Tag Archives: dharma

When the Tool Becomes the Master

Last night in class my professor brought up some interesting ideas about the way new technology (i.e. new tools) changes our minds – the ways we think and act. Without getting deep into the context of the lecture (which was more of a discussion, really), he said that sometimes what is meant to be a tool for us to master for our own sake often becomes the master itself. The very tools we master can begin mastering us when we would be better off ruling them. He said this is true of both physical tools AND conceptual tools.

And that got me thinking…

I think there are conceptual tools that were designed as an aid to meditation practice. One such tool, which is perhaps one of the most common tools used in Buddhist meditation, is no-self or not-self. When used as one tool among many, it’s a wonderful thing. It helps us to let go limited self-concepts that do not fit our current situation and move on.

But not-self can quickly become the Master. It can be a nagging voice that drops into our practice when we are doing something that would usually be considered harmless, such as reflecting on a time when we felt hurt or scared, or even happy or proud. It can creep in and say, “What’s wrong with you? There’s no self, remember? This is an illusion. You know that already.” And in that sense it can be a tool unconsciously used to shoot down confidence, avoid certain experiences that should probably be attended to, or cause one to feel guilty or shameful around a “self-centered” emotion.

And that’s just one case of the way a concept can quickly go from being a useful tool to a tool-that-uses-you.

I’m not prepared to give some kind of ready-made solution to this conundrum, as though it can be overcome by yet another conceptual tool. But there is tremendous value in simply being aware of the possibility of our tools becoming our masters. Maybe then we won’t blindly accept the spiritual-sounding voice that tends to pull us away from the freshness of experience in any given moment. It may also inspire us to try using tools more consciously, perhaps in response to the more tools that arise and express themselves more automatically, and often inappropriately.


Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

The Fifth Remembrance

Not long into my initial inquiry into Buddha Dharma, I came upon a what can seem like a rather bleak list taught in the early Sangha. The list comes from the Buddha’s teaching on the Five Remembrances. They are:

1.) I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
2.) I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.
3.) I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
4.) All that is dear to me and everyone that I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
5.) My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.*

I printed this list on a small piece of paper, which rests against my desktop computer at work (I haven’t received any comments from concerned co-workers… yet). I read the list again this morning, as I do every now and then when my computer is taking a while to boot up. What stood out to me was the fifth remembrance: “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.” Now, I must be somewhat of a pessimist at heart, because whenever I read this I usually think in terms of negative actions resulting in negative consequences. Perhaps this is due to my Judeo-Christian upbringing, with its emphasis on fighting against one’s sinful nature. Or maybe it’s just that the word “consequences” tends to carry a negative connotation in American English, as in the phrase, “suffer the consequences.” Whatever the case may be, reading the fifth remembrance usually instills in me a sense of, “Yikes! Don’t do bad stuff, or else!”

However, reading the fifth remembrance this morning did not instill in me a sense of fear or worry. Instead, I understood it to mean that positive actions are sure to result in positive consequences. So much so, in fact, that we will not be able to escape the positive consequences. What came to mind is the following familiar verse from the Dhammapada:

Mind is the forerunner of all things.
Mind is their master. They are all mind-made.
Speak or act with an impure mind, and sorrow will follow you
As surely as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

Mind is the forerunner of all things.
Mind is their master. They are all mind-made.
Speak or act with a pure mind, and happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakeable.

It seems clear to me that at the heart of Buddha Dharma is our ability to choose our actions, and thus – to some degree – choose the quality of our present and future consequences. The Buddha didn’t teach a one-to-one relationship with regard to kamma/karma, and so it should not be understood to always operate in a linear fashion. In fact, he taught was has been termed This/That Conditionality.** In brief, the Buddha theorized that the results which manifest in the present result from both past and present actions. Your choices now somehow come together with choices made at some point in the past, and results are born out of this interaction. The possibility of multiple feedback loops make it difficult, if not practically impossible, to determine what will actually occur in any given moment.

Whatever the mechanisms of cause and effect, we are encouraged by the Buddha and the early Sangha to take this idea seriously and put it into practice. I have found that one of the most direct ways to witness this process is through the practice of meditation. When we make time to practice, and then actually make an effort to do the practice properly, results will follow in time. Just as with any skill one wishes to develop, there are peaks and valleys on the path. There are times when it feels like trying to dig a large hole with our bare hands. Other times, it feels like we’re operating one of those big yellow digging machines you see at construction sites. Progress is necessarily developmental and gradual, but there are quantum shifts along the way. The point to take away is that it is through our actions that we achieve results. It is by making a concerted effort – giving it the old college try – that will result in positive changes. And because there is no direct linear correlation between practice time and results, we must simply focus on executing the given technique as precisely as possible. Only then can we be confident that our current choices will have a desirable outcome sometime in the future.

Of course, the fifth remembrance applies to other areas of life as well. The point is to take seriously the fact that our actions are truly our only possessions. And since we cannot escape the consequences, we must always remember to choose wisely.

*Excerpted from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,by Thich Nhat Hanh.
**For a more thorough exposition on This/That Conditionality, see Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s book, Wings To Awakening.


Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Religion & Philosophy