Thursday, February 21, 2008

mental strengths

The Canon lists these mental strengths at five: conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment. It also emphasizes the role that heedfulness plays in developing each, for heedfulness is what enables each strength to counteract a particular delusion that makes fear unskillful, and the mind weak in the face of its fears. What this means is that none of these strengths are mere brute forces. Each contains an element of wisdom and discernment, which gets more penetrating as you progress along the list.

Of the five strengths, conviction requires the longest explanation, both because it's one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated factors in the Buddhist path, and because of the multiple delusions it has to counteract.

The conviction here is conviction in the principle of karma: that the pleasure and pain we experience depends on the quality of the intentions on which we act. This conviction counteracts the delusion that "It's not in my best interest to stick to moral principles in the face of danger," and it attacks this delusion in three ways.

First, it insists on what might be called the "boomerang" or "spitting into the wind" principle of karmic cause and effect. If you act on harmful intentions, regardless of the situation, the harm will come back to you. Even if unskillful actions such as killing, stealing, or lying might bring short-term advantages, these are more than offset by the long-term harm to which they leave you exposed.

Conversely, this same principle can make us brave in doing good. If we're convinced that the results of skillful intentions will have to return to us even if death intervenes, we can more easily make the sacrifices demanded by long-term endeavors for our own good and that of others. Whether or not we live to see the results in this lifetime, we're convinced that the good we do is never lost. In this way, we develop the courage needed to build a store of skillful actions — generous and virtuous — that forms our first line of defense against dangers and fear.

Second, conviction insists on giving priority to your state of mind above all else, for that's what shapes your intentions. This counteracts the corollary to the first delusion: "What if sticking to my principles makes it easier for people to do me harm?" This question is based ultimately on the delusion that life is our most precious possession. If that were true, it would be a pretty miserable possession, for it heads inexorably to death. Conviction views our life as precious only to the extent that it's used to develop the mind, for the mind — when developed — is something that no one, not even death, can harm. "Quality of life" is measured by the quality and integrity of the intentions on which we act, just as "quality time" is time devoted to the practice. Or, in the Buddha's words:

Better than a hundred years
lived without virtue, uncentered, is
one day
lived by a virtuous person
absorbed in jhana.
— Dhp 110

Third, conviction insists that the need for integrity is unconditional. Even though other people may throw away their most valuable possession — their integrity — it's no excuse for us to throw away ours. The principle of karma isn't a traffic ordinance in effect only on certain hours of the day or certain days of the week. It's a law operating around the clock, around the cycles of the cosmos.

Some people have argued that, because the Buddha recognized the principle of conditionality, he would have no problem with the idea that our virtues should depend on conditions as well. This is a misunderstanding of the principle. To begin with, conditionality doesn't simply mean that everything is changeable and contingent. It's like the theory of relativity. Relativity doesn't mean that all things are relative. It simply replaces mass and time — which long were considered constants — with another, unexpected constant: the speed of light. Mass and time may be relative to a particular inertial frame, as the frame relates to the speed of light, but the laws of physics are constant for all inertial frames, regardless of speed.

In the same way, conditionality means that there are certain unchanging patterns to contingency and change — one of those patterns being that unskillful intentions, based on craving and delusion, invariably lead to unpleasant results.

If we learn to accept this pattern, rather than our feelings and opinions, as absolute, it requires us to become more ingenious in dealing with danger. Instead of following our unskillful knee-jerk reactions, we learn to think outside the box to find responses that best prevent harm of any kind. This gives our actions added precision and grace.

At the same time, we have to note that the Buddha didn't teach conditionality simply to encourage acceptance for the inevitability of change. He taught it to show how the patterns underlying change can be mastered to create an opening that leads beyond conditionality and change. If we want to reach the unconditioned — the truest security — our integrity has to be unconditional, a gift of temporal security not only to those who treat us well, but to everyone, without exception. As the texts say, when you abstain absolutely from doing harm, you give a great gift — freedom from danger to limitless beings — and you yourself find a share in that limitless freedom as well.


Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Metta Forest Monastery is a meditation monastery in the lineage of the Thai Forest Tradition. Founded in 1990 by Ajaan Suwat Suvaco, it is currently headed by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Ajaan Geoff). The monastery is situated near Valley Center, California, at the end of a road in an avocado orchard surrounded by the mountains and chaparral of northern San Diego County. It provides the opportunity for men to ordain as bhikkhus and to train in line with the Dhamma-Vinaya as maintained in the Theravada tradition. It also welcomes interested lay men and lay women to visit and practice the Buddha’s teachings.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu's Audio Teachings
More Audio Teachings by Thanissaro Bhikkhu Here

Picture by: pati b @ Flickr

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