Each month, in Sutta Study, a new series on Trike Daily led by Insight meditation teacher Peter Doobinin, we’ll explore one of the Buddha’s suttas. The suttas, found in the Pali Canon, comprise the discourses the historical Buddha gave during his 45 years of teaching. Rather than philosophical tracts, the suttas are a map for dharma practice. In this series, we’ll focus on the practical application of the teachings in our day-to-day lives.
In the sutta on Courses of Action (Thana Sutta), the Buddha offers a valuable teaching to support us in our efforts to take skillful action. Skillful action is action—physical action (our deeds), verbal action (our speech), and mental action (our thinking)—that leads us away from suffering and toward a greater happiness.
In the sutta, the Buddha divides the courses of action we might take into four categories: (1) actions that are unpleasant and bring about “unprofitable” results, (2) actions that are unpleasant and bring about “profitable” results, (3) actions that are pleasant and bring about “unprofitable” results, and (4) actions that are pleasant and bring about “profitable” results.
When the results of our actions are “unprofitable,” it doesn’t mean, of course, that we’re not achieving monetary gain. Rather, it means we’re not moving toward a true happiness but toward suffering and stress—the various manifestations, blatant and subtle, of mental affliction. Conversely, actions that yield “profitable” results lead us to true happiness of the heart.
As the Buddha suggests, two of these courses of action amount to no-brainers. It’s not difficult for us to refrain from taking actions that are unpleasant and bring about unprofitable results or to take actions that are pleasant and bring about profitable results. Our problems come when we’re faced with the other two courses of action. This is where we tend to stumble; accordingly, this is where we need to pay close attention to what we’re doing.
When we find a certain action “unpleasant,” it may be our inclination not to take the action, even when taking it would be in our best interests. Even though the action would be in support of the deepest wish we have for ourselves—to be happy—we may not want to apply the effort or persistence that’s required. We might face this scenario when it comes to our meditation practice, for instance, making us prone to skipping sits. Or maybe there is a particular life situation in which we’re considering taking an action that’s difficult—maybe a phone call that’s needed in order to move forward in our efforts to find fulfilling work. But since we’re afraid, and because of the “unpleasant” nature of the action, we may be apt to not make the call.
As dharma students learning to take skillful action, we recognize when we are confronted with action that is unpleasant but beneficial, and we reflect on it. As the Buddha suggests, this is the mark of a wise person.
The skill of paying attention to our actions is known as heedfulness. In practicing heedfulness, we are (1) mindful of our actions, and (2) discern whether our actions are skillful or unskillful. It is, perhaps needless to say, a crucial skill to develop. As the Theravadan monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu says, “heedfulness is the heart of the practice, the heart of the teaching.” The Buddha, for his part, said, “all skillful qualities are rooted in heedfulness.”
As dharma students practicing heedfulness, we consider our actions. We acknowledge that the action we’re thinking about taking is difficult to take—we don’t deny its unpleasant quality—and we consider the consequences of taking the action. We ask the questions that a wise person learns to ask: What will be the results of taking this action? Will this action, even though it’s difficult, lead us away from suffering? Will it move us toward a greater, lasting happiness in my life?
It may seem like a simple thing, to reflect on our actions in this way. But people often follow their habitual patterns; they live their lives on automatic pilot.
But dharma students learn to pay scrupulous attention to their actions. And when confronted with the other problematic course of action—actions that are pleasant, but unprofitable—we once again reflect on our actions.
It may be our habit to take certain actions that are enjoyable and easy to take even though these actions may lead us toward suffering and affliction. We may be inclined, for instance, to indulge in various sense pleasures like the Internet and TV, even though it may not be in our best interests. We may find it enjoyable to partake in unskillful speech, like gossip, or pursue judgmental thoughts about other people.
Again, we have the opportunity to be heedful, and reflect upon the course of action: Recognizing that there is a pleasant aspect to the action, we ask, is it in our best interests to take this action? Will this action lead to suffering?
It is extremely important that, in reflecting on our actions, we take into account the long-term consequences. It’s often the case when we take an action that’s enjoyable but leads to a negative result that the short-term results don’t seem quite so bad. When you’re participating in gossip with colleagues at work, it may seem like what you’re doing is beneficial—you’re making a connection with others, you’re enjoying a sense of belonging, and so forth. But what are the long-term consequences of your actions? What kind of mind are you cultivating? What sort of effect will your actions have on the rest of your day, the rest of your week, the rest of your life? How will your actions affect your ability to develop your dharma practice? How will they affect your ability to open your heart?
Most human beings decide what actions they’ll take based on their likes and dislikes. If we like doing something and it’s easy to do, we do it. If we dislike something or we find it hard to do, we don’t do it. As dharma students, however, we don’t allow our actions to be determined by our likes and dislikes. Instead, we choose what to do based on what will lead us away from suffering and toward true happiness.
It is, of course, a process, and it takes time. At first, we may find that we want to take certain beneficial actions that are “unpleasant,” but that we’re not able to. We want to meditate every day, but we don’t. We want to put time into our creative work, but we don’t. And we may find that although we want to refrain from “unprofitable” actions, we’re not able to. We continue to gossip. We continue to pursue resentful narratives about a family member.
What the process requires is that we keep paying attention, keep reflecting, and keep asking the questions. The sort of reflection that the Buddha encourages is reflection that has to be done again and again: “repeated reflection.”
We keep looking and asking. We pay attention to the results of taking certain actions. Gradually, wisdom develops. This is the wisdom that comes from seeing clearly, from seeing things as the Buddha says, “according to reality.” It is a wisdom that goes beyond intellectual wisdom. It is a wisdom that goes straight to the heart.
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