The first element of the Eightfold Path is Right Understanding which arises through insights into the first three Noble Truths. If you have these insights, then there is perfect understanding of Dhamma – the understanding that:
‘All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.’ It’s as simple as that. You do not have to spend much time reading ‘All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing’ to understand the words, but it takes quite a while for most of us to really know what the words mean in a profound way rather than just through cerebral understanding.
To use modern colloquial English, insight is really gut knowledge – it’s not just from ideas. It’s no longer, ‘I think I know’, or ‘Oh yes, that seems a reasonable, sensible thing. I agree with that. I like that thought.’ That kind of understanding is still from the brain whereas insight knowledge is profound. It is really known and doubt is no longer a problem.
This deep understanding comes from the previous nine insights. So there is a sequence leading to Right Understanding of things as they are, namely that: All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing and is not-self. With Right Understanding, you have given up the illusion of a self that is connected to mortal conditions. There is still the body, there are still feelings and thoughts, but they simply are what they are – there is no longer the belief that you are your body or your feelings or your thoughts. The emphasis is on ‘Things are what they are.’ We are not trying to say that things are not anything at all or that they are not what they are. They are exactly what they are and nothing more. But when we are ignorant, when we have not understood these truths, we tend to think things are more than what they are. We believe all kinds of things and we create all kinds of problems around the conditions that we experience.
So much of human anguish and despair comes from the added extra that is born of ignorance in the moment. It is sad to realise how the misery and anguish and despair of humanity is based upon delusion; the despair is empty and meaningless. When you see this, you begin to feel infinite compassion for all beings. How can you hate anyone or bear grudges or condemn anyone who is caught in this bond of ignorance? Everyone is influenced to do the things they do by their wrong views of things.
As we meditate, we experience some tranquillity, a measure of calm in which the mind has slowed down. When we look at something like a flower with a calm mind, we are looking at it as it is. When there is no grasping – nothing to gain or get rid of – then if what we see, hear or experience through the senses is beautiful, it is truly beautiful. We are not criticising it, comparing it, trying to possess or own it; we find delight and joy in the beauty around us because there is no need to make anything out of it. It is exactly what it is.
Beauty reminds us of purity, truth and ultimate beauty. We should not see it as a lure to delude us: ‘These flowers are here just to attract me so I’ll get deluded by them’ – that’s the attitude of the old meditating grump! When we look at a member of the opposite sex with a pure heart, we appreciate the beauty without the desire for some kind of contact or possession. We can delight in the beauty of other people, both men and women, when there is no selfish interest or desire. There is honesty; things are as they are. This is what we mean by liberation or vimutti in Pali. We are liberated from those bonds that distort and corrupt the beauty around us, such as the bodies we have. However, our minds can get so corrupt and negative and depressed and obsessed with things, that we no longer see them as they are. If we don’t have Right Understanding, we see everything through increasingly thick filters and veils.
Right Understanding is to be developed through reflection, using the Buddha’s teaching. The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is a very interesting teaching to contemplate and use as a reference for reflection. We can also use other suttas from the tipitaka, such as those dealing with paticcasamuppada (dependent origination). This is a fascinating teaching to reflect upon. If you can contemplate such teachings, you can see very clearly the difference between the way things are as Dhamma and the point where we tend to create delusion out of the way things are. That is why we need to establish full conscious awareness of things as they are. If there is knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, then there is Dhamma.
With Right Understanding, everything is seen as Dhamma; for example: we are sitting here….This is Dhamma. We don’t think of this body and mind as a personality with all its views and opinions and all the conditioned thoughts and reactions that we have acquired through ignorance. We reflect upon this moment now as: ‘This is the way it is. This is Dhamma.’ We bring into the mind the understanding that this physical formation is simply Dhamma. It is not self; it is not personal.
Also, we see the sensitivity of this physical formation as Dhamma rather than taking it personally: ‘I’m sensitive,’ or ‘I’m not sensitive;’ ‘You’re not sensitive to me. Who’s the most sensitive?’….’Why do we feel pain? Why did God create pain; why didn’t he just create pleasure? Why is there so much misery and suffering in the world? It’s unfair. People die and we have to separate from the people we love; the anguish is terrible.’
There is no Dhamma in that, is there? It’s all self-view:
‘Poor me. I don’t like this, I don’t want it to be this way. I want security, happiness, pleasure and all the best of everything. It’s not fair that my parents were not arahants when I came into the world. It’s not fair that they never elect arahants to be Prime Minister of Britain. If everything were fair, they would elect arahants to be Prime Minister!’
I am trying to take this sense of ‘It’s not right, it’s not fair’ to an absurdity in order to point out how we expect God to create everything for us and to make us happy and secure. That is often what people think even if they don’t say so. But when we reflect, we see ‘This is the way it is. Pain is like this and this is what pleasure is like. Consciousness is this way.’ We feel. We breathe. We can aspire.
When we reflect, we contemplate our own humanity as it is. We don’t take it on a personal level any more or blame anyone because things are not exactly as we like or want. It is the way it is and we are the way we are. You might ask why we can’t all be exactly the same – with the same anger, the same greed and the same ignorance; without all the variations and permutations. However, even though you can trace human experience to basic things, each one of us has our own kamma to deal with – our own obsessions and tendencies, which are always different in quality and quantity to those of someone else.
Why can’t we all be exactly equal, have exactly the same of everything and all look alike – one androgynous being? In a world like that, nothing would be unfair, no differences would be allowed, everything would be absolutely perfect and there would be no possibility of inequality. But as we recognise Dhamma, we see that, within the realm of conditions, no two things are identical. They are all quite different, infinitely variable and changing, and the more we try to make conditions conform to our ideas, the more frustrated we get. We try to create each other and a society to fit the ideas we have of how things should be, but we always end up feeling frustrated. With reflection, we realise: ‘This is the way it is,’ this is the way things have to be – they can only be this way.
Now that is not a fatalistic or negative reflection. It is not an attitude of: ‘That’s the way it is and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ It is a very positive response of accepting the flow of life for what it is. Even if it is not what we want, we can accept it and learn from it.
We are conscious, intelligent beings with retentive memory. We have language. Over the past several thousand years, we have developed reason, logic and discriminative intelligence. What we must do is figure out how to use these capacities as tools for realisation of Dhamma rather than as personal acquisitions or personal problems. People who develop their discriminative intelligence often end up turning it upon themselves; they become very self-critical and even begin to hate themselves. This is because our discriminative faculties tend to focus upon what is wrong with everything. That is what discrimination is about: seeing how this is different from that. When you do that to yourself, what do you end up with? Just a whole list of flaws and faults that make you sound absolutely hopeless.
When we are developing Right Understanding, we use our intelligence for reflection and contemplation of things. We also use our mindfulness and wisdom together. So now we are using our ability to discriminate with wisdom (vijja) rather than with ignorance (avijja). This teaching of the Four Noble Truths is to help you to use you intelligence – your ability to contemplate, reflect and think – in a wise way rather than in a self-destructive, greedy or hateful way.