One of my favorite sutras is “Advice to Venerable Rahula.” Rahula was the Buddha’s son, his only child, and he had joined the monastic sangha at a young age. I can only imagine what it would be like to be a novice monk whose father was the Awakened One.
This sutra has many sections in it and covers basic meditation practice, teachings on non-self, and equanimity. In one section, the Buddha says to Rahula, “...when you develop a mind similar to water, arisen contacts of like and dislike do not take hold of your mind and stay. Rahula, with water the pure and impure are washed, excreta, urine, saliva, pus, and blood are washed. Water does not loathe that...” He repeats this phrasing for all the natural elements: earth, fire, air, and space.
In this teaching, we see the capacity for each element to accept and transform whatever is placed in it. Fire is used to burn garbage and cook food. The air carries both perfume and stench equally. The earth transforms compost and grows lovely plants. Space does not settle anywhere or limit what is within it. This kind of inclusiveness is part of the meaning of the Sanskrit word “kshanti,” which is the third paramita.
A year ago I introduced the paramitas, the six practices and qualities that create a vehicle to move us from relative to ultimate reality, from suffering to wisdom and compassion. Generosity (dana) is first; last fall I wrote about ethical action (shila). The next two are kshanti and virya (diligence).
Sometimes kshanti is translated as patience. Mostly we think of patience as a passive quality, of waiting. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s view, it is more than that. It is the stable ability to hold all manner of people, events, and other phenomena without judgment, pushing, or manipulating. This kind of acceptance does not preclude trying to change a situation when it needs to improve.
Shila, ethical action, tells us how to do that. But change often takes time, and kshanti helps us abide without anger, frustration, or despair. The comparison is made between stirring a spoonful of salt into a glass of water; the whole glass becomes salty. If we pour a spoonful of salt into a flowing river, the river takes it in and does not change. We can build our capacity to hold things and not be “flavored” by what happens around us.
Did you know that the underlying meaning of diligence is loving? From Latin and Old French roots it has come to mean attentiveness, carefulness, and steady effort, all attributes of loving. Classical methods of diligence begin with recognizing the kind of thoughts we are having (mindfulness). If they are positive, we try to prolong them. We also actively “water the wholesome seeds” within us. What do you do that promotes your well-being? Some possibilities are taking time to be creative, to be outside in nature, to exercise, to prepare nourishing food, to speak with someone we care about, to laugh.
The other side of diligence is that we also actively avoid that which waters the “unwholesome” or negative seeds within us. I think we all know which activities and thoughts do not serve us. If a negative thought or action should occur, we try to stop it from going further. The last of the methods is called (in today’s vernacular) “change the channel.” If a harmful thought or action keeps drawing us in, get away from it entirely. These methods of diligence are all ways of loving ourselves.
Returning to the advice given to Rahula, I was a little put off when reading about all the foul things thrown into the water. Were you?
In ancient times the natural world seemed infinite in its capability to hold and transform. In the 2,500 years since the Buddha taught, we have learned a lot about how our world can become ill. Since at least since the 1960s we’ve heard messages about not polluting. Our growing sensibility toward the environment can be seen as an example of diligence.
We encourage and sustain positive actions, like renewable energy, recycling, re-use, and simplifying our possessions, the same as we would a positive thought. Similar to relinquishing negative thoughts, we can do our best to minimize what goes to the landfill and stop dirtying the waters with plastic and toxins.
The paramitas are presented in a certain order to build on the one before. We start with generosity to combat our greediness and think about others’ needs; we learn to act ethically toward one another to see how we “inter-are.” With changing perceptions, our minds open to realize that we need to include everyone, just as we and they are at this time. We need to be patient and not feed our anger and fear. And finally, nothing at all changes without consistent effort, diligence.
Where do we go from here? The final two paramitas are meditation and understanding. Please don’t wait until my next column to start practicing them.
Sandra (“Zan”) Murray is an ordained lay member of the Order of Interbeing established by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and a founding member of Flowing Mountains Sangha in Helena, an Open Way Community of Mindful Living (www.openway.org). Flowing Mountains meets weekly for meditation and programs, and hosts one-day retreats in Helena annually.
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