Last June, I attended the retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh for Vietnam Veterans. Upon invitation, I traveled to Plum Village, where I lived for six weeks. It was in Rhinebeck that I was introduced to and took the Five Precepts. But it was in France that I experienced their impact on a community. The precepts, if lived, and not analyzed or debated, bring about a depth of contact with life that is well beyond the idea of shell and form. The wonderful precepts are not merely good ideas, they are substance, that moment just before the birth of a thought. While living in community with monks and nuns, I was constantly caressed by the essence of these wonderful precepts without even knowing it. Within this community, where these precepts form the foundation, I found life to be held in a quiet, gentle reverence—the likes of which I only dreamed or wished for, but thought impossible.
At the Veterans Retreat in New York, Thay kept saying that we, the veterans, were the light at the tip of the candle in our society. We deserve to be understood and we have not been. As I looked into his eyes, eyes that I had here to fore only known as the enemy, I felt accepted for the first time in my life. I was accepted in spite of myself; a byproduct, I am sure, of the precepts. Since Vietnam, my own community, culture, and society could not give me this. They cast me out into an emotional desert to hold the grief and be the focus of (or hold) the anger of an entire country. I was cut off from any kind of love, caring, or respect, ripped from safety (the illusion of material safety). And this summer I was laid in the lap of the precepts.
I have noticed that all of the precepts begin with the words, "Aware of the suffering caused by..." This is not some vague notion of suffering, reserved for artists and the like, but that unspoken part of life that most people spend an entire lifetime attempting to avoid, pretending it doesn't exist, throwing money at it, and hiding from it. I've had so much of it all my life. I saw suffering everywhere, to the point that I thought I would go mad, be crushed by it.
The precepts presented me with a vehicle through which the suffering could begin to be transformed. The precepts are about reverence, not about respect. Respect is judgment, and the precepts are not about judgment.
I read the precepts often. At various readings, I am moved by different parts of them. I am constantly moved by that part of the fourth precept which reads, "Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech, and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening..." These words always bring Thay's voice to my head, and I hear him saying "to know someone, truly know someone, you must understand them, and to understand them you must listen to them, and to listen you must spend time." Listening is not about imposing ideas on someone (for their own good), or patronizing them, but really listening. To truly listen to someone we must enter their skin and touch those self same feelings within us, our feelings. We must truly make contact with those around us— we must touch. This is how the precepts talk to me, they are about action, not about ideas. They are about embracing life, a foundation for mindful living. True meaning is never found through thought. It is found through living. We cannot think our way into a new way of living, we must live our way into new thinking. The precepts are alive, organic, not merely a group of words to be mastered—they are to be lived.
Claude Thomas Concord, Massachusetts