How to Relieve Suffering: Committing to Precepts

A Dharma Talk by Barbara Casey, given on November 16, 2019, to Anacortes Mindfulness Community

AMC Day of Mindfulness Nov 16, 2019

One time I read a novel based on the fallout from the Opium Wars in the mid 19th century. It was described in this way: the British were living on a small island, feeling ambitious but constricted. We can feel this same impulse in us: perhaps we feel our life force, the creative energy wanting to express itself in the

world. But we also have all these shadow motivations, ego-driven needs that color our outlook. So what comes out of this energy is driven by our personal ambition, expressing itself as greed. Greed was the primary cause of the opium wars, killing and destroying so many lives and impairing a rich and wonderful culture.

So I began to think about what could have happened in our world if instead of greed, that same energy was committed to the bodhisattva vow: to serve all beings, to save all beings from suffering.

~How might our world be different if all the energy spent on maintaining our sense of isolation and separation was instead fueling our sense of connection?

~How might our world look?

~How might our hearts feel when we wake up each morning? I think our world just might be a paradise right now.

Instead, we have what we have now: our very existence is threatened because of this grasping, this greed, this belief in every person for himself. Our world is becoming impossible to inhabit. Not to mention all the violence, cruelty and lack of care and consideration perpetrated in every corner of civilization. What can we do?

Our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, titled his book on the precepts, the mindfulness trainings, “For a Future to be Possible”. That really says it all for me. At this point it is not just a matter of how to live together more happily, but to be able to survive as a species.

So what can we do? One small person in this vast river of anger, greed and confusion? There is a lot we can do. Yes, we are a drop in the ocean, but we have the ability to be awake, clear and compassionate. And when we are, when we think, speak and act from clarity and love, we have no idea what the true impact is on our world. It reverberates through space and time, helping others to act from clarity and love. It can clear our confusion to the point that our past changes, our history takes on a new shape, our lives are reframed.

This is called the path of purification, because it is like a dust cloth, wiping away our ignorance and confusion and showing us a clear path of wholeness and interconnection. It allows us to let go of fear and ego-based motivations, and shows us how to make our daily choices based in love as a community. It gives us what Thay calls Sangha Eyes, the ability to see what is best for all, not just for ourselves. There is so much happiness in this way of living, because we embrace the reality that we are more than just this one, small, separate being: we are all together in this mess, causing it and clearing it with every breath.

From the Ultimate

The Five Mindfulness Trainings emerge from the heart of our practice, from our realization that we are an ever-changing organism, moving and growing together as one. They come from understanding that every thought, every word and every action affects us all; that showing up today and making this commitment to do our best in this life has an impact on you, and also on every life.

The mindfulness trainings come from the ultimate dimension, from the insight that we are one organism, not just connected, but of one piece, the same fabric, cells of one body. When this understanding is rooted deep in our heart, our natural response to life is what the mindfulness trainings describe. The ultimate lives within the heart of the historical dimension, always available to us.

The trainings translate the reality that lives in our hearts, where there is no birth or death, no separation, no linear time, into our world of the historical dimension, where there is linear time, there is birth and death, there is duality. When we get deeply in touch with the ultimate, we can step forth in our daily life, and we know what to do. We know how to walk the path of non-harming, ahimsa. Our clarity and compassion open our eyes and guide our hands to make the choice of love in each moment. This becomes our natural response to life.

Belief in separation limits our ability to see clearly, to love deeply. It is like a veil over our eyes, so that we cannot see the true nature of life. This limits our joy, and keeps us from loving to our full potential. We are crippled by this belief in separation. In our hearts, we know our home is in the ultimate, but when we manifest in the historical world, sometimes we feel constrained by being in these bodies, by being in space and time, by the illusion of duality, by thinking we need to grab for what we need. We forget our true nature.

The mindfulness trainings help us to translate love into action more skillfully. They are specific guidelines for how to wake up to the full beauty that is already within us and to express it.

The trainings are our roots, helping to keep us grounded as we encounter new challenges. They are also the leaves of our tree, carrying the message from the roots that we are one, that all is well, even as the winds might blow us around.

We practice in the historical dimension to retrain our habit patterns that are less than kind, less than skillful or helpful. This is important daily work, to bring conscious awareness to the places where our speech and actions, still coming from our wounds, don’t reflect our true kindness. We trust that, by connecting in the ultimate dimension through our deep aspiration and our mindful concentration, our cells are washed clean from those ideas about ourselves and the world that are stuck in wounds from the past.

Simply put, we learn to live a life of decency. What is it to be a decent person? It means we are naturally drawn to what is most helpful and least harmful for all.

So we aspire to develop our understanding and love, both from practicing to develop a careful attention to the choices we make every day, and from developing the awareness of the goodness that is our home, our birthright. Waking up, flowing from us, becoming the basis of our life choices. And when we set an intention and fuel it with regular recitations and prayers, that intention becomes a rudder by which our life is steered.


In traditional teachings on Buddhism, the practice of ethics sits at the base of a pyramid, supporting and making possible both meditative concentration and insight, wisdom, understanding. It’s not possible to develop meditative concentration and insight without a strong foundation of ethics, aspiring toward a life of blamelessness. If our words and actions have been unskillful and have caused harm, this murkiness in us will arise when we try to still our minds. It will color our way of seeing things, and clarity and concentration won’t be possible. So our practice begins here, with training ourselves to be clear and open, so our response to life will be wise and kind and will be a kind of healing. This allows us to develop our meditation, which in turn helps us make our ethical choices each day.


When we recite the mindfulness trainings, we are giving energy to our foundation for practice. When we listen and respond internally to how we have practiced that training, we need to not only see where we have fallen short, but also to see where we have been successful. This develops our confidence, our self-respect, and our enthusiasm to continue.

We read these precepts regularly, because our intention is that they penetrate the cells of our being, informing our thoughts, words and actions both consciously and unconsciously. We know that what we focus on affects the trajectory of our lives, so increased focus helps us turn towards this path of goodness.

Committing to the precepts also gives us a way to measure how we are doing. When we read the trainings regularly, we contemplate how we have done in practicing each one over the past segment of time. This helps us see where we need to focus our attention, and helps us set a sincere intention to wake up more fully.

When we share our successes with our sangha, it’s inspiring and helps us be creative in our approach to life’s situations. Life isn’t lived in the black and white, but in the gray areas. As we move through our day, we are constantly making choices: should we pass that car so we can go faster? Shall we eat that muffin? Shall we speak about something or refrain? We have so much freedom to express ourselves, it’s a big responsibility. When I came to the Dharma, I was so happy because for the first time, in all my searching, I found a map, a blueprint, and a set of tools to help me consciously choose how to craft a life that would be happy and meaningful.

The mindfulness trainings are one of these tools. Like the Noble Eightfold Path, they show us a way to express our buddhanature and our bodhisattva vow in everyday life. They bring the reality of the Ultimate dimension to the historical dimension.

Doing our best to live according to the mindfulness trainings, gives us:

• a yardstick to measure our behavior, to see our mistakes and successes

•a way to repent, forgive and begin anew

•a way to take refuge

Our commitment is to open our eyes to the choices we are making in each moment, to track them and to understand both their roots and their effects, on us and on the world. Our commitment is also to accept ourselves as we are, not to place a limit on our level of acceptability in order to love ourselves and to receive love. No matter how clear and kind we are in this moment, or how confused and in pain we are, we offer ourselves to the moment, we place ourselves on the altar of love.


The special gift we have as humans is our consciousness: that we can be conscious of what we are conscious of. It’s hard for me to imagine a more valuable tool for creating a life of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. However, when we aren’t conscious of our consciousness, aware of our awareness, we are wasting this supreme gift. So, as practitioners, our aspiration is to be aware, to be conscious, of our thoughts, our words and our actions.

And behind those are our motivations, which can manifest as an agenda, as an ethical path, and as a longing for completeness. These manifestations take many forms and include positive as well as shadow aspects. Our agenda can be driven by love and a heartfelt wish for all people to be happy and safe. But it can also be driven by seeds of hurt, jealousy and feeling rejected or incomplete. These unconscious shadow aspects of ourselves have often been created by traumatic events in our past. The example of the Opium Wars in our history is just one of so many terrible events that have manifested from our shadow aspects such as fear and greed.

So our work is to make the unknown aspects of our motivation, of our agenda known, both to transform and reclaim the shadow aspects and to blossom the hidden potential in us.

Our path is called Ahimsa, or non-harming. Our intention and aspiration is to not cause more suffering. I used to have difficulty with stating things in the negative, as the dharma often does: non-fear, non-harming, etc. But eventually I understood the reasoning behind it: all these things, like fear and harming, are not our true nature, so we don’t have to change ourselves in order to let go of them, we just have to wipe the mirror with that cloth, we just have to recognize our innate goodness, our buddhanature. My intention for each day is to not bring more suffering into the world, to take good care of myself so my goodness will express itself instead of my wounds. It’s endless practice.

Intention starts with listening: to your body, to your mind, to your heart, your emotional body. What is most needed right now? An intention has the same energy as a vow or a deep aspiration, but is more concrete and is grounded into what can be done right now. It is the first step into action, that carries the vision of the way you want to live. You bring it to conscious awareness, fuel it with energy, and then let it go. It works in you, influencing your choices, somewhat like automatic pilot or cruise control.

Setting an intention at the beginning of sitting meditation each morning, I ask, What is most important right now? How do I want to use this precious day? How can I live a life well lived in this moment?

So let’s take a moment and listen to what our bodies, minds and hearts are saying about our personal intention for the day. A simple message for you in this moment.

Just resting and listening.

Would anyone like to share their intention?

Taking Refuge

There is a lot in the Buddha’s teachings about cultivating peace and joy, and there is a lot about taking refuge. We take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. And these reside both outside and within us. It’s wonderful to have a historical Buddha, who modeled how to live an awakened life. But it’s just a story unless we begin to get to know the same buddhanature that already resides within us. The Dharma is the teachings the Buddha gave us, based on the way the world works, the natural laws. And the Dharma is also our own inner wisdom, our natural expression of our own beautiful, unique selves. The Sangha is the community of spiritual ancestors, the worldwide community of practice, the community in this room right now, and also the beloved community that makes up each one of us, our bodies, minds, spirits, good hearts, all that we are. When we take refuge, we take refuge in all of this.

What does it mean to take refuge and how do we do it? This is a good question to contemplate because there is no answer outside of you. For me, taking refuge is a very personal experience, one which is hard to find words for. My first conscious experiences of taking refuge were when I felt wounded by someone or some event, and kind of like an animal, licking my wounds, I turned in my mind to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha in myself, and also outside of myself.

If I was having difficulties with someone in my local sangha, if someone was upset or angry with me, I would think of the larger sangha, of all the folks around the world who I know are practicing their best and supporting me, and I would find comfort there. And if the larger sangha was in turmoil, I would just focus on the harmony in my local sangha, and take refuge there. It’s the same thing within myself: if some part of me is upset or worried, I do my best to turn my mind to the parts of me that are okay, and feel that anchor that’s somewhere deep inside me. So I turn to whatever is working, to help support the part that isn’t working very well at the moment.

I have also learned to take refuge not just when times are difficult. I am learning to take refuge when I am feeling good, to take refuge in that peace and happiness that I am feeling, and to share it. Taking refuge is a practice of love and protection for ourselves. And it’s a way of reminding ourselves that we are connected to all of life.

It’s a wonderful practice to write your own trainings as a contemplative practice. Sometimes I like them to be short and simple, and yet to express the depth of meaning they carry.

Here’s one version I wrote that I like to work with:

Knowing that we are one, I vow to cherish all life.

Knowing that I have everything I need, I vow to respect the belongings of others.

Knowing that I have the potential to harm or to heal, I vow to be honest and respectful with my sexual energy.

Knowing that authenticity is the essence of love, I vow to speak the truth and listen well.

Knowing that clarity is the key to understanding, I vow to keep my mind clear and free of toxins.

Or sometimes I just say: I vow to open to my buddhanature, to the goodness that is my true self.


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