Week 3

Week 3 – Re-inventing the Precepts

Homework/ Reporting back. With whole class 10mins

Recap 5mins

Last week we looked at the Buddhist Wheel of Life, and saw that it represents the ultimate vicious circle, the way that our past can rule how we act in the present, and how this in turn creates our future. So if we don’t do something to break into this cycle we are not the boss in our own lives, we just keep re-enacting old scripts, deepening our old patterns and ruts, ruled by our old conditioning and habits.

We saw that there is a point where we can break into the cycle of the Wheel of Life, breaking free from the past and setting up new creative spirals. We called this point The Gap, or the Point of freedom.

We saw that we can be in the gap by not responding in our usual way to our feelings of pleasure and discomfort that arise whenever the world pushes our buttons. So we don’t always just go for the thing that seems pleasant in the moment, and we don’t always just push away the thing that seems uncomfortable or unpleasant.

If we just go with how we feel, we have no say in our life, no freedom. We are lived rather than living. We are like a machine. We just go round in the same old reactive circles, doing the same old things, until our ruts have become so deep there is no way out of them. So if we want to have any freedom, we often need to NOT do what feels good in the moment.

This week’s theme is: 5mins

If we’re not going to guide our actions by what feels good, what should we use instead?

We saw last week that the Buddhist idea of Karma tells us that how we act in the present creates the person we will be in the future, and that this in turn determines how we will experience the world. So we need to act now in a way that will help us to become more the sort of person we want to be. We need to decide on the sort of person we want to be, decide on some guiding principles, and allow these to guide our actions.

We need to consciously adopt some guiding principles that override how we happen to feel at any particular time.

We need a conscious ethos.

We need a framework of guidelines for making decisions about how we act based on this ethos – we need ethics.

This week we are going to do an experiment to jointly invent a system of ethics, a system of guidelines for how we should act, that sort of expresses our combined intuitions, our combined sense of what is admirable and what we would like to be.

Exercise – Reinventing the precepts (As long as it takes)

Step 1: Think of someone you admire for their spiritual qualities, for the way they live their life. This could be a real person, a fictional figure, a religious figure, a mythic figure.

->Flipchart – some of the people chosen. Could give you some ideas you haven’t thought of.

Step 2: Think of some guidelines that person might give you to enable you to act more as they do, to act on their principles, become more like them. What are some of this person’s most important principles, that seem to guide their life, and what would this mean about the way they would or wouldn’t behave?

(for example, if you thought of Gandhi, one of his most important principles was not harming other beings. So among his guidelines might have been, never use violence to another, or never eat meat. If you thought of Nelson Mandela, one of his principles seems to have been to forgive wrongs committed in the past. So one of his guidelines might be to let bygones be bygones and never to act for revenge. And so on.

Try if you can to make the guidelines you come up with reasonably tangible. ‘Never drink until you fall over’ is a more useful guideline than ‘always be as aware as possible.’ The former actually does provide an easily followed guide for action, while the latter does not. However, if you find this easier, you could think in terms of the principles the person you chose lives by.

If you want, if its helpful, you COULD think of this exercise as follows: If you looked exactly like the person you thought, what 3 guidelines might they give you that would help you to stand in for them for a while without anyone noticing the difference. Maybe they have got to go away for the weekend and you have to pretend to be them. What would they tell you? If you thought of Gandhi, he might say, don’t kick the cat, get drunk, go clothes shopping, or pig out on an enormous takeaway. They’ll know its not me! If you thought of your auntie Emma, and one thing about her is that she always tells the truth, you might need to restrain your tendency to embroider your stories while you are standing in for her, or everyone will know!

So give it some thought, and if you can come up with say 3 guidelines, some rules of action, that your chosen person might give you. Write them LARGE on SEPARATE bits of paper.

In Small Groups (15mins) Share your choice of person, and discuss your ideas for guidelines. You may be able to help each other with these. Try to come up with THREE BRIEF guidelines EACH. Write them LARGE on SEPARATE pieces of paper.

Whole Class – stagger the groups, so that each group puts the guidelines on the floor at different times, with the leader arranging them into common themes. Meanwhile…

Meanwhile: while someone sorts out the paper slips, someone else gives a brief talk on:

Buddhist ethics. 5-7mins

The Buddhist path is traditionally seen as having three aspects, ethics, meditation, and wisdom. In the West we tend to like the idea of meditation, and some people want to get straight into abstruse Buddhist philosophies, but we often seem to forget about ethics. But to get anywhere we need to work on all three of these, and ethics is seen as being the most fundamental. Unless we live and act in a way that encourages positive mental states we won’t get far with meditation, and we won’t develop much genuine wisdom, no matter how cleverly we can talk about non-dualism or emptiness.

So ethics is essential to practicing Buddhism. But we need to be clear what this means. Buddhist ethics are not about following commandments or pleasing a deity or any other authority.

  • About being autonomous and free, about freeing ourselves from our conditioning, habits and ruts, reactive cycles. Freeing ourselves from unnecessary wants and cravings. About freeing ourselves from trying to be something we’re not. So Buddhist ethics is not about doing what we are told, rather it is about deciding for ourselves how we want to be, rather than blindly running in the usual tracks.
  • People tend to think of ethics as being something that restricts our freedom. But Buddhist ethics is all about liberation. It is about liberating ourselves from the past, from our conditioning, so that we can create the future we want.
  • Another way of looking at ethics is that it is about encouraging positive states all the time, not just in meditation.
  • We become more like an enlightened person by behaving more like an enlightened person – someone who is free from the usual trivialities, deeply sees the interconnectedness of living things, etc.

Compare with the positive precepts.

Leader reinvents the 5 precepts from the guidelines, notes which are commonest themes, which get most votes, plus any that are not covered by the precepts.

(Moral strength, staying true to principles often comes up. You might point out that we need this to put any principle into action – it is the necessary condition for a principled life, rather than one of the principles itself. Politically correct platitudes often come up. While these are often daft and unthought out, try to find the genuine ethical principle behind them. For example, ‘Never make value judgements’ is a singularly silly thing to say, but behind it may be an ideal of goodwill to all people irrespective of their opinions and lifestyle.)

Having (hopefully) grouped people’s guidelines under kindness, generosity/non-exploitation, simplicity/non-craving, honesty and integrity, and awareness…..

Tralah!….. here is one I prepared earlier! Display a list of the general principles behind the precepts.

These are the general principles behind Buddhist ethics, and we’ll say more about them next week.

These are natural, universal etrhical principles (3mins)

For now the important point to take away is that we know all these principles intuitively, we know how we ought to live to be happy, we know how we ought to live to be true to ourselves at our highest, which amounts to the same thing. That is why we always come up with these five principles when we do this exercise. Its also why, iIf someone told us the opposite we would think they were mad – the way to be happy is to be cruel, to be grasping and grabby, to indulge your cravings and addictions, to be dishonest, to try to escape from awareness of reality.

We sort of know this stuff, but we don’t make it very conscious or systematic. And because it isn’t conscious or systematic we don’t really commit to it as overriding our short term feelings, and we don’t apply it at all consistently or constantly. So it helps to set it out as a conscious framework, and it is vital to make a firm decision to apply it in our lives, rather than leaving our ethical sense as a sort of vague feeling.

Image – our life can become like a rather arid garden. We could see meditation as a spring of clear bright water that brings some very welcome positive states. Ethical principles are channels that carry the water to the various other parts of the garden, allow our positive states to have a wider effect on our whole life, making all the different parts of our garden fertile and fruitful, making it all burst into bloom. And it can feel a bit like that when we consciously start practicing one of the ethical principles, we can feels as though a part of our life has burst into flower.


Metta bhavana