You don’t want to suffer and you try to find a way not to. For the most part you turn unknowingly to the very cause of your suffering to try and get free of it. Namely, the pursuit of sensual pleasures, the resistance to all pain, love or hate, and delighting in various sensual distractions, i.e. you act out of craving.
It would then be fortunate for you to start gaining a higher perspective on your situation through meditating upon it:
“I am a victim of birth, ageing, and death, of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; I am a victim of suffering, a prey to suffering. There must be a way to end all of this suffering? When I am subject to birth, ageing, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, why should I seek things that are also subject to suffering and destruction? Suppose that, having understood the danger inherent in those things, I seek the unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, and undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna.” – Majjhima Nikaya 26
By being acutely aware of your vulnerability to suffering, one can either try and run away from it, try to cure it through sensual indulgence, or try to liberate oneself from it by uprooting its root cause – your attitude of craving. And if you are honest with yourself you will admit that running away and sensuality is not the cure. This is because if it were, you would already be free from suffering. You would also admit that the only path you have not tried yet is the way of uprooting your cravings by way of the Gradual Training laid down by the Buddha.
If you want to achieve supreme peace, then it is wise to search for a way to achieve that or for someone who has already achieved it, and to be very clear with yourself that your previous sensual indulgences have not contributed to achieving what you really want – peace and complete satisfaction.
You will of course, through your searching for a way out, come across many teachers who say that they teach that ultimate goal and having heard what they say, you must then try to make the most accurate judgement you can as to which teaching is more likely the one that will lead to freedom from suffering?
Once you gain confidence in a teacher through your reflections, you should frequently listen to them. Listening to the teaching will allow you to become familiar with it. After that, you will be able to recall it. In this way, the teachings gradually become clearer. By reflecting on the teachings repeatedly, you will come to understand their meaning. And as such a desire for more contemplation ensues. In that effort to clarify the meaning, and through application, you can realise, or simply achieve, the purpose of this teaching.
One point to note is that a Dhamma teacher cannot magically impart wisdom to you. They can only instruct those who are interested. Therefore, any wisdom that you gain is not only a result of your own efforts to develop understanding. It is also a result of the right instruction being present as well. Without committing to freeing yourself from suffering, no instruction can help. It doesn’t matter whether a Buddha is present in the world, teaching a Dhamma that is beneficial from start to finish. Despite the importance of hearing the Dhamma, it must be applied in order for it to be effective.
The Going Forth:
With that trust in the Buddha or one of his disciples and thorough consideration of their teachings, you will naturally begin to think:
“Household life is a confinement, a dusty path. The life of a monastic is open and clean. It is not easy to live and practise the holy life at home. Why don’t I go from household life into homelessness by shaving off my hair and putting on a robe?” – Mn26
Of course, you might not be able to ordain for some reason but you can still construct your life in such a way that it resembles a monastic one. Being a layperson doesn’t mean that you have to indulge in sensuality etc.
Such thoughts, about going forth and of renunciation, are inevitable when you start taking the Buddha’s instructions seriously. And if you, again, make an effort to reflect on the benefits of going forth, there is a significant chance you will abandon whatever wealth, position and family you have, and actually go forth.
A Disciples Attitude:
Adopting this serious attitude regarding practice would mean that if there happens to be a Buddha or one of his noble disciples in your vicinity, it is quite natural that if you approach such a person with such a dedicated attitude, you will be tirelessly instructed. However, the opposite is also true. If you are not dedicated to practise, even if you come across a highly skilled teacher, no instruction will be given. The potential teacher might say some things but it will not make a difference to you simply because your attitude is an obstacle i.e. there is no confidence in the teacher or a deep concern to be free, thus your mind will not be able to comprehend anything of significance in their teaching.
It is, however, natural that a faithful disciple who wishes to grasp the Buddha-Dhamma thinks as follows:
‘The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am the disciple; The Blessed One knows, I do not know.’
And because of that attitude, the teaching will be awakening for him, and as such, he will live with determined thoughts, such as:
‘Let only my skin, sinew, and bones remain, and let my flesh and blood dry up, but my energy will not lessen so long as I have not achieved what I can by manly strength, power, and diligence.’ – Mn70
Having such an attitude is essential for not only applying the Buddha’s instructions but for receiving instructions in the first place. Unless such an attitude is present, any instructions that are given will not make a difference.
So what are those instructions? And in particular, what is the first step that the Buddha instructed his faithful disciples to undertake?
Step 1 – Training in Virtue:
‘Come, monk. Be virtuous. Dwell restrained in accordance with the Pāṭimokkha (discipline/precepts), remain consistent in your virtuous behaviour and sphere of activity. Training yourself according to the rules, looking for danger in the slightest fault.’ – Mn125
It’s pretty clear instructions. You don’t have to be a genius to figure it out. However, you do need authenticity to accept it and not try and deny it with ridiculous notions as to why such a step does not apply to you. You know what you need to do or what you should not be doing. The hardest part of taking this step and or keeping the precepts intact, is making the decision to do so. If you cannot do this first thing, the fault is not on the instruction, it is simply on your choice to not accept and choose it.
In particular the precepts that one needs to train in to become accomplished in virtue are as follows:
1- Abandon and abstain from killing, lay down your weapons, and remain principled, peaceful, friendly and compassionate towards all living beings.
2- Abandon and abstain from stealing, taking only what is given, expecting only what is given. Live openly, having become pure.
3- Abandon non-celibacy, live a celibate life, remain distant, abstain from sexual intercourse, which is the householder’s way.
4- Abandon and abstain from lying, speak the truth, adhere to the truth, be reliable, trustworthy, and not a deceiver of the world.
5- Abandon and abstain from malicious speech, don’t spread rumours that could lead to disunion. Conciliate those who are disunited or further harmonise those who are united, delight in harmony, be devoted to harmony, and gladdened by harmony, speak words that create harmony.
6- Abstain from intoxicating drinks and drugs that cause carelessness.
7- Abandon and abstain from impolite speech. Speak in ways that are pleasant to the ear, kind, polite, and are pleasing to most people.
8- Give up and abstain from useless speech, speak only at the right time, speak of what is real, speak of what is beneficial, speak of the Dhamma, speak of the Vinaya; speak words that are worth remembering, reasonable, sensible, connected to what is beneficial.
9- Practice eating once a day, abstaining from food at night.
10- Abstain from dancing, singing, and attending music and shows, i.e. entertainment.
11- Abstain from wearing ornaments, perfumes, cosmetics, and decorations.
12- Abstain from high and luxurious beds.
13- Abstain from accepting money (as a monastic)
– Digha Nikaya 2
Essentially, the precepts all come down to not acting out of greed, hatred and delusion/distraction.
In addition, living with fewer desires and burdens is also a must:
‘Be content with the robes to protect the body, with the alms food to sustain the stomach. Take only these wherever you go. Just as the bird wherever it flies, it flies with its wings as its only burden…’ – Dn2
This level of virtue and unburdening will prevent any danger from coming your way due to a breach in your virtuous behaviour. Therefore, you will experience blameless happiness. And on top of that, you also won’t be causing harm to others in any intentional way. For example by simply being celibate, you avoid all harm that can occur because of sexual pursuits and activities. You can avoid a lot of burdens resulting from such unwholesome acts. So even if you do not pursue this training further, maintaining this step in itself is hugely beneficial.
“But what drawbacks have you seen, Reverend Ānanda, that you advocate giving up greed, hate, and delusion?”
“A greedy (hateful and deluded) person, overcome by greed, intends to hurt themselves, hurt others, and hurt both. They experience mental pain and sadness. The person who has given up greed does not intend to harm themselves, others, or both. They don’t experience mental pain and sadness. A greedy person does bad things with body, speech, and mind. When greed has been given up, they don’t do bad things by way of body, speech, and mind. A greedy person doesn’t truly understand what’s for their own good, the good of another, or the good of both. When greed has been given up, they truly understand what’s for their own good, the good of another, or the good of both. Greed is a destroyer of sight, vision, and knowledge. It blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment.” – Anguttara Nikaya 3.71
But how to maintain the precepts, how not to choose to act against them?
By repeatedly contemplating and reflecting on your bodily, verbal and mental behaviours. (Mn61) “Which type of behaviour would be beneficial to me and others and lead me to complete peace? Virtuous behaviour or unvirtuous behaviour?”
You cannot break any precept or do anything without deciding to do so. If you want to achieve such a state of happiness based on purity in virtue, then choose responsibly, sit back, relax and bliss out, thinking about how your virtue is unbroken, undefiled, liberating, praised by the wise, and conducive to internal peace.
The more you think about your virtue, the more calmer you will be, the more joy you will experience, and the more your mind will be cleansed of defilements. Just this step alone is a profound achievement. But there is still more to do.