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Right understanding is the foundation for developing a proper sense of values, so sorely lacking in our age. Without right understanding our vision is dimmed and the way is lost; all our efforts will be misguided and misdirected, all our plans for individual and social development must flounder and fail.

Such plans will have to be based on the Eightfold Path with its emphasis on self-effort, self-control, and respect for the individual. When wrong views prevail we will operate with a perverted sense of values: we will fling ourselves into the blind pursuit of wealth, power, and possessions; we will be obsessed by the urge to conquer and dominate; we will pine for ruthless revenge; we will dumbly conform to social conventions and norms.

Right views will point us towards an enlightened sense of values: towards detachment and kindness; towards generosity of spirit and selfless service to others; towards the pursuit of wisdom and understanding. The confusion and moral lunacy now prevalent in the world can be eased, if not eliminated, if the path of the Buddha is followed. Right livelihood and right action, for instance, can help us avoid the conflicts that result from a wrong way of life and wrong action, thereby enabling a society to live in peace and harmony. Although in the affluent countries of the West people now enjoy high standards of goods and services, the inward quality of their lives does not bear evidence of a corresponding level of improvement.

The reason for the poverty of their interior life is the neglect of spiritual values. When materialism erodes the higher spiritual dimension of life, a plunge into moral nihilism is bound to follow. We see this in the alarming statistics characteristic of materialist society: in the increased rate of suicide, in the explosion of crime, in the proliferation of sexual offenses, alcoholism, and drug abuse.

This shows that a one-sided stress on material development in a pleasure-seeking society is ultimately self-destructive, like a piece of iron that is devoured by the rust arising from within itself. Even knowledge and discipline on their own are not adequate, for without moral ideals they may turn a society into nothing more than a mass-scale workshop or military camp.

It is only the cultivation of a proper sense of values that can make society cultured and civilized in the true meaning of those terms. Having right understanding will enable us to recognize that worldly values are man-made and relative. These false worldly values lead people astray and make them suffer in vain. A Buddha teaches authentic values, real values, values that are grounded in timeless truth. A Buddha first realizes for himself the true nature of life, then he reveals to blind worldlings the Dhamma, the eternal law of righteousness and truth.

This Dhamma includes the Four Noble Truths and the principles of kamma and rebirth. Any values that deviate from these principles, no matter how widely they may be accepted as the common norm, are worthless and deceptive. While those whose minds are shrouded in wrong views will be deceived by them, one with right view will realize their hollowness at once. Seeing that life involves incessant change and that it is subject to many forms of suffering, one with right understanding learns to live simply and to regulate desire.

A wise and virtuous person is moderate in his desires and follows the middle way in all matters. Understanding the close connection between craving and suffering, he will realize the importance of holding desire in check by simple living. One with right understanding is aware that real happiness is an inward state — a quality of the mind — and should therefore be sought inwardly. Happiness is independent of external things, though of course a certain degree of material security is necessary as a basis for inner development.

The future of life

We require only four basic kinds of physical sustenance: wholesome food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Complementary to these, we have four mental needs: right knowledge, virtue, guarding the doors of the senses, and meditation. These are the two sets of basic requisites for leading a lofty life. Living simply, without superfluous possessions and entanglements, leads to contentment and peace of mind, releasing time and energy to pursue higher virtues and values.

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It is pride and vanity that keep us tied to false goals, and the smaller the mind, the greater is the pride. Buddhism upholds the objectivity of moral values, for its ethics is based on the law of cause and effect in the moral sphere, and this law, like the physical law of gravity, is an unvarying truth valid for all time. Good deeds and bad deeds will produce their respective pleasant and painful fruits regardless of the views and wishes of the people who engage in them. Recognizing the objectivity of the moral law and the undeviating connection between deeds and their results, a person with right view will abstain from wrong actions and adhere to the standards of wholesome conduct embodied in the Five Precepts of virtuous conduct discussed below.

As instability is inherent in life, the most unexpected things can happen.

Therefore the wise Buddhist recognizes the need to control his feelings. When calamity comes, we must face it calmly, without lamenting or falling into despair. The ability to remain equanimous amidst the fluctuations of fortune is a benefit of right understanding. We should understand that everything that happens to us happens because of causes and conditions for which we are ultimately responsible. Similarly, as we obtain some degree of emotional control, we will be able to discard irrational fears and worries. The seeming injustices of life, grievances, emotional maladjustments, etc.

By understanding this law, we will see that, in the final analysis, we are the architects of our own destiny. A further fruit of right understanding is the ability to look at people, things, and events objectively, stripped bare of likes and dislikes, of bias and prejudice. This capacity for objectivity, a sign of true mental maturity, will issue in clearer thinking, saner living, a marked reduction of susceptibility to the pernicious influence of the mass media, and an improvement in inter-personal relationships.

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One with right understanding will be able to think for himself. He is able to make up his own mind, to form his own opinions, to face life's difficulties armed with the principles of reality taught by the Buddha. The true Buddhist will not be a moral and intellectual coward, but will be prepared to stand alone regardless of what others say or think. Of course, he will seek advice when necessary, but he will make his own decisions and have the courage of his convictions.

Right understanding will give us a purpose for living. A lay Buddhist must learn to live purposefully, with a worthy aim — both an immediate aim and an ultimate aim, the one fitting harmoniously into the other. To be truly happy we require a simple but sound philosophy of life. Philosophy is the keen desire to understand the nature of man and our destiny in the universe. It gives life a sense of direction and meaning. Without one, we either dream our way through life or muddle through life. A clear-cut philosophy makes life meaningful and fruitful, enabling us to live in harmony with our fellows and with the natural environment.

To make the best use of our human potential, we need not only a practical aim in life, but a life plan for achieving that aim.

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The preceding two sections of this essay show the groundwork for developing a proper sense of values, the values essential for gaining happiness, success, and security within the mundane life and for progressing towards the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path, Nibbana. While we walk along the path to liberation, as laypeople we have to live in the world, and our immediate objective will be to make our life in the world both a means to worldly success and a stepping-stone to final liberation.

To accomplish this, we must organize our life within the framework of the Noble Eightfold Path.


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We can best realize our immediate aims by drawing up an individual life plan in keeping with our powers and circumstances. This life plan must be realistic.

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It must envisage a realistic development of our innate potential, steering us towards the fullest actualization of our possibilities. At the start, we require an honest understanding of ourselves. It is pointless to devise a workable life plan on the foundation stone of grandiose delusions about our character and abilities. The more we find out about ourselves, by self-observation and self-examination, the better will be our chances of self-improvement.

We should ask ourselves how far and to what degree we are generous, kind, even-tempered, considerate, honest, sober in morals, truthful, diligent, energetic, industrious, cautious, patient, tolerant, and tactful.

These are the qualities of a well-developed Buddhist, the qualities we ourselves should emulate. We need to improve ourselves wherever we are weak. A little practice everyday is all that is necessary. We should remember that the more often an action is performed, the easier it becomes for us to perform it in the future and the stronger becomes the tendency to do it again and again until it becomes a habit, an ingrained part of our character. Our life plan should cover all the main areas of a normal householder's life, including occupation, marriage, the procreation and raising of children, retirement, old age and death.

The happiness of lay life consists in finding out exactly what one can do and doing it well. A clear mental picture of a practical aim in life and a realistic sketch of the steps needed to achieve that aim will help guide us to the fulfillment of our ideal. We tend to become what we really want to be, provided we act realistically and effectively to realize our aim. The following five states are likely to prevent or block the success of our efforts to lead the upright life of a Buddhist lay follower. Although the Buddha originally taught them as the main obstacles to meditation, with a little reflection we can see that they are equally detrimental to success in our mundane undertakings.

The first of the five hindrances is sensual craving, obsessive hankering for possessions or for the gratification of the senses. While the lay Buddhist will seek wealth and possessions as an integral part of mundane happiness, he will also be aware of the limits to be observed in their pursuit. He will recognize that if one obtains wealth and position by unjust means, or becomes excessively attached to them, they will become a source of misery and despair rather than of joy and contentment.

Money alone cannot solve all our problems. Many people never learn this, and spend their time and energy accumulating wealth and the so-called "good things" it can buy. But in fact, the more they acquire the more they want. Such people can never find happiness. A lay Buddhist must be moderate in all things. Extreme desires — for riches, the enjoyment of sex, liquor, the ostentatious display of one's success — are sure signs of internal insecurity, things to be avoided.


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Ill will or hatred, the second hindrance, is the emotional opposite of desire, yet it is an equally potent obstacle to personal development. Because we are attracted to desirable things, we are repelled by what is undesirable. Like and dislike are the two forces that delude the world, leading people astray into conflict and confusion and drenching the earth with blood.

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Both are born of ignorance. Desire colors everything in tinsel and drives us to acquire what we want. Hatred colors everything black and drives us to destroy what we suspect is inimical to our interests. The best way to overcome hatred is by cultivating loving-kindness, explained later in this essay. Indolence and mental inertia is the next hindrance, the obstacle to strenuous effort. The lazy person is not inclined to strive for correct understanding or high standards of conduct.

He is a drifter or a dreamer, easy prey to the thieves of craving and hatred. Restlessness and worry are twin hindrances very much in evidence today. Restlessness is manifest in the agitation, impatience, thirst for excitement, and unsettled character of our daily existence.