Community and Responsibility
Introduction to Community and Responsibility
This book has been printed to commemorate the completion of the new meditation hall at Bodhinyanarama Buddhist Monastery in 1990. In deciding what to print for this commemorative issue it was felt that a book which was merely historical would be quickly dated, and thus a broader theme seemed more worthwhile.
With present day concerns about the lack of strong extended families and supportive community networks, it was felt that writings which addressed the subject of community might be a timely contribution to the well-being of our society.
The theme of this book is community, which may be seen as a relevant topic for our times. The world is getting smaller and the population is getting bigger, so the need to get along is more pressing than ever. How can we become free from creating unnecessary suffering and misery for ourselves and others in the course of our life-spans? This reality is a global issue, and that means all life. So the subject of community is worth considering.
We find there are some very direct guidelines in the Buddhist teachings which map out various prescriptions for proper and responsible social behavior. This behavior always comes from mindfulness and sensitivity - it cannot come from an idea or ideal. It comes from being in touch with oneself, one's own heart; from feeling life. We can only live properly if we know and actually feel life and open to it. If we know life then we can live it. So we have to awaken to ourselves first - that is the priority, and the spiritual path is about waking up, because in a sense someone who is shrunk down into selfishness is not fully alive as a human being. And there can be no community from that, just alienation - or worse.
With this waking up we start to feel into our humanity and take down the barrier between self and others. This is community - and responsibility. What is the responsibility? To be wholly alive, no less. This is not an easy thing to do, as it requires an enormous maturity to be responsible for that in oneself which cuts off, holds back, is fearful of and pulls away from really opening to this human experience. The responsibility is to not follow those tendencies.
This book suggests some of the ways we can grow in this responsibility, and considers, from a Buddhist perspective, various themes that affect the lives of any group of individuals. Although originating in the cultural context of ancient India, these teachings point to timeless values and can act like a compass in giving a true bearing for the maturing heart.
May all beings be released from all suffering.
Coming to Community
A truly human community is something we come to, that we mature to, both individually and collectively. It is not a given. It is not necessarily a feature or natural result of humans living together. In spite of the advances of civilization, true community remains more often a possibility rather than an actuality.
In Buddhism we reflect on interrelatedness. Through our practice we become distinctly aware of cause and effect and how one thing affects another - how our very state of consciousness is dependent upon the world, and the world depends upon our state of consciousness. Actions have their results, so our attitudes are all important. They need to be founded in Dhamma, founded in this moral sensitivity of how we affect each other as a group. As long as I am closed off to myself, then I do not really have much awareness or sensitivity to anyone else outside of me. It is important first of all to discover life in this mind and body, to wake up here and now. As we become more alive to ourselves, then simultaneously there is the recognition of others. There is space for human community and a caring concern which finds expression through virtuous conduct.
This can be helped along with wise reflection. Cultivating an attitude of compassion and recognition that others too, are in the same condition as myself, they also are feeling. My feelings matter and my life is precious when I open to it. Then I recognize the preciousness of all life.
The Buddhist Idea of a Perfect Society
We can imagine a perfect society and have a model of it to use as a guideline, as something to aim for. But we shouldn't expect society ever to be perfect and to be continuously the way we would like it to be, because part of the perfection lies in the fact that everything changes; nothing can remain the same. Just as a rose reaches its perfect fullness, perfect form, perfect fragrance and then changes; so societies reach peaks and then they degenerate. This is the natural movement of all conditioned phenomena. Any sensory condition follows that pattern.
To contemplate the arising and ceasing of conditions allows us to understand them; we are not just caught in the arising and ceasing of the world - or of the human body - like a helpless creature that has no way of knowing anything beyond it. We actually have the power and ability to transcend the world, society, the body, the self. All that is most dear and precious, all that we are most frightened of, all that we can possibly conceive of or believe in, we can transcend. What do I mean by transcendence? To "transcend the world" sounds like you are somehow getting out of the whole thing by going somewhere else. To many people it would mean that you had left the world behind; that you were no longer interested in or concerned about it in any way; that you lived on a totally different plane.
First of all we need to contemplate what we mean by the world. Of course with our materialist mind conditioned through education and geography courses, we tend to see the world as a kind of map or globe. We think the world is the planet earth, and to transcend the planet earth we have to get off it somehow, and maybe go up to the moon. But when Buddhists talk about the world, we talk about the mind because that's what we live in. Even the concept of the planet is a concept of the mind. Opinions we have about the world, about ourselves, about other beings, about other planets, are in fact the conditions that arise and cease in the mind. We say, "We'll go and study the world," meaning that we'll go to every country on the planet. That's not it. You don't have to go anywhere to actually transcend the world or to see through the world so that you can transcend it. You open your mind; you begin to notice the way things actually are, that all that arises ceases.
Here in Britain just on a day like this, we are affected by the stunning beauty of nature: the undulating hills and the green color, the extraordinary abundance and delicacy of flowers and their beautiful shapes, colors and patterns. So here on this planet, in this one small country, we can actually perceive form and color taken to perfection. Try to imagine forms and colors more perfect than those of flowers. The precedent for perfection is really what we have already been able to perceive in form and color; we judge by what we've already seen. And yet beauty changes; it's not static. The seasons change and all the leaves fall off the trees, all the flowers disappear. Everything becomes bleak, almost monotone in winter when there is hardly any noticeable contrast, except in the shades of dark and lightness. Then if we compare winter with spring, we might say that spring is more beautiful; we might prefer vibrant colors and beautiful flowers.
However we can also begin to recognize the subtle beauty of winter. The colorlessness, and silence of winter can be as much appreciated as the energy of spring. This appreciation comes from not having opinions about things being perfect in a static way, the rose being a perfect rose in spring, summer, autumn and winter. For that you need a plastic rose, one that can be perfect all year round. But even the best, most perfectly made artificial rose is never as satisfying as even a less beautiful natural rose. Why? Because we know that it's artificial. It's pretending to be something it's not, while the real flower isn't pretending to be anything. It's just what it is. It's beauty is pure beauty without any pretence. It's not trying to say it's the most beautiful rose, either. Nor is it trying to hold on to its beauty. It's willing to let it go.
So in this way we can be open to the perfection of nature and of the sensory world. Our view of perfection is no longer a fixed idea that things have to be only one way to be perfect; that when they change in a way we may not want them to, then that's the end of what we hold dear and of what to us is perfection.
Now contemplate an ideal for a perfect society. The Buddhists could say that a perfect society would be one of fully enlightened human beings - a society of arahants who have no selfish inclinations and understand everything as it is - a society of individuals who are no longer attached to the world of ignorance but have transcended the world. Transcendence means we no longer cling to the world. It doesn't mean floating up in the sky and floating away from it. It means we live for a lifetime within this human form among all the sensory conditions but are no longer deluded by them. It means we use our ability to reflect and contemplate on our existence to the point where we see it clearly as it is. That is what we call transcending the world. So one who is transcending the world can still act and live in the world but in a very clear and pure way because the world is no longer a delusion. We are not expecting the world to be anything other than what it is. And the world is the mind itself, this mind.
Arahant is the Pali term for one who has no more delusions at all about the nature of the world. That is the term we use for a perfected human being, one who has wisely reflected and transcended the world, but who still lives in the world and works in the world for the welfare of other beings. If you have seen through the sense of self, broken through, let go of selfish interest in the world, then what else is there to do? Certainly you don't live your life for any false sense of self anymore, if that has been transcended. So one lives the life of a human being for the welfare of others and of the society. Arahants in a society would thus be a great blessing. When one has totally abandoned self-interest, one no longer thinks in terms of getting rewards for one's actions, not even gratitude, praise or any kind of remuneration. The perfect society would then be the society of enlightened ones.
We can look at our minds to see how this relates to us as individual beings. We can look at the state of the society, or the world in general - the United States, the Soviet Union, the Third World - and we can see that it is in a terrible state of confusion. Human societies, in general, are all somehow out of harmony with the Dhamma, with nature. We are so involved with our own personal views, our own attachments, our endless demands on the society and our environment, that we are taking the planet to destruction. This is the first time in human history that we have the capacity to destroy nearly all living beings on the planet. We have been so selfish and have so lost our sense of responsibility for the planet, that we are quite willing to corrupt and pollute the very home of humanity. We even think that if we blow it up in the future or if it becomes so polluted we can't live on it anymore, that with modern technology we can escape to another planet and live there!
Rather than seeing the planet in the selfish, childish way that we do when we take it for granted and misuse it, we should begin to look at it as a place we must respect and learn to take care of. Human beings are capable of doing this. As selfish and as corrupt as we can be, we can also be noble. We can take on the responsibilities of caring for other human beings as well as caring for the animal kingdom and for the whole planet.
This is where I hope modern consciousness is taking us. At this time we can see a hopeful trend in what is called, expansion of consciousness. More and more people are awakening to this potential for transcending the world so that they are able to operate freely and wisely within the sensory realm, no longer for personal gain but for the welfare of other beings.
There are listed in the Pali Canon, the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, what are called the rajadhammas, the virtues and duties of a wise ruler. The first one is the virtue of Dana, which means generosity, giving. In almost all Buddhist lists of virtues, Dana is always the first one. Isn't that significant? Why do they always list Dana first? In a Buddhist sense, any kind of ruler - a universal monarch, a prime minister, a president, a chairman - needs to have this sense of generosity because this is what opens the heart of a human being. Just reflect on the act of giving without selfish demand in return, without expecting a reward. When we give something we like or want, to somebody else, that opens the heart and that always engenders a sense of nobility. Humanity is at its best when it gives what it loves, what it values, to others.
The next one is síla, or high moral conduct. A ruler should be impeccable in morality, a human being you can fully trust. Whether you agree with a ruler's actions or political positions isn't terribly important; it's the moral integrity of the ruler that is most important, because you can't trust somebody who is immoral. But people can easily feel suspicious about someone who has not committed themselves fully to refrain from cruelty, from killing, from taking things that have not been given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech and from addictive drugs and drinks. These standards of restraint are the basic moral precepts, the síla, that you are expected to keep if you consider yourself a Buddhist.
The third virtue is pariccaga, or self-sacrifice. This means giving up personal happiness, safety and comfort for the welfare of the nation. Self-sacrifice is something we need to consider. Are we willing to sacrifice personal comfort, privilege, convenience, for the welfare of our families? In the past fifty years or so, self-sacrifice has almost come to be regarded with contempt, or put down as being foolish or naive. It seems that the tendency is to think of yourself first. What has this government done for you? What can you get out of it? Whenever I've thought in those ways I've always felt I could not respect myself at all. But any time that I sacrificed myself for something, I've always felt that doing so was the right thing to do. Giving up personal interest, personal convenience and comfort for the welfare of others - that is always something that I look back on now with no regret.
The fourth one is ajjava, which is honesty and integrity. This means more than not telling lies to others, but being honest with yourself. You can't be deluded by all the desires and fears that go on in your own mind in order to have this sense of personal honesty, where you are not blaming or condemning others or looking at the world in the wrong way.
The fifth is maddava, which means kindness or gentleness. Living in Britain I've noticed that there is a tremendous desire for kindness and gentleness, and an idealism that holds to that. In daily life, however, one finds a kind of harshness towards oneself or towards others; a tendency to make a harsh judgments; to react with anger; to regard kindness as a bit soppy and wet. Gentleness is considered weak. So we've emphasized the practice of mettá here in Britain more than in Thailand. Metta is loving-kindness. It's kindness and gentleness towards oneself and towards others. When we hold to high standards and ideals, we often lack kindness. We are always looking at how things should be, and we become frustrated with life as it is. We become angry and cruel. To be kind and gentle seems wishy-washy and weak, and yet it is a virtue that a universal monarch should have in order to be truly considered a universal monarch.
The sixth is tapa which means austerity or self-control; giving up what you don't really need.
The seventh one is akkodha, which is non-anger, non-impulsiveness, calmness. This is difficult: remaining calm in the midst of confusion and chaos, when things are frustrating, instead of acting just on impulse, saying something in anger, acting in anger. Akkodha is non-anger.
The eighth is avihimsa, or non-violence, non-oppression; not using violent means against enemies or against anyone; not being oppressive or forcing your will unmercifully on other people. Even high-mindedness can be oppressive, can't it? If you live with people who have very high standards and high ideals, they can push you down all the time with their ideas. It's a kind of violence, even though they might believe in non-violence and think they are not acting with violence. You can say, "I believe in avihimsa" but still be very oppressive about it. That's why we often tend to see it as hypocrisy. When we talk about morality now, some people get very tense, because they remember morality as being oppressive, like in Victorian times when people were intimidated and frightened by moral judgments. But that is not avihimsa. Avihimsa is non-oppression.
After avihimsa is khanti, which is patience, forbearance, tolerance. To be non-oppressive and non-violent, not to follow anger, one needs to be patient. We need to bear with what is irritating, frustrating, unwanted, unloved, unbeautiful. We need to forbear rather than react violently to it, oppress it, annihilate it.
The last one is avirodhana, non-deviation from righteousness, or conformity to the law, the Dhamma. Non-deviation from righteousness sounds oppressive, doesn't it? When we become righteous we can often become very oppressive. I've seen it in myself. When I get full of righteous indignation I come at people like one of those Old Testament gods: "Thou shall not!" I can be pretty frightening to people when I'm righteous. Avirodhana isn't that kind of patriarchal, oppressive righteousness. It is knowing what is right, what is appropriate to time and place. Here in Britain, we believe that thinking rationally and being reasonable is right. Everything that follows from that, we think is right, and everything that is irrational or unreasonable, we think is wrong. We don't trust it. But when we attach to reason, then we often lack patience, because we are not open to the movement and flow of emotion. The spaciousness of life is completely overlooked. We are so attached to time, efficiency, the quickness of thought, the perfection of rational thinking, that we view temporal conditions as reality, and we no longer notice spaciousness. So the emotional nature, the feeling, the intuitive, the psychic, all are dismissed, neglected, and annihilated.
Avirodhana, or conformity to the Dhamma, entails a steadiness in one's life to conform to the way things are. The only reason we don't conform to it is that we don't know it. Human beings are capable of believing in anything at all, so we tend to go every-which-way and follow any old thing. But once you discover the Dhamma, then your only inclination is to conform to the law of the way things are.
So these are the rajadhammas, the Dhammas of a universal ruler. Now let's apply this list. We might think: "Well that's what the Prime Minister should be doing, and the President of the United States, definitely. Maybe we should send them the list of the rajadhammas, and leave it up to them to do it." But what is it within ourselves that we might consider the universal ruler? What would be the universal ruler in our own lives, internally? This is the way of reflection. You are taking these lists and applying them to the practical experience of being a human being, not looking at them as a way of judging the present rulers of the world. We could get into a lot of interesting criticisms, couldn't we, if we decided to see how much Dana, síla or pariccaga the Presidents have and judge them according to this list. But that would be of no value, would it? We could figure out what they should do, but we wouldn't have the vaguest idea of what we should do. How our lives should move. How we should change. Yet the more we move towards developing the universal ruler within, then the more chance there is of actually getting one of these proper universal rulers.
In daily life we can move toward these virtues. These lists are not to be used as judgments against ourselves to say, "Oh I'm not generous enough; my morality isn't good enough; I'm too selfish to think of sacrificing myself," going on down the whole list like that. But you look at this list in order to aspire to move upward more and more in daily life experiences. To be able to do that we need to begin to know ourselves as we are, rather than making judgments about ourselves as we think we are. By understanding yourself, you will understand everyone else, and then you will understand the society.
So a perfect society can only happen when there are perfect human beings. And what is a perfect individual human being? It is one who is not deluded, who has transcended the appearance of the sensory realm. For such a person, these virtues naturally manifest in relation to all other beings. When there is no attachment to a selfish position or selfish view, then generosity becomes a natural way of relating. One wants to share. One realizes just what one needs and is willing to share the extra. The tendency towards hoarding up for oneself diminishes.
In the world today we see this terrible discrepancy between the affluent Western world and the poverty-stricken Third World. We live at a very high standard of living while most of the people in the world live at a very low standard. Many are not even able to get enough to eat. We can contemplate this as not being right. We can condemn the Western world, or we can justify our affluence or feel sorry for the Third World.
But what can we actually do about it? Perhaps we know that we haven't enough influence with the governments and leaders of the affluent West, because they won't listen to us. Maybe we can't really change much on that level. But we can change the way we relate to the world, can't we? We can learn to practice meditation and learn to live in a way whereby we become less and less selfish, so that what we do have, we are willing to share with others. Then we find the joy of sharing as the reward but not an expected reward. We can contemplate síla - our responsibility for action and speech. What are we doing now to live in a way that is not harmful to other creatures? We can refrain from violent actions and speech, from exploitation, from all that causes division, confusion, anguish and despair in the lives of other beings. We try to avoid actions or using speech that causes suffering in the minds of others. We can practice - with our family, with the people we work with, with the society we have to live in - how to live in a way that is non-violent, that is moral, that takes on the responsibility for what we say and do.
Self-sacrifice is not a kind of soppy martyrdom where I'm sacrificing myself for this no-good lot, pretending to be a martyr. Self-sacrifice doesn't come from self-involvement, but from no longer regarding oneself as more important than anyone else. You have to know yourself before you can do that. The idea of sacrificing yourself without knowing yourself only makes you one of those sentimental martyrs. Self-sacrifice comes from mental clarity, not from sentimentality.
Ajjava: honesty, integrity. Maddava: kindness, gentleness. We can put forth attentiveness to life in a way which is gentle and kind. The reason we lack kindness is not that we don't want to be kind; it's that we are too impatient to be kind. To be kind you have to be patient with life. To be gentle with it means you have to give in a lot. You can't just bend things and force things to fit your ideas just for convenience, just for efficiency. Kindness means that in the ordinary things of daily life you are learning to be more gentle and open, especially with things that you don't like or don't want. It's easy to be open to the things we like. It's easy to be kind to little children when they are being sweet and lovable. But being kind to that which is annoying, irritating, frustrating, takes considerable attention, doesn't it? We have to put forth the effort not to react with aversion. And that's very good for us, to work with the irritations of daily life in little ways, to just try to be gentle and kind in situations where we tend to become cruel, harsh and judgmental.
Tapa: self-control, non-indulgence, austerity. Austerity is a frightening word for the modern age. It's as if you have to give up everything, so that is a bit daunting. But just practicing tapa, questioning yourself: how much do you really need? How much is an indulgence? Not passing judgment and saying, "Oh I'm an indulgent so and so," but just beginning to note what is the right amount between what is necessary and what is indulgence. This takes attentiveness also. You have to be honest and notice the difference between indulging and just taking what is necessary, what you need.
Akkodha: non-anger, non-impulsiveness. It takes determination to pay attention and not just to follow anger, to react to impulse, to react to life. Avihimsa: non-violence, non-oppression. Khanti: patience, forbearance. And avirodhana: non-deviation from righteousness. The more we are aware of these virtues, the more they can manifest in our lives. Trying to be virtuous from ideas alone can be a disaster. You just end up criticizing yourself. It's like comparing all the stages of the rose with a rose at its best. You take a rose at its peak with perfect fragrance and appearance, and compare the decayed rose with that. "I don't like this, I don't like that, this is how everything should be." But when we see that the sensory world is a process, that it's change, that it's flux, then we begin to appreciate it in all its change. We no longer demand that life fit some static ideal and then judge everything according to those fixed views we have about it.
Apply all this to the society, as well as to yourself, even though you know that society will never be perfect, just as a rose can never maintain itself at its peak. We have to always realize that it will reach its peak and then change. The more we free ourselves from delusion, self-interest and ignorance, the more we can be part of and appreciate the flow and change of life, just as we can appreciate the cycle of a rose instead of just grasping at the peak of its beauty.
So now we can contemplate society here in Britain. What stage is it in? We can't say it's at its peak, can we? We can say, "It's no good, it's not like it used to be, it shouldn't be like this," and go on endlessly, getting depressed, upset, hating it because it's not at it's peak. But where is it? As we open ourselves to its change, to the law, the Dhamma, then we can flow with it in a way that will give it strength to be a healthy society rather than a sick, weak, unloved one. If you don't take care of a rose properly, it can't survive. And if it does, it is just weakened and no longer capable of producing a beautiful flower. How can we help society to grow or to change? How can we appreciate the whole of it rather than hanging on to fixed views and opinions, to this terrible ignorance of just looking at how everything should be?
In Buddhism there is no particular attempt to describe how the perfect society should operate, as a monarchy or a democracy, as socialist or communist. At the time the Pali Canon was written, I don't suppose they had too many choices. Monarchy tended to be the way, though there were also natural democracies. But even a monarchy in those days was not an oppressive system where the king had divine right to do anything he wanted at the expense of everyone else. We are conditioned to think that monarchs are degenerates who are all corrupt, that a monarchy is just for the privileged few and everyone else has to pay for it and suffer. But actually the theory of monarchy always stemmed from righteousness; it wasn't intended to be an oppressive system, though in many cases it became that, just as communism and democracy can become oppressive systems.
Western democracy, with all its so-called freedom, tends to bring us towards degeneration. Parents now worry about their children endlessly. They have lost all ability to direct their children in skillful ways because children now have the freedom to do anything they want to. We no longer have the right to guide or direct anyone towards what is right and good and beautiful. We just say, "You are free to do what you want." And communism with all its high-minded idealism tends to oppress. It seems to take all these lovely ideas of sharing, equal distribution, equality, and just shove them down your throat. That is certainly not the goal for a Buddhist society.
Actually all the existing structures would be workable if you had the right understanding. In Britain, there is nothing really wrong with the political structure, the government. These agencies are quite all right in themselves, but what is missing is the enlightened human being, the human being who sees clearly. Modern politics tends to come from desire for power, for personal acclaim. Morality doesn't play a terribly important part in the choices of leaders or politicians. It's how clever you might be in manipulating others. What do we look for in leadership now? Ask yourselves, "What do we expect in leadership for our country?"
Modern attitudes might be such that we think, "Venerable Sumedho is just talking a bunch of optimistic ideals that have no relevance to anything practical in daily life," but that's a pessimistic view. All I am trying to do is present a way of looking that would be of great benefit towards the understanding of life on the individual plane and for the perfection of a society.
Roles and Duties
In a particular teaching to the householder Sigalaka, the Buddha points out those fundamental values which form the deep structure of balanced social relations. Some of the most important of the conventional roles in life are mentioned - parents, husband, wife, children, friends, work associates and spiritual teachers. Each of these roles carries certain responsibilities and duties, and as the teaching indicates, these need to be recognized and honored if peace is to be maintained.
In our modern times we find a movement towards an increasing awareness of human rights. This concern over personal freedom has properly highlighted a lot of oppression and inequality around the world. However, in some more affluent societies there is a tendency now to overemphasize the individual position, and this can manifest as a misguided view of what freedom is all about. We commonly assert what we may believe to be our intrinsic rights to pursue pleasure, express our feelings and act out our desires - but if the awareness of being part of a community becomes marginalized, or altogether lost, then such dislocation results in a peculiar form of emotional and spiritual barrenness. Many people struggle hard to release themselves from the unhappiness that characterizes the confinement of this self- bound condition.
In the Buddhist tradition, to respect the various conventions of family, marital and other relationships does not mean simply submitting oneself to outmoded cultural or secular standards. The very fact that they appear in a body of teachings which consistently raises up mindfulness indicates the need to meet these relationships consciously, in order that they can be spiritualized. For if we are willing to accept and work within the limitations of social roles, they can provide a container or focus for us to open through.
Although our spiritual aspirations may include exalted or abstract ideals about love and peace, the real practice must begin with the actual people in our lives. If we simply reject social conventions as limiting and unnecessary, or are reluctant to make any commitment in our relationships, then our search for freedom is not fully grounded in the ordinary experience of our humanity, and truth is instead presumed to be found elsewhere. This presumption can divert our energies away from the natural discipline of authentic participation in the life-process.
Skillfully relating to the realm of conventions is thus an opportunity to give up the effort to fit the world around ourselves, and instead open up and recognize that we are part of something greater.
Dhamma And Family Life
By Ajahn Viradhammo
I just returned yesterday from a trip to visit my Mum and brother in Ottawa, and then I was in Toronto, teaching for a couple of weeks. So, today's topic of "Dhamma and Family Life" is very relevant to me now. The feelings that we have in the family are very powerful. The feelings that I have for my Mother and brother and his children - and for my Father, who died several years ago - are very powerful conditions of the human heart, and these have to be understood. Dhamma is the truth of the way things are, so Dhamma in family life is the practice of understanding truth in the context of family situations.
Our lives are both individual and social. We have an inner world which is very personal, but we function in an outer world, of people, things and situations. As individuals we are alone. For instance, when we are born into this world we come from a nice, warm, cozy, womb out into the bright lights of an operating theatre, and then we might even get slapped on the bottom. It's quite a shocking experience. We then live our lives and we have our sorrows, joys, hopes and expectations, fears, anxieties, worries, successes and failures. All of this goes on in a very personal way. Often it is a very lonely experience. Although we do share some of these aspects with each other, there is much we can't share, which we have to feel ourselves. And then death comes, and that is something that we have to do alone also. No one is going to do that for us. Death is a personal experience. Others may be with us to give comfort and support but still we die alone.
As well as the individual aspect we have the social aspect which is related to the world around us: to the family, to the environment, to social conditioning, to education, to the kind of culture that we are born into, to the values of society that are put upon us and that we imbibe, to the literature that we read, to the food that we eat, to television programs, and so many other things. All of these affect the inner life. That is pretty obvious, isn't it? The inner life and outer life are not separate. They are connected. We have a responsibility to understand the inner world, and we have a responsibility to live skillfully in the outer world. These two are not in any way mutually exclusive; they are interdependent.
In Canada there is a lot of talk of racism; unfortunately it's raising its ugly head. Consider a person who has a racist upbringing which causes him to perceive one part of society in a racist or bigoted way. Then the view he has alters his world, doesn't it? It alters the world he sees. It is a world of hatred and bigotry. His reality is actually created by his inner world. Or we could say, the way I view you is the way I'll affect you, and the way you affect me is the way I'll view you. The outer becomes what the inner dictates. And that can seem very real. This bigoted or racist viewpoint can seem like ultimate truth. As much as one might argue, this person would hold onto his view and thus be fixed in his own creation; suffer accordingly from that view, and never really understand why. To this person, the world would be that reality. In Buddhist contemplation, both of these aspects have to be considered. And what we try to see is that our life is this interdependence. It is neither just me, alone in the world, floating around as a kind of a satellite, but also neither just the outer world.
Now when the inner is not paid attention to in the proper way, or when it is obsessively paid attention to in an improper way, then that creates all kinds of problems in family life. If the inner isn't paid attention to then we either act on impulses which are unskillful, or we deny aspects of our heart through constant distraction. This lack of attention to our inner world creates confusion around us. The Buddhist teaching encourages us to take responsibility for the inner world. Basically it means that when we relate to each other we should speak from a basis of compassion, not from greed, hatred, or delusion. All right - that is a pretty easy thing to say, but it is often quite hard to enact. Confusion, delusion, fear, all kinds of expectations that we have for each other, demands we make of each other - all of these come from a place which is not compassionate. For instance, I can make demands on you because I want you to be a certain kind of person, not because I feel compassionate and care for you.
I remember as a child, being from a refugee family and wanting my parents to be ordinary (whatever that was in Canada) and feeling embarrassed at speaking a foreign language. Rather than seeing the suffering of my parents and their tremendous courage, my own fears and my own insecurities projected demands on them, which was very painful. Even though I had terrific parents who were really very kind and generous, my own fears created suffering in my heart as well as theirs.
Several years ago my father and I took a walk together. It was a long walk... He said to me, "Why didn't you ever listen to me when you made your decisions?" And my perception was, "Why didn't you ever ask?" Here were two good people who had lived together for many years but hadn't really communicated. One expecting the other to say something but nothing ever happening. Who was right and who was wrong? I don't know, there is no blame. These are the kinds of problems that arise in the family when we're not awake, not aware. Strangely enough, however, when we awaken to our own inner world we also become more sensitive to those around us. What happens if we don't do that, if we don't understand our inner being, then what? Let's say we're acting from greed. If I want status, recognition, or power, then this is a form of wanting for myself. The result is that the other people in the family are no longer human, they become objects. If I don't take responsibility for greed at least in some way, then what happens? Then I look at you in order to fulfill my greed. I don't look at you as a human being anymore; instead you are an object of my desires. You are no longer a person who wants to be happy, you are something that is either in the way of my happiness, or you're some kind of a tool to fulfill my needs. This is how we lose our humanity, and when we begin to manipulate each other. Consequently this is when we suffer.
When I don't take responsibility for anger in my heart, then what happens? If you are the person who is making me angry then again you become an object. That is, you are no longer a person who suffers like I suffer, and who wants happiness as I want happiness. Since you are an object that is doing something wrong, I therefore have to somehow change you. Making you the object of my anger, we both lose our humanity. Fear, doubt, and worry function in the same way. They take away from our humanity and our ability to relate sincerely with others. And yet these are very human qualities. It is very human to have anger. It is very human to feel fear. So in one sense we have to accept our inner feelings, but also we have to take responsibility for them. Taking responsibility means we awaken to the unskillful ness of living on energies based upon greed, hatred and delusion.
Even when we do act from greed, hatred and confusion, we still want to be happy. We all have desires, don't we? All of us have a yearning in our hearts to be happy, if we didn't we would not be human. It's not that wanting is bad. This is just the nature of our lives. But we must want in a skillful manner. I want to be happy and that's why I'm a monk. Sometimes Buddhists say we can't have any wanting. Well, that's silly. When we come here to the temple we want knowledge, we want to contemplate Dhamma. Wanting is natural. However, we must ask ourselves, "What is the deepest fulfillment of wanting? Where do we find true fulfillment?" Buddhism describes true fulfillment in terms of wisdom and compassion. Look at the times when you have been able to relate to others with no demands or expectations, with an open and generous heart. Didn't you also feel liberated from wanting? The end of wanting has to do with giving and unconditional love, rather than acquiring something I want or getting rid of something I don't want.
But how do you manage to love unconditionally when it is human to feel fear, when it is human to have anger, and to worry? Just how in the world can a person succeed in this? The answer to how we can love unconditionally is found within the Buddhist way of transformation, which means actually practicing the Dhamma. It doesn't come for free. When you take the precepts you don't get your Buddhist-badge, and then think, "OK, now I'm going to be a nice Buddhist, and love everyone, and love my kids all the time, and my kids will love me, and we'll live happily ever after".
To facilitate inner transformation our lifestyle is tremendously important. If our standards of outer behavior are confused and insensitive to others, then inner transformation is not possible. If I cheat on my taxes I will be fearfully waiting for the knock of the tax collector on my door. Thus our responsibility to the outer - those with whom we live and the environment we dwell in - is based on the basic moral principles of not harming oneself or others with action or speech. As well as moral responsibility we need to be careful about our business affairs. If we are continually living on bank overdrafts our minds will be preoccupied with financial survival rather than inner transformation. Thus the practical aspects of making a living and paying the bills are very important to the spiritual life. Most of you who are here tonight have been very diligent in acquiring worldly skills so that you can live comfortably and offer good opportunities for your children. This is very good. As an end in itself, though, it will not bring fulfillment. A stable lifestyle does, however, give you the opportunity to observe the inner world and practice the transformation of the heart. This is part of the good kamma of all your diligent efforts to establish a stable household life.
The practice of Dhamma is the way of transformation, and is the priority in family life. It's really understanding the heart and using family life as a spiritual vehicle. And as a Dhamma vehicle, what we mean is that the family is not there to make me happy. The family is not there to make me secure, the kids aren't there to fulfill my desires, and my parents aren't there to cook my meals and wash my clothes. Rather, the family is an opportunity for me to let go of selfishness and develop the compassionate heart. When family life is a vehicle for self-gratification, however, everyone becomes a loser. We sometimes project onto children or parents what we think they should be. We forget their humanity, and we don't touch their hearts. And how do we touch each other's humanity? It's when we can look beyond our expectations, projections, demands, and fears, and say, "This person is a human being. This person suffers like I suffer. This person has moods, this person wants to be happy, this person doesn't like pain." This ability to change our perception is the essence of Buddhist transformation of heart.
Whether it is monastic life or family life, the same kind of transformation applies. I can only talk from my own experience, but if one of my fellow monks is in a bad mood and I don't want that, then he becomes an object of my irritation. The trick is for me to change that perception in that moment and to think "Well although he's irritating me now, he's also probably suffering, and he wants to be happy. I've been there, he's like me." Now to actually change one's mind in order to perceive the world differently is very difficult. Why is it so difficult? Because we get so pulled by the perceptions of selfishness that arise. So this is the Buddhist work of transformation: to actually feel the sense of fear, anger, or worry, and in that moment to transform it. This transformation really takes place in friction, in argument, in contention, where we don't get along. We can then begin to feel these things arise, become more conscious of them, and then change our perceptions. That's real practice. It's what we call "marketplace practice," or "watching TV practice," or "sitting at the dinner table practice", or whatever. It's not in the temple, it's in our hearts. Sitting meditation will not necessarily heal that for you. It has be done when our buttons get pressed.
Now, on the external level, there is still the requirement that society has legal systems, and we have to be responsible within these laws. Similarly, parents are responsible for kids, and they have to lay down the law. It's necessary because they have more experience, and they're paying the bills, too! Parents must direct children, but the direction must be from wisdom, not from anger. It has to be directed from freedom rather than from enslavement, otherwise it doesn't work. We don't just say "May you be happy, may you be happy," and just let things happen. Instead, we direct, we say "Yes!" or "No!" But it's the attitude that's behind the words which really counts.
Dhamma is the first priority and good decisions are made from this foundation. I think the clarity of a parent saying "no" or "yes" comes from the compassionate heart. It is not compassionate, however, to say "yes" to everything that a child wants. That's one of the worst things that you can do for a child, isn't it? "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, Johnny,"...and Johnny is going to hate you when he is 28! The idea that compassion is some kind of indulgence - that's not it. Compassion is a strength . People are often unsure what is meant by compassion. They sometimes mistake infatuation or attachment for compassion. When we love someone in a passionate way the love may easily change to anger or jealousy. If this is what's happening we can't call it compassion. Attachment is very up and down but compassion is calm. It is not a demand that you make me happy. It is not an expectation of fulfillment from someone else. Instead compassion is a concern for the welfare of others irrespective of one's own desires. Thus, when we are compassionate we make the best choices and decisions because we have a clarity that isn't prejudiced by personal desires and fears.
Much of the work of transformation involves patience because we often don't get what we want or expect from life. For example, if I have to catch a train or a plane to come up here to Auckland I can get very impatient when we are late. In the monastery I'll say, "O.K. I've got to be at the airport and I want the car ready at such and such a time." Life is unpredictable, and invariably something goes wrong and I can get very impatient - justifiably so, of course! But that's where I can develop patience. Where else can I develop patience except in the midst of frustration? I won't develop patience when all my desires are being satisfied. The work of transformation takes place right there where I can't get what I want.
Many people expect the world to be a place that's always going to make them happy. Within a family, people may think, "If my kids were always good, if they weren't so difficult," or "If my parents were always calm, and if they weren't so old fashioned, then life would be great." or " If my partner was different, I'd be happy." If we have this type of thinking, we're going to be waiting a long time before we're satisfied. It's a foolish view, isn't it, to think that if the whole world was just right I wouldn't suffer. In other words, if the whole world would fit my desire patterns; if it met all my expectations, then I'd be happy. Well, the world isn't that way, is it?
One of the greatest difficulties in using family life as a spiritual vehicle is the tendency to project our passions and inner turmoil onto the members of our family. For instance, I might feel bored in a marriage and project this onto my partner. Rather than contemplating boredom as Dhamma, I might easily blame my partner thinking that I was unable to realize true fulfillment because of them. This wouldn't be very honest, in fact we would call it delusion. The same holds true for anger, jealousy, fear and worry. These things seem so real and we can thus easily create a world of suffering around them. Look at the times we have been angry. Hasn't the anger seemed very true? "Yes, you are a fool. You are wrong," and the mind goes on and on. Perhaps we have yelled at someone, and afterwards felt embarrassed by our own foolishness. Yet at the time it seemed that the world was really that way. This is the nature of delusion. The confusion of the inner world projects onto those around us creating family situations which become even more confusing. Let's take greed. How many times have we felt we really need something? Then we go and buy it and a few months later it's collecting dust in a corner of the room. We didn't really need it but it certainly seemed that way at the time. It is this tendency to believe in greed or anger or fear as a reality that we call delusion or ignorance.
The interdependence between inner and outer means that when I believe in anger my world is an angry world; when I believe in worry my world is an anxious world; when I believe in fear it is a threatening world. This tendency to believe and hence follow all the whims and passions of the inner world is the greatest source of family strife. And yet because we are human, the tendencies of anger, greed and worry are bound to come up in family life. What are we to do?
For me the secret is to see the arising of inner suffering as a chance for transformation, a chance to see old patterns of ignorance. By not believing them, I can watch them fade away and their power to delude me will diminish. In Buddhism we say that ignorance is not knowing, or not seeing clearly. This is not a lack of academic understanding but a lack of insight into the way things are, a lack of heartfelt understanding. If we can be fully sensitive to our inner world and yet not blindly believe in our projections, then family life is a wonderful possibility for inner freedom and outer harmony.
When we speak of awareness or mindfulness being the path to freedom it means that we are fully aware of things like anger, fear, and jealously. But we see them as conditions of mind rather than concrete realities. If these things change and we don't believe in them, then our world is not conditioned by them. So whether I'm angry at the kids, the dog, the government or my in-laws, it's just anger. Don't attach and don't create a world around it. Be patient - it will pass.
If I crave a new car, a new computer, a better stereo then it's all just craving. Better to be patient and watch craving cease, rather than feed the endless cravings that our consumer society stimulates. What do television adverts tell people all day long? - "If you get this you'll really be happy, you'll really be satisfied." And so you get it, and you get it, and you get it, and you never look at the getting. It never leads to an end of craving. So I want to own something, the latest whatever. It's not that we deny the desire to want things, but to actually move to something more peaceful, you have to act in that moment, you have to give that up. How do you do that? If you can say, " I don't need that, I can do without that", then that's a transformation of the heart and the mind. This is not repression, but a movement towards the peace of the mind. Whatever it is, whether it is the greed for things, or the anger at people, or the fears and worries that we have - to make it conscious, to transform, to let go, is an arduous practice. It's not ascetic in the sense that you have to torture yourself but transformation does mean that you have to give up a lot. The idea that we can be free and peaceful and follow any old mood - it can't work that way.
Family life can at times flow with love and harmony, but it can also be fraught with difficulties. Even if everything is relatively safe and comfortable, the future is uncertain and so worry is a common problem in family life. We may be made redundant. Our children may fail at school. We may get sick in the future. The worry-mind is not proud, it will grab at anything and worry. So whether it's my job, my mortgage, the size of my middle-age stomach or what my neighbors think of me - it's all just worry. The complications of life can be accommodated by skillful living and adapting to life's changes. If, however, worry is a strong habit, it will keep muttering away in the back of our minds no matter what we do. So how can we go beyond worry? How can we move to a more trusting and peaceful heart, and what actually can we trust in?
Well, you can't trust in anything that is subject to change - that's all uncertain. You can't trust in your body staying healthy; you can't trust in the economy; you can't trust in having a permanent job. So what can you trust in? Well, in Buddhism we say you can trust in the Three Refuges. You can trust in your capacity to be awake and to be aware - this is Buddha. You can trust in the Truth of the way things are - this is Dhamma. You can trust in the goodness of your intentions, in the goodness of your moral and generous actions - this is Sangha. For instance if you feel angry and you trust that anger, what happens? In a word - suffering! But if you trust in knowing that this is the feeling of anger, that this is an object of mind and not a permanent reality, then this is wise knowing - our refuge in Buddha. If you trust that this anger will pass and you need not repress nor indulge, then this is in harmony with nature and is our refuge in Dhamma. Even though the anger pulls you towards violence, you trust in the virtue of not harming others - this is refuge in Sangha.
This third refuge of Sangha stands for the practice of transformation, that is, being a good person and actually doing it. Being a good person is very difficult, but having an idea of being a good person is easy. Perhaps I sit there in the morning and say to myself, "Today I'll be a good person and I won't make any mistakes. I'll listen to Bhante's talk, trust everything, won't overeat, be fearless, and have compassion for my kids." So you set up your program but feel very disappointed at the end of the day and even end up hating yourself. Instead, if one says, "When fear arises I'm going to develop trust. I'm going to observe it and know it as a condition of mind rather than believing it as a permanent reality," then what happens? Then we are beginning to trust in transformation rather than fear. In the same way, when anger arises we can try to transform that into patience and compassion. When greed arises we can be aware and transform that into renunciation - giving up what we don't need. It's not just an ideal, it's something we can do.
You can't get it perfect immediately, but you can make an intention. Buddhist practice is very much based on right intention or right suggestion. We have to make the right suggestions to ourselves and to our families. If I make this suggestion to you, "You're a no good creep!" , then what's that going to do to you? Well, you're going to feel like a no good creep, or you're going to hate me. So that's not a healthy suggestion. If I make that suggestion to myself, "I'm a no good creep!" that's not healthy either. What I must do is to make compassionate suggestions such as, "May I be free from anger. May I be free from greed. May I be free from fear." These are good suggestions to make. On the other hand, if I wake up in the morning, and it's winter, and it's rainy and gray, and the economy is going down the tube, and I've just heard about another six rapes in Auckland, and fourteen murders, and I'm very depressed, and then I turn on the radio to get more news, and I get more depressed, then my first thought is of course: "Life is miserable but I have to go to work, and oh, what a terrible country it is....." What kind of suggestion is that? That's a suggestion of misery. And that's what I create in my world. Therefore I must move away from that kind of suggestion. When my mind says " I can't take it anymore"....I wake up! Then I can say "So that's what it's like to feel miserable." And as I see this, then the misery just becomes an object. It has no power, it is something that can be known.
So, I have a choice. I can believe in my misery, or I can let go. The way to let go is to say "I'm going to try to be more aware today. I'm going to try to be more sensitive to the people around me, I'm going to try to be more compassionate to myself." These are beautiful suggestions to the heart. This doesn't sound like much, but contemplate your own mind. How often in the day do you make skillful suggestions to yourself and how often do you just go on automatic pilot? Being on automatic pilot is very dangerous because you can run into mountains. And the way we think when we are on automatic pilot is often negative, " Life is miserable... mumble... groan... these kids, or these parents... nah, nah...." But to awaken means that we no longer run on automatic pilot. It means we are fully alive. To notice a thought which is unskillful, such as the thought of worry, the thought of fear, the thought of anger, is the way of mindfulness. And then to not invest any energy into all of that is the way of transformation. It's a lifetime's work and we keep having to do it. Because it is a lifetime's work we must always be compassionate to ourselves. If we judge ourselves all the time, it just does not work.
The way of transformation means that we take responsibility for our wrong actions and wrong speech. We develop right intention by thinking "That's an area where I have to work, I have to make more effort, I have to be more awake, I have to transform." There is a sense of personal responsibility, isn't there? If I blame the world around me, if I'm never awake to the fact that I'm angry, if I'm never awake to the fact that I'm full of worry or if I'm never aware that I always want something else then I can't be at peace. I will always need something else. I will always need some kind of distraction or I will always need to get rid of something. There will be no peace for me nor for my family.
If we are to realize our human potential and not just live at the animal level, we must fully awaken to life. Being awake to our inner world with all of it's passions and energies is part of being truly alive. We sometimes call this the practice of Buddha knowing Dhamma. If we can't be fully awake then the life of the individual and the life of the family becomes an aimless succession of actions and reactions. The joyous possibility of family life as spiritual transformation is lost.
Just as it is harmful to follow negative patterns of mind, it is also harmful to hate these patterns and deny and repress them. So what is the Middle Way? It means that we honestly see tendencies that cause confusion in our own hearts and that create suffering in our families. We put forth the effort to practice transformation, being willing to work on that for a lifetime.
It is often noticed that a great many human problems are caused by miscommunication. But how many people do we really communicate well with? What does to "communicate well" mean? Does it just mean I like you, you like me, we have the same political ideas, or the same social and religious ideas, and we both can natter on endlessly, agree with each other and feel good about that? Is that really communication? Or is it just the exchanging of views and opinions which makes us feel that we have something in common we can talk about?
"To commune" is to have intimate discussion together, but so much of our communication isn't that. So much of it keeps the self- view intact, keeps us separate, and there is no intimacy, no mingling, in that kind of speech. Words can be used to firm up the whole structure of self and this isn't really what is true. Truthful or honest speech is a very radical thing, much more difficult than is often imagined. To speak truly means one has to be vulnerable and open, sensitive and deeply honest as to how things are in oneself. It is not possible to really communicate truth if one is holding on or holding back, if one is predominantly biased by fears and desires. Communication in this way is always slightly missing the mark, it's always misrepresenting something. It's not the whole truth.
In spiritual life we explore the possibility that our words can admit a greater intimacy. We need to give our deeper nature a chance, to allow beautiful and true words to come out from the silence of our hearts. Sharing in this new way can be difficult, for it also involves learning to listen, and to listen we have to have some space inside ourselves, be patient and not react. Through being careful that speech does not run ahead of mindfulness, we ensure that we don't create an inner disturbance for ourselves or other beings. If we can stay with the truth, we spread harmony, bring people together and unite hearts.
The Resolution of Conflict
By Ajahn Munindo
We are all familiar with the experience of conflict. At the moment the world scene is in such an intensely conflicting state that it is dominant in people's minds. If we cannot come to terms with this then it is difficult to come to terms with being a human being. The Buddhist approach to conflict is not one of simply trying to exterminate it. Conflict is not seen as wrong in itself, part of being human involves experiencing difficulty, frustration and disappointment. It's how to work with it, how to find a realistic relationship with it. How can we experience life without being crushed by it? We do not want to compromise the potential of a human existence which, from the Buddhist perspective, is for unconditioned compassion and wisdom. To realize this potential is the point of being a human being, and to the degree that we do not have a right relationship with conflict, then to that degree we compromise our potential of compassion and wisdom.
In Buddhism the teaching of the Four Noble Truths sets forth a pattern for relating to life. I will present this pattern briefly and then examine how we can make it practical in our daily lives. The First Noble Truth is the recognition of conflict itself, or suffering. The Second is recognizing what causes this suffering, what obstructs our ability to effectively work with it. The Third is the realization of the ending of suffering, or it's resolution. Finally the Fourth Noble Truth is called the Way, or the manifestation of this resolution in the world.
We all experience conflict - everyone has this in their lives - but somewhere along the line in growing up, we develop, from what Buddhists would call the seeds of ignorance, very subtle ways of not acknowledging life, not receiving the bits that we don't like. What happens is that we get alienated from life - Christians would call it sin, or alienation from the Divine, the Godhead. What happens is that the things we like and the things we dislike set up conflict in our minds and we start picking and choosing. We get all sorts of frustration as a result and the more this increases, the more we make an effort to just not feel it. This happens in everyday life from the time we are born, and the sad thing is, that if we are not very careful we can lose touch with the capacity to say "this hurts."
So the First Noble Truth is remembering our capacity for receiving conflict and suffering. Basically it's knowing that it is the case. People talk about the sense of inadequacy they feel when they hear all the horrendous things in the news. They just start to become resistant to it and not feel it anymore. So the first point in practice is learning how to feel again, because if we cannot receive our suffering then we cannot begin to work with it.
By recapturing our capacity for feeling life, we can then investigate the Second Noble Truth, the cause of conflict. This means investigating the dynamic of picking and choosing - "I like this, I don't like that." The emphasis that we give to our preferences creates this strong sense of ME, with all my wants and desires. There is an enormous amount of energy in desire, and to break out of the patterns of struggling with life, we have to understand this wrong relationship with wanting.
The Third Noble Truth, is that once we bring the light of awareness to bear on the process of conflict in the moment, then we start to release out of it. And if the practice goes the whole way we release out of it completely, which in Buddhist language is called enlightenment, liberation, which is our goal. To be clear that there is such a goal is very important, because when we have a clear appreciation of this possibility, energy can arise within us to do something about it.
The Fourth Noble Truth, the Eightfold Path, is living in a way that honors this insight that release from suffering is possible. The Buddha himself said "I teach suffering and the ending of suffering." So anything which effectively brings us to a recognition and acceptance of conflict - not being crushed by it, not being lost in it - but being clearly receptive, and then releasing out of it, that would be called Buddhism.
The theory I've outlined so far is 50% of the story; the practice is the other 50%. This is like having two legs to go forward on. So how can we put this into practice? There is so much conflict around, both internally and externally, and most of us have tried all sorts of means to get away from it. Some of these means are less valid than others, some are a bit dangerous, some are not daring enough. But eventually we find out that merely avoiding conflict does not work. We come back and realize for ourselves that "I don't want to suffer," "I do not want to spend all my life running away from conflict, having to always go and see someone else to solve my problems, or being told what to do by the newspapers and television." We just want to get free. Is it possible to live life without it being an ordeal? We reach the point where this question takes priority.
The Four Roads Of Success
In practical terms we as Buddhists sometimes reflect on the teaching of the "Four Roads of Success" (iddhipada). These are chanda, viriya, citta andvimamsa, which I like to translate as; enthusiasm or interest, energy, integration or stability, and discernment.
The first, enthusiasm, means reconnecting with that which we are personally most interested in. If we don't know what we are interested in, then we don't have any energy. We had a retreat in the monastery recently, and on the first night I went around asking people individually the following; Imagine you are on your deathbed, knowing that your life is coming to a close, and someone that you really care about comes to you and asks; "Please tell me what is really important, what matters most to you in life?" I asked this because I wanted to help them connect with what is important, because this is where our energy lies.
People often never stop to consider this, but this is where the religious path begins. What really matters, not superficially, but in a deep way? When we were young life promised to be an enormous amount of fun. Running along on a hill or a beach, getting into flowers, throwing our food around, and having cuddles - all kinds of wonderful possibilities! Of course as we grow up we want to be free and independent, but the great lesson in life is that for every increase in freedom there is also an increase in responsibility. Somehow with the dawning of this sense of responsibility there is a decrease in the sense of aliveness, vitality and enthusiasm. Often it's because we are thinking about what we are supposed to be doing rather than feeling what we are supposed to be doing. So in the cultivation of awareness, this is one of the first places that we start, asking in a feeling way; "what am I interested in, what matters most?" In this process people tend to work initially through layers of superficial values, until they come to the deeper ones.
We learn not only to ask the right questions, but to ask in the right way. If we ask arrogantly "what can I do to be happy?" from the perspective of "my happiness," then we won't get the right answers. We have to ask carefully, without being selfish or demanding. Instead of "how can I get what I want?", we start to ask questions like "What accords with increased honesty, increased wholeness? What accords with the welfare of everybody?" This is actually very creative, as no doctrine can connect us with this enthusiasm, and it's not something we can be taught. We are asking these kinds of questions because we are interested for ourselves. So recognizing and activating enthusiasm and interest is the first Road to Success.
The second is energy, which flows on from the first, because when we know what we are interested in, we are also at one with our own energy. The energy that is in the heart, or the energy of consciousness itself, is what we are tapping into. All of us can look back in our lives to times when we have been really enthusiastic about something and then notice how much energy there was for that. Maybe we were enthusiastic about getting a job, or perhaps it was when we first met somebody who we thought we'd like to spend the rest of our life with. Falling in love is an incredible symptom of enthusiasm, and there is an enormous energy there. But if this energy is not tamed, then once it is accessed it can do a great amount of damage.
So we go beyond the shallow desires for self-gratification by asking the right questions. In doing so we start to discover something that feels deep, although we may have no clear concept for it. Feeling our way into these right questions, we tap into our own energy. In learning how to do this, we start letting go of the false energies. We develop what I call a "false energy detector." This means noticing whatever habits we may have which are not sustainable, or are dishonest. A most coarse example would be indulgence in alcohol or drugs, but other sources of false energy could be feeding off praise, success, reputation and pleasure, or feeding off someone else's energy in a relationship. Whether we are completely enlightened or totally unenlightened, we all experience praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and suffering and honor and insignificance. But if we are really locked into any one aspect of life then I consider that false energy. You can see people that develop some skill and get a little success; they lock in and identify with it and great enthusiasm can come. It could be military success, artistic or professional success, or success in relationships. But if we grasp and attach, then we turn what is potentially good wholesome energy into false energy. So we need to recognize what is good, sustainable energy, and how to tap into it and receive it inwardly. We then feel the joy that comes from getting off the addictions, even the subtle ones, that keep us hooked. Rather than judging and condemning ourselves for all our false energies - saying we shouldn't be drinking, or we shouldn't be uptight, we discover that it all depends on how we relate to our energy and enthusiasm, and how we receive it.
These various qualities have to be balanced, because we can very easily go off into too much enthusiasm and interest, and not know how to integrate them. Like getting carried away by causes, for instance, which can be very deceiving. We may be feeling rather dull and lifeless, and then find a cause, like saving the whales, or even a religious cause. But excessive enthusiasm which is expressed in an immature and imbalanced way can actually create division in the world, and cause suffering. This leads to the Third Road of Success which is tranquility or stability. Learning how to be still which is the practice of integrating energy so it accords with wholeness. This means simply doing what we are doing, and this is a discipline that we can bring into our everyday lives. Washing the dishes - can we just wash the dishes? When it comes to integration, it's a matter of no longer picking and choosing or giving preference to any subject, no matter how inspiring or important it appears to be. We understand that if we can't let go and simply be still, then we are running the risk of being obsessed.
This point is sometimes misunderstood by people who may have been hurt as a result of getting caught up in false energy. They hear about the Buddhist teaching which talks about tranquility and stability and like the sound of it. They learn a basic meditation technique, like concentrating on the end of their nose and breathe in and out, trying not to think about anything, and settle the matter there and then. They may experience a wonderful sense of well-being and stillness by focusing the mind in this way, but it's very important to understand the way this works, otherwise this can become become another source of addiction. In other words, engaging in tranquility practices is not something we are doing as a judgment of the world, or a judgment of sensuality, or of activity or thinking. The capacity for discernment and thinking is a wonderful ability that we have. We may be concerned that we think too much and want to stop it - and then through meditation practice willfully focus and just wipe it out. But using willpower in that way can make us very dull and stupid.
My teacher in Thailand Ajahn Chah once said that chickens sit on their eggs for a long time, but they are still very stupid. Sometimes his monks would complain that there wasn't enough time to sit and meditate, but he would reflect back the need to be able to meditate while one is working. So this is a word of caution about tranquility meditation. It's proper function is to teach us how to rebalance too much energy or enthusiasm about anything in life. Learning how to make ourselves whole. Breath meditation is good for this, and it has been employed by many of the world's religious traditions. We find it in Buddhism and Christianity, in Pranayama Yoga, and as chi in Taoism, chi meaning breath. And the word spirit comes from spiritus which also means breath.
Breath meditation is very important, but one of the things that has been discovered by Westerners who have been practicing this for the last couple of decades, is that just picking up an Asian manual on meditation is not enough. If our approach is a willful one, then we may get impressive results, but it may not be balanced. So in referring to breath meditation, there are for most Westerners many obstructions that are held in the breath-body, and if we engage in traditional meditation techniques without properly preparing ourselves, we can actually exacerbate a state of imbalance. Again, it has got to be done as a feeling investigation. As with any spiritual practice, we are doing it with mindfulness. If we are concentrating on breathing, the tip of the nose, abdomen or elsewhere, then it's a matter of feeling our way into it. If we are concentrating the mind in this way it can bring us to a state of balance and ease. Then our enthusiasm and energy is enhanced by being able to come to this place of stillness.
The Fourth Road of Success is discernment. If you don't have this, then you may access enormous energy and interest, but get into such a state of stillness that you have tunnel vision, and lose perspective. Developing a broad perspective means being agile and fluid and able to change one's outlook on things. With discernment we do not just engage in things in a limited way, but have the agility of mind to take the opposite perspective, and then see the effect. Someone was telling me that he used to get upset driving over to the monastery, as the road is very winding. This went on for quite a while before he started paying attention to his condition, and realized that he was not under any obligation to suffer. So he experimented with changing his perspective, and found that winding roads can be quite nice!
I have had a similar experience to this, as I never used to like traveling in airplanes. It wasn't so much the flying, but I have long legs and I used to find it embarrassing when I had to climb over people to go to the toilet. People look at you when you are wearing a robe, and I would always huddle up in the corner and hope that I didn't get noticed. There was also the immigration department and the customs. They would want to know everything that was in my bag and so on. And I used to get excruciating headaches at the airport, because people can be so emotionally dramatic at such places! Well I suffered for several years until I recognized that it was foolish - how can I go around as a Buddhist monk talking about the non-obligation to suffer, and then hate airports? After this consideration I was able to change my perspective: I'm going to love and enjoy airports and plane flights. We have to approach the predicament of conflict in the same way. If we are willing to change our perspective, then instead of operating under the presumption that we are obliged to suffer, or must remain victims, we dare to assume a completely different perspective. Now whenever I get a chance to fly, everything is much better.
Cultivation of Awareness
So there are these Four Roads of Success. If we are really interested in resolving the fundamental conflict and suffering in life, then we must realize that it takes all four. If we get stuck with only one or two of them, then we are liable to miss the point of our good effort. We must contemplate all four and then work with them in a balanced way in our daily life. This daily life practice, whether it is in or outside a monastery, really concerns how we perceive and receive life. As I have mentioned, the Buddhist teachings are telling us that the awareness by which we receive life can be cultivated. If our awareness is contracted, then our ability to receive things is also limited. It's like receiving guests into a house where all of the rooms but one, are untidy. If we have a lot of guests, then we are going to feel very cramped! The experience for many of us is that we don't have a lot of space to receive life into. There is so much that needs to be dealt with. The world is actually more of an internal affair, rather than merely an external one, so wherever we are it's learning how to work with awareness itself so we can open it up and receive guests into every room in the house. Open the windows, breathe easily and let the air flow through, and enjoy receiving guests - even the ones you don't like. Be determined to be a good host. Even if totally objectionable relatives come to visit, you know your duty as a host is to receive them, offer them hospitality and hope they do not stay too long! And usually they don't - what makes them stay too long is if you engage with them. If they are particularly nasty they love a conflict, so if you get into conflict with them they will stay longer.
This is how it is with a lot of the stuff that comes to visit us - if we engage in a mode of conflict it will hang around. What we are interested in is how to engage without getting into conflict, which is to freely receive our feelings with mindfulness. For instance, say you are a householder and you have to do a budget. You don't like doing it, but the fact is you have to. What is important is, can you do it and not suffer? Can we budget the year, or fill out our tax forms and not suffer? Can we sit in the same office with the same objectionable characters and not suffer? If we can accept that there is a possibility that we can meet life with all of it's agreeable and disagreeable aspects and not suffer, then that inclination of faith will help us to get in touch with what we call the Middle Way. One extreme would be to pretend we don't feel what we feel, and the other, to get completely lost in our feelings. But being in touch with the Middle Way means being right there for the feeling.
Daily Life Practice
This practice of mindfulness in daily life is done within the context of the moral discipline of the Five Precepts. This establishes us in training the wild passions that we experience. If we do not exercise any restraint and just do whatever we feel, then it upsets everyone else. And if other people are not restraining themselves, then it upsets me. So the training is a humanization of the wild passions, not a rejection or judgment of them. If we start to meet situations accurately, by applying mindfulness in the moment, then we start to discover that there is an intuition within us, a level of intelligence that gets higher and higher, not in terms of accumulated information, but accumulated sensitivity and capacity for discernment. This gets higher to the degree that we are more open, and more free from picking and choosing. Then we can discern how to proceed.
So long as there is a world, we can never get rid of conflict. But it is our relationship to it that is important. Now there are some types of gross conflicts in a worldly situation which compromise any sense of decency, and of course, we want to be effective in changing these. Like exploitation on a national scale, or individually, as in child abuse. We want to deal with these things directly. But on another level, to expand our appreciation of conflict and accommodate it, is a very constructive way of getting energy. For instance, being able to hold in consciousness an absolutely impossible dilemma. Like a relationship that has got to the point where you just don't know if you should go on or not. Or in a monastic situation where a monk or a nun has got to the point where they feel it is just not working. Now that could be the point where they break through into a new reality where something really starts to happen. Like a chicken breaking out of an egg - that chicken must be really uptight in there just before it comes out, hot and clammy and fed up and really irritated. Then pecking through the shell and coming out, it must be very scary going to a new and larger reality. But fear does not necessarily mean that something is going wrong. Fear in this sort of conflict can be very creative. To have the feeling awareness in the mind and body to hold both aspects of a dilemma; "Should I or should I not do anything? - I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO".
This is where our addiction to the certainty of knowing has to be looked at. When we are still attached to being right, we have a minimal capacity for holding conflict. So much of our education is about being right - we get all the points for saying "I know". Whoever taught us the virtue of saying "I don't know?" There is so much within ourselves and outwardly that we don't know, that it is important to be able to hold that state of not knowing. A consequence of right spiritual training is the ability to open up to the mystery of life and hold it, not just conceptually or in abstract, but actually feeling it, letting it shake us, letting it make us wobble. If you stay there until the wobbling settles, then you know you have a greater capacity for holding uncertainty. You know for yourself, not because someone has told you, but because you have realized it.
Mindfulness, the most important point in this practice, means being able to receive conflict freely. This is the bottom line in all spiritual practice; to be able to receive life, which is conflict, without collapsing around it. Our habitual response when we feel conflict is to say "I don't want it," and then our energy goes up into the head and we 'psychologise' and philosophize about how we can get away from it. We really want to know and be right, but if our relationship to the desire to be right is obsessive, then there is an equal, opposite counter-force of the fear of being wrong. It's horrendous to live within the shadow of that fear.
Awareness practice is being able to hold conflict in a feeling way, so that it gives the potential for new insight and understanding. Something new can never come out of a low energy state, so it can be a great blessing to know how to properly receive an utterly impossible situation. If we have been gentled somewhat, if we know how to receive life in humility, then we can let all the energies course through us - grief, sorrow, misunderstandings - not knowing if they will come to an end, but not sinking into a pathetic resignation that we are going to be a victim for the rest of our lives. Receiving life in this way, something new can come out of it. This is where new things come from - out of conflict.
Walking on the spiritual path, we are drawn into the company of those people with whom we have affinities. Such association may grow to become a great source of mutual support and nourishment. In practice, this occurs through acts of generosity, kindness, forgiveness and acceptance, which create more trust and openness, and deepen our sensitivity to each other. We honor this sensitivity by not transferring our own ideals, demands and negativity onto our friends, or fixing them as certain characters in our personal world. By releasing them from these limiting perceptions, we allow them to be just who they are.
Therefore our friendship is not based on desire, it's based on giving, a giving that more and more does not depend on how the other is appearing, emotionally, physically or in any other way. It is not tending to affirm or reinforce the sense of "me" as separate, needy and unfulfilled, and thus encourages freedom from the self-definition. In its deepest aspect, such a relationship holds the potential for the mystery of sacred communion; the letting go of self in the company of another.
This human possibility invites us to be increasingly courageous in how much love we are willing to give, and how much of ourselves we are willing to let go of. And if our reflections on life and death are accurate, we will also find ourselves asking; "why hold back?"