Learn to Practise Buddhism – Part 4
A Do-It-Yourself Approach to Happiness
This is the fourth in a 9 part series on learning to practise Buddhism.
As we listen to the teachings given by the Buddha in many instances we recognise that to really follow these teachings means we will change something in our lives. We have to change either our attitude, or our behaviour, or both. It means we need to follow the map the Buddha has given us, instead of our old habits which are familiar territory to us. Recognising the need to change and being willing to change support our ability to reach our goal of being happier and free from suffering.
Having found something that can help us become happier we don’t want to waste that new learning like it is just another thing of minor consequence.
We need to support the new understanding so it doesn’t falter before it gets established in our behavior. We have to nourish it and tend it like it was a small beautiful plant starting to grow in the garden of our mind. Don’t support the old weed which is causing the problems!
The Buddhist Path is described as having three major components. These are morality, concentration and wisdom. These three go together supporting each other as a path of training. This Buddhist training enables a person to recognise the causes of suffering in their own lives and then overcome them as a means to becoming stable and happy, and ultimately to do what the Buddha did, to become fully enlightened.
When we read or hear about what people do in their life to improve their happiness they don’t usually mention morality or concentration or wisdom! They don’t say “I’m practicing generosity to reduce my stinginess” or “I decided to refrain from slandering others”, they say something like “we’re planning to move into our new house next year” or “we’re going to Disneyland for our holidays”, or something like that.
When we read or hear about what people do in their life to improve their health or long life they don’t say “I’m focusing on how I can keep the five precepts better” or “I’m learning how being kind to others makes many causes for health and long life”. They don’t say that. What they generally say is something like “I’m planning to lose 3 kilograms on my new diet” or “I’m going to take up golf as I think that would reduce my level of stress “.
The strategies of dieting or taking up golf come from seeing the situation only in conventional reality terms. It’s not to say these things are not worthwhile however such a viewpoint does not take into account the way things work from the ultimate understanding, the way the Buddha taught that the world really works.
Buddha taught about cause and effect, the Law of Kamma. From this viewpoint our true well being and our path to becoming happy comes about from the development of wholesome minds and actions. This is the basis of all Buddhist morality.
“Morality restrains the defilements in their coarsest form, their outflow in unwholesome actions; concentration removes their more refined manifestations as distractive and restless thoughts; and wisdom eradicates their subtle latent tendencies…” (Nyanaponika Thera 1986) 1.
From Buddhist understanding and experience when morality has been strongly practiced and developed it becomes a very clear and powerful level of mind.
The Buddha advises us to train our minds and actions so that we keep five precepts with understanding.
The five precepts are:
To not kill living beings
To not steal
To not commit sexual misconduct
To not lie
To not take intoxicants that cloud the mind
The reason why the five particular negative actions that the precepts stop us from committing are highlighted is that the Buddha recognised that some negative actions are more powerful than others. They are more powerful in the sense that they produce more powerful kammic results.
He identified that the five negative actions of killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and taking intoxicants produce the most potent negative kamma or most concentrated negative kamma for ourselves to inherit in our future.
Most people naturally tend to be able keep some precepts better than others. That’s pretty normal for persons when they start practicing Buddhism. Some of the precepts make sense straight away so the person can easily commit to keeping those precepts. However keeping each of the five precepts creates it’s own powerful kammic effects, not just the ones that seem on the surface to make sense.
We do not become paranoid about the precepts. We have all broken precepts time and time again in our past, but we decide from now on we have the intention to keep them. We learn how to keep them well and we train ourselves to guard them whatever we are doing.
If we do break a precept we don’t react to that with guilt or regret. We just note “I have more training to do!” We re-affirm that we intend to keep that precept from now on.
We will examine the precept of no lying as an example. Please decide that you wish to find out something new which makes sense to you. Something you can use every day of your life to protect your wellbeing and happiness from now on. You think like that. You involve yourself and commit to our own improvement being active rather than passive.
To Not Lie or To Refrain From Lying
Buddhist practice is all about coming to the truth about ourselves and the processes of our life. Seeing within our own mind how we create our own happiness and unhappiness and then being able to correct our errors and negative mind states. Progress on the Buddhist Path is to do with us waking up to the truth of the way we really are.
The act of lying however is an act of distorting truth or distorting the reality in a way which suits the person lying. The lying itself creates kammic causes for difficulties or obstacles to recognising or receiving the truth in the future.
Either people lie to them, or they get poor information about things they wish to know, or if they are told the correct information they will tend to not believe it, discount it or mistake what they heard. Even in a worldly sense it is important to find out the truth about things.
It is a common occurrence to find that a person has believed we said something; but it wasn’t what we actually said. Quite frequently we find out we have acted on some incorrect information about something and so we have wasted a lot of time, or bought something we didn’t need, or went somewhere to meet someone and got the time or place wrong. And so on. It happens to us regularly. These types of examples of miss-information we get are caused by us having given out miss-information or lies to others in the past.
For a person who is trying to understand the truth and intending to create good causes towards that for learning and becoming happier it is a necessity to keep the precept to not lie. Not lying creates the kamma for us to understand ourselves, others and the world we live in better.
By being truthful we are creating causes to come to a clearer view. At the ultimate level of reality truthfulness is an antidote to ignorance.
This is the subtle level of how lying effects our mind and leads us away from understanding truth. When we hear or read something how does our mind interpret that information? It is clear we all interpret it differently. We usually extract a different meaning and value from the same data and this gives us our “understanding”.
However this “understanding” is often highly subjective. Two people hear the same statement but come to different positions, even to the extent that they could argue with each other about what they heard.
This is not unusual or abnormal however this subjectivity indicates the unreliability and untrustworthiness of our processes of interpreting and understanding information about our world.
How confident can we be in our “understanding”?
One of the factors that create our subjectivity as a receiver of information is how well we have kept the precept to refrain from lying in the past and how well we keep it now.
Also we need to consider that the information we are interpreting is not only through our hearing and seeing. We are interpreting our own mind and our mental objects such as thought, memories, feelings and so on. In the same way as we distort the information about the world outside of ourselves we are also equally distorting the information about our internal world.
If we are trying to understand ourselves and see things clearly it will never happen unless we build very powerful good karma of maintaining truthfulness by keeping the precept to not lie at all times.
Now, having heard that information you may decide you really do wish to practice that precept, to refrain from lying. You may think it is important enough that you want to change your speech so you no longer lie at all, for any reason. Practically if you don’t take a position like that which is uncompromising you generally won’t succeed.
We already know it can be difficult to give up an old bad behavior because of its habitual nature so it’s not much use applying the new behavior half-heartedly. This would be planning to fail because you are not using enough mental will power or energy to overcome the energy of the old behavior.
It is like saying I’ll give up smoking – but then saying “Oh maybe I’ll just have an occasional cigarette”. That won’t work and it means our mind does not understand the purpose of morality. If you are “fair dinkum” you decide to give up lying completely, with happiness!
Another way to examine the precepts is to consider the positive outcomes that come to a person who observes a particular precept. We will use the precept to refrain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind as an example so we can appreciate the type of powerful good kammic causes that are produced when we keep that precept.
“The person who vigilantly and steadfastly observes this Surameraya Precept reaches the world of devas on his (or her) death. When he (or she) expires in the world of Devas, and is reborn in the world of human beings, he (or she) is endowed with the following qualities:
- being mindful of anything that is to be done at a given time;
- being endowed with intelligence and intellectual power;
- being always alert at all times;
- having initiative and enterprise to meet all contingencies;
- being industrious;
- being free from deafness and dumbness;
- being free from madness;
- being free from shocks and alarms;
- being free from oppression or restriction;
- being free from a hateful attitude toward others;
- being free from grudge and envy;
- having always truthful speech;
- being free from rough and futile speech and from back-biting;
- being aware of the gratitude owed to others;
- being able to make return for the favours of others;
- being generous and charitable;
- having Moral Practice;
- being fair and just;
- not being given to anger;
- having a sense of decency and a dread of evil;
- having true belief;
- being in a noble or worthy state of life;
- being wise;
- having discretion and judgement as to advantages of any situation or question.
We can see from this list how kamma works. Particular actions we do at one time create our future dispositions, abilities, and characteristics. Many actions we do are not quite as powerful or influential in shaping our future as the five precepts but nevertheless, as we train ourselves to be consistent in doing good actions we are using our natural power within ourselves to create good and happy futures for our self to inherit.
To refrain from Killing
“Life is dear to all, and all tremble at punishment, all fear death and value life. Hence, we should abstain from taking a life which we ourselves cannot give”. (Ven Piyadassi,, 1991) 3
Going back to first principles of Buddhism – kamma, we believe that whatever we do to others we will make the kamma or sow the seeds to experience this same thing at some later date. We no longer want to experience pain or suffering so we decide to stop killing.
It is a very simple change with profound results. First, change our attitude by having the intention to not kill. If we walk in your garden often we will kill beings such as ants as we walk, it is frequently unavoidable as we cannot even see them. In this case we have no intention to kill the beings. It is the intention which creates kamma.
We see other beings as doing what we are doing – surviving. They also have families. They do not know that they are causing us discomfort or harm. For example, in the case of mosquito – it is their nature (or kamma) that they need to drink blood to survive. So instead of becoming angry or annoyed by them we look out for them. We do things to stop them annoying us such as we wear anti-insect sprays instead, we make sure our fly-screens are secure or we get a mosquito net.
When we see a spider or mouse in our house, we catch them and release them out side. You can get mousetraps that do not kill. There are electronic devices that generate a signal to keep mice etc away from an area. We sweep ants up and take them outside. We use talcum powder to prevent ants coming in. We attempt to keep our kitchen clean and free from food scraps and spillages. Even then, we have an ongoing job of watching where the ants are coming in and blocking the holes.
We live in a very fortunate place – we do not have to kill to eat meat. Meat is available to us in the supermarket. Many persons find this a difficult concept to accept – that many Buddhists eat meat, yet they practice no killing.
We see the two actions – eating meat and killing as two different things.
Many beings are killed to grow vegetables and grain, fruit that we buy in the supermarket. Insecticides are sprayed on the vegetables for example. We cannot avoid the fact, that for us to have this food, many beings are killed. It is the nature of this world. Just like every time we walk, many microscopic beings die. Every time we clean, many beings die. Every time we wash ourselves, many beings die on our body.
Twenty one percent of the world’s insecticides is used in the production of cotton for our use, silk worms that make silk are killed when the crop is harvested, many types of animals are killed for their skins to be used for clothing, apparels and furniture. It is the nature of our existence that beings die in our process of living.
I understand this, yet I have no intention to kill these beings. When I clean my house, my intention is to maintain healthy living conditions for myself and my family or friends who live here.
So, if meat is available and we do not have to kill for it, I will eat it. If it was not available, I would not kill for it or ask some else to kill for me.
For some persons kammically the may need to eat meat to maintain their health and strength. Buddhism is not a religion on food. It is a way to end our suffering through calming the mind and seeing things as they really are.
All the precepts have many levels of understanding. When we first hear them we can recognise the gross levels of meaning. However as we practice we find each precept has a more subtle level of meaning. As our mind becomes brighter we find we practice the precept at both the gross and subtle levels and this practice helps us refine and purify our mind even further.
The gross level of the precept to not steal includes not taking anything which is not freely given to us. Although this relates to taking material things from others we also consider it to include for example, not trying to overhear a person’s private conversation with someone else, not illegally avoiding paying taxes which should be paid, or not attending to our personal or private matters during the time we are paid to be working.
At a more subtle level for example, sometimes we choose to involve ourselves and get ourselves churned up about things that are really none of our business. In some instances this could be viewed as stealing. We have to consider what our motive is for getting involved to see if we are stealing or not.
The precept of no sexual misconduct includes such things as no adultery and also not using your sexuality to manipulate another person.
Some of the kammic outcomes of keeping this precept are being able to maintain stable relationships, being able to associate with your loved ones, not being assailed by doubts and suspicions and being able to sleep well and peacefully.
The Five Precepts maintain powerful causes for us to experience a safe and secure set of living conditions both now and in the future which are harmless to others and peaceful for ourselves. It is our Occupational Health and Safety Guidelines for living.
Practising these precepts with mindfulness is also the first level of reducing our unwholesome minds and replacing them with wholesome minds and mental states. Therefore it is the right basis for our peaceful, content, and happy minds to develop which in turn is the correct foundation for us to understand ourselves and the world.