by Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero
Thaniyo: I was wondering if we could speak about lying, the phenomenon of lying, the choice to lie. A simple question: Is it wrong to lie? Where can we go with that?
Nyanamoli: It is. So now you may ask why is it wrong to lie? Don’t just take it as true because an authority ‘declared’ that lying is wrong and now you must obey that. Yes, lying is wrong, but you want to investigate why it is wrong. So, what’s the first, most obvious thing that shows itself if you start to investigate why lying would be wrong? What is lying?
Nyanamoli: OK, so dishonesty, lying, concealing. What do all those things have in common?
Thaniyo: The person not wanting something to be known.
Nyanamoli: Exactly, which means there is something, but you want it to be different. So, in its nature, it’s a discrepancy, a contradiction—two opposing things: one is the truth, the other is what you would prefer it to be.
But the problem with lying is—phenomenologically speaking, from the point of view of a person who practices mindfulness and tries to develop wisdom—that you cannot deny the truth without giving importance to your point of view over the truth. That’s why lying is practically wrong—lying is practically an obstacle for developing wisdom. If you could, say, theoretically, lie without perverting that existential order of truth and your point of view, then lying would not be unwholesome. But it is impossible to engage in an act of lying without implicitly, immediately fueling the wrong order, whereby it’s my point of view, my preference that comes first—truth is second.
When I say truth, I mean factual presence of a self-arisen phenomenon, and that’s the key here—it’s not like ‘the Truth’, as in there is ‘a lie’ and then there is ‘the Truth’. Denying whatever truth is at the time by serving a lie, means you’re also implicitly overriding the most self-evident, basic nature of the arisen experience—that it comes first, structurally. Your point of view is structurally second. So, by engaging in a lie, you’re engaging in a perversion of that order. That’s why even a little lie is as bad as a big lie—from the point of view of the mind that wants to practice—because practice means undoing any perversion to the existential order of the five aggregates.
In the same sense, you cannot engage in a sensual act without sensual perceptions being implied, and sensual perceptions are sensual distortions. In other words, you can’t engage in sensuality without being distorted by sensuality at the same time—without fueling the already persisting distortion of sensual perception. Likewise, you can’t engage in a lie without fueling the existential distortion of the arisen phenomena, the truth—the self-evident arising of whatever’s present. It’s recognizing that that arisen experience is there on its own, which means my attitude and my actions concerning it are only because this thing allows my actions to be a possibility.
For example, if there is no unpleasant feeling manifested, would you even be able to conceive acting out of an unpleasant feeling, to try to get rid of it? You wouldn’t. Or, on a less fundamental level, if you take some experience, for example, you have to go to work. That’s your arisen situation that persists and has its significance—things you have to do, reasons why you have to do them. You need to earn money, you need to provide things, etc. That’s your factual situation. On account of it, you’ll be acting left and right and deciding. But when you start engaging in an act of lying, you’re overriding that very order. That doesn’t mean you can change the order—there are still things arisen on their own— but you are fully gratuitously giving priority to your point of view, which in itself, at that time, is based on ignoring what the real order is. In other words, you start lying about having to go to work—lying to yourself, not even lying to others—you start saying to yourself that you don’t need to go to work, because really you don’t want to go to work. You start lying because the arisen thing is unbearable, or not necessarily unbearable, but it’s unpleasant and you don’t want to have to deal with it. That’s why another aspect of an act of lying is that it’s always rooted in avoiding displeasure—why else would you be lying? Unless you yourself perceive that, if you don’t admit the truth, you will avoid that displeasure, the pain of that truth. But can you really avoid the pain through looking elsewhere? You can’t. You’re only acting out of it.
Thaniyo: You’re looking elsewhere because it’s there.
Nyanamoli: Exactly. But the fact that you engaged in an act of lying means you do have—or you had it before, and now you’re maintaining—the belief that you can avoid the arisen pressure of the truth, the displeasure of the truth, simply by lying. Which then implies that you can avoid, existentially, arisen phenomena simply by providing another phenomenon.
The act of lying is fundamentally rooted in a wrong-view—that’s why it’s fundamentally unwholesome. And it’s the same with any of the precepts that the Buddha laid out—none of them are universally given ‘Commandments’. All of them are rooted in the principle of greed, aversion and delusion—which separately are all also principles of some form of contradicting the arisen nature of experience—which is why it’s unwholesome to break them. They’re not unwholesome because it’s a universal morality—they’re unwholesome because they go against how things have arisen. And that’s how you can know for yourself that they’re unwholesome—once you understand the nature of things as they have arisen. Then you have a criterion for what’s skillful and what’s unskillful—what’s wholesome and what’s unwholesome.
That’s why lying is always wrong—it always goes against the nature of an arisen thing, whatever that thing is. So, the example we gave: you don’t want to go and do this particular work. Now you can admit that. You don’t have to lie to yourself, but that means now you have to take responsibility for the displeasure you’re feeling. You realize “The work needs to be done, but I choose not to do it”. Which means all the reasons that were making you do this work—supporting your family, earning money, whatever else was the motivation for working—you’re now responsible for not meeting any of those requirements. And when, down the line, circumstances remind you of that—your family starts asking for money, or you get sick and you can’t pay for your treatment and so on—it’s because you chose not to do this particular work, so you’re responsible for that. This future misfortune, that came as a result of not being able to look after yourself, is because you chose not to look after yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that—you have every right to choose not to, but that means you must take responsibility for what comes out of it. But now that means that, by trying to avoid the responsibility of doing your duty, you’re actually paying the price, which is even worse. Now you can’t provide for your family, you don’t have enough money for this or for that, for food… and that’s on you. A result of your choice to avoid the work. And that’s very unpleasant—you have to admit that it’s on you— and it can endure for weeks, months—for as long as you don’t get out of that situation. But it’s still a responsible thing to do – to admit the weight of your choices.
But it’s way too easy to not admit it, if only you find another reason for not doing the work, apart from you not wanting to do it. And that’s the nature of bad faith in existential philosophy, which is like lying, but not quite, because you’re not necessarily fully self-aware of the truth, because it’s that very truth you’re trying to cover up from yourself.
Now, if you say that you couldn’t work because of such and such reason—because it was raining for example— it’s not “I couldn’t work because I chose rain to be the reason for my not working,” but it’s “It was raining, so I couldn’t work,” which means now, when you don’t have enough money, it’s the weather’s fault. So, you bypass responsibility for not working at that time, and consequently for all the future results of not working, because it’s not on you.
That’s why for people it’s always the easiest thing to blame another, or to blame circumstances—that’s the inauthentic attitude we speak about often—because, unless you take responsibility on that fundamental level, you’ll never have a basis for Dhamma to apply, and the fundamental responsibility is suffering. Again, you don’t want to work because it’s unpleasant—you don’t want to accept future responsibility for the consequences of your not working, because it’s unpleasant. So fundamentally, you don’t want to suffer, and you keep avoiding displeasure as the only means of dealing with suffering that you know. But it doesn’t deal with it—evading suffering can only be done because suffering has arisen—that’s the truth. Displeasure is manifested, and you’re liable to future manifestations of displeasure. That’s the truth that you will never understand, because all your actions revolve around avoiding that very truth. And then lying to other people is just an extension of this very principle.
You can’t undo that principle—when lying to yourself—unless you stop habitually lying to other people. But ceasing to lie to other people doesn’t necessarily mean you will automatically undo lying to yourself. That takes a further effort, but that further effort is only possible on the basis of the first effort of stopping lying to others. Stop maintaining, proliferating that wrong order of things through your act of lying to others, so you reduce it a bit—and then you will be able to stop lying to yourself as well, and that’s how you can accept responsibility.
And suffering, as I said, is the fundamental responsibility. See, you can say “I suffer because he said this,” or “I suffer because I didn’t get enough,” or “I suffer because I lost my family”, or something like that. If suffering were truly rooted in those things, you wouldn’t be able to be free yourself from it. But, as the Buddha himself understood and then taught to others, it fortunately isn’t rooted in those things—it’s rooted in your resistance to the disagreeable things that come your way, and these are two different things. But, for as long as your actions maintain the view that it’s in the things—in what he said, or she said, or what I had, what I lost—you will never take responsibility for suffering, for your resistance to the disagreeable experience. And because of that, you will always remain affected by the disagreeable experience. So, the only way to stop resisting the disagreeable experience is to take responsibility for the disagreeable experience.
Thaniyo: Not lie to yourself.
Nyanamoli: Not lie to yourself, consequently you won’t be lying to others. That’s why an arahant cannot lie. He became incapable of lying to himself—where the problem is—because he solved the problem. But in order to not lie to yourself, you have to stop habitually lying to others.
Thaniyo: What about the common ‘white lies’?
Nyanamoli: They’re not as bad, but you have to be strict and you’ve got to see—does it partake in the principle of lying, the principle you’re trying to undo? The principle of perverting the order of existence, putting the blame where the blame isn’t. And if you look at the white lies, then you realize they’re still perverting that order. Why would you tell a white lie? Because you don’t want discomfort. Why don’t you want discomfort? Because you’re blaming the discomfort for pain, which means by not wanting discomfort, you’re avoiding responsibility for resisting the discomfort, and blaming the discomfort for your suffering, thinking “I’ll just quickly tell a white lie so I don’t get discomfort, which means I won’t suffer.” No, you don’t suffer when you don’t resist—it’s not that you don’t suffer when there is no discomfort. An arahant has discomfort, but he has no suffering. That’s why white lies are bad.
Thaniyo: And if you could save somebody from suffering in the future by lying? Like if you were asked “Where is this person hiding?” when you know these people are looking for this person to harm or even kill them?
Nyanamoli: Well, on a most fundamental level, the reasons for your actions are always selfish—it cannot be otherwise. You choose to help others because that’s what’s going to make you happy, or you choose to help others because that’s how you’re going to avoid personal discomfort. Others are always secondary.
The only way to go about this is to accept it, and then stop perverting the order, as we just spoke about. Stop blaming the circumstances for your suffering and recognize that it’s in your resisting the circumstances—that’s where suffering is rooted. When you’re hiding a fugitive or something, and then you lie to others and say “No, I don’t know where that person is,” then you’re maybe saving their life—if that’s at stake. But what you’re really acting out of is your being responsible for choosing to have them in the first place. And then secondly, not wanting to experience the discomfort of responsibility because, if you say the truth, they’ll find that person, and then things might happen to the person. You will be unable to not blame yourself, and blaming yourself is unpleasant. Really you just want to prevent circumstances from allowing you to engage in self-blaming, that’s it. You’re doing it for yourself.
That’s why the Buddha said in the Suttas “If a person who is truthful to himself and truthful to others is questioned by kings or authorities thus, ‘Have you seen this?’ he would say, ‘Yes, I’ve seen it’. If he hasn’t seen it, he would say, ‘No, I haven’t seen it.’ He won’t say one or the other for no one’s sake—he’ll say the truth.” Why? Because when you say the truth, if these people that are chasing the fugitive choose to do certain things to that fugitive, that’s not on you, even if you say “Yes, he went into that house”. It’s not on you what they choose to do with him, or why, or to what extent. Your role is not to pervert the existential order from your point of view because, by doing so, you’re giving priority to your point of view, which means it’s a slippery slope.
If you act out of avoiding discomfort, that means you’re going to be acting out of prolonging pleasure i.e. out of conceit, out of delusion. And those are the reasons for your own suffering, not the circumstances you’ve been subjected to. Practically, through trying to avoid suffering, you end up making yourself more and more liable for suffering, on that existential level. Hence, no lying, no stealing, no cheating, no killing. That’s not negotiable because, without that basis, you cannot overcome the attitude of avoiding responsibility for your own existence and for your own suffering. You just can’t, even if you want to.
Thaniyo: It’s a major offence for a monk if he lies about having attained a superior state, if he lies about his wisdom. Why is that?
Nyanamoli: Well, because of the consequences of it, the results of the action, that’s why.
Thaniyo: People take what you say as truth.
Nyanamoli: Well, exactly. It can spread for generations, and people will then be acting as if it were the truth, while in reality it isn’t the truth. In other words, as the Buddha described in some other Suttas, giving to an enlightened being—making an offering to somebody who is factually awakened, free from suffering—is the greatest merit. So, if word gets out that so and so is factually free from suffering—he’s an arahant—then most people will think “I’ll quickly go and make some merit, because giving to that person is going to give much more merit than giving to anybody else who isn’t enlightened.” If that’s the truth, they will actually get all those results, that great merit, because the person is factually an arahant. But say somebody spreads a lie that he’s an arahant and nobody knows it’s a lie, and then people go out of their way, and they don’t give to others because they want to give to this arahant, but in reality he isn’t an arahant. So that whole mess was created because somebody lied that that person is an arahant. As a direct result of that lie, many people have been misguided and they’ve been acting as if that person’s an arahant, being sure they’re going to get all this merit, dedicating all their offerings to that person because he’s an arahant, and then it turns out he isn’t. So they’ve been deceived directly as a result of that lie, which means the person who lied is going to be responsible for that mass deception which, as I said, can last for generations. That’s why it’s bad.
Thaniyo: You could say that a monk could be deceiving himself, which then deceives others.
Nyanamoli: Yes, but that’s different. That’s why it’s not an offence if a monk does that out of over-estimation. That’s what I meant when I said that lying to others is not quite on the same level as lying to yourself, because lying to yourself means obscuring the truth. So simply through obscuring the truth, you’re lying to yourself. But when you lie to others, it means you’re fully aware of what truth is being obscured, and then you act completely the opposite way—so it’s an extra layer.
That’s why the attitude of bad faith—avoiding responsibility—is not as fully-fledged as lying to another person because, in order to lie, you need to know what the truth is. You can’t lie if what you think you’re saying is the truth. But when it comes to yourself, it’s not that clear-cut, because you’re already refusing to admit what the truth is—to be fully aware of what the truth is— which means you can’t fully lie to yourself. Because in order to do so, you’d need to fully admit the truth to yourself. So lying to yourself is not on the level of actually lying to yourself, but it’s on the level of repressing, turning away, ignoring the truth. That’s why avijjā is ignorance. It’s not a metaphysical lack of information of what the universe is—it’s ignoring what’s right in front of you. And lying to others comes on the basis of that principle—it’s just further proliferated.
Thaniyo: And then there’s the sustaining of the thing that you’re lying about. Someone said, “Lying is the life-blood of addiction.”
Nyanamoli: Sure, but you could say that the life-blood of lying is avoiding responsibility for your own experience. Fundamentally, the basis for lying is the attitude of bad faith to yourself, as in having faith in ignoring, not in what you’re actually ignoring. That’s what I mean: you pervert the order. The only way you can ignore something is if it’s there—but you focus on prioritizing the act of ignoring, not what’s already there. And that’s the most fundamental attitude towards experience, avijjā. Turning a blind eye. The only way you can turn a blind eye to something is if that thing is already there, so the most fundamental attitude of turning a blind eye is that fundamental wrong-view in regard to the nature of existence—the fact that “I’m not my own”. The fact that “I’m not in control of this—this body upon which my whole life depends. I’m subject to ageing, death, suffering.” All these things are obvious, but the only reason people do not resolve them is that they give priority to ignoring them. And that’s what I mean—you give priority to your point of view on account of what’s there, in regard to which you exercise your point of view. And that’s why ignoring the ignorance is a vicious circle—avijjā leads to more avijjā. Ignoring leads to maintenance of the attitude of ignoring.
What do I need to stop ignoring, to undo the entire avijjā, the whole saṃsāra? Stop ignoring the arisen feelings, … the arisen intentions. And that’s why a person who has made that effort and stopped ignoring these things will become incapable of engaging in ill-will, anger, lying, cheating—even sensuality, because sensuality in itself is already that perversion on the fundamental level—finding pleasure in that which is truly ugly. You ignore that it’s ugly—ignorance of the ugly is the basis for attraction.
Thaniyo: Or the unattractive.
Nyanamoli: Yes, ignoring the fundamental unattractiveness, the fundamental dispassion or absence of passion in it—ignoring that is how you have maintained passion for it.
Thaniyo: What’s the nature of concealment?
Nyanamoli: Well, in many of the Suttas and the Buddhist writings, you often hear about greed, aversion and delusion: lobha, dosa, and moha. People can get their head around greed and aversion, but often delusion is regarded as something that’s not directly my responsibility, in as much as greed and aversion are.
Thaniyo: Like, “I don’t know what I’ve done now.”
Nyanamoli: Yes, so it’s regarded in a semi-metaphysical sense—it’s there, but it’s not really something I can directly experience. But actually it is. Delusion is an attitude of your mind in as much as greed or lust and aversion are—otherwise they wouldn’t have always been mentioned like that. So, from that point of view, delusion is more like an attitude of indolence, laziness.
Thaniyo: A choice to keep things cloudy.
Nyanamoli: Exactly. Keeping them opaque intentionally, turning a blind eye, distracting yourself intentionally with things that are going to take your mind away from yourself. You realize delusion is a very active thing and, as the Buddha said, that’s why it’s the most blameworthy. It’s the hardest to undo as well. But the fact that you can undo it, means it’s not this metaphysical lack of knowledge—it’s your very attitude, that is even more fundamental than the attitude of lust and of aversion, which are secondary to it. Lust requires a basis of delusion, aversion requires a basis of delusion, delusion requires a basis of delusion. So, you are deluded through and through, not because you don’t know certain things, but because you perpetually act out of ignorance, which then maintains you in the situation of ignorance. And the situation of ignorance is not ignorance as in not knowing something—it’s you actively ignoring and giving priority to the ignoring.
It’s choosing to distract yourself, for example by actively making a choice that will result in certain actions that are not necessarily lustful or hateful, but are based upon you not wanting to be self-aware. Entertainment or distraction in general—like when you think “I’m bored by myself because I’m aware of everything and it’s very unpleasant, so I’ll just go and chat to some people—not for sensual reasons or because I like them—just because I want something to do.”
Often needing things to do is rooted in delusion, in distraction, indolence. You can be very diligent externally—doing all this work—but the reasons for your doing that work are rooted in your wanting to turn a blind eye with regard to yourself—you don’t want to be self-aware, basically.
Thaniyo: You don’t want to see the truth of your mind.
Nyanamoli: Well yes, because that will result in seeing the unpleasant truths of your mind, or simply unpleasant states of boredom, and so on. So you think “I better find something to do, I better find an external purpose. It will occupy my mind, so my mind won’t be aware of itself, because it being aware of itself is too unpleasant, too threatening.”
Thaniyo: It’s a way to keep covering up the truth.
Nyanamoli: Exactly. It’s a way of maintaining yourself in a state of cover-up.
Thaniyo: To keep the dust moving.
Nyanamoli: Exactly, otherwise if it settles, you get to see what’s there, and it’s unpleasant.
Thaniyo: That’s the thing—being self-aware sounds like a good thing, but it’s the most painful thing. Most people avoid it.
Nyanamoli: Yes. That’s why solitude is very unpleasant to begin with.
As the Buddha himself said many times, you develop the pleasure of solitude. You won’t get it right away. If done rightly, it’s unpleasant because you’re going against the grain of all the distraction you got used to, and that your existence depends upon. But that’s it—when you stop maintaining all these attitudes that were based upon obscuring the self-awareness, the self-awareness increases. But it feels like—when the boredom starts giving rise to dread and anxiety—it feels like you yourself are drowning. It’s crushing you. But what is actually crushing you is the assumed level of your own being, the one that you’ve been proliferating.
The solitude is not actually crushing you. Being alone in your room—not seeing or talking to anyone—cannot do anything to you. But your mind can drown in it, because it became dependent on a certain degree of engagement with the world—that is its’ threshold. But that’s not a static thing, that threshold, which means the more you engage, the more dependent upon engagement you become. Initially the lesser engagement might hurt, because you’re used to engaging more. But then you get used to that, and then it will not be unpleasant.
In the same sense, when you’re a very hectic person who’s been doing a lot—engaging a lot, working a lot for whatever reasons— if you were made to sit down and stop engaging on that level, the discrepancy would be just too much to handle. But if you gradually start doing that and then start ceasing your engagement, you’ll get used to that new level—lacking the engagement that you used to have— which means you’re responsible for the threshold of where your being is. That’s what the Buddha meant when he said “His consciousness gets established upon that”—that becomes the norm, what you’re used to, which means anything less than that is going to fill you with anxiety and dread.
But it’s important to recognize that it’s not a static thing. So people seek meaning through using engagement with the world—actions, meaningless or not meaningless work, or whatever else. Practically, you’re engaging with the world for the purpose of escaping self-awareness, so you will become dependent on that level of engagement—anything less than that engagement will bring you back to your self-awareness. That means then that you have to keep maintaining the level of your engagement and, once you get used it, you have to keep increasing it, if you try to use it to avoid self-awareness. And most people, to a degree, are using that—that’s why most people are afraid to be alone. Not afraid of monsters and such, but afraid—in broad daylight—of being left alone in their room for a whole day without doing anything, without taking their mind away from themselves. It would result in them experiencing anxiety and existential dread because the human life, on average, is about avoiding that self-awareness, which ties in with avoiding responsibility and feeds one another, and so on.
Thaniyo: But that self-awareness is the thing that’s going to make things right, in a way.
Nyanamoli: That’s why people are, because of their own actions, liable to suffering—because of that, not because of someone else’s fault or some design. It’s because you act in a manner that keeps making you liable to suffer, keeps you exposed.
If you take responsibility for it, that’s where what I’m saying might become apparent—that the level of engagement, the level of distraction, of turning a blind-eye is not a static thing. Which means the way you’ve been proliferating it, you can also undo it if you stop engaging with it, or you can certainly put a brake on its growth.
That’s why bhava (being) in the Suttas is not a metaphysical thing—it’s the level of your dependence on the senses, which is sensual being, the level of dependence on the sense of the world, duty, perceptions—the level you depend on them. But then you can start depending less on those things.
That’s why an arahant has attained cessation of his being—he doesn’t depend on anything. But he’s still there, it’s not that cessation of being means destruction. Being means assumption—the assumption of engagement, of avoiding responsibility, of sensuality—and that’s what delusion is: ignoring, turning a blind eye, distracting yourself, not being able to live with yourself. And again you can ask, going back to that practical level that we always do, “Why is it that I don’t want to be self-aware? Why is it that I need to distract myself from myself? Because it’s unpleasant. So why am I then maintaining this whole level of being for which I’m responsible, the level of how much I depend on engagement with things? It’s because I don’t want to suffer.”
Thaniyo: But failing to see that my very engagement is the root of my suffering.
Nyanamoli: Exactly. You might wonder “Why do I suffer, then? It’s because I keep running away from suffering, that’s why I suffer. Then, if I stop running away from suffering, I at least have a chance to not suffer.”
Thaniyo: There’s an example I heard with people in prison. In prison, punishment may be solitary confinement, and a lot of people would rather spend their time with other criminals—rapists, murderers—than be alone.
Nyanamoli: Well, it’s not incidental that that was always the worst punishment: solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time. For an untrained mind, of course.
Thaniyo: Also, some would rather do things that are bad for them, like taking drugs, than be alone.
Nyanamoli: You would rather expose yourself to genuine existential risks than be alone with yourself.
Thaniyo: Like jumping out of a plane, parachuting, where you think “I’ll put my life on the line, and I’d rather do all of these extreme sports just to avoid being alone.”
Nyanamoli: Yes, that’s what I mean—it’s not a stationary thing, which means avoiding boredom needs to be maintained, because boredom sets in when you get used to the threshold—then you need to do more.
The same with sensuality, if people use sensuality as a means of escape, if people get angry as a means of escape, that’s why they keep getting angrier and angrier as life goes by. They keep getting used to it and it ceases to work—their means of escape ceases to work, so then they need to keep running harder.
Thaniyo: The truth is always there and it’s always pushing.
Nyanamoli: Always. The fact that you give in to the attitude of ignoring the truth that’s always there, means you’re running around in a circle—you don’t ever really run away from it. And everybody knows that.
If you ask any random person—even someone not familiar with Buddhism—whether one can satisfy one’s sensual desires, most people will already know you can’t. You can’t satisfy them, you can only run around them. The same with anger: the satisfaction of revenge or inflicting pain back onto somebody—is that really preventing you from experiencing the pain in the first place? No. You know that, you just can’t help it. And you can’t help it because you keep ignoring the truth, you keep ignoring the nature of what’s right in front of you. Hence, ignoring will automatically, inevitably, result in lust and aversion, in greed and anger and so on.
But that doesn’t mean that, if you lock yourself in a room and stop engaging with the world, you will automatically arrive at the right understanding either, because it’s a subtle thing. That’s why the Buddha’s instruction was necessary, or the instruction of somebody who’s done it themselves the right way. The two possible outcomes for somebody who doesn’t have that external instruction, if they were to lock themselves in, are madness—as in the mind would implode because it wouldn’t know the way out of itself. Or you would develop a degree of that self-transparency and undo a great level of your being, which means you’d become more transparent—less subjected to suffering— but you would have to give in to something. You wouldn’t be able to maintain that transparency all the way to the core of your being, whereby you’ve undone every one of the slightest existential discrepancies—or slightest conceits, as the Buddha called them—and become an arahant. Because if you did that, you would be self-enlightened. So theoretically it’s possible, but practically it’s highly unlikely.
But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t even try. Even a person who’s not necessarily interested in becoming fully enlightened and following the Buddha’s instruction to the end, it would do them good if they’d start withdrawing or keeping in check the level of engagement and dependence on the world and the senses. Why? Because life will end in your losing that dependence on sickness, ageing and death. Losing your senses, the perception of the world, losing the things upon which your existence depends—or rather the things you used to maintain that level of being, that helped you to ignore yourself, to be unaware of yourself and the responsibility that’s inherent in that awareness. If life were truly to last forever and you would always stay in control of your senses, then it would be fine—you could do it (indulge in senses). But it isn’t, and you know that—everybody knows that. Yet you act as if you will live forever, and the more you’re dependent on the senses that will disappear and break apart, the more you’ll be affected when that happens. The less you’re dependent, the less you’ll be affected, and means the less you’ll suffer.
It’s like the simile the Buddha gave: climbing the tree to eat the mangos, and eventually somebody’s bound to come up and cut that tree because they can’t climb it to eat the mangos. Or even if they don’t, the mangos will age and break down, and the tree will fall. The higher you were up in that tree the harder you will crash, the more suffering you will experience. But if you kept yourself in check and stayed maybe on lower branches, used your reason and self-reflection to not go too far out, if you controlled yourself from climbing the tree in the first place, then you wouldn’t crash as hard.
In practical terms, you keep yourself in check with regard to how much you depend on distraction, on other people, other people’s company, on gratuitous health, your senses and the ability to access the world and distract yourself. If you reflected on it, you will keep yourself in check and then won’t go too far in it. And then when you do get sick—when your senses do start to fail or when people leave you, or die, or don’t do what you want them to do—you won’t be as affected, because you haven’t made yourself as dependent.
Thaniyo: But if you have concealed so much your whole life…
Nyanamoli: If you’ve concealed so much your whole life, it’s never too late to start undoing that concealment. So that’s really the problem there—if you never start undoing your own concealing of yourself from yourself, concealing the nature of yourself from yourself.
Thaniyo: You never actually faced displeasure.
Nyanamoli: Yes. Never admitted it where it is, where the problem of it is. That’s why people are responsible for being bound to saṃsāra—it’s not saṃsāra that binds you, you bind yourself to it. And the Buddha said something to the same effect when he said “It’s because people take what’s not theirs—what shouldn’t be theirs, what cannot be theirs, as if it’s theirs and they act out of it that Māra does with them what he wants”, controls them, subjects them to all these things. What are the things that cannot be yours and shouldn’t be yours, but you keep taking as yours, and actually belong to Māra and not to you? It’s your eyes and your sights, your nose and your smells—your very senses. The nature of them shows you that they’re not yours. If you ignore this, you automatically take them as yours.
That’s why just turning a blind eye is enough in itself to result in the whole mass of suffering. It’s not like “I turn a blind eye, then I do a second step of taking it as mine, then I do this…” No, turning a blind eye to the nature of your senses, for example your eyes, your nose, your body, your life, automatically implies taking this as yours. Because if you ignore that it’s not yours, you’re automatically implying that it is yours, that it’s for you, that it’s in your control. And then you keep acting as if it is in your control, and that’s how you perpetuate the turning of a blind eye—you keep acting out of it. You’ve got to stop acting out of it and then stop doing it internally, stop turning that blind eye, start admitting it, go against the grain.
That’s why everybody can benefit from solitude, to the extent that they’re able to practice it. But if you don’t practice it to the full extent, you have to take responsibility for that as well. You might find yourself already too far in life, whereby you can’t just withdraw from everything because there’ll be consequences. But that’s no-one else’s responsibility—you’re responsible for finding yourself in such a situation. But then people realize that they can’t withdraw themselves from that situation, so then they feel justified in avoiding responsibility for it, and that’s completely gratuitous. Yes, you might not be able—you may have infants and whatever other family members depending on you, and you can’t just leave, because they’ll die. But that doesn’t mean you’re justified now in ignoring responsibility for that situation that you yourself built up. So yes, you can’t ignore the fact that your choices brought you to these circumstances, where now other lives depend upon you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take responsibility for it—no matter how late the recognition of that responsibility comes. It’s still better to take it than to ignore it further – because, who knows, through taking responsibility, some new ways and options might present themselves that you won’t see as long as you’re avoiding responsibility. But people don’t take responsibility because it’s unpleasant.
Thaniyo: When taking responsibility, things become clearer.
Nyanamoli: But because you’re too concerned about not experiencing discomfort, you basically obscure and limit all these options, that you could have otherwise become aware of. That’s why you actually get more resilience—become less subjected to suffering—through recognizing, admitting, taking responsibility. It’s initially more unpleasant—but in the long run, it’s actually far more pleasant, or far less unpleasant.
Let’s put it like this: because through taking responsibility, you see where the problem is, and the problem is in avoiding responsibility. That’s why you suffer. You suffer not because a disagreeable feeling touches you—you suffer because you avoid responsibility for the suffering in regard to the disagreeable feeling. If you start taking responsibility for that suffering, in regard to the disagreeable feeling, you stop blaming it for that suffering—which means you stop resisting, which means you stop suffering. That’s it.
Thaniyo: You stop touching it.
Nyanamoli: You stop getting into the domain that doesn’t belong to you—that belongs to Māra. If you stop taking it as yours, that’s it—you cannot be affected by anything then, no matter how disagreeable.