Changes that Stick

Habits help organize our lives. The rhythm of a daily or weekly schedule may be comforting or constricting, but we all have them to a greater or lesser extent. At times we are resistant to our own routines. How often have you given yourself the opportunity to ask yourself: What daily routines would I keep for their intrinsic value? Why?

Precepts in Buddhism serve as a healthy set of habits of conduct. As Buddhists, we commit not to kill or harm other beings on purpose, take what is not given, engage in sexual misconduct, lie or speak harshly, or take intoxicants. These five precepts keep us free from collecting additional akusala kamma (unwhlolesome actions). Additional precepts restrain the senses and guard against lust, greed, aversion, hatred and delusion (a false sense of self), and are used when the person is undergoing a period of more intensive training like a retreat or ordination.

So What happens when the training ends? What stays, what goes away, and why? These are the very ‘training questions’ I’m examining empirically right now.

So far (after two full days), it feels a little strange to stray from the eight precepts, though I will state that I was not perfect in keeping them all during my training period, as indicated in earlier posts. The areas of sensory experience I’ve delved into — eating after noontime, listening to music and singing, dabbing on a little fragrance, wearing the clothes of my choice — have generally been pleasant at first and have then become mildly unpleasant.

For example, the music that I had always enjoyed playing and singing became slightly annoying and aggravating after about 1/2 hour. I would have never anticipated this. So once it became aggravating, I said to myself, “Enough of that,” and turned it off.

Another example: Scented products (perfumes, fragrant oils, shampoos, soaps, etc.) had always been a delight to me. I used to feel not completely “dressed” without them. Yet after three months without so little as a scented soap to adorn my own fragrance, a tiny bit of scented oil brings self-consciousness. It makes me wonder about how ‘private’ or ‘public’ personal fragrance ought to be, and what an extreme variation there is among individuals’ sensibilities in this regard. For the time being, I’m keeping it way more conservative than ever.

As of yet, I haven’t had the will or emotional energy to pull out my big earrings. Until recently, these were my signature adornments. I never left the house without them, especially since I cut off my locks back in 2012. Is it laziness that’s keeping me from these dramatic accessories, or simply lack of real interest? In such a short time I have come to experience such previously significant details as superfluous, and today, even my overall personal appearance is of little concern. Not out of aversion, mind you, but because it holds minimal significance or interest. As long as my body is clean and reasonably groomed, its greatest adornment appears to be any inner light my being is capable of transmitting.

This process, testing which changes stick, is about questioning the previously unquestioned…but accepting all answers as provisional. It is a valuable process. It makes evident the freedom and eventual effortlessness that can result from purposeful constraint.


The Perfect Ending

With the splendor of last night’s full moon and this early morning’s momentous total lunar eclipse (“Blood Moon”), I ended my Atta Sila (Eight Precepts) practice.

Observing the gradual disappearance of the moon and its ruddy, earthen cast at the height of the eclipse was truly remarkable.  More remarkable was the fact that I could no longer see the moon at all after it descended behind the grove of trees in the back yard.

I understood in the moments afterwards that my process was over.  This understanding arose just in that moment.  Originally I had planned to end as part of the Kathina Ceremony at the Temple, but the realization came very strongly and clearly this morning. So it was time to end.

What’s different?  Nothing significant.  I wore a white blouse today like most every other day during this period…but with black jacket and orange pants.  I even wore my little Fabergé egg necklace.  It seemed like the perfect day to bring a cosmic egg along.  Also, on the way home from my meeting in Indianapolis, I played Dirty Projectors and ZapMama.  Really loud. And sang really loudly, too, out of practice and out of tune, with the windows open wide.

Stain Remover

Wearing white all the time is perilous.  There are stain-making hazards most everywhere.  It makes activities such as gardening, cooking, eating, cleaning house and living with grubby-handed children an ongoing adventure.  Because of this, I am gratefully indebted to the creators of Shout Wipe & Go, a truly convenient and effective product.  I always keep at least two in my purse at all times.  Yesterday, between the Chili Lime Curry Wings and the dark chocolate bar for dessert,  I went through both in the space of 30 minutes, and could have used a third to pre-treat the dirty knee-prints from the garden.  No worries. Instead, I just came home to do the next load of laundry.  It comes clean.  Or mostly clean.

The Music of Resistance

“I undertake to keep the precept to abstain from listening to music, singing, dancing or beautifying my body with makeup, flowers or perfumes.”


I’m giving up on giving up an element of the Seventh Precept: “listening to music”. I’ve been persistently listening to music now most every day for the past six days; at work, at home, in the car.

These days, when I recite my morning precepts, I just leave the music part out.  At least this doesn’t make a liar out of me…which would be a breach of the Fourth Precept, too!

There is some disappointment and self-consciousness at my lack of discipline with this. In fact, when my daughter “liked” on Facebook the fact that I was playing Nahko & Medicine for the People (one of her favorites) on Spotify late last night, there was a moment of embarrassment at being exposed, accompanied by a surprising sense of defeat.

There is also a  pouty-lipped sense of defiance, obstinacy, resistance and indifference that has arisen in this decision.  Mental snapshots of myself in opposition arise:  at two, fifteen, twenty, twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-two and forty-five.  These girls and women, young and not-so-young, make me giggle a little.  They meant to make their point. They did what they did because they wanted to, because they could, regardless of who might have been watching. Sometimes they won their way for a lasting stint.  Sometimes they crumbled at the threshold of a door somewhere.

Good intentions drove me at first.  At work, music helps me to tune into certain bigger, more repetitive tasks and helps me relax when things are intense.  In the car it actually keeps me awake and alert…well that and, of course, coffee.  At home, I’d let my four year old determine the choice of sounds, or else I’d watch videos or listen to audiobooks or talks. But in days past, playing music has even crept into my home life when the little boy is gone.

Silence does not exist on this earth except in sensory deprivation chambers.  So why the big fuss?

In graduate school, I studied the art and technology of sound.  In my very first class on Music Technology at Oberlin back in 1984, our professor had one of the conservatory pianists play for us John Cage’s 4′ 33“. This provocative conceptual masterpiece by this widely-known Zen Buddhist practitioner set a tone for sonic exploration.  Any sensation in the ears, even no sensation, has now become music. Now, any of us can acknowledge that the organic, spontaneous world may actually yield greater musical masterpieces than in the realm of instrumentalists, singers and musicians.

Do I recognize this as a persistent attachment?  Well, yes!  I readily acknowledge it but do not celebrate it.

Is it wholesome?  Most of the time it is, but not all the time.

Am I fearful or averse to silence?  Not at all.

Is there more to learn about silence?  Come on now — of course!

So what happens next?  we’ll see.

Precepts, also known as Training Rules, cause us to conduct such investigations around our objects of restraint.  If precepts are taken on seriously there is a care and thoughtfulness that goes into such investigation.  This is so even when making the choice not to observe the precept.  But there is the space for a true inner dialectic. And until this back-and-forth happens, there cannot be a real level of understanding.  So I’ll abide with the discomfort for a bit longer.  We’ll see where this line of investigation leads.




The Passing of an Eight Precept Nun

It’s been over a week since the last post. Things are extremely busy now at the end of the summer term. Beyond the regular tasks, preparations for an NEH grant and for Bhante Vimalaramsi and Bhante Kusala’s upcoming retreat here in town are underway.  The sitting practice has suffered.  This is temporary. All of life is practice, so I don’t fret or regret.

This morning I would like to share a beautiful story about a Dhamma Sister, Metapanna Nancy Gil, written by Ayya Tathaaloka.  I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but I find her story inspiring and reaffirming.  As an Eight Preceptor wearing white for the period of the Vassa (Rains Retreat), I understand her desire to take on this discipline and to leave her earthly body with this Sila (virtue, wholesome practice).  I hope her story will inspire you this morning.

Celebrating Life Well Lived

Morning Candy

“I undertake to keep the precept not to eat after the noonday meal.”

Being moderate in eating will definitely take some fine tuning.

Two Saturdays ago, I took Eight Precepts. I plan to live with this intention for the next three months.

There are many austerities contained in this commitment – not wearing jewelry or fragrances, not having sex, not singing or dancing, etc. But not doing something is sometimes actually easier than than limiting it. Relinquishment has a completeness, a sense of foregoing, giving up and moving on that affords a great sense of freedom. No mental thought needs to be steered towards finding a matching necklace or devising a suitable iTunes playlist.

Moderation is another matter.

Let’s state the obvious: if we don’t eat, we will die in short order. Food cannot be completely relinquished without a sort of death wish. As a person who has always struggled with weight gain and bouts of pathological overeating, I’ve often fantasized a world where food could just be given up. If only the sustenance of our earthly lives could be generated spontaneously….

I am at a Master Teacher Seminar at the state capital. It has been a delightful journey with other faculty at my education institution who are also trying to perfect their craft. Conferences have their patterns and the pattern for this one  involves food.  Junk food.  All day long. Starting at a few minutes of Nine. Tasty junk: Jolly Ranchers, Reese’s, Almond Joy, Twix.

What I would never do in my everyday life I found myself indulging in this situation: eating morning candy.  Why?  It seems that, faced with  the predicament of moderate eating, the sense of an afternoon and evening of deprivation elicits an acute sense of morning greed.

Scarcity?  What scarcity?  I’ve never skipped a meal in my whole….

Oh.  Now I get it.

How easily the body-mind is deceived.


A week and a half has passed.  The training rule of not eating from mid-day to dawn has almost become a groove of habit.

Yesterday, I was blessed to enjoy the Noonday meal with the Monks at my Temple.  As a person following Eight Precepts, I was invited to eat alongside them.  Typically, the Monks eat first, or at least get first dibs on the available dishes.  This privilege felt like a great (and undeserved) honor. The two Sri Lankan families that brought scrumptious and varied dishes for the lunch Dana (offering of generosity) also served them on our plates.  As a woman, mother and usually the cook of any meal I eat, it was so unusual, even uncomfortable to be served.  The meal was a hearty, though not a gut-busting affair.  Dessert was assorted fruits and yogurt with treacle.  It held me over until the smoothie which now serves as my evening meal.

After lunch came one of the most delightful moments of recent memory.  While weeding in the Temple’s orchard and garden, my friend the chief gardener showed me the first miniature watermelon sprouting from the sprawling vine.  How awesome.

The loving-kindness in my heart surged to see this little fruit that will soon, if the conditions are right, grow almost too heavy to comfortably carry.

More on Precepts and Introduction to Metta Meditation

This is my Teacher, Bhante Vimalaramsi. In the video linked here, he gives a great and relatively brief summary of the Five Precepts and basic instructions for Metta (Loving-kindness) Meditation. Bhante speaks in a very easy-to-understand, straightforward manner and his way of teaching Metta is notably different than that of many others. If you are a meditator, I encourage you to try his instructions and note how it works for you. If you are not a meditator, even 30 minutes of daily meditation practice will transform your physical and mental health, and enhance your sense of well-being and positive attitudes towards others.

I am infinitely grateful for Bhante V.’s guidance and friendship in the Buddha Dhamma (teachings of higher-level truths).

Basic Training: The Five Precepts

Any individual who is working towards a goal, be it academic, athletic, financial or spiritual, is well-advised to follow some basic guidelines in order to reach their goals.  If you are a student, plagiarizing or cheating on an assignment can be an academic career-stopper. Athletes in training do all sorts of quite unnatural things to their bodies, including fasting, gorging, purging, shaving all body hair and restraining sexual activity, to even qualify for the chance to compete.  To get out of debt, financial advisors readily provide lists of do’s and dont’s, like ‘pay yourself first’, or  ‘zero out your credit card balance every month’.

Spiritually, all the world’s religions have certain laws, guidelines, tenets or rules that adherents are to maintain as a code of behavior.  These are often stated in the negative: “no this-or-that,” As in the case of the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity. the Ten Commandments were literally set in stone by God before Moses’ eyes.  The expectation is that the Commandments will be followed closely by believers, and that anyone who breaks any of them is surely committing a “sin”.  Yet  in Christianity there is the understanding that  ALL people are sinners; that no one has been perfect, not even the Saints.

The Buddha provided his disciples four basic training rules.  A fifth related rule was added not long after his passing.  All of these are based on an even more basic imperative: “Do no harm.” The Buddhist training rules are called “Precepts,” defined by Google as “a general rule intended to regulate behavior or thought.”  The basic Five Precepts, which observant Buddhists undertake to keep, are:

1. Not to kill or harm living beings on purpose;
2. Not to take what is not freely given;
3. Not to commit wrong sexual activity;
4. Not to lie, use harsh language, gossip or slander;
5. Not to use recreational alcohol or drugs.

In the context of Buddhism, Precepts are seen as the foundation of “Sila”, translated as “virtue” or “morality”.  I personally find that the word “wholesome” is a very useful word for properly regarding Sila.  Wholesomeness evokes wholeness, integrity, authenticity; what is real and enduring, not just within the person but also in the  family, community, nation or world. Wholesomeness doesn’t contain the dualistic judgments of “good” or “bad”. It is real, true and complete.

As human beings we are naturally resistant to personal restraint or discipline, and it can be argued that such resistance is particularly strong in our western, present-day, ‘freedom rules, anything goes’ ethos.  The young American exemplifies this ethos in the uncompromising pursuit of wealth, power, fame, sex appeal and happiness. I happen to have been a young American who went after each of these things at different times, and at times all at once.  And even as a not-so-young American, I have always resisted discipline, other people’s rules, morality structures, definitions of “right” or “wrong”, decorum, protocol, habit and even at times, common courtesy.

I have come to this appreciation of Sila very late in the game. So what got me here?

There is a moment in life known as mature adulthood. Mature adults by definition have seen past the mundane gestures and empty transactions of life and press on to the pursuit of Wisdom.  One arrives at this moment in life if one is fortunate enough to regenerate from the fire of midlife crisis.  I have burned through all four seasons and now I have returned.

Funny thing.  Wisdom is generous; it transcends itself. The precepts train us for Wisdom in actions of body, speech and mind. They train us in the way to take only actions that will do no harm to ourselves or others.  If you notice, the five precepts focus on our social interactions; how we treat others.  Even our refraining from intoxicants affords us the presence and clarity necessary to continue to do no harm, which is not always possible with our intoxicated selves!

In Twelve Step communities, there is a common saying: “It’s practice, not perfection.” This is a healthy approach to the Five Precepts.  As a person works with the Five Precepts, one invariably notices one’s weak spots.  For very many, including this author,  it’s the harsh speech.  But being able to see the pattern of harsh speech and over a significant length of time, and continuing to work with this shortcoming, I’ve been able to find other ways to express myself. There is also now a profoundly increased appreciation and more frequent use of silence.  But that only happened after enough four-letter words and hateful, snarky comments flew out of my mouth…and my awareness.

The Five Precepts are the Buddhist’s process of basic training.  The guidance of the Buddha, the “Anuttaro Purisa Dhammasarathi, Sattha Deva Manussanam” (The Incomparable Leader of Men to be Tamed, The Teacher of Celestial Beings and Men) gives us the skillful tools to place our actions of body, speech and mind at the door of this pursuit of Wisdom.


The Rains Retreat

The tradition of the Rains Retreat, or Vassa in Pali, began as a very practical necessity in the time of the Buddha in the physical environment of Northern India. Bikkhus and Bikkhunis, homeless by definition, spent their time going from village to village, at times sleeping out in the elements. The climate of north India has a distinct Monsoon season that takes place from mid-summer to mid-fall. Travel is treacherous during the Monsoon and the risk of harming living beings (including crops, wild animals and themselves) becomes much greater. Therefore the Buddha called for the Vassa to be a time of retreat, devotion to meditation and study, during which Bikkhus and Bikkhunis would be expected to stay in one place for the three-month duration. These ad-hoc gatherings of monks, often in the large homes of wealthy benefactors, actually became the genesis of the first monasteries. The Vassa is still one of the most important times of the year for Theravada monks and nuns. In fact, when members of the Sangha meet for the first time, they may ask one another the question, “How many Rains Retreats have you attended?” to assess which of them is a more senior monk deserving veneration by the other.

The Vinaya Pitaka, or Monastic Code, specifies that there should be two periods offered (beginning a month apart) for the Vassa in order to ensure the participation of all monks (and a second opportunity for those who have broken the first Vassa to actually complete the retreat. While the place of retreat doesn’t have to be a monastery or temple, it should be an actual dwelling place with a door that closes, and it should have at least one Bikkhu that knows how to carry out the rituals related to the full and new moon observances and who are well-versed in the Monastic Code. The monk or nun entering the period of retreat should declare his/her intention, “I am entering this three-month Rains in this dwelling” three times. Once declared, a member of the Sangha may travel away from the retreat site for no more than seven days, but only if called away on clerical or personal business. The Vinaya also makes provisions for hindrances that may arise in travel and other types of obstacles to the successful completion of the Vassa. During the Vassa, the Bikkhus and Bikkhunis are to refrain from taking actions that interfere with the practice of others.

While the Vassa is particularly a time of devotion and deep practice for the Sangha, it is also a time for laypeople to take practice more seriously and to practice dana (generosity) sila (virtue) and bhavana (meditation). Laypeople may practice an increased number of training precepts, or choose to work on a particular area of attachment during this period. This is perhaps why in western cultures, Vassa may be considered to be the “Buddhist Lent”.

This special time of year requires special rules, but with successful completion also confers special benefits to the Bikkhus and Bikkhunis.

One benefit that takes place in the month following the Rains Retreat is the Kathina Ceremony, when monks receive new robes (acknowledging the likely wear and tear on the Sangha’s robes that results from extreme Monsoon weather). In ancient times, gifts of cloth were given to the entire Sangha, to be distributed by appointed monks. In modern times, the Kathina Ceremony is an auspicious time to provide members of the Sangha with not only robes but other useful requisites and supplies. These are not personal gifts, but instead they are symbolically offered to the entire Sangha of Bikkhus and Bikkhunis, past, present and future, thereby accruing the highest amount of merit for the givers of this dana.