Develop the wholesome. It is possible to develop the wholesome.
If it were not possible to develop the wholesome, I would not
tell you to do so. But because it is possible to develop the
wholesome, therefore, I tell you, develop the wholesome.
(the Buddha, AN 2.9, tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi)
Start at the beginning
We all want to be happy. But many of us are confused about what happiness is and how to achieve it. Is happiness a momentary pleasant feeling? Is it simply the absence of pain? The high you can get from beautiful music or a natural setting? Does it depend on good food, sunshine and physical comfort? Can money buy happiness? Does happiness depend on being loved and valued? Is a happiness that doesn’t depend on external circumstances possible?
The Buddha’s introductory teachings show that true happiness comes from having a peaceful and kind heart. Unhappiness comes primarily from our own selfish and harmful actions. These statements are true regardless of the weather and other external circumstances. Helping you establish and nurture this deep, steady form of happiness is the goal of this blog.
The Buddha started at the beginning. How does one cultivate a peaceful and kind heart? If one has a good heart, how does one make it stronger and more reliable? These are the questions this blog will attempt to address. Drawing from the earliest teachings of the Buddha, it will outline ways to move from wherever we start towards a more wholesome and happier state.
The key point is: we need to work out how to recognize and strengthen the goodness within ourselves, rather than endlessly looking for “the answer” in the outside world. Most of us have to discover this basic re-orientation towards our inner life for ourselves. Before coming to understand it, I wandered around for decades thinking I was missing something — that there must be something to get, to understand. Why was it so elusive? Why couldn’t I just see the big picture and know my place in it? And why was I driven to figure it out?
Eventually, I discovered that things were a lot simpler than I ever imagined. There is always a way to know what to do. The questions are easy to answer if the field of inquiry is limited to one’s own behavior, speech and thoughts.
I had to accept that it’s impossible for a single human being to know all the answers, and to see that complete knowledge is not a requirement for deep happiness. We can be content with incomplete knowledge, of ourselves and the world. It is enough that the basic laws governing the world and human interactions are fairly stable and predictable. If you do A, then B generally follows. If you surround yourself with thieves, the odds are good that you’ll become one yourself. If you drink and drive, there’s a high probability you’ll have an accident. By the same rules, if you cultivate the habit of acting with generosity and kindness – amazing! — generous and kind people are drawn to you.
One person didn’t reveal this truth to me, it took the help and guidance of several sources. I had to overcome many obstacles along the way, especially my own resistance to seeing how simple it really was. I was looking for something more complex and hidden. Somehow, this was too obvious. However, obvious is not the same as easy. We can’t change who we are, can we? No, not in an instant, but with persistent attention and effort, we could all be more generous and kind.
When you’re in a ditch, the first thing to do is stop digging. This is ancient wisdom. According to the Buddha’s teachings, it means the first thing to do is stop harming other beings.
Teachings of the Buddha
Buddhism is often equated with meditation practice. If you say you are a Buddhist, people may assume simply that you meditate and there’s nothing more to it. This is a gross misunderstanding. The Buddha did teach his followers techniques for meditation, but that’s not all; and meditation is not the first thing he taught people.
During his lifetime the Buddha taught thousands of people how to live a life of clarity and purpose. For forty-five years (around 500 BCE), he addressed people according to their different needs and abilities to understand. He responded to the questions of strangers. He spoke to his followers who were regular people on subjects relevant to their situations. He addressed the ordained monks and nuns according to their readiness for awakening; he recommended different practices to different people. One of the Buddha’s gifts was his ability to see what each person needed and was ready for, and to teach directly for that need.
When the Buddha spoke to ordained monks and nuns, he talked about turning away from worldly concerns and towards full liberation from the sorrows and limitations of ordinary human life. The Buddhist meditative practices originated in these teachings.
To regular people (not monks or nuns), the Buddha often talked about how to come into an upright relationship with oneself and the world. He started with the importance of generosity and of living in a way that avoids harming oneself and others. He demonstrated how to cultivate what’s best in one’s actions, with his own behavior, and often using stories and examples.
The big picture
In overview, the Buddha’s teachings contain three major parts:
• the ethical practices,
• the meditative practices, and
• the cultivation of a wisdom that (ultimately) transcends the material world.
These three aspects are intimately inter-related. Improving one automatically improves the other two. Throughout one’s entire life, these three types of practice can continue to grow and ripen and support each other.
However, the absolute foundation for all of the Buddha’s teaching is the ethical framework. It is the clean-up work we need to do at the very start. How can a person who is continually stirring up trouble in her life hope to achieve a peaceful mind or true wisdom?
Unfortunately, when Buddhism migrated into the English-speaking world, the meditative practices led the way, and the ethical practices lagged behind. When the cultural context was removed from Asian forms of Buddhism, the cultural assumptions of generosity and respect also disappeared. And people wonder why meditation is so difficult! Often it’s because the ethical foundation is unstable.
Every action produces a result
An essential element of the Buddha’s view is that every action produces some result. The result may be felt in the present or in the future; it may be below the conscious level or easily observable. But nothing comes from nothing, and action is never insignificant. We do not have control at all over most things that happen in the world. However, our actions, the words we speak and the intentions we choose to act on – these we can control. For example, you cannot control how other drivers behave behind the wheel of a car. But you can drive defensively yourself and remember that others may not be respectful of your safety. If you start with this attitude, then your general aggravation level should go down, and when other drivers behave graciously, it’s a pleasant surprise.
When you do a lovely action, there is a ripple effect outwards, affecting more people than you can know. If you smile and act kindly towards a stranger, it may affect her mood and actions for the rest of the day, touching everyone she encounters. If it’s a rare experience for her to be treated kindly, it might have an even greater effect. When you do something regrettable, there is also a ripple effect. Your negative energy is likewise transferred through words and expressions in an expanding circle. If you give an unfair criticism to someone, that person may take it out on her friends, co-workers, herself or her dog. Your words would have created feelings of anger or frustration, which will then be distributed. When you are not paying attention, events follow that might not have come about if you had been alert. There is no time off from this principle. Every one of our actions counts.
The Buddha teaches that our actions (of body, speech and mind) are the only things we can call our own. When you come to the end of your life, it will be time to reflect on what you have done, not on what you have accumulated. If you bring wise attention to your own actions, you will build a life that you can be satisfied with, even as death approaches. The time to start consciously building this positive legacy is today.
For the practices outlined in this blog to bring about visible results, it is necessary to take the attitude of a student. Part of the effort required is to study your own actions and their actual effects on yourself and others. Likewise with your words and even your unspoken attitudes. We are unaccustomed to observing ourselves and our workings at this moment-to-moment level. The trick is not to over-analyze, but to keep the attention on what’s current. Let curiosity lead the way.
We have to shake loose our habitual ways and look with fresh and honest eyes at our own actions, speech, and thoughts. It may be difficult to acknowledge that we sometimes have harmful impulses, but if we directly see and recognize a harmful intention, it starts to lose its power over us. Initially, we may also be reluctant to acknowledge our good intentions. Think of the process not as tallying personal victories and failures, but as the unfolding of universal causes and effects.
Some readers may have already developed a reliable beginner’s mind. Some may have knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings. Beginner’s mind is the same for the absolute beginner and the person who’s been practicing for years. In developing a good heart, one never arrives at a fixed destination and stops paying attention. The work is always in the present action, the present thought, and the present word.