Starting Out Small
A Collection of Talks for Beginning Meditators (Portfolio 3)
Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo
translated from the Thai by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The Essence of Merit  

July 23, 1957

Merit is the intention that arises in the heart beginning with your first thought of doing something good. For example, today you decided that you wanted to come to the monastery. That thought, in and of itself, was merit arising in the mind. Then you came to the monastery, received the precepts, and listened to a sermon in line with your original intention. In this way, your original intention succeeded in producing more merit in line with its aims. But if you think that you want to go to the monastery, to receive the precepts and listen to the Dhamma, but someone else happens to object or criticizes you in a way that spoils your mood, the merit in your mind — the original intention — disappears. Even if someone else then invites you to come to the monastery, you come here against your will and sit here like a stump, with no merit arising in your mind. This is because the essence of merit in your mind has already died.

The meritorious things that you do aren't the essence of merit. For example, giving donations, observing the precepts, listening to sermons, or sitting in meditation aren't the essence of merit. Still, we have to keep doing these things so that our old merit can grow fat and healthy instead of dying away. For this reason, when you make up your mind to do something good, hurry up and do it right away. When you want to give a donation, go ahead and give a donation. When you want to observe the precepts, observe the precepts. When you want to listen to the Dhamma, listen to the Dhamma. When you want to meditate, meditate. In this way, the results of your actions will grow full and complete in all three time periods. In other words, your mind will feel happy, joyful, and satisfied in your merit when you first think of doing it, while you're doing it, and when you're done...

The intention to do good — the first stage in your goodness — is the essence of merit. It's like planting a tree. When you give a donation, it's like putting fertilizer around the tree. When you observe the precepts, it's like picking away the worms and caterpillars that will eat the flowers or leaves. As for meditating, that's like watering the tree with clean, clear, cool water. In this way, your tree is sure to keep growing until it produces leaves and fruit that you can eat for your enjoyment in line with your original aim. If it's a flowering tree, the flowers will be bright and colorful, with large petals and a refreshing scent. If it's a fruit tree, the fruits will be plentiful, large, and sweet. This is how generosity, virtue, and meditation are means of developing the merit of your original thought.

But if your heart is in a sour mood, then you won't get much fruit from making merit or giving donations. It's like giving fertilizer to a tree that's already died. Even if all you want is a single custard apple from the tree, you won't be able to get what you want, because the fertilizer you gave to the tree has all gone to nourish the grasses and herbs growing at the foot of the tree, and hasn't done a thing for the custard apple you wanted. In the same way, if you just go through the motions of making merit, your original aim — to abandon greed, aversion, and delusion — won't bear fruit. The act of generosity is simply the fertilizer of merit. When the essence of merit has died, there's no way that you can eat the fertilizer, for it's nothing but filth — cow dung and chicken droppings. How can you ask for filthy stuff like that to come and help you in any way? But still, you're better off than people who haven't fertilized anything at all — i.e., who haven't developed virtue, concentration, or discernment — for at the very least you can gather the grasses and herbs that have fed on your fertilizer, to boil in a soup or fix as a salad.

So whenever you do anything, you have to check to see whether the essence of merit is in your heart. Some people make merit when their hearts are evil. They're like a sticky-rice sweet roasted in bamboo, where the rice on the top is soft and well-cooked, but the rice at the bottom is raw or burnt to a crisp. When this is the case, there's no way you can eat it, for it's not good all the way through. People by and large act in ways that aren't in line with their minds. Some people make donations but their hearts are still greedy, as when they give a gift because they want to become millionaires. Some people give one dollar expecting to get ten thousand or a hundred thousand in return. Some people observe the precepts but their hearts are still angry, jealous, or hateful toward this person or that. Some people meditate so that they can be beautiful and shapely in their next birth, or because they want to become devas up in heaven. Other people want to be this or that — always looking for something in exchange. This kind of merit is still wide of the mark.

The Buddha taught us to be generous for the sake of doing away with greed, to observe the precepts to do away with anger, and to meditate to do away with delusion, not for the sake of feeding these defilements. Some people come here to meditate and sit here absolutely still — their eyes are closed, their posture straight and unmoving, everything on the outside just the way it should be — but their minds are running around all over the place: to their orchards, their fields; some people's minds go zooming abroad in search of their children or friends, thinking about all kinds of things. Their minds aren't sitting together with their bodies. This is called a mind and a body not in line with each other — like a sticky-rice sweet where the top is cooked but the bottom is still raw.

If you're careful to keep the essence of merit with your heart, then go ahead and do whatever goodness you want. Don't come to the monastery behind the corpse of your merit. In other words, if you originally want to come to the monastery but someone else yells at you so that you come here in a foul mood against your will, this kind of merit-making doesn't help you much at all.

* * *

The reason we need to train our minds to be solid and strong in the Dhamma is because we're sure to face the three dangers of the world: (1) suffering, illness, and poverty; (2) death; and (3) enemies and foolish friends. We have to prepare ourselves so that when any of these things come our way, our hearts will be strong enough to contend with them bravely and without fear. No matter what side they may attack from, we have a strategy to fight them off in every way. This is why the daily blessing says, "Icchitam patthitam tumham khippameva samijjhatu," which means, "Whatever you want and desire, may it succeed quickly." In other words, when the mind is strong and powerful, whatever you think of doing is bound to succeed.

If you let your original thoughts of merit die or disappear from the mind before you come to give a donation, observe the precepts, or meditate, the results of the original intention won't develop, but at least you're better off than people who don't come at all. The original thought of merit is like a tree. If your tree doesn't die, then the more you fertilize it, the bigger it'll grow and the more it'll branch out. In other words, your actions will be lovely and quiet. Whatever your hands do will be merit. Wherever your feet step will be merit. Whatever your mouth says will be merit. Whatever your mind thinks will be merit. Your whole body will be merit. When this is the case, you'll meet with nothing but happiness.

* * *

Virtue, in terms its wording, consists of undertaking the five, eight, ten, or 227 precepts. In terms of its meaning, it consists of thinking, speaking, and acting in ways that harm no one. When you think, you do it with a mind of good will. When you speak, you do it with a mind of good will. When you act, you do it with a mind of good will. In terms of its flavor, virtue is coolness. For this reason, the act of undertaking the precepts isn't the essence of virtue; it's simply a way of fertilizing virtue — our original intention — so that it'll grow fat and strong.

The Pali word for virtue — sila — comes from sela, or rock, so when you develop virtue you have to make your heart large like an enormous rock. What's a rock like? It's solid, stable, and cool. Even though the sun may burn it all day, or rain may lash at it all night, it doesn't tremble or shake. In addition, it keeps its coolness inside. What kind of coolness is that? The coolness of bravery, quick reflexes, and circumspection. This kind of coolness is virtue — not the kind of coolness of a person who's slow and lackadaisical. If you're cool, you have to be cool from the virtue within you. Having virtue within you is like having a pool of water in your house. When your house has a pool of water, how can fire burn it down? When you have this kind of coolness looking after your heart, how can anger, hatred, or ill will overcome it?

In addition, this cool rock of virtue holds fire within it — but not the fire of defilement. It's a cool fire that you can put to all kinds of good uses. When you strike one rock against another, the spark can light a fire that you can use to cook your food or light your house. These are some of the benefits of virtue.

* * *

When you practice concentration but your mind isn't firmly established in genuine merit, Mara will come after you with a big grin on his face. What this means is the Maras of the aggregates: there will be feelings of pain throughout your body, your perceptions will be a turmoil, your thought-constructs will think of 108,000 different things, your consciousness will be aware all over the place. When this happens, your heart will be crushed and your merit snuffed out. Like a sticky-rice sweet that's not cooked all the way through: if you eat it, you'll get indigestion.

When practicing concentration, you have to be careful not to force or squeeze the mind too much, but at the same time you can't let it run too loose. Force it when you have to; let it go when you have to. The important point is to keep directed thought and evaluation in charge at all times. In this way, the mind gains quality: it won't play truant or go straying off the path of goodness. The nature of goodness is that there are bound to be bad things sneaking in, in the same way that when there are rich people there are bound to be thieves lying in wait to rob them. When you make merit, Mara in his different forms is sure to get in the way. So when you meditate, be careful not to fall into wrong mindfulness or wrong concentration.

Wrong mindfulness is when your awareness leaves the four frames of reference — body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities. Here, the body means the breath, feelings are sensations of comfort or discomfort, the mind is the awareness of the body, and the mental quality we want is the quality of the present.

Wrong concentration is when you're forgetful or unaware, as when you're unaware of how the body is sitting, where the mind is wandering off to, how it comes back. The mind lacks both mindfulness and alertness.

But when your concentration gets established, the mind will grow higher. And when the mind is up high, nothing can reach up to destroy its goodness. Like the stars, the moon, or the sun that shine in the sky: even though clouds may pass in front of them from time to time, the clouds can't sneak up or seep up to make the brightness of the stars, moon, or sun grow murky or dark.

* * *

Merit is a noble treasure. It's the source of all our inner wealth. When it arises in the mind, don't let anyone else touch it. When you have a source of wealth like this, it's like having a raw diamond, which is a hundred times better than having your wealth in property, cattle, or workers, for those things lie far away and are hard to look after. If you have a raw diamond, all you have to do is wrap it in cotton and it'll keep on growing. Just make sure that you don't cut or polish it. If you turn it into a cut diamond, then even if you keep it for 100 years it won't grow any further.

In the same way, when concentration arises in the mind, you have to look after it. Don't let any labels or concepts touch it at all. That way your concentration will develop step by step. Your mind will grow higher and higher. Happiness and coolness will come flowing your way. Everything you aspire to will succeed, and eventually you'll attain the paths and fruitions leading to nibbana.


August 25, 1957

When a person makes up his mind to do one thing but then turns around to do something else entirely, the results of his first intention simply won't come about. A person like this has to be classed as really stupid — an ingrate to himself, a traitor to himself. Like a child who says goodbye to its parents, telling them that it's going to school, but then goes wandering off to see a movie or a traveling show. The parents don't know what's going on. They think the child is at school. By the time they've tracked down the truth, they will have wasted a lot of time. In this way, the child harms itself in four ways: (1) there's the bad karma of having deceived its parents; (2) it throws away the money the parents paid for its tuition; (3) it stays ignorant and doesn't pick up any of the knowledge it would have gained at school; and (4) death keeps creeping closer day by day, the child itself eventually becomes a parent, and yet it can't even read or write three letters of the alphabet.

In the same way, when you aren't really intent on the practice — you come and sit here meditating but your mind isn't with the body; it goes wandering off to think about things unrelated to the Dhamma, thinking about things at home, thinking about your children or grandchildren, thinking about this person or that, thinking about things ahead or behind; your mind isn't established in stillness; your eyes are closed but your mind slips off to look for fun with different kinds of preoccupations; sometimes you meet up with dogs and cats, so you play with the dog and cats — when this happens, you harm yourself in the same ways. (1) First, there's the bad karma of deceiving your teacher, telling him you're going to practice concentration but then not doing it. (2) The teacher doesn't know what's going on and so teaches the Dhamma until his mouth runs out of saliva, but with no results to show for it. (3) You yourself stay ignorant. You sit and meditate for three years but don't get anything out of it. If people ask you about the practice, they can't get any sense out of you, which reflects badly on the teacher. (4) When death comes, you'll die with pain and hardship, with no inner wealth to take along to the next life. So you'll keep on spinning around in death and rebirth for who knows how many lives, without ever getting to nibbana.

All of this comes from not really being intent. If you're really intent on practicing the Dhamma, then no matter what, you'll have to get results — large or small — depending on the strength of what you can do. If you're going to meditate, be intent on meditating. If you're going to listen to the Dhamma, be intent on listening. If you're going to speak, be intent on speaking. Whatever you do, be intent on what you're doing. That way you'll get the results you want from your actions.

To get results, your intent has to be composed of the four bases for success. In other words, (1), chanda: Like what you're doing. If you're going to meditate, be content to stay mindful of the breath. (2) Viriya: Be persistent and don't get discouraged. Even though there may be pains in the body, you endure them. (3) Citta: Give your full mind to what you're doing. Don't just play around. Don't let your mind wander off to think of other things. (4) Vimansa: When you really do the meditation, you contemplate to see what gives rise to a sense of peace and ease in the body and mind.

When your meditation is composed of these four factors in full, it's as if you're sitting on a chair with four good legs. You won't have to fear that the chair will start tilting or fall over. This is different from a person who's sitting on a chair with only two legs or one. If anyone happens to brush past, he may tip over or fall flat on his back. But if you're sitting on a chair with four good legs, then even if someone runs into you or grabs hold of the chair to give it a shake, you needn't be afraid of falling off. Even if they pick up the chair and move it somewhere else, you'll still be able to sit on it in comfort. You don't have fear any danger at all.

This is what it's like when you make your mind fully solid and strong in the goodness of what you're doing. You can sit and lie down in ease. Whether you're in the monastery or at home, you can live at your ease. You can eat or go without food and still be at ease. You can handle a lot of work or only a little and still be at ease. You can have ten million billions in money or not even a single red cent and still be at ease. When death comes, you can die with ease, free from suffering or hardship. When anyone can do this, the devas clap their hands in joy. When anyone can't, the devas screw up their faces, while Mara and his gang laugh and clap their hands because they've beat another of the Buddha's disciples. Think about it: do you really want to be one of Mara's disciples?

We have to use skillfulness and merit to polish ourselves until we're shining and bright. In other words, we polish our actions with virtue, concentration, and discernment. When you train your mind with concentration until it's fully tempered and strong, it'll be calm and cool, bright and gleaming like still water in a deep well, or like the stars in the sky. The hindrances won't be able to walk all over you, for the level of the mind will keep growing higher and higher at all times. When it's really up high, it grows cool. Just as when we're sitting here: we don't feel especially cool where we're sitting, but if we go up two or three kilometers off the surface of the earth, we'll feel cold right away. In addition to cooling off, our eyes will be able to see things far, far away. We'll be able to see the condition of human beings and animals, all the dangers and difficulties of life on the world beneath us. We'll start taking these dangers to heart, so that we won't want to come back down again.

When we talk about the mind's being on a high level, we don't mean that it's high up like an airplane, simply that the quality of its awareness is heightened through training its concentration and discernment. When this happens, you'll be able to see the causes and effects of everything true and false. You'll see the dangers of wandering on through death and rebirth, and gain a sense of disenchantment with birth, aging, illness, and death, seeing them as nothing but pain and trouble. When you see things in this way, you'll lose all hankering for sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas. You'll be intent solely on developing the heart to gain release from all defilements and mental fermentations, so that you won't have to come swimming around through death and rebirth in the world ever again.

The Fresh Flavor of Dhamma  

August 23, 1959

When you sit in meditation, focus your attention solely on a single preoccupation. If you slip off that preoccupation, you fall into hell. What does "hell" mean here? Cakkhum adittam: Any preoccupations that come in by way of the eye are said to be a ball of hellfire. Sotam adittam: Any preoccupations that come in by way of the ear are a ball of fire. Any preoccupations that come in by way of the nose, tongue, body and mind are all balls of fire. If you focus your attention on any of these preoccupations, they'll make you as hot as if you had fallen into hell in this very lifetime That's why you should cut away all perceptions of that sort. Don't let them get involved with your mind at all.

* * *

The defilements are like salt water; the Dhamma is like fresh water, which benefits the world in three ways: (1) people can drink it; (2) it washes things clean; and (3) it helps plants to grow. As for salt water, you can't drink it, you can't use it to wash things clean, and if you use it to water plants, they'll die.

A person who sits fermenting in his defilements is like a salt water fish. Salt water fish have a strong, nasty smell. Once when I was in Chantaburi, staying at the LotusPond Monastery, a group of fishwives carried a batch of ocean fish past the monastery at a distance of about 80 meters. Even then, the smell of the fish hit my nose and seemed really foul. As for freshwater fish, even though they have some smell, it's not as foul as saltwater fish. In the same way, people with a lot of defilements really smell: no one wants them to come near, and wherever they go they're despised.

Ordinarily, saltwater fish like to stay only in salt water. If you catch them and put them in fresh water, they'll die in an instant. The same with freshwater fish: if you catch them and put them in salt water, they'll immediately die. But modern scientists have found a way to turn saltwater fish into freshwater fish. They put saltwater fish in salt water, and then gradually mix in fresh water little by little. The fish gradually get more and more accustomed to fresh water until ultimately they can be released into a freshwater pond and they won't die. The same with freshwater fish: the scientists gradually mix salt water into the tanks where they're keeping freshwater fish, and the fish gradually get used to being in salty water, until the scientists can throw them into the sea and they won't die. In the same way, people who are full of defilements are like saltwater fish. When they first start coming to the monastery, they bring all their defilements along with them. Then — as they start tasting the flavor of the Dhamma, as they chant and meditate — their hearts gradually get further and further away from their concentrated saltiness: their greed, anger, and delusion. Goodness seeps into their hearts little by little, gradually diluting the evil of their defilements until their hearts are entirely fresh with the taste of the Dhamma. The restlessness and turmoil in their hearts will vanish, and they'll be content to stay with the Dhamma happily and at peace, like a saltwater fish that's grown accustomed to fresh water.

There are four kinds of fresh water: still, flowing, falling, and shooting up. Still water is the water in lakes and wells. Flowing water is the water in rivers, canals, and streams. Falling water is the water of waterfalls and rain. Sometimes this type of water is so heavy and cold that it turns into hailstones, which can hurt as they hit you on the head. Shooting-up water is the water of fountains and geysers. In the same way, there are different kinds of Dhamma — so you can choose to stay with whichever of the 40 types of meditation themes you like.

When you stay mixed up with your defilements, or like to run back and forth with your external concepts and perceptions, you're no different from a person floating in a boat in the middle of a stormy sea. You can't sit or lie down to get any rest because the waves are constantly striking, making you dizzy and nauseous all the time. Your heart is all stirred up and can't find any peace. All you can do is cry out, "I'm dying! I'm dying!"

But when you try to pull yourself out from the mass of defilement or the balls of hellfire — bringing your mind into the qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, and establishing it in concentration — you free yourself from the wind and waves. You're like a person who has reached shore and is standing on firm ground. A person on firm ground can sit, lie down, stand, walk, or jump around as he likes. He's much more comfortable than a person out on the ocean. For this reason, we should train our hearts to reach right concentration, absolutely cutting off all our external concepts and perceptions. In this way, we'll all gain shelter and rest.

The flavor of the Dhamma is like ambrosia, the nectar that — when you drink it — makes you immortal. If you live with the Dhamma, then when you die you'll go to a good destination, as a visuddhi-deva, a deva pure in body and mind. This sort of person doesn't die easily — and doesn't die at all in the same way as people in general. If you aspire to the Deathless, you should wash your thoughts and deeds with cool, clean, clear, pure Dhamma so that they're sparkling clean. That way you'll meet with the flavor of the Deathless and go beyond death, reaching the transcendent and nibbana at last.