F is for Four, Five, Fourteen

Four noble truths, five precepts, five mindfulness trainings, five contemplations, fourteen mindfulness trainings, the list could easily go on. I remember Jim Pym observing that Buddhism is a religion of lists, though I’m sure the lists are just intended as a way to help people remember the key points, and some people’s memory does work that way (mine does, at least to some extent) and others does not.

You can easily look up versions of these lists, so I’m not repeating them here. What I’d like to share is something of my own responses to the five mindfulness trainings, a modern version of the five precepts for lay Buddhists. As evidence that they are not necessarily to be taken as a word for word precious thing, the exact wording is changed fairly often and you may well come across different versions. I have more than one in front of me as I write.

My first real encounter with the five mindfulness trainings was at the Nottingham Retreat that Thay led in 2010. An evening session early in the retreat was devoted to five people sharing their personal experience of working with one of the trainings in their everyday lives. I came out of the session realising that what the way the mindfulness trainings were asking us to live was completely in line with the way I had long been trying to live my life guided by Advices and Queries, and with the very clear idea that I could take the step of formally receiving the trainings. The trainings can read as very prescriptive, but in preparatory discussion in my dharma sharing group we were assured that they were like the North Star, they guide us in the right direction although we will never actually get there.

A requirement placed upon those receiving the trainings is that they should study and recite them regularly, preferably with a sangha, and at least once in three months, to maintain the effectiveness of the transmission. Not seeing a way at the time to join a formally organised sangha, I took up my daughter’s offer of support in this. We agreed to read the trainings together once a month, on or about the anniversary of the transmission I’d received (she went on to formally receive the trainings in 2012). This we have done, and occasionally I’ve been able to do so in a wider group, especially during a few days at Woodbrooke in 2011 which were devoted to considering the Five Mindfulness Trainings and Advices and Queries*, and, during 2013, at meetings of the Heart of London Sangha.

At sangha meetings we tend to simply read the trainings aloud, allowing each person to respond to themselves whether or not they have made progress in applying that trainings in their own lives. Unfortunately, time is sometimes short and the reading is rushed. Personally, I’d like a little more quiet between each one to consider more fully (there speaks my Quaker self, I think).

With Rhiannon, I find we usually need about an hour. We read each training and then discuss any aspect of it that has struck us anew as we read it, or has caused us difficulty recently, or we feel we don’t understand, or we have seen in a new light. Yesterday we did this month’s practice. We decided to read them in a different order, which ended up being third, fifth, first, fourth, second. This showed up very clearly the links between them. When we’d discussed them in my dharma sharing group at Nottingham in 2010, someone had asked ‘do you have to take all five?’, to which the response was ‘no, you can receive one, two, three, four or all five – but be warned, each of them actually encompasses all the others’. Reading them in a different order really highlighted that to us. For example: ‘generosity in my thinking, speaking and acting’, ‘cultivat[ing] openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment’, ‘cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness’, ‘speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy and hope’, ‘cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening’, ‘coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me’ – all leading to a positive attitude that helps to promote and ‘preserve peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth’.

Parts that particularly and persistently challenge me include ‘not to possess anything that should rightfully belong to others’ – how far can I go with this? I ask myself, I have clean water to spare (enough to flush my toilet with) while others do not have clean water to drink – ‘do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse’ – what more could I do? And how? I certainly should get on with ensuring that children’s meeting helpers are DBS checked, help those children and young people I am in contact with to be able to speak out about things that concern them, but what else may be ‘in my power’? In other places I am irked by the very specific detail of the wording, there can be more power in the understatement and openendedness of the Advices and Queries. Though I remind myself also of the first of the fourteen mindfulness trainings ‘… we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. We are committed to seeing the Buddhist teachings as guiding means that help us develop our understanding and compassion. …’

And then there is the key difference between these two sets of guiding words, Advices and Queries also talks about God, but maybe that difference will be the subject of another post another day.


* I have a lovely little booklet that puts the five mindfulness trainings alongside extracts from Advices and Queries which I purchased in response to an item in Here and Now. It also has a brief introduction to both traditions, but the author has not included her name except for ‘Lesley’ on the hand-written note that accompanied my copy, so I can’t now tell you how to obtain a copy.

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