The Essential Eights

Bhante Gunaratana

The Essential Eights

Dear Venerable Monks, Friends,

This evening I’d like to speak on other aspects of Dhamma, which are naturally supportive factors of Dhamma, and that when we mindfully reflect on them we can see how they are related very clearly to each other. There are eight such Dhammas. Number one is called “the root of all dhammas.” Buddha said that all dhammas have their root in desire, “chandamūlakā, āvuso, sabbe dhammā.” Chanda is either will, or desire. Will is a very important aspect of Dhamma. When we develop effort—make effort—one of the factors in making effort is will.

When we practice the four bases of accomplishment, one of them is will or desire. Buddha said that will is the root of all dhammas. Now, when we make effort, the root of making effort is will, chanda. And when we practice the bases of accomplishment the root of them is dhamma. When I say this, you might certainly get confused: What is the root of accomplishment? What is the accomplishment? So let me make it as simple as possible by saying that all the Dhammas have their root in desire, and desire itself has two sides—wholesome desire and unwholesome desire. Unwholesome desire is desire to perpetuate desire, to increase desire, to linger in samsāra, to continue existence in samsāra. That is desire, or unwholesome desire. Wholesome desire is desire to be desireless. We have to keep these two differences in mind very clearly. Wholesome dhamma arises from wholesome desire. Unwholesome dhamma arises from unwholesome desire. Then we have greed, hatred and delusion. From greed, hatred and delusion arise all unwholesome thoughts, words and deeds. When wholesome desire is there, we have thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of friendliness, and thoughts of compassion. When unwholesome desire arises, from that unwholesome desire jealousy, fear, anger, rivalry, competitiveness and resentment—all these things arise from unwholesome desire. When wholesome desire arises, mindfulness, investigation, joy, tranquility, concentration, wisdom and total liberation all arise from the wholesome desire. Therefore, desire is the root of the arising of all the dhammas, whether they are wholesome or unwholesome.

What are these wholesome or unwholesome dhammas? They are various mental states. We know when unwholesome dhamma arises, we express this unwholesome dhamma through our thoughts, words and deeds. When wholesome dhamma arises in our mind, we express it through wholesome thoughts, words and deeds. For example, when unwholesome dhamma—unwholesome desire—arises we want to say something to hurt somebody. That carries from that desire. Or we want to say something unpleasant, or sometimes we might even tell a lie because underneath that we have unwholesome desire.

Why do we want to tell a lie? Either to please others, get something from others, make ourselves impressive, or to cover something. Underneath all of them, there is desire, and it is called chanda. The word chanda is used therefore for wholesome things as well as unwholesome things. Wholesome chanda is generating wholesome thoughts, words, and deeds. Unwholesome chanda is called biases. There are four types of biases. One of them is chanda, dosa (aversion) is the second, lobha (greed) the third, and moha (delusion) is the fourth. But the beginning of all of them is chanda.

The Buddha said that all the dhammas, wholesome or unwholesome arise from desire. This means unwholesome dhammas arise from unwholesome desire and the wholesome arises from wholesome desire. Then, the second is “manasikārasambhavā sabbe dhammā,” that is, all the dhammas arise from reflection, from paying attention. Many things are happening to us but we don’t know them. Why? We don’t pay attention to them. When we pay attention to them, we know that they are there. Although they are there all the time, until we pay attention to them, we don’t know them. We are totally unaware of them, totally ignorant of them. Only when we pay attention to them do we become aware of them. Their true manifestation becomes clear to us. For example, there are certain dhammas that Buddha mentioned, not certain dhammas but true real Dhamma exists whether the Buddha comes into existence or not. The true Dhamma always exists. What is that true Dhamma that always exists whether the Buddhas come into existence or not? That all conditioned things are impermanent. Buddhas don’t come into this world to make things impermanent.

As I mentioned the other day, they are permanently impermanent. But until we pay attention to them, pay attention to our experiences, we don’t know that they are impermanent. We simply take for granted that they are always perpetual, continual, permanent, eternal, and so forth. Our body is impermanent. Our feelings are impermanent—perceptions, volitional formations, consciousness are all impermanent.

Many a time when we talk about impermanence, people ask us, “But how can we know impermanence? Things seem to us to be permanent. How do we understand impermanence?” They say this because they do not pay attention to what they experience every single moment of every day. Body is impermanent. How can the body be impermanent? Only when we pay attention to the body do we experience impermanence. When we pay attention to the body, we look at our hands—turn them—doesn’t seem to be anything impermanent with them. We touch our body—it seems to be always there, doesn’t seem to have anything impermanent. Touch our head—the same head that we had this morning is still there. Doesn’t seem to be impermanent. But how can we understand this impermanence of the body? By paying attention. Attention also has two aspects: mindful attention and unmindful attention, or qualitative attention and unqualitative attention.

All living beings have unqualitative attention. Even animals have attention. Predators, for example, when they want to catch their prey, they must pay total attention to the movement of their prey so that at the right moment they can catch it. These are very normal things. If you ring a bell at a certain time, you train a dog to listen to the sound, and then the dog comes and you feed him. And then he goes out. Sometimes when you ring the bell, the dog will salivate. Why, because he pays attention. He knows that when he hears the bell, food will be there. So he keeps his attention on the sound of the bell, to the sounds, and so forth.

We human beings also pay attention to various things. But with that kind of low quality of attention we don’t understand impermanence. We pay attention to external things, various things outside our body. Even when paying attention, when we look at our body, we don’t see this impermanence. If we look at our body in the mirror, we don’t see the impermanence. A mirror itself is not reflecting the correct image. For example, if you write ‘MAY,’ and hold it in front of the mirror, we will see ‘YAM.’ If you write ‘KEY,’ and hold it in front of the mirror, you will see ‘YEK.’ Even the mirror will not show us the real true understanding of the nature of our body, of anything, of any form. But we have to pay mindful attention. There’s a big difference between mindful attention and unmindful attention.

There’s a very famous simile that the Buddha has given to show the difference between mindful attention and unmindful attention. The simile is of the Dog and the Lion. Have you heard of it? When you throw a rock or a stick or a Frisbee to a dog, the dog will run after it, pick it up, bite it or bring it back. If you throw a rock or a stick to a lion, the lion will not run after the rock or stick, the lion will run after you! This is because lions always want to go to the root, the source.

Mindful attention is the attention that always goes to the root. So, when we pay attention to the body, feeling, perceptions, volitional formations, and consciousness, we can see the true Dhamma arising; impermanence arising from them.

For example, when we meditate and pay attention to the breath; breath is the body, and that is why Buddha mentioned very clearly in the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118) and Venerable Dhammadinna in the Cula-vedalla Sutta (MN 44), explaining or defining the body. They say that Assasa or Passasa (inhaling or exhaling) is a body, one of the bodies. We can see impermanence in this body when we pay attention to the breath. Nothing is so clear as this, where you can see impermanence as in the breath. When we pay attention to the breath then we see impermanence in the breath, we see this breath-body is impermanent. It is always changing. When we look at this superficially, we understand that since the breath is impermanent—we breathe so many thousands of times everyday—if it is permanent we would have to breath only once. Only when we pay total, undivided, mindful attention to the breath, can we see this true Dhamma very clearly in that breath. If we do not pay mindful attention, we take it for granted and we never know the impermanence of breath.

So Buddha said, “manasikārasambhavā sabbe dhammā.” All the dhammas—even in these other subtle aspects of Dhamma, not only impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness, they are not the only dhammas, there are many other dhammas; feelings, perceptions, volitional formations, consciousness—all these are the materials that we have within us to see the true Dhamma arising from them. Greed can arise, hatred can arise, delusion can arise; or non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion can arise from all these experiences in our body. These are very big subjects. I just want to touch on all the eight aspects of this very beautiful Dhamma discourse that Buddha delivered in the Anguttara Nikāya for us to reflect and think.

Then he said, “vedanāsamosaranā sabbe dhammā,” all the dhammas converge, meet in feelings. We have all kinds of feeling; pleasant, unpleasant, neutral feeling associated with greed, hatred and delusion; feeling not associated with greed, hatred and delusion; feeling related to sensual pleasure, feeling not related to sensual pleasure, and so forth. There are all kinds of feelings that Buddha listed in the Bahuvedaniya Sutta (MN 59), 108 kinds of feelings. And the entire Dhamma is based on, or converged in feeling. The entire Four Noble Truth begins with feeling, dukkha (unsatisfactoriness). So when we look at feeling, beginning with feeling arises clinging, or greed. If the feeling happens to be pleasant, greed arises. If the feeling happens to be unpleasant, rejection, anger or resentment can arise. Because of the feeling, clinging can arise.

It is interesting. Even in Dependent Origination the Buddha did not say very specifically that dependent on feeling, hatred arises, or rejection arises. He said, dependent upon feeling, clinging arises. Isn’t it interesting? In Dependent Origination, dependent upon feeling, clinging arises. When you look at it, when you expand this compact message of Dhamma and decompress it, then you can see the other side of the Dhamma itself. When feeling arises, if the feeling happens to be pleasant, there naturally arises clinging, craving.

If the feeling happens to be unpleasant, then also desire, or craving, arises. When the unpleasant feeling arises, we always very impatiently look forward to getting rid of unpleasant feeling because we want to cling to wholesome, pleasant feeling.

So Buddha put them all together and simply said in a few words, “Dependent upon feeling, craving arises.” When unpleasant feeling arises, on the one hand we want to reject it for gaining a pleasant feeling, so that we can cling to it. So you can see, the Buddha said, “All the dhammas converge in feelings.” Pleasant dhammas, unpleasant dhammas, and neutral dhammas, all converge in feelings.

The next thing he mentioned is “phassasamudayā sabbe dhammā.” All dhammas arise from contact: contact through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. All the dhammas, the whole world open to us, is exposed through these six doors; eyes, ears, nose and so forth. And from there, wholesome or unwholesome dhammas arise. For example, when we see an object, if the object happens to be pleasant, pleasant thoughts arise in our mind. If the object happens to be unpleasant, unpleasant thoughts arise in our mind. Similarly, when we hear a sound, the same thing happens. So when pleasantness or unpleasantness arises, along with that all the others arise: greed, hatred, delusion can arise, or non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion and so forth can arise. The entire doors for dhammas to enter the mind will be open through contact. Then vedanā arises, all the feelings, all the dhammas converge in the feelings.

And the next thing is “samādhi pamukhā sabbe dhammā.” Samādhi is concentration. Concentration is the leader of all dhammas. I say that concentration is the crown of our meditation practice. Concentration also has two sides: one is wholesome concentration, the other is unwholesome concentration. Wholesome concentration is the concentration supported by seven of the Noble Eightfold Path, the seven previous steps: right understanding, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Right concentration arises depending on these seven factors, and that is the crown of our meditation. So Buddha said all the dhammas, the leader or chief of all the dhammas, is concentration. Why did he say that? Because a concentrated mind can see things as they really are. And therefore concentration is the head or chief of all the dhammas.

Then, he said, “satādhipateyyā sabbe dhammā.” Mindfulness is the head of all the dhammas. You know, when we say mindfulness is the head of all the dhammas, then one might wonder, ‘how about unwholesome dhamma?’ Is mindfulness the head of even unwholesome dhamma? What it means is that only when we are mindful can we make the distinction between wholesome dhamma and unwholesome dhamma. When we are not mindful we don’t know the difference between wholesome dhammas and unwholesome dhammas. So when we are mindful, we can make the distinction, make effort to cultivate wholesome dhamma, and reject unwholesome dhamma. Therefore, for this reason, for the sake of discernment, for the sake of understanding, for the sake of liberation, mindfulness is the head. And also the Buddha said that all wholesome things begin from mindfulness. Therefore, mindfulness is also the thing that makes wholesome things of a high quality.

In our religious activities we use two words: one is called puñña; the other is called kusala. People sometimes don’t understand the difference between these two. Even to be able to see the difference between these two, we should have quality attention and we should have mindfulness. Puñña is that which makes us happy. Buddha said it in several places, “Puññassetam. bhikkhave sukhassa adhiva- canam. “. Puñña or wholesome thoughts, words and deeds are used synonymously with happiness; that is, wholesome thoughts, words, and deeds are equated with happiness. But this happiness can be either of low or high quality. And this quality of happiness is controlled by kusala. Kusala is the quality controller of happiness or puñña. Giving dāna is puñña. Practicing meditation is puñña. Observing sīla is puñña. Helping others is puñña. But all these puñña, all these wholesome thoughts words and deeds, can have certain underlying unwholesome tendencies. When we are mindful, we can see that these unwholesome tendencies are those which weaken our puñña, which weaken our wholesome thoughts, words and deeds. When the kusala or skill intervenes, then this kusala can remove the underlying tendency of wholesome thoughts, words, or deeds we commit. For example, when you give dāna, offer dāna, give something with a generous thought. When you are giving something, if you have a certain unwholesome tendency which you may not be quite aware of, for example if you give dāna thinking that this person, this venerable monk or this nun or this so and so is my friend. He appears to be noble, holy, observing precepts… Therefore, if I give dāna to this person, I will get more merit. And my merit bank will be very big. I can actually earn a lot of merit for future use. So you give dāna as an investment of your merit so you can have more things in the future. I have heard people say, when giving things to me, “Bhante, please pray for me to become more prosperous, so that I can give more.” The person’s motive is to get more, to give more. But when we very mindfully, skillfully look at that very motive, you can see the underlying tendency of desire. That kind of motive can be removed when we do it with skill, with kusala. So when we pay mindful attention to our motive of intention, then we can see whether our wholesome thoughts, words, and deeds are going to be weak wholesome thoughts, words and deeds, strong wholesome thoughts, words and deeds, or pure wholesome thoughts, words and deeds. The wholesome thoughts, words and deeds can be purified, cleansed by using skill. Skill is called kusala.

And to see this difference we have to use mindfulness. That is why the Buddha said, “satādhipateyyā sabbe dhammā.” Mindfulness is the head of all dhammas, whether they are wholesome or unwholesome. When mindfulness is the head, it can see very clearly what is wholesome or what is unwholesome, and then they won’t do the unwholesome and they will do the wholesome.

Next thing, Buddha said, “paññuttarā sabbe dhammā”—the highest of all Dhammas is wisdom (pañña). This is difficult to understand. What is wisdom? Is it intelligence? If intelligence is wisdom, then all intelligent animals can be wise. The animals are intelligent. And many intelligent people discover many, many things to promote greed, hatred, and delusion because they are very intelligent.

Anything they think, no matter how beneficial or useful it is, is produced, generated, or invented by intelligence. If that is harmful to us, harmful to others, or harmful to both, then the one who produced it is not wise. But it may be very intelligent. Wisdom is something very special. What is wisdom? Wisdom should be able to bring peace, happiness, and total, complete liberation from greed, hatred, and delusion. Buddha compared wisdom to the embryo in an egg. When the egg is properly hatched, the embryo inside the egg slowly grows and becomes hardened. Then the chick inside, using its tiny little beak and very tender claws, breaks the egg and comes out. Similarly, we all have wisdom as one of the wholesome roots. There are six roots: three are unwholesome, three are wholesome. One of the three wholesome roots is wisdom, amoha. This root of wisdom slowly grows, becomes strong and mature, and breaks through the shell of ignorance. In this metaphor the wisdom is inside this egg. Wisdom is like the embryo in the egg. And just like the chick, the embryo grows gradually, and becomes strong to break the egg and come out. Wisdom also slowly, gradually grows and becomes strong and powerful, and then shatters our ignorance. And, we come out of the jail, prison. We are in the prison of ignorance. And therefore, “paññuttarā sabbe dhammā.” Buddha said that wisdom is the greatest of all the dhammas. Wisdom is the greatest. When we have wisdom, we don’t become proud, don’t become arrogant, don’t become egotistic. When we have wisdom, the more wise we are, the more humbled we are, more soft we are, more gentle we are. No arrogance is there. When we are wise, the ego-notion will not affect our mind, the very notion of ego will not arise in our mind.

So wisdom is something very special, which not every intelligent person has. The difference between intelligence and wisdom is that an intelligent person or being can do many, many things which may be materially helpful, materially profitable, but what it eventually does is increase their greed, hatred and delusion. Intelligent people created television.

What does it do? Promote greed, hatred and delusion, and give us examples of greed, hatred and delusion. Watch TV. What do you see? Examples of greed, hatred and delusion create many machines in science and technology, like the atomic bomb. Somebody had to be very powerfully intelligent to make the atomic bomb. What does it do? What has it done? Bombs, guns, chemicals… intelligent people. But, a wise person?

That is why Buddha said, “Yo sahassam sahassena sangāme mānuse jine ekañca jeyyamattānam. sa ve sangāmajuttamo”. One wins, defeats thousands upon thousands in the battlefield, but the one who conquers themselves—gets rid of their own defilements—is the real victor. The other is not the victor. He is defeated. Why? He may have intelligence, but no wisdom. One who has wisdom will conquer themselves. One with wisdom will be able to get rid of greed, hatred and delusion, which are the causes of our suffering, of existing in samsāra. If we are wise, our wisdom should be able to liberate ourselves from suffering. That is the difference between wisdom and intelligence. Intelligence can push you into samsāra; increasing greed, hatred and delusion. Wisdom gets you out of samsāra, liberates yourself from samsāra. This is the difference between these two.

And the last thing Buddha mentioned in this category is that all these are a graduated teaching, beginning with one thing and ending with the highest. Ending is “vimutti rasā sabbe dhammā.” The tastiest of all dhammas is liberation. Vimutti rasā; rasā means taste. Liberation is the taste of all the dhammas. That means that even when we are liberated from wholesome dhamma, that is the time when we experience the greatest, highest taste: the taste of liberation (vimutti rasā). And that is the taste of Dhamma. That means our wisdom takes us even beyond wholesome dhammas— puñña-papa (merits and demerits), the mind liberated from both. And that is the time when we attain full enlightenment, attain Nibbāna. That is the greatest, highest taste of all the dhammas that we learn and practice.

This is merely a list that I mention here, but we must take each of them separately. Each of these on this list is a topic for a one-hour Dhamma talk. But I have no time to give an eight hour Dhamma talk on these eight topics, so I put all of them together! When we try to put many things together, nothing is clear. But when we take one and focus the mind on that, then we can make at least that clear. Unfortunately I am not ready for that, nor are you. Therefore, I conclude this little Dhamma talk this evening. Thank you very much for your patient listening.

A reflection offered by Bhante Gunaratana at Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery on July 10th, 2008