It’s Simple

I have a dear friend who was once a student of Lama Surya Das. I went to a short retreat with Surya Das at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies many years ago. I quite enjoyed it. I also really enjoyed his first book, “Awakening the Buddha Within.” I have recommended that book to many people, although to be sure I read it a very long time ago, and I do not know what I would think about it today.

In any event, my friend told me that when she started to study with Surya, a woman with whom she became friends told her that she had had an unwanted affair with Surya. She also said that later she found out that he had multiple affairs with students, some of which overlapped, and some of which occurred while he was still married. I did some research on the Internet, and while it was difficult to find, sure enough there are references to his sexual indiscretions on various forums.

Surya Das claims to be “enlightened,” what we now more properly call “awakened.” I heard him describe his moment of awakening at the retreat. However, we know from the Buddhist texts that this cannot be possible. According to the texts, someone who is awakened is “accomplished in the Precepts.” This means that they are incapable of breaking them. Surya apparently had some sort of meditative experience that he interprets as awakening. It may have been jhāna. This is a common error. But he certainly is not awakened.

This type of sexual misconduct is – sadly – so common, and yet the Buddha was very clear about karma and how our actions have consequences. For some reason, in many schools of Buddhism they have this notion that you can do an end run around ethical behavior. The Buddha would never have said such a thing. It would be like trying to ignore the law of gravity. The basis for everything the Buddha taught was generosity and virtue, virtue being most clearly defined as the Five Precepts.

One of my favorite discourses is the “Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone” [MN 61]. In the discourse, the Buddha was talking to his son Rahūla, who was only seven years old. When you think of the Buddha as father talking to his little boy, it is quite endearing. He started the discourse by talking about the importance of always speaking the truth. The commentaries tell us that this is because someone had come to the Bamboo Monastery looking for the Buddha, and Rahūla, who was trying to protect his father’s privacy, told the man that the Buddha was not there. So the Buddha started this discourse by telling Rahula how important it is to always speak the truth.

But then the Buddha talked in detail about how to train yourself in proper conduct. I hope you will read the entire discourse. But this passage will give you the flavor of the teaching:

“What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”

“For reflection, sir.”

“In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, and mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection.”

“Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do.”

This is such a common theme in the Buddha’s teaching that every time that I hear one of these sexual misconduct stories, I slowly pound my head on the nearest available hard object. This is not rocket science. Don’t do things that cause harm. And if you do, think about it and try not to do it again. Do not turn it into an exercise in self-judgment. Conversely, try and do things that are beneficial. That’s it. It is not complicated. And if you don’t cultivate ethical behavior, there is no point in meditating or studying the Dharma. You certainly should not be teaching it.

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One Moment

In Buddhism we often talk about the present moment. And in each life there are billions of present moments.

Most of them are noise. But every so often we have a deeply profound moment. We need to cherish and remember those moments. They are our connection to a greater reality.

There is a lovely article in today’s New York Times about a young woman in Japan. Her village and the local Buddhist temple – where her father is the head monk – were destroyed in the 2011 tsunami. After spending a lot of time providing relief for the local community, she was inspired to succeed her father as the chief monk at the temple.

This story reminded me of one of those moments in my life. I went to India in 2004 on a Buddhist pilgrimage. We had a free day in Bodh Gaya, the Mecca of Buddhism. We were free to walk around, visit the main temple, and do whatever we pleased.

I found myself mainly going to all of the wonderful temples there. Bodh Gaya is full of temples from Buddhist countries around the world. Each temple is in its own native country’s style. It is like a Buddhist United Nations.

After a fashion I found myself in a Japanese Zen temple. I wandered in and there was a nun giving a talk to a group of Japanese. It was in Japanese so obviously I could not understand her. But the mood in that temple was so serene and so deeply profound that I found in that temple a Dharma talk that did not need words. I was completely overwhelmed by the power of that moment.

When I first began practicing the Buddha’s path, a teacher of mine said that even in Asia true Dharma is hard to find. To tell you the truth, at the time I did not believe him. Now many years later I have found that, sadly, that is too true.

But every so often you get a moment like that one. One of the beauties of the Buddha’s path is that in those moments there is no nationality, no religion, no gender, and no race. There is only being, in the most transparent and transcendent way that can be meant. And it is in those moments that the possibilities of this path are revealed.

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Endless School Shootings

Those of you who follow this blog know that I am working my way through the 547 Jātaka Tales, editing and illustrating them. One of the things that strikes me as I go through this exercise is that these stories were how people for many centuries learned about the teachings of the Buddha. But even more importantly, they were the popular entertainment of the time. If you were a child in a Buddhist culture, you probably spent your evenings listening to these stories. They were TV.

When you grow up immersed in stories about patience, kindness, caring for animals, honesty, compassion, wisdom, and all the other virtuous qualities, they become part of your marrow.

Compare that to how we live.

I used to watch the program The Blacklist, but after a while I was so horrified by the extreme violence that I stopped. I could not believe that anyone thought it was appropriate to put such images on over-the-air television. More recently I started to watch the Netflix series Godless, partly because it was filmed near where I live in New Mexico. By the time they had shown the second graphic rape scene, I decided that this is not something in which I wanted to participate.

Did television cause the shootings in Parkland, Florida? Of course not. Life is always complicated. How we get to a specific point in time is influenced by an infinite array of causes and conditions. The Buddha once said:

“The result of kamma is an inconceivable matter that one should not try to conceive; one who tries to conceive it would reap either madness or frustration.” – [AN 4.77]

But at a certain point people decide how they want to be. This happens to us as individuals and it happens to us collectively. And unless we decide that we want virtue to be a centerpiece in our country, then it will be – as the New York Times headline said – “Leaders Offer Prayers. Children Are Buried. Repeat.”

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Joy and Happiness

Those of you who follow this blog may have noticed a new tab, the one labeled Jātaka Tales. I am taking the time to edit and illustrate the 547 stories from that collection. I hope that you will read through them. It is a wonderful body of literature.

As I write this I have just posted Jātaka 10, the story of Bhaddiya. It is a charming story about the joy and happiness that being a Buddhist monk/practitioner can bring. And that brings me to a favorite topic of mine, and that is the cultivation of joy.

One reason that I started almost everything you see on this web site is a result of my dissatisfaction with the way meditation and the Buddhist path are usually taught. Like many people I spent years gamely struggling through retreats and maintaining a daily sitting practice. It felt like a thankless, Sysiphean task. And like most people I pretended to live that way out of love and graciousness. But frankly, I was mainly deceiving myself.

The good news is that the more I read the Buddha’s original teachings in the Pāli Canon, the more I realized that I was not practicing the way the Buddha taught. For example, the first 6 steps in his teaching of Mindfulness of Breathing (MN 118) are:

  1. Know when the breath is long.
  2. Know when the breath is short.
  3. Expand your awareness to experience the whole body.
  4. Calm and tranquilize the whole body.
  5. (Step 4 leads to) Experiencing joy.
  6. (Step 5 leads to) Experiencing happiness and contentment.

This is the core of the first phase of a meditation practice. It is your home base. Whenever things are not going well, either in your meditation or your life, this is where you return. It is a sanctuary, a safe and calm place, a protected harbor.

Now of course, this is not easy. This takes considerable time. But if you are only taught, as I was, to be with whatever arises, or, as in Zen, that nothing happens until you have the great breakthrough, not only do you not have the proper objective, it is a futile way to proceed.

The Buddha taught the gradual path. You get better at it over time. You develop serenity and stillness, and you use that serenity and stillness to watch ever more subtle movements of the mind. This leads to even greater serenity and stillness. Along the way you will experience the freedom of a happy, blissful non-self, and ultimately you will let go of all of that and attain the freedom of awakening.

That is always the objective. It is a happiness that does not depend on sense pleasure. Even a few precious moments of stillness are incredibly healing. They are a taste of the great peace that comes with awakening.

So you do not have to wait until some miracle happens, or simply learn to tolerate whatever comes up in the mind. The Buddha never taught either of those things. He taught us to cultivate, step-by-step, moments of great peace, contentment, and happiness, moments that finally become permanent. For Nirvaṇa is the only thing that is, in the end, permanent. And that is quite a statement. The Buddha’s great discovery was not the Noble Truth of suffering. It was that by understanding the Noble Truth of suffering that we can attain final, permanent bliss and happiness.

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Right Speech/Wrong Speech

I was talking to a friend of mine this past week, and he told me something quite astonishing. He said that Mahatma Gandhi was in favor of the caste system in India, and that he defended it. Further, he said, the Richard Attenborough film about Gandhi was, in his words, “bullshit.”

Now, I would not say that I am an expert on Gandhi, but I have always admired him tremendously. So when I got home, I did an Internet search to see if what he said was true.

Sure enough, I found that there are claims that this was his view. In particular, a woman named Arundhati Roy, who is a prize-winning author, makes these claims and wants everything named after Gandhi to be changed.

However, as you might suspect, the truth is more complicated than that:

“Prof Mridula Mukherjee, an expert in modern Indian history at Jawaharlal University in Delhi, said Roy’s criticism was misplaced. ‘Gandhi devoted much of his life to fighting caste prejudice. He was a reformer not a revivalist within the Hindu religion. His effort was in keeping with his philosophy of nonviolence and bringing social transformation without creating hatred,’ Mukherjee said.”
– [“Arundhati Roy accuses Mahatma Gandhi of discrimination”, The Guardian, July 18, 2014]

And his descendants vehemently deny that Gandhi supported the caste system:

“Being outspoken is one thing but being so blasé about your ignorance is quite another,” said Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of the world-renowned thinker and activist. “It’s just an attempt to get publicity.”

Gandhi was especially appalled by the treatment of outcastes:

“Mahatma Gandhi was accused of acting as an apologist for the caste system in India. In 1932, he resorted to fasting ‘to block an affirmative action’ planned by Britain in favour of the outcastes, the so-called ‘untouchables’. Gandhi tried his best to undermine the centuries-old caste system and to remove the blot of untouchability from Hinduism. When he returned from South Africa, Gandhi was on the periphery of nationalist politics and launched a propaganda against the evils of untouchability. His fasting struck the British officials as a thinly disguised mode of coercion. After he was released from jail, Gandhi embarked on a tour in hopes of informing the Indians about the evils of untouchability.”
– [“Gandi and His Critics”, B.R. Nanda, Oxford Scholarship Online, 1994]

He also went through a change in views on the caste system:

“Gandhi’s views in regard to basic aspects of the caste system changed in the last years of his life. In the 1920s he had held that every Hindu ‘must follow the hereditary profession’ and that ‘prohibition of intermarriage’ between people of different varnas was ‘necessary for a rapid evolution of the soul.’ But later he gradually became ‘a social revolutionist,’ advocating intermarriage between Brahmins and Untouchables in order to dismantle the caste system ‘root and branch,’ and acknowledging that ‘When all become casteless, monopoly of occupations would go.’ The changes were due in part to the influence of two opponents of the caste system whose integrity he held in high regard: Ambedkar and Gora. His view of marriage between people of different religious affiliations underwent a similar change.”
– [“Changes in Mahatma Gandhi’s views on caste and intermarriage”, Mark Lindley]

(Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is an important person in Buddhism because he revived Buddhism in India, founding the Dalit Buddhist Movement, partly as a way to fight against the caste system.)

It is also, I think, important to remember the times. In politics, it is often necessary to seek incremental change given current realities. You cannot let the “perfect be the enemy of the good.” The caste system in India is deeply entrenched. To an outsider it may seem obvious that it is woefully discriminatory, and that is true. But then all cultures have some form of caste system. We certainly do in the U.S. I live among native Americans, Blacks, and Hispanics who will attest to that. Women are also largely outcastes, and most especially the poor are outcastes. It just takes a more formal form in India.

And while I know this will be quite controversial, I also saw how the caste system can work. In India your profession is inherited. If you are in Agra you might be descended from the people who built the Taj Mahal. Those skilled workers still exist, and they do the same extraordinary work. Of course, you might not want to do that kind of work, but it gives you family, tradition, and a kind of security. It is an inherited guild system.

I am not trying to defend it, just to try and get inside of it. Social systems persist because there are at least some benefits. And further, as I have seen moving to New Mexico and learning about the pueblo Indian culture, we always look at another culture through our own eyes, and we judge it based on our own often myopic values. Most people I know judge India based on one or two things they know about it. There are a million things to know about India. It is a very complicated country.

This is all by way of saying several things. First, Gandhi’s views on caste are not, as far as I can tell, all that simple. They are not one dimensional. He most assuredly deplored untouchability. At worst his views on caste and how to eliminate the caste system changed over time.

But second is the matter of speech and how we handle information that we hear. In the Buddha’s teachings on right speech, he taught two aspects that are in play here. First and most importantly is speaking the truth. Saying that Gandhi defended the caste system is simply not true. And Richard Attenborough’s film about Gandhi, while I am sure it is not perfect, is not “bullshit.” Gandhi and Attenborough’s film about him have been quite inspirational to many people. I am one of them.

The second aspect to right speech is causing discord in the community. This friend of mine spends a lot of time in India. I presume that he is perpetuating these beliefs about Gandhi. In a country that is as politically charged as India, where political parties are always trying to re-write history based on their own ideologies, sowing seeds of discord is very unskillful.

One of the aspects of the Buddha’s teachings that is especially hard to hear is how much damage we do with our unskillfulness. The moral and ethical precepts are about refraining from doing harm. We abstain from killing and harming. We abstain from taking what is not freely offered. We abstain from illicit sex. We abstain from wrong speech. We abstain from intoxication. And most importantly we constantly examine the consequences of our actions and try to learn from our mistakes.

We all want to do good things, but it would be more helpful if we put as much energy into not acting in ways that are harmful. We do more harm with wrong speech than with any other form of conduct. For some reason we always seem to want to tear people down and to believe the worst about them. This can be extremely damaging, to ourselves and to others.

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Basic Kindness

When I first moved to New Mexico I attended a meditation group here. They have a people of color program there. This has become popular lately in some Buddhist organizations, to try and attract people of color and people from the LGBT community. And that is all fine, but let me share this with you.

When I had been attending that group for only a short time, a native American man showed up. After the meeting I sought him out, introduced myself to him, and we spent some time talking.

He was going through a very difficult time. He was getting a divorce and was really struggling financially. Poverty in New Mexico can be particularly demeaning, oppressive, and hopeless for native Americans.

He came a couple more times. I always sat next to him just because I liked him. But then he stopped coming. I reflected later that I was the only person in that group, which normally has 30-50 people in attendance, who spoke to him. It also seemed pretty clear to me that he was uncomfortable. Like many of these groups it is mainly older, white, and middle class.

About a year later a young Hispanic woman starting attending that same group. She was a University of New Mexico student from South America. She had a lively personality and inserted herself into the group much more so than my native American friend had.

She was also struggling financially, and at one point she asked the leader of the group if they had a way to help pay for retreats for people who cannot afford them. Now, he could have given her a number of responses, but all he said was, “No.” That was it.

I happen to know this group is financially sound and could have easily helped her out. He could have said, “Well, no, but maybe we should.” This would be in the letter and the spirit of how the Buddha established the monastic Saṇgha. The resources of the Saṇgha are there to support and help the members in their practice. All donations go to the Saṇgha as a whole. Then they can be used to support the individual members as necessary.

He could have also said, “Maybe we should establish a scholarship fund.” He could also have said, “Let’s see if we can get some people to sponsor you.” And so on. There are many things he could have said and considered. But all he said was, “No.”

I know from talking to her later that she was keenly aware that she was the only Hispanic member of the group. This is in a state where nearly half of the population is Hispanic.

This all reminds me of a story that Sharon Salzberg tells. You may know it. It is from her book The Revolutionary Art of Happiness:

We once brought one of our teachers to the United States from India. After he had been here for some time, we asked him for his perspective on our Buddhist practice in America. While he was mostly positive about what he saw, one critical thing stood out. Our teacher said that those practicing here in the West sometimes reminded him of people in a rowboat. They row and row and row with great earnestness and effort, but they neglect to untie the boat from the dock. He said he noticed people striving diligently for powerful meditative experiences – wonderful transcendence, going beyond space, time, body and mind – but not seeming to care so much about how they relate to others in a day-to-day way. How much compassion do they express toward the plumber who is late, or the child who makes a mess? How much kindness? How much presence? The path may lead to many powerful and sublime experiences, but the path begins here with our daily interactions with each other.

So I understand – sort of – the motivation behind special programs for people of color and different sexual preferences. But I think they may miss the point. They may actually act as smoke screens for the underlying problem, and that is the inability to be kind and sensitive to all people, and to be able to go outside our comfort zones and reach out to people who may not look or be like us. This puts the responsibility on each and every one of us, not some nameless, faceless institutions. And that is precisely where the responsibility belongs.

If we cannot do that, most especially if we cannot reach out and support members of our own Buddhist communities, then there is really no point to meditating. The Buddha made this clear. The foundation of the practice is generosity. Generosity is our ability to reach out and help. If we cannot do that, then everything else is pointless.

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Beacons in the Darkness

There continues to be a lot of angst about the current political situation, particularly after the events in Charlottesville last weekend. Charlottesville holds a special place in my heart because when I was in the fourth grade, my family took a brief vacation there. My mother was a big fan of Thomas Jefferson, which is why we went. I still remember what a beautiful campus the University of Virginia has. So of course I was quite sad to see Charlottesville become the focal point for so much hatred and violence.

Last night I went to a meeting that focused on Charlottesville and the current political situation. We started with a period of meditation, and then we were invited to share our “biggest fear and our greatest hope.”

I thought this was a curious request given that this is a self-described “Buddhist group.” Fear and hope are about the future. They are fantasies of a sort. Fear is what a psychologist I used to know calls a “doom fantasy.” And hope is its inverse, a quasi-positive fantasy. I do not think you will find either of these in the Buddha’s vocabulary of present moment awareness.

These things are never that simple, of course. Inside of fear there is usually some wisdom. If a tiger is chasing you, that is a pretty healthy fear. The trick is to tease out the wisdom from the fear. If your fear wins out so does the tiger. You will be paralyzed into poor choices. If the wisdom wins out, you have a better chance of choosing a way to safety.

Hope also has its nuances. The skillful part of hope is “aspiration.” An aspiration is something personal. It is also something over which you have more control. You aspire to graduate from college. You aspire to become a skilled carpenter or weaver. You aspire to awaken. These are skills that you can cultivate.

The less skillful part of hope is that fantasy. You want world peace. You want an end to poverty. You want an end to hatred and violence. Of course you do. But the chances of that happening, at least in this lifetime, are slim to none. And more often than not such fantasies lead you to the well of despair.

And that is where the group found itself. One person after another spun out their future positive fantasy and their future despair. Neither one of those is particularly helpful. And when someone jumps down into the rat hole of fear, anger, and despair, they get very upset with you if you refuse to join them. It is quite the emotional spiral.

It is more useful to replace the language of “fear and hope” with that of “wisdom and aspiration.” We turn our outward gaze inward. What can I do to be of benefit? This is the advice that the Buddha gave to his then seven-year-old son, Rahula. And if the answer is nothing, then that is the time to practice equanimity.

The Buddha’s teaching is almost never about what is “out there” but about what is “in here.” By cultivating our minds to embody love and compassion, wisdom, patience, kindness, and generosity, we become beacons of light. Look at the Dalai Lama. Think about all that he has been through and continues to go through. And yet he is always cheerful and in good humor, and that is very inspiring.

This also demonstrates the problem with the practice of “being with whatever arises,” which is what the meditation part emphasized. As many of you will know, the Buddha never taught this. This style of practice is a Burmese invention from about 1920. It was developed in response to the political situation at that time.

The Buddha taught that we should abandon unwholesome mind states and cultivate wholesome ones. Fear is a manifestation of the second poison, aversion. The antidote to fear is mettā, lovingkindness. I think the Buddha would have suggested that instead of indulging our fear, we should have been practicing mettā, especially for people whose minds are poisoned with hatred, fear, and anger.

The practice to just “be with whatever arises” tends to actually feed negative mind states. To paraphrase a comment by John Oliver, it’s like a cat. If it is hanging around you it is probably because you are feeding it. This does not mean pushing it away. That is just another form of aversion. So often that is what people mean when they say “letting go.” But over time you can learn the skill of neither indulging an unwholesome mind state or being averse to it. A friend of mine uses the phrase “learning to live around it.”

The Buddha’s path is empowering. Our lives are not like tumbleweeds, subject to uncontrollable forces. They are not chaos. And they are not under the control of unalterable destiny or a “higher power.” Our futures are under our control. We can learn our way out of suffering by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path. And this is true no matter who is President, whether we are in Germany in 1942 or now, whether we are rich or poor, black, white, red, or yellow, male or female, gay, straight, or celibate. And that is how we move toward greater happiness and less suffering, and how we make ourselves of benefit to the people around us.

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Serenity, Insight, and Lovingkindness

Credit for this story goes to Ajahn Brahm.

There are two people who decide to go for a hike up Meditation Mountain. One of them is named “Samatha” and the other one is named “Vipassana.” They take with them their dog “Metta” and their cat “Anapanasati.” Samatha is mainly interested in experiencing the quiet serenity of the woods and the beauty of the mountain. Vipassana is mainly interested in seeing all of the wildflowers and the trees and the animals and birds and the wonderful views, so she takes a pair of binoculars with her.

As they climb up the mountain, Samatha gets quieter and quieter, more calm, and more peaceful. Vipassana keeps looking through her binoculars, watching the birds and seeing the wildflowers and looking off into the distant valleys and mountain tops. Metta stays close to them, wagging his tail and leaping about. Anapanasati keeps running away, getting lost, and hiding. But she always finds her way back to them, only to disappear once more.

When they get to the top of the mountain, Samatha is enjoying his serenity. It is calm and peaceful and quiet and tranquil. But he also sees the same views as Vipassana. And Vipassana is seeing the wonderful views, but she also enjoys the deep serenity of the mountain. Metta is there with them as well, curled up, resting, and nuzzling alongside of them. But by the time they get to the top of the mountain, Anapanasati has disappeared. She has been lost entirely.

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The Dance of Existence

I think one of the hardest things to wrap your mind around in the Buddha’s teaching is that everything is a process. There are no “things.” A “thing” is just a momentary manifestation of current conditions. In the physical world this equates to sciences like chaos theory and quantum mechanics and the butterfly effect. Everything arises and passes away. Iron rusts and turns into sand. Weather systems change moment by moment. Mountains are moving and wearing down or getting pushed up by tectonic plates. The universe expands and then – poof! – it contracts, there is another big bang, and we start all over again. The body is born, lives, and dies.

In the realms of beings we add to the physical phenomena the aspects of virtue and consciousness. Greater virtue gives us a greater chance of an auspicious rebirth and happier existence. It is not deterministic, but it improves the odds. So that child who dies may have simply been working out a little bad karma, after which he or she attains a higher and happier rebirth. That is quite a radically different way of looking at what might normally considered a tragedy. A true tragedy in Buddhist terms is wasting the opportunity to evolve into a more virtuous person and to practice the Dharma.

Consciousness is where you have any opportunity to train and evolve into a higher being, eventually transcending the realms of rebirth entirely. Some people consider this selfish, but I have a different take from whisperings that I have gotten over the years. The Buddha never talked about what happens when an arahant dies, only that it cannot be described in conventional terms of space and time. What I think may happen is that you become something akin to pure energy, or more specifically, an energy of virtue that permeates all of existence. Your virtue as an arahant benefits all beings. Ayya Khema hinted at this in one of her Dharma talks, and that would a) explain why the Buddha never talked about it (ancient Indians did not have the notion of energy) and b) it would be consistent with the entire path being one of cultivating virtue.

This is also why schools of Buddhism that think you can do an “end run” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s words) around the precepts are really flirting with disaster. You cannot be performing acts of sexual misconduct and be practicing the Buddha’s teaching, and you cannot avoid the consequences unless you later repent and take steps to do so. Again, karma is not deterministic, otherwise the serial killer Angulimala would not have been able to become an arahant. But you do have to see the error of your ways and radically change your conduct.

This, then, is the dance of life. Indeed, it is the dance of existence itself.

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Saṃsara, Nirvāṇa, and Saṃvega

I would like to discuss three (Pāli) words that I think are often misunderstood in the Buddha’s teachings. These are saṃsara, nirvāṇa, and saṃvega. They are closely related.

Saṃsara is sometimes defined as a place. It literally means “wandering” or “wandering on.” Thus, it is not a place but an activity. According to the Buddha’s teaching, we have been wandering on throughout limitless time, being reborn over and over again. We are reborn in a given realm depending on what karma manifests at the time of rebirth.

Saṃvega is the realization that this wandering on is pointless and futile. Put this life into a bigger space, a much bigger space. Suppose that life is pretty good for you right now. But as the young Buddha-to-be realized, nonetheless, we are all subject to aging, illness, and death. And when you die, who knows where you end up? All living beings have good and bad karma. You may be a good person, someone who has accumulated a lot of good karma in this life. You may have done a lot of good and avoided doing harm.

That still does not mean that bad karma cannot manifest at the time of death and rebirth and that you cannot end up somewhere very unpleasant. And even if you end up with tens of thousands of years of good rebirths, unless you have attained at least the level of stream-entry, all beings eventually fall from grace into very bad places:

Saṃvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. This is a cluster of feelings we’ve all experienced at one time or another in the process of growing up, but I don’t know of a single English term that adequately covers all three. It would be useful to have such a term, and maybe that’s reason enough for simply adopting the word saṃvega into our language.

– [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, Affirming the Truths of the Heart, The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega & Pasada]

It is saṃvega that drove Prince Siddhartha to abandon a life of luxury, become a homeless spiritual seeker, and pursue the goal of liberation from the rounds of rebirth, saṃsara. Imagine that happening today. Imagine that someone who is rich and famous, who has a lot of power, a politician or a movie star or a billionaire business leader, giving up that life and ordaining as a monk. In addition, Prince Siddhartha did not even know that liberation was possible. He only postulated that it was. We at least know that a) it is possible and b) how to get there.

This brings us to the third term, and that is nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa literally means “blowing out,” “quenching,” or “extinguishing.” It is like blowing out the flame of a candle. Once again, nirvāṇa is not a place, but an event.

In general, if you think of all of the Buddha’s activities in terms of processes, activities, or – linguistically – as verbs, you will be on the right track. Our conditioning leads us to think in terms of solid objects and places. But the world that the Buddha described is causes and results, and those results become causes for more results. It is an ocean of activity, and from the standpoint of consciousness, it is ethically conditioned. Wholesome actions have wholesome results, and unwholesome actions have unwholesome results.

Further, the karmic quality of our actions is conditioned by our motivations and our intentions. This is why the Buddha taught us to cultivate wholesome states of mind like compassion, kindness, generosity, love, and wisdom. Sadly, some schools of Buddhism think you can do an “end run” (Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu) around the law of karma. I would not want to be the person to test that hypothesis.

In order to understand nirvāṇa, it is helpful to look at the Second Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of craving. This is the cause of our suffering. The Pāli word that the Buddha used for the Second Noble Truth is taṇha. Taṇha also means “thirst.” We are not just craving in a passive way, but that our senses are constantly looking for something on which to feed. This is one reason that it is so hard to get the mind to quiet down. It has been conditioned throughout limitless time to look for something on which to feed. It is this feeding that keeps us wandering throughout the cosmological realms lifetime after lifetime after lifetime.

Nirvāna is when that feeding stops. It is extinguished.

Notice again that what happens – precisely – is that we stop feeding the addictive, habitual patterns that lead to rebirth and perpetual suffering. Further, we don’t just stop the suffering, we experience boundless joy:

Drinking the nourishment,
the flavor,
of seclusion and calm,
one is freed from evil, devoid
of distress,
refreshed with the nourishment
of rapture in the Dhamma. – [Dhp 205]

These are important but subtle points. Nirvana is the moment when you free yourself from the rounds of rebirth, from “wandering on.” The “cessation” of the Third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering and the cessation of the feeding. You “awaken” – “bodhi” – to transcendent, ultimate reality, and that reality is “rapture in the Dhamma.”

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