Week 2: Truth by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – January 10, 2011
The Ten Perfections – an online retreat at tricycle.com
The second determination is truth. Under truth we have three of the perfections or three of the priorities that we talked about last week. Truth itself, virtue and persistence.
Truth, here, means not just telling true things but also being a true person. You might think of this as the difference between the “truth of a statement” and the “truth of a person.” You want true statements, in other words, when you say things, you want it to make an accurate account of what you really know.
“Truth of a person” means that once you have made up your mind you are going to do something, you stick with it. You are not a traitor to yourself. You realize that certain things are going to be skillful and then you learn how to stay true to that determination, true to that understanding, even when you feel very strongly tempted to do something you know is not quite so skillful.
Bringing discernment to the quality of truthfulness is really important. You have to realize that, again, your motivation for being true is that it makes it easier for you to develop discernment. If you are used to lying to other people, you start lying to yourself. That becomes a habit in the mind. It’s very difficult for any kind of insight, any kind of understanding into suffering, its causes, or how you might practice to get rid of the causes of suffering in your mind to develop.
In fact the Buddha himself said this was the primary characteristic he looked for in a student. He once said “Bring me someone who is true and observant and I will teach that person the Dhamma.”
Being observant also is a very important part of being truthful. If you are not truthful, it’s hard to really observe what is going on. There’s a passage where the Buddha says “If you are used to abusing other people, you don’t want to hear the truth. You don’t even want to hear the truth about other people’s bad habits. You want everything to be covered up.” So you have to be truthful in order to be observant, to know what is going on both inside and out.
In applying the principal of truth in life, you do have to make two distinctions. The first is in the “truth of statements.” If there is something that you say, even if it is true but you know it is going to cause harm, you don’t say it. The Buddha once said there were three tests that he would make for any statement he might make. The first was that it be true. The second one, if it was true, it would also have to be beneficial. If it was beneficial then the third one was that it be timely. In other words, look at the situation. Is it the right time to be saying this? Not everything that’s true should be said.
There was once a politician who went to see the Buddha and he said “I see there is no harm in telling the truth, whatever you know, whatever you see.” The Buddha said that if telling the truth gives rise to create aversion and delusion within yourself, you should avoid talking about that topic. Now that doesn’t mean you should lie about it, but simply you learn how to avoid the topic. This is one of the areas in which discernment has to come into play. When you are avoiding a topic, are you are avoiding it simply because it makes you uncomfortable? Or is it actually going to be harmful to talk about it? You have to keep this in mind.
As for “truths of the person”, where you use your discernment here is when you realize that you made unrealistic demands on yourself. You may have to scale back. If you made demands that are too low for yourself, you have to learn how to raise the bar. Learn how to check the vows that you’ve made for yourself to make sure that they really are in line with what you can do, but also make sure that they stretch you so that you really grow following those vows. If you realize that you’ve aimed your actions at a goal that really is unskillful then you’ve got to say “Put that particular determination aside.”
Truth here, as the Buddha said, is probably the most important of the virtues. This is why truth and virtue belong under the same category.
The whole list of the paramis is drawn from the Jataka tales, which is a part of the canon which was actually added later. Many stories that were brought in from Indian folklore were added to the Buddhist canon probably with the idea in mind of letting Buddhists feel that they still were members of their old society even though they had become Buddhists. It is like someone saying that Paul Bunyan was the Buddha in a previous lifetime, bringing Buddhism to America. And many stories were brought in, in which the character which was supposed to be the Buddha in a previous lifetime actually breaks some of the precepts. The bodhisatta sometimes kills, sometimes steals, sometimes has illicit sex, sometimes gets drunk, but never lies. This is an important distinction, for the Buddha said, truthfulness is the most important of the virtues. He said if a person feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, that person can do any kind of evil. In other words, that person can not be trusted.
So truthfulness is the beginning of virtue. Because after all, the virtues are basically a promise that you make to yourself that you are not going to kill, steal, cheat, have illicit sex, drink, tell lies, and then you have to stick with that. If you can’t stick to that promise that you made to yourself then the virtue is never going to develop.
It’s important that you realize that it is a promise you make to yourself, it is not something that the Buddha would impose. The Buddha knew that he was not the creator. He had no authority to tell you what to do or to tell you what not to do. He is giving you advice on what works and what doesn’t work in leading to true happiness.
The precepts are sometimes objected to as being too hard and fast. I think it is better to think of them as being clear cut because we need rules of behavior that are actually clear cut especially when the temptation comes, and it is very strong, to “get back” at someone who has done us wrong.
It’s like those signs that they used to have in Alaska that were called “get the bear awareness”- how to deal with bears when you meet them in the wilderness. And the first rule is: Don’t run! Of course your immediate reaction when you see a bear is that you want to run and so they make it very short, don’t run!
It is the same with the precepts, don’t kill, period. Because there are times when you might feel tempted, you actually would want to kill somebody if someone had some harm to someone in your family, you’d be tempted.
There is the temptation to steal, then you have to think very carefully, given, now that society is in relative peace, maybe it’s very easy to keep the precepts. But suppose that society were to break down and you have hungry children to feed. Would you be willing to steal to give them food? Would you be willing to kill? If you can make a promise to yourself that no, you wouldn’t do that, you really have to stick with it. See the importance of maintaining your virtue as a possession that’s more important than anything else that you have.
If someone offered you a million dollars to lie and you didn’t lie, that means you have a precept that is worth more than a million dollars. This is a wealth that anybody can develop. At the same time you are giving a gift too, of safety to yourself and other beings when you, say, take the precept of not killing – at all – that means that all beings are safe from you and as the Buddha said, once you give this gift of safety to all beings, then you have a share in that unlimited safety as well.
Taking the precepts is also good practice in developing mindfulness and alertness. Mindfulness in the sense of keeping something in mind. You want to remember that you’ve taken that precept and you’re not going to forget it. And then you have to be alert to look at your behavior. Are you going against your precepts? Mindfulness and alertness are the basic qualities that you need to bring to meditation. This is how the precepts are a kind of meditation practice in daily life.
Years back, Ajaan Suwat, who was one of my teachers, was teaching here in the states. At the end of the retreat someone asked him “How do you bring practice into daily life?” And he said “Well, make sure that you take the Five Precepts.” Some of the people were upset thinking that he didn’t see that laypeople could actually practice meditation in daily life, but that wasn’t the point. He said the precepts are a form of meditation in action. You meditate as you are acting with your body. You meditate as you are speaking in the sense of being very mindful and alert about what you are doing and making sure that you are not going to cause any harm.
This, of course, then ties into the third of the priorities, the third of the perfections, which is persistence. Persistence doesn’t mean just brute force. It means being wise in how you apply your efforts. There are three ways in which discernment is useful here and the first is, as the Buddha said, you generate desire and arouse your persistence in order to abandon unskillful qualities and develop skillful qualities.
Now the role of desire in the path is very important. Sometimes people overlook this. They think the Buddha said all desire is unskillful – all desire is wrong – but that is not the case. The desire to abandon unskillful behavior – the desire to develop skillful behavior – is actually part of the path. It’s in Right Effort. This is one of the main issues in, again, as we mentioned opening last time, developing your motivation. How do you motivate yourself to do something skillful or abandon something unskillful?
The Buddha himself recommends two main tactics. One of them is developing heedfulness. The second one is developing a sense of pride and dignity about the practice. In terms of heedfulness, the Buddha would have you reflect, every morning, in fact, this might be a good exercise for the next week, he said “Every morning when the sun rises remind yourself, this may be the last sunrise you see.” You could so easily die during the course of the day. You get a long list of the ways that people can die very easily. One he doesn’t mention, of course, is that a little clot in your bloodstream could develop wanderlust and start moving around through the body ending up lodged in your heart and there would be nothing you could do about it.
Are you ready to go? Usually the answer is no. Well, if you are not ready to go, what needs to be done, today, in order to get yourself ready to go? What skillful qualities do you need to develop? What unskillful qualities do you want to learn to abandon as quickly as you can? Then again at sunset he has you reflect: “This may be your last sunset. Are you ready to go tonight?” If the answer is no, ok, what do you need to do in order to feel more ready to go? This contemplation of death is not to get you depressed, but just to make you to realize that time is precious. The development of the mind is the most important thing that you can do.
So, what can you do to develop your mind, today and tonight? This is one way of generating the desire to do something skillful. As for the sense of pride and accomplishment, the Buddha says “Here, you have started on the path. Now, if you were to abandon the path and then go back into your old ways, would you really be loving yourself and is this really the skillful thing to do?”
He sometimes would have the monks think of themselves as warriors. Are you the kind of warrior who gets ready for the battle and all of a sudden, when you actually hear the sound of the approaching enemy, you run away? Is that the kind of person you are? Well, you don’t want to be that kind of person. You want to realize that, in developing the path, you are lifting yourself up, above your thirst, above your cravings. I think it was Sprite, years ago, that had that slogan – you obey your thirst. Well, obeying your thirst, that’s what fishes do. Do you want to be a fish or would you rather be a human being? There is a certain dignity in learning how to abandon unskillful behavior and develop skillful behavior in its place.
The Buddha actually has you develop a sense of shame around unskillful qualities, although here, shame is not the sense of being ashamed of yourself as a bad person, but realizing that you are above that kind of behavior. That kind of behavior is beneath you. Do you really want to stoop to that? In other words the shame is not directed at you as a person, but at the particular action you are thinking of doing.
So in this case, shame is actually a counterpart of high self esteem that you have a sense of dignity, a sense of honor that you would not want to stoop to that kind of behavior. These are some of the ways in which the Buddha would have you generate desire in order to develop skillful qualities.
The second role for discernment in persistence is figuring out exactly what kind of effort is needed right now. In terms of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha lists four. In terms of the first truth, the truth of suffering and stress, that’s something you want to comprehend, i.e. you have to watch that until you can understand it. Sometimes that means being with it for long periods of time until you can see why you’re suffering, exactly what the suffering is.
Once you see why you are suffering, then the next step is to abandon the craving that is causing the suffering, so that you can develop an awareness or a direct realization of the end of suffering. You do this by developing the factors of the path. You have four different duties that you can do right there.
In terms of Right Effort, the Buddha also lists another set of four duties. If there is an unskillful quality that has not yet arisen, you do what you can to prevent it. If it already has arisen, you try to abandon it. If there are skillful qualities that have not yet arisen, you try to develop them. Once they appear, then you try to develop them even further. You bring them to the culmination of their development, he says.
It is not the case that as you are sitting and meditating, concentration comes along and you just watch it come and watch it go. Concentration comes; you want to try to learn to maintain it. So there are actually four different duties in here with regard to Right Effort which can be overlapped with the four duties from the Four Noble Truths. You have to apply your discernment at any one particular time to see what kind of duty is required right now. It is not just watching or not just developing or not just abandoning. You have got the choice of the types of things you want to do.
And then finally, the final role for discernment with regard to persistence is: How much effort can you put in? This is determined by two things. One is the particular problem you are facing. There is a Thai Ajaan who says: If the middle of your room has this of huge pile of excrement, can you wash away the excrement with just a cup of water? Well, no. You have got to use an whole pail full of water. There are problems in the mind that are really difficult and require a lot of effort for them to go. That means you have got to put in a lot of effort and really apply yourself. Applying yourself here means learning how to look at the way you breath around the problem, learning how you look at the way you think about the problem, how you perceive the problem. You want to be able to analyze the problem in these ways.
This is called ‘applying a fabrication’. They call it bodily fabrication which is for the breath, verbal fabrication which is the way you analyze something and direct your thoughts around it and evaluate it and finally there is mental fabrication which is the way you perceive the problem.
A whole book could be written on this topic, but it is important to realize that sometimes you really do have to work with a particular defilement or a particular problem in your mind in order for it to really be resolved. There are other cases where all you have to do is just look at it, and, as one of my teachers said, “Some of your defilements, when you look at them they get embarrassed and they go away.” This is the case where you just simply watch rising. If you put too much effort in a case like that then you are actually over-extending yourself and creating more problems.
So the role of discernment here lies first in generating the desire to do what is skillful and abandoning what is not – the ability to figure out exactly what kind of effort is appropriate right now for this particular problem and then what is the amount of effort that you can apply because in addition to the effort that is determined by the problem itself, there is the question of: “How much energy do you have?”
You have probably heard the story of the young monk who had been doing walking meditation until his feet were bleeding. The story goes that apparently he had been so tenderly brought up that even the soles of his feet had hair.
The king heard about this one time and wanted to see this guy’s feet. “Who on earth would have hair on the bottom of his feet?” And so the invitation comes and the parents tell the boy: “Okay, the king wants to see the soles of your feet. Now don’t point your feet at him, that would be impolite. Just sit, you know, in a nice kind of meditative posture and the king can see the soles and yes, they really do have hair.”
So the guy went to the palace and the king was kind of amazed that this guy had hair on his feet because his feet were so tender. The young man develops the desire to become a monk. He becomes a monk and he starts doing walking meditation and given how tender his feet are, they start bleeding.
He starts getting discouraged. He had put an awful lot of effort into the practice and he hadn’t gotten anywhere. And so he was thinking that he might just as well disrobe when the Buddha appears in front of him and says “Were you thinking of disrobing?”
I don’t know if you are the sort of person that would like to have the Buddha appear in front of you when you are meditating, having problems or would be very embarrassed to have the Buddha in front of you when you are have problems, but in this particular case the young man fessed up and said “Yes, I was thinking of disrobing.” The Buddha asked him “When you were a layperson, were you skilled at playing the lute?” The young man said yes. “If you tune the lute too tight does it sound right?” No. “If it is too loose does it sound right?” No.
He said it is the same when you meditate; you try to tune your meditation. You tune first to the level of energy that you have, how much energy you are capable of, and then you tune the other factors of your meditation which would include conviction, mindfulness, concentration and discernment to the amount of energy that you are capable of. It is the same way that you would tune a guitar. You tune the first string and then you tune the other strings to that first string.
So in this case, tune your conviction to the level of energy you might have. You are not going to sit down, if you’re feeling really sick and really tired, you are not going to sit down and meditate saying “I’m not going to get up until I achieve supreme awakening.” You say “I want to get through the hour.” That sort of thing is possible.
So you want to use your discernment – how much effort you put into it. See how much you are capable of, what the problem demands, what type of effort in terms of abandoning or developing or just watching is appropriate and then learning how to generate the desire in order to do that. It is in this way that you take that “truth of a person” that you are trying to develop in making up your mind that you really do want to follow the Path to Awakening in daily life and making sure that you carry through with it.
For this week’s exercise, I’d like you to apply that contemplation that the Buddha recommended every morning, at dawn as you look at the sunrise, remind yourself, this might be your last sunrise. What do you need to do today to be prepared for that eventuality? And again when the sun goes down at night, this might be your last sunset. Try this for a week and see what it does for your practice.