Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Choosing the Best

This is the third talk in the series given in Cambridge in the summer of 2016.

Today is Tuesday 14th June. The 14th of June was on a Tuesday in 1988 too. I know that because it was the day I became an Order Member, the day of my Public ordination. That was a choice I made which has had many consequences and it’s a choice I have never regretted. I feel both proud and fortunate to be a disciple of Sangharakshita, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order. There are lots of choices we make in life – some big and life changing like the decision to join the Order and some small.

We tend to associate freedom with choice and choice is all around us. Choice is seen as a very positive thing in our culture. You will often hear politicians saying “what the people want is choice”. Choice in the National Health Service, choice of jobs, choice of lifestyles and so on. And supermarkets certainly follow the idea that the people want choice. However choice can be problematic. Too much choice can lead to misery. In the book “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz he says: “when people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and the liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannise.” He goes on to quote various studies that show that when people are faced with a large number of options they are less likely to make a decision then when faced with a smaller number – also there are various studies which show that too much choice makes people unhappy.

Fortunately for us on the spiritual level there is only one real choice we need to continually come back to – that is the choice between skilful and unskilful. Just to be clear what we mean by skilful and unskilful here is how Bhante Sangharakshita puts it: “unskilful actions are defined as those which are rooted in craving or selfish desire; in hatred or aversion; in mental confusion, bewilderment, spiritual obfuscation, or ignorance. Skilful actions are those which are free from craving, free from hatred, free from mental confusion; positively speaking they are motivated instead by generosity, or the impulse to share and to give, by love and compassion, and by understanding.” When we speak of positive emotion we mean the emotion which motivates us to act skilfully. Emotion is what motivates us. By emotion here we don’t mean moods. This is not about moods. Moods can come and go and we can go through lots of moods in the course of a day or even an hour. What we are talking about here is the overall flavour of your mind and heart – the overall emotion, the deeper emotional flow that motivates you – is it bright and clear or dark and cloudy? Is positive or negative? Is it high-energy or low energy? Is it characterised by fear or joy or cynicism or sentimentality?

Cynicism is dark, caustic and undermining and can come out in cynical attitudes and cynical humour and arrogance. A lot of what passes for entertainment is deeply cynical. As is a lot of what passes for intelligence. Sentimentality is about responding to events or people with more emotion than they warrant – it is mistaking emoting for emotion and often it doesn’t motivate – it enervates or overwhelms us. Positive emotion is a more joyful attitude that can see the good and the beautiful without being blind to suffering.

There are a whole plethora of negative emotions that can rule people’s lives. For instance, some people are very fearful or anxious, which can lead to an inability to act or being too diffident and cautious. This was a big problem for me when I was in my teens and twenties. I went on an ordination retreat in Tuscany in 1986, but Bhante decided not to ordain me because I was too meek and timid. Other people can be predominantly filled with illwill, which leads to blaming, complaining, slander, gossip, anger, impatience and resentment. Others can be predominantly greedy and selfish, which leads to always being on the lookout for advantage – financial advantage, status advantage, power advantage or petty things like bigger portions of food or special offers in the shops etc. Some are optimistic, some are pessimistic. Some people are predominantly positive, which leads to generosity, helpfulness, empathy, thoughtfulness and friendly and pleasant speech and behaviour. For myself, I would say that for much of my early life the overall flavour of my emotional life was one of anxiety. Even when I was happy I was anxious about it not lasting. Nowadays I would say the overall flavour is one of happiness or perhaps contentment is a better word.

Whatever our emotional flavour we can cultivate positive emotion. If we are predominantly negative that may be due to conditioning from our early years or the circumstances of our life or the effect of the people we mix with or the ideas and opinions we expose ourselves to. But if we want to change and become more positive we can start to condition ourselves positively. We need to make use of positive practices like Buddhist ritual and devotion and meditation. We can expose ourselves to uplifting art, whether music painting, poetry, literature, theatre, or similar. And we can mix with positive happy people. The natural world also has a positive affect on our minds – the countryside, the ocean, the night sky. If the news media or the views and opinions we encounter on TV etc. have a bad effect on us we can choose not to expose ourselves to thoses views and opinions.

Often of course we are a mixture of emotions – even contradictory emotions. We might be fearful and diffident until some event or circumstance draws out our courage and decisiveness. Or we can be both greedy and generous, resentful and empathetic. In the film Philomena, the journalist Martin Sixsmith is portrayed as being cynical and angry but also thoughtful, empathic and kind.

Whatever mixture we are, whatever the emotional flavour of our hearts and minds, we can decide to cultivate positivity. We can decide to nourish and tend and give attention to the seeds of positivity in ourselves and we can decide to put ourselves in conditions that will nourish and encourage the growth of positive emotions.

The Metta Bhavana is of course a key practice. But we need to start from where we are and not try to force ourselves to feel kindness or sympathy or compassion. We need to acknowledge and experience what is really going on, what is really the emotional flavour of our hearts and minds and then introduce gradually the idea of what is in our best interests and the idea that we do indeed want what is best for ourselves and others. Gradually with awareness and patience the seeds of love will begin to sprout. Outside of meditation it is important to mix with people we find uplifting and inspiring,  people who won’t undermine us, people who will encourage the best in us and avoid those who have a depressing or bad effect on us. People are an important factor, perhaps the most important. The natural environment of sea, mountains, night sky and so on can also raise us up emotionally.

Then there are the arts. When I first got involved with Triratna I had come across poetry and literature but I thought paintings were a kind of wallpaper for the upper classes and classical music was the sound equivalent of wallpaper for the aristocracy – aural wallpaper.

However over the years I have learned more about art, especially visual art and some of my strongest spiritual experiences have been because of paintings. There is a painting by Botticelli in the Uffizi in Florence which had a very strong effect on my spiritual practice. This is what I wrote at the time:

The painting which spoke to me most directly and most forcefully on this trip to Florence was "The Madonna of the Magnificat" by Botticelli. In this painting , which is a tondo, the Madonna is seated with the infant sitting on her lap facing forward. She is about to write and an angel is holding the ink-pot for her. Her other hand is touching the infant's hand which is holding half a pomegranate. Two more angels hold a crown above the Madonna's head. I stood before this painting with joy and laughter welling up in me and felt uplifted and inspired by its beauty and its message. Having recently had a brief sojourn in a little spiritual desert, my own spiritual quest was invigorated by this encounter. This painting and the whole cycle of images I had been engaged with seemed to answer questions about the spiritual path on an imaginative level that I had been unable to unravel conceptually. It was as if I had stepped through a doorway into a different realm where the questions that had been bothering me were no longer relevant. I also realised that I was fully free of the Christian indoctrination which had played such a large part in my early years and felt grateful to Buddhism for helping me to understand the spiritual significance of images which were so much part of my cultural inheritance.

In the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge there is a Madonna and Child by van Dyck which also had a profound impact on me. But of course the arts are different for different people and we need to just be receptive and allow ourselves to be affected. I have always been deeply affected by the written word. Before I came across Buddhism I was very strongly affected by Henry Miller’s trilogy, The Rosy Crucifixion, which influenced me greatly when I was about 19, opening up a whole new world of possibilities for me. Later in my twenties before I came across Buddhism, I was very strongly affected by Walt Whitman’s long poem, Song of Myself. Especially passages like this:

 “Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looks with it’s sidecurved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.”

This described for me an experience of awareness which I would never have been able to describe for myself. In another poem – Song of the Open Road – Walt Whitman gave voice to aspirations that I hardly knew I had :
 “Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good fortune, I am myself good fortune.
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.”

But I think friendship has been the greatest help and inspiration to me and it still is. People are the biggest conditioning factor in our lives. Therefore we need to be careful who we spend time with, especially in the early years of our spiritual life. Emotion is what motivates us and positive emotion motivates us to act skilfully.

In the Dvedhavittaka Sutta (MN 19) the Buddha talks about his life before Enlightenment. He says that his practice was to notice skilful and unskilful states of mind and to choose the skilful over and over again. In order to do this we have to be interested, motivated. We may be motivated by reading about ethics or by hearing talks or by seeing more experienced practitioners. If we are motivated then we can make an effort and be patient. We will have to repeat the same practice again and again. Our mind will want to follow its usual pattern and we will need to be gently persistent in turning towards the skilful, choosing the skilful. That means choosing honesty when we are tempted to rationalise or obfuscate or avoid the truth. It means choosing the generous impulse when we want to have second thoughts. It means choosing to be kind rather than harsh or greedy. And it means of course maintaining a kindly attitude towards ourselves as we try again and again to go with the positive and to let go of the negative. The key to all practice in Buddhism is to repeat it again and again. Persistence will plough deep furrows of skilfulness in our hearts.

As well as being motivated and persistent we need encouragement. We get encouragement by reflecting on how our practice has changed us and what we have gained. We also get encouragement from others. The practice of rejoicing in merits is a very important one to both generate positive emotion and to encourage us to keep going. Rejoicing should be happening frequently throughout the Sangha – in study groups, in teams, in communities, in going for refuge groups, in order chapters, on retreats. It’s a good idea to write down rejoicings to refer to them and reflect on them as a way of nourishing ourselves.

So if we have an interest in spiritual life, in spiritual ideals and practices we will be motivated to practice. If we repeat our practices over and over again that repetition reinforces the fruits of our practice and leads to more habitual positive mental states and positive routines. And encouragement, whether from ourselves or from others keeps us going and leads to interest in going further and further along the path. This is a positive spiral path to freedom.

Progress on the spiritual path requires faith – shraddha – especially faith in the law of karma. Shraddha is not about believing in something for which there is no evidence. Shraddha, is translated as ‘faith’ and ‘confidence’ or ‘placing the heart upon’ or Bhante has talked about it as “the response of what is highest in us to what is highest in the universe”. Shraddha is the basic positive emotion, it is what motivates us to undertake the spiritual quest, it is what motivates us to carry on practising even when things are difficult, it is what gives us the energy to be disciplined and the inspiration to act. Shraddha is the basic positive emotion and it is supported by reason and experience.

To have shraddha in relation to karma, to have faith in the law of karma means to understand and accept deeply that our actions have consequences; that skilful actions have beneficial consequences and unskilful actions lead to suffering. Karma means action. And action here encompasses thought and speech as well as our physical activity. The law of karma is that our thoughts, especially our habitual ways of thinking, our words and our deeds all have consequences. And these consequences, karma vipaka, these consequences are the world and the life we are creating for ourselves. This is relatively easy to understand but not so easy to put into practice and live by.

The first two verses of the Dhammapada say: “experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows even as the cartwheel follows the hoof of the ox. Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.” In other words what we think, especially habitually, what we say and what we do creates our world, our reality.

If many people think the same thing, imagine the same things, they create a world together. For instance there is no such thing as a country or nation. This is a purely human construct, an idea which has taken on such a life that it is almost impossible for us to imagine a world without borders and boundaries. When the astronauts first saw the Earth from space they were quite forcibly struck by the fact that there are in fact no nations – there are landmasses with people living on them and all the barriers tend to be in our minds. The point I’m making is that humanity is capable of creating a mind-made reality. And this can be on a very large scale – the whole global community or it can be on a smaller scale, as in the case of a spiritual community like the Triratna Buddhist community. We can create a world between us. A realm of wisdom and compassion, kindness and awareness that transcends national and linguistic boundaries. And individuals can create their own world – a world that connects with others or a world that isolates.

We create our world by choosing the skilful or the unskilful. If we choose the skilful over and over again; choose kindly thoughts, kind words and acts of kindness, choose generous thoughts, generous words and acts of generosity, choose awareness of thought, word and deed; if we choose the skilful we will become skilful – it will become how we function spontaneously and that leads to happiness, contentment and a life rich in meaning and purpose. We create a happy, joyful, meaningful world.

Skilfulness purifies us and prepares us for the next stage, the stage of insight, which I’ll be exploring in the next talk.

We don’t need to worry about reaching any goal or breaking through any barriers. If we are able to become continuously skilful then the barriers and resistances will just fall away and the goal will emerge, the insights will dawn upon our purified minds.

Although we speak of the spiritual path in terms of successive stages, such as the fourfold Path of giving, ethics, meditation and wisdom – although we speak like this and although this division into stages is very helpful and aids our understanding we must not make the mistake of thinking that spiritual life is really like that – first you practice generosity and then you practice ethics and that prepares the ground for meditation and meditation prepares the ground for wisdom. There is some truth in this, but it is also true that generosity contains within it wisdom, and meditation and ethics are wisdom manifesting in the world, and a continuous flow of positive mental states that is meditation at its best is the psychic equivalent of giving and ethics. So these stages are all one conjoined practice – a great flow of energy in one direction, the direction of Awakening or Enlightenment. That great flow of energy is our whole life as we become more and more integrated. And when we can develop and maintain this great flow of positive energy throughout all the different aspects of our lives then the karmic consequences follow quite naturally – the law of karma is a guarantee of success on the spiritual path. This is what we need to have faith in. This can be our inspiration and our motivation. If we choose the skilful again and again we will be spiritually successful.

But we should not expect to be perfect. That expectation would only get in the way. If we expect to be perfect we set ourselves up for constant failure. The best thing is to strive for perfection but don’t expect to be perfect. In fact the ideal of perfection can continue to be our ideal, the spiritual horizon, however far we travel. Expecting to be perfect leads to disappointment and discouragement, but there is no need for expectations. We can just allow the law of karma to work for us and the results will take care of themselves. As the Indian writer S K Paul says in his commentary on Tagore’s poems: “no hurried path of success, forcibly cut out by the greed of result, can be the true path.” S K Paul, The Complete Poems Of Tagore’s Gitanjali,P. 302.

So what does it mean to choose the skilful? What should we choose? What is the skilful?
In terms of our minds this means working in meditation to develop the awareness and sensitivity which will enable us to speak and act skilfully. It means bringing that awareness and sensitivity to all our mental and emotional states, which means not blaming other people or situations. It means not thinking – “they made me angry” or “having all this food around makes me greedy” and so on.

Our thoughts and our emotional states are what get expressed in our speech. Speech is the intermediary between mental states and physical actions. Speech conveys ideas that change the world both for good and ill. For each of us individually what we say and how we say it can have a big impact on ourselves and on other people and in that way what we say creates the world around us. Triratna Buddhist Community began in 1967 in a small basement in London, and it’s genesis and development were all because of the talks, lectures, study seminars, retreats and so on that Bhante led .  Bhante Sangharakshita talked our Buddhist movement into existence. Such is the power of words.

If we complain a lot we may find ourselves in the world of those who like to complain – a world of grumblers. If we are harsh or abrupt in our speech we may find that others avoid us and we become isolated. In the Bodhicaryavatara it says: “even friends shrink from him. He gives, but is not honoured. In short, there is no sense in which someone prone to anger is well off.” Crosby and Skilton, p. 50.  If we are grumpy and slanderous we will find ourselves in that world – the realm of back biters. And of course if we are kindly and harmonising in our speech we find ourselves in a realm of goodwill.

Speech may be the most important practical area when it comes to choosing the skilful. Our thoughts and emotions may to some extent be kept private if need be. Our actions can sometimes be reversed or compensated for, but speech seems to have a very long-lasting effect and unskilful speech can sour relationships for a lifetime. In order to be able to choose skilful speech we need to train ourselves to introduce little gaps of mindfulness into our flow of words and we need to listen. Introducing little gaps of mindfulness, little gaps of awareness, into our speech is a way of training ourselves to become conscious of the impact of our words. It is very easy to assume that what you say doesn’t have much effect, doesn’t matter, but it has a very big effect. If you are friendly and hospitable and welcoming you create an atmosphere of friendliness and joy which others enjoy and it becomes easier for everyone to be friendly. If you are grumpy and caustic you create a frosty and tense atmosphere which nobody likes and everybody starts to get irritable and tense. What we say and how we say it matters a lot and by choosing the skilful we can have a big impact on our immediate world and indeed the wider world.

One way to introduce gaps of awareness into the flow of words is to learn to really listen. Often when someone else is speaking our minds are busy formulating a response – but we don’t need to do that and indeed if we are busy formulating a response, rather than listening, then our response won’t be a response. So we end up with a dance of two monologues, rather than a dialogue. This is what happens – if you listen carefully to some people’s conversations you will find this dance of monologues is what often passes for conversation. Political discourse can be like this since it often emerges from preset ideological positions. If we listen, really listen, to what another person is saying – listen with our ears and eyes and hearts, then we can really respond. In the spiritual community we can slow down our conversations, allow periods of silence even, and listen to each other. I think listening is about 80% of communication. There is no ethical precept about listening, but perhaps there should be – with wholehearted listening I purify my speech. So skilful speech is honest, kindly, helpful and harmonising. It is also timely, spoken at the right time, appropriate. And listening enables us to communicate more skilfully.

As with all ethical practice we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be perfect. It is not so much a matter of watching every word we utter – it is much more about training ourselves to habitually speak in a kindly, harmonious, helpful and truthful way. Being truthful is not just about stating facts – although being factual is very important being truthful also involves not exaggerating and not understating or omitting things. It’s probably obvious what harsh speech is. One area that Bhante has mentioned in relation to harsh speech is swearing. We may not think of swearing in this way but it is a form of harsh speech. It is the equivalent of a bad smell. If someone swears in the Buddhist centre, it is as if they were leaving deposits of excrement about the place, it fouls the atmosphere. Swearing is not necessary and we can give it up. As a teenager and young man I used to swear a lot – no sentence was complete without a swear word. In my early twenties I mixed with Irish building labourers in the pubs of north-west London and there no sentence was complete without several swear words – in fact some sentences were just a string of swear words. I am well aware of what it is to swear and swear copiously. But I gave it up a long time ago and now swearing always sounds very strange to me – a bit like baby talk, as if people don’t know enough words and swearing is the equivalent of the gurgling of a baby.

Harmonising speech is speech that brings people together rather than causing divisions. It’s the opposite of slander. It is about rejoicing in people – especially rejoicing in people behind their backs and it’s also about passing on to people any rejoicing you have heard. This creates a trusting and harmonious atmosphere. I won’t  say anything about helpful speech and timely speech – hopefully they are obvious. I have written about these before and published a little booklet called Just a Word the contents of which is also available online ( .

When it comes to actions perhaps it’s easier to see what choosing the skilful means. It means non-violence, generosity and contentment. Most of us are not violent and don’t kill people. However we can of course take the practice of non-violence  further and permeate all of our actions more and more with kindness. For many people non-violence means being vegetarian and for increasing numbers it means being vegan. This has the double effect of not harming animals and not harming the natural environment. The Buddhist position on abortion is that life comes into being at conception and therefore abortion is harming living beings. This does not mean that Buddhists would necessarily want legislation banning abortion – it means it would influence one’s own actions. With any of the ethical precepts of Buddhism there is no question of trying to force or coerce others into adopting them – that would in itself be a kind of violence. The precepts are guidelines for our own behaviour and they are a training, a process of learning how to be more ethically sensitive in all areas of our lives. Non-violence does not necessarily mean being passive or refusing to defend yourself from attack. How we behave in any particular situation cannot be predicted, but if we train ourselves in skilfulness, then how we respond in any situation will be influenced by that training.

Generosity is the basic Buddhist virtue – it is at the beginning, middle and end of the path. Generosity is quite a big topic and a lot has been said and could be said about it. It is basically about developing an attitude of non-attachment. Non-attachment is the mental state out of which generosity comes. By practising generosity we help ourselves to become less attached to things, possessions, money et cetera and by working on our minds and gradually understanding on a deeper and deeper level that ownership is a delusion – we don’t even own our own bodies, never mind cars and houses and so on. As the Buddha says in the Dhammapada: “the spiritually immature person vexes himself thinking ‘sons are mine riches are mine’. He himself is not his own, even; how then sons? How then riches?” Verse 62. As we gain deeper insight into the true nature of reality and the true nature of life, generosity should flow quite naturally and spontaneously. At one level giving is a training, and discipline, because we still experience resistance to it. We are still in the grip of the ego clinging delusion. Later generosity becomes con-joined with wisdom as in the practice of the Paramitas, the six perfections, practiced by a Bodhisattva. This means that giving is the natural expression of wisdom. And later still generosity is one of the four means of unification of the spiritual community – one of the Sangrahavastus – this means that generosity has become a complete giving up of yourself to enable the creation of spiritual community, building the Buddhaland as we sometimes say. Choosing to act generously therefore has huge ramifications for ourselves and others and should be one of the main practices of any Buddhist.

Another aspect of choosing the skilful is choosing to live a simple life and not buy into the philosophy and practice of consumerism. For some of us living in residential communities is about choosing to live a simple life, sharing resources as well as being about creating spiritual community. This is traditionally the monastic ideal. As the Dhammapada says: “let the silent sage move about in the village as the bee goes taking honey from the flower without harming colour or fragrance.”  Verse 49. Of course not everyone can live like this, although probably more could. But whether you live alone or in a family or communally, you can still move in the direction of simplicity of lifestyle. How many pairs of shoes and overcoats does a person need? How much of the stuff lying around our houses or rooms do we really need?  We can ask ourselves ‘Do we really need what we are about to buy?’ Could the money be put to better use? Again this is about training ourselves to move in a particular direction gradually. Is not about dramatic gestures that we may regret later. Although sometimes a dramatic, big clear out can show you what you really need.

Positive emotion is the emotion that motivates us to act skilfully and when we choose skilfulness when we act skilfully we generate more positive emotion. We generate shraddha, faith, and we generate Metta, Mudita – sympathetic joy and Karuna - compassion. We even generate equanimity, Upeksha, as we become less and less attached to worldly concerns. Here is how Bhante put it when he spoke about this stage of spiritual life in a seminar in the 1970’s:

 “ By positive emotion I mean friendliness, compassion, joy, equanimity and faith and devotion. In as much as positive emotion is something that moves, not something static, this is also the Stage of Energy. In this stage one tries to make oneself as emotionally positive as possible. One overcomes all negative emotions. One tries not only to develop one’s emotions but to refine them. One develops not simply positive emotion but even spiritual emotions. And here the whole question the whole subject of spiritual beauty becomes of importance.”  

When we train ourselves in the ethical precepts, when we train ourselves to choose the skilful, we are training ourselves to choose the best for ourselves and for the world. Choosing the best is the life and practice of a Buddhist.

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