In Buddhism, the ten fetters are ten things that shackle us to a life of suffering. If we cut through these fetters, we will be able to start to alleviate our suffering.
I have mentioned various ways of reducing our suffering throughout this series on the Mangala Sutra, so now I want to discuss things that may stop us from reducing our suffering, namely, the ten fetters. These are ten things that shackle us to a life of suffering. If we cut through these fetters, we will be able to start reducing our suffering.
So, what are these ten fetters? Buddha stated this:
‘There are these ten fetters. Which ten? Five lower fetters and five higher fetters. And which are the five lower fetters? Self-illusion, doubt, grasping at rites and rituals, clinging desire, and resentfulness. These are the five lower fetters. And which are the five higher fetters? Passion for form, passion for formless, conceit, restlessness, and unawareness. These are the five higher fetters. And these are the ten fetters.’
The first of the ten fetters that shackle us to suffering is self-illusion. This is the belief that we are permanent, unchanging, and solid beings. This leads to the illusion of a separate self, which we get attached to, defend, cherish, and spend lots of money on glorifying. It makes us egotistic, arrogant, proud, and conceited. This is a major obstacle to reducing our suffering. I will discuss this fully in the next blog.
The second fetter is doubt. What we are talking about here is having doubts about Buddha’s teachings and practices. It is a state of mind where nothing we hear or see satisfies us. It’s when our expectations do not match our experiences. It may lead us to become perplexed and confused.
Now, doubt shouldn’t be looked upon as a bad thing, as it can encourage us to investigate deeper and help clear up our confusion. The problem comes when our doubts are not satisfactorily resolved, and at that point they become a hindrance.
If, after much questioning and investigating, you still have extremely strong doubts about Buddha’s teaching and practices, I would suggest it’s a good time to revaluate whether you are following the right path for you. When there is doubt in your practice that cannot be resolved, this can bring you up against a brick wall. It is better to walk away than to try and carry doubt into your practice.
The third fetter is grasping at rites and rituals. This isn’t saying we shouldn’t use various practices to help us reduce our suffering, such as meditation and mindfulness practice, because these are very helpful. What it is saying is that we shouldn’t get attached to rites and rituals, or have the wrong view about them, such as thinking they have some magical power.
Our attachment to rites and rituals is as problematic as our attachment to sense objects and people, or anything else for that matter. Rites and rituals are the coming together of causes and conditions, which makes them impermanent. So, by clinging to them, we are actually causing ourselves more suffering, not less.
We have to understand that by grasping at a certain rites or rituals we are not going to be miraculously transported to a better place or become a Buddha. That simply isn’t realistic. Purification does not come about by washing yourself in a holy river, paying monks to do prayers for you, or adopting some form of extreme abstinence. We actually have to do the practice for it to work. Think of it this way: you are sitting by the river, and you want to cross it, but there is no bridge or boat. However, there is wood, nails, hammer and so on laying on the ground, so you could make the effort and construct a boat to cross the river. Instead, you decide to sit there and pray—do you think you are going to get to the other side by reciting prayers? No, and neither did Buddha. Instead, he emphasised the importance of making individual effort to achieve our goals. He stated in the Ittha Sutra that if we want to attain things, we must follow the path of practice:
‘These five things are welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world. Which five?
‘Long life, beauty, happiness, status, and rebirth are welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world.
‘Now, I tell you, these five things are not to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes. If they were to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes, who here would lack them?
‘It’s not fitting for the disciple who desires happiness to pray for it or to delight in doing so. Instead, the disciple who desires these should follow the path of practice leading to happiness (the eightfold path). In so doing, he will attain happiness’.
(The same applies to desiring a long life, beauty, status, or rebirth.)
To free ourselves from the shackles of this fetter, we have to practice with diligence and make sure we do not get attached to any rites and rituals. We also need, once we have studied a teaching, to examine its purpose. This will ensure we do not wrongly grasp at its meaning, as this could bring us more harm and suffering. In the Alagaddupama Sutra, Buddha gave this advice to the monks:
‘There are here, monks, some foolish men who study the teaching; having studied it, they do not wisely examine the purpose of those teachings. To those who do not wisely examine the purpose, these teachings will not yield insight. They study the teaching only to use it for criticising or for refuting others in disputation. They do not experience the true purpose for which they ought to study the teaching. To them these teachings wrongly grasped, will bring harm and suffering for a long time. And why? Because of their wrong grasp of the teachings’.
Fetter four and five, which are cling desire and resentfulness, have both been mentioned several times in this series on the Mangala Sutra, so I won’t go into them again here.
Fetters number six and seven are concerned with becoming attached to form and formless realms, respectively. When we are attached to the form realm, we want to be reborn as a human; when we are attached to the formless realm, we wish to be reborn in another world system. The point is that any attachment, be it to this world or another world, is going to impede our progress along the path to reducing our suffering. Now, many of you may have suspended your belief in rebirth or other realms until there is some clear and demonstrable evidence. That is not a problem, in fact it’s a wise thing to do. But what we need to gain from these fetters is that attachment to anything is only going to set us up for more suffering.
The eighth fetter is conceit. This is where we think ourselves superior to others, we have a superiority complex. We also believe ourselves to be right. We may listen to others’ views, but as we know better, we are never swayed by them.
When I first came to India and did the rounds of Buddhist teachings, I was submerged into the world of the Dharma bums – this is what they were called then. They would sit around for hours and brag and boast about their practice and the high teachings they have had. They would say things like, ‘I’ve had hundreds of empowerments’, ‘I know so-and-so guru very well’, and ‘My meditation practice is secret, and I can’t talk about it’—even though they did. They were so conceited, it made it hard for me to even listen to them much of the time.
I understand that we are all different and we do different practices, but if we talk in a conceited way, it is going to hinder our practice. We will end up with more suffering. So, the answer is to be humble. If you ask someone something, do it out of curiosity and not pride. I find it difficult to be around people talking about how wonderful their practice is and how much better it is than anyone else’s.
Restlessness is the ninth fetter. This is an overexcited, distracted, confused, worried and uneasy state of mind. It is a mind that is not at peace or tranquil; it is the opposite of the one-pointed mind that we aim for in our meditation practice.
It is caused when we allow our mind to be worried about something in the past we cannot change or concerned about something in the future that hasn’t happened yet. So, of course, the antidote to this is being mindful and present in the moment.
It can also be caused by not fully understanding why you are doing a certain practice. Before you start any practice, ensure you know why you are doing it, what the benefits will be and how you will monitor your progress.
The final fetter is unawareness. It means not understanding that we are suffering, the causes of this suffering and the path out of this suffering. It also means not knowing that our actions have consequences, that things are impermanent and that there is no solid and lasting self. This fetter is very powerful as it makes us go through life seeing things in an unrealistic way.
All these fetters are things that shackle us to a life of suffering. If we are going to be able to reduce our suffering, we have to be aware of these fetters and apply the appropriate antidotes.
All our actions of body and speech stem from our mind, so it is vitally important to have a strategy whereby we can have some control over our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Mindfulness and carrying out a day of observance are two good ways to practice self-restraint.
I am not saying by using mindfulness and a day of observance we have to try and control or suppress our actions of body and speech, just get in tune with them.
Many people believe mindfulness can only be achieved on the meditation cushion. This is not correct. Although we do mindfulness meditation practices, we must take the insights we gain from that and introduce them into our daily lives. If we are extremely mindful on our cushion, but when we go outside, we are driven by thoughts of the past or the future, what is the point of our mindfulness practice?
We have to remain focused on the task at hand, and not let our minds wander off to the future or float back to the past. Of course, it is natural to have a wandering mind, but we need to learn skills to keep it in check. When we are walking, we should be fully aware that we are walking. When we are eating, sitting, washing, talking, listening and so on, we should be fully in tune with what we are doing, our thoughts and emotions, and what is happening around us. This way of being will enable us to watch our thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they arise, so we can weed out the unhelpful ones and allow only the helpful ones to materialise into actions of body and speech.
So often we just do and say things out of habit. Even though they have not served us well in the past, we still do them. We are trapped in our comfort zone. So, what we need to do is become aware of our thoughts before they turn into actions. If you are not convinced that your thoughts control your feelings, emotions, and actions, just try feeling unhappy without having unhappy or negative thoughts—it cannot be done. This is the same for happiness, anger, sadness, pride, jealousy and so on. To experience any feeling or emotion, you have to first have the thought that produces it. The same goes for any action; first we think we are going to walk, and then we walk. It is the same for our speech. We don’t just tell a lie; we have the thought that we are going to lie, and then we lie. This is how important our thoughts are. Some people say, ‘Oh! Sorry, that just came out’, but it wouldn’t have if they had been mindful.
If we check to see what we are about to do or say is going to be helpful or harmful, we will be able to restrain from the harmful and concentrate on the helpful. You can also look at your actions during your reflection practice and see what worked and what didn’t, and next time you are in the situation where something didn’t work, remain mindful and act in a more helpful way.
Another very good way to train ourselves in self-restraint, and being able to stay focused, is to have a day of observance. This is when you make a promise to yourself to observe the eight precepts. You can observe them for one day, a week, a month, a year or even for the rest of your life. However, most people would do them for a day because they have family or work commitments. It is possible to do them for a longer period if you attend an organised retreat. A lot of people will wait for a certain day or date to have a day of observance, but I believe it is not necessary to wait for a special day, such as a new or full moon day. A good day to choose is when you are not working, so you can concentrate on doing practice, reading books, or listening to spiritual teachings. I would suggest you try to do a day of observance once a week, but at the very least once a month.
The precepts are:
Refrain from killing
Refrain from stealing
Refrain from wrong speech
Refrain from sexual misconduct
Refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs
Refrain from eating at the wrong time
Refrain from any type of entertainment and from beautifying yourself
Refrain from sleeping on a luxurious bed
On the day of observance, you should rise at dawn and make a commitment to adhere to the eight precepts until dawn the next day. You do not have to make the promise to a god or your teacher or anyone else; just make it to yourself because it is you who is going to benefit, and it is also you who will be cheated if you do not carry out the observance.
Precept one is refrain from killing, and so it is good not to eat any meat and dairy on this day and to remain conscious of not killing any animals or insects. Try to stay indoors as much as possible, because whenever we go outside we are liable to inadvertently step on insects.
Precept two is refrain from stealing, so do not take what has not been given.
Precept three is refrain from wrong speech and if you come into contact with others on this day, be sure you think before you speak. Do not say anything until you have checked to see if it is true, helpful, and kind. I believe it is much better to take a vow of silence on this day. It has two benefits: you do not have to worry about wrong speech and, most important, you remain totally focused as there is just you and your thoughts and that is a very powerful combination.
Precept four is refrain from sexual misconduct, so do not engage in any sexual activities on this day. That means no sex between dawn one day and dawn the next day. This is not saying that sex is a bad thing, only that it is a distraction and something we get attached to, so it is better to refrain from it for one day.
Precept five is refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs, and we should not take any intoxicants on this day. Of course, medicinal drugs are permitted.
Precept six concerns not eating at the wrong time, and so we should not eat and drink after noon on the day of observance. It is advisable to eat and drink at around eleven thirty in the morning and then not to eat or drink anything after that until dawn the next day. I would suggest you take water periodically throughout the day, but refrain from drinking anything else.
This is not a form of punishment or penance; it is to help you remain focused on your practice, especially meditation practice. When we have eaten a meal it makes us feel heavy and sluggish, and both of these are not helpful for meditation as they make you feel sleepy. I would advise you not to eat twice as much at eleven thirty, hoping it will see you through till dawn, as this does not work—I know because I tried it. It will only make you feel bloated and uncomfortable.
Remember, if you lose your self-restraint and take a bite to eat or have a drink between noon and dawn, don’t be hard on yourself. Just retake the precept and focus your attention back on your practice.
Precept seven is divided into two parts: refraining from entertainment and beautifying oneself.
The first part is aimed at keeping your mind, body, and speech away from all kinds of entertainment. Not, of course, that they are “sinful,” but that they disturb our mind and excite the senses. This covers TV, radio, cinema, sporting events, Netflix and even the Internet. I would further suggest you turn off your phone from dawn until dawn the next day—I know some of you will be horrified by that thought, but don’t worry, the world won’t end.
The second part covers not wearing makeup, jewellery and perfumes. This is to stop any form of vanity and conceitedness from arising. It also takes you back to basics. It doesn’t matter what your hair looks like or if your clothes are nicely ironed. What matters is that you stay focused on your practice and train yourself in self-restraint.
Precept eight covers not sleeping on a luxurious bed. Throughout the day you have cut out other luxuries, so the luxury of a large, soft bed should also be dispensed with. You could put a mattress on the floor or sleep on your own in the spare room. Again, this is not for punishment, but to help build your self-restraint.
I have heard of people going to bed at six in the evening because they were hungry and couldn’t watch the telly, so they thought they would sleep and when they wake up, they can eat and get back to their normal way of life. This is missing the point. Use your free time to study, reflect, and do your practice.
So, these are the eight precepts to follow during your day of observance. They are meant to build your mental and bodily discipline and are not a penance. If you fall short on any of these precepts during the day, don’t beat yourself up; just retake the precept and move on.
Setting up a day of observance takes planning. You have to be sure that your family and friends know what you are doing so they don’t disturb you. The first time may be a bit hit-and-miss, but don’t give up. The rewards are worth it, and in the end, it will help build your self-restraint and make your life much simpler.
In the Dhammapada, verse 234, it states this:
‘The wise who restrain their body, who restrain their tongue, the wise who restrain their mind, are indeed well restrained’.
In part 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.
What I’m going to talk about today is a subject that I don’t usually talk much about, because people seem to think it’s a magical or mystical thing or it’s handed down to us from some god or a higher being; none of these are true. I am talking about karma.
Many people think that karma is handed down to us from lifetime to lifetime, and we can’t avoid it. Actually, karma means patterns of behaviour we have done so often they have become habits. It is no more mystical or magical than that. This means karma is one hundred percent in your own hands. You produce your own karma, not anybody else.
When we do an act for the first time, we plant a seed in our mind. For example, you tell a lie to this person for the first time. That plants a seed, and that seed becomes a potential. If you never tell another lie, then that potential will just sit there dormant, and nothing will happen. But if you tell another lie, what you’re doing is watering that seed, and it will start to grow. The more you keep lying, the more you keep watering that seed, and the more that seed will grow. That seed will now grow into a habit, it grows into a pattern of behaviour, and that is what karma is. It’s a pattern of behaviour.
When you keep acting in a certain way, that pattern of behaviour keeps growing, and it becomes part of your character. When that happens, you begin to act in that way from your unconscious mind. You’re now lying without consciously thinking about what you are doing. So, in the first instant when you planted that seed, you are doing it consciously. You consciously made a choice to lie, but the more that you’ve watered that seed, the more it becomes an unconscious way of acting. It is now a habit, your behaviour, your character.
It’s nothing to do with a god or higher being, it’s nothing to do with anybody else, it’s everything to do with you. And that’s the good point, because if it’s to do with you, it means that you can change. You can break that habit.
We all have behaviours that we don’t really like, or we don’t want to be that type of person, but we are. If you’re an angry person, if you’re a jealous person, if you tell lies or if you steal things, these are all learned behaviours. You are not born with any of those behaviour. No baby was born a thief, or a criminal, or a murderer, a liar, a cheat. These are all behaviours that we’ve learned. So, because we’ve learned them, we can unlearn them. We can change our behaviour.
If we keep doing the same behaviour, we’re going to keep getting the same result. Now, that is such a simple thing for us to get our heads around. But we all keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. The only way to get different results is to do different things. If we want to change our lives, if we want our lives to be happier, if we want to be contented, we have to change our behaviour.
We need to analyse the behaviours we don’t like and start to think of different ways to act. To help with this I have written an acronym called A.W.A.R.E. We can use this practice during our meditation sessions. The A stands for attention, W is why, A is assess, R is reality and E is examine.
While sitting in meditation, focus on your breath for a few minutes. This will help calm you down and focus the mind. Now, think of a behavioural pattern you wish to change. Then bring an incident into your mind when you behaved in that way.
Now use the AWARE practice:
Attention – look at this behaviour and see if you are working from your conscious mind, or are you working from your unconscious mind. Are you on autopilot, is this simply a habit? You bring your full attention to how you acted.
Why – And then you look at the why you acted that way. Now, when we look at the ‘why’ what we’re looking for is what’s my motivation? What is my intention of acting this way? Why did I behave like this
Assess – then we assess if the action was an ethical way to be. Am I causing harm to somebody else or am I causing harm to myself?
Reality – a lot of the time when we are on autopilot our actions are not based in reality. We tend to generalise or catastrophise. So, here we ask ourselves am I just generalising? Am I catastrophising?
Now we’ve looked at our behaviour and understood that it either stems from our conscious or unconscious mind. We have looked at why we acted that way. Assessed the situation to see if it was ethical and if it was based in reality. So, now we need to examine a better way to act in future.
Examine – if you don’t want to act in the same way in future, you need to explore better ways to act. Ways that are helpful, skilful, ethical and kind. By reflecting on a better way to act, you are planting seeds for the future. So, the next time you find yourself in the same situation you can act in a different way. This will help you water the new seed and the more you do that, the more your behaviour will change. This is obviously a slow process and it will take time and a lot of effort, but it is doable.
I am sure we all have lots of behaviours we would like to change. Just start with a simple one, because once you start to see changes in that behaviour, it is going to motivate you to change other behaviours.
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