Tag: Zen Buddhism

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.”

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).

A Shossan

Last night at the Dharma center, as part of our Ango, our teacher held a Shossan. A shossan is a like sanzen (private interview with the teacher), except that it is it conducted in front of the entire sangha. Those who wanted to participate, lined up and each asked our teacher a question.

Some questions produced simple answers, and some questions became a brief dialog between teacher and student. For example, some asked “How can I become more generous?” and our teacher answered simply, “Give.” The sangha chuckled at this. Our teacher followed up his answer by reminding us that we have many things to give. Our clear presence, for example. Not every gift has to be matarial in nature. And, in fact, the best gifts often aren’t.

Another person, who is the teen-aged son of one of our members asked what is meant by the idea in Buddhism that there is no self. Teacher proceeded to ask the young man who he was. The young man hesitated, clearly not knowing how to answer. The teacher asked him a prompting question: “what is your name?” The young man responded, and then offered a few additional biographical details. The teacher then pointed out that all those facts: name, age, grade-level, are all impermanent. That all the ideas we have about what makes the self are changeable, fluid. He liked it to a wave in the ocean. The wave isn’t a thing all by itself, it’s what we call the effect of energy upon water to create motion.

I found the shossan tremendously moving. I was honored that my fellow practitioners were willing to share their practice so openly. And I was moved by the words of my teacher.

I have not been practicing Zen for very long. I first sat with my sangha in April when my beloved took the Five Precepts and then started sitting regularly around mid-June.  But I didn’t get it then. Only now, I think, am I just starting to understand the depth of what it is to practice in a community. The supportive energy is amazing. I can feel its benefit in nearly every aspect of my life and it only encourages me to further my practice.

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.