2021-06-02 Kusala (8 of 10) Skillfulness
11:58PM Jun 2, 2021
Let us continue our discussion of kusala this week – talking about it as a skill, and doing what is skillful.
The Buddha used lots of analogies of craftspeople, farmers and animal trainers to make similes, metaphors, or comparisons to developing of meditation skills along the path of liberation. Because all these similes have to do with craftspeople, farmers, musicians and animal trainers, elephant trainers, back in ancient India, the idea of skill seems a better translation than wholesome.
These two are closely connected. One of the skillful practices or skillful states is mindfulness practice. The simile for mindfulness practice is becoming a skilled cook – bringing together all the ingredients, bringing ourselves completely here. We are the pot, and we are bringing all these good qualities together. We are really here, cooking something really wonderful.
This idea that mindfulness is a wholesome, skillful practice – it is a craft we are developing. This suggests, it is something that develops slowly over time. The Buddha had this wonderful teaching: "When based on ethical conduct, established on ethical conduct, you develop the four foundations of mindfulness. Then, whether night or day, you may expect only growth in skillful states, not decline."
Mindfulness itself is considered to be a skillful "skill" to develop. As we develop this skill of mindfulness, it brings with it the development and growth of skillful states. We find another theme for this week is how much the Buddha emphasized personal growth, development and certain qualities that are helpful and good for us to have.
There are lots of lists in the early tradition of these skillful states, qualities of being. In fact, there are many more lists, enumerations, of skillful states than there are for unskillful states. It is as if there are relatively few unskillful or unwholesome movements of mind that we can have, and many different options for skillful ones. Unfortunately, we spend a lot of time with the ones that are the few, and do not explore the range of all the good qualities that we can develop and cultivate.
I delight in the fact that this early tradition will list many more positive states and qualities that human beings have than the list of the negative ones. In one of these lists in the later traditions of the Abhidhamma, a kind of Buddhist psychology, the unwholesome, unskillful ones are called "akusala" – unskillful. The skillful ones, or the wholesome ones, are called beautiful. There are more beautiful states of mind, mental factors or mental movements of the mind that are possible for us then there are unskillful ones. We have this great capacity, and to some degree it is underutilized. Part of what we are doing is cultivating this underutilized part of our mind.
There is a wonderful list of skillful states that the Buddha taught to his foster mother. She is the one who raised the Buddha. She came to him as a student and became a nun. She asked him once to teach the Dharma, to offer his teachings, in brief.
It is always very interesting in a sutta when he is going to be brief. It gets very interesting to see and to gather together all the brief statements of how the Buddha encapsulates the Dharma – to see if there is a particular kind of orientation that gets repeated over and over again. It is practice and the immediacy of our experience now – that is where all the emphasis is.
So she asks him to teach her the Dharma in brief, so she could go off and practice alone. She wants practice instructions. This is what he told her: "As for those mental qualities of which you may know, these qualities, these states lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to fewness of wishes, not to many wishes; to contentment, not to discontent; to solitude, not to crowded company; to a rousing effort, not to laziness; to being unburdenedsome, not to being burdensome. You may definitely, and definitively hold this is the Dharma. This is the teachers instructions."
What is interesting about this kind of list is that they are both states or mental activities, ways of being that we can practice – we can cultivate – and they are the result of that cultivation. They are the result of practice, as well. Dharma practice leads to these states. Rather than just practicing breathing, ethics, all the different things of practice to reach those states – the idea is to practice those states as well.
We find this way in which the goal of practice is integrated into the means of practice. The means and the goal are not separate in the Dharma. If the goal is to be peaceful, then we practice peace. If the goal is to be compassionate, we practice compassion. If the goal is to be content, we practice contentment. If the goal is to not be caught in the grip of many desires, then we practice having few desires, fewer wishes.
Some of these ideas are interpersonal, like being unburdensome. Do not be a burden for other people, if you can. We need some care on how we understand that. Certainly, we do not want people to feel they cannot get support who need the support. To expect too much from people or depend on people when we do not need to, is to be a burden.
This idea of solitude, not in crowded company– the ability to be alone and be content is one of the great things to discover. It is really skillful to develop that skill, that capacity, that wholesomeness, to be at ease with oneself, to be comfortable with oneself, to be able to be in a room by oneself and just sit there and be content – to keep one's own company. Being one's own friend does not mean we have to live as a hermit. This ability means that when we are with people, we do not bring our neediness, we do not bring our grasping and wanting them to provide us with all kinds of benefits, company, support, praise and love because we have a lack ourselves. We want to cultivate a capacity to have comfortable solitude.
It is fascinating that to his foster mother, these are the skillful states that Buddha highlighted as being essential for going off to practice alone. I think part of it is that as we cultivate these states, they lead to more of the same. They are the guide. These states are the guide. This is the direction we are going. If we understand where we are going, then we start doing those things, those states and practices that lead in that direction.
For practicing meditation, mindfulness of breathing, to have in mind that it is leading us to being content – so let us start finding it and seeing it now. It is leading us to have fewness of wishes. As we sit in practice, can we tap into this and have that support the very meditation practice itself? It is leading us to a capacity to feel at home when we are alone. Can we cultivate meditation with that in mind – to feel the deep sense of settledness within ourselves?
Many of these so called virtues we have been cultivating and developing – the overarching character of these long lists that the Buddha emphasized to develop in practice – are peaceful states, peaceful qualities. In the discourse on loving kindness, he talks about being, "Upright, straightforward, easy to speak to, gentle, not proud, contented, wise and calm." Here are more skillful states that are to be cultivated. Another list is, "Respect, humility, contentment, gratitude, patience, and gentleness." There are many, many of these lists.
So cultivate and allow for the growth of skillful, wholesome qualities. It is skillful to develop these states because they themselves are onward leading. They lead to further growth – just as mindfulness leads to the growth of skillful, wholesome states. All other skillful, wholesome states bring with them companion wholesome states. There is a mutual support of all these states within us. It is a wonderful thing to start feeling the momentum of wholesome, skillful states growing in us, and offering an energy and an inspiration and movement for our life.
So skillful, skillfulness – may you explore the idea of skillful. Orient your life today around, what would be the skillful thing to do? What would be the skillful thing to do to support these qualities of contentment, fewness of wishes, unburdensomeness – all these wonderful things. Freedom.
So, thank you all very much and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.