Conduct for a happier life

To create a happier life through mindful living we need these three main components:

  • Mindfulness: paying attention to what is happening right now
  • Interbeing: seeing ourselves as part a wider society and ecosystem, not separate.
  • Conduct:  choices we make in everyday life.

Sometimes the words ‘ethics’ or ‘morality’ are used instead of conduct.  But these might imply that there is a ‘must do’ list, or set of commandments.

Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t teach commandments. This is because Buddhist “ethics” is just the natural way we behave once we have calmed some of the chatter of the mind.  And once we become aware of our interbeing.  Then our actions are ethical because they promote everyone’s happiness and the well-being of the natural world.  They are not based on our individual, self-centred wishes.

Guidelines for conduct

So if we will naturally act ethically once we are effective mindfulness practitioners, do we need guidelines for conduct?  If we were fully aware all the time, no.  But we are not fully aware all the time.  So for the many times in our lives when we are not mindful, not aware of our interbeing, we certainly do need guidelines.

Traditionally there are five Buddhist precepts for conduct.  These cover violence, stealing, speech, sexual conduct and consumption.  Thich Nhat Hanh has re-named them ‘mindfulness trainings’ to get away from the idea that they are rules. And one way to see that these really are natural to all of us is to talk to children…

Naturally ethical conduct

When children are asked to write down behaviour in school which leads to unhappiness, they list things like:

  • being beaten up in the playground
  • having their stuff stolen
  • people talking about them behind their backs
  • two-timing their girl/boy-friend
  • people bringing drugs to school

If you then suggest that they draw up a set of guidelines to help prevent these sorts of things happening, they will often generate parts of these five traditional teachings spontaneously.  For example: When asked to complete a sentence like ‘Because i know that having my stuff nicked leads to unhappiness, I have decided to…..”, most will complete it with something like “….not nick other people’s stuff”.

And Thich Nhat Hanh’s Mindfulness Trainings follow this pattern.  They start with a statement “Aware of the suffering caused by…..” and lead to a statement “I am determined to….”

We can commit to the Trainings as an aspiration and then read or recite them regularly.  By doing this we remind ourselves of the kind of person we hope to become.  As we compare ourselves to the ideal, we can then see how far we are along that road (and how far we still have to go!).

Five Mindfulness Trainings.

See the full versions here

Two Promises: mindfulness trainings for younger children

These are very simple and accessible and are particularly suitable for children and young practitioners. They remind us of our basic responsibility to other beings and the need for compassion and understanding .  They are often taught as a song.

I vow to develop understanding, in order to live peacefully with people, animals, plants, and minerals.
I vow to develop my compassion, in order to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.

Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings: The Order of Interbeing

During the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh created the Order of Interbeing as a lay (non-monastic) group committed to Buddhist principles.  People who join the Order take the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.  Besides the areas covered by the Five Trainings, the Fourteen also cover fanaticism/intolerance, attachment to views, propaganda and livelihood.

‘Right Livelihood’

A large proportion of most people’s lives is spent at work.  So our conduct there is covered by a special Buddhist commitment – ‘Right Livelihood’.  This is an undertaking to do our best to select a livelihood that contributes to the well-being of all species on earth.  That in our work we will try to realise our ideal of understanding and compassion. We commit ourselves not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans or nature.

Sometimes the choice is easy.  For example, if we work in the caring professions, or sell ethically sourced products, we are already on the right track.  But if we pollute the environment or promote excessive consumerism and waste, we can be reasonably sure we are not practising Right Livelihood

However, this does not mean that we must immediately give up being a member of the armed forces, for instance, or a vet who treats animals farmed for meat. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that it is important that people with a mindfulness practice continue in these ethically difficult jobs.  Otherwise they would be occupied only by people who are ignorant of the transforming effects of the practice.

Right Livelihood recognises that we all need to earn a living.  If you are a Plum Village monastic, you do not receive much cash, but the basics of life – food, shelter, medical insurance etc –  are all included.  But of course most lay practitioners need to buy these things using cash from paid work.  And while we are encouraged to be volunteers, we probably cannot afford to do this all week.  So, if, for example, you are working as a retreat leader or organiser you can expect some payment if you are already offering as much voluntary time as you can afford.