Category Archives: Mindfulness

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

How to get along with each other

From AN 10:50, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

… Monks, it is not suitable for you clansmen who have gone forth out of faith from the household life into homelessness to take to arguing and quarreling and to fall into a dispute, stabbing each other with piercing words. 

There are monks, these ten principles of cordiality that create affection and respect and conduce to cohesiveness, to non-dispute, to concord, and to unity. What ten?

  1. Here a monk is virtuous..
  2. Again, a monk has learned much, remembers what he has learned, and accumulates what he has learned…
  3. Again, a monk has good friends, good companions, good comrades….
  4. Again, a monk is easy to correct and possesses qualities that make him easy to correct; he is patient and receives instruction respectfully….
  5. Again, a monk is skillful and diligent in attending to the diverse chores that are to be done for his fellow monks;….
  6. Again, a monk loves the Dhamma and is pleasing in his assertions, filled with a lofty joy pertaining to the Dhamma and discipline….
  7. Again, a monk has aroused energy for abandoning unwholesome qualities and acquiring wholesome qualities; he is strong, firm in exertion, not casting off the duty of cultivating wholesome qualities….
  8. Again, a monk is content with any kind of robe, almsfood, lodging, and medicines and provisions for the sick. [I.e., content with simple necessities]…
  9. Again, a monk is mindful, possessing supreme mindfulness and alertness, …
  10. Again, a monk is wise; he possesses the wisdom that discerns arising and passing away, which is noble and penetrative and leads to the complete destruction of suffering….

This seems to me a comprehensive and useful list of qualities that would make members of a community get along with each other – or, if they hold the opposing views and behaviors, not.

A few adjustments to the language might be useful to encourage our use of these guidelines. We could substitute the word “practitioner” for monk, meaning simply an individual who is part of a community that intends to live in cooperation. “Loving the Dhamma” describes a dedication to shared goals.

Items 9 and 10 imply a mature wisdom, which takes time and dedication to embody, so we could use those as aspirations rather than berating ourself for failing to have extraordinary accomplishments.

In sum, these are the qualities we might look for, in ourselves and in others, as descriptors of good companions:

  1. Ethical behavior
  2. Learned
  3. Having wholesome associates
  4. Willing to learn/be taught
  5. Doesn’t shirk duties or one’s fair share of work
  6. Joyful
  7. Dedicated to refining one’s behavior
  8. Contented with little in the way of material goods
  9. Mindful
  10. Wise

Which of these qualities do we possess in better-than-average measure? Are there any that are conspicuously absent? As we think of our friends and associates, which of these qualities can we admire and be grateful for in them? Which missing items can we notice but decide to overlook or bring to their attention (at the right time)? Would we welcome shared reflections on these aspects of our own behavior?

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Filed under Causes and results, Compassion, Friendships, General, Mindfulness, Relationships

Good friends

We’ll get to communal harmony soon, but for now, another thought about friendships:

[The Buddha is speaking to a young man named Sigālaka:] Young man, there are these four kinds of kind-hearted friends: the friend who is helpful; the friend who shares one’s happiness and suffering; the friend who points out what is good; and the friend who is sympathetic. – from DN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The sutta goes on to parse these statements. Here is a summary:

Helpful: A helpful friend looks after you, provides refuge when you’re afraid, and is generous to you.

Shares one’s happiness and suffering: Such a friend guards your secrets, shares her secrets, and stays involved even when there’s trouble.

Points out what’s good: This friend encourages you to do good and abstain from harmful acts, keeps you informed of useful information, and helps you remember your best intentions.

Sympathetic: A sympathetic friend stays present when you suffer, rejoices in your good fortune, defends you when you’re not present, and affirms those who speak well of you.

Such true friends are rare, and we would be wise to cultivate and cherish them.

It’s equally important to BE a good friend. We can review for ourselves: how many people do we treat with this steady helpfulness and good will? This is a pro-active stance, not one in which we simply answer the phone when called. We know who our good friends are; we keep in touch with them; we tell them regularly that we’re thinking of them and wishing them well. When they need something, we are happy to respond right away.

Even people we don’t see very often can be valued friends. Sometimes just thinking about them helps us to make better choices, to be kinder to others and to invest our energy wisely.

Dharma buddies are obviously in this category of kind-hearted friends because we share the desire to move in the same direction, and take joy in supporting each others’ efforts. Some of our kind-hearted friends are not on the Buddha’s path; people who identify as Buddhist don’t have a lock on good intentions. Whenever and wherever we find trustworthy people who will support our wholesome desires and discourage decisions that will harm us, we can (and should) be open to letting them into our hearts.

As the Buddha said, noble friends and companions are the whole of the holy life, or, in other words, there’s nothing we can do that is more supportive of awakening our highest potential than cultivating supportive friendships. And there’s no greater gift we can give than to be kind-hearted, supportive friends ourselves.

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Filed under Friendships, General, Mindfulness

Speaking well

From MN 58, translated by Andrew Olendzki:

Such speech one knows to be
untrue, incorrect,
and unbeneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others
—such speech one does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true and correct,
but unbeneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others
—such speech one also does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true, correct,
and beneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others:
—one knows the time
to make use of such speech.

Such speech one knows to be
untrue, incorrect,
and unbeneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others
— such speech one does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true and correct,
but unbeneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others
—such speech one does not utter.

Such speech as one knows to be
true, correct,
and beneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others:
—one knows the time
to make use of such speech.

Why is that?
Because one has compassion for beings.

In sum, we should only say what is true, correct, and beneficial, whether or not it is welcome and agreeable to others. In both of those two cases, we have to gauge the right time to speak; in all other cases, we refrain from speaking, if we are to speak with compassion for other beings.

Interestingly, this sutta includes the case where we might say something untrue or unbeneficial because we feel someone else expects it. This might include letting people think we agree with them by nodding along, even when we know it’s not quite right. We have the option of abstaining; neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

If, to the best of our abilities, we filter our speech for truth and good intentions, we still have to consider whether our words will be welcomed. Even if they’re not welcomed, sometimes it is appropriate to say them. For example, friends could point out inconsistencies to friends, parents should guide their children, teachers strive to find ways to make corrections easy to accept by students.

Andrew Olendzki suggests: Try this out for yourself from time to time as the opportunity arises. Can you catch yourself about to say something untrue, and reflect upon whether it really needs to be said? I don’t think as laypeople we can set for ourselves the task of never saying something incorrect, but we can learn to pay closer attention to what we are saying and perhaps even the motivation behind our saying it. Remember the Buddhists are not as concerned with setting a high standard of always upholding ‘the Truth’, since such an idea is rather abstract and every moment and context is unique, but they are very concerned with investigating carefully our own behaviors and training ourselves to speak with greater integrity.

Andrew puts his finger on the important point – with awareness we can strengthen our integrity as reflected in our speech. We can bring our best intentions and words (and actions) together.

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Filed under Mindfulness, Precepts, Speech

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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Filed under Causes and results, Mindfulness, Speech

Questions and answers

In Buddhist traditions, as with many other religions and cultures, debate holds a special place. Part investigation, part competition, it is common for people to engage in back and forth conversation in an attempt to sharpen their wits and prove their points. The Buddha was often challenged by the proponents of other paths. In the sutta quoted below, he lists four specific types of questions and the appropriate ways to answer them.

Bhikkhus, there are these four ways of answering questions. What four?

(1) There is a question to be answered categorically, e.g. Q: ‘Is the eye impermanent?’ A: ‘Yes.’

(2) There is a question to be answered after making a distinction, e.g.  Q:’ Is the impermanent the eye?’ A: ‘Not only the eye, the the ear, nose, etc. are also impermanent.’

(3) There is a question to be answered with a counter-question, e.g. Q: ‘Does the eye have the same nature as the ear?’ A: ‘With respect to what?’ (with respect to seeing – no; with respect to impermanence – yes).

(4) There is a question to be set aside, e.g. ‘Is the soul the same as the body?’ 

These are four ways of answering questions. – from AN 4:42, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, with examples from the commentaries (taken from footnotes to the AN)

Much of our public conversation at present is characterized by artificially constructed “yes or no” questions. These guidelines may help us talk with each other in ways that bring more clarity and (perhaps) less volatility.

If someone says “You’re either with us or against us”, we may well ask, “Who is ‘us'”? If someone asks how the universe could have been created without an underlying intelligence, we can put that question aside as unbeneficial. When someone categorizes people as “lifters or leaners”, we might ask whether we haven’t all been both lifters and leaners at different times in our lives.

We can also practice mindfulness by not reacting to every scrap of news (every tweet) that floats across our awareness, at least not right away. An enormous percentage of the daily “noise” of the news turns out to have no consequence by the next day. It’s liberating to realize that we can let things pass by, can take our time deciding what to allow into our consciousness, and what to respond to.

As with many of the practices involving speech, we can always consider the option of listening, of waiting and reflecting before we speak. With practice, we can recognize questions that can and can’t be answered with a yes or no. Even if the questioner’s intention is provocative, we can reply with seriousness. We can use a question to reframe an issue to the benefit of those open to conversation. In this way, we can increase the level of harmony in whatever company we find ourselves in.

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Filed under Compassion, Mindfulness, Speech

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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Filed under Causes and results, Mindfulness, Speech