Progress and Morality

Careful in speech, controlled in body,

Aware of the workings of the mind;

Patient under insult, never angry;

This is the path of great progress.

— Dharmapada

Careful in Speech, Controlled in Body

In this complex world we must know how to behave if we want to make progress. The world contains so many kinds of people and so many different levels of morality and wisdom, we must have some basic guidelines which can fit all situations. Being careful about what we say while controlling the urges of the body is a very good basic guideline for all situations.

Control of the body means that we know when to act, and when not to act and that we know how to behave with moderation. If we see something that contradicts our understanding of the Dharma, it is usually best to ignore it because, in the first place, we might be wrong about what we think and, in the second place, we should always remember that every person must learn in his own way. When we do decide to speak or act, we should always be as compassionate as we are able. Compassion itself is a guide that always prompts us to be tolerant, patient and as wise as possible.

It is very important to be careful about speech. This is especially true nowadays since so many different cultures and groups are presently intermingling with each other. What is inoffensive in your group may be very offensive in someone else’s. What is a joke to you may be a rebuke or an insult to someone else. The vast and ever-changing variety in the world does not allow us to stop at every moment and fully explain exactly what we meant and why we said it. In an ideal world, people would all understand each other perfectly. However, in this world misunderstandings are very common. For this reason, it is very important to be careful about what you say.

“A good word melts the cold of March while a bad word can freeze the month of June,” is a Chinese folk saying. A single word can save a nation or it can ruin it. We can cause great harm with our words, but we can also bring about great good through them.

In our practice of Buddhism, we should constantly try to bring positive energy into whatever situation we find ourselves in. Words are one of the best means we have to facilitate this process. Words should be used to encourage and help other people. They should be used to communicate deeply and warmly. And they should be used to spread the truth of the Dharma to all who will listen.

The Buddha taught that none of us should ever use words to lie, flatter, be harsh or mislead.

In the end, all acts of body and speech should be directed toward the greater welfare of all sentient beings. One can make samsaric gains through body and speech, but as the Buddha said:

Ananda, all the people in heaven only got there through ordinary decency; when their good karma is used up, they will re-enter the cycle of birth and death. In contrast, the bodhisattva makes steady progress through his explorations of samadhi, through his transfer of merit and through his cultivation of the Way which leads beyond all birth and death.

— Surangama Sutra

Aware of the Workings of the Mind

The Avatamsaka Sutra says, “The mind controls everything.” In order to properly control body and speech, we must come to understand our minds. If we can control our minds, we can do anything.

Master Xingkong (780-862) wrote a wonderful passage that expresses this point very well. He said, “The practice of Buddhism can be compared to presiding over a walled city; during the day, thieves and bandits must be kept at bay while at night one must be constantly alert. If the mind in charge is thoughtful and able, then there will be peace without the use of weapons.”

In Master Xingkong’s metaphor the city is the virtuous mind while the bandits are the six senses that are constantly trying to steal our peace and wisdom.

We must have many tools in our chest when we decide to truly gain control of our minds. Sometimes we must restrict ourselves quite severely and sometimes we must allow our thoughts to soar on the wings of inspiration. In the end:

Once a bodhisattva is committed to the bodhi mind, he must not stop. Once he begins to seek the Mahayana Way, he must not become fatigued and he must not become tired of the Dharma or feel that he is satisfied with what little he has.

— Avatamsaka Sutra

Patient under Insult, Never Angry

What is an insult but an affront to the false sense of self? And what is anger but an attempt to destroy insults? That is all they are; when the false sense of self feels threatened through a loss of control, it reacts with anger. The Buddha emphasized the importance of being patient in the face of insults many times. In this life, all of us will experience insults and derision. Bodhisattvas react with equanimity and patience while others react in all their many ways, not one of which does anything to solve the deeper problem.

The Sutra of Bequeathed Teachings says, “There is nothing better than patience in the cultivation of virtue, morality and the practice of Buddhism.” It also says, “One who knows how to be patient gains great power. If you cannot joyfully quaff the poison of evil insults as if you were quaffing sweet dew, then you cannot yet be called wise.”

To be patient and to endure insults does not mean that you must be weak or timid. It means that you productively use even your most negative experiences to grow and learn. If you can learn to endure insults and humiliation, you will become very strong.

The Fachi Sutra speaks of six kinds of merit gained by a bodhisattva who learns to be patient under insult:

  1. If a bodhisattva can listen to insults as if he were merely listening to an echo in a mountain gorge, then he will have achieved “the wisdom of sound.”

  2. If a bodhisattva can endure being beaten as if he were merely watching forms move in a mirror, then he will have achieved “the wisdom of forms.”

  3. If a bodhisattva can endure suffering as if he were merely watching an empty illusion, then he will have achieved “the wisdom of illusion.”

  4. If a bodhisattva can endure anger, then he will have achieved “the wisdom of inner purity.”

  5. If a bodhisattva can endure the Eight Winds, then he will have achieved “the wisdom of phenomenal purity.”

  6. If a bodhisattva is not polluted by the troubles of life, then he will have achieved “the wisdom of manifest conditions.”

As Buddhists, we must constantly raise our eyes to the higher realms and always remember that:

All troubles, all habits, all continuity

All are devoid of essence, all are empty.

— Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra