Practicing our Principles
November 30, 2008
Actions speak louder than words. So how can we act out our Unitarian Principles while living in the real world? I don’t actually have a concise, fail-proof answer to the question, and I can’t answer the question for anyone other than myself. What I have found is that the questioning is quite interesting. I’ve also found some really helpful and practical tools that I use to help me live to act in a way that is meaningful to me, day by day. Most of the tools come from the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, so I’ll start there.
This talk is about the 7 Unitarian Principles, but it is also about the Buddhist teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Master, peace activist, scholar, poet, Chair of the Buddhist Peace Delegation during the Vitenam War, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and revered teacher to many. And I didn’t know any of that when I first found out about him. I first came across his work while surfing the internet, in the form of a poem called Please Call me by my True Names. I kept reading and came across the 5 Mindfulness Trainings. Now, the Mindfulness Trainings are an interpretation of the moral code taught by the Buddha over 2500 years ago. The standard version reads
(1) Do not kill
(2) Do not steal
(3) Do not indulge in sexual misconduct
(4) Do not lie
(5) Do not take intoxicants.
They sound a lot like the “thou shall nots.” These guides, however, are so very different. This is why Thay and his community have interpreted them to become the 5 Mindfulness Trainings, found inside of your order of service. They are what inspired me to take refuge in the Buddha’s teachings, and to go to California and then France to be with this great teacher. Let’s look at the first training, which normally reads, “Do not kill.”
The First Training: Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking and in my way of life.
First of all, it’s much longer than the original version. The Mindfulness Training starts with an awareness of a specific suffering, followed by a vow to cultivate the antidote to that suffering, and then gives some guidelines on how to do it. It looks at a whole picture rather than a fragment. It gives a context to interpret the teaching for oneself because the Buddha’s teachings are centred around wisdom found in personal experience.
So, there I was, in front of my computer, blown away. Here was a way of living spelled out in front of me that both inspired and excited me. I felt like I had found a long lost friend, water in the desert and the most wonderful birthday present, all rolled at once. I didn’t really know “how” to do them, but I wanted to do them. As I read them again and again, they started to sink in and I could see my thinking start to shift over time. I was already a vegetarian (and more about that later) but I also came to give up drinking (a minor shift for me,) I complained less and started to feel more peaceful. I eventually went on a retreat in California in 2005 with Thay where I officially committed to practicing these training (called taking refuge) and in 2006 i spent almost 3 months living at Plum Village, the Mindfulness Community in South-eastern France where Thay and over 200 monastics live, along with 10-1000 retreatants, depending upon the season.
By the time that I reached Plum Village, 5 years, I still valued the Mindfulness Trainings, but I had become so interested in the other teachings and practices that they had moved in to the background of my practice. There were the different meditations, like the one that we did together, using the gathas, learning chants, the ever-changing schedule, and generally orienting myself to a new community.
I also experienced a lot of frustration. I had spent years building up Plum Village as my utopia. All the other ashrams and retreats that I had been to were held up to my mental image of plum village and paled in comparison. I thought to myself, “Well, this teacher seems flawed and these people don’t really live what they’re teaching and I’m bored with hearing the same things over and over again. I can’t wait to save up enough money to get to Plum Village and I won’t have any of these problems anymore.” Then I arrived at Plum Village and it was the most disorganized, confusing and cold retreat centre that I’d ever been to. But at least I had made it. And there was Thay, the teacher who meant so much to me. I call him my guru, because teacher doesn’t come close to expressing the joy, gratitude and inspiration that I feel just looking at his photo, just reading his words. And he was right there, giving teachings, leading us in walking meditation, eating together in the big meditation hall. One day I even sat right at the front to get to be close to him, and I tell you, just being near him was electrifying.
And amidst all of that, the Mindfulness Trainings slowly came back to the foreground. Every 2 weeks, we held Mindfulness Training recitation followed by a discussion. Where I thought I had already explored thee thoroughly, I, of course, had so much to learn.
First, I need to come back to what is often thought of as the most important of the Buddhas teachings – the 4 Noble Truths. It is said that these are the first teachings given by the Buddha once he awakened. And Buddha simply means “the awakened one.”
(1) Suffering exists (dukkha, dissatisfaction)
(2) suffering has roots
(3) in refraining from doing things that cause suffering, suffering ceases
(4) there is a path that leads to refraining from doing the things that cause suffering.
Sometimes Thay teaches them in reverse.
(1) joy exists
(2) joy has roots
(3) when you practice doing things that cause joy, joy will flourish
(4) there is a path that leads to the nourishment of joy.
Thay calls these the 4 Holy Truths because our suffering becomes holy when we embrace it and look deeply at it. Ultimately, it can become the vehicle for joy and freedom. He is a very wise interpreter.
There is a teaching called the 12 Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma. Don't worry, you don't need to remember the names. The ideas are the focus here. The 12 Turnings are 3 tools to explore the 4 Holy Truths - Recognition, Encouragement and Realization.
1 – Recognition is like coming up with a diagnosis. Thay says, “We sense that something is wrong, but we we are not able to say exactly what it is. We try to deny our suffering (or discomfort) but it persists. Our suffering needs to be identified.” We observe. “When I do this, does it hurt?” When I think this, how do I feel?” We get in touch with how we are really feeling and see it.
2 – Encouragement is about trying to understand the nature of the dissatisfaction, and thus the causes. We observe our symptoms like a skilled doctor tried to diagnose, based on careful observation of symptoms and running test – doing what needs to be done in order to understand the illness.
3 – Realization is when we actually understand. It requires great courage and honesty to take responsibility for the development of our joy. The great gift here is that once we take responsibility for our mental states, we have the power to change them. We can enlist the help of therapists and friends, but we are no longer the victims of chance.
Then, the real work begins to do it.
I love this process – seeing, reflecting and understanding - because it always comes back to our own wisdom. This is where I want to get back to the 5 Mindfulness Trainings. Looking at the first Training, formerly “Do not kill,” some people may choose to become vegetarian, so may not. The way that we were encouraged to look at this was such:
Don’t go out and change your diet today. The next time that you eat meat, watch yourself. How do you feel before, during and after? Is your joy (or inner peace) increased, decreased or does it remain the same? Keep observing. If you get to a point where you understand that eating meat consistently decreases your inner peace, then try becoming a vegetarian. Slow, consistent changes. Then look at the next thing. And if you’re happy with everything in your life, great! Just keep watching, and when the malaise arises, you have the option to use these tools. One step at a time. Trusting our own interpretations, staying open to them changing engaging in the process
The Mindfulness Trainings are also intentionally impossible to do. They are tools to cultivate awareness of the present moment. Perfection is not an option. Being engaged is. Again, going back to the 1st Training, even with the strictest of vegan pacifists, there will be insects killed in walking and bacteria killed when water is boiled. Some killing is unavoidable. Coming to terms with the impossibility of controlling all situations is vital in spiritual life. What the Thay, and I’d imagine the Buddha, encourage here is to develop our capacity to recognize that killing causes suffering.
Also, if we want more inner peace, we need to learn to honour and respect our inner peace. A lot of people know that there are things they do that make them feel worse and they keep doing them. I’d guess that everyone here does so from time to time. I know that I do. When we learn to value ourselves, equal to everyone else, deserving of love and justice and peace, only then can take action to transform our suffering into joy. Some people call this self-love, and I’d agree. Thay’s teachings, and pretty much every wise teacher, spiritual path and even religious doctrines, speak of love.
So now, back to the 7 Unitarian Principles. Please take out your order of service. We are going to read them together.
We, the member congregations of the Canadian Unitarian Council, covenant to affirm and promote:
* the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
* justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
* acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
* a free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
* the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
* the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
* respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a
Here we can use the 3 tools – seeing, reflecting and understanding. Take the 1st principle, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Seeing – do I believe this? I can observe my thoughts and actions, reflect upon how they speak to this principle, and come to understand what the first principle means to me, it’s worth value as a guide in my daily interactions, etc… In my own case, I’ve sent that I feel that every person is worthy of dignity. And once I really understand this about myself, I use this as a signpost in making my decisions about how I live, what I do, etc… I’ve never enacted it perfectly. And that’s not the point. But when I hear the still, small voice within urging me on to do more, to live differently, to love more wholly, I can be with it. I don’t know what it’s called, but I know that when I’ve followed it, I feel more satisfaction and connection to the world. And I’ve seen others do the same. These tools facilitate and demystify the whole process.
I’ve been pondering Unitarianism, or Unitarian Universalism – is it really a religion? Some of you may want it to be, some of you may not. The reason that I care has to do with the author Karen Armstrong’s explanation of what a religion is.
“All the world religions say that religion is not about thinking things, as I thought it was. It’s about doing things, behaving in ways that change you. It’s (about) doing things. It’s behaving in a certain way so that it changes you. It’s like an ethical alchemy.”
An ethical alchemy. I love that phrase. I can even picture it – the repetition of mantra, the study of scripture, feeding of the poor, all of these actions and moral codes becoming a great vehicle for the turning of the lead in our hearts into pure gold. It’s just beautiful. And I think that it’s worthwhile. Does it matter whether Unitarianism is an official religion or not? Of course not. I do, however, find inspiration in Karen’s definition and so I want us to be a religion. I want these principles to nurture a wide-spread alchemy. They can’t just sit on posters, collecting dust. In an time of instant gratification and profound disconnection, thinking about ethical living is not at the top of most people’s lists of fun things to do on a Sunday morning. But there are some of us interested, and I am glad to see all of you here today. And this is what I’d like to offer all of you, my dear friends, today. These tools for joyful living, for taking small steps, for deepening self-understanding. A true Philosopher’s Stone of life.