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Food for Thought - First Things First
 
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First Things First

October 6, 1958

There are three ways in which people order their priorities: putting the world first, putting themselves first, and putting the Dhamma first.

Putting the world first: There's nothing at all dependable about the affairs of the world. Stop and think for a moment: Ever since you were born, from your first memory up to the present day, what is the best thing that has ever happened in your life? What is the most enjoyable thing? What have you liked the most? If you answer, you have to say that of all the things in the world, only 50 percent are satisfactory; the other 50 are unsatisfactory. But if you asked me, I'd answer that there's nothing satisfactory about the world at all. There's nothing but stress and misery. You get friends and they take advantage of you. You get possessions and you have to worry about them. You get money and you end up suffering for it. The people you work with aren't as good as you'd like them to be. Your family and relatives are nothing but trouble. In short, I don't see anything that really brings a person any real happiness. You get money and it brings trouble. You get friends and they make you suffer. The people you live and work with don't get along smoothly. This is the way it is with the world. For this reason, anyone whose mind runs along in the current of the world is bound for nothing but pain and sorrow. The Buddha taught, "For the mind not to be affected by the ways of the world is to be serene and free from sorrow: This is the highest good fortune."

The world has eight edges, and each edge is razor sharp, capable of slicing human beings to bits without mercy. The eight edges of the world are, on the one side, the edge of wealth, the edge of status, the edge of praise, and the edge of pleasure. These four edges are especially sharp because they're things we like. We keep polishing and sharpening them, and the more we do this the sharper they get, until ultimately they turn around and slit our throats.

The other side has four edges too, but actually they're not so sharp, because no one likes to use them. No one wants them, so no one sharpens them, and as a result they're dull and blunt — and like dull knives, they can't kill anyone. These four edges are loss of wealth, loss of status, criticism, and pain. No one wants any of these things, but they have to exist as part of the world.

How are the sharp edges sharp? Take status for an example. As soon as people gain status and rank, they start swelling up larger than they really are. You don't have to look far for examples of this sort of thing. Look at monks. When they start out as ordinary junior monks, they can go anywhere with no trouble at all, along highways and byways, down narrow alleys and back streets, anywhere they like. But as soon as they start getting a little ecclesiastical rank, they start getting abnormally large. The roads they used to walk along start feeling too narrow. They have trouble walking anywhere — their legs are too long and their feet too heavy. Their rears are too large for ordinary seats. (Of course, not all high-ranking monks are like this. You can find ones who don't swell up.) As for lay people, once they're hit by the edge of status, they start swelling up too, to the point where they can hardly move. Their hands get too heavy to raise in respect to the Buddha. Their legs get so big they can't make it to the monastery to hear a sermon or observe the precepts — they're afraid they'd lose their edge. This is how one of the edges of the world kills the goodness in people.

As for the edge of wealth, this refers to money and possessions. As soon as we get a lot, we start getting stingy. We become wary of making too many offerings or of being too generous with others because we're afraid we'll run out of money. This is why rich people tend to be stingy and drown in their wealth. As for poor people, they can give away everything and then work to replace it. They can give offerings and be generous, with rarely any sense of regret. Their arms and legs aren't too big, so they can come to the monastery with no trouble at all.

The edge of pleasure is very sharp, because wherever you get your pleasure, that's where you get stuck. If your pleasure comes from your friends, you're stuck on your friends. If your pleasure comes from your children or grandchildren, you're stuck on your children and grandchildren. If your pleasure comes from eating, sleeping, or going out at night, then that's where you're stuck. You're not willing to trade in your pleasure for the sake of inner worth because you're afraid of letting your pleasure fall from your grasp. You can't observe the five or eight precepts because they make you force and deny yourself. If you observe the eight precepts, you can't go see a movie or show and can't sleep on a nice soft mattress. You're afraid that if you miss one evening meal, you'll get hungry or weak. You don't want to sit and meditate because you're afraid your back will hurt or your legs will go numb. So this is how the edge of pleasure destroys your goodness.

As for the edge of praise, this too is razor sharp. When people are praised, they start floating and don't want to come down. They hear praise and it's so captivating that they forget themselves and think that they're already good enough — so they won't think of making the effort to make themselves better in other ways.

All four of these edges are weapons that kill our goodness. They're like the paint people use on houses to make them pretty: something that can last only a while and then has to fade and peel away. If you can view these things simply as part of the passing scenery, without getting stuck on them, they won't do you any harm. But if you latch onto them as really being your own, the day is sure to come when you'll have to meet with disappointment — loss of wealth, loss of status, criticism, and pain — because it's a law of nature that however far things advance, that's how far they have to regress. If you don't lose them while you're alive, you'll lose them when you die. They can't stay permanent and lasting.

Once we realize this truth, then when we meet with any of the good edges of the world we shouldn't get so carried away that we forget ourselves; and when we meet with any of the bad edges we shouldn't let ourselves get so discouraged or sad that we lose hope. Stick to your duties as you always have. Don't let your goodness suffer because of these eight ways of the world.

Putting yourself first: This means acting, speaking and thinking whatever way you like without any thought for what's right or wrong, good or bad. In other words, you feel you have the right to do whatever you want. You may see, for instance, that something isn't good, and you know that other people don't like it, but you like it, so you go ahead and do it. Or you may see that something is good, but you don't like it, so you don't do it. Sometimes you may like something, and it's good, but you don't do it — it's good, but you just can't do it.

When you're practicing the Dhamma, though, then whether or not you like something, you have to make yourself do it. You have to make the Dhamma your life, and your life into Dhamma if you want to succeed. You can't use the principle of giving priority to your own likes at all.

Putting the Dhamma first: This is an important principle for those who practice. The duties of every Buddhist are (1) to develop virtue by observing the precepts, (2) to center the mind in concentration, and (3) to use discernment to investigate the truth without giving rein to defilement.

The basic level of virtue is to prevent our words and deeds from being bad or evil. This means observing the five precepts: not killing any living beings, not stealing, not engaging in illicit sex, not lying, and not taking intoxicants. These are the precepts that wash away the gross stains on our conduct. They're precepts that turn us from common animals into human beings and prevent us from falling into states of deprivation and woe.

The intermediate level of virtue turns human beings into celestial beings. This refers to restraint of the senses: keeping watch over the way we react to our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, feeling, and ideation so that they don't give rise to bad mental states. This can turn human beings into celestial beings, but even then we haven't escaped from death and rebirth, because when celestial beings run out of merit they have to come back and be reborn as human beings again. They still have to keep swimming around in the cycle of rebirth.

Those who can gain release from all forms of evil, however, won't have to be reborn as animals, human beings, or celestial beings ever again. This refers to people who practice concentration and can abandon all evil in their hearts by developing the stages of absorption (jhana) and discernment until they reach the level of nonreturning. When they die, they go to the Brahma worlds, and there they develop their hearts still further, purifying them of all defilements, becoming arahants and ultimately attaining total Liberation.

The basic level of virtue protects our words and deeds from being evil. The intermediate level protects our senses and keeps them clean — which means that we don't let the three defilements of passion, aversion, and delusion be provoked into action by what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or think.

As for the highest level of virtue — inner virtue — this means giving rise to Right Concentration within the mind:

(1) On this level, "not killing" means not killing off your goodness. For instance, if bad thoughts arise and you aren't careful to wipe them out, their evil will come pouring in and your goodness will have to die. This is because your mind is still caught up on good and evil. Sometimes you use good to kill evil. Sometimes you use evil to kill good: This is called killing yourself.

(2) "Stealing" on this level refers to the way the mind likes to take the good and bad points of other people to think about. This sort of mind is a thief — because we've never once asked other people whether they're possessive of their good and bad points or are willing to share them with us. For the most part, what we take is their old dried up garbage. I.e., we like to focus on their bad points. Even though they may have good points, we don't let ourselves see them. We take our own opinions as our guide and as a result we end up as fools without realizing it.

(3) "Illicit sensuality" on this level refers to the state of mind that is stuck on sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas, or that lies fermenting in greed, anger, and delusion. In other words, the mind is impure and is always involved with sensual objects and moods.

(4) "Lying" on this level means not being true. How are we not true? We come to the monastery but our minds are at home. We listen to the sermon but our hearts are thinking of something else. Our bodies may be sitting in the meditation position, just like the Buddha, but our minds are roaming around through all sorts of thoughts, gnawing on the past, nibbling at the future, not finding any meat at all. This is called lying to yourself and to others as well. How is it lying to others? Suppose you go home and someone asks, "Where did you go today?" and you answer, "I went to the monastery to listen to a sermon." Actually, your body came, but you didn't come. Your body listened, but you didn't listen. This has to be classed as a kind of lying.

(5) "Intoxication" on this level refers to delusion and absentmindedness. If we're going to contemplate body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities, our minds have to be still and really focused on these things. But if we're absentminded and forgetful, our minds go down the wrong path, weaving in and out, back and forth like a drunkard. Sometimes we end up falling down in a stupor and lying there on the side of the road. Nothing good will come of it.

Those who are careful to keep their minds firmly centered in concentration and to keep the five precepts on this level pure and whole, though, are said to be developing the highest perfection of virtue — showing respect for the Dhamma above and beyond the world, above and beyond themselves. This is called putting the Dhamma first in a way befitting those who practice it. This is what it means to be a true Buddhist in a way that will eventually lead us to release from all suffering and stress.


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