Tag Archives: Buddha

Right Effort: Training Your Mind


Having discussed the factors of moral discipline, or correct conduct (Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood), Bhikkhu Bodhi moves on to the three factors concerned with concentration — Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

In a wonderful text about the Noble Eightfold Path, this American-born Buddhist monk and scholar tells us:

Wisdom is the primary tool for deliverance, but the penetrating vision it yields can only open up when the mind has been composed and collected. Right concentration brings the requisite stillness to the mind by unifying it with undistracted focus on a suitable object. To do so, however, the factor of concentration needs the aid of effort and mindfulness.

Underlying and supporting Right Effort is the mental factor of Energy (viriya), which manifests in both wholesome and unwholesome forms.

The same factor fuels desire, aggression, violence, and ambition on the one hand, and generosity, self-discipline, kindness, concentration, and understanding on the other.

For us to direct this special energy toward the end of suffering, it must be guided by Right View and Right Intention — the first two elements on the Noble Eightfold Path. A newcomer to Buddhist thought should not allow this interpenetration of the elements of the path to cause frustration (this is me speaking, not Bhikkhu Bodhi); as each small concept becomes more familiar to us, and as we examine each one closely and patiently, the whole will integrate itself in time.

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

The reason why effort is so crucial is that each person has to work out his or her own deliverance. The Buddha does what he can by pointing out the path to liberation; the rest involves putting the path into practice, a task that demands energy. This energy is to be applied to the cultivation of the mind, which forms the focus of the entire path. [My italics.]

Right Effort is divided into four Great Endeavors, which I have paraphrased:

  1. Prevent unwholesome states from arising
  2. Get rid of unwholesome states that have already arisen
  3. Evoke and encourage wholesome states
  4. Maintain and perfect wholesome states that have already arisen

Unwholesome states (akusala dhamma) are the three defilements (sometimes called the three poisons): greed, aversion, and delusion. These are what cause human suffering. Wholesome states (kusala dhamma) are those that contain nothing of the defilements and also lead toward liberation.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh helps us to understand the unwholesome states as seeds in our mind-store. He draws a big circle, then divides it into two halves with a wavy line. Now the circle looks like a yin-yang symbol. In the bottom half, he draws some little circles — these are the seeds. The top half is our conscious mind. The bottom half is the storage area of our mind (the subconscious, perhaps, but even more than that: memory, experience, and instinct are there as well).

The seeds in the mind-store are of two kinds: wholesome and unwholesome. Some of these seeds may never sprout (up in the conscious mind) in this lifetime, but many others will. The seed metaphor works beautifully with the idea of mental cultivation. In a garden we pull out weeds when they appear. We care for the good plants with water, light, and nutrients.

I may have overstepped by introducing Thich Nhat Hanh’s illustration, but it made a powerful impression on me. (You can see and hear it for yourself. Start at the 40-minute mark to go straight to this topic. See also a list of the 52 mental formations.)

Back to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s text: He introduces the Five Hindrances (pañcanivarana) that impede concentration:

  • Sensual desire
  • Ill will
  • Dullness and drowsiness
  • Restlessness and worry
  • Doubt

These five mess up our minds — they prevent us from focusing on what is most important.They block our progress on the path. So, naturally, we need to train our mind to overcome these hindrances.

“Sensual desire” sounds like it means sex, but in fact it means all cravings related to any of our senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. If I feel hungry when I am sitting in meditation, I start to think about food. That is sensual desire, interfering with my Right Effort.

About “ill will,” Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

[It] is a synonym for aversion. It comprises hatred, anger, resentment, repulsion of every shade, whether directed towards other people, towards oneself, towards objects, or towards situations.

This is especially important because while meditating, we often encounter things that are unpleasant. Thoughts and memories about our past will sprout up, and while we must look at these and consider them, what we need to cultivate is the ability to do so without  hatred, anger, resentment, or repulsion. That is part of our mind training.

I would point you to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s text for further explanation of the other three hindrances — all of which are familiar to everyone who has practiced meditation!

We must work diligently to overcome these, because

when the hindrances arise, they disperse attention and darken the quality of awareness, to the detriment of calm and clarity. The hindrances do not come from outside the mind but from within. They appear through the activation of certain tendencies constantly lying dormant in the deep recesses of the mental continuum, awaiting the opportunity to surface. [My italics.]

Contact with “sense objects” — that is, anything our senses can interact with — has a tendency to “stir up unwholesome states.” This is of course not only during meditation but all the time, while we are going about our day-to-day life.

[Sense objects] do this either directly, through their immediate impact, or else indirectly by depositing memory traces which later may swell up as the objects of defiled thoughts, images, and fantasies. As a general rule the defilement that is activated corresponds to the object: attractive objects provoke desire, disagreeable objects provoke ill will, and indeterminate objects provoke the defilements connected with delusion.

Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses how we can apply mindfulness and clear understanding to our encounters with sense objects. He compares an encounter without mindfulness to one in which mindfulness is applied:

One will grasp the sign of the object, explore its details, and thereby give the defilements their opportunity: on account of greed one will become fascinated by an agreeable object, on account of aversion one will be repelled by a disagreeable object. But when one applies mindfulness to the sensory encounter, one nips the cognitive process in the bud before it can evolve into the stages that stimulate the dormant taints.

This level of success is not easy to come by — but this is one of the outcomes of Buddhist practice. I think this description is a good indication of why our practice is called training the mind.

Bhikkhu Bodhi explains the various procedures for getting rid of an unwholesome state once it has arisen. For many such thoughts, this one will do the trick:

Instead of turning away from the unwanted thought, one confronts it directly as an object, scrutinizes its features, and investigates its source. When this is done the thought quiets down and eventually disappears. For an unwholesome thought is like a thief: it only creates trouble when its operation is concealed, but put under observation it becomes tame. [My italics.]

At the end of this section, Bhikkhu Bodhi turns to the wholesome states of mind, which are many, but which need our attention and cultivation to be able to grow and thrive. In particular, he says:

The Buddha lays special stress on a set called the seven factors of enlightenment (satta bojjhanga): mindfulness, investigation of phenomena, energy, rapture, tranquillity, concentration, and equanimity. [Further explanation is here.]

Those seven both lead to enlightenment and constitute enlightenment. Mindfulness, of course, is necessary for any part of this to work — and the next factor in the Noble Eightfold Path is, in fact, Right Mindfulness.


The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.

Right Livelihood: Your Outside Job


Of the eight factors in the Noble Eightfold Path, three concern moral discipline, or correct behavior in the world. These three are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.

I have been studying an excellent text about the Noble Eightfold Path, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, and blogging about each of the eight factors. This factor (the fifth one, as they are always listed) concerns how we make a living. Buddhist monks and nuns do not work for wages or produce products to sell (at least, not traditionally), so this factor addresses what lay Buddhists should and should not do to earn a living.

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes that income should be acquired

only by legal means, not illegally; one should acquire it peacefully, without coercion or violence; one should acquire it honestly, not by trickery or deceit; and one should acquire it in ways which do not entail harm and suffering for others.

So far so good, for most of us. But then we get to the list of five occupations to be avoided:

dealing in weapons, in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), in meat production and butchery, in poisons, and in intoxicants.

This raises a question as to whether a livestock farmer can be a Buddhist (among other questions). In theory I guess that if everyone in the world were a practicing Buddhist, we would all have to be vegetarians. And if we were all Buddhists, maybe we would not need armies or police forces.

The idea is that if your business or job has harmful consequences for others (not just other people, but animals too), it goes against Right Action and the essence of Right Intention.

So if we were all good Buddhists, there wouldn’t be any drug dealers or pimps.

There wouldn’t be any bars or liquor stores either.


The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.

Right Action: What You Do


Three factors of eight apply to moral discipline, or sila. These are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.

In his fine text about the Noble Eightfold Path, Bhikkhu Bodhi notes that sila is a bit challenging to translate into English. It’s a multipurpose word, and one of its meanings is virtue. It is also a word used for the Five Precepts (Panca Sila) that lay Buddhists take in making a formal commitment to practice. Four of those precepts are closely related to Right Action, and the fifth is closely related to Right Speech.

The precepts are worded a bit differently wherever you find them, but they boil down to the same five ideas: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, and no intoxication. If we remember the ideas behind Right Intention, the five make good sense.

Sometimes Buddhist teachers explain that we should perform no harmful actions with our body, speech, or mind. That takes the idea of action beyond the purely physical and helps us contemplate how thoughts can become actions in a split second.

In the context of the Noble Eightfold path, Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

The Buddha mentions three components of right action: abstaining from taking life, abstaining from taking what is not given, and abstaining from sexual misconduct.

He notes the important distinction that these proscribed actions assume intention. If you had no intention to step on that little ant, you have not broken the precept. If you stomp the ant deliberately, then you have broken the precept. He also points out that plants are not included among the beings we must not kill — only sentient beings are so protected.

Bhikkhu Bodhi does not mention indirect killing, such as the killing of animals and fish that we eat, even though someone else did the actual killing. For many Buddhists, this is a motivation for keeping a strict vegetarian diet; other Buddhists disagree. (There’s a good article about Buddhists and vegetarianism here.)

“Taking what is not given” can be broadened beyond theft and robbery to include deceitful actions, such as cheating someone in business. Greed or hatred will often be at the root of the desire to take something that belongs to someone else.

As telling the truth is the positive version of not telling lies, so honest interactions are the positive version of not stealing.

Another related virtue is contentment, being satisfied with what one has without being inclined to increase one’s wealth by unscrupulous means. The most eminent opposite virtue is generosity, giving away one’s own wealth and possessions in order to benefit others. [My italics.]

“Sexual misconduct” is always open to debate — but once again, Bhikkhu Bodhi emphasizes the positive fruits of following this precept: to promote trust and fidelity. If we think of all the ways we might harm others or ourselves (especially emotionally) by acting irresponsibly in sexual matters, this aspect of Right Action fits perfectly into the “big picture” of Buddhism. We must learn how to avoid creating more suffering for ourselves and others. Bhikkhu Bodhi runs down a list of “illicit partners,” but really that’s just common sense.

The principle does not, however, confine sexual relations to the marital union. It is flexible enough to allow for variations depending on social convention. The essential purpose, as was said, is to prevent sexual relations which are hurtful to others. When mature independent people, though unmarried, enter into a sexual relationship through free consent, so long as no other person is intentionally harmed, no breach of the training factor is involved.

Of course there is the expectation of celibacy for Buddhist monks and nuns who have been ordained. For lay people, there is no “bad sex” in Buddhism — there are only incorrect liaisons, which are those that are likely to cause suffering for at least one person.

In his discussion of Right Action, Bhikkhu Bodhi does not mention intoxicants — but they do turn up under the next section, about Right Livelihood.

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen Buddhist order, lay practitioners take the Five Mindfulness Trainings instead of the traditional Five Precepts. Each training is an expanded version of one of the precepts, which adds rather a lot more weight and responsibility. They can be compared with the traditional Five Precepts.


The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.

‘The Buddha’ on PBS


Wow, a two-hour documentary about the Buddha is coming on PBS — April 7, 2010 — see the Web site for details!

You can see some preview videos in the “Story and Teachings” section of the site.

PBS also notes that “customized curriculum guides for teaching mindfulness and compassion in the classroom, inspired by the Buddha,” will appear on the Web site later this year.

Crossing over the flood


The flood — the river of suffering. How should we cross over to the other shore beyond?

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Then a certain devata, in the far extreme of the night, her extreme radiance lighting up the entirety of Jeta’s Grove, went to the Blessed One. On arrival, having bowed down to him, she stood to one side. As she was standing there, she said to him, “Tell me, dear sir, how you crossed over the flood.”

“I crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place.”

“But how, dear sir, did you cross over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place?”

“When I pushed forward, I was whirled about. When I stayed in place, I sank. And so I crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place.”

It sounds like Zen, but in fact this Ogha-tarana Sutta comes from the Pali canon.


The ‘BS’ in what the Buddha said


I recently discovered another interesting Buddhist blog: “Dharma Folk.” A particularly good post there summarizes a lecture said to come from Gregory Schopen, a professor at UCLA:

As any translator is well aware, when you translate a text from another language, you are staking a claim on what was meant by these words. Every time there is an ambiguity, then you are the one the readers rely on to resolve this ambiguity. When you gloss over subtle meanings in the original text, you are implicitly saying that this nuance has no value.

We also should appreciate that for a few hundred years, the teachings of the Buddha were wholly and completely oral. That is, they were not written down. (The same is true of the Old Testament, of course, and famously true of the Iliad and the Odyssey). This is not to say that the teachings are unreliable, but only to remind us that it’s not as if we have a videotape of the actual words the Buddha spoke.

And even if we did — the meaning of words changes over time, even in their native language and original geographic location. An argument over the exact meaning of a term might be a fun intellectual activity, but we really can’t hope to time-travel back to 400 BCE, or thereabouts, and obtain the actual words spoken.


Kerouac’s life of the Buddha


Yesterday I got the chance to read a few articles in the winter issue of Tricycle magazine. Evan Brenner wrote a review (pp. 96-99) of the newly released Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha, by Jack Kerouac. I was interested to read Brenner’s criticisms, especially because he seems to like Kerouac a lot (my own feelings toward Kerouac are lukewarm).

I’ve been seeing lots of copies of the book in various bookstores (where I did much of my holiday shopping). Now I know why — this work by Kerouac was not available in book form before.

In the end, the absence of citation contributes to the confusion surrounding an already commonly misunderstood philosophy. Were the work squarely fiction, like Siddhartha [by Herman Hesse], I could simply read and enjoy. But if I’m to take this as an instructional text, as the author suggests, I want to know the sources, or at least be able to distinguish those “new words of my own selection” from “quotations from the Sacred Scriptures of the Buddhist Canon.” It is just this kind of unreferenced discourse, in which the teacher’s ideas meld inconspicuously with the Buddha’s original doctrine, that contributes to the misunderstanding of Buddhism as vague, self-contradictory, nihilistic, or some kind of anything-goes philosophy. (Brenner, pp. 98-99)

This criticism echoes the reasons why I go around recommending Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful biography of the Buddha, Old Path, White Clouds, to everyone. Not only are all the stories and teachings in the book meticulously referenced (in unobtrusive end notes at the back of the book), but also, Thich Nhat Hanh took care to take all his sources from the oldest Theravada scriptures (even though he is a Zen monk himself). According to an author’s note (p. 576), he did this in part to show “that all sutras are sutras of Buddhism, whether they belong to the Northern or Southern Tradition.”


Read the Buddha’s basic teachings


A while ago I read a book by an American Buddhist scholar that recommended the Access to Insight Web site for its free and expertly translated texts:

These pages invite you to explore some of the Buddha’s basic teachings as they are presented in the Pali* canon. Each page in this section contains a selection of short passages from the suttas (discourses or sermons; see sutta [sutra] in the Glossary) that introduce or illustrate different aspects of a single topic. If you encounter a particularly meaningful or interesting passage you can, in most cases, read the full text of the sutta from which it came by simply following the link at the end of that passage. Many of the passages are cross-referenced to other pages, allowing you to pursue a theme to whatever depth or breadth you desire.

There is also a collection of study guides.

* Pali is the language of the texts used by the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. Sanskrit is used by the Mahayana tradition. For example, the word nirvana is Sanskrit; the Pali word is nibbana. You can get a quck overview of the difference between the two traditions at BuddhaNet.