Right View about Right View
There are only two principles that the Buddha said are categorical—in other words, true across the board in all situations. One is the principle that skillful thoughts, words, and deeds should be developed, and unskillful ones should be abandoned. The other principle is the four noble truths.
Now, you notice that the three characteristics are not on that list. In fact, the word “three characteristics” is never applied by the Buddha to the teachings on inconstancy, stress, and not-self. He calls them perceptions. In a couple of cases, they’re also called contemplations, which means that they’re ways of looking at things. When you try to map these perceptions or contemplations onto the four noble truths, it’s best to think of them as tools for furthering the duties appropriate to the truths: to develop dispassion for suffering, to abandon its cause, to realize its cessation, and to develop the path. In other words, they’re meant to serve a purpose. And because they don’t qualify as categorical, that means that they’re useful only for certain times and situations. It’s important to keep that point in mind.
The forest ajaans bring this point out in their teachings. In some passages they describe how things are not only inconstant, but also constant; not only stressful, but also pleasant; not only not-self, but self. Think about the challenge that Ajaan Maha Boowa made one time. He said, “Try to prove the Buddha wrong.” In this case, this means trying to see if there are any things that are constant. And in certain ways, there are. As Ajaan Lee points out, your lower lip has never turned into your upper lip. Your arm has never turned into your leg. The elements always stay the same. Solidity has always been solidity and hasn’t turned into anything else. So there is that constant aspect to things. Or, as Ajaan Chah points out, the way in which things change is pretty constant. So you could latch onto the fact that things are constant. You could latch onto the way in which they’re inconstant. The question is, what happens when you don’t latch on, and instead simply use these perceptions when they’re appropriate?
Similarly with pleasure and pain. The Buddha himself points out that the five aggregates are not only painful, not totally stressful. They also have their pleasant side. If they didn’t offer any pleasure, no one would be attached to them.
At the same time, there are also plenty of passages in the Canon that talk about the need to develop a skillful sense of self. And there are passages talking about not-self. Ajaan Lee, too, talks about seeing the side of things that is inconstant, stressful and not-self, and the side that’s constant, easeful and under your control.
But the point is you have to learn to let go of both sides if you want to get to something unfabricated. Someone once asked Ajaan Maha Boowa whether nibbana is self or not-self, and he replied that nibbana is nibbana. In other words, you have to contemplate self and not-self in order to get there, but once you’ve gotten there, it’s something different entirely.
All this relates to two main points that are important in the practice. One is that when the ajaans talk about conventional truths, they don’t contrast them with ultimate truths. In other words, they don’t maintain, for example, that to say that there’s such a person as Lionel or Isabella or Than Isaac, or whoever, is just a conventional truth; whereas saying that they’re aggregates is an ultimate truth. Instead, the ajaans contrast conventional truths with release, which means that even talking about everybody here in terms of aggregates would still be a convention. So these are conventions. They’re to be used. When properly used, they lead to something that’s not words, but we need to use the words to get there. We need to use the truths.
That’s one important point: that we’re not here to arrive at right view; we’re here to use right view to go beyond. This means that you need to have right view about right view, in other words, realizing that that’s not the goal. It’s part of the path.
The other point relates to what are called vipassanuppakilesa: the corruptions of insight. These can happen very easily when you’re meditating and—especially when you’re off alone—you come across some sort of experience that really impresses you with its truth or its power, and you latch onto it, saying, “This must be true. This must be right.” Well, we’re not here to get to truthness or rightness. We use truths and we use rightness to go beyond them. But if you just latch onto them, you’ve misused them right there.
So one of the reasons that the ajaans talk about going beyond right and wrong and true and false is because when you latch onto true and false, it can really cause you a lot of trouble. It can get in the way of any further progress in the path, especially if you believe you’ve arrived at some noble attainment simply because you’ve seen the truth of some teaching related to the three perceptions, such as “seeing” that there is no self.
So remember, these truths are here to be used. They’re here to perform. They perform a duty and then you put them aside. Like woodworking tools: You use them when you build a chair or a desk, but when you’re finished, you put them aside. In this way, you have right view about right view. You use the rightness of the path and it is a right path, because it works. But it is a path.
We’re working on developing dispassion, but we need to have some passion for the path, to develop it. We use it to develop dispassion for everything off the path, and only then do we develop dispassion for it, too. So when you discover a truth, ask yourself, “What’s the use of this truth now? In what way is it useful for the things I have to develop dispassion for? In which ways is it useless? In which ways is it going to have a bad effect on my mind?” That’s what you always want to look at: “What is the effect that this has on the mind?” If you see that it gives rise to passion, well, you treat it the same way you treat any pleasure or pain: “How does it relate to the duties of the path that I have to do now?”
Certain pleasures, the Buddha said, are totally harmless, but other pleasures can be bad for you, so you’ve got to abandon the pleasures that are harmful. The same way with pains—and the same way with truths: There are some truths that are harmful for your practice right now. For instance, you’re trying to develop concentration. This is not the time to be thinking about the inconstancy and stressfulness of your concentration. You can apply perceptions of inconstancy and stressfulness to the distractions that pull you away, but for the concentration, you want to focus on this question: What can you make constant here? What sensations can you develop in the body that are constant even as the breath flows in, the breath flows out? How do you make them easeful, pleasant? How do you get this under your control? This is an area to which you don’t apply the three perceptions.
The same when you think about kamma. There’s a time when certain truths should be used, and other times when they shouldn’t. There is a sutta where one of the young monks is asked by someone from another religion, “What does the Buddha say is the result of action?” And the young monk says, “The result of action is pain.” Now, that wanderer had heard enough about the Buddha’s teachings to realize that this didn’t sound right, so he said, “That’s not what I’ve heard from anybody else. You’d better check that with the Buddha.” So the young monk goes back and checks with the Buddha, and the Buddha says, “You fool. You gave a categorical answer to a question that required an analytical answer.” Then Ven. Udayin, who’s a regular troublemaker in a lot of the suttas says, “Well, maybe he was thinking about the fact that actions give rise to feelings, and feelings are stressful.” The Buddha said, “This is not the context for that.” When you talk about action, you’re talking about skillful and unskillful, and you want to induce people to do skillful actions, so you point to the truth that skillful actions lead to relative pleasure.
So there’s a time and place for particular truths, and this is an important aspect of the teaching. We’re not here to latch onto a truth, aside from holding it firmly enough as we’re using it. You’ve got to see how it performs, because you can describe the world in all kinds of ways, but which description is going to be best at giving rise to dispassion? There’s that sutta where a group of monks are going abroad to a part of India that wasn’t in the Middle Country in India and before they go, the Buddha tells them, “First, take your leave of Sariputta.” So they take leave of Sariputta, and he says, “When intelligent people there ask you, ‘What does your teacher teach?’ What are you going to say?” The monks replied, “We really would like to hear what you would have us say.”
So Sariputta says that the first thing to say is, “Our teacher teaches the ending of passion.”
Notice, he doesn’t mention the three characteristics, or emptiness, or compassion, or even the four noble truths. He starts out with the ending of passion. Now, as another sutta says, dispassion is the highest dhamma. It’s what all the other teachings are meant to induce. Even when the Buddha gives the questionnaire on the three perceptions: Is this constant or inconstant? Inconstant. If it’s something inconstant, is it stressful or pleasant? Stressful. If it’s inconstant and stressful, does it deserve to be self? No. Now, that’s a value judgment. You’re trying to develop dispassion through that questionnaire. That’s what it’s aimed at. It’s supposed to perform: to do something to your sense of what’s worth holding onto, and what’s not.
This is where you have to use your powers of judgment and evaluation. When you come across something in your meditation where you think, “This is really true,” you have to ask yourself, “True for what purpose?” And what does it do to your mind, keeping this particular truth in mind? If you see that it’s having a bad effect, you tell yourself, “That’s not the truth for right now.” That’s when you have to put aside that truth and any thoughts on that issue. Ultimately, all truths will have to be put aside, but you want to get the best use out of them, if they’re useful, before letting them go. Treat them as tools, as means to an end, and then you’ll be safe.