Precepts – Generosity and Stinginess (#2 and #8)


[download the Precepts Summary]

I want to speak today about two of the 10 clear-mind precepts. [hand outs]

These two precepts are about generosity and theft. About taking and giving. About opening the hands or grabbing with the hands.

In Buddhist ethics we start with the mind and end with the mind. Our meditation practice encourages us to be more sensitive to the process of how the mind emerges and passes away. How we are a flow and a process, not a fixed being in any way.

So we talk about actions of body, speech, and mind having a karmic effect. That what we think about matters.

Here we need to make a distinction between the emerging of a conditioned thought and the response to that thought.

Nasty thoughts emerge.

In one system of consciousness they suggest that our collective karma as suffering human beings with our endless legacy of war and violence has planted seeds in all of us.

We all have seeds of hatred, seeds of greed, seeds of fear. And when conditions are right these seeds start to sprout.

There evidence from neuroscience that evolution has equipped us with 7 basic emotional systems that happen at a very low level in the mind:

SEEKING: how the brain generates a euphoric and expectant response
– FEAR: how the brain responds to the threat of physical danger and death
– RAGE: sources of irritation and fury in the brain
– LUST: how sexual desire and attachments are elaborated in the brain
– CARE: sources of maternal nurturance
– GRIEF: sources of non-sexual attachments
– PLAY: how the brain generates joyous, rough-and-tumble interactions
– SELF: a hypothesis explaining how affects might be elaborated in the brain

And so it’s not a personal failure or a breech of precepts when an angry thought or a greedy impulse or feeling or thought emerges. It’s natural and built into us.

The work of awareness that is the practice of precepts is to see and understand these thoughts and urges and impulses more clearly. To make a decision which seeds we water.

And we know that seeds sprout if conditions are right. There are levels of choice here. We can feed habits that tend to encourage greedy action, we can support habits that bring us into clarity. We can notice where we’re tight, and where we’re relaxed and open in body speech and mind.

These two precepts are particularly about possessiveness. What do you we think we own, what do we possess.

And the mind is so quick to rationalize. I was working at UW the other night, I’m there when only one or two people are in this fancy academic building and there are multiple piles of lost and found. I found myself so interested in this box of lost and found – was there anything good in there? Anything I want? This stuff is just going to Goodwill probably – might as well give it a good home. Wow, so quick. The security guy was with me, a really nice chatty guy named Norman, and I found myself waiting for him to go off on his rounds.

Luckily for my precepts practice the nice earbuds in the box didn’t fit my ears.

One way the 2nd precept is expressed is not to take what is not freely given. That’s a great metric. Is this really being given to me freely?

The 8th precept has a surprising variety of translations, did you notice that. That’s because literally it’s more specific to the Buddhist clergy, a bit less universal than most of the bodhisattva precepts. Literally the characters mean “not stingy dharma money precept” The literal precept is don’t be stingy with Dharma teachings and money. Money for the temple presumably.

so this has been expanded by most contemporary teachers to be about generosity generally.

The 2nd precept of course implies generosity but I think it’s more about respecting boundaries and limitations. I actually had a reason to be pawing through the lost n found box at UW – I had lost a laptop power supply a few weeks earlier – but I was going beyond the boundaries of the situation the moment I started feeding that thought “hmm, what’s this other stuff in here?” I went beyond wise restraint.

Did you read Aitken roshi’s story of the drunk with the big bankroll. The question of being wise about the situations we put ourselves in and the situations we put others in is important.

The idea is not to be super-humans who are never tempted by anything. Those seeds of greed are there. The idea is to get smart about when we put ourselves in a moist environment where those seeds are going to sprout.

That’s how I’ve come to think about locking doors. Some of my friends at times have idealized places where you never lock the doors (or at least you think it’s okay) and how sad it is to lock doors.

I don’t think that way, I think we lock doors out of kindness. SO that others who have the karmic circumstances to have these seeds of greed really growing and active have a little encouragement not to steal. It’s a kindness to them to prevent them from stealing and reduce the negative consequences of stealing in their lives.

Precepts have many levels – we think about the literal level – do not steal. And in the literal we consider what’s being prohibited – stealing, stinginess – and what’s being encouraged – respect for boundaries. generosity.

The second level is the relative level, here we may need to take action that seems to break the literal level in service of some higher reason. So you might for health reasons need to eat meat for instance. I heard a powerful story on a podcast of a French Jewish woman who was rescued from the Nazi’s by Catholic nuns who had to lie to her and to the authorities to keep her safe.

And the third level is the absolute level, or the ultimate level. Here we recognize the limitations of all of these distinctions and separations. Is there really anything to steal? Do we really own anything anyway? This is the level where the three marks of existence are truly seen as the nature of all that is: impermanence, not-self, and suffering. Everything is impermanent and changing, nothing is separate or really existing in the way we think it is, nothing in the conditioned world will truly satisfy us anyway. There is not point to stealing as the thing we want to steal won’t lead to the happiness we think it will. There is no point to stealing as that thing isn’t even the thing it appears to be, and it will soon break and decay.

holding these three levels with some fluidity and grace is a key part of precepts practice. We can look to balance, kind of in the same way we talked about our work with the 7 factors of awakening. We can see if we’re being lazy about the literal level and what the consequences of that are – ouch. We can see if we’re afraid of the relative level and hiding in some kind of simplistic idea. We can see if we are caught up in the foolish distinctions and limited views of the world and missing the absolute level altogether.

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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