You do not have to study Buddha’s teachings for very long to understand that the very heart of his teachings centre around the mind. Sometimes the essence of his teachings is reduced to three points:
If you cannot help, at least do not harm them;
And calm your mind.
These three points form a graded sequence of steps that leads you from an external practice to the essential internal practice. If we want to reduce our suffering, we cannot do it just by knowledge and meditation alone. We need to live a responsible life by understanding that we do not live in a vacuum and our actions influence others, as their actions have an effect on us. We should look upon Buddha’s teachings as a bird. On one wing there is ethics, and on the other there is the calming of our mind. The bird cannot fly with just one wing and, likewise, we cannot reduce our suffering with only one part of the teachings.
This is what Buddha said to his monks in the Vatthupama Sutra regarding defilements of the mind:
Why is a simile of a soiled piece of cloth used in this discourse? It is because the cloth is naturally pure, so it is possible to remove the dirt by washing it, as it is not permanently stained by the dirt. The same can be said for our mind. The defilements have not permanently stained our mind; they have just temporarily polluted it. The defilements can be cleansed, but as with cleaning the cloth, it will take effort on our part. However, before we can start cleansing our minds we have to first understand that our minds are defiled, as Buddha stated in the Pabhassara Sutra:
Before I talk about what the defilements are I must point out that we are not trying to stop the defilements from arising; I believe this is not possible, or even desirable. We are also not trying to repress them either, as that again will not be desirable. What we are aiming at here is being aware of the defilements when they arise and having a strategy to deal with them. I will talk more on this later.
Depending on what book you are reading, defilements can range from three to one hundred and eight. The three defilements are known as the base defilements and are clinging desire, anger or aversion and unawareness—the three poisons. What I want to go through here are the ten defilements. These form the basis for all the other defilements.
Briefly, the ten are:
Clinging desire—holding on to sensual objects, thinking they are going to bring us permanent happiness.
Anger or aversion—getting thoughts of hatred towards others and discriminating against certain people and material things.
Unawareness—not understanding the concepts of impermanence, nonself and cause and conditions.
Conceit—believing yourself to be better than others.
Wrong views—thinking things are permanent, there is a solid and lasting self, and believing whatever you do will not have any consequences.
Doubt—when something does not seem to agree with your experiences.
Torpor—inactivity resulting from lethargy and lack of vigour or energy.
Restlessness—when your mind is hopping about like a demented frog and cannot settle on anything.
Shamelessness—behaviour marked by a bold defiance of what is considered right and proper.
Recklessness—the trait of giving little thought to danger towards yourself or others.
The defilements arise in our mind and, if we want to reduce our suffering, we need to focus our work on the mind. As these unhelpful mental states run beneath the surface of our stream of consciousness, we have to exert sustained effort to be aware of them when they start to arise.
The process of becoming aware of the defilements starts with self-understanding, and we can do this in a daily reflection session. Before we can work on the defilements, we must first learn to know them, to notice them at work penetrating and influencing our day-to-day thoughts and lives. In today’s world we strive for instant results, but this is not possible with the defilements. It takes patience, time, and perseverance. We have to systematically understand each defilement, what the consequences of them are, and then work out a strategy where we can let them be without engaging with them. Luckily, there are antidotes for each of the defilements and I have listed some below, but it has to be noted that different things will work for different people. So, this is just a list of suggestions.
Clinging desire—see that everything is impermanent and so our happiness with the sense object is not going to last. If we love someone and we get attached to them, when they want to move on, we suffer. Just enjoy your time with the person while you can but understand that one day it will come to an end.
Anger or aversion—when we let anger and aversion arise they lead us into inappropriate speech and action. We must understand that in these states of mind nobody wins. It is better to walk away or not let yourself get involved in the situation.
Unawareness—we have to study and reflect so that we understand the concepts of impermanence, nonself and cause and conditions. It is no good just intellectually knowing these three key concepts; we must reflect on them, so they become a part of our lives.
Conceit—if we believe ourselves to be better than others, we are going to lack compassion as we will not care for what others think or feel. We are actually denying others their opinions because we believe our opinions are more valid. We will also not be making ourselves very popular as conceit is not a good trait to have. So, listen to others with an open mind and welcome their point of view. This way we will not become conceited.
Wrong views—First, if we see things as permanent we will suffer when they change. So, understand that all things are impermanent. Second, if we think we have a solid and permanent self, we will waste our time and money on pampering it and trying to reinforce this sense of self. This will make us suffer when we become old or sick. See that this body is just a vehicle to carry us through this life. It is made up of innumerable parts and so is impermanent. Whatever we experience in this world is not through a sold self, but through the five aggregates, which are form, feeling, conception, action and consciousness. Finally, we need to see that any action we take is going to have a consequence. This will steer us towards helpful actions and away from harmful ones.
Doubt—this can really eat at us if we do not resolve it satisfactorily. When doubt arises ask questions, reflect on it, look in books or on the Internet for answers, whatever is best for you; don’t just leave it, as it will grow and eventually become a real obstacle.
Torpor—when we allow this to take hold we become lazy and cannot be bothered with anything. If you start to feel like this, take a walk, splash cold water on your face, have a break. Again, it is for you to see what works best, but do not just follow the torpor or you will end up a couch potato.
Restlessness—usually we get restless when our minds are stuck in the past or drifting off to the future. It may be caused by stress or anxiety. The best thing to do is a breathing or body scan meditation. This will relax you and bring you back to the present.
Shamelessness—this behaviour shows that you really do not care for yourself. It could be that you have low self-confidence or have reached a low point in your life. If you leave this unchecked it could lead to an addiction, such as alcohol or drugs, and even may land you in prison. You need to look at the cause of these feelings of self-worth. You may need to seek professional help, such as a therapist.
Recklessness—when our thoughts are of a reckless nature, our actions will also be of the same nature. This is dangerous for you and those around you. As with the defilement above, you really need to find the root cause of this behaviour. Having compassion for others will help here, as you will be able to see that your actions may bring harm to them.
During a daily reflection practice, look at a situation where a defilement arose. See what caused the situation to arise. After a while you will begin to see patterns emerge. Certain defilements associate themselves with certain situations. Armed with this information, you will be able to apply the appropriate antidote. What we are aiming at is to be able to spot the defilements when they arise and deal with them. As I said before, we are not ever going to stop them, and we shouldn’t try to repress them. Just spot them and apply the antidote.
If we are not aware of the defilements, they will arise and we will unwittingly follow them. Remember what I have spoken about all the way through this series on the Mangala Sutra: first we think and then we act. Keeping this in mind is the key to reducing our suffering.
Impermanence is one of the most important topics Buddha taught.
In the Dhammapada it states this:
‘All conditioned things are impermanent’
‘All conditioned things are unsatisfactory’
‘All things are nonself’
…when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.
So, what things are impermanent? Buddha said this:
‘You may well take hold of a possession, monks, that is permanent, stable, eternal, immutable, that abides eternally the same in its very condition. But do you see, monks, any such possession?’—‘No, Buddha’.—‘Well, monks, I, too, do not see any such possession that is permanent, stable, eternal, immutable, that abides eternally the same in its very condition’.
So, it is clear from this stanza that nothing remains without change. Why is that? Well, all phenomena are made up of two or more parts and come into existence through a series of causes and conditions.
Buddha taught that there is no phenomenon that exists from its own side—that is, there are no phenomena that are not compounded.
Things do not just come into existence by sheer magic or by some superior power, such as a god. It is through causes and conditions, the joining together of things, that phenomena come into existence.
Everything is dependent on other things. When we fill a jug with water, it is not the first drop that fills it, nor the last drop; it is each drop individually coming together that fills the jug.
When we plant a seed in the ground, it will not just miraculously grow. It needs water, sun, nutrients from the soil and so on, or it will not grow. It grows when these causes and conditions come into play. We came into being when sperm meets with an egg. We don’t just miraculously appear or are made by some so called higher being; it is through various causes and conditions.
When things come together, something comes into being. They last a while, even though they are constantly changing, and then they disintegrate. This is the true nature of all phenomena, and it is because of this everything is impermanent.
Let’s look at some examples of what is impermanent. The universe is impermanent. Planets explode and black holes keep forming—all this is a display of impermanence.
Let’s look closer to home, to the earth. We are all aware of how the earth is changing, mainly because of our own actions. A thousand years ago the earth was a very different place. Innumerable species of animals have since become extinct, other species have evolved, forests have disappeared, and lakes have dried up, while so-called human civilisation grows dramatically. This is due to impermanence.
The weather changes constantly, and time does, too. Seasons change and, quite importantly, so do our thoughts and feelings. Absolutely everything around us is changing. Impermanence is a far-reaching factor in our lives. So, why do we find it so hard to embrace it?
Even though we nearly all understand impermanence on an intellectual level, we choose to ignore it. It is much nicer to believe things will last forever. But this simply isn’t the case and all we are doing is setting ourselves up for future suffering.
We struggle against impermanence because we get too attached to things, get so involved and wrapped up in them. We fool ourselves into believing that something we like will last forever. When it doesn’t, we are surprised and start suffering. But this idea that things will last forever is a delusion.
Let’s look at an example of our attachments to something and how it makes us suffer.
Imagine you see an advertisement for the latest smartphone. You then search the Internet to check out the specifications. Your excitement grows. Your anticipation is high. When the product arrives in the shops, you rush to buy it. One hour later it’s in your hands and you are playing with it. The more you look at it, the more you see how indispensable it is, and you become convinced that it is the one thing that can bring you true happiness. You can’t think of anything else, and you wonder how you ever lived without it. You spend the next few weeks proudly showing it to your friends, who envy you for having it. Every time you look at it, a sense of pride fills you. You are so happy—your life seems complete.
Then the inevitable happens: a newer, faster, smaller, and more powerful version comes out. You hold the smartphone in your hand, but your happiness has turned to discontent. Why is that? Buddha taught us that all sense objects, including those fashionable, technical gadgets, are impermanent. There is no happiness inherent in them; we simply project happiness onto these objects. When our thoughts toward the object change, or the object changes itself, the suffering kicks in.
That is the type of impermanence we do not like. On the other hand, if we are experiencing hard times, we are only too glad that things change. We may have gone out last night and this morning we have a headache. That will eventually go, and we will start to feel better. We may have had a serious illness, but things change, and we survived it and we are happy. Perhaps we have just separated from our loved one and are now going through a bad time; when that ends, we will be more than happy. If we have just lost our job and are now facing financial hardship, we will of course be extremely pleased to find new employment. So, impermanence is not all bad news.
Our view of impermanence can become quite selective. We don’t seem to fully understand the nature of impermanence and seem not to even spend time thinking about it. We need to make the understanding of impermanence a part of our lives and our very way of thinking. To do this we must reflect on it, but before we can do that, we need to understand why Buddha taught this and what the benefits are.
So why did Buddha teach us this? To stop us from grasping at things. If we understand that phenomena only come together through causes and conditions, and thus do not exist by themselves, we will not get attached to our friends, family, or belongings. If we are not attached to them, it follows that we are not going to suffer once they have changed or gone.
What is the benefit of knowing about impermanence? There are many, but a major one is that it helps us focus on our lives and on setting goals, so we don’t waste the precious little time we have on this earth. This is using impermanence as a motivational tool. If we just stop and think for a moment, how much time do we waste in a day? We manage to waste time in so many different ways. Without knowing it, the days turn to months, the months into years and before we know it, we will be on our deathbeds full of regret.
Impermanence helps us realise that we and all our friends and family will eventually die. We don’t know how, where, and when, but we do know it will happen. If we are not attached to them, we are not going to suffer once they depart.
If we understand impermanence, knowing the thing we hold dear is going to change, we are less likely to get attached to it, and if we are not attached, when it changes, we will not suffer.
I will let Buddha have the last word. This is how he spoke about impermanence:
‘Nothing in the world is permanent or lasting; everything is changing and momentary and unpredictable. But people are ignorant and selfish and are concerned only with the desires and suffering of the passing moment. They do not listen to the good teachings, nor do they try to understand them; they simply give themselves up to the present interest, to wealth and lust’.
Before we finish I want to teach you reflection practices that I think are going to help you come to terms with impermanence.
I have been traditionally trained in Buddhism, and one thing I was taught to do was reflect upon death. Now I know this may sound morbid and even a little strange, but I can tell you from my own experience that it really works. It works on so many levels. First, you understand impermanence and start to let go of your clinging attachment to things. Second, you become motivated to make the best of this life. And third, you will not be fretting about death. In the West, talking about death is such a no-no. Why is that? We can learn so much from reflecting upon it.
Here are four reflections on different aspects of death. Please do not get distressed; just work through them slowly. These are taken from the traditional Buddhist practice and may be too much for you to reflect on. If that’s the case, I suggest you look at why that is.
1—Think that nothing lasts
Think that this year will soon be gone; last year has already gone; each year departs so quickly. Think about the world and all its inhabitants, and how they are impermanent. Think about how you have gone from a baby to a child to an adult and realise that you are heading towards death. Think of how every day, week, month, and year brings you closer to your death. Reflect upon these points. This is not to depress you; it is to make you understand that everything is impermanent and the time to try and reduce your suffering is now.
2—Think about how many other people have died
Think about all the people you have known who have died. Some have been older, some younger and some the same age. There have been so many! Think about how most people, even though they are surrounded by impermanence, have died unprepared. Think of the times that you have been shocked to find out about someone dying, even though you are surrounded by impermanence. Read the papers and watch the news, count how many people have died or been killed today. Reflect on these points and understand that death is all around us, and let this fact motivate you to be a better person.
3—Think of the many causes of death
Think of the numerous circumstances that can bring about death: heart attack, illnesses, accidents, falling down the stairs, being hit by lightning—the list is endless. We do not know when, where and how we are going to die. What we know is that death will come. As we don’t know our fate, we should spend the precious time we have engaging in practice. Reflect on these points and don’t let your death be a surprise.
4—Reflect what will happen at the time of death
If you have misused your life and spent most of it indulging in unhelpful actions and being consumed by clinging desire, anger or aversion and unawareness, at the time of death you may be terrified. You are not going to be able to calm your mind, and it will run riot. It may be that you imagine all kinds of scary situations and will be afraid of losing your family and friends. You may even worry about the money you are leaving behind. It is not possible to relive your life once you reach death, even if you are full of regret and remorse, so don’t allow yourself to get to that point.
Spend some time reflecting on these points, as they will help you understand impermanence and let go of your clinging attachments.
In Buddhism, the ten fetters are ten things that shackle us to a life of suffering. If we cut through these fetters, we will be able to start to alleviate our suffering.
I have mentioned various ways of reducing our suffering throughout this series on the Mangala Sutra, so now I want to discuss things that may stop us from reducing our suffering, namely, the ten fetters. These are ten things that shackle us to a life of suffering. If we cut through these fetters, we will be able to start reducing our suffering.
So, what are these ten fetters? Buddha stated this:
‘There are these ten fetters. Which ten? Five lower fetters and five higher fetters. And which are the five lower fetters? Self-illusion, doubt, grasping at rites and rituals, clinging desire, and resentfulness. These are the five lower fetters. And which are the five higher fetters? Passion for form, passion for formless, conceit, restlessness, and unawareness. These are the five higher fetters. And these are the ten fetters.’
The first of the ten fetters that shackle us to suffering is self-illusion. This is the belief that we are permanent, unchanging, and solid beings. This leads to the illusion of a separate self, which we get attached to, defend, cherish, and spend lots of money on glorifying. It makes us egotistic, arrogant, proud, and conceited. This is a major obstacle to reducing our suffering. I will discuss this fully in the next blog.
The second fetter is doubt. What we are talking about here is having doubts about Buddha’s teachings and practices. It is a state of mind where nothing we hear or see satisfies us. It’s when our expectations do not match our experiences. It may lead us to become perplexed and confused.
Now, doubt shouldn’t be looked upon as a bad thing, as it can encourage us to investigate deeper and help clear up our confusion. The problem comes when our doubts are not satisfactorily resolved, and at that point they become a hindrance.
If, after much questioning and investigating, you still have extremely strong doubts about Buddha’s teaching and practices, I would suggest it’s a good time to revaluate whether you are following the right path for you. When there is doubt in your practice that cannot be resolved, this can bring you up against a brick wall. It is better to walk away than to try and carry doubt into your practice.
The third fetter is grasping at rites and rituals. This isn’t saying we shouldn’t use various practices to help us reduce our suffering, such as meditation and mindfulness practice, because these are very helpful. What it is saying is that we shouldn’t get attached to rites and rituals, or have the wrong view about them, such as thinking they have some magical power.
Our attachment to rites and rituals is as problematic as our attachment to sense objects and people, or anything else for that matter. Rites and rituals are the coming together of causes and conditions, which makes them impermanent. So, by clinging to them, we are actually causing ourselves more suffering, not less.
We have to understand that by grasping at a certain rites or rituals we are not going to be miraculously transported to a better place or become a Buddha. That simply isn’t realistic. Purification does not come about by washing yourself in a holy river, paying monks to do prayers for you, or adopting some form of extreme abstinence. We actually have to do the practice for it to work. Think of it this way: you are sitting by the river, and you want to cross it, but there is no bridge or boat. However, there is wood, nails, hammer and so on laying on the ground, so you could make the effort and construct a boat to cross the river. Instead, you decide to sit there and pray—do you think you are going to get to the other side by reciting prayers? No, and neither did Buddha. Instead, he emphasised the importance of making individual effort to achieve our goals. He stated in the Ittha Sutra that if we want to attain things, we must follow the path of practice:
‘These five things are welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world. Which five?
‘Long life, beauty, happiness, status, and rebirth are welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world.
‘Now, I tell you, these five things are not to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes. If they were to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes, who here would lack them?
‘It’s not fitting for the disciple who desires happiness to pray for it or to delight in doing so. Instead, the disciple who desires these should follow the path of practice leading to happiness (the eightfold path). In so doing, he will attain happiness’.
(The same applies to desiring a long life, beauty, status, or rebirth.)
To free ourselves from the shackles of this fetter, we have to practice with diligence and make sure we do not get attached to any rites and rituals. We also need, once we have studied a teaching, to examine its purpose. This will ensure we do not wrongly grasp at its meaning, as this could bring us more harm and suffering. In the Alagaddupama Sutra, Buddha gave this advice to the monks:
‘There are here, monks, some foolish men who study the teaching; having studied it, they do not wisely examine the purpose of those teachings. To those who do not wisely examine the purpose, these teachings will not yield insight. They study the teaching only to use it for criticising or for refuting others in disputation. They do not experience the true purpose for which they ought to study the teaching. To them these teachings wrongly grasped, will bring harm and suffering for a long time. And why? Because of their wrong grasp of the teachings’.
Fetter four and five, which are cling desire and resentfulness, have both been mentioned several times in this series on the Mangala Sutra, so I won’t go into them again here.
Fetters number six and seven are concerned with becoming attached to form and formless realms, respectively. When we are attached to the form realm, we want to be reborn as a human; when we are attached to the formless realm, we wish to be reborn in another world system. The point is that any attachment, be it to this world or another world, is going to impede our progress along the path to reducing our suffering. Now, many of you may have suspended your belief in rebirth or other realms until there is some clear and demonstrable evidence. That is not a problem, in fact it’s a wise thing to do. But what we need to gain from these fetters is that attachment to anything is only going to set us up for more suffering.
The eighth fetter is conceit. This is where we think ourselves superior to others, we have a superiority complex. We also believe ourselves to be right. We may listen to others’ views, but as we know better, we are never swayed by them.
When I first came to India and did the rounds of Buddhist teachings, I was submerged into the world of the Dharma bums – this is what they were called then. They would sit around for hours and brag and boast about their practice and the high teachings they have had. They would say things like, ‘I’ve had hundreds of empowerments’, ‘I know so-and-so guru very well’, and ‘My meditation practice is secret, and I can’t talk about it’—even though they did. They were so conceited, it made it hard for me to even listen to them much of the time.
I understand that we are all different and we do different practices, but if we talk in a conceited way, it is going to hinder our practice. We will end up with more suffering. So, the answer is to be humble. If you ask someone something, do it out of curiosity and not pride. I find it difficult to be around people talking about how wonderful their practice is and how much better it is than anyone else’s.
Restlessness is the ninth fetter. This is an overexcited, distracted, confused, worried and uneasy state of mind. It is a mind that is not at peace or tranquil; it is the opposite of the one-pointed mind that we aim for in our meditation practice.
It is caused when we allow our mind to be worried about something in the past we cannot change or concerned about something in the future that hasn’t happened yet. So, of course, the antidote to this is being mindful and present in the moment.
It can also be caused by not fully understanding why you are doing a certain practice. Before you start any practice, ensure you know why you are doing it, what the benefits will be and how you will monitor your progress.
The final fetter is unawareness. It means not understanding that we are suffering, the causes of this suffering and the path out of this suffering. It also means not knowing that our actions have consequences, that things are impermanent and that there is no solid and lasting self. This fetter is very powerful as it makes us go through life seeing things in an unrealistic way.
All these fetters are things that shackle us to a life of suffering. If we are going to be able to reduce our suffering, we have to be aware of these fetters and apply the appropriate antidotes.
All our actions of body and speech stem from our mind, so it is vitally important to have a strategy whereby we can have some control over our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Mindfulness and carrying out a day of observance are two good ways to practice self-restraint.
I am not saying by using mindfulness and a day of observance we have to try and control or suppress our actions of body and speech, just get in tune with them.
Many people believe mindfulness can only be achieved on the meditation cushion. This is not correct. Although we do mindfulness meditation practices, we must take the insights we gain from that and introduce them into our daily lives. If we are extremely mindful on our cushion, but when we go outside, we are driven by thoughts of the past or the future, what is the point of our mindfulness practice?
We have to remain focused on the task at hand, and not let our minds wander off to the future or float back to the past. Of course, it is natural to have a wandering mind, but we need to learn skills to keep it in check. When we are walking, we should be fully aware that we are walking. When we are eating, sitting, washing, talking, listening and so on, we should be fully in tune with what we are doing, our thoughts and emotions, and what is happening around us. This way of being will enable us to watch our thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they arise, so we can weed out the unhelpful ones and allow only the helpful ones to materialise into actions of body and speech.
So often we just do and say things out of habit. Even though they have not served us well in the past, we still do them. We are trapped in our comfort zone. So, what we need to do is become aware of our thoughts before they turn into actions. If you are not convinced that your thoughts control your feelings, emotions, and actions, just try feeling unhappy without having unhappy or negative thoughts—it cannot be done. This is the same for happiness, anger, sadness, pride, jealousy and so on. To experience any feeling or emotion, you have to first have the thought that produces it. The same goes for any action; first we think we are going to walk, and then we walk. It is the same for our speech. We don’t just tell a lie; we have the thought that we are going to lie, and then we lie. This is how important our thoughts are. Some people say, ‘Oh! Sorry, that just came out’, but it wouldn’t have if they had been mindful.
If we check to see what we are about to do or say is going to be helpful or harmful, we will be able to restrain from the harmful and concentrate on the helpful. You can also look at your actions during your reflection practice and see what worked and what didn’t, and next time you are in the situation where something didn’t work, remain mindful and act in a more helpful way.
Another very good way to train ourselves in self-restraint, and being able to stay focused, is to have a day of observance. This is when you make a promise to yourself to observe the eight precepts. You can observe them for one day, a week, a month, a year or even for the rest of your life. However, most people would do them for a day because they have family or work commitments. It is possible to do them for a longer period if you attend an organised retreat. A lot of people will wait for a certain day or date to have a day of observance, but I believe it is not necessary to wait for a special day, such as a new or full moon day. A good day to choose is when you are not working, so you can concentrate on doing practice, reading books, or listening to spiritual teachings. I would suggest you try to do a day of observance once a week, but at the very least once a month.
The precepts are:
Refrain from killing
Refrain from stealing
Refrain from wrong speech
Refrain from sexual misconduct
Refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs
Refrain from eating at the wrong time
Refrain from any type of entertainment and from beautifying yourself
Refrain from sleeping on a luxurious bed
On the day of observance, you should rise at dawn and make a commitment to adhere to the eight precepts until dawn the next day. You do not have to make the promise to a god or your teacher or anyone else; just make it to yourself because it is you who is going to benefit, and it is also you who will be cheated if you do not carry out the observance.
Precept one is refrain from killing, and so it is good not to eat any meat and dairy on this day and to remain conscious of not killing any animals or insects. Try to stay indoors as much as possible, because whenever we go outside we are liable to inadvertently step on insects.
Precept two is refrain from stealing, so do not take what has not been given.
Precept three is refrain from wrong speech and if you come into contact with others on this day, be sure you think before you speak. Do not say anything until you have checked to see if it is true, helpful, and kind. I believe it is much better to take a vow of silence on this day. It has two benefits: you do not have to worry about wrong speech and, most important, you remain totally focused as there is just you and your thoughts and that is a very powerful combination.
Precept four is refrain from sexual misconduct, so do not engage in any sexual activities on this day. That means no sex between dawn one day and dawn the next day. This is not saying that sex is a bad thing, only that it is a distraction and something we get attached to, so it is better to refrain from it for one day.
Precept five is refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs, and we should not take any intoxicants on this day. Of course, medicinal drugs are permitted.
Precept six concerns not eating at the wrong time, and so we should not eat and drink after noon on the day of observance. It is advisable to eat and drink at around eleven thirty in the morning and then not to eat or drink anything after that until dawn the next day. I would suggest you take water periodically throughout the day, but refrain from drinking anything else.
This is not a form of punishment or penance; it is to help you remain focused on your practice, especially meditation practice. When we have eaten a meal it makes us feel heavy and sluggish, and both of these are not helpful for meditation as they make you feel sleepy. I would advise you not to eat twice as much at eleven thirty, hoping it will see you through till dawn, as this does not work—I know because I tried it. It will only make you feel bloated and uncomfortable.
Remember, if you lose your self-restraint and take a bite to eat or have a drink between noon and dawn, don’t be hard on yourself. Just retake the precept and focus your attention back on your practice.
Precept seven is divided into two parts: refraining from entertainment and beautifying oneself.
The first part is aimed at keeping your mind, body, and speech away from all kinds of entertainment. Not, of course, that they are “sinful,” but that they disturb our mind and excite the senses. This covers TV, radio, cinema, sporting events, Netflix and even the Internet. I would further suggest you turn off your phone from dawn until dawn the next day—I know some of you will be horrified by that thought, but don’t worry, the world won’t end.
The second part covers not wearing makeup, jewellery and perfumes. This is to stop any form of vanity and conceitedness from arising. It also takes you back to basics. It doesn’t matter what your hair looks like or if your clothes are nicely ironed. What matters is that you stay focused on your practice and train yourself in self-restraint.
Precept eight covers not sleeping on a luxurious bed. Throughout the day you have cut out other luxuries, so the luxury of a large, soft bed should also be dispensed with. You could put a mattress on the floor or sleep on your own in the spare room. Again, this is not for punishment, but to help build your self-restraint.
I have heard of people going to bed at six in the evening because they were hungry and couldn’t watch the telly, so they thought they would sleep and when they wake up, they can eat and get back to their normal way of life. This is missing the point. Use your free time to study, reflect, and do your practice.
So, these are the eight precepts to follow during your day of observance. They are meant to build your mental and bodily discipline and are not a penance. If you fall short on any of these precepts during the day, don’t beat yourself up; just retake the precept and move on.
Setting up a day of observance takes planning. You have to be sure that your family and friends know what you are doing so they don’t disturb you. The first time may be a bit hit-and-miss, but don’t give up. The rewards are worth it, and in the end, it will help build your self-restraint and make your life much simpler.
In the Dhammapada, verse 234, it states this:
‘The wise who restrain their body, who restrain their tongue, the wise who restrain their mind, are indeed well restrained’.
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.