In part four of the Mangala Sutra we continue to look at the social principles. This covers how we can refrain from harmful acts and how we need to put great effort into developing beneficial acts and avoiding destructive ones.
Refrain from Harmful Acts
If we do not want to disturb our minds, we have to be sure we go through life not harming others. Once we start harming others, we release a Pandora’s box of emotions and feelings within ourselves. So harmful acts are not good for us or others—nobody wins.
So how do we know what constitutes harmful acts? Buddha mentioned ten harmful acts to steer clear of. They are divided into three aspects: three for bodily acts, four for speech and three for mind. These ten harmful acts cover what we think, say, and do. The opposite of the ten harmful acts are the ten helpful acts. I will mention the helpful acts at the end of each harmful act. Let’s look at the three parts individually:
The ways we harm others with our bodily actions are through killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. All of these have been covered in the previous blogs on the Mangala Sutra. However, the helpful aspect of these three are: instead of killing, have compassion and empathy for all living things; instead of stealing, be generous and charitable; instead of sexual misconduct, have self-control and follow a code of ethics.
The four harmful acts of speech are lying, divisive speech, harsh words and idle talk and have also been covered previously. I would encourage you to look back to remind yourself.
The positive side to these four are: instead of lying, speak only the truth; instead of being divisive, speak kind words that bring people together; instead of using harsh words, use pleasing and kind words; and instead of wasting your time on idle talk, speak only meaningful and encouraging words.
Now, let’s turn to the three unhelpful acts of the mind. Buddha stated this about these three kinds of mental conduct:
‘And how are there three kinds of mental conduct not in accordance with harmless conduct? Here someone is covetous…… or he has a mind of resentment…… or he has an unwise view, distorted vision…… that is how there are three kinds of mental conduct not in accordance with harmless conduct’.
Covetousness—this is born out of greed and desire; it is when we want what someone else has. Instead of being happy that someone has something new, we selfishly want it for ourselves. It may be a material thing we desire; it may be wealth or another person. This way of thinking brings us only dissatisfaction. We may be able to outwardly pretend we are happy for what others have, but inwardly we are burning with covetousness and negative thoughts.
Resentment — this is to have angry and hateful thoughts towards someone, though it is also possible to have bitterness towards a situation or even yourself. It can make you burn inside, and you are unable to concentrate on anything else but your loathing. It is usually driven by resentment, jealousy, pride, or anger.
This is extremely powerful, and the reason we have resentment is because we see other people as different than us, as outside of us. We do not see the interconnectedness of life. If you think about what you want and don’t want out of life, you will see you are striving to be happy and trying not to suffer. You are not alone. Everyone is exactly the same, even animals. So, if we see that others are no different than ourselves, we will build compassion towards them, or at the very least we will be empathic towards them. This is how we can stop any resentment we may feel.
Unwise view—the unwise view we are talking about here is a view whereby you believe that acts do not have consequences. You think it doesn’t matter what you do because nothing is going to come of it. You have no regard for cause and effect or interconnectedness.
You also believe that things are permanent and true happiness can be found in material things, even though everything around you point to the opposite of this.
You feel there is a solid permanent self—this point will be discussed in more detail in another part of this series.
You don’t believe you are suffering and so are not interested in following a path that may lead to a reduction in that suffering.
All of these constitute an unwise view and are going to lead you down the wrong path in life.
The helpful side to these three are: instead of coveting what others have, be satisfied and contented; instead of having resentment, have goodwill by thinking kind and helpful thoughts, as these will lead to good and helpful actions; instead of having an unwise view, study Buddha’s foundation teachings, clear up any doubts, meditate on what you have learnt and then implement them as this will lead to you having a wise view.
Achieving Great Effort
In the last section we looked at what ten harmful acts we had to refrain from and what their counterparts were. Now we will look at the effort we have to put into avoiding the harmful acts and developing the helpful ones.
The helpful actions are compassion, generosity, self-control, truthfulness, kind speech, pleasant words, helpful words, contentment, benevolence, and wise view.
Buddha spoke about four great efforts: the effort to avoid, the effort to overcome, the effort to develop and the effort to maintain.
The effort to avoid
The first effortis to prevent harmful actions and emotions that have not yet arisen.
These harmful potential actions disturb our minds and the minds of others around us. So, we must make the effort to avoid arousing them.
A big obstacle that hinders our effort and concentration, and so make it difficult to stop the arousal of harmful states, are the five hindrances, which are sensual desire, resentfulness, apathy, anxiety, and doubt.
Let’s just have a quick look at these hindrances.
Sensual desire is straightforward. They are desires of the senses. This hindrance is activated when our senses come into contact with sense objects, such as eye to form, ear to sound, nose to smell, tongue to taste, body to tangibles and mind to thoughts. Every time we point our concentration at our practice, this hindrance may pop up and distract us. We get stupefied by these sense objects, and we start to crave them and feel attachment towards them.
Resentfulness has just been covered above.
Apathy makes our minds numb so it is virtually impossible for us to concentrate or difficult for you to arouse any interest; it can make you lethargic and sleepy. All of these make it very hard for you to do any practice
Anxiousness is when we are feeling tense and irritable. It could be that we are stressed from work. You may have money problems, be worried about the future or your mind is just overloaded. This hindrance makes you overexcited and emotionally troubled. You are not able to concentrate on anything for any length of time. This is because you are not in the present moment. Your thoughts are either in the past or the future.
Doubt is when we have a lack of confidence. It could be we don’t understand what we should be doing, or we don’t trust that it works, or we think we are not doing it correctly. All of these make us wonder if what we are doing is benefiting us.
What is the connection between harmful actions, emotions that have not yet arisen and hindrances? Usually, hindrances are activated when your senses come into contact with sense objects, such as eye to form, ear to sound and so on. The mind deals with these impressions in different ways—sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and sometimes neutral. When it deals with them in a positive or neutral way, there is no problem regarding harmful thoughts, feelings, and emotions (although positive impressions may lead to overexcitement). However, when it deals with them in a negative way, these sense objects stir up harmful thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
We have to become aware of the hindrances that are stopping us from arousing helpful states. Once we have done that, we can implement the antidotes to these hindrances. These will stop the five hindrances in their track and, in turn, prevent any harmful thoughts and emotions from arising.
The effort to overcome
The first effort stopped harmful actions and emotions from arising, whereasthis effortis to overcome the harmful states that have already arisen. Buddha says that we should abandon the harmful states, dispel them, destroy them, and cause them to disappear. But how? He gave five techniques to help us do this. They are:
1. Chase away the harmful thought with a helpful one. If you have been in the grip of harmful thoughts and emotions during the day, try using one of these reflections:
a) Sensual desires can be overcome by reflecting on the impermanence of things.
b) resentfulness can be overcome by reflecting that all beings want happiness and to reduce their suffering.
c) Lack of interest or laziness can be overcome by stopping what you are doing, be it studying or reflecting, and going for a walk, splashing water on your face, doing simple stretching exercises or, my favourite, simply having a cup of tea.
d) Anxiousness can be overcome through a mindful breathing meditation. This will help you become more relaxed and focused.
e) Doubtcan be overcome by simply asking questions and investigating.
So, it is extremely important to chase away unhelpful thoughts and emotions.
2. Regret—we are not talking about guilt here; that is quite a different thing. Regret does not mean beating yourself up over something you have done.
Here we must reflect on our harmful actions and build up a kind of aversion that will stop us from doing these actions again. It is not enough to just commit ourselves to stopping these actions; we have to make an effort not to do them again. It is a bit ridiculous to feel remorse for our harmful actions and then do exactly the same thing again. Our effort must be focused on never repeating these harmful actions.
3. Divert your attention. When a harmful thought arises, do not indulge it. If you are walking down the street and you see the latest smartphone, or a person you are angry with, or the car of your dreams or some other sense object you are craving, you should simply turn away. Look in the other direction or think about something else, as this will avert any unhelpful thoughts and emotions that may arise. Of course, this is easier said than done.
4. Confrontation. This technique is the opposite of the third one: Confront the harmful thought head-on. Do not shy away from it. Look at it and see where it came from. By doing this, the thought will eventually disappear. This confrontation may be difficult to do at the time, so it can be done during your meditation session. Once you get more experienced, you can confront the harmful thought as it arises.
5. Suppression. A note of caution: In my experience, when you suppress things, you are just storing up trouble for the future. If you suppress a bad experience or a powerful emotion, it may resurface, much stronger, later. This technique is my least favourite and must be used only as a last resort, but I hope the other four techniques would have already worked for you.
These are the five techniques buddha mentioned to overcome our harmful thoughts and emotions that have already arisen.
The effort to develop
The third effortis to develop helpful qualities that have not as yet arisen. This is where you should make an effort to develop thoughts and actions such as generosity, patience, an ethical code, empathy and compassion.
Again, the perfect time to think about and cultivate these helpful states is during your meditation session. If you review each day which thoughts and actions have been helpful and which have been harmful, you will see a pattern emerge. You will be able to see what you need to work on and make into a kind of habit.
Remember that we are trying to live a responsible life that disturbs neither our mind nor the minds of others.
What is really needed is honesty. We must be completely truthful with ourselves and investigate which helpful states we do not have, and then put all our effort into cultivating them.
This is how we can develop helpful states that have not yet arisen.
The effort to maintain
The fourth and final effortis to maintain the helpful states that have already arisen.
This follows on from the previous effort. There, you contemplated which helpful states you didn’t have. Now you must focus on the ones you do have. You should remain mindful at all times of these helpful states so they can become a habit. It is no good lying sometimes and telling the truth at others; stealing sometimes and not stealing other times; getting totally drunk one day and then saying you don’t drink another day; or being faithful sometimes and cheating on your partner at other times. These helpful states must become natural and spontaneous. You have to put a great amount of effort into keeping these helpful states going, because if you do not stay aware, they can easily drift away from you. Awareness is the key here.
Be happy that you have these helpful states and give yourself a pat on the back—I mean it, because it shows that you are on the right path to living responsibly, which in turn should help increase your self-confidence and happiness.
Let us summarise the main points here: We have to avoid harmful states that have not yet arisen; overcome the harmful states that have arisen; develop helpful states that have not yet arisen; and maintain the helpful states that have arisen. This is where we should be concentrating our effort, so we start to alleviate our suffering and the suffering of others.
This blog is based on my book ‘Life’s Meandering Path’- available from Amazon and Kindle.
You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos, and practice guided meditations on my website.
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