The Lessons of Unawareness

August 21, 1956

‘‘The sermon this afternoon was on the theme, ‘vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno sugato lokavidū.’ I didn’t listen to the beginning. All I can remember is this:’’

…The real nature of the Dhamma isn’t all that difficult for people who have awareness; but it’s hard for people who don’t. It’s hard because it goes against our wishes. If it followed our wishes, it’d be easy. The genuine Dhamma is something that goes against our wishes because good things ordinarily are bound to be that way. It’s the nature of things that are beneficial and useful to us that they’re hard and require effort. Even worldly things are this way. Things actually beneficial are usually hard to obtain. But as for things of no real use to us, there’s no need to go to any great trouble to search for them. There are heaps of them right in our own back yard.

I’m referring here to unawareness—ignorance of what’s real. But this ignorance of what’s real is the wellspring that can give rise to awareness, or knowledge of what’s real. This knowledge of what’s real exists everywhere, like water vapor that rises into the atmosphere. Whoever has the ingenuity to find it and bring it inwards will feel cool, content and refreshed. This is called vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno, which is the opposite of unawareness. So I’d like to explain one more point in the theme, vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno, which means, ‘Those who really search for the Dhamma are sure to be always giving rise to knowledge within themselves.’

Here we first have to explain the word ‘dhamma.’ Dhamma is something that exists in each and every one of us. It can be divided into three sorts: skillful, unskillful, and neutral.

1. Skillfulness (kusala-dhamma) means the goodness that exists naturally, whether or not there’s a Buddha to point it out. This dhamma is what gives comfort and benefit to living beings in proportion to how much they practice it. Don’t go thinking that goodness comes from having been formulated by the Buddha, or that it comes from his teachings. Goodness has been in the world ever since long before the time of the Buddha, but no one was really acquainted with it because no sage had been able to identify it. But when the Buddha came and ferreted out awareness itself, he was able to see the dhamma that has existed in the world from time immemorial. This sort of dhamma didn’t arise from anything he said or taught. It’s the goodness that exists naturally in the world. If this sort of goodness didn’t exist as a normal part of the world, the human race would have died out long ago. The fact that we have any peace and wellbeing at all comes from our having imbued our hearts with this goodness as we’ve been able to discover it. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to withstand all the fires of worldliness.

2. Unskillfulness (akusala-dhamma): The same holds true with evil. It doesn’t come from anything the Buddha said or taught. It exists on its own in the world, by its nature. But people who haven’t thought about it or observed it misunderstand things. They think that evil comes from what the Buddha taught and so they don’t pay it any attention because they think good and evil were made up by the Buddha. In this way, good and evil get all mixed up together, without anyone knowing their truth.

But the Buddha was endowed with supreme intelligence and so was able to tell what was unhusked rice, what was husked rice, what was bran, and what was chaff. He then sorted them into separate lots so that people could choose whichever they prefer, with the realization that each of us is responsible for his or her own kamma: Whoever does good will have to meet with good; whoever does evil will have to meet with evil.

All dhammas—the good and evil that exist naturally—ultimately come down to the mind right here in this very body. It’s not the case that we have to go searching for them anywhere outside. If we were to ask where it all came from, the Buddha would probably be able to answer us, but it’d be like hitting the earth with your fist. If we were to ask where the mind comes from, we’d have to answer that it comes from us. And where do we come from? From our parents. That’s as far as we’d get.

If we were to answer on a different level—one that’s more difficult to see, and that only people of awareness can manage—we’d say that the mind comes from unawareness. And what does unawareness come from? From fabrications. And what do fabrications come from? From unawareness. It’s like the old question, where does the chicken come from? The egg. And the egg? From the chicken. If we keep asking and answering, we simply go around in circles without ever coming to the end of it. This is how things are on the level of the world.

The issues of the mind all boil down to two minds: one that likes to do good, and one that likes to do evil. One mind, but there’s two of it. Sometimes an inclination to do good takes hold of us, and so we want to do good. This is called being possessed by skillfulness. Sometimes an inclination to do evil takes hold of us, and so we want to do evil. This is called being possessed by unskillfulness. In this way, our mind is kept always unsettled and unsure.

So the Buddha taught us to develop our awareness in order to know what’s good and worthwhile, and what’s evil and worthless. If unawareness obscures our mind, we can’t see anything clearly, just as when haze obscures our eyesight. If our knowledge gets really far up away from the world, we’ll have even less chance of seeing anything, just as a person who goes up high in an airplane and then looks down below won’t be able to see houses or other objects as clearly as when he’s standing on the ground. The higher he goes, the more everything becomes a haze. He won’t be able to see any sign of human life at all. This is why the Buddha taught us to fill ourselves with as much awareness as possible, so that our ears and eyes will be bright and clear, unobscured by fog or haze.

Awareness, of the sort taught by the Buddha, can arise in three ways:

1. Sutamaya-paññā: This is the awareness in which we study and listen to what other people say so that we can understand what evil things will lead us in the direction of suffering and stress, and what good things will lead us in the direction of wellbeing and ease. Once we know, we can then ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to go in the direction of suffering?’ If we answer, ‘No, we don’t, because it’s a hardship. We’d rather go in the direction of wellbeing,’ we have to set our hearts on giving rise to goodness. That goodness is then sure to lead us in the direction of wellbeing. For example, some people are born way out in the sticks and yet they train and educate themselves to the point where they end up important and influential. The same holds true with us. If we train and educate ourselves, we’re all bound to end up as good people. This is education on the elementary level—our ABC’s—called sutamaya-paññā.

2. Cintāmaya-paññā: Once we’ve learned that certain things are good, we should try each of them until we see good results arising within us. Don’t go jumping to any fixed conclusions that this or that has to be good or right. For example, some things may be correct in terms of the Dhamma you’ve learned, but when you try them out, they may be wrong in terms of other people’s feelings. So when we’re taught something that seems right, we should remember it. When we’re taught something that seems wrong, we should remember it. We then take these things and evaluate them on our own until we give rise to an understanding. Only then can we be called intelligent.

In other words, we don’t simply believe what’s in books, what other people say, or what our teachers tell us. Before we do anything, we should consider it carefully until it’s certain and clear to us. Only then should we go ahead and do it. This is called believing in our own sense of reason. This is the second level of awareness, but it’s not the highest. It can eliminate only some of the unawareness that exists within us. Both of the levels mentioned so far are awareness on the low level.

3. The truly high level of awareness is called bhāvanāmaya-paññā. This level of awareness arises in a trained mind. This is what is meant by vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno sugato lokavidū. The awareness here includes knowledge of one’s past lives; knowledge of death and rebirth—knowing the mental stream of other people, what sort of good and evil they’ve done, and where they will go after death; and knowledge of the end of mental fermentation: Whoever develops the mind to the point of right concentration, giving rise to intuitive insight, will be able to let go of:

(i) Self-identification (sakkāya-diṭṭhi). They’ll see that the body isn’t really theirs.

(ii) Uncertainty (vicikicchā). Their doubts about the virtues of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha will be gone for good. They’ll have no more doubts about the paths and their fruitions (magga, phala). The paths, their fruitions, and nibbāna will have to exist for whoever is true in practicing the Dhamma, no matter what the time or season. This is termed akāliko: The Dhamma gives results no matter what the time or season. Opanayiko: People who give rise to virtue, concentration, and discernment within themselves are sure to see that the qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha can actually ward off insecurity and dread. Such people will also let go of:

(iii) Grasping at habits and practices (sīlabbata-parāmāsa). The virtues of the five precepts will be firmly established in their hearts.

To let go in this way is called knowledge of the end of mental fermentation (āsavakkhaya-ñāṇa), or vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno—being consummate in knowledge and conduct. In addition to these three primary forms of awareness, we may also develop clairvoyance, clairaudience, and psychic powers. But unless we can still our mind in concentration, we won’t be able to gain any of these forms of awareness, even if we study all 84,000 divisions of the Canon, because all of these forms of awareness depend on the stillness of concentration. The ability to put away all forms of evil depends on the stillness of concentration. When awareness arises within us, we’re sure to see the truth of what’s good and what’s evil. As long as this awareness doesn’t arise, we’re still deluded and groping.

For example, we may latch on to the body as being our own, or to the five khandhas—form, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications, and consciousness—as being our own. Some people identify themselves with greed, anger, or delusion. For example, when greed arises they identify with the greed. When anger arises they identify with the anger. When delusion arises they identify with the delusion. But these things arise only at certain times. Sometimes when lack of anger arises, these people identify themselves with the lack of anger. And when lack of greed or delusion arises, they identify with the lack of greed or delusion—and so these things get all mixed up because of unawareness, or ignorance of the truth.

But once we’ve developed awareness, then when greed arises we won’t identify with it. The same holds true with anger and delusion. This is a step we have to master so that we can catch sight of how these three defilements actually come and go.

In other words, when greed comes we sit and keep watch on the greed until it dies of its own accord. We’ll then be able to know exactly what ugly features it has when it comes and exactly how good it is when it goes. We just sit there and watch it until it disbands and we’ll feel an immediate sense of relief. When anger or delusion comes, we sit and keep watch on the anger or delusion—don’t go running off anywhere else—and we’ll be able to see exactly how bad anger is when it comes, and how good it is when it goes. What delusion is like when it comes—no matter which side it’s going to be deluded about—we make a point of keeping our gaze fixed on it. When we can hold ourselves in check this way, that’s awareness.

But if, when greed comes, we get carried along with the greed, or when anger or delusion comes, we get carried along with the anger or delusion, that’s unawareness. If we’re constantly on the look-out for these three defilements, the day is sure to come when they grow ashamed of themselves. We’ll know how they arise, we’ll see how they take a stance, we’ll perceive how they disband. This is the awareness that comes from unawareness.

When we can contemplate things in this way, we’ll be able to gain all eight forms of cognitive skill. If we can hold ourselves in check in the midst of our defilements, without feeling obliged to let them come out in our actions, we’ll give rise to awareness within. This is what is meant by vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno. Our hearts will be pure, free from greed, anger, and delusion. Sugato lokavidū: We’ll fare well whether we come or go, and wherever we stay. This sort of awareness is the real thing. It’s the awareness that will bring us success in the sphere of the Dhamma.