On one occasion two and a half millenia ago, the Buddha was walking alone through a forest in India when a bandit who had killed nine hundred and ninety-nine people chased him at top-speed. Even though the Buddha was walking at his normal pace, the bandit could not catch up with him. Intrigued and amazed at this phenomenon, the bandit cried out: “Stop, recluse. Stop, recluse.”
The Buddha replied, “I have stopped, Angulimala. Now you stop too.”
What had the Buddha stopped that he wanted the serial killer to stop? And what can we also stop? The Buddha wanted us to stop – not just suicide and homicide. He wanted us to stop killing the goodness in ourselves and others through our violent and destructive thoughts and emotions.
It is not easy to stop when we feel trapped in deep despair or shut off from the world; and when the desire to self-harm or to harm another has all the force of a hurricane. Likewise, a mind obsessed by jealousy, judgment, blame; or inflamed by righteous anger is more prone to violently lash out at someone else.
When we harm ourselves, we inevitably harm others. When we harm others, we ourselves are harmed. Conversely, when we feel blessed, we bless others. And blessing others, we too are blessed.
How can we effectively protect ourselves from falling prey to toxic states of mind? Ironically, the clues we need lie hidden in the ways we think about happiness in everyday life. We should consider that there is no true happiness without virtue, that is, wholesome qualities of mind, such as gratitude, truthfulness, loving-kindness, compassion.
In our pursuit of happiness, we should consider whether we feel peaceful or not. Are we filled with remorse, anxiety, sadness – or not? Whenever unwholesome mind states are present, we know that we are not on the path of true happiness.
Therefore we should always consider whether or not our actions uphold ethical, wholesome, benevolent conduct. If our conduct causes no harm to ourselves or others, we should persevere in it. And if it brings harm to ourselves or others, we should avoid or abandon it – because it is not true happiness.
How do we manifest harmlessness? Harmlessness is gained through developing moral restraint and good-will; respecting life and being sensitive to our own needs as well as the needs of others; observing ethical precepts; and directing the mind well.
Harmlessness is a strength – a force of goodness. We are called to be courageous, kind and fearless; to be selfless rather than selfish. Good-will is the sister of harmlessness and the guardian of our inner peace. Without it, we suffer a spiritual death.
We have to treasure these qualities of non-harming and good-will. Even our critical opinions or righteous indignation have the power to murder the goodness in us or others; and they cripple our ability to forgive.
For our own moral well-being and happiness, it is important for us to recognize and remove the toxins of the mind and uproot our inner and outer ways of violence. How do we meet this challenge? What obstacles do we face?
Perhaps the greatest obstacle is not acknowledging the depth of our pain or our fear of it. We fear the inner terrorist – fear itself; our anger, and our greed; and we hold on to them. We are driven by our tenacious mental habits. They can feel unbearably painful and overpowering as if we cannot escape them.
So when fear arises, we feel immobilized to draw from our inner resources or those outside of us for help. We feel isolated and unable to articulate or even understand our own predicament. What remedies will support us in our quest to overcome these terrifying mental habits?
First, we take care of ourselves. In Buddhism, wise moral decision-making and restraint are self-care. Instead of being captive to our fear and rage, we investigate them. We see them arise, knowing them for what they truly are: insubstantial; they appear and disappear within us; and we learn how to loosen their grip until they cease. We feel much relief, release and we discover a new sense of freedom.
Also, instead of isolating ourselves, feeling unworthy or self-critical, we learn to be a friend to ourselves. And we endeavor to seek the company of true friends who, by their own good qualities, bring out our moral best.
This will help us to develop inner stability, trust, and confidence. A quiet mind gains resilience, wisdom and moral integrity. We follow a refined ethical code of thought, word and deed and train the mind to restrain the inner tyrants – those painful, unskillful states of inward or outward aggression.
This is being kind to ourselves. In being truly kind to ourselves, we could never harm anyone else. Like a mirror, whatever goodness we have within us is reflected outward for all to receive. Aggression may arise but we calm it. If we can learn to dissipate aggression in its multiple disguises by starving it, we polish the mirror.
Then, gradually, we bring mindfulness, wisdom, and self-compassion to maturity. We perfect the skill of pure attention – listening to and being truly present with unwavering awareness. Such pure presence and awareness is healing; and it is benignly contagious, opening us to a forgiving, kind and loving mind, both to ourselves and others.
This process is really nourished by meditation practice. It sharpens our ability to see and listen, brightens our awareness, and tunes us in to the tremblings and torments of the mind. When we meditate, we pacify and still the mind so that it can directly experience the truth about our own predicament.
With ongoing commitment to this path of practice, we peel away layer after layer of emotional debris and dissolve the identity that we have created around it. We see ourselves and others with greater clarity, truth, and gentleness. Instead of hating what seems unbearable, again and again and again we look with new eyes and see the emptiness of all things. Our ‘self’ view and our world view are literally transformed.
Now we have a new compass – a contemplative way of seeing that takes us wisely through the rapids of life. We use kindness, calm, intuitive insight and wisdom to get our bearings; and, in doing so, we disarm the enemies of our own well-being and happiness.
My first teacher demonstrated this to me in India many years ago, when he was shot and fatally wounded by a drunk villager. “Poor man,” was his immediate response as he lay bleeding, “He will have to go to prison now. What will happen to his children?”
And we remember how the Buddha’s absolute compassion for Angulimala stopped the bandits’ killing spree and turned his life around – the serial killer became a monk, a man of peace; and he realized full awakening. By loving one who to us seems so impossible to love, the Buddha bestowed upon him the greatest gift a human being can receive.
We too can wake up to our own innate goodness and begin to pierce through our delusion. Although we get confused by fear and hatred, and all our other human foibles, we realize the futility of taking them to be ‘me’ or ‘mine’. They are merely energy, turbulence, heat or wind.
We have to see that and know it directly for ourselves – patiently, step by step. This is the purification of the heart. Blessing ourselves with pure awareness, we bless others. When we bless others, we, in turn, are blessed. We are free. We are at peace.
If we want this freedom and peace, each of us must do whatever we can to enter the process of inner disarmament.
Stop harming. Try forgiveness. Speak and act with kindness. Keep turning away from ill-will. Don’t give in to it. Find the pearl of goodness within you. It’s there. Touch the true happiness and unshakeable peace in your heart. It’s there.
© Ayyā Medhānandī 2017