Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Fifth Precept one-month challenge

I recently had a short, friendly discussion with a Twitter friend regarding the Fifth Precept, rendered on Access to Insight as follows:

Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.

I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
Now, as my friend pointed out, this precept is understood differently in different traditions. So I wish to write here merely from my own perspective, based on the tradition that speaks most effectively to my own disposition. I do not wish to parse Pali, or try to argue in favor of one understanding over another. Let me be clear that I do not advocate prohibition, and I do not regard the precept as a moral absolute. I offer the following in humility and without judgement, in hopes that it is helpful.

As I understand them, the five precepts are training rules for our own benefit. They are not commandments. They are not laws. They are not factors by which to measure others. Their sole purpose is for oneself, to aid in creating the kamma (volitional action) in this present moment that is most conducive to awakening. That is all. If we judge others by the five precepts, we miss the point, in my opinion.

I think it's worth noting the other precepts, so that the Fifth Precept can be regarded in context. The other four (also from Access to Insight) are:

I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.

I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
The entire entry at the Access to Insight link noted above is worth reading. One thing that I notice about each of these precepts is that they each involve giving something up. This makes sense to me, since this is the path of liberation through not clinging. It is a path of letting go.

In that context, it makes sense to me to regard each one of these precepts as a challenge to be present in this very moment and mindful that I refrain from something. That I do not kill. That I do not steal. That I do not engage in sexual misconduct. That I do not lie. And with regard to alcohol? That I do not drink it. These are the training rules as I understand them. Naturally we may find that we do not always keep them perfectly. That is part of practice.

I am aware of the position, widely held, that when it comes to alcohol, the precept is not broken unless intoxication occurs. I believe there are some potential pitfalls in adopting that approach to training. One of them is that it raises the question, is "mindful drinking" a training rule that creates the kamma of letting go? Does "mindful drinking" support the path of liberation through not clinging?

Another pitfall I see is that this same approach doesn't seem to work with the other training rules. Mindful killing? Mindful stealing?

And, of course, it can be difficult to know when intoxication will occur with alcohol. It varies by person, by diet, by environmental factors, and from day to day for each individual. So the Fifth Precept becomes vague and difficult to follow if we take it to mean that we train by refraining from intoxication when we drink alcohol.

But separate from any kind of Buddhism or any interpretation of the precepts, I also notice that alcohol has a bizarre place in our society. It is everywhere. There is massive social pressure to drink alcohol. Toasts at weddings. Wine with dinner. Drinks with friends. Almost anybody with any social life will be offered alcohol, even pressured to have alcohol. It is deeply engrained in our society.

People have surprisingly strong opinions about alcohol consumption.

I also notice that alcohol is a contributing factor in many social ills. We can all understand the concept of dependent origination and nutriment, where certain factors must be present for other things to occur. When this is, that is. When this is not, that is not. Here are some of the things that would be removed from our lives if we stopped drinking: Fetal alcohol syndrome. Alcoholism. Drunking driving deaths.

And there are many studies that show a connection between alcohol use and violence. While it may be true that alcohol does not cause violence, we all know from personal experience that alcohol can lead people to loosen up and behave in ways they wouldn't normally behave. Alcohol can be a contributing factor in violence. Alcohol has an effect on the brain and the body. A meditator can be keenly aware of this.

When we drink, even if we drink mindfully, we become participants in a pattern of social behavior that has demonstrable ill effects. When we drink socially, we feed this social habit, making it more likely that others around us also will drink. When we purchase alcohol, we support an industry that advertises the affirmative message, "drink responsibly," which is just another way of telling people to "drink." When we drink around our children, we teach them to drink. There is a ripple effect whenever we pick up a drink.

So I propose the following merely as an experiment, as an exercise in mindfulness: Give up drinking for one month, and see what happens. How about July?

For anyone who benefits from mindfulness training, this is an ideal time to take up this challenge, with summer holiday weekends at hand. Here are some things that one could be mindful of: What sensation arises in the body when I have the desire to drink? What sensation arises when I refrain from drinking? What emotion do I experience when I tell others that I do not wish to drink right now? What emotion do others seem to experience, and how do I react to that?

During the course of a month, there may be many opportunities to see what happens in one's own life when one decides not to drink. What pressures does one face? What sacrifices must one make? Are there any surprises? Some of these experiences might seem unpleasant in the moment when they are occurring. And this can be part of practice, too.

At the end of one month, take stock and see if there is anything you have learned about yourself or others.

Some might regard this as a pointless exercise, particularly if one is firmly established in the belief that one's own moderate drinking has no ill effects on oneself or others. One might think, what's the harm? Why worry about it? Why bother? For a person serious about mindfulness, however, such a reaction might awaken a curiosity about what would actually occur for oneself during the month in question.

If anybody actually tries this challenge, I would be interested in hearing about it. Feel free to use the Twitter hashtag #5precepts. I am proposing this solely for the purpose of practice. If you choose to try it, may you be successful for the benefit of all beings.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Stephen Batchelor

In this interview over at Buddhist Geeks, Stephen Batchelor (author of "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist") takes some time once again to share his self-described "secular" approach to Buddhism, an approach that has won him praise, blame, and book sales.

The entire Stephen Batchelor spectacle is fascinating, in some of the same ways that a house fire is fascinating. True, Mr. Batchelor brings a good deal of knowledge and study to the table, and his talks can be helpful in arriving at a better understanding of some elements of what the Buddha taught. But his propensity to create divisions and fuel disputes becomes a distraction. For example, Mr. Batchelor tells Vince Horn:

... there appears, in the Buddhist community, to be a fault line that demarcates two quite different camps. One, of what one might call the conservatives or the traditionalists who can’t quite imagine how you could have Buddhism without the doctrine of rebirth. And another camp, which would include, obviously, people like myself, who I would maybe portray as more liberal, more secular in orientation, who have exactly the opposite problem -- mainly, they cannot conceive of a Buddhist practice or at least an intelligible Buddhist practice, having to incorporate what looks to them, what looks to me, like an antiquated, pre-modern belief.

And we see here very clearly how muddled Mr. Batchelor's presentation can be. I believe it's no accident that he only uses the term "practice" in describing the "secular" orientation. The "conservatives," on the other hand, he portrays as clinging to doctrine.

Mr. Batchelor does an untidy job of muddling together two different sets of contrasting approaches:
1) Those who put great stock in concepts versus those who focus on how to live in this present moment; and
2) Those who believe in rebirth versus those who do not.

Mr. Batchelor ignores the fact that these are entirely unrelated sets. Belief or disbelief in rebirth is unrelated to whether one puts emphasis on concepts or on practice.

The fascinating thing about this is that Mr. Batchelor appears to be advocating for an approach that focuses on practice, not on concepts, yet he keeps on returning to concepts. His message appears to be that it doesn't matter if he can't bring himself to believe in rebirth; he can still be a Buddhist because he can still practice the Noble Eightfold Path. Strangely, however, Mr. Batchelor comes back again and again to concepts. He keeps on talking about how the rebirth notion defies "what we currently understand through the natural sciences," how it carries "a whole range of philosophical and psychological problems."

"Now, I really just do not understand what that could mean; it simply does not make sense to me," he says of the notion of rebirth. He labels it a "doctrine."


Personally, I would find Mr. Batchelor's presentation much more helpful if he could decide which approach he wants to take. Does he want to encourage the practice of living skillfully in this present moment? Or does he want to encourage debate about concepts?

There should be no confusion about the Dhamma. We can understand this very clearly: Mental formations are not self. They are impermanent. And their underlying nature is suffering. Of course we will probably have some opinion about rebirth. We believe it, or we don't believe it. Can we help it? Can we really flip a switch and decide what we want to believe? Do we have control over our convictions?

And even if we think we do, what do we think we're going to accomplish? If we organize our beliefs just right, will that somehow get us closer to some perceived goal?

Mr. Batchelor is right when he suggests that it is possible to practice regardless of one's beliefs or disbeliefs. How could it be otherwise? We can only start where we are. And we know that in some respects, any beliefs that we have are imperfect, and also subject to change and revision in the future as our understanding grows. There should be no confusion about this; this is a path of liberation through not clinging, including not clinging to our mental formations.

But there also should be no confusion about this: The notion of post-mortem rebirth is part and parcel of the Buddha's teachings we have received. The Pali texts are replete with clear, unambiguous examples of the Buddha describing the rebirth outcome of his disciples, or describing ghosts passing by who had been humans in a previous birth, or describing once-returners and non-returners. In these teachings, it seems very clear that the Buddha simply took it for granted that his listeners in those instances understood rebirth as a reality. Does that mean we can't practice if we can't bring ourselves to believe in rebirth? No. But does it mean that we need to rejigger Buddhism to fit our preconceived notions of reality? Mr. Batchelor seems to think so.

This is very much a discussion about what is comfortable. Mr. Batchelor appears to argue that there needs to be a new Buddhism for the secular, Western world. Give us a Buddhism that fits with our modern sensibilities. Give us a Buddhism that bolsters our current mental formations.

"I honestly don’t think the Buddha was interested in the nature of reality," Batchelor says. And implicit in that statement is the assumption that there must be some "reality" out there, separate from this heap of aggregates, separate from this All that the Buddha so clearly describes. And that is a perilous proposition indeed.

One thing that Mr. Batchelor gets absolutely right is that "atheism" is an accurate word to use in describing disbelief in an abiding self. Although most often "atheism" refers to a lack of belief in God, Mr. Batchelor correctly perceives that any concept of God necessitates a concept of self. And so, while acknowledging that beliefs are not the point, Mr. Batchelor takes a firm stance with regard to his own personal beliefs. He is an atheist. That's just the way he is.

One gets the sense that we should take seriously the way Mr. Batchelor portrays his message (as his latest book title suggests), namely, as a confession. Is this all just about Mr. Batchelor's personal struggles with his own belief systems? Has he put on display his own effort to reconcile his hopes, his dreams, his expectations with a tradition that he views as judgmental of him? And thus he feels compelled to confess in order to arrive at some inner peace in his struggle? Is that what this is about?

A confession, after all, is a very personal thing.