Saturday, September 11, 2010

Just be a mensch

As I continue to research the Tipitika and the writings of other significant Buddhists on the issue of racism and bigotry – a trending topic from time to time in the Buddho-blogosphere – I thought I would take a bit of a diversion and address a question Terasi posed here.

The gist of Terasi’s question is what does Buddhism offer in terms of practical daily applications? I’ve heard from others about how Buddhism strikes them as being very esoteric, with lots of talk about how to attain Nibbana. But if a person is struggling with their job, or without a job, can Buddhism help with that? Can Buddhism help someone who needs to develop the motivation to stick with an exercise regimen? Can Buddhism help you get out of debt? Can Buddhism get you a salary raise or a promotion at work?

The answer to these and similar questions is yes, but Buddhism won’t get you these things in a direct way. Rather, developing a skilled Buddhist practice that focuses on your personal development into a decent human being will create an easier world around you through which you can maneuver. The problems you face in the world will diminish (but not disappear) as you develop a skilled Buddhist practice because you won’t be creating so many of them anymore. And when that happens, you are better able to help and assist others.

But that’s all high-brow holiness, you’re thinking. I just want to get a better paying job so I can find a better place to live for my family and have our needs met, you say.

Actually, it’s not high-brow at all. It’s very practical. Let’s start in the Digha Nikaya with the Sigalovada Sutta: The Layperson’s Code of Discipline (DN 31). This portrays an encounter between the Buddha and a young man named Sigala, the son of what we would probably call a very middle class father. The Buddha instructs Sigala on proper behavior that will not only protect his reputation, but preserve and expand his family’s wealth and status.

There are four vices that Sigala must eradicate from his behavior and character: killing, stealing, lying and adultery (sexual misconduct). As the Buddha tells Sigala, “These four evils the wise never praise.” By avoiding these vices, others who may be able to benefit you take notice and are willing to assist. But if you exhibit any of these vices, then those who may be able to assist you will withhold their aid when you need it.

Next, the Buddha tells Sigala that he must be sure that his actions are not being led by desire, anger, ignorance and fear (Right View and Right Intention). If our motivation for acting is rooted by desire, anger, ignorance or fear, we will do something that we may later regret; we will bring harm to ourselves, to others, or perhaps both ourselves and others.

This is followed by the Buddha’s description of the six ways we lose our money and good reputation: heavy partying, hanging out late at night, frequenting nightclubs and discos, gambling, associating with companions who are no good, and being lazy.

My favorite part of the sutta is when the Buddha describes to Sigala the four types of people who act like your friends, but who are really enemies, followed by the traits of true “warm-hearted” friends. The former will ruin you and lead you to make wrong decisions, while the latter will protect you and encourage you to make good decisions. There’s even some advice on money management.

The wise and virtuous shine like a blazing fire.
He who acquires his wealth in harmless ways
like to a bee that honey gathers,
riches mount up for him
like ant hill's rapid growth.

With wealth acquired this way,
a layman fit for household life,
in portions four divides his wealth:
thus will he friendship win.

One portion for his wants he uses,
two portions on his business spends,
the fourth for times of need he keeps.

In the last section the Buddha describes the qualities of good parenting, followed by the qualities of being a good son or daughter.

While the Sigalovada Sutta is overtly directed at lay followers, all the suttas – even the ones that are focused on the Jhanas – contain information and guidance that have practical application in our daily life. A good one on this point is the Bhaddekaratta Sutta: An Auspicious Day (MN 131).

In this sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya, the Buddha delivers the most basic guidance of the Buddhist practice: Do not dwell on the past, do not live in the future, pay attention to what is happening right now. The past is over, but what you did in the past is why you are where you are right now. Worrying about the future will not improve your future, nor deliver you to a more desirable future. Rather, by paying attention to what you are thinking, saying and doing right now so that you act skillfully will bring you good results and deliver you to a future filled with happiness.

So while Buddhism doesn’t provide a direct route to achieve material and worldly goals, by following the path faithfully and earnestly, we experience good results more frequently and negative results less frequently. And when opportunity knocks, we find ourselves more aware of the opportunity and better prepared to take advantage of it.


  1. Nicely put. By living an ethical life, that may help to clear our path so that we can achieve our goals. I think what practice also does sometimes is help us redefine our goals, and what we mean by success. Maybe some of the things we thought we needed were not so important after all. Some of the "problems" we have are problems because of all the extras (thoughts, judgments) we attach to them. Practice may help us to deal with what comes up in our lives more directly without adding extra stuff to these events and turning them into problems.

  2. Thanks dukkhagirl, practice does help us deal with what life hits us with, and practice shows us how to do that without adding to the crap. When we understand that, we are better able to achieve the goals we have set, because in part we set meaningful goals rather than acquisitive goals. Unfortunately, there remain many who view Buddhism as some type of cosmic cash machine, and the Buddha as Santa Clause.