Living with an Insight into Wanting: An Ethical Journey

Going for Refuge
At the foot of the Bodhi Tree, beautifully seated, peaceful and smiling, the living source of understanding and compassion, to the Buddha I go for refuge. ––Thich Nhat Hanh

Since our dear Sangha friend Claudia Brandenburg died in November, I have found myself increasingly drawn into a deep inquiry about what it really means to live a life in the Dharma. We hear that the Buddha “moves through the world with two wings.” These wings are the strong directional energies of compassion and wisdom. I take this to mean that there are two major areas to attend to when living an intentional life. Both share the Path’s aspirational direction of lessening our own suffering and the suffering of all sentient beings.

Compassion entails developing a heart that can stay steady in the face of all the many internal and external challenges that can arise in a human lifetime and that can threaten our natural capacity for friendliness, caring, joy, and spiritual or psychological balance.

Wisdom is focused on finding freedom from these distracting challenges to our wise and ethical intentions by seeing clearly their root cause. This cause is an entrenched momentum, fueled by a desire based on ignorance. The teachings say that the direct, embodied realization of this force of desire, along with a clear comprehension of how it destabilizes a life untrained in mindfulness, leads to freedom from its control. This “clear seeing” is hard to achieve. The Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah once said that trying to see the process of our life in real time is like “trying to count the leaves when you are falling out of a tree.”

The image of the bird in flight with its two wings supporting one another is very important to me. The bird’s movement is balanced and flowing; not halting, or it would fall to the ground; not straining, or it would be tossed around by the crosswinds. Just the right amount of effort with the wings working in harmony will keep our lives on course. Sila, the Pali language word that is usually translated as “ethical” actually means “harmonious.” A life lived in the dharma glides along, skillfully supported by a gentle awareness, one which is grounded in kindness and in clear seeing. I had a simple, yet profound, encounter with this duo recently.

This February, the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, offered a three-part online course titled “Mindfulness and Ethics” in which I, along with a number of others in the Valley Insight Sangha, participated. The course was built around the Eightfold-Path-related teaching called “The Five Training Precepts.” The five precepts are meant to serve as guidelines for our living in the world that we share with so many others. They are not commandments; breaking them doesn’t constitute “sin”; perfecting them is not the purpose of the practice. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to them as the “Five Mindfulness Trainings.” During the month of this program, I came to a fuller understanding of why he does.


The Five Training Precepts
– Chanting Book, Volume One, Amaravati Sangha

1. Panatipata veramini sikkhapadam samadiyami.
I undertake the training to refrain from destroying living creatures.

2. Adinnadana veramini sikkhapadam samadiyami.
I undertake the training to refrain from taking that which is not freely given.

3. Kamesu micchacara veramini sikkhapadam samadiyami.
I undertake the training to refrain from harming through sexual misconduct.

4. Musavada veramini sikkhapadam samadiyami.
I undertake the training to refrain from harsh or incorrect speech.

5. Surameraya-majja-ppamadhatthana veramini sikkhapadam samadiyami.
I undertake the training to refrain from intoxicating liquors, drugs, and other substances
which can cloud the mind and lead to carelessness.

Seeing Clearly
The path of mindful living leading to healing, joy, enlightenment, the way of peace: to the Dharma I go for refuge. –– Thich Nhat Hanh

In the first week of our course, the teacher presented an overview of this aspect of Dharma. She shared several different translations and interpretations of the five trainings, both as a full set and individually. We were given the assignment to focus especially on the first two precepts during the week ahead. Everyone in the class was to a large degree a committed practitioner and a highly ethical person with good intentions. None of us were likely to commit a grave violation of the precepts by killing or stealing, and yet, there were the cases of spiders in the bathroom sink, little flies on the houseplants, a centipede which I see on rare occasion in the kitchen cabinet under the sink. Our mindfulness practice would make it less likely that we might make an offhand remark that could harm or destroy the reputation of another person in the eyes of a mutual friend or put forth another person’s idea as our own.

It was the week before Valentine’s Day, and I had bought a wonderful little children’s book on love to send to my two great-great-nieces. One is four years old. The other is only nine months old. In the Co-op grocery store, I saw a little three-by-three-inch gift card for sale with a picture of a rabbit at a typewriter printing up a heart, and there was a small matching envelope. It was perfect to go with the book––altogether very sweet. And on the display shelf near the cards, there were loose cut-out hearts. I could see in my mind’s eye that it would be a happy treat for the four-year-old to discover two loose hearts inside the envelope––one for herself and one for her sister. They were not for sale, though. They were just part of the display. I was a bit disappointed, and in that moment I recalled the precept about not taking what was not freely given. Might I take two? Or might I ask someone if I could buy two? I paused to feel what I was feeling. The desire for these little hearts increased as I reflected on my niece’s probable delight. I even allowed myself to touch one and could feel the mounting urge to take “just two”––who would notice? But I didn’t. Intentionally, I refrained and felt the force of that.

If I had not been in the class, I don’t think I would have really noticed the desire; I am well-trained in not stealing things. I think I would have just walked on to the checkout with the card and my groceries, which I did do in the end. But having the second precept at the forefront of my mind, because of the class assignment, increased my interest in and my experience of the situation. I took the time to investigate my mental and physical states. (This is the practice of dhamma vicaya, the second supportive Awakening Factor, also called curiosity.) In so doing, I could feel the rising desire as an embodied, visceral energy, and I recognized that this wanting was not an unfamiliar force. I could feel its power in the air around me.

After paying for everything, as I walked out of the store, I noticed a display of houseplants in the foyer. And, among them on the shelves, there were more of the loose, cut-out hearts. I was startled––tempted again––and had to laugh out loud.

The loving, supportive community of practice, realizing harmony, awareness, and liberation, to the Sangha I go for Refuge. ––Thich Nhat Hanh, A Refuge Prayer

In class the following week, in our small breakout groups, I went first and shared this experience. We had all been a bit nervous with one another, but people relaxed when they heard about my desire for the little hearts; they laughed and told their own stories. One woman said that sometimes, when she bought a greeting card from a display, she would allow herself to choose a different envelope, one that went with a different card but which had a more pleasing color than the one meant to go with the card she had selected. Some talked of taking office supplies home from work and other “soft” thefts. Yes, we were admitting and assessing our behavior as right or wrong, skillful or unskillful. We were also touching into the roots of our behavior. Maybe we were becoming a bit less self-centered, more ethical and kind and compassionate in our view; but just as important, we were also increasing our mindful awareness of our habituated actions and their rootedness in the force of desire. Bringing this process into clearer awareness offers us the possibility of a greater compassion towards ourselves, as well as a deeper insight into the teachings on the empty nature of self. It also lets us make choices about how to behave a bit more compassionately and fairly towards others in this world. Once again we were realizing that we are “not in this room alone.”

There was something transformative for me in my experience of seeing the underlying force of desire, the tanha that the Buddha names as the root of the world’s suffering. For an instant, I saw how the momentum of my life was guided by an energy of wanting and by a very subtle sense of “I am entitled.” Amazing. It was the wisdom “wing” seeing something important, directly––just for a moment holding out the possibility:

For many lives I have wandered
looking for, but not finding,
the house-builder
who caused my suffering.
But now you are seen and
you shall build no more.
Your rafters are dislodged and
the ridge-pole is broken.
All craving is ended;
my heart is as one with the unmade.

–– Munindo, Dhammapada for Contemplation, 153–154

This does not mean that I disappear, or that I always, from now on act in impeccable ways. Perhaps it does give me a bit more access, though, to what Bhikkhu Analayo refers to as “situational creativity,” the freedom to respond appropriately to the question posed by this very moment.

By attuning to the precepts,

one gives immeasurable freedom from fear, hostility and oppression. By giving to immeasurable beings freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression, we ourselves will enjoy immeasurable freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression.
Anyutta Nikaya 8.39

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