In this blog, we will be looking at the Buddhist concept of nonself. This is a difficult subject for many of us to grasp because we have invested so much time and effort into building and reinforcing a sense of self. However, Buddha stated that what we call a self is just a coming together of different parts.
A woman goes to the woods to meditate. Whilst she is there her mind gets distracted and these questions arise:
By whom was this being created?
Where is the living being’s maker?
Where has the living being originated?
Where does the living being cease?
These are questions we all grapple with at some time in our lives. However, she doesn’t get distracted by these thoughts and thinks to herself:
‘This is purely a pile of fabrications. Here no living being can be pinned down. Just as when, with an assemblage of parts, there’s the word car, even so when aggregates are present, there’s the convention of a being’.
The questions are presupposing there is a self, but that is just a fabrication. Some people think we are our thoughts, but thoughts come and go, so we are not our thoughts. Others believe we are our bodies, but scientists tell us that millions of cells in our body are renewed every minute, so that by the end of seven years we don’t have a single living cell in our body that was there seven years before. Our bodies are changing, so we can’t be our bodies. So, who are we?
No lasting, permanent self can be pinned down because we are just a collection of parts, much the same as a car. When various parts are assembled, we label it a car, and the same for us. When all the parts come together, we call it a self. As this self is compounded it follows that it is impermanent, and so it will come together, remain for a period of time and finally die.
We have to be careful here that we don’t misunderstand what is being said. Buddha was not saying there is no self or there is a self. The question of there being a self or not is just a ‘thicket of views’, and one should avoid such ways of thinking. This isn’t because he couldn’t answer the question, but that it had no bearing on easing our suffering. These types of questions get us confused and may lead us down the wrong path, such as nihilism or eternalism.
The reason for this teaching was to stop us clinging to a self, because that clinging or attachment will lead to conceit, which will in turn lead to us suffering. He taught three different types of conceit we have to be aware of:
Thinking we are better than others, which causes the seven types of pride: pride of ego clinging, simple pride (thinking you are special), pride of thinking we are better/greater than others, pride of pride (thinking you are the best in the group), pride of thinking we are only slightly inferior to an outstanding person, perverted pride (when we are proud of something that is not good), and blatant arrogance.
Thinking we are worse than others, which leads to envy or resentment.
Thinking we are the same as others, which can lead to us being complacent.
So, the next question that may come to mind is, ‘If there is not a permanent and solid self, how do we experience the world?’ I see, hear, smell and so on, how is that possible? I have a family, friends, and job, so if there is no self, who has all these things? These are all fair questions.
Buddha stated the way we experience the world is through five aggregates. The five aggregates come together through a series of causes and effects, and then we experience the world around us. When the five disperse, we stop experiencing the world—in short, we die. What are these aggregates?
They are form, feeling, conception, mental formation and consciousness.
Form includes our bodies and the material objects that we encounter. This aggregate includes both internal and external matter. It is the only aggregate that represents material things. The remaining four aggregates represent mental phenomena.
Feelings are divided into three parts: pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant. These experiences can be mental or physical. There are six kinds of experience, five physical and one mental. These experiences arise when your eyes come into contact with objects, your ears with sound, nose with smell, tongue with taste, body with tangibles and mind with thoughts and ideas.
Conception is where we attach a name to the experience and categorise it by shape, colour, location, sex and so on. We pick up concepts from our parents, friends, society, teachers. and other social groups. It should be noted that our whole world is built on concepts, judgements, and ideas, and not on objectively existing realities, as is commonly believed.
Mental formation is where we respond to an object of experience. It can stem from an impression created from previous actions, which makes us respond in a certain way. These responses have moral consequences as they can make us act in a skilful, neutral, or unskilful way. We can also decide, when we are being mindful, to act in a new and different way.
The final aggregate is consciousness. This is where we get an awareness of an object. If an eye comes into contact with a visible object, the eye consciousness will become associated with the object and visual consciousness will arise. If the nose comes into contact with a smell, the nose consciousness will become associated with the smell and the olfactory consciousness will arise. The same goes for the remaining four consciousnesses.
So, let’s put this all together. Your eyes see a form. Your consciousness becomes aware of it. Your conception identifies it. A pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant feeling arises. Your mental formation makes you respond to it with a conditioned reaction. This is how the five aggregates work together to give us a personal experience.
If you are walking down the street and a car passes you – this is form. Your eye consciousness becomes aware of the form – this is consciousness. As you know what a car looks like you will identify it as such – this is conception. If you like the car, a pleasant feeling will arise. If you dislike it, an unpleasant feeling arises. If you don’t care one way or another, a neutral feeling will arise – this is the feeling aggregate. Finally, our mental formation will make us act in a certain way, depending on if we like, dislike or don’t care about the car.
You should keep in mind that these aggregates do not constitute a self; they are just the way we experience the world. Buddha explained it this way:
‘…any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: “This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.”’
And the same goes for the other four aggregates.
These aggregates are compounded and so are impermanent and ever changing, so how can they constitute a self?
Nonself means there is no permanent, solid self. We come into being through a series of causes, conditions and effects, and we experience the world through the coming together of the five aggregates. These five aggregates also come into being through causes, conditions and effects, so they are impermanent and ever changing. In the Kalakarama Sutra prologue it states this about the aggregates:
Form is like a mass of foam,
And feeling—but an airy bubble.
Conception is like a mirage,
And mental formations a plantain tree.
Consciousness is a magic-show,
A juggler’s trick entire…
As impermanence, which was written about in the last blog post, and nonself are such important subjects, and since they can help reduce our suffering if we understand them, we should constantly contemplate them and try to implement their wisdom into our lives.
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.
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.
In part two of this series on the Mangala sutra, we will look at the supporting principles. The first principle is:
Have good learning skills
For us to be able to follow a path in life, we must first learn about it. If we do not put our full effort into learning, we may misunderstand the path, which in turn may take us off in the wrong direction, and that could cause us to suffer even more.
If you are reading a spiritual book, or at a teaching, and you are not giving it your full attention, you will not be taking anything in. It will be like pouring water into an upturned glass. No matter how much water you pour, nothing is going to go inside.
If you read a spiritual book or hear a teaching and within a few minutes have totally forgotten it, it would be like pouring water into a glass with a hole in it. No matter how much water you pour in, nothing stays inside the glass.
If you are reading or listening to a teaching and you have the wrong attitude—such as feeling you know better than the teacher, you don’t believe what is being said or you think it will never be able to help you—it would be like pouring water into a glass with poison inside.
So, you should take the teachings on board with an open mind. Now, I am not saying you should suspend your critical thinking, but at least take in the teachings and reflect on them later. Do not dismiss every word as soon as it has been said just because it does not fit in with your current state of mind.
To have good learning skills and get the best out of the teachings, you should be like a glass that is upright, unbroken, and clean. This way whatever you hear or read will stay inside and you will be able to understand, reflect and implement the teaching.
Have good practical skills
Once you have learned a new skill you have to be able to implement it, or what is the point of learning the skill? This is where practical skills come in useful.
If you have started learning these thirty-eight principles, or any other path, the next step would be how you can fully understand them. For this you need a calm and steady mind—so you will need meditation skills. If our mind is not calm and steady it will be agitated, and our thoughts will be blown all over the place like a discarded bag in the wind. This is where the skill of calm-abiding meditation comes in. Once we have calmed our mind, we can become more focused, and our thoughts are more likely to stay on the task at hand.
After that you need to give much thought to what you are being taught—this needs reflection skills. This is where we can focus our thoughts on one particular aspect of the path. If we are not looking deeply into what we are being taught, we could end up just blindly believing things. This is not a sound basis on which to travel down any path.
Once you fully understand the teaching or principle and have implemented it, you will need to check your progress—this needs daily review skills, such as sitting quietly and examining your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It is good to set yourself goals so you can see if you are reaching them or falling short. The review session is a time for you to reassess your goals and make changes if needed.
Follow a code of discipline
As we do not live in a vacuum, we have to adhere to rules and regulations, or else society would just break down into anarchy. We all must have a set of morals or a code of ethical conduct to which we choose to adhere. I use the word choose because I believe we must personally buy into a code of ethics. If they are imposed on us, we may not follow them wholeheartedly.
Buddha taught the five precepts as a way to keep ourselves in check. They are not a list of ‘thou shalt not’ commandments, but five things we should try to refrain from doing—not because we have been told not to do these things, or if we do them, we will burn in hell, but because we want to do them; we see the benefit of doing them. The beauty of this code of ethics is that it is willingly undertaken by practitioners so they can work towards achieving a certain goal. The goal here is a reduction in their own suffering and in the suffering of others.
The precepts provide a skillful foundation for personal and social growth. Buddha was not being moralistic here; instead, he was showing us that if we want to be a responsible person within society, we have to ensure we are not harming anyone or anything. The precepts are as follows:
1. To refrain from harming or killing other beings.
2. To refrain from taking what has not been given.
3. To refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. To refrain from telling lies.
5. To refrain from the abusive use of intoxicating drinks and illegal drugs.
Refrain from killing or harming other beings—this precept does not just cover killing humans; it also covers animals, big or small. I have added harming other beings as well because I believe if we harm or kill, we will have similar mental torment. I should make it clear here that I am talking about intentional and/or unnecessary killing. It is very difficult to go through life without unintentionally killing things. When we wash vegetables, we are more than likely killing small insects, but this is not our intention. Our intention is to prepare the vegetables for eating, so this is not what the precept is about. Having said that, we should check the vegetables beforehand to ensure there are no insects on them.
What this precept is about is refraining from intentionally killing. We have to understand that all beings have the equal right to live and be free from suffering, so that is why we have to refrain from doing them any harm.
The way to prevent ourselves from killing/harming is to understand that all beings are the same as us. They want to be happy and not suffer. So, if we know this, a feeling of compassion will rise in us and it will become much harder to kill/harm.
Refrain from taking what has not been given—if we take something that has not been given or belongs to someone else, this is stealing. It may be a pen from work, sweets from a shop, or, when you were a child, taking money from your mother’s purse. No matter how big or small, it is still stealing.
The first time we steal we may feel guilty and scared of being caught. However, the more you steal the less guilty and scared you are. In the end you steal just because you can and not because you need to. This is when stealing has become a habit.
We don’t like people stealing from us, so we should refrain from stealing from them. Once we get the reputation of being a thief, it will be very hard for people to trust us. So, by stealing we are hurting both ourselves and others.
Refrain from sexual misconduct—this is causing harm to someone using the sexual act, such as rape, sex with someone underage or sex with a married person—here the victim being the person’s partner. If we physically, emotionally, or mentally force someone into sex, this is causing him or her harm and is absolutely wrong. There are many people today still carrying the scars of sexual misconduct. So, this precept should not be taken lightly.
I personally believe that Buddha taught the precept on sexual misconduct to help us refrain from harming someone through sex. He did not teach it to be moralistic or make people feel guilty for their sexual orientation.
He wanted us to reflect on our acts and see if they bring harm. So, in this context, I believe if we want to know if an act constitutes sexual misconduct or not, we should ask ourselves the following questions:
Does the act cause harm or does it bring joy?
Is the act motivated by love and understanding?
Would you like it if someone did it to you?
Is there mutual consent?
If there is mutual consent between two adults, it is not abusive. If it is an expression of love, respect, and loyalty, I believe it cannot be classified as sexual misconduct, irrespective of whether it is between a man and a woman, two men or two women.
Refrain from telling lies—once we have lied to someone, we invariably have to tell another lie to cover the first one, and then another, and another, until we have created a web of lies. It truly harms someone when they realise they have been lied to, and it will harm us when we are branded a liar.
I get very upset when I have been lied to, as most people do, and so I keep this fact in mind when I am talking to others.
Refrain from the abusive use of intoxicating drinks and drugs—here I have deliberately put ‘abusive use’ because I believe drinking in moderation is not a problem. Nobody is saying you cannot have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer after work. What is being said is that when we are completely inebriated, either by drink or drugs, we lose control of our body, speech, and mind. This precept is quite often the cause of the previous four precepts, so is very important to adhere to.
We may be driving home under the influence and have an accident and kill someone; steal money to cover our drink or drug addiction; come out with a pack of lies because we have no control over our mouths; or have unsafe sex with someone we met in a bar, not even considering that we or they may be married or underage.
Once we have become addicted to alcohol and drugs it is extremely hard to break the habit. So, it seems sensible not to put yourself in that position in the first place. We should remember the adage, ‘Everything in moderation’.
Practice appropriate speech
Buddha stated that appropriate speech is divided into four parts:
‘Refraining from lying, refraining from divisive speech, refraining from harsh speech, refraining from idle talk: This is called appropriate speech’.
Refrain from divisive speech—when people use divisive speech they are hell-bent on causing a severance between a person or a group of people. Divisive speech is never positive or productive. It is used only to harm.
This type of speech mainly stems from jealousy, pride, or hatred. I have come across it several times in the workplace. A colleague has been promoted and some people are jealous, so they try to split the workforce. This is divisive speech.
You are jealous of your sibling, so you tell divisive stories to your parents in the hope they will favour you over your sibling. This is divisive speech.
These are just two examples, but what is clear is that we must refrain from this type of speech because it will harm others and eventually harm ourselves. You will get a reputation for being someone who is always trying to cause trouble, and people will disassociate themselves from you.
Refrain from harsh words—these are swear words, bad language or words that are said only to cause harm. They are never useful or kind, and usually stem from anger or impatience.
If someone upsets us, we can lose control and say things we do not really mean. The words are meant to hurt the other person, but usually, after we have calmed down, we regret them, and the words come back to hurt us also. We must stay mindful of our speech and not allow this to happen.
Sometimes we get impatient with people when they are not doing what we want, they are doing it wrong or just differently, they are not being open and truthful, or they are not doing anything wrong, and it is just us who is irritable. At these times we tend to get angry and start saying harsh words. Obviously, the way around this is to be more patient and have respect for other people’s viewpoints and feelings.
Every time you raise your voice or say harsh words, you have lost the argument. When your voice goes up, your credibility comes down.
Refrain from idle talk—this type of speech stems from jealousy, hatred, aversion, ignorance or just having nothing better to do with your time. It is very destructive, cruel and can never be classed as helpful. At the time we may enjoy spreading some rumour or other, but just think how you would feel if people were saying the same things about you.
Idle talk or gossip is both harmful and a waste of time. I do believe that social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, encourage such unhelpful and wasteful gossip. I am not saying these sites are not of any use—I use them every day—but they can be used wrongly and end up ruining someone’s reputation or career.
So, the antidote to these four wrong ways of talking is: speak only truthful words, words that spread harmony and not discord, words that are kind and compassionate, words that help and not harm others.
If we keep these in mind and follow them, we will always be in the realm of appropriate speech. We shouldn’t take these four ways of inappropriate speech lightly, as words have the power to ruin lives. If you hit someone (which I am not encouraging you to do, I am speaking hypothetically), it will hurt for a short time and then disappear; but if you say harmful or cruel words to someone, the words can mentally scar and stay with them for years.
Support your parents or guardians
Whether your parents live alone, live with you, or live in an old people’s home, we still have to care for them as well as we can. When you came into the world you were totally helpless. It was your parents or guardians that provided for you, kept you safe and ensured you had an education. I believe that in itself deserves our heartfelt respect.
We can show our gratitude emotionally, physically, materially, and financially when it is required. Sometimes they may just want to have a chat, so make time for them. This is helping them emotionally. They may need help in and out of the bath or with some chores around the house. This is helping them physically. If there is something that will make their lives a little easier, you can buy it for them. This is helping materially. People don’t usually have lots of money in old age, so you can support them, as this is helping them out financially.
Don’t think you are too busy building your own life to worry about theirs. Remember what I said about life being like an echo? The way you treat your parents may be the way you will be treated by your children in the future.
Take care of your spouse and children
There are people who do not fulfil their basic duties to their spouse and children. Marriage is a commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly. I am not saying that all marriages should last forever; that would be unreasonable seeing that everything is impermanent and subject to change. However, whilst you are in the marriage you should be in tune with your spouse’s needs and opinions. It is not just a game of love and respect, but also of compromise and forgiveness.
When children come along, it is a whole different ball game. If you bring children into the world, you have a moral duty to care for them. You must give them parental support, nurture them into a good person, educate them and teach them the difference between right and wrong. The way you treat your children will have a lasting effect on them, so be sure it is a positive one. Scientists believe that a large proportion of the concepts we carry throughout our lives are created between birth and five years old. So, you can see what an extremely important role you have in your children’s upbringing.
Children mimic their parents. If they live in an abusive household where the spouse or children are mistreated, they may behave that way in the future, as these are the imprints that have been lodged in their consciousness and they may look upon them as normal.
You may not be able to shower your spouse and children with material gifts, but you can ensure them a safe and caring life, full of love and respect—that will last longer than any material object.