As we are often reminded, we do not get to pick the conditions of the time and place we were born into. I ask myself how can I use the conditions rather than let them use me? As the Buddha states in the Five Remembrances, “I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, actions are the womb, actions are my relations, actions are my protection. Whatever actions I do, good or bad, of these I shall become the heir.” With this in mind I also ask myself, how can I act well in response to the conditions of the time and place I find myself in?
Bhikkhu Bodhi offers answers to questions like these in his new book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony. He has devotedly translated many Pali Canon texts, such as the Anguttara Nikaya and the Abhidharma, and now presents us this text, well-suited for the challenges we face. The roots of the collection grow out of a training curriculum that Bhikkhu Bodhi developed for social harmony in Sri Lanka. As he did with In the Words of the Buddha, he has taken extracts from the Pali canon and arranged them by topic. Here, each chapter widens the circle outward from the individual to close relations to intentional communities to the wider community of the world.
In the section on Disputes, he quotes from the Digha Nikaya, where Sakka, ruler of the devas, asked the Buddha, “Beings wish to live without hate, hostility, or enmity; they wish to live in peace. Yet they live in hate, harming one another, hostile, and as enemies. By what fetters are they bound, sir, that they live in such a way?” In a sense, this question represents an important aspect of the challenge we face. What causes us to behave in hurtful ways? Each chapter and each selection within each chapter addresses some facet of this essential question, drawing out different presentations from the Pali Canon of the challenges of getting along with individuals and in groups.
Reading the Pali Canon is a very different experience from reading Zen koans or the collections of Zen masters like Matsu, Linji, or Hakuin. The Pali Canon is straight- forward and filled with repetition, which stands in contrast to Zen’s manner of throwing a question back on the questioner. As I’ve learned from martial arts practice, when a form contains repeated sequences, those sequences are important and are being emphasized for a reason. The Pali Canon repetitions, when given their fullness while reading (for they are often abbreviated with ellipses in the interest of saving space), help to deeply plant the words of the Buddha and his chief disciples in the mind. The meaning is right in front of you; embodiment in activity is the practice.
Often these repetitions take the form of chains of logic. If X is true, since X is true, Y is the result. “Here a monk is virtuous; [they] dwell restrained by the Patimokkha (the monastic code), possessed of good conduct and result, seeing danger in minute faults. Having undertaken the training rules, [they] train in them. Since a monk is virtuous; [they] dwell restrained by the Patimokkha (the monastic code), possessed of good conduct and result, seeing danger in minute faults this is a principle of cordiality that creates affection and respect and conduces to cohesiveness, to non-dispute, to concord, and to unity.” This pattern continues through each the Ten Principles of Cordiality.
Bhikkhu Bodhi has chosen many such lists that guide both monastics and lay- people: four means of embracing others, seven conditions for social harmony, the six roots of disputes, the eight reasons for giving, the nine things rooted in craving, the sixteen qualities that make a person difficult to correct, et cetera. Many of these lists of non-beneficial states are followed by an equal length list of beneficial states, where each point is a negation or opposite of the non-beneficial state, as in the qualities that make a person difficult to correct, which is followed immediately by a list of sixteen qualities that make a person easy to correct. This is a common pattern, another form of repetition to aid memory and practice.
Another pattern that is used often is the tetralemma or variations on the pattern of X & Y, X & not-Y, not-X & Y, not-X & not-Y. Used here, for example, in resolving differences of opinion by examining when two groups differ in meaning and agree in phrasing; agree in meaning and differ in phrasing; disagree in meaning and phrasing; or agree in meaning and phrasing. This step-by-step analysis of possibilities creates a clarity and precision that we can bring to situations through patient practice and attention. The logic of the Pali Canon opens up approaches to the problems of social harmony that we do not often encounter so directly in Zen texts.
I have found in this offering, a wealth of tools to aid my desire to act skillfully in the world for the benefit of all beings. Bhikkhu Bodhi, once again, has given us a valuable work that, as the Buddha was fond of say- ing, is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end.
From The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony:
One makes an effort to abandon wrong view and to enter upon right view: this is one’s right effort. Mindfully one abandons wrong view, mindfully one enters upon and abides in right view: this is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three states run and circle around right view, that is, right view, right effort, and right mindfulness.
Andy Jikai Kreiger, MRO, lives in New York City.