Monday, May 7, 2007

Bad Buddhist vs. The Fifth Precept

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practising mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I am committed 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 practising a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society. -- Thich Nhat Hanh

Oh, come on! I don't stand a chance with this one!

I don't doubt that Thich Nhat Hanh is wiser than I can ever possibly hope to be, and I know that if I took his advice I'd be a healthier, happier and better person. But there are times when I just think, What planet are you from, dude?

I'm sorry, I don't mean to be flip. The problem I have with this particular formulation of the Fifth Precept is that it asks us to avoid taking part in anything that is "unwholesome." I understand the general point and benefit of this. It's all too easy to get sucked in to habits, whether of consumption or of thought and speech, that reinforce aspects of our nature (selfishness, egomania, lack of empathy, laziness) while our better virtues atrophy from disuse. So yes, I want to make an effort not to lose myself or my time to things that ultimately harm to me and the world I live in.

However, at the same time, I think it's important to also retain a sense of balance and of curiosity — intellectual, aesthetic, artistic, moral, or just plain human curiosity — about "the dark side."

Drugs and alcohol, plus those TV shows, magazines, books, films and conversations mentioned by Thich Nhat Hanh (and let's add music, of course), which are centered around and/or which draw us in close to things like pain, hatred, self-destructiveness, violence, paranoia, nihilism, apathy — they take us to those places because those places are real, they are part of being human, they are compelling and necessary to understand. Most of us probably don't want to live there all the time, but some people choose to (or don't choose, but end up there anyway) and what they report back (whether it's in the form of a brilliant poem, or a suicide note, or of a crappy commercial lowest-common-denominator TV show) is part of humanity's eternal art-gallery exhibition, the neverending, constantly curated retrospective that shows us the full range of what we are.

I don't think refusing to ingest this stuff — refusing to take a close look at the evidence, to really feel its weight and heft and texture for ourselves, up close — really helps us at all. In fact, I think that kind of purism is more likely to keep us ignorant and lacking in empathy. Plus it just seems pretty snobby. We can try to deny the dark side, but it is wily and strong and will tell us things we wish we never knew.

I practiced in a sangha for a while about ten years ago, and I remember a conversation about music coming up, in which someone referred to heavy metal music (Guns'N'Roses, specifically) in a way that made it clear that everyone there felt it was both unwholesome and without value. I felt compelled to argue: if Axl Rose and his comrades live in a darker place than we do, and if he writes songs and plays in a band that sounds angry and nihilistic and takes a lot of drugs along with all those other tormented people seeking an ecstatic experience, then we should thank him for going there. We should thank him for reporting back.

And quite possibly we should try to spend a little time there ourselves, just so we know.
Maybe an occasional dose will make me stronger, like with snake venom..?

This seems like the kind of thing that arises directly from attempts to squelch human fascination with the dark side.




  1. I hope you start posting again. Great stuff.

  2. I agree with Pamm (by the way, I discovered your blog via Pamm's).

  3. Hmmmm, interesting but you assume things to be rather black and white in Buddhism. In Buddhism, things are not what they seem: good and evil, light and dark are mere illusions. Comprehension is key to enlightenment and part of that comprehension is that being human is a rare chance within the circle of reincarnation and one of the few chances to make genuine spiritual advancement. So if you are serious about making progress along the Way its best not to lose ourselves to our egos.
    Within secular societies exploring our darker side is fine but in the grand scheme of things to the Buddhist, it is not.
    I am not an exemplary Buddhist myself but I believe that Thich Nhat Hahn's statements are wise and can aid us along the Path.
    "Applying oneself to that which should be avoided, not applying oneself to that which should be pursued, and giving up the quest, one who goes after pleasure envies them who exert themselves."

  4. Hi, the actual fifth precept is about being sober by abstaining from intoxicants, so as to preserve the integrity of the first four precepts. When we lose our mindfulness via substance abuse, we might end up breaking all four precepts. Amituofo :-]

  5. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal of buddhism is to reach enlightenment and that a monk naturally will view certain media as sowing bad seeds. Your perspective is based on creating a well rounded person with some life experience. Buddhism isn't necessarily concerned about gaining life experience as much as it is about understanding the universe itself, I think.

    We need not all live like monks but simply strive to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others and a deeper understanding and appreciation for life.