First Step

Right Understanding


WHAT, now, is Right Understanding? It is understanding the Four Truths. To understand suffering; to understand the origin of suffering; to understand the extinction of suffering; to understand the path that leads to the extinction of suffering: This is called Right Understanding.

Or, when the noble disciple understands what is karmically wholesome, and the root of wholesome karma; what is karmically unwholesome, and the root of unwholesome karma, then he has Right Understanding.

["Karmically unwholesome" is every volitional act of body, speech, or mind which is rooted in greed, hatred, or delusion, and produces evil and painful results in this or any future form of existence.]

What, now, is "karmically unwholesome?"

In Bodily Action it is destruction of living beings; stealing; and unlawful sexual intercourse. In Verbal Action it is lying; tale-bearing; harsh language; and frivolous talk. In Mental Action it is covetousness; ill-will; and wrong views.

And what is the root of unwholesome karma? Greed is a root of unwholesome karma; Anger is a root of unwholesome karma; Delusion is a root of unwholesome karma.

[The state of greed, as well as that of anger, is always accompanied by delusion; and delusion, ignorance, is the primary root of all evil.]

Therefore, I say, these demeritorious actions are of three kinds: either due to greed, or due to anger, or due to delusion.

What, now, is "karmically wholesome?"

In Bodily Action it is to abstain from killing; to abstain from stealing; and to abstain from unlawful sexual intercourse.

In Verbal Action it is to abstain from lying; to abstain from tale-bearing; to abstain from harsh language; and to abstain from frivolous talk.

In Mental Action it is absence of covetousness; absence of ill-will; and right understanding.

And what is the root of wholesome karma? Absence of greed (unselfishness) is a root of wholesome karma; absence of anger (benevolence) is a root of wholesome karma; absence of delusion (wisdom) is a root of wholesome karma.

Or, when one understands that corporeality, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness, are transient [subject to suffering, and without an Ego], also in that case one possesses Right Understanding.

Unprofitable Questions

Should anyone say that he does not wish to lead the holy life under the Blessed One, unless the Blessed One first tells him, whether the world is eternal or temporal, finite or infinite; whether the life principle is identical with the body, or something different; whether the Perfect One continues after death, and so on- such a man would die, ere the Perfect One could tell him all this.

It is as if a man were pierced by a poisoned arrow, and his friends, companions, or near relations, should send for a surgeon; but that man should say: "I will not have this arrow pulled out, until I know who the man is that has wounded me: whether he is a noble, a priest, a citizen, or a servant"; or: "what his name is, and to what family he belongs"; or: "whether he is tall, or short, or of medium height." Verily, such a man would die, ere he could adequately learn all this.

Therefore, the man who seeks his own welfare, should pull out this arrow- this arrow of lamentation, pain, and sorrow.

For, whether the theory exists, or whether it does not exist, that the world is eternal, or temporal, or finite, or infinite- certainly, there is birth, there is decay, there is death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, the extinction of which, attainable even in this present life, I make known unto you.

There is, for instance, an unlearned worldling, void of regard for holy men, ignorant of the teaching of holy men, untrained in the noble doctrine. And his heart is possessed and overcome by Self-Illusion, by Skepticism, by attachment to mere Rule and Ritual, by Sensual Lust, and by Ill-will; and how to free himself from these things, he does not really know.

[Self-Illusion may reveal itself as "Eternalism" or "Eternity-belief"- i.e., the belief that one's Ego is existing independently of the material body, and continuing even after the dissolution of the latter; or as "Annihilationism," or "Annihilation-belief"- i.e., the materialistic belief that this present life constitutes the Ego, and hence that it is annihilated at the death of the material body.]

Not knowing what is worthy of consideration, and what is unworthy of consideration, he considers the unworthy, and not the worthy.

And unwisely he considers thus: "Have I been in the past? Or, have I not been in the past? What have I been in the past? How have I been in the past? From what state into what state did I change in the past?- Shall I be in the future? Or, shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? From what state into what state shall I change in the future?"- And the present also fills him with doubt: "Am I? Or, am I not? What am I? How am I? This being, whence has it come? Whither will it go?"

And with such unwise considerations, he falls into one or other of the six views, and it becomes his conviction and firm belief: "I have an Ego"; or: "I have no Ego"; or: "With the Ego I perceive the Ego"; or: "With that which is no Ego, I perceive the Ego"; or: "With the Ego I perceive that which is no Ego." Or, he falls into the following view: "This my Ego, which can think and feel, and which, now here, now there, experiences the fruit of good and evil deeds; this my Ego is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, and will thus eternally remain the same."

If there really existed the Ego, there would be also something which belonged to the Ego. As, however, in truth and reality, neither the Ego, nor anything belonging to the Ego, can be found, is it not therefore really an utter fool's doctrine to say: "This is the world, this am I; after death, I shall be permanent, persisting, and eternal?"

These are called mere views, a thicket of views, a puppet-show of views, a toil of views, a snare of views; and ensnared in the fetter of views, the ignorant worldling will not be freed from rebirth, from decay, and from death, from sorrow, pain, grief, and despair; he will not be freed, I say, from suffering.

The Sotapan, Or "Stream-Enterer"

The learned and noble disciple, however, who has regard for holy men, knows the teaching of holy men, is well trained in the noble doctrine, he understands what is worthy of consideration, and what is unworthy. And knowing this, he considers the worthy, and not the unworthy. What suffering is, he wisely considers. What the origin of suffering is, he wisely considers; what the extinction of suffering is, he wisely considers; what the path is that leads to the extinction of suffering, he wisely considers.

And by thus considering, three fetters vanish, namely: Self-illusion, Skepticism, and Attachment to mere Rule and Ritual.

But those disciples in whom these three fetters have vanished have "entered the Stream," have forever escaped the states of woe, and are assured of final enlightenment.

More than any earthly power,
More than all the joys of heaven,
More than rule o'er all the world,
Is the Entrance to the Stream.

And, verily, those who are filled with unshaken faith in me, all those have entered the stream.

[There are ten "Fetters" by which beings are bound to the wheel of existence. They are: Self-Illusion, Skepticism, Attachment to mere Rule and Ritual, Sensual Lust, Ill-will, Craving for the World of pure Form, Craving for the Formless World, Conceit, Restlessness, Ignorance.

A Sotapan, or "Stream-Enterer" i.e. "one who has entered the stream leading to Nirvana," is free from the first three fetters.

A Sakadagamin, or "Once-Returned"- namely to this sensuous sphere- has overcome the 4th and 5th fetters in their grosser form. An Anagamin, or "Non-Returner," is wholly freed from the first five fetters, which bind to rebirth in the sensuous sphere; after death, whilst living in the sphere of pure form, he will reach the goal. An Arahat, or perfectly "Holy One," is freed from all fetters.]

The Two Understandings

Therefore, I say, Right Understanding is of two kinds:

  1. The view that alms and offerings are not useless; that there is fruit and result, both of good and bad actions; that there are such things as this life, and the next life; that father and mother as spontaneously born beings (in the heavenly worlds) are no mere words; that there are monks and priests who are spotless and perfect, who can explain this life and the next life, which they themselves have understood: this is called the "Mundane Right Understanding," which yields worldly fruits, and brings good results.
  2. But whatsoever there is of wisdom, of penetration, of right understanding, conjoined with the Path- the mind being turned away from the world, and conjoined with the path, the holy path being pursued;- this is called the "Ultramundane Right Understanding," which is not of the world, but is ultramundane, and conjoined with the Path.

[Thus, there are two kinds of the Eightfold Path: the "mundane," practiced by the "worldling"; and the "ultra-mundane," practiced by the "Noble Ones."]

Now, in understanding wrong understanding as wrong, and right understanding as right, one practices Right Understanding [1st step]; and in making efforts to overcome wrong understanding, and to arouse right understanding, one practices Right Effort [6th step]; and in overcoming wrong understanding with attentive mind, and dwelling with attentive mind in the possession of right understanding, one practices Right Attentiveness [7th step]. Hence, there are three things that accompany and follow upon right understanding, namely: right understanding, right effort, and right attentiveness.

Complete Deliverance

Now, if any one should put the question, whether I admit any view at all, he should be answered thus:

The Perfect One is free from any theory, for the Perfect One has understood what corporeality is, and how it arises, and passes away. He has understood what feeling is, and how it arises, and passes away. He has understood what perception is, and how it arises, and passes away. He has understood what the mental formations are, and how they arise, and pass away. He has understood what consciousness is, and how it arises, and passes away. Therefore, I say, the Perfect One has won complete deliverance through the extinction, fading-away, disappearance, rejection, and getting rid of all opinions and conjectures, of all inclination to the vainglory of "I" and "mine."

Whether Perfect Ones [Buddhas] appear in the world or whether Perfect Ones do not appear in the world, it still remains a firm condition, an immutable fact and fixed law: that all formations are "impermanent"; that all formations are "subject to suffering"; that everything is "without an Ego."

[The word sankhara (formations) comprises all things which have a beginning and an end, the so-called created, or "formed" things, i.e., all possible physical and mental constituents of existence.]

A corporeal phenomenon, a feeling, a perception, a mental formation, a consciousness, that is permanent and persistent, eternal and not subject to change: such a thing the wise men in this world do not recognize; and I also say, there is no such thing.

And it is impossible that a being possessed of Right Understanding should regard anything as the Ego.

Now, if someone should say that Feeling is his Ego, he should be answered thus: "There are three kinds of feeling: pleasurable, painful, and indifferent feeling. Which of these three feelings, now, do you consider your Ego?" At the moment namely of experiencing one of these feelings one does not experience the other two. These three kinds of feelings are impermanent, of dependent origin, are subject to decay and dissolution, to fading-away and extinction. Whosoever, in experiencing one of these feelings, thinks that this is his Ego, will, after the extinction of that feeling, admit that his Ego has become dissolved. And thus he will consider his Ego already in this present life as impermanent, mixed up with pleasure and pain, subject to rising and passing away.

If any one should say that Feeling is not his Ego, and that his Ego is inaccessible to feeling, he should be asked thus: "Now, where there is no feeling, is it there possible to say: 'This am I?'"

Or, someone might say: "Feeling, indeed, is not my Ego, but it also is untrue that my Ego is inaccessible to feeling; for it is my Ego that feels, for my Ego has the faculty of feeling." Such a one should be answered thus: "Suppose, feeling should become altogether totally extinguished; now, if there, after the extinction of feeling, no feeling whatever exists, it is then possible to say: 'This am I?'"

To say that the mind, or the mind-objects, or the mind-consciousness, constitute the Ego; such an assertion is unfounded. For an arising and a passing away is seen there; and seeing this, one should come to the conclusion that one's Ego arises and passes away.

It would be better for the unlearned worldling to regard this body, built up of the four elements, as his Ego, rather than the mind. For it is evident that this body may last for a year, for two years, for three years, four, five, or ten years, or even a hundred years and more; but that which is called thought, or mind, or consciousness, is continuously, during day and night, arising as one thing, and passing away as another thing.

Therefore, whatsoever there is of corporeality, of feeling, of perception, of mental formations, of consciousness, whether one's own or external, gross or subtle, lofty or low, far or near; there one should understand according to reality and true wisdom: "This does not belong to me; this am I not; this is not my Ego."

[To show the Egolessness, utter emptiness of existence, Visuddhi-Magga XVI quotes the following verse:

Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found;
The deed is, but no doer of the deed is there;
Nirvana is, but not the man that enters it;
The Path is, but no traveler on it is seen.]

Past, Present, And Future

If, now, any one should ask: "Have you been in the past, and is it untrue that you have not been? Will you be in the future, and is it untrue that you will not be? Are you, and is it untrue that you are not?"- you may say that you have been in the past, and it is untrue that you have not been; that you will be in the future, and it is untrue that you will not be; that you are, and it is untrue that you are not.

In the past only the past existence was real, but unreal the future and present existence. In the future only the future existence will be real, but unreal the past and present existence. Now only the present existence is real, but unreal the past and future existence.

Verily, he who perceives the Dependent Origination, perceives the truth; and he who perceives the truth, perceives the dependent origination. For, just as from the cow comes milk, from milk curds, from curds butter, from butter ghee, from ghee the scum of ghee; and when it is milk, it is not counted as curds, or butter, or ghee, or scum of ghee, but only as milk; and when it is curds, it is only counted as curds- just so was my past existence at that time real, but unreal the future and present existence; and my future existence will be at one time real, but unreal the past and present existence; and my present existence is now real, but unreal the past and future existence. All these are merely popular designations and expressions, mere conventional terms of speaking, mere popular notions. The Perfect One, indeed, makes use of these, without, however, clinging to them.

Thus, he who does not understand corporeality, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness according to reality [i.e., as void of a personality, or Ego], and not their arising, their extinction, and the way to their extinction, he is liable to believe, either that the Perfect One continues after death, or that he does not continue after death, and so forth.

Verily, if one holds the view that the vital principle [Ego] is identical with this body, in that case a holy life is not possible; or, if one holds the view that the vital principle is something quite different from the body, in that case also a holy life is not possible. Both these two Extremes the Perfect One has avoided, and shown the Middle Doctrine, saying:

Dependent Origination

On Delusion depend the Karma-Formations.- On the karma-formations depends Consciousness [starting with rebirth-consciousness in the womb of the mother].- On consciousness depends the Mental and Physical Existence.- On the mental and physical existence depend the Six Sense-Organs.- On the six sense-organs depends the Sensory Impression.- On the sensory impression depends Feeling.- On feeling depends Craving.- On craving depends Clinging. On clinging depends the Process of Becoming.- On the process of becoming [here: karma-process] depends Rebirth.- On rebirth depend Decay and Death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. Thus arises this whole mass of suffering. This is called the noble truth of the origin of suffering.

In whom, however, Delusion has disappeared and wisdom arisen, such a disciple heaps up neither meritorious, nor demeritorious, nor imperturbable Karma-formations.

Thus, through the entire fading away and extinction of this Delusion, the Karma-Formations are extinguished. Through the extinction of the Karma-formations, Consciousness [rebirth] is extinguished. Through the extinction of consciousness, the Mental and Physical Existence is extinguished. Through the extinction of the mental and physical existence, the six Sense-Organs are extinguished. Through the extinction of the six sense-organs, the Sensory Impression is extinguished. Through the extinction of the sensory impression, Feeling is extinguished. Through the extinction of feeling, Craving is extinguished. Through the extinction of craving, Clinging is extinguished. Through the extinction of clinging, the Process of Becoming is extinguished. Through the extinction of the process of becoming, Rebirth is extinguished. Through the extinction of rebirth, Decay and Death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are extinguished. Thus takes place the extinction of this whole mass of suffering. This is called the Noble Truth of the Extinction of Suffering.

Karma: Rebirth - Producing And Barren

Verily, because beings, obstructed by Delusion, and ensnared by Craving, now here now there seek ever fresh delight, therefore such action comes to ever fresh Rebirth.

And the action that is done out of greed, anger and delusion, that springs from them, has its source and origin there: this action ripens wherever one is reborn; and wherever this action ripens, there one experiences the fruits of this action, be it in this life, or the next life, or in some future life.

However, through the fading away of delusion through the arising of wisdom, through the extinction of craving, no future rebirth takes place again.

For the actions, which are not done out of greed, anger and delusion, which have not sprung from them, which have not their source and origin there- such actions are, through the absence of greed, anger and delusion, abandoned, rooted out, like a palm-tree torn out of the soil, destroyed, and not liable to spring up again.

In this respect one may rightly say of me: that I teach annihilation, that I propound my doctrine for the purpose of annihilation, and that I herein train my disciples; for, certainly, I do teach annihilation- the annihilation, namely, of greed, anger and delusion, as well as of the manifold evil and unwholesome things.

["Dependent Origination" is the teaching of the strict conformity to law of everything that happens, whether in the realm of the physical, or the psychical. It shows how the totality of phenomena, physical and mental, the entire phenomenal world that depends wholly upon the six senses, together with all its suffering- and this is the vital point of the teaching- is not the mere play of blind chance, but has an existence that is dependent upon conditions; and that, precisely with the removal of these conditions, those things that have arisen in dependence upon them- thus also all suffering- must perforce disappear and cease to be.]


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