A Buddhist Life of Study, Meditation, and Compassionate Service

Sunita Maithreya – India

A truly Buddhist life is an expression of the “Buddhi” and includes mindfulness, true knowledge, meditation, service, and compassion to all life.

When asked to explain the Path in simple words, the Buddha said, “Abstain from all unwholesome deeds perform wholesome ones, purify your mind.” Further, when asked what is “wholesome” and what is “unwholesome,” the Buddha offered a universal definition:  Any action that harms others, that disturbs their peace and harmony, is a sinful action; an unwholesome action.  Any action that helps others, that contributes to their peace and harmony, is a pious action; a wholesome action.

The Buddha also taught us the Four Noble Truths:

First Truth -- In every person’s life misery is greater than happiness

Second Truth -- All misery arises from the hunger and thirst for life

Third Truth -- Each person, without help of priest or scripture, can by their own efforts put an end to the “craving” which causes misery

Fourth Truth -- The Way or the Noble Eightfold Path: Right Belief, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Means of Livelihood, Right Energy, Right Contemplation, and Right Realization, leads to the ending of misery

In his book, The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation As Taught by Shri S.N.Goenka, William Hart says, “The Noble Eightfold Path can be divided into three stages of training, sila, samadhi and panna.  Sila is moral practice, abstention from all unwholesome actions of body and speech.  Samadhi is the practice of concentration, developing the ability to consciously direct and control one’s own mental processes. Panna is wisdom, the development of purifying insight into one’s own nature.”

Returning to sila, we learn that three parts of the Noble Eightfold Path fall within the training of sila.  These are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Means of Livelihood.

Hart says that Right Speech would imply abstinence from telling lies, carrying tales that see friends at odds, backbiting and slander, speaking harsh words that disturb others and have no beneficial effect, and idle gossip, meaningless chatter that wastes one’s own time and the time of others.  The Buddha extolled the virtues of Right Speech.

Right Action is summarized by the pansil of Buddhism. The Buddha is said to have spoken thus: “Laying aside the rod and sword he is careful to harm none, full of kindness, seeking the good of all living creatures. Free of stealth, he himself lives like a pure being.” The pansil may seem like a religious precept alone to some, but some of the practical aspects we are asked to abstain from are killing, theft, sexual misconduct, false speech, and intoxicants.

Killing seems a horrible thing to do. It does not seem that bad a thing for people to say. It seems even somewhat normal for people to think. This is where the problem arises. Movies show what we think. They show killing. It seems okay if it is only a movie and something apart from us. It becomes difficult to say whether movies are based on life or whether lives are shaped by movies. Television, radio, newspapers, and hoardings—all these shape the way we think. They are constantly making suggestions to our subconscious mind. We obey their commands, sometimes unwillingly.  That is why a terrorist kills.  If the consequences of the crime are terrible, so are the causes.  You and I are the various causes of crime, killing, and terrorism. We are bystanders when humans are killed, when animals are killed and when trees are felled. The society that allows killing in movies, that allows killing on television, and that allows killing through its media has the responsibility of the actual act of killing.  Even if the murderer is convicted, karma will convict the society as a whole.

“Theft” does not only mean breaking into anyone’s house. It is not just the theft of a hungry man for food. The pansil goes into great depth. Theft is committed by the rich and famous. It manifests as the taxes you evade. It is the money you deprive your servants and subordinates of.  It is the bribe you give to corrupt officials in return for favors. Theft could be financial, political, and social. 

“Sexual misconduct” is not only the extreme crime of rape. It also does not stop with adultery. It has to do with the way we look at people. It means sexual harassment at the workplace. It implies the use of woman as a sex symbol in advertisements. Woman is exhorted to burst the bonds of sexual slavery in the Mahatma Letters. This means equality of man and woman. 

“False speech” reminds us of the motto of the Theosophical Society, “There is no religion higher than truth.”  Inaccuracy, exaggeration, white lies, false compliments, the list is endless; all these are untruths.

“Intoxication” is not just alcoholism and addiction. Intoxication can be a psychological problem. It destroys both the mind and the body. 

Sila, also includes Right Means of Livelihood. William Hart, in his book, says, “Neither directly nor indirectly should our means of livelihood involve injury to other beings. Thus any livelihood that requires killing whether of human beings or of animals is clearly not right livelihood.”  Dealing in animals, meat, leather, fur and silk all involve wrong means of livelihood. Dealing in carcinogenic products, addictive products like alcohol and narcotics, food causing harm to the body, and so on, would not be right means of livelihood. Trafficking in arms and ammunition is wrong. Vivisection for research amounts to using the wrong means. Overcharging those incapable of paying is wrong. Investing in any business involving all this is also wrong. Therefore we need to examine closely what we do to earn our livelihood. 

Let us turn from sila to samadhi and panna. Panna includes Right Thought and Right Belief. Right Thought is very important, as a person and their karma are related by their thoughts. According to the Dhamma, mental action is most important. Motive and intention propel and give energy to action. 

Right Belief or right understanding are also very important for a holistic or truly Buddhist life.  Apart from what is right or wrong to believe, we need to look at the very nature of that belief.  Is it second-hand, is it merely intellectual, or is it out of one’s own experience? Experience is very important.

Next is Right Energy which takes us to raga or dvesa. Patanjali says that we should not get drawn to either. Vipassana too says that we should not be swayed by either craving or aversion.  If we look at life, we are constantly making choices of like and dislike. This makes us seek pleasure and avoid pain. Equanimity is important as a state of mind.

Right Contemplation or right awareness implies “Self-control as to the Mind.” The mind is called “the great Slayer of the Real.” Therefore, the thoughts we think are important to observe.  The modifications of the mind are to be inhibited as yoga demands. This will take us to the last three parts of the eightfold yoga [Ashtanga Yoga] namely, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, together called samyama. 

Right Realization is the final step on the Noble Eightfold Path. It is important that the purpose of this realization is not selfish, but for the sake of humanity. Samadhi is not to be aspired for as a personal experience. It is the gift and hope for humanity, as a whole.

The Buddha is believed to have said:

“From right understanding proceeds right thought;
from right thought proceeds right speech;
from right speech proceeds right action;
from right action proceeds right livelihood;
from right livelihood proceeds right effort;
from right effort proceeds right awareness;
from right awareness proceeds right concentration;
from right concentration proceeds right wisdom;
from right wisdom proceeds right liberation.”

May the Great Ones bless us with wisdom, peace, and compassion.


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