“In many religious traditions, special care is given to the manner in which their sacred texts are transcribed. In Judaism, trained professional scribes ritually copy a new Torah in conformance to millennia-old tradition, focusing the mind on each of its 304,805 letters, assuring accuracy. In Islam, calligraphy is the primary means of preserving the Qur-an. Before the age of print, one of Christian monks’ main religious practices was to copy and illuminate the Bible. In Buddhism, shakyo, transcribing the sutas, and in particular the Heart Sutra, is a practice all its own, a practice that, aside from its spiritual value, once had an eminently practical one. Eihei Dogen, 13th century ancestor in the Zen lineage, on his return to China from Japan, copied the entire Blue Cliff Record, preserving one of the main koan collections extant.” (The Road to Cold Mountain: Han-Shan’ Cold Mountain Poems by Patrick McMahon)
I was speaking with a yogi friend this morning. He asked, “What is this precepts course you’re teaching. What’s it about?” Such a good question. I said today we’re working on atonement. “What’s that?” he asked. I said, “It’s repentance.” He said, “Oh, that sounds like religion.” I said, “Yeah.” That was the extent of our conversation.
In Japanese the word for repentance or atonement… I like the English word for atonement because it’s actually at-one-ment. The Japanese term sangay is actually made up of two words: sang is confession, and gay means regret. I think this is a fabulous way of translating atonement: confession of regret, or confessing what we might regret. When we use these words – confession or regret – it sounds to our western cultured ears that they have specific religious connotations. But when I meditate on this notion of confessing something that we may regret, I think we can boil it down to learning. I think this is how we learn. We do something unskilfull and then we see it. It gets brought to our attention, and when it’s brought to our attention we have this opportunity to learn. It really reduces our blindness because seeing clearly is the practice of atonement.
**Honesty Equals Stop and Turn**
Confession is related to vidya, seeing clearly. A lot of us don’t want to see clearly. Yesterday Ronit and I met and were talking about these terms – vidya and avidya – seeing and not seeing clearly. The way I used to translate avidya is not having the desire to see. Which is a bit of a stretch of the prefix ‘a’ which means not. But it’s not only that we don’t see, but that we don’t really want to see. Is this true for you? For example in taking this precepts course there’s a natural resistance. I want to see and I don’t really want to see. We’re human, and as I said on Tuesday night, the goal of this practice is just to become a person. As people we’re clumsy. But we can’t just stop at the fact that we’re clumsy. Sometimes we can see it, and even more rarely, we’re willing to turn around and say OK, I’ve been clumsy. To forgive ourselves, maybe to forgive others. At the heart of the practice of honesty is the ability to stop and turn around. Just like in the Angoli Mala sutta, when the murderer Angoli Mala is chasing the Buddha. What does the Buddha do? He turns around. And in turning around to face Angoli Mala, Angoli Mali turns around to face himself, to look into his own heart.
Whenever I talk about this practice as being religious people start squirming. When I think about having a spiritual practice, that term doesn’t mean that much to me, but inside, I talk to myself as if I’m having a religious life. Taking the precepts is a religious practice. It’s a practice that’s connecting to that part of us that is internally a monk or a nun. I think we all have this part of us that is religious, that desires to have some nourishment in that area of our life.
I grew up Jewish, and I didn’t know many families where the Judaism that they practiced really went through their whole life. I was really turned off Judaism when I was young, because there was a lot being said, but not a lot being lived. As a young person, you pick up on that right away. But once I left my roots, and started meeting people who really had a Jewish practice, I realized how deep that tradition is, with its million prayers and rituals. It’s inspiring actually. For me, there is something about studying the precepts that brings back this energy – it is a practice that wants to become a habit. It’s not so much that you set an intention at the beginning of the day: I am going to be honest. But you develop a habit of stopping and turning to look into your heart. What motivates us is repentance, is atonement, is honesty, where we can really look at our lives, and look honestly, and that way of looking is itself is a vow taking, and the vow means including everything. So when I say the word ‘religious,’ what that means to me is a set of internal practices and also a very profound vow to include everything in our practice.
In the Tibetan tradition, one of the ways you do this is to think about your past lives. If you had past lives you can’t remember, then most likely you have to acknowledge that you’ve been a murderer, you’ve been a mother, a father, a grandparent, a mechanic, a teacher, a cow, grass, CEO of a CEO, a president, a prime minister. You’ve locked people up, you’ve been locked up. I think this is a helpful thing to imagine sometimes. All the worst things you could ever do – you’ve done them, it’s already in your DNA. I think this is a fun and imaginative way of thinking about our history.
**Honesty, Compassion, Service**
Compassionate beings know how to be of use because they’ve worked with their own heart, and they can see where they’ve been unskilfull and clumsy and forgive themselves, and then they can serve others. But if we can’t look at our own shadows, then we can only be of use in the way we like to be of use, and that’s kind of narrow.
There’s a book that came out a couple of years ago called On Bullshit by philosopher Harry Frankfurt. Wikipedia: In the essay, Frankfurt defines a theory of bullshit, defining the concept and analyzing its applications. Both lies and bullshit can either be true or false, but bullshitters aim primarily to impress and persuade their audiences, and in general are unconcerned with the truth or falsehood of their statements (it is because of this that Frankfurt concedes that “the bullshitter is faking things”, but that “this does not necessarily mean he gets them wrong”). While liars need to know the truth to better conceal it, bullshitters, are interested solely in advancing their own agendas, have no use for the truth. Thus, Frankfurt claims, “…bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are”
The premise is that a person who lies has greater sensitivity to the truth than someone who bullshits. There are examples of how someone who is lying, feels in their body that they’re lying. Whereas someone who becomes inflated or deflated in themselves, who goes around bullshitting, becomes numb. I think one of the reasons for taking up the vow of honesty is because we live in a culture that doesn’t value being honest with your body, or speaking honestly. Every day we’re sold versions of what we should be, and what our values should be. Kierkegaard said that a soldier can’t kill when they’re by themselves, they can only kill when they are in groups. I think sometimes the rhetoric of our culture fools us into believing versions of ourselves that are not honest. And that’s really what we’re going to focus on today. In these chants we acknowledge that all of the unskilfulness that we’ve ever committed comes from greed, anger, or from being confused. Part of this practice is just to be honest about that. My translation of unskilfullness is clumsiness. When I can think of myself as a clown doing stupid things it helps me ease in to where I’m not skilfull. Part of our job – especially when we’re in a crowd, or when we have an internal crowd – is to really be in touch with our heart, and what’s true for us. I think that people who have the most skill in getting through the holidays are those who get the flu before the holidays, because they’ve been wiped out, and they have to take care of themselves.
Sarah: How do you atone without being self indulgent?
Michael: Sometimes when you can’t be awake, you just notice that and it paves the way. Otherwise the practice can become so idealistic. Sometimes all we can do is have warm tea and try to survive the party.
Another part of honesty is speaking, and speaking honestly means speaking from your heart. Even when what you have to say isn’t popular. That’s actually the most courageous kind of honesty, is when you take the risk of saying something that is not the status quo. The work of cultivating community is exactly that, for us to be really honest with each other. If there isn’t honesty, things get vague, and vagueness always creates misunderstanding. That is a hard practice.
**Honesty Not Truth**
Lori: What about when you’re speaking honestly from your heart, but what you say is painful for the person you’re speaking to?
Michael: The reason why non-violence comes before honesty, is that non-violence always tempers honesty. It’s important to be honest, but it’s also necessary to be diplomatic. If your intention is not to cause harm, then it’s ok to say it, because you’re not responsible for how they feel. It’s really important to speak what’s true for you, but also to know what’s true for you isn’t The Truth. And that can get confusing. That’s why I don’t translate this yama as truthfulness, which is usually how it’s translated, but as honesty. That’s an important one in relationship, isn’t it? To get in touch with what’s true for you, but to know it’s not The Truth. If you want to make it more complex, or more real, is understanding that what is true for you in this moment may not be consistently true for you. It’s not the objective truth of a situation.
On western soil, and especially in this community, we mix traditions. So, for example, the way we’re running this precepts course is we’re taking the 5 Yamas which is from the tradition of Patanjali, and we’re treating them as precepts or vows. That’s one way we mix traditions. One of the things that happens when you mix traditions is that you end up in a fog, because you don’t have a structure. I personally like the fog, and I think one of the things that happens in a fog is that you get surprised by what you find. You really have to trust yourself and your practice, and you have to rely on other people to help us all find a way in the fog. I think life is more like a fog than a structure. I think honesty is an important light in the fog. It’s good to acknowledge that we don’t know, that our life is like a fog. The reason why I say that our practice is religious is because that’s the part that helps us through the fog. And over time, the discipline that comes from courses like this really help us navigate the fog, without being foggy.
**Self Portrait, Rear View**
At first I almost do not believe it, in the hotel triple mirror
That that is my body,
In back, below the waist, and above the legs
The thing that doesn’t stop moving when I stop moving
And it doesn’t even look like just one thing
Or even one big double thing
Even the word saddlebags has a smooth calfskin feel to it
Compared to this compendium of net string bags
Shaking our booty of cellulite, fruits, and nuts
Some lumps look like bon bons translated in tact from chocolate box to buttocks
The curl on top showing slightly through my skin
Once I see what I can do with this, I do it
High-stepping to make the rapids of my bottom
Rush and ripple like a world wonder
Slowly I believe what I am seeing
A 54-year-old rear end, once a tight end
High and mighty, almost a chicken butt
Now exhausted as if tragic
But this is not an invasion
My cul-de-sac is not being used to hatch
alien cells, bald peas, gyroscopes, sacks of marbles
It’s my hoard of treasure, my good luck
Not to be dead, yet
But when I toss the main of my ass again
And see in a clutch of eggs, each egg on its own as if shell-less, shudder
I wonder if anyone has ever died looking in a mirror in horror
I think I will not even catch a cold from it
I will go to school to it, to Butt Boot Camp
To the video store where I saw in the window
My hero, my workout jelly roll model, my apotheosis–
Sharon Olds, b. 19 November 1942
The exercises we’re doing are about keeping language and feeling connected. And over time being able to appreciate those feelings and not have one fixed story about them, so that the story can continually change, and we can stay connected to our feelings at the same time.
When I was working as a psychotherapist I had a client whose sister was raped by his step father. The family had a lot of strong feeling about it, there were 3 therapists, and we all worked together with 3 of the siblings. It was really intense, the trauma in this family, and 5 years into our work it turned out it wasn’t true. The daughter had made it up, and was doing this to split the family up. And suddenly all those feelings that were so honest… I was the therapist and this possibility had never occurred to me, it all seemed so real. We were exploring everyone’s real feelings that came up – only to learn 5 years later that it wasn’t true. That was an incredible learning experience for everybody. Just because you feel something, and it’s true for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what reality is. That’s why relationships are so difficult. We all prefer: oh, I feel this way, therefore it must be true for all of us. The only way to keep feeling and shifting truths connected is through metaphor. That’s why for those of you who teach any kind of body practice, some of the best ways you can teach is through metaphor. People get it right away because you’re not teaching a technique, you’re teaching a feeling. You’re sharing a feeling. Metaphor is the lie that tells the truth.