Suan Mokkhabalarama, Chaiya
8 October 1966
Translated by Roderick Bucknell
Now we come closer to home, to the word
"person". We think nothing of using the word "person, person,
person" all the time. Everyone is a person. But we ought to be careful
here, because the word "person" has two different meanings. In
everyday language, "person" refers to a creature with a body shaped
like what they call a "person" or human being.
But in Dhamma language, the word
"person" refers to certain special qualities implied in the word
"human" - which means "possessing a lofty mind" or
"high minded" - certain high mental qualities. This is not so
difficult to understand. If someone criticizes a friend saying, "You're not
a person!" what does he mean? The one criticized has a human body just as
does the one criticizing. Why, then, is the first accused of not being a person?
The point is that he lacks the special qualities implied in the word
"human". Lacking these , he is accused of not being a person. Thus,
the word "person" has two different meanings. In everyday language, it
refers to a creature of human form; in Dhamma language, it refers to the higher
mental or spiritual qualities implied in the word "human".
Now we consider the word "God". In
everyday language, "God" refers to a celestial being with various
creative powers. This is the God of everyday language. The "God" of
Dhamma language is rather different. It is a profound and hidden power, which is
neither human being, nor celestial being, nor any other kind of being. It has no
individuality or self, and it is impersonal. It is natural and intangible. It is
what we call the Law of Nature, for this Law is responsible for creation and for
the coming into existence of all things. Natural Law governs all things. Natural
Law has power over all things. Hence in Dhamma language, the word
"God" means, among other things, the Law of Nature, what Buddhists
call Dhamma. In the Pali language, the Law of Nature was referred to simply as
"Dhamma". Dhamma, just that one single word, implies all of the Law of
Nature. So Dhamma is the Buddhist God.
Now let us direct our gaze downwards. Let us look
at the "four woeful states" (apaya). The woeful states are the nether
worlds. Normally four of them are recognized; hell (naraka), the realm of the
beasts (tiracchana), the realm of the hungry ghosts
(peta), and the realm of the
frightened ghosts (asura or asurakaya). These four as a group are called the
"four woeful states." They are vividly depicted in temple murals.
Hell, the beasts, the hungry ghosts, and the asuras are all depicted according
to traditional beliefs, which means all four are thought to apply only after
death. In other words, the four woeful states as understood in everyday language
are interpreted materialistically. The denizens of hell, the beasts, and so on
are thought of as actual lowly, "flesh and blood" creatures.
In everyday language, hell is a region under the
earth. It is ruled over by the god of death, who carries off people and subjects
them to all sorts of punishments. It is a place where one may go after death.
Contrast this with hell as understood in Dhamma language. Here hell is anxiety,
anxiety which burns us just like a fire. Whenever anxiety afflicts us, burning
us up like a fire, then we are in hell, the hell of Dhamma language. Anyone who
roasts himself with anxiety, just as he might burn himself with fire, is said to
fall into hell in that same moment. And just as anxiety is of various kinds, so
we recognize various kinds of hells corresponding to them.
Now to the realm of beasts (tiracchana). Birth as
a beast means in everyday language actual physical birth as a pig, a dog, or
some other actual animal. Rebirth after death as some kind of lower animal is
the everyday meaning of rebirth into the realm of the beasts. In Dhamma
language, it has a different meaning. When one is stupid, just like a dumb
animal, then at that moment one is born into the realm of beasts. It happens
right here and now. One may be born as a beast many times over in a single day.
So in Dhamma language, birth as a beast means stupidity.
The term "hungry ghost" (peta) in
everyday language refers to a creature supposed to have a tiny mouth and an
enormous belly. It can never manage to eat enough and so is chronically hungry.
This is another possible form in which we may be reborn after death. These are
the hungry ghosts of everyday language. The hungry ghosts of Dhamma language are
purely mental states. Ambition based on craving, worry based on craving - to be
afflicted with these is to be born a hungry ghost. These symptoms are just like
those that result from having a mouth the size of a needle's eye and a belly the
size of a mountain. Anyone suffering from an intense craving, a pathological
thirst, anyone who worries and frets excessively, a pathological thirst, anyone
who worries and frets excessively, has the same symptoms as a hungry ghost. Such
a person can be said to have been reborn a hungry ghost right here and now. It
is not something that happens only after death.
Now to the asura or frightened ghosts. In everyday
language, an asura is a kind of invisible being. It goes around haunting and
spooking, but is too afraid to show itself. In Dhamma language, the word
"asura" refers to fear in the mind of a human being. To be reborn as
an asura, it is not necessary for the body to die. Whenever one is afraid, one
is simultaneously reborn an asura. To be afraid without good reason, to be
excessively fearful, to be superstitiously afraid of certain harmless creatures
- this is what it is to be reborn as an asura. Some people are afraid of doing
good. Some are afraid that if they attain nibbana, life will lose all its
flavour and be unbearably dull. Some people do have this kind of fear of
nibbana. To be afflicted with unjustified fear of this kind is to be reborn as
an asura right here and now.
These are the four woeful states as understood in
Dhamma language. they rather different from the woeful states of everyday
language. Now there is a point worth thinking about in connection with this. If
we don't fall into the woeful states of Dhamma language, then we are sure not to
fall into the woeful states of everyday language. For instance, if we avoid
making the mistakes that lead to affliction with anxiety, then we avoid falling
into hell in this life. At the same time, we need have no fear of falling into
hell in some later lifetime after death. Again, if we avoid being stupid like
the beasts, ravenous like the hungry ghosts, and frightened like the asura, then
we are free of the kinds of unskillful attitudes that might cause us to be
reborn after death as beasts, hungry ghosts, or asura.
So it behoves us to interest ourselves only in
these woeful states that we are in danger of experiencing right here and now.
The kind that we may experience after death can be put aside. There is no need
for us to concern ourselves with them. If we avoid right here and now the hungry
ghosts and other woeful states as understood in Dhamma language, then no matter
how we die, we are certain not to fall into the woeful states of everyday
language. If we live and practice properly, we avoid falling into the woeful
states here and now, and we are certain not to fall into the woeful states that
are supposed to follow death.
Most people recognize that heaven and hell are
simply states of mind. Why, then, are they so foolish as to misunderstand the
meaning of the four woeful states, which are so much a part of life? True
enough, the heaven and hell of everyday language are external realms - though
don't ask me where - and they are attained after death; but the heaven and hell
of Dhamma language are to be found in the mind and may occur at any time,
depending on one's mental make-up. This is how the woeful states of Dhamma
language differ from those of everyday language.
"Heaven" in everyday language means some
wonderful, highly attractive, celestial realm up above. Spend a certain amount
of money in merit making and you're entitled to one mansion in heaven, where
there are angels by the hundreds. In Dhamma language, however,
"heaven" refers first of all to infatuating sensual bliss of the
highest order. This is the lower heaven, the heaven of sensuality. Higher up is
the heaven called the Brahmaloka, where there are no objects of sensuality. It
is a state of mental well-being that results from the absence of any disturbing
sensual object. It is as if a certain person with a hunger for sense objects had
indulged himself until becoming thoroughly fed up with all sense objects. Then
he would want only to remain quite empty, still, untouched. This is the state of
freedom from sensuality, the condition of the Brahma gods in the Brahmaloka. The
ordinary heavens are full up with sensuality, the highest of them, the
Paranimmitavasavatti heaven, being completely full of sensuality. The heavens of
the Brahmaloka, however, are devoid of disturbance from sensuality, though the
"self", the "I" still persists.
Now let us discuss the word "ambrosia,"
the elixir of immortality. In everyday language, ambrosia is a kind of liquor
that celestial being imbibe to make themselves invulnerable before going out
again to slaughter and cause general havoc. This is the ambrosia of everyday
language. The ambrosia of Dhamma language is Dhamma at its highest, the truth of
not-self(anatta) or emptiness (sunnata).
This highest Dhamma, the truth of not-self or emptiness, makes a person immortal
because it brings freedom from the "self" idea. When there is no
"self", how can there be death? So in Dhamma language, the elixir of
life is the truth of not-self or emptiness. As for the liquor which is
traditionally supposed to confer eternal life on whoever drinks it, that is the
ambrosia of everyday language, the language of foolish people, the language of
people who have not perceived or penetrated to the truth.
A moment ago we mentioned the word
"emptiness" (sunnata). Let us now
have a closer look at it. Sunnata is a Pali word. Sunna
means "void" or "empty," and "-ta" is
the equivalent of "-ness". Sunnata is
emptiness or voidness. In the everyday language of people who have
not seen or penetrated to the truth, emptiness means simply the absence of any
content whatsoever, a physical void, a vacuum, a useless nothingness. This is
emptiness in everyday language. Emptiness or sunnata
in Dhamma language is quite different. Here everything of every kind and variety
may be present in any quantity - everything, that is, with the single exception
of the ideas of "me" and "mine". Everything may be present,
everything of every sort and kind you can think of, the entire lot of both
physical and mental phenomena, with just this one exception - there is no idea
of "me" and "mine". No "I," no "my," -
that is emptiness as it is understood in Dhamma language, the language of the
The world is empty. Empty of what? Empty of self
and anything belonging to self. With this single exception, everything may be
present, as long as nothing is regarded as "me" or "mine".
This is the emptiness of Dhamma language. When the Buddha spoke of emptiness, he
was speaking Dhamma language. Foolish people understand this as everyday
language and take it that there is nothing i the world at all, just a vacuum! If
the word "emptiness" is misinterpreted like this in term of everyday
language, the Buddha's teaching of emptiness becomes meaningless. Those foolish
people come out with many strange assertions that have nothing whatever to do
with emptiness as taught by the Buddha.
I hope you will take an interest in this and bear
it well in mind. This word "empty" applied to physical things
naturally means absence of any content, but in the metaphysical context, it
means that though every sort of thing may be present, there is utter absence of
"I-ness" and "my-ness." In the physical world, the mental
world, or anywhere at all, there is no such thing as "me" or
"mine". The conditions of "I-ness" and "my-ness"
just do not exist. They are unreal, mere illusions, hence the world is described
as empty. It is not that the world is devoid of all content. Everything is
there, and it can be made use of with discernment. Go ahead and make use of it!
Just one thing though - don't go producing the ideas of "me" and
Thus, in Dhamma language, empty does not mean
"devoid of all content." Anyone who takes it as meaning this is
ignorant of Dhamma and ignorant of the language of Dhamma. Such a person is
speaking only everyday language. If we go forcing this everyday meaning into the
context of Dhamma language, how can we ever make any sense of Dhamma? Do make a
special effort to understand this word. It has these two quite distinct