Tag: Precepts

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.

Vegan is More than a Strange Diet: An Open Letter to My (Buddhist) Community and Beyond

I recently attended a fundraising dinner for the Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple, which will become my Buddhist community’s downtown center. We currently offer a program in Portland in a space we rent from another Zen group. We have grown sufficiently over the last couple of years such that it’s time to purchase a building of our own. During that time, we’ve produced a number of fundraising events, including classes, guest speakers and workshops. The latest of these activities was a dinner hosted by a new, hip restaurant and prepared by a well-known local chef who donated his time to our cause.

The dinner went incredibly well. The food was well-received. The decor was elegant. We raised a lot of money (an impressive amount, actually).

But as the night went on, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that the meal served was not vegan (it was vegetarian). In fact, at first my partner and I were informed that there wasn’t going to be a vegan option available at the dinner. At the last minute, the organizers we able to work something out and we were accommodated with vegan-ize versions of the meals served to everyone. For the entree, this meant risotto prepared without the cheese and butter. For dessert we received a plate of berries in syrup without the shortcake and whipped cream that accompanied everyone else’s meal.

While I appreciate the effort that went in to the preparation of the meal, and to the event as a whole, it was actually disheartening to me that we were “accommodated” in the manner that we were. There’s no reason we needed to be accommodated at all. The meal we were served could have been prepared, with marginal extra effort, entirely vegan. It simply wasn’t considered or asked for until we raised the issue (too close to the event, I suspect, for an entire vegan meal to be planned for and prepared).

Being vegan for me isn’t a strange or special diet. It’s a way of living. It’s deeply rooted in my spirituality and ethics. It’s integral to how I mindfully uphold the precepts. In fact, to me, eating meat, dairy and eggs, as well as consuming other animal products goes directly against the first three precepts (not harming, not stealing, not misusing sexuality).

So, as the meal went on, it was increasingly difficult for me to participate whole-heartedly given the dairy and eggs we were being served. Our teacher led us in two mindful eating exercises during the meal. One was to focus on an ingredient in the food in front of us and imagine the complete journey of how that ingredient came to be on our plate. I couldn’t stop thinking about the cows who provided the milk for the whipped cream. I couldn’t help but think that we’re having this meal to fund our new Zen temple and that it will be in part founded upon preventable, needless abuse and suffering.

There should always be a vegan option at these community gatherings. In fact, there is no good reason why all meals served by my Buddhist community shouldn’t be vegan. There is precedent for this. A visiting teacher recently hosted a retreat at our monastery and requested that meals be vegan. The monastery was able to provide these meals. It was simply a matter of being required to do so.

In 2007, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh directed the monasteries and practice centers of his order to become vegan, saying:

“Being vegetarian here also means that we do not consume dairy and egg products, because they are products of the meat industry.”

(You can read the entire letter on the Plum Village site.)

Yes, dairy and eggs are products of the meat industry. In terms of the suffering and abuse of animals, you cannot distinguish between meat and eggs/dairy. Dairy cows are sold for meat after they stop producing. They repeatedly give birth to calves who are stolen away from them and either slaughtered for meat or raised for further dairy production. I could go on and on, but there are better resources out there to explain horrors and unethical practices of the dairy/egg industries.

Because they cannot talk to us in language we can readily understand, it may be difficult to contemplate that animals are indeed sentient. But they are. Anyone who has cared for a companion animal knows that they experience sensation. A cow, chicken or goat is no different than your family cat or dog in this regard. Think of the last time you cringed when someone mentioning dog or cat being prepared for food in Vietnam.

Once we accept animals as sentient beings, we Buddhists must use the precepts as a guide in our relationship with animals.

The first precept of non-harming says:

“I will be mindful and reverential with all life, I will not be violent nor will I kill.
Avoid killing or harming any living being.
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
I shall endeavor to protect and take care of all living creatures.
Do not do harm to other beings.”

In this precept it’s obvious that we shouldn’t eat meat. Meat requires the killing of animals. But so does the consumption of dairy and eggs given the structure of our agriculture and food distribution system.

The second precept of not stealing says:

“I will respect the property of others, I will not steal.
Avoid stealing. Do not take what is not yours to take.
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
Live simply and frugally.”

Animals do not give us milk and eggs. We take these things from them. Under normal and typical circumstances we do not need eggs or dairy to live. They are a decadence take at the great expense and harm of other creatures.

The third precept of not misusing sexuality says:

“I will be conscious and loving in my relationships, I will not give way to lust.
Avoid sexual irresponsibility.
I undertake the precept to refrain from improper sexual activity.
Do not engage in sexual misconduct.”

This precept does not normally arise in the discussions of whether or not one should be vegan. But I think it’s essential. Dairy and egg production necessitates the abuse of the sexuality of other creatures. For example, to produce milk, cows are kept in an artificial state of pregnancy and are forced to reproduce over and over again.

On top of all the ethical reasons listed above, meat and dairy production is incredible harmful to the environment. 18% of greenhouse gasses are produced via cattle production. Every year tons and tons of grain is fed to livestock when it could be distrubuted to needy and hungry families across the globe.

Plus eating meat and dairy is just plain bad for you. The two countries with the highest dairy consumption (US and Sweden) also have the greatest occurrence of osteoporosis. Preventable cardiavascular disease acquired through the consumption of animal products is a leading cause of death and also a tremendous burden on our healthcare system.

Becoming vegan isn’t inherently difficult. It’s simply of recognizing our ingrained habits and vowing to break those habits. There’s absolutely no reason delicious, nutritious meals, including baked goods and pastries can’t be prepared without animal ingredients. Medically, there are minuscule, if any reasons why someone could not sustain a healthful vegan diet. Hypoglycemia, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, different allergies, and many other special health needs can all be supported by a vegan diet. If you don’t know how, you can find a vegan nutritionist.

The greatest obstacle to becoming vegan is that it isn’t mainstream. This means that you’ll have to explain your dietary decisions to people. You might have to refrain from eating treats at a group celebration. You will have to make choices about where you eat out. Sometimes you will be left out of a celebration.

But you know what? If everyone were vegan, or even half, none of the above problems would exist. Vegan diets would be normal and perfectly included.

So I’m issuing a challenge to my Buddhist community and beyond: Go vegan today.

That’s right, just do it. Stop eating meat, cheese, other dairy and eggs. Right now. If you need help, let me know and I’ll be more than happy to lend a hand. I’ll even cook you dinner. I’ll lend you cookbooks and send you recipes.

How I Became Vegan

I recently joined the Vegan Freak forum and in order to be a full member there you are required to post an introduction stating why you are (or are very close to becoming) vegan. Here’s what I wrote (the intro bit about where I live and my hobbies has been left out).

It’s actually my practice of yoga and Zen that brought me to veganism. I had been a “vegetarian” for environmental reasons since 2005. I put “vegetarian” in quotes because I occasionally ate fish. I just couldn’t give up my sashimi and my tuna melts. That reasoning seems so silly to me now, but at the time I was ignorant about animal rights issues and wasn’t ready give up something that seemed important at the time. Even the form of “vegetarianism” that I practiced was quite a stretch for me at the time. I had a rather turbulent upbringing and it took me a while to recognize the inherent value of my own life, let alone the life of another non-human creature. In college I had a bumper sticker that said “I Eat Vegans.” It’sembarrassing to think about that now, but I think it’s important to recognize just how far I’ve come in my own journey. When I run into acquaintances who knew me back then, they are usually shocked that I am vegan.

A couple of years after becoming “vegetarian” I moved to Portland and met my current partner. She was already a vegan (for five+ years) and apractitioner of yoga and Zen. This was exciting and intriguing to me as I had been wanting to learn more about the two for some time, but didn’t quite know how to get started. I asked her lots of questions and we talked a lot about Zen and yoga. After a bit of time we started doing yoga together and I started sitting with her Zen group, which has now become my Zen group as well.

During this time, the meals we shared together were always vegan. My partner is a wonderful cook. The MacGuyver kind who can whip up amazing dinner when you think there aren’t any usable ingredients in the house. After a short while sharing these meals, it occurred me that a nutritious, healthful and delicious vegan diet was not only very possible but not difficult at all It simply required an extra bit of mindfulness and sometimes a bit more planning (e.g. to make sure you bring vegan food to an event that isunlikely to provide it).

For those who don’t know, both Zen and yoga have ethical guidelines. In Zen they are called “precepts” and in yoga they are called “yamas.” The first precept/yama is that of non-harm and non-killing. I have seen the precept worded as such:

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

And as a further directive:

“Avoid killing or harming any living being.
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
I shall endeavor to protect and take care of all living creatures.
Do not do harm to other beings.”

So, with small foundation of these two practices under my belt, I started to realize that my version of vegetarianism simply wasn’t consistent with my values or my practice. I now knew that being vegan was possible and healthful, as I had been eating vegan 98% of the time for the last few months. I knew it was time to commit to being vegan. This was April of 2008. Now,veganism is an essential, inexorable part of my daily practice.

Since then I have been exploring the specific animal rights issues in more depth. I’ve been listening to VeganFreak Radio and acquiring and slowly reading through the seminal books on animal rights (Singer, Sustein, etc.). I’ve been reaching out to my Zen and tech communities (neither of which are vegan and both of which have vegan minorities) about vegan issues. I hope to growveganism within these communities. At times it is discouraging, but I do think change is possible.

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).

The Vitality of the Precepts

Lately I have been thinking about the precepts: Why I am so drawn to them and why do I strive to incorporate them into every aspect of my life?

While reading earlier today, I found my answer:

The precepts have a vitality different from any ethical teachings I have encountered in the great religions of the world. They are alive. They are not fixed. They are not a list of do’s and don’ts. They function broadly and deeply. They are based on interpenetration, co-origination, and the interdependance of all aspects of the universe. — John Daido Loori, from The Heart of Being: Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen Buddism.