It’s not just about you

by lonesomeyogurt

From the Ambalatthikarahulovada Sutta:

“Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction; it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do.”

“Whenever you want to do a verbal action, you should reflect on it: ‘This verbal action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful verbal action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful verbal action with painful consequences, painful results, then any verbal action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction; it would be a skillful verbal action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any verbal action of that sort is fit for you to do.

“Whenever you want to do a mental action, you should reflect on it: ‘This mental action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful mental action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful mental action with painful consequences, painful results, then any mental action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction; it would be a skillful mental action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any mental action of that sort is fit for you to do.

In this sutta, the Buddha lays down to his son Rahula the most wonderful comprehensive ethical framework in existence; mainly, that the moral value of every action is intrinsically linked to the positive or negative results that it will yield. If an action brings pain, fear, distress and unease to another living being, then it is unfit for us to do, being unwholesome and bound up with suffering; if an action brings peace, joy, comfort, and ease to another living being, then it is fit for us to do, being wholesome and bound up with happiness.

The Buddha’s rubric for the measurement of an action’s moral worth depends on the view of human beings as agents capable of both influencing and being influenced. In this intricate web of cause and effect, every thought, word, and deed is a moral action, and we, as the heirs of our kamma, are responsible for the fruits they bring. This is why Buddhists adopt the five precepts, which the Buddha described as “five great gifts — original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning — that are not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and are unfaulted by the wise.” These five – avoiding the destruction of living beings, avoiding the taking of what is not given, avoiding the indulging of sexual misconduct, avoiding the speaking of false words, and avoiding the consumption of intoxicants – form the bedrock of the Buddhist moral framework.

The five precepts are designed to prevent one from committing actions which are diametrically opposed to the Dhamma, actions which find their root motivation in mindstates that can never be wholesome: Violence is based in hatred, which is the enemy of compassion; theft is based in greed, which is the enemy of generosity; sexual misconduct is based in lust, which is the enemy of dispassion; dishonesty is based in ignorance, which is the enemy of wisdom; and intoxication is based in heedlessness, which is the enemy of mindfulness. Buddhists avoid these five actions because, upon reflection, they lead to the affliction of oneself and others.

The fifth precept – Suramerayamajjapamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami or “I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness” – has been considered foundational in the wider framework of Buddhist ethics for thousands of years, but has somehow lost importance in the western transmission of the Dhamma. Many American Buddhists are content with four and a half precepts, occasionally indulging in alcohol or other drugs without care. This lax approach to the precepts upsets me greatly.

As the Ambalatthikarahulovada Sutta above says, we need to examine our actions in light of their ability to bring happiness or suffering to both ourselves and those around us. No decision we make in regards to our conduct can be considered in a vacuum but must be understood in terms of its larger effect on those around us. And while the obvious negative effects that intoxication can have on the individual – heedlessness, irresponsibility, damage to body and mind – are well known, too often we neglect to remember that refraining from intoxication is, according to the Buddha, something we do to “to give freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings.” Mindfulness and clear comprehension are not just tools for discovering joy and freedom in our personal lives but also facilitators of positive and healthy relationships with other beings and the larger social structure.

The intoxication culture – a culture based on the idea that responsibility, self-control, and heedfulness are not foundational aspects of worthwhile interaction with the world but obstacles to be suppressed in the pursuit of pleasure – is one steeped in violence, promiscuity, misogyny, nihilism, and recklessness. From the time of the Buddha onward, the use of chemicals to repress frustration, pain, and sadness has been responsible for the destruction of families, the sexual abuse and exploitation of women, and the continued spiritual deadening of human beings the world over; and, just as every use of pornography helps send the implicit message that women are commodities to be bought and sold for male pleasure, or just as every bite of steak helps bolster the illusion that violence against the weaker beings of this earth is excusable in the pursuit of pleasure, so too does every drink of alcohol lend legitimacy and worth to the culture of brain damage.

This culture is not benign. It is every bit as deadly as the cultures of misogyny or economic exploitation or white supremacy that dominate the American landscape – in fact, the culture of inauthentic heedlessness and chemical indulgence is so destructive in large part because it reveals and revels in these cultures. The abuse of alcohol allows for the unchecked emergence of bigotry, ignorance, and irresponsibility in our interpersonal interactions by removing the ability of individuals to judge with compassion and rationality the results of their actions; the deification of altered states allows for the normalization of sexual predation, macho posturing, anxious escapism and desperately insincere social regimenting by encouraging behaviors that make it impossible to mindfully counter the insidious pull of larger framework of interacting prejudices in which we find ourselves. It is a culture that not only sanctions but inherently depends on the existence of broken families, homelessness, sexual abuse, rape, poverty, addiction, sickness, and death. It is a culture that cannot exist side by side with a society devoted to compassion, responsibility, integrity, uniqueness, and authenticity.

This is why the Buddha tells us that heedfulness and self-control are gifts that we give ourselves as well as the ones around us. By guarding our thoughts, words, and deeds through constant reflection and discipline, we can not only keep our own lives free from suffering, but also cleanse our interpersonal relationships of unexamined prejudice and inconsiderate self-indulgence. The Buddha’s ethical framework, in which the validity of our actions are not judged against subjective rights or responsibilities but instead against a universal standard of edifying versus destructive, is a comprehensive approach that guarantees compassion and responsibility in the midst of a world that seems devoted to their opposites.

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