Sutta Study: Self-control is difficult

Sutta Study: Self-control is difficult December 20, 2017

Sutta Study from PexelsShould I be training others? This is the question I’m asking myself as I study this text:

One should do what one teaches others to do;
if one would train others,
one should be well controlled oneself.
Difficult, indeed, is self-control.

Dhammapada 12.159 (Listen to the Pali here).

If one would train others, one should be well controlled oneself. Well, how well controlled is it necessary for me to be, before I’m ‘qualified’ to train others? Can I give people advice about their compulsions if I drift in and out of my own? Is it fair to instruct others to have a daily spiritual practice if I sometimes forget to do my own?

I feel a great relief when I get to the fourth line of this verse. Here is some empathy – which can be rare in Pali Buddhist texts. Self-control is indeed difficult!

We can read this teaching in a straightforward way. If given relationship advice from someone with six failed marriages behind them, we would be wise to take what they say with a pinch of salt. I don’t seek financial advice from those in debt, or ask for gardening tips from someone with a garden full of weeds.

And yet. I also know that some of the greatest teachers in history, both in Buddhist and in other spiritual traditions, continued to struggle with their own demons throughout their lives. Alcoholism, sexual misconduct, financial unskilfulness… Does this mean they shouldn’t have taught at all? I don’t think so. If they hadn’t passed on what they knew, there would have been a great loss to the world.

How can this verse help us to decide when we are ready to become teachers ourselves? I think that the key is in the fourth line. This line takes our attention from what the other person should be doing differently, and gently directs it to what we would like to be doing differently ourselves.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of believing that we could sort other people out if only they’d listen to our advice. We know that they’d be just fine if only they would stop eating so much, or going out with the wrong men, or beating themselves up. Surely they can see what awful consequences their behaviour causes – it can’t be so hard for them to stop, can it? Why do they persist in their foolishness?

Well, they persist in their foolishness for the same reasons that we persist in ours. We continue to binge on shopping because it helps us to ignore the intense loneliness that threatens to overwhelm us. We choose the wrong men because we are desperate to heal the wounds of our childhood. We suffer from health anxiety because a part of us is petrified of death.

If it were easy, the other person would already be doing it. If it were easy, we would already have perfected ourselves long ago.

If we truly ground ourselves in this humble, realistic position, then we may ready to begin teaching. And how do we teach?

As time goes on, I feel that 95% of the ‘teaching’ I do is unintentional. It’s what people happen to learn when they listen to me speaking from my own experience, or when they watch me struggling to live my life as well as I can. In working with my own karma, I sometimes affect others in a positive way.

If I am asked for advice, I will give it, but I try to avoid offering unsolicited advice. I have found that unsolicited advice is usually an attempt to make myself less uncomfortable, rather than truly being interested in the position of the other.

Often, the most we can do for our fellow humans is empathise, and to try not to get tangled up in their tangles. The best we can do for them is to love them.

Difficult, indeed, is self-control. When you next find yourself judging those you teach, or those you think could be doing their lives differently, re-direct the spotlight onto your own struggles. Let the Buddha shine his light of compassion on your own tangled places, and on theirs. We’re all in this boat together. We do what we can, and we fail often. That’s okay.



From The Dhammapada: The Buddha’s Path of Wisdom, translated from Pāli by Acharya Buddharakkhita (link)


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