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On Moral Growth and Mental Decay

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Photo by Joshua Medway

The Buddha was known to have said different things to different people at different times, depending upon their degree of development and their capacity for understanding. At times, he taught in terms of “seven things” that could lead to growth and development, on the one hand, or lead to decline and degeneration on the other. 

For example, the Buddha once advised a group of laymen about seven kinds of actions that lead a lay follower into moral decline. (AN 7.29)

These seven unskillful actions may be simply paraphrased as follows:

1. A layman is no longer visiting bhikkhus;
2. He is no longer listening to the Dhamma;
3. He is not training to develop higher virtue;
4. He is mistrusting bhikkhus, regardless of their standing;
5. He is approaching the Dhamma with a critical attitude;
6. He is supporting outside causes rather than the sangha;
7. He is being more generous to persons outside of the sangha.

Such a series of actions will lead to moral decline and degeneration within the life of a lay Buddhist follower, if and when he stops going to the temple and interacting with kind, compassionate, wise monks, so that he is no longer guided by the Buddhadhamma, and as a consequence no longer aspires to develop pure intentions and to commit wholesome actions that would assist him in reaching higher planes of virtue. 

Instead, he can become critical and then suspicious toward the sangha and begin to regard the Dhamma with skepticism. Rather than being supportive of the sangha, he may choose to do good deeds for persons of less integrity, instead of the venerable monks of the sangha. Because he will be focusing more and more on unwholesome aspects of worldly life, he will be focusing less and less on positive factors of the Dhamma

A more diligent and convinced lay follower would, on the other hand, continue to visit and interact with wise bhikkhus, continue to delve deeper into the Dhamma, continue to listen to the wisdom of the Buddha and the Noble Ones, and gradually come to understand the subtleties of the Dhamma. Thereby he will cultivate virtue and attain higher levels of purity so that such a devoted lay follower, after developing increased confidence in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, gradually becomes capable of abiding serenely in states of liberation and detachment that cannot be shaken.

On another occasion, the Buddha addressed a gathering of ordained bhikkhus, presenting a discourse on non-decline, following a similar seven point structure. (AN 7.23) Here we will quote directly, from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Anguttara Nikaya in order that we may convey the full force of the Buddha’s words:

And what, bhikkhus, are the seven principles of non-decline?

1. As long as the bhikkhus assemble often and hold frequent assemblies, only growth is to be expected for them, not decline.

2. As long as the bhikkhus assemble in harmony, adjourn in harmony, and conduct the affairs of the sangha in harmony, only growth is to be expected, not decline.

3. As long as the bhikkhus do not decree anything new which has not already been decreed or do not abolish anything that has already been decreed, but rather undertake and follow the training rules just as they have been decreed, when such is undertaken, only growth is to be expected, not decline.

4. As long as the bhikkhus honor, respect, esteem, and venerate those bhikkhus who are long-standing elders, who have long gone forth, as fathers and guides of the sangha, and as long as bhikkhus consider that elders should be followed, only growth is to be expected, not decline.

5. As long as the bhikkhus do not fall under the influence of arisen craving, which leads to renewed existence, then only growth is to be expected, not decline.

6. As long as the bhikkhus are intent on dwelling in forest lodgings, only growth is to be expected, not decline.

7. As long as bhikkhus individually arouse and establish mindfulness with intentions of development, only then is growth to be expected, not decline. As long as bhikkhus have the intention that well-behaved fellow monks who have not yet arrived may come and benefit, and that well-behaved fellow monks already present may dwell in peace, only then is growth to be expected, and not decline.

Bhikkhus, as long as these seven principles of non-decline persist among the bhikkhus, and as long as the bhikkhus are well-established in them, then only growth is to be expected, not decline.

On another occasion the Buddha addressed yet another gathering of bhikkhus as follows: (AN 7.27)

Bhikkhus, I will teach you seven principles of non-decline. Listen and attend closely. I will speak.

“Yes, Bhante,” those bhikkhus replied. The Blessed One said this: “And what, bhikkhus, are the seven principles of non-decline? 

1. As long as the bhikkhus develop the perception of impermanence, only growth is to be expected for them, not decline. 

2. As long as they develop the perception of non-self . . . 

3. . . . the perception of attractiveness . . .

4. . . . the perception of danger . . .

5. . . . the perception of abandoning . . .

6. . . . the perception of dispassion . . .

7. . . . the perception of cessation . . .

Only growth is to be expected for them, not decline.

On another occasion the Buddha addressed yet another gathering of Bhikkhus, and said:(AN 7.26)

“Bhikkhus, I will teach you seven principles of non-decline. Listen and attend closely. I will speak.”

“Yes, Bhante,” those bhikkhus replied. The Blessed One said this: “And what, bhikkhus, are the seven principles of non-decline?

1. As long as the bhikkhus develop the enlightenment factor of mindfulness, only growth is to be expected for them, not decline. 

2. As long as they develop the enlightenment factor of discrimination of phenomena . . .

3. . . . the enlightenment factor of energy . . .

4. . . . the enlightenment factor of rapture . . . 

5. . . . the enlightenment factor of tranquility . . . 

6. . . . the enlightenment factor of concentration . . . 

7. . . . the enlightenment factor of equanimity, only growth is to be expected for them, not decline.”

Critics and skeptics sometimes like to point out, with some sense of satisfaction, that the Buddha said different things to different people at different times, and they suggest that there may be some contradiction or discrepancy to be found there. 

Those in the know, however, will understand how the Buddha’s clairvoyant powers allowed him to know not only what was in his listeners’ minds, but also allowed him to understand what they needed to hear at that particular moment that would then help trigger the next insight in their gradual mental development onward toward the stage of final awakening.

References

Bhodhi, Venerable Bhikkhu. 2012. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Anguttera Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

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