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!
This blog is based on my book ‘Life’s Meandering Path’- available from Amazon and Kindle.