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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

Snakes, Fires, & Thieves

April 12, 1959

The dangers faced by the mind are like poisonous snakes, fires, and great thieves -- things that are always lying in wait to lay us to waste: robbing us, killing us, and stripping us of our valuables, our human goodness, every day and night.

"Poisonous snakes" here stand for passion, aversion, and delusion, which have a painful poison that seeps into the minds of run-of-the-mill people. When it reaches the heart, this poison can kill you.

As for "fires," there are two kinds: forest fires and house fires. A forest fire doesn't have any one owner. It arises of its own accord, by its nature, and spreads its destruction far and wide, without bounds, until it dies out on its own. This stands for the fires of birth, aging, illness, and death, forms of suffering that arise in the bodies of all living beings. This fire can burn up both our worldly treasures and our noble treasures (i.e., the goodness of the mind that we otherwise would be able to develop). As for house fires, those are the fires that arise from within the heart -- defilements, ignorance, craving, and clinging -- the hindrances that get in the way of the goodness that comes from training the heart and mind.

The "great thieves" or "500 most wanted criminals" stand for our five aggregates: form, feeling, perception, thought-constructs, and consciousness, which are constantly robbing us, killing us, and oppressing us, destroying both our worldly treasures and our noble ones. In addition, there are the underground criminals that keep sneaking up on us without our realizing it: material gain, status, praise, and pleasure from external things. Whoever gets duped by these criminals finds it hard to work free. This is why they can destroy the goodness that we'd otherwise be able to attain in the area of the heart and mind.

All of these poisonous snakes, fires, and criminals pose a tremendous danger to the heart. They keep destroying our goodness every moment. If we're not wise to them, we'll have trouble gaining release from them. The only way to prevent these dangers is through the power of the Dhamma: in other words, the practice of meditation, using our powers of directed thought and evaluation within ourselves to the point where we give rise to the discernment that clearly knows and sees the truth of all fabricated things. When we can see the dangers on all sides, we'll learn to be careful and on our guard, to look for ways of destroying them or of escaping from them. When we can do this, our lives will be happy.

When we practice the Dhamma it's as if we were going through a lonely, desolate forest on the way to a goal that's the highest form of happiness and safety. To get through the forest, we have to depend on the practice of concentration, with our mindfulness circumspect on all sides. We can't be heedless or complacent. We must make the effort to cut away all the concepts and preoccupations that come in to destroy the goodness of the mind. When we know that there are poisonous snakes, fires, and the 500 most wanted criminals lying in wait for us along our way, we have to be mindful, alert, and wakeful at all times, and to get good weapons ready so that we can fight them off.

At the same time, we need provisions to help us on our way -- in other words the factors of jhana. Directed thought is what focuses the mind on what it wants to know. Evaluation is what kills off the Hindrances. These two qualities are like fixing dinner. But if we have only these two qualities, it's as if we've prepared our dinner but don't yet know the flavor of the different kinds of food we have. If we can still the mind until it's one with its object, that's like eating and swallowing our food. That's when we'll know its flavor and be able to gain a sense of fullness and nourishment from it: in other words, a sense of rapture, pleasure, and singleness of preoccupation. The heart will then be able to gain full strength, just like the body when it's had a nourishing meal.

Outer food is what nourishes the body and gives it strength. When the body has strength, we can walk or run anywhere we want. Whatever we want to do, we'll have the strength to succeed. As for inner food -- the Dhamma -- that's what nourishes the heart and mind. When the heart and mind are well nourished, the power of the heart is made resilient and strong. Whatever we set our mind on will succeed in line with our thoughts. If the mind is deprived of the food of the Dhamma, it gets feeble and weak. Its

thoughts meet with no success, or at best with success in some things and not in others, not fully in line with our hopes. That's why we have to shore up the strength of our own minds as much as we can, for the strength of the mind is the most important thing within us that will take us to our goal of the highest happiness.

As long as you're still alive and breathing, don't let yourself be heedless or complacent. Don't let time pass you by to no purpose. Hurry up and accelerate your efforts at developing goodness -- for when there's no more breath for you to breathe, you'll have no more opportunity to do good ...

You should focus exclusively on whatever thoughts help make the mind firm so that it can give rise to goodness. Don't dally with any other kinds of thinking, regardless of whether they seem more sophisticated or less. Shake them all off. Don't bring them into the mind to think about. Keep the mind firmly set in a single preoccupation: that's your true heart, the true heart of the Buddha's teachings.



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