No killing. No stealing. No sexual misconduct. No lying. No intoxicants. This is the text of the five precepts I will vow to uphold in two short weeks.
Does this mean I can’t eat steak? Or dink whiskey? Because I like those things and I don’t feel like I’m harming myself or anyone else. Can’t I still…? Do I have to…? Should I even vow…? My clever mind is looking for a loophole to continue my little pleasures, to live my life as though taking on a robe and stole is just a formality. It won’t really change who I am or what I do. Right?
Another part thinks it should change things. Otherwise, what would be the point? I don’t want to make vows I know I won’t uphold.
But what do the vows even mean? Surely it okay to have a little red wine on a Saturday night as long as I don’t get “intoxicated,” as in, falling down drunk.
No intoxicants. That’s what it says. Why is that so hard anyway? I’ve always been a featherweight drinker. A week ago, I left half a carafe of warm sake on the table at a sushi restaurant out of prudence. If I drink once a week, that’s a lot. So why am I trying to wiggle out of what I believe to be the letter of the law?
No killing. I was mostly vegetarian for six years to reduce the suffering of sentient beings. It would be easy to return to that now that I have the means again. I still eat less meat than the average American …
… but I like meat, especially when my partner cooks it for me. I can’t make his life more difficult, can I? Meat is everywhere. It’s so easy…and yummy.
The rest doesn’t seem so difficult. It’s not like I’m into stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying on a regular basis. I can accept those vows gladly.
Surely that’s good enough, right?
But why should I only live by the easy ones?
We received the text of the ordination ceremony today. It says:
“All good men and women! Listen carefully! The Agama Sutras say there are good men and women who observe the precepts without making vows, who thus obtain very little merit. Excellent results can only come to be when precepts are observed along with great vows. When merit is cultivated without making vows, it is like a house built on sand. It is also like pottery that cannot be used without being fired in a kiln. Therefore, after bestowing the Refuges and the Five Precepts upon you, I shall teach you the proper way of making vows. Please join your palms together, repeat after me, and sincerely make your vows in front of the Triple Gem of the Ten Directions.”
I believe that what it means is that doing what is easy requires little effort and makes no real difference in the course of our lives (merit). Only by doing what is difficult, can we shift the flow of our habit energies, the river of our karma, into a better direction. One does not need to bother with a vow to do something easy. Vows are for doing what is difficult. They are for creating intention and commitment. When we uphold our vows, our willpower grows stronger, like a muscle being exercised. Our vow is the foundation of a strong house. Even if the house burns down, if we make a mistake, the foundation (the vow, the intention) remains and the house can be rebuilt.
In this light, the answer seems simple. Of course, I vow and, of course, I keep the vows as best I understand them.
But do I really have to be that good? Does anyone even expect that?
And on it goes.
Today I was productive. In between bursts of productive, I had periods of both genuine rest (still productive) and periods of frustrating, unproductive effort. That’s how I think of it when I feel like I’m expending energy without actually doing anything.
I don’t mean that I did something that didn’t ultimately matter or that I made a mistake and had to redo past work. I literally mean I’m not really doing anything at all. I’m sitting in my chair with my glasses off, rubbing my face, thinking of my next task in a very abstract way (as in “I ought to have a next task”), and not actually directing my effort towards anything in particular. Nevertheless, it feels at though I am expending a great deal of effort. It feels at though I’m pushing a boulder I cannot touch up a hill I cannot see.
Depending on the day, this can last anywhere from a minute to an hour. I’ll look out the window, eat a piece of chocolate, open and close blank browser tabs on my computer, stare at an email inbox with no unread messages, and basically be useless. Yet I feel like effort is pouring out of me like a waterfall.
I’m beginning to recognize this as a kind of purgatory, an intermediate state between someone who has fairly successfully mastered the ability to prevent herself from actively procrastinating but not yet entirely mastered what Buddhist literature calls virya (viriya in Pali) and what American’s call “productivity.”
Virya is often translated as “effort,” “energy,” or “diligence,” but the deeper meaning is actually closer to “effortlessness.” It is part of Right Effort and related to the ability to “generate desire” for skillful and wholesome things (SN 45.8). Think about that for a minute.
To generate desire is to want to do something. When we genuinely want to do something, it tends to take significantly less effort than doing what we don’t want to do, right? Or at least, it feels that way subjectively. A marathon is still a ton of effort, but I can’t imagine how much more effort it would take if you spent all 26 miles thinking of how you wanted to be anywhere but here.
Virya is also part of the five factors of exertion, specifically: “…energy aroused for abandoning unskillful mental qualities and taking on skillful mental qualities. [The practitioner with virya] is steadfast, solid in his[/her] effort, not shirking his[/her] duties with regard to skillful mental qualities.” (AN 5.53) I often feel as though I am caught in between the stages of abandoning and taking on. I know how I procrastinate, the tricks my mind plays, and how to defeat them or turn them to a better purpose. Yet, I still struggle to maintain focus and diligence throughout my day. I’m not surfing the internet, but I’m not really writing that report either. My effort is still being poured into abandoning, leaving little for the taking on.
The Buddha further unravels the roots of effort in the Canki Sutta (MN 95) leading to a long chain of reasoning that rests finally on “conviction.” The Buddha references specifically the conviction needed to visit a teacher and learn the Dharma. You need to believe that person can help you in order to bother going to see them. Likewise, you need to believe that your effort will yield results before you engage in it. I remind myself of this when I’m feeling stuck.
When I am productive, I am terrifically productive. When I can get my mind to settle and focus on a task, I can create an enrollment projection from scratch, draft a three page report, make a twenty slide presentation, or create a five page research summary in a few short hours. And I feel awesome both during and after. I get lost in the flow of the work and receive a deep sense of accomplishment at its conclusion.
The problem is, I completely forget that when I’m in the midst of abandoning the habit energies that keep me unproductive and procrastinating. Having conviction in my own capacity for productivity is the first step out of that trap. It helps that everyday I get to go to work and apply that productivity to making a Buddhist university just a little bit better.
Last week San Francisco State University hosted Mindfulness and Compassion: The Art and Science of Contemplative Practice, a conference largely organized by the Consciousness, Mindfulness, Compassion International Association, which is who’s who of Buddhist teachers and other contemplatives. I attended on Wednesday, Thursday, and half of Friday, leaving before the evening keynote presentation to return to Southern California for a wedding. The conference continued until the end of the day on Saturday, with an optional excursion to nearby Green Gulch Farm on Sunday. These are some brief thoughts on what I experienced:
Words, words, words, so many words and so much to absorb. Nevertheless, some themes emerged.
- First, there is concern for the popular image as “mindfulness as panacea” and growing recognition that it may not be appropriate for all or lead only to beneficial outcomes.
- Second, Buddhists in particular are concerned by the “off label use” (as one scientist dubbed it) of mindfulness in the absence of the other parts of the path, namely ethics and wisdom, and there is some apparent tension with scientists and secular (or non-Buddhist) psychologists over this.
- Third, likewise there was tension between the notion that we are using mindfulness merely to help people cope in a dysfunctional world, making stress a ‘personal problem,’ while avoiding a discussion of ethics that might actually demand change in the systems that cause the dysfunction.
- Fourth, related to this, mindfulness is only the tip of the iceberg for Buddhist meditation; the Satipatthana Sutta and many other scriptures from which Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBIs) are derived contain much more material that may be underutilized.
- Fifth, there is ongoing concern for the growing practice of meditation by laypeople, particularly when done ‘out of context’ of sangha and teacher, as is often the case in the west, and the neglect of other meaningful Buddhist practices still popular among laypeople in Asia.
- Sixth, there is a growing interest in compassion as both a human virtue and a therapeutic intervention, such as through the training programs developed at Stanford and UCSF.
- Finally, the scientific study of contemplative practice via neuroscience continues to blossom.
Each one of these points could expand into a full length post on the topic. For now, I will leave them as they are. I’m sure had I stayed through Saturday, there would have been many more. For now, this is my reaction.
I am glad to hear serious discussion of the limitations of mindfulness meditation as it is currently practiced and a broadening of the scope of the discussion to include other kinds of meditation. It spurred insight into some of my own ambivalence towards breath meditation while also renewing my interest in other forms, particularly contemplation designed to deepen compassion, goodwill, equanimity, and insight.
I believe we need to have a serious discussion about ethics and the role of Buddhists/Buddhism in society. We cannot simply let our practices be adapted for ‘stress relief’ without also doing work to alleviate the sources of stress caused by systemic injustice and cultural maladjustment.
The science is fascinating, but it is still in very early stages. Better understanding must wait until the science is more solid, which, despite the seemingly quick pace of discoveries, is several years away, maybe decades. While this happens, we (contemplative practitioners and scholars of religion) must remain in deep dialogue with the scientists, lest their work goes astray, as some of what I saw clearly had.
This was an important conference highlighting important work. I was grateful to attend and present. I hope I might be a small part of this dialogue as it continues.
Keep in mind that I am a bibliophile. That is, a lover (in the intellectual sense) of books. Therefore, I tend to accumulate more books than I actually have time to read. The following options are from my shelves. I have skimmed or read chapters in a few, while barely breathing on the pages of others.
I leave it up to you, my readers, where I should go next. In addition to the books listed below, you may make your own additions in the comments. I am also a keen fan of audio books for my long commute, so if any are better heard, than read, please let me know.
Leadership is an Art by Max De Pree. This book was assigned for a course I took last year on ‘connective leadership.’ I admit that I skimmed it only, but it seems worth a deeper read. Although originally published in 1989, my classmates raved about it’s relevance in 2015. I must confess, I felt slightly left out in that class due to my own failure to read the book that week.
The 4 Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. This exegesis of the Satipatthana Sutta, that classic Buddhist meditation manual, is the 2012 followup to Bhante’s wildly popular Mindfulness in Plain English, which I have also not read. Should I buy and read Mindfulness first, then 4 Foundations, or is the second book good on its own?
Please Don’t Tell: What to Do with the Secrets People Share by Emma Justes. I was originally drawn to this book precisely because I am often the recipient of other people’s secrets, as I have written about here and here. Sharing a secret can lead to great healing, but it can also create suffering in the person who hears it. It can also create ethical dilemmas between the tension to maintain a trust and prevent harm, which may be possible by sharing rather than keeping another person’s secret. For such a complicated subject, the book is short and appears accessible.
Feeling Wisdom: Working with Emotions Using Buddhist Teachings and Western Psychology by Rob Preece. I’m becoming more and more interested in Buddhist psychology. I always was, but now that classes are out, I have time to study it. I appreciate that Preece is dealing with emotions, which I am starting to realize drive our behaviors more than we (and previous generations of psychologists) ever thought. I wonder what Buddhism has to say on the matter?
Finally, The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet’s Lost Paradise by Ian Baker is the only memoir currently on my list. I find memoirs to often be hit or miss, but in this case the subject matter is certainly intriguing. And it comes with the Dalai Lama’s stamp of approval. It is also the longest book on my list.
So, dear readers, I place this into your hands. Remember that you can also make new suggestions in the comments. What should I read next this summer?
I’ve been on this self-improvement kick for a while now. I guess that’s what to call it anyway: self-improvement. It’s a broad category, but in my case, I’m concerned with bodily health and productivity. I’m not unhealthy, but I was starting to see certain trends in my life that could lead to it. Productivity is actually a large peice of the health puzzle, because feeling rushed, unmotivated, or like I don’t have enough time is a strong ‘push’ factor in unhealthy behaviors. Using my time more productively and deliberately actually brings the balance and space needed to look after myself physically. Being healthier simply results in an overall increase in wellbeing – I feel better and happier for longer periods of time. What’s not to like?
Well, a lot of things, actually. I don’t like exercise very much. I don’t like a lot of ‘healthy’ foods. I don’t like getting up on time in the morning. I’m not actually very fond of meditation. But these are all very short-term, momentary discomforts.
When I spend twelve minutes doing mildly strenuous yoga in the morning, the other 948 minutes of my waking day are observably improved. I even sleep better and I feel a psychological sense of accomplishment. When I go for a fifteen minute walk in the mid-afternoon, I return to my desk with half a dozen problems solved. Staring at my computer screen can’t accomplish that. When I take the dog for a thirty minute walk, his happiness is contageous.
When I slowly started introducing more healthy foods into my diet and crowding out the unhealthy ones, I didn’t actually feel like I was giving anything up. I’m not “on a diet;” I’m just changing. We can actually change our tastes, change what we find delicious over time, which is good news. The bad news is that we can’t do this tomorrow. It has taken me over ten years to move away from the Midwestern meat and potato diet I was raised with and develop a taste for healthy salads, vegetables, legumes, and seafood. Living near a vibrant farmer’s market for several years in my twenties helped. Living near the ocean in my thirties has refined my palate further. All this has kept me at a healthy weight and healthy wasteline.
When I can stick to my morning routine, which means getting up on time, my entire day goes smoother. Having a morning routine has been strongly correlated with productivity in other areas of life, even if the rest of the day is less predictable. Discipline is a muscle and a morning routine, rather than being boring, is a way to exercise that muscle and keep it in shape. My morning routine includes meditation. When I meditate I strengthen my ability to be present and less distracted in the rest of my life, further improving my productivity, my personal relationships, and my overall sense of wellbeing.
This is a fifteen year project, but I’ve only been deliberate about it for the past five. Maybe that is a side effect of not being twenty anymore. Some books I’ve really enjoyed on this quest include Switch, about habits and behavior change, The Willpower Instinct, about, well, willpower, Essentialism, about how to do less, The Blue Zones Solution, about how we eat and live, and Quiet, about the “power of introverts.” Each of these has a firm basis in rigorous research correlated across many fields and includes both the theoretical background, results from empirical tests, and pragmatic instructions for change. (Essentialism is slightly more manifesto-like, but I enjoyed it anyway.) Moreover, I found that it was helpful to read the books about habits, behavior change, and willpower before doing research on diet, exercise, and other healthy habits. I consumed these books over the past three years in between reading on many other topics.
You might wonder, at some point, why no Buddhist books? This is “Dharma” Cowgirl after all.
My Buddhist studies are integral to this transformation. They continue largely in the context of my academic work. Now that summer is here, I have returned to personal reading, finally tacking the classic What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula. I can clearly see the impact of this work, first published in 1959, had on American Buddhism and, in a very direct way, on me even though this is my first time reading it. Buddhism deeply informs my ongoing “self-improvement” project.
Of course, I get a giggle out of the idea of improving a self that really doesn’t exist as such. It’s more like non-self-self-improvement, or simply anatta–anicca. Change in the non-self nature of “my” existence.
Yet, I am encouraged to continue my steady progress. Improving the quality of my life improves the conditions in which I practice.
I do not believe this is always true. We can get caught up in “self-improvement” just like any other addiction, chasing the next fad, the newest exercise routine, the most “natural” cure. There is a great deal of room for tanha, craving, in self-improvement. Reifying the self is a real danger. The quest for self-improvement can often create a samsaric cycle. It can be fueled by the dukkha (suffering) of self-criticisim and a deep sense of worthlessness or by competition and a desire to be better than others. It can also perpetuate dukkha, as when it turns into anorexia or plastic surgery gone wrong or the blind pursuit of wealth and success that induces harm to others and heart attacks by age fifty.
Buddhism tempers my interest in self-improvement because I know that the self I am improving is, by it’s nature, transitory, subject to suffering, source of suffering, stress, old age, illness, and death. It places my self-improvement within a framework of steps towards enlightenment. By keeping my body healthy, my mind strong, and my emotions at ease, I give myself more years of good practice and I am better able to help others.
I read the secular books through a mind already intimately familiar with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Not everything passes muster, but much of it, especially in relation to human psychology and social life, is actually very well alligned with Buddhist teaching. Social science and neuroscience are, if anything, proving Buddhism correct. They also frame change and life interventions within the modern American cultural context, something that ancient Buddhist texts, or even a book a recent as Rahula’s, simply cannot do. I believe they hold immortal and universal truths, but they can’t point out a useful iPhone app, describe a method for managing my email inbox, or provide a list of healthy ingredients easily found in American supermarkets. So there is a necessary balance here, too.
Buddhists should not be afraid of “self-improvement” as too ego-centric. Nor should we be obsessed with it to the point of fixation. I see it simply as karma. If my self doesn’t really exist as a fixed entity, then I need not fear it’s change, particularly if I work to slowly change it in a positive way. Beware the illusion of control, however. I’m still reconing with the karma of my genetic disposition to sleep late and cultural disposition towards burgers and fries. All my past karma is like the flow of a river, so I needn’t be overly frustrated when change is slow and hard. The river is much bigger than I am and that’s not my fault. Luckily, I have a paddle!