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Wisdom for Dummies
If you read a lot of books about the Dhamma, it can get pretty confusing after a while, for there are so many different takes on exactly what the Dhamma is. On top of that, there are people who will tell you it’s all very complex, very subtle; nly a very erudite scholar or subtle logician could figure it all out. With so many teachings, it’s hard to figure out which ones to hold onto. Of course, some people will tell you that you can’t hold onto anything at all. That makes it even more confusing and obscure.
So it’s good to remember that the Buddha himself taught the Dhamma in very simple. And all the teachings derived from a few very basic, very commonsensical principles. You might call it wisdom for dummies: the kind of wisdom that comes from looking at what’s actually going on in your life, asking some very basic questions, and applying a few very basic principles to solve your big problems.
When you use wisdom for dummies, it doesn’t mean you’re dumb. It means you recognize that you’ve been foolish and you want to wise up. As the Buddha once said, when you recognize your foolishness, you are to that extent wise. This may sound obvious, but when you think about it, you see that it teaches you some important things about wisdom. In fact, the realization that you’ve been foolish contains within itself many of the basic principles of the Dhamma. To begin with, this kind of realization usually comes to you when you see you’ve made a mistake you could have avoided. In recognizing that much, you recognize that your actions do make a difference: Some actions are more skillful than others. In recognizing that the mistake came from your foolishness, you recognize the principle that your ideas and intentions played a role in your actions, and that you could have operated under other ideas and intentions. You could have been wiser—the mistake wasn’t preordained—and you’ve got something to learn. That right there is the beginning of wisdom.
When you’re willing to learn from your foolish mistakes, that the Buddha can teach you more about what it means to be wise. Start with one of his basic ways of distinguishing a wise person from a fool: If you’re a wise person, you tend to your own responsibilities and avoid the things you’re not responsible for. If you’re a fool, you tend to ignore the things you’re responsible for, and to focus on things you’re not responsible for. This is probably the number one principle, because it cuts out a lot of other issues, such as taking a stand on where the universe came from, or if the universe came from anything, whether it’s finite or infinite; what your inner nature is. A lot of what we think of as metaphysical issues get put aside this way, because you’re not really responsible for those issues. And what are you responsible for? Your actions, what you’re choosing to do. No one else can make your choices for you, so you have to focus on doing them well. This is why the Buddha says that wisdom starts growing when you ask someone who’s knowledgeable, “What’s skillful? What’s unskillful? What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness? What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term harm and suffering?” Why are these questions wise? Because they come from seeing that the issue of how to find a worthwhile happiness is something you really are responsible for. Happiness is preferable to suffering, it depends on your actions, and long-term happiness is better than short term. This is what’s meant by “skillful.” The distinction between skillful and unskillful is another basic principle. Once one of the Buddha ‘s lay students was accosted by someone from another tradition who asked “Well now, does your teacher teach about the origin of universe, or whether it’s finite or infinite?” He went down the list of the big issues of the time, and the lay student kept saying, “No, he doesn’t talk about any of those things.” And the other person responded, “Well, in that case he’s a nihilist. He doesn’t teach anything at all.” So the lay student said, “No, that’s not true. He does teach the difference between what’s skillful and what’s not.” He later went to report this conversation to the Buddha, who approved of what he had said. The distinction between skillful and unskillful forms the basis for the four noble truths. When you dig deep down into why people suffer, you find that it’s because of craving. How can people stop suffering? By developing the path, which is primarily composed of good qualities of mind. So you realize the mind has to be trained. That’s another basic principle of wisdom: that true happiness comes from training the mind, because the mind is what makes the choices. That’s why we meditate. And that’s why meditation requires that we focus our attention on the present moment, because these choices are being made right now. This again brings up the distinction between short-term and long-term happiness. Not all your choices are between doing something harmful and something not harmful. Sometimes the choice is between two things that are relatively harmless, but one leads to and the other to long-term happiness. You have only a limited amount of time, a limited amount of energy, so you don’t want to get distracted by the short-term things. Now, part of the mind likes doing things that lead to long-term suffering because they provide happiness in the short-term. Sometimes it’ll deny the long-term suffering, or else it’ll feel that the quick fix is worth the trade. Then there are other things, difficult in the short-term, that lead to long-term happiness down the line. So you need strategies and tactics for getting the mind to avoid the things that you like doing that are going to be harmful in the long-term and to get yourself to do the things that may be difficult now but will give you long-term happiness. This, too, the Buddha said, is a basic measure of your wisdom.
One of these strategies is developing the brahma-viharas. Remind yourself that you want to be kind to yourself. You want to be kind to other people. This is an attitude you want to develop because it helps you. When you’re facing a short-term happiness that leads to long-term suffering either for yourself or other people, it really helps to have this attitude of kindness already developed in the mind. This is one of the reasons why we meditate: to develop these attitudes ahead of time. Having the breath as a way of training yourself to be kind to yourself is an important aspect of developing goodwill: It helps you realize that you really do have a role in shaping your present experience, starting with the breath and then moving into other areas of the present. There’s nobody forcing you to breathe in an uncomfortable way, or in a way that puts you to sleep, or in a way that gets you anxious and on edge. And yet we allow these things to happen because we’re distracted, often about things that are really none of our business. But the breath is something that really is your responsibility. Nobody else can breathe for you. And nobody else can tell you what kind of breathing is going to be comfortable. You have to pay attention yourself.
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