Right Action – the social contract

The second of the three factors in the “ethical” or “morality” section of the Eightfold Path is Right Action. For laypeople (that’s us) this refers to the five precepts: “I undertake the training rule to…

  1. refrain from killing,
  2. refrain from taking what is not offered,
  3. refrain from harming others with our sexuality,
  4. refrain from false speech, and
  5. refrain from consuming intoxicants that lead to heedlessness.”

In Buddhist countries, and some others, these five precepts form the basic social contract. This is in stark contrast to most English-speaking countries where the dominant ethic tells us to look out for ourselves. At first it may seem an impossible challenge to measure our actions and words by these guidelines rather than a “what’s in it for me?” attitude; it can take some time to notice that these two general perspectives are incompatible with each other. We can’t paste the five precepts onto our worldview, but to whatever degree we can make the switch, benefits will accrue to us and to those around us. Current research in neurobiology links this type of change with re-training the Pre-Frontal Cortex area of our brains. It takes effort but is possible.

In the Pali canon, the Buddha often linked Understanding and Action; he called it Dhamma-Vinaya (the Dhamma and the training rules). As with most teachers in ancient India, the philosophy was rarely uncoupled from the guidelines for action needed to realize the goals. Our beliefs influence our behavior, so it’s important to be clear in our own minds what we believe.

Training in the five precepts begins with knowing what they are and remembering them. Some of us recite the precepts, in English or Pali, every day. In general, we can make an effort to be truthful, to be kind, and to attend to the results of our words and actions — all the time! This could have a side effect of slowing us down so that we notice what our intentions and actions are and how they affect our mind states and other people.

When we’re new to the precepts, we could start by choosing one to explore deeply. If it’s the first precept, we might notice whenever an angry, impulsive mood visits us, for example behind the wheel of a car, or when we are over-tired. What does that feel like? What is the danger to ourselves and others if we act from that space? Are we able to curb our impulses through awareness of them?

Scrupulous truthfulness is another excellent exercise. We can check before we speak whether what we intend to say is true – how do we know? If we’re unsure, is it worth saying anyway? Why? Are we persuading ourselves of something that we’re not sure is true? We make our world out of words; it matters how honest we can be in what we say to others and to ourselves.

As with all of the Buddha’s trainings, it’s largely a matter of challenging our habitual grasping, of examining what we do with an eye to a larger context than we usually consider. We can establish new habits, replacing the detrimental ones, gradually, one at a time, based on our waking experience.

Posted in Causes and results, Compassion, Harmlessness, Livelihood, Precepts, Relationships, The 8-fold path | Leave a comment

Right Speech

A monk visiting our local monastery this week talked about the tools we have in our toolbox to facilitate awakening. He initially spoke of concentration and insight practice but later expanded the analogy to discerning the hindrances and knowing our own minds at a given time, referring to the four foundations (frameworks) of mindfulness training. We could also consider each of the factors of the Eightfold Path as a tool for awakening. As with any tools, the more we use them, the more expert we become.

We’ve done quick reviews of Right View and Intention (the “wisdom” group of the path), and now we come to Right Speech, the first in the “morality” group. Impossible to do the subject justice in a single post, so we’ll come back to this after our full review of the Eightfold Path.

BTW, I’ve added a brief outline of the Eightfold Path to a list of subject pages in the column on the right margin of the web page, in case you’d like to look ahead at the factors or review them later.

What is wrong speech? The most blameworthy type of speech is speaking falsely, lying, purposely misleading others. Especially now, when it seems that many people in public life believe that the truth has no intrinsic value, we must hold fast to the knowledge that speaking falsely will produce negative results for the speaker and for others. Some people consider words as purely for entertainment, but we can’t go along with the crowd if we are aiming for clarity and freedom.

Truthfulness as a guiding principle can bring us freedom from fear and freedom from bondage to delusion. It is fundamental to a right relationship with other beings and with our world. Practicing mindfulness, we can speak with care of things that we know or have witnessed for ourselves, and we can say we don’t know when we don’t. “I don’t know” may be the most underused and useful phrase in the English language. Consider how often we repeat things that we may have heard or mis-heard, that we might remember or mis-remember.

Sometimes we are unsure of our own opinions. Those times are excellent opportunities to say “I don’t know what I think about that (yet)”. Often we form our views based on wholly inadequate information. It is excellent Dharma practice to give ourselves time to arrive at considered opinions on important subjects.

Refraining from divisive speech is a second characteristic of right speech. The Pali canon specifically recommends using words that bring people together, that heal breaches among people.

Refraining from harsh speech is a third category of right speech. What does this mean? Giving up belittling speech, shouting at people, sarcasm, and swearing or using crude expressions. Gentle speech is welcome and is the opposite of harsh speech.

Lastly, refraining from meaningless speech is recommended. In Pali the word is a perfect example of onomatopoeia: samphappalāpa (idle speech) — it sounds like our expression “blah blah blah” and has the same meaning. The best speech brings clarity and harmony; it is a path to awakening for ourselves and for others. 

If we consider our words before we speak, we may find ourselves speaking less and listening more.

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Right Intention

Right view and right intention, which together make up the “wisdom” section of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, are inseparable if we are living our daily life with the goal of reducing harm and cultivating joy. Once we start to recognize grasping in our experience, what are we going to do about it? How can we try to address our greed and aversion?

Wise or skilful intention is a direct remedy to a stream of thought characterized by grasping. The three skilful intentions the Eightfold Path refers to are:

  • Intention of renunciation
  • Intention of mettā (non ill-will)
  • Intention of karunā (compassion or non-harming)

Grasping causes dukkha, therefore non-grasping or renunciation makes sense as an intention we can return to again and again. Non ill-will and compassion are renunciations of self-orientation in deference to other-orientation.

Real renunciation is not a matter of compelling ourselves to give up things inwardly cherished, but of changing our perspective on them so they no longer bind us (Bhikku Bodhi).

What are our intentions? Usually we are not aware of what we intend, and the default may be an intention to seek out pleasurable experiences and avoid unpleasant ones. We like praise and don’t like blame. We like tasty foods and don’t like bitter or bland foods. We like people who smile and don’t like people who frown. The entire universe of liking and not-liking defines our baseline awareness in the world. Our intentions may be invisible to us, but they can compel us to focus on what pleases and displeases us and so blind us to the needs of others.

We can support a change in perspective by remembering that all the objects of our desire are impermanent and WILL change. They will ultimately elude our grasp no matter what we do. They cannot be kept or made to stay. This impermanence is the foundation principle for dukkha — nothing is reliable. Everything we cherish will change and fade away.

Desire ultimately breeds fear and sorrow, but renunciation gives fearlessness and joy (BB).

We may think renunciation is only for people who have taken monastic vows, but not so! Every time we defer gratification, every time we think but don’t say something unkind, every time we approach a project we’ve been avoiding, we are practicing renunciation. Maintaining a meditation practice is a form of renunciation; each time we sit down on the cushion instead of turning on the TV or surfing the web, we are practicing renunciation.

Renunciation means taking the long view of what we want – not instant gratification but the peace and confidence of wise view and an awareness of how our actions and words affect ourselves and others. When we forego a lesser pleasure for a greater satisfaction, that’s renunciation.


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Right View

To follow the Noble Eightfold Path is a matter of practice rather than intellectual knowledge, but to apply the path correctly it has to be properly understood.  – Bhikkhu Bodhi

Many folks today use the “picking and choosing” method of spiritual development. While experimentation may be necessary when one is starting to investigate, the task of changing oneself is hard and cannot be accomplished without a coherent framework. What are we trying to move away from? Towards what?

The Buddha’s Eightfold Path begins with Right View, which has two levels. The first, mundane right view, is an understanding of the moral efficacy of action; that is, seeing and knowing that our actions and words are effective in the world – they produce results for ourselves and others. Once launched into the world, our words and actions cannot be taken back or discounted. Beneficial deeds by body and mind produce beneficial results; harmful deeds produce harm. Understanding that there’s no way around this is the beginning of right view.

The second (supramundane) level of understanding right view is a direct acquaintance with dukkha and how it works in our lives, i.e., the Buddha’s Four Truths. A shorthand for the four truths is: dukkha, arising, release, path.

  1. There is dukkha
  2. Dukkha arises because of clinging
  3. There is the release of clinging, which causes the cessation of dukkha
  4. There is a path of practice to learn how to release clinging (the Buddha’s Eightfold Path)

This sounds like a reasonable philosophy, but it is only useful if we apply it directly to our own experience. In our lives, what are the circumstances that come up repeatedly that make us unhappy? What specifically is going on at those times? What is happening that we don’t want to have happen, and what is not happening that we want to have happen? The feeling may be gross or subtle. Investigate.

When you discover patterns, look for what specific clinging is causing the discomfort. Is someone behaving in a way we think they shouldn’t? Are we not following through when we think we should? Are we unable to acquire something we’ve set our hearts on? Is something changing in a way that upsets us? The more we can discern about our own reactions (clinging), the better the chance that our understanding will open the door to release.

Releasing clinging is possible; sometimes it’s very difficult, but it’s never impossible. Perhaps it’s impossible right this minute, but in the long run, if we see clearly how our clinging is creating dukkha, eventually our grip will loosen.

What can we do to see dukkha more clearly and to release the clinging that’s causing it? We can study and practice the factors of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. We can investigate each principle, see how it works in our own life, acknowledge where our strengths and weaknesses are, and proceed.

The perspective of the four truths is always available to us. Can we use it to focus our attention and energy?

Posted in Causes and results, Dukkha, General, Karma, The 8-fold path | 2 Comments

An integrated life

…walking the Buddha’s Eightfold path. 

Reviewing Bhikkhu Bodhi’s classic short book titled The Noble Eightfold Path has inspired some new thoughts. Many people are generally interested in what the Buddha had to say or teach, but don’t know that there is a coherent framework that we can use every day to increase our inner calm and deepen our understanding of ourselves and others.

Question #1 – What is the Buddha’s 8-fold path?

Question #2 – Why should I undertake it?

Question #3 – What am I losing by undertaking only the bits I’m attracted to?

Question #4 – How does each part relate to and support the other parts? How is the path integrated?

Question #5 – Can I undertake the whole 8-fold training and also have other spiritual and worldly pursuits?

These five questions come up reasonably often when people hear of the Buddha’s path, even if they’re not spoken out loud. Over the next posts, I’ll be attempting to address them, and (fair warning) persuade readers to consider making a commitment to practicing with the path.

A note on translation: The Buddha’s Eightfold path is repeated many times in the Pali canon. The prefix sammā is applied to each step, i.e., sammā diṭṭhi (right view), sammā saṅkappa (right intention), etc. The word sammā means rightly or perfectly or completely. Which word would you choose in English? It’s a translation challenge, but in any case, when the path factors are fulfilled (perhaps a very long process) we will have perfected them in ourselves.

What is the Buddha’s Eightfold Path? It’s a complete system for training an individual’s body, speech, and mind. Its purpose is to wear away our greed, hatred, and delusion, and gradually free us from various forms of dukkha.

The path can be divided into three areas of functional development: sīla (the ethical trainings), samādhi (mental development), and paññā (refinement of the primary perspective, wisdom). Once we understand how these three work in our daily life, we start to understand their power.

The standard formulation of  the Eightfold Path begins with View, that is, our perspective on ourselves and our world. If our fundamental view is that everything ought to go our way, we should always have pleasure and no difficulties, and pain and sorrow are OK for others but not for us, then we have wrong view. The results of holding wrong view will be many forms of disappointment, disillusionment, and probably anger. As long as we personally are at the center of how we look at things, our perspective will be askew.

If, however, we understand that most of the dominant forces in our lives are not under our control (see previous posts on the five types of karma), we are likely to spend less time reacting negatively and more time dealing constructively with things that come our way.

One reason that the path, as recorded in the suttas, begins with View may be that unless we have some understanding of our real situation and our responsibility for making of life what we can, we are unlikely to even consider undertaking the Buddha’s path.


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Acceptance as equanimity

Anguttara Nikaya 5.57 (a sutta from the Pali canon) is a regular theme in these pages. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the complete sutta can be found on the main site (AN 5.57).

We’ve been thinking about equanimity, so I re-visit AN 5.57 here, with comments reflecting that not only should we consider our own situation with respect to life’s big challenges, but that the same conditions affect ALL beings. We can no more protect other beings from the realities of aging, sickness, and death than we can prevent them coming to us.

“Bhikkhus, there are these five themes that should often be reflected upon by a woman or a man, by a householder or one gone forth [ordained]. What five?

(1) A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am subject to old age; I am not exempt from old age.’
…And neither is anyone else. We cannot protect others from aging.

(2) A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am subject to illness; I am not exempt from illness.’
…And neither is anyone else exempt from becoming sick. We cannot protect others from illness.

(3) A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am subject to death; I am not exempt from death.’
…And so is everyone else subject to dying. We cannot protect anyone from death.

(4) A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I must be parted and separated from everyone and everything dear and agreeable to me.’
…All conditions change continually for everyone. Nothing is guaranteed at any time. We can’t prevent change, for ourselves or for others. A corollary is that even the worst of times eventually passes.

(5) A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do.'”
…And so is everyone else. We cannot escape the effects of our actions by body, speech, and mind that have already been committed, though we can choose to act with wholesome or unwholesome intent right now. And we cannot change the results (good or bad) of others’ actions for them.

Each of us is bound by the five types of kamma:

  1. Weather (utu-niyāma) – the laws of physics and chemistry
  2. Seed (bija-niyāma), biological laws
  3. Action (kamma-niyāma) – results of our individual intentions and actions
  4. Mind (citta-niyāma) – the law of psychology
  5. The over-arching law of reality (Dhamma-niyāma) – how all the laws of nature are integrated

Everyone is subject to the same set of laws; but we cannot parse the complex workings of all five of these laws in anyone’s life. By accepting this reality, perhaps we can let go of the desire to manipulate our world and keep our balance mindfully as things change around us.

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Finding the center, part 2 of 2

[Continued from previous post, “Finding the Center” in chapter 2 of Untangling Self by Andrew Olendzki]

At some point all this tranquility devolves into sleepiness, laziness, or a sluggishness of mind where it seems a struggle just to remain conscious. This too is natural, and it does not mean you are doing anything wrong. Having established these two end points on a continuum, practice involves moving back and forth between them until one finds the point of equilibrium. You can get a sense when the mind is too active, at which point you let go of your attachment to the stimulant du jour and allow the mind to rest. And when you feel it getting drowsy, it is time to sit up straighter, take a deeper breath, and give yourself a little mental kick into wakefulness. Eventually, becoming familiar with both ends of this specturm, you will find the midpoint where the mind is simultaneously tranquil and alert.

Moving perpendicularly, we then notice that the mind is drawn habitually toward those objects of experience it finds gratifying. This need not be full-on lust or the irresistible drive of addiction; more often it is a gentle inclination toward what we like. The senses revel in sensation, the mind delights in momentum, and we are usually “leaning in” to the next moment and faintly grasping after the next experience. Notice this, and softly back away from it.

In the other direction we can also observe the tendency to pull back from the things we don’t like or don’t want. Much of what we encounter can be experienced with a subtle sense of annoyance or dissatisfaction. “Yeah, I’m noticing the breath all right, but I don’t like that pain in the back and wish it would just go away.” Can we also bounce between these two walls, between the impulse to like and not like what is happening? The experience of pleasure and pain is inevitable, part of the hard wiring  of the body and mind. But the wanting and not wanting that arises with these feeling tones are optional emotional responses that can be modified by conscious intention.

The midpoint between sense desire and aversion is equanimity, a state of mind that is evenly balanced. It is fully engaged with experience, but it neither favors nor opposes what is happening. We are aware of what is arising and passing away without any inclination to change it into something else. When this equanimity is coupled with a mind that is both tranquil and alert, we have found the still center of the mind. You may well have to bump into all four walls over and over in your search, but you will surely know when you find this “sweet spot” — because it feels wonderful.

The doubts that obscure ordinary mind states and keep us from this center point — doubts about whether we have the right teacher, about whether we are doing the practice correctly, and many others are dispelled for the moment, and all is illuminated with trust and confidence. The body feels entirely comfortable, even if gravely afflicted. The mind feels clear and powerful, even it if is normally battered by anxiety or fear. The still center of the mind is a place of universal refuge that can be accessed again and again once one learns the way there. And even if the experience vanishes as soon as it occurs, which it is very likely to do, you can retrace your steps to find it again. You may even learn how to hover there indefinitely …

This is not nirvana, but it is its base camp. It is a stable, peaceful refuge from which one can explore the inner landscape of experience and see things more clearly, as they actually are.

Posted in Causes and results, Hindrances, Mindfulness, Patience, Sublime states | 1 Comment