Discernment is of three kinds –
1. Sutamaya-paññā: discernment that comes from studying.
2. Cintāmaya-paññā: discernment that comes from reflecting.
3. Bhāvanāmaya-paññā: discernment that comes from developing the mind.
l. Sutamaya-paññā is the discernment that comes from having listened a great deal, like the Venerable Ānanda. Listening here, though, includes studying and taking interest in a variety of ways: paying attention, taking notes, asking questions, and taking part in discussions so as to become quick-witted and astute.
Education of all kinds comes down to two sorts: (a) learning the basic units, such as the letters of the alphabet, their sound and pronunciation, so as to understand their accepted usage; and (b) learning how to put them together – for instance, how to combine the letters so as to give rise to words and meanings – as when we complete our elementary education so that we won’t be at a loss when we’re called on to read and write in the course of making a living.
In the area of the religion, we have to study the letters of the Pali alphabet, their combinations, their meanings, and their pronunciation. If we don’t understand clearly, we should take an interest in asking questions. If we have trouble memorizing, we should jot down notes as a way of aiding our memory and expanding our concepts. In addition, we have to study by means of our senses. For example, when we see a visual object, we should find out its truth. When we hear sounds or words, we should find out their truth. When we smell an aroma, we should consider it to see what it comes from. We should take an interest in flavors so that we know what they come from, and in tactile sensations – the heat and cold that touch the body – by studying such things as the way weather behaves.
All of these forms of education are ways of giving rise to astuteness – both in the area of the world and in the area of the Dhamma – because they constitute a basic level of knowledge, like the primary education offered in schools.
2. Cintāmaya-paññā refers to thinking and evaluating so as to learn the meaning and truth of one’s beginning education. This level of education draws out the meaning of the knowledge we have gained through studying. When we gain information, we should reflect on it until we understand it so that we will be led by our sense of reason and not by gullibility or ignorance. This is like a person who has used his knowledge of the alphabet to gain knowledge from books to complete his secondary education. Such a person has reached the level where he can think things through clearly.
In the area of the Dhamma, the same holds true. Once we have learned the basics, we should research and think through the content of the Teaching until we give rise to an understanding so that we can conduct ourselves correctly in line with the methods and aims taught by the sages of the past. This level of discernment is what prepares us to conduct ourselves properly in line with the truths of the Doctrine and Discipline. This is classed as an aspect of pariyatti dhamma, Dhamma on the level of theory. By learning the language and meaning of the Teaching, we can become astute as far as theory is concerned; but if we don’t use that knowledge to train ourselves, it’s as if we studied a profession – such as law – but then went out to become bandits, so that our knowledge wouldn’t give its proper results. For this reason, we’ve been taught still another method, which is the well-spring of discernment or mastery – i.e., the mental activity termed bhāvanāmaya-paññā.
3. Bhāvanāmaya-paññā: discernment that arises exclusively from training the mind in concentration. In other words, this level of discernment isn’t related to the old observations we’ve gained from the past, because our old observations are bound to obscure the new observations, endowed with the truth, that can arise only right at the mind. When you engage in this form of practice, focus exclusively on the present, taking note of a single thing, not getting involved with past or future. Steady the mind, bringing it into the present. Gather virtue, concentration, and discernment all into the present. Think of your meditation object and bring your powers of evaluation to bear on it – say, by immersing mindfulness in the body, focusing on such objects as the in-and-out breath. When you do this, knowledge will arise.
‘Ñāṇaṁ udapādi’: Intuitive knowledge of things we have never before studied or known will appear. For example: pubbenivāsānussati-ñāṇa – the ability to remember our present life and past lives; cutūpapāta-ñāṇa – the ability to know living beings as they die and are reborn – well or poorly, happily or miserably – knowing the causes and results of how they fare; āsavakkhaya-ñāṇa – the ability to cleanse ourselves of the fermentations that defile the mind, thinning them out or eliminating them altogether, as we are able. These three forms of knowledge don’t arise for people who simply study or think things through in ordinary ways. They form a mental skill that arises from the practice of concentration and are an aspect of Dhamma on the level of practice (paṭipatti-dhamma).
Another aspect – ’paññā udapādi’: Clear discernment of the true nature of the properties (dhātu), aggregates, and sense media arises. We can focus on these things by way of the mind and know them in terms of the four noble truths: stress (dukkha), which arises from a cause (samudaya), i.e., ignorance and craving; and then nirodha, the ceasing and disbanding of stress, which occurs as the result of a cause, i.e., the Path (magga), composed of practices for the mind. These things can be known by means of the discernment that arises exclusively and directly within us and is termed the eye of discernment or the eye of Dhamma: the eye of the mind, awakening from its slumbers.
‘Vijjā udapādi’: The eight forms of cognitive skill, which follow the laws of cause and effect – means of practice that bring us results – can arise in a quiet mind.
‘Āloko udapādi’: Brightness, clarity, relief, and emptiness arise in such a mind.
Thus, the discernment that results from developing the mind differs from the beginning stages of discernment that come from studying and reflecting. Study and reflection are classed as Dhamma on the level of theory, and can give only a preliminary level of knowledge. They’re like a person who has awakened but has yet to open his eyes. The discernment that comes from developing the mind, though, is like waking up and seeing the truth – past, present, and future – in all four directions. We can clearly see stress, its cause, its disbanding, and the Path to its disbanding, and so can absolutely abandon the first set of fetters. Our hearts will then flow to nibbāna, just as the water in a mountain cataract is sure to flow to the sea. They will flow to their natural truth: the mental fullness and completeness of a person who has practiced mental development until discernment arises within. We will meet with a special form of skill – transcendent skill – whose power will stay with us always, a quality that’s certain and sure, termed certain truth, certain wisdom, making us people certain for nibbāna.
So this level of discernment – termed the discernment of liberating insight – is especially important. It arises on its own, not from cogitating along the lines of old concepts we’ve learned, but from abandoning them. Old concepts are what obscure the new knowledge ready to arise.
The nature of liberating insight is like an electric light: Simply press the switch once, and things all around are made bright. In the same way, when the mind reaches a stage of readiness, insight will arise in a single mental instant, and everything will become clear: properties, aggregates, and the sense media. We’ll know, on the one hand, what’s inconstant (aniccaṁ), stressful (dukkhaṁ), and not-self (anattā); and on the other hand, what’s uncommon, i.e., niccaṁ – what’s constant and true; sukhaṁ – true happiness, termed nirāmisa-sukha; and attā – the self. The eye of the mind can know both sides and let go both ways. It’s attached neither to what’s inconstant, stressful, and not-self; nor to what’s constant (niccaṁ), good (sukhaṁ), and right (attā). It can let these things go, in line with their true nature.
The knowledge that comes from discernment, cognitive skill, and intuitive insight, it can let go as well. It isn’t attached to views – for there’s yet another, separate sort of reality that has no ‘this’ or ‘that.’ In other words, it doesn’t have the view or conceit that ‘I am.’ It lets go of the assumptions that, ‘That’s the self,’ ‘That’s not-self,’ ‘That’s constant,’ ‘That’s inconstant,’ ‘That arises,’ ‘That doesn’t arise.’ It can let go of these things completely. That’s the Dhamma, and yet it doesn’t hold onto the Dhamma, which is why we say that the Dhamma is not-self. It also doesn’t hold on to the view that says, ‘not-self.’ It lets go of views, causes, and effects, and isn’t attached to anything at all dealing with wordings or meanings, conventions or practices.
This, then, is discernment that arises from the development of the mind.
To summarize: The discernment that comes from studying and reflecting is classed as Dhamma on the level of theory. The discernment that comes from developing the mind is classed as Dhamma on the level of practice. The results that arise are two –
1. Mundane discernment: comprehension – of the world and the Dhamma – falling under mundane influences and subject to change.
2. Transcendent discernment: awareness that goes beyond the ordinary, giving rise to clear realization within. People who reach this level are said to have awakened and opened their eyes, which is what is meant by ‘Buddho.’
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To summarize everything, there are three main points –
1. Virtue, which in terms of where its principles are found is the Vinaya Piṭaka.
2. Concentration, which in terms of where its principles are found is the Suttanta Piṭaka.
3. Discernment, which in terms of where its principles are found is the Abhidhamma Piṭaka.
Expressed in terms of their meaning, they refer to three modes of behavior to be developed –
1. Virtue: keeping our words and deeds honest and in good order. This is a means of killing off one of the causes of stress, i.e., kāma-taṇhā (sensual craving), mental states that take pleasure in growing attached and involved in sights, sounds, smells, flavors, tactile sensations, and ideas, known through the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, feeling, and ideation.
2. Concentration: steadying the mind in a single preoccupation, holding fast to the present, not latching onto thoughts of past or future. Concentration is a means of killing off bhava-taṇhā (craving to be what one isn’t), i.e., mental states that stray off into thoughts of past and future. The act of straying is craving for becoming, looking for a new place to take birth. This is what is meant by ‘sambhavesin.’ When concentration arises, the mind can let go of such craving.
3. Discernment: circumspect knowledge that guards over the mind to keep it from being influenced, involved, and attached. Discernment is what enables us to abandon vibhava-taṇhā (craving not to be what one is), in that the characteristic of this form of craving is the wavering that occurs in the mental moment arising in the present. This we can perceive through intuitive discernment. Discernment knows stress; intuitive knowledge cuts the root of stress; cognitive skill – clear knowledge of past, future, and present – distinguishes cause, result, and release, without being attached: This is what’s meant by the skill of release.
And that is the heart of the Buddha’s teachings.