There are as many ways to approach and engage in vow practice as there are beings throughout all time and space. These approaches and practices are seeded by the individual, habitual tendencies of one’s mind stream.
They might be similar to approaching an ocean for the first time. In my youth, I would see the ocean and run full bore to crash into the incoming waves and be tumbled back onto shore. (Actually I continued to do this until my 50’s when one encounter almost snapped my neck in two.) Some might approach with scientific curiosity; studying the direction of the waves, the quality of the land at the shore and beneath the water, seeing the flotsam etc. and wondering how all these things might affect them when they finally step in to the water. And while there, making acute observations about the effects on the body and how it all works. Some might approach the sea curious about how it will make them feel. Others might approach tentatively, first a toe then a foot and so forth before complete immersion, or as an artist, observing color and line and form and light with an aspiration of expressing it.
Just as there is not one right way to approach an ocean ( Although some might be more dangerous to the body than others.), there is no right way or wrong way to approach the practice of vows. However one approaches and engages, it seems that is very important to let the practice work on the whole being and then to be deeply curious about the effects of the practice on one’s life experience, thoughts, feelings and the effects on the environment and all the beings that one encounters.
I vow to cherish life, not to kill.
Of the five moral precepts this seems to be the most clear cut. On the surface it appears to be an ocean that is easy to approach and then dive in. If you had the opportunity to listen to the question answer section in Norm Fischer’s talk on sila, you might be more cautious about vowing to cherish life and not to kill. A person questioned why there was yogurt and other dairy products offered at mealtime. He passionately shared that, the general treatment of dairy animals does not uphold cherishing their lives and in some cases they are slaughtered when they can no longer produce milk.
It seems to me to be very important to consider the key terms of this vow; “cherish” and “kill”.
What does it mean for you to cherish life? What stories show up when you inquire into the experience of cherishing? Are there any rigid concepts? Any doubts? What is the body experience? What emotions are evoked? What do we bring out of our habitual tendencies to the act of cherishing?
What does it mean to kill? My first reaction to this question and one that continues to arise is avoidance. I’d rather focus on the cherish part and dance around the kill part. A clear signal that the inquiry into killing will be fruitful in clearing the path to practice this vow wholeheartedly. There are endless rabbit warrens here and one could become lost in the dark tunnels of trying to determine one’s culpability in all of the killing that goes on in this world. This can be disheartening and damaging to the practice. How might one approach this vow with sincerity and gentleness?
The first thing that the inquiry and practice do is to slow things down. They open space that allows me to really see what the experience is in the present moment and then I can breathe a bit. Instead of an inflexible, absolutist approach, I take a moment to see the causes and conditions that may have led to this killing and the resulting effects. There might be an opportunity to understand how I may have contributed to this killing; out of ignorance, or fear, or survival. Through this momentary pause, I bring consciousness to my actions and then, in the context of the vow, I make a choice from knowledge instead of avoidance, ignorance or naïveté.
For example, I am invited to dinner at a family member’s home. We have not seen each other for a while, due to an incident that caused hard feelings. It is an opportunity to start fresh. I have taken the vow to cherish life and not to kill, which has led me to practice veganism. My relative has grilled salmon that their spouse (a salmon fisherman) caught, knowing how much I love it. And we are having homemade ice cream for dessert.
The primary question for me is not how can I keep my vow, but what approach and action will bring the least harm in this moment? For me, I want to reconnect, be grateful for the gifts and honor the work and livelihood of the family and cherish this life that offers the opportunity to heal.
In the moment that I am contemplating this, I will take the time to wish that responsibility for any negative effects or karma that may arise for the family as a result of their actions fall on my shoulders. I would also offer gratitude to the animals that have given their lives for this meal and the opportunity that allows healing for my family and, that the offering of their lives may lead to the freedom from suffering in their future.
This seems like a lot. In reality it only takes a moment. In subsequent meditation practice, I may review and refine the wishes and the vows.
How you came to be reading this, as well as how you arrived at contemplative practice or follow a spiritual lineage is a result of a the infinite causes and conditions of your individual life stream. It is the same with your approach to and practice of vows. There is not one right way and the choices you make today may not be the choices you will make in the next. I think that the only truly common thread that each unique approach and practice of these moral precepts has, is to imbue them with harmlessness.
Perhaps this week, you will have opportunities to approach the vow to cherish life and not to kill. What practice will help you prepare for that so that you are action consciously and harmlessly?
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 being
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 firstname.lastname@example.org