Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

New Year’s Resolutions the Buddha Might Have Made

The Buddha takes responsibility for his own life.

Sunrise at Borobudur
The Buddha's teachings were transmitted from generation to generation orally for about five centuries. They were then written down in what are referred to as the Buddha's discourses. In presenting these New Year's resolutions, I've taken the liberty of putting some of his words into the first person and adjusting the language in a few places so the text reads as resolutions. The content is true to his discourses.

The Buddha's resolutions:

1. I will not believe in anything simply because I've heard it and it is rumored by many. I will not believe in anything simply on the authority of my teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when I know for myself that something, if undertaken and practiced, will lead to the welfare and happiness of one and all, I will accept it and live up to it.

This is a shortened passage from a well-known discourse called the Kalama Sutta. The Buddha is telling us to take responsibility for our own lives—to check everything out for ourselves (including his own teaching), and if we decide that undertaking and practicing something will benefit all beings, live up to it!

2. Before speaking, I will reflect on whether what I'm about to say is true, kind, and helpful.

These three are distilled from the guidelines given by the Buddha on Wise Speech. Here's what I say about them in my book, How to Be Sick:

It's a tall order to make all our speech true, kind, and helpful, but we can set the intention to keep those three qualities in mind before we open our mouths...I've found that it's often easy to meet two of the criteria, but not all three. For example, it may be true that a friend hasn't been in touch for a month, but would it be helpful to confront the friend about it? Before sending a "Why haven't you been in touch?" email, if we replace the intention to confront with the intention to inquire ("How are you doing?"), the communication might just become kind and helpful. We may discover that the friend hasn't been in touch because he or she is having work or family problems, which gives us the opportunity to respond with compassion and support rather than self-interest.

3. Hatred never ceases through hatred; hatred ceases through non-hatred. This is an ancient truth. I will not engage in hatred.

"Hatred never ceases through hatred; hatred ceases through non-hatred" is a well-known passage from The Dhammapada. We may find it easy to agree with the first assertion, but find the second one to be more problematic. Yet, think of Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in prison and emerged, not bitter or angry, but with an open heart that allowed him to do so much to heal the wounds in South Africa and to inspire people around the world to pursue a path of peace.

4. Whatever I keep pursuing with my thinking and pondering becomes the inclination of my awareness, so I will watch my thoughts and their ways with care.

Here, the Buddha is asking us to be mindful of our thinking because thoughts can have consequences. We may not be able to control the thoughts that pop into our minds, but we can learn not to act on them if the result would make matters worse for ourselves or others. For example, if someone else gets something that we want, envy may pop right into our minds; but with practice, we can learn to just observe it rather than "pursuing" it—pursuing it by spinning stress-filled stories about it, like "she doesn't deserve that thing; I do!" This just intensifies the envy until it becomes "the inclination of our awareness" and we, in effect, become an envious person which only leads to suffering and unhappiness.

5. I will not consider the faults of others or what they have or have not done. Rather, I will consider what I myself have done or have not done.

This resolution speaks for itself.

6. As a solid rock is not moved by the wind, I will not be moved by praise or blame.

Some of the Buddha's followers had harassed a monk because he was short. When the Buddha heard that the monk showed no resentment, he noted that the monk had remained unmoved in praise and blame, like a rock.

In another discourse, the Buddha said that there will always be praise and blame in this world, so I interpret the rock metaphor to mean that what matters to our well-being is our response to praise and blame when they're aimed at us. Will we be thrown about by the wind they create, or will we be still and know they are not what matter to our peace and well-being in this life?

7. I will develop and cultivate my mind.

The Buddha said, "Just as, of all trees, the balsam is the most soft and pliant, in the same way, I don't envision a single thing that, when developed and cultivated, is as soft and pliant as the mind." This is great news! It means that even when we can't alleviate our physical suffering, we can develop and cultivate our minds to alleviate mental suffering.

Neuroscientists often refer to the brain's plasticity. This is the same thing the Buddha meant by "soft and plaint." Because the mind is so amazingly pliant, we can learn not to feed negative thoughts and emotions so that they don't grow strong and turn into speech or action that might harm ourselves or others. We can also learn to cultivate gentle and healing thoughts and emotions, such as compassion and kindness.

As human beings, we have the unique ability to develop and cultivate our minds. I, for one, resolve in the new year not to squander this precious opportunity.

You might also like "Who Was the Budhha?"

© 2011 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. To receive an email the next time I post, click here. I'm active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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