Discernment. For the past four nights, we’ve been talking about the three intention faculties: persistence, mindfulness, and concentration. We call them the intention faculties because they are things that you’re trying to do and trying to create. They do incorporate some aspects of attention as well, and they build on conviction and discernment, but their primary emphasis is intention: what you’re trying to do.
Tonight, we’ll return more directly to an attention faculty: discernment. Its focus is more on what you’re trying to know: what to pay attention to, and how to pay attention to it. This faculty is expressed in terms of the four noble truths. The Canon describes it in these terms:
“And what is the faculty of discernment? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is discerning, endowed with discernment of arising & passing away—noble, penetrating, leading to the right ending of stress. He discerns, as it has come to be: ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.’ This is called the faculty of discernment.” [§1]
This faculty builds on conviction and it takes inspiration from the Buddha’s awakening, and particularly, the third knowledge of that awakening, when he was able to reach the deathless by focusing on the problem of suffering.
When, in the very beginning, we use the four noble truths as tools to focus on our own suffering, it’s done out of faith that we’ll get worthwhile results. This requires faith for two main reasons.
The first is that the promised results—a deathless happiness—lie beyond our current experience, raising the standard of how good a potential happiness can be. Some people take umbrage at the idea of a deathless happiness because it seems to imply that they’ve been contenting themselves with second-rate happiness; other people like the idea, because it points to a happiness that could be truly satisfying. It takes wisdom and discernment not to get offended at the idea of a deathless happiness, but even so, in the beginning it has to be taken on faith.
The second reason why the four noble truths have to be taken on faith is because their analysis of suffering is counterintuitive. In the Buddha’s analysis, we suffer in feeding on our sense of what we are and how we can get what we want. Both of these things—our sense of what we are and how we can get what we want—constitute our basic strategies for happiness. Feeding is innate to our sense of what it means to be a being. And yet here the Buddha is telling us that we’re suffering because of these things: our strategies for happiness and the activity that sustains us. This is why the Buddha’s analysis goes against the grain, and why our resistance to it can be hard to uproot.
But concentration has put us in a better position to take advantage of this analysis by changing our feeding habits. It’s like learning how to eat health food after eating junk food for a long time. It takes a while to get used to health food, but once you’ve grown used to it, you don’t want to go back to junk food anymore. As we see that the Buddha’s approach helps lessen our level of suffering, we begin to get an inkling that maybe he was right. This inkling, though, is not really confirmed until the first taste of awakening.
So what are the four noble truths? They’re not just four interesting facts about suffering. They’re a way of dividing our experience into four categories, so as to recognize what to do with events in each category for the purpose of gaining release. The four noble truths are also a value judgment, asserting that the problem of suffering you cause yourself is the most important problem to solve. Once this problem is solved, nothing else is a true problem for the mind.
The first truth is stress and suffering, the second one is the origination of suffering, the third is the cessation of suffering, and the fourth is the path of practice leading to the cessation of suffering. When you look at the four noble truths and the fact that the Buddha is taking suffering as the main problem you should focus your attention on trying to solve, you also see the role that intention plays in formulating these truths. They’re based on goodwill for yourself and others. If the Buddha didn’t have goodwill for everyone, he wouldn’t have spent time focusing on this topic. As for us, the desire to solve the problem of the suffering we cause ourselves is, of course, based on goodwill for ourselves, but it’s also based on goodwill for others: The less suffering we cause ourselves, the less of a burden we’ll be on the people around us.
So let’s look at the four truths in detail.
First, suffering and stress: The Buddha never said that life is suffering. He said something more specific and infinitely more useful about suffering. He started out by listing different examples of suffering: the suffering of birth, aging, illness, and death; sorrow, lamentation, despair; the suffering of not getting what you want, the suffering of having to be with what you don’t like, and the suffering of being separated from what you do like. Then he summarized all of these kinds of suffering under the five clinging-aggregates: form, feeling, perceptions, fabrications, and consciousness, grasped at through any of the four kinds of clinging. Each of these is an activity. And as we mentioned the other night, they all play a role in feeding.
The aggregates are not the Buddha’s definition of what you are. Instead, they’re the raw material from which you create your sense of who or what you are. Remember also that clinging, too, is an activity—and it’s also a type of feeding. So we have a double layer of feeding here. Now, each aggregate is composed of a potential that comes from the past and the act of actualizing that potential in the present moment. And we actualize the aggregates in anticipation of the pleasure we’ll get out of them. So there are three layers of activity in each aggregate, and we cling to all three: to the potentials coming from the past, to the actualizing of that potential, and to the results we anticipate as we actualize them.
We’ve been using cooking as an analogy throughout these talks, so let’s use the analogy here: The three levels of clinging are like clinging, one, to the ingredients that you’re going to prepare, and then, two, to the way you prepare them. For example, this morning, when I mentioned putting olives in ratatouille, I saw a shiver of revulsion go through the room, with some people saying, “No, no! That’s heresy.” That’s the second level of clinging: to the way you actualize ratatouille. And then the third level is clinging to your anticipation of how good the ratatouille is going to be.
Clinging gets bad when you keep repeating an activity in anticipation of getting good results even when it’s not giving good results. This is a problem of poor judgment. You may have heard the story of the wise man who was eating a bushel of hot peppers and crying from the pain. People asked him, “Why are you eating the peppers?” “I’m looking for the sweet one.” He was teaching a lesson about bad judgment. And for most of us, bad judgment is the way we live our lives.
I’ll give you an example from America. On the highway to Las Vegas, there are signs by the side of the road, advertising the various casinos, and they say, “Guaranteed 93% payback rate!” Now what are they saying? They’re saying, “You give us a dollar and we’ll give you back 93 cents.” And yet people still go in droves. While we’re on the topic of Las Vegas—and the reason I know about Las Vegas is because when I go camping in Zion National Park or the Grand Canyon, I have to pass through Las Vegas on the way—my favorite sign on the road there says: “Las Vegas: Seven deadly sins, one convenient location.” Again, people see this sign and they still go.
I read of a positive psychologist, one who studies how people become happy, and he was noticing that the people he was studying had very bad judgment about how they found happiness. They would tell him that something made them really happy, but if he actually talked to them while they were engaged in the activity, he’d find that they were not really that happy at all. He kept thinking, “Why are people so stupid?” But then he thought about himself. He liked climbing mountains, but when he was honest with himself, he realized that while he was actually climbing mountains, he was miserable. It was only after or before climbing that he liked it. So it’s a common trait: We’re poor judges of what really makes us happy.
To get past this poor judgment, we don’t stop judging. We have to develop better powers of judgment as to what’s worth doing or not. For example, the Buddha says that not only do we feed on the aggregates, but the aggregates also chew on us—and we don’t see the connection. I’ll give you an analogy. It’s like feeding chickens because we want to eat their eggs. But we have two problems. One is that we eat everything that comes out of the chickens, not just the eggs. That’s the first problem. The second problem is that these are chickens from hell. At night, they come and peck at our eyes and our ears and our brain and our heart, and yet we don’t make the connection: The more we feed them, the more they’ll have the strength to peck at us.
Insight and discernment are basically going to teach us how to see the connection and how to put a stop to it. To begin with, they teach us to eat only the good things, i.e., the eggs, that come out of the chickens—the eggs, here, standing for the practice of concentration. But eventually, insight and discernment will bring us to a point where we won’t have to feed on anything at all. That way we can stop feeding the chickens, and they won’t peck at us any more.
This means that we have to stop clinging, ultimately, even to good things. As the Buddha said, suffering is in the clinging. It’s not the case that we suffer only because we cling to impermanent and inconstant things. Even when we cling to the deathless, there’s going to be stress. So simply being in the position where you have to feed, even if it’s on good chicken eggs or on something better than eggs, you’re still in a position of weakness because there’s the tension in trying to hold on.
That’s the first noble truth.
The second noble truth deals with the cause of suffering, craving, which comes in three types: craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, and craving for non-becoming. Now, it’s not the case that all desire is bad for the purpose of release. Some desire does play a role in the path, as we saw when we were discussing the faculty of persistence. The desire we have to overcome is contained in these three types of craving. They are the cause of suffering that you have to focus on abandoning.
Under craving for sensuality, remember that sensuality is basically our fascination with thinking about and planning sensual pleasures. Craving for becoming means wanting to take on an identity in a particular world of experience. What’s interesting is that craving for non-becoming also leads to more suffering, because as you try to destroy a state of becoming, you take on a new identity as the destroyer or as the person who will benefit from the destruction.
This means that if you want to put an end to suffering, you have to think strategically. In other words, you can’t just destroy becoming, because the act of destroying creates new becoming. Instead, you have to stop feeding the causes of becoming, and then becoming will end on its own. The way you do that is by developing dispassion, which is the third noble truth: the cessation of suffering through dispassion for craving. And then the fourth noble truth is the path to dispassion, which consists of virtue, concentration, and discernment.
Each of these truths carries a duty. The duty with regard to suffering is to comprehend it. Comprehension means understanding the five clinging-aggregates to the point of dispassion.
The duty with regard to craving is to abandon it.
The duty with regard to cessation is to realize it. There are many times when we let go of craving but we’re not really aware of what we’re doing, because we let go of one craving just to hold onto another one. So, to realize cessation means noticing that when you let go of craving, there really is a lessening of suffering.
The duty with regard to the path is to develop it.
Now, the Buddha’s not imposing these duties on you. Simply that if you want to put an end to suffering, this is what you’ve got to do.
And notice that the first three duties revolve around dispassion: You comprehend suffering to the point of dispassion, you abandon craving through developing dispassion for it, and suffering ceases because of dispassion. However, the duty with regard to the fourth noble truth—developing it—requires a certain amount of passion. You need to be passionate about virtue, concentration, and discernment in order for them to grow. At the same time, you still need to feed in the course of the practice. You can’t just say, “Oh, the food and the stomach, they’re impermanent, so I’ll just stop eating.” It doesn’t work that way. You have to strengthen the mind first so that it’s in a position where it no longer needs to feed—and this is what we do as we practice the path. We develop the five strengths so that they become five faculties. When concentration is in charge of the mind—i.e., when it becomes a faculty—it provides us with alternative food. And when the other faculties are in charge, they change our relationship to feeding entirely.
Now as I mentioned the other night, the path, too, is made out of aggregates, which, after you’ve fully developed the path and it has done its work, you’ll eventually have to let go. In other words, at first you’re passionate about developing the path, but when it’s developed, you have to grow dispassionate toward it. This is why the practice of the path has to be strategic and why it occurs in stages. Remember the story of Ajaan Chah and the banana: You hold onto the peel until it’s time to eat the banana. Only then do you let it go. It’s the same with the path. You hold onto it until it’s performed its duty. Only then do you develop dispassion for it, too, and let it go.
Now with every activity we do, we have to make a value judgment. The question is: Is this worth doing? Only when we develop dispassion for our activities can we stop doing them, and these are the steps in how that’s done: You look at your various activities and ask yourself, “Is this worth doing?” To answer this question, the Buddha has you analyze each activity in five steps so that you can make that judgment wisely [§10]. First, you look at the origination of whatever it is: When it comes, what sparks it? Second, when it passes away, what passes away with it? Third, what’s the allure of this activity? Fourth, what are its drawbacks? And then fifth, when you compare the allure with the drawbacks and you see that the drawbacks are much heavier, then you find the escape, which is dispassion.
To apply this analysis to the analogy of the chickens: We cling, one, to the chickens and to whatever comes out of the chickens; two, to our habitual ways of taking whatever comes out of the chickens and turning it into food; and three, to our anticipation of the enjoyment we’ll get out of eating the food. All too often, our attachment to the anticipation blinds us to the fact that, in clinging to the raw material, we’re clinging to chicken droppings. So the five steps help us to sort these things out. The first step is to see, when the raw material for our food first appears, that although sometimes it starts with eggs, sometimes it actually starts with chicken droppings. The second step is to see that even the good food, from the eggs, doesn’t last. The third step is to see how our anticipations talk us into finding even the chicken droppings alluring. The fourth step is to see that some of the food—from the droppings—actually makes us sick, and that even when we make good food from the eggs, our attachment to the chickens puts us in a position where they can peck our eyes out. When we see all this, we feel dispassion for everything connected with chickens, and that’s when we let go.
To apply the five steps to an actual problem in life, think of the example of anger: First, you want to see, when it comes, how is it coming and what’s sparking it?—because all too often we don’t see that point. We tend to be aware of our anger only when it’s strong. But if you really want to understand it, you have to see what sparks it to begin with. That will allow you to see that, all too often, the spark can be very minor. Then you look for the moments when the anger falls away. When it seems to last, you have to ask, is it really lasting? Are there moments when it passes away? Too often what happens is that anger comes, and the hormones start getting churned up in your body. The thoughts of anger go away for a moment, yet you’ll notice that the physical symptoms of the anger are still in the body and so you tell yourself, “I must still be angry,” and so you dig it up again. But by looking for the origination and passing away of the actual thought of anger, you’ll see that it’s more arbitrary and less monolithic than you may have thought. That begins to cut it down to a size where you feel that you can manage it.
Then you look for the allure of the anger: Why do you like it? Often we deny the fact that we like our anger. But until you admit that you like the anger—or at least one of the members of your committee likes the anger—you won’t be able to let it go. You can see the drawbacks again and again and again, but if you don’t see the allure, you’re not going to be able to make an effective comparison. When you do see the actual allure—what you really find compelling about anger, and this may occur on many levels—that’s when you can compare it with the drawbacks. And then, when you see that the pain of the drawbacks outweighs the pleasure of the allure, that’s when you develop dispassion for it. That’s the escape.
This is where the three perceptions of inconstancy, stress, and not-self come in. They’re tools for developing dispassion. They’re often called the three characteristics, but the Buddha never called them that. They are not necessarily the only characteristics of things in our experience—after all, the Buddha did admit that the aggregates have their pleasant side—but they are the aspects of the aggregates that you should focus on if you want to develop dispassion. They help you develop dispassion by focusing on the drawbacks of the things you’re attracted to, the things that are the objects of your clinging, and the act of clinging itself within the mind.
The first perception is the perception of inconstancy. This is sometimes translated as “impermanence,” but I prefer the translation “inconstancy” for two main reasons. One, the Pāli term here, anicca, is the opposite of nicca, which in normal contexts means “constant.” Two, psychologically, the fact that something is impermanent doesn’t necessarily make it a cause of suffering, but if something is inconstant, then there’s a constant sense of stress around it. For example, you might build a house on a mountain, and you know the mountain’s impermanent, but you tell yourself, “It’s going to be permanent enough for me. By the time the mountain moves, I’m going to be long gone.” So it’s not necessarily stressful. But if you build a house in an area where they have frequent earthquakes or fires or the ground is very unstable, the inconstancy of the situation makes it stressful. So that’s the first perception.
The second perception is the perception of dukkha—stress or suffering. As I mentioned the other night, I prefer “stress” as a translation because it helps to de-romanticize the problem of suffering.
And then finally, the perception of anattā, or not-self: Notice that “not-self” is an adjective. It doesn’t say that there is no self. It’s simply saying that “This is not worth clinging to as your self.” It’s a value judgment, that any clinging around what you recognize as not-self should be let go.
In line with the duties of the four noble truths, you’re going to be applying these perceptions to different things in different ways at different stages of the path. In the beginning of the path, as you’re developing your virtue, you focus these three perceptions on things that would pull you away from your virtue. For instance, the Buddha says that we might feel tempted to break a precept out of concern for our health, our relatives, or our wealth. An example would be deciding you had to lie to get out of suffering physical punishment, or to protect a relative, or to protect your belongings. For the sake of putting an end to suffering, though, the Buddha recommends that you have to see health, relatives, and wealth as not-self, whereas your virtue is what’s truly yours, a treasure you want to hold onto. So for the moment, you don’t focus on the drawbacks of virtue. You focus on the drawbacks of any attachment to the things that would pull you away from it.
Similarly, when you’re practicing concentration: Remember Ajaan Lee’s instructions, that in developing concentration you’re actually fighting against the three characteristics. This means that you focus on the drawbacks of things that would pull you out of concentration, while you still hold onto the concentration. For example, thoughts of sensual desire should be seen as inconstant and stressful, while you focus on making your concentration as constant and easeful as possible. As your concentration deepens, you then focus your analysis on things that would keep you in a more shallow level of concentration and prevent you from going into deeper concentration. For example, after you’ve made the breath as comfortable as possible, you see that directed thought and evaluation are inconstant and stressful, so you let them go. You don’t yet focus on the drawbacks of the deepest concentration you can master.
Now as you’re developing discernment, you have to hold onto the activity of discernment itself. You focus on your different attachments and then you focus on the concentration itself. The Buddha calls this “having your theme of reflection well in hand, well attended to, well-pondered, well-penetrated by means of discernment.” The image he gives is of a man standing, watching a man sitting, or of a man sitting watching a man lying down [§8]. In other words, you pull out slightly from your concentration, enough to observe it but not enough to destroy it, and you start analyzing it in terms, say, of the different aggregates: form, feeling, perception, fabrications, and consciousness, as we mentioned last night. As you observe it, you realize that these aggregates are inconstant, stressful, not-self [§9]. Then you think about how any other level of concentration would be the same thing. So what do you do? As the Buddha says, you incline the mind to the deathless. Then the mind neither stays there nor moves, and you feel dispassion for everything, even for discernment itself.
In Zen they have an analogy for this. They say you’ve climbed up a flagpole and there’s an animal climbing up the flagpole trying to eat you. The higher you go, the closer it gets. What do you do? You have to let go not only of the flagpole, but also of gravity. In other words, at that point, you’re letting go of everything. So you drop even the perceptions of discernment, the perceptions that discernment was using, and that’s when freedom is total.
This is why, when Ajaan Mahā Boowa was asked that question about nibbāna, whether it’s self or not-self, his answer was, “Nibbāna is nibbāna.” Perceptions of self and not-self, at that point, don’t apply. This is also why there was that passage in the readings where the Buddha takes the analysis that’s usually applied to attachments—in other words, dealing with the allure and drawbacks and then the escape—and applies it even to the five faculties [§11]. In other words, you have to find the escape even from them. Ajaan Lee gives a good analogy for this. He says it’s like using water to put out a fire. Once the fire’s out, the water’s not there either. The fire stands for your defilements; the water, for the path, including your discernment. It’s only when everything is let go that total freedom can be found.
However, for most of us, when we come upon our very first taste of the deathless, our first reaction is like any child’s reaction on seeing something. We want to eat it. We want to cling to the experience of the deathless. This is why awakening occurs in stages. It’s because we’re trying to hold onto nibbāna that we get pulled away from it, sort of thrown out—in other words, we can’t stay there. Our clinging is what pulls us away from it.
Now, to solve this tendency the Buddha taught not only that all fabricated things are not-self, but also that all phenomena, fabricated or not, have to be perceived as not-self, too. Otherwise, we keep clinging to good things, and that way we can never get the freedom that comes from not clinging at all. Remember the image of the fire. It’s not trapped by its fuel. It’s trapped because it clings to the fuel. When it totally lets go, then it’s freed.
But before you reach that point where you let go of all five faculties, you have to develop them so that they really do take charge of your mind. This is why Ajaan Lee gave that analogy of not letting go like a pauper. A pauper will say, “I let go of my BMW because I don’t have a BMW.” Which accomplishes nothing. First, you earn the money to buy the BMW and then you let it go. That way, even when you let it go, it’s still there for you to use for your own purposes and to drive other people around. In other words, you get uses out of these things to help others, and then when your work is done, you totally let it go, leaving it in the world for other people to use after you’re gone.
It’s like the Buddha: He developed his concentration and discernment, but even after he let them go at his awakening, they were still there for him to use to help in his work of teaching. Then when he let them go totally, at the moment of his total nibbāna, he still left his discernment in the world for us here to use now.
So we work on these things even though we know someday we’re going to have to let them go. We work on developing them because they’ll do us a lot of good—getting us to the point where we can let go and find the deathless—and a lot of good for others.
We’ve been talking about the higher levels of the practice to give you a sense of inspiration that the path is worthwhile. It more than repays the effort that we put into it—and the work does reach a point where you don’t have to do it anymore. As the ajaans in Thailand like to say, the work of the world is never finished, it never knows an end, but the work of the Dhamma does reach an end. When it’s done, it’s done. That’s why it’s so worthwhile.