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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > The Three Trainings and Eightfold Path in Daily Life > Session Three: Right Mindfulness, Concentration, View, and Intention

The Three Trainings and Eightfold Path in Daily Life

Alexander Berzin
Kiev, Ukraine, June 2013

Session Three: Right Mindfulness, Concentration, View, and Intention

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:57 hours)


We are continuing our discussion of the three trainings in the context of how they can help us in daily life, and this entails putting into practice the so-called eightfold path.

The three trainings are in:

  • ethical self-discipline,
  • concentration,
  • and discriminating awareness.

We use or try to implement right speech, right action or behavior, and a right way of making a livelihood in order to develop ethical self-discipline. And now we have begun our discussion of the training in concentration, and the three things that are entailed here are right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

We saw that right effort is to put effort into:

  • Trying to avoid disturbing ways of thinking and destructive ways of thinking.
  • Trying to rid ourselves of bad habits, our shortcomings in terms of various qualities that we have, whatever qualities they may be – laziness, selfishness, etc.
  • Developing good qualities, like more patience and more kindness – whatever the good qualities are that we are deficient in and we need to try to develop – or if we already have them, to develop them more.
  • Trying to rid ourselves of the obstacles to concentration.

Trying to rid ourselves of the obstacles to concentration – this can be very wide ranging. We went through the five types of obstacles to concentration that are mentioned in the texts, but there are many measures that we can take that are beyond this. I’m thinking for instance when we are working, we can turn our cell phone off or decide that each day we’re only going to look at our messages or our email, these sort of things, at certain times of the day, not have it completely open, so that we’re able to concentrate and focus on whatever it is that we need to do. Like a doctor or a professor has office hours: You can’t just come at any time. There are certain hours when they’re available. So similarly we can do that with ourselves. As with the doctor, if there’s an emergency then of course you can contact them. But other than that, set certain hours or a certain time that we’re going to devote to our social networking or whatever, and keep that strictly. So this will help us to develop our concentration.

It’s very interesting if we look at social development. In prior times the main obstacles to concentration had to do with our own mental states – mental wandering, daydreaming, this sort of thing. But now there’s so much more. There’s so many more obstacles coming externally from all this text messaging and Facebook and Twitter and email, all of these sort of things. So we really need to put a great deal of effort into not just being overwhelmed by that. In order to do that, we need to recognize the detrimental features of these media, and one of the most detrimental ones is that our attention span gets shorter and shorter and shorter. With Twitter there are only a certain limited number of characters, the constant scrolling of these Facebook messages, and so on – everything is very fast, so you don’t get into anything; it’s always changing. So that builds up a terrible habit detrimental to concentration because you don’t stay with attention on anything; it constantly has to change. So this is something to watch out for.

Right Mindfulness

Okay. Now, the next feature, the next aspect, of the eightfold path that is involved with concentration is right mindfulness:

  • Mindfulness (dran-pa) is mental glue basically. When you’re concentrating, you’re holding on to an object. This prevents you from letting go.
  • It’s accompanied with alertness (shes-bzhin). Alertness is to detect if your attention is wandering or if you become dull and sleepy.
  • And then you use attention (yid-la byed-pa) – how you regard the object, how you look at the object.

And what is involved here is how we pay attention to our body, our feelings, our mind, our various mental factors – in other words, how do we regard them or how do we consider them? – and then the mindfulness that holds on to it. So what we want to avoid is holding on and not letting go of incorrect ways of considering our body and feelings and so on. When we don’t let go, it causes us to be distracted and not be able to concentrate.

Well, that’s a little bit abstract, isn’t it? So we need to explain that.

Regarding Our Body

Our body – when we talk about the body, we’re talking about, in general, our body or various physical sensations or aspects of our body. And what is an incorrect consideration of it is that the body is pleasurable by nature or that it’s clean and beautiful by nature. We spend all our time and we’re very, very much distracted with worrying about how we look, for example – spending an hour with your hair and your makeup and how you dress, and so on. This is a tremendous distraction. Now, of course we need to keep clean and look presentable, but when you go to an extreme and think the way the body looks is a source of pleasure and it always has to be wonderful, like that – always trying to attract others with your bodily appearance – you’re not focused on anything more meaningful, are you?

And if we look at the body: If you’re sitting, you become uncomfortable, and then you have to move. You’re lying down, and this position isn’t comfortable, that position isn’t comfortable. There are problems, aren’t there? We get sick. We grow old. Now, of course you need to take care of your body and make sure that you are in good health, get exercise, and so on, but to be overly focused on that – that this is going to be the source of lasting pleasure – is a problem.

So this incorrect mindfulness that we want to get rid of, this wrong mindfulness, is holding on and not letting go to the idea that the way your hair is is the most important thing, that you are color-coordinated with your clothing, and that everything is in order, and so on – that this is so important and this is the source of what’s going to bring you happiness. Stop holding on to that. And the correct mindfulness would be that “It’s not a source of that. It’s just a problem, and it’s going to waste my time and prevent me from concentrating on something more meaningful.”

Or “I always have to be clean. I always have to clean my hands all the time.” Well, even if you touched something dirty, so what? You can wash your hands. So not to be this cleanliness fanatic and afraid to touch anything dirty. I won’t go further into that, but there are many things that we certainly wouldn’t want to get on our hands (use your imagination). But even if you got it on your hands, so what? You can wash your hands. Not to worry: “Oooh!”

Regarding Our Feelings

Then the next one is concerning feelings. And here we’re talking about the feelings of unhappiness or happiness, and this has to do with basically the source of suffering, the source of problems. You see, when we are unhappy – the term that’s used here is a thirst (Skt. trishna), so it’s like you’re really thirsty that “I have to get rid of this unhappiness.” And if we have a little bit of happiness, it’s like you’re really thirsty and you have a sip of water – you feel a little bit happy, but you’re thirsty and you have to have more. So this is the source of problems basically.

When we regard this unhappiness as the most horrible thing in the world and “I have to get rid of it by any means,” that makes a problem with concentration. How does it make a problem with concentration? We’re sitting and “I’m a little bit uncomfortable” or “I’m not in a good mood” or “I’m unhappy” – well, as I was explaining last time that I was here, nothing special. So what? You just continue with your work or whatever it is that you’re doing. “I have a headache” or “I am not in a very nice mood” or whatever. So what? Don’t hold on to that as “This is the most horrible thing” and then you’re worried about it – “How do I get rid of it? This is so awful” – and complaining to yourself in your mind and complaining to anybody else who’s around. That makes a serious obstacle to concentrating on doing whatever it is that you’re doing – when you’re just talking to somebody, let alone working.

Or if we’re feeling okay, we’re in a good mood, and so on, don’t be distracted by holding on to “Oh, this is so great. I want it to be more. I don’t want it to go away.” That can happen when meditating and you’re feeling good – you get distracted by thinking about how wonderful it is. Or again when you’re with somebody and you’re feeling very good or if you’re eating something and you’re enjoying it. With the wrong mindfulness is to hold on to “This is so fantastic,” and you make such a big thing out of it, and you’re distracted by it. Enjoy it for what it is, and don’t make anything special out of it. It’s no big deal.

Regarding Our Mind

Then the next one is how we regard our mind. If we hold on and don’t let go of the idea that our mind by its own nature is filled with anger or selfishness or “I’m stupid” or “I’m lazy” and we hold on to the fact that something is inherently wrong with our mind and flawed with our mind, again we’re not going to be able to concentrate. We’re always thinking in terms of ourselves and “Oh, I’m not good enough” – “I’m not this. I’m not that” – “I can’t understand.” You don’t even try. If we hold on to the idea that “I’m confused and I don’t understand,” well, it’s hopeless, isn’t it? Whereas – right mindfulness – if you hold on to the fact that “Well, temporarily I might be confused, temporarily I might be unable to understand something, but that doesn’t mean that’s the nature of my mind, that I’m stupid and so on.” You just use concentration to try to work through it.

Regarding Our Mental Factors

And then the fourth one is in terms of our mental factors, like intelligence, kindness, patience, and so on. This is not letting go – with the mental glue – of the idea that “This is the way that I am, and everybody has to accept it” and “There’s nothing that I can do to change or cultivate it.” That’s the wrong mindfulness. Instead the right mindfulness is that all these factors can be developed, they’re not frozen at a certain level, and then we can use them to cultivate, in this context, concentration.

Taking Control of Ourselves

If we analyze ourselves, it’s really very strange how we deal with being in a bad mood or how we deal with being depressed. We have wrong mindfulness. What does that mean? We just hold on to it, we don’t let go, and then we’re stuck in it, aren’t we, in this bad mood or depression. Or guilt. Guilt is also a wrong mindfulness. We made a mistake. We did something that was wrong. Well, fine. Everybody makes mistakes. We’re humans. But with wrong mindfulness we hold on to that, and we don’t let go. “I’m so bad. What I did was so bad,” and then you hold it, and you won’t let go. You’re beating yourself for how bad you are. You have to let go. So the right mindfulness is that “Moods can change. They come from causes and conditions, and they will change by means of causes and conditions. Nothing stays forever.”

One of the pieces of advice that is very, very helpful that we find in the Buddhist teachings is basically to take control of yourself – sounds a bit dualistic, but in any case – just do it. It’s like how we get up in the morning: You’re lying in bed. You don’t really want to get up. It’s very comfortable, and you’re feeling a bit dull. Well, just take control of yourself and get up. That’s how you get up, isn’t it? We do have the ability to do that – otherwise we’d never get up in the morning – so the same thing when we are in a bad mood or just feeling down. Take control of yourself and – “Come on!” – don’t give in to it; just get on with what you need to do.

Other Aspects of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is very, very important in a more general context. It prevents us from forgetting something. So if there’s something that we need to do, we want to have the correct mindfulness that helps us to then concentrate and do it; otherwise you forget. You might remember – mindfulness has to do with remembering – you might remember that your favorite television program is on tonight. So you’re holding on to something that really is not so important, and then you forget that you need to buy some groceries for feeding the family. You think “Oh, I forgot to go to the store. I forgot to pick this up. I forgot that I also had to get milk.” So you’re not holding on to the things that you need to hold on to, but you’re holding on to things that are completely trivial. “I want to get home so I can see the football match.”

And also if we are following some sort of training, there’s the correct mindfulness to hold on to it. I mean, it could be any type of training. Like for instance if we’re doing exercise, well, hold on to doing your exercise every day. Or if you’re on a diet, remember that you’re on a diet and not take that piece of cake when it’s offered to you. Correct mindfulness.

What’s very helpful are animal images (they’re used a lot in Buddhist training). So we’re working or we’re meditating or we’re doing something constructive, helping somebody, and then somebody says that “Oh, there’s cake.” And then you become like a puppy dog, and you jump up and down – “Ooh! Ooh! Cake!” – like that, all excited. So if you think in terms of “Am I acting like this puppy dog that’s so excited about getting a bone or getting a treat?” then this is ridiculous.

Mindfulness – hold on to what we’re doing and not be distracted by all these things. So it deals with how we regard our body and our feelings (happiness, unhappiness), etc. It’s quite a wide topic.

Questions and Answers about Mindfulness

Okay, so any questions about this?

Participant: I find it’s much easier to keep mindfulness while you’re with some other people than keeping mindfulness when you are relating with anyone close – with your relatives, for example – and then maybe it’s very hard to be mindful of your ethics. Maybe you have some advice about what to do if you know you’ll be relating with someone who makes your mindfulness weaker.

Alex: The general advice in such situations is to set a very strong intention at the beginning. So when you’re about to meet your relatives or spend some time with them, that strong intention that “I will try to keep my temper. I will try to remember that they’ve been very kind to me. They’re close to me. The way that I treat them is going to affect their feelings,” these types of thing. That strong intention to start with is very important.

And to start with, remind ourselves that they’re human beings. In other words, don’t just identify them with the role of mother, father, sister, brother – whichever type of relative that you’re visiting or who’s visiting you. Because if we look at them and hold on to – this mindfulness – hold on to them as only a certain role (mother, father, etc.), then we tend to react to that with all our projections of what is a mother, father, and all the history that we’ve had – a lot of expectations and a lot of disappointments. But just try to relate to them as one human being to another human being. And if they’re not mindful of that and they start treating us like we’re still twelve years old, don’t fall into the pattern of then acting like a twelve-year-old. How? By remembering that they’re a human being, and don’t play the game (it takes two to dance).

My sister was visiting me for a week just before I came here, my older sister. She would go to sleep at night fairly early, and then she would tell me, as if she were my mother, “Well, go to sleep now,” this sort of thing. Now, if I react like a twelve-year-old and say “No, it’s too early. I don’t want to go to sleep. I want to stay up. Why are you telling me to go to sleep?” then it just plays the same game, doesn’t it? It doesn’t help at all. And then I just get upset. So what one has to remind oneself of is that she is giving me this advice because she cares for me. She’s not doing this because she wants to make me angry. She thinks that this is good for me. So you try to have a much more realistic view of what they’re doing rather than project onto your sister that she’s mother and you’re twelve years old or eight years old.

So the intention before they come to try to stay mindful of this, and then while they are together with us, reaffirming our motivation (do that before but also while we’re with them all the time). Motivation means:

  • The goal. What goal do we want to have? The goal would be a nice interaction with this person. They care for me, I care for them. We have a long history together, so our aim is to have a nice time together.
  • And then the emotion that goes with that. And the emotion is caring about this person as a human being.

Another way of looking at it which is helpful, rather than “It’s a horrible ordeal. I have to deal with my relatives,” is to see it as a challenge and an opportunity to grow – like you’re playing a computer game – “This is a challenge. Can I do this?” So it becomes fun. It’s a challenge. “Can I get through the dinner with my parents without losing my temper?”

And then your parents start to nag you, as often parents will do: “Why don’t you get married? Why don’t you get a better job? Why don’t you have children already?” this sort of thing. (My sister – the first thing that she said when she saw me was “You need a haircut.”) So recognize they’re asking that because they’re concerned, and say, “Well, thank you for being very concerned.”

Realize the background that they’re coming from. The background they’re coming from, for most of them, is that all their friends are asking “Well, what’s your son doing? What’s your daughter doing?” and they have to socially interact with their friends. So that’s behind their concern. They’re not asking you this – “Why don’t you get married already?” – out of malevolence. They have to deal with their friends. And also they’re concerned about your happiness. So acknowledge that. That’s the first step. Acknowledge it. Say it to them. “I realize that you have this pressure and your friends and so on, and I realize that you’re concerned about me. I appreciate that.” Calm. And you explain – “Well, it’s not so easy,” or something like that – but remain calm. But I think just the acknowledgement that they have difficulty because of this is very helpful for them. It shows that you appreciate them and you have concern about them. That becomes much more human, a human-to-human relationship, an equal-to-equal relationship, rather than twelve-year-olds with a parent.

This mindfulness – what do we hold on to and not let go? Often what we hold on to is not productive at all. Often it’s old history of “Well, you did this ten years ago” and “You said that thirty years ago,” and we hold on to it, and we don’t give anybody a chance. And it prevents – the context here – it prevents our concentration on the way they are now, doesn’t it? We hold on to preconceptions – the mindfulness, the glue – we hold on to a preconception that “This is going to be horrible. My parents are coming over” or “I have to have dinner with my parents, and this is going to be horrible.” With a preconception we have decided already that it’s going to be terrible, so that already makes us very tense, doesn’t it? So let go of that wrong mindfulness. And what you would apply – correct mindfulness – is that “Here’s an opportunity to see how they are. And I will respond in terms of the situation as it unfolds, without the preconceptions.”

Anything else about mindfulness? It’s a very important topic really.

Participant: You mentioned this wrong type of mindfulness when, for example, we can be mindful about football on TV but not mindful about going to get groceries and doing basic things. But when we read about the lives of great teachers of the past, we can see examples of these people – very profoundly trained and very highly realized beings – being almost unable to do anything else except practice. They weren’t able to do all these basic things. So how do we find this subtle balance?

Alex: Well, I lived in India for twenty-nine years with great Tibetan masters. I was with them a great deal. And obviously there are individual differences, but I found with the really highly developed masters that they are perfectly capable of dealing with practical things as well. Everything depends on each person’s personality. You can’t say that the training itself makes you incapable of dealing with practical life. In general, some people are not very practical, and other people are very practical. So yes, I have met some great masters who weren’t terribly practical, but the majority of the ones that I’ve personally had interaction with were very down to earth, very down to earth.

Geshe Wangyal was a great Kalmyk Mongol geshe, the first one that I was with in America. He had a number of students living with him in America, in New Jersey, and he would not only teach them Buddhist Dharma but he would also teach them how to sew, how to make their clothes, how to cook, how to build a house. He was unbelievably practical. Or Serkong Rinpoche, my main teacher, he was well known and famous for being able to figure out and deal with very complex problems – let’s say in a village or in a family or stuff like that – so people always came to him for practical advice. The Dalai Lama himself is very practical in terms of his schedule, how to deal with things, and so on.

So of course you can read accounts of masters who only stayed in caves, just meditated all the time, were always seeing all sorts of figures – dakas and dakinis and gods – and stuff like that. Very impractical, in one sense. But I wouldn’t say the majority are like that, not at all.

Participant: When we’re speaking about stopping some destructive intentions, we might think about suppressing our feelings and become neurotic about it, about suppressing our feelings. So how do we deal with that in a more balanced way?

Alex: The approach isn’t that when you have anger, you try to just suppress it and keep it inside. What we’re trying to do is to get rid of the cause of the anger so that there is no anger. So it’s quite different.

Now, it’s true that the first level of training, the first practice, is self-control. That’s what ethical self-discipline is all about, self-control. So for instance I might be angry and want to yell at you. I’ll give a good example. You have a small child, your two-year-old, and you ask them to bring you a glass of water. They bring it to you, and they spill it, and you get angry: “Grrr, you spilled the water on the rug (or you spilled it on the computer or whatever, on my papers).” So you get angry, and you feel like yelling at the child or even hitting the child. So now there are two different tracks. Well, the first thing to do is exercise self-control and not hit the child or yell at the child. Now, based on that self-control, you can either:

  • Suppress and keep that anger inside and be really, really annoyed and usually very unpleasant with the child.
  • Or you now analyze and think “Well, it was actually my laziness that caused this because I didn’t get up and get the glass of water myself. And what do I expect when I ask a two-year-old to bring a glass of water? Two-year-olds spill things. They trip. They’re not careful. And if I yell at my child or hit the child, they’re going to cry – it’s going to be a whole big scene – and it’ll be even worse.”

So unlike just suppressing and keeping the anger inside, we can dissolve the anger because we see there’s really no reason to be angry. And then we can calmly say to the child “Please be more careful. Look what happened,” and so on, without making it into a terrible scene (the kid’s going to cry and so on).

Anything else?

Participant: Is there any practical advice about training this mindfulness? It’s very hard to keep mindfulness on these useful things, and we’re always losing it. So are there practical trainings for that?

Alex: Practical training to maintain mindfulness is, as I said:

  • Intention. So the strong intention to try to remember.
  • Familiarity. Familiarity develops through repetition. It is like if you’re taking notes or you read this on my website, you then read it over and over again. How do you learn anything in school? Six times seven – how do you remember that? You go over and over again until you remember it. So it’s the same process. Or learning a language. It’s the same process. It’s just through repetition, familiarity, and, in terms of dealing with our behavior, this intention.
  • Then you use alertness – the alarm system – to detect when you have lost your mindfulness and bring the attention back – get that mental hold again.

All of this is based on what I call the caring attitude (bag-yod). You care about how you act and the effect of your behavior on others and yourself. If you don’t care – “I don’t care. I don’t give a damn what I do or how I act” – you’re not going to maintain mindfulness; you’re not going to have any discipline. And why do I care? Because you’re a human being. My mother and father are human beings. They want to be happy. They don’t want to be unhappy. The way that I speak with them, the way that I treat them, is going to affect their feelings, just as the way they act toward me and treat me affects my feelings. So I care about them. Then you can maintain your mindfulness and that alertness to detect if you lose the mindfulness.

So this is the basic foundation of this whole sensitivity training that I’ve developed – which is on my website – a whole program for helping us to overcome being insensitive about how other people are feeling, about the effect of my behavior on others, or being oversensitive, worrying too much. If we really care in a balanced way – not too much, not too little – about the effect of our behavior on others and on ourselves and about the actual situation of what’s going on with others and what’s going on with ourselves, then we will maintain mindfulness. You have a reason to.

We really have to examine ourselves. What is our motivation? And if the motivation is “Well, I want to be a good girl (or I want to be a good boy) so mommy and daddy will like me,” that’s very childish, isn’t it? I love the image that one of my teachers used. “I just want to be a good boy (or a good girl), and I’ll get a pat on the head and I’ll wag my tail” – you know, like a dog. Is this what you want? This is silly. So there needs to be a proper reason for being mindful, for having discipline, and so on, and I think this caring attitude is the basis. This is the way that it’s explained by Shantideva, a great Indian Buddhist master from the eighth century.

Right Concentration

Okay, so let’s go on. The third aspect that we apply here from the eightfold path in terms of concentration is called right concentration (so concentration itself). This is the actual mental placement on an object. So what we need to be able to do is get an actual hold on whatever thing we want to concentrate on. Once we get the hold, the mindfulness keeps it there so that we don’t lose it. But to first get the hold on the object is what concentration is all about.

When we have a fault with that – for instance, if we’re speaking to somebody – we don’t even place our attention. You use attention in order to get that concentration, that mental placement. And so it could be that I don’t care. I’m not interested in what you have to say, and so I don’t even actually listen; I don’t concentrate on what you’re saying. Or I’m too busy.

Or what is really happening very, very much nowadays more and more than in the past is that we have divided attention, so we’re not concentrated on anything fully. If you look at the news on the television – I don’t know if you have it here (maybe you do) – you have the person in the middle of the television screen, or on your computer screen, talking the news, but then underneath there’s a script that is going with a different news, and then maybe in the corner you have your Facebook feed or something else going on, and you’re not paying attention or full concentration on any of them. So even though we might say that “Well, I can multitask,” nobody is able – unless you’re a Buddha – to put 100% concentration on all the things that you are multitasking.

Our mental placement is on our cell phone while somebody’s trying to talk to us. That’s wrong mental placement because they’re asking us something and we’re not even paying attention. So we’re distracted, we’re too busy – “Oh, I’m too busy” – so we don’t even pay attention and concentrate, have mental placement, on what somebody else is doing or saying or when they want some sort of interaction or response from us.

Another thing that is happening more and more these days is that even if we do have mental placement on something, it’s very difficult to sustain it. We’re used to things changing so quickly and looking at one thing after another after another, so we get bored, and it’s hard to keep our attention for any protracted amount of time. So that type of concentration – just for a few moments on this and a few moments on that and a few moments on that – is an obstacle. That’s wrong concentration. If we want to be able to concentrate properly, we need to be able to concentrate for as long as is necessary, not get bored and move on because we’re no longer interested.

The problem is that we want to be entertained. That is going back to this wrong mindfulness of thinking that the momentary pleasure that we get from being entertained is going to satisfy, but we thirst for more and more and more. Why should we be entertained? Social scientists have found out that the more possibilities there are of what you could do, what you could look at – and the internet offers us an unlimited amount of possibilities – the more bored you get and the more tense it is to try to find something that is entertaining. And you look at something, and you think “Well, but maybe something else is more entertaining,” so you go on and you don’t stay focused and concentrated on anything. So although it is difficult to do, it is very helpful to try to simplify your life – not have so many things going on at the same time – and as your concentration develops more and more, you’ll be able to increase the scope of what you can take care of and deal with.

If you have concentration and it’s good concentration, then you can concentrate on this, and then you can concentrate on that and then concentrate on that – but only one at a time without being distracted. If you think of an example, the example would be a doctor. A doctor’s treating one patient after another. The doctor needs to be concentrated on that patient during the period of time when he or she is with that patient and not be thinking about the next patient and the one that was just before. So although a doctor can see many, many patients during the day, they’re fully concentrated on one thing at a time. This is far better for concentration.

This is very challenging, I must say. Because I know in my own case that I’m dealing with such an unbelievable amount of different tasks with managing the website and dealing with all the different languages and so on, it’s hard to stay focused on one thing; so many other things are coming in at the same time. This is the big challenge, to stay focused on one thing and not be distracted by thinking of something else that needs to be done, yet remaining mindful and not forgetting that there are these other things that need to be done. And anybody who works in a complex business has the same thing.

Okay. Let’s go on so that we are able to fit everything into our time period. But just a concluding remark about developing right concentration: We find in the Buddhist teachings that there are definite stages for developing better and better concentration, and I think that could be considered part of Buddhist science – how do you get more and more concentration?

Training in Discriminating Awareness

Now, discriminating awareness to discriminate between what’s correct and what’s incorrect, what’s helpful and what’s harmful. For this we have the last two of the eightfold path:

  • Right view (yan-dag-pa’i lta-ba).
  • And right intention or motivating thought (yan-dag-pa’i rtog-pa).

Right view has to do with what we believe to be true based on discriminating correctly between what’s correct and what’s incorrect, what’s helpful and what’s harmful. Right motivating thought or intention is the constructive state of mind that this leads to.

Right View

So right view. We could have either a correct or incorrect discriminating awareness (we’re talking about being able to discriminate what’s helpful and what’s harmful):

  • We could discriminate correctly and believe that to be true.
  • Or we could discriminate incorrectly and believe that to be true.

The wrong type of view is when we make the incorrect discrimination and believe it, and the right type is when we make the correct discrimination and believe that to be true.

Wrong view would be, for instance, asserting and believing that our actions have no ethical dimension of some being destructive and some being constructive and believing that they do not bring results in terms of what we experience. This is characterized by the mentality that many people have, the mentality of “whatever.” “It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Whatever. If I do this or I don’t do this, it doesn’t matter. Whatever.” That is an incorrect consideration, that it doesn’t matter. It does matter whether you smoke or you don’t smoke. “Well, whatever. It doesn’t matter.” It does matter. If you smoke, it will have negative consequences in terms of your health. If you don’t smoke, it will prevent that, hopefully.

Or believing that there’s no way we can improve ourselves and overcome our shortcomings, and so why even bother? That’s making a wrong discrimination, thinking that there’s nothing you can do to change your situation. Right? There’s always something that we can do. Things aren’t static, fixed in concrete.

Or believing that there’s no point in trying to be kind to others or helping others, so we should just try to take advantage of everybody and get as much profit as we can, and the wrong discrimination that that will bring happiness. It doesn’t bring happiness. It brings conflict, jealousy, worrying about other people stealing our stuff, and so on.

There are so many different types of wrong discrimination. It can deal with suffering and its causes, for example. For instance, our child is doing badly in school or in work, or our child doesn’t want to see us – something’s going wrong with the child, whether it’s a small child or an adult child. The wrong discrimination would be to think that “It’s all because of me. It’s my fault as the parent.” This is the wrong discrimination about causality. Things do not arise or happen because of just one cause. Things happen because of a combination of many, many causes and conditions, not just one. We may have contributed, but we’re not the sole cause of the problem. And sometimes we are not even the cause – it’s totally mistaken. Like I’m thinking of the example of a quite disturbed individual: they went to a football game and their team lost, and the person believed the only reason their team lost was because they came to the football game, so they jinxed it: “It’s my fault that the team lost.” This is ridiculous. It’s an incorrect discrimination about causality.

So correct discriminating awareness is very, very important, and for that we need to learn about reality, like the reality of causation – that so many causes and conditions affect what happens. Like the weather – so many things affect it; not just one thing or two things. So not to misconceive that “I am like God, and I have to just do one thing and it’s going to change everything with my child or change everything with my work situation.” It’s not how things work.

So that’s right discriminating awareness. It requires common sense and intelligence. And obviously we need to stay focused with concentration on our correct discrimination. And to be able to do that, you need the discipline. So these things fit together.

Right Intention

The last one is a right motivating thought, which is referring to a right intention. So having made a correct discrimination between what’s helpful and what’s harmful, what’s reality and what is not reality, that affects the way that we act and speak and just our attitude about things. This is explained as wrong motivating thought (or wrong intention) and right motivating thought. So let’s see what these are.

Sensual Desire

A wrong motivating thought would be involved with sensual desire, a longing desire and attachment for sense objects – whether that’s seeing pretty things, music, good food, nice clothes, this type of thing – as our motivating thought because we’ve made an incorrect discrimination that this is the most important thing. Whereas if we’ve made a correct discrimination, we will have equanimity. Equanimity here means a balanced mind free from attachment to sense objects.

Okay, an example. Incorrect discrimination would be that “It’s really, really important what we have for supper tonight and where we eat. This is really going to bring me happiness if we choose the right place and I choose the right thing on the menu.” And you’re worried about it, so you can’t even concentrate because you’re thinking “Where are we going to eat tonight?” Whereas if you’ve made the correct discrimination – “It really is not so important. There are many other things in life that are far more important than what we have for supper or what’s on the television tonight” – then you have a balanced mind. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not so important. We’ll find some place and just eat.” You have this equanimity, a balance.


Then the second wrong motivating thought or intention is malice – the wish to hurt somebody, to cause them harm. Like somebody makes a mistake – your child spilled the water or the tea on your computer, and you say, “Bad child. You’re bad.” So that’s a wrong discrimination to think in terms of good and bad: “You’re bad, and you should be punished.”

We have made the wrong discrimination that the two-year-old will act as responsibly as an adult, which is absurd. That is clearly a wrong discrimination. The two-year-old is going to sit quietly during the whole train ride and behave like an adult? This is absurd. But if we make that wrong discrimination, you’re really angry, and you might want to hit the child if the child is running up and down the aisle and making a lot of noise on the train. Whereas if we make the correct discrimination, we will develop benevolence. That’s the wish to help others, to bring them happiness. So you make preparations. If you’re going to go on a long train ride with the child, you bring things to amuse the child – a coloring book or something. And this benevolence encompasses or includes strength, forgiveness, and love (the wish for the other to be happy). If they make a mistake and they make noise, don’t hold a grudge. You’re forgiving, and you have strength so that can you maintain this kind state of mind.


And the third one, the third type of wrong motivating thought, is a mind that is filled with cruelty. And there are various aspects here:

  • Hooliganism, being a hooligan – it’s a cruel lack of compassion with which we wish others to suffer and to be unhappy. We discriminate that the followers of this other football team are just horrible, horrible people, and we can act like a hooligan and get into fights with them and hurt them because they like this other team. I mean, what a silly discrimination.
  • The second variant of this is self-hatred. It’s a cruel lack of self-love with which we don’t want ourselves to be happy, so we sabotage our happiness and hurt ourselves. So we discriminate incorrectly that “I’m no good. I’m a bad person. I don’t deserve to be happy,” and we, in a sense, punish ourselves by getting into unhealthy relationships, having unhealthy habits. People who overeat and then become obese – usually they’re filled with self-hatred. They have this very negative attitude toward themselves. And even though they might want to find a partner, they sabotage it by just eating more and more and more so they become more and more unattractive, and they never get a partner when they weigh two hundred or three hundred kilos.
  • And then the last one is taking perverse pleasure. It’s cruelly rejoicing when seeing or hearing of others’ suffering. You discriminate that “This politician is bad. They’re a terrible person,” and then they lose the election, and we rejoice: “Ah, great. They lost.” Or again something bad happens to somebody that we don’t like, and “Ah, they deserved that.” So again we’re discriminating incorrectly that certain people are bad, deserve to be punished and have things go badly, and that other people, particularly ourselves, should have everything go well.

So the right motivating thought based on correct discrimination would be a nonviolent attitude, noncruel attitude. It’s not merely the lack of anger but it’s the imperturbability. You don’t get disturbed. It’s the state of mind in which you don’t wish to cause harm to others who are suffering or to irritate or annoy them. We make a correct discrimination: “As a human being, he wants to be happy, doesn’t want to be unhappy. He has the same right to be happy and not to be unhappy as I do.” So based on that correct discrimination, we don’t want to cause them harm. We aren’t happy when things go badly with them. We don’t want to irritate and annoy them. And it has, in addition, compassion – the wish for them to be free of their suffering and its causes – because we see that everybody is suffering, nobody wants to suffer, and nobody deserves to suffer. When people make mistakes, it’s because they’re confused – they are mistaken – it’s not because they’re bad. So with right discrimination and right motivating thought, the intention that comes from that, that naturally leads us to right speech, right action, right activity.

Fitting the Eight Factors Together

So these things fit together, these eight factors or the eightfold path:

  • The right view and motivating thought provide the proper foundation for practice, and then we practice right speech, right action, right livelihood. We discriminate what is correct in terms of the effect of our behavior and the situation of others, and so on. Our intention is to help them, not harm them, and therefore we have the discipline to not speak or act toward them or try to do business with them in a way that’s going to be destructive or harmful. That makes sense. It fits together.
  • And on that best basis, we will try to make effort to improve ourselves, to develop more good qualities, and not be distracted by weird ideas about our body and feelings and things like that. And then use concentration to stay focused on something that’s beneficial or working to develop better qualities, use that concentration with correct discriminating awareness, and then the intention that follows from that.

So it’s all interconnected.

Translator: Sorry. After beneficial qualities, I lost it.

Alex: When you stay focused and concentrated on your efforts to develop better qualities, then of course you can apply that in correct discriminating awareness. You see more deeply what is beneficial, what’s harmful, and then your intention to implement that becomes even stronger.

So although one can present these three trainings and the eightfold path as a sequence – and they can be presented in several different sequences – the ultimate aim is to be able to put them all into practice together as an integrated whole.

Questions and Answers

So we have a few more minutes left for any final questions.

Participant: You mentioned that one of the false views is that we consider that we’re unable to change something.

Alex: Unable to change ourselves.

Participant: Buddha said that everything is interdependent. There are a whole lot of different things that are interdependent, and we are unable to understand all of this system, and it is impossible for one state to appear without a connection with the previous state. So we can conclude that our current state is dependent on our past state, our previous state, and it also would be a cause for our future state. So then a question appears: Is there any place in all this mechanism for free will? And can Buddhism afford any way of dealing with the situation of getting out of this mechanism?

Alex: Well, there are many, many factors that are involved here. If you think of free will, free will implies that you can do anything without any cause. That’s impossible. Everything arises from causes and conditions, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean we can’t put in effort (so-called will power) to actually do something.

If we do put in effort, of course that’s for a cause. I mean, there are causes for that and conditions for that, but one shouldn’t go to this extreme. There are two extremes:

  • You can do absolutely anything without any cause for it;
  • or that there’s nothing that you can do, because everything is already determined beforehand.

It’s not like that. We have to see that in terms of putting effort into things and making choices, etc., it’s not like: Here’s a me separate from all choices; and here are all the choices, like on a menu, and I’m going to choose what to do.

That dualistic way of looking at this is false. I mean, that’s not the way that things exist. One just does things – you just do it – with effort. And there can be inspiration from the spiritual teachers, from the teachings, from the Buddhas, etc., that can help us. And if they help us and we’re inspired, that’s also because of causes.

So the problem here in this issue is thinking of these two categories of free will or determinism. That’s a false discrimination. It’s based on the fact of thinking of a truly existent me that can choose things freely from a menu or that is stuck in a position that is static and can never change. That whole way of trying to analyze in these two categories is false because neither of those two categories exist.

But your question is a very profound question and not something that can be answered very simply or where you can be given a simple answer and “Oh yeah, yeah. I get it.” It’s something that really requires very deep reflection on, and understanding of, causality, the so-called voidness of cause and effect – how cause and effect actually works. And the key to it is to not look at causality in a dualistic way, that there is a me separate from the whole process that either can choose or is forced to do something by something else, like I’m just a pawn, a chess piece, and I’m being manipulated by deterministic things that are external to me. That again is very dualistic, and that’s the problem here in this issue, dualism.

So, anything else? Last question. 

Participant: You mentioned that you have to be compassionate not only to others but also to youself – and also in terms of proper diet, proper amount of sleep, and proper amount of exercise. But we read about these highly realized practitioners sitting in retreats, they had stiff bodies while they were sitting for long hours, and they weren’t eating properly and didn’t have enough sleep. So where is the connection between these two? So some of the students are trying to make the same things as they did.

Alex: Well, this is a big, big mistake. This is referred to as a fox trying to jump where a lion jumps. To think that we are on the same level as Milarepa or any of these great masters is complete arrogance, isn’t it? We’re not at that level. So to try to imitate what they do – now it would just damage ourselves. If we want to achieve the state that they’ve achieved, well, realistically, step by step, train to get to that level.

When you reach a very highly developed level of concentration, you attain what’s known as a physical and mental state of fitness and pliancy. So you’re not stiff. The body is not stiff. And they have control over the energies and so on of their bodies, so they don’t require sleep. It’s not damaging for them to get very little sleep. And they’re able to eat very, very little and get a tremendous amount of energy. So it’s not that they are suffering and neglecting themselves. As a part of the attainment of these very high states, they have these abilities. But we’re not at that level.

And what these great masters show to others is often a show so that people can relate to them better. I’ll use an example of my own teacher. Serkong Rinpoche, the old one, was quite old and very much overweight, as many of them are. I was with him for nine years, almost every day, and would need to help him when he got up and so on. But once I was at this type of ritual in which the monks, all get together and they read the scriptures and everybody reads a different portion out loud (and these are with loose-leaf pages; they’re not bound together). So His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s sitting here, Serkong Rinpoche is sitting next to him, and I’m sitting behind. And His Holiness is reading, and the wind blows, and a page of what he was reading falls on the floor. And Serkong Rinpoche – who I always had to give my hand to and help him get up – jumps up like he’s twenty years old, jumps up and gets the piece of paper and hands it to the Dalai Lama. So obviously it was just a show that he needs help in getting up. He’s obviously capable of getting up by himself.

He always slept in a room by himself. But once when I was traveling with him, the arrangements were such that there wasn’t a separate room for the Tibetan attendant who was with him, and so he had to share a room with Rinpoche. Rinpoche would go to sleep just before everybody else went to sleep, and then when everybody was asleep, he’d get up – the attendant saw that he’d get up – and he would be doing meditation, and he’d be doing these exercises from the six yogas of Naropa (which you can’t imagine that an old, fat man could do). And then just before everybody would get up in the morning, he would lie down and pretend that he had slept the whole night.

So you have this sort of thing. They give the impression to others that they are regular people, but they hide all their qualities. This is the way that the great lamas are, at least some of them. So very inspiring. And we can develop ourselves to this stage through the three trainings and the eightfold path. That’s the start. It can be done on the level of just helping us to improve this lifetime. Or it can be done on a deeper level to help us to attain better future lives, liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth and suffering, and enlightenment, the ability to be of best help to everyone.

So that brings our course to the end. Thank you very much, and I hope that this will be of some benefit.