In part two of this series on the Mangala sutra, we will look at the supporting principles. The first principle is:
Have good learning skills
For us to be able to follow a path in life, we must first learn about it. If we do not put our full effort into learning, we may misunderstand the path, which in turn may take us off in the wrong direction, and that could cause us to suffer even more.
If you are reading a spiritual book, or at a teaching, and you are not giving it your full attention, you will not be taking anything in. It will be like pouring water into an upturned glass. No matter how much water you pour, nothing is going to go inside.
If you read a spiritual book or hear a teaching and within a few minutes have totally forgotten it, it would be like pouring water into a glass with a hole in it. No matter how much water you pour in, nothing stays inside the glass.
If you are reading or listening to a teaching and you have the wrong attitude—such as feeling you know better than the teacher, you don’t believe what is being said or you think it will never be able to help you—it would be like pouring water into a glass with poison inside.
So, you should take the teachings on board with an open mind. Now, I am not saying you should suspend your critical thinking, but at least take in the teachings and reflect on them later. Do not dismiss every word as soon as it has been said just because it does not fit in with your current state of mind.
To have good learning skills and get the best out of the teachings, you should be like a glass that is upright, unbroken, and clean. This way whatever you hear or read will stay inside and you will be able to understand, reflect and implement the teaching.
Have good practical skills
Once you have learned a new skill you have to be able to implement it, or what is the point of learning the skill? This is where practical skills come in useful.
If you have started learning these thirty-eight principles, or any other path, the next step would be how you can fully understand them. For this you need a calm and steady mind—so you will need meditation skills. If our mind is not calm and steady it will be agitated, and our thoughts will be blown all over the place like a discarded bag in the wind. This is where the skill of calm-abiding meditation comes in. Once we have calmed our mind, we can become more focused, and our thoughts are more likely to stay on the task at hand.
After that you need to give much thought to what you are being taught—this needs reflection skills. This is where we can focus our thoughts on one particular aspect of the path. If we are not looking deeply into what we are being taught, we could end up just blindly believing things. This is not a sound basis on which to travel down any path.
Once you fully understand the teaching or principle and have implemented it, you will need to check your progress—this needs daily review skills, such as sitting quietly and examining your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It is good to set yourself goals so you can see if you are reaching them or falling short. The review session is a time for you to reassess your goals and make changes if needed.
Follow a code of discipline
As we do not live in a vacuum, we have to adhere to rules and regulations, or else society would just break down into anarchy. We all must have a set of morals or a code of ethical conduct to which we choose to adhere. I use the word choose because I believe we must personally buy into a code of ethics. If they are imposed on us, we may not follow them wholeheartedly.
Buddha taught the five precepts as a way to keep ourselves in check. They are not a list of ‘thou shalt not’ commandments, but five things we should try to refrain from doing—not because we have been told not to do these things, or if we do them, we will burn in hell, but because we want to do them; we see the benefit of doing them. The beauty of this code of ethics is that it is willingly undertaken by practitioners so they can work towards achieving a certain goal. The goal here is a reduction in their own suffering and in the suffering of others.
The precepts provide a skillful foundation for personal and social growth. Buddha was not being moralistic here; instead, he was showing us that if we want to be a responsible person within society, we have to ensure we are not harming anyone or anything. The precepts are as follows:
1. To refrain from harming or killing other beings.
2. To refrain from taking what has not been given.
3. To refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. To refrain from telling lies.
5. To refrain from the abusive use of intoxicating drinks and illegal drugs.
Refrain from killing or harming other beings—this precept does not just cover killing humans; it also covers animals, big or small. I have added harming other beings as well because I believe if we harm or kill, we will have similar mental torment. I should make it clear here that I am talking about intentional and/or unnecessary killing. It is very difficult to go through life without unintentionally killing things. When we wash vegetables, we are more than likely killing small insects, but this is not our intention. Our intention is to prepare the vegetables for eating, so this is not what the precept is about. Having said that, we should check the vegetables beforehand to ensure there are no insects on them.
What this precept is about is refraining from intentionally killing. We have to understand that all beings have the equal right to live and be free from suffering, so that is why we have to refrain from doing them any harm.
The way to prevent ourselves from killing/harming is to understand that all beings are the same as us. They want to be happy and not suffer. So, if we know this, a feeling of compassion will rise in us and it will become much harder to kill/harm.
Refrain from taking what has not been given—if we take something that has not been given or belongs to someone else, this is stealing. It may be a pen from work, sweets from a shop, or, when you were a child, taking money from your mother’s purse. No matter how big or small, it is still stealing.
The first time we steal we may feel guilty and scared of being caught. However, the more you steal the less guilty and scared you are. In the end you steal just because you can and not because you need to. This is when stealing has become a habit.
We don’t like people stealing from us, so we should refrain from stealing from them. Once we get the reputation of being a thief, it will be very hard for people to trust us. So, by stealing we are hurting both ourselves and others.
Refrain from sexual misconduct—this is causing harm to someone using the sexual act, such as rape, sex with someone underage or sex with a married person—here the victim being the person’s partner. If we physically, emotionally, or mentally force someone into sex, this is causing him or her harm and is absolutely wrong. There are many people today still carrying the scars of sexual misconduct. So, this precept should not be taken lightly.
I personally believe that Buddha taught the precept on sexual misconduct to help us refrain from harming someone through sex. He did not teach it to be moralistic or make people feel guilty for their sexual orientation.
He wanted us to reflect on our acts and see if they bring harm. So, in this context, I believe if we want to know if an act constitutes sexual misconduct or not, we should ask ourselves the following questions:
- Does the act cause harm or does it bring joy?
- Is the act motivated by love and understanding?
- Would you like it if someone did it to you?
- Is there mutual consent?
If there is mutual consent between two adults, it is not abusive. If it is an expression of love, respect, and loyalty, I believe it cannot be classified as sexual misconduct, irrespective of whether it is between a man and a woman, two men or two women.
Refrain from telling lies—once we have lied to someone, we invariably have to tell another lie to cover the first one, and then another, and another, until we have created a web of lies. It truly harms someone when they realise they have been lied to, and it will harm us when we are branded a liar.
I get very upset when I have been lied to, as most people do, and so I keep this fact in mind when I am talking to others.
Refrain from the abusive use of intoxicating drinks and drugs—here I have deliberately put ‘abusive use’ because I believe drinking in moderation is not a problem. Nobody is saying you cannot have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer after work. What is being said is that when we are completely inebriated, either by drink or drugs, we lose control of our body, speech, and mind. This precept is quite often the cause of the previous four precepts, so is very important to adhere to.
We may be driving home under the influence and have an accident and kill someone; steal money to cover our drink or drug addiction; come out with a pack of lies because we have no control over our mouths; or have unsafe sex with someone we met in a bar, not even considering that we or they may be married or underage.
Once we have become addicted to alcohol and drugs it is extremely hard to break the habit. So, it seems sensible not to put yourself in that position in the first place. We should remember the adage, ‘Everything in moderation’.
Practice appropriate speech
Buddha stated that appropriate speech is divided into four parts:
‘Refraining from lying, refraining from divisive speech, refraining from harsh speech, refraining from idle talk: This is called appropriate speech’.
Refrain from divisive speech—when people use divisive speech they are hell-bent on causing a severance between a person or a group of people. Divisive speech is never positive or productive. It is used only to harm.
This type of speech mainly stems from jealousy, pride, or hatred. I have come across it several times in the workplace. A colleague has been promoted and some people are jealous, so they try to split the workforce. This is divisive speech.
You are jealous of your sibling, so you tell divisive stories to your parents in the hope they will favour you over your sibling. This is divisive speech.
These are just two examples, but what is clear is that we must refrain from this type of speech because it will harm others and eventually harm ourselves. You will get a reputation for being someone who is always trying to cause trouble, and people will disassociate themselves from you.
Refrain from harsh words—these are swear words, bad language or words that are said only to cause harm. They are never useful or kind, and usually stem from anger or impatience.
If someone upsets us, we can lose control and say things we do not really mean. The words are meant to hurt the other person, but usually, after we have calmed down, we regret them, and the words come back to hurt us also. We must stay mindful of our speech and not allow this to happen.
Sometimes we get impatient with people when they are not doing what we want, they are doing it wrong or just differently, they are not being open and truthful, or they are not doing anything wrong, and it is just us who is irritable. At these times we tend to get angry and start saying harsh words. Obviously, the way around this is to be more patient and have respect for other people’s viewpoints and feelings.
Every time you raise your voice or say harsh words, you have lost the argument. When your voice goes up, your credibility comes down.
Refrain from idle talk—this type of speech stems from jealousy, hatred, aversion, ignorance or just having nothing better to do with your time. It is very destructive, cruel and can never be classed as helpful. At the time we may enjoy spreading some rumour or other, but just think how you would feel if people were saying the same things about you.
Idle talk or gossip is both harmful and a waste of time. I do believe that social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, encourage such unhelpful and wasteful gossip. I am not saying these sites are not of any use—I use them every day—but they can be used wrongly and end up ruining someone’s reputation or career.
So, the antidote to these four wrong ways of talking is: speak only truthful words, words that spread harmony and not discord, words that are kind and compassionate, words that help and not harm others.
If we keep these in mind and follow them, we will always be in the realm of appropriate speech. We shouldn’t take these four ways of inappropriate speech lightly, as words have the power to ruin lives. If you hit someone (which I am not encouraging you to do, I am speaking hypothetically), it will hurt for a short time and then disappear; but if you say harmful or cruel words to someone, the words can mentally scar and stay with them for years.
Support your parents or guardians
Whether your parents live alone, live with you, or live in an old people’s home, we still have to care for them as well as we can. When you came into the world you were totally helpless. It was your parents or guardians that provided for you, kept you safe and ensured you had an education. I believe that in itself deserves our heartfelt respect.
We can show our gratitude emotionally, physically, materially, and financially when it is required. Sometimes they may just want to have a chat, so make time for them. This is helping them emotionally. They may need help in and out of the bath or with some chores around the house. This is helping them physically. If there is something that will make their lives a little easier, you can buy it for them. This is helping materially. People don’t usually have lots of money in old age, so you can support them, as this is helping them out financially.
Don’t think you are too busy building your own life to worry about theirs. Remember what I said about life being like an echo? The way you treat your parents may be the way you will be treated by your children in the future.
Take care of your spouse and children
There are people who do not fulfil their basic duties to their spouse and children. Marriage is a commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly. I am not saying that all marriages should last forever; that would be unreasonable seeing that everything is impermanent and subject to change. However, whilst you are in the marriage you should be in tune with your spouse’s needs and opinions. It is not just a game of love and respect, but also of compromise and forgiveness.
When children come along, it is a whole different ball game. If you bring children into the world, you have a moral duty to care for them. You must give them parental support, nurture them into a good person, educate them and teach them the difference between right and wrong. The way you treat your children will have a lasting effect on them, so be sure it is a positive one. Scientists believe that a large proportion of the concepts we carry throughout our lives are created between birth and five years old. So, you can see what an extremely important role you have in your children’s upbringing.
Children mimic their parents. If they live in an abusive household where the spouse or children are mistreated, they may behave that way in the future, as these are the imprints that have been lodged in their consciousness and they may look upon them as normal.
You may not be able to shower your spouse and children with material gifts, but you can ensure them a safe and caring life, full of love and respect—that will last longer than any material object.
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.