2021-06-01 Kusala (7 of 10) Growing the Wholesome
9:30PM Jun 1, 2021
We are continuing our discussion about the wholesome and the skillful. One of the definitions of what is 'kusala' – wholesome or skillful – is that which results in happiness and is non-afflictive. The idea that it does not cause harm or hurt us in any way is one of the requirements for what is wholesome. Also 'kusala' brings happiness and results in happiness. This means that a movement towards greater well-being and happiness is a part of wholesomeness.
But wholesome is also considered to be beneficial, healthy or good in and of itself. So it is both good in itself, and it is further onward leading towards happiness. Because sometimes the wholesome is not automatically happy. Rather, we are practicing and making space and allowing for the growth of happiness over time. We want to create a stable, strong foundation for happiness, so we are not so dependent on the changing nature of our experience and our life circumstances. Also the changing nature of our physiology – our hormones, our tiredness, how much food we've eaten, and all kinds of other things that can affect our mood. We can have some stability there, because of the strength of the good qualities that have been developed in us over time.
When I first came to Buddhism, in Zen practice there was very little discussion about the fact that we were actually maturing and developing and growing through the practice. Because there was a very strong tendency to point towards what was considered to be the absolute – what is ultimately true. For example, with emptiness – to really see into the nature of emptiness. Or to see into the nature of enlightenment here and now, and experience some kind of non-dual state. It was felt that as soon as we talked about growth, then we were into dualism, or we were into "gaining" ideas. Or we were missing the boat of really being here and discovering freedom right here and now.
There is some real wisdom to that kind of direct pointing to awakening. But it also can really miss or shortchange a hugely important natural part of the human being – that human beings, whether they want to or not, are constantly changing, growing and developing. Sometimes what is growing and developing is not healthy. If someone has a habit of complaining or being angry or irritated, if they do that a lot, that is what grows inside. So there is a lot of unhealthy stuff that can grow by the repeated doing of it. But if we keep making space for what is good, then something different will happen and come up.
Even if we do this non-dual direct pointing to reality, our whole psychophysical system will begin shifting and changing as a result of that. It is possible to track that and see how people change and develop over time. It is also possible to support that growth and development and move it along.
When I was doing Zen practice in the monastery, at some point I was made the gardener. Part of the job was to weed. Those were the instructions – to weed and let plants grow. At some point, I wondered whether it was okay also to weed the weeds of the mind. Weeding the mind – was that some kind of dualism? Was there some kind of gaining idea? Was it some kind of conceit or missing the boat that we would notice there were weeds in the mind? I did not see any reason to view my mind as any different than the garden. In the garden I took care of weeds. Why not take care of the weeds of the mind as well, when I was angry, or greedy, or something.
As we make space and take the weeds out, it makes room for something else to grow and develop. You find in the teachings of the Buddha a great emphasis on development and growth. I cannot value or emphasize enough that this process creates a really good strong foundation that carries us with stability into all kinds of challenges of our life.
I have known people who have relied on shortcuts to mystical experiences or great states of consciousness, or even what felt like states of freedom. But they did not really have the inner strength to hold that, to rest in that, and to receive it and be influenced by it. They would succumb to their usual old habits which were not so healthy. They would swing between these great states, and then go back to where they were.
For the Buddha, the idea is to develop and cultivate these inner capacities, so that we can hold some of the higher experiences of realization and freedom that come with practice. If the idea of these higher states of attainment or freedom is not so interesting for you, then it is also true that as we become stronger and develop these healthy qualities, we are able to hold basic human experiences of love better. Our love is so much healthier, more stable, and less fragile, when all the other wholesome qualities have developed and grown in us.
The Buddha said, "Abandon what is unwholesome". This just means to weed the mind of the weeds – the things that are not helpful. What is unwholesome is afflictive, and leads to the opposite of happiness – it leads to suffering. "Abandon what is unwholesome, and devote yourself to wholesome conduct" – in this this particular quotation. This means to actively behave in ways that are beneficial, skillful, and wholesome, for that is how you will grow, increase and come to fulfillment in the Dharma that the Buddha was teaching. So, part of what we're doing is making living, behavioral changes. We are not just changing the quality of our inner attitudes and heart, but actually making choices for how to behave differently, and choosing those behaviors which are wholesome and beneficial. Yesterday I spoke about the ten skillful actions, which are ten wholesome things to do that help this inner growth and development happen.
One of the translations of 'kusala' is "skillful". There is a wonderful benefit to translating it as "skillful", because this word tends not to have as much moralistic weight. Even "wholesome" can seem moralistic. Some people feel a little oppressed or find it heavy to even get close to that kind of language. But "skillful" is relatively free of that.
Then you ask, "skillful for what"? Skillful for cultivating the path of liberation, and skillful for developing all the wonderful things we can develop, including skill in developing the practice. Developing a skill is done by repeated engagement over and over and over again. It takes a lot of small movements sometimes to learn a skill.
There is a skill that I have learned in the last three months, and I am surprised that I am still learning the art of it. It seems like it is very, very simple. I thought it was much simpler than it is, but I am learning these very subtle distinctions that make me more and more skillful. Actually the word "skill" in English comes from a Germanic word. In Norwegian, it is the word 'schiller', which means "to distinguish or separate out". That is the original Germanic source of the word. To make distinctions – to separate out. So I am making this skill I'm learning into finer and finer little skills, to make it easier and easier.
That skill is: in my right eye now, I wear a contact for these last few months. Putting that contact in – I am getting better and better at it. Sometimes it was a real challenge. It would fall out, it wouldn't get in right – sometimes I could not quite get it to work. Then, over these months, doing it day after day after day, and paying attention to what I was doing. Paying attention to exactly the position of the fingers, where the contact fit in my fingers – many little details – I am getting better and better. Surprisingly, now it is so easy when it is done right. It is such a beautiful, smooth, easy, graceful thing. It just slides right up on the eye. It just sits there with no effort on my part. It is almost like it wants to be there and sit there on the eyeball. So I am still learning skills in my old age. That is a wonderful skill I am learning – to make subtle little distinctions.
The same thing happens in Buddhist practice. We are learning subtle, subtle distinctions in our posture, and how to sit. Then we develop our meditation posture and it is more skillful or wholesome or beneficial. We are developing many little skills. How to be with a breath, and how to pay attention to the breath. We are learning all the little movements of the mind. Slowly, slowly – incrementally – we learn what it is like to be mindful, what it is like to let go, where to focus and how to focus. How to concentrate and how to be equanimous. What kind of effort to make, and energy to apply – just the right amount of effort. Not too much and not too little. These skills are partly learned not because you read a book and decide, "This is the formula – this is what you do", but rather, they are learned through engagement over and over and over again. Like a swimmer who is an athlete training for competitive racing. They learn ever more refined distinctions – how to move their arm in the water to make the least resistance and to get the most push off water.
The same thing in meditation. We learn that in the body, and in the system, even unconsciously, there is the growth and development of skills. So when we talk about meditation practice, rather than about how we live in our interpersonal lives, the word 'kusala' is sometimes better translated as "skill". We are doing what is skillful – we are developing certain kinds of skills. The Buddha uses metaphors that are clearly having to do with skills that people develop.
For example, in developing the five faculties, which was the theme for the first five weeks of these YouTube 7am teachings I did starting last March, the metaphor used for the five faculties was tuning and playing a five string lute. You learn how to tune it better and better and you learn how to play it better and better. We are learning these five strings inside of us. Slowly we learn to tune them and play them. For mindfulness practice, the metaphor there is also about developing a skill – learning to cook. Cooking also is a skill that is learned over time. The more we cook a dish, the simpler, more straightforward, easier, and more creative we can get. We develop a skill that we were awkward with when we first began using the recipe and trying to put it all together and figure out how it all worked. A skilled meditator or mindfulness practitioner is like a skilled cook, according to the Buddha.
The idea is that of developing a skill. A skill grows through time. As certain skills develop, they make room for other good qualities to develop and grow as well. The theme for today is the idea of growth – an inner growth of our good qualities, our abilities, our mental capacities, our mental attitudes – growth in what is beneficial. Growth is little different than making something happen. Rather, it means allowing for this natural process of growth that is slow and comes from repetition over and over and over again. Doing the same thing over and over again – doing kindness over and over again, friendliness and generosity, over and over again. We are developing a skill, and making finer and finer distinction in all kinds of ways that benefit us and hopefully benefit others. In such a way that, over time, something is growing and thriving. There is an abundance. There is a filling out of something really marvelous within us. We make room for that. We recognize that growth is part of what we are doing here, so we have the patience to continue and keep going. We also have the ability to recognize that the practice is not just about experiencing emptiness or strong states of concentration. There are many other qualities we are cultivating and developing and becoming skilled in that will support us.
I will talk more about some of the wholesome skills that are developed, in the next few days. Thank you very much. May you study and reflect on ways that you have grown in wholesome qualities. Over the last five, ten, or twenty years, how have you changed and grown in wholesome, beneficial ways in your inner life and in how you live your life, and how did that steady slow growth happen for you.