For some years I have read, and tried to practise, the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk from Vietnam. The following is an open letter to him, and to the Buddhist group with whom I practise, about some of his teachings. Specifically I talk about the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Other expressions that may need explanation are Dharma and Sangha.
Dear Thich Nhat Hanh & the White Clouds Sangha,
I am not quite sure who to address this letter to. But it concerns the Dharma - one of the three legs of practising Buddhism - so it seems appropriate that I address my concerns to the other two legs - my Sangha and the Buddha. (With apologies to Thich Nhat Hanh for conflating him with the Buddha!)
There are two main issues that I wish to address. They both constitute (constructive) criticisms of the way that we practise. Let me say first that I value the practice very much and I want my criticisms to be read with this in mind. My criticism comes from a place of love and respect for the Darnha, the Sangha and the Buddha.
(1) THE FIVE MINDFULNESS TRAININGS: At our Day of Mindfulness on Saturday we ended the day, as we often do, by reciting the five mindfulness trainings. Most of the group seem to find this a good way of ending the day, strengthening our resolve to practise mindfulness in the days ahead.
Unfortunately I do not find it so. There are three reasons why not:
(a) The trainings are "the basis for a happy life". My problem here is with the "the" and the exclusiveness, dogmatism even, that it implies. I broadly endorse (with some exceptions as given below) the five mindfulness trainings as a way of life; but I would certainly shrink from asserting that they are the definitive answer to the question of how to live.
But this is easily fixed: replace "the" with "a" and I am happy (and I have seen this in other translations of the five trainings so perhaps it should be this way anyway).
(b)On drugs and alcohol: Why the injunction to forgo these pleasures?
The majority of the training on consumption revolves around the cultivation of compassion for the earth and all beings on the earth. It is therefore very natural to be mindful in our consumption: to avoid meat, to avoid polluting TV programmes etc. It is not clear to me that a compassionate outlook implies a complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol.
In fact it seems to me that the use of drugs can be undertaken mindfully - with a view to enhancing our understanding of consciousness and our emotions, whilst aware of the risks which such an undertaking involves. It is true that most of society does not use drugs in this way, even if they intend to. But then this is also true of TV and we do not presume to ban TV altogether - only to moderate its use.
The point is this: the practice of Buddhism should allow us to live compassionately and wisely and mindfully. If we do this then the choices which we make will be good ones. It is not necessary nor, indeed, is it in any way advantageous for our spirituality, to be arbitrarily bounded by dogma. This limits us; if nothing else it removes from us the chance to say "no" for ourselves.
(c) On sex: And, really, the same applies here. We pledge many fine things in the third training but why this: "not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment."?
Why is love not sufficient? How can it not be sufficient? I mean REAL love, MINDFUL love, a Buddha-like love. Perhaps with this love we may decide to say "no" to any sexual relations which are not long term. But, then, why are we being instructed in this way, rather than being allowed to choose for ourselves?
Humanity's relation to sexuality has long been a vexed one. Religious leaders of every ilk have tried to give guidance on this issue - sometimes in good faith. But the end result has always, it seems to me, been one of two outcomes: the wise have instructed us to LOVE and to BE LOVING in all we do. The less wise have tied themselves (and, sadly, their disciples) in knots trying to prescribe monogamy, or heterosexuality, or abstinence, or free love, or... whatever it may be.
It seems that, when it comes to our sexuality, it is very hard to see the wood for the trees, to know the best way to proceed. How much more difficult then when we try to give recipes for OTHER PEOPLE's sexuality!Let us love one another. That is enough.
Before I leave this concern, let me anticipate one defence of the five mindfulness trainings: that they are guidelines for practice, not hard and fast rules. Of course I appreciate this point; I also appreciate the responsibility of the Buddha and the Sangha for giving guidance on how to live - I take this guidance very seriously.
The key point is that, in these two instances - on sex, and on drugs and alcohol, the guidance moves from the philosophical to the specific. When I "vow to speak truthfully" there is a world of reflection open to me (and my Sangha) about what this means, and how I am to put my vow into practice. This is not the case when I say "I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant..." which is an absolute statement and admits no freedom of interpretation. Yet, if I am to practice truly and mindfully, then I must have that freedom to think and to reflect and to decide for myself.
(2) And so to my second concern: retreat vs engagement.
Unlike my first concern which was specific and concrete, my second is one of perception and balance. Or rather a perceived imbalance. Where this balance arises I am not sure - undoubtedly it is partly within myself. But perhaps it also arises within the practice of the Sangha and so I feel I should share it.
My perception is simply this: that the idea of "retreat" has become too dominant in our practice, so that it now threatens our "engagement". As a Sangha we seem to share a love of natural beauty, of stillness, of reflective peace. This is right and proper. We seek out these experiences and share them as a group together. I have benefited greatly from them.
Even more, when we come together, we share guided meditations speaking to us of the "clear mountain air" and the "sunshine" and the "cool stream". It is good that we think of these things for they are, and so we are with them.
When I return to my daily life - at work, or on the road, or wherever - I retain in me the sense of connectedness to the clear mountain air and the cool stream, and it eases me.
But sometimes I wonder about this ease: is it the ease of a being immersed in the present moment, connected to the earth and all that dwell on her? Or is it the ease of a being who escapes the present moment through a porthole to other, more beautiful places. Am I seeing my world more clearly or, rather, am I focusing my eyes on a distant horizon and refusing to acknowledge that which lies in front of my nose?
There is no answer to this but perhaps there is a pointer for my practice. i can retreat TOO MUCH. I can seek peace and tranquillity to the point that I am not able to acknowledge chaos and drama. My practice must be immersed in every aspect of my life.
And it is not just me, the practitioner: the same may be said of the Sangha, surely. If we meet together only in places of beauty and peace, are we not in danger of unbalancing our practice? Should we not share together the trials of daily life so that we can be present together there too? How is our practice, in its current form, engaged?
It is not enough to have a Dharna pot for children in Vietnam; there must be something more. Perhaps our next day of mindfulness should be at a rubbish dump, or in a shopping centre, or outside an arms factory. Perhaps our Dharma talk should be the story of a refugee or drug addict. Perhaps we should eat rice without salt...
I am committed to reflecting and discussing and trying to resolve these concerns as best I can for myself and with my Sangha. I would appreciate any feedback.