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Intelligence versus Ego

August 18, 2013

Q: How can I tell the difference between the impulses coming from ego and from authentic intelligence?

The Arahant: It’s simple in principle: examine your impulses, thoughts, attitudes and actions; those involving any kind of clinging (upādāna) are from the ego. In practice, it’s difficult to guard against egoistic impulses because they so often masquerade as apparently wholesome. For example, wanting to be a great teacher or leader of Buddhism. Especially at your stage, the temptation to misuse the advancement you have earned can sometimes seem irresistible.

You have attained a high stage of enlightenment very quickly by understanding the inner principles of the Buddha-dhamma and following them strictly. If you become careless and allow egoistic impulses any scope at all, you can easily undo much of your hard work. This should be a time of extreme caution for you. Do not carelessly rush ahead in a frenzy to attain enlightenment. It happens by being scrupulous about the quality of your thoughts and actions.

“In the same way, when a monk utters words about knowing… about developing… about knowing & developing, saying, ‘I know this Dhamma; I see this Dhamma; I am developed in bodily action, developed in virtue, developed in mind, developed in discernment,’ and he remains with his mind unconquered by greed, his mind unconquered by aversion, delusion, anger, hostility, hypocrisy, spite, selfishness, evil envy, or evil longing, then it should be known of him that, ‘This venerable one discerns how it is that, when one discerns, greed does not come into being, which is why he remains with his mind not conquered by greed. This venerable one discerns how it is that, when one discerns, aversion… delusion… anger… hostility… hypocrisy… spite… selfishness… evil envy… evil longing does not come into being, which is why he remains with his mind not conquered by evil longing’.” — Cunda Sutta (AN 10.24)

If you trace back selfish thoughts to the underlying fabrications and determinations, you will always find that they are anicca-dukkha-anattā: impermanent, not-self and displeasurable. When the underlying causes of your impulses are like that, then how can any good come from the impulses themselves? Butterflies are not born from the cesspit, only ugly maggots and worms.

Q: I feel that, therefore I am developing a very skeptical view of my own intelligence. Is this correct?

The Arahant: Look carefully at the situation. Are you responding spontaneously to a need for service to benefit others, or are you initiating some superficially clever, but actually foolish scheme to benefit your own ego? For example, are you responding spontaneously to someone asking you a question about something that will benefit their practice? Or are you just taking the initiative to set yourself up as some kind of authority? The Suttas are the authority, not any of us.

Examine the details. If there is anything at all selfish in your thoughts or motivations, it’s best to hold back from speaking or acting on that impulse. And, it’s not enough to simply passively respond to others. They may tempt you with their own egotism to lower yourself.

You should anticipate that both your own mind and others will try to mislead you into egoistic activity, and remain very alert and watchful to ensure that this cannot happen. The very best policy is to maintain diligent daily meditation practice as your main activity until you attain enlightenment.

Your meditation is like a pot boiling over a fire. It is very useful for cooking something nice, but if the water boils over it can put out the fire, or it can boil dry; either way your nice dish is ruined. Remain watchful for egoistic thoughts and impulses, and when you find them, crush them with your mind.

It is most helpful to remain in the company of others who also have high principles, even if they are different from you. That’s why the Buddha created the Sangha, where many different kinds of people can come together on the platform of the Dhamma. Water and the earth are different, but the water nourishes the earth, and the earth supports the water. Remain grounded in your inner truth, and the water of association with other good monks will nourish you.

“One thing, when arising in the world, arises for the welfare of many, for the happiness of many, for the welfare & happiness of many beings, both human & divine. Which one thing? Concord in the Sangha. When the Sangha is in concord, there are no arguments with one another, no abuse of one another, no ganging up on one another, no abandoning of one another. Then those with little confidence [in the teaching] become confident, while those already confident become even more so.” — Ittivutaka 1.19

The Sangha will help you to drown out the clamor of your inferior emotions, and bring out and reinforce the more noble ones. It will help you remain balanced, develop good habits and remain innocent and correct. Remain strong in your commitment to the Sangha, and you can easily defeat fear, anger, doubt and despair, and also develop tolerance for individual differences.

From → Q&A

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