By Bhante Upananda
President, Habitat of Buddha Yoga
(This article first appeared in the Washington Buddhist Vihara Newsletter -Summer 2006)
We are driven by what we believe. Beliefs very often and very easily create dilemmas in our lives. While some believe that fear of an unknown power is the beginning of discernment, Buddhists believe that such fear really is the beginning of delusion. It is a salient characteristic of Buddhist spiritual behavior that in a world where a great many people mistake delusion as discernment, Buddhists would see discernment as discernment, and delusion as delusion; at least, they would strive for this on a regular basis.
Discernment, as clearly explained in the Pali Canon, is undoubted, absolutely clear wisdom. Even a modicum of it is extremely hard to acquire; because even one who seeks discernment for many years, viz. an experienced spiritual practitioner, might mistake delusion as discernment, and so encounter his delusion concretized in the garb of discernment. I know quite a number of well-experienced meditation practitioners in North America who have finally given up seeking discernment. This simple example is not to discourage, but to show a simple reality of the human mind: that even those well on the way to higher levels of discernment are under possible attacks from delusion. In short, one’s achievement of some level of discernment is a matter of continuing effort of
self-understanding. That is why Buddha’s constant advice to his followers - that they be led by continuing effort till they have achieved enlightenment - is of prime importance to Buddhist spirituality. In a liberal teaching like that of Buddha, one has freedom to go at one’s speed but within the boundaries of spiritual safety.
Today millions of people in North America practice some form of self-understanding in the Buddhist way. Because one does not have to be a Buddhist to practice Buddhism, this trend is growing dramatically. Buddha has stressed throughout his Teaching that one should maintain a ‘middle-ground’ approach to life, whether in spiritual life or in material life, and to one’s surroundings. Buddha’s unique Middle Path Teaching that shows the middle-ground approach is part of the secret behind so many people coming to practice Buddhism, day by day. The middle-ground approach gives an ample chance for self-understanding even for an extremely busy person running multi-million dollar businesses, One can still manage to cultivate discernment. It is marvelous to see people from quite opposite walks of life, billionaires and those poverty stricken, practice discernment according to Buddha’s lesson of the middle-ground approach. A better and specific example is that in rural Sri Lanka, genuinely practicing Buddhist villagers, despite their poverty, would keep their inner-peace, thanks to their discernment in daily life.
Delusion is the arch enemy of discernment. Unfortunately, due to their average human nature, people remain unaware of the ongoing inner struggle between the inner-potential of discernment and the incessantly active inner-power of delusion, both of which are part of the functionality of the mind. To individual people what their consciousness perceives through their eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin, viz. sensory perception (SP), is their
discernment. In almost every case of average human beings, what is perceived is taken in as it is, so that delusion, hiding itself in the dark corners of the mind, subdues the potential of discernment. Then it masquerades as discernment. It is due to this deceptive nature of the mind that one ‘honestly’ feels that one’s belief is right, thereby leaving almost no chance to experience the miraculous potential of discernment from delusion.
Self is constantly nurtured by delusion, and that is why Buddhists watch the arising of feelings in their minds, as an integral part of their acquisition of discernment. They take a break whenever possible at least few times a day, close their eyes and watch their minds. When there is a sweet feeling, they see it as it is - that it is sweet. When there is bitter feeling, they see it as it is. When there is a mixed or bitter-sweet feeling or neutral feeling, they see it as it is. Part of this mind-watching is seeing these sensations as essentially derived from perceptions from the outside world. Buddhist practitioners minimize the risk of being subdued by feelings, as they would not take the feelings as permanent, but arising from causes and conditions. In other words, feelings arise as a result of the inner-fabric of clinging that interconnects the self with the outside world. Therefore, for those who thus watch the mind, delusion has a lesser chance of subduing discernment.
Buddha says the world disputes and debates him, yet he has no dispute or debate with the world (= people). At his enlightenment he totally eradicated delusion, so that, with absolutely pure discernment, he now saw the world as it is, and saw no reason to dispute or debate. Interestingly, Nirvana or enlightenment is called the ‘highest discernment.’ At Nirvana the root of delusion and all projections of it, whether in the garb of discernment.
or in its original form (of delusion), along with wrong notions of self and the world created by delusion, are permanently removed.
Ongoing scholarly arguments revolve on Buddha and his Nirvana. I am saying this not to offend scholars, but to show that even the highest level of sensory knowledge is much lower than the lowest level of discernment. I do not stress the importance of the highest discernment at this point, but say that the Buddhist way of living in the present moment provides some discernment which is impossible through scholarly arguments. A single, successful application of this technique paves the way to the highest discernment by degrees. The simple discernment one gleans from a simple, ten-minute meditation session on breathing is much higher than the worldly knowledge acquired from a thousand books or scholarly arguments or debates. Here, I mean worldly knowledge for purposes of discernment. That simple discernment one receives could not be expressed even by a thousand books. Accordingly, no question would arise as to why the highest discernment of Nirvana is ineffable.
To further explain discernment, it is worth mentioning the popular parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant here. In the limited experience of the individual blind men, the elephant is just like a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, a rope; which is not perfect discernment of the object of “elephant”. Each one has seen only a particular facet of the reality of the elephant. Yet, to each of the blind men the ‘single facet of experience’ was perfect discernment, so that they had disputes to prove themselves correct. On the highest level of discernment neither the elephant nor the blind men really exist, but this point may not be relevant here. If one puts together the pieces of experience of the individual blind men in the proper place, one will see the shape of the elephant. The parable is not so applicable, since we have all seen elephants and can easily put together the blind men’s perceptions. What if I just ask you to see that no elephant exists? The parable is too easy for us, and the reality of no elephant at all is too difficult. But do not be elated or crestfallen, apply the middle-ground approach. Do not rush to justify and conclude. Be non-judgmental and continue to watch. Day by day, acquire more facets of discernment by removing more facets of delusion. One single facet of discernment is not complete discernment. Each of us has the potential.
We have a way to go, which is clear. Never let a doubt ruin enthusiasm as a seeker after discernment. Keeping regular company with Dharma teachers, dialogues, never denying weaknesses but accepting them, reading recommended Dharma books, and a mandatory, everyday practice of mind-watching, lead to greater discernment. Soon, those who follow this path will have adopted a marvelous lifestyle. Become adept in discernment.