Living with Imperfection

People live in imperfect situations. Albert Otto Hirschman wrote about the daily choice of exit, voice and loyalty. We can leave, act to improve or find the advantage in staying. None of these options is better or worse than another. People with partial views may prefer one or other options and make claims for the virtue of one or other option.

I have written about the virtue of leaving. Many leaders have left their communities for a while to spend time in “the wilderness”, the university or outside their usual comfort zone and cultural context where they may gain wisdom and skills. If they return to their communities, they can use their new perspectives to help others or at least to live more gracefully with imperfection. Leaving can also be about safety. Sometimes staying in an imperfect situation can lead to greater harm than staying. Sometimes a strong person leaving the situation means the weaker ones are left vulnerable.

Acting to improve a situation, is about assuming responsibility. We can negotiate, mediate, passively resist and suggest appropriate alternatives. This can be an unpopular path and usually quite political. Socially engaged Buddhists have taken this path. Greenpeace, Amnesty International and others also choose the ‘voice’ option. This path requires a lot of strength and determination. The effectiveness of this option depends on right view, knowing how to apply effort in the right place. The middle path avoids extremes and travels deep beneath appearances. Some ill informed interventions can be harmful and make situations worse rather than better.

Finding the advantage in staying is about having a positive perspective. In a Buddhist context, this means practicing the four Brahmavihaara – divine abodes of metta-loving-kindness, karunaa-compassion, muditaa-sympathetic joy and upekkhaa-equanimity. Sometimes staying in a challenging situation can provide an opportunity for development. It depends on what we want to learn. All situations are subject to change.

Starting with right view all three options are viable. With right view a person will know what to do and when to act.


Majjhima Nikaya MN.9. Sammaadi.t.thi Sutta: Right View [spoken by Mahaathera Saariputta] (สัมมาทิฏฐิสูตร)

26. “And what is birth, what is the origin of birth, what is the cessation of birth, what is the way leading to the cessation of birth? The birth of beings in the various orders of beings, their coming to birth, precipitation [in a womb], generation, manifestation of the aggregates, obtaining the bases of contact–this is called birth. With the arising of being there is the arising of birth. With the cessation of being there is the cessation of birth. The way leading to the cessation of birth is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

27. “When a noble disciple has thus understood birth, the origin of birth, the cessation of birth, and the way leading to the cessation of birth, he entirely abandons the underlying tendency to greed, he abolishes the underlying tendency to aversion, he extirpates the underlying tendency to the view and conceit ‘I am,’ and by abandoning ignorance and arousing true knowledge he here and now makes an end of suffering. In that way too a noble disciple is one of right view, whose view is straight, who has unwavering confidence in the Dhamma, and has arrived at the true Dhamma.”

Mental Occupations – Skilful Mental Objects

Beginners may develop a skilful mind by cultivating
the five controlling faculties (indriya) and the five mental powers (bala)
1. confidence (saddha)
2. wisdom/discernment (panna)
3. mindfulness (sati)
4. concentration (samaadhi) and
5. energy (viriya)


the seven enlightenment factors (bojjha’nga)

1. mindfulness (sati)
2. investigation (dhammavicaya)
3. energy (viriya)
4. joy/rapture (piiti)
5. tranquillity (passadhi)
6. concentration (samaadhi) and
7. equanimity (upekkhaa)

The four right strivings (samma-padhaana) will cultivate the mind
1. remove existing unskilful/unwholesome (akusala) mental states
2. prevent new akusala mental states
3. maintain existing skilful/wholesome (kusala) mental states and
4. adopt new kusala mental states

We develop the mental faculties by abandoning the five hindrances nivaarana and unskilful akulsala objects from our mind.

Akusala objects are those objects we feel attached to or we don’t like. Unskilful objects include those objects that usually make us lustful, hateful or dull-witted. The objects do not have any value except the value observers attribute to the objects. So an object that incites lust raaga is not a bad object as such. Any “badness” resides in the mind of the beholder rather than the object itself.

These unskilful akusala objects distract us and prevent concentration samaadhi. They can be avoided by restraining the six senses. We can be mindful of objects as they appear at the six sense doors, note them as they arise and return to the skilful kusala object, again and again.

Kusala objects are those objects (Dhamma) that inspire us and help us to strengthen the mental faculties (not people or material objects that are annicca, anatta and dukkha).

Skilful objects include the qualities of Lord Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, our good behaviour siila, our generosity daana and deities deva. Lord Buddha also strongly recommended the breath as a skilful object for developing both concentration samaadhi and wisdom/discernment panna.

There are other skilful objects that may be taken up by yogis for mental development bhavanaa. A beginnner should rely on a good friend kalyaanamitta to advise on the choice of which particular skilful object to take up. A good friend is one who is accomplished in virtue siila, concentration samaadhi, discernment pannaa, liberation vimutti and knowledge and vision of liberation vimuttinaana. Good friends such as these are rare and inestimably valuable. Show respect and pay close attention if one appears in this life.

Positive Affirmations

One way I found to help me achieve goals is to do regular positive affirmations.
1. Write out 3-5 important short term goals such as

“I am growing slim and healthy each day”
“I am getting stronger and fitter all the time”
“I am confident and resilient despite discouraging remarks from others”
“I can achieve whatever goals I set”

2. Stick the paper with these affirmations in a place that you will notice early in the morning and repeat them each day until you can memorise them.
3. keep repeating them to yourself whenever you have a spare moment and can remember to do so.
4. After a few weeks you will see a change in your behaviour and will be even more confident in your ability to achieve goals. You can then adjust your goals and set new goals.

The idea is to write goals that are achievable in the short term or can be ongoing. For example, the goals of going to Europe may be a bit long term and could be saved for next year or even later than that. You really need to focus on the tasks and outcomes that come earlier on.

Don’t let negative people around you stop you achieving your goals. Sometimes people will criticise you or offer advice that may challenge your existing views. Examine their views and only take what is useful and really is good advice. You can ignore bad advice or people who are teasing for fun. The key here is to build resilience and determination.

The Removal of Distracting Thoughts

Yogis, especially beginners, are often discouraged by distracting thoughts. They say that meditation is difficult and they want to give up because of distracting thoughts. Sincere yogis, can spend long periods sitting, walking or in other postures, apparently meditating but in fact, just thinking.

Thoughts of the past, present and future keep arising and the untrained mind with relatively weak concentration and mindfulness takes up these thoughts and for some time forgets the object of meditation. Then at some point, the mind recalls the object and begins again.

Some yogis feel discouraged because they identify as a person doing meditation. It may be helpful to put aside notions of identity while meditating. Identities are totally redundant when meditating. Are ice skates useful when sleeping in your normal bed? Is a canoe useful when cycling in the park far from water?

When meditating the yogi can put aside notions of identity and just note objects that arise and pass in the present moment. If the mind forgets and a train of thoughts takes over, then as soon as the mind remembers, just continue the noting. Try not to indulge in recriminations, self-doubt, doubt about the method and so on. These judgemental thoughts are not helpful.

A yogi can just note a thought as a thought, regardless of what the content of that thought might be. Thoughts of sport, food, oceans and Dhamma are all just thoughts. As soon as aware of thinking, the yogi can note “thinking, thinking, thinking…” and then note whatever other object arises. Sensations of discomfort, pains, itches, sensations of cold or heat; feelings of like and dislike; all should be noted and not clung to. Nothing is worth clinging to in this world, especially when meditating.

After some time of diligent practice, the mind will note a continuous stream of phenomena, arising and passing, some thoughts, some sensations, some feelings and so on, all just arising and passing…arising and passing… If sufficient energy is applied, the yogi will develop and enhance skills. There will be fewer lapses of concentration and mindfulness. More and more details will become apparent. The noting of objects appears faster, steady and the yogi’s general feeling will be less of like and dislike and more of equanimity.

Majjhima Nikaya MN.152.4. Indriyabhaavanaa Sutta, The Development of the Faculties. (อินทริยภาวนาสูตร)

“Now Aananda, how is there there supreme development of the faculties in the Noble One’s Discipline?

Here, Aananda, when a bhikkhu sees a form with the eye, there arises in him what is both agreeable, there arises what is disagreeable, there arises what is both agreeable and disagreeable.

He understands thus: ‘There has arisen in me what is agreeable, there are has arisen in what is disagreeable, there has arisen what is both agreeable and disagreeable. But that is conditioned, gross, dependently arisen, this is peaceful, this is sublime, this is, equanimity.’ The agreeable that arose, the disagreeable that arose, and the both agreeable and disagreeable that arose cease just as quickly, just as rapidly, just as easily, and equanimity is established.

This is called in the Noble One’s Discipline the supreme development of the faculties regarding forms cognizable by the eye.

Passages 5-9. of the Indriyabhaavanaa Sutta contain similar advice for smelling an odour with the nose, tasting a flavour with the tongue, touching a tangible with the body, and cognizing a mind-object with the mind.

The following passage applies more to yogis doing samatha. However, some yogis doing vipassana may find it useful if they are struggling to develop mindfulness and are bothered by distracting thoughts so much that they wish to give up meditation altogether…Don’t give up! Be patient. Persevere.

Majjhima Nikaya MN20.8 Vitakkasa.n.thaana Sutta, The Removal of Distracting Thoughts. (วิตักกสัณฐานสูตร)

“Bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is giving attention to some sign, and owing to that sign there arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion, then when he gives attention to some other sign connected with what is wholesome, any such evil unwholesome thoughts are abandoned in him and subside, and with the abandoning of them his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.

When he examines the danger in those thoughts…When he tries to forget those thoughts and does not give attention to them…When he gives attention to stilling the thought-formation of those thoughts…When with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth, he beats down, constrains, and crushes mind with mind, any such evil unwholesome thoughts are abandoned in him…and his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.

This bhikkhu is then called a master of the courses of thought. He will think what ever thought he wishes to think and he will not think any thought he does not wish to think. He has severed craving, flung off the fetters, and with the complete penetration of conceit he has made an end of suffering.

That is what the Blessed One said. The bhikkhus were satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One’s words.

The remedy is to give attention to ‘some other sign connected with what is wholesome’ rather than to the sign connected with what is unwholesome. This remedy may be easier said than done. Lord Buddha defines signs connected with what is unwholesome as ‘thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion.’

As soon as a yogi doing vipassana is aware of a mind with desire, hate or delusion, the yogi should note the thought and immediately give attention to ‘some other sign connected with what is wholesome’ such as the breath or the sensation of touch. Though for a yogi doing samatha the wholesome sign might be a coloured disc-kasina, a bloated corpse, loving-kindness-metta or the the touch of the breath passing over the upper lip. Many more meditation objects are explained in the Vissudhimagga.

Daily Life
There are times when difficult issues arise in our lives and we may need to deal with them in a responsible, ethical and worldly way. There are also times when all that can practically be done has been done, yet we may still worry and think obsessively about problems. We may be stewing in anger over an injustice we are powerless to put right. We may be troubled or obsessed by unwanted or frustrated desires. We may be suffering with delusions of various kinds. Lord Buddha’s advice applies in daily life as much as in meditation. In fact calming the mind in this way will help people to settle their minds for meditating at a later stage.

Lord Buddha recommended many signs ‘connected with what is wholesome.’ Here are some for you to consider:
1. Lord Buddha (if you are a Buddhist), think about his life and virtues
2. Dhamma, think about the Dhamma you have studied
3. Sangha, think about the virtues of the Noble Ones, read and recollect the lives of prominant disciples such as Thera Sariputta, Thera Mahamoggallana, Thera Kassapa, Thera Aananda, Thera Anuruddha, Theri Uppalavanna, Theri Khema, Theri Kisagotami and so on.
4. Morality, recollect how your life is harmless to self and others.
5. Generosity, recollect how you have selflessly donated to worthy causes (eg. the Sangha).
6. Deities, recollect the virtues of beings who have appeared in celestial realms as deities. I sometimes recall that some of these deities are also Noble Ones who may have been deities or human beings taught directly by Lord Buddha. One of the ways of recollecting the virtues of Lord Buddha is sattha devamanussanam teacher of deities and humans.”

There are many other signs ‘connected with what is wholesome.’ In popular psychology we are encouraged to imagine a beautiful park, with shady trees, swans and small friendly animals. We imagine ourselves sitting or lying in the shade near a bubbling brook or a small lotus pond. These images can calm our troubled minds and temporarily free us from the obsessive thoughts.

I have friends who like to listen to calming music that soothes them and relaxes their minds after a hard day at work. Some listen to the music on their portable music players while commuting.

In daily life we are not troubled all the time. It is also wholesome to reflect on:
1. the inevitability of illness, ageing and death.
2. making our lives simpler with fewer belongings and fewer distracting pastimes.
3. gratitude for our parents and teachers who cared for us and taught us life skills.
4. gratitude for friends and colleagues who helped us with our work and supported us in times of trouble.
5. compassion for unfortunate beings, including animals.
6. sympathetic joy (opposite of jealousy) for beings who currently enjoy wealth, good looks, fame etc.
7. equanimity while recalling that all beings are subject to kamma, good actions gets good result, bad action gets bad result.
8. wish that all beings act wisely so they may enjoy fortunate lives.
9. how to reduce our harmful impact on the Earth and other beings.
10. how to live with healthy minds and bodies.
11. good-will for all beings, regardless of whether they are friends, enemies or unknown.

The goal of removing distracting thoughts is so that the ‘mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.’ A mind thus concentrated is of immense benefit and may be readily applied for insight-vipassana.

May you sever craving, fling off the fetters, and with the complete penetration of conceit make an end of suffering.

Aasava, Jhaana, Kusala

The suttas teach yogis about the practice for removing the aasava-taints so that kilesa-mental defilements no longer cause suffering. Samatha meditation also known as jhaana-absorption practice may temporarily suppress the taints but does not eliminate them. The complete removal of the taints is achieved with vipassana insight, the opening of the Dhamma eye of the Sotapanna-stream enterer and ultimately to a pure Arahat-fully-enlightened being.

The peace and clarity of mind attained with jhaana-absorption practice suppresses the mental hindrances-nivarana (sensual desire-kaamachanda, ill-will-vyaapaada, sloth and torpor-thiina-middha, restlessness and remorse-uddhacca-kukkucca, and sceptical doubt-vicikicchaa). The hindrances cover the the luminous mind of an untrained yogi. Concentration meditation-samatha can suppress the hindrances and temporarily allow the luminous mind to see more clearly the nature of reality. The samatha yogi would then begin vipassana practice. Upon exiting the absorption-jhaana, the bright and purified mind can thoroughly note all objects.

The three general characteristics of all phenomena (dukkha-unsatisfactoriness/pain, annicca-impermanent, and annattaa-not-self) would be perceived more distinctly until the aasava-taints are eliminated. Samatha yogis have been encouraged to note the changing nature of the components of first jhaana: vitakka-toward the object, vicaara-holding the object, piiti-rapture, sukkha-joy, and ekaggataa-one-pointedness.

Vipassana yogis who have not practiced jhaana-absorption may nevertheless develop a high level of concentration that can clear away the mental hindrances while continuously noting the arising and passing of phenomena. This is the technique I have practiced intermittently since 1982.

Putthujana-worldlings are still subject to the aasava-taints and may lapse into samsaara (an incalculable cycle of rebirths and suffering) – so scary. The refuge of the triple gem (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha) is precious in this life, we may not be so fortunate in the next. Without the refuge of the triple gem we may adopt wrong views and harmful conduct that would create conditions for future unfortunate rebirths.

Lord Buddha recommended developing kusala-skilful/wholesome mind states and avoiding akulasa-unskilful/unwholesome mind states (and bodily and verbal behaviours). I plan to attend a long meditation retreat with the aim of developing those kusala-skilful/wholesome mind states and possibly eliminate the taints completely.

Majjhimanikaaya MN.36. Mahaasaccaka Sutta: The Greater Discourse to Saccaka

42. “When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldly, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the destruction of the taints. I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is suffering’;…’This is the origin of suffering’;…’This is the cessation of suffering’;…’This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering’;…’These are the taints’;…’This is the origin of the taints’;…’This is the cessation of the taints’;…’This is the way leading to the cessation of the taints.’

43. “When I knew and saw thus, my mind was liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of being, and from the taint of ignorance. When it was liberated there came the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ I directly knew: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’

Majjhimanikaaya MN.68. Na.lakapaana Sutta: At Na.lakapaana

7. “…the Tathaagata has abandoned the taints that defile, bring renewal of being, give trouble, ripen in suffering, and lead to future rebirth, ageing and death; he has cut them off at the root, made them like a palm stump, done away with them so that they are no longer subject to future arising…”

Wise Attention to Eliminate Aasava-Taints

Majjhimanikaaya MN.2. Sabbaasava Sutta: All the Taints (สัพพาสวสังวรสูตร)

3. “Bhikkhus, I say that the destruction of the taints is for one who knows and sees, not for one who does not know and see. Who knows and what? Wise attention and unwise attention. When one attends unwisely, unarisen taints arise and arisen taints increase. When one attends wisely, unarisen taints do not arise and arisen taints are abandoned.

4. “Bhikkhus, there are taints that should be abandoned by seeing. There are taints that should be abandoned by restraining. There are taints that should be abandoned by using. There are taints that should be abandoned by enduring. There are taints that should be abandoned by avoiding. There are taints that should be abandoned by removing. There are taints that should be abandoned by developing.