day two : evening

Conviction (1)

Tonight’s talk is on the topic of conviction, which is the first of the five faculties.

The Pāli word for conviction, saddhā, can also mean belief or faith. When coming to Buddhism, most people don’t like to hear the word “faith” because they’ve been burned from previous exposures to belief systems demanding faith in things that are unreasonable and that also place power in other people’s hands. However, in the Buddha’s teachings, conviction functions as a working hypothesis. It’s a hypothesis about the power of your action. It deals with things that you haven’t proven yet and that you cannot prove until you test them, but that are necessary to take on as assumptions in order to follow the path. In the Buddha’s eyes, even reason is not proof of something’s truth. It’s simply one way of inducing faith or conviction. Proof comes from putting the teachings into practice and gaining the direct experience of true happiness as a result.

What’s attractive about having conviction in the power of your actions is that there’s nothing unreasonable about it, and it places power in your hands.

The Buddha teaches a path of action to put an end to suffering, so to follow that path you need to make certain assumptions about action.

• The first assumption is that actions are real and not illusory.

• Second, your actions are the result of your choices. They’re not just the result of some outside force acting through you. In other words, they’re not determined simply by the stars or your DNA. You’re actually making the choices.

• The third principle is that actions do have effects. You’re not writing in water, where everything you write immediately disappears. When you do something, it will have an effect both in the present moment and lasting through time into the future.

• The fourth principle is that the effects of your actions are tendencies. They’re not strictly deterministic; they don’t lead to ironclad outcomes.

• The fifth principle is that the effects of your actions are dependent on the state of your mind, one, while you’re doing the action, and two, when you’re receiving the results of the action.

Now, these principles are not things that you can be agnostic about. Every time you act, you’re making a decision as to whether or not the action is worthwhile. And your calculation will depend on how you take a position on those first three points: in other words, that the action is real, that it is your choice, and that it does have effects. For best results, the Buddha recommends basing your calculations on accepting all three of these principles. If you don’t, there will be no reason to be careful in what you do. And he also recommends assuming that the law of kamma is 24/7. It’s not like a traffic law, for instance, where no parking is allowed on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but you can park all you want on other days of the week. All too often we have the attitude that the effects of kamma should bend to our will. In other words, with some actions we tell ourselves, “I hope this action has a result,” but with others we like to tell ourselves, “I hope this won’t have a result. It doesn’t matter.” But the Buddha says that you have to take on the basic assumptions of kamma consistently if you want to follow the path consistently. In other words, skillful actions lead to good results and unskillful actions lead to unpleasant results. Always.

As for the last two assumptions—that the effects are tendencies and that those effects depend on the state of your mind, both while you’re doing the action and when you receive the result: If you didn’t accept these two principles, the path to the end of suffering would be impossible. Everyone would have to endure the results of past mistakes before gaining awakening, and as a result, no one would be able to get to awakening. They would be simply stuck, continually having to suffer from their past actions. Remember, when the Buddha teaches about kamma, he never talks about anyone “deserving” to suffer. If you develop your mind, as he says, in an unlimited way, then when the results of past actions come, they will have only a very small result. The image he gives is of a body of water. If you place a lump of salt into a large river of water, then—assuming that the river is clean—you can still drink the water in the river. However, if you put the same crystal of salt into a small cup of water, you won’t be able to drink the water because it’s too salty. One of the purposes of practicing is to create a larger, unlimited mind state. The Buddha’s teachings are all about gaining release from suffering, whether that suffering is “deserved” or not.

Now in Buddhism, conviction in these principles of action has three dimensions: whom you believe, what you believe, and what you do as a result. There’s a passage where the Buddha says that conviction is expressed in the four stream-entry-factors [§2]. The problem here is that Pāli is like German. You can simply state a compound, like “stream-entry-factor,” and it doesn’t tell the grammatical relationship among the different parts of the compound. And it turns out that there are two sets of stream-entry-factors, in which the parts of the compound relate differently to one another. The first set tells you what to do to get to stream-entry, which means that they’re factors for stream-entry [§3]. The second group tells what happens as a result of stream-entry. In other words, they are factors of stream-entry [§4].

Fortunately, both sets are relevant to the issue of conviction, so we’ll look at both. Tonight, we’ll discuss the first set, and tomorrow we’ll discuss the second.

The four factors in the first set are these:

1) associating with people of integrity;

2) listening to the true Dhamma;

3) appropriate attention; and

4) practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma.

The first factor, associating with people of integrity: The Buddha speaks very highly of what he calls the value of admirable friendship. Once Ven. Ānanda went to see the Buddha and said to him, “This is half of our life of the practice, having admirable friends.” And the Buddha said, “No. It’s the whole of the practice.” Now, that doesn’t mean our admirable friends will do our practice for us, simply that, without their example, without their teaching, we would never know the path.

Admirable friendship has two aspects. The first is choosing admirable people as friends. The second is emulating their good qualities. In other words, you don’t just hang around good people. You try to be like them.

The Buddha lists four qualities for recognizing admirable friends: conviction, virtue, generosity, and discernment [§5]. Admirable friends don’t only teach that actions based on these qualities are crucial for happiness, they also embody these principles in their own actions.

To recognize whether potential friends have these qualities, one, you have to spend time with them, and, two, you have to be observant. At the same time, you have to have some integrity, too, because if you don’t have any integrity yourself, you won’t be able to recognize it in other people.

For example with virtue, you know a person’s virtue by living with that person for a long time, by being observant, and by being virtuous yourself. If you want to learn about a person’s purity, you need to have dealings with them. In other words, you make trades, for example, you have projects that you work on together—or you can even engage in a debate—and in that way you begin to know whether this person is really pure or not. And again, you should be pure in your own dealings as well. As for their discernment, you learn that through listening to your potential friends, engaging them in discussion, and particularly noticing how they answer questions.

Virtue, in Buddhism, is expressed in the five precepts. Of the five, truthfulness is said to be the highest virtue because it’s only through truthfulness that you’re in a position to admit your mistakes and to learn from them. There are passages in the Canon called the Jātaka tales, which tell the stories of the Buddha in previous lifetimes. And it’s obvious from some of the stories that he’s still learning the ropes, because sometimes he breaks the precepts: Sometimes he kills, sometimes he steals, sometimes he has illicit sex, sometimes he takes alcohol. But he never lies. Ever. For him, that’s the most important precept. Because after all, if you lie to someone, the misunderstanding you create can have a bad effect not only in this lifetime but also into future lifetimes. And as the Buddha says, if you feel no shame at telling a deliberate lie, there’s no evil you’re incapable of doing.

As for generosity, the Buddha says you know someone is generous by these characteristics: They give what is hard to give, and they do favors that are hard to do.

When talking about generosity, the Buddha places a lot of emphasis on the fact that it has to be freely given. Back in his time, if you asked the brahmans, “Where should a gift be given?” they would say, “To the brahmans!” King Pasenadi once came to the Buddha and asked him, “Where should a gift be given?” probably expecting the Buddha to say, “Give to the Buddhists.” But what the Buddha actually said was, “Give where you feel inspired and where you feel that the gift will be well-used.” And to this day, when monks are asked, “Where should we give a gift?” we’re supposed to say, “Give where you feel inspired or where you feel it will be well-used.” I once was asked by someone whose mother wanted to give two million dollars to a Buddhist center, “So, should she give it to your monastery or to another center?” I had to say, “Tell her to give where she feels inspired.” And I saw the money fly away to the other center. But then I comforted myself that I had a virtue worth more than two million dollars.

The reason why we don’t try to force gifts is because giving, when it’s freely done, is your first experience of freedom of choice. This is one of the primary lessons of kamma: freedom of choice. So to reinforce that lesson, the Buddha emphasized the importance of respecting the freedom to give. That way, when there’s no pressure to give and yet you want to give, you can take joy in that gift and joy in that freedom. When you take joy in that freedom, it prepares your mind to accept the higher teachings.

As for discernment, you recognize it in another person by two qualities: The person has no greed, aversion or delusion that would (1) lead him to claim knowledge that he doesn’t have or that would (2) lead him to tell other people to do things that would cause their harm.

So those are some of the aspects of the first quality for stream-entry: learning how to recognize people of integrity so that you can associate with them and emulate their good qualities.

As for the second factor, listening to the true Dhamma: How do you know what is true Dhamma? Primarily, true Dhamma is to be known by the results that come from putting it into action. The first test is, one, that it helps you avoid harming yourself and, two, it helps you avoid harming others. Harming yourself, in the Buddha’s terms, would mean breaking the precepts. Harming others would mean getting them to break the precepts. I think that’s a very interesting point. We usually think that we harm other people by killing them or stealing from them, but the Buddha says, No, you actually harm them more if you get them to kill or to steal because those actions, through the principle of kamma, would lead to their long-term harm and suffering.

Another series of standards that the Buddha gives for testing the true Dhamma is whether a teaching meets with three criteria: First, it has to lead to good results for yourself. In other words, it leads you to freedom and to dispassion. Second, the means to that end are also good. The three standards for judging those means are: (1) They involve shedding pride and any thoughts of vengeance. (2) They help you develop persistence in developing skillful qualities and getting rid of unskillful ones. In other words, you don’t simply accept things as they come and go. You try to shape your mind in a positive direction. Then (3), they foster contentment with the material surroundings that are conducive to the practice.

The third criterion is that the true Dhamma is to be tested by the impact your practice has on other people. This has three aspects, too. (1) You’re modest in that you don’t brag about your attainments. (2) You don’t try to get entangled with other people. And (3) you’re not burdensome to others.

So if you learn any Dhamma lesson that meets with these standards, then you know that you’re listening to the true Dhamma.

The third factor for stream-entry is that once you’ve listened to the Dhamma, you have to pay appropriate attention to it. In other words, you come to the Dhamma asking questions about how it helps put an end to suffering. Once you’ve learned that lesson, you frame questions about how to apply that teaching to the way you’re living your life: How can I use this teaching to help shape my life toward the end of suffering?

The Buddha describes, as a preliminary lesson in developing discernment, the questions you should bring to someone when you’re listening to the Dhamma: “What is skillful? What is unskillful? What is blameworthy? What is not blameworthy? What should be cultivated? What should not be cultivated?” And then the most important question, “What, having been done by me, will be for my long-term harm and suffering, and what, having been done by me, will be for my long-term welfare and happiness?” In other words, discernment comes from seeing that happiness comes from actions, and that long-term is better than short-term. There’s a passage in the Dhammapada saying that if you see a higher happiness that comes from letting go of a lower happiness, you give up the lower form of happiness for the sake of the higher happiness. A British scholar who translated that passage into English once wrote a footnote to the passage, saying, “This could not possibly be the meaning of this passage. It’s too obvious.” Well, it may be obvious as a general principle, but in actual practice we find it very difficult to follow. If you compare life to a chess game, everyone wants to win the game and yet keep all their pieces. Which is not very wise. From the Buddha’s point of view, if you want to be wise, you have to be willing to lose some of your pieces. Only then can you win. And that’s the principle of appropriate attention, too. You want to focus on solving the problem of suffering, and everything else should be secondary to that.

This ties in directly with the fourth factor for stream-entry, which is practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma. This principle has two meanings. One is that you try to shape your life by the Dhamma and not the other way around. In other words, you don’t try to change the Dhamma to fit your life or your preferences. You have to change your habits to fit in with the Dhamma.

The second meaning of practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma is to practice for the sake of dispassion. Once there were some monks who were going to go to a far distant part of India, and so they asked Ven. Sāriputta, “What would be a good way to teach people who are new to the Dhamma?” And Sāriputta said, “Teach them that your teacher teaches the end of passion.” That’s the first principle of the Dhamma, dispassion. In fact, the Buddha says that that’s the highest of all dhammas.

Now, dispassion is not a matter of aversion or apathy. It’s a sense of maturing or growing up, of sobering up, because we see that the pleasure that comes from becoming is not worth the effort, and that there is a higher happiness that comes from outgrowing our attachment to our normal identities, to our normal sense of the world, and to the worlds that we inhabit through our desires.

It requires a certain maturity to see this. When Ven. Sāriputta was talking to the monks, he noted that when intelligent people hear that the Buddha teaches dispassion, they will ask, “Dispassion for what and why?” But that was people in the Buddha’s time. At present, most people wouldn’t be interested enough even to ask those questions. They see dispassion as something lifeless and dry. Seeing the value of dispassion takes a certain amount of conviction. We have no proof beforehand of the value of dispassion other than the example of people who have found the happiness that comes from dispassion and who are obviously not dead and dried up. On the contrary, they’re exceptionally happy. As in our time: We see the example of Ajaan Mun, Ajaan Lee, Ajaan Fuang, and Ajaan Chah.

So those are the two meanings for the principle of practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma: You shape your life by the Dhamma and you fashion it for the sake of dispassion. You’re not practicing meditation simply to relax or for stress reduction or to squeeze it into the life you’re already living. Instead, you allow your practice to change your sense of values and to change your life, so that you live in a way that actually is conducive to true happiness.

So, these four factors for stream-entry—associating with people of integrity, listening to the true Dhamma, appropriate attention, and practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma—are the activities and values that we take on as working hypotheses in our search for awakening. These are the objects of our conviction in terms of who we believe in, what we believe, and what we do as a consequence. In other words, who we believe in: people of integrity who teach us that our actions do matter, that they have the potential for great good or great harm. What we believe in, is the true Dhamma that leads us to happiness without any harm. And then what we do: We develop appropriate attention—in other words, we question the Dhamma, we question our lives to figure out how best to put an end to suffering—and then we practice the Dhamma in accordance with that.