Make Yourself Reliable
February 04, 2024

One of the really impressive things you learn when you read about the Buddha’s awakening is how often he tested it. He looked at it from many angles. Could he see any effluents at all in his mind? Could he see any defilements? Was there any limitation on his knowledge? The one limitation he admitted to was knowledge of the future, and that’s because, as he saw, the future’s not totally predetermined.

There may be tendencies, and sometimes he would make predictions about the future, that there would be tendencies in the future: the downfall of the Dhamma; the rise of counterfeit Dhamma; the disappearance of the true Dhamma; monks who didn’t practice, and who, as he said, “Spent their time searching out the tip-top flavors with the tips of their tongues.”

But as for when this would happen and who would do it, that he didn’t say. After all, we do have freedom of choice: We can choose not to be those types of people, and we can work on that determination.

One thing he did know about the future was that he had no rebirth waiting for him, because there were no possible seeds for it in his mind. But he checked again, and again. There’s even a passage where he talks about how if his awakening really were the awakening of a true Buddha, he’d have to know all about devas. What levels there were. How to talk with the devas on those levels to see where their limitations were. How he’d been born on that particular level in the past. The only levels he hadn’t been born in were the levels where the non-returners go.

So, he looked at his awakening from all angles. That was why, when he taught, he was confident in what he had to say. So when we take the Buddha as an example, that’s one of the main things we should take as examples: the willingness to test our knowledge, test our understanding.

Sometimes we think that the knowledge we get from books is uncertain, but the knowledge that comes from meditation is to be trusted. But not always. It depends on how you treat that knowledge—the extent to which you’re willing to ask questions about it, and look at it from different angles.

This is where the fact of having a committee of the mind—which can so often be a problem because the members can be pulling in different directions—can actually be helpful. There’ll be part of the mind that gets convinced about something, but you can look around for another part of the mind that’s willing to question it.

Think of Ajaan Mun in the forest: He realized very quickly that if he believed everything that came in his visions, he was going to go crazy. So even if it seemed to be the Buddha coming to talk to him, or devas coming to talk to him, the question wasn’t, “Who is this that’s giving me this information, and how much can I trust that person?” The question was, “What does the information have to say? Is it something that fits in with the Dhamma as I know it?” If it doesn’t fit in with the Dhamma, you can forget about it. If it does fit in with the Dhamma, to what extent is it really useful?

So, you put it to the test. And putting it to the test means that you have to be a fair judge. It’s one of the reasons why the Buddha started his meditation instructions to Rahula with the advice that he should try to make his mind like earth. The more you’re able to be with pleasant and unpleasant things and not let them overcome you, then the more you can trust your judgment of them, to see where they come from, to see what they lead to.

So the question isn’t, “What is the source of this knowledge?” A vision in the meditation, or what is often called the *knowledge of the body, *is not necessarily a reliable source. Your body has been so shaped by your mind and so shaped by your defilements that the body can’t be trusted as a source of knowledge, either, because your greed, aversion, and delusion have learned how to hijack your breath, and through the breath they get control of the hormones. So the way you feel your body from within often has nothing to do with any wisdom at all. It has more to do with the fact that you have certain habits. When anger comes, you tense up the body in one way. Greed, comes, lust comes, fear comes, laziness comes… when you’re feeling lazy, you can create all kinds of sensations in the body that make it seem really convincing that you’d have to rest.

So, you have to take a questioning attitude. And you have to learn how to read yourself—which means learning how to step back. You can’t spend all your time with the teacher, asking questions of the teacher and fully trusting the answers you’re going to get. You’ve got to test them. After all, it is your breath. In your relationship to the body, you have a history that you should know better than anyone else. So when you get angry, how does the anger take hold of your breath? When you get lustful, how does the lust take hold of your breath? What can you do to counteract that?

Use your powers of observation; use your ingenuity—Ajaan Fuang’s refrains. But also use your powers of concentration, mindfulness—the things that make the mind more and more steady. If the mind isn’t steady, it’s hard to see what’s actually going on and to pass a fair judgment.

It’s like getting very precise scientific equipment but putting it on a wobbly table. The wobbles of the table will make the output from the equipment totally unreliable. You’ve got to get things firmly established. And because the mind is more complex than physical things, you have to learn how to look at things from different directions. It’s in this way that you internalize the teachings. You test the teachings at the same time that you test yourself over time.

Think about the Buddha’s requirements for a student: He wanted someone who was observant and no deceiver. Now, in the first instance, that’s someone who doesn’t deceive other people, but also doesn’t deceive him or herself. That’s a tall order. Ajaan Chah once said that one of the first things you notice when you really look at the mind with all honesty is how dishonest it can be.

So, both the mind and the body can be dishonest, but they also have their potential for honesty. Particularly the mind. It’s the mind that we’re training.

We use the body to get more and more sensitive to how our unskillful emotions can take over our sense of just who we are inside. We’re living in the body, and those emotions can make the body really, really uncomfortable. As they say in Thailand, “They put a squeeze on your nerves,” so that you feel you have to act under those defilements.

Well, learn how to resist that. This is one of the reasons why we work with the breath. We’re taking the breath back, learning to get it on our side. From the breath, it affects other physical processes in the body as well.

As you develop these habits, you do become more and more reliable. And you do begin to get some knowledge you can trust. Think of the Buddha talking to the Kalamas: Just because a teacher says something doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because it’s in the texts doesn’t mean it’s true. Everybody likes that part of the sutta. But he also says that just because something seems reasonable doesn’t mean it’s true, either. Just because it fits in with your preconceived notions doesn’t mean it’s true. You’ve got to test and see: Does a particular teaching, a particular understanding cause harm, or does it not cause harm? And what counts as harm? And how sensitive are you to the harm that your actions can do?

So the sutta is not the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry, as they call it. It’s his indication of what standards you have to adopt if you really want to find the truth. It’s when your standards are true that you’re more and more likely to run into what is true, and to recognize it as true—as something you can trust implicitly. But it has to pass the test first. So be willing to test things.

Years back, Ajaan Maha Boowa made a comment about Ajaan Suwat to the effect that he’d already finished his work as a meditator. Word got to Ajaan Suwat, and he didn’t take it as a 100% guarantee. He kept questioning. And one day he told me after the meal, “You know, when Ajaan Maha Boowa said that, it wasn’t true.”

So, even when you get certification from somebody as trustworthy as that, you still have to test it. After all, you’re going to be the final judge: Does your knowledge really help put an end to suffering? Does it help you look at your habits that are unskillful and help pull you out of them?

When you’ve put things to that test, again and again and again, then you become a more reliable judge, and the knowledge you gain can become more reliable as well.