Day Four


This morning we’ll discuss mettā, which we translate as goodwill. This is the second perfection coming under the section on discernment. It provides the heart side to what is usually seen as a “head” perfection.

Notice: We translate mettā as “goodwill” and not as “love” or “loving-kindness.” Pāli has another word for love, which is pema, as in Pema Chödron. The Buddha warns against love because love involves partiality. As he says, there are cases where love can give rise to love, but it can also give rise to hatred. Hatred can give rise to love, and hatred can give rise to hatred.

For example, suppose you love Bernard. If someone does something nice to Bernard, you’re going to like or love that person. If someone mistreats Bernard, you’re going to hate that person. Now, suppose you hate Bernard. If someone does something nice for him, you’re going to hate that person. If someone does something nasty to Bernard, you’re going to love that person. So, as the Buddha said, you can’t really trust love as a basis for social engagement because love is a way of feeding on the other person, and it can lead to factionalism and divisiveness.

One of the reasons why mettā is often translated as love or loving-kindness is because there’s a passage in the Canon—it’s in passage [§11] in the readings—describing the love of a mother for her child. “As a mother would risk her life to protect her child, her only child, even so, one should cultivate the heart limitlessly with regard to all beings.” Sometimes that passage is translated to say that you should love everyone the same way a mother would love her child—which is a nice sentiment, but totally impossible.

What the passage is actually saying is that you should protect your goodwill for all beings in the same way that a mother would protect her only child. In other words, even if other people are mistreating you, you should protect your goodwill for those people. Even if they’re going to kill you, you still protect your goodwill. Remember the passage in the readings about how you’re being pinned down by bandits and they’re sawing off your limbs. The Buddha says that you should still have goodwill for them. Otherwise, if you allow yourself to feel ill will for them, it’ll lead to a miserable rebirth, fixated on thoughts of revenge. This is what the image of the mother means. You protect your goodwill for everyone, even risking your life to do so, despite whatever they may be doing, as a way of protecting yourself.

Now, goodwill is an expression of discernment. As I said, it’s the heart side of what’s usually regarded as a “head” quality. In terms of the factors of the noble eightfold path, it’s a part of right resolve, one of the discernment factors. Right resolve is based on the understanding that it’s perfectly fine to want true happiness, but if you want your happiness to be true, it cannot depend on the suffering of others. This understanding is what underlies the desire for goodwill: Because you want a happiness that lasts, you have to be determined to extend goodwill to others and to yourself so that you won’t do anything in your pursuit of happiness that will cause harm. You want to be skillful in all your interactions with other beings, regardless of whether those beings are good in your eyes or bad.

At the same time, you also realize that true happiness is something that will have to come from within, which means that your true happiness doesn’t conflict with anyone else’s. This is why a wish for true happiness can be an unlimited attitude, one you can extend to all beings. Love creates divisions, but goodwill can erase divisions. You understand that true happiness is a good goal for you and for all beings, and so you learn how to focus your desire on the causes of that happiness: the perfections. In that way, every perfection is an expression of goodwill.

To understand goodwill—to have right view about goodwill—it’s important to understand its relationship to kamma.

• The first lesson from the teaching of kamma is its explanation of what it means to wish others well. For people to be happy, they have to act skillfully. So, when you extend goodwill to others, you hope that they will understand the causes for true happiness and be willing and able to act on them. In other words, you’re not simply wishing them to be happy, whatever they’re doing right now. After all, they may be doing some very unskillful things.

I once had a student from San Francisco who was having problems with her landlord. The landlord was going to sell the property and wanted all of the renters to lie about the rent that they were paying, and my student didn’t know what to do. She told me, “Well, I’ve been spreading goodwill to him and imagining him with a beautiful house and a swimming pool and many girlfriends.” I said, “No, no, no, no. You don’t understand goodwill. First get together with the other renters and then go as a group to talk to the landlord. Spread thoughts of goodwill to him by figuring out what you can do so that he won’t make you lie. After all, not getting you to lie would be for his long-term welfare and happiness.” In other words, goodwill is not a magic wand to make people happy and prosperous. You’re thinking, “What can I do to help these people act more skillfully?” If they’re really set on doing unskillful things, you think, “What can I do to help these people have a change of heart?” That’s the first lesson that kamma gives to goodwill.

• The second lesson concerns what’s involved in creating a mind state of goodwill in yourself. Unlimited goodwill is not an innate feature of the mind. It’s simply one of the possibilities that exist in the mind, together with many unskillful possibilities. As the Buddha once said, the mind is more variegated than the animal kingdom. Just think of all the different kinds of animals there are on land, in the ocean, in the air: Your mind is capable of more variety than even that. It’s also capable of changing its direction faster than anything else. This is why the Buddha speaks of goodwill as a determination: something you make up your mind to pursue continuously.

He also talks about goodwill as a kind of mindfulness, something you have to consciously keep in mind. Otherwise—because it’s not innate—it’s very easy to forget. You can be sitting and doing mettā for a week, “May all beings be happy, may all beings be happy.” Then you get out in your car and somebody cuts right in front of you, “And may this being go to hell!” You’ve got to keep reminding yourself that goodwill is an attitude you have to bring to every encounter with others.

Here it’s good to remember the three kinds of fabrication we talked about last night: bodily, verbal, and mental. Bodily fabrication is the breath, verbal fabrication is how you talk to yourself, and mental fabrication covers the perceptions you hold in mind, together with the feelings you create with the other fabrications. Now, to create an attitude of goodwill, you have to use all three kinds of fabrication. Breathe in a way that feels good in the body, and then talk to yourself about why you need to have goodwill for this other person. Then hold in mind a perception that this will actually be good for you and the other person, too. This will help to develop a feeling of pleasure associated with goodwill.

For example, if your boss is doing something stupid, breathe calmly, and then think about the good things the boss has done in the past, to erase any perception you may have that the boss is a monster or a fool. Hold that perception in mind.

Something in your mind may rebel, asking, “Why think about this person’s good aspects when he’s doing something so horrible right now?” The antidote for that attitude is a perception—a mental fabrication—that the Buddha recommends calling to mind: It’s as if you’re walking through a desert. You’re hot, tired, trembling with thirst, and you come across a small footprint of a cow that has a little bit of water in it. You realize if you tried to use your hand to scoop it up, you’d make the water muddy. So, the only way to drink the water is to get down on all fours and slurp it up.

Now, this is not a very dignified posture. You would not want someone to come along with an iPhone and take a picture of you and post it on Instagram. However, you need the water, so you don’t worry about the dignity. In the same way, you need to think about the goodness of other people, even if it seems beneath you, because you need their goodness in order to nourish your goodness. That’s a good perception to hold in mind, making it easier to think about the goodness of other people for the sake of your own goodness.

Otherwise, you become like the two dogs in a cartoon I saw once in The New Yorker. They’re female dogs—they’re wearing make-up and lipstick—and they’re sitting at a bar drinking cocktails. Both have very mean and cynical expressions on their faces, and one of them is saying, “They’re all sons of bitches.” The point there is that if everybody is a son of a bitch, then you’re going to be a son of a bitch or a bitch yourself. So, for the sake of your own goodness, you try to think of the goodness of other people.

These are some ways in which you use the three kinds of fabrication to create and maintain an attitude of goodwill.

• The third lesson that kamma teaches about goodwill concerns the reasons for why you need it. Its function is to guarantee the skillfulness of your actions. You want to make sure that your goodness is not dependent on the goodness of others. Only when it is independent can you trust it. It should also not be dependent on thoughts about whether other beings deserve your goodwill or not. It depends more on the fact that you need your goodwill, to protect yourself from doing unskillful things. This is why the Buddha talks about goodwill as a kind of restraint. We usually think of goodwill as something open and wide, without limits, but it does place certain restraints on what we do, say, and think, so that we don’t do unskillful things that will harm ourselves or others.

Another reason why you need goodwill is that it helps to mitigate the effects of your past kamma. The Buddha has an image—another good perception to hold in mind—that your past bad kamma is like a large lump of salt. If you put that lump of salt into a small cup of water, you wouldn’t be able to drink the water. However, if you put it into a large river of water, you could still drink the water. The cup of water stands for a mind that has very limited goodwill for others, whereas the river stands for a mind of unlimited goodwill. As the Buddha said, if your mind is unlimited, then even though past bad kamma will give its results, you hardly experience them at all.

• The teaching on kamma also teaches you about the karmic consequences of developing goodwill, as in one of the passages given in the readings: “You sleep easily; you wake easily; you dream no evil dreams; you are dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings; the devas protect you; neither fire, poison nor weapons can touch you; you gain concentration quickly; your complexion is bright; you die unconfused; and if you penetrate to no higher attainment, then you are headed for the brahmā worlds.” Doesn’t sound bad.

• Another lesson coming from the teaching on kamma is how goodwill is best expressed in your actions. It’s not necessarily best expressed through tenderness. In Thai, they have the concept of what they call high-level mettā, which is often attributed to the ajaans when they do or say something that you don’t like but is good for you. Sometimes they can be quite sharp, but it’s for your own good.

I’ll give you an example. As my concentration was getting better when I was practicing with Ajaan Fuang, he would say things to try to get me worked up. He knew where my buttons were. At first, I was upset: “I’m trying to keep my concentration going, and here he is destroying it.” But then I finally realized what was happening, so I told myself, “No matter what he says, I’m not going to let it get me upset.” One evening I was talking with him. He had asked me to translate one of Ajaan Lee’s books, and I happened to tell him that I had finished it that afternoon. Instead of saying that was good, he said, “That’s your business, and none of mine.” Fortunately, my mind was in good shape and the words just went right past me. I said to myself as they went by, “That was pretty nasty,” but my vacuum cleaner was turned off, so I didn’t suck them in. Then the next thing he said was, “Good, in that case, we’ll find someone to print the book.” I passed the test. So, sometimes mettā can be very harsh but it still is conducive to well-being.

• Finally, the teaching on kamma requires that the way you live be in keeping with thoughts of unlimited goodwill. The Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta talks about the prerequisites for mettā: that you be content with few things, that you are easy to instruct and easy to support, and that you have few duties. Now for monks, what this means is you don’t have a lot of building projects. Otherwise, everyone who comes into the monastery becomes a target for your desire to contribute to the building project. It’s like the Shackleton expedition. When they were coming back from the Antarctic, they stopped at an island and they had no food, which meant that every penguin that walked onto the island was going to become a meal. I think about that image every time I go to a monastery where they have a building project that they’re promoting aggressively.

So, you have to live your life in a way that really is harmless and unburdensome to other beings if you want your mettā to be sincere. This is how the perfection of mettā connects with the perfections of truth, virtue, and persistence. Goodwill is also nourishment for all the other perfections. If you develop a mind state where you realize you have no ill will for anyone, it gives you a sense of strength and nourishment, and as the Buddha says, it provides protection for you in all directions, into the past and into the future.

What this requires, though, is that when you’re developing goodwill, you don’t simply think over and over again, “May so-and-so be happy, may they be happy, may they be happy.” You also have to think, “Is there anyone out there for whom I cannot have genuine goodwill? Why can I not feel goodwill for this person?” If they’re misbehaving, genuine goodwill means that you’re wishing that they will have a change of heart: that they’ll change their ways and behave more skillfully.

Now, is there anyone out there who you would like to see suffer before they change their ways? If there is, ask yourself, “Okay, why? What are you feeding on?” It’s usually a sense of revenge. And even though they say revenge is sweet, it’s miserable food. It would actually be better for the world if the other person did not suffer, because when people suffer, they rarely tell themselves, “Ah, this is the result of my misbehavior. I should change my ways.” They usually take it out on other people, like the hummingbirds I talked about last night. So, for the sake of your happiness and for the sake of everyone’s happiness, you want to be able to express thoughts of goodwill even to very difficult people. By working through your ill will in this way, you can get to a place where you can genuinely feel goodwill for everyone in all directions. And you’ll be protected in all directions as well.


Q: Goodwill is often associated with esteem or affection for somebody, which sometimes may be difficult and sometimes even false. If you explain goodwill as a wish for a person to behave better for that person’s own well-being, it’s a lot easier to have goodwill, but doesn’t this put some restraint on what the meaning of mettā is?

A: Mettā basically means goodwill. There will be some people for whom your affection is naturally stronger, but can you really have that kind of strong affection for everybody? Remember you have to have mettā for snakes and spiders and devious public figures. It’s hard to feel affection in cases like that.

Q: Mettā is said to be like the love of a mother for her only child. But a mother’s love for her child can be very undependable. There are many mothers who don’t love their children. Motherly love is not written into our genes.

A: As I said, there is that image in the Canon of a mother protecting her only child, but the image is not describing mettā itself. The Buddha uses the image to describe how you look after your own goodwill. Just as a mother would protect her only child with her life, you should protect your goodwill for all beings in the same way. So, the Buddha’s not saying that mettā is like the love of a mother for her child, he’s simply saying that you have to protect it in all circumstances, even in very difficult ones. As you pointed out, there are lots of mothers who don’t love their children. And as I also noted, when the Buddha’s talking about love, he uses another word. The Pāli word is pema, which he says is an emotion you cannot trust because love can turn into hatred very easily.

So, as you say, mettā is not written into our genes. We develop mettā by thinking about how, if our happiness depends on the suffering of other beings, that happiness is not going to last. We have to take their well-being into consideration.

Secondly, if you have ill will for other people, it’s going to be very easy for you to mistreat them. That’s why, to protect yourself from your own unskillful actions, you have to learn how to develop goodwill for everyone. Here, goodwill means wishing, “May these beings be happy.” And remember, they’ll find happiness through being skillful in their own actions. So, basically, you’re wishing, “May they learn how to be skillful in their actions,” and that you would be happy to help them in that quest. With those thoughts in mind, you can develop goodwill.

There’s a passage in the Canon that those of you who were in earlier retreats will probably remember. King Pasenadi is in his private apartment with one of his queens, Queen Mallikā, and in a tender moment he turns to her and says, “Is there anyone you love more than yourself?” You know what he’s thinking—like a typical man: that she’s going to say, “Yes, your majesty, I love you more than I love myself.” But this is the Pāli Canon, and Queen Mallikā is no fool. She says, “No, there’s nobody I love more than myself. And how about you? Is there anybody you love more than yourself?” And the king has to admit: No, there isn’t. That’s the end of that scene.

The king then goes to see the Buddha and reports their conversation. The Buddha responds, “You know, she’s right. You could search the entire world and you would never find anyone you love more than yourself. Similarly, everyone else loves themselves just that fiercely.” But then the Buddha’s conclusion is not that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and you should just grab whatever you want whenever you can. Instead, he says, “If you really love yourself, then you should never harm anybody else or get them to do harm.” The reason, as I said earlier, is that if your happiness depends on their suffering, it’s not going to last. Therefore, when you realize that goodwill is in your own best interest, it’s a lot easier to develop thoughts of goodwill.

Q: Does the act of mettā create an intention? And if so, for whom?

A: The idea of having goodwill for all beings is in and of itself an intention, and it’s your intention. You’re the one who immediately benefits from that. But if you act on that intention, other beings will benefit, too.

Q: For many people, happiness lies in having someone near and dear to them: their children, their grandchildren. It’s difficult and perhaps not very wise to tell them that their true happiness lies somewhere else and that they’re suffering from an illusion.

A: Never tell anyone they’re suffering from an illusion, okay? Especially if that’s where their happiness lies. You might indirectly try to let them know that they have to develop another source of happiness as well. For instance, in addition to having children and grandchildren, they can also learn how to meditate and develop an internal source of well-being. Or they could also find happiness through being generous or virtuous. This way, you help provide them with an alternative basis for happiness in case something ever happens to their children or grandchildren. When you do this, what you’re telling them is actually an extra gift. Instead of trying to take away the happiness they already have, you try to provide them with an alternative basis.

Q: For our goodness and the goodness of others, is it always necessary to accept and not say anything?

A: No, no, no, no, no.

Q: Can one express one’s feelings, for instance, when one has been wounded?

A: Yes. The question lies in learning how to express your feelings in a skillful way. Ask yourself, “What is the best thing to say? When is the best opportunity to say it?” You can say as much as you think is really necessary and with a good cause. The important thing is that you not speak simply out of the force of your emotion. And the second point is always to try to show respect for other people when you’re criticizing them.

They conducted a psychological experiment years back in which they took couples, hooked them up with machines, and covered them with sensors to measure such things as their heart rate and sweat rate. Then they took a short video of them as they discussed a topic that was a minor irritation in the relationship. As it turned out, they didn’t use the heart rate or sweat rate measurements at all. As was the case with many psychological experiments, the sensors were a distraction. Instead, they took the videos and they slowed them down, looking for the micro-expressions that would flit over the couples’ faces as they talked. What they discovered was that they could tell with pretty good accuracy which relationships would last and which relationships would not—which is kind of scary. If there was any micro-expression of contempt for the other person, the relationship was not going to last. So, the important thing when you criticize someone else is that you try to do it with an attitude of respect for that person. In that way, the message you’re trying to get across will probably be more happily received.

Q: How can we develop the skill of sending thoughts of kindness and love from the bottom of our heart for those who have hurt us, instead of just using the rational action of the mind? Thank you.

A: You have to start with the rational action. Just keep reminding yourself that you do not gain any benefit by seeing other people suffer. Remember what goodwill means, which is, “May this person understand the causes for true happiness and be willing and able to act on those causes.” In other words, you’re wishing that that person would learn how to behave in a skillful and harmless manner. Is there anyone out there for whom you cannot think that thought? In other words, is there anyone you would like to see suffer first before they become skillful? Now, in some cases, part of your heart may say, “Yes.” You have to ask that part, “What do you gain from seeing that person suffer?” And the correct answer is, nothing really. Basically, you have to reason with your heart until the heart is willing to believe that, yes, it really would be better to see this person become more skillful, and that you’re willing to give up the satisfaction of getting some revenge—because revenge is sweet, and we know that sweets are not good for you.

Q: Could you please explain the phrase, “May I understand the causes for true happiness and be willing and able to act on them.” How can I know the causes for my happiness? And how can I act on those causes?

A: You begin with a general principle that true happiness has to be a happiness that does not cause any harm, either to yourself or to others. So, you look around: Is there anyone whose happiness is not causing any harm? Then you ask that person for advice. For example, you might take the Buddha’s advice. He says that true happiness comes from generosity, virtue, and developing universal goodwill. Now, this answer makes sense because you don’t harm anyone with generosity or with virtue or with universal goodwill, and yet it’s possible to be happy doing these things. So, you try developing these practices within yourself. When you see the results arising, that’s when you know for yourself.

Q: Does mettā actually act on other people or beings? If so, what’s the mechanism?

A: In some cases, yes, it does act on other people. It’s as if your mind is a radio transmitter and other people are like radios. Sometimes the radio transmitter is very weak and sometimes it’s strong. Sometimes other people have their radios turned on; sometimes they don’t. As for the mechanism: Think about light. Light is waves, but nobody knows waves of what. We don’t really know how light works, but we can still use it. In the same way, you don’t have to know how mettā works in order to get good use out of it.

Q: What is animosity?

A: Animosity is the desire to get revenge. To be free of animosity means two things: One, no one has any thoughts of getting revenge against you, and, two, you have no thoughts of getting revenge against other people.

Q: I feel selfish and I don’t know love, even for my relatives. What can I do to awaken love for others, a love that is universal and disinterested?

A: When you meditate, spend some time thinking about how much your current position in life depends on other people—the people who taught you how to speak, the people who taught you all the different types of knowledge you use, the work of all the people who keep society going—until it really hits home that you are dependent on many, many, many other people. Then you can ask yourself, “What am I doing to pay them back?” Maybe some sense of gratitude will come, and from gratitude, a sense of goodwill.

You’ve answered my question about selfishness and love, advising me to meditate upon them. What are the steps for performing this kind of meditation, and what’s the difference between that and meditating by focusing on the breath?

A: This is a kind of meditation in which you’re actively using your analytical mind. In this case, you should try thinking about the areas in which you should be grateful to others for the help you’ve received. Start with the fact that if you didn’t have parents, you wouldn’t be here. If you didn’t have teachers, there would be a great deal you wouldn’t know. Then think of all the people who you’ve never met whose work you’ve depended on. In other words, you start with people who are close to you and then you cast your thoughts out further and further away. Then you come back to the present moment, realizing that the people you depend on are all around you.

Q: In spreading thoughts of mettā to politicians who are harming people—I won’t name names—I find that I don’t really care about their happiness. I just want them to stop causing harm. Is that wrong?

A: There’s nothing wrong with it at all. But try to have some compassion for those politicians. If they really are harming people, they’re creating a lot of bad kamma for themselves. They’re really deluded. And who knows, maybe someday in the future, you may be a politician, too, and it would be good for your populace to have compassion for you.

Q: Can I spread mettā to a situation in the past or for a difficult situation that I anticipate in the future?

A: You don’t spread mettā to situations, you spread mettā to beings. So, with regard to the situation in the past, spread goodwill to all the beings who were involved in that situation, wherever they are now. As for a difficult situation in the future, spread thoughts of goodwill to all the people who will be involved.

Q: Is it valid to send mettā to a person no longer in this world, one to whom I felt resentment and who had resentment toward me?

A: This is a very good practice to do. It’s one way of bringing your own mind to some peace. You have to remember that when people die, they don’t go out of existence. They get born again. So, they’re always there someplace for you to spread mettā to. Now, whether that person rejoices in your mettā or not, that’s that person’s business. But if you can spread goodwill to someone you used to resent, that takes a huge burden off of your mind.

Q: Sending mettā to a friend who has died: Does the mettā get to them even though that person has been reborn as a turtle or a plant?

A: People don’t get reborn as plants, but it is possible for them to become turtles. So, yes, it is possible for the turtle to receive the thoughts of mettā and to benefit from them. There are many stories in the forest tradition of the ajaans sending mettā to animals of different kinds and of the animals responding to them in appropriate ways.

Q: I’ve heard in previous talks and Dhamma teachings that emotions such as love for parents and friends are attachments. Should they be changed for impersonal love? Would that be a price to pay for awakening?

A: You will always have your love for your parents and friends, and the Buddha says that you have a special debt of gratitude to your parents, so they always will be special to you. It’s simply that as you practice, your idea of how you can best help them will develop. For instance, getting them more interested in meditation, getting them interested in being generous: You come to realize that that’s the best way to express your love and repay your debt to your parents and to your friends.



Tonight, we start our discussion of the second set of perfections, coming under the heading of truth. And we start with the perfection of truth itself.

We all desire truth, but we don’t start out with a disinterested desire for true information or truth in the abstract. Our desire for truth starts with our most basic response to pain, which, as the Buddha noted, is twofold: One, we’re bewildered as to why it’s happening. Two, we search for someone who might know how to put an end to the pain.

Think of a baby suffering from the sharp pains of indigestion. It has no idea what’s happening. All it knows is that it wants someone to come and help get rid of the pain. As we grow older, we gain more understanding, largely from what we’ve learned from other people, as to how to deal with pain. But our basic response is still the same: Why does there have to be pain to begin with? And is there anyone who can help us with the more complicated sufferings, not only of the body but also of the mind?

Our desire for truth comes from this combination of bewilderment and search. We’d like to find the reality of a true happiness, untainted by pain, a happiness that doesn’t disappoint us. From that desire, we search for people who are true in having done what it takes to gain genuine knowledge about how to put an end to pain, and who are willing to give us true information about what they’ve learned. As we mature, we want to be true in following the path set out by that true information. In other words, we turn our desire for truth into a determination to be true. This gives us three kinds of truth—the truth of a reality, the truth of perceptions and statements, and the truth of a person—all of which come under the perfection of truth.

This is reflected in the fact that the Pāli word for truth, sacca, has the same three meanings. First, there’s truth as a quality of the person. To begin with, a true person is someone who is honest and accountable: someone who realizes that actions have consequences, and is willing to take responsibility for what he or she has done. This was one of the qualities that the Buddha said he looked for in a student. As he said, “Bring me an observant person who is honest and no deceiver, and I will teach that person the Dhamma.” At the same time, a true person—motivated by the desire to put an end to suffering—will earnestly stick with the path to that goal, despite any hardships it may entail.

A person who is true in these ways will want to look for a teacher who is also true in these ways. If you’re earnest in wanting to put an end to suffering, you’ll want someone who has earnestly followed the path, and is truly reliable in judging the results of his or her own practice. People of integrity are most confident when they’re associating with other people of integrity.

This kind of truth—in which you are a true person: honest, reliable, accountable, and earnest—is a quality that is held to across the board throughout the practice.

The word “truth” can also apply to perceptions and to statements. In other words, you perceive Philippe as Philippe. That’s a true perception. You say, “Philippe is wearing a blue-grey jacket right now.” That, too, is also a truth: the truth of a statement.

Then there’s truth of a reality. For instance, whether or not we perceive this bowl as a bowl, it exists on its own and—at least for now—it has its own reality in existing as an object. In the Buddha’s teachings, this point particularly applies to nibbāna, which is a reality that’s always true.

So, there are three kinds of truth: the truth of a person, the truth of a perception or a statement, and the truth of a reality in and of itself.

The Buddha’s teachings contain a paradox around the issue of truth. On the one hand, truth is one of the perfections, and guarding the truth is one of the determinations. On the other hand, we’re sometimes told to learn how not to cling to our views of the truth. So, the question is: how to combine these two teachings in practice.

The paradox can be resolved when we note that these teachings apply to different aspects of truth. The issue of not clinging to truths applies primarily, one, to our perceptions and statements, and two, to the need to let go of all clingings, even clinging to the truth, in order to attain the truth of the ultimate fact of nibbāna at the end of the path.

With regard to perceptions and statements, you always try to make them true, but you have to realize that perceptions and statements have their limitations. Sometimes our perceptions can seem true when they’re not. Some statements may be true for some situations, but not for other situations. You always try to perceive and tell the truth, but there’s always the possibility that your perceptions—and the statements based on them—may be wrong. So, you have to realize that these truths have their limitations. This is why, when you decide to act on views you’ve formulated or picked up from others, you have to be careful to test them in your actions to see how true they actually are. In addition, you’ll find that there are some levels of the practice where one statement or set of instructions is true and useful, and another level of the practice where it’s no longer useful. On that level, you have to let that particular truth go.

As for letting go of all clinging to truth, regardless of the type, that comes only at the end of the practice. As long as there’s the slightest amount of clinging in the mind, it can’t reach the highest level of freedom. But to get to the point where we can let go of all truths, we have to deal skillfully with truths in the meantime.

To explain how we do that, the Buddha distinguishes truths in another way, based on the verb that’s appropriate for dealing with different kinds of truth: the truth

• as something you perceive;

• as something you tell;

• as something you guard;

• as something you awaken to and, in awakening to it, you go beyond it.

Perceiving, of course, relates to truths as perceptions. Telling relates to truths as statements. Guarding relates to how you recognize the sources and reasons for your perceptions and statements. But, as we’ll see, awakening to the truth involves all four kinds of truths—truths of a person, of perceptions, of statements, and the truths of facts or realities in and of themselves—before you let go of them all.

Let’s look in more detail at these four ways of relating to the truth.

• First, perceiving a truth: As a meditator, you try to make your perceptions as accurate as possible. This is especially important in mindfulness practice because you want to recognize what’s happening in the mind and in the body as it’s actually happening. For instance, you want to be able to recognize a hindrance as a hindrance. If something skillful arises in the mind, you want to perceive it as skillful. In that way, you can act appropriately with regard to such things as they happen. This is where truth as a perfection differs from truth as one of the virtues in the five precepts. When you’re telling the truth in line with the precepts, all you have to do is say, “This is how I perceive things.” If it turns out that the perception is wrong, you haven’t lied and you’ve maintained your virtue. But as you’re trying to develop the perfection of truth, you have to put your best effort to make sure your perceptions really are accurate.

• The second verb in your relationship to truth is that it’s something you tell. Here, the Buddha particularly emphasizes being accountable, in other words, truthful in how you report your own behavior, as when he was teaching his son Rāhula how to be observant and truthful. You may know the story. The Buddha comes to see Rāhula when the latter is a seven-year-old novice. Rāhula sets out a jar of water and a dipper, and the Buddha washes his feet with the water in the dipper. You get the impression that Rāhula may have told a lie that day, because that’s the very first thing the Buddha mentions to Rāhula: lying. He leaves a little bit of water in the dipper, shows it to Rāhula, and says, “Do you see how little water there is in this dipper?” Rāhula says, “Yes.” The Buddha says, “That’s how little goodness there is in a person who tells a deliberate lie and feels no shame.” Then the Buddha throws the water away and says, “Do you see how that water has been thrown away?” Rāhula says, “Yes.” The Buddha says, “That’s what happens to the goodness of a person who tells a deliberate lie with no sense of shame. It gets thrown away.” Then he shows him the dipper. “Do you see how empty this dipper is?” Rāhula says, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” And the Buddha says, “That’s how empty you are of goodness if you tell a deliberate lie with no sense of shame.”

Then, after having established the importance of being truthful, the Buddha teaches the importance of being observant. In other words, he’s teaching Rāhula to be the ideal student: honest and observant. He says, “You should look at your actions as you would look at yourself in a mirror. Before you do something, ask yourself what you expect the consequences will be. If you foresee any harm, don’t do the action. If you don’t foresee any harm, go ahead and do it. While you’re doing the action, see what actual results are coming about. If you see that you’re causing harm, stop. If you don’t see any harm, go ahead and continue with the action. After the action is done, look at the long-term results of the action. If you see that you caused harm, go talk it over with someone who is more advanced on the path so that you can get some idea of what you might do the next time around to avoid causing harm. But if you don’t see that you caused any harm, you can take joy in the fact that your practice is improving, and continue on the path day and night.”

The important point here is that if you find that you’ve made a mistake, you talk it over with somebody, because this is how you learn. This is why we have the Saṅgha as a container for the practice, and why the Buddha said that having admirable friends is necessary for the practice. The only way you can take advantage of having that admirable friend is to be truthful in reporting your mistakes. If you hide your mistakes from other people, you start hiding them from yourself.

This is another aspect of truth—truth in telling statements—that the Buddha says to hold to, all the way along the path.

• The third verb that indicates how to relate to truth is that you should “guard” the truth. This has two meanings in the suttas.

In MN 140—the sutta that lists the four determinations—guarding the truth means attaining the truth of nibbāna and, by extension, everything you do along the path to reach that attainment. MN 95, however, breaks the path to nibbāna down into several steps related to the truth, with only the first step called “guarding the truth.” By that, it means that you’re very clear about where you get your perceptions and statements. As the Buddha said, sometimes we get our ideas simply from our own conviction or preferences. For example, you go online. If you like left-leaning cartoonists, you’ll go to the left-leaning cartoonists. If you like right-wing cartoonists, you’ll go to the right-wing cartoonists. You pick up their ideas because you like them. Sometimes you pick up an idea because you believe in a tradition; sometimes you reason through an idea and if it fits with things you already believe, you adopt it because it strikes you as reasonable.

Now, none of these approaches are adequate bases for knowing whether something is really true or not. This is one of the areas where you have to learn how not to be attached to your views. When you hold a particular view as a basis for your actions, you have to ask yourself, “Where did I get this view? Why did I accept it?” As you examine this issue, you begin to realize that many of the things you thought you knew are actually based on liking or belief. So, as you practice, it’s always important to keep this fact in mind, because you have to remember that there are a lot of things you don’t know about in the practice and in the world.

This doesn’t mean that you should take no position on things you don’t fully know. After all, to practice, you need to make assumptions and adopt working hypotheses about the nature and power of action in order to motivate yourself and to direct your practice, even though you don’t yet fully know the nature and power of action. You have to ask yourself, “What views are useful to adopt, and for what reason? And how can I train myself to develop true knowledge about these issues? Where do I start?”

One place to start is to learn how to observe the impact on your mind of adopting a particular view: what it will lead you to do. But here there’s a problem, because all too often we’re not very familiar even with our own minds. This is why we have to meditate: to learn how to observe when the mind is creating suffering and when it’s not. You look for the truth of suffering and all the other noble truths as facts in and of themselves. That’s how you move from guarding the truth to awakening to the truth.

• In MN 95, the Buddha describes many stages in the process of how you awaken to the truth.

You start by entering into what we would call a true relationship. You have to find a true person to be your teacher. How do you find a true person? You observe the person closely and ask yourself three questions: First, does this person have the sort of greed, aversion, or delusion that would make him claim to know something he doesn’t know? Second, does this person ever tell someone else to do something that would not be in that other person’s best interest? Third, is the Dhamma taught by this person the type that would require an observant person to realize it?

To find someone who passes that test requires, of course, that you have some truth in yourself, because as the Buddha says, true people can recognize true people, but a person who is not true can’t tell who’s true and who’s not. This places a lot of responsibility on you.

In this way, awakening to the truth starts with being a true person and looking for another true person to teach you.

Once you believe you’ve found such a person, then you enter into a true relationship with him or her. Listen to the Dhamma that that person teaches—using perceptions and statements—and then think it over until you decide that it seems beneficial and makes sense. That will give rise to a desire to practice. This is the desire you nurture to develop all the perfections, and this is how it’s nurtured: By finding an honest person whose Dhamma seems beneficial and makes sense.

The actual practice starts with your looking at your behavior and comparing it to the Dhamma. Wherever your behavior does not measure up, you try to bring it up to standard. This is a principle that the Buddha calls practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma. In other words, you change your behavior to fit in with the Dhamma instead of trying to change the Dhamma to fit your preferences. This moves from the truth of statements and perceptions to the truth of a person.

Being true in this way will often require doing some things that you don’t like doing, and also relinquishing some things that you’d prefer to hold on to. As a true person, when you see that something needs to be done, you really do it. If something needs to be given up, you really give it up.

This is something that the Buddha himself said was one of his own characteristics: Once he’d given something up, he really gave it up and would never pick it up again. You probably know the story. The Buddha left many hints for Ven. Ānanda to invite him to continue living for a longer time, but Ānanda kept missing the hints, until finally the Buddha decided, “Okay, I’m going to give up my will to live longer.” There was an earthquake, so Ānanda came to see the Buddha and asked, “Why the earthquake?” And the Buddha informed him, “I’ve given up my will to live longer.” Ānanda said, “Could you please change your mind and decide to live longer?” The Buddha replied, “If there’s something I’ve given up, I’ve really given it up. I can’t take it back.”

So, you awaken to the truth by being true in giving up the things that need to be given up, and in doing the things that need to be done. You follow the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, and in that way you arrive at the truth of the end of suffering.

At this point, the Dhamma you’ve attained is a reality. It’s no longer statements; it’s no longer perceptions. Nibbāna is a truth in and of itself. It’s a fact. Once you’ve arrived there, you can let go of all the right views and other things that you developed leading up to that point that got you there. In fact, you have to let them go. Otherwise, you can’t reach the full awakening that comes from having no clinging at all.

So, when we’re told not to be attached to views, it has two meanings. One is realizing that many of the statements and perceptions you assume to be true are based on your preferences and on information that may or may not be true. Those are areas where you have to maintain a measure of detachment from your views. Even with your right views, you have to realize that there may be things that you don’t yet really know—especially about when and how they should be applied. Your right views still have to be tested by trying to develop all the factors of the path until, by following them, you arrive at the reality of the end of suffering.

There’s an example in the Canon. A man once came to see the Buddha and was very impressed. He went back and told a friend, “You know, that Buddha: He really is awakened.” The friend said, “Why do you think that?” And the man said, “Well, I see these people coming to argue with the Buddha, and even before they open their mouths they get converted. It’s like coming across large elephant footprints in a forest and knowing, ‘This must be a bull elephant.’” Impressed, the friend responded, “Gee, I’d really like to meet the Buddha some day.”

He goes to see the Buddha and tells him what the first man said. The Buddha says, “Actually, that’s not the right use of the elephant footprint simile.” Then he explained the proper use of the simile, saying, “Suppose an experienced elephant hunter goes into the forest. He wants a bull elephant because he needs a big bull elephant to do some heavy work. He sees some big elephant footprints, but because he’s an experienced hunter, he doesn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that these must be the footprints of a big bull elephant. Why is that? Because sometimes there are dwarf females with big feet. But the prints look likely, so he follows them. He sees some scratch marks up in the trees. But still he doesn’t jump to the conclusion that these must be scratch marks left by the tusks of a big bull elephant. Why is that? Sometimes there are tall females with tusks. Still, the marks look likely, so he follows them. Finally he comes across a big clearing, and there in the clearing is a big bull elephant. That’s when he knows he’s got the elephant he wants.”

“So,” the Buddha says, “in the same way, when you’re practicing and you gain the different levels of concentration, it’s like seeing the footprints of the elephant. Even if you gain different psychic powers, they’re like scratch marks on the trees. Only when you have a direct experience of the deathless do you know that you’ve got the bull elephant you want.” In other words, only when you gain your first taste of awakening do you know for sure that the Buddha was truly awakened, that awakening is really a fact, and that the perceptions and statements the Buddha employed to teach about awakening and how to get there are really true.

What this means is that, as we’re practicing, we’re going by the strength of our conviction. This conviction becomes knowledge only with awakening. So, as long as we’re still on the path, we should always be open to the fact that there is more to learn. As I said earlier, this is why right views are called right views, rather than right knowledge. We remember that they’re working hypotheses we adopt for the sake of the practice, but we don’t yet know them for sure. This is one way in which we’re not attached to our views. They seem to make sense and they’re worth putting into practice because of the good actions they inspire, but we realize that there’s always more to learn. We adopt them for the sake of our own happiness, so there’s no need for us to impose them on others.

Only when you’ve attained awakening do you have the reality. At that point, perceptions and statements don’t have that much importance to you, because you’ve found the true fact they were aiming at. And to fully experience that truth, you have to let go of the views that got you there. In fact, you have to be careful not to cling even to the reality of awakening if you want to fully attain it. You have to let go of everything. But don’t worry, you won’t be left adrift. The reality of awakening isn’t something that has to be fabricated or maintained. You don’t have to cling to it to keep it going. It’s there on its own, independent of conditions, to be experienced only when the mind is totally free of clinging. This is the second way in which you have to learn not to cling to the truth.

But as we practice, even though we should always be willing to admit that there’s more for us to learn, we have to work with a sense that there is a right and a wrong way of practicing, and a right and a wrong way of understanding the practice. In other words, you can’t say, “I’m just going to be beyond views and not have any opinions.” You have to remember that the Buddha’s truths have an attha, a purpose, and you need to use each truth for the purpose for which it was intended if you want to get the most out of it.

In simple terms, this means you need to know how a truth is to be used in giving guidance in what is correct to do and what’s not correct to do. At the same time, you also have to be true in being willing to keep looking at the results of your actions and to learn from them, to admit a mistake when you’ve caused harm.

One way in which this is particularly important is that some truths may be useful for certain parts of the practice but not useful for others. For example, we may have heard that the teachings on the three characteristics talk about how things are inconstant, stressful, and not-self. First, though, it’s important to know that the Buddha never called these three “characteristics.” He called them “perceptions,” and the important point about them as perceptions is knowing when to apply them and when not.

For example, when you’re practicing the precepts, you don’t say, “Oh, my actions are inconstant, stressful, and not-self, so I don’t have to be responsible.” You have to hold on to the precepts. You apply the perceptions of inconstancy, stress, and not-self to the things that would induce you to break the precepts. Similarly, when you practice concentration: You’re trying to give rise to a state of mind that’s constant, easeful, and is under your control, which means that you’re actually fighting against the three perceptions. You apply the three perceptions only to things that would pull you out of concentration, things like sensual desire and ill will. Only after you’ve totally developed the path do you apply these perceptions to everything, to let go of everything—including the three perceptions themselves.

This fits in with what the Buddha said about his own statements, which is that they would always be true. However, even if something was true but not beneficial, he wouldn’t talk about it. And even if it was true and beneficial but it was not the right time, he wouldn’t talk about it. In the same way, when we’re applying his teachings, we have to ask, “Is this true? Is it beneficial for me? And is this the right time for me?” If you apply these standards to the teachings, that’s one of the ways in which you guard the truth and develop the perfection of truth at the same time. That will help you to awaken to the truth, which is not about perceptions, not about words, but is an independent reality in and of itself.

Now, that reality is always there, regardless of whether we find it or not. Similarly, the statements and perceptions have their truth regardless of how clearly we realize that truth. Where we make a difference is in always telling the truth, always trying to perceive the truth, and in always being true: earnest and accountable. The more true we are in applying ourselves to the practice and observing the results, adjusting our actions to make them more and more harmless, the closer we come to understanding the truth of the Buddha’s perceptions and statements, and the closer we come to the reality we want: unconditioned happiness. If we don’t want to be true in our actions and in observing their results, we won’t know who else is true, we won’t be able to test the truth of their statements—and we may be content to let them lie to us when they tell us that the path to true happiness doesn’t require effort, honesty, or strong powers of self-observation. Remember that in testing the teachings, you’re also testing yourself. And the more true you are with yourself, the more likely you are to find the truth in the teaching.

To summarize, of all the forms of truth, the most important ones to hold on to are to tell the truth and to be true. Those forms of truth will enable us to know the other forms of truth, and to reach the genuine reality of unconditioned happiness. When we find that happiness—and only then—our desire for truth will be fully satisfied.


Q: Your teaching says in a simple way that I need to develop good qualities so as to be able to recognize bad qualities in an instructor or someone else, with which I totally agree. On the other side, I’ve heard that if I identify bad qualities in other people, it means that I must have these bad qualities in myself and I should work on that, with which I partially agree.

A: That’s not always the case. If you used to kill and then you stop killing, you can still identify who’s killing, and the same applies to other qualities in the mind. It’s not the case that we’re not allowed to judge people. We have to be able to pass some judgment on whom we can trust and whom we cannot trust. We’re not passing final judgment on the person, but we do have to judge whether this is a person we can trust or not. As the Buddha said, the most important external factor in making progress in the Dhamma is admirable friendship, so you have to be able to judge who’s an admirable friend and who’s not. There’s an article called “The Power of Judgment” on the website that deals with this issue in detail.

Q: The last words of the teaching on sacca, or truth, lead me back to a question I often have, which is: The choices I make about my spiritual path, the strategies I apply—are they appropriate? Are they judicious? Since the truth can be valid on some levels and not valid on other levels of the path, am I simply following my preferences? Of course, it depends on discernment, but are there also other qualities? It’s been mentioned that one has to know where one is on the path in order to practice in accordance with that level, but it’s not so easy to be clear on this subject. As Ajaan Chah would say, “It is sure but not certain.” Of course, it has to do with the views that we have about ourselves and the profound intentions concerning others. It seems to me that on such a matter, a mistaken evaluation can have heavy consequences.

A: There are two qualities that help protect you on the path, and those are the two qualities that, as I said, the Buddha looked for in any student: one, that you be observant; and two, that you be honest. Now, this also includes being honest with yourself. And as I mentioned in the discussion of the Buddha’s teachings to Rāhula, what’s important is that you test any teaching by putting it into practice. You look at your intentions for adopting the teaching, and then you also look at the results that come about when you put it into practice. As long as you’re operating on what you see as good intentions and you apply this training in being more honest with looking at your intentions and at the results of your actions, that will help keep you on the path.

Think of Ajaan Mun as an example. He was off in the forest alone. Sometimes, while meditating, he would have visions of devas coming to him with teachings. If he had believed everything they said, he would have gone crazy. As he told his students, no matter who or what the teaching comes from, what matters is: If you put it to the test, what happens as a result? That way of testing the teachings was what got him on the right path and kept him there. So, your own honesty about your intentions and the results of your actions is what protects you.