Tag: Precepts

Our Vows

These are the vows that Sherri and I made to each other during our ceremony yesterday. I thought it would be nice to share them here (you can also read the text of the entire ceremony).

Shared Vows (based on the Five Grave Buddhist Precepts)

In the practice of our marriage, I vow to affirm, cherish and protect the lives of all sentient beings.

In the practice of our marriage, I vow to be generous with my time, energy and material resources and to take only what is freely given.

In the practice of our marriage, I vow to be aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct and to cultivate my responsibility to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society.

In the practice of our marriage, I vow to manifest truth, to cultivate loving speech and deep listening. I will refrain from using words of discord and will make every attempt to resolve conflict, great and small.

In the practice of our marriage, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming.

Sherri’s Vows

I will always remember seeing you on the first day of 2008. It was merely the third time I had seen you in person, but in the bright light of early afternoon I suddenly knew with certainty that my life was about to change in a significant way.

So it did, and here we are today in front of friends and relations. All of us gathered to honor the power of publicly taking vows to love, honor and cherish one another. It has been a mad dash to get to this dazzling finish, complete with unexpected news, arguments, wild passion, laughter, and tears. I’m told this is perfectly ordinary even though it feels to me rather extraordinary.

In addition to the precepts, which I have vowed to make a fundamental part of the practice of my marriage with you, I offer these vows from my heart:

  • I vow to nurture unbridled joy in equal measure with gravitas.
  • I vow to great each day with loving-kindness.
  • I vow to nourish my health so that we may explore many more years together.
  • I vow to create art, write, sing and cultivate playfulness together with you.
  • I vow to admit when I am wrong.
  • I vow to offer you cheer, humor, deep listening, and wise counsel. Whenever needed.
  • I vow to challenge myself and you so we continue to grow fully into who we can be.
  • I vow to read you poetry.

For my birthday last year you gave me a collection of Rumi’s poetry translated by Coleman Barks; an edition I did not have. It had been an amazing day spent celebrating my birthday and you fell asleep early. I stayed awake longer to read poems and enjoy my cake. One poem in particular really caught me; I knew I wanted to say some of the words from it to you at our wedding. Although I feel rather presumptuous playing with Rumi’s words, I do so as an act of love and from a deep honoring of the original poem, “The Self We Share”. These words especially speak to me of you and of this moment when written in this way:

The Prayer of Each

You are the source of my life.
You separate essence from mud.
You honor my soul.
You bring rivers from the mountain springs.
You brighten my eyes.
The wine you offer takes me out of myself into the self we share.

Doing that is religion.

I am a prayer.
You’re the amen.

Christie’s Vows

My dearest Sherri: You are one of the most generous, compassionate and courageous spirits I have ever met. From the beginning, you opened your heart wide to me and while cautious at first, I have learned to take great refuge in your presence.

In addition the precepts we have already shared, I offer a few of my own vows:

Because our life together will not always be easy, I vow to meet challenges in our relationship with a sense of compassion and adventure.

Because our family is but one piece in a very large puzzle. I vow to live a life of service to you, to our marriage and to our community.

Because while love is not scarce, many resources are, I vow to make sure you always have the things you need most such as food, water, shelter and art supplies. I vow to utilize our resources wisely.

Because I want to spend the most amount of time possible with you and grow old together, I vow to care for my body and mind.

Because play is just as important as work, I vow to cultivate playfulness, laughter and lightness in our relationship.

Because what I was hiding, deep inside, you brought out into the light, and even thought it is terrifying at times, I vow to stand bravely in the light of your love.

My dearest Sherri, You are the first person who made me truly feel loved. I look forward to sharing a life of practice with you and I am truly honored that you are making this commitment with me here today, in front of our friends and family.

Exchange of Rings

May our marriage be nurturing, intimate and supportive throughout the years. May our marriage be a refuge to us as we cultivate kindness and compassion toward all sentient beings. I give you this ring as a symbol of my vows and commitment to you with body, speech and mind. In this life, in every situation, in wealth or poverty, in health or sickness, in happiness or difficulty.

A Lonely Vegan in the Sangha

I have to start getting this out of my system: I’m vegan. I’m Buddhist. And I’m awfully lonely in my Sangha.

I became vegan just over two years ago as a direct result of my starting to study and practice Buddhism. I had been a vegetarian (who made exceptions for sushi and sashimi) a few years prior to that. My reasons for being vegetarian did not have a strong ethical foundation. I stopped eating meat in order to have a healthier diet and to reduce my own environmental impact.

Now, you could say that maintaining good health and treating the planet well are ethical actions, and I suppose they are. So what I mean when I say that my vegetarianism did not have an ethical foundation is that I did not take into account the ethical problems of using and killing animals for our own pleasure and convenience. I did not consider it wrong to do these things. I did not recognize the moral personhood of my fellow beings.

Fast forward a few years.

I now study and practice Buddhism whole-heartedly. It is the foundation of my spiritual and ethical life. The more that I look at the precepts of not killing, not misusing sexuality and not stealing, the more I know from the bottom of my heart that these precepts must guide my interactions with all sentient beings, not just humans. I am a committed vegan.

Unfortunately vegans are a rarity in our sangha. Sherri and I are the only two that I know of, though I am sure there are a few others.

Now, we (the Sangha) do require that meals be vegetarian at both our Downtown practice center and at our monastery. But we do not require that meals be vegan. And, in fact, some offerings make quite heavy use of butter, eggs and cheese (as a lot of vegetarian, but not vegan food is ought to do).

At first the lack of vegan meals bothered me only a little. Mostly it was sad to be left out. Sherri and I are good about bringing vegan meals or preparing vegan treats for special occasions. But we aren’t always told ahead of time that there’s a special occasion and we aren’t always able to prepare food just for us. Last year I recall the time a few surprised our teacher (and the rest of the sangha) with special treats to celebrate the 40th anniversary of him starting Buddhist practice. We didn’t know about the occasion and no one had thought to bring something that was vegan so we couldn’t partake in the sharing of the sweets.

The trepidation and estrangement I feel around sangha isn’t so much about not being able to have a cookie when everyone else is. Rather, it’s about the ethical divide that I feel between myself and my spiritual community, especially regarding our relationship to food, all the sentient beings of the world and our interpretation of the precepts.

A great deal of our practice together revolves around a set of ethical principles, the precepts, that we are supposed to have in common. We recognize these precepts in nearly everything that we do as a group. We vow together to uphold them. And yet, there are fundamental disagreements about what these precepts mean and how we manifest them via our actions.

It is no secret that there is great debate over whether or not Buddhists are required to be vegetarian, let along vegan. Some point to ambiguity in Buddhist scriptures as ethical justification to eat meat/dairy/eggs. (For more on what the Buddha actually taught regarding this issue, I highly recommend checking out Norm Phelps’ The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights.) Many famous buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama, continue to eat meat, further confusing the issue.

Personally, I think that when one really examines the heart of the precepts and relinquishes their own attachments to the habits and convenience of consuming animal products, it’s very clear that to practice Buddhism one should really adhere to veganism.

However, I’m willing to accept that not all Buddhists will come to the same conclusion that I do on this matter, even if I don’t like that fact. What I take issue with is that as a community we have made a choice that is not the most compassionate one we can make. We aren’t setting the best example that we could. We have a tremendous opportunity to provide a container of shared practice that is most compassionate and we don’t. Out of habit. Or ignorance. Or something; I’m not sure of the reasons.

When this topic comes up in my practice circles, abstention from animal products is often compared to abstention from alchohol. I think this comparison is raised to indicate that while there is some prohibition against causing harm to sentient beings (as is required in the consumption of animal products) and misusing alchohol, that ultimately it’s up to the individual practitioner to determine his level of abstention from each activity.

I take great issue with this comparison. First, I do not think that occasional and moderated use of intoxicants (a definition to which many, many things can apply) is akin to the killing and/or causing suffering to an animal merely for the sake of convenience and desire. However, the validity of this comparison is immaterial to the discussion at hand.

My point in mentioning the alcohol-vegan comparison is that my Sangha has a very clear policy that no alcohol be served at community functions. I’ve never asked why this policy is in place (though I think I will now). But, I imagine that it is in place to support those who are in recovery, and to support those who take the precepts to mean that one should refrain from alcohol and other intoxicants. In any case, it’s clear that the use of alcohol is morally questionable and so we do not allow it at community events or in our residential training center.

Why, then, do we not follow the same logic with our meal choices? I can only fathom that we have yet to overcome the inertia of habit, and of living in a society that is not vegan.

This saddens me greatly and it’s becoming more and more difficult to share a meal whole-heartedly with my community.

Sherri and I try to attend the public serve at Great Vow whenever possible. We enjoy practicing at the monastery and sharing a meal with our community afterwards. However, I’m starting to dread these meals.

Some Sunday lunches are more vegan than others. Sometimes we are able to partake in the main meal (occasionally having to leave off a non-vegan condiment or topping). When the main dish cannot be made vegan, a seperate dish is placed out for the few vegans in attendance. The same procedure is followed for others who have unique nutritional requirements such as gluten-free, hypoglycemia, etc. (Once again, it hurts to have my ethical choices be relegated to another “special diet.” But I digress.)

During my most recent meal at the monastery a wave of pain and grief hit me while we were performing the meal chant. Chant cards had been handed out and as we were about to start, I looked down to see that a small bowl of food had been set aside and labeled ‘Vegan Daal.’ I immediately thought to myself, “there’s no reason, other than lack of foresight and effort, that a vegetarian daal can’t be made vegan.” Rather than feeling happy that Sherri and I had been accommodated, I felt deeply unsettled. Tears came to my eyes. After the chant I excused myself for a while and sat in the car by myself until I could regain some composure.

I felt that by being there I was saying it was okay that everyone else was eating milk and butter. But it’s not okay. Milk and butter are products stolen from a cow, a mother, for which she did not give her consent and for which she undoubtedly suffered. I felt complicity to this suffering. It’s hard for me to feel cameraderie or good will in my community under these circumstances. How can a community that is supposed to share the same values as me, or at least very similar ones, disagree on something so fundamental?

I will pause here to say that I do have compassion for my fellow non-vegan practitioners. I know that change takes time and that making the switch from omnivore or vegetarian is challenging for some. I don’t think that non-vegans are intrinsically bad people. Veganism, for me, is not about us, or you or me. It’s about the animals who suffer because the world isn’t vegan.

I have tried to direct my energy around veganism and the precepts into positive, non-judgmental education and outreach. For the most part I think I have done a good job, and will continue to engage in vegan-related advocacy projects and conversation.

But I don’t know what to do with the pain that I feel around shared Sangha meals. They are now triggering to me in a way that I find nearly debilitating. I shouldn’t have to endure panic attacks in order to partake in the community hearth.

I’m not sure what to do. Do I take a break from Sangha activities? Do I request that all meals be vegan? What do I do if the answer is ‘no’? Do I seek out another sangha, one that is vegan?

Are there any vegan buddhists out there who have worked through a similar situation with their own Sangha? What did you do?

Our meal chant has been floating through my mind while writing this post, so I’m including it here:

We reflect on the effort that brought us this food

We reflect on our virtue and practice and whether we are worthy of this offering

We regard it as essential to keep the mind free from excesses such as greed.

We regard this food as good medicine to sustain our life.

For the sake of enlightenment we now receive this food.

Inside of Grief is Great Love

During a recent discussion with my Zen cohort, someone mentioned that inside of grief is great love. I had never thought about grief in this way before. I had always thought of it in strictly negative terms and not as originating from positive emotion.

I’ve worked a lot with grief. There are ways in which I grieve the childhood that I wasn’t allowed to have. There are ways in which I grieve the relationship with my father that I once had (or thought I had) but no longer do. It’s this loss that I’ve been thinking about a lot of late.

The reason I’ve been thinking a lot about my father is because this week I’m receiving the Five Grace Precepts from my teachers. There’s a part during the ceremony where you are supposed to honor your parents by bowing to them. If your parents are in attendance, you bow in front of them. If your parents are not present, you turn and bow in their direction. The idea behind this is not to demonstrate some kind of subservience to your parents, but to honor their contribution to your life. After all, regardless of how you choose to judge this contribution, your parents enabled you to have life in the first place. My mother will be in attendance, so I will be able to bow to her. However, my father, who is still living, will not be in attendance. I have struggled with whether or not to bow in his direction.

My father has been estranged from our family for some time now. This estrangement, in a way, is a good thing. My father is not a healthy person. He was abusive to both my mother and my siblings throughout my childhood. In my early twenties he went to prison after a felony conviction. The last time I saw him was during his arraignment hearing (it’s a strange thing to see your father in shackles and an orange jumper). He’s since been released and I’ve thought about contacting him several times. I miss having a dad. I’ve missed having a dad since I was 13 when I realized my father was mentally unwell and unable to carry on normal, healthy relationships. From what little information I have about how my father is doing today, there’s little to indicate that anything has really changed about his disposition or ability to have healthy interactions with people. So I choose to remain disconnected from him.

Nevertheless, he’s still my father. For better or worse, I would not be the person that I am today without his contribution to my life. It’s true that I’ve endured a lot of heartache and have hard to work very diligently to heal the damage that he directly contributed to during my childhood. I do not absolve him of responsibility for these actions. But I do forgive him. My father is a deeply damaged individual. He did the things to me, my siblings and mother that he did because of pain and suffering that was inflicted upon him by his own caretakers. For whatever reason, he didn’t have the wherewithal to stop the cycle of abuse with himself, so he perpetuated this abuse upon his own children and wife. This is sad, unfortunate and certainly inexcusable. But it is human. What I wish for my father is to find some relief for his suffering, in whatever way that is possible. For him, it may only come with death.

So I have decided that I will bow to my father during this week’s ceremony. I will honor his contribution to my life.

In my heart, I think I knew from the beginning that I would choose to bow to my father. What, then, was the source of aversion and consternation I felt around this decision? I think it was that bowing to my absent father would acknowledge his absence and acknowledge how deeply I feel and grieve this absence. When I was younger, I thought that my sense of loss and grief would simply go away with time. But it hasn’t. In some ways it grows more acute. As I approach the time of starting my own family, I am saddened that my children will not get to know their grandfather. They won’t get to work in the print shop that I worked at as a child, they won’t get to work on projects with him. With each home improvement project, I have the urge to call my father up and ask for advice. Sometimes I just want to tell him about my latest accomplishment and I can’t. And it hurts.

So when I heard that inside of grief is great love, I immediately thought of my father. I am able to have grief for my father because I have a great love for him. And that’s okay. I have struggled with this notion over time. Love was not a word that was used in our family while I was growing up. I’m not sure that my father in capable of actually loving anybody. I think I internalized this ambivalence. But what I’ve come to realize is that it’s natural for children to love their parents. It’s what children do. It’s okay that I love my father even though he’s not part of my life and probably never will be again. It’s okay to love a parent who is deeply flawed and has done terrible things. Honoring that love doesn’t diminish any of the struggles that I endured as a child. In fact, I think it honors them.

And so I no longer look at my grief as this terrible burden. Rather, it’s the counter part to love. The ante we pay to experience love.

Precept 5: I Vow Not to Misuse Drugs or Alcohol, But to Keep the Mind Clear

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

Buddhists tend to have great disagreement about this precept. Some view it as rigid prohibition against consuming drugs and alcohol. Some view it not as a prohibition against a particular substance, but rather a proscription of clouding the mind with any intoxicant.

I am in the latter camp. Considering one’s intake of drugs and alcohol are very important in regards to this precept. Lots of people use alcohol and drugs (both illicit and prescribed) to muddle their minds and their experience of the present moment. Many use drugs for the specific purpose of turning away from their present suffering. And, of course, many are incapable of engaging alcohol or drugs without abusing them. For these people, I think interpreting this precept as a prohibition makes sense.

But many things can be used to cloud the mind, not just drugs: sex, eating, shopping, exercise, video games, gambling etc. Pretty much any activity can be utilized to distract the mind away from the truth of now.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable viewing this precept as an outright prohibition against drugs because of our culture’s views about drugs. We have a history of biased, irrational thinking about drugs and have allowed special interests to dictate policy regarding the legality of substances that humans have been using in positive contexts (for healing and spiritual growth) for thousands of years. I don’t think it makes sense to discount these substances simply because our culture has labeled them as illegal. Marijuana is a good example. For many, it offers better pain management than opiates and without the major side effects of those powerful narcotics. I think it is possible to use drugs (and, to a lesser extent alcohol) responsibly and without clouding the mind.

Because intoxicants are not limited to drugs and alcohol, and because normal activities like sex and eating can be used as intoxicants, I think this precept is much more about mindfulness is our substance/activity use. It’s about about being mindful regarding my intentions and of how a particular substance or activity affects my mind-body state mind-body. Is what I’m doing clouding my mind? Is it taking me away from the present moment? Am I engaging in this activity to escape? Am I avoiding unpleasant emotion?

Sometimes we can’t avoid clouding the mind. If we need a surgery, we are likely to be given strong narcotics that will change our state of mind. When we are sick, we are often clouded in our thinking. It’s in these cases where examining intention becomes important.

One would hope that our bodies get sick as part of the natural course of events and not because we have made ourselves sick. We hope that we take narcotics in order to enable our bodies to endure a procedure and heal. Then again, we know that this is not the case for all people. The death of Michael Jackson comes to mind here.

For the most part, I’ve been very cautious and metered in my use of drugs and alcohol. But looking back, there have been times where I have abused both substances. Back when I was going to Burning Man every year, and still very into taking substances to enhance my experience there, I recall someone saying to me that they didn’t need to takes drugs anymore, that they could get to these higher states of mind all on their own. At the time, I thought that notion very silly. That person was just old and boring (how embarrassing it is to think about this).

But now I realize what the person was saying is true. The closeness that I wanted to feel, the dropping of barriers, the union with something bigger than myself. Those are all things that I’m learning how to find on my own, without the aid of a drug. It’s pretty powerful to recognize that I can do this all on my own, and do it with a clear mind and a clear heart.

Precept 4: I Vow Not to Lie, But to Speak the Truth

In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the fifth 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 honor honesty and truth, I will not deceive.”

What is a lie? It occurs to me that there are myriad ways a person can lie. There are outright falsehoods that are clearly and factually wrong. There are “white” lies: Santa Claus, telling a person they look fine when they actually don’t, etc. There are exaggerations. There are lies of omission: under-reporting income on your taxes, leaving bad employment experiences off of job applications, etc. One can lie to others and to himself. Willful ignorance can be a form of lying to oneself. In a way, all the stories we have about ourselves are lies because they take us away from the direct experience, the direct truth of our lives.

I’ve always considered myself an honest and truthful person. But in thinking about all the ways that there are to lie, I realize that I do lie, and more often than I’d like to admit.

In some cases this takes the form of exaggeration. My father was a great exaggerator. No matter what our accomplishments were growing up, he would inflate them when relating them to friends and family. It drove me nuts. Nevertheless, at some point in my early twenties, I realized that I had internalized this bad habit. When relating things that would happen to me, I’d automatically hyperbolize the facts. 15 widgets became 100 and so on. At first this seemed perfectly natural and okay to me. It was good storytelling, I thought. I was just making the story interesting. But now I realize that undermining the truth, even in these little ways can be damaging. And, if I’m willing to lie about seemingly inconsequential things, what else am I willing to lie about?

Another way I found myself lying is when I started freelancing full-time. At first I really struggled in my communication with clients and in planning and making deadlines. Mostly this was driven by inexperience rather than incompetence or malice. But the result is that I would promise things that I couldn’t deliver and I would commit lies of omission by not communicating when I was running late on a project and by not asking for help. It took me really getting in over my head on a particular project to realize that being completely honest was the better route to take.

Now, if I don’t know how to do something, I say so. If I mess up on something, I immediately bring attention to it. If I’m running behind, I communicate that fact. As difficult as it can be to be honest, I’ve found that it’s much more difficult to endure the consequences when the truth arises, as it inevitably does.

Often, lying is rooted in fear. I exaggerate when I think that I will not be interesting enough on my own. I lie when I fear that some harm will come to me, be it loss of income, physical or emotional pain, etc. So one way that I work with this precept to examine what I’m feeling when I have the urge to lie. Most of the time I find that I want to avoid feeling something. I don’t want to be vulnerable or embarrassed, or I don’t want to experience loss. Once I’ve identified where the desire to lie originated, then I can make the choice to act truthfully (rather than simply react to this desire).

One of the reasons lying is so damaging an act is that it serves to destroy intimacy. I touched upon this a bit when writing about the third precept. There I mentioned that lies act as barriers. When we lie, the object of our lie becomes further separated from us. They become an ‘other.’

This aspect of the precept comes up for me when I am dealing with people that irritate me. I’ve noticed a certain habit I have wherein when I find someone abrasive, irritating, or simply have a difficult time connecting with then, I come to all sorts of judgements about what that person is like as a whole and how it’s okay for me not to like him/her and engage that person in friendships. At some point during the last year or two, probably as a direct result of my practice, I decided that instead of making up a story about these irritating people, I would engage them wholeheartedly. If and when I felt irritation, I’d simply note it and continue on rather than making up a story about it.

I’ve found that this is an amazing way to work with people. It allows me to connect with more people in a more genuine way.

I do think that there exist circumstances where lying can be appropriate. For example, when one participates in our judicial system I think that lies of omission can be acceptable. I do not mean lying under oath. I mean that one should follow the advice of their legal counsel and not reveal things that could be potentially damaging. Our justice system is relies on this structured revealing of information in order to provide the most amount of benefit to society as a whole.