In the Netherlands today, we live in a time of unparalleled material prosperity. Relative world peace (never before has there been as little war as today), security, freedom of speech, freedom of choice with regard to religion, spirituality, sexuality, and access to education and health care, to name but a few.
And yet… Look into your own environment and you will see greed, impatience, jealousy, anger and loutish behavior. Look at the news and you see global poverty, violence, abuse and corruption.
Actually, we are all in deep trouble. In itself, this is nothing new. Just think of the past ten, a hundred or a thousand years and pick a time period when life was good. You won’t be able to find it.
It’s also not just something that happens just in our western society. Whether you look in the north, east, south or west, to the Netherlands, Thailand, Myanmar, Tibet or India, it doesn’t matter, you see the same phenomenon.
That is not coincidence, because the cause of all problems can be found in our own consciousness. That is why the teachings of the Buddha about consciousness for a person today are just as relevant as they were in ancient India 2500 years ago!
The Buddha found the cause of personal suffering in three unwholesome mental qualities deeply rooted in unconsciousness: desire, hatred and ignorance.
These three unwholesome roots are able to manifest themselves in all kinds of ways. They are at the basis of a multitude of negative mental factors such as greed, jealousy, anger and arrogance.
It will not be a surprise that an unwholesome consciousness leads to unwholesome speaking and acting, and that this causes suffering, as the Buddha says (Dhammapada verse 1):
“All mental phenomena have mind as their forerunner; they have mind as their chief; they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts with an evil mind, suffering (‘dukkha)‘ follows him just as the wheel follows the hoofprint of the ox that draws the cart.”
Because consciousness is ultimately at the basis of our speaking and acting, the three roots of desire, hatred and ignorance spread from the personal to society as a whole.
If we want to do something about the problems in the world, we first have to take a good look at how deeply these roots are anchored in ourselves.
Only when we have insight into the depth and scope of the problems within ourselves can we make the right effort to transform ourselves.
That’s not easy. That’s confronting. Fortunately, the Buddha showed us the way. The Dhamma gives the remedy with its gradual development of morality, concentration and wisdom.
With moral behavior supported by conscious attention, you protect yourself and the world against your thinking, speech and behavior that stems from the unwholesome roots. This is the temporary solution.
With morality and conscious attention as a basis you can develop concentration.
With concentration you suppress the roots further and further and longer. In particular, you directly counter desire and hate. The roots are seriously weakened by concentration, but in principle they can still get a grip on you.
With concentration as a condition there is room for direct insight.
This direct insight is essentially you seeing that everything is changeable and transient. When you see reality directly, from your own experience, you destroy desire, hatred and ignorance in the core, once and for all.
In this way you become a source of peace and happiness for the world.
In this text we will reflect more deeply on the above. It is a long text, we know that, but a subject like this deserves the necessary attention and repetition.
- Spiritual poverty
- Only the other
- Desire and Sensory Pleasure as the Cause
- The Eight World Winds
- The Necessity of Morality
- Protecting Yourself and the World
Morality, patience, energy, love, compassion, contentment, concentration and wisdom, it all starts with yourself, with your own consciousness.
Nowadays you have relatively easy access to all kinds of meditation systems, yoga, conscious attention, etc. to develop these qualities.
A 100 years ago you may had to travel weeks to get in touch with Buddhist meditation, now you google whether there is something in your own city, preferably around the corner. Yet there is little really deep interest in developing one’s own consciousness to become a better person.
Ahba says that the lack of interest in the Netherlands is due to our material prosperity. In the Netherlands you experience too few problems, too little emphatic suffering. If things don’t go well for once, you soon get help from outside. You feel much less urgency to get to work with yourself.
The lack of a sense of urgency is one of the aspects of spiritual poverty. Another problem is the very poor quality of meditation teachers.
There are no qualitative requirements for the title ‘meditation teacher’. You can just proclaim yourself to be a teacher today, on social media, your website or your blog.
If you want to do it a bit more ‘official’ you just follow a paid course to become a meditation teacher (or yoga instructor) somewhere in the neighbourhood and voilà.
That this says nothing about your mental qualities and limitations, about your steps in the development of morality, concentration and wisdom, about your real own insights as opposed to book wisdom or about your ability to communicate the Dhamma, let’s just say we’ll just forget that for the moment.
Commercializing meditation (and mindfulness) contributes to spiritual poverty in our country and the world. Meditating and the Dhamma should not cost money, but should be freely accessible to anyone who is interested.
Ahba shakes its head when it comes to teachers in the Netherlands. Most simply do not have the necessary concentration to really function as a teacher. They smile and use beautiful words, but they have no idea!
A mediocre teacher is not as innocent as it seems.
The teacher is like a train, says Ahba, and the pupils like passengers. If the train goes in the wrong direction, all the passengers will follow automatically and irrevocably!
A mediocre teacher at all times runs the risk of transferring nothing more than his own limitations.
Still, the above is not limited to our time. In for example the 15th century Tibetan text Refined Gold by Pema Lingpa you can read how in ancient Tibet there were already fake teachers who focused more on prestige than liberation.
And in our history of Buddhism you can read that soon after the death of the Buddha, moral corruption among practitioners arose that underlies this.
Only the Other
Another problem is the pride among people who have embarked on the path of meditation or yoga.
For example, you have been practicing yoga or meditation for a while and you are loving towards everyone who deserves it.
You smile a lot, use words like mindfulness, love and compassion a lot, and constantly give everyone a ‘blessing’ on social media, preferably followed by ‘namaste’.
The rest of humanity is just not doing well and is in a state of sleep. After all, only stupid, unenlightened beings who are not spiritual behave unwholesome!
You’re ‘awake’, you think.
Then take another good look. Come out of your bubble, out of your pink cloud and look a little deeper.
If you look deep enough you will see that the cause of the problems in the world is still as much within yourself as it is within the other.
The cause is rooted very deeply in our consciousness.
To think that you yourself are better, more exalted, more awake or whatever is for almost all of us nothing more than misplaced arrogance with which we soothe ourselves to sleep.
Be vigilant for the thought ‘I am doing very well, the other just has a lot to learn’. It is nothing more than the next manifestation of the unwholesome roots.
If you want to make the world a little better, you really have to start with yourself!
Bhikkhu Bodhi writes very nicely in his Message for a Globalized World:
The most valuable contribution that the teachings of the Buddha give to help us solve the great dilemmas we see today is twofold. First, its inflexible realistic analysis of the psychological sources of human suffering, and second, the ethical uplifting discipline it proposes as a solution.
The Buddha explains that the hidden sources of human suffering, both in the personal and social dimensions of our lives, consist of three mental factors called the unwholesome roots.
These three roots – which can be seen as the three teeth of ego consciousness – are desire, hatred and ignorance.
The purpose of the Buddhist spiritual path is to slowly but surely temper these three evil roots by cultivating mental factors that are in direct opposition to them.
These are the three salutary roots, namely: non desire, which manifests itself as generosity, detachment, and contentment; non hate, which manifests itself as love-friendliness, compassion, patience, and forgiveness; and non ignorance, which manifests itself as wisdom, insight, and understanding. …
… As long as we do not want to continue to focus inwardly on understanding and mastering our own consciousness, our impressive achievements in the external world will not bear their appropriate fruit.
While at one level they provide a safer and more comfortable life, at another level they bring with them increasing intensity and danger, despite our best intentions.
If humanity is to flourish in this age of globalization and live happily and peacefully together on this shrinking planet, the inescapable challenge we face is to understand and transform ourselves.
It is here that the teachings of the Buddha are especially useful, even for those who are unwilling to embrace the full extent of Buddhist religious belief and philosophy.
In its diagnosis of desire, hatred, and ignorance as the underlying cause of human suffering, the Buddha-Dhamma enables us to see the hidden roots of our delicate individual and social position.
By defining a practical path of practice that helps to remove that which is harmful and grow that which is beneficial, the Teaching provides us with an effective remedy for the world’s problems in the one place where they are accessible to all: in our own consciousness.
The Buddha’s teachings will inevitably have a bitter edge, because it places the burden and responsibility for our salvation on ourselves. But by providing an acute diagnosis of our illness and an accurate path to salvation, it also gives us an uplifting message of hope in this age of globalization.
Desire and Sensory Pleasure as the Cause
In the end, it all starts with seeing where the problems are. Ahba emphasizes desire.
Desire is the cause of suffering, he says. Suffering doesn’t happen to you, you make it through desire.
Desire can be seen as the cause of hate. This can be in the form of aversion, the desire to not want something, but also simply when you get angry because you don’t get what you want.
Desire is not only at the source of one’s own suffering, as we mentioned before, but it is also a condition for the problems in the world.
For example, in the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15), the Buddha himself says the great teaching about causal connection:
“Now, craving is dependent on feeling, seeking is dependent on craving, acquisition is dependent on seeking, ascertainment is dependent on acquisition, desire and passion is dependent on ascertainment,attachment is dependent on desire and passion, possessiveness is dependent on attachment, stinginess is dependent on possessiveness, defensiveness is dependent on stinginess, and because of defensiveness, dependent on defensiveness, various evil, unskillful phenomena come into play: the taking up of sticks and knives; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies.”
One of the greatest desires we have is the desire for sensory pleasure. The continuous craving for pleasant impressions and feelings, the desire for satisfaction of the senses. In the Maha-dukkhakhanda Sutta (MN 13), the great teaching on suffering, the Buddha explains how failure to recognize the dangers of sensory pleasure, and essentially desire, gives rise to much suffering:
“… Now what, monks, is the allure of sensuality? These five strings of sensuality. Which five? Forms cognizable via the eye — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Sounds cognizable via the ear… Aromas cognizable via the nose… Flavors cognizable via the tongue… Tactile sensations cognizable via the body — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Now whatever pleasure or joy arises in dependence on these five strands of sensuality, that is the allure of sensuality.”
“And what is the drawback of sensuality? There is the case where, on account of the occupation by which a clansman makes a living — whether checking or accounting or calculating or plowing or trading or cattle-tending or archery or as a king’s man, or whatever the occupation may be — he faces cold, he faces heat, being harassed by mosquitoes and flies, wind & sun & creeping things, dying from hunger & thirst.”
“Now this drawback in the case of sensuality, this mass of stress visible here and now, has sensuality for its reason, sensuality for its source, sensuality for its cause, the reason being simply sensuality.”
“If the clansman gains no wealth while thus working & striving & making effort, he sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught: ‘My work is in vain, my efforts are fruitless!’ Now this drawback too in the case of sensuality, this mass of stress visible here & now, has sensuality for its reason, sensuality for its source, sensuality for its cause, the reason being simply sensuality.”
“If the clansman gains wealth while thus working & striving & making effort, he experiences pain & distress in protecting it: ‘How will neither kings nor thieves make off with my property, nor fire burn it, nor water sweep it away, nor hateful heirs make off with it?’ And as he thus guards and watches over his property, kings or thieves make off with it, or fire burns it, or water sweeps it away, or hateful heirs make off with it. And he sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught: ‘What was mine is no more!’ Now this drawback too in the case of sensuality, this mass of stress visible here & now, has sensuality for its reason, sensuality for its source, sensuality for its cause, the reason being simply sensuality.”
“Again, it is with sensuality for the reason, sensuality for the source, sensuality for the cause, the reason being simply sensuality, that kings quarrel with kings, nobles with nobles, brahmans with brahmans, householders with householders, mother with child, child with mother, father with child, child with father, brother with brother, sister with sister, brother with sister, sister with brother, friend with friend. And then in their quarrels, brawls, & disputes, they attack one another with fists or with clods or with sticks or with knives, so that they incur death or deadly pain. Now this drawback too in the case of sensuality, this mass of stress visible here & now, has sensuality for its reason, sensuality for its source, sensuality for its cause, the reason being simply sensuality.”
“Again, it is with sensuality for the reason, sensuality for the source… that (men), taking swords & shields and buckling on bows & quivers, charge into battle massed in double array while arrows & spears are flying and swords are flashing; and there they are wounded by arrows & spears, and their heads are cut off by swords, so that they incur death or deadly pain. Now this drawback too in the case of sensuality, this mass of stress visible here & now, has sensuality for its reason, sensuality for its source, sensuality for its cause, the reason being simply sensuality.”
“Again, it is with sensuality for the reason, sensuality for the source… that (men), taking swords & shields and buckling on bows & quivers, charge slippery bastions while arrows & spears are flying and swords are flashing; and there they are splashed with boiling cow dung and crushed under heavy weights, and their heads are cut off by swords, so that they incur death or deadly pain. Now this drawback too in the case of sensuality, this mass of stress visible here & now, has sensuality for its reason, sensuality for its source, sensuality for its cause, the reason being simply sensuality.”
“Again, it is with sensuality for the reason, sensuality for the source… that (men) break into windows, seize plunder, commit burglary, ambush highways, commit adultery, and when they are captured, kings have them tortured in many ways. They flog them with whips, beat them with canes, beat them with clubs. They cut off their hands, cut off their feet, cut off their hands & feet. They cut off their ears, cut off their noses, cut off their ears & noses. They subject them to the ‘porridge pot,’ the ‘polished-shell shave,’ the ‘Rahu’s mouth,’ the ‘flaming garland,’ the ‘blazing hand,’ the ‘grass-duty (ascetic),’ the ‘bark-dress (ascetic),’ the ‘burning antelope,’ the ‘meat hooks,’ the ‘coin-gouging,’ the ‘lye pickling,’ the ‘pivot on a stake,’ the ‘rolled-up bed.’ They have them splashed with boiling oil, devoured by dogs, impaled alive on stakes. They have their heads cut off with swords, so that they incur death or deadly pain. Now this drawback too in the case of sensuality, this mass of stress visible here & now, has sensuality for its reason, sensuality for its source, sensuality for its cause, the reason being simply sensuality.”
“Again, it is with sensuality for the reason, sensuality for the source… that (people) engage in bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, mental misconduct. Having engaged in bodily, verbal, and mental misconduct, they — on the break-up of the body, after death — re-appear in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. Now this drawback too in the case of sensuality, this mass of stress in the future life, has sensuality for its reason, sensuality for its source, sensuality for its cause, the reason being simply sensuality.”
“And what, monks, is the escape from sensuality? The subduing of desire-passion for sensuality, the abandoning of desire-passion for sensuality: That is the escape from sensuality.”
“That any brahmans or contemplatives who do not discern, as it actually is, the allure of sensuality as allure, the drawback of sensuality as drawback, the escape from sensuality as escape, would themselves comprehend sensuality or would rouse another with the truth so that, in line with what he has practiced, he would comprehend sensuality: That is impossible. But that any brahmans or contemplatives who discern, as it actually is, the allure of sensuality as allure, the drawback of sensuality as drawback, the escape from sensuality as escape, would themselves comprehend sensuality or would rouse another with the truth so that, in line with what he has practiced, he would comprehend sensuality: That is possible.”
The last paragraph deserves extra attention in our present time. If you don’t see for yourself the dangers of sensory pleasure, if you don’t see through these dangers, then you can’t help others to see through this either.
In other words, if you do not see for yourself that desire is a problem, which can manifest itself in recklessly admitting it, then you cannot possibly guide others along the path. If you do, you are only passing on your wrong view.
The Eight Worldly Winds
One of the big problems in our world is the pursuit of profit and fame at the expense of others. This pursuit is also rooted in desire.
The Buddha dwelt on this in the Lokavipatti Sutta (AN 8:6), the teaching about the eight worldly flaws:
“Monks, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions. Which eight? Gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain. These are the eight worldly conditions that spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions.”
“For an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person there arise gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain. For a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones there also arise gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain. So what difference, what distinction, what distinguishing factor is there between the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones and the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person?”
“For us, lord, the teachings have the Blessed One as their root, their guide, & their arbitrator. It would be good if the Blessed One himself would explicate the meaning of this statement. Having heard it from the Blessed One, the monks will remember it.”
“In that case, monks, listen & pay close attention. I will speak.”
“As you say, lord,” the monks responded to him.
The Blessed One said, “Gain arises for an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person. He does not reflect, ‘Gain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful, & subject to change.’ He does not discern it as it has come to be.
“Loss arises.… Status arises.… Disgrace arises.… Censure arises.… Praise arises.… Pleasure arises.…
“Pain arises. He does not reflect, ‘Pain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful, & subject to change.’ He does not discern it as it has come to be.
“His mind remains consumed with the gain. His mind remains consumed with the loss… with the status… the disgrace… the censure… the praise… the pleasure. His mind remains consumed with the pain.
“He welcomes the arisen gain and rebels against the arisen loss. He welcomes the arisen status and rebels against the arisen disgrace. He welcomes the arisen praise and rebels against the arisen censure. He welcomes the arisen pleasure and rebels against the arisen pain. As he is thus engaged in welcoming & rebelling, he is not released from birth, aging, or death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, or despairs. He is not released, I tell you, from suffering & stress.
“Now, gain arises for a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones. He reflects, ‘Gain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful, & subject to change.’ He discerns it as it actually is.
“Loss arises.… Status arises.… Disgrace arises.… Censure arises.… Praise arises.… Pleasure arises.…
“Pain arises. He reflects, ‘Pain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful, & subject to change.’ He discerns it as it actually is.
“His mind does not remain consumed with the gain. His mind does not remain consumed with the loss… with the status… the disgrace… the censure… the praise… the pleasure. His mind does not remain consumed with the pain.
“He does not welcome the arisen gain, or rebel against the arisen loss. He does not welcome the arisen status, or rebel against the arisen disgrace. He does not welcome the arisen praise, or rebel against the arisen censure. He does not welcome the arisen pleasure, or rebel against the arisen pain. As he thus abandons welcoming & rebelling, he is released from birth, aging, & death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is released, I tell you, from suffering & stress.
“This is the difference, this the distinction, this the distinguishing factor between the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones and the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person.”
These conditions among human beings
are inconstant, impermanent, subject to change.”
“Knowing this, mindful, the intelligent person,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.”
His welcoming & rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end, do not exist.
Knowing the dustless, sorrowless state,
He discerns rightly, has gone, beyond becoming, to the Further Shore.”
There are many more examples in the Pali Canon that warn of, for example, the desire for profit and fame. Lily de Silva writes in her text One Foot in the World: Buddhist approaches to Present-day Problems:
The Dhammapada states that profit and fame is one thing and the pursuit of Nibbāna is another. By seeing this clearly, a monk should not rejoice in profit and fame (Dh 75).
According to the Milindapanha (p. 377), just like a ship should be able to withstand various forces such as strong currents, storms and whirlpools, a monk should be able to withstand the forces of profit, fame, renown and tribute. If a monk enjoys this and gets a bloated ego, he sinks just like a leaky ship.
The Milindapahna (p.377) gives another maritime example. A ship’s anchor can anchor a ship firmly without letting it drift, even in very deep water. Likewise, a monk must remain anchored in his striving for a powerful character, without the profit and fame that comes in the aftermath of virtue allowing him to drift.
There is no doubt that tribute and respect are among the tasks of a lay follower to a virtuous monk, just as they provide him with the right necessities. It is the monk’s responsibility to maintain a sensible, balanced posture, without getting too excited.
Buddhism states that it is difficult for a man of moderate spiritual development to resist the pleasure of profit and fame (sakkaro kapurisena dujjaho, Thag. 1053).
There is a great danger of spiritual erosion if a man gives in to the fame of fame and honor and cherishes it.
In this way you develop a bloated ego and boastful behavior sneaks in the character in the most devious way.
Such people also develop a disapproving attitude towards others who do not receive as much tribute.
The Labhasakkara Samyutta sarcastically compares such a person to the shit beetle.
The Anagana Sutta (M I 29-30) shows the disgust and disgust for a monk who takes on religious life and difficult ascetic practices with popularity and public generosity as goals.
Such a monk is compared to someone who keeps the carcass of a snake or a dog in a new wonderfully polished bowl. The bowl of higher life (brahma-cariya) is not intended to preserve carcass-like immoral intentions.
Monks are advised in the most emphatic terms to protect themselves from joy in profit and fame.
The Labhasakkara Samyutta (S II, 266-7) elaborates some comparisons in great detail to make this point clear. A young turtle that went against the advice of the elders is hit by a splinter with a rope attached to it and will soon be caught by the hunter. The hunter in the equation is none other than Mara (the evil one) himself. The splinter is profit, honor and fame. The rope attached to the splinter is the monk’s attachment to profit and fame.
Profit and fame are also compared to bait swallowed by a greedy monk in order to be completely ruined in the hands of the hunter Mara.
The craving for profit and fame is an expression of desire and something the Buddha warns against. If you are not careful you will fall prey to this and cause a lot of suffering for yourself and those around you.
Fortunately, the Buddha not only warned us about the problems and the cause, but also taught us a way of protection and self-development.
The Necessity of Morality
Moral behavior is the cornerstone of the Dhamma. It is a condition for concentration and thus also a condition for liberating insight.
As long as our concentration is not yet high enough to suppress the unwholesome roots and they have not yet been permanently destroyed by direct insight, morality is the appropriate protection for yourself and the world.
Morality requires continuous conscious attention, for only with great attention can the most subtle immoral actions, speech and thoughts be prevented, let alone the gross ones.
Whoever thinks that morality is just ‘not doing things’ is wrong. Of course it starts with recoiling from harmful behavior, but in Buddhist morality there is also the promotion of harmony.
Bhikkhu Bodhi writes in A Buddhist Response to Contemporary Dilemmas of Human Existence:
… The first challenge I will discuss is primarily philosophical in nature, but with profound and far-reaching practical implications.
This is the task of overcoming the fundamental dichotomy that scientific materialism has posited between the field of ‘real fact’, i.e., impersonal physical processes, and the field of value.
By attributing value and spiritual ideals to personal subjectivity, the materialistic worldview threatens to undermine any solid objective foundation for morality.
The result is the widespread moral degradation we see today. In order to counter this tendency, I do not think that only moral exhortation is enough.
If morality is to function as an efficient guide to action, it cannot only be used as a self-justifying intention, but must be embedded in a more comprehensive spiritual system grounding morality in a transpersonal order.
Religion must confirm, in the clearest terms, that morality and ethical values are not merely decorative fringes of personal opinions, not subjective superstructure, but intrinsic laws of the cosmos built into the heart of reality.
In the teachings of the Buddha, the objective foundation for morality is the law of karma (kamma), and the inference, the doctrine of rebirth.
According to the principles of karma, our intentional actions have a built-in potential to cause consequences for us that are consistent with the moral quality of the actions.
Our actions bear fruit, sometimes in this life, sometimes in future lives, which reflect back on us exactly as we deserve.
Thus, our morally determined actions are the building blocks of our destiny: in the end, we will reap the fruits of our actions, and through our moral choices and values, we will cause happiness and suffering in this life and in future lives.
In the teachings of the Buddha, the law of karma is integral to the dynamics of the universe.
The Buddhist scriptures speak of five systems of cosmic laws, each fully valid within its own domain: the law of inorganic matter (utuniyama), the laws of living organisms (bijaniyama), the laws of consciousness (cittaniyama), the laws of karma or moral deeds and fruits (kammaniyama), and the laws of spiritual development (dhammataniyama).
The science that prevails in the West flourishes through exclusive attention to the first two of these systems of laws.
As a Buddhist, I would argue that in order to have a complete picture of reality, all five systems must be considered, and that by coming to a complete picture, we can restore moral and spiritual values to their rightful place in the whole.
A second challenge, closely related to the first, is to provide concrete guidelines for proper behavior that can lift us out of our swamp of moral confusion.
While the first project I mentioned works on a theoretical front, it is more direct and practical in nature.
Here, we are not so much concerned with establishing a valid foundation for morality as with determining exactly which guidelines can ensure a harmonious and peaceful relationship between people.
On this front, I think that the unrivalled guide to ethics is still the five precepts (pañcasīla) taught by the Buddha.
According to the Buddhist texts, these precepts are not unique to Buddhism but constitute the universal principles of morality that are upheld in every culture that focuses on virtue.
The five precepts can be seen in terms of both the behavior they prohibit and the virtues they promote. In this day and age, I think it is necessary to place equal emphasis on both aspects of the precepts, as the Buddha himself did in the suttas.
These precepts are:
- The rule to refrain from taking life, which implies the virtue of treating all beings with love and compassion.
- The rule to refrain from stealing, which implies honesty, respect for the property of others and consideration for the environment.
- The rule to refrain from sexual misconduct, which implies responsibility and commitment in your marriage and other interpersonal relationships.
- The rule to refrain from lying, which implies a commitment to honesty in dealing with others.
- The rule to refrain from alcohol, drugs and intoxicants, which implies the virtue of sobriety and attentiveness.
In advocating these precepts the relationship should be made that, apart from the long-term karmic effects that are a matter of faith, they contribute to peace and happiness for oneself in the here and now, as well as to the well-being of those affected by one’s behavior. …
The five precepts that Bhikkhu Bodhi describes above are the Buddha’s advice for lay people (for monks 227 rules apply). Each of these rules has a lot of depth for those who look closely, we will elaborate on this in another letter.
For now it is still interesting to look at what the Buddha taught about the foundation of morality.
We quote Bhikkhu Bodhi again, this time from Guardians of the World:
… Although the search for liberation through the practice of the Dhamma depends on personal effort, it inevitably takes place within a social environment and is thus subject to all the influences, helpful and harmful, imposed upon us by that environment.
Buddhist training unfolds in the three stages of morality, concentration and wisdom, each of which is the foundation for the other: pure moral action facilitates the attainment of pure concentration, and a concentrated consciousness facilitates the attainment of liberating wisdom.
Thus, the foundation of the entire Buddhist training is acting purely, and adhering firmly to the code of training rules that you have imposed on yourself – the five precepts (or precepts, see below) in the case of a lay Buddhist follower – is a necessary means of ensuring the purity of your actions.
Living, as we do, in an age in which we are challenged by every available means to deviate from our righteous norms, and in which social unrest, economic hardship and political conflict feed further inflammable emotions, the need for extra protection is particularly urgent: protecting yourself, protecting the world.
The Buddha points to two mental qualities as the underlying security layer of morality and thus as protectors of both the individual and society as a whole.
These two qualities are called in Pali: hiri and ottappa.
Hiri is a deep-rooted sense of shame regarding moral transgressions; ottappa is moral fear, the fear of the consequences of wrongdoing.
The Buddha calls these two aspects the luminous guardians of the world (sukka lokapala).
He gives them this name because as long as these two aspects prevail in the heart of human beings, the moral standard of the world remains intact, while the human world decays when their influence diminishes into shameless debauchery and violence and is thus almost indistinguishable from the animal kingdom (Itiv 42).
While moral shame and fear of misconduct are united in the common task of protecting consciousness from moral impurities, they differ in their individual characteristics and mode of operation.
Hiri, the feeling of shame, is internally focused. It is rooted in self-respect and makes us recoil from misbehavior out of a sense of personal honor.
Ottappa, fear of misconduct, is externally directed. It is the voice of conscience that warns us about the consequences of moral transgressions: blame and punishment by others, painful karmic results of evil deeds, the obstacles to our desire for liberation from suffering.
Acariya Buddhaghosa illustrates the difference between the two with the example of an iron rod that is smeared with stool at one end and hot glowing at the other end: hiri is like our own aversion to grasping the side where the stool is, ottappa is like our fear of grasping the side that is red glowing.
In today’s world with its secularization of all values, ideas such as shame and fear of doing things wrong will quickly appear to obsolete, relics of a puritanical past when superstition and dogma curbed our rights to unhindered self-expression.
However, the Buddha’s emphasis on the importance of hiri and ottappa was based on a deep understanding of the different possibilities of human nature.
He saw that the path to liberation is am uphill battle and that if we want to fully develop the abilities of the consciousness for wisdom, purity and peace, we must keep the powder keg of impurities under the watchful eye of diligent sentinels.
The project of self-development proclaimed by the Buddha as a method of liberation from suffering requires us to keep a critical eye on the movements of our consciousness, both when they involve physical and verbal acts as well as when they are inwardly absorbed in their own occupations.
Such a self-examination is an aspect of attentiveness (appamāda), which the Buddha calls the path to immortallity.
In the practice of self-examination, the feeling of shame and the fear of wrongdoing play a crucial role.
The feeling of shame urges us to overcome unwholesome mental states because we recognize that such states are blemishes on our character.
They detract from the inner exaltation of character formed by the practice of Dhamma, the stature of Ariyas or Nobles who shine gloriously like lotus flowers on the lake of the world.
Fear of wrongdoing encourages us to refrain from morally risky thoughts and actions because we recognize that such actions are the seeds with the potential to bear fruit, fruits that will inevitably be bitter.
The Buddha states that whatever evil arises, it comes from a lack of shame and a lack of fear of the wrong, while all virtuous deeds come from a sense of shame and fear of the wrong.
By developing within ourselves the qualities of moral shame and fear of wrongdoing, we not only accelerate our own progress on the path to liberation, but also contribute to the protection of the world.
Given the complicated interconnectedness between all living beings, the promotion (as guardians of our own consciousness) of shame and fear of the wrong, makes us guardians of the world.
As the roots of morality, these two qualities support the entire activity of the Buddha’s liberating path; as guardians of personal decency, they at the same time preserve the dignity of humanity.
The Protection of Yourself and the World
Earlier in this tekst, we characterized conscious attention as closely related to morality, and thus a prerequisite for concentration and wisdom.
Conscious attention is not meant here in the form of ‘mindfulness meditation’, as you often hear. Here, conscious attention means continuous alertness and attention to what the consciousness is doing.
The Buddha himself taught in the Satipaṭṭhāna Saṃyutta, the related teachings on conscious attention, No. 19. Sedaka, about the protectors of the world:
On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling among the Sumbhas, where there was a town of the Sumbhas named Sedaka. There the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus thus:
“Bhikkhus, once in the past an acrobat set up his bamboo pole and addressed his apprentice Medakathalika thus: ‘Come, dear Medakathalika, climb the bamboo pole and stand on my shoulders.’ Having replied, ‘Yes, teacher,’ the apprentice Medakathalika climbed up the bamboo pole and stood on the teacher’s shoulders. The acrobat then said to the apprentice Medakathalika: ‘You protect me, dear Medakathalika, and I’ll protect you. Thus guarded by one another, protected by one another, we’ll display our skills, collect our fee, and get down safely from the bamboo pole.’ When this was said, the apprentice Medakathalika replied: ‘That’s not the way to do it, teacher. You protect yourself, teacher, and I’ll protect myself. Thus, each self-guarded and self-protected, we’ll display our skills, collect our fee, and get down safely from the bamboo pole.’
“That’s the method there,” the Blessed One said. “It’s just as the apprentice Medakathalika said to the teacher. ‘I will protect myself,’ bhikkhus: thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practised. ‘I will protect others,’ bhikkhus: thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practised. Protecting oneself, bhikkhus, one protects others; protecting others, one protects oneself.
“And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.
“And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, lovingkindness, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
“‘I will protect myself,’ bhikkhus: thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practised. ‘I will protect others,’ bhikkhus: thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practised. Protecting oneself, bhikkhus, one protects others; protecting others, one protects oneself.”
We give some quotes from Nyanaponika Thera’s Protection throught Satipatthana in which not only a translation of this sutta but also an analysis of the deep message is given:
… This sutta is about the relationship between ourselves and our fellow human beings, between individuals and society.
It succinctly summarizes the Buddhist attitude to the problems of individual and social ethics, of selfishness and altruism. The core of it is shown in the two short sentences:
“Protect yourself, monks, protect others.” (Attanam rakkhanto param rakkhati.)
“Protecting others, protecting yourself.” (Param rakkhanto attanam rakkhati.)
These two sentences complement each other and should not be used or quoted separately from each other. Today, at a time when social engagement is very much emphasized, people might be tempted to endorse their opinions by quoting only the second sentence.
But any one-sided quotation would misrepresent the Buddha’s point of view.
It should be remembered that in our story the Buddha expressly approves of the words of the disciple, that one must first carefully see one’s own steps if one wants to protect others from harm.
The one who is stuck in the mud himself cannot help others out.
In this sense, self-protection is an indispensable basis for protecting and helping others. But self-protection is not selfish. It is self-control, ethical and spiritual self-development.
There are some great truths that are so all-encompassing and deep that they seem to have an ever-increasing scope of meaning, which grows with their own scope of understanding and practice.
Such truths are applicable at different levels of understanding and are valid in different contexts throughout our lives.
After reaching the first or second level, you will be amazed that new vistas to our understanding will reveal themselves again and again, enlightened by that same truth. This also applies to the great double truths from our text that we will now look at in detail. …
… We’re now coming to the ethical level of that truth. Moral self-protection will protect others, individuals and society, from our unbridled passions and selfish impulses.
If we let the ‘three roots’ of evil – desire, hatred and ignorance – have a firm hold in our hearts, their excesses will spread far and wide, just as a jungle vine stifles healthy and noble growth everywhere.
But if we protect ourselves against these three roots, our fellow creatures will also be safe.
They will be safe from our reckless lust for property and power, from our untamed lust and sensuality, from our envy and jealousy; safe from the disruptive consequences of our hatred and enmity that can be destructive or even murderous; safe from our outbursts of anger and from the resulting atmosphere of antagonism and conflict that makes life unbearable for them. …
… If we leave the actual or potential sources of social evil within us unresolved, our external social action will be meaningless or incomplete.
Therefore, if we are inspired by a social responsibility, we should not shy away from the difficult task of spiritual self-development. Being preconceived because of activities for society at large should not be used as an excuse to escape the main task of cleaning up one’s own house first.
On the other hand, he who devotes himself sincerely to moral self-improvement and spiritual self-development will be a strong and active force for good in the world, even if he is not engaged in any external social service.
His silent example alone will help and encourage, by showing that the ideals of a self-less and peaceful life can actually be put into practice and are not just subjects of sermons. …
…we move on to the next higher level in the interpretation of our text. This is expressed in the words of the sutta: “And what is it like, monks, that you protect yourself by protecting others? Through the frequent and repeated practice of meditation.
Moral self-protection will lack stability as long as it remains a rigid discipline enforced after a struggle between motives and against conflicting habits of thought and behavior.
Passionate desires and selfish tendencies can grow in intensity if they are silenced with mere willpower. Even if one temporarily succeeds in suppressing passionate or selfish impulses, the unresolved inner conflicts will impede one’s own moral and spiritual progress and distort one’s character.
Moreover, inner disharmony caused by forced repression of impulses will seek a form of expression in external behavior. The individual may become irritated, hateful, dominant and aggressive towards others.
In this way you can cause damage to yourself and others through the wrong form of self-protection.
Only if moral self-protection has become a spontaneous function, if it comes as naturally as the protective closing of the eyelids against dust – only then will our moral form offer real protection and safety for ourselves and others.
This naturalness of moral behavior does not come to us as a heavenly gift.
It can only be acquired through repeated practice and cultivation. Therefore, our sutta says that self-protection through repetitive practice becomes strong enough to protect others as well.
But if that repetitive practice of goodness takes place only on practical, emotional, and intellectual levels, its roots will not be firm and deep enough.
Such repetitive practice must also extend to the level of meditative cultivation.
Through meditation, the practical, emotional, and intellectual rationale for moral and spiritual self-protection will become a personal property that isn’t easily lost again.
Therefore, our sutta here speaks of bhāvanā, the meditative development of consciousness in the broadest sense. This is the highest form of protection our world can give.
He who has developed his consciousness through meditation lives in peace with himself and the world. No harm or violence is to be expected from him.
From the peace and purity he radiates will emanate an inspiring, uplifting power and he will be a blessing for the world. He will be a positive factor in society, even if he lives a life in seclusion and silence.
If the understanding and recognition of the social value of a meditative life in a nation is lost, it will be the first symptom of spiritual degradation. …
…self-protection and protection of others corresponds to the great two virtues of Buddhism, wisdom and compassion.
Proper self-protection is the expression of wisdom, proper protection of others is the expression of compassion.
Wisdom and compassion, as the two main elements of bodhi or enlightenment, have found their highest perfection in the Fully Enlightened, the Buddha.
The emphasis on their harmonious development is a characteristic feature of the entire Dhamma.
We see them back in the four sublime states (brahmavihara), where equanimity equals wisdom and self-protection, while love-friendliness, compassion and joy can be for someone else, correspond to compassion and protecting others.
These two great principles of self-protection and protecting others are equally important to both individual and social ethics and bring them both into harmony.
However, the beneficial impact they have does not stop at the ethical level, but leads the individual up to the highest realization of the Dhamma, while at the same time providing a firm foundation for the well-being of society. …
… “I will protect myself” – This is how we must draw our conscious attention, and dedicate ourselves with conscious attention as guides to the practice of meditation, with our own liberation as our goal.
“I will protect others” – This is how we must draw our conscious attention, and guide our behavior with conscious attention through patience, intent not to harm, love-friendliness and compassion, for the well-being and happiness of many.
The problems in the world originate from desire, hatred and ignorance and all the manifestations in thought, speech and behavior that result from them.
If you want to make the world a better place, start with yourself.
Start with morality, that’s the basis. Guard your senses, your thinking, speech and behavior. This requires conscious attention. Continuously see what your consciousness is doing.
With morality as a basis, you can work on concentration. Concentration is again a condition for insight.
With concentration and insight, morality can strengthen and deepen, it can become a natural quality.
By working slowly but surely on your morality, concentration and insight you slowly but surely put an end to your desire, hatred and ignorance.
In this way you work on an ever deeper inner peace and contentment, an unshakeable happiness.
In this way you become a source of love, compassion, harmony and peace.
An example, a strength, a true help for the world.