GIVING RISE TO DISCERNMENT
We’re often taught that Buddhist discernment focuses on seeing things in terms of the Three Characteristics: inconstancy, stress, and not-self. We’re taught to look for the inconstancy, impermanence of things, and then to see that if they’re inconstant they must be stressful; if they’re stressful they must be not self. Well, those teachings have to be placed in context. That context is the act of judging the results of our actions. The Three Characteristics are designed so that we don’t content ourselves with only a middling level of skillfulness. In other words you might be skillful enough to have a good job, a nice place to live, a good family life―in other words, ordinary, mundane wellbeing. And a lot of people get satisfied right there. Or you might get satisfied with a nice state of concentration. You might be able to get the mind centered pretty much at will; things don’t disturb you too much. A lot of people stop right there―it’s good enough for them.
This is where the teachings on the Three Characteristics kick in, in judging the results of your actions: “Are they really satisfactory? Do they give permanent results?” Well, no. If not, you’re setting yourself up for stress, suffering, disappointment. You’re setting yourself to latch onto things that aren’t totally under your control. In other words, they’re not yours. You can’t say, “O.K., body, don’t get old. Go back and get younger to the way you were, say, five years ago, ten years ago.” You can’t tell your painful feelings to turn into pleasure. You can’t arrange for only good and useful thoughts to come into your mind. The purpose of the Three Characteristics is so you don’t get complacent. They help in that process of heedfulness, so that your standards for judging your actions stay high. In judging the results of your actions, you’re not going to settle for anything that falls under the Three Characteristics. You’ll keeping trying to become more skillful in your actions until you gain results that aren’t inconstant or stressful, results where self and not-self don’t apply.
In our culture at present it’s considered psychologically unhealthy to set very high standards for yourself. What does that do? It creates a society of very middling people, mediocre people, people who experience a mediocre level of happiness. The Buddha, though, was very demanding, first with himself, and then with his followers. He said, “Don’t satisfy yourself with just ordinary, everyday wellbeing,” because it’s not well all the time. If you’re going to set your sights, set your sights on something of more permanent value, what he called “the noble search”: the search for what doesn’t age, doesn’t grow ill, doesn’t die, for happiness that doesn’t change.
So the Three Characteristics in and of themselves are not the content of Buddhist wisdom, Buddhist discernment. They have to be placed in context, the context of the question of skillfulness: “What are you doing? What are your intentions? What are the results of your actions based on those intentions? Are you content with them or do you want better?” The Three Characteristics spur you on to be more demanding of yourself, saying, “I want better than this. I’ve got this human life; what am I going to do with it?” And the answer should be, “I’m going to do the best I can to find true happiness, to have something to hold onto, something to show for all the suffering I’ve been through as I take birth, age, grow ill, and die.”
So we should think about these issues as we meditate. We’re not getting into the present just to stop there. That would be like someone who, after a great deal of effort, finally gets to a road―and then lies down on the road, forgetting that the road is there to be followed to see where it takes you. When you get into the present moment, that’s not enough. You have to learn how to ask yourself the right questions of the present moment, in particular, “What are your intentions right now, and what results do they have?”
Giving Rise to Discernment