This article was originally published on The Huffington Post, May 29, 2010
The Buddha spoke about five ways to protect ourselves and our practice. He used the example of a plot of land to symbolize how to relate more skillfully to our bodies and minds. We want to use the land well, to protect it, to treasure it. He said that the first thing we need to do is to fence the land in, to protect it from wild animals. Then we need to water it regularly. We need to loosen the earth around the roots, so that the roots can grip strongly. Then we need to weed the plants, weed the garden so as to remove the inessential factors. And the last thing we need to do is keep away the insects, which may be very small, almost invisible to the naked eye, but these very tiny creatures may do great harm to the plants in the plot of land. If these efforts, these five things are carried out, then we can enjoy the fruit of our labors, of having this plot of land. In just that same way we fulfill these five in order to enjoy the fruits of our efforts, to live with our bodies and minds as an expression of love, awakening, and compassion, rather than as an expression of grasping, aversion, and ignorance. Here I’ll write about he first two of these, and continue with the rest next week.
The first of these protections is having a very strong commitment to morality, protecting ourselves with a dedication to ethics. This is comparable to fencing in a plot of land to keep wild animals away. We are keeping away what was once translated as the “outrageous defilements,” the defilements that are so strong that they overcome us, so that we hurt others, hurt ourselves. As we look around, it’s very clear that in this world people do outrageous things to one another all of the time. It’s not that these qualities or actions make us bad people, but they bring tremendous suffering if we don’t know how to work with them. We can see the consequences of our actions clearly, and know that the things we care about, the things we do, really matter.
If we have a very strong commitment, so that we can trust ourselves and be beacons of trust for others no matter what the circumstance, then we’re protected from suffering the consequences of many actions. We can be protected from that pain.
We can also be protected from guilt, which is one of the worst kinds of self-torment. We can be protected from alienation from others, and the kind of inner turmoil and fear that comes when we’re living in some way that isn’t straightforward, isn’t clear. We all know that state – it is quite painful to always be second guessing our actions – “What if they find out I lied? How many more people do I need to deceive to keep the deception going?”
There are two qualities that are talked about in Buddhist teaching. In Pali they’re called hiri and ottapah, which are usually translated as moral shame and moral dread (which I find are very difficult terms to grasp). What is really meant here is a very beautiful and delicate sense of conscience. It’s like an extreme sensitivity where something inside us just pulls back from harming or from hurting. This is a beautiful movement born out of caring deeply for ourselves and others. A sense of conscience isn’t the same as being moralistic, or judging ourselves or others: rather, it is developed through the process of having a commitment to care and compassion.
The second protection has to do with listening to the dhamma (the teachings) or studying the dhamma — reading books, going to lectures, consulting source material, and trying to understand the theory of the teachings. This is compared to watering our plot of land regularly. Study clarifies the path for us. It helps us know practical methods of meditation practice, put them into action and also understand the larger truth that is manifest through the different techniques, through each moment of experience. So, for example, we see that we are not just feeling the sensations of the breath, but we are observing the truth of change while doing so.
The Buddha said that when there is understanding, along with practice, then one’s path becomes very broad. He likened it to the kind of path an elephant makes going through the jungle. Our view of practice is not limited to a certain technique. We understand that what is essential in the end is not mental noting, or moving slowly, or moving our attention through the body from head to feet, but rather it is what these skillful means do, what they bring, why we do them, what they imply. This kind of understanding makes our path very broad.
It’s important to understand the protection of this, and the kind of inspiration, faith, and power that come out of understanding what we’re doing. In a single moment we can understand we are not just facing a knee pain, or our discouragement and our wishing the sitting would end, but that right in the moment of seeing that knee pain, we’re able to explore the teachings of the Buddha. What does it mean to have a painful experience? What does it mean to hate it, and to fear it? What does it mean to allow it, to be able to experience it fully? Right there, we have a core teaching.
And it is right in that moment that we find bondage or freedom, not this afternoon after lunch when we’re feeling better or tomorrow or the next retreat, it’s right in that moment. If we can understand that, then we’re very powerfully protected because we have the energy to keep going no matter what is happening.