(Another in a series of dharma talks)
During a recent meditation retreat, the other participants and I each undertook to live by the five Buddhist training precepts during our time there. One of those precepts is this:
For the purposes of training, I will not take anything that is not offered to me.
This is a common sense rule for those who will live in close proximity to one another – no “borrowing” your roommate’s shampoo, no swiping someone else’s flip flops. It’s a basic principle that is embedded in social systems everywhere – in the yoga tradition as the niyama of asteya – non-stealing. God told Moses a version of the same thing.
It isn’t wildly surprising that the precept forms a basic part of so many different cultures: it’s a simple way to maintain cooperation and minimize friction among humans. The training precept articulates the Buddhist version of the rule: unless it’s yours, don’t touch it, and it’s only yours if it’s specifically offered to you.
So on the retreat, we didn’t need locks on the doors. We didn’t have to wonder what would happen to the shoes we left outside the meditation hall. We didn’t have to hide our stashes of candy bars. My stuff was my stuff. Others respected that boundary. Things stayed where I left them.
They were safe.
I was safe.
* * *
I get up early. It’s still dark. I move quietly to avoid waking my roommate. He rustles under his covers and resumes his quiet snoring. I make my way to the small open closet at the foot of my bed. By feel I find clean clothes, make my way out of the room, down the hall, into the bathroom. I shower, towel dry, and dress. My mind watches each action, notices its own intentions. I brush my teeth at the sink, gather my old clothes, and return silently to my dorm room. In the dark I trade out the toiletries and old clothes for clean socks and a hooded rain shell, and I make my way to the bench just outside the building where I left my shoes the night before. It’s freezing outside, and foggy, the damp wood planking chills my soles. My breath billows around my head as I slip into socks, then night-cold shoes. I pull the hood of my shell over my head, and I begin walking slowly the hundred yards or so to the meditation hall. My attention is on the sensations in my feet – lifting, moving, placing, weighting, lifting, moving, placing, weighting, lifting, moving…
None of that quiet concentration would be possible if I were fretting over a missing water bottle or a jacket that wasn’t where I left it.
* * *
On retreat, the word-silent lunch seems loud with chair scraping, silverware clinking, and washing noises coming from the kitchen, the gurgle of hot water into tea mugs. My chores are later in the evening, so I have 90 minutes before meditation resumes. I find a path that twists and turns and switches back-and-forth up the steep hills. It’s cool but not cold except when the wind picks up. After fifteen minutes of climbing, my heart is pumping loudly, my breathing is strong. I reach a level spot about halfway up. Old rocks protrude from the grasses beside a laurel tree. I catch a leaf and crush it, releasing its royal scent.
I finish the climb, pause to admire the view, and begin to descend on a different path, past other outcrops. As I pass one, a tiny, perfect rosette of glaucous leaves catches my eye – an Echeveria – Hen and Chicks, but a kind I’ve never seen before – growing from a crevice in the rock. I think of the perfect spot for it in my garden in Colorado. I tug gently, the more firmly and the root pulls free, breaking off at the tip. I zip the plant into a pocket and resume my descent.
Then it dawns on me: who offered me the plant I’ve taken?
I can’t replace it in the crevice where it grew, so I try to replant it in a different spot, suspecting that the transplant won’t take without close attending that I can’t provide.
I begin to see more clearly that the training precept not only affects how others treat my stuff, but how I relate to the world around me.
* * *
Back at the meditation center, the Buddhist training precept of not taking what is not offered renders unnecessary my “I must protect my stuff” instinct. That doesn’t make it go away, of course, but it does draw the impulse into awareness: “Oh, I guess I don’t need to hide my water bottle behind the pile of zabutons after all.” And discovering how much of life has been devoted to protecting my “stuff” is at once a surprise, and a relief to be free of the worry. But after the initial freedom from the compulsion subsides, what begins to arise in me is an awareness of my raw attachment to my things – and my desires to be attached to other people’s things. And the closer I look at those impulses, the more they seem to be efforts to reinforce me, the one wanting, the one defining stuff as mine or wishing it to be mine.
At the heart of ownership, at the heart of property, at the heart of possession is the one possessed of the thing. For something to be “mine” is to define it in terms of a self. And whenever something is defined in terms of a self, that relationship also defines the self.
* * *
A couple of weeks ago, I learned that a dear friend and favorite yoga teacher was moving away from Denver. She had enriched my life significantly, and I found I wanted to give her something to reflect my appreciation. For several days, I debated exactly what might work for the purpose. After inventing and discarding half a dozen ideas, I thought of the perfect gift – an old Tibetan singing bowl that had been given to me years earlier and that formed an important link in the story-chain that led me to discover, practice, and teach yoga. Once I settled on the gift, I began formulating exactly how to present the story to her so she’d understand it in context – so she’d appreciate it as a part of me and my story. I imagined in my mind how I’d see her before the last Sunday morning class she’d teach, how I’d present the gift, how she’d respond, and how we’d be connected by the gift.
Of course, the actual giving didn’t go anything like I’d imagined it. I did see her before the last Sunday class. She was rushed and harried, greeting not just me but dozens of others who were also there to practice one last time and to say goodbye. I quickly handed her the unwrapped and tarnished bowl and dented striker, and all I managed to say was “there’s a story behind this that I’ll tell you later.” The opportunity “later” never materialized, and I never got to tell my friend the story of the bowl. And she never asked for the story behind it.
So instead of the bowl connecting the two of us as I intended, it’s probably just one more thing that got packed and moved. If it’s being used at all, tarnished thing that it is, each time it’s rung, its vibration and pitch don’t tie anyone to my story.
And the more I realize how much that fact bothers me, the more it seems related to the Buddhist training principle I learned on the retreat.
Because, really, my little sense of offense has nothing to do with what I was giving, but rather with what I intended to take. Though my actions were giving a gift to my friend, some part of my thoughts were all about me. Instead of “I give this to you,” it was “I want something from you, and getting it involves me putting this into your hands.” When we give in order to be appreciated, we often are taking what is not offered.
* * *
Once I saw this clearly relative to the bowl, I started to see it everywhere – in my dealings with my children (I get unhappy when I give them my Saturday afternoons, but they don’t clean up the kitchen), with my co-workers (I resent covering for them when they had sick kids, if they don’t cover for me when I was out), with my friends (I make time for them, but they don’t reciprocate as I want them to) –everywhere. It became disturbingly clear how often I was interacting with the world not simply out of a sense of love and generosity (though there was some of that to it), but out of a desire to control things – to get what I wanted by being perceived as generous and loving. I’d attached my wanting to the objects and devised ways to give them in order to assure myself some benefit.
Have you ever given a gift to someone, and then been disappointed by some aspect of the person’s response? When you gave a check to a nephew who was struggling to pay his college tuition, perhaps he spent all the money on iTunes, loading up on Italian goth metal music. When you gave your daughter a pendant for her birthday that you received decades ago from your grandmother, perhaps she looked at it briefly, said, “eh,” and dropped it on the table behind flashier stuff. Have you ever said (or thought) to one of your children, “You should do X for me because I gave birth to you/put you through school/fed you/sheltered you/whatevered you?” I have. And I was trying to take something that was not offered, just because I’d offered something – in theory – “freely” at some point in the past.
* * *
The Buddha taught Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine, and Jesus warned against doing alms before men.
* * *
All of it, really, is simply a lack of letting go, a giving only half-completed. There is no giving without letting go. So long as I attach strings to the gift, there is neither giving nor gift.
So here’s my resolve: in giving, to give freely and to let go; in receiving, to receive only what is offered by family, friends, and existence.
* * *
…the world offers itself to your imagination.
— Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”