“We are here to awaken from the illusion of separateness.”

— Thích Nhất Hạnh

Since starting solitary meditation practice in 1993 I’ve studied and practiced in Zen and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. If you’d like to learn more about basics please see below, including a list of resources at the end. May you be happy, well, safe, and peaceful. —Michael

What does it mean to be a 21st century Buddhist? What does it mean to be a Dharma practitioner outside of traditionally Buddhist regions and cultures today? These are important and interesting questions that His Holiness the Dalai Lama asks in the Library of Wisdom and Compassion book series that he has written with Venerable Thubten Chodron. One thing it means is recognizing the core of Buddhist teaching vs. the cultural and social circumstances of history that have shaped the tradition. For example as 21st century Buddhists we work to create gender equality, racial equality, and to address other social, economic, and environmental issues as part of the practice, and also within Buddhism. One practice of this is called Engaged Buddhism.

Another thing it means is that it is up to us as Dharma practitioners, as Buddhists, to explain the basics of Buddhism when possible in order to help the Dharma take root wherever we live and practice.

Buddhism, H.H. the Dalai Lama reminds us, does not need to be thought of as only a philosophy, or only a religion, or only a science of mind, it is all of these things. Buddhism, history reminds us, has adapted and changed form and practice as it moved from India to Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, Tibet, China, Japan, and to Africa, Australia, Europe, to North and South America, and across the world. And yet at the core of these cultural adaptations and syncretic forms of practice, Buddhism retains core teachings based on the Four Noble Truths:

  1. There is suffering in this world. Birth, death, age, sickness, the way we experience everything that we experience.
  2. There is a cause of suffering. Ignorance, greed, anger, desire, and other ways we do not see reality as it is.
  3. There is an end to suffering. Giving up the idea of a fixed idea of self provides a new view of the world, if ignorance is the cause of suffering our own wisdom can cause it to cease. We can be free: Nirvana.
  4. There is a path to be free. The Eightfold Path. It’s our responsibility to locate the causes and eliminate them.

The Eightfold Path to freedom from suffering, as described by scholar Robert Thurman (my paraphrasing). He uses the word “realistic” where you will often see the word “right.”

  1. Realistic World View – We are open to causation, ready to work on it, get rid of negative causation – this gives us an understanding of selflessness, our mistaken idea of our own absoluteness.
  2. Realistic Intention / Motivation – By reasoning everything is causal we recognize there are things we don’t control, we become conscious of that and ask if it really has to control us, or not.
  3. Realistic Speech – Speech that is beneficial and produces understanding and freedom, not harm and delusion, not creating disturbance between you and others.
  4. Realistic Action – Emphasizes physical action, living in a way that isn’t harming others.
  5. Realistic Livelihood How we’re earning a living, we do so without harming other beings.
  6. Realistic Effort / Creativity – Effort in finding out true reality, being positive ethically, discovering our own nature of mind.
  7. Realistic Mindfulness / Memory – Try to remember that we’re in the present.
  8. Realistic Concentration / Samahdi – One-pointed concentration, one-pointedness of mind.

We do not only practice the Dharma in order to free ourselves from suffering, we do it to free all beings from suffering. Our Dharma practice is a path to liberation for ourselves and for all beings. It is a bodhisattva path. We commit to doing this practice until all beings are free from suffering.

Because our Dharma practice is not only for ourselves, it is necessarily a part of our work toward social, economic, and environmental justice. We change ourselves in order to change the experience of the world for all beings, to free humans, animals, insects, and all life from their suffering.

What does all of this look like in action? What does it mean to live the Dharma?

The Venerable Thích Nhất Hạnh, Zen monk and founder of the Plum Village tradition offers the gift of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, based on the five precepts in Buddhism. They are a “framework to reflect on our actions, speech and thinking so we can create more happiness for ourself and for the world around us.”

Reverence For Life
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

True Happiness
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and stop contributing to climate change.

True Love
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. 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. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.

Loving Speech and Deep Listening
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

Nourishment and Healing
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

Resources to Learn More

Thầy Thích Nhất Hạnh, Zen Monk in the Vietnamese tradition and founder of the Plum Village tradition.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso, teacher and monk in the Tibetan tradition, and spiritual leader of the Gelug tradition.

Venerable Thubten Chodron, Bhikshuni (ordained Buddhist nun) in the Tibetan tradition and Abbess of Sravasti Abbey.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryū Suzuki Roshi, of the Sōtō School.