Wise intentions

[The Buddha responded:] “Here, monk, a wise person of great wisdom does not intend for his own affliction, or for the affliction of others, or for the affliction of both. Rather, when he plans, he plans for his own welfare, the welfare of others, the welfare of both, and the welfare of the whole world. It is in this way that one is a wise person of great wisdom.”  – from AN 4:186, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

There are a number of similar suttas in the Pali canon in which the Buddha points out that some people consider only their own welfare, some consider only the welfare of others, some don’t think of the welfare of either themselves or others, and some think of the welfare of both themselves and others.

This categorization broadens our consideration from friendships between two people to how we relate, not just to an individual friend, but to all those we come into contact with. If we consider the welfare of ourselves and others, then our attitude towards other beings isn’t divided into us and them, but takes in the question of whether an action is good for everyone affected. If not, we can try to figure out how things might be arranged so that everyone benefits. We can try to cleave to this principle of setting our intentions so that no one (including ourselves) is harmed and that, as much as possible, everyone’s situation is improved. Once the intention is set, then every new set of circumstances presents us with a fresh opportunity to hone our wisdom.

It’s true that these decisions are not always clear-cut. Sometimes we find out later that our good intentions didn’t bring about the desired results, or we discover that someone we didn’t know might be affected by our action felt hurt. Often we think there’s no time to consider all the consequences, that action must be taken now.

One way we can mature on the path is to incorporate a moment of reflection before we take action or speak to others. In that momentary pause, we can ask ourselves whether we are acting from kindness or compassion, and also whether anyone might be harmed. Even if there is no discernible answer, no way to know, it’s worth asking ourselves the question. It’s a training in attitude, which will make us wiser, more compassionate human beings.

1 Comment

Filed under Friendships, General, Harmlessness, Relationships

Good friends

We’ll get to communal harmony soon, but for now, another thought about friendships:

[The Buddha is speaking to a young man named Sigālaka:] Young man, there are these four kinds of kind-hearted friends: the friend who is helpful; the friend who shares one’s happiness and suffering; the friend who points out what is good; and the friend who is sympathetic. – from DN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The sutta goes on to parse these statements. Here is a summary:

Helpful: A helpful friend looks after you, provides refuge when you’re afraid, and is generous to you.

Shares one’s happiness and suffering: Such a friend guards your secrets, shares her secrets, and stays involved even when there’s trouble.

Points out what’s good: This friend encourages you to do good and abstain from harmful acts, keeps you informed of useful information, and helps you remember your best intentions.

Sympathetic: A sympathetic friend stays present when you suffer, rejoices in your good fortune, defends you when you’re not present, and affirms those who speak well of you.

Such true friends are rare, and we would be wise to cultivate and cherish them.

It’s equally important to BE a good friend. We can review for ourselves: how many people do we treat with this steady helpfulness and good will? This is a pro-active stance, not one in which we simply answer the phone when called. We know who our good friends are; we keep in touch with them; we tell them regularly that we’re thinking of them and wishing them well. When they need something, we are happy to respond right away.

Even people we don’t see very often can be valued friends. Sometimes just thinking about them helps us to make better choices, to be kinder to others and to invest our energy wisely.

Dharma buddies are obviously in this category of kind-hearted friends because we share the desire to move in the same direction, and take joy in supporting each others’ efforts. Some of our kind-hearted friends are not on the Buddha’s path; people who identify as Buddhist don’t have a lock on good intentions. Whenever and wherever we find trustworthy people who will support our wholesome desires and discourage decisions that will harm us, we can (and should) be open to letting them into our hearts.

As the Buddha said, noble friends and companions are the whole of the holy life, or, in other words, there’s nothing we can do that is more supportive of awakening our highest potential than cultivating supportive friendships. And there’s no greater gift we can give than to be kind-hearted, supportive friends ourselves.

1 Comment

Filed under Friendships, General, Mindfulness

Friendships and communities

Strong communities depend on the personal relationships between their members, and the most basic relation between people outside the family connection is that of friendship. … The Buddha placed special emphasis on one’s choice of friends, which he saw as having a profound influence on one’s individual development as well as on the creation of a harmonious and ethically upright community. Good friendship is essential not only because it benefits us in times of trouble, satisfies our social instincts, and enlarges our sphere of concern from the self to others. It is critical because good friendship plants in us the sense of discretion, the ability to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, and to choose the honorable over the expedient.
— from the introduction to chapter “Good Friendships” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony by Bhikkhu Bodhi

What choices do we have regarding friendships? We have relationships with family members, co-workers, fellow students, neighbors, members of our various communities, and others with whom we come into contact, but only a subset of these relationships develop into friendships.

There’s no magic formula for making and keeping friends. Some essential ingredients are: a desire for connection, regularly giving our time to our friends, listening and attending to what they say and do, avoiding comparing them with ourselves, overlooking small flaws, and wishing them well. If we find a friendship rewarding, we look past habits that we don’t like because the overall package is so worthwhile.  When we are annoyed with someone we generally like, it pays to remember their favorable qualities. Someone who is generous, kind, and thoughtful might be a sloppy eater or housekeeper. So what? Someone who is honest and humble may be a very slow walker – again, so what? We can ask ourselves, what’s important here? And as a friend once advised me: “Go with the love.” When given the choice of criticizing or loving, we can choose to go with the love.

In the suttas, there are examples in which monks get along well with each other and when asked how they live harmoniously they describe the specific ways in which they defer to each other, make way for each other, clean up after each other, and prepare things for each other. Just as the people who cared for us when we were newborn did, we can care for those in our immediate world. With friends, this is a reciprocal process and only grows more rewarding with practice.

In the previous post, Sumi Loudon Kim used the word “attunement” to describe how parents empathetically observe their children, and suggested that this is a skill we can develop and (eventually) apply to all of our relationships. May it be so.

1 Comment

Filed under Causes and results, Friendships, General, Relationships

Children and attachment

In a recent issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly (Spring 2017), in the department called “Ask the Teachers”, the question posed is “How do I reconcile parenting with nonattachment?” I recommend the journal itself (https://www.lionsroar.com/category/buddhadharma/), and this article in particular. Since this article is not freely available on line, I offer here the part that seems most helpful.

Q: I’m a longtime practitioner, but now that I have children, I’m struggling with the notion of nonattachment. How do I reconcile nonattachment with the deep connection I have with my kids – and with my concerns for their well-being and safety?

A: [Answers are given from Buddhist teachers in three different traditions. Here is only the third answer, from Sumi Loudon Kim, a minister with Buddhist Families of Durham, NC.]

The heart of this humdinger question is that the word “attachment” means one thing in the context of parenting and another in the context of Buddhist teachings. The association of the word “attachment” with parenting has its origins in the phrase “attachment parenting”, a theory of child-rearing developed by pediatrician William Sears in the 1980s. In parenting, attachment is thought to provide a foundational sense of safety and security, giving a child the courage to explore and thus learn essential facts about their world. Your concern for your children’s well-being and safety comes from a healthy, natural bonding derived from empathy, care, and love – none of which are against the dharma.

In the Buddhist world, attachment is understood as a mental factor, a psychological pattern that is a mega-cause of suffering. However, the neutral sense of the English word “attachment” doesn’t convey the potency and misery of what Buddhists mean by it. Buddhist texts use the Sanskrit word trsna, an English-language cognate of which is the word “thirst”. “Thirst” accurately conveys the sense of need that characterizes this mental state. We are thirsty for sense gratification, thirsty for experiences. Other translations of this kind of attachment are “clinging”, “craving”, and “desire”. Although it doesn’t sound human to say, “Don’t be attached to your children,” it does sound right to say, “Don’t cling to them.” (We even disapprove of overly clingy parents.)

Nonetheless, the Buddhist notion of attachment, as craving, can teach us something about parenting pitfalls. Since we can crave just about anything, it’s possible to develop a sticky clinginess to our own children. For example, we might crave their demonstrations of affection, respect, or loyalty. We can become attached to our children behaving or performing in a particular way, believing that our child should be a good soccer player, academically successful, polite to others, and so on, because we are worried about our own public image, self-worth, unresolved issues, or value as a “good” parent. This kind of attachment is primarily self-centered, serving our own needs. As many of us know from experience, staking our happiness on a child fulfilling our expectations invariably results in suffering. (Although I’m quite certain that the moment my children stop leaving dirty socks around the house, my life will be perfect.) In the final analysis of this type of clingy attachment, it’s not so much that we are directly attached to our children as we are attached to our misconception of what will bring us happiness.

The parenting notion of attachment as bonding can also teach us something about parenting potential. In fact, the Buddha himself urges us to create the “bonds of fellowship”, as taught in the Sangaha Sutta. Through generosity, kind words, beneficial help, and consistency in the face of changing conditions, he said, parents sustain a favorable, respectful relationship with their children. In other words, parenting is dharma practice. Far from trying to detach ourselves from our children, our relationship with our children is an amazing ground on which we can practice attunement, the gift of creating safety, generosity, aid, and unconditional love. This in turn develops our capacity to feel the same bonds of fellowship for the children of others – and for others as once-children. In the end, we are called to discover the bonds of fellowship we have with all beings.

Leave a comment

Filed under Causes and results, Dukkha, General, Relationships

Understanding dukkha

One useful definition if dukkha is not getting what we want, and getting what we don’t want.

We are constitutionally inclined to want stability, reliability, and predictability, even more than we want pleasure. But all of our experience is characterized by anicca — instability. Everything that we can perceive or know is changing: short-term or long-term, visibly or invisibly, growing or diminishing, blooming or rotting, beginning or ending. Everything in nature, including all of us, our bodies and minds, falls into this category. It is one of the fundamental characteristics of our existence.

Largely because we wish things wouldn’t change in ways we don’t like, dukkha arises in our experience. We may not be aware of the specific cause of our dukkha, which can be frustrating, can make life seem unfair, and can sometimes make us angry or upset. But here’s the opportunity: we can accept and work with life as it is, or we can reject and resist it.

One area in which it’s particularly difficult to discern and accept dukkha is in the realm of love and attachment. In romantic love, feelings are often mercurial, up and down, intense and unpredictable. Love between friends can take many various forms. Love of our parents can be mixed with reservations of all kinds, or can be brightened with admiration and gratitude. Love for our children is probably the strongest and most complicated bond of all, and I’ll address it in the next post.

In our affections, as in most things, we desire stability. And yet all of our relationships are in constant flux; we need flexibility and forgiveness to make them last. If the challenges are accepted as normal events, we may be able to respond more constructively, with less reactivity.

We want our children, friends, parents, siblings, and ourselves to be happy, to be confident and successful (by any definition). These are wishes and feelings that might be directed to anyone and everyone, and when they are offered freely, that is mettā. When we recognize the fluctuations of sukkha and dukkha in our experience, dwelling in and radiating mettā can become a natural state.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Dukkha, General, The 8-fold path

What is dukkha?

A dear friend told me recently that when she heard that the first noble truth was “life is suffering”, she felt that Buddhism couldn’t be for her. This is so common a misunderstanding of the first truth that I feel we need to clarify things; we need to learn how to discuss the Buddha’s teachings in less absolute and more useful terms.

The first truth is: there is dukkha. It’s not “all life is suffering” or “everything stinks”, it’s a recognition that within every aspect of our ongoing experience, there is (at least) a grain of dissatisfaction. The primary way in which our experiences are colored by dukkha is that every moment of our day “could be better”. We are always feeling that if only this or that aspect of what’s happening were different, it would be perfect. Moments of complete satisfaction and joy last only as long as it takes for the thought “I wish this could last forever” to form. Even when we find the perfect physical position to relax into, with no immediate worries and nothing to do, these conditions change (against our wishes). The body wants to adjust itself or something we need to do pops into our head and we get agitated. This is a description of sitting meditation, if you think about it.

So, with respect to the first truth, our instruction is to acknowledge it. If we can recognize these moments of dissatisfaction with the way things are, we can investigate what is causing the dukkha, and possibly find release.

The Pali word dukkha has a very broad meaning that includes more or less everything that we don’t like, from the smallest itch to a major catastrophe. One image associated with the word is a wagon wheel where the axle and hub don’t fit together smoothly, so wherever the cart goes, the ride will be bumpy. Our awareness of dukkha can be when things are going well or badly. There is always some “sand in the gears”, even if it’s something like “I wish person X could be here to enjoy this”.

The opposite of dukkha is sukkha, which includes everything we like, from worldly satisfactions to subtly joyful mindstates. Sometimes we think that sukkha is our birthright and that dukkha is a error, an unacceptable aberration. It’s easier to accept sukkha than dukkha.

If we recognize a moment in which dukkha is apparent, rather than turning away from it, trying to rush past it to something we like better, we can turn inward and investigate. Often just by naming our dissatisfactions, we take some power away from them. When someone else’s behavior annoys or frustrates us, we may be able to work out that their behavior and our reaction to it are two different things. We can’t control their behavior, but we may be able to re-direct our reaction, or at least understand and have compassion for it.

The second truth is the truth of the origin of dukkha. We can simply say that some form of clinging is always at the root of dukkha, but it is more useful to recognize this in our experience. What does dukkha feel like? Is there some way in which we are wishing that things were different from how they are? How strong is that feeling? Where does it resonate in the body? What desire of ours is making this experience uncomfortable?

 

2 Comments

Filed under Dukkha, General, The 8-fold path

Speaking well

From MN 58, translated by Andrew Olendzki:

Such speech one knows to be
untrue, incorrect,
and unbeneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others
—such speech one does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true and correct,
but unbeneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others
—such speech one also does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true, correct,
and beneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others:
—one knows the time
to make use of such speech.

Such speech one knows to be
untrue, incorrect,
and unbeneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others
— such speech one does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true and correct,
but unbeneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others
—such speech one does not utter.

Such speech as one knows to be
true, correct,
and beneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others:
—one knows the time
to make use of such speech.

Why is that?
Because one has compassion for beings.

In sum, we should only say what is true, correct, and beneficial, whether or not it is welcome and agreeable to others. In both of those two cases, we have to gauge the right time to speak; in all other cases, we refrain from speaking, if we are to speak with compassion for other beings.

Interestingly, this sutta includes the case where we might say something untrue or unbeneficial because we feel someone else expects it. This might include letting people think we agree with them by nodding along, even when we know it’s not quite right. We have the option of abstaining; neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

If, to the best of our abilities, we filter our speech for truth and good intentions, we still have to consider whether our words will be welcomed. Even if they’re not welcomed, sometimes it is appropriate to say them. For example, friends could point out inconsistencies to friends, parents should guide their children, teachers strive to find ways to make corrections easy to accept by students.

Andrew Olendzki suggests: Try this out for yourself from time to time as the opportunity arises. Can you catch yourself about to say something untrue, and reflect upon whether it really needs to be said? I don’t think as laypeople we can set for ourselves the task of never saying something incorrect, but we can learn to pay closer attention to what we are saying and perhaps even the motivation behind our saying it. Remember the Buddhists are not as concerned with setting a high standard of always upholding ‘the Truth’, since such an idea is rather abstract and every moment and context is unique, but they are very concerned with investigating carefully our own behaviors and training ourselves to speak with greater integrity.

Andrew puts his finger on the important point – with awareness we can strengthen our integrity as reflected in our speech. We can bring our best intentions and words (and actions) together.

Leave a comment

Filed under Mindfulness, Precepts, Speech