A talk given at what used to be Centre of Gravity, Toronto, March 18, 2014
In Korea, in the seventh century, a form of Buddhism began to flourish that was based in meditation, as opposed to a more scholarly, text-oriented approach. Because of its emphasis on sitting practice, it was close to the Japanese Zen schools, and it was called Seon. So I wanted to begin with a jag from Stephen Batchelor’s excellent essay “Three Trainings.” Here is Stephen:
“Master Kusan of Songgwangsa used to say in his Seon talks that it was essential for Seon students to train in ethics, meditation and wisdom. These were the basis for any Seon practice. Most importantly they had to be practiced in unison. It was like a tripod, with one or two of its legs missing, it could not hold anything and was pretty useless. In the same way, one had to practice the three trainings together for them to be more effective. A focus on ethics by itself could make one narrow-minded, meditation by itself could make one a little detached and self-absorbed, wisdom by itself could make one a little dry and analytical.
Morality or ethics is important because ethical precepts deals with our relationship to the world, people, things, and how what we do affects ourselves and others. Seon ethics comes out of Buddhist ethics, which are based not on rules but on compassion and wisdom, and the notion that as practitioners we intend to dissolve suffering. In a general way, it answers this question: What would be the most compassionate and wise thing to do? The five basic Seon precepts express ethics in term of restraint: do not kill, do not steal, do not have damaging sexual interaction, do not lie, do not take intoxicants. In terms of positive action, the five precepts are encouraging us to be harmless, generous, disciplined, honest and clear-minded.
These precepts are intended to be cultivated not only in body but also in mind and speech, not only towards others but also towards ourselves. Master Chinul (12th century) said we had to learn to open and close the precepts, that is to know when to apply them and when, in certain circumstances, not to apply them. One well-known example is: if we were to stand in a forest and a deer appeared and ran left, if a hunter asked where the deer went, we could reply that the deer turned right.”
I’ve been asked to give a talk tonight about the precepts – ethical qualities or practices – which I’m drawing from Michael Stone’s work, who is lifting them from Patanjali, the chimerical figure who produced The Yoga Sutra in the first or second century. The Yoga Sutra is a collection of 196 aphorisms that begins with a dazzling vision of integration or Samadhi or awakening, and then bam, in chapter two Patanjali pulls the whole machine back and says that yoga has eight limbs (astanga), and the first is the yamas, or ethics. There are five: non-harming, honesty, not-stealing, the wise use of sexual energy, non-greed or generosity. Tonight I’m going to speak about honesty.
The second ethical precept is called Satya. It’s often translated as truthfulness, but the word makes me want to scratch my phantom limb. It gives the sense that there is some final truth, a last and forever word that never stops shining. And it doesn’t take into account the shifting grounds of truth. Truth is not separate from the one who is experiencing it, honesty is not something out there, like a hammer that punishes us, or a rainbow that we need to be chasing. In the practice of satya, we might become honesty, it arises out of the real time situations of our loves and livings. So some people like Michael or Matthew Remski translate satya as honesty, being honest with what arises in body, speech and mind.
The deepest value of practice comes through our commitment to honesty. If you look at non-violence or greed, it’s hard to enter those principles unless there’s honesty at the base. There’s three levels of honesty. The first is the literal level. In terms of honesty it means being honest with yourself. And when you bring together the first precept and the second — non-harming with honesty — it means that you don’t need to punish yourself for being honest, or being dishonest. The practice is about being as clear as you can manage, and to open to this transparency with softness and non-harming. What happens when we get tight and judgmental about honesty? I think it encourages us to be less honest. Some of us are rewarded as children for being dishonest, we might be told we should be honest, but the underlying message is: if you’re honest, and tell me about what you’re doing wrong, you’re going to get punished. This is a good way to foster dishonesty. The precepts aren’t another arena for self-harm, but a place where the clarity and softness one brings to oneself can then extended to others.
Dogen once asked his teacher, “What is this mind of the bodhisattva?” The teacher said, “It’s this soft and flexible mind.” Dogen asked, “What is this soft mind?” His teacher said, “Soft mind is the willingness to let go of your body and your mind.”
I can’t emphasize this enough. As Adam Phillips reminds us: we use our ideals to punish ourselves. I’ll never be that beautiful, that smart, I’ll never have hair like that, I’ll never sing that note, write that poem, whatever. The precepts have not been designed as new frontiers for self punishment. I’ve come here tonight because I’m looking for another way to feel bad about myself, isn’t that why you’ve come? When we stay with our breath, when we become our breath, you can feel how soft it is, and how generous it is. It’s always there, over and over, you wander away but oh, there it is again. The qualities of the breath, when you feel it flowing, can be exactly this softness, and this softness is essential for the practice of the precepts in general, but most of all for the practice of honesty.
And the other side of this softness, in sitting practice, is fire, to have the fire, the will, to sit up straight, and become the breath, and focus focus focus. Moment after moment. And the way that fire, that resolution shows up in the second precept, is the quality of courage. You need to be soft enough to let yourself off the hook, so you can bear to hear the difficult truth. But then the practice encourages us to have the courage to say it, to speak the difficult truth. So often it’s easier to let something slide because we just want to get along, we want to be liked.
Joan Halifax says that the dominant habit pattern in our culture is to develop armour around our hearts, and to have weak spines, and that the physiological expression of practice, even the physical expression of ethics, is to have a soft and open heart and a strong back. A strong spine. That person’s got a lot of backbone. That person’s a coward, they’re spineless. Isn’t that how the saying goes? How do we develop our strong backs in our ethics practice and speak the difficult truths?
One quick example. Matthew Remski, who some of you probably know, is working on a project right now that is looking into yoga injuries. Mostly he’s been talking to yoga teachers. Why do so many yoga teachers get injured? Is the physical expression of yoga related to the medieval text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which urges the yogi to transcend the body, to get rid of the body, to endure tremendous bouts of pain so that they can overcome this world and enter the god realm? Matthew has already uncovered two facts that really floored me: 1) nearly everyone gets injured, and 2) nearly no one goes back to their teacher and says: you injured me. Or: you set up the conditions for me to be injured. I myself have never gone back to the two teachers who helped to injure my rotator cuff. You know why? Because I already live in a holy place and I’ve gotten over it and I’m above all that. No. Because I’m afraid. I’m scared. There’s a mountain of fear between me and those teachers. Look, look, do you see them, that’s how big they are.
They’re my teachers, psychologically then, some version of my parents. They have all the power, and I have no power. Or: I keep myself small, by making them big. How can I stand in that place, stand up with my whole spine, and speak the truth, not in an angry way, not in an accusing way, but in a caring and compassionate way. The first of the four ennobling truths. To fully know dukkha or suffering, means in part: to fully stand inside the places you fear. To turn towards the fear. That is the heart of honesty. Of having a strong back, and an open heart. Is he going to do the right thing and contribute to a yoga culture of non-harming and speak truth to power or is all just blablabla? I don’t know. This is as far as I’ve got. To be able to say it out loud to you. It looks like a small mountain to you. If you saw this on Netflix you’d go: what else we got, this is boring. Just like your mountains look small to someone else. We all have our mountains, and this is where we practice, as much as we can, sometimes only a little step, with the softness and the fire. Sometimes only a little step is as much as you can do.
The first level of the precept is literal. The thing I just told you is that true? Strictly true? Am I leaning into it a little bit, prone to a little exaggeration perhaps? How often do you hear: “It was awesome.” Or: “That was the best… sex I ever had. My rotator cuff will never be the same again. It’s been destroyed. This is the worst winter I’ve ever had. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not exactly true.
The second level of the precept of honesty is the compassionate level which is the underground garage of ethics. Why am I speaking to myself this way? Why am I making this mountain? If I keep this mountain right where it is, perhaps it keeps me in a certain place. Maybe I like being small, like a kid, I’m just in the backseat, I’m just here for the ride. Maybe I want to keep them up there, shining and perfect, for just a little longer. It can be hard to keep taking your Gods off the mantle, where you like to look up at them.
And the third level is the koan level, it means living honestly, living simply, and it’s also a riddle. It’s an invitation to practice the impossible, to enter the impossible, which means living in the interconnectedness of life with a real commitment to being honest with the faces that meet our face.
All of the precepts flow out of the first precept of non-harming. If you isolate the practice of honesty, it might mean saying whatever’s on your mind all the time which would be like growing a tongue out of sandpaper. Honesty is tempered by the first principle of non-violence which means that we’re honest while keeping in mind our commitment to kindness, our commitment to not causing harm. This requires some diplomacy. When someone speaks to you dishonestly, or with the intention to cause harm, the precepts can offer a helpful frame so that you can see how their lives have been restricted just like yours, and how they are continuing to act out of old habit patterns. Every moment, even and especially the difficult moments, is an opportunity to wake up, and realize our interdependence. Our Buddha nature. The word Buddha it means: the awakened one. And the question is: awakened to what? Awakened to the oneness of life. I’m borrowing Bernie Glassman’s words here. He says that everyone has awakenings, but some people’s awakenings are very small. They can feel the oneness of life between themselves and their daughter. Or themselves and the new Sony Playstation. The Dalai Lama on the other hand, wow, he seems to have compassion for all living beings. That’s a big awakening.
We are all unique and separate, but at the same time made up of each other, of each other’s stories, and looks and genetics, and memories, we are all fundamentally intimate. Intimacy. Now that’s a word that Michael used a lot when I started coming to Gravity. I had no idea what he meant. But I was a good mimic, so during breaks in the action I would chat with the mysterious people who came here and parrot these lines, “Well as Patanjali says we’re all fundamentally intimate,” and they would look at me like: I don’t even know your name. I was being dishonest actually, I was trying something out, taking the idea for a test spin, but it came out of my mouth as if I knew something – this is something that white men are particularly good at – and it wasn’t until I could absorb the reaction shot that I could see how far away from understanding I really was. In other words in relationship, even in this broken, hoped for, misguided attempt at connecting, I could see clearly what was honest and what wasn’t. And that was so helpful for me. On the other hand if I had simply tried to turn away from the bad feeling, the invitation would be to project my unwanted bad feelings onto the other person. Jerk. Why was I trying to be intimate with a jerk? He doesn’t deserve even my intimacy. Without the softness, without the softness of the breath, this precept of honesty can be a hard place to step into. And without the fire, the fire of sitting, you can just shrug it off, oh well, it doesn’t matter. You snip out moments of your life and throw them away. That’s not part of me anymore. That’s not part of me anymore. I forget, I forget, that didn’t really matter, did it?
We’ve all been hurt by our parents, or by lovers and friends. We’ve been abandoned, people have said things that have been unkind, even crushing. And how well we’ve learned to repeat those words to ourselves, like a mantra. You’ll never do it. You’re no good. You’re just not smart enough. You’re just not kind enough. You’re just not beautiful enough. You’ll never be enough.
But over time, as we offer in place of the reaction shot of outrage or anger, the reaction shot of curiosity (what is this? as Martine Bachelor likes to say. Or else: I don’t know, I don’t know what this group is, I haven’t made up my mind), as we practice not-knowing, not being an expert which takes a lot of courage actually, which means sitting inside our fear, then we can start to trace the roots of current patterns and views back to some earlier difficult formations. A mother that wasn’t a mother. A father that was too much of a father. Using the precepts as a lens, we can come to understand how the angry person in front of us is a person just like we are, and is living inside very similar kinds of restrictions. And then there’s intimacy again.
You see how hard this practice is? Honestly.
You follow your intentions back to the source and what do you find there? They’re always in motion. At the source of your life the precepts are always in motion. Echoing the circular action of our lives. Michael says: When I say something to my son that’s unskillful, within a few weeks he says it back to me. I hear it again through his small mouth. To see the circular nature of a river. Or the circular nature of a cloud. The circular nature of the precepts is to see the feedback loop of who we really are. And then we can see how our actions sculpt us. We can see that karma is not something that happens to us, karma is something that we are. We are this circular feedback loop and that’s why our actions matter. What honesty teaches us is to be content and satisfied with what we have, and to listen to everybody, even those places inside or outside of us that we have a really hard time listening to.
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. Sometimes you arrive and you don’t have a voice, you’ve left your voice at home, but you made this intention: that you’re just going to try and show up. Sometimes just showing up is the most honest thing you can do. These five ethical principles that Patanjali lays out are called Yamas, which is sometimes translated as “the restraints.” Ethics so often means: not doing something. Or: waiting one second. Can you wait just one breath, can you take just one inhale before saying it, before doing that thing you’re dying to do?
The precepts teach us how to have wise restraint, not needing always to go out and get something extra. Maybe there’s something I really want to say to somebody, and it’s just not the right time or I don’t think they can hear it. Can you speak in a language that someone else can understand? So often we want to be right. We can mistake being right for being honest. But being honest in a situation means also recognizing that at this moment, the other person might not be able to hear certain words, whether they’re true or not. And right now perhaps there’s certain things you’re unable to hear, unable to bear. Sometimes when we’re feeling small and shattered we need a bit of time to pick ourselves up from the floor before we can face up to the unadorned truth. The practice of honesty means knowing where you’re at. It means knowing how small you are, and how large you are, and how small the other person is. We’re changing all the time. Some mornings I wake up and I’m as big as a planet. Some mornings I wake up and I’m smaller than a dust ball. And each of these self forms has a language attached.
Sometimes your best friend can tell you something that your partner can’t. When your partner says the same words, even if they’re whispering across the room, it sounds like they’re standing up on a chair screaming them out one syllable at a time. The practice of honesty is intimately related to the practice of right speech. And right speech is always situational. The same phrase, the same sentence, can sound so different coming out of different mouths. The precepts aren’t about memorizing a set of principles, they’re a dynamic flow of yoga, arising again and again in the conditions of this moment. Honesty is one of the most difficult of all of the yoga practices, because it happens in real time, and in relationship.
Here is Stephen Batchelor from The agnostic Buddhist: a secular vision of dharma practice: “Awakening is only complete – in the same way that a work of art is only complete — when it finds an expression, a form, that translates that experience in a way that makes it accessible to others. That again is the balance between wisdom and compassion. The creative process of expressing the Dharma is not just a question of duplicating in words something etched somewhere in the privacy of my soul. The living process of understanding is formed through the encounter with another person, with the world. You’ve probably all had the experience of someone coming to you in a state of distress and blurting out their problems, and you suddenly find yourself saying things that you were quite unaware you knew. The process of awakening is one of valuing and connecting with that capacity to respond in authentic ways to the suffering of others. The imagination is the bridge between contemplative experience and the anguish of the world. By valuing imagination, we value the capacity of each person, each community, to imagine and create themselves anew.”
Why Isn’t Everyone Here?
I wondered: what are the things I’m afraid to say in this room? What is that I find difficult to be honest about, to practice honesty in this room? A couple of weeks ago Doug said, “Where is everybody? Why isn’t everyone here?” When I heard these words I immediately had a reaction. And every reaction I have is either: I like it, or I don’t like it. Attraction or aversion. And it’s been important for me to remember that the dharma is not about me expressing my preferences. It’s not about having the right kind of attractions and the right kind of aversions. In fact, it’s about dismantling all of that. So Doug said, “Why isn’t everyone here?” and then a couple of other people spoke to this, including me, and I might have said “How do we know what they need to do? Who are we to decide?” but what I was really doing was expressing my preference that more people wouldn’t come, that in fact there were already too many people in the room. So I feel that what Doug said was honest, but what I said was dishonest. Even though I theoretically still agree with what I said, and disagree with what Doug said. But agreeing or disagreeing is not the point, because the dharma is not about winning an argument or holding a position. I think the dharma has something to do with uncovering patterns of reactivity, in this instance, it might be about: how to create a practice of honesty.
So I felt this aversion, which expressed itself physically, as a tightening in my jaw, and then I want to get rid of this bad feeling and the way I like to do that is I make a present of it to someone else. Here, could you hold my bad feeling? I try to make you feel a little bad, so that I don’t have to feel bad. And by doing that I make the armour here (around my heart) a little harder, a little shinier. When I’m against you, I’m working to create myself.
Trying to practice honesty I’ve gone back to Doug’s statement again and again, trying to hear it for the first time, not as an expression of my preferences, but as if we were intimate, as if he wasn’t over there and I was over here, but also, we spoke earlier about the third level of each precept, the koan level, where you become honesty. What if Doug’s question was a koan? Why isn’t everyone here? Oh. Oh you mean I’m not here. Why aren’t I here? What’s stopping from being here? Why can’t I be honest enough with myself to admit that I’m not all here? I’m not here because I’m thinking about the mountains, well actually I’m not thinking about them, they’re right over there, casting their larger than life shadows, I can hardly see you over their snowy ice caps. Maybe there’s some part of me, maybe the biggest part of me, that’s already planning what I’m going to do later, or I’m tired from my long day, or I’m busy thinking my busy me-thoughts, mememmeme. This is how I usually operate. Memememe, excuse me, what did you say? Mememememe. Oh yes, very nice, very nice. Mememememe. Why isn’t everyone here? Why can’t everyone be here? Why isn’t everyone here?
I think the only honest thing I can do is to thank Doug for his excellent and honest koan practice, and to thank you all for listening.