From Thought to Destiny: To Purify the Mind

Uposatha Teaching: New Moon, September 8, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – Habit – Character – Destiny”

Well-makers lead the water (wherever they like);
Fletchers bend the arrow;
carpenters bend a log of wood;
Good people fashion themselves.
Dhammapada 145

To review: Buddhism has not one system of ethics, … not two, but … Three! These are Avoiding Evil (or following precepts), Doing Good (or seeking benefit for self and others) and Purifying the Mind (developing personal virtue). The most interesting dichotomy is between Doing Good and Purifying the Mind, since actually Avoiding Evil just serves to support the aims of the other two. Doing Good focuses on consequences observable in the world. It is more objective. Purifying the Mind focuses on consequences for our personal habit patterns, for character traits, for our life situation and for our destiny. It is more subjective. While we make the world through our actions, we also make ourselves. While we perform virtuous actions, we become virtuous people. While we perform beastly actions we become cads. Purifying the Mind is the most uniquely Buddhist system of ethics as well as the most thoroughly elaborated within Buddhist teachings.

Comparing Doing Good and Purifying the Mind. As expected, making a habit of Doing Good is a good way to Purify the Mind, and Purifying the Mind is a good way to ensure a future of habitually Doing Good. Both are practiced through our choice of actions, but they are not always practiced together. Some actions Do Good but fail to Purify the Mind. Others Purify the Mind but fail to do Good. This is similar to what the craftsman experiences. Throwing pots is a good way to become a master potter and becoming a master potter is a good way to ensure a future of Good pot throwing. However, there are some ways the potter can throw Good pots without Purifying his skills, and there are ways he can Purify his skills without throwing Good pots. For instance, he may choose a good technique for shaping cup handles that inhibits his ability to learn an excellent but more difficult technique involving moving his fingers in the opposite direction. A similar example is the tennis player who goes through a period of skill improvement as they blow games right and left in the process of learning a proper backhand. Or the potter may study painting, not even touching clay, to learn something that will carry over into how he throws future pots.

Purifying the Mind deals with encouraging skillful thoughts and discouraging unskillful thoughts, that is acting with motivations grounded in renunciation, kindness and wisdom, with motivations that are not psychologically stressful and that tend to lead to external Good. In this regard there are nevertheless many practices which work with thoughts in isolation from actions of body or speech, that is, actions which would have objective consequences. For instance, sitting in meditation, letting go of greed and anger, developing mindful awareness in everyday tasks and so on are very important in developing Virtue, but are not themselves virtuous. Making a ritual food offering to the Buddha likewise is not Doing Good in an objective way (the Buddha does not actually get to partake in a meal) but is excellent for developing the positive mental states of the virtuous individual.

Actions with harmful consequences in the world but useful in developing virtue seem to be rare. However, one example may be the practice common in Thailand and Burma of paying someone to release a bird or fish or other animal that he has captured live for the purpose of providing this service to you or other kindly people like you. Now, making such a payment supports an industry that would simply not exist without customers, sparing future birds and fish the trauma of capture in the first place, for ever. However, making such a payment benefits the currently captive bird or fish. Although it is questionable that it is a real act of Doing Good, it nevertheless mimics Doing Good maybe even in a more real sense than feeding the Buddha mimics Doing Good. It may have an overall positive consequence in the project of Purifying the Mind, but this may depend on the ability of the Doer to trace out the consequences of paying for the release of the bird or fish, which might blissfully overlook the prevailing market mechanisms of the Animal Release Industry.

Failure to track consequence.

Likewise there are certainly some actions that are not harmful in the objective world, but nonetheless Depurify the mind. Just as an enactment of generosity to the Buddha can Purify the Mind, the enactment or even witness of killing may reduce the Purity of the Mind, for instance, playing violent video games and watching violent television programs may train the mind to evoke thoughts of anger and fear. There may be instances of killing that can be justified in terms of sacrificing one life to save two or more, as in the baseball bat scenario above. However killing under any conditions is generally assumed to be harmful to the Purity of the Mind. The wielder of the baseball bat would have not only to satisfy himself that the greater benefit is thereby achieved, but also that the toll on his own virtue is not too great a price. Nowhere does the Buddha ever condone killing of another human being, even expressly in self-defense. Studies have shown that executioners in America, the people who conclude death penalty cases, whether or not they believe that the death penalty Does Good, have enormous psychological afflictions by the end of their careers.

Mutual Support of Avoiding Evil, Doing Good and Purifying the Mind. Both Avoiding Evil and Doing Good almost all the time contribute to the Purity of the Mind, even if I initially practice these with mixed motives, such as responding to peer or authority pressure, or just a sense of obligation to practice. For instance, there is a precept not to kill living beings. Maybe I do not initially for the life of me understand why the life of an ugly tweedle bug matters one bit, but a tweedle bug is a living being, and I want to be a good Buddhist, so I don’t kill tweedle bugs. After a few months I discover something that was not there before: a warm heart towards tweedle bugs—they become my little friends—and not just toward tweedle bugs but toward other beings as well, even certain people that I had once put into the same category with tweedle bugs. My mind has become purer. Try it! Put away the tweedle swatter and the Tweedle-Enhanced® Raid and see if you don’t soften right up.

Purifying the Mind requires a constant profound awareness of your thoughts, along with great care to avoid acting out of greed, hatred or delusion. This same awareness provides a fortuitous reality check on whether you are really Doing Good. Recall that greed, hatred and delusion tend to produce harmful actions and renunciation, kindness and wisdom tend to produce beneficial actions. Notice, for instance, that whenever you jot off an email note out of anger you always regret it later? A lustful or an angry mind has a way of distorting reality such that you it sure seems crystal clear that you are Doing Good while in fact you suffer from blind spots that become apparent only upon chilling out. As a rule of thumb, just in terms of Doing Good, do not ever do anything when greed, hatred or delusion is present. The results are almost always harmful, and Depurify the Mind in any case.

How to Purify the Mind. In short, through the Noble Eightfold Path, the path to the Perfection of Character. The practice of Avoiding Evil and Doing Good constitutes the Ethical Conduct part of the path, that is, the factors of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Purifying the Mind per se from the perspective adopted here is Right Effort, and this works together with the other two factors in the Mental Cultivation Group, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, which also give the mental support for the Ethical Conduct practices, and help strengthen Right Resolve, the understanding of the importance of Renunciation, and Kindness in all aspects of life. The most recalcitrant impurities of mind are only resolved through deep insight into the nature of reality; Right View removes the last supports for Greed, Hate and Delusion.

Reaping What We Sow. This brings us back to the Farmer’s Path of sowing and reaping, you remember, the one that starts at Thought, runs through Act, Habit and Character, and ends at Destiny, each step of which shares a common name: Karma.

Whatever I do, for good or evil, to that I will fall heir. AN 5.57

In acting with skillful intentions we develop skillful habits and a strong character. We also bring subjective benefit to ourselves, included in a destiny that will propel us through felicitous rebirths, much opportunity through development of a character tune with these in mind, to Do Good, to See Clearly and to Cast Off Suffering, and ultimately reaching realization of the unconditioned, Nirvana. Some of its elements are a bit controversial among Westerners, but this is the model presented by the Buddha, and that we will consider during the rest of this series of Uposatha teachings. Its purpose is not to define our daily practice—that is the role of the Noble Eightfold Path—but to give us an idea of where it is taking us, to keep our sails full and our rudder set.

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