Bless Yourself
May 30, 2024

The passage we chanted just now on blessings and protection is one that people like to have chanted at their homes as a blessing for the house or a blessing on their birthdays. The irony is that many times when people ask for a blessing like that, they don’t want to hear about aging, illness, and death, and yet the passage itself says that one way of protecting yourself, one way of blessing yourself, is to be heedful, to realize there are dangers in the world.

The other passage we chanted, the five reflections, gives the impression that this is what the Buddha was thinking about as he left home. He saw that he was subject to aging, illness, and death, that all that he loved was going to be taken away from him, but at that point, the fifth reflection, on kamma, was not yet confirmed. He had faith that maybe it would be possible through human effort to find a way to go beyond aging, illness and death, beyond separation. And as he said, his quest was his quest for what was skillful, what kind of actions would be skillful in that direction. Then when he gained his awakening, he confirmed the fact that, yes, it is possible through our efforts to find something that doesn’t age, doesn’t grow ill, doesn’t die, where there’s no separation at all.

Some people think of nibbāna as the ultimate separation, but it’s not. After all, saṁsāra is not a place. Saṁsāra is an activity, and it’s an addictive activity by which we bump up against one another. There was one time I mentioned that it was translated as “the wandering-on,” and someone said, “It’s more like the bumbling-on.” We keep on making mistakes, we have to live with our mistakes, sometimes learning from them, sometimes not, sometimes remembering the wrong things—like Talleyrand’s comment about the Bourbon dynasty. After they’d been thrown out of France in the French Revolution, they came back in the Restoration after Napoleon was exiled. A lot of them wanted to settle old scores. As Talleyrand commented, they never forgot anything, but they never learned anything.

Most of us are that way. But the Buddha found that there is a way out. We stop the wandering-on, stop this addiction, and when you stop an addiction it’s not the case that you’re separated from a place. You’re freed from the bad consequences of that addiction.

That’s the path that the Buddha lays out. And as we’re on the path, we have to realize that it’s our most valuable possession as we go through this dangerous world. Some of the dangers are physical. The main dangers, though, the Buddha said, are the people who will try to teach you wrong view and try to get you to break your precepts—and those kinds of people are everywhere. But you have to realize, based on the Buddha’s awakening, that he saw that our right view and our virtue can guarantee a good future for ourselves, and a good future for those who follow our example. So those are the things you hold on to. Other things, he said, you can lose them and it’s not all that serious, but if you lose your right view and you lose your virtue, there’s going to be a lot of suffering.

These two qualities, he also said, lie at the basis of mindfulness practice. When you live a virtuous life and you reflect back on your actions, there’s nothing you have to recoil from, nothing you have to hide from yourself. This, of course, makes it easier to remember what you’ve done in the past. You reflect back on the times when you weren’t virtuous and it doesn’t hurt quite so much because you know you’ve changed your habits now. You can look back at your past mistakes and learn more from them. The mind isn’t putting up walls, so it can search back in its memory to figure out what is skillful and what’s not in line with right view. That’s the kind of mindfulness that gives you a good solid foundation and gets the mind into concentration.

So wherever you go, make sure that you maintain these two qualities: virtue, right view. And the fortunate thing is that nobody can take them away from you.

Someone once asked Ajaan Mun, “Can you separate a person’s virtue from his or her mind?”

He said, “No, and it’s a good thing you can’t separate them, because otherwise people would steal one another’s virtues and leave you deprived.” But once you’ve got virtue, it’s really yours. The only way you lose it is if you yourself throw it away. If you’re around people who would like to see you, for some reason or another, kill, steal, have illicit sex, lie, or take intoxicants, know that those are the people who are trying to destroy you, but you don’t have to be destroyed by them. They can’t take your virtue away from you. The same with right view: As long as you hold on to it, nobody can take it from you.

So have a strong sense that these are your most valuable possessions, and they carry in their wake other good qualities as well. As the Buddha said, one of the corollaries of right view is wanting to have goodwill for all. He said one time that having ill will for anyone, seeing that ill will would be a good thing to have, would be wrong view. It’s in this way that right view underlies your virtue, because you realize that you don’t want to harm anybody, you don’t want to do or say or think anything that would cause any harm, and that strengthens your virtue. So make sure that you hold on to these things.

The Buddha also gives other lists of the treasures you can maintain that include virtue and the discernment of right view, along with other qualities that maintain these two: things like conviction, a sense of shame, a sense of compunction, learning, and generosity.

The sense of conviction, of course, means being convinced that the Buddha really did awaken to the truth, and he taught it in such a way that we can put what he taught into practice. He wasn’t engaged in devious or complicated ways of explaining things that were unnecessarily obscure. As he admitted, there are some aspects of the way the mind works which are very complicated, but he was able to draw from them the basic principle that if you act on skillful intentions, the results will be good in the long term; if you act on unskillful intentions, they’ll be bad in the long term. You’ve got to hold to that.

As for shame and compunction: Shame here is not the opposite of pride or self-esteem. It’s the opposite of shamelessness, where you don’t really care what other people think, and in particular, you don’t care what the noble ones think. As the Buddha saw in his awakening, if you give credence to people who are not noble in their opinions, that can lead you to do unskillful things. So you keep in mind those who are noble and you want to look good in their eyes.

That’s one of the ways the Buddha says that you maintain yourself in the practice. He calls it taking the world as a governing principle: lokadhipateyya. You remind yourself that there are people in the world who can read minds. “What would they think if they were reading my mind when I’m thinking of giving up on the practice?” You’d be ashamed to hold on to those thoughts.

Then you realize that their concern for you is based on compassion, that they’re not out there just judging you for the sake of judging you harshly. But they realize if you give up in the path, you’re harming yourself, you’re harming others—so they’d be concerned. So, out of a sense of love and conviction for these people, that these are the people who really do mean you well, you want to behave in a good way.

The same with compunction: This is more a matter of your seeing for yourself that if you act on unskillful intentions, there’s going to be harm down the line, so you just don’t want to do it. It’s your sense of conscience; it’s the opposite of apathy, the opposite of callousness. This quality of compunction, too, is a treasure.

As for learning, that strengthens your right view.

Generosity is a way of showing your goodwill for others because it includes generosity not only with material things, but also with your forgiveness, with your knowledge, with your energy, with your time. This quality of generosity is so basic to the practice that when the Buddha was going to introduce the four noble truths to anybody, he’d start with generosity. As he said, a person who’s stingy can’t even get into the right concentration, much less gain any awakening.

So these are all qualities that strengthen you, that will protect you. These are blessings. Developing them is how you bless yourself. There’s that tradition of referring to the Buddha as the Blessed One. Someone once asked, “Well, who blessed him?” The answer is that he blessed himself. He found how to bring himself true happiness in such a way that he wasn’t the only one who benefited—the blessings spread around. In the same way, when you bless yourself with these genuine treasures, these genuine valuables—virtue and right view—you’re blessing yourself, and the people around you get blessed, too.

We live in a world where there’s so much danger. The other day I was sweeping around the sala and looked out across the valley. It was one of those days when everything was nice and green and fresh. It looked so peaceful. Yet back in the background there was the noise of the artillery in the nearby military base. Or like tonight with the helicopters, to remind you that even though we’ve found a peaceful corner here, we live in a world where there’s a lot of danger lurking behind the surface. But don’t see physical dangers as the worst. The danger of losing your true valuables: That’s what you’ve got to watch out for.

So be heedful. You’ve got something good here to maintain that no one can take away from you. Make sure you don’t throw it away—and don’t allow anybody out there to tell you otherwise. They can tell you, but don’t let them have any influence over you. That’s where you have to stand firm.