Harmony (1/6)

June 3, 2016

pdf_24x18Herewith I begin a series on the topic of interpersonal and social harmony. This is a serialization of a chapter to appear in the next draft of the text I have been progressively improving as I teach a semiannual introductory course in Buddhism. Those eager to read to the end to see how it comes out can click on the pdf link for the whole chapter. Incidentally, the following book on this topic is scheduled to appear in November:

The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Bhikkhu Bodhi (editor), 2016, Wisdom Publications.


“… although they wish to live without hate, harming, hostility or malignity, and in peace, they yet live in hate, harming one another, hostile and malign …”  (DN 21)

We are a social species; we live in relationship to others, occupy social roles and obligations and are in constant negotiation with one another. But our interpersonal and communal lives are all too often marked by discord, ruffled feathers, infighting, argument, insult, exploitation, violence and war.

Still, it is substantially within the realm of interpersonal and communal relations that the practices of generosity, harmlessness and purity of mind that we have discussed in previous chapters play out. As we perfect our generosity, our harmlessness and our purity, our relationship with our fellow social beings improves. We treat them with more kindness and compassion, we take care not to step on their toes nor harm or insult them in other ways, and we do what we can to help them rather than to exploit them. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone developed in this way!

Nonetheless the interpersonal/communal realm has its own peculiarities and pitfalls that most of us are slow to master. Fortunately the Buddha has given us provided abundant wise advice about these. That is the topic of this chapter.

Be careful of what you say

A primary conditioning factor of interpersonal and communal harmony or disharmony is how skillfully we wield the instrument of speech. The Buddha has a lot to say about this skill; we will see later that one of the eight factors of the Buddhist Path (the topic of Book Two) is Right Speech, which in particular censures false, harsh, divisive and frivolous speech. Here are the primary requisites for speaking skillfully in a nutshell:

“Bhikkhus, possessing five factors, speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise. What five?

1. It is spoken at the proper time;
2. what is said is true;
3. it is spoken gently;
4. what is said is beneficial;
5. it is spoken with a mind of loving-kindness.

Possessing these five factors speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise.” (AN 5.198, enumeration mine)

We notice all three systems of ethics intersect here; avoiding harm, producing beneficial consequences and a checking the purity of one’s intentions come into play. Furthermore, finding the right time and speaking gently harmonize with the sensitive nature of human receptivity.

For instance, a common, and one of the most awkward social situations, arises when there is need to reproach someone for doing something felt to be inappropriate or harmful – someone is stepping on your foot, for example, or failing to complete an agreed task –, without causing offense and in such away that the proffered advice is actually usefully accepted. Considering the right time takes note, for instance, of whether the person to be admonished is now in a good or receptive mood. Sometimes a bit of friendly small-talk will serve to set the mood before the more topic is broached, “It’s good to see a familiar face. By the way, can I give you some friendly advice on that project you are doing?”

Nonetheless, most people are difficult to admonish, easily offended and some fly off the handle no matter how skillfully we present the situation. If no benefit is likely to accrue, then discretion suggests saying nothing, thereby cutting our losses and preserving harmony. Incidentally, the monastic code includes a rather important precept that prohibits monks or nuns from being difficult to admonish, for instance, from being argumentative or conjuring up counter-admonitions, as many people do by nature. Our practice typically makes us more thick-skinned, such that our egos are not so easily bruised, so that we begin to see admonishment as advice, which may be either useful or useless, but which demands no emotional response.

One of the greatest dangers to communal harmony that the Buddha warns us about is speaking divisively. Rather than attempting to admonish someone for his perceived errors, this person speaks about them to others, generally in his absence. Unfortunately such speech is often repeated by others and may even go viral.

Having heard something here, he repeats it elsewhere in order to divide [those people] from these; or having heard something elsewhere he repeats it to these people in order to divide [them] from these Thus he is one who divides those who are united, a creator of divisions, one who enjoys factions, delights in factions, a speaker of words that create factions. (AN 10.176)

Divisive speech may target individual people or entire groups of people. It can occur quite frivolously, often as an attempt at humor or wit. Or it can be used as a way of building countervailing group solidarity. Many people routinely speak ill of others in an attempt to build self-esteem or to reassure themselves of their own righteousness. Increasingly, particularly with the rise of mass communications, it arises deliberately and with great precision as a way of controlling populations. Consider that racism and ethnic cleansing begin with divisive speech and colonial empires could not have been built without the policy of “divide and conquer.” Divisive speech is poison to both large societies and small communities. It undermines our trust in the targeted people and populations and ultimately our trust in each other. We should take great care not to divide with our speech, nor to repeat divisive speech we have heard elsewhere.

Next Week: Harmony (2/6), the Error of Retribution.


Name-and-Form (5/5)

May 27, 2016

Name and Form:  nāmarūpa in the suttas

pdf_24x18  Please click here for a pdf of the entire five-part essay, especially if you would like to read footnotes and references.

Name-and-form as cognition or as biology?

We have understood name-and-form as a factor implicated in cognition, that is, in how we conceptually construct the world, and have found that this understanding is coherent and that it makes sense of a wide variety of otherwise quite obscure teachings found throughout the discourses. It remains to acknowledge that many Buddhist traditions see name-and-form quite differently, identifying it with the psychophysical organism, that which is conceived, grows as a fetus, is born, lives, ages and dies. The strongest scriptural source for this is the following passage in the Mahānidāna Sutta:

(47)    “If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would name-and-form take shape in the womb?” “No, Lord.”

“If the consciousness of a young boy or girl were to be cut off, would name-and-form grow up, develop and reach maturity?” “No, Lord.” (DN 15)

It should be noted that an equivalent passage is found in the Chinese Agamas (MA 97)1, as well as in the Pali Canon, making it hard to dismiss this passage as a later addition,as I was tempted to do at one time. We also note that much of the support cited here for name-and-form as a factor of cognition comes from this same key discourse, but also that his particular passage does not serve to define name-and-form, only to provide an illustration of the dependence of name-and-form on consciousness. This suggests that a proper understanding of name-and-form must be general enough to encompass both its cognitive and its biological roles such that the discussion can shift fluidly between the cognitive and biological realm as it seems to in this sutta. Notice that the interlocutors in this discourse, the Buddha and Ānanda, seem to presuppose such an understanding, that the relationship between this biological example and the broader cognitive implications of name-and-form seems to require no further elaboration. What is perhaps troubling is that this relation should seem so obscure to us now. In short, our task will be to try to discover a root understanding of name-and-form that accounts for its biological as well as cognitive implications.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his book on the discourse in question,2 attempts to do the same thing. His view is that the traditional biological interpretation of name-and-form provides the basic meaning. But then he observes that some passages – in particular (18) above, which mentions “external name-and-form” –  seem to extend the meaning to “the entire experiential situation, from the psycho-physical organism to the objective sense spheres.” My view is similar, but that the entire experiential situation is the core interpretation and the experience of the psycho-physical organism and instance.

The biological understanding of name-and-form. The biological interpretation generally is such that name-and-form is the psycho-physical organism, that the sixfold-sphere are the sense organs that grow in the organism in the womb and that consciousness is a prerequisite for the existence of the organism.

(48)     ignorance → fabrications→ consciousness →
name-and-form →  sixfold-sphere → contact →

In the biological account, the psycho-physical organism arises from, and then is sustained by, consciousness, and without the psycho-physical organism there are no senses and therefore no sixfold-sphere. Contact can only arise on the basis of the sixfold-sphere. This is simple and compelling, and easier to comprehend than the account offered above (albeit not as far-reaching). Consciousness is itself conditioned by ignorance and fabrications.

Furthermore, what became the dominant interpretation assumes more specifically that this is a description of conception and the development of the fetus in the womb such that ignorance and fabrications belong to a previous life whose effects are transmitted by consciousness. This is called the “three lives” model of dependent co-arising in which two births occur in the standard chain of dependent co-arising, one at consciousness and the other at,uh, birth.

Although the “three lives model” is quite distinct from what I have described here, this interpretation should not be dismissed lightly. As points out,3 this interpretation aside from being dominant in the Theravada school – where it is found in the Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga as well as in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (chapter 27) – is also found in the early Sarvastivādin and Mahāsanghika schools and even in Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Chapter 26).

As a relatively orthodox Buddhist, I feel put in an awkward position here, though I am not alone. On the one hand, the biological/three-life interpretation of name-and-form has a lot of weight behind it: It is compelling and it has been represented and upheld by a variety of Buddhist traditions and wise Buddhist teachers throughout the history of the Sāsana. On the other hand, the biological/three-life interpretation cannot possibly be right in itself, for these reasons:

  • The biological interpretation displaces the role of cognition in the chain of dependent co-arising.
  • The biological interpretation is speculative and rather uninteresting in itself, which is incongruent with the alleged profundity of dependent co-arising.
  • The biological interpretation provides no basis for practice or insight.

I realize this a a bold statement, but I’ll be darned if I can find a way around it. I am open to any counterarguments.

Dependent co-arising is intended to be comprehensive, it is equated with the Dharma. It is alleged to be profound and difficult to understand. The Dharma tells us repeatedly that delusion underlies the human dilemma, that that self-view is particularly implicated, and that insight and wisdom cut through delusion. And, consistent with this,  the standard chain begins with ignorance. Moreover, the account of name-and-form in cognitive terms described here shows how name-and-form is implicated in the arising of the subject-object duality, in how this provides space for these sense of self to take root and in how the affective factors, like craving, depend on the consequential cognitive structures. The biological interpretation, on the other hand, eviscerates this cognitive account within dependent co-arising and leaves many of the statements that we have analyzed here concerning name-and-form along with the first few links of the standard chain, unintelligible.

If dependent co-arising is so succinct and profound, why would the Buddha clutter it with a biological account of the conception of the human fetus?  Such an account tells us simply that something that relates to the cumulative karma of the previous life is necessary for conception and for the subsequent thriving of the psycho-physical organism. (It is however unclear that consciousness, given the way it is described in the early discourses, is the proper vehicle for that.) How does this account help us end suffering if we cannot observe it in day-to-day or meditative experience and if we can do nothing to disrupt this biological process?4 Why would the Buddha teach this, rather than simply give us,

(49)     ignorance → fabrications→ contact →

… thereby leaving out the biological factors altogether?

My argument here is, first, that the biological/three-life account of name-and-form makes little pedagogical sense in view of the general purpose and nature of the chain of dependent co-arising and, second, that it leaves gaps in our understanding of cognition. A number of scholars have likewise attacked the biological/three-life view in terms of internal inconsistency. I will not review these arguments here.5 It is astonishing to me that this view seems to have been seriously questioned only beginning in the twentieth century.

An alternative biological but non-three-life account goes back to early sources but has been largely eclipsed until recent decades. The Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga, for instance, states that (re)birth in dependent co-arising can be meaningfully interpreted, as an alternative, as the arising of any phenomenon in one moment. Dependent co-arising becomes an arising moment-to-moment. To some extent this addresses some of the concerns listed above. A modern example is the account of of the Thai scholar-monk Payutta,6 who describes how consciousness arises moment by moment in the six sense spheres,  as elsewhere understood in the suttas, but “consciousness → name-and-form” represents the influence of consciousness on the state of mind and body: “Body and mind, especially mental qualities, dependent on the instant of consciousness, will assume qualities harmonious with consciousness.”7  Notice that name-and-form here must stand not for the entire psycho-physical organism, since that is not what arises and falls dependent on instances of consciousness, but certain psycho-physical processes or states within the organism. Likewise “name-and-form → six-fold-sphere” is interpreted as the six sense spheres alerted by the state of body and mind.8

The alternative, biological/moment-to-moment interpretation gives a basis for practice and insight, since our psycho-physical responses arise in moment-to-moment experience. I have not made up my mind if it says anything particularly interesting, or how helpful it is to observe the consciousness-conditioned body preparing the eye for perception. Nonetheless it does, like the biological/three-life interpretation, leave a significant gap in the understanding of cognition in dependent co-arising, having little of interest to say about subject-object dualism and disease, about designation, about the arising of the world “out there,” about the cognitive conditions underlying a sense of self, etc., leaving dependent co-arising rather thin for a teaching that is said to encompass the entirety of the Dharma.

Reconciling the cognitive and the biological. This still leaves us with the question of how, in the passage (47), we have a seemingly biological illustration of what we have argued is fundamentally a cognitive factor: name-and-form.

Recall that the term name-and-form seems to have its origin in the Vedic and Upaniṣadic jātakarman ceremony, in which a father gives a name to his newly born son. What happens here is that the father has a conceptual sense experience of his son (who is a psycho-physical entity) resulting in objectification and naming, before which the son did not fully exist. Name-and-form as a Buddhist concept is simply a generalization of the jātakarman situation to any conceptual sense experience (not just of the son, or of a psycho-physical entity) by anyone (not just by a father) at any time (not just after the son’s birth). The illustration of consciousness descending into the mother’s womb is actually close to the jātakarman situation in that name-and-form is a conceptual sense experience of a psycho-physical entity, but this time at conceptualization rather than birth, and again at a later time in the growth and development of the psycho-physical entity. Therefore, (47) is no more than an illustration of name-and-form as we have described it here, with consciousness playing its accustomed objectification role.

As Ñāṇānanda puts it,9 “Consciousness established in the mother’s womb makes the concept of person valid.” The question naturally arises: Whose consciousness are we talking about? It is presumably not the father’s, since at the time of conception his mind is probably elsewhere. Presumably it is of the psycho-physical organism itself; it is self-awareness of itself as a psycho-physical being. And this self-awareness is necessary for the psycho-physical organism to take shape, to grow up, to develop and to reach maturity. This makes sense in terms of what happens before anything descends into the womb, that is, in the previous life, for there we have:

(50)    being →  birth

Without consciousness of oneself as a fully developed being, rebirth cannot occur.


Let’s end this essay with one of the most sweeping statements about the implications of name-and-form, and its constant companion consciousness.

(51)    “In so far only, Ānanda, can one be born, or grow old, or die, or pass away, or reappear, in so far only is there any pathway for verbal expression, in so far only is there any pathway for terminology, in so far only is there any pathway for designation, in so far only is the range of wisdom, in so far only is the round kept going for there to be a designation as the this-ness, that is to say: name-and-form together with consciousness.” (DN 15)

Name-and-form and consciousness set the parameters in which saṃsāra plays out. They give us our sense of self that ripens, via craving and attachment, in being. It is only through objectification of this self that there is something there to be born, to grow old, to die or to reappear. It is on the basis of designation and the role of name-and-form in designation that consciousness can conjure up a reality “out there.” Consciousness does the same with language as it objectifies experience.

We fabricate our own world, but divide it up into a kind of cognitive architecture, separating seer from seen, this-ness from that-ness, with levels of designation spanning raw sense data at one end to an elaborate imputed reality “out there.” We become enamored in what we have fabricated, and then become entangled in it.  Life becomes a problem, full of neediness, aversion and anguish. Untangling this is the range of wisdom. Until then we are stuck in the round of saṃsāric existence, due to name-and-form.


Name-and-form (4/5)

May 7, 2016

Name and Form:  nāmarūpa in the suttas

pdf_24x18  Please click here for a pdf if you would like to read footnotes and references. Please note also that I have made small but significant changes in previous sections of the pdf version, adding a section on Designation. Also I have inserted a series of images to better illustrate the cognitive architecture involved with name-and-form. The last image is reproduced here to give the derived experience of contact between self and reality “out there”:


Figure 5. Contact for the worldling.

Here internal name-and-form, shown as a cow, is displaced to reality “out there,” where consciousness has alighted. This leaves the impression of contact as a relationship between a seer and a seen mediated through a sense door. These changes are not critical for what follows, but may provide some additional orientation.

What name-and-form means for Buddhist practice

We fabricate our own world in a particular shape, then we become enamored with what we find there. As a result, w find life to be a problem, full of neediness, aversion and anguish. In short, we find ourselves almost hopelessly entangled in circumstances of our own making. The cognitive architecture we fabricate is quite astonishing: Starting with raw sense experience, we progressively stack up levels of designation ending with an elaborate imputed reality “out there,” beyond experience but of enormous complexity. In the process we split our world into inner and outer, mediated through sense contact through the sense doors, implying a seer and a seen, which turns out to be the heart of the human dilemma. On the basis of this architecture craving and attachment with regard to the things “out there” make sense as we seek personal advantage, and these become the guiding factors of our samsaric lives.

Practice is how we disentangle all this. We do that through insight into the fabricatedness of the world, to see it as the Buddha sees it:

(40)    … a Tathagata does not conceive of a visible thing apart from sight; he does not conceive an unseen; he does not conceive of a thing worth seeing; he does not conceive about a seer. (Kāḷaka Sutta, AN 4.24)

Practice seeks to resolve the human predicament by shining the light of wisdom to reveal its many slights of hand, false bottoms and hidden mirrors, so that we become disenchanted with the illusions. And we discover that name-and-form is deeply implicated.

(41)     Where name-and-form as well as sense and designation are completely cut off, it is there that the tangle gets snapped.” (SN 7.6)

Like Cold War Berlin, name-and-form lives on both sides of the wall, internally and externally. It is …

(42)    … the root of both subjective and objective disease. (Sn 530)

Delusive implications. Primary evidence that our conceptualizations of reality “out there” are in error is that they simply do not keep pace with how things really play out. We fabricate a reality “out there” of relatively fixed entities and relations mistakenly assuming them to be relatively independent of our inner experience. Whereas subjective experience is in constant flux, when we objectify elements of experience we abstract away from what we actually experience. For instance, our immediate experience of a bird is from a particular angle and has a limited duration. We objectify the bird into something that remains the same bird no matter what angle we see it from, or even whether or not it is visible at a particular time. We seem to go too far in attributing an unrealistic degree of permanence. This is revealed in our surprise that our possessions and loved ones age. The three signs (ti-lakkhaṇa) are reminders of the degree to which our fabrications are in error. Our fabrications are biased in ways that lead us too easily to regard things as permanent, as pleasant and as self. The three signs are impermanent (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anatta) and we are admonished to regard all things as such. Often a fourth quality is added, which is ugly (asubha), intended to offset the error of regarding many things as beautiful.

Of course we cannot verify these signs by comparing our fabricated objective world to the world “out there” as it really is, since the latter is beyond our domain. But we can discover contradictions among the many perspectives we fabricate concerning reality “out there,” including how our fabricated world plays out with time. For instance, we regard things as permanent, but watch them change and disappear. We regard things a beautiful, but discover many ways they are not beautiful, including the way in what beauty that seems to be there disappears with time. We discover the suffering that accompanies every pleasant experience, or that what we identify with the self as out of control, changing and painful. What we fabricate does not seem to keep pace with the way things really are. We know that as internal contradictions reveal themselves.

Investigating the self. The self is a special case. It is generally fabricated as a constant presence, permanent and in control. It is that which sees, that which hears, that which decides. It is the experiencer, it is what craves and what hates. It is also an abstraction, but one that does not exist “out there,” but rather in the inner space created by the split between subjective and objective. Our primary practice in deconstructing the self is introspection, which is to objectify the subjective world.

In general we tend to identify the subjective world with our own bodies and with the mental aspects of experience. However, the boundary between subject and object can be stretched as much as we like, revealing its artificiality. We can contemplate our breath, for instance, viewing it independent of our intention to breath. In this way we can objectify the breath, noting its qualities as if we were watching someone else’s breath. In this case aspects of the inner tactile name-and-form lead to contact with, and attention to, experiences attributed to things that, although located within our own body, are conceptually treated exactly like things “out there.” Given that our feelings, perceptions and volitions are already attributed to things “out there,” even out inner mental states can be objectified in this way.

It should be noted that almost all themes of mindfulness meditation, for instance, those enumerated in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, are easily regarded as part of the internal world of feelings and of one own body. We generally don’t contemplate the things most readily interpreted as “out there,” such as trees, cows or houses. Notable exceptions are the charnel ground contemplations, but even there the tendency is to come back to the equivalent conditions of one’s own body. Given this, it is significant that the “insight” refrain of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta begins with the following statement:

(43)       In this way he abides contemplating body/feelings/mind objects as  body/feelings/mind objects internally, or  he abides contemplating body/feelings/mind objects as  body/feelings/mind objects externally, or  he abides contemplating body/feelings/mind objects as  body/feelings/mind objects both internally and externally. (MN 10)

This is often interpreted as having to do with contemplating one’s own body, for instance, then others bodies, but I am convinced something more subtle is going on here. When we abide contemplating internally, we let the inner name-and-form be the inner name-and-form and resist the tendency to objectification. When we abide contemplating externally, we give way to objectification and displacement. When we contemplate both internally and externally, we keep both in mind; this is most revealing of the way we fabricate the external reality, for both the beginning and end of the process are laid bare. Earlier we considered circumstances in which we can resist the marked tendency to fabricate an external reality, for instance, in the case of music, and even shift from the internal to the external name-and-form. The present circumstance is more subtle because the external name-and-form is very close to the internal.

This is how we may investigate the fabricated nature of the subject-object duality and thereby of the self.1 As we objectify what at first seems to be internal, we notice that this too is not self. Introspection allows us effectively to look for the self by temporarily shifting the boundary of subject and object and fail to find a self there.

Ñāṇānanda (2007, 38) states that penetration into the conditioned nature of consciousness is like storming the citadel of the illusory self, and quotes:

(44)     Having understood name-and-form as manifoldness, which is the root of both subjective and objective disease, he is completely released from bondage to the root of all disease. (Sn 530)

Investigating fabrications. A third technique in our toolbox for exposing the way we fabricate the world to the light of wisdom is to observe the process of fabrication itself step by step. What do we base our fabrication on? Fabrications of course, the second factor of the standard chain of dependent co-arising:

(45)    ignorance → fabrications → consciousness → name-and-form →

These come into play as notions about how the world works, of what birds and bunnies look like, of what televisions or books designate, of what proper emotive or karmic responses are to given situations, of what the roles of the self are, of what the proper way of going about a given task is, of what things are worth seeing, feeling and craving, of what the potential dangers things pose toward our interests, and so on. Fabrications flourish as a general rule and can be everything from calcified age-old ways of viewing things to wonderfully innovative notions. They are the colors with which we paint the world, the magician’s slights of hand.

When we cultivate mindfulness and composure (samādhi),2 we begin to appreciate the workings of our own minds. In particular, rather than viewing our self as looking through the sense doors upon a independently existing reality “out there” with its opportunities and dangers, we can no longer fail to see the prestidigitation going on continuously to create that reality, nor the streaks in the fresh paint.

Mindfulness is particularly important as an instrument of insight, to tease apart the roles of name-and-form, consciousness and fabrications in the process whereby the world is fabricated. Mindfulness itself has the power to stop at will perception at bare perception, that is, at inner name-and-form, – “contemplating the body in the body” – or to let it proceed step by step, or to bring perception-thought-proliferation under perfect control. Composure sharpens mindfulness and, as it deepens, may bring certain mental processes implicated in fabricating the world to a sudden halt with an equally sudden shift in the nature of that world. Proliferation is the first to shut down, but also it will become possible to halt perception at name-and-form, even failing to attribute what we experience to reality “out there.”

The result is as in the Buddha’s advice to the monk Bāhiya, which precipitated the latter’s awakening.

(46)    “When, Bāhiya, there is for you in the seen only the seen, in the heard, only the heard, in the sensed only the sensed, in the cognized only the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no ‘you’ in connection with that. When Bāhiya, there is no ‘you’ in connection with that, there is no ‘you’ there. When, Bāhiya,there is no ‘you’ there, then, Bāhiya, you are neither here nor there nor in between the two. This, just this, is the end of suffering.” (Ud 1.10)

Name-and-form is, for the worldling, compelling: it is vivid and when it is displaced into the reality “out there” it comes truly alive. However, when we see reality “out there” as cheap props, cardboard and thin paint, we become disenchanted.

(47)    The one untrammeled by name-and-form,
And passionless, no pains befall. (Dhp 221)


Next week, on the biological interpretation of name-and-form, to conclude the series.


Name and Form (3/5)

April 19, 2016

Name and Form:  nāmarūpa in the suttas

pdf_24x18  Please click here for a pdf if you would like to read footnotes and references.

The interplay of name-and-form with consciousness

The two constantly swirl around one another. Recall that this interplay is described as the source of  the whirlpool (vaṭṭa) that underlies the entirety of saṃsāric life. Ñāṇānanda1 states that consciousness vitalizes name-and-form, but we could just as well say that name-and-form vitalizes consciousness. In this section we will look at consciousness and its relationship to name-and-form more closely, and we will do that within the context of dependent co-arising, in which the interplay becomes clearest.

Overview of dependent co-arising.  Dependent co-arising in its standard formulation is the following causal chain, with name-and-form as the fourth factor:

(22)     ignorance → fabrications → consciousness →
name-and-form → six spheres → contact →
feeling  → craving → attachment → being →
birth → old age, death, this mass of suffering

This chain is an account of (1) the arising of the illusion of self, (2) the affective consequences of a self-centered world view and (3) the resulting perpetuation of the continuation of existence, that is of samsara.  As such, it falls naturally into three parts. The first is fundamentally cognitive in nature:

(23)    ignorance → fabrications → consciousness →
name-and-form → six-spheres → contact →

That it begins with ignorance, a kind of cluelessness, tells us that in what follows we are dealing with unskillful cognition, the arising of delusion rather than of knowledge. This delusion comes to completion in contact, in which the illusion of the self already has its foot firmly in the door. The Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1) famously defeats sixty-two speculative views current at the time of the Buddha, dismissing each with “that too is dependent on contact,” that is, on the climax of the cognitive subchain implicated in delusion.2

The second sub-sequence of dependent co-arising is fundamentally affective or emotional in nature:

(24)    → feeling  → craving → attachment →

Briefly, this represents more than an escalation of the emotional response: Feeling is a momentary assessment of the object of contact: positive, negative or neutral. Craving is very much forward-looking in that it seeks a satisfactory future condition. Attachment is an accumulation of dispositions and attitudes conditioned by repeated craving, including the development of views in cognitive support of dispositions.

The final sub-series represents a kind of overlaying of affective and cognitive factors, the consolidation of the human personality in all its complexity and in its relation to the world, and its propensity to propel itself into a new birth in which the anguish of life repeats itself:

(25)    → being → birth → old age, death, this mass of suffering

Although the standard form of dependent co-arising presents a linear sequence, this is a stalk with branches that also become part of its dynamics. Sprouting out of feeling and thereby in parallel with craving, the following branch describes the tendency of cognition to spin out of control (MN 18):

(26)    → contact → feeling → perception → thought →
proliferation → besetting of perceptions-and-notions

Similarly, sprouting out of craving is a branch leading to behavior in the world charged with cunning, passion and interpersonal conflict (DN 15):

(27)    → feeling → craving → seeking → acquisition → decision-making →
lustful desire →  attachment → appropriation → avarice →
defensiveness → taking up of stick and sword; quarrels,
disputes arguments, strife, abuse, lying …

Although the Buddha described dependent co-arising in terms of these tidy linear chains, the actual dynamics plays out in a more complex way. One aspect of this is that consciousness is forever arising anew and can arise in relation to any of the other factors of the chain; in fact, we would not know about the other factors if we were not conscious of them. Particularly interesting to track, aside from the interplay of consciousness and name-and-form, is the interplay of consciousness and craving, for not only does consciousness give rise to craving further up the chain, but craving is a strong attractor for new instances of consciousness. We tend to give what we crave our full attention. I’ve come, in my attempts to fully comprehend dependent co-arising, to think not so much in terms of feedback loops, but as a repeated staggered overlaying of new activations of the chain.

Notice that the perspective of dependent co-arising tends to draw out the various name-and-form factors within name-and-form in order to get clearer about how these factors condition one another. This is not to say that these factors as they occur in dependent co-arising are separable from their occurrence in the sense-sphere perspective, nor in the internal perspective of name-and-form.

The functions of consciousness. We have seen that consciousness and name-and-form are in constant conversation. Name-and-form arises where consciousness is present and consciousness is present where name-and-form is most interesting. Sometimes the alighting of consciousness within name-and-form brings the whole body into play in order to guide what will next falls on the retina or strikes the ear drum. In the the Great Causation Sutta we learn that each serves as a condition for the other:

(28)    This consciousness turns back from name-and-form, it does not go beyond. In so far can one be born, or grow old, or die, or pass away, or reappear, in so far as this is, namely: consciousness is dependent on name-and-form, and name-and-form on consciousness. (DN 15)

We can represent the mutuality of consciousness and name-and-form like this:

(29)     consciousness    ↔    name-and-form

The Venerable Sāriputta, in the Naḷakalāpī Sutta,3 compares consciousness and name-and-form to two bundles of reeds. When two bundles of reeds stand, one supporting the other, if one of those is removed, the other would fall down.  Neither stands on its own.

Aside from awareness and attention, consciousness brings another characteristic and critical property. We mentioned briefly with regard to the sense spheres. This is the ability to refer to or to be cognizant of something, that is either to imagine something “out there” or to know of it “out there,” or, more typically, to engage in some blend of imagining and knowing. We can call this the referential property of consciousness. Recall that we cannot experience anything “out there” directly, but we can objectify our experiences by attributing to them a causal connection with something “out there.” We can be conscious of something without – or actually in lieu of – experiencing it directly, just as we can use words to describe something in its absence. This opens up name-and-form to an entire new dimension.

Now, this referential property of consciousness can be seen alternately as something quite functional, or as a source of great delusion. The Buddha’s real interest was in the arising of suffering and therefore, in the present context, on how our cognitive apparatus gets us into trouble. Accordingly he emphasized the illusory quality of consciousness and of the other factors of cognition. In the Phena Sutta, we find the following statement concerning the five aggregates (khaṅda), with consciousness as the fifth:

(30)    Form is like a mass of foam,
And feeling but an airy bubble.
Perception is like a mirage,
And fabrications a plantain tree.
Consciousness is a magic-show,
A juggler’s trick entire. (SN 22.95)

A plantain or banana tree is characterized as having no core or hardwood, but just layer over layer of the same woody substance. The Buddha likens consciousness (viññāṇa) to a magical show in that it fabricates a reality by slight of hand and illusion, but one which the wise are able to see through if they look carefully:4

(31)    Now suppose that a magician or magician’s apprentice were to display a magic trick at a major intersection, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, and appropriately examine it. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a magic trick? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, and appropriately examines any consciousness that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in consciousness?” (SN 22.95)

So, what is it that consciousness conjures up “out there,” and how is it related to name-and-form as an internal experience? Typically name-and-form provides the material for objectification. For instance, we experience the perception of a cow in name-and-form, and consciousness imputes the existence of a cow “out there,” with the various further characteristics perceived in the cow. But the cow “out there” is much more than that: It may be identified with a cow we’ve seen before, such as Ol’ Betsy. It is a cow located in three dimensions, that we could walk around and see from various angles, whereas the cow experienced in name-and-form is from a single angle. It is also an object of thought and reasoning – a producer of milk, a hazard when it wanders into the flower garden or an obstruction the path of our car, and so on – in a way a mere internal experience cannot be.

(32)    Saraputta once asked a disciple, in order to check his understanding, “On what basis, Samiddhi, do intentions and thoughts arise in a person?”
Samiddhi correctly answered, “On the basis of name-and-form, Bhante.” (AN 9.14)

The thing “out there” becomes the object not only to thoughts and reasoning, but to intentional manipulation by bodily and verbal actions, in a way mere internal experience cannot be. As Ñāṇānanda5 states, consciousness, in this way, vitalizes name-and-form.

Nonetheless, the cow “out there” is still experienced with the immediacy, richness and vividness of the internal experience in name-and-form. Internal name-and-form is reflected in our consciousness of what is “out there.” In fact, we attribute almost our entire cow experience to the object “out there,” imagining that we are experiencing that object directly in all its immediacy, richness and vividness. It sure seems like we are looking at and experiencing directly the cow standing in a field, richly illuminated by the bright sun and populated by oak trees at irregular intervals, rather than looking at some internally generated “virtual reality.” Consciousness, in short, has bifurcated name-and-form into internal and external aspects, one a reflection of the other.

Moreover, as we take name-and-form to be real, to be “out there,” the name factors take on different qualities. Feeling responds not just to raw sense experience itself, but now to the abstract relations imputed to exist “out there.” Perceptions are now constrained by the physical laws that obtain “out there.” Volition now extends to thoughts of manipulating the conditions “out there” to gain benefit and avoid harm.  Contact and attention now relate to he objects “out there.” Remarkably, these seemingly mental factors that constitute name generally are reflected “out there” in the external name-and-form as well. For instance, we take the feeling of the name-and-form experience, say unsatisfactoriness, to be an intrinsic property of the thing “out there,” rather than a subjective evaluation, and we talk about it that way. Our volition becomes the usefulness or obstructiveness intrinsic to the things “out there.” What we attend to becomes an intrinsic highlight of the thing “out there.” And what we contact out of interest will become the most detailed aspect of the thing “out there.” Our attitudes are projected to become intrinsic to the things “out there.”

Let me give some examples that might help the reader appreciate the experiential quality of the internal as opposed to external aspects of name-and-form. Generally it is hard to experience both at the same time. We experience most instances of hearing as hearing something “out there,” a bird chirping, a train approaching and so on. We can also experience music this way, as the orchestra playing or as a loudspeaker producing sounds. However, music is a somewhat exceptional case since we generally do not regard its value in providing evidence about what is going on “out there,” but in the internal experiences themselves that music evokes. This makes it relatively easy to back off from the external aspect of music and instead to dwell in the internal experience. We do this when we lay back, close our eyes and let the music flow through us or bubble up in the mind. This is depicted graphically in the Tocata and Fugue segment of Disney’s Fantasia, for instance, which begins by showing the orchestra playing, then moves into a display of mind-generated visual imagery to accompany the music. A similar backing off happens with regard to obvious illusions, for instance, due to imperfections in the sense faculties, such as ringing in the ear or floaters in the eye. One might occasionally experience these as existing “out there,” as a vexing electronic buzz or as annoying flying insects, but then, realizing they are neither, we back off from the objectification of the experience and simply let them remain as internal experiences. More typically in the case of a visual experience, we become locked into the external experience such that it becomes difficult to see it as anything else, though even this circumstance may occasionally break down in meditative practice. Looking out the window at a squirrel we are almost always convinced that we see the squirrel directly rather than an internally generated visual image.

Growing the world. It is remarkable that on the basis of sensory impression, raw sense data, that a coalition of consciousness and name and form can not only make some sense of shapes and colors, sounds and smells, but fabricate an elaborate reality “out there” with far more mastery that the best magician, one of enduring identities and relationships subject to attitudes, views and manipulation. How is this possible? It is the marvel of human cognition. In terms of dependent co-arising it is made possible through fabrications, which are like slights of hand or the mirrors, false bottoms and other tricks of the magician’s trade and are themselves grounded in ignorance.6 We fabricate a reality “out there” and then, as far-fetched as this may sound, actually believe in it.

Now, as consciousness attends to name-and-form and objectifies what it finds there, external reality grows. As we might expect, consciousness is attracted toward things of interest, things of desire and especially things of craving. The Buddha states,

(33)    … all things are rooted in desire [canda]. They come into being through attention [manasikāra]. They originate from contact [phassa]. (AN 10.58)

For instance, the hunter is interested in game, so attention is drawn there and contact with the bunny occurs when consciousness alights there. The birdwatcher sets her sights a bit higher. In this way, the external reality that is grown from name-and-form is highly individuated, largely excluding altogether what is beyond personal interest, desire or craving.  Your external reality is likely to be quite different from mine or that guy’s. Hamilton (2000, 92) points out that the internal and external worlds nonetheless appear to the worldling as two independently originated but parallel streams, such that internal cognitive processes are intent on keeping up with what is happening in the external world. Accordingly we treat the external world as an independent “objectively” given reality. We fail to recognize that almost the opposite is true: the internal processes are actually fabricating the reality “out there.” Ñāṇānanda reminds us in this regard of that the very beginning of the Dhammapāda reads,7

(34)    All things have mind as their forerunner, mind is their chief, they are mind-made.

The growth of the world culminates in being (bhava), a late factor in dependent co-arising. What constitutes being is a matter of some complexity in its own right, but seems to involve a folding together of affective factors, particularly attachment, with cognitive factors. A rather compelling simile of the Buddha is the following:

(35)    “Thus, Ananada, for beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, kamma is the field, consciousness the seed and craving the moisture for their consciousness to be established in an /inferior/middling/superior/ realm.” (AN 3.76)

Here consciousness is a seed that results in further being when watered by craving. It grows out of kamma, which can be roughly equated with fabrications.

Subject and object. The bifurcation between internal and external name-and-form is also known as the subject-object duality. We have seen that eye and form give rise to eye consciousness and the coming together of the three is contact. This is what the wise know. However, this is not how the wordling generally experiences contact. Ñāṇavīra8 points out that for the wordling contact appears to be a direct relation between “me” and a thing “out there.” Once consciousness has conjured a reality “out there” to be experienced, there seems to be a contrasting world “in here” as the seat of experience, and – this is the rub – an experiencer who occupies that seat and looks out at what is “out there.” This is the very beginning of the illusion of a self that underlies human suffering. The Contemplation of Dualities Sutta states,

(36) Just see the world, with all its gods,
Fancying a self where none exists,
Entrenched in name-and-form it holds,
The conceit that this is real. (Sn 756)

The Pali word for internal or subjective is ajjhatta, which is derived from atta (self). (Objective or external is bahiddhā.) This dualistic way of conceptualizing the world is what I call the fortress world for its conceptual and behavioral consequences. Ñāṇānanda puts it in brief as,9 “Where there is a fence, there is offense and defense.” The world divides naturally into needs and wants on the inside and resources and dangers on the outside. Outside the walls of the fortress are the things to desire and exploit and things to fear and avoid. Inside is “me,” doing the exploiting and avoiding. This dichotomy entails a evaluation of objects beyond the walls in terms of attraction or aversion, which implicitly underlies the links of feeling, craving and attachment that follow.

And how do we look out through the walls of the fortress? Through the senses, or through six doors (dvāra) as they are generally called in this context. And so a contact is a peek through one of the six sense doors. In the Great Causation Sutta name-and-form is the direct condition of contact. However, more commonly we find an intervening condition, the six spheres, as follows:

(36)    name-and-form → six spheres → contact → feeling → craving

The six spheres have to do with the senses, but they should not be confused with the sense faculties.  Ñāṇānanda (2009, 26-27) equates the rising of the spheres (āyatana-uppāda) with the discriminative function of consciousness, that is, with the bifurcation of name-and-form into internal and external.10 We don’t generally see this discriminative function as we experience its results, we think we are simply looking through one of the six sense doors at something that is really “out there.” When we see the arising of the spheres clearly in our wiser moments, the mind is released from this delusion. Ñāṇānanda cites the Sona Sutta:

(37)    In one who is intent upon the destruction of craving,
And the non-delusion of the mind,
On seeing the arising of the six spheres,
The mind is well released. (AN 6.55)

As  Ñāṇānanda states, “The discrimination between an ‘internal’ and an ‘external’ is the outcome of the inability to penetrate name-and-form, the inability to see through it. There is an apparent duality: I, as one who sees, and name-and-form, as the objects seen. Between them there is a dichotomy as internal and external. It is on this very dichotomy that the six sense-bases are ‘based’. Contact, feeling, craving and all the rest of it come on top of those six sense-bases.”11

This account of name-and-form is complex and probably challenging to the reader. But recall that dependent co-arising is stated by the Buddha to be profound and difficult to understand, and that the interplay of name-and-form with consciousness is right at the heart of dependent co-arising. This matter is worthy of careful and detailed study. On the other hand, this account is not arcane; it is presented entirely in experiential terms subject to personal verification step by step. Sometimes I’ve differentiated between what the wise sees and what the wordling sees, but this too is subject to verification as we transition through our practice and understanding from worldling to wise. Let me end this section with a statement from the Mahānidāna Sutta about the implications of the whirlpool driven by consciousness and name-and-form. Notice the emphasis not only to life processes that adhere around the self, but also to language, the manifestation of the referential property of consciousness arising from name-and-form.

“In so far only, Ānanda, can one be born, or grow old, or die, or pass away, or reappear, in so far only is there any pathway for verbal expression, in so far only is there any pathway for terminology, in so far only is there any pathway for designation, in so far only is the range of wisdom, in so far only is the round kept going for there to be a designation as the this-ness, that is to say: name-and-form together with consciousness.” (DN 15)

Coming soon: (4/5) What name-and-Form means for practice.



Name and Form (2/5)

April 12, 2016

Name and Form:  nāmarūpa in the suttas

pdf_24x18 Please click here for a pdf if you would like to read footnotes and references.

Name-and-form and the sense spheres

I stated that name-and-form (viewed in terms of its inner structure), dependent co-arising and the sense spheres represent three perspectives on cognition in Early Buddhism. I want to take up the perspective of the sense spheres and then of dependent co-arising and the role of name-and-form (viewed in terms of its outer function) in each of these. But I begin with emphasizing the experiential basis that characterizes all of early Buddhist psychology.

Dhammas: elements of experience. Early Buddhist psychology has a phenomenological orientation, that is, it is almost completely restricted to elements as they occur in experience, with almost no interest in mechanisms that might underly experience or persist behind the scenes, or even in a world “out there,” beyond our experience.1 In fact, “the world” itself is most generally understood not as something “out there,” but as just this world of experience. Quite to the point,

(9)    “It is in this fathom-long living body endowed with perception and mind that I proclaim the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the way leading to the cessation of the world.” (AN 4.45)

This perspective is just the opposite of what many of us, including the most scientifically oriented of us, tend to think, who give “objective reality” and the world “out there,” primacy and may even, along with American behaviorists, deny the reality of experience altogether. And indeed the Buddha himself seems to speak of the world “out there” when he talks about bodily and physical actions and their consequences in the world. However, even his ethics is primarily psychologically based, in terms of the arising of wholesome and unwholesome intentions. The Buddha called the elements or factors of experience dharmas (dhamma) – in contrast to the Dharma – which in modern philosophical terms is accurately translated as phenomenon.

Screenshot from 2016-04-11 16_34_42

The Muppets Explain Phenomenology. (click)

A primary reason for the phenomenological perspective is that the human condition arises in and through experience. As Ronkin2 points out, the Buddha’s interest lies fundamentally in epistemology, how we think we know what we do, rather than in ontology, what actually exists in the world. In particular, the Buddha was concerned with the arising of delusion in human experience, which he saw as the root of the human condition. The failure to recognize this perspective is responsible for many common misunderstandings of the Dharma.3  It is in experience that suffering arises, and it is the elements of experience that condition its arising. It is for the elements of experience that we develop mindfulness, it is the elements of experience that we examine with clear comprehension and into which we develop insight or see as they really are. The Buddhist practitioner will find the shift to a phenomonological perspective, once completed, very satisfying since it produces what we can verify empirically for ourselves, particularly in quiet meditative states.

The main principle to keep in mind in the phenomenological perspective is that the world “out there” – assuming it exists at all, which we cannot prove – is beyond direct experience. When we think we see something “out there,” a cow, for instance, our experience is a name-and-form, something more akin to an internal image, mediated by the playing out of shapes and colors on the retina, then processed physiologically through our neural hardware before the experience arises. Nonetheless, we can have the impression that we are looking at a cow “out there,” impute the existence of a cow “out there,” and reason about that cow “out there.” We can even impute and reason about abstract objects, untouched by name-and-form. But our impressions, imputations and reasoning are themselves just experiences. Our thoughts and language characteristically have a referential quality, the ability to seem to point to something “out there,” but a pointing-to is itself just an element of experience. The thing “out there” itself is never directly experienced, and therefore is not in “the world,” as the Buddha uses the term in (9) above.

Sense Spheres. Now, the world of experience arises in our senses: eyes, ears, nose, etc. Without the senses, there could be no experience. But wait: even if the material senses were cut off, we would still experience thoughts and emotions and imaginings, wouldn’t we? Yes! That is why in Buddhism, rather than five senses, we have six, the five physical senses that we are already familiar with (eye or seeing, ear or hearing, tongue or tasting, nose or smelling, and body or touching), and as a sixth the mind sense (mano) through which we experience our inner thoughts and mental processes, in times of introspection, of remembering or of imagination, for instance, or of abstract imputations about the things “out there.” Happiness, lust, products of reasoning, dreams and even the imputation that something exists “out there”, are thereby included in our world of experience, and so we can reflect on these things and talk about them. The following is the echo of (9) from the sense bases.

(10)    In the six the world has arisen,
In the six it holds concourse.
On the six themselves depending,
In the six it has woes. (SN 1.70)

We might suppose that name-and-form is limited to the five physical senses, but consider memories or imaginings of physical experiences. For instance, if someone asks us how many windows our house has, we are likely to bring up an image from memory, then walk around that image counting windows. We seem to treat this image as a name-and-form even though none of the physical senses is actually active in this case. As far as I know, the Buddha said nothing about such cases, and we need not reflect on them further

The senses are generally discussed in terms of spheres (āyatana), a word which suggests a space or location, or a realm of activity associated with the respective sense faculty. Sometimes translators prefer bases to spheres, but I find bases less clear.  The Saḷ’āyatana-Saṃyutta (Six Sphere division of the Saṃyutta Nikāya) variously lists a number of factors that belong in each of the six spheres. For instance in the eye sphere we have:

(11)    … eye, form, eye consciousness, eye contact and whatever arises with eye contact as a condition. (SN 35.24-28)

Feeling and craving, in particular, have contact as a condition. It should be noted that form (rūpa) conventionally refers, but only in the context of the sense spheres, specifically to an object of sight,  where elsewhere it can refer to any materiality. There are exactly analogous lists for the other five sense spheres, each with a distinct name for its sense object. The factors for all sense spheres accordingly look like this:

ScreenshotNotice that contact, feeling and craving – themselves like consciousness classified in terms of the respective sense – in each sense sphere match a causal sub-chain within the links of dependent co-arising:

(12)    contact →  feeling  →  craving

In fact the causality obtains straight across, for contact itself is defined as the coming together of the dyad of eye and eye-object with consciousness:

(13)    Dependent on eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. (MN 18)

Similarly for ear, sounds and ear-consciousness, etc. Various suttas refer to the six spheres as “the all” (sabba), in the sense that they exhaust the world, the realm of experience. This reassures us once again of the aptness of the phenomenological view in the Buddha’s thinking. The All Sutta states:

(14)    If anyone, bhikkhus, should speak thus, ‘Having rejected this all, I shall make known another all’, that would be a mere empty boast on his part. … that would not be within his domain.” (SN 35.23)

Sense objects. Our concern here will be primarily the sense objects, which appear, it will be claimed, as name-and-form (except, as mentioned, sometimes in the case of mind objects). Most of us have a commonsense model of how our senses work that is something like the following, taking the eye sense as an example:

(15)    object “out there”    →     contact         →        consciousness

Briefly, an object “out there,” let’s say, um, a cow, makes contact with the eye (by means of light), and as a result we become conscious of that external object. However, this account is inadequate in terms of the unfolding of experience, since an object “out there” is not experienced directly or independently. And, in fact, until consciousness arises, we cannot impute, refer to or otherwise indirectly experience an object “out there.” The best we can say is that experientially consciousness or something following upon consciousness refers to the visible object existing out there in the world, and what we experience actually unfolds like this:

(16) eye   →   eye-consciousness  →  reference to object “out there”

We will see later that consciousness itself has a characteristic referential quality, which allows us to say that we are conscious of something.

So far we have an account of what a sense object is not, but not what a sense object is. We still need sense objects because the eye faculty by itself conveys no specific information that would account for what kind of external object, say, a cow, to impute or refer to. We are able to impute or refer only because the eye exhibits colors and shapes dancing around on the retina, the ear exhibits vibrations in the ear drum and so on. The eye, ear, nose, etc. are faculties (indriya) that allow the events that constitute seeing, hearing, smelling and so on to occur. Physiologically our original model makes sense, that an external object impinges on the eye and is mapped by that faculty onto some form related to that external object. However, experientially, the sense object simply arises in the eye apparently from nowhere. The reader can anticipate where this is going:

(17) Sense objects (forms, sounds, odors, tastes, etc.) belong to name-and-form.

Notice that I do not say sense objects are names-and-forms. Unlike objects, name-and-form does not have a plural in the early discourses; it is not countable. Rather, as I have described it, it is a field of activity arising in any of the senses, out of which specific objects are perceived. The attribution of sense object to name-and-form, though generally overlooked, is not unprecedented. Bucknell, Reat and others4 have also identified name-and-form with sense objects with varying arguments. For us, name-and-form, as we have described it, acts exactly how we expect a sense object to act, and since the sense spheres are “the all,” name-and-form must fit in there somewhere. Although the term name-and-form is not generally used in the context of the sense spheres (in which form itself has the specialized meaning of eye object), that also is not unprecedented. In the Bālapaṇḍita Sutta  we learn indeed that name-and-form is a sense object:

(18)    So, there is this body and external name-and-form: thus this dyad. Dependent on this dyad there is contact. There are just six sense bases, contacted through which – or through a certain one among them – the fool experiences pleasure and pain.  (SN 12.19)

Similarly, in the Chinese Samyuktāgama we find the equivalent passage:5

(19)    Within the body there is this consciousness and outside the body there is name-and-form. Conditioned by these two arises contact. Contacted by these six sense-contacts, the ignorant, untaught worldling experiences painful and pleasurable feelings variously arisen.

Notice the use of the word external (bahiddhā) in (18) and the care taken to distance this from the body in (19). We will see later how name-and-form is in fact bifurcated by consciousness to produce an external reflection of name-and-form as inner sense experience.

The understanding of sense object as name-and-form brings the causal sequence within the sense spheres even closer to the chain of dependent co-arising. In both we find the following sequence.

(20)    name-and-form  →  contact  →  feeling  →  craving

Consciousness still appears to match awkwardly, as do the six spheres (saḷāyatana), since consciousness occurs between name-and-form and contact in the sense spheres, but the six spheres occur in that position in some versions of dependent co-arising. We will resolve the apparent discrepancy when we understand consciousness better below.

Before that, let’s ask, What exactly is a sense faculty? It would seem that the eye, the ear, the nose, etc. need no definition, or that they might alternatively be regarded as something given physically or as a kind of functionality. However, the Buddha says something remarkable about this when he calls the six senses old karma:

(21)    “What, bhikkhus, is old karma? The eye is old karma, to be regarded as fabricated (abhisaṅkhata) and planned by volition, as something to be perceived.” (SN 35.146)

The same passage is then repeated substituting ear, nose, tongue, body and mind for eye. Now, if karma is intentional action to which we are heir, old karma must be our inheritance, conditioned potentialities that will play themselves out in the future. This quote attributes  to the eye faculty, etc. a habituated way of processing dependent on accustomed fabrications or volitional formations (saṅkhāra).  For instance, where the farmer might see a cow, say, the hunter might see a moose. Where the shopkeeper might see broken glass, the jeweler might see spilled diamonds. Where the farmer might see a fertile field, the realtor might see an excellent home site. Such dispositions have been learned through past karma, and in view of the depth of the interpretations we place on sensual experience, seemingly through many lives of of accumulating such karma. The eye faculty, etc. is conditioned to see in certain ways, as old karma, and thereby as a critical determinant of the entire world (of experience). The closest correspondent of the sense faculties in the chain of dependent co-arising seems to be fabrications (saṅkhāra), which precede name-and-form, via consciousness, in the chain.

At this juncture we can report that name-and-form, as we have described it here, has a clear role in the sense spheres that fits well with the causal structure of their presentation in the early discourses. It remains to explore the role of consciousness, which is intimately involved in name-and-form.

… to be continued.

Name and Form (1/5)

April 6, 2016

Name and Form:  nāmarūpa in the suttas

pdf_24x18  Please click here for a pdf if you would like to read footnotes and references.

Abstract. Name-and-form (Pali, nāmarūpa) is, according to what you are about to read, the richest part of experience. It is the subjective experience that plays out in each of the five material senses: for instance, that which appears as patterns of shapes and colors on the retina, as sound vibrations on the eardrum, as an aroma in the nose, as a stimulations on the tongue, or as local sensations anywhere in the body. It spans physical sensation and percept.

Name-and-form is further discriminated by consciousness, which locates the percepts as objects, typically giving them ontological status out there in the real world and establishing identities with previously encountered objects. In relation to consciousness, name-and-form stands as evidence of what is “out there.” Many consequences arise from the interplay of consciousness and name-and-form.

Name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) is an important but often poorly understood, concept in the discourses of the Buddha that has given rise to some disagreement in recent decades. Yet it is fundamental. The Buddha spoke in the Jaṭā (Tangle) Sutta, in reference to the entanglement of the worldly mind:

(1)     Where name-and-form as well as sense and the designation are completely cut off, it is there that the tangle gets snapped. (SN 7.6)

It is also said of name-and-form that it is “the root of both subjective and objective disease.” (Sn 530)

The Pali word nāma-rūpa is often translated as mind-and-body or mentality-materiality, but we will translate it more literally as name-and-form. It shows up primarily as a causal factor in Dependent Co-Arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), itself an important but often poorly understood account of human experience found in the discourses of the Buddha, generally as the fourth in the standard twelve-linked causal chain.

(2)     ignorance → fabrications → consciousness →
name-and-form → six spheres → contact →
feeling  → craving → attachment → being →
birth → old age, death, this mass of suffering

In the Great Causation  (Mahānidāna) Sutta (DN 15), the most detailed description of dependent co-arising in the discourses, we learn that consciousness and name-and-form are mutually conditioning, that is,

(3)     consciousness ↔ name-and-form

In illustrating this relationship in this discourse, name-and-form and consciousness are given patent biological roles in the conception and development of the human organism:

(4)     “If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would name-and-form take shape in the womb?” “No, lord.”
“If the consciousness of a young boy or girl were to be cut off, would name-and-form grow up, develop and reach maturity?” “No, Lord.” (DN 15)

This particular passage is the primary support for the most traditional understanding of name-and-form, and will be the last taken up in our account. In contrast, the interplay of consciousness and name-and-form in the same discourse is described as a cycle, round or a whirlpool (vaṭṭa) that underlies the entirety of saṃsāric life:

(5)    “In so far only, Ānanda, can one be born, or grow old, or die, or pass away, or reappear, in so far only is there any pathway for verbal expression, in so far only is there any pathway for terminology, in so far only is there any pathway for designation, in so far only is the range of wisdom, in so far only is the round kept going for there to be a designation as the this-ness, that is to say: name-and-form together with consciousness.” (DN 15)

In a sutta already cited, name-and-form together with consciousness is called “a tangle within and a tangle without” (SN 7.6). Name-and-form is most explicitly defined in the same sutta by listing the constituents of name and of form (SN 12.2):

    (6)    Name: feeling, perception, volition, contact, attention
Form: earth, water, air, fire and derivatives thereof

We also learn that these factors are involved in a cognitive process, or two mutually conditioning processes, verbal impression (adhivacana-samphassa), driven by the factors of name and sensory impression (paṭigha-samphassa), driven by the factors of form, that together array (give form to) and conceptualize (give name to) sense data.

In another sutta we see that name-and-form is indeed involved in sense perception:

(7)    So, there is this body and external name-and-form: thus this dyad. Dependent on this dyad there is contact. There are just six sense bases, contacted through which – or through a certain one among them – the fool experiences pleasure and pain. (SN 12.19)

More commonly contact is defined as based on the duality of sense faculty – eye, ear, etc. – and sense object – visual form, sound, etc. –, that consciousness arises dependent on these two, and that contact is the co-occurrence of these three. Body, in this context, appears to stand for any or all of the sense faculties, so external name-and-form seems to stand for any kind of sense object.

I will return in the course of this essay to each of these examples, after we get a better experiential handle on just what name-and-form is.

What is name-and-form?

The expression name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) seems to have a pre-Buddhist origin in the Rg Veda and in the early Upanishads, and specifically in the brahmanic jātakarman ceremony, in which a father gives a name to his newly born son.1 Here form represents the outward appearance of the son, and name the father’s designation for his son. The ceremony thereby confers a conceptual status upon the son which is said to complete the son’s creation out of the formless chaos. Notice that, although this use of name-and-form is connected with birth and creation, its task is conceptual; in particular it does not refer to the body and mind of the son, but to how the son is understood from without.

The position of this paper is that name-and-form is best understood as the most immediate, intimate, rich and vivid part of conceptual sense experience. The closest example at hand is the conscious visual experience of the reader as you perceive this page,  or, if you will now look out an available window, your visual experience as you behold what is seen there. Name-and-form might also be an audible experience, perhaps of music, traffic or birds, or a gustatory, aromatic or tactile experience. In each case, it is a rich and dynamic sense experience, including raw sense data but also alive in pursuit of comprehension. We have experiences that are not name-and-form, such as a sudden inspiration or a step in a reasoning process, but these lack this immediate, intimate, rich and vivid quality of name-and-form; they are more anemic.

Cognition within name-and-form. As I look out at, say, a forest – consciousness has alighted there – certain physical elements touch my eye faculty, experienced as vibrant colors, shapes and movements. Sensory impression is based on identifying the traditional fundamental elements of the physical world: earth or solidity, water or liquidity and cohesion, fire or heat and cold and process, air or motion, and compounds of these four elements and their properties, such as colors and shapes. The Pali for sensory impression, paṭigha-samphassa, also translates as impingement contact and suggests the impact of a physical force. We can understand this as beginning with raw sense data.

Verbal impression begins as feelings arise alongside colors and shapes. Specific objects emerge as perceptions, for instance tree trunks, leaves, rabbits ahoppig, and bluebirds aflittering.  My present volitional task – maybe I am a hunter, intent on prey, or a birdwatcher, binoculars in hand, or a fire lookout – provides an overlay, tending to bring certain objects to the fore, such as bunny, bluebird or a billowing smoke. As a result, the eye will then make contact with that object such that consciousness then alights there. Attention induces further analysis of the particular object and the process repeats itself, in this example with a narrower focus that  backgrounds the rest of the forest that constituted a previous name-and-form. The suttas tell us, “All things have attention as their origin” (AN 8.83), or as Ñāṇānanda2 puts it, “Attention is the discoverer of ‘the thing’.” Contact and attention, conditioned by volition, are also noticeably augmented by bodily movement perhaps with respect to all five physical senses. For instance, as the eye itself moves to establish contact, the head turns or the entire body turns around with attention. These movements are probably both voluntary and involuntary.

Now, these cognitive processes not only shape the content of name-and-form, the way they play out is the sense experience of name-and-form itself. Recall that name and form are defined in terms of these factors, as repeated here.

   (6)    Name: feeling, perception, volition, contact, attention.
Form: earth, water, air, fire and derivatives thereof.

Name-and-form is not simply a static result of the processes of verbal impression and sensory impression, but is alive, typically at once, with all of the factors that constitute name and form as the elements of the complete sensual experience, raw matter and our ways of relating to it. In fact, the description of the interaction between the name and the form components is quite elegant.

(8)     “If those various characteristics by which name were conceived were absent, would there be any corresponding discernment of verbal impression with regard to form?” “No.”
“If those various characteristics by which form were conceived were absent, would there be any corresponding discernment of sensory impression with regard to name?” “No.”
“If those various characteristics by which both kinds were conceived were absent, would there be any corresponding discernment of either verbal or sensory impression with regard to name?” “No.” (DN 15)

In short, form can discern nothing without name and vice versa. Even the four elements cannot be discerned on their own account. As a former cognitive scientist, I found this quite insightful when I first encountered it; in fact it reminded me of computational architectures in artificial intelligence in which quasi-independent parallel processes communicate and constrain themselves according to each other’s intermediate results. It has been pointed out3 that the resulting complex interdependence between name and form, undermine the alleged dichotomy between the physical and the mental, since neither is here independent of the other.

Hamilton4 calls name-and-form the structure of the cognitive system. Indeed, it seems self-sufficient in this way. Now, much of what happens within name-and-form is also found outside of name-and-form in the description of the standard chain of dependent co-arising, which itself includes name-and-form as a primary factor. Feeling and contact are directly named as factors in the chain. Perception is found in a side-branch of dependent co-arising that splits at feeling. Volition is related to the fabrications and to craving. And attention is described elsewhere as a factor of consciousness also conditioned by craving. Many of these same processes are also found in descriptions of the sense spheres. Each of these three contexts seems to contain a self-sufficient cognitive system. I think of these as not really separate systems, but simply different contextual perspectives on the same apparatus. What follows should make that clearer.

mysteryEntityExamples. Illustration 1 allows us to observe the dynamic unfolding of the name-and-form experience in slow motion, simply because it is a difficult image to process. This is a photograph of an entity abundantly familiar to all, but in which light and dark colors are sharply contrasted. The sensory impression of form is simple, just black and white earthy areas contacting the retina, no motion, no heat, no liquidity, for it’s a still image. Feeling arises; the sharp contrast in shading might seem initially somewhat ominous. We perceive the area as an image, but then perception typically balks. We might observe ourselves speculating whether certain shapes are recognizable objects: For instance, is that a clenched fist holding some small object reaching from the upper right corner? Volition is also in play, for the introductory remarks are likely to be taken by the reader as a challenge to succeed in recognizing what the heck this is a picture of. The volition also drives contact and attention, tracked as the eye moves quickly from one region to another looking for something recognizable. Moreover, we can watch the interplay of the processes of verbal impression and sensory impression as we alternatively work bottom-up from the raw image data itself, or top-down from the concepts we might impose. If perception should succeed in isolating the mysterious entity depicted, contact will occur with attention focused then on the now apparent  entity, intent on perception of further properties.5

Another, particularly prominent and almost continuous, example of name-and-form is the awareness we have of our own bodies. This has many components: Our tactile sense is aware of impingement with the surface of our skin, which can be fairly passive, but also active, for instance, as we explore the surface of something in the dark by running our fingers over it. Our tactile sense reports on touch, tingling, pricking, itching, hot and cold, and so on. Our kinesthetic sense tracts the positions of the parts of the body in three dimensions. We are also able to monitor the functioning of various internal organs in terms of muscle tension, heat, fullness, nausea, a sense of suffocation, and so on. We discover all of the four elements of form. With regard to name, feeling is a particularly prominent component as the first indicator of distress in the body. Perception can identify tactile sensations, or diagnose particular problems in the state of the body. Volition may vary as we make particular demands on the body, for instance to perform at a high level during a work-out, to look good on social occasions or to recover from an illness. We have a different relationship to the body under each of these circumstances, which affects our feelings and perceptions about the body. Contact occurs as consciousness alights on a particular part of the body for further analysis. Pain or other discomforts draw our attention to a particular part of the body that may be in distress.
In the rest of this paper I will discuss how name-and-form integrates with the broader teachings of the discourses, attempt to account for the various statements about name-and-form in the discourses, draw implications for the arising of the sense of self (sakkāyadiṭṭhi) for which dependent co-arising is meant to account and look at what all this means for practice.

… to be continued next week.

The Buddha and His Legacy

January 7, 2016

“Fortunate is the arising of Buddhas.
Fortunate is the teaching of the true Dharma.
Fortunate is the harmony of the saṅgha.
The practice of those in harmony is fortunate.” (Dhp 194)

IntroBuddhaSome hundred generations have passed since Gotama, the sage of the Sakyans, eighty years of age, departed from the world. He had warned his assistant, the Venerable Ānanda, three months beforehand of this intention. This greatly upset the younger monk, but the Buddha put the situation into perspective for him.

“Have I not already told you, Ānanda, that there is separation and parting and division from all that is dear and beloved? How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed and bound to fall, should not fall? That is not possible?”

The Buddha’s foremost disciples. Sāriputta and Moggallāna, had already died. The Blessed One then asked Ānanda to summon all of the monastics (bhikkhus) living near Vesāli to meet so that he could make his intention public. When they had convened he spoke these words:

“Bhikkhus, I have now taught you things that I have directly known: these you should thoroughly learn and maintain in being, develop and constantly put into effect so that this holy life may endure long; you should do so for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the good and welfare and happiness of gods and men. And what are these things?
“They are the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right endeavors, the four bases for success, the five spiritual faculties, the five spiritual powers, the seven enlightenment factors, and the Noble Eightfold Path.

“Indeed, bhikkhus, I declare this to you: It is in the nature of all formations to dissolve. Attain perfection through diligence. Soon the Perfect One will attain final Nirvāna.”

In the forty five years since his Awakening, the Buddha had realized the goals he had set for himself, when he had vowed that he would not leave the world …

   “… until the monks, nuns, laymen followers, laywoman followers, my disciples, are wise, disciplined, perfectly confident, and learned,
“until they remember the Dharma properly, practice the way of the Dharma, practice the true way, and walk in the Dharma,
“until after learning from their own teachers they announce and teach and declare and establish and reveal and expound and explain,
“until they can reasonably confute the theories of others that arise and can teach the Dharma with all its marvels.
“… [until] this holy life has become successful, prosperous, widespread, and disseminated among many,
“until it is well exemplified by humankind.”

Indeed, his disciples on the Gangetic Plain of northern India already numbered in the many thousands by the end of the Buddha’s life, and included those from all walks of life and every caste, and had in his lifetime even included kings. Those who, through understanding the Buddha’s teachings and through putting them into practice, had awakened themselves, to share the Buddha’s awakening, now numbered in the hundreds.

He had instituted a well-regulated order of monks and within a few years the order of nuns (bhikkhunīs), providing them with a detailed code of conduct, the Vinaya (Discipline), setting standards for governance, means for maintaining harmony, relations with laity, as well as renunciation of worldly ways, so that future generations might live the holy life.

In the years to come, the vast corpus of the Buddha’s teachings would be remembered, and preserved, sometimes reformulated in new cultural contexts, and its civilizing influence would sweep over almost half of the world. Today hundreds of millions of people still count as sons and daughters of the Buddha. Both monastic orders still exist, following the same discipline the Buddha defined one hundred generations ago. More importantly, he had founded a civilization, a culture of Awakening that alongside of many cases of individual awakening would infuse peace, wisdom and virtue into the broader society.

Buddhism is not a revealed religion, that is, of otherworldly origin communicated through a human prophet to benefit mankind, nor the product of patching together various ancient and obscure sources of wisdom. Rather it was, particularly in its early form, the product of this single mind, the Buddha’s, whose life and being also illustrate and motivate the teachings he espoused. The British scholar of early Buddhism Richard Gombrich calls the Buddha “the first person.” By this he means that we know almost nothing about any prior historical figure anywhere in the world. He is certainly the most influential personality in all of South Asian history.  The tale of the Buddha’s life has been told many times, sometimes in highly mythical and embellished forms with which the reader may be familiar. We will start from the beginning and according to the earliest telling, but before we pan in let’s first let’s look at the world into which the Buddha was born.

The Setting

Scholars disagree by a matter of centuries when the Buddha was born; the median estimate seems to be the beginning of the fifth century BCE (Before Common Era, which is the same as BC). This is later than most of the traditions from within the various later schools of Buddhism state. We do know that the Buddha-to-be (bodhisatta) was born on the northern Indian sub-continent, in the foothills of the great Himalayan mountains, on the fringes of the great Ganges river plain, some two and a half millennia ago. Much of what we think we know about the time and place of the Buddha comes, in fact, from the early Buddhist texts themselves, since there was no written literature at the time and the Buddhists were the primary source of new texts to be memorized and preserved for posterity, alongside the brahmans.

Centuries before, Ariyan (Indo-European)  invaders had intruded from the steppes of Central Asia to dominate, over time, most of the north of the subcontinent, whose peoples had been heirs of a still somewhat mysterious civilization that had been centered in the Indus River valley. The intruders brought with them the early Vedic lore, assumed positions of power and prestige and propagated Indo-European tongues that would become Sanskrit and Pali along with many regional Prakrits and, later still, Hindustani, Bengali, Punjabi, and many other languages found on the subcontinent today.

Land use. India was heavily forested in those days and most of its still modest population inhabited small villages cleared from the forest, themselves surrounded by farms and then further out pasture land. Alluvial silt spilling over the banks of the Ganges during frequent flooding provided rich soil for growing crops. Land was communally shared and irrigation was a communal project. The peasantry was generally well-off because of the abundance of fertile land available for clearing and cultivation as the population grew. Moreover, the forests also provided places were hermits could live and meditate in seclusion if they did not mind the tigers, wild elephants, deadly snakes and ogres.

Indeed, this was a time when the economy was turning increasingly from its early pastoral base to agriculture, when land was being increasingly cleared to grow crops and when the surplus of foodstuffs was resulting in a rapid growth in population and the rise of urban centers, in which lived merchants, bankers and government officials –who traveled about in horse-drawn chariots or elephants – along with craftspeople such as tanners, garland-makers, carpenters, goldsmiths and weavers. Although writing was known at this time, it was primarily utilized for accounting and stock management; there were no books, and important texts, such as the Vedas, were preserved only through memorization.

Travel and trade were difficult. There seem to have been almost no bridges, such that crossing one of the many large rivers and tributaries involved either ferry or ford. There were no planned roads to speak of, and trade routes simply made use of the paths that villagers maintained to neighboring villages. Caravans were lines of small carts pulled by bullocks making their way along these precarious paths single-file. Although there was relatively little crime in the villages, thieves were common in the forests, such that caravans often hired guards for protection.

In Gotama’s time, the Gangetic plain encompassed a number of small kingdoms and republics. The two dominant kingdoms of the region were Magadha and Kosala. The presence of iron mines to the south of Magadha made it a major producer of farming implements and weapons. Soon after the time of the Buddha, probably in part because of this advantage, Magadha would come to be the dominant power in the region and form the basis of a vast empire. The republics were largely lined up along the northern edge of the Gangetic plain in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. The westernmost of these was the Sakyan Republic where the Buddha-to-be was born. The republics were generally governed by an unelected assembly of elders from the kshatriyas or warrior/administrative class.

Social relations. The Vedic tradition and its influence entailed a stratification of society. The three highest of four castes seem in origin to have been formed of Ariyans, and the lower castes of the indigenous Indians. The word for caste in Indic languages in fact means color, the Ariyans being of lighter complex-ion that the indigenous peoples. The kshatriyas were the warriors and government officials. The brahmans were the priestly caste, who memorized and retained the Vedas. The vaishyas were the farmers, herders and merchants. The lowest caste, the shudras were an innovation in India; they were primarily servants and workers, employed by members of the higher castes. Finally, what are now called the dalits or untouchables, were so low they fell outside of the caste system altogether. Strict as it was, the caste system does not seem to have restricted downward mobility, such that brahmans or kshatriyas might take up farming or weaving with no loss of face. However only brahmans could become priests.

This was also a patriarchal society that would become more patriarchal with time. Spiritual practice and education were widely considered masculine pursuits and women were generally subject in all stages of life to masculine authority. The last point is prescribed, for instance, in the following ancient Sanskrit passage,

By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house. In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent. (Law of Manu, V, 147-8)

Women who were, in spite of this admonition, independent of masculine authority, by choice or happenstance, were commonly regarded as “loose women,” or as prostitutes. But apparently even prostitutes could retain their good name by becoming official wards of the male-administered villages where they offered their services.

Religion. There were three strands of religiosity at the time of the Buddha: Brahmanism, the ascetic movement and folk animism.
Brahmanism derived from the Vedic tradition that came to India with the Indo-European conquerers. By the time of the Buddha the Vedic tradition upheld by the brahman priests was undergoing some unsystematic reform, as represented in the series of Upanishads, some of which seem to pre-date, and some to post-date the Buddha. Brahmanism worships a number of deities and gives weight to the efficacy of rituals performed by brahman priests on behalf of subjects. The rituals, often including animal sacrifice, are not so much to propitiate deities but their correct performance has an intrinsic power to bring well-being to the subject. Rituals also sustain the order of the universe and of society. Brahmans are the sole possessors of the knowledge of these rituals.

The ascetic (samaṇa in Pali, śramaṇa in Sanskrit) movement began at least three hundred years before the Buddha. The Jains may be the oldest school of within the movement, and can be found in India to this day. Asceticism involved renunciation of conventional life, “dropping out,” generally to become a wandering homeless mendicant. It had little uniformity beyond that, in doctrine, practice nor attire. Some ascetics wore no clothes, others kept modestly covered. Some had unkempt matted hair and long fingernails, others shaved their heads. Some were morbidly austere, starving themselves or lying on a bed of nails, others were philosophers engaged in endless debate. Yogic practices such as meditation or controlling bodily functions were an important component of the ascetic movement. Ascetics had almost every conceivable philosophical view, from that of an eternal soul to that of the complete annihilation of the self at death, from that of strict karmic retribution for one’s deeds to absolute fatalism. There were a number of famous teachers with huge followings that also enjoyed great respect among the laity.

It may be that the most common religious expression in India of the time was popular animism, belief in a range of spirits, gods and other creatures closely associated with nature, along with practices for controlling or predicting the processes of nature. Most of what we know about this comes to us indirectly through the brahmans and through Buddhism, since almost no one else was preserving information about these times in memory. We find references to many deities that do not seem to have a Vedic origin, such as Siri, the goddess of luck, and to mythical creatures, such as nāgas, snake-like creatures who live under water in great luxury, and gaḍudas, huge half-man, half-bird beings who swoop down and eat nāgas. Also, we find references to palmistry, divination, astrology, interpretation of dreams, determining lucky sites, charms, exorcising ghosts, snake charming, oracles and so on. With time the bhamanic literature seem to incorporate these beliefs into their doctrines and myths.i

The Noble Search

The Buddha-to-be grew up in the ancient city of Lumbini, in the Sakyan Republic in present day Nepal. He was born of the warrior/administrative class and his father seems to have a prominent role in the government of the republic. Moreover, the Buddha tells us of a privileged upbringing:

“Monks, I lived in refinement, utmost refinement, total refinement. My father even had lotus ponds made in our palace: one where red-lotuses bloomed, one where white lotuses bloomed, one where blue lotuses bloomed, all for my sake. I used no sandalwood that was not from Varanasi. My turban was from Varanasi, as were my tunic, my lower garments, and my outer cloak. A white sunshade was held over me day and night to protect me from cold, heat, dust, dirt, and dew.
“I had three palaces: one for the cold season, one for the hot season, one for the rainy season. During the four months of the rainy season I was entertained in the rainy-season palace by minstrels without a single man among them, and I did not once come down from the palace. Whereas the servants, workers, and retainers in other people’s homes are fed meals of lentil soup and broken rice, in my father’s home the servants, workers, & retainers were fed wheat, rice, and meat.”  (AN 3.38)

Pretty cushy. His privilege must certainly have also entailed an optimal education, perhaps particularly in statecraft. Yet, he was not satisfied with a life of ease and sensual pleasure. As the passage continues, he begins reflecting on the inevitability of old age, sickness and death.

“Even though I was endowed with such fortune, such total refinement, the thought occurred to me: ‘When an untaught, run-of-the-mill person, himself subject to aging, not beyond aging, sees another who is aged, he is horrified, humiliated, & disgusted, oblivious to himself that he too is subject to aging, not beyond aging. If I — who am subject to aging, not beyond aging — were to be horrified, humiliated, and disgusted on seeing another person who is aged, that would not be fitting for me.’ As I noticed this, the young person’s intoxication with youth entirely dropped away. (AN 3.38)

The passage is then repeated word for word substituting illness/ill/health and again death/dead/life for aging/aged/youth. He was contemplating sickness, old age and death.

Like many of us at a young age, the Buddha experienced an existential crisis, and like the hippies of olde, he set off for India on a spiritual quest. Young Gotama became a wandering ascetic.

“Before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘The household life is crowded, a dusty road. Life gone forth is the open air. It isn’t easy, living in a home, to lead the holy life that is totally perfect, totally pure, a polished shell. What if I, having shaved off my hair and beard and putting on the ochre robe, were to go forth from the home life into homelessness?’
“So at a later time, when I was still young, black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life, having shaved off my hair and beard — though my parents wished otherwise and were grieving with tears on their faces — I put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.”  (MN 36)

Gotama’s youthful noble spiritual quest went through three phases: discipleship, extreme austerities and – his own discovery – the Middle Way. The first phase entailed training under an accomplished yogi.

“Having gone forth in search of what might be skillful, seeking the unexcelled state of sublime peace, I went to Ālāra Kālāma and, on arrival, said to him: ‘Friend Kālāma, I want to practice in this doctrine and discipline.”  (MN 36)

Soon the Buddha-to-be soon understood the dhamma of Ālāra Kālāma, as did others, and progressed in his practice. The highest extent to which Kālāma declared that he himself entered and dwelt in this dhamma was the meditative attainment of nothingness. Before long the buddha-to-be also entered and dwelt in that dimension, upon which Kālāma declared,

“’The Dhamma I know is the Dhamma you know; the Dhamma you know is the Dhamma I know. As I am, so are you; as you are, so am I. Come friend, let us now lead this community together.’”
“… But the thought occurred to me, ‘This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Nirvāna, but only to reappearance in the dimension of nothingness.’ So, dissatisfied with that Dhamma, I left.”  (MN 36)

Undaunted, the Buddha-to-be sought out a second teacher, this time one Uddaka Rāmaputta, the son of Rāma, whose doctrine Uddaka carried on, but had apparently not himself mastered. Again, it was not long before the Buddha-to-be had learned the doctrine, then having learned that Rāma himself had entered & dwelled in this dhamma to the extent of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, before long the buddha-to-be also entered and dwellt in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, upon which Uddaka invited the buddha-to-be to lead the community’.

“But the thought occurred to me, ‘This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Nibbāna,  but only to reappearance in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.’ So, dissatisfied with that Dhamma, I left.” (MN 36)

At this point the Buddha-to-be’s period of discipleship came to and end. His second plan was to practice extreme austerities, a way of life common to many homeless mendicants of the time, which he seems to have accomplished in a way both extreme and austere, and which he describes with some humor.

“I thought: ‘Suppose I were to take only a little food at a time, only a handful at a time of bean soup, lentil soup, vetch soup, or pea soup.’ So I took only a little food at a time, only handful at a time of bean soup, lentil soup, vetch soup, or pea soup. My body became extremely emaciated. Simply from my eating so little, my limbs became like the jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo stems… My backside became like a camel’s hoof… My spine stood out like a string of beads… My ribs jutted out like the jutting rafters of an old, run-down barn… The gleam of my eyes appeared to be sunk deep in my eye sockets like the gleam of water deep in a well… My scalp shriveled and withered like a green bitter gourd, shriveled and withered in the heat and the wind… The skin of my belly became so stuck to my spine that when I thought of touching my belly, I grabbed hold of my spine as well; and when I thought of touching my spine, I grabbed hold of the skin of my belly as well… If I urinated or defecated, I fell over on my face right there… Simply from my eating so little, if I tried to ease my body by rubbing my limbs with my hands, the hair — rotted at its roots — fell from my body as I rubbed, simply from eating so little.” ( MN 36)

He practiced in this way for years, much of this period with five companions in the austerities, but once again became frustrated with the degree of his progress he had made.

His third plan was the middle way and he discovered it himself. It is the middle way that would carry him to final Awakening. In discovering the middle way the Buddha seems to have considered a recollection of a childhood incident, entering spontaneously into a meditative state (jhāna), to be of pivotal significance. As he recounts,

“I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhāna: rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’
“Then, following on that memory, came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’ I thought: ‘So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?’ I thought: ‘I am no longer afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities, but it is not easy to achieve that pleasure with a body so extremely emaciated. Suppose I were to take some solid food: some rice and porridge.’ So I took some solid food: some rice and porridge.
“Now five monks had been attending on me, thinking, ‘If Gotama, our contemplative, achieves some higher state, he will tell us.’ But when they saw me taking some solid food — some rice and porridge — they were disgusted and left me, thinking, ‘Gotama the contemplative is living luxuriously. He has abandoned his exertion and is backsliding into abundance.’” (MN 36)

He would have been familiar with jhānic states of some kind from his training with his two meditation teachers, so we can assume that a critical difference in his childhood experience was that it was fun. He had already abandoned the pursuit of sensual or worldly pleasures in his spiritual quest, but it seems that others had been telling him that all pleasure must be squeezed out of practice and discarded (“no pain no gain”). He had discovered a crack in this understanding that he would pry open to gain access to the middle way. The crack was the difference, previously unnoticed, between worldly (loka) pleasure and unworldly (lokuttara) pleasure. Likewise fear of pleasure would not be the primary consideration in his dietary habits, but rather keeping the body healthy in order to sustain his practice.

Gotama’s Awakening

It is reported that the Buddha-to-be sat down at the root of a bodhi tree and entered the first level of meditative concentration (jhāna), then progressed to the second, to the third and to the fourth. He describes the unfolding of his awakening as follows.

“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two… five, ten… fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes and details.
“This was the first knowledge I attained in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, and resolute. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.” (MN 36)

This is clearly a direct recognition that the present life is one link in a long and monotonous continuum of death and rebirth, what is known as saṃsāra. Rebirth was not a universally accepted fabrication at the time of the Buddha, but became the context for Buddhist practice. We will see presently that awakening entails a break from the cycle.

“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings. I saw — by means of the divine eye, purified and surpassing the human — beings passing away and re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: ‘These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech and mind, who did not revile the noble ones, who held right views and undertook actions under the influence of right views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.’ Thus — by means of the divine eye, purified and surpassing the human — I saw beings passing away and re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma.
“This was the second knowledge I attained in the second watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, and resolute. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.” – (MN 36)

This recognizes that saṃsāra generalizes to all beings and that our past actions (kamma, Sanskrit karma) determine the circumstances of our rebirths. We build the house in this life through our ethical choices that we will live in next. It is also our choices that will serve to end this process.
If the first two knowledges are cosmological in nature, the last is psycho-logical, in that it provides an internal view of what happens in the process of Awakening.

“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the ending of the mental fermentations. I discerned, as it had come to be, that ‘This is suffering… This is the origination of suffering… This is the cessation of suffering… This is the path leading to the cessation of suffering… These are taints… This is the origination of taints… This is the cessation of taints… This is the way leading to the cessation of taints.’ My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the taint of sensuality, released from the taint of becoming, released from the taint of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’
“This was the third knowledge I attained in the third watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, and resolute. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.” (MN 36)

The third knowledge makes implicit reference to the Four Noble Truths, which we will revisit in later chapters, as well as to the taints (āsava) of sensuality, becoming and ignorance. We will see that the Buddha regarded mind in terms of networks of mental factors which condition one another. Upon awakening, Gotama is said to have uttered the following verse, oft recited to this day:

“Through the round of many births I roamed without reward, without rest, seeking the house-builder. Painful is birth again and again. House-builder, you’re seen! You will not build a house again. All your rafters broken, the ridge pole destroyed, gone to the unconditioned, the mind has come to the end of craving.” (Dhp 153-154)

The house-builder is to be found in our own minds. Once we find him, he will not provide us with a new home in saṃsāra. Gotama had discovered the deathless, the end of suffering, the extinguishing of the flame (nibbāna, Sanskrit nirvāna), and henceforth would be known by the following epithets, among others:

    The Blessed One            Bhagavā
The Awakened One        Buddha
The Perfectly Awakened One    Sammāsambuddha
The Such-gone One        Tathāgata

Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion

The newly awakened one is said to have remained by the banks of the Nerañjara River in the shade of the Bodhi tree for seven days, sensitive to the bliss of release. At the end of seven days, in the third watch of the night, he contemplated dependent co-arising. Dependent co-arising is, quite simply, the principle of conditionality:

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn’t, that isn’t.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

Virtually everything we comprehend in the world is like this, that is, ever contingent on other things. The Buddha’s concern was to understand the mind in these terms as a organic system of dependently arisen factors, for which he recognized the following chain of conditions active for the unawakened being.

    ignorance → fabrications → consciousness →
name-and-form → sense bases → contact →
feeling  → craving → attachment → being →
birth → old age, death, this mass of

We will discuss dependent co-arising in more detail in a later chapter. Suffice it to say that the Buddha had weakened these very factors through years, perhaps lifetimes, of practice and that for him the entire chain had dissolved all at once with the final eradication of ignorance, inducing a radical reworking of the cognitive and affective qualities in his now Awakened mind. On realizing the significance of dependent co-arising, the Blessed One exclaimed:

As phenomena grow clear,
To the ardent, meditating brahman,
He stands, smoking out the troops of Māra,
Like the sun that illumines the sky (Ud 1.3)

Māra is a kind of fallen deity who visits the Buddha and a number of his disciples over the years whose mission seems to be to hinder their practice and spiritual development. Dependent co-arising would form a foundation for the Buddha’s teachings.

Nonetheless, the Buddha was at first not committed to assuming a role as a teacher. Assessing the profundity of what he had experienced, he doubted that others would grasp what he might teach, for …

“This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment, enjoys attachment. For a generation delighting in attachment, excited by attachment, enjoying attachment, conditionality and dependent co-arising are hard to see. This state, too, is hard to see: the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nirvāna. And if I were to teach the Dharma and if others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me.”

Perhaps, he thought, a life of meditative ease would be preferable. Where we might expect an inner dialog to ensue, Brahmā Sahampati, an eves-dropping deity, took up the cause in favor of teaching. Showing now appropriate veneration – for deities are never introduced in the early texts as objects of worship but rather to venerate the Buddha and often other monastics – the deity knelt down, bowed and said,

“Lord, let the Blessed One teach the Dharma! Let the Such-Gone One teach the Dharma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dharma. There will be those who will understand the Dharma.”

On reflection there seemed to be some truth in the deity’s words. The Buddha at first thought to teach the Dharma to his former teachers, but they had  both  died. So he decided to seek out the five ascetics who had abandoned him in a huff when he had begun to eat “luxuriously” according to middle-way principles. On the way thither he encountered another ascetic, Upaka of the Ājīvika school, who recognized something special in this monk’s demeanor:

“Clear, my friend, are your faculties. Pure your complexion, and bright. On whose account have you gone forth? Who is your teacher? In whose Dharma do you delight?”

To this the Buddha explained that he had no teacher, but was fully Awakened through his own efforts. He was, indeed, just now on his way to turn the wheel of the Dharma and beat the drum of the deathless. Upaka’s response was a bit disappointing.

“May it be so, my friend,”

Shaking his head and taking a side-road Upaka departed.

Having botched his first Awakened encounter with another ascetic, then walking for many days, the Buddha found his five former friends at Vārānasī at the Deer Park in Isipatana. They too noticed something special about their former colleague, something that wasn’t there before, aside from weight gain. The Buddha declared,

“The Tathāgata, friends, is an arahant, rightly self-awakened. Lend ear, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dharma. Practicing as instructed, you will in no long time reach and remain in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing and realizing it for yourselves in the here and now.’ (MN 26)

And then the Buddha began his very first Dharma talk, the first turning of the wheel of Dharma. First, he explained the middle way.

“There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathāgata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Nirvāna.” (SN 56.11)

Then, he enumerated the Noble Eightfold Path:

“And what is the middle way realized by the Tathāgata that — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Nirvāna? Precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. This is the middle way realized by the Tathāgata that, producing vision and producing knowledge, leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Nirvāna.” (SN 56.11)

We will spend a chapter later clarifying these eight factors, the master checklist for advanced practice that, when taken up with diligence, ensures progress on the path toward Awakening.

The Buddha then discussed the Four Noble Truths.

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair are suffering; association with the unbeloved is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not getting what is wanted is suffering. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are suffering.
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of suffering: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion and delight, relishing now here and now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: the remainderless fading and cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, and letting go of that very craving.
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. – SN 56.11

The Four Noble Truths have been compared to a doctor’s formula: the first identifies the symptoms, the second the diagnosis, the third the prognosis and the fourth the treatment. At its core is once again the principle of conditionality: since that arises, this arises; since that ceases, this ceases, which underlies most of the Buddha’s thinking. Here, as elsewhere, what the Buddha presents initially as a concise statement unfolds into something much more complex. Suffering and craving are prominent conditionally related mental factors that provide initial points of investigation for the Buddhist practitioner. We will see, in chapter five, that the chain of dependent co-arising is a more elaborate system of conditionality relating many mental factors. By matching up the Buddha’s descriptions of mental factors and their interrelations the practitioner is able to alter habituated patterns of conditionality point by point to produce more beneficial results.

With the offering of this one discourse, one of the five ascetics, whose name was Kondañña, attained the eye of Dharma, a brief view of the deathless, an insight that marks one as a stream enterer, ideally fit to embark firmly on the Path with no going astray. We will have more to say about the eye of Dharma and stream entry in later chapters. It was at that moment of insight also that the saṅgha arose.

The Buddha’s second Dharma talk, on the self, (SN 22.59) develops some consequences of the conditional nature of mental factors. Considering five categories experienced factors – the aggregates (khaṅdha) of form or materiality, feeling, perception, volitions and consciousness – he demonstrates that each has three characteristics (lakkhana): each is impermanent or unreliable, leads to suffering as a result, and therefore cannot be identified with a self. It is because we misperceive reality as something far more substantial that we attach to things to our own detriment, and the disenchantment that comes from this realization leads to awakening. In fact the delivery of this talk is said to have resulted in the full awakening of all of the Buddha’s five disciples.

Awakened disciples are known as arahants (literally, worthy ones). They share the Buddha’s awakening, but are not buddhas. The Buddha explained the difference:

The Tathāgata — the worthy one, the rightly self-awakened one — is the one who gives rise to the path (previously) unarisen, who engenders the path (previously) unengendered, who points out the path (previously) not pointed out. He knows the path, is expert in the path, is adept at the path. And his disciples now keep following the path and afterwards become endowed with the path. (SN 22.58)

Establishing the Saṅgha

The Buddha was a three-fold genius. First, he became awakened without a teacher who could explain the path to awakening. Second, he succeeded in describing, explaining, illustrating and elaborating the Path he had discovered so that many (hundreds) of his disciples were able to realize his Awakening. Third, he succeeded in perpetuating his teachings and their practice so that future generations might realize Awakening and in ensuring that others would share the fruits of Awakening. The Buddha created not only a path to Awakening, but a culture of Awakening with an institutional structure that has perpetuated Awakening up to the present day.

The community of the Buddha’s disciples seems to have grown by leaps and bounds beyond the original five. A wealthy young man named Yassa, who was disenchanted with dancing girls and other worldly pleasures, showed up, his father in hot pursuit. By the time his father found them, Yassa had also attained the eye of Dharma through the gradual instruction that we will look at in the next chapter. Through hearing the Buddha’s next discourse, the father too attained the Dharma eye, while Yassa became an arahant. The father asked to go for refuge (declare his trust in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha) and, presumably still not completely disenchanted with dancing girls, became the first lay follower of the Buddha. Realizing that bringing Yassa home was futile, the father instead invited the seven arahants to his home for a meal offering the next day. Delivering a discourse there, Yassa’s mother and his former wife both attained the Dharma eye, asked for refuge and became the Buddha’s first women followers. Many of Yassa’s friends subsequently became monks to boot.

Soon, the Buddha was off to visit the three Kassapa brothers, matted-hair ascetics who among them had one thousand followers. Convincing the eldest of the brothers, who had fancied himself fully Awakened, that he was not, he, his brothers and their whole complement of followers became disciples of the Buddha.

Upitissa and Kolita were ascetics and best of friends since childhood. Searching for the deathless, they agreed that whichever found the path thereto would immediately inform the other. One day Upitissa noticed a lone ascetic gathering alms and was so impressed with his demeanor and comportment that he suspected some degree of attainment must lay behind it. In fact, this ascetic was Assaji, one of the Buddha’s first five Awakened disciples. Upitissa approached Assaji in inquired about who his teacher might be and what he taught. Assaji indicated the recluse Gotama of the Sakyan clan and stated his teachings is a single verse:

“Of those things that arise from a cause,
The Tathāgata has told the cause.
And also what their cessation is:
This is the Doctrine of the Great Recluse.”

Immediately, Upitissa attained to the eye of Dharma, achieving stream entry. Later that day Upitissa repeated this verse to Kolita, with exactly the same effect on the part of the latter. Upitissa and Kolita would soon achieve the deathless, and indeed become the two leading disciples of the Buddha, and be known respectively as Sāriputta and Moggallāna.ii

The Buddha had been planting seeds in fertile fields. With time, however, the quality of his many new disciples began to drop off, to become more like arid or rocky patches of land. Even those who wished to devote themselves full-time to the monastic life, but had not become arahants, fell into actions and speech that caused others harm, that disrupted the harmony of the Saṅgha, that were inconsistent with a life of renunciation and simplicity or that reflected poorly on the entire saṅgha in the public eye. Simply teaching Dharma as the Buddha had been doing was not effective in bringing these less fertile monks into line.

In response the Buddha began tightening up, in a very explicit way, the parameters of the monastic life. He did this by introducing a new precept every time an incident occurred that transgressed in some new way what he felt was proper monastic behavior.  For instance, a monk took something for his own use that had not been given to him, so the Buddha introduced a precept that prohibited this. Another monk responded to justified constructive criticism by other monks in a vengeful way, so the Buddha introduced a precept that prohibited being difficult to admonish. Many monks became adept at endearing themselves to lay donors in order to receive the best alms, perhaps unwittingly at the expense of the less charming monks, so the Buddha prohibited “corrupting families,” as he called it. Other monks accumulated so many robes that the Buddha asked if they were planning on opening a shop, so the Buddha put a limit on the number of robes a monk could possess. Other monks wore their permitted robes in disarray, so the Buddha required that robes be worn even all around. More often than not the Buddha enacted new rules in response to complaints from lay people, for he understood as a practical matter that the Saṅgha was critically dependent on the goodwill of the laity and that the laity took inspiration from the Saṅgha. The full set of monastic rules is called, in Pali, the Pātimokkha.

And so, through repeated enactment of new regulations and the refinement of old regulations, as well as the development of procedures for governance within the Saṅgha, along with supplementary discussion and narration, the Vinaya arose, the entire monastic code of discipline, of which the Pātimokkha was a very small part. Although there were ascetics in India before the Buddha, “… among all of the bodies of renouncers it was only the Buddhists who invented monastic life,”iii  that is who provided an organized institution capable of sustaining its teachings. It is not often appreciated that institutionalizing the Saṅgha in this way was a truly monumental achievement. The Buddha himself consistently referred to the body of his teachings as Dharma-Vinaya. The Scholar Richard Gombrich observes that the Buddhist Saṅgha is likely the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence on the planet. If the Buddha were to return to modern times he would recognize his Saṅgha, so enduring is it.v
Yet in spite of its robustness the Saṅgha is delicate. Without any centralized authority or substantial hierarchy, its governance is based on the consensus of local monastic communities (saṅghas), its regulations are enforced through an honor system and its support is completely entrusted to the good-will of others. The Buddha could have set up a hierarchy, with something like Pope and bishops and a range of severe punishments for transgressing authority, but he did not. Who would have thought it would last? This amazing institution is the product of one genius, who cobbled it together from diverse elements present in the ascetic life, clearly articulated for it a mission and a charter and released it into the world. The Saṅgha is the instrument by which the Buddha implemented a culture of Awakening rather than mere instructions whereby individuals might become Awakened.

About five years after the beginning of the monks’ Saṅgha, the Buddha also established a nuns’ (bhikkhunī) Saṅgha, roughly equivalent to the monks’ Saṅgha. The very first nun, we are told, was his own aunt and stepmother, Mahāpajāpati, who had suckled him as a babe after his own mother had died, and had later become his disciple. One can appreciate that the establishment of the nuns’ Saṅgha presented many new challenges, for, in a highly patriarchal society, he had to ensure that the women enjoy the recognition and respect and receive the same support from the laity as the monks’ Saṅgha, that nuns not be dismissed as “loose women,” that in their encounters with monks they not unwittingly fall into traditional gender roles – for instance, spending their time cleaning and repairing monks’ robes – and that they be protected and safe in the rugged environment in which itinerant monastics spend much of their time. Studying the nuns’ Pātimokkha, as well as the monks’ rules with regard to their behavior toward nuns, reveals how the Buddha implemented each of these requirements.vi

The Buddha seems to have had the highest regard for womens’ potential for Awakening, and the many recorded Awakened bhikkhunīs bears this trust out. Indeed, a number of nuns became prominent teachers whose discourses are found alongside the Buddhas and Sāriputta’s in the earliest sources.

To Whom and What the Buddha Taught

It is said that the Buddha awakened at the age of thirty-five and died at the age of eighty. He taught for the intervening forty-five years. The other chapters of this book describe the core of what he taught over those forty-five years. We have abundant reports of the discourses he delivered to diverse audiences in diverse locations on the Gangetic plain, venues that he reached by foot, wandering from place to place, generally in the company of disciple monks, living on alms, often living in monasteries, land donated by kings or wealthy donors and developed for habitation by monks. For relatively few of these discourses is it stated when during this forty-five-year period they were delivered.

The Buddha’s initial goal in teaching was extremely ambitious: to light the path to Awakening for those who had little dust in their eyes through explaining the human condition and training disciples in the necessary practices to transcend that condition. His natural target audience would be those profoundly dedicated to spiritual development, of great aptitude and dedication, willing and able to give up all other significant assets and responsibilities. Most of these people became nuns and monks. And this remained his emphasis throughout his teaching career.

Nonetheless, he broadened that goal – without sacrificing depth – to provide guidance for those who did not fit this profile, in order, instead, to ease the harshness of the human condition rather than to transcend it. For these he also provided wise advice on how to live a conventional life with dignity and with virtue. He was comfortable moving through every level of society, speaking with paupers, lepers, those suffering calamities, with brahmans, merchants and with kings and ministers. On an early visit to his home town of Kapilavatthu his wealthy father was aghast at seeing him walking through the streets of the city collecting alms. Another account has him spending the night in a barn with the permission of a farmer, to be joined by another itinerant Buddhist monk, who had never met him and had no idea who he was until after long Dharma discussion.

He also moved about in high social circles. King Bimbasāra of Magadha and King Pasenadi of Kosala were on friendly terms with each other. Each was married to the sister of the other. Once, at King Pasenadi’s request, King Bimbasāra asked one of his five “billionaires,” Dhanañjaya,  to relocate to Kosala, because King Pasenadi had none in his realm. Each king also became a disciple of the Buddha.

King  Bimbasāra, in whose kingdom Gotama had awakened, became, it is said, a stream enterer on hearing a discourse by the Buddha, once when the Buddha visited Rājagaha, Bimbasāra’s capital. He became a promoter of the Saṅgha and donated land near Rājagaha where the Saṅgha might dwell. It was in Rājagaha that the Buddha met Sāriputta and Moggallāna, his chief disciples.  King Bimbasāra also later assigned his personal physician, Jīvaka, to care for the health of the monastics; Jīvaka also became a disciple.

The Buddha also met a banker, Anāthapindika, in Rājagaha who had come there on business from Sāvatthi, the capital of Kosala. Meeting privately with the Buddha, he became a disciple and a stream enterer. He invited the Buddha to spend the rainy season in  Sāvatthi, which the Buddha did, and donated land there, Jetavana, to the Saṅgha, which became the Buddha’s primary residence for the rains retreats of the years to come, and the site of many of the Buddha’s discourses. In  Sāvatthi, King Pasenadi also became a devoted disciple, visiting the Buddha daily when he was present and often asking the Buddha’s advice on matters of state. Also in  Sāvatthi, Visākhā, Dhanañjaya the “billionaire’s” daughter, became a strong supporter of the Saṅgha and appears frequently in the discourses of the Buddha.

The Buddha is reported to have been remarkably adept in shining the light of Dharma in the most unlikely corners. A great achievement was the conversion of the mass-murderer Aṅgulimāla, whom the Buddha apparently sought out for that purpose. His conversion, and ordination as a monk, occurred just before King Pasenadi decided to capture the bandit:

“Then King Pasenadi of Kosala, with a cavalry of roughly 500 horsemen, drove out of Savatthi and entered the monastery. … He got down from his chariot and went on foot to the Blessed One. On arrival, having bowed down, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, “What is it, great king? Has King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha provoked you, or have the Licchavis of Vesali or some other hostile king?”
“No, lord, … there is a bandit in my realm, Lord, named Aṅgulimāla: brutal, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. … Having repeatedly killed human beings, he wears a garland made of fingers. I am going to stamp him out.”
“Great king, suppose you were to see Aṅgulimāla with his hair and beard shaved off, wearing the ochre robe, having gone forth from the home life into homelessness, refraining from killing living beings, refraining from taking what is not given, refraining from telling lies, living the holy life on one meal a day, virtuous and of fine character: what would you do to him?”
“We would bow down to him, lord, or rise up to greet him, or offer him a seat, or offer him robes, alms food, lodgings, or medicinal requisites for curing illness; or we would arrange a lawful guard, protection and defense. But how could there be such virtue and restraint in an unvirtuous, evil character?”
Now at that time Ven. Aṅgulimāla was sitting not far from the Blessed One. So the Blessed One, pointing with his right arm, said to King Pasenadi Kosala, “That, great king, is Aṅgulimāla.” Then King Pasenadi Kosala was frightened, terrified, his hair standing on end. So the Blessed One, sensing the king’s fear and hair-raising awe, said to him, “Don’t be afraid, great king. Don’t be afraid. He poses no danger to you.” (MN 86)

Aṅgulimāla later became an arahant.

The Buddha’s is known for his apt metaphors or similes often tuned particularly to his audience. For instance, dissatisfaction with practice often arises when one fails to progress quickly and begins to feel guilt about the many impurities that remain in the mind. This happened to a young monk, Soṇa, who felt frustrated at his unresolved unwholesome thoughts that it seemed to him the monks around him did not share. This was at Vulture Peak at Rājagaha, where the Buddha had delivered his first discourse.

“Sona, were you a good lute player as a layman?”
“Yes, Lord.”
“When the strings of your lute were too taught, did your lute sound good and respond well?”
“No, Lord.”
“When the strings of your lute were too lax, did your lute sound good and respond well?”
“No, Lord.”
“When the strings of your lute were neither too taught nor too lax, did your lute sound good and respond well?”
“Yes, Lord.”
So too, Sona, overstriving leads to agitation and understriving leads to laxness. Therefore resolve upon evenness of energy, evenness of your faculties and take that as a sign.” (AN 6.55)

A common technique utilized by the Buddha in teaching those who have non-Buddhist beliefs or practices is to adopt their perspective, but to reinterpret some terms from that perspective, thereby subverting them in the direction of more useful beliefs or practices. A well-know example concerns  young Sigala, the son of a householder who used to rise early in the morning, leave town with wet clothes and wet hair, and then bow to the East, the South, the West, the North, up and down.

Then the Exalted One, having robed himself in the forenoon took bowl and robe, and entered Rājagaha for alms. Now he saw young Sigala worshipping thus and spoke to him as follows:

“Wherefore do you, young householder, rising early in the morning, departing from Rājagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship, with joined hands these various quarters — the East, the South, the West, the North, the Nadir, and the Zenith?”
“My father, Lord, while dying, said to me: The six quarters, dear son, you shall worship. And I, Lord, respecting, revering, reverencing and honoring my father’s word, rise early in the morning, and leaving Rājagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship with joined hands, these six quarters.”
“It is not thus, young householder, the six quarters should be worshipped in the discipline of the noble.”
“How then, Lord, should the six quarters be worshipped in the discipline of the noble? It is well, Lord, if the Exalted One would teach the doctrine to me showing how the six quarters should be worshipped in the discipline of the noble.”

“The following should be looked upon as the six quarters. The parents should be looked upon as the East, teachers as the South, wife and children as the West, friends and associates as the North, servants and employees as the Nadir, ascetics and brahmans as the Zenith.
“In five ways, young householder, a child should minister to his parents as the East:
(i) Having supported me I shall support them, (ii) I shall do their duties, (iii) I shall keep the family tradition, (iv) I shall make myself worthy of my inheritance, (v) furthermore I shall offer alms in honor of my departed relatives.
“In five ways, young householder, the parents thus ministered to as the East by their children, show their compassion:
(i) they restrain them from evil, (ii) they encourage them to do good, (iii) they train them for a profession, (iv) they arrange a suitable marriage, (v) at the proper time they hand over their inheritance to them.
“In these five ways do children minister to their parents as the East and the parents show their compassion to their children. Thus is the East covered by them and made safe and secure.
…  (DN 31)

This continues with the remaining directions, for each describing the reciprocal obligations that one should enact and that one should expect from the other, then stating that that direction is covered and made safe and secure. The result is the turning of what to Sigala was an empty ritual into a valuable teaching about living harmoniously and responsibly in the world.

Aside from adapting teachings to the audience, the Buddha characteristically took care not to teach more than is necessary. As a result, he carefully avoided useless speculation or expressing views on topics irrelevant to the understanding or practice of the Dharma. This method is made clear in the famous handful of leaves simile.

“What do you think, monks? Which are the more numerous, the few leaves I have here in my hand, or those up in the trees of the grove?”
“Lord, the Blessed One is holding only a few leaves: those up in the trees are far more numerous.”
“In the same way, monks, there are many more things that I have found out, but not revealed to you. What I have revealed to you is only a little. And why, monks, have I not revealed it? Because, monks, it is not related to the goal, it is not fundamental to the holy life, does not conduce to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, tranquility, higher knowledge, enlightenment or Nibbāna. That is why I have not revealed it.” (SN 56.31)

The resulting agnosticism with regard to many religious views and folk beliefs gives Buddhism its characteristic tolerance that allows it to blend easily with the presuppositions of various cultures. For instance, whether one believes in tree spirits or the flying spaghetti monster doesn’t really matter, as long as these beliefs are compatible with virtue and practical wisdom and conducive to serenity. On the other hand, the Buddha did not hesitate to criticize views that detract from spiritual development, such as annihilationsim, the widely held view that our karmic effects end with the death of the body, which limits our willingness to take responsibility for the future, or eternalism, the opposing view that our essence (soul) is not destroyed at death. (The middle way between these opposites will be discussed in a later chapter).


After his death, the Buddha’s earthly remains were cremated by his lay followers and the residual ash, bones and teeth, the relics, were distributed among his lay disciples according to tribe. These were interred in image-1390697859929-V, burial mounds, which were venerated as a remembrance of the Buddha in the years to come.

Many of his closest disciples met shortly after the Buddha’s death in order to recite together the discourses of the Buddha and the Vinaya from memory in order to ensure uniformity of what would be preserved in memory for future generations. We know a lot about the teachings as they existed during this early period, either as spoken by the Buddha himself or as reworked or augmented by his closest disciples before the development of seperate sects, largely through geographical dispersion. We know because seperate sects accurately preserved these teachings even as they added new texts. It is clear they were for the most part accurately perserved because the versions preserved in the various sects are in close agreement.
The primary sources of early Buddhism are two huge largely parallel collections of early discourses (Dharma talks) of the Buddha and his contemporary disciples: the Pali Nikāyas and  the Chinese Āgamas. The former is preserved in an early Indic language, the second are translations originally transmitted to China through various South Asian and Middle Asian sects in a variety of languages, but most commonly in Sanskrit. In addition, the early Buddhist monastic code, the Vinaya, exists in several parallel versions preserved and studied in diverse sects. Confidence in the early origin of these texts is gained by observing that essentially the same texts, with little variation in content, have been transmitted through different sects that must have gone their separate ways very early in, or prior to, the sectarian period.

Indeed in the early years the Buddhist movement, the Sāsana, seems to have spread quickly through northern India and regional differences began to accrue. About two centuries after the Buddha, the Mauryan Empire, which grew out of Magadha, had extended its boundaries to encompass a vast area, and its emperor, Ashoka, became a great promoter of Buddhism, in true Buddhist style without neglecting other religious and philosophical traditions. Ashoka ran the empire according to Dharmic principles, caring for the poor, for travelers, for the sick. He also sent monks as missionaries to far-flung places, even as far as the Mediterranean, in some of which Buddhism took root. In the following centuries the Sāsana spread westward as far as Persia, eastward into Indochina and Indonesia, northward into Central Asia and from there eastward into China and the rest of East Asia.
In many schools and sects the Buddha assumed a god-like identity, something he never claimed for himself in the earliest stratum of texts. In an early text a Brahman, Ganaka-Moggallāna, had once asked the Buddha,

“… do all the good Gotama’s disciples attain the unchanging goal, nibbāna, or do some not attain it?”
“Some of my disciples, brahman, on being exhorted and instructed thus by me, attain the unchanging goal, nibbāna; some do not attain it.”
“What is the cause … that some of the good Gotama’s disciples on being exhorted thus and instructed thus by the good Gotama, attain the unchanging goal, nibbāna, but some do not attain it?”
“Well then, brahman, I will question you on this point in reply. As it is pleasing to you, so you may answer me. What do you think about this, brahman? Are you skilled in the way leading to Rājagaha?”
“Yes, sir, skilled am I in the way leading to Rājagaha.”
“What do you think about this? A man might come along here wanting to go to Rājagaha. Having approached you, he might speak thus: ‘I want to go to Rājagaha, sir; show me the way to this Rājagaha.’ You might speak thus to him: “Yes, my good man, this road goes to Rājagaha; go along it for a while. When you have gone along it for a while you will see a village; go along for a while; when you have gone along for a while you will see a market town; go for a while. When you have gone along for a while you will see Rājagaha with its delightful parks, delightful forests, delightful fields, delightful ponds. But although he has been exhorted and instructed thus by you, he might take the wrong road and go westwards. Then a second man might come along wanting to go to Rājagaha…(as above)…’ Exhorted and instructed thus by you he might get to Rājagaha safely. What is the cause, brahman, what the reason that … the one man, although being exhorted and instructed thus by you, may take the wrong road and go westwards while the other may get to Rājagaha safely?”
“What can I, good Gotama, do in this matter? I am simply a guide, good Gotama.”
“Even so, brahman, … some of my disciples, on being exhorted and instructed thus by me attain the unchanging goal, nibbāna, some do not attain it. What can I, brahman, do in this matter? I am simply a guide.” (MN 107)

Further Reading

The Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli, Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1992.

Following the Path

November 29, 2015

The Path leads to nirvana, to awakening, to the end of all suffering, to escape from the round of rebirth. Before that, the path leads to many intermediary attainments on the way, not only stages of awakening but also progressively to greater virtue, to the purification of mind from defilements with the development of kindness and compassion, to renunciation and to harmlessness, manifesting actions that benefit the world, to an increasing sense of serenity and well-being, to the easing of personal suffering, to impartiality and clear seeing, to the cutting away of delusions, views and conceptualizations that give rise to mis-perceptions, particularly the mis-perception of a separate self.

We are not yet in a position in this book to speculate what nirvana, awakening or escape from the round of rebirth means. However, this overall trajectory of Buddhist practice, carried to completion must lead to what we can provisionally view as the perfection of character in all of its significant aspects. The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s instructions or how to improve and ultimately perfect human character. It is, in short, the Path to the mastery of the skill of life.

The Buddha taught the Eightfold Noble Path (ariya aṭṭhangika magga) in his very first discourse, often called the Turning of the Wheel (Dhamma-cakkap-pavattana):

And what is that middle way? It is simply the noble eightfold path , that is to say,
(1) right view,
(2) right intention;
(3) right speech,
(4) right action,
(5) right livelihood;
(6) right effort,
(7) right mindfulness,
(8) right concentration.
That is the middle way discovered by a Perfect One, which gives vision, which gives knowledge, and which leads to peace, to direct acquaintance, to discovery, to nibbāna. (SN 56.11, numbers mine)

The word right here is normative, much as skillful and meritorious were normative when we discussed ethics. In fact, the development of a skill is an apt way to describe the development of character: we are developing the behavior, mental qualities and knowledge in order to produce certain results, and in general there is a right way and a wrong way of doing certain things in order to realize these results (or maybe a couple of right ways and an array of wrong ways). Without proper training in the right and wrong ways of doing things we might still be able to cook a meal, but not an appetizing one, we might be able to produce a teapot out of clay, but neither a beautiful nor a functional one, we might be able to accomplish life’s tasks and experience what life offers, but not with fulfillment and joy, nor without causing great harm to others. What we do in Buddhism is the same as what the potter does, except it is our characters, our lives, that we are shaping rather than clay.

The eightfold Path was divided in one of the discourses into three groups, a discourse delivered not by the Buddha but by a disciple, the awakened nun Dhammadinnā (MN44). The first two factors (view and intention) constitute the wisdom group, the next three (speech, action and livelihood) the ethics group, and the last three (effort, mindfulness and concentration) the concentration or mental cultivation group. In the second chapter of this book we discussed Buddhist ethics fairly comprehensively as the foundation of practice. Let me segue into the path proper by demonstrating how it naturally grows out of the practice of ethics. To begin with, three of the eight folds of the path form the ethics (sīla) group.

(3) right speech,
(4) right action,
(5) right livelihood,

These cover refraining from all evil and accomplishing good, which apply to verbal and bodily actions. Right Livelihood avoids employment that compromises the other two practices. The ethics group is bookended by factors of the wisdom and concentration groups that also relate directly to ethics:

(2) right intention,

(6) right effort,

Both of these have to do with upholding skillful or wholesome thoughts, right at the heart of purification of mind. Right intention is to understand and set the mind firmly in the direction of renunciation, kindness and harmlessness, the three classes of skillful thoughts we encountered in chapter two.  Right effort is the continual process of  cultivating skillful or wholesome intentions and discouraging the unskillful or unwholesome. Right intention belongs to the wisdom group of the path, along with right view, and right effort to the concentration or mental cultivation group, along with right mindfulness and right concentration. Together, in upholding purity of mind, right intention and right effort also underly accomplishing good and refraining from all evil.

This leaves three folds, in the wisdom and concentration groups:

(1) right view,

(7) right mindfulness,
(8) right concentration.

These function in support of the other five (ethical) factors in the Noble Eightfold Path. Right view lays out the fruits of karma, the relationship of suffering to craving, and the matrix of interrelated mental factors that produce karmic actions. Right mindfulness keeps us on task in all the factors of ethics, and right mindfulness and right concentration together extend the power of introspective examination, necessary for deep purification of the mind.

In summary, the Noble Eightfold Path, completing the gradual training, continues to be organized around ethics. Nonetheless, there is a limit to the ethical perspective: it is not a complete resolution of the woes of the world. Even if pure of intention, we nonetheless suffer: we suffer from sickness, old age and death, we still have lingering conceit and cling to results of our noble intentions, and so we suffer again. Ethics is directed toward easing the pain of samsāra for self and other, an existence that with growing wisdom reveals itself increasingly as a sham, and it does not represent release from the drama of life altogether … and yet, such release is possible, as illustrated in the Buddha’s awakening. What is striking is that the deepening of ethical foundations, particularly in working deeply with purifying the mind, seems to take us almost all the way to final liberation. The rest is an excursion made possible by the further development of wisdom. Let’s take up the factors of the Path in turn.

Right View (sammā diṭṭhi)

In order to make a ceramic object a potter needs to understand his materials and tools: the varieties of clay, how much water to add to the clay, how the clay behaves under pressure, what conditions will cause a pot to crack or explode in the kiln, what happens to clay at different baking temperatures, various types and properties of glaze, etc. Likewise, in order to fashion a life in the Dharma, we also must understand the body, the mind, the nature of the world we are embedded in, how thoughts are triggered, how actions are triggered, how our habit patterns evolve. For both, there is an appropriate understanding of the subject matter that will produce worthy results, alongside many unfortunate understandings that produce poor results. Both need right view. a very practical nuts-and-bolts right view about things we can put to use in our own direct experience. Some degree of right view is needed before we undertake any other aspect of practice.

The teachings that are given as right view at the beginning of the Path are enumerated in different ways. One discourse focuses on karmic actions, responsibilities to parents, rebirth and trust in the realizations of sages, and is reminiscent of the first two knowledges on the night of the Buddha’s awakening:

There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits and results of good and bad actions. There is this world and the next world. There is mother and father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are brahmans and contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves. (MN 117)

This particular account is often called mundane right view, or right view of the ownership of action (kammassakatā sammādiṭṭhi), with reference to the fruits of kamma, and much of it was discussed with regard to Buddhist ethics in chapter two. It is mundane, and limited, in that it seeks well-being within samsāra, that is, without the goal of liberation or full awakening.

In many places right view is described simply as the Four Noble Truths (cattāri ariyasaccāni); this is most standard.

  • Suffering (dukkha), which is to be understood,
  • The origin (samudaya) of suffering, which is craving and which is to be abandoned,
  • The cessation (nirodha) of suffering, which is the cessation of craving and which is to be realized,
  • The path (magga) to the cessation of suffering: Right view, right intention, right action, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, right, mindfulness and right concentration, which is to be developed.

The fourth truth, the path to the cessation of suffering, is the Path we are discussing in the present chapter. We have seen in chapter 2 that suffering is associated incidentally with unwholesome mental factors and that it has a role in the fruits of karma. Right view gives it a particularly prominent role in the Buddhist path as a factor that should be intimately understood in all of its manifestations. It is an indicator of much of what is going on in the mind.

The second truth attributes suffering to craving. Notice that both greed and hatred, which underly many unwholesome mental states, are forms of craving, a craving to obtain or to keep something desirable and a craving to rid oneself of, or to avoid, something undesirable.

The third truth can be personally verified, particularly with a very still mind: there is a point at which interest in something, however small, turns to craving and right at that instant stress and anxiety flood the mind: suddenly the world is a problem. The first three truths are really nuts-and-bolts descriptions of immediate experience.

The fourth truth is not so obviously related to the first three, since the recommended path mentions neither suffering nor craving, though from our study of ethics we can begin to appreciate how craving and suffering are implicated in unwholesome thoughts and actions. We find that the full understanding of all of these truths brings in the whole of the Dharma, and in this sense the Four Noble Truths by itself exhausts right view.

The formulation of the Four Noble Truths has been compared to a doctor’s evaluation. Suffering is the symptom, the origin is the diagnosis, the cessation is the prognosis and the path is the treatment. The Buddha uses this same basic formula with respect to other mental factors besides suffering and craving, as we will soon see, with the treatment in each case consisting of this same Noble Eightfold Path. For convenience, I will call this general formula in the discussion of these cases the four truths formula.

In other suttas, in particular in the Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta (MN 9), right view is described more exhaustively as involving knowledge of the following topics:

  • Wholesome/skillful (kusala) and unwholesome/unskillful (akusala) volitional actions (kamma).
  • Suffering, whose origin is craving,
  • Aging and death, whose origin is birth,
  • Birth, whose origin is becoming,
  • Becoming, whose origin is attachment,
  • Attachment, whose origin is craving,
  • Craving, whose origin is feeling,
  • Feeling, whose origin is sense contact,
  • Sense contact, whose origin is the six-fold sense-base,
  • The six-fold sense-base, whose origin is name-and-form,
  • Name-and-form, whose origin is consciousness,
  • Consciousness, whose origin is volitional formations,
  • Volitional formations, whose origin is ignorance,
  • Ignorance, whose origin is the taints,
  • The taints, whose origin is (reciprocally) ignorance.
  • The nutriments that sustain beings and support beings seeking birth, namely, physical food, sense contact, volition and consciousness, whose origin is craving.

The first topic also belongs to mundane right view. The remaining to transcendent right view, which puts the noble in noble eightfold path. The Buddha describes all of the remaining topics except the last in in terms of the four truths formula, providing the Noble Eightfold Path in each case as the appropriate treatment. The Path is a kind of universal elixir for all that ails us. Applying the four truths formula to the second factor on this list, suffering, gives us the four noble truths. For instance, applying it to the seventh, craving, gives us:

  • Craving, …,
  • The origin of craving, which is feeling …,
  • The cessation of suffering, which is the cessation of feeling …,
  • The path (magga) to the cessation of craving: Right view, right intention, right action, … .

It should be noted most of these factors, starting with aging and death and ending with ignorance, form a long series, in which one factor is the origin of the previously listed factor. This series is often grouped together entirely or in part as the chain of dependent co-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda). Overall, we have, under right view, the descriptions of a whole lot of factors, most of which are clearly mental, many of which will seem very obscure if the reader is encountering them here for the first time, but each of which is elaborated and related in the ways described here and in often in other different ways in many discourses of the Buddha. Together all of these descriptions constitute a highly sophisticated conditionally connected model of the workings of the human mind, on the basis of which the general human predicament that we call samsāra can be elucidated. The next chapter will attempt to gain some deeper understanding of dependent co-arising.

Each of these descriptions of right view seems to take a different swath across the Dharma. However, because the many teachings of the Dharma are conditionally interrelated, elaborating one generally implicates many others. In fact the Buddha stated that if we understand dependent co-arising, in particular, we understand the entirety of the Dharma.

Elucidation of right view. Buddhist development is a product of two intertwined components: understanding (pariyatti) and practice (paṭipatti). Practice is what brings understanding to life and understanding is useful only as a support for practice. We might think of understanding as the skeleton and practice as the flesh supported and given shape by that skeleton.

Right view is that skeleton. Right View, for Buddhist practitioner or would-be potter, begins with “book learning,” conceptually expressible knowledge conveyed from master to student or apprentice. It provides the orientation, the road map, the instructions, on the basis of which practice can proceed. It is relevant and needed only insofar as it sustains practice and the development of purity of mind and awakening. Right view is like a map of the terrain that we explore in our practice; it is not the terrain itself. It is important that right view ripens into a deeper understanding through tramping through that terrain. At that point our understanding is as much in our feet as in our heads.

This deeper knowledge or wisdom we develop is beyond the limits of conceptual understanding and will unfold with the experience of practice. Consider that most of the knowledge a master potter possesses has come from actually working with the clay, and is found in his fingers not in his head. Or consider the knowledge we put to use in riding a bicycle. Initially, in acquiring this knowledge, we were told, “To go forward, turn the the pedals in that direction, to turn right, move the handlebars in this direction,” but we learn not to lose our balance by “feel,” through experience. Buddhist practice is also like this: the role of right view may fade as intimacy grows with the domain it covers, to be replaced or supplemented by a “feel” for the workings of the mind.

With regard to view, I should mention that the Buddha is somewhat reluctant about having any views at all: they tend to be intellectually faulty and we tend to cling to views. For this reason the Buddha has chosen his views pragmatically and sparingly, as pointers and guides and as ways of undermining pernicious views we might otherwise hold. Dharma consists of views that can actually make a beneficial difference in support of practice. Speculative philosophy and views irrelevant to spiritual development are not Dharma. But even Dharma should not be clung to once it has outlived its usefulness, that is beyond awakening. The Buddha compares this mistake to building a raft in order to cross a body of water, then once on the other shore to be so pleased with the raft as to carry it hither and thither on ones back (MN 22).

The practice of right view. The initial practice of right view is its acquisition through listening to the wise expound the Dharma, reading books on the Dharma, considering what is conveyed, asking questions about what is uncertain, and so on.

“Endowed with these six qualities, a person is capable of alighting on the lawfulness, the rightness of skillful mental qualities even while listening to the true Dhamma. Which six?

“When the Doctrine & Discipline declared by the Tathāgata is being taught, he listens well, gives ear, applies his mind to gnosis, rejects what is worthless, grabs hold of what is worthwhile, and is endowed with the patience to conform with the teaching.” – AN 6.88

There is a wealth of Dharmic textual material available. But be aware that the Dharma comes alive with practice; the Dharma is inert if it remains in the head. A would-be potter does not read Pottery for Dummies then claim to be a potter. A would-be chef does not read The Joy of Cooking then claim to be a cook. A would-be explorer does not sit around reading National Geographic then claim great adventures. A would-be follower of the Buddhist path does not read this book then claim to be a stream enterer. Rather she needs to feel the clay between her fingers, to whip the eggs, to become intimate with suffering and craving and the rest in her own experience. Practice is very much an introspective project developed from its own perspective in each of the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. But beginning with Right View we can begin to identify the various factors and their conditions or origins in our own experience.

Reviewing the range of topics listed above, many will seem more obscure than others at this early point, but one in particular might appear unverifiable and is therefore bound to raise some modern eyebrows. That is birth, whose origin is becoming. Becoming is, briefly, the (delusive) development of the individual, with is own characteristic attachments, personal footprint, identity and aspirations. We can all see becoming directly (except for awakened people, for whom becoming has ceased), but at death it has a way of propelling itself – pop – into a new life. This is, therefore, re-birth. Unless we happen to have past memories of this process (and some few people do indeed report such memoriesi), we all have to wait for experiential verification of this phenomenon, hopefully for many years.

A note with regard to refuge in the Triple Gem: In the beginning many other Buddhist views will be obscure and complex, and therefore not immediately verified in our own experience. Although verification in our own experience is always encouraged, i.e., blind faith is discouraged, and verification leads to greater confidence in right view, it is important from the beginning that we be ready to accept Buddhist views with an open mind and heart, at least as working assumptions. Too much initial skepticism will inhibit coming to terms with the parts of things as they are that Buddhist doctrine points to. A degree of trust is necessary in this (and in all aspects of life), because of the incessant gap between the little we know and the great deal that we need to know just to function in the world. Even in the training of a scientist one taught particular viewpoints, but then invited to challenge these viewpoints if they seem untenable. So it is in Buddhism.

Right intention (sammā saṅkappa)

Right intention  is also sometimes translated as right resolve or right thought. Right View and right intention together form the wisdom group  within the Eightfold Path. If right view is the map, right intention is the compass that keeps us headed in the right direction. A potter, in crafting a bowl, not only needs to know about clay and glaze and potter’s wheel, he also needs to have an idea of what he hopes to produce. This is his right intention. For the potter right intention might be to make a bowls of exquisite elegance and beauty and at the same time of practical functionality. For the Buddhist Right intention is to fashion a character of highest virtue, one that embodies:

  • Renunciation
  • Harmlessness
  • Good Will

And what is right intention? Being intent on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right intention. (SN 45.8)

Elucidation of right intention. By golly, we’ve seen these three factors before, in fact in chapter 2. Renunciation is the principle factor of purifying the mind. Good-will is the principle factor of accomplishing good. Harmlessness is the principle factor of refraining from all evil. These factors also represent the three classes of wholesome or skillful thoughts recognized by the buddha-to-be in an earlier citation. These are all ethical values that will have been internalized through diligent practice of the gradual instruction. Right intention is a commitment to the wholesome intention, and thereby to meritorious deeds.

The practice of right intention. Renunciation, goodwill and harmlessness are not, for most people, an obvious set of qualities around which to orient their lives. For instance, one might think that the perfected character is wealthy, attractive, popular, fun-loving, sporty, and ever young, .. and, oh, enlightened. Or one might have come to Buddhist practice because of inner pain or one’s intention is to fix yourself and suffer less. Buddhism might not make us sporty, but it will ease our suffering, but only as a side effect of pursuing the right intention.

To develop right intention we continue to reflect on wholesome and unwholesome mental factors, the skillful and the skillful, as we began doing in chapter 2. In particular, we recall and observe the fruits of karma in our own lives and recall the following handy checklist as unskillful qualities arise in our minds:

1. They are grounded either in greed, in hatred or in delusion.
2. When they give rise to actions, those actions usually cause some degree of harm.
3. They give rise to mis-perception.
4. They cause personal suffering.
5. They subvert development along the Path.

In this way we come to realize that wrong intention is more trouble than it is worth. Renunciation in particular often comes slowly, such that the whole Path is sometimes called a path of renunciation, with progress at each stage associated with what has been let go of. Renunciation should not be forced, but comes naturally – much like children outgrowing toys – as we realize increasingly the costs of clinging to things and the poverty of the happiness they bring.

Here is a practical practice that is difficult to implement, but gives a feel for what it is like to take right intention as our guiding principle: Make everything you do a gift! This raises the question, moment by moment, what am I renouncing when I do what I am doing? Is there a sense of good-will behind what I am doing? Am I giving other beings freedom from fear of me?

Right Speech (sammā vācā)

The ethics group (sīla-kkhandha) consists of right speech, right action and right livelihood, representing exemplary conduct in the world. Each of these considers actions from the perspective of all three systems of Buddhist ethics: precepts, generosity and virtue.

It is important to appreciate how much emphasis he Buddha places on right speech. This is true in many of the Suttas and in the Vinaya, and this is probably why it comes as the very first in the ethics group. In is easy to think that speech is relatively harmless when compared to actions. We all know sayings like, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” and “Actions speak louder than words,” But consider that racism, sexism, nationalism and eventually war and ethnic cleansing all start with and are driven by many acts of wrong speech. We use speech as vengeance, to turn one person or group against another, to deceive and manipulate, and get people to buy things. Lying in particular undermines our trust in each other, which a society requires to function. In this modern age of mass communication right speech has become even more critical as it finds expression through so many media and the speech of each of us can easily reach mass audiences. Given a few advances in technology since the Buddha’s day, “Speech” now includes the written word, blogs, videos, radio broadcasts and maybe even pantomime. Speech can now also be passive; watching talk shows generally constitutes being a party to idle chatter.

Elucidation of right speech. The conventional five Buddhist precepts include an abstention from lying. The following are common in enhancements of the basic five:

  • not to lie – “I have here in my hand the names of eighty communist sympathizers who have penetrated the State Department!”
  • not to slander – “He’s got two wives and a bartender to support.”
  • not to speak harshly – “You %&$(*@ jerk! Why don’t you learn how to drive?”
  • not to chatter idly – “Well, we were already running late, and I was still trying get the top off the toothpaste, …”

The first three precepts here clearly bring harm, but the last, like the earlier precept concerning intoxication, most directly supports purification of mind, in this case controlling our tendency to restless and conceptual proliferation.

As most of us are aware, there is an art to speech. We can use it skillfully to involve others in desired results, to avoid offense and maintain interpersonal harmony, to inspire and instruct. The Buddha, the master communicator, has a lot to say about the art of speech. He gives particular attention to interpersonal harmony. A thorny situation in this regard that we all experience is, how to admonish someone, to correct what we perceive to be faults or errors on the part of another, without causing offense and in such away that the proffered advice is actually usefully accepted.

“O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who desires to admonish another should do so after investigating five conditions in himself and after establishing five other conditions in himself. What are the five conditions which he should investigate in himself?
“Am I one who practices purity in bodily action, flawless and untainted…?
“Am I one who practices purity in speech, flawless and untainted…?
“Is the heart of goodwill, free from malice, established in me towards fellow-farers in the holy life…?
“Am I or am I not one who has heard much, who bears in mind what he has heard, who stores up what he has heard? Those teachings which are good alike in their beginning, middle, and ending, proclaiming perfectly the spirit and the letter of the utterly purified holy life — have such teachings been much heard by me, borne in mind, practiced in speech, pondered in the heart and rightly penetrated by insight…?
“Are the Patimokkhas [rules of conduct for monks and for nuns] in full thoroughly learned by heart, well-analyzed with thorough knowledge of their meanings, clearly divided sutta by sutta and known in minute detail by me…?
“These five conditions must be investigated in himself. And what other five conditions must be established in himself?
“Do I speak at the right time, or not?
“Do I speak of facts, or not?
“Do I speak gently or harshly?
“Do I speak profitable words or not?
“Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious?
“O bhikkhus, these five conditions are to be investigated in himself and the latter five established in himself by a bhikkhu who desires to admonish another.”
— AN V (From The Patimokkha, Ñanamoli Thera, trans.)

The first set of conditions, to be investigated in oneself, are useful for dispelling any hubris that often accompanies admonition, and possibly to see matters from the admonishee’s perspective. The second set partly relates to the precepts discussed previously, but also serve to check one’s own intentions. Considering whether the present is the right time takes note of the circumstances in which the admonition is about to happen, for instance, whether the admonishee is a good or receptive mood. Reversing roles, the monastic code includes a rather important precept (Saṅghadisesa 12) that prohibits monks or nuns from being difficult to admonish, for instance, from being argumentative or conjuring up counter-admonitions, as many of us tend to do.

The following admonishes us to consider both consequences and intentions in assessing our verbal actions.

“Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?
“It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.” (AN 5.198)

With regard to idle chatter, the Buddha provides us with examples of topics of conversation to avoid, at least for monastics to avoid.

“Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to talking about lowly topics such as these — talking about kings, robbers, ministers of state; armies, alarms, and battles; food and drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, and scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women and heroes; the gossip of the street and the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity [philosophical discussions of the past and future], the creation of the world and of the sea, and talk of whether things exist or not — he abstains from talking about lowly topics such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue.” – DN 2

He also warned of our relentless tendency to cling to views, turn these to debate and to take pride in being right.

“Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to debates such as these — ‘You understand this doctrine and discipline? I’m the one who understands this doctrine and discipline. How could you understand this doctrine and discipline? You’re practicing wrongly. I’m practicing rightly. I’m being consistent. You’re not. What should be said first you said last. What should be said last you said first. What you took so long to think out has been refuted. Your doctrine has been overthrown. You’re defeated. Go and try to salvage your doctrine; extricate yourself if you can!’ — he abstains from debates such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue.” (DN 2)

Practicing right Speech.  The ethics of speech is intimately connected with the practice of purification of mind, for the simple reason that thought is very close to speech; or as the Buddha phrased it, “thought is that which is about to break into speech” (MN 44). We can fairly accurately read off someone else’s intentions simply from which precept concerning speech is being violated. Lying involves gaining some kind of personal advantage in competition with others’ interests through deception, slander is a attempt to destroy someone’s reputation out of personal or general ill-will, idle chatter from restlessness in a fog of delusion. To encourage these forms of speech would be to encourage defiled thoughts. To restrain these tendencies provides a very good opportunity for insight into the mind and support from practicing purity of mind.

Modern times have produced new channels for speech or speech-like activities, such as situation comedies, talk shows, hate radio, crime dramas, war movies, soap operas, pundits propounding, cell phones aringing, ads enticing, thumbs agaming, Webs asurfing, email, texting, social media and crossword puzzles. The volume and vacuity of much of this content have put idle chatter off the charts. The degree of misrepresentation, stereotyping, deceit and swindle represents an unprecedented height of exposure to untruth. Examples of slander, harsh speech and more than occasional depictions of physical violence abound, which our children learn to emulate. It is imperative that we, as Buddhist practitioners, serious about the path, substantially limit our media exposure to specific elucidating kinds of content. Some modern Buddhist writers provide similar advice concerning modern media, but instead as a generalization of the precept concerning intoxication. This emphasizes the stupefying effect of much media, which also cannot be overemphasized.

With mindfulness, it should be possible to practice restraint, to stop at the point where thought turns to speech, whenever the thought is unwholesome. Particularly challenging are angry thoughts, which can overwhelm our discernment very quickly. Controlling such thoughts is generally difficult until we reach advanced stages of practice, but we can begin to control our speech through whatever strategy works best. For instance, never ever write an email in an angry frame of mind; if some issue needs to be addressed wait until the mind is calm, then address it with gentle words, at the right time. Face-to-face encounters that turn to anger might require that we quietly and abruptly leave the room to go simmer down, lest we utter something demeritorious.

The outer form of right speech can, on the other hand, become a mask for unwholesome intentions. The slick or suave among us can become very adept at speaking gently, without slander, in ways that seem to encourage harmony, but that can hide a nest of unwholesome intentions. Our persona can, in other words, create a disconnect between thought and speech that we should become aware of. The unskillfulness of our thoughts must be observed for themselves or revealed by our wrong actions. I suppose the opposite can also happen, in which under certain circumstances it is advantageous to create a harsh and slanderous persona, that might, however, hide a bouquet of wholesome intentions.

Right Action (sammā kammanta)

Bodily action is generally the most dynamic and visible form and therefore is of particularly prominent concern at the beginning of Buddhist practice. Our practice is all intentional action, either of body, speech or mind. The inverse is also true, that all intentional action is practice, since intentions produce karmic effects to which we are heir. Practice is therefore something we do all the time; there is no natural division between  practice time and, say, fun time or work time. For this reason we should “see danger in the slightest fault” (MN 6). This requires the help of precepts, of understanding the consequences of our actions in the world and, particularly on the higher Path, close monitoring of the purity of our intentions and views in all circumstances. We have already learned a lot about right action in our discussion of ethics in chapter 2 as something that begins well before embarking on the Path. As we follow the Path we should give increasing concern to the karmic effects of our actions on the development of the mind.

Elucidation of right action. We might think of our karmic lives as a long series of densely packed choice points, at each of which we try freely to pick the most skillful alternative. Most of the time, however, we don’t feel like we are making choices, because we are simply following accustomed patterns as if on automatic pilot. This is the difference between intention and deliberation. To dedicate oneself to the Path is to live deliberately and to defy accustomed habit patterns when these are unskillful.

We wander, effectively, in what I will call a karmic landscape, heavily rutted where we have traveled over and over. Most worldlings tend simply to fall into the ruts without thinking. At any point they could veer to the right or to the left (this makes their choice intentional), but they generally simply follow the course of least resistance, and thereby make the operative habit patterns even deeper. The rutted landscape, representing our habit patterns, is the stuff of our individuated character. It is a metaphor for old karma, the cumulative conditioning of our past karmic decisions.ii Ethical Conduct, on the other hand, is deliberative: it tends to change our habit patterns with respect to actions of body, speech and mind, to veer out of the accustomed ruts, to the extent that these are unskillful, and through repetition to weaken and eventually obliterate the old unskillful ruts. Precepts, such as, “Do not take that which is not offered,” define clear points at which we make deliberate choices that will reshape the karmic landscape in this way. We can also say the same about conventional generosity, and also about ritual behavior; they are also deliberative in nature.

As we perform right actions, we shape our mental habit patterns along with our bodily habit patterns. As we repeatedly avoid harming others, the mind develops greater kindness. As we repeatedly offer material goods or work in behalf of others, the mind develops its capacity for renunciation. We experience the joy of these right actions themselves and we will experience the well-being of a properly intentioned mind in the future. If we make a practice of non harming of what are generally considered expendable pests (cockroaches, wasps, mice, and so on), we develop kindness towards even them.

A significant aspect of this tendency of the mind to follow the body is that certain bodily practices that produce no direct harm or benefit in the world can nonetheless develop the mind in wholesome or unwholesome directions. An example is bodily expressions of veneration for the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, which develop a receptiveness to the sources of Buddhist wisdom and also humility. An example from right speech is the avoidance of idle chatter, which works against the tendency of the mind to conceptually proliferate. Another example is a precept commonly observed by laypeople every quarter moon, and by monastics effectively always:

I undertake the rule of training to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, smartening with perfumes and beautifying with cosmetics.

This works against tendencies of self-gratification. Training the mind, and body, in a less dharmic context, through bodily actions but without worldly consequences seems to be also a primary functions of play, in kids, pups, calves, lambs, cubs and kittens.

The practice of right action. When we first begin to follow precepts, conventional generosity or even ritual, the regulation of our behavior in this way may feel restrictive, like we’ve fit ourselves uncomfortably into a box that affords little ability to move. Certainly our non-Buddhist friends will think that is what we’ve gotten our selves into. Remarkably, within a short while, if we have been practicing diligently, these practices will feel just the opposite: liberating. Certainly, most monastics seem to discover this sense of liberation in following hundreds of precepts. How can this be?

I think that the reason is that we had felt restricted to begin with, oppressed by the ever deepening ruts of our karmic landscape that kept us locked mindlessly in certain patterns of behavior, much of which was unskillfully dedicated to the fruitless search for personal advantage, and thereby painful. The practice of virtue gave us our first taste of liberation by lifting us out of our karmic ruts, by showing that there was no inevitability in our conditioning, that there is a different way of being in the world.

Moreover, as we practice that different way of being in the world, we get a clear picture of the intentions that had been driving out actions in the world. We hadn’t noticed those intentions while we are on autopilot, passively following the ruts wherever they lead, but as we regulate our behaviors we leave many of those intentions frustrated, we frequently leave  some unconsummated impulse or agenda dangling. This is an opportunity for investigation. At one point we will see a bit of ill-will hanging unexpressed, and, peeling off of this, unmistakable stress, and maybe a potential victim that has just benefited as a consequence of our choice not to give expression to our ill-will. We thereby begin to see in what sense many of our thoughts and impulses are indeed unskillful, in fact dangerous, and how restraining them is quite appropriate. We become uncomfortable as we discover who we really are.

Our primary guides for right action, as well as for right speech, are those very intentions, and we become very mindful of them throughout the day. Those intentions have a kind of wisdom behind them, even the unskillful ones, insofar as they know who they are.  The unwholesome ones are those wearing some degree of suffering – stress, anxiety, dis-ease, dis-satisfaction – like a shadow. They are not so wise to recognize that they also give rise to mis-perception and take us away from the path, and that when acted out will almost certainly cause someone harm, but we know this, that is, if we have read this book carefully up to this point. We also know that these are the intentions that are rooted in greed, hatred or delusion.

Once we become mindful of, and learn to recognize, our intentions faithfully, we can treat them with appropriate attention. First, we learn to abort an unskillful intention by not acting on it. For instance, when anger arises we do not yell, we do not throw things, we don’t do anything, until the anger subsides, which it will, at which point we can assess the situation more clearly and seek guidance from skillful intentions. Second, we learn to improve the quality of the intentions that do arise by controlling their conditions. For instance, if I avoid stressful activities, anger is less likely to arise. If I avoid the company of people who are drinking alcohol, I am less likely to have the impulse to do so. In this way we fully engage with the practice of purification of mind, our capacity for which will become quite refined indeed by the end of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Likewise, we learn to protect the purity of the mind even if there is no immediate danger that our unwholesome intentions would cause imminent harm in the world. For instance, we avoid playing violent video games or watching violent television programs, or listening to hateful speech, because we know that these activities will condition the mind in favor of intentions of anger and fear, scoring deep ruts in our karmic landscape. Likewise, channel- or Web-surfing may train the mind toward restlessness and discontent. Entertainments that excite lust will tend similarly to depurify the mind, even while not doing outward harm.

Right Livelihood (sammā ājīva)

Right livelihood  is the third and final factor of the ethics group of the path. Including it as a whole factor of the path addresses a critical issue in pursuing the higher path of practice. This is that, once we choose a career, we might not have much choice left about what karmic actions we preform during our workday. Not only will we have substantially given up control of our practice, but, whether or not the boss is telling us to do them, our actions will still have harm or benefit and will shape or misshape our character and well-being. Therefore, it is important that we choose our livelihood with great care.

Elucidation of right livelihood. So, when is a particular livelihood right? We might begin by looking at the job description. Is each task mentioned consistent with right speech and right action and, while we are at it, conducive to wholesome thoughts? Does a task involve deceit? Does it involve killing or otherwise harming living beings? Does it entail taking what is not given freely? Does it involve or encourage misuse of sexuality?

The Buddha specifically points out the following as characteristic of wrong livelihood,

“scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, usury,” (MN 117)

which sound embarrassingly like conventional modern corporate business culture. It suggests that it would be a challenge to find right livelihood in sales or marketing, or in investment.

The Buddha also listed the following as livelihoods to be avoided (AN 5.177):

  • Business in human beings. In the Buddha’s day this had to do with dealing in slaves and prostitutes.
  • Business in weapons. This precludes hunting, fishing, soldiering (see SN 42.3 for more on this) or weapons manufacture.
  • Business in meat. This precludes raising animals for slaughter, slaughter itself or selling meat.
  • Business in intoxicants. This precludes tending bar, selling or producing alcohol, pushing drugs, growing opium, and so on. Modern allowances should be made for compassionate medicinal uses of intoxicants and poisons. On the other hand, Benedictine monks would not be able to brew beer if the Buddha had a say in the matter.
  • Business in poison. This would include manufacturing pesticides and herbicides but also applying them to crops. This would include pest extermination.

Notice that these are broader than precepts in that they proscribe aiding others to violate precepts. To manufacture a weapon is not to kill directly, but certainly provides conditions for that. To sell someone a drink is to be implicated in intoxication even if one remains completely sober oneself. In this way, right livelihood reaches beyond the letter of the precepts, but then in the wrong livelihood one is repeatedly implicated over the course of one’s career.

Many of us are forced into wrong livelihoods because our options are limited and we need the income whatever work we can get provides. If we have debt or a family to feed, or own property or possessions that must be maintained and insured, we are forced into earning a certain level of income. Now,  monastics have the great benefit of what might be called the ideal livelihood. First, in order to be ordained into the Saṅgha one must be quite free of conventional societal obligations: no wealth, no debt, no family to speak of. Second, one is entirely outside of the exchange economy. Third, one has relative autonomy in day-to-day affairs; rarely is there anyone else telling one what to do. The factor of right livelihood is clearly described with laity in mind who often must find a balance between obligations and livelihood options. Reducing obligations as much as possible, for instance, avoiding debt, is one way to realize a more favorable livelihood.

If a livelihood forces one to act habitually with greedy or cruel intentions, the character will develop to become more greedy or cruel. Consider that when you take on employment, your boss generally predetermines many of your choices from that point on. This means that your character will come more and more to resemble that of your boss.

Practicing right livelihood. The practice of right livelihood focuses primarily on understanding the consequences of our major life choices, the benefits and harm thereof. This assessment might occur at a young age, before choosing on a college major or embarking on a career plan. It might involve a reassessment of decisions already made. I used to write software, in what now seems like a previous life, sometimes under Defense Department contracts. One project involved an automated intelligent route planning some kind of small autonomous aircraft, whose description was highly redacted, but which everyone in our team agreed was some kind of weapon system. This ended up being a major factor for me in ending my high-paid high-tech corporate career to do what I do now. However, the radical redirecting of my career path would have been extremely difficult if I were not at a point in life in which my children were reaching adulthood and my family obligations were loosening up.

In these modern times it is probably particularly difficult to find a right livelihood. If one does not design weapons systems, one might work in marketing, trying to convince the public that ingesting some horrid concoction of petrochemicals, high fructose corn syrup and saturated fats will add zest to their lives. We often have little choice of livelihood simply because the economy offers few choices.  Moreover, what is considered a respectable livelihood in our society may be quite a bit different from what is right livelihood in the Buddhist sense. Being a soldier, or a banker, investing in real estate, exterminating insects and pests or stretching the truth a little to make a sale might all be completely acceptable a particular culture or subculture. Furthermore, large modern enterprises typically distribute decisions in such a way that obscure ethical responsibility, and workers compensated through wages have little control over the product of their labor. We might be lucky to find a job at a retail store, in which we will be required to sell pesticides, booze, meat, and (especially in the USA) guns, with whatever scheming, persuading and hinting will close the sale. No religious exemptions are generally offered.

This raises an important question: If we are compelled by our boss to sell pesticides to a customer (and to convince him he needs two cans, where one would do), is it our bad karma? If our act of killing an enemy combatant is under orders of our commanding officer, are we breaking a precept? After all, if we don’t do it, someone else will, so aren’t we off the hook? The Buddhist answer is much like the decision of the Nuremberg Trial: we are not off the hook, orders are not just orders, we are still the heir of our own deeds. This accurately reflects how such actions effect the mind; for instance, combat veterans are known to commit acts of domestic violence at rates much higher than the general population. Issues in right livelihood in our modern times may create dilemmas and and lead to compromises; a right livelihood may be elusive for the practitioner who us unwilling to let his family starve.

Right Effort (sammā vāyāma)

Right effort is the workhorse of virtue or purity of mind. It continually encourages wholesome or skillful thoughts and discourages unwholesome or unskillful. It is like the work of a gardener.

We practice right effort when we bring “desire, work, persistence and intent to bear … (SN45.8):

“… for the sake of the non-arising of unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen…,
“… for the sake of the abandoning of unskillful qualities that have arisen…,
“… for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen…, (and)
“… for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, and culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen.”

The first is like the gardener keeping weeds from growing, the second like pulling weeds that have grown, the third like planting desirable seeds and watering them so they sprout, and the last like protecting and cultivating the existing desirable plants so that they thrive. Right effort works directly for purification of mind.

Elucidation of right effort. Right effort is ubiquitous in our practice since our practice should constantly in all our waking moments be concerned with ensuring that our karmic intentions are admirable and not ignoble. Right effort carries the practices of abandoning wrong view and entering into right view, of  abandoning wrong intention and entering into right intention, of abandoning wrong speech and entering into right speech, of abandoning wrong action and entering into right action, of abandoning wrong livelihood and entering into right livelihood. (MN 117) The normative duality unskillful/skillful (akusala/kusala) is equivalent to that of wrong/right (sammā/micchā).

A variety of techniques are provided in the discourses for performing right effort. For instance, when an unskillful thought arises we can (MN 20):

  • replace it with a different, skillful thought, like getting rid of a coarse peg with a fine one, or
  • consider the downside of unskillful thoughts, which we will perceive like someone disgusted by the carcass hung round his or her neck, or
    empty the mind, like a shutting the eyes, or
  • step backward to the origins the unskillful thought, like instead of walking fast, walking slowly, or instead of walking slowly, standing, or
  • subdue and beat it down with clenched teeth, like a strong man restraining, subduing and beating a weaker man down.

As a result of removing such unskillful thoughts, we are assured, “the mind will stand firm, settle down, become unified and concentrated.” This result points to the causal role of right effort in bringing the mind to concentration, that is, in supporting the last factor of the path. The final three factors of the path – right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration – constitute the concentration group (samādhik-khandha) of the path, often called the training in cultivation of mind.

A short list of five categories of mental factors are distinguished as particularly vexing when we desire to bring the mind to mindfulness and concentration, to experience it standing firm, settled down and unified. These are known as the hindrances (nīvaraṇa). Holding these at least temporarily at bey is necessary for a strong meditation practice.

  • Lust. “Hubba-hubba.”
  • Ill-will. “That darn %&$*@!”
  • Sloth and torpor. “Zzzzzz.”
  • Restlessness and remorse. “If only I had …, I know, I’ll …”
  • Doubt. “What do I think I’m doing here anyway?”

These factors correspond roughly to greed (1), hate (2) and delusion (3-5). Subduing all of them for a period of time we produce a degree of seclusion from worldly concerns which is very conducive indeed to completive practice, particularly seated meditation. Notice that it is the unskillful factors that trouble us, that prevent the mind from settling. The mind overwhelmed with renunciation or overflowing with kindness is not the one hindered from moving on to the higher practices of mindfulness and concentration.

The practice of right effort. Right Effort provides the energy of practice. Every time there is resistance to right anything, then right effort is called for. If it is time to meditate and you are just to lazy, laziness is to be weeded out and ardency needs to be watered. If you really want to flirt with your neighbor’s wife, sensual passion is to be weeded, contentment with your own wife watered. Often the effort required is enormous; you may be dealing with ingrained habits or natural instinctive behaviors. In addition to the list of mental techniques involved in right effort provided above, you will probably discover some of your own, from changing your perspective or conceptualization of the situation to bringing the thought into the focus of attention until it dissipates of itself. There are a couple of useful modern books that bring together Buddhist teachings specifically on anger, which many of us identify as an area of personal weakness.iii

Right effort is a practice that we should engage in throughout your day. It should be there with every opportunity to avoid evil or accomplish good, but we should especially make a habit initially of monitoring our intentions; with every action we undertake we should be aware, quite frankly, of our motivations behind it, because that gives it its karmic quality. As we begin this practice, we might be embarrassed at how much unwholesomeness we discover, as a constant stream of factors such as anger, lust, deluded views, fear, stress, envy, jealousy, spite, restlessness, anxiety, arrogance and pride persists. It is important to accept this stream as a natural part of the untrained human condition, lest we feel guilty (guilt is just piling another unskillful thought – one rooted in aversion – on top of others). However, just this mindfulness has a way of wearing down our unskillful habit patterns over time. In addition to this, we discover targeted ways to remove the unskillful and cultivate the skillful. With persistence and time, the mind shifts remarkably. This is purity of mind.

Almost the entire thrust of the noble eightfold path up until this point is toward purity of mind through the ethical fine-tuning afforded by right effort. Our views, our intentions, our speech, actions and livelihood come into perfect alignment with our effort. However, right effort is not enough to clean the mind entirely of defilements, to end suffering or to reach final liberation, awakening. The reason is that there are even deeper defilements living at the darker level of latent tendencies, engulfed and held in place by ignorance. Until we can venture into these recesses and shine the light of wisdom, we can never awaken completely. In order to do this, the final practices of mindfulness and concentration are required.

Right Mindfulness (sammā sati)

Mindfulness is simply to remember what it is we are doing, fully cognizant of the present circumstances, it is to be on task, undistracted by what is not relevant to the task. It reminds us to apply precepts, to recognize our skillful and unskillful thoughts, to guard the senses at the right time. It is the nose in the little slot on the door of a speakeasy that demands a password. It is also the engine of insight.

Mindfulness is the conventional translation of Pali sati, and generally a pretty satisfactory translation. It conveys the qualities of being present and giving attention to detail. The word sati is a derivation of the root meaning memory, which is also an aspect of the English word mindfulness, as when we are mindful to rotate our tires at regular intervals.  Many people think of mindfulness as awareness, but actually it is more a matter of filtering the awareness that is already there according to relevance. It is this aspect of mindfulness that connects it particularly intimately with wisdom group of right view and right intention.

And what is the faculty of mindfulness? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago. (SN 48.10)

This last passage then continues with a description of this monk’s practice of the foundations of mindfulness (sati-paṭṭhāna). In teaching the four foundations of mindfulness, the Buddha recommends the cultivation of mindfulness in attending to four specific topic areas of meditation that foster insight into the nature of experience, thereby turning right view into seeing things as they are. This is the standard passage that introduces the four foundations of mindfulness.

And what, monks, is right mindfulness? Herein, a monk dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief concerning the world. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings… states of mind in states of mind… phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief concerning the world. (DN 22, MN 10)

Contemplating the body in the body, etc. is to see directly without conceptual proliferation. Ardent is the energy we commonly associate with mindfulness. Clearly comprehending suggests a degree of investigation or evaluation, is where memory comes into play and is where insight and the development of wisdom occur. Western scholars are not inclined include cognates of a term to be defined (mindful) in the definition itself, but that is common in the early texts, and found here. Finally, putting away covetousness and grief concerning the world is suggestive of holding the hindrances at bey, thereby attaining a degree of mental seclusion conducive to contemplative practice, as described under right effort. Although mindfulness is something we can carry around all day, it is also something we can sit with under a tree in lotus posture as well.

Elucidation of right mindfulness. It is important to understand that what we practice and cultivate here is not any old mindfulness, but right mindfulness, just as we practice and cultivate not any old view, but right view, and just as we practice and cultivate not any old action but right action. Mindfulness is something we all have to an extent, usually to a widely varying extent, and it is generally there when we most need it and can even be further trained. It is there when a sniper is pulling the trigger that will neutralize what has some indications of being a possible enemy combatant. It is there when a cat burglar removes the famous gem with an adeptness that avoids setting off the alarm system. But this is not right mindfulness. Right mindfulness is the mindfulness that is implicated in every other path factor. Right mindfulness does not exist independently of the path.

First establish yourself in the starting point of wholesome states, that is, in purified moral discipline and right view. Then, when your moral discipline is purified and your right view straight, you should practice the four foundations of mindfulness. (SN 47.3)

Right mindfulness is a critical component of right effort, and both work in collaboration with right view.

Right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong action as wrong action, and right action as right action. … One tries to abandon wrong action and to enter into right action: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong action and to enter and remain in right action: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, and right mindfulness — run and circle around right action. – MN 117

This passage circles around right action but it is stated verbatim with each of intention, speech, view and livelihood replacing action in turn. Right view is the forerunner and with right effort and right mindfulness applied critically to the practice of each of the first five path factors. Right view is what we know, right effort is its present observance and right mindfulness is the present recollection of what is to be observed. Mindfulness is like a thermostat that keeps the temperature right.

There is a kind of art to clear comprehension. It is a kind of conceptual investigation, serves to develop wisdom or insight, but stays clear of intellectual reasoning. It is a matter of noting or verifying, sometimes as far as noting a conditioning relation between two factors. For instance, in contemplating feeling in feeling, one might note an instance of suffering, perhaps a twinge of anxiety, and note right before that a covetous thought, then recall the second noble truth. Feeling in feeling places a constraint on how far a thought might wander.

To see how mindfulness with investigation leads to wisdom and ultimately to awakening, and to see how concentration, our final factor on the path, plays a role in this, we turn to the seven factors of awakening (bojjhaṅga), which ties these together into a causal chain:

1. Mindfulness (sati),
2. investigation of experience (dhamma-vicaya),
3. energy (viriya),
4. delight (sometimes called rapture, pīti),
5. calm (passaddhi),
6. concentration (samādhi),
7. equanimity (upekkhā).

Mindfulness underlies the proper investigation of experience, which is according to appropriate attention (yoniso manasikāra), which we already encountered  chapter 2, and in chapter 3 as a faculty of the stream enterer. Investigation, when ardently undertaken, requires energy, which is generally assumed to be a matter of right effort. Investigation in seclusion with energy tends to generate a feeling of delight. Delight (pīti) is a feeling of well-being and includes pleasure, but it is more energetic than simple pleasure, because it has a bit of excitement in it.

Nonetheless, the feeling of well-being lead to calm. This step is a kind of tipping point, since up to now the three previous factors of awakening have been energizing. Calm sets the conditions for concentration, the path factor we have yet to discuss. Higher states of concentration are accompanied by equanimity, or impartiality, which is very conducive to wisdom, and ultimately awakening.

One of the designated subjects of investigation in the foundations of mindfulness is the set of enlightenment factors itself. As our practice in mindfulness improves, we should be able, self-referentially, to investigate each of the enlightenment factors in turn and discover that they are indeed related conditionally. This is how right view, including trust in the Buddha’s views, turns to wisdom as we witness phenomena in our own experience.

The practice of right mindfulness. Right mindfulness is practiced in conjunction with any other path practice. For instance, right action requires mindfulness to note where we might break a precept or to note the arising of unwholesome motivations, before we respond appropriately. Right effort requires constant evaluation of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness. Ethical practices engage us constantly in mindfulness because they challenge us continually to recall what we are supposed to be doing. Ritual or routine tasks are opportunities for mindfulness: if you are cutting potatoes, see if you can put anything else out of mind that is not potato-cutting for the few minutes you are engaged in this task. In fact, make the task a little more challenging: try to cut the potatoes into pieces of equal size; if you drop your mindfulness the sizes will drop their uniformity.

Mindfulness becomes difficult when there is too much going on at once: when the kids are barking at you, the dog needs a ride to his piano lesson, the TV is trying to sell you something that is whiter than white, your cell phone is ringing and you don’t know how you are going to pay the mortgage. We live in a culture that actually discourages mindfulness: We love to multi-task and think that life is boring if a lot of things are not going on at once. We get addicted to the dispersed mind. This is not a Buddhist way of being, which is to relish simplicity. We love to drink alcohol, which disperses the mind so much we forget our cares, often while fostering new ones. Most of what we call modern conveniences are actually just ways to avoid being mindful. For instance, we have different buzzers that go off to remind us of something we would otherwise have had to be mindful about, such as fastening a seat belt. We think ritual or routine is boring in our culture. When we walk through a door our minds are already on the other side of the door in the car and down the street before we even touch the door.

We should try to neutralize these tendencies. Cultivating simplicity tends to reduce potential distractions, so we should not make too many commitments, not live beyond our means (have no debt), don’t own a lot of things. Generally low-tech demands more mindfulness then high-tech. We should give up our addiction to multitasking. If we are cutting potatoes in the kitchen, we should not listen to the radio. We should not leave the TV on all the time, nor talk on the phone while driving. Attending to the task at hand is being mindful.

The better part of right mindfulness is that associated with investigation and with the Dharma, the last specific topic of the foundations of mindfulness teachings. The Dharma invites investigation. Hearing the four noble truths we are compelled to investigate suffering in detail in our own experience, and craving, and how they occur together. We attend to rising and passing away of phenomena, and investigate the possible locus of a self. There is a proper way to investigate, which is through appropriate attention and not through philosophical speculation, which would invariably introduce factors not present in direct experience. Leave investigation at simple perception. This should be a major preoccupation on the path. This is particularly facilitated by practicing mindfulness under circumstances conducive to stillness of mind, which increases the power of mindfulness and the clarity of investigation. This takes us into the final practice of the path, right concentration.

Right Concentration (sammā samādhi)

The concentrated mind has a special stillness and clarity that is conducive, in fact necessary, for the final leg of the path to awakening.

Just as if there were a pool of water in a mountain glen — clear, limpid, and unsullied — where a man with good eyesight standing on the bank could see shells, gravel, and pebbles, and also shoals of fish swimming about and resting, … In the same way — with his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability — the monk directs and inclines it to the knowledge of the ending of the mental fermentations. (MN 39)

Non-Buddhist meditation methods typically develop concentration, optimally bringing the mind to a single point so that perception effectively stops, which is often experienced as profound and blissful. Right concentration is different: it is the natural extension of the path, and most immediately the natural extension of mindfulness with investigation into the calm abiding of a highly but not maximally concentrated mind. It is only through right concentration that the higher realizations and awakening are possible.

Elucidation of right concentration. Meditation comes in different forms, but it is not right concentration unless it derives from straightening views and intentions, from purifying virtue and from building on right effort and right mindfulness.

There are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort and right mindfulness. The unification of mind equipped with these seven factors is called noble right concentration with its supports and accessories. (SN 45.28)

Right concentration is consistently defined in terms of four stages of concentration called jhāna (almost nobody translates the Pali word, so it should be remembered).

And what is right concentration?
There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities — enters and remains in the first jhāna: delight and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by thought and evaluation.
With the stilling of thoughts and evaluations, he enters and remains in the second jhāna: delight and pleasure born of composure, unification of mind, free from thought and evaluation — internal assurance.
With the fading of delight, he remains equanimous, mindful and alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters and remains in the third jhāna, of which the Noble Ones declare, “Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.”
With the abandoning of pleasure and pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress — he enters and remains in the fourth jhāna: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This is called right concentration. (SN 45.8)

A table will clarify the logic behind the otherwise puzzling configurations of factors for the jhānas.

                            1st   jhāna    2nd  jhāna    3rd   jhāna    4th  jhāna
thought-evaluation    x
delight                           x               x
pleasure                         x               x                    x
unification                                      x                    x
equanimity                                                            x                     xx
mindfulness                  .                 .                    x                     xx
Figure 2. Stages of concentration

The progression from jhāna  to jhāna  is consistent with the trend already evident in the seven factors of awakening: a trajectory from more energetic to less energetic. Recall that the  jhānas take the place of concentration in this series.

For one of right mindfulness, right concentration springs up. (SN 5.25-6)

Each successive jhāna is produced from the preceding by the loss of the most energetic of four jhāna factors. The factors of thought and evaluation (vitakka-vicāra) are particularly energetic, having a discursive quality:

Thought and evaluation are the verbal formation, one breaks into speech. (MN 44)

The second jhāna and beyond, in which the discursive element is absent, is accordingly referred to as noble silence.  The loss of these two factors together by the second jhāna necessarily shuts any tendency toward intellectual proliferation out of investigation. The factor of delight, also fourth of the seven factors of awakening, has too much energy for the very serene third and fourth jhānas. Even the quiet pleasure that initially accompanies delight is too energetic for the fourth jhāna.

Meanwhile, more serene factors accumulate to offset the loss of the the more energetic factors. Notice that mindfulness must in fact be present as a causal factor in the first jhāna, as a condition of concentration in the first place, though it is not explicitly reported in the early jhānas. Its mention in the higher jhānas suggests that it becomes stronger and very acute there. In this way, mindfulness and concentration are mutually supportive. It is important to bear in mind that evaluation, as a factor of mindfulness, continues unabated, even in the fourth jhāna.

A monk in each jhāna regards whatever phenomena connected with form, feelings, perceptions, fabrications and consciousness as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a disintegration, a void, non-self … (AN 9.36)

Jhāna is therefore not the state of extreme absorption common non-Buddhist traditions, which would cut off all conceptualization altogether. For instance, the Buddha praises Sāriputta for his talents in investigation in all jhānas,

Whatever qualities there are in the first jhāna … he ferrets them out one by one. Known to him they remain, known to him they subside…  (MN 111)

He then makes exactly the same statement but with regard to second jhāna. third jhāna and fourth jhāna.

In summary, right concentration is the continuation of the practices of right effort and right mindfulness in a refined state of serenity and unification of mind. This telescoping of the three explains why the three together are called the concentration group. As our awakened nun Dhammadinnā put it:

Unification of mind is concentration, the four foundations of mindfulness are its themes, the four right efforts are its requisites, and any cultivation, development and pursuit of these qualities are its development. (MN 44)

Since right concentration depends on all the previous steps of the path, the mind as it enters concentration already inclines toward wisdom and virtue, toward viewing reality in terms of impermanence, suffering and non-self,  toward renunciation, kindness and harmlessness, toward purification of the mind of unwholesome factors and toward wise consideration and mindfulness. Right concentration consolidates all of the path practices, and it is in that crystal clear state that practice really starts cooking, and to produce the delectable odors of wisdom.

There is no jhāna for one with no wisdom, no wisdom for one without jhāna. But one with both jhāna and discernment, he’s on the verge of nibbāna. (Dhp 372)

The practice of right concentration. In the mind’s typical worldly state thoughts come at us like a rushing river, like a fire hose or like a sand storm. Alternatively we can say that the mind jumps around from place to place like a monkey, like a basket ball or buzzes around like a swarm of gnats. Under such conditions we have little opportunity to observe our thoughts to get to know them, nor to observe and get to know what is happening in the world around us, for that gets lost in the deluge of thought. Likewise under such conditions we have little opportunity to respond appropriately to thoughts as required by many of the steps in the Path. Even when we seek out the forest pool, our thoughts for a time are like choppy water, stirred up by paddlers and power boats, that is, too agitated to permit us a view of stones, shells and shoals of fish in the murky depths.

Concentration requires right effort to the degree of holding hindrances at bey, and focused engagement in mindfulness as necessary conditions. A degree of seclusion and quiet are contributing factors as well as bringing the body into a state of calm, generally by assuming meditation posture. Right concentration requires the development of the whole Path, but I recommend early forays, before the Path is well developed, into simple concentration as a way to still our busy modern minds and to get a feel for the power of the concentrated mind.

A very simple mindfulness task is best suited for this: pick a meditation object and keep it your awareness centered there. The most common choice of meditation object is the breath or some aspect of the breath, as in the beginning stages of the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118). The awareness will inevitably wander in the early stages of your meditation career; you must be mindful to recenter it over and over. Because it aims at keeping the mind absolutely fixed, this exercise is rarely conducive to penetrating insights, but it does produce calm abiding, is typically quite pleasant, and has a therapeutic quality that is more effective than an evening cocktail for unwinding.

With adeptness in this simple meditation, you can progress to more subtle and complex topics of mindfulness, generally under the guidance of a meditation teacher. You will find that it is more difficult to reach concentration with some topics of mindfulness that require more investigation, but that this becomes easier with time. There is a kind of art in balancing the energy of investigation with the calm of concentration. Be aware that favoring deep levels of concentration over investigation carries a couple of dangers. First, one can become attached to the pleasure of concentration, which then becomes a self-serving impediment to progress on the path. Second, the intense serenity of concentration can mislead one into thinking one has reached some great attainment on the path, possibly even awakening, when it is nothing of the sort.

The Development of Wisdom

The Path begins with right view and right intention, which constitute the wisdom group. Yet wisdom is largely a product of right concentration, keeping in mind that right concentration has already folded in right mindfulness and right effort, along with the rest of the Path.

That one could fulfill the wisdom group without having fulfilled the concentration group that is not possible. (DN 18)

“Bhikkhus, develop concentration. A monk with concentration understands in accordance with reality.” (SN 22.5)

When right concentration does not exist, for one failing right concentration, the proximate cause is destroyed for knowledge and vision of things as they really are. (A.V.4.9-11)

The knowledges are for one with concentration, not for one without concentration. (AN 6.64)

Right view gives us a lot of material for investigation. Right concentration, in effect, transforms right views into wisdom.

When his mind is thus concentrated in concentration, is purified, bright, rid of blemishes, free of taints, soft, workable, steady and attained to imperturbability, he bends and inclines his mind toward knowledge and vision. He understands “this my body is material, made of four elements. … Just as if a man with good sight were to examine a beryl gem in his hand, saying ‘this beryl gem is beautiful, well made, clear and transparent, and through it is strung a blue, yellow, red, white or brown string.” In just the same way he inclines his mind to knowledge and vision … to psychic powers … understands the Four Noble Truths. (DN 2)

Why do we want to develop wisdom? A primary reason is that it is necessary to perfect the purity of mind, to perfect virtue. With limited wisdom we can still correct our conduct and habit patterns, but we cannot correct the most recalcitrant ways we have of mis-perceiving the world.

For instance – and this is the most important instance – most of us have this very pronounced view that we are a separate self, which is always an impediment to perfecting virtue. Most fundamentally, we misperceive the world because of a constant bias in favor of this needy self. Nonetheless, through the practice of ethical conduct we learn to behave toward others as if that self were barely there, by not stealing, by not harming, and so on. Through the practice of purification of mind we can mitigate the affective mental factors that manifest that self, the various forms of greed and hatred that arise in the self’s quest for personal advantage, and try to take control of our actions. Now, all of this will tend to loosen the iron grip of the self, but not eliminate it. Through the development of wisdom we get at the most recalcitrant views. Ultimately, the development of wisdom also underlies the goal of awakening, the final ending of all suffering, the deathless, nirvana, that transcend virtue and ethics.

In the next chapter we will deepen our understanding of right view to comprehend the conditional factors implicated in the arising of the deluded human condition and how these are broken up with the light of wisdom. In the final chapter we endeavor to explain the nature of the higher attainments, particularly complete awakening.


i.See many meticulously documented cases of children’s past-life memories by Ian Stevenson and his colleagues.

ii.Remarkably, we are each born with a thoroughly rutted karmic landscape, or equivalently a well-formed individual character, but typically with no memory of whose steps produced these ruts before we arrived.

iii.Chodrin (), Nhat Hahn ().

Embarking on the Path

November 21, 2015

This, last week’s post and some yet to come are chapters of a text I am preparing in conjunction with a class I teach periodically here in Austin. I encourage any feedback about mistakes or omissions, and about typos. The text will be called something like Foundations of Early Buddhism: practice and understanding.

In the last chapter we introduced the Buddha’s gradual instruction (Figure 1). The gradual instruction falls into the following three parts, which I give names to here;

1. Common practice and understanding. Generosity – ethics – heaven – drawbacks, degradation and impurity of sensual passions – rewards of renunciation.

2. Transitional qualifications. “The mind is ready, softened, unbiased, elated and trusting.” These are a description of faith or trust, which we discuss in this chapter.

3. Higher instruction. Four Noble Truths – the Path.

The present chapter is concerned with transitional qualifications and, to a degree, with the first three of the four Noble Truths (truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering). The Path upon which we are embarking is actually the fourth Noble Truth (the way to the cessation of suffering).

It should be noted that no two Buddhist adherents develop in the same way. Buddhism does not expect uniformity of practice among its members, as most religions do. In fact, Buddhism cannot expect such uniformity because its standards are extraordinarily high: its benchmark is the rare attainment of complete awakening, which entails eventual perfect purity in action and thought, penetrating insight and imperturbable serenity. Individually we do what we can to reach that goal, or what we have the opportunity and inclination for, or what we are inspired to accomplish. Some of us jump off the diving board into the deep end and some of us are dog-paddlers. Many remain unclear about the Four Noble Truths and never embark on the Path, but lead, nonetheless, virtuous lives within the common understandings and practice. Many enter the Path rather tentatively, for instance, taking up meditation long before virtue is strong, while the mind is neither ready nor trusting, and with no understanding the importance of the Four Noble Truths. Still others have nearly perfect virtue, absolute trust in the sources of Buddhist wisdom, and an immediate grasp of the Four Noble Truths, then become firmly established on the Path.

We will see in this chapter how the transitional qualities are developed through refuge in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, for these are the three sources of Buddhist wisdom, in all its profundity, to which we must open our hearts and minds until we have seen it for ourselves. Almost as essential are admirable friends, living people of wisdom who can inspire and instruct us on the Path. Finally, the early attainment of a certain kind of insight, called the Dharma eye and developed through appropriate attention, will fully establish one irrevocably and with absolute conviction on the Path. We will review all of these assets in this chapter. Furthermore, we will discuss the ways in which the monastic order provides a valuable resource for anyone dedicated to pursuing the Path, for ordination into its ranks provides the optimal context for development toward awakening.

I would like to take this opportunity to introduce a good friend, the stream enterer, the person fully possessed of all of the assets necessary not only for entering but for establishing oneself firmly on the Path, and an admirable friend who can guide us through the transition to embark on the Path. The stream enterer has made great progress in mastering the common practices and understanding, has an absolute conviction in the efficacy of the Path and, through the Dharma eye, has already reached the first level awakening. She is someone who has not only embarked on the Path, but knows where it leads, as if, upon reaching the trail head, thirty feet from which the Path makes a turn and disappears, hidden by trees and underbrush, she had been able to levitate to see the entire path from the air, to observe for herself whither it wends, and she had found its terminus to be even more beautiful than she had anticipated.

The Stream Enterer

Becoming fully established on the Path is stream entry (sotapatti), and the person who is fully established in the path is called a stream enterer (sotapanna). The stream (sota) is a synonym for the noble eightfold path itself.

[Buddha:] “Sāriputta, ‘The stream, the stream’: thus it is said. And what, Sāriputta, is the stream?”

“This noble eightfold path, lord, is the stream: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”

“Very good, Sāriputta! Very good! This noble eightfold path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration — is the stream.” (SN 55.5)

To get technical, stream entry is often described in two stages: path and fruit. The path of stream entry is the training that results in stream entry. It is generally described as guaranteeing the fruit of stream entry in this very life. The fruit of stream entry is stream entry per se, and that is what is described here unless stated otherwise.

The qualities developed in the stream enterer are described in various ways.

“And which are the four factors of stream-entry with which he is endowed?
“There is the case where the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with unwavering trust in the Awakened One… unwavering trust in the Dhamma… unwavering trust in the Saṅgha… He/she is endowed with virtues that are appealing to the noble ones: untorn, unbroken, unspotted, unsplattered, liberating, praised by the wise, untarnished, leading to concentration.” (AN 10.92)

Here we learn that a stream enterer is one possessed of virtue and trust: virtue may be developed through common practice and understanding, and faith is described in the basic transitional qualification for entering the Path, equivalent to refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma and the Saṅgha. Refuge is might well be listed as a common practice alongside generosity and ethics. But the stream enterer’s level of trust is exceptional, a result of the stream enterer’s aerial glimpse of the Path and where it leads.
With regard to common practice of generosity, or rather its opposite, stinginess, we find a rather definitive claim:

“Monks, there are these five forms of stinginess. Which five? Stinginess as to one’s monastery [lodgings], stinginess as to one’s family [of supporters], stinginess as to one’s gains, stinginess as to one’s status, and stinginess as to the Dhamma. These are the five forms of stinginess. And the meanest of these five is this: stinginess as to the Dhamma… [This occurs, for instance, when a Buddhist teacher will withhold teachings from another teacher, lest the latter attracts more students.]

“Without abandoning these five things, one is incapable of realizing the fruit of stream entry.” (AN 5.254, 5.257)

Elsewhere, additional attainments are attributed to the stream enterer. She is said to have eliminated three of ten fetters (samyojana). As a set the fetters are used to distinguish four levels of awakening as practice attainments, from the lowest to highest: stream enterer, once-returner, non-returner, arahant.

And which are the five lower fetters? Self-identity view, doubt, grasping at habits and practices, sensual desire and ill will. These are the five lower fetters. And which are the five higher fetters? Passion for form, passion for what is formless, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. These are the five higher fetters. (AN 10.13)

“In this community of monks there are monks who, with the total ending of [the first] three fetters, are stream enterers, steadfast, never again destined for states of woe, headed for self-awakening.” (MN 118)

Of the three fetters that are ended for the stream enterer, the first, identity view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi), is the most subtle: it is the view that we are a fixed self: the one who experiences, the one who has attributes and possessions, the one who craves. This tells us that the stream enterer possesses a significant degree of wisdom, in fact a significant insight. The second, doubt (vicikicchā) is the opposite of trust in the the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha, and so reinforces what was said in an earlier passage. The third fetter is attachment to rites and rituals (sīlab-bata-parāmāso), in which the regressive view is implicated that they are effective in producing karmic fruits; Buddhist karma does not work this way. Ending the first and third are therefore matters of wisdom, so we can consider them together. We learn also from this passage that the one firmly established on the path will not take a wrong turn or regress.

Practice on the path to stream Entry

How do we become a stream enterer? By one account,

Association with people of integrity is a factor for stream-entry. Listening to the true Dhamma is a factor for stream-entry. Appropriate attention is a factor for stream-entry. Practice in accordance with the Dhamma is a factor for stream-entry. (SN 55.5)

Association with people of integrity is critical to establishing oneself on the Path. Early Buddhism did not articulate the role of teachers, rather the nearest key concept was that of the admirable friend (kalyāṇa-mitta), one who can provide teaching, but also from whom one can learn by emulating their conduct and one who provides inspiration in the Dhamma overall. In general, those of higher attainment or spiritual progress are those from which we are likely to learn the most. The importance of the admiral friend is expressed in this curious but well-known passage:

As he was seated to one side, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: having admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Having admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.” (SN 45.2)

Listening to the true Dharma is also critical because both the gradual training and the Path involves interplay between understanding and practice. It is through the Dharma that we acquire common understandings to support common practice and it is through the Dharma, particularly through what we will describe in the next chapter as Right View, that we engage the practice of the Path. Of course in modern times we also read the Dharma, a privilege unavailable in the early days of Buddhism, and listening to the Dharma is often just a mouse click away.

Another account of the path to stream entry specifies some degree of insight into the Four Noble Truths:

“He attends appropriately, This is suffering… This is the origination of suffering… This is the cessation of suffering… This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering. As he attends appropriately in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him: self-identity view, doubt, and grasping at rites and rituals.” – MN 2

This describes engagement with the Four Noble Truths as a way to insight, supplementing preparations for the abandoning of each of these fetters through common practices and understandings. The practice of ethics and the development of selfless virtue and renunciation have prepared for the abandoning of identity-view. The practice of refuge has prepared for the abandoning of doubt. The understanding of karma and its fruits as part of ethics has prepared for the abandoning the grasping of rights and rituals. Appropriate attention concerning the Four Noble Truths pushes us over the edge.

We encountered appropriate attention briefly in the last chapter. Appropriate attention (yoniso manasikāra), is a hugely important factor in Buddhist practice, about which the Buddha stated,

Appropriate attention as a quality of a monk in training: nothing else does so much for attaining the superlative goal. A monk, striving appropriately, attains the ending of suffering. (Iti 1.16)

The Pali for appropriate attention is more literally translated as attending to the origin or foundation, refers to a skill for avoiding distraction through speculation or conceptual abstractions, and is in accord with the Buddha’s metaphysics of conditionality. Our example from a previous chapter recognizes poverty is a direct conditioning factor for crime, rather than criminals. It also recognizes birth as a direct conditioning factor for death, rather than ill health. It also recognizes craving as a direct conditioning factor for suffering, rather than irksome circumstances. Phenomena arise from conditions and appropriate attention traces those conditions in the most direct way. Generally the insight reported for the stream enterer is not so much about craving and suffering as it is about conditionality, which relates craving and suffering, but many other factors as well.

Insight prepared by appropriate attention penetrates to a level of understanding that supplants these three fetters once and for all. This insight is called the Dharma eye (dhamma-cakkhu).

There are a number of instances in which disciples discover the Dharma eye. Recall from chapter one the story of Sāriputta’s encounter with one of the Buddha’s first five disciples, in which, Assaji evoked the same realization in Sāriputta in reference to conditionality, and then Sāriputta in Mogallāna. Sāriputta claims to have seen the deathless (Nirvana), yet he was not yet an arahant. Here is another account:

To Upāli the householder, as he was sitting right there, there arose the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye: Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation. Then — having seen the Dhamma, having reached the Dhamma, known the Dhamma, gained a footing in the Dhamma, having crossed over and beyond doubt, having had no more questioning — Upāli the householder gained fearlessness and was independent of others with regard to the Teacher’s message. (MN 56)

The Dharma eye seems to provide this glimpse of Nirvana; after all seeing the conditioned nature of reality gets close to the idea of an unconditioned reality. As the monk Nārada describes it:

“My friend, although I have seen properly with right discernment, as it actually is present, that ‘The cessation of becoming is Nirvana,’ still I am not an arahant whose effluents are ended. It’s as if there were a well along a road in a desert, with neither rope nor water bucket. A man would come along overcome by heat, oppressed by the heat, exhausted, dehydrated, and thirsty. He would look into the well and would have knowledge of ‘water,’ but he would not dwell touching it with his body. In the same way, although I have seen properly with right discernment, as it actually is present, that ‘The cessation of becoming is Nirvana,’ still I am not an arahant whose effluents are ended.” (SN 12.68)

Elsewhere the related insight into impermanence is attributed to the stream enterer. This passage also gives us an idea of two tracks of development on the path to stream entry.

One who has trust and belief that these phenomena are this way [impermanent] is called a faith-follower: One who has entered the orderliness of rightness, entered the plane of people of integrity, transcended the plane of the run-of-the-mill. He is incapable of doing any deed by which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal womb, or in the realm of hungry ghosts. He is incapable of passing away until he has realized the fruit of stream entry.

One who, after pondering with a modicum of discernment, has accepted that these phenomena are this way is called a Dhamma-follower: one who has entered the orderliness of rightness, entered the plane of people of integrity, transcended the plane of the run-of-the-mill. He is incapable of doing any deed by which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal womb, or in the realm of hungry ghosts. He is incapable of passing away until he has realized the fruit of stream entry.

One who knows and sees that these phenomena are this way is called a stream-enterer, steadfast, never again destined for states of woe, headed for self-awakening. (SN 25.1-10, italics mine)

The faith-follower and the Dharma follower are both on the path to stream entry, but ultimately the fruit of stream entry ripens in discernment for both faith- and Dharma-follower. Faith is refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha. Dharma here is what one verifies oneself.


Before discussing the Refuges, we should pin down who the Saṅgha is, and note the special relationship that stream enterers have to the Saṅgha. Actually the word refers to either of two overlapping groups of people, known as the noble saṅgha the the monastic saṅgha.

Stream enterers themselves, or even those on the path of stream entry, qualify – along with once-returners, non-returners and arahants – as officially members of the noble saṅgha (ariya-saṅgha), and are thereby graduates from the ranks of mere worldlings (puthujjana) to noble ones.

This Doctrine and Discipline is the abode of such mighty beings as stream-winners and those practicing to realize the fruit of stream-entry; once-returners and those practicing to realize the fruit of once-returning; non-returners and those practicing to realize the fruit of non-returning; arahants and those practicing for arahantship… (Ud 5.5)

The Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well… who have practiced straight-forwardly… who have practiced methodically… who have practiced masterfully — in other words, the four types when taken as pairs, the eight when taken as individual types — they are the Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.” (AN 11.2)

Each of these passages refers to those on the path to stream entry as well as those enjoying the fruits. In the second, an oft repeated formula, the four types of noble disciples are just these stream enterers, once-returners, non-returners and arahants, those at any of the four stages of awakening. These four are then as pairs on the basis of path or fruit.

Ordained monks (bhikkhu) and nuns (bhikkhunī) belong to the monastic saṅgha (bhikkhu-saṅgha). A monastic may or may not be a noble one, and a noble one may or may not be a monastic, but both kinds of saṅgha are intimately intertwined. The monastic saṅgha is the natural home of the noble ones and the noble saṅgha is largely a product of the monastic saṅgha. A monastic of no attainment, if he is nonetheless sincere, would generally be expected at least be at least on the path to stream entry. Therefore, if monastics were all sincere, then monastics would all be noble ones. In fact the last passage above actually begins with a description of noble ones, then concludes with treating them like monastics, since offerings are conventionally made to monastics, not to laity. However, some lay people are noble ones but are not monastics; in fact this was very common indeed at the time of the Buddha.

The monastic saṅgha as a resource for the noble saṅgha. The monastic sangha is a multi-functional institution, defined in the Vinaya with a mission statement, a code of conduct, rules of governance, guidelines for handling grievances and many other features.i We noted one of its minor functions in the last chapter, as providing recipients for lay generosity, a kind of priming of the pump of the lifeblood of the Buddhist community.

The monastic saṅgha additionally provides a natural home for those of high spiritual aspirations, for those who wish to dedicate themselves fully to development along the Path to awakening. In fact, this can be regarded as a kind of right for members of the Buddhist community, much like primary education or even college education is a right in many modern counties for qualifying individuals. The monastic saṅgha provides an ideal context for Buddhist practice by defining the life most conducive to upholding Buddhist principles, a life so barren of any opportunity for personal advantage that a self can scarcely find root, except to the extent it continues uselessly to haunt the mind. Into life flow instead the wisdom and compassion that, liberated from the tyranny of personal neediness, burst here and there into various stages of awakening. As an ascetic renunciate community, monks and nuns depend completely on material support from the lay community. Not only does this afford the monastic the leisure of practice, study and accomplishing good, it insulates the monastic from the ups and downs of the contingencies and from the competitiveness of the common world. In this way the monastic saṅgha, as long as it follows the discipline scrupulously, produces relatively effectively noble ones of progressively higher attainment from among its ranks. The flourishing of the monastic saṅgha in this way ensures the flourishing of the noble saṅgha as well. The Buddha stated that,

“… if … the monks should live the life to perfection, the world would not lack for Arahants.” (DN 16)

The world will be even less lack for noble ones, many of whom are not yet arahants but nonetheless attained of lower levels of awakening. The monastic saṅgha is both training ground and dwelling place for the noble saṅgha, much like a university is both a training ground and a dwelling place for scholars.

It is not often enough stated that the founding of the monastic saṅgha was a truly monumental achievement. Although there were ascetics in India before the Buddha, “… among all of the bodies of renouncers it was only the Buddhists who invented monastic life,”ii that is, who provided an organized institution capable of sustaining its teachings. It has also been pointed out that the Buddhist monastic saṅgha is likely the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence and not significantly altered. The Buddha took its development very seriously and most consistently called the body of his teachings not Dharma, not Sāsana, and certainly not Buddhism, but rather Dharma-Vinaya, the doctrine and discipline.

Moreover, the monastic saṅgha appears to have been planned as the ideal society writ small. Internally the Sangha as envisioned by the Buddha observes no class distinctions, provides an exemplary level of gender equality, is regulated in a way to avoid conflicts and maintain harmony, observes procedures to negotiate disagreements should these arise, is democratic and only minimally hierarchical. The nuns and monks are designated in the Vinaya as the full-time caretakers of the Dharma. The Buddha never attempted to organize the lay community except indirectly by putting the monastic community in their midst and letting them sort out what to do about it. The monastics have no coercive power whatever over the laity; there is, for instance, nothing like excommunication. Their authority derives entirely from the respect they receive as teachers and role models, that is, from the degree to which the monastic saṅgha represents the ideal of the noble saṅgha.

The benefits of the noble saṅgha for the Buddhist community. Noble ones ennoble the general Buddhist community. Just as it benefits us to have artists and good plumbers among us, or those educated in the Humanities, it ennobles us to have saints and sages, adepts and arahants in our midst, the more the better. These noble ones, disciples of the Buddha who root their lives entirely in the Dharma and are an inspiration and a resource for us all, constitute an effective civilizing force. Where there are noble ones, trust will be inspired, for they display first-hand the peace and happiness, wisdom and compassion that result from complete immersion in the Buddhist life. The noble ones are close at hand, they teach, they inspire with their deportment, their good works and their knowledge. They inspire self-reflection concerning one’s own life, and tend to melt samsaric tendencies. They keep the flame of the Buddha’s teaching alive.

It is through these admirable friends that the meaning of the Buddha’s life and awakening is revealed and through these admirable friends that the highly sophisticated teachings of the Dharma are clarified step by step to lead the instructling toward and along the path. Keeping the flame of the Dharma burning bright is critical for the perpetuation of the teachings: because those teachings are so subtle and sophisticated they are easily misinterpreted if they are not put into practice and experienced by the noble ones among us.


Refuge is represented in the transitional qualifications as “the mind is ready, softened, unbiased, elated and trusting.” It is the kind of faith, trust or acceptance required to embark on the Path.

We live in a relentlessly uncertain world yet need to make decisions in that world. It is the rare decision indeed that comes with absolute certitude. Trust or faith (saddhā) is that which bridges the gap between the little we actually know and the plenty we would need to know in order to make a decision of guaranteed outcome. Trust belongs to the nuts and bolts of human cognition. We may try to bring as much discernment as possible into our trust but in the end we necessarily make a jump, big or little, into the unknown,

“[Gulp] Well, here goes!”

In this way we have entrusted ourselves, for better or worse, to our baby sitters, to our teachers, to our accountant, to TV pundits, to our dentist, to the authority of science, and for fewer and fewer of us to our national leaders. Or we put our trust in alternatives to all of these. We have no choice whether to trust (we don’t know enough individually), only who or what to trust. Some of us fancy ourselves rationalists, but we are all most fundamentally creatures of faith in every aspect of life.

In fact, we grow up, before we know it, trusting a mass of tacit and unexamined assumptions instilled at such a young age that we later forget that they are tacit and unexamined, that they are products of trust. We trust whatever faith we are raised in, or we trust science. We trust free markets, or we trust the communist party. The Westerns and war movies we’ve watched may have taught us to trust the un-Buddhist proposition that “good” must often be expressed through the barrel of a gun because that is all that “bad” people understand. In this modern age we are mired in trust, but this trust is almost entirely implicit, unexamined and undiscerning; the marketing industry even manufactures trust in the craziest things.

For better or worse, there is no getting around trust in an uncertain world. Life-altering decisions generally arise from a sense of urgency that demand big acts of trust and therefore enormous courage; they are way beyond the reach of the timid or of the deniers who cling fearfully to their certitude. This is the courage of the great explorers, of the hippies of yore on quest in India with nothing but a backpack, and more commonly of the betrothed or of the career bound, stirred by deep longing or by desperation. Establishing ourselves on the Path toward awakening will shake our life to the core and this will demand particularly courageous trust. Therefore, we should ensure that it is a discerning trust.

The Triple Gem. In Buddhism we place our trust in three sources of wisdom, which we trust to guide us in our spiritual development and how we conduct our lives. These three sources of wisdom are the Buddha and what he realized, the Dharma, what the Buddha taught, and the Saṅgha, the living noble Buddhist adepts who carry the Buddha’s realization and understanding forward in our own time. These three together are known as the Triple Gem (tiratana) and the trust we accord them is called refuge (saraṇa).

Trust in the Triple Gem is essential for bending our minds around Buddhism, because Buddhism includes understandings and practices difficult to internalize. Until we understand what it is the Buddha realized, what it is the Buddha taught and what it is the Saṅgha has upheld for one hundred generations, we cannot be certain where this way of life and the Path of practice will lead us. Until we have experienced deeply this way of life and traveled far on this Path of practice we will not understand what the Buddha understood, taught and entrusted to the Saṅgha. Therefore, until we have experienced this way of life and traveled far on this Path we require trust, ardent trust in the Triple Gem, to nourish our Buddhist aspirations. Trust in the Triple Gem is what first turns our heads toward virtue, wisdom and peace. However, when we see and fully experience these things for ourselves, trust will no longer be necessary.

Moreover, there is some urgency in taking refuge. Keep in mind that we already trust in our lives many people and understandings, already placing undiscerning trust in a mass of tacit unexamined, and for the most part faulty, assumptions. Our trust in the Triple Gem must be great enough to override these, not to be hindered by them, if we are to bring ourselves in line with the Path. This is why, according to the transitional requirements, the mind must be ready (kalla-cittaṃ), softened (mudu-cittaṃ) and unbiased (vinīvaraṇa-cittaṃ). We do best to embark on the path from the perspective of the Buddha, not from that of Madison Avenue or Rupert Murdock. It is the alliance of trust and discernment that reaches furthest.
Those born into Buddhist cultures and families are commonly taught trust in the Triple Gem from infancy, before they possess the gift of discernment. Many of us in the West who are not born Buddhists gain the initial trust through encounters with Buddhists, who often exhibit profound peace and kindness, or through the profundity that shines through the Buddha’s teachings, even before we grasp more than a hint of their import. Bold at first, that trust will grow progressively more discerning and acquire more depth with experience.

There is great drama in the great decisions that will shape our lives. Initial urgency and fear turns to reflection, then then to commitment, then outcome. Where trust is ongoing, devotion or veneration might follow. The resort to trust in the midst of uncertainty is experienced as a sudden relief, carrying the taste of safety. The uncertainty that had given rise to fear and urgency may not yet be eliminated, but once urgency has turned to commitment, worry tends to disappear. The sense of ease is a refuge, a sense of entrusting oneself to something, much as we as children entrust our well-being to our parents. This is why we describe the mind in the transitional qualifications as elated (udagga-cittaṃ). The trusting mind (pasanna-cittaṃ) is that possessed of the same trust (saddhā) we’ve been talking about: pasanna and saddhā are near synonyms, pasanna also conveying a sense of calm.

The trust we place in the Triple Gem often arises from a sense of urgency which is called in Pali saṃvega, a kind of horror at the realization of the full nature and depth of the human condition (AN 5.77-80). It is said that the Buddha-to-be experienced saṃvega when he learned, to his dismay, of sickness, of old age and of death, and in response began his quest. Saṃvega arises when we lose our capacity for denial, which is a likely outcome when frivolity ceases. The Buddha-to-be then recognized, at the sight of a wandering ascetic, an option that gave rise to the bold resolution to address his despair. It is said that he then experienced a sense of calm relief that in Pali is called pasāda, the antidote to the distress of samvega.

Underlying the metaphors of both refuge and Gem is, in fact, protection or safety. A refuge at the Buddha’s time was understood as the protection provided by a mentor, patron or benefactor in return for a vow of allegiance.iii Gems, similarly, were generally believed to have special protective properties. Refuge in the Triple Gem represents, particularly for those not born Buddhist, a bold decision to entrust oneself to a way of life, understanding and practice that will at first have all the uncertainty and mystery that virgin territory has to the explorer or that a deep and dark cave has to the spelunker. Just as a plan of action is a refuge to relieve the panic of the castaway or of those buried in rubble, entrusting oneself to a Path of practice toward Awakening provides a refuge from saṃvega.

But is this a trust that arises out of wise reflection and discernment?

Refuge in the Buddha. Most religions worship some personality. Buddhism is striking in that the role of veneration is occupied primarily by a now deceased human being rather than a deity or supernatural being, albeit a person who attained some remarkable qualities in his lifetime. We already tend to venerate people with remarkable qualities, for instance, our favorite geniuses like Einstein or Mozart.

When we take Refuge in the Buddha we see in this towering personality the highest qualities we might choose to emulate. Refuge in the Buddha is nonetheless an act of trust, beginning with the trust that such an awakened personality is even possible. With deep practice and study, with our own progress on the Path, we begin to see how his qualities of mind are gradually starting to emerge in us and our trust begins to be confirmed. As we have seen, the stream enterer has experienced at least a brief verifying insight. Still, trust is necessary in the beginning, until we see for ourselves.

Refuge in the Dharma. Most religions have some form of doctrine or belief system, generally providing a metaphysics, an account of the origin of the world, of mankind or of a particular tribe, and so on. The Dharma stands out in its enormous sophistication and its emphasis on the mind rather than on external forces (although in chapter 6 we will learn that this is not entirely true). It deals with the human dilemma, existential crisis, anguish, suffering and dissatisfaction, delusion, harmfulness, meaninglessness and the rest, as human problems with human causes that arise in human minds, and as problems that require human solutions. The Dharma provides a program whereby the mind is tuned, honed, sharpened, tempered, straightened, turned and distilled into an instrument of virtue, serenity and wisdom. The Dharma itself is among the greatest products of the human mind, as skillfully articulated by the Buddha. It is on the basis of trust in the Triple Gem that we begin to study, practice, develop and gain insight through the teachings of the Buddha. As the Buddha states,

“… when someone going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha sees, with right insight, the four Noble Truths: suffering, the arising of suffering, the overcoming of suffering and the Eightfold Path leading to the ending of suffering, then this is the secure refuge; this is the supreme refuge. By going to such a refuge one is released from all suffering. – (Dpd 190-192, Fronsdal, 2005)

The Dharma also stands out in its empirical quality, “come and see” (ehipassiko). The Dharma points almost entirely to what can be verified in our direct experience, or instructs us in ways to move the mind into certain experiences. Many cautious people in the West are inspired to trust in the Dharma in the first place upon learning of this refreshing see-for-yourself quality of the Dharma.

Some caution is, however, in order, lest one think this entails that we should trust our own experience above all. In fact, for the Buddha the typical “uninstructed worldling” is actually astonishingly deluded and the Dharma quite “against the stream” from his perspective. We get hopelessly confused in trying to see, much less interpret, our own experience. For this reason the Buddha, in the famous Kālāma Sutta, warns us not to base one’s understanding on one’s own thinking:

“Come Kālāmas, do not go by … logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, …”iv

In fact, when the Buddha says “Come,” he is shouting down to us flatlanders from the mountaintop. To arrive at his vantage point we need to scramble up hills, struggle through brambles and ford creeks. When the Buddha says “See,” we need to focus our eyes intently in the right direction to barely make out what the Buddha sees with great clarity of vision. In order to be willing to do all of this we have to establish from the beginning great trust that the Buddha knew what he was talking about. This is refuge. What else would induce us to make the difficult climb up the mountain? Investigation and personal verification are necessary parts of following the Dharmic Path but they take time and effort before we can say, “I have come and now I see.” Until then trust is essential. “Come” is trust, and “see” is verification in our own experience.

For instance, the Buddha taught that craving is the origin of suffering (the Second Noble Truth). At first this may seem, at least to some, an abstract proposition which we must ponder and try our darnedest to match up with observation. The most likely early outcome is to dismiss this proposition as simply mistaken. It seems pretty clear to us, for instance, that buying that snazzy shirt we so want, would make us exceedingly dashing and that that would lead to improved prospects for romance and other forms of social and perhaps even business success. Therefore, we conclude, craving clearly leads not to suffering but to happiness!

However, Refuge entails instead that we decide to trust the Buddha before our own premature cogitation about our own experiences. Eventually through years of examination, on and off the cushion, we might discover that the Second Noble Truth is not an abstraction at all; it is something that bites us on the nose over and over all day every day. We begin to notice that as soon as craving comes up the suffering is right behind it. As soon as we have to have that shirt there is stress and anxiety, unmistakably. We might discover we had been living in a world of incessant suffering, a world aflame, all along but not noticing it.

In brief, without Refuge in the Dharma we would never have scrambled to the mountaintop. We’ve already taken refuge implicitly in many faulty, non-Buddhist ideas and habits taught to us from a young age, or absorbed through too much TV, and we are bound to cling to those until we take Refuge in the Dharma, naively misperceiving them for products of our own “free” thinking.

Refuge in the Saṅgha. As we have seen, the Saṅgha includes those of significant attainment on the Buddhist path, from stream enterers to fully awakened arahants on down, even those firmly on the path to stream entry. Alternatively, it includes all monastics, the more visible of the two saṅghas, and the one specifically charged by the Buddha with preserving the Dharma and in any case largely overlapping the first saṅgha. The Saṅgha serves as admirable friends for worldlings, for these are likely people advanced or even perfected in virtue and in understanding, potentially serene and wise. These tend to be the contemporary teachers and protectors of the Dharma. Members of the Saṅgha themselves are expected to seek out admiral friends ideally of even higher attainment.

The Practice of Refuge. To practice trust in the triple gem is to open our hearts and minds to the influence of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha. The point is not to put discernment aside; in fact we want with time to verify point by point for ourselves what these sources of wisdom have to teach us to the point that trust is no longer necessary. The point is to listen attentively to what these sources have to teach us, to consider them seriously and to integrate them into our own investigation. The main hindrance to this is our own hubris built on trust in tacit, unexamined assumptions, whose origins may be obscure to us.

One of the issues we encounter in western cultures is the sparseness of the monastic saṅgha. Nonetheless there are many highly qualified lay teachers. Although it is difficult to tell how qualified your teacher is, she could well be a noble one and count as Saṅgha on that account. After due discernment, it is appropriate to consider taking her as a refuge. Whether or not to offer alms or other support depends on whether she charges for her teachings.

The opening of heart and mind has an affective component – this is simply part of human psychology – that shows up as respect, veneration or worship. I will use the middle term, veneration, to encompass all three variants). The practice of veneration works closely with Refuge to open the heart to the influence of worthy teachers and teachings. One cannot learn from someone one does not first treat with regard. When we show proper forms of respect to the elderly, school teachers, professors, piano teachers and master cooks, we take seriously what they have to impart and so open our minds to learn more quickly from them. In a real sense, we become subject to their authority. Notice that, although veneration is prominent in religion, it is common in secular contexts as well, for instance, in saluting higher ranking officers in the military or addressing a judge as “Your Honor.” These practices serve to convey influence or authority – and this works psychologically – whether or not applied to benevolent causes.

We find veneration of the Buddha clearly expressed in the early sources through full prostrations sometimes touching the Buddha’s feet, by circumambulation while keeping the Buddha on one’s right, by covering one’s otherwise bare shoulder with one’s robe, by sitting on a lower seat than the Buddha, by standing when the Buddha would enter the room, by walking behind the Buddha or not turning one’s back to the Buddha and by proper forms of address. In the early scriptures the Buddha occasionally chastised a visitor for not showing proper respect. And this, in fact, began immediately after his awakening, with the Buddha’s re-encounter with the five ascetics to whom he delivered his first Dharma talk.v He understood that without that respect he was wasting his tie talking to an unreceptive audience. Likewise, veneration of the Dhamma for many years after the Buddha was naturally enacted in the effort to recite, remember and preserve his words.vi

Veneration of the Saṅgha is in a sense easier, because it applies to the only living Gem and therefore assumes a particularly personal quality. The veneration of the monastic component of the Saṅgha dovetails with the project of satisfying their material needs, the root lay practice of generosity, discussed in the previous chapter. Monastics were also recipients of many the same kinds of physical expressions of respect accorded to the Buddha during his life.

Veneration is a direct causal factor in attaining certain wholesome qualities of mind that we try to develop in Buddhism, including peace and humility. The deference to another that veneration generally entails, serves immediately to deflate the ego, to knock it out of its accustomed privileged position in the universe. (In fact this seems to me to be a basic function of the worship of God in most religions.) With the development of humility, the craving to be somebody and to distinguish oneself as that somebody, relaxes into a greater sense of ease. As the Buddha states with respect to a particular practice of veneration,

“When a noble disciple recollects the Tathāgata, on that occasion his mind is not obsessed by lust, hatred, or delusion; on that occasion his mind is simply straight. He has departed from greed, freed himself from it, emerged from it. … some beings here are purified in such a way.” (AN 6.25)

This passage is repeated in this sutta with each of Dhamma, Saṅgha, his [own] virtuous behavior, and his [own] generosity replacing Tathāgata.

To bow to the Buddha is to enact veneration for the Buddha, to enact veneration of the Buddha is to feel veneration for the Buddha, to feel veneration for the Buddha is to put aside one’s preconceptions and open one’s heart to the teachings of the Buddha. To do this is to align with the Buddha’s Path. We tend to be dismissive of veneration in modern, and certainly American, cultures, and yet veneration is recommended by the Buddha.vii The advice for moderns: Get over it.viii

Further Reading

Bhikkhu Ariyesako, 1999, The Bhikkhus’ Rules: a Guide for Laypeople, available AccesstoInsight.org, and occasional hardcopy distributions. This is an readable overview of the monastic rules laid out in the Vinaya.

Bhikkhu Cintita,, 2014, A Culture of Awakening: the life and times of the Buddha-Sasana, Lulu.com, down-loadable from bhikkhucintita.wordpress.com. This discusses Buddhist community, refuge and the relationship between laity and Sangha, largely from a historical perspective.

Ajahns Pasanno and Amaro, 2009, The Island: an Anthology of the Buddha’s Teaching on Nibbana, Abhayagiri Monastic Foundation. This has substantial discussion of stream entry.


i. These are surprisingly familiar in modern organizations, given that the monastic saṅgha has following all these years essentially the same regulations codified in the Vinaya (discipline) in the early Buddhist era.

ii. Gombrich (2006), p. 19.

iii. Thanissaro (1996), p. 1.

iv. AN 3.65. Note, I’ve omitted the external sources of evidence in this oft-quoted list.

v. Veneration of the Buddha was enhanced in virtually all of the later traditions, by treating symbols of the Buddha, for instance, pagodas and later statues, in the way we would have treated the Buddha. Some traditions accorded the Buddha a supernatural status unknown in early Buddhis, perhaps out of the same to veneration, mixed with a lot of imagination.

vi. Also respect for these texts is expressed in many later traditions through the care given to their physical manifestations, such as books, and though recitation.

vii. In fact, traditional Indian cultural expressions of veneration, such as anjali, have been carried with Buddhism to every land in which it has alighted.

viii. Zen master Suzuki Roshi, the Japanese founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, discovered that many of his American students had a resistance to the traditional three full prostrations traditionally performed during morning service. Accordingly, he decided to modify the tradition for his American students: Instead they were required to perform nine full prostrations during morning service. They got over it, and maintain this practice over forty years after Suzuki’s death.

Introduction to Early Buddhist Ethics

November 14, 2015

Refraining from every evil,
Accomplishing good,
Purifying the mind,
This is Teaching of Buddhas.
(Dhammapāda 183)

Seeing the complete awakening while seated in meditation as the Buddha’s greatest accomplishment, we often fail to recognize how thoroughly Buddhism is about ethics or virtue or morality. The Buddhist path creates saints before it creates awakened ones. Buddhism begins with ethics. Its preliminary teachings are ethical. Buddhist children learn generosity and harmlessness from toddlerhood. Ethics provides the foundation without which higher development of the mind is unattainable. Without the perfection of virtue awakening is impossible. Starting with ethics, we most easily understand the logic of the entire Buddhist path and of meditation and awakening.

The opening verse above, one of the most quoted from the Dhammapāda, itself the most read presectarian Buddhist text, gets to the heart of the matter. It enumerates the three distinct but interrelated systems of Buddhist ethics, and these, in fact, correspond closely to the three major forms of modern normative ethics in the West: deontology or duty ethics, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. Refraining from every evil involves behaving harmlessly according to Buddhist ethical codes. Accomplishing good is acting for the benefit of others. Purifying the mind, the most characteristically Buddhist of the three, makes of virtue not only something we do in the world, but integral to who we are and the way we think. The three, in the Buddha’s teachings, are mutually constraining and mutually supporting, like the legs of a tripod. In this chapter, we will discuss each of the three ethical practices in turn.

Refraining from every evil

Avoiding evil, which is to say, avoiding harmful actions, is generally formulated in Buddhism in terms of precepts  (sikkhā-pada), which are prohibitive rules of thumb. Precepts are similar to the Ten Commandments of the Bible, or to traffic laws, or to the bothersome things your parents told you to do when you were a kid, like not to watch more than seven hours of TV or not to eat the dog’s food.  They also might be compared to professional rules of ethics, such of those observed by psychotherapists (not sleeping with clients) or members of the scientific community (not falsifying data), or automobile drivers (not driving over the speed limit). Traditionally lay people throughout the Buddhist world have observed at least the following five precepts since the time of the Buddha:

I undertake the precept to refrain from killing living things,
I undertake the precept to refrain from take what is not given,
I undertake the precept to refrain from commit sensual misconduct,
I undertake the precept to refrain from falsehood, and
I undertake the precept to refrain from the headlessness of spirits, liquor and intoxicants.

Some people undertake an extended set of precepts, for instance, the very apt:

I undertake the precept to abstain from malicious speech,

… or, on special occasions, …

I undertake the precept to abstain from dancing, singing, music or any kind of entertainment.

I am a Theravada monk, and Theravada monks follow a master list of 227 precepts, all the time, forever. Precepts are almost invariably stated as abstentions, things not to do, for instance, “do not kill,” rather than “protect life,” which is why they may be described with the phrase to refrain from every evil.

Elucidation of refraining from evil. Philosophers would classify a system of precepts a deontological or duty ethics. The motivating principle of refraining from evil is harmlessness (ahiṃsā). It constrains those actions that almost inevitably cause harm, particularly to others. A number of  precepts actually serve functions other than harmlessness, most particularly of purification of mind. We will discuss this latter function later, but an example of a precept justified in terms of purification is that just cited about dancing, singing, etc., for restraint of the senses is a key factor in purification. The precept about alcohol is justified both in terms of purification – inebriation suppresses mindfulness – and at the same time in terms of harmlessness – inebriation commonly results in abusive relations and violence.

Since most readers are at least familiar with Christian commandments, let me make a few contrasts to draw out some peculiar qualities of Buddhist precepts.

Precepts pertain, at least in early Buddhism, to actions of body and speech, but not of thought. Commandments, on the other hand, seem sometimes to apply to thoughts such as coveting our neighbor’s house, cow or wife. Thoughts as a matter of ethics are covered in Buddhism in much more sophisticated detail in purifying mind.

Precepts are taken on in Buddhism entirely as trainings; the Pali word for precept, sikkhā-pada, means literally training step. That is, they are undertaken voluntarily as an individual practice commitment, rather than as imposed by a God, a Pope, government or other authority. As a consequence, there is no sin in Buddhism, whereas violating a commandment in Christianity or in other Abrahamic faiths insults the will of God. Rather, precepts reflect a duty to oneself or to the world, not to God or any higher authority.

Finally, the violation of a precept, although involving a physical act of speech or body, also requires a mental intention; accidentally running over the neighbor’s cat cannot violate the precept against killing living beings. Violating a precept is, in other words, karmic, with karmic fruits.

We cannot talk about ethics – or any element of practice – in Buddhism without reference to karma, an oft poorly understood concept. The term karma in Sanskrit, or kamma in Pali, meant originally simply action. However, the Brahmanic or Vedic religious tradition had long used this word in a specialized sense to capture the key concept of ritual action, where rituals were supposed to determine the future well-being of the person on whose behalf the ritual was conducted. A properly performed ritual, often an animal sacrifice and some incantations of memorized texts, was good karma, an improperly performed ritual was bad karma. For the Buddha every action that each of us performs has this sacred role as a determinant of the actor’s future well-being, for no one can intercede on our behalf. Moreover, the benefit is found not in the ritual quality, but in the ethical quality of our actions. That ethical quality is determined our intentions, roughly, whether we intend harm or benefit to others, or are instead motivated by personal advantage. Karma, in Buddhism, is exactly intentional action. Our future well-being is a matter karmic results or fruits that intentions have in shaping our own future lives. Briefly, as we make the world with our actions, so do we make ourselves. We will come back to karmic fruits or results momentarily.

Precepts provide the most primitive and concise of the three kinds of ethics. Their primary advantage is that they provide reasonably clear guides to conduct, even when we are drawing a blank and cannot work out all the consequences of a proposed action. This reduces much of our conduct to rules of thumb that are easy to learn and remember, even for the young or young at heart, or for the beginning Buddhist or the one with beginner’s mind. A precept tends to highlight a basic problem area in human conduct that the sages of past ages must have experienced and recognized.

The weaknesses of precepts as guides to ethical conduct are that they generally allow loopholes and they don’t permit appropriate exceptions, that is, precepts are porous and rigid.  There is the case in which the Gestapo shows up at our front door and asks us, gleefully aware that a Buddhist will not lie, if we are hiding Jews in the attic, or that in which one of us just happens to be returning from a softball game with a  bat in his hand and walk in right behind a man who has just “gone postal” and is about to embark on taking out fellow employees. There are, moreover, many harmful, generally mildly harmful, behaviors that simply are not covered in precepts, like taking up two parking spaces.

Nonetheless, it is significant that the Buddha rarely sanctioned exceptions to precepts to correct their rigidity. I suspect this is because he wanted us to be fully aware of, and live with, the contradictory nature of the human condition rather than regulating it away. The one example I am aware of in which the Buddha discusses the kinds of contradictions that may arise in following precepts is in MN 38 where the Buddha was challenged for his own use of harsh speech against Devadatta, his cousin, who had (1) created a schism in the Sangha, (2) had injured the Buddha in an assassination attempt, (3) had induced a prince to murder his father in order to become king, and (4) had committed various other odious misdeeds. The Buddha’s response was that sometimes it is necessary to dig a pebble out of a child’s mouth even though it causes great discomfort. Providing a metaphor for choices we must sometimes make, rather than admitting loopholes, was wise: given the smallest loophole, many people will become quite creative in their exceptions to precepts, for instance, soon disregarding non-harming in the case of people one does not like, or for whomever is otherwise imagined to be undeserving.

Although precepts and commandments widely overlap in content, the difference noted entails that one can logically break a commandment without doing or intending harm, or observe a commandment while doing and intending harm, for God’s will can work in mysterious ways that we know not of. Murder, theft, bearing false witness and adultery are actions both harmful to others and displeasing to God. Homosexual acts, on the other hand, making for ourselves an idol or handling leather made from pig skin would seem rather harmless (“victimless crimes”), but nonetheless, we are told in the Old Testament, are displeasing to God. Stoning someone to death is clearly harmful to others and clearly violates the first Buddhist precept, yet might be sanctioned by God in response to others’ deeds. As a practical consequence of the absence of sin, we rarely find “victimless crimes” in early Buddhist ethics. Sexual misconduct in the third precept above, for instance, refers to things like acts of adultery or sex with a child, in which the harmony of standing human relations is violated, tending toward verifiable harm, and is never a matter of the perceived “kinkiness” that might adhere to sexual acts according to societal standards. In fact, the Buddha’s precepts are to a surprising degree free of cultural norms and quite relevant to this day.

The practice of refraining from evil. Taking on the precepts is one of life’s landmark decisions, like choosing a spouse, career path or dog.  We honor this decision with a sense of vow or commitment, dedication and devotion, with full awareness that, “This will be the shape of my life.”

However, in vowing to live according to precepts our intentions are most often mixed (remember, intention is a key word). A very pure motivation indeed for the practice of refraining from evil is one rooted in the virtue of harmlessness, and related virtues such as generosity and kindness play key roles. Humans seem to be born with a certain degree of innate goodness: people want to do good, to benefit and live in harmony with others. One sees this often even in small children and to a surprising degree in the most ignoble ruffians. Such intentions count for a lot in Buddhism. A second, less pure, reason for becoming a precept practitioner is being carried along force of habit or societal norms. For the Buddhist born, precept practice generally already has the great momentum of cultural and family tradition behind it, sustained already without question for many generations, or under the influence of peer pressure

A third reason for commitment to refraining from evil is the fruits  or results of karma mentioned above.  Karma, we have seen, is intentional action and therefore the stuff of ethical conduct – and, in fact, the stuff of our entire Buddhist practice. Volitional acts generally have external consequences for the world, for good or bad (or neutral). It is in this sense that violations of precepts tend to cause harm. In addition, each karmic act has internal consequences, for good or bad, for ourselves. It is roughly described as follows.

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

Our karmic acts not only help make the world what it will be, but make us what we will be. Good deeds work to our own benefit as well as to the benefit of others. Bad deeds work against our own benefit as well as against the benefit of others. Pure intentions, as determinant of ethical quality, produce the most personal benefit. These effects on oneself are referred to as karmic results (vipāka) or alternatively a karmic fruits (phala). Exactly how and why karmic acts produce their results according to ethical quality in this way is a natural question for curious moderns and not explicitly clarified by the Buddha. However, I will point out before the end of this chapter that what the Buddha’s psychology does teach, substantially accounts for karmic results.

Karmic results are described allegorically, when not literally, in various ways in early Buddhism. Most often fruits are described in terms of conditions of rebirth. We will consider the role of rebirth in Buddhism in a later chapter, but the idea is that karmic fruits can be realized in this life or in subsequent lives. A habitual doer of good deeds might expect a rebirth in a heavenly realm or as a human under favorable circumstances. A relentless doer of bad deeds might expect a rebirth in a hellish realm or as a human living under unfavorable circumstances, for instance, in poverty. Allegorically, the Buddha on many occasions attributes a particular rebirth to a single karmic act, sometimes a fairly ordinary one, which if we think about it doesn’t make much literal sense given the thousands of karmic acts we perform each day. Nonetheless, we can test for ourselves the general idea that our living circumstances result from our past karmic acts at least with regard to the present life. Consider that the person who acts habitually out of anger or ill-will to the harm of others typically creates his own hell right here on earth, unhappy, alone, unloved, perpetually dissatisfied, guilty, ugly and in poor health. The person who acts habitually out of kindness experiences the world in the opposite way. Ebeneezer Scrooge comes to mind, before and after, but the reader will almost certainly know real-life examples.

The point is that recognizing the nature of karmic fruits provides added incentive for refraining from evil, and also for accomplishing good: As we look out for others, we look out for ourselves and as we look out for ourselves we look out for others (see SN 47.19). It begins to dispel the the notion that self-interest stands in perpetual opposition to other-interest, and encourages us to experience more fully the personal joy and satisfaction that comes from living harmlessly and with kindness.

Without the practice of refraining from evil, we, more often than not, take more from the world than give, harm others, often unspeakably, as we accrue personal material advantages, and we become ever more entrenched in reprobate behaviors as we act out our greed, hatred and delusion.  Even as we practice with precepts, we are likely to struggle with needy and aversive impulses rooted in the central importance of a misperceived self that must navigate a harsh, competitive and often abusive world, at least until we are able to dispel the opposition of self and other that the recognition of karmic results undermines.

Bad deeds, and deeds hurtful to ourselves, are easy to do; what is beneficial and good, that is very difficult to do. (Dhammapāda, 163)

In following precepts, we cannot help but confront the mind; we find ourselves repeatedly sitting on the fence between what our minds demand and what the precepts ask of us. Many of us have little awareness of our own minds, so we do well to take this opportunity to investigate our minds, as preparation for the practice of purifying the mind. We find that sometimes the confrontation involves immediate impulses following familiar habit patterns, such as the impulse to flirt with someone other than our own spouse or to overcharge customers. We may find that more often than not the confrontation between intention and precept involves a pre-planned personal agenda, as when, in order to secure a promotion, we attempt to control who in authority knows what and end up telling a lie as a result. Precept practice has a way of breaking up personal agendas.

Accomplishing good

Go your way, monks, for the benefit of the many: for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the benefit, the happiness of gods and men. (Vinaya, Mahāvagga).

To accomplish good is to perform actions that have beneficial consequences. It is to make a gift to the world. One might see a turtle in the road, stop the car and carry it to one side lest it be run over by a less mindful driver. One might cook a meal to the delight and nourishment of one’s family. One might rescue a flood victim from perilous waters. One might teach Buddhism or offer a match, to those in need of a light. One might help overturn an unjust economic order for those in need of a bite.

The practice of accomplishing good is generally framed in terms of generosity (dāna). Note, however, that “generosity” is the translation of either of two words in Pali. Dāna is the physical act of giving something material or immaterial, including service, and therefore directly accomplishes good.  Cāga is the internal mental disposition that most typically underlies dāna, though kindness (mettā) and compassion (karuṇā) are also implicated and is thereby more relevant to purifying the mind. I will resort to giving as a translation of dāna when it is important to distinguish physical act from disposition.

A little reflection reveals that how much and what kinds of good can be accomplish is far more open-ended than how much and what kinds of evil we might refrain from. This is probably why the Buddha hoped that we might refrain from all evil, but only accomplish some good. Some people use all of their available energy to feed the homeless, to adopt rescue dogs, to campaign for universal health care, while others, for no apparent lack of good-will, sit at home, read the news and fret, … but don’t steal or lie. Sometimes people are lazy or just lack the imagination or self-confidence for intensive good accomplishment. Others are clever in finding an excuse that it is not their problem, while others readily take responsibility in true dharmic fashion. While refraining from evil can be formalized reasonably effectively in a fixed set of rules, accomplishing good is practiced in an astounding number of different ways. It is not feasible to itemize all of ways to accomplish good in the way we can with refraining from evil.

For the most part the Buddha focused on generosity as it is practiced in the narrow context of the Buddhist community and of the household, on what I will call conventional generosity. The remainder of accomplishing good we I will call unrestricted generosity. Conventional generosity lends itself much more readily to description and formalization and thereby to specific practice commitment than does the hugely open-ended unrestricted generosity.

Elucidation of accomplishing good. Accomplishing good belongs to the class of ethical systems that philosophers call consequentialism. Its motivating principle is kindness (mettā). Whereas refraining from all evil is guided by a good or bad quality attributed to the proposed action itself independently of context, achieving good is guided by the future good or bad consequences of the proposed action. The Buddha introduced this practice to his newly ordained son as follows:

What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”
“For reflection, sir.”
“In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, & mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection.
“… if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do. (MN 61)

This last paragraph is repeated verbatim several times, but where skillful verbal  then mental actions are substituted for bodily, and unskillful actions with unpleasant consequences are substituted for skillful and pleasant, then declared not fit for Rahula.

Our practice is in its broadest sense to aim for good consequences, and thereby to give to the world. The world carries a burden of great suffering; it needs people to accomplish good, now more than ever. The great challenge of accomplishing good is to trace as best as possible, with discerning wisdom, just what the heck all the consequences of our actions might be. We live in a very complex and highly interdependent world in which the consequences of the simplest action run very deep, playing themselves out almost forever. We are like the famed butterfly (of the butterfly effect) who, by choosing to fly from one flower to the next, will, meteorologists tell us, trigger storms and hurricanes on the other side of the world in the decades and centuries to come that otherwise would not have occurred, or prevent those that would have. Similarly our actions may (or, more likely, will) enable wars to happen or not to happen, and we may never know. We, like chess players, can only see a few moves ahead. We are at the same time nearly omnipotent yet almost totally blind. This is why the Buddha recommended that Rahula consider his karmic actions with great care.

Merit (puñña) is a kind of composite measure of the ethical value of a karmic action, a tool that incorporates both external consequences and intentions. Karma that is of benefit to others and at the same time is well-intentioned is meritorious, and will accordingly produce good fruits.  Generosity is the practice of gaining merit, or of merit-making. Karma that brings harm to others and is also ill-intentioned is demeritorious. Breaking and thereby causing harm is demerit (pāpa). The Pali word for evil in refraining from all evil is this same pāpa. The merit or demerit of an action represents its expected karmic fruit, and the terms are generally used in the context of quantifying this.

… conventional generosity. Conventional generosity is sometimes described in relation to relative amounts of merit gained. For instance, a high amount of merit is attributed to certain categories of recipients, certain categories of gifts, certain manners of giving and certain intentions behind giving.

  • Worthy recipients of generosity are ascetics and priests (who live on alms), destitutes, wayfarers, wanderers, the sick and beggars, as well as family members and guests. The purity of the recipient correlates with the amount of merit made. For instance, offerings to those of great spiritual attainment gain oodles of merit. (DN 5, DN 23, DN 26)
  • The gift of Dhamma (dhammadāna) exceeds all other gifts, which tends to give monastics an edge in merit-making.i It is important to note that the merit earned correlates inversely with one’s resources, for instance, a meager offering from a pauper might easily earn more merit than a sumptuous gift from a tycoon. This is because it is the intentions that count. Although most gifts are material, the gift of service (veyyāvacca) is also very meritorious. (SN 1.32, Dhp 224)
  • One might give with different intentions: out of annoyance, fear, in exchange, thinking generosity is considered good, to gain a good reputation, out of kindness, aware of the karmic consequences, or to “beautify and adorn the mind .” The first are fairly neutral with regard to merit, since in each case one is generally taking as much as giving. The last gains a truckload of merit. (AN 8.31) Again, we find intention to be critical, for merit ultimately is about purity of mind. In general it is best to give with no expectation of personal benefit. (AN 7.52)

Also, if we feel happy before, during and after gift we are in the swing of this practice (AN 6.37). Then,

When this gift of mine is given, it makes the mind serene. Gratification & joy arise. (AN 7.49)

Accordingly, we should take care that there is later no resentment for having given (SN 3.20). The purest form of giving is with the attitude:

This is an ornament for the mind, a support for the mind. (AN 7.49)

Notice how the Buddha’s emphasis in discussing generosity moves freely from benefit for others to pleasant personal experience and back again. Pure acts of giving are expected to gladden the heart and contribute to the development of personal character. This creates some confusion concerning motives: are we practicing generosity for them or for us, out of benevolence or out of selfishness? The paradox about generosity is that it gains most merit for us when it is most selfless and least merit when it is most selfish. It feels great when our intention is to benefit others. This is a direct experience of the fruits of karma.

For a  lot of our actions we cannot actually trace the consequences, for good or bad, and in fact our judgments about the consequences may be biased by our own personal interests (“It will do the long line of drivers stuck behind me good to slow down, as I drive way under the speed limit in the fast lane; their lives are probably too fast-paced anyway”). In such cases, the merit of our actions depends only on our intentions (Is there benevolence or ill-will? Do I delight in this action?). If the intentions are impure, most likely the consequences of our actions will be harmful, since we are very likely to have introduced a personal bias into our actions. This is why the ultimate determinant of merit is its effect on us, that is, its intentional purity, which corresponds to its karmic fruit. Our actions should be an ornament for the mind.

Continuing, the Buddha recommends that offerings never be given in a callous manner, but rather respectfully, not in a way that humiliates the recipient and ideally with one’s own hands rather than through an intermediary. It is also best to give at a proper time and to give what is not harmful (AN 5.148). Notice that these recommendations encourage direct engagement in, and full experience of, the act of giving. In this way, these measures encourage feelings of friendship, appreciation and interpersonal harmony in association with the act of generosity. They also enhance the benefit consequential on giving, to such a degree that one begins to lose track of who is the giver and who is the receiver in a particular transaction. For unrestricted generosity this manner of giving would suggest that it is better to be actively present at the orphanage one is donating too rather than simply writing out a periodic check, or arranging an automatic fund transfer. Notice that that would also allow us more closely to track the consequences, for harm or benefit, of one’s generosity.

It should be appreciated how the practice of conventional generosity is adapted to the structure of the traditional Buddhist community, in which the relationship of laity to monastic has played a central role since the time of the Buddha and still does in Buddhist lands to this day. The Buddha gave great attention, in the Vinaya, the monastic code, to organizing and regulating the monastic community to a level that seems to have been unknown in other ascetic communities of the time, with full understanding that the lay behavior would shape itself to the behavior of the monastics. Alms-giving, the support of ascetics in various traditions, was already prevalent in India at the time of the Buddha, and is naturally a part of conventional generosity and merit-making for Buddhists.

Moreover, the Buddha did something interesting: He imposed on the monastic community through the monastic precepts an enhanced level of dependence on the laity, removing them entirely from the exchange economy and making their dependence a matter of daily contact with the laity. He made the monks and nuns as helpless as house pets or as young children with regard to their own needs, but did not substantially restrict what monastics can do for others. The result is that monastics live entirely in what has been called by Thanissaro Bhikkhu an economy of gifts in which goods and services flow entirely through acts of generosity. Laity participate in this economy in their interactions with monastics, but the economy also naturally generalizes to the larger community. In Burma, for instance, I observed how readily this classical practice of generosity carries beyond the monastery walls, how people naturally take care of each other with a sense of obligation that requires no compensation. The Buddha fashioned an economy particularly conducive to the practice of conventional generosity. Although the same material benefits might be realized in an exchange economy, the economy of gifts affords more opportunity for merit-making, which is to say, for karmic results such as the improvement of personal development of purity of mind.

… unrestricted generosity. We have been discussing the practice of conventional generosity, which, we see, is handled in Buddhism somewhat formulaically. However, this is only a part of our hugely open-ended capacity for accomplishing good. We can call the remaining range of generosity unrestricted generosity, to distinguish it from conventional generosity. This would include addressing a range of local social needs such as giving alms to the poor, providing care for orphans, organizing education and charitable projects, or addressing more global issues like ending wars, oppression, crime or ecological degradation, sometimes through advocacy for changing social, economic, political or cultural structures and institutions. Presumably because of its diverse range, the Buddha had few specifics to offer about unrestrictive generosity and no structured practice.

Nonetheless, the Buddha did leave us with many examples of unrestricted generosity. In an incident described in the Vinaya (Mv 8.26.1-8) the Buddha and Ānanda come upon a monk sick with dysentery, uncared for, lying in his own urine and feces. After he and Ānanda had personally cleaned the monk up, the Buddha admonished the other monks living nearby for not caring for the sick monk, famously proclaiming:

“Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick.”

The Buddha’s design of the monastic order as a kind of microcosm of society gives a clear idea of many of the social values the Buddha felt should be upheld. The traditional Indian caste system completely disappears and almost complete gender equality is implemented within the early monastic Sangha. Moreover, governance is decentralized such that major decisions are made by consensus only among monastics who are physically present in a local community. Detailed instructions sustain harmony within the Sangha.

The Buddha did not actively champion the similar reformation of civil society, but did have a bit to say about responsibilities of kings toward their subjects, sometimes describing the righteous or wheel-turning king as a kind of ideal. In DN 26 he even recommended that such a king seek ethical guidance from wise monastics:

“Whatever ascetics and brahmins in your kingdom have renounced the life of sensual infatuation and are devoted to forbearance and gentleness, each one taming himself, each one calming himself and each one striving for the end of craving, from time to time you should go to them and consult them as to what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is blameworthy and what is blameless, what is to be followed and what is not to followed and what action will in the long run lead to harm and sorrow, and what to welfare and happiness. Having listened to them, you should avoid evil and do what is good.”

This passage is significant in view of the common understanding that monastics should not get involved in political or social matters, and are perhaps ill-equipped to do so. It clearly opens a nonpartisan role for them as moral advisors. In DN 5 the Buddha describes a chaplain offering wise advice to a king concerning the relationship of crime, poverty and general prosperity:

“Your Majesty’s country is beset by thieves, it is ravaged, villages and towns are being destroyed, the countryside is infested with brigands. … Suppose Your Majesty were to think: ‘I will get rid of this plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats and banishment’, the plague would not be properly ended. Those who survived would later harm Your Majesty’s realm. However, with this plan you can completely eliminate the plague: To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service assign proper living wages. Then those people, being intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom. Your Majesty’s revenues will be great, the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people, with joy in their hearts, will play with their children, and will dwell in unlocked houses.”

We do well to note here and elsewhere a characteristic feature of the Buddha’s method of ethical scrutiny: its uncommon tolerance and forgiveness. He thereby maintains unwavering kindness for all common participants in human society, even thieves and brigands, whose worldly actions he sees as almost unavoidably conditioned by circumstances and as controllable to the extent that conditions can be adjusted, at least by kings. The advice to the king here is also an instance of the practice of appropriate attention (yoniso manasikāra, literally thinking from the origin), which also plays a fundamental role in the seminal teaching of dependent co-arising, which the Buddha applies particularly effectively to the understanding of human psychology. The plague addressed in this passage arises from social conditions, not from some supposed unconditioned evil of thieves and brigands, which would be a commonplace assumption, but one that would lead to a counterproductive and hateful response. The Dhammapāda reaffirms this attitude:

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world.
By kindness alone is hatred appeased.
This is a law eternal. (Dhammapāda 5)

The practice of generosity is further restricted by the practices of refraining from evil and of purifying the mind. We have seen that Buddhist ethics is a hybrid of three ethical systems, each related to what is generally found in isolation in other ethical traditions. Although accomplishing good is in itself consequentialist, it is tempered by its concomitant duty and virtue ethics.  Therefore, whereas a purely consequentialist ethics is generally subject to the  sometimes objectionally radical principle, “the end justifies the means,” in the Buddha’s ethics the means cannot be violent, cannot be exploitive and cannot be deceitful, lest precepts be violated. Nor can they be motivated by greed, hatred or delusion, lest, as we will see, impurity of mind be fostered.

This restraint on ethical reasoning is wise given the practical difficulty, noted at the beginning of this section, in tracing the consequences of our actions, the butterfly effect. Whereas we can fairly clearly understand the means, the ends are rarely reliably predicted in any complex domain, such as in human social systems. Consider that probably most of the great man-made evils of history have applied the principle “the end justifies the means” in the context of an ideologically founded certainty about what the ends will be. These include many Communist programs, such as the Cultural Revolution in China and the attempt of the Khmer Rouge to impose a rural peasant society on Cambodia; the remaking of European society through ethnic cleansing by the National Socialists in Germany and like-minded Fascists elsewhere, the removal of democratic controls and adjustments over markets in neoliberal economic theory, and the practice of the British colonialists in playing one ethnic or religious group against another, with unanticipated but devastating consequences that the worlds’ states-people are trying to sort out to this day.

The practice of accomplishing good. Generosity is the first step in the gradual instruction, which the Buddha presents in various discourses (Udana 5.3, for instance) to newbies who lack the prerequisites to entering the Noble Eightfold Path. See Figure 1 below. It is helpful to review at this juncture the steps of the gradual path to get an idea of how the practice of generosity is foundational to the entire Buddhist path.

  • Generosity, the practice of accomplishing good.
  • Ethics, the practice of refraining from all evil.
  • The heavens, which refers to the fruits of karma, most commonly conceived as rebirth in a heavenly realm.
  • The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions.
  • The rewards of renunciation.

When, from the understanding and pursuit of the foregoing, the mind is ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright, the Buddha recommends that following should be taken up:

  • The Four Noble Truths, including the Noble Eightfold Path.

Figure 1. The gradual instruction.

The reasons for beginning with generosity in the gradual instruction must certainly include the ease with which the practice is understood and taken up, even by children; the traditional community support around conventional generosity that the Buddha had fashioned; and the immediate gratification that arises in conjunction with the practice of generosity, both on the giving and on the receiving end. Generosity can actually engender unworldly mental states of joy and happiness that are, like meditative states, quite independent of sense pleasures.

The next factor in the gradual instruction, ethics (sīla), is generally equated with precepts, but generalizes to all the forms of ethics.

Heavens, or the fruits of karma, follows closely the practices of generosity and precepts. Initially it provides a primary incentive for undertaking these practices, the accrual of merit. Generosity, probably in particular, then provides direct experience of at least some of the paradoxical workings of the fruits of karma, since it feels so good, but less good to the extent that selfish motives intrude.

The next two factors (drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions; and the rewards of renunciation) are subtle realizations that arise with appropriate attention from the practices of generosity and precepts. Together they provide the entry way into the entire Buddhist path, and at the same time, into our third ethical practice of purification of mind, for which the entire Buddhist path serves. Precepts and generosity force us to struggle and compromise with those mental aspects that attempt to divert us from those practices. Sensual passions are the primary human motivations when no ethical considerations are present. These are presumably what motivate animals almost entirely, but ethical practices repeatedly force restraint. Generosity, in particular, gives frequent rise to supermundane feelings of delight and joy, which are not rooted in sensuality. This puts a new light on the efficacy of the pursuit of sensual pleasures as a path to personal well-being. In fact, at some point these considerations will throw us for a loop and make us wonder why we have been living the self-centered way we have. The more we investigate this, the more we discover the shallowness of  pursuing satisfaction in selfish pursuits. This begins the process of renunciation, the gateway to the remainder of Buddhist practice.

Conventional generosity, because it is practiced primarily in the context of Buddhist community in Asia, is also encouraged and reinforced in that community. Young children who grow up in Buddhist families traditionally learn communal generosity, including support of the monks and maintenance of communal facilities as an integral part of being Buddhist, along with refuge and following precepts. For many Buddhists conventional generosity will remain the primary practice for one’s entire life. In practice, a family or an individual will commonly pick a particular practice of conventional generosity according to a daily or weekly schedule. This might be to prepare and offer rice or other foods for monks on alms round every morning, or to bring a meal offering to the monastery once a week, or to provide work for the community one day a week. In addition an individual might be routinely on the lookout for any Sangha or community need in order to play Johnny-on-the-spot when one  arises. Financial contributions to conventional projects also constitute conventional giving. Generally these practices are accompanied by a sense of merit-making, much as we might keep track of our hours of meditation per week as a kind of practice metric.

All of this works pretty smoothly in Asia at the village level, but is more difficult in cities where there is less sense of community, or in the West where there may not be a local monastery and one might not even know one’s neighbors. In these circumstances, efforts might well be made to create local communities of like-minded people, often centered around temples to which dispersed community members must travel on special days, such as quarter moon days (uposatha days). It is important that a temple or monastery operate without fee or dues, if this is at all possible, because any financial exchange is an opportunity lost for the practice of generosity. In the West, where the Buddhist ethic of generosity is seldom understood, implementing the economy of gifts may require educational effort.

Unrestricted generosity moves beyond the immediate religious community, but might also take the form of  developing projects in a persistent way. One might volunteer as a candy-striper at a local hospital, engage in hospice work, rescue abandoned puppies, pick up trash along the highway, mentor troubled youth, teach meditation in prison, offer sandwiches to the homeless. Regular volunteering is highly recommended as a means of fulfilling the practice of accomplishing good. Such volunteer efforts can scale up to enterprise-level efforts, like founding and funding hospitals, or advocacy for peace, social justice or environmental preservation.ii

Purifying the mind

Well-makers direct the water;
Fletchers bend the arrow;
carpenters bend a log of wood;
Good people fashion themselves.
(Dhammapāda 145)

Our actions, for harm or benefit, arise first in the mind, as thoughts with certain intentionality behind them. For most of us, as we attempt to refrain from evil and accomplish good, the mind is often contrary and unsupportive, agitated and rebellious; it has another, generally selfish, agenda. Following the precepts and practicing generosity is something we need to struggle with. Occasionally, however, we may experience the enormous joy of mind and body coming into full alignment as our most virtuous intentions flow effortlessly into actions harmless and of great benefit. This is a moment purity of mind. There are those noble ones among us whose experience of life is like this all of the time. The mind for them has become an instrument of virtue, of kindness and compassion, wisdom and strength. They have become adepts in virtue through the practice of purifying the mind, and so walk the earth with unbounded good-will, equanimity and wisdom, selfless, beyond delusional views, with an unobscured vision of what is of harm and what is of benefit. They are, by the way, also among the happiest of us.

Purifying the mind begins with the practices of refraining from evil and practicing good, but also to a significant degree takes on a life of its own and in the end floods the practices of refraining from evil and practicing good with pure intentions.

Elucidation of purifying the mind. The basic principle of purifying the mind is expressed in the first two verses of the Dhammapāda  as follows:

All that we are is the result of thought,
Thought is its master,
It is produced by thought.
If one speaks or acts,
With pure thought,
Then happiness follows,
Like a shadow that never leaves.
(Dhammapāda 1-2)

The practice of purifying the mind belongs to virtue ethics. Its motivating principle is renunciation. It sees ethics as a quality of mind, not specifically of physical action and its consequences for benefit or harm. We have seen that refraining from all evil and accomplishing good focus on the latter. Purifying the mind places the emphasis of ethics on the development of the kind of mind that naturally seeks benefit action and eschews harm.

Training the mind toward virtue might, at first, seem like a hopeless task. Most of us have a lot of endless activity rattling and buzzing around between our ears, and it is not clear how it might be brought into any reasonable order much less under control:

“Hubba hubba.” “That jerk!” “Out of my way!” “It’s his own fault.” “Oh boy! Beer!!” “Aha!” “There, there now; let me get you a paper towel.” “If I slide my sunglasses up my forehead I’ll look really cool!” “Good Morning, God!” “Arrrrgh.” “Yaaawn.” “What th…, huh?” “I’m gonna get even!” “Good God: Morning!” “Yikes!” “Yakity yakity yak.” “Relaaaaaax.” “Tomorrow … is another day!” “Let’s be logical about this.” “Mine, all mine! Haha.” “No more … Mr. Nice Guy!”

How do we sort through this, much less point it in the general direction of virtue? Exactly what is a pure thought as opposed to a corrupted thought anyway? Can we actually get rid of one and keep the other so that happiness will follow like a shadow instead of pain like a wheel? The Buddha reports that he had began with such questions early on:

“Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened bodhisatta, it occurred to me, ‘Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes’. Then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of cruelty, and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non-ill will (kindness) and thoughts of non-harming.” (MN 19)

Notice that the thoughts on the second side include renunciation, kindness and non-harming, the motivating principles for purifying the mind, accomplishing good and refraining from all evil, respectively.

The Buddha called the first class of thoughts unwholesome or unskillful (akusala) and the second class wholesome or skillful (kusala). Wholesome thoughts have the intentional quality of meritorious deeds. Unwholesome thoughts have the intentional quality of demeritorious deeds. Wholesome and meritorious (or unwholesome and demeritorious) are interchangeable in most contexts, except that wholesome is generally used for an intention and meritorious for the whole action that intention gives rise to. It is significant that the Buddha chose terminology for the mind suggestive of skill, which – like tennis or crossword puzzles – is something we get better at over time, rather than of moral judgment.

For instance, among the thoughts identified as unskillful are restlessness, agitation, conceit, jealousy, guilt, pride, cynicism, greed, miserliness, thoughts of revenge, spite, envy, grumpiness, ill-will, anger, hatred, rage, sorrow, fear, bias, delusion, stubbornness, narrow-mindedness, torpor, complacency, affection, and lust. Among those identified as skillful are generosity, renunciation, loving-kindness, compassion, patience, intelligence, discernment, shame, rectitude, mindfulness, concentration, equanimity, pliancy, buoyancy, conviction, open-mindedness, composure, proficiency and gladness for the good fortune of others.

What criteria did the Buddha employ to create this dichotomy? Unless we understand this, we will never thoroughly understand the role of skill and non-skill in our own mind, we will continue to be driven by forces we do not understand, we will cause great harm, and we will never find satisfaction in our life. The Buddha discovered that several criteria coincide remarkably in these designations.

There are these three roots of what is unskillful. Which three? Greed as a root of what is unskillful, hatred as a root of what is unskillful, delusion as a root of what is unskillful. These are the three roots of what is unskillful. (Itivuttaka 3.1)
The roots of the skillful are the opposites of the unskillful: non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion, also known as renunciation, kindness and wisdom.

Greed (lobha) is the desire, longing, attachment or lust for sensual pleasures, for reputation or fame, for wealth, for power, for comfort, for security and so on.  I would prefer to translate this as the more general “neediness,” but “greed” has become standard in English. Greed causes anxiety and restlessness, initially from not having what we desire, then later, if we have acquired what we desire, from knowing we will lose it, or from simply wanting more.

Hatred (dosa) is the aversion, dislike, dread or fear of pain, of discomfort, of enemies and so on. It includes thoughts of anger, revenge, envy or jealousy (these two also involve greed), resentment, guilt and self-hatred, disdain, judgmental attitudes. Aversion is probably better for dosa, though hatred has become standard. Hatred immediately manifests as anxiety and restlessness, in short, suffering, because it entails dissatisfaction with the world as it is. Often it arises when our desires are thwarted or threatened.

Delusion (moha) is found in erroneous views or justifications, mis-perceptions, ignorance and denial. Many of our delusions may be widely held beliefs in a given society, or even across cultures, for instance, that material abundance produces happiness, that unconditionally evil people walk among us, or that one race or class is superior to others. These lead to endemically misguided decisions and actions. Others are often pervasive across cultures, manifesting particularly in the sense that certain things are unchanging, fixed or reliable, and that there is fun, happiness and beauty where in fact there is decay and suffering. The greatest delusion for the Buddhist is that there is an abiding self, a “me,” that in some way remains fixed in spite of all the changes that happen all around it, that is also the owner and controller of this body and mind. For the Buddha, delusion is the most dangerous of the three unwholesome roots.

But there is a taint worse than all taints: delusion is the greatest taint. O mendicants! throw off that taint, and become taintless!    (Dhammapāda 243)

The root of delusion is also the basis of the other two roots, in fact the delusional sense of self is the source of it all and the basis of our resistance to ethical conduct. In the absence of the capacity to take them personally, greed and hatred do not arise.

This relation of delusion to greed and hatred is also reciprocal. The Buddha observed:

Greed, hatred and delusion, friend, make one blind, unseeing and ignorant; they destroy wisdom, are bound up with distress, and do not lead to Nibbāna. (AN 3.71)

Here we see that the arising of any of these is tied up with mis-perception, that is, they distort reality for those under their influence. They also cause personal suffering and are a diversion from the Buddhist path to awakening. The second of the Four Noble Truths (e.g., SN 56.11), that craving is the origin of suffering, should also be mentioned here, since greed is a kind of craving for the presence of something, and hatred for its absence. We will look at the Four Noble Truths in later chapters.

Let’s consider anger, as an example, one of the great fountainheads of karmic intentions. Perceived through angry eyes the object of our anger, even a close friend or family member, easily appears as a  jerk or a schmuck if not a demon, that, when the anger subsides, will remorph back into its normal more amiable form. The level of dukkha associated with the arising of even slight anger is astonishing when seen with a clear mind, and great anger plunges us into a hell-like state. We are all aware that habitual or sustained anger can even affect our physical health (high blood pressure, heart disease) in a profound way. As anger becomes more ingrained through habit, it will become increasingly difficult to bring the mind into states of calm and insight.

The Buddha also discovered that an unwholesome/unskillful thought …

… leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna. (MN 19)

This reiterates the suffering, mis-perception of reality and lack of progress on the Buddhist path associated with the unwholesome, and adds to it the inflicting of harm on others. Harm naturally results when greed, hatred or delusion forms the volitional basis of our karmic acts. Consider how often violence or dangerous behaviors, such as road rage, arises from anger, or how our anger leads to fear in others. On the other hand, skillful thoughts bring proportionate success to the practices of refraining from all evil and accomplishing good. It is easy to see why this might be so: We misperceive reality under the influence of greed or hatred, our actions are like driving with a frosty windshield. We may spot our ignoble goals but don’t know who we might be running over as we head toward them. As we have seen, it is difficult enough to track consequences of actions into the future even when we see the present reasonably clearly.

To summarize the Buddha’s observations just discussed, unwholesome/ unskillful thoughts are recognizable in terms of the following handy checklist:

  1. They are grounded either in greed, in hatred or in delusion.
  2. When they give rise to actions, those actions generally cause some degree of harm.
  3. They give rise to mis-perception.
  4. They cause personal suffering.
  5. They subvert development along the Path.

Let me take lust as another example of an unwholesome mental factor. Alongside anger, lust is another major fountainhead of human intentionality. Although we tend to think of lust in western culture as a positive factor in our lives (unlike anger), in terms of the five factors listed above, we discover otherwise.

1. Lust is grounded in greed, that is, in neediness.

2. Lust also tends toward harm. For instance, stealing is often a result of lust, including stealing someone’s man or someone’s woman. Often it is even consciously self-destructive: people sacrifice physical health out of lust for food, drink, cigarettes and so on, and sacrifice mental health out of lust for electronic entertainment, drugs and so on. People are often propelled by lust from one unhealthy and unhappy sexual relationship to another.

3. We lose wisdom under the spell of lust, sometimes sacrificing careers and marriages as well as health in the hopes that “love will find a way.”  When the object of lust is not attained or is lost, depression, and even suicide or murder can result.

4. Lust is always at least a bit painful, sometimes so painful we can hardly stand it. It often flares up into a fever of longing. Relief is possible if the object of lust is realized, but otherwise lust may lead to bitter disappointment, itself a kind of aversion or hatred.

5. Finally, lust diverts from the path to awakening: It agitates the mind, obstructing stillness and other skillful factors. It easily spins out other unskillful thoughts such as anger, jealousy, and greed for various instruments needed for satisfying lust such as those sporty clothes or that sexy sports car. It easily becomes ingrained as unskillful habit patterns, that is, addictions.

This is quite an indictment against lust, one that the Buddha makes repeatedly. Why, then, do we tend to think of lust as something positive? I think it is because we confuse lust with pleasure. Lust seeks pleasure, and pleasure often evokes lust for more of the same, or for an escalation of pleasure. Together they are typically bound in an intimate cycle of mutual conditionality, and are thereby identified with one another. However, the two are quite distinct: lust is painful, pleasure is, uh, pleasurable. Addiction is when this cycle spins out of control. The failure to properly understand the cycle of lust and pleasure, and to recognize which is which, has miswritten many lives, and even the histories of nations. The Buddha warns us,

There is no satisfying lusts, even by a shower of gold pieces; he who knows that lusts have a short taste and cause pain, he is wise; Even in heavenly pleasures he finds no satisfaction, the disciple who is fully awakened delights only in the destruction of all desires.  (  186-7)

Notice that the last two characteristics of the unwholesome, that is, 4. suffering and 5. retarded development, together tell us that virtue is its own reward. As long as we act with unskillful intentions we suffer. Moreover, since we also fail to make progress, in fact, regress, on the path we sacrifice the future happiness enjoyed by those of advanced spiritual attainment, for when we repeatedly weaken the habit patterns that trigger skillful thoughts and strengthen the habit patterns that trigger unskillful thoughts, we ensure greater suffering in the future as well. The Buddha describes this process of strengthening habit patterns:

Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with sensuality, abandoning thinking imbued with renunciation, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with sensuality. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with non-ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmfulness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmlessness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmfulness. (MN 190)

In short, when we act with unskillful intentions, we suffer twice, first, immediately and, secondly, through the replaying of the habit patters that we are reinforcing. This is reminiscent of the fruits of karma:

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

Recall that 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. We therefore expect merit-making/good karma to adhere to the intentions, wholesome or unwholesome, behind our actions rather than to the form of the physical actions themselves.

In short, the Buddha’s psychological observations anticipate many of the kinds of fruits of different karmic intentions will bring (though the Buddha did not himself make explicit why karmic actions should have fruits) and should convince the most skeptical reader that there is at least some validity to the notions of karmic fruits and merits.

A number of additional examples of karmic fruits from the early texts also have simple explanations: Our harmful actions tend to incite retribution to our detriment from those affected, because people tend by nature to be vengeful. Our angry or greedy disposition gives rise to loneliness, because people tend also not to like those of angry or greedy disposition and therefore eschew them. Furthermore, habitual anger and other unwholesome mental factors are demonstrably associated with physical health problems. Even physical beauty adheres to ethical character: kind people often exhibit a kind of angelic glow where hateful people often seem perpetually under a cloud.

Remaining, mysterious examples from the discourses, such as offering a monk alms in one life and then receiving great riches for oneself in the next, are actually fairly rare in the earliest texts and could well be entirely allegorical. In brief, practical psychological, physiological and sociological processes in themselves adequately motivate almost all of the claims about karmic fruits.

What about unfortunate things that happen to us without a karmic explanation, like being uplifted by a tornado or falling through a manhole? It should be understood that it is very common misconception among Buddhists that everything that happens to us for good or evil, like winning the lottery or being run over by a truck, must have a karmic basis as a fruit of our own past actions. This is, in fact, explicitly denied by the Buddha in the Sīvaka Sutta (SN 36.21).

We might suspect that if we continue practicing generosity and precepts for many many years, the mind will eventually become perfectly pure when habit patterns of greed, hatred and delusion have completely disappeared as motivational factors in our actions. It is not quite so simple: There are points at which we will get stuck, largely related to recalcitrant delusional conceptualizations that need to be broken down. This is why the Buddha also gave us a Noble Eightfold Path and a very sophisticated understanding of human psychology, with which much of this book will deal.

The practice of purifying the mind. I hope none of this discussion evokes images of goose-stepping thought police in the minds of readers. In fact, if we have entered into the practices of refraining from all evil and accomplishing good, we have already stepped into the practice of purifying the mind. This is because we are forced to confront volitional impulses wherever they tend toward harm or away from benefit. Every time we override a contrary mental factor in order to adhere to a precept, we are deconditioning an unskillful habit pattern and thereby purifying the mind. Every time kindness or generosity inspires our good deeds, we are strengthening our tendency in that direction, and thereby purifying the mind. Even mixed motives, such as responding to peer or authority pressure, or just a sense of obligation rather than kindness, have a way of eventually giving way to purer motives.

For instance, there is a precept not to kill living beings. Maybe we do not initially, for the life of us, understand why the life of an ugly twiddle bug matters one snippet, but a twiddle bug is a living being, and we want to be good Buddhists, so we don’t kill twiddle bugs. After a few months we discover something that was not there before: a warm heart with regard to twiddle bugs—they have become our little friends—and not just toward twiddle bugs but toward other beings as well, even certain people that we had once put into the same category with twiddle bugs. Our mind has become purer. Try it! Let’s put away the twiddle swatter and the Twiddle-Enhanced® Raid and see if we don’t soften right up.

We have seen above that a number of precepts actually have little directly to do with refraining from evil, except insofar as they support this kind of purification of the mind. A precept against idle chatter, for instance, is rather victimless, especially given that cases in which it spills into disparagement of others are are covered by other precepts concerning speech. Nonetheless if we refrain from idle chatter over many months we discover a quieter mind, less prone to proliferation of spurious thought and therefore less prone to delusion. We have, through observing this precept, made the mind purer.iii The non-ethical/practice precepts develop purity of mind in the way as ethical precepts; they just lack their immediate external harmfulness.

Just as precepts and other physical practices define habit patterns that over time purify the mind, existing habit patterns that characterize our lifestyle may inadvertently depurify the mind. We do well to avoid those. A rather complex precept commonly observed by laypeople every quarter moon, and by monastics always, includes the following:

I undertake the rule of training to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, smartening with perfumes and beautifying with cosmetics.

These are activities that turn the mind toward lust and self-enhancement. Playing violent video games and watching violent television programs, or listening to hateful speech will turn the mind toward recurring thoughts of anger and fear. Channel or Web surfing will turn the mind toward restlessness and discontent. Entertainments that excite lust will tend similarly to depurify the mind, even while not doing outward harm. We do well to ween ourselves as best we can from such habitual activities. Today we are awash in unskillful habit patterns associated with the prevalence of electronic media, so the process of sensual restraint is more challenging, but more appropriate, than ever before. In summary, there are kinds of bodily or verbal actions that have few direct consequences in terms of benefiting or harming the world, yet bear karmic fruits insofar as they condition the mind.

Moreover, merit-making asks of us that we constantly monitor our intentions. Purifying the Mind benefits from this constant awareness of our thoughts, in particular of our intentions. For some it may be the first introspective encounter with the inner, subjective world. At the same time we note our basic intentions, we should notice when discomfort, such as stress or anxiety arise – this is suffering – as well as the moments of satisfaction and joy that come with giving to others. How is that different from the pleasure of buying new clothes, say, or an new electronic gadget?  We should observe when greed or neediness/lust arises, when hatred or aversion or fear arises. At what point do we feel satisfaction as we pursue sensual pleasures? We should observe when we fall into the cycle of lust and pleasure. How much suffering is there in that cycle, particularly the anxiety of anticipation, relative to pleasure? When we might be experiencing pleasure, are we instead already lusting after the next potential pleasure? We should observe delusion in the excuses and rationalizations we fabricate to explain our actions. These are delusive acts of mental karma that have their own intentions behind them; look at these. All this is the beginnings of wisdom.

The Buddha tells us there are three kinds of volitional actions, those of body, those of speech and those of mind. Refraining from all evil and accomplishing good have to do with actions of body and speech, things acted out externally in the world, but always with a mental source in our intentions. Some karma lacks bodily or verbal involvement altogether and is therefore purely mental. Mindfulness and concentration practices are primary examples of mental practices. These are also karmic, gain or lose merit and produce fruits, but are effectively disengaged from the world. Their ethical value is realized through the process of purification of mind not through direct harm or benefit, or any effect, to others, like tuning a running engine without actually shifting it into gear so that it moves the car.

The brahmavihāras, always known by their Pali name, which means abodes of the gods, are a class of mental qualities that have ethical implications and are largely developed though mental exercises. They are four in number:

  • Kindness (mettā),
  • Compassion (karuṇā),
  • Gladness (muditā),
  • Equinimity (upekkhā).

Kindness is the root virtue. Compassion is an expression of kindness in relation to those who suffer misfortune. Gladness is an expression of kindness in relation to those who experience good fortune; it displaces the envy most of us feel in such situations, like when our neighbor puts in a swimming pool. Equanimity ensures impartiality, that is, that the other virtues cover everyone, like rain that falls on goody-goodies and scoundrels alike, but also non-attachment to consequences of actions, lest we become frustrated when our compassionate or kind actions fail achieve their intended results. The brahmavihāras are often practiced through meditation, with special emphasis on the root mettā meditation.

Many of us are ill-equipped for the kind of introspection required to engage completely with the process of purifying the mind; we may barely be aware that we have an inner life. Asian cultures generally extol the inwardly directed mind, reflective and still, and Western cultures praise the outwardly directed individual, quick of response and versatile of task. Yet for both, the flash and dazzle of modern life challenge our capacity for developing introspective habits. For this reason, undertaking a routine meditation practice early on is highly recommended for modern people as a highly effective means of turning the mind inward. A simple practice of following the breath, for instance, might be undertaken from the beginning of Buddhist practice, long before there is any consideration of entering the higher path, for which meditation is an even more essential part.

To conclude, let’s see where we are in terms of the Buddha’s teaching of the gradual training, depicted in Figure 1. The first two steps constitute accomplishing good and refraining from all evil, respectively. The remainder is concerned with purifying the mind per se. The fruits of karma are the basis of purifying the mind, since karma leaves its trace on the mind and is the foundation of our practice.  The recognition of the shallowness of the life centered in selfish pursuits and the importance of giving up this way of being provide the motivations for undertaking the wholehearted practice of purifying the mind. Renunciation is always present where we make progress on the path. Once we are consummate in ethics and committed to purifying the mind, we are ready to understand the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and to undertake the higher practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. This is why refraining from all evil, accomplishing good and purifying the mind are invariably the teaching of all buddhas.

Further Reading

Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, 2000, Cambridge University Press.


i. Religious gifts made to the general public would, particularly in later Buddhist traditions, include contributions to building pagodas, Buddha statues and things along those lines. Otherwise gifts satisfy mundane material needs.

ii. Buddhism has not traditionally been as known for its enterprise-level efforts as has Christianity, for instance. But there is no reason that the ethic of accomplishing good should not scale up in this way. Probably social conditions in Asia have been, until recently, less conducive to enterprise-level efforts of this kind. On the other hand, Ven. Rahula (not the Buddha’s son, but the author of the widely read What the Buddha Taught) devoted a book to making the case, specifically for Sri Lanka, that the widespread reputation of monks as indifferent to social concerns arose during European colonization, in which the Sangha was systematically disenfranchised from responsibilities in which it had previously routinely engaged, such as running schools. In fact, in recent decades Buddhist communities have become quite socially engaged, often inspired by Christian example.

iii. Similarly, there have traditionally been practices of the enactment of accomplishing good – such as making food offerings to an inert and definitely not hungry Buddha statue – that serve to develop generosity and reverence and are found in virtually any later Buddhist tradition but quite make sense from the perspective of early Buddhism.