Buddhism In Daily Life

by Nina van Gorkom

published by


This book was written in Thailand where I lived for some years. When I got to know the Thai people, I was impressed by their generosity. In Thailand one meets many people who do not set a limit to their generosity, be they rich or poor, and one is inspired to be more generous oneself. When one meets the Thais one notices their sincerity, their tolerance and their wise attitude towards the problems of life. I was also impressed by the earnestness and dedication of the monks who lead a life of simplicity, “contented with little”, and who try to realize the Buddhist teachings in their daily lives. When I visited the temples in Thailand, I saw Buddhism being lived in daily life.

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 nationality.

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 beings.

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.

Buddhism in Daily Life originated from a compilation of lectures for a Buddhist radio programme in English which were printed and reprinted in Thailand several times. Formerly this book was printed in two volumes with the titles Buddhist Outlook on Daily Life (now Part I) and Mental Development in Daily Life (now Part II). Jonathan Abbot and Susie Whitmore were of great assistance in preparing the text of these two volumes. This present edition has been reprinted in England after there were some requests from English people. I want to acknowledge my appreciation to the “Dhamma Study and Support Foundation”; to the sponsors of the printing of this edition, Asoka Jayasundera and family, Anura Perrera and family and Laksham Perera and family; and to the publisher Alan Weller. Thanks to their assistance the reprinting of this book has been made possible. I wrote Buddhism in Daily Life a long time ago and I have since written Abhidhamma in Daily Life, The World in the Buddhist Sense , and The Buddha’s Path. The last book gives a more complete outline of the Buddha’s teachings for people in Western countries who may not have had an opportunity to study Buddhism and who may find it difficult to grasp the core of the teachings. Buddhism in Daily Life reflects my own experiences when I first came into contact with Buddhism in Thailand and became deeply impressed by the Buddha’s teachings.

For the quotations from the Buddhist scriptures, I have used mostly the English translation of the Pali Text Society For the quotations from the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), I have used the translation by Bhikkhu Ñånamoli (Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1964). The Path of Purification is an Encyclopedia on Buddhism which is a compilation of ancient commentarial material arranged by the commentator Buddhaghosa in the fifth century A.D. The chapters which I wrote in the form of question and answer were inspired by real questions posed by people who were confronted with many problems in the practice of vipassanå. They were posed by myself as well. I found from my own experience that the practice of vipassanå is very subtle; that the clinging to the notion of “self” and the desire for results can easily lead us astray, that they can cause us to follow the wrong path instead of the right path.

When I wrote Buddhism in Daily Life I thought of the many people who want to know the truth about themselves. I find Dhamma the greatest blessing in life and I want to share with others what I learnt from the Buddhist teachings and from the practice of the Dhamma in daily life. I hope that this book can help others to find the Path that leads to real peace.

May the Dhamma be the greatest blessing in our lives,

Nina van Gorkom.

Chapter 1

General Aspects of Buddhism

Questioner: 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!

Question: Would you tell me what you mean by the practice of Buddhism in daily life?

Nina: One is first confronted with the practice of Buddhism when one sees different customs of the Thais, such as giving food to the monks, paying respect to the Buddha image or reciting the “precepts” on special occasions such as “Uposatha Day” (1 A day of vigil or fasting which laypeople may observe four times a month (the days of the new moon, full moon and the two days of the half moon) by undertaking moral precepts and by visiting the temple).

  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 teachings. The people who present eggs to the statue of the Buddha express heir confidence in him. This is a wholesome act which will bear its fruit accordingly. However, the people who present the eggs may not realize that it is their respect to the Buddha which will bring them a good result and not the eggs presented to him. They may not clearly see which cause will bring them which result.  They would receive greater benefit from their act of paying respect to the Buddha if this were done in a more meaningful way. They could, for example, pay respect to the Buddha by abstaining from ill deeds, in serving other people, in learning more about the teachings of the Buddha and in helping other people to understand the teachings as well.

Question: Could you tell me more about the different degrees of understanding the Buddha’s teaching?

Nina: As regards paying respect to the Buddha image, people who have a higher level of understanding know that the Buddha has passed away completely. When one has studied the teachings more deeply and when one has tried to verify them in daily life, one understands that, although the Buddha has passed away, it still makes sense to pay respect to him. It is the wholesome mental state of the person who pays respect to the Buddha or who offers something to him which will bring its result accordingly.  Every good action brings a good result to the person who performs it. One reaps what one has sown.

The person who pays respect to the Buddha with the right understanding does not have a confused idea of a Buddha in heaven who could see him or hear him. The image of the Buddha reminds him of the virtues of the Buddha. He thinks of the wisdom of the Buddha who found the Path to complete freedom from sorrow all by himself and who was able to help other people as well to find this Path. He thinks of the purity of the Buddha, of the purity in all his deeds, his speech and his thoughts. He thinks of the compassion of the Buddha, who taught out of compassion for everybody.

Question: What is the meaning of giving food to the monks?

Nina: As 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: when there is generosity there is no greed or attachment. The receiver will benefit from the act of the giver because he is encouraged to study and practise the Buddhist teachings more earnestly and to help other people to know the teachings as well.  He knows that the food he receives puts him under an obligation to be worthy of the gift, to work for the spiritual welfare of the whole world. Monks are continually reminded of their responsibility as monks, and twice a month they recite the rules of “Påtimokkha” in which their obligations are summed up. Furthermore, when the receiver is aware of the wholesome state of the giver, he will rejoice in the good deeds of the giver and thus he will have a wholesome mental state as well; he will be inspired by the generosity of the giver.

Question: Do 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.

Nina: Thinking of one’s own mental states is very realistic, because it is the different mental states which make us act in this way or that. Only if we study our mental states and the many factors which cause them to be like this or that, will we be able to understand the deepest motives of our behaviour. We have to start by being aware of our own mental states. This is not egocentric, because we have to understand ourselves first, before we can understand other people.

Through the study of the Abhidhamma one can begin to have more understanding of one’s own mental states. The Abhidhamma is that part of the Buddhist teachings which analyses the different states of mind and which explains in detail about everything which is real. The study of the Abhidhamma helps us to understand which causes bring which effects in our life and in the lives of other people.

Question: Do you find that you can verify the Abhidhamma in your daily life?

Nina: It 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. At first one might think that the Abhidhamma is too subtle and one might doubt whether it is useful to study the many different degrees of ignorance and wisdom, but one learns that each of these different degrees brings its corresponding result. In studying the Abhidhamma one learns to understand more about other people as well. One learns that people are different because of different accumulations of experiences in the past.  Because of these different accumulations people behave differently. At each moment one accumulates new experiences and this conditions what one will be like and what one will experience in the future.

When we understand more about the different accumulations of different people, we are less inclined to judge other people.  When we see people paying respect to the Buddha with apparently very little understanding we know that their accumulations are thus and that they are performing a wholesome act according to their ability.

Question: Do 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?

Nina: Everything 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. They share the life of the monks in order to learn more about the Buddhist teachings and to make merit for their parents who can rejoice in their good deeds. Many people think that the person who makes merit can literally transfer his own good deeds to other people, dead or alive. This is not the right understanding. It is not possible to transfer merit to other people, because everyone will receive the result of his own deeds. Older monks who have reached a higher level of understanding can help the novices to have more understanding about the wholesome act they are per-forming.  If they could understand correctly the meaning of the merit they make, their renunciation would be even more fruitful.  The novices are performing a very wholesome act in renouncing the company of their relatives in order to study the Buddhist teachings and to train themselves in the precepts, which are moral rules. This gives them a good spiritual foundation for their whole life. They will receive the fruit of this wholesome act themselves.  The merit they make cannot literally be transferred to other people.  However, other people, no matter whether they are deceased or still alive, can have wholesome states of mind inspired by the good deeds of someone else. Their own wholesome mental states will bring them a wholesome result. So parents, even deceased parents, if they are in planes of existence where they can rejoice in the good deeds of their child, may have wholesome states of mind and these will bring wholesome results in the future. The expression “transfer of merit” is a misleading one, because it does not give us the understanding of the real cause and effect.

Question: You 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.

Nina: The English language is not adequate to render the meaning of the realities described in the Abhidhamma. The “Three Collections” of the teachings (Tipiìaka) use Påli terms, and therefore it is better to learn the Påli terms and their meaning. For instance, the word “mental state” which is a translation of the Påli term “citta” (Pronounce: chitta.), is misleading. “State” implies something which stays for  some time, be it short or long. However, each mental state or citta falls away immediately, as soon as it has arisen, to be succeeded by the next citta. This happens more rapidly than a lightning flash. The different cittas succeed one another so rapidly that it seems that there is only one citta. That is the reason why people take a citta for “self”. For the same reason the word “mind” gives us a wrong idea of reality. We often hear the expression “mastering one’s mind” or “controlling one’s mind”. Many people think that the mind is something static which can be grasped and controlled. There are many different cittas, none of which can be considered as “self” or as belonging to a “self”.

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 unavoidable.

Neither can we be masters of our mind; the mental states which arise are beyond control. Like and dislike are beyond control, they arise when there are conditions. When we eat food which is prepared to our taste, we cannot help liking it. If someone insults us, we cannot help feeling aversion; we may reason later and try to understand the other person, but we cannot help feeling aversion at first. Like, dislike, and even reasoning about our likes and dislikes, are not “self”, they are different mental states which arise when there are the right conditions. We all are inclined to take mental states for “self”; for example, when we enjoy something we take our enjoyment for “self”. How-ever, the next moment there could be aversion, and we might wonder where the enjoyment which we took for “self” has gone.  It is very human to like the idea of a “self” and to hold on to it.

The Buddha knew this and therefore, after his enlightenment, he

felt for a moment inclined not to teach other people the Path he

had found. However, the Buddha knew also that people have

different levels of understanding. We read in the Kindred Sayings

(I, Ch. VI, The Brahmå Suttas, Ch. 1, §1, The Entreaty) that the

Buddha surveyed the world with his “Buddha-vision” and saw

people with different levels of understanding, some of whom

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 had discovered.

Question: People have different accumulations. They are conditioned in many ways. We have used the word “condition” several times already. Could you explain the meaning of this term?

Nina: I 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 and

feels happy again. Thus one can notice that there are different

cittas , and that each citta has its own conditions. The amount of work at the office is a condition for my husband’s tiredness and irritation. Afterwards there is another condition which makes him feel happy again.

Cittas are conditioned and each citta accumulates a new experience, which will condition cittas in the future. Everybody accumulates different tastes, abilities, likes and dislikes. One cannot always know the conditions which make people behave in this or in that way, but sometimes it is possible to know. For instance, people are addicted to different things, some of which are very harmful, others less so. One’s education and the surroundings in which one is living can be a condition for these addictions. In some countries or regions it is the custom to drink an enormous amount of coffee the whole day and people even give coffee to very small children. Thus one acquires the taste for coffee from one’s youth. As regards attachment to alcoholic drinks, there must be a condition for that as well. One starts with a little drink every day and gradually one’s attachment increases. Everybody should find out for himself how much attachment he accumulates and whether this brings him happiness or sorrow.  

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?

Nina: The situation is not hopeless. Wisdom, the understanding of reality, can condition one to have more wholesome mental states and to do good deeds. There is no “self” who can suppress one’s bad inclinations; there is no “self” who can force one to do good deeds. Everybody can verify this in daily life. For example, if we tell ourselves: “today I will be very kind to everybody”, can we prevent ourselves from suddenly saying an unkind word? Most of the time it has happened before we realize it.

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 “self”.

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 times.

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.

Question: So 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?

Nina: Yes. 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 the body as well. Both dead matter and the body are composed of the element of earth or solidity, the element of water or cohesion, the element of fire or temperature and the element of wind or motion .(These terms do not stand for the conventional ideas of earth, water, fire and wind, but they denote characteristics of realities.)

. One is inclined to think: “Is there not a soul which makes the body alive and is the body therefore not different from dead matter?” There is no soul; there are only physical phenomena and mental phenomena which arise and fall away all the time. We are not used to distinguishing the body from the mind and analysing them as to what they really are. However, this is necessary if we want to know reality.

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 Way”.

Question: So, seeing things as they are is the practice of vipassanå, insight. Most people think that it is a complicated form of meditation which can be learnt only in a meditation centre. That is the reason why most people will not even try it. But from our conversation it appears that vipassanå is seeing the things of our daily life as they are. Do you find that one has to have much theoretical knowledge before one starts the practice of vipassanå?  Nina: The word “meditation” frightens many people; they think that it must be very complicated. But in reality one does not have to do anything special. If one wants to develop vipassanå one needs some theoretical knowledge. One does not have to know about all physical elements and mental elements in detail, but one should know that the body is made up of physical elements and that these are different from mental elements. There are many different physical elements and these elements are continually changing. One should know that there are many different mental elements: one citta arises and falls away, then the next citta arises and falls away. Cittas arise and fall away successively, one at a time. Seeing is one citta, hearing is another citta, thinking is again another citta, they are all different cittas. Developing vipassanå does not mean that one has to be aware of all those different elements at each moment; that would not be possible. Nor does one have to do anything special; one can perform all the activities of one’s daily life. One gradually begins to understand that there are only physical phenomena and mental phenomena and one begins to be aware of these phenomena quite naturally, without having to force oneself, because they are there all the time.

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.

Question: Do you find that awareness in this way brings you


Nina: When 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 life.

Everybody should verify this for himself!.

Chapter 2

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 way.

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. Others give without conceit, but they may still have attachment: they give only to people they like. There are people who give out of pure loving-kindness, without any thought of attachment. This is a more wholesome way of giving.

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:

“But what, revered sir, is skilled bodily conduct?”

“Whatever the bodily conduct, sire, that has no blemish.”

“But what, revered sir, is the bodily conduct that has no blemish?”

“Whatever the bodily conduct, sire, that is non-injurious.”

“And what, revered sir, is the bodily conduct that is non-injurious?”

“Whatever the bodily conduct, sire, that is joyous in result.”

“And what, 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 much....”

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 which was of great help to people in their daily lives. When I asked what the monk was preaching, the answer was that he was speaking about “citcai”(Pronounce: chitchai).  “Citcai” is the word in Thai for “state of mind”, in Påli: citta. This monk had the right approach to life.  One should follow the example of the Buddha; one should not only tell people to do good deeds, but one should teach them as well how to do good deeds. In order to know how to do good deeds, we should go back to the source of the good deeds: the mental states or “cittas”. It is preferable to use the Påli term “citta” rather than a translation from the Påli since translations do not render the meaning of the terms adequately. For example, the English translation of “citta” as “state of mind” or “mental state” implies something which stays, which does not change. But this is not the characteristic of citta. When we have learned more about cittas we will find out that there is no citta which stays, even for a second. Each citta which arises falls away immediately, to be succeeded by the next citta. Cittas determine our life and the lives of other people; they condition the actions we perform in life.

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 realities and therefore it is important to know more about them. That part of the Buddhist teachings which analyses and explains in detail mental phenomena and physical phenomena is called the “Abhidhamma”. The Abhidhamma deals with everything which is real. Studying the Abhidhamma can change one’s life.

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 selfish.

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 homelessness....”

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 sense-pleasures:

... 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 sense-impressions again.

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. Although one is not enslaved to sense-impressions during the time of jhåna, one still clings to them when the citta is no longer jhånacitta. The jhånas do not last; they are impermanent. Moreoever, there is a more subtle form of clinging, a clinging to the happiness of the jhånas. One might think that one is without clinging when one does not indulge in sense-pleasures. However, one might still cling to the joy of jhåna which is not associated with sense-pleasures, one might cling to pleasant feeling or equanimity which can accompany jhånacitta.

For the development of samatha paññå is necessary, but this kind of paññå cannot eradicate defilements. There is a higher paññå which can eradicate all defilements, even the most subtle forms of clinging. This paññå is developed in “insight meditation” or “vipassanå”. In vipassanå, paññå gradually eliminates ignorance, the root of all defilements. One learns more about the realities which present themselves through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body-sense and mind at any moment. We know so little about the most common things of daily life. How often are we aware of bodily movements during the day? How often are we aware of bodily phenomena such as hardness or softness while we are stretching or bending our arms, or when we are moving our lips while talking? We do not really know what sound is, what hearing is or what it is we take for “self” while hearing. We do not know the phenomena which appear at the present moment.

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 rúpa; it does not know anything. Seeing is a type of nåma; it experiences an object: visible object. Hearing and thinking are other types of nåma, different from seeing. There are many different types of nåma and rúpa, and in vipassanå we learn to experience their characteristics.

In the development of vipassanå the impermanence of nåmas and rúpas will be directly known. One may have reflected before on the impermanence of all things in life. Reflection on the truth is necessary, but it is not the same as the direct knowledge of the impermanence of all realities in and around oneself. In the begin-ning the arising and falling away of nåma and rúpa cannot be realised. However, if we learn to be aware of different characteris-tics of nåma and rúpa which appear one at a time, and if we realize that each nåma or rúpa which appears now is different from preceding nåmas and rúpas, we will be less inclined to think that nåma and rúpa last, and we will be less inclined to take them for “self”.

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?”

“Impermanent, revered sir.”

“But is what is impermanent painful or is it pleasant?”

“Painful, revered sir.”

“And is it right to regard that which is impermanent, suffering, liable to change, as ‘This is mine, this am I, this is myself’?”

“No, revered sir.”

The Buddha asked the same about mental phenomena.

In the Discourse on Mindfulness of the Body (Middle Length.Right understanding in daily life • 25 Sayings, III, no. 119) we read that the Buddha, when he was staying near Såvatthí, at the Jeta Grove, spoke to the monks about mindfulness of the body and the advantages of it. Some of these are the following:

... 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 understanding of realities, until we are old or have retired from our work. When we develop this wisdom we will know ourselves better, we will be aware more often of the moments of akusala cittas which arise, even while we are doing good deeds. Conceit about our good deeds may arise or we may expect something in return for our good deeds, such as praise or a good name. When we gradually see more clearly that there are only nåma and rúpa which arise because of conditions, there will eventually be less clinging to a concept of self who performs kusala or akusala. When there is less clinging to the self good deeds will become purer. The paññå developed in vipassanå is the “Right Understanding” of the eightfold Path which leads to nibbåna. Everyone has to tread this Path by himself. One can only purify oneself. One cannot be purified by other people; other people can only help one to find the right Path. There will be no lasting world peace so long as there is craving, ill-will and ignorance. It is very necessary to take part of the world organisations which promote the peace and the welfare of nations, and to give material aid to those who are in need.

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 of all defilements. It can be realized here and now, in this life. When paññå has been developed stage by stage it can reach the degree that enlightenment can be attained. At that moment nibbåna is experienced . When one has realized nibbåna one understands what it means to be “awakened to the truth”.

1 Paññå which experiences the nåmas and rúpas of our life is “mundane” or “lokiya paññå”; paññå which experiences nibbåna is “supramundane” or “lokuttara paññå”.