What would a Buddhist do?

change mindWhen asked to sum up his lifetime’s teachings, Buddha managed with his typical genius to condense all 84,000 of them into one short verse:

Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good,
Control the mind.
This is the teaching of Buddha. ~ Vinaya Sutras

In Transform Your Life, in the section “A Daily Practice”, Geshe Kelsang explains how we can do this with 6 daily practices, 2 of them being sense of shame and consideration for others, which are both characterized by a determination to refrain from negative actions. These enable us to live a kind, ethical life.

Raising our standards ~ sense of shame

Sense of shame helps us avoid negative actions by appealing to our Jiminy Cricket-type conscience, avoiding inappropriate actions for reasons that concern ourself, eg, because we’re a dad, a Buddhist, a Christian, a teacher, etc. You know that old saying: “What would a [fill in the gap] do?!”

“Shame” in Buddhism, by the way, has nothing whatsoever to do with guilt. It is more of a sense of conscience.

So what kind of conscience we have depends on whom we are identifying ourselves with. If we feel pretty worthless, we won’t care much about our behavior, there won’t seem to be much point – and some studies on poor prison sense of shamebehavior bear this out. If we identify with being a spiritual practitioner, for example, or a teacher, an adult, a doctor, a social worker, or even just a decent human being, we will care that our actions are in keeping with that.

As we are not fixed, we can identify with being what is most beneficial (without grasping at it.)

Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander

I read a study somewhere once on behavior around the water cooler at the office, where apparently 90% of the conversation revolves around other’s moral failings 🙂 “Ooh, guess what so and so did … left the lights on all night, don’t they care about global warming! Didn’t pick up after their dog, so gross and selfish. Ran off with someone else’s partner, how could they!” etc.

These double standards are interesting and utterly in keeping with our tendency to externalize all faults, many of them in fact just projections of our own faults. Do we love rummaging around in the garbage cans of others’ faults or strolling in the sweet-smelling meadows of their good qualities?! Without sense of shame, we might agree with the principles of ethical behavior and be quite happy to have others abide by them, yet, when we are tempted by attachment, we might also leave the lights on all night and think it doesn’t matter because we are some kind of exception and the planet won’t mind. We might not pick up after our dog if we are in a hurry because we have better things to do. We might run off with other people’s partners because this is true love. We stonesmight not, in other words, remove the plank from our own eyes before attempting to remove the mote from the eyes of others. As Atisha says in a well-known Buddhist saying:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

The same goes for our behavior. Moral outrage is fine when we actually have a leg to stand on, so that is what we need to check — do we?! Why be judgmental, high and mighty, or goody two shoes? We need to be genuine and humble in our wish to be better. As it says in Advice from Atisha’s Heart (the whole text of which is available here!)

Do not look for the faults of others, but look for faults in yourself, and purge them like bad blood.

Do not contemplate your own good qualities, but contemplate the good qualities of others, and respect everyone as a servant would.

An ex’s father was fond of saying that he’d read a study which found that, when questioned, each member of a couple always said they did 70% of the housework. (And this is no different if you question anyone in any shared living arrangement, where people often complain that they are doing more than their fair share.) You gotta wonder why the math doesn’t add up — and the article said it is because we are keenly aware of all the work we do as we are with ourselves all the time, whereas we only see a fraction of what others are doing. Thinking of our own good qualities and others faults, perhaps, rather than the other way round …!?

Rationalizations, justifications …

moral ethicsWhen we are under the influence of delusions we rarely think we are wrong at the time — we can justify and rationalize almost any behavior. We almost always have the perfect excuse (even though no one else has any excuse.) This is why sense of shame comes in handy because all the time we are identified with being, for example, an adult, we’ll naturally not behave like a four-year old. While we are identified with being a doctor or social worker or a teacher — when that is our basis of imputation for our sense of self, when that is who we think we are — we’ll naturally avoid actions that seem out of keeping or inappropriate. While we are identified with being even just a decent human being, we are far less likely to do something un-decent, even if no one is watching us.

What goes around, comes around

MartyWith sense of shame, we also consider karma – we avoid a negative action because we don’t want to experience its negative result, a bad experience. If you are wondering what is with this mention of dog poop, I just looked after a big black Labrador called Marty for 3 weeks, and learned far more than I ever needed or wanted to know about dog poop on the streets of New York. So, for example, when  I’m about to leave the dog poop because it is inconvenient to wade through a foot of snow with the wrong shoes, and, besides, no one is looking, I can remember that I am creating the cause to tread in dog poop myself down the road. And because karma increases, if I don’t purify this action I could end up treading in dog poop, or worse, hundreds of times. So better just to pick up in the first place.

Next time, consideration for others.