2020-06-17: The Heart of Ethics (3 of 5) Wholesome and Skillful
2:51PM Jun 17, 2020
So what I've been teaching about meditating with how the mind wanders off and how you come back, could be understood, described as developing the skill of meditation. Becoming more skillful. And to develop skill is something we can develop, like developing a skill for a craft, then we get better and better at doing as we practice it. And learning a new craft or new activity that requires skill. We're not expected to know how to do it well at the beginning, but we just practice and we learn, it becomes a skill, it becomes something that becomes some maybe even second nature to do and easy to do. But in looking at how we could bring compassion or kindness to what's happening, how we can come back in a way that's peaceful and nourishing.
This also has another aspects besides being skillful. It's also I like the word nourishing. A word that is often used as wholesome. Wholesome is that which is conducive for health. It's healthy to do this. And these two English words, skillful and wholesomeness are, are represented by a single word in the ancient language of the Buddha and the Buddha's teachings. And this is the word kusala k u s, a la. It's an extremely important word. And some translators will translate it one of those two ways and some the other so sometimes translated as skillful, and some is wholesome. Skillful, has a little bit connotations of that there is a goal, there's a purpose for what we're doing. So it has a skillful purpose. We're trying to do something, to cultivate something, develop something, it's skillful for a purpose. Wholesome is just healthy in and of itself. It's kind of virtuous, it's good, there's a goodness to it, and has more to do with the quality of what we're doing in the moment and how that quality is kind of onward leading, but it's not, the focus, is not the purpose. And so depending on what we're talking about, in Buddhism, sometimes we have this word kusala, translated as skillful, and sometimes there's wholesome. But you know, so there's the same word. And it turns out that this word kusala is probably one of the primary candidates for us to translate the English adjective ethical. And as I've been saying, this week, there is no obvious word in the Buddhist language for our English word ethics or ethical. And it isn't because the ancient Buddhists are not ethical in our eyes. It just said they didn't look at their experience through our Western English concept of ethics, which is which arose in a particular cultural, historical, religious context to single out this one category called ethics and making it its own thing. And it's okay to do that, that maybe has its value to do that. But it does kind of begin to separate that from it's easy to separate that from the rest of our life. And I've known people who thought that ethics were just a little bit too pollyannish or hyper critical, and really turned away from ethics because that doesn't count. That's we don't we don't need that kind of judgmental kind of ideas, limiting ideas. In the ancient world they didn't have that word ethics, they didn't tease it out from our experience. It was integrated in to the Dharma. And so for the Buddha, if you're really involved in understand the Buddhist path or practice, from the point of view of the Buddha, ethics is not something we can separate from the path. It's integral to the path.
One of the key little slogans of what Buddhism is named shortest little pithy things you could say, is a four line verse that goes this way. "Don't do what is wicked". Some people translated as evil. I don't know if that's the best translation because of the heavy connotations of evil in English and Western thought. So "don't do what is wicked. Do what is skillful and purify the mind. This is the teachings of the Buddhas." So, the teachings of the Buddha's has, for many of us has little bit of a connotation of ethics in our language. Don't do evil, don't do harm. Do what is skillful, or if you translate differently, do what is wholesome and purify the mind. Purifying the mind is skillful and wholesome. It's part and parcel of this whole thing that we're trying to do in Buddhism. And that little saying kind of puts this kind of idea of wholesome right at the heart of the practice.
There is a very famous sutta called the Kalama Sutta, where a group of people come to the Buddha and say we've had a lot of spiritual teachers coming through town. And they all say that they have the right teachings, the true teachings and, you know, how do we decide between them? Who has the right and true teachings? And the Buddha declined to answer the question that way. Instead, he offers a principle or standard by which they can decide for themselves. But he first he says, what not to do, as a standard to understand what is true. I guess here spiritually true, for the Buddha always true for the purpose of liberation. And he says this, it's kind of remarkable passage, because it really suggests that to not to use as a source of absolute authority, ultimate authority, what many people use as their source of authority for religious teachings or for a lot of things in life. So The Buddha says to these people the Kalamas, "do not go by oral tradition." There was only oral tradition back then. So in our days, we could say, don't go by scripture. Don't go because it's just in the sacred texts. "Don't go by the lineage of teaching." Just because it's in particular, you know, lineage of teachers or traditions or cultures. That doesn't necessarily make it true. "Don't go by hearsay. Don't go by logical reasoning. Don't go by inferential reasoning. By reason. Don't go by reasoning things out for yourself. And don't go by the acceptance of a belief after simply reflecting on it." So that seems like a good idea. Seems right. "And don't go by the seeming competence of the speaker", like someone like me, "or because you think that that person is my teacher." So that's a pretty impressive list of things the Buddha says don't do. And then he says what to do, and I won't give you the whole thing now. But he says, and this many people will sometimes in English, they'll translate this next piece as go by your own experience. But that doesn't really right that's too broad and too vague and actually dangerous to word it that vaguely, but here's what part of what the Buddha said. "When you know for yourselves, these things are unwholesome, these things lead to harm or when you know that these things are wholesome, these things lead to benefit. Then avoid the unwholesome and do the wholesome. Avoid the unskillful, do the skillful." So here the assumption is that we can know for ourselves, go by your own experience in a particular way. And that is we can know whether something is skillful, wholesome, and know whether it's not. We can know whether it's harmful, conducive to harm or not.
And so we become our own teacher in this way. We become, we develop this sensitivity and part of the purpose of mindfulness practice is to develop that deeper capacity to see, to know for oneself, to sense this and so that becomes really reliable source of how to find our way. Is it skillful and unskillful? Is it wholesome or not wholesome? And that's the substitute to going into scripture or just listening to a teacher for what is true. We ourselves are the arbitrator. We ourselves are supposed to be able to have this ability. But to cultivate that ability takes time and ability and practice. But be very careful we don't jump to conclusions on surface, kind of, you know, how we register things. And so the mindfulness and more deeply we become mindful, the more stronger and stronger the mindfulness is. We become in western terms in English terms, more ethical. The Buddha didn't, as I said, doesn't use the word ethics, but he does set make very clear connection equivalence between the development of mindfulness and becoming a more ethical person, a person who does more and more wholesome things, who are less and less likely to do things which are unwholesome.
And how do we know something is wholesome and unwholesome? We can know it for ourselves, really feel it. And we feel it in different ways. We feel it both in terms of how nourishing it is, how healthy it feels within, or how harmful it is. And we feel it by how it's conducive to being onward leading. If it's wholesome, it's conducive onward leading to greater wholesomeness. If it's unwholesome, it's conducive to greater harm and shutting down. And so we're finding our way here in this practice, and the greater the wholesomeness, the more wholesomeness we develop, the further along we are in path of liberation. And then if you're not so interested in it, but coincidentally, you become more ethical. If you're interested in ethics, being ethical, then the more you can live wholesome, to become more more wholesome from the inside out, then coincidentally, you're also developing on the path of liberation.
So, these two liberation and ethics come together in the heart. And I like to think that when we come to bow put our hands together like this, it's a beautiful expression of the coming together of the best in our hearts, the wholesomeness of our hearts, and the care for the world around us. Because ethics in English has a lot to do with their relationship with how we live our lives, how we live our lives, in cultivating path of practice, come together, and are really the same thing.
So thank you. For today and I'll continue this topic of skillfulness and wholesomeness tomorrow.