Abandon the Unskilful, Cultivate the Skilful

There are many challenges to the Buddhist path. However, when we start to follow the path, sometimes we discover that some of these challenges are actually just illusions created by our own minds. One big challenge is the challenge of continuous, ethical behaviour. To behave ethically all the time is the human challenge. Or to put it another way, to get through life without hurting anything or anyone physically, emotionally or in any other way seems impossible. Often, to avoid hurting one person, we have to hurt another. To the person setting out on the path, this seems an insurmountable wall to climb over.

Here’s a controversial thought. I sometimes wonder if other religions and spiritualities offer an easier path. The reason for this is that they seem to offer clear rule books for how to behave in certain situations. In other words, if you behave in this particular way you will make progress. Almost like an instruction manual if you like. This can of course work both ways. Some of these rules are almost impossible to achieve in some religions and they leave the follower constantly dealing with the guilt of not quite meeting them.

A while back, Denise (my wife) and I took Argentine Tango lessons. We had some dancing experience so we arrived with a fair degree of confidence. This confidence soon diminished when the teacher, a very talented tango teacher, said that he wouldn’t teach us any specific steps. We just had to follow the main principles of tango and ‘feel the music’. I remember vividly the feeling we both experienced at that time. Adrift, directionless and a little frustrated. However, we stuck at it and we did begin to feel a little of the beauty of this amazing dance.

In many ways, the Buddhist path feels similar. You have guiding principles but there don’t appear to be any clear rules. However, now I am a little down the path I can see and feel the reason for this. The Argentine Tango has its beauty because of its lack of rules.  Follow the principles instead and it has a lovely flexibility which can be adapted to many different types of music. As soon as you wrap rules around something you establish boundaries and limits within which those rules are set. If a situation takes you outside of those rules, you are left standing with nowhere to go. Try dancing a waltz to Bob Marley for example?

So, if the rules of our religion don’t quite apply to the particular situation we are in then we are left standing and some of us may walk away. For a while I think I followed Buddhist principles looking for the rules that I should apply. I was searching for the steps to the dance, if you like. Then I read a very simple passage from the Pali Canon, the Buddhist scriptures. “Abandon the unskilful, cultivate the skilful”.  There it was! It certainly reads like a rule as it has the feeling of a commandment about it. However, the Buddhist path is guided by a set of principles rather than rules. Like the Argentine Tango, it can be danced to many different types of music. This may be way we see many Anglican priests in the UK also following Buddhist practice for example.

“Abandon the Unskilful” the guidance says. This is a lovely word, Abandon. There is something in it that implies that that which is unskilful shouldn’t be hated. That ‘hating’ in itself would be unskilful. We should just walk away from it. Let it go. Also, we don’t have to wait for a particular time, event or ceremony. We can just start now. There is no ‘right time’ to start letting go of unskilful behaviours.

The order is also interesting here, advising us to abandon the unskilful before we start to cultivate the skilful. The implication here is that it makes the cultivation a little easier, perhaps a little more worthwhile. I don’t believe we have to let go of all our unskilful behaviours before we head out on the path of cultivation. But it helps to start down that road.

There is something else present in the word “abandon”. It was chosen very carefully I believe. When we abandon things, they are usually things we have held dear or had some form of attachment to. When the Buddha gave this sermon I believe he was suggesting a similar feeling towards unskilful behaviour. Often we have some form of attachment to our unskilful behaviours. Just think of anger and how some people seem to thrive on it. Some of these behaviours it will require a certain amount of bravery and will-power to let them go as we may feel that they are very much a part of us.

So the second part of this lovely sentence is “cultivating the skilful”.

It’s right that we begin by abandoning the unskilful first. After all, it’s no good spending hours on the meditation cushion if we are going to head off and tell lies at work afterwards.

The word ‘cultivate’, just like the first word ‘abandon’ has been chosen with care. To cultivate is to grow or to develop. However, it carries for me a gentle patience with it. Just like growing a plant or a crop, it implies something that can’t be rushed. Some effort has to be applied but it can’t be forced. We must water a plant, but it will grow at its own pace. Throwing more water on it won’t make it grow quicker. It also implies that you can start with the smallest seed. Hopefully and with effort the skilful behaviour will flourish.

I think it is also important to feel this word cultivate and see what it says to you personally before applying it to skilful thinking and behaviour. For me it feels as though, if I work at it, I can slowly change from my root, my heart, from the ground up. In other words, fully and completely, not in some superficial sense.

Then of course we put the two sides of the sentence together. The letting go and the growing of something new. In order to do this, I need to be vigilant all of the time. So I spend time on the cushion and train myself in the ways of mindfulness and concentration. In this way, the circle is completed. I invest in mindfulness and concentration on the cushion and let go of the unskilful and cultivate the skilful in my daily life. Hopefully over time, I will make progress.

But what do we mean by skilful and unskilful and how can we explore this in our lives.

The Adhidarma, the text that we have been exploring over the past few weeks looks at this in some detail. It does get exceptionally complicated in places but the essence of it, to identify what is a skilful act and what is unskilful is to consider this. To consider what’s known as the morality of the quiet moment. In other words, to consider a time and space when we are alone and no one else is with us and the way we think and behave in this space, and then to think how we behave when others are around. This is NOT an opportunity to go into self recrimination again! But it is an opportunity to notice the difference. This now teaches us a great deal when we consider our thoughts and the fact they are always in that place of quiet and not on display. Because, as we have seen in our practice to date, all of our actions and our interactions with the world and other people, start with thoughts.

In terms of meditation. By far the most powerful meditation in this space is the Metta Bhavanna, so we will practise with Metta.