Thursday, December 24, 2015

Trading Candy for Gold: "Letting Go" as a Skill

Ven. Thanissaro (aka Geoffrey DeGraff), Abbot of Wat Metta, San Diego, California (Noble Strategy,; Seth Auberon, CC Liu, Ashley Wells (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly
The Buddha's teaching -- the path of practice that leads to freedom -- is like gold compared to colorful, sugary candy that tastes so good the moment we eat it then dissolves away (BR).
I love my candy! Give me more! (
Buddhism takes a familiar American principle -- the pursuit of happiness -- and inserts two qualifiers. The happiness it aims at is true: ultimate, unchanging, and undeceitful. Pursuit of that happiness is serious: dedicated, disciplined, willing to make intelligent sacrifices.
What sort of sacrifice (or letting go) can be called "intelligent"? The Buddhist answer to this question resonates with another American principle:

An intelligent sacrifice is any in which we gain a greater happiness by letting go of a lesser one, in the same way we would give up a bag of candy if offered a pound of gold in exchange.

Keep your Buddhism: Beer tastes so good!
In other words, an "intelligent" sacrifice is a profitable exchange, a wise trade. This analogy is an ancient one in Buddhist tradition.

"I'll make a trade," one of the Buddha's disciples once said, "aging for the ageless, burning for nirvana (which is like "fire unbound," i.e., liberated from the fuel that keeps it burning): the highest peace, the unexcelled security from bondage."
12 Steps (Kevin Griffin)
There's something in all of us that would rather not give things up. We prefer to keep our candy and get the gold. 
But maturity teaches us that we will not get everything, that to indulge in one pleasure often involves relinquishing another. So we need to establish clear priorities for investing our limited time and energies where they will gain for us the most lasting returns.
This means giving top priority to the mind. Material things and social relationships are unstable and easily affected by forces beyond our control, so the happiness they offer is fleeting and undependable.

Addiction makes me foolish (
But the well-being of a well-trained mind (heart) can survive even aging, illness, and death. To train the mind (consciousness, four of the Five Aggregates) requires time and energy. This is one reason why the pursuit of real happiness demands that we sacrifice some of our external pleasures.

Angelina Jolie meditating in the jungles of Buddhist Cambodia, where her son is from.
Donuts and wine (Roger the ET)
Sacrificing external pleasures also frees us of the mental burdens that holding onto them often entails.

A famous story in the early Buddhist Canon tells of a former king who, after becoming a Buddhist ascetic, sat down at the foot of a tree and exclaimed, "What bliss! What bliss!"

The other monks assumed he was pining for the former pleasures he had enjoyed as a king. They reported him, and he was happy to explain to the Buddha and everyone else exactly what kind of "bliss" he had in mind:
Hungry Ghosts (Gabor Mate)
"Before...I had guards posted within and without the royal precincts, within and without the city, within and without the country. But even though I was guarded and protected, I dwelled in fear -- agitated, distrustful, afraid.

"But now when going alone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, to an empty place, I dwell free of fear, unagitated, confident, unafraid -- unconcerned, unruffled, my wants satisfied, with my mind like a wild deer."
Sugar and nicotine: addiction
A third reason for sacrificing external pleasures is that in pursuing some pleasures -- such as our addictions to nose-candy, eye-, ear-, tongue-, skin-, and mind-candy -- we promote unprofitable the characteristics of greed, anger, and delusion (unwholesome roots) that actively block the qualities needed for inner peace and bliss.

Even if we had all the time and energy in the world, the pursuit of these pleasures would lead us further and further away from the goal.

( What causes addiction? Easy: "Drugs cause addiction"? Right? Wrong. It's not that simple. This video is adapted from Johann Hari's New York Times best-selling book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (

They are spelled out in the path factor called Right Intention (thought, resolve, motivation): the thought to forego any pleasures involving sensual craving, ill will, or harming.

"Sugar candy" is the bitterest candy: cocaine.
"Sensual craving" covers more than sexual desire, but also our hankering for sense pleasures that disrupt our peace of mind.

"Ill will" covers any wish for suffering, either that we suffer or that anyone else suffer.

Refuge Recovery
"Harming" is any activity that would bring that suffering about.

Of these three categories, the last two are the easiest to recognize as worth abandoning. They are not always easy to abandon, of course, but the resolve or will to abandon them is obviously a good and profitable thing.

However, the first thought -- to renounce sensual craving -- is difficult even to make, to say nothing of following it through. More
The Christian way says "pray" and "pray some more" and God will do it all for you.

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