How to change

There is a well-loved verse from the Buddha’s teaching. It can be found in the Dhammapada (#5) and also in MN 128.

(translated by Gil Fronsdal)
Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

(translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
For in this world enmity is never
allayed by enmity.
It is allayed by non-hatred:
that is the fixed and ageless law.

I offer two translations in case one or the other is easier for you to contemplate.

Many years ago, in a work setting, a trainer asked the question: “How would it feel to completely accept the person who most annoys you?”  It took me a minute to realize that in order to know how it would feel, I’d have to actually accept my difficult person. What would that feel like? It was possible as a thought experiment; I felt my heart release. These days it’s a question I ask myself when that grating sensation of wanting someone to behave differently comes up. To actually accept someone fully means to acknowledge that they are basing their actions and words on their own experiences, fears, priorities, habits, delusions and all the rest, which are different from mine. It would mean saying yes to both their good qualities and their bad ones (everyone has both), and perhaps feeling compassion for their internal discomfort.

In a recent conversation with another person who cares for those in the last period of life, I said that I thought the good deaths were the ones in which love was present, regardless of the physical realities. My friend said that he thought acceptance was the most important thing. We agreed that acceptance leads to love and love leads to acceptance, so we were saying the same thing with different words.

In another conversation, a friend related strongly to the idea of learning to relax, to let go of how we should be, to understand that perfection is an illusion and that all we have to work with is what’s happening right now.

For me, these three things – acceptance, love, and letting go – are the same movement of the heart. They describe a release of clinging, a return to our natural inclination to love and protect others. Perhaps it’s a paradox, but when we really let go of our clinging, even for a moment, that soft, empty space is what we call love – or non-hatred. It’s not nothing. It is a spaciousness that allows others to be as they are without our interference.

A correlation to the verse above may be that no one ever changed in the intended way through punishment; only love brings about change in living beings. This is something we can prove in our own relationships, by thoroughly accepting ourselves and others and seeing what happens next.

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Filed under Anger, Causes and results, Compassion, Dhammapada, General, Relationships

Why we quarrel

Monks, wherever monks take to arguing and quarreling and fall into a dispute, stabbing each other with piercing words, I am uneasy even about directing my attention there, let alone about going there. I conclude about them: ‘Surely, those venerable ones have abandoned three things and cultivated three things.’

What are the three things they have abandoned? Thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of benevolence, and thoughts of non-harming: these are the three things they have abandoned. What are the three things they have cultivated? Sensual thoughts, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of harming: these are the three things they have cultivated. …

Monks, wherever monks are dwelling in concord, harmoniously, without disputes, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with eyes of affection, I am at ease about going there, let alone about directing my attention there. I conclude: ‘Surely, those venerable ones have abandoned three things and cultivated three other things.’

What are the three things they have abandoned? Sensual thoughts, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of harming; these are the three things they have abandoned. What are the three things they have cultivated? Thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of benevolence, and thoughts of non-harming. These are the three things they have cultivated. Wherever monks are dwelling in concord, I conclude: ‘Surely, those venerable ones have abandoned these three things and cultivated these three other things.’ (AN 3:124, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Thoughts of renunciation, benevolence, and non-harming — these three categories of thought make up the second component of the Buddha’s Eight-fold Path, called Right Intention or Right Resolve. This is the primary way that we can actively set ourselves in the direction of growing self-knowledge and compassion.

What do “thoughts of sensuality” mean to us today? The category is broad but would include indulging in pornography, obsessing over food, watching violent entertainments — anything that makes us want more of it without providing any satisfaction. Renunciation is simply turning away from these preoccupations. There is agitation in sensuality and there’s peace in renunciation. Through practice, we look inward for quieter satisfactions and walk away from the glitzy and enticing but ultimately disappointing temptations. We can understand this distinction better by considering how our heart feels after either indulging in external pleasures or turning inward.

Thoughts of ill-will are familiar to us. They include resentment, jealousy, anger, blaming, and all the related aggressive mental qualities. Our minds can boil over with these thoughts, and they don’t help us or anyone else. Some part of our ego enjoys them, but we end up feeling drained and unsatisfied, unless we act on these thoughts, in which case we’re probably going to feel even worse. The absence of thoughts of ill-will is a mental state we can call benevolence, an attitude of gentle kindness towards ourselves and other beings.

Lastly, thoughts of harming — ouch! This is an extension of thoughts of ill-will, where we want to punish or wreak vengeance on other beings. Non-harming is a quieter, almost neutral state in which we understand that all beings desire (and deserve) to be left alone or treated kindly.

All of these feelings, the positive and the negative, have their origin in our minds. The primary tool available to us to replace the unwholesome thoughts with their wholesome counterparts is to pay attention to, and take responsibility for, our thoughts. If our thoughts go to the unwholesome, we can find ways to turn them around, through either physically removing unhelpful stimuli or simply turning that great ball of energy, our minds, in a different direction.

 

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Filed under Causes and results, General, Harmlessness, Mindfulness, The 8-fold path

It’s not the same

An underlying cause of unease is our desire for stability, for predictability, for security. We get nervous when people or things change in unexpected ways. When someone says, “It will never be the same again”, I automatically think: “Well, it wasn’t staying the same before, either”.  Nothing stays the same. Mostly we think that things are fine if we don’t hear anything to the contrary; or we assume that nothing changes if we’re not paying attention to it. But everything is changing all the time: the weather, our attitudes, peoples’ health, our opinions, our locations, our moods. Physical things decay and eventually break. This is the characteristic of all existence called anicca, or impermanence.

Anicca is one reason it can be hard to make changes in our lives. We think that if we can hold “just this one thing” steady, we won’t become disoriented or afraid. We sometimes prefer an unpleasant reality to an unknown one.

What would it be like to actually know that everything is changing all the time? If we tuned into this reality every day, we’d become more alert, more closely observing of ourselves and others. We’d have to remember that the way we perceive and imagine things today is not the same as it was yesterday, and it could well be different tomorrow. Both the subject and the objects of our awareness are in flux.

To sustain awareness of anicca, we would need to learn to relax into it, and part of that ability to accept change is to accept our own dislike of it, a primary form of dukkha (stress or suffering). We can distract ourselves to the point of exhaustion, but there’s no escape, is there? If we can start to accept our own liking and disliking and (through wisdom) reduce our reactivity, our grasping and pushing away, everything becomes easier. Physical discomfort? It’s unpleasant but (in almost all cases) it will pass. Extreme elation? Very pleasant, and it will pass. Weather, bad or good? It, too, will change. Relationship difficulties or ecstasies? All of the nature to pass away. Our favorite possessions? All will inevitably be lost, broken, or become rubbish one day. If we acknowledge these realities on a regular basis, we begin to go with the flow of anicca.

Perhaps the hardest part of waking up to our existential situation is acknowledging that there’s a lot more we don’t know than we do know, but we can become accustomed to living with uncertainty. “I don’t know”, “let’s wait and see”, and similar phrases can help us live in a less fraught world. Nobody knows the whole story, except perhaps a fully awakened being, and whoever she is, she’s not talking. She knows that we have to find our own way to greater clarity.

 

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Conflict

Since communities, whether large or small, are composed of human beings, they are inevitably exposed to tensions caused by human frailties. The innate propensity for self-aggrandizement, craving for personal benefits, self-righteousness, and attachment to personal opinions can lead to factionalism and disputes and even split the community into fragments. (From introduction to chapter “Disputes” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

This is a succinct re-statement of the Buddha’s first truth, the truth of dukkha. We keep hoping that we can arrange our lives so that we are not bothered by troublesome (to us) people, but inevitably, we fail. The first sutta quoted in the “Disputes” chapter is DN 21 and concerns the question “why?”.  In it, Sakka, ruler of the devas (gods), asks the Buddha: “Beings wish to live without hate, hostility, or enmity; they wish to live in peace. Yet they live in hate, harming one another, hostile, and as enemies. By what fetters are they bound, sir, that they live in such a way?”

The Buddha responds: “Ruler of the devas, it is the bonds of envy and miserliness that bind beings so that, although they wish to live without hate, hostility, or enmity, and to live in peace, yet they live in hate, harming one another, hostile, and as enemies.”

Sakka digs deeper and asks what gives rise to  envy and miserliness and the series of questions “what gives rise to…” are answered thus:

  • Envy and miserliness arise from liking and disliking
  • Liking and disliking arise from desire
  • Desire arises from thinking
  • Thinking arises from elaborated perceptions and notions.

There are a number of interesting points in this list. Perhaps the most important one is that liking and disliking lead us to divide the world into two parts; the parts we like and the parts we don’t. Based on our likes and dislikes, we spend our energy pulling the former towards us and pushing the latter away. From one perspective, this is the framework for our lives: constant grasping and rejecting. Also, the people and things we like and dislike keep changing, so there is no rest from this grinding of gears.

When the Buddha says that thinking is the root of the problem, he specifies “elaborated perceptions and notions”. There is a word in Pali, papañca, that is normally translated as “conceptual proliferation”. It describes a mental process we are all familiar with in which we ruminate on something until it becomes ever bigger and more ominous. If we could regularly interrupt this process with mindfulness, we would probably not take our thoughts quite so seriously and would consequently have fewer conflicts in our lives.

However, people are people, and we are people, and the unavoidable consequence is that we will have disputes and conflict among ourselves until we are fully awakened. These conflicts are grist for our spiritual mills; they are the teachers and the lessons. When things go wrong, if we look to our own reactivity rather than blaming our discomfort on an outside source, we can recognize and release our unhelpful thought processes and become more free.

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Filed under Anger, General, Patience, Relationships

A good visitor

In this surprising (to me) sutta, the Buddha gives his monks and nuns specific “do”s and “don’t”s for visiting with lay families. Normally monastics would visit laypeople either to receive a meal or to tend to someone’s needs, physical or spiritual. There are some useful guidelines for us to consider in the sutta:

Monks, possessing five qualities, a monk who is a visitor of families is displeasing and disagreeable to them and is neither respected nor esteemed by them. What five? (1) He presumes intimacy upon mere acquaintance; (2) he distributes things that he does not own; (3) he consorts for the sake of creating divisions; (4) he whispers in the ear; and (5) he makes excessive requests. Possessing these five qualities, a monk who is a visitor of families is displeasing and disagreeable to them and is neither respected nor esteemed by them.

Monks, possessing five other qualities, a monk who is a visitor of families is pleasing and agreeable to them and is respected and esteemed by them. What five? (1) He does not presume intimacy upon mere acquaintance; (2) he does not distribute things that he does not own; (3) he does not consort for the sake of creating divisions; (4) he does not whisper in the ear; and (5) he does not make excessive requests. Possessing these five qualities, a monk who is a visitor of families is pleasing and agreeable to them and is respected and esteemed by them.  (AN 5:11, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Most of these recommendations apply equally to ordained and lay people. We can seriously put people off by presuming an intimacy that we haven’t earned through a long relationship.

I can hardly imagine the situation in which a monk or nun “distributes things he or she doesn’t own”, so I’m going to leave the second instruction aside for now.

“Consorting for the sake of creating divisions” is clearly a transgression of one of the right-speech precepts, but one could also create divisions non-verbally, by appearing to side with one individual or group against another.

“Whispering in the ear” is a wonderfully vivid description. It brings to mind palace intrigue or any form of communication that implies secrecy from someone who is present. In any case, it is poor form to whisper to one person while others are present. At a minimum, it implies an in-group and an out-group.

Making excessive requests will make anyone unpopular. We’ve all known people who have asked for more than others wanted to give.

By being aware of these specific actions that we can take or refrain from taking, we can monitor how our visits are received. We can put ourselves in the place of the host(s) and ask ourselves whether we would welcome the behaviors occurring. We can notice when others are particularly good or bad guests. These factors are components of cultivating relationships that support the development of integrity and wisdom, in ourselves and others.

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Filed under Friendships, General, Relationships, Speech

Fair share

When we live with other people, it is common for us to feel we are doing more than our fair share of the communal duties, i.e., keeping common areas clean, shopping, yard maintenance, cooking, dishes, etc. This can be true whether we live with a partner we love unreservedly or with random roommates. Often everyone involved feels they are doing all the work, which is an impossibility. It can be hard to recognize what others do that benefits us.

The Buddha was the leader of a large and diverse community of monks and nuns. The community members arrived from different backgrounds with different customs, and part of their training was learning how to live together in a way that promoted their development in the Dharma.

In our times, an analogy for the effect of living in a monastic community has been described as putting a collection of sharp stones into a jar and shaking the jar until the stones are smooth. Living in close community can wear away our rough edges, if we approach it as a training.

[Anuruddha says] “Surely, Bhante, we are living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.”

[the Buddha] “But Anuruddha, how do you live thus?”

[Anuruddha] “Bhante, as to that, I think: ‘It is a gain for me, a great gain for me, that I am living with such companions in the holy life’. I maintain bodily acts of loving-kindness toward those venerable ones both openly and privately; I maintain verbal acts of loving-kindness toward them both openly and privately; I maintain mental acts of loving-kindness toward them both openly and privately. I consider: ‘Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what they wish to do?’ Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what they wish to do. We are different in body, but one in mind. That is how, Bhante, we are living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.” (from MN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The key may be to ask ourselves, “Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what they wish to do?”. When we are disposed to love someone, we automatically consider their desires along with our own, but unless we pay scrupulous attention, it is common for our self-centered ways to creep back to the forefront. If we consider the mundane tasks of living as work we’d rather not do, then we inevitably (if unthinkingly) feel that someone else should do them.

One strategy is to view our own acts of deference as gifts, as a practice of generosity. We can recognize when resentment starts rising up and examine its causes. Are we being taken for granted? Is our presence being de-valued? Is our perception clear? If we can calmly discuss divisions of labor, many difficulties can be avoided, but even more can be accomplished if we take the attitude that living together is an opportunity to train ourselves in generosity.

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Value judgments

“How do I know my practice is working?”
“Your life is improving.”

Variants of this conversation have happened countless times. Students of the ethical and meditative teachings of the Buddha (and others) will sometimes get frustrated and think, “Why am I doing this?” Where is the evidence of my progress?

It is often difficult to assess our own growth and only slightly less challenging to perceive growth in others. In SN 3:24 the Buddha poses a question to King Pasenadi about whether he would evaluate  potential soldiers based on their castes or clans, or instead, based on their skill levels. Sensibly, King Pasenadi says that the skill of the candidate is the most important factor.

The Buddha then draws an analogy with the training of monastics who come to his order from widely varying backgrounds. He says emphatically that those who have abandoned the five hindrances – sensual desire, ill-will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, and doubt – and cultivated virtue, concentration, wisdom, liberation, and knowledge are the more worthy recipients of support from the faithful.

As a king intent on waging war
Would employ a youth skilled with the bow,
One endowed with strength and vigor,
But not the coward on account of his birth –
So even though he be of low birth,
One should honor the person of noble conduct,
The sagely man in whom are established
The virtues of patience and gentleness.
(from SN 3:24, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

What does this mean for us? It can be a guide for evaluating our own progress, our own behavior.  If our behavior is better, our life becomes easier. It’s interesting that the Buddha summarizes the absence of the hindrances and the presence of virtue, wisdom, etc. with the words “patience and gentleness”. These could be our measure of how we’re doing, day by day. We could also look for these qualities in others, especially in people we consider unlike ourseves – in dress or ethnicity or body shape or education or age. Sometimes people may have poor grooming or table manners, a grating accent or other unattractive feature, and we might be blinded to their patience and kindness. Many an annoying person actually has a heart of gold, but we have to look for it.

We can stay alert to our own patience and kindness, the quiet virtues. Often we judge ourselves too harshly; it can be easier to notice what we do wrong than what we do that’s right or neutral. If we tune into the wavelength of noticing peoples’ virtues rather than how they are different from us, we may be surprised.

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