One by one, little by little,
moment by moment,
a wise man should remove his own impurities
as a smith removes the dross from silver.
Dhammapada verse 239
Translated by Acharya Buddharakkhita
One of the ways the suttas come alive is by working to overcome specific unwholesome character traits. For example, when we make a wholehearted commitment to examine greed in our lives, as we read the suttas that talk about greed will really stand out. When we are examining greed very personally, then the suttas that deal with greed also become very personal, very urgent. As we put these teachings into practice we gain confidence in the Blessed One’s Dhamma.
One sutta we can use to guide this practice is the Sallekha Sutta, number 8 from the Middle Length Discourses. It contains over forty unwholesome characteristics and their wholesome counterpart. The method is very straightforward. You pick some of the unwholesome characteristics to examine in your own life using the method spelled out in the sutta. As you come across other suttas that deal with the same unwholesome qualities you can add them into your reflection.
The instructions below are from a worksheet you can download and print out. In addition to being a summary of the Blessed One’s method for overcoming the unwholesome qualities, the worksheet acts as a tangible reminder of your process of examination.
1. After reading MN 8 Sallekha Sutta, choose three of the unwholesome qualities that you will examine in your life for the next three months. Fill in the blanks in each section taking the wording from the sutta. For easy reference, include the number from the sutta for each quality. This will also remind you that you have only taken a selection of qualities to work with.
2. Determine a time each day to do the reflections on these qualities using the method found in the sutta itself. Work with them in exactly the way that they are given in the sutta using each of the five methods reading the introduction to each section as well as the conclusion. At the beginning and at the end of each day may be most effective. You may also want to do this reflection before or after meditation. Place this worksheet in a conspicuous spot such as your pillow or meditation cushion so you are constantly reminded.
3. Once a week, read the entire sutta again so you do not loose touch with the fact that the Blessed One pointed out many unwholesome qualities to abandon and many wholesome qualities to cultivate.
4. As you actively and faithfully explore the teachings of the Blessed One in other texts, you will naturally pay special attention to teachings that relate to the wholesome qualities you are now trying to cultivate. Consider putting particularly helpful passages into your personal anthology.
5. At the end of the three month period, choose another three qualities to examine and begin the process again.
The excerpt of Sallekha Sutta in this worksheet from The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2001. A translation of this sutta by Venerable Nyanaponika Thera can also be found on accesstoinsight.org. Verse numbers (indicated with the § symbol) are the same for both versions.