Uposatha Day Teaching for the Full Moon (Index to Series)
Last week we considered the Precepts and Right Livelihood, both of which advise us not to engage in certain behaviors, primarily out of ethical considerations. We have seen that the significance of Right Livelihood is that our livelihood tend to lock us into certain behaviors for which we accrue the karmic consequences, that is, our livelihoods mold our character, just as our Buddhist practice molds our character. Right Livelihood makes sure the two are not at odds.
This raises the question: Can a Right Livelihood be found in modern America? Even to be a clerk at Walmart will require selling pesticides and booze. Advertising generally violates of Right Speech, sales as well, including trickery, cajolery, insinuating, dissembling, inducing people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have. Much of the finance industry … well you know about that. Actually much of our modern economy more than ever falls under the rubric “wealth creation” which does not seem to involve the production of any tangible product or service at all. It seems to me that wealth creation without creation of a tangible good or service can only be wealth redistribution, since it does not grow the pie but gives investors a bigger slice. Financial instruments are so complex it is hard to actually assess how they work or what their consequences are, the Invisible Hand playing a shell game. Much profitability where there is a good or service produced seems to come through creating monopolies or cartels that raise prices, or through misleading customers or sneaking fine print into contracts. Corporations have become very adept at externalizing costs such that others end up paying much of the cost of production against their will, for instance, as taxpayers or as owners of bodies vulnerable to environmental toxins. There was a time when it was a moral outrage to profit off of war while others are dying fighting it. Now profitability alone is sufficient reason for going to war. Much of this is clearly taking what is not given by others. Most farmers deal with large qualities of poisons such that something as noble as producing a tomato has a cost paid by the environment and public health.. In short, finding a proper livelihood is not straight forward in the moder economy. Perhaps the more traditional occupations, like those of candle-stick makers, cobblers or masons, are the least problematic. Please consider your livelihood carefully and what precepts you might be habitually overstepping in its discharge. Options are particularly slender in this depressed economy. But what you do for a living inevitably makes a big difference in your Buddhist practice.
Outside of livelihood there are habits that should be avoided in a Buddhist life because they tend to be detrimental to the well-being of self and family, both physically and mentally. In the much recommended Sigalovada Sutta (DN31) the Buddha identifies “the six channels for dissipating wealth.” They are:
Indulgence in intoxicants which cause infatuation and heedlessness;
sauntering in streets at unseemly hours;
frequenting theatrical shows;
indulgence in gambling which causes heedlessness;
association with evil companions;
the habit of idleness.
If sauntering in streets at unseemly hours, for instance, is on your short list of values you would like to uphold in your Lay Life, the Buddha recommends you rethink that. For each of these six channels he lists specific disadvantages. He who saunters, for instance, experiences the following:
He himself is unprotected and unguarded,
his wife and children are unprotected and unguarded,
his property is unprotected and unguarded,
he is suspected of evil deeds,
he is subject to false rumours,
he meets with many troubles.
Most of the six channels for dissipating wealth will be familiar as distractions from responsible life. Let me highlight theatrical shows, since the modern equivalents are so prominent in our culture.
There are, young householder, these six evil consequences in frequenting theatrical shows. He is ever thinking:
where is there dancing?
where is there singing?
where is there music?
where is there recitation?
where is there playing with cymbals?
where is there pot-blowing?
This does not seem to involve any physical danger at all, but rather dissatisfaction, restlessness and distraction, manifestations of the craving mind. We are ever thinking the same things in the modern habit of channel-surfing/Web-surfing, though the art of pot-blowing my be currently in an unfortunate state of neglect. In short, an number of common habits should be avoided by the layperson as a matter of protecting the mind.
I would like to consider the role of modern media — TV, radio, Internet, CDs, movies, video games, magazines, etc. — in all this. The media, unknown at the Buddha’s time, is so pervasive in our culture as to rival livelihood. The media therefore need careful consideration, primarily with regard to protecting the mind. Thich Nhat Hanh, for instance, includes mindless entertainment, such as most TV shows, as a form of intoxication and extends the precept concerning alcohol. We could just as well extend the Right Livelihood to include Right Media. Of course not all media is problematic; I am writing and broadcasting these words using a computer, and I hope they are of benefit. I will focus on the overall trend in the media.
First, the media tends to be a distraction. That is to say, it has the disadvantages the Buddha attributes to theatrical shows. However, this unwholesome influence is magnified many times over when people watch TV or play video games six, seven or eight hours every day, at all times of day, and turn to it whenever there is a lag in the conversation or a danger of experiencing serenity. Its ease of access contributes to multitasking, combining the use of media with other activities, such as playing music while cooking. This undermines mindfulness and concentration.
Second, the media tends to have all of the qualities of what is translated as an “evil companion” above. Now, the Buddha set great store in spiritual friends, once defining it as the entirety of practice. It follows that poor spiritual friends can undermine our practice completely. The media tends to set a very poor example of Right Speech, gossiping, back-biting and outright lying. Through images of sex and violence it deep-fries the mind in in a pot of Greed, Hatred and Delusion. Its view of the world and its responses to them are simple and ignoble. It is often pointed out that children, by the time they are five, have seen so many thousands of violent deaths. Without understanding the deeper motives behind the behaviors, they learn that violence is how grownups resolve disputes, over and over again. With later access to deeper motives, generally involving a simplistic battle of good and evil, they learn to abstract the humanity out of people and reduce them mere instruments of benefit or harm. When they get old enough to watch the news they find that the news also explains human motives in similar terms. They become judgmental and unforgiving.
Third, much of the media is intent on manipulation. It is bad enough to have a friend who slanders, drinks too much and passes out on the floor and makes racial slurs. A friend who tries to embroil us in bad business deals or sell us insurance, and who seduces our wives or husbands or steals our valuables is that much worse. Much of the media is complicit in a pernicious carefully crafted mass manipulation of the choices made in purchasing, voting, and social attitudes by the viewing public. We turn on the TV and pretty soon it has us dancing to a tune of lust, envy, fear, hatred, anger and fantasy, provoking in us every unwholesome mental factor that our practice otherwise tries to moderate, in order to get us to do its bidding, or rather the bidding of marketing and public relations people, or rather the bidding of powerful interests who hired them and who want us to behave and think in certain ways. We sit in front of the TV long enough and pretty soon our minds are molded into believing in baseless wars, trusting the good intentions of polluters, ignoring the many piercing cries of the world, ignoring our own suffering, and spending like there is no tomorrow (which as a result of the above there might not be). Of course one of the ways we are manipulated is to keep us glued for as many of our waking hours as possible, missing no opportunity to cultivate addictive behaviors in us.
Our karmic activities are actions of body, speech and mind. Much of our interaction with the media is passive, which is to say is limited to actions of the mind. These take the form of feeling the protagonists anger, hoping he will “take out the trash” with his oversized weapon. Unfortunately the media is becoming more interactive, particularly in the sphere of video games, which often train in killing, in fact probably give us a leg-up if we want to become drone pilots. The karmic consequences are probably enormous.
In short, the media tends to be a very poor companion for Buddhist practice. I am convinced that significant progress in Buddhist practice is not in the cards for someone who has normal American viewing habits, it will simply be overwhelmed by unsavory influences. Now, certainly not all of the media is harmful in this way. There is a difference between, say, watching Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, for instance, and Jack Lemmon in Missing. The media can be instructive, thought provoking; it can present great wisdom. It can be a good spiritual friend. You are reading this through the media. The task in the Art of Lay Life is to discriminate what is beneficial from what is harmful and by all means minimize what is harmful to your practice, and to your family’s mental health.
My advise with regard to the media is, not surprisingly,to simplify. Try to minimize media exposure. Have a favorite program, maybe, but don’t spend every non-working, non-sleeping hour being entertained. Try driving without the radio, try jogging without the earphones. Furthermore, avoid entertainment that is gratuitously violent or sensual in favor of entertainment with merit and intelligence. Of course this might mean giving up things that are appealing and you might not want to hear this advise, but that is why someone (me) has to point out the downside in terms of Buddhist practice. Avoid news commentary that is tinged with hate, which does not observe standards of Right Speech or simple civility, that engages in name-calling and personal attacks. Avoid news and commentary that lies. (If you follow a program or personality for a number of years you might catch contradictions of find old statements thoroughly discredited. It is astonishing how many modern commentators have little regard for the truth.) The biggest rule of thumb might be to avoid media tinged with corporate-influence in favor of starving artists and starving journalists; people who enjoy some independence from the profit-motive tend to have more integrity and want to give the world something of value.
We have now considered steps one and two of the Art of Lay Life, Selecting Elements and Rejecting Elements. I hope these give a lot to think about in shaping the broad contours of your life. Remember, the Buddha and Buddhist teachers can nudge you in a certain direction, but all of these elements are a matter of your own choice. You are bound to disagree at certain points, but the main thing is to keep examining and reflecting and make changes where you are moved to. Next week we will turn to step three, Balancing Elements of the Lay Life.