Borrowing the Buddha’s Wisdom
April 04, 2024


April 4, 2024

One thing I’ve noticed in Thailand when the ajaans get old, is that their Dhamma talks tend to focus more and more on the essentials. When you’re younger, you have the time and the energy to talk about all kinds of things. But as time gets shorter and shorter, you get a sense that you want to get the essentials across because you have no idea how much longer you’re going to be around. Of course, this applies throughout life, but as you get older, you get more conscious of it.

There are two themes that the ajaans would tend to stress as they got older— especially in the case of Ajaan Suwat: One was taking refuge in the Triple Gem, and the other was being really serious about your actions, about the principle of karma. These two teachings, of course, are very closely connected.

We take refuge in the Triple Gem even though the Buddha said that we have to learn how to depend on ourselves. Still, he gives us advice so that we can shorten the process of finding the truth. He allows us to borrow his wisdom so that we don’t have to keep on reinventing the Dhamma wheel ourselves. He left his Dhamma along with a community of people to carry on the Dhamma.

That’s our refuge. Without that, we wouldn’t know how to develop the right qualities so that we could learn how to depend on ourselves. Those qualities come down to being very careful about what you do, and say, and think. Be very heedful.

The word heedful implies that there are dangers, but also that you can prepare for them and protect yourself from them. If there were no dangers at all, there’d be no need to be heedful. And if you couldn’t do anything to protect yourself from those dangers, there wouldn’t be any need to be heedful, either. You’d just have to accept whatever. But you can make a difference with your actions, and those actions can have long-term consequences.

That, you may remember, is the question that lies at the beginning of wisdom, discernment: “What when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?” Anybody can recommend ways of finding happiness pretty quickly, but if you’re wise, you want long-term. And you realize that it’s going to have to depend on your actions.

You also realize that long-term is possible. Sometimes we tend to forget that—with all the emphasis on the teachings of inconstancy, stress, not-self, on how everything changes, changes, changes. An image that some people like to use is of someone sitting on a shore, watching the waves come in. The waves come and go, and come and go, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. It’s kind of silly to think, “This is a good wave, I want to keep it,” or, “This is a bad wave, I want it to go away faster.” You have to learn to accept the fact that the waves come and the waves go.

But that’s not an image the Buddha himself ever used. He says we’re going across a river, and there is safety on the other side that’s reliably, truly safe. The river is one we all have to cross. If we don’t cross, there’s danger on this side. If we don’t cross it properly, we fall into the dangers of the river.

But you can learn how to take advantage of the twigs and branches and vines you’ve got here on this side to make yourself a raft. In the same way, you’ve got this body; you’ve got this mind. You can take the good qualities of the body and the mind, and you can make them into a raft. You hold on to that raft as you go across. Don’t let go. You let go only when you’ve gotten to the other side.

So you do have these potentials within you to find safety, to find a happiness that’s long-term. The Buddha sets that out as a possibility. And that’s one of the most valuable parts of his teaching: just opening that possibility, that there is a way to put an end to suffering.

The world tells us, “You can assuage or manage your suffering, but there’s no way you’re going to totally end it.” The Buddha’s saying something else. And the fact that he gives us that message is important. That’s one of the ways in which we borrow his wisdom.

He also gives instructions on how to do it—the noble eightfold path, which boils down to virtue, concentration, discernment: This is the path. He gives instructions in virtue in terms of right speech, right action, right livelihood; concentration in terms of right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration; discernment in terms of right view, and right resolve. He spells it all out.

Now, there are a lot of areas in which you have to take his teachings as general principles and you apply them in your own specific way to your own specific problems. But there’s always a standard test: Does your way of applying them actually work?

This is where the Buddha’s wisdom is really interesting. He doesn’t just set out a teaching. He also talks about how you go about hearing the Dhamma, how you go about learning how to listen to the Dhamma, how you think about the Dhamma, and how you apply it.

So it’s not just the teachings. He says, “This is how you find them: You try to look for a person of integrity. And it’s interesting that the Dhamma can be passed on only from a person of integrity, and only to a person who can recognize and appreciate integrity.

The Buddha’s standards for finding a person of integrity are, one, you have to have some integrity yourself; and two, you have to spend time with that person to know how that person behaves in different situations. Is the person reliable? Does the person have endurance? Has he learned how to live with setbacks in the world and take them in stride?

You ask some questions as you get to know this person: Would this person ever claim to know something he or she didn’t know? If the answer’s Yes, find someone else. You’re testing the truthfulness of that person. Another question: Would this person ever get someone else to do something that would not be in that other person’s best interest? And again, if the answer’s Yes, find somebody else. You’re looking for someone who’s compassionate.

Then the third is, are this person’s teachings subtle, refined, reflective? If the answer is Yes, okay, that’s someone you want to hang around with. You’re looking for someone who’s wise. So: truthful, compassionate, wise, and knowledgeable: Look for someone like that.

Then you listen to the true Dhamma from that person. And you know the true Dhamma is true because it aims at dispassion and freedom—or “being unfettered,” in the Buddha’s terms. Also, it gets you to be modest, content. Contentment here, means contentment with the requisites of life. It doesn’t mean being content with whatever’s coming up in your mind.

And you shed your pride. You shed your thoughts of wanting to get back at people, your demands that “I’m not going to get out of here until justice has been done.” Those things have to be shed.

In other words, you focus on the qualities within you that this path develops. Then you also focus on how it influences the way you deal with other people. You want to deal in such a way that you’re not burdensome on other people, and you don’t entangle yourself with them all the time. You find time for seclusion.

So, if the Dhamma—when you put it into practice—develops these qualities within you, then you know it’s the genuine thing. But then there’s the question, “How do you put it into practice?”

First, the Buddha says, you have to apply appropriate attention. That means learning how to ask the right questions. “How does this teaching apply to my life right now?” At first, you have to ask yourself, “Is this teaching consistent with what I’ve learned of the Dhamma before?”—because that’s one of the hallmarks of the true Dhamma: It is consistent.

We’ve heard so much about paradoxical Buddhist wisdom. But when you look at the early teachings, the Buddha’s really consistent in saying that certain things are skillful, certain things are unskillful. There are areas of the path where it does get a little bit paradoxical, but those are at the very advanced stages.

A lot of people want to go straight to the advanced stages, skipping over the basics. But the basics are important because they train you to be a reliable person. They train you to be the sort of person who can apply the teaching effectively and pass judgment fairly.

So you reflect on the teaching: If you see that it makes sense, fits in with the Dhamma, and then you decide, okay, you want to practice. That’s where desire plays a role on the path. And then you judge your actions.

This is where you move into the fourth thing the Buddha talks about, which is practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma. In other words, you set the Dhamma as your standard, and not your own ideas as your standard. You’re willing to submit to the Dhamma.

It’s a word we don’t like to hear—submitting. But again, think about the ajaans as life approaches its end: They always express a lot of gratitude for the Buddha. Ajaan Chah once said that if you really understood the Buddha’s teachings, and you really had benefited from them, then every time you bowed down to the Buddha you’d have tears in your eyes because he had gone to such difficulties to get this Dhamma out there, and it is so valuable.

So you take the principles of the Dhamma, and you know they are the principles because they aim at disenchantment, dispassion: in other words, learning how to outgrow your old habits—the things you do, the kind of playing around looking for immediate happiness and ending up with long-term pain. You learn how to say, “I’ve had enough of that. I want something better.” You stick with that principle—long-term happiness*—*all the way through.

This is how we take refuge in the Buddha, not only by listening to his Dhamma and saying, “Yeah, the Dhamma sounds true,” and agreeing with it. We learn how to recognize that it’s true Dhamma, what kind of person who can teach the Dhamma properly, how we should ask questions about it to see how it applies to the problems of how we’re creating suffering for ourselves, and how we can stop doing that.

Once we understand the principles, we follow them. It’s in following them that we become a better and better judge of whether things are working, or not.

I remember reading an article one time printed in the New York Times—so it was supposed to be reliable—by a person who was saying, “I tried mindfulness a couple times, and it didn’t work.” Well, one, were they really mindful? And two, were they really a good judge of what works and what doesn’t work? Because working sometimes takes a long time to see whether it really works, or not.

Some people say, “I understand the principle of kamma. And yes, I agree with it because I’ve seen it in my life.” Well, you’ve seen shadows of it. You’ve seen indications.

But it took the Buddha the ability to remember many, many, many eons back to see that, Yes, the principle of kamma really did work that way. After all, it’s very complex. The principle is simple, but it’s working out is complex. It’s kind of like a fractal equation. The equations themselves look pretty short and simple, but as you plot out their iterations, you see that they get very complex.

When the Buddha taught about other people who had gained knowledge of previous lifetimes, what he called a short-memory was forty eons. An eon is a whole universe—from the beginning and to the end of a particular universe. That’s a long time. And forty of those, the Buddha said, was still short. Which is one of the reasons why it’s good that we can borrow his wisdom because it would take a long time to re-invent the Dhamma wheel.

And in borrowing his wisdom, we learn not only what he had to say, but also his advice on how to listen to it, how to think about it, how to put it into practice. It’s all laid out.

Now, he does require that you be sensitive in how you apply it because you’ll discover that often his instructions are like riddles.

You read the sixteen steps in his instructions on breath meditation, and they’re pretty simple. You discern when the breath is long. You discern when the breath is short. You train yourself to breathe in and out sensitive to the whole body. And then you learn how to breathe in a way that allows the breath to calm down. The ideas are simple, but how you apply them in practice requires that you put a lot yourself into it as well.

So in judging the Buddha’s teaching, it’s not just of matter of deciding, “Well, sounds nice to me,” or “It doesn’t sound nice to me.” You have to put a lot of yourself into it.

How do you let the breath go calm without stifling it? How do you maintain your focus and be aware of the whole body at the same time? How do you breathe in such a way that gives rise to pleasure, and breathe in such a way that gives rise to refreshment?

The instructions are there, but following them depends on your using your own powers of observation. As the Buddha said, what you’ve got to do is, one, commit yourself to the practice, and then two, reflect.

The commitment means that you’re willing to take on the teaching and try your best to do it. Then you learn how to reflect on the results: Are you really getting the results that are good? And if not, what’s wrong? Wise people say, “There’s something wrong with how I either listen to the Dhamma or how I’m thinking about it or how I’m applying it.” They don’t go criticizing the Dhamma.

They have to ask themselves, “Okay, what am I doing wrong?” When you do that, that’s when there’s hope for you. And that’s how you become your own refuge: not by placing the blame outside, but saying, “Something is wrong inside, but I have the ability to fix it. And I’ve got the help of the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha.”

These principles of finding a person of integrity, listening to the true Dhamma, applying appropriate attention, and then practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma: These are the principles that the Buddha says can take you all the way to the first level of awakening. They’re basic but they can take you far. So don’t overlook them.

There are people who hear that at first level of awakening you cut three fetters, so they try to cut them. They hear that it’s insight into, “Whatever is subject to origination is subject to passing away,” so they basically tell themselves, “Well, I’m going to just believe that as much as I can.” They try to get to the results without doing the causes.

It doesn’t work that way. The causes may seem mundane and very ordinary, but if you really apply yourself to them and you *really *reflect, it can take you to a state of mind that will cut the fetters for you and put you in a position where that insight into, “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to passing away,” naturally occurs without having anybody ever told you that.

Think about all the people in the time of the Buddha who had that insight. Some of them were pretty unlikely characters. There were—I guess you wouldn’t call them the hired guns—the hired bows and arrows, who were paid to kill the Buddha. He was able to teach them, and that was the insight they had. And in teaching them, he didn’t mention that phrase at all. He taught them about the four noble truths—the truths along with their duties.

So you do the duties as they’re set out, and you commit yourself to them, you reflect on them, so that they become more and more your Dhamma, not just the Buddha’s Dhamma. That’s how you move from taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and the Sangha to taking refuge in yourself—in a way that’s really solid and secure.