You know that feeling you get when you go to slurp some warm chai tea (or coffee, you choose) only to find it has gone cold? That’s the feeling I get when someone brings up the five precepts. Should I be focused on lighting souls on fire with the radical clarity this practice bestows, or should I be focused on trying to…
• abstain from killing any being,
• abstain from stealing,
• abstain from sexual activity,
• abstain from telling lies and
• abstain from all intoxicants?
There’s a place for abstinence, austerity and the like. These things have merits and can certainly aid spiritual growth. I get it. My stints at Dhamma Patapa wouldn’t be so growthfully simple if it weren’t for the precepts most folks observe (ever so scrupulously) while there. But here? Me? I can’t seem to lock myself into any hint of a rule system.
Maybe I’m stuck in the rebellious teenager phase. Maybe I’m hopelessly lost in samsara. Or maybe I’m less interested in being good than I am in being whole. It’s not the rules themselves that bother me. It’s the idea of taming my practice so it fits neatly inside of some pentagonal prison.
Growth, for me, doesn’t seem to come when I’m devoting my energy to a set of rules, or the following thereof. I’ve tried it. No avail. Growth comes when I’m devoting my energy to exactly what desire compels of me. And I don’t mean desire, here, as in craving. I mean desire as in that mysterious tug of the heart strings by a person, place, or thing. Hard to feel unless you’re sitting still.
The foundation of my practice has never been a series of shoulds or should nots. Ever. Not even at Dhamma Patapa, where I broke noble silence (to say thank you) and made bodily contact (to catch someone’s fall), among other things… Things that may not have been in accordance with the edicts we receive on day one of the retreat, but were surely in accordance with the spontaneous workings of another kind of wisdom, where rules don’t always register.
When I take a good long look, I recognize the foundation of my practice, the bedrock level of my growth in love and wisdom, as desire. Because my deepest desire always inspires devotion. And devotion sustains my meditation practice. “Devotion” has its Latin roots in the word devotus – to vow. This means to promise, sure, but more importantly, to center your efforts on something or someone. To favor ‘em with all your energy. To dedicate your practice to them, even.
If we’re observing the precepts, great. They seem to naturally follow a genuine sitting practice anyway. But if we’re so caught up in observing the precepts that we can no longer feel the beloved pulling on our heart strings, maybe pulling us above and beyond the walls of that pentagonal prison, then … why? What’s the point?