Metta as Skilful Action


The fact that there is no formal practice of metta in the suttas has puzzled me for a sometime. Metta meditation as a formal practice is often given great importance as a practice in its own right. This is a bit of a mystery as there is no justification for this in the suttas. As a practice it can be found in the Visuddhimagga though so maybe this is where it originated from as modern Buddhist practice.

The most highly referenced sutta on the theme of metta is the Karaniya Metta Sutta. Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s article ‘Metta Means Goodwill’ has a different take on the meaning of metta as meaning goodwill rather than the more common translation of loving kindness.

The oft quoted stanza from the sutta is:

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.

This has often been taken mean that metta means one should love and cherish all beings. But as Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out to cherish or love is not mentioned anywhere in the sutta. The stanza itself is drawing a comparison between the way a mother protects her child (to the extent of risking her own life) with how one should protect other beings (without limits). In other words you don’t put boundaries on who is deserving of your goodwill and who is not. This has striking parallels with how sila (ethical conduct) should be developed in the practice. The Buddha says that his followers should be willing to protect their precepts with their lives:

“Just as the ocean is stable and does not overstep its tideline, in the same way my disciples do not—even for the sake of their lives—overstep the training rules I have formulated for them.”

Ud 5:5

This got me thinking about how parents care for and look after the welfare of their children. Whilst they are young they protect them in many ways both physically,  emotionally and mentally. They ultimately want them to be able to look after themselves independently so that when they go out into the world they don’t came to any harm and are happy. Parents eventually want their children to be able to provide for their own welfare because there is the recognition that the parent isn’t always going to be there. Also you wouldn’t want your child to cause harm to others because you realise that would lead to their own harm and unhappiness.

Metta is closely tied up with personal behaviour and being able to look after oneself. The wish of goodwill is that beings are able to look after themselves happily. Similarly its based on the understanding even though you will try to help where you can, ultimately its each persons own responsibility to look after their own welfare.

Interestingly you can see a progression through the four brahmaviharas: goodwill, compassion, gladness, equanimity. As a parent during the child’s development you do all you can to protect, nurture and educate and then when the child is grown you need to have the equanimity that they can look after themselves independently in the world.

Metta in this way makes more sense in terms of Buddha’s teachings on sila which are primarily about how your behaviour affects both you and others. It essentially is aimed at harmlessness. This aspect of self-responsibility also touches on the another central topic of the Buddha’s teachings in the suttas which is kamma: personal action and how its results are felt in the present and on into the future. The brahmaviharas as a whole describe how one should relate to other beings. They culminate in equanimity which is the feeling that the Buddha says develops from the understanding that yourself and all beings are owners and heirs of their actions.

The Karaniya Metta sutta is usually held up to be the prime example of loving-kindness practice. But looking at the themes in the sutta what one finds is primarily about sila which makes sense if you understand metta as the natural expression goodwill which comes from a basis of well kept sila. The attitude of someone who has well developed sila: they are very careful that their actions don’t cause harm to themselves or others. This ties in with the other aspect of metta/sila which is that its primarily about developing skilful kamma (action), which is what the Eightfold Path training develops as a whole. Its seems difficult to fit metta as ‘loving kindness’ into the scheme of Eightfold path as it seems like a worthy add on but which doesn’t fit into that scheme very well. But if one considers metta as an extension of sila it becomes integral part of gradual development of the path as a whole. Sila, samadhi, panna and metta and the other brahmaviharas all fall within the central theme of developing skilful kamma which is at the core of the Buddha’s training and make metta’s purpose and place more coherent in the Buddha’s path of practice.

Ref: Metta Means Goodwill by Thanissaro Bhikkhu



Selling Buddhism

I recently recieved a email from Tricycle advert ising for an online retreat which says:

“In our retreat teaching this week, “Do Not Waste Time,” Soto Zen minister Caroline Yongue implores us not to squander the precious opportunity we have been handed to contemplate our own death. By becoming aware of death—and its inevitability—we begin to feel enormous gratitude for the opportunity of life, and are awakened to the joys within it.”

Link to retreat: How a Buddhist Can Prepare for Death by Caroline Yongue

While the sentiments may seem at first glance to be worthwhile on reflection it has very little to do with what the real Buddha actually taught about the contemplation and preparation for death. When I say real Buddha I am talking about the Buddha’s teachings in the pali Suttas. I realise there are many Buddhist traditions in the world today and that have quite different and divergent teachings. This is all fine as folks are free to follow whatever religious ideas/practices they wish (though not in all societies of course). What is quite damaging I think to Buddhist practices is the modern contention that by contemplating death you can appreciate and enjoy life more. This is spiritual materialism dressed up as pseudo Buddhist philosophy and has no basis in what the Buddha actually taught contemplation of death for. It is simply spiritual consumerism.

The Buddha taught contemplation of death to instil a sense of urgency in the practitioner. This emotion is called samvega in the pali. Most Buddhists probably know the life-story of Buddha which is pretty much the same across all traditions. Samvega is the emotion the Buddha felt on encountering aging, illness and death. It is a sense of oppressive shock and dismay at life’s futility which leaves one feeling chastened. However there is another emotion which the Buddha felt on seeing a recluse, called pasada. This is an encouraging and uplifting sense that there is an escape from the round of birth and death.

The fact is the Buddha gave instructions to both renunciants and laity to contemplate aging, illness, death, loss and kamma on a daily basis. On the one hand it stills both samvega and pasada . Urgency and heedfulness concerning the precarious predicament of life but also confidence that there is way out by cultivating skilful action (kamma) in terms of the Noble Eightfold Path.

So the contemplation of death has absolutely nothing to do with enjoying life in the Buddha’s teachings. If that had been the case he would been very unlikely to renounce the worldly life of a prince surrounded by luxury. It would have been a better option to do his utmost to enjoy life whilst bearing in mind that death could come at any time.

Samvega and pasada are very rarely taught in Western Buddhism at all which says a lot about the not so hidden agenda of mainstream Buddhism. The irony is that these are precisely the kind of teachings that are needed in a lot of Western culture and society so that instead of just reinforcing the same old materialistic-consumerism a more wholesome alternative is made available to those who would appreciate it.

Ref: Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega and Pasada by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The range of control

In the past and now I have found the subject of control to be both equally interesting and problematic in regards meditation practice. The aim of the practice is unification of mind and one uses the breath as vehicle to bring that about. One manipulates the breath, by playing with its length and the area of focus in the body.

Often when a meditator first starts the practice they can seemingly fluke unification of mind by using the breath as an object. But later its often the case that unification cant so easily be achieved and the practice seems to have become very difficult. Although the method has been learnt and internalised, one then finds that the development of skilfulness is needed (in working with the breath) to achieve what was at the start easy, and this may take dedicated effort over a long period.

The subject of control is central to development of skilfulness, whether it be meditation or leaning how to play a musical instrument. To become a master of that instrument its not enough to know and play musical scales or learn a piece of music by heart. One needs to go beyond those forms and practices. Whilst thoroughly knowing the mechanics of playing one is able to use ones own ingenuity to come up with something which transcends those forms.

If one only sees the breath as a mechanical process of the breath entering and leaving the lungs, then this limits what the mind and body can do in relation to how sensitive and concentrated the mind can become. If one has a perception of breath, going all the way down to the navel, the legs or even throughout the whole body then that possibilities are much greater. The Buddha sometimes calls the development of concentration the enlarged mind in the Suttas, which is how the mind can fill the whole body (or beyond) with awareness. In the standard description for the four Jhanas in the Suttas, the Buddha employs four poetic but precise similes for the concentrated mind in Jhana as awareness filling the whole body. In the first Jhana, its compared to a ball of bath powder which has been sprinkled with water, and skilfully worked with until a ball is formed which is saturated with water but that does not drip. In the same way the body is filled with the pleasure and rapture not to excess but which brings the mind to unification and balance. (MN 119 Kayagata-sati Sutta: Mindfulness Immersed in the Body)

In terms of breath meditation one is sensitive to breath and the mind and plays with the method and steps of controlling the breath. If one sticks to a certain pattern or form of irrespective of what the breath is doing, what state the body and mind is in then a harmonious result is unlikely; if there is unification of mind it can be difficult to see how it came about.  But when one uses ingenuity, whilst keeping track of what is actually happening in the mind and body, one develops both sensitivity and discernment. One becomes more awake to the results of ones actions in the present moment, which is precisely what the Buddha was pointing to: seeing directly how one own actions cause one to suffer.

The meditation becomes an exploration of the range of control: trying things out in direct experience to see what works under different conditions. One develops a range of skill, which is able to keep the mind centred and unified in many different conditions. Its not easily knocked off balance by either external or internal conditions. This kind of stability of mind is important as it enables one to see where ones actions are contributing to suffering.


The Ten Perfections – Week 4: Calm

Week 4: Calm by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – January 24, 2011

The Ten Perfections – an online retreat at

The fourth determination is calm. The reason this has a role in making determination is because if you can’t keep calm in the midst of difficulties you’re going to fall off course very quickly. So your ability to maintain your patience, maintain your equanimity, and these are the two of the paramis or the priorities that come under calm.

This is an important aspect of learning how to ‘stay the course’. The use of discernment in developing patience and equanimity is very important because the Buddha does not have you be patient with everything. He does not have you be equanimous about everything. In terms of patience he says you learn how to develop patience for painful physical sensations and hurtful words. PS – he also tells you not to be, however, patient with unskillful mental qualities that threaten to take over the mind.

I’d like to go into both of those for a bit. In terms of painful physical sensations, the important thing is not to shoot yourself with extra arrows (1). As the Buddha once said a physical pain is like an arrow and then we make it worse by shooting ourselves with more arrows. Our attitudes around the pain make it much worse. And your way of developing patience and tolerance and endurance around the pain is learning how not to shoot yourself with those arrows.

The first one is to remind yourself that you do have certain strengths that you can fall back on. The practice of concentration that we were developing for the last week is something you can also apply here. When you realize that not every place in the body is painful, you have certain parts where there are pains but other parts where you can be very comfortable. You learn how to maximize that comfort by using the breath energy, so much the better.

It’s like the book, the idea of many years back called “Drawing on the right side of the brain” where instead of drawing the eyes or the mouth, you drew the area in-between the eyes and in-between the mouth. So instead of focusing on the areas where you normally focus on, you focus on the areas around them and you find you can actually draw a much better picture if you do that.

And it is the same with dealing with pain in the body. We tend to focus right on the most painful spots, but you can realize there are other parts of the body that are not in pain that you actually make pleasant with the breath. You try to maximize that pleasure to give you more strength.

You can also remind yourself that the mind does have this tendency to shoot itself with the arrows of “How long have I been in pain?” or “How long will I be in pain?” That’s just loading down the present moment with more than it can bear. If you can just focus on the actual sensation of the present moment and let go of any thoughts about how long it’s been there or how long it might be there, you find that you are actually much more able to bear the pain in the present moment.

Another way of learning how not shoot yourself with extra arrows is to practice goodwill. (2)There was a time when the Buddha was physically injured by Devadatta, this sliver of a rock pierced his foot. And so in taking the sliver of rock he had to lie down and Mara comes up and taunts him and the Buddha says “I’m lying here. I’m not wishing ill will for anyone at all.”

Because if all you can think about is “Why is this happening to me? Why did they do that to me?” The person who harmed you: “Why did they do that?” You are just shooting yourself with more arrows.

Whereas if you can extend goodwill to all: “May beings be happy – May all beings know the causes of happiness and act on those”, you are not weighing yourself down. You are developing a mind state which the Buddha says is like a large river. If the mind is in a small confined area where you are thinking only about your own suffering, he said it’s like having a cup of water. You put a large lump of salt into the cup of water, you can’t drink it. But if you have a mind like a river extending goodwill to all beings, compassion to all beings, he said it is like having a large river. You can put that same lump of salt into the river and you can still drink the water because there is so much more water. So you try to develop a mind of limitless compassion, limitless goodwill and you can find that your own personal pains are a lot less.

Another way of dealing with physical pain is to realize that things could get worse than they are right now, or could have been worse than they are. There is a case where a monk went to see the Buddha one time. He was going to go off into a very rough uncivilized part of India and the Buddha said you know the people in that area are very uncivilized.” What are you going to do if they yell at you?” And he said well if they yell at me I’ll just say “These are very good people, at least they aren’t hitting me. And the Buddha said “What if they hit you?” He said “These are very good people, they are not stabbing me.” He said “What of they stab you?” He said “Well I’ll tell myself these are very good people and they are not killing me.” And the Buddha said “What if they kill you?” And the monk said “I’ll think: at least my death wasn’t a suicide.” And so there is always a way of thinking that things are not as bad as they could be and learn how to give yourself some measure of perspective in that way.

Another way the Buddha has you deal both with physical pain and hurtful words is to depersonalize the situation. Remember you are born with this human body and the nature of the human body is that it’s going to get sick, that it’s subject to blows and it’s subject to accidents. It’s subject to all kinds of things. This is just the nature of a human, a human body, having human life. So it’s not just your body, this is what can happen to bodies anywhere.

As for hurtful speech, the Buddha says remind yourself there are many different kinds of human speech out here. There are kind words and there are unkind words. There are thoughtful words and cruel words. And so the fact that you are being subjected to the cruel words or the unkind words is not something out of the ordinary. This is just part of the range of possibilities in the world. Now at this spot he recommends that when someone says something really nasty to you just remind yourself that: “Unpleasant sound has made contact at the ear.”

How many times have you thought that when somebody’s really yelling at you, you don’t think about that? You think “Well, why does this person think that about me? Why are they saying that? Why do they think so little of me?” You are just adding more and more arrows to the pain of the words. Where as if you can simply think: “There is this unpleasant sound at the ear” and leave it at that – take yourself out of the line of fire – you learn how to look at that person and realize: that person is pretty miserable too. In other words just the fact they are saying your name does not mean that you have to put yourself right where they’re aiming the words. Step off to the side a bit psychologically and you’ll find those words are a lot easier to tolerate.

So those are the things you learn how to tolerate: painful sensations, painful words. We are learning to corral your strengths, learning to make sure that you can depersonalize the situation, realizing the situation is not as bad as it could be and expanding the range of your mind by developing goodwill for all beings. This is an area where goodwill, or the reflection of goodwill, the priority of goodwill, helps with the priority of patience.

As for things the Buddha says not to tolerate, those are unskillful states of mind. He actually says you are to wipe them out of existence when they arise, as soon as they arise. Don’t let them come take over the mind. He said you should try treating them in the same way a person whose head is on fire. You put out the fire. You don’t waste any time because little thoughts like that, when they start out they may seem little and innocuous, but after a while they begin to get more and more powerful and you find it harder and harder to get rid of them.

Just try to get rid of them as quickly as you can. Now you may not be able to (get) totally get rid of them but at the very least you should say “I am not going to allow this thought to take over my actions. I am not going to side with that member of the committee.” So at least put up some resistance. Then again there will be part of your mind says “Okay you are going to give in anyhow so why don’t you give in now?” “So I may give in further down the line but right now I am responsible for right now. I can’t be responsible for five minutes in the future but I am responsible for right now. I’m not going to give in to that.” And this way you learn how to tolerate what should be tolerated and learn how not to tolerate the things that are actually going to cause trouble on the mind.

The same principal applies to equanimity. As the Buddha said there are certain things you need to be equanimous about the things you can’t change; things that no matter how hard you’d try you can’t make any difference. But there are things that you can change. And again the things that you can change are primarily the qualities of the mind.

So when he is talking about developing equanimity he says: equanimity for sensory objects is something that’s very normal and something you should learn how to develop but, you don’t leave it there. You don’t just leave it at being equanimous about whatever comes up. He says there are actually reasons for joy and grief in the practice and this is one of the more controversial parts of the Buddha’s teachings but it is very important.

For example you are feeling some grief over a particular situation, the Buddha doesn’t say well try just to develop some equanimity about that, he says focus instead on the fact that here you are, this is what happens when you haven’t been practicing. Your mind gets upset by these things and he calls that second recognition. Okay, I could have been practicing harder – I could be practicing harder – he calls that the grief of renunciation, the grief of a renunciate. In other words I haven’t obtained the goal yet. And the Buddha said that’s actually a skillful emotion to develop. You will have to learn how to develop a mature attitude towards your goals – that you really do want to obtain the goal. You can’t just say well maybe I’ll obtain the goal, maybe I will obtain the goal and so you can be equanimous about that. You have to develop a sense that I really wish that I would do more work in obtaining the goal. That he said will actually lead to the joy of obtaining the goal which is the joy of the renunciate.

This is something that simple equanimity cannot provide. The role that equanimity does play in the practice beyond just learning how to just be patient with things is that you try to develop equanimity based on concentration. That’s a lot stronger. He talks about what’s called worldly equanimity and unworldly equanimity. Worldly equanimity is when you’re simply equanimious about sight, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations and ideas. But that’s equanimity based on multiplicity or worldly equanimity.

Unworldly equanimity is when you are able to develop your mind in the state of jhana where it develops totally pure mindfulness free from any concern about pain or pleasure because the mind has already been suffused with pleasure and rapture as it comes into concentration and that it can settle down into a state of perfect peace and calm. And this is actually another central part of the path to be able to develop this ability.

You don’t stop right there. Again you have to realize that even in that equanimity there is still some attachment. And so you have to develop your discernment even further.

When the Buddha was teaching his son to be equanimous he said make the mind like the earth. Make your mind like water. Make your mind like fire. Make your mind like wind. In other words if someone throws something disgusting on the earth, the earth doesn’t shrink away. It just stays earth as normal, the same with water. You use water to wash away disgusting things; the water doesn’t draw away in disgust. Fire will burn disgusting things. The wind will blow disgusting things but they don’t get disgusted by it. It’s your ability to stay with things, with equanimity, that you are able to perceive them for what they are.

Now the Buddha doesn’t have his son stop there. In fact that’s his first lesson in meditation. Then the next lesson goes into breath meditation in which you are actively trying to develop a state of rapture, a state of pleasure, trying to develop a skills in dealing with the breath throughout the body, learning how to gladden the mind when it needs to be gladdened, learning how to still the mind when it needs to be stilled, learning how to release the mind when it needs to be released.

So equanimity here is a basis for being able to observe what’s going on in our mind and to admit to yourself what’s actually happening in your mind rather than allowing your preferences to color your idea of what you’d like to tell yourself is happening. In this way equanimity becomes a basis for developing further skills. So you don’t stop with equanimity and just sort of ‘let things be’. You learn to be equanimous about things that you can’t change and then so that you can focus on things that you really can change which is developing more skillful qualities in the mind and abandon the unskillful qualities that are remaining.

This gets down to an issue that’s sometimes discussed as ‘not being attached to the outcome of your practice’. Now what this means is, you really do want the outcome to be the end of suffering. You are not going to sort of just well I don’t really care where it goes, I’m just sort of going to allow the practice to pull me by the nose where ever it’s going to take me. You really do want to determine where you are going. And non-attachment means, if you’re doing something unskillful but you want it to be counted as a path, you discover that, after a while, well what I thought was the path was actually unskillful. That’s where you learn how to drop your attachment to whatever you thought what the path was and learn to apply yourself to others that are genuinely going to be of use.

So that completes the perfections. Of course it doesn’t really complete the practice of perfections but it gives you some things to think about: how you might apply discernment to the development of the qualities that you need to develop in mind, in everyday life so that your everyday life is actually part of the path that’s going to take you to awakening – to the end of suffering.


The exercise for this week is to develop that exercise in patience in learning how to deal with hurtful words. When someone says something hurtful to you, try what you can to depersonalize the situation, i.e. pull yourself out of the line of fire. You might try the Buddhist reflection i.e. that there are these kinds of speech in the world – I’m a human being – this is what human beings get to hear – so that it takes you out of that sense of you’re being pointed to as the victim or think of it as ‘an unpleasant sound has made contact at the ear’. You can just leave it at that. Leave it at the level of contact and then spread goodwill to the other person so that you’re not focusing on how difficult it is for you to take those hurtful words. Several years back my teacher had a student who was a nurse and she was a very good looking woman. She was the victim of a lot of jealousy among the other nurses in the hospital where she was working and she was constantly being gossiped about and one day it was really getting to her. She went to meditate with my teacher when he was in Bangkok and as she sat there in meditation she had this vision of herself in what was like a hall of mirrors with the images of herself extending back, back, back, back into infinity. And she thought about this and she thought she had probably been the victim of this for many, many lifetimes and the thought got her very depressed. And so she went and mentioned this to my teacher hoping that he would give her some comforting words and he said “Well, you were the one that wanted to be born as a human being. This is what you get. This is what humans get to hear. This is what we’re exposed to.” So learn how to depersonalize the situation when you are the victim of hurtful words and see if that really helps in keeping you on the path.


The Ten Perfections – Week 3: Generosity

Week 3: Generosity by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – January 17, 2011

The Ten Perfections – an online retreat at

The third determination is relinquishment or generosity. This relates to the fact that when you’ve made up your mind to pursue a particular goal there are going to be some forms of pleasure you are going to have to give up. You have to think of it as a trade. If you don’t give up the lesser pleasures, you are not going to get the greater pleasure.

It is often very difficult to engage in this kind of trade. The Buddha himself said there were times in his own practice when he found it difficult to realize he was going to have to give up certain things but when you realize the benefits that come from giving these lesser happinesses up, you are willing to give them up for the sake of the greater happiness.

This is an important principle in the path. The Buddha has you develop this with two of the perfections. The first is giving or dana and the second is nekkhamma or renunciation. Dana here means not only giving material things, but it also means giving of your time, giving your energy, giving safety to others, giving knowledge, giving the gift of Dhamma and giving forgiveness.

All these are forms in which you give up something that you’ve been holding on to. In the case of giving forgiveness, of course, you are giving up a certain element of not being willing to abandon the desire for revenge, which is something very heavy to carry around. You’d think that it would be probably, of all the forms of giving, it would be the easiest but it is often the hardest.

The Buddha does encourage that you give. Now he does not say that you have to give in any particular way. This was one of the things that was really distinctive about his teachings.

Back in the past in India the Brahmans liked to say that giving was very good, especially if you gave to Brahmans. If you gave to other groups of people, it didn’t create any merit. Of course this created a backlash after a couple of centuries of Brahmans constantly calling for gifts for themselves, there were people who said well, actually, giving does not really produce any benefits at all.

One group said it was because people are determined in their behavior from the very beginning anyhow, that people have no free will, therefore the act of giving isn’t really virtuous and there was another group that said, well, it is not really fruitful because everybody just kind of dies at the end of life and that is it. Everybody just goes back to space and that’s all and so having them give something really doesn’t create any benefit.

It is interesting that when the Buddha began his discussion of the teaching of karma, he starts with the topic of giving which makes the point on one hand that it is virtuous and is the result of free choice. He is making the point that in his understanding of karma that we do have free choice. And then secondly that it is fruitful, it actually does give good benefits.

If you stop and think about the first time as a child you may have given something away of your own free will and it wasn’t Christmas, it wasn’t Bar mitzvah, it wasn’t anything where you had to give something but you just wanted to give something to somebody. That was your first taste of real freedom. You learned to be free from your greed, free from your possessiveness and were able to share. The Buddha wanted you to sort of make that connection between the freedom you felt through giving and the freedom he was encouraging in the practice of, in his teaching of karma.

And so it is important that we try to maintain that sense of freedom around our gifts. When I discuss the perfections of the “truths of people,” often the topic of generosity or giving is the one that invokes the most discussion because people are always wanting to say “Well, you should give in this way” or “You shouldn’t give in that way,” and the Buddha would not impose any surance on this topic.

King Pasenadi one time came to see the Buddha and asked “Where should a gift be given?” expecting the Buddha would say “Well, give to the Buddhist monks and Buddhist nuns, and the Buddha didn’t say that. He said “Give where you feel inspired.” So it is an absolute matter of freedom: where you want to give, who you want to give to, how often you want to give.

The Buddha did say though, in order to be discerning in giving you should try to develop skillful intentions around this. In other words look at your motivation for giving. Is it simply that you want to get this back in a future lifetime with interest? That’s a perfectly okay motivation but it is not the best. Better motivations are: seeing that other people are lacking something that you have; you have more than enough; doesn’t feel right for you to just hold on to what you have; you’d like to help; makes the mind feel good; it is encouraging for your practice of concentration. All these are higher motivations for giving – less and less selfish motivations for giving.

At the same time the Buddha said try to give in a timely way, i.e. see what people need and give it to them when they need it. Try to find something that is actually helpful for the person that you are giving to and at the same time make sure that you are not adversely affecting yourself or other people. In other words you are not ‘stealing from Peter to pay Paul’ and you are also not giving so much that your family is beginning to suffer.

There is a rule among the monks that if they notice that a family is giving so much for the monks that the children or other members of the family are beginning to suffer, the monks are supposed to avoid that family’s house for a while so they are not taking unfair advantage of the one family member’s generosity.

So when you give a gift, as I said, it is totally free where you want to give it, how much you want to give, but you want to use some discernment in your motivation, in what you are giving, when you make sure that it is timely. In this way the gift becomes more and more fruitful. In other words it is more beneficial to you and the people around you.

As a recipient, you also have some responsibilities as well. You want to behave in such a way that the person who is giving feels good about the gift before, during and after the gift. What this means is that before the gift is given you don’t put a lot of pressure on the person to give, you don’t hint, as they say hint, belittle or scheme in order to get gifts out of the person.

While the person is giving the gift you want to receive it in a respectful way. Even if it is something you don’t want, you show respect for the person. You are honoring their generosity because this is something you do want to encourage in other people. And then finally once you have received the gift, you want to use it in a responsible way so that the person does not regret later having given the gift because that can spoil some the joy that would normally come out of giving.

So it is in this way that you develop a sense of your freedom of choice in practicing and you also use your discernment in developing generosity as a way of getting more and more benefits both for yourself in terms of the internal qualities that you are developing as you give and also the benefits that you are giving to the world.

When we come to the topic of renunciation, this is more and more purely internal. Years back I did a survey of American books on Buddhism to see what they had to say about renunciation. You look in the indexes and you see there is not much on renunciation. Occasionally someone will talk about learning how to renounce unhealthy relationships or learning how to renounce a controlling mindset. Well you don’t need a Buddha to tell you that. Your parents will tell you “Get out of that unhealthy relationship” and if you have a therapist, the therapist will say “Let go of your controlling mindset.”

When the Buddha is talking about renunciation he is specifically talking about renouncing your passion for sensual desires. Now notice that he is not saying that sensual objects are bad, he said we have a passion for sensual desires. We are actually more interested in our desire than we are on the object. If you go to a restaurant, you’ve planned all day that you want to go to this particular restaurant and if it turns out they are closed, it is not that hard to find another restaurant. You can transfer your desire from the original food to another restaurant’s food.

But if we are told to give up the desire for a really delicious meal then we’d start to rebel which shows that we are actually more attached to our desires than we are to the objects that we use to feed those desires. And so this is where the Buddha has you really look very carefully at where you are feeding the mind; what kind of pleasure you are feeding it on.

Now our desires for sensual things can not simply be replaced by seeing the drawbacks. There are many, many passages in the canon where the Buddha has a lot to say about the drawbacks of sensual passion: the fact that we have to work so hard just to get a meal, just to get wealth; the fact that people get into battles, this is proving of our attachment to sensuality. Parents fight with children, children fight parents, brothers with sisters, sisters with brothers, the whole set of battles from within the family into the society at large is basically over material things, our sensual desires.

There is a long, long list that the Buddha has on the drawbacks of sensuality but he says if, even if you know the drawbacks of sensuality it is very difficult to really give up your sensual passions unless you have an alternative kind of pleasure. And this is where the practice of concentration comes in.

There is a list in the Mahayana tradition of the paramis that includes jhana – or the practice of strong concentration. The fact that it is not mentioned directly in the Theravada tradition I think has to do with the fact that it comes under renunciation, that in giving up sensual passions you are trying to develop pleasure that is not sensual. The pleasure actually comes from the way you handle your body and it is very important that you learn how to develop that alternative kind of pleasure.

The reading for this week is going include some instructions on how to practice breath meditation in a way that develops a sense of pleasure using the breath energy in the body. And it is important that you learn how to develop this kind of pleasure so that you can have an alternative to sensual passion.

Sometimes you are told that the pleasure that comes from stronger concentration is dangerous because you get stuck on it. Well when you think about it, how many people have killed over the practice of jhana? How many people have stolen? How many people have illicit sex? How many people have lied? It doesn’t happen. However our attachment to sensuality is the main reason we would break the precepts. So you are learning how to replace a very dangerous attachment with one that’s a lot less dangerous. Of course eventually you are going to want to overcome the attachment even to the pleasure of jhana, but you have to develop it first. You can’t be afraid of it. Otherwise, you don’t have any tools to use against your attachment to sensuality.

Of course the practice of concentration on its own is not going to be enough. You have to start learning how to use your discernment in connection with renunciation. This comes in two areas. One is in the area of addiction. If you find that the certain types of behavior you have that are really unskillful – you know they are unskillful and yet you keep coming back to them – you have to learn how to use your discernment in order to overcome them. You can’t simply do it through force of will.

One way that I have found convenient is to think of the mind, not as a singular mind but as a committee. You’ve got lots of different voices in the committee. If the desire comes up, say, if you have an addiction to alcohol, if you have addiction to pot, there’s going to be the voice that says “Hey! Go ahead and do this!” And part of you says “No, I don’t really feel like doing this. I’ve regretted it in the past.” – “So? You are going to give up in just a few minutes – so why don’t you give up now?” Learn how not to believe that voice. It is not necessarily you. It’s just an obstreperous member of the committee. And if you can think in this way you can start strengthening the more restrained members of the committee.

One way I’ve also found helpful is if there is a particular habit you have, say, tonight you don’t give in to it, tomorrow morning when you wake up, remind yourself how really good you feel not having given in to it. So the next time you feel tempted, you remind yourself “Hey! Tomorrow morning you are going to feel really good that you didn’t do this right now.”

So try to think of the mind as a committee and learn how to sort out the members because many times the committee of the mind is very much like the Chicago city council. It’s got all kinds of tricks going on, all sorts of political maneuvers going on and you have to learn how to strengthen the good side of the mind so it is not just sort of a ‘babe in the woods’, but it also has its own strategies as well.

The other issue of course with regard to renunciation is how much do you give up? The Buddha’s standards for food, clothing and shelter is that for food, you have just enough to keep the body going, to keep it healthy, for clothing, enough to protect it from the elements and keep it properly covered, for shelter, again, to protect it from the elements, to provide you with some seclusion and finally with medicine, you want enough to keep the body strong and healthy and to prevent disease and to take care of any diseases that have arisen. And that is not much. That takes care of all your really basic needs.

If you want to have a look at your purchases as they come along, you have a desire, say, for some new clothing, well ask then, “Do I have enough to cover the body?” – “Do I have enough already to take care of the needs that I have for my clothing?” If you have enough for that, why spend money on clothing when you could be spending on something that is more helpful for yourself or for humanity?

So you might want to think of these as standards for ‘what’s enough?’ Our society even has magazines, now of course you have to buy the magazine to find out what is enough, and then learn simplicity, but you can figure this out on your own. You look at the Buddha’s reflections on how much food, clothing, shelter and medicine is enough for you and learn to see everything else as extraneous. Why would you want to waste your few precious resources on what is extraneous? Because the less you spend on that, the more you have to share in other ways because after all as I just said, generosity, renunciation, these are traits.

There is a famous story where a former king who has become a monk is sitting under a tree and saying “Ah, what bliss, what bliss!” The other monks hear this and they are pretty much convinced that he is reflecting back on the happiness he had as a king, that he is missing it. So they are concerned and so they go mention this to the Buddha.

The Buddha calls him in to ask him about this and the monk says “Well, back when I was a king, even though I had protection in the palace and outside the palace, in the city, outside the city, on the frontier of the country, even at night, even with all that protection I was not able to sleep at night for fear that someone might try to do something to me. But now that I have found true happiness inside, I can sit under a tree without any protection around and my mind is free as a wild deer.”

That is the quality you want to develop, that sense of freedom where you are not a slave to your passions, where you are not a slave to your things and the mind can gain a sense of ease and rest and total release in this way.


The exercise for this week is to look into the instructions for breath mediation that are going to be given on the web and try developing a sense of ease and wellbeing inside through the way that you focus on the breath. And then see if you can use that sense of ease, relaxing the breath energy in your hands, relaxing the breath energy in your feet, when you feel a particularly strong desire for something you know is unskillful. And see if that changes the equation.

The Ten Perfections – Week 2: Truth

Week 2: Truth by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – January 10, 2011

The Ten Perfections – an online retreat at

The second determination is truth. Under truth we have three of the perfections or three of the priorities that we talked about last week. Truth itself, virtue and persistence.

Truth, here, means not just telling true things but also being a true person. You might think of this as the difference between the “truth of a statement” and the “truth of a person.” You want true statements, in other words, when you say things, you want it to make an accurate account of what you really know.

“Truth of a person” means that once you have made up your mind you are going to do something, you stick with it. You are not a traitor to yourself. You realize that certain things are going to be skillful and then you learn how to stay true to that determination, true to that understanding, even when you feel very strongly tempted to do something you know is not quite so skillful.

Bringing discernment to the quality of truthfulness is really important. You have to realize that, again, your motivation for being true is that it makes it easier for you to develop discernment. If you are used to lying to other people, you start lying to yourself. That becomes a habit in the mind. It’s very difficult for any kind of insight, any kind of understanding into suffering, its causes, or how you might practice to get rid of the causes of suffering in your mind to develop.

In fact the Buddha himself said this was the primary characteristic he looked for in a student. He once said “Bring me someone who is true and observant and I will teach that person the Dhamma.”

Being observant also is a very important part of being truthful. If you are not truthful, it’s hard to really observe what is going on. There’s a passage where the Buddha says “If you are used to abusing other people, you don’t want to hear the truth. You don’t even want to hear the truth about other people’s bad habits. You want everything to be covered up.” So you have to be truthful in order to be observant, to know what is going on both inside and out.

In applying the principal of truth in life, you do have to make two distinctions. The first is in the “truth of statements.” If there is something that you say, even if it is true but you know it is going to cause harm, you don’t say it. The Buddha once said there were three tests that he would make for any statement he might make. The first was that it be true. The second one, if it was true, it would also have to be beneficial. If it was beneficial then the third one was that it be timely. In other words, look at the situation. Is it the right time to be saying this? Not everything that’s true should be said.

There was once a politician who went to see the Buddha and he said “I see there is no harm in telling the truth, whatever you know, whatever you see.” The Buddha said that if telling the truth gives rise to create aversion and delusion within yourself, you should avoid talking about that topic. Now that doesn’t mean you should lie about it, but simply you learn how to avoid the topic. This is one of the areas in which discernment has to come into play. When you are avoiding a topic, are you are avoiding it simply because it makes you uncomfortable? Or is it actually going to be harmful to talk about it? You have to keep this in mind.

As for “truths of the person”, where you use your discernment here is when you realize that you made unrealistic demands on yourself. You may have to scale back. If you made demands that are too low for yourself, you have to learn how to raise the bar. Learn how to check the vows that you’ve made for yourself to make sure that they really are in line with what you can do, but also make sure that they stretch you so that you really grow following those vows. If you realize that you’ve aimed your actions at a goal that really is unskillful then you’ve got to say “Put that particular determination aside.”

Truth here, as the Buddha said, is probably the most important of the virtues. This is why truth and virtue belong under the same category.

The whole list of the paramis is drawn from the Jataka tales, which is a part of the canon which was actually added later. Many stories that were brought in from Indian folklore were added to the Buddhist canon probably with the idea in mind of letting Buddhists feel that they still were members of their old society even though they had become Buddhists. It is like someone saying that Paul Bunyan was the Buddha in a previous lifetime, bringing Buddhism to America. And many stories were brought in, in which the character which was supposed to be the Buddha in a previous lifetime actually breaks some of the precepts. The bodhisatta sometimes kills, sometimes steals, sometimes has illicit sex, sometimes gets drunk, but never lies. This is an important distinction, for the Buddha said, truthfulness is the most important of the virtues. He said if a person feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, that person can do any kind of evil. In other words, that person can not be trusted.

So truthfulness is the beginning of virtue. Because after all, the virtues are basically a promise that you make to yourself that you are not going to kill, steal, cheat, have illicit sex, drink, tell lies, and then you have to stick with that. If you can’t stick to that promise that you made to yourself then the virtue is never going to develop.

It’s important that you realize that it is a promise you make to yourself, it is not something that the Buddha would impose. The Buddha knew that he was not the creator. He had no authority to tell you what to do or to tell you what not to do. He is giving you advice on what works and what doesn’t work in leading to true happiness.

The precepts are sometimes objected to as being too hard and fast. I think it is better to think of them as being clear cut because we need rules of behavior that are actually clear cut especially when the temptation comes, and it is very strong, to “get back” at someone who has done us wrong.

It’s like those signs that they used to have in Alaska that were called “get the bear awareness”- how to deal with bears when you meet them in the wilderness. And the first rule is: Don’t run! Of course your immediate reaction when you see a bear is that you want to run and so they make it very short, don’t run!

It is the same with the precepts, don’t kill, period. Because there are times when you might feel tempted, you actually would want to kill somebody if someone had some harm to someone in your family, you’d be tempted.

There is the temptation to steal, then you have to think very carefully, given, now that society is in relative peace, maybe it’s very easy to keep the precepts. But suppose that society were to break down and you have hungry children to feed. Would you be willing to steal to give them food? Would you be willing to kill? If you can make a promise to yourself that no, you wouldn’t do that, you really have to stick with it. See the importance of maintaining your virtue as a possession that’s more important than anything else that you have.

If someone offered you a million dollars to lie and you didn’t lie, that means you have a precept that is worth more than a million dollars. This is a wealth that anybody can develop. At the same time you are giving a gift too, of safety to yourself and other beings when you, say, take the precept of not killing – at all – that means that all beings are safe from you and as the Buddha said, once you give this gift of safety to all beings, then you have a share in that unlimited safety as well.

Taking the precepts is also good practice in developing mindfulness and alertness. Mindfulness in the sense of keeping something in mind. You want to remember that you’ve taken that precept and you’re not going to forget it. And then you have to be alert to look at your behavior. Are you going against your precepts?  Mindfulness and alertness are the basic qualities that you need to bring to meditation. This is how the precepts are a kind of meditation practice in daily life.

Years back, Ajaan Suwat, who was one of my teachers, was teaching here in the states. At the end of the retreat someone asked him “How do you bring practice into daily life?” And he said “Well, make sure that you take the Five Precepts.” Some of the people were upset thinking that he didn’t see that laypeople could actually practice meditation in daily life, but that wasn’t the point. He said the precepts are a form of meditation in action. You meditate as you are acting with your body. You meditate as you are speaking in the sense of being very mindful and alert about what you are doing and making sure that you are not going to cause any harm.

This, of course, then ties into the third of the priorities, the third of the perfections, which is persistence. Persistence doesn’t mean just brute force. It means being wise in how you apply your efforts. There are three ways in which discernment is useful here and the first is, as the Buddha said, you generate desire and arouse your persistence in order to abandon unskillful qualities and develop skillful qualities.

Now the role of desire in the path is very important. Sometimes people overlook this. They think the Buddha said all desire is unskillful – all desire is wrong – but that is not the case. The desire to abandon unskillful behavior – the desire to develop skillful behavior – is actually part of the path. It’s in Right Effort. This is one of the main issues in, again, as we mentioned opening last time, developing your motivation. How do you motivate yourself to do something skillful or abandon something unskillful?

The Buddha himself recommends two main tactics. One of them is developing heedfulness. The second one is developing a sense of pride and dignity about the practice. In terms of heedfulness, the Buddha would have you reflect, every morning, in fact, this might be a good exercise for the next week, he said “Every morning when the sun rises remind yourself, this may be the last sunrise you see.” You could so easily die during the course of the day. You get a long list of the ways that people can die very easily. One he doesn’t mention, of course, is that a little clot in your bloodstream could develop wanderlust and start moving around through the body ending up lodged in your heart and there would be nothing you could do about it.

Are you ready to go? Usually the answer is no. Well, if you are not ready to go, what needs to be done, today, in order to get yourself ready to go? What skillful qualities do you need to develop? What unskillful qualities do you want to learn to abandon as quickly as you can? Then again at sunset he has you reflect: “This may be your last sunset. Are you ready to go tonight?” If the answer is no, ok, what do you need to do in order to feel more ready to go? This contemplation of death is not to get you depressed, but just to make you to realize that time is precious. The development of the mind is the most important thing that you can do.

So, what can you do to develop your mind, today and tonight? This is one way of generating the desire to do something skillful. As for the sense of pride and accomplishment, the Buddha says “Here, you have started on the path. Now, if you were to abandon the path and then go back into your old ways, would you really be loving yourself and is this really the skillful thing to do?”

He sometimes would have the monks think of themselves as warriors. Are you the kind of warrior who gets ready for the battle and all of a sudden, when you actually hear the sound of the approaching enemy, you run away? Is that the kind of person you are? Well, you don’t want to be that kind of person. You want to realize that, in developing the path, you are lifting yourself up, above your thirst, above your cravings. I think it was Sprite, years ago, that had that slogan – you obey your thirst. Well, obeying your thirst, that’s what fishes do. Do you want to be a fish or would you rather be a human being? There is a certain dignity in learning how to abandon unskillful behavior and develop skillful behavior in its place.

The Buddha actually has you develop a sense of shame around unskillful qualities, although here, shame is not the sense of being ashamed of yourself as a bad person, but realizing that you are above that kind of behavior. That kind of behavior is beneath you. Do you really want to stoop to that? In other words the shame is not directed at you as a person, but at the particular action you are thinking of doing.

So in this case, shame is actually a counterpart of high self esteem that you have a sense of dignity, a sense of honor that you would not want to stoop to that kind of behavior. These are some of the ways in which the Buddha would have you generate desire in order to develop skillful qualities.

The second role for discernment in persistence is figuring out exactly what kind of effort is needed right now. In terms of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha lists four. In terms of the first truth, the truth of suffering and stress, that’s something you want to comprehend, i.e. you have to watch that until you can understand it. Sometimes that means being with it for long periods of time until you can see why you’re suffering, exactly what the suffering is.

Once you see why you are suffering, then the next step is to abandon the craving that is causing the suffering, so that you can develop an awareness or a direct realization of the end of suffering. You do this by developing the factors of the path. You have four different duties that you can do right there.

In terms of Right Effort, the Buddha also lists another set of four duties. If there is an unskillful quality that has not yet arisen, you do what you can to prevent it. If it already has arisen, you try to abandon it. If there are skillful qualities that have not yet arisen, you try to develop them. Once they appear, then you try to develop them even further. You bring them to the culmination of their development, he says.

It is not the case that as you are sitting and meditating, concentration comes along and you just watch it come and watch it go. Concentration comes; you want to try to learn to maintain it. So there are actually four different duties in here with regard to Right Effort which can be overlapped with the four duties from the Four Noble Truths. You have to apply your discernment at any one particular time to see what kind of duty is required right now. It is not just watching or not just developing or not just abandoning. You have got the choice of the types of things you want to do.

And then finally, the final role for discernment with regard to persistence is: How much effort can you put in? This is determined by two things. One is the particular problem you are facing. There is a Thai Ajaan who says: If the middle of your room has this of huge pile of excrement, can you wash away the excrement with just a cup of water? Well, no. You have got to use an whole pail full of water. There are problems in the mind that are really difficult and require a lot of effort for them to go. That means you have got to put in a lot of effort and really apply yourself. Applying yourself here means learning how to look at the way you breath around the problem, learning how you look at the way you think about the problem, how you perceive the problem. You want to be able to analyze the problem in these ways.

This is called ‘applying a fabrication’. They call it bodily fabrication which is for the breath, verbal fabrication which is the way you analyze something and direct your thoughts around it and evaluate it and finally there is mental fabrication which is the way you perceive the problem.

A whole book could be written on this topic, but it is important to realize that sometimes you really do have to work with a particular defilement or a particular problem in your mind in order for it to really be resolved. There are other cases where all you have to do is just look at it, and, as one of my teachers said, “Some of your defilements, when you look at them they get embarrassed and they go away.” This is the case where you just simply watch rising. If you put too much effort in a case like that then you are actually over-extending yourself and creating more problems.

So the role of discernment here lies first in generating the desire to do what is skillful and abandoning what is not – the ability to figure out exactly what kind of effort is appropriate right now for this particular problem and then what is the amount of effort that you can apply because in addition to the effort that is determined by the problem itself, there is the question of: “How much energy do you have?”

You have probably heard the story of the young monk who had been doing walking meditation until his feet were bleeding. The story goes that apparently he had been so tenderly brought up that even the soles of his feet had hair.

The king heard about this one time and wanted to see this guy’s feet. “Who on earth would have hair on the bottom of his feet?” And so the invitation comes and the parents tell the boy: “Okay, the king wants to see the soles of your feet. Now don’t point your feet at him, that would be impolite. Just sit, you know, in a nice kind of meditative posture and the king can see the soles and yes, they really do have hair.”

So the guy went to the palace and the king was kind of amazed that this guy had hair on his feet because his feet were so tender. The young man develops the desire to become a monk. He becomes a monk and he starts doing walking meditation and given how tender his feet are, they start bleeding.

He starts getting discouraged. He had put an awful lot of effort into the practice and he hadn’t gotten anywhere. And so he was thinking that he might just as well disrobe when the Buddha appears in front of him and says “Were you thinking of disrobing?”

I don’t know if you are the sort of person that would like to have the Buddha appear in front of you when you are meditating, having problems or would be very embarrassed to have the Buddha in front of you when you are have problems, but in this particular case the young man fessed up and said “Yes, I was thinking of disrobing.” The Buddha asked him “When you were a layperson, were you skilled at playing the lute?”  The young man said yes. “If you tune the lute too tight does it sound right?” No. “If it is too loose does it sound right?” No.

He said it is the same when you meditate; you try to tune your meditation. You tune first to the level of energy that you have, how much energy you are capable of, and then you tune the other factors of your meditation which would include conviction, mindfulness, concentration and discernment to the amount of energy that you are capable of. It is the same way that you would tune a guitar. You tune the first string and then you tune the other strings to that first string.

So in this case, tune your conviction to the level of energy you might have. You are not going to sit down, if you’re feeling really sick and really tired, you are not going to sit down and meditate saying “I’m not going to get up until I achieve supreme awakening.” You say “I want to get through the hour.” That sort of thing is possible.

So you want to use your discernment – how much effort you put into it. See how much you are capable of, what the problem demands, what type of effort in terms of abandoning or developing or just watching is appropriate and then learning how to generate the desire in order to do that. It is in this way that you take that “truth of a person” that you are trying to develop in making up your mind that you really do want to follow the Path to Awakening in daily life and making sure that you carry through with it.

For this week’s exercise, I’d like you to apply that contemplation that the Buddha recommended every morning, at dawn as you look at the sunrise, remind yourself, this might be your last sunrise. What do you need to do today to be prepared for that eventuality? And again when the sun goes down at night, this might be your last sunset. Try this for a week and see what it does for your practice.

The Ten Perfections – Week 1: Discernment

The Ten Perfections or the Ten Paramis

Week 1: Discernment by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – January 3, 2011

One of those teachings that are probably most useful for bringing the Path for Awakening into everyday life. They’re a list of qualities that you can develop in any situation, as you’re working, your family, at home, at the office, as you’re driving, as you’re meditating. And the qualities are these: there’s generosity, virtue, renunciation, discernment, equanimity, patience, persistence, truth, determination and goodwill.

These ten qualities can also be thought of as priorities. In fact the word paramis is related to paramat (?) which means something of foremost importance and you try to think of these as the priorities in your life, because you make things like material wealth, status, relationships – the priorities, you’re placing your happiness on things that are truly out of your control or largely out of your control. Whereas the qualities that you develop in your mind as you go thru life are in your control, the things that you can discern, determine that you’ll develop in any situation regardless.

And so for this retreat we’re going to be discussing the paramis under the parami of determination. Determination means taking a vow, making up your mind that you are going to do something. This reflects the fact that awakening is something that you have to will.

Sometimes you hear that awakening is our true nature. The Buddha said never that, he simply said that the mind has good qualities and has bad qualities and you have to learn how to develop the good qualities and abandon the bad ones or develop the skillful ones and abandon the unskillful ones in order to find awakening. It is not some thing that is going to happen on its own. You have to make up your mind that this is what you want and you are determined to go in that direction.

He said there are four aspects to a good determination. The first is discernment, the second is truth, the third is generosity and the fourth is calm and you can place these ten paramis under these four categories. Under discernment you have discernment itself and goodwill; under truth you’ll have truth, virtue and persistence. Under generosity you have giving and renunciation and under calm you have patience and equanimity.

One of the advantages of organizing the paramis in this way is that you put discernment first because discernment is really what makes these qualities qualities that head toward awakening. You can think about the list for a moment, you can realize that it is pretty generic. These are qualities; these are virtues that are extolled in any culture and any religion. What makes them aim towards awakening is the application of discernment.

Discernment here plays several functions in developing each of the paramis. To begin with, as the Buddha said, discernment itself begins with a question what when I do it will lead to my long term welfare and happiness? What when I do it will lead to my long term harm and suffering?

Those questions right there contain the germs of wisdom. One, they are based on the idea that happiness is something that really does depend on your actions. Your actions do make a difference. You have choices in life.

The second is the realization that you would really prefer to be happy rather than to suffer. Sometimes people say that you shouldn’t have preferences in the practice, but what that really means is that if the practice requires something, you’re happy to do it. But it’s perfectly natural that you would not want to suffer, you would not want to cause other people to suffer either. That is a preference that you want to start out with. Based on that preference then, whatever is required is something that you can not say that “Oh, I don’t like this part of the path. I prefer that part of the path.” You follow the path as it is laid out. This is what’s called practicing the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma.

And again, you have to acknowledge that you do have choices. You have the choice to do or not to do what’s right and what’s skillful. And so you want to make the most of that choice. And the use of your discernment is best directed towards goodwill, i.e. towards happiness for yourself and for others. Cause the happiness here we are talking about is a true happiness and true happiness is something that can’t depend on the suffering of other people.

In fact it doesn’t have to. If it did have to depend on the suffering of other people, other people wouldn’t stand it. They wouldn’t allow it to last. Fortunately it comes from developing qualities within, so it doesn’t really have to take anything form anyone else and the more true happiness you develop inside, thru the development of the paramis, the more you have to share with other people.

So it starts with this knowledge of, the fact that you have a choice and your actions do make a difference and they’re best aimed at true happiness. Then the sermon deals with other aspects of the path as well. You’ve got the motivation of why you want to do this and then you might say well after all you are doing this for happiness, why do you need to motivate yourself? Well the problem is, there are many kinds of happiness. There’s short term happiness, there’s long term happiness and we have short term happiness that turns into something else – that’s not happiness. And so you realize that even though there are things that you like to do but they’re going to cause harm, you’ve got to learn how to figure out how not to do them. Like the Buddha once said, that this is one of the primary tasks of your discernment.

There are four kinds of actions. There are things that are easy to do, pleasant to do and give good results. Things that are unpleasant to do and give bad results and those two are no-brainers, you don’t really have to think much about whether you are going to do them or not. The ones that are difficult are the things that are easy to do, pleasant to do but give bad results and the things that are unpleasant to do but give good results and your ability to prevent yourself from doing the first and induce yourself to doing the latter – that’s a measure of your discernment.

And so motivation is going to be an important part of the use of discernment on the path. Secondly, once you’ve got your motivation down the next step is strategy, how are you going to arrange for these things to come about? Say that you know you want to develop goodwill. How do you actually go about developing goodwill? You know you have to develop patience. How do you develop patience? This is how you strategize. And then finally there’s the element of balance. How do you balance the different virtues on the path? – Because some of the virtues seem to conflict. Goodwill pulls you in one direction; equanimity would pull you in another direction. Determination and persistence would push you one direction and again patience and equanimity might pull you in another direction. So how do you balance these things out? This again is a roll of discernment.

In all these cases what it comes down to is that, discernment requires that we make distinctions. That you figure out what’s right and what’s wrong or (knowing) things that work, what works better than other things and so you have to apply that knowledge to the development of all the perfections.

I’ll take goodwill as an example. To begin with you need the motivation to develop goodwill because sometimes it is very difficult. You see people who are doing harm to other people, sometimes on a massive level and it’s very hard to feel goodwill for them. You ask yourself why should I feel goodwill for this person and they don’t deserve it. And in each case you have to remember well why are you developing goodwill to begin with? It’s for your own good.

Because on the one hand, if you have ill-will for people you are going to start doing unskillful things yourself, in other words you can’t trust yourself to do the right thing if you can’t feel goodwill for everybody. Secondly, you can think about well what does goodwill mean? And sometimes the word metta which I have been translating as goodwill is sometimes translated as loving-kindness. Loving-kindness I think is too intense because what we’re talking about here is not so much that you are going to cherish other people or look after them, it is simply that you wish them well.

There are some passages in the Canon, there’s a charm for the monks when they go out in the forest. There is a case where a monk is bitten by a snake and died and the monks bring news of this to the Buddha and the Buddha says well it is obvious that this monk did not spread goodwill to all the four families of snakes and so then he teaches the monks how to chant for developing goodwill for the snakes and it goes on from the snakes to scorpions and rats and all kinds of living beings whether they have no feet or two feet, four feet or many feet. And at the end of this it says here may all beings find and meet with good fortune and may they all go away. That’s goodwill.

In other words you are not going to stay around and look after the scorpions and the lizards and the snakes but you don’t wish them any harm. And when you think of goodwill in that way, you begin to realize it’s a lot easier to wish that for other beings. Cause what advantage are you going to get when other people get harmed? You know how most people become even more cruel if they have been through a lot of suffering.

And then there’s the question of – what are you wishing when you wish goodwill? It’s not like you take a magic wand around, you’re going to touch everybody on their heads and say “Well, whatever you are doing right now may you be happy.” You are basically wishing that people will develop the causes of happiness. In other words they realize that they can’t act in unskillful ways, if they’re going to try to find true happiness and so they have to learn to be more skillful in their actions, in their words and in their thoughts.

And this is something that you would really would wish for everybody. You want everybody to be more careful in their actions. So when you’re extending thoughts of goodwill, it’s for your own good. And it is for the good of the world. You’re basically working on your motivation to make sure that whatever other people do you’re never going to act on the motivation that would be harmful and you would never try to induce other people to do anything that was harmful either. And so in this way (you can) it makes it a lot easier to see that goodwill is something that you could wish for everybody. And then the next step of course is the strategy – how do you go about doing this?

Here, the strategy runs into the problems that there are some people who are really hard to feel goodwill for. You could think of all the horrible people in history who have been tyrants and sometimes that history is not so far as, so, that far back in the past, but you realize again, what do I benefit from wishing this person evil? What do I benefit from wishing this person to continue doing evil and continue reaping results of evil? Wouldn’t it be better if everybody could understand what true happiness is? And then act on that understanding and so this way you can go through the list. If there is anybody that you think about that you would have trouble feeling goodwill for, sit down and remind yourself, what is goodwill? Wouldn’t this person benefit? Wouldn’t the whole world benefit if this person really did understand the causes for true happiness and would act on it?

That’s a useful way of extending thoughts of goodwill instead of thinking of goodwill as this pink cloud that goes out and obscures the whole world with your loving-kindness. It’s more about a very reasoned and very wise way of relating to the world, that given your motivation, you want to make sure that your motivation is good towards everybody, that you don’t want to wish them ill. And even if you are dealing with people you know are very difficult it’s often best to wish them goodwill first cause if you are coming to them attacking them, they’re going to put up a defense. They’re not going to be wanting to listen to what you have to say. But if they can sense your goodwill behind your criticism, it can be a lot easier for them to respond in a wise way.

As for balancing goodwill, this is where a number of distinctions have to be made. You have goodwill for everybody but you can’t treat everybody as a true friend. There are a lot of people you don’t want to have influence your behavior. When you think about a true friend, this is someone that you open up your heart to in a sense that you open up yourself up to their influence. You want to be able to emulate them. If you’re looking for advice, this is the sort of person that you want to go to and you trust their advice. You can’t trust everybody in the world. You have to make that distinction. So having goodwill, i.e. being friendly, is the same as this. It’s very different from being friends with somebody or treating somebody as a, as a close friend. So you have to make that distinction.

Another distinction is the question of how much do you want to get entangled with other people? Because you could be very kind and very generous with other people but there comes a point where you don’t have enough time to develop your own resources, you don’t have time to develop your own mind. So again this is where you have to use your own discernment. And disentangling yourself and realizing how much involvement is helpful to the practice and to what point does the involvement become less helpful.

And then the final issue is realizing that there are some people out there who will never be happy. This is where you have to develop equanimity to balance goodwill. We will talk about this later on in the series when we discuss equanimity but essentially what the point comes down to is – there are going to be people out there who are not going to be happy no matter how much you wish their happiness and in that case you have to develop equanimity and realize that all of us experience pleasure and pain based on our actions and you can’t control other people’s actions. Their mouth is their mouth. Their hands are their hands. You can’t force them. And so in a case like that if you find that someone, no matter how much you wish them well they’re not responsive to your goodwill, that’s when you have to develop equanimity.

So it’s in this way that you use discernment to shape your goodwill so that it actually is a cause for true happiness, does not get in the way of the practice, doesn’t get you too entangled and make sure that you realize there are distinctions you have to make between people that you wish well to and the people you take as your friends. This is an example of how you might use discernment with the rest of the perfections, separately going through the rest of the priorities that we are going to be going through on the remainder of the retreat.

This is the first of a series of four exercises for the remainder of the week.

You might want to sit down and ask yourself that question I asked earlier on – Is there anybody out there that you have trouble feeling goodwill for? And then ask yourself why? Can you induce a genuine feeling of goodwill for that person?