THE FOURTH NOBLE TRUTH
What is the Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering? It is this Noble Eightfold path, that is to say:
Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
There is this Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of Suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before……
This Noble Truth must be penetrated to by cultivating the Path. . .
This Noble Truth has been penetrated to by cultivating the Path: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before, [Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11].
The Fourth Noble Truth, like the first three, has three aspects. The first aspect is: ‘There is the Eightfold Path, the atthangika magga - the way out of suffering.’ It is also called the ariya magga, the Ariyan or Noble Path. The second aspect is: ‘This path should be developed.’ ‘The final insight into arahantship is: ‘This path has been fully developed.’
The Eightfold Path is presented in a sequence: beginning with Right (or perfect) Understanding, samma ditthi, it goes to Right (or perfect) Intention or Aspiration, samma sankappa; these first two elements of the path are grouped together as Wisdom (panna). Moral commitment (sila) flows from panna; this covers Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood - also referred to as perfect speech, perfect action and perfect livelihood, samma vaca, samma kammanta and samma ajiva.
Then we have Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, samma vayama, samma sati and samma samadhi, which flow naturally from sila. These last three provide emotional balance. They are about the heart - the heart that is liberated from self-view and from selfishness. With Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, the heart is pure, free from taints and defilements. When the heart is pure, the mind is peaceful. Wisdom (panna), or Right Under-standing and Right Aspiration, comes from a pure heart. This takes us back to where we started.
These, then, are the elements of the Eightfold Path, grouped in three sections:
1. Wisdom (panna)
Right Understanding (samma ditthi)
Right Aspiration (samma sankappa)
2. Morality (sila)
Right Speech (samma vaca)
Right Action (samma kammanta)
Right Livelihood (samma ajiva)
3. Concentration (samadhi)
Right Effort (samma vayama)
Right Mindfulness (samma sati)
Right Concentration (samma samadhi)
The fact that we list them in order does not mean that they happen in a linear, in sequence - they arise together. We may talk about the Eightfold Path and say ‘First you have Right Understanding, then you have Right Aspiration, then . . . .’ But actually, presented in this way, it simply teaches us to reflect upon the importance of taking responsibility for what we say and do in our lives.
The first element of the Eightfold Path is Right Understanding which arises through insights into the first three Noble Truths. If you have those insights, then there is perfect understanding of Dhamma - the understanding that: ‘All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.’ It’s as simple as that. You do not have to spend much time reading ‘All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing’ to understand the words, but it takes quite a while for most of us to really know what the words mean in a profound way rather than just through cerebral under-standing.
To use modem colloquial English, insight is really gut knowledge - it's not just from ideas. It’s no longer ‘I think I know’, or ‘Oh yes, that seems a reasonable, sensible thing. I agree with that. I like that thought.’ That kind of understanding is still from the brain whereas insight knowledge is profound. It is really known and doubt is no longer a problem.
This deep understanding comes from the previous nine insights. So there is a sequence leading to Right Understanding of things as they are, namely that: All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing and is not-self. With Right Understanding, you have given up the illusion of a self that is connected to mortal conditions. There is still the body, there are still feelings and thoughts, but they simply are what they are - there is no longer the belief that you are your body or your feelings or your thoughts. The emphasis is on ‘Things are what they are.’ We are not trying to say that things are not anything at all or that they are not what they are. They are exactly what they are and nothing more. But when we are ignorant, when we have not understood these truths, we tend to think things are more than what they are. We believe all kinds of things and we create all kinds of problems around the conditions that we experience.
So much of human anguish and despair comes from the added extra that is born of ignorance in the moment. It is sad to realise how the misery and anguish and despair of humanity is based upon delusion; the despair is empty and meaningless. When you see this, you begin to feel infinite compassion for all beings. How can you hate anyone or bear grudges or condemn anyone who is caught in this bond of ignorance? Everyone is influenced to do the things they do by their wrong views of things.
As we meditate, we experience some tranquillity, a measure of calm in which the mind has slowed down. When we look at something like a flower with a calm mind, we are looking at it as it is. When there is no grasping - nothing to gain or get rid of - then if what we see, hear or experience through the senses is beautiful, it is truly beautiful. We are not criticising it, comparing it, trying to possess or own it; we find delight and joy in the beauty around us because there is no need to make anything out of it. It is exactly what it is.
Beauty reminds us of purity, truth and ultimate beauty. We should not see it as a lure to delude us: ‘These flowers are here just to attract me so I’II get deluded by them’ - that’s the attitude of the old meditating grump! When we look at a member of the opposite sex with a pure heart, we appreciate the beauty without desire for some kind of contact or possession. We can delight in the beauty of other people, both men and women, when there is no selfish interest or desire. There is honesty; things are what they are. This is what we mean by liberation or vimutti in Pali. We are liberated from those bonds that distort and corrupt the beauty around us, such as the bodies we have. However, our minds can get so corrupt and negative and depressed and obsessed with things, that we no longer see them as they are. If we don’t have Right Under-standing, we see everything through increasingly thick filters and veils.
Right Understanding is to be developed through reflection, using the Buddha’s teaching. The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta itself is a very interesting teaching to contemplate and use as a reference for reflection. We can also use other suttas from the tipitaka*, such as the those dealing with patic-casamuppada (dependent origination*). This is a fascinating teaching to reflect upon. If you can contemplate such teachings, you can see very clearly the difference between the way things are as Dhamma and the point where we tend to create delusion out of the way things are. That is why we need to establish full conscious awareness of things as they are. If there is knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, then there is Dhamma.
With Right Understanding, everything is seen as Dhamma; for example: we are sitting here. . . . This is Dhamma. We don’t think of this body and mind as a personality with all its views and opinions and all the conditioned thoughts and reactions that we have acquired through ignorance. We reflect upon this moment now as: ‘This is the way it is. This is Dhamma.’ We bring into the mind the under-standing that this physical formation is simply Dhamma. It is not self; it is not personal.
Also, we see the sensitivity of this physical formation as Dhamma rather than taking it personally: ‘I’m sensitive,’ or ‘I’m not sensitive;’ ‘You’re not sensitive to me. Who’s the most sensitive?’ . . . ‘Why do we feel pain? Why did God create pain; why didn’t he just create pleasure? Why is there so much misery and suffering in the world? It’s unfair. People die and we have to separate from the people we love; the anguish is terrible.’
There is no Dhamma in that, is there? It’s all self view: ‘Poor me. I don’t like this, I don’t want it to be this way. I want security, happiness, pleasure and all the best of everything; it’s not fair that I don’t have these things. It’s not fair that my parents were not arahants when I came into the world. It’s not fair that they never elect arahants to be Prime Minister of Britain. If everything were fair, they would elect arahants to be Prime Minister!’
I am trying to take this sense of ‘It’s not right, it’s not fair’ to an absurdity in order to point out how we expect God to create everything for us and to make us happy and secure. That is often what people think even if they don’t say so. But when we reflect, we see ‘This is the way it is. Pain is like this and this is what pleasure is like. Consciousness is this way.’ We feel. We breathe. We can aspire.
When we reflect, we contemplate our own humanity as it is. We don’t take it on a personal level any more or blame anyone because things are not exactly as we like or want. It is the way it is and we are the way we are. You might ask why we can’t all be exactly the same - with the same anger, the same greed and the same ignorance; without all the variations and permutations. However, even though you can trace human experience to basic things, each one of us has our own kamma* to deal with - our own obsessions and tendencies, which are always different in quality and quantity to those of someone else.
Why can’t we all be exactly equal, have exactly the same of everything and all look alike - one androgynous being? In a world like that, nothing would be unfair, no differences would be allowed, everything would be absolutely perfect and there would be no possibility of inequality. But as we recognise Dhamma, we see that, within the realm of conditions, no two things are identical. They are all quite different, infinitely variable and changing, and the more we try to make conditions conform to our ideas, the more frustrated we get. We try to create each other and a society to fit the ideas we have of how things should be, but we always end up feeling frustrated. With reflection, we realise: ‘This is the way it is,’ this is the way things have to be - they can only be this way.
Now that is not a fatalistic or negative reflection. It is not an attitude of: ‘That’s the way it is and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ It is a very positive response of accepting the flow of life for what it is. Even if it is not what we want, we can accept it and learn from it.
We are conscious, intelligent beings with retentive memory. We have language. Over the past several thousand years, we have developed reason, logic and discriminative intelligence. What we must do is figure out how to use these capacities as tools for realisation of Dhamma rather than as personal acquisitions or personal problems. People who develop their discriminative intelligence often end up turning it upon themselves; they become very self-critical and even begin to hate themselves. This is because our discriminative faculties tend to focus upon what is wrong with everything. That is what discrimination is about: seeing how this is different from that. When you do that to yourself, what do you end up with? Just a whole list of flaws and faults that make you sound absolutely hopeless.
When we are developing Right Understanding, we use our intelligence for reflection and contemplation of things., We also use our mindfulness, being open to the way it is. When we reflect in this way, we are using mindfulness and wisdom together. So now we are using our ability to discriminate with wisdom (vijja) rather than with ignorance (avijja). This teaching of the Four Noble Truths is to help you to use your intelligence - your ability to contemplate, reflect and think - in a wise way rather than in a self-destructive, greedy or hateful way.
The second element of the Eightfold Path is samma sankappa. Sometimes this is translated as ‘Right Thought’, thinking in the right way. However, it actually has more of a dynamic quality - like ‘intention’, ‘attitude’ or ‘aspiration’. I like to use ‘aspiration’ which is somehow very meaningful in this Eight-fold Path - because we do aspire.
It is important to see that aspiration is not desire. The Pali word ‘tanha’ means desire that comes out of ignorance, whereas ‘sankappa’ means aspiration not coming from ignorance.
Aspiration might seem like a kind of desire to us because in English we use the word ‘desire’ for everything of that nature either aspiring or wanting. You might think that aspiration is a kind of tanha, wanting to become enlightened (bhava tanha) but samma sankappa comes from Right Understanding, seeing clearly. It is not wanting to become anything; it is not the desire to become an enlightened person. With Right Understanding, that whole illusion and way of thinking no longer makes sense.
Aspiration is a feeling, intention, attitude or movement within us. Our spirit rises, it does not sink downwards - it is not desperation! When there is Right Understanding, we aspire to truth, beauty and goodness. Samma ditthi and samma sankappa, Right Understanding and Right Aspiration, are called panna or wisdom and they make up the first of the three sections in the Eightfold Path.
We can contemplate: Why is it that we still feel discontented, even when we have the best of everything? We are not completely happy even if we have a beautiful house, a car, the perfect marriage, lovely bright children and all the rest of it - and we are certainly not contented when we do not have all these things! . . . If we don’t have them, we can think, ‘Well, if I had the best, then I’d be content.’ But we wouldn’t be. The earth is not the place for our contentment; it’s not supposed to be. When we realise that, we no longer expect contentment from planet earth; we do not make that demand.
Until we realise that this planet cannot satisfy all our wants, we keep on asking, ‘Why can’t you make me content, Mother Earth?’ We are like little children who suckle their mother, constantly trying to get the most out of her and wanting her always to nurture and feed them and make them feel content.
If we were content, we would not wonder about things. Yet we do recognise that there is something more than just the ground under our feet; there is something above us that we cannot quite understand. We have the ability to wonder and ponder about life, to contemplate its meaning. If you want to know the meaning of your life, you cannot be content with material wealth, comfort and security alone.
So we aspire to know the truth. You might think that that is a kind of presumptuous desire or aspiration, ‘Who do I think I am? Little old me trying to know the truth about everything.’ But there is that aspiration. Why do we have it if it is not possible? Consider the concept of ultimate reality. An absolute or ultimate truth is a very refined concept; the idea of God, the Deathless or the immortal, is actually a very refined thought. We aspire to know that ultimate reality. The animal side of us does not aspire; it does not know anything about such aspirations. But there is in each of us an intuitive intelligence that wants to know; it is always with us but we tend to not notice it; we do not understand it. We tend to discard or mistrust it - especially modern materialists. They just think it is fantasy and not real.
As for myself, I was really happy when I realised that the planet is not my real home. I had always suspected it. I can remember even as a small child thinking, ‘I don’t really belong here.’ I have never particularly felt that planet Earth is where I really belong - even before I was a monk, I never felt that I fitted into the society. For some people, that could be just a neurotic problem, but perhaps it could also be the kind of intuition children often have.
When you are innocent, your mind is very intuitive. The mind of a child is more intuitively in touch with mysterious forces than most adult minds are. As we grow up we become conditioned to think in very set ways and to have fixed ideas about what is real and what is not. As we develop our egos, society dictates what is real and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, and we begin to interpret the world through those fixed perceptions. One thing we find charming in children is that they don’t do that yet; they still see the world with the intuitive mind that is not yet conditioned.
Meditation is a way of deconditioning the mind which helps us to let go of all the hard-line views and fixed ideas we have. Ordinarily, what is real is dismissed while what is not real is given all our attention. This is what ignorance (avijja) is.
The contemplation of our human aspiration connects us to something higher than just the animal kingdom or the planet earth. To me that connection seems more true than the idea that this is all there is; that once we die our bodies rot and there is nothing more than that. When we ponder and wonder about this universe we are living in, we see that it is very vast, mysterious and incomprehensible to us. However, when we trust more in our intuitive mind, we can be receptive to things that we may have forgotten or have never been open to before - we open when we let go of fixed, conditioned reactions.
We can have the fixed idea of being a personality, of being a man or a woman, being an English person or an American. These things can be very real to us, and we can get very upset and angry about them. We are even willing to kill each other over these conditioned views that we hold and believe in and never question. Without Right Aspiration and Right Under-standing, without panna, we never see the true nature of these views.
RIGHT SPEECH, RIGHT ACTION, RIGHT LIVELIHOOD
Sila, the moral aspect of the Eightfold Path, consists of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood; that means taking responsibility for our speech and being careful about what we do with our bodies. When I’m mindful and aware, I speak in a way that is appropriate to time and place; likewise, I act or work according to time and place.
We begin to realise that we have to be careful about what we do and say; otherwise we constantly hurt ourselves. If you do or say things that are unkind or cruel there is always an immediate result. In the past, you might have been able to get away with lying by distracting yourself, going on to something else so that you didn’t have to think about it. You could forget all about things for a while until eventually they’d come back upon you, but if we practise sila, things seem to come back right away. Even when I exaggerate, something in me says, ‘You shouldn’t exaggerate, you should be more careful.’ I used to have the habit of exaggerating things - it’s part of our culture; it seems perfectly normal. But when you are aware, the effect of even the slightest lie or gossip is immediate because you are completely open, vulnerable and sensitive. So then you are careful about what you do; you realise that it’s important to be responsible for what you do and say.
The impulse to help someone is a skilful dhamma*. If you see someone fall over on the floor in a faint, a skilful dhamma goes through your mind: ‘Help this person,’ and you go to help them recover from their fainting spell. If you do it with an empty mind - not out of any personal desire for gain, but just out of compassion and because it’s the right thing to do - then it’s simply a skilful dhamma. It’s not personal kamma; it’s not yours. But if you do it out of a desire to gain merit and to impress other people or because the person is rich and you expect some reward for your action, then - even though the action is skilful -you’re making a personal connection to it, and this reinforces the sense of self. When we do good works out of mindfulness and wisdom rather than out of ignorance, they are skilful dhammas without personal kamma.
The monastic order was established by the Buddha so that men and women could live an impeccable life which is completely blameless. As a bhikkhu, you live within a whole system of training precepts called the Patimokkha discipline. When you live under this discipline, even if your actions or speech are heedless, at least they don’t leave strong impressions. You can’t have money so you’re not able to just go anywhere until you’re invited. You are celibate. Since you live on almsfood, you’re not killing any animals. You don’t even pick flowers or leaves or do any kind of action that would disturb the natural flow in any way; you’re completely harmless.
In fact, in Thailand we had to carry water strainers with us to filter out any kind of living things in the water such as mosquito larvae. It’s totally forbidden to intentionally kill things.
I have been living under this Rule for twenty-five years now so I haven’t really done any heavy kammic actions. Under this discipline, one lives in a very harmless, very responsible way. Perhaps the most difficult part is with speech; speech habits are the most difficult to break and let go of - but they can also improve. By reflection and contemplation, one begins to see the unpleasantness of saying foolish things or just babbling or chatting away for no good reason.
For lay people, Right Livelihood is something that is developed as you come to know your intentions for what you do. You can try to avoid deliberately harming other creatures or earning a living in a harmful, unkind way. You can also try to avoid livelihood which may cause other people to become addicted to drugs or drink or which might endanger the ecological balance of the planet.
So these three - Right Action, Right Speech and Right Livelihood - follow from Right Understanding or perfect knowing. We begin to feel that we want to live in a way that is a blessing to this planet or, at least, that does not harm it.
Right Understanding and Right Aspiration have a definite influence on what we do and say. So panna, or wisdom, leads to sila: Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Sila refers to our speech and actions; with sila we contain the sexual drive or the violent use of the body - we do not use it for killing or stealing. In this way, panna and sila work together in perfect harmony.
RIGHT EFFORT, RIGHT MINDFULNESS & RIGHT CONCENTRATION
Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration refer to your spirit, your heart. When we think of the spirit, we point to the centre of the chest, to the heart. So we have panna (the head), sila (the body) and samadhi (the heart). You can use your own body as a kind of chart, a symbol of the Eightfold Path. These three are integrated, working together for realisation and supporting each other like a tripod. One is not dominating the other and exploiting or rejecting anything.
They work together: the wisdom from Right Understanding and Right Intention; then morality, which is Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood; and Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration - the balanced equanimous mind, emotional serenity. Serenity is where the emotions are balanced, supporting each other. They’re not going up and down.
There’s a sense of bliss, of serenity; there is perfect harmony between the intellect, the instincts and the emotions. ‘They’re mutually supportive, helping each other. They’re no longer conflicting or taking us to extremes and, because of that, we begin to feel a tremendous peacefulness in our minds. There is a sense of ease and fearlessness coming from the Eightfold Path - a sense of equanimity and emotional balance. We feel at ease rather than that sense of anxiety, that tension and emotional conflict. There is clarity; there is peace-fulness, stillness, knowing. This insight of the Eightfold Path should be developed; this is bhavana. We use the word bhavana to signify development.
ASPECTS OF MEDITATION
This reflectiveness of mind or emotional balance is developed as a result of practising concentration and mindfulness meditation. For instance, you can experiment during a retreat and spend one hour doing samatha meditation where you are just concentrating your mind on one object, say the sensation of breathing. Keep bringing it into consciousness and sustain it so that it actually has a continuity of presence in the mind.
In this way, you are moving towards what is going on in your own body rather than being pulled out into objects of the senses. If you do not have any refuge within, then you are constantly going out, being absorbed into books, food and all sorts of distractions. But this endless movement of the mind is very exhausting. So instead, the practice becomes one of observing the breath-which means that you have to withdraw or not follow the tendency to find something outside of your-self. You have to bring your attention to the breathing of your own body and concentrate the mind on that sensation. As you let go of gross form, you actually become that feeling, that very sign itself. Whatever you absorb into, you become that for a period of time. When you really concentrate, you have become that very tranquillised condition. You have become tranquil. This is what we call becoming. Samatha meditation is a becoming process.
But that tranquillity, if you investigate it, is not satisfactory tranquillity. There is something missing in it because it is dependent on a technique, on being attached and holding on, on something that still begins and ends. What you become, you can only become temporarily because becoming is a changing thing. It is not a permanent condition. So whatever you become, you will unbecome. It is not ultimate reality. No matter how high you might go in concentration, it will always be an unsatisfactory condition. Samatha meditation takes you to some very high and radiant experiences in your mind - but they all end.
Then, if you practise vipassana meditation for another hour by just being mindful and letting go of everything and accepting the uncertainty, the silence and the cessation of conditions, the result is that you will feel peaceful rather than tranquil. And that peacefulness is a perfect peacefulness. It is complete. It is not the tranquillity from samatha, which has something imperfect or unsatisfactory about it even at it’s best. The realisation of cessation, as you develop that and understand that more and more, brings you true peacefulness, non-attachment, Nibbana.
Thus samatha and vipassana are the two divisions in meditation. One is developing concentrated states of mind on refined objects in which your consciousness becomes refined through that concentration. But being terribly refined, having a great intellect and a taste for great beauty, makes anything coarse unbearable because of the attachment to what is refined. People who have devoted their lives to refinement only find life terribly frustrating and frightening when they can no longer maintain such high standards.
RATIONALITY AND EMOTION
If you love rational thought and are attached to ideas and perceptions, then you tend to despise the emotions. You can notice this tendency if, when you start to feel emotions you say, ‘I’m going to shut it out. I don’t want to feel those things. You don’t like to be feeling anything because you can get into a kind of high from the purity of intelligence and the pleasure of rational thinking. The mind relishes the way it is logical and controllable, the way it makes sense. It is just so clean and neat and precise like mathematics - but the emotions are all over the place, aren’t they? They are not precise, they are not neat and they can easily get out of control.
So the emotional nature is often despised. We are frightened of it. For example, men often feel very frightened of emotions because we are brought up to believe that men do not cry. As a little boy, at least in my generation, we were taught that boys do not cry so we’d try to live up to the standards of what boys are supposed to be. They would s ‘You are a boy’, and so we’d try to be what our parents said we should be. ‘The ideas of the society affect our minds, and because of that, we find emotions embarrassing. Here in England, people generally find emotions very embarrassing; if you get a little too emotional, they assume that you must be Italian or some other nationality.
If you are very rational and you have figured everything out, then you don’t know what to do when people get emotional. If somebody starts crying, you think, ‘What am I supposed to do? Maybe you say, ‘Cheer up; it’s all right, dear. It’ll be all right, there’s nothing to cry about.’ If you are very attached to rational thought, then you just tend to dismiss it with logic, but emotions do not respond to logic. Often they react to logic, but they do not respond. Emotion is a very sensitive thing and it works in a way that we sometimes do not comprehend. If we have never really studied or tried to understand what it is to feel life, and really opened and allowed ourselves to be sensitive, then emotional things are very frightening and embarrassing to us. We don’t know what they are all about because we have rejected that side of ourselves.
On my thirtieth birthday, I realised that I was an emotion-ally undeveloped man. It was an important birthday for me. I realised that I was a full grown, mature man - I no longer considered myself a youth, but emotionally, I think I was about six years old some of the time. I really had not developed on that level very much. Even though I could maintain the kind of poise and presence of a mature man in society, I did not always feel that way. I still had very strong unresolved feelings and fears in my mind. It became apparent that I had to do something about that, as the thought that I might have to spend the rest of my life at the emotional age of six was quite a dreary prospect.
This is where many of us in our society get stuck. For example, American society does not allow you to develop emotionally, to mature. It does not understand that need at all, so it does not provide any rites of passage for men.1’he society does not provide that kind of introduction into a mature world you are expected to be immature your whole life. You are supposed to act mature, but you are not expected to be mature. Therefore, very few people are. Emotions are not really under-stood or resolved - their childish tendencies are merely sup-pressed rather than developed into maturity.
What meditation does is to offer a chance to mature on the emotional plane. Perfect emotional maturity would be samma vayama, samma sati and samma samadhi. This is a reflection; you will not find this in any book - it is for you to contemplate. Perfect emotional maturity comprises Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. It is present when one is not caught in fluctuations and vicissitudes, where one has balance and clarity and is able to be receptive and sensitive.
THINGS AS THEY ARE
With Right Effort, there can be a cool kind of acceptance of a situation rather than the panic that comes from thinking that it’s up to me to set everybody straight, make everything right and solve everybody’s problems. We do the best we can, but we also realise that it’s not up to us to do everything and make everything right.
At one time when I was at Wat Pah Pong with Ajahn Chah, I could see a lot of things going wrong in the monastery. So I went up to him and I said, ‘Ajahn Chah, these things are going wrong; you’ve got to do something about it.’ He looked at me and he said, ‘Oh, you suffer a lot, Sumedho. You suffer a lot. It’ll change.’ I thought, ‘He doesn’t care! This is the monastery that he’s devoted his life to and he’s just letting it go down the drain!’ But he was right. After a while it began to change and, through just bearing with it, people began to see what they were doing. Sometimes we have to let things go down the drain in order for people to see and to experience that. Then we can learn how not to go down the drain.
Do you see what I mean? Sometimes situations in our life are just this way. There’s nothing one can do so we allow them to be that way; even if they get worse, we allow them to get worse. But it’s not a fatalistic or negative thing we’re doing; it’s a kind of patience - being willing to bear with something; allowing it to change naturally rather than egotistically trying to prop everything up and cleaning it all up out of our aversion and distaste for a mess.
Then, when people push our buttons, we’re not always offended, hurt or upset by the things that happen, or shattered and destroyed by the things that people say or do. One person I know tends to exaggerate everything. If something goes wrong today, she will say, ‘I’m utterly and absolutely shattered!’ - when all that has happened is that some little problem occurred. However, her mind exaggerates it to such an extent that a very small thing can absolutely destroy her for the day. When we see this, we should realise that there is a great imbalance because little things should not totally shatter anyone.
I realised that I could be easily offended so I took a vow not to be offended. I had noticed how easy it was for me to be offended by little things, whether intentional or unintentional. We can see how easy it is to feel hurt, wounded, offended, upset or worried - how something in us is always trying to be nice, but always feels a little offended by this or a little hurt by that.
With reflection, you can see that the world is like this; it’s a sensitive place. It is not always going to soothe you and make you feel happy, secure and positive. Life is full of things that can offend, hurt, wound or shatter. This is life. It is this way. If somebody speaks in a cross tone of voice, you are going to feel it. But then the mind can go on and be offended: ‘Oh, it really hurt when she said that to me; you know, that was not a very nice tone of voice. I felt quite wounded. I’ve never done anything to hurt her.’ The proliferating mind goes on like that, doesn’t it - you have been shattered, wounded or offended! But then if you contemplate, you realise it’s just sensitivity.
When you contemplate this way, it is not that you are trying not to feel. When somebody talks to you in an unkind tone of voice, it’s not that you don’t feel it at all. We are not trying to be insensitive. Rather, we are trying not to give it the wrong interpretation, not to take it on a personal level. Having balanced emotions means that people can say things that are offensive and you can take it. You have the balance and emotional strength not to be offended, wounded or shattered by what happens in life.
If you are someone who is always being wounded or offended by life, you always have to run off and hide or you have to find a group of obsequious sycophants to live with, people who say: ‘You’re wonderful, Ajahn Sumedho.’ ‘Am I really wonderful?’ ‘Yes, you are.’ ‘You’re just saying that, aren’t you?’ ‘No, no, I mean it from the bottom of my heart.’ ‘Well, that person over there doesn’t think I’m wonderful.’ ‘Well, he’s stupid!’ ‘That’s what I thought.’ It’s like the story of the emperor’s new clothes, isn’t it? You have to seek special environments so that everything is affirmed for you - safe and not threatening in any way.
When there is Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, then one is fearless. There is fearlessness be-cause there is nothing to be frightened of. One has the guts to look at things and not take them in the wrong way; one has the wisdom to contemplate and reflect upon life; one has the security and confidence of sila, the strength of one’s moral commitment and the determination to do good and refrain from doing evil with body and speech. In this way, the whole thing holds together as a path for development. It is a perfect path because everything is helping and supporting; the body, the emotional nature (the sensitivity of feeling), and the intelligence. They are all in perfect harmony, supporting each other.
Without that harmony, our instinctual nature can go all over the place. If we have no moral commitment, then our instincts can take control. For example, if we just follow sexual desire without any reference to morality, then we become caught up in all kinds of things that cause self-aversion. There is adultery, promiscuity and disease, and all the disruption and confusion that come from not reining in our instinctual nature through the limitations of morality.
We can use our intelligence to cheat and lie, can’t we, but when we have a moral foundation, we are guided by wisdom and by samadhi; these lead to emotional balance and emotional strength. But we don’t use wisdom to suppress sensitivity. We don’t dominate our emotions by thinking and by suppressing our emotional nature. This is what we have tended to do in the West; we’ve used our rational thoughts and ideals to dominate and suppress our emotions, and thus become insen-sitive to things, to life and to ourselves.
However, in the practice of mindfulness through vipassana meditation, the mind is totally receptive and open so that it has this fullness and an all-embracing quality. And because it is open, the mind is also reflective. When you concentrate on a point, your mind is no longer reflective - it is absorbed into the quality of that object. ‘The reflective ability of the mind comes through mindfulness, whole-mindedness. You are not filtering out or selecting. You are just noting whatever arises ceases. You contemplate that if you are attached to anything that arises, it ceases. You have the experience that even though it might be attractive while it is arising, it changes towards cessation. Then it’s attractiveness diminishes and we have to find something else to absorb into.
The thing about being human is that we have to touch the earth, we have to accept the limitations of this human form and planetary life. And just by doing that, then the way out of suffering isn’t through getting out of our human experience by living in refined conscious states, but by embracing the totality of all the human and Brahma realms through mindfulness. In this way, the Buddha pointed to a total realisation rather than a temporary escape through refinement and beauty. This is what the Buddha means when he is pointing the way to Nibbana.
THE EIGHTFOLD PATH AS A REFLECTIVE TEACHING
In this Eightfold Path, the eight elements work like eight legs supporting you. It is not like: I, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 on a linear scale; it is more of a working together. It is not that you develop panna first and then when you have panna, you can develop your sila; and once your sila is developed, then you will have samadhi. That is how we think, isn’t it: ‘You have to have one then two and then three.’ As an actual realisation, developing the Eightfold Path is an experience in a moment, it is all one. All the parts are working as one strong development; it is not a linear process - we might think that way because we can only have one thought at a time.
Everything I have said about the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths is only a reflection. What is really important is for you to realise what I am actually doing as I reflect rather than to grasp the things that I am saying. It is a process of bringing the Eightfold Path into your mind, using it as a reflective teaching so that you can consider what it really means. Don’t just think you know it because you can say, ‘Samma ditthi means Right Understanding. Samma sankappa means Right Thought.’ This is intellectual understanding. Someone might say, ‘No, I think samma sankappa means. . . '
And you answer, ‘No, in the book it says Right Thought. You’ve got it wrong.’ That is not reflection. We can translate samma sankappu as Right ‘Thought or Attitude or Intention; we try things out. We can use these tools for contemplation rather than thinking that they are absolutely fixed, and that we have to accept them in an orthodox style; any kind of variation from the exact interpretation is heresy. Sometimes our minds do think in that rigid way, but we are trying to transcend that way of thinking by developing a mind that moves around, watches, investigates, considers, wonders and reflects.
I am trying to encourage each one of you to be brave enough to wisely consider the way things are rather than have someone tell you whether you are ready or not for enlightenment. But actually, the Buddhist teaching is one of being enlightened now rather than doing anything to become enlightened. The idea that you must do something to become enlightened can only come from wrong understanding. Then enlightenment is merely another condition dependent upon something else - so it is not really enlightenment. It is only a perception of enlightenment. However, I am not talking about any kind of perception but about being alert to the way things are. The present moment is what we can actually observe: we can’t observe tomorrow yet, and we can only remember yesterday. But Buddhist practice is very immediate to the here and now, looking at the way things are.
Now how do we do that? Well, first we have to look at our doubts and fears - because we get so attached to our views and opinions that these take us into doubt about what we are doing. Someone might develop a false confidence believing that they are enlightened. But believing that you are enlightened or believing that you are not enlightened are both delusions. What I am pointing to is being enlightened rather than believing in it. And for this, we need to open to the way things are.
We start with the way things are as they happen to be right now - such as the breathing of our own bodies. What has that to do with Truth, with enlightenment? Does watching my breath mean that I am enlightened? But the more you try to think about it and figure out what it is, the more uncertain and insecure you’ll feel. All we can do in this conventional form is to let go of delusion. That is the practice of the Four Noble Truths and the development of the Eightfold Path.