“The Buddha’s last words instructed us to be heedful—to see our actions as important and to keep that importance in mind at all times.” –Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Meditations
The flickering mind
Most people who are vaguely familiar with the teachings believe that Buddhism is simply a religious form of nihilism (what a contradiction that would be). Before I began studying the buddha-dharma, I remember hearing about the concept of nirvana (or nibbāna ) and thinking how dismal it sounded. Most westerners understand nirvana as nothingness. It is half true, but we must remember that even nothingness is something.
Nirvana literally means ‘extinguished’ like a flame that has been blown out. In the Buddhist context, it refers to the unshakeable liberation and stillness of mind that accompanies release from all unskillful thought and action. The nothingness that westerners latch onto is the elimination of a flickering mind that perpetuates a cycle of pain through unconscious thought. In its place arises a mind like an imperturbable placid lake with infinite depth. It’s a pretty blissful thought, no?
It’s not about right or wrong
So what’s the point? Well, let’s look at the quote with which this post began. The Buddha tells us to be heedful, be aware, and that our actions do matter. He taught that we can only extricate ourselves from the cycle of suffering by coming to grips with the idea that our reality is a construct subject to the same rules as all other constructs. It is impermanent.
So you’re telling me that nothing actually matters because this life is a fabrication of the mind? No, I’m telling you that we can only realize the true nature of existence by recognizing how much weight our actions do hold. But it is more than just saying this action is right; this action is wrong. We must be vigilant in our awareness regarding our patterns of thought and action.
We all have an inherent desire to be happy. But what does that actually mean? I think it is more poignant to say that we have an inherent desire to avoid suffering. In order to do that, it is not as simple as ‘being good.’ We must learn how to dissect that desire so we can see the suffering for what it truly is.
Be the mechanic
I don’t know much about car mechanics, but I imagine if one hears something wrong with the engine, there’s not much you can do from the outside of the car. You have to get in there and look at the parts. The mind is no different.
In this way, the actions we need to worry about most are those actions we take toward our minds. If we learn how to be our own mechanic, then it does not become a question of making ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ choices. It becomes a question of well-being, and learning to recognize which actions are going to keep the mind and heart well-oiled running smoothly, and which actions are going to cause damage.
This is why the Buddha says that meditation is the heart of the path. It is a way in which one learns how to be the driver and the mechanic. Understand, one need not be Buddhist to do any of this. One may not even need to formally meditate. The point is that (I believe) we all must find some way to be the mechanic. Then we are on the path to true freedom from suffering.
Wishing you a well-oiled engine this Thursday.
By Terence Stone
Chief Editor and Founder of Urban Spiritual, I’m a classically trained singer and actor living in New York City, who has performed in the U.S. and Europe. I’m also a writer, traveller, meditator, arts-lover, and well-being enthusiast.