Dhamma Talks, vol. III

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Anchored by Skillful Roots

March, 2003

From all accounts, the world is going to go through a bad period: war, economic problems, insecurity of all kinds. Of course we’ve never really been all that secure. But apparently our insecurity is going to become much more obvious. It’s like a big storm coming through. When you know a storm is coming through, you’ve got to do what you can to hunker down, to withstand it, so that you don’t get blown away and the things around you don’t come crashing down on top of you. In a similar way, when life doesn’t go as you like, it’s like a storm coming onto the mind, and you need to develop your powers of resilience. If you compare your mind to a tree, you want to have deep roots, widespread roots, healthy roots, the kinds of roots that will keep the tree from getting blown over and killed.

Traditionally, the Buddha talked about roots for the mind. There are unskillful roots and skillful roots. The unskillful roots are greed, anger, and delusion. The skillful ones are lack of greed, lack of anger, lack of delusion.

Unskillful roots are like rotten roots. They don’t hold your tree up and they don’t give you much nourishment. So those are not the roots you want to depend on. The roots you want to send out are roots based on lack of greed, lack of anger, lack of delusion. There is a phrase Ajaan Lee quotes—I don’t know where it comes from, I haven’t found it in the Canon yet; maybe it’s from the commentaries, but it makes sense: He says, generosity nourishes the roots of lack of greed, precepts nourish the roots of lack of anger, meditation nourishes the roots of lack of delusion.

These are the activities that we have to engage in order to prepare, in order to withstand the storm—not just before the storm hits, but all the way throughout the storm. Being generous, observing the precepts, and meditating keep us strong, keep us from getting blown away. If your survival is accomplished without generosity, without virtue, without meditation, it’s not worth much. It’s not the sort of survival that keeps you healthy and well-nourished. You look at survivors of war, who had to go and kill and steal and cheat and bomb, and then go into a lot of denial about it.

Look at all the veterans of past wars, emotionally scarred for life. They did survive, but at a huge cost, the cost of the skillful roots in the mind. It’s by nourishing the skillful roots that the health of the mind survives. Even if we have to leave this particular body, at least the mind has the potential for sending out skillful roots wherever it finds itself the next time around. It’s nourished with its inner sense of well-being, truthfulness, self-honesty. You look at your behavior and there’s nothing you have to hide from yourself.

That’s important. At the same time, when you reflect on your behavior, you realize you’ve been helpful to other people. Practicing generosity is like sending good roots out, spreading abroad in all directions, so that you’re survival is not just for your own sake, but it helps other people well.

The same with the precepts: If you’re very selective about who you’ll treat kindly and who you won’t treat kindly, or there are circumstances under which you’re going to hold by the precepts, and other circumstances under which you’re not going to hold by the precepts, your roots cover a very limited range. But if you decide that under no circumstances are you going to break the five precepts, the Buddha says that you’re giving unlimited safety to unlimited numbers of beings. In return you get a share in that unlimited safety as well. So again your survival is not just a selfish thing. It’s not based on the kind of roots that are going to rot or dry out, or get pulled up easily, get blown away. These are healthy roots that spread out and keep you secure in the storm.

As for the deep roots you need, those come from meditation. These are the roots that grow deep down in the mind. It’s through the meditation that you realize how your true happiness doesn’t have to depend on situations outside because you’ve found a source inside. Your tap root has gotten down that far. It’s tapped into something special. It’s like the water in earthquake faults. A friend who has done a study has found out that there’s water in earthquake faults, and it doesn’t depend on rainfall at all. It seems to be coming up from the fault itself; maybe it’s a result of a chemical reaction— Who knows?—but it’s a type of water that’s independent of rainfall. If you can tap into that, you’ve got a good source of water that doesn’t depend on the vagaries of the climate.

Similarly with meditation: When you’ve got a taproot that goes way down into the mind—in terms of concentration, in terms of discernment—you find a source inside that’s nourishing. That’s the source that can feed your need for happiness so that it doesn’t have to depend on anything else.

In other words, your goodness doesn’t have to depend on outside conditions. When that’s the case, it’s a goodness you can trust. After all, outside conditions are always changing. If there isn’t a war here, there’s a war someplace else. If there are not economic problems here, there are economic problems someplace else. If they are not in this house, they’re in somebody else’s house. And then they come back here again. Back and forth like that. If our goodness depends on these things, it’s a goodness we can’t trust. Other people can’t trust us; we can’t trust ourselves.

That’s probably one of the scariest things in life: to realize that you can’t trust yourself. You would like to look at yourself and say, “I’m the sort of person who can be depended on to do the right thing regardless of the circumstances. But then when circumstances get really challenging, you find suddenly that you can’t depend on yourself in that way.

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About the Author Sean Fargo

Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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