When we make a decision to take on a vow, precept, commitment or even a simple task, it seems that there is always an implied perfect outcome if we do it the right way. In these practices, we inevitably stumble, come across obstacles, get lost and sometimes fail. Then, at least in my case, there is the self flagellation of the judging mind, or regret or remorse. All of these experiences, from taking on the practice through the struggles or failures and finally the emotional experience of self judgment, are just what happens in the practice of making a commitment to something or even someone. The first two parts seem, in most cases to happen and then diminish, arise and fall away. It’s that last bit of regret and remorse and judgment that linger and carve deep groves of negative self perception into the regular habitual mind stream.
In my early religious upbringing, I was taught that mistakes or failures were literally carved into the soul of our being, sometimes permanently until the savior came along and cleansed us or condemned us to an eternity of suffering. In a sense, this is what we do when we repeatedly bash ourselves for not living up to that perfect expected outcome, hoping for something or someone to come along and tell us that we’re OK and all is forgiven. In reality, at least in my experience, nothing can undo the effects of some action that I have taken, or the effects of some action that I have not taken. The results will happen, period. It’s like writing that angry email and pushing send.
So what to do when we stumble in the practice or break a promise or a vow? From my little bit of studying of the commentaries on the buddhist teachings about the moral precepts it appears to me that there is a practice for this.
First there is allowing the experience of remorse or regret to be present and to be present to the experience of remorse or regret. Making the best attempts at being in the emotional reaction without judgment. Noticing how the body is experiencing it, any persistent images that may arise, noticing how the breath is affected. i.e. being fully present to what is here in the moment of remorse or regret. There sometimes may be a tendency or habit to stuff these feelings or “rise above them” or “put on big boy shoes and walk away” from them. This practice is to allow the mind and body to come into sync so that there is consciousness around the action or non action and the personal result of that.
Second is, believe it or not, confession. Well, maybe my mother religion has something there after all. The difference in the Buddhist practice is that we confess to make it known that we know that we did or didn’t do something and take responsibility for it. That’s it. Not looking for redemption or cleansing or forgiveness, just stepping into the effects that we caused and saying this is mine.
The third relates to the third paramita of patience. Once we sense into the suffering that has been caused by our action or non action, and take responsibility for it, we are encouraged to open our heart and mind to what can be done now. ( I wish I was a Sanskrit scholar, because this is usually translated into English as repent or atone. The first one is so loaded for me that it is not helpful at all. The second feels more in alignment just because this part of the practice is realigning with the truth or we might say being at-one with the truth. But in the Sanskrit dictionary there are tens of translations of these two words so I sense that there is much more there that’ll we cannot grasp with our language.) “What can be done now?” is a question, not an answer. The practice is not for us to determine what can be done now but to ask whatever being is in the vicinity, or the cosmos itself, “What is needed now?” In many cases the effects of not fulfilling a precept or commitment may be such that there is no immediate response. The suffering that may be experienced, either ours or others, may be too intense or debilitating to address that question. So we may have to just leave it open and wait patiently. Here is where faith in the practice and these teachings comes in for me. I know that my embodied memory of regret and taking responsibility for my action or non action from the first two parts will lead me to actions that will steer me back to alignment with the precept and perhaps alignment with anyone that was affected and the whole of reality. This faith builds over time and practice with open ended questioning and patient waiting without an expectation of result…ever.
In summary, noticing that I have not followed the precept, I then embody, confess, and ask.
I vow to practice truthfulness, not to lie.
Ahhh, but what is truthfulness? Your truth or mine? Absolute or relative? 2500 years ago or today?
And what about the effects of truthfulness? Can truthfulness bring harm? In a case like that, is it breaking the commitment to harmlessness to be truthful?
For the practice of all of the precepts, the first and most necessary observation is “What is here?” The question is not “What will I do when…?” Or “What will happen if?”, and then make a plan and stick to it no matter what. This does not rule out considering approaches to future situations. It means being in alignment or at-one with the present experience. “What is here?” redirects the mind away from the habitual tendencies and impulsive reactions or fixed agendas. So the question is not really “What is true right now?” it’s just “What is here?”.
Speech is action is manifested thought. There are several references in my studies to this precept that list the types of speech, action, and thought to avoid. Divisive, manipulative, hateful, deceitful, slanderous and idle. This is very helpful and when the moment arises it is good to have these gutter bumpers at the ready.
And yet, when we are able to think act and speak from the open, spacious presence that the question “What is here?” creates, truthfulness is all that is available. These directives can be helpful but this practice of truthfulness is not logical or conceptual. It cannot be planned for. This truthfulness is stepping into the full incarnate embodiment of our senses, emotions and thoughts. This truthfulness is taking on the responsibility of being a fully, uniquely me-ness or thisness. And it is the truthfulness that is willing to step into the vast space of the open ended question “What can be done, said, thought, prayed, not done, not said, not thought, not prayed, now?” This truthfulness is a leap of unending faith into the simple, natural goodness of reality
With these words I pay homage to all buddhas, bodhisattvas, sentient beings, and the totality. May these words not confuse, bring doubt, or harm, but bring ease and warmth and an end to suffering for all beings.
Practicing in sangha, even virtually, supports the practice of meditation differently than practicing solitarily. The members of the Sangha of the Pandemic, invite you to practice with us. No experience is required. There is no cost. Everyone is welcome.
We practice on ZOOM: Notice weekday morning sit time is changed to 6:30 instead of 6.
- Mondays – Calm abiding and insight meditation. 6:30 AM Pacific Time
- Tuesdays – Body awareness. 6:30 AM Pacific Time
- Thursdays – Tonglen, 6:30 AM Pacific Time
- Sundays – Brahmavihara. 7 AM Pacific Time
ZOOM Link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89989680789 Please Note. We will be putting the afternoon practices on hold for a bit. We look forward to seeing you in the morning sessions! Please feel free to reach out with questions or insights. Please also feel free to forward this post and invite others to join the sangha. You may find more reflections, poetry, art at sanghaofthepandemic.org . If you would like to comment or offer feedback and insight you may do so in the comment section on the website or by email to email@example.com