Our relationships

Following along in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, we move our focus now from intentional communities to “natural” communities. These start with family and extend outward to all the other relationships in our lives.

The Sigalovada Sutta (quoted below) is the most detailed outline in the Pali canon for how we can interact with everyone in a beneficial way, from our nearest and dearest to the random encounter. On my home page, the tab labeled “Relationships” provides a longer analysis of the main points of the sutta. A full translation can be found here: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.31.0.ksw0.html

And how, young man, does the noble disciple protect the six directions? These six things are to be regarded as the six directions. The east denotes mother and father. The south denotes teachers. The west denotes wife and children. The north denotes friends and companions. The nadir denotes servants, workers, and helpers. The zenith denotes ascetics and brahmins.

There are five ways in which a son should minister to his mother and father as the eastern direction. [He should think:] ‘Having been supported by them, I will support them. I will perform their duties for them. I will keep up the family tradition. I will be worthy of my heritage. After my parents’ deaths I will distribute gifts on their behalf.’ And there are five ways in which the parents, so ministered to by their son as the eastern direction, will reciprocate: they will restrain him from evil, support him in doing good, teach him some skill, find him a suitable wife, and, in due time, hand over his inheritance to him. In this way the eastern direction is covered, making it secure and free from peril. (from DN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The eastern direction is where the sun rises, everywhere on earth, so by analogy, all of our lives begin from and with our parents. They are our first relationships, for better or worse. We can’t be sure, but it is likely that in the Buddha’s time and place, extended families generally stayed geographically and emotionally closer than many families do today. This may complicate the instructions, but doesn’t invalidate them.

Also please note that in ancient India, when women married they joined their husbands’ families, leaving their own behind. In most modern cultures, this is not the case, so we have to adjust our understanding of the sutta to make it useful to ourselves.

We have responsibilities to our parents and they have responsibilities to us. It is easy to visualize ideal parents and children and also dysfunctional ones. We each only have to deal with the parents we’ve got. If it happens that the parental figures in our lives are not our biological parents, the same responsibilities apply. Generally, we look after each other as appropriate at different times. Safety, security, and nourishment are sought on childrens’ behalf by parents in the early years. Often as parents age, responsibilities are shared, and then (at least partly) assumed by the children if the parents live into old age.

Respect, kindness, and compassion are what children owe parents, and parents owe children. We try to live in a way that is both truthful and harmonious, seeking growth and comfort for ourselves and each other.

Posted in Compassion, Friendships, General, Precepts, Relationships | Leave a comment

Counterproductive instincts

In the last post, one outmoded survival instinct was noted: self-preservation that sometimes appears as ego sensitivity. A couple of years back, a very wise letter appeared in the New Yorker magazine in response to a previous issue’s article on A.I. (artificial intelligence).

A letter in the December 21 & 28, 2015 issue of the New Yorker (retyped in full):

In the Katchadourian piece, a scientist claims that A.I. [artificial intelligence] could resolve climate change, disease, and poverty in ways beyond human capacity. But these systemic problems are not only the result of a lack of intelligence or resources or logistics. There is plenty of food, money, and even plain old human intelligence devoted to confronting these problems. What we don’t have is the ability to overcome outmoded and counterproductive evolutionary survival urges: hoarding against famine becomes greed, self-protection becomes aggression, alertness to danger becomes xenophobic fear, the reproductive imperative for survival becomes overpopulation. Expecting A.I. to solve all of this for us is asking for it to outsmart us. The alternative is fostering human intelligence globally, allowing people to understand, acknowledge, and temper their behavior. Will that take five hundred years? Do we have that much time?

Paul Farrell, Cambridge, Mass.

The writer questions whether computing power can somehow supersede our own lack of understanding. We don’t know the answer, but we do know, and I think the letter-writer implies, that training in mindfulness can help us become aware of inappropriate reactions and can allow us to “temper our behavior”, perhaps not on a global scale, but at least on a personal and possibly community scale.

When the problem before us seems overwhelming, one way to proceed is to break it down into its component parts. Can we quickly foster human intelligence world-wide? No, but can we cultivate our own intelligence? Yes. I would argue that many people across the world are attempting to do just that through taking up a variety of meditative practices. Schools and prisons seem to be leading the way in group training and practice, and there are many opportunities through community centers, churches, etc. to be trained in basic mindfulness techniques. Excellent written and on-line resources are also available, many of them at no cost.

I offer this 6 minute video by Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence and a new book, with Richard J. Davidson, called Altered Traits [I haven’t read the new one]).


Dr. Goleman makes the excellent point that if a classroom full of children with learning difficulties can benefit from 10-minute mindfulness sessions two or three times a day, then the rest of us can, too. Of course, training our attention is not a panacea, but it is a good start. As with anything worth doing, the first step is the hardest one. I encourage you to begin a practice that suits you and is effective for you, and if you’ve already started one, keep on going. Do it for yourself and for the welfare of our planet.

Posted in Causes and results, Compassion, General, Mindfulness | 1 Comment

Reviewing ourselves

In the monastic community, giving and accepting criticism of each others’ behavior is a standard part of the training. In lay life we tend not to welcome any indication that we or our views are not perfect. However, we rarely notice our own flaws, even when they are obvious to others. In MN 15, Ven. Mogallana, one of the Buddha’s most senior disciples, gives a long description of the characteristics of people who do and don’t accept correction from others.

A small part of the sutta goes like this (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation):

Now, friends, a monk should review himself thus: (1) ‘Do I have evil desires and am I dominated by evil desires?’ If, when he reviews himself, he know: ‘I have evil desires, I am dominated by evil desires,’ then he should make an effort to abandon those evil unwholesome qualities. But if, when he reviews himself, he knows: ‘I have no evil desires, I am not dominated by evil desires,’ then he can abide happy and glad, training day and night in wholesome qualities.

“Having evil desires” is the first of sixteen qualities that Ven. Mogallana lists as characteristic of a monk who will not accept criticism. Some of the others are:

2. Praising oneself and disparaging others.
3. Being angry.
5. Being stubborn.
7. When reproved, resisting the reprover.
8. When reproved, denigrating the reprover.
10. When reproved, prevaricating [evading], leading the talk aside [changing the subject], showing anger, hate, and bitterness.
12. Being contemptuous and insolent.
16. Adhering to his own view, holding to it tenaciously.

We probably recognize some or all of these strategies used by people who can’t bear to be corrected or shown any indication that they may be behaving unwisely. Unfortunately, in our public life, we often see senior figures deploying these tactics.

If we agree that accepting correction from others can be a pathway to spiritual and psychological growth, then we might be willing to review our own reactions to those who challenge us. Can we listen to others who disagree with our positions? Do we bristle at any suggestion that our view is incorrect? Do we immediately doubt the integrity or intelligence of the questioner? Does criticism make us dig in to our position deeper than before?

We all have a profound instinct for self-preservation. At one time in human history this quality protected us from real, physical dangers, so in an evolutionary sense, it’s essential. However, now that we don’t live in savannahs populated by wild animals, the instinct has morphed into (sometimes hyper-) sensitivity to “ego threats”. If someone expresses an opinion different from or opposite to our own, what is being threatened? If someone points out that we’ve inadvertently caused harm or inconvenience to someone else, why do we sometimes react as if there is danger?

This is a specific situation in which mindfulness can lead to understanding. When feelings of resistance rise up, can we look inside and observe our reaction? Can we wait, reflect, feel the physical sensations involved, and calm ourselves enough to listen to what’s actually being said? Can we consider another point of view?

Posted in Anger, Causes and results, Dukkha, Friendships, Patience, Relationships, Speech | 4 Comments

Blanket apologies

Apologizing and accepting apologies is an essential activity within communities if they are to be harmonious, yet it is often hard to find the best way to handle the process. If we’ve hurt someone and know it, we can apologize in private, being open to whatever conversation happens subsequently. Sometimes there’s more than one thing to be sorry for and more than a few people taking sides. For such cases within the monastic sangha, the Buddha described a confession/apology/forgiveness strategy called “covering over with grass”.  Here’s how it works:

…When they [the disputing monks] have met together, a wise monk among the monks who side together on the one side should rise from his seat, and after arranging his robe on one shoulder, he should raise his hands, palms together, and call for an enactment of the Sangha thus: ‘Let the venerable Sangha hear me. When we took to quarreling and brawling and were deep in disputes, we said and did many things improper for an ascetic. If it is approved by the Sangha, then for the good of these venerable ones and for my own good, in the midst of the Sangha I shall confess, by the method called ‘covering over with grass,’ any offenses of these venerable ones and any offenses of my own, except for those which call for serious censure and those connected with the laity.’

Then a wise monk among the monks who side together on the other part should rise from his seat…[and he says the same words]. (from MN 104, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

“Covering over with grass” can’t be used for serious offenses, for which the Buddha’s dispensation names specific remedies. But for re-starting relations after many people have said regrettable things, it can work.

In the Jewish tradition, before or on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), adherents are encouraged to apologize to others and ask for forgiveness, in order to start the new year with a “clean slate”. One way to do this is simply to address another person in our life, with or without something specific to apologize for, and say, “If I’ve done anything that hurt or offended you in the past year, please forgive me.” We could also say something like, “Any hurt or offense you have caused me in the past year is forgiven.” It’s amazing how effective this is in helping us recognize that we inflict niggling hurts on each other, often without intending to, and that all of us need to forgive and be forgiven on a regular basis.


Posted in Compassion, Friendships, Relationships, Speech | 1 Comment

Conflict resolution

When it comes to conflict resolution, there are many things to consider, and the Buddha had a lot to say about the process. Most of his examples are set within the monastic community, but the concepts can be widely applied.

It seems to me that the first question is whether anyone is listening. Are we listening? Is the other person? If either answer is no, then we would do well to back off and hope that either the person in question will self-correct, or that an opportunity for honest discussion will appear later. Within the monastic community, there is an explicit obligation to observe and correct each other, which is a better starting point than most of us have.

While you are training in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, some monk might commit an offense or a transgression. Now, monks, you should not hurry to reprove him; rather, the person should be examined thus: ‘I shall not be troubled and the other person will not be hurt; for the other person is not given to anger and resentment, he is not firmly attached to his view and he relinquishes easily, and I can make that person emerge from the unwholesome and establish him in the wholesome.’ If such occurs to you, monks, it is proper to speak. (from MN 103, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The sutta quoted above provides a list of conditions for correcting others. In brief, we can ask ourselves:

  1. Will bringing up this topic upset me?
  2. Will it hurt the other person?
  3. Is the transgressor generally angry and resentful?
  4. Is she known to be stubborn and reluctant to change her mind when given new information?
  5. If we point out what we perceive as unwholesome behavior, is the person likely to appreciate it, as helping them to become more aware?

It’s unlikely that these conditions would apply if we felt directly attacked, but we often observe people doing things that unwittingly hurt others or themselves. There’s a sliding scale of friendship that will be an indicator of whether we can speak or not. Those we are closest to will most likely be the ones who will hear us. Mere acquaintance does not give us leave to correct others.

As an example, there’s a member of our local club who is difficult but means well (think autistic spectrum). Many people simply avoid contact as much as possible, but a few of us feel confident enough that he knows we accept him to advise him on how to get along better. These “corrections” are not always welcomed, but if they are offered as friendly advice rather than exasperated ejaculations, they are not resisted, and over time I’ve seen them have some beneficial effect. If we speak to others kindly, they are much more willing to listen.

There are many situations in which we think someone is doing something negative but we just have to hold our peace. We can’t fix the world, but we can look for opportunities to help others reduce their suffering. AND we can make ourselves “easy to admonish”; we can invite our friends to correct us if they think we’re going astray.

Posted in Causes and results, Compassion, Friendships, Relationships | 2 Comments

How to change

There is a well-loved verse from the Buddha’s teaching. It can be found in the Dhammapada (#5) and also in MN 128.

(translated by Gil Fronsdal)
Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

(translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
For in this world enmity is never
allayed by enmity.
It is allayed by non-hatred:
that is the fixed and ageless law.

I offer two translations in case one or the other is easier for you to contemplate.

Many years ago, in a work setting, a trainer asked the question: “How would it feel to completely accept the person who most annoys you?”  It took me a minute to realize that in order to know how it would feel, I’d have to actually accept my difficult person. What would that feel like? It was possible as a thought experiment; I felt my heart release. These days it’s a question I ask myself when that grating sensation of wanting someone to behave differently comes up. To actually accept someone fully means to acknowledge that they are basing their actions and words on their own experiences, fears, priorities, habits, delusions and all the rest, which are different from mine. It would mean saying yes to both their good qualities and their bad ones (everyone has both), and perhaps feeling compassion for their internal discomfort.

In a recent conversation with another person who cares for those in the last period of life, I said that I thought the good deaths were the ones in which love was present, regardless of the physical realities. My friend said that he thought acceptance was the most important thing. We agreed that acceptance leads to love and love leads to acceptance, so we were saying the same thing with different words.

In another conversation, a friend related strongly to the idea of learning to relax, to let go of how we should be, to understand that perfection is an illusion and that all we have to work with is what’s happening right now.

For me, these three things – acceptance, love, and letting go – are the same movement of the heart. They describe a release of clinging, a return to our natural inclination to love and protect others. Perhaps it’s a paradox, but when we really let go of our clinging, even for a moment, that soft, empty space is what we call love – or non-hatred. It’s not nothing. It is a spaciousness that allows others to be as they are without our interference.

A correlation to the verse above may be that no one ever changed in the intended way through punishment; only love brings about change in living beings. This is something we can prove in our own relationships, by thoroughly accepting ourselves and others and seeing what happens next.

Posted in Anger, Causes and results, Compassion, Dhammapada, General, Relationships | 4 Comments

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.


Posted in Causes and results, General, Harmlessness, Mindfulness, The 8-fold path | 3 Comments