The best reason to practice meditation is that on the road ahead of us there is great danger; we are faced with great danger in our individual futures. Each and every one of us is in danger that we live with until we can find safety. The only difference is that some people see this danger and some don’t see it. Since we can not prepare ourselves for the future if we don’t understand the dangers we face, we must start our lives by learning of the dangers that lie before us.

According to the Buddha’s teaching, there are a great number of dangers ahead of us. An understanding of these will encourage us to live our lives with care; it will prepare us for the future and allow us to avoid the things we can avoid and accept the things we cannot.

The first set of dangers ahead of us are birth, old age, sickness and death. These dangers are those that are common to all beings. It’s true that there’s no birth ahead of us in this life – we’ve already met with it; it’s no longer a danger, it’s now a reality, we have been born. Because of our birth we have to face all sorts of suffering and discomfort that come along with being human, suffering that comes hand in hand with being born – the other three: old age, sickness and death. These are dangers we cannot avoid in this lifetime. Even if we understand them thoroughly, even if we learn all that there is to know about them and prepare ourselves for them well in advance, we cannot avoid any one of them. The danger that we can avoid, however, is that they might catch us unaware, unprepared for them, in which case we will suffer great mental distress, unable to come to terms with their reality.

If we get old but are not prepared for old age – not prepared to be old and bent and aching and with the many ailments that come along with being old: having a poor memory, rotting teeth, false teeth, a bent back, arthritis, etc., and all the many ailments which come along with being old, if we don’t have a mind which is well-trained and able to deal with such uncomfortable, undesirable states, then this is a great danger to us, something that is waiting for us and will cause great suffering. This is a danger that even in this lifetime can be avoided, the danger of suffering because of old age, sickness and death. If we’re not ready for cancer and then we happen to fall victim to cancer, or diabetes, heart disease, sickness that comes from old age, or even simple aliments like a cold or a flu, then when they come they will bring great suffering. More importantly, if we’re not ready for death, then when death comes it will of course bring great suffering; if we’re not ready to leave, if we’re afraid of death, if we are not able to come to terms with the dying process then it too will bring great suffering.

We can see that often the danger in all of these things does not come from any sort of craving or attachment, it simply comes from not understanding them. For instance, by not understanding death, not knowing what to expect, not being able to come to terms with what’s happening at the time of death, when we die we die confused and afraid, simply because we are not able to process the phenomena that are coming into our minds; not able to deal with the impermanence, with the new, the unusual, the unexpected.

In the practice of meditation we work at breaking our experience down into its ultimate reality. When we say “rising, falling” or when we have pain and say “pain, pain” or when thinking, “thinking”, or “afraid”, or “angry”, or “upset”, or “confused” whenever these arise, when we break experience down into what is truly real, then in the end anything that arises, no matter how strange or unexpected it may be, it becomes something very easy to deal with. At the time of dying there are still the same phenomena as throughout the life; even though the content may be different, there are still just moment-to-moment experiences of seeing, hearing, etc. At the time of sickness there is the same pain, aching, and discomfort that we have experienced countless times before, even though it may be of a different degree or frequency. Most importantly, we don’t cling to concepts like “I have cancer” or “I am dying”, staying focused at a level of ultimate reality: “there is pain,” “there is fear,” “there is anger,” “there is upset,” “there is worry,” and so on, by simply saying to ourselves, for example, “worried, worried” or “afraid, afraid”. When we remember to respond in this way, we aren’t caught off guard by what seems to be out of our ability to comprehend.

The practice of meditation, therefore, is extremely helpful in avoiding the dangers that are not inherent in these experiences but are caused by our aversion and fear of them. Beyond this, if we don’t practice we are likely to be born again in a similar state, or even a state of greater suffering, in a place where food is scarce, luxury is non-existent. If we are negligent in developing our minds, we may be reborn as an animal, a ghost, or even in hell. We may be reborn any number of places. This is the danger of rebirth, and of course the danger of old age, sickness and death which follow. We’re in danger of this. We’re in danger of being born again and again. If our minds are not clear when we die, we’re in danger of getting stuck in the same sufferings we have faced in this life and being confronted with the same dangers; or even worse, depending on where our minds lead us. If, on the other hand, we train and purify our minds, then at the moment when we die we may not even have to be born again. Or, if we are born again we will be born in a pure place, according to our state of mind when we die. So this is a first good reason to practice meditation, to avoid this first set of dangers that are waiting ahead of us.

The second set of dangers are those that exist for people who do evil deeds. Whenever we perform an unwholesome act, we face these dangers; as long as we have unwholesomeness in our mind, the opportunity for us to commit such unwholesome deeds exists, and so the danger lays in wait for all of us until we are able to cleanse our minds of these defilements. The first danger is attanobhaya; the danger of self-blame, the danger of rebuking ourselves, the danger of feeling guilty for bad things which we have done. The second is parassabhaya, the danger of other people blaming us, the danger of receiving blame from other people for our evil deeds. Third is daṇḍabhaya, the danger of being punished for our deeds; and fourth, duggatibhaya, the danger of rebirth in a state of suffering. This is another set of four dangers that are ahead of us.

The danger of feeling guilty for our unwholesome deeds, blaming ourselves, is ever-present; whenever we perform bad deeds there’s always guilt that follows. This danger is actually most apparent in good people; a good person will feel acutely guilty at even the smallest unwholesomeness, just as a fastidiously clean person will experience acute repulsion at the smallest impurity on their body, clothing or possessions. A person who engages in evil deeds habitually will not likely feel much guilt for even the most heinous act. As the Buddha says in the Dhammapada, “pāpopi passati bhadraṃ, yāva pāpaṃ na paccati” – an evildoer may meet with fortune for as long as the evil has not ripened. Nonetheless, with every evil deed they perform, they will sink deeper into depravity, and be consumed by the fires of greed, anger and delusion, which the Buddha said burn in the mind by day and smoulder by night. Every evil deed an evil doer performs will reaffirm the evil tendencies in their minds, making it less and less likely that they will be able to reform themselves and find a way out of their depravity, while all the while they will suffer the mental anguish that comes from the defilements. Moreover, an evildoer will suffer from constant fear of being caught and punished for their deeds and will suffer great mental torment as a result.

Based on wrong views, ordinary people even feel guilty for deeds that have no unwholesome quality, like stepping on an insect without realizing it and thinking that one has committed murder. Once, in the Buddha’s time, a monk sat down on a chair that had a blanket on it and crushed a small child that was under the blanket. He was of course seized with remorse, but the Buddha made it clear that even this could not be considered murder – it was rather an act of negligence, and so he admonished the monks to look carefully before they sit down from that point onward. Self-blame is really a horrible curse, one that can cause people to commit suicide, unable to face the guilt. Sometimes people hate themselves for their physical appearance, sometimes for failure in their life or society. Such situations can be attributed to past karma or even just to circumstance, and should never be a source of guilt or self-hatred.

Worry is considered to be an unwholesome mind-state in the Buddha’s teaching; no good can come from it, and we often indulge in it as a substitute for real change. If we don’t make a strong determination to set ourselves in wholesome mind-states, we will constantly return to evil deeds and the guilt and remorse that follow. Based on such guilt, we reaffirm our belief in self and the self-hatred that goes along with it. Once we develop clear understanding of reality, we will realize that our past deeds are done and gone and that there is no self that carries the guilt, only the impersonal repercussions that need not be a cause for further defilement. We will come to understand the impersonal nature of both the evil deeds and their results and will lose all inclination for and attachment to either. Until such realization comes to us, however, we are all faced with the danger of both evil deeds themselves and the remorse that comes along with them.

The danger of receiving blame from others is equally frightening as long as we cling to the idea of self. It’s easier to blame others for their bad deeds than to see one’s own faults; even those who hate themselves will try their best to hide their faults and make effort to criticize the faults of others to avoid attention to their own. Often it makes us feel better about ourselves to know that others are on the same level. As for those who hold themselves higher than others, they will use their poor judgement of others as a means of supporting their own feelings of superiority. Such people delight in finding fault in others for the slightest offense, or even for a non-offense.

Again, in the Dhammapada, the Buddha reminds us:

sudassaṃ vajjamaññesaṃ, attano pana duddasaṃ. paresaṃ hi so vajjāni, opunāti yathā bhusaṃ. attano pana chādeti, kaliṃva kitavā saṭho.

Easily seen are the faults of others; one’s own faults, however, are hard to see. For others one winnows their faults like chaff; one’s own, though, one hides as a deceitful cheat hides unlucky dice

— Dhp 252

This sort of activity is common among those who have never taken up the practice of meditation, and the stress and suffering that comes to the recipient of criticism is also common to those who cling to an idea of self. For those who have practised insight meditation, however, there comes the knowledge that what we call “self” is only a flux of experience, arising and ceasing, and so there is no target on which to pin such criticism. The criticism itself is not real, either; it is only speech that is interpreted by our mind as having some sort of meaning, leading to thoughts and that are then clung to as pleasant or unpleasant; the meditator will see this, and find nothing in the process that can be said to belong to oneself, freeing them from the burden of such criticism.

Moreover, through the practice of meditation, one will cease to perform any and all evil deeds, and therefore find no reason to fear what others might say. As my teacher once joked with us, “if someone calls you a buffalo, just put your hand on your backside and see if you have a tail. If you don’t have a tail, you’re not a buffalo.” The only sure way to be free from blame of others is to avoid evil deeds of thought, speech and deed. Then, even when others scold or criticize you, you will not be moved, since you see clearly that you have done nothing wrong, and that the criticism is just meaningless speech.

If we are not mindful when others praise us, we will be delighted, conceiving it to be pleasurable and clinging to it as belonging to us. Then, when others even hint at dispraise or criticism, we will be angered, displeased, even depressed and traumatized thinking the criticism also ours. It is this danger that the Buddha saw when he said in the Mangala Sutta, “phutassa lokadhammehi, cittaṃ yassa na khampati” – when touched by worldly vicissitudes, whose mind is not shaken, for them this is the highest blessing. So, we should take every precaution to ward off the danger in clinging to both the criticism and the praise of others.

At the same time, we should make all effort to avoid evil deeds or else even wise people will criticize us. Even if we are not moved by criticism, still our evil deeds will always meet with censure by the wise, and we will thus have no opportunity to associate with good people who will regard us as evil doers. This is a real danger that comes from evil – that we will be only fit to associate with similar individuals, and will be ostracized from all good society.

Next, there is the danger of punishment in this life; legal punishment or punishment from enemies or evil friends and benefactors. Our parents, our spouses, our friends, the police, the country and so on, even to the point of being punished by other countries in the case of international crimes. Some parents beat their children for being naughty; some husbands beat their wives for the smallest wrong; some wives attack their husbands for being unfaithful; friends punish friends, enemies attack enemies. The world is full of enmity and vengeance of all sorts. This is a real danger we all face – that, through our unwholesome thoughts, we will do or say something that will lead to some sort of punishment from those around us; we may even, at times, receive punishment for things we didn’t do. This, then, is another reason to avoid evil deeds and cultivate wholesome mind-states that will allow us to bear with any punishment we do receive.

The fourth danger in performing evil deeds is punishment in future lives. When we die, if our minds are full of anger, greed or delusion, we can only expect to continue towards more suffering. We may be born in hell, as an animal, or as a ghost, based on our state of mind when we die. We’re born in this life as human beings, living the lives we are living, because our minds have brought us here. If one’s mind is full of anger and hatred when one dies, they will be born in a place of anger and hatred, in hell. If one is full of greed and avarice, they will be born as a ghost. If one is full of ignorance and delusion, they will be born as an animal. If such unwholesome states are very strong one will risk being born in a state of great suffering. This too is a real danger awaiting us in the future if we still habitually cultivate and develop unwholesomeness.

The third set of dangers is made up of those that wait for people who strive to do good deeds. Some meditators complain of having a great many obstacles standing in the way of their practice; others simply give up when difficulty arises. It is important to realize that no good deed is easy to perform; a deed is only good if it changes our bad habits into good ones, cleaning the defilement from our minds. We should never be discouraged or distracted by difficulty or defilements when they arise in our minds. We should see them as a means of building strength. As the Bodhisatta says in the Vessantara Jataka, when asked about his life in the forest,

Adversity breaks in a man, just as a charioteer breaks in a horse; adversity, O king, has tamed us here.

The difficulty we meet with in practice should be compared to the taming of a wild horse. One can’t simply blame the horse and give up, nor can one beat the horse to death hoping to somehow force it into submission. Through rigorous training, however, the habits of the horse can slowly be changed until it becomes wearied of its old ways and submits to the wishes of its master. In the same way, the untrained mind is wild and uncontrollable. At times in meditation one may think, “I am just not cut out for meditation” and want to give up. One may become frustrated by or afraid of one’s own mind and want to force it to behave, repressing unwholesome tendencies out of fear and aversion. This sort of behaviour is useless in the long term, however, since it relies on concentration rather than understanding, and is therefore dependent on the power of concentration, which cannot be sustained for ever. If, on the other hand, one is patient and persistent, over time, one will teach one’s own mind the stress and suffering created by its wild habits and bring it to let go of attachment to both pleasant and unpleasant experiences through the understanding of their leading to detriment.

As the Bodhisatta pointed out, it is only through facing adverse experiences that one can tame the mind; if one lets the mind follow after all of its inclinations, never facing the difficult experiences that are also a part of reality, there is no hope that one will ever train the mind to understand objective reality.

The third set of dangers are most important for a meditator to become familiar with so as to not be dissuaded from the goal because of them. The Buddha taught these dangers using the metaphor of crossing a body of water. Just as one attempting to cross a large body of water, much danger awaits for a meditator wishing to escape from samsara to the farther shore where safety and freedom from suffering are found. The four dangers the Buddha enumerated are

1) waves, 2) crocodiles, 3) whirlpools, 4) sharks.

These are four dangers for one wishing to reach the farther shore. They are also metaphors for the dangers that may stop us from reaching peace, happiness and freedom from suffering.

The first danger, waves, is what the Buddha called the eight worldly dhammas, eight vicissitudes of life that we easily get caught up in, even though they are worldly things of no inherent benefit. When we come to practice meditation, we try to leave behind worldly things, doing away with our attachment and aversion to the ways of the world. If we get caught up in such things, they will toss us about like waves on the ocean, and may even drown us with their force.

The eight worldly dhammas are fame and obscurity, praise and blame, gain and loss, and happiness and suffering. When we are famous, or have high status in society, it is easy to get caught up and proud of it. Some people become addicted to fame, constantly thinking of ways to become better-known or rise up in social status. Such people become devastated if they find themselves without status or fame, and thus are tossed about chasing after the peak of the next wave. Even meditators may succumb to such danger, letting their minds wander into thoughts of becoming famous or successful in the worldly sphere.

Likewise, when we receive praise, we can easily become caught up in it, addicted to the esteem of others, and tossed about whenever we receive dispraise. Some meditators become angry and obstinate when criticized by their teachers, refusing to listen and even leaving the meditation centre without finishing their training simply because of their inability to withstand criticism. Others become caught up in their worldly accomplishments, relishing the praise that comes from involvement in the world, and so are unable to focus their minds on meditation, thinking only of the pleasure that comes from being among those who shower them with praise.

Gain as well can be a great hindrance to meditation if one worries about ones possessions or if craving for new possessions arises. Some monks become dissatisfied with the monastic life because of their remembrance of pleasant experiences when they were lay people. Some monks become infatuated with the lives of lay people and give rise to craving for what seems to be a life of happiness as compared to the difficult life of a monk. Some monks are even enticed by rich lay supporters to disrobe, with the promise of marriage or financial support once they disrobe. Likewise, those meditators who have much wealth will often fail to put out any real effort in the practice, unafraid as they are about the future, thinking that they are already safe and that their riches will protect them from all dangers. Often this prevents such people from even attending a meditation course, since they are unable to see the dangers that await even rich people if they are negligent.

The same goes for happiness – when we are happy and comfortable and not faced with any immediate suffering, we will become complacent. When our meditation practice becomes difficult, if we are not mindful and see the danger arising, we will become bored and dissatisfied, thinking only about the pleasure we could find doing other things. The Buddha called these things waves because they toss us about, back and forth, clinging to the good and chasing away the bad. As long as one allows the mind to be tossed about in this way, one will never reach the farther shore of safety and freedom from suffering.

The danger of crocodiles refers to laziness and indolence; thinking only about our mouth and stomach, unwilling to strive against even the slightest difficulty. Like a crocodile with a big mouth, a meditator who is lazy will think only about eating, sleeping, and lounging around in idle diversion and negligence. When we first undertake to practice intensive meditation, it will likely be very difficult for us to follow a meditator’s schedule: sleeping only four to six hours every day, staying in a simple dwelling with food only in the morning and of a simple nature. For some, this will be a reason to put out more effort to give up attachment to luxury and indolence. For others, it will swallow them like a crocodile; or rather they, like crocodiles, will be fit to do nothing but fill their mouths with food and lie around, wallowing in their laziness.

If we truly wish to become free from suffering, we must let go of attachment to all things, including comfort, luxury and pleasure. So, like the Bodhisatta, we should see it as a good thing to have to endure the hardships of meditation and monastic life. We should be patient and endure long hours of meditation with only little sleep, food, and conversation. We should even be ready to forgo these things entirely if necessary, practising throughout the night, avoiding conversation with others, and even surviving on little or no food if it is not available to us. The Buddha made clear that going intentionally without food is not correct, but that patience even when food is not available is far better than anger and dissatisfaction. We shouldn’t try to avoid difficulty, or give in to laziness; we should instead try to avoid laziness, which is like a crocodile that will eat us up from within.

The danger of whirlpools refers to objects of sensual desire because they, like a whirlpool, drag us down, drown us, effectively ending our journey towards freedom. Everywhere around us, no matter where in the world we might be, we are constantly confronted with pleasant and unpleasant stimuli at the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, and the body. Because of our addiction to these experiences, and the chemical reactions they produce in the brain, we are like drunk people, unable to think clearly, incapable of meditation, spinning around and around like in a whirlpool. As with a whirlpool, it might seem pleasurable while we are spinning but slowly, inexorably, it draws us down to our demise. As with a whirlpool, the more caught up we become, the harder it is to get out of the cycle of addiction, since the brain and mind together become habitually inclined towards the objects of addiction. This is a grave danger for meditators and non-meditators alike; only through constant mindfulness and ardent striving can one hope to stay free from the pull of sensuality.

The danger of sharks refers to sexual desire, which is arguably the most addictive form of sensuality in existence. Even apart from the sensual gratification, the mere thought of sexual gratification is enough to drive humans and animals alike into a form of temporary insanity. Like a shark that smells blood in the water, a being caught in the jaws of sexual desire will go into a frenzy, unable to find peace of mind until the desire is satiated. Sexual desire is like a shark because it catches one in its grasp and doesn’t let go. Desire for food and other sensual stimulus can be discarded by most ordinary people, but for someone addicted to sexual gratification, there is often little that can be done but watch them be devoured by it like a shark. This is a real danger that can only be overcome by persistent remembrance of the three aspects of the moment-to-moment experience involved with desire: the objective stimuli of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and thinking; the pleasant feelings that arise from contact with such stimuli, and the desire and attraction that comes from indulging in them.

These four are dangers to us who are intent upon following the path to purification of the mind. We must be aware of them and alert to their existence if we are to reach the goal of the path. Once we have reached the goal, we will become free from all of these dangers, as well as the other dangers mentioned above. These last four dangers are, in fact, the path itself; it is by directly understanding and removing the power that such things have over our minds that we become free from suffering. One should never become disheartened when faced with these dangers; one should be confident like a soldier ready for battle and engage them head-on, defeating them with the weapons of mindfulness and wisdom.

This then is the Buddha’s teaching on danger. It is a teaching that is meant to help us become true followers of the Buddha, “bhikkhu” in Pali. In Buddhism, there are two kinds of bhikkhu: one refers to a monk who goes for alms (bhikkhā) and the other refers to “one who sees (ikkha) the danger (bhaya) in samsara”. The former is only a superficial appellation, and not the true mark of a follower of the Buddha. The latter, applying to one who sees the danger in becoming old, getting sick and dying, who sees the danger in living one’s life without training oneself in higher things, is the mark of a true follower of the Buddha’s teaching.

This teaching is given for the purposes of helping meditators see the dangers that are a part of life, the dangers that come from doing evil deeds and the dangers that come to those who would be free from evil deeds. It is taught so that we will not be caught off guard by the dangers of samsara that we must face on the path to freedom.