Category Archives: Causes and results

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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Filed under Causes and results, Compassion, Dukkha, General

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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One Dharma

Suppose there was a pond with clear, agreeable cool water, transparent, with smooth banks, delightful. If a man [or woman], scorched and exhausted by hot weather, weary, parched, and thirsty, came from the east or from the west or from the north or from the south or from where you will, having reached the pond he would quench his thirst and his hot-weather fever. So, too, if anyone from a clan of khattiyas [warrior and rulers] goes forth from the home life into homelessness, or from a clan of brahmins [priests or teachers] or a clan of vessas [farmers and merchants] or a  clan of suddas [laborers], and after encountering the Dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata [the Buddha], he develops loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity, and thereby gains internal peace, then because of that internal peace he practices the way proper to the ascetic, I say. (from MN40, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The purpose of joining the community of those following the Buddha’s path is to develop the qualities that can free us from greed, hatred, and delusion. As one friend said recently, “I just want to stop being at war with myself.” Once we recognize that there’s a need to train ourselves to develop internal peace, we are on the way.

The lovely sutta above makes the point that if we are walking the same path, trying to move towards a common goal, then it doesn’t matter where we came from. Class, color, ethnicity, age, gender, education, and all the other things that can divide us may be set aside if our goal is important enough.

The image of a cool and inviting place to drink water when we are desperate for it is an apt description of our existential situation. We suffer, and there is relief (the Buddha’s first and second truths). Sometimes we are fooled into thinking that if only the external conditions of our life were different and better, we wouldn’t suffer. If only our partners/families/friends understood us better, treated us with more respect, loved us more, then everything would be OK. If only life weren’t sometimes hard…but it sometimes is very hard. Often enough we make it hard with our unreasonable demands and desires for things and people to be other than how they are.

The first step on the path is to acknowledge that life includes getting what we don’t want, and not getting what we do want. What are we going to do about it? Can we look inward and see that the path of escape from suffering is contained there? If yes, then we join with many, many others in using the Buddha’s path as our guide and applying ourselves to the journey.

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Conditions for harmony

In AN 7:23 the Buddha outlines seven principles of non-decline in communities. There is a similar list in AN 7:21, addressed to a group of laypeople called the Licchavis (of the Vajjian confederation). Items five through seven address issues specific to lay and monastic communities, but the first two are identical (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation):

“As long as the monks (Vajjis) assemble often and hold frequent assemblies, only growth is to be expected for them, not decline.

As long as the monks (Vajjis) assemble in harmony, adjourn in harmony, and conduct the affairs of the Sangha (Vajjis) in harmony, only growth is to be expected for them, not decline.”

The fact that meeting frequently is the first item mentioned sets it as the basis on which communities thrive. The less frequently people meet together, the more likely it is for misunderstandings and resentments to grow. Meeting face to face encourages us to practice respect and kindness, which are sometimes sacrificed in on-line communications or when we’re behind the wheel of a vehicle.

In the second principle the stakes are raised: to assemble in harmony, adjourn in harmony, and conduct the affairs of the group in harmony. To do this, there must be a commitment on everyone’s part to practice respect and politeness when meeting. This commitment has to be explicit to overcome our natural tendency to argue with each other and object to ideas not our own.

These are simple guidelines that can make a profound difference in our actions. Recently, I fired off a sarcastic email to a reporter who I thought had failed to maintain his own journalistic standards. Surprisingly, he responded. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t impressed. I realized (too late) that I had written in haste, used a negative tone in expressing my irritation, AND that if I’d been speaking with the reporter in person, I would have taken an entirely different approach. I deeply regretted that I’d created unnecessary bad feeling for the reporter and myself, and have reflected on the process that caused the action. In a fit of righteous indignation, instead of considering whether I would use these words if I were speaking to the reporter in person, I just went ahead and sent the email. I felt sure that it would be ignored, which might have helped unleash my negative energy. After I saw and thought about the response, I was troubled by remorse and have written again to apologize and explain what I hoped for.

If we want to bring peace to the world and to ourselves, we can start with treating people in our communities with respect and kindness. We can also take the same care and extend the same consideration to others not in our physical presence.

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Filed under Causes and results, General, Patience, Relationships

How to get along with each other

From AN 10:50, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

… Monks, it is not suitable for you clansmen who have gone forth out of faith from the household life into homelessness to take to arguing and quarreling and to fall into a dispute, stabbing each other with piercing words. 

There are monks, these ten principles of cordiality that create affection and respect and conduce to cohesiveness, to non-dispute, to concord, and to unity. What ten?

  1. Here a monk is virtuous..
  2. Again, a monk has learned much, remembers what he has learned, and accumulates what he has learned…
  3. Again, a monk has good friends, good companions, good comrades….
  4. Again, a monk is easy to correct and possesses qualities that make him easy to correct; he is patient and receives instruction respectfully….
  5. Again, a monk is skillful and diligent in attending to the diverse chores that are to be done for his fellow monks;….
  6. Again, a monk loves the Dhamma and is pleasing in his assertions, filled with a lofty joy pertaining to the Dhamma and discipline….
  7. Again, a monk has aroused energy for abandoning unwholesome qualities and acquiring wholesome qualities; he is strong, firm in exertion, not casting off the duty of cultivating wholesome qualities….
  8. Again, a monk is content with any kind of robe, almsfood, lodging, and medicines and provisions for the sick. [I.e., content with simple necessities]…
  9. Again, a monk is mindful, possessing supreme mindfulness and alertness, …
  10. Again, a monk is wise; he possesses the wisdom that discerns arising and passing away, which is noble and penetrative and leads to the complete destruction of suffering….

This seems to me a comprehensive and useful list of qualities that would make members of a community get along with each other – or, if they hold the opposing views and behaviors, not.

A few adjustments to the language might be useful to encourage our use of these guidelines. We could substitute the word “practitioner” for monk, meaning simply an individual who is part of a community that intends to live in cooperation. “Loving the Dhamma” describes a dedication to shared goals.

Items 9 and 10 imply a mature wisdom, which takes time and dedication to embody, so we could use those as aspirations rather than berating ourself for failing to have extraordinary accomplishments.

In sum, these are the qualities we might look for, in ourselves and in others, as descriptors of good companions:

  1. Ethical behavior
  2. Learned
  3. Having wholesome associates
  4. Willing to learn/be taught
  5. Doesn’t shirk duties or one’s fair share of work
  6. Joyful
  7. Dedicated to refining one’s behavior
  8. Contented with little in the way of material goods
  9. Mindful
  10. Wise

Which of these qualities do we possess in better-than-average measure? Are there any that are conspicuously absent? As we think of our friends and associates, which of these qualities can we admire and be grateful for in them? Which missing items can we notice but decide to overlook or bring to their attention (at the right time)? Would we welcome shared reflections on these aspects of our own behavior?

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