Buddhism In Daily Life
by Nina van Gorkom
published by zolag.co.uk
This book was written in Thailand where I lived for some
And so, I wanted to study Buddhism. We are inclined to
think that Buddhism is only a religion for people living in an oriental culture,
but when we learn more about it, we see that it is completely different from
what we first thought. We learn that it is in fact a “way of life” which
makes for the well-being and happiness of all people, no matter what their
Through the study of the Buddha’s teachings, which are
also called the “Dhamma”, we learn to develop the wisdom which leads to
detachment from the “self” and finally to the eradication of greed, hatred
and ignorance. When there is less attachment in our life, there is more room for
unselfish loving kindness (mettå) and compassion (karuùå) for all living
The way one has to follow in order to develop this wisdom
is the “eightfold Path”. Through the development of the eightfold Path we
come to know better the phenomena within and around ourselves; these phenomena
can be experienced through the six doorways of eyes, ears, nose, tongue,
body-sense and mind. They are continually susceptible to change and they are
impermanent. What we take for
“I” or “self“ all the time does not exist; there are only phenomena
which arise and fall away again.
In Thailand I experienced that “to reside in a suitable
location is the greatest blessing” (Mahå-Mangala Sutta). Thailand was the country where I met the “wise person”
who helped me to understand the Buddhist teachings and who showed me the way to
develop the eightfold Path. It is a great blessing to live in a country where
Buddhism is taught and practised so that one can acquire not only theoretical
knowledge of Buddhism, but also the way leading to the realization of the
Buddha’s teachings in daily life.
The Buddha, who attained enlightenment and who had clear
comprehension of everything which is real, left us his teachings which are now
in the form of the Tipiìaka (three
“baskets”), the three parts of the Buddhist scriptures, consisting of the Vinaya,
the Book of Discipline for the monks, the Suttanta,
Discourses, and the Abhidhamma,
the “higher teachings” or exposition of realities in detail. The Buddhist
teachings themselves should be our guide in the practice. Some people want to
apply themselves to “meditation” immediately without first studying the
teachings and thus they do not know which result their way of mental development
will bring. The Buddhist teachings are so subtle; one needs to study them
thoroughly and to consider them carefully in order to understand what the Buddha
taught about mental development. Mental development includes both the
development of calm (samatha) and the development of insight (vipassanå), but
they each have a different way of practice and a different result. If one does
not follow the Buddha’s way, but follows rather one’s own or someone
else’s way, one cannot reach the goal.
In this book I do not pretend to give a complete outline
of the Buddha’s teachings. My purpose is to draw the reader to the Buddhist
scriptures themselves and to the practice in accordance with the teachings. I
want to ask the reader to read this book with discrimination and to investigate
for himself or herself what the Buddhist scriptures say. By our own practice we
can prove whether the way we follow is the right one for the goal we have
chosen. If we intend to develop insight, vipassanå, the result should be that
we gain more understanding of the realities which appear at the present moment
through the five senses and the mind, and less clinging to the concept of
“self”. In the final analysis, the reader will have to find out for himself
and to decide for himself about the path he wants to follow in his life.
I feel deep gratitude to Miss Sujin Boriharnwanaket who
helped me to understand the Buddhist teachings and who showed me the way to develop vipassanå in daily life. The writing of
this book would not have been possible without her help and valuable advice.
Daily Life originated from a compilation of lectures
For the quotations from the Buddhist scriptures, I have
When I wrote Buddhism
in Daily Life I thought of the many
May the Dhamma be the greatest blessing in our lives,
Nina van Gorkom.
General Aspects of Buddhism
What led you to the study of the Buddha’s teachings? Nina:
When I first came to Thailand I was naturally interested in knowing more about
the Thai people. I wanted to learn more about their customs and their way of
thinking. I found the study of Buddhism essential for the understanding of the
Thai culture because the spiritual background of the Thai people is Buddhism.
Therefore I started to study Buddhism and the more I studied, the more I
found my interest growing. When one is in Thailand one should take the
opportunity to study Buddhism and to try to understand the practice of Buddhism
as well. Deep understanding will not come from books alone. Understanding is
developed above all by the practice, by the application of the Buddhist
teachings in daily life!
Would you tell me what you mean by the practice of Buddhism in daily life?
is first confronted with the practice of Buddhism
(1 A day of vigil or
fasting which laypeople may observe four times a month (the
(1 A day of vigil or
fasting which laypeople may observe four times a month (the
In the beginning I thought that these customs were mixed
with many things which are not essential for the practice of Buddhism.
For example, I did not see how the presenting of eggs to the statue of
the “Emerald Buddha” could have anything to do with the practice of
Buddhism. However, even such popular beliefs can teach us something about the
practice of Buddhism.
There are many levels of understanding the Buddha’s
you tell me more about the different degrees of understanding the Buddha’s
regards paying respect to the Buddha image, people
The person who pays respect to the Buddha with the right
is the meaning of giving food to the monks?
regards the giving of food to the monks, some people doubt whether that is of
any use. They are inclined to think that monks want to have an easy life and
that they do not have to work at all, but they forget that the real meaning of
being a monk is seeking the truth.
A monk’s life is a hard life, he does not have a family
life, he cannot choose his own food and he does not take part in any entertainment such as going to the movies
or football matches. He renounces the luxuries of a home, entertainment, choice of
clothing and food, in order to seek the truth and to help other people to find
the truth as well.
When people give food to the monks their act is one which
will be fruitful for both parties. The giver will benefit from his act because
he has a wholesome mental state at the time of giving:
you not find it difficult to think in terms of “mental states”? Thinking of
one’s own mental state might seem an ego-centric attitude.
of one’s own mental states is very realistic,
Through the study of the Abhidhamma
one can begin to have
you find that you can verify the Abhidhamma in your daily life?
was a great discovery for me to find that the Abhidhamma can be verified in
daily life, although one can in the beginning experience only part of the
realities the Abhidhamma explains.
When we understand more about the different accumulations
you think that a person with very little understand-ing can ever reach a level
of higher understanding? In other words, when one’s accumulations have
conditioned one’s character, is there anything that can be done about it? Is
it possible to improve one’s degree of understanding?
can be done about it: wisdom can be developed very gradually and thus one’s
accumulations can be changed. Those
who have a higher level of understanding can and should help other people to
develop a higher level of understanding as well.
I shall give an example. Children can become novices.
used the expression “mental state”. Could you explain what it means? I would
like to ask you in general whether you find the English language adequate to
render the real meaning of the realities which are described in the Abhidhamma.
English language is not adequate to render the meaning ), is misleading. “State” implies something which
), is misleading. “State” implies something which
In the Lesser
Discourse to Saccaka (Middle Length Sayings I, no.
35) we read that the Buddha asked Saccaka whether he could be master of
his body or of his mind, just as a king rules over his subjects. The Buddha
asked: “When you speak thus: ‘The body is myself,’ have you power over
this body of yours (and can you say), ‘Let my body be thus, let my body be not
thus’?” The Buddha asked the same question about the mind. Saccaka who was
at first silent finally had to agree that it was not possible.
In daily life we can find out that the Buddha spoke the
truth. If we were masters of our body we would not grow older, there would not
be sickness and we would not die. However, old age, sickness and death are
Neither can we be masters of our mind; the mental states
The Buddha knew this and therefore, after his
felt for a moment inclined not to teach other people the
had found. However, the Buddha knew also that people have
different levels of understanding. We read in the Kindred
(I, Ch. VI, The Brahmå Suttas, Ch. 1, §1, The Entreaty)
Buddha surveyed the world with his “Buddha-vision”
people with different levels of understanding, some of
would be able to understand his teaching:
As in a pool of
blue or red or white lotus, some lotus plants born in the
water, emerge not,
but grow up and thrive sunken beneath the
surface; and other
lotus plants, born in the water and growing up in
the water rise to
the surface; and other lotus plants, born in the water
and growing up in
the water, stand thrusting themselves above the
water and are
unwetted by it; even so did the Exalted One look down
over the world with
a Buddha’s Eye and see beings whose eyes were
scarcely dimmed by
dust, beings whose eyes were sorely dimmed by
dust, beings sharp
of sense and blunted of sense, beings of good and
beings of evil
disposition, beings docile and beings indocile, some
among them living
with a perception of the danger of other worlds
and of wrong doing.
Therefore the Buddha decided to make known the Path he
have different accumulations. They are conditioned in many ways. We have used
the word “condition” several times already. Could you explain the meaning of
will give an example from daily life. My husband comes
home from his office, feeling tired and somewhat
irritated. I tell
him something amusing which has happened and he laughs
feels happy again. Thus one can notice that there are
Cittas are conditioned and each citta accumulates a new
Question: There is
not anything which one can control. Even each citta which arises because of
conditions falls away im-mediately, to be succeeded by the next citta. It seems
as if the situation is hopeless. Could you tell me whether something can be done
to walk the right way in life?
situation is not hopeless. Wisdom, the understanding of reality, can condition
one to have more wholesome mental states and to do good deeds.
If we are able to suppress our anger for a while we are
inclined to think that there is a “self” who can suppress anger. In reality
there are at that moment cittas which are not conditioned by anger, but which
arise from other conditions. Afterwards there will be anger again because anger
is not really eradicated by suppression. Only wisdom, seeing things as they are,
can very gradually eradicate everything which is unwholesome in us.
We can develop this wisdom step by step. Even wisdom is
not “self”; it can only arise when there are the right conditions. We can
develop wisdom by knowing through direct experience the mental phenomena and
physical phenomena in and around our-selves.
When we have realized that none of these mental and physical phenomena
stays or is permanent, we will understand that we cannot take any phenomenon for
The Buddha explained to his disciples that it is
“comprehending”, seeing things as they are, which will eradicate
unwholesomeness. When we are still
learning to develop wisdom and when we notice that we have unwholesome cittas,
we are troubled about it, we have aversion because of it. He whose wisdom is
developed, has right understanding of his life. He knows that
there is no “self”, and that everything arises because of conditions. Thus
he is not troubled, he is simply aware of the present moment.
The word “comprehending” is used in the suttas many
This should help us to see that we do not have to perform
extraordinary deeds; we should learn to be aware of the present moment in order
to see things as they are. Of course wisdom cannot be fully developed in one
day. For a long time we have been used to the idea of “self”. In
conventional language we have to use the words “I” and “self”
continually in order to make ourselves understood.
wisdom is wholesome, and not understanding things as they are is unwholesome and
brings unhappiness. Do you find that you can verify this in daily life?
I will give an example. We are constantly taking our body for “self”,
although we know that it does not last. Thus, when we suffer from sickness or
pain, or when we become old, we attach so much importance to these facts that we
feel quite oppressed by them. If one of our sense-organs does not function or if
we become an invalid, we feel we are the most unhappy person in the world.
Attachment to our body only brings sorrow, whereas if we would see things as
they are, there would be less sorrow for us.
If one wants to see the body as it really is, one should
distinguish the body from mentality. It is true that in this world body and
mentality condition each other. However, one should know the different
characteristics of each, so that they can be experienced as they are.
The same elements which constitute dead matter constitute
One is inclined to think: “Is there not a soul which
The body itself does not know anything; in this respect
it is the same as dead matter. If we can see that the body is only a composition
of physical phenomena which arise and fall away completely, and not “self”,
and that the mind is a series of mental phenomena which arise and fall away and
not “self”, the veil of ignorance will fall from our eyes.
If we try to develop this understanding we can see for
ourselves what the result is. We can find out whether this understanding brings
us more freedom from attachment or not. Attachment brings sorrow.
The Buddha taught people to see things as they are. We do
not have to fast or to be an ascetic. It is our duty to look after the body and
to feed it. The Buddha taught the “Middle Way”: one does not have to force
oneself to undertake difficult practices, but on the other hand one should learn
through right understanding to become detached from the things in an around
oneself. Just understanding, seeing things as they are, that is the “Middle
seeing things as they are is the practice of vipassanå,
When we understand that these phenomena can be known as
they are only through direct awareness of them, awareness will arise by itself
little by little. We will experience that awareness will arise when there are
the right conditions. It does not matter if there is not a great deal of
awareness in the beginning. It is important to understand that awareness is not
“self” either, but a mental phenomenon which arises when there are the right
conditions. We cannot force
awareness to arise.
In understanding more about physical phenomena and mental
phenomena, and in being aware of them in daily life, wisdom will develop. Thus
there will be more wholesomeness and less un-wholesomeness.
you find that awareness in this way brings you
there is understanding of what things really are,
there will be more wholesomeness in our life. There will
be less clinging to the concept of “self” when we perform good deeds, and
thus good deeds will be purer. We do not refrain from evil things because we
have to follow certain rules, but because we have more understanding as to which
causes bring which effects. The
right understanding of what things are will very gradually eradicate
unwholesomeness. When there is less unwholesomeness there will be more peace in
Everybody should verify this for himself!.
Right Understanding in Daily Life
What is the effect of the Buddha’s teachings on
people’s actions? In what way
could the Buddha’s teachings effectively help people to perform wholesome
deeds? Is it possible to do good deeds because a person with authority tells us:
“Be detached and do good deeds”?
From experience we know that a good example might help to
some extent, but the source of the good deeds is within ourselves: our mentality
determines our actions. If someone wants to do his utmost to help other people
he should understand himself first. He should understand the causes which make him act in this or
in that way. If he develops right understanding of these causes he will be able
to lead a more wholesome life and to help other people in the most effective
Mentality is the source from which deeds spring; it is
therefore not possible to determine the degree of wholesomeness from the outward
appearance of deeds alone. There are many gradations of wholesomeness depending
on the mentality which motivates a good deed.
Some people give money to needy people, but that does not
mean that there may not still be conceit or other selfish motives.
We may wonder whether the study of so many details is
necessary. In daily life we will
see that it is very helpful to know the different kinds of citta and to know
which citta motivates which kind of action. Cittas change all the time,
succeeding each other very rapidly. If we learn to distinguish different kinds
of citta, we will see that even while we are performing a wholesome deed,
unwhole-some cittas can follow very closely upon the wholesome cittas.
“Wholesome” is the translation of the Påli term “kusala”.
A.18 • Buddhism in Daily Life wholesome
deed in its widest sense means a deed which brings no harm to oneself nor to
other people at the moment the deed is done or later on.
In the Discourse
on the Foreign Cloth (Middle Length Sayings II, no. 88) we read about
wholesome deeds, wholesome speech and wholesome thoughts. King Pasenadi
questions Ånanda about the nature of unwholesome and wholesome deeds. As to
wholesome or “skilled” bodily conduct we read the following conversation:
revered sir, is skilled bodily conduct?”
bodily conduct, sire, that has no blemish.”
revered sir, is the bodily conduct that has no blemish?”
bodily conduct, sire, that is non-injurious.”
revered sir, is the bodily conduct that is non-injurious?”
bodily conduct, sire, that is joyous in result.”
revered sir, is the bodily conduct that is joyous in result?” “Whatever
bodily conduct, sire, does not conduce to the torment of self and does not
conduce to the torment of others and does not conduce to the torment of both,
and by which the unskilled states dwindle away, the skilled states increase
The same is said about wholesome speech and wholesome
thinking. These words render the
meaning of wholesome or “kusala” in its widest sense. There are many kinds
and intensities of kusala. In developing “right understanding” or wisdom
there can be kusala of a higher degree.
Wisdom or understanding is a translation of the Påli
term “paññå”. Paññå does
not only mean knowledge acquired from the study of books, paññå also includes
insight, right understanding of the realities of daily life. Paññå can be
developed in daily life. When paññå accompanies kusala citta, wholesome citta,
there is a higher degree of wholesomeness. There are many degrees of paññå
and each degree brings its result accordingly.
It is a typical Buddhist approach to investigate and to
be aware of the different mental phenomena and physical phenomena which can be
experienced through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, bodysense and mind. If one is not
used to this approach one might feel somewhat bewildered at first. However,
after we have investigated more these mental and physical phenomena, we will
find out that only thus it is possible to understand the
different ways in which we ourselves and other people behave, and to know which
causes bring which effects in life. It makes no sense to speak in vague, general
terms about realities, because the real understanding of our experiences in life
can never be developed in that way.
Someone told me about a monk who was preaching in a way “Citcai”
Many people are not used to this approach; they are used
to looking at the outward appearance of things. Scientists are very advanced in
the study of outer space, but little is known about what goes on inwardly in
man. People are used to paying attention to the things they see and hear, but
they are not used to attending to seeing-consciousness and to
hearing-consciousness. They do not think of the cittas which perform the
functions of seeing and hearing.
Seeing-consciousness and hearing-consciousness are
Many Thais listen to lectures about Abhidhamma, and not
only those who have been educated at a college or university, but also those who
have never received a higher education. I have heard of cases in which the study
of different cittas has helped people to lead a more wholesome life. I heard of
someone who was at first inclined to have feelings of revenge towards other
people, but who was gradually able to overcome those feelings by understand-ing
what those feelings were. Many Thais know about the realities taught in the
Abhidhamma, and they are able to apply their knowledge in daily life. Foreigners
do not usually hear about this because people do not often speak about
Abhidhamma to foreigners. Unwholesome
mental states or “akusala cittas” and wholesome mental states or “kusala
cittas” are realities of daily life. In order to know more about these
realities we should try to understand ourselves first: if we do not understand
ourselves we cannot help other people. This does not mean, however, that we have
to wait our whole life before we can start helping other people. Even those who
are just beginning to understand things as they are can help others to have
right understanding too.
Paññå, wisdom or understanding, is the opposite of
ignorance, the root of all defilement and sorrow. Paññå is important for the
development of kusala cittas. It is possible to do good deeds without paññå,
but if there is understanding of what is unwhole-some and what is wholesome, and
understanding of what the result is of unwholesome and wholesome deeds, one is
able to lead a more wholesome life. Thus, the development of paññå is of
great benefit both to ourselves and to others.
There are many degrees of paññå. When a teacher
explains to his pupils that kusala cittas with gratitude or honesty will bring a
pleasant result and that unwholesome deeds motivated by greed or anger will
bring an unpleasant result, the explanation may be the condition for them to
have some degree of paññå. With paññå they may be able to develop kusala
cittas and to perform more wholesome deeds.
There is a higher degree of paññå when people realize
the impermanence of all the things they enjoy in life. When people see how short
human life is, they will try not to be attached too.Right understanding in daily life • 21 much to the
pleasant things of life. This understanding will stim-ulate them to a greater
generosity and to more readiness to help other people. They will be less
Some people who have this degree of paññå might change
their way of life and live contentedly without any luxury. Others might decide
to “go forth from home into homelessness”; they might decide to become a
monk. A monk’s life is not an easy life. He lives without family and is one
who is “contented with little”. In the Discourse
on the Sixfold Cleansing (Middle Length Sayings III, no. 112) we read
that the Buddha spoke about the monk who told of his renunciation of the world:
“So I, your
reverences, after a time, getting rid of my wealth, whether small or great,
getting rid of my circle of relations, whether small or great, having cut off my
hair and beard, having put on saffron robes, went forth from home into
The Buddha explained that people are too much attached to
the sense-impressions received through eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body. He
spoke about the “five strands of sense-pleasures”. We read in the Discourse
with Subha (Middle Length Sayings II, no.
99) that the Buddha spoke with Subha about the five strands of
... These five,
brahman youth, are the strands of pleasures of the senses. What five? Material
shapes cognisable by the eye, agreeable, pleasant, liked, enticing, connected
with sensual pleasures, alluring. Sounds
cognisable by the ear... Smells cognisable by the nose... Tastes cognisable by
the tongue... Touches cognisable by the body, agreeable, pleasant, liked,
enticing, connected with sensual pleasures, alluring.
These, brahman youth, are the five strands of sense-pleasures.
Brahman youth, the brahman Pokkharasåti of the Upamañña (clan) of the
Subhaga forest glade, is enslaved and infatuated by these five strands of
sense-pleasures, he is addicted to them, and enjoys them without seeing the
peril (in them), without knowing the escape (from them)....
We would like to have pleasant sense-impressions and we
are inclined to attach too much importance to them. We are so absorbed in what we see or hear that we forget that
sense-impressions are not true happiness. In the Discourse
to Mågandiya (Middle Length Sayings II, no. 75) we read that the
Buddha said to Mågandiya:
Now I, Mågandiya,
when I was formerly a householder, endowed and provided with the five strands of
sense-pleasures, revelled in them... But
after a time, having known the coming to be and passing away of sense-pleasures
and the satisfaction and peril of them and the escape as it really is, getting
rid of the craving for sense-pleasures, suppressing the fever for
sense-pleasures, I dwelt devoid of thirst, my mind inwardly calmed. I saw other
beings not yet devoid of attachment to sense-pleasures who were pursuing
sense-pleasures (although) they were being consumed by craving for
sense-pleasures, burning with the fever for sense-pleasures. I did not envy
them: I had no delight therein....
People who understand that there is a higher happiness
than the pleasures which one can enjoy through the five senses might apply
themselves to the development of calm or “samatha”. The calm which is
developed in samatha is temporary freedom from attachment, anger and other
defilements. There are several med-itation subjects of samatha, such as
recollection of the Buddha’s virtues, mindfulness of breathing or
loving-kindness. It depends on a person’s accumulations which subject
conditions calm for him. Samatha is not a matter of just trying to concentrate
on an object. Most important is right understanding of the meditation subject
and of the way to attain the calm which is wholesome by means of the meditation
subject. If one does not know the difference between kusala citta and akusala
citta one is likely to take attach-ment to silence for kusala and then samatha
cannot be developed.
One has to know the characteristic of calm which is
wholesome, free from akusala. Then there can be conditions for more calm.
Calm in samatha can reach such a high degree that one becomes totally
absorbed in the meditation subject. There are different stages of this calm
absorption or “jhåna”. During jhåna one does not receive impressions
through the five senses and thus one is at those moments not enslaved to them.
One enjoys a higher happi-ness. In higher stages of jhåna one attains a greater tranquillity
of mind until one no longer feels rapture or joy; one transcends happy feeling and there is
equanimity instead. When, however, the citta is not jhånacitta, there are
Samatha is a means for the cultivation of wholesomeness.
People who apply themselves to samatha may become very peaceful and amiable.
They can be of great comfort to people who are restless.
However, in samatha defilements are not eradicated.
For the development of samatha paññå is necessary, but
When we are absorbed in the outer appearance and the
details of things, we will not be able to be aware of the realities of the
present moment. So long as we are carried away by like or dislike of what we see
and hear, it is impossible to see things as they are.
It is as if we are asleep; we are not yet awake to the truth. The Buddha
was perfectly mindful and he had complete knowledge of all the different kinds
of mental and physical phenomena. Therefore he could call himself “the
Awakened One”; he was fully awake to the truth. We, too, should wake up to the
truth In vipassanå, paññå will gradually develop and it will know
things as they are. In being aware of the reality which appears at the present
moment we learn that there are two kinds of reality: physical phenomena or rúpa
and mental phenomena or nåma.
Rúpa does not know anything whereas nåma experiences some-thing;
it experiences an object. For example, visible object is
In the development of vipassanå the impermanence of nåmas
In the Greater
Discourse of a Full Moon (Middle Length Sayings III, no. 109) we read
that the Buddha, while he was staying near Såvatthí in the palace of Migåra’s
mother in the Eastern Monastery, said to the monks:
“... What do you
think about this, monks? Is material shape permanent or impermanent?”
“But is what is
impermanent painful or is it pleasant?”
“And is it right
to regard that which is impermanent, suffering, liable to change, as ‘This is
mine, this am I, this is myself’?”
The Buddha asked the same about mental phenomena.
In the Discourse
on Mindfulness of the Body (Middle Length.Right
understanding in daily life • 25
... He is one who
overcomes dislike and liking, and dislike (and liking) do not overcome him; he
fares along constantly conquering any dislike (and liking) that have arisen. He
is one who overcomes fear and dread, and fear and dread do not overcome him; and
he fares along constantly conquering any fear and dread that have arisen. He is
one who bears cold, heat, hunger, thirst, the touch of gadfly, mosquito, wind
and sun, creeping things, ways of speech that are irksome, unwelcome; he is of a
character to bear bodily feelings which, arising, are painful, acute, sharp,
shooting, disagreeable, miserable, deadly....
We will gradually learn to give in less to attachment and
to anger or aversion when we have realized that these are only different types
of nåma which arise because of conditions and then fall away again immediately.
We should not wait to develop insight, right
However, we should realize that this is not enough, that
it will only help to a certain degree. The real causes of war are
craving, ill-will and ignorance. Only in developing paññå can we eliminate
craving, ill-will and ignorance.
The eightfold Path leads to nibbåna. Nibbåna is the end
1 Paññå which
experiences the nåmas and rúpas of our life is “mundane” or