Six Kinds of Speech Used by the Buddha

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Prince Abhaya was a disciple of the Naked Ascetics (Nigaṇṭhā), who were vehement opponents of the Buddha. The Abhayarājakumāra Sutta relates how their leader sent Prince Abhaya to the Buddha with a formulated question to ask him, that he hoped would confound him. Prince Abhaya invited the Buddha with three other monks to his house for alms

Prince Abhaya, served and satisfied the Blessed One with superior hard and soft foods by his own hands. Then, when the Blessed One had eaten and had removed his hand from his bowl, Prince Abhaya took a lower seat and sat down at one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “Venerable sir, would the Tathāgata say words that are harsh and displeasing to others?”

“Prince, there is no one-sided answer to that.”

“Then right here, venerable sir, the Naked Ascetics are defeated.”

“But prince, why do you say, ‘Then right here, venerable sir, the Naked Ascetics are defeated’?”

Then Prince Abhaya repeated the entire conversation he had had the day before with Nigaṇṭhā Nāṭaputta.

Now at that time a baby boy was lying face-up on the princes lap. So the Blessed One said to the prince, “What do you think, prince: If this young boy, through your own negligence or that of the nurse, were to take a stick or a piece of gravel into its mouth, what would you do?”

“I would take it out, Venerable sir. If I couldn’t get it out right away, then holding its head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have compassion for the young boy.”

Six Kinds of Speech

  1. Speech that the Tathāgata¹ knows is untrue, incorrect, unbeneficial, harsh² and displeasing to others, he does not utter.
  2. Speech that the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, unbeneficial, harsh and displeasing to others, he does not utter.
  3. Speech that the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, beneficial,³ but harsh and displeasing to others, he knows the right time to say it.
  4. Speech that the Tathāgata knows to be untrue, incorrect, unbeneficial, but affectionate and pleasing to others, he does not say it.
  5. Speech that the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, unbeneficial, but affectionate and pleasing to others, he does not utter.
  6. Speech that the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, beneficial, and affectionate and pleasing to others, he knows the right time for saying it. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has compassion for living beings.”


1. Tathāgata is a term that the Buddha used when referring to himself. 

2. Harsh (appiyā), not affectionate.

3. Beneficial (atthasaṃhitaṃ). The Buddha gave advice on attaining worldly benefits such as wealth, health, and long-life; as well as advice on attaining spiritual benefits.

 Prior to the occasion that is the basis of the dilemma in this discourse, Devadatta went to the Buddha and suggested that the leadership of the Order should be handed over to him in view of the Buddha’s approaching old age. The Buddha scorned the suggestion, saying, “Not even to Sāriputta or Mahā-Moggallāna would I hand over the Order, how would I then to you, vile one, to be expectorated like spittle?” Devadatta showed great resentment and vowed vengeance. These were very harsh words indeed, after which Devadatta conspired to try to kill the Buddha and urged Ajātasattu to kill his own father, King Bimbisāra.

When Devadatta tried to kill the Buddha himself by throwing a boulder down from Vulture’s Peak, which splintered, drawing blood from the Blessed One’s foot, this was the first heinous crime that condemned Devadatta to hell. Later, he caused a schism in the Saṅgha, which is another heinous crime. Killing one’s own mother, one’s own father, an Arahant, spilling the blood of a Tathāgata, and causing a schism in the Saṅgha are all weighty volitional actions (garu kamma), with a definite and irreversible result of rebirth in hell.

It is hard to see how these harsh words were beneficial to Devadatta as they did not deter him from further evil acts, and may have been what spurred him to take such drastic actions. However, they were beneficial to many others. After this refusal to hand over the leadership of the Saṅgha to Devadatta, the Buddha had a public declaration made that any actions done by Devadatta thereafter were his own only, and not those of the community.

My conclusion: True speech that is harsh, displeasing, and unbeneficial to some, but of benefit to others, is right-speech if spoken without malice.

The Right to Cause Offence

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Current Affairs

There has been much debate in the media recently about free speech and the offence it may cause to others. In an article by Boris Johnson MP in the column that he writes for the Daily Telegraph he said that he felt “fully entitled” to expect women to remove face coverings when talking to him at his MP surgery, and expressed his opinion that the burka is oppressive and that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.

Some were outraged at his comments, while others supported his right to free speech, even if it does cause offence. There are three separate issues here that need to be considered:–

  1. Security concerns about covering the face.
  2. The right to wear whatever ones wishes.
  3. The need to conform to the society in which one lives.

There are legitimate concerns about security. In airports, banks, or wherever there are security checks, it should be obligatory to remove face coverings. The law must be enforced impartially. If a bank or shop requires the removal of crash helmets and masks, no exception can be made on religious grounds as this would make it too easy for robbers or terrorists to circumvent security arrangements.

The right to wear whatever one wishes has limits that are determined by laws and bylaws, dress codes, and local customs. There are naturist beaches where anyone can go entirely naked, but elsewhere one would be charged with public indecency. The Naked Rambler has spent many years in prison because he refuses to comply with the law. There have been many legal cases fought over the right to wear religious symbols or the right not to conform to dress codes at work. In most cases, the right of a company to make a dress code a contractual obligation have been upheld by the courts.

The UK government rejected a claim to prevent firms requiring women to wear high heels, claiming that the existing law on sex discrimination was adequate. However, the law is not enforced universally and many dress codes for women still reinforce sexist stereotypes that are outdated. A dress code that requires a woman to look sexy is unreasonable in most jobs. Unfortunately, western businesses have exploited the sexuality of women for so long that changing cultural attitudes is now very difficult. Air hostesses, waitresses, bar staff, receptionists, etc., are expected to look attractive to men, and there is no doubt that the physical appearance of female employees does affect the profitability of such businesses. Dress codes to protect workers’ health, e.g. steel-capped boots are fine, but no dress code should damage a worker’s health.

The third point about the need to conform to local custom is not something that can or should be enforced by the law. It is a matter of polite and civilised behaviour to assimilate into the community in which one lives or wherever one visits. When tourists visit foreign countries and if immigrants wish to integrate into their chosen country they will need to adjust their behaviour. To be insensitive to cultural norms is a sign of an uncivilised person. Those who don’t communicate with their neighbours are rightly regarded with suspicion. Anyone seeking permanent residence in a new country one should learn its language, history, and culture. It is not a violation of one’s human rights if one is not allowed to smoke in certain places, to play music in a library, or to wear shoes in a temple, mosque, or gurdwara. Private businesses, professional bodies, public swimming baths, Internet forums, and many other organisations make their own rules that members are expected to follow and may exclude them if they refused to abide by their regulations.

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The Simile of the Good Car

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Buddhism / Insight Meditation

If one wishes to reach a distant destination such as the Cairngorms National Park, from London, one will need several things: A car with five good wheels, some fuel, and some money to buy more fuel on the way. One will also need to know how to drive, and study the route.

Similarly, to reach a distant destination such as nibbāna from one’s current location in saṃsāra, wherever that might be, one will need several things: A car with five good wheels, some fuel, and some money to buy more fuel n the way. One will also need to know how to drive, and study the route.

Here is the meaning of the simile:-

A car with Five Good Wheels

One needs to have a human body during the era of the Buddha’s Dispensation and be reasonably healthy. If someone is chronically sick or mentally ill, it may not be possible for them to meditate strenuously enough.

Just as a car needs four good wheels, and a fifth — the steering wheel — a meditator needs to observe the four precepts: abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and unwholesome speech, and the fifth — abstaining from intoxicants that cause heedlessness. An unmindful and heedless person is incapable of making any worthwhile progress in meditation practice. Ideally, a meditator should observe the eight precepts by abstaining from afternoon meals, indulging in entertainments, and using cosmetics, jewellery, and perfumes.

Some Fuel for the Journey

At least one will need sufficient fuel to reach the next service station, where one can buy some more fuel. A meditator needs both faith and a generous spirit. A mean-spirited, excessively critical, or aggressive person cannot even begin the journey. Kind and generous people, whether they are Buddhists or not, if they are open-minded, intelligent, and respectful, can soon make progress and increase their faith in the teachings. If they begin the journey with faith in the teachings and the meditation instructor, they will gain in confidence as they make progress in the early stages of insight. Acquiring faith through practice is like having money to buy more fuel whenever one needs to.

Knowing How to Drive

Before setting out on a long journey, one should learn how to drive safely. One should attend regular meditation classes to learn the technique from an experienced meditation teacher. Learning how to meditate, like learning how to drive, is not something that one can learn properly only by reading books. One should practise the basic exercises given by the meditation teacher, and develop both skill and self-confidence by practising meditation for many hours.

Some drivers can pass their driving test after only five or ten lessons; others may have to retake the test repeatedly, and need to have many lessons. However clever one thinks one is, it is foolish to get into a car and start driving without taking any driving lessons. Even if one is not full of self-confidence, if one practises repeatedly, one will become competent sooner or later.

Studying the Route

Just as there are many different routes from London to reach the Cairngorms, there are many different meditation routes to reach nibbāna. Just as all routes from London to the Cairngorms must go North, the route to nibbāna from saṃsāra must go away from sensual indulgence and towards renunciation of pleasure. It must go away from laziness and towards stirring up energy.

One can study the route thoroughly beforehand, or one can make inquiries on the way. Either method will work provided that one studies carefully and makes a thorough investigation by putting appropriate and intelligent questions to the meditation instructor.

Reaching the Destination

A long journey may not be completed in a single day. To reach the Cairngorms one may drive fast as far as Edinburgh or Perth, then one will have to stay overnight, and continue on the next day. At some point, one may have to leave the car and walk or climb to the final destination on foot. However long the journey may be, if one continues in the right direction, one will get closer to the goal.

Most meditators will not reach nibbāna on their first meditation retreat, nor even after many retreats. It depends on many factors. However far they are from the destination, what is certain is that if they continue to meditate diligently they will be getting closer day by day. Conversely, if they do not begin the journey, or give up whenever it gets difficult, they will never gain any worthwhile insights, let alone reach the destination of nibbāna.

False Teachings

There are some false meditation teachers who say that the goal is easy to reach if you follow their instructions (and, no doubt, pay them a good fee). Other false teachers will say that there is no need to meditate, or that the goal is unreachable nowadays, so just make merit by giving donations and doing other good deeds.

Do not listen to false teachers. The way to nibbāna is hard for some, not so hard for others, and easy for no one, but it is impossible for those who hold wrong views. One can buy a fake degree in psychology on the Internet, or one can study hard for six years or longer to gain a genuine degree. One would expect to make at least as much effort to understand one’s own psyche, which is a prerequisite before attaining nibbāna. To put an end to craving, one has to understand what craving is and how to relinquish it.

The Kāma Sutta

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A Discourse on Sensual Pleasures


The Buddhist Kāma Sutta is poles apart from the infamous Kāma Sutra, an ancient Hindu text on sexuality. Buddhists are not generally puritanical about sexuality, but the Buddhist texts advise treating it with great caution, as one treats a fire in one’s own house. The third precept to abstain from sexual misconduct (kāmesu micchācārā verāmaṇi sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi). 

In particular, kāma refers to sexual relations, but the word covers sensual pleasures of all types. The Commentary makes it clear that not only sexual pleasures are referred to here. Though such coarse pleasures are greatly desired by ordinary mortals, the most refined sensual and aesthetic pleasures suffer from the same defects.


“One who desires sensual pleasures, having succeeded in his aims,
Will surely be delighted, having obtained what a mortal desires.

“However, one who desires those sensual pleasures,
If those pleasures come to ruin,¹ is oppressed like someone pierced by an arrow.

“One who avoids sensual pleasures, like one avoids treading on a snake’s head,
Such a one overcomes attachment to this world.

“Fields, clothing, or gold, cattle and horses, slaves and workers,
Women, relatives, various sensual pleasures, a man who covets these;

“Being feeble will be overpowered, oppressed by troubles,
Suffering will follow him, like water penetrates a damaged ship.

“Therefore a person should always be mindful, avoiding sensual pleasures,
Abandoning them one will cross the flood,² as a bailed-out boat reaches the far shore.”


1. In the Commentarial introduction, a brahmin farmer was anticipating a good harvest. The Buddha, knowing that it would be destroyed, asked the brahmin how his crop was doing. Venerable Sāriputta and Moggallāna also spoke politely to the brahmin. The brahmin therefore promised to offer alms after the sale of his crop. A great storm came just before the brahmin could harvest his crop, and he was greatly disappointed. The Buddha therefore taught him this discourse on the disadvantages of sensual pleasures.

2. A flood (ogha) is often used as a simile for defilements. The brahmin farmer’s crop was ruined by a great flood, and the happiness of human beings is destroyed by the flood of sensuality (kāmogha). Having abandoned sensual desires, and bailed-out one’s “boat,” a mindful person can cross the river that is in full flood and reach the far shore (a simile for nibbāna).

Apostasy in Buddhism

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Apostasy is defined as “The state of having rejected your affiliation, religious or political beliefs, or principles (often in favour of opposing beliefs or causes)” (WordWeb).

Buddhism encourages a sceptical attitude, and does not demand blind faith. One becomes a Buddhist by the simple act of taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha, which is an expression of one’s confidence in the teachings. One becomes a virtuous Buddhist by undertaking and observing the five precepts (abstaining from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, wrong speech, and taking intoxicants that cause heedlessness).

There are many followers of Buddhism who do not have full confidence in orthodox doctrines such as the law of kamma and rebirth, psychic powers, mind-reading, the existence of other realms of existence, etc. These core beliefs are elements of mundane right-view. However, being sceptical about these beliefs does not make anyone an apostate.

An apostate is someone like the monk Sunakkhatta who was angry with the Buddha, and left the Saṅgha.

By his own misdirected mind, Sunakkhatta set himself on a course that would inevitably lead to rebirth in hell. The Buddha did not inflict any punishment on him, Sunakkhatta’s path was one that he chose for himself. This is what the Maha-sihanada Sutta says regarding Sunakkhatta:

21. “Sariputta, when I know and see thus, should anyone say of me: ‘The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma (merely) hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him’ — unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell.

Just as a bhikkhu possessed of virtue, concentration and wisdom would here and now enjoy final knowledge, so it will happen in this case, I say, that unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell.

No Buddhist worthy of the name would want to kill or punish an apostate. They might want to reason with them to restore their faith, or they might ostracise them if they refused to listen to wise counsel.

See the Kesi Sutta. to understand the Buddhist attitude to apostates and others who adhere to wrong-views and engage in misdeeds.

A Question of Balance

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Buddhism / Insight Meditation

Understanding the Middle Path

On the full-moon night of Vesākha, the Bodhisatta become the Buddha after meditating the entire night at the culmination of a six year struggle to find the right path. Thereafter, he spent forty-five years propagating his “Middle Path” guiding others along the unique way that he had discovered.

In fact, he had been searching much longer than six years to find this middle path. Since the time of his vow at the feet of the Buddha Dīpaṅkara, ninety-one aeons ago, as the ascetic Sumedha, he had dedicated 100% of his efforts throughout many lives to this quest for enlightenment. Even before meeting the Buddha Dīpaṅkara, the Bodhisatta had practised meditation earnestly throughout many lives to accumulate perfections, and at the time of meeting the Buddha Dīpaṅkara he was an accomplished ascetic with mystic powers.

After his enlightenment he taught this “Middle Path” for more than forty-five years until his death at the age of over eighty. He called it the “Middle Path” because it avoided the two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification, not because it requires only a moderate amount of effort to follow it. The facts clearly show that to follow the “Middle Path” requires a great deal of effort and dedication, though it does, of course, also require that effort to be well-balanced, equanimous, and rightly directed. It is not a path for fanatics or zealots, but one for pious devotees, serious students, and ardent meditators.

When we talk of a well-balanced approach to practice, one should not conjure up visions of balancing in a hammock on a sunny afternoon, nor of sitting on a fence not knowing which way to jump, but the balance of a long-distance athlete who runs as fast as possible with the least possible waste of energy, or the balance of a worker who climbs a ladder with a heavy load of bricks on his shoulder.

The Three Characteristics

First we should learn something about why we need to meditate, and what we are aiming to achieve by meditation. If our aim is wrong, our practice will be wrong, or even if it is right, we may give up easily if we don’t get the results that we expect.

The aim of the Buddha’s Middle Path of mindfulness meditation or insight meditation is to understand things as they really are, and thus remove craving, which is the cause of suffering. In short, we meditate in order to realise the three characteristics of imperma­nence (anicca), unsatis­factori­ness (dukkha), and not-self (anatta). The purpose is not mental tranquillity, to enjoy a stress-free life, or to make merit.

One should have this basic understanding that the First Noble Truth — the truth of suffering — needs to be understood; the Second Noble Truth — the truth of the cause (craving) needs to be abandoned; the Third Noble Truth — the truth of cessation (nibbāna) — needs to be realised; and the Fourth Noble Truth — the truth of the Path — needs to be developed. If one has this basic understanding before one begins, one will not be surprised, disappointed, or alarmed if one discovers one or other of these three characteristics. On the contrary, one will be encouraged at the thought that one is making gradual progress on the Path to the end of suffering.


Not all Bodhisattas have to endure six hard years of self-mortifying practice. It depends on their past kamma. The reason that Siddhattha Gotama had to struggle in this way is told in the Ghaṭikāra Sutta of the Majjhimanikāya. In that discourse, the Buddha relates to the Venerable Ānanda how, in a previous life, he himself was reborn as a Brahmin youth named Jotipāla, whose companion since childhood was a potter (that is the meaning of Ghaṭikāra — a maker of pots). This potter was a devout follower of the Buddha Kassapa, and a Non-returner, who supported his blind and aged parents by his simple craft. One day, Ghaṭikāra repeatedly urged his friend, Jotipāla, to go and visit the Buddha Kassapa, who was staying near by. Jotipāla, however, being proud due to his high caste family, was reluctant to visit a teacher of another religion. He remarked, “What is the use of going to see this bald-headed recluse?” Eventually, however, he gave in to the repeated urging of his friend, went to see the Buddha, gained faith in the Dhamma, and became a bhikkhu in his dispensation. It was due to those disrespectful words regarding the most noble of beings, that Siddhattha Gotama had to struggle for six years before finding the Middle Path.

I hope you can see, therefore, the important role that respect pays in the practice of the Dhamma. If we listen respectfully to the teacher’s instructions, we will learn much more quickly, and avoid unskilful paths that only lead to more suffering. Even if the teacher explains something wrongly, if one listens respectfully, one will not be misled, but will realise that the teacher hasn’t explained it very clearly, or that one may have misunderstood what he meant. One will seek a second opinion or refer to the relevant books to clarify the teacher’s instruction, or proceed carefully, trusting one’s own experience.


Nothing worthwhile can be achieve in a short time unless one has done a lot of preparation. Consider how long the Bodhisatta had to strive to achieve his goal. To gain enlightenment took him only about twelve hours of continuous meditation once he had gained the right method, but to get to that advanced stage of preparedness he had to struggle hard for much longer.

Someone on a Buddhist forum, referring to the Venerable Ānanda’s striving for Arahantship, wrote that after practising walking meditation for the whole night without achieving his goal, he gave up and went to rest.  I don’t see it the same way. Venerable Ānanda didn’t give up at all. After practising walking meditation for the whole night he reflected, “The Buddha said that my perfections are mature enough to gain Arahantship, yet though I have tried my hardest for the whole night, I haven’t yet reached the goal. I must have been exerting too hard, making the mind distracted and restless. I need to regain mental balance by adopting a posture more conducive to tranquillity.” So he went and sat on the edge of his bed, and lay down to rest the body for a while. He did not give up mindfulness for one moment, but continued to note mindfully all actions and movements of the body as he adjusted his posture. After sitting on his bed, he gained Once-returning, Non-returning and, finally, Arahantship before his head touched the pillow. This very rapid attainment by the Venerable Ānanda was the result of continuity of practice throughout the whole night without a break. It was not the result of “giving up.”

Be careful when you listen to this story. Enlightenment is not to be gained by lying down on the bed — unless you have excellent knowledge and wisdom like Venerable Ānanda, and have been striving hard all night practising intensive walking meditation.

When we practise meditation seriously, we should be prepared for an endurance race, not a sprint. Ten days is nothing if we compare it to six years. To gain enlightenment and escape from rebirth could not be such a simple task. If we speak of striving for at least eighteen hours a day, continuously for many days, people say that we are fanatics, that we are not teaching the Middle Path. What do you think? Are we fanatics, or are those people just lazy and far away from understanding the right method?

Cultivating Suitability

The meditator’s attitude should be very different to the average person. The average person quickly becomes bored with meditation if asked to practice for the entire day and late into the night. It is not easy even for experienced meditators to sustain effort for a long time. One needs to cultivate the right conditions to stir up effort and deepen concentration. A meditator should avoid worldly thoughts and activities. This is doubly difficult to achieve at home. It is also hard to achieve in many monasteries that I have stayed at. The Buddha’s advice is to go to a forest, to the root of a tree, or to an empty place.

One should join a meditation course, where like-minded people are also striving to develop concentration and insight. If one has the moral support of other meditators, it will help one’s own practice. Staying alone is beneficial, but only if one is strongly inclined to meditation. Otherwise, it is better to derive some support from others. It was with this in mind that I started the “Association for Insight Meditation.” By associating with others who also want to gain insight, one will practise harder than if one associates with those who want to enjoy sensual pleasures.

A meditator should avoid all talking. Talking for five minutes can spoil one’s practice for the entire day. Even talk about meditation should be limited to what is necessary for instruction. One should eat plain food that suits one’s own metabolism. Two light meals — breakfast and lunch are enough for a meditator. In the afternoon one can drink fruit juice or take honey if one becomes famished.

The climate may be a problem for westerners who visit Burma. In the hot season, go to a meditation centre at higher altitude. Taunggyi in Shan State is much more comfortable than Rangoon.

One should seek out a teacher who can give inspiring discourses, and/or inspire by example. “Talking is easy, doing is difficult,” as the saying goes.

Remembering Previous Successes

There are many factors that contribute to good results. Every meditator is unique, and only a teacher with the higher knowledge of a Buddha can know exactly what instructions to give at any moment. Other teachers give advice that is good, but may not be what the meditator needs to hear at that moment.

My mother took me for weekly swimming lessons for many weeks, but I did not like the instructor and made little progress. Then one day, while playing in the sea, a wave picked me up and I realised that I could keep my head above water and my feet off of the ground. It was not very long before I could swim quite well.

Learning to meditate is an acquired skill like learning to swim or riding a bicycle. Even the best teacher can only point out the way, and offer tips and encouragement, the student must practise the meditation exercises for himself or herself, and discover the right method that keeps the mental faculties in perfect balance.

When you achieve some results, such as being able to sit or walk for long periods without interruption, or if the mind becomes unusually calm and still, make a mental note of the conditions at that time. Recollect that experience and the conditions that led to it when trying to regain concentration at a later date. Did you eat your meal with special mindfulness that day, or walk slower than usual?

Developing the Factors of Enlightenment

These seven factors of enlightenment are weak in the average person who first takes up meditation: mindfulness (sati), investigation (dhammavicaya), effort (viriya), joy (pīti), tranquillity (passaddhi)concentration (samādhi), and equanimity (upekkhā). They need to be developed through sustained and continuous practice. Mindfulness is indispensable. It is the factor that keeps the others in balance. Investigation, effort, and joy all excite the mind and stir it up to strive harder. Tranquillity, concentration, and equanimity cool the excited mind to make it focus deeper. When the energy is low we must use investigation, effort, and joy to brighten the mind and stir it up. When the mind becomes too fired-up, we must use tranquillity, concentration, and equanimity to cool it down before it overheats. Mindfulness keeps checking the current state of the mind to know which factor is in excess and which is deficient.

Enduring Patience is the Greatest Austerity

Renunciation of pleasure is hard for human beings, but tolerance of pain and discomfort is much harder. No one likes pain and discomfort, fatigue, hunger and thirst, excessive heat or cold. A meditator must endure these hardships with patience. If the mind shrinks from facing up to them, as it always does when it is weak, the meditator must keep stirring up effort, courage, and determination. If severe pain comes, try to sit with it for a little longer. You should regard it as your best friend because it is the means by which you can gain freedom from suffering. Remember, the truth of suffering must be understood. So when suffering comes you have a precious chance to gain insight. If you shy away from it, the pain will be unbearable, and crush your will to go on. If you take it as a challenge to test the maturity of your practice, it will lead to rapid progress.

Courageous Determination

Each time you participate in a retreat, whether for a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks, you are developing your perfections. The Bodhisatta practised meditation throughout many lives to attain the perfections that he needed to achieve his goal. Perhaps you already have sufficient perfections to achieve your goal, as the Venerable Ānanda had, but you must not give up. You may need to go to work and earn money to support your family, but each time you get a chance to meditate seriously, you must take it and practise again and again. Keep doing the practice until you break through and gain some insight knowledge. Without applying heat, nothing ever gets cooked.

When suffering arises, do not shrink from it, but increase your efforts and spend more time for formal meditation practice. If pain arises, don’t change your position at once, but change your attitude. The pain is not your enemy, but a reminder of the universal truth of suffering. If insight can be gained, suffering can be transcended. As it says in the introduction to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta: “This, monks, is the only way for the purification of living-beings, for the transcendence of grief and lamentation, for the extinguishing of pain and sorrow, for attaining the right method, for the realisation of nibbāna, namely: the four foundations of mindfulness.” Do not seek for any other method; avoidance just delays success further into the future.

The Law of Kamma Explained

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The following passage occurs in several places:

All beings are the owners of their actions (kamma), heirs of their actions, born from their actions, related to their actions, and have actions as their refuge. Whatever action they do, whether good or evil, they will inherit its results.

Owners of their actions

In this world, one is said to be the owner of property that one has paid for, but at death we have to leave it all behind. So we do not really own it, we have just borrowed it for a while. In the case of volitional actions of body, speech, and mind however, we do take them with us when we die, so they are truly our own property. No one else owns or is responsible for our kamma. The buck stops here.

Heirs to their actions

When parents die, their children usually inherit their house and other property. The children do not usually inherit the house of their neighbours. If the parents had an expensive house, the children do no inherit a cheap house. When someone is reborn, they inherit the results of kammas done in previous lives. The circumstances in which we are reborn depends on on our kamma. Wealth is the result of generosity, intelligence is the result of questioning, beauty and good health are the results of kindness and compassion, a short life is the result of killing, etc. Nothing that happens to us in unfair in the ultimate sense, since it is the result of our own actions.

Born from their actions

Kamma is the seed that determines the quality of our existence. Mango seeds give mango trees, chilli seeds give chilli seeds. That is only natural.

Related to their actions

When a family gets into difficulties for one reason or another, good relatives will come to help out. On the other hand, bad relatives will cause many problems. Some kammas are supportive, others are counteractive. Though reborn in a happy existence due to good kamma, one may suffer many hardships due to counteractive kamma. Conversely, though reborn into difficult circumstances, supportive kamma may come along to offer many good opportunities to succeed in life.

Have kamma as their refuge

“God helps those who help themselves” as the saying goes. If believing in God was of any use, it would not be necessary to study or work. Merely by praying to God one would become wealthy. However, it is not so. One has to do wholesome kammas to become wealthy. If some seem to become wealthy by doing unwholesome kammas, it is because they did wholesome kammas in previous lives, the present kammas will give bad results in the future. So the law of kamma means that everyone has the opportunity to mould his or her own destiny to ensure happiness in the future.

Ten Kinds of Kamma

Although we talk of bodily kamma, and verbal kamma, it is always the mind that is the motivator, and it is in the mind that kamma is made. Body or speech is just the outward manifestation.

Ten Kinds of Unwholesome Kamma

Three Kinds of Physical Kamma

1. Killing
2. Stealing
3. Sexual misconduct

Four  Kinds of Verbal Kamma

1. Lying
2. Abusing
3. Slandering
4. Idle chatter

Three Kinds Mental Kamma

1. Covetousness
2. Ill-will
3. Wrong-view

Ten Kinds of Wholesome Kamma

There are also ten wholesome kamma that lead to happiness in this life and rebirth in fortunate existences (human, celestial, and brahma realms) in the next. Though you are no doubt familiar with all of the ten unwholesome deeds, you may not be so familiar with the ten wholesome deeds (~_~) so I may need to explain these in a bit more detail. What makes these deeds wholesome is not so much the outward manifestation, but the mental volition involved.

1. Charity (Dāna) means giving. It is accompanied by the wholesome volition of renunciation of attachment. It may be done for many reasons: compassion, reverence, loving-kindness, desiring praise or future welfare, or seeing danger in attachment. It is of three kinds as inferior, medium, and superior. Done with desire for fame is inferior, with desire for future welfare is medium, seeing the danger in attachment is superior.

2. Morality (Sīla) means abstaining from immoral deeds such as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants that cause heedlessness. More refined morality means abstaining from sensual indulgence of all kinds such as listening to music, watching films, etc.

3. Meditation (Bhāvanā) means developing the mind through study or contemplation to gain concentration, knowledge, and wisdom. It entails withdrawing the mind from sensual pleasures, and removing mental restlessness and instability.

4. Reverence (Apacāyana) means respect or reverence for someone endowed with virtues such as morality, learning, compassion, or wisdom. It may also be shown towards objects, but it is important to focus the mind on the virtues of good people, for example: “This pagoda marks the spot where the Buddha attained Enlightenment” or “This meditation centre is a place where people are striving to gain insight, so I should be quiet.”

5. Service (Veyyāvaca) means helping others in various ways by sharing one’s knowledge and expertise, providing transportation, giving physical aid, medical care, etc.

6. Transference of merit (Pattidāna) means to invite others to participate in or take delight in one’s own good deeds. In Christian terms it means “Not to hide one’s light under a bushel.” It is the wholesome intention to encourage others to do wholesome deeds by speaking of the benefits one enjoys by doing them.

7. Rejoicing in others’ merit (Pattānumodanā) is finding delight in the virtue and good deeds of others.

8. Listening to Dhamma (Dhammassavana) is the mental action of paying attention to a talk, or reading a book, with the intention to understand the truth.

9. Teaching Dhamma (Dhammadesanā) is teaching and explaining the way things are based on one’s own learning of the Buddhist scriptures or experiences in life and in meditation.

10. Straightening one’s wrong views (Diṭṭhujukamma) is questioning and investigating to eradicate doubts and abandon wrong views.

Kamma is not Fatalism

As I pointed out before, and as this article makes abundantly clear, kamma is the refuge for living beings. Our past kamma is already done, so the only important thing is how we react to the results in the present.

However, there is one aspect of kamma that is fatalistic. Although kamma is the refuge for the wise man, it is a trap for the fool. Allow me to relate a short story from Burmese folk-lore to illustrate the point.

The son of a pious Buddhist was a drunkard and a fool. He had no faith in Dhamma, and never listened to his father. Whatever little profit he made during the day, he spent at night, and so remained poor. After his death the father was reborn as a deity. Seeing his former son in dire straits he made one last attempt to help him. He appeared to his son and told him, “Tomorrow morning, set up your stall in front of the king’s palace. When he comes to buy a vase from you, ask whatever price you wish and he will pay it.” Then the deity appeared before the king in a frightening form, and warned him, “Your kingdom is in great danger from a demon who resides in a vase. Tomorrow morning a vendor will be in front of your palace, and he will have the vase. If you buy the vase and destroy it, the demon won’t be able to harm you.”

The king was terrified, so the next morning he went to the vendor’s stall, found the vase, and asked the vendor how much he wanted for it. The vendor replied, “50 cents” so the king bought it and took it away. The deity was furious, and took hold of his former son by the hair to smack him one, but as he lifted up his head, he saw the words “50 cents” on his forehead. So he let him go, thinking, “What is the use of being angry with this fool?”

Hence the origin of the Burmese expression, “One has one’s kamma written on one’s forehead.”

Although kamma gives us the potential to escape from all suffering, most people do not realise this. We say that they lack perfections (pāramī). If anyone holds wrong views, and clings tenaciously to those wrong views, that is heavy kamma that will prevent him or her from realising the Dhamma. They not only hold wrong views themselves, but they try their utmost to impose those wrong views on others. For the average intelligent person, if they hear or read about right view, they can understand it well enough if they think over it carefully. However, the bigot is blinded by his heavy obstructive kamma and can never understand the Dhamma, even if he is fortunate to meet the Buddha himself.

Right Understanding Arises from Practice

Buddhism is all about cause and effect
If you want to get results you have to make the right causes.

The first step is gaining confidence in the Buddha’s teaching. The Pali word is Saddha, which means confidence based on knowledge, rather than faith. However, there is an element of faith or trust required, since mere logic and reason is not sufficient. One’s knowledge has to be direct and empirical, not just intellectual.

Suffering is the cause, and confidence is the effect

Most people turn to religion only when they experience suffering. The loss of a loved one, divorce, losing one’s job, sickness, or a road accident. When the experience of suffering is personal, and not just theoretical, one begins to contemplate the meaning of life. The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. From our own experience we gain confidence that this is true, and stop trying to deny it.

Confidence is the cause, and effort is the effect

If the Buddha had taught only the First Noble Truth, his teaching would be a pessimistic doctrine. However, he also pointed out the cause of suffering, and how to remove it. If we clearly see the cause of suffering, we will definitely want to remove it. So effort arises. One acquires a sense of urgency and disenchantment with so-called happiness.

Effort is the cause, and mindfulness is the effect

If we try to understand we will learn that the only way to remove craving, which is the cause of suffering, is to be mindful. Mindfulness is an extremely effective method for purifying the mind. In fact, it is the only method that always works. Telling people that immorality leads to hell, doesn’t stop them doing immoral deeds. When desire or anger is strong enough, they will do immoral deeds. Mindfulness prevents desire and anger from becoming strong in the first place. The trouble is, even if we know this, we still sometimes get careless and forget to be mindful.

Mindfulness is the cause, and concentration is the effect

When mindfulness is continuous and constant, the mind becomes deeply concentrated on realities in the present moment. It becomes highly purified and stops running here and there after sensual desires.

Concentration is the cause, and wisdom is the effect

The calm and concentrated mind is like a bright light that dispels the darkness of ignorance. With the benefit of right mindfulness and right concentration we can see things as they really are, not just as they seem to be. Our perception changes radically. What we previously perceived as happiness, we now see as nothing but suffering. What we previously perceived as permanent, we now perceive as unstable and unreliable. What we previously perceived as a person or being, I, me, or mine, a self or a soul; we now perceive as empty and void of any such self or person.

Wisdom is the cause, and liberation is the effect

When we no longer cling to ideas of I, me, and mine we no longer suffer due to change and decay. If something changes, we understand, “That is the nature of all things.”

Is there any difference between Reincarnation and Rebirth?

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The reality is the same for all of us. Even those who are neither Buddhists, nor Hindus, are reborn, whether they believe it or not. At least they cannot deny that they have been born, can they? So the difference between Rebirth in Buddhism, and Re-incarnation in Hinduism is a matter of concepts. Hindus believe in an immortal soul that is transferred from one existence to the next. Buddhists do not believe in an eternal soul, but they do believe in rebirth. There is no eternal essence that remains unchanged throughout life, and even after death.

How Can Rebirth Take Place if there is no Soul?

A fair question, and an important concept to grasp correctly. It may be easiest to understand with the help of a simile. Take a match and a candle. Light the match. Now hold the candle wick directly over the flame, but not actually touching it. Watch closely what happens. After a few seconds the wick will begin to smoulder, and a flame will ignite. A child might say that the flame jumped from the matchstick to the candle, because that is what seems to happen.

A scientist would describe the process differently. He would perhaps say that due to the heat in the match flame, the paraffin wax in the wick vaporised, reached its ignition temperature, and begin to react with the oxygen in the air. This rapid process of oxidation produced the flame in the candle. Nothing jumped from the matchstick to the candle, but the heat was the cause produced by the oxidation of the wood, that led to the result, which was the oxidation of the paraffin wax and the second flame.

Rebirth is similar to this process. A living being does many volitional activities, which are kamma. This is like the heat. The present human body is like the match-stick, the new fetus, which might be a non-human fetus, is like the candle. When the conditions are right, consciousness arises in the new fetus. No soul is transferred, but there is a causal relationship between the two existences. In the case of rebirth, unlike in the simile, consciousness in one existence must cease before it can arise in the second existence.

Please note that just as the flames may be entirely different colours, sizes, temperatures, etc., in the first fuel and the second fuel, the same is true of the form that life takes before and after rebirth. To give a simple example: a female mouse may be reborn as a male elephant, or a Caucasian male may be reborn as an Asian female. It all depends on the mental process that is driven by kamma. One does not always get what one wants, but one always gets what one deserves.

Where To Sir?

Rebirth into the heavenly realms is spontaneous, as there is no gestation or fetal stage. Celestial beings are reborn with their subtle bodies fully developed. In the analogy of the flame, it would be like a gas flame rather than a candle flame.

Yes, kamma is the overriding factor that determines where rebirth takes place, but prayer or aspiration plays a significant role too. To give another simile. Suppose one were to arrive at an airport with sufficient money in one’s pocket to stay at the best hotel in town. If the taxi driver asked, “Where to, sir?” one might say, “Oh! It doesn’t matter. Take me to the nearest hotel.” The nearest hotel might be a bit of a dump, whilst the best hotel might be the other side of town. Kamma is like the money in one’s pocket, while aspiration is like what one says to the taxi driver.

If one arrives with only $25 in one’s pocket, one will have to say, “Take me to the cheapest guest house” otherwise when one gets to the five-star hotel, the taxi driver will take the $25 and the concierge will not even let one into the foyer.

Spontaneous Rebirth

Gestation (or incubation) is only necessary in the human and animal realms, where beings are born in the womb or in eggs. In the case of rebirth in celestial realms, and also in the lower realms of hungry ghosts, demons, and in hell, rebirth takes place spontaneously with a fully formed body created by kamma.

Beings in the realms of form (rūpa loka) are reborn there by the power of deep absorption (jhāna) and since there is no sex there, it makes little sense to refer to them as male. This is also the case with the formless realms (arūpa loka), where there in only mind and no matter.

The same could perhaps be said regarding the human fetus that has not yet developed sexual characteristics. It begs the question, Why are some acted upon by testosterone while others are not? However, we are getting into deep waters here beyond my knowledge of biology. According to my understanding, the sex is already determined at conception due to that particular being’s kamma and aspiration. However, it is possible that sex is not determined by the kamma that causes rebirth, but only by supportive kammas that bear fruit afterwards.

The kamma that causes rebirth is like the seed, supportive kammas that function thereafter are like the soil, water, fertiliser, and sunlight. Obstructive or counteractive kammas may also intervene resulting in miscarriage, deformities, or abortion These are like fungal infections, insects, flood, fire, or vermin, that may prevent a seed from developing into a full-grown plant.

Time to Move On

Kamma is the driving force that keeps us revolving in the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra). Kamma is the Almighty creator. The Buddha fully understood the law of kamma and taught us how it works, but predicting its results is even more difficult than predicting the weather. The Buddha warned that to try to reason out the specific causes or results of kamma would lead to insanity. However, what we can do is understand the basic principles of kamma. Then we will avoid unwholesome kamma, cultivate wholesome kamma, and try to gain liberation from kamma.


The Holy Quest

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After his enlightenment the Buddha uttered the following spontaneous verse:

Through many births I wandered,
Seeking, but not finding, the builder of this house.
Painful is repeated existence.
Oh housebuilder, you are seen now.
You shall build no house again.
All your rafters are broken,
Your ridgepole is shattered.
To dissolution goes my mind.
Achieved is the destruction of craving.
(Dhammapada, verses 153,4)

The Buddha-to-be, or bodhisatta, began his quest for enlightenment at some far distant point in time. He eventually reached a stage of spiritual maturity when there was no turning back, and enlightenment was certain. Ninety-one aeons ago he was reborn as a youth called Sumedha. His multi-millionaire parents died while he was young. He reflected, “They have died taking nothing with them. It is better to give it all away before one dies, then at least I will take that wholesome kamma with me when I die.” Thus he renounced all his fabulous wealth and became a wanderer. Then he met the Buddha Dipaṅkara, who predicted that Sumedha would become a Buddha named Gotama in the distant future.

The bodhisatta continued to seek enlightenment throughout many existences. When his spiritual virtues were fully ripe he was reborn as Siddhartha Gotama, made the final renunciation of his wealth to seek enlightenment, and gained it after six years of struggle.

The simile of the house-builder refers to the house of selfhood, which is built by kamma, and protected by the rafters of mental defilements, held together by the ridge-pole of ignorance. With the destruction of ignorance, the other defilements and craving for existence were destroyed, as he attained to nibbāna.

First, we should understand that nibbāna is not a place or realm of existence like heaven, and the Buddha didn’t ‘enter’ nibbāna, neither when he gained enlightenment, nor when he died. Throughout his life, he could abide in the attainment of nibbāna whenever he wished, and all noble disciples can do this too. Nibbāna just means cessation or letting go.

When you just let go of something, you cease to suffer, there and then. Unenlightened people can experience a ‘mini-nibbāna’ every time they suppress the urge to defend themselves from some perceived attack. When we don’t suppress that urge, the ego rises up and we instigate another cycle of suffering.

If you can understand that this so-called ego is entirely mind-made, illusory, and has no substance, then you will see that the house is empty. There is no one at home. No soul, no self, no spirit, no person, no me, no you. Just mind and matter arising and passing away, and creating illusions. So where could a Buddha or Arahant go after death? If a fire ceases to burn because the fuel is used up, the flames go out. It makes no sense to ask, “Where did the flame go?” It didn’t go anywhere, it just went out.

However, it is difficult to see this. Usually, the ego does rise up, so we keep on making kamma, which means intentional actions by body, speech, and mind. This is the driving force that accumulates momentum throughout life, and throws us into this or that existence after death. Wholesome kamma leads to happiness, unwholesome kamma leads to misery. When we die, it is just the last conscious moment that determines the arising of the next existence, so it is wise to cultivate good mental habits and to remove bad ones, since we can die at any moment.

How do you know what is right?

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Good question. Short answer is, you don’t, at least not to begin with. The Pali words for the eight factors of the noble path all begin with sammā- e.g. sammā-diṭṭhi (right view), sammā-saṅkappo (right thought). However, sammā doesn’t just mean right.

How do we usually translate “Sammāsambuddho?” You never see it translated as the Rightly Enlightened Buddha, do you? The usual translation is the Fully or Perfectly Enlightened Buddha.

So our view has to be gradually straightened and corrected until it is not just right, but perfect and without any blemish. This action of straightening our views is one of the ten wholesome deeds.

Most people, including many so-called Buddhists, have more wrong views than right ones. When we gain sincere and well-placed confidence in the enlightenment of the Buddha, we get rid of the gross forms of wrong views such as those denying the law of cause and effect, and gain mundane right view, but we have not attained nibbāna yet. Self-view is one kind of serious wrong view that must be eliminated before we can realise nibbāna.

Self-view is the belief in a permanent self, soul, person, or being who inhabits the body, and motivates it.

“I think, therefore I am. I think?” “No you’re not, you’re magnetic ink. The folded sheets of paper clatter through the great computer …”

Before I became a Buddhist, I used to listen to the Moody Blues Greatest Hits album, from which these lyrics come. The very rapid, and almost incessant mental process perpetuates the illusion of a permanent self or person. That is why most people find it very difficult to be silent, and to do nothing.

When we meditate, the mind gradually becomes still, then we can see this profound truth of emptiness, or egolessness, and gain a deeper realisation of right view. When the mind is truly empty of self — selfishness, egoism, pride, arrogance, conceit — then you will clearly discern right from wrong.

The Buddha never tried to convert anybody to his viewpoint, because he didn’t have one. He knew what was right, and helped others to see it too. When you see the truth clearly for yourself you will gain confidence in the Buddha. If I insult your intelligence by trying to tell you what to believe, why should you listen to me?