Archive for the ‘nirvana’ Category

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Core Buddhism

January 25, 2013

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, January 26, 2013

Index to this series

Chapter 2. Core Buddhism

CoreFlowerThere is a Buddhism that shines through constantly through the various Buddhist traditions, a Buddhism visible first in the earliest scriptures and a common edifice behind the many often wild and perplexing guises appearing under the name “Buddhism.” In order to make sense of this, I am going to distinguish three related terms “Original Buddhism,” “Core Buddhism” and “Authentic Buddhism.” Imagine someone made up and told a story that was then retold many times, with different words and much retooling and embellishment of details, but keeping the basic story intact right down to the response to the punch line, we might say the “core” of the “original” story is preserved in any “authentic” retelling.

Original Buddhism is Buddhism as taught by the Buddha, and as formulated by the Buddha. It consists of two parts, the Dhamma and the Vinaya, the doctrine and the discipline. Generally the Pali Suttas, particularly the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas as well as the Suttanipata of the Khuddhaka Nikaya along with the equivalent Chinese Agamas are generally agreed by scholars to constitute the most reliable evidence of the original Dhamma. The Vinaya, the monastic code, is available in several traditions, the Pali Vinaya being the most easily available in English. Many will quibble endlessly about what is actually original, particularly since there are many contradictions and alternative interpretations in the texts transmitted to us, and clearly alterations. I have argued elsewhere that the resolution of these quibbles requires a recognition of the system that shines through when enough of the pieces are assembled, a recognition beyond the competence of pure scholars of Buddhism, but available to those who have entered deep into the path of practice to begin to see the Dhamma experientially.

Core Buddhism is a significant abstraction from Original Buddhism, a kind of eau de Buddhime. It is the system that shines through in Original Buddhism, but stripped of its particular formulation and stripped of extraneous elements of the ancient texts that are irrelevant to that system. This term serves as way to eschew the literalism lurking in original texts.

For instance it is safe to say that some form of mindfulness practice is a key functional element of Core Buddhism. This is formulated as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Original Buddhism, but the the quite distinctly formulated Zen method of meditation called Shikantaza in Japanese along with a set of off-the-cushion practices retain (I would argue, based on personal experience) its functionality. I therefore say both formulations maintain the same functional element of Core Buddhism and Zen is at least in this regard authentic Buddhism.

Also Original Buddhism was taught in a certain cultural context so it is inevitable that it will mention many elements that are not actually integral to Buddhism as a functional system. My own sense, for instance, is that the many devas, godly beings, who drop in on the Buddha in the early scriptures are such elements. Of course what it or is not Core Buddhism is subject to quibble at least as much as what is or is not Original Buddhism. For the most part I will describe Core Buddhism in terms of its intersection with Original Buddhism, but implicitly intend the qualification, “… or equivalent” at each step.

Finally, I refer to an Authentic Buddhism as any formulation of Buddhism that retains or even extends Core Buddhism, and thereby preserves the functionality or intention of Original Buddhism. A new authentic form of Buddhism might arise as Buddhism enters a new cultural space in which new ways of teaching are necessary to reach new ways of thinking. Naturally Original Buddhism is also the Original Authentic Buddhism. Other Authentic Buddhisms retool or extend Core elements of Original Buddhism or simply accrue extra elements, most particularly elements of religiosity. I hope this makes sense; these distinctions will be useful in coming chapters.

A Metaphor for Core Buddhism.

Buddhism is a flower. It is a system of interrelated inter-functioning parts that is much greater than the sum of the individual parts. Each part has a function and, regardless of whether or not you recognize at first what that function is, the whole flower would die if it were missing any major part. Here is in a nutshell how Core Buddhism would map onto the major parts of the flower:

  • The blossom of the flower is Nibbana (I will prefer Pali here, this is Nirvana in Sanskrit).
  • The stem that supports the blossom is Magga, the path, the instructions for practice and understanding, originally expressed as the Noble Eightfold Path, and leading to Nibbana.
  • The leaves androots are the Parisa, the Buddhist community, the roots are the Bhikkhu-Sangha, the monastic order of monks and nuns, actually a special role within the Parisa. They collect nourishment of sun, water and soil in order that the flower thrive.
  • The sun, water and soil that nourish the flower are the Triple Gem, respectively the Buddha, the Dhamma (Dharma), and the Sangha. They inspire and bend the mind in the proper direction.

Now, here is the same thing in more detail:


Blossom. This is Nibbana, the highest attainment of human character, liberation from suffering, liberation from the taints, perfect wisdom, virtue, enlightenment, awakening, all those good things. Notice that most religions seem to have the goal of liberation or salvation, often pertaining to a life beyond this one. Nibbana itself therefore has an aspect of religiosity, though other religions would understand salvation differently.

Stem. This is the Path of individual practice and understanding that leads to Nibbana. This is the most uniquely Buddhist part, and therefore the most distinct from religiosity. The stem is made of three strands, which are called Wisdom, Virtue and Mental Cultivation, each of which bundles two or three smaller strands. The underlying principle behind practice is loosening the entangling bonds of personal neediness, aversion and views. All the strands work together and, when taken up with conviction, energy and a sense of urgency, guarantee selfless progress. There is hardly anything like this in its practicality and sophistication in non-Buddhist religious traditions. Since this is the part of the flower that has the least to do with religiosity it will be the one I write about the least, even though it is the part the Buddha spoke of the most.

Leaves and roots. This is the community context, the community itself and community activities and also the locus of religiosity. The community is divided into to parts, lay and monastic, with clearly defined social roles, but a member of either can begin to ascend the stem.

Leaves. This is the Parisa,the Buddhist community, and its main component is the lay community. The main characteristic of the Buddhist lay community is that it is not explicitly organized nor commanded in any special way, but is rather inspired by the Triple Gem toward practice and understanding and toward a particular relationship with nuns and monks.

Roots. This is the Bhikkhusangha, the community of monks and nuns. Its main characteristic is that it is organized in very specific way, inspires the support of the lay community and in this way is able to sustain a rare lifestyle that is most conducive to Buddhist study and practice. It serves to produce Nobel Ones. The particular organization of the Bhikkhusangha is a primary teaching of the Buddha, the topic of the massive Vinaya. Although the lay community is not explicitly organized its behavior plays off of that of the Bhikkhusangha.

Nourishment for the Flower. Refuge is the part of Buddhist religiosity that allow the roots and leaves to absorb the nourishment of the sun, water and soil. Conviction focuses on the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These nourish the entire practice, and in fact the beginning of Buddhist practice is generally considered to be Refuge in the Triple Gem.

The Buddha reached an advanced understanding, a level of insight and knowledge that he knew would be very difficult for others to achieve. As a teacher he had to consider the process whereby others can reach that understanding, and recognized that it requires a combination of confidence in the teacher and teachings, and direct experience of what these are pointing out. Faith or trust (Pali saddha) is necessary put aside accumulated faulty notions and to open oneself completely to the light of the Buddha’s insight and its current embodiment. Veneration of the Triple Gem is an important psychological element in the development of the necessary trust.

The sun. This is the Buddha himself. Conviction in the Enlightenment inspires the community’s commitment to deeper practice. The Buddha stands an an example to emulate, an admiral friend, present at least in the accounts of his life and in the Dharma-Vinaya, his teachings and in those most shaped by his influence.

Water. This is the Dhamma, the teachings of the truth that the Buddha directly experienced and the instructions for perfecting the human character constitute the clean water that flows into every aspect of our Buddhist life and practice, carried by the soil through the roots into leaves and up into the stem, to inform our practice at every level on our way to Nirvana.

Soil. This is the Sangha. This represents the adepts, past present and future, who have gone far in the practice, perhaps not reaching Nibbana, but progressing at least far enough to discern it and to attain unshakable trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. The Sangha nourishes the community through its visible example, its direct experience and its teaching. Notice that the Sangha here is properly called the “Ariyasangha,” the Noble Ones, to distinguish it from the Bhikkhusangha, the institution that spins off Nobel Ones. The roots are buried deep in the soil, the monks and nuns have Sangha between their toes, and the soil is made rich by the many generations of roots, of leaves, of stems and of blossoms.

The Religiosity the Buddha Did Not Teach

The Buddha lived in a very religious culture, made use of much of what he saw around him and dismissed what he felt was useless or harmful. He made use of a range of such religious elements in crafting his own system of thought, not only to produce practice and understanding, but also to providing the proper context to inspire correct practice and understanding now and for generations to come. I hope the reader will gain a new appreciation by the end of this essay of what a carefully conceived and well-articulated system he crafted. Let us look for now at what he pared down.

In expressing reverence the Triple Gem Core Buddhism acquires something at least like worship. However it is not veneration toward an otherworldly being or force, but of things this-wordly: a remarkable person long deceased, of a set of teachings for and by humans and of real people who happen to embody those teachings completely in their own lives. Actually there may be irony intended in the frequent appearance of such otherworldly beings in the ancient discourses. Even higher deities, rather than demanding reverence for themselves, instead venerate those same things the good Buddhist does as higher than themselves, bowing before the Buddha and even the monks. The Buddha did on many occasions expect of others that they show proper respect for him, and actually required that monks and nuns not offer teachings if their audience shows disrespect for them. However there is little indication that the Buddha intended to become the center of a personality cult. He discouraged some of the more extreme forms of reverence he received, once telling an awe-struck follower (in the most literal sense of follower),

“Why do you want to see this foul body? If you see the Dhamma you see me.”

Nonetheless the Buddha did specify four significant places from his life as destinations for pilgrimage after he is gone.

The Buddha also advocated veneration for parents, teachers, the elderly and even monastics of other traditions, yet eschewed the prevailing caste system. Reverence was clearly part of his thinking.

Likewise limited ritual practices are current in Original Buddhism. Bowing is frequent as a gesture of veneration, as is circumambulation, for instance, “keeping the Tathagatha to his right.” Notice however these are no more than expressions. In contrast the Buddha spoke in no uncertain terms of the dangers of rites and rituals (silabbata), even classifying these as the third of the ten fetters to be abandoned on the Path. He did not have in mind ritual or conventionalized expressions, which like words are means of communication, and which would encompass many things very familiar to us in the modern world, like shaking hands or waving goodbye and saying “Ta-ta.”

Indeed what is absent from Core Buddhism is the attribution of some special hidden efficacy to rites and rituals, for instance making a sacrifice to to gain the good favor of a deity or asking a priest to make an incantation to produce some kind of future good luck or a favorable rebirth. This way of using of rites and rituals was rife in the Brahmanism of the Buddha’s day and did not gain the Buddha’s endorsement. Specifically he did not want the monks and nuns to become priests and forbade such intermediary roles along with astrology, numerology or other means of predicting the future, as well, by the way, of exhibiting paranormal powers such as levitation in the presence of the laity.

Trust or faith has a prominent role in Core Buddhism. Refuge in the Triple Gem is the immediate example, a trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. However this is far from blind faith and in fact much like the trust a student of science puts into her teachers, a science graduate student puts into the paradigm her teacher represents. This is, in other words, a trust that is subject to personal verification as the attainment and understanding of the Buddhist develops and as such it is a faith that is replaced gradually with knowing. It is helpful in this regard that the Buddha was very parsimonious in his teachings, giving nothing as an object of convictionor investigation that did not have a function in the Path.

Another feature of Original Buddhism that bears mentioning is that there are virtually no special practices or teachings of consolation as found in other religions, beyond perhaps the peace of mind that comes with Refuge. There is no appeal to an outside power or metaphysical view that makes everything OK, old age, sickness and death and the rest. There is a notion of salvation, Nibbana, but its attainment is a matter of mental development.

How Buddhist Religiosity Works

The operating principle of the leaves, the roots and the nourishment of the Triple Gem is … friendship! In particular it is admirable friendship (kalyanamittata in Pali), that which is possible from having Noble Ones among us to provide wise role models and instructors. The principle is to have the opportunity to hang with persons consummate in virtue, in generosity and in wisdom. The following dialog expresses in a rather striking way the critical importance the Buddha attached to this simple principle:

As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold Path. (SN 45.2)

Just as it benefits us to have artists and good plumbers among us it ennobles us to have saints and sages, adepts and arahants in our midst, the more the better. These Noble Ones are the Sangha mentioned in the Triple Gem, disciples of the Buddha who root their lives entirely in the Dhamma, have already been carried far aloft by the stem of the Path and are an inspiration and a resource for us all. It is through admirable friends that the meaning of the Buddha’s life and Awakening is revealed and through such admirable friends that the highly sophisticated teachings are clarified step by step to lead the instructling toward and up the Path toward Awakening. It is the Sangha, by recognizing what shines through the words, that the core of Buddhism is preserved in its full integrity. The Sangha is therefore the soil that provides not only the nourishment of water and mineral but ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not be carried away by the wind in the years to come.

The Ariya-Sangha arises from conditions and these conditions are secured by means of the Bhikkhu-Sangha. This is expressed approximately as follows,

And if these monks, Subaddha, live rightly, the world will not be empty of arahants.” – DN 16.

The world will be even less be empty of the Noble Ones, many of whom are not yet arahants, of sages and of admirable friendship. The Bhikkhu-Sangha is both a training ground and a dwelling place for the Ariya-Sangha, much like a university is both a training ground and a dwelling place for scholars. Without Noble Ones Buddhism cannot retain its integrity, and Noble Ones will be very few indeed without nuns and monks in the Buddhist community … or equivalent.

Let’s see how this works out for a young man, Aung Myint, born into a Buddhist family in a Buddhist community. First he will be taught even as a toddler to revere the Triple Gem, the sun, water and soil that sustains the Buddhist flower. The Buddha for him will exemplify certain values such as selflessness, virtue and serenity. The Dhamma is likely not to be readily accessible until he is moved to personal investigation outside of a few aphorisms like “Happiness comes only from within.” The Sangha, with which Aung Myint could well be in daily contact, will provide living examples of what it is to live deeply according to Buddhist principles, and of the joy and wisdom that emerges in such a life. Aung Myint lives among the leaves, as a part of the Buddhist community and supportive of the monks and nuns. He grows up with a mind bent toward Buddhist values and Buddhist aspirations. The Buddha once said,

Those who have joyous confidence in the highest, the highest fruit will be theirs. (AN 4.34)

He has noticed that people adopt a wide varieties of ways of life. He himself for a time thinks of marrying his cute neighbor Su Su and raising a family. But he learns what a problem life can be with no easy answers. He notices that the Noble Ones are more content and full of active goodwill than anyone else in spite of their utterly simple lives. This inspires him to follow the wise into the holy life, to forsake a personal footprint in favor of the selfless Path that blossoms in Nibbana. Aung Myint joins the monastic order and begins to study as a student of one of the sages, and from the root begins his ascent upward. Eventually he becomes one of the Noble Ones, in fact an arahant (to ensure this tale a happy ending).


This has been a brief sketch of the religious infrastructure implemented by the Buddha and its functions. In the next two chapters I will go into more detail concerning the two main components of this system, Refuge, including trust and admirable friendship, and Community, including its organized and unorganized components. After that I will discuss the ways in which this religious system has been modified in the many later Buddhist traditions, including through the incursion of features that the Buddha originally wanted to keep in check. However I will finally consider the ways in which the Buddha foresaw that the presence of Noble Ones, the adapts, the Sangha, would serve to preserve the integrity of Core Buddhism yet tolerate the many pressures toward variation within those traditions.

The Self Collapses, Concluding this Series.

April 25, 2011

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, April 26, 2011

In the many weeks past we have seen that the self is a fabrication that begins with a single faulty thought but which acquires a whole architecture as it extends its scope and influence and develops layers of protection. We begin by staking a greatest claim in Me, the Self. And this becomes, naturally, the source of our greatest delusions, our greatest suffering and our greatest misguided efforts. The claims then extends to those things that the Self identifies itself with: this body, this mind, this intellect, this sparkling personality, this style of attire. This grows to the things the Self thinks it possesses, that is, the external things the Self stakes a claim to: this spouse, this car, this bank account, these power tools, this power. We not only think of the self as a separate thing, we begin to separation to the entire world into two parts, into Good and Evil, based on the self’s concerns, based on Me, what is Mine and what I want and despise. And our behaviors become marked with self-interest, by manipulating the world for personal advantage, exploiting its resources and protecting from its danger. The whole emotional tenor of our lives shifts away from the simple joy of being alive toward greater levels of pain and suffering. Furthermore we find ourselves increasingly mired in a world of our own making but that seems to be swallowing us up. The Buddha has pointed to the source of the problem and given us a path for its undoing.

Having a self is like taking a new roommate into your apartment, who may initially present himself as a nice guy but who turns out to be a jerk. After a month you can list all of his faults in detail, which he is invariably totally clueless about. After two months you are ready to throw him out. The problem is that the more stuff he has, the more bills he has been paying, the more signatures he has placed on leases and contracts and accounts, the more people he has given the apartment phone number to, the harder it is to throw him out. You need to find an alternative for paying the bills, to sort through and haggle over the CDs, to let his friends know he cannot be reached here, and so on.

What is more, in the case of the self, the roommate is you! You just hadn’t noticed your faults before, even though you had already been living with you all your life. You will now understand why you have always been so miserable and why everyone else seems to think you are a jerk: You have been just living with a jerky roommate: You. So your task is to kick you out. And that is the heart of Buddhist practice: kicking you out of your apartment. The apartment will be fine on its own, for …

Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found; The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there; Nibbāna is, but not the man that enters it; The path is, but no traveler on it is seen. (VisuddhiMagga XVI)

I have been making use of the metaphor of the self as having an architecture, in fact of the self as a wooden bridge that cannot be destroyed at any single structural point but must be weakened at various points at once until the entire thing comes crashing down. In this regard I have unleashed termites that stand for the various parts of the path of practice the Buddha has given us, the Noble Eightfold Path. In this concluding episode we get to watch the bridge collapse into the abyss below.

Through Virtue we transform our behavior in the world directly. In the self-centered life our speech, our actions and our livelihood are beams and rafters that support and reinforce the self. The Buddha’s practices of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood are termites that eat away at those beams and rafters.

Through Cultivation of Mind we transform our emotive impulses. In the self-centered life our thoughts tend toward lust and anger, our intentions are impulsive and rooted in greed, hate and delusion, and our minds are feverish and endlessly disturbed. The Buddha’s practices of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are termites that eat away at those beams and rafters. Of course termites are social insects; they nourish each other back at the mound, and the energy, focus and clear awareness provided by the termites of cultivation makes a big difference in the work of all of the other termites.

Through Wisdom we transform our conceptualizations and perceptions. The self-centered life began with a faulty fabrication and proceeded to fabricate a complex and biased model of reality and our place in it. The Buddha’s practices of Right View and Right Resolve are termites that eat away at those beams and rafters. This is where the wood is hardest and is generally the last point at which the bridge breaks when the rest is already collapsing. In the Fabricated World that we take as reality things exist in and of themselves, and if not permanently, then at least with a lifespan. You, your Self, has a life span, you are born, you live and you die. When you see through that Empty world there is only continuous change everywhere, you are hard put to find something that behaves with a well-defined birth, lifespan and death. There is no Self that can be pointed to that abides so long, there is similarly no birth, only an evolution from whatever preceded and no death, only an evolution to whatever follows. The reality recognized when this last part of the collapsing bridge is carried away is therefore sometimes known as the Deathless.

The self gets a bad rap in Buddhist circles and I want to conclude with a few mixed words on its behalf. First, the fabrication of a self clearly has a function in our survivability as a species and in the evolutionary scheme of things, as I pointed out some weeks ago. It is not an accident of nature. Moreover, it must have a continuing function in the simple survival of the arahant. The arahant will not have the intentionality of common folks, her activities will be driven by mere functionality on behalf of kindness and compassion rather than on self-interest, yet if she is to be a teacher and an inspiration to others and a factor in perpetuating the sasana, she has to eat, she has to avoid getting run over by a truck, she has to continue to have some loosely working but not domineering concept of a self as circumstances require. After all, our whole ability to reason and deal with a complex and uncertain world is based in our capacity for fabrication.

Second, for most of us it is the self the brings us into Buddhist practice in the first place. The self suffers; contentment and happiness are elusive to the self. The self in its quest to manipulate the situation on its own behalf often begins to look outside the box of raw impulse and recognizes in Buddhist practice a resource to be used to get the happiness it seeks. As it enters into Buddhist practice it is encouraged to actually find a new sense of well-being. Practice then becomes a struggle between the self’s new path of Self-improvement and its more ingrained and impulsive patterns of thought and behavior. We can in fact travel a long way down the path with a firm idea of Self-improvement in mind. Ultimately, though, the self is playing a cruel hoax on itself. This is that when the path nears its end, the self will not have improved itself, nor acquired any special characteristics at all; it will simply be absent, its last remnants lost in the bridge’s resounding Kafwump! We start out thinking we are practicing for ourselves but that is O.K., because in the end we discover we have been practicing in spite or ourselves all along. And yet benefit has accrued.

Buddhism is about looking outside the box with the eye of wisdom. It is about seeing how our rich emotional lives, though providing good material for Italian opera, keep us constantly on edge, perpetually dissatisfied and trapped inwardly in a drama from which we cannot get free, all the while thrashing about outwardly in a world of our own fabrication in horribly harmful ways. It is about transforming this unbounded insanity that we all seem to be endowed with and to live in the midst of, and instead to live worthwhile, satisfying and harmless lives, by liberating our actions from our basest emotions, by developing skill in our actions, turning away from our untutored emotional reactiveness. This is growing up fully, to let go of the tyranny of the fabricated self, which is, after all, hardly more real than a donut hole, a shadow, a cloud or a lump of foam.

From Thought to Destiny: the eBook

January 10, 2011

From Thought to Destiny

Traditional and Modern Understandings of Kamma

click to download PDF

Religiosity in Buddhism (Part 2 of 2)

January 4, 2011

Uposatha, New Moon, January 4

Last week I described religiosity as having an integral role in Buddhism, as the leaves and roots of the flower of Buddhism that thrive nurtured by the sun of Buddha, the water of Dharma and the Soil of Sangha, producing the strength to sustain the stem of Buddhist practice stretching upwards toward the blossom of Nirvana. If you are new to this discussion, please read last week’s episode here before proceeding.

This week I would like to flesh out the role of religiosity in Buddhism in quite practical terms. First, we will see, following a specific example, the development of selflessness, how it contributes to higher attainments along the Noble Eightfold Path by inclining the mind already in a beneficial direction. Second, we will see how religiosity provides the most effective entry for the individual into Buddhist practice through the generation of conviction and energy.

Working Together. Religiosity is one part of the Buddhist whole. Usually when something has multiple parts it is so that the parts can work together and performance diminishes or is lost altogether with the loss of any one part. For instance, you have two feet for walking; with one foot you could not even walk half as fast. The engine of your car has many parts. Remove a spark plug and performance will degrade noticeably, remove the fuel pump and it will fail altogether. Your washing machine is also something like that. A flower has many parts. Remove the leaves and roots and the flower would have no way to acquire nourishment, in fact I’m not sure what would hold the stem up. To understand how the various parts of Buddhism work together, let’s consider how they conspire to cultivate one quality, selflessness, or the realization of anattā, an essential attainment on the Buddhist path.

First let’s begin with nutriment, the Triple Gem, the sun, water and soil that sustains the Buddhist flower. The Buddha exemplifies selflessness in his virtue, and inspires emulation thereof, in that his attainment represents the complete relinquishment of any sense of self. The Dharma teaches the philosophical basis of anattā and how to work with it in practice. The Sangha provides living examples of anattā in that it exhibits, or follows vows that restrict, self-serving behaviors. It is also the vehicle through which the teachings of anattā, and all other Buddhist teachings, have been successfully conveyed and taught through the hundred generations of Buddhist history to the present day.

Entering the roots and leaves, that is, religiosity itself, confidence in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha opens the Buddhist to the teachings of anattā and inspires him to develop its qualities as a part of dedicated Buddhist practice destined to blossom in Nirvana.

Those who have joyous confidence in the highest, the highest fruit will be theirs. (AN 4.34)

In addition, many practices running through all religiosity, including Buddhist, are physical expressions of selflessness, including bowing, which seems to be a natural embodiment or enactment with deep roots (consider that lesser dogs make a similar gesture to express submission), and including the various expressions of respect or veneration. The degree of resistance many Westerners new to Buddhist religiosity initially have to bowing is in fact clear evidence for its capacity to confront self-centered attitudes.

When a noble disciple contemplates upon the Enlightened One, at that time his mind is not enwrapped in lust, nor in hatred, nor in delusion. … By cultivating this contemplation, many beings become purified. AN 6.25

The Buddhist community has generosity in its veins and for the member of that community the need to protect personal interests wanes. All of these things serve to weaken that entrenched sense of self. We have seen the capacity of religiosity to encourage wholesome mental factors such as kindness and tranquility. This is the beginning of qualities further developed in the Noble Eightfold Path, which will itself as a whole further develop selflessness.

Ascending the stem, we enter the Noble Eightfold Path along which the mind is tuned, honed, sharpened, tempered, straightened, turned and distilled into an instrument of Virtue, Serenity and Wisdom. The sense of self, tweaked, twisted, thinned, stretched, readjusted and spun, does not make it through to the end of the Path. This is the ultimate triumph of selflessness.

The Growth of a Buddhist. A flower, out metaphor for the entirety of Buddhism, is one kind of plant and it grows in a certain way. We can compare it to three other kinds of plants that grow differently.

The flower grows from a seed that finds itself in soil. With exposure to water and soil, roots grow into the ground, and leaves sprout above the surface and begin to absorb sun. Pretty soon the flower, thriving with confidence and energy, pushes a stem upward, ultimately to bloom.

Grass also grows from a seed that finds itself in soil. With exposure to water and soil, roots grow into the ground and blades sprout above the surface and begin to absorb sun. Pretty soon the grass thrives with confidence and energy, but produces no stem and does not bloom.

The tyke born of a devout Buddhist family will likely become either a flower or grass. In either case, his spiritual growth will begin the same way. The little seedling is brought into the presence of the Buddha, and monks and nuns and taught the forms of respect. He is exposed to the feel of a Buddhist community, and begins to absorb some Dharma. With growing conviction he becomes increasingly involved in the community life, developing merit in taking care of the temple and the monastics, in chanting vigorously, and such things. Maybe he takes refuge and begins to follow the precepts. Now, the prospect of advanced personal development in the Buddha’s way may or may not start to seem appealing as he reaches a critical decision point. If he undertakes meditation practice, study of the teachings and continues to deepen the practice of virtue, he will find himself firmly on the Path, and reaching upward toward Nibbāna. In this case he has become a flower, otherwise he will remain grass, nonetheless green and healthy.

Mistletoe grows from a seed that is deposited in a bird dropping on a branch, stem or trunk of an existing plant. It develops enough of a root to absorb water and minerals from the host plant, but sprouts leaves and even flowers. It is a parasite.

A graft is a branch or stem that is through human intervention cut from its original stock and attached to a lower part of another plant. Like mistletoe it absorbs water and minerals from the new stock, can sprout leaves, produce fruit and flower. It is a transplant.

For the chap who comes to Buddhism later in life, spiritual development is commonly, but not necessarily, like that of mistletoe or of a graft rather than like that of a flower or of grass. Typically a Buddhist-to-be begins by reading about Buddhism, inspired perhaps by a vague sense that Buddhism is a good thing, maybe having seen the Dalai Lama on T.V. and thinking that was pretty cool, or inspired by celebrity Buddhists, or Buddhism’s reputation as “peaceful,” or by reading “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse.

Now, this chap may or may not come from a previous religious tradition, possibly with a rich religiosity. The graft characterizes the first case. For instance, many who come to Buddhism have a degree of development in religiosity in the Jewish or Catholic tradition. Much of the growth of the roots and leaves has already been experienced and is, probably with mixed degrees of success, translated into Buddhist religiosity.

The chap without a strong religious background, on the other hand, once my own case, is mistletoe. I suspect secular Buddhists are are almost always such chaps. As a result little attention has been given to the roots and leaves. Now, mistletoe grows slowly and does not really thrive the way the host plant would were the mistletoe not attached (this is a guess on my part—I’m not much of a botanist—but it supports the metaphor). Yet it can potentially bloom. In the meantime it gazes down upon the grass with disdain, little comprehending the roots and soil and the spiritual growth that is happening down there. It is common for Western hubris to see little value in Asian religiosity, little realizing how mistletoe is nourished through the roots and leaves of another, just as religiosity has sustained Buddhism for all of these years so that we can be nourished by its highest teachings. It is difficult, but that is where mistletoe needs to put down roots if conviction and zip are flow freely into practice.

Most Buddhists world-wide are centered in religiosity, in the roots and leaves, not in the stem. They are aware of the stem, consider the Path upward, maybe make forays in that direction, and — this is almost uniquely significant in Buddhist religiosity — support generously the aspirations of the many who dedicate themselves completely to the path. However Buddhist religiosity alone — and this is probably true of most forms of religiosity — seems capable of achieving remarkable results. I see this in most Asian Buddhists I’ve known. I also see it in other religious traditions, which one way or another seem to produce some people of great attainment, even without a Noble Eightfold Path or anything resembling it! Admittedly there arises sometimes a dark side in religiosity; it can move toward exclusion, fundamentalism and superstition; I don’t want to discount that. But it also has a remarkable capacity for generating confidence, zip and many wholesome mental factors in its adherents, and can produce centered, composed, kind and insightful people, and do that all alone.

Conclusion.The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s own checklist for personal practice. Secular Buddhists are right when they see in this teaching something way beyond common religiosity, in fact one of the most remarkable achievements in human religious, psychological and philosophical thought.*  However that personal practice exists in a human, a communal, an historical context in which religiosity has always played an indispensable role. A good part of the Buddha’s genius is found in how he shaped that religiosity to ensure that Buddhist practice would thrive, maintain its integrity and be transmitted to future generations. We have all been its beneficiaries.  Buddhist religiosity is the ideal platform from which to develop smoothly and decisively according to the Buddha’s instructions, along the Noble Eightfold Path toward the attainment of Nirvana.

* I won’t address some of the very narrow modern checklists which seem to missing whole flagstones in the Path of individual practice.

From Thought to Destiny: Conclusion

December 21, 2010

Uposatha Teaching: Full Moon, December 21, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacterDestiny

Sow a thought,
and you reap an act;
Sow an act,
and you reap a habit;
Sow a habit,
and you reap a character;
Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.”

We now conclude this series of Uposatha (Quarter Moon) Day teachings on Karma.

We humans are thinking acting creatures potentially with a broad array of free will options in every conscious moment. This enables new karma whereby thoughts give rise to acts, or just remain thoughts. Our acts play out in the world and their consequences run deep, in fact continue indefinitely into the future, where they mingle with all the other chains of cause and effect to make the world what it is. At the same time each new karmic thought or act leaves a residue in the mind, and the accumulation of this residue make us who we are. We are what we do. The karmic residue, the old karma, begins to harden into walls and byways that tend to fix our future acts and thoughts into habit patterns, into mounds then mountains that become our world view, fixed opinions, values and aspirations. This landscape, whether pleasant or craggy, becomes the world we inhabit and the best predictor of our future thoughts and acts, the future new karma that will then leave further karmic residue. Our inner world thus formed can become heaven or hell, a human realm of both pain and pleasure, a place of limitless craving and fear, a ghostly realm of perpetual dissatisfaction or a world of rage and competition. Our outer influences can be for harm or benefit, and the outer world we help create around us as we produce new karma in turn produces conditions that trigger our responses in the form of more new karma, just as our acts trigger karmic responses in others.

Unfortunately left to our own devices, with neither skillful reflection nor wise guidance, we rarely achieve the control over our own karma necessary to shape either our outer or our inner world in a healthy direction. We most naturally fall into service of impulses to seek personal advantage, to exploit for ourselves what we think the world might offer and to protect ourselves from the dangers we think the world might harbor. Alongside these is a desire to be of benefit to others, to treat others with kindness, especially those closest to us. But we struggle with an incessant feeling of lack and a sense of dissatisfaction when we actually manage to acquire what we seek, which then just becomes another need. One need leads to another and our behaviors rather than benefiting begin to harm, for which we fashion clever justifications, even as they harm ourselves. The reactions of those we harm create new needs. We wonder why happiness is so elusive as our karma accumulates. We end up inhabiting, disappointed and confused, an unsatisfactory or even frightening world of our own making, with no better notion of what went so dreadfully askew than to try harder at whatever we were doing before, no longer even considering alternatives to the well-worn byways and walls and the rest of the craggy landscape we’ve formed.

With wise guidance and skillful reflection we are able to take control of our karma. First, we see how our impulses that seek personal advantage lead us astray in increasing lack not decreasing it, in leading to more dissatisfaction not less, in leading to harm for others and unhappiness for ourselves, in enmeshing us further and further in our struggles with the world. Second, with sufficient discipline, energy and sense of urgency, we sort out what is skillful and unskillful in our our thoughts and actions. Immediately we become a force for benefit in the world and gradually we begin, by choosing our thoughts and actions with due deliberation and in spite of established patterns of habit and view, to break through the old karmic walls to create new byways, to create a new more habitable and pleasing karmic landscape. Thereby we begin to loosen the compelling hold of greed, aversion and fixed views, and develop in their stead renunciation, kindness and compassion. We are on our way to the attainment of Nirvana.

Unfortunately we tend to have a small view of the scope of the Buddhist project, we tend to think all the benefit of practice as confined to this one solitary life, limited in time and space, where it competes with all the other temporal attractions that promise happiness, such as physical workouts, dieting, the ideal hair style, wind surfing, executive moving and shaking, and opera tickets. The problem with the limited temporal view is that, since all accomplishment on the Buddhist path will be dissipated at the death of the physical body anyway, the reserve of discipline, energy and sense of urgency otherwise available will be dissipated right now, in favor of potentially more pleasant paths to happiness. The fact is, however, that our unskillful karma propagates and perpetuates itself, if not serially projecting into subsequent lives, then at least laterally through imitation, through the responses of others as consequences of our actions, through adoption into the popular culture. Our karma slops over and spills on others so that large parts of our pleasing or craggy karmic landscape are replicated over and over in the lives of others, in our children, in our colleagues and friends and in all who bear the consequences of our deeds. They carry aspects of ourself, we at the minimum are reborn in bits and pieces. And their potential for attaining Nirvana will, to that extent, look like ours.

Our entire Buddhist practice consists in how we meet this moment, and the next, and the next, …, in Thought and Act. We can meet it skillfully or unskillfully. The teachings on karma tell us how important that Thought and that Act are. While profoundly and eternally conditioning the outer world for harm or benefit, they add their imprint on our Habits, on our Character and in the end on our Destiny. Practice is forever.

From Thought to Destiny: The Pragmatics of Destiny

December 14, 2010

Uposatha Teaching: First Quarter, December 14, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacterDestiny

Nirvana is both the beginning and end of Buddhist practice. We begin with accepting the truth of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Even before we have an understanding of what this is, we accept that the Buddha gained some special quality that we too can with time achieve in Buddhist practice. We end with Nirvana. We practice in between, gaining confidence in the Buddha’s enlightenment as we observe elements of our own character fall into place and gain glimpses of the ultimate goal.

Nirvana, along with its companion, Rebirth, forms a context for Buddhist practice. Keep in mind though that practice is simply about skillful intentional action, that is, Karma. We have added the layers Habit, Character and Destiny to Thought and Act merely to explore the consequences of our intentional action, so that we better understand what it is to be skillful and why its cultivation is so imperative. As with the understanding of Rebirth the understanding of the goal of Nirvana is not without pitfalls.

The Goal. Goals themselves are often put to unskillful uses. They quickly become objects of desire, clinging and obsession, and thus foster unskillful states of mind. “I gotta have that NOW! Oh, I can’t wait, I can’t wait.” Sugarplums are painful things to have dancing in your head. Nirvana can do that as well. Once achieved goals accordingly create an equivalent fear of losing what has been accomplished, or dissatisfaction in it. Don’t worry, you will not have achieved Nirvana in the first place if you have this level of clinging. How do you have a goal skillfully?

It is important to hold skills lightly. Think of them as the North Star, guiding your path, but not something you need to actually reach (in fact the North Star is more and more out of reach the further you travel toward it; it ends up overhead). If you are learning a language, you just follow a fixed daily routine of practice, otherwise you will make yourself miserable striving to speak as a native and will eventually give up. Consider Gandhi’s life task; he just followed the daily practice of non-violent non-participation along with encouraging others to join him; he never would have endured his half-century campaign had he been obsessed constantly with driving the British out of India. Consider the misery of dieting to get slim, the repeated sacrifice of what needs to be renounced in the painful effort to be slim, then the disappointment after you abandon the discipline that you had barely been able to sustain, only to return to your former pleasingly plump condition. The goal can skillfully form a background context to occasionally consult to ensure you are headed in the right direction.

The ways in which the goal of Nirvana has been framed seems to have played an important role in Buddhist thought. In China the notion of Sudden Enlightenment became very prominent. This is the idea that within this very life it is very feasible that one can attain Nirvana, without plotting out a path of development spanning many lifetimes. Zen literature is full of references to people who through practice and skillful instruction suddenly realize in a single instant Enlightenment, often with little preparation beforehand. These stories in a sense mirror the stories of the early Suttas of disciples of the Buddha who realize the final goal during a single discourse of the Buddha. However in the Suttas the presupposition is almost always present that these are people “with little dust in their eyes,” people who have already lived as recluses perhaps for many lifetimes, practiced meditation, developed virtue, reflected deeply on the nature of existence, and only needed the wisdom of the Buddha’s teaching to pull it all together. Within Zen even while embracing Sudden Enlightenment the contrasting notion that one should practice without a goal, simply practice. The notion that “We are already enlightened” encourages this. This is particularly evident in the teachings of Japanese Master Dogen (1200-1253), whose view was essentially that Enlightenment is not something you achieve, it is something you do, or fail to do, moment by moment. After all, the only way we shape Habit, Character and Destiny, or in fact anything else in the world, is through our intentional actions. Isn’t it enough just to get our intentional actions right, that is, to face each moment with a calm mind, virtue in the heart, and clarity about what is going on, and then act skillfully? Similarly, for the chubby person is it not enough just to face each day moderate eating habits? In either case the goal takes care of itself.

It is important to distinguish striving for a goal from effort. Effort does not require clinging, which is painful, only discipline, which can be quite joyful. What we would call an awakened being, and arahant, someone who has attained the goal of Nirvana gets intentional actions right naturally and without effort, which is why we don’t even think of them as intentional or karmic any more, and would not know what else to do. The rest of us must meet each moment while being hammered by the typhoons and eruptions of impulse and obsession, assaulted by the flames and avalanches of passion and rage, so we must be able to put all that aside then act with a calm mind, virtue in the heart, and clarity about what is going on, and to enact Enlightenment. So effort does not vanish with the notion that we are already all enlightened. We still need to act like it.

I suspect that, like much of Buddhist doctrine, the various ways of treating the goal of Nirvana are pragmatic adaptations of the Buddha’s teachings to differing cultural circumstances. It has been suggested that the idea of Sudden Enlightenment is related to the existence of greater social mobility in China than in India. In India there was not much expectation that one’s lot in life would change significantly within this lifetime, life required extreme patience, and many lifetimes to make progress. In China one might be born a peasant and die an advisor to the emperor, quick results could be expected in this lifetime. I doubt that the Chinese actually developed a way to become enlightened faster, they just framed to process in a more appealing, less frustrating way. For those that might have doubts about the veracity of Rebirth, which recall brings with it a sense of urgency in practice, the prospect of Sudden Enlightenment might also inspire to urgency in practice. The downside of all this is that the prospect of Sudden Enlightenment encourages clinging to the ultimate goal. This would explain the common accompanying theme of practicing with no goal as a wise defense against this clinging.

Now let’s consider Western culture. We tend to be acquisitive, we tend to expect instant click-of-a-button gratification, we tend to interpret things as personal goals. These things require that we be extremely careful with Nirvana, Enlightenment and the other synonyms. Already these have become marketing tools for Buddhist products, including teachings, accompanied by promises of fast results. I recommend that people steer clear of such appeals. I personally like to teach in terms of Gradual Enlightenment but Steady Progress in order to mitigate greed and encourage patience. I teach in terms of Perfection of Character or Virtue rather than Ending of Suffering, or Eternal Bliss, because it is less about personal advantage, it suggests something you do for everyone rather than just for yourself. I tried teaching in terms of Responsibility for a while, but students seemed to think that was a bummer. (It is perhaps an advantage of being a monastic that I do not have to try to sell anything, like seminars, books and retreats; I don’t depend on teaching as a livelihood, I have no livelihood. This leaves me free to teach what is most skillful, like renunciation and disenchantment, rather than what appeals to the naive and commercially influenced understanding.) Most importantly is to settle into a well-defined daily practice routine, disciplined but not striving. The book will get written if you write a certain number of pages a day, competence will develop if you learn something new each day. Just take care of the day, the moment, the intention behind the action and the rest will take care of itself.

Rebirth and Nirvana together give a broader meaning to the Buddhist path that extends beyond the confines of this one life. Although Nirvana is a distant goal for most, it is one toward which noticeable progress, along with occasional glimpses of its waiting arms, can be witnessed in this one life, and sometimes some recluse will actually attain this lofty goal of perfection of character. For most of us Nirvana simply provides a cathedral-like framework to contain our daily practice or aspirations.

Greater than the One Life. The focus on this one life gives a limited view of the Buddhist path. Another analogy is perhaps in order.

The focus of corporate capitalism tends to be limited to quarterly profits. Sometimes the executive vision is a bit more far-sighted as certain long-term perspectives are able to raise stock prices for the short term, but the performance of executives are by and large judged on the basis of quarterly profitability. This means that the global view is largely lacking; where will we be, say, one hundred years from now? The characteristic myopic decisions of individual corporations exemplifies what in Artificial Intelligence is known as Hill Climbing. The logic of Hill Climbing is that if you want to get to the top of the mountain in the fog, just keep walking up hill. The decision-making process is thus driven by a local metric, the contours beneath your feet. The weakness of hill climbing is that you almost always get stuck at the top of a foot hill and miss the top of the mountain altogether because you lack the global perspective. This is the problem of scrambling for short-term, measurable gain. Since corporations by and large can not sustain a long-term perspective, other human institutions are required that can. The scientific and technological research communities can afford a long-term view because at their purest they are generally not required to show quarterly results or any particular practical results. Their practitioners, sustained by job security (tenure and so on) provided generally through government funding, have the leisure to work on projects with very long-term goals, or simply advance human understanding of certain principles, like computability. They become a resource for future long-term corporate profitability, at little corporate expense. They also potentially provide a social conscience in corporate decision-making. (Unfortunately a great weakness of the corporate system is that more often than not warnings that would conflict with quarterly profits tend not only to be ignored actually suppressed through corporate control of media and through corporate lobbying of government agencies responsible for allocating funds for scientific and technological research.)

Our individual spiritual focus tends to be similarly limited to quarterly results. Sometimes we are motivated to sustain a meditation practice through the inspiration of others, but generally we waste time scrambling for short-term measurable gain, wealth, reputation, fun, a new romance, kids off drugs and in school, the neighbor’s dog not barking all night, getting the upper hand in the battle of the bulge, finding the best cell phone service provider for the family, looking busy at work and so on. With so many petty concerns it is easy to lose sight of Nirvana, the overarching goal of the Buddhist life, the lofty peak that may lie many lives in the future, and instead get stuck at the top, or even half way up, a little hill. As a matter of fact, since Buddhists by and large can not easily, in the bustle of samsara, sustain a long-term perspective, another human institution is required to hold to that perspective as a constant reminder. This is a traditional role in Buddhism of the monastic Sangha. Its practitioners, sustained by lay donations, and at the purest giving up all temporal concerns that might distract them from the higher goal, have the leisure to work on something much bigger than their single lives. They become the conscience of the Buddhist, keeping him pointed toward the higher goal. On a quarterly basis the elements of Buddhist practice may not seem so urgent, but those periods on the cushion, meeting situations with kindness and insight, keeping life simple and peaceful, make an incalculably huge difference in the Destiny of the world.

From Thought to Destiny: Nirvana, the Perfection of Character 1/2

November 28, 2010

Uposatha Teaching: Last Quarter Moon, November 29, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacterDestiny

The final Destiny for those on the Buddhist Path is Nirvana. “Nirvana” itself means Unbinding or Extinguishing, and has been described as the End of Suffering; the End of Greed, Hate and Delusion; the Destruction of Fermentations; the End of Karma; the End of Samsara or the Round of Birth and Death; the Deathless; Awakening, Enlightenment or Realization; Attainment or Realization of Emptiness; Liberation. Each of these phrases describes a specific aspect of Nirvana. A more encompassing description would be simply Perfection of the Human Character, or Finally Growing Up Completely. It is the North Star toward which we navigate in our practice. The one who has caught a first glimpse of Nirvana is called a Stream Enterer and is said to be no longer able to turn away from the Path to Nirvana, which is said to be attained within seven lifetimes. The one who has attained Nirvana is called an Arahant. This generally happens, for example, like this:

Dwelling alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute, he … reached and remained in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing and realizing it for himself in the here and now. He knew: “Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for the sake of this world.” And thus Ven. Sona became another one of the arahants. AN 6.55

Few make it there in this life. The one who has shown us how to attain Nirvana is the Awakened One, the Buddha. Lets take the different aspects of Nirvana in turn: Imperturbability, Awakening, Highest Virtue and Liberation.

Imperturbability. This is the result of developing the affective aspect of character. With the ending of craving, suffering ends. Craving ends with Greed and Aversion, with the fermentations, the taints on the human character. The ending of craving entails the arising of contentment in all things.

In Nirvana, neither scantily clad lass, nor debonair hunk, neither chocolate cream cake a la mode, nor catchy tune, will make the heart beat faster with passion. Neither plunge into nest of snapping vipers, bite of bear, nor lunge of lion, neither ghoul, nor remorseless torture, will raise a hair in fear. Neither fender bender nor rude waiter, neither computer crash with total loss of data, nor out o’ cash with total loss of face, will curl the lip or wrinkle the brow one snippet in ire. Life simply ceases to be a problem or a struggle. The senses continue to function, even physical pain can still be discerned, but nothing is taken personally, ever.

As a single mass of rock isn’t moved by the wind, even so all forms, flavors, sounds, aromas, contacts, ideas desirable and not, have no effect on one who is Such. AN 6.55

This non-attachment runs very deep. The imperturbable mind, for instance, can have no stake in that which is compounded or fabricated, which is to say everything we think of as being a thing, because a compounded thing is always held with some degree of stress or suffering, even if it is a good intention, a skillfully motivated plan or a thing of great beauty. We’ll look at what it is with these darn compounded things in a few paragraphs.

To be a mass of rock, unmoved by the wind, might seem a bit boring, like a bland soup without any spice. It certainly could not form the basis of a popular soap opera. But in fact, those who have attained Nirvana report an abiding feeling of bliss, just not in sensual things. It is the bliss of serenity, the bliss that arrives as suffering departs, the bliss of settling in with things as the are and not seeing them as personal problems, the bliss of contented abiding in this marvelous world. It is like a soup that, though bland, is simply healthy and nourishing to the body. It is the bliss of renunciation, of no personal stake, that abides by its own accord, that will not and cannot depart, no discipline required.

A favorite story from the Suttas relates that Ven. Bhaddiya Kaligodha was often heard by other monks to exclaim, “What bliss, what bliss!” Since he had, as a layman, been a king, they assumed that he was reminiscing, that while he had let go of all of his cushy advantages physically, he was still having trouble with unskillful thoughts. Upon word of this, the Buddha summoned Ven. Bhaddiya and discovered that the monks were underestimating his realization. This was Ven. Bhaddiya’s account:

“Before, when I was a householder, maintaining the bliss of kingship, I had guards posted within and without the royal apartments, within and without the city, within and without the countryside. But even though I was thus guarded, thus protected, I dwelled in fear — agitated, distrustful, and afraid. But now, on going alone to a forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty dwelling, I dwell without fear, unagitated, confident, and unafraid — unconcerned, unruffled, my wants satisfied, with my mind like a wild deer. This is the meaning I have in mind that I repeatedly exclaim, ‘What bliss! What bliss!’”

A couple of analogies might help to understand the affective experience of Nirvana. Suzuki Roshi used to tell his students who, like good Westerners intent on results, expressed too much greed for Nirvana, “How do you know you will like Enlightenment?” In fact, we don’t like the idea of giving up sensual pleasures, nor fame and gain. But consider how much you gave up in the process of growing up. Toys and games and interpersonal concerns that one year seemed so enticing the next year had no appeal. All of the elements of samsaric existence are one by one similarly shed in the process of Finally Growing Up Completely. The toys and games and interpersonal concerns are themselves, in the end, simply boring. In contrast, consider the moments of bliss that meditators commonly experience in the utter stillness of samadhi, and most people have experienced spontaneously in occasional moments of serenity, sometimes in the gaps between worrying about this and worrying about that. This bliss seems to arise naturally just by making room for it.

Awakening. This is the result of developing the cognitive aspect of character, or the wisdom faculty. It is seeing things clearly as they really are, rather than through the lens of our concepts. This is not omniscience—the Buddha apparently was not omniscient—but rather more like being able to see the fabric out of which reality is sewn, in particular the impermanence and non-self of all things, the unceasing contingency and flux of reality, even as we humans try to comprehend it with fixed and solid conceptualizations. That which is compounded or fabricated only to quickly fade, we take to be things that exist more substantially, independently and reliably than they deserve. We thereby live most of our lives in a Fabricated World that cannot keep possibly keep pace with reality, a world that we take very seriously, but which is in fact Empty. Living in that Fabricated World, we stake our claims to many of the things we find there and because they cannot keep pace with reality, stress or suffering arises; they will always disappoint our expectations or demands, they become problems. Now, what you are reading is a very conceptual account of the nature of compounded things, which I hope has a its own logic. The highest Wisdom, realized in Nirvana, is to see these things directly, to see right through that Empty Fabricated World in which we dwell to the actual reality of things as they are.

Impermanent are compounded things,
Prone to rise and fall.
Having risen, they’re destroyed,
Their passing truest bliss.

Suffering are compounded things,
Prone to rise and fall.
Having risen, they’re destroyed,
Their passing truest bliss.

Insubstantial are compounded things,
Prone to rise and fall.
Having risen, they’re destroyed,
Their passing truest bliss.

The compounded thing to which we stake the greatest claim is, naturally, Me, the Self. And this becomes, naturally, the source of our greatest delusions, our greatest suffering and our greatest misguided efforts. The second greatest claims are to those things that the Self identifies itself with: this body, this mind, this intellect, this sparkling personality, this style of attire. The third greatest claims are the compounded things the Self thinks it possesses, that is, the things the Self stakes a claim to: this spouse, this car, this bank account, these power tools, this power. In Awakening this all becomes transparent, it dissolves into Emptiness, and the reality is seen directly, there is nowhere where one can discernibly stake any claim at all. There is a kind of cruel hoax in thinking, as we embark on Buddhist practice, that progress toward Nirvana is some kind of self improvement, in seeing the bliss of Nirvana, for instance, as a My Birthright, as something that I hope someday to stake a claim to. The hoax is that, when I finally arrive, there is no Self to stake the claim; in fact that is the most prominent feature of Nirvana, the absence of a stakeholder.

In the Fabricated World that we take as reality things exist in and of themselves, and if not permanently, then at least with a lifespan. You, your Self, has a life span, you are born, you live and you die. When you see through that Empty world there is only continuous change everywhere, you are hard put to find something that behaves with a well-defined birth, lifespan and death. There is no Self that abides so long, there is no birth, only an evolution from whatever preceded and no death, only an evolution to whatever follows. The reality behind the Fabricated World is therefore sometimes known as the Deathless, which is the reality you recognize on attaining Nirvana. It is also sometimes called Emptiness, but this is a bit of a misnomer: It is the fabricated world that is Empty; the reality behind it is actually quite rich and full, just not full of fixed Things.

A couple of pointers might be helpful in understanding the cognitive experience of Nirvana. For many this is the most obscure point of the Buddha’s teachings. First, an intellectual understanding is of limited value. This is the best intellectual understanding I can convey here, and at its best an intellectual understanding provides only the closest jumping off point from which to plunge into an experience beyond concepts, beyond language. And this experience should represent a radical reorientation. For example, a theoretical physicist while on campus inhabits a curious intellectual word of strings of vibrating probabilities that have already jumped this way or that depending on who is observing at the moment, but at home inhabits the same world—wife, dog, kids, dinner, TV—that most of us inhabit; the one does not impinge on the other. The Deathless should impinge, though this requires some courage on the part of the practitioner. If it does not impinge you will continue to be caught up in suffering, in Greed, in Hatred, in misperceptions, in unskillful and harmful behaviors. Second, there is another means to develop the abilty to see through the fabricated world: Don’t be a stakeholder. Seeing through the fabricated world helps you to stop being a stakeholder. It works the other way as well. Just as money seems very real to the person who keeps earning and spending it, and God seems very real to the person who keeps praying to Him, the fabricated world will seem very real to the person who continues to have a stake in the things that it offers. This is a reason that Renunciation along with the meditative and ethical practices that loosen the grip of Greed and Aversion are critically important.

… to be continued next week.

From Thought to Destiny: Rebirth

October 16, 2010

Uposatha Teaching: First Quarter, October 16, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacterDestiny

Destiny, as I will understand it here, deals with the long-term consequences of Karma. We have tracked Karma from Thought, to Act (Karma is, most properly your intentional actions, and this arises with varying degrees of skill), then to Habit and Character (Karma shapes who you are, it determines those things that differentiate you from others). On this developmental path one of two things can be expected happen to you in this life. First and most likely, you might die in the midst of your Karmic evolution. In this case, according to classical Buddhism, your Karma will produce a new Rebirth. That permits character along with habit patterns simply to continue to evolve regardless of the failure of the physical body. Second, Karma can come to an end inthe state of Nirvana, which is the ending of your Karmic life. Without a Karmic life there will not be another Rebirth.

This all probably sounds abstract to most readers, not only because it is rather doctrinal, but also because it will seem far removed from your daily practice. Buddhism tends to be about the here and now, present action, present experience. That is why we ground our study in Karma as intentional action in the first place. We moved beyond that, to frame practice in a larger context, when we considered Habit and Character, but there we could track observable cumulative consequences of practice, which are helpful as a guide and inspiration for practice. Destiny frames all this in an even larger context. In this series I plan to post the next five times on Rebirth; it needs clarifying because this concept gets away from what most of us can readily verify ourselves. Then I will take up Nirvana, the ultimate aim of practice.

There is little doubt that the Buddha taught Rebirth. He did not, however, highlight it as tenet of Buddhism, but rather as a presupposition. For instance, he does not seem to have made a statement such as, “There is Rebirth,” but rather simply referred to the process of Rebirth as something already understood. On the other hand, he made Rebirth a presupposition integral in his teachings, making Karma a condition for Rebirth, and making the ending of Karma, that is Nirvana, a condition for its end. He even defined the goal of his teachings in terms of the escape from the round of birth and death. In addition, he claimed to be able to see his previous rebirths and often referred to actions that lead to rebirth in realms of deprivation or bliss, such as hell or heaven realms. The language he used to describe rebirth, often in terms of “after breakup of the body,” suggest that his reference to rebirth was not metaphorical. Some modern writers have discounted the Buddha’s belief in rebirth, but the textual evidence suggests differently. It is indeed true that any individual statement from the early texts may in fact be a later embellishment, but the large quantity of references makes the case that the Buddha never taught Rebirth flimsy. It is true, however, that relatively few of the references are significant in understanding the point of the respective discourses, and also that in certain later (post-Buddha) texts, such as the Abhidhamma and the Commentaries, rebirth plays a much more prominent role.

Some Western writers have suggested that the Buddha simply accepted Rebirth passively, that is, simply as a universally held view, the best that Science had to offer in his day. Rebirth, was indeed widely accepted during Buddha’s time, though not universally. It was apparently not represented in the Vedic tradition until very late. The Buddha also lived at a time, perhaps much like our own, where almost every viewpoint about anything had some currency. In fact the Buddha’s early teachings contain some lists of what he considered erroneous views, all of which presumably had adherents, and among these erroneous views is Annihilationism, the idea that we cease to exist completely at death. The references to Rebirth that occur in the Suttas also do not seem to be geared specifically to a naive audience; they occur regardless when the Buddha spoke to close enlightened disciples or non-Buddhist laypeople. The Buddha, with a clear record of challenging many popular notions, must have considered the merits of the doctrine of Rebirth, yet decided to accept it as a presupposition in his teaching. Since Rebirth is right there in his most authoritative teachings, we must assume he had compelling reasons for including it. I will address how compelling these reasons are in the course of this series of postings on Rebirth.

Lets jump ahead 2500 years and around to the other side of the world. Cyclical rebirth has little currency in the West; generally the closest we come to it is the eternal life in Heaven or Hell, and most people who come to Buddhism do not believe in that. Furthermore it has far from eager support in the scientific community, the great arbiter of Truth in the West. This lack of scientific support could also once be said, fifty or a hundred years ago, about altered consciousness or enhanced states of awareness. However the latter are at least verifiable in subjective experience, and now indirectly even in brain waves, whereas few of us have any means of verifying the validity of Rebirth. For this reason I would like to take up the topic of rebirth carefully in a way that respects all of the different current viewpoints on this topic, including the view that the Buddha was right about Rebirth in a very literal way, the view that Rebirth is a useful artifact introduced for purely pragmatic reasons, the view that Rebirth is properly taken as a metaphor for something else, and the view that Rebirth is simply a mistake and is best discarded.

What is Reborn? The two most common questions about rebirth are What is reborn if there is no self? and, What are the mechanisms by which whatever is reborn targets a new physical body? The first is not actually as paradoxical in Buddhism as many assume. Most people reason that since there can be no Self that carries over from one life to the next, there can be no Rebirth. One can just as well reason that since there can be no Self that carries over from year to year in this life, there can be nothing to connect you now with you as a baby, or as a 5-year-old, etc. If there is in fact a continuity, a history, that connects the present with the past and that thereby gives the impression of an enduring Self, there can be a continuity that connects one life with a next life and that thereby gives the impression of a Rebirth of the Self. Just as connecting yourself to that baby that lived X years ago requires no unchanging self, connecting yourself to that deva, or frog, or whatever, that will live Y years from now requires no unchanging Self. Let me describe an analogy, based on the metaphor of one candle lighting another found in Questions of King Milinda.

Think of the Self as a grass fire. Let’s say that one bright and sunny day at 11 am some kids, Bif and Skipper, playing with a magnifying glass in a field on Hill A, start a small fire, add a few dry leaves but get bored, jump on their bikes and ride home. At 12 noon Hill A is ablaze, and up goes Bill’s house. At 2 pm Hill A is smoke and ash, and Hill B is aflame, and up goes Mabel’s house. At 4 pm the fire fighters have finally left the scene, and Bill and Mabel, furious, together having discovered the origin of the blaze, confront Bif and Skipper. The kids say, “But the fire that we lit was a different fire, it was over there and did not look at all like the fire that burned up your houses; it wasn’t even big enough to burn up a whole house.” In a sense they are exactly right, this view is that of No-Self, but it would not hold up in court. Conventionally we think of all of this as the same fire on the basis of a causal continuity that holds the whole burning process together. The causal continuity is found not in fire as a fixed entity, but in fire giving birth to fire each moment over and over. Our selves are like this, this life is held together only as a causal continuity, not as the persistence of any fixed object.

Now, the next day another grass fire of mysterious origin is blazing away on Hill D, two hills away from Hill B, and takes out Chester’s house. I’ll tell you something that is unknown to Chester: This new fire was caused by a burning ember from the previous day’s fire, carried aloft by the wind and by its own heat clear over Hill C to land in some dry grass on Hill D, smolder all night and burst into flame at daybreak. Not knowing its origin, where no causal continuity is suspected Chester will call it a separate fire. Rebirth is like this, it is actually a causal continuity, most likely a mysterious one, without a fixed entity to be reborn.

In the case of Rebirth the continuity is not found in heat, flame and ash, but in consequences of Karma, the evolving habit patterns and other aspects of character, insofar as these have evolved by the time of the failure of the body. You can think of it as the mass of issues left unresolved at the time of death, which will continue, or as Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Your neuroses are reborn,” except that much of your cumulative Karma is actually skillful, for instance a propensity toward compassion.

How Does Rebirth Happen? Delusion of a separate self perpetuates itself, the karmic impulses that wrap themselves around that delusion creates the will to existence. The will to existence conditions Rebirth. It is through the delusional nature of the self that it perpetuates itself. Now, heat and wind are the mechanisms behind the rebirth of a fire. What are the mechanisms behind rebirth of a self?

Conception of a new life requires three things: an ovum, sperm and kammic energy, that is, the continuation of Karmically determined mental processes. In recent times science has learned a lot about ova and sperm and the way in which they combine to produce a differentiated individual. The third factor, however, is outside the realm of any research I am aware of, and raises questions about how transmission of this Karmic energy occurs, or, during transmission how kammic energy exists with no corporeal support, that is, how mental states exist without a brain. The absence of a plausible mechanism, along with lack of personal verification, leads many in the West to question the veracity of this aspect of Buddhist doctrine. Furthermore, the value the Buddha placed on personal verification and his dislike of philosophical or metaphysical speculation lead many to question whether the Buddha really taught rebirth at all.

Where Does Rebirth Happen? We saw in the discussion of Habit that the character of one’s cumulative karma can thrust one within this life into a state of woe and despair or of ease and bliss, figuratively in hell or heaven. Last week we saw that this falls under what is described as the Law of Karma or the ripening of Karma. Being thrust into a State of woe or bliss in this life has a counterpart in being thrust into a Realm of woe or bliss in the next life. Death and rebirth provide new opportunities for the ripening of karma, broadening the scope of the Law of Karma. Karma that has not reached fruition before death, will generally, in classical Buddhism, reach fruition in the next life or in a life thereafter,  in one of various ways. The most commonly mentioned is to thrust you into one of these realms, described in classical Buddhism as real places or states of being:

  • Human realm.
  • Animal realm.
  • Hungry ghost realm.
  • Hell realm.
  • Angry titan realm.
  • Heavenly. realm

There are a variety of hells and of heavens. There are also a variety of animal species one might be reborn into. It is mentioned that human birth is actually a very rare thing, but the realm most conducive to progress on the Path. Additionally within one of these realms your specific circumstances may additionally reflect a ripening of Karma. So, within the Human Realm one might be born into varying circumstances as follows (AN 8.40 Vipaka Sutta).

  • Longevity. For instance, killing in the previous life leads to a short life in the current life.
  • Infirmity. For instance, drinking in the previous life leads to mental derangement in the current life.
  • Physical appearance. For instance, kindness in the previous life leads to beauty in the current life.
  • Influence. For instance, telling falsehoods in the previous life leads to being falsely accused in the current life. Divisive tale bearing in the previous life leads to loss of friendships in the current life.
  • Wealth. For instance, stealing in the previous life leads to loss of wealth in the current life.
  • Family status. For instance, arrogance in the previous life leads to lowly birth in the current life.

Within each life you will commit a wide variety of kammic actions. Which one or ones will propel you into the particular realm in which you will live out your next life? It is variously assumed that either the particular thoughts before death, or specific heavy actions, like having murdered one’s parents, or particularly entrenched habit patterns will place the next rebirth. Thoughts before death are likely to reflect previous karma, as one who has lived a virtuous life will tend to be calm and satisfied at death, whereas one who has done much harm or entertained much greed will be agitated and full of regret. It is probably rare for one to lie on his deathbed bemoaning having tended to too many sick people or regretting not having purchased enough shiny gadgets. That moment tends to put one’s life into its proper perspective, perhaps for the first time. If a heavy action is not the determining factor in rebirth, it is generally assumed that it will be for some subsequent life. Often texts attribute to a small action, such as offering alms to a monk or killing a chicken, not only a felicitous or woeful rebirth, but a long series of such rebirths. I think it is safe to assume that this is simply a rhetorical device for expressing approval or disapproval of some action; if it was literally true then every day we would be scheduling tens or hundreds of future rebirths, quickly leading to an unmanageable backlog. It is far more plausible that little actions blend into one another, which as Nagapriya suggests would be like adding ingredients in small amounts to a cake in which the various flavors are experienced together. On the other hand, the Salt Crystal Sutta states that even a trifling act can take one to hell if the one’s overall karmic state is poor. Maybe it becomes like adding hot chile to the cake.

The Future of Rebirth. I have presented a classical account of Rebirth here. Because elements of this account are subjects of skepticism in the West my plan for next weeks will be to look at Rebirth from a variety of angles. Next week we will make a side trip to the general issue of Truth In Buddhism or Buddhism with Beliefs, the Buddha’s criteria for evaluating doctrine, to gain some clarity of where he was coming from. The following week we consider the Pragmatics of Rebirth, remembering the Buddha always had a practical purpose in his teachings. Around about November New Moon day we consider the mixed evidence, some of it from science, for the Actual Truth of Rebirth. Then the week after that I make an attempt to pull together An Alternative Account of Rebirth that might hopefully be a bit more satisfying to the scientifically minded at the same time preserving much of the pragmatics of Rebirth. My intention is not to give a definitive answer to any of the questions like Do I need to believe in Rebirth to be a Buddhist?, or Does Buddhism need Rebirth?. Rather my intention is to provide a number of perspectives along with what is at stake in each perspective, then to let you decide how to integrate Rebirth into your understanding of Buddhism.

From Thought to Destiny: Habits as Karma

September 16, 2010

Uposatha Teaching: New Moon, September 16, 2010.

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

“Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking & pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with renunciation, abandoning thinking imbued with sensuality, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with renunciation. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with non-ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with non-ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmlessness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmfulness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmlessness.” Dvedhavitakka Sutta, MN 19

We sow thoughts and reap acts. The verse after which this series of postings is named tells us we sow acts to reap habits. Actually habits are generally shaped as a cumulative consequence of many actions. This section begins to look at habits. In the following weeks we will turn to the character and then the destiny mentioned in the verse, all of which flow from our actions.

The Products of Karma. Karma, in its base meaning, is volitional action. Actually since actions can be of mind as well as of speech and of body, karma can be volition (thought) with or without physical act. We have seen that thoughts are classified as skillful or unskillful (or neutral), and that unskillful thoughts tend (1) to be experienced as painful, (2) to distort my perceptions and (3) to lead to harmful consequences when I enact them. For instance, if I get angry at you, this is immediately stressful for me mentally (dukkha). Under this mental condition you are likely to appear before me as either a jerk or a schmuck, rather than the good supportive friend that would otherwise stand there. This compound condition might induce me to perform an unskillful action, for instance, to break the pencil you are using in two and to throw the two pieces onto the floor (That’ll show you!) or to issue an abusive slur (That’s telling you!), which is harmful to you and will also lead to further regret for me especially after you have remorphed back into your normal more amicable form.

With regard to (3), we have seen that our actions lead to beneficial, or harmful results according to the triple criteria (a) of precepts, (b) of seeking benefit and (c) of encouraging or discouraging purity of mind. In the scenario just painted I would violate the precept of not taking what is not given or of right speech. I would also fail to use kindness and wisdom in order to seek benefit for all. Finally I would fail to purify the mind, instead probably reinforcing a bad habit, widening a fault in my character, maybe influencing my rebirth and chances for reaching Nirvana, and possibly leading later to an additional unfavorable experiential result. It will be helpful to clearly distinguish beneficial or harmful results into two groups, which I will call External and Internal results or consequences. Seeking benefit (b) focuses on external results, that is, harm or benefit in the world, Purity of mind focuses on internal results, that is, the consequences of an action for the actor’s personal development, including how it helps shape habits, character and destiny, and the actor’s future experiences. Notice that external results also impinge on the actor, but through a different channel. In a huff of anger I might feed what you have been fixing for lunch to the dog (a demonstrative stance to make some point the nature of which I will probably soon forget). This has an external result that both you or I go hungry, and an internal result that I reinforce my tendency toward anger, that I experience later remorse, etc.

The word “karma,” and now “karmic,” has extended meanings. Many words extend meanings by association; this is called metonymy. For instance, the word “cup” in its root sense is used to describe a kind of container for (generally hot) liquids. However, it also is used to describe an amount of liquid, an amount typically contained in a cup. It is also used to describe other cup-shaped things, that may contain other sometimes non-liquid things, like a breast, for example. It is even used as a verb to describe a position in which hands together form something like the shape of a cup. The word “karma” is similarly used to describe things that carry forward into the future as a result of kamma in its root sense. These are exactly the internal results, that is, they impinge on the personality, the acting agent. The idea is that every action leaves a residue, that you are the heir of your actions. So “karma” is used to describe later habit patterns that develop under the influence of our volitional acts, any other factors that carry over to effect our character, then ultimately our destiny, insofar as this is shaped by our actions, including our capacity for realizing Nirvana.Internal results are also called Karmic results. The rest of this series of postings is almost exclusively about understanding karmic results.

Now, there is a simple method that if followed scrupulously will result in the most virtuous habit patterns, a sparklingly clear character, and a destiny headed directly toward Nirvana. This is simply the practice of only acting on the basis of skillful thoughts, never on the basis of unskillful thoughts, the continuous practice of virtue in every situation, the practice of making your every action a selfless gift. “Simply” here means simple to describe, unfortunately not simple to live up to. A lot gets in the way, including our responses to external conditions, our own delusive perception, our laziness, our lack of faith in the efficacy of such a way of being in the world. Instead we do the best we can. The precepts and the ability externally track harm and benefit can help keep us pointed in the right direction, and so can the evolution of our karma in all of the extended senses. So understanding how our actions influence our personal development, our habits, our character and our destiny, also help us in choosing our actions. Our choice of actions are our practice, and the study of karma it its various senses is to develop an understanding of the Buddhist model of human development, which is necessary for fully understanding the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths. We use the words Merit and Demerit or Meritorious and Demeritorious to quantify the karmic influence of our actions.

Habits as Karma.

The bread and butter products of our karmic acts are the development of our (karmic) habit patterns, and this is the topic of today’s episode. Here Buddhism assumes a very commonsense model of behavioral learning: If you do something over and over, you get in the habit of doing that thing, that is, you are even more likely to do it over and over in the future; you will be better at it, it will be more natural. An analogy is the rut that a cart wheel makes in a road. With time a rut develops through repeated trips of the cart and that enforces more and more the habitual path of the wheel. Almost all of Buddhist practice works on this principle.

For instance, each time I steal something, I am reinforcing my tendency to steal, and as I reinforce that tendency I am increasingly likely to steal in the future. I can turn myself rather quickly into an habitual thief. Similarly, each time I give something away selflessly I am reinforcing my tendency toward generosity. Each time I get on a bike without falling over I am moving myself more and more toward being like Lance Armstrong. Each time I act like a buddha I become more like a buddha. Each time I drink alcohol I move myself in the direction of alcoholism. All things being equal, the action creates or reinforces the habit and the habit in turn disposes one toward the action. On the other hand, if I fail to reinforce a habit the associated impulse will slowly fade, like atrophying muscles. For instance, if I have an angry disposition, by avoiding acting out of anger I will gradually come to be a less angry person and will eventually no longer even recognize that as an aspect of my character. Simple. If I as a matter of practice stop channel surfing my habit of channel surfing will begin to recede. If I stop gossiping I will later have less of an impulse to gossip. To develop skillful habits we choose skillful actions and avoid unskillful actions. Our skillful habits will then incline us toward skillful actions, they will come more naturally with less effort. Practice virtue and we become more virtuous, practice stillness and we become by nature still.

Developing Skillful and Losing Unskillful Habits. The task of losing an unskillful habit is exemplified by an alcoholic on the path of abandoning that habit. He might join Alcoholics Anonymous as a source of advice and support. Buddhism is Samsara Anonymous, and in fact alcoholism is just one of the more vexing of the many thousands of samsaric attachments, so the program is actually similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous. We begin by recognizing the faults in our habit patterns, generalizing from a keen awareness of the faults in our actions and in our motivations. Repentance is the important factor, which in Buddhism is to fully acknowledge our unskillful acts. This is by no means in order to develop a sense of guilt, which would be an unskillful thought, but rather with the same purpose of someone trying to improve his putt: He needs to acknowledge when the ball has gone into the hole and when it has not; dishonesty or denial only cheats himself.

Each unskillful act arises out of conditions. Interrupt any of those conditions and the act will not arise. Most importantly, should you sow an unskillful thought, you do not actually have to reap an unskillful act; if anger arises, resist the impulse to act out the anger long enough for it to fall again; if greed arises, resist the impulse to act out the greed long enough for it to fall again. Following precepts can itself become a habit pattern that furnishes this resistance to unskillful impulses; basically your behavior follows a clear script regardless of what volitional thoughts might arise. Secondarily, if an unskillful thought arises, you can transform that thought into something skillful by reconsidering the preceding thought. Thoughts of hatred and revenge, for instance, can be transformed into compassion by implicating pain and suffering in the motives of the one who made you mad. Working directly with thoughts establishes new thought habit patters; recall that the volitional thoughts themselves are karma.

You can instead learn to sow skillful thoughts directly, which will tend to displace the unskillful. For instance, you can use metta meditation to establish thought patterns pointed toward loving-kindness for all beings, even those we would otherwise identify as enemies. Stillness and mindfulness are skillful thought patterns that you can develop through meditation. Precepts also have the tendency to encourage skillful thought patterns. There is a tendency for the mind to attune itself to the body (or to speech) just as there is a tendency for the body to attune itself to the mind. So, for instance, you might scrupulously follow the precept not to kill any sentient being initially with no motivation other than to follow the precepts. After a while, pure motives of loving-kindness will begin to fill themselves in as you continue to follow this precept, displacing any inner grumbling you might have about the “stupid precepts.” Following rites and rituals will tend similarly to clear away any unskillful thoughts that you might have since such thoughts are not attuned to what the body is doing. Rites and rituals like food offerings to the Buddha might have no external benefit, yet as enactments tend to be filled in by corresponding skillful volition, and therefore bring internal benefit.

Our external conditions tend to exert a strong influence on our behavior. Therefore changing those conditions can change the habit patterns we develop or lose. If we are alcoholics or smokers trying to clean up our act it is best not to frequent bars and night clubs or visit drinking or smoking friends. Right Livelihood is the avoidance of workplace conditions that obligate us to engage in unskillful behaviors, like slaughtering animals. Avoidance of angry people and stressful conditions will discourage the arising of anger and thereby the acting out of anger and the development of angry habit patterns. Many conditions of modern society are poorly conducive to skillful thought, action or habit. Employment is largely a matter of what has been called wage slavery in which the employee has little freedom to make his own decisions, works largely for the benefit and under the absolute authority of others, and therefore suffers a constant sense of resentment, spilling over into anger. Red tape and red lights make it difficult to get things done, cars, insurance, traffic tickets, long commutes are ways of life that cause much frustration. In general life has a kind of stuckedness we call Samsara, such that whenever we demand something of the world, the world demands more back from us, which escalates our demands. We desire a shiny new wide-screen TV, we are obligated to work more or go into debt. We worry about its durability and the day it will lose its shine, so we buy an extended warranty and worry about the possibility of theft. So we buy a home security system, go further into debt, and fear all the more for our financial security, and become infuriated should we lose our jobs. Tension leads to craving for distractions and we begin to overeat or drink ourselves silly. Because of this behavior our spouse eventually leaves us. It goes on and on, little of which is conducive to the cultivation of skillful personal qualities. This is the infamous Rat Race. Monastic practice and any progress we make in renunciation of the various points of stuckedness in samsaric existence are signficant contributors to developing skillful thoughts, actions and habits.

In summary, karma is the key to the entire path and should be understood and practiced , as the Buddha says, “seeing danger in the slightest fault.” We might extend this to seeing benefit in the slightest virtue. Habit is the most immediate and observable results of our karmic actions. I will post one more essay on Habit, next uposatha day, in order to consider two questions important for the overall understanding of karma. First, Can habit patterns have non-karmic roots? This is relevant to our understanding or interpretation of rebirth. Second, How do we experience our habit patterns? This is important to our understanding of the Law of Karma, aka, the Fruition of Karma, the often observed retributive aspect of karma. Both of these themes will be fully developed when we discuss Destiny.

From Thought to Destiny: To Purify the Mind

September 8, 2010

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.