day nine : late morning


Q: I’ve just read in a small booklet that the Buddha never taught about relative truth and absolute truth. When did this appear and why?

A: The distinction between two levels of truth is something that came a couple centuries after the Buddha. It developed out of the issue of self and not-self.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier retreats, the question, “Is there a self or is there no self?” is one that the Buddha never answered, because either way you answer it, you’re going to fall into wrong view. If you say there is no self, it leads to the wrong view of annihilation. If you say that there is a self, that becomes something that you’re going to cling to. If you say that there is no separate self but there is a connected self, then the question is: Why is it that when the Buddha was awakened, everybody else was not awakened, too? After all, if we were One or connected, his awakening would have spread to everyone else.

As the Buddha said, all of these answers risk getting you into what he calls a thicket of views. And he also told the monks, “Don’t get involved in debates.” They had formal debates in India in which a king would set the question, and then he would invite people from different religions to come and give their answers. Based on their answers, he would then choose which religion he wanted to support. The problem with that kind of debate, of course, is that once the king sets the question, you can’t say, “The Buddha said to put that question aside.” You’d be telling the king it’s a stupid question. So the Buddha told his monks to stay away from those debates entirely, but over the centuries, the monks decided not to heed his advice. Perhaps they wanted the support of the kings.

With the passage of time, the monks were asked whether there is or isn’t a self, and they finally came up with the answer that there is no self. But if there is no self, who meditates, who practices virtue, who attains awakening? And if you look in the Canon, you see that the Buddha does talk about depending on yourself, and there’s the passage that says the self is its own mainstay. There’s another passage where he recommends taking your love for yourself as your guiding principle for keeping on the path. So, when the Buddha’s talking about a self, is he lying? To get around this problem, the monks came up with a theory that there are two levels of truth. There’s a self on the relative level, but no self on the absolute. And we find this in all the schools of Buddhism.

So that’s where the distinction comes from: It comes from trying to answer a question that the Buddha said not to answer, in a context that the Buddha said to avoid.

Q: Is there any difference between the awakening of the Buddha and the awakening of the other masters who followed him? If not, what greater merit does the Buddha have?

A: To begin with, the aspect of awakening that is not different is the purity of the awakening: total freedom from suffering, total freedom from defilement. The difference lies in the fact that the Buddha was the one who discovered the path, which required a lot more effort and discernment on his part. In addition to that, he gained a lot of mental powers that the other arahants don’t have and that enabled him to teach in a lot more detail, to read the minds of his students in much more detail, and to formulate a teaching that would be just right for them.

Q: Why is it that Theravāda is considered, with a certain amount of irony, as the small vehicle, whereas Mahāyānists call themselves the great vehicle, which carries its name because they’re more generous?—their goal being, always, the love of others, whereas for Theravāda it’s said to be first the love of yourself?

A: It’s not that Theravādins don’t have any concern about other people. It’s more that we have a different sense of what we’re able to do for other people. We can teach other people how to gain awakening and we can set them a good example, but we can’t actually awaken other people. And it’s also not true that in Theravāda practice you don’t do good for other people. Generosity and virtue are large parts of the path. Even your mindfulness practice is good for others: The Buddha says it’s like being part of an acrobatic team. If you can maintain your balance at all times, it makes it easier for other people on the team to maintain theirs.

And even though arahants leave saṁsāra entirely, they leave a lot of good things behind. Think of the case of Ajaan Mun. Without him, I don’t know where I would be. The forest tradition would not have existed, and Thailand probably would have become Communist—because many of the Communists in Thailand said the reason that they still wanted to hold to Buddhism, instead of rejecting religion, was because they saw the example of the forest monks. So the good that Ajaan Mun did is still living with us.

Q: The quality of being enlightened is happiness. Nevertheless, in some of the suttas the Buddha says that before his death he was sick and that he did not feel well except in a state of meditation. How can one understand this contradiction?

A: Awakening is a quality of the mind, while the body continues to be a human body, and the nature of the body is to age, grow ill, and die. The only way that the Buddha would avoid actually feeling the pain of his body would be to enter deep concentration. But this doesn’t mean that he suffered from the pain while he was feeling it. This is an important distinction: There can be pain, but you don’t have to suffer from it. Remember, suffering doesn’t lie in the pain. Suffering lies in the clinging. Without clinging, there’s no suffering even in the face of the pain of aging, illness, and death.

It’s also the case that when people continue to live after total awakening, it’s because they still have some kamma that has to work itself out, which may get expressed as pains in the body. When that kamma is worked out, then the awakened person passes away.

Q: Does awakening contain a dimension of the infinite, like infinite space?

A: It’s freedom. There are no limitations on that freedom, but it’s beyond space and time.

Q: “Because there is the non-born, the non-created, the non-formed, and the unconditioned, there can be the transcendence of that which is born, created, formed, and conditioned.” Could you explain this sentence of the Buddha from the Udāna?

A: Basically, the message is that we live in a world of suffering, and there’s suffering because there is the born, the created, the formed, and the conditioned. If there were not a dimension that was not born or created, where would we go to escape suffering? It’s because there is such a dimension that we can contact through the mind: That’s why there can be an end to suffering—and we practice for the sake of that dimension [§§12-15].