (much) how this teaching came into being? It was born of suffering, surely – loss of a mother as a baby, an over-protective father, not to mention the abandonment of his family.  Yes, of course there are several aspects of Buddhism – all religions for that matter – that are problematic, particularly in the way in which they have been assimilated into (problematic) cultures.  But why does one have to be in conflict with Buddhism because of it?  I guess I just don’t understand the need for one more thing to struggle about, particularly when these very teachings show the path to freedom from stuggle.

“The Buddha” PBS Documentary

So many things could have gone wrong with a documentary about the Buddha’s life – and it is so difficult to get it right too (viz. Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha“) – that you cannot but applaud David Grubin’s fine film.

Personally, what I enjoyed the most was the music. It conveyed a mood that is just right for understanding some of the core elements of Buddhism – equanimity, compassion, kindness.  There were many well-chosen snippets from eloquent but also very “real” and “present” speakers (my favourite, besides His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was Mark Epstein).

I liked some of the silences too – it wasn’t too packed with views and opinions – this vs. that – no shortage of things that can go wrong in that department.

For my personal aesthetic, I could have done with less of the mythology – the Buddha’s “miracles”, struggles with Mara and so on – but then where would Grubin have been with the visuals?  It was good that these segments were in cartoon form – that device showed by its structure that the stories can (and in my opinion should) be taken allegorically.

I also liked the respectful context-setting: the religious and cultural backdrop of India at the time.  That in itself could have taken 2 hours, but there was enough to show how revolutionary the Buddha’s teaching was.

Unfortunately, I missed significant chunks of the film such as the segment on the 4 Noble Truths (I trust Grubin wouldn’t  have skipped that part!). In short, for the pieces that I saw: two thumbs up!

Personal Identity

One often hears Dharma teachers talk about how we all take on “identities” – as a son or daughter, as an employee, as someone from a generation, as a mother or father. In other words, we often construct ourselves with “I am X” or “I am Y” or “I am not Z” – the constant here being this sense of “I” which gets fed by these identity constructs.

I was thinking about that today because I have several friends who have been children to their parents for 30+ more years than I have.  My mother died when I was 20.  I had barely ended childhood and I knew her for only 20 years. That’s one kind of “being a child”.  But my 60+ year-old friends have their parents in old age homes or are their care-givers for them at home. In what sense are they still “children”?

What I’m getting at is – “being X” or “being Y” itself changes, sometimes dramatically, over time. Being a parent, for instance, is quite a different proposition when your child is in diapers than when your child is learning differential calculus.The sense in which you are a “parent” is quite different in each situation.  Whatever identity you gleaned from “being X” shifts quite quickly – it’s not at all a rigid construct.

Furthermore, I think that our very ideas of what it means to be X (white-skinned in a North American culture) or Y (a Buddhist in Canada) also changes as our environment changes. “Being white” in a post-Aparthied world or during Obama’s presidency is less problematic, I think, less fraught with guilt, anyway, than it perhaps once was.

This dualistic sense of “me” is still a problem, naturally. But if we look closely at what the things are that define one’s personal identity, they are clearly not ridged or fixed, however much we may want it to be. Everywhere we look impermanence stares us in the face. It could be that exporing our very sense of who we are and how our identity is made up is one path toward freedom from the labels that they impose and the “I” that is in the middle of them.

Past, Present and Future

I have noticed that my relationship to time changes as I grow older.  A few months ago I heard a nonagenarian being interviewed on the radio about his recent skydiving adventure.  When asked “what are your plans [to do this again] in the future?” he answered “you know, at my age, you stop planning for the future.”

Conversely, at a young age you believe you are immortal, that the possibilities in the future are limitless, that summers are endless and there isn’t much in the past – yet.

So how does this change one’s perspective of time shift one’s Dharma practice?  In a lot of ways, I think.  With an awareness that “tomorrow” may not be a possibility, “here and now” becomes much more clearly all that there is.  And a focus on the present moment and taking refuge in awareness of the present moment leads to freedom.

Because “time” and “self” are bound up.  A sense of who you are in the historical dimension gives definition to this sense of identity – I am a father, I am a son, I am from Switzerland, I was like this and I am now like that and I will become the other thing.  But awareness of the present is outside of time – it is in that sense “eternal”.  It has no beginning and no end.

So while it is possible to be burdened by your history as you grow older, it is also more possible to let go of the past and not be so concerned with the future.  To take refuge in the here and now. To be free.