Taking what is not offered: Guest post by greenfrog

[Greenfrog, aka Sean,  is a piquant  concoction of Mormonism, Buddhism, and Lawyerism living in the Denver, Colorado area.  He  describes himself as an amphibious creature who  “breathes Mormon air and swims Buddhist waters, both quite happily.”  I became acquainted with him  through his  comments on posts at A Motley Vision.  Field notes he contributed to some of my posts (see here, and  here, scroll down) at Times and Seasons  further singled him out to my eye as an engaging writer, able  to bring words and place together.  “Taking what is not offered” is cross-posted  here from  his blog, In Limine: On the Threshold, at the Beginning.]  

 

During a recent meditation retreat, the other participants and I each undertook to live by the five Buddhist training precepts during our time there. One of those precepts is this:

For the purposes of training, I will not take anything that is not offered to me.

This is a common sense rule for those who will live in close proximity to one another — no €œborrowing € your roommate’s shampoo, no swiping someone else’s flip flops. It’s a basic principle that is embedded in social systems everywhere — in the yoga tradition as the niyama of asteya — non-stealing. God told Moses a version of the same thing.It isn’t wildly surprising that the precept forms a basic part of so many different cultures: it’s a simple way to maintain cooperation and minimize friction among humans. The training precept articulates the Buddhist version of the rule: unless it’s yours, don’t touch it, and it’s only yours if it’s specifically offered to you.

So on the retreat, we didn’t need locks on the doors. We didn’t have to wonder what would happen to the shoes we left outside the meditation hall. We didn’t have to hide our stashes of candy bars. My stuff was my stuff. Others respected that boundary. Things stayed where I left them.

They were safe.

I was safe.

* * *

I get up early. It’s still dark. I move quietly to avoid waking my roommate. He rustles under his covers and resumes his quiet snoring. I make my way to the small open closet at the foot of my bed. By feel I find clean clothes, make my way out of the room, down the hall, into the bathroom. I shower, towel dry, and dress. My mind watches each action, notices its own intentions. I brush my teeth at the sink, gather my old clothes, and return silently to my dorm room. In the dark I trade out the toiletries and old clothes for clean socks and a hooded rain shell, and I make my way to the bench just outside the building where I left my shoes the night before. It’s freezing outside, and foggy, the damp wood planking chills my soles. My breath billows around my head as I slip into socks, then night-cold shoes. I pull the hood of my shell over my head, and I begin walking slowly the hundred yards or so to the meditation hall. My attention is on the sensations in my feet — lifting, moving, placing, weighting, lifting, moving, placing, weighting, lifting, moving €¦

None of that quiet concentration would be possible if I were fretting over a missing water bottle or a jacket that wasn’t where I left it.

* * *

On retreat, the word-silent lunch seems loud with chair scraping, silverware clinking, and washing noises coming from the kitchen, the gurgle of hot water into tea mugs. My chores are later in the evening, so I have 90 minutes before meditation resumes. I find a path that twists and turns and switches back-and-forth up the steep hills. It’s cool but not cold except when the wind picks up. After fifteen minutes of climbing, my heart is pumping loudly, my breathing is strong. I reach a level spot about halfway up. Old rocks protrude from the grasses beside a laurel tree. I catch a leaf and crush it, releasing its royal scent.

I finish the climb, pause to admire the view, and begin to descend on a different path, past other outcrops. As I pass one, a tiny, perfect rosette of glaucous leaves catches my eye — an Echeveria — Hen and Chicks, but a kind I’ve never seen before — growing from a crevice in the rock. I think of the perfect spot for it in my garden in Colorado. I tug gently, then more firmly and the root pulls free, breaking off at the tip. I zip the plant into a pocket and resume my descent.

Then it dawns on me: who offered me the plant I’ve taken?

I can’t replace it in the crevice where it grew, so I try to replant it in a different spot, suspecting that the transplant won’t take without close attending that I can’t provide.

I begin to see more clearly that the training precept not only affects how others treat my stuff, but how I relate to the world around me.

* * *

Back at the meditation center, the Buddhist training precept of not taking what is not offered renders unnecessary my €œI must protect my stuff € instinct. That doesn’t make it go away, of course, but it does draw the impulse into awareness: €œOh, I guess I don’t need to hide my water bottle behind the pile of zabutons after all. € And discovering how much of life has been devoted to protecting my €œstuff € is at once a surprise, and a relief to be free of the worry. But after the initial freedom from the compulsion subsides, what begins to arise in me is an awareness of my raw attachment to my things — and my desires to be attached to other people’s things. And the closer I look at those impulses, the more they seem to be efforts to reinforce me, the one wanting, the one defining stuff as mine or wishing it to be mine.

At the heart of ownership, at the heart of property, at the heart of possession is the one possessed of the thing. For something to be €œmine € is to define it in terms of a self. And whenever something is defined in terms of a self, that relationship also defines the self.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago, I learned that a dear friend and favorite yoga teacher was moving away from Denver. She had enriched my life significantly, and I found I wanted to give her something to reflect my appreciation. For several days, I debated exactly what might work for the purpose. After inventing and discarding half a dozen ideas, I thought of the perfect gift — an old Tibetan singing bowl that had been given to me years earlier and that formed an important link in the story-chain that led me to discover, practice, and teach yoga. Once I settled on the gift, I began formulating exactly how to present the story to her so she’d understand it in context — so she’d appreciate it as a part of me and my story. I imagined in my mind how I’d see her before the last Sunday morning class she’d teach, how I’d present the gift, how she’d respond, and how we’d be connected by the gift.

Of course, the actual giving didn’t go anything like I’d imagined it. I did see her before the last Sunday class. She was rushed and harried, greeting not just me but dozens of others who were also there to practice one last time and to say goodbye. I quickly handed her the unwrapped and tarnished bowl and dented striker, and all I managed to say was €œthere’s a story behind this that I’ll tell you later. € The opportunity €œlater € never materialized, and I never got to tell my friend the story of the bowl. And she never asked for the story behind it.

So instead of the bowl connecting the two of us as I intended, it’s probably just one more thing that got packed and moved. If it’s being used at all, tarnished thing that it is, each time it’s rung, its vibration and pitch don’t tie anyone to my story.

And the more I realize how much that fact bothers me, the more it seems related to the Buddhist training principle I learned on the retreat.

Because, really, my little sense of offense has nothing to do with what I was giving, but rather with what I intended to take. Though my actions were giving a gift to my friend, some part of my thoughts were all about me. Instead of €œI give this to you, € it was €œI want something from you, and getting it involves me putting this into your hands. € When we give in order to be appreciated, we often are taking what is not offered.

* * *

Once I saw this clearly relative to the bowl, I started to see it everywhere — in my dealings with my children (I get unhappy when I give them my Saturday afternoons, but they don’t clean up the kitchen), with my co-workers (I resent covering for them when they have sick kids, if they don’t cover for me when I’m out), with my friends (I make time for them, but they don’t reciprocate as I want them to) — everywhere. It became disturbingly clear how often I was interacting with the world not simply out of a sense of love and generosity (though there was some of that to it), but out of a desire to control things — to get what I wanted by being perceived as generous and loving. I’d attached my wanting to the objects and devised ways to give them in order to assure myself some benefit.

Have you ever given a gift to someone, and then been disappointed by some aspect of the person’s response? When you gave a check to a nephew who was struggling to pay his college tuition, perhaps he spent all the money on iTunes, loading up on Italian goth metal music. When you gave your daughter a pendant for her birthday that you received decades ago from your grandmother, perhaps she looked at it briefly, said, €œeh, € and dropped it on the table behind flashier stuff. Have you ever said (or thought) to one of your children, €œYou should do X for me because I gave birth to you/put you through school/fed you/sheltered you/whatevered you? € I have. And I was trying to take something that was not offered, just because I’d offered something — in theory — €œfreely € at some point in the past.

* * *

The Buddha taught Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine, and Jesus warned against doing alms before men.

* * *

All of it, really, is simply a lack of letting go, a giving only half-completed. There is no giving without letting go. So long as I attach strings to the gift, there is neither giving nor gift.

So here’s my resolve: in giving, to give freely and to let go; in receiving, to receive only what is offered by family, friends, and existence.

* * *

€¦the world offers itself to your imagination.

— Mary Oliver, €œWild Geese €

11 thoughts on “Taking what is not offered: Guest post by greenfrog”

  1. .

    My own journey from resentment that the state park won’t let me keep the abalone shell to being uncomfortable bringing home sand in my shoes happened so gradually that I didn’t see it happening. Yet here I am, a better citizen of the world and unsure how it happened.

    And this relationship is slowly spreading from Areas Clearly Natural to Areas My Own (link).

    I think this must be what the Millennium will smell like.

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  2. The first time I read this piece, I liked the whole thing very much. But the Echeveria interlude especially has stayed with me. We have wild echeverias here, they’re the first thing (just about) to bloom in the spring, even ahead of the phlox. But I hadn’t really been seeing them till this story. This spring, they took prominence in my awareness. Very vividly, I can recall the sight of a cluster of them in the crumbly shade of a dead and decaying juniper, the yellow flowers blooming at the top of their stems lighting up the shadow.

    Also, now, whenever I come across them, I hear the voice of a llama in my head. No, not that kind of lama. The one in The Emperor’s New Groove:

    “No touchee!”

    Another element of this essay I appreciate—the back-and-forth movement between stances we take in nature and ones we assume with our own kind, how the behavior we engage in on either front comes from the same root. IOW, if we’re doing something less than admirable to nature, chances are, we’re doing it to other people, too.

    Thanks for writing this.

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  3. Th.,

    One of the unexpected aspects to blogging and on-line discussions is the journal-keeping-like discovery of how very quiet changes develop over time. By rereading something I wrote a few years ago (and, embarrassing to admit, occasionally googling something only to discover that I wrote about it a few years ago), I’ve found the same kind of creeping transformation that you note. I used to think that transfiguration was an all-at-once kind of thing. Now I’m not so sure.

    PK,

    I think “I hear the voice of a llama in my head” would be a good tagline.

    I also think your observation has well captured the effect of undertaking the five training precepts. When I undertook each of them, I thought I knew what they were supposed to accomplish in terms of the meditation practice I was there to devote time to. But as I discovered when I plucked the Echeveria (but not at the earlier time when I caught the laurel leaf though perhaps because of it?), the integration of the precept into living erased the categorical lines.

    Perhaps the wilderness interface zone begins not between national park border and hedgerow, but beneath the surface of the skin.

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  4. g.f.,

    The Daphne-and-Apollo laurel leaf moment haunts for different reasons.

    This post being in mind today, a couple of thoughts arose.

    First: as many know, I live in San Juan County in the southeastern corner of Utah. Eight days ago federal authorities launched a raid against alleged local illegal artifact collectors, netting a couple dozen people, most of them from my town with a few being near neighbors. Some community members describe these collectors as “obsessed with possessing” artifacts they are alleged to have obtained. Several of those netted in the 2 1/2 yr. long sting operation are prominent community members.

    A week ago, one of the men caught in the sting, a doctor much loved of the community, committed suicide; today, news that a second from Durango has likewise taken his own life.

    When people say these collectors were obsessed with possessing these often stunning pieces of ancient artware, I think they are saying what you say so carefully here:

    At the heart of ownership, at the heart of property, at the heart of possession is the one possessed of the thing. For something to be €œmine € is to define it in terms of a self. And whenever something is defined in terms of a self, that relationship also defines the self.

    The phrase “She’s obsessed” has nearly become a rhetorical act of dismissive hyperbole. Applying your language above to the relationship between these people and the Ancestral Puebloan artifacts they risked so much for, making them part of their household environments in sometimes prominent display, more precisely illuminates for me their misfortune and the misfortune their degrees of possession brought upon their families and communities.

    Also of interest to me: how the authorities set upon bringing these “criminals” to justice might have engaged in similar behavior in their handling of the matter, reducing the individuals involved to mere objects they desired to make a display of.

    Second: Yesterday, a friend—an archaeologist—and I visited the site of our old archaeological field school camp. Back when, the center of camp was set up beneath a cluster of mature cottonwood trees. These trees provided the densest shade in camp, so their presence was dearly appreciated.

    From previous visits, I knew some of these trees had died in the last few years. My archaeologist friend said cottonwoods have a lifespan of 80-100 yrs, so many of them were old back when we lived in their shadows.

    Like Treebeard could say of forest familiar to him, I can say we knew these trees. The Navajo boys that helped around camp climbed in them. We used for firewood the dead limbs that the trees dropped during storms. The wind in their leaves, like the wind in the leaves of all cottonwood trees—watery green music.

    This group of cottonwoods included a giant, one of the biggest cottonwoods I’ve ever seen. So yesterday, we were stunned to discover that someone had taken a chain saw to this tree, sheering off its oversized limbs so that only a dismembered trunk stands, about 20 ft. tall and bigger around than I can guess. From one smooth stump, a tiny spray of new growth, bearing a few green scale-like leaves: the tree’s still alive, at least until the person taking takes all.

    Perhaps the wilderness interface zone begins not between national park border and hedgerow, but beneath the surface of the skin.

    Yes, very deep beneath.

    Could you please set out for us the other four training precepts?

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  5. During the orientation process just before the first meditation session of the retreat, we were invited to take the precepts for the duration of the retreat:

    For the purposes of training, I undertake to abstain from the taking of life.

    For the purposes of training, I undertake not to take what is not offered.

    For the purposes of training, I undertake a vow of celibacy.

    For the purposes of training, I undertake to abstain from intoxicants.

    For the purposes of training, I undertake a vow of silence.

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  6. The young heifer falters and stumbles to her knees, faltering in deep wind-drifted snow. She struggles to regain her feet, only to fall again. Bawling piteously, she protests for a short while against the bitter cold chill creeping through, but soon, no more sounds or movement come from the snow that begins to mound over her form, its ebbing life draining into the bone-chilling snow and freezing wind. After dark, though the body is long since frozen stiff, a pack of coyotes must have visited, wresting the hindquarters from the corpse an scattering the copious entrails. It is a bloodless death, mutely painted in tones of red, black, and white.

    Through the ensuing winter and spring, less and less of the corpus remains intact. Soon enough, only scattered bones and hide with bits of black hair remain.

    Should I mourn the passing? The animal gave life and sustenance to others. How does that differ from ending life as a McDonalds hamburger?

    I have no answers. Only scenarios that raise the question.

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  7. It’s taken me some time to go over this write and I really appreciate that you broke it up in sections. I needed that! The things you shared here resonated with me. This last week we had flooding and have been very busy doing much more than the usual maintenance on our material possessions. It was a freeing experience to just haul some of the stuff out to the curb. Much of it was stuff that never even got wet. We stumbled across it while we were cleaning and found ourselves mulling our relationship to it.
    My relationship with material items and the sense of possession has been changing over the years because I have had to go thru the possessions of a grandmother, an aunt, and my father. After their deaths, this ritual sorting had a healing aspect to it, if it happened in a good way (which most days it did). Along the way I couldn’t help but think about my own death and what the heck people would think of some of the things I have clung to. As well as that, there has been a certain amount of loss of things to water or other events thru the years, precious things that disappeared for one reason or another. I really loved this doll or that book. I have no idea where they are now, and I doubt they even exist any more. When I was on the other side of this feeling I would have been upset to even consider an end to an object, or an end to my possessing it. Now I’m on the other side, and I am a different person.
    I appreciate the tenets you shared. I also enjoyed reading about your silence. I have a couple favorite quotes on silence:
    “Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence.”–Jean Arp
    “Stop talking! What a shame you have no familiarity with inner silence! Polish your heart for a day or two: make that mirror your book of contemplation.”–Mathnawi
    You’ve challenged me: I often use the phrase ‘give and take’ as a reflection of daily interaction. I’ll be examining this more fully.

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  8. Lora,

    From your comment, it sounds as if you may be in the same transformation process that Th. described.

    I love your insight about “give and take.” It never occurred to me previously.

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  9. I start with a foundation from scripture…

    Doctrine and Covenants section 59:15-21:

    15 And inasmuch as ye do these things with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances, not with much laughter, for this is sin, but with a glad heart and a cheerful countenance €”
    16 Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this, the fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth;
    17 Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards;
    18 Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;
    19 Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.
    20 And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.
    21 And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.

    This is the basis for stewardship. These things are given for the purposes iterated in these verses, and more or less than this is apparently not pleasing to God. We are appointed to be wise stewards over all these resources. Although your approach amounts to much the same idea, I think you can see the substantive difference. Our provisioning comes from the Creator. We are supposed to use things to our advantage. But monastic privation and self-imposed hardship are not integral to the Lord’s way.

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  10. LDS.org tells me that D &C 59 is a revelation from the Lord to the saints in Jackson County in 1831. Do we know whether or what revelation from God might be manifested to or through the animals?

    Yesterday morning, I watched two lizards, male and female, darting back and forth across rock and sand and dried leaves. As I paused to watch, they never actually touched each other, but zipped out to grab passing flies and ants, then back toward each other. Never touching, but never straying out of sight. Occasionally, one would dart away, and the other would turn its head, almost 180 degrees backward to keep track of it. Now and again one or the other would cock its head sideways and up to take me in.

    I’m interested in what Creator God might have to say to the animals about their place and role and relation to all things. What would be said in an epistle to the lizards? What to the dogs? What to the fishes? To the chimpanzees? To the coyotes? To the dolphins? To the ravens?

    I’ve seen coyotes dancing in the distance. Heard their wild singing. When I reached their theater, they’d disappeared. But as I paced its length, songs rose in me that were not there before the coyotes sang their song into the world-field comprising pinon and juniper and sandstone and me.

    Is latrans‘s song epistolary?

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