This morning I’d like to give an overview of the ten perfections.
As you remember, the perfections are these: giving, virtue, renunciation, discernment, persistence, endurance, truth, determination, goodwill, and equanimity. This list does not come from the original suttas. Individual perfections are taught in the suttas, often to monks and laypeople, but the list as a whole comes from a later period, probably just before the Canon was closed, about two or three hundred years after the Buddha passed away.
The list is associated with the Jātaka tales, which are tales of the Buddha’s lifetimes prior to his last one. In these tales, he’s usually a layperson, which is why the perfections are useful guides for reflecting on how to live lay life in a way that leads to awakening. There are a few Jātaka tales in the early parts of the Canon but, over time, more and more tales were added to the original ones. As different schools of Buddhism began to develop, each added a separate collection of Jātaka tales to its version of the Canon.
As a result, there are different collections of Jātakas from the different early schools of Buddhism. These, in turn, resulted in different lists of the perfections. One school, called the Sarvāstivādins, listed six perfections, a list that was later adopted by the Mahāyāna: giving, virtue, endurance, persistence, jhāna (mental absorption), and discernment.
In all the early schools, many pan-Indian tales with well-known heroes were added to the Jātakas. For example, Rama is included as a previous lifetime of the Buddha. This was perhaps to help Buddhist converts sense that, in adopting Buddhism, they were not abandoning the good elements of their cultural heritage. If this had happened in France, they might have included the story of d’Artagnan. Had it happened in the British Isles, they probably would have included Robin Hood and King Arthur. So, as you can imagine, it’s quite an eclectic group of tales.
Still, even though the Jātaka tales may not represent actual lives of the Buddha, they do reflect the values of the people who collected them—people trained in the values that the Buddha taught.
While the different schools were compiling their collections, they asked themselves, “What can we learn about the Buddha’s path of practice from these tales? What are the qualities that he developed in each case?” These are the questions that led to the list of the perfections. Now, as you’ll find, the individual perfections in each of the two mains lists are also found in the arahant path as defined in various suttas. The question then arose, what is the relationship of the Buddha’s path to the arahant’s path? Was the difference quantitative or qualitative? “Quantitative,” here, means that arahants developed the same perfections as the Buddha, but the Buddha simply developed more of each. “Qualitative” means that the perfections for the Buddha were actually of a different type.
The Theravāda and other early schools decided that the difference was quantitative. The Mahāyāna, which came later, decided that it was qualitative, specifically in the case of discernment. The discernment developed by the Buddha, they said, was radically different from the discernment developed by the arahants. Instead of discernment into how things arise and pass away, which would be the arahant’s discernment, the Mahāyāna schools taught that the ultimate discernment—the Buddha’s perfection of discernment—was that things don’t really arise or pass away. This difference informed all the rest of the Mahāyāna perfections.
Even within the Theravāda, there are some differences between the Dhamma as taught in the Jātaka tales and as taught in the suttas. For instance, discernment in the Jātakas is more a matter of cleverness than of right view. But the Jātakas do share with the suttas the idea that discernment should be strategic.
There is also the issue that the actions of the bodhisatta—the future Buddha as portrayed in the Jātakas—are not always a reliable guide to good behavior. Sometimes he kills, sometimes he steals, sometimes he has illicit sex, sometimes he drinks, although he never lies—and we’ll come back to that point later when we discuss virtue. The Theravāda interpretation of the Jātakas explains these ethical lapses by saying that because he wasn’t yet awakened, he still didn’t fully understand the Dhamma. In English, we’d say that he was still learning the ropes.
There’s also an issue in that the perfections are never explained in the Jātakas. They simply say that the Buddha-to-be had these qualities, but they rarely explain how or why a particular tale exhibits a particular perfection. This is why, for the purpose of this retreat, we’re going to be looking at the individual perfections—what they are and how they’re developed—as they’re explained in the suttas and also in the teachings of some of the forest ajaans.
There’s one other problematic feature of the list: There’s no clear progression from one perfection to the next. So, to bring the list into line with a list the Buddha did teach—and to give an organic unity to the discussion—we’ll organize the perfections under the framework of what the Buddha called the four determinations. This means that we’ll be looking at all ten perfections under the framework provided by one of the perfections, which is determination.
The four determinations are these:
• not to neglect discernment,
• to guard the truth,
• to be devoted to relinquishment, and
• to train for calm.
If you place the ten perfections under these four categories,
• under discernment you would have discernment and goodwill,
• under truth: truth, virtue, and persistence,
• under relinquishment: giving and renunciation, and
• under calm: endurance and equanimity.
This placement is somewhat arbitrary, in that some of the perfections could fit under a variety of categories. Equanimity and renunciation, for instance, can also be seen as aspects of discernment. Virtue is taught in the Canon as a form of giving: the gift of safety. However, the fact that these perfections could fit under a number of categories simply underlines the point that there is an organic unity to the practice of the perfections and that each perfection contains elements of the others.
This is the first point emphasized by this way of organizing the material: Each perfection contains elements of the others.
The second point is that, as with every determination, all of the perfections grow from an act of will. This is in line with the Buddha’s observation that all phenomena are rooted in desire. We have to want the perfections for them to come true. They are qualities of the heart and mind that we can choose to develop consistently to pursue the goal we’ve chosen, which is awakening.
It’s important that we realize that we’re always making choices and that they matter. Awakening is not the inevitable result of our true nature, nor is it our entitlement. We have the potentials for the perfections in our hearts and minds, but we also have the potential for their opposites. There are some times when goodwill, for example, comes naturally, but there are other times when ill will is equally—or even more—natural. All you have to do is look at the behavior of little children, and you can see that both goodwill and ill will are very natural—which means that if we want these perfections to develop, we have to make the choice to develop them, and we have to stick with that choice to go beyond what’s natural to something better than natural.
This is why, when we discuss the perfections, we will start each discussion by identifying the desire that underlies our determination to develop that perfection as part of our quest for awakening.
Determination is basically a focused desire. It’s an attempt to bring our random desires into some kind of order, to give priority to some over others, so that our conflicting desires don’t work at cross-purposes and get in the way of what we really want.
That’s the second point.
The third point is that the perfections begin with discernment. The reason we don’t get what we desire in life, even though experience is rooted in desire, is because our desires are ignorant of how cause and effect really work. They don’t know which causes are skillful—leading to genuinely good results—and which ones are not. So, for desires to lead to happiness, they have to be guided by right view and right resolve—the first two factors of the noble eightfold path. You have to see that it is possible and worthwhile to develop each perfection. This requires the ability to imagine that true happiness is possible and that you’re capable of attaining it. At the same time, discernment gives guidance in how to bring these perfections about. For example, goodwill, generosity, and persistence are qualities with which we’re already familiar, but they have to be informed by discernment if they’re going to become genuine skills. That’s why discernment has to come first.
However, in actual practice, we’ll also find that, as we develop the other perfections, our discernment develops further as well. In other words, the perfections develop reciprocally. They help one another along. Discernment gives guidance to the other perfections, at the same time that the act of developing the other perfections helps to make our discernment more penetrating and precise. For example, you don’t really know the truth of right view until you’ve followed through with right resolve and mastered the appropriate tasks assigned by right view. You don’t really know the truth of craving until you’ve learned how to abandon it. You don’t know the truth of the path until you’ve developed it to see that, yes, it really does lead to the end of suffering.
This type of knowledge brings together the two meanings of the Pāli word attha. Attha can mean the meaning of a word or teaching—how it can be translated into other words—but it also means the goal to which a teaching is aimed. As I’ve already noted, both meanings apply to the Dhamma at the same time, in the sense that you don’t really know the meaning of the Dhamma until you’ve had at least some experience of the goal to which it leads.
This means that discernment has to begin with conviction. In other words, the teaching sounds good, it makes good sense, but you don’t really know how true it is until you’ve reaped the rewards of the path. That kind of confirmed knowledge comes only with the practice. And to practice the perfections, you have to be convinced that they’re at least worth a try. The proof of these teachings lies in developing them and enjoying the results they yield. That’s when you’ll see for yourself that by giving priority to the perfections—not only as you meditate, but also as you fulfill the duties in your daily life, in your family and at work—they really are beneficial to you and to the people around you.
So, try to keep in mind the three lessons taught by the way we’re organizing the discussion of the perfections:
• Each perfection contains the others.
• They all require focused desire in order to develop.
• In each case, they have to be informed by discernment in order to lead to awakening. In other words, to get the most out of developing each perfection, you have to understand what it is and how it fits in with the others. But for your understanding to be fully developed, it has to learn from the process of developing the others.
If we think of understanding as a quality of the mind, and the desire to find true happiness as a quality of the heart, we can see that the perfections show us how the development of the heart and mind together can lead to a happiness that’s genuinely satisfying—a happiness that’s good for you and for the people around you.
Q: Is it good to regard the ten perfections as new members of the committee of the mind?
A: Actually, they already are members of the committee, simply that they may be weak at the moment. What you’re trying to do as you develop them is to take these weak members and train them so they have more power in the committee. This is your strategy for going beyond the perfections towards awakening.
Q: What is the difference between relinquishment and renunciation?
A: “Relinquishment” is the word we use to translate the Pāli term cāga. Renunciation we use for nekkhama. The terms in English are very similar, but the Pāli terms are different.
Cāga basically means giving up either a thing or an attitude: You can give up a desire; you can give up a defilement; you can give up your BMW. Each of these actions would be a form of relinquishment. Nekkhama means specifically giving up thoughts of sensuality. Sensuality is not so much a matter of sensual pleasures as it is your fascination with thinking about sensual pleasures. We tend to be more attached to our thoughts and plans about sensual pleasures than we are to the pleasures themselves.
For instance, suppose you decide to sneak out tonight to get some pizza in town. You could sit here for the rest of the day thinking about what kind of pizza you want. When you get to town, it turns out the pizza restaurant is closed. But that doesn’t matter. Other restaurants are open, and you can go for the pleasure of some other sort of food instead. However, if I were to say that for the next five hours you cannot think about pizza at all, we would have a rebellion. Once you decide that you want to think about something, you tend to be very attached to your freedom to think those thoughts. But, as the Buddha said, this kind of thinking tends to weaken the mind. When you tell yourself, “I’ll be happy only if the conditions are this, this, this, and this,” you’re like a hothouse plant: Your happiness can survive only under certain controlled conditions—conditions that could change and go out of control at any time. When we’re practicing meditation, this kind of thinking is one of the first things we have to put aside. If you can substitute those thoughts with the skills of meditation, then you can use those skills to make yourself happy in any situation.
Q: In the ten perfections, there is the perfection of virtue. What kind of virtue is this?
A: Essentially, the virtue of restraint or of avoiding harm to others and to yourself. This means no killing, no stealing, no illicit sex, no lying, and no taking of intoxicants. This kind of virtue is paired with the perfection of generosity, in which you actively go out of your way to be helpful to others.
Q: Of the four brahmavihāras—mettā, karuṇā, muditā, upekkhā—two of them, mettā, goodwill, and upekkhā, equanimity, are also perfections. Why are compassion, karuṇā, and empathetic joy, muditā, not perfections?
A: Because compassion and empathetic joy actually come under mettā, or goodwill. Goodwill is a wish that all beings be happy. Compassion is what your goodwill feels when you see that someone is suffering. Empathetic joy is what your goodwill feels when you see that someone already is happy and you want that person to continue in that happiness. So, in actuality, all four brahmavihāras are included in the perfections.
Q: To which perfection does the practice of bowing belong?
A: It belongs to the perfection of giving. You give respect, because it’s in an atmosphere of respect that you’re most likely to learn. When you bow down, it’s not a sign that you’re going to obey the person you’re bowing to. It’s simply a sign of respect and of a willingness to learn.
Q: Sati, or mindfulness, appears in many parts of the 37 Wings to Awakening. How does it fit into the ten perfections?
A: Sati is a faculty of the memory, your active memory: what you keep in mind as you’re acting on a particular problem. Right sati has two functions in the path. In its first function, it applies to all parts of the path and works together with right view and with right effort to develop the path. With every factor of the path, you try to have the right view as to what is skillful and what is unskillful. Then right mindfulness (or right sati) remembers what is skillful and what is unskillful, how to deal with skillful qualities in order to develop them and how to deal with unskillful qualities so that you can abandon them. Right effort is what actually does the work of developing and abandoning.
In a similar way, sati functions in relationship to every one of the perfections: You have to remember what the perfections are, the fact that you should develop them, and whatever lessons you’ve learned from the past in how to develop them and to abandon their opposites.
The other function of sati is its specific role in giving rise to right concentration. In this case, sati would be a part of the perfection of renunciation.
Q: Considering that mindfulness means keeping something in mind, how do we use mindfulness in a skillful way to develop the ten perfections?
A: You have to keep in mind the desire that you want to develop these ten perfections, so that when you meet up with challenges in your life you remember to tell yourself, “This is nothing to get upset about. This is an opportunity to develop the perfections.” In fact, there’s a Thai saying: “No obstacles, no perfections.” Let that thought give you encouragement. Then, as you’ve been able to develop a perfection well in that situation, you hold that skill in mind for the next time you’re faced with a similar challenge.
Remember, too, that all of the perfections are a form of determination, and with every determination, you have to keep remembering it as contrary desires come up in the mind. It’s in this way that the development of the perfections is a form of mindfulness.
Q: What is the common thread among all ten perfections that allows you to apply them in daily life?
A: The common thread is that you always have to think about the long-term consequences of what you’re doing, and to remember that the most important aspect of any activity is what qualities it develops in your own mind. For instance, suppose you’re at work. Your boss has said something really stupid and infuriating. You have to ask yourself, “What would be the best thing for me to say right now that would give the best long-term results?” Now, you may be able to think of a very clever, sarcastic reply, but then you have to ask yourself, “If I let this out of my mouth, what will happen? What kind of person will I become? What kinds of qualities will I be developing?” That’s a simple example.
So, think about the long-term consequences of what you’re doing—and we’re talking really long-term: throughout this lifetime and into future ones. That’s the perspective that the perfections provide.
Another example would be one that actually comes from the life of one of my students when I was in Thailand. He kept wanting to go into the forest. He said, “Here in the monastery there are too many distractions.” And that was a forest monastery! Finally, he got into the forest, and his meditation was miserable. Fortunately, he was able to realize, “Well, at least I’m developing the perfection of patience and endurance.” Remembering that purpose can carry you through a lot of difficulties.
As I said this morning, the perfection that will provide the framework for our discussion during the retreat is the perfection of determination. This is in line with the Buddha’s observation that all phenomena are rooted in desire. The aim of desire is to gain pleasure, happiness, and ease, and to avoid suffering and pain. In other words, it starts with discontent. You don’t like the pain from which you may be suffering, and you’re dissatisfied with the pleasure you’re experiencing. You want something better.
Now, it’s true that desire can be a cause for suffering, but it can also function as part of the path to the end of suffering. Or to put it in different terms, there’s a type of discontent that causes suffering, but there’s also a type of discontent that motivates the path. The desire and discontent that motivate the path are the ones we’ll be focusing on this evening.
There are so many pleasures in life and so many pains that it’s impossible to gain all pleasures and avoid all pains. At the same time, some pleasures, when you pursue them, make it impossible to gain other pleasures. For example, if you want to be respected by admirable people while you also want to have four or five affairs, you’ll have to give up one of those two desires. It’s like planting different plants in your garden: Some plants grow well together; others don’t. If you plant eucalyptus trees in your garden, they’ll kill everything else.
This means that we have to choose which desires are worth following and which ones are not. This, in turn, requires negotiating among our desires to choose which pleasures are better left unattained and which pains have to be endured. In making this negotiation, we decide on the basis of the reasons or rationales that the mind offers for each desire. This means that the desires are not pure id (i.e., raw, brute craving). To succeed in this negotiation that constantly occurs in the mind, each desire has to have some element of reason. Some of the reasons may not be all that skillful, but there is a reason for every desire. This is why reason can be used to negotiate and choose among the desires.
Choosing among things always involves a trade: Something has to be abandoned to gain something else, ideally of higher quality. Now, because all desires aim at happiness but are based on different ideas of what happiness is and how it’s best attained, our discernment concerning the nature of true happiness has the potential to succeed in bringing some order and consistency into our desires. After all, they all have a common goal. But for your discernment to succeed, it has to present a consistent picture of what long-term happiness is and to present that picture in an attractive way.
The Buddha himself said his awakening depended on two qualities inherent in a strong desire. One was discontent with whatever skills are not yet good enough for fully reaching the goal. In other words, you’re not going to content yourself with anything less. The second quality is an unwillingness to give up, whatever the hardships, until you’ve reached your aim.
Now, discontent is present in all desire, but the Buddha focused his discontent specifically on the level of skill in his actions. As long as his actions hadn’t yet arrived at true happiness, he would try to develop his skills even further. As for the effort he had to put in, it would require relinquishing certain things, which meant that he also needed to develop endurance and equanimity.
The name for this kind of focused desire is determination. Determination is an overarching desire that tries to bring some order to our other desires so that they can work together in achieving a deeply desired goal. When we discuss the perfection of truth, we’ll see the Buddha’s explanation for how this kind of desire or determination becomes focused on awakening.
But in short, the explanation is this: When we meet with a person whose actions inspire confidence, we spend time with that person, listen to that person’s Dhamma, and contemplate it until we see that it makes sense. That person’s words and example show that the Dhamma opens new possibilities in life, and points to potentials within ourselves that we may not have suspected before. When we find those possibilities attractive, and realize that we have to develop those potentials, that’s when we give rise to the desire to follow the Dhamma.
What that person will teach is that we have to face the fact of death, and to think about what we’ll have remaining when death comes. He or she also teaches us that it is possible to find a path of happiness that doesn’t die.
Now, remember the four determinations that we mentioned this morning:
• not to neglect discernment,
• to guard the truth,
• to be devoted to relinquishment, and
• to train for calm.
Let’s talk about each of these four.
We’ll start with discernment. Even though all the things that we experience begin with desire, we don’t always get the desired results. Either we follow unskillful desires, we follow unskillful methods, or we can’t motivate ourselves to stick with skillful desires and skillful methods when we meet with obstacles. In order to attain a true happiness, we need discernment to help bring some order to our desires. This will enable us to choose a wise goal, to judge the means by which we bring that goal about, and to motivate ourselves to follow those means in spite of obstacles. In this way, discernment has to give guidance to the remaining determinations.
In the Buddha’s teachings, discernment has an aspect both of the head and of the heart, and both aspects aim at long-term happiness.
The head aspect has to do with a calculation: understanding cause and effect, and figuring out how to use the principles of cause and effect to find a happiness that’s worth the effort needed to attain it. When the Buddha gave his shortest explanation of what his awakening was about, it was a statement of a principle of cause and effect. It explains how there is a pattern to cause and effect, but it’s not deterministic. There is some freedom of choice. We’ll discuss more of this point tomorrow evening.
As for the heart aspect of discernment, it focuses on a happiness that doesn’t change—and so never gets disturbed—and also on a happiness that causes no harm. There’s a part of the mind that wants to have long-term rest. As the Buddha said, there is no happiness other than peace. Now, we might want to argue with that, pointing out the many kinds of happiness that are not very peaceful at all. We also tend to think that happiness requires variety: goat cheese today, blue cheese tomorrow. But this is basically because what we get in our normal pleasures is not really satisfactory. What the heart really wants is something where, when you get it, you don’t need anything else. We’ve been taught that such a happiness is impossible, so we should try to satisfy ourselves with a variety of sensual pleasures, but the beginning of real discernment in the Buddhist sense is allowing for the possibility that, with the proper training, a totally satisfactory and blameless happiness is possible after all.
Now, as we bring discernment to our lives, we have to combine these two aspects of discernment, the head and the heart. Your head has to train the heart to be willing to admit the patterns of cause and effect so that it doesn’t act only on its impulses and so that its efforts don’t go to waste in useless actions. It also has to train the heart to realize that simply having skillful intentions is not enough. The heart has to be resilient enough to make those intentions become realities. This means that, for the heart to be really good, it also has to be strong. This is reflected in the list of perfections themselves: Goodwill has to be backed up with truth, endurance, and persistence if it’s going to be developed as a perfection. At the same time, your heart has to train your head to use its intelligence in looking for a happiness that’s reliable and harmless.
This is why discernment in the Buddha’s path is both a matter of right view and right resolve. Right resolve is the determination to act for the sake of true happiness in line with what our intelligence accepts as working hypotheses about cause and effect. “Not to neglect discernment” means to keep remembering this long-term perspective provided by discernment as we make our decisions in daily life. The big problem here is that we can often stumble over our hungers because both our head and our heart often get overturned by our gut.
I’ll tell you a story. There’s a sea creature called a sea squirt. It’s a little tiny thing, basically a little digestive tract and a little brain. After it’s born, it’ll flow through the ocean in line with the sea currents. When it lands in what it thinks is a good spot, it’ll settle down and spend the rest of its life there. And the first thing it does once it has found its spot is to digest its brain. It spends the rest of its life as a mindless digestive tract.
A lot of human beings are like this: Our appetites consume our intelligence. The first duty of discernment is to not let our brain get digested by our stomach so that it can teach the heart that our short-term pleasure can often get in the way of long-term happiness, and so that it can motivate both the heart and the mind to want the long-term.
As the Buddha said, the question that lies at the beginning of discernment is “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?” The wisdom here lies in seeing that our actions are needed in order to lead to happiness, that long-term happiness is possible, and that long-term is better than short-term.
There’s a passage in the Dhammapada saying that if a wise person sees a long-term happiness that comes from abandoning a short-term happiness, the wise person will abandon the short-term for the sake of the long-term. A British translator of the Dhammapada said that this could not possibly be the meaning of this passage: It’s too obvious. Well, it may be obvious, but how many people actually live this way? This is why the Buddha has to keep reminding us of this.
When I was taking the Dhamma exams in Thailand, one of the exams each year involved writing a short Dhamma talk in which you quoted a passage from the Buddha’s teachings. They had provided a textbook full of Dhamma passages, and all the little novices were memorizing page after page after page of these passages. Now, memorization was not my strong point—and especially not in a language not my own—so I figured I needed a few passages I could use no matter what the topic assigned for the Dhamma talk. This was one of the ones I chose, and it took me through three years of Dhamma exams—which gives you an idea of how important this principle is.
However, simply reminding yourself that long-term happiness is better than short-term happiness is not enough. Discernment also has to make long-term happiness attractive to motivate you to want to do the things that you don’t like doing but will lead to long-term happiness, and to abstain from things that you like doing but will lead to long-term harm.
Discernment, for this reason, has to be strategic. This can be seen in the guidance that it gives to the other determinations.
For example, the determination on truth: Once you’ve set your heart and mind on a goal, there are things you will have to do that you may not like doing. As we will see when we discuss the perfection of truth, “truth” has many meanings. But its most important meaning in relationship to determination is being true to yourself: making it a point of honor to follow through with what needs to be done and not letting your hungers deceive you into following desires that are at cross purposes with developing the perfections.
The problem is that when we set awakening as a goal, it’s a truth we haven’t seen for ourselves. We need conviction that long-term happiness is possible and that it can be attained through our actions. This conviction requires an act of imagination to overcome our laziness when the actions that are required by the path seem too hard.
Now, right view gives us some working hypotheses to overcome this ignorance. This is why it’s called right view rather than right knowledge. In other words, you don’t really know that right view is true until you’ve gained awakening. Still, you adopt it as a working hypothesis because you find that it’s reasonable and attractive, and it puts you in a position of power in your life so that you’re not simply a victim of circumstances.
Right view is not so much a view about the true nature of things. It’s a view about how skillful and unskillful actions can truly bring about good or bad results.
Right resolve then builds on this understanding. It gives you attitudes to develop about which actions and ways of thinking are in line with right view for the sake of the best results. In this way, by following right view and right resolve in our actions, we maintain the truth of our original determination and also the truth of our character. This is how we “guard the truth.”
The third determination is relinquishment, and here there’s a similar problem. There are things that we have to abandon if we want to achieve the goal, and the trick here is to see that relinquishment is not a deprivation. It’s a trade. Right view and right resolve teach us that through developing the skills of giving and renunciation, we’re trading up.
Our problem in modern society is that we all want to win at chess and yet keep all our pieces. So, one of the lessons of determination is that you have to be willing to give up certain things to get what you want. To be “devoted to relinquishment” means that we keep making skillful trades willingly.
The fourth determination is calm. Right view and right resolve work together to give us the right perspective, the long-term perspective that helps keep the mind calm while we’re doing what we may not like doing and refraining from things that we would like to do. This perspective helps us to see that we’re accomplishing something of value. It also helps us to reassure ourselves that we have the strength within us to keep going. It helps us to see the value of endurance and equanimity, in that they make our goodness—and our happiness—independent of conditions around us. It also enables us to see that the challenges and setbacks of life are actually opportunities to develop perfections of our character. This gives us strength in facing difficulties and even joy in taking on challenges. In fact, in the Buddhist analysis of how mind states develop in meditation, calm follows from joy. So, we try to take joy in meeting these challenges.
At the same time, calm functions not only as part of the path to our goal. It’s also an aspect of the goal to which we aim. We want a goal that’s truly satisfying, one in which the mind can find genuine rest.
So, when we keep the mind calm on the path so that we have the stamina to pursue the path until we find the true peace of the goal, that’s how we “train only for calm.”
Now, you can see that in all of these cases, discernment provides the right perspective that helps us to take the long view. This perspective also nurtures the strengths enabling us to sustain that long-term view as we choose our actions from day to day, in line with our determination to reach what we most desire: unconditional happiness.
We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow night.
Q: The practice of the Dhamma sometimes seems paradoxical. We’re told to aim high as we practice meditation, in other words to aim at awakening, but at the same time, we’re also advised to practice the meditation as if it were a gift, something that we give without expecting anything in return. It’s difficult to know how to combine these instructions.
A: Aim high. Expect something in return. That’s why we’re meditating. However, if you’re thinking only about what you’re going to get at the end of the retreat, you’re not going to be focusing on the job at hand. Think about it this way: You’re driving on a road that leads to a mountain and you want to reach the mountain. But if you spend all your time watching the mountain, you drive off the road. The way to reach your goal is to focus on the road. Just check your rear-view mirror every now and then to make sure that the mountain is not behind you.
Q: Of the ten pāramīs, it seems to me that only determination doesn’t develop on its own. Is this the consequence of kamma?
A: None of the perfections develop on their own. They all have to be developed. In some cases, an individual person may have developed a lot of these perfections in the past, but you can’t totally depend on your past actions to carry you through. That would encourage laziness, which is an anti-perfection. Everybody has the chance to develop all of the perfections in this lifetime. So, work on them now.
Q: What is the difference between chanda, which can mean desire or wish, and lobha, which can mean desire or greed?
A: Chanda can cover any kind of desire, skillful or unskillful. In fact, chanda is part of the factor of right effort and it’s also one of the bases for concentration. There’s a sutta where a brahman comes to see Ven. Ānanda and asks, “What is the goal that you practice for?” And Ānanda says, “Well, one of the goals is to put an end to desire.” And the brahman asks, “So, what is the path to the end of desire?” Ānanda replies, “A part of it is concentration based on desire.” The brahman says, “Now, wait a minute. That’s impossible. How can you use desire to end desire?” Ānanda replies, “Let me question you first. Before you came here to this monastery, did you have a desire to come here?” “Yes.” “And now that you’re here, do you still have that desire?” “No.” Ānanda then says, “In the same way, you use desire to motivate yourself to act in a way that leads you to the point where you don’t need the desire anymore.”
As for lobha, that’s greed, basically greed for things or relationships. The Buddha says that this is unskillful if it goes beyond the bounds of propriety. It is possible to have greed for things within reason, but it becomes unskillful if you have to steal or lie or do something unskillful in order to get that thing.
Q: What, for you, is happiness? The response will help to rectify my tendency to think of happiness as the MacGuffin of Buddhism. MacGuffin is a concept developed by Alfred Hitchcock to characterize the motor of the action in a film without one being made aware of what that motor or what that action is.
A: We talk about happiness but we never define it. The Buddha himself never defined happiness. And I think there’s a good reason for that. He talks about training the mind to get rid of suffering and to find true happiness, but he never defines “mind,” he never defines “suffering,” and he never defines “happiness.” All he defines is the training, and he does that in lots of detail. This is because as you follow the training, your concepts of mind, suffering, and happiness are going to develop.
To focus on happiness: In the beginning, you’re aware simply of the happiness of sensual pleasures. When you see the stress in that pleasure and the drawbacks it entails, you try to develop the happiness of concentration. As this happiness makes you more sensitive to subtler levels of suffering and stress, you begin to detect the stress even in the happiness of concentration itself, so you look for what’s better than that, something less stressful. That would be the happiness of nibbāna, the happiness of a mind with no limits at all. It’s totally free and totally peaceful. Unbound. That’s the happiness for which we’re practicing.