Category Archives: Causes and results

Showing we care

Giving, endearing speech,
beneficent conduct, and impartiality
under diverse worldly conditions,
as is suitable to fit each case:
these means of embracing others
are like the linchpin of a rolling chariot.
– – from AN 4:32, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The title given to this sutta in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, is “Four Means of Embracing Others”. This is how we show others we care, whether they are family members or strangers, participants in a community we are part of or from a group we are suspicious of.

We can think of each of these actions and their opposites to gauge the likely results. When we are generous to others, the mood of the recipients and any others who witness the exchange is likely to be lifted, even if the gift is as simple as a smile. If we send signals that we are protecting what we consider ours, we draw away from others, and they are likely to notice and respond in kind.

Endearing speech is probably the most useful way of neutralizing tension and promoting good will. If our tone of voice carries the clear intention of kindness, it shifts all the conversation in a positive direction. Likewise, if our words are combative or sarcastic, we spread a bad feeling and might cause others to withdraw.

An easy way to practice beneficent conduct is simply to move out of others’ way, whether in a vehicle or on foot. There is an art to creating space for others, and when we practice it, it may not be noticed, but it will have an effect, at least on us. Another type of beneficent conduct is when people help each other out unexpectedly. There were some recent stories in the news of people getting into strife in swift waters and the people nearby forming a human chain to rescue them. Most of us respond when we see others in difficulty, especially if it’s a dramatic situation. But even in mundane ways, we often take up opportunities to be of service to others. We can recognize these moments and appreciate them for the skilful actions they are.

“Impartiality under diverse worldly conditions” – what does that mean? We could think of it as a sense of fairness, of treating others and ourselves as equals. How this is embodied is not always obvious, but it could start with simple politeness.

When these four ways of being are practiced, the wheel of life runs smoothly; and when this linchpin is missing, the wheels are bound to fall off. We can prove this principle in our own lives. No matter what we’re up against, giving, kind speech, respectful conduct and fairness will help set things right.

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Community formation

Monks, it is by way of elements that beings come together and unite: those of a low disposition come together and unite with those of a low disposition. … Monks, it is by way of elements that beings come together and unite: those of a good disposition come together and unite with those of a good disposition. (from SN 14:16, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Further along in Samyutta Nikaya 14 the Buddha says that those having faith will seek each other out and likewise those lacking faith are drawn together (SN 14:17); those who keep the precepts and those who don’t will each unite with similar people in those two groupings (SN 14:25); and those who follow the eight-fold path and those who don’t will naturally congregate in separate communities (SN 14:28). In all of these cases, we are describing intentional communities, not our families or other “natural” groups we have no choice in joining or leaving.

Who we spend our time with is probably the most important decision we can make, day by day. It’s a truism that our choice of a life partner is the most significant factor in our quality of life. If we have a partner who supports our skilful instincts and serves as a check on our baser motives, we have the most important factor working for us. On the other hand, if we are in an abusive relationship at home, it’s hard for anything else to go right.

We don’t choose our extended families, but we can decide how close to stay to them. We can help family members who need it, but we have to recognize when our actions are actually helping and when they’re not. The boundary between supporting and enabling is often hard to discern, but unreserved kindness is never wrong.

When we have children, we take responsibility for creating the most nourishing environment we can for them. We can’t expect them to fulfil our needs or meet our expectations. When children are grown, they may or may not reciprocate by caring for us, but our intentions can’t be transactional; we need to focus on caring for everyone in the household (including ourselves).

Let’s consider how the communities we are part of reflect our aspirations, including if we are not part of any intentional communities at all. Are we spending time with people who seem to hold us back or keep us down? Could we find others who reflect and support our strengths? Could we make time for a regular, wholesome activity where we could interact with people we respect and admire?

Some folks have limited choices, but few are so trapped that they can’t consider moving, looking for a better job, or seeking professional advice or support for making beneficial changes. If there’s no available company around that lifts us up, we may be better off on our own for a time.

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Independent vs. interdependent

From an article titled ” We Walk the Path Together” by Larry Yang in the Summer 2017 issue of Buddhadharma (https://www.lionsroar.com/category/buddhadharma/):

…The current consensus is that nearly every social-psychological phenomenon is culturally dependent.

From this has emerged a description of what might be called two broad cultural archetypes: one that emphasizes, implicitly and/or explicitly, the individual experience, and one that emphasizes, implicitly and/or explicitly, the collective experience. The former has been described as an “independent” cultural modality, and the latter as an “interdependent” cultural modality. It is very interesting that, for the past fifty-plus years, the wisdom teachings of the Buddha have been transmitted from their Asian cultures of origin – “interdependent” cultures – to the largely “independent” cultures of Europe and the United States.

Hearing these modalities described so clearly brings our situation into focus. For people who have adjusted to living in dispersed and sometimes fractured nuclear families, the idea of living contentedly among dozens of relatives may seem unattractive or confusing. Some cultures thrive because of the strength of extended family relationships, though this way of organizing society is not without its problems. If we depend on each other, then we also take responsibility for each other.

We have to live in the culture that we live in. As adults we can choose to live in other cultures (sometimes), but we ignore the cultural norms around us at our peril. If we grew up immersed in a world where individualism was the standard measure of health and success, it’s a big challenge to re-orient ourselves to an interdependent model of family or community. Likewise for people from cultures where family obligations set the expectations, breaking out of that structure can have painful consequences.

Part of the reason Buddhist philosophy seems so foreign to some people is that it comes from a place and time, and is based on a world view, where individualism was inconceivable. Interdependence was so normative as not to be questioned. Within this context, when the Buddha left his extended family, it was a traumatic break. Only after his awakening did he form a community in which others could also practice for awakening in a dedicated way. The community of monks and nuns and laymen and laywomen became a new kind of family. The widely dispersed group of people who are committed practitioners of the Dharma, on any path, form a type of community. We support and depend on each other; we look to each other for inspiration and care for each other.

How important is it to our growth on the path to live in close relationship to others? Only by opening to others, as they are today, does our own understanding deepen. While meditation is mostly a solitary experience, increasing wisdom requires interacting with others.

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Kinds of communities

There are several suttas in the early teachings of the Buddha that address characteristics of intentional communities. They appear to be describing monastic communities, but the dichotomies they name may be useful to the rest of us. Communities may be:

– Shallow or deep
– Divided or harmonious
– Inferior or superior (with respect to effort)
– Ignoble or noble (with respect to wisdom)
– Unrighteous or righteous (with respect to ethical behavior)

Of course these are end-points of spectra, and communities can fall anywhere from one end to the other, but most are somewhere in the middle.

A prior consideration is that many people don’t consider themselves part of any community. Particularly here in Australia, I speculate that many or most people in my area would call themselves “non-joiners”. It’s a fact that the ratio of single-person households is increasing in developed countries. This atomization is one aspect of a decades-long trend in the rise of individualism and the decline of communal life. Intentional communities are a type of social capital; they are among the things that bind our societies together. As with any social trend, there are positives and negatives to individualism and communal life, but let’s agree that neither is best in its extreme form. In order to be part of a community, we need to be willing to set aside some of our own needs and desires to serve a common good.

When we think about the communities that we are part of or that we might consider joining, we can evaluate them using the list above. Is the shared commitment level shallow or deep? Is the community generally fractious or harmonious? Do those in the community put forth effort to advance the cause or purpose? Are there wise leaders or participants? Does the group value truthfulness and kindness? Often we need to check out a group before we commit to it.

Community choirs are having a resurgence in some areas. Unless the leadership is problematic, a choir is a reliable joy-generator. Because singing together is such a wholesome and pleasurable experience, most people are willing to put up with awkward personalities and other inconveniences to participate. Bridge clubs similarly offer a stimulating activity, some (we hope) friendly competition, and an opportunity to keep learning. Sports teams – again, depending on the leadership – can provide fitness and fun.

Faith groups are the most popular communities in many areas, but none of them is perfect. People will often “church-shop” to find a compatible group. Whatever faith or denomination we feel we might fit in, we need to remember that we both affect and are affected by any community we become part of. We can ask ourselves if the purpose and activities appeal to us, and consider what we would like to bring to the effort. How would we like to grow and change as a result of being a part of this particular group?

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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.

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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.

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The right words to the right person

Monks, a talk is wrongly addressed when, having weighed one type of person against another, it is addressed to these five [inappropriate] types of persons. A talk on faith is wrongly addressed to one devoid of faith; a talk on virtuous behavior is wrongly addressed to an immoral person; a talk on learning is wrongly addressed to one of little learning; a talk on generosity is wrongly addressed to a miser; a talk on wisdom is wrongly addressed to an unwise person.

And why is a talk on faith wrongly addressed to one devoid of faith? When a talk on faith is being given, a person devoid of faith loses his temper and becomes irritated, hostile, and stubborn; he displays anger, hatred and bitterness. For what reason? Because he does not perceive that faith in himself and rejoice in it. Therefore a talk on faith is wrongly addressed to a person devoid of faith…[etc. for each of the other wrongly addressed talks, and then the same list in reverse for properly addressed talks on each subject]. – from AN 5:157, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Buddha is making a narrow point here: don’t give the benefit of your wisdom to people who won’t appreciate it; it will only aggravate them. Most of us have had this experience. We say something that we think is obvious and find that the person listening has an opposing point of view; they might even get angry, sparking an argument. This is a matter of discernment. For every view that we hold, we have to assume that others may hold differing views; there is no truly safe topic of conversation. Even if we are praising someone we see as clearly praiseworthy, someone else will object to that characterization.

We can talk about faith, virtuous behavior, learning, generosity, or wisdom, and these are wholesome subjects for discussion, but we must consider whether we are approaching a willing companion in conversation of each of these topics.

We also have the choice of starting every conversation with a complaint, a criticism, or a report of injustice (usually to ourselves). There’s a certain temporary comfort to be found in assuming the posture of a put-upon citizen. But over days and weeks, this becomes tiresome for everyone. Once again, holding to silence may become an appealing option.

We could think of the advice given in this sutta as a corollary to cultivating wholesome companions. With whom could we discuss generosity? Ethical behavior? Learning as a positive virtue? Wise acts? These are the people we might do well to seek out.

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