2021-06-16 The Dharmic Life (3 of 5) A Life of Non-Harming
12:27AM Jun 17, 2021
This is the third talk now on living a dharmic life. If you want to receive some of the benefits that could come from becoming a monastic and living in a retreat center, where one's whole life is dedicated to practicing the Dharma – if you want those benefits but without doing those things – while just continuing with your ordinary, everyday life – I am offering different ways that you can maybe get quite a few of those benefits. This depends a lot on how much you dedicate yourself to these simple practices I'm teaching. But "simple" doesn't mean they're not profound, or phenomenally impactful.
For today, I'd like to offer something that may be the only thing you really have to know about Buddhism. If you really live this idea, this practice, this approach to life – if you do it well and thoroughly, all of Buddhism kind of comes along and follows. All the insights and all the ways of growing spiritually and personally follow. This practice is to dedicate oneself to causing no harm.
That's it. Just keep that with you, as if you have a ring that is engraved: "no harm", so you remember all the time that this is really the heart of practice – the center of it. All you do is live by that. You become more and more refined and subtle in how you live that life, causing no harm in any direction – towards yourself, to other people, to the planet, to the environment – to not cause any harm.
If that seems like too difficult a challenge and maybe impossible, then not causing any intentional or willful harm – at least start there. I'm not just making this up. There is an ancient teaching that the primary characteristic of the Dharma is in fact non-harming. The principle of not causing harm has such a strong association with the Dharma.
The teachings I gave in the last few weeks on wholesomeness and unwholesomeness could be understood as non-harming and harm. What's unwholesome is in some way defined as what causes vexation, suffering, and stress on our system and in the world. What is wholesome is that which does the opposite – doesn't cause harm, doesn't cause vexation, distress, and stress.
You will see the advantage of using this one simple thing of causing no harm – even if you can't live up to it completely – using it as a reference point, as a gauge, to really see much more clearly than ever before all the ways that you do cause harm.
Now: not to harm yourself even more. We live and dedicate ourselves to non-harming in a way that is non-harming. It doesn't work to dedicate oneself to non-harming and do it in a way that is a set-up to harm ourselves even more. Rather, we use this gauge, this reference point of non-harming so we can see much more clearly where we're going off and going wrong.
On freeways, they have all these lines for the lanes on the freeway. I suspect that those lines help us navigate and keep straight on the freeway. If there were no lines, I think we'd be swerving a little bit more than we do. In the same way, this principle of non-harming is like the lines for life in our lane. We notice much more carefully then when we're liable to swerve too far in the direction of harming. I want to underscore again: both to ourselves and to others. Part of the function of this principle of non-harming is it becomes a mirror so we see ourselves better.
If we see ourselves really honestly, with the self-honesty to see that we are causing harm, what do we do then? I suspect that seeing this clearly will naturally change what we'll want to do – how we'll want to live our life, how we'll want to talk, or do what we want to do. It's when we don't see it so clearly that we tend to go ahead and cause harm.
For example, with speech which is mean, spiteful, critical of someone, or angry at someone, we might know that we're doing it. But we might justify it as, "They deserve it." Or as, "This is how I'm trying to get my way."
But if we remember that the principle is non-harming, then we can explore this. Where's the harm in the statement I'm going to make to my friend? What kind of harm am I causing? Am I harming myself? Am I harming our friendship? Harming my friend? Is this something I've been doing regularly? What is the impact of this? Is there an alternative way to take care of myself? Can I figure out some way to take care of myself without saying this harmful or spiteful thing?
This kind of reflection is part of a dharmic life. It's not only about showing up and being mindful in all situations. A dharmic life is also about being reflective – contemplating, considering. Sometimes those considerations are debates within ourselves, going back and forth.
But if you have the principle of non-harming as a reference point for those conversations with yourself, where you're questioning and wondering, then maybe you will come up with the question: "What is the alternative to doing something harmful? Is there some way that I benefit more? Some way that others benefit more? What if I say this in a different way? What does it take to say it differently? Maybe I need to learn new skills. Maybe I need to learn nonviolent communication techniques."
There are a whole slew of ways of speaking that are not making statements about other people. For example, the simple principle of making "I" statements rather than using "You" statements – talking about what we're feeling. This doesn't mean saying, "I feel that you're wrong." It means, "When you say X, I feel hurt, or feel afraid".
We can find new ways of being in the world that are maybe more intelligent, more creative, more innovative, than the ancient, primitive, simplistic, maybe reptilian, way of being aggressive or causing harm towards oneself and others. Then, as we live by this one simple principle – not causing harm – we begin to appreciate what begins to bubble up to the surface.
We appreciate the peace, the ease, the calm, and the confidence that come with not causing harm. In this way, we start feeling better about ourselves, and start appreciating that in most people, there is a strong instinct to not cause harm. It is almost an instinct – like pulling one's hand off the hot stove – "if" we're quiet and mindful enough to really be sensitive to where that instinct lives in us.
We're not so sensitive when the unwholesome mind is spinning, angry, frayed, desirous, or greedy. When that gets the upper hand, and we are claustrophobic with these thoughts, ideas, and preoccupations, then there is no space to feel this wonderful place. I think most people have this wonderful place that really doesn't want to cause harm.
Another reference point for this idea is when you have a young child, a grandchild, or niece or nephew, a neighbor who is quite young, maybe still a baby, how much you don't want to cause harm. How much care you would take to not cause any harm to people you love.
If you have this non-harming principle for family, the idea in Buddhist practice is to begin universalizing it. To spread non-harming out to all beings that we see. Not exactly that they're family, but as if they're family. We don't want to cause harm for them.
And one of the important family members for this whole enterprise is yourself. I can't underscore how important it is not to cause harm to oneself.
So if someone comes and criticizes you for anything at all, watch yourself carefully there, to see what your inner response is. See if there is some way in which you are actually causing harm to yourself. See if you're too quick to apologize, if you're too quick to be critical of yourself, or to diminish yourself. Or confess, "Oh, what a terrible person I am." To the extent that that is not done wisely and carefully, we end up hurting ourselves. Sometimes we do it intentionally. Because if we show other people that we're hurting ourselves and are feeling really bad, then we most likely think that they believe us, or that they see that they're having the intended impact on us – which is to put us in our place.
What exactly does it mean to cause harm to oneself? Is it necessary? Can there be a confession of fault instead? Can there be an admission that,"Yes, I did something wrong" where we don't diminish ourselves. We don't belittle ourselves. We don't harm ourselves.
In fact, maybe we can learn how to confidently say, "Yes, I apologize" when necessary. Fully and clearly, with a certain kind of strength, we can say, " I made a mistake. I'm going to try my best to not do that again. I'm so sorry. How can I make amends? What can I do for you?" But we do it from a place where we are not diminished or harming ourselves.
So in all directions, non-harm. I'll repeat what I said at the beginning, because I feel it's such an important point. I believe that if you hold on to this one principle, this idea, you really don't have to believe anything else that Buddhism teaches. You don't have to hold on to anything, you don't have to learn all kinds of complicated practices. But to really become refined and subtle with this principle.
If you do that, sit down in a nice easy chair and close your eyes, you'll then begin going through layers and layers of discovery of the subtle quiet movements of harm within the mind itself. You'll begin releasing, and releasing, and releasing them – even to the point where the word "harm" is not quite the right word anymore.
Maybe, rather, the word is stress. We're also learning to not add any stress. In deep meditation practice, we see that the subtle – in ordinary life insignificant, but in meditation, quite significant – ways in which we harm ourselves are really forms of stress and tension. We see that we can let go of them, let go of them, let go of them –into that place of safety, that place of peace, that place where we can live, breathing safe and free from all tendencies to harm. Thank you.