All-around Discernment

§ The Dhamma is in everyone. Whether or not you realize it, it’s there. Whether or not you study it, it’s there. It’s simply a matter of whether you know how to decipher it. Once you know the labels formulated by the Buddha, you can decipher yourself, in the same way that you learn how to read a book. Take a baby who doesn’t know anything: As soon as it’s born, it cries, “Wae!” That’s feeling. If it’s eating and comes across something it doesn’t like, it throws it away and goes for something better: That’s thought-formation. When it gets older, it can begin to remember things: That’s perception. So the Dhamma is in everyone.

So why do we study? We study to learn the names for things, and then we eventually have to get rid of all perceptions, old, new, past, and future. That’s when we’ll reach nibbāna. Policemen who don’t take off their uniforms and go around as plainclothesmen will have trouble uncovering the secrets of criminals. This is why we have to practice virtue, concentration, and discernment so that we can get on familiar terms with the five aggregates. That’s what’s meant by insight meditation.

Concentration is something you do. Insight meditation is letting go. You can’t “do” insight meditation. It’s a result. When virtue is the cause, concentration is the result. When concentration is the cause, discernment is the result. When discernment is the cause, release is the result.

§ The skills of insight are things that can’t be taught. At most, you can teach people to do the meditation, but you can’t teach them to be insightful.

§ You have to “do” before you can “know.” You have to know before you can let go. You have to give rise to the causes, and then the results will come on their own.

§ When people out in the sun keep running around, they don’t realize how hot the sun really is. If you want to know how hot it is, you have to sit out in the middle of a field when the sun is really strong for about five minutes. That’s when you’ll know what real heat is like. It’s the same with stress and pain. If the mind goes running around without stopping, it doesn’t really see stress and pain. It has to be still if it wants to see.

§ Concentration is like a mirror for seeing ourselves clearly. Discernment is like a telescope, so that small things will appear large, and distant things near.

§ You have to stop searching—in other words, the mind has to be still—before you can give rise to discernment. Searching is ignorance, or avijjā.

§ The understanding you gain from listening and reading (sutamaya-paññā) is like a person who has woken up but hasn’t yet opened his eyes. He doesn’t see any light, and so has to grope around uncertain, sometimes laying hold of the right things and sometimes laying hold of the wrong. The understanding you gain from thinking (cintāmaya-paññā) is like a person who has woken up but hasn’t yet left the mosquito net and hasn’t yet washed the sleep out of his eyes. His vision is blurry and unclear. As for the understanding you gain from meditation (bhāvanāmaya-paññā), that’s like getting out of the mosquito net and washing your face so that you’re able to see things clearly. This is the highest kind of understanding. Try to develop it.

§ To get full results from our meditation, the mind has to give the orders. Mindfulness is what does the work and assists in the progress of all our activities, while alertness is what observes the results of what we’ve done. To speak in terms of the frames of reference, these qualities are called mindfulness and alertness. To speak in terms of jhāna, they’re called directed thought and evaluation. They’re the qualities that give rise to discernment.

Discernment comes from observing causes and effects. If we know effects without knowing causes, that doesn’t qualify as discernment. If we know causes without knowing effects, that doesn’t qualify, either. We have to know both of them together with our mindfulness and alertness. This is what qualifies as all-around knowing in the full sense of the term.

The all-around knowing that arises within us comes from causes and effects, not from what we read in books, hear other people tell us, or conjecture on our own. Suppose we have some silver coins in our pocket. If all we know is that other people say it’s money, we don’t know its qualities. But if we experiment with it and put it in a smelter to see what it’s made of and to see how it can be made into other things, that’s when we’ll know its true qualities. This is the kind of knowledge that comes from our own actions. This knowledge, when we meditate, comes in five forms. We find within ourselves that some things are caused by the properties of the body, some are caused by the mind, some causes come from the mind but have an effect on the body, some causes come from the body but have an effect on the mind, some causes come from the body and mind acting together. This kind of knowledge is discernment. So we have to learn from virtue, concentration, and discernment by giving rise to them. If we don’t, we’ll suffer from unawareness and delusion.

Mindfulness is what brings light to the mind, like a candle. If we take a candle into a room at night, close the windows and doors, and fill in all the cracks in the walls, no wind from outside will be able to slip in and make the flame waver. The flame will give off even more light, and we’ll be able to see everything in the room clearly. Closing the windows and doors and filling in the cracks means exercising restraint over our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind, so that our attention doesn’t go straying out after outside perceptions and preoccupations. This is called restraint through mindfulness. Our mindfulness will gather into one. When mindfulness is strong, the results are immediate: a sense of ease and mental well-being. When mindfulness is solid and unflagging, our concentration will become stronger. The mind will be still and upright. Light will arise in one of two ways: from within ourself or from what’s reflected off the walls. This is why mindfulness is the cause, the supporting factor, that keeps our concentration progressing.

For this reason, we shouldn’t forget to appreciate this mental quality. When we know that certain causes give rise to happiness and well-being, we should look after those causes. It’s like when other people share food with us. We shouldn’t forget their kindness. Or when our parents raise us and care for us from when we were small: When we grow up and can establish ourselves in the world, we shouldn’t forget their kindness. We have to show our gratitude and take care of them at all times to repay their kindness. Only then will we be able to progress in life without backsliding.

So mindfulness is like our parents. We have to look after it always, for it’s the mother of all skillful qualities. The reason we gain any happiness in life is because of mindfulness. For this reason, mindfulness is what brings peace to the mind.

Sitting here and bringing the mind to stillness is not really all that hard to do. The reason it seems hard is because we misunderstand things. Our views are wrong, and so are our presuppositions. If we study so as to understand this point, we’ll know the truth. For example, when we think that the mind goes here or there, that’s not the truth. It’s just a preconceived notion. Actually, the mind stays with the body at all times. What goes is just the light, as with a flashlight. The bulb stays in the flashlight; it’s simply the light that goes flashing out. The bulb and the light are two different things. The bulb has light, but the light outside of the flashlight doesn’t have a bulb. The mind—awareness itself—stays with the body with each in-and-out breath. The knowledge that goes flashing out isn’t the real thing. You can’t take the light and put it back in the flashlight, just as when a person tries to catch a light beam it doesn’t stick in his hands.

So if the mind is always in the present, why do we practice concentration? We practice concentration because there are two kinds of fire or electricity in the mind: hot fire, the fires of passion, aversion, & delusion; and cool fire, the fire of jhāna, or mental absorption. If we understand how to train the mind, we’ll meet with the cool fire. Hot fire is bad for the nerves of our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. Our sense organs are like light bulbs. The nerves of the senses are like the filaments in the bulbs. If we hook them up to the wrong kind of current, they’ll explode immediately. If we hook them up to the right current but never turn them off, they’ll wear out. So we practice concentration because we want cool electricity, the cool fire of jhāna. Cool electricity does no damage to our senses and enables us to use our senses to see the truth, to understand everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think about. This way the mind can be cool and at peace.

This is the skill of insight meditation. When sights strike against the eye, perceptions arise right at the contact, and we can see them with discernment. When sounds strike the ear, when smells strike the nose, when flavors strike the tongue, when tactile sensations strike the body, or ideas strike the mind, discernment gets right there in between them. This way sights don’t stick to the eye, and the eye doesn’t stick to sights; sounds don’t stick to the ears, the ears don’t stick to sounds, and so forth. This is intuitive insight, or six-factored equanimity, which can let go both of the senses and of their objects. The true mind stays cool and at peace, like the cool fire that lasts and poses a danger to no one.

When people don’t train their minds, they have to live with hot fire, which wears down different parts of their minds, such as the nerves of their eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. When these nerves wear down, they become ignorant. Their eyesight is darkened. When they see sights, they don’t know the truth of those sights. This is called unawareness. Their ears go deaf: When they hear sounds, they don’t know the truth of those sounds. The same holds for their nose, tongue, body, and mind. Whatever they sense, they don’t know the truth of those things. This is called unawareness. It gives rise to craving and defilement, and leads to suffering. This is what it means to be ignorant of the truth.

People ignorant of the truth are like the blind. They have trouble everywhere they walk, thinking that high things are low and low things are high—as when a blind person walks along level ground, lifting his feet up high because he’s afraid he might trip over something. In the same way, people who don’t know the truth think that deep Dhamma is shallow, shallow Dhamma is deep; high Dhamma is low, low Dhamma is high. That’s Wrong View. When your views are wrong, your practice is wrong; your release is wrong—like lifting your feet to walk up a set of stairs that doesn’t have any steps. There are people who want to put themselves on a high level but without the proper basis. Their minds don’t have any concentration. They keep walking, thinking, imagining about high-level Dhamma, but they end up back where they started. They’re like a blind person trying to climb a staircase whose bottom step is missing. He’ll just keep stomping on the same spot of ground. In the same way, people on a low level who think they’re on a high level end up sinking further and further into the ground. The more they try to climb up, the deeper they go. Like an elephant fallen into the mud: The more she struggles, the deeper she sinks.

The steps of the stairs are virtue, concentration, and discernment. If we follow the steps, we’ll get to where we want to go—like a person with good eyesight climbing stairs that actually have steps. People who practice concentration can know things whether their eyes are opened or closed, because they have brightness within them.

§ “Saṅkhāra” means fabrication. Saṅkhāras are things that we have to study in order to know them clearly for what they are. And we have to be wise to them, too. There are two kinds. World saṅkhāras are things like gain, status, praise, and pleasure. These things arise and then pass away. Dhamma saṅkhāras are our own physical and mental phenomena: aggregates, elements, and sense media. These things also arise and pass away in just the same way. So as long as we have them, we should put them to a good use. Otherwise they’ll turn around and kill us. If we don’t work at training them, they simply stay at the level of plain phenomena. But if we train them, we get more and more worth out of them. Like clay: If we’re intelligent enough, we can make it into a pot to cook our food. Higher than that, we can make it into tiles to cover our roof. If we put a glaze on the tiles, they become even more valuable. It all depends on how much discernment we have in understanding how to work with things so as to increase their value.

§ The breath is the bodily saṅkhāra, i.e., the factor that fabricates the body.

Verbal saṅkhāras are the thoughts that you put into words so that you have them ready to say, but without speaking out loud.

Mental saṅkhāras are thoughts that aren’t involved with speaking. You simply think and then know what the thought is about.

Verbal and mental saṅkhāras are very similar. In training the mind, the important point is to make an effort to prevent verbal saṅkhāras from arising. Whether they deal with past or future perceptions, you have to brush them all away.

§ Bodily saṅkhāras are the present aspect of the body, i.e., the breath. Mental saṅkhāras are the present aspect of the mind, i.e., the awareness that forms the basis for thinking.

Mental saṅkhāras form the essence of suffering. Saṅkhāras are the valuables of stupid people. You have to get rid of the smoke if you want to see the flame. You have to get rid of the saṅkhāras in the mind if you want to see the Unfabricated.

§ Taking pleasure in sights, sounds, smells, tastes, etc., is sensual craving. The mental state that wanders out in search of an object but hasn’t yet found anything that pleases it, is craving for becoming. The mental state that wavers or leans in its present preoccupation is craving for no becoming. Not knowing these aspects of the mind is unawareness (avijjā).

§ Labels of the past and future are the “world.” The present is the Dhamma. Don’t let yourself get taken in by even the slightest labeling. Even if you get only slightly involved, that’s a state of becoming, and you’ll have to suffer more birth, aging, illness, and death.

§ The skill of release is when “past” is simply a movement, “future” is simply a movement, and “present” is simply a movement, but there’s no kamma. You can think of the past, but the mind doesn’t taste any results from the thinking. For the mind to attain dispassion, you need to have the skill to determine what’s detrimental in the present so that you can spit out any passion immediately. The past isn’t for real, the future isn’t for real. If they were for real, they would have to stay for good. If you’re intelligent, you won’t take the things that you’ve already spit out and put them back in your mouth again.

§ Passion and craving are like eating and swallowing, or gathering in. Dispassion is like spitting out or throwing away. If you grasp after things that have gotten away from you or haven’t reached you yet, that’s craving and passion. Dispassion is like when food touches your tongue, you notice it immediately and spit it out before it gets swallowed.

§ When the Buddha was still a lay person, he tried to track down the source of true happiness. He asked himself, “Does happiness come from being wealthy?” But when he looked at wealth, he saw that it had its drawbacks. So he turned to learning, but learning also had its drawbacks. He turned to power, but he saw that power involved killing and war. So he contemplated things back and forth like this, asking himself what he could do to find true happiness. Finally he realized that happiness comes from pain, pain comes from happiness. The world has to keep spinning around like this. And when something spins around, it has to have an axle—otherwise, how could it spin? So when there’s something that spins, there also has to be something that doesn’t spin. He kept contemplating this until he found the source of all spinning and not spinning, which lies right here in the heart.

§ There are two kinds of knowing: true knowing and imitation knowing. True knowing is what stays right here and now, without going anywhere else. You know when you’re standing, you know when you’re lying down, speaking, thinking, etc. As for imitation knowing, that’s the knowledge that goes after labels and perceptions. Labels are an act of knowing, but they’re not the knowing itself. They’re like the shadow of knowing. True knowing is being mindful of the present, seeing causes and effects. This is discernment.

§ Knowing in line with labels, in line with books or with what people say, is imitation knowing, not the real thing. It’s like the shadow of knowing. Real knowing is the knowing that arises within yourself. It’s paccattaṁ, i.e., entirely personal. It’s the kind of knowing that can’t be taught and can’t be told. It has to arise within you. Only then will you know what’s inconstant, stressful, and not-self; and what’s constant, easeful, and self. Change-of-lineage knowledge (gotarabhū-ñāṇa) sees both sides and lets go of both. The truth of the Dhamma is Dhammaṭhiti, the aspect of mind that stays in place without changing. The movements and characteristics of the mind are simply shadows or imitations of knowing. In practicing the Dhamma, you want true knowing. If you don’t really practice, you’ll meet up only with the shadows of the Dhamma. For this reason we should practice so that true knowing will appear within us.

§ Dhammaṭhiti is something that by its nature stays in place. It doesn’t change or waver, rise or fall in line with the mental objects that come into contact. It’s the mind released from suffering and stress, the mind that stays in line with its true nature. Even though there may be thinking or talking or acting in all kinds of ways, the mind simply is aware. It doesn’t show any symptoms of changing from its primal nature. Say, for example, that we place a glass here, without anyone or anything touching it or moving it. It will stay right there for ten years, one hundred years, without breaking. The mind that’s Dhammaṭhiti is just like that. Or you can say that it’s like writing the number 1 without changing it into anything else. It will have to stay the same 1 it was in the first place. This is called Dhammaṭhiti.

§ Always contemplate things in terms of inconstancy, stress, and not-self—but you also have to look at them in terms of constancy, ease, and self as well. You have to look at things from both sides, and not just at their shortcomings. You have to look at their uses, too, but you can’t let yourself get attached to either side. Otherwise you’ll be like a person with one eye: Constancy, ease, and self will be able to sneak up and hit you over the head without your realizing it.

§ Insight has two sides: the side that sees in line with what we’re taught and the side that sees in the other direction. Seeing in line with what people say can turn into a corruption of insight. Seeing in the other direction means seeing in line with things they don’t say. Wherever they say there’s inconstancy, that’s where there’s constancy. Wherever they say there’s stress, that’s where there’s ease. Wherever they say there’s not-self, that’s where there’s self. This is intuitive insight.

§ The still calm of discernment is not something the Buddha wanted, because it’s not really calm, not really still. The ultimate happiness is something even higher than discernment.

§ Those who have attained the transcendent—streamwinners, once-returners, non-returners, and arahants: These terms apply, not to people, but to the mind.