Ten auspicious actions

The beginning of the path to awakening is giving, letting go, shifting our focus from a me-centred framework to a relational framework. We start to notice how we feel when we are generous, and how we feel when we are defensive or greedy. So what does this beginning step of cultivating generosity look like?

The following list is a wonderful compilation of recommendations in the canon concerning how to cultivate wholesome thoughts, words, and deeds. You’ll notice that items 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 all have to do with giving in some way.



  1. giving
  2. keeping the precepts
  3. meditation
  4. sharing merit
  5. rejoicing at the merit of others
  6. giving service
  7. showing respect
  8. teaching Dhamma
  9. listening to the Dhamma
  10. acting with right view

Giving material things and giving service are closely related and have instant and far-reaching results; they are effective in counteracting selfish tendencies. The gift itself (of goods or services) establishes a connection between two or more people. It may also affect anyone who witnesses it or hears of it later. Perhaps even more importantly, it affects our own hearts when we give. There is a release of grasping, however brief, that digs a fertile furrow for the seeds of awakening.

Sharing merit may be a tricky concept in the English-speaking world. One monk said that we could substitute the word “joy” for merit. When we do a generous act, we feel joy as a result; that’s the feeling that we can share with others. This elation is without pride, and the thought “I’m so good, look at me” is absent. It can lift others up and make them happy. In parallel, when we witness or become aware of a generous act by another person, we can allow a feeling of sympathetic happiness to arise. That is “rejoicing at the merit of others.”

Lastly, showing respect is an excellent way to tame our arrogance, to nourish our humility, and to reduce our need to be the center of our imagined universe. We can make space for those we admire and wish to emulate in the inner circle of our consciousness.

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Karma and Self

A question we’ve heard before came up again recently: “If there’s no self, then who gets the karma of our actions?” It’s a tricky question because the answer requires trading in our presumption of a self-centred world for a completely different idea of what’s going on here. Let me acknowledge that this is a fundamental shift in world-view and takes most people a lot of time to accept (if they ever do). It took me ten years of studying and practicing the Buddha’s teachings before I finally understood that we can’t simply superimpose the Buddha’s teachings onto our ordinary me-centred thinking. That approach just leads to confusion.

Instead, accept that full understanding only comes with time and familiarity with an alternative idea of the self and the world. Be willing to not know for a while. The essential shift is from a concrete, materialist view of the world to one where there is only process. Physics has taught us that nothing (really, nothing) is solid; the atoms that make up everything are more space than substance. What’s more, all of those atoms are in motion, at different speeds. If that is true of trees and cars, how much more does it describe what the self is? Could the self be the one thing in the universe that isn’t constantly changing?

But back to the original question, about karma:

People who do not understand the Buddha’s teaching focus attention on the person who they presume does the action and receives the associated result. For the Buddha, however, it is the action which creates the presumed ‘person’. … The “I-making process is one of ‘making’ or ‘doing’. (p.41)

The quote above is from an excellent book called Beyond I-Making by Ajahn Thiradhammo. The entire book is freely available here: https://www.wbd.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Beyond-I-Making.pdf

In a nutshell, we say or do something, usually with no pre-planning, and then take on that action, what we’ve said or done, as “me”. If we shout at someone we’re an angry person; if we’re gentle with someone, we’re a kind person, and so on ad infinitum. In this way the self we create keeps morphing depending on what we’re doing. With mindfulness we can slow down and be more intentional in our words and actions and in this way both “create” the person we want to be and start to trace back the origins of self through intention to the (often only partially conscious) energies that move us.

So the karma we create with our words and actions (and even thoughts) have real results, for us and others, but they don’t accumulate in the sense of putting things into a bank account. It might be similar to shining a light onto a situation, or introducing loud and angry music. We color experience with our actions, but they are not things; it’s all verbs, not nouns.

Some discomfort comes from the fact that we like nouns, we like things that we can count, that we can place somewhere and are still there when we look for them. However, this is not an accurate description of what is going on, as the Buddha sees it. He was not interested in explaining the universe, but in what causes our frustrations (dukkha) and how that can be cut through.

Please forgive me if this is upsetting for you. Take it as one possibility, something that could be true but that you may need to put it aside for now.

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The Wet Log Sutta

From MN 36: https://suttacentral.net/mn36/en/sujato?

Suppose there was a green, sappy log, and it was lying in water. Then a person comes along with a drill-stick, thinking to light a fire and produce heat. What do you think, Aggivessana? By drilling the stick against that green, sappy log lying in the water, could they light a fire and produce heat?”

“No, Master Gotama. Why not? Because it’s a green, sappy log, and it’s lying in the water. That person will eventually get weary and frustrated.” …

“Whoever has not given up the defilements that are corrupting, leading to future lives, hurtful, resulting in suffering and future rebirth, old age, and death is deluded, I say. For it’s not giving up the defilements that makes you deluded. Whoever has given up the defilements that are corrupting, leading to future lives, hurtful, resulting in suffering and future rebirth, old age, and death—is not deluded, I say. For it’s giving up the defilements that makes you not deluded.

The defilements the Buddha refers to here all spring from the fundamental unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion within each of us. The point is that we cannot hope to develop our meditation and wisdom if our behaviors and attitudes keep us trapped in unwholesome environments and mind states. The way we prepare ourselves to move towards a real, fundamental freedom from suffering is to gradually, persistently, work away at the things that “keep our log wet”, i.e., keep us in delusion.

To clarify, a list of sixteen defilements of the mind is here (from MN 7 https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.007.nypo.html):

  1. covetousness and unrighteous greed
  2. ill will
  3. anger
  4. hostility or malice
  5. denigration or detraction; contempt
  6. domineering or presumption
  7. envy
  8. jealousy, or avarice; selfishness
  9. hypocrisy or deceit
  10. fraud
  11. obstinacy, obduracy
  12. presumption or rivalry; impetuosity
  13. conceit
  14. arrogance, haughtiness
  15. vanity or pride
  16. negligence or heedlessness; in social behavior, this leads to lack of consideration.

Some of these negative qualities we will have largely or entirely abandoned already, and we should note that with satisfaction. Others we may decide need some investigation; an honest assessment will help us outline our “homework assignment”.

These are all things that are easier to recognize in others than in ourselves, but we should take care not to use them as the basis for criticizing others without looking into our own behavior. The best tool we have for influencing other people is to inspire them with our own words and deeds.

The Buddha was interested in teaching us how to escape the things that bind us to unwholesome states so we can taste the freedom that he came to know. These defilements present challenges for us to take up ourselves, and we can have faith that as we move into more buoyancy, we and others will sense that something is different.

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The fourth of the divine mind states that the Buddha recommended cultivating is Equanimity (upekkhā).

Equanimity in Buddhism and Its Cultivation - One Mind Dharma

From the Therigatha:
If your mind becomes firm like a rock
and no longer shakes
In a world where everything is shaking
Your mind will be your greatest friend
and suffering will not come your way.

To have a mind that is our greatest friend – that’s something that most of us want. The mind that doesn’t shake is a description of the mind that is equanimous. (Shaila Catherine, https://www.imsb.org/prev/teachings/equanimity.php)

In a way, equanimity is the combination of the three previous sublime mind states: mettā, compassion, and appreciative joy. When these three are well-developed, equanimity prevails.

The Buddha’s definition of equanimity is not to be confused with indifference or stoicism. It is more like an inflated punching bag with a weight at the bottom. You knock it over and it springs back to an upright position immediately. The weather changes around us, but our mindfulness is steadfast throughout; we are not knocked into fear or anger or lust or a confused state so deep that we can’t find our feet.

As human beings we are subject to continual changes in life. The Taoists spoke about the ten thousand sorrows and the ten thousand joys. Joy turns to sorrow. Sorrow turns to joy. No one is exempt. Equanimity is the liberating quality that allows us to keep our hearts open and balanced, quiet and steady, in the midst of all these changes.

We develop equanimity through be­ing mindful of our reactions to what the Buddha described as the eight worldly dhammas [phenomena]. The worldly dhammas are four sets of contrasting conditions that all of us are subject to at one point or another in our lives. The cultivation of equanimity involves looking deeply at our relationship to these eight conditions in life. – Narayan Liebenson (https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/cultivating-equanimity-2/)

The eight worldly dhammas are:
1. praise and blame
2. gain and loss
3. pleasure and pain
4. fame and disrepute

These are the “punches” that can knock us down or even knock us out; but because they are present all the time for everyone, we can choose not to take them personally. We can walk through any storm and while we may be emotionally affected, we don’t lose our balance; we remember what’s important, we have the Buddha’s eightfold path as guard rails.

Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem “If” starts:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

This describes a good start at understanding equanimity and its value as a life skill.

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Joy (muditā) is similar to compassion, but different; it is what goodwill (mettā) feels like when we encounter those who are happy rather than those who are suffering.

What can joy be a remedy for? Craving gives rise to jealousy, envy, and greed in all of its manifestations.  When muditā is practiced and developed, it becomes a “sublime” and “boundless” state of mind to be “dwelt in” as a corrective for the removal of mind states based on craving.

It is these three fires [greed, hatred, and delusion] that give rise to jealousy, envy, covetousness, avarice, and greed. The craving for possessions, the craving for sensual pleasures, the begrudged success of others, the hatred that is begotten by the gains of others, the odious comparison of greater status compared with our humble circumstances, these are the “fires” that burn within us to our undoing…. Unselfish joy multiplies in ratio to the extension of its application, quite apart from its purifying effect on our own lives. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/various/wheel170.html (page down to Mudita by C.F. Knight)

Most of us find it easier to feel compassion than appreciative joy because compassion usually registers more strongly with us; joy is quiet. But in order to cultivate wholesome mind states, in order to balance our sensitivity to suffering, we can’t overlook muditā; we have to seek it out. Once we start noticing when someone is joyful, and registering what our natural reaction is, we can find the place in our hearts where we are uplifted by another’s good feeling. If there’s (ego-driven) envy, we can let it go. The habit of recognizing and appreciating someone else’s joy enables us not only to grow in this boundless state that the Buddha praised, but we will also notice how peaceful this mind state is.

From Ajahn Sucitto’s article Muditā: Sharing in Joy:

Muditā means ‘appreciative (or empathic) joy.’ It’s the happiness that arises from appreciating other people’s (or one’s own) good fortune. It comes from acknowledging the basic happiness, the freedom from pain, fear or grief that all beings seek. It can be sensed as the buoyancy that occurs when we touch into well-being or whenever a difficulty ceases – even temporarily. …

It’s good to consider what gets in the way of this natural joy. Factors such as perfectionism, performance drive and goal orientation will have the [inner critic] side effect unless they’re balanced with appreciation. Meditation itself gets tense when we expect results and neglect a sense of appreciation. So it’s important to cultivate a sense of respect for the aspiration and commitment that gets us to meditate in the first place. I generally advise meditators to reflect and dwell on the goodness that is already there in terms of ethical sensitivity and integrity, and let the heart fill with that at the beginning of a meditation session. Effort requires nourishment: it’s the common sense measure of putting gas in the tank when setting out on a journey. [https://commongroundmeditation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Mudita_-Sharing-in-Joy-by-Ajahn-Sucitto.pdf]

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Sometimes people find compassion practice the easiest entry to practicing mettā more generally. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu said, compassion is an extension of  mettā that we feel when we encounter suffering. When we are confronted with suffering, especially in person, compassion (karunā) is a natural response, and if we give it space, it will grow. This can be experienced in every day life, but also if we seek out situations to support those in need: incarcerated people, support groups for people with mental challenges, people in aged care or hospice, even animal rescue and rehabilitation. All of these can inspire us to set aside our own petty concerns and listen patiently to others, with an open heart, whether they are talking or not.

The sense of presence that we can develop with mettā or karunā comes from devoting ourselves to observing and listening to others in a complete way, that is, without the running commentary in our minds. Any judging we might do is picked up immediately by those we are with. The “near enemy” of compassion is pity, and that’s because pity is in fact about ourselves. We think, “Good grief, I’m so glad my life’s not as miserable as that person’s”, or “I wonder how I would respond to these challenges?”. We focus on our own feelings and opinions as a matter of course, so suspending them for a time is quite a different experience. It may happen spontaneously, but only mindfulness can help us develop these freeing mind states.

Everyone knows when they’re being listened to and when they’re not. Most of us feel overlooked and dismissed by those around us; it’s rare to discover that someone is interested in us and cares about us enough to put their own concerns aside, even for a short while. But that’s what both mettā and karunā require. We can’t fake it; we can be kind, but developing boundless kindness or compassion is a liberating practice. We’ll know it when we experience it; it has the flavor of freedom from our own clinging.

Some would say that all of us suffer, each in our own way, so we are all deserving of compassion. Imagine how our world would be if we looked at everyone with the “eyes of love and acceptance”, with unbounded compassion.

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Mettā in practice

Many Mahayana Buddhist chants include the blessing: “May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.” While we may not find these precise words in the Pali canon, it is an idea that permeates the Buddha’s teachings. We must each cultivate our own wisdom and our own happiness.

How can we develop a feeling of goodwill towards ALL beings? Especially for those of us inclined towards aversion, it can be difficult to locate even a seed of mettā in our hearts. Ajahn Sumedho has helped us out here by re-defining mettā as “dwelling in non-aversion”. This is a wonderful trick of the mind; if we eliminate negative thoughts towards other beings or situations, then what do you suppose is left in its place? Mettā! We can test this in our experience. If we let go of critical and complaining thoughts, a feeling of kindness naturally replaces them. Of course this is easy to do for the people we love, and harder with the people we don’t love; sometimes it’s not so easy to feel kindness towards ourselves.

From Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

Notice that you practice developing these attitudes toward all beings—including yourself. It’s easy to feel goodwill, for example, for those you like, or equanimity toward those who have no connection to you. But it requires a conscious effort to be able to maintain these attitudes toward anyone and everyone. It’s not the case that the brahmavihāras are the heart’s innate nature. After all, their opposites can come just as naturally to the heart. It’s just as easy to feel ill will for those who have betrayed you or your loved ones as it is to feel goodwill for those who behave in ways you like.

… So you extend goodwill to all, regardless of whether they “deserve” to be happy. Remember the example of the Buddha, who taught the way to the end of suffering to all beings, regardless of whether they “deserved” to suffer or not.

… You’re thinking, “May you understand the causes for true happiness and be willing and able to act on them.” This is an attitude you can extend to all beings, without hypocrisy, regardless of how they’ve behaved in the past.

Like all practices that lead to wisdom, it takes effort to cultivate an unstinting mettā towards all beings everywhere. However, as with any skill, persistence – a willingness to try again – is what brings results. We may think that developing the universal attitudes of unbounded kindness and its corollaries is much less important than cultivating wisdom, but in the end we discover that you can’t have one without the other. Wisdom and mettā  support each other.

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How the Divine Abodes Work

Over the years, Thanissaro Bhikkhu has cleared up a lot of misunderstanding about what metta – and its companion mindstates – is and is not.

The brahmavihāras, or sublime attitudes, are attitudes of goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity that you spread to all beings, without limit: in other words, with no limit to the amount of goodwill, etc., that you spread, and no limit on the number of beings to whom you spread it. Each of these attitudes is an antidote for mental states that can get in the way of training the mind.

• Goodwill, a wish that beings will be happy, is an antidote for ill will, the desire to see beings suffer.

• Compassion, a wish that those who are suffering will be freed from their suffering, is an antidote to cruelty, the desire to actually harm others when they’re in a position to be harmed.

• Empathetic joy, a wish that those who are already happy will continue to be happy, is an antidote to resentment.

• Equanimity, the ability to maintain the mind on an even keel when events don’t fall in line with your goodwill, is an antidote to irritation.

These attitudes boil down to two—goodwill and equanimity—in that compassion and empathetic joy are basically extensions of goodwill. Compassion is what goodwill feels when encountering suffering; empathetic joy is what goodwill feels when encountering those who are already happy. The Buddha may have separated them out from goodwill in his list of the brahmavihāras because they’re good checks for the honesty of your goodwill. If people whose behavior you don’t like are suffering the consequences of that behavior, is your goodwill sincere enough to want to see their suffering end? If people whose behavior you don’t like are enjoying the fruits of past good actions, can you honestly say that you’re happy for their good fortune?

Equanimity is the backup for cases where, for the time being at least, there’s nothing you can do to stop people from suffering or creating the causes of suffering. https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/Undaunted/Section0010.html#sigil_toc_id_8

We’ll consider these things more deeply, but for today it’s important to understand that we are not wishing for anyone to change specific behaviors. Instead we give the blessing of hoping that all beings learn to free themselves from the things that oppress them. We can’t free anyone else, but we can try to free ourselves, and we can wish that everyone, everywhere also makes that effort. It is all possible, and we can’t make it happen for anyone else, but we can model the change.

“May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease!”— MN 41

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Gil Fronsdal has a wonderful series of published talks called “The Issue at Hand”.  The following is from Chapter 6: Heartfelt Practice –

Whatever a mother, father
Or other relative may do,
Far better is the benefit
From one’s own rightly directed mind.– Dhammapada 43

The English word “mindfulness” is the usual translation for the Pali word sati. Most generally, sati means to hold something in awareness. When the Chinese translated Indian Buddhist terms into Chinese characters, sati became a character with two halves: the top half is the character for  “the present moment” and the bottom half is the character for “heart.” The combination suggests that mindfulness is connected to the heart, to being “heartfelt in the present moment.” It points to the possibility of holding our experience in our hearts, to having an accepting, soft, and spacious awareness toward whatever is occurring. …

Many of us have hearts that are encrusted with anxieties, fears, aversions, sorrows, and an array of defensive armor. The non-reactive and accepting awareness of mindfulness will help to dissolve these crusts. The practice has a cyclic quality; it is self-reinforcing. At first, the practice will allow us to let go of a small amount of defensiveness. That release allows a corresponding amount of openness and tender- heartedness to show itself. This process encourages us to drop even more armor. Slowly, a greater sense of heartfeltness supports the further development of mindfulness.

As our neurotic thought patterns drop away, layers of judgment and resistance atrophy, and the need to define our selves through hard-held identities relaxes. As this happens, the natural goodness of the heart shines by itself.

The impulses to be aware, happy, compassionate, and free, all come from the goodness of our hearts. As we connect to these intentions and allow them to motivate our mindfulness practice, the practice becomes heartfelt.

The Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah said that everything occurs within the heart. In mindfulness practice, we let our heart hold whatever arises within itself. https://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/the-issue-at-hand/en/7/

As Gil so wisely points out, the softening of our hearts is part of the process of cultivating mindfulness. The two go together and cannot, in a practical sense, be separated; real wisdom cannot co-exist with unkindness or any other resistive mind state.

Many folks have proven through their own experimentation that the shedding of our defenses and the resulting increase in feelings of compassion and kindness for others can calm the heart and incline it towards more regular and deeper meditation.

The five precepts (harmlessness, generosity, ethics in sensuality, truthfulness, and sobriety), if undertaken seriously, also have the effect of reducing our tendency to grasp. As we become more aware of the human needs before us and the results of our actions, we are likely to start seeing more clearly the truth of our situation. We are all in this together and we can only control our own actions, words, and (sometimes) minds.

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Best of all Gifts

Thanissaro Bhikkhu says this about how we can repay our teachers for the wisdom that we have learned from them. A student asks:

“How can I ever repay you for your teaching?”

Good meditation teachers often hear this question from their students, and the best answer I know for it is one that my teacher, Ajaan Fuang, gave every time:

“By being intent on practicing.”

Each time he gave this answer, I was struck by how noble and gracious it was. And it wasn’t just a formality. He never tried to find opportunities to pressure his students for donations. Even when our monastery was poor, he never acted poor, never tried to take advantage of their gratitude and trust. This was a refreshing change from some of my previous experiences with run-of-the-mill village and city monks who were quick to drop hints about their need for donations from even stray or casual visitors.

Eventually I learned that Ajaan Fuang’s behavior is common throughout the Forest Tradition. It’s based on a passage in the Pali Canon where the Buddha on his deathbed states that the highest homage to him is not material homage, but the homage of practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma. In other words, the best way to repay a teacher is to take the Dhamma to heart and to practice it in a way that fulfills his or her compassionate purpose in teaching it. I was proud to be part of a tradition where the inner wealth of this noble idea was actually lived — where, as Ajaan Fuang often put it, we weren’t reduced to hirelings, and the act of teaching the Dhamma was purely a gift.

According to the Pali canon, the best gift we can give our teachers (and our parents, and our children, and our friends) is to sincerely practice the Buddha’s teachings so that we can shed the impurities in us that make us less than an ideal student (child, parent, friend). As so many have said, if you want to be a better parent or partner, work on yourself. It is much more valuable than any material gift.

In the Sigālovāda Sutta (DN 31) a generous person is described as one who gives twice what is asked for:

“The helper can be identified by four things: by protecting you when you are vulnerable, and likewise your wealth, being a refuge when you are afraid, and in various tasks providing double what is requested. https://suttacentral.net/dn31/en/kelly-sawyer-yareham?reference=none&highlight=false

Noticing whether we give grudgingly or offer more than is requested is a good test of the strength of our generosity.

Lastly, in a social context, we can practice the Buddha’s teachings by becoming better listeners. Listening, with no agenda besides an interest in understanding another person, is giving.

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