The Importance of Worldly Discretion

Ajahn Jotipālo • July 2013

One word mentioned in the Mettā Sutta is nipako. It is often translated as wise, chief, or highest. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it as discretion and talks about it in terms of worldly skills or practical wisdom. One way to reflect on this translation of nipako is in the realm of human relationships. By looking back on a conversation, for instance, we can ask ourselves whether we had been gentle and appropriate in that situation, and whether we had been deliberately paying attention to the quality of our speech at that time. In this way we can hone our communication skills and learn how to live more harmoniously in community. When we get upset or are involved in a misunderstanding or miscommunication, this word nipako points to how we can use discretion and practical wisdom with this type of experience. We can learn how to skillfully approach a person and work out a problem even in a situation that is difficult or uncomfortable.

Nipako comes from the root word nipa, which means to lay low. So I think of it as not jumping into a conversation with the first thing that comes to mind, and not trying to be the first person to come up with a quick solution. Instead, it is more akin to paying attention and watching.

We can also think of nipako in terms of learning and seeking guidance. For example, it’s important to take the time to learn how things work instead of jumping in and trying to fix some particular thing when we really don’t know how. Otherwise, we might damage what ever it is and create a bigger problem in the long run. We need to learn to ask for guidance. This applies to meditation as well. It’s good to try new approaches and explore different techniques on our own, but it’s also good to ask and seek advice from those with wisdom.

So with this quality of nipako we can apply our discretion and worldly skills in all situations. We can learn to lay low with circumspection, while learning from those who know what we don’t. These are all qualities highly commended by the Buddha.