January 25, 2024

One of my students mentioned to an acquaintance that she was Buddhist, and the acquaintance said, “Oh, that means you try to accept everything, right?” And her answer, of course, was No. But it is interesting that that’s the common perception about Buddhists now. We accept, accept, accept. Which is really strange when you look at the Buddha’s awakening.

If he’d stopped with his first knowledge, seeing how he had been reborn many times in many different ways, he might have taught a doctrine of acceptance that you had to accept the fact that rebirth went up and down. But he didn’t accept that. He accepted the truth of the proposition. But the question was, how could you keep from going down?

That led to his second knowledge, when he saw beings throughout the universe being reborn, after their death, in line with their actions: actions in the past; actions in the present moment. So there you are. Your actions do make a difference. You can act in skillful ways and not have to suffer. But he wanted to see if you could put an end to suffering entirely. That led to his third knowledge, the four noble truths.

The important part of the four noble truths is that they have duties. Suffering is to be comprehended. Craving, its cause, is to be abandoned. Cessation, dispassion for craving, is to be realized. You do that by developing the path. So there are things you have to do in order to gain awakening. You have to do all these duties. When the Buddha realized that he had finished those duties, completed them, that’s when he knew he was awakened.

So the awakening is all about the power of action, the role of the mind in acting, and what goes on in the mind as you act. In other words, your actions are your intentions. They’re based on your views, and your views have a lot to do with who you associate with, who you listen to, who you respect. That’s the workings of the mind.

Then there’s a question of values: What’s the best thing to do with a mind that works in this way? To put an end suffering. So the Buddha is basically saying you have some power, this is how it gets used, this how it gets abused, and this is how you can use it skillfully.

So the teaching is not just about accepting. You accept the fact that this is the way things work, but then you work them to your advantage.

So when the Buddha taught things like acceptance and contentment, these weren’t blanket principles. Some things he said you should accept and you should be content with, other things he said you shouldn’t.

In terms of contentment, he would talk about how you should be content with the food, clothing, and shelter you have. As long as it’s good enough to practice, it’s good enough. But as for what’s going on in the mind, if there are unskillful habits, unskillful urges in the mind, you try to abandon them. You’re not content that they’re there. You don’t accept them. You don’t let them stay. You wipe them out of existence, he says. And you don’t let yourself stay content with the level of your practice. If there’s more to be done, you look for a way to do it. This doesn’t mean you try to rush through the steps, because some of the steps can’t be rushed. But you set that as your goal and then you learn how to work toward that goal in a mature way.

Other things to accept: the fact that there will be unkind speech in this world. You’ve got to learn how to train your mind not to be affected by other people’s unkind, false, or deceptive words. You don’t stab yourself with their words.

You also learn to accept the fact that there will be physical pain in life, but then again, you don’t just sit there with the pain. You learn how not to let it invade your mind or remain.

When someone has died, you accept the fact of their death.

There’s a great story in the Jatakas of a king who was very much in love with his queen, but then she dies. He’s so attached to her that he keeps the body in his room. The courtiers are upset by this. So they find a monk who’s psychic, who can find out where the queen has gone. It turns out she’s been reborn as a little tiny worm. So the monk gets the worm to talk to the king. He translates for the worm and asks it, “Do you miss the king?” And the worm says, “Oh no, I’ve got a new husband. I’m perfectly content with my new husband, another worm.” That’s when the king decides he can dispose of the body and can accept the fact that his queen has died.

So there are some things you accept and some things you don’t. This fits in with the principle that there are influences coming from your past actions that shape your present moment to some extent. But you play a large role in taking those influences and actually shaping your experience of the present moment. So the Buddha has you focus on the skills that you can use right now. You learn how to get the mind into concentration, how you get the mind to become more mindful, more discerning: all these skills that we work on as we meditate.

So when we find that the mind is not getting concentrated, we don’t just sit there and accept it. We say, “Okay, what’s wrong?” We try to figure things out. If the mind won’t stay with the breath, is there something wrong with the breath? How about the mind? Is it carrying around some moods from the day? What can you do to put those moods aside? You can change the way you think, you can change the way you breathe, you can change the feelings and perceptions you focus on and hold in mind: all these ways of fabricating the present moment.

This is why the Buddha’s teachings take the form they do. There are instructions on how to breathe. There are lots of instructions on how to think, how to talk to yourself. And then the Buddha gives you all those similes and analogies: Those are the mental fabrications, the perceptions he wants you to use. He provides guidance in how to develop these skills.

It’s like being a sculptor. You’ve got a piece of marble. The marble may have some cracks here and there, it may have a peculiar shape, and if you’re not very skilled, you can’t make much out of it. But if you’re skilled, you might make something really good. There are many stories about sculptors who tried to work on a piece of marble and it just didn’t work. Then other sculptors came along, took the same piece of marble, and made something really beautiful.

So you want to work on your skills right here and now, because they do make a difference and they can take advantages of potentials that can’t be tapped by people without skills. This, the Buddha said, is one of the most important parts of his teaching, that what you’re experiencing right now is not totally determined by outside factors beyond your control.

We often hear that the Buddha taught that past karma totally shapes the present moment. You hear it again and again: what you’re experiencing now is the result of past karma, what you’re doing now will shape things in the future. But the Buddha actually attacked that view. He said instead that what you do right now can shape right now. He said that if you don’t believe that, you’re left unprotected. In other words, whatever comes up, you just have to accept. You have to just sit with it. And it sometimes can be pretty bad.

He’s basically teaching you that you can change things: Change your attitude to what you’re doing, change the way you breathe, change the way you talk to yourself, and it’ll change what you’re experiencing. You can change it so well that you can end up not suffering at all, even from really bad things coming from the past. That was the good news of the Buddha’s awakening.

So when you hear that Buddhism teaches x, always ask yourself, “How does that relate to the awakening?” Of course, you have to be clear about what the awakening entails. Sometimes we’re told that the Buddha awakened to the three characteristics, that this is the way things are: There’s nobody there. Nothing’s permanent. That teaching on its own makes it sound like you just have to accept things.

But the Buddha awakened to the four noble truths. The three characteristics or the three perceptions played a role in fulfilling the duties for the four noble truths, which means that they’re meant to be approached as strategies, as perceptions you apply for the purpose of completing the duties. The Buddha never called them characteristics. They’re perceptions that you can apply in your quest to abandon craving and to comprehend suffering. But they’re in the context of what he did in the course of his awakening. This is one of the reasons why the Buddha left autobiographical accounts of how he attained awakening: all about what he did and the good results he gained by learning from his mistakes, by taking his actions seriously.

One of the reasons we may be told that we have to accept things is that people say we’re very tender psychologically. We don’t like to be judged. Many of us have been judged unmercifully, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use our own powers of judgment and that we can’t learn to use them skillfully. We can get so much more out of our meditation when we look at it that way. After all, the four noble truths are a group of value judgments: You abandon craving because you want to get rid of suffering. Suffering is a bad thing. And you’ve been creating it because you’re ignorant about what you’re doing. But you can follow the path. The path is something really good to follow because it leads to the total end of suffering, which is really a good thing.

So the Buddha shows you how the mind works and then gives you some good ideas about how to get the best use out of those workings. He teaches you values. He teaches you to develop your powers of judgment so that you can get the most out of these potentials you have.