2021-06-03 Kusala (9 of 10) The Buddha's Teaching to his Son
9:08PM Jun 3, 2021
Good morning everyone, or Good day. Today we are continuing with the theme of kusala.
The Pali word is translated as either wholesome, or skillful. What is defined as wholesome or skillful is that which is non-afflictive – meaning it does not cause harm, and does not cause pain. It is a combination of neither harm nor pain.
Some things are painful – like today I am going to the dentist and I think it is going to be a little painful – but it is not harmful, it is actually beneficial. The things that are beneficial, bring happiness. They are those things which are wholesome.
These things come together very nicely in a teaching the Buddha gave to his son. The Buddha had one child, a son named Rāhula. He apparently joined his father – lived with his father – from the time he was about seven onwards. I don't know what living with his father meant when his father was a monk, but he lived in the monastic world with his father and was a novice monk at the age of seven.
This particular story seems to be when the son was a teenager, a young teenager – maybe 13 or 14. No, actually, I am confusing two stories. This was when the son was supposed to be quite young. It was soon after he became a novice – moved in with his father – maybe seven, eight years old.
It seems that he was caught telling a lie. The Buddha sat him down and said something like, "The religious life, the monastic life, of someone who tells a deliberate lie is about as valuable as the amount of water left in this bowl of mine, my eating bowl." He turns it upside down after having cleaned it, and whatever water that is left in drips out. It is a somewhat indirect way to say to a young child that what he did was not valid, was counterproductive or not good.
Then at some point, he goes on and tells his son, "The criteria for how to know what to do physically with the body, what to say, and even what to think involves a reflection." The Buddha begins by saying to his son, "What is the purpose of a mirror?" The son says, "It is for reflection."
"And in the same way, this is how you should reflect on yourself. This is a way to be a mirror for yourself, to really see what is going on. It helps guide you in deciding what you are going to do." Here is an act of attention, of mindfulness, not just for the sake of mindfulness, but mindfulness for the purpose of knowing how to act in the world – what to say, what to do and even to think.
In some ways, this teaching that he gives his son could be seen as being a simple teaching for a seven or eight year old. There is a tendency for many Buddhist teachers I know, including myself, to see that this simple teaching encapsulates very clearly the thrust of the Buddha's teachings – the center of it. What he had to say to his son, in a very simple way – all the rest of the Buddha's teachings in Buddhism can flow from this in a very important way.
This is how he tells his son to consider his actions: "An action with the body should be done after repeated reflection. An action by speech should be done after repeated reflection. An action by mind should be done after repeated reflection, in this way. Rāhula, when you wish to do an action with the body, you should reflect upon the same bodily action, thus. Would this action that I wish to do with the body lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both?"
I think the word affliction here could equally be harm. Does it lead to your harm someone else's harm, or to harm to you both? "Is it an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences, with painful results?"
"When you reflect, if you know this action that you wish to do with the body would lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both – it is an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences, with painful results, then you definitively should not do such an action with the body.
But when you reflect, if you know, this action that I wish to do with the body would not lead to my affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both – it is a wholesome bodily action, with happy consequences, with happy results – then you may do such an action with the body." He goes on to say the same thing for acts of speech, and also acts of the mind – even for how we think.
There is a movement to reflect on how I am thinking right now – the attitude I have, the bias I have, the desires I have. Is this afflictive? Is it harmful to me, to someone else, or to both of us? Is it unwholesome or unskillful? Does it lead to pain, or to suffering? If it does not – if it leads to what is beneficial, to what is wholesome, to happiness, then go ahead and do it. That is what he says you should do before you do something. Before doing something, reflect on it as best you can.
While you are doing it, you should reflect. He goes on to say you should also reflect while you are doing it – to have some self-awareness as you are doing something. While you are doing it, if you find out that it is afflictive and unwholesome, then stop doing it. If it is not, then keep doing it.
The value of checking in while we are doing something is that we get more information about the situation. We do not always know ahead of time, the impact our words or actions are going to have. In the middle of doing something we might say: "Oh, wait a minute, I did not realize that the situation is different than I thought. Actually, for me to say or do this right now is harmful to me, or harmful to others." So we continue the reflection while we are doing.
The Buddha goes on to tell his son: "When you finish doing something, also be reflective about it. In the same way, is what I did harmful, unwholesome, or painful?" It is interesting here, he says, "If you have caused harm this way, then you should go find a wise person you know, and let them know what you did." In other words, be accountable for it.
There is something about letting someone else know what you did. I think that is a real, wonderful step of honesty. It is a way to work through something or to acknowledge it fully – to begin the movement of no longer being behind that, no longer easily slipping into doing that kind of behavior again because now it is known by someone else. It is a little more likely that your own mind is going to be more attentive and careful to not do something that you do not want to do when you have the support of someone else.
The Buddha is teaching a reflective life with mindfulness. Being in the present moment – seeing what is going on – is a support for living a considered life. It might seem that to do so is a lot of work. Adding a whole layer of self-reflection can slide into being self- conscious and self-critical in negative ways.
That is why there is that third category – to pay attention to what you are doing in your mind. Is it harmful? Is it unwholesome? Is it painful? If it is, stop doing it. We have a self- corrective mechanism in mindfulness. The very way in which we are mindful or reflective or tracking what is going on – the way we do it – should be beneficial. The way we do it should bring some well-being and happiness.
It needs to be a movement of reflection that is not critical, heavy, or stressful to do – but one that has a light touch, is generous and kind to ourselves. It has a nice feeling. We are our own best friend, who is supporting us and helping us see ourselves in a better light, and wants the best for us. To have your own best friend inside, who wants the best for you, who cares for you, supports you and is always going to see you in a positive light – but who will not let you get away with doing things that are harmful, unwholesome, painful, or that cause suffering.
Here we see in action the practice of working with what is skillful, unskillful, wholesome, and unwholesome. One thing I find interesting, is that these are not commandments of the things you should and should not do. They are what you should investigate, how you should investigate, principles for finding out for yourself what is appropriate, and not appropriate – not external rules on morality or something.
We see wholesome and unwholesome, skillful and unskillful as being a valuable part of the Buddha's teachings. This is from the Middle Length Discourses, number MN61: "Advice to Rāhula at Ambalaṭṭhikā."
So thank you. We have one more day tomorrow to talk about this topic. I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.