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Buddha's Words (Talk 06 of 13)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Oct 26, 2005
In topic: Early Buddhism
Sixth of Series of talks on the Pali Canon based on the book "In the Buddha's Words" by Bhikkhu Bodhi
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Buddha's Words (6 of 13)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | October 26, 2005

Transcribed by Murray McGillivray.  Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum. 

This morning I'm finally getting around to sharing some of the teachings from the Pali Canon in Bhikkhu Bodhi's book In the Buddha's Words. One of his chapters is entitled "Happiness in this Present Life." Bhikkhu Bodhi explains that the Buddha thought there were three goals, three things that his teachings were working toward. The first goal is happiness in the present lifetime, the second goal is happiness in the next lifetime, and the third goal is nirvana - complete peace and release from the cycle of birth and death. Although people sometimes think that the Buddha was only concerned with nirvana, in fact, he had all three of these goals in mind. This particular chapter of Bhikkhi Bodhi's includes texts that are about the first goal, happiness in the present life. I thought I would share some of these with you, so here's the first one:

Monks, I declare that there are two persons one can never repay. What two? One's mother and one's father. Even if one should carry about one's mother on one's shoulder and one's father on the other shoulder, and you should do this for a hundred years, and if one during that hundred years should attend them by anointing them with balms, by massaging, bathing, and rubbing their limbs, and even if they should void their excrements there for a hundred years. Even that would not do enough for one's parents, nor would one repay them by that. Even if one were to establish one's parents as the supreme lords and rulers over this earth, so rich in the seven treasures, one would not do enough for them, nor would one repay them. For what reason? Parents are of great help to their children. They bring them up, feed them, and show them the world. But, monks, one who encourages his unbelieving parents, settles and establishes them in faith, who encourages his immoral parents, settles and establishes them in moral discipline, who encourages his stingy parents, settles and establishes them in generosity, who encourages his ignorant parents, settles and establishes them in wisdom, such a one, monks, does enough for his parents. She repays them and more than repays them for what they have done.

I have two short comments on that passage. First, this beautiful thought, that we all owe our parents a tremendous debt for three things: that they brought us up, they brought us into the world, that they fed us (and I always say to people, you know no matter how bad you think your parents are, if you're here now they must have done something right, because it's a lot of work just to feed a child and keep it going), and that they showed us the world. This is very true psychologically. For us there literally is no world without someone showing us the world. So for us the world is not the world-the world is the world that our parents have shown us. And there is no human world unless a human being shows us the world, and that's the world that we have to work with.  

This very subtle and skillful passage tells us that the Buddha understands perfectly well that although we owe a tremendous debt to our parents, not all parents are saintly and perfect. There may be parents who are immoral, stingy, etc. So the Buddha teaches the second part of this little sutra that the best thing that we can possibly do for our parents is to practice, to work on our own conduct and generosity of heart, and to teach that to them. And if we can do that, then we are repaying our debt to them. That's the only way that we can really repay it.

On one occasion, the Buddha was travelling along the highway between Madhura and Veranja, and a number of householders and their wives were travelling along the same road. Then the Blessed One left the road and sat down on a seat at the foot of a tree. The householders and their wives saw the Buddha sitting there and approached him. Having paid homage to him, they sat down to one side and he then said to them: "Householders, there are four kinds of marriages. What are the four? A wretch lives with a wretch; a wretch lives with a goddess; a god lives with a wretch; and a god lives together with a goddess. (And in the world we live in today, we could also add, a god lives with a god, or a goddess lives with a goddess.) How does a wretch live together with a wretch? Here, householders, the husband is one who destroys life, takes what is not given, engages in sexual misconduct, speaks falsely, and indulges in wines, liquors and intoxicants, the basis for negligence. He is immoral, a bad character, he dwells at home with a heart obsessed by the stain of stinginess, he abuses and reviles ascetics and brahmins, and his wife is exactly the same in all respects. And in that way we have a marriage that is a wretch living with a wretch."

In other words, when a wretch is living with a wretch, neither one keeps the five precepts. They both are immoral and stingy, and when ascetics and holy brahmins come to them, they kick them out and they have no respect for them. And then you can imagine what the other three are: when a god lives with a wretch, it's that the wife doesn't keep the precepts, but the husband does. When a goddess lives with a wretch, it's the other way around, and when a god lives with a goddess it's when both of them honor the five precepts, are virtuous, of good character, are generous, and do not revile Brahmins and ascetics. 

 The first five precepts - not to take life, not to steal, not to misuse sexuality, not to lie, and not to indulge in intoxicants - are viewed here as not in themselves evil or bad, but they are the basis of negligence. And it's true: if you are using intoxicants regularly, or as a way of destroying your awareness, then bad things come from that.

These are the first five of the ten bodhisattva precepts, and it is interesting that in the weddings that we do in our tradition, they're not just about the couple making commitments to love, honor, obey, and cherish each other, but in addition to that, to commit themselves to a way of life that will create a beautiful relationship. So following the precepts is very important in creating beautiful human relations.

There's one additional point; that is, not reviling ascetics or Brahmins. The Buddha always taught the virtue in honoring ascetics and Brahmins, and maybe that was because if people didn't honor the virtue of ascetics and brahmins, the Buddha was out of luck, because he wouldn't be able to live! He and the monks depended on the kindness of people to support them, and so their job was to practice ethical conduct and generosity. That's what "arhat" means. "Arhat" is a Buddhist sage, and it means, "the one who is worthy of receiving offerings." So the Buddha was strongly practicing and encouraging others in his sangha to be worthy of offerings and to give themselves to others, so that they were worthy of offerings.

I think there's more to it than this, because in the case of parents, one benefits oneself by understanding our debt to our parents, even if we're quite clear that our parents are imperfect people. It's our benefit to respect what they've given us. It's the same with religious people, even if they're not so great, and even if they have many failings.  If we are 100% cynical about all religious people and all religions, it is very corroding to our own heart, even if we have perfectly good reasons. (There are tremendous reasons, actually, for distrusting and being cynical about religions.) Nevertheless, the Buddha is saying that on a very deep level if we don't have respect for the possibility that human perfection and human goodness is something that's worth striving toward, then our own heart will be deeply damaged.

So one more verse, and then I'll stop. This is something that the Buddha said to one of his closest lay disciples, Anathapindika. There's a great sutra somewhere about Anathapindika on his deathbed. Shariputra goes to Anathapindika when he is dying and gives him a beautiful teaching on his deathbed. It's very sweet, and Anathapindika dies with this teaching in his heart. The Buddha said to him:

There are, householder, four kinds of happiness which may be achieved by a layperson who enjoys sensual pleasures, depending on time and occasion. What four? The happiness of possession, the happiness of enjoyment, the happiness of freedom from debt, and the happiness of blamelessness.

You might imagine, and we've been conditioned to think that the Buddha would say, "No, no, you have to give up your household life. All things in the world cause suffering," and so forth. Why would the Buddha ever give a teaching about the happiness that can be found in the household life - enjoying wealth and sensual pleasure? I think that he understood the delight that there is in this, and he saw that it could be wholesome. So could you imagine if someone said, "Did the Buddha ever give a teaching about the happiness of possession?" you probably would say, "No, no, the Buddha taught that possessing anything was bad." But here's this teaching on the happiness of possession.

Here a person in a family possesses wealth, acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of his or her body, earned by the sweat of his or her  brow, righteous wealth, righteously gained. (So that's important, that it's righteous wealth, righteously gained, that one could feel satisfaction in it, because one knew that one had worked in a good way for it.) When the householder thinks, I possess wealth acquired by righteous effort  the householder experiences happiness and joy. And this is called the happiness of possession.

And what, householder, is the happiness of enjoyment? Here, with the wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of arms and body, earned by the sweat of the brow, righteous wealth, righteously gained, a person in a family enjoys this wealth and does meritorious deeds.

And when he thinks, "I have acquired this wealth in this way, and I have enjoyed it and I have done meritorious deeds," he experiences happiness and joy. And this is called the happiness of enjoyment. And what, householder, is the happiness of freedom from debt? Here, a family person is not indebted to anyone to any degree, whether small or great. When he thinks, "I am not indebted to anyone to any degree, whether small or great," the householder experiences happiness and joy. This is called the happiness of freedom from debt. And what, householder, is the happiness of blamelessness? Here, householder, a noble disciple is endowed with blameless conduct of body, speech, and mind, and when the householder thinks, "I am endowed with blameless conduct of body speech and mind," this householder experiences happiness and joy, and this is called the happiness of blamelessness.

These are the four kinds of happiness that a lay person, who enjoys sensual pleasure, may achieve, depending on time and occasion: the joy and happiness of possession, the happiness of enjoyment, the happiness of freedom from debt, and the happiness of freedom from blame. At the end of the day, when the heart is clear; and the effort in our work has been a good and honest and righteous; and we've practiced this day with ethical conduct and loving kindness and generosity, then, at the end of a day like that, we can go to sleep with a feeling of happiness. I think that's what makes us happy. Not acquiring something or winning the prize or beating somebody out for the gold ring, but feeling that this is a day well spent in righteous activity. And then we can enjoy what we have and share it.

Maybe you're surprised that the Buddha taught like that.  He saw that it was necessary to have happiness in this very lifetime; to practice in order to have happiness in the next lifetime; and also to practice to achieve nirvana. All three of these things were important to him.

I hope we have had a peaceful week. Every sesshin is a significant moment in our lives. It's a time when a big shift happens. Every sesshin changes u,s and we're never the same again. So I thought it would be good this morning if we reflected on that-what happened to us this week? What have we experienced? In what ways have we been changed? What have we learned? What remains ahead of us to learn?