In part six of the Mangala Sutra, we look at the importance of having a teacher, guide, or spiritual friend. We are obviously going to face obstacles and hindrances on the path, so having someone with experience to support us is essential.
You may be a secular Buddhist and not wish to join any group, club, or organisation because you don’t want to be tied to any belief system, or you may be someone who doesn’t like groups and would sooner study from books. There is no problem with either of these. However, I strongly believe you still need a teacher or mentor to help you along your spiritual path.
Buddha’s teachings aren’t about blindly believing a set of principles or being given a practice and told to get on with it. It is about working on your own mind and experiences, and sorting through your own problems and difficulties. Sometimes we are going to come across obstacles that we will need help navigating. This is where teachers come in handy. They can guide us through our difficult times and encourage us to persevere.
Even though Buddha encouraged us to be a refuge to ourselves and not look for external refuge, he wasn’t talking about going it alone. He meant that we should not be looking outside of ourselves for gods or higher beings to take responsibility for our lives. That responsibility is ours and ours alone.
So, a teacher is a guide, mentor, and spiritual friend, not a god or a higher being. Their job is to help us along the way. It states this in the Dhammapada, verse 276:
‘You yourselves must strive; the masters only point the way. Those who meditate and practice the path are freed from the bonds of destructive emotions.’
There have been many reports of abuse by teachers recently, especially of a sexual nature, so it is clear we must choose our teachers very carefully. I would suggest a good teacher is someone who doesn’t profess to have all the answers because that isn’t possible. Good teachers are themselves simply working on their own practice and are willing to share their experiences with others. They would also be willing to learn from their students’ experiences. Two necessary traits of a good teacher are humility and modesty. For our part, we should realise that teachers are only human; like us, they are flawed and will inevitably make mistakes.
Buddha did not claim any divine status for himself, nor did he say he was a personal saviour. He said he was simply a guide and teacher. If your teachers don’t have any of the characteristics mentioned above but have a title or call themselves a guru or higher being, I would suggest you check them out very carefully.
Here are five qualities we should look for in a teacher:
‘Buddha’s teachings should be taught with the thought, “I will speak step-by-step” … “I will speak explaining the sequence” … “I will speak out of compassion” … “I will speak not for the purpose of material reward” … “I will speak without disparaging others.”’
Let’s look at these five qualities. As we go through them, keep your teacher/mentor in mind and see if he or she embraces these five qualities.
First, the teacher should speak step by step. It is of very little use to learn about emptiness or nonself if you haven’t first understood that there is an unease or discontentment running through your life. When I first started studying Buddhism I had so many teachings on what a Bodhisattva does and doesn’t do, but I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to be doing myself. I learnt about how Milarepa (a famous Tibetan yogi) became enlightened in one lifetime, but Buddha took three countless aeons. I expect these stories have their place, but it certainly isn’t when one is just starting out on the path.
We need to start at the beginning of the path and slowly work our way along, one step at a time. This will help reduce any confusion. Many students get so confused that they turn away from Buddhism, believing it is not relevant to them, when in fact it could be that they are not being taught step by step. One of the great things about Buddhism is that Buddha’s discourses are numbered—five precepts, ten harmful acts, four truths, five qualities of a teacher—which makes it easier to follow and remember the individual steps of the teachings.
Second, the teacher should explain the sequence. I have had teachings where someone has asked about why are things done in this order, only to be told that it is tradition, which I find very annoying and not very helpful. So, the sequence should be explained. Why in the four truths do we start with ‘there is suffering’ and then go on to ‘the causes of suffering’, followed by ‘there is an end, or at least a way to reduce, suffering’, and finally, ‘the path that leads to the reduction of our suffering’? There is a reason for this sequence and your teacher should explain it clearly. This will ensure there is no confusion or misunderstanding.
Third, the teacher’s motivation for teaching should be one of kindness, caring and compassion. Teachers should see that people are discontented with their lives and need some help to find their way. Teachers should not be motivated by pride, thinking they are better than their students, or arrogant, thinking they know more than their students. Their teachings should be grounded in an overwhelming sense of wanting to help others.
Fourth, the teacher should not teach just to get material gain. How can you sit and listen to a teacher telling you not to get attached to things when the teacher quite clearly is attached to them? This goes back to a point I mentioned earlier: teachers’ words should reflect their actions.
Finally, their teachings should not disparage others. I have to be honest with you and say I have had quite a few teachings that have put other schools of Buddhism down. This, I believe, is done so teachers can gain control over their students. They say that their teachings are the quickest, best, simplest, most powerful way to reach enlightenment—all of this is said without offering any proof.
I have also had teachers make fun of other religions because these don’t believe what Buddhists believe. One ridiculed other religions for believing in god, and then he proceeded to do a protector prayer. This prayer is to ask some mythical being outside of yourself to help you—in other words, a god type figure.
Buddha’s teachings are just one form of help we can use to improve our lives, but they clearly aren’t the only one. We are all different, and so what suits one will not suit another. The teacher should focus on giving you the facts and not spend time disparaging others.
I would like to add another quality that I think is very important, and that is the five precepts. I believe any Buddhist teacher should attempt to follow the precepts. Of course, they are only human and may come up short sometimes, but they should at least try to follow them. I find it hard to take teachings on board when teachers are trying to teach me how to act, and they quite clearly cannot act that way themselves. ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ doesn’t work these days.
Check your teachers carefully and be sure their words and actions match. Also be sure your teachers challenge you and not just make you feel comfortable and safe.
How should the student act? Some people think to show respect to their teachers they have to bow down to them, treat them as higher beings, shower them with gifts and blindly follow every word they say. I do not think this sycophantic way of acting is giving respect. If you truly want to respect your teachers, then listen to their teachings, ask questions to clear up any doubts, reflect and meditate on the teaching and then, finally, put what they have taught into practice. What better way to respect anyone?
The problem with students acting this way is that they sometimes end up lusting after time with teachers, hanging on their every word and doing things they wouldn’t usually do just to please this higher being. They totally forget that this is about the student, not the teacher. They project special powers onto teachers, which they don’t have. I have a friend who thinks his teacher can hear and see everything that is happening to his students. If the teacher looks at him in an angry way, he will look back over the last few days and imagine it is for something he did. This way of thinking is not just irrational, it is also dangerous, as it is leaving you wide open for abuse.
Once you start seeing this human being as someone higher, better, and more worthy than yourself, you start along that slippery slope of being taken for a ride. This is how cults are formed. You think the teacher is a godlike figure who knows what is good for you, so you surrender. He gets you doing irrational and quite often immoral things, but you blindly follow because he is the chosen one, he knows best. This can lead you to act in an unethical way, do things you would never have dreamed of doing until you met your teacher, and it can also lead to psychological problems. What it definitely won’t do is help alleviate your suffering.
I think you have to look carefully at what you want out of your relationship with your teacher. Do you want a guide to help you reduce your suffering, or do you want someone to take responsibility for your life? ‘Are you wanting to learn from them or lean on them?’
Buddha’s teachings are an inward journey where we look at the human condition and try to tweak it to make life more bearable. It isn’t about handing over your life to someone else and letting them do whatever they want with it. I believe it is a journey of discovery about what makes us who we are, why we act in a certain way and how we can reduce the suffering in our life. For me it is not about mythical figures or realms; I see those as the outside world. It is about trying to make myself the best possible person I can be in this life, and that is why I need a teacher, or teachers, to help me explore my inner world. I don’t want to lean on them—I have my friends for that—I want to learn from them.
On a positive note, there are without doubt some wonderful teachers out there who are compassionate, grounded, and informed; we just have to find them. I will reiterate what I said at the start: it is extremely important to have a teacher/mentor to guide us along our chosen path, so please do not be put off by bad teachers—good teachers by far outweigh the bad ones.
Once we have found a teacher and have has their teachings, it is good to discuss those teachings. The main reasons for discussing the teachings is to clear up any doubts you may have, prevent you from just blindly following what has been said and to help you with your understanding of the teaching.
Doubt can totally take you off course, stop you from implementing the teaching and cause you to walk away thinking this teaching is not for you. I know in many traditional texts it is stated that you should not have doubt. But how is that possible? If you have doubt, then you have doubt. Doubts are not going to be cleared up by saying you shouldn’t have them.
What many traditional texts want you to do is blindly follow the teachings and the teachers. In my experience, this doesn’t work. If I have doubts, I discuss them and try to clear them up. I don’t suppress them or pretend I don’t have them. Buddha told a story about a blind man and a piece of white cloth, which shows how unhelpful blind faith is.
There was this man who was blind from birth who had heard from people with good eyesight that a piece of white cloth was beautiful, spotless, and clean. So, he went in search of a piece of white cloth. He came upon a man who said he had a beautiful, spotless, clean piece of white cloth, but what he actually had was a grimy, oil-stained rag. The blind man took the rag and put it on. He thought he had a piece of white cloth, so he was gratified. Buddha asked the assembly if the blind man had taken the cloth out of faith or through knowing and seeing. Of course, they proclaimed it was out of faith, and Buddha said we should never accept things out of faith alone. We should only accept things from knowing and seeing, which means from our experience.
So, don’t blindly believe things; check to see if they fit your experiences. We have to listen to, or read, teachings with a critical mind. It doesn’t matter if the book you are reading is a hundred-or-so years old, or your teacher has a wonderful title; we still need to check out what is being said. That goes for what I am saying here as well. Check my words out and see if it fits with your experiences, please don’t blindly believe it.
The final point here is that we need to discuss the teachings in order to help with our understanding. It is great to have a group of like-minded people to bounce things off or a friend that is also following the teachings of Buddha. It is funny, but once you start to articulate things they can seem different to how you imagined them in your head.
If you are studying in a group, don’t be afraid to raise any doubts you may have. When I first started studying Buddha’s teachings, I found it hard to believe in rebirth—I think a lot of Westerners struggle with this concept. As I was in a group, I didn’t want to bring it up because I thought everyone else believed it. It became quite an obstacle for me and was starting to prevent me from moving forward with my studies. One day I brought it up in a question-and-answer session. To my surprise, over eighty percent of the group were also struggling with it. It was such a weight off my shoulders.
My teacher at the time was quite forward thinking and told us not to worry about it, leave it to one side and move on. He advised us to revisit the issue now and again and see if it had started to fit into place. I have to say that it never has with me, but it hasn’t stopped my studies or, more important, my practice. As I have previously stated, I don’t know if I have been here before or if I will visit again, but what I do know is that I am here now, and that is what is most important to me. We have to understand that sometimes issues, such as rebirth or the traditional understanding of karma, cannot be reconciled, so don’t worry. It is fine to put things on the back burner. What we shouldn’t do is throw Buddha out with the bath water by dismissing the whole of his teachings because of these things.
The following principles are all concerned with characteristics and patterns of behaviour we should all try to cultivate.
Buddha’s last words were along the lines of ‘attain the goal by diligence’. Now he could have said some inspiring words about enlightenment, rebirth, or karma, but he chose to give us some advice instead, and that advice stated that we should be diligent in our practice because that is the way we will be able to reduce our suffering and the suffering of others.
Buddha mentioned in one of his discourses that there are five things we should reflect on regularly, and I believe if we do, we will be able to stay diligent in whatever practice we follow. This is because we will be seeing things as they are and not through rose-coloured spectacles. The five things we should reflect on regularly are:
I am subject to ageing.
I am subject to illness.
I am subject to death.
I will grow separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions.
The first three—ageing, sickness, and death—are very apparent in our daily lives, and so should be easy to reflect on.
Why does number 4 say, ‘I will grow separate from all that is dear and appealing to me’? It is because nothing is permanent and everything changes, so family, friends and loved ones will not be with us forever. Also, the material things we cherish so much are impermanent and so will not last. If we reflect on this point, it will stop us from becoming attached to people and things.
Number 5 is talking about cause and effect. Remember that our actions are like an echo and will return to us at a later stage. Reflection on this point will help ensure that our actions are kind, helpful and blameless.
Reflecting on all of these will help you remain diligent. I have these five remembrances printed out and stuck on my door. Every time I see them it reminds me to reflect on them.
I always feel that a humble person is easy to be around. They do not waste time bragging about what they have, who they are, or where they have been. They play down their achievements and are more attentive to others’ needs.
The opposite of this is someone who is proud and conceited. These are not attractive traits. It is difficult for me to spend much time with someone who boasts. They are only interested in selling themselves and have no interest in who you are or what you think or know.
I have always found people with pride to also have the biggest egos—and usually the biggest mouths to go with them. But a humble person is quiet, respectful, and attentive. Which one would you rather be around? Which one would you rather be?
Another trait of proud and conceited people is that they are not open-minded nor willing to learn from others, as they think they already know everything. Now, this is something we have to guard against while moving along this spiritual path. If we start to think we are making great progress and are already better than the people around us, we are going to run up against obstacles, such as pride.
We have to stay open-minded. Just because we know a way to do something, it doesn’t mean another person doesn’t know a better or easier way. We shouldn’t assume we know best. Humble people will continue to learn throughout their lives.
Once we become proud and egotistical, it is very hard to subdue these emotions. So, it is better not to travel down that road in the first place.
We have to also be mindful of people praising us. They may be flattering you because of your position or they want something. However, it may be that you are worthy of praise, but be careful: our ego loves to be praised, and it may lead to pride if we are not mindful.
So, what are the causes of pride? There are many, but two main causes are dualistic thinking and an inflated sense of self.
When people think in a dualistic way, it can stir up pride because they start thinking I am good and others are bad; I’m handsome, they are ugly; I’m intelligent and they are stupid. It is this type of thinking that causes us to fixate on ‘I am this’, ‘I am that’. We start to emphasise the sense of self, which leads us to become attached to who we think we are. Both of these lead to pride and conceit. In the Nipata Sutra, Gautama Buddha stated this:
‘By being alert and attentive, he begins to let go of cravings as they arise. But whatever he begins to accomplish, he should beware of inner pride. He must avoid thinking of himself as better than another, or worse or equal, for that is all comparison and emphasises the self’.
‘The Thirty-seven Practices of a Bodhisattva’ advises us how we should act, even if we are rich or famous:
Even when you are famous, honoured by all and as rich as the god of wealth himself, know that success in the world is fleeting and don’t let it go to your head—this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
(Translation by Ken McLeod from his book Reflections on Silver River. A bodhisattva, as explained in this excellent book, is a person who lives and breathes compassion.)
It is clear that humility is a trait we have to work at, or we could find ourselves getting wrapped up in pride. The pride I am talking about here is our overinflated sense of self. It is not the pride we have for our children, loved ones and so on, which stems from love and compassion, this overinflated sense of self pride stems from our ego.
Oh, to be content. If only we could, but it seems human beings have a natural urge to never be content. Or can we? We have to look at what is need and what is greed. I think we can satisfy our need, but we will never satisfy our greed.
What we need is food, clothes, work, money, shelter, and human contact. These bring us security and are things we can satisfy to some degree.
What we want is the latest cell phone, expensive clothes, big cars, huge houses, exotic holidays—in short, we want to not only fit in with society, but we also want to stand out.
We have to train ourselves to know when enough is enough. If we just blindly follow our desire to want more, we will never be content. We have to think carefully to see if we really need something or are we just trying to buy happiness. That is a fool’s game. If we buy something to be happy, it will not last. As soon as a new version comes out or the thing breaks, we will become unhappy and discontented. To try and buy happiness is like drinking saltwater to quench your thirst—it will only lead to dissatisfaction. Just think that if you could buy happiness, all rich people would be totally content, but they are not. They are just like the rest of us, always searching for something to make them happier.
The desire to want more and more brings us anxiety, worry and stress, whereas contentment can bring us peace of mind and calmness. The fear of losing our happiness leads us to frantically search for more happiness. What we see is that people are unable to be content with themselves or what they have. They are constantly craving new things, but once they obtain them, they suffer from loss, dissatisfaction, and discontent. When they cannot obtain the thing of their desire, they become sad and angry, disappointment and despair sets in. There are two main reasons for this type of suffering. One is our inability to be content with the present moment. The other is when we make our happiness dependent on someone or something outside us. Our discontent leads us to have more desires in the hope of escaping these types of suffering.
A note of caution: we shouldn’t take contentment to mean we don’t have to put in the effort to better ourselves—of course we do. We have to find our own level of contentment and once we do, it will be better than any wealth or material belongings.
Buddha says in the Dhammapada:
‘…contentment is the greatest wealth’.
This means to be thankful for and remember the help others have given us. We should also try our best to pay back any help we have received when the person who has helped us needs it.
‘These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful for a kindness done and feels obligated to repay it. These two people are hard to find in the world’.
These days people seem to have very short memories where being grateful is concerned. Gratitude is a virtue we should do our best to cultivate.
That is the first part of this principle. The second part involves the original Pali meaning. It has been translated as gratitude, but this doesn’t quite cover it. It literally means that you know what someone has done for your benefit. So instead of it being an emotional thing as gratitude is usually seen to be—for example, we say things like ‘I feel grateful’—the literal meaning makes it more intellectual. This translation seems to involve an element of knowledge; we know what has been done for our benefit. If we don’t know what has been done for us, we will not be grateful.
This is an important point because it takes in the interconnectedness of everything. If we just sit down and eat our dinner without being aware of what we are eating, who planted and harvested it, who packaged and delivered it and so on, we will not be grateful. Being grateful is connected with an awareness of the world around us, how it works, and who is doing what to benefit us.
So, it isn’t just a point of being grateful; we also have to been mindful of the interconnectedness of the world.
As the saying goes, ‘patience is a virtue’, and it certainly is. It can also be an antidote to anger and hatred.
I had one teaching where the teacher explained a jug is filled drop by drop. That struck a chord with me, because it made me realise things are achieved slowly. Whenever I started to get impatient, I would recall those words, and that helped me to calm down.
Although patience in itself is a virtue, it also shows that you have other virtues as well, such as forgiveness, tolerance and forbearance. It further shows that you have concern for other people and their views, you have compassion towards others, and you have an open mind. A lot is attached to this simple word.
So, what is patience? It is unconditionally accepting what is happening right now in the present moment. When you lack patience, you are rejecting the present moment, substituting some future moment from your imagination, thinking that this future moment will help solve the imagined problem with the present moment. So, patience is an emotion and we can only feel it when we are present in the moment.
Some people believe that by meditating we will be able to stop all of our emotions and feelings from arising. This is a common misunderstanding in Buddhism. It is impossible to stop our emotions and feelings from arising, and why would we want to? However, we can at least be aware of them when they do arise. This way we will be able to let them be and not just blindly follow them. I am going to digress a little bit here to tell you a story about stopping your emotions.
I once read a book written by a Western lama who was recounting the day of 9/11. He said that he was so far into his practice that he had no emotions when watching the plane fly into the tower. He didn’t feel that it was good or bad. He didn’t feel anything.
I am not sure I believe him. If we were able to fully stop our emotions, we would just become a cabbage. If I thought Buddha’s teachings were going to do that to me, I would stop practicing straightaway. If a teacher promises you that his practice can stop your emotions, run as fast as you can. What we are looking for is an understanding of what triggers emotions and have an antidote ready for when they arrive. We have to face up to them and not try to transcend them. Emotions help us see right from wrong and pleasure from pain. By removing them we are removing a built-in value system. This value system has been built up over the years from our experiences, and even though these experiences are filtered through our view of the world, they are still a valuable tool for us to distinguish what is socially acceptable.
If we are impatient, we have to work out why that is. It is usually because we are trying to multitask, or we have set ourselves an impossibly tight schedule or we think we know better than others. We may be feeling anxious, unhappy, or worried and not even know that it is because of impatience. It really does help to be aware, so you are able to look for patterns and triggers, and then work on an antidote.
What we have to realise is that if we want to develop patience, we must have a change of attitude. This takes time, so at first when you start to feel impatient, try doing the three breath-calming techniques I mentioned in Chapter One. That will help you relax and let go of what is causing you to be impatient. Then start to work through your impatience at your daily review sessions.
Knowing how to give and listen to advice are two skills you will need on your spiritual path. You may be a seasoned practitioner and people come to you for advice. So, you need to know how to advise people in a helpful and constructive way. You may be new to Buddha’s teachings and ask someone for advice, so you will have to know how to listen in a way that is going to be beneficial to you. Giving and listening skills are a must.
Let’s begin by looking at listening to advice. The first thing we need to understand is that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is an auditory process, whereas listening we do with our mind and heart. When we hear a sound, we register it but don’t necessarily engage with it. However, when we listen to something or someone, we register it, give it some thought and have some opinion on it.
So listening is a much more powerful tool. Obviously, when we are listening, our views and feelings come to the surface, but don’t rush into forming any opinions. Let people finish whatever they are saying. Give it a chance to sink in. It is human nature to be forming a response whilst someone is talking, resist this, as it will mean you are not fully taking on board what is being said. Stay focused.
Once you have listened to advice, ask questions if you have any doubt. If you walk away with doubt it will grow over time, so deal with it as it arises. Don’t just listen to confirm what you already think. Listen to discover something new, something to shake you up and challenge your preconceptions.
A final thought: when we speak, we are saying something we already know, but when we listen we may be learning something new.
Buddha stating how to judge if our speech is right or not:
‘It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good- will’.
We have to be sure our advice is given at the right time; what we say is true; it is spoken in a kind and caring way; it is going to help the person; and it is not spoken out of ill will. Remember, the way you say something can make a world of difference.
If someone comes to you for advice, the first thing you have to acknowledge is that you do not know everything. You should be honest. If you don’t know the answer, say so. Do not lead someone down the garden path just because of your pride—be humble and truthful!
Don’t judge people. The question they ask you may seem basic to you, but to them it is important, or they wouldn’t be asking it. Make sure your advice is given in a warm and affectionate way.
When we give advice, we have to be sure we keep expectations realistic. Don’t promise things you cannot deliver, such as an end to rebirth or enlightenment. Make sure what you say is beneficial and not misleading.
Finally, we must never give advice when our mind is poisoned by bitterness. If you have nothing helpful to say, don’t say anything.
Although listening to advice and giving advice may be very different things, there are similarities, the main one being that they can both be driven by ego. Once we let ego take over our listening, we are going to filter everything through our narrow world view. This is going to stop us from truly listening, and this in turn will stop us from learning. If we let our advice stem from ego, it is going to be tinged with pride and a sense of superiority. So, keep a tight rein on your ego!
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.
Resentfulnesshas just been covered above.
Apathymakes 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
Anxiousnessis 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.
Doubtis 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.
In this third part of the Mangala Sutra, we will look at the Social Principles.
These social principles take us further into our journey of becoming more responsible and reducing our mental suffering. By implementing these principles, we will also be reducing the suffering of those around us. This is not a selfish journey; it is one that helps us gain compassion for others. But gaining compassion isn’t enough. We have to reflect on the principles and put what we learn into practice. So, these following principles cover kindness, empathy, and responsibility.
This played a big part in Buddha’s teachings, and he mentioned it on numerous occasions. One such time he talked about the fruits of giving:
‘If beings knew, as I know, the fruit of sharing gifts, they would not enjoy their use without sharing them, nor would the taint of stinginess obsess the heart and stay there. Even if it were their last bite, their last morsel of food, they would not enjoy its use without sharing it if there were anyone to receive it’.
So, what are the fruits of being generous? For the giver, they help foster a clear conscience; help you build a good future; and make you compassionate and a respected person within society. It also gives you a great feeling of warmth, pleasure, and satisfaction. Many people think we shouldn’t receive anything in return for giving, but I believe this is not being totally honest. If you give a gift to a child and the child smiles warmly at you, you are going to feel happy inside. If you take a sick person to a hospital, he or she is going to be grateful, and you will feel that you have done a good deed. So, it is true that we receive something from giving, and there is no shame in that.
However, we shouldn’t give just to receive these things. They should be looked upon as a by-product and not the purpose for giving.
One of the key things generosity does is prevent us from becoming miserly. It gives us temporary relief from the pain of selfishness and stops us from becoming totally wrapped up in ourselves. When we are miserly, we worry day and night about our wealth and belongings. We go to great lengths to protect them. We can’t sleep at night worrying if someone will break in and steal them. We grow to mistrust others, and our mind is disturbed from the pressure of protecting our wealth. The miser is so scared of losing his wealth that he hordes it. Buddha said:
‘What the miser fears, that keeps him from giving, is the very danger that comes when he doesn’t give’.
How true is that?
So, a miser lives in fear of his wealth, but to what end? When we die, we are not able to take anything with us, so isn’t it nicer to give things away whilst we are alive? I am not talking about giving everything away and living as a pauper. But there is only so much wealth and belongings we need or can use.
If we do give, we have to be careful that our generosity stems from compassion and not from pride. Our intention and motivation are extremely important here. If you are giving just to get thanks or praise, it isn’t going to benefit you in the ways I mentioned above. Your conscience is not going to be clear; you will not become more compassionate or reduce your suffering; and you certainly will not get respect from others. Giving something and expecting praise is not a very attractive trait.
Giving doesn’t just mean material things. It could be a friendly smile or kind, encouraging words. Whatever type of giving you are doing, do it with an open heart. Do not expect praise and thanks. Let the smile on the person’s face be all the thanks you need.
Practice virtuous actions
In part one of this series, I mentioned the five precepts. These were discussed as things to refrain from, but instead of just avoiding negative actions, we should attempt to act in a positive and virtuous way. A good way to do this is to follow the positive aspects of the five precepts:
Harmlessness—If our minds are filled with empathy and respect for all beings, we will never have the intention to harm anyone. We will see that others have difficulties and problems just like us. They go through life trying to be as happy as they can.
In our lives we see people who are less fortunate than ourselves, but instead of just having pity for them, we should have empathy. This is when we put ourselves in their shoes, see the world through their eyes and not try to fit their experience into our world view.
Empathy can be a real eye opener, and from it we can build compassion—not a compassion built on sorrow or guilt, but real heartfelt compassion. Once we have this type of compassion, it will become more difficult for us to have harmful thoughts.
We are all different, and so people will always do and say things we may not agree with. But instead of becoming angry, we should respect their viewpoint and mentally thank them for showing us an alternative way of being. We may, in the end, not change our viewpoint, but at least we have shown the other person respect by listening to them.
Generosity—This was covered in the previous principle.
Faithfulness—If we have a partner, we should be faithful to him or her. It is our responsibility to be kind and caring towards our partner, and vice versa. If we love and cherish someone, we will not want to cause that person any pain and suffering. If we have strong negative feelings towards a partner, I suggest it is time to move on or at least talk it through. I am not saying we should give up at the first hurdle, but if something is over, it is over, and the kindest thing to do is to be honest. I think a huge part of faithfulness is honesty. Things may not always be sweetness and light between you and your partner, but if you are honest, things may work themselves out.
It seems to be a strong human trait to want what we don’t have. We seem never to be satisfied. The grass is always greener on the other side, until you reach the other side, and then you find some other patch of grass to desire. If we were talking about phones here, no harm is done, but we are talking about other humans, who have feelings. If we think how cruel unfaithfulness is, we will never consider doing it.
Faithfulness is concerned not only with partners; it also covers work colleagues, parents, family, friends, and anyone else you come into contact with. Being faithful means to be trustworthy, loyal, and steadfast. Is that you?
Truthfulness—The saying goes, “honesty is the best policy,” and it clearly is. We hate to be lied to and so does everyone else. When we are truthful, we gain respect, friends, and trust. I believe we all long for these things.
We also gain a mind that is calm, without guilt and remorse. Sometimes the truth is painful but being lied to is more painful.
Self-control—Once we drink too much, take illegal drugs, are overcome by sexual urges or are angry, our self-control goes out the window, and with it the previous four precepts.
Self-control is nothing more than mindfulness. If we are mindful of our thoughts, our speech, and our bodily actions, we will stay in control. However, once we have lost control of our mind, our speech and actions follow suit. Self-control helps us be sure that our behaviour and impulses are kept in check.
This is an alternative way of looking at the precepts. If we keep harmlessness, generosity, faithfulness, truthfulness, and self-control in the forefront of our minds, we will be practicing virtuous actions. \
Help your friends and relatives
In previous principles, we spoke about helping our parents/guardians and spouse/children. However, we shouldn’t stop there; we should also help our friends and extended family. As we help one another we create goodwill, and this will help us along the path.
As with our parents, we can help people materially, financially, physically, or emotionally. Sometimes emotional help is the most important. There are times in all our lives when we feel like we have hit rock bottom. It is at these times we need a shoulder to cry on or a helping hand.
Remember what I said previously about cause and effect? If we help people when they need assistance, they are more likely to help us when we are in trouble. So, it is of great benefit to all of us to help each other. We all grow stronger with mutual help and support.
It is important to help our friends, but it is equally important to choose good friends. Here is a quote attributed to Buddha that sums up the importance of choosing one’s friends carefully:
‘An insincere and evil friend is more to be feared than a wild beast; a wild beast may wound your body, but an evil friend will wound your mind’.
So be sure you surround yourself with good friends, and once you have done that, strive to be a good friend yourself. Let me finish by mentioning what it says about a true friend in the Mitta Sutra:
‘He gives what is beautiful, hard to give, does what is hard to do, endures painful, ill-spoken words. His secrets he tells you, your secrets he keeps. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you; when you’re down and out, doesn’t look down on you. A person in whom these traits are found, is a friend to be cultivated by anyone wanting a friend’.
We should not only try to look for friends like this, but also try to become that type of friend ourselves.
Be blameless in your conduct
A blameless life is one whereby we do not harm other beings with our body, speech, or mind. In fact, we go out of our way to help others, and that includes animals and the environment.
What these principles are trying to do is reduce our sense of unease and discontentment with life, and the way they are doing it is to show us that by being kind, caring and blameless we will have less stress and guilt, and our minds will be more stable and less agitated. I am sure we would all welcome that.
As you work through these principles, you will see that some are about helping yourself directly—such as following an ethical code and learning practical skills—and some are about helping others—such as taking care of your spouse and helping your friends. This is because we do not live in a vacuum. We are all interconnected. So, if you help others and live a blameless life, you are indirectly helping yourself. But if you harm others and live a blameworthy life, you are in turn harming yourself.
A great way to help others is to do volunteer work. I am sure we can find some time in our busy lives to help others. It doesn’t have to be working for a recognised charity. It could be helping needy people in your community, mowing the lawn for an old person, taking a sick neighbour to hospital, raising funds for local charities and so on. You will be surprised at the difference you can make if you try.
In one of Buddha’s sutras he mentioned another aspect of a blameless life:
‘And this undeluded person, not overcome by delusion, his mind not possessed by delusion, doesn’t kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person’s wife, tell lies or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare and happiness.’
What he is saying here is that if we follow the five precepts, we will already be on the road to living a blameless life. It may not be enough, but it certainly is a great starting point.
We must stay aware, moment by moment, of our actions of body, speech, and mind. If we do not have thoughts of bitterness, do not tell lies or use words that will harm others and do not kill, steal, or otherwise hurt people and animals, then we truly are blameless.
It is also important not to encourage others to act against the five precepts. If we can teach and encourage others to follow a blameless path, we will be doing a great service to humankind, and our lives will become blameless and beyond reproach.
All compounded things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting. Work hard to gain your own liberation. Practice diligently.
These are Buddha’s last words and the first part reminds us that all compounded things are impermanent. If we keep this in mind we will not get attached to things, which in turn will reduce our suffering.
The second part, which is the most interesting, says we should work towards our own liberation. Here the word liberation means an end to our suffering. This means we have to look within, take responsibility for our own actions and do the hard work ourselves.
It does not say liberation can be found outside of us, we should blame karma for what is happening in our lives or we have to hand our liberation over to some guru.
I believe we need teachers to help us along the path, but ultimately, we have to decide ourselves what path suits us best and which parts of Buddhism we decide to follow. It doesn’t mean we have to take on other people’s culture or superstitions. We also must decide how much time we devote to that path. The ball is in our court and no one can end our suffering for us.
The final part says that we should practice diligently. It is of very little benefit to simply understand Buddha’s teaching intellectually. They have to be practiced with great effort.
We have to firstly understand the power of the three poisons – clinging desire, aversion/attachment and delusion. Then we need to ensure oou minds are not clouded by these poisons. That is our starting point and something we need to be aware of throughout this path.
We need to fully understand the four noble truths and implement them into our lives. This is a lifetimes work and not something to be taken lightly. The eightfold path, which is the fourth of the truths, is a something we need to constantly ensure we are following.
Meditation is an extremely important part of Buddhism and I would encourage you to learn and practice each day. Mindfulness is also important, even though, the word has been totally misused of late, the four foundations are important to understand and practice.
There are many things in our lives that can bring us suffering and Buddha pinpointed eight of them in the teaching called the eight worldly concerns. Again, it is important to ensure we are not being led astray by these concerns.
Compassion is important in all religions and Buddhism is no exception. But Buddhism does not just talk about that. In the four immeasurables, Buddha spoke about equanimity, kind-heartedness, compassion, and open-hearted joy. All of these help us breakdown the barriers we erect between different types of people.
One of the most difficult to understand but without doubt, one of the most important, is the concept of non-self. We spend so much of our time building our identities and so find it difficult to appreciate that there is no solid, permanent and independent self. I would encourage you to revisit this teaching regularly, so you can slowly understand its importance.
I wish you all the best on your Buddhist journey and hope that these fourteen teachings have helped you in some small way.
I will leave the last word to Buddha:
‘I say to you that these teachings of which I have direct knowledge and which I have made known to you — these you should thoroughly learn, cultivate, develop, and frequently practice, that the life of purity may be established and may long endure, for the welfare and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, wellbeing, and happiness of all beings.’
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