Chapter Ten

Performing the Duties

When the Buddha lists the steps in how to awaken to the truth, those that foster the third type of discernment—discernment gained by developing the qualities of your mind—are five: desire, willingness, judgment, exertion, and finally awakening to the truth.

The desire, here, is the desire to follow the duties appropriate to the four noble truths. This desire is wise because you realize that the truths were not meant just to think about or to discuss. They were meant to lead you to the reality of the end of suffering, and they can do that only if you act on them, performing the duties they entail.

The desire to perform these duties can be inspired by any number of reasons.

Most fundamental, according to the Canon, is heedfulness: You realize the dangers that come from not following the duties of the truths—you’d be subject to endless rounds of death and rebirth—but you also realize that you have it within your power to avoid those dangers and to find safety by taking those duties seriously and performing them as best you can (AN 10:13).

A related reason for the desire to practice would be compassion, both for yourself and for others: You realize that you can put an end to your own suffering, and in the course of following the path you lessen the sufferings of others, through the practice of generosity, virtue, and gaining some control over the unskillful qualities of your mind. You also provide other people with a good example for how they, too, can seek happiness in a responsible way.

Another reason for the desire to practice comes from a sense of self-esteem: “If other people can do this, why can’t I?” (AN 4:159)

Notice that these three motivations for desire use different aspects of your perception of self: Self-esteem focuses on the self as agent, capable of following the path; compassion focuses on the self as consumer, benefitting from the path and finding enjoyment in helping others; and heedfulness focuses on all three aspects of self: the self as agent, capable of making a difference through its actions; the self as consumer to be protected by those actions; and the self as commentator looking for the best way to find long-term safety and happiness.

The next three steps—willingness, judgment, and exertion—derive from the desire to practice. Willingness means agreeing to submit to the standards set by the four noble truths for determining what’s best to do, over and above your personal preferences. You accept the fact that many of your past standards for acting, speaking, and thinking—based on craving and clinging—have actually led to suffering, and you’re willing to give the Buddha’s recommendations for better ways of acting a try. This, as you remember, is one of the reasons why the four noble truths are called noble: They require you to stand apart from your cravings and clingings, and to relinquish them when you can see that they really are harmful.

Judgment—the Pali term, tulanā, literally means “weighing” or “comparing”—means comparing your thoughts, words, and deeds against the standards set by the four noble truths, to judge where they do and don’t measure up. In particular, instead of judging whether to follow a particular course of action based on what you find pleasant to do, you judge it as to whether it counts as skillful or unskillful in the long term, and then—based on that judgment—you determine whether it should be followed or abandoned.

Exertion is when you actually carry through with whatever effort is needed to follow what’s skillful or to abandon what’s not. If the duties of the four noble truths go against your personal preferences—in other words, they tell you to abandon a course of action you’d find pleasant to do, or tell you to do something you find hard—you draw on your desire, willingness, and judgment to help induce you to do the right thing.

As you begin gaining good long-term results from your exertions, those results help to strengthen your desire and willingness to follow the path even further. You actually come to delight in the practice. The Buddha notes that this delight is an important element in nourishing the stamina needed to stick with the path all the way to the end (AN 6:78). The fact that you’re getting good long-term results from your exertions also helps to sharpen your judgment as to which actions are actually skillful or not.

This shows that these four qualities—desire, willingness, judgment, and exertion—don’t follow one another in a single file. They work together to make one another strong.

The same reciprocal relationship can be seen in other ways in which the Buddha describes how qualities of the mind work together to help you to progress on the path and develop your discernment.

In his simplest description, he says that the Dhamma is nourished by two activities: commitment and reflection (AN 10:73). You commit to following the path, and then you reflect on the results coming from your efforts. If you see that the results aren’t what you hoped for, you reflect on how you might change your actions, and then commit yourself to following the lessons you’ve learned. In this process, the commitment corresponds to desire, willingness, and exertion. The reflection corresponds directly to judgment, but indirectly to exertion, too. It takes effort to look at your own actions with a skillfully critical eye.

Another of the Buddha’s descriptions for this stage of the practice is one we met in Chapter 8. You use right view, right mindfulness, and right effort to circle around every attempt to master each factor of the path. These three circling factors are all based on desire: the desire to reap the results of the practice. Right view corresponds to judgment in the role of maintaining standards. Right mindfulness corresponds to judgment in remembering how to apply those standards to particular situations. Right effort corresponds to exertion. Right mindfulness, in its role as alertness, then steps in again to judge the results of your efforts, teaches right view whatever lessons can be derived from those efforts, and remembers to apply those lessons to future events.

However, probably the best way to understand the way these skillful mental qualities function together as you start and progress on the path is to look at how the Buddha explained the steps in applying the basic principles of the practice to his son, Rāhula, when Rāhula was seven years old (MN 61). His explanations were essentially instructions in how best to develo p the two qualities that the Buddha, as we have noted, looked for in any student: truthfulness and good powers of observation.

He started with truthfulness. Rāhula had seen the Buddha approaching from afar, and so set out a pot of water and a dipper. When the Buddha arrived, he washed his feet with the water in the pot, leaving a little water in the dipper. Showing the dipper to Rāhula, he asked him: “Do you see how little water there is in this dipper?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s how little of the quality of a contemplative there is in anyone who tells a deliberate lie with no sense of shame.”

The Buddha then threw the water away, showed Rāhula the empty dipper, and then turned the dipper upside down, making the point each time that when you tell a deliberate lie with no sense of shame, your quality of a contemplative is thrown away, empty, and overturned.

Having stressed the importance of truthfulness, the Buddha went on to give instructions in how to be observant. Just as you’d use a mirror for repeated reflection, in the same way you should reflect on your actions again and again.

When planning to do an action in body, speech, or mind, you should reflect on it beforehand: “This action I want to do—would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful action, with painful consequences, painful results?” If you anticipate that it would cause harm, you should refrain from it. If you anticipate no harm, you can go ahead and start doing it.

While doing the action, you should reflect on its immediate results: “This action I’m doing—is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both?” If you see that it’s causing harm, you should stop then and there. If you see no harm, you can continue with it.

After the action is done, you’re still not done. You should reflect on it again: “This action I’ve done—did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful action, with painful consequences, painful results?” If you see that it did cause harm—even though you didn’t anticipate it—then if it was a bodily or verbal action, you should confess it to a fellow practitioner more advanced on the path, to see what advice you can gain on how not to repeat that mistake. Then you try to exercise restraint in the future. If it was a mental action, you should develop a healthy sense of shame around it—seeing that it was beneath you—and exercise future restraint.

But if you see that the action caused no harm at all, then you take joy in that fact and continue training in this way, day and night.

What the Buddha is teaching here is how to apply the practice of cross-questioning to your own actions. You focus your powers of observation on bringing the concept of skillful and unskillful actions to bear on what you’re doing, saying, and thinking in real time.

This framework of skillful and unskillful actions, as you’ll recall, develops eventually into the framework of the four noble truths: Craving counts as an unskillful action; the suffering of clinging is its result. The noble eightfold path counts as skillful action; the abandoning of craving is its result. In effect, the Buddha’s showing how to use this framework to learn from your mistakes. You commit yourself to abandoning bad intentions and acting only on good ones. It’s when you act on good intentions that you can most willingly admit your mistakes and learn from them. When you see in practice that even good intentions can sometimes lead to harm, you realize the need to learn from that harm so as not to repeat it, and to make sure that your intentions become even better than good: They have to be based on practical knowledge to be genuinely skillful.

These instructions embody the four steps in awakening to the truth that we noted above. You willingly submit to this training, and then judge your actions by it, both in terms of the motivation behind them and in terms of their actual results. Then, based on that judgment, you exert yourself to make your actions more and more skillful, at the same time taking joy whenever you succeed. This joy, as we’ve noted, is what maintains your desire to continue with the training.

These instructions also embody the three types of truthfulness that we discussed in connection with monastic training: You try to be truthful in perceiving the actual motivation and results of your actions, and in reporting your mistakes. You do this so that you can move from beliefs of what’s skillful based on the usual bases for truthfulness in citation—conviction, reasoning, or respect for an outside authority—to actual knowledge of what’s skillful, based on direct, personal experience.

Of course, you’re engaged in actions all the time, which means that as you continue with this practice, you have to become skilled in applying these instructions with greater and greater speed. This may be why, when the Buddha compares the skills of a meditator to those of a trained archer, he says that the ability to see your thoughts, words, and deeds in terms of the four noble truths is like the archer’s ability to fire shots in rapid succession (AN 4:181).

When you follow the Buddha’s instructions to his son, you see that adopting the framework of the four noble truths as a guide to your actions develops good qualities both of the mind and of the heart. That’s why the training they offer is complete.

In terms of the heart, they teach:

heedfulness in that you take the results of your actions seriously;

compassion in that you don’t want to do harm;

determination to follow this ideal in all your actions;

a sense of honor in holding to this ideal;

a healthy sense of shame over the times when you do cause harm;

truthfulness in your willingness to admit your mistakes to yourself and to others; and

integrity in taking responsibility for any harm you’ve done.

These qualities of the heart are another area where we can see the nobility of the training provided by the four noble truths.

As for qualities of mind, the Buddha’s instructions develop the cluster of qualities needed for practical discernment. In his list of the factors for awakening, he notes that the discernment factor—which he calls “analysis of qualities”—is developed by applying appropriate attention to skillful and unskillful qualities as they arise in the mind (SN 46:51). This means stepping back from their content and looking at them as part of a causal process: seeing the internal causes that foster them, and the consequences of acting on them. This is precisely what the Buddha taught to Rāhula. The Buddha also notes that when you apply appropriate attention in this way, you also starve the hindrance of doubt. You then use this approach to develop the other factors for awakening—mindfulness, persistence, rapture, calm, concentration, and equanimity—and to abandon the other hindrances to right concentration: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and lethargy, and restlessness and anxiety.

And it’s not too hard to see how the Buddha’s instructions to Rāhula help to develop the three factors of the path that circle around the development of all the path factors: Right view teaches you to avoid causing harm, right mindfulness keeps that lesson in mind each time you act, at the same time observing and reflecting to see how well you’re following it; and right effort makes the effort to commit to the path of harmlessness in your thoughts, words, and deeds at all times. Right mindfulness, through its sub-function of alertness, observes and reflects to learn from the lessons of actually following through with right effort, and then teaches those lessons to right view, so that your views about right and wrong ways to follow the path are even better informed and more precise.

It’s in this way that the practice of using appropriate attention as you commit to the path teaches you to become more and more discerning as to what the path actually is. You take the knowledge you gained from the words describing the path, and use it to give rise to a direct experience of the mental qualities that form the reality of the path in your own mind. This is how, in connection with the noble truths, you move from the truths of words to the truth of realities.

As you gain this discernment through developing, it teaches you lessons not only about the reality of the fourth noble truth. It also teaches you lessons about how that truth relates to the reality of the first two noble truths in order to arrive at the reality of the third. Those are the lessons we’ll consider in the next chapter.