Tag Archives: teachings

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.

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.

Walking the Eightfold Path


Well. Hello. It’s been a while since I posted here.

This summer I was lucky enough to attend two long teaching events, one with the Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C., and one with Thich Nhat Hanh in Vancouver, Canada. In both cases, much of the teaching centered on the Noble Eightfold Path.

These teachings inspired me to read a deeper explanation of the Path. I searched online and found  this:

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


Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American by birth and a Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition. He has an earned doctorate in philosophy and studied Buddhism in Sri Lanka, where he was ordained as a novice in 1972. His book In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon was recommended to me by a respected Buddhism scholar.

I think I would like to write some posts about what I am learning from this wonderful, free online text. I am not sure whether I would have appreciated this text a few years ago, when I was just beginning to practice. When I was starting out, I found these lists that are so common in Buddhist teachings to be kind of intimidating. Am I supposed to learn these by heart? I wondered. They seem so redundant. Why are there so many lists? Why do they all say the same things?

This summer I felt like I had traveled in a big, long circle and come around to the start of it again, standing in the same place as before — but everything looked different now.

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote:

Right view is the forerunner of the entire path, the guide for all the other factors. It enables us to understand our starting point, our destination, and the successive landmarks to pass as practice advances. To attempt to engage in the practice without a foundation of right view is to risk getting lost in the futility of undirected movement. Doing so might be compared to wanting to drive someplace without consulting a roadmap or listening to the suggestions of an experienced driver. One might get into the car and start to drive, but rather than approaching closer to one’s destination, one is more likely to move farther away from it. To arrive at the desired place one has to have some idea of its general direction and of the roads leading to it.

Reading that, I understood the circular interconnection of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path for the first time. Or maybe I already understood it, and as I read, I saw my understanding for the first time.

Right View — the first item on the list of eight in the Noble Eightfold Path — is the beginning and also the end. It is equivalent to the Four Noble Truths. In other words, if you have Right View, it is because you have attained the truth of each one of the Four Noble Truths. What used to bother me was that the fourth one of those is the Noble Eightfold Path. A Western mind can feel frustration right at the outset when confronting this.

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote:

In its fullest measure right view involves a correct understanding of the entire Dhamma (Dharma) or teaching of the Buddha, and thus its scope is equal to the range of the Dhamma itself. But for practical purposes two kinds of right view stand out as primary. One is mundane right view, right view which operates within the confines of the world. The other is supramundane right view, the superior right view which leads to liberation from the world. The first is concerned with the laws governing material and spiritual progress within the round of becoming, with the principles that lead to higher and lower states of existence, to mundane happiness and suffering. The second is concerned with the principles essential to liberation. It does not aim merely at spiritual progress from life to life, but at emancipation from the cycle of recurring lives and deaths.

Once I began to meditate on this difference — between the mundane or simple Right View one needs to get started on the path, and the supramundane or complex Right View, which is associated with Wisdom (that is Buddhist Wisdom, with a capital W) — I saw how the teachings about the Four Noble Truths given by great teachers such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are truly “a finger pointing at the moon” (to repeat one of those oft-repeated lessons).

When I heard a teaching about the Four Noble Truths, often I would feel a bit disappointed. I already know this, I thought. I was hoping for something different, something new.

Never fail to listen with your full attention.


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

Questions about karma


I recently came across a post about karma at the Dharma Folk blog. It compares two texts about karma, written by two different present-day Buddhists (as opposed to long-dead sages). The ideas expressed by the two authors don’t exactly contradict each other, but they are different.

A lot of Buddhist teachings (some would say “philosophy”) are like this. Even if you stick with the oldest texts, you will find differences that confuse you. On some Buddhist forums, people spend thousands of words debating these distinctions. Of course, this is the way of religion (and philosophy) — debate over meaning is always going on.

First, there is the question of what karma is. Is it your past actions (of body, of thought, of speech) coming back to repay you in kind? This is a general way of thinking about karma. The past actions might be from this life or from a previous life.

Then there’s the matter of intention. It is said that for a past action to cause some effect, that action had to be intentional. Are you off the hook if while sleeping you dreamed a bad thing about somebody? I don’t know.

Third, there’s the whole question of rebirth and past lives. I have read that a lot of Western Buddhists reject the whole idea of rebirth. I have trouble understanding how we can be reborn in a new life if we have no self, no soul, to begin with. Yet, what is not born cannot die, and all beings are also that.

Fourth, we know that all great teachers practice skillful means, and what one teacher said to one audience of hearers might not match, exactly, the words said by another teacher to another audience at a different time and place. Is this a contradiction? Is one teaching more true than another? (I am often reminded of a lyric from Jesus Christ Superstar, which I memorized in full in my youth: “And what is truth? ‘Tis but a changing law. We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?”)

Some texts refer to karma as a fruit. The seeds you have planted will grow into what they must be. A seed of evil or sorrow will always yield a fruit of evil or sorrow. A seed of goodness and compassion yields a fruit of goodness and compassion.

There are teachings that say all one’s bad karma can be erased in a single moment, under special conditions that make it so. Can you cause these conditions to come about? Deliberately? By design? I don’t think so. The harder you chase that goal, the farther away it will recede. No goal, no aspiration.


The Metta sutra and Metta chant


Only recently was I introduced to the Metta chant. The practice of chanting these words reinforces our aspiration to feel true compassion for all beings — and very specifically, not only the nice ones, but also including the most horrible, awful people we can imagine.

The chant starts with us, ourselves:

Aham avero homi
May I be free from enmity and danger

abyapajjho homi
May I be free from mental suffering

anigha homi
May I be free from physical suffering

Then it continues:

Sabbe satta
May all beings

sabbe pana
all breathing things

sabbe bhutta
all creatures …

avera hontu
be free from enmity and dangers

abyapajjha hontu
be free from mental suffering

anigha hontu
be free from physical suffering

sukhi – attanam pariharantu
may they take care of themselves happily

Dukkha muccantu
May all being be free from suffering

Yattha-laddha-sampattito mavigacchantu
May whatever they have gained not be lost …

You can read the complete chant here, at BuddhaNet.

The Metta Sutra is a different text (read a good English translation here). The teaching is the same:

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, and all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.


Put her down, Ekido


One of the basic teachings of Zen Buddhism is letting go. Sometimes when I am having trouble letting go, I hold my fist in front of me. My thumb points away from me and my four fingernails are visible in a row parallel to the ground. I look at that closed hand, and then I fling open all five fingers, my palm to the sky.

Let go, let go.

Two monks, Tanzan and Ekido, were walking down a muddy street in the city. They came upon a lovely young girl dressed in fine silks, who was afraid to cross the street because of all the mud.

“Come on, girl,” Tanzan said. He picked her up in his arms and carried her across.

The two monks did not speak again till nightfall. Then, when they had returned to the monastery, Ekido couldn’t keep quiet any longer.

“Monks shouldn’t go near girls,” he said, “and certainly not beautiful ones like that one! Why did you do it?”

“My dear fellow,” Tanzan said, “I put that girl down hours ago, back in the city. It’s you who are still carrying her!”

I first found this story here. It is also at Wikipedia in a slightly different form.


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.