BuddhaSasana Home Page
Starting Out Small
- A Collection of Talks for Beginning Meditators
Phra Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo
Translated from the Thai by
May 26, 1958
Those of us who are training our hearts and minds in hopes of the paths and fruitions leading to nibbana, if we don't study to understand the fundamental principles of the world, are likely to wander off the path. Or else we'll keeping circling around without ever reaching our goal. So if we really want to put an end to suffering, we should ask ourselves: what do we have within us that can act as a true refuge for ourselves? This is the sort of question we should keep reflecting on all the time. As we chant every day: "Svakkhato bhagavata dhammo, sanditthiko akaliko -- The Dhamma well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here & now, is timeless." In other words, if we want to reach it, we'll be able to reach it. If we don't want to reach it, we won't. But whether or not we'll reach it depends on underlying causes, which come in two sorts: an enduring principle and supporting principles. The enduring principle, called dhamma-thiti, is what stays unmoving by its nature. The supporting principles are our training and education, which can be either good or bad. This is why our practice sways back and forth, like a tree in the middle of an open field, swaying back and forth in the wind. If we don't discover the enduring principle within us, we won't be able to find anything to act as a true refuge -- for our training and education are simply supporting factors.
This is why we should keep asking ourselves: "Have we found any principle within ourselves that can act as our refuge?" As long as we're still depending on other people, other things, we don't have a true refuge. Our training and education are nothing more than supporting factors -- like the fertilizer we give to plants. When the fertilizer runs out, the plant will have to fall to the ground and decompose. The same holds true for the Buddha: when his body ran out of strength, it turned into the four elements. The Dhamma, when it no longer has any power, turns into nothing but letters on paper or palm leaves, which then disintegrate. As for the Sangha, when they run out of strength, they die. So the refuge we take in these things is nothing more than a snack or finger food, but people for the most part misunderstand them to be our true refuge. They think that the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha will carry or drag them to heaven or nibbana. From one angle this is right, but from another it's wrong. It's right in the sense that the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha keep alive the tradition of goodness that we can hold onto and follow. It's wrong, though, in the sense that they aren't the things that will make us reach the paths and fruitions leading to nibbana. Reaching nibbana depends on our own actions: our practice.
So we have to ask ourselves: "What do we want in life?" If we really want something, we're sure to succeed at it in every way. But the fact that we don't succeed comes from ourselves. If we want to be millionaires, we'll have to become millionaires. If we want to be beggars, we'll have to become beggars. Success and lack of success come from within ourselves -- in other words, from the causal factors lying within the limits of our own goodness. If we practice correctly, we're sure to succeed. It all depends on the enduring principles in the world, together with the supporting factors that point us in the right direction. The supporting factors are the teachings formulated by wise people and sages. The enduring principles -- dhamma-thiti -- come from the principles of nature. To reach the paths and fruitions leading to nibbana requires dhamma-thiti.
Take our Buddha or the Private Buddhas as an example: when they were born, there was no Buddha to teach them. But they had met up with sages and Buddhas in previous lives, so they were born with character traits that spurred them on to be high-minded, to see the drawbacks of the world so crowded with defilement and craving, with birth, aging, illness, and death. Disenchanted, they aspired to gain release from all this suffering -- for as long as we human beings are subject to birth and death, then even if we had wings to fly, we still wouldn't escape from our suffering. But if we're free from birth and death, then even if we have to crawl on all fours in the dirt, we won't feel any suffering. This is why the Buddha left the householder life and went off into the wilderness to be alone, developing virtue, concentration, and discernment until he attained full Buddhahood. Once he had attained his goal, he had another character trait -- his great compassion -- that inspired him to teach the Dhamma to his relatives and to living beings in general so that they could gain release from suffering as well.
Practicing virtue is called compassion in terms of one's actions. This is followed by compassion in terms of one's speech and thoughts. When the Buddha expressed this sort of compassion, people responded to him in kind: they loved him, respected him, and were willing to grant him power. The Buddha's compassion expressed itself in two ways: for the well being of the world (lokattha-cariya) and the well being of his relatives (natattha-cariya).
In terms of the world, the Buddha spread his good will and compassion to beings all over the world, without showing any partiality for any group or individual at all. As for the well being of his relatives, like everyone else he had parents, grandparents, and siblings, and these people in turn had children, grandchildren, and in-laws. The Buddha's compassion spread out along all of these connections, expressed in terms of compassionate actions, compassionate words, and compassionate thoughts. This compassion spread out from a heart that had found its own dependable refuge within. This was why he was able to spread his compassion so that others could depend on him as well. It's the nature of the heart that when it can depend on itself, its goodness gradually spreads out of its own accord. If there's any kind of connection -- whether people are relatives or not -- it spreads out along those connections. It spreads out in terms of words, when you can teach and instruct others. In terms of thoughts, there's no anger, hatred, or jealousy. There's simply the willingness to sacrifice for others. When there were ways the Buddha could help others with his thoughts, he spread those thoughts at all times.
He had seen that the lay life wasn't convenient for spreading goodness so far and wide, which was why he became a monk. He had seen that being a member of the noble warrior class involved both good and evil, for it's the nature of the world that people are proud of their birth, their race, their class, which divides us into factions and creates inequalities. When divisions like this arise in the world, it's difficult to spread goodness. That was why he left his relatives, cutting himself off from his class and race.
And this is why, when a new monk is being ordained, the announcing teacher asks him, "Have your mother and father given their permission?" and the candidate answers, "Yes." He has left the limitations of the worldly life and now doesn't belong to any family at all. Then, once he's ordained, he's taught not to go hanging around with his old family. So when the Buddha left home, he went off on his own to find the truth of the Dhamma. Regardless of whether he was to get teachings from others, he explored within himself without depending on his old wealth or family connections. He gave himself totally to the practice. At first he had studied with the Six Teachers, but they were unable to convince him of their teachings.
The first teacher was Teacher Eye. This teacher fools us in all sorts of ways. It tells us that this sight is beautiful, that sight is ugly, this sight is good, that sight is bad. It whispers to the heart, causing us to trip and fall, because we don't see things in terms of their basic principles -- that all sights are the same. Whether they're birds, rats, people, animals, trees, wines, whatever, they differ only in terms of their features. Their basic condition is the same: they arise, decay, and then disappear in line with the principles of nature.
The second teacher was Teacher Ear. At first there are two of these teachers, but then they turn into four, which gets things even more confusing. In other words, the left ear hears good sounds and bad sounds, the right ear hears good sounds and bad sounds, all of which gives rise to distorted perceptions. We imagine good things to be bad, and bad things to be good; true things to be false, and false things to be true. So Teacher Ear is another teacher who fools us. The Buddha thus left both Teacher Eye and Teacher Ear to study with:
Teacher Nose. At first this teacher has two nostrils, but then they split into four. Sometimes it likes good smells, sometimes it doesn't like good smells and likes bad smells instead. Then it goes whispering to the heart to make it misunderstand things. If we could take a photo of the mind, we'd see that the eyes are big and bulging, the ears are set out like huge sails, while the nose is wide, wide open. When the Buddha saw that he had no use for these three teachers, he went on to study with:
Teacher Tongue. This teacher -- the mouth -- is even more of a turmoil. If it were part of the army, it'd be called a multi-task force. On the one hand, it eats food; on the other, it says all kinds of things. Sometimes it likes to say good things, sometimes bad things. Sometimes it doesn't like to say good things, and prefers to say bad things instead. One little tongue, but it too splits into four. When it's not speaking, it eats. Sometimes that person gets to eat, this person doesn't get to eat. This person has only a little to eat, that person starves, while that person over there has more than enough to eat. The dangers that come from these affairs block the paths and fruitions leading to nibbana. So the Buddha moved on to study with the fifth teacher:
Teacher Body. This teacher is made up of the six elements, but as soon as the elements get unbalanced it gets feverish or chilled, weak or stiff. As it meets up with friction, it wears out. As for the sixth teacher, that's:
Teacher Mind. This teacher thinks and worries, deluding itself in all sorts of ways. Suppose, for instance, that we're leaving the house to come to the monastery. As soon as we've left the door it starts deceiving us: "What a pain. It's so far to walk. A waste of time. The sun is hot." When we get to the monastery and start sitting in meditation, it starts deceiving us again: "We've been sitting too long. I'm tired. My legs hurt. They're numb. My back is stiff." Then it squeezes our legs, squeezes our arms, beats our back, pokes our stomach, giving us heartburn or a stomachache. When we're whipped and beaten like this, we eventually give in. Sometimes it comes whispering, "Why don't you stop? Time's almost up. Open your eyes." So we leave meditation, raise our hands in respect, and bow down to the Buddha. And that's it. If we're weak by nature, we fall for it.
This is why the Buddha left all of these six teachers, closed his eyes, closed his ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind, not letting his heart go running after sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, or ideas. He closed off his senses to escape from these things, leaving only the door of the mind, which he focused on goodness. When this was the case, he didn't concern himself with any of the senses. We went to sit cross-legged under the Bodhi tree on the full moon day in May and gave rise to discernment within himself. He gathered all his thoughts so that they were right, and didn't let them associate with anything outside of the Dhamma. He began meditating, cutting off all connection to the past and future, cutting all connection to the nerves of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. He focused on the breath, making it more and more refined, to the point where the condition of the body disappeared, leaving just the qualities of the six elements: seeing, for example, how the breath actually moves, how it stops. This is called buddha-vijja, the skill of the awakened ones. This skill sees things in terms, not of their characteristics, but in terms of their basic qualities. Inconstancy is a characteristic. Stress and not-self -- burdensomeness, what can't be controlled -- are all characteristics.
Basic qualities, though, are neutral and constant. Inconstancy is on the level of characteristics. To make an analogy: the mouth can't turn into the nose. That's an affair of basic qualities. If things could change like that, we wouldn't be able to live. For example, if tonight our ears changed into eyes, or our leg became an arm, or our nose became a mouth: if this happened, everything would break out into chaos. If we see things only in terms of their characteristics, that's the knowledge of the six teachers. Change-of-lineage knowledge, though, sees from both sides, both as characteristics and as basic qualities. To make another analogy: our leg, ever since we were two, has been a leg. It'll still be a leg when we're 80, in line with it's basic quality. This is constancy. Whatever it's been, that's what it'll continue to be until we die. Whoever doesn't see through to basic qualities like this will get dragged off by the six teachers. This is why the Buddha left the six teachers to study the skill of the awakened ones, to see both what it is that changes and what it is that doesn't. Whoever sees both sides -- the side of inconstancy and the side of constancy -- without getting stuck on either side, that's change-of-lineage knowledge: knowing the principles of the world and the basic quality of the Dhamma.
This is why the Buddha taught, "Sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe dhamma anatta: All conditioned things are inconstant; all phenomena are not-self." Regardless of whether people might say, "constant" or "inconstant," "stress" or "bliss," "There is a self" or "There is no self," the Buddha could remain unswayed. This is called, "Attahi attano natho": those who can give rise to this knowledge and skill within themselves can truly depend on themselves. They're not attached to knowledge of the past, knowledge of the future, knowledge of the present. They're not stuck on any dimension of time at all. They can let go of conventions, formulated teachings, formulated ultimate truths. They can let go within themselves alone, know within themselves alone. This is called truly depending on yourself. When you reach this point, your training for the sake of the paths and fruitions leading to nibbana will have to succeed in line with your aims. There won't be any wandering astray.
And that's enough for now.
Previous Talk | Contents
[Back to English Index]