1 : The Wisdom of Goodness

December 15, 2017

It used to be that people thought that Buddhism was very pessimistic and talked about nothing but suffering, suffering, suffering. Nowadays, though, people are beginning to realize that the Buddha was actually talking about happiness. He talked about suffering because he wanted people to understand that there is suffering in life but that it’s also possible to find happiness in spite of the suffering. In fact, his teachings are all aimed at happiness. It’s just that we have to comprehend suffering before we can find a happiness that’s genuine and true.

But still, people often interpret the Buddha’s teachings on happiness as being quite defeatist and pessimistic—in other words, teaching that, because things change and are impermanent, we have to learn how to accept the way they are. If you can be at ease with the way they are, then you’ll be happy. That’s what they say, but that’s still pretty miserable. It gives the impression that there’s really nothing that we can do about change, and so there’s no long-term happiness in life, no deeper happiness, no special happiness in life at all. All we can do is just be very passive and accept whatever comes up—which is very pessimistic.

The Buddha actually taught something much more daring and of much greater value, which is there is a happiness that we can attain through our efforts, something that’s not dependent on conditions; something that lies beyond the normal pleasures that come and go, a happiness that doesn’t change. The happiness he actually teaches is something that lies deeper in the heart.

The idea that we simply have to accept that things come and go, I think, comes from taking what we might call the Buddha’s two wisdom teachings—which are the three characteristics and the four noble truths—and putting the three characteristics first, and the four noble truths second. In other words, according to this interpretation, the Buddha’s basic principles are that things are inconstant or impermanent; things are stressful; things are not-self. In fact sometimes this is often defined as what right view is. Then the four noble truths—about suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation—are interpreted to fit into those principles. But when people fall into this interpretation, there are several conclusions they come to.

One is interpreting the teaching on not-self as a no-self teaching—i.e., that there really is no self; there is no agent here. We’re simply on the receiving end of things coming in, depending on conditions, and we have no agency in changing anything. That is one of the conclusions that’s drawn.

The second conclusion is that suffering comes from not being okay with change, from thinking that you have the power to change things. But if you accept that change is going to happen and can learn how to be okay with it, then you won’t suffer.

Based on this interpretation is the idea that clinging means that you don’t realize that things are impermanent, so you hold on hoping that they’ll be permanent; but if you’re okay with the fact that things are going to change, then you’re not really clinging. You’re just embracing things lightly and letting them go as they pass.

But if you’ve ever noticed, when people cling, they don’t always cling with the idea that things are permanent. The two big things that we cling to in life are food and sex, right? Does anyone think food is permanent? No. Does anyone think sex is permanent? No. We all know that these things are impermanent and yet we still cling anyhow. In fact, knowing that they’re impermanent makes us cling all the more. We cling not because we think they are permanent but because we think that the effort that goes into clinging is worth it. The Buddha says we cling because of the pleasure we get out of things, with the idea that the pleasure we gain from holding on is worth the effort that goes into the clinging.

Now, in general, human beings are pretty bad at calculating what’s worth the effort and what’s not. I live in America and when I out into the forest, I go to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. On the way there, I have to ride through Las Vegas. And Las Vegas is an excellent example of people not knowing what’s worth the effort. Someone once said that what he liked about Las Vegas was that Las Vegas is very honest. The signs on the road leading there say, “93% payback rate.” You know what they’re telling you, right? You give them one dollar, and they’ll give you 93 cents back. And yet, every Friday night, people go, go, go to Las Vegas. Every Sunday, the traffic jam coming back from Las Vegas is incredible. We’re very bad judges of what’s worth doing in our lives.

There was once a positive psychologist—the kind of psychologist who studies why people can be happy or what they do to be happy. He would ask people, “What makes you happy in life?” and they would give him a list of answers. And then, if he actually interviewed them while they were experiencing those things and ask, “Are you happy?” the answer would be, “Well, not so happy.” And yet later, people would still say, “This is what makes me happy.”

You can think about the meal that you’re going to have after this talk tonight. Singapore is a food haven, and you can have a whole world available to you, so you can think about that for the entire hour: “I’d like to have some pizza and maybe some Szechuan food” or whatever. You can enjoy thinking about these things for the whole hour and miss the Dhamma talk entirely. And then when you go out, the eating is very short: quick quick, eat eat, and then you go. Not much pleasure.

And so this psychologist was saying to himself, “Why is it that these people are such bad judges of what makes them happy?” Then he thought about himself: He likes to climb mountains. Now, if there’s anything that’s stupid, it’s climbing mountains. You get to the top then you have to go down. That’s it. And a lot of effort goes into getting to the top and a lot that goes into coming back down. And he realized that while he was doing it, he was actually pretty miserable. But then he would come back to work and couldn’t wait for the next chance to go climb a mountain.

So clinging comes basically from bad judgement. We think that something is going to be worth the effort, and so we hold on to it—we keep doing it repeatedly—and yet it’s not really worth the effort at all.

This is why the Buddha’s teaching us to look carefully at why we cling to things—not because we think that they’re going to be permanent, but because we think the effort that goes into the clinging is going to be worth it.

So the whole purpose of his teaching is not to accept things as there are. Instead, the teaching aims at helping us develop our powers of judgment so that we become better judges of what is worth the effort. And this better judgment comes when, instead of putting the three characteristics first, we put the four noble truths first. The four noble truths are based on the realization that, yes, we are active in our approach to life. We don’t just sit here and receive things coming in. We’re more proactive. As the Buddha said, all dhammas are based on desire. Everything we experience in life is based on desire of one kind or another. Our sense of who we are and our sense of the world around us is based on our desires.

I’ll give you an example. My brother is an alcoholic. One time, he came to visit me at the monastery, and as we were driving from the airport through the nearby town, we went past the one place in town where they sell liquor. Now, I had never really paid attention to this place, as I wasn’t interested. But as soon as we drove past, my brother said: “Geoff, can I borrow your car tomorrow?” I said “No.” I’d been his brother long enough. I knew what he was thinking. But his world is different from mine. As they say: If an alcoholic goes into a house, he knows very quickly where the alcohol is kept. If a monk goes into a house, he knows very quickly where the dark chocolate is kept. Our experience or our sense of the world is dependent on our desires. Our sense of who we are is also dependent on our desires. What the Buddha is telling us in the four noble truths is that we have to look at our desires to see: Are they leading to happiness or are they leading to suffering?

Now, we all know that the Buddha said that suffering is based on three kinds of craving: craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, craving for not becoming.

Sensuality is what I talked about just now. It’s thinking about sensual pleasures. It’s our fascination with planning our next meal, our next trip, our next whatever the sensual pleasure is going to be. The problem is not necessarily the pleasure itself. The problem is our fascination with thinking about it. Again, you can think about tonight’s meal for the whole hour and make different changes to your plans for what you’re going to eat and where you’re going to eat it. The meal itself is not so much the problem. It’s the amount of time and effort that’s put into thinking about it.

As for craving for becoming, the word “becoming” basically means your sense of who you are in a particular world of experience, and that’s going to be based on a desire, too. If you have a desire for pizza, then who you are is, one, the person who will enjoy the pizza and, two, the person who has the ability to obtain the pizza: in other words, you as the consumer and you as the provider. That’s your sense of who you are. The world around you, as far as it’s relevant to this particular becoming, is what’s going to be helpful in getting the pizza and what’s getting in the way. Anything that’s not related to pizza is totally irrelevant in that particular world.

Once you have the pizza, then what’s next? There will be other desires, and there will be a different you and a different world dependent on which desire you focus on. Sometimes you have conflicting desires at the same time, which is why we have conflict inside—conflict between different senses of who you are— which also leads to conflict in the world outside.

So, basically, this is what the Buddha means by the word, “becoming”: a sense of who you are and the world you inhabit. To crave that is a kind of craving that would lead to suffering.

And then there’s craving for not becoming. You get into a particular sense of who you are or a particular sense of the world, and you don’t like it. You want to abolish it. That’s craving for not becoming.

The Buddha says we suffer because of these three different kinds of craving. That’s the second noble truth. But not all craving is bad. The craving to gain awakening is actually part of the path. The craving to get rid of unskillful thoughts and to develop skillful thoughts in your mind: This is all part of right effort, which is part of the path, the fourth noble truth.

So what the Buddha is doing with the four noble truths is teaching us to look at our desires, realizing that our desires are going to shape our sense of who we are and the world that we live in, and they can go in two very different directions: either leading to happiness or leading to suffering.

When the Buddha explains this as part of the four noble truths, on the unskillful side he lists the desire as the three kinds of craving: Those are the cause of suffering. Then there’s the suffering that comes as a result. That’s one side. On the other side, the skillful side, is the desire that’s part of right effort, part of the path to end of suffering; and then the end of suffering is the result. So that’s how we’ve got four noble truths.

Now, each of the four noble truths carries a duty. The duty with regard to suffering is to comprehend it—in other words, to understand it, to understand it so thoroughly that you finally don’t feel a passion for it anymore. We don’t usually think that we’re passionate for suffering, but then you look at how people suffer again and again and yet they keep going back to things that make themselves suffer: That’s because there is passion there.

When the Buddha talks about craving and clinging, he’s basically talking about our addiction to things from which we’ve suffered before but we keep going back. So the duty there is to comprehend that there really is suffering in that clinging: in the things we hold on to, and in the holding on.

The duty with regard to the cause of suffering is to abandon it. When we see the craving arise, we should see it as something we should get rid of. These are the activities we have to do.

Now, our problem with these first two noble truths is that usually we get them backwards. We think that suffering is our enemy and craving is our friend. As Ajaan Suwat said, “No, you’ve got it backwards. You have to see craving as your enemy and suffering as your friend—your friend in the sense that you want to get to know it well, to understand it. When you understand it, then you can go beyond it.” For most of us, when we see suffering, we try to get rid of the suffering right away. This is the wrong duty. It’s like going into your house, seeing your house full of smoke—and trying to put out the smoke. If you don’t look for the fire, you can keep on putting out the smoke, putting out the smoke, but it’s never going to end the smoke. The smoke will keep on coming. You have to find the fire to put it out. In the same way, you look for the craving and let it go. That’s how you put an end to the suffering.

On the other side of the noble truths, the skillful side, you have the end of suffering and the path to the end of suffering. The duty with the end of suffering is to realize it, and you do that by developing the path. The path is something that you actually have to bring in to being: everything from right view to right concentration.

So these are the four duties we have with regard to the four noble truths.

Now, when the Buddha taught the three characteristics: One, he didn’t call them “three characteristics.” He called them “perceptions”—ways of looking at and labeling things. And the purpose of these perceptions is to help with these duties for the four noble truths. In other words, when you see that there’s suffering, you want to perceive that suffering is inconstant. When you perceive it as inconstant, you realize that it’s stressful. And when you perceive it as stressful, you realize that it’s not worth holding on to as you or yours. In other words, this is a value judgement: It’s not worth clinging to. It’s not worth holding onto. You should let go of it. That’s what “not-self” means: not that there is no self, but that the things you usually label as “self” aren’t worth holding on to. You develop dispassion for them. That’s what it means to comprehend suffering.

Similarly with the causes of suffering: You see that these things lead to something bad, so to let go of them you have to perceive them as inconstant, i.e., they’re undependable, that they’re stressful, and that they’re something you shouldn’t identify with. You can think of your mind as being like a committee, and that “not-self” here means that there are some members of the committee that you no longer want to identify with. You don’t want to side with them.

As for the path, you don’t apply the three perceptions there quite yet. You’re actually trying to develop the path, so you apply the three perceptions to things that would pull you away from the path. For instance, part of the path is virtue, and as the Buddha said, sometimes we’re afraid to follow the precepts because we feel that our health would be at stake, or our wealth or our relatives. And the Buddha says we have to realize that these things don’t last. You don’t go to hell from lack of wealth or health or relatives. But the act of breaking the precepts can take you down to hell. You may say, “Wait a minute. I broke this precept because of my mother. I broke this precept so that I could make more money to give to my mother.” But what do you think the hell guardians are going to say? “That’s your mother’s business. You’ve got to go to hell. We don’t care how noble your motive was, you broke the precepts.”

So even in cases like that, you have to say, “I can’t lie for the sake of my health, I can’t lie for the sake of my wealth, I can’t lie even for the sake of helping my relatives.” You have to see these things as inconstant and stressful—things that you cannot rely on and are not really yours.

Similarly when you’re practicing meditation: You apply the three perceptions to things that would pull you out of concentration or get in the way of discernment.

Now, you have to be skillful in how you use these three perceptions, having the right sense of time and place for when to apply them and when not to. And that sense comes from seeing things in terms of the duties of the four noble truths. You apply the three perceptions when they help with the duties of the four noble truths, but not when they interfere with those duties.

So basically, it’s important that you see that the four noble truths come first and these three perceptions come within the context of the four noble truths. And so instead of simply accepting things coming and going, the Buddha counsels you to look at your desires. There are desires that would actually lead to the end of suffering. The desire for awakening is a good thing. The belief that you can do this, the Buddha calls a kind of conceit: “Other people can do this, so why can’t I?” That’s actually a skillful form of conceit, something that you should encourage, something that you should make come into being and keep from going away.

So what we’re doing is not simply accepting things coming and going, while saying, “Everything is okay. Waves are coming on the shore, good waves are coming, bad waves are coming, and it doesn’t matter, I’ll just sit here and accept the waves.” What’s going to happen, of course, is that someday the waves are going to come on strong and, oops, you’re gone. And who knows where they’re going to wash you up again?

The image the Buddha gives of the practice is not of sitting there, accepting waves. Instead, he says it’s as if there’s a dangerous river that you have to cross, but you can get across the river. And you do that by holding on to the path—which is like a raft—and by making an effort. You have to paddle with your hands and feet, and you have to make a serious effort, but there is a place of safety that you can get to. If you get onto a raft and say, “Look! I’m not holding on!” What’s going to happen? You’ll fall off and get swept downstream.

There’s a teaching by Ajaan Chah. He said, suppose you’re coming back from the market. You’re carrying a banana in your hand, and someone comes up and asks, “Why are you carrying the banana?” You say, “I’m carrying the banana because I want to eat it.” He then says, “How about the peel? Are you going to eat the peel too?” “No.” “Then why are you carrying the peel?”

At this point, Ajaan Chah asks, “What do you use to answer him?” And his answer comes in two stages. First, you have to use desire. You have to want to give a good answer. In other words, discernment is not going to come without the desire. You have to desire to give a good answer. And then, in the second stage, Ajaan Chah gives you a good answer for the person: “The time hasn’t come to let go of the peel. If I let go of the peel now, the banana would become mush in my hand.”

And it’s the same thing with the practice of the path. There are things that we have to hold on to. If you don’t hold on to the path, your mind becomes mush, so you have to hold on to the path and realize that this is a desire that’s actually a skillful desire: The desire to follow the path is something that you need in order to practice.

As the Buddha said, wisdom comes from the question, “What when I do it will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?” This is the question that gives direction to your desire. And it’s wise in three ways.

One, it recognizes that there is such a thing as long-term happiness, that it’s not just waves coming in and going away, coming in and going away. Some pleasures are longer; some pleasures are shorter. Some pleasures are harmful; some pleasures are not.

Two, you want to look for pleasures that are not harmful: pleasures that don’t harm you and that don’t harm other people. And you want pleasures that last. That’s the second part of wisdom, realizing that long-term has to be harmless, and that long-term is better than short-term.

Three, happiness is going to depend on your actions: That’s the third part of the wisdom. Happiness is not going to come just rushing up to you on its own. It depends on what you’re doing. Your actions make all the difference.

That’s what wisdom starts with—having conviction in those three realizations.

Now, the first level of the Buddha’s answer to that question—“What when I do it will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?”—is making merit. Other answers also include practicing the path, developing concentration, developing discernment, but tonight I would like to focus on making merit, because sometimes people look down on making merit. They say that it’s for people who are not serious about the practice, people who are just selfish, who want to make merit so that they can win the lottery the next time. Does that happen in Singapore? Do you have a lottery?

In America, we have five casinos in the area around the monastery. We’re in an area where there are lots of Indian reservations, and in America, if you have an Indian reservation, you can build a casino, because the laws that govern Indian reservation are different from the laws for the rest of the state. And so the casinos are like traps for people coming into the monastery. They either trap you on the way in, in which case you may not make it to the monastery at all, or they trap you on the way out. People think “I wonder how much merit I made at the monastery” and then they go and throw some money away to test their merit. If that’s your approach to merit, then yes, it is selfish.

But that’s not how the Buddha teaches merit. He’s not teaching merit to win the lottery. He’s teaching you merit because this is the way you can actually develop wisdom and discernment, and prepare yourself for the more advanced parts of the practice.

And merit is not selfish. When you look at what the Buddha taught about making merit, it’s not just a matter of being generous. It also includes following the precepts and meditating to develop thoughts of goodwill for all beings. As the Buddha said, merit is a way of finding happiness. “This is actually another word for happiness,” he said, “acts of merit.” Now think about it: If you find your happiness by being generous, you find your happiness by being virtuous, you find your happiness by spreading thoughts of goodwill to everybody, it’s not selfish. It’s actually a kind of happiness that breaks down boundaries between you and other people. When you’re being generous, you benefit, and other people benefit, too. When you’re being virtuous, you benefit, other people benefit, too. When you practice goodwill, you benefit, other people benefit, too. So this breaks down boundaries. It’s not selfish at all.

If you find your happiness in things like wealth, status, praise, and sensual pleasures, that actually creates divisions, because when you gain wealth, somebody else loses. You gain status, other people lose. You go around trying to get praise for yourself, other people are going to be jealous. That creates divisions. But if you’re looking for happiness through merit, it’s actually an unselfish way of practicing.

Of course, the Buddha recommends that you practice all three kinds of merit, and not just being generous, because if you practice just being generous or just observing the precepts, there are dangers.

Ajaan Wan, who was a famous teacher in Thailand many years back, once said that if you’re generous but don’t observe the precepts and don’t meditate, you have hopes of being reborn as a dog in an American house: very comfortable, people love you, but you don’t know anything. Right? You can listen to Dhamma talks all day and not understand a word.

If you’re generous and observe the precepts, you have hopes of being reborn as a human being with wealth, but if you don’t meditate, then you won’t have the wisdom to use your wealth wisely and well. In that way, your wealth can actually turn around and destroy you. As we see many times around us: people who have all the wealth they need but they spend it on things that are worthless or things that are actually harmful to their genuine well-being.

So if you want your merit to be safe, you develop all three kinds: generosity, virtue, and thoughts of goodwill for all beings.

Now I’d like to go into these one by one, to show that in addition to being a skillful way of finding happiness, they also prepare you for the higher levels of the practice.

For example, with generosity: When the Buddha taught generosity, one of the first things he pointed out was that it’s a matter of free choice. A king once came to ask him, “Where should a gift be given?” Now, this king had asked this question of brahmans and other religious groups in the past. He asked the brahmans, and the answer from the brahmans was that the gift should be given to the brahmans. He asked the Jains, and they said that the gift should be given to the Jains. So the king was expecting that the Buddha would say, “Give to the Buddhists.” But that was not what the Buddha said. Instead, he said, “Give where you feel inspired. Give where you think people would use it well.” There was no pressure to give to any particular person. The Buddha never said you should give here or you should give there—or should not give here or not give there. After all, it is your wealth. But also, beyond that, he was pointing out that your generosity should come from a free choice on your part.

He was trying to teach the basic principle of kamma: that we do have freedom of choice. And one of the best ways of realizing that is when you give a gift. You are perfectly free to give to anywhere you want. You don’t have to be a slave to your desires. You can be generous. Think back on this: When was the first time you gave a gift, not because it was expected of you, and not because it was Chinese New Year, not because it was somebody’s birthday, or because it was for your teacher, but simply because you wanted to give a gift. That means a lot more than when you were told that you had to give a gift—as when you go to weddings, you have to give a gift. It means more when you’re simply fond of giving.

In my own case, I was thinking about this a while back and I recalled what I think was my first genuine gift. I was ten years old and we had moved from where we lived on a farm to a little town. And in the town, I could get on my bike and ride to the store. Here in Singapore, that’s a common thing right? The stores are everywhere. But when I lived on the farm, it was very difficult to go to a store. But now I lived in a town, I could get on my bike and in five minutes I was at the store. So one day I had some money in my pocket—ten years old, walking into a store—and I noticed that they had an egg separator. Now, my mother liked to bake. She baked cookies, she baked pies, she baked cakes, and she was spending a lot of time separating the eggs. And I thought she would probably like an egg separator—you know, this little thing like a cup for the yoke with a space around it for the egg white to go through—and it cost about 15 cents. So I bought my mother an egg separator and came home and gave it to her. Later, I realized, thinking back, that was the first time that I gave a gift not because I was told to give a gift but because I wanted to.

Years later, after my mother died, we went through her personal effects, and I found the egg separator. She had made a mistake one time and put it into the dishwasher and it had melted, but she kept it. And I know why she kept it. When a gift is freely given, it means a lot more.

And so the lesson from the Buddha’s teaching is that when you really give out of the generosity of your heart, you’re teaching yourself a lesson about freedom. You are not a slave to your greed; you are not a slave to your possessiveness. You have the freedom to give something away.

The Buddha wants to protect that. Monks are taught that if someone comes to them and asks, “Where should I give a gift?” they should say, “Give where you feel inspired. Give where you feel it would be well used.” Several years back, a student of mine had a mother who was quite wealthy. She was going to give a gift of $2 million to a Buddhist center, and he wanted her to give it to our monastery. And so he called me up and asked, “What should I tell my mother?” I said, “Tell her to give where she feels inspired and she feels it would be well used.” So she gave it to an group. And I thought to myself that I preserved my precepts, and my precepts wer now worth more than $2 million.

The Buddha has lots of teachings for the monks about not asking for things, or not even trying to influence people to give. There was a case where monks were building huts and they were going out of bounds, competing with one another, and pestering lay people with requests for materials and workers. In fact, as the story said, it got so bad that when people started to see monks come, they would turn away, they would close the door. Even if they saw a cow coming, they thought, “This is a monk,” and would turn away.

So word got to the Buddha. He called all the monks together and said, “Look, people don’t like being asked for money. People don’t like fund-raisers.” He added that even animals don’t like fund-raisers. He told the story about a monk living in a forest where there was a big marsh nearby, and the birds would come at night and settle in the trees, going cha cha cha cha all night long. The monk went to the Buddha and said, “I’d like the birds to go away.” And the Buddha said, “Okay, in the first watch of the night, get up and make an announcement: ‘Every bird here in the forest: I want one feather from each of you.’ The second watch of the night: ‘Every bird here in the forest: I want one feather from each of you.’ Third watch of the night: ‘Every bird here in the forest: I want one feather from each of you.’” The monk did as he was told, and the birds said to themselves, “This monk is greedy,” and they all left.

So the Buddha wants to protect the freedom of choice in giving a gift. You should realize that generosity comes from your own choice and that you have freedom of choice. This is the number-one principle of kamma. It’s not that your bad kamma is going to get you. The basic principle of kamma is that you do have a freedom of choice. What you do makes a difference. You can change what you do for the better. And you learn this by being generous.

You also learn that you become a different person, and the world around you becomes a different world when you’re being generous. This is a lesson in becoming, a skillful kind of becoming. You become a more generous person, your heart is wider, and the world becomes a wider, more welcoming place. So you learn an important lesson about how your actions shape who you are and the world around you.

Now if you approach generosity not simply as something you want to do but as a skill, then the Buddha gives you more instructions. Skillful giving depends on:

• your motivation,

• your attitude,

• the recipient, and

• the actual gift you give.

These are the four things you want to think about as you develop generosity into a skill.

In terms of your motivation, the Buddha said that the lowest motivation is, “If I give this gift, I’m going to get it back with interest.” That is a good motivation. It’s the lowest, but it still counts as a good motivation; it’s better than not being generous at all. A higher motivation is that “It’s good to give.” A higher motivation is that “It’s not right that here I have all this wealth and these other people are poor; they don’t have anything. If I don’t give, it’s not right.” That’s a higher motivation.

A higher motivation still is that giving makes the mind serene. And then finally, giving becomes a natural expression of the mind, that when you have something, you can always think of how can you share it. The motivation goes higher, and the results that come with your generosity also go higher.

In terms of your attitude, you want to give with an attitude of respect. You want to give attentively, to pay attention as you’re doing it. You want to give with a mind of sympathy for the person who is receiving it. You want to be glad when you think about giving the gift, glad while you’re giving the gift, glad when you’ve given the gift. If you develop these attitudes, then the merit that comes from the gift goes higher and higher.

There’s a story in the Canon about a very wealthy man who could not use his wealth. He had fine food but when he ate good food, he would throw up, so he had to eat very poor food. If he rode in his nice chariot, he would get sick. He had to walk. If he lived in his fine home, insects would attack. He had to live in a little shed. Finally, he ended up dying without any heirs, and all his wealth went to the king. The Buddha said that the man, in a previous lifetime, had given a gift to a private Buddha, but then after he gave the gift he said to himself, “I wish I hadn’t done that. I could have given it to someone else or kept it for myself.” The gift meant that he was going to become wealthy, but the fact that he regretted the gift meant that he could not enjoy his wealth.

So when you give, try to be happy while you’re doing it, before you do it, and after you do it. That way, you get the most benefit out of the gift.

As for the gift itself, you want to give something that’s timely, that people can actually use. In America, they like to give knitted caps to the monks because it is cold. In Singapore, I don’t think you need knitted caps. It’s not timely in Singapore. And also, give a gift that doesn’t harm yourself or others. In other words, you don’t break the precepts, you don’t steal something to give, and you don’t cheat in order to get something to give. You give something that you’ve earned in a fair way.

As for the recipient, you try to find a recipient who would make good use of the gift. The Buddha would recommend someone without greed, aversion, and delusion, or someone who is working on the path to get rid of greed, aversion and delusion. With people like these, it’s more likely that you’ll actually be happy when giving the gift. If you give to people who are greedy and then you realize that they abuse it, you don’t feel so glad afterwards. So look for appropriate recipients.

The Buddha didn’t say that you have to do this, but if you want to be more skillful in giving, you should think about your motivation, about your attitude, about the appropriate gift, and about the appropriate recipient.

Now, as you approach gift-giving in this way, the gift doesn’t have to be a material thing. You can give of your wisdom, you can give of your knowledge, you can give of your energy, you can give of your time, you can give your forgiveness—which is often the hardest but also the most meaningful gift. The important point is that when you give a gift, it’s not a ritual—you don’t do it just because someone says to do it. As you give, you can approach it as a skill in terms of these four qualities, and the gift will provide that much more happiness. It will have that much more positive an effect on the world around you—and also on the person you become as a result of the gift.

That’s generosity.

Similarly with virtue: When you follow the precepts, you become a better person; the world around you becomes a better world. You’re learning an important lesson in becoming, and an important lesson in how to channel your desires.

There are some people who complain about the precepts. On the one hand, they complain that the precepts are hard-and-fast rules, which they don’t like. It’s better to describe the precepts as clear-cut. After all, you need something very clear-cut when you’re most tempted to break the precepts. If the precepts are complex and have a lot of ins and outs, it’s very easy to wiggle through. But if you know—no killing, no stealing, no illicit sex, no drinking, no lying, at all—then when you feel tempted, you remember that there is a clear precept against this.

In Alaska they have bears. I was visiting some years back, and there was a big sign saying, “Bear Awareness.” It listed a lot of Do’s and Don’t’s. The first one was, “If you see a bear, don’t run.” Your first instinct when you see a bear is that you want to run. But they said, “Don’t Run.” They keep it short. “Stay where you are.” “Raise your arms so you look bigger.” The bears have very bad eyesight so you look big when you raise your arms. The sign also said, “Speak to the bear in a calm and reassuring voice.” In other words, don’t scream. Then they went down a long list of Do’s and Don’t’s. It was all very crisp, short, sharp, very clear-cut. Finally they got to: “If the bear attacks you, lie down, play dead.” Then the difficult one was when the bear starts chewing on you. “Try to figure out if the bear is chewing on you out of curiosity or if it’s chewing on you out of hunger.”

This is what the Do’s and Don’t’s said. If the bear is chewing on you out of curiosity, it would stop because it would think that you’re dead and pose no danger, and so it would go away. So just lie there. But if the bear is chewing you out of hunger, attack the bear with all your might. Which means that you need a lot of mindfulness and alertness—which gets into the area of meditation, the topic of tomorrow night’s talk.

Now, the Do’s and Don’t’s were short and clear-cut for a reason: When you see a bear, you can remember only simple things. In the same way, the precepts are very clear-cut for a good reason, because you need something short and clear-cut when you feel most tempted to break them. If you’re tempted to lie: No Lies. If you’re tempted to have illicit sex: No Illicit Sex. Period. That way you can remember the precepts when you need them.

Some people often complain that the precepts are too narrow. For instance, there is a precept against killing, but no precept against eating meat. People say, “Well, if you’re eating meat, then you’re encouraging other people to kill the animals.” But the precepts focus on the area where you are absolutely in control, where you are in charge. And that means that they focus specifically on what you do and what you tell other people to do. You can control that.

Beyond that, you cannot control. All too often, when we focus on things that are beyond our control, we forget to look at what we can control. So the precepts are there to focus on what you can control. If you decide that you don’t want to eat meat, that’s perfectly fine, but the precepts start with what you are doing and what you are telling other people to do. That’s what you are responsible for. And again, that is focusing yourself back on the way your life is shaped by your intentions and your desires. You have to be responsible for those.

At the same time, the precepts teach you qualities like mindfulness, alertness, and ardency, which are all part of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness: You have to keep the precepts in mind. You have to remember, “I have taken these precepts.” Alertness is to be alert to what you are doing.

My teacher had a student one time who wanted to observe the eight precepts. She came to the monastery in the afternoon and she walked past a guava tree and the guavas looked really nice and ripe and before she knew it, oops, she had put one in her mouth. My teacher was standing a few yards away and so he asked, “What’s that in your mouth?” She realized that she wasn’t paying attention. That was a lack of mindfulness and alertness. So the precepts require you to be alert about what you’re doing right now.

Ardency is something that you have to make the effort to give rise to, because sometimes there is a very strong temptation. You may tell yourself, “This is just a little white lie and it’ll be okay.” Ardency says, “NO.” That means you have to figure out, “How can I not say things that give information to someone who might abuse it, and yet how can I also not lie at the same time?” This is where the precepts develop alertness, ardency, and also your discernment.

So the precepts are not just rituals. They’re actually there to train the mind in the qualities that you need when you meditate.

Finally with the practice of goodwill: The word mettā I prefer to translate as goodwill. Some people translate it as loving-kindness, an idea that’s based on a passage in the Canon sometimes translated as, “Just as a mother would cherish her child, her only child, we should cherish all living beings.” But that’s not what the passage actually says. It says, “Just as a mother would protect her only child with her life, in the same way you should protect an unlimited mind toward all beings.” In other words, you have to protect your attitude of universal goodwill at all times. This means that you don’t have to like the other person. If you’re going to have goodwill for snakes, you don’t have to go and pat the snake. The snake probably wouldn’t like it.

My teacher had a snake move into his room one time, and he decided that this would be test for his goodwill. So he lived with the snake for three days and spread lots of goodwill to the snake But then by the third night, he said to himself, “Three days is enough.” In his meditation, he addressed his thoughts to the snake: “It’s not that I have any ill will for you, it’s just that we are different species, and it’s very easy for different species to misunderstand each other. There’s plenty of space out there in the forest where you can be happy, so please find some other place to go.” And the snake left. That was goodwill. It was not loving-kindness. He didn’t pat the snake. He didn’t cherish the snake. But it was goodwill for the snake. He wished the snake happiness.

The practice of goodwill is something you have to do, so it’s related to the teaching on kamma. The teaching on kamma also relates to your motivation for wishing goodwill, and what, exactly, you are wishing for the other person. So the practice of goodwill is a good way of developing insight into the principle of kamma.

To begin with, goodwill is something you have to develop. It’s not innate—or if it is innate, it’s no more innate than ill will. We can feel ill will just as easily as we can feel goodwill, sometimes more easily. So remember, this is something you need to work on. This is a quality you have to develop.

Secondly, in terms of motivation, you’re wishing goodwill for your own sake. It’s not because you are One with everybody, or because everybody has Buddha-nature. We wish goodwill because we want to make sure that our actions are going to be skillful even in very difficult situations. So you have to develop goodwill for people you don’t like—even goodwill for your boss. If you’re going to have a difficult day with the boss, think lots of goodwill first so that when you go in, you don’t say something harmful to the boss or whoever the person is in the office that you don’t like. It’s for your own sake that you’re sending thoughts of goodwill, to protect yourself from creating bad kamma.

And finally, when you’re wishing goodwill for others, it’s not just spreading thoughts of cotton candy. The Buddha basically says you are hoping that they will understand the causes of happiness and be able to act on them. We should be thinking in terms of kamma. If they are going to be happy, it has to be based on their kamma. So what you’re wishing for is, “May this person understand the causes of true happiness and be able to act on those causes.” And that’s a thought you can have for anybody, no matter how evil or malicious they have been in the past, whether they have hurt you or the people you love. We can think of any number of politicians—when I speak in America, everyone laughs at that. What you might think is, “I don’t really like this person. I don’t like his policies,” but you can wish, “May this person understand the causes for true happiness and be able to act on them.” You can think that thought without hypocrisy.

When you develop goodwill in this way, you develop insight into the principle of kamma. You develop insight into your own mind: that your mind has these potentials that you have to develop. You have desires that go in different directions, so you have to be careful about which desires you’re going to follow.

So when you’re developing generosity, developing virtue, developing goodwill, you’re learning some very important lessons about how your desires shape the world in which you live, how your desires shape you, and how by acting on skillful desires you become a better person; the world around you becomes a better world.

In America—I don’t know what the attitude is in Singapore—but in America, people don’t like the word “merit.” Do you have Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in Singapore? In America, “merit” sounds like Boy Scout rewards: Boy Scout badges, Girl Scout badges, Brownie points. I think a better word for translating puñña would be “goodness.” You develop your own goodness; you’re developing the goodness of the world.

Unfortunately, goodness is a word we don’t hear much. How many times do you speak about someone’s goodness? How many times do you speak about your own goodness? I tried an experiment one time. I got onto Amazon.com—I occasionally go online—and in the box for Search, I typed in “goodness.” Try it and see what comes up. It’s all books on cakes, pies, and cookies. That’s goodness in the modern world. But the Buddha teaches a much greater goodness: the goodness of your heart, which you develop by developing the principles of merit. By being generous, by being virtuous, by developing thoughts of unlimited goodwill, you’re developing your own goodness, and the goodness of the world affected by your actions. At the same time, you gain insight into how your desires shape your life; you gain skills in mindfulness, skills in alertness, skills in ardency, all of which are going to be useful as you go further and further along the path.

So what this means is that if you bring the right attitude to the practice of merit, it’s not just a ritual. It’s not just a selfish way of trying to get what you want. It’s not only for people who are not serious. It’s for everyone who is serious about the practice. You should look after your virtue, you should look after your generosity, you should look after your goodwill for the sake of true happiness. As the Buddha said, if people are stingy, there is no way they are going to get into right concentration, there is no way at all they are going to gain awakening. So everything begins with the practice of merit.

Which means that you should try to have the right attitude as you go about it, realizing that we live in a world in which things are not just coming and going. We are shaping the world with our desires. And we have it within our power to remake ourselves. Maybe you can’t affect the wide world outside all that much, but the world that you live in, the world of your experience and the person that you are, are things that you can shape in the right direction. When you do this, you’re becoming a wise person, you’re learning how to change your actions so that they lead to long-term welfare and happiness: a happiness that doesn’t harm yourself and doesn’t harm anyone else—a happiness that is good for everyone.

Those are my thoughts for tonight.