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.
In part four of the Mangala Sutra we continue to look at the social principles. This covers how we can refrain from harmful acts and how we need to put great effort into developing beneficial acts and avoiding destructive ones.
Refrain from Harmful Acts
If we do not want to disturb our minds, we have to be sure we go through life not harming others. Once we start harming others, we release a Pandora’s box of emotions and feelings within ourselves. So harmful acts are not good for us or others—nobody wins.
So how do we know what constitutes harmful acts? Buddha mentioned ten harmful acts to steer clear of. They are divided into three aspects: three for bodily acts, four for speech and three for mind. These ten harmful acts cover what we think, say, and do. The opposite of the ten harmful acts are the ten helpful acts. I will mention the helpful acts at the end of each harmful act. Let’s look at the three parts individually:
The ways we harm others with our bodily actions are through killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. All of these have been covered in the previous blogs on the Mangala Sutra. However, the helpful aspect of these three are: instead of killing, have compassion and empathy for all living things; instead of stealing, be generous and charitable; instead of sexual misconduct, have self-control and follow a code of ethics.
The four harmful acts of speech are lying, divisive speech, harsh words and idle talk and have also been covered previously. I would encourage you to look back to remind yourself.
The positive side to these four are: instead of lying, speak only the truth; instead of being divisive, speak kind words that bring people together; instead of using harsh words, use pleasing and kind words; and instead of wasting your time on idle talk, speak only meaningful and encouraging words.
Now, let’s turn to the three unhelpful acts of the mind. Buddha stated this about these three kinds of mental conduct:
‘And how are there three kinds of mental conduct not in accordance with harmless conduct? Here someone is covetous…… or he has a mind of resentment…… or he has an unwise view, distorted vision…… that is how there are three kinds of mental conduct not in accordance with harmless conduct’.
Covetousness—this is born out of greed and desire; it is when we want what someone else has. Instead of being happy that someone has something new, we selfishly want it for ourselves. It may be a material thing we desire; it may be wealth or another person. This way of thinking brings us only dissatisfaction. We may be able to outwardly pretend we are happy for what others have, but inwardly we are burning with covetousness and negative thoughts.
Resentment — this is to have angry and hateful thoughts towards someone, though it is also possible to have bitterness towards a situation or even yourself. It can make you burn inside, and you are unable to concentrate on anything else but your loathing. It is usually driven by resentment, jealousy, pride, or anger.
This is extremely powerful, and the reason we have resentment is because we see other people as different than us, as outside of us. We do not see the interconnectedness of life. If you think about what you want and don’t want out of life, you will see you are striving to be happy and trying not to suffer. You are not alone. Everyone is exactly the same, even animals. So, if we see that others are no different than ourselves, we will build compassion towards them, or at the very least we will be empathic towards them. This is how we can stop any resentment we may feel.
Unwise view—the unwise view we are talking about here is a view whereby you believe that acts do not have consequences. You think it doesn’t matter what you do because nothing is going to come of it. You have no regard for cause and effect or interconnectedness.
You also believe that things are permanent and true happiness can be found in material things, even though everything around you point to the opposite of this.
You feel there is a solid permanent self—this point will be discussed in more detail in another part of this series.
You don’t believe you are suffering and so are not interested in following a path that may lead to a reduction in that suffering.
All of these constitute an unwise view and are going to lead you down the wrong path in life.
The helpful side to these three are: instead of coveting what others have, be satisfied and contented; instead of having resentment, have goodwill by thinking kind and helpful thoughts, as these will lead to good and helpful actions; instead of having an unwise view, study Buddha’s foundation teachings, clear up any doubts, meditate on what you have learnt and then implement them as this will lead to you having a wise view.
Achieving Great Effort
In the last section we looked at what ten harmful acts we had to refrain from and what their counterparts were. Now we will look at the effort we have to put into avoiding the harmful acts and developing the helpful ones.
The helpful actions are compassion, generosity, self-control, truthfulness, kind speech, pleasant words, helpful words, contentment, benevolence, and wise view.
Buddha spoke about four great efforts: the effort to avoid, the effort to overcome, the effort to develop and the effort to maintain.
The effort to avoid
The first effortis to prevent harmful actions and emotions that have not yet arisen.
These harmful potential actions disturb our minds and the minds of others around us. So, we must make the effort to avoid arousing them.
A big obstacle that hinders our effort and concentration, and so make it difficult to stop the arousal of harmful states, are the five hindrances, which are sensual desire, resentfulness, apathy, anxiety, and doubt.
Let’s just have a quick look at these hindrances.
Sensual desire is straightforward. They are desires of the senses. This hindrance is activated when our senses come into contact with sense objects, such as eye to form, ear to sound, nose to smell, tongue to taste, body to tangibles and mind to thoughts. Every time we point our concentration at our practice, this hindrance may pop up and distract us. We get stupefied by these sense objects, and we start to crave them and feel attachment towards them.
Resentfulnesshas just been covered above.
Apathymakes our minds numb so it is virtually impossible for us to concentrate or difficult for you to arouse any interest; it can make you lethargic and sleepy. All of these make it very hard for you to do any practice
Anxiousnessis when we are feeling tense and irritable. It could be that we are stressed from work. You may have money problems, be worried about the future or your mind is just overloaded. This hindrance makes you overexcited and emotionally troubled. You are not able to concentrate on anything for any length of time. This is because you are not in the present moment. Your thoughts are either in the past or the future.
Doubtis when we have a lack of confidence. It could be we don’t understand what we should be doing, or we don’t trust that it works, or we think we are not doing it correctly. All of these make us wonder if what we are doing is benefiting us.
What is the connection between harmful actions, emotions that have not yet arisen and hindrances? Usually, hindrances are activated when your senses come into contact with sense objects, such as eye to form, ear to sound and so on. The mind deals with these impressions in different ways—sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and sometimes neutral. When it deals with them in a positive or neutral way, there is no problem regarding harmful thoughts, feelings, and emotions (although positive impressions may lead to overexcitement). However, when it deals with them in a negative way, these sense objects stir up harmful thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
We have to become aware of the hindrances that are stopping us from arousing helpful states. Once we have done that, we can implement the antidotes to these hindrances. These will stop the five hindrances in their track and, in turn, prevent any harmful thoughts and emotions from arising.
The effort to overcome
The first effort stopped harmful actions and emotions from arising, whereasthis effortis to overcome the harmful states that have already arisen. Buddha says that we should abandon the harmful states, dispel them, destroy them, and cause them to disappear. But how? He gave five techniques to help us do this. They are:
1. Chase away the harmful thought with a helpful one. If you have been in the grip of harmful thoughts and emotions during the day, try using one of these reflections:
a) Sensual desires can be overcome by reflecting on the impermanence of things.
b) resentfulness can be overcome by reflecting that all beings want happiness and to reduce their suffering.
c) Lack of interest or laziness can be overcome by stopping what you are doing, be it studying or reflecting, and going for a walk, splashing water on your face, doing simple stretching exercises or, my favourite, simply having a cup of tea.
d) Anxiousness can be overcome through a mindful breathing meditation. This will help you become more relaxed and focused.
e) Doubtcan be overcome by simply asking questions and investigating.
So, it is extremely important to chase away unhelpful thoughts and emotions.
2. Regret—we are not talking about guilt here; that is quite a different thing. Regret does not mean beating yourself up over something you have done.
Here we must reflect on our harmful actions and build up a kind of aversion that will stop us from doing these actions again. It is not enough to just commit ourselves to stopping these actions; we have to make an effort not to do them again. It is a bit ridiculous to feel remorse for our harmful actions and then do exactly the same thing again. Our effort must be focused on never repeating these harmful actions.
3. Divert your attention. When a harmful thought arises, do not indulge it. If you are walking down the street and you see the latest smartphone, or a person you are angry with, or the car of your dreams or some other sense object you are craving, you should simply turn away. Look in the other direction or think about something else, as this will avert any unhelpful thoughts and emotions that may arise. Of course, this is easier said than done.
4. Confrontation. This technique is the opposite of the third one: Confront the harmful thought head-on. Do not shy away from it. Look at it and see where it came from. By doing this, the thought will eventually disappear. This confrontation may be difficult to do at the time, so it can be done during your meditation session. Once you get more experienced, you can confront the harmful thought as it arises.
5. Suppression. A note of caution: In my experience, when you suppress things, you are just storing up trouble for the future. If you suppress a bad experience or a powerful emotion, it may resurface, much stronger, later. This technique is my least favourite and must be used only as a last resort, but I hope the other four techniques would have already worked for you.
These are the five techniques buddha mentioned to overcome our harmful thoughts and emotions that have already arisen.
The effort to develop
The third effortis to develop helpful qualities that have not as yet arisen. This is where you should make an effort to develop thoughts and actions such as generosity, patience, an ethical code, empathy and compassion.
Again, the perfect time to think about and cultivate these helpful states is during your meditation session. If you review each day which thoughts and actions have been helpful and which have been harmful, you will see a pattern emerge. You will be able to see what you need to work on and make into a kind of habit.
Remember that we are trying to live a responsible life that disturbs neither our mind nor the minds of others.
What is really needed is honesty. We must be completely truthful with ourselves and investigate which helpful states we do not have, and then put all our effort into cultivating them.
This is how we can develop helpful states that have not yet arisen.
The effort to maintain
The fourth and final effortis to maintain the helpful states that have already arisen.
This follows on from the previous effort. There, you contemplated which helpful states you didn’t have. Now you must focus on the ones you do have. You should remain mindful at all times of these helpful states so they can become a habit. It is no good lying sometimes and telling the truth at others; stealing sometimes and not stealing other times; getting totally drunk one day and then saying you don’t drink another day; or being faithful sometimes and cheating on your partner at other times. These helpful states must become natural and spontaneous. You have to put a great amount of effort into keeping these helpful states going, because if you do not stay aware, they can easily drift away from you. Awareness is the key here.
Be happy that you have these helpful states and give yourself a pat on the back—I mean it, because it shows that you are on the right path to living responsibly, which in turn should help increase your self-confidence and happiness.
Let us summarise the main points here: We have to avoid harmful states that have not yet arisen; overcome the harmful states that have arisen; develop helpful states that have not yet arisen; and maintain the helpful states that have arisen. This is where we should be concentrating our effort, so we start to alleviate our suffering and the suffering of others.
In this third part of the Mangala Sutra, we will look at the Social Principles.
These social principles take us further into our journey of becoming more responsible and reducing our mental suffering. By implementing these principles, we will also be reducing the suffering of those around us. This is not a selfish journey; it is one that helps us gain compassion for others. But gaining compassion isn’t enough. We have to reflect on the principles and put what we learn into practice. So, these following principles cover kindness, empathy, and responsibility.
This played a big part in Buddha’s teachings, and he mentioned it on numerous occasions. One such time he talked about the fruits of giving:
‘If beings knew, as I know, the fruit of sharing gifts, they would not enjoy their use without sharing them, nor would the taint of stinginess obsess the heart and stay there. Even if it were their last bite, their last morsel of food, they would not enjoy its use without sharing it if there were anyone to receive it’.
So, what are the fruits of being generous? For the giver, they help foster a clear conscience; help you build a good future; and make you compassionate and a respected person within society. It also gives you a great feeling of warmth, pleasure, and satisfaction. Many people think we shouldn’t receive anything in return for giving, but I believe this is not being totally honest. If you give a gift to a child and the child smiles warmly at you, you are going to feel happy inside. If you take a sick person to a hospital, he or she is going to be grateful, and you will feel that you have done a good deed. So, it is true that we receive something from giving, and there is no shame in that.
However, we shouldn’t give just to receive these things. They should be looked upon as a by-product and not the purpose for giving.
One of the key things generosity does is prevent us from becoming miserly. It gives us temporary relief from the pain of selfishness and stops us from becoming totally wrapped up in ourselves. When we are miserly, we worry day and night about our wealth and belongings. We go to great lengths to protect them. We can’t sleep at night worrying if someone will break in and steal them. We grow to mistrust others, and our mind is disturbed from the pressure of protecting our wealth. The miser is so scared of losing his wealth that he hordes it. Buddha said:
‘What the miser fears, that keeps him from giving, is the very danger that comes when he doesn’t give’.
How true is that?
So, a miser lives in fear of his wealth, but to what end? When we die, we are not able to take anything with us, so isn’t it nicer to give things away whilst we are alive? I am not talking about giving everything away and living as a pauper. But there is only so much wealth and belongings we need or can use.
If we do give, we have to be careful that our generosity stems from compassion and not from pride. Our intention and motivation are extremely important here. If you are giving just to get thanks or praise, it isn’t going to benefit you in the ways I mentioned above. Your conscience is not going to be clear; you will not become more compassionate or reduce your suffering; and you certainly will not get respect from others. Giving something and expecting praise is not a very attractive trait.
Giving doesn’t just mean material things. It could be a friendly smile or kind, encouraging words. Whatever type of giving you are doing, do it with an open heart. Do not expect praise and thanks. Let the smile on the person’s face be all the thanks you need.
Practice virtuous actions
In part one of this series, I mentioned the five precepts. These were discussed as things to refrain from, but instead of just avoiding negative actions, we should attempt to act in a positive and virtuous way. A good way to do this is to follow the positive aspects of the five precepts:
Harmlessness—If our minds are filled with empathy and respect for all beings, we will never have the intention to harm anyone. We will see that others have difficulties and problems just like us. They go through life trying to be as happy as they can.
In our lives we see people who are less fortunate than ourselves, but instead of just having pity for them, we should have empathy. This is when we put ourselves in their shoes, see the world through their eyes and not try to fit their experience into our world view.
Empathy can be a real eye opener, and from it we can build compassion—not a compassion built on sorrow or guilt, but real heartfelt compassion. Once we have this type of compassion, it will become more difficult for us to have harmful thoughts.
We are all different, and so people will always do and say things we may not agree with. But instead of becoming angry, we should respect their viewpoint and mentally thank them for showing us an alternative way of being. We may, in the end, not change our viewpoint, but at least we have shown the other person respect by listening to them.
Generosity—This was covered in the previous principle.
Faithfulness—If we have a partner, we should be faithful to him or her. It is our responsibility to be kind and caring towards our partner, and vice versa. If we love and cherish someone, we will not want to cause that person any pain and suffering. If we have strong negative feelings towards a partner, I suggest it is time to move on or at least talk it through. I am not saying we should give up at the first hurdle, but if something is over, it is over, and the kindest thing to do is to be honest. I think a huge part of faithfulness is honesty. Things may not always be sweetness and light between you and your partner, but if you are honest, things may work themselves out.
It seems to be a strong human trait to want what we don’t have. We seem never to be satisfied. The grass is always greener on the other side, until you reach the other side, and then you find some other patch of grass to desire. If we were talking about phones here, no harm is done, but we are talking about other humans, who have feelings. If we think how cruel unfaithfulness is, we will never consider doing it.
Faithfulness is concerned not only with partners; it also covers work colleagues, parents, family, friends, and anyone else you come into contact with. Being faithful means to be trustworthy, loyal, and steadfast. Is that you?
Truthfulness—The saying goes, “honesty is the best policy,” and it clearly is. We hate to be lied to and so does everyone else. When we are truthful, we gain respect, friends, and trust. I believe we all long for these things.
We also gain a mind that is calm, without guilt and remorse. Sometimes the truth is painful but being lied to is more painful.
Self-control—Once we drink too much, take illegal drugs, are overcome by sexual urges or are angry, our self-control goes out the window, and with it the previous four precepts.
Self-control is nothing more than mindfulness. If we are mindful of our thoughts, our speech, and our bodily actions, we will stay in control. However, once we have lost control of our mind, our speech and actions follow suit. Self-control helps us be sure that our behaviour and impulses are kept in check.
This is an alternative way of looking at the precepts. If we keep harmlessness, generosity, faithfulness, truthfulness, and self-control in the forefront of our minds, we will be practicing virtuous actions. \
Help your friends and relatives
In previous principles, we spoke about helping our parents/guardians and spouse/children. However, we shouldn’t stop there; we should also help our friends and extended family. As we help one another we create goodwill, and this will help us along the path.
As with our parents, we can help people materially, financially, physically, or emotionally. Sometimes emotional help is the most important. There are times in all our lives when we feel like we have hit rock bottom. It is at these times we need a shoulder to cry on or a helping hand.
Remember what I said previously about cause and effect? If we help people when they need assistance, they are more likely to help us when we are in trouble. So, it is of great benefit to all of us to help each other. We all grow stronger with mutual help and support.
It is important to help our friends, but it is equally important to choose good friends. Here is a quote attributed to Buddha that sums up the importance of choosing one’s friends carefully:
‘An insincere and evil friend is more to be feared than a wild beast; a wild beast may wound your body, but an evil friend will wound your mind’.
So be sure you surround yourself with good friends, and once you have done that, strive to be a good friend yourself. Let me finish by mentioning what it says about a true friend in the Mitta Sutra:
‘He gives what is beautiful, hard to give, does what is hard to do, endures painful, ill-spoken words. His secrets he tells you, your secrets he keeps. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you; when you’re down and out, doesn’t look down on you. A person in whom these traits are found, is a friend to be cultivated by anyone wanting a friend’.
We should not only try to look for friends like this, but also try to become that type of friend ourselves.
Be blameless in your conduct
A blameless life is one whereby we do not harm other beings with our body, speech, or mind. In fact, we go out of our way to help others, and that includes animals and the environment.
What these principles are trying to do is reduce our sense of unease and discontentment with life, and the way they are doing it is to show us that by being kind, caring and blameless we will have less stress and guilt, and our minds will be more stable and less agitated. I am sure we would all welcome that.
As you work through these principles, you will see that some are about helping yourself directly—such as following an ethical code and learning practical skills—and some are about helping others—such as taking care of your spouse and helping your friends. This is because we do not live in a vacuum. We are all interconnected. So, if you help others and live a blameless life, you are indirectly helping yourself. But if you harm others and live a blameworthy life, you are in turn harming yourself.
A great way to help others is to do volunteer work. I am sure we can find some time in our busy lives to help others. It doesn’t have to be working for a recognised charity. It could be helping needy people in your community, mowing the lawn for an old person, taking a sick neighbour to hospital, raising funds for local charities and so on. You will be surprised at the difference you can make if you try.
In one of Buddha’s sutras he mentioned another aspect of a blameless life:
‘And this undeluded person, not overcome by delusion, his mind not possessed by delusion, doesn’t kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person’s wife, tell lies or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare and happiness.’
What he is saying here is that if we follow the five precepts, we will already be on the road to living a blameless life. It may not be enough, but it certainly is a great starting point.
We must stay aware, moment by moment, of our actions of body, speech, and mind. If we do not have thoughts of bitterness, do not tell lies or use words that will harm others and do not kill, steal, or otherwise hurt people and animals, then we truly are blameless.
It is also important not to encourage others to act against the five precepts. If we can teach and encourage others to follow a blameless path, we will be doing a great service to humankind, and our lives will become blameless and beyond reproach.
Even though you know how amazing meditation is supposed to make you feel, when you
think about starting a practice it seems too difficult or too time consuming. You feel you will do it when you have more time or when the kids are grown or when you retire. We think like this because we misunderstand what meditation really is. (more…)