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The Five Mindfulness Trainings: Ancient ethics for contemporary suffering

By Buddhistdoor International Raymond Lam
Buddhistdoor Global | 2013-04-10 |
Practicing inside the meditation of hall at our Schools and Educators' Retreat in Thailand, April 2013.Practicing inside the meditation of hall at our Schools and Educators' Retreat in Thailand, April 2013.
Attendees relax and celebrate after receiving their certificates for attending the retreat.Attendees relax and celebrate after receiving their certificates for attending the retreat.
Sitting and listening intently as one of the university rectors introduces Thay.Sitting and listening intently as one of the university rectors introduces Thay.
Our Dharma sharing group enjoying the conclusion of our photo session.Our Dharma sharing group enjoying the conclusion of our photo session.
What informs Plum Village practice?
Plum Village is one of the world's most recognised and popular movements of contemporary Buddhism. Its emphasis on engagement and day-to-day activity like reconciliation, conflict resolution, and mindful action has created an almost brand-like quality that distinguishes it from other modern Buddhist institutions.
Behind the charismatic leadership of Thich Nhat Hanh is a multicultural army of loyal volunteers dotted around the world. Through a well-kept machine of publicity and public relations, Plum Village is grounded in a sophisticated body of connected teachings. They are commonsense, but require many years to master and implement. Thanks to Thay's patient and careful planning, Vietnamese Zen has grown from being an little-known Mahayana school to a global movement familiar in many countries.
Perhaps the most representative of these revised teachings is the Five Mindfulness Trainings series (Fourteen for Thay's sangha, the Order of Interbeing). The Five Mindfulness Trainings are a reorientation of the Five Precepts. Thay deliberately rephrased them because they were being misunderstood as commandments or rules rather than aspirations toward love and compassion. They all begin with Aware of..., which emphasises the practice of awareness and a subsequent resolve and determination to apply Buddhist principles of compassion to each and every circumstance life throws at the disciple.

In rephrasing the Five Precepts and developing the Five Mindfulness Trainings into a comprehensive modern ethic, Thay has found it necessary to elaborate on each precept beyond orthodox formulations. In light of a complex new world, sophisticated ethics are not only necessary, but a manifestation of mindful compassion.
The First Mindfulness Training (Reverence for Life)
There was once a distant possibility there could be a sustainable and relatively humane way to slaughter a limited number of animals for consumption - perhaps on a small farm not dependent on the global capitalist economy. However, to refrain from killing just won't be enough anymore, for as Kemmerer (2012) points out, the globalized means of animal production has robbed the common person in the industrialised world of any real opportunity to consume animal products in a way that does not inflict unnatural, excruciating agony on mass-bred creatures. The ugly truth is that participating in this economy is to passively accept, condone, and take part in a culture of not only death, but a rapacious, ravenous culture of greed for the corpses of non-human sentient beings. 
The real tragedy here is the lack of choice that globalization has ironically introduced. There is a genuine philosophical and health case to be made for the humane consumption of animals, and Buddhists should not be compelled to veganism. But Buddhists and meat-lovers alike are deprived of any nuance in an environment that demands mass breeding for mass death. Aware of this unfortunate truth, a practitioner of the First Mindfulness Training will face the decision whether to participate in this machinery of pain.
The Second Mindfulness Training (True Happiness)
The second precept has traditionally been a prohibition against the violation of the dignity of ownership. It is intriguing, then, that this idea is not even covered in Thay's formulation. Thay believes that the exploitation and oppression of people is a much greater harm than theft. The pursuit of wealth, power, and influence is a much more profound form of stealing than a robbery or shop heist. While traditionalists would have appreciated a reference to the problem of theft, it must be conceded that institutional exploitation and oppression is a much more ingrained problem that cannot be solved by policemen and jails alone. The complexity of resisting social injustice is extremely complex, but the resolve is there to bolster the practitioner's faith in herself or himself to do the right thing.
The Third Mindfulness Training (True Love)
The precept addressing sexual misconduct has always adapted itself in accordance with the social mores of various societies. What cannot be condoned in any modern society, however, is the abuse of children. Thay's inclusion of child abuse in this training is a welcome safeguard against paedophilia or self-justifying claims to abuse children. As divorce rates begin to match the actual rate of marriage, commitment to the third mindfulness training can help to correct our mistaken assumptions about love, and transform those assumptions into conditions for real affection.
The Fourth Mindfulness Training (Loving Speech and Deep Listening)
This training retains much of the orthodox formulations and wording. The inappropriate use of speech can have powerful, damaging effects on a person's emotional wellbeing. Examples include lying, gossiping, and angry verbal abuse. Beyond the harsh condemnation or judgemental snub, there is also the subtle put-down, the sarcastic insult, or the cynical attempt to manipulate someone's insecurities. The fourth training is therefore indirectly connected to the first precept of respecting life. Loving speech and deep listening are the positive practices that will transform these negative habits. 
The Fifth Mindfulness Training (Nourishment and Healing)
Of all the trainings, it is perhaps the fifth that has undergone the most thorough metamorphosis, from a simple vow to not be intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, to a roadmap that covers the Four Kinds of Nutriments, edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. While alcohol and drugs remain hindrances to practice and possible threats to life, it would be naive to discount the effect negative media exposure has on our minds in today's media-brainwashed age. Therefore, one should enjoy positive nourishment for both body and mind, and avoid within one's power the websites, publications, and platforms that give rise to negative and restless emotions.
Modern but holistic cures to suffering
Over the years, Thay has accumulated a wealth of knowledge about the most skilful and effective teachings for a modern audience. In many cases, he has adapted the spirit traditional Buddhist philosophy and ethics but revised their expression in light of modern problems through Buddha would not have experienced, such as global warming, pornography, child abuse, and more. Plum Village philosophy is far more than merely mindful breathing, although mindful breathing underscores every possibility available to the disciple.

Related links:
The Five Mindfulness Trainings
Discourse on the Four Kinds of Nutriments

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