Description of essential basis of every sane behaviour and every right comprehension of the reality.
If we want our lay practice to be profitable, it is indispensable to practise generosity, to show oneself helpful and courteous. Generosity can manifest in various forms: through donations (dāna), by nourishing, by sheltering, by rendering service, by giving one's time, one's presence, by listening, by offering expert advice, etc.
As for mettā and benevolence, it is easy to practise charity with those beings who are dear to us. On the other hand, it is less easy to offer donations to people who have more needs but who we do not know, especially if they are not aware that the donation comes from us. This is, however, much more beneficial for ourselves. So that a donation is the occasion of a positive action allowing us to develop pāramīs , it must be made in a totally disinterested way, and it must be motivated either by the nature of the need of the recipient, or by our own detachment from the object. We must also avoid carrying this out to develop good pāramīs.
To take full value, a donation must be made spontaneously, on one's own assent, and one should not cause it to be done by someone else, unless it is done sincerely to provide an opportunity for somebody to make merit. It is then better if the object of an offering requires several positive efforts from us: We look for the object to be offered, find it, choose it, buy it, pack it, store it waiting for the opportunity, carry it and hand it over with our own hands. If we have two of something, we should rather give the one that is of better quality, or bigger, or more beautiful, or newer, etc.
If the vinaya forbids the monks to accept anything that is not offered to them with our own hands, it is partly to avoid any risk of ambiguity. However, it is also aimed at enabling the giver to focus a certain attention, which at that moment, will allow him (her) to develop a very positive state of mind, thus granting him (her) the biggest merit. So, to enhance the benefits of our practice of charity, it is recommended to hand the gift that one wishes to give, slowly, face to face, offering it with our own hands, to mark well this gesture, even if the recipient is a layman.
When a donation has really well been done , at time of its delivery to the recipient we will have developed: generosity, detachment, attention, concentration, effort, respect, love and benevolence. This explains the importance of giving correctly, whoever the beneficiary may be. Naturally, the golden rule is not to hope for anything in return. In the opposite case, the donation would no longer be such, it would then lose all its value.
Thus, what counts in a gift (with regard to merit) is naturally not the object that is given and even less its price. It is, above all, the intention and the state of mind that will have arisen, but it is also the thought (reflection). The pāramīs are only developed during the phase of volition appearing at each moment of consciousness (aggregate of mental formations). It is at these short periods of consciousness that all the merit or demerit of an action is produced. The phrase so often repeated: " It is the intention which counts " is, nevertheless, incomplete. Indeed, more than the intention, it is the thought which donates. A suitable gift must be thought correctly. Even with the best intention in the world, a clock offered to a dog or some money to a drunkard will not be a beneficial gift. It is for this reason that it is equally important to think about the usefulness of a donation before carrying it out, even to make inquires, taking the trouble to find out what are the needs of the person to whom we want to give. Giving is performed even before the beneficiary receives the gift: If a gift is sent but it never reaches the addressee, the sender will benefit all the same from the merit produced by this gift. Besides the usefulness it can have for its beneficiary, the value of a gift is first and foremost, detachment. The ideal giving is done by letting go of one's possessions, because this is precisely what the objective of the practice of giving lie in: to detach, to let go of possessions. Perfect giving is, paradoxically, to have nothing left. One does not hoard anything any more. The fact of not having anything left is, obviously, the best way of leaving things to others: We leave to others what we do not have. We always have something to give. When we no longer possess anything, we can give: knowledge, the example of our own conduct, education, advice, explanations, love, compassion, benevolence, our presence, etc.
To everybody! It is always beneficial to practice giving with all kinds of people, avoiding, however, to offer means that may cause harm to people likely to cause some danger to arise. To carry out offerings, we shall favour those who have needs. Next we can give to those who have less needs and, finally, we can give presents to friends. We should note that giving is all the more meritorious if the beneficiary is advanced on the path of liberation or is a person who contributes to the development of the dhamma. For this reason, many people give regularly to monks, but there are some who, regrettably, have a tendency to disdain beggars suffering hunger, with the excuse that they do not "bring" enough pāramīs.
To practise generosity towards beings who bring a lot to others owing to their wisdom is certainly excellent, but to share this generosity, when possible, with other beings who depend on charity, who are in need, is also very meritorious. It is important to think of everybody, including animals, as some have difficulties finding food.
By giving objects whose main utility has negative effects (weapons, drugs, etc.), one accumulates considerable demerit. Giving because one feels obliged, because one is more or less forced to, because the one seeking our gift insists until we give, or with an unwholesome intention (to make others jealous, to make a bad joke, to obtain a service or something in return, etc.), is without merit and, depending on the case, could be more or less unbeneficial.
By talking to a lot of people about a gift that we have made, boasting proudly or insisting on what it has cost us (effort or price), one eventually accumulates more demerit from the pride displayed than the merit accumulated from giving.
By offering a stolen object (whether by oneself or by others with our knowledge) we commit a demeritorious action, even if it is to feed someone who is starving. An act cannot be meritorious at all if it involves an impure state of mind, in this particular case, dishonesty.
Even with an excellent intention, if we offer money directly to a monk (bhikkhu), we accumulate more demerit than merit. According to the monastic rules (vinaya), monks must not accept money, possess it, or use it. So, by offering a bank note to a monk, we develop demerit, because we incite him to infringe the rules. If he accepts it, our demerit increases because at this time we contribute to a violation of the rules. Through this, we may contribute to his attachment, to the development of greed, and, inevitably, to the corruption of the saṃgha. This largely explains the reason for this monastic rule. The demerit is slightly less if we are ignorant of this rule.
Moral conduct is a major point, because it forms the base of all the lay practice.
Even though we can indulge in leisure activities, the essential aspects of the layman's conduct are found in what is called the five precepts.
It is said that anyone who succeeds in training to no longer experience the need to violate them, has already crossed half of the path leading to total liberation. Such a person cannot count the number of advantages derived from this.
Each of these precepts corresponds to a very precise state of mind. They are marks that are of precious help to us in our daily life. They allow us to develop a correct and virtuous conduct.
1st precept: «I shall refrain from harming the life of others.» That is: I shall not kill, I shall not harm beings of any kind. Not even the mosquitoes that bite me.
2nd precept: «I shall refrain from stealing.» That is: I shall not appropriate others' property, I shall not seize what is not given to me. I shall not even take the subway for one station, without paying.
3rd precept: «I shall refrain from improper sexual practices.» That is: I shall not commit adultery, I shall have no illegal sexual intercourse, or by prostitution, etc.
4th precept: «I shall refrain from deceitful words.» That is: I shall not lie, I shall be honest in all situations. Whatever the thought and whatever the intention backing it, a lie will always have a negative result. I shall even avoid gossip, swearing and speaking pointlessly.
5th precept: «I shall refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.» That is: I shall not consume substances likely to poison my body or my mind, such as alcohol, drugs, tobacco, etc. I shall even avoid drinking too much coffee. Medicines taken for health reasons are allowed.
See also: The 8 precepts
Just as the previous points, concentration and attention are also very important. They do not apply only to meditative practices. We can easily train in them within all our activities, even our professional work. When we concentrate on what we are doing, we succeed much more easily in disciplining ourselves. Things become clearer, we are more competent, we think faster and more easily. The simple fact of watching our behaviour achieves concentration throughout the day, and attentiveness becomes a reflex.
There are various moments during the day which are occasions not to be missed to develop concentration and attention easily. A good example is meals. We can establish the very virtuous habit of remaining silent when eating. This kind of habit does not cost us anything and brings us a lot. We try to be mindful of everything we do. We refrain from thinking of all sorts of different things, otherwise, there is almost no difference with speaking. We are just self-contented with being attentive to what we are doing. Some people discuss while eating. Others watch television. Still others, when they eat, make calculations. While eating, try just to eat! If we wish to be in tune with reality, we must adopt the habit of being attentive to what we are doing at the time of doing it. Whatever we do and wherever we are, we should always be mindful. Certainly, we have numerous thoughts concerning projects; coming situations, or concerning memories of previous situations. The fact is that, whatever these thoughts and whichever their contents are, they are in all cases thoughts appearing at the present moment. It is therefore there, and only there, that we must concentrate our efforts.
Having said that, it is extremely profitable for the layman to apply, from time to time, a steady training in complete attention: The establishment of attention to physical and mental phenomena (satipaṭṭhāna).
The purpose of the dhamma is the definitive cessation of any form of dissatisfaction, that is, true happiness, complete happiness. Otherwise, how can there be total happiness if there remains even one seeds of dissatisfaction? To achieve this purpose, we must necessarily undergo an experience that can last a fraction of a second, a few seconds, or several minutes, during which there is cessation of all mental phenomena and all physical phenomena. The Buddha called this experience "nibbāna". He was the only one capable of reaching it by himself, and he had the kindness to give us the recipe. His teaching tells us all that is necessary to know, and even more than what is necessary, to reach there in turn. It covers all the stages making up this path to liberation. This may seem incredible, but even though most of us have the art and the art and the style to always find excuses not to step on it, at least not seriously, let us be sure that whoever does just what the Buddha said, will realise nibbāna inevitably and quickly.
Physical and mental phenomena are the elements that make up the whole of our perceptions. In other parlance, everything that we see, listen, touch, smell, taste and think, are physical and mental phenomena. When we experience the cessation of physical and mental phenomena, it means that these no longer appear. For a phenomenon to no longer appear, its nature should be directly known. When it is known for what it is, it loses any reason to be, that is why it no longer appears. Conversely, at ordinary times, when we allow ourselves to become absorbed in our habitual thoughts, we are very far from purity of mind. We are very far from that concentration that permits a systematic application of mindfulness to phenomena. Thus, seeing us constantly playing blind men, the kilesās, the mental impurities (desire, anger, ignorance, jealousy, fear, pride, etc.) feast, invading us right through, like a dense cloud of mosquitoes through a tennis net used as a mosquito net.
As long as we have not applied satipaṭṭhāna, we cannot be aware of the abundance of impurities plaguing our mind. It is like a house that seems to us a little dirty. It is only when we begin to do the housework, that we discover, as we go along, all the dirt it holds. To rid ourselves of all this hellish dirt that pollutes us right down to our deepest self, there is only one solution: to know these phenomena; which means: To develop a correct knowledge of reality.
The first thing that we need in order to develop the direct knowledge of physical and mental phenomena, is to want it, to be motivated. The origin of such motivation is manifested as a (more or less) pervading and growing dissatisfaction with everything that makes up our existence. This motivation is helped by insights that can manifest in two manners: They can arise from profound reflections on the meaning that we want to give to our life, but especially during the training in satipaṭṭhāna. For that reason, it is essentially and paradoxically after having trained correctly (in a sustained way) for several days, that a real motivation makes its appearance. Appetite comes by eating. This is explained by fundamental understandings that can come about from the first days of training.
Once motivation is established, we will understand that training in satipaṭṭhāna is not an aspiration but a necessity. We will then be able to move on to serious things. We could begin by doing a retreat for a few days, which will allow us at least " to enter the bath ". In this way, we will be able to do short sitting meditation sessions at home. Depending on our disposition and motivation, we can more or less often do retreats of variable duration. Availability goes hand in hand with motivation, because if we have the sincere will to train for a long time in satipaṭṭhāna, our life circumstances will naturally adapt themselves, for a more or less long term, so as to offer us conditions favourable to this method. Then, our rate of progress will depend considerably on our will. It will depend also on the intention driving us. If we do this only with the idea of developing the pāramīs or hoping that it will lead us to mystical experiences, as if by magic, it will be inevitably painstaking and little profitable. For it to be profitable, we have to become used from the beginning of this training, to apply the best we can the instructions personally given to us by our instructor. To progress rightly through the stages of this training, it is indispensable that an instructor supervises us regularly. Thus, backing up with the information we give him (her), orally or through our gestures and movements, when we report our day experience, or that of the previous days, he will give us the precise and impossible to circumvent instructions that we need to continue our training. For this reason, it is useless to expect to achieve a fruitful attainment by drawing the instructions exclusively from reading.
Let us imagine that we want to look at a film recorded on a video cassette, to know how it is made, to know it. We can know it correctly only if we pay sustained attention to the images as they appear on the screen, by concentrating solely on the image played by the video recorder at the present moment, without thinking of anything else. We would remain ignorant of this film if we tried to study the tape in a place that has been already played by the video recorder, or a place that has not been played yet. We would not know anything of this film if we paused on a beautiful image. By locking ourselves on it, we would only go into rapture over an aesthetic sight, from which we would imagine a whole piece of great cinematographic achievement. We would not know this film any better if we were satisfied with learning by heart the credits at the end, by reciting them dozens of times.
The same thing does apply when we want to develop a correct knowledge of reality (physical and mental phenomena) and to know what is it made of. We will be able to know it correctly only if we pay sustained attention as phenomena appear and disappear, by being concentrated only on the phenomenon perceived at the present moment, and without thinking of anything else. We would remain ignorant of the reality if we tried to study past or future events. We would not know anything of the reality if we fixed our mind by locking our concentration on a single point, we would only experience bliss, whereupon we would imagine high spiritual realisations. We would not know reality better if we were just satisfied by learning by heart the canonical texts on satipaṭṭhāna, by reciting them dozens of times.
May all beings reach nibbāna, the definitive cessation of any dissatisfaction, in the best possible conditions and in the shortest time.
Origin: Teaching given in French at Montéon (France)
Author: Monk Dhamma Sāmi
Date: 2001, December the 8th
Translator: Lucy Costa
Date of translation: 2002, July
Update: 2005, June the 13th