If you’re new to Buddhism, or if like me, you’ve studied it for a long time, you may be inclined to compare yourself to other Buddhists, either living or dead. Buddhism is not a passive religion1. Buddhists don’t sit around hoping to be saved, they are encouraged to apply the Buddha’s teachings (i.e. “The Dharma”) into practice. Consider the last words of the Buddha in the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta (DN 16, trans. Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu):
“Now, then, monks, I exhort you: All fabrications are subject to ending & decay. Reach consummation through heedfulness.”
and shortly before that:
Then the Blessed One said to Ven. Ānanda, “Now, if the thought occurs to any of you—‘The teaching has lost its arbitrator; we are without a Teacher’—do not view it in that way. Whatever Dhamma & Vinaya I have pointed out & formulated for you, that will be your Teacher after my passing.
It’s clear that the Buddha expected disciples, particularly monks/nuns since they explicitly gave up the “householder life” to pursue Buddhism full-time, to apply the teachings in their lives.
But most people who reads this blog are laypeople (a.k.a. “householders”), and this can often put us in a tricky spot. We can’t live the monastic lifestyle, but at the same time if we live a lifestyle entirely based on personal satisfaction then we’re not applying the Buddha’s teachings either. How do laypeople find the right balance?
I think this question is really important because failure to address it either leads to self-satisfaction (and thus no personal/emotional growth) or to constantly feel inferior about ourselves for not living up to an ideal in our minds.
The Buddha spoke about this to a monastic disciple named Sona one day in the Soṇa Sutta (AN 6.55 in the Pali Canon), where he compares effort in Buddhist practice to playing a lute in that the strings should neither be too tight, nor too slack:
“In the same way, Soṇa, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune [‘penetrate,’ ‘ferret out’] the pitch of the (five) faculties (to that), and there pick up your theme.” (trans. by Ven.Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
I think the key here is finding the “right pitch”. Just as instruments will vary slightly, people will also vary slightly based on their background and situation.
Further, for lay people in particular, the Buddha offered a ton of advice in the Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31 in the Pali Canon), among other things:
“Young man, by abandoning the four impure actions, a noble disciple refrains from harmful deeds rooted in four causes and avoids the six ways of squandering wealth….The noble disciple….has entered upon a path for conquering both worlds, firmly grounded in this world and the next. At the dissolution of the body after death, a good rebirth occurs in a heavenly world. (trans. by John Kelly, Sue Sawyer, and Victoria Yareham)
These impure actions include:²
- Harming living beings
- Taking what is not given
- False speech, and
- Pursuing the loved one of another
Also, the six ways of squandering wealth in the sutra:
- Roaming the streets at inappropriate times
- Habitual partying
- Compulsive gambling
- Bad companionship, and
If you can keep out of trouble, as the Buddha outlined above, you’re already doing great. The Buddha’s words can seem a bit of a bitter pill, but on the other hand, the responsibility in Buddhism lies solely with the individual. If you fritter your money away gambling, ultimately you have only yourself to blame. The Buddha warned, but it is up to you to apply the advice or not, with the consequences that come with it.
Interesting the sutra doesn’t mention meditation at all, since it was traditionally set aside for special days for laypeople who, back in the Olden Days, typically had to work daily for their food, and didn’t have much spare time for other pursuits. Simply living an honest livelihood and avoiding the pitfalls of temptation were a tangible award in themselves.
Of course, in the 21st century things are a tad different, and with better education and livelihood, we can afford to pursue additional Buddhist practices like chanting and meditation. But even so, having a healthy, wholesome lifestyle is still a good bedrock to found the rest of your Buddhist practice on. Again, it all depends on finding the right “pitch” in your life, and some of that may also depend on things that are dragging you down in the near-term. So, the Buddha’s advice on living a wholesome lifestyle isn’t just for the sake of moralising, it may also have a practical bent too with respect to Buddhist practices in general.
1 the one possible exception being the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism, but that’s a story for another day.
² For the perceptive, this is just another way of expressing the Five Precepts of Buddhism.