The Buddha’s Rules of Order
January 26, 2024

As we sit here, we have influences coming in from the past, and then we have our skills in the present moment. The skills are primarily in the three kinds of fabrication—bodily, the way you breathe; verbal, the way you talk to yourself; and then mental, the perceptions and the feelings you focus on. They’re all important.

For instance, with the breath: When a strong emotion comes on, you can’t just talk yourself out of the emotion. You have to realize that the emotion has hijacked your breath and you’ve got to get it back. Otherwise, you feel like the emotion is penetrating your whole body, and the voice of reason has very little purchase there. So you’ve got to get the breath back on your side.

The perceptions you hold in mind are also important. They’re like the subliminal messages they put on TV. They blip very quickly, but your mind can pick them up. Deeper parts of the mind pick them up, and those images can drive you.

I think I’ve told you about the time I was visiting someone and he was watching a show on Fox. During the advertisement for the late-night news, there was a big white panel above the heads of the announcers, and on the panel they kept flashing: “Be afraid, be afraid, be afraid.” So I mentioned to my friend, “My gosh! They’re getting awfully blatant now, aren’t they?” He said, “Oh yeah, that’s just Fox.” I said, “No, did you see the message?” His conscious mind didn’t see it. But those perceptions can speak to your subconscious mind, and they can worm their way into your attitudes. So you have to be very careful about the perceptions you hold in mind.

And it’s good to learn new perceptions. This is why the Buddha gives so many similes, stories, analogies, for you to stock your mind with new perceptions.

Then there’s verbal fabrication. Ajaan Lee points to this as being probably the most detrimental of the three fabrications if you haven’t trained it. The way you talk to yourself can ruin your state of mind. You may be in a perfectly good situation, but you can talk yourself into being miserable. You have to be very careful about how you talk to yourself.

Here again, it’s good to think of the committee of the mind, that not every voice in there is yours, and not every voice in there means you well. You’ve picked up voices from people who didn’t mean you well, some of who may have been very close to you. They worm their way into your thinking. So it helps to see them as committee voices.

Then you can think about having rules of order for your committee. Just as they have Robert’s Rules of Order in the outside world, you can use the Buddha’s rules of order in your inner conversations.

The basic rules come down to three: What you tell yourself has to be true, has to be beneficial, and has to be timely. Anything else that doesn’t meet with those qualifications, you say, “I’m not going to listen to it.” It may be shouting in your inner ears, but at least you have a defense against it.

Of course, a lot of times our perceptions of what’s true can be really distorted. So you have to keep checking again and again and again to make sure they are true.

This is the difference between truth in the precept against lying, and truth as a perfection. Truth in the precept against lying means that as long as you think what you say is true, then it’s okay. You don’t break the precept. But in the perfection of truth, you have to find what really is true. So you have to figure out how to test it. As I say, don’t believe that everything you think is true. Put a little question mark next to it.

But if there’s something you’re 100% convinced is true, then the next step is, is it beneficial?

You hear so much written about the inner critic, and how we have to get rid of our inner critic, but that’s not the case. We have to learn how to train the inner critic so that what it has to say is beneficial, because criticism can be helpful. That’s how people learn. But it has to be intended to be helpful. You have to question it: “What’s its purpose?” You have to ask these voices, “What is your intention?” Sometimes a voice will come in and it’ll sound like Dhamma and it’ll come down really hard on you, making you feel that it’s impossible for you to practice, so you might as well give up. That’s not a compassionate intention. You want a critic that means you well.

So again, it’s good to sort through the voices in your mind and identify where you’ve picked up certain attitudes. And do those people really mean you well? Then you look at the criticism itself: “Is this helpful? Does this show where there are areas that I can improve? And has it come up with ideas about how I can carry through with that improvement?” That’s the second test, the second rule of order.

Finally, the third one is, it has to be timely. In other words, there are times when you need to be soothed, other times when you need to be sharply criticized. There are times when the mind is just not ready to take certain criticism, or has to take it sugar-coated. We see this with other people. Well, it’s the same with us. There are times when you need to learn how to present criticism to yourself in a well-meaning way, in a gentle way, and also to point out the good things you’re doing.

So many people have an inner commentator that doesn’t want to comment on what they’ve done well, but is always looking for what they’ve done wrong. But think of the inner commentator that the Buddha taught to Rahula: “This action that I’m about to do, what are the consequences going to be?” “This action that I’m doing, what are the consequences coming up?” “This action that I’ve done, what were the long-term consequences?” If you see that the action was harmful, then you note that it was harmful, that it was a mistake, and then you go talk it over with someone else who is more advanced on the path. That way you get a better attitude on how you can critique what you did, and get some good ideas for improvement. If you see, though, that the action did not cause any harm, then you take joy in that fact.

Notice the phrasing there: “This action that I am about to do, that I am doing, that I have done.” There’s “I”, “I”, “I” in there. Sometimes we’re told that if you have the idea that you’re doing the practice, that’s wrong view. In that case, the Buddha had wrong view because he suggested you use that sense of “I” to point out that you are responsible, that you are an agent. Sometimes it’s good to stop and take some joy in the fact that you do have agency. You can make a difference and you’re happy to make a good difference.

So when you’ve done something well, note that fact and have some joy in the fact that you are improving. There are times when you need to be focusing on the good things, the things that are pleasant. That’s the right time and place for that. There are other times, of course, when you’ve done something wrong. But here again, noting that you’ve done something wrong has to be done out of compassion because you want to do things right, and you want to be harmless to yourself and to others. So even strong criticism has to come from compassion.

What this means is that in your internal conversations, follow the Buddha’s rules of order. You’re listening to what’s true and beneficial all the time, and what’s pleasant and unpleasant at the right time. That kind of conversation can make light of bad situations and keep good situations from going sour. After all, we do have this power within ourselves. We do have this agency. We do shape things here in the present moment, how we’re processing the information that’s coming in through the senses, i.e., how we’re processing the results of our past actions. So learn to talk to yourself in a way that makes that agency worthwhile, makes it helpful, so that you can continue to take joy in the fact that you can make a difference. And the difference can be really good.