Wholesome and unwholesome

One important point from the previous post is that the Buddha emphasized the moral efficacy of action; that all of our actions have moral consequences, for good or ill. This is a guiding principle that the Buddha taught to all people, of all faiths, in all situations. It was not a way of enticing people to follow him; it was a statement of a simple truth, intended to benefit the hearers.

The Buddha often followed on with a list of important distinctions between wholesome and unwholesome actions which are categorized as the five (or four, in early suttas) precepts.  Sometimes the principle of right speech, the fourth precept, is divided into the sub-categories of truthful, harmonious, gentle and meaningful speech.

When, friends, a noble disciple understands the unwholesome and the root of the unwholesome, the wholesome and the root of the wholesome, in that way he is one of right view,…

And what is the wholesome? Abstention from the destruction of life is wholesome; abstention from taking what is not given is wholesome; abstention from sexual misconduct is wholesome; abstention from false speech is wholesome; abstention from divisive speech is wholesome; abstention from harsh speech is wholesome; abstention from idle chatter is wholesome… and what is the root of the wholesome? Non-greed is a root of the wholesome; non-hatred is a root of the wholesome; non-delusion is a root of the wholesome.  — from MN9, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

For us, today, having these principles stated in the negative instead of positive form (non-greed instead of generosity, for example) can seem awkward. Part of the reason it’s phrased this way comes from a characteristic of the Pali language, and part of the reason is that these statements were not written down, but memorised, so repetition, with one version stated positively and one negatively, was easier to remember.

Still, even for us, there may be more clarity in “non-greed” than in another word. We’re pretty clear on what greed feels like in ourselves, and perhaps less clear about its opposite. Abstention from false speech is subtly different from always telling the truth. If we’re inclined to say something but can’t be sure that it’s beneficial, we might stay silent and wait. If we’re abstaining from a negative behavior, we might have a variety of reasons. It turns out that abstaining from a particular action is not the same as performing its opposite. Sometimes we’re not sure what to do, where the wholesome and unwholesome intentions lie, and doing nothing (for the moment) might be the best thing.

We’ll get back to reflecting on each of the precepts individually before too long, but for today let’s think about curbing our unwholesome roots as the first line of intentionality. We can recognize and release greed, hatred and (sometimes) delusion in ourselves. It’s likely that when hatred is set aside, love is what’s left, and when greed is set aside, generosity is there naturally.

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Harmonious communities

Harmony in any community, whether a small group or a whole society, depends on a shared commitment to ethical conduct. … social harmony requires at a minimum that the members of any group share the conviction that there are objective standards for distinguishing between good and bad conduct and that there are benefits, for the group and its individual members, in avoiding the types of behavior generally considered bad and in living according to standards generally considered good. – from the Introduction to section I, Right Understanding, in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s new book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony

In the Buddha’s teachings, mundane right view is distinguished from supramundane right view. The first understanding is that we have personal responsibility for our actions and will reap the rewards of those actions, sooner or later. Supramundane right view goes a bit further in that the scope for the results of our actions to ripen extends over lifetimes and a deep understanding of right view can lead to full liberation. As Bhikkhu Bodhi does in his new book, we will do here, and focus on mundane right view.

At the very beginning, we recognize that we have views; whether we’re conscious of them or not, we hold underlying assumptions about meaning. There are many wrong views we could hold, for example that if we can get away with a selfish act without being punished then no other ramifications need be considered. Or that if a generous act on our part goes unacknowledged, then it didn’t count.

While the Buddha promoted ethics on the basis of the view of the moral efficacy of action – the principle that good actions lead to desirable results and bad actions to undesirable results – he also offered independent grounds for the ethical life. (quoted from the same source as above)

We’ll be looking at what makes a community harmonious in upcoming posts, but for today it seems important to point out that we can’t wait for everyone in the community, or even a majority, to behave ethically before we take on the commitment ourselves. Our own attitudes and behavior form the boundary of what we control. Our life is our lesson to others. If those around us like what they see, they’ll be drawn to it and modify their own actions accordingly. It doesn’t take great insight to see that repellent behavior repels people and harmonious behavior attracts others, at least on a personal level. This is our power of persuasion: how we behave in everyday life, how we treat people, whether we project anger or fear or kindness or calm. We begin right where we are, here and now.

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Different strokes for different folks

I’ve often maintained that if one wants to initiate a meditation practice, or support an ongoing one, the best way is with a living person, someone who is trustworthy and competent and has the intention of teaching. The teacher’s affiliation matters less than whether we can connect with the person and the tradition. It may not feel like a perfect fit immediately, but we have to listen to our hearts from the beginning: does the teacher have a manner we find inviting? Do the students seem engaged and (at least somewhat) positive? Is there mutual respect?

A good place to start a search is at Buddhanet.net’s World Buddhist Directory. Some of the centers listed are not places where meditation is taught, but some are, and it’s fairly easy to see what’s available nearby. http://www.buddhanet.info/wbd/

In many or most places a standardized 8-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), taught by a living person, is available for a fee. Many people find this a very helpful program. It is sometimes difficult to find follow-on support for a regular practice, but it can provide anyone with the basic skills.

The Vipassana Meditation organization offers donation-based ten-day retreats, which are on-site and combine personal attention with video instruction from S.N. Goenka. Some people have life-long practices in this tradition, but it’s not for everyone. Mixing this technique with other methods is discouraged, and the retreats can be physically challenging, with many hours of sitting meditation and not much moving meditation.  https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index

If an in-person learning situation is not available, there are plenty of online guides. One could use any one of them to start a peer-led sitting group.

Gil Fronsdal of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California, has some very useful offerings for getting started with meditation. Gil’s teaching is probably the closest one to the way I learned and continue to practice. http://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/programs/for-beginners/

For an easy and inviting (although electronic) introduction to meditation, spend some time with the NY Times “How to Meditate” guide. It is loaded with short encouragements and instructions. It could be problematic if you have a slow internet connection (lots of pictures), but a friendlier introduction is hard to imagine. http://www.nytimes.com/well/guides/how-to-meditate 

Lastly, Thanissaro Bhikkhu has offered many talks and writings on-line for free. One group local to me uses his audio talks as a basis for weekly group sittings, to good effect. http://www.dhammatalks.org (look under talks/guided meditations)

Those of us who have been practicing meditation for many years tend to become myopic about methods. We mainly know what has worked for us, even if it took many attempts and failures to establish a regular practice, picking up and discarding one technique after the other. Different practices suit different people, and our needs may change over the years. Most important is that we each take responsibility for pursuing the teachings and practices that will support our movement toward freedom from suffering, and away from the causes of suffering.

If you have other resources to recommend, please send a comment.


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A new year

Some of us have a quite regular meditation practice including sitting, walking, chanting, bowing, or other activities. Many of us struggle with keeping our practice regular, or perhaps we’ve given up the attempt. Since the beginning of the year is often when we consider making changes, one reasonable goal is to commit or re-commit to a daily (or almost daily) practice.

A resolution is a commitment – not just a verbal promise, but a long-term activity that might include a way to measure our success and which leaves space for adjusting or refining what we do to accomplish the goal. With challenges like quitting smoking or drinking, or establishing a regular meditation practice, sometimes we have to start over several times.

When we’ve got an important goal, we look to both external circumstances and internal factors. We may need to re-think our work schedule or living situation. A good living arrangement can be an enormous help and a bad one can be an enormous hindrance. Knowing our own weaknesses, we can build corrective elements into our plan. The most fortunate among us find a support group that provides regular encouragement and feedback on whatever path we’ve chosen. Personal contact is preferable to electronic because it’s harder to ignore. Virtual support is better than none, but established relationships with humans we feel we know usually have more potential.

Another key to creating new habits is to set attainable goals. We could aim to meditate for five days out of every seven, or for a minimum of five or ten minutes per day, every day. We could choose a particular technique for a month and then re-evaluate and perhaps try a different one for the next month until we find the one that suits us best. If our practice is feeling stale, we can experiment with teachings or techniques to present ourselves with new challenges. Perhaps incorporating regular activities that focus on gratitude or generosity could add vigor to our practice.

Some of us take in information best by reading, others by listening or watching. We can find our preferred channels through trial and error.

It’s important to remind ourselves frequently of our commitment. Remembering our goal daily will keep alive our motivation to move in the direction we’ve chosen.

For further ideas on supporting a regular meditation practice, see the blog post by Bodhipaksa listed below. Disclaimer: the courses he recommends are not free, and I can’t vouch for their quality, but the advice in the post itself is useful.  https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/8999116/posts/1282585116


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Flowing vs. fixating

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.’
-From AN 5.57 (translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

ALSO, we must eventually be parted from everything repellent and disagreeable to us.

Whether we like or dislike what is happening right now, it is sure to change and pass away. Remembering this fact can be a fruitful path of practice. If we look deeply into the activity of liking and not-liking as it arises in our hearts, we see that it is sometimes subtle and sometimes powerful, but it is always ephemeral.

If we feel intense love for someone, fixating on our feeling of love actually diverts our attention from the beloved. When strong anger or disgust overtakes our mind, if we fixate on that feeling, whatever it was that stimulated it may change without our noticing. Sayadaw U Tejaniya recommended tracking our liking and not-liking continuously because if we attend to the mercurial nature of our preferences we start to see that although they occupy a central place in our minds, they have no substance, no durability.

Sometimes we call memories to mind to re-experience the associated feeling. Do we know when we’re doing this? Is it a habit?

Strong feeling has its own attraction, whether it’s positive or negative; our ego enjoys both affirmation and a sense of righteous anger. We must discover for ourselves how insubstantial our own feelings are if we don’t want to be pushed around by them.

What could cause us to reduce our obsession with our own liking and not-liking? One possibility is knowing. The desire to understand our direct experience can provide the motivation to watch our preferences appear and disappear without our being swept away. When a boundless positive feeling is present, we can commit to it fully, including to it’s characteristic of rising and falling. When a powerful negative feeling comes up, we can breath in and out and observe how the feeling moves here and there without our directing it.

Moment to moment, we have the choice between fixating on our feelings and stepping back to observe their movements. Paradoxically, when we let our feelings come and go without our interference, we can experience and understand them more fully. Developing this skill can take us far towards strengthening a peaceful heart.


Filed under Causes and results, Dukkha, Mindfulness

Christmas for everyone

Christmas Buddha

Some of us identify as followers of the Buddha’s teachings; some don’t. Regardless, in the holiday season, we can acknowledge our own traditions and the traditions of others. If we are part of a family or group that includes people of different faiths, we can make an effort to acknowledge, to understand and respect those faiths. So, if Christmas has meaning for us, we participate in rituals that affirm that meaning. If Christmas has no particular meaning for us, we can still participate in some rituals if it will express our care for people we love.

The abbot of our local monastery gave a short talk about Santa Claus today. Santa is depicted as always smiling; he’s joyful, laughing even. Why? Because his primary activity is giving, unrestrained giving. The connection between giving and joy is universal.

The picture above says to me that we try to be a Buddha (awake) every day, and this day happens to be Christmas. As we do every day, we make an effort to see each other with eyes of compassion, we practice mindfulness of our words and actions, and we curb any aggressive or harmful impulses that arise. We can make a special effort to contact people who might feel lonely or neglected. The simple gift of showing up is the most powerful of all.

In our local newspaper when people on the street were asked “What is your favorite part of Christmas?”, two-thirds replied that it was having time with family and friends. The warmth of the connections between hearts can overrule any objections we have to each others’ habits and views.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama said: “Be kind as much as possible; it is always possible.” Isn’t this the spirit of Christmas?


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Fear and refuge

Dhammapada verses 188-192, translated by Gil Fronsdal:

People threatened by fear
Go to many refuges;
To mountains, forests,
Parks, trees, and shrines.
None of these is a secure refuge;
None is a supreme refuge.
Not by going to such a refuge
Is one released from all suffering.

But when someone going for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
Sees, with right insight,
The Four Noble Truths:

The arising of suffering,
The overcoming of suffering,
And the eightfold path
Leading to the end of suffering,

Then this is the secure refuge;
This is the supreme refuge.
By going to such a refuge
One is released from all suffering.

I’ve been contemplating the question of where we seek refuge, what we lean on in times of fear or disorientation. The answers are personal and individual. Some of us find peace in nature, some in community, some in our homes or cars, some in various distractions, and there are many ways we might seek comfort. These worldly solutions can be effective at diverting us from worldly problems, but the existential questions remain. What’s going on here? How can people be so blind, uncaring, even cruel? Why do bad things happen to good people?

For the deeper questions, we have to look within for answers. We have to be willing to acknowledge that some things that seem very wrong cannot be fixed. Do we run away from this knowledge, or can we embrace it and investigate it?

During the Buddha’s life, the four truths were not generally presented to laypeople. The teaching of the truths was primarily for the ordained, because although the formulation sounds simple, to fully know the truths changes everything. It turns the me-centered world inside out; we have to give up on the idea of security (as we currently conceive it). An intellectual understanding is of no help; the four truths describe a practice which starts with seeing dukkha arising, within and outside of ourselves, and culminates in a complete understanding of karma, of cause and effect, of how things really come to be in the world. We could say that most of the work of the four truths is in the first one: acknowledging the truth of suffering in our experience. Rather than averting our eyes from our subtle or gross discomforts and dissatisfactions, we can look at them squarely and dispassionately.

Perhaps paradoxically, this is where real security begins: knowing that things are not under our control, that events and feelings come to us unbidden, that nothing in human experience lasts. For an excellent reflection on the meaning of dukkha, see: http://www.lionsroar.com/deep-dukkha-part-2-the-three-kinds-of-suffering/

Deep understanding cannot be gleaned in a moment, or by moving from one place to another. It takes a willingness to stop talking, to calm ourselves and look honestly and courageously at what is actually happening right now, again and again. This investigation, and acceptance of what we find, can be our refuge.

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Filed under Causes and results, Dhammapada, Dukkha, The 8-fold path