April 2015: Everyday Precept Practice

The Fifth Grave Precept: Not Being Deluded (Not Using Intoxicants)

For the month of April 2015, we focus on the Fifth Grave Precept: Not Being Deluded (Not Using Intoxicants).

While all of the precepts can be related broadly to many aspects of our lives, the Fifth Grave Precept, Not being deluded/not being intoxicated is particularly fundamental, affecting all aspects of our lives. It has two or three related implications. The first is specifically to avoid using intoxicants of any kind, such as alcohol or recreational drugs. The second implication, which includes the first, is that we should avoid clouding our mind with anything. And third, most fundamentally, we should see clearly and not let our vision be clouded by delusion.

Brahmajala Sutta (excerpt)
The ascetic Gotama is a refrainer from damaging seeds and crops. He eats once a day and not at night, refraining from eating at improper times. He avoids watching dancing, singing, music and shows. He abstains from using garlands, perfumes, cosmetics, ornaments and adornments. He avoids using high or wide beds. He avoids accepting gold and silver. He avoids accepting raw grain or raw flesh, he does not accept women or young girls, male or female slaves, sheep and goats, cocks and pigs, elephants, cattle, horses and mares, fields and plots.

The Brahmajala Sutta is found in the Digha Nikaya (Long Discourses of the Buddha) section of the Pali Canon and is regarded as a precursor of the Bodhisattva Precepts. The sutta goes into great detail (see quote above), particularly about the second implication of this precept. Excesses of food (even growing one's own food), entertainment, clothing, cosmetics, handling money are all prohibited because they can have the effect of clouding the mind. These activities can easily arouse our greed, longing, aversion, and all kinds of cravings, reinforcing the idea of self and other, making it appear that there are things out there we want, whether we need them or not. We see food as an object to be desired – rather than as wisdom itself. In other words, these activities can easily shift us to seeing the world with a deluded eye rather than through wisdom's eye. These activities also divert us from putting our energy into what is most important, clarifying the Great Matter, opening our eye of wisdom. We skip evening zazen, for example, to go watch a movie.

In the “Middle Section on Morality,” which follows the above passage, the sutta explains in even greater detail that people “remain addicted” to such pleasures – including music, sports, fancy furniture, jewelry, idle chatter about worldly topics, philosophical arguments (“undedifing conversations”), running errands for influential political figures, and even “deception, patter, hinting, belittling, ... and (being) on the make for further gains.”

If we reflect on this, it might seem very strict and rigid – ruling out most of the activities we engage in throughout our lives. But actually, this can be seen as very kind advice, in fact, the most kind advice we can get. It is reminding us to appreciate our life in the richest way, as the constant unfolding of wisdom itself, rather than as a battleground for acquisition and conquest or a continual opportunity to shield ourselves (actually, attempt to shield ourselves) from direct experience of our existence with endless diversions.

Each of us will observe this precept in a different way. If I am an alcoholic, then refraining from any alcohol ever is the best observance. Some people have problems related to alcohol, such as excessive drinking at times, but are not alcoholics, and therefore need to learn moderation. They must consider what they are seeking in their excessive drinking and then develop more healthy means of achieving this. For example, taking up meditation as stress reduction, or developing a hobby or outlet that allows them relief from a high pressure job. Some people might simply choose to limit alcohol because it drains energy that could otherwise be used for a more valued pursuit.

What this precept is really asking of us is to remain and conscious and aware of what we are doing. Then, we can take in the right amount and when we notice that the activity is having a negative impact – such as becoming a distraction, becoming an addiction, no longer healthy for us, etc. - we can stop. For example, many of us have a tendency to overindulge in sweets. A small amount, consumed with full attention, can be a nice treat. But too often, we start eating sweets as an unconscious attempt to achieve more “sweetness” or happiness in our lives or to try to distract ourselves from painful feelings we are having. When it doesn't work, we eat more and more in a vain attempt to achieve our goal. We are using the sensory input as an attempt to distance ourselves from our experience or we are simply mindlessly shoving food into our mouths. The food has become a vehicle for clouding our minds. Food is not, in itself, inherently problematic. It is the misuse of it or the unconscious use of it that become problematic. Food is actually a vital nutrient for our life and can be vivid and immediate experience that connects us.

Zen Peacemaker Tenet

I will cultivate a mind that sees clearly. This is the practice of Not Being Deluded. I will not encourage others to be deluded. I will embrace all experience directly.

Dogen Zenji's Kyojukaimon

Do not introduce intoxicants; do not make others defile themselves. This is the great awareness.

Bodhidharma's One Mind Precept
Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous.
In the intrinsically pure Dharma,
Not allowing the mind to become dark (through ignorance)
Is called the precept of refraining from using intoxicants.

The Zen Peacemaker Tenet emphasizes the active, positive side of the precept: to cultivate a mind that sees clearly and also to embrace all experience directly. One of the important aspects of cultivating a mind that sees clearly is making an effort to recognize the prejudices that color how we perceive things and people, even when we are unaware of them. For example, Public Radio has recently presented a series on the experience of young black men in America, specifically, the amount of fear and suspicion directed toward them simply because of the color of their skin and the presumption that they are more likely than others to cause us harm. If we examine attitudes carefully, we find we harbor stereotypes about people of different races, cultures, sexual orientations, ages, ability levels, economic levels and ethnicities even if we would not consciously espouse these viewpoints. For example, we often assume that we have to simplify our speech and talk loudly to someone who is old. Or we treat someone with a disability as somehow less of a person, even if we would never say that is the case. We assume someone who does not speak our language is less intelligent. We assume that someone who is homeless is unhappy. Because we often don't realize that we are harboring these prejudices or assumptions, we need to make a conscious effort to become aware of them so that we can see people as they are rather than through our distorting lenses.

“Do not introduce intoxicants” reminds us that we are the ones who create delusion through our ideas, beliefs and, prejudices. Further, both Dogen Zenji and the Zen Peacemaker Tenet remind us that we should not encourage others to be deluded or to “defile themselves” either. A very literal example of this would be to not provide opportunity for an alcoholic to drink. There are many other ways, though, that we encourage others to be deluded: idle chatter, encouraging prejudice and fear toward those who manifest differences, encouraging others to gossip and most fundamentally, of course, creating anything – from entertainment to various forms of overindulgence to extreme belief systems that close our minds to our actual experience. Instead of allowing our mind and the minds of others to be clouded by all of these things, we should cultivate embracing all experience directly. I think the translation of the Third Bodhisattva Vow “Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them all” expresses this idea beautifully. It is saying precisely to embrace all experience directly. We should be fully present for each moment in our life, and then the next and the next. These are the Dharma gates. Each breath, in and out, each thought, each sensation. We have a tendency to pick and choose which Dharma gates we wish to enter, rejecting the parts of our experience that we find negative or painful. But actually, trying to push away the unpleasant parts of our experience does not serve us well. In fact, the painful experiences we have can be the most fruitful. Not remaining awake to their teaching or clinging to our pleasant experiences and replaying them in our mind rather than experiencing what is actually happening in the moment is what Bodhidharma refers to as “allowing the mind to become dark.”

Engaged Buddhism Precepts (Thich Nhat Hanh)

1. Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that we should not allow our mind to be clouded by any doctrine, theory or ideology, even by Buddhism. As much as we may come to love our practice and the many skillful means arising from it, it too, can become intoxication, if we attach to it and become rigid, even trying to convince others that our way is best for them. We are reminded of Yasutani Roshi's definition of Zen : Don't stick to anything. The Dalai Lama has emphasized that ultimately the world needs an ethics system that is based on human values that spring from a deeper and more fundamental place than specific religious beliefs. If our religious practices are helpful to us, he says, that is fine, but we must not allow this religious dimension to to become a barrier to harmonious functioning together.

2. Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others' viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

This Engaged Buddhism precept is again urging us to embrace our experience directly and continuously as it is itself in constant change. It is easy to fall into beliefs and ideologies so comfortably that we turn a blind eye to further inquiry and learning. We stick to the memory of previous experience rather than opening to new experience in front of us. “Beginner's mind” is not something we achieve and then merely maintain. It is an ongoing, endless and continuous process of being open to our experience, each moment anew. It is the real foundation for a life of compassion and harmony.

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