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Thinking Out Loud

A Lenten Practice

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 28, 2017

"So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him." (Luke 15:20)

A Lenten PracticeLent is the season which allows time, space and ample opportunity "to come to ourselves." This phrase, of course, is familiar because it occurs in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, one of the most beloved parables of Jesus.

The parable tells the story of a young man, who, after demanding his future inheritance from his father, went off into a far country and squandered his birthright, wasting all of his money on "riotous living." When he was flat broke, he worked as a swine herder. And before very long the scraps the pigs were eating began to look pretty good to him. It was at this point, the Bible says, that "he came to himself." (Luke 15:11-32)

He didn't just “come to his senses.” "He came to himself." He remembered who he was and where he came from, and he realized the kind of life for which he was intended. He wasn't created to wallow with pigs, but to live in his father's house.

For some of us it takes dining with pigs to bring us to ourselves. For others, it may take a serious illness, a shattering loss, or some other profound and disorienting changes in our lives. But every year, every one of us has at least one chance to come to ourselves built right into the liturgical calendar.

Too often, I suspect, we squander this opportunity. We ask, "What will I give up for Lent?" Some see it just as a convenient time to moderate their eating or drinking, to follow up on a New Year's resolution.

I've tried a lot of different approaches to Lent. But last year I began a practice that over the course of Lent provided exactly the opportunity for me to "come to myself” - to silence those chattering voices in my head that prevent me from attending to what God is saying. This Lenten practice provided just the right conditions for me to open my heart wider toward that purpose for which God created me; in other words, it made space and time "to come to myself."

The practice emerged from reading a book, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers (1999), by the man whom Thomas Merton regarded as a friend, even a brother, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk (long exiled from his homeland and living in France). Some may remember Thich Nhat Hanh as the person whom the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Each day in Lent, following a period of silent meditation and prayer, I took a set of four vows which in the Buddhist spiritual tradition are vows of compassion (the Bodhisattva vows), and I promised to engage in the practice of Thich Nhat Hanh's "Five Mindfulness Trainings." Ordinarily I also pray the Psalms morning and evening using the Daily Office of the Book of Common Prayer. You may wish to read the Gospels each day, perhaps Mark or Luke, or St Paul's Letter to the Romans. I strongly suggest Bible reading along with these practices, because the practices will lead to greater openness to hear the Word of God.

Here are the vows and practices to which I daily commit myself in Lent.

The Four Vows of Compassion

• However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.
• However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.
• However immeasurable the [teachings of the Way]* are, I vow to explore them deeply.
• However incomparable the mystery of interbeing,* I vow to surrender to it freely.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

First training: "Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone the act of killing in the world, in my thinking and in my way of life."

Second training: "Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving-kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am committed to practicing generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth."

Third training: "Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything within my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct."

Fourth training: "Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and to relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord or that can cause the family or the community to split apart. I will make every effort to reconcile all conflicts however small."

Fifth training: "Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I am committed to ingest only those items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicants or to ingest other items that contain toxins such as certain television programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial [for the transformation of myself and our society.]"*

Last year I closed my daily reflection on these vows (to which I adhered throughout the season of Lent) with a reflection from the Dalai Lama:

"Every day think as you wake up: 'Today I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have a precious life. I am not going to waste it. I'm going to use my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts toward others. I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can."**

This year, I intend to close this period of reflection on the vows of compassion with the following prayer from the Scottish Episcopal Liturgy for the Eucharist:

"Father of all, we give you thanks and praise that when we were still far off you met us in your Son, and brought us home. Dying and living, he declared your love, gave us grace, and opened the gate of glory. May we who share Christ's body live his risen life; we who drink his cup bring life to others; we whom the Spirit lights, give light to the world. Keeps us firm in the hope set before us, so we and all your children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise your name; through Christ our Lord. Amen."

Perhaps, this year we can "come to ourselves" again, finding ourselves in the presence of God through silence, solitude and the practice of compassion.
*I have adapted these two phrases for a Christian meaning. The original word used in Buddhist texts is "Dharma." And the concept of "self-transformation" for Christians is related to the doctrine of sanctification. Both sets of vows are drawn from Thich Nhat Hanh's book mentioned above, pp. 126-135. There is no simple, adequate substitute for the word "interbeing," the idea pointing toward the mutual inter-dependence of every aspect of God's creation, reminding us that we share in the life of all beings and all beings share in our life.
**This reflection from the Dalai Lama was quoted by the late Zenkei Blanche Hartman, of the Zen Center of San Francisco, in her book, Seeds of a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart, (2015).

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