February 2015: Everyday Precept Practice
The Third Grave Precept: Refraining from Impure Sexuality
For the month of February 2015, we focus on the Third Grave Precept: Refraining from Impure Sexuality or Not Being Greedy.
This precept has two related formulations: a more specific focus on sexuality and a more general focus on greed or attachment. In various lists of the 10 Grave Precepts we see one version or the other. I think it is important to consider both. This precept relates closely to the Second Grave Precept: Do not take things not given. While the second precept emphasizes not taking things that others need, taking more than our share, depleting other's resources, this precept focuses on attachment and knowing how to be satisfied. The Zen Peacemaker tenets also add the positive dimension of meeting diversity with respect and dignity.
Eight Awarenesses of the Enlightened Person (Dogen Zenji's Commentary on the Buddha's Teaching)
First: Having few desires
Not seeking too much among the objects of the five desires which are not yet obtained is called “having few desires.” (Buddha)
...One who practices 'having few desires” has neither worry nor fear, for their mind is peaceful. Whatever they come into contact with, they find that it is enough, and they never lack anything...” (Dogen Zenji's commentary)
Second: Knowing how to be satisfied
Knowing how much to take of those things which one already has is called “knowing how to be satisfied.” (Buddha)
...The dharma of knowing how to be satisfied is the realm of riches, comfort, peace and tranquility. Those who know how to be satisfied are happy and comfortable even when sleeping on the ground. Those who do not know how to be satisfied are not satisfied even when dwelling in a heavenly palace. Those who do not know how to be satisfied are poor even though they are wealthy, while those who know how to be satisfied are happy even though they have little... (Dogen Zenji's Commentary)
On February 15, we commemorate the passing into Parinirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha. It is said that on the night before he passed, he taught the Eight Awarenesses of the Enlightened Person. The co-founder of the Japanese Soto School, Dogen Zenji, gave a commentary on these (Hachidainingaku) as his last teaching before passing as well. So we can see that this teaching is considered very fundamental and significant in our tradition. The first two of the eight awarenesses (see above), Having few desires and Knowing how to be satisfied relate to this precept.
Having few desires and knowing how to be satisfied are clearly related. If we are truly satisfied, then we do not have excessive desires. Knowing how to be satisfied, though, seems to be a surprisingly elusive goal. Recent research shows that while reaching the point where one has sufficient resources to take care of basic needs can indeed bring some comfort and contentment, additional wealth does not necessarily make someone happy. In fact, the term “affluenza” has been coined to capture the particular “sickness” that results from excessive wealth. The book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic defines it as "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more."
Contrary to the presumption of bringing satisfaction and happiness, wealth can often bring greater suffering. Our wealth simply brings additional sets of problems and concerns: how to preserve and guard the wealth, how to have enough to really do what we want now that our sights can be set higher, whom we will share the wealth with and how much. For example, when we can finally afford to buy a house, myriad new financial obligations appear – from property taxes, to the cost of repairs and maintenance, to the inevitable need for remodeling and even to afford furniture worthy of our beautiful new house.
We must ask ourselves, what does bring us satisfaction and contentment? Or is it brought to us at all? Satisfaction or contentment would appear more a skill that must be learned or an attitude to be cultivated than an externally-generated circumstance derived from what we do or don't have.
Dogen Zenji's words ring so true that “Those who do not know how to be satisfied are poor even though they are wealthy, while those who know how to be satisfied are happy even though they have little...” But still, how do we achieve this knowing how to be satisfied?
Perhaps a clue is provided by Buddha's defining phrase: “knowing how much to take of those things one already has is knowing how to be satisfied.” First of all, to see what we already “have”: from our inner attributes, to our health and capabilities, to our friends and companions in life, to the beauty and suchness of our environment – the moon in the sky, the fresh breeze, the still air, the cheerful sound of birds. I think we enjoy them most when we focus less on the idea of grasping or owning these things, but simply appreciate and feel grateful for them. I used to look at the beautiful oak savannah just beyond the Jizo garden at the edge of Myoshinji's property and wish that we could buy that property. But it began to occur to me that I could enjoy looking at the trees just as much on someone else's property as our own. How do you really own a tree anyway?
Perhaps we can be most satisfied when we know that none of this can actually be grasped anyway. We cannot grasp the moon in the sky, we really can't grasp our own health or well being, wealth or happiness because it inevitably changes. Perhaps knowing fully that this moment when we feel young and vibrant does not last, that we can't perpetuate or own youth any more than we can hold a breath indefinitely – perhaps this knowing allows us to feel satisfied in whatever circumstances.
Bodhidharma's One-Mind Precepts
Dogen Zenji's Kyojukaimon, Instruction on the Precepts
Nor can we actually grasp or own another person. Behind much of sexual misconduct, is a strong grasping to own, to have control, to have power over our partner or someone desirable whom we see at a distance and want to possess. Rape and other aggression, usually against women, are extreme forms of this. Of all the formulations of the precept, the Zen Peacemaker tenet emphasizes the need to be respectful and not aggress toward those who are different:
Zen Peacemaker Tenets
On the other hand, it could be said that the origin of our practice as we know it stemmed from someone, Prince Siddartha Gotama, most decidedly not being satisfied. It was his very saturation with all of the material, educational, emotional and financial blessings that ultimately prompted him to be unsatisfied, to question that this was the ultimate aim or destination of life. There is also this important side. Our dissatisfaction, if we channel it in the right way can be the ultimate force driving us into a quest for deeper understanding of ourselves and our trajectory in this existence. Our dissatisfaction if we acknowledge it as strongly as Shakyamuni Buddha did, leads to our awakening from the delusion that there is anything we can possess or grasp onto.
Precept 4 of Engaged Buddhism - Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh:
The first awareness of the enlightened person is not “having no desires". It is “having few desires.” The expression “few desires” is very interesting. In one sense, “few” does relate to quantity. Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh's Engaged Buddhist precept emphasizes to live simply. It is natural and appropriate to desire the basic things that we need to support our life. If we didn't, the human race would not survive. But he also says "Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure.”
The pursuit of these as ends in themselves, as said earlier, does not bring us satisfaction and contentment, but only fuels our desire for more. And this in turn leads to more striving and suffering. What if we could just make the best of what we have? Take care of what and who are in front of us? Not only is this a much wiser course for ourselves, but also the most beneficial for those who share the planet with us. As Thich Nhat Hanh's precept also points out, we should not accumulate wealth while others are lacking resources for basic needs. Such a practice, clashes with our most fundamental sense of fairness and kindness if we are truthful with ourselves.
Having “few desires” also relates to having the right desires – the ones that are most important and most beneficial. These include the Four Bodhisattva Vows – these are the “few desires” we should have and cultivate. Vowing to save all sentient beings, vowing to end (self centered), vowing to master the dharmas, vowing to attain the way – these are the few desires we should cultivate. And these are the most beneficial as they are not just about ourselves, but about all.