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A short reflection that is often chanted in Theravada monasteries states, in part, “I am subject to aging . . . subject to illness . . . subject to death.” That’s the standard English translation, but the standard Thai translation is more pointed: “Aging is normal for me . . . illness is normal . . . death is normal for me.” The extended version of the reflection goes on to say that these things are normal for everyone, no matter where. To be born into any world is to be born into a place where these dangers are normal. They lie in wait right here in the body that at birth we laid claim to, and the world around us is full of triggers that can bring these dangers out into the open at any time.
As the reflection concludes, these are good themes to reflect on every day—to keep us heedful of the fact that dangers are to be expected and are not an aberration. That way we can be prepared for them. Otherwise, we tend to forget—and our illusions of safety, when they’re challenged, often lead to unrealistic desires for absolute safety that can cause us to create unnecessary dangers for ourselves and people around us.
It’s an often-overlooked feature of the Buddha’s teachings that he identified the basis for all our good and skillful qualities as heedfulness—not innate goodness or compassion: heedfulness. To recognize that there are dangers both within and without, that your actions can make the difference between suffering from those dangers and not, and that you’d better get your act together now: this is the heedfulness that makes us generous, wise, and kind. We’re kind not because we’re innately kind. In fact, our minds are so quick to change that they’re not innately anything, good or bad, aside from being aware. If we’re heedful, we’re kind not only when others are kind to us or make us feel safe. We’re kind because we see that kindness is the safest course of action, even in the face of the unkindness of others.
This is why the Buddha told his monks, when they were ready, to go out into the wilderness to face some of the dangers there, so that they could overcome their complacency and become resourceful in dealing skillfully with threats to their physical and mental wellbeing. That way they could learn to bring out their best qualities even when—especially when—confronted with the worst that the wilderness had to offer. Some of the most moving passages in the Pali Canon are the words of monks in the wilds who discovered, in the face of hunger, illness, and dangers from fierce animals, that the best way to keep their minds safe was to take refuge in practicing the dhamma.
Now, the Buddha wouldn’t push the monks into the wilderness right off the bat. He was like a wise parent who provides safety for his children as they’re getting started in life, and then gradually acquaints them with the dangers of the world, providing them with the skills they’ll need to negotiate those dangers on their own.
This is why so many of his teachings deal with issues of safety and danger: recognizing what true danger is, what true safety is, and knowing how to best find true safety both within conditions and beyond them. And he didn’t limit these teachings only to monks and nuns. He taught them to all his students, lay and ordained, because wilderness is not the only place where dangers abound. And monastics are not the only ones who can endanger themselves and others by holding to unwise and unrealistic notions about safety and danger. Complacency and the ignorance it fosters are problems for us all.
So it’s useful to reflect on some of the Buddha’s teachings on safety, to get his perspective on the dangers we all must encounter. Because it’s hard to keep complex teachings in mind when you’re face to face with danger, I’ll boil the main principles of the Buddha’s safety instructions to a few bullet points. That way they’ll be easy to keep in mind when you need them most.
The first point puts the remaining points into perspective:
- Total safety is possible, but only in nirvana. As long as you’re not there yet, you have to accept the fact that you’ll be forced again and again to sacrifice some things in order to save others that are more valuable. Life in samsara is full of trade-offs, and wisdom consists of learning to make wise trades. If you forget this fact, you tend to float around in a complacent bubble of what you assume to be a karma-free zone where you can have your cake and enlightenment too—and the people who live in complacent bubbles are the ones most likely to thrash around wildly, endangering themselves and others, when that bubble bursts.
The next point focuses on the primary means for finding the total safety of nirvana and relative safety in the world. It forms the basis for all the points that follow.
- Your most lasting possessions are your actions. Your body is yours only till death; your loved ones, at best, are yours no longer than that. The results of your actions, though, can carry well past death, so make sure that you don’t sacrifice the goodness of your thoughts, words, and deeds to save things that will slip through your fingers like water. Specifically, this means that if you really want to find safety, your strategy can’t involve killing, stealing, or telling lies. At the same time, you can’t expose yourself to unnecessary dangers by taking intoxicants or engaging in illicit sex. These are the principles of the five precepts, and the Buddha taught them because they really work in safeguarding the people who observe them.
If you really want to protect your loved ones and other people around you from danger, remember that the same principle applies to them: their most lasting possessions are their actions. So the best way to protect them is to teach them to observe the same five precepts. If they’re willing to listen to you, you can explain the precepts to them. If they’re not, you can teach the precepts by example—which, either way, is the only way to make the lesson stick.
- To find some safety in the world, you first have to give safety to the entire world. If you’re determined to observe the precepts in all situations, you’re giving a gift of safety to everyone, in that all beings, universally, will be protected from any harm you might do. In return, you get a share in the universal safety coming from your present actions. If, however, you follow the precepts only in some cases and not in others—if, for instance, you can rationalize killing and lying certain people in certain situations, for whatever the end—it’s like building a fence around your property but leaving a huge gap in the back. Anyone, with any motive, can walk right in through the gap.
- You can protect yourself from the results of your past unskillful actions by training the mind. The fact that we’re born in the human realm means that we all have some past bad karma, so simply avoiding unskillful karma in the present isn’t enough to protect you from suffering. Fortunately, though, while we can’t go back to change our past actions, we can weaken the effect of any past bad actions by training the mind.
The types of meditation especially helpful in this area include developing unlimited attitudes of goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity; developing your discernment in knowing how to stop causing yourself unnecessary suffering in the present; and learning the ability not to let the mind be overcome by either pleasure or pain. When the mind is trained in this way, it’s like a vast river of clean water: you can throw a lump of salt into the river and yet still drink the water, because it’s so vast and clear. Otherwise, your mind will be like a small cup of water: the same lump of salt thrown into the cup will make the water unfit to drink.
- The primary danger from other people lies not so much in what they do to you but in what they can get you to do. Their karma is their karma; your karma is yours. Even when you’re mistreated by others, their karma doesn’t become your karma—unless you start mistreating them in return.
At the same time, the most dangerous people aren’t necessarily those who are obviously mistreating you. Sometimes people you regard as your friends can try to get you to break the precepts, or to fire up passion, aversion, or delusion in your mind. In doing this, they can make you do lasting danger to yourself.
This means, on the one hand, that you have to train yourself not to fall for the reasonings or to be tempted by the rewards that some people will offer you to kill, lie, or steal for some “good cause.” On the other, it means that you have to distinguish speech that is genuinely harmful from speech that is harmful only on the surface. Nasty words meant to hurt your feelings or get you upset are harmful only on the surface. Words that insinuate themselves into your mind, getting you to develop unskillful attitudes or do unskillful things: those are the ones that can do deep, long-lasting harm.
- You can protect yourself from harmful words by, again, training the mind. The best protection against unskillful speech is to depersonalize it, and two techniques are especially effective in this regard.
One is to remember that human speech all over the world has always been, and always will be, either kind or unkind, true or false, beneficial or harmful. The fact that people may be saying unkind, false, or harmful things to you right now is nothing out of the ordinary. Like all dangers, it’s normal, so there’s no reason to feel that you’re being singled out for any special mistreatment. You can take it in stride.
The second technique is to tell yourself when something harmful is being said, “An unpleasant sound is making contact at the ear.” And leave it at that. Don’t build any internal narratives around that contact that will stab at your heart. You have ears, so you’re bound to hear both pleasant and unpleasant sounds. But you can also develop discernment around how you use your ears and relate to those sounds. If you can let the words stop at the contact, they won’t present any danger to your heart.
Obviously, these principles build on the working hypothesis of karma and rebirth—a hypothesis that, we’re told, is no longer viable in our modern/postmodern times. But none of us have to be prisoners of our times. After all, what vision of life does the modern/postmodern worldview offer? Fish fighting one another for the last gulp of water in a shrinking pool, all ending in death. What made the Buddha special was that he looked for a safety that lasted beyond death, and—having found it—showed others how to find it too. Along the way, he offered the possibility of safety with honor, something that modern/postmodern views can’t provide.
The dhamma is said to be timeless. In this world where death is so normal, now is as good a time as any to put that claim to the test.