Staying Focused – The Buddha Dharma Series

The final aspect of the eightfold path is staying focused, which is achieved by effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Effort

Without applying effort, we are not going to reach any of the goals we set ourselves. Here I wish to highlight the effort required to avoid harmful acts and develop helpful ones.

These are split into four parts, namely the effort to avoid, the effort to overcome, the effort to develop and the effort to maintain.

This is a list of the harmful acts we need to avoid and overcome.

  • Violence                                           
  • Stealing                                           
  • Sexual misconduct                      
  • Lying                                                
  • Divisive speech                             
  • Harsh words                                  
  • Gossiping                                       
  • Greed                                              
  • Ill-will                                              
  • Inappropriate view                     

We have to put in a great effort in order to avoid these ten harmful actions. This is achieved by setting ourselves boundaries and ensuring we stay within them. In my own case some of them came easy to me and others were fairly difficult, but by putting in the effort and setting myself redlines, I manage to avoid them for the most part. But none of us are perfect, so we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. 

The next place we apply effortis to overcome the harmful acts that have already arisen. This one is a little trickier, particularly if they have already become a habit. The first thing I suggest you do is to rate the above list of harmful actions from one to ten – one being the act you do the most and ten being the one you do the least. Be honest with yourself, even if it is painful, or there will be no point in doing the exercise. Now, start with number one on your list and each day set an intention to refrain from doing the act. This exercise will help keep it in the forefront of your mind. If you do unwittingly perform a harmful deed, don’t get frustrated, just reaffirm your intention. This is where mindful awareness comes into its own because you are going to have to be vigilant of your actions. Slowly work through the list until you feel confident that you have by and large overcome them.

The set of skilful acts we have to develop and maintain are the opposite of the harmful acts.  

  • Compassion
  • Generosity
  • Self-restraint
  • Truthfulness
  • Kind speech
  • Pleasant words
  • Helpful words
  • Contentment
  • Goodwill
  • Appropriate view

The third effortis to develop skilful acts that have not yet arisen. The perfect time to think about and cultivate these helpful deeds is during your daily meditation or reflection session. If you review each day which actions have been helpful, and which have been harmful, you will see a pattern emerge. You will then be able to see what you need to work on.

During your reflection session, write down the ten helpful acts on a piece of paper. Then grade them from one to ten – ten being the act that comes naturally to you and one being the act that you have to cultivate. Those you grade from one to five are the ones you should work on. At regular intervals, do the grading again. Note your progress every time and recommit to developing the helpful acts you need to work on.

The final effortis to maintain the helpful actions that have already arisen. This follows on from the previous effort. There, you contemplated which helpful acts you need to work on. Now focus on the ones that come naturally and need no great work. You should also remain mindful of these helpful deeds, so they can become an even deeper habit. It is no good lying sometimes and telling the truth at other times; 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 acts must become natural and spontaneous. It needs a great amount of effort to keep these going, because if you do not stay watchful, they can easily drift away from you. Perseverance and vigilance are key here.

Mindfulness

Whether we are on the eightfold path or not, we still should try to be mindful, and maintain an awareness of where our actions are taking us. If we don’t, we are not going to find the peace of mind we are searching for. So, let’s look at the different aspects of the path I have laid out in the last three posts and examine how we can approach them mindfully.

We cannot just jump into our practices without first having an appropriate view. Of course, cultivating positive experience is what our practices are all about, but if we have no clear picture of where we are going and why, we can quite easily flounder. We need to know what and why we are doing any practice and see clearly how it will fit into our lives. We need to study and think to gain a clear picture in our mind before we dive into our practice. A firm and stable foundation is required. Mindfully setting our intentions for travelling on this path and implementing a meditation practice is a wonderful way to become motivated. It allows us to stay on track. It is therefore important to have well thought-out intentions and stay mindful of them.

Mindless speech can often divide people and make them feel disconnected. In contrast mindful speech helps us heal rifts and make better connections with each other. I feel that if we practice mindful listening, which is being totally engaged with the other person and allowing them to finish their sentences, mindful speech arises naturally, and we can enjoy genuine dialogue.

We need to mindfully check in with ourselves during the day to ensure our actions, physically, verbally and mentally, are not harmful to ourselves or others. This strengthens our practice, so we maintain the goal of responsible living.

Usually livelihood equates with survival – earning money so we can live. But when we are being mindful of our work, we can see that it is also about contributing to the common good. It is not just about money; it is also about giving back to society. We have to be mindful of any harm we may be causing ourselves and others.

Of course, we need to put effort into whatever we are doing on the path to ensure success, but there is such a thing as too much effort. We need to be mindful of the amount of effort we are putting in. If the effort is causing tension, it is too much. If the effort is not producing any results, it is not enough. Be mindful of how much effort you are putting into the path and your practices.  

When we are being mindful, we are fully aware of, but not tangled up in, the various aspects of our experience – the emotional, the physical, the spiritual as well as the social. Mindfulness covers our complete engagement with life.

I will talk more about mindfulness in my next post.

Concentration

If we wish for a mind that is at peace we need to learn how to focus single-mindedly on an object of meditation. However, what I want to highlight here is a particular type of one-pointedness. It is a wholesome type of concentration. A killer about to murder his victim, a soldier on the battlefield or a burglar about to break into your home all act with a concentrated mind, but they cannot be classed as a wholesome one-pointedness.

Buddha stated that appropriate concentration is dependent on the development of all the preceding seven steps of the eightfold path:

‘Now what is appropriate concentration with its supports and requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors, appropriate view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort and mindfulness, is called appropriate concentration with its supports and requisite conditions’.

While concentrating on appropriate view, you have to stay focused on cause and effect. Whatever intentional actions you do—be it with your body, speech or mind—will create a reaction in the future. You have to be naturally aware of this fact whenever you perform any intentional action. You also have to stay focused on the impermanence of everything, or you may find yourself getting attached to things, which in turn will cause you to suffer. We tend to have a fixed and solid sense of self, which is not an accurate view. This again is going to cause us suffering in the long run. I will talk more about these points in future posts.

Next, you should concentrate on appropriate intentions. Our intentions should be to help and not harm ourselves and others. To achieve this, we have to remain centred on what is motivating us. We have to ensure our mind isn’t being driven by any of the three poisons or is clouded by ill will, because if it is, our actions of body and speech will reflect that, and we will end up harming someone. By reflecting on what motivates you, it will ensure you do not intentionally cause harm.

Now we come to concentration of appropriate speech. A lot of the time we open our mouth before engaging the brain, and because we are not focused, what comes out can be harmful, unkind and unhelpful. We lie, use divisive speech, use harsh words and gossip with such ease, it is frightening. It is as if our mouth has a life of its own. To counter this, we have to concentrate on our speech. Lying is never going to help anyone. When we use divisive speech, we are not making friends; we are just causing divisions between people. Using harsh words to someone’s face is going to hurt them, and gossiping is a waste of time. So, we have to have the appropriate level of concentration towards our speech, and then we will learn to talk in a way that is both helpful and kind.

Concentration of appropriate action is where we direct our attention towards the actions of our body. This will ensure we refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and other harmful actions of the body. Buddha advised his son, Rahula, to reflect on any deeds he is thinking about carrying out in this way: Is the deed going to cause harm to himself or others? If so, do not do it, as it is a bad deed entailing suffering. However, if you reflect on the deed and it is going to be helpful to yourself or others, or at the very least, not harmful, you should do it again and again, as this is a good deed entailing happiness. Thus, we must be sure we are fully in tune with our actions, so that we are aware of when we are helping or harming.

This brings us to concentration of appropriate livelihood. We have to ensure our work does not bring harm to anybody. We may be doing a dangerous job and if we do not concentrate on our actions, we may bring harm to someone.

Whatever we are doing we have to be sure we put in the appropriate effort and appropriate mindfulness. If we do not concentrate our effort on all of the steps in the eightfold path, we could become lazy or distracted, and this could lead to us harming someone or something. If we do not focus our mind on the present moment, it may lead our thoughts to drift back to the past or jump forward to the future. Neither of these are helpful. By concentrating on the present moment our minds will be calm and our actions kind and helpful.

When our mind is not focused it flaps around like a fish on dry land. It simply cannot stay still and jumps from one idea to another, from one thought to another, there is absolutely no control. Such a distracted mind is consumed by worries and concerns about what has happened or may happen in the future. It doesn’t see the whole picture and distorts reality.

But a mind that has been trained in concentration can remain focused on its object without any distractions. This allows the mind to become calm, clear and open. This calm, openness can then be taken off the cushion and used in the outside world. This will allow us to stay single-mindedly aware of all stages of this eightfold path.

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Following the eightfold path is not easy because many of the things we have to change or let go of are very dear to us. We are passionate about them and have often invested an awful lot of time cultivating them. Letting these unhelpful things go can disturb us. Therefore, change takes diligence, discipline and mindful awareness. We have to understand each of the eight steps and then implement them. They have to become a part of our lives; only then will our minds be at ease and we will gradually reduce our emotional suffering and start to experience the true peace of mind we have been desperately searching for.

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Living Responsibly – The Buddha Dharma Series

The second aspect of the eight-fold path is living responsibly. We can achieve this by being mindful of our communication, actions and livelihood.

Communication

Appropriate communication is a big part of this path and can help us live a more responsible life. Traditionally, there are four different aspects of this, and they are refraining from lying, divisive speech, using abusive words and gossiping.

I am sure the majority of us wish to live in a kind and compassionate place where people communicate wisely and appropriately, contributing to a more harmonious world. We can go some way in achieving this by being truthful, using words that bring us together, being polite and talking meaningfully. These are skilful ways for us to connect with each other.

Of course, we shouldn’t fool ourselves and think that we can always be truthful, polite and meaningful. There are going to be occasions where it makes sense to stretch the truth, talk harshly and spend time in idle chatter.

Not telling the truth

once we have lied to someone, we invariably have to tell another lie to cover the first one, and then another, and another, until we have created a web of lies. It truly harms someone when they realise they have been lied to, and it will harm us when we are branded a liar.

Some say they lied so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings, but have you considered how they will feel when they find out you lied? Maybe the truth is painful or difficult to say, but there are various ways of breaking it to someone. You can tell them in a kind and sympathetic way. You can support them once you have told them the truth. What you do not have to do is charge in like a bull in a china shop. However, it is kinder in the long run to tell someone the truth.

I get very upset when I have been lied to, as most people do, and so I keep this fact in mind when I am talking to others.

Divisive speech

When people use divisive speech they are hell-bent on causing a severance between a person and a group of people. Divisive speech is never positive or productive. It is used only to harm.

This type of speech mainly stems from jealousy, pride or hatred. I have come across it several times in the workplace. A colleague has been promoted and some people are jealous, so they try to split the workforce. This is divisive speech.

You are jealous of your sibling, so you tell divisive stories to your parents in the hope they will favour you over your sibling. This is divisive speech.

When I lived in London, before I was a monk, I had a large group of friends who used to meet at least once a week to have some fun. One of the group members introduced to us a very attractive woman he had gone to school with. Several of the guys took a fancy to her and started to flirt. Several women took a dislike to her because of her beauty and bubbly personality. All of them started to be divisive. It eventually split the group and we stopped meeting. This is divisive speech and shows how destructive it can be.

These are just a few examples, but what is clear is that we must refrain from this type of speech because it will harm others and eventually harm ourselves. You will get a reputation for being someone who is always trying to cause trouble, and people will disassociate themselves from you.

Harsh Words

These are swear words, bad language or words that are said only to cause harm. They are never useful or kind, and usually stem from anger or impatience.

If someone upsets us we can lose control and say things we do not really mean. The words are meant to hurt the other person, but usually, after we have calmed down, we regret them and the words come back to hurt us also. We must stay mindful of our speech and not allow this to happen.

Sometimes we get impatient with people when they are not doing what we want, they are doing it wrong or just differently, they are not being open and truthful or they are not doing anything and it is just us who is irritable. At these times we tend to get angry and start saying harsh words. Obviously, the way around this is to be more patient and have respect for other people’s viewpoints and feelings.

Every time you raise your voice or say harsh words, you have lost the argument. When your voice goes up, your credibility comes down.

Gossiping

Gossip stems from jealousy, hatred, aversion, ignorance or just having nothing better to do with your time. It is very destructive, cruel and can never be classed as helpful. At the time we may enjoy spreading some rumour or other, but just think how you would feel if people were saying the same things about you.

Gossip is both harmful and a waste of time. I do believe that social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, encourage such unhelpful and wasteful gossip. I am not saying these sites are not of any use—I use them every day—but they can be used wrongly and end up ruining someone’s reputation or career.

So, the antidote to these four unhelpful ways of talking are: speak only truthful words, words that spread harmony and not discord, words that are kind and compassionate, words that help and not harm others.

I understand that this isn’t always possible, so let’s look at some examples. If a seriously ill person asked you if they are going to die and by telling them the truth you would be making matters worse, it is better to lie to them and allow them to have some peace. Maybe one of your friends has gotten in with the wrong crowd, so you decide to speak divisively and try to break up the group. Your young child is about to put their hand into a fire and out of compassion you speak harshly to stop them. A work colleague is having a rough time and is finding it hard to open up, so you indulge in idle chatter to win their trust, so they can finally feel comfortable to talk about their problems.  

All these examples show that appropriate communication isn’t always black and white. I think as a rule of thumb, we should ensure that if we do lie, are divisive, talk harshly or gossip it is for the benefit of others and not just for our own selfish gain.

The final word I will give to Buddha, he said this is appropriate communication:

 ‘It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of goodwill’.

Action

Appropriate action traditionally covers those actions we should refrain from. We are advised to avoid violent acts, to refrain from taking what has not been given, to limit our consumption of intoxicants and to refrain from causing harm through sexual activity. However, I believe the concept of appropriate action should cover all the actions we undertake in our lives. The more we can bring mindfulness to our everyday actions the more our life improves and the impact our life has on others will also grow.

Violent Acts

This doesn’t just cover violence towards humans; it also covers animals, big or small. I should make it clear here that I am talking about intentional and/or unnecessary acts of violence, which include killing as well as physically harming. We have to understand that all beings have the equal right to live and be free from suffering, so that is why we have to refrain from doing them any intentional harm.

It is very difficult to go through life without unintentionally killing or harming things. When we wash vegetables, we are more than likely killing small insects, but this is not our intention. Our intention is to prepare the vegetables for eating, so this is not what I am talking about here. Having said that, we should check the vegetables beforehand to ensure there are no insects on them.

Once you get into the habit of killing, it is very hard to break that habit. You may see a mosquito on your arm and squash it. You do the same the next time a mosquito lands on you and the time after that. Eventually you do not even have to look; you just automatically squash it. This is when the act of killing has become a habit.

The way to prevent ourselves from killing/harming is to understand that all beings are the same as us. They want to be happy and not suffer. So, if we know this, a feeling of compassion will rise in us and it will become much harder to kill/harm.

Taking what has not been given

If we take something that has not been given or belongs to someone else, this is stealing, no matter how big or small the item is.

The first time we steal we may feel guilty and scared of being caught. However, the more you steal the less guilty and scared you are. In the end you steal just because you can and not because you need to. This is when stealing has become a habit.

In Buddhism, we talk about five factors relating to taking what has not been freely given and they are: someone else’s belongings, the awareness that they are someone else’s, the thought of theft, the action of carrying it out, the taking away as a result of it. All five factors have to be in play for a theft to take place.

We don’t like people stealing from us, so we should refrain from stealing from them. Once we get the reputation of being a thief, it will be very hard for people to trust us. So, by stealing we are hurting both ourselves and others.

Sexual misconduct

This is causing harm to someone by the use of the sexual act, such as rape, sex with someone underage or sex with a married person—here the victim being the person’s partner. If we physically, emotionally or mentally force someone into sex, this is causing him or her harm and must be refrained from. There are many people today still carrying the scars of sexual misconduct. So, this precept should not be taken lightly.

It is important to keep in mind that Buddha taught the precept on sexual misconduct to help us refrain from harming someone through the sexual act. He did not teach it to be moralistic or make people feel guilty for their sexual orientation.

Livelihood

This is an important aspect of the path and one we probably do not give a lot of thought to. We should aim to engage in compassionate activity and earn our living in a way that does not cause harm and is ethically positive. Most of us spend a large part of our waking hours at work, so it’s important to assess how our work affects us and those around us. We need to work to earn money, without money we cannot survive, this is an unavoidable fact of life. But have you ever stopped to think whether your work is helping or harming? Come to think about it, have you ever stopped to think what is an ethically appropriate livelihood at all?

Do you have an appropriate livelihood? It may not be as black and white as you first think. You may sell guns to the army to keep the country safe, but those guns could fall into the hands of a terrorist and be used to kill innocent people. You may make cars, so people can get around, but one of those cars may be involved in an accident and someone is killed. You may make rope and it is used by someone to commit suicide. I know I have given extreme examples here, but I just want to get you thinking about the consequences of your livelihood.

It would be impossible to examine all the possible effects our work has in the world, but we should certainly contemplate whether we are causing harm in any obvious or direct ways, to humans, to animals, and to the planet.

I recently met a young biologist and he had a dilemma. He had just graduated and was looking for work, but every job he applied for required testing on animals. He said he just couldn’t bring himself to kill animals, even if it meant he might discover a new way to help humans. Our choices are not always clear cut, we need to think very carefully about what path we decide to take. We should consider the consequences, to ourselves and to others, of any choice we make.

I fully understand that we need to work to earn money and sometimes we have to do the jobs we find unpalatable. So, I am not being judgemental here. I am just pointing out that we have to be mindful of our livelihoods, and reiterating the fact that actions have consequences.

Pause here for a moment and give your livelihood some thought.

  • Is it ethical?
  • Am I forced to do things that go against my redlines?
  • Do I fully understand the consequences of my livelihood?

Living responsibly highlights the importance of acting in an appropriate way physically, verbally and psychologically. If we don’t, we can often inadvertently cause conflict and bitterness amongst the people we come into contact with. We must integrate this part of the path into our daily lives and be constantly mindful of the actions we are carrying out.

The key point about living responsibly is to have integrity. I find that the best way for my actions to remain skilful is to keep the view of cause and consequences in the forefront of my mind. Whenever a thought arises, I try to gauge whether it will be helpful or harmful and what the consequences are going to be. This is no easy task and requires us to be mindful of our thoughts.

When we are being mindful it gives us the space to think before we act. An alert mind has the opportunity to override unhelpful or destructive thoughts. It brings awareness into whatever we are intending to do. This is how we can ensure our actions are appropriate and skilful.

This ends the ‘living responsibly’ aspect of the eightfold path.

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Seeing Clearly – The Buddha Dharma Series

In the first noble truth Buddha explained that there is suffering running through our lives from birth through to death. In the second truth he told us about some of the causes of this suffering, namely the three poisons. In the fourth truth, he explained what path we can take to start the process of destroying the three poisons. This path is known as the eight-fold path.

This is how Buddha described the eight-fold path:

‘And what, monks, is the noble truth of the path of practice leading to the cessation of desire? Just this very eight-fold path: appropriate view, appropriate intention, appropriate speech, appropriate action, appropriate livelihood, appropriate effort, appropriate mindfulness and appropriate concentration.’

This path is not a religious path and doesn’t require rituals, prayers, ceremonies, or even for you to become a Buddhist. It can be looked upon as a path that leads to us living a responsible life and so anybody can practise it. So, it isn’t a Buddhist practice, it is more of a lifestyle practice.

The eightfold path comprises of three aspects and I will take each aspect individually and explore the appropriate ways to approach the path. The first aspect is seeing clearly, which includes view and intention.

View

So, let’s start by looking at the view? The view refers to the understanding that we cause most of our emotional suffering ourselves, the understanding that everything is impermanent and the understanding that things happen due to causes, which in turn lead to consequences. Here I will concentrate on the understanding of cause and effect.

So, what do we need to understand about cause and effect? It is important to understand that our actions of body, speech and mind have consequences. You may think that, ‘I understand that actions of body and speech have consequences, but how can our thoughts?’ Before we do any action, it starts off as a thought – first we think and then we act. This thought can be conscious or unconscious, but it is there before any action. So, it is important to realise that our thoughts also have consequences. 

Whatever we do and say will become a cause for our future conditions. I am not talking about future lives here; I am talking about this life. We are the architects of our future. This is how we should be thinking. We should not be thinking that our lives are conditioned by some system of reward and punishment meted out by an outside force. This way of thinking is just shirking our responsibilities. Of course, it is easier to blame someone else for our problems, we love doing that, but this will not help us bring about a change for the better in our lives.

Put simplistically, if we act in a kind, caring, helpful and compassionate way, we will be helping to build a good future for ourselves. This is not some metaphysical law; I am just stating the way life is. If we act in a bad way by not caring for others, stealing, lying, cheating, killing and generally acting in a harmful way, people are not going to want to be associated with us or help us when we need it. This is the way of the world. Also, if we are a kind and caring person our conscience will be clear, and this will also reduce our emotional suffering and certainly help us during our meditation and mindful awareness practices.

There is no scientific evidence for this, but just look at your own experiences and I am sure you will see that your actions have consequences. If you kill someone you will be caught and sent to prison or put to death. However, if you are not caught, you will have to carry the torment, anguish and guilt around with you for the rest of your life, fearful every time the doorbell rings. Either way there are consequences for your act of killing.

Having said that, I am not suggesting that if we act in a good way the whole of our life is going to be rosy. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen, but it will reduce the chances of bad things happening. It will also put us in a better frame of mind to be able to cope with these unfavourable situations when they arise.

We don’t live in a bubble, so the actions of others are also going to affect us. Other people’s causes and effects overlap our causes and effects until there is a huge web of interconnected causes and effects. So, we have to remember that when something unpleasant befalls us it is the result of a large number of causes. This will stop us adding anger and frustration to an already difficult situation. It will also prevent us from struggling with something that is beyond our control. This will at the very least reduce some of our emotional suffering.  

When we have the appropriate view regarding cause and effect, it encourages us to live an honourable life. This is a life where we take responsibility for our actions.

Some people find it hard to get to grips with cause and effect, so I suggest you sit quietly and reflect on it. That way, you will understand that things can only come into existence due to a cause or causes and not randomly or magically. Every cause will ultimately have an effect. So, all of our actions of body, speech and mind are going to have consequences. This should encourage us to act in a skilful way.

Intention

The next element of the path is intention. What I am talking about here is your motivation and conditioning, as it is these forces that move us into doing actions with our bodies, speech or minds.

This element is divided into three sections and Buddha explained it this way:

‘And what, monks, is appropriate intention? intentions of letting go, Intentions of freedom from ill will, intentions of harmlessness. This, monks, is called appropriate intention.’

Letting go

The first section is sometimes talked about as renunciation, giving something up, rejecting or abandoning, but I think a better way to describe this is the act of letting go. What we are trying to let go of is attachment to, or craving for, sensual objects.

I personally believe renunciation is never going to work. The more we try to renounce something, the more we get ourselves entangled in it. If you are fighting something, you are giving it power. So, in that way, for me, renunciation will not work. This is why I say let it go, because by doing that you are giving it no power and it will begin to disappear on its own. What I mean by letting things go is that we don’t get ourselves ensnared by over thinking, judging, comparing or criticising, we don’t engage the desire, we allow it to arise, we acknowledge it, let it pass and we move on. Of course, that is easier said than done but this is where our mindfulness practices help a lot. If we are present with our thoughts, we will catch the desire as it arises. This gives us the opportunity to follow the desire or let it go.

Clinging to desires is one of the origins of our emotional suffering, but when we try to let things go, a strong feeling inside stops us from succeeding. This happens because we are so attached to our desires. It is never easy to suddenly just let them go, but it certainly is not impossible.

If we believe sensual objects are going to give us true happiness, we will start clinging to them and this will in turn shape our thoughts and actions. We will become attached and our emotional suffering will begin.

It takes time to change our perceptions and it is not going to be easy. We have to slowly start chipping away at our clinging attachment to sensual objects, whether it is to people or belongings. Step by step we reduce their hold on us.

How do we let our clinging desires go? There are several ways, but I believe the best one is to contemplate impermanence. By doing thisyou begin to realise the impermanence of things, you understand that everything is temporary and there is nothing solid to get attached to. So, when a clinging desire arises you do not have to hold on to it, you can let it go. Just keep reminding yourself that, ‘This is temporary and will pass.’

Freedom from ill-will

This is when we do not have any thoughts of causing others harm.

Ill-will stems from clinging to our ego and can arise when we are unhappy with someone, jealous, have too much pride, anger, have an aversion towards someone and so on. For example, when someone, such as our friend, partner or family member has hurt us, and we start wishing bad things to happen to them. Ill-will is often an emotional reaction. It doesn’t necessarily follow that we will act upon our ill-will, but as our actions are driven by our thoughts, the potential is always there to do so.

The best way to liberate ourselves from ill-will is to foster the thought that other people, just like us, are fighting against the physical and emotional suffering running through their lives. They also want to be free of this emotional suffering and want only peace of mind. If we think like this, it will cause goodwill to arise within us. So, caring for others’ feelings and showing them genuine warmth replaces ill-will with a sense of compassion and kindness.

Now when I talk about caring for others, I am not talking about sympathy or pity, but real empathy. This is when we put ourselves in other people’s shoes and truly understand that they wish to be treated kindly and with warmth. They too are struggling to make sense of their lives.

These days, we tend to ration our kindness to people we are friendly with. This way of acting can be selfish and goes part of the way to explain why there is so much ill-will in the world today. You need look no further than the vile comments people post on social media or how some politicians talk about each other to see an all too common manifestation of ill-will.

So, how do we go beyond ill-will and build a feeling of goodwill towards others? One way is to do the following practice, which is a reflection on kindness and is split into three parts, which embraces three types of people we encounter in life: those we are friendly with, those we are not friendly with and the biggest group by far, those we do not care about one way or another. The point of this practice is to open our minds and build friendliness towards all three types of people.

Start by sitting comfortably and lightly closing your eyes. Focus your awareness on the breath flowing in and out of your nose. Don’t change the breath in any way, just let it flow naturally.

Now, start reflecting on your friends. This is the easiest way to begin because you already have a certain amount of warmth towards them. Think of a close friend and start to reflect on their positive qualities and their acts of kindness. A note of caution here: try not to use someone you are sexually attracted to because kindness could quite easily turn into lust. It is also recommended that you do not use the same person each time or else you may get attached to them.

By reflecting on your friend’s good qualities and kindness, positive feelings will arise. Once this has occurred, you should move away from reflecting on your friend and concentrate on your feelings that have arisen. These feelings should be your primary focus. They should be feelings of warmth and empathy. Spend some time being aware of this warmth and see how happy and peaceful it makes you feel.

Keeping the above feelings in mind, move on to the next type of person, someone you dislike. Picture this person in your mind and examine him or her closely. See the person’s pain, suffering, loneliness and insecurity. See that all he or she really wants is to have a peaceful mind. Now start to radiate the same feelings you had for your friend towards the person you dislike. Project all the respect, warmth and kindness that you can muster.

Finally, picture a person you pass by everyday but do not care about one way or another. Again, feel this person’s pain and see how all he or she is looking for is peace of mind. Radiate your warmth and kindness towards this person and imagine how that makes him or her feel, and in turn, how you feel.

This is a simple way of cultivating respect and warmth for everybody, regardless of whether you know them or not, whether you like them or not. Remember, though, that this is not a reflective exercise that you do only in the privacy of your home. It should be applied to your daily life so that you cultivate a friendly and open attitude towards everyone without discrimination. That of course includes yourself, so if you are feeling a bit low or your self-compassion needs a boost, you can start this practice by radiating warmth and kindness towards yourself.

Harmlessness

You should now have started to have feelings of goodwill towards others. These feelings should move you towards actions that are not harmful. Remember, our mind controls our actions, so feelings of goodwill should lead to more skilful actions.

Everybody wishes to be free of emotional suffering but are often gripped by discontentment, anguish, unease, dissatisfaction and other kinds of suffering. People have their own private suffering, but we should understand that we also play a part in that suffering by not showing compassion for them, by not caring for their well-being and by not seeing that, they, like us are trying to free themselves from all forms of suffering and have peace of mind.

There are various reflections that you can practice that will help you start developing compassion for others.

Do these reflections on the three types of people mentioned in the goodwill section. However, this time choose people who you know are suffering, and radiate compassion towards them.

Again, start your reflection on a friend who you know is going through a rough time. Reflect on that person’s suffering directly and then reflect on how, like yourself, your friend wants to be free from pain. You should continue this reflection until a strong feeling of compassion arises within you.

Remember, compassion is not pity or sympathy, but is a form of empathy. Pity and sympathy stem from our own emotions, which are not stable or reliable. Whereas empathy is where you put yourself into another person’s shoes and feel what they are feeling. The beauty of this is that you are not projecting your thoughts and prejudices but are actually seeing things from another person’s point of view.

Once you start experiencing a strong feeling of compassion for your friend, hold onto it and use it as a standard for the same practice we will now do as we reflect on the two other types of people.

Think of a person you know who is suffering, but whom you dislike, and then reflect on their suffering. See the world through their eyes, try and understand what they are going through. Try to genuinely feel their pain and suffering. Once you have achieved this, start radiating the powerful feeling of compassion you felt before.

When you feel such strong compassion for a person, it is difficult to dislike them anymore because you now understand that they feel suffering, just like you.

Next, think of a person you really have no feelings for one way or another. Start reflecting on how they also have causes for pain, sorrow, anguish and dissatisfaction. Again, once you have truly felt their pain, start radiating compassion towards them. This exercise helps you realise that we are all prone to suffer in the same way, and there really are no strangers in this world.

By doing these reflections, you will slowly be able to open your mind and expand your compassion towards more people in your world. You will start to see that all of us are the same. By doing this reflection you are not necessarily going to be able to directly ease another’s suffering, but you are going to be more open to doing so, as your compassion for them grows.

This ends the ‘seeing clearly’ aspect of the eightfold path.

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The Causes of Suffering – The Buddha Dharma Series

The first noble truth describes how life has suffering running through it and in the second truth Buddha gave some of the reasons for this suffering. There is not just one cause of our suffering, as there is not one cause of anything. Things come into being through a series of causes and conditions, and that is the same for our suffering. However, there are three main things that cause us emotional and psychological suffering, namely, the three poisons. They are clinging desire, anger and aversion and unawareness.

In the Dhammapada it states:

The one who protects his mind from clinging desire, anger and aversion and unawareness, is the one who enjoys real and lasting peace’.

Clinging Desire

Not all of our desires cause us suffering; only the ones we cling to. We may have a desire to help people, a desire to reduce our suffering or to improve ourselves. As long as we are not clinging to these desires there is no problem.

So, desire on its own isn’t the problem. The problem is our clinging and grasping at the things we desire. We wrongly believe that material things and people, such as family, friends and loved ones, can make us permanently and truly happy. However, if we take the time to investigate, we will find that these desires eventually lead us into a feeling of discontentment, sadness and loss. Why is that? It is because we have grown attached to the people we love or the things we own. Again, there is not a problem with loving the people close to us; the suffering starts once we get attached to them, believe they will be with us forever and their thoughts and feelings for us will never change. This simply isn’t the case.

You can test this theory out. Think of a time when someone not very close to you died. How did you feel? I expect you expressed your condolences but didn’t have too much sadness. Now think of a time when a member of your family, a friend or a loved one died. How did you feel? I expect you were devastated and extremely upset for a long time. So, what is the difference between these two deaths? Attachment. You were not attached to the first person and so did not suffer a lot when they died, but you were attached to the second person, and your clinging attachment is what caused you so much suffering.

We get attached to our belongings and believe they make us happy. We think we can buy happiness. The problem with that is our desires are never ending. Once we have something new, we start wanting something else. We never quite manage to buy the happiness we are so desperately seeking because there is no happiness inherent in material things. We just project happiness onto an object and then cling and grasp at this imaginary happiness, and we eventually suffer once the object is stolen or stops working.

There is no problem in wanting things and trying to make our lives more comfortable; the problem is clinging and grasping at these desires. So do not stop loving the people close to you or stop wanting to improve your life believing Buddha told us to do that—he didn’t.

Our clinging desires lead us to act in certain ways, such as being proud, jealous and protective, and this in turn leads to our discontentment. This is because our clinging desires lead us into action, which in turn leads us into discontentment. It is a vicious cycle. Buddha said:

‘From desire action follows; from action discontentment follows; desire, action and discontentment are like a wheel rotating endlessly’.

To break this cycle, we have to see that clinging, grasping and getting attached to people and material objects brings us suffering because things are compounded and are subject to change. If we can truly embrace this point and apply it to our daily lives, we will be able to reduce the suffering caused by this poison.

Buddha stated, ‘Human desires are endless. It is like the thirst of a man who drinks saltwater: he gets no satisfaction and his thirst is only increased.’ This is surely something we should be reflecting on.


Anger and Aversion – Aversion is the opposite to attachment and anger leads to hatred, discrimination, aggression and a lack of compassion. None of these are helpful. With desire we want to cling to objects, but with aversion we do the exact opposite. We spend all our time and energy trying to push the thing away we do not like. As with desire, we just need to let go, not hold on to this aversion. Don’t engage with it, hold it or repress it – simply acknowledge you have an aversion for it, understand that it is causing harm to yourself and others and find a way of letting it go.

Buddha said this about anger:

‘This fury does so cloud the mind of man that he cannot discern this fearful inner danger’.

Some say that anger is natural and should be expressed at all costs. This is because most people only see two ways of dealing with anger, that is, express or repress. Both are unhealthy. If you constantly express it, you will find that after some time it will become a habit and you will react angrily all of the time. If you repress it, you are just storing up trouble for the future. You may be able to keep it down for some time, but eventually it will surface and may even come back more violent and hurtful.

Anger is such a destructive emotion because we engage with it and let it take control of us. So, the Buddha had a different idea. He advised us to look at the anger and see where it comes from. It is not to be dealt with but observed. If we do this, we will see that it stems from our exaggerating the negative qualities of someone or projecting negative qualities that are not actually there, on to someone or something.

Two of the best ways of counteracting anger is patience and acceptance.

Patience—This is something we should cultivate. The best advice is to try and walk away from the situation that is making you angry. If you cannot do that, then you should not react straight away, but should first try counting to ten and spend a little time reflecting on the situation. This will give you the space to calm down and see things more rationally. Of course, this is not a simple thing to do when one is wrapped up in the moment, and this is where patience comes in. The most hurtful things are said in the heat of the moment, so defuse that moment with patience.

You could try watching your breath for a moment, use your senses to engage with what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch or you could try reciting the word patience over and over again. All of these will give you a chance to calm down and build patience.

There is no evil like anger, and no courageousness like patience.  

Acceptance—This is accepting that people are the same as we are. Everyone is struggling to find their way in life. We strive for happiness, and so does everyone else. If we think in this way, a feeling of warmth, empathy and compassion will arise in us. If we are empathic or compassionate towards others, it is harder to get angry at them. This, again, takes time to master but is something we are all capable of.

Unawareness

Unawareness is a lack of understanding of the true nature of things, which leads us into wrong views. Buddha stated:

‘Because of their unawareness, people are always thinking wrong thoughts and always losing the right viewpoint and, clinging to their egos, they take wrong actions. As a result, they become attached to a delusive existence’.

As we are unaware of the true nature of the world, we start clinging to objects, people and ourselves, which leads to wrong actions and causes us to grow attached to our perception of reality.

Impermanence is something we understand on an intellectual level, but it is not how we live our lives. That is because we are unaware of the true implications of impermanence. 

Whatever is
born is impermanent and is bound to die.
Whatever is stored up is impermanent and is bound to run out.
Whatever comes together is impermanent and is bound to come apart.
Whatever is built is impermanent and is bound to collapse.
Whatever rises up is impermanent and is bound to fall down.
So also, friendship and enmity, fortune and sorrow, good and evil,
All the thoughts that run through your mind – everything is always changing.
(Taken from ‘Words of My Perfect Teacher’ by Patrul Rinpoche)

All compounded things are impermanent and if we look closely, everything is compounded. So, everything is impermanent. This may seem negative or depressing but actually it is a breath of fresh air. Let me explain.

The definition of compounded is ‘something that consists of two or more things combined together.’ As I have just stated, all phenomena are compounded, and that includes you and me. Just think for a moment, is there anything in this universe that isn’t compounded? As of yet we haven’t found anything.

The point Buddha was making here is that anything that is made up of a combination of other things will eventually fall apart. It will come into being when the various causes and conditions are right, it will exist for a certain amount of time, and then it will disintegrate – this is the nature of all things, this is impermanence. It is an undeniable and inescapable fact of life.

Impermanence isn’t a word we readily warm to, and it would be much nicer for us to believe that everything is permanent. But this simply isn’t true, and in order to stop our suffering, we need to acknowledge this fact. The reason we do not like to hear about impermanence is because it brings up visions of sickness, pain, disintegration and death. We get a horrible sick feeling in our stomachs because we equate impermanence with loss – loss of a loved one, loss of our friends or even loss of something as trivial as our iPhone. So, it is vitally important for all of us to understand impermanence.

Why is it important? What are the benefits of understanding it? It means we will achieve freedom from fear, freedom from suffering and freedom from panic, because when we know things are not going to last, we are free from any fear, agony or pain of losing something or someone.

Our mistaken belief is that things come into existence on their own, and last forever. This kind of mistaken belief causes us to cling to worldly possessions, such as material objects, the search for pleasure, recognition, honour and so on. It causes pride, attachment, aversion and arrogance to grow within us because we truly believe things are here to stay. We grow completely attached to the concerns of this life.

So, it’s a relief when we finally understand that everything is impermanent, and we can’t do a thing to change that fact. We can now let go and relax our grip on things – that’s a real breath of fresh air!

Impermanence is not only true for pleasurable things, but for painful things as well. Maybe someone you care for has died or left you, and you are sad and lonely. These emotions are also impermanent and so will, after time, also change. All the things we have aversion towards will only last a short time. Like the morning dew, it will all soon change and disappear.

Like the dew that remains
for a moment or two
On the tips of the grass and then melts with the dawn.
The pleasures we find in the course of our lives
last only an instant, they cannot endure.
(Taken from ‘Thirty-Seven Practices of All Buddha’s Sons’ by Thogme Zangpo)

So, the first noble truth stated that there is suffering flowing through our lives, and the second truth explains some of the causes. In the third truth Buddha explains that there is freedom from suffering. 

This truth is called by various names, such as nirvana, liberation, enlightenment and so on. It is hotly debated these days. Some think that if you reach nirvana you will never be born again, others think you will be reborn, but you can pick where. For people who do not believe in rebirth, they see it as something we can achieve in this lifetime. I have no idea who is right and who is wrong – it maybe they are all wrong.

People think that nirvana is like heaven, full of happiness, the opposite of this world. They image that there, the sun shines brightly every day, only ‘good’ people are around, one doesn’t have to work, there are no money worries, everybody is friendly, and every moment is filled with happiness.

However, this is just a projection of our dualistic minds, trying to fill heaven with all the things we like best. But what about all the things other people like and we don’t? I would want a heaven where no one eats meat, while others would want one where they could eat a big fat juicy steak every day. Do we each get a heaven of our own? I believe if people really gave some thought to their concept of heaven, they would understand they were just changing one conditioned world for another. That way, heaven, like this world, would be equally impermanent.

I am just going to give my own thoughts here and you can decide for yourselves what you believe. I will show you that there are two good bits of news in this third noble truth.

I feel that the best word to describe this third truth is awakening. We awaken from the sleep of unawareness. I do not see the process of awakening as some mystical or metaphysical thing.

Buddha said that awakening is the ‘highest happiness’, but he wasn’t talking about the mundane happiness we strive for in our everyday lives. He was talking about absolute freedom from unskillfulness, freedom from craving, attachment, desire, hatred and unawareness. All of this we can achieve in this lifetime by truly understanding the four noble truths and following the eightfold path. Once we start meditating on these teachings and turning them from knowledge to wisdom, we will start to change our actions of body, speech and mind.

This state of being awake can be reached by anyone, whether they call themselves Buddhist or not, in this very lifetime – you just have to put the effort and hard work in. That’s the first bit of good news.

The second bit of good news is we do not have to die to become awakened. It can be obtained during this lifetime. Death is irrelevant to this process. People feel like this life is full of discontentment and causes them nothing but suffering, and the only way out is death. They feel at death they will be miraculously transported to a better place. But the third truth is not talking about a place; it is the cessation of the three poisons, namely, desire, anger and aversion and unawareness. The Buddha defined it as ‘perfect peace’, or a state of mind that is free from craving, anger and other afflictive states. We can find this perfect peace in this body, on this planet and in this lifetime.

I honestly believe the third truth isn’t talking about a metaphysical thing, it isn’t a place to go to and we do not have to die to realise it. We just need to put in a huge amount of effort so we can extinguish our afflictive states of mind.

I will leave you to reflect on this third truth, so you can decide which version makes the most sense to you.

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The First Noble Truth – Buddha Dharma Series

Buddha‘s first teaching was on the four noble truths, and it still remains the very foundation on which Buddhism is built. It was these four realities that the Buddha came to understand during his meditation under the bodhi tree, and they provide a conceptual framework for all of Buddhist thought.

The first reality is ‘There is suffering.’ The word suffering here means a dissatisfaction, discontentment, an uneasy feeling running through our lives. This suffering can be divided into three parts, namely, the suffering of pain, the suffering of happiness and the all-pervasive suffering.

The suffering of pain is easy for us to understand, as it is our daily suffering. It is when we have a headache, cold, hangover and so on. This is physical suffering.

The second suffering is the suffering of happiness. Now this one is a bit harder for us to understand. When we are happy, we never think about suffering, but it is there just lurking around the corner. Let’s look at some examples:

You buy a new iPhone and you are so happy. You show it to your family and friends who are envious. You take this phone everywhere with you and use it every day to play games, surf the net, look at social media, watch films and so on. You could not be happier. Then one day you can’t find it. It has been stolen. Now that happiness you had has changed into sadness – this is the suffering of happiness.

Nothing in life is permanent and so will eventually change. It is this change that brings on the second type of suffering. It isn’t that phenomena have inherent suffering within them, it is because we get attached to things and when change arrives, we become sad, discontented and this is the suffering of happiness. So, I am not saying happiness is suffering. While happiness is here, we enjoy but once the happiness starts to wear off, we start to suffer.

The third suffering is the all-pervasive suffering. This type of suffering is within everything in our lives, but because it is suffering on a subtle level, we are prone to missing it. This type of suffering is a condition that exists because of how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world. So, you could say that our entire worldly experience is a definition of suffering that we cannot even see.

So how do we see ourselves and the world? Well, we see them as separate – I’m here and the world is outside of me. In other words, as subject and object. So, the way we look at things, subject and object, me and everything else, is in some way the cause of our suffering that will come to us in the future. It is like eating a wonderful meal but not knowing it has been poisoned. Whilst we are eating the food, we are happy, but later, once the poison starts to work, we suffer.

Another cause of this all-pervasive suffering is seeing ourselves as a solid, independent self and thinking that this self is how we experience the world. Buddha taught that this is not the case, and we are actually the coming together of five things, namely, the five aggregates.

The aggregates are form, feeling, conception, mental formation and consciousness.

Form, or matter, corresponds to physical factors and not only includes our own bodies, but also the material objects that surround us. It includes the five physical sense organs and their corresponding physical objects. The five physical sense organs are eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. Their corresponding objects are visible form, sound, smell, taste and touch.

Feeling is the second aggregate and it can be divided into three different types of experience, namely pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. One of these three are present in every moment-to-moment experience.

There are six kinds of experience, five physical and one mental. The experiences happen when your eye contacts with a visible form, your ear with sound, your nose with smell, your tongue with taste and your body with any other tangible object. These are the five physical experiences. The mental experience is when your mind is in contact with mental objects, such as ideas, hopes, wishes and thoughts.

Our feelings are extremely important as, in the end, they determine what we experience and how we respond. We all want good feelings and try to avoid bad feelings. However, because we cling desperately to happy times, we become sad and disillusioned when they end.

The third aggregate is conception, and this is where we attach a name to an experience. Here, we formulate a conception of an idea about the object we perceive. The purpose of this aggregate is to analyse and investigate. When we come into contact with an object, our conception aggregate categorises it by shape, colour, motion, location, sex and other such categories. These concepts can come from parents, school, society, friends and other social groups. Everything we have learnt or are learning form our concepts.

The fourth aggregate is mental formation. It is the impression created by previous actions. This aggregate starts in the mind and is then reflected in our body and speech. That means whatever action we do is part of this aggregate.

Maybe a better way to call this aggregate is mental formation and volition. Volition is the capability of conscious choice, decision and intention. So, the mental formation stems from our past, and volition, from the present moment. Both function together to determine our response to an object of experience. These responses have moral consequences in the sense of skilful, unskilful and neutral acts.

The final aggregate is consciousness, which is very powerful. From this stem the third and fourth aggregates. It is mere awareness of an object. When the eyes and a visible object come into contact, the eye consciousness will become associated with that object and visual consciousness will arise. It is the same with all the six consciousnesses.

It should be noted that consciousness is not personal experience, but merely awareness of an object. Personal experiences are produced through the functioning of the feeling, conception and the mental formation aggregates. These aggregates turn mere awareness into a personal experience.

Let’s put this all together. Your eyes see the form. Your consciousness becomes aware of it. Your conception identifies it. A pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling arises. Your mental formation makes you respond to it with a conditioned reaction, stemming from your past. So, for example, you are walking down the street and see a car you like driving by – this is the form aggregate. Your eyes become aware of it – this is the consciousness aggregate. You perceive it as a car – this is the conception aggregate. You feel happy, unhappy or neutral – this is the feeling aggregate. If you feel happy you may stop and stare, if you dislike it you may turn away and if you are neutral you just carry on your way without another thought – this is the mental formation aggregate.

Buddha called them the five clinging aggregates, and this is where the problem comes for us. We cling to these aggregates as though they are the self – a solid and permanent you. When these five aggregates come together, we experience the world, but when they disperse we stop experiencing the world. He also taught us that there is absolutely no experience other than these five aggregates. These aggregates are ever-changing and so there really isn’t anything solid for us to cling to. When we try to cling to them as a permanent self we suffer, and this is what Buddha was pointing out in the first noble truth.

The reason he taught the first noble truth was to help us understand that we have a problem. If we don’t know we have a problem we will not look for a solution. It is the same as if we don’t know we are sick we will not go to the doctor. If we know we are sick we go to the doctor and he tells us what is making us sick and gives us medicine to cure it. It is the same here. If we know we are suffering, we will look for the cause and the cure, which are the other three noble truths. It is extremely important to fully understand this first noble truth. If we do understand it, we will be able to move on to the next noble truth – the cause of our suffering.

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The Five Precepts – The Buddha Dharma Series

I have been asked on numerous occasions to lay out, in an understandable manner, the teachings of Buddha. So, over the coming months I will articulate the Buddha dharma in an order that I hope you will find both informative and easy to understand and implement. I am going to begin with the five precepts.

Gautama Buddha said:

‘Now, there are these five gifts, five great gifts—original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning—that are not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and are unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives and Brahmans.’

So, what five gifts was he talking about? He was talking about the five precepts.

The precepts are the gateway into Buddha dharma. They are like the training wheels on a kid’s bike. That doesn’t mean they’re elementary and easy to do, because they’re not. They are also not commandments and we are not being told ‘thou shalt not’ do something. They are more like guidelines that will help keep us on the straight and narrow. If we follow these guidelines, we will not bring harm to ourselves and others. These guidelines are undertaken so we can work towards reducing our suffering and the suffering of all beings – this is a theme that runs all the way through the Buddha dharma. If we really want to be a responsible person within society, we have to ensure we are not harming anyone or anything. These five precepts will help us achieve that goal.

I have told this story before, but I believe it is helpful to mention it again. When I first decided to become a Buddhist monk, I was given these five precepts and told to hold them for six months. After six months I had to return to my teacher and discuss how I got on. Only after that was I allowed to take my full vows. I found them easy to understand, but not so easy to keep on a day to day basis. I would recite them before I got out of bed each morning as a kind of a mental reminder and to set my intention for the day. If I strayed during the day, which I invariably did, I would retake the precepts and strengthen my resolve not to break them again. Having this experience has helped me understand how hugely important these precepts are, and what a great springboard into the Buddha dharma they are.

The precepts are:

  • Refrain from taking life
  • Refrain from false speech
  • Refrain from taking what has not been freely given
  • Refrain from harming others with the sexual act
  • Refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs

The Dhammapada (verses 246–247) explain the precepts in this way:

‘One who destroys life, who speaks untruth, who takes what is not given, who goes to another man’s wife or woman’s husband, who gives himself/herself to drinking intoxicating liquors, he/she, even in this world, digs up his/her own root.’

So, let’s go through each precept individually, but bear in mind these are my interpretations and may differ from a more traditional approach. I have tried to make the precepts relevant to today’s world and I have also added my own personal perspective. As with all Buddha dharma, you will have to decide for yourself what does or doesn’t work for you.

Refrain from taking life

This one seems obvious, but it means more than not killing other humans; it includes all sentient beings. It also covers refraining from getting others to kill on your behalf.

For me this goes much further than just killing. I personally believe it covers not eating meat, mindlessly killing insects, picking flowers and cutting trees. It means being mindful of all of Mother Nature’s inhabitants and their contributions to our ecosystem. I believe we should reflect before we chop down a tree, pick a flower or squash a bug. Remember, all actions have consequences, some may be seen and others unseen, but there will be a consequence somewhere down the line.

Everything on our planet has an intention for living, being peaceful, happy and not suffering and their lives are just as crucial as our own when it comes to maintaining our world. 

This precept, for me, means not causing harm to humans, animals, plants and all other living things.  

It is talking about intentional killing and not unintentional killing. It is impossible to go through life without unintentionally killing things. If you go for a pleasant walk across some fields, you will be unintentionally killing small insects. Your intention was to go for a walk, it wasn’t to kill insects, so this precept is not talking about that. Having said that, we must be careful wherever we walk and make sure we don’t mindlessly step on insects.

On a personal note, this precept is talking about not killing or harming things, and so I find it hard to accept the fact that we are breeding animals, keeping them captive and then killing them for food. Eating meat and adhering to this precept are not compatible. I understand this precept is a guideline and not a commandment, but I would ask you to please spare the animal a thought and try to work towards becoming a vegetarian or vegan.

Refrain from false speech

Words hold power and using them carelessly can cause destruction.  Do not say anything until you mentally confirm it to be true, helpful and kind. Don’t gossip, exaggerate or lie. Instead, practice responsible honesty with only good intentions. Dedicate yourself to loyalty and share only useful and credible news and information. 

Once we have lied to someone, we invariably have to tell another lie to cover the first one, and then another, and another, until we have created a web of lies. Before we know it, we have unwittingly become a liar and that is a label that is difficult to shake off.

I know that people say they lied so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings, but do they consider how that person will feel when they find out they have been lied to? Maybe the truth is painful or difficult to say, but it is possible to say it in a kind and sympathetic way. You can support them once you have told them the truth. I believe, it is always kinder in the long run to tell someone the truth.

On a personal note, I get upset when I have been lied to, as most people do, and so I keep this fact in mind when I am talking to others.

Refrain from taking what has not been freely given

Do not take what has not been given to you, whether it’s materialistic, opportunistic or emotional. There are a number of activities that are considered stealing, including participating in underhand deals, fraudulent activities, cheating or committing forgery. Borrowing another person’s belongings without permission is also considered forms of stealing.

If we take something that has not been given or belongs to someone else, this is stealing. It may be a pen from work, a magazine from the doctor’s waiting room or fruit from someone’s orchard. No matter how big or small, it is still stealing.

We seem to have accepted certain forms of stealing and do not see it as a problem. I am talking about taking things from our place of work, such as stationery items from an office, bread or milk from a catering establishment and nuts and bolts from a factory. We shouldn’t fool ourselves: these things have not been given to us, and so it is stealing.

Again, on a personal note, I believe taking eggs from chickens and milk from cows constitutes taking what has not been freely given. The animal has had no choice in this process and so I feel it is a form of stealing. As I have said before, these precepts are not hard and fast rules, so you have to see how far you are willing to go to adhere to them. I am just giving my own personal view point here and you are free to take it or leave it..

Refrain from harming others with the sexual act

Generally speaking, this precept refers to committing sexual indiscretions such as adultery, rape, incest and sex with a minor. If we physically, emotionally or mentally force someone into sex, this is causing him or her harm. There are many people today still carrying the scars of sexual misconduct. So, this precept should not be taken lightly.

I personally believe that Gautama Buddha taught the precept on sexual misconduct to help us refrain from harming someone through the sexual act. He did not teach it to be moralistic or make people feel guilty for their sexual orientation. If the sexual act is not going to cause harm it should be consensual, affectionate, loving and not break any marriage vow or commitment. It does not have anything to do with sexual orientation. We cannot choose our sexual orientation, as we cannot choose our race or gender, so it is cruel to penalise someone for something out of his or her control.

I think another aspect of this precept that should be looked at whilst considering sexual misconduct is people trafficking, that is, taking people and forcing them to enter the sex industry. It is estimated that around 1.2 million children are forced into prostitution or pornography, and their average age is between twelve and fourteen years old. The human suffering in the trafficking industry is staggering.

Refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs

The last precept is to avoid abusive use of alcohol and avoid illegal drugs altogether, as well as other substances that impact mindfulness and fuel irresponsibility.

I have deliberately put ‘abusive use’ of alcohol because I believe drinking in moderation is not a problem. Nobody is saying you cannot have a glass of wine with dinner or a pint after work. What is being said is that when we are completely inebriated, we lose control of our body, speech and mind. This precept is quite often the cause of the previous four precepts, so is very important to adhere to.

You may be driving home under the influence of drink or illegal drugs and have an accident and kill someone; you may steal money to cover our drink or drug addiction; come out with a pack of lies because you have no control over your mouth; or have unsafe sex with someone you met in a bar, not even considering that you or they may be married, underage or haven’t consented.

Alcohol and illegal drugs are very additive and can destroy your life and the lives of those around you. So, it is important to ensure we don’t lose control of our thought processes because we are under the influence of drink and drugs. 

These are the guidelines Buddha advised us to follow and I believe they are of great help to us in life and on our path to follow the Buddha dharma. It goes without saying that we will fall short sometimes, but that is all part and parcel of the learning process. If you fall, get up and try again. Don’t give up. The more we try to adhere to these precepts, the more they will become a habit, and those habits will eventually become our behaviour, who we are. We all need boundaries in life, and I think these five are a wonderful starting point.  

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