The Three Trainings: Morality

This would be a good time for me to discuss what goes into Buddhist practice. There are three specific trainings: morality, concentration, and wisdom (often called insight). All three are necessary for a balanced practice.

The first, morality (sila), is what keeps a yogi on the straight and narrow. It is encompassed by the eight precepts, which for most householders (anyone who is not a monk or nun) are limited to the first five. They are as follows:

  1. Non-harming. This one is often interpreted as a prohibition against eating meat, although not all Buddhists are vegetarians. I have noticed, however, that retreat centers all serve vegetarian meals, and many are focusing on vegan food. In general, though, the non-harming precept can be understood as not engaging in violence toward other living things. I have been less likely to kill insects or rodents since becoming a Buddhist, for example, and I am in a Facebook group called People Against the Unnecessary Killing of Reptiles. When my neighbor told me she had beaten a nest of garter snakes to death with a shovel I was horrified. I also believe that limiting or eliminating meat from one’s diet is a good thing to do if at all possible.
  2. The second precept forbids a yogi to take what is not offered. Roughly, this encompasses stealing, but can also be understood as avoiding such conduct as cheating on income taxes, dating someone in a committed relationship, failing to return something one has borrowed (I’m guilty of that one), or otherwise helping oneself to things that belong either to someone else or to the community. Some of my colleagues would grap handfuls of items from the office’s supply cabinet far beyond what they needed for their work. Other people get greedy around food, especially in an office setting (guilty!).
  3. The third precept rules against engaging in sexual misconduct. For monks this means celibacy, whereas for householders there are a number of possible interpretations. Traditionally, it has meant avoiding sex outside of marriage. Today, people could regard sexual misconduct as any kind of sex that is nonconsensual, a failure to respect other people’s boundaries, or a lack of honesty in sexual relationships. Taking responsibility for one’s health and safety and that of others is part of this precept as well. Finally, avoiding sexual contact in relationships where there is a power differential is vitally important: mentors, employers, managers, and teachers must not take advantage of their power over others. Unfortunately, many scandals in the Buddhist world have had to do with violating this precept.
  4. Next is the precept of right speech. First and foremost this precept forbids lying, although I expect that extreme circumstances such as lying to Nazis about hiding Jews would be an exception. However, in ordinary life, lying to take advantage in a situation or even to save oneself embarrassment is forbidden. Even lying to avoid hurting someone (for example, denying one has had an affair) is contrary to right speech, although it is up to individuals to figure out the particulars. What about white lies, such as admiring a friend’s new haircut when you hate it? Probably it’s best to refrain tactfully from being too enthusiastic, although with practice you can figure out how to give warm feedback without lying: “It’s so much fun to try out new things!” This precept also demands we avoid gossip, harsh speech, hurtful speech, or even unnecessary speech. A person could talk a bit about the weather with someone, but it’s best not to waste hours in idle talk.
  5. The fifth precept admonishes against consuming intoxicating drugs or alcohol that lead to carelessness. Among other things, it’s difficult to practice when one is high or drunk. I have found that even a single glass of wine takes the edge off my ability to focus. Can a good Buddhist have a beer with friends? Traditionally the answer would be no, but many modern Buddhists see no harm in a drink now and then, or the occasional use of marijuana. It all depends on how it affects an individual. Many people arrive in pragmatic dharma circles having had experience with psychedelic substances, and some continue to experiment with them, often in the context of scientific studies. For these individuals, taking such drugs responsibly includes careful attention to context and setting.
  6. With the sixth precept, we arrive at the group of three that apply especially to people in monastic settings. The sixth involves training oneself to avoid eating after 12:00 noon. Some people on retreat voluntarily undertake this precept, while others can honor it by not eating in between meals and having only a light supper for the evening meal. I have always wondered how anyone could manage to stop eating at noon, but a monk I spoke to about it told me that people get adjusted to it. Occasionally at my local meditation center we will take visiting monks out to lunch after a Sunday dharma talk, and I have noticed them loading up their plates at the buffet several times. I guess that’s how people adjust to it, considering that we all need a certain amount of fuel to get through the day!
  7. The seventh precept enjoins monks and nuns from dancing, singing, or indulging in entertainment; wearing perfume, jewelry, or cosmetics; or adorning the body with garlands. Lay practitioners might choose to dress modestly and simply, and minimize distractions such as TV shows, movies, novels, parties, and the like. It all sounds extremely dreary, but on the other hand there is something to be said for keeping one’s mind from getting inundated with mental noise day in and day out. I know that fussing about my hair or my wardrobe takes energy and creates agitation. I also know that it is extremely easy to get completely caught up in the lives of imaginary people and the actors who portray them, and that such entertainments can take up significant real estate in my head.
  8. Finally, the eighth precept forbids lying on luxurious or high sleeping places, or sitting on high or ornate chairs. The Buddha was especially concerned with two things: first, that monks and nuns not place themselves above others in status; and second, that they not indulge in luxury. While this precept applies to people in monastic life, a householder today might think in terms of living simply as a way of minimizing the stress of maintaining many possessions. Similarly, laypeople can find that opting out of the competition for status is a component of a more satisfying life.

So those are the precepts. Morality goes hand-in-hand with the two other trainings, concentration and insight (wisdom), which I’ll write about later.

Pragmatic Dharma

I realize now that this blog is in danger of turning into a cliché about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, how it changed my life, and how you, too should try this wonderful technique. I apologize to those for whom this is true, but that’s not what this blog is about. For example, in many respects I am still the same silly, dysfunctional human I’ve always been, with the emphasis on human. I am not any more productive now than I was before; in fact, I’m now much less productive, although that has nothing to do with meditation. I am still distractable, I still get anxious, I still get depressed. I haven’t tried playing the violin in several years, but at the time that I stopped I was still unable to perform in public. Nothing has changed.

Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed, enough so that I look on my life as a story about before and after. The “before” person is becoming less and less visible to me as time passes, although I can talk about her story when I put my mind to it (granted that there is no one definable person on either side of the turning point). The “after” person has been meditating, engaging in online discussion forums, reading dharma books, attending retreats, and generally being Buddhist-y in an unobtrusive way. She’s also been binge-watching TV series (loved “The Americans” with all the sex and violence), killing time on Facebook and Twitter, obsessing over the news, and fussing about all her self-sabotaging ways.

There is also the difficulty that the Laurel I have described to you so far is a bit of a tormented soul, not to mention quite the drama queen (remember, I have diagnosed myself as an aversive type). I told my history to the lead teacher on one of my retreats years ago and he said, “I’m sorry you’ve had such a sad life.” I was taken aback, because I really didn’t recognize myself in that description. Later on while meditating I entered a deep concentration state, and had the equivalent of a lucid dream of myself as a 4-year-old child, dancing to a pensive piano tune. I felt the embrace of love surrounding me, knowing that my parents adored me and that I was safe. No, I cannot say I’ve had a sad life, even if I did grow up to become aversive and an occasional drama queen. Nor is this description of myself meant to be self-denigrating or a disarming tactic. We are all of us dealing with our stuff in our own way, and my way tends to be what you see here.

I must return, however, to myself at my turning point, wringing my hands and crying over my failure to overcome my stage fright. I had been reading Daniel Ingram’s book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (MCTB for short), and at that moment of despair I resolved to take on a dedicated meditation practice. The book I’d been reading is the foundational text for an approach that is called pragmatic dharma, and so we must turn to that phenomenon and get a sense of what it is about.

Its first overriding feature is that it is goal-directed, and the goal is transforming insight, awakening, enlightenment. The term “enlightenment” is so loaded that I hesitate to use it at all. People attach all sorts of mythology to this term; in addition there’s the problem that if you put three dharma teachers in a room and ask them what enlightenment is, you’ll get more than three answers, along with a lot of hemming, hawing, and “I don’t knows.” The leading teachers in the pragmatic corner of the spiritual marketplace don’t even all agree about what the goal is or how exactly to approach it, although certain contours emerge.

There is, along with goal-directedness, the belief that old, traditional teachings are useful only insofar as they contribute to progress. If a certain meditation technique or belief produces results then it’s fine, but if it creates confusion, blind alleys, or even serious misbehavior on the part of esteemed teachers (all too common, unfortunately), then it must be subject to rigorous criticism. Typically, the approaches that lead to abuse are anything that elevates the teacher to the position of a godlike guru whom students feel they must obey if they wish to progress. “Crazy wisdom” is one such approach: the suggestion that beyond a certain level of attainment, a person no longer has to observe normal moral standards. Rigidly hierarchical structures amplify this effect.

Most traditional Buddhist centers in the east and the west emphasize secrecy in discussing stages of insight and other attainments. Pragmatic dharma by contrast endorses openness, public discussion, and feedback from many sources. There are dangers in doing this, chief of which are competitiveness and grandiosity. Another problem is the real potential for embarrassment when a claim to an attainment proves premature. Still, the benefits outweigh these disadvantages. People learn that awakening is possible, and get to see how others are doing it. They also are inspired by the feedback loop that keeps their practice front and center. Being in close companionship with others who are doing the same is a wonderful motivator.

This companionship exists mostly on online discussion forums, but over the years there have been opportunities for people to meet at conferences and get-togethers. In addition, Buddhist and other meditators have participated in scientific studies regarding the effects of certain kinds of meditation practices on the brain. The wealth of information now available to anyone with access to the Internet has exploded just in the 7+ years I’ve been practicing. The irony is that none of these developments would be possible without the much-maligned Internet, the very medium that has been such a source of distraction to me and others for so many years.

Turning Point

My commitment to a meditation practice came about as a response to my stage fright, oddly enough. After I left graduate school I had stopped playing the violin entirely, and didn’t pick it up again for a couple of decades. I was just too busy, and besides, I did not need any more stress in my life than I already had. Eventually, though, I hauled the instrument out of a closet, sent it out for repairs, and tuned up the strings.

I was miserably out of shape, but after giving it some regular, gentle practice I was surprised to find at least some of my technique beginning to return. My husband suggested a simple piece for me to play during the prelude in church. People have a tendency to catch up with their friends during this time, which helped keep the nerves at bay, but they perked up and listened to me that first time because no one had had the faintest idea that I could even play.

I had no idea how it would go. I touched the bow to the strings, and within seconds realized that I was shaking. I worked with the situation, let things gel a bit, and carried on. After the fact I had reason to feel encouraged: after all, I hadn’t played in public in many years, and now I had actually done it. My listeners were amazed and impressed, and so I decided that I would make a point of acclimating myself to performing. I recalled my fear when I first tried singing solos, as well as my nerves teaching classes. Repeated exposure worked in those cases, I reasoned, so repeated experience playing in this low-stakes setting should have the same effect.

Over the years that followed I played church services, I joined the local orchestra, and I even played for a couple of weddings. I became part of a flute, violin, and piano ensemble at church that performed for less formal services once a month. I learned new music, becoming acquainted with the organ and violin repertoire (not large, but wonderful). What I found was that again and again, I would improve to the point that it seemed my nerves were almost gone, only to have them come roaring back the next time I tried to play. Obviously, the violin was nothing like singing or lecturing for me.

Then I hit on another possible solution: I would try the viola. I thought that a new instrument with which I had no fraught history would trick my brain into thinking that I could make mistakes without shame. I learned a new clef, a new arrangement of strings, and a new, longer fingerboard. I congratulated myself that I was improving brain function by forcing myself to undertake something challenging in middle age. Unfortunately, though, the instrument was in essential respects the same as the violin, with all the same liabilities.

By the time I began playing viola I had begun taking beta blockers for my nerves. At first they seemed to be the answer to all my prayers, until they stopped working. I increased the dosage and the pattern repeated. I realized that continuing on that path was dangerous, so I settled on a dosage that seemed reasonably effective and stuck with it. Playing with the pills became my new baseline, following the same pattern as playing without them had been in the past.

At Christmas time in 2010, I played a nice little romantic piece on the viola in a small church service and felt good. The very next time I played, however, I forgot to take my pills. Maybe I was subconsciously feeling sufficiently confident that I thought I wouldn’t need them; who’s to say? I was doing the slow movement to a Brahms sonata, an exquisitely beautiful piece, but from the outset everything fell apart. I was completely blindsided, then frantic, then plunging ahead just trying to contain the damage. Afterwards I felt a toxic mixture of shame, bitter failure, frustration and grief. I retreated to a room in the church basement where I paced the floor, wringing my hands and crying, and then I thought of Daniel Ingram’s book. I thought, why not try it? What do I have to lose? And so I resolved then and there to undertake a meditation practice.



Twitter, Distraction, and Geeky Buddhists

By the autumn of 2010 I was on the last leg of my career, although I didn’t know it yet. I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia almost six years earlier, and had been managing to maintain a full-time schedule during that time. My symptoms were frequent upper back and neck pain, headache, unreliable sleep, and “brain fog”—a sense of operating without full command of my intellectual faculties. Sitting at a computer for long hours was especially miserable. In the meantime, any time I tried to settle down to reading something I would start to nod off. The one positive outcome of the diagnosis is that it made me more likely to keep up with regular exercise, which helped enormously.

I had always had a tendency to distraction and difficulty focusing; in fact, at one point I was even diagnosed with adult ADD. The one place where I found myself completely on task was the classroom. Teaching may have been stressful in some respects, but the pleasure of interacting with students kept me feeling fulfilled in my job. What was difficult was prioritizing tasks, “juggling” (a word I have come to hate) the responsibilities of class preparation, research and writing, and committee work. The advent of technology only made things worse. I was distracted all day by email, and the entertainment potential of the Internet was a constant source of temptation. So, knowing that I was making a huge mistake, I signed up for a Twitter account. I had already been spending way too much time on Facebook and did not need another drain on my attention, but I had just taken a summer workshop on learning to navigate an iPad and got sucked in.

Twitter proved to be a greater instant-gratification device than I had ever experienced before. I pursued a number of interests, watching intently as tweets accumulated in real time. I also browsed a bit and found corners of the Internet that I would not have accessed otherwise. It was on one of these random excursions that I hit upon Buddhist Geeks. The name itself was intriguing, so I read further. There was an interview with a guy named Kenneth Folk, who claimed to be enlightened. I had never before known anyone who would say something like that so openly. He even claimed that others who followed a similar path to his could become enlightened as well, and he mentioned a book by a certain Daniel Ingram, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. It was apparently available in PDF format for free.

My prior exposure to Buddhism had left me impressed, yet unwilling to commit for a variety of reasons. Two years earlier I had briefly attended a meditation center in my town and brought home some books from their library. After reading about traditional Buddhist beliefs and cosmology, I thought, I have enough trouble with the doctrinal system of Christianity; I don’t need to get myself enmeshed in another one. But a year later I did some intensive reading for a potential new course that included units on eastern spiritual traditions, and wondered again whether I might want to pursue it further. Then when I saw the interview with Kenneth Folk and the claim that ordinary people could get enlightened, I thought, “That sounds like a cool thing to do,” but didn’t really see it applying to me. Nevertheless, I found the link to Daniel Ingram’s book and downloaded the file onto my Kindle.

It was awkward scrolling through it on that platform, but something about it intrigued me, beginning with the author’s description of himself on the title page as “The Arahant Daniel M. Ingram” (arahant being the Sankrit term for an enlightened individual). Who on earth would say such a thing? The subtitle was “An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book.” From the outset the book was direct, quirky, and borderline confrontational. The mysterious author identified himself as a gen-X emergency room doctor, clearly a highly accomplished person. I immediately began to view his life in comparison with my own, and proceeded with a mixture of fascination and jealousy.

The message of the book was simple: it is possible to experience genuine transformations by training the mind in meditation, all the way to what we call enlightenment. There is a series of stages outlined in a fifth-century Buddhist commentary, and an assortment of powerful meditation techniques (or to use the author’s term, “technologies”), which lead to awakening when taken seriously and pursued diligently, just as Kenneth Folk had said in his interview. As I continued to read, however, I reached a point where I could no longer follow the author’s meaning, and so I set it aside, once more thinking to myself that it would be intriguing to try something like that, but not for me.

Eventually, that book would change my life. To this day, whenever someone asks what is the most significant book I’ve ever read, I say it’s that one, hands down. Nothing else even comes close.