How does a perspective on life from ultimate truth relate to the way the world actually is? How does it relate to morality, a sense of right and wrong? How do you help within the world? How do you work with that which is destructive?
The starting point is to know that on the ultimate level everything is okay. Nature is as it is. The Buddha mind is that which respects and is aware of the fundamental orderedness of the universe. Everything is part of the whole system. It all hangs together: nothing is wrong, nothing should not be.
From the absolute perspective, everything is perfect. There is success and there is failure. There is oppression and victory. There are all the different attributes of human feeling. That’s the way life is: we are all born into physical bodies, humans, animals, birds. The earth turns. The tides rise and fall. The seasons come and go. There is peace, and there is war. There is birth, and there is death. This all has its own place.
The problems arise because of how things function on the relative plane, the plane of right and wrong, where most of us are living most of the time. If you have a deep insight into emptiness and ignore this plane, you are really in for a bad time. Many people, many Buddhist communities, have gone quite awry by trying to apply absolute values to the relative world.
You can say that each being is fundamentally the same, pure in nature, whether Buddhas or sadistic dictators. In the one case the mind is completely liberated from any kind of selfishness or ignorance or greed. In the other case the mind is clouded by delusion and hatred. The mind nature is identical. Like water. If you put different chemicals or pollutants in the water, in one case the water will be sparkling and good to drink, and in the other case the water will poison you. So within Buddhism there is no concept of absolute evil. What we call evil arises because of delusion, because the mind is conditioned to follow unwholesome impulses, because of ignorance.
What is wrong in life is subjective. What I think is right, someone else may think is wrong. So problems of wrongness, what needs to be changed, vary from person to person. Something might be quite legitimate within this culture, like the meat industry, and seen as a gross aberration by other people. The economy of the United States depends on cattle production. Other people feel that to produce so many cattle for slaughter is wasteful of resources, is cruel to the creatures, is unhealthy for human beings, and we should all be vegetarians. Or the law may say something like robbery is not okay. But people who grow up poor and neglected with few opportunities see being in a gang and robbing as a standard form of survival in a system where they have nothing and justice is unfindable. So why not take what you want? On that level stealing may be right, but the law says it’s wrong.
What is right and what is wrong is very subjective and comes from the mind’s tendency to seek out imperfections. People do not agree. We all have our own perspective, our own opinion, our own conditioning. Meditation lets us see this running commentary, to experience how we add judgment to experience.
The standard the Buddha used was to ask, “Do these actions produce suffering? And if so, can we avoid that? Can we find another way to live and work so this pain is not caused to others or to ourselves?”
We can be very vehement about our opinions on what is right and wrong without examining them. We don’t see, “This is just another opinion.” We don’t place ourselves in the mind of the other person. In recent years there has been a tremendous battle between the loggers and the environmentalists in Northern California. Some people have tried to bring about a common understanding that the interests of all involved were basically the same.
When we approach a situation that needs our help, that we see as unbalanced, we must first look at the causes of the situation rather than just take a stand from our particular political, social or philosophical conditioning. And then we must look at what we see as the ideal situation. What would we change it to if we could? And finally, what is our intention? Often our intention can be very clouded. This is where meditation is important, to investigate our own mind, our own life, to arrive at some kind of clarity.
In meditation you can put your mind on things. You can dig into things. The particular term for contemplation in the Buddha’s teaching is yoniso manasikara, which means to give attention to the root, to the origin, to put your mind onto the origin of things. So when we investigate the cause of a situation, we can more wisely estimate what can be done, and what our intention is. The more clear and awake our minds are, the more our actions are guided by the wish to help all other living beings toward a life of freedom, contentment, safety.
A mind that is awake and free will have qualities that can deal with difficult ethical issues. The Four Divine Abidings, the four aspects of a loving relationship between us and the rest of the universe, flow forth naturally according to the time and place of the situation: kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, serenity. We do not have to plug them in and switch them on. When the mind is awake, these are the natural response.
Of course, most of us do not live in that particular place. So it is useful to have guidance, guidelines for making ethical judgments and decisions as to how to act in relation to other people, family, work.
I find life is very analogous to driving a motorcar, full of rules and regulations, and the need to get from A to B is governed by many factors that are out of our control. The more you can see, the more alert your senses are, the less danger you encounter, and the better will you be able to work with the twists and turns in life’s erratic traffic.
We have many, many rules in our monastic tradition about how to live in harmony with other monastics in particular and with the world in general. The proper procedures for how we should relate to each other are divided into several categories and very accurately described. I think they are a helpful model for any effort on our parts to right wrongs.
The first is to make yourself free of the fault you are criticizing in the other person. For instance, when your mind is racing on about people abusing the planet or misusing resources, you need to ask, “Am I doing any exploiting? Am I being greedy or acquisitive anywhere?”
The second one is to choose the right time and place and situation to talk. In the monastery you must pick an informal moment, certainly not in front of the other monks, and then you must ask permission. “Would it be all right if I brought something to your attention?” The person can say “no.” They usually don’t. They usually say “yes” but with a certain prickliness.
Then you have to use speech that is gentle in all communication. If you are trying to set some political group or an industry right, you must consider the whole manner of expression and speak kindly.
The fourth is to stick to the facts, not to go into your opinions and extrapolations, or what others think. You must stick to what is tangible, verifiable.
The last one is to speak only with a heart of lovingkindness. I think this should come first.
Once I was annoyed by a senior monk who had an amazingly irritating modus operandi. I had seen how many times in the past people had rejected me when I got a brief together, stacked the evidence up, witnesses and everything, and came from a place of revenge instead of trying to help. So I was determined to wait until there was no aversion in my heart, until it was clear I could bring things to his attention in order to help him see the effect he was having around him. And it literally took me two or three years until it was clear I had no animosity. My mood completely changed, and I thought, “Right! Maybe I’ll just mention these things to him.” I found an informal situation to get together with him, and to my amazement I said things I never would have dreamed of bringing up before. “No, no. I couldn’t touch that one. That’s too risky, too near the bone to bring up.” I found because of an atmosphere of friendship and affiliation, I was able to bring up the most sticky areas. And he was grateful! “Really? Is that the way I come across? I don’t mean that at all. Is that the way people see me? Wow!” No one had said it to him; he had never seen it. That was a great lesson to me: be patient, wait for the right time, until the sense of revenge is gone.
Once we have chosen a way to handle a situation, we must then look at the results of these choices. The four requisites for success the Buddha described are: interest and enthusiasm; energy and effort; thought; contemplation of results. It’s “Was that worthwhile?” To review a situation is very important and often missed.
We get very pressurized and very personal about all sorts of impossible decisions that face us every day. “I’ve got to get it right. It’s my decision. My choice.” The my-ness, the identification, becomes a powerful presence. We fear we are going to get it wrong rather than approaching an action in a reflective way without investing a lot of self in it. We need to look at a path of action as something planted in a garden to see if it comes up, to see if it works. Then you pursue it, put energy into it, follow it through, and look back when it’s done. And then instead of seeing if you personally succeeded or failed, you ask, “Well, did that work?” You don’t invest in success, get all excited over the glories, or take failure personally. You just say, “Well, I won’t do that again.” It’s not a personal crisis, but something to learn from.
We’re ignorant. We are not totally enlightened beings. So even if our intention is good, if we are not enlightened, we can make wrong decisions or decisions based on an incomplete picture, because we just don’t know. By contemplating the results, we digest experiences, how we handle them. How did it go? Is it really helping me or anyone else?
In terms of what we do with our lives, in work or service, we can do many things. We can try to help solve problems on a social level, on the level of causes, by trying to create political or economic change, a change in attitudes, in the system at its roots. Most people work at the effect end: nursing, hospice work, taking care of family and neighbors. Both levels need to be worked on. You can’t say working on the effect is pointless. People often criticize Mother Theresa, “What’s the point of all this effort for people who are right at the end of life?” I’ve always admired her response, “Well, if that was me, I would appreciate it.”
The other part of work is our end of the business: the work on our inner life, on solving the problems and the injustices of our own interior world, the problems of greed and exploitation and malevolence that go on within our own minds and bodies.
Black Elk talks about the Great Peace. Peace between nations can come only when there is peace within the nation, which can come only when there is peace within the family, which can come only when there is peace within the heart of the individual. That is the Great Peace. Then the rest has a chance to happen. Without the Great Peace we can only control, subdue and not arrive at true peace.
Some years ago I was with Ajahn Sumedho, abbot of our monastery in England, on a weekend retreat for peace activists. On the second day a Ph.D. student from Cambridge, whom we had seen always striding purposefully here and there, launched into a diatribe against meditation and monasticism. He was a committed pacifist, a very high-minded character, full of all the right ideas, but he just walked in and laid into us. When he finished, Ajahn Sumedho said, “You just started a war. We were just sitting here, and you came in and started a war. Now what kind of peace activism is that? Don’t you know where war begins? If you aren’t aware of the wars you create, you will never have a good effect on wars generated elsewhere.” Ajahn Sumedho spoke from a place of kindness, but the guy walked off in a huff. I’m sure it stuck in his mind though. He might be at a Dharma talk right now!
A stock criticism made about us is that work on inner life is an evasion, a way of making life pleasant for yourself, not doing your bit to help out. When I first went to live in a very remote monastery in Thailand, I thought, “I’m young. I have an education. I enjoy living here. But what real use is my life, living in the middle of nowhere?” Then I began to appreciate the number of people who came through and the letters we would get. “Just knowing you people are doing what you do and living your life to purify your minds, and bring the Dharma teachings into the world, is tremendously encouraging.”
Even though all we did was get up in the morning, go to the morning chanting, fall asleep, feel guilty, and wake up again and fall asleep again and putter around and sweep the floor and do nothing very much except the bare necessities of life as mindfully as possible to minimize the heedlessness to a bearable chaos, to live like that, to live in a disciplined way by a very, very high moral code was a powerful sign to people. They knew and valued the fact that these places existed.
Suddenly it came to me that this far-away monastery was in the minds of people all over the world, a source of light for them and all the people they touched. And so I thought, “Even if I hang out here and sweep the yard and clean the toilets for the rest of my life, my life will not have been wasted. I could be a temple boy until I am ninety, just serving in the most mundane and mechanical way, and that will be to bring something really good into the world.”
When our own life is more clear and sane, when we are more aware and unselfish, we touch people. I once told a physiology professor, who had terrible doubts about what he was doing, that instead of thinking about feeding the poor, he could look at himself as the bodhisattva of the Physiology Department. No matter where, one person at ease with life provides a real gift. Everyone notices the atmosphere of harmony and respect and sensitivity around someone like that and thinks, “There’s something about that character. Who is that?” One should not underestimate the effect of introducing spiritual qualities into bizarre places. I know someone who plays piano in a hotel, and I encourage him to be the “bodhisattva of the cocktail lounge.”
Our minds have the power to touch each other over infinite distances. Unknown, off in a remote place in the hills, alone in a basement in a city, our minds touch each other. We are all part of the same unified system. So one moment of mindfulness, one moment of letting go of our greed, one moment of letting go of anger—that touches everyone. Every being we are in contact with, every plant, every animal, bird, fish, insect, the whole universe is affected by that action. Just as one violent action, one moment of selfishness affects everything.
The fact that we are unified in the fundamental nature of our own minds should not be underestimated. Our mind is not just a bubble stuck between our ears but something much greater. We don’t own our own minds. Our mind is shared property. It is the mind of the universe where there is no absolute evil. This is where we all meet: in this spaciousness. So the clarity of our minds, in some way, gross or subtle, even though there is not even an idea of us in other people’s minds, will help the clarification of other minds.
Our fundamental nature is pure, is good. So when we do the chant “The Sharing of Blessings,” some people find it strange to share the blessings not only with the good but also the malevolent ones. Society thinks we should punish evil, but the Buddha’s principle is, “Evil is never conquered by evil.” Any condemnation of evil simply strengthens the unwholesomeness that needs to be checked and not empowered. In the moment we condemn another person for being utterly bad, we have lost our connectedness with all things. We have divided the universe up into self and other. So we share the blessings of our life with the Pol Pots and the Hitlers. Goodness will help them. More hatred will not.
The very last line of the lovingkindness teaching isn’t often noticed, seems out of keeping with the rest: “By not holding to fixed views, the pure-hearted one, having clarity and vision, being freed from all sense desire, is not born again into this world.” The development of pure love is done by the letting-go of fixed views. Mahayanaists may think this last line a bit selfish, as if the punch line is, “Just get out of here and don’t bother about all the dummies left behind.” I have a different way of interpreting this line: The mind does not belong to the dualistic world, is not born again into a world of self and other. The bodhisattva is one who is born consciously, in the world yet not attached to it, a being that comes simply out of compassion to help. Instead of, “Whoopee, now I don’t have to bother,” one should think, “Hooray, now I can work freely. I can live and I can help, without hindrance, without self-concern.” The Buddha’s response to complete freedom was not to pig-out, to go eat pancakes. His enlightenment manifested itself in total harmlessness, as renunciation, as restraint and frugality. His response was to live in an amazingly sensitive way and to encourage that kind of virtue, that kind of gentleness and respect at the most practical levels.
The gateway to human life is respectfulness toward the lives of all living things; respectfulness toward other people’s property; restraint with regard to sexuality and to any kind of sensory stimulation; restraint with regard to speech—being honest, being kind, being gentle; to keep the mind as clear and awake as possible and not to take intoxicants. The five precepts are the basis of being human. Otherwise you drift toward a more selfish and insensitive way of living.
So the Buddha’s enlightenment manifested itself as purity of action and speech. That is a powerful archetype for us. And so rather than saying, “There is no evil, so anything goes,” the opposite is true: “Because everything is empty, be incredibly careful.”