This article is part of Trike Daily’s Sutta Study series, led by Insight meditation teacher Peter Doobinin. The suttas, found in the Pali Canon, comprise the discourses the historical Buddha gave during his 45 years of teaching. Rather than philosophical tracts, the suttas are a map for dharma practice. In this series, we’ll focus on the practical application of the teachings in our day-to-day lives.
In the Gilana Sutta, the Buddha gives a concise teaching about the impermanent nature of human experience. As the sutta begins, a monk comes to the Buddha and tells him that another monk is gravely ill. The ailing monk, it seems, has been recently ordained and is “not well known.” The Buddha immediately goes to see the monk. (It’s worth noting the Buddha’s compassion and his willingness to spend time with a newcomer. The Buddha wasn’t a teacher who put himself on a pedestal or reserved his attention for a select few.)
At the start of his visit, the Buddha tells the monk that he hopes he’s feeling better. But the monk responds that, no, unfortunately he is not; to the contrary, his “extreme pains are increasing.” The Buddha then says, “I hope you have no anxiety, monk. I hope you have no remorse.” Here, the Buddha is referring to one of the tenets of his teaching: if we don’t develop virtue—if we don’t make an effort to refrain from harmful actions—then, when we’re dying, we’ll be plagued by feelings of anxiety, remorse, and fear.
However, the monk replies that he does have these feelings—and “not a small amount” of them. So the Buddha follows up, “I hope you can’t fault yourself with regard to your virtue.” Yes, the monk reports that he has, in fact, been able to develop virtue.
If that’s so, the Buddha asks, “What are you anxious about? What is your remorse?” The monk answers that the Buddha did not teach that virtue is the goal of the path, but rather that followers of the dharma should seek the “fading of passion”—to which the Buddha replies, “Good, good, monk.”
This exchange is especially poignant because it demonstrates the attitude that the dharma student seeks to develop. The Buddha’s path requires ardency and enthusiasm; it requires that we have a goal in mind and an abiding wish to reach it. The monk is emblematic of that enthusiasm, for, even in his gravely ill state, he is concerned only that he may not reach that goal.
So the Buddha provides a teaching to help lead the monk toward his goal, the “fading of passion.” In this context, “passion” refers to a quality of wanting or craving. This wanting is painful. It evolves, in the Buddha’s schema, into suffering, and it manifests when we’re in conflict with the way things are. The Buddha often describes how we want things to be different when we’re “joined with what is displeasing” and “separated from what is pleasing.”
The Buddha begins by asking the monk to consider the experiences of his six sense bases: the eye, ear, nose, mouth, body, and intellect. The experience of the senses comprises our conditioned experience as human beings. The Buddha asks the monk to reflect, in a step-by-step manner, on each of the sense bases. He begins with the eye. He asks: “Is the eye constant or inconstant?” (Inconstant is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of the Pali word anicca, which is often translated as impermanent.) Human experience, the Buddha’s teachings suggest, is inconstant. It arises, changes, passes—always in an ongoing state of flux. Nothing lasts long. Nothing lasts, period.
Related: Death Awareness Practice
The monk acknowledges the inconstant nature of the eye, and then the Buddha asks, “Is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?” The monk realizes that inconstant experience is inherently stressful. It can’t be depended on, and if we do rely on the experience of the senses to be a certain way, then we’re bound to suffer. The lovely image of the sunset passes. The beautiful flowers rot and now smell terrible. The warm sensations in the body on a spring evening turn to an unpleasant chill when the sun goes down. Because sense experiences are inconstant, they are unreliable, unpredictable, and unsatisfactory; they can’t bring a lasting happiness.
Next, the Buddha asks: “Is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am?’” This question points us toward the realization that since sense experience is inconstant, it is “not-self” In other words, it is not ours; we don’t own it. The experiences of the senses—painful sensations in the body when we’re ill, emotions that arise throughout the day—come and go unbidden. They arise out of conditions. Each of the experiences of the eye, ear, nose, mouth, body, and intellect, is simply part of a play of phenomena, coming, changing, and going. In developing the insight into the fundamental Buddhist teaching of not-self [anatta], the Buddha said we should put aside the question of is there a self? Instead, we should ask the question posed here: Is there a self to be found in the experience of the eye, the ear, and so forth. In the sutta, the ill monk understands that each of the experiences of his senses is not-self, and likewise, so should we. None of it belongs to us. None of it is a fixed part of what we are.
The Buddha often gave the seminal teachings on inconstancy and not-self to people who were ill and/or dying. The teaching is especially powerful in these instances. When the body is afflicted we’re able to see with greater clarity into the truth of our human condition—that the body and mind are inconstant, stressful, and not-self. The evidence is right there. As dharma students, when confronted with illness, aging, and death, we can take the opportunity to look closely at this truth and to develop insight. But if we’re going to make this sort of exploration, we need to have a grounding in virtue and concentration.
As the Buddha explains, when we understand the inconstant, stressful, and not-self nature of the six sense bases, we become “disenchanted” with these components of body and mind. Disenchantment is the first expression of insight. As disenchantment develops, we put less emphasis on the various sense experiences—the sight of the first snowfall, the aching sensations in the body, the feelings of anxiety—and we begin to look for happiness elsewhere. We begin to look for a greater happiness that transcends birth and death—a true happiness. We might think the “fading of passion” will lead to a passive existence, a helpless abdication to the conditions of our life. But that’s a misconception. The fading of passion enables us to find a happiness that our wanting prevents us from knowing. In letting go of wanting conditioned things to be a certain way, the dharma student begins to look for an unconditioned happiness: the happiness of the heart.
Disenchantment leads to dispassion, when passion has faded completely. When we have no more interest in wanting the experiences of body and mind to accord with our desires, we are released from the suffering that comes from that craving—and we are free.
As the Buddha engaged the monk in this inquiry, the sutta tells us, “there arose for the monk the dustless, stainless Dhamma [dharma] eye.…” The arising of the dharma eye marks the attainment of “stream entry,” the first stage of awakening. When the dharma eye is established, we see clearly into the inconstant or impermanent nature of experience. We know, fully, that, “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.” We see everything through this lens.
As dharma students, our task is to develop this way of seeing, this dharma eye. Although we may not become stream-enterers, we can learn to perceive our experience of body and mind in this way. We can learn to ask the questions. We can look, see, and understand. As we practice this way of seeing, we come to know the “fading of passion.” We come to know a greater happiness, the happiness that lays beyond impermanent things.
Peter Doobinin’s previous sutta studies take a look at the Thana Sutta, Yoga Sutta, Nava Sutta, Lokavipatti Sutta, Cunda Sutta, Samadhanga Sutta, and Nissaraniya Sutta.
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