This article about New Year’s Resolutions from a Buddhist perspective has kindly been written and shared with us by Lokabandhu, member of the Triratna Buddhist Order for over 20 years.
Round about now, many of us – even most of us – will be making our New Year’s Resolutions. It’s one of our society’s rituals, but to my mind a slightly sad one: we make them with a sort of apologetic air, knowing very well we’ll be breaking most of them in no time! Part of us probably really does want to drop smoking, laziness, etc; or move towards peace, abundance, whatever – the truth is, though, that a resolution on its own won’t get us very far.
The Buddha’s greatest and most distinctive insight was that everything, without exception, whether material or immaterial, arises in dependence upon conditions. Having arisen, it carries on only if conditions are supportive; and passes away when conditions change. If the necessary conditions aren’t there, it just won’t happen. That’s equally true for both moods and mountains – and our spiritual progress.
No-one’s yet come up with a good English translation for pratitya samutpada, the Buddhist term for conditionality. “Dependent co-arising” is a brave try, as is “Mutual causality” – or Thich Nhat Hahn’s more poetic “Interbeing”. Besides its metaphysical implications (which I totally love – you’re led immediately to contemplate impermanence, non-selfhood, sunyata, gratitude, and the razor’s edge between eternalism and nihilism) it offers us a clear way forwards to bring almost anything into being: we simply need to get clear what our goal really is, then ask “what conditions are essential for this to arise?” Putting them in place doesn’t guarantee success, but it greatly increases our chances.
The fact is, things don’t come about randomly, but through the operation of different natural laws, from, for instance, the spheres of physics, biology, psychology, and karma. In Buddhism these are separated out into five distinct levels of conditionality known as the five ‘Niyamas’: the four just mentioned plus a final, more mysterious ‘Dhamma Niyama’ which traditionally allows for the operation of magical and psychic phenomena – Buddhism’s very comfortable with such things.
Coming back to the New Year, if we really want to embody our resolutions, we also need a practical path of transformation. The network of cause and effect is complex, almost infinitely so. Things can happen in many ways, including unpredictable ones. But not everything is causally connected to everything else, so Buddhism speaks of ‘Nidana chains’ – step by step pathways whereby we can move forwards. To give one example, if we wish to penetrate the deep mysteries of existence (and don’t we all!), Buddhism suggests starting with generosity. Apart from immediately weakening the subject-object dichotomy, practicing generosity leads naturally to a broader practice of ethics, an essential precursor to a calm and peaceful mind (traditionally, a state where one has nothing with which to reproach oneself), and hence to meditation. Meditation in turn develops the focus and intensity necessary for insight to arise. This was the ‘threefold path’ the Buddha advocated repeatedly in his final days – Ethics, Meditation, Wisdom; or Sila, Samadhi, Prajna in the Sanskrit.
Change isn’t easy. It takes effort. Most of us, most of the time, are run by our habits – deep-rooted mental and emotional patterns built up over our whole lifetime if not longer. But conditionality also says don’t worry – nothing is fixed, nothing predetermined: everything is possible with skill and effort (and perhaps a little luck!) So let’s make our resolutions – and figure out how to embody them!
Originally published in the Glastonbury Oracle, December 2010. Lokabandhu has been ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order for over 20 years. He lives and teaches at the Glastonbury Buddhist Community on Bove Town – see www.GlastonburyBuddhistCommunity.org for details.