Day One: Ethics
This course that you’re about to undertake is a practice, and the way that I think about practice is that it takes your ideals – and all of us here probably have some high ideals – and actually making them real in our lives. That way what we think of as our life and what we think of as our practice are seamlessly integrated.
In most cultures you reach a certain age and undergo rituals. One of the things that any anthropologist will tell you about this culture is that we don’t have much ritual. There’s not too much that we do to mark certain times of our lives, certain passings, births, deaths, anniversaries, so this course offers a formalized ritual. It’s about undertaking the practice of making the dharma the centre of our life. Over the next six months this course will be the centre of our lives, and everything that we do will flow out of it.
It’s like the blood. As some of you know, mostly I’m not that interested in lineage. But I actually think the blood lineage from the Buddha all the way to all of you, is ethics, is the precepts. In Zen practice, where the term ‘precepts’ comes from, when you gather as a group you chant all the names from the Buddha to your teacher. And unlike in India, in Korea, China and Japan they kept track of history, so sometimes it would take you 15 minutes to chant from the Buddha, all the way through all the teachers, usually they were all men, to your teacher, who up until recently was probably a man also. Joan Halifax has a chant they do at Upaya where they chant all the women ancestors in their lineage. I think the bloodline that connects us to our awakened ancestors is the precepts. It’s the one thing that you find in all the lineages that stays the same.
We’re going to spend the day today talking about intention and the seriousness of heart that it takes to drop into what we’re going to explore and really let the practice into your life. So that you can let your life flow out of this, and at the same time to be able to concentrate your mind, your body, your money, your job, your sexual life, your shopping patterns, your real estate interests, your subscriptions… to concentrate all of these so they flow through the precepts. It’s really easy to talk about non-violence or honesty, but to actually be able to do this with your whole life requires some commitment, and also some training.
**Your Life Is Not Your Life**
Another piece of this course that is really important is that your life is not just your life. Even when we think about our history, “Oh I ate such and such,” and “I was married to so and so…” There is a so and so, there is a such and such. Our lives don’t belong to us. Our lives are inextricably woven through the ecological, social sphere, so everything that you do really makes a difference. That’s a really important part of what we’re going to explore over the next six months. If after today you want to quit that’s ok, but you can’t quit after today.
I think that there are plateaus that we have in our practice. You have a certain part of your practice that’s working in your life, usually it’s in a particular area, and then it starts to plateau. In the last year I have seen so clearly how much depth there is for me to move in my life, and whenever I start to do so, I feel that because there’s a community here, we can also do it together. I feel sometimes that inspires people to really go for it, to really look clearly and not just to know things about your life, but to really look clearly. For me that’s the heart of this practice, to really be able to see how life works. And in doing so, how I can reduce the stress and suffering in different areas of my life? I feel I can’t say it enough. There’s so much depth in this practice.
**What Is A Practice?**
I feel that Centre of Gravity has grown and I hear various people at fashion shows say things like, “I practice at Centre of Gravity.” You hear this a lot in the Yoga world. “Oh you know, I practice this and I practice that.” Sometimes this question arises, “Well what do you mean? What do you mean you practice?” What is a practice, what does that actually mean? Part of creating this course is to say: this is what a practice is, and here is how you can practice. I feel like announcing this course inspired many people, most of whom are here, and it also made a lot of people run, and that was really interesting to watch. If you say you have a practice, and you come to Centre of Gravity, and if practice is the centre of your life, well let’s see. Together with other people. It’s interesting to see people get scared away, and I think at many other times in my life I would have done the same thing. So I’m here as a commitment to myself, to look at my life, and I’m also here for all of you, to support you as best as I can. Knowing that you’re going to do what you want with this course.
We’re here in a group. For all of us, groups constellate many kinds of anxieties: of excitement, of fear, of joy. Sometimes a group like this can bring out the absolute best in us, and sometimes it can do exactly the opposite. Some of us really thrive in groups, and some don’t, but I think over the next six months, most of us will feel both these things. We’ll feel places where it’s great to be here together in this sangha, and places where other people are difficult to tolerate. That’s the nature of being in a group.
I think a lot of us on the left think about our rights. For instance, I have a right to come here and practice if I put my money down. But I don’t think we talk a lot about obligations. In order to have rights and freedoms – it’s Remembrance Day today, so this is in the background – we also have particular obligations. The first obligation is an obligation to yourself, that you’re really going to show up. And when you get snagged, you’re still going to show up. Another obligation you have is that when we’re not meeting as a group, you’re going to have a partner, and you’re really going to show up with that partner. So you’re going to support your partner, and they’re going to support you. This is a really important obligation. Because I think it’s easy sometimes to talk about community, but community only works when you really have to do something. I’ve spent a lot of time in Northern Ontario, and in Northern Ontario nobody talks about community, but when it snows you shovel your neighbour’s driveway. And to me this is a strong community. I encourage that here, that we’re supporting each other in this process, and that we think not only in terms of our own practice, but the support we can bring to others. This is really important.
Every day I expect that you’re meditating. I hope you have a cushion set up in a place in your house and that you’re sitting either for a 30 minute period or a 45 minute period that’s timed by a proper timer. No holidays. Sitting, following the breath, mindfulness of breathing. It’s important that you time the meditation, because the timer is the container of the meditation practice. And that we’re really trusting in the timer, so you set it up in a place that you can’t see it. I encourage you to pick the same time every day, early in the morning for instance, especially during the Precepts course when so much of what we’re cultivating needs to be spread around during the day. It’s really good to start the day in stillness.
I would like you to keep a journal every day, based on whatever precept we’re studying. Part of your homework is going to tie into this journal. The journals will never be shared publically, you’ll just keep it for yourself. If you live with someone, please tell them that the journal is private, so you really feel you can write in this journal about what is coming up for you in this course and what we’re studying. You could journal in the evening, just before bed is a good time.
**Ahimsa (in speech)**
The next time we meet the theme that we’re going to be exploring is ahimsa or non-violence. And the first way we’re going to look at non-violence is non-violence of speech. What I’d like you to do with your partner is I’d like you to start with speech, and I want you to talk with your partner in two meetings over the next two weeks. I want you to spend the hour, half an hour each, talking about how you’re practicing non-harming of speech internally and externally. And this is going to be what you’re journaling about, and this is what I’d like you to focus on in the next couple of weeks in your own life, and the next time we meet is going to be devoted to working on this. Not causing harm to yourself in the way that you talk to yourself, and not causing harm to others in the way you speak to others. And I would say this includes listening. It’s about communication, non-violence in communication, which means not having the intention to cause harm.
So the first yama is ahimsa, which means not having the intention to cause harm. And of course you know many of us we cause so much harm with our words, don’t we? The way we talk to ourselves, the way we deflate ourselves, the way we inflate ourselves, how we exaggerate ourselves about ourselves. And then the way we do that internally actually affects the way we talk to other people, so it works both ways. The clarity we have in the way that we communicate with ourselves is actually related to the way we talk to others. Whether we’re working inwardly or outwardly, the psychological grooves are very similar. We all know that people who judge others a lot tend to judge themselves a lot.
So not having the intention to cause harm, with speech internally and externally. Every yama is divided into body, speech and mind. So whatever falls under the guideline of speech (email, telephone, skype, chatrooms). I could even go through my day today and give examples of where I could have spoken with a little more kindness. Probably we all could.
A friend of mine says the precepts are your eyelids. Eyelids are kind of interesting, aren’t they? Because you don’t notice they’re there, but if you think of your eyelashes for example… I don’t wear mascara, but if I did I would probably see through mascara all day. But if you look at the world through your eyelashes, through your eyelids, they help shape what you see. The precepts are like your eyelids, they affect the way you see your life. They affect the way you see everything around you, internally and externally, simultaneously. So your mascara for the next couple of weeks is non-violence of speech internally and externally. If I was like Marina Abramovic, I would have a cartridge of mascara that has non-violence of speech in it. I would hand them out to all of you so you could put it on every morning. We’d sell them at Art Metropole.
I love to tell the story of Ananda, he was the Buddha’s right hand man. He actually did a deal with the Buddha where he offered to be his assistant and in exchange, if he ever missed a teaching or didn’t understand something, the Buddha would explain it to him. Ananda, of course, is most famous for being the only person in the Buddha’s circle who didn’t get enlightened in the Buddha’s lifetime. Just before the Buddha died, Ananda was really upset, because the Buddha was sick. Ananda asked, “Is having friendship about half of a spiritual practice?” The Buddha said, “No, it’s the whole practice.”
In Buddhism there’s a term you hear a lot which is “a spiritual friend.” It doesn’t mean someone you go out dancing with. But it might. It means somebody that you’re practicing with. Someone you can talk with who is not an analyst. They don’t analyze your experience, it’s just a friend you can call up and say “Hey, I couldn’t sit today. I was so anxious.” You just call them to tell them that. So that there’s somebody else that’s witnessing your process. And they don’t offer feedback necessarily. They might call you and say, “I just told my lover to go to hell.” And you don’t start analyzing and say, “Well actually, in the Buddhist world there is no hell and there’s no self, so it’s not a problem.” You just listen. The whole of spiritual life is good friendship.
“Dharma practice has survived through a series of friendships that stretches back through history – ultimately to Gautama himself. Through friendships we are entrusted with a delicate thread that joins past with future generations. These fragile, intimate moments are ones of indebtedness and responsibility. Dharma practice flourishes only when such friendships flourish. It has no other means of transmission. And these friends are our vital links to a community that lives and struggles today. Through them we belong to a culture of awakening, a matrix of friendships, that expands in ever wider circles to embrace not only “Buddhists” but all who are actually or potentially committed to the values of dharma practice.”