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Buddhist Outlook on Daily Life

Nina van Gorkom


General Aspects of Buddhism

A. What led you to the study of the Buddha's teaching?

B. When I first came to Thailand I was naturally interested in knowing more about the Thai people. I wanted to learn more about their customs and about their way of thinking. I found the study of Buddhism essential for the understanding of the Thai culture because the spiritual background of the Thai people is Buddhism.

Therefore I started to study Buddhism and the more I studied, the more I found my interest growing. When one is in Thailand one should take the opportunity to study Buddhism and to understand the practice of Buddhism as well. Deep understanding will not come from books alone. Understanding is developed above all by the practice, by understanding Buddhism as it is lived in daily life!

A. Would you tell me what you mean by the practice of Buddhism in daily life?

B. One is first confronted with the practice of Buddhism when one sees different customs of the Thais, such as giving food to the monks, paying respect to the Buddha image or reciting the 'precepts' on special occasions such as Uposatha Day [Uposatha Day is the day of 'fasting' or 'vigil' which laypeople usually observe four times a month (the days of the new moon, full moon and the two days of the half moon) by undertaking moral precepts and by visiting the temple].

In the beginning I thought that these customs were mixed with many things which are not essential for the practice of Buddhism. For example, I did not see how the presenting of eggs to the statue of the Emerald Buddha could have anything to do with the practice of Buddhism. However, even such popular beliefs can teach us something about the practice of Buddhism.

There are many levels of understanding the Buddha's teachings. The people who present the eggs to the statue of the Buddha express their confidence in him. This is a wholesome act which will bear its fruit accordingly.However, the people who present the eggs may not realise that it is their respect to the Buddha which will bring them a good result and not the eggs presented to him. They may not clearly see which cause will bring them which result. They would receive greater benefit from their act of paying respect to the Buddha if this were done in a more meaningful way. They could, for example, pay respect to the Buddha in abstaining from ill deeds, in serving other people, in learning more about the teachings of the Buddha and in helping other people to understand the teachings as well.

A. Could you tell me about the different degrees of understanding the Buddha's teaching ?

B. As regards paying respect to Buddha image, people who have a higher level of understanding know that the Buddha has passed away completely. However, it still makes sense to pay respect to him. When one has studied the teachings more deeply and when one has tried to verify them in daily life, one understands that it is not important whether the Buddha still exists to receive people's homage or not. It is the wholesome mental state of the person who pays respect to the Buddha or who offers something to him, that will bring its result to the person who performs it. One reaps what one has sown.

The person who pays respect to the Buddha with the right understanding does not have a confused idea of a Buddha in heaven who could see him or hear him. The image of the Buddha reminds him of the virtues of the Buddha. He thinks of the wisdom of the Buddha who found the path to complete freedom from sorrow all by himself and who able to help other people as well to find this path. He thinks of the purity in all his deeds, his speech and his thoughts. He thinks of compassion of the Buddha, who taught out of compassion for everybody.

A. What is the meaning of giving food to the monks?

B. As regards the giving of food to the monks, some people doubt whether that is of any use. They are inclined to think that monks want to have an easy life, and that they do not have to work at all. But they forget that the real meaning of being a monk is seeking the truth.

A monk's life is a hard life; he does not have a family life, he cannot choose his own food, and he does not take part in any entertainment such as going to movies or football matches. He renounces the luxuries of a home, choice of clothing and food, and entertainment in order to seek the truth and to help other people to find the truth as well.

When people give food to the monks their act is one which will be fruitful for both parties. The giver will benefit from his act because he has a wholesome mental state at the time of giving: when there is generosity there is no greed or attachment. The receiver will benefit from the act of the giver because he is encouraged to study and practise the Buddhist teachings more earnestly and to help other people to know the teachings as well. He knows that the food he receives puts him under an obligation to be worthy of the gift, to work for the spiritual welfare of the whole world. Monks are continually reminded of their responsibility as monks, and twice a month they recite the rules of Patimokkha, in which their obligations are summed up. Further, when the receiver is aware of the wholesome mental state of the giver, he will rejoice in the good deeds of the giver and thus he will have a wholesome mental state as well; he will be inspired by the generosity of the giver.

A. Do you not find it difficult to think in terms of 'mental states'? And thinking of one's own mental state might seem an egocentric attitude.

B. This way of thinking is very realistic, because it is the different mental states which make us act in this way or in that. Only if we study our mental states and the many factors which cause them to be like this or like that, will we be able to understand the deepest motives of our behavior. We have to start by being aware of our own mental states. This is not egocentric, because we have to understand ourselves first, before we can understand other people.

Through the study of the Abhidhamma also, one can begin to have more understanding of one's mental states. The Abhidhamma is that part of the Buddhist teachings which analyses the different states of mind and which explains in detail about everything which is real. The study of the Abhidhamma helps us to understand which causes bring which effects in our life and in the lives of other people.

A. Do you find that you can verify the Abhidhamma in your daily life?

B. It was a great discovery for me to find that the Abhidhamma can be verified in daily life, although one can in the beginning experience only part of the realities the Abhidhamma explains.

At first one might think that the Abhidhamma is too subtle and one might doubt whether it is useful to study the many different degrees of ignorance and wisdom, but one learns that each of these different degrees brings its corresponding result.

In studying Abhidhamma one learns to understand more about other people as well. One learns that people are different because of different accumulations of experiences in the past. Because of these different accumulations people behave differently. At each moment one accumulates new experiences, and this conditions what one will be like and what one will experience in the future.

When one understands more about the different accumulations of different people, one is less inclined to judge other people. When one sees people paying respect to the Buddha with apparently very little understanding one knows that their accumulations are thus and that they are performing a wholesome act according to their ability.

A. Do you think that a person with very little understanding can ever reach a level of higher understanding? In other words, if one's accumulations have conditions one's character, is there anything that can be done about it?Is it possible to improve one's degree of understanding?

B. Everything can be done about it: wisdom can be developed gradually and thus one's accumulations can be changed. Those who have a higher level of understanding can and should help other people to develop a higher level of understanding as well.

I shall give an example. Children can become novices. They share the life of the monks in order to learn more about the Buddhist teachings and to make merit for their parents who can rejoice in their good deeds. Many people think that the person who makes merit can literally transfer his own good deeds to other people, dead or alive. This is not the right understanding. It is not possible to transfer merit to other people, because everyone will receive the result of his own deeds. Older monks who have reached a higher level of understanding can help the novices to have more understanding about the wholesome act they are performing. If they could understand correctly the meaning of the merit they make, their renunciation would be even more fruitful. The novices are performing a very wholesome act in renouncing the company of their relatives in order to study the Buddhist teachings and to train themselves in the precepts, which are moral rules. This gives them a good spiritual foundation for their whole life. They will receive the fruit of this wholesome act themselves. The merit they make cannot literally be transferred to other people. However, other people, no matter whether they are deceased or still alive, can have wholesome states of mind inspired by the good deeds of someone else. Their own wholesome mental states will bring them a wholesome result. So parents, even deceased parents, if they are in places of existence where they can rejoice in the good deeds of their child, may have wholesome states of mind and in this way experience a wholesome result in the future. The expression 'transfer of merit' is a misleading one, because it does not give us the understanding of the real cause and effect.

A. You used the expression 'mental state'. Could you explain what it means? I would like to ask you in general whether you find the English language adequate to render the real meaning of the realities which are described in the Abhidhamma?

B. The English language is nt at all adequate to render the meaning of the realities which are described in the Abhidhamma. The 'Three Collections' of the teachings (Tipitaka) use the Pali terms, and therefore it is better to learn the Pali terms and their meaning. For instance, the word 'mental state' which is a translation of the Pali term 'citta', is misleading. 'State' implies something which stays for some time, be it short or long. However, each mental state or citta falls away immediately, as soon as it has arisen, to be succeeded by the next citta. This happens more rapidly than a lightning flash. The different cittas succeed one another so rapidly that it seems that there is only one citta. That is the reason why people take a citta for 'self'.

For the same reason the word 'mind' gives one a wrong idea of reality. One often hears the expression 'mastering one's mind' or 'controlling one's mind'. Many people think that the mind is something static which can be grasped and controlled. There are many different mental states, none of which can be considered as 'self' or as belonging to a 'self'.

In the 'Lesser Discourse to Saccaka' (Culasaccaka-sutta, Majjhima Nikaya I, Mahayamaka-vagga) we read that the Buddha asked Saccaka whether he could be master of his body or of his mind, just as a king rules over his subjects. The Buddha asked: 'When you speak thus: "The body is myself," have you power over this body of yours (and can you say), "Let my body be thus, let my body be not thus"?' The Buddha asked the same question about the mind. Saccaka answered that it is not possible.

In daily life we can find out that this is true. If we were masters of our bodies we would not grow older, there would not be sickness, and we would not die. However, old age, sickness and death are unavoidable.

Neither can we be masters of our minds; the mental states which arise are beyond control. Like and dislike are beyond control, they arise when there are conditions. When we eat food which is prepared to our taste, we cannot help liking it. If someone insults us we cannot help feeling aversion; we may reason later and try to understand the other person, but we cannot help feeling aversion at first. Like, dislike, and even reasoning about our like and dislike are not 'self', they are different mental states which arise when there are the right conditions.

We are all inclined to take mental states for 'self'; for example, when we like something we take the like for 'self'. However, the next moment there could be dislike, and we might wonder where the like which we took for 'self' has gone.

It is very human to like the idea of a 'self' and to hold on to it. The Buddha knew this and therefore, after his enlightenment, felt inclined for a moment not to teach other people the Path he had found. However, the Buddha knew also that people have different levels of understanding. We read in the 'Samyutta Nikaya' (Sagatha-vagga, Chapter VI, The Brahma Sutta, Chapter I, par.1, The Entreaty) that the Buddha surveyed the world with his 'Buddha-vision' and saw people with different levels of understanding, some of whom would be able to understand his teaching:

As in a pool of blue or red or white lotus, some lotus plants born in the water, emerge not, but grow up and thrive sunken beneath the surface; and other lotus plants, born in the water and growing up in the water rise to the surface; and other lotus plants, born in the water and growing up in the water, stand thrusting themselves above the water and unwetted by it, even so did the Exalted One look down over the world with a Buddha's Eye, and see beings whose eyes were scarcely dimmed by dust, beings whose eyes were sorely dimmed by dust, beings sharp of sense and blunted of sense, beings of good and beings of evil disposition, beings docile and beings indocile, some among them living with a perception of the danger of other worlds (namely in rebirth)and of wrongdoing.
Therefore the Buddha decided to make known the Path which he had discovered.

A. People have different accumulations. They are conditioned in many ways. We have used the word 'condition' several times already. Could you explain the meaning of this term?

B. I will give an example from daily life. My husband comes home from his office, feeling tired and somewhat irritated. I tell him something amusing which has happened and he laughs and feels happy again. Thus one can notice that there are different cittas, and that each citta has its own conditions. The amount of work at the office is a condition for my husband's tiredness and irritation. Afterwards there is another condition which makes him feel happy again.

Cittas are conditioned and each citta accumulates a new experience, which will condition cittas in the future.Everybody accumulates different tastes, abilities, likes and dislikes.One can not always know the conditions which make people behave on this or in that way, but sometimes it is possible to know.For instance, people are addicted to different things, some of which are very harmful, other less so.One's education and the surroundings in which one is living can be a condition for these addictions.In some countries or regions it is the custom to drink an enormous amount of coffee the whole day, and people even give coffee to one's youth.As regards attachment to alcoholic drinks, there must be a condition for that as well.One starts with a little drink every day, and gradually one's attachment increases.

Everybody should find out for himself how much attachment he accumulates, and whether this brings him happiness or sorrow.

A.There is not anything which one can control.Even each citta which arises because of conditions, falls away immediately, to be succeeded by the next citta.It seems as if the situation is hopeless.Could you tell me whether something can be done to walk the right way in life?

B.The situation is not hopeless.Wisdom, the understanding of reality, can condition one to have more wholesome mental states and to do good deeds.

There is no 'self' which can suppress our bad inclinations; there is no 'self' which can force us to do good deeds.Everybody can verify this in daily life.For example, if we tell ourselves: 'Today I will be very kind to everybody', can we prevent ourselves from suddenly saying an unkind word? Most of the time it has happened before we realize it.

If we are able to suppress our anger for a while we are inclined to think that there is a 'self' which can suppress anger. In reality there are at that moment cites which are not conditioned by anger, but which arise from other conditions. Afterwards there will be anger again because anger is not really eradicated by suppression. Only wisdom, seeing things as they are, can very gradually eradicate everything which is unwholesome in us.

We can develop this wisdom step by step. Even wisdom is not 'self'; it can only arise when there are the right conditions. We can develop wisdom in knowing and experiencing all mental phenomena and physical phenomena in and around ourselves. When we have experienced that none of these mental and physical phenomena stays or is permanent, we understand that we cannot take any phenomenon for 'self'.

The Buddha explained to his disciples that just 'comprehending', seeing things as they are, will eradicate unwholesomeness. When we are still learning to develop wisdom and we notice that we have unwholesome cites, we are troubled about it, we have aversion because of it.He whose wisdom is developed, has right understanding of his life. He knows that there is no 'self', and that everything arises because of conditions. Thus he is not troubled, he is simply aware of the present moment.

The word 'comprehending' is used in the suttas many times. This should help us to see that we do not have to perform extraordinary deeds; we need only be aware of the present moment in order to see things as they are. Of course wisdom cannot be fully developed in one day.For a long time we have been used to the idea of 'self'.In conventional language we have to use the words 'I' and 'self' continually to make ourselves understood.

A. So wisdom is wholesome, and not understanding things as they are is unwholesome and brings unhappiness. Do you find that you can prove this in daily life?

B.Yes, I will give an example.We are constantly taking our body for 'self', although we know that it does not last. Thus, when we suffer from sickness or pain, or when we become old, we attach so much importance to these facts that we feel quite oppressed by them. If one of our sense organs does not function or if we become an invalid, we feel we are the most unhappy person in the world. Attachment to our body only bring sorrow, whether as if we would see things as they are, there would be less sorrow for us.

If one wants to see the body as it really is, one should distinguish the body from mentality. It is true that in this world body and mentality condition each other. However, one should know the different characteristics of each, so that one can experience them as they are.

The same elements which constitute dead matter constitute the body as well. Both dead matter and the body are composed of the earth element or solidity, the element of water or cohesion, the element of fire or temperature and the element of wind or motion. One is inclined to think: 'Is there not a soul which makes the body alive and is the body not therefore different from dead matter?' There is not a soul; there are only physical phenomena and mental phenomena which arise and fall away all the time. We are not used to distinguishing the body from the mind and analysing them as to what they really are. However, this is necessary if we want to know reality.

The body itself does not know anything; in this respect it is the same as dead matter. If we can see that the body is only a composition of physical phenomena which arise and fall away completely, and not 'self', and that the mind is a series of mental phenomena which arise and fall away and not 'self', the veil of ignorance will fall from our eyes.

If one tries to develop this understanding one can see for oneself what the result is. One can find out whether this understanding brings one more freedom from attachment or not. Attachment brings sorrow.

The Buddha taught people to see things as they are. One does not have to fast or to be an ascetic.It is one's duty to look after one's body and to feed it. The Buddha taught the 'Middle Way': one does not have to force oneself to undertake difficult practices, but on the other hand one should learn to be detached from the things in and around oneself.Just understanding, seeing things as they are, that is the 'Middle Way'.

A. So just seeing things as they are is the practice of vipassana. Most people think that it is a complicated form of meditation which one can learn only in a meditation centre. That is the reason why most people will not even try it. But from our conversation it appears that vipassana is only seeing the things of our daily life as they are. Do you find that one has to have much theoretical knowledge before one starts the practice of vipassana?

B. The word 'meditation' frightens many people; they think that it must be something very complicated. But in reality one does not have to do anything special. Before one starts one needs some theoretical knowledge. One does not have to know about physical and mental elements in detail; one only has to know that the body is made up of physical elements and that the body is different from mental elements. There are many different physical elements and these elements are continually changing. There are many different mental elements: one citta arises and falls away, then the next citta arises and falls away. Cittas arise and fall away successively, one at a time. Seeing is one citta, hearing is another citta, thinking is another citta, they are all different cittas.

Developing vipassana does not mean that one has to be aware of all those different elements at each moment; that would not be possible. Nor does one have to do anything special; one can perform all the activities of one's daily life. One gradually begins to understand that there are only physical phenomena and mental phenomena and one begins to be aware of these phenomena quite naturally, without having to force oneself, because they are there all the time.

When one understands how important it is to be aware of these phenomena in order to know them, the awareness will arise by itself little by little. One will experience that awareness will arise when there are the right conditions. It does not matter if there is not a great deal of awareness in the beginning. It is important to understand that awareness is not 'self' either, but a mental phenomena which arises when there are the right conditions. One cannot force awareness to arise.

In understanding more about physical phenomena and mental phenomena and in being aware of them in daily life one's wisdom will develop. Thus there will be more wholesomeness and less unwholesomeness.

A. Do you find that awareness in this way bring you happiness?

B.When there is understanding of what things really are, there will be more wholesomeness in one's life. There will be less the concept of 'self' when one performs good deeds, and thus good deeds will be purer. One does not refrain from evil things because one has to follow certain rules, but because one has more understanding as to which causes bring which effects.

The right understanding of what things are will very gradually eradicate unwholesomeness. When there is less unwholesomeness there will be more happiness in life.

Everybody should verify this for himself!


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Source: Dhamma Study Group, http://www. dhammastudy. com

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updated: 17-11-2001