Category Archives: Harmlessness

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

Overcoming obstacles to mettā

We’ve been thinking about this marvellous quality, accessible and natural to all of us, mettā. We’ve noticed that it may be present at unpredictable times and places, and wondered how to cultivate it in our daily lives. Once again, Ajahn Sucitto has some wise words to guide us:

The ability to generate mettā [unbounded kindness] depends on both willingness and capacity. These may be in short supply. Those who have experienced sustained abuse can find it very difficult to experience kindness for themselves or for others; those who have not had the secure presence of goodwill can be subject to the insecurity that leads to attachment to views and becoming. Our capacity can also be limited by how we’re being affected in the present. Although conditions are always changing, when the mind is affected by visitors such as fear, worry, guilt and passion, it easily becomes fixed in that state. If the visitor is anger, then the mind becomes bristling and volcanic. If the visitor is remorse or guilt, the mind becomes an eddy that chases itself and sinks down. So we need to develop strengths and skills to stop being overwhelmed by these fixating forces.

Here’s where the pāramīs or perfections support each other. The first three perfections (generosity, morality, and renunciation) make well-being possible, because practicing them generates self-respect and confidence. An emotional brightness can gradually replace whatever ruts we’ve gotten into. It’s not an instant fix, but it is a reliable way to undermine destructive tendencies we may be carrying. So we can always begin again by committing to generosity, morality and renunciation, in whatever situation we find ourselves.

While we’re building our capacity for generosity, morality and renunciation, our best friends are patience, truthfulness, and kindness (mettā). Patience is essential to uncover and examine our internal obstacles. We can attribute our problems to any cause we like, in ourselves or in others or in our fates, but that doesn’t help us escape or transcend them. It’s the resolve to keep looking, especially at the self-other boundary, calmly and persistently, until a new understanding dawns that shows us the way out of our personal traps.

Mettā “is not about conjuring up any great feelings of emotional warmth, but a process of staying in touch, of not blaming oneself or others, and of not going into the past to rehash old issues. The ‘staying at’ that point of the hurt, ill-will and pain then begins to carry the awareness across to compassion and transpersonal wisdom.” (Ajahn Sucitt0). We can’t make mettā happen, but we can create the conditions for letting go to happen. And where there’s letting go, mettā naturally follows.

Dāna pāramī : generosity, giving of oneself
Sīla pāramī :
virtue, morality, proper conduct
Nekkhamma pāramī :
renunciation, letting go
Paññā pāramī :
transcendental wisdom, insight
Viriya pāramī :
energy, diligence, vigour, effort
Khanti pāramī :
patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
Sacca pāramī :
truthfulness, honesty, integrity
Adhiṭṭhāna pāramī :
determination, resolution
Mettā pāramī :
Upekkhā pāramī :
equanimity, serenity



Filed under Causes and results, Generosity, Harmlessness, Patience, Perfections, Sublime states

Sex and culture

From David Brook’s NY Times column titled “Let’s Have a Better Culture War”:

“If public life were truly infused with the sense that people have souls, we would educate young people to have vocations and not just careers. We would comfortably tell them that sex is a fusion of loving souls and not just a physical act. We’d celebrate marriage as a covenantal bond. We’d understand that citizenship is a covenant, too, and we have a duty to feel connected to those who disagree with us.”…

…”If we talked as if people had souls, then we’d have a thick [not shallow] view of what is at stake in everyday activities. The soul can be elevated and degraded at every second, even when you’re alone not hurting anybody. Each thought or act etches a new line into the core piece of oneself.”

The full column is here:

There are so many ways to talk about the Buddha’s third precept. We can broaden it to include any harmful use of our senses, to compulsions of all kinds. But in the Pali canon, when the Buddha talks about refraining from sexual misconduct, it’s very specific to types of harm that we do with our sexuality. All of the references in the canon are to men, but things have changed a good deal in the ensuing two and a half millennia. Turns out that women are every bit as capable of sexual cruelty as men. Rather than pointing fingers or playing the “who’s more of a victim” game, let’s look at why we should pay attention to how we think about and behave with each other.

Over the past fifty years in our culture, sex has changed from an unmentionable to an omnipresent consumable. The internet has made pornography many times more available than it was in print form. Electronic connectivity makes it much more difficult to shield even the very young from what used to be called “inappropriate content”. In this environment, it is hard to maintain a healthy attitude towards sexuality. It must be acknowledged that it is hardest for younger people, who have no memory of a time when explicit sexual images had to be sought out and were not forced upon us all.

But here we are. What to do? We must come back to ourselves, to the understanding that what we think, say, and do matters greatly, for others and for ourselves. As David Brooks says above, “The soul can be elevated and degraded at every second, even when you’re alone not hurting anybody. Each thought or act etches a new line into the core piece of oneself.” This is in accord with the Buddha’s (and others’) teachings that each act of body, speech, and mind is like an oar in the water, directing our canoe into calmer or more turbulent streams.

If we take ourselves seriously enough to adopt a moral code that prevents our harming  ourselves or others with our sexuality, we will have a reliable guide. We will refrain from hurting, controlling, belittling or in any way causing pain to other beings and ourselves. It is always possible (though sometimes difficult) to choose the non-harming word or action. When a sexual relationship is a confirmation of a committed and wholesome partnership, we will enjoy the rich rewards of excitement within the container of love.

1. I undertake the training rule to refrain from destroying living creatures.
2. I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking what is not given.
3. I undertake the training rule to refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. I undertake the training rule to refrain from false speech.
5. I undertake the training rule to refrain from intoxicants which lead to heedlessness.

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Filed under Causes and results, Harmlessness, Precepts, Relationships, Sex

Training in all directions

1. I undertake the training rule to refrain from destroying living creatures.
2. I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking what is not given.
3. I undertake the training rule to refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. I undertake the training rule to refrain from false speech.
5. I undertake the training rule to refrain from intoxicants which lead to heedlessness.

This is the simplest translation of the five precepts the Buddha taught as the most basic guidelines for human interaction. He presented them to people of all ages, stations, religions, and locations.

The way these guidelines are phrased above implies that we are the actors and others the acted upon, which is true but incomplete. By including ourselves as both the doer and the one most affected by our actions, we can think of the precepts as beneficial in 360 degrees.

Following on from a first precept example in the previous post, if we actively hate someone, who is most affected? The object of our displeasure may or may not know our feelings, but we certainly do, and they are not pleasant sensations. So who are we benefiting by refraining from striking out at others? Or by dealing with the “impulse to demolish” internally rather than acting it out? If we give it some thought, it is a kindness to ourselves to refrain from taking life, figuratively or in imagination, as well as a protection to others.

When we crush ourselves internally by thinking we are hopeless or useless, we might be contravening the intention of the first precept. It would be good to practice on ourselves the same concern and restraint we show others.

As we refine our work with the first precept, we go from actually attempting to kill or harm other living things to only thinking we’d like to, to restraining our negative intentions, to noticing when such thoughts start to surface, to complete freedom from this unwholesome root. All of us are somewhere on this spectrum. Likewise we might go from harming ourselves, or having thoughts of self-harm to restraining such impulses, to accepting ourselves, flaws and all.

Working with the training rules is a practical act of kindness to ourselves and to others.

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Filed under Harmlessness, Precepts