One of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism is about the Noble Eightfold Path, and the second of the steps is named Samma-Sankappa. The Sanskrit equivalent is Sankalpa, and the best English rendering is the term Resolve. Resolve follows perception. The first step of right perception corresponds to the child-stage; the second step of right resolve corresponds to the stage of the youth, who has seen enough and whose time for resolutions has come. It is very unwise to take a vow or to make a resolve without sight or perception; more unwise still to persuade others to resolve to do this or that, if they have not seen or understood.
What is resolve? There are several factors. In making a resolve, there is sight or perception about the object of our resolution. There is visualization or imagination; not speculation and fancy but the power to image forth the forms desired by the heart. Then there is the factor of will—will felt within (Ichchha-shakti) and the creative will (Kriya-shakti). Buddhistic Psychology deals with these numerous threads that weave the pattern of a true resolve. But enough for us to know and note that will, thought and feeling are involved in the process of making a resolution or of taking a vow.
Resolves and vows are an inner process of our own hearts and minds. Right resolves, i.e., resolves that are right for us at our own stage of evolution, may not be right for others. We must therefore fully recognize that the power of a vow, of any vow, lies within our own mind and heart.
The Buddha said that right perception of the sad and sorrowful condition of the world brings us the knowledge that each man and woman, each child and adult, suffers by and under law:
Evil is done by self alone; by self alone is evil left undone; by self alone is one purified. Purity and impurity belong to oneself. No man can purify another. (The Dhammapada, Verse 165)
We must note several factors here. We suffer because of the evil we do. We alone can leave untouched any evil. We alone can purify ourselves. In this verse, cause and effect as also good and evil are encompassed. And the verse bears on our topic. A person resolves to get away from evil, from weakness, from vice, because through it he has suffered or has been suffering. Here is an important idea. We learn from the existence of suffering in a dual manner. (1) Because we ourselves suffer, we resolve to get away from the root-cause of that suffering. (2) Or we see the result of a vice or an evil in the suffering of others; and tracing that vice or evil to its root-cause, we resolve not to indulge in it.
In the life of the Buddha there is this stupendous lesson. As a young and happy prince he did not experience any suffering in his own life, but he saw the suffering of others. He saw pain, decay, death; and being wise he applied the result of his own Right Perception, Samma-ditthi, and resolved to trace not the superficial but the real cause of misery. In this incident of the Buddha's life we can learn two lessons: he resolved after he saw; secondly, he made use of the experience of others to learn from. That is the reason why when he attained enlightenment he began to teach. For, if it were not possible for human beings to learn from others' life-experiences, what good could even a Buddha do living and loving and labouring for humanity? It is a wrong philosophy that insists that each man and woman must pass through all experiences. By precept and by the example of others too we can learn—provided we are wise.
That brings us to the next point. On what topics shall we make resolves? Using what criterion shall we resolve to do this and not do that? Here is a practical question. Is it not our common experience with so many people that they resolve and break that resolve to make a new one? Our resolves are for something evil we want to eschew, or for something good we want to do. But our ignorance of psychology is so enormous, our knowledge of human consciousness so limited, that failure follows failure. There are evils for which men and women assume there is no remedy; on the other hand, there are heights of good so sublime that they say it is impossible to climb them. What does the Dhammapada teach? Is there a seed, a root of all resolves? Can we find that form of resolve which made would protect us against all evil and help us in the direction of everything good? Is there a resolve which made and retained would show permanence? Consider these verses:
Conquest of self is indeed better than the conquest of others. Neither a deva (god) nor a gandharva (celestial musician), neither Brahma nor Mara could turn into defeat the victory of one who always practises self-control. (verses 104-105)
This verse teaches that one can rise not only superior to Mara and evil, but also transcend the light of a deva, the music of a gandharva, the power of Brahma. This can be done by ever controlling oneself, and through every control obtaining a conquest. There are two fundamental lessons of this verse: (1) Do not make many and sundry resolves, for exhaustion and defeat can set in. Do not try to say, "I resolve to kill out this weakness; I resolve to evolve that virtue." Go to the root-source of all weaknesses and all virtues. Self-conquest, i.e., conquest of the lower self, is required. But who conquers that vile and vicious lower self? The real man, the immortal Self within each one of us. Raise the lower with the help of the higher, we have been told; let the lower and the higher labour conjointly. Next, the powers and virtues of the higher need to be unfolded. The Buddha, when he sat for supreme attainment, overcame temptations and evil by the aid of his own inner perception and knowledge. But he also unfolded great and marvellous powers; siddhis, jewels of perfection, were developed. We have to follow his example, even at our comparatively low stage of evolution. With the aid of the higher we must raise the lower, and at the same time we must attend to the unfoldment of the latent powers of the latent Buddha within us. Two verses give us the picture of the work we have to do. To make the right resolve, the one right resolve and not numerous changing resolves, consider this:
Like a thoroughbred horse, touched by a whip, let a man be ardent and active. By faith and virtue, energy and mind, by discernment of the Law, endowed with knowledge, good behaviour, concentrated, he will strike off the great sorrow of earthly existence and attain perfection both in knowledge and in behaviour, without forgetfulness and therefore without failure. (Verse 144)
The two factors must once again be noted: the cure of the great sorrow, the womb of all diseases; and, secondly, the attainment of perfection in knowledge and in behaviour. There is no failure, because there is no forgetfulness. Here in this verse all the elements of right resolve are given. We cure ourselves of pain and disease with the aid of faith (Shraddha), harmony (Shila), energy (Virya), calmness of mind, and some understanding of Dhamma, Law. These five are like a whip that makes the human horse active and lively. Whip yourself up in the action of self-control, says the Buddha. Next, he says, attain perfection not only in knowledge but in behaviour. Learning without practice will not do, any more than practice without learning. Knowledge and action, wisdom and deed, both must show perfection.
When this dual task is accomplished, what does a person look like? What is the portrait of one who has succeeded in this twofold task, if not wholly at least partially? We get that in Verse 49, which describes a real Muni's, a true Sage's life:
The bee gathers honey without injuring the scent or the colour of the flower. So should a silent one (Muni) live his life.
We must see the world without injuring the world, without robbing the world. The bee gets from the flowers what it requires, but injures not the beauty of the flowers; so we must live in our resolutions, learning from the world without despoiling the world. That is the objective, that is the goal, that the ideal.
So let us resolve in such a manner that we are freed from every misery, and we attain harmlessness in thought and behaviour, yet gaining from the world what it has to offer. This is the real purpose of incarnation. Why have we come here if this is all illusion? Behind maya the Real is there. Behind the maya of colour and fragrance of the flower there is the reality of honey, but we must possess the power of the bee. How many of us are not like the worm that destroys the heart of the rose?
What right resolves we should make becomes clear from these verses.
People make sundry resolutions; like butterflies they go from bush to bush, like monkeys they jump from tree to tree. Our philosophy teaches that there is one great source of pain and misery; also there is one great source of joy and bliss, Ananda. The great thirst for sense-life and bodily existence is mentioned by the Buddha in several places as the one cause of disease and pain. To cut down one tree of our weakness will not do; the whole forest has to be destroyed.
Cut down the whole forest of desire, not single trees; danger lurks in that forest. Having cut down trees and uprooted the weeds of desire you are free, O Bhikkhus. (Verse 283)
In Verses 334-338, the Enlightened One details for us the dual work that we have been considering. We have a whole host of weaknesses and vices. We err and we blunder and even sin; and how much time it would take if we were to resolve to kill out one weakness now, another defect at another time! Go to the root, says the Buddha. Desire naught, save one thing—Enlightenment. It is said in Buddhist tradition that many incarnations prior to becoming the Buddha, he made the Great Resolve, took the Great Vow of attaining Buddhahood. Let us then make, here and now, a resolve to purify the lower man, educate the higher. We shall attain harmlessness on the one hand and the power of serving the human race on the other.
As a result of such a resolution, each of us will encounter two mighty foes. One foe is within our own blood—our attachments and affections, our aversions and enmities; they are corrupting forces which pollute our mind. Manas, the thinker, gets polluted by kama, tanha and trishna. The second enemy is our own kith and kin; our own blood-ties, members of our own community, and our erstwhile friends—all resent and resist any attempt on our part to turn away from the life of the world and towards the Light of Spirit. Aptly did the Buddha teach not to be affected by the opinion of the world:
This is an old saying, O Atula; it is not of this day only. "They blame him who sits silent, they blame him who talks much, they blame him who speaks moderately in measured terms." There is not anyone in the world who is not blamed.
Praise and blame of the world is an excellent mirror in which we can steadily and calmly gaze. To use the mirror is an art in itself; and the man of right resolve learns that particular art. When the first foe of our own weaknesses arises, our friends and relations take advantage of the position. But we must learn from their criticism. That does not mean we should abandon our path and go back on our resolve. But we should become more vigilant and less showy, keeping our resolves to ourselves.
By five means—faith, harmony, energy, calm mind, and study of the Dhamma-doctrine—we shall win over the second enemy. Life impresses the soul as words impress the ears. Let us not merely speak by lips but by life. We shall not only vanquish our critics and opponents; we shall in time win them over one by one.
It is by a vow made in the silent sanctuary of our heart to destroy the heresy of separateness and to develop the wisdom of unity and compassion, that we attract to ourselves the beneficent Karma of real good company—company of the Great and Holy Ones. By right resolves, made and maintained, we gradually reach the Land of Wisdom Universal, the Land of Light which is Bliss and Love, Parmarthasatya.
The Buddha says, "To be attached to a certain view and to look down upon other views as inferior—this the wise men call a fetter."