Tag: Practice

Precept 1: I Vow Not to Kill, But to Cherish All Life

In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the second post in series of six about the Five Grave Precepts. You might want to read the introductory post if you haven’t already.

“I will be mindful and reverential with all life, I will not be violent nor will I kill.”

All life is sacred, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. Taking any life is a violation of this precept. Yet, no creature can survive without taking life. We step on unnoticed insects while we walk, or we inadvertently kill earth worms while we’re tilling our soil. We kill a squirrel with our car because we are unable to stop safely in time. A gopher is killed by a tractor as vegetable crops are worked. Sometimes we euthanize a pet because we don’t have the resources to provide for its care, or we make the tough call that further treatment would not contribute to quality of life.

Recognizing that I can’t possibly uphold this precept perfectly, I instead do my best to affirm life and reduce suffering to the greatest extent possible. I ask myself, “Will what I’m about to do/say affirm life? Or will it increase suffering?” When possible, I refrain from making judgments about what suffering is okay and what suffering is not okay. I’m not sure how quantify suffering in order to make these comparisons.

One way of affirming life and reducing suffering is to refrain from the consumption of animal products for food. This includes meat, dairy, honey and other items that use animal products in their production. I do not require these substances in my diet in order to be healthy, so I choose to forgo the loss of life and suffering that is inherent to using animals as commodities. This also includes refraining from using any products that are the result of animal exploitation, whenever possible. (Read more about my veganism.)

An extension of this is that I do my best to live in harmony with the creatures around me. I try to be mindful that the space I occupy is shared with other creatures and that I am not specifically entitled to that space. Rather than kill the spider that’s taken up residence in my tomato plants, I carefully move him or simply work around him. This has actually been a particularly difficult aspect of the first precept for me. I’m terrified of spiders. But I haven’t intentionally killed one since I started working with the precepts nearly a year and a half ago. Instead, I acknowledge and honor the deep fear that I feel and make a mindful decision to carefully escort the spider out of the house anyway (or from wherever it needs to be moved). In some cases I let the spider stay where it is and try to appreciate what it contributes to the environment (e.g. eats pests).

Upholding this precept also means that I refrain from violent thoughts. It’s a violation of the first precept just to think, “oh, I’m going to kill him,” or “oh, I’d like to wring that person’s neck” even if those thoughts don’t directly precipitate violent action. For me, violent thoughts typically originate from anger or fear. Rather than allowing this anger or fear to give rise to violent thought or action, I work towards finding and understand its source. When working with the first precept in this regard, I always think of the Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I must not fear
To see its path.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass
Over me and through me.
And when it has gone past
I will turn the inner eye
Where the fear has gone
There will be nothing.
Only I will remain….

Refraining from violence also means that I avoid violent, harmful speech. I do my best to exercise Right Speech when communicating with others. This includes avoiding criticism, complaining and gossip. I try to make my speech compassionate and kind. When speaking with people about difficult topics, I attempt to focus more on what we have in common than on what separates us.

Writing About the Precepts

In about a week and a half, I’ll receive the Five Precepts from my teachers (I wrote about asking to take the precepts in an earlier post). The precepts are given as part of a formal ceremony in front of the whole sangha and are an essential part of Buddhist practice, for lay followers and monastics alike. Those who take (or receive) the Five Precepts make the following commitments:

I vow not to kill, but to cherish all life.
I vow not to steal, but to respect the things of others.
I vow not to misuse sexual energy, but to be honest and respectful in mind and action.
I vow not to lie, but to speak the truth.
I vow not to misuse drugs or alcohol, but to keep the mind clear.

The precepts are not considered as commandments or imperatives. Rather, they are guidelines. Buddhists take the precepts voluntarily as a way of strengthening our spiritual practice. These precepts become the heart, the underlying framework on which our practice is based. The precepts are not ends; they are means. We cannot possibly uphold the precepts perfectly. What we can do is use the precepts to guide our actions and decisions in order to reduce suffering as much as possible.

In preparing to take the five precepts, we are asked to reflect upon what each of the them means. My thoughts are collected in the next handful of blog posts.

Working with the Five Rememberances

Over the last several months, I’ve been dealing with persistent illness. What started as a bad cold in early March evolved into bronchitis and then a severe sinus infection. Finally, after two rounds of antibiotics along with a consistent regiment of medication to manage post-nasal drip, I’m starting to feel more like myself. I have my energy back and it feels great.

What I’m reflecting on now is how difficult it is to cope with illness. I can handle being sick a day or two here and there. I don’t like it, but I can usually recognize my need to rest and follow suit. However, anything longer than that and I start to go nuts. I feel guilty for being sick (I should have taken better care of myself). I feel anxious (I’m not going to be able to bill the number of hours I wanted to this month). I feel lousy (because my body is fighting an infection and/or virus). I feel scared (what if I never get better and it’s like this all the time?). In fact, I’m feeling a bit anxious just writing about this.

Lately I’ve found some relief from these anxieties by reflecting upon the Five Remembrances, which are written about in the Upajjhatthana Sutra. The Five Remembrances are:

I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health; there is no way to escape having ill health.

I am of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change; there is no way to escape being separated from them.

My deeds are my closest companions; I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.

Buddha said that we should reflect upon these facts regularly. It may seem depressing to remind yourself that you are of the nature to “grow old,” “have ill health,” and “die,” let alone that you’ll inevitably be separated from all that you love. However, I find great freedom in these words. It’s true — I can’t escape growing old, becoming ill, dying and loosing all that I care about. Reminding myself that these things are inescapable is normalizing. It removes some of the guilt, attachment and anxiety I feel around them. Decay is just as much as part of the universe as is growth and it’s progress continues regardless of my involvement.

Moreover, the Five Remembrances reinforce the importance of living an ethical life by reminding me that “my deeds are the ground on which I stand.”

Preparing to Take the Precepts

I’ll be taking the Five Grave Precepts this coming October. I worked up the nerve to ask my teacher Hogen this weekend (after a bit of prodding from Sherri). After asking why I would like to take the precepts and considering my response, Hogen said he’d be happy to give me the Precepts.

A bit of background is necessary here for non-Buddhist readers. The five grave precepts of Buddhism are as follows:

  1. I will be mindful and reverential with all life, I will not be violent nor will I kill.
  2. I will respect the property of others, I will not steal.
  3. I will be conscious and loving in my relationships, I will not give way to lust.
  4. I will honor honesty and truth, I will not deceive.
  5. I will exercise proper care of my body and mind, I will not be gluttonous nor abuse intoxicants.

During the Precepts Ceremony you state your intention to whole-heartedly abide by the above precepts. You do this publicly in front of your teacher, your parents (when they can be present) and the Sangha (Buddhist community). The Precepts Ceremony is a pretty big deal. It serves as one’s first major commitment to Buddhist spiritual and ethical practice. In addition, it’s the first step towards receiving and becoming part of the thousands-year-old Buddhist lineage. This is why it was necessary I ask permission to receive the precepts. They aren’t simply available for the taking. A teacher must evaluate his student and determine if he or she is ready to receive the precepts.

I should take the opportunity to distinguish the Five Precepts ceremony from that of Jukai. Jukai is the ceremony in which one receives the 16 Lay Precepts and formally becomes a Buddhist (complete with dharma name). The Jukai and Five Precepts ceremonies are very similar and often occur at the same time (in receiving Jukai you also re-take the Five Grave Precepts). But Jukai is more extensive and more significant. I’ll write more on this topic at another time (either when Sherri takes Jukai this fall, or when I’m closer to taking it myself).

Now that I have permission to receive the Precepts, I have a number of tasks to complete over the next six months. The first is to really study and sit with the Five Precepts. Part of this study includes writing a brief statement about what each precepts means to me. Another part of this study requirement is to participate in dicussion groups about the Five Precepts.

The next requirement is to hand sew my wagessa. A wagessa is a thin strip of fabric symbolizing the kesa. The kesa is the “bib”-like outer robe worn by Zen priests. Lay people who have taken Jukai wear something similar, called a Rakusu. Both the wagessa and kesa symbolize the original robs worn by Buddha. I will sew my wagessa and then turn it into my teachers who will present it to me during the Precept ceremony. Afterward, I’ll wear it during zazen and other Sangha functions.

And the final requirement is to attend a Beginner’s Mind Retreat at Great Vow Zen Monastery. A Beginner’s Mind retreat is a weekend retreat that serves as an introduction to Sesshin practice. A sesshin is a period of intense meditation that usually takes place over 5 to 10 days and includes 8 to 10 hours of zazen each day. Sesshin practice is essential to Zen Buddism. The idea behind sesshin is that it takes a signifcant amount of sustained, continuous meditation in order to quiet the mind sufficiently to experience deep awakeing. Sesshin also includes work practice, dharma talks, breath practice through chanting and is typically conducted in noble silence.

Taking the Precepts is not a requirement for studying Zen, having a skillful meditation practice or even participating in a Buddhist community. I could do all of those thing without taking the Precepts. So why am I doing it?

I’m taking the Precepts specifically to uphold, affirm and support my practice. In Buddhism, there is something called the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha is, of course, the original Buddha, but also represents that each of us has it within us to be a Buddha, to be an enlightened being free of suffering. The Dharma is the whole body of Buddhist teaching from the Buddha and subsquent great teachers. And the Sangha the community of practicing Buddhists. It’s essential to Buddhist practice to take refuge in, up hold and seek guidance in these three things.

Taking the precepts, for me, is a way of taking refuge in these three treasures. By taking the precepts I’m taking refuge in and showing respect for the all three of the treasures. For the Buddha by recognizing my own buddha nature and attempting to obide by the ethical guidelines inherent in this nature. For the Dharma by recognizing the dignity and being humbled by the tremendous lineage and teachers offered to me during the ceremony. And to the Sangha by publicly stating to my own Sangha that I will be an ethical member of that community.

In short, I see taking the precepts as an essential next step in my spiritual development.

I’ll keep writing here about my process in working with the Five Grave Precepts and my experiences with the Beginner’s Mind retreat (which should happen mid-June, just before my 29th birthday).

Returning to Practice

All last week I was in Sacramento to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with my family. I typically look forward to this time of year. It’s one of the only times where my brothers and I are all in one location. We’re able to catch up with one another and just enjoy each other’s company. We break out our old Magic the Gathering cards and much merriment is had.

This last visit, however, was a bit rough. I worked really hard the previous week in order to catch up on enough work so that I wouldn’t have to do any work, or very little, while in Sacramento. In doing so, I managed to become fatigued enough to catch a cold. So I arrived in Sacramento already feeling run down and having missed at least one of my regular yoga classes.

Despite packing my zafu and chant book, I neglected to sit the entire time I was in Sacramento. Not feeling well combined with the absence of the usual containers of routine and community all contributed to this. But ultimately I just did not feel like it and gave into this feeling.

Instead I watched movies, socialized, cooked, ate a few too many chocolate chip cookies, you know, the usual family holiday activities.

However, as the week went on, I felt myself become more stressed out and I continued to wait for an energy to magically return. It never did. I felt tired, fat and not very good about myself. I arrived back in Portland feeling just awful.

But starting on Monday, I was able to turn these feelings around. I made myself sit nearly everyday this week. I’ve returned (albeit gradually) to my exercise routine. I missed my mid-week yoga class to spend time with Sherri, but plan to go to yoga tomorrow. And, this evening as I settled in to my cushion and heard the bell ring for the start of the first meditation period, I could feel my mind settle and could feel my energy level rising. I felt present again. Whole. Energetic. Worthwhile.

I’m writing this as a reminder to myself: Always return to practice. It doesn’t matter what I did yesterday, or what I will do tomorrow. Only the present moment matters and it’s always available, should we choose to be in it.

My Ango Commitment

About a week ago my sangha entered what’s known as Ango. Ango translates to “peaceful dwelling” and is a period of intensified practice. It is an old tradition that was practiced during the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. Monks would come together during the monsoon season to deepen and intensive their practice. Our Ango is six weeks long and begins during the start of Portland’s rainy season (or, I should say, Portland’s more-rainy season).

Members who wanted to participate in Ango each completed an Ango commitment form. Basically this was a sheet of paper on which had different ideas of how one could intensify her practice and space to elucidate how you would intensify your practice. Participants turned in these forms for review by the teacher. During the Ango opening ceremony our shusso (head of zendo) read the names of all those participating in Ango.

My Ango commitment is the following:

  • start a daily sitting practice
  • attend a sanzen
  • maintain mindfulness practice, specifically when exercising and with regard to the cleanliness of my apartment
  • read The Heart of Being, John Daido Loori’s book about the precepts.
  • start a daily writing practice

So far I’ve been doing fairly well. I’ve sat nearly daily. I attended my first sanzen. I’ve been working on being mindful when exercising (not listening to music, watching tv), and have been keeping the apartment fairly tidy. I’ve had the most trouble, however, with establishing a daily writing practice. For the most part I have things to write about, but I’ll feel tired or worn out or simply want to do something else.

a poor sort of memory that only works backwards

The quote above is from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I have to admit, I haven’t read the book since sophmore English in high school. However, that quote has always stuck with me. It draws one’s attention to just how inadequate our memory is in terms of helping us in the present. So often we are anchored by our memory to things that have already past and that we can do nothing about. Wouldn’t it be great if memory served the present?

The subfictional site has had many half-assed incarnation over the passed five years. However, since beginning a zen and yoga practice, I’ve felt more motivated to also maintain a writing practice. I’m hoping this blog and my business blog as well as a private journal will faciliate this practice.

I want subfictional to be a place where I share my thoughts on the following: daily practice (both zen and yoga), living here in portland, learning how to develop my professional life and learning how to develop my family life (which, right now, includes polyamory).

Why subfictional?

I created the handle subfictional a number of years ago, maybe as far back as 2001. My handle previous to that, and I’m embarrassed to speak of this but I’m going to anyway, was Vash, from Star Trek TNG. She was one of my favorite TNG characters because she was an adventurer who followed her own rules. Plus she got to shag Picard and go gallavanting off with Q. How awesome is that?

But I digress…

I think I must have been feeling too “old” to have a handle based on a Star Trek character (I had, after all, just become a college graduate). I knew I wanted a handle no one else had, so I figured I needed to make one up. I’d always liked the term metafiction, meaning (from Wikipedia):

a literary term for a type of fiction that systematically and self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, including the relationship between fiction and reality and the uses of irony and self-reflection.

Then I thought of turning the word into an adjective which yields metafictional. And meta is from the greek that means “after” or “beyond”. At the time I took this to be synonymous above. Well, I wanted something that meant underneath. I’ve always been fascinated by what’s underneath a story. What is it’s subtext, it’s history, etc. What makes it tick. So that’s what lead me to changing metafictional to subfictional.

Um, okay, but what’s with the “studios” part?

Well, subfictional alone didn’t sound like enough of a title. I like alliteration and I like the idea of a studio as a workplace for exploring the creative. Practice, to me, is a creative endeavor, so I like to think of this blog as an extension of my studio.