Buddha statue quiet lake
The Five Mindfulness Trainings: Overview
Listen to this talk:
The Five Mindfulness Trainings: Overview (27 min.)
Transcript of a talk delivered by Jessica Hitch
April 10, 2016 - Dallas, Texas

Tonight I want to talk about the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which are concrete ways to take our practice of mindfulness off of the cushion and out into our everyday life. They represent a Buddhist ethic, a way to put our spiritual practice into practice and help transform not only our personal suffering, but suffering in our community, in our world, and on every level.

So, these Mindfulness Trainings are based on the Five Precepts Cornell mentioned earlier. The basic Buddhist precepts are: number one, don't kill. A lot of us are familiar with this idea that maybe a Buddhist would be a vegetarian. That could be an expression of that precept. Another one is not stealing, not taking something that does not belong to you from others. The third one is not misusing sex, so using your sexual energy consciously in a way that promotes love instead of suffering. The fourth one is not lying, so maybe that is why Buddhist monks and nuns practice so much silence. And then the last one is not abusing intoxicants.

So, Thich Nhat Hanh, who is the teacher that started this tradition—I'm sure most of you are familiar with him. He is an awesome person. He is a Zen Buddhist monk. He is a peace activist, and so he is the one whose teachings inspire this particular expression of the Five Precepts.

And ideally, if we follow these Mindfulness Trainings, we will take on enlightened qualities and be able to live compassionately in service to all beings. They are meant to guide us on the path of the Buddha or the bodhisattva so that we can realize our own enlightened nature and express it.

Thich Nhat Hanh and his community took the precepts and fleshed them out and updated him, so they address things like global warming. There is climate change. TV programs are in there. Obviously in the Buddha's time, 2,600 years ago, I think, those were not really relevant, and so you will see when we look at these today, they are the modern interpretation.

The fact that it is an interpretation means, as with anything, the Buddha says, "Do not believe something just because I said it. Take it and practice with it." These are the same way. You know, don't follow the word of the Training just because it says. You know? They are meant for us to inquire, to look, to ask, to consider, to reflect.

It is kind of funny because I am not the type of person to really want to just follow a bunch of rules, but these are compelling enough that since 2010, I will go back and review them and use them to help guide me and my choices. Ordinarily it is like, "You want to give me a rule? That's no fun." So I think there has got to be something of substance to these if they actually inspire me to seek out a rule to follow or a guide.

So, Thich Nhat Hanh, I mentioned, is a Vietnamese Buddhist master. He grew up in Vietnam, and when he was young, the Vietnam War started. Now back in the day, the elders in the tradition would say, "No. No. No. You don't need to get involved in helping people like the people who are suffering from the bombs. You need to get on a cushion. You need to meditate. Become enlightened. That is the way you relieve suffering."

To him, that didn't make sense, you know? He is thinking, I see people suffering now. Are you serious? You want me to go sit in some sacred room and not do anything to actually help them? So he created this idea of engaged Buddhism, where, yeah, we do definitely sit and practice and meditate, and that is important. But also important is engaging with the community, with the world, with whatever we see that may be an injustice or creating suffering, and doing what we can in the present moment in our current reality to help alleviate that. So he has been a very active person.

His activism has had some results, because he refused to take sides in the Vietnam War, and so it intimidated and threatened both sides. He has been exiled from his homeland for years, decades. But he is just that willing to stand up for peace and stand up for human rights, and so you will see in the Trainings that there is definitely an activism or like a call to social justice that has been added in here.

So, Thich Nhat Hanh also was pretty awesome because back in the late 1960s, he had women connect with him in his group and serve. They created a group called the Order of Interbeing, which is the group that set the foundation for these practices, the Trainings. At the time, one of the women who became a nun—I read her book, and she said literally somebody told her, "Hey, lady, you really want to help? You'd better be reborn as a man, because in this lifetime, you have no hope." You know? So she is like, what the heck? That is terrible. What am I supposed to do? Thich Nhat Hanh agreed. Yeah. That is stupid. We can be together now—again—helping to alleviate suffering in our present form. No, you do not have to be reborn as a man. Okay.

So all these young Buddhists, men and women, created the Order of Interbeing. They would make pamphlets for peace and hand them out in Vietnam. They would help people on either side, helping villages restore places that had been bombed. He even saw friends, monks and nuns, getting killed. It was a really challenging time for him and his practice, that he still refused to take a stand, and now he has developed an international community.

I mean, all of us here tonight are an example of his influence because we have all been drawn here to practice, and our sangha is part of the Dallas Meditation Center, and we have multiple sanghas within the Dallas Meditation Center in this single city. Beyond that, our sangha is connected to a global movement. I mean, there are practice centers in California, in Mississippi, in New York. There is one in France, and there are participants in Mexico, in India—countries all over the world. I even heard of the group in Africa that is meeting and practicing in this spirit, and the spirit is really one of peace, compassion, and love. So I think so many of us feel like we want to serve and help reduce suffering, and so we come together, and we are actually part of this global movement to help humanity, just by sitting here tonight and talking about these things.

So all of these practice centers were inspired by the idea of engaged Buddhism, which means we can take Buddhist ethics and what we have learned from our personal practice and apply it to our daily lives. We do not just have to be peaceful in meditation, but we can also cultivate it outside of meditation. We can use our compassion when we come across conflicts in the workplace, wherever. It is not just a one-time thing that we just do on Sunday.

And over the next five weeks, we will have an opportunity to look more deeply into each Training. Each one is pretty broad, and they are also pretty deep. It is the kind of thing you can read over and over, and always get something new out of. They can be really revealing. So tonight we are going to get a chance to kind of break into groups and focus in on them, and I encourage y'all to just take this home and just check it out occasionally. See what comes to mind. Maybe something in here will help you with something going on in your life right now, and you can find some way to apply them. They are meant for contemplation, and so just read them, review them, kind of let them soak in. Just see what you think and feel about them.

So, after the next five weeks, we will all have an opportunity to receive the Mindfulness Trainings, and this is my booklet. I took them at Deer Park after a young adult meditation retreat. They said, "Hey, who wants to commit to practicing these Trainings?" And I thought, okay. Sure. I know what they are. I feel like that would be a good move. So they had me fill out a little sheet of paper expressing my aspirations. I said, "I want to be able to incorporate my Buddhist practice with my other spiritual paths," and I just thought about ideally expressing compassion for all beings, with that being a goal.

So overnight, the monks and nuns go off into some secret room and brainstorm and come up with a dharma name for you, and the next day, we wake up for meditation. There is the most beautiful meditation hall. It is in the mountains in California, Southern California. There is glass. There is an altar with orchids on it—really simple—and Thich Nhat Hanh's paintings are so elegant. So just being there is inspiring. And then when they did the ceremony, they had cushions lined up on one side and the other. All the monks were on one side, all the nuns on another in their special ceremonial robes. It was super striking just to see them. And then everyone who is taking the Trainings sat in the middle, so the whole community is around and watching you.

So what it essentially was was a dharma transmission, so when they started the ceremony, there is chanting and bells—all of our favorite things. And the feeling was like our spiritual ancestors were there watching us, like Buddhas were there. You know, it felt like a celebration in a lot of ways, and very powerful because it is transmitting the energy of the practice.

It is like saying, "Yeah. I kind of want to step up and commit to this, and I think this is worth doing." So I was super-committed, because I even got my dharma name tattooed on my arm. I was so excited. It is Awakening Stream of the Heart, and those monks and nuns came up with hundreds of beautiful names that are all really similar and really special. For me, it was a special kind of milestone on my spiritual path, and ever since then, I have been studying them and practicing them—like with anything, sometimes more intensely than others, but it has still been a thread in my life. And so that was just really cool.

They had us do a bunch of prostrations, so you could watch everyone standing up and bowing, touching the earth. People who couldn't stand up and bow were still doing their best in their chairs. And so it was almost like a sacrifice or an honoring of the wisdom that is beyond what we know and a recognition of the willingness to aspire to be the best person we can.

So, these are definitely guidelines. They do not substitute our inner authority. First of all, they couldn't. Like if you read them, you could interpret these so many ways. Even Thich Nhat Hanh acknowledges that we are all going to kill at some point. You know, I just sat down on top of an ant. That kind of situation can happen easily, so some of them may even be impossible to practice—pure non-killing, never killing anything. I don't know. Maybe it is possible. You know, it is something we can all look at and try to understand.

But they are not the Ten Commandments, thou shalt not do this. Thou shall do that. They are suggestions to contemplate, but not commands, and quite a few of them actually focus on transforming dogmatism and fanaticism in ourselves. So even if I were to get super fanatical about this and go, "Hey you. I noticed you weren't following these. Have you read these?" then I'm actually not following them myself at that point. And of course it makes sense, because Thich Nhat Hanh was in Vietnam, and so he saw these strict ideologies creating war that resulted in killing, and so for him, it is like, why bother thinking that way and being so dogmatic and inflexible that you cannot relate to other people?

Ultimately, the goal is to reduce suffering in ourselves and others, so one of the favorite ones people like to look at is the one on nourishment and healing. It talks about not taking in things that are toxic to ourselves, and includes TV shows, food, alcohol, drugs, aspects of consciousness. You know, that is one we can look at and think, okay. That kind of sounds like you're saying hey, I have to be on a certain diet. Or hey, I can't have any fun. Why are you trying to take away my TV shows?

You could see it like that, or you could see, okay. So that is interesting. Maybe there is some merit to it. I wonder what it is. Is there anything toxic in my television? How would I know? What about my food? You know, what does that even mean? Toxic states of consciousness? So it is something to ask, and then you'll get your own answer. Because something that is toxic for me is gluten, and I bet a lot of you all can eat it, and there is no issue. So that is an example of why there is not one answer to these things, but the goal is to reduce suffering in yourself, in others, and in your community. If it makes you feel like you're not doing well, then it is creating suffering in yourself, and that is not the best way to practice the Training.

And then some of them, when I first got them, I thought, this seems kind of odd. I don't know. It seems strict. Where are they coming from? Like the one about True Love. It says, "Knowing sexual desire is not love and 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."

So when I was maybe 23 or so, I thought, hold on. That is the opposite of what Cosmopolitan is saying. I watch MTV. Come on. What about the women's movement? I don't know. Is this really right? This sounds kind of stodgy. I'm just really not sure about this, and I kind of held it like, eh, that's a nice idea for a monk who sits in his monastery, but yeah, I don't know.

What I ended up finding was yeah. There is definitely validity to those. Sexual activity motivated by craving harmed myself and others, and I looked back and I thought, oh my gosh. That is exactly what it said. Even though at first I thought, I think that is stodgy and doesn't relate to me. And so I started to kind of respect where it was coming from more and see it was meant to maybe protect me versus confine me.

And I still can't say 100% I think this is correct all the time, because for example, a woman in the sangha said, "You know what? I'm gay, and my parents have disowned me. I'm not going to have a long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. They don't want to know about it." So for her, it's like, she can't practice that in the same way. That's an example of how the exact same Training for different people has different meanings and how maybe these were developed by a community, and so we can continue to contemplate them and build on them ourselves. But maybe there is a better way to phrase that to incorporate people who wouldn't feel comfortable telling their family, "Yeah. This is my partner."

And then some of these, they seem like good ideas, but I don't necessarily have to follow it 100%. Like heck, I can watch a TV documentary and have fun. Yeah. I can even watch some stuff that is pretty weird sometimes, and it is okay. You know? I don't have to be too strict. Although part of me always thinks that with what I'm doing, there might be a better option. But I think having that awareness is part of the Trainings, too. Just like we are making choices, and there are different options, and we will receive different benefits depending on what choice we make. So just having the awareness to question what we do and why is the gift.

So, earlier Luis mentioned he got to share the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, so that is what these Trainings are based off of. They're not just pulled out of thin air. These are foundational Buddhist teachings. So, the Four Noble Truths: number one—this should shock nobody—there is suffering in life. I bet we've all experienced that at least once and probably multiple times just since we got here. And that is what the Buddha said, "Hey, there is suffering."

He said, "Suffering is caused by desire." For example, one of those desires could be, I wish I didn't feel this suffering, and then suddenly the suffering is amplified. But he says it is possible to end our suffering, and the Eightfold Path will help us.

So, the Eightfold Path helps us cultivate our thoughts, our words, and our deeds so we reduce the suffering and act with compassion and wisdom. And of course, it is a path because we walk it throughout our life and continually refine our abilities to do this. It is not meant to be a cure-all, take a pill once and suddenly you are just an amazing enlightened Buddha, but rather practicing with our thoughts, our actions, our words every day, and doing our best to live according to our true ideal.

So the first one is Right View, and according to Thich Nhat Hanh, Right View means recognizing interbeing, the fact that we inter-are. I don't exist without you. We all exist together at some level of consciousness, and what I do influences others and vice versa. Then expanding it out to the interbeing with other people. You have animals, minerals, plants, and just whatever sentient beings may not be included under those labels.

The second part is Right Intention, having a pure motivation behind your actions. The third part is Right Speech, practicing kind and loving speech that creates harmony. Then there is Right Action, compassionate, ethical action. Right Livelihood is choosing an ethical way of making a living.

Right Effort is consistently practicing and diligently evolving. And I know that is something that Brother ChiSing emphasized was Right Effort. It just brings to mind how he told me for spiritual hygiene, he always recommended meet with a sangha once a week. He said, "Practice yourself every day, but you've got to meet with a sangha, because when you are all together, your Buddha field, your Buddha-kshetra, becomes bigger, and you receive deeper meditations, more calming meditations." He said that, and then he said, "And on top of that, go to a retreat at least once a year so you get a chance to have several days when you are in the practice." And so his little prescription there is an example of Right Effort, diligently practicing regularly and consistently.

And then finally—well, not finally. There are two more. One is Right Concentration, which is the practice of meditation, mindful breathing and walking. Every time we return to our breath, we are concentrating all of our energy back in the present moment. And finally is Right Mindfulness. This is using our ability to transform our thoughts and emotions with awareness. Thich Nhat Hanh talks a lot about holding our anger like a child—I see you there, my anger. I see you arising within me. Caring for it, transforming it. And with mindfulness and in meditation, we realize we have the capacity to do that with our thoughts and our feelings. We've got our own power within to kind of create our experience and fine-tune how we perceive things so we enjoy life more.

So all of these elements are included in here, and they are meant to guide us on the path of a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a being who is already enlightened, and they say, "Look at these people on earth. They are suffering so much. I have to return to earth to help alleviate the suffering of others until all sentient beings are enlightened and free from suffering." So Goddess Quan Yin is a bodhisattva. I'm sure some people would say Jesus was a bodhisattva. Anyone who has the desire to serve and transform suffering, and probably everyone in this room, has a bodhisattva inside of them. So this says when we choose to be on the path of a bodhisattva consciously, "we are not lost in confusion about our life in the present or in fears about the future" because we have arrived on our path.

So, I've given you some background on the foundation of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, and I have also told to a little bit about this tradition and a spiritual teacher who brought these particular Mindfulness Trainings to us. So the next thing I want to do is just briefly introduce the Trainings to you.

The first one, which is based on non-killing, is called "Reverence for Life." It is meant to help us protect life and decrease violence, both in ourselves and in the world. And most of these Trainings definitely recognize that what is going on within ourselves plays a big part in transforming the world also. Another one is "True Happiness." They all have these awesome, positive names. This one is about practicing social justice and generosity to avoid stealing and exploitation. So it takes not stealing and expands it to address forms of social injustice, like stealing rights from others. It is more than just, "I took your cookie."

Then there is "True Love," which is the one about responsible sexual behavior. "Deep Listening and Loving Speech" aims to restore communication and help us reconcile. Then there is "Nourishment and Healing," which guides us how to practice mindful consumption and avoid bringing toxins into our minds and bodies.

So the next thing we're going to do is split into five groups to discuss them more deeply. It looks like we will probably have three or four people in each group, and I'm going to give each group a big printout—although you all have the same thing in this calendar/ newsletter, too. And so each one of you will look at a particular Training, and then maybe about 10 minutes before the end, we can ring the bell, and a representative from each group can share what you discussed about the Training.

I will encourage you all to read the Training, and then share your thoughts and feelings, whatever you think may apply, any experiences you have that seem relevant, just to get to know the Training. We are supposed to be able to incorporate these into our everyday lives, and it can help us to be a community of resistance. That phrase I actually got from a monk at Deer Park. He said, "Thich Nhat Hanh sees our spiritual centers as communities of resistance resisting violence, greed, materialism, and all the destructive tendencies that exist." So through our simple practice, we are offering something different, a different choice, a way of living in peace.

Transcribed by Jessica Hitch

▲ Return to Top