Ep 3: When does doing good become bad? (Ft Sylvia Bay)

Ep 3: When does doing good become bad? (Ft Sylvia Bay)

Kai Xin  00:07

Are you a good person?

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.

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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.

Sylvia  02:24

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.

Sylvia  03:07

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?

Sylvia  07:08

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?

Sylvia  12:21

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.

Sylvia  19:09

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?

Sylvia  20:47

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?

Sylvia  27:06

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?

Sylvia  30:35

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?

Sylvia  36:41

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.

Sylvia  39:46

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?

Sylvia  43:14

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?

Sylvia  46:33

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?

Sylvia  51:44

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?

Sylvia  57:45

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?

Sylvia  1:01:00

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?

Sylvia 1:04:16

Yes.

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.

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


More about Sylvia Bay’s work: 

Website

Books 

Talk – Dhamma is hope

Article – Cultivating faith in fearful times

An Austrian Nun’s Dhamma journey in Thailand: An interview with MC Brigitte

An Austrian Nun’s Dhamma journey in Thailand: An interview with MC Brigitte

In December 2019, I was in Phuket, Thailand completing my teacher’s training in mindfulness and decided to do a ten day meditation in Bangkok. I have never done a meditation retreat near Bangkok. I have been to Khao Yai and Rayong for meditation retreats. Bangkok was never an option for me as I did not want to be near the city. Besides, I did not know of any teachers in Bangkok as I have always followed the teachers of the Thai forest meditation tradition started by the legendary Ajahn Mun.

I was not feeling physically fit then and felt I could not follow the rigours of practice in the  Thai forest meditation. I wanted a long retreat in the forest, but at the time, I thought of doing a short retreat near the city, before heading home to complete my certification and return again to Thailand.

I had not expected the Covid-19 pandemic to put an end to international air travel and my aspirations.

At that short retreat, I met Mae Chee Brigitte (also known as MC Brigitte) who lives and teaches at Wat Prayong. MC Brigitte teaches introductory Buddhism to mostly Western travellers at Wat Prayong monthly. She also runs retreats in Europe and has regular students. I sought a quiet place to practice at Wat Prayong. The comings and goings of the many Thai visitors as well as some of the newbie Western meditators was not what I had in mind.

Nevertheless, I managed to practice with help from MC Brigitte and I began to be curious about how a Westerner like her from faraway Austria became a Mae Chee in Thailand.

Mae Chee Brigitte

First of all, Theravada Buddhism does not recognise fully ordained nuns. There were ordained nuns in this tradition found only in Sri Lanka and possibly in Myanmar. The Buddhist order died out in Sri Lanka due to war, drought and famine in the 11th century. The bhikkhus (ordained monks) in Thailand and Cambodia helped revive the monk’s order in Sri Lanka. But there were no bhikkhunis (ordained nuns) in these countries that could revive the women’s Buddhist order.

Thus, women could only practise as an eight precept or ten precept nun in these Theravadin Buddhist countries. It was not until 1996 that the ordination of women was revived in Sri Lanka. It is highly helpful to be fully ordained in Theravada Buddhism because this tradition relies heavily on support from the lay community for food, medicine, robes and lodging. Monastics in the Theravada tradition, unlike other traditions, do not handle money.

In Thailand, women could only practice as eight precept nuns. Thus, many do not receive the respect or help usually given to ordained monastics. Thus, it is admirable in my opinion for MC Brigitte to have stayed in Thailand to practice for such a long time.

The following is an interview with her. ..


When and where were you born? What religion did you grow up with?

I was born in the City of Salzburg in Austria as Brigitte Schrottenbacher in December 1962. My family is Roman Catholic. When I was young, I loved listening to stories of God and Jesus and wanted to be a good human being.

What caused you to start practising Buddhism?

I felt there is something really disturbing in life. I have to die, my loved ones have to die.

I had this fear of death after the birth of my second child. I feared the death of my loved ones. Although the feelings went away, I again felt it at the death of my partner’s grandmother. This uncertainty about life led to a kind of depression and that led me to practising yoga and later Buddhism.

Did you learn Buddhism in Austria? How did you end up practising in Thailand?

I went for a yoga course with a best friend. I experienced samadhi in the first yoga session I did. That was overwhelming, I never felt this way before. I got my first Vipassana instructions in Austria. My yoga teacher in Salzburg, seeing that I was getting serious about meditation practice, gave me the address of a meditation centre in Chachoengsao province in Thailand.

I went there in march 1989 and stayed for a 50 days intensive silent retreat under the guidance of Phra Acharn Thawee, an excellent Vipassana master of Thai Nationality and Phra Manfred, a German monk. 

Can you tell us about your first Buddhist teacher?

Phra Acharn Thawee was the eldest son of a Thai-Chinese family. He never married and as the eldest son, he had to take over the family business with many ships that were fishing in the Andaman sea. One day he was out on one of those boats and they had caught a dolphin. He saw the dolphin having tears in his eyes. That day he stopped that job, passed the business to his nephews and became a recluse, practising alone in the forests of Thailand. After years in the forests he became a monk and studied with many teachers, also with Mahasai Sayadaw where he adopted his Vipassana practice. He taught for many years until he passed away in 1996.

What prompted you to stay in Thailand and to ordain as a Mae Chee?

After my 50 days retreat I was very happy and a hundred percent sure this is the way I want to live from now on.

It was a very difficult year of leaving behind not just my life and belongings in Austria but also my two children. I had to return to Thailand. So, I took them with me to Thailand but realised that staying in the temple as a nun with two small children was impossible. After a year, I had to bring them back to their father and to separate from them.

What was the most memorable experience for you practising under your Buddhist teacher in Thailand?

There are so many, but one of the first that I can’t forget is when I came to my first teacher one day with tears in my eyes and told him that I was thinking of my children. He listened and then turned his head to the right looking around and then to the left and then he asked, “What children?” It made it clear that all suffering is in the mind. 

What did you learn the most in your time in Thailand?

My second teacher Phra Acharn Sangwahn taught mainly “know and let go”. Knowing the present moment, the present object and letting it go, don’t hold on to it, don’t get involved.

Not being careless, knowing (sati) and understanding (sampajanna) is important. Understanding the true nature of the object – it is impermanent (anicca), not satisfying (dukkha) or suffering and not under our control (anatta) or empty of a self.

What is the attitude of the monasteries and community towards Mae Chees in Thailand?

Well, to be honest Thai nuns are usually not that very much supported and respected. Many Thais think they became nuns because they had no other place to go. In the past it was the only refuge for women who had been rejected by their husbands. I have met so many buddhist nuns with high spiritual realizations. But usually they are quiet and humble.

I have done social projects to support buddhist nuns since 2001. As I have seen and experienced, it can be pretty hard to practice without much support.

You were ordained as a nun in Bhutan. How did that happen?

I met my third teacher, His Eminence Tsugla Lopen Samten Dorje Rinpoche in 2013 in Thailand through Khenpo Ugyen from Bhutan. He invited me to visit Bhutan and I was so impressed by this wonderful country and Vajrayana Buddhism. So I returned to Bhutan to do a one month retreat in 2014 under the guidance of Tsugla Lopen and after that retreat he gave me my second ordination into the Drukpa Kagyu lineage.

MC Brigitte

What is the status of nuns in Bhutan? Are they recognised?

There are only a few nuns in Bhutan. I have visited two nunneries, one was supported by private donors and one was supported by the queen mother of Bhutan.

It is just beginning to sort out facilities for nuns to study Buddhism. A lot of effort to support this was done by the Je Khenpo, the queen and my teacher Tsugla Lopen. I also have a project to support this project of my teacher.

Are there any differences between Buddhist meditation in Thailand and Bhutan?

Well, they are of different lineages, Theravada and Vajrayana. But I think they go the same way. It’s building up. I am very happy I could learn a lot in the Theravada practice. I saw some people who have started straight away with Vajrayana but had no insight in the basics like the four noble truths, trilaksana, and the noble eightfold path.

It is in my opinion not possible to go into a deeper understanding of the dhamma without those insights.

So my practice always starts with concentration, vipassana contemplation and continues with loving kindness, sharing the accumulated merit, and practising for the benefit of all beings.

Any advice for women interested in practising Buddhism full time?

Be where you are in the present moment. Know it’s true nature – impermanence, non-self and suffering, and let it be. No matter where you are, what you do. Even if you become a nun, it’s always the same.

Wisdom is not just found by sitting in meditation for many hours a day or studying Buddhism many hours a day. Wisdom is there every moment, just open your eyes and your heart.

Sure, listen to the dhamma, reflect on it and sit still to realize it. But it is there wherever you are and in whatever that happens!


MC Brigitte currently lives in Wat Prayong. She also runs social projects to support nuns, children, and print dhamma books through Mind and Metta

Thanks For Your Transcendental Wisdom, But I Didn’t Ask

Thanks For Your Transcendental Wisdom, But I Didn’t Ask

TLDR: As religious or spiritual people, we can sometimes get unknowingly self-righteous, giving unsolicited advice. It’s much more skillful to respond to the needs of the person we are speaking to with equanimity, mindfulness and a sense of “right timing”.

A type of question I often hear during Q&A sessions with Dhamma teachers goes like this:

How should I advise this person about this thing they are doing that seems problematic?”

How should I advise my friend /family member to be more [insert good quality]?”

This is interesting because from how the question is framed, it sounds like the asker is less concerned about what their friend/ family member should do about their situation than how to advise (or persuade) them in a way that makes them want to take up their advice.

This can seem like it comes from a good place – but actually, what is the intention here? 

Are you collaboratively helping that person to work out their issue, or are you trying to “correct” them based on your opinion of what they should be doing?

Sometimes the desire to fix other people’s problems can come from righteousness and judgement – aka the ego. But in fact, they might not need (or want) your advice.

Am I doing this for them or for me?

Something I’ve noticed in myself and other Buddhists is that we can sometimes become quite deluded, clinging to a “Buddhist identity” that we’ve fabricated over time.

We can be quite self-righteous, thinking we have all the answers and if only they knew better, if only they did this thing that the Buddha said, they would be so much happier. So, we go around advising our friends and family, trying to “fix” everyone’s suffering. 

If we’re honest with ourselves, we may find that this is less about them and more about us, compelled by a neurotic desire to fix someone’s problem as a projection of our own ideals. A telltale sign is when we feel a strong desire for the other person to take up our suggestion and a sense of agitation when they are not willing – that disappointment comes from an expectation.

Probably another defining quality of unsolicited advice is when it is given at the wrong time. You could very well be right about what the other person needs to do about their situation, but they might not be ready to receive it just yet.

I love this saying by Ajahn Chah

“True but not right, right but not true!” 

What you are saying might be true, but if you say it at the wrong time or in the wrong circumstances, it becomes “wrong”. This is because we are not being receptive to the needs of the other person; our words are not in line with the way things are right now.

Instead, we are strongly attached to our views about the situation and are more concerned about getting them across and validated. 

We want our thoughts and speech to be thought of as right and true. 

That validation gives us a nice ego boost, making us feel that our opinions are right and true – which is a very nice and lofty way to perceive ourselves.

I am a wholesome and good Buddhist.

I am someone who helps improve the lives of those around me.

This sounds wonderful, of course. Better than being a murderer. 

But if we begin to cling to that image of ourselves, then our actions become less about generosity and goodness for their own sake and more about egoistic self-interest. More importantly, we may not be not truly serving the other person at all.

Drop the preacher mentality

I used to have a strong tendency to go around preaching about Buddhism until I met people like my Ajahn – a very unsuspecting monk of the Thai forest tradition. 

He always keeps a low profile but sometimes drops these mind-blowing nuggets of wisdom when the situation calls for it. Even though he’s in robes, he doesn’t go around preaching to every person he speaks to – which is ironic because he’s probably one of the most qualified people to do so. 

He mainly just listens and only gives advice when asked or makes comments at the appropriate time.

I think this is a sign of true humility (and Right Speech) – as opposed to when you feel like you have the right to “teach” or “correct” others, which automatically comes from a place of superiority. 

You’re trying to fix others, change them, make the world a better place – all according to your ideals, which are really just ego projections. Again – true but not right, right but not true.

Observing Ajahn’s behaviour, it’s apparent that despite his many years of diligent practice, experience and knowledge, he never really views himself as a “teacher” and therefore never puts himself in that position. He’s not on a profound mission to create world peace or save humanity or spread Buddhism.

He just wants to live out his life as a simple monk practising the Dhamma.

The irony of that is that turning inwards and focusing on ourselves is often the most impactful or inspiring thing for other people. Watching the skillful conduct of Dhamma friends like Ajahn has been the most effective thing for me in changing my behaviour and views for the better – they didn’t have to push or persuade me.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t lend our support to our friends and family when they need it – it would definitely be good if we did. But there’s a difference between supporting someone appropriate to their needs, and being generous for our benefit

It’s the same principle behind donating tons of food to an established food bank that has an oversupply of food, rather than donating to a lesser-known one that is really in need. The former may make us feel good for being generous, while the latter is generosity with attentiveness to the recipient and their needs, which is more beneficial and truly “self”-less.

Returning inwards

I think another important lesson to learn is that we can’t change people (and it’s not our business to anyway) – we can only support or encourage them. I believe people change on their own accord when they have their insights, and those definitely cannot be rushed or forced. 

When we understand this, we realise that trying to fix others is a waste of time and energy. We become more equanimous and in turn focus more on ourselves – which is where we can truly bring about change.


Wise Steps:

  • Focus on yourself. Most of what the Buddha taught was aimed at going inwards and cultivating wholesome qualities and abandoning unwholesome qualities within. If we realise this, there would be fewer problems to “fix” in the world.

  • If you’re not sure what your friend or family member needs, ask how you can best support them. Do they need advice, encouragement, or just empathy, etc.?

  • Be supportive, not compulsive. If you feel the impulse to give advice, ask yourself if it is appropriate for the other person right now and check if you’re just doing this to satisfy your ego. Agitation is a sign that the ego is at play.

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