Special Guest Justin from American Buddhist Perspective on Irritants & Ethics

It’s my honour to welcome Justin from American Buddhist Perspective and Buddhist Ethics as our Guest Author for today.  Justin is completing his PhD in Buddhist Ethics – a path fraught with ethical dilemma itself, I’m sure!  And a journey to the PhD would also give him extensive practice in dealing with issues of irritants from the mild to the supra-humane.  So, we are in good hands today.

Let me begin by thanking Lynette Genju for providing me this space and for Nate DeMontigny for organizing this second round of Article Swaps.

In the random assigning of topics I was given the task of writing about practicing with what irritates me, and Genju asked if I could incorporate some Buddhist ethics into the discussion. The topic is, I’m afraid to say, pretty difficult because, quite frankly, so much irritates me. Trying to be mindful of the irritants in my life only seemed to show just how irritable a person I am! Studying at a coffee shop, I now couldn’t help but explore my irritation with one man’s overly loud and shrill laughter, or the way a woman opened the door and then proceeded to start a conversation, still holding the door open (it’s about 9°F/ -13°C here). My study partner stumbles over a sentence (we translate Pali texts together), skipping a key word here, inserting a word there; my brow furrows, I sometimes unconsciously shake my head at him, which he has regularly called me on. I come home, my girlfriend asks me the same question she’s asked two or three times in the last two days. I give her the same answer. She tells me not to roll my eyes at her – which is when I realize I’ve rolled my eyes at her!

Such is life.

Plenty to practice with, I should think. But then I wonder how exactly I should practice with all of this: perhaps extend metta to all of these irritating people and metta toward myself for being so irritable? Or how about looking for some underlying connections, seeking the roots of all this irritation. I could begin this latter analysis by thinking that perhaps all of this irritation is connected by people’s mistakes: if those people at the coffee shop were more thoughtful, they’d modulate their volume or take notice of the icy draft sweeping in across the front of the room (not to mention the heating expenses incurred by the business and the unnecessary contribution to global warming); if my Pali partner would just slow down, he’d get the sentence, and if my girlfriend had paid attention the first two times she asked me the question, she wouldn’t be asking me again! So I’m irritated by people’s mistakes!

But that’s still a pretty shallow analysis. I could go further by saying that everyone’s mistakes were caused by unawareness. Now I’m sounding Buddhisty. I could depersonalize it and say I’m irritated by unawareness itself.  And hey, aren’t we all?  But I’m still far from getting it if I fail to see my own role in all of this.  And that’s where practice comes in.

Buddhist meditation is generally divided into two parts: calming and insight.  First we need calm; we need a mind which is made malleable through one-pointed concentration exercises such as following the breath or cultivating metta.  Without an easily directed mind, analysis meditation quickly becomes distracted. So a practice like metta-bhavana for irritations is very useful. It counters the ill-will which arises in times of irritation. One should recall the line from the Dhammapada, “All people tremble at the rod, all men fear death.  Putting oneself in the place of another, one should neither kill nor cause to kill.” (verse 129)

Once the mind is calmed, two other insights become clear. First is that I, too, make these irritating mistakes! I too am unaware of what I am doing often enough. Kind of like the “three fingers pointing back at you” idea. Second is the perhaps deeper realization that these people are all, in a way, part of the play of my own consciousness. It is my own mental states that bring these people – or their irritating aspects – into existence in the first place. This is an insight used heavily in Vajrayana Buddhism, but it can be applied by anyone.  It’s necessary to have the calmed mind, but now when something I would typically label “irritating” arises – today it is a loud truck passing by my window – I simply watch the experience. In this case it is sound, rising and falling, moving left to right through my embodied awareness.

That’s it. Amazingly simple, but profound in its effect. Now the mind is present in the experience, instead of judging and demanding a return to the quiet past. It is that clinging to the past that is irritation. So by being present the mind cannot be irritated, plain and simple.

That’s the practice. And the ethics are the too often unseen foundation for the calm mind.  Buddhist ethics can be  described in countless ways, but the basic touchstone tends to be the five precepts: refraining from harm/killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false or harmful speech, and taking intoxicants. All of them cloud and disturb the mind. Quite beautifully though, we each have our own relationship with them: some come quite naturally, others take years or lifetimes of work.  But, like the things that irritate us, they serve as a mirror for us on our practice, and as an opportunity for growth.

But Buddhist ethics is not just a matter of static ideals. The precepts are guidelines for the path to awakening. And the realization that life/spirituality/awakening is a path can instantly remove a great deal of weight from one’s shoulders. It is not about trying to be “right” and always coming up short in this way or that, a way of thinking that leads quickly to judgment, aversion, and irritation. This reevaluation, or re-valuation as one of my teachers puts it, of life makes those difficulties opportunities for being more ethical, seeking firs t that calm mind and then watching as compassion,
generosity, patience, and the rest fill the space where irritation once ruled.

Justin Whitaker
PhD Candidate, Buddhist Ethics
Goldsmiths, University of London


Thank you, Justin!  I admire your skillfulness in touching both heart and mind on this difficult topic. The ease with which you make the transitions from sensation to assessment to insight speaks to a deep practice.  May we all benefit from your teachings now and forever.

Please visit Marcus at Marcus’ Journal where I am being graciously hosted in this Blog Swap.

7 thoughts on “Special Guest Justin from American Buddhist Perspective on Irritants & Ethics

  1. Pingback: Article Swap Part Deux, Link Here! « Precious Metal: the blog

  2. Wonderful post Justin! One a side note, what form of meditation do you feel best suits those seeking the “calming” effect? I’ve heard different opinions on this.

  3. I promised Justin a skill-testing question on his article so here goes:

    Justin, with the increasing secularization of the teaching of mindfulness, its roots in Buddhist ethics tends to get set aside. Some teachers say mindfulness automatically confers ethical behaviours. Do you think it’s important to teach mindfulness explicitly in the context of Buddhist Ethics or should we just offer the skills and hope?

  4. Thanks Adam – and great question. Traditionally the meditation assigned to the student was determined by a teacher who knows the personality of the student well. For most every personality, though, the mindfulness-of-breathing practice is a good one.

    Another great question, Genju. In Buddhist academic circles this is idea/problem is going around quite a bit now. My sense is that cutting out the ethics weakens the practice and its potential efficacy a great deal. But it is still helpful to people and yes, I agree that mindfulness itself, in one inclined toward being a better person, will automatically confer ethical behaviour. But ignoring the underlying moral inclinations of people/patients/students is dangerous: one can become a very mindful and skillful killer or thief. This was the case with Angulimala before his meeting the Buddha.

    I haven’t heard this from Buddhists, but Tony De Mello, the Jesuit priest with Indian roots, would famously push his retreatants hard to have the right orientation – the recognition that they were in sin and needed God – before he would allow them to continue. On second thought, I do think this exists in the requirements of recounting one’s failings, renunciation and bodhicitta, which are found at the beginning of many texts.

    Anyone teaching mindfulness has a responsibility to themselves, the students, and the world, to check in with the ethics of his/her students (I admit I don’t do a good job of this even in my sangha where I teach mindfulness; sometimes people come and I never even meet them…). I’m aware that this is due to my trying to avoid “Buddisty” sounding terms that might turn young people off. I think I may reevaluate this though in the future.

    I’ll stop there for now; but needless to say you’ve given me and hopefully everyone who teaches mindfulness (in any context) something to think about. I’ll be interested to hear what others, including you, think about this.

    Many thanks again, jw

    • Thanks, Justin. You’ve given me a lot to work out. Certainly upaya – skillful means – is critical when transplanting a concept out of one system into another. You’ve hit one of the nails square in saying it is our responsibility to ourselves and the community to be attentive to the direction of growth in our students. Mindfulness, like any skill, can be pressed into service of self-delusion – even more so because it has so much support in the zeitgeist of today’s psychology.

      Was Angulimala really mindful? Or just needy and obsessive? >Criminal Minds theme plays in the background< In terms of the Dharma, I would say being a killer and being mindful are by definition exclusive. 😉 Yes? No?

      • From what I recall of the story, Angulimala was a devoted student named Ahimsaka, harmless one. His teacher was tricked by jealous fellow students into turning on him and assigning the task of killing a thousand people and collecting their fingers on a finger-garland (an Angulimala). Thus it was out of misguided devotion that he killed. I haven’t heard him described specifically as mindful in his killing, but I think that I’ve heard teachers say that you can be a mindful murderer, a mindful butcher, a mindful soldier; with a calm mind and present in the single activity…

        But I can see also that the 8-fold path is described as all needing to be developed together in a sense, that one cannot perfect any of the parts without the others. In that way, one’s wrong livelihood would necessarily prevent true mindfulness.

        So again, I’m not sure 🙂

        • Thank you, Justin

          😀 We tend to focus more on Angulimala’s redemption and less on his own role in his delusion. And, needing to take responsibility for our actions was a powerful point in your post.

          As with your uncertainty on this complex issue, my uncertainty is whether mindfulness equates attention and calmness. Those factors go into the acquisition of information in the service of taking right action. And right action is far more than what is necessary and sufficient in a moment – the mindful sniper is a good example. I was reading Post-Conventional Moral Thinking by James Reed et al. in which they propose micromorality vs macromorality. It’s a “save my family or save the world” scenario.

          What would a Bodhisattva do? Beats me!

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