Category Archives: General

Our relationships

Following along in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, we move our focus now from intentional communities to “natural” communities. These start with family and extend outward to all the other relationships in our lives.

The Sigalovada Sutta (quoted below) is the most detailed outline in the Pali canon for how we can interact with everyone in a beneficial way, from our nearest and dearest to the random encounter. On my home page, the tab labeled “Relationships” provides a longer analysis of the main points of the sutta. A full translation can be found here: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.31.0.ksw0.html

And how, young man, does the noble disciple protect the six directions? These six things are to be regarded as the six directions. The east denotes mother and father. The south denotes teachers. The west denotes wife and children. The north denotes friends and companions. The nadir denotes servants, workers, and helpers. The zenith denotes ascetics and brahmins.

There are five ways in which a son should minister to his mother and father as the eastern direction. [He should think:] ‘Having been supported by them, I will support them. I will perform their duties for them. I will keep up the family tradition. I will be worthy of my heritage. After my parents’ deaths I will distribute gifts on their behalf.’ And there are five ways in which the parents, so ministered to by their son as the eastern direction, will reciprocate: they will restrain him from evil, support him in doing good, teach him some skill, find him a suitable wife, and, in due time, hand over his inheritance to him. In this way the eastern direction is covered, making it secure and free from peril. (from DN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The eastern direction is where the sun rises, everywhere on earth, so by analogy, all of our lives begin from and with our parents. They are our first relationships, for better or worse. We can’t be sure, but it is likely that in the Buddha’s time and place, extended families generally stayed geographically and emotionally closer than many families do today. This may complicate the instructions, but doesn’t invalidate them.

Also please note that in ancient India, when women married they joined their husbands’ families, leaving their own behind. In most modern cultures, this is not the case, so we have to adjust our understanding of the sutta to make it useful to ourselves.

We have responsibilities to our parents and they have responsibilities to us. It is easy to visualize ideal parents and children and also dysfunctional ones. We each only have to deal with the parents we’ve got. If it happens that the parental figures in our lives are not our biological parents, the same responsibilities apply. Generally, we look after each other as appropriate at different times. Safety, security, and nourishment are sought on childrens’ behalf by parents in the early years. Often as parents age, responsibilities are shared, and then (at least partly) assumed by the children if the parents live into old age.

Respect, kindness, and compassion are what children owe parents, and parents owe children. We try to live in a way that is both truthful and harmonious, seeking growth and comfort for ourselves and each other.

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Filed under Compassion, Friendships, General, Precepts, Relationships

Counterproductive instincts

In the last post, one outmoded survival instinct was noted: self-preservation that sometimes appears as ego sensitivity. A couple of years back, a very wise letter appeared in the New Yorker magazine in response to a previous issue’s article on A.I. (artificial intelligence).

A letter in the December 21 & 28, 2015 issue of the New Yorker (retyped in full):

In the Katchadourian piece, a scientist claims that A.I. [artificial intelligence] could resolve climate change, disease, and poverty in ways beyond human capacity. But these systemic problems are not only the result of a lack of intelligence or resources or logistics. There is plenty of food, money, and even plain old human intelligence devoted to confronting these problems. What we don’t have is the ability to overcome outmoded and counterproductive evolutionary survival urges: hoarding against famine becomes greed, self-protection becomes aggression, alertness to danger becomes xenophobic fear, the reproductive imperative for survival becomes overpopulation. Expecting A.I. to solve all of this for us is asking for it to outsmart us. The alternative is fostering human intelligence globally, allowing people to understand, acknowledge, and temper their behavior. Will that take five hundred years? Do we have that much time?

Paul Farrell, Cambridge, Mass.

The writer questions whether computing power can somehow supersede our own lack of understanding. We don’t know the answer, but we do know, and I think the letter-writer implies, that training in mindfulness can help us become aware of inappropriate reactions and can allow us to “temper our behavior”, perhaps not on a global scale, but at least on a personal and possibly community scale.

When the problem before us seems overwhelming, one way to proceed is to break it down into its component parts. Can we quickly foster human intelligence world-wide? No, but can we cultivate our own intelligence? Yes. I would argue that many people across the world are attempting to do just that through taking up a variety of meditative practices. Schools and prisons seem to be leading the way in group training and practice, and there are many opportunities through community centers, churches, etc. to be trained in basic mindfulness techniques. Excellent written and on-line resources are also available, many of them at no cost.

I offer this 6 minute video by Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence and a new book, with Richard J. Davidson, called Altered Traits [I haven’t read the new one]).

http://bigthink.com/videos/daniel-goleman-how-10-minutes-of-meditation-can-reshape-your-mind

Dr. Goleman makes the excellent point that if a classroom full of children with learning difficulties can benefit from 10-minute mindfulness sessions two or three times a day, then the rest of us can, too. Of course, training our attention is not a panacea, but it is a good start. As with anything worth doing, the first step is the hardest one. I encourage you to begin a practice that suits you and is effective for you, and if you’ve already started one, keep on going. Do it for yourself and for the welfare of our planet.

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Filed under Causes and results, Compassion, General, Mindfulness

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

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