Dhamma Talk: How to live one’s life by Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu

This is another dhamma talk from Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu that I would suggest anyone who are seriously pursuing happiness should refer to. Especially, if you’re Buddhist, this short talk addressing the question of ‘how to live one’s life?’ would give you a great view on the map to get there.

I’d like to express my deep thanks to Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu for the teaching. And I wish you all the best.

You can find more about Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu and his teaching at: https://www.sirimangalo.org/

Please find below the Youtube video and the transcribed script is followed.

Good evening, everyone. Today’s talk is in response to a question about living one’s life. So the question had its own specifics, but the  important point of it was about asking how to live one’s life, which is a difficult question to answer on the face of it. Because you often involves some assumptions about what’s important, just assumptions about life in general. When we talk about how to live our lives, it’s often in context. It’s in the context of what we see as essential or important, in the context of how we understand reality. It’s caught up in what we’re told about life, about the world. So it involves concepts like family, society, economy. Even the concept of life itself, which is really just a concept, like a life from birth to death. Because the birth of a being, of a human being, it’s a concept that’s in our mind. Something that we conceive of, based on observations. It’s quite different experientially from other experiences. And so we give it a name and we see it as a thing, as an entity. We do the same with death. One death’s is some event that is quite different from other events. But it’s mostly external, right? You look at someone else, you spend time with them and you experience them in a specific way. But when they die, when you’re experiencing them quite a different way and it appears that they have ceased to exist. Or an important part of them, the mental part and the physical life has ceased to exist. And so this gives rise to all sorts of ideas.

But important for this question is the idea of life. So when we talk about life, we have to understand that it’s in context. It’s in the context of our understanding of things. And so I can’t tell you how to live your life in that context. Because it’s not essential. It’s not something that has an answer. The questions that we ask about life, in other words, are not fundamentally real. Should I go to university? Should I get a job? Should I get this job or that job? We ask questions that are based on concepts and so the answers are elusive, are complicated and are unanswerable in an ultimate level. And so we develop theories and philosophies and ideas based around this, the work ethic idea, the family, filial piety idea, our religions play into this, our culture’s plays into  this, even our partiality plays into this. I want to be a lawyer. Right. How many concepts are caught up in that and how how subjective is that? I want to become a lawyer. But does that mean becoming a lawyer is the right thing for some people? That’s not, for many people nowadays. I want to bang on a drum all day. For some people, that’s enough. This is a puzzle for us to solve, and it’s a puzzle that is deeply a part of Buddhist theory and practice.

I was coming here to meditate. Someone’s taking the time to come here and meditate, is caught up in this idea. It’s caught up in these ideas, these these dilemmas about what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s essential and what’s an essential. Because we started to see that there are some things that are harmful. Some things that are useless. And then we see some things that are essential and some things that are useful, are beneficial. So the first thing we have to do is to step outside of this idea of a life, right? Of who we are, of our culture and everything. Because we talk about should, right? What I should do. We’re always in some sense talking about the difference between suffering and happiness. We should do things that lead to happiness or peace or freedom from suffering, however you want to put it. These are generally synonymous, talking about the same sort of thing. And we should, conversely, do things that lead away from suffering. It’s almost a totality to say that. Because the way we define suffering and the way we understand and the truth of what is suffering, it really is a part of the idea of should and shouldn’t. I think that’s that’s an important truth that we have to accept in the beginning, right? Doing something, saying I should do something, even though it makes me unhappy and it makes no one else happy. It brings good things to no one is a ridiculous idea.

And conversely, saying I shouldn’t do something, even though it hurts no one and it brings happiness to someone, probably myself is likewise ludicrous. I think people who take on religious practice come to see this. They come to see beyond the should and shouldn’t of culture and society and realize some of the unessential ideas that we cultivate or systems that we get caught up in.

We’re told falsely that things like money will make us happy or things like money have a goodness to them. We’re told falsely that society and culture and the betterment of the human race. We’re set on path with the idea that something is right and we go down that path and it conflicts on this basic level because we see this is not bringing happiness. This is bringing suffering. So it turns out to be, I think, the fundamental quality that that in the beginning is not clear, often times. Why would something be a should? Why would something be a shouldn’t? The first principle we have to see is that this has to be based on some conception of happiness versus suffering. And so if we can get that far and understand that, then we can start to analyze. And again, this is what leads people to practice things like meditation, because they seem working on my life that money doesn’t bring happiness.

The happiness that it might bring is is insufficient. Trying to please my parents, for example, may at times be a useful thing to do, may lead to happiness. But it in and of itself is not enough, if it leads my parents to worry about me or to fixate on my life. And if it leads me to go into something or get involved in something that is not beneficial for anyone. Then how can I say that’s a good thing? We started to see that our immediate pleasures, our striving for pleasure, like addictions to entertainment or sensual gratification are also not a cause for happiness. When people see this, they start to see ‘I’m not happy’. I’ve been doing this for so long and I actually feel more stressed. My mind is less, composed, less at peace. Some people see that their dependences on things, dependences on people or society. When you lose a loved one, for example, it’s a cause for people to come to religion and part of it is this realization that, oh, that wasn’t actually the solution. And I think an important part of understanding how to live one’s life involves seeing beyond this life, seeing beyond in general, let’s say. Like a drug addict has to see beyond the ephemeral pleasure of engaging in their addiction and they can take heroin, a lot of happiness there.

But it isn’t a solution. It doesn’t actually lead to a good result. It’s  short sighted. So it’s this idea of happiness leading to suffering. And so we start to see how. If you really want a solution, it has to be somehow lasting. A person who follows the narrative of society, goes to school, gets a good job, maybe a great job, makes a lot of money and then gets sick. Steve Jobs, let’s say, gets cancer and it’s just at the top of the world and then gets cancer and may suddenly realize that their focus was perhaps short sighted. They start to realize that things like money and pleasure and even the advancement of society, a politician might work very hard to bring democracy. Putting aside ethics, like building infrastructure, making people’s lives better and so on and only realize that it’s not enough. Like if you build hospitals, let’s say is a good example. If you’re a doctor and you think I’ll help people and we’ll make people healthier and you realize that actually where is this all leading? And you have fundamental questions unanswered about the future, about the way to find peace and happiness, even if you’re working on a great thing like the betterment of the human race. Because when does it end? Where does it lead? And we know where the human race is going. It’s eventually going to extinction, I would think. Barring any sort of miracle, the earth is going to be destroyed eventually. We have to somehow get beyond this and get outside of it. And so the concept of rebirth becomes an ultimately important from a cosmological point of view, if we’re going to address this. As a meditator, of course you don’t you don’t need to think about things like rebirth. Not exactly. Not necessarily. But but to carry this argument forward, we have to see that. It’s got to be much more and bigger and more profound, not necessarily longer as in leading to the next life. They’re involved with with rebirths, but beyond just what’s going to lead to some place in this line. I guess the point is it has to be timeless is probably the right word or has to be eternal. Nice to be outside of time as to be here and now, I suppose.

And so in Buddhism, we take these ideas and you’ll see a lot of this theme going through the Buddhist teaching about. What are the things that lead to happiness, what are the things that lead to suffering and finding ways to equip ourselves and to direct ourselves and to lead ourselves to what is truly valuable, probably the best way to say. To realize that certain thing, that many things, most things are not very valuable are worthless, in the end, in an ultimate sense. Not worthless, but unessential is the word that the Buddha used.

And so what I wanted to talk about today and I’ve been taking some time getting to it, is what is essential. The Buddha talked about five things as being essential, and they’re familiar. There’s nothing new here. They’re core of Buddhist. I think the framing of it is the important part. If you ask this question, how should I live my life? But you have to first pull yourself out of all of your ideas about what that entails. What are the factors that you plug in to find an answer to that question? How should I live your life? The answer should be only those things that are essential. You shouldn’t factor in things that are unessential like money or fame or even things like culture or religion. You should factor in happiness and suffering, really. What is the ultimate, in an ultimate sense, what are we talking about when we say should. And they come down to quite simple principles. And the idea then is that if you apply these principles, the rest is all details. So you can talk about duties to family and duties to society and your place in life and just duties as an interaction, like driving on the right side of the street or paying your taxes or so mowing your lawn. You can talk about those things, but they’re unessential. And you can see the difference, if you live your life according to it is essential that there’s nothing else that you need to worry about. And so all these questions can then be answered.

So what is it that’s essential?  The Buddha said: There are five things. And again, there very should be very familiar to Buddhists. The first one: sila. Sila means behavior or one’s composure, I suppose, and it refers mainly to ethical acts. The second one, samadhi. Samadhi means focus or concentration. The third is panna – wisdom. The fourth is vimutti – freedom and the fifth is [vimutti???], which means knowledge and vision of freedom. Quite simple, you know. If you want to talk about a road map or a set of principles to live by. I think a road map might be a good way of describing it. And here you have one, potentially.

So why are these things essential? I think the first one really captures them all quite well. Because it talks about ethics. Sila is really much more than we often give it credit for. Sila is in many ways the beginning and the end of everything of the whole path to find freedom from suffering and happiness and peace. Because the word ethics from a Buddhist perspective involves an inherent idea of happiness and suffering. Something is only ethical, if it brings happiness, peace, freedom from suffering. There’s no there’s no other real reason why something would be considered ethical. Something is considered unethical for the only reason that it leads to suffering. That’s it. No other reason. If something never, ever or doesn’t directly lead to suffering, then it can’t be considered unethical. It doesn’t involve the cultivation of suffering, then it’s not an ethical.

I’m not going to go too deeply into that, but because there are other ramifications there, if you talk about, well, what if something leads to suffering for someone else? What if I’m walking down the street and I step on an ant without noticing that the ant is there, then you can say, well, I caused suffering for that ant. So I don’t know how much detail I want to go into defending what I just said. But if we if we basically talk about sila, we often talk about in terms of actions. So we say killing is unethical. Why? Because, well, it leads to suffering not just for the being that you’re killing and really actually not essentially for the being that you’re killing. Because someone can be killed without suffering from it. If their mind is completely pure, they won’t suffer from it. There will be no agitation in their mind. Right. So theoretically and and ultimately, one can be free from suffering being a victim of unethical acts. So when we talk about about suffering from unethical acts, we’re actually talking about the suffering of the perpetrator, a person who kills, suffers.

And so stepping on an ant without noticing it’s there. Well, so it’s really bad for the end, but the end suffering comes from some other process. The fact that they themselves are attached to their body of an ant and their life and attached to the feelings and so on. But no suffering comes to the person who stepped on the ends. And so it’s not considered for that reason. And for that reason, it’s not considered unethical. If, on the other hand, you see an ant and you intentionally step on it, you’re cultivating cruelty. I mean, what it says about you is something not very nice. It says that you’re a murderer and says that you don’t care about the happiness and peace and suffering of others. And so it creates this, I mean, it involves a corruption of mind, a state of mind that is cruel, that is unhealthy. Unhealthy because through meditation, just being mindful, through observation, you can see that it causes you stress and suffering and it corrupts your mind and reduces your composure. I mean gross examples we can see is when you kill a human being, you’re filled with remorse and fear and and all sorts of horrible mind states. Many years ago I read this book, Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, and it’s a very good job of describing the consequences of murder to yourself. What happens? How you punish yourself.

Ethics really is a way of describing or a way of pinpointing what it is that leads to happiness and suffering. And so if a person could be completely ethical, then they would never suffer. So the only problem with that, why that isn’t enough is ethics are difficult or challenging or impossible for most of us to keep perfectly, because ultimately, if you follow this, even if you sit alone in your room and you think an angry thought or a lustful thought or a conceited thought, that’s unethical. It’s unethical because it’s going to lead you to build an unethical habit. And so sitting in your room, you might not kill or steal or lie or cheat, but you’re building it and you can say, I’m perfect in ethics, I have done nothing wrong. But you will always have that potential. And if you sit in your room and you build this these nasty thoughts, you can go crazy and go out and become a psychopath and kill people. Maybe not anytime soon, but the potential is always there. So maybe in another life, certainly it may be a long time away. Some people practice meditation where they suppress their unwholesome thoughts and ideas. And so in this life, they’re they’re quite pure. But they’ve only suppressed them. And if any time they were to stop meditating, they could come back any time.

Right? This story in the [jotaka], I think it was about this ascetic. And he was very, very pure and accomplished in meditation in the jhanas, in the attainment of trance and transcendental meditation. But then he became the teacher, he became caught up in being a teacher for this king, and the king had a beautiful wife. And long story short, he saw the beautiful wife naked once just by accident, and completely lost his composure and was totally lost all of his trances, all of his magical powers, all of his mental quality mental faculties. And he just lay on his bed and got really depressed. The story goes on eventually again, then back, he realized what an idiot he was being. The queen actually tells the king to find a way out of this. And the king says, OK, I give you my queen. You can have her as your wife. And the queen teaches them a lesson. It’s quite a good story.

The point being ethics on the level that we’re talking about or on any level really are shaky. So we take them as a foundation. Without them, without trying to be ethical here and now, you can’t develop higher qualities. You can’t you can’t go deeper. But in order to make them lasting and come to the goals, which is, you know, some eternal ethics, you might say are being completely free from the potential for being unethical, you need to go further.

And so the next one is samadhi. Samadhi depends on ethics. You have to be a good person and you have to be engaged in wholesome behavior and not engaged in unwholesome behavior in order to cultivate a focused mind, in order to see clearly, we might say. Because one thing we miss about concentration when we translate samadhi is concentration, it has this quality of being in a trance and being in a trance is a is samadhi. Certainly, it’s a very strong sort of samadhi. But it misses the idea of what is really important about samadhi. And that is that it brings things into focus and that helps us understand why samadhi is essential. It’s essential not just for preventing the arising of unwholesome qualities of mind, suppressing them really, but also for seeing them clearly and helping to see the relationship between certain qualities and sufferings and to see things more clearly so that we don’t give rise to a useless unskilful qualities of mind about them. But both of these are important qualities of samadhi. So samadhi is the practice of meditation or it’s the aspect of meditation that that comes from the ethical behavior of walking and sitting. For example, like the most ethical behavior or one of the most pure ethical behaviors is to do the walking and sitting.

When you’re walking back and forth, you’re not killing anyone. You’re not stealing. You’re physically, physically, you’re very ethical. Verbally, completely ethical because you’re not talking. When you sit, you even close your eyes. You’re preparing yourself quite well physically and verbally, you’ve got it covered.

And so the only thing left is mentally. Samadhi is the aspect of practice that is mental, that when we actually do the practice. Because walking back and forth isn’t meditation. Sitting very still also isn’t meditation. It’s what’s going on in your mind at that time. And so when your mind is with the foot, stepping right, and your mind is with the stomach, rise and fall, you’re creating not just concentration but focus and clarity. Things are in focus. Because when things are out of focus, when you’re not clear about your experiences, this is what leads you to do unethical things to make the wrong decision. It’s what allows for bad behavior to continue. The theory that you can only get angry if you’re ignorant, if you’re deluded, if you’re in darkness. If you really, really were clearly aware of things as they were happening, it would be literally impossible to ever get angry, greedy, conceded any of that. They all involve misunderstanding. It’s an important concept. So this idea of mindfulness should become clearer as to why it’s so essential and so central.

When you say to yourself rising, you’re cultivating and you’re evoking. As I’ve said many times, you’re invoking these qualities of clarity and pure awareness. That prevents the qualities of mine that would lead to suffering. And so that’s samadhi.

The third one is panna. So it might say something about, well, why isn’t samadhi enough? For similar reasons as ethics, because it’s not sustainable. You can practice walking and sitting and we’ll see that you’re not giving rise to greed, anger and delusion or anything that might cause you to do or say bad things. But as soon as you stop meditating, if you stop for a while, they all come back. And it leads some people to feel discouraged and without a proper theoretical background, they might get discouraged and think, well, then it’s all useless. If this is like Sisyphus, he pushes this boulder up the hill and I got to the top and then it falls back down to the bottom and you have to start all over again. So there’s more. The third one is panna and panna on an ultimate level has this power that we need, this staying power. Because it’s not staying power, it’s a switch. It’s that switch really that we’re looking for. When you have a problem in this case where you have mental problems, we’re looking for a switch. We’re looking for a pill for something that will not just stop it from coming for a while, but change it and fix it, right?

Wisdom is a fix. It’s different from ethics. It’s different from concentration or focus. Wisdom is where you start to see. And so in the beginning, it’s not a fix. It’s a change. But it’s one that can be reversed. It can be changed back, to change in the way you look at things when you start to see that greed, anger and delusion can see arrogance and so on. When you start to see that these things are unbeneficial, you show yourself, you see them again and again until you get tired of them. When you see the things that you cling to as stable, satisfying, controllable, when you start to see that they’re not really stable, they’re not satisfying, they’re not controllable, and you start to let go of them. This changes something in you. It’s very powerful. But to that extent it’s not yet. This is the fix. It’s possible that all the wisdom you’ve gained throughout the course, the first part of the course, throughout the course, it’s possible for it all to be wiped away. But eventually, I mean, I guess then we can say, even that on that level, wisdom is not enough, unless it leads to the fourth one.

And the fourth one is freedom. That’s the fix. The definition of freedom then would be that which is free, free from suffering. The that which is a fix that which is stable is irrevocable or irreversible.

And so this fourth one is a claim that we make in Buddhism when we talk about Nibbana, Nirvana, we’re not talking about heaven, we’re not talking about a place or a realm or something. When we talk about Nirvana, Nibbana, we’re talking about this fix, this switch, this thing that is categorically different in the sense that it doesn’t revert. Anything else and the other definition or thing or theory that someone might have, if it is not that, if it is not irrevocable, irreversible, then it is not nirvana. That’s why that word is so central. And when you hear about Buddhism, you hear about Nirvana. What that word means and why we talk about that word is this thing that flicks the switch that breaks the chain. The Buddha said, like cuts the tree, cuts a tree off at its stump. Um, a palm tree, if you know anything about a palm tree, it’s not like other trees where you can cut it and it will grow back. If you cut the tree and the top is gone, the stump will never go back, like that. And so I won’t go into too much detail about why this happens or how this happens, because it would all be just my claims and all I can say is come and see. I mean, I can give you lots of theory about why it happens. Basically, just to show the connection. Is that through seeing, it’s like the zino effect, be very technical, but how this is sort of, um, like a sonic boom, right? The feedback loop, maybe, how feedback is created. You see so clearly. I mean, so often. So systematically. Day after day, moment after moment in your meditation, impermanence, suffering, non-self. I mean, seeing that the things that we cling to are not worth clinging to. In the beginning, that’s not really clear. But that starts to get more clear. This is not worth clinging to that. You get this sense and it’s not an intellectual thing, but it’s just a feeling of things, these things that you’re experiencing, not being worth clinging to. More and more clearly, until this resonates with you and it just comes from within from your own experience. And finally, it builds and builds and builds, until there’s what we might call an epiphany. And this story that they talk about in Zen Buddhism. And that moment is like falling. It’s not that it feels like, oh, you suddenly feel like you’re falling, but it’s falling in the sense that you’re being suspended or being held in  samsara, in this world, through clinging. And when you completely stop, when you completely lose the idea or the desire or the delusion that the clinging is going to lead you somewhere, that clinging to something really didn’t happen. You have this epiphany. That’s all it takes and you drop.

And so this is we Vimutti – Freedom. You experience what it means to not cling to, not attached, to not depend upon some sorrow or the world. And so you think, well, but surely then that’s enough. Surely this is what Buddhism says is enough, this freedom. But no, the fifth one, the fifth one is quite curious because it’s just knowledge and knowing and seeing that you’re free. That one is really the ultimate, essential or important part. Because that’s life of freedom. That’s the state of being free. So when we talk about freedom, we mean leaving the jail cell. When you leave the prison or the torture chamber, that which restricts you, that which subjects you to suffering. The life one leads after that and the knowledge and the awareness and the vision of freedom. Well, that’s what we’re talking about, how you should live your life. That’s how you should live your life. Free from suffering, having freed yourself from suffering, knowing and seeing that you’re free. When you know and see for yourself that you’re free, that’s how you should live your life. So there you go. There’s the answer to that question, which I think is useful both for our online audience and our meditators to hear here.