Noble Priorities
April 29, 2024

When the Buddha talks about how he discovered the path, he starts with right concentration. He’d been trying different methods for years, and nothing worked. He’d pretty much exhausted all the alternatives that were known in those days.

Then he remembered a time from his childhood when he’d entered spontaneously into concentration, with a sense of ease, refreshment. He asked himself, “Could that be the path?” A realization came that said, ‘Yes.’ Then the question was, “Why am I afraid of that pleasure and ease that has no drawbacks?”

So he decided to follow that path and then developed the other factors around right concentration. It’s interesting to note, though, that together with right concentration there came at least the beginning of right view, and concentration was at least one of the factors of the path. The fact that these came together may explain why the Buddha would emphasize right concentration in some of his explanations of the path, and right view in others.

There’s one where he calls right concentration the center of the path, and all the other factors are its supports. There are other talks, though, where he talks about right view as being the seed for all the other factors—the point being that the first and the last factors of the path are the really important ones. So as you practice, you want to keep both in mind.

Right view, of course, starts with the view that that your actions really do make a difference. There are skillful actions and there are unskillful actions. The skillful ones, when you develop them, will lead to happiness. The unskillful ones will lead to suffering. The Buddha has you practice in line with that particular insight by following the precepts.

The precepts, in turn, point to your intentions: You can break a precept only intentionally. So even though the precepts are focused on what you do in terms of your speech and your physical actions, the real focus is on the mind, so that you get to know your intentions. This gets you ready for concentration practice. They also promote right view in the sense that you realize that your intentions are going to be really important in determining whether you act in a way that leads to suffering or in a way that leads away from suffering. So again, the importance is with the mind.

Then we get to the four noble truths, which are the transcendent level of right view, and here everything is internal: Suffering is clinging to the aggregates. The body may grow ill, old, die, but that’s not the essence of the suffering. As Ajaan Lee says, those things are the shadows of suffering. The real suffering is clinging to the aggregates: form, feeling, perceptions, thought constructs, consciousness. The clinging is the big problem. That’s the suffering.

What causes it? The three kinds of craving, which are things that you do. You could attack those three kinds of craving by doing other things—in other words, following the path, starting with right view all the way through right concentration under the headings of virtue, concentration, discernment. And through that path it’s possible to put an end to suffering.

It’s an inside job. The suffering is inside; the causes are inside; the solution is inside. So suffering may be the focal point of right view, but it also tells you something more than just how suffering happens and how it ends. It also tells you that this is the big issue in life. This should have top priority.

This is where the Buddha’s teachings go really contrary to the world. We live in a world where the big issues are outside. The media keep pointing our attention over there, over there, over there, whereas the Buddha is saying, No, the place you really should pay attention is in here.

So as you practice in the world, you have to realize that your priorities have to be different from the priorities of the world. It’s in this way that the Dhamma is counter-cultural not only here is the West, but also wherever it’s found.

A lot of the things the Buddha did and said were really opposed to Indian culture at the time. Old brahmans were upset because the Buddha wouldn’t bow down to them. Other people were upset because their sons and daughters were ordaining, leaving the family, and going into the homeless life. So it wasn’t that he was just adopting Indian views or Indian customs. He was often going against them.

In every culture where you find that Buddhism has spread, it is counter-cultural, primarily because its priorities are different.

Ajaan Mun got a lot of flak when he went out into the forest, followed the dhutaṅga practices, really devoted himself seriously to the practice. That was back in the days when monks were supposed to be the village doctors, the village teachers. The government was trying to get them to lead a settled life, so he had to escape, first to the forests of the northeast, and then to the forests in the northern part of Thailand. Even there, he was accused of not following Thai or Laotian customs. But as he said, he was interested in joining the noble ones, so he had to follow the customs of the noble ones, which are not the customs of the Laos, the Thais, or any nationality.

After all, national customs—the usual civilizations of human beings—are based on greed, aversion, and delusion. They’re based on defilement. Their priorities are different. So as you take on the practice, you have to realize you’re changing your priorities, and you’re going to have to step outside of your culture.

This was one of the things I appreciated about Ajaan Fuang when I first met him. He wasn’t a typical Thai. He’d spent time in the forest, and when you’re living in the forest, you can look back on the society you’ve left and you can see it from the outside.

Of course, he did have some attitudes that were very Thai, but they had been questioned and weren’t adopted just out of habit. They were adopted because there were some things in Thai culture that were in line with the Dhamma.

But the Dhamma came first. And the issue of why you’re suffering and how you’re suffering and what you could do to put an end to it—that had to have top priority. Which meant that he had to step out of the society. There might have been initially a sense of alienation, but there was also a sense of freedom, that he was freed from the strictures and stupidities of that society.

So as we approach our practice here, we have to take the same approach: that our priorities are different from those of the world around us, and we hold on to them because they’re liberating. If we just fall in line with what the world says is important, we find it harder and harder and harder even to find time to practice, much less to have a consistent practice or one that progresses.

So always try to keep that in mind. The issue of what suffering is and how you’re causing it and how you can put an end to it should have top priority.

You want to look into your mind and see how your mind is processing things, because that’s what the four noble truths are all about. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations can be good or bad. But the fact that they’re good or bad, doesn’t mean that they’re going to have to make you happy or have to make you sad. It’s how you process them that makes the difference.

Now, there are some things that will come in from your past karma. As the Buddha said, you want to see the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind as the results of past karma. The things you experience through these senses are the results of past karma. But you don’t just put up with whatever.

It’s like going into a kitchen and finding that you have nothing but raw eggs in your refrigerator. Now, you may not have wanted raw eggs that day, but that’s what you’ve got. But you don’t have to eat them raw. You can fry them, you can steam them, you can do all kind of things with them. The more cooking skills you develop, the more options you have, the more possibilities there are.

It’s the same as you develop the path. As you develop the skills of mindfulness, alertness, ardency, concentration, discernment, these give you more and more options. So in the beginning you get better—at the very least—at alleviating suffering. When you really master these skills, you find a dimension where there is no suffering at all.

Now, the world doesn’t believe in that possibility. And as we see the Dhamma coming to the West, we can see that many people trying to close off that possibility even in the Dhamma. But you have to decide for yourself: Are you going to keep that possibility as an open option? Are you going to order your priorities in line with it? The Buddha and all the noble disciples say that’s a really worthwhile attitude to have.

So you want to take them as your models, and think of your life as being scrutinized by them. The question is not how you appear in the eyes of the world, but how you would appear in the eyes of the noble ones.

The noble ones have high standards, but they also have a lot of compassion. They realize that by holding you to those high standards is the compassionate approach. So when you adopt their standards, you adopt their priorities, and that’s a way of showing compassion for yourself.

It may put you at odds with the world sometimes. But then what is the world? Gain, loss, status, loss of status, praise, criticism, pleasure, pain—all of which gets swept away.

If you want to find something that doesn’t get swept away, you want to give priority to right view. And then, whatever right view tells you about your actions—what’s important in life, what’s not: Take that to heart and make that your guide.