Life-Stance Reminders and the Limits of Ideology

Piesco Lake sunset No.2, Upstate NYCreative Commons License photo credit: Sebastian Anthony

The Buddha offered Five Precepts for every practitioner of his dharma to observe:

I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from …

  1. …harming living beings.
  2. …taking things not freely given.
  3. …sexual misconduct.
  4. …false speech.
  5. …intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness.

People sometimes ask me, since so much of my spiritual practice and world view are influenced by Buddhist teachings, why I don’t self-identify as a Buddhist. It has to do with the limits of labels and ideologies, which I’ll discuss further below.

Thich Nhat Hahn updated the Precepts to include 20th and 21st century concerns, calling them the Five Mindfulness Trainings. He included protection of the environment under the first precept, shielding children from abuse under the third, and avoiding mental toxins under the fifth. For Thich Nhat Hahn’s full explanation of his Mindfulness Trainings, I highly recommend the book The Miracle of Mindfulness.

I’ve further adapted the Mindfulness Trainings for my own use, turning each “abstention” into a positive aspect of a world view. I find it helpful in my spiritual practice to remind myself of these essential approaches to life from time to time; perhaps they will be useful to you as well.

1) The taking of life causes incredible suffering. I choose to adopt a nonviolent life stance and to live in harmony with other people and with my environment.

2) Theft, exploitation, and greed lead to all kinds of suffering and sorrow. I choose to adopt a generous, liberal and contented mentality.

3) Sex divorced from love and commitment can do a great deal  of damage to individuals, families and communities. I choose to channel my sexual energies into a loving, committed relationship.

4) Dishonesty and deception cause great suffering, both to the deceiver and the deceived. I choose to deal with other people—and with myself—as honestly as possible.

5) Harsh words and the inability to genuinely listen to other people ruins relationships and leads to all kinds of human  tragedy. I choose to speak compassionately and to listen deeply.

6) There are many deadly toxins all around us; in foods, in drugs, in conversations, in entertainments and in ideologies. Aware of the great suffering they can cause, I choose to take only good and nourishing things into my body and mind.

*     *     *

I have an aversion to extreme ideologies of all kinds: religious, secular, political and philosophical. I believe that ideologies polarize people, while shared suffering and joy bring them together. Have you ever noticed how bumper stickers are a kind of shorthand way of saying, “You and I could never possibly get along?” If you’re a secularist and you see a bumper sticker declaring that the Rapture is near, you may dismiss the driver as a lunatic with whom you have nothing in common. If you’re a staunch conservative Republican and see someone driving an electric car covered with left-wing slogans, chances are you’ll turn away and dismiss him as a nut.

But what if all four of these people get into a multiple-car accident and someone in each car is seriously hurt? Polarizing ideologies quickly melt away in the light of shared human suffering and vulnerability. Once these drivers and their passengers have helped each other get the injured individuals out of the wrecked cars and get them to the hospital, they may well become lifelong friends. Statements like these may well be heard somewhere along the way:

  • “I have no idea how Bob can believe that crazy religious stuff, but he is a nice guy.”
  • “Sheila may be a wingnut, but she’s a friendly wingnut.”
  • “Jamal and I will never see eye-to-eye on politics, but he did go out of his way to make sure Bess was okay after that accident.”

And so on. The fact is that our viewpoints can change and evolve greatly over time. Locking oneself into a rigid ideological framework is a self-imprisoning exercise. Why limit yourself to a single view of multifaceted issues? It’s unrealistic, and it prevents you from relating to people outside your ideological circle.

Best regards,

William K Ferro


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