Tag Archives: buddhist

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 Speech: Mind Your Mouth


Watch what you say. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

After Right View and Right Intention, which concern wisdom, the next three factors in the Noble Eightfold Path are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood — all of which concern moral discipline.

In his wonderful text about the Noble Eightfold Path, Bhikkhu Bodhi points out that this “morality” is not so much “Thou shalt not” as it is a mental purification that we undertake. Instead of uttering harmful words, we should keep silent. When we speak, speak to help others. Speak to spread happiness. Speak comfort. Speak kindly.

Buddhism, with its non-theistic framework, grounds its ethics not on the notion of obedience, but on that of harmony.

Being mindful about the words I say becomes a practice that benefits others — as well as keeping me out of trouble.

Bhikkhu Bodhi points out that Right Speech has two sides — avoidance and performance. So while we work to avoid incorrect speech, at the same time we are also working to perform correct speech.

What is “correct”? Here Bhikkhu Bodhi uses the familiar English word wholesome. I like the Buddhist use of this word because it seems to steer clear of a moral judgment in favor of emphasizing something that is healthy, not sick. When the opposite word is used — unwholesome — I think of something that will make me ill. Buddhism does take a somewhat black-and-white view of good and bad; if it’s going to harm anyone, it’s probably bad. And that’s unwholesome.

The Buddha divides right speech into four components: abstaining from false speech, abstaining from slanderous speech, abstaining from harsh speech, and abstaining from idle chatter.

No lying. No cruel or hurtful words. No gossip. That all sounds like “Thou shalt not,” doesn’t it? But Bhikkhu Bodhi quotes directly from the Anguttara Nikaya, telling us it’s really about speaking the truth, being devoted to truth, being reliable and worthy of confidence.

The determinative factor behind the transgression is the intention to deceive. If one speaks something false believing it to be true, there is no breach of the precept as the intention to deceive is absent. Though the deceptive intention is common to all cases of false speech, lies can appear in different guises depending on the motivating root, whether greed, hatred, or delusion.

He goes on to explain how lies corrupt and injure the liar, and how

the commitment to truth has a significance transcending the domain of ethics and even mental purification, taking us to the domains of knowledge and being.

In discussing slanderous speech,  Bhikkhu Bodhi points to our motives (our intentions) when we seek to slander someone. We are trying “to create enmity and division, to alienate one person or group from another.” Catching ourselves in this intention before we speak can prevent many kinds of suffering.

Harsh speech similarly grows out of the root of anger and hatred. No good fruits can grow from that.

The caution against gossip (“idle chatter”) seems less weighty, but as Bhikkhu Bodhi explains it, in so many cases no good can come from this kind of speech, so it’s best to just pay attention to the meaning and purpose of what we’re about to say. He even takes it further:

An incredible array of devices — television, radio, newspapers, pulp journals, the cinema [and the Internet] — turns out a continuous stream of needless information and distracting entertainment, the net effect of which is to leave the mind passive, vacant, and sterile. All these developments, naively accepted as “progress,” threaten to blunt our aesthetic and spiritual sensitivities and deafen us to the higher call of the contemplative life. Serious aspirants on the path to liberation have to be extremely discerning in what they allow themselves to be exposed to. [My italics.]

This goes back to the ideas of mental purification and wholesomeness. What are you inviting into your mind today? What are you putting into the minds of others when you are speaking?


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

Right Intention: Thinking Wisdom


The second element of the Noble Eightfold Path is sometimes called Right Thinking, or Right Thought. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as Right Intention, which is also widely used. In his excellent text about the Noble Eightfold Path, Bhikkhu Bodhi notes that Right Intention appears near the top of the list, just after Right View — but both of these are also developed further at the end.

The eight factors of the path fall into three groups:

  • Moral discipline (Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood)
  • Concentration (Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration)
  • Wisdom (Right View and Right Intention)

As discussed in yesterday’s post, wisdom is attained only at (or near) the end of the journey on this path, not at the beginning — but Right View and Right Intention are always listed as numbers 1 and 2 because an initial attainment of both of these is necessary if we are to attain the other six (and ultimately, wisdom).

Right Intention comprises three types of intention:

  • Renunciation
  • Good will
  • Harmlessness (which I think of as “do no harm”)

There is a corresponding wrong intention for each one of those:

  • Desire (craving or greed)
  • Ill will
  • Causing harm

The wrong intention is counteracted by the corresponding right intention. By using these three pairs as mental tools, we can assess our intentions before we speak or act on them.

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

The Buddha discovered this twofold division of thought in the period prior to his Enlightenment … While he was striving for deliverance, meditating in the forest, he found that his thoughts could be distributed into two different classes. In one he put thoughts of desire, ill will, and harmfulness, in the other thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness. Whenever he noticed thoughts of the first kind arise in him, he understood that those thoughts lead to harm for oneself and others, obstruct wisdom, and lead away from Nibbana [Nirvana].

One of the most important parts of practicing Buddhism, as I see it, is to become aware of our thinking. I don’t want my impulses to lead me around like a cow with a ring through her nose. Our actions and our words have consequences, which may be good or bad. Our actions and our words originate in thoughts and intentions.

If we can learn to look at those intentions before we speak or act on them, and measure those intentions against the three pairs provided here, we can ascertain whether they are right or wrong. By paying attention to intentions, we can stop ourselves before we speak wrongly or act wrongly.

Intention of Renunciation

Renunciation here does not mean selling all your worldly goods and going away to live as a hermit. Bhikkhu Bodhi says that if a person

measures achievement in terms of gain and status, [he or she] will aspire to nothing but gain and status, using whatever means he can to acquire them. When such pursuits become widespread, the result is suffering, the tremendous suffering of individuals, social groups, and nations out to gain wealth, position, and power without regard for consequences. The cause for the endless competition, conflict, injustice, and oppression does not lie outside the mind. These are all just manifestations of intentions, outcroppings of thoughts driven by greed, by hatred, by delusion. [Italics added.]

Bhikkhu Bodhi says that if we go back to the Four Noble Truths, we can see that the intention of renunciation is closely tied to reducing or ending our own suffering, our own dukkha. The other two right intentions are aimed at ending the suffering of others.

Intention of Good Will

To cultivate good will — and combat ill will — Buddhist practitioners work to cultivate loving-kindness (the Pali word for this is metta; the Sanskrit word is maitri). A clear distinction is made between this and compassion, which is discussed in the next section, below. (Learn more about metta.)

Bhikkhu Bodhi defines loving-kindness this way:

An intense feeling of selfless love for other beings radiating outwards as a heartfelt concern for their well-being and happiness. Metta is not just sentimental good will, nor is it a conscientious response to a moral imperative or divine command. It must become a deep inner feeling, characterized by spontaneous warmth rather than by a sense of obligation.

There is a specific practice we can do to develop and enlarge this deep inner feeling — the meditation on loving-kindness. Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses this meditation briefly in his text.

Intention of Doing No Harm

To cultivate this intention, Buddhist practitioners work to cultivate compassion. This can help us eliminate hateful thoughts toward others — even the most despicable people.

We can still condemn the evil actions of such people, and not excuse their actions or ignore them. We can still protect ourselves against harm. But ideally we will not attempt to cheat anyone, to deprive anyone, even for the benefit of those we love.

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

Whereas loving-kindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings. Like metta, compassion arises by entering into the subjectivity of others, by sharing their interiority in a deep and total way. It springs up by considering that all beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering, yet despite their wishes continue to be harassed by pain, fear, sorrow, and other forms of dukkha.

The meditation practice for developing compassion has some similarities to the metta practice, but it focuses explicitly on the suffering of others.

At the core of these practices to develop loving-kindness and compassion toward others is the Buddhist ideal of non-duality. Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses this somewhat later in his text:

Our minds divide everything up into the dualities of “I” and “not I,” what is “mine” and what is “not mine.” Then, trapped in these dichotomies, we fall victim to the defilements they breed, the urges to grasp and destroy, and finally to the suffering that inevitably follows.

The way to attain Right Intention (or Right Thinking) is to practice. The contemplations are designed to train the mind — to “tame” it, as the old texts say — and through that training, we can eliminate suffering for ourselves and for others. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about “watering the good seeds” in the storage place of our mind. If the ‘bad seeds” sprout, we pull them out like harmful weeds.

Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

The unwholesome thought is like a rotten peg lodged in the mind; the wholesome thought is like a new peg suitable to replace it. The actual contemplation functions as the hammer used to drive out the old peg with the new one. The work of driving in the new peg is practice — practicing again and again, as often as is necessary to reach success. The Buddha gives us his assurance that the victory can be achieved. He says that whatever one reflects upon frequently becomes the inclination of the mind.

I want my mind to incline toward the good — what is good for others is also good for me.


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

‘Lost’ and Buddhism


The TV series “Lost” had hundreds of moments that made me think: “That’s so Buddhist!” I know that themes from every major religion appeared during the six years of the series. But the series finale, which aired in the U.S. last night, ended with a dialog between Jack Shephard and his father (the not insignificantly named Christian Shephard) that had to be the most Buddhist conversation ever heard in an American TV series.

SPOILER ALERT! Stop reading now if you have not watched the final episode.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the DHARMA Initiative and the number 108 to Buddhism. Slightly more subtle is the character name “Richard Alpert”; the real Richard Alpert not only co-wrote a book with Timothy Leary (famous for championing the use of LSD) but later traveled to India, where he studied yoga and meditation. He changed his name to Ram Dass. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

At the end of the final episode of the series, however, the Buddhist ideas flowed like free running water. We have Jack finding his purpose in life — to help other people. And Hurley — his purpose is the same. And Kate? She’s helping Claire. Desmond? He’s helping everyone. In the end, everyone finds their purpose. And guess what? They are all the same.

In the church where everyone gathers, there’s a dharma wheel on the stained-glass window and a Buddha statue on top of the bookcase. (Oh, yes, the dharma wheel — all that “turning the wheel” to move the island!)

How many times were the words awakening, awake, and wake up used in the episode? (Shades of The Matrix: “Neo. Wake up!“)

The dialog between Christian and Jack resembles the best conversations between teacher and student in the Zen tradition.

What was the so-called sideways timeline? I think we have to conclude that “mind makes everything.” It’s a delusion, like the lives we live here, the karma we make. That doesn’t make it not real. It is real. But not really real. There’s reality — and then, there’s real reality. When have you ever seen that on television?

And what does Jack’s father tell him in the end?

Let go.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha!


See also:

The Buddhist Secrets About Lost

‘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.

Leonard Cohen, at the Zen monastery


A long 1998 article about Leonard Cohen’s Zen practice appears in Utne Reader:

Apart from Cohen’s 26-year-old son, Adam, and his 23-year-old daughter, Lorca, the Japanese roshi, or spiritual teacher, seems to be the one still point in his endlessly turning life, and now he accompanies Sasaki to Zen centers from Vienna to Puerto Rico and endures punishing retreats each month in which he does virtually nothing but sit zazen 24 hours a day for seven days on end.

And later:

… Cohen is telling me that he makes no claims to piety or knowledge; his training here, he says, is just a useful response to the “predicament” of his life. At times, as I listen, I can see the coyote trickster who has been working the press for decades. I feel disconcerted, almost, by his very niceness, his openness, his courtesy, as he keeps thanking me for “being kind enough to come here” and tends to my every need as if I were the celebrity and he the journalist …

And my favorite:

“For me,” he says, his voice soft and beautiful, a trace of Canada still in it, “the process is really more like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful” …

It’s delicious and it’s horrible. Hallelujah.


The fire-boy, chasing fire


Experience the oneness of all things and all beings:

All the universe is an unceasing process, pursuing things and making them the self, pursuing the self and making it things.

This comes from the chapter titled Ikka Myoju in Dogen’s Shobogenzo (The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, tr. Norman Waddell and Masao Abe, p. 33). Dogen said the only way to experience this truth is through zazen, or sitting meditation. We can read and study and chant and listen to Dharma talks for 1,000 years, but without zazen, we realize nothing.

He was, in fact, rather insistent on this point. Not only did he compose the Fukanzazengi to praise the benefits of sitting meditation; he also spent the first chapter of Shobogenzo doing the same.

I keep working on the teaching of no-self.

“Pursuing things and making them the self”: This begins when we are babies. I think it might start when we grab our toes and perceive them as our own, as part of the body, connected to us. We construct a self with I, me, mine — my toes, my hunger, my contentment, my toys. We add things to the heap as we grow older — my accomplishments, my pain, my money, my car. All of this adding is done with the mind only.

“Pursuing the self and making it things”: What am I? Am I this house, this son or daughter, this husband or wife? Am I this gun or computer or cash register or mixing bowl? Am I this set of beliefs I have adopted? Am I these clothes I wear? Am I these shoes?

The story of the fire-boy is retold here.


Angkor, the great ruins of Cambodia


The July 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine has a fantastic story about Angkor, the 400-square-mile site in Cambodia where the Khmer kings ruled an empire circa 1100 C.E. It’s 30 pages of fascinating discoveries about the civilization and, in large part, their engineering achievements with water control (1,000 years ago!). The breathtaking photos cover many two-page spreads, and there’s also a wonderful takeout insert that has a huge map on one side (Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and West Malaysia) and a timeline and temple diagrams on the other side.

Check out the slick and informative Angkor graphic feature on the NatGeo Web site.

You can also read the article there.

There’s an incredible one-hour program about this same subject on the National Geographic Channel. I saw it on July 14, and there’s a re-broadcast coming up (in the U.S.) on Tuesday, July 21. I happened to record it in HD on my TiVo, and it is breathtaking! So if you can see this in HD, please don’t miss it!

Admittedly, there’s very little about Buddhism in this package, but from 1181 the Khmer rulers supported Buddhism as the national religion, and it continues to be the dominant religious practice in Cambodia today.


Living and practice: A road map


Yesterday I wrote a little about Buddhist monks, but I didn’t clearly say what I was trying to convey. I’ll give it another try today.

The monk leaves his home and family and goes to live with a group of monks, in a monastery or elsewhere. There’s also a tradition of monks who go off alone, into the forest or into the mountains, becoming hermits with a solitary practice. So the life of a monk is often referred to as “the homeless life.” In contrast, lay people are often called “householders.”

In the Buddha’s time, the monks walked and lived with the Buddha. After he was gone, they lived in groups without him. They built monasteries and other permanent residences. Groups of monks settled in various locations. As time passed, Buddhism spread south through India to Sri Lanka, north to Central Asia, east and south to Southeast Asia, and farther East to China, Korea and Japan. Everywhere Buddhism spread, numbers of people took up the homeless life.

It’s easy for a Western person to assume that all those who became monks must have been deeply spiritual and committed to doing good, but that’s a bit naive. Both today and in the distant past, people become monks and nuns for myriad personal reasons. In several countries even today, a boy’s family might send him to the temple to become a monk just because they cannot afford to feed him. He might be as young as eight or nine.

This is not to imply that monks are not sincere. Of course there are, and have been, many thousands of monastics who were devoted to learning the Dharma, teaching others, and so on.

Now, I’m not all that interested in monks and the monastic life — in themselves. But I’ve been thinking about the many various shapes and forms of the teachings we have inherited during 2,500 years, and how the practices of monastic lives have caused those shapes and forms to emerge. It is said we have 84,000 sutras, and that doesn’t even include the other Buddhist texts that have been written, preserved, lost, commented upon, translated, etc.

One approach to Buddhist practice (for monks, at least) is to learn the 84,000 sutras by heart.

Okay, this is totally not practical for a lay person. It’s hard to imagine that even a monk can achieve this, but we are told that some monks have. (Traditionally, there has been a lot of memorization and reciting in Buddhist monastic practice.)

Learning the 84,000 sutras is an example of a goal. If you commit to working toward a goal, you have direction. You know where you’re going, you know what to do every day.

If you read Buddhist texts, you’ll see that a whole lot of goals have been offered and explained.

Your goal might be to get enlightenment. (Many people think that is the whole point of Buddhism.) Your goal might be to save all beings. Your goal might be more humble — to earn a better rebirth for your next life. Your goal might be even more down-to-earth — to acquire merit during this life by doing good deeds or donating money. You might be one of the many people who likes to have a kind of road map, and you’re following a well-defined set of steps — after you master Step 1, you’ll be ready to move on to Step 2. (Maybe you are a Stream Enterer, or a Once Returner.)

All of these things are part of Buddhism. What has led me to pondering the monks and their long history is the idea that so many of these teachings apply very well to giving a monk a goal toward which he can spend his whole life working.

Not every monk is going to have a temperament suited to sitting in silent meditation all day long. Especially not when he is nine years old. Not every monk is going to be good at memorizing or at teaching. But you don’t want to kick him out of the Sangha. So there must be teachings for everyone (and for lay people too), to give everyone the chance to improve and advance.

Then the question: Improve or advance … at what?

What is the ultimate goal? Most people would say it’s enlightenment. Do you believe enlightenment is possible in this lifetime? Well, if you believe in rebirth (which is NOT the same as reincarnation, by the way), maybe you are chugging along in this life with the idea that all good karma earned here will take you closer to enlightenment in a future life. But what if you don’t believe in rebirth? (Many Western people don’t.) Are you working toward a goal, and if so, what is it?

What I’ve been thinking about the monks is this: At the beginning of one’s life as a monk, one needs to hear instructions. The basics: Here are your robes, here is your bowl, here is where you will sleep. There might be a bell or a gong that you must heed. The logistics of the day lived by your body are mapped out. That’s the easy part.

What about the mind? If the mind remains unchanged, nothing changes.

So the monks in each monastery, in each tradition, receive instructions: How to Train Your Mind. The instructions are not a complete road map, with each highway marked in red and each little dirt track marked in gray. No one can make that kind of map until all the roads have been followed. And of course, new roads are built, and old roads are closed and wiped away.