What we are speaks so much more loudly than what we do. Thank you for joining us as we explore being and doing.
The very first question I ever asked a Buddhist practitioner was asked to a visiting Tibetan Buddhist monk many years ago. The monk had come to visit the university where I was studying as part of a fundraising tour for his community of Tibetan Buddhist refugees.
I asked him this question. I said, “You spend your time meditating in caves. What good does it do? Don't you see that the world is suffering? Shouldn't you be doing something about that?”. He smiled, and, with the help of his translator, he said to me: “We meditate so that we can be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem”.
I was recently asked a similar question. The person said, “There is all of this emphasis in Buddhist tradition about space, and stillness, and compassion and kindness, but there are so many things in the world that need to be changed. It makes me angry sometimes, but that anger can be useful. Sometimes that anger moves us forward. So what's wrong with acting in the world?”.
What is the relationship between stillness and movement, between being and doing? What is the difference? Where does one stop? Where does the other begin?
The relationship between being and doing is like the relationship between body and mind. It is only as separate as we choose to make it. In some sense, they are entirely different: stillness and movement; body and mind. In another sense, there is no difference at all. Where in my body is my mind? Where does one end and the other begin? One cannot be in the absence of the other. Difference and non-difference: it defines that spectrum of the space in-between in which we all live.
The idea of karma understands the living human person as “one who acts”. The word is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root KR- which means “to do”. The noun “karma”, in the linguistic neuter, means “action”. This “action” is very neutral. In this sense, there is no such thing as good karma or bad karma. There is action that may lead to desirable results. There is action that may lead to less desirable results. Karma itself is simply naming “action”.
This perception of “karma” understands that cause and effect are interrelated. The seed is inside the fruit. How we act will create an equal and like reaction. Action necessarily implies cause and effect simultaneously.
We must pick up both ends of that stick every time we act, and we must act.
It is in our nature to act.
In ancient Indian, or Vedic tradition, what distinguishes that which is alive from that which is not alive is action or movement. Humans are in the category or class of “jagat”, that which is alive, that which moves. This is in contrast to the category of “sthatar”, that which does not move, that which is not living. We are alive. Therefore, we act. With each action, we engage simultaneously the effect and the cause of that action, the fruit and the seed.
The wise will act because we want the fruit or result of the action, not because we are seduced – or repulsed - by the immediate surface quality of the cause. If you want to do well on the test, you do need to do your homework: the wise learn to first see the result - and focus on that - not the cause.
So there is no such thing as good karma or bad karma. It is simply a question of skillful action or not skillful action. What is skillful action? It is action that moves me in the direction that I want to go. In the Buddhist context, this normally implies: “will this action support me in finding freedom from my suffering, or freedom for other people from their suffering? There is the sense that, because we must act, let it be action which is skillful, which will support health, happiness, vibrancy, well-being for the benefit of myself and others, the situation in which I find myself, and the environment at large.
It's a worldview where time is around, and thus there is the understanding that it's very good to think long term. It's a closed system: there is no escape from the relationship between cause and effect.
So what is the relationship between being and doing? Our state of being informs, and is communicated, in everything we do. Mind training increases stability, strength, and awareness of mind so this presence of mind informs our behaviour, and we can engage behaviour that is skillful.
Skillful action can be illustrated, for example, in relation to the five precepts, five basic ethical principles that form the foundation, quite arguably, of Buddhist ethics. Many practicing Buddhists practice in accordance with the five precepts as they move through their daily lives. These constitute the first five monastic vows for Buddhist monastics, where fully ordained monastics will have some 250 monastic vows.
At its basis is the instruction: do no harm. What does this mean? Do not destroy physical life. Do not take what is not offered. Do not cause harm by means of one's sexuality. Do not cause harm by means of one's speech.
It relates to action in the external world. It relates to action in the internal world. So, to not cause harm by means of one's speech, for example, would include being truthful with other people, and addressing other people with respect. It would also include being truthful with oneself, and addressing oneself – in the internal dialogue - with respect.
To this is added the fifth precept. The fifth precept is not considered a root precept, but the tradition recognizes that without the fifth precept the first four become more or less impossible. The fifth precept is: “I take the vow to not use alcohol or drugs that would cloud the mind”.
This is understood with some variance in different Buddhist cultural contexts. In some cases, it means no taking of alcohol or drugs entirely. In other cases, it means no taking of alcohol or drugs to the extent that this impairs judgment. So it would permit, for example, a glass of wine with dinner.
Training the mind through mindfulness practices supports one's ability to act, in the course of one's life, in a way that does not cause harm.
Do we have the stability of mind - and awareness of self and other - to make skillful choices? If yes, this goes a long way to help to make us part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
The tradition also understands, however, what is known as “bodhisattva ethics”. It's considered a second stage of ethics because it requires well-established stability and strength of mind, awareness of self and other – and situational awareness - in order to accomplish. The ability to accomplish bodhisattva ethics normally implies that one has more or less mastered the ability to live one's life in a way that does not cause harm.
Here is one classic example of bodhisattva ethics. You are walking on a track in the woods. There is a deer who crosses the path in front of you and moves to your right. A few moments later, a hunter comes along the path, and the hunter asks you, "Where did the deer go?". You tell the hunter, "The deer went to the left".
You lied. It, therefore, would appear to be in contrast to the fourth precept, to not cause harm by means of one’s speech: the fourth precept implies that one will speak the truth in a manner which is respectful.
It is bodhisattva ethics because the response to the hunter is motivated by kindness and wisdom. One understands it as the greater act of kindness and wisdom, in the classic telling of the story, because it seeks to protect and defend the life of the deer. Can you act from a place, with a state of mind, that holds the balance between compassion and wisdom? The greater act of kindness is to lie to the hunter.
In another classic example of bodhisattva ethics, you are on a ship. One person on the ship – let’s say it’s the captain – clearly intends to kill everyone on the ship. Maybe it's 500 people. What is the correct response? Kill the captain. You kill the captain as an act of compassion for the captain, to save the captain from the karmic suffering that would accrue from killing 500 people.
Can we act from a place of insight, wisdom and compassion? Can we hold the strength of that presence, the calm stillness and stability of mind, so that what we do becomes stillness in motion, stillness and movement simultaneously? To act from a place of anger, fear and frustration; to act from a place of stability, strength wisdom, insight and compassion: it changes everything.
The tradition would understand that one more or less has to be a Buddha to be able to hold the strength and presence of mind that infuses one’s action with wisdom, insight and compassion in the case of strong situations like our killing of the captain. This being so, bodhisattva ethics commonly comes with the caution: do not try this at home. It's very good to stick with “do no harm”.
There is something here, however, about the relationship between being and doing. We take our presence, our state of mind, our quality of being with us wherever we go. Our state of mind, our presence, our quality of being, must, necessarily, inform all of our actions. It perfumes us, and everything around us, in the way that incense perfumes the air.
Training the mind supports us in bringing that stillness or space into our movement in the way that silence is the origin of sound.
Someone yells at you. Will you yell back? Their anger, their aggression that they impose on you by yelling at you: will you eat it and then vomit it back again, creating a cycle of conflict, anger and aggression that becomes imposed on everyone, and everything, that is somehow part of that situation? If responding to aggression with aggression - if yelling back - were going to work, I feel it would have worked by now.
Someone yells at you. Do you have strength, stability, awareness and presence of mind? Can you move from that place of stillness and choose your response? Will that response be informed by kindness, compassion, and wisdom?
Here, the balance of kindness, compassion and wisdom is understood to be an expression of strength. Violence or aggression is understood as an expression of weakness because it is based in fear. It provokes fear because it is itself an expression of fear. It merits my compassion, therefore: not my complacency.
What is the state of mind, or presence of being, that will perfume our actions in the way that incense perfumes the air? It may be with calm voice or a steady voice. It may be with loud or raised a voice that we choose to speak. Can we move from a sense of space enough that we are choosing our response? Will that voice communicate steady, strength of mind informed by wisdom and insight, no matter what else it may choose to say?
Action and re-action: it is informed by our being. Being and doing: there is no difference. What we are speaks so loudly; it can be all that we hear. What we are is communicated in everything we do.
Copyright © 2018, Adela Sandness