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Stagnate… fall back… or progress…

During our whole life we try to achieve more, to be better. When we were at school we worked hard to get good grades; maybe because our teachers asked to do so or our parents pushed us or maybe we just wanted to do better. So we tried and achieved a better competent level in our own capacity. Then during our higher studies or during our job we work hard to move upwards in life; do better than last year or last month. However, life is not a smooth upward journey. Sometimes we get stuck in the same place, or we fall back, degrade.

When practicing the noble Dhamma the same thing happens. We may progress in the path, we may stagnate or we may fall back. If we are in progress, that means if we develop virtues, in goodness, in kusala dhamma, then there is no problem there. However, it is very unfortunate, if we stagnate in a certain level without progress or fall back, or decline in the path. In fact the Lord Buddha said that He does not commend those who develop certain virtues (kusala dhamma) and stay in that level without a progress, therefore, no point talking about (His censure on) those who degrade in the virtues.

Falling Back…

In the worldly sense we know what is meant by falling back in life. It is declining or degrading of the standard of living. With that we lose friends, sometimes family and other comforts and benefits we used to have. In the noble Dhamma we fall back in six ways. The Lord Buddha explains one may decline in;

1. Faith/ Saddha – we may develop a certain level of faith, but fail to retain it and start doubting the enlightenment of the lord Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
2. Virtue/Seela – we may start observing the precepts and break them again and again.
3. Dhamma knowledge / Suta – we may start listening to discourses and after a while give it up.
4. Generosity/ Thyaga – miserliness or greed may conquer our generosity.
5. Insight / Panna – we may develop a certain level of insight but since it is not strong enough ignorance will overcast it.
6. Intellect or intuition / Patibhana – the ability to think insightfully may disappear.

Thus, if we are falling back in Dhamma, we are probably losing one or more of these qualities. Eventually that would lead us sway form Dhamma. This is a situation that the lord Buddha condemned.


In our worldly life, we may achieve a certain level and stop at that without progressing or declining. In the noble path too, we may stagnate, as stated above, in six ways in a certain level without progress or decline.

1. Faith/ Saddha – we may achieve a certain level of faith, and fail to develop it further.
2. Virtue/Seela – we may protect a certain number of precepts without breaking but unable to protect more.
3. Dhamma knowledge / Suta – we listen to some discourses and keep only that knowledge without having the thirst to listen and learn more.
4. Generosity/ Thyaga – we may have a limited level of generosity.
5. Insight / Panna – we may develop a certain level of insight and unable to develop further.
6. Intellect or intuition / Patibhana – insightful thinking may halt at a certain level.

This too is a condition that the lord Buddha condemned. He only praised progress of the above six qualities.

How to fix it?

The most compassionate teacher gave a solution to this problem of stagnating in the path and declining. He first asked the disciples, us, to look at ourselves through the ‘mirror of Dhamma’.

Mirror mirror on the wall…

Why do we use a mirror? We use a mirror to look at our-self to see if we look presentable or beautiful and to make our-self beautiful. The lord Buddha uses a simile to explain this further; imagine there is a young woman or a man who loves to look beautiful. What would such a person often do? He or she would often go to a mirror and look at him/her self to see if everything looks beautiful; the hair, the eyes, the lipstick, the makeup etc. Now, if this person sees some dirt on his/her hair or face, what would be the reaction? He or she would hasten to clean it and look again to see if it’s gone. Such a person would always keep a mirror near or make use of a mirror whenever needed. I am sure most of us can relate to this simile. The lord Buddha asks us to use the mirror of Dhamma, like in the simile, to make ourselves beautiful through Dhamma.

Mirror of Dhamma…

What is the mirror of Dhamma? Here, the lord Buddha states ten questions as the mirror of Dhamma.

1. Am I covetous person? Do I live being greedy for other people’s things often?
2. Am I angry often? Have I not given up being angry most of the time?
3. Am I often feeling sleepy? Have I not overcome sleepiness?
4. Is my mind mostly disturbed and troubled?
5. Do I doubt the noble Dhamma and virtues often?
6. Am I full of hatred and ill-will most of the time?
7. Is my mind dirty most of the time?
8. Am I lethargic often? Is my body burdened by the weight of unwholesomeness?
9. Am I not strenuous in the noble path? Don’t I have the energy?
10. Have I developed a concentrated mind? Do I often strive to develop concentration?

Next the lord Buddha asks the disciples to use the ten questions to evaluate yourself, like you use a mirror to evaluate your beauty. And if you don’t like what you see, then fix it. When you fix it and see your self as a beautiful person through the mirror of Dhamma, then you have fixed the problem of declining in the kusala dhamma or stagnating.

The lord Buddha further explains that one should have an honest need an honest requirement to look beautiful through the noble Dhamma like the young person, in the simile, who wants to look beautiful. And if you look ugly in the mirror of Dhamma, do not throw the mirror away, because you are not alone, and you have the way to make yourself beautiful.

Therefore, at a time when the noble Dhamma is alive, let us turn the mirror of Dhamma to ourselves, not at others, and try to see how beautiful or ugly we are in the eye of Dhamma and make an honest effort to look beautiful.

From Thiti sutta, Anguttaka nikaya
By Prajapati Jayawardena

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