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Starting Out Small - A Collection of Talks for Beginning Meditators
Phra Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo
Translated from the Thai by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Letting Go

Notes from a Talk
April 21, 1953

One of the important reasons why the Buddha taught the Dhamma was to teach us to let go, not to hold on to things. The more we really know the Dhamma, the more we can let go. Those who know a little can let go of a little; those who know a lot can let go of a lot.

As a first step we're taught dana -- to be generous, to give donations -- as a strategy for getting us to learn how to let go. The next step is caga -- renouncing rights of possession -- which is letting go at a higher level than dana. And finally, on a more refined level, we're taught to relinquish all our upadhi, or the acquisition-defilements in the mind. This is the level on which we examine and explore until we can gain total release.

Dana means giving away material things. If we don't give them away, they're hard to let go. For the most part, if we don't give things away, we hold rights over them and regard them as belonging to us. But if we give them away, we no longer have any rights over them. Things we hold onto are dangerous. (1) They can cause us harm. (2) They cause harm to people who steal them from us. And (3) once those people have stolen them, then they claim rights over them. The Buddha saw these dangers, which is why he taught us to be generous, to learn how to give things away.

People who develop the habit of being generous reap many rewards. Their act of generosity comes back to them both in the present and on into the future. They have lots of friends. Other people trust them. Their hearts are light -- they aren't weighed down with worries about looking after the things they've given away. And these same results will keep coming in the future, just as when we have a bucket of rice grains: if we plant them in a field, we'll reap ten buckets of rice in return. The same holds true with the goodness we develop in this lifetime. It gives enormous returns. That's how people of discernment understand it.

Caga is the next step. Dana is something that even crazy people can do, but caga is a type of giving that only wise people can do, because their sense of personal possession has to end immediately in the act of giving. They see that all material things are common property: things don't really belong to us, they don't really belong to other people. If you see things as belonging to you, that's addiction to sensuality (kamasukhallikanuyoga). If you see things as belonging to others, that's addiction to self-affliction (attakilamathanuyoga). When we're born, we didn't bring anything along with us when we came. When we die, we won't take anything along when we go. So what really belongs to us? Our sense of possession has to fall away from the heart if our giving is to count as caga.

The third level of letting go is relinquishing what's in the heart. Whether or not we give things away, we let go of them in the heart every day. We let go of the things we have. We let go of the things we don't have. Just as a person has to wash his mouth and hands every day after he eats if he wants to stay clean at all times. What this means is that we're not willing to let anything act as an enemy to the heart by making us stingy or grasping. If we don't do this, we're the type of person who doesn't wash up after a meal. We're not clean. We stay asleep without ever waking up. But when we let go in this way, it's called viraga-dhamma, or dispassion. The lower levels of letting go are things we can do only from time to time. Dispassion is something we can develop always.

Ordinarily our defilements tie us down hand and foot, and then nail us to the floor. It's hard to get free, which is why we need a high level of skill, called bhavanamaya-panna -- the discernment that comes from developing the mind in meditation -- to gain release.

Dispassion is a mental quality that's really delicious and nourishing. Whoever hasn't reached this level of the Dhamma has eaten only the rind of the fruit, without knowing the taste and nourishment of the flesh. The good part of the flesh lies deep.

The upadhi-kilesas, or acquisition-defilements in the mind, are ignorance, craving, and clinging. If we reach the level where we see the Dhamma for ourselves within us, then we take responsibility for ourselves. We can take care of these things on our own, just as when we come of age in terms of the law.

If we can get our minds into the first jhana, we can let go of the five hindrances.

Most of us are like inexperienced children: when we eat fish or chicken, we eat the bones along with the flesh because we haven't developed any intuitive insight. When this insight arises, it's more dazzling than the light of a fire, sharper than a spear. It can consume anything: meat, bones, rice, husks -- anything -- because it's smart enough to pound everything into a powder. It can consume sights, sounds, smells, flavors, tactile sensations, and ideas. Good or bad, it isn't picky. It can eat them all. If people praise us, we can use it to nourish the heart. If they criticize us, we can use it to nourish the heart. Even if the body is in terrible pain, the heart can be at its ease, for it has all the utensils it needs to fix its food properly: grinders, mixers, steamers, pots, and pans. The fog of ignorance will scatter. Everything that ties us down -- the nails of the five aggregates of clinging, the three ropes (love for spouse, love for children, love for material possessions), and the eight chains of the affairs of the world (loka-dhamma) -- gain, loss, status, loss of status, praise, criticism, pleasure, and pain -- will all fall away.

Stupid people think that staying in jail is comfortable, which is why they keep on doing more and more evil. They see the world as pleasant and so they're like prisoners who don't want to get out of jail. As for people with discernment, they're like the caged quail who keeps looking for a way to get out of the cage. As a result the chains that hold them down will fall away one link at a time. The eight affairs of the world are like the chains put on criminals to keep them bound. Stupid people think these chains are necklaces of gold to wear as ornaments. Actually, they're things that defile the mind. People who get tied down by them will never get away, because they're afraid they'll lose their wealth and status, afraid of criticism and pain. Anyone who is stuck on pleasure, who is afraid of criticism, will never manage to come to the monastery to practice.

The Buddha saw that we're like monkeys tied to a chain. If we don't develop liberating insight, we'll never get free from our chains. We'll never make it to dispassion.

In the first stage we let go of evil and start doing good. In the second stage we let go of evil and some forms of good. In the third stage we let go of everything, good and evil, because everything is fabricated by nature and thus undependable. We do good but we're not attached to it. When you let go, you have do it intelligently, and not in a ruinous way -- i.e., by not doing good. You can't hold on even to your opinions, much less to material things. When you do good, you do it for the sake of the living beings of the world, for your children and grandchildren. You do everything in the best way possible, but you're not attached to it, because you know that all things fabricated are inconstant. This way your heart can be clear and bright like a jewel.

If you get caught up on criticism or praise, you're foolish. It's like drinking other people's saliva. When you act rightly, there are people who will say that you're right and those who will say that you're wrong. When you act wrong, there are people who will say you're wrong and those who will say you're right. There's nothing constant about good or bad, for they're all nothing but fabrications.



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