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This book is an introduction to the Buddha’s teachings on how to use discernment to find an unending happiness. The main body of the book consists of passages selected from the Pali Canon—the earliest extant record of the Buddha’s teachings—in which the Buddha and his disciples tell how to develop discernment and apply it to the search for that happiness. The purpose of this introduction is to provide context for the passages, making them more accessible to anyone who wants to put their teachings to use.
The Pali word for happiness, sukha, has many levels of meaning: everything from “ease” and “pleasure,” through “happiness,” and on to outright “bliss.” All of these meanings are relevant here. Keep in mind that when any of these words are used in this book, they all refer to the same Pali word. I’ve chosen the English rendering that seems most appropriate in any given context, but if you prefer, you can replace my choice with any of the others.
The Pali word for discernment, pañña, is often translated as “wisdom.” However, there are two connected reasons for translating it as “discernment” instead. The first relates to the place of pañña in the Pali language. It’s related to the verb pajanati, which refers to the mental act that discerns events and actions, detecting when they are distinct from one another and when they are connected as causes and effects. Pajanati also refers to the act of judging intentions by their effects and discerning subtle phenomena that are ordinarily hard to detect.
Although these mental acts contain an element of wisdom, there is no appropriate English verb related to wisdom that covers all of these functions. The English verb “discern,” however, does cover these functions, and so—to keep the connection between the verb and the noun clear—it seems best to translate pajanati as “discern” and pañña as “discernment.”
The second reason for translating pañña as “discernment” relates to its role in the practice. As we will see, the Buddha’s strategy for finding true happiness is to focus discernment on the processes of intentional action, to determine whether they are skillful—conducive to long-lasting happiness—or not. Part of this strategy, especially at the highest stages of the practice, is to regard discernment itself as an intentional action. This helps you gauge when to foster it and when to abandon it for a higher purpose: total release. Because wisdom is hard to think of as an action, “discernment” seems to work better in practice as a translation for pañña.
The Buddha taught that discernment begins by seeking out knowledgeable contemplatives—people who have trained their minds to gain personal experience of the highest happiness—and asking them, “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?” To do this demonstrates discernment in four important ways:
- It shows that you know enough to ask the advice of people more experienced than you.
- You realize that happiness comes from your own actions.
- You realize that long-term is better than short-term.
- Above all, you realize that the search for long-term happiness is the most worthy use of your discernment—the search for true happiness is a noble pursuit—and that you need discernment to do it right.
As the question makes clear, “doing it right” means searching for a happiness that lasts. The Buddha discovered in the course of his awakening that two kinds of happiness meet these qualifications: one that’s created by your intentional actions, and one that’s totally uncreated. His terms for these two types of experience are fabricated (sankhata) and unfabricated (asankhata). These two terms are central to his teachings in general, and to his instructions on happiness in particular, so it’s important to understand them.
The term “fabrication” refers both to intentional actions—mental or physical —as well as to the mental or physical conditions they shape. All experience at the senses—the five physical senses and the mind taken as a sixth sense—is fabricated through past and present intentional actions in thought, word, or deed.
Past actions provide the raw material for present experience. From this raw material, your present intentions—sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously—select and shape what you actually experience in the present.
These present intentions also add to the range of raw material from which you will select and shape experiences in the future. Because no intentions are constant or permanent, they can’t create a constant or permanent happiness. The best they can create, when they’re trained to be skillful, is a happiness that’s relatively long-lasting and harmless.
The only happiness not subject to change is unfabricated happiness, a happiness that does not depend on intentional actions for its existence. Nibbana (nirvana) is the most famous term for this happiness. It literally means “unbinding” or “freeing.” But the Buddha describes this happiness metaphorically with other terms as well. These include: peace, the deathless, exquisite, bliss, rest, the wonderful, the marvelous, security, the unafflicted, purity, the island, shelter, harbor, refuge, the ultimate.
Even though intentional actions cannot create this happiness, they can be trained to a heightened level of skill where they allow all fabrications—even themselves—to fall still, revealing the unfabricated dimension that they’ve been hiding all along. A traditional metaphor for this process is the desire to go to a park. The desire doesn’t cause the park to be, but it’s what gets you there. Once you’ve arrived, the desire is no longer needed and so falls away on its own [ §50].
The most skillful use of discernment, of course, is to pursue unfabricated happiness. But this doesn’t mean that fabricated happiness has no value on the path. The Buddha gave detailed instructions on how to use discernment in pursuing long-term happiness of both sorts. The skills needed for long-term fabricated happiness he taught under the term, “acts of merit” because they produce happiness while causing no one any harm. These acts include generosity, virtue, and the development of universal goodwill. I have already provided a detailed account of these skills in the companion to this book, the study guide named Merit. Here I will provide a short account of what the pursuit of merit and the pursuit of nibbana have in common and where they part ways. Their common features are important, for the pursuit of merit gives preliminary training to discernment in many of the more difficult skills needed to succeed in the pursuit of nibbana. However, their differences are also important, for the pleasant results of meritorious actions can be so satisfying that they can interfere with the desire to go further. When this happens, the Buddha terms the pursuit of merit “ignoble” [ §8]. This is why discernment needs further training in realizing the drawbacks of fabricated happiness so that it will be motivated to search for something even more satisfying and reliable, something truly noble and worthwhile.
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