Monday, November 29, 2010

On Taking the Buddhist Vows

Let me assure you, I don’t enter into this commitment lightly. Let me also assure that taking The Five Buddhist Vows or Precepts for Laypeople does not require that I shave my head, give away all my worldly possessions or wear saffron robes. What it does mean is that I am making a more formal commitment to living my life in accordance to the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha.) 
Lama Tenzin Deshek, the teacher at the Loseli Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center in Birmingham, is selecting an auspicious day on which I should formally take my Vows. Did he seem just a little surprised when his student of just six months told him she was ready for this step? It was hard to tell. “The Vows for Laypeople?” he asked. Surely he didn’t think I wanted to become a Buddhist nun... (Click on the photo (right) to see the inside of the “temple” and to learn more about Lama Deshek.)
Here's what I know about the Five Precepts, and more generally, how Buddhism views the taking of Vows. Turns out Buddhism provides a lot of latitude about such things; in other words there is no shame in giving back one's vows at any given time. (Case in point: Robert Thurman, father of Uma.) You can take the vows for an hour or a day or for the rest of your life. Perhaps that goes to the whole sense of embracing impermanence: Everything changes, all the time. And yes, that is a little comforting that I can “give back” the vows if they don’t suit me, but frankly, the Vows are ones that I readily embrace. Well, four of them anyway. And you should also know that these Vows can and are interpreted differently among Buddhist sects and from translator to translator, so what I provide here is my understanding after speaking with Lama Deshek yesterday. The Vows serve a great purpose in Buddhist practice: they help you become more mindful of your thoughts, words, deeds and intentions.
Precept 1. No Killing
Okay, I’m good with this, even though it means no stomping on cockroaches, to which I have a visceral aversion—and next week I will be in San Antonio, where the beasties are the size of VWs and have wings. No killing; however; does not mean becoming vegetarian, although I don’t have a problem with that either, but yes, I am quite grateful to know that I can still have an occasional cheeseburger or a crisp, salty piece of bacon—as long as I did not cause the death of the cheeseburger or bacon.
Precept 2. No Stealing
Again, no problem here. Lama Deshek provided a very straightforward definition a'la Thou Shalt Not Steal, and there’s another interpretation from Thich Nath Hanh (www.plumvillage.com) that goes a bit above and beyond the taking of things that don’t belong to you. He includes a commitment to practicing generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need. All good.
Precept 3. No Sexual Misconduct
Pretty much says it all, right? But Thich Nath Hanh adds this, specific:  you should determine not to engage in sexual relations without love and long-term commitment. Sounds Catholic to me. And yes, a big sigh of relief that Buddhism doesn't nix sex altogether—although monks are celibate—it only prohibits the misconduct part. Okay. I’m in.
Precept 4. No Lying
So now we’re four-for-four with Moses’ Big 10, but the sense of lying in Buddhism is a bit more general in its meaning. Again, from Thich Nath Hanh’s interpretation: you should be aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others. You should commit to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Now, that’s good! Lying to save the life of another person is okay too. And white lies, for examples, said to friend who asks you if her ass looks huge, are fine. It’s all about ending suffering, remember? And yes, we discussed this in Buddhist class yesterday. I’m not making it up! Oh, and along those lines, I specifically asked if continuing my son’s belief in Santa Claus was a problem, and was greatly relieved that the Buddha is down with Santa. Makes sense, but I had to ask. I have friends who sweat it out over “lying” to their kids about Santa for fear that it will set a bad precedent and, God forbid, cause their children to question other things down the road. Come on! It’s Santa!
Precept 5. No Intoxicants
This is where I falter. No Wassel at Christmas? So no champagne on New Year’s Eve? I don’t have to take all five vows. Buddhism, as I’ve mentioned before, is not an all-or-nothing gig. But I will vow to be very, very mindful of my intake of alcohol, lest I break Precept #3. And I’ll abstain from icy, straight-up, three-olive, Stoli martinis and salt-laced margaritas and other hard booze, and limit my intake to a cold cerveza or a nice glass of Malbec, or yes, a nice glass of champagne. Just one—and only under happy circumstances. And frankly, if my auspicious day lands after January 1, 2011, then I’m all in.

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