This book is an introduction to the Buddhist practice of training the heart. It is taken from the talks of Phra Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, a teacher in the Thai forest tradition of meditation, and is called Food for Thought because it invites the reader to fill in the spaces suggested by the talks — to reflect on how the images and teachings they contain relate to one another and to one's own situation in life.
Two of the talks included here, "Quiet Breathing" and "Centered Within," briefly describe a technique of breath meditation aimed at giving rise to a centered and discerning state of mind. The rest of the talks deal with how to use such a state of mind in dealing with the problems of life: the day-to-day problems of anger, anxiety, disappointment, etc., and the larger problems of aging, illness, and death.
In other words, this is a book concerned less with the techniques of meditation than with its meaning and worth: the questions of why should one train the heart to begin with, what personal qualities are involved in its training, and how to make the best use of it as it becomes trained. Readers interested in more detailed instructions in the techniques of formal meditation can find them in Ajaan Lee's other books — especially Keeping the Breath in Mind and Inner Strength — although it is wise to reflect on the sorts of questions raised by this book before actually sitting down to the practice.
The talks translated here are actually reconstructions of Ajaan Lee's talks made by two of his followers — a nun, Arun Abhivanna, and a monk, Phra Bunkuu Anuvaddhano — based on notes they made while listening to him teach. Some of the reconstructions are fairly fragmentary and disjointed, and in presenting them here I have had to edit them somewhat, cutting extraneous passages, expanding on shorthand references to points of formal doctrine, and filling in gaps by collating passages from different talks dealing with the same topic. Aside from changes of this sort, though, I have tried my best to convey both the letter and spirit of Ajaan Lee's message.
I have also tried to keep the use of Pali words in the translation to a minimum. In all cases where English equivalents have been substituted for Pali terms, I have chosen to convey the meanings Ajaan Lee gives to these terms in his writings, even when this has meant departing from the interpretations given to these terms by scholars. A few Pali terms, though, have no adequate English equivalents, so here is a brief glossary of the ones left untranslated or unexplained in this book:
Arahant: A person who has gained liberation from mental defilement and the cycle of death and rebirth.
Brahma: An inhabitant of the heavens of form and formlessness corresponding to the levels of meditative absorption in physical and non-physical objects.
Buddho: Awake; enlightened. An epithet of the Buddha.
Dhamma (Dharma): The truth in and of itself; the right natural order of things. Also, the Buddha's teachings on these topics and the practice of those teachings aimed at realizing the true nature of the mind in and of itself.
Kamma (Karma): Intentional acts, which create good or bad results in accordance with the quality of the intention. Kamma debts are the moral debts one owes to others for having caused them hardships or difficulties.
Nibbana (Nirvana): Liberation; the unbinding of the mind from mental defilement and the cycle of death and rebirth. As this term refers also to the extinguishing of fire, it carries connotations of stilling, cooling, and peace. (According to the physics taught at the time of the Buddha, a burning fire seizes or adheres to its fuel; when extinguished, it is unbound.)
Sangha: The followers of the Buddha who have practiced his teachings at least to the point of gaining entry to the stream to Liberation. To take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha means to take them as the guide in one's search for happiness and to make the effort to give rise to their qualities within oneself.
My hope is that the teachings in this book will serve as more than just food for thought, and that they will inspire you to search for the inner worth and happiness that come with the practice of training the heart.
Most of us tend to concern ourselves only with short, small, and narrow things. For instance, we think that there isn't much to human life — we're born and then we die — so we pay attention only to our stomachs and appetites. There's hardly anyone who thinks further than that, who thinks out past death. This is why we're short-sighted and don't think of developing any goodness or virtues within ourselves, because we don't see the truth and the extremely important benefits we'll gain from these things in the future.
Actually, the affairs of each person are really long and drawn out, and not at all short. If they were short, we'd all know where we came from and how we got where we are. The same would hold true for the future: If our affairs were really a short story, we'd know where we're going and what we'll be after death.
But the truth of the matter is that almost no one knows these things about themselves. The only ones who do know are those whose minds are strong in goodness and virtue, and who have developed purity to the point where they gain the intuitive understanding that enables them to see where they've come from and where they're going. These people have the inner eye, which is why they are able to see things past and future. Sometimes they can see not only their own, but also other people's affairs. This is what makes them realize the hardships and difficulties suffered by human beings and other living beings born into this world. They see the cycle of birth, aging, illness, and death. They see their past lives, both good and bad, and this makes them feel a sense of dismay and dispassion, disenchanted with the idea of ever being born again. As a result, they try to develop their goodness and virtues even further so that they can reduce the number of times they'll have to be reborn. For example, stream-winners — those who have entered the stream to Liberation (nibbana) — will be reborn at most only seven more times and then will never have to be reborn again. Once-returners will be reborn in the human world only once more, while non-returners will be reborn in the Brahma worlds and gain Liberation there.
As for stream-winners, even though they have to be reborn, they're reborn in secure places. They aren't reborn in states of deprivation, such as the realms of hungry shades, angry demons, or common animals. They're reborn as human beings, but as special human beings, not like the rest of us. How are they special? They have few defilements in their hearts, not thick defilements like ordinary people. They have a built-in sense of conscience and scrupulousness. Even though they may do wrong from time to time, they see the damage it does and feel a sense of shame, so that they won't want their various defilements to lead them into doing wrong ever again.
People disenchanted with rebirth make an extra effort to build up their virtues so that they won't have to come back and be reborn. If you want to cut down the number of times you'll take rebirth, you should steadily increase your inner quality and worth. In other words, make your heart clean and bright with generosity, moral virtue, and meditation. Keep your thoughts, words, and deeds at equilibrium, secluded from evil both inside and out. If you have no vices in word and deed, that's called being secluded from outside evil. If your mind is firmly centered in concentration and free from obstructing distractions, that's called being secluded from inside evil. This way you can be at peace and at ease both within and without. As the Buddha said, "Happy is the person content in seclusion."
When this kind of seclusion arises in the mind, all sorts of worthwhile qualities will come flowing in without stop. The heart will keep growing higher and higher, until it no longer wants anything at all. If you used to eat a lot, you won't want to eat a lot. If you used to eat in moderation, there'll be times when you won't want to eat at all. If you used to talk a lot, you won't want to talk a lot. If you used to sleep a lot, you'll want to sleep only a little. However you live, the heart will be entirely happy, with no more danger to fear from anyone. This is how you cut down the number of times you'll take rebirth.
If you see any areas in which you're still lacking in inner worth, you should try to fill in the lack right away. Be steady in your practice of meditation and make your mind clear, free from the distractions that will drag it down into the dirt. Dirt is where animals live — pigs, dogs, ducks, chickens, and cows. It's no place for human beings. If you're really a human being, you have to like living in clean places, free from danger and germs. This is why the Buddha praised seclusion as the well-spring of happiness. So try to find a secluded spot for yourself to stay within the mind, secluded from hindering distractions. Make your mind as bright as a jewel, and don't let temptation come along and try to trade garbage for the good things you've got. You have to be mindful at all times, so don't let yourself be absent-minded or forgetful.
If your mind doesn't stay with your body in the present, all sorts of evil things — all sorts of distractions — will come flowing in to overwhelm it, making it fall away from its inner worth, just as a vacant house is sure to become a nest of spiders, termites, and all sorts of animals. If you keep your mind firmly with the body in the present, you'll be safe. Like a person on a big ship in the middle of a smooth sea free from wind and waves: Everywhere you look is clear and wide open. You can see far. Your eyes are quiet with regard to sights, your ears quiet with regard to sounds, and so on with your other senses. Your mind is quiet with regard to thoughts of sensuality, ill will, and harm. The mind is in a state of seclusion, calm and at peace. This is where we'll let go of our sense of "me" and "mine," and reach the further shore, free from constraints and bonds.
Normally, our hearts can hardly ever sit still. They have to think about all kinds of thoughts and ideas, both good and bad. When good things happen, we keep them to think about. When bad things happen, we keep them to think about. When we succeed or fail at anything, we keep it to think about. This shows how impoverished the mind is. When it thinks about things it likes, it develops sensual craving. When it thinks about things that are possible, it develops craving for possibilities. When it thinks about things that are impossible, it develops craving for impossibilities, all without our realizing it. This is called unawareness. It's because of this unawareness that we have thoughts, judgments, and worries that form the well-spring for likes, dislikes, and attachments.
Sometimes the things we think about can come true in line with our thoughts; sometimes they can't. While there's at least some use in thinking about things that are possible, we like to go to the effort of thinking about things that are out of the question. I.e., when certain things are no longer possible, we still hold onto them to the point where we feel mistreated or depressed. We keep trying to get results out of things that can no longer be. When our hopes aren't satisfied, we latch onto our dissatisfaction; when they are satisfied, we latch onto our satisfaction. This gives rise to likes and dislikes. We latch onto thoughts of the future and thoughts of the past. Most of us, when we succeed at something, latch onto our happiness. When we don't succeed, we latch onto our disappointment. Sometimes we latch onto things that are good — although latching onto goodness leaves us some way to crawl along. Sometimes we actually latch onto things that are clearly bad.
This is what made the Buddha feel such pity for us human beings. In what way? He pitied our stupidity in not understanding what suffering is. We know that red ants can really hurt when they bite us, yet we go stick our heads in a red ant nest and then sit around in pain and torment. What good do we get out of it?
When we see good or bad sights with our eyes, we latch onto them. When we hear good or bad sounds with our ears, we latch onto them. When we smell good or bad odors, taste good or bad flavors, feel good or bad sensations, or think good or bad thoughts, we latch onto them — so we end up all encumbered with sights dangling from our eyes, sounds dangling from both of our ears, odors dangling from the tip of our nose, flavors dangling from the tip of our tongue, tactile sensations dangling all over our body, and thoughts dangling from our mind. This way, sights are sure to close off our eyes, sounds close off our ears, odors close off our nostrils, flavors close off our tongue, tactile sensations close off our body, and thoughts close off our mind. When our senses are completely closed off in this way, we're in the dark — the darkness of unawareness — groping around without finding the right way, unable to go any way at all. Our body is weighed down and our mind is dark. This is called harming yourself, killing yourself, destroying your own chances for progress.
Thoughts are addictive, and especially when they're about things that are bad. We remember them long and think of them often. This is delusion, one of the camp-followers of unawareness. For this reason, we have to drive this kind of delusion from our hearts by making ourselves mindful and alert, fully conscious with each in-and-out breath. This is what awareness comes from. When awareness arises, discernment arises as well. If awareness doesn't arise, how will we be able to get rid of craving? When awareness arises, craving for sensuality, craving for possibilities, and craving for impossibilities will all stop, and attachment won't exist. This is the way of the Noble Path.
Most of us tend to flow along in the direction of what's bad more than in the direction of what's good. When people try to convince us to do good, they have to give us lots of reasons, and even then we hardly budge. But if they try to talk us into doing bad, all they have to do is say one or two words and we're already running with them. This is why the Buddha said, "People are foolish. They like to feed on bad preoccupations." And that's not all. We even feed on things that have no truth to them at all. We can't be bothered with thinking about good things, but we like to keep clambering after bad things, trying to remember them and keep them in mind. We don't get to eat any meat or sit on any skin, and yet we choke on the bones.
"We don't get to eat any meat:" This means that we gather up imaginary things to think about, but they don't bring us any happiness. A person who opens his mouth to put food in it at least gets something to fill up his stomach, but a person who clambers around with his mouth open, craning his neck to swallow nothing but air: That's really ridiculous. His stomach is empty, without the least little thing to give it weight. This stands for thoughts that have no truth to them. We keep searching them out, gathering them up, and elaborating on them in various ways without getting any results out of them at all, aside from making ourselves restless and distracted. We never have any time to sit still in one place, and instead keep running and jumping around until the skin on our rears has no chance to make contact anywhere with a place to sit down. This is what is meant by, "We don't get to sit on any skin." We can't lie down, we can't stay seated — even though our bodies may be seated, our minds aren't seated there with them. We don't get to eat any meat and instead we choke on the bones. We try to swallow them, but they won't go down; we try to cough them up, but they won't come out.
When we say, "We choke on the bones," this refers to the various bad preoccupations that get stuck in the heart. The "bones" here are the five Hindrances.
(1) Sensual desire: The mind gets carried away with things it likes.
(2) Ill will: Things that displease us are like bones stuck in the heart. The mind fastens on things that are bad, on things we dislike, until we start feeling animosity, anger, and hatred. Sometimes we even gather up old tasteless bones that were thrown away long ago — like chicken bones that have been boiled to make stock: The meat has fallen off, the flavor has been boiled away, and all that's left are the hard, brittle bones they throw to dogs. This stands for old thoughts stretching back 20 to 30 years that we bring out to gnaw on. Look at yourself: Your mind is so impoverished that it has to suck on old bones. It's really pitiful.
(3) Torpor & lethargy: When the mind has been feeding on trash like this, with nothing to nourish it, its strength is bound to wane away. It becomes sleepy and depressed, oblivious to other people's words, not hearing their questions or understanding what they're trying to say.
(4) Restlessness & anxiety: The mind then gets irritable and distracted, which is followed by —
(5) Uncertainty: We may decide that good things are bad, or bad things are good, wrong things are right, or right things are wrong. We may do things in line with the Dhamma and not realize it, or contrary to the Dhamma — but in line with our own preconceptions — and not know it. Everything gets stuck in our throat, and we can't decide which way to go, so our thoughts keep running around in circles, like a person who rows his boat around in a lake for hours and hours without getting anywhere.
This is called harming yourself, hurting yourself, killing yourself. And when we can do this sort of thing to ourselves, what's to keep us from doing it to others? This is why we shouldn't let ourselves harbor thoughts of envy, jealousy, or anger. If any of these five Hindrances arise in the heart, then trouble and suffering will come flooding in like a torrential downpour, and we won't be able to hold our own against them. All of this is because of the unawareness that keeps us from having any inner quality as a mainstay. Even though we may live in a seven- or nine-storey mansion and eat food at $40 a plate, we won't be able to find any happiness.
People without any inner quality are like vagrants with no home to live in. They have to be exposed to sun, rain, and wind by day and by night, so how can they find any relief from the heat or the cold? With nothing to shelter them, they have to lie curled up until their backs get all crooked and bent. When a storm comes, they need to scurry to find shelter: They can't stay under trees because they're afraid the trees will be blown down on top of them. They can't stay in open fields because they're afraid lightning will strike. At midday the sun is so hot that they can't sit for long — like an old barefooted woman walking on an asphalt road when the sun is blazing: She can't put her feet down because she's afraid they'll blister, so she dances around in place on her tiptoes, not knowing where she can rest her feet.
This is why the Buddha felt such pity for us, and taught us to find shelter for ourselves by doing good and developing concentration as a principle in our hearts, so that we can have an inner home. This way we won't have to suffer, and other people will benefit as well. This is called having a mainstay.
People with no mainstay are bound to busy themselves with things that have no real meaning or worth — i.e., with things that can't protect them from suffering when the necessity arises. A person without the wisdom to search for a mainstay is sure to suffer hardships. I'll illustrate this point with a story. Once there was a band of monkeys living in the upper branches of a forest, each one carrying its young wherever it went. One day a heavy wind storm came. As soon as the monkeys heard the sound of the approaching wind, they broke off branches and twigs to make themselves a nest on one of the bigger branches. After they had piled on the twigs, they went down under the nest and looked up to see if there were still any holes. Wherever they saw a hole, they piled on more twigs and branches until the whole thing was piled thick and high. Then when the wind and rain came, they got up on top of the nest, sitting there with their mouths open, shivering from the cold, exposed to the wind and rain. Their nest hadn't offered them any protection at all, simply because of their own stupidity. Eventually a gust of wind blew the nest apart. The monkeys were scattered every which way and ended up dangling here and there, their babies falling from their grasp, all of them thoroughly miserable from their hardship and pain.
People who don't search for inner worth as their mainstay are no different from these monkeys. They work at amassing money and property, thinking that these things will give them security, but when death comes, none of these things can offer any safety at all. This is why the Buddha felt such pity for all the deluded people in the world, and went to great lengths to teach us to search for inner quality as a mainstay for ourselves.
People who have inner quality as their mainstay are said to be kind not only to themselves but also to others as well, in the same way that when we have a house of our own, we can build a hut for other people to live in, too. If we see that another person's hut is going to cave in, we help find thatch to roof it; make walls for the left side, right side, the front, and the back, to protect it from storm winds; and raise the floor to get it above flood level. What this means is that we teach the other person how to escape from his or her own defilements in the same way that we've been able, to whatever extent, to escape from ours. When we tell others to practice concentration, it's like helping them roof their house so that they won't have to be exposed to the sun and rain. Making walls for the front and back means that we tell them to shut off thoughts of past and future; and walls for the left and right means that we tell them to shut off thoughts of likes and dislikes. Raising the floor above flood level means we get them to stay firmly centered in concentration, keeping their minds still with their object of meditation.
Once people have a house with good walls, a sound roof, and a solid floor, then even if they don't have any other external belongings — just a single rag to their name — they can be happy, secure, and at peace. But if your house is sunk in the mud, what hope is there for your belongings? You'll have to end up playing with crabs, worms, and other creepy things. Your walls are nothing but holes, so that people can see straight through your house, in one side and out the other. Even from four to five miles away they can see everything you've got. When this is the case, thieves are going to gang up and rob you — i.e., all sorts of bad thoughts and preoccupations are going to come in and ransack your heart.
As for your roof, it's nothing but holes. You look up and can see the stars. Termite dust is going to sift into your ears and eyes, and birds flying past will plaster you with their droppings. So in the end, all you can do is sit scratching your head in misery because you haven't any shelter.
When this is the case, you should take pity on yourself and develop your own inner worth. Keep practicing concentration until your heart matures, step by step. When you do this, you'll develop the light of discernment that can chase the darkness of unawareness out of your heart. When there's no more unawareness, you'll be free from craving and attachment, and ultimately gain Liberation.
For this reason, we should all keep practicing meditation and set our hearts on developing nothing but inner goodness, without retreating or getting discouraged. Whatever is a form of goodness, roll up your sleeves and pitch right in. Don't feel any regrets even if you ram your head into a wall and die on the spot. If you're brave in your proper efforts this way, all your affairs are sure to succeed in line with your hopes and aspirations. But if evil comes and asks to move into your home — your heart — chase it away. Don't let it stay even for a single night.
People who like to gather up thoughts, worries, etc., to hold onto are no different from prisoners tied down with a ball and chain. To fasten onto thoughts of the past is like having a rope around your waist tied to a post behind you. To fasten onto thoughts of the future is like having a rope around your neck tied to a door in front. To fasten onto thoughts you like is like having a rope around your right wrist tied to a post on your right. To fasten onto thoughts you don't like is like having a rope around your left wrist tied to a wall on your left. Whichever way you try to step, you're pulled back by the rope on the opposite side, so how can you hope to get anywhere at all?
As for people who have unshackled themselves from their thoughts, they stand tall and free like soldiers or warriors with weapons in both hands and no need to fear enemies from any direction. Any opponents who see them won't dare come near, so they're always sure to come out winning.
But if we're the type tied up with ropes on all sides, nobody's going to fear us, because there's no way we can take any kind of stance to fight them off. If enemies approach us, all we can do is dance around in one spot.
So I ask that we all take a good look at ourselves and try to unshackle ourselves from all outside thoughts and preoccupations. Don't let them get stuck in your heart. Your meditation will then give you results, your mind will advance to the transcendent, and you're sure to come out winning someday.
Inner wealth, according to the texts, means seven things — conviction, virtue, a sense of conscience, scrupulousness, breadth of learning, generosity, and discernment — but to put it simply, inner wealth refers to the inner quality we build within ourselves. Outer wealth — money and material goods — doesn't have any hard and fast owners. Today it may be ours, tomorrow someone else may take it away. There are times when it belongs to us, and times when it belongs to others. Even with things that are fixed in the ground, like farms or orchards, you can't keep them from changing hands.
So when you develop yourself so as to gain the discernment that sees how worldly things are undependable and unsure, don't let your property — your worldly possessions — sit idle. The Buddha teaches us to plant crops on our land so that we can benefit from it. If you don't make use of your land, it's sure to fall into other people's hands. In other words, when we stake out a claim to a piece of property, we should plant it full of crops. Otherwise the government won't recognize our claim, and we'll lose our rights to it. Even if we take the case to court, we won't have a chance to win. So once you see the weakness of an idle claim, you should hurry up and plant crops on it so that the government will recognize your claim and issue you a title to the land.
What this means is that we should make use of our material possessions by being generous with them, using them in a way that develops the inner wealth of generosity within us. This way they become the kind of wealth over which we have full rights and that will benefit us even into future lifetimes.
This body of ours: Actually there's not the least bit of it that's really ours at all. We've gotten it from animals and plants — the pigs, prawns, chickens, fish, crabs, cows, etc., and all the various vegetables, fruits, and grains that have been made into the food we've eaten, which the body has chewed and digested and turned into the blood that nourishes its various parts. In other words, we've taken cooked things and turned them back into raw things: ears, eyes, hands, arms, body, etc. These then become male or female, they're given ranks and titles, and so we end up falling for all of these conventions. Actually these heads of ours are lettuce heads, our hair is pigs' hair, our bones are chicken bones and duck bones, our muscles are cows' muscles, etc. There's not one part that's really ours, but we lay claim to the whole thing and say it's this and that. We forget the original owners from whom we got it all and so become possessive of it. When the time comes for them to come and take it back, we're not willing to give it back, which is where things get messy and complicated and cause us to suffer when death comes near.
If all the various animals we've eaten were to come walking out of each of us right now (here I'm not talking about the really big ones, like cows and steers; say that just all the little ones — the shrimps, fish, oysters, crabs, chickens, ducks, and pigs — came walking out) there wouldn't be enough room for them all in this meditation hall. None of us would be able to live here in this monastery any more. How many pigs, ducks, chickens, and shrimp have each of us eaten? How many bushels of fish? If we were to calculate it all, who knows what the figures would be — all the animals we ourselves have killed for food or that we've gotten from others who've killed them. How do you think these animals won't come and demand repayment? If we don't have anything to give them, they're sure to repossess everything we've got. Right when we're at death's door: That's when they're going to crowd around and demand that we repay our debts. If we don't have anything to give them, they're going to knock us flat. But if we have enough to give them, we'll come out unscathed.
In other words, if we develop a lot of inner goodness, we'll be able to contend with whatever pains we suffer, by giving back the body with good grace — in other words, by letting go of our attachment to it. That's when we'll be at peace. We should realize that the body leaves us and lets us go, bit by bit, every day. But we've never left it, never let it go at all. We're attached to it in every way, just as when we eat food: We're attached to the food, but the food isn't attached to us. If we don't eat it, it'll never cry even once. All the attachment comes from our side alone.
The pleasure we get from the body is a worldly pleasure: good for a moment and then it changes. It's not at all lasting or permanent. Notice the food you eat: At what point is it good and delicious? It looks good and inviting only when it's arranged nicely on a plate. It's delicious only for the brief moment it's in your mouth. After it goes down your throat, what is it like then? And when it gets down to your intestines and comes out the other end, what is it like then? It keeps changing all the time. When you think about this sort of thing, it's enough to make you disillusioned with everything in the world.
Worldly pleasure is good only when it's hot and fresh, like fresh-cooked rice piled on a plate when it's still hot and steaming. If you leave it until it's cold, there's no taste to it. If you let it go until it hardens, you can't swallow it; and if you let it sit overnight, it spoils and you have to throw it away.
As for the pleasure of the Dhamma, it's like the brightness of stars or the color of gold. The brightness of stars is clear and glittering. Whoever sees it feels calmed and refreshed. When depressed people look at the stars, no matter when, their depression disappears. As for the color of gold, it's always gleaming and golden. No matter what the gold is made into, its color doesn't change. It's always gleaming and golden as it always was.
In the same way, the pleasure of the Dhamma is lasting and gives delight throughout time to those who practice it. For this reason, intelligent people search for pleasure in the Dhamma by giving up their worthless, meaningless worldly pleasures, to trade them in for lasting pleasure by practicing meditation until their minds and actions reach the level of goodness, beauty, and purity that goes beyond all action, all suffering and stress.
Beautiful things come from things that are dirty, and not at all from things that are pleasant and clean. Crops and trees, for instance, grow to be healthy and beautiful because of the rotten and smelly compost and nightsoil with which they're fertilized. In the same way, a beautiful mind comes from meeting with things that aren't pleasant. When we meet with bad things, the mind has a chance to grow.
"Bad things" here refers to loss of wealth, loss of status, criticism, and pain. When these things happen to a person whose mind is rightly centered in concentration, they turn into good things. Before, they were our enemies, but eventually they become our friends. What this means is that when these four bad things occur to us, we can come to our senses: "Oh. This is how loss of wealth is bad. This is how loss of status, how pain and criticism are bad. This is how the ways of the world can change and turn on you, so that you shouldn't get carried away with their good side."
When meditators meet with these four kinds of bad things, their minds develop. They become more and more dispassionate, more and more disenchanted, more and more detached from the four opposites of these bad things — wealth, status, pleasure, and praise — so that when these good things happen, they won't be fooled into getting attached or carried away with them and can instead push their minds on to a higher level. When they hear someone criticize or gossip about them, it's as if that person were taking a knife to sharpen them. The more they get sharpened, the more they grow to a finer and finer point.
Loss of wealth is actually good for you, you know. It can teach you not to be attached or carried away with the money or material benefits other people may offer you. Otherwise, the more you have, the deeper you sink — to the point where you drown because you get stuck on being possessive.
Loss of status is also good for you. For instance, you may be a person, but they erase your good name and call you a dog — which makes things even easier for you, because dogs have no laws. They can do what they like without any constraints, without anyone to fine them or put them in jail. If people make you a prince or a duke, you're really in bad straits. All of a sudden you're big: Your arms, hands, feet, and legs grow all out of size and get in your way wherever you try to go or whatever you do.
As for wealth, status, pleasure, and praise, there's nothing the least bit constant or dependable about them. The more you really think about them, the more disaffected and disenchanted you become, to the point where you find that you're indifferent, neither pleased nor displeased with them. This is where your mind develops equanimity and can become firm in concentration so that it can grow higher and higher in the practice — like the lettuce and cauliflower that Chinese farmers plant in rows: The more they get fertilized with nightsoil, the faster, more beautiful, and more healthy they grow. If they were fed nothing but clean, clear water, they'd end up all sickly and stunted.
This is why we say that when people have developed mindfulness and concentration, they're even better off when the ways of the world turn ugly and bad. If the world shows you only its good side, you're sure to get infatuated and stuck, like a seed that stays buried in its shell and will never grow. But once the seed comes out with its shoot, then the more sun, wind, rain, and fertilizer it gets, the more it will grow and develop — i.e., the more your discernment will branch out into knowledge and wisdom, leading you to intuitive insight and on into the transcendent, like the old Chinese vegetable farmer who becomes a millionaire by building a fortune out of plain old excrement.
When we first meet with the fires of greed, aversion, and delusion, we find them comforting and warm. We're like a person sitting by a fire in the cold season: As he sits soaking up the warmth, he gets more and more sleepy and careless until he burns his hands and feet without realizing it, and eventually falls head-first into the flames.
The pleasures felt by people in the world come from looking at things only on the surface. Take a plateful of rice, for instance. If you ask people what's good about rice, they'll say, "It tastes good and fills you up, too." But the Buddha wouldn't answer like that. He'd answer by talking about rice both when it goes in your mouth and when it comes out the other end. This is why his view of things covered both cause and effect. He didn't look at things from one side only.
The Buddha saw that the ease and happiness of ordinary pleasures is nothing lasting. He wanted an ease and happiness that didn't follow the way of the worldly pleasures that most people want. This was why he left his family and friends, and went off to live in seclusion. He said to himself, "I came alone when I was born and I'll go alone when I die. No one hired me to be born and no one will hire me to die, so I'm beholden to no one. There's no one I have to fear. In all of my actions, if there's anything that's right from the standpoint of the world, but wrong from the standpoint of the truth — and wrong from the standpoint of my heart — there's no way I'll be willing to do it."
So he posed himself a question: "Now that you've been born as a human being, what is the highest thing you want in this world?" He then placed the following conditions on his answer: "In answering, you have to be really honest and truthful with yourself. And once you've answered, you have to hold to your answer as an unalterable law on which you've affixed your seal, without ever letting a second seal be affixed on top. So what do you want, and how do you want it? You have to give an honest answer, understand? I won't accept anything false. And once you've answered, you have to keep to your answer. Don't be a traitor to yourself."
When he was sure of his answer, he said to himself, "I want only the highest and most certain happiness and ease: the happiness that won't change into anything else. Other than that, I don't want anything else in the world."
Once he had given this answer, he kept to it firmly. He didn't allow anything that would have caused the least bit of pain or distraction to his heart to get stuck there as a stain on it. He kept making a persistent effort with all his might to discover the truth, without retreat, until he finally awakened to that truth: the reality of Liberation.
If we search for the truth like the Buddha — if we're true in our intent and true in what we do — there's no way the truth can escape us. But if we aren't true to ourselves, we won't find the true happiness the Buddha found. We tell ourselves that we want to be happy but we go jumping into fires. We know what things are poison, yet we go ahead and drink them anyway. This is called being a traitor to yourself.
Every person alive wants happiness — even common animals struggle to find happiness — but our actions for the most part aren't in line with our intentions. This is why we don't get to realize the happiness we want, simply because there's no truth to us. For example, when people come to the monastery: If they come to make offerings, observe the precepts, and sit in meditation for the sake of praise or a good reputation, there's no real merit to what they're doing. They don't gain any real happiness from it, so they end up disappointed and dissatisfied. Then they start saying that offerings, precepts, and meditation don't give any good results. Instead of reflecting on the fact that they weren't right and honest in doing these things, they say that there's no real good to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, that the Buddha's teachings are a lot of nonsense and lies. But actually the Buddha's teachings are an affair of the truth. If a person isn't true to the Buddha's teachings, the Buddha's teachings won't be true to that person — and that person won't be able to know what the Buddha's true teachings are.
When we practice virtue, concentration, and discernment, it's as if we were taking the jewels and robes of royalty and the Noble Ones to dress up our heart and make it beautiful. But if we aren't true in our practice, it's like taking robes and jewels and giving them to a monkey. The monkey is bound to get them dirty and tear them to shreds because it has no sense of beauty at all. Whoever sees this kind of thing happening is sure to see right through it, that it's a monkey show. Even though the costumes are genuine, the monkey inside isn't genuine like the costumes. For instance, if you take a soldier's cap and uniform to dress it up as a soldier, it's a soldier only as far as the cap and uniform, but the monkey inside is still a monkey and not a soldier at all.
For this reason, the Buddha teaches us to be true in whatever we do — true in being generous, true in being virtuous, true in developing concentration and discernment. Don't play around at these things. If you're true, then these activities are sure to bear you the fruits of your own truthfulness without a doubt.
In Christianity they teach that if you've done wrong or committed a sin, you can ask to wash it away by confessing the sin and asking for God's forgiveness. God will then have the kindness to hold back punishment, and you'll be pure. But Buddhism doesn't teach this sort of thing at all. If you do wrong, you are the one who has to correct the error so as to do away with the punishment on your own behalf. What this means is that when a defilement — greed, anger, or delusion — arises in your heart, you have to undo the defilement right there so as to escape from it. Only then will you escape from the suffering that would otherwise come as its natural consequence.
We can compare this to a man who drinks poison and comes down with violent stomach cramps. If he then runs to a doctor and says, "Doctor, doctor, I've drunk poison and my stomach really hurts. Please take some medicine for me so that the pain will go away," there's no way that this is going to cure the pain. If the doctor, instead of the sick man, is the one who takes the medicine, the sick man can expect to die for sure.
So I ask that we all understand this point: that we have to wash away our own defilements by practicing the Dhamma — the medicine of the Buddha — in order to gain release from any evil and suffering in our hearts; not that we can ask the Buddha to help wash away our mistakes and sufferings for us. The Buddha is simply the doctor who has discovered the formula for the medicine and prepared it for us. Whatever disease we have, we need to take the medicine and treat the disease ourselves if we want to recover.
A single mind moment can't carry out two tasks at once. In other words, the evil you've done is really evil; the goodness you've done, really good. The mind can't carry out the tasks of evil and goodness both at the same time. It's like having only one hand. When the things you're carrying fill the hand, it can't pick up anything else. You have to put down what you're already carrying. Only then can you pick up other things. This is an analogy for the mind.
If the mind is continually in good shape, evil won't have any place to land or catch hold. But if our goodness isn't constant, evil will be able to find a perch. It's like rowing a boat out into the ocean. If we stay close to shore, crows flying from the shore will be able to perch on the mast of the boat. If you don't want them perching there, you have to row out as far as you can. The crows then won't be able to perch on the mast. If any crow tries to keep flying out to the boat, it'll lose sight of the shore and is likely to die out there in the ocean, because it'll run out of strength, it'll run out of food. It'll have to die.
In the same way, if goodness catches hold of the greater part of the mind, evil will have to circle aimlessly around with nowhere to land. If it stays close by — meaning that goodness has only a small part of the heart — evil will be able to come flying in. Sometimes it waits on the opposite shore. If your strength of mind runs low, it'll stay right nearby and catch hold of you easily.
For example, if the goodness you get from coming to the monastery isn't yet enough, when you get back home your mind will order you to do evil in this way or that, and you'll go right along with it. Or while you're sitting here listening to this talk, evil will perch on the handrail to the stairs outside. When you get up at the end of the talk and let yourself get distracted, it'll immediately land right on you. Sometimes even while you're sitting here, it'll come swooping in, just like a crow. If the mind is good and strong, though, evil will wait at a distance. Even when you get home, it won't dare land on you — but it might land on someone else, someone without any Dhamma. As you talk with that person, and your words begin to mesh with theirs, evil might come sneaking in that way. That's because you're goodness isn't yet strong enough.
If we have a wound on our body — i.e., evil in our mind — we have to wash off the wound, put medicine in it, and cover it with a clean bandage: in other words, observe the precepts and practice meditation. That way the wound has a chance to heal. Washing the wound means that we don't get involved in thinking about the good and bad points of other people. That right there is a skillful mind state arising. The mind will then be at its ease and will develop an inner nourishment: coolness in heart and mind. It's like sitting in a mountain glen with a waterfall streaming down and a pure breeze blowing through a cleft in the rock. The mind will feel cool and undisturbed. The heart will blossom like a jasmine filled with dew in the middle of the cool season. The mind will give rise to strength.
If the mind doesn't have any inner nourishment, though, it won't have any strength, because it's hungry and thin.
The Buddha saw that we human beings are thin and malnourished in this way, which is why he felt compassion for us. He taught us, "The mind that goes around swallowing sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations is eating a ball of fire, you know. Not any kind of food." In other words, "The eye is burning." Everything we see with the eye is a form, and each of these forms contains a ball of fire, even though on the outside it's coated to look pretty and attractive. "The ear is burning." All the pleasing sounds we search for, and that come passing in through our ears from the day we're born to the day we die, are burning sounds, are flames of fire. The heat of the sun can't burn you to death, but sounds can burn you to death, which is why we say they're hotter than the sun. "The nose is burning." We've been smelling smells ever since the doctor cleaned out our nose right after birth, and the nature of smells is that there's no such thing as a neutral smell. There are only two kinds: good smelling and foul-smelling. If our strength is down and we're not alert, we swallow these smells right into the mind — and that means we've swallowed a time bomb. We're safe only as long as nothing ignites the fuse. "The tongue is burning." Countless tastes come passing over our tongue. If we get attached to them, it's as if we've eaten a ball of fire: As soon as it explodes, our intestines will come splattering out. If we human beings let ourselves get tied up in this sort of thing, it's as if we've eaten the fire bombs of the King of Death. As soon as they explode, we're finished. But if we know enough to spit them out, we'll be safe. If we swallow them, we're loading ourselves down. We won't be able to find any peace whether we're sitting, standing, walking, or lying down, because we're on fire inside. Only when we breathe our last will the fires go out. "The body is burning." Tactile sensations are also a fire that wipes human beings out. If you don't have any inner worth or goodness in your mind, these things can really do you a lot of damage.
Greed, anger, and delusion are like three enormous balls of red-hot iron that the King of Death heats until they're glowing hot and then pokes into our heads. When greed doesn't get what it wants, it turns into anger. Once we're angry, we get overcome and lose control, so that it turns into delusion. We forget everything — good, bad, our husbands, wives, parents, children — to the point where we can even kill our husbands, wives, parents, and children. This is all an affair of delusion. When these three defilements get mixed up in our minds, they can take us to hell with no trouble at all. This is why they're called fire bombs in the human heart.
But if, when greed arises, we have the sense to take only what should be taken and not what shouldn't, it won't wipe us out even though it's burning us, because we have fire insurance. People without fire insurance are those with really strong greed to the point where they're willing to cheat and get involved in corruption or crime. When this happens, their inner fires wipe them out. To have fire insurance means that even though we feel greed, we can hold it in check and be generous with our belongings by giving donations, for instance, to the religion. Then even though we may die from our greed, we've still gained inner worth from making donations as an act of homage to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha — which is like keeping our insurance payments up. This way, even though our house may burn down, we'll still have some property left.
Anger. When this defilement really gets strong, it has no sense of good or evil, right or wrong, husband, wives, or children. It can drink human blood. An example we often see is when people get quarreling and one of them ends up in prison or even on death row, convicted for murder. This is even worse than your house burning down, because you have nothing left at all. For this reason, we have to get ourselves some life insurance by observing the five or eight precepts so that we can treat and bandage our open sores — i.e., so that we can wash away the evil and unwise things in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Even if we can't wash them all away, we should try at least to relieve them somewhat. Although you may still have some fire left, let there just be enough to cook your food or light your home. Don't let there be so much that it burns your house down.
The only way to put out these fires is to meditate and develop thoughts of good will. The mind won't feel any anger, hatred, or ill will, and instead will feel nothing but thoughts of sympathy, seeing that everyone in the world aims at goodness, but that our goodness isn't equal. You have to use really careful discernment to consider cause and effect, and then be forgiving, with the thought that we human beings aren't equal or identical in our goodness and evil. If everyone were equal, the world would fall apart. If we were equally good or equally bad, the world would have to fall apart for sure. Suppose that all the people in the world were farmers, with no merchants or government officials. Or suppose there were only government officials, with no farmers at all: We'd all starve to death with our mouths gaping and dry. If everyone were equal and identical, the end of the world would come in only a few days' time. Consider your body: Even the different parts of your own body aren't equal. Some of your fingers are short, some are long, some small, some large. If all ten of your fingers were equal, you'd have a monster's hands. So when even your own fingers aren't equal, how can you expect people to be equal in terms of their thoughts, words, and deeds? You have to think this way and be forgiving.
When you can think in this way, your good will can spread to all people everywhere, and you'll feel sympathy for people on high levels, low levels, and in between. The big ball of fire inside you will go out through the power of your good will and loving kindness.
This comes from getting life insurance: practicing tranquillity meditation so as to chase the defilements away from the mind. Thoughts of sensual desire, ill will, lethargy, restlessness, and uncertainty will vanish, and the mind will be firmly centered in concentration, using its powers of directed thought to stay with its meditation word — buddho — and its powers of evaluation to create a sense of inner lightness and ease. When the mind fills itself with rapture — the flavor arising from concentration — it will have its own inner food and nourishment, so that whatever you do in thought, word, or deed is sure to succeed.