An effective Buddhist practice is a daily Buddhist practice. Pulling out the dusty zafu once a year might give you some fleeting respite, but it’ll do little more than that. And plunging head-first into an intensive retreat every six-months might take you to heaven for a few days, but if you’re back to partying and alcopops the day after you probably shouldn’t have bothered.
It’s easy to fall into extremes: to neglect meditation and party like Keith Richards for ninety-nine percent of the time, and then go at it like a Himalayan sage for the rest. But what really counts when travelling this path is a commitment to a steady, consistent and methodical daily practice.
Formal meditation must, of course, be central to this. One or two thirty minute sittings each day, for example, will keep you gliding along nicely. If, for whatever reason, you find this is too much sometimes, then do it for five minutes… three… one… but certainly not none! If we meditate consistently we will soon reach a point where we experience withdrawal symptoms when we don’t meditate: the mind has become accustomed to being fed – when we stop, it gets hungry!
Then there’s the cultivation of mindfulness, and, in particular, mindfulness of the body. Maintaining awareness of the body provides a refuge for the mind. It grounds us, makes us less impulsive, and, crucially, enables us to quite easily step back from and observe our feelings, thoughts and mental states. To keep our mindfulness battery charged we can pepper our day with brief spells of slow-motion mindfulness exercises, for instance while making a cup of tea or folding the towels, where we closely follow every stretch, bend and turn with a precise and concentrated awareness.
To direct and inspire our efforts to cultivate our mind we turn to the words of the Buddha and those of realised (or soon to be realised) teachers – noble beings who have crossed over to the far shore and are beckoning us to join them. Reading and listening to Dhamma Talks probably won’t be something we do every day, but still we shouldn’t neglect them.
Daily attention to meditation, mindfulness and sprinklings of instruction are thus key elements of a successful practice. But at the heart of it must lie something else, something which on the surface seems quite mundane and in some cranky people’s eyes spiritually stifling, but which is actually an essential tool in our quest to understand the true nature of things and be free from suffering. That something is the observance of the moral precepts.
Keeping the precepts brings harmony: harmony within and harmony without. Refraining from harmful actions frees us from remorse and worry – hence the harmony within; and nurtures human relationships based on respect, confidence and trust – hence the harmony without. Having as the basis of our practice this lush and fertile soil of harmony, our development of concentration, mindfulness and insight is able to flourish.
The Buddha, referring to the bhikkhu and his maintenance of the numerous moral precepts found in the Vinaya, said he experiences a blameless joy that comes from living a life ‘as pure as a polished shell’. It is a joy that arises, not from anything having been done, but from the simple fact that something has not been done – that is: harm.
It’s funny to think of the lengths that people go to in order to experience elation and joy: roller-coasters, sky-diving, horror movies, snorting cocaine… when all they need to do is purify their virtue. Try to tell them this, however, and they’ll probably burst out laughing. What they don’t understand is that their actions follow them everywhere, and that the oppressive shadow of their harmful words and deeds will be cast over every attempt they make to experience happiness. If we live a life of moral purity there will be no shadow. We can lie in bed at night and experience that pure joy welling up in our heart as we reflect: ‘I have done no harm today!’
But this harmony is not limited to our own minds: it permeates our relationships with others. Do we feel secure and comfortable when in the presence of a killer? a thief? an adulterer? a liar? a drunk? Or do we feel our personal safety threatened? On the other hand, when we are in the company of a virtuous person, how do we feel then? safe? secure? at ease? As human beings we have this kind of moral scent which others intuitively pick up on. If someone stinks we want to get away; if they smell sweet, we’d like to stay. To keep the precepts is thus to give the gift of social harmony: the harmony that comes from people feeling secure in the presence of one another.
Just for a moment imagine a world where everybody kept the five precepts. What a heavenly place it would be! But, alas, on our little scruffy patch of the universe very few people do. Even society’s role models and leaders: politicians, sportsmen and women, writers, actors, pop-stars and so on, are largely beacons of moral decadence. So if they’re at it, what about the rest of the population? The world is in a pitiful state because it’s bereft of virtue.
To bring the five precepts into your heart and let them guide you through each moment of your life is a powerful means to cultivate this sorely needed harmony – both within and without.
But the benefits that arise through keeping the precepts don’t stop here; the harmony and joy, though delicious, are merely the first fruits. As a direct result of holding fast to the precepts through the hum-drum of day to day existence we find the liberating qualities of mindfulness, concentration and insight riding in their wake.
The Precepts and Meditation
When we close our eyes to meditate we look directly at our mind. Consequently, we become very aware of how it is coloured by the moral ‘tones’ of our actions, and, more importantly, how those tones dictate how we feel. Generally speaking, people are blind to how their thoughts, words and deeds affect their minds; ceaselessly chasing pleasure and fleeing pain they never stop to look. But the honest meditator is unable to hide. He or she witnesses how each action deposits an impression in the mental stream, and, depending on whether the action was harmful of not, how it produces suffering or happiness.
The impressions left by unskilful actions are like little monkeys on our shoulders. As soon we stop to meditate they start causing trouble. ‘La la la la laaa! I’m not going to let you meditate! I’m not going to let you meditate!’, they sing, while jumping up and down, tugging our ear lobes and pulling our hair (if we have any). But if our actions have been pure then there won’t be any disturbance. The monkeys will remain fast asleep while we close our eyes and effortlessly let go of a past that is not regretted, and a future that is not feared.
The mind fortified by virtue is a mind that can let go of past and future at will and thus become concentrated.
The Precepts and Mindfulness
When we keep the precepts we must be vigilant. We must be continually observing ourselves. They bring us right into the present moment as we keep guard over what we say and do to ensure that they are not broken.
As monks, living by hundreds of precepts, we are naturally made to be mindful of even the most seemingly insignificant of actions: we can’t lick our lips when we eat (try that with a jam doughnut!), we must wear our robes in a particular way, we mustn’t twiddle our thumbs in public, we mustn’t gaze at our reflection in the mirror… To somebody who doesn’t understand Dhamma practice these rules seem a tad ridiculous; but to one who actually trains with them their value proves to be inestimable: they make you so very aware. And not only aware of what you are doing, but, more importantly, of your intentions that are bubbling beneath the surface. The precepts reveal all.
The Precepts and Insight
It is this restraint, concentration and all-encompassing awareness that are generated by the precepts which combine to offer to us on a golden platter the most important quality of all: liberating insight.
Insight comes through observation and the precepts give us a lot to observe.
When our practice has no moral structure our greed, anger and delusion do as they please. Like great powerful tigers they eat whatever and whenever they want. With a full belly they sleep, purr and saunter around, admiring their silky coats and flexing their deadly claws, all the time increasing in strength and becoming potentially more and more dangerous.
Lock them in a cage made of precepts, however, and there’ll soon start to weaken. How can they increase in strength when they aren’t getting fed?
But they don’t always go quietly: no longer able to do as they wish they start to make a fuss. And this, though sometimes uncomfortable, is actually what we want. Because when these harmful mental forces are aggravated we can see them more clearly. Seeing them clearly we are able to observe and investigate them. And it’s through investigating them that we reveal their true nature. We see how they rise and fall, how they don’t last, how in reality there is no substance to them. By understanding this they fall away.
When this three-fold process of uncovering, investigating and understanding is repeatedly practised, our insight accumulates. Gradually the defilements wither under our ever-present gaze of mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. Eventually, they disappear altogether.
In some ways this isn’t such a difficult thing to do. It simply requires patience and a consistent practice that is led by the modest yet deceptively powerful hand of the precepts.