Mangala Sutta: Spiritual Striving; the Holy Life

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We began this series of talks on the Mangala Sutta with the lesser blessings such as that of not associating with the foolish and went on to the higher blessings such as patience, generosity and respect. We now move on to the more sublime blessings. Today’s blessings are “spiritual striving” and the “holy life”, which can be found in this verse of the sutta:

Spiritual striving, the holy life,
seeing the Noble Truths,
and realisation of Nibbana;
this is the highest blessing.

Spiritual Striving (tapa)

There are 2 aspects to this:

Self-control or restraint in body, speech and mind

This is necessary in order to burn up the defilements of craving, anger and delusion. There are three levels of striving to overcome three levels of defilements:

  • Sila or morality is to overcome outward, bodily and verbal defilements. The least of which a lay Buddhist should try to observe is the 5 precepts, while monks should fulfil the Vinaya. Sila is extremely beneficial but the ability to keep it does not mean that we are free from defilements. Our minds may still be very defiled though we may not manifest that verbally or physically.
  • Samadhi or concentration can remove active mental defilements, which are relatively more subtle. To be free from mental defilements, that is greed, anger, delusion and fear, we need to meditate. When one has concentration, mental defilements cannot arise.
  • Pañña or wisdom eradicates latent mental defilements that are still present though they may not arise due to concentration. If one has cultivated wisdom, then one can see the reality of impermanence, suffering and non-self. One also acquires self-control as a natural effect of wisdom.

Effort or energy

This is diligent and persistent effort that is necessary to burn up laziness. There are four kinds of right effort (SN XLV.8):

  • Diligent effort to prevent defilements, which have not arisen, from arising. E.g. to keep away from conditions that conduce to unwholesome kamma.
  • Diligent effort to cut off defilements that have arisen. E.g. to remove one’s anger that has arisen through various ways such as recognising it or paying attention to something else that does not lead to anger.
  • Diligent effort to cultivate the qualities of a skilful mind that have yet to arise. E.g. to arouse metta when one finds an unkind state of mind within.
  • Diligent effort to develop and maintain the qualities of a skilful mind that have arisen. E.g. to keep up one’s mindfulness so that it does not slip away.

The Dhammapada says:

Better than a hundred years
lived apathetic & un-energetic,
is one day lived energetic & firm. (Dhp 112)

The Holy Life (brahmacariya)

The main quality of the holy life is abstinence from sexual intercourse. This is the most fundamental requirement. To be a monk, one must be celibate. Curiously though, I have met quite a few people who have asked me whether my being in the robes meant that I cannot get married!

However, there are some Buddhist traditions in which monks are allowed to be non-celibates. This is not in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings. It is good to be celibates. Generally, such abstinence by one will make one more energetic, look younger and live longer.

Total sexual abstinence is not required of lay people. For them, they should keep their precept of abstinence from sexual misconduct and be faithful to their spouses. However, on certain days such as Uposatha days, they can observe the 8 precepts which include celibacy.

For a Buddhist monk, brahmacariya also refers to the duties of a monk that include learning and practising the Dhammavinaya and imparting it to others. It also means the observance of the Buddha’s teachings itself, whereby he should tread the Noble Eightfold Path until he attains Nibbana.

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