Life Isn't Just Suffering
"He showed me the brightness of the world."
That's how my teacher,
Ajaan Fuang, once characterized his debt to his teacher,
Ajaan Lee. His words took me by surprise. I had only recently come
to study with him, still fresh from a school where I had learned
that serious Buddhists took a negative, pessimistic view of the
world. Yet here was a man who had given his life to the practice of
the Buddha's teachings, speaking of the world's brightness. Of
course, by "brightness" he wasn't referring to the joys of the arts,
food, travel, sports, family life, or any of the other sections of
the Sunday newspaper. He was talking about a deeper happiness that
comes from within. As I came to know him, I gained a sense of how
deeply happy he was. He may have been skeptical about a lot of human
pretenses, but I would never describe him as negative or
pessimistic. "Realistic" would be closer to the truth. Yet for a
long time I couldn't shake the sense of paradox I felt over how the
pessimism of the Buddhist texts could find embodiment in such a
solidly happy person.
Only when I began to look directly at the early texts did I
realize that what I thought was a paradox was actually an irony
the irony of how Buddhism, which gives such a positive view of a
human being's potential for finding true happiness, could be branded
in the West as negative and pessimistic.
You've probably heard the rumor that "Life is suffering" is
Buddhism's first principle, the Buddha's first noble truth. It's a
rumor with good credentials, spread by well-respected academics and
Dharma teachers alike, but a rumor nonetheless. The truth about the
noble truths is far more interesting. The Buddha taught four truths
not one about life: There is suffering, there is a cause for
suffering, there is an end of suffering, and there is a path of
practice that puts an end to suffering. These truths, taken as a
whole, are far from pessimistic. They're a practical,
problem-solving approach the way a doctor approaches an illness,
or a mechanic a faulty engine. You identify a problem and look for
its cause. You then put an end to the problem by eliminating the
What's special about the Buddha's approach is that the problem he
attacks is the whole of human suffering, and the solution he offers
is something human beings can do for themselves. Just as a doctor
with a surefire cure for measles isn't afraid of measles, the Buddha
isn't afraid of any aspect of human suffering. And, having
experienced a happiness totally unconditional, he's not afraid to
point out the suffering and stress inherent in places where most of
us would rather not see it in the conditioned pleasures we cling
to. He teaches us not to deny that suffering and stress or to run
away from it, but to stand still and face up to it, to examine it
carefully. That way by understanding it we can ferret out its
cause and put an end to it. Totally. How confident can you get?
A fair number of writers have pointed out the basic confidence
inherent in the four noble truths, and yet the rumor of Buddhism's
pessimism persists. I wonder why. One possible explanation is that,
in coming to Buddhism, we sub-consciously expect it to address
issues that have a long history in our own culture. By starting out
with suffering as his first truth, the Buddha seems to be offering
his position on a question with a long history in the West: is the
world basically good or bad?
According to Genesis, this was the first question that occurred
to God after he had finished his creation: had he done a good job?
He then looked at the world and saw that it was good. Ever since
then, people in the West have sided with or against God on his
answer, but in doing so they have affirmed that the question was
worth asking to begin with. When Theravada the only form of
Buddhism to take on Christianity when Europe colonized Asia was
looking for ways to head off what it saw as the missionary menace,
Buddhists who had received their education from the missionaries
assumed that the question was valid and pressed the first noble
truth into service as a refutation of the Christian God: look at how
miserable life is, they said, and it's hard to accept God's verdict
on his handiwork.
This debating strategy may have scored a few points at the time,
and it's easy to find Buddhist apologists who still living in the
colonial past keep trying to score the same points. The real
issue, though, is whether the Buddha intended his first noble truth
to answer God's question in the first place and more importantly
whether we're getting the most out of the first noble truth if we
see it in that light.
It's hard to imagine what you could accomplish by saying that
life is suffering. You'd have to spend your time arguing with people
who see more than just suffering in life. The Buddha himself says as
much in one of his discourses. A brahman named Long-nails (Dighanakha)
comes to him and announces that he doesn't approve of anything. This
would have been a perfect time for the Buddha, if he had wanted, to
chime in with the truth that life is suffering. Instead, he attacks
the whole notion of taking a stand on whether life is worthy of
approval. There are three possible answers to this question, he
says: (1) nothing is worthy of approval, (2) everything is, and (3)
some things are and some things aren't. If you take any of these
three positions, you end up arguing with the people who take either
of the other two positions. And where does that get you?
The Buddha then teaches Long-nails to look at his body and
feelings as instances of the first noble truth: they're stressful,
inconstant, and don't deserve to be clung to as self. Long-nails
follows the Buddha's instructions and, in letting go of his
attachment to body and feelings, gains his first glimpse of the
Deathless, of what it's like to be totally free from suffering.
The point of this story is that trying to answer God's question,
passing judgment on the world, is a waste of time. And it offers a
better use for the first noble truth: looking at things, not in
terms of "world" or "life," but simply identifying suffering so that
you can comprehend it, let it go, and attain release. Rather than
asking us to make a blanket judgment which, in effect, would be
asking us to be blind partisans the first noble truth asks us to
look and see precisely where the problem of suffering lies.
Other discourses show that the problem isn't with body and
feelings in and of themselves. They themselves aren't suffering. The
suffering lies in clinging to them. In his definition of the first
noble truth, the Buddha summarizes all types of suffering under the
phrase, "the five aggregates of clinging": clinging to physical form
(including the body), feelings, perceptions, thought constructs, and
consciousness. However, when the five aggregates are free from
clinging, he tells us, they lead to long-term benefit and happiness.
So the first noble truth, simply put, is that clinging is
suffering. It's because of clinging that physical pain becomes
mental pain. It's because of clinging that aging, illness, and death
cause mental distress. The paradox here is that, in clinging to
things, we don't trap them or get them under our control. Instead,
we trap ourselves. When we realize our captivity, we naturally
search for a way out. And this is where it's so important that the
first noble truth not say that "Life is suffering." If life
were suffering, where would we look for an end to suffering? We'd be
left with nothing but death and annihilation. But when the actual
truth is that clinging is suffering, we simply have to look for the
clinging and eliminate its causes.
This process takes time, though, because we can't simply tell the
mind not to cling. It's like a disobedient child: if you force it to
let go while you're looking, it'll search for a blind spot where you
can't see it, and will start to cling there. In fact, the mind's
major blind spot ignorance is the prime cause that gives rise to
clinging's proximate cause: craving. So, as the fourth noble truth,
the Buddha recommends a path of practice to get rid of the blind
spot. The path has eight factors: right view, right resolve, right
speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right
mindfulness, and right concentration. In a more abbreviated form,
the Buddha's term for the practice is "abandoning and developing":
abandoning activities that hinder awareness, and developing
qualities that expand its clarity and range.
The abandoning in which you refrain from unskillful
thoughts, words, and deeds inspired by craving is obviously an
antidote to clinging. The developing, though, plays a more
paradoxical role, for you have to hold to the skillful qualities of
mindfulness, concentration, and discernment that foster awareness
until they're fully mature. Only then can you let them go. It's like
climbing a ladder to get on a roof: you grab hold of a higher rung
so that you can let go of a lower rung, and then grab onto a rung
still higher. As the rungs get further off the ground, your view
gets more expansive and you can see precisely where the mind's
clingings are. You get a sharper sense of which parts of experience
belong to which noble truth and what should be done with them: the
parts that are suffering should be comprehended; the parts that
cause suffering should be abandoned; the parts that form the path to
the end of suffering should be further developed; and the parts that
belong to the end of suffering should be verified. This helps you
get higher and higher on the ladder until you find yourself securely
on the roof. That's when you can finally let go of the ladder and be
So the real question we face is not God's question, passing
judgment on how skillfully he created life or the world. It's our
question: how skillfully are we handling the raw stuff of life? Are
we clinging in ways that serve only to continue the round of
suffering, or are we learning to hold to the ladder-like qualities
that will eliminate craving and ignorance so that we can grow up and
not have to cling. If we negotiate life armed with all four noble
truths, realizing that life contains both suffering and an end to
suffering, there's hope: hope that we'll be able to sort out which
parts of life belong to which truth; hope that someday, in this
life, we'll discover the brightness at the point where we can agree
with the Buddha, "Oh. Yes. This is the end of suffering and stress."
Opening the Door to the
Respect in Buddhist Thought & Practice
If you're born into an Asian Buddhist family, the first thing your
parents will teach you about Buddhism is not a philosophical tenet
but a gesture of respect: how to place your hands in aρjali,
palm-to-palm over your heart, when you encounter a Buddha image, a
monk, or a nun. Obviously, the gesture will be mechanical at first.
Over time, though, you'll learn the respectful attitude that goes
with it. If you're quick to pick it up, your parents will consider
it a sign of intelligence, for respect is basic to any ability to
As you get older, they may teach you the symbolism of the
gesture: that your hands form a lotus bud, representing your heart,
which you are holding out to be trained in how to become wise.
Ultimately, as you grow more familiar with the fruits of Buddhist
practice, your parents hope that your respect will turn into
reverence and veneration. In this way, they give a quick answer to
the old Western question of which side of Buddhism the philosophy
or the religion comes first. In their eyes, the religious attitude
of respect is needed for any philosophical understanding to grow.
And as far as they're concerned, there's no conflict between the
two. In fact, they're mutually reinforcing.
This stands in marked contrast to the typical Western attitude,
which sees an essential discrepancy between Buddhism's religious and
philosophical sides. The philosophy seems so rational, placing such
a high value on self-reliance. The insight at the heart of the
Buddha's awakening was so abstract a principle of causality. There
seems no inherent reason for a philosophy with such an abstract
beginning to have produced a devotionalism intense enough to rival
anything found in the theistic religions.
Yet if we look at what the Pali canon has to say about
devotionalism the attitude it expresses with the cluster of words,
respect, deference, reverence, homage, and veneration
we find not only that its theory of respect is rooted in the
central insight of the Buddha's awakening the causal principle
called this/that conditionality (idappaccayata) but also
that respect is required to learn and master this causal principle
in the first place.
On the surface it may seem strange to relate a theory of
causality to the issue of respect, but the two are intimately
entwined. Respect is the attitude you develop toward the things that
matter in life. Theories of causality tell you if anything really
matters, and if so, what matters and how. If you
believe that a supreme being will grant you happiness, you'll
naturally show respect and reverence for that being. If you assume
happiness to be entirely self-willed, your greatest respect will be
reserved for your own willfulness. As for the how: If you
view true happiness as totally impossible, totally pre-determined,
or totally random, respect is unnecessary, for it makes no
difference in the outcome of your life. But if you see true
happiness as possible, and its causes as precarious, contingent, and
dependent on your attitude, you'll naturally show them the care and
respect needed to keep them healthy and strong.
This is reflected in the way the canon treats the issue of
respect. It details the varied ways in which lay people of the
Buddha's time showed respect to the Buddha and the monastic Sangha,
and the more standardized ways in which the members of the Sangha
showed respect to the Buddha and to one another. Especially
interesting is the protocol of respect for the Dhamma. Buddhist
monks and nuns are forbidden from teaching the Dhamma to anyone who
shows disrespect, and the Buddha himself is said to have refused to
teach his first sermon to the five brethren until they stopped
treating him as a mere equal.
This protocol, of course, may have been a cultural accident,
something picked up willy-nilly from the society of the Buddha's
time, but there are passages in the canon suggesting otherwise.
Buddhism was one of the samana (contemplative) movements in
ancient India, which claimed to follow truths of nature rather than
mainstream cultural norms. These movements were very free in
choosing what to adopt from prevailing customs. Buddhist
descriptions of other samana movements often criticized them for
being disrespectful not only to outsiders but also among themselves.
Students are shown being disrespectful to their teachers their
group meetings raucous, noisy, and out of control. All of this is
then contrasted with the way Buddhists conduct their meetings in
mutual courtesy and respect. This suggests that the Buddhists were
free to reject the common customs of respect but made a conscious
choice not to.
This choice is based on their insight into respect as a
prerequisite for learning. It's easier to learn from someone you
respect than from someone you don't. Respect opens the mind and
loosens preconceived opinions to make room for new knowledge and
skills. At the same time, people who value their knowledge feel more
inclined to teach it to someone who shows respect than to someone
However, the type of learning the Buddha emphasizes is not simply
the acquisition of information. It's a skill leading to total
release from suffering and stress. And this is where the issue of
respect connects with causality, for the Buddhist theory of
causality centers on the question of how it's possible to learn a
As cybernetics theory shows, learning in general is possible only
where there is feedback; learning a skill requires the further
ability to monitor feedback and choose how to use it to modify
behavior. The Buddha's discoveries in causality explain the how
and the what that allow for these factors. The how he
expressed as a causal formula; the what, as an analysis of
action: the factors that shape it, together with the range of
results it can give.
The causal formula, simply put, states that each moment is
composed of three things: results from past actions, present
actions, and the immediate results of present actions. Although this
principle seems simple, its consequences are very complex. Every act
you perform has repercussions in the present moment that also
reverberate into the future. Depending on the intensity of the act,
those reverberations can last for a very short or a very long time.
Thus every conditioned experience is shaped by the combined effects
of past actions coming from a wide range over time, together with
the effects of present acts.
Causality over time places certain limitations on each moment.
The present is not a clean slate, for it's partially shaped by
influences from the past. Immediate causality in the present,
however, makes room for free will. Not everything is determined by
the past. At any moment, you can insert new input into the process
and nudge your life in a new direction. Still, there's not so much
room for free will that causality becomes arbitrary. Every this
put into the system produces a particular type of that.
Events follow discernible patterns that can be mastered.
The what that keeps this process in motion is the factor
allowing for feedback and the monitoring of feedback. The central
element in that what is intention, which the Buddha
identified as the essence of action, or kamma. Intention, in turn,
is shaped by acts of attention, which ask questions about
perceptions and create views from those questions. Because you can
attend to the results of your intentions, there is an internal
feedback loop allowing you to learn. Because attention can ask
questions, it can monitor that feedback to determine how best to put
it to use. And because your intentions guided by views and
offering new input into the present can then reshape your
experience, your ability to learn can make a difference: you can
change your behavior and reap the results of your improved skills in
terms of greater and greater happiness.
How far can that happiness go? In the course of his Awakening,
the Buddha discovered that the pursuit of skillfulness can
ultimately lead beyond time and space, beyond the realm of
conditionality and rebirth. From this discovery he identified four
types of kamma: the first three giving pleasant, painful, or mixed
results in the round of rebirth, and the fourth leading beyond all
kamma to the end of rebirth. In other words, the principle of
causality works so that actions can either continue the round or
bring it to an end. Because even the highest pleasure within the
round is inconstant and undependable, he taught that the most worthy
course of action is the fourth kind of kamma the type that led to
his Awakening to put an end to kamma once and for all.
The skill needed for this form of kamma comes from coordinating
the factors of attention and intention so that they lead first to
pleasant results within the round of rebirth, and then on the
transcendent level to total release from suffering and stress.
This, in turn, requires certain attitudes toward the principle of
causality operating in human life. And this is where the quality of
respect becomes essential, for without the proper respect for three
things yourself, the principle of causality operating in your
life, and other people's insights into that principle you won't be
able to muster the resolve needed to master that principle and to
see how far your potential for skillfulness can go.
Respect for yourself, in the context of this/that
conditionality, means two things:
1) Because the fourth kind of kamma is possible, you can respect
your desire for unconditional happiness, and don't have to regard it
as an unrealistic ideal.
2) Because of the importance of intention and attention in
shaping your experience, you can respect your ability to develop the
skills needed to understand and master causal reality to the point
of attaining true happiness.
But respect for yourself goes even further than that. Not only
can you respect your desire for true happiness and your ability
to attain it, you must respect these things if you don't want
to fall under the sway of the many religious and secular forces
within society and yourself that would pull you in other directions.
Although most religious cultures assume true happiness to be
possible, they don't see human skillfulness as capable of bringing
it about. By and large, they place their hopes for happiness in
higher powers. As for secular cultures, they don't believe that
unconditional happiness is possible at all. They teach us to strive
for happiness dependent on conditions, and to turn a blind eye to
the limitations inherent in any happiness coming from money, power,
relationships, possessions, or a sentimental sense of community.
They often scoff at higher values and smile when religious idols
fall or religious aspirants show feet of clay.
These secular attitudes foster our own unskillful qualities, our
desire to take whatever pleasures come easily, and our impatience
with anyone who would tell us that we're capable of better and more.
But both the secular and the common religious attitudes teach us to
underestimate the powers of our own skillful mind states. Qualities
like mindfulness, concentration, and discernment, when they first
arise in the mind, seem unremarkable small and tender, like maple
seedlings growing in the midst of weeds. If we don't watch for them
or accord them any special respect, the weeds will strangle them or
we ourselves will tread them underfoot. As a result, we'll never get
to know how much shade they can provide.
If, however, we develop strong respect for our own ability to
attain true happiness, two important moral qualities take charge of
our minds and watch out for our good qualities: concern for the
suffering we'll experience if we don't try our best to develop
skillfulness, and shame at the thought of aiming lower than at the
highest possible happiness. Shame may seem a strange adjunct to
self-respect, but when both are healthy they go together. You need
self-respect to recognize when a course of action is beneath you,
and that you'd be ashamed to follow it. You need to feel shame for
your mistakes in order to keep your self-respect from turning into
This is where the second aspect of respect respect for the
principle of causality comes in. This/that conditionality is
not a free-form process. Each unskillful this is connected to
an unpleasant that. You can't twist the connection to lead to
pleasant results, or use your own preferences to design a customized
path to release from causal experience. Self-respect thus has to
accommodate a respect for the way causes actually produce effects.
Traditionally, this respect is expressed in terms of the quality the
Buddha stressed in his very last words: heedfulness. To be heedful
means having a strong sense that if you're careless in your
intentions, you'll suffer. If you truly love yourself, you have to
pay close attention to the way reality really works, and act
accordingly. Not everything you think or feel is worthy of respect.
Even the Buddha himself didn't design Buddhism or the principle of
this/that conditionality. He discovered them. Instead of viewing
reality in line with his preferences, he reordered his preferences
to make the most of what he learned by watching with scrupulous
care and honesty his actions and their actual effects.
This point is reflected in his discourse to the Kalamas. Although
this discourse is often cited as the Buddha's carte blanche for
following your own sense of right and wrong, it actually says
something very different: Don't simply follow traditions, but
don't simply follow your own preferences, either. If you see,
through watching your own actions and their results, that following
a certain mental state leads to harm and suffering, you should
abandon it and resolve never to follow it again. This is a
rigorous standard, which requires putting the Dhamma ahead of your
own preconceived preferences. And it requires that you be very
heedful of any tendency to reverse that priority and put your
In other words, you can't simply indulge in the pleasure or
resist the pain coming from your own actions. You have to learn from
both pleasure and pain, to show them respect as events in a causal
chain, to see what they have to teach you. This is why the Buddha
called dukkha pain, stress, and suffering a noble truth;
and why he termed the pleasure arising from the concentrated mind a
noble truth as well. These aspects of immediate experience contain
lessons that can take the mind to the noble attainments.
The discourse to the Kalamas, however, doesn't stop with
immediate experience. It goes further and states that, when
observing the processes of cause and effect in your actions, you
should also confirm your observations with the teachings of the
wise. This third aspect of respect respect for the insights of
others is also based on the pattern of this/that
conditionality. Because causes are sometimes separated from their
effects by great expanses of time, it's easy to lose sight of some
important connections. At the same time, your chief obstacle to
discernment delusion is the mental quality you have the hardest
time detecting in yourself. When you're deluded, you don't know
you're deluded. So the wise approach is to show respect to the
insights of others, in the event that their insights may help you
see through your own ignorance. After all, intention and attention
are immediately present to their awareness as well. Their insights
may be just what you need to cut through the obstacles you've
created for yourself through your own acts of ignorance.
The Buddhist teachings on respect for other people point in two
directions. First, the obvious one: respect for those ahead of you
on the path. As the Buddha once said, friendship with admirable
people is the whole of the holy life, for their words and examples
will help get you on the path to release. This doesn't mean that you
need to obey their teachings or accept them unthinkingly. You simply
owe it to yourself to give them a respectful hearing and their
teachings an honest try. Even especially when their advice is
unpleasant, you should treat it with respect. As Dhammapada 76
Regard him as one who
the wise one who
seeing your faults
Stay with this sort of sage.
For the one who stays
with a sage of this sort,
things get better,
At the same time, when you show respect for those who have
mastered the path, you're also showing respect for qualities you
want to develop in yourself. And when such people see that you
respect the good qualities both in them and in yourself, they'll
feel more inclined to share their wisdom with you, and more careful
about sharing only their best. This is why the Buddhist tradition
places such an emphasis on not only feeling respect but also
showing it. If you can't force yourself to show respect to
others in ways they'll recognize, there's a resistance in your mind.
They, in turn, will doubt your willingness to learn. This is why the
monastic discipline places so much emphasis on the etiquette of
respect to be shown to teachers and senior monastics.
The teachings on respect, however, go in another direction as
well. Buddhist monks and nuns are not allowed to show disrespect for
anyone who criticizes them, regardless of whether or not that
person is awakened or the criticism well-founded. Critics of this
sort may not deserve the level of respect due to teachers, but they
do deserve common courtesy. Even unawakened people may have observed
valuable bits and pieces of the truth. If you open yourself to
criticism, you may get to hear worthwhile insights that a wall of
disrespect would have repelled. Buddhist literature from the
earliest days up to the present abounds with stories of people who
gained Awakening after hearing a chance word or song from an
unlikely source. A person with the proper attitude of respect can
learn from anything and the ability to put anything to a good use
is the mark of true discernment.
Perhaps the most delicate skill with regard to respect is
learning how to balance all three aspects of respect: for yourself,
for the truth of causality, and for the insight of others. This
balance is essential to any skill. If you want to become a potter,
for example, you have to learn not only from your teacher, but also
from your own actions and powers of observation, and from the clay
itself. Then you have to weigh all of these factors together to
achieve mastery on your own. If, in your pursuit of the Buddhist
path, your self-respect outweighs your respect for the truth of
causality or the insights of others, you'll find it hard to take
criticism or to laugh at your own foolishness. This will make it
impossible for you to learn. If, on the other hand, your respect for
your teachers outweighs your self-respect or your respect for the
truth, you can open yourself to charlatans and close yourself to the
truth that the canon says "is to be seen by the wise for
The parallels between the role of respect in Buddhist practice
and in manual skills explains why many Buddhist teachers require
their students to master a manual skill as a prerequisite or a part
of their meditation. A person with no manual skills will have little
intuitive understanding of how to balance respect. What sets the
Buddha's apart from other skills, though, is the level of total
freedom it produces. And the difference between that freedom and its
alternative endless rounds of suffering through birth after birth,
death after death is so extreme that we can easily understand why
people committed to the pursuit of that freedom show it a level of
respect that's also extreme. Even more understandable is the
absolute level of respect for that freedom shown by those who have
attained it. They bow down to all their inner and outer teachers
with the sincerest, most heart-felt gratitude. To see them bow down
in this way is an inspiring sight.
So when Buddhist parents teach their children to show respect for
the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, they aren't teaching them a habit
that will later have to be unlearned. Of course, the child will need
to discover how best to understand and make use of that respect, but
at least the parents have helped open the door for the child to
learn from its own powers of observation, to learn from the truth,
and to learn from the insights of others. And when that door when
the mind is opened to what truly deserves respect, all things
noble and good can come in.
The Buddha wasn't the sort of teacher who simply answered questions.
He also taught which questions to ask. He understood the power of
questions: that they give shape to the holes in your knowledge and
force that shape valid or not onto the answers you hope will
fill up those holes. Even if you use right information to answer a
wrong question, it can take on the wrong shape. If you then use that
answer as a tool, you're sure to apply it to the wrong situations
and end up with the wrong results.
That's why the Buddha was
careful to map out a science of questions, showing which questions
in what order lead to freedom, and which ones don't. At the same
time, he gave his talks in a question-and-answer format, to make
perfectly clear the shape of the questions he was answering.
So if you're looking to his teaching for answers and want to get
the most out of them, you should first be clear about what questions
you're bringing to it, and check to see if they're in line with the
questions the teachings were meant to address. That way your answers
won't lead you astray.
A case in point is the teaching on not-self. Many students
interpret this as the Buddha's answer to two of the most
frequently-asked questions in the history of serious thought: "Who
am I?" and "Do I have a true self?" In the light of these questions,
the teaching seems to be a no-self teaching, saying either an
unqualified No: There is no self; or a qualified No: no separate
self. But the one time the Buddha was asked point-blank if there is
a self, he refused to answer, on the grounds that either a Yes or a
No to the question would lead to extreme forms of wrong view that
block the path to awakening. A Yes or a qualified No would lead to
attachment: you'd keep clinging to a sense of self however you
defined it. An unqualified No would lead to bewilderment and
alienation, for you'd feel that your innermost sense of intrinsic
worth had been denied.
As for the question, "Who am I?" the Buddha included it in a list
of dead-end questions that lead to "a thicket of views, a wilderness
of views, a contortion, a writhing, a fetter of views. Bound by a
fetter of views, [you] don't gain freedom from birth, aging, and
death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, or despair." In
other words, any attempt to answer either of these questions is
unskillful karma, blocking the path to true freedom.
So if the not-self teaching isn't meant to answer these
questions, what question does it answer? A basic one: "What
is skillful?" In fact, all of the Buddha's teachings are
direct or indirect answers to this question. His great insight was
that all our knowledge and ignorance, all our pleasure and pain,
come from our actions, our karma, so the quest for true knowledge
and true happiness comes down to a question of skill. In this case,
the precise question is: "Is self-identification skillful?" And the
answer is: "Only up to a point." In the areas where you need a
healthy sense of self to act skillfully, it's wise to maintain that
sense of self. But eventually, as skillful behavior becomes second
nature and you develop more sensitivity, you see that
self-identification, even of the most refined sort, is harmful and
stressful. You have to let it go.
So, as with any skill, there are definite steps along the road to
mastery. And because the asking of a question is a type of karma,
the questions you ask not only have to start with the issue of
skill, they also have to be skillful to approach the issue
skillfully themselves. Each step in the Buddha's skill is thus
defined by a set of questions that focus your attention and shape
your thinking in the most strategic direction. In fact, the
questions he recommends can be taken as a map to the practice: you
start out with questions that assume a self and use that assumption
to motivate yourself to act more and more skillfully. Only when you
reach an appropriate level of skill do the questions turn to
deconstruct your sense of self, pinpointing the things you identify
as your self and showing that they're not really you. When the act
of self-identification runs out of options, it stops in mid-air
and the mind opens to freedom. So if you put the not-self teaching
in its proper context this regimen of questions you'll see that
it's not a dead-end answer to a dead-end question. Instead, it's a
cutting-edge tool for bringing about liberation.
To begin this regimen, the Buddha recommends that when you visit
a teacher, the first questions to ask are these: "What is skillful?
What is unskillful? What, if I do it, will be for my long-term harm
and suffering? Or what, if I do it, will be for my long-term
well-being and happiness?" Although these last two questions bring
in the concepts of "I" and "my," they aren't the focus of the
inquiry. The focus is on doing, on developing skill, on using your
concern for "me" and "my well-being" to train your actions toward
The Buddha's answers to these preliminary questions read like a
course in wilderness survival. First come the do's and don'ts. A
wilderness instructor will tell you: "If a moose charges you, run.
If a bear charges you, don't." The Buddha's corresponding do's and
don'ts are ten guidelines dealing with body, speech, and mind. The
guidelines for the body are: don't kill, don't steal, don't engage
in illicit sex. For speech: don't tell lies, don't speak divisively,
don't speak abusively, don't engage in idle chatter. And for the
mind: abandon greed, abandon ill will, cultivate right views. These
are the Buddha's basic ground rules for the survival of your
happiness, and many of his teachings simply elaborate on these ten
But as any wilderness instructor will tell you, survival requires
more than simple rules of thumb. You have to be alert to the gaps
not covered by the rules. You need to learn to use your powers of
observation, imagination, and ingenuity to dig out unskillful habits
and develop new habits to fill in the gaps. That way you can live
comfortably in the wilderness, respectful of the bears and moose and
other dangers around you without being overwhelmed by them.
The same holds true with the Buddha's skill: in addition to
following the do's and don'ts, you have to learn how to dig out the
roots of unskillful behavior so that you can become adept in all
areas of your life, including the areas where the do's and don'ts
don't apply. The roots of unskillful behavior are three: greed,
anger, and delusion. Of the three, delusion is the most insidious,
for it blinds you to its very existence. The only way to overcome it
is to be relentlessly observant, looking at your actions in terms of
cause and effect, gauging their short- and long-term consequences
for yourself and others.
Again, this involves learning to ask the right questions. Each
time you're about to act, ask yourself: "This action that I want to
do: would it lead to self-harm, to the harm of others, or to both?
Is it an unskillful action, with painful consequences, painful
results?" If you foresee harm, don't follow through with it. If not,
go ahead and act. While acting, ask yourself if there are any
unexpected bad consequences arising. If there are, stop. If there
aren't, continue with what you're doing. When the action is done,
look into its actual short- and long-term consequences. If an action
in word or deed has ended up causing harm, inform an experienced
fellow-practitioner on the path (this is why the Buddha established
the Sangha) and listen to that person's advice. If the mistaken
action was purely an act of the mind, try to develop distaste for
that kind of thinking. In both cases, resolve never to make the same
mistake again, and use your ingenuity to make the resolve stick. If,
however, the long-term consequences of the original action were
harmless, take joy and satisfaction in being on the right path and
continue your training.
As you stay with this line of questioning, it fosters two major
results. To begin with, you become more sensitive to your actions
and respectful of their effects, both in the present and over time.
Unlike the child who says, "It was already broken when I stepped on
it," you're aware of when you break things physical or mental
and when you don't. At the same time, you gain mastery over the
patterns of action and effect. You get better and better at handling
things without their getting broken. This in turn fosters a healthy
sense of "self" and "I" based on competence and skill. Your sense of
self becomes good-humored enough to freely admit mistakes, mature
enough to learn from them, quick enough to notice the immediate
effects of your actions, while patient enough to strive for
long-term goals. Confident in its own powers of observation, this
"I" also has the humility needed to learn from the experience and
advice of others.
These two results sensitivity to the effects of your own
actions and a competent sense of self enable you to settle into a
level of mental concentration that's solid and nourishing. You
overcome the hindrance of uncertainty as to what's skillful and
unskillful, and are able to develop the skillful qualities needed to
center the mind. As this centered focus develops, an interesting
thing happens: your sensitivity to actions and your sense of self
come face to face. You begin to see that self not as a thing but as
an activity, a process of "I-making" and "my-making" in which you
repeatedly create and re-create your sense of who you are. You also
begin to notice that this I-making, even when it produces the most
skillful self possible, inevitably results in stress.
Why? Because any sense of "I" or "mine" involves clinging even
when your concentration tunes into a sense of universal self and
all clinging is stressful. So to take the development of
skillfulness to its ultimate degree, you have to unlearn the habit
of I-making and my-making. And to do this, another set of questions
These are the questions that introduce the strategy of not-self.
The Buddha recommends that you focus on any phenomenon around which
you might sense an "I" or a "mine," and ask a series of questions,
starting with: "Is this constant or inconstant?" If you identify
with your body, look at it. You'll see that it grows hungry and
thirsty, that it's aging, destined to grow ill and die. "And is
anything inconstant easeful or stressful?" Look at any attempt to
find a stable happiness based on the body, and you'll see how
stressful it is. "And is it fitting to regard what's inconstant,
stressful, subject to change as: 'This is mine. This is my self.
This is what I am'?"
Pursue this line of inquiry inward, through layer after layer of
physical and mental events, until you can zero in on the high
command: the self that's managing not only the stability of your
concentration but also your internal dialogue of questions and
answers. Fortified with the sense of stability and calm that come
with strong concentration, you can start deconstructing that self
with no anxiety over what will happen when it's gone. And when the
intentions making up that self are deconstructed, a strange thing
happens. It's as if you had pulled out a strategic thread holding a
tapestry together, and now the whole thing unravels on its own.
Everything that could possibly be clung to falls away. What remains
is total, absolute freedom free from time and space, from both
self and not-self, for both "self" and "not-self" are perceptions,
which that freedom transcends.
Even when you've had only a first, humbling taste of this
freedom, you appreciate how adroitly the teaching on not-self
answers the question of "What is skillful?" And you understand why
the Buddha recommends putting the question of "Who am I?" aside. To
begin with, it wouldn't have taken you to this freedom, and could
well have stood in freedom's way. Because your "I" is an activity,
any attempt to pin it down before you had mastered the processes of
activity would have left you pouncing on shadows, distracted from
the real work at hand. Any attempt to deconstruct your "I" before it
had become healthy and mature would have led to a release neurotic
and insecure: you'd simply be running away from the messy,
mismanaged parts of your life. In addition, any answer to the
question "Who am I?" would be totally inappropriate to describe your
new-found freedom, for it's a dimension apart, where the concepts of
"I," "not-I," "am," "am not" do not apply.
The only question still concerning you is how to dig out the
remaining roots of unskillfulness still latent in the mind. Once
they're dug up, the Buddha promises, nothing stands in the way to
full and final freedom. And in that freedom, the mind lacks nothing,
has nothing in excess. There's none of the delusion that would shape
the hole of a burning question, and none of the greed or aversion
that would give it teeth. The only remaining questions are bonus
ones: how best to take whatever skills you've developed along the
way and use them purely for the benefit of the world.
And what more could you possibly ask?
An anthropologist once questioned an Alaskan shaman about his
tribe's belief system. After putting up with the anthropologist's
questions for a while, the shaman finally told him: "Look. We don't
believe. We fear."
His words have intrigued me ever since I first
heard them. I've also been intrigued by the responses I get when I
share his words with my friends. Some say that the shaman
unconsciously put his finger on the line separating primitive
religion from civilized religion: primitive religion is founded on
childish fear; civilized religion, on love, trust, and joy. Others
maintain that the shaman cut through the pretensions and denials of
civilized religion and pointed to the true source of all serious
If we dig down to the assumptions underlying these two responses,
we find that the first response views fear itself as our greatest
weakness. If we can simply overcome fear, we put ourselves in a
position of strength. The second sees fear as the most honest
response to our greater weakness in the face of aging, illness, and
death a weakness that can't be overcome with a simple change in
attitude. If we're not in touch with our honest fears, we won't feel
motivated to do what's needed to protect ourselves from genuine
So which attitude toward fear is childish, and which is mature?
Is there an element of truth in both? If so, how can those elements
best be combined? These questions are best answered by rephrasing
them: To what extent is fear a useful emotion? To what extent is it
not? Does it have a role in the practice that puts an end to fear?
The Buddhist answer to these questions is complex. This is due
partly to Buddhism's dual roots both as a civilized and as a
wilderness tradition and also to the complexity of fear itself,
even in its most primal forms. Think of a deer at night suddenly
caught in a hunter's headlights. It's confused. Angry. It senses
danger, and that it's weak in the face of the danger. It wants to
escape. These five elements confusion, aversion, a sense of
danger, a sense of weakness, and a desire to escape are present,
to a greater or lesser extent, in every fear. The confusion and
aversion are the unskillful elements. Even if the deer has many
openings to escape from the hunter, its confusion and aversion might
cause it to miss them. The same holds true for human beings. The
mistakes and evils we commit when finding ourselves weak in the face
of danger come from confusion and aversion.
Maddeningly, however, there are also evils that we commit out of
complacency, when oblivious to actual dangers: the callous things we
do when we feel we can get away with them. Thus the last three
elements of fear the perception of weakness, the perception of
danger, and the desire to escape it are needed to avoid the evils
coming from complacency. If stripped of confusion and aversion,
these three elements become a positive quality, heedfulness
something so essential to the practice that the Buddha devoted his
last words to it. The dangers of life are real. Our weaknesses are
real. If we don't see them clearly, don't take them to heart, and
don't try to find a way out, there's no way we can put an end to the
causes of our fears. Just like the deer: if it's complacent about
the hunter's headlights, it's going to end up strapped to the fender
So to genuinely free the mind from fear, we can't simply deny
that there's any reason for fear. We have to overcome the cause of
fear: the mind's weaknesses in the face of very real dangers. The
elegance of the Buddha's approach to this problem, though, lies in
his insight into the confusion or to use the standard Buddhist
term, the delusion that makes fear unskillful. Despite the
complexity of fear, delusion is the single factor that, in itself,
is both the mind's prime weakness and its greatest danger. Thus the
Buddha approaches the problem of fear by focusing on delusion, and
he attacks delusion in two ways: getting us to think about
its dangerous role in making fear unskillful, and getting us to
develop inner strengths leading to the insights that free the
mind from the delusions that make it weak. In this way we not only
overcome the factor that makes fear unskillful. We ultimately put
the mind in a position where it has no need for fear.
When we think about how delusion infects fear and incites us to
do unskillful things, we see that it can act in two ways. First, the
delusions surrounding our fears can cause us to misapprehend the
dangers we face, seeing danger where there is none, and no danger
where there is. If we obsess over non-existent or trivial dangers,
we'll squander time and energy building up useless defenses,
diverting our attention from genuine threats. If, on the other hand,
we put the genuine dangers of aging, illness, and death out of our
minds, we grow complacent in our actions. We let ourselves cling to
things our bodies, our loved ones, our possessions, our views
that leave us exposed to aging, illness, separation, and death in
the first place. We allow our cravings to take charge of the mind,
sometimes to the point of doing evil with impunity, thinking we're
immune to the results of our evil, that those results will never
return to harm us.
The more complacent we are about the genuine dangers lying in
wait all around us, the more shocked and confused we become when
they actually hit. This leads to the second way in which the
delusions surrounding our fears promote unskillful actions: we react
to genuine dangers in ways that, instead of ending the dangers,
actually create new ones. We amass wealth to provide security, but
wealth creates a high profile that excites jealousy in others. We
build walls to keep out dangerous people, but those walls become our
prisons. We stockpile weapons, but they can easily be turned against
The most unskillful response to fear is when, perceiving dangers
to our own life or property, we believe that we can gain strength
and security by destroying the lives and property of others. The
delusion pervading our fear makes us lose perspective. If other
people were to act in this way, we would know they were wrong. But
somehow, when we feel threatened, our standards change, our
perspective warps, so that wrong seems right as long as we're
the ones doing it.
This is probably the most disconcerting human weakness of all:
our inability to trust ourselves to do the right thing when the
chips are down. If standards of right and wrong are meaningful only
when we find them convenient, they have no real meaning at all.
Fortunately, though, the area of life posing the most danger and
insecurity is the area where, through training, we can make the most
changes and exercise the most control. Although aging, illness, and
death follow inevitably on birth, delusion doesn't. It can be
prevented. If, through thought and contemplation, we become heedful
of the dangers it poses, we can feel motivated to overcome it.
However, the insights coming from simple thought and contemplation
aren't enough to fully understand and overthrow delusion. It's the
same as with any revolution: no matter how much you may think about
the matter, you don't really know the tricks and strengths of
entrenched powers until you amass your own troops and do battle with
them. And only when your own troops develop their own tricks and
strengths can they come out on top. So it is with delusion: only
when you develop mental strengths can you see through the delusions
that give fear its power. Beyond that, these strengths can put you
in a position where you are no longer exposed to dangers ever again.
The Canon lists these mental strengths at five: conviction,
persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment. It also
emphasizes the role that heedfulness plays in developing each, for
heedfulness is what enables each strength to counteract a particular
delusion that makes fear unskillful, and the mind weak in the face
of its fears. What this means is that none of these strengths are
mere brute forces. Each contains an element of wisdom and
discernment, which gets more penetrating as you progress along the
Of the five strengths, conviction requires the longest
explanation, both because it's one of the most misunderstood and
under-appreciated factors in the Buddhist path, and because of the
multiple delusions it has to counteract.
The conviction here is conviction in the principle of karma: that
the pleasure and pain we experience depends on the quality of the
intentions on which we act. This conviction counteracts the delusion
that "It's not in my best interest to stick to moral principles in
the face of danger," and it attacks this delusion in three ways.
First, it insists on what might be called the "boomerang" or
"spitting into the wind" principle of karmic cause and effect. If
you act on harmful intentions, regardless of the situation, the harm
will come back to you. Even if unskillful actions such as killing,
stealing, or lying might bring short-term advantages, these are more
than offset by the long-term harm to which they leave you exposed.
Conversely, this same principle can make us brave in doing good.
If we're convinced that the results of skillful intentions will have
to return to us even if death intervenes, we can more easily make
the sacrifices demanded by long-term endeavors for our own good and
that of others. Whether or not we live to see the results in this
lifetime, we're convinced that the good we do is never lost. In this
way, we develop the courage needed to build a store of skillful
actions generous and virtuous that forms our first line of
defense against dangers and fear.
Second, conviction insists on giving priority to your state of
mind above all else, for that's what shapes your intentions. This
counteracts the corollary to the first delusion: "What if sticking
to my principles makes it easier for people to do me harm?" This
question is based ultimately on the delusion that life is our most
precious possession. If that were true, it would be a pretty
miserable possession, for it heads inexorably to death. Conviction
views our life as precious only to the extent that it's used to
develop the mind, for the mind when developed is something that
no one, not even death, can harm. "Quality of life" is measured by
the quality and integrity of the intentions on which we act, just as
"quality time" is time devoted to the practice. Or, in the Buddha's
Better than a hundred years
lived without virtue, uncentered, is
lived by a virtuous person
absorbed in jhana.
Third, conviction insists that the need for integrity is
unconditional. Even though other people may throw away their most
valuable possession their integrity it's no excuse for us to
throw away ours. The principle of karma isn't a traffic ordinance in
effect only on certain hours of the day or certain days of the week.
It's a law operating around the clock, around the cycles of the
Some people have argued that, because the Buddha recognized the
principle of conditionality, he would have no problem with the idea
that our virtues should depend on conditions as well. This is a
misunderstanding of the principle. To begin with, conditionality
doesn't simply mean that everything is changeable and contingent.
It's like the theory of relativity. Relativity doesn't mean that all
things are relative. It simply replaces mass and time which long
were considered constants with another, unexpected constant: the
speed of light. Mass and time may be relative to a particular
inertial frame, as the frame relates to the speed of light, but the
laws of physics are constant for all inertial frames, regardless of
In the same way, conditionality means that there are certain
unchanging patterns to contingency and change one of those
patterns being that unskillful intentions, based on craving and
delusion, invariably lead to unpleasant results.
If we learn to accept this pattern, rather than our feelings and
opinions, as absolute, it requires us to become more ingenious in
dealing with danger. Instead of following our unskillful knee-jerk
reactions, we learn to think outside the box to find responses that
best prevent harm of any kind. This gives our actions added
precision and grace.
At the same time, we have to note that the Buddha didn't teach
conditionality simply to encourage acceptance for the inevitability
of change. He taught it to show how the patterns underlying change
can be mastered to create an opening that leads beyond
conditionality and change. If we want to reach the unconditioned
the truest security our integrity has to be unconditional, a gift
of temporal security not only to those who treat us well, but to
everyone, without exception. As the texts say, when you abstain
absolutely from doing harm, you give a great gift freedom from
danger to limitless beings and you yourself find a share in that
limitless freedom as well.
Conviction and integrity of this sort make great demands on us.
Until we gain our first taste of the unconditioned, they can easily
be shaken. This is why they have to be augmented with other mental
strengths. The three middle strengths persistence, mindfulness,
and concentration act in concert. Persistence, in the form of
right effort, counteracts the delusion that we're no match for our
fears, that once they arise we have to give into them. Right effort
gives us practice in eliminating milder unskillful qualities and
developing skillful ones in their place, so that when stronger
unskillful qualities arise, we can use our skillful qualities as
allies in fending them off. The strength of mindfulness assists this
process in two ways. (1) It reminds us of the danger of giving into
fear. (2) It teaches us to focus our attention, not on the object of
our fear, but on the fear in and of itself as a mental event,
something we can watch from the outside rather jumping in and going
along for a ride. The strength of concentration, in providing the
mind with a still center of wellbeing, puts us in a solid position
where we don't feel compelled to identify with fears as they come,
and where the comings and goings of internal and external dangers
are less and less threatening to the mind.
Even then, though, the mind can't reach ultimate security until
it uproots the causes of these comings and goings, which is why the
first four strengths require the strength of discernment to make
them fully secure. Discernment is what sees that these comings and
goings are ultimately rooted in our sense of "I" and "mine," and
that "I" and "mine" are not built into experience. They come from
the repeated processes of I-making and my-making, in which we impose
these notions on experience and identify with things subject to
aging, illness, and death. Furthermore, discernment sees through our
inner traitors and weaknesses: the cravings that want us to make an
"I" and "mine"; the delusions that make us believe in them once
they're made. It realizes that this level of delusion is precisely
the factor that makes aging, illness, and death dangerous to begin
with. If we didn't identify with things that age, grow ill, and die,
their aging, illness, and death wouldn't threaten the mind. Totally
unthreatened, the mind would have no reason to do anything
unskillful ever again.
When this level of discernment matures and bears the fruit of
release, our greatest insecurity our inability to trust ourselves
has been eliminated. Freed from the attachments of "I" and "mine,"
we find that the component factors of fear both skillful and
unskillful are gone. There's no remaining confusion or aversion;
the mind is no longer weak in the face of danger; and so there's
nothing from which we need to escape.
This is where the questions raised by the shaman's remarks find
their answers. We fear because we believe in "we." We believe in
"we" because of the delusion in our fear. Paradoxically, though, if
we love ourselves enough to fear the suffering that comes from
unskillful actions and attachments, and learn to believe in the way
out, we'll develop the strengths that allow us to cut through our
cravings, delusions, and attachments. That way, the entire complex
the "we," the fear, the beliefs, the attachments dissolves away.
The freedom remaining is the only true security there is.
This teaching may offer cold comfort to anyone who wants the
impossible: security for his or her attachments. But in trading away
the hope for an impossible security, you gain the reality of a
happiness totally independent and condition-free. Once you've made
this trade, you know that the pay-off is more than worth the price.
As one of the Buddha's students once reported, "Before, when I was a
householder, maintaining the bliss of kingship, I had guards posted
within and without the royal apartments, within and without the
city, within and without the countryside. But even though I was thus
guarded, thus protected, I dwelled in fear agitated, distrustful,
and afraid. But now, on going alone to a forest, to the foot of a
tree, or to an empty dwelling, I dwell without fear, unagitated,
confident, and unafraid unconcerned, unruffled, my wants
satisfied, with my mind like a wild deer. This is the meaning I have
in mind that I repeatedly exclaim, 'What bliss! What bliss!'"
His deer is obviously not the deer in the headlights. It's a deer
safe in the wilderness, at its ease wherever it goes. What makes it
more than a deer is that, free from attachment, it's called a
"consciousness without surface." Light goes right through it. The
hunter can't shoot it, for it can't be seen.
Samsara literally means "wandering-on." Many people think of it as the
Buddhist name for the place where we currently live the place we
leave when we go to nibbana. But in the early Buddhist texts, it's the
answer, not to the question, "Where are we?" but to the question,
"What are we doing?" Instead of a place, it's a process: the tendency
to keep creating worlds and then moving into them. As one world falls
apart, you create another one and go there. At the same time, you bump
into other people who are creating their own worlds, too.
The play and creativity in the process can sometimes be enjoyable.
In fact, it would be perfectly innocuous if it didn't entail so much
suffering. The worlds we create keep caving in and killing us. Moving
into a new world requires effort: not only the pains and risks of
taking birth, but also the hard knocks mental and physical that
come from going through childhood into adulthood, over and over again.
The Buddha once asked his monks, "Which do you think is greater: the
water in the oceans or the tears you've shed while wandering on?" His
answer: the tears. Think of that the next time you gaze at the ocean
or play in its waves.
In addition to creating suffering for ourselves, the worlds we
create feed off the worlds of others, just as theirs feed off ours. In
some cases the feeding may be mutually enjoyable and beneficial, but
even then the arrangement has to come to an end. More typically, it
causes harm to at least one side of the relationship, often to both.
When you think of all the suffering that goes into keeping just one
person clothed, fed, sheltered, and healthy the suffering both for
those who have to pay for these requisites, as well as those who have
to labor or die in their production you see how exploitative even
the most rudimentary process of world-building can be.
This is why the Buddha tried to find the way to stop samsara-ing.
Once he had found it, he encouraged others to follow it, too. Because
samsara-ing is something that each of us does, each of us has to stop
it him or her self alone. If samsara were a place, it might seem
selfish for one person to look for an escape, leaving others behind.
But when you realize that it's a process, there's nothing selfish
about stopping it at all. It's like giving up an addiction or an
abusive habit. When you learn the skills needed to stop creating your
own worlds of suffering, you can share those skills with others so
that they can stop creating theirs. At the same time, you'll never
have to feed off the worlds of others, so to that extent you're
lightening their load as well.
It's true that the Buddha likened the practice for stopping samsara
to the act of going from one place to another: from this side of a
river to the further shore. But the passages where he makes this
comparison often end with a paradox: the further shore has no "here,"
no "there," no "in between." From that perspective, it's obvious that
samsara's parameters of space and time were not the pre-existing
context in which we wandered. They were the result of our wandering.
For someone addicted to world-building, the lack of familiar
parameters sounds unsettling. But if you're tired of creating
incessant, unnecessary suffering, you might want to give it a try.
After all, you could always resume building if the lack of "here" or
"there" turned out to be dull. But of those who have learned how to
break the habit, no one has ever felt tempted to samsara again.
Samsara Divided by Zero
The goal of Buddhist practice, nibbana, is said to be totally
uncaused, and right there is a paradox. If the goal is uncaused, how
can a path of practice which is causal by nature bring it about?
This is an ancient question. The Milinda-paρha, a set of
dialogues composed near the start of the common era, reports an
exchange where King Milinda challenges a monk, Nagasena, with
precisely this question. Nagasena replies with an analogy. The path of
practice doesn't cause nibbana, he says. It simply takes you there,
just as a road to a mountain doesn't cause the mountain to come into
being, but simply leads you to where it is.
Nagasena's reply, though apt, didn't really settle the issue within
the Buddhist tradition. Over the years many schools of meditation have
taught that mental fabrications simply get in the way of a goal that's
uncaused and unfabricated. Only by doing nothing at all and thus not
fabricating anything in the mind, they say, will the unfabricated
This view is based on a very simplistic understanding of fabricated
reality, seeing causality as linear and totally predictable: X causes
Y which causes Z and so on, with no effects turning around to
condition their causes, and no possible way of using causality to
escape from the causal network. However, one of the many things the
Buddha discovered in the course of his awakening was that causality is
not linear. The experience of the present is shaped both by actions in
the present and by actions in the past. Actions in the present shape
both the present and the future. The results of past and present
actions continually interact. Thus there is always room for new input
into the system, which gives scope for free will. There is also room
for the many feedback loops that make experience so thoroughly
complex, and that are so intriguingly described in chaos theory.
Reality doesn't resemble a simple line or circle. It's more like the
bizarre trajectories of a strange attractor or a Mandelbrot set.
Because there are many similarities between chaos theory and
Buddhist explanations of causality, it seems legitimate to explore
those similarities to see what light chaos theory can throw on the
issue of how a causal path of practice can lead to an uncaused goal.
This is not to equate Buddhism with chaos theory, or to engage in
pseudo-science. It's simply a search for similes to clear up an
apparent conflict in the Buddha's teaching.
And it so happens that one of the discoveries of non-linear math
the basis for chaos theory throws light on just this issue. In the
19th century, the French mathematician Jules-Henri Poincarι
discovered that in any complex physical system there are points he
called resonances. If the forces governing the system are described as
mathematical equations, the resonances are the points where the
equations intersect in such a way that one of the members is divided
by zero. This, of course, produces an undefined result, which means
that if an object within the system strayed into a resonance point, it
would no longer be defined by the causal network determining the
system. It would be set free.
In actual practice, it's very rare for an object to hit a resonance
point. The equations describing the points immediately around a
resonance tend to deflect any incoming object from entering the
resonance unless the object is on a precise path to the resonance's
very heart. Still, it doesn't take too much complexity to create
resonances Poincarι discovered them while calculating the
gravitational interactions among three bodies: the earth, the sun, and
the moon. The more complex the system, the greater the number of
resonances, and the greater the likelihood that objects will stray
into them. It's no wonder that meteors, on a large scale, and
electrons on a small scale, occasionally wander right into a resonance
in a gravitational or electronic field, and thus to the freedom of
total unpredictability. This is why meteors sometimes leave the solar
system, and why your computer occasionally freezes for no apparent
reason. It's also why strange things could happen someday to the
beating of your heart.
If we were to apply this analogy to the Buddhist path, the system
we're in is samsara, the round of rebirth. Its resonances would be
what the texts called "non-fashioning," the opening to the uncaused:
nibbana. The wall of resistant forces around the resonances would
correspond to pain, stress, and attachment. To allow yourself to be
repelled by stress or deflected by attachment, no matter how subtle,
would be like approaching a resonance but then veering off to another
part of the system. But to focus directly on analyzing stress and
attachment, and deconstructing their causes, would be like getting on
an undeflected trajectory right into the resonance and finding total,
This, of course, is simply an analogy. But it's a fruitful one for
showing that there is nothing illogical in actively mastering the
processes of mental fabrication and causality for the sake of going
beyond fabrication, beyond cause and effect. At the same time, it
gives a hint as to why a path of total inaction would not lead to the
unfabricated. If you simply sit still within the system of causality,
you'll never get near the resonances where true non-fashioning lies.
You'll keep floating around in samsara. But if you take aim at stress
and clinging, and work to take them apart, you'll be able to break
through to the point where the present moment gets divided by zero in
The Agendas of Mindfulness
The Pali term for meditation is bhavana:
development. It's a
shorthand word for the development of skillful qualities in the
mind. Bhavana is a type of karma the intentional activity
ultimately leading to the end of karma but karma nonetheless. This
point is underlined by another Pali term for meditation:
the work at hand; and by a Thai idiom for
meditation: "to make an effort." These terms are worth keeping in
mind, to counterbalance the common assumption that meditation is an
exercise in inaction or in passive, all-encompassing acceptance.
Actually, as described in the Pali texts, meditation is a very
pro-active process. It has an agenda and works actively to bring it
about. This can be seen in the Pali description of how right
mindfulness is fostered through satipatthana
is often translated as "foundation of mindfulness," which gives the
impression that it refers to an object of meditation. This
impression is reinforced when you see the four satipatthanas listed
as body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities. But if you look at
the texts, you find that they teach satipatthana as a process, a way
of establishing (upatthana) mindfulness (sati): hence
the compound term. When the texts define the compound, they give,
not a list of objects, but four formulas describing an activity.
Here's the first formula:
A meditator remains focused on the body in and of itself
ardent, alert, and mindful putting aside greed and distress with
reference to the world.
Each of the terms in this formula is important. "Remaining
focused" can also be translated as "keeping track." This refers to
the element of concentration in the practice, as you hold to one
particular theme or frame of reference amid the conflicting currents
of experience. "Ardent" refers to the effort you put into the
practice, trying to abandon unskillful states of mind and develop
skillful ones in their stead, all the while trying to discern the
difference between the two. "Alert" means being clearly aware of
what's happening in the present. "Mindful" means being able to
remember or recollect. Sometimes mindfulness is translated as
non-reactive awareness, free from agendas, simply present with
whatever arises, but the formula for satipatthana doesn't support
that translation. Non-reactive awareness is actually part of
equanimity, one of many qualities fostered in the course of
satipatthana, but the ardency involved in satipatthana definitely
has an agenda, a task to be done, while the role of mindfulness is
to keep your task in mind.
The task here is twofold: staying focused on your frame of
reference, and putting aside any greed and distress that would
result from shifting your frame of reference back to the world. This
is the meaning of "the body in and of itself." In other words, you
try to stay with the experience of the body as it's immediately
felt, without referring it to the narratives and views that make up
your sense of the world. You stay away from stories of how you have
related to your body in the past and how you hope to relate to it in
the future. You drop any concern for how your body fits into the
world in terms of its beauty, agility, or strength. You simply tune
into the body on its own terms the direct experience of its
breathing, its movements, its postures, its elementary properties,
and its inevitable decay. In this way you learn how to strip away
your assumptions about what does or doesn't lie behind your
experience of the body, and gain practice in referring everything to
the experience itself.
The same approach applies to the remaining types of satipatthana:
focusing on feelings, on mind states, and on mental qualities in and
of themselves. At first glance, these may look like new and
different meditation exercises, but the Buddha makes clear that they
can all center on a single practice: keeping the breath in mind.
When the mind is with the breath, all four frames of reference are
right there. The difference lies simply in the subtlety of your
focus. So when you've developed your skills with the first, most
blatant type of satipatthana, you don't have to move far to take up
the more subtle ones. Simply stay with the breath and shift your
focus to the feelings and mind states that arise from being mindful
of the breath, and the mental qualities that either get in the way
of your focus or strengthen it. Once you've chosen your frame of
reference, you treat it the same way you've been treating the body:
taking it as your frame of reference in and of itself, without
referring it to stories about yourself or views about the world. You
separate feelings of pleasure, pain, and neither-pleasure-nor-pain
from the stories you normally create around them. You separate
states of greed, anger, and delusion from their focal points in the
world. In this way you can see them for what they are.
Still, though, you have an agenda, based on the desire for
Awakening a desire that the Buddha classed, not as a cause of
suffering, but as part of the path leading to its end. This becomes
clearest in the satipatthana focused on mental qualities in and of
themselves. You acquaint yourself with the unskillful qualities that
obstruct concentration such as sensual desire, ill will, and
restlessness not simply to experience them, but also to understand
them so that you can cut them away. Similarly, you acquaint yourself
with the skillful qualities that foster discernment so that you can
develop them all the way to release.
The texts call these skillful qualities the seven factors of
Awakening and show that satipatthana practice is aimed at developing
them all in order. The first factor is mindfulness. The second is
called "analysis of qualities": the ability to distinguish skillful
from unskillful qualities in the mind, seeing what can be accepted
and what needs to be changed. The third factor is persistence
persistence in abandoning unskillful qualities and fostering
skillful ones in their place. The texts describe a wide variety of
methods to use in this endeavor, but they all come down to two
sorts. In some cases, an unskillful quality will disappear simply
when you watch it steadily. In other cases, you have to make a
concerted effort, actively doing what you can to counteract an
unskillful quality and replace it with a more skillful one.
As skillful qualities take charge within you, you see that while
skillful thinking leads to no harmful actions, long bouts of it can
tire the mind. So you bring your thoughts to stillness, which
develops three more of the factors of Awakening: rapture, serenity,
and concentration. These provide the mind with a foundation of
The final factor is equanimity, and its place in the list is
significant. Its non-reactivity is fully appropriate only when the
more active factors have done what they can. This is true of all the
lists in which equanimity is included. It's never listed on its own,
as sufficient for Awakening; and it always comes last, after the
pro-active factors in the list. This doesn't mean that it supplants
them, simply that it joins in their interaction. Instead of
replacing them, it counterbalances them, enabling you to step back
and see subtle levels of stress and craving that the more pro-active
factors may have obscured. Then it makes room for the pro-active
factors to act on the newly discovered levels. Only when all levels
of stress and craving are gone is the work of both the pro-active
and non-reactive sides of meditation done. That's when the mind can
be truly agenda-free.
It's like learning to play the piano. As you get more pro-active
in playing proficiently, you also become sensitive in listening
non-reactively, to discern ever more subtle levels in the music.
This allows you to play even more skillfully. In the same way, as
you get more skilled in establishing mindfulness on your chosen
frame of reference, you gain greater sensitivity in peeling away
ever more subtle layers of the present moment until nothing is left
standing in the way of total release.
Meditation teaches you the power of your perceptions. You come to
see how the labels you apply to things, the images with which you
visualize things, have a huge influence over what you see, how they
can weigh you down with suffering and stress. As the meditation
develops, though, it gives you the tools you need to gain freedom
from that influence.
In the beginning, when you first notice the
power of perception, you can easily feel overwhelmed by how
pervasive it is. Suppose you're focusing on the breath. There comes
a point when you begin to wonder whether you're focusing on the
breath itself or on your idea of the breath. Once this
question arises, the normal reaction is to try to get around the
idea to the raw sensation behind it. But if you're really sensitive
as you do this, you'll notice that you're simply replacing one
caricature of the breath with another, more subtle one. Even the raw
sensation of breathing is shaped by how you conceptualize raw
sensation. No matter how hard you try to pin down an unfiltered
experience of breathing, you still find it shaped by your idea of
what breathing actually is. The more you pursue the reality of the
breath, the more it recedes like a mirage.
The trick here is to turn this fact to your advantage. After all,
you're not meditating to get to the breath. You're meditating to
understand the processes leading to suffering so that you can put an
end to them. The way you relate to your perceptions is part of these
processes, so that's what you want to see. You have to treat
your experience of the breath, not as an end in itself, but as a
tool for understanding the role of perception in creating suffering
You do this by de-perception: questioning your assumptions about
breathing, deliberately changing those assumptions, and observing
what happens as a result. Now, without the proper context,
de-perception could easily wander off into random abstractions. So
you take the practice of concentration as your context, providing
de-perception both with a general direction and with particular
tasks that force it to bump up against the operative assumptions
that actually shape your experience of the present.
The general direction lies in trying to bring the mind to deeper
and more long-lasting levels of stillness so as to eliminate more
and more subtle levels of stress. You're not trying to prove which
perceptions of the breath depict it most truly, but simply which
ones work best in which situations for eliminating stress. The
objectivity you're looking for is not the objectivity of the breath,
but the objectivity of cause and effect.
The particular tasks that teach you these lessons begin with the
task of trying to get the mind to stay comfortably focused for long
periods of time on the breath and right there you run into two
operative assumptions: What does it mean to breathe? What does it
mean to be focused?
It's common to think of the breath as the air passing in and out
through the nose, and this can be a useful perception to start with.
Use whatever blatant sensations you associate with that perception
as a means of establishing mindfulness, developing alertness, and
getting the mind to grow still. But as your attention gets more
refined, you may find that level of breath becoming too faint to
detect. So try thinking of the breath instead as the energy flow in
the body, as a full body process.
Then make that experience as comfortable as possible. If you feel
any blockage or obstruction in the breathing, see what you can do to
dissolve those feelings. Are you doing anything to create them? If
you can catch yourself creating them, then it's easy to let them
dissolve. And what would make you create them aside from your
preconceived notions of how the mechanics of breathing have to work?
So question those notions: Where does the breath come into the body?
Does it come in only through the nose and mouth? Does the body have
to pull the breath in? If so, which sensations do the pulling? Which
sensations get pulled? Where does the pulling begin? And where is
the breath pulled from? Which parts have the breath, and which ones
don't? When you feel a sensation of blockage, which side of the
sensation are you on?
These questions may sound strange, but many times your pre-verbal
assumptions about the body are strange as well. Only when you
confront them head-on with strange questions can you bring them to
light. And only when you see them clearly can you replace them with
So once you catch yourself breathing uncomfortably in line with a
particular assumption, turn it around to see what sensations the new
assumption highlights. Try staying with those sensations as long as
you can, to test them. If, compared to your earlier sensations
associated with the breath, they're easier to stay with, if they
provide a more solid and spacious grounding for concentration, the
assumption that drew them to your attention is a useful new tool in
your meditation. If the new sensations aren't helpful in that way,
you can throw the new tool aside.
For example, if you have a sense of being on one side of a
blockage, try thinking of being on the other side. Try being on
both. Think of the breath as coming into the body, not through the
nose or mouth, but through the middle of the chest, the back of the
neck, every pore of your skin, any spot that helps reduce the felt
need to push and pull.
Or start questioning the need to push and pull at all. Do you
feel that your immediate experience of the body is of the solid
parts, and that they have to manage the mechanics of breathing,
which is secondary? What happens if you conceive your immediate
experience of the body in a different way, as a field of primary
breath energy, with the solidity simply a label attached to certain
aspects of the breath? Whatever you experience as a primary body
sensation, think of it as already breath, without your having to do
anything more to it. How does that affect the level of stress and
strain in the breathing?
And what about the act of staying focused? How do you conceive
that? Is it behind the breath? Surrounded by breath? To what extent
does your mental picture of focusing help or hinder the ease and
solidity of your concentration? For instance, you may find that you
think of the mind as being in one part of the body and not in
others. What do you do when you focus attention on another part?
Does the mind leave its home base say, in the head to go there,
or does the other part have to be brought into the head? What kind
of tension does this create? What happens if you think of awareness
already being in that other part? What happens when you turn things
around entirely: instead of the mind's being in the body, see what
stress is eliminated when you think of the body as surrounded by a
pre-existing field of awareness.
When you ask questions like this and gain favorable results, the
mind can settle down into deeper and deeper levels of solidity. You
eliminate unnecessary tension and stress in your focus, finding ways
of feeling more and more at home, at ease, in the experience of the
Once the mind is settled down, give it time to stay there. Don't
be in too great a hurry to move on. Here the questions are, "Which
parts of the process were necessary to focus in? Which can now be
let go? Which do you have to hold onto in order to maintain this
focus?" Tuning into the right level of awareness is one process;
staying there is another. When you learn how to maintain your sense
of stillness, try to keep it going in all situations. What do you
discover gets in the way? Is it your own resistance to disturbances?
Can you make your stillness so porous that disturbances can go
through without running into anything, without knocking your center
As you get more and more absorbed in exploring these issues,
concentration becomes less a battle against disturbance and more an
opportunity for inner exploration. And without even thinking about
them, you're developing the four bases of success: the desire to
understand things, the persistence that keeps after your
exploration, the close attention you're paying to cause and effect,
and the ingenuity you're putting into framing the questions you ask.
All these qualities contribute to concentration, help it get
settled, get solid, get clear.
At the same time, they foster discernment. The Buddha once said
that the test for a person's discernment is how he or she frames a
question and tries to answer it. Thus to foster discernment, you
can't simply stick to pre-set directions in your meditation. You
have to give yourself practice in framing questions and testing the
karma of those questions by looking for their results.
Ultimately, when you reach a perception of the breath that allows
the sensations of in-and-out breathing to grow still, you can start
questioning more subtle perceptions of the body. It's like tuning
into a radio station. If your receiver isn't precisely tuned to the
frequency of the signal, the static interferes with the subtleties
of whatever is being transmitted. But when you're precisely tuned,
every nuance comes through. The same with your sensation of the
body: when the movements of the breath grow still, the more subtle
nuances of how perception interacts with physical sensation come to
the fore. The body seems like a mist of atomic sensations, and you
can begin to see how your perceptions interact with that mist. To
what extent is the shape of the body inherent in the mist? To what
extent is it intentional something added? What happens when you
drop the intention to create that shape? Can you focus on the space
between the droplets in the mist? What happens then? Can you stay
there? What happens when you drop the perception of space and focus
on the knowing? Can you stay there? What happens when you drop the
oneness of the knowing? Can you stay there? What happens when you
try to stop labeling anything at all?
As you settle into these more formless states, it's important
that you not lose sight of your purpose in tuning into them. You're
here to understand suffering, not to over-interpret what you
experience. Say, for instance, that you settle into an enveloping
sense of space or consciousness. From there, it's easy to assume
that you've reached the primordial awareness, the ground of being,
from which all things emerge, to which they all return, and which is
essentially untouched by the whole process of emerging and
returning. You might take descriptions of the Unconditioned and
apply them to what you're experiencing. If you're abiding in a state
of neither perception nor non-perception, it's easy to see it as a
non-abiding, devoid of distinctions between perceiver and perceived,
for mental activity is so attenuated as to be virtually
imperceptible. Struck with the apparent effortlessness of the state,
you may feel that you've gone beyond passion, aversion, and delusion
simply by regarding them as unreal. If you latch onto an assumption
like this, you can easily think that you've reached the end of the
path before your work is really done.
Your only protection here is to regard these assumptions as forms
of perception, and to dismantle them as well. And here is where the
four noble truths prove their worth, as tools for dismantling any
assumption by detecting the stress that accompanies it. Ask if
there's still some subtle stress in the concentration that has
become your dwelling place. What goes along with that stress? What
vagrant movements in the mind are creating it? What persistent
movements in the mind are creating it? You have to watch for both.
In this way you come face to face with the perceptions that keep
even the most subtle states of concentration going. And you see that
even they are stressful. If you replace them with other
perceptions, though, you'll simply exchange one type of stress for
another. It's as if your ascending levels of concentration have
brought you to the top of a flag pole. You look down and see aging,
illness, and death coming up the pole, in pursuit. You've exhausted
all the options that perception can offer, so what are you going to
do? You can't just stay where you are. Your only option is to
release your grip. And if you're letting go fully, you let go of
Is a mountain heavy?
It may be heavy in and of itself, but as long
as we don't try to lift it up, it won't be heavy for us.
This is a metaphor that one of my teachers, Ajaan Suwat, often
used when explaining how to stop suffering from the problems of
life. You don't deny their existence the mountains are
heavy and you don't run away from them. As he would further
explain, you deal with problems where you have to and solve them
where you can. You simply learn how not to carry them around. That's
where the art of the practice lies: in living with real problems
without making their reality burden the heart.
As a beginning step in mastering that art, it's useful to look at
the source for Ajaan Suwat's metaphor the Buddha's teachings on
dukkha to get a fuller idea of how far the metaphor extends.
Dukkha is a word notoriously hard to translate into English. In
the Pali canon, it applies both to physical and to mental pain and
dis-ease, ranging from intense anguish to the subtlest sense of
being burdened or confined. The Pali commentaries explain dukkha as
"that which is hard to bear." Ajaan MahaBoowa, a Thai forest master,
translates it as "whatever puts a squeeze on the heart." Although no
single English term covers all of these meanings, the word "stress"
as a strain on body or mind seems as close as English can get to
the Pali term; "suffering" can be used in places where "stress"
seems too mild.
The Buddha focused his teachings on the issue of stress because
he had found a method for transcending it. To understand that
method, we have to see which parts of our experience are marked by
stress. From his perspective, experience falls into two broad
categories: compounded (sankhata) put together from causal
forces and processes and uncompounded (asankhata). All
ordinary experience is compounded. Even such a simple act as looking
at a flower is compounded, in that it depends on the physical
conditions supporting the flower's existence together with all the
complex physical and mental factors involved in the act of seeing.
The only experience that isn't compounded is extraordinary nirvana
for it doesn't depend on causal factors of any kind.
Stress is totally absent from uncompounded experience. Its
relation to compounded experience, though, is more complex. When the
Buddha talked about dukkha in terms of the three common
characteristics inconstancy, stress, and not-self he said that
all compounded experiences are innately stressful. From this point
of view, even flower-gazing is stressful despite the obvious
pleasure it provides, for it relies on a fragile tension among the
combined factors making up the experience.
Thus if we want to go beyond stress we'll have to go beyond
compounded experience. But this presents a problem: what will we use
to reach the uncompounded? We can't use uncompounded experience to
get us there, because by definition it can't play a role in any
causal process. It can't be used as a tool. So we need a way of
using compounded experience to transcend itself.
To meet this need, the Buddha talked about dukkha in another
context: the four noble truths. Here, for strategic purposes, he
divided compounded experience into three truths stress, its cause
(craving), and the way to its cessation (the noble eightfold path).
Uncompounded experience he left as the remaining truth: the
cessation of stress. In defining the first truth he said that
compounded experiences were stressful only when accompanied by
clinging. In this sense, flower-gazing isn't stressful unless we
cling to the experience and try to base our happiness on it.
So it's obvious that in these two contexts the Buddha is speaking
of dukkha in two different senses. Ajaan Suwat's mountain metaphor
helps to explain how they are related. The heaviness of the mountain
stands for dukkha as a common characteristic: the stress inherent in
all compounded experiences. The fact that the mountain is heavy only
for those who try to lift it stands for dukkha as a noble truth: the
stress that comes only with clinging the clinging that turns
physical pain into mental pain, and turns aging, illness, and death
into mental distress.
The Buddha taught dukkha as a common characteristic to make us
reflect on the things we cling to: are they really worth holding
onto? If not, why keep holding on? If life offered no pleasures
better than those we already get from clinging, the Buddha's
insistence on the stress in things like flower-gazing might seem
churlish and negative. But his purpose in getting us to reflect on
the flip side of ordinary pleasures is to open our hearts to
something very positive: the higher form of happiness, totally
devoid of suffering and stress, that comes only with total letting
go. So he also taught dukkha as a noble truth in order to focus our
attention on where the real problem lies: not in the stressfulness
of experiences, but in our ignorance in thinking we have to cling to
them. And it's a good thing, too, that this is where the issue lies.
As long as there are mountains, there's not much we can do about
their inherent weight, but we can learn to break our habit of
lifting them up and carrying them around. We can learn to stop
clinging. That will put an end to our sufferings.
To understand how to let go effectively, it's helpful to look at
the Pali word for clinging upadana for it has a second
meaning as well: the act of taking sustenance, as when a plant takes
sustenance from the soil, or a fire from its fuel. This second
meaning for upadana applies to the mind as well. When the mind
clings to an object, it's feeding on that object. It's trying to
gain nourishment from sensory pleasures, possessions, relationships,
recognition, status, whatever, to make up for the gnawing sense of
emptiness it feels inside. Unfortunately, this mental nourishment is
temporary at best, so we keep hungering for more. Yet no matter how
much the mind may try to possess and control its food sources to
guarantee a constant supply, they inevitably break down. The mind is
then burdened with searching for new places to feed.
So the issue of stress comes down to the feeding habits of the
mind. If the mind didn't have to feed, it wouldn't suffer. At the
same time, it would no longer create hardships for the people and
things it consumes through possession and control as food. If we
want to end suffering for ourselves and at the same time relieve the
hardships of others, we thus have to strengthen the mind to the
point where it doesn't have to feed, and then sharpen its
discernment so that it doesn't want to feed. When it neither
needs nor wants to feed, it will let go without our having to tell
The practice to end dukkha would be quick and easy if we could
simply go straight for the discernment that puts an end to clinging.
The feeding analogy, though, helps to explain why simply seeing the
drawbacks of clinging isn't enough to make us let go. If we're not
strong enough to go without sustenance, the mind will keep finding
new ways to feed and cling. So we first have to learn healthy
feeding habits that will strengthen the mind. Only then will it be
in a position where it no longer needs to feed.
How does the mind feed and cling? The Pali canon lists four ways:
(1) clinging to sensual passion for sights, sounds, smells,
tastes, and tactile sensations;
(2) clinging to views about the world and the narratives of our
(3) clinging to precepts and practices i.e., fixed ways of doing
(4) clinging to doctrines of the self i.e., ideas of whether or
not we have a true identity, or of what that identity might be.
There's rarely a moment when the ordinary mind isn't clinging in
at least one of these ways. Even when we abandon one form of
clinging, it's usually in favor of another. We may abandon a
puritanical view because it interferes with sensual pleasure; or a
sensual pleasure because it conflicts with a view about what we
should do to stay healthy and fit. Our view of who we are may vary
depending on which of our many senses of "I" is most pained,
expanding into a sense of cosmic oneness when we feel confined by
our small mind-body complex; and contracting into a small shell when
we feel wounded from identifying with a cosmos so filled with
cruelty and waste. When the insignificance of our finite self
becomes oppressive again, we may jump at the idea that we have no
self, but then that becomes oppressive.
So our minds jump from clinging to clinging like a bird trapped
in a cage. When we realize we're captive, we naturally search for a
way out, but everywhere we turn seems to be another side of the
cage. We may begin to wonder whether there is a way out, or
whether talk of full release is simply an old archetypal ideal that
has nothing to do with human reality. But the Buddha was a great
strategist: he realized that one of the walls of the cage is
actually a door, and that if we grasp it skillfully, it'll swing
In other words, he found that the way to go beyond clinging is to
turn our four ways of clinging into the path to their own
abandoning. We'll need a certain amount of sensory pleasure in
terms of adequate food, clothing, and shelter to find the strength
to go beyond sensual passion. We'll need right view seeing all
things, including views, in terms of the four noble truths to
undermine our clinging to views. And we'll need a regimen of the
five ethical precepts and the practice of meditation to put the mind
in a solid position where it can drop its clinging to precepts and
practices. Underlying all this, we'll need a healthy sense of
self-love, self-responsibility, and self-discipline to master the
practices leading to the insight that cuts through our clinging to
doctrines of the self.
So we start the path to the end of suffering, not by trying to
drop our clingings immediately, but by learning to cling more
strategically. In terms of the feeding analogy, we don't try to
starve the mind. We simply change its diet, weaning it away from
junk food in favor of health food, developing inner qualities that
will make it so strong that it won't need to feed ever again.
The canon lists these qualities as five:
conviction in the principle of karma that our happiness
depends on our own actions;
persistence in abandoning unskillful qualities and developing
skillful ones in their stead;
Of these, concentration at the level of jhana, or
intense absorption is the strength that the Buddhist tradition
most often compares to good, healthy food. A discourse in the
Anguttara Nikaya (VII.63) compares the four levels of jhana to the
provisions used to stock a frontier fortress. Ajaan Lee, one of the
Thai forest masters, compares them to the provisions needed on a
journey through a lonely, desolate forest. Or as Dhammapada 200 says
about the rapture of jhana,
How very happily we live,
we who have nothing.
We will feed on rapture
like the Radiant gods.
As for discernment: When the mind is strengthened with the food
of good concentration, it can begin contemplating the drawbacks of
having to feed. This is the part of the Buddha's teaching that for
many of us goes most directly against the grain, because feeding,
in every sense of the word, is our primary way of relating to and
enjoying the world around us. Our most cherished sense of
inter-connectedness with the world what some people call our
interbeing is, at its most basic level, inter-eating. We feed on
others, and they feed on us. Sometimes our relationships are
mutually nourishing, sometimes not, but either way it's hard to
imagine any lasting relationship where some kind of physical or
mental nourishment wasn't being consumed. At the same time, feeding
is the activity in which we experience the most intimate sense of
ourselves. We define ourselves through the pleasures, people, ideas,
and activities we keep returning to for nourishment.
So it's hard for us to imagine a world, any possibility of
enjoyment even our very self where we wouldn't inter-eat. Our
common resistance to the idea of no longer feeding one of the
Buddha's most radically uncommon teachings comes largely from a
failure of the imagination. We can hardly conceive of what he's
trying to tell us. So he has to prescribe some strong medicine to
jog our minds into new perspectives.
This is where his teachings on dukkha, or stress, come into play.
When the mind is strong and well fed, it can begin to look
objectively at the stress involved in having to feed. The teachings
on dukkha as a common characteristic focus on the drawbacks of what
the mind takes for food. Sometimes it latches onto out-and-out
suffering. It clings to the body even when racked with pain. It
clings to its preferences and relationships even when these bring
anguish, grief, and despair. Sometimes the mind latches onto
pleasures and joys, but pleasures and joys turn stressful when they
deteriorate and change. In any event, everything the mind
latches onto is by its very nature compounded, and there's always at
least a subtle level of stress inherent in keeping the compound
going. This applies not only to gross, external conditions, but even
to the most subtle levels of concentration in the mind.
When we see stress as a characteristic common to all the things
we latch onto, it helps dispel their allure. Pleasures begin to ring
hollow and false. Even our sufferings which we can often glamorize
with a perverse pride begin to seem banal when reduced to their
common characteristic of stress. This helps cut them down to size.
Of course, some people object to the idea of contemplating the
dukkha inherent in the mind's food, on the grounds that this
contemplation doesn't do justice to the many joys and satisfactions
in life. The Buddha, however, never denies the existence of
pleasure. He simply points out that if you focus on the allure of
your food, you'll never be able to outgrow your eating addictions.
It would be like asking an alcoholic to muse on the subtle good
flavors of scotch and wine.
Dukkha is inherent not only in the things on which we feed, but
also in the very act of feeding. This is the focal point for the
Buddha's teaching on dukkha as a noble truth. If we have to feed,
we're a slave to our appetites. And can we trust ourselves to behave
in honorable ways when the demands of these slave drivers aren't
met? Inter-eating is not always a pretty thing. At the same time, as
long as we need to feed we're prey to any uncertainties in our food
sources, at the mercy of any people or forces with power over them.
If we can't do without them, we're chained to them. The mind isn't
free to go places where there isn't any food. And, as the Buddha
guarantees, those are precisely the places beyond our ordinary
mental horizons where the greatest happiness lies.
The purpose of these two contemplations on the stress inherent
both in the mind's food and in the way it feeds is to sensitize us
to limitations that we otherwise accept, sometimes blithely, always
blindly, without thought. Once the realization finally hits home
that they're not worth the price they entail, we lose all
infatuation with our desire to feed. And, unlike the body, the mind
can reach a level of strength where it no longer needs to cling or
take in sustenance, even from the path of practice. When it becomes
strong enough in conviction, persistence, mindfulness,
concentration, and discernment, it can open to a dimension the
deathless where there is neither feeding nor being fed upon. That
puts an end to the "feeder," and there's no more suffering with
regard to food. In other words, once we've fully penetrated the
deathless, dukkha as a common characteristic is no longer an issue;
dukkha as a noble truth no longer exists.
This is where you discover something unexpected: the mountains
you've been trying to lift are all a by-product of your feeding.
When you stop feeding, no new mountains are formed. Although there
may still be some past-karma mountains remaining around you, they'll
eventually wear away and no new ones will take their place. In the
meantime, their weight is no longer a problem. Once you've finally
stopped trying to lift them up, there's nothing to hold you down.
The Buddha's Awakening gave him, among other things, a new
perspective on the uses and limitations of words. He had discovered a
reality the Deathless that no words could describe. At the same
time, he discovered that the path to Awakening could be
described, although it involved a new way of seeing and
conceptualizing the problem of suffering and stress. Because ordinary
concepts were often poor tools for teaching the path, he had to invent
new concepts and to stretch pre-existing words to encompass those
concepts so that others could taste Awakening themselves.
One of the new concepts most central to his teaching was that of
the khandhas, which are most frequently translated into English
as "aggregates." Prior to the Buddha, the Pali word khandha had
very ordinary meanings: A khandha could be a pile, a bundle, a heap, a
mass. It could also be the trunk of a tree. In his first sermon,
though, the Buddha gave it a new, psychological meaning, introducing
the term "clinging-khandhas" to summarize his analysis of the truth of
stress and suffering. Throughout the remainder of his teaching career,
he referred to these psychological khandhas time and again. Their
importance in his teachings has thus been obvious to every generation
of Buddhists ever since. Less obvious, though, has been the issue of
how they are important: How should a meditator make use of the
concept of the psychological khandhas? What questions are they meant
The most common response to these questions is best exemplified by
two recent scholarly books devoted to the subject. Both treat the
khandhas as the Buddha's answer to the question, "What is a person?"
To quote from the jacket of the first:
"If Buddhism denies a permanent self, how does it perceive
identity?... What we conventionally call a 'person' can be
understood in terms of five aggregates, the sum of which must not be
taken for a permanent entity, since beings are nothing but an
amalgam of ever-changing phenomena... [W]ithout a thorough
understanding of the five aggregates, we cannot grasp the liberation
process at work within the individual, who is, after all, simply an
amalgam of the five aggregates."
From the introduction of the other:
"The third key teaching is given by the Buddha in contexts when
he is asked about individual identity: when people want to know
'what am I?' 'what is my real self?' The Buddha says that
individuality should be understood in terms of a combination of
phenomena which appear to form the physical and mental continuum of
an individual life. In such contexts, the human being is analysed
into five constituents the paρcakkhandha [five
This understanding of the khandhas isn't confined to scholars.
Almost any modern Buddhist meditation teacher would explain the
khandhas in a similar way. And it isn't a modern innovation. It was
first proposed at the beginning of the common era in the commentaries
to the early Buddhist canons both the Theravadin and the
Sarvastivadin, which formed the basis for Mahayana scholasticism.
However, once the commentaries used the khandhas to define what a
person is, they spawned many of the controversies that have plagued
Buddhist thinking ever since: "If a person is just khandhas, then what
gets reborn?" "If a person is just khandhas, and the khandhas are
annihilated on reaching total nibbana, then isn't total nibbana the
annihilation of the person?" "If a person is khandhas, and khandhas
are interrelated with other khandhas, how can one person enter nibbana
without dragging everyone else along?"
A large part of the history of Buddhist thought has been the story
of ingenious but unsuccessful attempts to settle these questions. It's
instructive to note, though, that the Pali canon never quotes the
Buddha as trying to answer them. In fact, it never quotes him as
trying to define what a person is at all. Instead, it quotes him as
saying that to define yourself in any way is to limit yourself, and
that the question, "What am I?" is best ignored. This suggests that he
formulated the concept of the khandhas to answer other, different
questions. If, as meditators, we want to make the best use of this
concept, we should look at what those original questions were, and
determine how they apply to our practice.
The canon depicts the Buddha as saying that he taught only two
topics: suffering and the end of suffering (SN
22.86). A survey of the Pali discourses shows him using the
concept of the khandhas to answer the primary questions related to
those topics: What is suffering? How is it caused? What can be done to
bring those causes to an end?
The Buddha introduced the concept of the khandhas in his first
sermon in response to the first of these questions. His short
definition of suffering was "the five clinging-khandhas." This fairly
cryptic phrase can be fleshed out by drawing on other passages in the
The five khandhas are bundles or piles of form, feeling,
perception, fabrications, and consciousness. None of the texts explain
why the Buddha used the word khandha to describe these things. The
meaning of "tree trunk" may be relevant to the pervasive fire imagery
in the canon nibbana being extinguishing of the fires of passion,
aversion, and delusion but none of the texts explicitly make this
connection. The common and explicit image is of the khandhas as
22.22). We can think of them as piles of bricks we carry on our
shoulders. However, these piles are best understood, not as objects,
but as activities, for an important passage (SN
22.79) defines them in terms of their functions. Form which
covers physical phenomena of all sorts, both within and without the
body wears down or "de-forms." Feeling feels pleasure, pain, and
neither pleasure nor pain. Perception labels or identifies objects.
Consciousness cognizes the six senses (counting the intellect as the
sixth) along with their objects. Of the five khandhas, fabrication is
the most complex. Passages in the canon define it as intention, but it
includes a wide variety of activities, such as attention, evaluation,
and all the active processes of the mind. It is also the most
fundamental khandha, for its intentional activity underlies the
experience of form, feeling, etc. in the present moment.
Thus intention is an integral part of our experience of all the
khandhas an important point, for this means that there is an element
of intention in all suffering. This opens the possibility that
suffering can be ended by changing our intentions or abandoning them
entirely which is precisely the point of the Buddha's teachings.
To understand how this happens, we have to look more closely at how
suffering arises or, in other words, how khandhas become clinging-khandhas.
When khandhas are experienced, the process of fabrication normally
doesn't simply stop there. If attention focuses on the khandhas'
attractive features beautiful forms, pleasant feelings, etc. it
can give rise to passion and delight. This passion and delight can
take many forms, but the most tenacious is the habitual act of
fabricating a sense of me or mine, identifying with a particular
khandha (or set of khandhas) or claiming possession of it.
This sense of me and mine is rarely static. It roams like an
amoeba, changing its contours as it changes location. Sometimes
expansive, sometimes contracted, it can view itself as identical with
a khandha, as possessing a khandha, as existing within a khandha, or
as having a khandha existing within itself (see
SN 22.85). At times feeling finite, at other times infinite,
whatever shape it takes it's always unstable and insecure, for the
khandhas providing its food are simply activities and functions,
inconstant and insubstantial. In the words of the canon, the khandhas
are like foam, like a mirage, like the bubbles formed when rain falls
on water (SN
22.95). They're heavy only because the iron grip of trying to
cling to them is burdensome. As long as we're addicted to passion and
delight for these activities as long as we cling to them we're
bound to suffer.
The Buddhist approach to ending this clinging, however, is not
simply to drop it. As with any addiction, the mind has to be gradually
weaned away. Before we can reach the point of no intention, where
we're totally freed from the fabrication of khandhas, we have to
change our intentions toward the khandhas so as to change their
functions. Instead of using them for the purpose of constructing a
self, we use them for the purpose of creating a path to the end of
suffering. Instead of carrying piles of bricks on our shoulders, we
take them off and lay them along the ground as pavement.
The first step in this process is to use the khandhas to construct
the factors of the noble eightfold path. For example, Right
Concentration: we maintain a steady perception focused on an aspect of
form, such as the breath, and used directed thought and evaluation
which count as fabrications to create feelings of pleasure and
refreshment, which we spread through the body. In the beginning, it's
normal that we experience passion and delight for these feelings, and
that consciousness follows along in line with them. This helps get us
absorbed in mastering the skills of concentration.
Once we've gained the sense of strength and wellbeing that comes
from mastering these skills, we can proceed to the second step:
attending to the drawbacks of even the refined khandhas we experience
in concentration, so as to undercut the passion and delight we might
feel for them:
"Suppose that an archer or archer's apprentice were to practice on a
straw man or mound of clay, so that after a while he would become
able to shoot long distances, to fire accurate shots in rapid
succession, and to pierce great masses. In the same way, there is
the case where a monk... enters & remains in the first jhana:
rapture & pleasure born of withdrawal, accompanied by directed
thought & evaluation. He regards whatever phenomena there that are
connected with form, feeling, perceptions, fabrications, &
consciousness, as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an
arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a disintegration, a void,
not-self. [Similarly with the other levels of jhana]"
The various ways of fostering dispassion are also khandhas,
khandhas of perception. A standard list includes the following: the
perception of inconstancy, the perception of not-self, the perception
of unattractiveness, the perception of drawbacks (the diseases to
which the body is subject), the perception of abandoning, the
perception of distaste for every world, the perception of the
undesirability of all fabrications (AN X.60). One of the most
important of these perceptions is that of not-self. When the Buddha
first introduced the concept of not-self in his second sermon (SN
22.59), he also introduced a way of strengthening its impact with
a series of questions based around the khandhas. Taking each khandha
in turn, he asked: "Is it constant or inconstant?" Inconstant. "And is
what is inconstant stressful or pleasurable?" Stressful. "And is it
fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as:
'This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am'?" No.
These questions show the complex role the khandhas play in this
second step of the path. The questions themselves are khandhas of
fabrication and they use the concept of the khandhas to deconstruct
any passion and delight that might center on the khandhas and create
suffering. Thus, in this step, we use khandhas that point out the
drawbacks of the khandhas.
If used unskillfully, though, these perceptions and fabrications
can simply replace passion with its mirror image, aversion. This is
why they have to be based on the first step the wellbeing
constructed in jhana and coupled with the third step, the
perceptions of dispassion and cessation that incline the mind to the
deathless: "This is peace, this is exquisite the resolution of all
fabrications; the relinquishment of all acquisitions; the ending of
craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding" (AN IX.76). In effect,
these are perception-khandhas that point the mind beyond all khandhas.
The texts say that this three-step process can lead to one of two
results. If, after undercutting passion and delight for the khandhas,
the mind contains any residual passion for the perception of the
deathless, it will attain the third level of Awakening, called
non-return. If passion and delight are entirely eradicated, though,
all clinging is entirely abandoned, the intentions that fabricate
khandhas are dropped, and the mind totally released. The bricks of the
pavement have turned into a runway, and the mind has taken off.
Into what? The authors of the discourses seem unwilling to say,
even to the extent of describing it as a state of existence,
non-existence, neither, or both. As one of the discourses states, the
freedom lying beyond the khandhas also lies beyond the realm to which
language properly applies (DN
15; see also
AN IV.174). There is also the very real practical problem that any
preconceived notions of that freedom, if clung to as a perception-khandha,
could easily act as an obstacle to its attainment. Still, there is
also the possibility that, if properly used, such a perception-khandha
might act as an aid on the path. So the discourses provide hints in
the form of similes, referring to total freedom as:
The unfashioned, the end,
the effluent-less, the true, the beyond,
the subtle, the very-hard-to-see,
the ageless, permanence, the undecaying,
the featureless, non-elaboration,
peace, the deathless,
the exquisite, bliss, solace,
the exhaustion of craving,
the wonderful, the marvelous,
the secure, security,
the unafflicted, the passionless, the pure,
the island, shelter, harbor, refuge,
Other passages mention a consciousness in this freedom "without
feature or surface, without end, luminous all around" lying outside
of time and space, experienced when the six sense spheres stop
functioning (MN 49). In this it differs from the consciousness-khandha,
which depends on the six sense spheres and can be described in such
terms as near or far, past, present, or future. Consciousness without
feature is thus the awareness of Awakening. And the freedom of this
awareness carries over even when the awakened person returns to
ordinary consciousness. As the Buddha said of himself:
"Freed, dissociated, & released from form, the Tathagata dwells with
unrestricted awareness. Freed, dissociated, & released from
feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness... birth...
aging... death... suffering & stress... defilement, the Tathagata
dwells with unrestricted awareness."
This shows again the importance of bringing the right questions to
the teachings on the khandhas. If you use them to define what you are
as a person, you tie yourself down to no purpose. The questions keep
piling on. But if you use them to put an end to suffering, your
questions fall away and you're free. You never again cling to the
khandhas and no longer need to use them to end your self-created
suffering. As long as you're still alive, you can employ the khandhas
as needed for whatever skillful uses you see fit. After that, you're
liberated from all uses and needs, including the need to find words to
describe that freedom to yourself or to anyone else.
Authenticity of the Pali Suttas
The Theravada tradition, dominant in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and
Thailand, regards the Pali suttas as the authentic and authoritative
record of the Buddha's own words. When Western scholars piqued by
issues of authority and authenticity first learned of these claims
in the 19th century, they began employing the historical method to
test them. And although every conceivable scrap of literary or
archeological evidence seems to have been examined, no air-tight
historical proof or disproof of these claims has surfaced. What has
surfaced is a mass of minor facts and probabilities showing that the
Pali canon is probably the closest detailed record we have of
the Buddha's teachings but nothing more certain than that.
Archeological evidence shows that Pali was probably not the Buddha's
native language, but is this proof that he didn't use Pali when
talking to native speakers of that language? The canon contains
grammatical irregularities, but are these signs of an early stage in
the language, before it was standardized, or a later stage of
degeneration? And in which stage of the language's development did the
Buddha's life fall? Fragments of other early Buddhist canons have been
found, with slight deviations from the Pali canon in their wording,
but not in their basic doctrines. Is their unanimity in doctrine a
sign that they all come from the Buddha himself, or was it the product
of a later conspiracy to remake and standardize the doctrine in line
with changed beliefs and tastes? Scholars have proven eager to take
sides on these issues, but the inevitable use of inference,
conjecture, and probabilities in their arguments lends an air of
uncertainty to the whole process.
Many have seen this uncertainty as sign of the inadequacy of the
Theravadin claims to authenticity. But simply to dismiss the teachings
of the suttas for this reason would be to deprive ourselves of the
opportunity to test their most remarkable assertion: that human
effort, properly directed, can put an end to all suffering and stress.
Perhaps we should instead question the methods of the historians, and
view the uncertainty of their conclusions as a sign of the inadequacy
of the historical method as a tool for ascertaining the Dhamma. The
suttas themselves make this point in their own recommendations for how
the authenticity and authority of the Dhamma is best ascertained. In a
famous passage, they quote the Buddha as saying:
"Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by
scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by
agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the
thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for
yourselves that, 'These dhammas are unskillful; these dhammas are
blameworthy; these dhammas are criticized by the wise; these
dhammas, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to
suffering' then you should abandon them... When you know for
yourselves that, 'These dhammas are skillful; these dhammas are
blameless; these dhammas are praised by the wise; these dhammas,
when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness'
then you should enter and remain in them."
Because this passage is contained in a religious scripture, the
statements attracting the most attention have been those rejecting the
authority of religious teachers, legends, traditions, and scripture;
along with those insisting on the importance of knowing for oneself.
These remarkably anti-dogmatic statements sometimes termed the
Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry have tended to divert attention
from the severe strictures that the passage places on what "knowing
for oneself" entails. In questioning the authority of reports, it
dismisses the basic material on which the historical method is based.
In questioning the authority of inference and probability, it
dismisses some of the method's basic techniques. In questioning the
authority of logical conjecture, analogies, and agreement through
pondering views, it dismisses the methods of free-thinking rationalism
This leaves only two methods for ascertaining the Dhamma, both of
them related to the question raised in this passage and central to
other teachings in the canon: What is skillful, what is unskillful? In
developing any skill, you must (1) pay attention to the results of
your own actions; and (2) listen to those who have already mastered
the skill. Similarly, in ascertaining the Dhamma, you must (1) examine
the results that come for putting a particular teaching in practice;
and (2) check those results against the opinions of the wise.
Two aspects of the Dhamma, however, make it a skill apart. The
first is reflected in the fact that the word Dhamma means not only
teaching, but also quality of the mind. Thus the above passage could
also be translated:
"When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are unskillful;
these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by
the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to
harm and to suffering' then you should abandon them... When you
know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these
qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise;
these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and
to happiness' then you should enter and remain in them."
In fact, this is more likely the correct translation, as the
discussion following this passage focuses on the results of acting on
qualities of the mind: greed, aversion, and delusion in the unskillful
set; and lack of greed, lack of aversion, and lack of delusion in the
skillful one. This points to the fact that Dhamma practice is
primarily a skill of the mind.
The second aspect that sets the Dhamma apart as a skill is its
goal: nothing less than the total ending of suffering.
While this second aspect of the Dhamma makes it an attractive skill
to master, the first aspect makes it hard to determine who has
mastered the skill and is thus qualified to speak about it with
authority. After all, we can't look into the minds of others to see
what qualities are there and what the internal results of the practice
are. At best, we can detect hints of these things in their actions,
but nothing more. Thus, if we look to others for the last word on the
Dhamma, we will always be in a position of uncertainty. The only way
to overcome uncertainty is to practice the Dhamma to see if it brings
about an end to suffering within our own minds.
Traditionally, the texts state that uncertainty about the Dhamma
ends only with the attainment of stream-entry, the first of the four
levels of Awakening. Even though a person who has reached this level
of Awakening isn't totally immersed in the ending of suffering, he or
she has seen enough of the end of suffering to know without a doubt
that that's where the practice of the Dhamma leads. So it's not
surprising that the four factors the suttas identify as bringing about
stream-entry are also the four methods they recommend for ascertaining
whether they themselves are a truly authoritative and authentic guide
to the end of suffering.
Those factors, listed in SN 55.5, are:
- association with people of integrity,
- listening to the true Dhamma,
- appropriate attention, and
- practice in accordance with the Dhamma.
Passages from the suttas dealing with each of these factors help
show how the two sources of skill the counsel of the wise and the
lessons learned by observing the results of your own actions can be
properly balanced and integrated so as to ascertain what the true
Dhamma is. And because listening to the true Dhamma now includes
reading the true Dhamma, a knowledge of these factors and their
interrelationships gives guidance in how to read the suttas. In
particular, these factors show how the suttas themselves say they
should be read, and what other actions provide the skillful context
for getting the most benefit from reading them.
As you explore the explanations of these factors, you find that
their presentation as a short list is deceptively simple, inasmuch as
each factor contains elements of the other factors as well. For
instance, associating with people of integrity is of great help in
practicing the Dhamma, but for a person to recognize people of genuine
integrity requires that he or she have some prior experience in
practicing the Dhamma. Thus, although the form of the list suggests a
simple linear progression, the individual factors of the list are
interrelated in complex ways. What this means in practice is that the
process of ascertaining the Dhamma is a complex one, requiring
sensitivity and discernment in balancing and integrating the factors
in an appropriate way.
Association with people of integrity.
Because the Dhamma consists primarily of qualities of the mind, any
written account of the Dhamma is only a pale shadow of the real thing.
Thus, to gain a sense of the Dhamma's full dimensions, you must find
people who embody the Dhamma in their thoughts, words, and deeds, and
associate with them in a way that enables you to absorb as much of the
Dhamma as possible. The passages explaining this factor thus offer
advice in two areas: how to recognize people of integrity and how best
to associate with them once you have found them.
The immediate sign of integrity is gratitude.
"A person of integrity is grateful and acknowledges the help given
to him. This gratitude, this acknowledgment is second nature among
admirable people. It is entirely on the level of people of
Gratitude is a necessary sign of integrity in that people who do
not recognize and value the goodness and integrity in others are
unlikely to make the effort to develop integrity within themselves. On
its own, though, gratitude doesn't constitute integrity. The essence
of integrity lies in three qualities: truth, harmlessness, and
"There is the case where a monk lives in dependence on a certain
village or town. Then a householder or householder's son goes to him
and observes him with regard to three mental qualities qualities
based on greed, qualities based on aversion, qualities based on
delusion: 'Are there in this venerable one any such qualities based
on greed... aversion... delusion that, with his mind overcome by
these qualities, he might say, "I know," while not knowing, or say,
"I see," while not seeing; or that he might urge another to act in a
way that was for his/her long-term harm and pain?' As he observes
him, he comes to know, 'There are in this venerable one no such
qualities... His bodily and verbal behavior are those of one not
greedy... aversive... deluded. And the Dhamma he teaches is deep,
hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of
conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise."
As this passage shows, knowledge of a person's truthfulness
requires that you be so observant of his or her behavior that you can
confidently infer the quality of his or her mind. This level of
confidence, in turn, requires that you not only be observant, but also
discerning and willing to take time, for as another passage points
out, the appearance of spiritual integrity is easy to fake.
Then King Pasenadi Kosala went to the Blessed One and, on arrival,
having bowed down to him, sat to one side. Then seven coiled-hair
ascetics, seven Jain ascetics, seven naked ascetics, seven one-cloth
ascetics, and seven wanderers their nails grown long, their
body-hair grown long walked past not far from the Blessed One...
On seeing them, King Pasenadi arranged his upper robe over one
shoulder, knelt down with his right knee on the ground, saluted the
ascetics with his hands before his heart, and announced his name to
them three times: "I am the king, venerable sirs, Pasenadi Kosala. I
am the king, venerable sirs, Pasenadi Kosala. I am the king,
venerable sirs, Pasenadi Kosala." Then not long after the ascetics
had passed, he returned to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having
bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said
to the Blessed One, "Of those in the world who are arahants or on
the path to arahantship, are these among them?"
"Your majesty, as
a layman enjoying sensual pleasures, living crowded with wives and
children, using Kasi fabrics and sandalwood, wearing garlands,
scents, and creams, handling gold and silver: it is hard for you to
know whether these are arahants or on the path to arahantship.
 "It's through living together that a person's virtue may be
known, and then only after a long period, not a short period; by one
who is attentive, not by one who is inattentive; by one who is
discerning, not by one who isn't discerning.
 "It's through trading with a person that his purity may be
 "It's through adversity that a person's endurance may be
 "It's through discussion that a person's discernment may be
known, and then only after a long period, not a short period; by one
who is attentive, not by one who is inattentive; by one who is
discerning, not by one who isn't discerning."
"How amazing, lord! How awesome! How well that was put by the
Blessed One!... These men, lord, are my spies, my scouts, returning
after going out through the countryside. They go out first, and then
I go. Now, when they have scrubbed off the dirt and mud, are
well-bathed and well-perfumed, have trimmed their hair and beards,
and have put on white clothes, they will go about endowed and
provided with the five strings of sensuality."
AN IV.192 expands on these points, indicating that the ability to
recognize a person of integrity requires you to have a strong sense of
integrity yourself. In fact,
MN 110 insists that you must be a person of integrity in
your actions, views, and friendships if you are to recognize integrity
Listening to the True Dhamma.
Once you've determined to the best of your ability that certain
people embody integrity, the suttas advise listening to their Dhamma,
both to learn about them to further test their integrity
and to learn from them, to gain a sense of what the Dhamma
might be. And again, the suttas recommend both how to listen to the
Dhamma and how to recognize true Dhamma when you hear it.
MN 95 advises that you spend time near people of integrity,
develop a sense of respect for them, and pay close attention to their
SN 6.2 and
AN VIII.2 explain the purpose for respect here: it's a
prerequisite for learning. Neither passage elaborates on this point,
but its truth is fairly obvious. You find it easier to learn from
someone you respect than from someone you don't. Respect opens your
mind and loosens your preconceived opinions to make room for new
knowledge and skills. At the same time, a person with a valuable
teaching to offer will feel more inclined to teach it to someone who
shows respect than to someone who doesn't. However, respect doesn't
necessarily mean giving your full approval to the teaching. After all,
part of the purpose in listening to the Dhamma is to test whether the
person teaching it has integrity in his views or hers. Full approval
can come only when you've put the teaching in practice and tasted its
results. This is why the Vinaya, the monastic discipline, never
requires that a student take vows of obedience to a teacher. Here
respect means, in the words of
Sn II.9, a lack of stubbornness. Or, in the words of
AN VI.88, "the patience to comply with the teaching": the
willingness to listen with an open mind and to take the time and
effort needed to give any teachings that seem reasonable a serious
The reasonability of the teaching can be gauged by the central
principle in views of integrity as explained above in
MN 110. That principle is conviction in kamma, the efficacy
of human action: that people are responsible for their actions, that
their intentions determine the quality the skillfulness or
unskillfulness of their actions, that actions give results, and that
the quality of the action determines the quality of the result. A
person who doesn't believe in these principles cannot be trusted.
Because the distinction between skillfulness and unskillfulness is
central to the principle of kamma and also to the project of putting
an end to suffering and stress
MN 135 recommends approaching potential teachers and asking them:
"What is skillful? What is unskillful? What is blameworthy? What is
blameless? What should be cultivated? What should not be cultivated?
What, having been done by me, will be for my long-term harm and
suffering? Or what, having been done by me, will be for my long-term
welfare and happiness?"
The texts give a few examples of what might be called the lowest
common denominator for judging whether answers to this question embody
integrity. In essence, these teachings constitute "what works" in
eliminating blatant levels of suffering and stress in one's life.
"Now what is unskillful? Taking life is unskillful, taking what is
not given... sexual misconduct... lying... abusive speech...
divisive tale-bearing... idle chatter is unskillful. Covetousness...
ill will... wrong views are unskillful. These things are termed
"And what are the roots of unskillful things? Greed is
a root of unskillful things, aversion is a root of unskillful
things, delusion is a root of unskillful things. These are termed
the roots of unskillful things.
"And what is skillful? Abstaining from taking life is skillful,
abstaining from taking what is not given... from sexual
misconduct... from lying... from abusive speech... from divisive
tale-bearing... abstaining from idle chatter is skillful. Lack of
covetousness... lack of ill will... right views are skillful. These
things are termed skillful.
"And what are the roots of skillful things? Lack of greed is a
root of skillful things, lack of aversion is a root of skillful
things, lack of delusion is a root of skillful things. These are
termed the roots of skillful things."
"These three things have been promulgated by wise people, by people
who are truly good. Which three? Generosity... going-forth [from the
home life]... and service to one's mother and father. These three
things have been promulgated by wise people, by people who are truly
However, the true Dhamma has a dimension that goes far beyond the
lowest common denominator. To repeat the words of
MN 95, it is "deep, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil,
refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by
the wise." The principle of skillfulness of cause and effect that
can be tested in your own actions still applies in this dimension,
but the standards for "what works" on this level are correspondingly
subtler and more refined. Two famous passages indicate what these
"Gotami, the dhammas of which you may know, 'These dhammas lead to
passion, not to dispassion; to being fettered, not to being
unfettered; to accumulating, not to shedding; to
self-aggrandizement, not to modesty; to discontent, not to
contentment; to entanglement, not to seclusion; to laziness, not to
aroused persistence; to being burdensome, not to being unburdensome':
You may definitely hold, 'This is not the Dhamma, this is not the
Vinaya, this is not the Teacher's instruction.'
"As for the
dhammas of which you may know, 'These dhammas lead to dispassion,
not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to
shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to
self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to
seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to
laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome': You may
definitely hold, 'This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is
the Teacher's instruction.'"
"Upali, the dhammas of which you may know, 'These dhammas do not
lead to utter disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm,
to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, nor to Unbinding': You may
definitely hold, 'This is not the Dhamma, this is not the Vinaya,
this is not the Teacher's instruction.'
"As for the dhammas of
which you may know, 'These dhammas lead to utter disenchantment, to
dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to
self-awakening, to Unbinding': You may definitely hold, 'This is the
Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher's instruction.'"
AN VIII.30 expands on some of the principles in the first of these
two passages. But here we will focus on the points where these two
passages intersect in the requirement that the Dhamma lead to
dispassion and to being unfettered for the standard test for a
genuine experience of Awakening is that it arises from dispassion and
cuts the fetters of the mind.
"There are these ten fetters... Self-identity views, uncertainty,
grasping at precepts and practices, sensual desire, and ill will.
These are the five lower fetters. And which are the five higher
fetters? Passion for form, passion for what is formless, conceit,
restlessness, and ignorance. These are the five higher fetters."
MN 118 explains, stream-entry cuts the first three fetters;
once-returning, the second level of Awakening, weakens passion,
aversion, and delusion; non-returning, the third level, cuts the
fetters of sensual desire and ill will; and arahantship, the final
level of Awakening, cuts the remaining five.
Ultimately, of course, the only proof for whether a teaching leads
in this direction comes when, having put the teaching into practice,
you actually begin to cut these fetters from the mind. But as a
preliminary exercise, you can contemplate a teaching to make sense of
it and to see if there are good reasons for believing that it will
lead in the right direction.
"Hearing the Dhamma, one remembers it. Remembering it, one
penetrates the meaning of those dhammas. Penetrating the meaning,
one comes to an agreement through pondering those dhammas. There
being an agreement through pondering those dhammas, desire arises.
With the arising of desire, one becomes willing. Willing, one
contemplates (lit: 'weighs,' 'compares')."
The process of pondering, weighing, and comparing the teachings is
based on adopting the right attitude and asking the right questions
about them. As
AN II.25 points out, some of the teachings are meant to have their
meaning inferred, whereas others are not, and to misapprehend which of
these two classes a particular teaching belongs to is a serious
mistake. This is where the next factor for stream-entry plays a role.
MN 2 draws the line between appropriate and inappropriate
attention on the basis of the questions you choose to pursue in
contemplating the Dhamma.
"There is the case where an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person...
doesn't discern what ideas are fit for attention, or what ideas are
unfit for attention... This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was
I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How
was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I
be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in
the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what
shall I be in the future?' Or else he is inwardly perplexed about
the immediate present: 'Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where
has this being come from? Where is it bound?'
"As he attends
inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him:
The view I have a self arises in him as true and established,
or the view I have no self... or the view It is precisely
by means of self that I perceive self... or the view It is
precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self... or the
view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self
arises in him as true and established, or else he has a view like
this: This very self of mine the knower that is sensitive here
and there to the ripening of good and bad actions is the self of
mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change,
and will endure as long as eternity. This is called a thicket of
views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of
views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the
uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging,
and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair. He
is not freed, I tell you, from stress.
"The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones... discerns what
ideas are fit for attention, and what ideas are unfit for
attention... He attends appropriately, This is stress... This is
the origination of stress... This is the cessation of stress... This
is the way leading to the cessation of stress. As he attends
appropriately in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him:
self-identity views, doubt, and grasping at precepts and practices."
Some of the most useless controversies in the history of Buddhist
thought have come from ignoring this teaching on what is and is not an
appropriate object for attention. Buddhists have debated fruitlessly
for centuries, and continue to debate today, on how to define a
person's identity the answer to the question, "What am I?" or
whether a person does or doesn't have a self the answer to the
questions, "Am I? Am I not?" The fruitlessness of these arguments has
proven repeatedly the point made by this passage: that any answer to
these questions leads to entanglement in the fetters that the Dhamma
is meant to cut away.
To avoid these controversies, the passage recommends focusing on
four truths that constitute the appropriate object for attention
stress, its origination, its cessation, and the way leading to its
cessation. These truths are directly related to the question of
skillfulness, which divides reality into two sets of variables: cause
and effect, skillful and unskillful. The origination of stress is an
unskillful cause, and stress its result. The way leading to the
cessation of stress is a skillful cause, and the cessation of stress
its result. To look at experience in these terms is to attend
appropriately in a way that can help cut the fetters underlying
unskillfulness in the mind.
SN 56.11 defines the truth of stress as the five
clinging-aggregates clinging to form, feeling, perception,
fabrications, and consciousness and maintains that this truth should
to be comprehended in such a way as to lead to dispassion for the
clinging. This, too, is a function of appropriate attention.
"A virtuous monk should attend in an appropriate way to these five
clinging-aggregates as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer,
an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a dissolution, an
emptiness, not-self. For it is possible that a virtuous monk,
attending in an appropriate way to these five clinging-aggregates as
inconstant... not-self, would realize the fruit of stream-entry."
Thus appropriate attention entails a way of looking at the Dhamma
not only as it is presented in a teaching, but also as it presents
itself directly as experience to the mind.
Practice in accordance with the Dhamma.
Once you've gained a sense of the Dhamma through appropriate
attention, the remaining step is to practice in accordance with the
Dhamma. As with the first two factors for stream-entry, this process
is twofold: adapting your actions to follow in line with the Dhamma
(rather than trying to adapt the Dhamma to follow your own
preferences), and refining your understanding of the Dhamma as it is
tested in experience.
MN 61 offers explicit instructions on how this is to be done.
"What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?"
"In the same way, Rahula, bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental
acts are to be done with repeated reflection.
"Whenever you want to perform a bodily act, you should reflect on
it: 'This bodily act I want to perform would it lead to
self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an
unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?'
If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction,
to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful
bodily act with painful consequences, painful results, then any
bodily act of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on
reflection you know that it would not cause affliction... it would
be a skillful bodily action with happy consequences, happy results,
then any bodily act of that sort is fit for you to do.
"While you are performing a bodily act, you should reflect on it:
'This bodily act I am doing is it leading to self-affliction, to
the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily
act, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection,
you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to affliction of
others, or both... you should give it up. But if on reflection you
know that it is not... you may continue with it.
"Having performed a bodily act, you should reflect on it... If,
on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the
affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily act
with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess
it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable
companion in the holy life. Having confessed it... you should
exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that
it did not lead to affliction... it was a skillful bodily action
with happy consequences, happy results, then you should stay
mentally refreshed and joyful, training day and night in skillful
[Similarly for verbal acts and mental acts, although the final
paragraph concerning mental acts says:]
"Having performed a mental act, you should reflect on it... If,
on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the
affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful mental act
with painful consequences, painful results, then you should feel
distressed, ashamed, and disgusted with it. Feeling distressed...
you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection
you know that it did not lead to affliction... it was a skillful
mental action with happy consequences, happy results, then you
should stay mentally refreshed and joyful, training day and night in
skillful mental qualities."
The process of self-examination recommended in this passage
includes the principles discussed under the first three factors for
stream-entry. You pay appropriate attention to your own intentions and
actions, and to their results, to see whether they qualify as skillful
or unskillful. If you notice that any of your bodily or verbal actions
have led to harmful results, you approach a person of integrity and
listen to his/her advice. In this way you combine the two principles
Iti 16 &
17 recommend as the most helpful internal and external principles
for awakening: appropriate attention and friendship with admirable
people. It is no coincidence that these are precisely the two
principles recommended in the discourse to the Kalamas.
Self-examination of this sort, however, shares yet another feature
with the first factor for stream-entry: the need for integrity. Just
as your integrity is a prerequisite for your ability to detect
integrity in others, so it is a prerequisite for your ability to gauge
the true nature of your intentions and the results of your actions.
These are commonly the two areas of experience where people are least
honest with themselves. Yet, for your practice to accord with the
Dhamma, you must resist any habitual tendency to be less than totally
scrupulous about them. This is why, as a preface to the above advice,
the sutta shows the Buddha lecturing on the importance of truthfulness
as the most essential quality for a person on the path.
Although Rahula reportedly received the above advice when he was a
MN 19 maintains that the principles it contains can lead all the
way to full Awakening. This means, of course, that they can lead to
the first level of Awakening, which is stream-entry.
Stream-entry is often called the arising of the Dhamma eye. What
stream-enterers see with this Dhamma eye is always expressed in the
same terms: "Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to
cessation." A passage in the Vinaya shows that the concept "all
that is subject to origination" occurs in conjunction with a glimpse
of what stands in opposition to "all that is subject to origination"
in other words, the Unfabricated: deathlessness.
[Immediately after attaining the Stream] Sariputta the Wanderer went
to where Moggallana the Wanderer was staying. Moggallana the
Wanderer saw him coming from afar and, on seeing him. said, "Your
faculties are bright, my friend; your complexion pure & clear. Could
it be that you have attained the Deathless?"
"Yes, my friend, I
The suttas describe the experience of the Deathless in only the
sketchiest terms. What little description there is, is intended to
show that the Deathless lies beyond most linguistic categories.
However, there are a few indicators to show what the Deathless is not.
To begin with, it cannot be described as a state of either being
With the remainderless stopping and fading of the six spheres of
contact [vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and intellection] is
it the case that there is anything else?
Sariputta: Don't say
that, my friend.
MahaKotthita: With the remainderless stopping and fading of the
six spheres of contact, is it the case that there is not anything
Sariputta: Don't say that, my friend.
MahaKotthita: ...is it the case that there both is and is not
Sariputta: Don't say that, my friend.
MahaKotthita: ...is it the case that there neither is nor is not
Sariputta: Don't say that, my friend.
MahaKotthita: Being asked... if there is anything else, you say,
'Don't say that, my friend.' Being asked... if there is not anything
else... if there both is and is not anything else... if there
neither is nor is not anything else, you say, 'Don't say that, my
friend.' Now, how is the meaning of this statement to be understood?
Sariputta: Saying... is it the case that there is anything
else... is it the case that there is not anything else... is it the
case that there both is and is not anything else... is it the case
that there neither is nor is not anything else, one is complicating
non-complication. However far the six spheres of contact go, that is
how far complication goes. However far complication goes, that is
how far the six spheres of contact go. With the remainderless fading
and stopping of the six spheres of contact, there comes to be the
stopping, the allaying of complication.
Second, the dimension of the Deathless is not devoid of awareness,
although the awareness here must by definition lie apart from the
consciousness included in the five aggregates of fabricated
"Monks, that dimension should be known where the eye (vision) stops
and the perception (mental noting) of form fades. That dimension
should be known where the ear stops and the perception of sound
fades... where the nose stops and the perception of aroma fades...
where the tongue stops and the perception of flavor fades... where
the body stops and the perception of tactile sensation fades...
where the intellect stops and the perception of idea/phenomenon
fades: That dimension should be known."
"Having directly known the extent of designation and the extent of
the objects of designation, the extent of expression and the extent
of the objects of expression, the extent of description and the
extent of the objects of description, the extent of discernment and
the extent of the objects of discernment, the extent to which the
cycle revolves: Having directly known that, the monk is released.
[To say that,] 'The monk released, having directly known that,
does not see, does not know
is his opinion,' that would be
Consciousness without feature, without end
luminous all around:
Here water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing.
Here long & short,
coarse & fine,
fair & foul,
name & form
are all brought to an end.
With the stopping
of [the aggregate of] consciousness,
each is here brought to an end.
"Consciousness without feature, without end, luminous all around,
does not partake of the solidity of earth, the liquidity of water,
the radiance of fire, the windiness of wind, the divinity of devas
(and so on through a list of the various levels of godhood to) the
allness of the All (i.e., the six sense spheres)."
"Even so, Vaccha, any form... feeling... perception...
fabrication... consciousness by which one describing the Tathagata
would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root
destroyed, like an uprooted palm tree, deprived of the conditions of
existence, not destined for future arising. Freed from the
classification of form... feeling... perception... fabrication...
consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to
fathom, like the sea."
"Freed, dissociated, and released from ten things, Bahuna, the
Tathagata dwells with unrestricted awareness. Which ten? Freed,
dissociated, and released from form, the Tathagata dwells with
unrestricted awareness. Freed, dissociated, and released from
feeling... from perception... from fabrications... from
consciousness... from birth... from aging... from death... from
stress... Freed, dissociated, and released from defilement, the
Tathagata dwells with unrestricted awareness.
"Just as a red,
blue, or white lotus born in the water and growing in the water,
rises up above the water and stands with no water adhering to it, in
the same way the Tathagata freed, dissociated, and released from
these ten things dwells with unrestricted awareness."
These are not the words of a person who has found release in
Finally, although the Deathless is sometimes called consciousness
without feature, without end, it is not to be confused with the
formless stage of concentration called the dimension of the infinitude
of consciousness. One of the main differences between the two is that
the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness is fabricated and
MN 140). The element of will, though, can be very attenuated while
one is in that dimension, and only discernment at an extremely subtle
level can ferret it out. One way of testing for it is to see if there
is any sense of identification with the knowing. If there is, then
there is still the conceit of I-making and my-making applied to that
state. Another test is to see if there is any sense that the knowing
contains all things or is their source. If there is, then there is
still fabrication in that state of mind, for when the Deathless is
fully comprehended, the sense of unrestricted awareness as containing
or acting as the source of other things is seen to be an ignorant
"There is the case, monks, where an uninstructed run-of-the-mill
person... perceives Unbinding as Unbinding. Perceiving Unbinding as
Unbinding, he conceives things about Unbinding, he conceives things
in Unbinding, he conceives things coming out of Unbinding, he
conceives Unbinding as 'mine,' he delights in Unbinding. Why is
that? Because he has not comprehended it, I tell you...
who is an arahant, devoid of mental fermentations who has attained
completion, finished the task, laid down the burden, attained the
true goal, destroyed the fetters of becoming, and is released
through right knowledge... directly knows Unbinding as Unbinding.
Directly knowing Unbinding as Unbinding, he does not conceive things
about Unbinding, does not conceive things in Unbinding, does not
conceive things coming out of Unbinding, does not conceive
Unbinding as 'mine,' does not delight in Unbinding. Why is that?
Because he has comprehended it, I tell you."
However, in line with the instructions to Gotami and Upali, the
true test of an experience of stream-entry is not in its description,
but in the results it produces. The texts describe these in two ways:
four factors that characterize a person who has entered the stream,
and three fetters that stream-entry automatically cuts.
The four factors, according to
AN X.92, unwavering conviction in the Buddha, unwavering
conviction in the Dhamma, unwavering conviction in the Sangha, and
"virtues that are appealing to the noble ones untorn, unbroken,
unspotted, unsplattered, liberating, praised by the wise, untarnished,
leading to concentration." The three fetters are: self-identity views,
doubt, and grasping at precepts and practices.
The two lists have their common ground in the experience of the
path to stream-entry. As the path the noble eightfold path yields
to the fruit of stream-entry, you see that although ordinary action
can lead to pleasant, unpleasant, or mixed results on the level of
fabricated experience, the noble eightfold path is a form of action
that produces none of these results, but instead leads to the end of
action (see AN IV.237). This experience cuts through any doubt about
the truth of the Buddha's Awakening, thus ensuring that your
conviction in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha will not waver. Having
seen the results that ordinary actions do have on the fabricated
level, however, you wouldn't dare transgress the five precepts that
embody the virtues appealing to the noble ones (see
AN VIII.39). Still, because the Deathless is the end of action,
you don't grasp at precepts and practices as the goal in and of
themselves. And because you have seen the aggregates of form, feeling,
perception, fabrication, and consciousness fade away in the experience
of the Deathless, you would never construct an identity view around
Although the traditional lists of the results of stream-entry
provide stringent standards for judging one's own attainment, the
texts and living Buddhist traditions today record many instances
of people who have over-estimated their attainment. Thus when you have
what seems to be an attainment of this sort, you have to examine it
carefully and test the mind to see if the three fetters are actually
cut. And because the attainment itself is what proves or disproves the
authority and authenticity of the texts, as well as the integrity of
your teachers, you are ultimately left with only one guarantee of your
attainment: your own integrity, which you hope has been adequately
developed along the path. In keeping with the principle that the
Dhamma is ultimately a quality of the mind as embodied in the entire
person, the only way you can ultimately gauge the truth of the Dhamma
is if you as a person are true.
Because the attainment of stream-entry can make such an enormous
difference in your life, it is worth every ounce of integrity needed
to attain it and to ascertain the attainment.
Then the Blessed One, picking up a little bit of dust with the tip
of his fingernail, said to the monks, "What do you think, monks?
Which is greater: the little bit of dust I have picked up with the
tip of my fingernail, or the great earth?"
"The great earth is far
greater, lord. The little bit of dust the Blessed One has picked up
with the tip of his fingernail is next to nothing. It's not a
hundredth, a thousandth, a one hundred-thousandth... when compared
with the great earth."
"In the same way, monks, for a disciple of the noble ones who is
consummate in view, an individual who has broken through [to
stream-entry], the suffering and stress totally ended and
extinguished is far greater. That which remains in the state of
having at most seven remaining lifetimes is next to nothing: it's
not a hundredth, a thousandth, a one hundred-thousandth, when
compared with the previous mass of suffering. That's how great the
benefit is of breaking through to the Dhamma, monks. That's how
great the benefit is of obtaining the Dhamma eye."
For a person who has been relieved of this much suffering, the
question of the historical Buddha becomes irrelevant. If the genuine
Deathless is not the historical Buddha's attainment, it's what a
genuine Buddha would have attained. The Dhamma leading to this
attainment could not have come from anyone else. As SN 22.87 quotes
the Buddha as saying, "One who sees the Dhamma sees me," i.e., the
aspect of the Buddha that really matters, the aspect signaling that
total freedom, the total end of suffering, is an attainable goal.
Sole dominion over the earth,
going to heaven,
lordship over all worlds:
the fruit of stream-entry
These are audacious claims, and they obviously require an approach
more audacious than the historical method to test them. As the suttas
indicate, nothing less than genuine integrity of character, developed
through careful training and practice, will suffice. Given that
"dhamma" means both teaching and quality of mind, it stands to reason
that truth of character is needed to measure the truth of the
teaching. Only true people can know the truth of the suttas' claims.
This may seem an exclusionary or elitist thing to say, but actually
it's not. The sort of education needed to master the historical method
isn't open to everyone, but integrity is if you want to develop it.
The suttas say that the best things in life are available to those who
are true. The only question is whether you're true enough to want to
know if they're right.