#06 Spring 1992

Dharma Talk: Precepts as a Way of Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh There are many problems in the world today—alcoholism, sexual abuse, oppression, exploitation of the environment, and so forth. If we look deeply, we can see that our stability and the stability of our family and society require us to discover practices and antidotes to overcome these prob­lems.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha offered us the Five Wonderful Precepts. These precepts can perform miracles. The moment we decide to receive them, a transformation already occurs in us that touches everything. I have seen this many times. During the ceremony to receive the precepts, our internal knots are untied, and afterwards we actually look different. Many small doors are closed, and one big door is opened wide. When we confirm our determi­nation to go through that door, we look and feel happier and more stable. With the community's support, we attain peace and loving kindness right away.

The foundation of all precepts is mindfulness. We begin each precept with the awareness of a particular problem, saying, "Aware of ..." Then, instead of saying, "Don't do this," or "Don't do that," we say, "I am determined to do this. I am determined not to do that." Because forgetfulness is such a strong tendency in us, it is very helpful to practice the Five Precepts with a sangha, a community of friends.

The First Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking and in my way of life.

To practice the first precept is to protect life. Life has many forms, inside us and around us. When we practice mindfulness, we see that lives are being destroyed every­where, and we vow to cultivate compassion and use this as a source of energy for the protection of the lives of people, animals, and plants. The first precept is the precept of compassion and loving kindness.

We should not lose awareness of the suffering in the world. We can nourish this awareness by means of sounds, images, direct contact, and so on. But most of the suffering we endure every day—perhaps 95%—is not necessary at all. Because we lack insight, we create unnecessary suffering for ourselves and others, especially those we love. But when we have contact with the remaining 5% of suffering, we feel compassion, the kind of energy necessary for us to trans­form ourselves and help relieve the world's suffering. But if we touch too much suffering, it may be harmful for us. Medicine always needs to be taken in the proper dosage. We should stay in touch with the suffering only to the extent that we do not forget it, so that compassion will flow in us and be a source of energy that can be transformed into action. According to Buddhism, compassion is the only source of energy that we can use, and compassion is born from insight.

After we have developed compassion, we have to continue practice in order to learn the many ways of protecting the lives of people, animals, and plants. Just feeling compassion is not enough. We also have to develop understanding and insight so that we know what kind of action to take. We say "learning the ways." We do not know everything. We have to come together as a sangha to discuss together how we can protect life. Confucius said, "To know that you don't know is the beginning of knowing." This is the best way to study and practice the precepts. There are many problems in our society that did not exist at the time of the Buddha, so we have to come together and discuss these things. We and our children have to learn and practice the ways of protecting the lives of people, animals, and plants.

The first sentence is: "Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants." This is about awareness of the destruction of life, the cultivation of compassion, learning the ways of action, and keeping our awareness of suffering alive. There is e­nough in this sentence for us to practice the rest of our lives.

The second sentence is: "I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing, in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life." This sentence reflects our determination not to kill, either directly or indirectly. But we must also learn how to prevent others from killing. No killing whatsoever can be justified. If you were in Nazi Germany and someone asked you why things were the way they were, if you were practicing the first precept you could not say, "They did it. I am not respon­sible. My hands are clean." During the Gulf War, if you did not do anything, that is also an offense against the first precept. Even if you attempted to do some things and did not succeed, what is most important is that you tried something. We must make the effort to stop all wars.

According to the Buddha, the mind is the basis of all actions. To kill with the mind is more dangerous than to kill with the body. When you believe that you have the only way and that everyone who does not follow your way is your enemy, millions may be killed. And it is not just by killing with our hands and our thinking that we can break the first precept. If, in our way of life, we allow killing to go on, we also commit an offense. We must look deeply. When we buy something or consume something, we may be participating in an act of killing.

If someone were to ask me, "What is the best way to practice the first precept?" I would have to say, "I don't know." I myself am still learning together with you. We should be modest and open. Because we have made efforts together in looking deeply, we have been able to write a more profound version of the precepts. If we continue to practice, we may be able to offer our children an even better version tomorrow.

The Second Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn the ways of working for the well-being of people, animals, and plants. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of others species on Earth.

Stealing comes in many forms. Oppression is one form of stealing, and it causes much suffering both here and in the Third World. Countries are torn by poverty and oppression. We want to help hungry children and adults help themselves, but we are caught in a way of life that keeps us so busy that we do not have time to help. Sometimes all that is needed is one pill or one bowl of rice to save the life of a child, but we are caught up in the tiny problems of our daily lives. We could send hundreds of thousands of pills or millions of bowls of rice, but we feel helpless, unable to do anything to alleviate the suffering.

In Ho Chi Minh City, there are street children who call themselves the "Dust of Life." They wander the streets and sleep under trees, scavenging in garbage heaps to find things they can sell for five dong. Nuns and monks in Ho Chi Minh City are organizing daily classes in the temples for these children. If they agree to come in the morning and stay for four hours, learning to read and write and playing with the monks and nuns, they are offered vegetarian lunches. After that, they can go to the Buddha Hall to take a nap. (In Vietnam, we like to take naps after lunch, because it is so hot. When the Americans came, they brought the practice of working eight hours, and many of us tried to follow, but we couldn't. We desperately need naps after lunch.) At two o'clock there is more teaching and playing, and the children who can stay four more hours receive dinner. The temple does not have a place for them to stay overnight, so they leave after dinner and come back in the morning. We in Plum Village have been supporting these nuns and monks. It only costs twenty cents per child per day, for lunch and dinner, and it keeps the children off the streets, preventing them from becoming delinquent and entering prison later on. We don't need a lot of money to help these children. We only need a little time. There are so many things like that we can do to help, but because we cannot free ourselves from our own small problems and our lifestyles, we don't do anything. The first sentence of this precept is about aware­ness of the suffering and about cultivating loving kindness and learning the way of working for the well-being of people, animals, and plants. The second sentence is: "I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need." This is very specific. We may have a feeling of generosity and a capacity of being generous, but we must also develop specific ways of expressing our generosity. Time is more than money. Time is life; time is happiness; time is for bringing joy and happiness to other people. Even if you who are very wealthy, unless you are happy, you cannot make other people happy.

I know one very poor gentleman in Vietnam who has been practicing generosity for fifty years. He owns only a bicycle, but because his heart is so generous, he is able to help many other people in need. When I met him in 1965, I was a little too proud about our School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS). We organized to rebuild many villages and promote social reform in the fields of education, health, and economic development. Our project was ambitious—we trained 300 workers, including monks and nuns, who went to the villages and helped the people modernize the economy, health, and education. Eventually, there were nearly 10,000 workers throughout Vietnam. As I was telling this gentleman about our project, I looked at his bicycle and thought that he could bring only a little help to people in one province. But in fact, he has taught me an important lesson.

Although the SYSS accomplished many of its goals, when the communists took over, they stopped our work, while this gentleman continues his small work to this day. Unlike us, he did not have anything for the government to confiscate. Thousands of our workers had to hide; and many orphanages, clinics, and schools were shut down. Because we have learned from this gentleman, now we are more humble. When you practice generosity, looking is very important, so that you can learn all the time.

In Buddhism, we say there are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is the gift of helping people rely on themselves. We call this the gift of Dharma. The third is the gift of non-fear. We human beings are afraid of being left alone, of becoming sick, and of dying. Helping people not be destroyed by fear is the greatest gift of all.

The second precept is a very deep practice of sharing time, energy, and material resources. Time is for being deeply present with the other person. Time is not just to make money. It is to produce the three kinds of gifts.

The Third Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. 

We know that in our soul there are memories, pains, and secrets that we want to keep to ourselves or share only with those we love and trust the most. In the royal capital, there is a zone where only the king and his family can circulate. There is a place like that in our soul, where we don't allow anyone to approach, except our most beloved. The same is true of our body. Our body has areas that we do not want others to approach or touch, except for our most beloved, the person we respect, trust, and love the most. In the Buddhist tradition, we speak of the oneness of body and mind. Whatever happens to the body also happens to the mind. A sexual relationship is an act of communion between body and spirit. This is a very important event, not to be done in a casual manner. When you are approached casually or carelessly, with an attitude that is less than tender, you feel insulted in body and soul. Someone who approaches you with respect, tenderness, and utmost care is offering you deep communication, deep communion. Only in that case will you not feel hurt, misused, or abused, even a little. This cannot be obtained without true love and commitment. Casual sex cannot be called love. 

"True love contains respect." This Vietnamese expres­sion means that a couple respects each other as honored guests. Respect is one of the most important elements of a sexual relationship. Sexual communion should be like a ritual, performed in mindfulness with great love, care, and respect. If you are just motivated by desire, that is not love. "Love" is a beautiful word, and we have to restore its meaning. When we say "love" to describe our appetite, as when we say, "I love hamburgers," we spoil the word. We should not misuse words in this way. We make them sick. We have to make the effort to heal the words by using them properly and carefully.

If love is understood in this way, why do we need to add the phrase, "long-term commitment"? If love is real, there is no need to say or do anything else. We don't even need a wedding ceremony. True love guarantees everything. It includes the sense of responsibility, accepting the other person as he or she is, with all strengths and weaknesses. If you like only the best things in a person, that is not love. You have to accept his or her weaknesses and bring your patience, understanding, and energy to help the person transform. According to the teaching of the Buddha, true love is maitri, the capacity to bring joy and happiness, and karuna, the capacity to transform pain and suffering. This kind of love can only do good, and it is safe.

In the West and in Asia, we use the phrase "love sick­ness." The kind of love that makes us sick is attachment, or addiction. Like a drug, it makes us feel wonderful, but once we are addicted, we cannot have peace. We can't study, work, or sleep. We just think about the other person. This kind of love is possessive, even totalitarian. We want to own the object of our love, and we don't want anyone to prevent us from possessing them totally. It creates a kind of prison for our beloved one. He or she is deprived of the right to be himself or herself. This is neither maitri nor karuna. It is the willingness to make use of another person to satisfy our own needs.

The expression "long-term commitment" is in this precept to help us understand that in the context of love, commitment can only be long-term. "I want to love you. I want to help you. I want to care for you. I want you to be happy. I want to work for your happiness. But just for a few days." This is not love. The two people are afraid to make a commitment to the precepts or to one another.

To love our child deeply, we have to make a long-term commitment and help him or her through the journey as long as we are alive. When we have a good friend, we also make a long-term commitment. We need him or her. How much more so the person with whom we want to share our body and soul! The phrase "long-term commitment" cannot begin to express the depth of our love, but we need to say some­thing so that people will not misunderstand the word love, especially those who do not have time to join a Dharma discussion or read precepts' commentaries.

A long-term commitment made in the context of a sangha can be long-lasting, strong, and fruitful. If your long­term commitment is just between the two of you, you will not have the support of friends and family. So we have a wedding ceremony for families and friends to witness. The priest and the marriage license are just symbols. What is important is that your commitment to come together to live as a couple is witnessed by friends and family so that they will support you. The feeling between you may not be enough to sustain your happiness. Without the support of family and friends, what you now describe as love will turn sour later on. If a tree wants to be solid, it sends many roots deeply into the soil. If it has just one root, it may be blown over by the wind. In the same way, a couple needs to be supported by families, friends, ideals, practice, and the sangha.

Every time we have a wedding ceremony in Plum Village, we invite the entire community to celebrate. During the ceremony, the couple recites the Five Awarenesses (See Mindfulness Bell #2), and they agree to recite them every full moon day, with the knowledge that friends everywhere are supporting their relationship so that it will be stable, long-lasting, and happy. If you do not accept the institution of marriage, you still need some commitment, and it is best made in the presence of a sangha—friends who love you and want to support you in the spirit of loving kindness and understanding. Even if you do not have a marriage license and are not bound together by the law, your relationship will be stronger if you make a commitment in front of family and friends. 

"Responsibility" is the key word of the third precept. In a community of practice, if everyone practices this precept well, there will be peace and stability. Practicing in this way, we respect, support, and protect each other as Dharma brothers and sisters. If we don't, what happens in our community will also create trouble in the larger community. We have seen that if a teacher cannot refrain from sleeping with one of his students, he will destroy everything. So we refrain from sexual misconduct because we are aware that we are responsible for the well-being of the entire community, including the future generations. If we do not refrain, we will destroy everything.

The third precept also applies to society. There are many ways that our families and society are destroyed by sexual misconduct. I know one person who still suffers every day because she was molested as a child. The best way for her to heal herself is to observe the third precept: "As a victim of sexual abuse, I vow to become someone who will protect all children and adults from sexual abuse." In that way, her suffering can be transformed into a positive energy that will help her protect others. When you take the third precept, you vow to protect children and also those who abuse children sexually. The ones who cause suffering must also become the objects of your love and protection. You see that the molesters are the product of an unstable society. Whether it be an uncle, an aunt, a parent, or a grandparent, he or she should be observed, helped, and healed.


Practicing the third precept is to help ourselves and others avoid being wounded. We usually talk of women being wounded, but men also get deeply wounded by love relationships. We have to be very careful, especially in short-term commitments. The practice of the third precept is a very strong way of restoring stability and peace within ourselves, our families, and our society. We should also discuss the many problems relating to this precept, such as the "sex industry," advertising, and loneliness. The feeling of loneliness is universal in our society. There is so little real communication, even in our own families. That feeling of loneliness can push us into a sexual relationship. We believe in a naive way that having a sexual relationship will make us feel less lonely. But when there is no communication between you and the other person on the level of the heart and the spirit, having a sexual relationship can only widen the gap. It can destroy you and the other person. Your relationship will be stormy and will cause both of you much suffering. You will both feel even more lonely. The belief that sexual relationships help us feel less lonely is a kind of modern superstition; we should not be fooled by it. The union of the two bodies can only be positive when there is understanding and communion on the level of the heart and the spirit. If the communion between husband and wife doesn't exist on this level, then the coming together of their two bodies will separate them further. It is better to refrain from sexual relations until you make a breakthrough to communicate.

The third precept can help us protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, communities, and society. So many children and adults, couples and families, communities, and nations have been destroyed by sexual misconduct and sexual abuse. For many people, this kind of responsible behavior may be easy to practice, but for others, it is quite difficult. These people have to come together to share their experiences and help each other learn and practice responsibility and non-harming. We all have to do the same.

The Fourth Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to recon­cile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

This precept is directly linked with the second precept. There is a saying in Vietnamese, "You don't need a lot of money to have kind speech." Loving speech is freely available. We only need to be mindful, choosing our words carefully, and we can make many other people happy. This is generosity. Many of us think that we can only practice generosity if we spend a lot of money. We dream of getting rich so that we can bring happiness to others. We don't understand that once we are rich, it may actually be more difficult to practice generosity. When we are motivated by loving kindness, maitri and karuna, we can bring happiness to others through our kind speech. With kind speech, we offer people joy, happiness, confidence, hope, and trust. Mindful speaking is a deep practice. Avalokitesvara is able to speak in a way that helps people let go of their fear, misery, and despair. Without looking deeply into ourselves, this is not easy. When we have a lot of suffering in our­selves, it is difficult to speak mindfully or with loving kindness. So we have to look deeply into the nature of our anger, despair, and suffering in order to free ourselves and be available to others.

Suppose your husband tells you something that hurts you. If you reply out of anger and suffering, you risk hurting him and making the suffering deeper. But if you suppress your anger and remain silent, you will suffer more later on, and your suffering will also bring about more suffering for your partner. I recommend that you breathe in and out: "Breathing in, I know I am angry. Breathing out, I calm my anger." Then, when you are calm enough, you can say, "Darling, I am angry. What you said hurt me." You will feel some relief just from saying that. During that moment, you are really in touch with your anger. You are not denying it.

Then you can invite your spouse to meet with you on Friday evening so that the two of you can look together at the disturbance. If you discuss your feelings right away, while you are still angry, you risk saying something that will make the situation worse. Between now and Friday night, you both have a few days to look deeply into the nature of your anger. While driving the car to work, for example, he may ask himself, "Why did she get so upset? There must be a reason." Hopefully, before Friday night, one or both of you will see into the true nature of the problem and say, "I'm sorry, I was not very mindful." Then, when Friday comes, you won't have to look at the problem. Instead, you can have a cup of tea together. Making an appointment will give both of you time to calm down and look deeply.

When Friday night comes, if the suffering has not already been transformed, you can both practice deep listening. You sit quietly together and then one person expresses himself or herself, while the other person sits and listens. When you speak, try to tell the deepest kind of truth and practice loving speech, knowing that only with that kind of speech will there be a chance for the other person to understand and accept. The other person, while listening, knows that only with deep listening can he relieve the suffering of the other person. If he listens with half an ear, he cannot do it. His presence and his listening must be of good quality. It is good to meet on Friday night, so that after you have neutralized the negative feeling, you still have Saturday and Sunday to enjoy the weekend and each other.

Let me offer another illustration of practicing the fourth precept. Suppose you have some kind of internal formation regarding a member of your family or your community. It may not be very deep, but because of it, you don't feel much joy when you are with that person. You don't mind talking to him to settle a number of minor things, but you don't like to confront him about the deeper things that are troubling you. Then one day, while you are doing housework, you notice that he is not sharing the work that needs to be done. You feel uneasy and begin to wonder, "Why am I doing so much while he is not doing anything?" You should be practicing mindful working, but because of this comparative thinking, you lose your happiness, comparing yourself with another person, expecting that person to share the work with you. But for some reason you are unable to go to him and tell him, "Please brother, come help with the work." Instead, you say to yourself, "He is an adult. Why should I have to say something to him? He should be responsible enough to help without my asking." You behave like that because you already have some internal information about him. In fact, the shortest way to deal with it is directly. You go to him and say, "Brother, please come help." But you don't do that. Instead you keep it to yourself and blame him.

The next time that kind of thing happens, your feeling is even more intense. Your internal formations have grown little by little, until you suffer so much that she needs to talk about it with a third person ("C"). You ("B") look for sympathy in order to share your suffering. Instead of talking directly to "A," you talk to "C," who you think has a similar internal formation. You look at "C" as a kind of ally who will agree with you that "A" is not good enough in the practice.

Since you already have some internal formations concerning "A," you will be glad to hear that there is someone who feels as you do. Talking to each other makes you feel better. You don't know that you are becoming allies—"B" and "C" against "A." Suddenly "B" and "C" feel close to each other and distant from "A." Very soon "A" will notice that. He may not be at all aware that "B" feels some resentment towards him. He is capable of helping "B" if "B" can express her feelings directly to him. But "A" doesn't know. Suddenly "A" feels some coolness between himself and "B," but he does not know why. He sees that "B" and "C" are very close to each other, and they are looking at him in a cold way. "A" suffers. "They don't want me. Why should I try to be close to them?" So he steps farther back from them, and the situation becomes worse. A kind of triangle has been set up.

If I were "C," I would try to practice like this: First of all I would try to listen to "B" attentively. I know that "B" needs to share her suffering. So I listen deeply in order to relieve "B" of her suffering. The second thing I would do is to offer my help to "B." "My sister, why don't you go directly to talk to him? If needed, I will go with you to talk with him." After practicing the art of deep listening, "C" will try to practice mindful, loving speech with "B" and convince her to go directly to "A."

The third thing "C" can do is also very important. She is determined not to transmit what "B" has told her to another person. She knows that if she is not mindful, she will transmit to others what "B" has told her, and very soon the family or the community will be in a mess. If "C" can do these three steps, she will be able to break the triangle. She will help solve the problem, and peace and joy can be assured in the family, the society, or the community. It is best to do this as soon as possible. The sooner, the better. We shouldn't let things drag on for a long time. They will become much more difficult to solve. 

"Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope." When we tell someone something that makes him or her happy, that is a great gift. When we say something that is cruel or distressing, the other person may lose hope, even the joy to live. Our speech can be constructive or destructive. This is linked to the first precept, not to kill. When we advocate an ideology, we may feel that our way of thinking or of organizing society is the best. We can even put anyone standing in the way of our realizing our ideology into a gas chamber, because of our beliefs. Ideology, a kind of speech, can be used to kill millions of people.

The fourth precept is also linked to the second precept, not to steal. Just as there is a "sex industry," there is also a "lying industry." Recently, a corporate executive whose job is to write articles about his company's products told me that he has to practice lying in order to earn his living. If he tells the truth about the products, people will not buy them. There are many people like that in business and in politics. Communists, capitalists, socialists, and others lie all the time. Even in regards to the third precept, when someone says "I love you," it may be a lie. It may be just some desire. Advertisements are also linked with sex.

We must use words that inspire self-confidence, espe­cially with our children. If we treat our children as worth­less, they will suffer in the future. If we encourage them with positive words, they will flower.

In the Buddhist tradition, the fourth precept is described as refraining from: (1) lying, (2) exaggerating, (3) saying one thing to one person and something else to another person, and (4) using insulting, abusive language. 

"I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small."

We can practice reconciliation with our deep listening and our mindful, loving speech. To reconcile means to bring peace and happiness to nations, people, and members of our family. This is the work of a bodhisattva. In order to reconcile, we have to refrain from aligning ourselves with either party in order to understand both parties. This is not just the work of diplomacy. It is not because we travel by air a lot and meet with foreign ministers that we can do the work of reconciliation. We have to use our bodies. We can be suppressed or even killed by the people we want to help. We have to listen to both sides and then tell each side of the suffering of the other. This work takes courage. We need people to do this in South Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

The fourth precept is a bodhisattva precept. We need to study it deeply in order to be able to practice within our­selves, our family, our community, and in the world.

The Fifth Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future genera­tions. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

I would like to explain the "emptiness of transmission." In the formal meals at Plum Village, the monks and nuns pick up their bowls, look into the emptiness that is inside it, and recite this gatha: "This bowl was handed down to me by the Tathagata. I now have the honor of holding it in my two hands. I vow to realize the threefold emptiness." The Buddha gives us transmission, and we receive it. Between the two, there is the object of transmission. When we eat the food in our bowl, we contemplate the emptiness of the one who made the offering, the one who received the offering, and the offering itself. These three things are empty, empty of a separate self. When we look deeply, we can see that the three are one.

The gift, the giver, and the receiver are one. We are practicing not only for ourselves, but also for the one who made the donation. This is the true practice of giving and the true practice of receiving. The giver should give in that spirit and not think, "I am the one who gives, and you should be grateful to me." She knows that she is one with the recipient. And the recipient does not think only that this is a gift given by someone. He knows that what has been given is for him to maintain himself for the practice, and the practice will benefit everyone, not just himself. In that kind of spirit, we are grateful, and this is called the "emptiness of giving."

When we hear the words, "Love your enemy," we may ask, "How can we love our enemies?" When we are able to love our enemies, they will stop being our enemies. We are practicing the "emptiness of loving." There is no distinction between lover and beloved. The other person is not our enemy, but ourselves. Loving our enemy means to love ourselves. When we look at our father with anger, we do not see that we and our father are one. At the moment we understand and love our father, we realize the emptiness of loving. Loving ourselves is to love our father, and loving our father is to love ourself. The fifth precept needs to be practiced in this spirit.

We take care of our body and our consciousness and keep ourselves healthy for our ancestors, our parents, and future generations. We do it for everyone. We are not practicing as separate entities. When we take a glass of wine, we are doing it for our ancestors. All of our ancestors and all future generations are taking the wine with us. That is the true spirit of the emptiness of transmission.

People who drink alcohol and get drunk are destroying their bodies, their families, and their society. They really should refrain from drinking. But what about drinking two glasses of wine a week? Why should you stop? What is the use of refraining if your drinking does not hurt you or other people? The answer is that, although you have not harmed yourself, your drinking may have an adverse effect on your children, your grandchildren, and your society. We only need to look deeply to see it. We are not practicing for ourselves alone. We are practicing for everyone. What if your children have seeds of alcoholism in them? When they see you drinking wine, they may think that it is completely natural, and later, they may become alcoholic. If you give up your two glasses of wine, even though they have not brought any harm to your body, you are showing your children, your friends, and society that your life is not only for yourself, that it is also for your ancestors, the future generations, and society. This is a very deep practice. It is the insight of a bodhisattva. That is why the emptiness of giving is the basis of the fifth precept.

In modern life in the West, young people have the impression that their body belongs to them, that they can do anything they want to their body. They feel they have the right to live their own lives however they please. And the law supports them. That is individualism, but according to the teaching of emptiness, your body is not yours alone. Your body belongs to your ancestors, your parents, and future generations, and it also belongs to society and all other living beings. All of them have come together to bring about the presence of this body—the trees, clouds, every­thing. Keeping your body healthy is to express gratitude to the whole cosmos—to all ancestors and to future genera­tions. We practice this precept for everyone. If you are healthy, physically and mentally, all beings will profit from it, not just men and women, but animals, plants, and the whole cosmos. The practice of the fifth precept should be based on that kind of insight. This is a bodhisattva precept. When we practice the Five Precepts, we are already on the path of a bodhisattva.

When it is clear to you that you are practicing not only for yourself, you will stop drinking even one or two glasses of wine a week. At a reception, when someone offers you a glass of wine, you can smile and decline. "No thank you. I do not drink alcohol. Do you have any juice or mineral water?" You do it gently, with a smile. This is a true act of a bodhisattva—setting an example by your own life.

Everything a pregnant woman eats, drinks, or fears has an effect on the baby inside her. If she is not aware of the nature of interbeing between her and the child, she may cause damage to both at the same time. If she drinks alcohol, she can destroy herself and also the child. Modern research has shown that when expecting mothers drink alcohol, it creates brain damage in the fetus. Studies at the University of Vancouver and elsewhere have proven that mothers who drink alcohol during certain periods of their pregnancy give birth to children with Fetal Alcohol Syn­drome.

We are what we consume. If we look deeply into the items we consume, we will know our own nature. Mindful consumption is the main object of the fifth precept. We all have to eat, drink, and consume, but if we do so unmindfully, we can destroy our bodies and our conscious­ness, expressing a lack of gratitude to our ancestors, parents, and future generations.

When we are mindful, we know that the food we eat comes from the cosmos, nature, and all living beings. If we can touch even one piece of fruit with our eyes and our mindfulness, we show our gratitude and experience great joy. If we look at our food for just half a second before putting it into our mouth and chewing it mindfully, we see that one string bean is the ambassador of the whole cosmos. This is the practice of being in touch.

When we are mindful, we see whether there are toxins in our food. Before eating, we can look at our food mindfully, perhaps even calling out the name of each dish: "tofu," "tomato," "rice." Calling something by its name is a good way to touch it deeply, to see directly into its true nature. At that moment, mindfulness will reveal to us whether the food is nutritious and healthy, or whether it contains toxins. Children can enjoy doing this if we show them how.

We can also talk about a diet for our consciousness. (See Mindfulness Bell #5.) We should refrain from ingesting intellectual and spiritual food that brings toxins into our consciousness. Some television programs contain toxins; others can educate us and help us lead a healthy life. We should make time to watch good programs, but there are other programs that can poison our consciousness, and we should refrain from watching them. This can be a practice for everyone in the family.

We label cigarette packs: "Warning: Smoking may be hazardous to your health," but we still have to be strong, because smoking advertisements are so compelling that they make us feel that if we don't smoke, we are depriving ourselves of everything worth living for. Smoking is linked with nature, expensive cars, beautiful women, high standards of living, and airplanes. This kind of advertising penetrates into our consciousness. There are so many wonderful and healthy things to eat and drink. We have to show our young people how this kind of propaganda creates a very wrong impression. Now it is possible to take an airplane without suffering from the smoke. We have to make more effort in that direction. We have to write articles and do everything in our power to step up these kinds of campaigns against smoking and drinking alcohol. There is the danger that even if we don't drink alcohol ourselves, we may get killed by a drunken driver. In persuading one person to refrain from drinking, you make the world safer for all of us.

I know that drinking wine is an important element running deep in Western civilization, as is evident in the ceremony of the Eucharist and the Passover meal. I have spoken with Catholic priests and nuns to see whether it might be possible to substitute grape juice for the wine, and they think it is possible. I suggested that they use real bread—not just symbolic bread—in the Eucharist for people to enjoy eating. We can make the ceremony into real life, something like a tea meditation. We really enjoy the cookie, not just as a symbol but truly.

Sometimes we don't need to consume as much as we do. But consuming has become a kind of addiction, because we feel so lonely. It is similar to the third and fourth precepts. We feel lonely, and we want to engage in a conversation or a sexual relationship, hoping that our loneliness will go away. Drinking and eating may be the result of our loneli­ness. When we feel truly alone, we may want to drink to forget our loneliness. Loneliness is one of the afflictions of modem life. When we are lonely, we ingest food in our body and into our consciousness that can bring toxins into us. We watch television, read magazines or novels, or pick up the telephone. We make our condition worse by unmindful consumption. If we spend one hour watching a film filled with violence, we water the seeds of violence, hatred, and fear in us. We do that, and we let our children do that. We need to have a family meeting to discuss an intelligent policy for television watching. We may have to label our TV sets the same way we label our cigarette packages: "Warning: Watching television can be hazardous to your health." Many children have become violent, some have even joined gangs. They have seen so many violent images on television. We must have an intelligent policy concerning the use of television.

Of course there are many healthy and beautiful programs, and we should arrange our time so that the family will benefit from these. You don't have to destroy your televi­sion set. You only have to use it with wisdom and mindful­ness. There are a number of things that we can do, such as asking the television stations to establish healthier programs and suggesting to manufacturers to offer us TV sets that only transmit the signals from television stations that broadcast healthy, educational programs. During the war in Vietnam, the American army dropped hundreds of thou­sands of radios in the jungle that could only receive the station that broadcasted anti-communist propaganda. This is not psychological warfare, but I think many families would welcome a kind of television set that would allow us to see healthy programs. We need to be protected because the toxins are overwhelming, and they are destroying our society, our families, ourselves. Dharma discussions on this subject can generate ideas as to how we can protect ourselves from destructive programs.

We also have to discuss in our family and our commu­nity the kinds of magazines we and our children read. We have to boycott the magazines that spill toxins into our society. Not only should we refrain from reading these magazines, we should also make an effort to warn people of the danger of reading and consuming these kinds of products and conversations. From time to time, after speaking with someone, we feel paralyzed by what we have heard. The same is true of what we read or see. Mindfulness in TV watching, reading, and conversations will allow us to stop the kinds of activities that overwhelm us with their toxins.

The idea of a diet is the essence of this precept. War and bombs are the fruit of our collective consciousness. Our collective consciousness has so much violence, fear, craving, and hatred in it, it manifests in war and bombs. We hear that the other side has very powerful bombs, so we try to make bombs that are more powerful. When the other side hears that we have powerful bombs, they try to make even more powerful bombs. Bombs are a product of the fear in our collective consciousness. Just to remove the bombs is not really the work of peace. Even if we were able to transport all the bombs to the moon, we would still be unsafe, because the roots of the war and the bombs are still in our collective consciousness. We cannot work to abolish war with angry demonstrations. Transforming the toxins in our collective consciousness is the only way to uproot war.

Therefore, we have to practice a diet for ourselves, our families, and our society, and we have to do it with every­one else. To have healthy television programs, we have to work with artists, writers, filmmakers, lawyers, and law­makers. We have to step up the struggle. Awareness should not be only in us, but in our families and in our society. We have to stop the kind of consumption that poisons our collective consciousness. I don't see any other way than the practice of these bodhisattva precepts to produce the dramatic changes that we need. To practice as a society will not be possible if each of us does not vow to practice the Five Precepts.

The problem is very big. It is the survival of our species on the Earth. It is not a question of enjoying one glass of wine. If you stop drinking your glass of wine, you do it for the whole society. The fifth precept is exactly like the first one. If you are not able to entirely stop eating meat, at least make an effort in order to reduce eating meat. If you reduce eating meat by 50%, you perform a miracle. You will solve the problem of hunger in the Third World. Practicing the precepts is to make a little progress every day. That is why, during the recitation when we are asked whether we have made an effort to study and practice the precept read, we answer just by breathing deeply. That is the best answer. Mindful breathing means, "I have made some effort, but I can do better."

The fifth precept can be like that also. If you are unable to stop drinking completely, then stop 75% or 50%. But alcohol is not the same as meat. Alcohol is addictive. That is why I encourage you to stop drinking even one glass of wine. When you see that we are in great danger, refraining from the first glass of wine is a manifestation of your enlightenment. You are doing it for all of us. You set an example for your children and your friends. On French television they say, "One glass is alright, but three glasses will bring about destruction." They don't say that the first glass brings the second, and the second brings the third, because they belong to a civilization of wine. In Plum Village, we are surrounded by wine. Many of our neighbors are surprised that we don't profit from living in an area where the wine is so good. We are a pocket of resistance. Please support us.


When I was a novice, I learned that from time to time we had to use alcohol in preparing medicines. There are many kinds of roots and herbs that have to be macerated in alcohol so that they will have an effect. In these instances, alcohol is allowed. When the herbs have been prepared, they are put in the pot and boiled. Then they no longer have an intoxicating effect on us. I think if you use some alcohol in cooking, it is the same. After the food is cooked, the alcohol in it will not have an intoxicating nature. So I am not narrow-minded about this.

I know that no one can practice the precepts perfectly, including the Buddha. The vegetarian dishes that were offered to him were not entirely vegetarian. Boiled veg­etables contain dead bacteria, and the vegetables themselves were also alive. But because of the real danger in our society—alcoholism has destroyed so many families and has brought about so many unhappy people, old and young—we have to do something. We have to live in a way that will eradicate that kind of damage. That is why even if you can be very healthy with one glass of wine every week, I still urge you with all my strength to abandon that glass of wine.

We need to have Dharma discussions to share our experiences and deepen our understanding and practice of the Five Wonderful Precepts.

This is excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh' s forthcoming book on the Five Wonderful Precepts.

Photos: First photo by Tran van Minh. Second photo by Michele Hill. Third photo by Simon Chaput.

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

From the Editors

This issue features Thich Nhat Hanh's commentaries on the Five Precepts as presented in a series of lectures at Plum Village, France in July-August 1991. We hope this article by Thay and the other pieces on practicing the precepts and related subjects inspire your practice and provoke you to write to tell us your own experiences and insights, As a readers' forum, the Mindfulness Bell is no more than a manifestation of our collective consciousness, and we are therefore most appreciative when you take a few moments to share your thoughts and perceptions with us. Starting with this issue, the Mindfulness Bell will be produced and distributed through the Community of Mindful Living, a California non-profit organization founded in 1991 to promote the practice of mindfulness as taught by Thay Nhat Hanh. Many thanks to Parallax Press for ''incubating** the first five issues until it became possible for us to make this transition.

mb6-Fromln March, April, and May, Annabel Laity and Jina Van Hengel, two senior ordained students of Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village in France will be visiting North America. We hope to see many of you at the retreats and classes they will be leading. Their full tour schedule is on page 34, Wishing you a peaceful and happy Spring,

Therese Fitzgerald, Arnie Kotler, and Carole Melkonian

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Beginning Anew

By Annabel Laity In Plum Village, we practice a ceremony called, "Beginning Anew," which goes all the way back to the Buddha. Families in great difficulties have been saved by this ceremony, and lay and monastic communities have reestablished their harmony, thanks to it. I feel grateful for this simple ceremony every time I see the effect of this practice.

In India in the sue century B.C.E., the monks and nuns practiced the Pavarana Full Moon ceremony at the end of the rainy retreat and also in conjunction with the uposatha days when the precepts were recited. Pavarana is sometimes translated as "invitation," as it is a time when monks and nuns invite one another to tell them of their shortcomings. Monks and nuns have continued to the present day doing very much the same ceremony before the twice-monthly precept recitation ceremony.

The head of the community begins the ceremony by revealing his own shortcomings, and then he is followed by other members of the community, according to their status. After that, one monk kneels before another and invites him to reveal the first monk's shortcomings. The monk who is requested to do this often does not want to, but he does because the monk kneeling before him requests three times. If he is skillful, he will reveal the faults in a non-recriminating way and maybe will also give the monk some encouragement.

The effectiveness depends on our depth of commitment to listening and speaking with our whole heart. If we do not practice deep listening and wholehearted speaking, the ceremony can be superficial. For example, someone can reveal faults without feeling any remorse or in such a way as to recriminate another member of the community. I have known this to happen.

A religious community is a big family in which we are not afraid to be guided by those who are older than us, if we know they are guiding us out of love and a concern for our own well-being and the well-being of the community. We listen carefully when we are corrected and think very carefully before reacting. Certainly we never answer back immediately. We say silently or aloud, "Thank you for your advice. I shall consider it very carefully." Then joining our palms, we bow our head.

Traditionally, there is no Pavarana ceremony for lay families. But why should laymen and women not enjoy all the benefits which monks and nuns enjoy, even if it means modifying the ceremony in certain respects? The modifications may even make the ceremony more effective for monks and nuns. The monks and nuns in Plum Village practice very much in the way that lay families practice. We have translated Pavarana as "Beginning Anew."

Actually, 1,500 years ago, the Chinese also used that translation. To disclose or uncover our regrets, our hurts, and our shortcomings is wholesome because it helps us to begin again. So once a week, if we possibly can, the whole family comes together. A good day is when people do not feel too much pressure from homework assignments or preparing for the next day's work. When I worked as a school teacher of difficult children and arrived home too tired to do anything useful, I used to lie down on the floor, follow my breathing, and let everything that had happened during the day fall away. This total relaxation and release helped. In families, such a lying-down practice, either listening to soothing music or in silence, could be very useful as a prelude to Beginning Anew.

Arrange a fresh flower in a vase and put it in the middle of the circle. Do your best to have everyone who lives with you be there. Enjoy your breathing and your concentration as you wait for someone—usually the eldest or one of the senior members—to begin the ceremony. We recently discovered a good way for family practitioners to begin. It is called "flower-watering" and it means acknowledging the wholesome qualities of the other members present. Always speak the truth. This is not a time for flattery. Everyone has strong points which can be seen with awareness. Later on in the ceremony, it may be more difficult to acknowledge the wholesome qualities of others, so it is good to begin by doing that.

The ceremony can be in three stages: encouraging the wonderful things we observe in each other, expressing our regrets for our own shortcomings, and expressing our hurts and difficulties. When you are ready to speak, join your palms to indicate that you are ready. The others who are present will join their palms to show their assent. Then you rise from your seat and approach the flower which is in the middle of the circle, you take it in your hands, and return to your seat. Then you can begin to speak, your words reflecting the freshness and beauty of the flower you hold in your hands. "This week I felt so fortunate to have a brother who waited for me so patiently when I was late for our appointment."

When you have finished, stand up slowly and return the flower to its vase. While one person holds the flower, no other person has the right to speak. No one can interrupt you. We allow people as much time as they need to speak encouragingly to each other. Then we can begin to express our regrets for what we have done to hurt others. It does not take more than one thoughtless sentence to hurt someone, and having said something damaging, we often rush off without sitting down to put right our ill-considered words. The "Beginning Anew" ceremony is the opportunity for us to recall that moment earlier in the week and to undo the regret it caused us, "I'm so sorry for ignoring you when I knew that you wanted to speak to me. I was being selfish and I have felt bad about it ever since." Later on if you feel ready, you take the flower and say something to invite others to let you know of your own shortcomings of which you have been unaware. "I know I have faults of which I am not aware. Please help me brothers and sisters by revealing them to me." Sometimes people are too worried about hurting our feelings, so we need to insist firmly that we want to hear our shortcomings. That is why traditionally one repeats one's request three times.

A fellow practitioner once took me aside and said," The other day during a meeting you handed me a tray of biscuits and did not even look at me. That sort of behavior hurts me very much. To hand a tray of biscuits to someone is a wonderful opportunity for looking directly at that person, smile to them, and bring them happiness. And yet, you did not take the trouble to do that" While the person was speaking, I saw myself as if I was looking in a mirror. I saw my facial expression, and I also felt how I was inside at that time. When she said that, I was very grateful, because I learned how not to hurt her again, and maybe not to hurt other people. I knew it he had taken courage to say that to me.

Listening meditation is the way to enlightenment followed by the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. We listen without expecting to reply, but we listen so deeply and attentively that the speaker's suffering can be transformed by our listening. To sit in a circle of people who are all practicing listening is truly to experience meditation. That meditation does not belong to any individual but to the whole circle of people. The speaker is helped by the meditation. Everyone is one of the thousand arms of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is made up of us all.

Sometimes a group of two or three families will meet together to celebrate Beginning Anew, and none of the people except the facilitator has been present at such a ceremony before. It is then that the basic practice of enjoying the breathing is so important. The periods of silence are just as important as the times when someone speaks. The facilitator can serve an example by first offering heartfelt words of encouragement and later on revealing her own faults in a way which the children and the adults will easily understand. Then the children will often take the imitative in recounting something they regret having done and the parents will follow suit. However, in families where the suffering is very great and of long duration, the first Beginning Anew ceremony can be difficult. It may only scratch at the surface of years of pain. One of the big dangers with the first time is that practitioners have the tendency to blame or to feel they are being blamed. It is not until the words of recrimination have left the speaker's lips that he realizes that he is blaming. He thinks that because he suffers so much there must be someone who is responsible for that suffering. But when he has blamed someone, he feels rather shy and tries to put it right with some kind words. If someone blames you like that, do not try to reply or deny. Just listen with all your heart. It is not a reply that is needed. It is listening which is needed.


The way of closing the ceremony should be warm—with a song, or holding hands and breathing for a minute, or in hugging meditation. We feel light and relieved even if we have only taken a preliminary step towards healing because we have confidence that having begun, we can continue.

Annabel Laity, whose Buddhist name is True Virtue, is the Head of Practice at Plum Village in France. Eveline Beumkes is a greeting card designer and a member of the Order of lnterbeing.

The "Beginning Anew"ceremony which Thay has given us is a real jewel. During one Beginning Anew Ceremony, a senior student spoke very openly and even lightly about things she had done or said in an unskillful way. Her acceptance of herself gave me a feeling of spaciousness* We all make mistakes. Speaking out about our mistakes has the effect of stripping them of a heaviness they are charged with if they have not been brought into the open.

In the beginning, I felt a little nervous, wondering what would come up for me. I knew I might need to gather courage to speak out, and I pondered how to do it in the best way. I have been amazed to feel how scary it can be to speak out openly about either regret or feeling hurt The last is the most difficult to me. But as the meeting proceeded, I could feel the air clear up, To see so many open their hearts like flowers, being so sincere, authentic, loving, honest, touched me deeply.

Each time I've been in a Beginning Anew session, the meeting has ended with vibrations of warmth from all of our hearts. There is much more happening than the air clearing up. We are woven together much more than before, I would say this meeting is the backbone of the sangha. It is the best example of using "garbage" to transform it into a flower.

Eveline Beumkes Amsterdam, Holland

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Rightful Inheritance

By Jina van Hengel Be still, and behold the jewel so precious, so bright You are like that, because I am like this. Look, and see I am in you, you are in me.  We were never born, we will never die.

"Be still, and behold the jewel so precious, so bright." Throughout time we receive many things that we enjoy, share with others, and then pass on as a beautiful heritage, a precious jewel. We look after the heritage of whatever we receive, whatever we are—our robes, bowl, lamps, body, mind, feelings, emotions, understanding, love, and support. They are all part and parcel of our heritage.

"You are like that, because I am like this." We want our heritage to be passed on to the rightful inheritors. Usually we consider family, friends, or sangha to be the rightful inheritors. But the proper inheritor is the one who needs the inheritance.

There is a story about a man who planted trees. His wife and son had died, and he spent his time gathering acorns in the forest, selecting the healthy ones and planting them in a barren area where nothing else would grow and no one cared to live. Carrying a metal-pointed stick, he made small holes in the ground and placed an acorn in each of them. As the years passed, trees sprang up and soon the barren land was transformed into a pleasant, green oasis. For our planet to be whole, nothing should lack what is needed. Where food is lacking, we give food. Where shelter is lacking, we give shelter. Where love is lacking, we give love.

It is easy to love someone we find lovable. They are lovable because they already have love; they are love. But the ones who need love are the rightful inheritors of our love. A lovable person is like a beautiful landscape that illuminates everyone and everything. We enjoy being in such a landscape. Someone who is unloved, unhappy, or angry is like a barren landscape where nothing grows and no one wants to be. However, that barren land is like that because we turn away from it. So let us approach and enter that land and plant acorns so that it will become a fresh and fragrant oasis.

"Look, and see, I am in you, you are in me." A tiny acorn has the totality of the tree, embodying all the conditions that made the tree—the weather, the soil, the other trees around it that either encouraged or hindered its growth. The same is true of us. We have inherited from our parents their whole being, including their parents, teachers, friends, environment, and everything and everyone that made them. Once we are aware of this network of inheritors, we naturally become mindful and take care of our heritage, our universal jewel. ''We were never born, we will never die." Everything is in us, and we are in everything.

From a Dharma talk given during the Transmission of the Lamp Ceremony at Plum Village, January 11,1992.

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Gathas Given by Thay to the Dharma Teachers Ordained in January

To Thich nu Dieu Nghiem Jina:The Wonderful Dharma is found in worldly dharmas. To adorn one's own body is to adorn the True Dharma Body One morning when our planet wakes up, The dew will have washed away all afflictions created by humankind.


To Thich nu Nhu Phuoc: A light smile just appears on the lips of the Tathagata. Happiness and Wisdom are already there to make the world more beautiful. When the torch of Sila and Samedhi begin to shed light, The flowers of Prajfla already bloom next to my balcony.

To Thich Giac Thanh: The nature of Enlightenment has always been the nature of Permanence. All sounds are expressing the one Wondrous sound. Although the Ocean of Vairocana is reflecting perfectly the moon, The sounds of Her waves are still like Thunder.

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Societies Can Practice Too

By Sulak Sivaraksa

Ed. Note: These insights are offered in response to Patricia Ellsberg's article in the last Mindfulness Bell.

All Buddhists accept the Five Precepts (pancasila) as the basic ethical guidelines. Using these precepts as a handle, we will know how to deal with the real issues of our day. The first precept is, "I vow to refrain from killing." Killing animals and eating meat may have been appropriate for simple agrarian societies or village life, but in industrial societies, meat is treated as just another product, and the mass production of meat is not at all respectful of the lives of animals. If people in meat-eating countries could discourage the breeding of animals for consumption, it would not only be compassionate towards the animals, but also towards these humans living in poverty who need grain to survive. There is enough food in the world to feed us all. Hunger is caused by unequal allocation, even though often those who are most in need are the food producers.

We must look also at the sales of arms and challenge those structures that are responsible for murder. Killing permeates modern life—wars, racial conflicts, breeding animals to serve human markets, using harmful insecticides. How can we resist this and help create a nonviolent society? How can the first precept and its ennobling virtues be used to shape a politically just and merciful world? I shall not attempt to answer these questions. I just want to raise them for us to contemplate.

The second precept is, "I vow to refrain from stealing.'' In the "World-Conqueror Scripture" (Cakkavatti Sahananda Sutta), the Buddha says that once a king allows poverty to arise in his nation, the people will always steal to survive. Right Livelihood is bound up with economic justice. We must take great pains to be sure there are meaningful jobs for everyone able to work. We must also take responsibility for the theft implicit in our economic systems. To live a life of Right Livelihood and voluntary simplicity out of compassion for all beings and to renounce fame, profit, and power as life goals are to set oneself against the structural violence of the oppressive status quo. But is it enough to live a life of voluntary simplicity without also working to overturn the structures that force so many people to live in involuntary poverty?

The establishment of a just international economic order is a necessary and interdependent part of building a peaceful world. Violence in all its forms—imperialist, civil, and interpersonal—is underpined by collective drives for economic resources and political power. People should be encouraged to study and comment on the "New World Order" from a Buddhist perspective, examining appropriate and inappropriate development models, right and wrong consumption, just and unjust marketing, reasonable use and degradation of natural resources, and the ways to cure our world's ills. Where do Buddhists stand when it comes to a new economic ethic on a national and international scale? Many Christian groups have done studies on multinational corporations and international banking. We ought to learn from them and use their findings.

The third precept is "I vow to refrain from sexual misconduct" Like the other precepts, we must practice this in our own lives and not exploit or harm others. In addition, we have to look at the structures of male dominance and the exploitation of women worldwide. The structures of patriarchal greed, hatred, and delusion are interrelated with the violence in the world. Modern militarism is also closely associated with patriarchy. Buddhist practice points toward the development of full and balanced human beings, free from the socially-learned "masculine" and "feminine" patterns of thought, speech, and behavior, in touch with both aspects of themselves.

The fourth precept is "I vow to refrain from using false speech." We need to look closely at the mass media, education, and the patterns of information that condition our understanding of the world. We Buddhists are far behind our Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters in this regard. The Muslim Pesantran educational institutions in Indonesia apply Islamic and traditional principles in a modern setting, teaching their young people the truth about the world and projecting a vision for the future. The Quakers have a practice of "speaking truth to power." It will only be possible to break free of the systematic lying endemic in the status quo if we undertake this truth-speaking collectively.

The dignity of human beings should take precedence over encouraging consumption to the point that people want more than they really need. Using truthfulness as the guideline, research should be conducted at the university level toward curbing political propaganda and commercial advertisements. Without overlooking the precious treasures of free speech and a free press, unless we develop alternatives to the present transmission of lies and exaggerations, we will not be able to overcome the vast indoctrination that is perpetrated in the name of national security and material well-being.

The fifth precept is "I vow to refrain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind and to encourage others not to cloud their minds." In Buddhism, a clear mind is a precious gem. We must look within, and truly begin to address the root causes of drug abuse and alcoholism.

At the same time, we must examine the whole beer, wine, spirit, and drug industries to identify their power base. We must overturn the forces that encourage intoxication, alcoholism, and drug addiction. This is a question concerning international justice and peace. Third World farmers grow heroin, coca, coffee, and tobacco because the economic system makes it impossible for them to support themselves growing rice or vegetables. Armed thugs act as their middlemen, and they are frequently ethnic guerrillas, pseudo-political bandits, private armies of right-wing politicians, or revolutionaries of one sort or another. The CIA ran drugs in Vietnam, the Burmese Communist guerrillas run drugs, and South American revolutionaries run drugs. Full-scale wars, such as the Opium War, have been fought by governments wanting to maintain the drug trade. Equally serious is the economic violence of forcing peasants to plant export crops of coffee or tea and the unloading of excess surplus cigarette production onto Third World consumers through intensive advertising campaigns.

Drug abuse and crime are rampant in those cultures that are crippled by the unequal distribution of wealth, unemployment, and alienation from work. Reagan and Bush's use of the U.S. armed forces to fight the drug trade is, in the end, just as pointless as was Gorbachev's campaign against worker alcoholism; both approaches address symptoms, not causes. Buddhism suggests that the only effective solution to these problems can take place in a context of a complete renewal of human values.

These basic ethical teachings apply to us as individuals and as members of society. My thoughts on the Five Precepts and how we might apply them to the situations of the world today are intended only as a first step. I hope discussion of these issues will continue. We need a moral basis for our behavior and our decision making.

Sulak Sivaraksa is a Thai Buddhist writer and social activist, presently in exile after criticizing the military junta in Thailand. This essay is excerpted from his new book Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society (Parallax Press, 1992).

Opening the Door

By Lynsey Nelson I have attempted to serve others for much of my life, particularly those in dire need. Long before I learned of the second precept, I was aware of suffering in the world and had dedicated myself to the alleviation of suffering and the practice of loving kindness. But I soon discovered the gap between my intentions and my actual ability to "work toward the well-being of people, animals, and plants."

At fifteen, my parents divorced as the result of alcoholism. I felt betrayed by life and abandoned by my father. I became pregnant, addicted to drugs, and a thief. And I came in direct contact with my own pain. By my early twenties, I was off to Calcutta to atone for my "sins" and become a saint by serving the poorest of the poor alongside Mother Teresa. The magnitude and intensity of suffering I faced overwhelmed me into a state of paralysis. I was devastated by the realization that I didn't have the abilities necessary to cope with such adversity. I returned home disillusioned.

After a few aimless years of seeking to be of service in the world, I encountered the plight of the homeless in St. Paul. I decided at once that I must try to save them from their affliction. I founded a free-store named "The Mustard Seed" and adorned a large wooden cross to prove my faith. I even wore clothing to become "one of them." It took me a while to see the importance of not assuming someone else's life or experience and realize that faith has little to do with something worn around one's neck. I learned about love and disappointment. I learned that I could only save myself, no one else.

There were other realizations and misunderstandings—like the day a woman pulled up in a Cadillac and demanded that her contribution of clothing be removed from her trunk immediately because it "smelled so God-awful," and her outrage when we refused to accept it; my outrage at her for thinking we should; the frustration of "begging for pennies" from those with an overabundance of resources, so that we might sustain our small efforts at assisting refugees entering the country with practically nothing; and the judgment I held for those whose approach to generosity differed from mine; being appalled at having my purse stolen by a person who frequented the Mustard Seed, and at myself for bringing home a donation for my own use.

Last winter, a Southeast Asian teenager appeared at my doorstep, hungry and humiliated, her hair crudely chopped to the scalp by her parents for misbehaving and disgracing them, her frail body starved for a meal a mother might make, having lived primarily off beer and potato chips for days at a time while on the run. She had been rejected by her family and community who did not understand her Americanized ways and by Americans who didn't understand her Asian ways. There was no place to send her for help. There she stood, resembling a concentration camp survivor, facing me.

I invited her to spend the night, unsure of what answers concerning her fate the morning might bring. Though haunted by her condition and trust in me to help, I struggled over the possibility of her living with my husband Mathew and me. The immediacy of my compassion gave way to the reality of what this prospect entailed. Being a child's guide and advocate demanded special strength and skills—was I prepared enough? The thought of giving up the privacy of our home, which I had previously guarded with my life, terrified me. We had plans to leave the country. What if she needed to stay for months or even years? Did we have enough money to support her? Would I have to cook her non-vegetarian meals? How could I tolerate heavy metal rock music? I was not a very willing candidate for the responsibility that presented itself.

Through the sleepless hours that ensued emerged a revelation that awakened me to compose this poem:

This life is not my own but belongs to you and you who are delivered to me on time without hands. I imagined it to be mine, until a girl came as a letter would whose contents are unknown.

Enveloped in the wrappings of age, she had carved "Love Hurts" up the soft of her arm in the printing of a child. It will scar, I thought. Later, she will wish that she hadn't done it— the meaning of which she could not yet know. There was no choice though I tried to pretend that, too, was mine. "Come in," I said. She did; ready to be opened.

Kou moved in with us, as did three other runaways she had been hanging with for emotional and physical survival. All but one were under the age of sixteen and each in a similar predicament. Reconciliation with their individual selves, families, and affirming aspects of both cultures became our focus.


Adjusting to a life parenting teenagers was very difficult—at times excruciatingly so. Especially since their wounds were much deeper than what we had imagined. But by assimilating my past experiences and appreciating how much more I had still to learn I was able to recognize the gift they were to us. As we opened them, they opened us.

The second precept asks that we possess nothing that belongs to others. Thanks to the unexpected arrival of a lost girl, I now know that this includes my life. Responsibility and caring for what stands before me are no longer looked upon as an infringement or obligation, but as a challenge of beauty and wonder. An encounter with a piece of myself.

There is nothing to hold onto nothing. Open your fists and discover the palms of God (or Buddha) there, there— You have been grasping, grasping with hands already full.

Linsey Nelson lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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Transforming the Past, Shaping the Future

By Greg Hessel On December 18,1991, thirty-one people, who speak and pray in six different languages, gathered in Panama City to create a common community to walk 5,000 miles, praying for those whom we have killed in the past 500 years and listening to and learning from those who still suffer from oppression. I decided to join this pilgrimige which will culminate on October 12,1992, "Columbus Day," in Washington, D.C.

Rising to rooster's crows, praying in the pre-dawn light, and walking eight hours a day under the baking Panama sun, we have already endured painfully blistered feet. We have played, run, and bathed on beautiful black-sand beaches. We have laughed, sweated, and felt the strangeness of a warm summer breeze blowing on Christmas day. We have seen hot deserted hills and flat green fields of sugar cane. We have been showered with flowers by peasant women and have passed the night experiencing the incredible hospitality of a campesino community where straw and mud walls reflect a place where life is old and work is basic.

The image of Panama that has been most deeply imprinted on my mind, however, is that of marching with Panamanians through Panama City on the eve of the second anniversary that it was destroyed by U.S. bombs. Bonfires crackled and illuminated to us the ruins of El Chorrillo while a broken, ruined man hysterically cried to us, "I saw the dead bodies. I can't accept this." He pleaded for an ear while some of us tried to comfort him, trying to image the horrors he saw and the scars he lives with.

Oswaldo Deleon Kantule is a Kuna Indian from Panama. I asked this proud, young indigenous man how the conquest of Columbus affected his people. "First of all," he said, "the Kuna history is very different. It is not something of the past It is living. It includes the present, the future, and the past...Everything in nature is circular. What happened with the conquest is not something of the past It is something that is actually occurring with indigenous people today."

Oswaldo told us about a Kuna prophecy that people with light skin "would come with bad intentions and massacre us for our gold." At the time Balboa arrived in Panama, a ferocious persecution began which eventually killed approximately two million Indians in Panama in 1492; almost the same number as the actual population of Panama today. Today, only 10% of the population is indigenous.

"History is living," Oswaldo said. "Everything repeats itself. For us the conquest is not over. These days, they don't kill us physically, but they assassinate us in our memory, and they continue to violate our human rights to live as dignified human beings on a small piece of land, practicing our cultural and religious practices. "There cannot be peace in a land where there are hungry, indigenous people and sick children. If we don't have a natural environment, we won't have peace either. Because it is nature that gives us our food, our medicine, our clothes, everything."

In the spirit of attempting to transform the next 500 years, I invite all of you to reflect with me on how present ways of thinking and our way of life (i.e. 6% of the worlds' population uses 40% of the worlds' natural resources) might be chains which continue the conquest against Oswaldo and his people. Thay teaches us that if we look deeply into the present moment we can see that it contains the past. Because we are a continuation of all previous generations, the past is not lost to us. Rather, the past has become the present So by touching the present moment, we have access to the past. Furthermore, by living fully in the present, we shape the future.

In 1992, as people across the world prepare to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the "discovery" of the Americas, a deeper look brings the painful awareness of the need to transform this 500 year cycle of death and destruction. Looking deeply into the present moment can be very distressing. Yellow ribbons honor mass murder on church doors. Violence runs rampant in inner cities. Young black males and indigenous people suffer from genocide and death squads. Civil wars terrorize peasants in Central America. Holes are appearing in the ozone, and experts estimate there will be 19 million homeless people in the United States by the year 2000.

Looking deeply into any of these present-day tragedies, we can see the fruits of a lost European explorer who was rescued by the Indians of Haiti nearly 500 years ago—and then proceeded to exterminate them. Thus, with Columbus, the first seeds of colonialism, imperialism, and genocide were planted, watered, and sprouted in the Americas.

Like weeds that go to seed, the greed and violence matured and spread tens of thousands of additional seeds. With these came the conquest and mass murder of Indians by Cortez in Mexico, Pizarro in Peru, and the English settlers in Massachusetts and Virginia. This violence was followed by more violence as surely as winter follows fall. Five hundred years after the initial invasion, we are still reaping its bitter fruits.

In 1992, we have a unique opportunity to reflect on and repent for the tragedies of past generations and redirect ourselves toward a more nonviolent future. Our ability to do  this will affect the happiness of our children and our children's children.

Greg Hessel is a member of the Order of lnterbeing en route from Panama City to Washington, D.C. until October, when he will return home to Boston, Massachusetts.

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Tender Observations

By Barry Denny The emotional intensity I experienced during one of the group discussions at the Omega Mindfulness Retreat in June 1991 stunned me at first and then led me to reflect on the nature of American Buddhism. Let me describe the incident, as well as some of the feelings and thoughts it generated.

The two-day discussion group focused on individual and societal toxins and the antidotes to these toxins. During the first day, I felt close to several group members and wished I might melt barriers and establish more lasting connections with them. The feeling was real but fragile. The next day a number of participants described their personal toxins (destructive or negative behaviors) as rooted in their German heritage—too rigid and judgmental. By coincidence, eerie quirk of fate, or karmic need, my group contained an unusually high proportion of members with at least one German parent. As more people spoke about their German heritage, a cameraderie among them seemed to be developing. I began to feel anger, sadness, and confusion arise in me. "How bizarre," I thought, "here I am, a Jew who was never bar mitzvahed, who has rarely thought about the holocaust, and who has viewed my relatives who would die before buying a Volkswagon as crazy, sitting here in a mindfulness retreat identifying with murdered shtetl dwellers and fierce hatred for their executioners." Clearly I didn't feel anger towards any individual in the group, but together they triggered primal ethnic and religious emotions. I tried to breathe and be mindful as I watched my rage intensify. Unable to contain my anger and sadness, in tears, I revealed my feelings to the group. People were very supportive. Neither I nor any group member was directly involved in the Holocaust, yet on some level a small reconciliation was achieved.

An environment of compassion and mindfulness offered an opportunity for understanding and closure. Perhaps this could have been anticipated in a setting designed to encourage awareness of our thoughts and actions. But harder to fathom was the depth of feeling generated in the group. These feelings reflected both the positive sense of belonging to a distinct ethnic group with its own food, literature, and language, and also the possessive, dualistic sense of "my culture versus yours."

Another Jewish group member recalled a childhood experience. His father told him that all Germans should be killed. The youngster asked about those who were children during the Third Reich, or, perhaps, not yet born. His father said, "They too should be killed." The son said, "Then you're as bad as Hitler," and his father slapped him on the face. This seemed like a variation on interactions I had with my own father. The hatred projected outward was so familiar.

An Irish-American group member told me that he grew up thinking that the British were evil incarnate. His father's reality became the family gospel. A friend I've known since the fifth grade was inculcated with the reverse side of this ethnic animosity. Coming from a family of Protestant Northern Irelanders, his father considered "the Roman Papists" as "pigs."

A lunchtime conversation with a Chinese-American woman on the final day of the retreat revealed another example of buried seeds of strong ethnic feelings emerging in an unexpected situation. This woman was a member of an Asian women's group. During a meeting she suddenly became aware that most of the women were Japanese, and she no longer felt connected. So much pain had transpired between these two cultures, much like the conflict situations in Yugoslavia, Iraq, India, South Africa, Italy, and various New York City neighborhoods.

There are many discussions these days about the future manifestations of American Buddhism. Buddhism has always adapted itself to the host culture. But what is the prevailing American culture? We stem from diverse racial and ethnic groups. Each group has its unique heritage—a set of values and myths that express the highest ideals of the group, as well as a dark side containing age-old prejudices and bottled-up destructive forces. The stillness of meditation is likely to bring this racial unconscious (to use Jung's terminology) to the surface. An American sangha consisting of people from varied backgrounds offers the possibility of new ways to reflect on the Dharma. Conversely, a multicultural sangha presents us with obstacles such as the possibility of relating from an ethnocentric vantage point or from the most negative aspect of a particular culture.

My wife is Irish. I'm Jewish. My two daughters have not been given a great deal of concrete ethnic or religious transmission from either culture, only what is revealed in our bones, in our very being. My seven-year-old daughter, Rachel, recently told my wife, "Mommy, the Holy Land must be very beautiful. Only there's one problem—the bombs." It seems that each of us has an ethnic Holy Land, Heaven, or Pure Land within us. The navel of the Earth is in our belly as well as atop the holy mountain. A bomb also ticks in that sacred spot. Call it Hell, mental illness, or ignorance. I can only honor my ethnic roots. They are part of my history and therefore beautiful. They are part of my history and therefore ugly. Paraphrasing Thay, our negative, or ugly seeds need to be transformed by mindfully watering the beautiful ones and tenderly observing those that are destructive.


Barry Denny lives in New York City.

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Best Expectations

By Allan Hunt Badiner A commentary on the second of the Five Awarenesses: "We are aware of the expectations that our ancestors, our children and their children have of us."

Key to understanding the full significance of each of the Five Awarenesses is to see ourselves not as individuals, but as continuations of all previous and future generations. The second awareness speaks of expectations. What does it mean for our grandchildren or great-grandparents to expect something from us? We all have expectations. We all aspire to have certain experiences, to own or control things, or to be special in some way. And, most essentially, we all expect to be happy, to love and be loved, to be appreciated fully, and to be understood. So much of what we perceive to be our deepest needs depends on the understanding of others.

The happiness or sorrow that our forebears experienced have made deep impressions within our bodies. In addition to the pattern of hair growth, the color of our skin, and the timbre of our voice, our predecessors transmitted certain tendencies related to our smile, our moods, and even our thoughts. In fact, it is difficult to isolate anything that is entirely separate from our genetic line, ahead and behind us. Every being in the stream of life is conditioning every other being, in both directions of time.

Deep within us are seeds of happiness, wisdom, and love, as well as seeds of unhappiness, anger, and greed. These seeds are not only in our consciousness, but also in our bodies. We inherit many of these seeds from ancestors back through the generations, and then we pass them on to our offspring for continued transmission.

Thay reminds us that we are now in a position to take care of these seeds: "With the practice of mindfulness we can water the good seeds in us and transform the seeds in us that are not so good. If we sow seeds that are destructive to us, then they will be destructive to our children and grandchildren. While our descendants may not be visible yet, they are within us, talking to us. They want us to live in such a way that they won't be miserable when they manifest."

When we fully recognize how our desires condition our offspring, we begin to understand our responsibility. In the Jeta Grove of Anathapindika's Park, the Buddha offered ways we can condition our lives to produce the greatest happiness for a stream of generations. The Discourse on Happiness helps us remember that all aspects of our physical and mental environment condition us and are part of us. Whether they be for trees and flowers or ideas and behaviors, seeds planted now will bring a ripening of healthy conditions in the future.

Even if we are not having children ourselves, we are part of the environment which conditions other parents and their children. When we spend our time with people who behave wickedly or cruelly, we absorb their inclinations. The insights and habits of wise and kind people affect us in subtle yet profound ways. Freely acknowledging and finding ways to honor these friends help us change and grow.


To be happy, it is said that we must cherish our family and all our relations. Undoubtedly, our parents or relatives have disappointed us and caused confusion and pain. Responding to them with cheerfulness and generosity can sometimes feel like a major challenge. But what the "Discourse on Happiness" is trying to tell us is that it's a good medicine for our own suffering as well. This is not necessarily an "Eastern" idea. Native American customs, as well as Christian traditions, urge us to take special care of our ancestors. When we support our parents, we are helping to provide them with the security and freedom from worry that we enjoyed as children.

One elusively simple way to generate happiness is to cultivate our relationship with beauty and to expand the range of what we see as beautiful. Fixation on one object of beauty causes us a lot of trouble. We can realize the beauty of both sexes and all ages, and, doing so, we can see how our prejudices have limited what we were able to see and enjoy.

A couple who practices the second awareness lives in a way that not only satisfies their own spiritual and physical needs, but also realizes the hopes and expectations of their ancestors and future generations. To live in this awareness is to realize what our ancestors wanted to realize themselves, but were not able to. Long deceased or not yet born, their best expectations of us continue.

Allan Hunt Badiner is a Buddhist practitioner and expecting father. He is the editor of Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, and is presently writing a book on Buddhist pilgrimage in India.

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Right Speech As a Gauge

It is easy to see the impact our speech has on others. What we say at the breakfast table can make or break the day for our children. It affects the bus driver who picks us up each morning. It enhances or destroys the spirits of those who work with us. The impact of our speech grows geometrically. The way we treat one person affects the way he or she deals with the next person they encounter. We see many examples of this "chain reaction" in the small encounters of our daily lives, and it is also true over the long haul. If a mother and father constantly criticize each other, how can we be surprised when their children's marriages develop poorly and their grandchildren are tormented by insecure parents? Imagine for a moment the beneficial effect that thoughtful speech could have had on the same people over time. But if the fruits of Right Speech are so easy to see, why are they so hard to cultivate? Why do we allow discussions of office politics, remote family members, or other racial or ethnic groups to become venomous? The most difficult practice is staying in touch with the roots, or causes, before we have to eat the fruits, or effects. We seem to be more prone to engage in "wrong speech" when we are tired, under stress, or suffering from delusion. So, broadly put, the antidote to "wrong speech" and the best prescription for Right Speech is the cultivation of a mindful way of living. At a very basic level, we might begin by employing some age old platitudes like, "If you can't say something nice, or constructive, about someone, don't say anything at all." A more characteristically Buddhist practice would be to develop the awareness of the cruel thoughts, confusion, or frustration which give rise to inappropriate speech, and to watch them take shape. This awareness enables us to "stop, look and listen" before harming others or inflaming the situation with our speech. It is often said that in order to practice Right Speech, you have to be a good listener. That is certainly true, but we need to recognize how quickly the essence of another person's comments, explanations, and body language can elude us entirely if we are not observant.

When engaging in seated meditation, we may begin by concentrating on our breath, achieving a unity of body and mind. But we also have the opportunity to recognize our unobserved thoughts and impulses and the stimuli that knock us about on a typical day. Once stability is achieved through concentration on the breathing, we can gain insight into the nature of these thoughts and come into real contact with what is happening.

The first two precepts of the Order of Interbeing provide useful antidotes to fanaticism and pride. Many of us are at our absolute worst when we are convinced that we're right about something. When we detect a surge of pride in our opinion, the advice contained in the second precept of the Order of Interbeing can be of help: Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice non-attachment from views in order to be open to receive others' viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

For me, the best way to minimize indulgence in "wrong speech" and to progress on the path of Right Speech is to practice the sixth and seventh precepts of the Order of Interbeing. The seventh precept states: Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing both inside and around you. Plant seeds of joy, peace, and understanding in yourself in order to facilitate the work of transformation in the depths of your consciousness. This has helped me a lot. When lost in dispersion or overtired, it is so easy to launch upon inappropriate comments that have a way of multiplying like Hydra-headed snakes. With practice, we can slowly start to recognize the circumstances in which "wrong speech" is likely to breed, and respond with mindfulness as the need arises.

While the seventh precept addresses a characteristically modern malaise—dispersion in our rather frantic, electronic surroundings, the sixth precept addresses an age-old root of inappropriate speech and conduct: Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them when they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as they arise, turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of the persons who have caused your anger and hatred.

We should cultivate mindfulness in order to illuminate and transform anger, improve our speech, and benefit our entire society. In my practice, I have also observed how the mind easily bathes itself not only in anger, but also in snap judgments. Our minds form so many unnecessary opinions! I sometimes surprise myself simply observing the coming and going of these judgments as I walk down crowded streets in Chicago's Loop. Left unobserved, these judgments can serve as the root of inappropriate speech which not only hurts other people, but also carves our world into senseless we/they, yours/mine dualities that increase our sense of isolation, rather than provide insight into the interdependent nature of existence.

In short, the fruits of right speech can help many people, since we encounter so many practice opportunities every day. For me, there has been no more important or more accurate gauge for my practice than my ability or inability to practice Right Speech at a given moment. Utilizing Right Speech, we can say: I vow to offer joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the grief of one person in the afternoon.

Jack Lawlor Evanston, Illinois

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Living the Precepts

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

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Contemplating Sugar

When I look deeply into sugar, I see millions of slaves brought to the New World to work in a plantation system which made some people tremendously rich because of peoples' escalating desire to consume sugar (and rum and coffee among other things). I look into sugar and I see millions of acres of tropical countryside in countries like Ecuador where families once grew maize, beans, fruits, and vegetables to eat, but where people now grow sugar for export to wealthier countries and for a growing domestic industry producing soft drinks, alcohol, and sweet prepared foods. I look into sugar and I see a refined, non-nutritive substance which is replacing wholesome, body-building foods in the bellies of poor people and not-so-poor people all over the world. Sugar makes money, but it fosters neither personal nor planetary health. Sugar is cheap, but how can we justify growing it and consuming it in a world in ecological and political crisis, where all people do not have access to enough good food? Karen Stothert San Antonio, Texas

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The Fifth Precept

"Do not drink alcohol..." was a bit too strict for me. I was used to more flexible interpretations of the fifth precept such as "Do not cloud your mind with alcohol." I never had a problem not clouding my mind with alcohol while enjoying a glass of fine wine after work. Thay's interpretation offered no loophole for me. Consequently, I did not feel ready to take the precept when Thay gave a retreat outside Chicago in 1988. It is so nice to enjoy some wine and relax. Yet, it always bothered me that good wine was so expensive when compared to other more valuable beverages such as milk or fruit juices. I also felt uneasy with the fact that I needed something from outside to make me feel relaxed inside. Nevertheless, I was not quite ready to seriously take the fifth precept in 1990.1 bargained with myself, 'This time I'll take the fifth precept, but I'll keep open my own loopholes. 'I do not destroy my body with alcohol. I just enjoy a glass of wine once or twice a week."' It didn't work. I took all Five Precepts last May and have not had the slightest longing since to buy or drink wine. There is no need for me to clench my teeth and fight with some deep desire. Wine just does not tempt me any more, and I feel good about it. The funny thing is, when I drink some delicious apple cider instead of wine, there is only the feeling of enjoyment and no discomforting after-taste. I sincerely thank Thay and the supportive sangha at the Mundelein retreat for helping me become a more mature human being.

Annie Reinhardt Madison, Wisconsin

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Plum Village Insight poems

mb6-Plum1Is it true thateven this tiniest flower, watered by grieving Mother's tears is flaming with the joy of far-flung stars?

Anne Dellenbaugh

Yellow petals emerging from a vast sea of green —startling moment seeing the beauty of the Dharma.

Marion Hunt-Badiner

mb6-Plum2Rivers of fear, doubt, joy, and sorrow —on the other side a swallow sings, and you and I meet again. )

Eileen Kiera 

Dead branches break forth into bloom. Liberty is reclaimed Thank you for this Triple Gem— washing dishes among kindhearted friends

Judy Gilbert

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Stuck on Right Livelihood

During Days of Mindfulness in Boulder, we would pick a different precept from the Order of Interbeing and reflect on what it meant in our lives. I got stuck on Right Livelihood, and it would not leave me. For the next few years, it worked with me until I found the courage and the way to drastically change my career path. Now I am taking the time to prepare for a path in human service instead of continuing my contribution in the capitalistic system of competition and hierarchy. I no longer wish to participate in the factors that contribute to greater stratification of wealth, and I hope to counteract this system by supporting and working with groups that truly are a benefit to all beings. The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha give me the courage to take the path in life that I know is right in my heart and have confidence in my actions. My path remains clearer and brighter with the guidance of Thich Nhat Hanh, and it is a blessing to have connections to his teachings and to all of those around who are also touched by his presence.

Desiree Webster Longmont, Colorado

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Practicing with my Daughter

My thirteen-year-old daughter, Christy, and I took the precept ceremony at a mindfulness retreat last spring with Thich Nhat Hanh. She didn't feel that she should take the fourth precept because, even though she tries not too, she sometimes responds in anger to her brother's teasing. In the months that have followed, we have tried to recite the precept ceremonies at least once a month, expanding the Three Refuges to include Jesus and Buddha as expressions of the Divine Life that nurture us. During one of our precept ceremonies, Christy made the comment that she was pretty sure that she could say "yes" to the first precept. She knew she hadn't killed anyone, but maybe she had inadvertently stepped on an ant? I tried to explain the nature of the precepts, that they are a direction of growth. We are always trying to increase our efforts in these areas, but always recognize that we have more to learn and give.

Beverly Garcia Fresno, California

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War is Bad

War is bad, very bad. The government sends people, ready or not When the soldiers go, they always say, "I'll be back," and then they leave, but they return with a bunch of friends all being carried dead in body bags. So now you know about the people who left in clothes and came back in hearses. But when there is peace, we are all free to come and go in friendship. mb6-War

Jesse Peskin-Hornstein, age 12 Berkeley, California

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Mindfully I Open My Baseball Cards

This summer Cisco saved his money to purchase a special baseball card package (the rage in our culture among ten-year-olds) which includes a half dozen or more individually wrapped bundles of cards. His friend, only two days earlier, had purchased the same delight and, in an orgy that would inspire any American capitalist, had ripped into them all at once. As he opened his box, however, Cisco resisted the same frenzy. Looking at me, he said very thoughtfully that he was going to open each one slowly and "mindfully," as Thay had told us to do, so he could enjoy them all. What wonderful seeds have been planted. The fruits of this practice are continuing to emerge in our family in the most amazing ways.

Grove Burnett Glorietta, New Mexico

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The Magic Bell

On a Day of Mindfulness last spring, a sangha member spoke of her trepidation concerning an ambitious summer plan. Her work was to prepare a theater project for a large number of children in a summer camp that could be worked on the whole season. "How can I keep everything from becoming chaotic?" she asked. I brought out a small bell I had brought back from Japan and said, "This is a magic bell. It can guide you and the children through the whole summer if used with care." And I explained to her some of Thay's teachings on how she and the children could find peace and joy being together with the bell.

Toward the end of July, Judith wrote me this letter:

"The bell has played so significant a role in our experience that it found its way into a starring role of one of the stories. 'The Lost Bell,' written by seven and eight-year-olds, tells the tale of a Japanese empress who is visited by a boy and his fierce dragon. All the land is thrown into chaos and civil war by the appearance of the dragon! But the land and the people are saved by (you guessed it) the bell—the empress' magic bell—which is temporarily lost and then recovered by a group of 'peace people.' When she invites it to ring, everyone stops fighting to take three deep, peaceful breaths! The second time she rings the bell, the dragon vanishes 'back to the place where dragons live.' They say the bell makes 'the most beautiful sound in the world.' I felt as though I had been given a vacation just reading her wonderful letter.

P. Dai-En Bennage Muncy, Pennsylvania

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