You Can Make a Difference
January 18, 2024


January 18, 2024

Ordinarily, the Buddha was not the sort of person who would look for people to debate with, but there were a couple of issues when he would actually approach other teachers and say, “Do you really teach this?” Then he’d point out how destructive it was to teach those things.

There were three cases, one of which was people who taught that everything you experienced in terms of pleasure or pain came from past actions. He approached those people and asked, “Do you really teach this?” They said, “Yes.” Then he sorted out the implications: “Well, in that case: People steal, people kill, have illicit sex, they lie, they drink because of something that’s totally beyond their control—what’s happened in the past.” He says, “When you teach people that, you’re leaving them unprotected and bewildered.”

Now, that statement connects to two other teachings, one having to do with the problem of suffering. As he says, people are bewildered because of their suffering, and they search for a way out—they look for somebody who knows a way to put an end to that suffering. If you’re telling them that what their suffering is, is totally beyond their control—that what’s causing it is already set in motion, you can’t do anything about it—you leave them bewildered. At the same time, you leave them unprotected because if they have any impulses to do things that are unskillful, they feel that they can’t fight the impulses, so they’ll just go along with them.

He said that a teacher’s duty was to protect students, and one of the things he was very adamant about protecting other people from was the belief that you have no power to make a change.

When he talked about his teachings in the most basic terms, it came down to: You should develop skillful qualities and abandon unskillful ones. And you can do that—you have the choice. And you’re going to benefit from choosing to abandon the unskillful ones and to do the skillful ones. This is how he protects you: one, helping you to see that your actions do have consequences, and then, two, pointing out which kinds of actions have good consequences and which kinds have bad.

That’s one of the ways in which we take refuge in the Buddha—in trying to develop right view. As he said, it’s through our views that we develop our intentions, and from our intentions we act. And our intentions and our actions can have long-term consequences—I mean really long.

So, it’s always amazing when you hear people saying, “The Buddha taught that you have no choice, so you shouldn’t try to change things. Just accept things as they are—everything has already been determined by causes and conditions.” The Buddha himself was adamant about arguing against that point, with good reason.

And you wonder why people would have you believe that. Sometimes they say, “Well, it’s because of karma,” or the teaching on karma, that’s the implication. But the way the Buddha explained karma, there are influences coming in from the past, but the way you experience those influences is going to depend on your mental actions and mind state right now. So, even though you may have bad influences coming from the past, you can counteract them, you can minimize them.

He talks mainly about developing an unlimited mind state. You start by developing the brahmavihāras—trying to develop goodwill for all, compassion for all, empathetic joy for all, equanimity for all. You learn to be virtuous, develop discernment, and train your mind so that it’s not overcome by pleasure or by pain. That skill of not being overcome by pleasure or pain relates directly to the practice of concentration.

We do try to give rise to a sense of pleasure here, but we don’t want our minds to be overcome by it, and if you’re going to really do the concentration, that’s going to be an important skill to learn. The unskillful approach while you’re sitting here and the breath gets comfortable, is that you settle in and you fall asleep because you’ve dropped the breath and you’re focusing on the comfort—the comfort has overtaken your mind.

The right way is to create a sense of comfort and then to realize that the comfort’s going to depend on maintaining the proper conditions, i.e., staying focused on the breath. You let the comfort do its work, but your main focus stays with the breath coming in, going out, and the breath energies running through the body. That’s how you train the mind not to be overcome by pleasure.

Training it not to be overcome by pain: Again, there are going to be pains as you sit here—pains in the hip, pains in the knees, pains in your waist, but you don’t let yourself get waylaid by them. You can work around them, you can use the breath to breathe through them, you can use the breath to create a feeling of comfort in other parts of the body where you can focus your attention.

When the mind gets solid enough, you can start investigating its perceptions around the pain: what it pays attention to, what it doesn’t pay attention to, how it pays attention, what’s the skillful way to pay attention to pain? In other words, look for the cause. Particularly, look for the cause of pain that’s felt in the mind.

So, what we’re doing right now is getting practice in how to minimize the effects of past bad karma. Which means that the idea that what we’re going to experience right now is totally dependent on past karma is a distortion of what the Buddha taught.

Sometimes you hear that we shouldn’t try to change things based on the idea that craving is the cause of suffering, and craving means wanting things to be different from what they are—so you just accept things as they are. The Buddha never explained craving that way.

He defined the cause of suffering as craving for three things:

One, for sensuality, in other words, our fascination with thinking sensual thoughts.

Two, for becoming, in other words, focusing on a desire and then developing a sense of you as the person who wants that, and you as the person who may be able to attain that, and then the world in which that desired object can be found—and then you enter into that world. We do this with our thoughts all the time, and the same process happens when we die and are reborn.

Then, three, there’s craving for non-becoming, where you just want to be obliterated. You don’t like who you are. You don’t like the world in which you are, you want to see it all destroyed.

Those are the cravings that cause suffering.

But the desire for things to be different is not listed as a cause for suffering. It’s can actually form part of the path. When there are unskillful qualities in the mind, it’s okay to desire for them to not be there. When there are skillful qualities that are not yet there, it’s okay to want them to come. And if it looks like they’re falling away, it’s okay to try to figure out how to keep them present.

Sometimes the idea that we shouldn’t try to change things, that we should just accept things, that we have no choice, is based on the teaching on not-self, interpreting it as meaning, “Because there is no self, there’s nobody there to change things, so your idea that you have the power to change things is an illusion.” Again, the Buddha never taught that.

There were people in the Buddha’s time who tried to interpret the not-self teaching that way, and he called them fools. Not-self is not about the question of whether there is or is not a self. It’s a question of values: What is worth holding on to as you or yours?

The answer to that question is going to change as you practice. You hold on to your desire for true happiness as long as it motivates you to practice. You hold on to your sense of you as capable of doing the practice, and as someone who will benefit from the practice, and as someone who can watch over your actions and see where they’re skillful and see where they’re not, and offer constructive criticism. All those senses of you are necessary for the path. They’re part of the strategy to get to true happiness. When you’ve gotten there, then you can totally let them go.

So, the idea that you have no choice in the present moment has no real basis in what the Buddha taught. You wonder why people would want to teach it, and wonder why people would want to listen to it and accept it.

Usually it’s offered as saying, “Well, it’s a great relief that you’re not to be blamed for anything.” It’s like saying, “Well, there’s a huge mess right here, but it’s nobody’s fault, so you just live with the mess—can’t do anything about it.” If that’s your main concern—not to be blamed for the mess—then something’s really wrong.

If there’s something that you’re doing that’s making a mess and you can stop, why continue living in the mess? As the Buddha saw: Our minds are a mess, or as he said, our minds are on fire.

And we can put the fire out. That’s what his teachings are all about, why he called his goal *nibbāna, *which means the extinguishing of the fires of greed, fires of aversion, fires of delusion.

The fires are burning, and we can put them out, so don’t just sit there burning away. Adjust the flame. That’s what the image of jhāna is for. *Jhāyati, the verb for doing jhāna, *is also a verb for burning. The usual verb for things that are burning is jalati, which is like the fire of a bonfire, with the flames flickering here, flickering there. Jhāyati is the verb for the burning of the flame of an oil lamp. It’s steady; you can read by it. That’s the kind of fire you want in your mind right now.

So, there are things you can do, skills you can develop, and the Buddha saw it as his gift to us, to remind us that we have the source of suffering inside ourselves. It’s not to lay blame on us, it’s just to point out where the suffering is, and what can be done about it. That’s an act of kindness.

When you look at the Buddha’s teachings you always have to remember: They’re all motivated by goodwill. As he said, there were lots of things he gained in his awakening, lots of knowledges. He said they were like the leaves in the forest; what he taught was the leaves you could hold in one hand. It basically came down to the four noble truths and, as he said, the reason he chose those leaves is because they could help people put an end to suffering.

This means that his goodwill was part of his standard for deciding what to teach, what not to teach. So we should accept his teachings in that frame of mind—having gratitude for someone who was really compassionate and wise, who didn’t have to teach but he taught anyway. You think about all the time and energy he spent, for 45 years, wandering around all over northern India, dealing with the defilements of all the people he met—just so that this teaching could be established in the world.

And remember, he had the choice not to teach. There’s that passage that talks about how, after his awakening, he surveyed the world and saw that it would be really difficult to get people to accept what he had learned. His mind was inclined not to teach. A brahmā saw that and was upset. He came down, got down on one knee, and said, “Please teach, there are those who will see. There are those who have ears and eyes: They’ll understand.” The Buddha surveyed the world and said, “Yes, that’s true.” So he decided to teach.

The commentary gets all tied into knots about this passage: How could the Buddha not want to teach? They come to the conclusion that he was just playing coy. But I think the passage has another meaning: Someone who has gained full awakening has no debts to anybody. If he or she does decide to teach, it’s a gift, a pure gift.

And we should receive the teachings as a pure gift, and appreciate that there are no strings attached. It’s offered freely, by someone who saw that we really need it.

So, as long as we appreciate of the fact that we really need the training, we really need the teaching, we can benefit from it—out of a sense of gratitude for all the difficulties the Buddha went through to establish this teaching in the world so that he could make a difference in the world, and we can make a difference in our lives as well.