Last night we talked briefly about the role of mindfulness in developing persistence. This morning, I’d like to discuss that point in a little more detail because there’s a lot of misunderstanding around the topic of mindfulness.
We often hear that mindfulness is an accepting and non-reactive state of mind, that it’s very closely related to equanimity. But actually, in the way the Buddha teaches mindfulness—as a faculty of memory—mindfulness is purposeful. You keep certain things in mind because you have a purpose—the purpose being to protect your behavior and your state of mind from being unskillful. As the Buddha said, when mindfulness is in charge, its purpose is that if there’s any skillful behavior in thought, word, or deed that you haven’t yet mastered, you’re mindful—i.e., you keep remembering—to try to master it. If you have mastered it, you try to protect it, maintain it, and bring it to full development. In other words, instead of simply watching skillful qualities come and go, you keep remembering to try to make them come and to prevent them from going. That’s the role of right mindfulness.
The Buddha frequently talks of the practice of mindfulness as a kind of protection and refuge, and he uses a variety of analogies to illustrate the various kinds of protection that mindfulness provides.
First, it keeps you in bounds. To illustrate this role, the Buddha gives the analogy of a quail. Normally, quails live in fields that have been plowed, with stones turned up. But one day a quail wanders away from its territory. A hawk swoops down and carries it off, and the quail laments, “Oh, my lack of merit! If only I had stayed in my ancestral territory, this hawk would have been no match for me!” The hawk hears this and is irritated by this upstart quail, so it says, “But where is your ancestral territory?” And the quail says, “A plowed field where stones have been turned up.”
The hawk lets the quail go: “Go. Go to your territory, but even there you still won’t escape me.” So, the quail flutters down to the field, stands on top of a stone, and starts taunting the hawk, “Come, get me, you hawk! Come, get me, you hawk!” The hawk swoops down again, and as soon as the quail sees that the hawk is coming at him full speed, he slips behind the stone. The hawk shatters his breast there on the stone and dies.
The Buddha says the field here stands for the establishing of mindfulness, whereas the area outside of the field stands for thoughts of sensuality. The hawk stands for your defilements. If your thoughts don’t stay in bounds, then your defilements can get you. This is one of the things that mindfulness does: It keeps your thoughts in bounds. You remember what is skillful, you remember what is not skillful, you remember that you’re safe only when you stay within what is skillful, so you remember to do whatever is needed to keep your thoughts within safe bounds.
Another image the Buddha used to make the same point is that of a gatekeeper at the gate of a fortress. The fortress is located at the frontier of a country, and there’s always the danger that enemy spies may try to get into the fortress. So, the gatekeeper has to recognize who’s a friend and who’s not, and to keep out those who are not friends. Now, if mindfulness were simply acceptance, the gatekeeper would just stay there at the side of the gate, noting who came in and who went out. If a spy came in, it would simply say, “Oh, there’s a spy.” Now, some spies, when they’re recognized, might run away, but a lot of spies would just walk on into the fortress. The point of this analogy is that mindfulness has to be very active in recognizing what’s not skillful and in keeping it out. This is another analogy to illustrate the role mindfulness plays in keeping your thoughts within bounds.
The second way in which mindfulness protects you is to keep you focused on what’s important. It reminds you that the most important thing that you have right now is the state of your mind, and if any unskillful thought comes in, your first priority is to get it out. The Buddha illustrates this point with an analogy of a man whose head is on fire. His mindfulness is focused on putting the fire out right away. He doesn’t simply watch the flames and note their pretty colors; he remembers that he’s got to put them out, and he can’t let anything else distract him. That’s the second way in which mindfulness helps protect your mind: It keeps your priorities in mind and keeps you focused on your task.
The third way is that it keeps reminding you always to stay observant, to learn from your actions what works and what doesn’t work. In other words, it doesn’t just keep you in bounds. It also reminds you that your best protection is knowledge, and the best way to gain knowledge is to learn from your own actions. This relates to that point we made earlier: that the Buddha looked for two qualities in a student—one, that the student be honest about what he has done and two, that he be observant about what the results are. These two qualities underlie this role of mindfulness.
The Buddha illustrates this point with the simile of a cook. The cook works for a prince, and he has to notice what kinds of food the prince likes to eat. Sometimes the prince will say what he likes, but sometimes he won’t. But if the cook is observant, he notices what the prince likes to reach for. He’ll make more of that kind of food, and in that way he’ll get rewarded. In the same way, you have to learn how to be observant as to what helps your mind gain concentration and other skillful states—in other words, what ways of meditating the mind likes and that give good results—and you also have to remember the lessons you’ve learned, so that you can apply them each time you meditate. That’s how your meditation becomes a skill you can rely on. And that’s one of the ways in which mindfulness provides a refuge.
These, then, are some of the ways in which mindfulness gives you protection as you go through life making choices. Because remember: We don’t live in a deterministic world where all our actions are pre-determined. We do have a range in the present moment for choosing what to do and what not to do, remembering that the suffering that weighs most on the mind is the suffering that comes from our own choices. This is why it’s so important to know about the different ways in which we fabricate our experience of the present moment—by the way we breathe, by the way we talk to ourselves, and by the perceptions and feelings we focus on and hold in mind—because they’ll play a big role in leading us to suffer or not to suffer. Remember that you do have the ability within you to make a difference in whether you’re going to suffer or not, and you can be more in charge of how you conduct yourself on the path.
Now, this doesn’t mean that there’s no room for equanimity and acceptance in the practice. Most of the Thai ajaans noticed that for Westerners, our biggest weakness is that we don’t really understand equanimity and acceptance. The main point that we don’t understand is that these mental qualities are skills and that we have to be selective in using them: when to apply equanimity and when not, when to be accepting and when not. If unskillful states are taking over your mind, you can’t be equanimous about them. You can’t simply accept them. You have to do what you can to get rid of them. As for other issues in life, you have to see where you can make a difference and where you can’t, and also evaluate where it’s worth the effort to try to make a difference and where it’s not.
The Buddha often compares a person who’s practicing the Dhamma to a warrior. Like any good warrior, we have to choose our battles, realizing that we don’t have the energy to solve every problem in life. That means we need to apply our main energy to solving the problems within our own minds. The most important thing for us to accept is responsibility for our own suffering. This is the main lesson of the four noble truths. It is possible for us to make a difference for the better, and the question we should always be asking ourselves is, “What is the most skillful thing to do now?” We meditate to make the answer to this question more and more clear, and then when we’ve learned what’s skillful, we meditate further in order to give ourselves strength to carry through with what we’ve learned.
Q: What is the difference between mindfulness and concentration?
A: Mindfulness practice as the Buddha described it is actually how you get the mind into concentration. In other words, you stay focused on the body in and of itself—ardent, alert, and mindful—and you put aside any distractions with regard to the world. That’s the description of mindfulness. When you succeed in doing it well, you bring the mind into concentration.
Q: Are mindfulness and vipassanā the same thing?
A: No. Mindfulness is the act of keeping something in mind. Vipassanā is insight, a quality of seeing the fabrications of the mind clearly, so clearly that you develop dispassion for them. Now, mindfulness is one of the practices that can lead to clear insight, but clear insight also requires concentration and right view.
There’s one passage where the Buddha says that for the mind to develop concentration, you need insight and tranquility, and to develop tranquility and insight, you need to develop concentration. The image is of two hands washing each other. The left hand cleans the right hand, the right hand cleans the left hand, and that way both get cleaned.
Q: You’ve said that mindfulness is to always keep something in mind. I thought that mindfulness was to be aware of the present moment, but if I’m keeping something in mind, I might not be aware of the present moment. I get a little confused. Could you say more about it?
A: There is mindfulness and there is right mindfulness. Mindfulness in general means keeping something in mind. Right mindfulness means remembering which qualities are skillful, which ones are unskillful, and remembering to be alert and ardent about recognizing and developing skillful qualities in the present moment.
Tonight, we start with the perfections that come under the heading of relinquishment. There are two of them: giving and renunciation. Tonight’s talk is on giving, which covers not only giving material things, but also giving your time, giving your energy, giving your knowledge, giving your forgiveness.
There are many motivations for giving, but giving becomes a perfection when your motivation to do it focuses on the value of generosity in training the mind. You’re using material things, your energy, and your knowledge for the benefit of your mind. Ajaan Lee makes a comparison. He says it’s like squeezing the juice out of a fruit. The juice is the virtue of generosity; the rind that’s left is the object you give away.
This is a lesson in trading up through letting go. As you practice generosity, you realize that there is a hierarchy in pleasures. In particular, you increase your happiness by sharing with others. When you enjoy sensual pleasures, they may be pleasant while they’re there, but the pleasures soon pass. And afterwards, when a pleasure is gone, the memory of that pleasure is not always pleasant, especially if you had to do something unskillful to get it, or when you think about the fact that you used to have that pleasure but now it’s gone and may not return in this lifetime. However, with generosity, if it’s done skillfully, you’re happy before you give the gift, you’re happy while giving the gift, and the memory after giving the gift is also happy. As you see how happiness increases by sharing it with others, that drives home the lesson that Dhamma practice is cooperative.
As the Buddha taught the monks, they have to depend on one another when they’re sick, and they have to depend on laypeople for their material support. In turn, the laypeople depend on the monks. After all, laypeople can rarely devote themselves full-time to the Dhamma, but the monks do have the time to devote themselves fully to the practice, which means that they have knowledge to share. This exchange is an economy of gifts. There’s no price for teaching the Dhamma, and the laypeople are not forced to give gifts. Both sides give voluntarily, and this helps to break down barriers. If you have to pay for something, that puts up a barrier. But when no payment is required, the barrier is removed.
The act of generosity is also a lesson in delayed gratification. This is an important lesson underlying the entire practice. We had a question about ends and means the other day, and that’s what the path is: means to a good end, an end that may take a long time to attain. If you learn the lessons of delayed gratification early on—that you can take pleasure in the fact that you’re on a good path to an even better destination—it will help see you through many fallow stretches of the practice.
Many years back, they conducted an experiment with a group of children. They took each child and put him in a room. On the table in front of him was a doughnut. They told him, “We’ll come back in five minutes. If you haven’t eaten the doughnut, we’ll give you a second doughnut.” Then they left the child alone in the room. They were secretly taking a video of the children while they were doing this. The videos showed that some of the children were able not to eat the doughnut; some of them ate the doughnut immediately; others would play with the doughnut, nibbling it away slowly; some of them would bite underneath it and put it back on the table to hide what they had done. Then they did a follow-up study for many years until the children were adults. They found that the children who were able to refrain from eating the doughnut did much better in life generally than the others. The lesson is that if you learn the lesson of delayed gratification early, it establishes good habits throughout life.
The act of generosity is also a solid way of building self-esteem. There was another study about children, this time centered on the issue of doing chores. They found that in many advanced societies, the parents no longer have their children do chores. Both parents work, they’re in a hurry to get the house in order, they don’t have the time or patience to teach the children how to do chores properly, so they send the children off to look at their iPads or play video games. Whereas in traditional societies, if a child wants to do a chore, the parents will encourage it, even if it takes a fair amount of time for the child to get it right. And they’ve found that the children who do chores when they’re young grow up with more self-esteem.
So, when you realize the lessons that can be learned with generosity and you practice generosity as a way to train your mind, this is how generosity becomes a perfection.
Now, as I said, the act of giving doesn’t cover just material things. It can also include the gift of your time, the gift of your strength, the gift of your knowledge, the gift of forgiveness, or the gift of the Dhamma itself.
One of the most impressive instances of generosity that I’ve experienced was when we built a chedi, a spired monument to the Buddha, at Ajaan Fuang’s monastery in Thailand. His students wanted to build a chedi, and they tried to hire people to do it, but the people they hired worked for a week and then ran away. The students then decided to build the chedi themselves. For a year and a half, they would come almost every weekend. They would leave Bangkok on Friday evenings, right after work, arrive at the monastery at midnight on Friday, work most of the day Saturday, usually with a cement-pouring Saturday night, do some more work on Sunday afternoon, and then drive back to Bangkok early Monday morning and go straight to their jobs.
Now, very few of these people were wealthy, and few of them had any construction experience, so they had to learn a lot of new skills. But they happily gave a lot of their time and their energy, and they learned many of the benefits of generosity in the course of doing so. In particular, there was a very strong sense of family among the people who worked together, even though they came from many backgrounds and many levels of society. And they appreciated the fact that Ajaan Fuang had given them the opportunity to do this. So, generosity is not just the giving of material things. It’s giving what you have, and then this becomes the basis for all other practices in the path.
When Ajaan Suwat was teaching meditation in the United States, after the second or third day of the retreat, he turned to me and said, “Do you notice how grim all these meditators are?” His analysis was that they hadn’t first learned the joys of generosity and virtue. When you learn the joy of giving, it gives you a sense of confidence in the teachings, that you’re able to benefit from practicing them. You realize that if you want to get anything of lasting value out of life, you have to be willing to give up some of what you’ve already got. When you learn the joy that comes from that lesson, it spreads to the joy of virtue and the joy of meditation.
Now, for generosity to become a perfection, it has to be guided by right view, in particular, in relationship to kamma. And here’s where we learn what’s specifically Buddhist about the Buddhist culture of giving.
The first point is that generosity must be done voluntarily. King Pasenadi once came to ask the Buddha, “Where should a gift be given?” He probably expected the Buddha to say, “Give to the Buddhists,” or, “Give to Dhamma teachers.” Because if he asked the Brahmans, the Brahmans would say, “Give to the Brahmans.” If he asked the Jains, the Jains would say, “Give to the Jains.” But the Buddha said something very different. He said, “Give where you feel inspired or where you feel the gift would be well used.” In other words, there are no “shoulds” as to where you should give a gift. That’s why, when the monks are asked, “Where should I give a gift?” they are supposed to answer, “Give where you feel inspired, or where you feel the gift would be well used or well cared for.”
We’ve already had a couple of questions about generosity that we haven’t answered until now. One question is, “Should we give to beggars?” One woman asked if she should give to her daughter, because she was afraid her daughter was becoming too dependent on her. But here again, the answer is, “Give where you feel inspired.” In the Buddhist culture of giving, giving is our first lesson in free will: the realization that we have freedom of choice. This is probably the most important lesson you can learn about kamma. And the Buddha wants us to protect that lesson. That’s why people should never be pressured to give—for instance, saying that, as a good Buddhist, you have to give to this or that cause. Giving should always be voluntary.
You might carry out a mental experiment yourself. Think back to the first gift that you gave voluntarily—not because it was someone’s birthday, not because the gift was expected, but simply because you wanted to give. That was your first lesson in free will. So, the first lesson we learn from right view about generosity is that it has to be voluntary.
King Pasenadi went on to ask another question of the Buddha, “When a gift is given, where does it give the best result?” This time, the Buddha replied, “That’s a different question.” This is where we begin to approach generosity not simply as an expression of free will, but as a skill. And generosity as a skill has four dimensions.
• The first has to do with your motivation in giving.
• The second concerns your attitude while you are giving.
• The third has to do with who are the best recipients of gifts.
• And then the fourth concerns what kind of gift is good to give.
Let’s look at these four dimensions.
First, with regard to motivation: The lowest motivation the Buddha mentions is when you give a gift because you expect to get something similar back, sometimes with interest. When I was a monk, newly ordained, there was a nun I knew who had decided to build a hut for some of the monks at Wat Asokaram, Ajaan Lee’s monastery. She sponsored the construction and also directed the workers. One day, I visited the construction site as she was directing the work, and although the hut was small, it was very well built. I asked her, “Are you building your palace for your next life?” She replied, “No, this is my vacation home. I’ve already built my palace at a temple in Bangkok.” That may not be the highest motivation, but it’s better than not giving.
A higher motivation, the Buddha said, is the idea that it’s good to give. An even higher motivation is that “I have these things, these other people don’t have these things, it’s not right that I don’t share.” A motivation higher than that is when you realize that giving a gift makes your mind serene and happy. And ultimately, you give not because you’re expecting anything from the gift at all. It’s simply an expression of the goodness of the mind: That’s the gift of a non-returner. So, to get the most out of the gift, you try to develop increasingly higher motivations.
The second dimension in giving as a skill is your attitude while you give. You give attentively, you give with conviction that something good will come of this, you give with empathy for the person who’s receiving the gift, and you’re not simply throwing it away. In other words, you appreciate the opportunity to give a gift, like Ajaan Fuang’s students appreciating the opportunity to give their time and energy to building the chedi. You sense that you’ll benefit from the gift, and you show respect to the person to whom you’re giving the gift. That makes the recipient glad to receive it and more inclined to use it well.
As for the third dimension—the best people to give a gift to—the Buddha said that it’s best to give to those who are free of passion, aversion, and delusion, or to those who are practicing to overcome passion, aversion, and delusion, because these are the people who are most likely to make best use of the gift. When you reflect back on the gift, you’ll be happy that you gave.
And finally, as to the gift that’s good to give, the Buddha said that you give in season. In other words, you give a gift that’s appropriate for the time. For example, you don’t give winter clothes in the summer. Also, you give without adversely affecting yourself or others. In other words, you don’t give so much that you don’t have enough to use yourself, and you don’t steal the gift to give it to somebody else.
Now, as for the results that come from giving, the Buddha says that people will find you charming, they’ll admire you, you’ll have a good reputation, and you’ll approach assemblies of people without being ashamed. These are benefits in the present life. One of the benefits not mentioned in the texts is that this is the perfection that allows you the most room for creativity. There are not many creative ways of observing the precepts or of meditating, but you can be as creative as you like in deciding what to give, in trying to find something that will give joy to the recipient and that will be especially appropriate for the occasion. There’s a lot of joy that comes from being creative in this way. These are the results you gain in the present life.
In the future life, you’ll tend to have a good rebirth. There’s a passage where the Buddha says that no matter what level you’re born in, you’ll tend to be good-looking within that level. For example, if you’re reborn as a dog, you will be a good-looking dog. And that’s nothing to sneer at.
Years back, the late king of Thailand decided that he didn’t like the idea that Thai people were so enamored of buying foreign dogs to raise, so he wanted to promote Thai breeds of dogs instead. Now, there’s a belief in Thailand that really smart dogs will be born with what look like socks on their feet. In other words, if the dog is brown, the paws and bottom parts of its legs are white. So, the king gave an order: If any puppies with socks on their feet were born anywhere on royal or government properties, he would raise them in the palace. And so quite a few dogs born on the side of the road ended up living in the palace. One of them was so smart and well-behaved that the king actually wrote a book in her honor.
These are some of the future-life rewards of being generous.
As we learn the culture of generosity, it’s important to realize that, in addition to not pressuring other people to give, we should also be gracious in receiving gifts from other people. I don’t know if this is a problem in Brazil, but many American people are very embarrassed about receiving gifts. They’ll say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have done that!” That attitude, of course, doesn’t encourage generosity. Whereas the Buddhist culture does encourage generosity, which is why it’s important to be gracious when you receive a gift.
Now, as I said earlier, generosity forms the basis for other practices on the path. There’s a passage where the Buddha says that stingy people can’t get into good concentration, and they can’t reach the higher attainments. This is probably because they don’t appreciate the cooperative nature of the practice, and they also don’t appreciate the principle that you trade up as you give away. You take material objects, your energy, your knowledge, your time, and then you turn them into good qualities of the mind. Only when you appreciate that principle will your practice progress.
Q: On giving, could you explain in more detail “an ornament for the mind,” passage [§30]. By giving in this way, does one become a non-returner?
A: It’s not that by giving with this motivation you become a non-returner. Basically, this passage describes the motivation of someone who already is a non-returner. Someone who’s not coming back to the world can still give gifts to the world without any anticipation of returning to enjoy the results of that gift. That kind of giving is the purest kind. In fact, this was the gift that the Buddha gave to the world when he taught after his awakening. He knew he was going to leave, but he decided to leave something good behind for the people who were going to come after. That was the ornament of his mind.
Q: You talked about the highest motivation of giving. I’m not sure precisely what you said, but I was left with the paraphrase that it’s the natural expression of the mind? Sounds like Buddha nature. Thanks.
A: Generosity is a natural expression of the mind only after the mind has reached the level of non-returner. Prior to that time, there always will be some expectation of a return on a gift. The return will get more and more refined as your motivation goes up. But only after the stage of non-returning is the mind totally free of any sense of having anything back in return. So, it’s not Buddha nature.
Q: Of the two highest motivations for generosity, calming the mind and generosity as an ornament of the mind, what is the difference?
A: The highest motivation, as I said just now, is the motivation of a person who already is awakened to at least the level of non-return. That person doesn’t need to have his or her mind calm through generosity, because it’s already calm. As long as you need to have your mind calmed, stick with the second highest motivation.
Q: The next question is: Is the highest motivation so strong that it can actually lead to non-return?
A: And the answer is No. It’s the result of having reached the state of non-return.
Q: Is it wrong to be generous knowing that it’s good kamma? I don’t want to bargain with the Dhamma.
A: The highest motivation for generosity, in which you don’t expect anything in return, applies only to a person who is at the third stage of awakening. Up until that point, we need something to motivate us in order to give: the thought that, “Yes, we will benefit from this.” So, knowing that it’s good kamma is actually good motivation to foster.
Q: You said that a stingy person cannot enter into concentration. What if that person does become generous? Would he or she be able to enter into concentration in this lifetime?
Q: We’ve talked about generosity. What about charity? Why don’t Buddhists support charitable organizations for people in need, as other religions do?
A: Traditionally, every monastery functioned as a charitable organization. If a child was orphaned, it would be taken into the monastery and raised by the monks or nuns. If a man or a woman lost a spouse, he or she could ordain. Either that or they could live as lay attendants at the monastery. I know of some monasteries where they always keep a couple of huts empty in case a husband and wife in the village get into a big argument and need a place to go to get away from each other for a while. The point is that the monasteries have long been functioning as charitable organizations on a grass-roots level—local people helping local people. Also, the monasteries in Asian countries have functioned as one of the few ways in which people of a low social position could advance to a high social position. Many of the Supreme Patriarchs of Thailand, for instance, have been the sons of peasants.
Q: Is it skillful to give alms to anyone who asks for them?
A: Give to anyone you feel inspired to give to. If you don’t feel inspired, it’s perfectly okay not to give.
Q: So as not to excite pride and envy, should acts of generosity be done discreetly? There’s the teaching of the Buddha that criticizes people who are not ashamed of things that are worthy of shame and are ashamed of things that are not worthy of shame.
A: You have to look at the situation. The Buddha said, of course, that generosity is nothing to be ashamed of, and sometimes it’s good to be open with your acts of generosity so as to be a good example to other people. But if there are people who become jealous about your generosity, that might be a time to be more discreet.