Before the Buddha’s awakening, he had a vision. He saw the world as a small puddle of water full of fish fighting one another over the water. Those that lost the battle died, but all those that won the battle died as well. As he looked around at the world, he couldn’t see anything that wasn’t already laid claim to, which meant, of course, that if he was going to find happiness in the world, he would have to fight somebody else off, just like the fish. It gave rise to a strong sense of dismay and discontent.
Then, he said, he looked inside and he saw that the whole problem came from an arrow, there in the heart. It was the arrow of desire and craving. He realized that if you could remove the arrow, there would be no more suffering. So, he committed himself to finding a way to pull that arrow out. He found that the path to pulling it out required desire as well: the desire to put an end to desire. It didn’t work simply to say, “Don’t have any more desires.” Instead, it first required determination to give priority to skillful desires over unskillful desires.
In general, this ability to give priority to some desires over others in a systematic way is a sign of maturity. It requires determination. In fact, that’s what determination is: the desire to give consistent priority to your most valuable desires. Now, the Buddha’s determination in particular was that he not rest content until he had found something that didn’t die. He realized that this determination would require that he negotiate with death. In other words, he realized that when death came, there would be many things he would have to give up if he wanted to arrive at the deathless. That meant devoting his life to finding the things that would be of value even after death occurred.
He conveyed this determination in an analogy he described to King Pasenadi. One time, King Pasenadi came in the middle of the day to see the Buddha. The Buddha asked him, “What have you been doing today?” The king, in a remarkable display of frankness, said, “All the typical things that a person obsessed with power would be doing.” Can you imagine our political leaders being frank enough to say that now? So, the Buddha said to the king, “Suppose someone trustworthy came from the east and said, ‘There’s a mountain moving in from the east, as tall as the sky, crushing all living beings in its path.’ Suppose another trustworthy person came from the south, saying, ‘There’s a mountain moving in from the south, as tall as the sky, crushing all living beings in its way.’” Similarly from the west and the north—in other words, four huge mountains moving in from all sides. The Buddha asked the king, “Given this danger, this horrible destruction of life, and given that human birth is rare, what would you do?” The king replied, “What else could I do except calm my mind and practice the Dhamma?” Then the Buddha said, “I tell you, aging, illness, and death are moving in, crushing all living beings in their path. So, what are you going to do?” And the king said, “What else can I do but calm the mind and practice the Dhamma?” That’s what skillful determination is about: focusing your mind, focusing your desires, on things that will be of value even in the face of death.
The perfections are the qualities of heart and mind needed to carry through with that determination.
You notice, as you look at the list of perfections, that they give priority to the state of your heart and mind. And more: They give purpose to the heart and mind. After all, the nature of the heart and mind is that they need to have purpose and can’t be happy unless the purpose is good. By aiming your desires at a happiness that doesn’t change and gives no harm, you’re giving the heart and mind the best purpose of all.
As you look at the list of perfections, you notice two more things.
• One is that they develop qualities of both a good mind and a good heart. When we talk about a good mind, we usually mean someone who has discernment, someone who has a wise purpose in mind and is intelligent in bringing them about. This sort of discernment requires an understanding of cause and effect, not only in the abstract but also in its practical application. Think of the Buddha’s instructions to his son, that he examine not only his intentions for acting, but also the actual results of his actions. A person with a truly good mind is willing to learn from his mistakes to increase his skill in arriving at good ends. Remember the candidates at the brain surgery school. Really smart people are those who are active in recognizing a mistake and trying to correct it.
As for the qualities of a good heart, those basically have to do with your will, which aims not only at your own happiness, but also at the happiness of others. This covers the perfections of goodwill and giving. But a good heart does more than aim at happiness. It also needs the strength to carry through with its aims, regardless of the difficulties it encounters. Think of the man pinned down by bandits who are sawing his limbs off. For him to feel goodwill for them in an extreme situation like that, he needs to have developed more than goodwill. He needs to have developed the other perfections—qualities like truth, virtue, persistence, giving, renunciation, endurance, and equanimity—to provide the strength so that good intentions lead to good realities. This means that a truly good heart is not only well-meaning, generous, and kind. It’s also strong in sticking to its skillful intentions.
• This relates to the second point, which is that these perfections are aimed at finding a true happiness, but in the course of developing that true happiness, you also have to be truly good. This means that your pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of goodness are basically the same thing. There doesn’t have to be a conflict between the two. Whatever conflict there is between the heart and the mind becomes settled. The practice of the perfections helps to make the heart and the mind into one.
They become one because we give clear priority to our most skillful desires: That’s the function of skillful determination. Now, remember the four determinations that the Buddha taught, which are basically the four desires to which he would have you give priority. The four are:
• not to neglect discernment,
• to guard the truth,
• to be devoted to relinquishment, and
• to train for calm.
So, let’s look again at those four determinations.
The first determination includes the perfections of discernment and goodwill. As you will remember, the Buddha’s discernment is strategic. It’s concerned less with the nature of things and more with the nature of your actions, focused on how to direct your actions so that they give the results you want. This requires an understanding of cause and effect, and of how to use that understanding in order to bring about true happiness. This is how discernment and goodwill work together.
Right view always carries duties if you wish well for yourself and others. The duty with regard to the first noble truth, which is suffering, is to comprehend it. The duty with regard to the second noble truth, the cause of suffering, is to abandon it. You should try to realize the cessation of suffering, which is done by developing the path to the end of suffering.
Of these four noble truths, the third is the most important, because it’s the goal to which the practice aims. Always keep in mind that it is possible to put an end to suffering. All too often we let ourselves get distracted by other messages. We’re told that true happiness is not possible, so we should content ourselves with lesser pleasures. That’s what the world economy is based on—which means that the economy is based on keeping you within its limits. This is why it’s almost an act of defiance to allow yourself to imagine that true happiness is possible. This is what it means not to neglect discernment: to keep in mind the possibility that true happiness can be found as a result of your own efforts, so you should always choose your actions in light of what their long-term results will be.
This leads into the second of the determinations, which is to guard the truth. Once you’ve made up your mind that you have a goal, you want to be true in doing whatever needs to be done to attain that goal. Now, there is a seeming paradox here in the practice, in that we have to learn to guard the truth but at the same time we have to learn how not to be attached to views about the truth. But it’s not really a paradox. It’s a matter of strategy.
Remember the four different kinds of truth: the truth of person, in other words, your ability to stick with something that you really believe is right; the truth of perceptions; the truth of statements; and the truth of facts, in and of themselves. Now, the first and the last are the ones that you never abandon until the very end of the path. As for the truth of statements and perceptions, there are statements that give us a true idea of what would be a good way to practice and there are statements that give us the wrong idea, so you have to make a clear distinction. To guard the truth, you have to keep reminding yourself that you are acting on conviction as you follow the Buddha’s recommendations as to which statements about suffering are true, so you have to hold on to them skillfully: not for the sake of defeating other people in argument, but for the sake of finding out whether or not they give true results.
Remember the image of the raft. You’re going across the river and you have to hold on to the raft. Otherwise you get swept away. But you realize that the raft itself is not the goal, it’s a means to get you to the goal. Once you get to the goal, then you can let go of the raft because you’ve arrived at the truth of the fact that you were hoping for. That’s what it means to be unattached to views. But make sure you don’t let go of right views before you get to the other side of the river. Simply be conscious of the fact that these are things that you hold on to because of conviction, so you’re not yet 100% sure. You’ll know for sure when you reach the other shore.
Truth requires trying to find a reliable teacher, being truthful in judging the teacher, and then being true in sticking to the path even though it’s demanding. All three of these actions require that you be true as well. To learn the truth, you have to be true. When you’re consistently true in this way, it allows you to reach the truth that is a fact, beyond the truth of perceptions and statements.
Now, this quality of truth is found in the perfections of truth, virtue, and persistence. With the perfection of virtue, we’re faced with a paradox similar to that of the perfection of truth. In other words, there are the precepts that correspond to right speech and right action, but we’re sometimes told not to hold on to precepts and practices. Here again, though, the issue is strategic. You practice the precepts and stick to them, being mindful and alert to remember them and apply them in your actions, but once they become qualities of your heart, then you don’t have to keep reminding yourself of the precepts because the quality of truth and virtue is now a part of your heart. You don’t have to hold on to the words. You’ve got the reality of virtue within you.
As for persistence, this is a matter not only of abandoning or letting go of things. There are altogether four types of right effort: trying to prevent unskillful states from arising, to abandon unskillful states if they have arisen, to give rise to skillful states that have not arisen, and then to maintain and develop them when they have. We need the quality of calm—endurance and equanimity—to maintain our stamina as we pursue these four efforts. These efforts also require taking joy in being on the path, so that when we’re confronted with challenges, we don’t see them as problems. We see them as opportunities. This depends on our ability to develop the perfection of discernment to keep ourselves motivated on the path.
The third desire in determination is to be devoted to relinquishment. This covers the perfections of giving and renunciation. In both cases, you regard giving and renunciation of sensuality as a trade up: There are certain things you’ll have to sacrifice, but you’ll gain things of greater value in return.
Giving covers not only giving material items away, but also giving your energy, your time, your knowledge, and your forgiveness. In return, you gain a much broader mind and heart, a sense of spaciousness and self-esteem.
In a similar way, the perfection of renunciation is not simply a matter of giving up sensual pleasures and sensual thoughts. You’re opening the way to an alternative pleasure that’s higher than sensual pleasures. In mastering the pleasure of concentration, you take yourself out of the back-and-forth between trying to run away from pains and running towards sensual pleasures. You remember the image of the hell of beings trapped in a flaming cube, in which you keep running toward the door you think will lead to pleasure and it immediately gets shut in your face. But when you finally do get through the door, you fall into another hell.
When you practice concentration, you get yourself out of that situation. You change your relationship to pleasure and pain. Instead of having to run toward sensual pleasure to get away from pain, you put yourself in a position of strength where you can learn how to use pleasure and to use pain. You can use pain to develop your discernment into the process of fabrication in your mind. You can use the pleasure of concentration to give yourself a foundation where you can continue to look deeper and deeper into the mind, to see its fabrications on more and more subtle levels. This is how you put yourself onto the path of the middle way.
The fourth and final of the desires of determination is to train only for calm. Now, calm here functions in two ways. On the one hand, it’s the goal to which you aim; on the other hand, it’s a means to help give you stamina on the path to that goal.
The two perfections coming under calm are endurance and equanimity.
In developing endurance, we have to learn what to tolerate and what not to tolerate. The things we have to learn how to tolerate are harsh words and painful feelings. As we pointed out, learning how to tolerate or endure these things requires that we use all three kinds of fabrication—bodily, verbal, and mental—and that we cultivate a sense of humor that makes light of our difficulties.
The things you have to learn not to tolerate are unskillful states that arise in the mind. You don’t just accept them and stay with them or simply note their presence. You have to figure out some way to get them out of the mind, using whatever strategy you find will work.
As for equanimity, it’s the ability not to weigh ourselves down with unnecessary emotional baggage. There are three levels of equanimity in all. The ability simply to be indifferent when things happen is the lowest level of equanimity. Higher than that is the equanimity of the mind in the fourth jhāna and the formless attainments, and higher still there’s the equanimity that comes as a result of release. The first two levels of equanimity play a role in the path. The third level comes about as a result of attaining the goal. Now, we can’t clone that last level of equanimity. We have to develop the first two levels, remembering that equanimity is useful on the path as a means of enabling us to carry through with the perfection of persistence. So, don’t let your equanimity make you lazy.
Remember the equanimity of a doctor. You maintain your goodwill, you maintain your compassion, you accept what cannot be changed, and that frees up your energy to focus on what can be changed. Also, remember the equanimity of a soldier, which is that in spite of hardships and setbacks, you maintain your determination to come out victorious. In that way, your equanimity is combined with other skillful qualities so that it doesn’t get in the way of your goal. It actually becomes the basis for which you can find your way beyond the hardships and setbacks to come out winning.
Above all, don’t fall for the equanimity of resignation, telling yourself, “This is all there is in life, so I have to accept it.” That’s basically trying to find happiness by lowering your standards. It’s a defeatist attitude. The Buddha’s message is just the opposite: You find happiness by giving yourself good standards and then raising them. In other words, keep on remembering the message of discernment, which is to hold to the view that the total end of suffering is possible. It is possible to win in the fight against suffering.
So, that’s the Buddha’s advice: that true happiness is possible and it’s found by also developing true goodness in your own heart and mind. So, don’t give up, keep up your effort, take joy in the practice and in encountering challenges, and don’t rest content with these perfections until they’ve brought you to the goal. In other words, don’t sell yourself short. Don’t set your price too low.
As the Buddha himself developed these perfections, there came a point, of course, where he had to let them go. In fact, at the moment of awakening, he had to let everything go. But as Ajaan Lee would often point out, that didn’t mean those things ran away from him. He still had those qualities left over to help him in his work of teaching the religion.
We can see the results of these perfections in the qualities that he displayed as a Buddha. The three main qualities are discernment, compassion, and purity. His discernment was developed by the perfections of discernment, renunciation, equanimity, and goodwill. His compassion was developed by his perfections of goodwill, generosity, endurance, and virtue. And his purity was developed by the perfections of virtue, truthfulness, determination, endurance, and persistence.
When you follow these principles, you’re fully exercising the power of your mind and your heart. This gives purpose to your life, fulfilling one of the basic needs of the mind and the heart, which is to have a good purpose. Only when you have a coherent purpose, a good purpose, through developing the perfection of determination, can the mind and the heart be deeply happy. And, following the Buddha, you give yourself the best possible purpose, which is to focus on a genuine happiness, a genuine goodness, which is blameless and unchanging. Deathless. This purpose will carry over even after you leave this life, and eventually you’ll be able to pursue this desire until you reach the end of desire.
The end of desire doesn’t come by denying your desires. It comes when you reach a happiness so satisfying that you no longer have any need to feed. In the meantime, you can take heart in the fact that your search for genuine happiness is at the same time a search for genuine goodness, and that someday you will arrive at what you are searching for. But this path doesn’t save all of its rewards until the end. You’ll find that your happiness and your goodness will become more and more solid all along the way. This will be good for you and for everyone else you encounter.