While reading the news of current world events, I am reminded of one of the Buddha’s teachings on different kinds of people in the world. On a certain occasion the Buddha said, “There are four kinds of people found existing in the world. What four? One in darkness who is heading for darkness, one in darkness who is heading for light, one in light who is heading for darkness, and one in light who is heading for light.” Tama Sutta: Darkness, AN 4:85
What does it mean to be ‘in’ darkness or ‘in’ light? The darkness or light that we are ‘in’ describes the conditions we are experiencing or have experienced in the world until now, including the whole range of pleasant and unpleasant conditions, within our environment, our community, our family, our bodies and minds.
The Buddha describes those ‘in’ darkness as literally those with more worldly dukkha, whether it be, difficulty obtaining food, shelter, clothes, medicines, or difficulty with physical illness or disability. You could also think about those suffering in abusive family situations, those who are bullied or discriminated against, and those in war torn countries. There are countless examples of people living with more than the average share of dukkha in the world.
Those ‘in’ light are described as those whose worldly conditions have been more favourable, literally those with more sukha, who easily receive worldly comforts, status, and wealth, and whose health is good and body and mind are strong.
With these two examples, the Buddha describes the extreme ranges of people in darkness and in light. There are many of us, I suspect, who would say we are somewhere on the grey-scale between the darkness and the light.
Reflecting on how one might consider oneself with regard to being ‘in’ darkness or light or somewhere in the middle, we can see it as ‘just how it is’ right now. One has to be careful not to default to a judging mind with any sense of pride on the one side or shame on the other, or any comparing of ourselves as better or worse or equal to anyone else with regard to these worldly conditions. As the Buddha so frequently reminded us, they are impermanent, unstable and could change in a second. Isn’t that what we are seeing around the world right now? Rather than making a judgment on this, the Buddha points out that it doesn’t matter whether we are currently experiencing darkness or light, or some shade of grey, we all have the capacity to direct ourselves towards light … and we all have the risk of falling into darkness.
With the second half of the equation, ‘heading into darkness’ and ‘heading into light’ the Buddha is no longer referring to worldly conditions we are experiencing, but rather he is referring to our intentional actions. ‘Heading into darkness’ means unleashing the darkness of unwholesome actions by body, speech and mind – harming others, and/or ourselves, by our physical actions, our speech and even our thoughts. To be more specific, the darkness of killing, stealing, abusing, assaulting or lying, speaking harshly or divisively, or spreading unfounded tales and rumours, diverging far from the Dhamma. And, of course, all unwholesome action and speech start with dark, unwholesome mind states – greed and jealousy, anger and hatred, ignorance and delusion. When we are unable to reign these in, no matter how comfortable and wealthy, or poor and down-trodden, it’s like we are heading into a deep, dark cave with endless tunnels and no light to guide our way out.
‘Heading into light’, on the other hand, is the uplifting of the heart by developing wholesome actions by body, speech and mind. Avoiding unwholesome actions and allowing loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity to steer us towards physical actions that are helpful and generous, not harmful and stingy; speech that is true and kind, gentle and leading towards reconciliation, timely, appropriate to the listener and directed towards Dhamma; and mind states that are devoid of stinginess, ill-will and delusion. This brightness is like our treasured guide, our parent and teacher, lighting our path to joy and peace in our hearts.
Perhaps many of us feel a sense of living in darkening shades of grey as we experience a new state of the ‘Covid’ world with so many businesses closed and people out of work, with global requests or requirements to stay at home and physically isolate as much as possible, and of course for so many, with sickness and death. Whatever shade of grey we are living with, may we use mindfulness and wise reflection to always guide us towards the light of goodness and kindness, compassion and wisdom. May our faith in the Buddha and the Dhamma and our patient endurance protect the light when the worldly winds start blowing up a storm. May we keep this light shining brightly in our hearts and may it overflow in all directions. And may the warmth and brightness of this light bring us joy and calm and lead us on the Path towards unconditional peace.
© Ayyā Nimmalā, April 2020