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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > The Three Trainings and Eightfold Path in Daily Life > Session Two: Right Action, Livelihood, and Effort

The Three Trainings and Eightfold Path in Daily Life

Alexander Berzin
Kiev, Ukraine, June 2013

Session Two: Right Action, Livelihood, and Effort

Unedited Transcript
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Last night we began our discussion of the three trainings, and we saw that we can discuss these in terms of:

  • Just Buddhist science and philosophy, which is dealing with the basic science of the mind and philosophy of ethics, dealing with our emotions and so on. The focus here would be on using the material from these three trainings in order to, basically, improve the quality of our life.
  • And then there’s Buddhist religion, which would be focusing on things like karma and rebirth, liberation, enlightenment. And so we would be using these three trainings to help us to attain better rebirths, to attain liberation, or to attain enlightenment.

But regardless of which level we are implementing these three trainings on, it’s always focused on helping us to overcome problems and suffering that we have. And the method is to try to identify the causes of our problems and difficulties and to apply what is known as the eightfold path to help us to eliminate these causes of our suffering.

I’m laughing because this fly seems to like me and wants to stay by my face. From a Buddhist point of view, you always wonder “Who was this fly in its last lifetime that wants to be with me so much?” A little bit more peaceful way of looking at it than just wanting to swat it.

Anyway, the three trainings are in ethical self-discipline (tshul-khrims), concentration (ting-nge-’dzin), and discriminating awareness (shes-rab), and these are extremely helpful to cultivate in our daily life:

  • If we are dealing with others, then of course it’s very important to watch how we act with them, how we speak with them, or if we’re in some sort of a business transaction with them, how we interact on a business level. We need ethical discipline to refrain from doing anything that would be harmful or destructive.
  • We also need to be able to concentrate on what they’re saying, what their needs are, what’s going on with them, in order to be able to interact in a proper way. If we’re not paying attention – our mind is wandering all over the place – or every minute or so in the interaction our cell phone goes off and we do another SMS, and so on, then that really makes for very difficult communication with the other person.
  • And if we’re able to concentrate on the other person – what they’re saying, how they’re acting – then we’ll be able to use discriminating awareness to be able to decide what is the appropriate response and what would be an inappropriate response. We need to discriminate between these two. And that leads again to acting properly, speaking properly, in an appropriate way to the other person.

So these three trainings intertwine with each other and reinforce each other, and that’s why we say that we need to apply all of them simultaneously.

And even when we’re not with other people, interacting with them, we also need these three trainings just in terms of ourselves. In our own dealings with ourselves, it’s important to:

  • Not act in a self-destructive way.
  • To have our minds be focused so that we can accomplish whatever it is that we want to accomplish.
  • And use our basic intelligence to discriminate between what’s appropriate to do, what’s inappropriate to do.

So these three higher trainings apply to both our own personal situation and our social interaction. So, like that, they’re very, very basic principles that we can apply in our daily life.

That was a slip of the tongue. I said higher trainings. That is terminology that we find used most frequently. When we hear higher trainings, the three higher trainings (lhag-pa’i bslab-pa gsum), this is referring to when we use these three in order to attain liberation or enlightenment. That’s why they’re called higher (lhag-pa’i). It’s referring to applying these three to attaining a higher goal, a goal that is higher than just this lifetime and future lifetimes.

Then we started our more detailed look at these three in terms of the so-called eightfold path. And the first of these, the first group – these are in three groups – the first group of these are the three that are involved with ethical self-discipline, this training in ethical self-discipline. Okay, so we’re speaking in terms of ethical self-discipline, and here we have what’s known as:

  • Right speech (yan-dag-pa’i ngag).
  • Right boundaries of action (yan-dag-pa’i las-kyi mtha’), so right behavior.
  • And right livelihood (yan-dag-pa’i ‘tsho-ba).

Yesterday we spoke about right speech, and we saw that we need the discipline to refrain from four destructive ways of speaking – lying, speaking divisively, speaking in a harsh and cruel way, and idle chatter – and instead to have the discipline to speak in an appropriate and constructive way, a way that is truthful, that tries to create harmony, that’s kind and gentle, that’s meaningful, and that’s spoken at the appropriate time in the appropriate measure (not just interrupting people with trivia). And we need the discipline to speak in a way that is going to be helpful to others, like answering their questions, comforting them if they are unhappy, and so on.

Wrong Behavior

So now let’s go on. The second of the eightfold path is speaking about right boundaries of action (yan-dag-pa’i las-kyi mtha’). That’s the technical term. When we speak of a boundary (mtha’), we’re talking about a certain limit, that “I will act up to this boundary but not beyond that boundary.” This is referring to three types of destructive behavior:

  1. Killing living beings (so taking their life).
  2. Stealing, taking what does not belong to us.
  3. Inappropriate sexual behavior.

So what are these talking about?


Killing is basically taking the life of someone else. And we’re not speaking just in terms of humans, but we’re speaking in terms of hunting, fishing, killing insects, and so on.

Now, I think for many of us that giving up hunting and fishing is perhaps not so difficult. Insects are much more difficult. But there are many ways to approach this without getting into future lives and past lives and “This fly was my mother in a previous life,” and so on. I think that the main emphasis here is that if there’s something that annoys us, we don’t want to have killing it as our first response. This builds up the habit of wanting to destroy anything we don’t like in a violent type of way, and it starts to extend beyond the fly that’s buzzing around your face. What we want instead is to find some sort of peaceful way of dealing with something that is annoying. So with insects – a fly or a mosquito or something like that – when they land on the wall, it’s possible to put a glass over it, a paper underneath the glass, and take it out. In many, many situations we can find a much more peaceful way of dealing with something that we don’t like, and there are many very simple ways.

If you live in India, as I did, you learn to live with insects. I mean, there’s no way that you can get rid of all the insects in India. I always thought of an advertising campaign for travel agents for India: “If you like insects, you’ll love India.” When I first started living in India, my background was such that I certainly was not fond of insects, but I was a great fan of science fiction. So I imagined that if I went to another planet and the life form on that planet was in the shape of insects like this, it would be quite awful if whenever I met anybody there, all I wanted to do was step on it or smash it. So if you start to put yourself in the place of the insect – “The insect is just doing its thing” – then you start to respect it as a life form.

But obviously there are harmful insects – just as there are harmful people – and sometimes you have to use strong measures to control them. But the first thing that one tries is a peaceful method, whether we’re talking about human conflict or we’re talking about your house being infested with ants or cockroaches or something like that.

So that’s killing.


Then the second one is stealing, taking what doesn’t belong to us. Obviously people – at least most people – are more attached to their lives than they are to their possessions, but still if you take somebody’s possession, that causes a great deal of unhappiness, and then we’re uneasy: “Are we going to be caught?” and all of that.

Now, remember when we’re discussing these that what we want to avoid is problems to ourselves. Obviously it’s a problem to the insect or the fish if you kill it. But the problem to ourselves is that… For instance, if you are very disturbed by the insects, then you’re constantly paranoid, aren’t you, you’re always worried – “Is a mosquito going to come in and invade my space?” – so you’re always watching. Or in the middle of the night, there’s something there, and you get up and go hunting in your room, trying to find it. It’s a very uneasy state of mind, isn’t it? So if we try to use a peaceful method to deal with something that we don’t like, our minds are at ease. We’re relaxed.

If you always think to resort to some violent method, then you’re very tense, aren’t you, very paranoid – so an unhappy state of mind – and you’re out of control. You go to swat the mosquito or the fly, and you smash some precious object that it had landed on, because you just want to get it. And so you destroy your own stuff. You’re out of control. Whereas if you try to find some peaceful solution to it, you can use your discrimination much more calmly and rationally to find another method, a peaceful method, to deal with the problem.

So the same thing with stealing, taking something that doesn’t belong to you. You have to be sneaky – you’re worried that you’ll get caught – and it is usually based on a very, very strong desire that you’re not patient enough to do the work that would be required to get something and so you just steal it from somebody else.

Of course there’s also stealing and killing out of the opposite motivation:

  • You could kill because you’re very greedy to eat this animal or to eat this fish. And again things depend on the circumstances. If there’s absolutely nothing else to eat, that’s one thing. If there are alternatives to eat, that’s something else.
  • And you could also steal out of anger. You want to hurt somebody, so you take something that belongs to them.

So these destructive ways of acting are based on – as we were speaking about yesterday – on disturbing emotions.

Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

Then the third type of destructive behavior is inappropriate sexual behavior. This is always a difficult topic because for most of us the strong drive behind our sexual behavior is longing desire (’dod-chags). There are the basic guidelines, the boundaries, that we set here, which are:

  • Not to cause harm with our sexual behavior, like raping somebody or violating them in a very violent type of way that’s going to hurt them. It’s quite obvious, quite clear, that that’s something that we would want to avoid.
  • Forcing ourselves on someone is a milder form of that, which is really pressuring somebody, even our own partner, to have sex when they don’t want to.
  • Then there is also having sex with somebody else’s partner or, if you have a partner, having sex with somebody else. So adultery. No matter how careful we are, that always leads to trouble, doesn’t it?

But there are many other aspects here to inappropriate sexual behavior. The whole idea behind it is that we want to try to not just act like an animal. An animal just will jump on any other animal whenever it feels like it, no matter what, no matter who’s around, and so on. They’re totally under the control of desire and lust. That’s what we want to avoid.

So what we would want to do, then, is to set certain boundaries – remember this is called boundaries of action – set certain boundaries, that “It’s within this sphere that I will have my sexual behavior and not beyond that.” That could deal with how frequently. It could deal with the sexual positions. It could deal with whatever, but to have certain guidelines, not just anything that I feel like, at any time, and so on, like an animal. “I’ll do this with you, but I won’t do that” – this type of setting boundaries. This is really very important in terms of discipline. Discipline is to refrain from going beyond that boundary, because we see that this is just based on lust and this is really not at all necessary. Like for instance we’re on a meditation retreat. “During this meditation retreat, I will not have sex” – this type of boundary, whatever that might be. The point is to have some boundaries.

Taking Intoxicants

Now, although taking intoxicants is not included in these wrong or destructive actions, abandoning intoxicants is very important in terms of our development. We want to develop concentration. We want to develop discipline. Well, getting drunk – you lose all discipline, don’t you? You take certain types of psychedelic drugs, and you lose all concentration – constant mental wandering with marijuana etc. So if one looks at the effect of various drugs or alcohol, and so on, and compares that to what we want to accomplish in terms of our own personal development of our mind, our emotions, our behavior, and so on, we see that getting drunk or getting high is completely contradictory to that. It creates obstacles, and those obstacles last not only while we are drunk or high but there tend to be leftovers of that later on (a hangover etc.) So initially set some boundaries in terms of limitations; and best is to give them up completely.

Right Boundaries of Action (Right Behavior)

So one aspect of ethical self-discipline is to refrain from destructive types of behavior. The other aspect is to engage in constructive ways of acting, what’s called right action.

So instead of taking the life of others, you help to preserve life. I mean, you can see a wider application of this: Rather than completely destroying the environment so that animals can’t live and polluting the lakes so the fish all die, taking care about ecology. That’s a way to help to preserve life. Feeding your dog – that’s helping to preserve life. Feeding your pig – not fattening it up so that you can kill it and eat it, but feeding your pig so that your pig thrives. But this also includes taking care of sick people, help to preserve their life. If somebody gets hurt, you try to help them. These sorts of things. Preserving life.

If you think of a fly – in India you have to deal with flies – but think of a fly, a fly or a bee flying into your room. Now, the fly or bee doesn’t want to be there, does it – especially the bee – it wants to get out, but it doesn’t know how to get out. So if you just kill it for making the mistake of flying into your room, that’s not very nice, is it? You help it to get out, even if it’s just opening the window and going “Shoo,” like that, for it to get out. You’re helping to preserve its life. It wants to live. If a bird flew into your room by mistake, you wouldn’t take out your gun and shoot it, would you? You’d probably try to open the window and get it to fly out. So what’s the difference between the bird and the fly? Size. The sound it makes: you don’t like the sound that the fly makes; you like the sound that the bird makes. If you don’t particularly like flies to come in your room, don’t open the window or you can put up a screen.

Then the right action in terms of not stealing would be to try to help protect other people’s possessions. If somebody loans you something, you try not to damage it. You take good care of it. This type of thing. Helping them to have nice things.

And instead of inappropriate sexual behavior, and we’re talking about not only sex with somebody else but sex with yourself, act in a sexual way in a kind, gentle way, a proper measure, and so on – not just lust, like a dog in heat.

Other Examples of Right and Wrong Behavior

If we look at an extension of our discussion here from what I have in my sensitivity training (as we spoke about before in terms of speech), we can also see that there are many other aspects that are involved with these three types of behavior.

An extension of killing is to stop treating others in a rough physical manner. That’s not only hitting others but overworking them and pushing them too hard in terms of doing things – in other words, causing some sort of physical harm.

Also toward ourselves – to stop mistreating ourselves physically by overworking, eating poorly, not getting enough sleep, this type of thing. We usually think in terms of our behavior toward others, but actually often we have very self-destructive behavior as well – not getting enough exercise, for example.

Then in terms of stealing – it’s not just taking the things of others but, for instance, using possessions of others without asking them. You take somebody’s phone without asking them and make some expensive call. We just help ourselves to things without getting permission. This is stealing. Sneaking into the theater or whatever without paying. Then you get into a tricky one that people don’t like – not paying your taxes. Now, of course you could argue “Well, I don’t want to pay my taxes, because it goes for making war and buying weapons.” But it also goes for making roads and building hospitals and things, having a school. If you want to have those – well, come on, you have to pay some tax.

But also we could think in terms of ourselves: What we want to do is to stop wasting our money on trivial things. That’s misusing our possessions, misusing our wealth – like gambling, for example. Or being stingy when spending on ourselves when we actually could afford it. You have the money to be able to eat a proper diet and to get proper food, but you’re stingy, so you buy the cheapest, most horrible quality food. This is stealing from yourself basically.

And in terms of inappropriate sexual behavior, it’s not just pushing ourselves on others or on their partners but it’s stopping engaging in sexual acts that could endanger our own physical or emotional health. A simple example: You meet somebody, and you are attracted to this person. On the one hand, you would like to have sex with this person. But this person has an awful lot of emotional problems and other difficulties, and you realize that if you get involved with this person, there’s going to be trouble; it’s going to be difficult. And so for your own personal health, don’t do it – don’t touch this person; don’t get involved. Don’t just be driven by your lust that they’re pretty.

Questions and Answers about Right and Wrong Behavior

Okay, so this is our discussion of what is normally called right behavior and wrong behavior. Do you have any questions about it?

Participant: My question is about stealing. I want to discuss this tricky topic of author rights because, well, there are different opinions about this. Some people say there are rights; others say there aren’t any rights. I’d like to discuss with you whether, for example, downloading some unlicensed software or pirated videos is a kind of stealing or not.

Alex: Well, I think it is stealing. There’s no way to say that it’s not stealing. If it said very explicitly “Do not download this without paying,” then it’s clear.

I think the principle here is about setting certain boundaries in our behavior. That’s why it’s called boundaries of action. In terms of our ethical discipline, there’s a whole spectrum, isn’t there? So the spectrum is from doing anything that you feel like doing – regardless of what the consequences might be on others or ourselves – all the way to, if we’re talking about inappropriate sexual behavior, being completely a celibate monk or nun and having nothing. But there are many, many possibilities in between the two extremes. The point is to set some sort of boundary and develop some sort of discipline so that you don’t go beyond that boundary.

So in terms of killing, it might be “I’m not going to hunt or fish or kill people. But insects? Well, I can’t deal with that yet.” You set some sort of boundary. Or in terms of stealing, you could say, “Well, I’m not going to rob a bank or steal something from a store. But downloading without paying? I can’t really avoid that.” But at least you’ve set some sort of boundary. However, one needs to acknowledge that downloading without paying is stealing. It’s taking something without permission. Also there’s a big difference between downloading without paying when you could pay, when you do have the money to pay, and doing that when you don’t have the money to pay. I think it’s much more serious when you could pay and you don’t just to be cheap, to be nasty. That, I think, needs to be definitely avoided.

Now, as an author – I mean, I have this enormous website – the way that I avoid all of that is everything’s for free. Then there’s no problem with somebody downloading, using it, and putting it on their website, or whatever. If it’s of benefit to others, fine. And then just live on donations – that’s the real Buddhist way, but not too many people do that.

Right and Wrong Livelihood

Okay, then let’s go onto livelihood – how we make a living – and the discipline that would be needed there. What we want to do is to have the discipline to try to avoid making our living in some sort of harmful industry or harmful way, a way that’s harmful to others or harmful to ourselves. So for instance:

  • Manufacturing or dealing in weapons.
  • Slaughtering animals, hunting, fishing, exterminating insects.
  • Making or selling or serving alcohol or drugs.
  • Operating a gambling casino.
  • Publishing or distributing pornography.

These sort of types of livelihood that just are either harming others or causing their – like with pornography – causing their desire and lust to just increase.

But even if we’re involved in a regular type of livelihood that isn’t harmful to others or to ourselves, we want to be honest. So you want to avoid being dishonest:

  • Overcharging customers or clients. You just want to get as much money from them as possible.
  • Embezzlement. That means to take funds of a business for your own use.
  • Extortion, threatening others in order to get money from them. “If you don’t give me a large amount of money, I’m going to publicize something terrible about you in the news.” That’s extortion.That would be like kidnapping: “If you don’t give me all this money that I demand, I’ll kill your child.” Not a good way to make a living.
  • Bribery.
  • Exploitation of others.
  • False advertising.
  • Adulterating your food or product in order to make more money.

So there are many, many dishonest ways of making a living. And again we want to apply the ethical self-discipline to avoid that type of livelihood. Instead we want to try to make our living in a way that is honest and that can benefit society, the best types of occupation, so:

  • Medicine.
  • Social work.
  • Fair commerce.
  • Making products or selling products or services that are of help to others.

So doing anything that contributes to the healthy functioning of society and the welfare of others. And:

  • Not cheating others, not overcharging, all these sort of things.
  • Set a fair price. One obviously needs to make a profit, but within reason.
  • Pay your workers well. Don’t try to exploit them by paying very, very little in order to get the most work out of them.

Also what is involved here is to try to avoid the extremes of complete asceticism, on the one hand – just living a very, very poor type of way when you can afford to live better – or on the other hand, excess luxury which is totally unnecessary: gold fixtures in your bathroom, etc. That obviously is an extreme. But more probable examples are the people that I know who have an awful lot of money and who go and buy the most expensive clothes, and they have so much clothing, so many dresses – particularly women tend to do this – so many dresses, so many outfits, and they go shopping because they’re bored and think that somehow they’re going to find some happiness in buying yet another thousand Euro dress, which doesn’t bring them any happiness at all. So this type of excessive luxury is also an improper way to lead your life.

There’s one point about right livelihood that often comes up in questions. Let me address that. Once I was translating for a Tibetan teacher in Australia, and he mentioned about this right livelihood. And in Australia there is a tremendous number of sheep, both in Australia and New Zealand, and somebody asked, “Well, in the town that I live in, that’s the only thing that is available, is to raise sheep, which are then used for wool and then meat.” And so he asked, “What should I do? I can’t just move to a city or some other place and try to find other work. I mean, this is what is available where I live, where my family lives,” etc. And the Tibetan lama said, “Well, the main thing is to be honest in your work and not cheat others, etc., and not to mistreat the sheep but to treat them kindly, feed them well, take nice care of them,” these sort of things. So he said that the main emphasis is on being kind and being honest in the way that you’re making a living even if it has to be in terms of raising sheep. Now, obviously that would be difficult if the only industry in your town was building weapons. Well, to just sell your weapons at a fair price? I mean, that’s not sufficient, I think.

So these are the three factors, the three aspects, that are involved from our eightfold path in the training in ethical discipline. We want to try to involve ourselves with the ethical discipline or train ourselves in the ethical discipline to refrain from destructive speech, destructive behavior, destructive ways of making a living, and train in the discipline to engage in constructive ways of communicating, constructive ways of behaving, constructive ways of making a living, and also the discipline to speak and act and make our living in a way that is beneficial to others. And this applies to how we deal with society and friends, how we deal within our homes with our family, how we deal with ourselves.

Questions and Answers about Ethical Self-Discipline

So any questions on ethical self-discipline before we go on to concentration?

Participant: There’s a situation in the Baltic Sea. Some giant crabs appeared there, and they are killing everything that lives there. Some companies are hunting these crabs to make a business. These crabs kill everything else, so would it be ethical to kill them or not?

Alex: That’s a difficult issue. It’s not just limited to these giant crabs – I had this image from some science-fiction horror movie – but also in terms of when you have locusts coming and eating all the crops in the field or you have bed bugs infesting your home, or something like that. It’s the basic question of extermination of pests, harmful pests.

I think that a great deal has to do with the motivation. There’s a classic example that’s used: In a previous lifetime, Buddha was a navigator on a ship. There was someone on the ship who was planning to kill everybody else on the ship, and the Buddha saw that there was no way to prevent this mass murder in a peaceful way; the only way that he could prevent it was to kill this potential mass murderer himself. So Buddha killed this person, but he killed him with the motivation of compassion rather than anger or fear, the compassion to spare the lives of everybody else on the ship and also to prevent this person from building up such negative karma that he would suffer horribly in future lives. But also the Buddha accepted and acknowledged the fact that it is killing somebody, it is a destructive act regardless of the motivation, and Buddha said, “I am willing to accept the karmic consequences from this on myself in order to spare others.” Even if we don’t think in terms of karmic consequences in future lives, if you shoot somebody, a mass murderer, still you have to go to the police, and you have a trial, and it’s going to be a lot of hassle that you’re going to have to experience as a consequence of it. But he said, “I’m willing to take on and accept that consequence in order to spare the lives of others.”

So if it’s necessary to kill a predator – to save the crops or to save the rest of the fish, and so on – then not out of anger, not out of fear, not out of “I want to make a lot of money from selling these crabs,” but if it’s out of compassion then the consequence of it will be much less than doing it out of anger. But you need to acknowledge that it is negative and accept whatever consequences will come from that.

Participant: You mentioned overcharging the price of different products. What do you mean by that? When you have a profit that is more than zero, is that overcharging for a product or not?

Alex: No, it’s not overcharging if the profit is reasonable. There’s a difference between making something in China that costs three cents to produce and you sell it for a hundred Euros. That’s excessive profit, isn’t it? And people do that. Maybe three cents is too little, but how much does it cost to produce a designer-brand shirt in Bangladesh? How much are they actually paying the people? And how much do they sell it for in your fancy store?

One needs to make a living, one needs to raise a family, and so on, so you need to make some profit. But it’s hard to say if a certain number or a certain percentage is reasonable or not. But one knows, I think. If you use basic common sense, you have a general idea of what is too much, what’s unreasonable.

Training in Concentration

Okay, let’s go on with concentration. Here we have the next three parts of the eightfold path:

  • Right effort (yan-dag-pa’i rtsol-ba).
  • Right mindfulness (yan-dag-pa’i dran-pa).
  • And right concentration (yan-dag-pa’i ting-nge-’dzin).

Right effort is to get rid of destructive thoughts and develop states of mind that are conducive to concentration.

Mindfulness (dran-pa) is like the mental glue to hold on and not let go of something, so it prevents us from forgetting something. And so right mindfulness is:

  • Not to forget the actual nature of our body, feelings, mind, and mental factors so that we don’t get distracted by them.
  • And also it’s to not lose hold of our various ethical guidelines – precepts or, if we’ve taken them, vows.
  • And not to let go or forget an object of focus.

So if we are meditating, obviously we need mindfulness to not lose the object that we’re focusing on. But if you’re having a conversation with somebody or you’re working, you need to have this mindfulness to keep your attention on the person and what they’re saying and not to lose it, lose your attention, so you get distracted by something.

And then concentration itself is mental placement on an object of focus. So if we are listening to somebody, having a conversation with them, concentration means that your attention is placed on what they’re saying, how they’re looking, how they’re acting, and mindfulness is the glue that keeps you there so that you don’t become dull or distracted or whatever.

Wrong Effort

Okay, so let’s start with effort. Wrong effort is directing our energy into harmful, destructive thoughts. Right? These negative thoughts or destructive thoughts are things that completely distract us. We’re not able to concentrate at all.

Covetous Thinking

The first of these is what’s called covetous thinking. That’s thinking jealously about what others have achieved or the pleasures that they have or the material things that they have and “How can I get it for myself?” So extreme jealousy and desire, attachment. We can’t stand that somebody else has things that we don’t have – whether they have success, whether they have partners and we’re very lonely, do they have a new car and we don’t have a car, whatever it is – constantly thinking about that and plotting about it. It’s a very, very disturbing state of mind. Prevents our concentration, doesn’t it?

I think also the type of thinking that is involved with being a perfectionist falls into this category. It’s a subcategory of this. “How can I outdo myself? What I did was not good enough, and so now I have to do more and more and be in control.” So it’s jealousy of yourself, in fact.

Thinking with Malice

Then the second is thinking with malice about how to harm someone. “If this person says or does something that I don’t like or I didn’t like, I can get even.” Or plotting: “When I see this person next time, I’m going to say this or that.” And we regret that we didn’t say something back to them when they said something nasty to us, and we can’t get that out of our heads, and we’re thinking about that all the time.

I mean, there are also many self-destructive ways of thinking – thinking to do something that will really sabotage what we’re trying to do in life. Although we might not be aware that it’s going to be harmful to us, we’re thinking in terms of that. “I can’t afford something, but I really want it, so I will go into more and more debt in order to buy it.” That’s self-destructive. It’s unconsciously planning and plotting to get something that will cause even more problems to yourself because of even more debt.

Distorted Antagonistic Thinking

Then the third is what’s called distorted antagonistic thinking (log-lta). So if somebody else is striving to improve themselves or to help others, thinking that “Well, they’re stupid. What they’re doing is useless because it’s not something that I like.” Somebody else chooses something, and you think “Oh, they’re so stupid for doing that.”

Some people don’t like sports, and then they think anybody who likes sports and likes to watch football on the television or go to see a team – “Well, they’re completely stupid.” There’s nothing harmful about liking sports, but you think in a distorted way that this is stupid, this is a waste of time. It’s a very antagonistic state of mind as well.

Or somebody is trying to help somebody else – let’s say they give a little bit of money to a beggar – and then you think “Oh, you’re really stupid for doing that. This is ridiculous,” etc., this type of thing. I mean, even if the beggar really is just doing that as a profession and they’re not that poor and so on, still it’s a horrible lifestyle to choose, to be a beggar. I mean, it’s certainly not fun lying on the sidewalk and shaking, or doing whatever, to try to make some money.

If we’re constantly thinking about how stupid everybody else is and how what they’re doing is irrational, like that, we can’t concentrate at all. So these are types of thoughts that we want to get rid of if we can. Obviously it takes a lot of discipline to do it. But if we have developed the discipline in terms of the way that we act and we speak, that gives us the strength to be able to discipline our minds to just stop when we start to think in these destructive ways and not go on that trip, that mental trip.

Is this clear?

Right Effort

So what is right effort? Right effort is to direct our energies away from harmful, destructive thoughts and to direct our effort toward the development of beneficial qualities. For this we speak in terms of four right strivings (what we’re striving to accomplish). ["Right strivings is the name given to them in the Pali literature, sammappadhana. In the Sanskrit and Tibetan literature, they are called the factors for attaining correct riddances (yang-dag spong-ba, Skt. samyakprahana; four pure abandonments).]

The Four Right Strivings

  1. First, we try to put effort to prevent the arising of negative qualities that we’ve not yet developed.

    So what are negative qualities that we might not have yet but we want to avoid so that they don’t arise? Well, if we have a very addictive type of personality, we might want to avoid joining, let’s say, some sort of… I don’t know if you have these here in Ukraine, but we have video clubs. I mean, now you can download things from the internet from a movie service. You have those as well? So if you join one of those, well, you know that if you join one of these, you’re just going to download something every day and look at it every day. And since you know that this would be very detrimental to you, put the effort into not joining it so that you avoid getting into this thing that you know you’re going to get hooked on. We’ll have better concentration if we avoid something like that.

    There are people now who are so addicted to their iPod, they can’t go anywhere without listening to music. And so how can you concentrate on anything if you also have the music going on at the same time? You’re not single-pointedly focused.

    Participant: But you can concentrate on music.

    Alex: You can concentrate on the music, but that doesn’t help you to have a conversation with somebody or to do your work. I mean, it’s a distraction. Most people are afraid to have silence, afraid to think about anything, so they have to constantly have music.

    So what we want to do is to put effort into avoiding that if we don’t have this type of harmful quality, harmful habit.
  2. Then the second one is to put effort into ridding ourselves of the negative qualities that have arisen already.

    If we’re already addicted to something like that, well, limit it at least. Don’t have it constant.
  3. Then cultivate new positive qualities, put effort into cultivating new positive qualities.
  4. And then put effort into maintaining and enhancing the positive qualities that are already present.

It’s very interesting when you look at these and try to see practical applications. I’ll give an example, maybe a simple example, from my own experience: I have had a very difficult habit. I have this large website, and every day I’m constantly getting many, many files that people are sending me of translations or edited versions or things like that. Many, many arrive every day – ten, twenty, or more. I have about a hundred and ten people working on this website, so a lot of things are coming in every day. And I downloaded everything into one folder – that was my bad habit – rather than filing them away in the proper folder where I can then find them and my assistant could find them as well. So that is a bad habit – very inefficient, and it prevents concentration because you waste time (you can’t find anything). So what would be the positive qualities? To set up a system so that as soon as something comes in, it goes immediately into the right folder and not just into this big download folder. And then put effort into always putting things, when they come in, in their proper place to start with – not being lazy and downloading them into one place – so then everything is working much more efficiently.

So you see here’s a negative quality, a habit that is not productive at all, and here’s a more positive one. Put in effort to avoid this negative quality, negative habit, that I’ve had. Set up a proper file system so that I can prevent it from continuing, put effort into making that file system, and put effort into maintaining it. This is what we’re talking about here on a very simple level of practice. Okay.

Overcoming the Five Obstacles to Concentration

Right effort also is into trying to work to overcome the five obstacles to concentration. So what are these obstacles?

Intentions to Pursue Any of the Five Types of Desirable Sensory Objects

First, intentions to pursue any of the five types of desirable sensory objects. What does that mean? That means that I’m sitting and trying to concentrate on something – let’s say my work or whatever work that you’re doing – but what would prevent my being concentrated? What would harm that concentration? It would be to think “Oh, I want to watch a movie” or “Oh, I want to look and check my email.” But it’s more in terms of sensory pleasure here: “Oh, I want to eat something,” “I want to listen to some music,” “I want to call a friend,” whatever. So to put effort into not pursuing that, not to have my intention be that I’m going to do that, but to stay focused.

Thoughts of Ill-Will

The second one is thoughts of ill-will, how to hurt somebody. It’s like thinking with malice. If we’re always thinking spitefully – “Oh, this person hurt me. I don’t like them. What can I do back to them?” – that’s a big obstacle to concentration.

So the first one was desire:

  • “I want to have this pleasure or that pleasure.”
  • “When am I ever going to go on vacation?”
  • “When is this work going to end?”

This type of thinking.

And this second one is thinking all sorts of nasty harmful thoughts about others or about ourselves. So we have to put right effort into avoiding these things, into countering them when they arise.

Foggy-mindedness and Drowsiness

The third one is foggy-mindedness and drowsiness. Foggy-mindedness is that our mind is in a fog – we’re spaced out, and we can’t think clearly. And then sleepy – drowsiness – you just want to go to sleep. You have to try to fight that. Whether you do that with a cup of coffee or you do that with getting up and opening the window – whatever you do, try to put effort into not giving in to it. But if it really becomes too difficult, set a boundary, a limit. “I’m going to take a nap” – obviously if you’re in your office, you can’t do that, but if you’re working at home – “I will take a nap or take a break for twenty minutes.” “I’ll take a coffee break for ten minutes.” You set a limit and then go back to your work.

This first one, this intention to pursue the five sensory objects – I think we can also put into that this thing of you’re working and you have this strong desire to go surfing on the internet to look at something on YouTube or, if you’re a news junkie, to look at the news again on the internet. These are the things that are obstacles to your concentration. Or I want to check my Facebook feed or my Twitter feed. It’s the same thing.

Flightiness of Mind and Regrets

The fourth one is flightiness of mind and regrets. So flightiness of mind is that our mind is flying off to the Facebook page, to something else. And feeling regret – I mean, these are put together in one category here – is that your mind is flying off to “Oh, I really regret that I did this or I said that,” these thoughts of guilt. These things are very, very distracting and really keep us, prevent us, from concentrating.

Indecisive Wavering and Doubts

And then the last thing that we need to try to put effort into overcoming, the last obstacle to concentration, is indecisive wavering and doubts. “What should I do?” “What should I have for lunch? Should I have this? Should I have that?” Not being able to make up your mind. That wastes a tremendous amount of time. You’re not able to concentrate and get on with your work if you are constantly filled with doubts and indecision, so put effort into resolving it.


So this is the first factor of the eightfold path that we use to help us to develop concentration. It’s putting effort into getting rid of distracting thoughts, emotional states that are not conducive for concentration, and putting our effort into developing good qualities and getting rid of unproductive habits. In general if we want to accomplish anything in our lives, we have to put effort into it. Things don’t come from absolutely nothing, and nobody said it was easy. But as I said before, if we have developed a bit of strength from working with ethical discipline in terms of how we act, how we speak, how we deal with others in terms of making our livelihood, that gives us the strength to put effort into working on our mental and emotional states so that we’re more focused.

That brings us to the end of our hour or morning session, and we’ll continue after lunch. Thank you.