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Doing No Harm

by Fleda BrownSeptember 12, 2011

At my local meditation group, we had several new people and another really good discussion last night. We’re starting Chapter 5 of Goldstein’s One Dharma, “Doing No Harm.” The first few pages are crucial to understand WHY we are concerned with ethical and moral behavior in our Buddhist practice.  All spiritual traditions that I know of have some “rule” about doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.

In Buddhist practice, we have moral and ethical guidelines as a training, not as commandments. We’re training ourselves to behave in the most skillful way possible so that we can end our suffering and contribute toward ending other people’s suffering. It’s very logical and rational, actually. We look closely at our own minds and actions. We see what we’re doing and we see how and when it causes us suffering. It seems that we don’t “will” ourselves to change our behavior:  as we see what’s happening, our behavior shifts on its own.

This is the remarkable part, to me. We can do good deeds until we’re blue in the face, as my mother would have said. And it can just as easily build up a whole ego-structure of “being a good person.” This is pretty brittle and can crumble with one “bad” action. Suddenly, we’re “bad.” But when we give ourselves to “just looking,” just seeing what’s there, what’s really going on—not getting involved in stories about it—we change.  Reality, which is both empty and full of compassion has always been there. All we need to do is see it.

“Unwholesome actions” are divided into three of the body, four of speech (we’re such blabbermouths), and three of mind. We discussed the first two of the body: killing or physically harming another, and stealing. One participant, Toby, mentioned that it seems we have to ask ourselves what will do the least harm.  This is not always easy to discern. Another participant, Mahinda, brought up the need for right intention  Goldstein says “Our task is to stay open to our own sensibilities, to be willing to investigate different courses of action, to not hold the taking of life lightly, and with whatever we do to maintain a heart of compassion.”

Stealing, too, the second of the unwholesome actions of the body, requires the same open attention and right intention. Are we consuming more than we need?  for instance.  Goldstein says we can use such questions  “either as a bludgeon of self-judgment or as a thoughtful inquiry into our lives and the choices we make.”


Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.

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