Four Ways of Practising the Buddha-Dhamma
by Sayagyi U Chit Tin

In several discourses, the Buddha speaks of four ways of practising (patipada) his Teachings. Two groups of four are given. In the first group, the ways of practising are defined according to whether they are painful (dukkha) or pleasant (sukha) and to whether the meditator attains knowledge slowly (dandhabhinna) or quickly (khippabhinna).[1] The second group of four ways of practising is a list of four attitudes in the minds of those who practise the Teachings: (1) without endurance (akkhama), (2) with endurance (khama), (3) with taming (dama), (4) with calmness (sama).[2]
For the first group of four ways of practising, the Buddha gave the reasons why a meditator's progress can be (1) painful with slow attainment of knowledge, (2) painful with quick attainment of knowledge, (3) pleasant with slow attainment of knowledge, or (4) pleasant with quick attainment of knowledge. If a person is of the strongly passionate type (tibba-raga-jatika), of the strongly angry type (tibba-dosa-jatika), or of the strongly deluded type (tibba-moha-jatika), then that person will constantly experience the pain and grief (domanassa) that come from passion, anger, and delusion. A person without strong passion, strong hatred, and strong delusion will find the practice pleasant. If the five controlling faculties (pancindriya) of (1) faith (saddha), (2) energy (viriya), (3) mindfulness (sati), (4) concentration (samadhi), and (5) wisdom (panna) are weak, a person will be slow in attaining that which gives immediate result through destroying the taints (asava).
Ashin Buddhaghosa says in his commentary [3] that a bhikkhu who lacks preparation will find the practice painful and will be slow in acquiring knowledge. A bhikkhu who at one period is free from clinging to the world but who later on grows weary of discerning (1) material existence, (2) immaterial existence, and (3) conditions;[4] (4) weary of (discerning these in the) three divisions of time (past, present, and future) (tisu addhasu); (5) weary of (discerning) what is and what is not the path;[5] such a bhikkhu will lack preparation. He will grow weary of (trying to) attain insight through (1) contemplating arising, (2) contemplating dissolution, (3) the establishment of fear (concerning all conditioned states),[6] (4) the contemplation of danger, (5) the contemplation of dispassion, (6) the knowledge of the desire for deliverance, (7) the knowledge of equanimity about formations, (8) the knowledge of adaptation,[7] (9) and the knowledge of (being of) the lineage.[8] Thus, he will only attain a mundane path. This mundane path will mean that he will experience pain and a difficult existence for himself; his practice will be painful and he will attain knowledge slowly.
A bhikkhu who was previously weary of (developing) these five types of knowledge earlier on but who is not weary at a later time of (developing) these nine types of insight knowledge will find his practice painful, but he will attain knowledge quickly. The remaining two types can be understood from the explanation of the first two: not growing weary of the five types of knowledge at an early stage but growing weary of the nine types of insight knowledge later on results in pleasant practice and attaining knowledge slowly. Not growing weary at any stage results in pleasant practice and attaining knowledge quickly.[9]
Ashin Buddhaghosa compares the four ways of practising to a man searching for oxen. A man has four oxen who wander off into a large forest. He looks for them in a forest that is full of thorns and thickets. He goes along the path in the forest experiencing difficulty and trouble. He has difficulty and trouble seeing the place in the forest where the oxen are hidden. Or the forest is open and unobstructed but he has difficulty and trouble seeing where the oxen are hidden. Or the forest is open and unobstructed and he quickly sees the oxen.
The four oxen are like the four Noble Paths. The man seeking the oxen is like the meditator (yogavacara). The trouble experienced in going into the forest is like the type of practice that is painful due to the meditator's having previously tired of the (first) five types of knowledge (nana). Having difficulty and trouble seeing the place in the forest where the oxen are is like seeing the Noble Paths only later because of becoming weary of (all) nine types of knowledge.[10]
In The Path of Purification,[11] Ashin Buddhaghosa says that the practice will be painful if the preparatory tasks of cutting off the impediments, etc., are not carried out. It will be pleasant if they are carried out. The practice will be painful for one who is overwhelmed by craving and for one who has not developed serenity. Attaining knowledge will be slow for one overwhelmed by ignorance or for one who has not developed insight (vipassana), but it will be fast if the opposite is true. If the defilements are strong, the practice will be painful. If they are weak it will be pleasant. If the faculties are weak, attaining knowledge will be slow. If they are strong, it will be quick.
In another discourse the Buddha says that the practice will be painful for a bhikkhu who dwells contemplating the foul aspect of the body, conscious of the repulsiveness of material food, conscious of not delighting in any world, contemplating the impermanence of all formations, conscious of death--in other words, a bhikkhu who is perfectly aware of all this within himself. On the other hand, the bhikkhu who is able to develop the absorption states (jhana) will find the practice pleasant. Attaining knowledge will be slow or fast depending on whether the five powers of the learner (sekha-bala) are weak or strong in him. These five powers are: (1) faith, (2) a sense of shame (hiri), (3) a fear of blame (ottappa), (4) energy, and (5) wisdom.
For the second group of four ways of practising, the Buddha gives analogies in two discourses for the first two ways. In the first discourse the Buddha says that a person who practises without endurance will abuse in return when he is abused, he will make (others) angry in return when he is made angry, and when someone quarrels with him he will quarrel in return. In the second discourse the Buddha says that a person who practises without endurance will not put up with cold, heat, hunger, thirst, contact with flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and creeping animals. He will not be able to bear harsh speech or unpleasant speech. He will not be able to endure repugnant, sharp, rough, acute, painful bodily sensations that arise and that are destructive to the life force. The person with endurance will have the opposite attitude in both cases: he will not abuse others when they abuse him, etc.; he will put up with cold, heat, etc.
In both discourses the last two ways of practising (taming and calming) are described in the same way. By taming we mean that a person [12] guards the six sense-doors. When a visible object is seen by the eye, he does not grasp at its major signs or at its secondary characteristics. Greed and sorrow, evil, unskilled states would overwhelm him if his eye-faculty was unguarded, so he practises with the eye-faculty guarded, protected, and restrained. Similarly, he guards the ear-faculty with respect to sounds, the nose-faculty with respect to odours, the tongue-faculty with regard to flavours, the body-faculty with regard to tangible objects, and the mind-faculty with regard to thoughts.
By calmness we mean that once a sensuous thought, a cruel thought, or an unwholesome, evil mental state has arisen, a bhikkhu does not allow it to endure. He gives it up, rejects it, calms it down, removes and eradicates it.
We can find many lessons in these two sets of four ways of practising the Buddha's Teachings. The stronger the three roots of wrong volitional actions are in us, the more pain and grief we will experience as we strive to reach the goal of Nibbana. In the discourses we cite here, the Buddha spoke of passion (raga) which is synonymous with greed (lobha). We must do our best to drive out thoughts of greed and passion by developing thoughts free of greed and passion (alobha). We must get rid of thoughts of hatred by developing thoughts free of hatred (adosa). We must strive to overcome delusion by developing our understanding of the true nature of the world, by working to be free of delusion (amoha). By being generous, giving up our attachment to material things, and by turning away from indulging in sensual pleasures, we can overcome our tendency to be greedy and full of passion. By developing loving kindness towards all living beings, we can overcome our tendency to hate. All the efforts we make to lead moral lives will go towards uprooting these harmful tendencies. Through developing our concentration and insight, we will be able to combat our tendency to be deluded.
In the second set of four ways of practising, the Buddha gives many details of how we can weaken and eventually eliminate these three roots that lead to continued suffering. A person should not allow anger to arise, or if it does arise, he should not allow it to remain. Even when other people abuse us, say or do things to make us angry, or quarrel with us, even when others use harsh or unpleasant speech, we should not reply in kind. No matter how much we are provoked, if we give way to the destructive force of hatred, we will be storing up much future suffering for ourselves. We will find it harder in the future to practise the Buddha's Teachings.
We should also avoid feeling angry about being physically uncomfortable. The Buddha mentions both external and internal discomfort. The external discomforts include being too cold or too hot, being hungry or thirsty, being annoyed by flies or mosquitoes, by the wind, the sun, or crawling creatures such a snakes. Internal discomfort includes any physical sensation that can be described as uncomfortable or painful--even those that threaten to kill us. As we make progress in our under- standing of reality, we will see better that, in the ultimate sense, we do not have control over the external world or over what goes on inside our bodies. We will have to make a determined effort to endure the unpleasant things in this world. Enduring means being patient--both with others and with ourselves.
Working to tame and calm our minds, the last two ways in the second set, will help us attain the patience we need. If we are careful in restraining our senses, we will control as much as possible our contact with the world around us. The more we avoid sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical objects, and thoughts that tend to arouse greed, hatred, and confusion, the better we will be able to follow the Path taught by the Buddha. We will not be able to live in a cocoon, however. We are bound to encounter things that will put us to the test. The mind is so fast that before we know it an unwholesome thought has arisen. Our minds will be agitated, and as soon as we are aware of this, we must make a determined effort to calm the mind down. We must get rid of the disturbance. The best way to do this, of course, is to use mindfulness of breathing, directing the mind to a neutral object and maintaining it on that object until the disturbance is gone.
The qualities mentioned in connection with the first set of four ways of practising will also be helpful to us. The five controlling faculties and the five powers of the learner have three things in common: faith, energy, and wisdom. We must have confidence or faith in the Buddha, the Doctrine he taught, and in those who live according to that Doctrine. If we put forth energetic effort and work correctly, we will gain wisdom, which will reinforce our confidence. The other controlling faculties of mindfulness and concentration will be essential if we are to gain any control over our thoughts, words, and deeds. And the powers of the learner, known as a sense of shame and a fear of blame, will be the two strong supports of our moral conduct. The learner is a person who has attained at least the Path of Stream-Entry but not the Fruition State of an Arahat. We may not be that advanced in our practice, but we must constantly work on these two powers if we are ever to attain our goal.
It may well be that we will not attain any of the Paths or Fruitions States in this lifetime. But these discourses given by the Buddha show us how important it is to prepare now to attain them in the future. If we make the right effort in this life but do not attain the goal, then it is because we did not prepare adequately in the past, or, perhaps, we made a vow to wait until a future Buddha's Dispensation. If we did not work as we should have in the past, it is too late to do anything about that now. It is now, in the present, that we must develop patience, live moral lives, work on concentrating the mind, and attain as much understanding as we are capable of. In that way, when all the conditions are right and all the necessary preparations are complete, we will reach our goal.
Even the Buddha's two chief disciples did not attain the highest goal automatically. When Ven. Sariputta asked Ven. Maha-Moggallana which of the four ways of practising led to his gaining release from all the taints, he answered that he reached the final goal through painful practice and through attaining knowledge quickly. When Ven. Maha-Moggallana asked Ven. Sariputta the same question, he answered that his practice was pleasant and he attained knowledge quickly.[13] Ashin Buddhaghosa gives added details in his commentary,[14] saying that for Ven. Maha-Moggallana the first three Paths were pleasant and that he attained knowledge slowly. For the Path of Arahatship, however, the practice was painful and he attained knowledge quickly--thus his answer. For Ven. Sariputta, the first three Paths were pleasant and he attained knowledge slowly, but when it came to the Path of Arahatship it was pleasant and quick--thus his answer.
Some of the instructions given by the Buddha are more appropriate to bhikkhus than to laypeople. Much as we may wish to prepare for attaining knowledge quickly, it is very difficult for laypeople to develop the jhanas. Students of Buddhist meditation as taught by Sayagyi U Ba Khin have found over the years that as long as they have a certain degree of concentration, it is possible to get on with the work of developing understanding.
Contemplating what is foul and unpleasant is another approach that is more appropriate for bhikkhus. Here again, if laypeople can attain a good appreciation of the ever-changing nature (anicca) of their own bodies and minds, this will prepare them for attaining their goal.
Every effort will pay dividends. No effort is wasted. It is difficult work, however, and it demands constant vigilance. How quickly a little bad weather can make us angry--to say nothing of trying to deal with an unpleasant, aggressive person. But if we work with regularity, we will make progress. It can be done.
Sayagyi U Chit Tin

1. A II 149-152, 154 (GS II 153-157, 159).
2. A II 152f. (GS II 157-159).
3. Mp III 138-140.
4. For a detailed discussion, see Path, Chapter XIX passim).
5. See Path, Chapter XX passim.
6. Ashin Buddhaghosa says that this is seeing how fearful formations are in the past, present, and future because they are all headed for destruction, but the meditator does not experience fear as an emotion (Path, Chapter XXI paras 32f.).
7. For a detailed discussion of these first eight stages in the know- ledge of insight, see Path, Chapter XXI passim.
8. See Path, Chapter XXII paras. 1-14.
9. In Path (Chapter III para 16) Ashin Buddhaghosa says that if a person cultivates what is unsuitable, the practice is painful and knowledge is attained slowly. If he cultivates what is suitable the practice is pleasant and knowledge is attained quickly. If the unsuitable is cultivated in the earlier stage and the suitable is cultivated in the later stage or vice versa, the results will be mixed.
10. Ashin Buddhaghosa says that the other points in the analogy can be easily worked out. We can summarize the points as: (1) painful practice is like the forest full of thorn and thickets, (2) plea- sant practice is like the open, unobstructed forest, (3) attaining knowledge slowly is like having difficulty and trouble finding the oxen, (4) attaining knowledge quickly is like seeing the oxen quickly.
11. Chapter III paras 16-18.
12. In the first discourse the Buddha says "a bhikkhu," but in the second discourse he refers to "a person."
13. A II 154f. (GS II 159f).
14. Mp III 142.