The Seeds of Dhamma Take Root: the Lifetime Precepts Ceremony
by Libby Reid
On August 7 through 9,1998, the Bhavana Society held its first formal Lifetime Precepts Retreat, culminating in a Precepts-taking ceremony on Sunday, August 9.
In Pali, the word “bhavana” means cultivation. In the years since Bhante Gunaratana and Bhante Rahula began teaching in this country, the seeds of Dhamma have been planted in many hearts.
Over the years, Bhante Gunaratana, Bhante Rahula, and other members of the Bhavana Sangha have lovingly cultivated these seedlings. One fruit of these efforts was the decision by thirty-six of us to attend this retreat and take the Eight Lifetime Precepts. Like tomato plants newly staked, we found ourselves with additional support and room to grow.
Those of us interested in taking the precepts were asked to fill out an application explaining why we wanted to take this step. Some expressed hesitation and concern that Buddhism was not about rules and rituals. Others felt unworthy to make such a commitment and were afraid they could not live up to such high standards.
But, as Bhante Gunaratana said in his cover letter, the Precepts exist to guide us and help us grow in the practice, not to hinder us. “We take the Precepts to make our lives happy, not miserable,” he said.
In preparation for the retreat, we were asked to read Buddhist Ethics by Hammalawa Saddatissa. Also recommended was The Ethics of Buddhism by T. Tachibana.
For many of us, taking the precepts was a welcome opportunity to strengthen our commitment and declare our Buddhist commitment openly. Some of us have struggled on many spiritual paths. This ceremony offered a chance to make a clear choice for the future.
The specific reasons of each participant varied. One mentioned her need for help specifically in the area of Right Speech. In the Eight Lifetime Precepts, Right Speech is broken down into four Precepts cautioning against false speech, malicious speech, harsh speech, and useless speech.
Another participant mentioned his desire to live his life with less suffering, a path which the precepts could provide. Still another mentioned that he wanted to take this step in order to set a good example for his children.
Traveling from as far away as Florida, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, participants gathered at the Bhavana Society on Friday evening. There were people of all ages, ranging from those near retirement to a young man about to head off for his first year of college. Although some were newcomers to the Bhavana Society, there were many familiar faces.
Noble Silence was observed for part of the retreat until after lunch on Saturday. After that we had the perfect opportunity to practice Right Speech. As we helped with preparations for the Anniversary Celebration, we developed friendships and shared memories.
On Saturday morning, Bhante Gunaratana gave an inspiring Dhamma talk on morality as the foundation of all Buddhist practice. Saturday evening he answered questions from the group on the Eight Lifetime Precepts. Several participants mentioned later that they wished there had been time to discuss the ethical questions arising out of the Precepts in more detail.
On Sunday morning, the participants, dressed in white, seated themselves in rows in the meditation hall facing the community of monks and nuns. In unison, we chanted our request for Bhante Gunaratana to administer the Precepts.
Then, as each of our names were called, we went forward, one by one, knelt before Bhante G. and received a Pali name and a certificate commemorating our commitment. We were also given a medallion embossed with an image of the Buddha. As a reminder of our commitment to the Precepts, a special knotted string was tied around our right wrist.
For most of us, our Pali name represents a goal toward which we can strive. One Dhamma friend received a name meaning “one who has tamed the mind.” “Not quite yet,” he said laughing. My Pali name means “courageous one,” something I now remember and can aspire to every time fear arises. At the afternoon program commemorating the anniversary of the Bhavana Society, many of those who had participated in the Precepts ceremony spoke of their overwhelming sense of gratitude toward Bhante Gunaratana and the other monastics for the selfless way they have shared the Dhamma over the years. As the different stories unfolded, one could see how the Dhamma is “directly visible and immediately effective.”
Like many who participated in the ceremony, Jeanne Malmgren, a long-time friend of the Bhavana Society, was “struck by the sense of community that arose.” Often on meditation retreats we do not get the chance to develop deep friendships. This occasion, however, was different. Jeanne said that she was deeply moved “by the love for the practice and the love for the Sangha that was expressed.”
All who participated in the ceremony expressed their thanks to Bhante Gunaratana and other members of the Sangha, to Marcia Kirkpatrick, the event coordinator, to Rob Sherwood, master of ceremonies, and to all the others who made this very special event possible.
Happily, this very special retreat and ceremony will be an annual event at Bhavana.