Monday, 24 May 2010


These are my notes for a talk given to to a beginner's class at the Bristol Buddhist Centre

The first time you read or hear of the Five Precepts you may be struck by their similarity to some of the Christian Commandments.  However, there are a number of clear distinctions. Firstly, the Precepts are not ‘commandments’.  They are principals for living an ethical life, voluntarily undertaken by those interested in living their lives in accordance with the Buddha Dharma – the teaching of the Buddha.  Secondly, they tend to be much broader than the Commandments and in addition, and most importantly, each has a positive counterpart:

  1. Abstention from killing living beings                      Kindness
  2. Abstention from taking the not given                    Generosity
  3. Abstention from sexual misconduct                     Equanimity
  4. Abstention from false speech                              Truthfulness
  5. Abstention from intoxicants                                 Mindfulness

Generally these five precepts are observed by lay people.  When you become ordained into the Western Buddhist Order, we are invited to observe a further five precepts – rather oddly the fifth precept – abstention from intoxicants – is dropped in favour of several more speech precepts.  Over the following four Tuesday evenings, we are going to be looking at these Five Precepts and in particular, their positive counterparts.

After a few weeks or months attending these drop-in classes, you may develop an interest in Buddhism and wish to know more.  You may eventually consider moving to our Monday ‘Friend’s Nights’.  Whilst these evenings also include meditation, there is a greater emphasis on other Buddhist practices including chanting and ritual.  Inevitably you will be invited to recite the Five Precepts in call and response.  The Precepts will be chanted in Pali, one of the ancient languages of Buddhism, followed by the positive counterpart chanted in English.

The first Precept is ‘I undertake to abstain from killing living beings’ and it is chanted as follows:

Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

The positive counterpart follows:

With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body.

On the face of it the first precept is so obvious, that it can sometimes be overlooked or quickly passed over.  You may think, “OK, I’m not planning to kill anyone in the immediate future, so let’s move on to the next one”.  We may not kill living beings, but there are those that do so in our name.  In Afghanistan, in Iraq British servicemen are killing and being killed on behalf of the British Government who represent the will of the people they serve – that’s you and me.  We may proclaim ourselves to be non- violent but this does little to stop violence being perpetrated on our behalf as British citizens.  As is nearly always the case when considering ethical behaviour, it is seldom that things are black and white – indeed the shades of grey seem infinite. 

Those of us that live in the country frequently find ourselves overrun with mice, usually driven indoors by severe weather.  As Buddhists, should we be using Little Nipper mouse traps to kill them or should we be catching them and taking them a couple of miles away in the boot of a car so we can release them without fear that they will come back.  If an infestation of vermin became a health hazard would we be justified in bringing in the council’s rodent exterminator?

Those of us who eat meat are seldom required to kill a pig or ring the neck of a chicken, but someone has to do so if we are to have our Sunday joint on the table. Slugs are destroying your garden.  You can buy organic slug pellets but should you be killing them at all?

How green are we?  Could our lack of awareness of green issues be contributing towards the destruction of the environment, thereby leading the death of thousands of creatures, perhaps threatening the livelihoods of many distant tribes-people or even putting their lives a risk?

There is the much bigger question of abortion.  If we abstain from killing living beings, should we be against abortion?  What about the grey area of stem cell research?

There are no easy answers to some of these questions and sometimes one is tempted to wish that we didn’t have to face these choices; that we would be better off if Buddhists had someone like to the Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury to tell us what is right and what is wrong.  It would be a relief if someone else made these difficult decisions for us. For the moment, let us put aside these contentious issues and consider the positive precept, “With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body”.  This seems to suggest that with the best will in the world, we are somehow going to be involved in killing living beings whether directly or indirectly but if we make a conscious effort to develop loving kindness we may not be absolved of responsibility but we can in some way prepare ourselves and perhaps even counteract the effects of violence in the world and in ourselves.

If you were here a couple of weeks ago, you will have heard Suhada introducing the Metta Bhavana meditation.  For those unfamiliar with this practice this meditation is designed to assist us in overcoming negative emotions such as aversion, jealousy, greed, hatred and ignorance by developing ‘metta’.  Metta may be translated in various ways but we generally like to describe it as ‘unconditional loving kindness’.

Of course, it would be na├»ve to expect that just by practicing Metta Bhavana we will eradicate all the violence and killing in the world.  However, it may influence the way we vote or indeed encourage those of us who usually don’t vote, to do so.  We may feel encouraged to participate in protest marches or join groups opposed to war and violence.  There are a hundred ways we could manifest our desire to see a less violent world.

Regular metta practice will heighten our own capacity for compassion; little by little we may become aware of our increased desire to work towards a less violent, more compassionate society.  We may slowly come to question the need for animals to suffer in order to feed us.  Why should someone in a slaughterhouse be expected to accept the karmic consequences of killing living beings on our behalf?  We may be prompted to review the harm we are doing to our environment and seek less damaging ways to live. Like the story of the 100 Monkeys, the more of us that practice, the greater the possibility that one day society may change. 

By now you may realise that the first precept, Abstaining from Killing Living Beings, is not as obvious or as simple as you first thought and it is much wider in scope than ‘Thou Shall Not Kill’  demanding a greater level of consideration; possibly bringing your everyday practice of Metta Bhavana into a totally new focus and perspective.  Abstaining from killing living beings and developing loving kindness, requires a great deal of consideration and demands a much higher level of awareness than we may have originally thought necessary.

Saturday, 8 May 2010


For many years my great passion was dinghy racing. I learned to sail in Bristol City Docks and then joined the Portishead Yacht and Sailing Club. The Bristol Channel is not the best bit of water to sail on. As the tide ebbs and flows, it creates one of the greatest tidal rises in the world. Consequently the strength of the tide limits sailing to just a brief hour or so either side of high water. So, in order to succeed in racing dinghies in these unfavourable conditions you not only have to understand the tides you also have to develop an affinity with the wind and quickly understand its fickle nature. One minute it is blasting at force 5 or 6 you need all your strength and knowledge just to stay afloat. The next minute it has swung round 90 degrees, fallen away to a dead calm and you are drifting backwards.

Riding a big blow on a broad reach can be breath-taking but if you fail to treat it with respect, you will find yourself in the water, all hopes of success dashed. It can be spooky too. You can be ghosting along on the merest breath of wind, the sails flapping like laundry on a washing line. Fifty yards away is the next boat, the skipper similarly using all his cunning to coax some movement out of the slightest zephyr. Then, out of nowhere, a boat trailing far behind, picks up the wind and sails straight between the two of you as if the gods had extended an invisible finger whilst the other boats sit there helpless. So, anyone who has spent any time messing about in boats, will recognise that the wind is a perfect metaphor for those things in life that one moment carry you towards victory and then in an instance, the other way towards disaster.

In traditional Buddhist terms, there are Eight Worldly Winds or rather, four pairs of Worldly Winds. One takes you where you wish to be and the other moves you the opposite direction. Some attract us whilst others repel us. The pairs are:

Praise Blame
Success Failure (also referred to as Gain and Loss)
Pleasure Pain
Fame Disrepute (also referred to as Honour and Disgrace).

We all respond well to praise. If someone appreciates what we do and gives us a pat on the back, we feel happy – that’s a normal reaction. However, if we hear praise too often we can become swollen headed and begin to expect praise as our due. This can lead to arrogance and false pride – and we all know what pride comes before.

I had been sailing for a year of two at the PYSC and sailed with Dave who had an Osprey. This was a fast trapeze-crewed boat, solid and well suited to the strong tides and big seas of the Bristol Channel. We had been getting on well and slowly moving up the fleet usually finishing in the top half dozen or so. One day we sailed a particularly well and crossed the line first. We had never won a race before and the spectators on the clubhouse balcony and the crowds on the shore were applauding as we approached the slipway and I swelled with pride. My helmsman called for a quick tack and I swiftly detached my harness clip, swung across the boat, ducked under the boom, sat out on the opposite side and leaned back into the harness as I acknowledged the tributes. Unfortunately I had forgotten to reconnect my harness and executed a perfect backwards summersault as I toppled out of the boat into the water. Without me there to take the bow and hold the boat steady, the hull ground onto the concrete slip. Praise quickly turned to blame as he accused me of being responsible for the big gouge in the bow.

There’s an old saying, “Be nice to the people you meet on the way up because you are going to meet them again on the way down.”

Most of us learn this lesson the hard way. How many of us have childhood memories of wonderful days on the beach, running in and out of the sea, making sand castles, searching for crabs in rock pools? Many have further memories of the pain as we lay face down on the bed covered with a pink crust of calamine lotion, shivering from sunstroke.

I had a close friend who was an actress. She had mostly been making a living from small walk-on parts in soaps and hospital dramas. Then she secured a leading role in a play running at the Savoy, her name was quite literally in lights. As a West End star she was invited to all the glittering showbiz parties and first night receptions. Visiting her in her dressing room one day I was surprised how calmly she had taken the sudden fame. She told me that it was all an illusion. She had been in the acting profession long enough to know that it could all disappear as quickly as it came. She refused to allow her head to be turned. When the production came to an end and she found herself ‘resting’ between jobs as a waitress at the Hard Rock Cafe, it came as no surprise. She returned to her relative obscurity without complaint or bitterness – she understood the cruel nature of celebrity. My admiration was boundless.

So, what can we do to cope with the worldly winds that blow us first one way and then the other? How can we prepare ourselves for the swings in fortune and misfortune? The answer is to develop equanimity.
The Seven Supports that lead to Equanimity:

1. Virtue or integrity
2. Faith or confidence
3. Mindfulness
4. A sense of well-being
5. Understanding or wisdom
6. Insight
7. Freedom or letting go.

When we live and act ethically and with integrity, we become confident in our actions and words, leading to the equanimity of blamelessness. The ancient Buddhist texts speak of being able to go into any assembly of people and feel blameless.

The Pali word for faith, saddha, is also translated as conviction or confidence. If we have confidence in the Dharma and our engagement in a spiritual practice, then we are more likely to meet life’s challenges with equanimity.

Meditation develops concentration and mindfulness. When the mind is focused and calm, we are less likely to be blown about by the worldly winds.

By developing metta (loving kindness) towards ourselves as well as others we are more able to enjoy the world around us. Free from self doubt we are able to engage more fully with life and accept what we have without craving that which we have not.

Wisdom is an important factor in developing an accepting awareness; to be present for whatever is happening without the mind or heart contracting or resisting. We understand that our thoughts and impulses are often the result of external conditioning. Recognising this we learn to be more open and able to think for ourselves.

One of the primary insights is the nature of impermanence. By recognising impermanence we see that things change so quickly we simply can’t hold onto anything for long. When you really engage with this on an emotional level the mind will let go of clinging. Letting go brings equanimity; the greater the letting go, the deeper the equanimity.

Letting go of our conditioned responses and our reactive tendencies, brings freedom from bigotry, prejudice and discrimination. Being open to experience is liberating and leads to equanimity. As mindfulness becomes stronger, so does our equanimity. We see with greater independence and freedom. Equanimity becomes an inner strength that keeps us balanced.

When I lived in Spain, I crewed an 8 meter yacht designed for racing and day cruising. We had a crew of 6; five Englishmen and a Spanish skipper, Manuel. Manuel loved to race but was pretty hopeless at it. In spite of his passion he had little natural ability. We would spot wind-shifts and call out suggestions for changes of course to improve our position, but Manuel dithered. By the time he made a decision it would be too late and the advantage gone. Slowly we would slip back to our usual position at the tail end of the fleet. Eventually Manuel, realising that all was lost, would ask one of the others to take the helm whilst he went below. He would emerge moments later with a large tortilla, a roast chicken, bags of crisps, cool San Miguel beers and a giant flask of hot black coffee generously laced with brandy. We never won a single race in all the time I sailed with him, but we were the happiest, most contented crew in the entire Mediterranean.

There was a well-known scholar who practiced Buddhism and befriended a Chan Master. Thinking that he had made great strides in his spiritual practice, he wrote a poem and asked his attendant to deliver it to the Master who lived across the river. The Master opened the letter and read the short poem aloud:
"Unmoved by the eight worldly winds, *
Serenely, I sit on the purplish gold terrace."
A smile broke up on the lips of the Master. Picking up an ink brush, he scribbled the word "fart" across the letter and asked that it be delivered back to the scholar.
The scholar was upset and went across the river right away to reprimand the Master for being so rude. The Master laughed as he said, "You said you are no longer moved by the eight worldly winds and yet with just one 'fart', you ran across the river like a rat!"