In Training
July 01, 2024

In the instructions given to a new monk, there’s one theme that’s stressed over and over again, and that’s that the Buddha’s teaching is a training: It’s a how-to teaching. The Buddha doesn’t give too much information about the universe “out there.” In fact, this is one of the ways in which his teaching was very different from the other teachings taught at the time.

There’s a story of a king who goes to different teachers and asks them, “What is the fruit of the contemplative life? This path that you’ve taken on—what good does it do?” The teachers, instead of answering his question, just give a canned version of their account of what the universe is like. Usually it comes down to the fact that human action plays no role at all. The universe is run just by elements interacting, or forces coming in from the past, giving you no room for your choices, no room for making a difference. You just have to accept that fact and then do whatever you want, with no fear of any consequences.

As the king later told the Buddha, it was as if he had asked about a jackfruit and they’d answered with a mango, or if he’d asked about a mango and they’d answered with a jackfruit. In other words, there was no “fruit” of a contemplative life that he could figure out from what they had to say.

But when he came to the Buddha, the Buddha gave him a very detailed account of what the training of a monk was like. Starting with the precepts, he went into a lot of detail.

In fact, some of the details of the precepts he taught to the king are not even in the Vinaya. He describes right action, right speech, right livelihood, training in contentment, training in mindfulness and alertness, training in concentration, training in the skills that come from concentration, and finally release: That’s the fruit of the contemplative life, the highest of the fruits.

As for the universe out there, the Buddha has almost nothing to say in that sutta. In other suttas where he talks about the universe, he gives just a sketch. He never gives a full account of the different levels of being. He just indicates that there are different levels, names a few of them, and then comments that they all come from your actions. That’s the point he focuses on a lot: that your actions, instead of accounting for nothing, actually are the prime force shaping your experience of the universe. Your skillful actions based on skillful intentions will lead to good consequences. Unskillful actions based on unskillful intentions will lead to bad consequences.

It’s a simple-sounding principle, but it gets pretty complex in the working-out, especially given that there are times when an unskillful action will give pleasant results in the immediate present. Even though acting on greed, aversion, and delusion is not pleasant in and of itself, still it can lead to other sensual pleasures in the short-run, other kinds of pleasures that last for at least a little while.

The same with skillful actions: Sometimes they’re difficult. The fact that you’re acting on a skillful intention is pleasant in and of itself—it feels good not to be giving in to greed, aversion, and delusion—but it may be hard and lead to short-term setbacks.

This is why there’s so much confusion about the nature of your actions and what their powers are. So here the Buddha says he wants to teach you right view. He can’t teach you knowledge about kamma. Knowledge about kamma comes later, when you actually practice the skills of the training.

But he can teach you ahead of time about right view—in other words, something you take on conviction because it makes sense. You don’t know for sure that it’s true, but you know that if you take it on as your working hypothesis, you’re going to act in honorable ways that you feel good about—so you take it on.

Everything else comes from there. The four noble truths come down basically to what kind of kamma leads to suffering and what kind of kamma leads to the end of suffering.

More detailed instructions, like dependent co-arising, place a lot of emphasis on the factors that occur prior to your sensory contact. In other words, it’s not just the case that you see something nice and it gives rise to greed, or you hear something you don’t like and it gives rise to anger. Sometimes the mind is primed. It’s looking for something to get lustful about. It’s looking for something to get angry about. And it’ll latch on to anything.

If you dig around into the factors in dependent co-arising prior to sensory contact, you find that intention plays a big role. The teaching is all about intentional action and how to train your actions so that they lead to a true happiness—a happiness that doesn’t disappoint, a happiness that doesn’t change.

So that’s what we should focus on—getting trained. Now, the word training implies discipline. In fact, that’s what the monks’ rules are called—*Vinaya. *It means a disciplining.

There’s a part of the mind that rebels against the idea of discipline and says, “I’d like to have some freedom.” Well, what kind of freedom are you looking for? The freedom just to do what you want? If that’s your freedom, then you’re a slave to craving—as we chant again and again and again.

It’s good not to see discipline as something being imposed from outside; it’s something you take on voluntarily.

It means that you sort through your desires and you decide that some desires are more worth listening to, more worth following than others. You don’t analyze them just as an idle pastime, you decide that you’re going to make those desires paramount, and that you’re going to be willing to give up everything else—all your other desires—for the sake of the ones that really are in your best interests.

So, when you run into the rules, don’t think of them as obstacles imposed from outside. Think of them as being channels for freedom. Because freedom from your desires means that you’ve reached a point where you don’t need to desire anything anymore. Imagine what that’s like.

The ajaans talk about the pleasures of nibbāna, how amazing it is. Ajaan Maha Boowa once said that if he could take nibbāna out and show it to other people, nobody would want anything else. So you’re looking for that kind of freedom. You’re training for that kind of freedom.

You’re following that old principle that if there’s a more abundant happiness that comes from forsaking a lesser happiness, you’re willing to forsake the lesser happiness for the sake of the abundant one. It’s not a strange or exotic principle—it’s very commonsensical—but how many people live their lives in a commonsensical way?

The life of a monk is designed to help you devote all your time to the pursuit of the more abundant happiness. As for those who can’t take on the life of a monk, to whatever extent you do devote yourself to the training, it’s all to the good.

So it’s a matter of sorting through your desires. The Buddha teaches dispassion as the ultimate Dhamma; Ven. Sariputta said the teaching was all about the subduing of desire and passion. That doesn’t mean that the Buddha tells you not to desire anything at all from the get-go. It means thinking very carefully about desire—desires, plural—and getting both your heart and your mind acting together in deciding which desires to follow. Your heart wants true happiness, but it needs help from your head because it tends to want every kind of pleasure imaginable.

You need your head here to remind yourself that some pleasures get in the way of others. It’s like planting a garden with all kinds of flowers, all kinds of trees. There are some trees that can poison and kill other plants. You plant a eucalyptus tree or a couple of pine trees, and they’ll kill everything else. You’ve got to decide that if you want things that are nicer, you’ve got to keep the eucalyptus out, you’ve got to keep the pine trees out. It’s a matter of sorting through and figuring out which plants really are worth growing.

It’s the same in the mind. There are a lot of things that you could want. And you’re going to find that it’s going to get frustrating sometimes: Old desires come out of nowhere and you have to learn how to wrestle them down.

That’s why one of the topics the preceptor teaches is the first five of the parts of the body that we chant about—hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin—to remind you that whatever you might lust for is basically just that. Nothing more. If you took them apart piece by piece by piece, what would there be to lust for? So why does the mind want to put them back together again, and dress them up in a way that’s really contrary to their nature?

This is a lot of what the teaching is about: focusing on your unskillful desires and taking them apart. When the Buddha teaches his impersonal teachings—where he doesn’t talk about a person doing x in a particular place, but about different events in the mind influencing other events in the mind—it’s basically to help you step back from them and say, “Okay, I thought I was doing this, and as long as I felt that it was me doing it, I was going to do it. I was going to stick with it.” But, if you can just see it as an event and can see that it’s not worth it—that’s a lot of what the teaching on non-self is, it’s a value judgment—then you can let go of it. You can step back and say, “I have the choice of identifying with this or not. If I identify with it, there’s going to be suffering. It’s going to be stressful. It could lead me to do all kinds of unskillful things. Why take it on?”

Again, you’re sorting through your desires and choosing the ones you think will give better results, based not only on your own perceptions, but also on what you’ve learned from those you respect. That’s what the training is all about.

So when you come to practice the Dhamma, think of yourself as being in training. All the teachings we learn, even the abstract-seeming ones, are there to help with the training. They’re part of the “how to” that the Buddha taught. When you see them from that angle, you’ll be best prepared to apply them in the most effective way.