It’s up to us

In the last post, Ven. Pannavaddho said it was our defilements that cloud our wisdom, that prevent us from seeing the causes of our discontent clearly.

The defilements (kilesas in Pali) are the roots of unwholesome action within each of us: greed, hatred and delusion in all their various (sometimes disguised) forms. When these roots are completely eliminated, that is one definition of nibbana (Pali) or nirvana (Sanskrit). The process of recognizing and countering our defilements forms a central part of our spiritual work in the world. The causes of our discontent are not to be found anywhere other than within our own hearts, and no one other than we ourselves have the power to uproot them.

The Buddha’s teachings (I have recently learned) are more directive and exemplary than prescriptive and comprehensive; they point us in the right direction for practice, but they don’t describe every possible situation. In a particular moment in time, it’s up to us to figure out which way lies freedom, and which way lies more suffering.

From SN 56.31, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
Once the Blessed One was staying at Kosambi in the simsapa forest. Then, picking up a few simsapa leaves with his hand, he asked the monks, “What do you think, monks: Which are more numerous, the few simsapa leaves in my hand or those overhead in the simsapa forest?”

“The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few in number, lord. Those overhead in the simsapa forest are more numerous.”

“In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.

“And what have I taught? ‘This is stress [dukkha]… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress': This is what I have taught. And why have I taught these things? Because they are connected with the goal, relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. This is why I have taught them.

Our duty with respect to dukkha (the first noble truth) is to recognize, acknowledge and comprehend it. Can we discover and see clearly the causes of our discontent? Today, in this body and mind? This is where real change can begin.

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What actions?

From Uncommon Wisdom (teachings of Ajaan Pannavaddho), chapter called Purpose:
…We start off with the fundamental basis of Buddhism, the fact that we all experience dukkha or discontent which we are trying to cure. We attempt to cure our discontent by using cause-and-effect methods; in other words, we initiate those causes that we believe will lead to the relief of our suffering. In doing so, we search for causes, or actions, that result in less dukkha and greater contentment. Dukkha can be anything from small irritations all the way up to intense suffering. This is fundamentally what we are trying to remedy. It makes no difference whether we are Buddhists or not, we are all driven by this quest to find happiness.

If we’re wise and we understand the situation correctly, then we might actually choose the right course of action and manage to get the happiness we are seeking. But because our minds are clouded by defilements, we tend to make the wrong decisions. Due to thinking and acting wrongly, we pile up more and more suffering. Failing to understand the correct way to get rid of suffering, we tend to make the same mistakes over and over again. This is the situation that we are in.

We can get into a tangle when we want to get rid of a particular instance of dukkha; we may think if we can only acquire something desirable or get away from something undesirable, all will be well. Sometimes it is not clear to us what the best course of action is because our vision is clouded by our (often subconscious) desires and aversions. But the Buddha has given us the five precepts to help simplify the situation. If we learn and remember the precepts and commit to using them as our guide to behavior, even in the dark we can sense the direction of wholesome action.

In traditional formulation:
I undertake the training rule to abstain from harming life.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not offered.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from sensual/sexual misconduct.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants causing heedlessness.

In shorthand:
Preserve and protect life.
Counter greed by not taking more than we need, or things others may have a claim on.
Do no harm with sexual energy.
Be truthful and careful in speech.
Keep our heads as clear as possible.

How do we apply the precepts in daily life? The truth in a particular moment may be that we are unsure, that we don’t know what to do right now. In that case, if possible, do nothing; we can wait for our perception of the situation and our intentions to become more clear. Sometimes we assume that there’s an imperative to act, but the opposite may be true; we may be facing an imperative to wait until we correctly see the source of our discontent and what we might do to counter it.

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Our heritage

From AN 5.57, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

(5) A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do.’

Kamma in the quote above means action, and refers to the actions of body, speech and mind that we commit. Our intentions motivate our actions, so we can think of intentions and actions as interdependent.

The Buddha might say that we don’t own anything except the results of our actions; that we can’t own material possessions or our relationships in any meaningful way. We are stewards of things and relationships during our lifetime, but we can’t own anything in the sense of controlling them, preventing them from changing or breaking or being stolen, and we can’t take them with us when we die. This includes our own bodies.

The most important thing to remember about kamma or action is that past kamma can’t be changed, but whatever we are doing right now influences our path for the future. Every present action of body and mind is nudging our trajectory in a wholesome or unwholesome direction. These choices and decisions are our most important contributions to the earth and the people on it. In the most intimate way, our actions form our world – they create the momentum that carries along our words and thoughts. This is what “kamma is my origin” means; this is how “kamma is our [closest] relative”.

If we give an unexpected gift, the recipient may think, “Ah, there is good in the world”, and this attitude change may help that person feel less cynical and more at peace, at least temporarily. If we are stingy or mean towards someone, we feel it as a pain in our own heart and that pain is shared around.

The last time my husband and I visited with a friend who suffered from severe and progressive memory loss, the friend was a bit fuzzy about who we were. He had the sense that he knew us, but not much else. We pointed out the picture of us on the wall of his room. He looked a bit puzzled for a minute and then said, “I don’t remember the specifics, but I remember the feeling, and the feeling is that I liked you and you were good people.” To me, this is evidence of the results of good actions. Over the years we had visited and supported this friend in many ways. And towards the end of our lives, most of us will forget the details, but remember the feelings, for better or worse.

Our actions are not performed in isolation; they are always done in the context of our situations and our relationships, our influences and habits. Some of the most significant actions we can take are to make changes in our situations and habits — Who do we spend time with? What are we reading/watching?  Who do we follow? What direction are we facing in?

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Losing everything

From AN 5.57, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi:
(4) A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I must be parted and separated from everyone and everything dear and agreeable to me.’

This is the fourth of five contemplations in the sutta we’ve been exploring. It follows logically from contemplating ageing, illness and death as inevitable elements of living a human life.

A Buddhist nun once told me that if her beloved (who had died) walked through the door, she’d abandon the holy life in a heartbeat. When she said it, she knew it wasn’t possible for her beloved to walk through any door that she could see, but she was expressing a stark reality. She had made the relationship her world and consequently the world was lost when her partner died. She quoted the verse above; she had described her direct experience of its truth.

There are less dramatic examples of our being parted from places, things and people we hold dear and find agreeable. As we move through our lives, friendships begin and end, family relationships deteriorate or improve, our health has ups and downs, institutions or organizations that we rely on can both sustain and disillusion us, circumstances may cause us to leave a comfortable living or work situation. What the Buddha is pointing to is our tendency to rely on the unreliable.

Can we look beyond these pleasures? Is there a way to cope with our desire for security and comfort that won’t lead us astray? Perhaps paradoxically, the way out of our “desire” trap is to (gradually) change how we view our desires and preferences.

We may take our desires and aversions to be our marching orders; we may feel that we must obey them, that we have no choice. However, by taking only one step back from that assumption, we might be able to see that our preferences have often changed in direction and intensity. Much as we would like it to be otherwise, we and the circumstances of our lives don’t stay the same; there is no solid foundation to cling to “out there”.

Instead of neurotically pressing forward with our desires, perhaps we can come back to the simplicity of now. What is our intention in this place and time? What desires and aversions are rising and passing away? Where are we choosing to place our attention and energy? Can we stop seeking an illusory secure happiness and become more engaged with the process of living?

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Can we talk?

From AN5.57 translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi (copyright Wisdom Publications):
“This noble disciple reflects thus: ‘I am not the only one who is subject to death, not exempt from death. All beings that come and go, that pass away and undergo rebirth, are subject to death; none are exempt from death.’ As he often reflects on this theme, the path is generated. He pursues this path, develops it, and cultivates it. As he does so, the fetters are entirely abandoned and the underlying tendencies are uprooted.

In this sutta, the Buddha says that by contemplating death “the path is generated”. What does that mean? My understanding is that by familiarizing ourselves with the rise and fall of living beings as a normal process, we start to see the world and our place in it in a more realistic light. We begin to be less obsessed with our small, temporary victories over others and see ourselves instead as part of a larger process. As the path develops in us, we see how intimately we are connected with others, and how profoundly we affect each other with every interaction. We see how our choices in the world affect how we think and feel, and how by guiding those choices in a wholesome direction, we can change ourselves and our world.

In his outstanding book, Being Mortal, Atul Gawande emphasizes the importance of talking skilfully with people about end-of-life concerns. Although he speaks from a physician’s perspective, his words are useful for all of us (from Chapter 6, Letting Go):

One basic mistake is conceptual. To most doctors, the primary purpose of a discussion about terminal illness is to determine what people want – whether they want chemo or not, whether they want to be resuscitated or not, whether they want hospice or not. We focus on laying out the facts and the options. But that’s a mistake, Block said.

“A larger part of the task is helping people negotiate the overwhelming anxiety – anxiety about death, anxiety about suffering, anxiety about loved ones, anxiety about finances,” she explained. “There are many worries and real terrors.” No one conversation can address them all. Arriving at an acceptance of one’s mortality and a clear understanding of the limits and the possibilities of medicine is a process, not an epiphany.

This process requires as much listening as talking. If you are talking more than half of the time, Block says, you’re talking too much.

Having these conversations with friends and family members before we are facing death is an important way in which we can come to understand both the limitations and the rich possibilities of our lives.

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Dust to dust

Here is another angle we can examine in an attempt to understand the vexed question of how to live with the knowledge that our lives are finite:

The body belongs to the earth. It originates from earthly substance and then returns to the earth. In fact, the body can only live in a physical environment that is suited to bodily existence. The body requires earth to stand on, air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, energy and heat to function, and so on. All these things come from the earth. Because of that, this body is really just part of the earth. But still we insist on grasping at it and claiming ownership of it. Once we own it, we also own all the difficulties that come along with bodily existence, which we find we don’t like. We don’t like being sick, we don’t like growing old, we don’t like dying.
–from Uncommon Wisdom: Life and teachings of Ajaan Pannavaddho

Of course, there is more to life than accepting the fact that we come from the earth and will return to the earth. What can we do meanwhile? What is the alternative to identifying with this body? If our bodies don’t last, what does?

The Buddha’s most famous teaching on this subject is Anguttara Nikaya 5.57 (more on this later) in which it is made clear that the effects set in motion by the actions we do every day are what will carry on beyond our lifetimes. Whenever we do a kind or generous act, the ramifications are felt by us and others. We set our trajectory in a wholesome direction, which can snowball into ever larger beneficial actions affecting an ever-widening circle of people. One kind word at the right time may change someone’s life, and the lives of all who are touched by that person.

Conversely, unwholesome actions set a negative trajectory. Anger begets anger, lying begets more lies, within ourselves and among our acquaintances. These effects can likewise spread out to include people and situations that we can’t even imagine.

Once we thoroughly understand this karmic aspect of reality, that our actions are our greatest powers, we will know how to respond to the limitations of this life: do the best we can to follow our wholesome instincts and to boycott or set aside our unwholesome ones. It sounds simple, it is simple; but it’s often not easy to do. Mindfulness is our guardian in this — do we know whether we’re acting on our best intentions or not? Now? Do we know what kind of seeds we are planting in the world?

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Living and dying

How can we reflect on our own death in a way that helps deepen our understanding? Part of the answer is to look at our ageing selves from different angles.

There is a lot of wisdom in the pages of Atul Gawande’s non-fiction book, Being Mortal, some of which may help us to accept our mortality. Here is a small and (I think) relevant sample:

It turns out that inheritance has surprising little influence on longevity…If our genes explain less than we imagined, the classical wear-and-tear model may explain more than we knew. Leonid Gavrilov, a researcher at the University of Chicago, argues that human beings fail the way all complex systems fail: randomly and gradually. As engineers have long recognized, simple devices typically do not age. They function reliably until a critical component fails, and the whole thing dies in an instant. A windup toy, for example, works smoothly until a gear rusts or a spring breaks, and then it doesn’t work at all. But complex systems – power plants, say – have to survive and function despite having thousands of critical, potentially fragile components. Engineers therefore design these machines with multiple layers of redundancy: with backup systems and backup systems for the backup systems. The backups may not be as efficient as the first-line components, but they allow the machine to keep going even as damage accumulates. Gavrilov argues that, within the parameters established by our genes, that’s exactly how human beings appear to work.
…Nonetheless, as the defects in a complex system increase, the time comes when just one more defect is enough to impair the whole, resulting in the condition known as frailty. It happens to power plants, cars, and large organisations. And it happens to us: eventually, one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore.
…I asked Silverstone whether gerontologists have discerned any particular, reproducible pathway to ageing. “No,” he said. “We just fall apart.”

We can shift gears from fretting about ourselves to seeing that we are like everyone else, and that all of us are ageing all the time. Barring an accident, we are likely to die of either a specific disease or the gradual accumulation of broken bits of the complex system that is our body. Modern medicine has extended the average lifespan significantly, but it hasn’t changed the essential functioning of our bodies. Eventually, we just fall apart, and this is not a crisis but the normal, unstoppable work of nature. Accepting this reality may allow us to relax, enjoy the days that we have, and give a thought to what’s most important right now.

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