In the spring of 2006, I made a phone call that would change my life. I had been reading Thây for a few years and was ready to take the next step. As an American who had been raised Roman Catholic, I didn’t know anything about Buddhism or meditation and had certainly never been to a monastery. So I called the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, which was the east coast center for the Plum Village tradition at that time.
A brother named Thây Phap Không (Brother Emptiness of the Dharma) answered the phone, and he mostly listened. I somewhat nervously explained that I was a “fallen” Catholic and a serious yoga practitioner living in New York City, but I had never been to a Buddhist Center before. I shared how moved and healed I felt by reading his teacher’s books, and that I wanted advice on how to learn more. When I was done, he laughed and said very warmly and simply, “Come! Come up here for a week and check it out!”
A few weeks later, I was sitting in their meditation hall and receiving an orientation on practicing at the monastery from Sister Annabel Laity, who was the abbess there at the time. With all its grace and powerful clarity, in many ways, her short talk set the tone for my practice to this day. Of the many things I took away was her emphasis on the Five Mindfulness Trainings and their role as the bedrock of our practice. She explained how they were our teacher’s modernization of the ancient five moral precepts of Buddhism, and how they could help us to realize the life of love and understanding that our hearts knew was possible.
I took her advice and used that week of retreat in part to really look deeply into these five short passages. Reading them excited and inspired me. It was what I had been looking for after so many years without moral compass—a concise and poetic list of the ways I wanted to be living my life. At the end of the retreat, I made a commitment to myself to practice them wholeheartedly from that day forward. Looking back on this now, ten years later as an ordained Buddhist monk, I can see how that was a dangerous mistake.
First of all, I didn’t really understand what I was reading. A childhood in the Catholic Church had strongly imprinted me with a certain view of my spiritual life, and so even as a professed agnostic I could not help but read the Five Mindfulness Trainings as if they were the Five Commandants. I was in a lot of pain that year and was fresh off the heels of a very painful breakup from a woman I had hoped to marry. I felt lost and desperately stuck in patterns and habits that I could see were leading me into suffering, but I could not escape. I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a set of rules and hoped that if I followed them, my life would be “good” and therefore I would be happy.
A lifelong struggle with depression and low self-esteem made me vulnerable to use the trainings as just another club to beat myself with. When I felt I practiced them well, I was good. When I didn’t, I was bad. Even more self-destructively, this point of view in one fell swoop made the whole of my life before meeting the trainings bad and unskillful. In a flash, I had found a way to condemn and shamefully discard over thirty years of life. This was nothing short of a violence.
These days, thanks to years of loving mentorship and support, I have a very different view. Now I treat the Five Mindfulness Trainings like five dear friends. So imagine that you are at a party and you are about to do something unskillful. It doesn’t really matter what: drink too much, sleep with someone who doesn’t respect you, steal something—you can put your own habit here. A friend walks up, and seeing your situation, starts to berate you. “How can you even think about doing that? Again? If you do that you are a bad person. If you do that, I will no longer be your friend.” Does that sound like someone you’re likely to keep around? Does that sound like a true friend?
And yet this is how many of us use the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Imagine now the same scenario, but this time the friend’s communication is very different. “Dear friend, I can see that you are about to do something potentially self-destructive, and I am here for you. I want to remind you of the times when you have spoken to the suffering this kind of action causes you, and your strong desire to make another choice. Remember the deep and loving intentions your heart has set in this area? No matter what you choose, I love you. No matter what happens tonight, I will be here for you tomorrow.” Now that sounds like the kind of friend I want to both be and have.
This is what the Five Mindfulness Trainings are for us. They are always there, helping to remind us, to clarify our confusions, and to bring us back to our true selves. To our hearts. They will never walk away from or abandon us, no matter how circuitous or frustrating our path may be. They are in themselves exactly the kind of unconditional love we aspire to give to ourselves and the world. When we commit to practice them, we are only making a commitment to ourselves, not to any outside authority or judge. Our teacher has offered them to us from such a place of love and understanding that he doesn’t even mind if we only practice one or a few of them. He had seen clearly that when you have even one true spiritual friend by your side, you are practicing all of the trainings.
All we can do is practice with who we are today, where we are right now. It’s a lifelong process, and that’s why we call them “Trainings.” I’m enjoying my training, I wish you luck and hope that you enjoy yours.