Category Archives: Causes and results

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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Listening to ourselves

By studying how to create harmony in our homes and communities, we are also learning to generate harmony within ourselves. If we forego using harsh speech with others on a regular basis, our own internal speech is likely to become less harsh. If we set the intention to address others with compassion, we may remember to include ourselves in the circle of those deserving of compassion.

How can we improving our ability to create harmony through skillful speech? We can identify any patterns in our own speech that cause friction with others. Most of us have some characteristic (possibly more than one) that others find aggravating, and sometimes we can be quite unaware of it (them).

 

Once we’re aware of our particular flaw, we can start to correct for it by catching ourselves when we exhibit that behavior.  We can learn to keep silent when the specific “alarm bell” rings alerting us that we’re about to react without thinking. When we fail in our intention, we can apologize and ask for forgiveness. But until we become aware of how we step on others’ toes, we are just stomping around creating problems wherever we go.

To discover how we might become more harmonious with the people we’d like to have as friends, we have to start by listening to ourselves – not just to our words, but to our tone of voice and the intention behind the way we present ourselves.  We also need to observe how our words and actions affect those around us. Do other people listen intently when we speak? Do they come closer or move away? How does the expression on their face change? This isn’t a quick glance, but an ongoing study of how we are affecting those around us moment by moment. We shouldn’t try to make everyone happy all the time, but we can become aware of what dynamic is occurring when we interact with others. If people we respect are responding to us in ways that indicate something less than appreciation, we may need to do a deeper investigation.

If we have a trusted friend with whom we can discuss this sensitive topic, we can find the right time and ask for advice. Sometimes we already have a pretty good idea of which of our habits are displeasing to others, but often we don’t understand why. Only by fearless self-inquiry, with or without the help of a friend, will a clear picture emerge.

Of course, some of us may be free of flaws and generating harmony wherever we go – um, possibly –  but just in case, some reflection is in order.

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What to say?

One of the distinctive traits of human beings which differentiates them from animals, is their capacity for speech. Words can create enmity or friendship, can win or harden hearts, can deceive others or open them to new pathways of understanding. [The opening of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to chapter “Proper Speech” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony.]

Mindfulness of our speech is a limitless field for learning. We are speaking animals, and our talking often continues internally when it stops externally.  One benefit of pursuing an examination of our speech is that we can hear our silences as well as our words.

Monks, when speech possesses five factors, it is well spoken, not badly spoken, and it is blameless and irreproachable among the wise. What five? It is spoken at the proper time; what is said is true; it is spoken gently; what is said is beneficial; it is spoken with a mind of loving-kindness. When speech possesses these five factors, it is well spoken, not badly spoken, and it is blameless and irreproachable among the wise. – AN 5:198, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

It would be very challenging to pass these five tests each time we open our mouths: Is it the proper time? Is it true? Are we speaking gently? Is it beneficial? And are we speaking with a mind of loving-kindness? It could be awkward to take the time to review these questions before every time we speak. A short-cut may be to prepare by using the last instruction as a general checkpoint. Anything that is said carelessly or in anger will fail the test of being spoken with a mind of loving-kindness. If, when we are about to speak, we use the time it takes to breathe in to check our intention, we may be able to avoid saying something we regret. It is better to not respond “in rhythm”, to allow an unexpected silence, rather than to speak with a negative intention, or to speak without thinking at all.

Speaking off the top of our heads can cause misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Interrupting is almost never “at the proper time”. Even if we feel we are speaking from the heart, it’s important to consider the situation and the listener(s). This will be for our own benefit as well as that of others.

How can we approach the intention to speak well, as described above, as a practice? First, we need to listen to ourselves. It may also help to listen to others, to compare their speaking habits to our own. Some people seem to have difficulty not speaking, even when they should be silent. Others will express their personalities almost every time they speak, for good or ill. What are our characteristics in speaking?

We might focus on truthfulness, or timeliness, or checking for the intention of loving-kindness. Undertaking one of these qualities at a time may make our progress more discernible. Considering silence as a option can also be helpful in many situations.

 

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An anger-eating demon

There is a curious sutta in which an unnamed, deformed demon challenges the followers of Sakka, the ruler of the devas, by brazenly taking Sakka’s seat. As Sakka’s subjects revile the demon, he becomes visibly less ugly and more attractive. How can this be? They report this strange phenomenon to Sakka, that an “anger-eating demon” has claimed his throne. So, Sakka kneels before the demon, presses his palms together in salutation and says, “I, dear sir, am Sakka, ruler of the devas!” Sakka repeats this phrase another two times and each time, the demon becomes visibly more deformed and ugly and then disappears. Sakka re-takes his seat and says:

“I am not one afflicted in mind,
nor easily drawn by anger’s whirl.
I never become angry for long,
nor does anger persist in me.

“When I’m angry I don’t speak harshly
and I don’t praise my virtues.
I keep myself well restrained
out of regard for my own good.”
— the full sutta is here: https://suttacentral.net/en/sn11.22

It’s almost as if the anger-eating demon is an embodiment of a negative quality, and clearly stating the present reality dissipates the “bogey man’s” power. It could be a parallel to when the Buddha is confronted by Mara, the embodiment of delusion, and simply says, “I see you, Mara”, which makes Mara withdraw.

An Australian artist named Sebastian Moody has produced a number of public works. One of them is displayed in an underpass I often drive through:

the-more-i-think-about-it-the-bigger-it-gets-1.png

Don’t we all experience this? If we are worried about something and keep on worrying, doesn’t it grow until it clouds our mental state? If we are planning a happy event and obsessing over the details, don’t we lose perspective? If we go over something (anything) in our minds again and again, doesn’t it become distorted?

Because Sakka is not prone to anger and not vulnerable to the worries of his followers, he is able to see clearly how to bring things back to reality.

The mindfulness technique of naming what is true right now, in a flow, can help us stay in balance.  For example: “tension in the stomach”, “feet on the earth”, “this in-breath”, “this out-breath”, “cool air on the skin”, “slumped posture”, “tense jaw”, etc. By taking this inventory of our direct physical experience as we become aware of it, we can interrupt the flights of fancy that take us out of our present reality. It could be as simple as noting “this body is sitting/standing/walking”, and experiencing that fully.

Another available technique is to shift our attention to the space we are moving through – not the apparently solid objects but the empty space in which everything we can experience exists.

Our minds are difficult to tame. All we can do is accept the challenge and persist in developing mindfulness of the body, feeling, mental states, and phenomena as we perceive them.

 

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Filed under Anger, Causes and results, Mindfulness, Patience

Mindfulness tips

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming (more on anger in upcoming posts) to provide some practical tips on how to bring mindfulness to bear when difficult states of mind – including worry, anger, and anxiety – come up.

This seven-slide set titled “How to Stop Worrying” appeared in an on-line newsletter called Next Avenue, which is offered by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the USA and targets an over-50 audience.

Regardless of your age, I hope you find the link helpful (please ignore the final slide):

http://www.nextavenue.org/slideshow/how-to-stop-worrying/

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Anger

Among the mental defilements disruptive to social harmony, probably the most pernicious is anger. Since virtually all communities, including Buddhist monasteries, consist of people still prone to egotistical desires, they are in constant danger of being riven by anger, resentment, and vindictiveness among their members. For this reason, the control of anger is critical to communal harmony. The Buddha recognizes that while giving vent to anger brings a certain degree of satisfaction, he points out that angry outbursts ultimately bounce back upon oneself, entailing direct harm for oneself and entangling one in conflict with others. Hence…he describes anger as having a “poisoned root and a honeyed tip.”

– from the Introduction to chapter “Dealing with Anger” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Is there no safe haven from anger? Probably not from other peoples’ anger, but perhaps we can start with our own.

In our everyday life, what are the things that annoy or anger us? Recently I learned that, for a number of family members, traffic lights (while driving) can stimulate powerful anger. We talked about the fact that having this reaction guarantees that every time we get into a car we’ll become irate. We could all see that this was unhelpful and probably bad for our immune systems, but NOT getting angry seemed a remote possibility.

Later, sitting in very slow traffic, I felt frustration rising. Then I thought, “Exactly which one of these drivers in front of me am I angry at?” Everyone I could see was also stuck in the traffic jam, and was probably feeling some degree of frustration. There was no one to blame; everyone on the scene was deserving of compassion, including me. The anger that had been leaking into my body subsided. I recognised this as a breakthrough in patience.

There’s an old tale of a couple of people in a small boat at night. They navigate carefully through a narrow passageway and become aware of another small boat coming towards them. Since it’s nighttime, all they can see is a dim light in the bow of the other boat. As the second boat approaches, the passengers in the first boat call out – “Hey there!” When they get no response, they call more loudly, more insistently, more angrily. Finally, the boats meet and gently bump into each other, and the passengers see that the other boat is empty. They were furious with someone who wasn’t there. This seems an apt analogy for many of our experiences of anger. There’s no one there trying to harm us and no one to blame. Perhaps if we can remember this feature of experience we’ll spend less of our time fuming.

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What’s mine? What’s yours?

Further to our reflections on ethical behavior, the second of the five precepts is: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.”

Different ways to transgress the second precept are (1) stealing (secretly taking what is not given), (2) robbery (taking what is not given by force), (3) fraudulence (laying false claims or telling lies in order to gain someone else’s possessions), and (4) deceit (using deceptive means to deprive someone of an article or to gain his money).

(from an essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi – http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/wheel282.html#prec2)

Most of us wouldn’t admit to doing any of these things, even in subtle ways, but it can still be a useful self-inquiry. Have we ever included misleading information on an application for a loan or a job? Do we help ourselves to whatever is available at work? If transport or other services use the “honor system”, do we abuse that? Are (possibly mild) forms of fraudulence or deceit required by our work?

By becoming conscious of the second precept we invite a specific type of mindfulness, a careful scrutiny of our own intentions and behavior. We can sharpen our perception of what others consider theirs and where the boundaries are. An awareness of our desire to have what others have can be brought into focus, and we might strengthen and refine our honesty. It could also give us confidence in maintaining an upright form of livelihood.

We are beset by desirable images that stimulate our greed. This is not stealing, but it may be the root motivation that could make taking what is not given seem reasonable. Keeping the second precept in mind might help us to check our greed by ringing the alarm when we notice it, allowing us to let the feeling pass without acting on it. Every time we do this, the greedy root is weakened.

All three of the unwholesome roots may be at work motivating a person to break the second precept. Greed or hatred can suffice, but must be accompanied by delusion if we think it’s OK to take what’s not ours.

We can also counter any impulse we might feel in this direction with acts of generosity. When we offer food, material goods, time, or friendship, we are opening our hearts to others; we are giving so others may freely accept our offerings. And generosity often inspires more generosity, in ourselves and others.

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