Category: 31 Day Precept Project Page 1 of 2

31 Day Precept Project Wrap-up

This month didn’t exactly go according to script (whatever that means,) so I didn’t end up posting very often about my month-long project of focusing more intensely on the Five Precepts. To be honest, I wasn’t as active in examining some of the precepts as I had intended to be either. My practice turned out to be a little more focused on some stuff that I had going on in my personal life, so some of the energy that I had originally planned to spend on this project got somewhat diverted. That being said, I did want to do a wrap-up on the project, and what I will be taking away from the experience.

First Precept

The First Precept is focused on abstaining from killing, and I chose to adopt a vegan lifestyle as a part of my work with this precept. There were some accidental lapses in this effort early in the month, but I managed to be more consistent after the first week or so. I found that taking this step felt really good. I experienced a lot of joy in knowing that I was eating in a way that caused less suffering and did less damage to our planet than I have at various points in my life. In regard to my practice, I can say that adhering to this commitment generated more mindfulness about the choices that I made in regard to my diet. I intend to continue to eat in a similar way, but have decided to ditch the label of vegan. I haven’t felt that it was useful to build this layer of identity on my food and other purchasing choices. I will eat a plant based diet and prioritize purchasing goods that involve as little suffering as possible, but I don’t think I need the vegan label.

Second Precept

This was one of the Precepts that didn’t get as much focus as I had planned on. I did spend some time working with it, especially in regard to thinking of less obvious ways that we take what isn’t freely given in our everyday life. I found that I could include diet in this Precept as well, as it seems pretty clear that animals are not freely giving us milk, cheese, honey, etc. I also considered the fact that there are several ways that sexuality can be tied into this Precept. The #metoo movement demonstrated the long history in our culture of women having their agency, dignity, and emotional and physical safety taken by men.

Although I spent a little time working with this one, I feel like I would like to continue to dig deeper.

Third Precept

The Precept involving sexual misconduct was another one that didn’t get as much attention as I had planned. Other than thinking about how this also tied into the Second Precept, I didn’t really make it much further than I had in my original post about it. This is definitely one that I feel needs to be explored by all of us, given what has been going on in the world. I plan to spend more time working with this Precept as well.

Fourth Precept

The tough one – abstaining from false and malicious speech. This one was a bit of a mixed bag. I did actually spend some time working with this Precept throughout the month. It’s a difficult one to undertake, but is also one of the most accessible, due to the fact that we all speak quite a bit everyday.

Over the last month, I’ve observed how much I talk about other people. I haven’t ever really considered myself to be a gossip or someone who talks about other people behind their back, but in watching my speech more closely, I noticed that I do actually talk about others quite a bit. Sometimes it’s joining in a conversation about someone, and sometimes I initiate it. This is especially problematic in cases where it involves people I work with. I manage a team of people, and I realized that even off-handed comments about my staff can be damaging. I am beginning to more often take a moment before speaking to examine whether what I am about to say is appropriate, but I know this will be a longterm project.

Fifth Precept

I probably spent more time working with the Fifth Precept than any other. This Precept involves abstaining from intoxicants. From a surface perspective, I did not drink or use marijuana during the last month. This was actually a powerful experience, especially as I was dealing with some difficult emotions. I found that removing the option to numb myself with substances greatly impacted how present I was with my emotions. Additionally, I slept better and felt more clear headed, which made my morning meditation a much more focused experience.

I also explored the idea of using my meditation practice as an intoxicant, and practiced mindfulness in this area. I also recognized early on that I can often use technology as an intoxicant by spending hours watching Netflix or playing video games, as well as by allowing myself to get sucked into mindlessly scrolling through Twitter or Instagram. I actually found staying away from alcohol to be far easier than remaining mindful with my social media use.

I have decided that I intend to keep my use of alcohol and marijuana to a minimum moving forward, although I am not completely eliminating them at this point. I plan to only drink when I am with other people, and to limit myself to one or two drinks in those situations. I want to keep a close eye on this, however, to see how this fits on me. If even small amounts of drinking are going to inhibit my practice, I don’t find that a worthwhile trade.

I don’t consider the end of this project to really be an end at all. I plan to continue to explore and practice with all five of the Precepts, but in a more organic way. I feel like this project was a good way for me to launch a more serious practice in this area, and I can honestly say that I experienced a great deal of insight over the last month. I look forward to continuing to follow this path and seeing where it leads.

Practicing the Second Precept Through Veganism

When I first set out to spend the month of August delving more deeply into the Five Precepts of Buddhism, I had associated adopting a vegan lifestyle as being primarily about working with the First Precept, which has to do with abstaining from killing any living being. As I’ve spent the month examining the Precepts, I have begun to see that other precepts might also argue for a vegan lifestyle.

The Second Precept is a guideline that calls for abstaining from taking that which isn’t freely given. As with the other Precepts, there is a simple way to look at the Second Precept, and there is a more complex way of looking at it. A simple reading would say that this guideline is about stealing. However, if you think of all of the Precepts as being prescriptions for non-harming of ourselves and others, this guideline starts to take on more nuance. I covered some of the initial things that I was considering when I started the project in an earlier post, but I have found several other ways of practicing the Second Precept over the last month, including how it relates to my diet.

flock of chickens
Photo freely given by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Most of you probably already know that in addition to not eating meat, vegans refrain eating any animal products, including milk, eggs, cheese, butter, and even honey. From an ethical standpoint, animals who are raised for dairy products in commercial farming environments are just as mistreated (possibly more so at times) as those who are raised for meat. You don’t have to look too hard to find videos that will show you images of cows with infected utters and the like from being hooked up to milking machines. Along the same lines, egg laying chickens on commercial farms often live in inhumane conditions, just like those raised for meat. There is little doubt that these animals are not freely subjecting themselves to this treatment. Things become a little more fuzzy when you look at animals raised in more humane environments, like many local farms. I can’t really say how the well-treated cow views being milked, but at the very least there is a question of whether that milk is really freely given.

Regardless of where my diet ends up at the end of this project, I have found a lot of value in the amount of attention that a vegan diet requires. It has made me honestly consider the impact of my diet on all living beings, including myself. I haven’t really purchased any clothes this month, but there are also things to consider in relation to this arena, beyond just avoiding leather. Regardless of whether you are vegan or not, I believe that this kind of mindfulness of our actions can lead us to make better choices, both for ourselves and for our fellow beings.

Speak the Dharma At All Times

I am guy who immerses himself in his passions. This can be a double edged sword. It has served me well in develop a lot of skills and interests, but it can also make me a little obtuse sometimes when I’m talking to other people. If I’m not mindful, I can rattle on endlessly about whatever I’m into, only to look up at some point and find the person I’m talking to completely checked out or doing the polite nod and smile thing. My contemplation on the Precepts this month has me thinking about this habit from a new perspective.

After my Attachment to Broken Things post earlier this week, I had a person respond to a retweet, defending their attachment to a car they had, and stating their intention to keep an old car that held some memories for them. I had a hard time deciding how to respond to this. First, it was pretty clear to me that they hadn’t actually read the post, as I never advocated getting rid of things just because they had emotional significance. My primary thought, however, was to try to talk to them about the dangers of attachment and clinging. I have personally experienced how much suffering our attachment to all of these impermanent things can cause, and I sincerely want to help other people escape suffering. I typed out and erased several responses, before finally deciding that this person was not really in the market for a Dharma lesson. In the end I just responded with the following –

After this internal wrestling match, I posted one of those tweets that is basically me workshopping my thoughts in front of the Twitterverse, and my friend Duane Toops offered a really great paraphrase of St. Francis of Assisi –

I think this is as beautiful when applied to the Dharma as it was when St. Francis applied it to the Gospel. I think that I was right in deciding that the situation I was working through was not an appropriate time for trying to hammer home a point about the Dharma. In being mindful that my words would not have been useful or timely, I believe that I was acting in keeping with the Dharma. Maybe there was a way for me to illustrate my thoughts on attachment in a skillful way, but nothing came to me that didn’t feel preachy or condescending, so refraining in that moment still seemed like the right move.

One of the ways that I have been working with the Fourth Precept, is to try to listen more and speak less. In my enthusiasm to talk about something that excites me, I have often been guilty of hearing people without listening to them. Engaging in conversation without truly listening to others makes our words self-serving and ineffectual. When we actively listen to the person across the table or screen from us, we become more aware of what words are actually useful. I have also observed an increase in feelings of compassion and empathy toward other people through more purposeful listening. We live in a time where many of us are starved for meaningful connection, which can only be found through being truly present for others.

As I mentioned in my initial Precept Project post on the Forth Precept, speech might be the most challenging Precept to practice. As with all of the precepts, the key is in being more mindful in our day to day life. Speaking the Dharma is largely done by living mindfully, and through that mindfulness we can recognize when it is also necessary to use words.

Precept Project Day 12 Update

I am currently on day 12 of my 31 Day Precept Project. I have posted a few things that have been related to what I’ve been exploring thus far this month, but I figured I would take a minute to throw out some quick-hits style observations regarding the precepts –

  1. Eating vegan is not an easy transition. I have been doing pretty well on this overall, but I have had a few lapses, mostly involving not paying close enough attention to what ingredients are in whatever food I’m eating. I have actually ordered a butterscotch oat milk latte, not thinking until I was halfway through it that ‘butter’ is in the name. I also heedlessly order a vegetable fried rice, ate half of it, then realized I had been eating egg the whole time. I’m not beating myself up about it, but I am going to refocus on really being mindful of what I’m eating.
  2. I tell a lot of “little” lies. I have caught myself starting to tell a story several times, in which I begin to change a minor detail to make the story less awkward or reveal more than I would like to. This has been an interesting contemplation point, and I have generally caught it early enough to avoid the lie. There have been a couple of times that I didn’t really think about what I had said until later, however.
  3. Also related to speech, I have definitely decreased the amount that I am speaking by catching myself intending to talk about another person in a way that could be considered gossip. I have also realized that I have said something about someone that was not really useful or kind.
  4. I also have also noticed a tendency to interrupt. Often I make the initial interruption and then yield to the other person, but it’s still an interruption.
  5. Speech has been as challenging as I anticipated. Conversations can build a momentum, and sometimes I realize that I haven’t really been mindful of what I am saying, and when and how I am saying it.
  6. I have found a tremendous amount of benefit in avoiding intoxicants in the area of drinking. This is especially true as I am navigating a difficult time in my personal life. I has been nice to deal with a difficult situation from a place of presence and clear-headedness. I am also sleeping better overall (aside from that night that I drank 3 glasses of iced tea.) As far as my seated practice, I haven’t been experiencing the grogginess that I often have in the past, although I would say that it has been replaced by a bit of an overactive mind.
  7. I have definitely observed that I do use various forms of electronic media as an intoxicant. I have found myself compulsively checking Twitter at times. I have also found that I have an issue with moderation when it comes to video games and video streaming. I have grown somewhat better at noticing that I am getting sucked into a multi-hour mind numb fest, but have still managed to check out for hours at a time on a couple of occasions.
  8. I have been working with a mindfulness trick where I notice the urge to check social media and pick up my phone, holding it and trying to be aware of the feel of the weight of the phone and the texture of its surface. Usually the urge passes and I put my phone back in my pocket, but the jury is still out on the effectiveness of this practice.

That’s just a few observations from the last 11 days. I’m planning on focussing some attention of the second precept this week (taking what isn’t freely given,) as I didn’t really have too many observations on that one.

Using Meditation as a Drug

I’ve talked a little in a previous post about how difficulty in my personal life originally brought me to meditation. Discovering these practices helped pull me out of a dark period of my life, and have continued to be useful to me as a means of confronting difficult emotions and the events that lead to them. As I continue to work through some of these issues, I have seen that there is a difference between using my practice to skillfully face the things that arise in my life, and in turning to my practice as a means to numb myself to them.

As a culmination of a two year process, my wife and I recently came to an agreement that we would be separating. Although the events of the last couple of years have already caused me to deal with many of the most painful parts of this experience, this has still been a difficult development for me. I have been determined to be present with my sadness, anger, and the plethora of other emotions that I have been feeling this time around. In talking to my meditation and Dharma teacher this week, she brought up the fact that I needed to remain mindful not to use my practice as a means to numb what I’m feeling. I can honestly say that I haven’t been doing that to this point, but the reminder that this can be a seductive choice is a valuable one.

meditating by a lake
Photo freely given by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Looking back at my practice over the last couple of years, I can definitely see times when I used meditation as a means of getting over some difficult emotion or another. Joseph Goldstein often refers to this type of behavior as being an example of “in-order-to mind.” I am focusing on my breath in-order-to calm down my feelings of anger, or running to my cushion in-order-to get past my depressed feeling. In fact, my initial foray into meditation was all predicated on the idea that it could help me get over my depression and anxiety. While this kind of practice did sometimes give me temporary relief, it didn’t really treat the actual diseases of greed, hatred, and delusion, which manifested themselves in my sadness and fear.

In working with the Fifth Precept, I’ve discovered that my practice can become an unexpected intoxicant that can cloud my mind. True mindfulness requires that I be aware of my difficult emotions, engaging with them fully. While relief from suffering can thankfully be a side effect of this practice, the real benefit is in growing in liberation from the root causes of my suffering. When we use our practice to avoid our feelings, we are basically just putting them on layaway, where we will eventually have to pick them up, and often the payment will have interest applied.

Every morning as I say the words, “I undertake to abstain from intoxicants that cloud the mind,” I have been examining my intentions to watch for the desire to escape my feelings in my practice. I don’t want to avoid these feelings. I want to be present with them, and learn what they have to teach me. This is all part of my path.

The Precepts Project: Fifth Precept – Intoxicants that Cloud the Mind

Like all of the other Precepts, I’m finding that there is a lot more to consider here than just the obvious surface guideline. The point of this guideline seems to be the inhibition of mindfulness that is caused by the intoxicant, so if you really explore this Precept from a modern perspective, there are a lot of things that could be included here.

I won’t beat around the bush; even on the surface level, this is a complicated one for me. In some ways, this was the one that lead me to try this project. I’m sure I will discuss this further in a future post (possibly about Right Livelihood,) but I have worked in the wine and beer industry for about 10 years now. This is a difficult industry to work in and maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol, and I have definitely had the opportunity to explore the effects of drinking on my practice and on mindfulness.

Photo freely given by mnm.all on Unsplash

There are a number of ways that alcohol and drugs can effect mindfulness. Anyone who has tried to meditate while actually under the influence can attest to the effects that these substances can have on your practice. I have seen some people state that some strains of marijuana can actually help them with concentration, and I know there is a significant history of people using psychedelics in conjunction with meditation practice, so there is a lot that could be discussed about the use of intoxicants in practice. For the purpose of this project, I’m going to be working from a renunciation perspective.

I have occasionally used marijuana, but alcohol has definitely been my main intoxicant of choice. I’ve mentioned previously that I was using drinking as a form of self medicating prior to discovering meditation. Over the last year that hasn’t been as much of an issue for me, however I haven’t stopped drinking. In my practice, I have observed that even having a drink or two can effect my ability to concentrate while I’m on the cushion. As I’ve moved into my early 40s, I’ve also noticed that drinking in the evening can effect my sleep, which can leave me feeling foggy in the morning when I typically do a 45 minute sit. At times, it has made it hard for me to get motivated to get up to meditate, which either leads to a shorter sit or to sometimes not getting a good session in that day.

Photo freely given by Rahul Chakraborty on Unsplash

Another, less obvious, area that I have heard several Dharma teachers discuss is technology as an intoxicant. My teacher, JoAnna Hardy, has framed this as anything that we use to numb or zone out can be an intoxicant. We certainly can have addictive responses to social media. I have definitely caught myself posting an Instagram photo or tweet and them obsessively checking to see how many likes or retweets it got. I have also wasted a lot of time mindlessly scrolling down my various feeds. These platforms can also feed greed, hatred, and delusion in a really powerful way if we aren’t mindful to how we use them and how they are impacting us.

There are different ways that people have chosen to deal with the topic of intoxicants. Many Buddhists choose to completely abstain from drinking and drug use, but many others do not. I have heard some arguments that the Precept encourages not using any intoxicant to a degree that it clouds the mind, which can be a pretty vague line to draw. Ultimately, this is just a guideline that the Buddha gave us for practicing, so this isn’t a commandment, and we each have to choose how we will practice with it.

For the purpose of this project, I have chosen to completely abstain from drinking and using other drugs (Almost – I have chosen not to give up caffeine) for the 31 days of the project. I am genuinely curious to see how spending the entire month completely sober impacts my practice. Life has already been throwing some stuff at me this month, so I have had the opportunity to stay with some difficult emotions that might have been clouded by drinking under normal circumstances. I am also working with how I might use technology as an intoxicant. I’m not abstaining from social media, Netflix, or video games, but I am trying to be more mindful of how I might use these things to numb or distract. I did manage to spend at least four hours playing Playstation the other day, so looks like there is some work to be done here. Going into this project, I feel like this might be the area where I anticipate seeing the most fertile exploration in regard to my personal experience. I’m honestly not sure where this one is going to leave me at the end of the month, but I am excited to find out.

The Precepts Project: Fourth Precept – False Speech

Oh boy. Here comes the really tricky one. Today I am looking at the Forth Precept, which deals with the topic of speech.

From what I understand (I am not a Pali scholar), a faithful translation of the word used in this precept, musāvāda, is “false speech,” but you will often see this expanded to include all forms of false and harmful speech. If there is a single part of our outward-facing daily life that is most difficult to remain mindful in, it might be speech. When I was a young person growing up in the church, I would read the Bible, and I can remember coming across numerous verses about the power of the tongue for both good and evil. The apostle James probably had more to say on the topic than anyone, including this one –

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.

The Bible – James 3:7-9

When I first heard my teacher, JoAnna Hardy, talk about this Precept, she used the guidelines, “Is it true? Is it usefull? Is it timely? Is it kind? Is it gossip or slander?” These guidelines seem like a good starting point for examining my speech.

Is it True?

There are numerous ways that our speech can not be true. Of course, some speech is just an outright lie. I’m resisting the urge to make a political comment here. Okay, so even that last sentence is not entirely true, as my words about resisting the urge were clearly made to imply a specific political statement. See how easy it is to be false in our speech?

In addition to lies, there are various other ways to be deceptive in our speech. Sometimes we can only tell part of the story to mislead someone to believe something that is false. We can also knowingly allow someone to continue to think something false because the misunderstanding benefits us in some way. I have worked in the wine industry for several years now, and I can remember being introduced as a sommelier on several locations, and never bothered to correct anyone because I knew people have certain status assumptions about somms. I also have had a tendency at times to add little embellishments to stories to make them more interesting, which is another way of speaking falsely.

Photo freely given by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Is it Useful?

I don’t remember the specifics of what I said, but I have a memory of a time when I was a child when I spouted off something in a family gathering, and my grandfather looked at me and said, “You don’t have to say everything you know.” I know I was embarrassed at the time, but this phrase has stuck with me, and seems to apply here. There are some times when you can say something that is true, but might not be helpful for some reason. Maybe it’s not an appropriate situation. Maybe it’s self-serving. The most common expression of this for me is when I have just grown uncomfortable with silence and I say something just to fill the void in a conversation. Another one that I have noticed in my own speech is a tendency to be in a conversation and feel the need to tell a “one-up” story. If we ask ourselves if what we are about to say is useful, we will doubtless find ourselves saying less, and perhaps listening more.

Is it Timely?

Sometimes what we are saying just isn’t being said in the right time. As I have begun to practice with this precept, I have found myself in conversations with people who are hurting to one reason or another. I find thoughts popping up in my mind about some piece of advice or statement of fact about their situation. When I ask myself the question about whether this is a timely moment to say this, I often realize that what I was about to say won’t really do the person I am talking to any good in that moment. It’s not that what I think about saying is false, it’s just that it isn’t the right moment to say it. I’ve found that taking the time to ask this question has generally lead me to a more compassionate response that lets the person know that I hear them, and that I care, which is often of far more use than whatever I was going to say originally.

Is it Kind?

Photo freely given by Robert Baker on Unsplash

I recently had an interesting experience with this question. There is a local figure running for office in my home of Spokane. I had made the horrible mistake of reading through a Facebook comment thread about the candidates, and one commenter was brutal in their words, calling the candidate a “fucking nutjob,” and another stated that “the blood of innocent people was on his hands” for his service in the military in Iraq. Although I don’t support this candidate based on his policy positions, I actually started to feel a really heavy heart for the candidate, as I’m sure he either saw these posts, or others like them. I thought about the fact that this person is a human being, regardless of what I think of his policies. A few weeks later, I was in a public place and overheard a conversation between two men, one of whom was tearfully apologizing for past wrongs that he had done to the other. I was moved by the man’s vulnerability and sincerity. Eventually the apology portion of the interaction had concluded and I overheard the same voice that had been crying expressing that he was having a hard time dealing with the comments that people had been making about him in his candidacy, and I came to realize that this was the very candidate that I had seen excoriated online.

In the example above, I wouldn’t say that the comments were really true either, but there are cases where we can speak the truth, but in a way that is intended to hurt someone else. To view this another way, however, sometimes not speaking can be unkind. A clear example of this that everyone will recognize is the Catholic church’s scandal involving child molestation. In addition to the harm caused by the actual abusers, there were countless others who are complicit in the suffering of the abused, due to knowing what was happening, and not saying anything. To ask whether our speech kind or not, we sometimes have to examine multiple perspectives.

Is it Gossip or Slander?

This is an aspect of this Precept that is tricky for many of us. I don’t think of myself as being an especially gossipy person, but when I make the effort to really examine my daily speech, I do catch myself talking about other people. Often we can even convince ourselves that we are showing how much we care about the person we are gossiping about. This kind of talk is typified in my original home state of Texas by the bless her/his heart story. We mask our wrong speech with a cloak of false-compassion.

In the same category of speech, we can find slanderous speech. Do we spread rumors designed to impugn or damage other people? Do we knowing share articles or memes on Twitter or Facebook that are so one-sided as to make a character of people who we dislike? Slander cannot really be true, as the best case is that the speech is only partially true.

So, What Does This Mean to Me?

This Precept is probably the most difficult one to work with. In the end, I have decided that the way I will work with it is to try to breathe more and talk less. I heard this phrase on an audience comment in the previously mentioned JoAnna Hardy talk on this precept. This practice is a mindfulness practice. I see it as being more present in my conversations; making sure I am listening mindfully when I’m engaged in speech with other people. I will try to take a breath and consider my words before I speak. If I’m doing this right, it will probably mean that I will talk a lot less, and hopefully will listen more.

In the modern world, this practice also includes an awareness of our online speech as being a part of right speech. Although it can feel anonymous, we are speaking with real people online, and should treat each other with kindness in digital spaces, as much as we would in person.

The Precepts Project: Third Precept – Sexual Misconduct

I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct

The Third Precept

Today is August 1st! It’s the official beginning of my 31 Day Precept Project. So, let’s talk about sex.

The topic of sexual misconduct within our society has been getting a lot of attention recently, and the Buddhist community has not been immune (see Noah Levine and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche for a couple of recent examples.) In thinking about the third precept, I think that there is a lot of light that can be shed on a skillful way of applying this precept. The #metoo moment that we are in offers a lot to think about in regards to the complexity of sexuality.

As I’ve pointed out with other posts in this series, the five precepts are not a list of commandments, but a list of guidelines for how to live a life that minimizes suffering, both to ourselves and to other beings. Human sexuality is a powerful influence that can cause a lot of suffering if handled carelessly. The craving of sexual pleasure can be consuming, and under various circumstances can lead to feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, and other emotions, as well as sometimes leading us to make harmful choices. It can also lead us to mistreat others when we prioritize our sexual desires over the needs (emotional, sexual, safety, etc.) of other people.

Photo freely given by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

My understanding of the third precept for us laypeople, is that we should be mindful about how we use our sexuality in order to not cause harm to ourselves or others. The precept itself is pretty vague, but a few of the specific things that have often been seen as addressed in this precept are; sex should be between consenting adults (no rape, no sex with minors, no animals) and that it is not proper to cheat on yours or another’s marriage. These precepts line up with many common cultural mores around the world. I think that stopping at a list of behaviors to avoid, however, isn’t really the point.

In thinking over this precept from a modern lens, I think a broader view of how we can misuse our sexuality is appropriate. The current climate that we find ourselves in has demonstrated that there are a lot of imbedded problems involving power dynamics and sexuality in our society. As a man, I feel like my exploration of this precept has to include a consideration of whether I am sufficiently aware of how my actions, whether purposeful or accidental, can make another person feel sexually threatened or objectified. I would like to think that this is an issue that isn’t a problem for me, but I realize that the current conversation has pointed out that a lot of men in our society have some significant blind spots in this area. If nothing else, asking the questions is a worthwhile endeavor.

Another area of thought for me is the question of pornography. Does consuming porn contribute to the suffering of the people involved in its production? I feel that it probably does in some cases, if not all. Is there also an element of taking what isn’t freely given? My assumption is that some of the people involved in the porn industry could be understood to not be 100% free of coercion, either in a literal sense or in an economic one.

Finally, I think that an important part of dealing with this precept is examining the level to which lust controls us. Sexual desire is a hardwired part of our makeup as humans. We don’t have to try to suppress that desire, but we can practice not getting carried away by it. We can accept it, be with it, even enjoy it, but not cling to it or push it away. Ultimately, the wise approach to sexuality seems to be a focus on non-harming. In regard to myself, can I be present with feelings of sexual desire, without craving, aversion, or delusion? In regard to others, are my intentions and actions in the realm of sexuality causing harm or distress to anyone? This is an area that requires a lot more vigilance than most of us give it, but if we are to learn anything from the current moment, it should be that it is an endeavor that is incredibly important to undertake.

Giving Flowers

The Precepts Project: Second Precept – Taking What Isn’t Freely Given

I undertake to abstain from taking that which is not freely given

The Second Precept

In spending some time reading and thinking about this precept, I realized that I probably hadn’t really framed this project correctly in some earlier posts. Studying the second precept really reinforced that this work with the precepts is a practice. These aren’t a set of rules to be followed, which I did allude to in previous posts, but framing them as a practice is an important part of all of this. The practice is to really examine our intentions and actions and the impact that they have on us and on other beings.

One of my first experiences with really thinking about the precepts was watching a series of videos about ethics on the 10% Happier app (I promise, I am not getting paid to mention 10% Happier, it just so happens that the book, app, and podcast have had a big impact on my early practice.) The videos, which were intentionally set in a bar, featured an open conversation about the precepts between Dan Harris and JoAnna Hardy. JoAnna’s explanation of the precepts was so eye-opening to me that I reached out to her to begin working with her as my first meditation and Dharma teacher. All of the videos in the series were helpful to me, but the couple of sessions about the second precept were the ones that shifted my thinking the most.

Coming from a conservative evangelical Christian home, I was used to thinking of ethics in terms of right and wrong, sin and virtue. The ten commandments were the alpha list of rules in Judeo-Christian traditions, including the injunction, “Thou shalt not steal.” In my first reading of the precepts, I read the second precept as a Buddhist corollary to the eighth commandment. What I found in JoAnna’s teaching on the second precept was the idea that this is more of a guideline of how to live in order to do the least possible harm to others, and to be at ease in our life and meditation practice. She also helped me to see that this is a practice of exploring the different ways that we might take what isn’t given to us, beyond the obvious examples of overt stealing.

Over the next month I will be doing a lot of exploration on what it means to take what isn’t freely given, but just to give a framework of some things that I hadn’t initially considered that I’ve come to think about, here are a few examples –

  • Do I waste time that I am being paid for?
  • Do I waste people’s time with talking to them about things that I know they probably don’t care about, but that I feel are important for me to share?
  • Do I purchase products that are made by people who are being forced by economic circumstances to work in poor conditions? What about products that cause the citizens of an area to have their land or homes destroyed or taken away from them?
  • Do I only use photos, etc. in my blogging that were freely given by the producers?
  • Do I take photos of people without their consent to post on social media?
  • Do I take flowers, rocks, or other “mementoes” from private property or public lands?
  • Do I “borrow” things without getting permission?

These are just some examples to illustrate the complexity of this precept. Ultimately, it can be difficult in the modern world to be perfect in not taking something that was not freely given, but the important part of the practice, for me anyway, is to be mindful, and to make every effort to consider the impact of my choices and actions, and to do what I can to avoid causing suffering to other beings. This practice has already been beneficial to me, and I know that I will continue to find peace and joy in exploring further.

Featured image freely given by Sean Kowal on Unsplash


The Precepts Project: First Precept – Abstaining From Killing

I undertake to abstain from killing any living being

The First Precept

On the surface, the first of the five Buddhist precepts seems pretty straight forward. Once you do some digging into the ways that different traditions interpret this precept, as well as spending some time contemplating the broader implications of the precept, things start to get a little more muddy. In the interest of not getting too bogged down in the weeds on some of this, I’m going to focus on the Theravada interpretation, as that’s the tradition that I practice within.

In the Theravada tradition, many people view this as a wider prescription toward non-harming, and often choose to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet for this reason. Just because you aren’t actually doing the killing, that doesn’t mean you are off the hook for having someone else do it. The precept is focused on not operating out of hatred or aversion in a way that causes harm to any living creature. The first precept was both the one that I began to implement to some degree, and is one that I have had great difficulty in deciding how to approach skillfully.

knife in tree
Photo freely given by Yaroslav Кorshikov on Unsplash

I grew up in West Texas, where brisket is a staple food, and where most of my favorite non-meat foods are covered in melted cheese. One of my longtime favorite leisure and decompression activities is fishing. I have spent many a peaceful day on a lake or river catching fish, which often included killing and eating said fish. As I began my first Buddhist reading, I quickly started to feel conflicted about my choices in these areas. As I began to look at my activities through the lens of whether I was contributing to the suffering of others and myself, I started to make some changes. I adopted a largely vegetarian diet, choosing to occasionally eat fish or meat that I knew was humanely raised. Given my previous diet, this has been a significant change. During the last few months I have continued to think about whether I am satisfied with my current diet, or whether I should be doing more.

Photo freely given by Robert Bye on Unsplash

My motivations for changing my diet have been varied. The largest factor has definitely been a focus on reducing the suffering of all living beings. Included in my thinking on this issue is the topic of climate change, since that is an issue that will literally contribute to the suffering of nearly all living beings. I have specifically placed an emphasis on avoiding beef and lamb, as these two forms of meat also have the most devastating effect on the environment. That being said, pigs are very intelligent animals, so it would stand to reason that they might have the highest capacity for experiencing suffering. There’s a lot to take into account here.

In looking at this precept, it’s pretty easy for me to rule out killing another human being. I have no murderous tendencies. I also don’t even own a gun for home defense, etc., so even as a self defense, I’m unlikely to take another human life on purpose. That left me having to decide what standard I was going to set for this project. Ultimately, I decided that if I was going to do this, I should really try to find out what making a more extreme interpretation would be like. I have decided to spend the month attempting to adopt a vegan lifestyle.

The english translation of the precept is often ‘killing’ or ’taking life’, but can also be understood to include injuring and torturing. If the point here is to take the perspective that these precepts are to avoid various hinderances to effective practice; given what I know about the suffering that animals endure in dairy situations as well as in meat production, I feel like adopting a position of eliminating as much involvement in suffering as possible would be the most beneficial to my practice. The environmental factors play out across multiple precepts, but I have even taken those into account in this precept, since I feel like these factors are responsible for increasing suffering to all beings, human or animal. If the point of the precepts is to pave the way for effective practice, I want to spend some time really seeking out where my personal lines are. I have no idea where I will land on this precept after the 31 days of the project, but I am looking forward to spending some time working with it.

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