The Five Mindfulness Trainings in Activism

One of the most useful teachings I've ever heard in Buddhism was through a story told by Sharon Salzberg, related to me by our teacher and executive director Kim Brown. During Sharon's first visit to India, she was confronted by a purse-snatching thief en route to meet her teacher. She struggled with him and eventually got her purse back, but was very shaken up by the incident. Upon finally reaching her teacher, she told him about what had happened. His response was not what she expected, as it was basically "well, why didn't you hit him with your umbrella?"

To me, this story points to two things. First, there is a common misunderstanding that being Buddhist means you become a doormat and let others treat you however they want, remaining completely passive. Secondly, Sharon's teacher made the point that preventing harm is just as important as not perpetrating it yourself. In fact, both preventing harm and not doing it are different sides of the same coin. This comes from twofold compassion - for yourself, and for the other being who will incur bad kharma and more suffering on themselves if they harm you.

I've been thinking about this lesson often in recent months. I find myself frustrated at Buddhists who think we should not discuss "political" things. I put that term in quotes because what I think many deem politics are actually human beings' safety, happiness, and basic human rights. Lion's Roar recently published an article entitled "Isn't Buddhism Supposed To Be Apolitical?" I found anger and despair rising up in me just from reading the headline, confused as to how any Buddhists could think that standing by passively as people are harmed and threatened is skillful in any way.


Thich Nhat Hanh's Five Mindfulness Trainings are a re-imagining of the five precepts and are often studied by Buddhists who seek to bring their practice into activism efforts. In his 2009 book, Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices, Thay (as he is affectionately known by his students) explains the Five Mindfulness Trainings:

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are one of the most concrete ways to practice mindfulness. They are nonsectarian, and their nature is universal. They are true practices of compassion and understanding. All spiritual traditions have their equivalent to the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

The first training is to protect life, to decrease violence in one's self, in the family and in society. The second training is to practice social justice, generosity, not stealing and not exploiting other living beings. The third is the practice of responsible sexual behavior in order to protect individuals, couples, families and children. The fourth is the practice of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconcile. The fifth is about mindful consumption, to help us not bring toxins and poisons into our body or mind.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are based on the precepts developed during the time of the Buddha to be the foundation of practice for the entire lay practice community. I have translated these precepts for modern times, because mindfulness is at the foundation of each one of them. With mindfulness, we are aware of what is going on in our bodies, our feelings, our minds and the world, and we avoid doing harm to ourselves and others. Mindfulness protects us, our families and our society. When we are mindful, we can see that by refraining from doing one thing, we can prevent another thing from happening. We arrive at our own unique insight. It is not something imposed on us by an outside authority.

Practicing the mindfulness trainings, therefore, helps us be more calm and concentrated, and brings more insight and enlightenment.


You can read the full text of the Five Mindfulness Trainings here.


The Five Mindfulness Trainings are profound because they are a set of ethical values that transcends religious or moral frameworks. Their power lies not in the fact that they were handed to us by a deity or because of tradition for tradition's sake, but because the actions they outline simply make life easier and more enjoyable. How many millions of dollars are spent on Americans every year on legal fees and lawyers for divorce? How many human lives that could have brought profound, beautiful creativity into the world have been stifled by lack of mental or physical health care, addiction, or systemic prejudice or violence? When I read through the trainings, I see issues that are being discussed in our public sphere and government every day, issues that people are passionately fighting for. These trainings point us both to skillful ways to act in our own lives, and to a society that is based on compassion and understanding for others and ourselves.

I see the Five Mindfulness Trainings and Buddhist practice in general not as a separate world we go to escape when the "outside" world gets yucky, but as guidelines for political and social activism. I would encourage everyone, especially those attending our pre-march meditation and/or any of the women's marches on Saturday, to consider how these trainings can manifest in your actions and in our society at large. I've been experiencing strong emotions rising up constantly since the election. This is a natural response, but what happens next? Where does that energy get sent? Will I let it stifle me or motivate me? How will I act to help other beings? What can I do today, in this very moment? I hope that these trainings will help you consider your own actions and how you respond and shape the world we live in, as they have for me.


We are at capacity for Saturday's meditation, but please feel free to meet up with us at the march at 11:30! Our start time is 11:55 AM and you can find all the details here.


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