The Four Forms of Acumen

1. Attha-paṭisambhidā: acumen with regard to meaning.

2. Dhamma-paṭisambhidā: acumen with regard to mental qualities.

3. Nirutti-paṭisambhidā: acumen with regard to linguistic conventions.

4. Paṭibhāṇa-paṭisambhidā: acumen with regard to expression.

1. Acumen with regard to meaning means knowing how to explain the Buddha’s shorter teachings in detail and how to draw out the gist of a detailed teaching so that listeners will have a correct understanding in line with the Buddha’s aims. Even if you may have a lot to say, you get to the point; even if you have only a little to say, you don’t leave out anything important. Wrong words you can turn into right ones, and explanations that are correct but crude you can make more subtle without leaving anything out.

2. Acumen with regard to mental qualities means knowing how to distinguish skillful qualities from unskillful ones, establishing the first as good, which ought to be followed, and the second as evil, which ought to be avoided. You know how to explain their various levels, classifying the unskillful as common, intermediate, and subtle, and then know which skillful qualities are suitable for countering each sort: Virtue does away with common defilements; concentration does away with intermediate defilements; and discernment, subtle defilements. This is knowledge about mental qualities, on the level of theory. The next step is to practice and to develop virtue to do away with the roots of unskillfulness, the more common forms of greed, aversion, and delusion; to develop concentration to do away with intermediate defilements, the hindrances; and discernment to do away with the subtle defilements, ignorance and the fetters (saṅyojana).

Acumen with regard to mental qualities thus means to distinguish the various types of qualities and then to put the skillful qualities into practice until the supreme quality—nibbāna—is attained. Simply knowing about the skillful qualities, but not developing them, runs counter to the Buddha’s reasons for teaching about them in the first place.

3. Acumen with regard to linguistic conventions refers to the ability to know the individual with whom you are speaking (puggalaññutā), and how to speak with different types of people so as to be in keeping with their knowledge and background (parisaññutā). You know that you have to speak this way with that lay person, and that way with this; that this group of monks and novices has to be addressed in such and such a way, in line with their various backgrounds. You know how to make people understand in their own language—how to speak with farmers, merchants, and kings, varying your language so as to fit the person you are speaking to. This form of acumen, contrary to what people normally believe, doesn’t refer to the ability to speak the external language of birds or mice or what-have-you. Even if we could speak their language, what good would it do for them? If anyone can actually speak these languages, good for them. The Buddha’s main interest, though, was probably in having us know how to speak with people in a way that our words will meet their needs. Only those who have this ability qualify as having acquired this form of acumen.

4. Acumen with regard to expression refers to being quick-witted in discussing the Dhamma and its meaning, knowing how to put things in an apt way so as to keep ahead of your listeners. This doesn’t mean being devious, though. It simply means using strategy so as to be of benefit: putting common matters in subtle terms, and subtle matters in common terms; speaking of matters close at hand as if they were far away, of far away matters as if they were close at hand, explaining a base statement in high terms or a high statement in base terms, making difficult matters easy, and obscure matters plain. You know the right word to cut off a long-winded opponent, and how to put things—without saying anything false or dubious—so that no one can catch you. To be gifted in expression in this way means not to be talkative, but to be expert at talking. Talkative people soon run themselves out; people expert at talking never run out no matter how much they have to say. They can clear up any doubts in the minds of their listeners, and can find the one well-chosen word that is worth more than a hundred words.

The skills classed as the four forms of acumen refer only to the skills of this sort that come from the practice of tranquility and insight meditation.

The three skills, the eight skills, and the four forms of acumen arise only in the wake of jhāna. When classed according to level, they are two: sekha-bhūmi, i.e., any of these skills as mastered by a stream-enterer, a once-returner, a non-returner, or by a person who has yet to attain any of the transcendent levels; and asekha-bhūmi, any of these skills as mastered by an arahant.

The only one of these skills that’s really important is āsavakkhaya-ñāṇa, the knowledge that does away with the mental effluents. As for the others, whether or not they are attained isn’t really important. And it’s not the case that all noble ones will attain all of these skills. Not to mention ordinary people, even some arahants don’t attain any of them with the single exception of the knowledge that does away with mental effluents.

To master these skills, you have to have studied tranquility and insight meditation under a Buddha in a previous lifetime.

This ends the discussion of jhāna.

At this point I would like to return to the themes of insight meditation, because some people are bound not to be expert in the practice of jhāna. Even though they may attain jhāna to some extent, it’s only for short periods of time. Some people, for example, tend to be more at home investigating and figuring out the causes and effects of physical and mental phenomena, developing insight in terms of the three characteristics of inconstancy, stress, and “not-selfness,” practicing only a moderate amount of jhāna before heading on to the development of liberating insight.

Liberating insight can be developed in either of two ways: For those experts in jhāna, insight will arise dependent on the fourth level of rūpa jhāna; for those not expert in jhāna, insight will arise dependent on the first level of jhāna, following the practice of threshold concentration. Some people, when they reach this point, start immediately investigating it as a theme of insight meditation, leading to complete and clear understanding of physical and mental phenomena or, in terms of the aggregates, seeing clearly that form, feelings, mental labels, mental fabrications, and consciousness are inherently inconstant, stressful, and not-self, and then making this insight strong.

If this sort of insight becomes powerful at the same time that your powers of mindfulness and alertness are weak and slow acting, though, any one of ten kinds of misapprehension can occur. These are called vipassanūpakkilesa, the corruptions of insight. Actually, they are nothing more than by-products of the practice of insight, but if you fall for them and latch on to them, they become defilements. They can make you assume wrongly that you have reached the paths, fruitions, and nibbāna, because they are defilements of a very subtle sort. They are also termed the enemies of insight. If your mindfulness isn’t equal to your powers of discernment, you can get attached and be led astray without your realizing it, believing that you have no more defilements, that there is nothing more for you to do. These ten defilements are extremely subtle and fine. If you fall for them, you’re not likely to believe anyone who tells you that you’ve gone wrong. Thus you should know about them beforehand so that you can separate the mind from them when they arise. But before discussing them, we should first discuss the exercises for insight meditation, because the corruptions of insight appear following on the practice of the exercises.