Saturday, April 9, 2022

The Second Precept

     The Second Precept of Buddhism is "To refrain from taking that which is not given." The obvious equivalent is "Thou shalt not steal."  When I came across the 2nd Precept this morning, however, my mind went past the surface meaning to two other related principles. The first is not to grasp at or cling to the good things in life; the second, not to rage against the bad things. That which is given to us, in each moment, is all that is given.

    I am given, for example, pleasure in the taste of a piece of chocolate ... to grasp or cling to it, to take more of it than is "given", would be to eat all the chocolate instead of savoring one or two pieces. More than one or two is not "given" to me to enjoy, because eating the whole box would end up doing me harm. Or, I can take pleasure in an encounter with an attractive man. That is something that I am "given" once in a while, the feeling is part of my human nature, and it is something to accept with gratitude. But to seek to "cling," to prolong the interaction, or to "grasp" at more than is appropriate to my vow of chastity, would violate this first expanded sense of the precept.

    In the other sense, there has been a lot of learning to accept what is given during my time in the hermitage. Learning to accept and embrace Real Me, and let go of Fantasy Me, is just this thing. I am not "given" a Self who has all the skills, all the abilities, all the strengths and none of the weaknesses. I am "given" human vulnerability, fragility, and my own particular combination of weaknesses and strengths. Fighting against this reality often looked like setting myself impossible standards and then beating myself up for failing to reach them. That was me trying to "take that which is not given."

    Last weekend, I discovered that the old retired priest who celebrates the English Mass here in my new parish in Spain has some character flaws (namely, pretty serious racism) that I don't think I can live with. I went into a whole spin-out about it, angry at him, distressed on behalf of all the non-white English-speaking Catholics here, and guilty because I'm not meeting some vague, impossible standard of saving the world myself. I was depressed for two days. Then I realized, first, that some of my distress is loneliness, because I've been in Spain for just two months, and was hoping to make friends among that congregation. But OK, I'll go to the Spanish Mass, because anyway, isn't that kind of the point of moving here? Why am I sticking to an expat enclave? 

    And also, I can look for the NGOs who are working long-term for the relief of refugees from Africa, which is just across the Strait from where I am on the Costa del Sol. Not that I don't care about the Ukrainians, too, of course I do. But so does everyone else in the world, for the moment. The world has only ever been able to focus on one humanitarian crisis at a time, and I don't want to forget about the rest, especially those right in my new back yard. So, instead of raging against what isn't given, I can find a way to do some little bit of good. I can connect with people who care about what I care about, and I can let go of the things I cannot control.   

    "That which is not given" to me, today, is a world of peace, love and understanding; I'm given a world in which people are hurting, and people are hurting each other. And also, some people are helping, and if I let go of what I am not given, then I can lean into what really is, and take my place in it. "That which is not given" to me is a new ready-made community of friends, all neatly wrapped with a bow on top, to replace the people I left back in the USA. I am not given a new church home, at least not on the first try, that can feel as much like home as my monastic community in Washington does. That's OK, too. Anyway, I think a little bit of loneliness can be a good thing for a hermit. It drives me inward to the One whose love and companionship is always with me, but who I have to make the effort to look for below the visible, easy surface. That which is given is just what I need, and it's all I need. 


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