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Starting Out Small
- A Collection of Talks for Beginning Meditators
Phra Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo
Translated from the Thai by
The Light of Discernment
August 23, 1958
Our discernment is like light, and there are three levels to it: low-level discernment, which is like the light of a torch; intermediate discernment, which is like the light of a candle or a kerosene lantern; and high-level discernment, which is like electric light.
To get light from a torch, you need to use a lot of fuel. And even though it's bright, it creates smoke. This is like the discernment that comes from being generous: it requires a lot of financial resources, and you sometimes have to contend with resistance from people outside.
The light of a candle or gas lantern is like the discernment that comes from observing the precepts. You have to exercise a lot of care and use your powers of endurance to keep them pure. Lantern-light requires fuel and a wick. As for candlelight, it requires a wick and some wax. If you have wax but no wick, you can't get any light. And both lantern-light and candlelight create smoke and soot, so neither of them counts as being entirely good.
As for electric discernment, there's no need for fuel, and it doesn't create smoke or soot. It's easy to use: whenever you want it, by day or by night, just flip on the switch. This refers to the discernment that comes from developing concentration. The power of the mind, when it's pure and firmly established, gives rise to the light of knowledge -- liberating insight -- enabling us to see events clearly, both in the area of the world and of the Dhamma. When we can make the mind clean and pure, it gives rise to concentration and to the light of discernment -- panna-pajjoto -- which is like electric light, or the light of the sun, which shines all twelve hours of the day. This kind of discernment is the discernment of the noble ones.
All three forms of merit -- generosity, virtue, and meditation -- depend on discernment. When we develop discernment, we'll know how to look for merit on our own. And what kind of light will we want -- torch light, candlelight, lantern-light, or electric light? Death is like darkness. When the time comes to die, outside light won't be of any use to us. Our speech, hands, feet, arms, and legs won't be of any use to us. They won't be able to help us at all. Our eyes won't be able to see any light. No one will hear what we have to say. Our hands and feet won't be able to move. Our possessions won't be able to help us. The only resource that will be able to help us is our discernment, making sure that greed, aversion, and delusion don't get provoked, maintaining the mind in a state free from greed, free from aversion, free from delusion. We'll be able to separate these three things -- body, mind, and defilement -- out from one another, in the same way that we separate the wick of a candle from its wax. The fire of defilement will then have to go out, because the wick and the wax lie in separate places and don't make contact. In the same way, if we can separate the body from the mind, our normal awareness will have to go out. But when it goes out, that doesn't mean that awareness is annihilated. It's still there, but as a special form of awareness that doesn't depend on the body or mind and yet can still be aware. It's just like fire going out from a candle: it's not annihilated. There's still plenty of fire potential left in the world. It's there by its nature, simply that it isn't involved with any fuel. This kind of fire is better than the kind that requires fuel, because it doesn't wear anything out. It's simply there by its nature. This kind of merit is more wonderful than anything else.
If we can separate the body, the mind, and defilement from one another, there'll be no more heat. The mind won't be hot, and instead will be cool at all times. The light of fire arises from the spinning of waves. If there are no waves, there'll be no spinning. The waves are like defilement. If we can cut through the waves, the spinning will stop. There will be no more birth. Greed, aversion, and delusion are like waves -- or like the wick of a candle. If we cut out the wick, leaving only the wax, fire will have no place to catch hold and so will have to go out. When the candle goes out, it's like the death of human beings: the fire leaves the candle, but the fire potential isn't annihilated. In the same way, the mind that goes out from the body isn't annihilated. If it can remain on its own, without having to depend on a body, it doesn't appear in any way, shape, or form anywhere at all. That's the awareness of nibbana.
This is the kind of awareness that's really like electric light. Whenever we want it, it's there for us to know. Sometimes even if we don't want to know, we still end up knowing. As for ordinary people, even if they want to know things, they often don't know; they often don't see even when they want to see. That's like torch light or candlelight: if there's no fuel, there's no way it can be bright.
This is why we're taught to train our minds to be firmly established in concentration -- for the mind well-trained is what gives rise to the light of discernment that doesn't get deluded: the discernment that knows for sure.
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