TLDR: Good Friday is a time to contemplate more deeply the teachings left to us by Jesus Christ. We look at the parallels between Christianity and Buddhism in the practice of virtues.
The author is a practising Buddhist who also finds many aspects of the teachings of Jesus Christ inspiring. She writes this article based on her understanding of the parallels between Buddhism and Christianity that does not necessarily reflect the teachings of Jesus or the Buddha. She hopes readers can read with wise discernment.
Good Friday is a time where all Christians observe fasting, penance and contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus. To me (as a Buddhist), Jesus showed us how to carry our crosses (suffering).
Remembering the iconic image of Christ carrying his cross during difficult times can help soothe one’s heart. Unlike the majority of us, he did not get rid of suffering through impatience or aversion. With great faith, he showed us it is possible to face suffering with forgiveness, patience and love. To me, this is one of the reasons he is so deeply revered.
Similarly, the Buddha taught us about suffering. He taught us what suffering is, the cause of suffering and how to cease suffering. Patience is a virtue to be cultivated in Buddhism so that we may endure suffering and let it go every time it comes up.
In this post, I would like to celebrate the spirit of Good Friday with the teachings of Christ that have inspired many people in the world.
Perhaps one of Jesus’ most famous teachings on virtue is that of giving and loving our neighbours as we would love ourselves. The Buddha too taught this in the practice of loving-kindness meditation, where we cultivate a love for ourselves and share it with all beings
The teaching of virtues
Another parallel between Christianity and Buddhism is that Jesus too, taught morality as the Buddha did. Morality helps us cultivate virtues (such as patience, joy, forgiveness and love) in our hearts.
In one episode of his life, Christ was criticised by the Pharisees for breaking the ancient fathers’ ceremonial tradition of washing hands before eating.
Jesus replied that whatever enters into a man from the outside (food) cannot defile him because they do not enter the heart but into his stomach and out into the sewer.
But what comes out of a man’s heart defiles a man. From the hearts of men come evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetousness, envy, pride and foolishness.
Jesus was pointing to us that the crucial thing is to cultivate goodness in our hearts instead of placing our attention on rites and rituals only.
Due to the evil that can emerge from the hearts of men, Jesus taught those who listened not to commit murder, steal, adultery, lie or swear. He encouraged us to love, instead of hate our enemies.
Although these moral precepts seem easy on the surface to follow, they are not. We often see the faults in others instead of our faults. One of the famous quotes from Christ, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?”
Easier to see others’ faults than our own
Jesus was right to say we are eager to see the trivial faults in others while ignoring our massive shortcomings. We often jump to hasty judgments based on our projections.
Recently, my sister told me that she is cutting down to two meals a day to lose weight. But she still drank protein to stave off hunger. I asked her why she was consuming protein shakes as I thought it is for vegans and those who are weightlifting. She said protein shakes contain 200 calories as opposed to 500 calories from a meal.
I told her that’s still three meals a day and commented that I too took two meals a day but without any meal replacement. She quickly jumped to a conclusion and said, “This is not a competition.” I was surprised as I did not make the comment to compete but rather to clarify that two meals a day meant no meal replacements (if she wanted to lose weight).
I cannot say that I have not projected my habitual thoughts onto others.
I often make baseless assumptions and have annoyed many people. One of the many assumptions I make is that no one ever listens to what I say and I also assume I know what others are thinking.
The list of prideful assumptions I make about others is too long to mention here.
Often, we enjoy judging whether others are keeping their morality well instead of perfecting our virtues. Doing this grows our pride instead of virtue.
Human laws do not necessarily follow nature
We look for ways to benefit ourselves in this world and are often encouraged by others. In a recent conversation, a friend said that it is not wrong if she were to take money from the ATM if the person before her forgets to take the money.
In her view, she is not stealing but merely taking. I would have agreed with her in the past. As a practising Buddhist today, I told her that is stealing because she is aware of taking another’s possession.
I have understood adhering to the precepts as laid out by the Buddha and Christ is for our well-being. It is because natural laws exist and we are not doing it to please the founders of religions.
Ayya Khema, a late prominent German Buddhist nun asked her students, “What is natural?” She said we often look for natural and organic food. But aren’t we a part of nature as well? We cannot escape the natural laws of birth, decay and death.
Emotionally, we are also constrained by nature’s laws because when we become extreme in either sadness or happiness, misery follows. We understand that sadness can become depression. Extreme happiness can also bring on a heart attack.
We often praise the intelligence of someone who can lie to get what s/he wants. We are also in awe when someone can cheat the system as featured in movies like Ocean Eleven to self-righteous murders in numerous superhero films.
Virtues are heroic acts
We admire heroes who save the world. But if we were to closely examine popular violent/action films, to the number of wars fought in our history, the heroes are as responsible as the villains for causing calamities.
Growing virtues in our hearts is an act of self-denial as opposed to self-aggrandisation. We are always looking for opportunities to grow our pride by increasing our education, wealth, network and possessions.
I am not saying it is wrong to educate or upgrade ourselves in our lives, but rather, we look outwards to grow our pride more than looking inwards to examine our hearts.
Virtues are heroic acts because we need to have the courage to deny the unskillful qualities in our hearts.
For example, someone who is impatient seldom thinks s/he is wrong and wants to get things done quickly their way. This can cause anger in himself/herself and in those around them.
Being impatient and self-righteous can make it hard to listen to differing opinions and not argue with another. By being patient, we can avoid arguments with another, and reduce the chances of getting angry. By taming our unvirtuous heart, we can become happier and as a result, reduce suffering for ourselves and others.
Conquering our bad habits and cultivating virtue is a heroic act because it is so hard to recognise and admit to our faults as opposed to blaming others for not accepting our views. Virtues are for our well-being and also do not cause harm to others. This is how we can love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
The purpose of developing virtues
The Buddha said that it is not necessary to believe in heaven or hell to practice virtues.1 While alive, virtues can bring joy and make life easier for us. As we do not create suffering for others, they do not cause us much trouble.
If upon death, we discover heaven and hell do exist, we are safe because having virtues in our hearts is the way to heaven. Cultivating virtues is like buying insurance for the present life and also the afterlife if we are unsure of the existence of heaven and hell.
In Christianity, the existence of heaven and hell is highly emphasised. Jesus taught, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal; lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, your heart will also be.”
Jesus clearly tells us virtues in the heart is a timeless treasure compared to our temporary material possessions.
Holidays like Christmas, Good Friday and Vesak Day are not just holidays to take a break and be with loved ones but for us to remember the teachings of these two great teachers, the Buddha and Jesus Christ.
1. Sutta MN 60: “Even if we didn’t speak of the next world, and there weren’t the true statement of those venerable contemplatives & brahmans, this venerable person is still praised in the here-&-now by the observant as a person of good habits & right view”
Wise Steps :
We can remember the virtues of patience, forgiveness and love by recollecting Jesus carrying the cross when carrying our own crosses (suffering)
Before you criticise another, whether commenting on a politician, celebrity or friend, look at the speck in your eyes.
Spend time recollecting your heart every day. Is there anything you have said or done that has made your heart uneasy such as criticising a friend? If you can do something to unburden your heart, do it the next day. If the deed cannot be undone, forgive yourself and those around you to lighten your heart.
Hello, my name is Cheryl, and I am your co host for the Handful Of Leaves podcast. If you’ve been tuning into our past episodes, welcome back. And if you’re new thanks for joining my co-host, Kai Xin and myself, and welcome to the Handful Of Leaves community. It amazes me everyday how the podcast has been growing organically, super cool!
In today’s episode, Kai Xin and I discuss the notion of being a good and bad person in both the secular and Buddhist context. As a self rated 5 out of 10 decent human being, this episode was super fun to record as we challenged each other’s perception of what’s good, what’s bad, discuss whether keeping precepts actually make you a good person. Stay tuned to the end, where I talk about the crazy experience that made me wish I was an angry person.
And as always enjoyed the episode and I hope you take away some practical wisdom for happier life.
Let’s start off today’s episode with some crazy situations.
Would you rather kill one man with your own hands or kill one thousand Innocent people with a button?
Next question, squeak game friends, this is for you. Would you rather play a game honestly with a 50% chance of death, or lie and manipulate so that you win and walk out alive?
All these options aren’t great. And whichever you choose, there is no absolute right or wrong. And you can definitely justify your answer as the better option given the dire circumstances.
In the same line of thought, good and bad, isn’t exactly black and white. We often identify a good person based on the actions and condemn people who do evil deeds. But does doing a bad deed, make one bad person? Join me as my co-host Kai Xin and I start this episode by reevaluating our perspectives of what society deems as a bad person. Let’s begin.
Kai Xin 02:19
I observed that generally society can be quite harsh on those who have caused harm to others or assaulted others to say that you’re such a bad person, how could you do this? You deserve retribution. You deserve punishment, sometimes to the most extreme extent. And I’m wondering whether that’s right, or can we look at the circumstances that caused them to do nasty things.
For instance, some people might commit crime because of a very poor upbringing, or perhaps they have suffered a really traumatic childhood, and they’re acting a certain way as part of a coping mechanism. And it’s not all the time that they would be able to keep their defilements at bay, or to control their emotions or certain harmful thoughts, so they don’t act on them. So I’m just wondering whether we can see that side of them, rather than painting them to be 100% bad person, we also recognise that they are people who also need help.
But I think there needs to be a line that is drawn to say that there are certain things that are just bad, you cannot justify it as ‘no, it’s not the person’s fault. Maybe the person’s upbringing’. Because there are so many people who have bad childhoods. Not all of them turn into murderers, some of them turn into really inspiring people.
So, I think the moment you allow, like the person’s conditions to justify the behaviour that is not that good. Because it takes the responsibility away from the person and the fact that their actions have caused very traumatic and scarring consequences to the victims that they have preyed on. And it’s not that it’s unintentional, perhaps sometimes, you know, for example, in you know, the peeping tom, the person was seen in the CCTV, going around trying to find a victim. So it’s very intentional. It’s well thought out and well planned. So you can’t say that the person, you know, had the freewill to not do it, but, but the person eventually did it and knowing that it could cause harm, they still went with it. So, I think that is when we see something as bad and it shouldn’t be even given a chance to say that ‘nah, it could be okay’.
Kai Xin 04:29
I think the difference is, whether we see what is good and what is bad based on the behaviour or based on the person. Let me rephrase it.
I think I know what you mean. You’re trying to like, de personalise the action from the person. Is that correct?
Kai Xin 04:49
Yeah. So it’s not to say that a person who murders is a murderer for life, because that’s just one part of his or her life. And, of course, I understand what you mean by, we shouldn’t kind of take the responsibility away from them or use it as like an excuse to say that, ‘okay, that that’s fine. Everything can be like, you know, a passing.’
We can still take corrective action to say your actions are not wise, and it’s not moral. But it doesn’t make you a bad person. What is bad was your action and how you executed it. The moment when we say that, because you did a bad thing, hence you’re a bad person, I think it becomes very dangerous. There is no room for rehabilitation. And people kind of just go into the vicious cycle. And we’re not addressing the root cause of why the person even did the bad thing in the first place.
I guess. My question is, why would the person deserve kindness?
Kai Xin 05:48
Let’s say a serial murderer, who kills like 16 people with all the women and I don’t know, brutal, brutally cut people up all that they have done in their life, like the sum of their experiences, of course, they’re more more than that, but generally the theme of their life and sum of the experiences is just causing terror and pain to others and all the victims and their families and generations to come.
So, why would they deserve forgiveness when their victims didn’t deserve to get a chance at life?
Kai Xin 06:22
I feel like it’s two separate thing. We can look at the famous example of Angulimala before he became a monk, he was a serial murderer. But it was also because of conditions.
Okay, he had the intention to harm other people. So, he was taught by his teacher in order to show dedication and faith, he has to collect one finger from every person, and then he went on a killing spree such that people felt so terrorised. But when he met the Buddha, the Buddha felt that yeah, this person deserved equal amount of kindness, it’s just deluded.
And I think the thing about the Buddhist practice is to see that at the core of everything, every one just wants some form of happiness. Some people are able to find a skillful way around it, some people got distracted by unskillful means, but what we want is all the same. And if we know that actually deep down, we’re all suffering, then why can this person deserve the same amount of care, kindness and love than us?
And it would become very hypocritical of us to say that this person is going around to harm, to terrorise, but when it comes to, how should we then treat this person, we punish. Then, we justify our acts, because of the bad acts they do. But what does that make of us? Then it becomes a vicious cycle, right? Because the reason why they did bad, let’s say they go on a killing spree and they justify it with ‘Oh, somebody harmed me before’. It’s like the Joker movie. Like the Joker is really, really sad and a really depressed person. And he went on a killing spree because nobody cares about him. And when he goes on a killing spree, that’s where he got the care and attention. I mean, was he happy? He wasn’t? Does it justify his act? It doesn’t. But to harm him, then, wouldn’t that be the same? Because it’s like, oh, yeah, this circumstance then justifies us doing harm, we should kill this particular person. Then, to what end do we cause harm?
Okay, I understand the aspect of extending compassion, because you do see that there is still a person who is hurting behind all the vicious acts that are committed and trying to address that person through healing and through compassion. But in a very realistic world, resources or compassion is very limited. Very few people have unconditional compassion, right? Unless you’re very, very well practised and things like that.
So in that case, with limited amount of resources, why wouldn’t you then concentrate the helping to those who have been hurt such as the victims and their families? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to help the victims heal and show up as better people than to spend our resources and limited amount of compassion on the evil people who might not even turn good. Because, you know, there are so many cases of people going to jail, and they come out and commit the same crime again. Of course, there are a lot of factors, right. Like they just do not know how to go into the society again but at the essence of it, they still continue to hurt people.
Kai Xin 09:35
Yes, it’s wise to use our limited amount of compassion and shower it on the right people. Then, it comes to the definition of who should we prioritise.
It doesn’t mean that if a person has done an evil deed, they are not ready to change. If one is ready to listen to the teachings to practice the teachings, then this person is ready to be trained. I think in the in the chantt, we also talk about the Buddha trains those who wish to be trained. Who wishes to be trained, it’s not determined by whether he or she is a victim or a culprit.
Again, back to the Angulimala example, he was ready to be trained. And the Buddha managed to touch his pain deeply. And he actually became enlightened afterwards, he still had to serve his kammic retribution, which some people call it. He was stoned to death while going on alms round, because people like was just so hateful, but he accepted it.
But for us to say that the victim because they are the ones that are hurting, hence, we should prioritise them, I’m not so sure whether there is a right way to define it. Of course, I think it’s up to individual to see who to care for and how to care. But I don’t think it’s justifiable to say just because somebody else has caused harm, they don’t deserve love.
I see your point. And it just reminded me recently, when I saw pictures of Ukrainian doctors, actually tending to Russian soldiers. I think if it were me, to be honest, like, I would probably have so much hate towards the Russians if I am a Ukrainian. And I wouldn’t even bother giving medical supplies or medical treatment to the Russian soldiers.
So, I think sometimes it’s about putting aside your views and just acknowledging as hard as it is, to acknowledge that there is still some humanity behind the person who perhaps is very wretched and terrible. And for your own sake, I guess extend them some compassion, because maybe anger does you no good or does more harm than good?
Kai Xin 11:53
I’m not sure whether I interpret it correctly. Are you saying that personally, you don’t feel like you have the capacity to actually extend the compassion to people who are causing damage? But if it’s possible, you do want to see the humanity in them?
Yeah, I think so. I think I would be too attached to my views. And in a sense, having a very us against them mentality. And that will come anything, my compassion and ability to extend them any help. But if I want to be the doctor, and it’s just my task, then maybe it’s just something very mechanical, that I will just do then. And I will do the minimum to fix the person and then say bye.
Kai Xin 12:37
I hear you, I think it’s quite a tall order for everybody to extend compassion to every sentient being on the planet. And we have to recognise our limited capacity. And also, I think, don’t stretch ourselves. Because sometimes it can backfire and become compassion fatigue. Example, you want to help a person who has done an evil deed, but then the person doesn’t change, and doesn’t turn over a new leaf.
It can be very, very frustrating in the process, because there is expectation of wanting the person to change. And when it doesn’t go according to plan, there’s a lot of attachment. Just like wanting to help the victim, there’s also attachment involved.
So, I think it’s about recognising that having attachment, it’s completely normal. We can not help those whom we don’t think deserve to be helped. Or that I don’t have to act on my impulse but it doesn’t also mean that I have to shower everyone with love.
Wow. Okay, you are quite next level compassionate.
Kai Xin 13:38
I feel I learned I learned a lot about myself. I’ll be so angry people like you like they have caused harm to me.
I don’t know how do you still have that perspective of wanting to be kind of still being able to see them deeper beyond the stuff that they do to you, if that make sense? For example, like the act of unkindness that’s been done now, that would literally cloud my entire perception. So, I don’t know how you see through that.
What are the practical tips to become as wholesome as you Kai Xin?
Kai Xin 14:17
Okay, so disclaimer, I think theoretically, I can say all these.
But when it (bad things) actually happens, I am not so sure.
I actually learned a lot from Dr. Gobor Mate who helps people to overcome addiction. Nobody wakes up and say, ‘I want to be a bad person’, or ‘I want to start harming other people’. It’s all really based on causes and condition.
I think that perspective helped me a lot to see the human in them. Also, learning therapy helps me to uncover that actually, a lot of the negative mind state is a protective mechanism. Some people might act very violently because maybe in their childhood, this is how they survive in order to protect themselves. Some people might be addicted to something, because that’s also how they cope, in order to feel validated in order to feel whole. But as they grew up with more tools and more social support, they don’t shed the earlier versions of them. Then, how can we reprogram our mind to say that, hey, actually, those, those mental states don’t serve us anymore, and are causing more harm than good.
And some people when they do that, if they they’re not psychopaths, they would feel guilty about it, really. And every time when they fall back, it’s actually a very painful thing for them to go through. Because it’s like they want to break off the cycle, but they can’t it’s like hungry ghost: They need help from others, but they can’t receive the help. And they are just suffering a lot.
So, if you’re able to see other people’s suffering, then I think it really changes the whole perspective of why they’re even acting in a certain way.
Kai Xin 16:15
Maybe I should share one story. There was a teenager who’s very, very rebellious, who has a lot of anger issues. The teenager saw a lot of different counsellors, and then they keep trying to counsel him on what he should or shouldn’t do, gave him a set of guidelines, and educated him on the consequences, etc. But it didn’t work. It got really out of control.
Then, this teenager was assigned to this therapist. And, you know, what was the first thing she said to him? It’s not about what he should or shouldn’t do, not even about why he was doing this or that?
She said, ‘You are a very hurt child.’.
And immediately, the teenager broke down.
Finally, someone understood him. Because he couldn’t get the care and attention he wanted, he was very rebellious and doing all the nasty things so that the attention can be placed on him. Deep inside, he just wants to be listened to, and he wants somebody to understand him.
So, when the therapist said, ‘Yeah, you’re a really hurt child’, it really tore down the barrier and the wall. Then, he started to be very vulnerable with the therapist, and they managed to make things work.
I thought that was a really inspiring story. Because there’s a reason for how people are behaving. And if it can really see through it, they’re just another human being.
And a lot of times, like you mentioned, all the acting out is just really a desperate plea for others to say, ‘I see you are suffering and I validate that.’.
Kai Xin 18:05
When we see how we deal with our family members, even our parents, it seems like there are emotional baggages passed down. They are treating us a certain way because their parents treated them a certain way, and that leaves a certain imprint.
These are just causes and conditions. So, nobody should be labelled as their actions. And I think a very beautiful part about Buddhism in terms of anicca, is that there’s always room for change. And then with anatta, we can reflect that the other person is not the behaviour.
What’s confusing me is that there is this ideal I know, theoretically, in Buddhism, unconditional love is the highest thing that you should aspire to. And I think I am having the kind of cognitive dissonance of, in reality, I personally would want to slap that person in the face. But theoretically, I know that as a Buddhist, I should be not doing these kind of things.
Kai Xin 19:06
Hang on. Can you repeat that again? Why do you feel like as a Buddhist, you shouldn’t?
Because as a Buddhist, you always learn about what is wholesome and what is unwholesome and how, in having an increased in unwholesome things would cause your own suffering. Theoretically, right?
I have not practised enough to understand that experientially. It’s kind of like you know that is the rule and that’s what you shouldn’t do.
So, when I am thinking that, ‘Okay, I’m annoyed at that person. I know that being annoyed would just increase my suffering.’. But I just feel so much annoyance, and it’s in me and that’s where the cognitive dissonance is: I should, I shouldn’t but I’m feeling it, but how?
Kai Xin 19:52
The reason why I asked you to repeat it is to understand the intention behind. You feel like you shouldn’t because you know the negative consequence of it. It doesn’t just harm yourself, but you would also harm others. I think that’s from a very wise place.
But when a person say, ‘I shouldn’t do this because other people told me so.’, then I think it can cause a person to suppress the emotion, the anger, and eventually hit a tipping point where everything explodes out of proportion.
So, if we constantly think of the drawback of acting on some unwholesome thoughts, I think slowly we can adjust and recalibrate. And it’s also about knowing when to pull the plug and get out of the situation isn’t it? Because we are not saints. So it’s okay to complain, it’s okay to feel angry. Or rather, not that it’s okay. But it’s natural to have all this unwholesome states because we are still work in progress.
You mentioned that it it’s not okay. Is it really not okay?
Kai Xin 20:58
It’s not okay, when you’re doing it without knowing the drawbacks. And you’re doing it just because other people told you so. It doesn’t stem from a place of understanding and wisdom.
Right! Just following blindly?
Kai Xin 21:11
Yeah! It’s like a child. If you ask the child, ‘hey, can you stop screaming?’ Or ‘Can you stop being so naughty?’ Then, there seem to be 1001 rules, which can make the the child feel very suffocated. And to a point where perhaps, if the conditions are lined up, the child will become very rebellious. Because, they might think, ‘I’m an adult right now, I can do whatever I want.’ Because all these while they were feeling so controlled.
It becomes very unnatural for the person to actually follow those guidelines. But when we follow guidelines because it stems from a place of understanding and wisdom, it becomes second nature.
For example, when a child screams, you may say, ‘Hey, darling, don’t scream. You know, it would disturb the neighbour and we want to be considerate.’ And then, the child will learn, ‘okay, I want to be a considerate person’, rather than telling them don’t do this and don’t do that without any rationale.
Tying that a little bit to precepts as well, you mentioned that they are guidelines. And I think because they are guidelines, they are things that you should experience for yourself as to how they can bring about more wholesome consequences to your life.
I’m actually an advocate of asking people to drink, to push the boundaries and know for themselves what the consequences are. When I was in university, everyone was drinking (alcohol). At that time, I was also experimenting because I grew up as a Buddhist and I knew about the fifth precept, and that drinking is something we shouldn’t do. But I didn’t know it experientially.
I didn’t know what it really means to lose your mindfulness or do stupid things when you’re drunk. Until I experienced that, then, through experiencing that I realised that it didn’t make me a happier person. When I wake up the next day, my problems are still there. So, I have my problems plus a very bad headache.
From there, I start to toe the line and say, ‘okay, maybe I can drink a cup. Would that be okay?’ And then again, I start learning that when I drink one cup, I would start to lose my mouth a little bit. It’s not helping myself, it’s not helping others. Then, I started to draw the boundary and try not drinking at all and see how that works. Do I show up happier? Do I have more genuine and more meaningful conversations with my friends? Yes! Then, this is where I start to, really I guess, embody the precept and really understand that it will serve you well, if you protect yourself and your protect your own dignity.
Kai Xin 23:44
So you’re deliberately choosing to keep the precept because you experienced the drawbacks.
But that’s because I allowed myself to experience and toe the line and understand for myself, what works and what doesn’t work. And I think that’s so important. Because a lot of times when we learn about the precepts, it’s in a form of ‘don’t do this. If you do this, then you’re not very mindful, you’re not very wholesome, etc.’. That’s the kind of narrative at least I grew up with. Or being in a lot of Buddhist circles, I see that as a result of it (the precept) being been taught that way. A lot of my Buddhist friends who drink one sip of alcohol would think that they are not good.
Kai Xin 24:24
I think everyone grows spiritually in a different way.
It’s kind of like parenting. Some parents would say, ‘oh, yeah, just go and fall down. I tell you not to touch the kettle, if you want to touch the kettle and get burned, then that’s fine. Through the experience, you will learn what not to do and what to do that is for your own benefit and good.’.
However, I feel like we do need to draw the line and constantly reflect on negative consequences because there are certain things that we do that can really be very detrimental. It’s unlike alcohol, where you get a little bit tipsy, and maybe you do something foolish. But what about breaking the first precept, i.e. no killing?
Of course, we don’t go around killing human beings, especially in Singapore. I don’t think people are even daring to do that. But we do see cases on the newspaper (where killing happens) out of anger out of a lot of jealousy, etc. So then, can we say, ‘yeah, just, you know, go around killing until a point where you understand the drawbacks.’. You can’t, because it’s just just crazy.
So, to what extent do we say it’s okay to try in order to see it for yourself? And to what extent do you just look at all these cautionary tales and say, don’t get near?
To me, the average person doesn’t have the intention to kill unless you are psychopath where from childhood you just really can’t control that desire to hurt people, or, you just have that lack of empathy.
I think in general, most people would have some sort of conscience. Lying feels a little bit bad, stealing feels a little bit wrong, and obviously killing is a big no, no.
So, I think it’s more about the practical aspects where things are considered normal in the generic society, such as drinking. And to certain extent, I think, sexual misconduct as well. The idea of cheating seems to me to be more and more acceptable in generic society in a sense of ‘Oh, everyone’s doing it. So whatever.’.
Kai Xin 26:46
I think it again goes back to what do we want in life and out of this experience.
You talked about cheating. To some extent, if we if we think about in the past, it’s okay for people to have multiple partners, right? It’s very normal. What is the purpose of keeping the third precept of not having sexual misconduct? And how do we define sexual misconduct?
I hear from one of the Dhamma talks that it’s really all about being faithful, and respecting another being. So, if your partner is okay with it, they don’t feel like the respect is being breached, and if you have multiple partners, then it can be fine.
But you also have to be accountable or responsible for whatever consequences. You know that there might be a potential scenario where one party can be jealous, or there’s a lot of attachment. If you know what’s going to pan out, and you’re willing to take the consequences, then go ahead.
But it would be foolish, if you kind of just blindly do it just because everyone else is doing it. Eventually, you will cause yourself harm and you will hurt other people.Then this goes against the whole Buddhist concept of being peaceful.
But I think it’s very interesting to dive a little deeper about the idea of being peaceful and not causing harm and hurt to others. To a certain extent, you can’t control that you could be the kindness person, you put say things out of good intention, and people might still get hurt, or because of whatever reason, they’re still agitated.
So, how much should we care about not harming people? Perhaps it’s in the context of speech only. Maybe actions are very obvious example if you punch someone you will feel pain. When it’s speech, then it’s a bit iffy because it’s where feelings are involved, and you can’t really control other people’s feelings, and they may just be put for whatever reason even when you say things out of the best intention and phrase things in a very gentle way.
Kai Xin 29:00
Number one is have we tried to execute the good intention skillfully and tactfully?
Then, once we have done that, we don’t have to be very caught up with the outcome and the results. So interestingly, there is a sutta that talks about Right Speech.
Just having good intention is not good enough. You have to find the right timing, and the way you say it has also got to be pleasant to the ears, it has to be factual, and it has to be beneficial. So, it’s not just about good intent. Because a lot of times or most of the time, people don’t know what you’re thinking. Unless you articulate your good intention, it’s never known.
Let’s just give a very classic scenario. Let’s say parents like to nag. They have good intention. They ask, ‘Have you eaten? Why do you come home so late?’. As a child, you will feel irritated. Why is that?
On the other hand, if a parent is really concern about the kid’s well-being and say, ‘hey, you haven’t been eating well, and you have been coming home late. I am concerned about your health. I’m concerned about your safety.’.
When you just come home as a child and you’re really tired. Imagine the hearing nags about whether you have eaten or why haven’t you showered, etc. It’s not the right time!
Could you (as a parent), find a proper time, and in a peaceful manner to say, ‘hey, you know, I’ve noticed that you have been coming home later than usual, what is going on? I would have really love for you to come back earlier, because would make me less worried.’. That (the comment) becomes very constructive.
So, I think it’s how it’s being executed. It’s not always just about the intention. Does that answer your question?
Yeah. And I think that also segways into defining good.
Well, you mentioned that good can be defined as a combination of the intentions, the actions (how it’s being executed), and the result of the person receiving it in a positive way.
So then, I would like to hear your thoughts about whether any of these three parts, right that intention, action, and result, does any of them carry a heavier weight? Are we defined more by our thoughts or our actions, or the results of our actions?
Kai Xin 31:22
Definitely not the results, because results are based on the conditions and the seeds we planted. And there are a lot of things such as circumstances that are beyond our control. Hence, I don’t feel that what’s good is defined by the results.
From a logical standpoint, I would place more emphasis on intention, because that would guide my actions. You know, they always talk about how the mind is the forerunner.
So, if I don’t even have a good intention, then how is my action going to be good? It’s of course going to go sideways. But if I have a good intention, then I can try to train myself in how can I manifest this good intention with a right or tactful behaviour.
I think the reason I asked was because last time, a lot of Asian Buddhists in particular, would 放生 , which is releasing animals in captivity to let them be free and go back to the river.
So, they would go and buy all the fishes on the market and they would release them into whatever river. The intention was very good, very kind in that they wanted to reduce the suffering of these animals. The action is also very good. But the consequence is that all these fishes end up being caught by the same person who sold them. Meaning, this act was increasing the trade of the fishermen who were selling the fishes. The outcome was very foolish, but the action and the intention was very good.
So I’m just wondering what is the merit of this. Would they get actually get good karma from this or bad karma from this?
Kai Xin 33:06
First, karma is something that is very complex. And it’s not transactional: because we do this, then it’s bad karma. Karma can be heavy or light or neutral. And some would ripen immediately, some would ripen very late after (either this life or next life). So it’s complex. To me, that is my interpretation.
I think it’s very important to have the right intention, because that would leave a mental imprint, and that is something that a person would bring to the next life. Then, I think the question isn’t so much about whether is it okay to release fishes. It is okay to release fishes. But I think the right question should be on how can we do it more skillfully, and to see the holistic picture?
Compassion is always encouraged to be accompanied by wisdom. In the past, I used to think that 放生 is very good. But once I found out that the same fish would be caught by the same people at the Kelong, and that they would make a trade out of it, which is very bad karma for them, then if I want to 放生, or if I want to release animals, there must be certain set of criteria.
First, where am I getting this animal? Are they doing it as a business?
Second, the place that I would release these animals, can they actually survive? Because not every fish that we put in the ocean can survive the condition.
Third, does the place allow people to release the animal? Because sometimes it can cause disruption to the ecosystem, and you’re actually causing more harm.
Once all these set of criteria is checked out, then I can do the act, knowing that the result is going to be good. So, I think it’s about having the wisdom that comes with it (the act).
It’s kind of similar to the situation where people ask you for money at the MRT station. Do you give? I have so many scenarios where I got scammed before. And in the past, I didn’t no such thing as compassion with wisdom. I was just compassionate. And I don’t know what they did with the money. Some of them might either use it to gamble, to buy cigarettes, to buy alcohol. I felt very, very bad, because I’m actually supporting that unwholesome lifestyle.
But is it for you to judge. Going back to the point that they could have been affected. Such as the reason that they need to buy alcohol is because of their conditioning and they do not know how to get better resources to help with their pain and suffering. So is that for you to judge?
Kai Xin 35:41
It’s not for me to judge, but I can be more discerning in how I offer them support.
Offering money is not the best support. Let’s see if they they want money to go and see a doctor. Why don’t I ask them where the doctor is and I can go with them. If they were to ask money for food, then why can’t I take the extra effort to buy food for them, rather than just conveniently giving out cash?
Because to some extent, in terms of the heart that you place to it (act of giving), it’s easy to give money, but it’s always more difficult to put in the effort and time. So, if a person were to go the extra mile, it’s actually good for both parties. No judging involved is just being more skillful.
Yeah, I agree. So what I hear you say is that, before we extend help, we have to always take a step back and look into the larger picture, and to understand the context. And if you do have awareness that your help could potentially contribute to certain unwholesome activities, try to see how you can meet the person in another way and help them where they need it perhaps even more.
Transitioning into the topic of looking at anger. Generally, anger is small and unwholesome state of mind, right? Hence, it is kind of portrayed more with a negative stroke of light. But is anger always bad?
Because sometimes anger is required to bring about changes to institutional injustices, for example, like Black Lives Matter, racial injustices. Or even in Malaysia, people were very angry with the corrupt practices in elections. Then, the anger brought about a lot of peaceful protests and brought about a lot of change to the to the final leader of the 2020 elections.
So, you could be very unhappy as an individual but if collectively that anger brings about a good change for the larger picture, is there a possibility that anger could be good?
Kai Xin 37:50
Do you think that there’s a possibility that it could be good?
I think it’s a very tricky question because there’s no clear answer on this.
On the individual level, obviously, anger is not good, because you just don’t feel that great. You just feel negative etc. And that usually spills over to other people. But I think if we look into the motivation of the anger, and what it aims to achieve, it could be good.
So if there is a certain kind of anger that is inclusive, which is based on the premise that one is not free if others aren’t free, and it targets more of kind of like injustice, as it targets more at the suffering that is happening. That can be used for social change, right? The aim is good, and the consequences good.
So I think that should be fine. I think anger could still be appropriate.
But it’s a very thin line because usually when you don’t control anger, you can very easily cause harm, and thereby regretting afterwards. But if you you are able to contain the anger in a way that respects the humanity of the wrongdoer, like want to mentioned about seeing the person behind the act, and focus the outcome of the anger and directing it towards creating a better outcome, then that’s okay.
But if if you use it to blow your own ego or the example of politicians, to get more limelight and get societal support, then, of course, it’s not that great.
Kai Xin 39:26
I do agree. In fact, I read this article on Lion’s Roar, talking about the wisdom of anger.
And the article it talks about anger when it comes to wanting to do justice, this anger stems from compassion, because you see that others are in pain, and you want to do something about it.
There is a quote, or like a line by this author, Melvin. He said that in its pure awakened form, when it’s not driven by ego, anger brings good to the world.
And I think that’s where the thin line comes in. We have to always assess when we are trying to do justice. Maybe we are participating in a particular campaign, you know, we are an activist, always assess, whether whatever the you are doing right now, is it constructive in creating a better outcome. Because that’s why we started (activist campagins), such like Black Lives Matter.
Or when we talk about global warming and trying to get people to be a little bit more conscious or mindful of how they consume products, boycotting companies that have certain malpractices, those are all good intentions.
But when it starts to be driven by ego, and we lose sight of the outcome that we are trying to achieve. Then, we will start seeing a lot of riots that take place and people start taking other people’s lives, and then they feel righteous about it, or they can create a lot of damage, thereby moving further away from the goal.
So, to me personally, I feel that if the anger is driven by compassion, we have to balance it out with the three other Brahma Viharas, which is sometimes translated as the divine abodes.
So, we have compassion, we have loving kindness, we have equanimity and sympathetic joy. And when we have compassion for others, we really feel the pain. And sometimes it can be very intense. We have to balance it out with equanimity and to say, ‘ I can take all these actions in order to create good results. But I’m not emotionally invested in the results. I just invest my emotion in planting the seeds.’
Then, the loving kindness part can come in: reminding ourselves that every being deserves happiness, that deep down, we are all suffering. Dukkha (Dissatisfaction), Anicca (Impermanence), Anatta (Non-self). So, all these three are the universal characteristics of our existence.
And when we are able to see that, then I think it would tame the anger and doesn’t let it slip over to the other side where we want to punish, or we want to cause harm to another being. That’s because we recognise that, this being also deserve love and that we are equal in that sense. So it (loving-kindness) balances out the anger.
And then the last part is sympathetic joy. It is the ability acknowledge that it is okay if somebody else is not as emotionally invested in certain causes as we do. And they could be leading very happy and peaceful life.
We should feel that they don’t deserve to be happy when the world is on fire. Because it’s really tough to be able to be peaceful amidst all these chaos. So, I think that’s where we have to keep our ego in check. It’s not just compassion, we need all the other three. That’s how I view it.
Yeah, that makes sense. And I think it’s, it’s so important because I think the moment we don’t balance all the four divine abodes, sometimes anger would cloud our entire judgement and takes the centre stage instead of the issue that you’re trying to solve. And when anger takes the centre stage, more often than not, violence and pain will just increase.
Kai Xin 43:49
I think to some degree it also about having faith in karma, cause and effect.
I know some people would say that all these people who are doing evil deeds seem to get away with it and lead a very good life. Then, we feel even more angry, because it seems like they are not impacted by their actions.
But if we have faith in karma, and also rebirth, or let’s say if you don’t believe in an afterlife, it doesn’t mean that if a person doesn’t get tangible retribution, they are not being punished by their acts.
Were they happy when they were committing those acts? On the surface, it might seem that they are happy, but deep down, they can be very insecure, they can be very lonely. And you would realise that they don’t die being a very peaceful person.
I think just that itself, at least for me, I think that brings a lot of comfort. Rather than questioning why all the good people seem to die earlier, or good people get all these consequences and feel very unjust about this, and start to feel that life is kind of very unfair, and get into a depressed state, feeling helpless, like nothing is worthwhile… for me, I would think that it’s all about the mental state.
Do you live a peaceful life? Do you die peaceful?
Only the person who is leading their life would be able to be truthful to themselves.
And we always chant the verse: We are the owners of our karma, heir to our kamma, born of our karma. They (people who do bad) don’t need us to punish, we can take corrective actions, but karma is fair all the time.
But also don’t go to the other side whereby you rejoice when the bad person experience their kamma retribution. Because that’s also a form of defilement.
Kai Xin 45:43
I’m wondering whether you have any personal anecdotes to share?
I think the reason why I brought up anger as a vehicle for change is because it relates to how I might not have enough courage to stand up for the LGBT community, which I’m a part of.
I recall a time when I was interning, towards the end of the internship, my manager said certain things that made me felt very unwelcomed and unvalidated in the company. The essence of the message was that ‘you’re not really welcome. We’re tolerating you because the company is liberal.’.
At that moment, I shrank and wish I could disappear and get out of the person’s view. And I felt angry at myself for feeling so. Because I wish I had the courage to tell him that what he said was unacceptable, and he shouldn’t have said those things to me. So, I wished I had more anger, or more rage in order to react and retaliate, rather than feeling small, be passive and run away and avoid the person forever. That’s why I’ve always thought that maybe having a little bit more firepower would be good in my life.
Kai Xin 47:08
I get what you mean, because there’s a strong energy in anger. And maybe it’s a little bit different from courage. But in my opinion, I feel that you could have achieved the same outcome with more courage, but maybe anger is the one that can propel you to take action.
I feel that anger would have propelled me to have the courage. Anger would have driven that courage to speak up. But because I felt more of ‘ I’d rather disappear, I’d rather go into a hole’, I didn’t raise this to HR, I didn’t complain.
I think I just told a couple of friends and focused more on ‘okay, how do I find peace? How do I find confidence in myself and tackle the problem from there’, which I felt that that is good and it is important, but it doesn’t contribute to preventing the same thing from happening to another person.
Kai Xin 48:04
If you were given a second chance, how would you have responded differently?
I think it’s hard because instinctively, I would always go back to myself first, I will always see how I could work on the inner happiness in the sense that how I move on, how would I be psychologically safe or how can I provide that safe space for myself, rather than externally. So, I think it’s also about considering effecting certain changes externally could help other people.
Kai Xin 48:40
I do agree that you don’t have to take it all upon yourself. And to what extent do you want to step up and just tell the person this is not right, and to what extent do you keep it in and just deal with it alone?
Personally, I do think that there is a sweet spot.
We can pull the person aside and say, ‘Hey, whatever you say just now, it didn’t make me feel welcomed. And it would have been helpful if you were to do X, Y and Z.’, rather than retaliating in front of everybody and shaming that person, which can cause a lot of hate and it might also backfire.
So, I think it’s about finding that balance and doing it skillfully because I don’t think it’s right to just absorb all the pain by yourself.
Would you have stepped up if you saw another person going through the same scenario right before your eyes?
Yeah, I think I would have.
Kai Xin 49:30
Then why don’t you give yourself that same amount of compassion?
But I think it’s also because it comes with a lot of baggage. Speaking on behalf of the LGBT community, first, you already need to have enough confidence in yourself about your identity being okay. Because of the kind of Asian upbringing where it’s unacceptable and the society thinks that it is not okay.
I already do not have that confidence in the identity in itself. So it does not help when other people are being negative to you, because there is this little voice inside of myself that says, ‘What if they’re right?’.
There is that kind of doubt that says that they could be right that I shouldn’t be welcomed.
Kai Xin 50:23
It is not right to exclude anybody because of orientation or colour or anything. I think it’s not right to cause harm to others.
Ah~ I’m feeling emotional.
Kai Xin 50:36
I’m not sure. Before it even gets to that stage, how do you feel people around you can offer support? And how can you build up that courage within you such that in the future, if the same thing were to happen again, you can respond (well)?
I think the funny thing is that I felt a lot of comfort when people were angry on my behalf. So I was telling this to one of my colleagues, and she was all like raging about this, feeling that it’s unacceptable, and wanting to get the person into trouble.
I really appreciated the anger.
Kai Xin 51:13
Was it because you feel cared for?
I feel validated more than care.
I feel affirmation in my identity that I am okay. I am accepted. And that the person who is being mean is the one that’s the outlier. So I feel accepted. So I do appreciate the anger.
Kai Xin 51:33
Cheryl, you are accepted by me, by all of us.
Kai Xin 51:40
Would you feel acceptance and validation without people getting angry on your behalf? Would it have been different? Or is it because they became the proxy, because you don’t find that confidence and courage to be angry and to step up, and when others were to do so, they are sort of acting on your behalf?
I think it’s the proxy thing. I feel like if someone were to comfort me and say, ‘Oh, it’s okay’, I wouldn’t have felt the equal a sense of relief after.
I think it was really the anger that helped me process my emotions. But I really like how you termed it as a proxy, filling the gap where I didn’t feel the courage to even feel that.
And interestingly, feelings and emotions have rules, right? For example, when we go to a funeral, we’re supposed to cry. When you go to a wedding, you’re supposed to feel happy for the person or inspired. And sometimes, our true emotions get blurred, because we are trying to abide by the rules or feelings in a certain way, about things, about people, and situations.
Kai Xin 52:56
And why do you say that? Do you feel like people are being bullied? Hence, the rule is be angry.
Yeah, I think how I connect it is that if it’s an appropriate emotion, then I feel validated. If it’s not an appropriate emotion, I would feel like ‘do you actually empathise or understand?’.
Anger could actually bring about change and sometimes anger could be a good thing. But we also need to talk about how to be skillful and manage or will it effectively, right. So you could perhaps get in solidarity with others, create goals and plans to achieve certain kind of justice, and stick to it. Because Anger is an emotion that is very strong, high energy. If you don’t stick to it, you can end up going to like break people’s window or things like that. And I think most importantly, is to be careful to not become the perpetrator that you are fighting against.
What what do you think is the opposite of anger?
Kai Xin 53:55
I wanted to say compassion. But anger can be a manifestation of compassion.
I was thinking peacefulness. Because anger is very chaotic and peace is very calm.
Kai Xin 54:13
Why do you ask that question? What’s the flip side of anger?
Because I feel that a lot of people associate peace with passivity and inaction. But just as anger can be used as a force of change, and good change, peace can also be used as a vehicle for action and productivity.
I just wanted to share the example of Thich Nhat Han, who is a peaceful activist. Especially during the war time in Vietnam War, he trained a lot of young monks and young people to help out in the war, using very peaceful methods.
But at the same time, he did a lot of things. They went into areas where there were a lot of victims of war to build hospitals, schools, health centre, essentially just helping them out. And I think the key concept here that he shared, which really inspired me was that when you’re trying to help people who are already in so much pain such as refugees who have lost their families, they have lost their limbs, and they are probably also losing their mind, if you also lose yourself in panic and fear, you cannot help them. But if you’re able to maintain that sense of stability and kindness within you, then you can really meet them where they need to help in. It (peace) could not just be a few for good action, but it could even make help much more effective, when a person comes from a clear state of mind.
Kai Xin 55:52
I agree. A lot of times people kind of misinterpret being peaceful to not doing anything or equate it to staying in your own world. I don’t think that’s the case.
I think the challenge is about understanding. Because peace itself seems to not carry as much energy. You know, when you think of a peaceful person, you don’t really imagine them to be very driven, very action-oriented. It’s more associated to them sitting in a cave, contented, laid back. They might be proactive, but it’s just not with the same amount of drive and eagerness that you can see tangibly in their expression or in their behaviour. And I’m not so sure whether that impedes what gets executed?
I disagree, though, because being mindful doesn’t mean you, you need to slow down. You could be in a rush in a chaos, but you are aware of and mindful of the chaos, and that’s where the calm and peace comes in. It’s like being in the centre of the tornado. It’s peaceful inside. I watched certain videos of people flying through a tornado where everything is happening (chaotic), and once they reach the vortex, it is so calm.
So, I disagree in the sense that being peaceful would mean that the efficiency reduces the impact reduces. I think peace just gives you the ability and sanity to do things faster, and to stay over the long term. So more sustainable in terms of your energy, and perhaps the influence that you have over other people as well.
Kai Xin 57:39
I do agree that it’s a lot more sustainable.
In fact, base on my personal experience, talking about mindfulness meditation, I can be really busy in the day, but if I’m mindfully busy, then I don’t feel burnt out, as compared to aimlessly doing doing my tasks.
In terms of whether peace would influence people better, that I’m not sure. I feel that there seems to be some draw when a person has a lot of bodily energy. And it shows in the way they speak. Example, they speak louder. When they try to lobby for votes or for support, it’s always in a very energetic sense, versus ‘oh, life is all good.’ You know, it’s just a very different vibe.
Or you can look at the corporate context, usually people who gets the most votes, or gets the most support are the loudest people in the room.
Sadly, that’s the case. The one who talks the loudest or bang the most drums.
Kai Xin 58:48
Which I think sometimes then, certain camps of people would feel that it’s a little bit ineffective or foolish to do things peacefully, because it’s not effective.
Then that’s where we need to separate the performance and the action. It is similar to effective marketing, right? For example, this podcast is very peaceful. But to get to people, we need to drum up on the marketing aspect of things, publicise it with snippets that are high energy, like reels. So, it’s how you package it. But inside, you still need to maintain that sense of peace.
Kai Xin 59:26
Provided that a person can be really advanced and dissociate the action that is done versus the mental state within. I think it’s quite inevitable that people are drawn to causes that are angled in a way that connects with the emotional piece.
Kai Xin 59:52
So we are driven by pleasure and pain. An example would be if I were to write a campaign to say that all of this hurt that a person has caused, or a particular organisation has caused, it’s gonna incite a lot of negativity because of the intensity of the pain that was painted in the storyline, as opposed to writing it very objectively to say, Okay, this is what is done, let’s come and lobby and campaign, I think people wouldn’t see that it’s something that it’s very severe. And in terms of taking action, some people might prioritise other causes that seem more important than this, because this doesn’t seem too significant.
So, I think it’s inevitable that people are drawn to others who are more charismatic and more vocal about the negativity and causes that are driven by anger. And it’s really up to the leader who is spearheading the campaign to ensure the community that is helping, in the process stay wholesome. So there must be certain guidelines, to say, ‘Okay, we want to fight for justice, but never ever fight for justice in this, this, this and that way, because it will be out of line, and it will be untrue to what we want to do.’.
So, I’m not so sure whether there are ways to actually educate the general public to do in a more tactful manner. So the hook can still be packaged with a lot of anger, driven by compassion, but then the execution would then a little bit more, you know, peaceful, and then balance it out with the three other pure divine abodes that I’ve mentioned earlier on.
it’s tough to find that balance in real life, I feel.
It’s very hard, definitely very hard to find that balance. So I think who you surround yourself with is super important. If you know you are surrounding yourself with bloodthirsty people, then obviously a fight is going to break out and all of you encourage each other in that sense.
So, make sure you do have people in your circle who counters your perspective and offers a balancing view to to ensure that hey, maybe you need to take a stop and reflect on your intentions. Are you getting ahead of yourself with your ego and feeling very attached to what you’re doing? Or have forgotten why you started feeling angry? Or why are you even putting yourself to change certain things?
So, yeah, make sure that you balance life out.
Kai Xin 1:02:42
To kind of an off this episode or this chat. I’m just wondering, what what are some of the key takeaways?
Broadly, a key takeaway would be to not jump to conclusions so fast, and to always allow for opportunity to dig a little bit deeper into the specific scenarios, the context. And why that is important is because we can then find the right course of action to take and appropriately behave in a way that takes care of ourselves and still be able to come up with appropriate change to the wider system.
Kai Xin 1:03:27
Thanks for the reflective chat.
Hey, there, thanks for listening to this episode. Our takeaway is that there’s really no absolute definition of what is good, what is bad, and we should never judge others preliminary based on the snapshot of their actions. Instead, we should try to seek to understand the full picture. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t stand up for what is right. It’s about doing it in a skillful way. Well, the world is filled with so much uncertainties and sometimes it can feel like a really dark place. So, let us bring the world with more goodness by restraining our thoughts, speech, and action, such that we don’t cause ourselves harm, as well as others whom we interact with.
Never underestimate the power of kindness, because every drop of kindness can create a ripple effect to change the world. We wish that you can be kind to yourself and kind to others.
In this episode. All the views that we have discussed are purely ours and no harm was intended. While a huge part of this episode, it’s about discovering the good in people who have done bad deeds, by no means are we invalidating the feelings experienced by victims.
Regardless of the situation. If you or anyone you know are in need of emotional and psychological support, please do reach out to somebody seeking help is a sign of courage, not a weakness. You can find various helplines in the show notes.
Once again, thank you for listening to this podcast. If you have benefited from this episode, please give us a five star review would really help us in terms of the algorithm to get to more people. And if you have any feedback in terms of how we can do better, please also let us know via our telegram channel. I hope to see you in the next episode. And meanwhile, stay happy and wise!
Well, if you’re listening to this podcast, I’m pretty sure you ask yourself this question sometimes, because you’re constantly trying to find ways to develop yourself to become a better person. And doing good for others and yourself is such a big part of this self improvement journey, however, is doing good, always good.
Who exactly defines what is good or what’s bad? What is right or what is wrong?
So we have the king of fried rice to king of fruits, the king of the jungle. What about the king of goodness?
Hi, my name is Kai Xin. I’m your host for this episode. And you’re listening to the Handful of Leaves podcasts, where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life.
You know, the path to happiness isn’t a smooth one. We will definitely meet with setbacks and challenges around work, relationships, mental well being and so much more. In this podcast, we discuss these realities of life and explore how we can bring the Dharma closer to home so that we can navigate the complexities of life just a little better.
Besides this podcast, we also share resources and insights on our Instagram, Facebook and Telegram channel. Please subscribe if you haven’t already done so.
In this very episode, we have a chat with Sister Sylvia Bay. She graduated with a BA Honours first class in Buddhist studies from the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka in 2000. Sister Sylvia isn’t just academically smart. Since 1992. She has been dedicating her life to the practice and serving the community, she has been doing so by dedicating time outside of work to give Dhamma talks and lectures, and practical application of the Dharma is always heavily emphasised in all her sharings.
Today, she’ll be opening our minds on a topic of what it means to be good. And the tipping point when doing good, turns bad. Trust me, it’s filled with so much insights. I personally had a lot of ‘aha’ moments. And I encourage you to take a notepad and start taking down some notes. Now let’s begin.
Kai Xin 02:22
Hi, Sister Sylvia, good to have you here.
Nice to see you too.
Kai Xin 02:27
Yes, it’s really good to have you because today we are exploring something that it’s quiet, I would say, mind-boggling because you know, in Buddhism, we talk about doing good, avoiding evil, and purifying the mind. What I think is mind-boggling is the definition of good. Because you know, people sometimes will justify their actions to say, Oh, I do this because, but it’s a little grey as well. There are a lot of questions that I have for you to kind of explore that grey area. Perhaps we can start off with, what is your definition of good.
This thing about good? People kind of know, right? I mean, we all have all of us, any of us, even the little ones will have some sense of what’s good and bad. And typically, if you ask people, why is this good? Or why is this bad? It will boil it down to a few things. One, it has to do with feelings. Meaning, if you feel really unpleasant, and because it’s so unpleasant, your instinct is to react to that in a way that will cause pain or more problems for yourself or for others. And because you do that, it will create pain, or, or suffering for yourself or others. Generally, it’s like that.
If you think about it, let’s say I get angry. Anger is an unpleasant sensation. When one feels anger, one will say something or do something that allows one to express that anger. And in saying or in doing, the odds are, it hurts someone, whether it’s yourself or another. And when you step back, you who were angry, when you look at the episode, there will arise a sense of maybe conscience, maybe a bit of shame, a sense that maybe I shouldn’t have done that. There’s regret, and there is remorse. Anybody in a similar situation is likely to say that’s bad. That’s not good.
Conversely, suppose let’s say, you were very kind, you saw people hurting, you came forward, you help. And then you turn away and say, ‘That’s a very nice feeling. I really feel happy I feel light there’s pleasant sensation.’
And then others observing that act, and will also say, ‘Oh, that’s a very good act’.’ Because they also feel pleasure, they feel the pleasant sensation. One thing about what’s good or bad has to do with feeling. Which is why for many people, there is generally some common instinctive appreciation of the act as good or bad. We understand the feeling involved in that. But it’s not all about feelings. We know that. For instance, sometimes you feel unpleasant. Like righteousness, right? Someone gets bullied. And then you look at it, and you go, it’s not nice. The sense that this is wrong, there is unpleasant, but you know, when you feel sorry for someone that’s considered good. But the feeling is not good.
Kai Xin 06:26
I hear a couple of things. So one is you yourself must feel pleasant.
Or it has to stem from wanting to do good, then there must be some form of feedback as well. Right? So other people are approving of your act.
However, I’m just thinking of a very grey situation where maybe somebody is bullied. And I feel righteous that this person mustn’t do this. Then, I act on my feelings, and it might either be scolding that person or maybe I might retaliate, and people around me might say, ‘Wow, you’re so brave to do that.’. Then is it still good?
Now we go back and we unpack this one. Okay. Let’s unpack this, when you feel sorry for the victim, at that point, what arises is empathy. Empathy is the condition that allows you to continue doing something good for another. Empathy is a good thing. But because our feelings and actions proliferate fast, they react fast, and they proliferate fast. The result is anger will come up, you basically put it righteousness. Righteousness is anger, a sense of justice, which is anger, okay? When that comes up, what is good is now being stained. What would have been good, has now become somewhat stained by our sense of righteous anger. And that’s why there is also that sensation of unpleasantness that because it’s unpleasant, you want to react, whether to score or to stand up for somebody you want to react, and the words that come out is intended to hurt, to beat the other bully. So all this is downstream.
Now, what was initially would have been a good reaction has now become not good. Because now we are experiencing a lot of wanting a lot, which will create more pain for yourself and for others. If you ask me, what would I consider good, is a speech or an act that will lead to benefits and happiness for yourself and for others. It’s always for Buddhism, it’s always for yourself, and for others, it’s not a zero-sum game. It has to be when there is the raising of common interest, benefit, happiness, welfare. In my mind, that’s what I would consider is good and correct. Anything that leads to pain suffering, it will cause hurt for people. It would diminish interest, welfare, happiness, those are considered bad. No good. It’s actually not difficult. It’s pretty straightforward.
How do you know what is good or not, you will experience it through the feelings, for sure you will have the sensation. I’ll give you an example. Suppose let’s say you lost somebody, someone very close to you. And there is a part in you that griefs. No one would say that’s bad per se because it doesn’t hurt another person. But it’s pain, right? You lost somebody, you miss the person, you experience pain. The fact that you experienced pain means there is attachment. There is longing, attachment, longing, it’s always a condition, for problems now and in the future. And in that sense, any form of craving, or wanting or longing, any form of it is not good, unskilful (Akusala). Any form of it.
Kai Xin 11:08
Let’s go back to what you said about any speech or action should be for the welfare and benefit of others and yourself. How do you measure that benefit? Because I’ll give you an example. I think in today’s day and age, there are a lot of activists, you know, small groups wanting to fight for social justice, or environmentalism. And it’s always, there are two sides to a coin, right, somebody feels that it’s valuable to be a vegetarian. And some people feel like no, it’s not really to my advantage and my welfare, and it’s such an inconvenient thing. And I don’t feel happy about it as well. So then it becomes like a dichotomy, or in the process of wanting to do good, perhaps somebody else’s happiness is being compromised?.
Isn’t it vary based on what an individual would value? Then is that something which everyone would agree upon? Who defines the benefit, and who defines what’s good? Isn’t it very subjective?
Then, of course, there’s some degree of subjectivity. That is true, in fact, in how each person view the world, it’s subjective, in anything that you undertake. If someone perceives that his interest is infringed on that his happiness is compromised, he will perceive you as not nice to him not doing good by him. That is true. There are many causes that people get themselves into that they get very righteous, they are very active and very enthusiastic. But you think a bit harder, it’s questionable about the end results of the causes. That is true, I acknowledged and agreed to that.
Let’s think back about what makes it right and what makes it wrong. The Buddha talked about intention, and how it’s done, and then the results. There are three parts to it.
If your intention was wholesome (Kusala), and you really wish for a common good and everyone can benefit from it. If that’s your intention, then you will experience that it is pleasant. If your intention is pure, your experience will be pleasant. If you say the cause is pure, like protecting life, it is pure, but the way you’re expressing your feeling about it is unpleasant or painful, Then at that point, whatever you say, your motivation is still unwholesome.
I’ll give you an example, let’s say pro-life, people who fight for pro-life and then some of them get so angry, right? That you respect life is pure. But because you’re angry with others who don’t share your views, and therefore, at the point when you feel pain, that motivation has already turned into unwholesome. You just didn’t realise it.
Do you understand? It’s the same thing when you campaign for the weather and climate. You’re doing that because you understand the science that men are paying for the sins of the past. That now you’re angry that there’s a bunch of people who are irresponsible and unreasonable ,and they really don’t care. There is anger. Your cause is maybe good. But because your mind is now narrowly focused on the selfishness of others. The cause is still wholesome, but your motivations are no longer wholesome.
Kai Xin 18:24
Yeah, that’s such a good point. Because I also personally would notice, perhaps there’s some form of attachment, wanting other people to kind of fit my own ideals. And there’s a lot of judging in the process as well. And it’s a valuable point that you pointed out that it doesn’t matter how people judge you because, in my mind, it’s very difficult to please everybody, right, my intention might be pure. And I might go through the motion and execute my pure intention in a skilful way. But if the other person is going to be angry about it, then do I have to feel the need and the sense to fit that person’s ideal, then it will just be a very stressful life to me.
Then you’re in the world, really. It’s in action reaction.
You know, in some countries, in some regional countries really good. They you see pots and pots of water that they left the leaf outside their house for travellers to be able to drink. It’s very pure. It’s like, I want to be timing and take a drink if you need one. And that’s correct or not. You put the you put the item on the table, and you walk away without because then you’re saying I’m not invested in the outcome. I’m only invested in the purity of the act, but the outcome of it, I’ve walked away from it. I don’t want to hang around and be really caught up in why is it not working.
Kai Xin 19:58
Speaking of that, when you talk about not being invested in the outcome?
Personally, I think it’s very difficult because the outcome is the most tangible. People can’t read minds. And you know, when we talk about being good, we have certain guidelines to follow, don’t lie, don’t kill. And that is the experience also in the process, like, oh, perhaps I have accidentally told a white lie, or I’ve like intentionally out of habit. And then I go into this self guilt kind of mode. How do you reconcile because the outcome is bad, right? I’m not supposed to lie. But then I’m judging my intention.
How does one not be invested in the outcome?
You know, we’re talking about campaigning for the climate. And that’s a cause, a social cause, a social set of conditions that you’re trying to create what you were referring to separately, it’s about precepts, not telling lies and not killing, not stealing, meaning, the choices you make at a very narrow tactical level.
The other one is you’re talking about a goal. In its most strategic things, it’s like, how do I live my life? How do I raise children, that’s a goal. In that goal, there are many steps and many acts. Many things that you do those minute ones is a separate thing.
Can we take them separately?
Specifically on this issue about precepts, keeping to precepts, that you’re feeling bad because you didn’t do it right. I believe if you understand why the rules are crafted like this, meaning what is the larger objective, then you know how to calibrate your life, calibrate the choices, and you don’t feel bad when you are calibrating. I’ll give you an example. Let’s take lying. The reason is that the consequences on our mind if you generate shades to explain reality, and your shades do not directly correlate with reality, you’re shading the truth, right? When you do that, your mind starts to store your version. In the process of all these narratives being stored in all the different shades, not absolute truth, you’re murky with the truth.The point will come when the mind can’t quite tell, accurately, what is the fact and what is not? The perception of reality of fuzziness, becomes very fuzzy, at some point becomes your reality.
For anyone who’s practising seeing reality as is, this condition of the mind really will be a huge obstacle to practice – to realising the true nature of the mind and be able to kind of shrug away the negative instincts and become a good, wholesome, wise, clear person. Your effort to become all these is going to be seriously undermined by fuzziness. That’s one part of it.
The second part of it is regarding your reputation in society. This is the part that not many people talk about because they don’t realise they may or may not realise that this is an important point, which is something that Buddha had talked about, when someone does not tell absolute truth. It will hit his credibility, social standing, his credibility, his words will not be taken seriously. In assembly, this is how it was set in the Sutta. You think about it, you shade truths, people find out about your shading because truth has a certain way of kind of emerging, right? Then at some point, you have a reputation, she’s very loose with truths. Now you have a problem. You have a credibility problem.
For yourself internally, you can’t quite tell what’s real. For the world, externally. Your words are questionable. If people say, is this a lie? If you’re asking me that, the odds are, you know, you’re being loose with the fact, then you decide do you want to proceed with the elusiveness knowing that at some point, it may cost you your ability to see things clearly. And why do you want to do that?
We uphold these precepts, whether it’s about the truth, whether it’s about not being greedy, and taking things not given to you, whether it’s about honesty in relationship, etc. It really is because all these choices, leaves serious imprint on the mind, it can change your character, it can affect your relationship with people, it can cost you what I call it, social costs, your standing in society, and so on. Those are the practical ones.
Now comes the bigger issue, the most strategic one — the goal, the end goal, the big cause. How can one not be invested in the outcome. If you’re invested with any outcome, there is in you, a clinging, a craving, a desire. It’s not right or wrong, you must know that the more invested you are, the more stress you will feel, the more pain you will experience, the more disappointment is likely to come your way. The more intense your attachment, the more you must be prepared to accept disappointment. That’s the cost.
Kai Xin 26:42
I’m hearing a lot of common thread in your points that the attachment to the desire, having anger, these are considered unwholesome. But does that mean that we shouldn’t have desire at all? How about the desire to be good? At what point would we know that the desire for good will actually turn sour and become bad?
Desire for good is good only because it leads to good.
Desiring to be good means it’s the start point of downstream choices that will lead to an outcome where you experienced peace, calm, contentment, the cessation of angst, that’s why the desire for good is good. Any other forms of desire that leads to an increase in agitation, increase in pain and suffering, then those desires are unconducive for your welfare too for some it sounds “Oh this is so tall order” for some people. You just have to bring it down to your personal level, bring it home to your daily experience practice. If you say I wish to be a good person, I want to learn to be a good person.
What does it mean downstream? I will read up on what makes a good person, I listen to talks, I watch shows and I try and model behaviour to learn from others. And if you’re very serious about wanting to be a good, person, you will build upon your sense of guilt when you are not good, you feel shame when someone tells you “This is not nice” you feel shame. You’re basically quietly gently generating the conditions that will keep you on track to be a good person who causes nobodies harm and create pain for others, when people in your space they enjoy being with you, okay?
Now let’s take it differently. Let’s say I now desire to push for vaccination for everybody. Can you see the difference? You get agitated. You go ahead. Send out paper flyers, go and hound somebody. What is wrong with you? Why are you not vaccinated? Let me explain to you. As you talk you get more agitated, the fellow listeners get more agitated, the whole world around you get more agitated.
Kai Xin 29:34
What I’m hearing is that there are many causes. They really are a means to an end. Like I want to keep my precepts, or I want people to take the vaccine at the end of the day. It’s really about the welfare, the harmony or feeling peace. I will use my mental state as a yardstick. But you also mentioned shame and guilt. In the Buddhist space, we talk about Hiri Ottapa, this sense of moral shame. And then I’m also thinking on behalf of the listener and the viewers, isn’t shame and guilt an unpleasant feeling?
Some people might think, ‘I don’t think I am moral enough ,or I’m good enough to even be on the path.’ Or I cannot, you know, it’s too hard. I cannot meditate because I’m always not very peaceful. I feel like shame, it is very unpleasant. Is shame and guilt or unpleasant feeling part of the process, we have to be patient with it and see the peace, and again how do we tell it’s so such a fine balance?
Okay, Hiri Ottapa, Hiri is moral conscience, this is internal, you like it or not it’s there it’s built into all humans the condition, and we know that it’s built in because studies have shown that psychopaths don’t have, that it cannot be turned on that part of the brain doesn’t light up. It actually lights up, okay? And what the Buddha has taught is use this natural state to protect yourself in your practice, it’s considered a good thing because it’s what will keep you from undertaking actions that will cause you problems in your cultivation exercise. For instance, you know these precepts, don’t lie, don’t take what’s not given. If you have conscience, you don’t need this precept to tell you that you cannot do that, you cannot kill. You just don’t want to do it because you know when you do it you feel bad. Then on days when you’re very angry, very, very angry. You want to smack someone. But that part of you that holds you back is this conscience it is very strong, you are reminded that there is a cost to undertaking an action that costs another pain, you will be reminded so that you are taught never to do it. Not that you will never do it. But if you’re constantly reminded, don’t do it because you cannot sleep at night. Then when you’re confronted that situation a new situation, but it’s similar you will not do it because you remember, it will cost you sleepless night. That’s conscience.
Shame (Ottapa) is this sense of a need for communal approval and I believe that this is also in a DNA this part about needing the approval of others, right, I believe this I have no proof. I believe this is also part of our DNA because possibly built in during the time when men was living in a very dangerous world, and the only way he can survive this way he has others like him, and together they help each other in order to be able to continue staying with others, then you must conform to a certain behaviour that communally they agreed to. Your sense of shame is cultural, it is a condition or thought. It changes over time, but it’s really because there is a constant internally, you want to be accepted. And the manifestation of that is you will mirror behaviour, you will follow what people do, you will learn where all the OB markers (“out of bounds marker”) are so that you are accepted within this community. These two pillars for practice, right? It is to help the individual navigate and stay on the path that will give him a sense of peace, when you undertake an action that straight out of these two OB markers, you will have no sense of peace, they are what I call the hard parents smack you then you “I will not transgress” because they are hard.
Initially, it is difficult. But over time you can appreciate it, you can appreciate these two, if you are generally okay. And these two in your life, hold you to a wholesome path. You’re okay with it. Overtime, you feel very peaceful, then you are very grateful for these two that had kept you in check initially.
Conversely, you’re very angry person then this two you will resent then you act on your anger, you get more frustrated. These two fellows now come very hard at you. And they’re trying very hard to hold you in check. But if you refuse to at some point, you drop these two. “Heck I am already so bad, who cares” You will drop your conscience ,you will not allow people to shame you right, now you’re forcefully removing these two pillars, you have no sense of shame, you have no sense of guilt, you will continue to do whatever you want. Creating more pain, discomfort, no peace of mind, more things for yourself. Now you’re spiralling into the negative. It’s very hard to attain these things because really they are conditional.
And you just basically pick a point in this circle, that chicken and egg story. You pick the chicken, and you work from there ,and it leads back to the egg and lead back to the chicken. It sounds like that. Unfortunately, that’s why you just got to start somewhere.
Kai Xin 36:07
I know because some people would say I need to be peaceful first, and then I do all this, you know, good causes, but some people say okay, I do causes first and then eventually I will feel more at peace right then that’s where the chicken and egg comes.
I think it does require some kind of patience, isn’t it? To kind of go through that bump to say, I’ve tried so hard, but I’m constantly getting it wrong. And then dealing with the guilt that is very intense. How would you then advise people to be a bit more patient when they’re trying to be good?
I always try to start on the side choice because that part you can control. I mean, to the degree that you can, “Do I scold or do I not scold?” “Do I speak out, or do I not speak out? ” At that point you still have a choice. The condition of your mind at that point you didn’t choose. I mean you get angrier and angrier and angrier, it just happens. You didn’t choose to be angry. But once the anger starts, you can choose to react or not. If you have clarity, that if you give into anger today thinking that it’s temporary venting. Now it doesn’t work like that, for whatever choices that you make, it would leave some kind of an imprint on the mind leaving similar imprints for stretches, means those imprint very hard to erase.
That’s why we must start somewhere if you want to overcome anger and become a more peaceful person, you must make a determination to say anger hurts, it causes problems for physical form for the body for the mind, it causes problem, it leaves lingering effects. Therefore, I will learn to moderate my anger, I will learn to tame it, make the determination that you must get started, every time anger peaks its head out, you must smack it back and say, I will not give it to you. I will now bring up friendliness, you will choke on trying to cough up friendliness initially. But if you link these two, I will moderate my anger I will bring up friendliness I will moderate my anger I will bring up friendliness. At some point, that balance will tilt, it becomes easier to bring up friendliness than anger. And it all started with you saying you know what I have enough of this anger, I would get started.
Kai Xin 39:02
Does that require some sense of wisdom and internalisation; otherwise it can sound quite wilful, right? Like we are just clenching our teeth and say, I will be friendly, I’ll be friendly. I mean, speaking for my own experience, when I started walking on the path, I was picking myself up a lot. And there’s a lot of agitation in the process. And sometimes I kind of just want to throw in the towel, you know, and it’s like, how do I do it?
How do people do it? Why are they so nice, you know? How do you balance striving to be good? But then at the same time not being too wilful and just like you know just accepting things as they are and have that restful state.
You know, in the method right in the training for lay people I always talk about four mental states that you need, sometimes the Buddha mentioned five, but sometimes he mentioned four. You have faith, morality, generosity, wisdom, and you notice wisdom tags number five, four or five. If it’s five, it will be faith. I use the Pali word Saddha which means having confidence, conviction having faith in the teaching the teacher and so on, then morality, and then he introduced one more Sota which is learning the doctrine. I repeat, it can be four, or it can be five mental states. When it is 4 mental states, it is faith, morality, generosity, wisdom. If he talks about 5 mental states the third one, faith, morality, learning, generosity, wisdom. The extra one is learning. Now, why these five mental states right, when you have faith, faith in itself is a pleasant sensation. Very powerful, very pleasant. If you have faith in Buddha, Dhamma or Sangha.
The Buddha, his teaching, the monastic practice. If you have faith, people carrying that mental state will experience a pleasant sensation will be pleasant. Will not be painful. Then you say, but sometime faith is painful. Nope. Faith is not painful. What is painful is something else. Depending on the individual got to figure out what it is, but it’s not faith, faith in itself is very pleasant.
You believe it or not, if you don’t believe me, you just sit down there at where you are. You say to yourself “I have faith, I believe” and you just pause awhile to look at the mind. You will see the mind as either neutral or for those of you with very strong faith you will immediately experience a surging joy. That’s how powerful it can be. This is not difficult to polish for a Buddhist, every day, you go before the Buddha statue, the Buddha Rupa, you take a bow, and you say to yourself, I have faith in you. You just have to do this every day, momentarily, you will experience joy. And this joy, this faith, is very important. It’s very inspiring, motivating. It keeps people saying, I know it’s difficult, but because I have faith I can continue.
Kai Xin 42:59
Would it be different if we turn it inwards? I mean, for those who are non-religious, can they say, ‘I have faith in myself to be a good person or to be happier, to be more at peace.’? Would that be a difference?
There is a slight difference. Because if for the longest time you were not exactly the nicest person, you say, I have faith in myself to be a nice person. Great. At that point, you enjoy a little “Yes, I do feel good about this”. Then you don’t know how, if you don’t know how, you only say I can do it, but you don’t know how to do it. At some point, disappointment, doubt, will start.
That is why you need other mental states. Faith is step one, right?
And step two is morality then generosity, then wisdom, right? These are the mental states, they work collectively, to inspire you and keep you on the practice. You take away the other mental states, and you have only faith, nothing else. Then this faith is not strong. It’s not sitting on some foundation. It is where that individual say, I believe in Buddha, then when life hits you all kinds of curveballs and you at some point, your faith will wear thin for sure because you have nothing beyond faith.
If you have faith, and you are a good person, so morality right, I’m a good person I learned to do good avoid evil etc. Then I practice generosity, and generosity is another lecture by itself. But let’s say that you practice generosity, giving is just one small part of generosity, generosity of spirit, generosity of its forgiveness, generosity, embracing another’s generosity, giving up your views and your biases is generosity, etc. You have generosity and then you have wisdom.
Wisdom is understanding the transient nature of life. Understanding mortality, so to speak, learning not to hold on to things because holding on will only give you pain, so all these as a whole there is yet another series of talks there. But all these understanding of the nature of mind, all these put together that then you have the relevant tools that will keep you anchored to being good doing good. You are only occasionally true. Because you’re overwhelmed by emotions, and then you tripped a bit. But you basically hop on to the train again, and you are okay. On this wholesome adventure, you’ll be fine.
Kai Xin 46:25
Do you have a mantra or a sentence to help people who are too harsh on themselves?
You said earlier was correct, patience. But having said that, I will be a bit careful here. Patience must not be used as an excuse. I’m patient, and therefore I can forgive myself anything. It should not be used as an excuse for laziness or for giving yourself a discount on the practice. Patience is to me it’s more like you moderate the harshness moderate part of you that is very judging that you hold yourself to very high standards, and you judge yourself to fall short of that standard that you set. And you tell yourself, it’s okay to moderate. Patience to me, is moderation. It’s accepting that there are some conditions that are hard to overcome. And you moderate expectations. And you at every step, when you do well, you tell yourself now, this is the correct thing to do. Well done, good job. You learn to pat yourself on the back so patience lead to this kind of practices.
Patience is powerful because if it sits on wisdom. Understand that, in our practice in our cultivation, the mental states are not held in isolation, they must work in conjunction with others. Which is why if you look at the Buddha’s teaching, very often they tell you about seven factors of enlightenment, or the five powers of the mind, or the four Iddhipada, superpower states of mind, etc. It’s always a few mental states, all of them are mental states. And all these mental states are always taught as a cluster. Because alone, it doesn’t work. You need a few to hold together a set of conditions conducive for practice, conducive for staying good. Why? Because you are overcoming habits and instincts, and habits and instincts have been formed through a millennium a long time, you cannot overcome these states overnight, can’t be done. When I said earlier about patience, moderation, lowering your bar and all those things, is in recognition that whoever you are, whatever you are, today has been form through millennium. If you don’t even remember all the conditions in the past that led to a takeaway. Set baseline that now, centuries later still surface, you don’t remember what was the condition. But now you got to bear with it. When you understand enough that who you are is the result of conditions from a long ago, therefore it needs time. To understand yourself better, you need time to learn to overcome or overwrite an earlier setting of your instincts, you need to overwrite the earliest software to create new software.
Kai Xin 50:29
So, it can’t just be a sit back and see what happens kind of patience, but it requires an active and deliberate effort to say I forgive, and now I’m acting with certain mental models or framework to be better. How do we know when it’s okay to give in to our desires, say if I have a stressful day at work, I know meditating will help me relieve stress. And it’s good for me. But I don’t have the mental capacity and energy to sit on the cushion. I would rather watch YouTube videos. And then again, the cycle repeats. Oh, guilt trip. ‘Why do I do this?’
Is it more helpful to say it’s okay for me to just indulge in sensual desires and pleasures for just one day until I have the capacity to be more spiritual again. How do you know when to give in to desires and when to not give in to desires?
No hard and fast rule about these things. It’s individual maturity. And this is what the Buddha had said that if you truly understand through direct knowledge and understanding, we truly understand impermanence meaning, mortality and the pain of birth, if you truly appreciate that and truly get it, that can generate its own momentum for not letting up on practice.
It’s true understanding and wisdom, that then you won’t cave in. The rest of us are not to that level of direct knowledge and understanding. In fact, for many of us, our embracing of the Dharma and the practice is abit of I want my cake and eat it. What do I mean, I experienced Dukkha periodically, I find it so frustrating, life is so Dukkha, I agree. Therefore, going to the Dharma, in anticipation that we practice, my experience of Dukkha diminishes. We go into Dharma to raise the pleasure quotient to reduce the Dukkha quotient.
And because of that, actually, we are still attached to pleasure, we have never really understood, we just want our cake and eat it. We want to enjoy sensual pleasure and life as we always do without the punishment. That sense of pain that comes about because we don’t understand dhamma. For most of us, we fall into this category. And that is why in our practice, our so-called meditation, the putting time aside for meditation, right? It’s always lower on the list of things to do. Most of us are like that meditation, oh gosh, it’s like upstairs, my mind just going to be so boring. Because on the list of pleasurable things, meditation doesn’t usually rank really high. Meditation becomes like duty, which then adds on to the unpleasantness of it, and we equate practice with meditation, which is really jialat because that’s not true.
Practice is not meditation. Meditation is one part of the practice. If you have true wisdom, true insight, true understanding, you will never let up. Because if you don’t have true wisdom, true insight true understanding, then practice is just a list of things you want to do. And sometimes it’s higher (on the list) because you’re inspired. Sometimes it drops to rock bottom because on these games, the world beckons, it is just like that.
Is there a right or wrong? There is no right or wrong, I would like to say right means: no press on full steam ahead! But we are laypeople. And laypeople means priorities a little different, and the priorities will start to change only with growing understanding and wisdom. The wisdom is what will cause you to reprioritise at some point because you now rank practice very highly. Because of that, your progress, your insight, your understanding, will take on a new momentum.
And then it will spin in that wholesome and very energetically in the Dhamma way by itself. It’s like you’re driving on the floor. Initially, you have all these road bumps, so you cannot go very far. But at some point, you have overcome the road bumps. And now the road is clear here. And you can speed up and how fast it takes for you to speed, depends on how fast you want to get there, how fast you set the condition in place. And how fast you want to set the condition in place depends on how much pain you are now seeing.
Kai Xin 56:23
What I understand from your explanation on wisdom is that when we truly internalise that, this is something that can be more sustainable than the fleeting pleasures, then it really just propels us there’s no sense of like willpower, I have to do it. It’s a chore. And that’s a very important quality, right? Because I also noticed that some people can feel very gung-ho at the start and say, ‘I want to meditate’. It’s all about clocking the number of hours of meditation. And of course, that’s just one part of the practice.
Or some would say, ‘oh, I am so good at keeping my precept. What is this other person doing? Why is he not living up to that particular moral standard?’
But that itself might lack wisdom, because it’s not so much about transcending Dukkha and it’s not so much about being more at peace and that then becomes like the yardstick isn’t it?
Wisdom is the essential mental quality to really help us be on the right track. And then circling back to where we started. In the process, when we have wisdom, we will naturally feel pleasant, when we’re doing a good act or doing a good cause, did I get it right?
Wisdom is a very deep mental state. And you can approach this from a different angle, when there is wisdom, there is understanding, understanding of the concepts taught by the Buddha. Correct understanding at a deeper level, when there is wisdom, there is not just understanding, but there is an ability to notice that in your daily life, you form a conclusion that correlate with the teaching. Oh, I can see this. This is what the Buddha meant when he said all these things, capture in this Sutta or this is what the Buddha meant. Wisdom is an enabler, it enables you to understand the teaching, be able to observe the phenomenon in daily life, in direct reflection of the teaching. And wisdom also enables you to make the right choices, it means the choices that will help you grow in understanding, be a more peaceful and calmer person, more content, more at ease. Wisdom enables you to pick wisely, choose wisely. Focus your attention correctly, all gearing you towards realising the driving forces of your mind, how it works. And so you continue in daily life, you continue to do the thing that will enable you to be happier.
Wisdom fundamentally, enables you to live happily, there is no unhappy, wise person. I mean, you can have bad conditions. But when there is wisdom, you don’t feel too bad about your experience. Not great. But it’s okay, I can live with this. Wisdom helps you to accept, and therefore you’re okay. Even though the conditions are bad, this person knows how to let go. He may not know how to articulate to you how he managed to let go but he knows how to. Buddha is just so brilliant. He captured it into a training formula, DIY for everyone. Buddha wisdom is superior to everyone else because he knows how to sum up the driving forces that leads to growth of wisdom. Therefore, growth of happiness.
Kai Xin 1:00:45
I have one last question to wrap up this episode. Talking about wisdom, do you have any actionable tips that the listeners can take away to grow in wisdom and happiness?
What is this wisdom that, I think, would really help is to constantly remind ourselves whatever is transient, whatever is impermanent, feeling perceiving from mental polishing or activities and so on so forth. For everyone, they last for a mere nanosecond. The state itself lasts for mere nanosecond grief, pain, anger, frustration, lalalala. Whatever it is, all that short in a snap of a finger, it’s over. The only time you really realise the meaning of this teaching, right? That in what is impermanent, it is painful. It’s when you are diagnosed with a terminal illness or someone you love is dead. But the reality is, it’s always a condition of life. It is a condition of life that we will all die. But you see, we will happily blindly roam through life completely oblivious, of what is an inevitable situation. In what is inevitable, we are oblivious. Aha! that’s our problem. Because of that, we have the delusion of control. What are you talking about? The illusion of control, I can control people’s mind, I can convince people, so I can get the outcome I want, isn’t it? It’s all about control. When you are mindful of this, its transient and impermanent, and therefore actually, the reality is to Dukkha. And because of that. You don’t have control. Control is a figment of our imagination. Then why is it so important to get this, internalise this, why is it so important? So that you have an incentive to avoid evil, be good? And why is that important? Only then can you be happy, only when you can build your life rich with kindness, compassion, patience, etc. Then moment to moment, you are at ease, not disease, dis-ease, you are at ease you are peaceful.
Kai Xin 1:03:46
To remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of life, we can do it through reflecting on death. And also in the process, we would see the first noble truth which is, there is suffering, that is Dukkha. And that will propel us to then do what is beneficial, what is right. And through this cycle. That’s where we become wiser. We are more aware and mindful of our actions, and it is like rinse and repeat. Correct?
Kai Xin 1:04:48
All right. Thanks a lot, Sister Sylvia. It’s been such a pleasure to hear from you and alot of insights. Thank you.
Thanks, listeners for tuning in. I hope you got as much value as I did. Please share with us what is your biggest take away, you can do so on our telegram channel or wherever you are listening to this podcast. Please give us a review because it would really help us to reach more people. And please share if you know anyone who can benefit from this. In the next episode, my co-host Cheryl and I will be touching on this topic a little deeper, exploring perspectives of how we can stand up for what is right in the Buddhist way, and whether Anger is ever justified. How can we treat a person who has committed a bad deed?
Stay tuned for the next episode. Meanwhile, stay happy and wise.
Special Thanks to:
Sopisa for helping with the transcript
Key Seng Tan, and Lynn Leng for sponsoring this podcast
TLDR: Surviving a long-distance relationship is not easy and some say it’s a work of art. It requires firm conviction with a goal in mind, effective and mindful communication as well as the willingness to compromise.
“Hey, since you are enlisting soon, aren’t you afraid of long-distance relationships (LDR)?”, “You are going to Tekong, how is your relationship going to survive?”
These were the exact words directed to me when I enlisted back in 2016. I am certain I am not the first to receive such comments. As a terribly unromantic person, I had concerns about keeping the relationship going.
Thankfully, despite the distance, my partner and I recently celebrated our 5th anniversary. We have emerged stronger and closer than ever before.
Before sharing my observations, it’s crucial to note that LDR has the disadvantage of being subjective. Hence, no single manual works for everyone.
Nevertheless, I hope my 3 observations provide a brief guide to survive the “apocalyptic nature” of LDR.
1. Sharing Commonalities
It’s a common misconception that sharing commonalities means sharing common interests and hobbies. Of course, when both parties share the same goals, values, interests and hobbies, this alignment ideally benefits any relationship.
What happens when interests diverge? Do relationships naturally break apart due to the lack of shared passions?
The sustenance of a relationship need not be based on shared hobbies. My partner and I are on the opposite ends of many spectra. I am more liberal while she is conservative; she is idealistic while I am pragmatic. Touch is her love language while I prefer to take a step back.
We do not share many common interests. I find her interest in Korean drama stodgy while she sees my interest in books boring. However, we share the common goal of tying the knot. To me, having an end goal in mind is crucial as it sets the relationship’s foundation in place.
With a firm foundation, both parties can erect pillars to grow their relationship.
Just like the black pepper tree that requires a stake to lean on to grow, every relationship would require a pillar with a firm base. This helps in both managing conflict and strengthening communication.
Many conflicts in relationships arise from selfish thinking and rash decisions made without consultation. Working towards the goal of marriage, my partner and I discussed issues ranging from career pathways, education prospects, investment and housing plans, and even which side of the family will look after our future kids.
We thought that if we aligned from the start, there is less chance of being in a rude shock when communication falters. If one individual was prepared for marriage but the partner refused to be tied down, it would end in eventual separation.
In the inevitable ups and downs of a relationship, having a pillar of shared commonalities mitigate squabbles. A firm foundation realigns us back on course if we deviate.
Living in a separate time zone, I often take Singapore’s safety for granted and forget to check if she is back home safely from work. A conflict might arise if there is an assumption of me lacking the effort to show concern.
Now and then, we clash over ‘trivial’ pickings. I would much rather have these ‘trivial’ arguments than have her suspect my intentions when I am abroad. This is because she knows that we have marriage as the end goal.
By doing so, trust is built. We may argue over the ‘processes’ but never the outcome. In turn, she understands that I live by the Buddhist’s 5 precepts and thus has the faith in me to do the right thing.
2. Mindful Communication
Communicating effectively is a crucial aspect of any relationship. The willingness to communicate effectively. At the start, it was difficult. We were both used to the physical presence of one another.
From meeting up and chatting all day to not even chatting at all on some days was tough.
As a result, we fought a lot more. However, we realized what we fought over was not due to the absence of physical presence. What we fought over was the lack of effective communication.
Effective communication entails presenting your views, feelings and values in the way best understood by the receiver. I was not doing that. When we spoke, my replies were often monologue, indirect and anti-climactic. I was merely regurgitating what happened throughout the day and mainly talking about “myself”.
I assumed that sharing my daily overseas routine would keep the conversation going and promote understanding. These assumptions proved to be wrong. While it is instinctively in our nature to talk about ourselves to feel a sense of validation and sympathy, boredom eventually sets in and attention wanders.
Such boredom or agitation is a result of your neural receptors being starved of the attention needed to feel a sense of self-validation.
In simple terms, people don’t always want to listen to everything about you.
My self-esteem was boosted at the expense of my partner and it soon became one-way traffic where our communication was living off the other. There wasn’t an outlet for her to express her daily discontent or the opportunity to talk about “herself”.
Being aware of this, we made the effort to rectify it and that has helped us tremendously in our LDR since. Be mindful of the tendency to unconsciously fall into the “Self-Appreciating trap”. We unintentionally fall for such traps because we are not mindful of our speech. The lack of tack in our speech tends to cause offence, which may gravely affect our relationship.
The Buddhist teachings of the noble eightfold paths include right speech as one of its core tenets. I view right speech as not just abstention from telling lies, slander or abusive language but also mindful speaking.
Being aware of how we speak and what we talk about, clear boundaries are set.
As I hone my mindfulness, I started talking less about myself and presented my partner with opportunities to speak up. Our communication soon improved and became a two-way street.
Moreover, incorporating mindfulness in our everyday speech and actions allowed us to be considerate of one another’s needs.
By practising mindfulness, we have transformed the way my partner and I communicate and have mitigated many potential flashpoints. Until today, even when I am studying abroad, our communication has improved and that boils down to being aware of how we communicate.
3. Put in the Effort & be Willing to Compromise
Humans can be selfish. However, we humans can cooperate too. Each partner can coexist in a relationship but opt to pursue his/her interest. Be it to flaunt the relationship as social status or to be satisfying sexual needs. If one is not putting in the effort into the relationship and is bent on pursuing his/her own “selfish” endeavours, the relationship is unlikely to last.
It takes two hands to clap. For the couple to succeed in a relationship, they must put away their differences, identify potential weaknesses and cooperate to work towards the goal.
If both parties share the same commonalities, then the relationship has a set goal.
However, the outcomes only become real if the process is set in place and acted upon through effort.
Thisinvolves compromising on some of your interests for the relationship. For example, living in different time zones, I had to stay up past midnight and she would wake up early to skype. Although this does not seem like much, it reflects two points in maintaining a healthy LDR:
Firstly, we both share the same commonality and are willing to put in the effort to achieve it. Secondly, that process meant that both parties had to compromise, forgo sleep, etc to keep the relationship growing.
My mentor once mentioned, “Sharing similar hobbies doesn’t necessarily make the relationship work, it’s about you putting in the effort to settle your differences and make sure it works. It’s important to note that every relationship is a collective effort. Both parties must be prepared to put in the effort and willing to sacrifice some short-term interest for longer ones.”
Undergoing an LDR or any relationship for that matter is no easy feat. Our relationship had to overcome numerous obstacles and social stigmas. However, our relative success can be attributed to these 3 takeaways.
These 3 lessons must be seen as complementary to one another and not mutually exclusive. Like me and many others who have gone through LDR, it’s not going to be easy but it is possible if one bears these 3 lessons in mind. In any relationship, it always takes two hands to clap.
Develop commonality in your relationship on how you envision it to be and the dreams you hold together
Practice mindful communication with your partner by avoiding the ‘self-appreciating trap’
Be willing to compromise, even if it means putting your ego & interest aside.