Fundamentals of Buddhism: Wisdom
Today we are going to complete our survey of the Noble Eightfold Path. In the last two weeks, we have looked at good conduct and mental development. Today, we have the third group to look at, and that is the wisdom group. Here we have an interesting situation which we attended to sometime ago when we discussed the Four Noble Truths. When one sees the Noble Eightfold Path listed in sequence, one begins with Right Understanding and yet in the context of the three fold division of good conduct, mental development and wisdom, wisdom comes at the end. One tries to explain this by using the analogy of climbing a mountain. When one sets out to climb a mountain one has the summit in view and it is the sight of the summit that gives direction to one’s path. In that sense, even when one begins to climb the mountain, one has one’s eyes on the summit. As such, right understanding is necessary right at the beginning of the path. Yet in practical terms one has to climb the lower steps, scale the intermediate ridges before one reaches the summit, the attainment of wisdom. In practical terms, therefore, wisdom comes at the end of one’s practice of the path.
Wisdom is described as the understanding of the Four Noble Truths, or the understanding of dependent origination and so forth. What is meant by this is that when we speak of the attainment of wisdom, we are concerned with transforming these items of the doctrine from simple intellectual facts to real personal facts. We are interested in changing this knowledge from mere book learning to real living experience. And the way this is done is through the cultivation of good conduct and specifically through the cultivation of mental development. Otherwise, anyone can read in a book the explanation of the Four Noble Truths and so forth and yet this is not the same as attaining wisdom. As the Buddha Himself said, it is through failing to understand the Four Noble Truths and dependent origination that we have all run on in this cycle of birth and death. Obviously when He said this, He meant something deeper than simply failure to be acquainted intellectually with these items of doctrine. Understanding here has to be taken in the sense of Right Understanding, direct understanding, in the sense of seeing. This is perhaps why so frequently the language of seeing is used to describe the attainment of wisdom. We speak in terms of seeing the Truth, of seeing things as they really are. Because the attainment of wisdom is not an intellectual or academic exercise. It is seeing, understanding these truths directly.
When this kind of direct understanding of the truth is gained, this is equivalent to gaining enlightenment. This opens the door to freedom, freedom from suffering and to Nirvana. Wisdom is the key thing in Buddhism. In other religions, we find that faith is paramount. In still other religions, we find that meditation is supreme as for instance in Yoga. In Buddhism, faith is preliminary, meditation is instrumental. The real heart of Buddhism is wisdom.
The two steps of the Noble Eightfold Path that are included in wisdom are Right Understanding and Right Thought. Right Understanding can be said to be seeing things as they really are. Understanding the truth about things rather than simply seeing them as they appear to be. What this means is insight, penetrative under-standing, seeing beyond the surface of things. If we want to explain this in doctrinal terms, we will have to speak about the Four Noble Truths, dependent origination, impermanence, not-self and so forth. But for the moment let us just speak about the means of gaining Right Understanding. Here we can again see the scientific attitude of the teachings of the Buddha. Because when we come to look at the means of acquiring Right Understanding, we see that we begin with objective observation of the situation and of ourselves. We join objective observation with enquiry, examination and consideration.
In acquiring Right Understanding, we find that there are two types of understanding. One is the understanding that we acquire by ourselves. The other is the understanding that we acquire through others, that we are shown by others. Ultimately, these two types of understanding merge because in the final analysis real understanding of Right Understanding has to be our own. But in the meantime, one can distinguish between Right Understanding that we achieve through observation of the environment and the Right Understanding that we achieve through the study of the teachings. Just as with regard to our situation, we are asked to observe objectively what we see, what we experience and then examine and consider its significance, so when we approach the teachings of the Buddha we are asked to study them, to listen to them and then to consider them, to examine them. Whether we speak in terms of observation and enquiry, or whether we refer to study of the doctrine and we speak in terms of reading, or listening and consideration, the third step in this process of acquiring understanding is meditation. It is on this third stage of the process of acquiring Right Understanding that the two types of understanding merge.
To summarize, the means of acquiring Right Understanding is as follows – on the first stage, one has to observe, study and read. On the second stage, one has to examine intellectually what one has observed, studied and read. On the third stage, one has to meditate upon what one has examined, considered and determined. Let us use a practical example. Let us say we intend to travel to a certain destination. In order to do so, we acquire a road map which shows the route to reach the destination. We look first at the map for the directions. Then we must review what we have seen, review the map, examine the map to be certain that we understand the directions. Only then do we actually travel to our destination. This is analogous to meditation. Again supposing we have bought a new piece of equipment. It is not enough to read the instructions. We have to study the instructions, examine them to be certain that we understand them intellectually. When we are certain that we have clarified our intellectual understanding, we can then proceed to actually operate the new piece of equipment. This is analogous to meditation, to meditating upon what we have acquired through observation, learning, consideration and examination. On the third stage, through meditation these facts become part of our living experience.
Perhaps we might spend a few moments discussing the attitude that one can do well to cultivate in approaching the teachings of the Buddha. It is said that one who approaches the teachings ought to seek to avoid three faults in his attitude and these faults are illustrated with the example of a vessel. In this context, we are the vessel, the teachings are what are to be filled into the vessel. Suppose the vessel is covered with a lid, we will not be very successful in filling the vessel, say with milk. This is similar to one who listens to the teachings with a closed mind, a mind that is already made up. The Dharma cannot enter, fill the vessel. Again supposing we have a vessel that has a hole in the bottom. If we fill the vessel with milk, the milk will run out of the hole. This is similar to those of us who find that what we hear does not stay with us. And finally there is the case of the vessel in which there are impurities. Suppose we fill the vessel with milk before having cleaned it. Suppose there is some spoiled milk left in the vessel. The fresh milk that we fill into the vessel will be spoilt. In the same way if we listen to the teachings with an impure mind, with impure attitudes, because for instance we want to achieve a certain amount of honour, or fame, with these kinds of selfish attitudes or desires, we are like a vessel tainted by impurities. We must seek to avoid these faults in our approach to the teachings of the Buddha, in the study of the Dharma.
Alternatively, it is said that one might listen to the Dharma in the way that a patient listens to the instructions of the physician. In this context, the Buddha is the physician, the Dharma is the medicine, we are the patients and the practice of the Dharma is the means by which we can be cured of the disease, the disease of the defilements – greed, anger and delusion – that produce suffering. We will surely achieve some degree of Right Understanding if we approach the study of the Dharma with this notion in mind.
We often divide Right Understanding into two aspects. The first relates to the ordinary level while the second relates to a deeper level. Sometime ago, we spoke about the goals that Buddhism offers, in the sense of two levels of goals – happiness and good fortune in this life and the next, and ultimate liberation. Here too, in discussing Right Understanding, we see that there are two levels, two aspects of Right Understanding. The first aspect corresponds to the first type of goal, and the second corresponds to attaining liberation. The first aspect of Right Understanding is the understanding of the relation between cause and effect in the sphere of moral responsibility of our actions and our behavior. This briefly stated means that we will experience the effects of our actions. If we act well, if we observe the principles of respect for life, property, truth and so forth, if we act in these wholesome ways we will experience the good effects of our actions. We will enjoy happiness and fortunate circumstances in this life and the next. Conversely, if we act badly, we will experience unhappiness, miseries and unfortunate circumstances in this life and the next.
On the level of understanding as it relates to the ultimate goal of the teachings of the Buddha, we are concerned with Right Understanding in terms of seeing things as they really are. When we say seeing things as they really are, what do we mean? Again one can get doctrinal answers to this question. It can mean seeing things as impermanent, as dependently originated, as not-self, as impersonal, as seeing the Four Noble Truths. All these answers are correct. All express something about seeing things as they really are, seeing the reality of things. In order to arrive at an understanding of this first and in a sense the last step of the Noble Eightfold Path, we have to look for something that all these expressions of Right Understanding have in common. When we describe Right Understanding in all these various ways, all these descriptions are opposed to ignorance, to bondage, to entanglement in the cycle of birth and death. When the Buddha attained enlightenment, His experience was essentially an experience of destruction of ignorance. This experience is described by the Buddha Himself most frequently in terms of understanding the Four Noble Truths and understanding dependent origination. Both the Four Noble Truths and dependent origination are concerned with the destruction of ignorance. In this sense, ignorance is the central problem, the central idea in both the formula of the Four Noble Truths and dependent origination.
Let us look at the Four Noble Truths again for a moment. The key to transforming one’s experience from the experience of suffering to the experience of the end of suffering is understanding the Second Noble Truth, the truth of the cause of suffering. Once we understand the cause of suffering, we can then act to achieve the end of suffering. The Four Noble Truths as we have discussed are divided into two groups, two of them to be abandoned, and two of them to be gained – the truth of suffering and the truth of the cause of suffering are to be abandoned, and the truth of the end of suffering and the truth of the path to the end of suffering are to be gained. Understanding the cause of suffering enables one to do this. We can see this clearly in the Buddha’s description of His experience on the night of His enlightenment. When He saw the cause of suffering, when He understood that desire, ill-will and ignorance were the causes of suffering, this opened the door to His enlightenment. Ignorance, desire and ill-will are the causes of suffering. If we want to reduce our examination to the most essential concept, we must focus upon ignorance because it is due to ignorance that desire and ill-will arise.
Essentially, ignorance is the idea of a permanent, independent self. It is this conception of an “I” opposed and separate from the people and things around us. Once we have the notion of an “I”, we have an inclination to favour those things that sustain this “I” and to be averse to those things that we think threaten this “I”. It is this conception of the self that is the fundamental cause of suffering, the root of the various negative emotions – desire, anger, ill-will, envy, greed and jealousy. It is ignorant of the fact that the so-called “I”, the self, is just a convenient name for a collection of ever-changing, dependent, contingent factors. Is there a forest apart from the trees? The self is just a convenient name for a collection of processes. The self is a cause of suffering and fear. In this context the self is likened to mistaking a rope for a snake in the semi-darkness. If we come upon a rope in the darkness, we may assume the rope is in fact a snake and this assumption is a cause of fear. Similarly, in ignorance we take the impersonal, impermanent processes of feelings, perceptions, and so forth to be a self, and as a result we respond to situations with hope and fear. We desire certain things, we are averse to others. We are fond of certain people, we dislike others. So ignorance in this sense is the mistaken notion of a permanent ego, of a real self.
This teaching of not-self does not contradict the law of moral responsibility, the Law of Karma. In fact, you will recall that we described Right Understanding in terms of two aspects, understanding the Law of Karma, and here in terms of seeing things as they really are, understanding the nature of existence. Once this egoism is removed, once this erroneous notion of the self is dispelled by Right Understanding, greed, anger and the rest do not occur. When this is stopped the end of suffering is gained. I do not expect this to be completely clear to everyone immediately. We shall be spending several sessions in the next few weeks deepening and expanding the examination of the nature of ignorance.
Let us go on to the next part of the path that belongs to the wisdom group and that is Right Thought. Here we begin to see the reintegration, the reapplication of the wisdom group to the sphere of good conduct because thought has an immense influence on one’s behaviour. The Buddha has said if one acts and speaks with a pure mind, then happiness follows as one’s shadow that never leaves. And if one speaks and acts with an impure mind, then suffering follows as the wheel follows the hoof of the ox. Thought has a tremendous influence on one’s behaviour. Right Thought means avoiding desire and ill-will. So you can see how important wisdom is because the cause of suffering is described in terms of desire, ill-will and ignorance. Right Understanding removes ignorance. Right Thought removes desire and ill-will. So Right Understanding and Right Thought remove the causes of suffering.
To remove desire and greed we need to cultivate renunciation or detachment. To remove ill-will, we need to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion. How does one cultivate the attitudes of renunciation, loving-kindness and compassion which will act as antidotes for desire and ill-will? Firstly, renunciation is cultivated by meditating upon the unsatisfactory nature of existence, particularly the unsatisfactoriness of pleasures of the senses. We liken pleasures of the senses to salt water. A thirsty man who drinks salt water only finds that his thirst increases. He achieves no satisfaction. The Buddha also likened pleasures of the senses to a certain fruit called the Kimbu fruit. It is a fruit that is very pleasant in appearance. It has an attractive skin. It is fragrant and tasty. But it causes disaster as it is poisonous when eaten. Similarly, pleasures of the senses are attractive, enjoyable and yet they cause disaster. So in order to cultivate detachment, one has to consider the undesirable consequences of pleasures of the senses. In addition, one has to contemplate, to understand that the nature of samsara is suffering. That no matter where one may be born within the confines of the cycle of birth and death, that situation is pervaded by suffering. The nature of samsara is suffering just as the nature of fire is heat. Through understanding the unsatisfactory nature of existence, and through recognizing the undesirable consequences of pleasures of the senses one can cultivate detachment.
One can cultivate loving-kindness and compassion through recognizing the essential equality of all living beings. All fear death, all tremble at punishments. Recognizing this, one should not kill or cause others to be killed. All desire happiness, all fear pain. In this, we are all alike. All living beings are alike. Recognizing this, one should not place oneself above others, one should not regard oneself differently from the way in which one would regard others. This recognition of the fundamental equality of all living beings is basic to the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion. All want happiness just as I want happiness. Understanding this, one ought to regard all living beings with loving-kindness and compassion. One ought to cultivate this wish that all living beings may be happy. Just as I fear suffering and pain, and wish to avoid it, so do all living beings fear suffering and pain, and wish to avoid it. Understanding this, one develops and cultivates an attitude that wishes to see all living beings free from suffering.
In this way, we can develop and cultivate the attitudes of renunciation, loving-kindness and compassion which between them counteract and eventually eliminate greed and anger. Finally through wisdom, having eliminated ignorance, greed and anger, having purified ourselves of those three defilements, we can attain freedom, the final goal that is the purpose of the Noble Eightfold Path, the bliss of Nirvana.