Chapter Nine

Pondering the Truth

As the Buddha explains the steps to follow in awakening to the truth, once you’ve heard the Dhamma—such as the teachings of the step-by-step discourse or the four noble truths—you try to remember it. Then you try to penetrate the meaning of the words. Once you understand them, you ponder them until you find that they make sense: This is called “coming to an agreement through pondering the teachings.” The purpose of all this thinking is to give rise to the desire to put the teachings into practice.

The Buddha notes that it’s possible to listen to the Dhamma with the purpose of finding fault with it, interpreting it in ways that make no sense, but that defeats the purpose of listening to it in the first place, as a step in putting an end to your suffering. Although he doesn’t ask you to put your critical faculties aside as you listen, he does advise you to use them wisely: Instead of pouncing on what seems not to make sense as proof that the Dhamma is wrong, you think and then ask questions of the person teaching the Dhamma to gain clarification whenever you can’t resolve your own doubts. As the Buddha said, he trained his students in cross-questioning—asking the meaning of whatever isn’t clear—so that they could allay their doubts, and then that they be willing to be cross-questioned, too, so that they could help allay the doubts of others.

This means that part of the onus is on the teacher: to present the Dhamma in a clear and convincing manner, and to be patient in clearing up points you find unclear. But part of the onus is also on you, the student, to bring the right attitude to the process of trying to make sense of what the teacher has to say.

The right attitude is composed of the two qualities that the Buddha said he looked for in a student—that you be truthful and observant—but it also includes a third: that you bring an attitude of goodwill. (1) When you’re truthful and observant, it helps you to understand clearly why you might be holding to any views that are getting in the way of accepting the basic principles of the Dhamma. (2) When you bring an attitude of goodwill for yourself, it helps you to see that you would benefit from abandoning those views. At the same time, when you bring an attitude of goodwill for the Dhamma and for those who teach it, it motivates you to look for ways of resolving any conflicts you might perceive in the teachings.

Let’s look at these points in more detail.

• The Canon shows that the Buddha had to deal with many people who rejected the Dhamma on the grounds that it didn’t fit in with views they already held. Their major issues centered on the fact that the Buddha’s two categorical teachings—on the need to abandon unskillful actions and develop skillful actions, and on the four noble truths—didn’t fit in with their views about the world and the self. Some, for instance, believed that the self was powerless to act. Others believed that actions were unreal; others, that the world was totally chaotic, following no laws of cause and effect. For them, a path of action that would result in the end of suffering would be impossible.

Now, as we noted in Chapter 6, “world” and “self” are the basic concepts of becoming, and becoming is precisely what the four noble truths are designed to end. This means that, from the Buddha’s perspective, those who had trouble accepting the Dhamma had the context backwards. They were trying to fit the four noble truths into the context of becoming—as they understood and clung to their ideas of “self” and “world”—whereas he had formulated the four noble truths as the context for showing how any type of becoming came about as a result of a process and how that process could and should be made to cease.

To show that he was operating in a different context—and that they should, too—the Buddha often refused to take a stand on the hot philosophical issues of his day that fell within the context of becoming. Some of these issues concerned the nature of the world: Did the world exist? Did it not exist? Was it eternal? Not eternal? Infinite? Finite? Was it all One? Was it a multiplicity? Will all the world gain awakening? Will a half? A third? (SN 12:48; AN 10:95)

Other issues that he put aside concerned the nature of the self: Is there a self? Is there no self? Do I exist? Do I not exist? What am I? How am I? Am I basically good? Basically bad? Is the self the same as the body? Is the self one thing and the body another? After death, does an awakened being exist? Not exist? Both? Neither? (SN 44:10; MN 2; AN 4:199)

Some of these issues the Buddha put aside on the grounds that they were irrelevant to the practice: Trying to answer them would simply squander time better spent on putting an end to suffering. Other issues he put aside on the grounds that however you answered the issue, it would stand directly in the way of the practice. For instance, with the issue of the self: The Buddha noted that however you defined your self, you would be placing limitations on yourself, limitations that would get in the way of the practice for awakening (SN 22:36).

To begin with, if you assert that you have a self—no matter how you define it—you’ll naturally cling to whatever you define as self, and that clinging will prevent you from putting an end to suffering.

On top of that, specific ways of defining your sense of self would place additional limitations on you as well.

For example, if you define your self around your physical body, there’s the problem that the body doesn’t exist in unbinding. That would mean that if you gained awakening, you would be annihilated—an idea that would discourage you from practicing.

Similarly, if you defined yourself as nothing more than a conditioned being, you wouldn’t be able to know anything unconditioned, and that would mean that an unconditioned end of suffering would be beyond your ken.

If you defined yourself as interconnected with all other beings, that would mean that no one could gain awakening until everyone gained awakening. From that, it would follow that the Buddha was never awakened, and that you, on your own, could never put an end to suffering, either.

If you tried to get around that problem by defining all beings as already awakened, simply that they don’t realize it, the problem is that beings are still suffering, which means that awakening would not mean the end of suffering.

On the other hand, if you decided that you and all other beings have no self, that would place limitations on you, too. You wouldn’t be responsible for your choices, which would make it impossible to embark on any path of practice at all. At the same time, there would be no one to benefit or be harmed by your actions. That idea would encourage irresponsible actions, and discourage you from making the effort to follow the path.

These are some of the reasons why the Buddha avoided taking a position on many of the controversial issues around self and world that excited his contemporaries, and that still excite many people today.

Now, it’s not the case that the Buddha refused to take a position on all the philosophical issues of his time. He did take a stand on issues of kamma and rebirth, and the truths about suffering and its end, because these gave clear answers to what he saw was the primary issue: how to know which actions are skillful and which are not. It’s just that he was radical in claiming that this particular issue should override all others.

So if you find yourself having trouble fitting the teachings on kamma or the four noble truths into your views about your self or the world, the problem is that you’ve got the context backward. Instead, you should see how your views about your self and the world fit under the four noble truths. However, to reverse the context with issues like these isn’t easy. After all, your sense of self and world deals with your perception of what “really is.” It’s hard not to cling to what you see as real.

Fortunately, the Buddha gives guidance in how to loosen your grip. This is where the qualities of truthfulness, goodwill, and being observant come in.

In terms of truthfulness and goodwill, you may remember from Chapter 2 that a major aspect of your truthfulness as a person is expressed in how truthful you are in citing the basis for your opinions. In the case of the monastic discipline, this means truth in citation: being clear about the status of the evidence you bring when accusing a fellow monastic of misbehavior. Is it based on what you saw? What you heard? Or only on what you suspected?

In a similar way, the ability to loosen your grip on your opinions about the reality of the world and the self requires that you examine your basis for holding them. As the Buddha points out, they may be based on conviction in someone else’s authority, such as the authority of a religious teacher, a text, or a scientist; or they might be based on what you like, on analogy, or on what you feel has been well reasoned.

When you examine these reasons, though, you realize that they don’t count as direct knowledge. They’re nothing more than hypotheses. They could be true or they could be false. When you realize how tenuous the evidence is for any view about the world or the self, it makes it easier to put that view aside. If you don’t really know whether the end of suffering is possible, why choose a hypothesis that would close off the possibility that it could be true? If you had goodwill for yourself, you’d want to adopt any reasonable hypothesis that leaves that possibility open.

As for being observant: The Buddha suggests that if you hold to a view that conflicts with the four noble truths, you should examine your motivation for holding to it, and the actions that result when you act on it. Why hold to a view that denies the power of your actions to put an end to suffering? What allure does the view hold for you? Why do you like holding it? Does it lead you to do things that are skillful? Or does it discourage skillful behavior? For instance, as the Buddha points out, if you don’t believe that you have the power to choose your actions—if you think that you live in a world totally pre-determined by physical laws—there’s no motivation for exerting yourself to be skillful in what you do, say, or think. So what incentive would you have for holding to that view?

Being truthful with yourself in answering these questions corresponds to the two other types of truthfulness discussed in Chapter 2 in connection with monastic discipline: truth in observation and truth in reporting. You’re true in accounting for your inner motivation for holding to a view, and you make an extra effort to accurately perceive the actual results of the actions inspired by the view. Again, when you can be truthful with yourself in these ways, it makes it easier to show goodwill for yourself and to put the view aside.

In all these cases—being truthful in citing the source for your view, and being observant about the motivation for and kammic results of holding the view—you’ve also begun to reverse the context. You’ve learned how to take the issue of skillful and unskillful action and give it priority over concepts of “self” and “world.”

• Adopting this context also makes it easier to resolve conflicts you might perceive in the Dhamma. That’s because most of these conflicts come from getting the context wrong, trying to fit the Buddha’s two categorical teachings into the context provided by his other teachings. But when you realize that the categorical teachings provide the context into which the other teachings should fit, the perceived conflicts go away.

A case in point concerns the Buddha’s teachings on self and not-self. When he says that all phenomena should be seen as not-self, he seems to be making a metaphysical assertion: There is no self. But then there are passages where he states that the self is its own mainstay, and that you should take your self as a governing principle in order to stay on the path (Dhp 160; AN 3:40). This sounds like he’s being inconsistent: If there’s no self, how can you rely on your self to be a mainstay or a governing principle in any way at all?

Some people have tried to resolve this apparent inconsistency by proposing that the Buddha spoke on two levels of language: ultimate and conventional. On the ultimate level, there really is no self. However, on the conventional level—the unreflective level of ordinary, everyday language—there is a self. But this explanation simply compounds the problem. If there really is no self, then when the Buddha talks of the self as its own mainstay, he’s employing a useful fiction—in his terms, a “beneficial falsehood.” But as he himself indicated, in his eyes there is no such thing (MN 58).

A better way of resolving the conflict is to see how the teachings on self and not-self fit into the context of the four noble truths.

We can begin by recalling that the Buddha’s attitude toward truths expressed in words: They’re instrumental. They’re true to the extent that they really work in bringing about the aim for which they’re formulated. They’re consistent with one another to the extent that they act together in bringing about that aim. This means that, in the case of concepts of “self” and “not-self,” we have to consider how they function on their own, and how they function together to arrive at the end of suffering.

It’s because of this emphasis on function that the Buddha put aside questions concerning whether the self does or doesn’t exist. Instead, he looked at your sense of self—and of not-self—as perceptions, i.e., actions.

In other words, his teachings on self and not-self weren’t intended to answer such questions as, “Does the self exist? Do I exist?” Rather, they were intended to answer the questions that the Buddha said lay at the beginning of discernment: “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term harm and suffering? And what, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?”

Applied to issues of self and not-self, these questions become: When do these action-perceptions lead to long-term harm and suffering, and when do they lead to long-term welfare and happiness?

As you’ll recall, the Buddha’s analysis of the perception of self comes in the context of becoming: You adopt a sense of self as agent, consumer, and commentator as a strategy for achieving happiness by attaining the object of the desire around which the becoming coalesced. The agent is what does the actions to get the desired result, the consumer enjoys the result, and the commentator judges how well the agent has acted and recommends future improvements. As it so happens, the concept of not-self is also implied in that strategy: Anything that’s irrelevant to these functions or stands in their way is regarded as not-self.

When we divorce the sense of self from metaphysical issues—in other words, when we don’t concern ourselves with pinning down exactly what the self is or if it is—we’re left with perceptions of self and not-self as negotiating strategies for happiness, centered on what they do.

And as the Buddha noted in his second recorded talk (Mv I.6.38­–47; SN 22:59), a primary aspect of what a self does is that it exerts control. You’ll label as self whatever you find to be worth trying to control to bring about happiness. This applies most directly to the self as agent—as it tries to control events in the mind and the world outside—but also to the self as consumer and commentator: The self as consumer tries to possess and hold on to whatever happiness the self as agent finds for it. The self as commentator gets feedback from the self as consumer and then uses that to try to influence the self as agent.

Conversely, the perception of not-self is also related to the concept of control: You label as not-self whatever can’t be controlled or you decide is not worth trying to control, so that you can focus your efforts for control on areas where they will give the best results.

So the choice to apply either of these perceptions comes down to a value judgment: what’s worth trying to control and what’s not. Because this value judgment will change according to circumstances, your sense of self will change over time, as will your sense of the line dividing self from not-self.

This is how these concepts function in ordinary states of becoming, and it’s also how they function on the path to the cessation of suffering. As we’ve noted many times, the fourth noble truth is a path that’s fabricated for the sake of achieving an unfabricated goal. For that reason, it carries two duties, performed in stages. First it has to be developed. Then, when it’s been developed and completed its work, it has to be abandoned so that the unfabricated has nothing standing in its way.

As it turns out, one of the main factors of the path—right concentration—starts as a state of becoming on the level of form. This means that developing the path will require developing a state of becoming, which in turn entails a sense of self in all of its three roles: the self who’s capable of following the path and giving rise to right concentration, the self who anticipates benefiting from following the path, and the self who comments on how well the path is progressing and how it might be further developed.

As for how true these perceptions of self might be: The Buddha notes that states of becoming don’t lie under your total control, because they’re composed of the five aggregates. If you could totally control them, they wouldn’t entail suffering. However, even though you can’t exert total control over the aggregates, you can control them to the extent of using them in fabricating right concentration and all the other factors of the noble eightfold path. So to whatever extent your perceptions of self help you to succeed in developing those factors, those perceptions are true.

As for perceptions of not-self: While you’re developing the path, you apply these perceptions to anything that might pull you off the path. This would include any attachments that might tempt you to engage in wrong speech, wrong action, or wrong livelihood. It would also include any thoughts that might distract you from right mindfulness or right concentration.

However, when the path has been fully developed, and right view has succeeded in developing dispassion toward craving for all other things, that’s when your duty with regard to the path is to abandon it. You see that your sense of self, which you adopted as a strategy for happiness, is now the only thing standing in the way of the highest happiness. It no longer serves the purpose for which you developed it. It’s because of that insight that—for the sake of the even greater happiness promised by the third noble truth—you strategically apply the perception of not-self to all fabricated phenomena, the path included. Then, to make sure that you don’t try to cling to the experience of the deathless that’s revealed when all fabrications have disbanded, you apply the perception of not-self even to the unfabricated—and then you abandon that perception, too, to be free of any trace of the terms of becoming (Dhp 279; AN 9:36). That’s how the path leads beyond fabrication to the all-around ending of clinging and the total end of suffering.

So when we put the teachings on self and not-self in their proper context—as strategies for happiness in general, and as tools for completing the duties of the four noble truths in particular—we see that they contain no contradiction at all. There’s no need to assume two levels of language in the Buddha’s teachings, and no need to doubt that we can take him at his word: What he said was always true and beneficial. It’s up to us to know how to use his words so that they’re timely in our practice.

This, of course, is only one example of how you might resolve your doubts about specific teachings in the Dhamma, but it underlines an important point in how to go about resolving doubts about other Dhamma teachings as well: Always make sure you have the context right. When you keep the four noble truths foremost and can figure out how other teachings fit within those truths, you can see how the Dhamma makes strategic sense.

Pondering in these ways—adopting the four noble truths as the basic structure for your thinking about yourself, the world, and the path of practice—is the ideal way to develop the discernment that comes from thinking things through. It’s also the first stage in what the Buddha calls appropriate attention, which he cited as the foremost internal factor leading to awakening (Iti 16).

The next step in appropriate attention is to foster the discernment that comes from actually developing the qualities of your mind. You do that by following the duties appropriate to the four noble truths, taking them as the basic framework for deciding how to act in thought, word, and deed.