In my last post, I wrote about the coming of summertime and the DIY mindset. This is a mindset of curiosity and exploration, a willingness to learn, and of care to listen to the wisdom of those who know better than we do.
The Buddha, my favorite religious founder, philosopher, and perhaps psychologist of all time, had a similar take on cultivating an open mind in our pursuit of the good life itself.
The text most famous for displaying this message from the Buddha is known as the Kalama Sutta, or Instruction to the Kalamas. The Kalamas were a group of people, perhaps a town or village, who lived at the edge of the major civilization of the Buddha’s time. As such, they were not swept up in the religious trends of that civilization. Nonetheless, they were aware of them, as various teachers made their way to them here and there.
When the Buddha visited them with a group of his monks, they asked him to help make sense of the many varied teachings they had encountered.
It’s wise to be doubtful
The Buddha told them it is proper for them to be uncertain in this matter, as it is quite a complex matter and none of the teachers had thus far discussed it completely. He then listed some of the things people of his time (and ours) tend to believe in without question. These are 1) what is heard, 2) tradition, 3) rumor, 4) scripture, 5) logical conjecture, 6) inference, 7) analogies, 8) opinions, 9) probability, or 10) the thought, this is our teacher.
He said that we cannot make major life decisions based on any of these. Instead, we can examine each of them and ask if following them gives rise to peace and happiness or to suffering.
He then taught them that greed, aversion, and ignorance seem to give rise to suffering. They agreed. And, he continued, generosity, kindness, and clear-mindedness give rise to happiness and peace. They again agreed.
Thus, the Buddha suggested, we should cultivate minds free from hostility and ill will, filled with equanimity. He then offers three assurances that would arise in one who’s mind is thus trained. First, if there is an afterlife, this kind of mindset and the actions that flow from it will lead to a good destination (heaven). Second, if there is no afterlife, then this mindset will bear good fruits in the here and now.
Third, if I make mistakes in this life that cause harm, the fact that my mind is free of anger and greed will help prevent me from suffering. I take this to mean that we are able and willing to deal with our mistakes quickly and maturely. Fourth, if I maintain this mindset and am able to avoid mistakes in this life, I can live free of worries in all ways.
In practice, this doesn’t mean we abandon all of our previous guides to action. We just put them to the test. And the test is a simple one: does the guidance bring happiness or suffering? While simple, we still need to maintain awareness about our propensity to self-deception. Living on coffee, ice-cream, and red wine might seem to bring me happiness for a few days. Or perhaps the hangover would cut that experiment short after just one day. In any case, there are plenty of things that are harmful or potentially harmful that we don’t know about in the here and now.
That is why we don’t abandon our guides. They, in the form of experts and wise elders of all kinds, have likely tried most of the odd things we are thinking about and can tell you about their experiences. Not everyone will experience things exactly the same, so we might try to go forward where others have failed, but at least we will have their wisdom to fall back on.
Last fall, after discovering a leaky outside faucet at my house, I asked my father about it. “Better call a plumber,” he advised. Knowing that a plumber would likely charge me $150 or more, I decided to turn to another source of wisdom: YouTube.
There, I found 3 very different lines of guidance. One suggested I cut off the old faucet and put a new one on. Another showed how to remove and take apart a faucet to fix it. And a third showed how to remove and replace one. The third seemed like a middle path so I followed the advice as well as I could and. . . Success, a new, working faucet.
Saving some money and learning that I could fix a faucet if needed certainly brought some happiness. As a homeowner with a family, some skills like this will be helpful in ensuring a well-maintained home. And this kind of easy-to-maintain lifestyle is even something that the Buddha recommended for his followers. It is similar to advice today to live within our means, which can be very difficult in a world driven by commerce and the urge to consume more and more.
So, as mundane as this little bit of homeowner-DIY might seem, it can also be tied to spiritual roots and goals. A simpler life in which we can maintain a fairly healthy body and a well-functioning home—and a car and other possessions—can free up time and resources to undertake meaningful pursuits such as meditation retreats and journeys through the wilderness.
A very important teaching of Buddhism is interconnectedness and realizing that our truest happiness depends on the wellbeing of the world around us. Nonetheless, we can cultivate simplicity and self-sufficiency to bring benefit to ourselves and others in that nexus of interconnections.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.