Day 2

Day 2ethical awarenessethicsTorontoTrinity Bellwoods Park

Day 2:

Michael: I wanted to talk about the first aspect of the first precept we’re exploring. The precept of ahimsa or non-violence, or not having the intention to cause harm. One of the ways I’ve been translating it lately is not living at the expense of other life. That’s not a traditional translation, but I think it works. This is true for body, speech and mind.


I don’t talk too much about my teachers, I don’t know why. I think it’s because they live inside me in a quiet way. A lot of people have controversial teachers with crazy wisdom and there’s really good stories about them, but I don’t have teachers like that. They’re very grounded and earthy. I also think I don’t talk about teachers so much because it’s a little bit like meditation experience. As soon as I tell you about my relation with my teachers, then you might compare that to your relationship with me,  or with other teachers you have. Similarly when I speak about my experiences in meditating, I know there’s some part of everyone listening who is comparing it to their experience, and sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s not. One of the people with whom I study is Norman Feldman, and if you know Norman he’s a pretty quiet guy most of the time. I already had a teacher before I met Norman, and I wasn’t looking for another. But I was spending some time in Los Angeles, really inspired by Trudy’s work, and she said if you’re going to be teaching, then it’s really important that you have a teacher that lives close to you. So I went and saw Norman and the first time we met it didn’t go so well.

Mindfulness of Speech

The first time we met I told him about something I was planning. I said to Norman that I was inviting a well known teacher to come to Toronto so that he could teach our sangha, and he’ll be coming next June. Norman says, “Well I know him, and I know that he’s not coming next June. I replied, “He’s not coming yet, but I’ve invited him.” “Well just because you’ve invited him doesn’t mean he will be coming. You’ve only asked.” It really pissed me off. You don’t know me that well, and I’m just trying to express something. But he was really focused on this. “You’re saying that this teacher is coming to Toronto, but I know that he’s not. And I know that you’ve invited him.” He had a really good point. Because what he was calling me on was the ethics of mindful speech. There’s the assumption of oh yes, this will happen. So many of us have learned this already. I just learned it too, thinking I had a lease on another space and then it didn’t work out. How to speak about something as it’s happening in present experience? Sometimes we can see the way we exaggerate, I think that’s what Norman was highlighting for me.

Needless to say that when I left Guelph that day, I decided I would never study with Norman.I have an interesting relationship with Norman. We talk often and I ask him for a lot. And he knows that he’s quietly supporting what’s turning into a large and thriving sangha here in Toronto. He doesn’t have energy for a lot these days, but he really has energy for supporting us from a distance. So even as we’re gathering here, I can feel Norman and Molly are around.


I think part of a teacher’s job is to support students, but students who are stretched out. When you’re a parent you need to let your child stretch out a little bit, and be in that place where they feel support and take a step away. For instance, when young children are nursing, what tends to happen is that when a child is learning something new they need more nursing. When a child starts getting teeth, starts walking or talking. The more the child goes out into the world with their legs, arms and voice. There are marked phases, for instance, this is the walking time. And this is also the time when they need more from their mother. Breast feeding is a metaphor for having the support of a caregiver. You see this with kids, the more they go out into the world, and stretch themselves, the more they really need support. I don’t actually think you can have a relationship with a teacher, unless you’re stretched a little bit. The more you stretch, the more you need the support of someone who is grounded and human and who has also been stretched.

Sangha and Dharma

This is the teaching of the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. One of the ways we get support is in the sangha, in the partner exercises that you’ve been doing together. I hope one of the things we’re building is support for each other. But you can’t have a sangha without the dharma. A sangha without the dharma is just a group of people. You don’t go to the supermarket and say, “Oh, the sangha!” The depth of a community’s commitment to the dharma defines the power of the sangha. Likewise, you can’t have the dharma without the sangha, because otherwise it’s just philosophy. You can’t really see this practice live without community, and you can’t have community without the dharma. It goes both ways.

Looking After Each Other

That’s how we check in, just like a student who is stretched out checks in with his teacher. Just like a kid who is stretched out asks, “Where’s my dad?” I can see this with my son. When we’re in Trinity Bellwoods Park, one of the things he likes to do is walk around the whole park by himself. The first 20 times he did this I had an anxiety attack picturing every awful thing that could happen to him. And then, perhaps in what might have been his 21st traversal, I walked a litLooking After Each Othertle further afield as it was getting dark, and I saw him looking over his shoulder, seeing if I could see him. I think we all do this with each other. That feedback is so important.

The job of the teacher is to help you think about your life in a different way. The job of the sangha is to help you think about your life in a different way, and the job of the dharma is to help you see your life in a different way. When you have a problem, you go and talk about it with your teacher, and the teacher listens – if they can’t listen they’re probably not the teacher you need. Often the teacher hands you back a new problem, which is like a riddle or a koan. I don’t think people really go to others to get answers, even though that’s what we think we want. Tell me what to do. But at a deeper level an answer is not going to be satisfying. I think part of the job of all of us with each other is to support one another, and not to give advice. The tendency when we listen is to try to solve the problem. But listening to others helps you to listen to yourself more patiently. Then you have to do the hard work of the practice on your own, no one else can do it for you. Don’t you wish someone sometimes could do it for you? Just a little bit?


Maybe some of you who get to know me over the next years, until I disappear, will learn that I have nothing to give you. It’s a bit disappointing, and I’ve seen how people have come here wanting me to give them something, and then don’t come back. Enkyo Roshi once told me that after she gives students their first koan to work with, they come back and the first time they present an answer or a response to her, it’s often not the right one. There’s still more work to do. Sometimes it takes a few years to get through the first koan. She said if someone doesn’t get it the first time, she loses 50% of her students. The student arrives and expects the teacher to give them something, but Roshi says no, you have more work to do. Here we’re working with precepts that happen suddenly, there’s no prescription for working with them. The precepts are the most sudden practice, they’re about how you respond in this moment. That’s why we said last week that the precepts are like your eyelashes. You’re always looking through them. When you train yourself in this way, your experience of each moment is more immediate and creative.

I have nothing to give you.

I read a poem on Tuesday night that started like this, “Coming empty handed, going empty handed.” The only thing I can really pass on to you, and the only thing this community can pass on to you, is the spirit of this practice. The energy of the practice starts to mould us, and in moulding us, what seems like a very gentle practice starts to become more sudden and immediate.

We’ve begun with a focus on language. There’s a wonderful passage I came across this morning defining what karma is. “Pick up a speck of dust and the whole world comes with it.” I think you’ll notice this as you start to practice mindfulness of speech, that you look in one little area just how we talk to ourselves, and we can see all of our habits show up in one syllable.

Compassion Gymnasium

There’s three different levels of studying the precepts, this ethical way of being in the world. The first level is the literal level. Ahimsa means non-violence, so: do not kill. The second way we can take the precept is more psychological. What is motivating me to be violent? Another way you can define the term psychological is compassion. Compassion-ology anyone? Mathieu Richard says, “Practice is a compassion gymnasium.” You just work your compassion muscle all day, by using your eyelashes and your intentions. I think the third level of the precepts are the koan level. Or the impossible level. The precept as a koan presents us with a question. When Bernie Glassman had his insight into the fact that all desires cannot be satisfied, he made a vow to move from LA back to New York City and end homelessness. He’s still working on it of course, and that’s the koan level of a precept. I’m going to live my life in a way that serves, and it’s impossible. I’m going to vow to serve all sentient beings, and it’s impossible, and that’s what we’re going to do. I am not going to kill, and it’s impossible, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Three Levels

There are three levels, the first is the literal level. Don’t hurt anyone, and be kind to yourself. I think this level is really important to start with. There’s no need with the precepts to feel guilty or worried, or to get uptight. Omigod, I’m going to fail the course! If he knew what I did this week… It’s not about punishment. Don’t hurt yourself over the intention of not hurting anything. The first level engages restraint. Don’t get angry, there’s no need. And then, with the second level, you can investigate why you wanted to be angry. First I’m going to be quiet and sit down. This time I’m not going to act on my feelings right away. Even though every part of my body wants to tell this person how awful they are, and that they are the cause of all my suffering.

The second level is the compassionate level, the softer level. What’s going on here? Why am I speaking to myself in this way? Why do I want to speak to someone else this way? It’s a level of investigation. The third level comes back to the first point again, the literal understanding, but committing to it in a way that’s not philosophical. It’s not an ideology. I would define the last piece of the precept as a riddle, it is an invitation to enter the impossible.

When I really study the other person’s actions who I feel has caused me harm, I can recognize that he’s lived a restricted life, and I’ve lived a restricted life, and that’s why he’s acting the way he does. I need to sit with that, but it’s not philosophical anymore, because you’ve taken the time to be in the pressure cooker. The point of this course is to enter the pressure cooker.


I want to read a little passage by Norman Fischer and his description of treating the precepts as refuges. In the Pali language the word sarana means: refuge, protection or shelter. Refuge is an especially good translation, because in Latin re fugere means to fly back; taking refuge means to fly back home. To fly back to our most ancient true home, the place we really belong. As we say in Zen, returning to our true nature is to take refuge in Buddha. That is who we most truly and deeply are. To take refuge in Buddha is to recognize this true home, and to return to it over and over again as the primary commitment of our lives. There’s a wonderful Wang Wei (699-759) poem that goes something like this: “I follow the stream back to its source and watch the clouds pile up.” Usually we think of the source of the stream as its mouth. But actually if I follow the stream all the way back to its source I find clouds, this is exactly what the precepts do for us. You follow your intentions back to their source. And what do you find? The always in motion, circular action of our lives. To see the circular nature of a river and a cloud and the precepts is to see the feedback loop of who we are. Then we can see how our actions sculpt us.

Lastly, what the precepts teach us is contentment, to be satisfied with what we have. To listen to everybody. Even the people and places inside us, and outside of us, that we have a hard time listening to. The precepts are a helpful way to listen to all the corners that we might not give a lot of attention to, because usually we’re always trying to grab a little extra. There’s a wonderful New Yorker cartoon showing a red light drawn across a six lane highway, with a number of cars lined up. Each vehicle has a dream bubble above it, as each dreams of being a better car. There’s a Ford dreaming of a Mercedes, and a Porche dreaming of a Ferrari, and a small bus dreaming of a larger bus. This is how we live so often, always trying to grab a little extra.

In summary, the precepts are wise restraint. When I originally wrote Yoga For a World Out of Balance the original title was Restraint in Times of Unrestraint. My publisher said, “Restraint? That’s almost not an English word anymore. Who uses the term restraint?” The only people I know who use that term are from Eastern Europe. People who are used to not having as much. I just came back from Austria where you can’t get a vegetable, not even an onion, and all I thought was, “Imagine if they had Whole Foods here, it would be the greatest thing.” But when you go to people’s houses they do so much with so many fewer choices. I think the precepts teach us how to have this wise restraint, and how not to try to get something extra from everything.

Truth Chart

One of the Buddha’s talks has been schematized into a chart, so that we can turn it into a practice we can do with each other, and with ourselves. The chart looks like this:

Truth – Beneficial – Accepted – Speak

Untrue – Not Beneficial – Not Accepted – Not Speak (or: Wait For the Right Time)

What I like about this chart is that it starts so black and white. Can you really look at what you’re saying to yourself right now and see if you’re being honest? Is it true? I just came back from Vienna, and usually I teach first in Copenhagen where there’s such great dialogue. The students are amazing because everyone in Denmark has a PhD, but the culture of communication in Vienna is so different. When you speak to someone they just sit there, and you have no idea of what they’re thinking or feeling. I experienced myself in Vienna as quite boisterous. Then I started doubting myself because there’s a cultural context that’s changed. Is this a good class? Am I saying anything that’s relevant? After the first couple of days I thought I had done a terrible job, and that my teaching was very poor because of the way things weren’t mirrored in the way I’m used to. Then I realized that nothing about my teaching had changed. I’m actually giving the same talks I gave in Copenhagen, and feeling really connected to what I’m teaching, but the way I was speaking about myself about it was quite negative. And this negativity wasn’t honest, because when I was clearer about how I was speaking to myself, I realized I was giving the same teachings and feeling really connected to it. Even though the room was stiff.

Dead End Sign

So before you speak, ask if it’s honest or not honest. Can you do that within yourself first of all? Is the way I’m speaking to myself honest or not honest? If it’s true, is it beneficial? Within your own reflection, speaking to yourself internally. Is this beneficial, the way I’m talking to myself right now? Some of you know the simile I like to use about mindfulness of anything is a dead end sign. Usually dead end signs are placed at the end of the road. Which is not so helpful. You start going down the street and there’s no sign, and then when you get to the end it says dead end. Mindfulness practice means trying to pull the sign to the front of the road, but of course it can also work if you’re half way there. You start down the road and somewhere along the way you think oh, this is a dead end. The goal eventually is that even though you never get rid of the dead ends, you can recognize them as they arise. You notice: if I start talking to myself this way, I know what this is going to lead to. It’s going to lead to a night of emotional ice cream. Even if something is true and it’s beneficial, can you accept it? Are you in a place where you can receive it?

If you’re going to speak to someone and it’s untrue, don’t speak it. But if it’s true, before you speak it: is it beneficial and can you accept it? If you can’t accept it, don’t say it yet. If you can accept it, speak it. What? Am I really going to stop and do this? I’m going to ask you as homework to really plug some of the core ways that you speak into this format. If it’s not beneficial, and it can’t be accepted, or if it’s beneficial and it can’t be accepted – reflect on it. This is where the investigation really comes out, and then wait for the right time. There may be something that’s beneficial that you can’t really work with right now. A break up is a good example. In a break up, there’s something that you may need to say to someone. But if you said it, it wouldn’t be beneficial to them or to you. Maybe in a year. Maybe in 100 years. This is what happens when you break up, you gain so many insights, and they’re compounded with each other, and naturally you want to express them, you want to tell your ex everything about the relationship that didn’t work. But if you did that, and most of us do… actually, neither of you can really take it in. This is really where the hard wisdom comes in.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Whenever we’re on a silent retreat, Norman Feldman always says: when you go home and people ask you how the retreat was, don’t tell them unless they really want to know. Most don’t want to hear, the questions come out of decorum.

Waiting and Not Knowing

Can you really listen to yourself? There’s something that comes into focus about ourselves during a breakup, but right now your work might be just finding a new apartment, and now is not the time to get into the psychological murk of it all, maybe next week. Or you might notice something, but every time you think of it you feel horrible, and right now you need to get that new apartment. And once you have the new apartment, then you can start  processing. I was with someone for a number of years and after we split, the person I talked about it the most with was Chip. Chip assured me, “You won’t know why this happened for about 3 years.” That was so helpful. “You have a lot of insight, and everything you’re saying is so accurate. But actually… you won’t know for a few more years down the road.”  I was so deflated, I thought I had such a good interpretation, but Chip’s word simultaneously came as a relief. Oh, I don’t have to figure this out. This is where the wisdom comes in. The wisdom it takes for you to acknowledge in yourself where you can’t really accept or work with what is arising.

Blame In, Blame Out

When there’s something that’s too overwhelming to work with I write it down and put it on my altar. I park it there. It’s not parked there until I can feel comfortable with what I’m going to face up to. It’s not about feeling comfortable with what you’re going to tell yourself. It’s about being willing and ready to hear the truth of this moment. We could even ask is there really resiliency? Can you look at something and be able to bounce back from it, to have the right proximity, so that you can look at it for a couple of hours, or let it seep into you as you make dinner, and then be able to recover? So that it’s not completely devastating. Marshall Rosenberg talks about blame in and blame out. When you see something that you really need to look at, the tendency of our first response when we can’t work with it is either to blame in or to blame out. Oh, it’s all because of me. Or: it’s all them. I think that’s a sign that you can’t accept it, or work with it yet. Here’s a good exercise to determine whether your first impulse is to blame in or out. It has to do with your navel, if it’s an innie or an outtie. We’ll try to avoid using specialized physiological terms like this in the future. But there’s a direct correlation. We’re going to do a study. Researchers are on the way.

Knowing is not just pleasurable. It is also about knowing difficult truths.

To Prince Abhaya

Buddha: “Venerable sir, someone asked the Buddha, when learned Brahmins, and learned householders and learned recluses, after formulating a question, go to see the Buddha and pose the question, has there already been in the Buddha’s mind a thought: If they come to me and ask me this question I will answer it this particular way. Or does the answer occur to the Buddha on the spot?”

In other words, if someone comes to you to talk about non-violence, do you already have the answer? Or does the answer occur on the spot? Do you see how it’s trying to move away from being an ideology? This is part of the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness of speech.“

As to that prince I shall ask you a question in return and answer it as you choose. What do you think prince? Are you skilled in the parts of a chariot?“

Yes, I am.”“What do you think prince? When people come to you and ask, “What is the name of this part of the chariot? Has there already been in your mind the thought: “If they come to me and ask me what part of the chariot is this, I will answer them thus. Or does that answer occur to you on the spot depending on what they’re pointing at?”“Venerable sir, I am well known as a charioteer, skilled in the parts of a chariot. All the parts of a chariot are well known to me. That answer would occur to me on to me on the spot.”

“So too, prince, when learned nobles, learned Brahmins, learned householders, and learned recluses, after formulating a question, then come to the Buddha and pose it, the answer occurs to the Buddha on the spot. Why is that? Because the element of things has been fully penetrated by the Buddha, through the full penetration of which the answer occurs to him on the spot.”

In other words, you go through the flow of the chart, and the purpose is to sculpt yourself, so when the shit hits the fan – he doesn’t use this term I don’t know why – knowing what to do occurs on the spot.

I have a friend who is really emotional. She’s an artist and uses her advanced skills in her artwork. When I ask her how she feels she can talk with a precision that I’ve never experienced before, describing where it is in her body, it’s amazing. And then she asks, “How are you doing?” And I can only answer, “Pretty good.” But actually she can’t ever step out of her emotions. To take a break and do anything else, without the emotional accompaniment, is almost impossible. I would say the same is true about analyzing emotions. Most of us are pretty psychologically acute, and the tendency when our emotions arise is to comb through them and analyze them. That can also be a way of attaching these feelings, and the stories around these feelings, to ourselves.

Thich says

Truthful and Loving Speech: Aware that words can create suffering or happiness, I am committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence. I am determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain nor criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will do my best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when dong so may threaten my safety.

What I love about Thich Nhat Hahn’s teaching in general is that it’s always action oriented. It’s not just observing what you’re speaking, it’s doing something about it. That’s why I really hope then when you see this chart, you don’t see this as a philosophical way of looking at your life, but that it’s actually a training for how we can use words. If you live in a way that you don’t have a strong embeddedness in community, then actually we may not be able to see some of these practices, because we’re not communicating much with others. But here, for those of us living in a city, where we’re communication all the time, to be able to take care of how we speak about ourselves, and to take care of the way we speak and listen to others, is so important because the health of the community depends on it. Like gossip. We don’t usually gossip in a positive way. Did you hear about what she did? When you read those gossip newspapers at the supermarket when you’re checking out, so and so lost 50 pounds and still looks like… it’s so negative. We feed off the negative gossip.


I want you to use this chart, and the next time you meet with your partner, I want you to take out the chart and go through it. Give one example of speech internally and one specific example of speech externally. Walk your partner through the chart. Maybe there’s an example internally of a statement that is true, maybe there’s an example externally of the untrue, or honest/not-honest. Do 10 minutes internally, 10 minute external. Something that’s going on this week. When you talk about the internal, it’s obvious you’re connected. When you’re talking about the external situation focus on what’s going on for you in relationship to the other person. It’s about how you’re speaking. The Buddha has a nice saying that when you’re not mindful of your speech it’s like you have an iron circle stuck in your throat. Can you imagine? Every word is released, everything comes out. You couldn’t do head stands.

The next work we’re going to do is to talk about non-violence in the mind, but only after we work with speech. You can’t clearly look at your own mind, unless you get the speech part down a little bit. In your sitting practice, you might notice how working with non-violence of speech is going to start to effect the quality of your mind. Really being able to look clearly at a mind that is causing harm, and a mind that is generous and compassionate.


There are two monks who live across the river from each other. They tease each other a lot. One day after meditating together, they have a little conversation. The first monk says, “Tell me, what do you think of my sitting posture? The second monk responds, “Magnificent. Just like the Buddha.” Seeing this as an opportunity to tease his friend, he asks, “So what do you think of my sitting posture?” “Like a pile of bullshit.” He remains quiet and leaves, and the one who thinks he has a magnificent sitting posture goes home and tells his sister. “Hey I won the dharma combat.” But when he recounts it to her, she says, “Brother you lost.” He asks, “Why did I lose?” She tells him, “It was because his mind is like a Buddha, that he could see that your sitting posture is like a Buddha. And because your mind is bullshit, that’s all that you can see.” Isn’t this true? When our mind is always competitive we feel that everyone is competing with us. When we’re in a rush everyone is too slow. When we’re angry, everyone is irritating. When we’re spiritual everyone is a materialist. When we’re violent internally that’s all we see out there, that’s how we express ourselves. That’s why this practice happens in two ways, inwards and outwards. We’re going to look at the way we speak to ourselves first so we that can take care, and not confuse

*photo credit: andrea de keijzer*