Wholehearted training

From a talk by Ajahn Chah called “Wholehearted Training”:

What was the Buddha’s advice on how to practise? He taught to practise like the earth; practise like water; practise like fire; practise like wind.

Practise like the ‘old things’, the things we are already made of: the solid element of earth, the liquid element of water, the warming element of fire, the moving element of wind.

If someone digs the earth, the earth is not bothered. It can be shovelled, tilled, or watered. Rotten things can be buried in it. But the earth will remain indifferent. Water can be boiled or frozen or used to wash something dirty; it is not affected. Fire can burn beautiful and fragrant things or ugly and foul things – it doesn’t matter to the fire. When wind blow, it blows on all sorts of things; fresh and rotten, beautiful and ugly, without concern.

…Our practice of Dhamma should be getting us beyond suffering; if we can’t fully transcend suffering, then we should at least be able to transcend it a little, now, in the present. For example, when someone speaks harshly to us, if we don’t get angry with them we have transcended suffering. If we get angry, we have not transcended suffering.

…So rather than aspiring too high, let’s practise patience and endurance. Exercising patience and restraint in our families is already pretty good. Don’t quarrel and fight – if you can get along, you’ve already transcended suffering for the moment and that’s good. When things happen, recollect Dhamma. Think of what your spiritual guides have taught you. They teach you to let go, to give up, to refrain, to put things down; they teach you to strive and fight in this way to solve your problems. The Dhamma that you come to listen to is just for solving your problems.

…We have been born as human beings. It should be possible to live with happy minds. We do our work according to our responsibilities. If things get difficult we practise endurance. Earning a livelihood in the right way is one sort of Dhamma practice, the practice of ethical living. Living happily and harmoniously like this is already pretty good.

When Ajahn Chah encourages us to “strive and fight”, he is NOT referring to anything or anyone external to us; he’s referring to our internal struggles. We fight against our own tendency to take things too personally and to let our own reactions fill our world. We confront our clinging to the need to have things our own way, and challenge our negative reactions when we don’t like things; this is fighting the good fight.

We can also appreciate the “pretty good” state of living harmoniously and ethically. If we can recognize this, we have already solved many important problems.

It may seem anti-intuitive to correct ourselves rather than others (when OBVIOUSLY, they are in the wrong), but in this direction lies inner peace. In the other direction lies perpetual conflict. We have a choice, and should at least consider following the wisdom teachings.

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Right effort and speech

It takes effort to refrain from the different forms of wrong speech. Depending on our inclinations, we may have the habit of rough speech, or of divisive gossip, or of nattering, meaningless speech. There are many forms of complaining (not to say whining) that make up a lot of our public, and perhaps private, discourse. What do our own words tell us about our attitude towards the world we live in?

Practicing right effort can help us. It starts with noticing — noticing when we are speaking carelessly, or when we’re tempted to speak harshly, or to wander into the realm of untruthfulness. We can also notice how good it feels to congratulate someone sincerely, to feel real joy for another person. Even compassion, if it’s not mixed with pity, can bring a peaceful feeling with it.

It’s also important to notice where our effort is directed – are we trying to avoid taking responsibility for our actions? Or are we seeking out ways to cultivate the wholesome? We each have a fundamental “home base” attitude that we start the day with. Have we embraced the possibility of abandoning the unwholesome and cultivating the wholesome, today?

To take up the practice of right effort, we have to acknowledge that we (still) harbor some unwholesome intentions. We also have to believe that it is possible to consciously change our habits. Lastly, it’s good to understand that an attitude of rigid rule-abiding is not going to get us where we want to go; black and white thinking will rarely allow for clear perceptions of life’s complexities and competing energies. In my experience (so far), the key is in re-directing our attention from “out there” to “in here”. What is the condition of our heart right now? Is there fear and dread, or an openness to what may come? Are we willing to remain in “don’t know” status until it becomes clear(er) what’s needed? For a naturally impatient person like myself, this is a daily exercise.

Right effort is also sometimes called right energy. Is our energy focused? And if so, on what? Keeping track of our words (external and internal) can give us an accurate guide to what directions our energy is taking.

The factors of the eight-fold path are:

1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration (the four jhanas)

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Right livelihood and speech

On the 8-fold path, right livelihood follows right action. What is right livelihood? It’s supporting ourselves in ways that incorporate right action and right speech; it’s refraining from untruthfulness, deceit, and from harming ourselves and others.

In thinking of how right livelihood and right speech are connected, I remembered an instance of someone (whom I don’t know) engaging in wrong speech while pursuing his livelihood. The results of his talk with a particularly naive (not to say foolish) family member led to disaster. This family member was buttonholed by a fellow selling gym memberships. He must have been very personable because my dear one was utterly convinced of his sincerity and good wishes. Meanwhile, the wrong-speech salesman convinced my dear to sign a contract on the spot that committed him to two years of giving about 10% of his limited income to the chain-gym for the privilege of membership in a club so remote from his home that it took two bus rides the one time he ever made it to the gym. The seller neglected to register that his target did not have a car and lived in a suburb quite distant from the gym he was promoting. Did the seller know that he was imposing an awful burden, both financial and of guilt, on the gullible young man? If he didn’t, it was wilful blindness.

Not everyone can protect him or herself from the charms of salespeople. The thought of transforming himself into a fit and healthy person was irresistible and overrode my dear one’s (admittedly meager) common sense. He didn’t consider that making a financial commitment without any thought of pros and cons might be unwise. There are people everywhere who are vulnerable in this way, and sadly, there are many people who stand ready to take advantage of them.

A banker told us recently of a client of his who had accepted an “interest-free” loan (from someone else) where the up-front charge on the loan was 20% of the loan’s value! There are whole industries that prey on people in difficulty who have no financial training and who feel they are (or may actually be) without support. Many people are reluctant to ask for help or advice because they are embarrassed by their situations.

These are facts; these are realities that exist in our world. For our part, we can refuse to participate in them, refuse to turn a blind eye. We can help directly when someone we know gets into a fix, but our main duty is to make absolutely sure that the ways in which we support ourselves do not involve deception or misrepresentation, that they don’t cause harm to anyone. If we underpin all of our actions with honesty and integrity, if we treat others as we would want to be treated, we are practicing both right livelihood and right speech.

The factors of the eight-fold path are:

1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration (the four jhanas)

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Right action and speech

The linkage between the path elements of right speech and right action is intimate; they are the verbal and physical manifestations of the same wholesome set of mental qualities. Both incline towards non-harming, generosity, and goodwill; in other words, towards creating peace both internally and externally.

In our efforts to develop wise speech and action, we try to stay aware of our external actions (of body and speech) and our internal mind states. This awareness forms the basis for our work.

It’s worth reviewing exactly what we mean by unwholesome states manifested in body, speech and mind.

from AN10.176, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
[The Buddha said] “Impurity by body, Cunda, is threefold. Impurity by speech is fourfold. Impurity by mind is threefold.
“And how, Cunda, is impurity by body threefold?
(1) “Here, someone destroys life. He is murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings.
(2) “He takes what is not given. He steals the wealth and property of others in the village or forest.
(3) “He engages in sexual misconduct…
“It is in this way that impurity by body is threefold.

“And how, Cunda, is impurity by speech fourfold?
(1) “Here, someone speaks falsehood…
(2) “He speaks divisively. Having heard something here, he repeats it elsewhere in order to divide [those people] from these…
(3) “He speaks harshly. He utters such words as are rough, hard, hurtful to others, offensive to others, bordering on anger, unconducive to concentration.
(4) “He indulges in idle chatter…at an improper time he speaks such words as are worthless, unreasonable, rambling, and unbeneficial.
“It is in this way that impurity by speech is fourfold.

“And how, Cunda, is impurity by mind threefold?
(1) “Here, someone is full of longing. He longs for the wealth and property of others…
(2) “He has a mind of ill will and intentions of hate…
(3) “He holds wrong view and has an incorrect perspective thus:…there is no fruit or result of good and bad actions…
“It is in this way that impurity by mind is threefold.”

This sutta goes on to describe the inverse of each state as purity of body, speech and mind. It’s a clear enumeration of things we can check for in our actions, our words, and our thoughts.

Even if our mind is not entirely pure, we can restrain our actions and words as an exercise. Each time we don’t act on (or verbalize) an unwholesome impulse, our minds are slightly altered; an unbeneficial mental habit is disrupted. Every time we catch our thoughts going down a dark tunnel, we can see where it leads, interrupt ourselves, and re-direct our thoughts onto a better path.

The factors of the eight-fold path are:

1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration (the four jhanas)

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Speech and feeling

When we speak, what are we feeling?

The Buddha recommends cultivating an ongoing awareness of what feeling tone (pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant) is present in us. A feeling tone is always present, but we are often unaware of these three inclinations of the mind. How could an awareness of our feeling tone affect our mind state and our speech?

A fresh example for me is the feeling tone generated by more than an hour of on-line chatting, and later a telephone call, with an electronic product support service. My feelings started out somewhat pleasant – I expected to be able to correct a problem. Gradually it appeared that the “expert” on the other end of the chat was reading from a script and hadn’t actually understood my question. Frustration arose. It rose further and further as various proposed solutions led to a maze of required actions, at least one of them impossible. I was aware of the frustration turning to anger with a dose of despair. Finally I gave up, but far later than I should have; I would have given up much earlier if I’d paid more attention to what feelings were present. For the rest of the day, I felt a bit sick. Only the following morning did I realize that I had allowed my mind to go into a dark hole and stay there longer than necessary; I hadn’t taken seriously the task of protecting my mind.

This was a vivid lesson in the importance of knowing what’s in our minds and attending to that knowledge. Whenever we feel off-center, through anger, fear, guilt, confusion or other forces, a wholesome strategy is to withdraw and reflect rather than speak from an unwholesome basis. If we are not FIRST honest with ourselves about what we’re feeling, communication with others will only generate problems.

The service person on the other end of my long conversation was aware of my frustration (and I suspect accustomed to dissatisfied customers), but neither of us was able to re-direct the interaction. As it happened, the next morning I tried all possible combinations of cables and resolved the problem on my own. If I’d tried that before calling, it would have spared both of us an unpleasant time. However, I did get a valuable lesson in the importance of protecting my mind.

By knowing what we’re feeling, when it arises, we can prioritize the care of our minds; we start to understand that we have choices. We can let go, at least temporarily, of whatever is pushing us off-center.

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View and speech

There is another close linkage within the Buddha’s 8-fold path, between Right View and Right Speech. Right View is summarised by the idea that we are the owners of our actions, responsible for our actions, answerable for our actions, inheritors of the results of our actions – nothing slips by. This perspective on the world confirms the need to shift our attention from what’s going on “out there” to what’s going on within our hearts. View and intention are inextricably linked; if our own desires dominate our thinking, we have neither Right View nor Right Intention.

Right View is usually listed as the beginning of the 8-fold path because everything else depends on it. If we believe, at any level, that our actions don’t matter, then we are inviting in all sorts of delusions. Without Right View, some skewed logic is likely to define our point of view. We may feel that the world owes us something, or at least an explanation; or that others are granted advantages that we have missed through an unfair apportionment of gifts; or that our opinions are universally true and correct. Many people seek ways to offload responsibility for themselves, their decisions and their actions, onto someone else. It’s an understandable impulse, but it never works; it’s never someone else’s fault if we say something hurtful or harmful. We are the owners of our words and actions.

When we speak, we reveal our point of view. Even people unfamiliar with the Buddha’s teachings will recognize words that are self-serving and harsh and also words that are kind and contain wisdom. We know this ourselves, but sometimes we are too busy, or too self-involved to appreciate the destructive power of our words. We do, however, recognize the destructive power of others’ words if they’re directed at us, and we hold them responsible for the damage. This is a type of delusion – to think that others’ words carry weight but our own do not.

An important exercise we can do is to listen to ourselves, while we’re speaking, but also before we speak. Are we trying to understand what’s going on? Or are we trying to control someone else’s thoughts or behavior? Are we speaking from a kind and generous intention or one that is motivated by a selfish agenda? Have we considered the probable results of our words? Have we considered saying nothing?

The factors of the eight-fold path are:

1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration (the four jhanas)

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Intention and speech

All our reflections on right speech seem to come back to knowing what our intentions or motivations are. This is one of the many ways that the elements of the 8-fold path support and illuminate each other.

Recently we thought about right intention (the second step on the 8-fold path) as:
1) Intention of renunciation
2) Intention of goodwill
3) Intention of harmlessness

How does this link up, in our experience, with right speech? So often we speak carelessly, with no idea of what our intention is. Or we speak with intentions of self-aggrandizement, or of impatience, or simply to fill a void. A recent study showed that many people would rather accept mild self-harm than endure their own company with no external stimulation – that’s how reluctant they were to be alone with their own thoughts! But we must come to know our thoughts if we are to stop creating problems for ourselves and others.

This question of intention is particularly challenging in modern western cultures because the cult of the individual seems to predominate. We are encouraged at every turn to create and re-create ourselves based on superficial desires. We are led to believe that what we wear, eat, drive, and what entertainments we pursue form who we are. The Buddha’s teachings are a direct contradiction to this point of view; he directs our attention to our internal experience. Only with reflection can we know our intentions, and from those intentions our actions, our words, and our thoughts flow.

We can be mindlessly driven by the momentum of wanting and acquiring, or we can go in the other direction and consider a simpler life, one that values renunciation, which we could think of as non-greed. When the Buddha talks about renunciation, he is describing the choice of a subtler and more lasting joy (peace) over short-lived sensual gratification. A quieter, more reflective life will naturally encourage our existing intentions of goodwill and harmlessness. Can we give up some moments of excitement to enjoy a peaceful heart? Whenever we make that choice, our words and actions can bring less aggravation and more joy to ourselves and to others.

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Filed under General, Speech, The 8-fold path