Category Archives: Harmlessness

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.



Filed under Causes and results, General, Harmlessness, Mindfulness, The 8-fold path

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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Filed under Causes and results, Friendships, General, Generosity, Harmlessness, Relationships, Speech

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.

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Filed under Friendships, General, Harmlessness, Relationships

Not my anger

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Rājagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrel Sanctuary. The brahmin Akkosaka Bhāradvāja, Bhāradvāja the Abusive, heard: “It is said that another brahmin of the Bhāradvāja clan has gone forth from the household life into homelessness under the ascetic Gotama.” Angry and displeased, he approached the Blessed One and abused and reviled him with rude, harsh words.

When he had finished speaking, the Blessed One said to him: “What do you think, brahmin? Do your friends and colleagues, kinsmen and relatives, as well as guests come to visit you?” – “They do, Master Gotama.” – “Do you then offer them some food or a meal or a snack?” – “I do, Master Gotama.” – “But if they do not accept it from you, then to whom does the food belong?” – “If they do not accept it from me, then the food still belongs to us.”

“So too, brahmin, I do not abuse anyone, do not scold anyone, do not rail against anyone. I refuse to accept from you the abuse and scolding and tirade you let loose at me. It still belongs to you, brahmin! It still belongs to you, brahmin!

“Brahmin, one who abuses his own abuser, who scolds the one who scolds him, who rails against the one who rails at him – he is said to partake of the meal, to enter upon an exchange. But I do not partake of your meal; I do not enter upon an exchange. It still belongs to you, brahmin! It still belongs to you, brahmin!” (SN 7:2, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

This is a well-known sutta, probably because it is so often relevant. The question is, can we remember this story when we feel like engaging angrily with an angry person? It can be a mighty challenge.

If we stand back and observe from a distance, an angry person looks deranged. They are in the grip of an emotion that is overpowering their reason and their judgment; they can’t see the consequences of their actions. A wise person will not engage directly with someone in that state.

What quality in us makes it so difficult to allow another person to spew their anger and not have our own anger aroused? We can feel as if we’re being attacked, as if a war has already begun and we must stand and fight. Some of us are so sensitive that even an imagined slight, someone failing to say “Good morning”, can set us off. Others of us can handle anger directed at ourselves but explode if we think someone we care about is being treated unfairly.

What can we do? Best would be to understand that others’ anger belongs to them and that we can choose whether to respond in kind or to take another path of action. For this to be so, we would need to know what our triggers are and try to correct for them when necessary. Can we raise our self-awareness to this level when under duress?


Filed under Anger, Harmlessness, Mindfulness, Patience, Perfections, Speech

Protecting ourselves and others

‘I will protect myself’: thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practiced. ‘I will protect others’: thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practiced. Protecting oneself, one protects others; protecting others, one protects oneself.

And how is it, monks, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation [of the four establishments of mindfulness]. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

And how is it, monks, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, loving-kindness, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.

‘I will protect myself’: thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practiced. ‘I will protect others’: thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practiced. Protecting oneself, one protects others; protecting others, one protects oneself. (from SN47:19, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

We’ve been thinking about how social and communal harmony come to be, and addressing the factors that WE can bring to bear to support and promote harmony. Safety is an important element of harmony; without safety, there is no peace. If we feel confident that we’re doing all we can to create safe spaces wherever we go, we can be contented with our actions.

The establishments of mindfulness are sometimes called the four foundations of mindfulness. They describe a system of directing our mindful attention inward, to (1) our bodies, (2) our feelings, (3) our mind states, and (4) dhammas (phenomena) or what we see going on around us. As part of these reflections, we also notice these four things about others and can see that as it is for them, so it is for us, and vice versa. Sometimes each of us is affected by bodily comfort or discomfort, painful or happy feelings, confused or clear mind states, and points of view that are helpful or unhelpful.  By cultivating these mindful reflections, our understanding matures and we become more naturally inclined to be kind to ourselves and others.

The third section refers to patience, harmlessness, loving-kindness, and sympathy as ways to protect others and thereby protect ourselves. This list is similar to, but not exactly the same as, the list of brahmaviharas or divine (mental) states. By developing an increasingly sustained mindfulness, we are deepening our patience and extending our loving-kindness and sympathy to an ever-widening circle of beings, all of which inclines us to avoid harmful behaviors.

The lines quoted above from the Samyutta Nikaya can serve as a motivating factor. We could remind ourselves repeatedly: “By protecting ourselves, we protect others. By protecting others, we protect ourselves.” Any other practices we might do could fall under this umbrella.

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Filed under General, Harmlessness, Mindfulness, Patience, Sublime states

Knowing what we’re doing

In MN 61, the Buddha instructs his young son, a monk, to reflect on his own wholesome and unwholesome actions. He recommends that this reflection be done before taking action, while taking action, and after taking action:

Also, Rahula, while you are doing an action with the body, you should reflect upon that same bodily action thus: ‘Does this action that I am doing with the body lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both? Is it an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences, with painful results?’ When you reflect, if you know: ‘This action that I am doing with the body leads to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both; it is an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences, with painful results,’ then you should suspend such a bodily action. But when you reflect, if you know: ‘This action that I am doing with the body does not lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both; it is a wholesome bodily action with pleasant consequences, with pleasant results,’ then you may continue in such a bodily action. (translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

In later posts we’ll get into some particulars of wholesome and unwholesome actions, but this sutta suggests an a priori requirement – reflection. It can make the difference between carelessly repeating habitual patterns vs. training our bodies and minds to see ourselves and others in a new way. Rather than viewing other people as obstacles to our desires, or reminders of our inadequacies, or as insignificant, we can start to see that we’re all in the same situation. We all want to live peacefully and happily, without stress or conflict, and we all try, sometimes in misguided ways, to get what we want. What we forget is that when our motivation is to get something for ourselves by excluding or rejecting others, or ignoring our fundamental equality with them, it cannot improve our situation. Clinging, in all of its various forms, can only create suffering.

A special case of unwholesome clinging is “us vs. them” thinking. Unless we try to understand where other people are coming from, we’ll only move further apart.

On the other hand, if we broaden the scope of our intentions to include ourselves and others, we may discover ways to bring joy, or resolution, or release, to all concerned. When we let go of our greedy, me-centered framework, a whole range of possible actions may become apparent.

The key is to notice what we’re doing, ideally before we act, or while we are in the process of doing something. A dharma friend once said to me, “Listen to yourself!” That would be a good start, but we could broaden the instruction to “Observe your intentions and actions.” If we observe ourselves closely as we go about our daily business we will see when our actions are motivated by selfishness and when they are motivated by generosity and beneficial intentions.

Failing that, we can recognize the discomfort that comes afterwards if we know we’ve done something harmful, and the pleasant feeling of having done something beneficial. An after-the-fact assessment can sometimes cut through habitual thinking and provide the opportunity to re-frame a situation.

We can always return to this starting point – we can watch what we’re doing, with care.

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Filed under Causes and results, General, Harmlessness, Relationships, Speech

An open letter

This is a guest post. The author is a dear Dharma friend, a long-time practitioner and leader, Lloyd. His letter (below) is in response to a proposal recommending actions that Dharma communities and followers might take in response to the political turmoil in the USA post-election.

Dear Friends:

It’s clear that David’s sangha member is well intended in his suggestion, and I fully agree with the need for Insight Meditation sanghas around the country to be ready to more publicly witness our core values and take non-dual social action when it seems wise and needed.  Healing must begin, and we should certainly be a visible part of it.

However, there seem to be some assumptions imbedded in this particular suggestion that for me are a little problematic.  The first is that the sanghas are uniformly and monolithically politically progressive.  This is not necessarily the case at the Insight Meditation Community of Denver.  In addition to being at least a little bit ethnically diverse and a little more with regard to age, we are also at least somewhat politically diverse, including some libertarians and others I’m pretty sure may have voted for Mr. Trump.  My/our goal at the sangha is to make sure it’s a safe space for everyone, including those who do not necessarily regard themselves as politically progressive.

The second, related problem I have with the suggestion is that it assumes an “otherness” of those people who are unlike “us”.  As members of our sangha help those facing food emergencies, homeless vets, and others in need, I don’t know whether it’s occurred to us to wonder how those we are helping voted in the election, if they voted at all.  Chances are that a good many of them who did vote voted to blow up the system, which is what Mr. Trump promised to do.

For that reason, in our sangha we don’t dwell much on political positions or views in our talks and discussions, although we do stay keenly focused on issues of human rights, and on helping those most in need.  Personally, I think the most important form of witnessing Insight Meditation sanghas can do at this point in time is to stand up for and stand with those who are suddenly quite vulnerable in our society.  And one important way to do this is to come into alliance with other faith communities in other religious traditions.

For instance, a few months ago when there were bomb threats and some vandalism at the Colorado Muslim Society compound, faith communities joined together to form a symbolic protective cordon around their mosque, as a means of signaling that we are with them.  And the UU church where we meet and to which we contribute dana [financial gifts] periodically provided sanctuary for several months to a Mexican immigrant who’d lived in the US for years, and was about to be torn from his family and forcibly deported without adequate due process.

I don’t think we should assume that everyone who voted for Trump shares his bigoted views of ethnic and religious minority groups.  We might in fact eventually find that there is some common ground on human rights issues.

A few weeks after the Democratic National Convention, I heard an interview on NPR with Khazir Khan, the Muslim American immigrant whose Army officer son died protecting his troops in Afghanistan, and who gave such a powerful speech at the convention.  The interviewer asked him if he knew that he and his wife would be subjected to the kind of backlash they suffered after his speech, from insults by candidate Trump himself to death threats and vicious hate speech.  He said he did, and then he added this: “At the end of my life, when I stand before my Maker, I need to be able to say that when the time came, I chose to comfort the frightened heart”.

As Buddha Dharma sanghas, in my view some of the most important work we can do going forward into an uncertain and perhaps politically dangerous future is to comfort the frightened heart of the most vulnerable among us.  It is not easy work, and sometimes requires more than a little courage.  And in my experience both as a combat veteran and spiritual seeker, courage is not an absence of fear (which is fearlessness).  Courage is reposing in faith and equanimity in the presence of fear.


Filed under Compassion, General, Harmlessness, Relationships