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The Buddha’s Shoulds

Right concentration forms the heart of the path. The other factors of the path serve two functions. One is to get you into concentration; the other is to make sure you don’t get stuck there. In other words, concentration on its own is a state of becoming that’s useful on the path. Even though you eventually want to go beyond all states of becoming, if you don’t first master this state of becoming you’ll be wandering around in other states of becoming where it would be hard to see what’s going on in the mind. As the Buddha said, when your mind is concentrated you can see the four noble truths as they actually come to be. When it’s not concentrated, you can’t see these things clearly. Non‐concentration, he says, is a miserable path, leading nowhere useful at all.

So concentration is the essential factor. Only when the mind is stable and still can it really see what’s going on inside. To get into right concentration, you need the other path factors: right view all the way up through right mindfulness. Right view starts with conviction in the principle of kamma, that there are good and bad actions that give good and bad results—not only in this lifetime but also in future lifetimes—and that there are people who really know these things from direct experience. It’s not just a theory.

What’s interesting here is that when the Buddha presents this introduction to his teaching on kamma, he focuses on two types of good actions to stress their importance: gratitude to your parents and generosity. These things really do have merit; they really do have value. The fact that your parents gave birth to you was not just a set of impersonal processes that just happened to happen. It’s not the case that you don’t owe any debt of gratitude to your parents for having gone through all the pain of giving birth to you and then raising you once you were born. There really is a personal debt there. They made choices, sometimes difficult choices, that allowed for your survival. Generosity is one of the ways you pay off that debt, and it’s also one of the valuable ways you interact well with other beings, benefiting both them and yourself in the process. The Buddha’s attitude towards generosity is instructive. He’s very clear on the fact that when he’s telling you what you should do, the “should” is based on a condition. After all, the Buddha didn’t create you. You might resist his should with the thought, “Who is he to tell me what to do?”

Years back I was sitting in on a course on the Metta Sutta. The first line in the Metta Sutta starts: “This is what should be done by one who aims at a state of peace.” As the teacher started out with that line, a hand immediately shot up. A man sitting in the class said, “I thought Buddhism didn’t have any shoulds.”

And they spent the rest of the morning going back and forth over that one issue. Actually, Buddhism does have a lot of shoulds. You look at the Dhammapada and you’ll see that it’s full of shoulds. But each should is based on a condition, as in the first line of the Metta Sutta: “This is what should be done by one who aims at a state of peace.” The Buddha doesn’t tell you that you have to aim at a state of peace, or that you have to want true happiness. That’s your choice. But if that is what you want, this is what you’ve got to do.

The nature of cause and effect is such that these are the practices you have to follow. The Buddha isn’t saying, “Well, this is what worked for me and it may work for you, but I’m not sure, so you have to find your own way.” That’s not what he would say. He’d say, “This is what works if you’re aiming at this goal.” And it’s up to you to decide whether you want to aim at that goal. If you do, then you’ve got to do it this way.

There’s a passage where King Pasenadi comes to visit the Buddha, and his first question is, “Where should a gift be given?” The Buddha responds, “Wherever you feel inspired.” In other words, there are no shoulds in this area aside from your own sense of inspiration—where you feel the gift would be well used or where you just want to give. There are no restraints placed on the act of generosity at all. But then the King follows up with another question: “Where, when a gift is given, does it bear great fruit?” And the Buddha says, “That’s a different question.” This is where the principle of cause and effect kicks in, placing its imperatives. You have to give to someone whose mind is pure or to an institution where the people are being trained to make their minds pure—i.e., the Sangha—if you want your gift to bear great fruit.

So there are shoulds in the Buddha’s teachings, but they’re based on the principle of what actually works for the purpose of true happiness. As for what you want to do with your life, there’s no imposition there at all. It’s your choice.

But once you appreciate the principle of generosity and see that it is really worthwhile, you’ve made the choice to get started on the path. As the Buddha said, it’s impossible for someone who is stingy to attain jhana, to attain any of the noble attainments.

So you start with the principle that generosity is good and that your actions matter. When you dig a little bit deeper into the principle of action, you realize that your intentions are what matter in your actions. This insight leads to the next step in the path: right resolve.

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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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