day eight : morning

Kamma & Mindfulness Together

May 24, 2015

Last night we talked about awakening and the last stages of the path leading there. The purpose was to give you a general idea of where the path is going and to give rise to a skillful desire to follow the path.

However, whenever talking about awakening, there are always two dangers. The first danger is thinking that awakening is so far away that you give up any hope of attaining it. The other danger comes from the fact that there are many stages of concentration that sound very similar to awakening, and if you attain one of those you may think that you’ve attained awakening when in fact you haven’t. You’re still stuck in a fabricated state.

In both cases, the danger lies in giving up your pursuit of being more skillful in your actions. The path to the end of suffering exists, but you stop or turn around.

One way to avoid these dangers begins with having a right understanding of both kamma and mindfulness. Remember that the important principle underlying kamma is based on the causal pattern that the Buddha discovered during his own awakening: that our present experience is composed of the results of past actions, our present actions—in particular, our present intentions—and the results of our present intentions. He also realized that the fact of having a present experience comes from our present kamma. Without present intentions, the results of past actions—and, of course, the result of present intentions—wouldn’t appear in our experience. This is because, as he explained in dependent co-arising, our experience of our present intentions comes prior to our experience of the past kamma known through the senses.

Some of the lessons to be drawn from this are that we are free to make choices in the present, but there are also patterns that we can learn from. In other words, by paying careful attention to our choices and their results, we can learn from them to become more and more skillful in our actions now and into the future.

Another lesson is that ultimate freedom lies right here next to our freedom of choice. So the more attention we pay to our choices, the closer we get to ultimate freedom.

This is where the practice of mindfulness comes in. Remember that mindfulness is not simply being aware of the present or simply accepting what’s happening. It actually involves three qualities. First, pay attention right here to your actions and results: That’s alertness. Second, maintain the whole-hearted intention to make choices that are more and more skillful: That’s ardency. Then keep all of this in mind, remembering that it’s always possible to learn from your mistakes—and from the things you’ve done well—which enables you to act more skillfully on into the future. Keeping this in mind is mindfulness.

If you follow these understandings of kamma and mindfulness and apply them to the practice of the noble eightfold path, you will become more and more sensitive to your actions, and more and more sensitive to the process of fabrication in the present moment. In particular, as you observe the precepts and practice right concentration, you increase your sensitivity so that if any spacious state arises in your practice, you will be more likely to see whether it’s fabricated. This helps to protect you from that second danger, of over-estimating your attainment.

As for the first danger, even though you may not reach awakening any time soon, if you keep this understanding of kamma and mindfulness in mind and apply it to your actions, your life becomes a progressively better life. You learn to delight in abandoning unskillful qualities and to delight in developing skillful qualities. Right there you possess what the Buddha called one of the values of the noble ones. You become less harmful to yourself and others.

This teaching is also empowering: You realize you have the power to make skillful changes in your life, and the ability to suffer less and less from what you cannot change. The sense of self that you develop around doing this becomes a healthy sense of self: one that develops around the willingness always to learn. As long as you need a sense of self, this is a good one to have.

In following these teachings, you also develop what the Buddha called the seven noble treasures. These are forms of wealth that don’t take anything away from anyone else and place no burden on the world. They are treasures that support you in this lifetime and also on into your next lives.

First, you develop a sense of conviction that your actions really do make a difference, and therefore it really is important to be very careful about them.

Second, you develop your virtue, which basically means avoiding any action that you know would be harmful. This is a type of protection. If you have not harmed others, then no harm will come to you. When you look back on your own actions, there’s nothing to regret. This allows you to open your mind more, and, as we noted the other day, if there’s no reason for regret, it’s easier to be mindful because more of your memory is open and available to you. There are no walls hiding things away.

Third, you develop a very healthy sense of shame, which means that, at the thought of doing something unskillful, you would feel ashamed to do it. This also means that if you realize you’ve done something unskillful in the past, you try not to suffer remorse for it. You realize that we all make mistakes and the best thing, when you recognize a mistake, is to learn from it so as not to repeat it. That’s the most that can be expected of a human being. That’s the third noble treasure.

The fourth noble treasure is a sense of compunction. This means that if you look at an action and see that it would have harmful consequences, you take that fact seriously. You do your best to avoid any harmful long-term consequences. A good test for thinking about the long term is this: Ask yourself, “Suppose on my deathbed, I look back on my life and I think about the choices I’m making right now. What would I like to look back on as the choice I made?” That’ll give you a good guide as to what would be a skillful course of action. That’s the fourth noble treasure.

The fifth noble treasure is learning, especially learning the Dhamma. Try to read as much good Dhamma as you can, listen to good Dhamma, try to associate with people who embody the good Dhamma in their actions. Then, when the lessons you learn from these things are appropriate for any difficult situation that comes up in your life, they will come rushing to your aid. In my own case, the year after Ajaan Fuang died, there was a lot of disturbance in the monastery. Even in monasteries, they have power struggles. And as I was dealing with many difficult situations, some of the things that Ajaan Fuang said came to mind and gave good guidance as to what to do. So in this way, learning is a treasure because it helps you figure out what to do in cases where otherwise you would feel lost. That’s the fifth noble treasure.

The sixth noble treasure is generosity. If you learn to be generous, on the one hand your own mind becomes broader and so you have a larger mind to live in. It’s like living in a large house. Everywhere you look around, there’s space. If you’re not generous, it’s like living in a narrow house. On the other hand, the fact that you’re generous also helps in your social life. It helps to break down boundaries between you and the people around you, and makes social life a lot more congenial. That’s the sixth noble treasure.

The seventh is discernment, which is your ability to distinguish what is skillful from what is not. You take what you’ve learned from the Dhamma on this issue and apply it to your actions, and over time you become more and more able to distinguish these things on your own. That way your own discernment becomes more reliable. Wherever you go, you can depend on your own discernment to see you through any difficulties. Ajaan Lee made a comparison. Of these noble treasures, he said, this last is the most important. If you have discernment, then even if all you have is a machete, you can set yourself up in life.

So as we pay more and more attention to our actions, being mindful of the lessons we’ve learned from them as we follow the path of virtue, concentration, and discernment, we develop more and more our ability to lighten the load of suffering in our lives. Of all the treasures that exist in the world, this ability is the most valuable.