Studying the Dhamma is not just for the purpose of acquiring knowledge, but also for the purpose of getting encouragement in putting our knowledge into practice – bridging the gap between what we know and what we need to know. What we know is the knowledge we gain from study of the Buddha’s teaching. What we need to know is the truth of the Buddha’s teaching from empirical observation. Part of our study, therefore, must be in regards to putting our knowledge to good use, both how and why.
When we study the Dhamma in depth, we will become encouraged by its simplicity and practicality. The Buddha’s teaching is called “opanayiko” – “leading one onward”, in the sense that the deeper one delves into it, the more one becomes reassured and convinced of its truth. This is an important aspect of our study of the Buddha’s teaching, that it brings us both the tools and the conviction to put it into practice.
The connection between study and practice is essential for someone on the path to liberation. Without study, one will wander aimlessly like a person lost in the wilderness without a map. Without practice, one will be like a person who spends all their time studying maps without ever venturing out into the wilderness. Even if one undertakes both study and practice but is unable to connect the two, one will still be unable to make use of either, like a person who is unable to read maps or unskilled in their use. If we wish to find the way out of suffering, we must connect the theoretical truths we learn from the Buddha with our own practical realizations. If we are unable to do so, we will find they may actually work against each other, our practice making us doubt our study and our study making us doubt our practice.
Doubt is a common hindrance on the path of practice. One may doubt about the practice itself, asking what benefit can possibly come from walking and sitting in endless repetition, or of what use it could be to remind oneself constantly of what one already experiences every day. A beginner meditator may doubt whether any benefit has come from their practice, even after they have already gained much. Unless one has become thoroughly relieved of one’s doubts through extensive study and practice, one may doubt about the truth, even upon seeing it for oneself.
A meditator may doubt as well about their ability to succeed in the practice, overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of ridding oneself of all defilements. They may feel unequipped to deal with the obstacles they face in breaking down their mental chaos and, due to habitual laziness and other defence mechanisms, they may even give up the practice simply out of perceived inability.
When we receive teachings on Buddhism or meditation practice, from books, talks, or discussion, it can help us to make sense of our experience and break it down into manageable, surmountable challenges. For example, a very important teaching of the Buddha is in regards to the three characteristics of all worldly experience – impermanence, suffering, and non-self. Most Buddhist meditators are well-familiar with this teaching. Intellectually it is a teaching that is relatively easy to understand, whether we agree with it or not. Yet, regardless of how many times we have heard this teaching, how much study we have done on it, how much thought we have put into it, still, when we practice, we generally expect things to be permanent, satisfying, and controllable, and still manage to become frustrated very easily when our experience is not in line with our expectations.
We have been taught to believe that suffering is something to be avoided at all costs, and so we naturally think something is wrong with our practice when it forces us to face suffering. We very quickly forget the teachings we have learned if we are not reminded of them during our practice, and so it is very important for us to maintain a good relationship with a teacher during our training.
Experience of impermanence, suffering, and non-self is very important on the path to liberation. In fact, it is the very thing we are trying to realize. Once you see that something is impermanent, you won’t have any reason to cling to it as a source of stability. You won’t worry or fuss about such a thing and you won’t depend on it erroneously, suffering when it changes. You will come to see that your suffering is caused solely by mistaken perception of permanence and stability in what is neither permanent nor stable. Nonetheless, if we are not reminded and encouraged about this truth, we will be hard-pressed to see for ourselves the true nature of our condition. Without proper guidance and encouragement, the truth alone may not be enough to set us free.
Truth, according to the Buddha’s teaching, is quite simple. Ordinarily, when we think of truth or wisdom, we tend to make them out to be much more complicated than they actually are. We tend to have the idea that wisdom must be something complicated and difficult to understand, requiring years of study to appreciate. We think that truth requires much explanation, that a theory must have many facets and complexities for it to be the profound spiritual truth we are seeking in our practice.
Because of people’s desire for abstruse and complex teachings, it’s hard to give a talk on truth according to the Buddha – most Buddhist meditators have already heard about the four noble truths and will not find it of much interest to listen to a teaching on such a simple theme. The truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to the cessation of suffering – what more is there to say?
We generally think of the truth of suffering, for example, as something that needs lengthy explanation to understand, complete with examples and similes from ordinary life. Really, the truth of suffering is a very simple thing, encompassing all aspects of our experience. The truth of suffering means that none of what we are experiencing right now is happiness – none of it can possibly make us happy. It really does mean just that and it really is just this truth that will, when we come to see it for ourselves, set us free from suffering.
The four noble truths are actually very important to keep in mind and contemplate during our practice. When we encounter suffering in our practice, we can reflect on the four noble truths and reassure ourselves based on our observations that it’s only our craving and attachment that causes us to suffer. That is the second noble truth – that’s really all it means, that desire for things to be this way or that way or for obtaining this or that object – is really the single, solitary cause for all suffering.
The wisdom that we’re trying to gain is a very simple set of truths; for that reason itself it can be quite difficult to internalize. Our minds aren’t ordinarily programmed to accept simplicity; our minds are programmed to make things complicated out of habit. When we hear that all of our experience is unsatisfying, we immediately come up with various objections, theories about how happiness can actually be found in this or that experience. We may think it to be a very pessimistic teaching, due to our long-acquired views and beliefs about how satisfying the objects of our desire must be. As a result, we miss the important fact that it’s the truth.
No matter how much we believe, wish, pray, or theorize otherwise, when we investigate for ourselves, observing experience empirically – when we stop speculating and start observing, stop believing and start learning – we cannot deny the simple truth that nothing in this universe can possibly bring us true happiness or peace. When we see reality clearly for what it is, we cannot deny the observable truth that clinging to anything is cause only for greater suffering.
In meditation practice, our inherent inclination towards complexity can become a real problem. We try our best as teachers to bring our students back to simple observation, asking questions that help them really come to understand reality for what it is – simple questions, like: “Are the movement of the right foot and the movement of the left foot one thing or separate things?”
This is a very simple question with a very simple answer, and yet immediately the mind tries to analyze it, turn it into a philosophical or theoretical question. The purpose of the questions we ask meditators is to test whether the meditator is able to relate to reality objectively, or whether they are caught up in projections, judgements and views. The first step in meditation is to attain right view, which means giving up all theoretical views and beliefs. Right view is not really a view at all; it means to just see things simply as they are, to see the simple reality of our experience for what it is.
When walking, the movement of one foot arises and ceases; then the movement of the other foot arises and ceases in turn. The awareness of each movement likewise arises and ceases, never lasting beyond the object of awareness itself. This is the simple truth, but our minds can’t be easily contented with such truth, preferring to create ideas and concepts about “who” is walking, or “who knows” the walking. It is because of our inability to accept the simple truth of experience that we give rise to all kinds of views, philosophies and beliefs about self, soul, existence and reality.
Likewise, when we hear teachings about impermanence, suffering and non-self, we take it as instruction to think about whether this or that is impermanent, about what things cause us suffering, about our inability to control everything. We may even take it as a reason to doubt the Buddha’s teaching, since it certainly isn’t in accord with our views and beliefs to think everything to be so. In this example as well, the truth we are trying to understand is so simple that we are unable to appreciate it. In meditation, we are simply trying to appreciate what we already see – that everything arises and ceases, that it therefore is unsatisfying, and unfit to be regarded as self or soul, “me” or “mine”.
The truth of impermanence is that everything that arises ceases. It’s not a thought like “yes, it was here a moment ago, now it’s gone, so it must be impermanent!” It’s the awareness that arises when you realize that something you took as a stable entity is actually made up of momentary experiences. When you watch an experience from beginning to end, for example walking, noting “stepping right” and “stepping left”, or watching the stomach, noting “rising”, “falling”, you will see without need for speculation that every part of the experience is momentary and insubstantial, without essence or intrinsic worth of any kind. This is what is meant by seeing impermanence, suffering, and non-self; it is the result of the practice of meditation. It is not the practice itself.
The moment to moment realizations that occur in this way are what we mean by wisdom. Realizing the truth about reality, destroying our delusions about permanence, satisfaction, and controllability in regards to the objects of experience, is what is meant by realization of the four noble truths. Nothing that arises can ever bring us true happiness, since there is nothing arisen that does not immediately cease. As long as we seek happiness in what we see, hear, smell, taste, feel or think, we will be ever unsatisfied, victims of stress and suffering due to our mistaken conceptions.
In the beginning, this knowledge will be weak, and the meditator may doubt what they are experiencing. At this point, it is called the “preliminary” path, because it has not reached maturity. Through repeated cultivation of knowledge, however, the meditator’s mind will gradually shift from disbelief to certainty. At the moment where the mind makes a decisive realization that nothing in one’s experience can ever bring happiness, the meditator will experience turning away from arisen phenomena, entering into the unarisen, permanent, satisfying freedom from suffering; it is at this moment that one can be said to understand the four noble truths for themselves.
Such an experience occurs from the accumulation of empirical wisdom – simple wisdom, not wisdom from books, not concepts or ideas. People come to practice meditation to find wisdom and become quickly discouraged when they realize that they are not acquiring any “profound realizations”; all they see is the feet moving and the stomach rising and falling. They feel discouraged by the chaotic nature of their experience, seemingly the antithesis of true meditation practice. When the meditation is uncomfortable, they think something is wrong with the meditation; when they can’t follow the meditation object, they think something is wrong with themselves. Inevitably, most meditators come to a crisis, wondering why they are wasting their time repeating the same meaningless activities day after day with no result other than seeing how unsatisfying it is.
There is a famous movie in America called “The Karate Kid”, where a retired Japanese karate teacher is approached by an American kid who asks him to teach him karate. The old man has the kid paint a fence and wax cars for hours on end, until finally the kid gets fed up. He says, “look, I’m really grateful for you agreeing to teach me, but when are we going to get into learning karate?” The old man looks at him and replies, “show me how you paint the fence”, and as the kid is demonstrating, the old man punches him. Without thinking, the kid is able to react quickly based on the repetitious movements of painting the fence.
Then he says, “now, show me how you wax the car”, and then punches the kid again and the kid is able to block the punch. The teacher shows him that these simple exercises have a profound impact on the body and mind; they themselves are the martial art, the training. When I used to practice rock climbing, we were similarly taught that the mind develops habits in coordination with the body; if we learn a great many of coordinated mind-body actions, we will be able to react to any set of conditions, for example being able to climb a cliff wall we have never seen based on the set of “moves” we have trained in.
Meditation practice likewise relies on the mind’s ability to acquire and modify habitual patterns of behaviour. Simply repeating to yourself, “rising”, “falling” or “stepping right”, “stepping left” will cultivate habits of bare recognition free from projection, judgment, identification and belief, changing the very core of your understanding of reality, from one based on ignorance to one based on experience.
The reason meditation is a cause for so much suffering when we start is because it goes against our ingrained habits; we are simply unaccustomed to bare attention, needing novelty, diversity and excitement to keep us “satisfied”. As a result, we cultivate habits that are against our best interest – habits of addiction, aversion and self-delusion, and are unable to ever understand the simple truth of how much suffering these habits bring. Only once we cultivate habits of simple recognition and full awareness of what is here and now, can we begin to discard our unwholesome habits, as we do away with the underlying wrong beliefs and views in their possessing any worth or benefit.
I once heard it explained by a scientist as to why we cultivate views and beliefs that are out of line with reality. It’s an interesting question, really, how it is possible for someone to believe in the benefit of something that leads clearly to their own detriment. Surely our intelligence itself plays a part in the problem. There is no other race on Earth so capable of acting to its own detriment as the human race, and yet we are unquestionably the most intelligent, most advanced race on Earth. As far as I know, no other species on Earth is afflicted with the kinds of stress, anxiety, depression, cruelty, despair, or self-hatred that human beings are capable of as a matter of course.
The theory proposed, however, as to why we are prone to develop such errant habits and tendencies is founded on a behavioural pattern we share in common with our less intelligent animal friends. It is understood to be, in purely evolutionary terms, against our best interest to investigate thoroughly every experience we encounter. For example, when one hears a rustling sound while walking in a field of tall grass, the best response is clearly not to take the time to investigate, lest one risk becoming a meal for a hungry predator. Much safer is simply believing there to be a predator and running away; no harm will come if one is mistaken. The unfortunate side effect of this wise-seeming precaution is that it becomes a cornerstone to our outlook on life – that problems are not meant to be understood, but merely “solved” by whatever means possible.
Evolution measures success based on proliferation. The habits and tendencies that allow a species to flourish are those that will be favoured and passed on. Unfortunately, such habits do not always happen to be those in the best interest of the individuals making up the species; behavioural patterns such as sexism, tribalism, colonialism, xenophobia, and, of course, religious views and beliefs tend to proliferate more successfully than their more humane / rational counterparts.
The idea that religious belief may be of evolutionary benefit or detriment is not hard to understand, nor is it undocumented; the Indo-Ariyan people who conquered India in the time before the Buddha, for example, had a well-established religious tradition that well-suited their war-like nature. Their inclination towards conflict was most certainly supportive of their conquest over the relatively peaceful indigenous peoples of the sub-continent, whose religious beliefs in the sanctity of life and harmony of nature did little to prepare them against such a danger.
Later, once Buddhism had come to dominate much of Indian religious thought with its teachings on non-violence and renunciation, another conquest occurred in India. This time, the conquerors used warrior teachings of Islaam as support for something akin to genocide against “idol-worshipping” Buddhists. Clearly, there is much evolutionary benefit in taking the worst of a religion and twisting it for the purpose of committing such evil and cruelty as to cause suffering and despair for countless individuals in favour of the prolifration of a species.
This aspect of evolution, coupled with our relatively high intelligence, is arguably what leads human beings to unconsciously prefer taking shortcuts in solving problems rather than actually investigating the problem, and thus develop views and beliefs that are very much out of line with reality. Limited observation of “what works” leads us to cultivate habitual behaviour that doesn’t actually “work” over the long term – bringing stress, suffering, and despair simply due to favouring immediate results over careful investigation.
Worse, over time this methodology perpetuates itself, as we refine our ability to shorten the time it takes in which to “solve” a problem to an ever greater degree. Such is where we find ourselves in modern times – having fine-tuned our ability to “solve” all of our problems in as short a time possible by taking a pill, flicking a switch, pushing a button, etc. From a purely evolutionary point of view, our shortcut-taking has worked incredibly well; human beings now dominate the Earth so completely as to leave no question of our evolutionary success. From a spiritual point of view, however, our success has had disastrous consequences, making us more and more sensitive and reactionary towards suffering, more demanding of the acquisition of pleasure, and less and less satisfied with what we have. Now, instead of dealing with the problems we already have, we tend to create new and more complex problems in order to solve the original ones.
There is an old story of an ascetic who once upon a time lived under a tree with nothing but his robes. One day someone invited him to live in a hut that they had built, so that he could avoid the inclemencies of weather, bugs, etc. Thinking this would help his spiritual life, he accepted. After some time living in the hut, however, he began to be troubled by rats who would bite holes in his robes when he left them in the hut. In order to solve the problem, he procured a cat to scare away the rats. This, however, presented a new problem of how to feed the cat. To solve this problem, he procured a milk cow. The problem with the milk cow, of course, was it needed one to tend to and milk it. To solve this problem, he found a milkmaid to stay with him, and in the end found himself falling in love and breaking his asceticism, taking on all of the problems of the household life. This is a very good example of how we try to solve simple problems by creating more complex ones.
In modern times, this problem is seen all the more acutely. Through trying to avoid simple problems like how to procure food and shelter, we find ourselves caught up in social, economical, political, and even global problems that are all far removed from the very simple problems they are designed to solve.
If the goal is the proliferation of a species, approximation and shortcut taking is a tried and tested means of advancement – the species flourishes, adjusting behaviours only when they hinder its proliferation. This is how the animal realm functions, and many humans as well seem satisfied with this sort of “development” as a positive thing. It is thought to be a sign of advancement that the human species has proliferated so rapidly in a relatively short time. Such thinking is actually an example of the problem; rather than taking the time to look at whether we are actually solving anything, we see our ability to continue taking shortcuts as proof that we are, and so are encouraged to spend even less time studying our problems and more time finding ways to take shortcuts around them.
As a result of all of this, our beliefs and views don’t necessarily have anything to do with reality; they only serve to perpetuate themselves; beliefs in things like creator gods are “positive” precisely because they allow you to avoid taking the time to examine issues like creation. Belief in entities like a soul are “positive” because they allow you to avoid having to understand the complex workings of reality. Once you have the “answers”, you are free to spend your time on other things like how to further shorten the distance between reality and desire, like a mouse on an ever shrinking wheel.
In the end, most of our advancements as a species can be seen to be nothing more than shortcut-taking in order to avoid the need to understand reality. It’s a completely senseless state of being and yet it is one that has come to define our existence as human beings. We seek out pleasure for the purpose of becoming better able to seek out pleasure; we chase away displeasure for the purpose of becoming better able to chase away displeasure. In the end, we haven’t the slightest bit of understanding about the nature of either, except that the one is to be desired and the other is to be avoided. Even that “understanding” is based primarily on what allows us to continue our development of habitual shortcut-taking – displeasure slows us down, pleasure speeds us up. There is no rationality to our preference beyond this, nor is there any foreseeable benefit to come from it. We are not just like mice running around in a wheel, we are like mice winding up our own mouse traps until they snap on our necks. Instead of moving closer and closer to satisfaction and peace, we move faster and faster away from them in our quest for pleasure and against displeasure – less and less satisfied with what we have until death puts an end to the cycle for us.
I don’t think it is at all a good thing to take shortcuts. Our propensity towards “whatever works” has rendered the system broken in a very fundamental way, as we never truly understand anything of what we experience – preferring rather to put it to use to obtain more of it, and quicker. We are like children who see a rainbow and immediately run to find an imaginary pot of gold at its end; instead of appreciating reality because it is real, we prefer illusion because it is more.
Unfortunately, we tend to bring this sort of attitude to the meditation practice as well. We know that we are here to gain wisdom, to understand reality in a more profound way. That’s usually why someone decides Buddhism is for them, because they realize that wisdom is the most important tool in attaining true peace and happiness. Yet, even though we appreciate this intellectually, when we actually practice meditation we still tend to incline towards “fixing” our problems, rather than understanding them.
When pain arises, we tend to expect that by saying “pain, pain” to ourselves the pain should go away. We tend to be reluctant to use the same method on pleasant experiences for the same reason, thinking if it isn’t broken, why “fix” it? When we begin to realize that the meditation practice doesn’t actually help us to remove unpleasant experiences or cultivate pleasant ones, we are more than ready to reject it, forgetting our intention to cultivate wisdom entirely. We see that, rather than fixing our problems, this method forces us to do the opposite and accept our problems without trying to fix them; something that goes very much against our ingrained inclination towards problem-solving.
Truly, wisdom can only come when we look at our problems objectively. The word for wisdom in Pali is “paññā”, which means to know something completely. “pa” means completely, “ñā” means to know. The wisdom we are seeking is simply the complete understanding of the nature of the objects of experience, the very problems that we seek to chase away.
What is the wisdom? Wisdom is when you say to yourself ‘stepping right’ – at the moment when you know ‘this is stepping right,’ that’s wisdom. Yet we tend to wonder how that can be; we are convinced that this cannot be true wisdom, that the Buddha couldn’t have taught something so simple. What did the Buddha teach us to know, though? He taught us to understand the truth of suffering, to see suffering as a truth inherent in all experience. All experience is considered to be dukkha because it can’t satisfy us – it’s not worth anything, it’s useless. So, how do you come to know that something is dukkha? Obviously, you must come to see it for what it is. In order to see it for what it is, you must look at it quite closely, which is all we are trying to do in meditation practice.
When you observe experience objectively, you will see it clearly for what it is. If, when you observe reality, you come to see that it is truly, intrinsically worth something, then we have to throw the four noble truths out the window. The point is that when you do observe reality, you can’t help but see the truth of suffering – that experience is truly unstable, unsatisfying and uncontrollable. This is what we see just by recognizing simple experiences like “stepping right”. It’s just a name for the movement, isn’t it? The reality is the movement, but if you say, “moving, “moving”, it becomes monotonous, so we break it up. Eventually we break the step up into two, three, or more parts, as in, “lifting”, “placing” or “lifting”, “moving”, “placing”; they are just words that reify the experience, instead of proliferating it, as in ‘this is good’, ‘this is bad’, ‘this is me’, ‘this is mine’, ‘this is right’, ‘this is wrong’. We say, instead, ‘this is this’.
Once you see that it is what it is, then you see what it is. You say, “lifting”, and you know this as “lifting”. You don’t see it as permanent, satisfying, or under your control. You see it as lifting, then it’s gone. You do the same with feelings, the mind, the emotions and so on. This is the accumulation of wisdom. It’s very simple, so we call it ‘simple wisdom’.
The pursuit of wisdom is not some complex intellectual endeavour. We’re just trying to know things fully, to understand things completely. This means that everything in our practice and in our lives is a fit and proper object of meditation practice – we must, in fact, take the whole of our experience as a meditation object. The real problem arises when we compartmentalize reality, so our meditation becomes only one part of our life, and during the rest of our life we don’t think of the meditation at all; we may even compartmentalize the meditation practice itself, meditating on some objects of experience and avoiding or indulging in others.
When we have pain we immediately try to adjust our position. When we have bad thoughts, we immediately try to push them away, thinking, “no, no stop, I’m trying to meditate”. That’s a big mistake; never come to me and tell me that something is getting in the way of your meditation. It’s too easy; don’t walk into that one.
Someone recently complained on our Internet forum, “I try to meditate but there is all this sound, and it’s getting in the way of my meditation.” Well, you know what the answer is going to be, if you’ve been paying attention – that the sound should be your meditation. At the moment when the sound is disturbing your mind, you have a perfect meditation object. Why is it perfect? Because you don’t like it. Because you think somehow you have to fix it; that somehow you can make everything better by chasing it away. You are thinking something like, “all I have to do is go somewhere else where there is no sound.” You are in the mode of trying to fix, trying to control, trying to satisfy your partiality. For this very reason it’s a perfect object of our meditation, since by meditating on it you have the potential to change these habits into simple realization of the truth – it’s just sound.
I hear many stories of meditators who do this when they go home, when their family members are yelling and arguing, for example. They simply say to themselves, “hearing”, “hearing” and, whereas normally they would get into an argument and cause even more suffering, they find that they are actually at peace in their minds, even while someone is shouting in their ear – “hearing”, “hearing”, and it’s just sound. At that moment, there is wisdom – pure, unadulterated wisdom.
I have told the story before about how I once saw a monk enter into cessation while we watched. He didn’t intend to, I don’t think; he was just explaining the meditation practice, but he must also have been practising as he taught. He explained that when you hear, you should say “hearing”, “hearing”. As he said this, his whole body suddenly froze, even his hand that was pointing at his ear. After almost a minute, he came back and sent the meditator to continue with their practice as though nothing had happened. Because he himself was undertaking the practice, then and there, his mind was able to let go and become free from the phenomenological world for a moment.
Wisdom is to see things as they are. It’s easy to hear that, and to agree with it, but the key is to understand it for yourself, to see things as they are is just simply, for what they are. If the stomach is rising, wisdom means to know it simply as a rising motion:
paṭissatimattāya – with specific and exact remembrance of the object for what it is,
anissito ca viharati – dwelling independent of the object,
na ca kiñci loke upādiyati – not clinging to anything in the world.
So when you consider of the meditation practice, this activity where you are required to practice walking slowly or sitting still and repeating a mantra, before you entertain the view that somehow this mundane activity is obstructing your path to spiritual attainment and supermundane wisdom, you should consider carefully what sort of wisdom you’re looking for if not understanding of mundane reality for what it is.
The meditation really is supposed to create obstructions. It’s meant to obstruct our habitual clinging to pleasant experiences like deep states of tranquillity that we think of as stable and permanent and satisfying; it’s meant to obstruct our judgemental and analytical mind, keeping us from speculating about the past or future. It is meant to keep us from falling into all intellectual and emotional traps, to keep us seeing reality just as it is, without investigating or complicating it in any way. Without a constant reminder of ultimate mundane reality, it will be difficult to keep ourselves from clinging to pleasant experiences, since they feel very much like the goal of the practise; the meditation technique we use is designed to keep us from wasting time cultivating states that have nothing to do with reality.
This simplicity is difficult to appreciate, and often a meditator will think such a practise is actually detrimental to their spiritual development because of how it stops them from dwelling on pleasant or profound states. It can even happen that a meditator, knowing they must contemplate on impermanence, suffering, and non-self, will come to complain that they are unable to observe the truth because they’re too busy watching their stomach. Meditators actually quite often come to complain that their observation of the stomach is unstable, unsatisfying, stressful, and totally uncontrollable; how can we possibly hope to understand impermanence, suffering, and non-self, they ask, if we have deal with such obstacles?
You see how silly such thinking is? Such people are successfully engaged in the process of understanding impermanence, suffering, and non-self on a fundamental level, but some may actually run away from the practice because they think that it isn’t real meditation; they say such things as, “I’m suffering and you want me to stay with my problems? You want me to look at all of the negative things I have inside? I thought the purpose of meditation was to leave the negative things behind, why are we turning around and looking at them? The last thing I want to do is look at them!”
Some meditators even come up with the idea that watching the objects of experience actually feeds them, making them worse. Sometimes it may be the case that a negative phenomenon does become stronger as one observes it, and this can be terribly discouraging for a new meditator who thinks the object of the noting is to dispel the unpleasant phenomena. So we ask, do you want things to get worse? “No, I don’t”. Then, we ask, can you say that it truly belongs to you, if it gets worse when you wish for it to get better?
Some meditators may focus on pain, reminding themselves of it as “pain”, “pain”, and then come and complain that when they do this the pain just gets stronger. They are under the impression that noting is supposed to make the pain go away, just like any other “cure” for suffering. When your mind is in a certain state it may happen that everything you acknowledge does disappear quickly, but there isn’t anything intrinsically “right” about that state or “wrong” about a state of mind that amplifies every experience. All it means that the factors that brought you to such a moment are arising in that way – they are not under your control in either case.
This is actually the most important aspect of our practice – to see that we can’t control even our own state of mind; to see that we’ve built up so many expectations and partialities that we can’t help but fall into uncontrollable suffering every time something goes contrary to our expectations; to see this bed that we’ve made for ourselves; to see this nest, this house that we’ve built for ourselves. We build a home for ourselves in the mind. Whatever seeds you sow, so is the fruit you reap. This was said by the Buddha, at least five-hundred years before it was written down in Christian texts – “yādisaṃ vapate bījaṃ, tādisaṃ harate phalaṃ. (SN 11.10)”
From the meditation practice itself, we see that doing good deeds leads to good results and doing bad deeds leads to bad results. It’s not an intellectual teaching. You reap what you sow. We may ask ourselves, “is it really true?” We see all these rich people who do such horrible things and don’t see them reaping anything, except more good; this makes us wonder whether cause and effect really works. If you think intellectually about karma, it can certainly cause a lot of doubt. When you start to look for complex truths, you find many problems. But the simple truth is that when you give rise to a negative mind state, suffering is the only result you can expect. Ask yourself, when you get angry, when you get greedy, when you are conceited or arrogant, how do you feel? Does it form a habit or does it not form a habit?
Suppose you are sitting and you have pain, and you adjust your position. You think, “oh, that was nice, that worked.” So you think, “wow, this is the truth of suffering, isn’t it?” You get the idea that the truth of suffering is sitting still on a meditation mat, and so all you have to do to be free from suffering is not sit on a meditation mat. When the suffering comes, what’s the path that leads to the cessation of suffering? Moving. Massaging. Stretching. This, you think, is the path to the cessation of suffering, only the suffering always comes back again, and when it does do you think you will be less inclined to move or more inclined to move? Of course, you will be more inclined. Habits are not static. You become more averse to the feeling; more set in the view that you can and should try your best to avoid suffering, that it’s under your control.
We think that all we have to do is find that magic button. It’s the same with mindfulness. We think if we find the magical button, we’ll be mindful all the time. We think we’re doing something wrong when we’re not mindful. We beat ourselves up over it and so it becomes worse, the pain becomes stronger and the aversion becomes stronger. Through meditation practice, we begin to see what we’re doing, that we’re actually causing the suffering. We see that there is no way to set up our lives so that we can be permanently happy, permanently satisfied.
There is only one way to be truly happy, and that’s to be “anissito”, as the Buddha taught; to dwell independent of the objects of experience. It’s such a simple truth that there is nothing much to explain. “Don’t cling, you won’t suffer” – it’s not even hard to understand. “These things are impermanent” – who can’t understand that? The truth is what you’re left with once you give up everything else. This is why the Buddha said right view is the giving up of wrong view. When he talked about views at all he would almost always be talking about wrong view – right view is just the absence of views.
The person who has right view is one who has given up all wrong views and so has no views. What do they have instead? They have knowledge. When the stomach is rising, they know the stomach is rising. It’s hard to believe that just this is wisdom, but can you do it? When the stomach is rising, do you know the stomach is rising? Or do you think “oh, this meditation is boring, having to sit on this mat and repeat these words to myself! How many minutes are left? Is this really right for me? Wouldn’t I be better off on the beach?”
It’s very hard for us just to stay with the reality of the experience, because it’s so incredibly simple. Meditation removes all defilements from the mind, and so our defilements scream out against it every time we try to meditate. It’s like trying to find a light switch in a dark room. Turning on a light is a very simple thing to do, but when you’re bumping around in the darkness, it can be much easier said than done. If you just flail around blindly, or spend all your time afraid or wondering how to escape the room without even thinking about turning on a light, you have little hope of leaving the room unhurt. All it takes is to turn on the light and suddenly your difficulties are over. When you can see your way and know what’s in front of you, you obviously won’t bump into anything. Likewise, when you see the stomach rising and falling, the pain, thoughts, or the emotions just as they are, how could you suffer from them? Once you see reality for what it is, how could you possibly suffer from anything?
When you know that the rain is about to soak you, then all you have to do is just know it for rain. Does it cause suffering? No. The suffering is in “uh-oh, I’m going to get wet,” and the aversion to getting wet that we have built up inside – the habitual aversion to letting yourself get soaked by the rain. I used to go on alms round in the morning and the other monks would laugh and say, “where is your umbrella?” I’d be soaking wet and I’d say, “it’s just water!” Actually I was just too lazy to carry an umbrella, and so would get caught when it started to rain, but it made me realize that being soaked looks a lot worse than it actually is, only because we are so horrified to think of it.
We have so many preconceived notions about everything. The mantra itself, and the meditation itself, is something that’s very hard for people to accept, because they think it’s limiting. “How are you ever going to give rise to understanding if you’re just brainwashing yourself like this?” We were joking earlier about the word brainwashing. Every time I hear it I always think, “yeah, that really is what we’re doing, we’re here brainwashing ourselves.” Scary, isn’t it? When we hear the word brainwashing, immediately the warning signals go off in our minds. Very hard to accept, isn’t it? But that’s really what we’re doing here – not brainwashing in a classical sense, I suppose, if you look it up in the dictionary, but we’re very simply washing the defilements from our minds.
They say brainwashing is bad because it gets rid of your inhibitions, right? So, you brainwash someone, then they can go and kill people. Why? Because they’ve lost their fear or their knowledge that it’s a bad thing to do. That is a pretty simplistic description of what goes on in classical brainwashing, though. Classical brainwashing – the act of softening the mind’s prejudices, is only the first step in teaching people to kill; it generally takes a secondary role to actual conditioning, where the subject is given new prejudices about things like killing, justice, etc. While it is true that the receptive state of the brainwashed victim is what allows such reprogramming, the problem is not precisely in the brainwashed state itself. Nor is Buddhist “brainwashing” susceptible to such reconditioning, since it is based on rigorous investigation of the truth for oneself. Classical brainwashing relies on the victim’s emotional dependence on affection, loyalty, patriotism, etc. to convince them of something they would otherwise reject. Truly “washing the brain”, on the other hand, removes all dependence on such emotional hooks, and so leaves one impervious to any conditioning that could take advantage of the “unprejudiced” state.
In a sense, we are indeed giving up even prejudices about good and evil in our practice. The Buddha himself talked about an enlightened being going beyond good and evil. To just see things as they are, not having any expectations, to not have any wants or needs and just take things as they come, knowing them as they are, actually means going beyond good and evil. This doesn’t mean not being able to tell the difference or of doing evil deeds without compunction, since that would require ignorance; it means not desiring to do either good or evil deeds, out of knowledge that no true benefit can come from either.
An enlightened being will appear to be full of good deeds, unflagging in their effort to work for the benefit of themselves and other beings. On close inspection, however, it is clear that they only act out of conformity to the truth, having no expectations or desires for either positive or negative results. They act solely based on what is appropriate – what causes the least friction and stress, out of pure wisdom and understanding that could not allow them to act inappropriately, just as seeing the objects in a well-lit room clearly would naturally prevent a person from bumping into them.
You don’t need anything special to become enlightened; you don’t need much knowledge or study. The study we need to undertake is the study of ourselves, the study of good and bad experience. We have to become purely objective, rigorous in our examination of reality as it is, not as we would like it to be. The technique we use is one of strict impartiality, and it is this adherence to strict impartiality that keeps us progressing towards the goal in all circumstances so we can see that, no matter what arises, it is not special in any way.
My teacher once reminded us of this impartiality with a special mantra that we were to repeat when we thought we had come across something special; the mantra was “this is not that.” It’s not a mantra to be repeated as a meditation practice but when something comes up and you think it may be what you are looking for you should repeat to yourself “this is not that” – meaning it’s not special. Nothing that arises will be outside of the realm of meditation practice; nothing will be proper to cling to, to investigate or analyze, or proliferate. “This is not that” means it’s not that which you’re looking for. For beginner meditators, “this is not that” may be difficult to understand, but once you’ve practised for some time you will understand that it’s indeed not – none of this is – that. It’s all this, it is what it is. This is this.
The rising of the stomach is rising, the falling is falling. Standing is standing, sitting is sitting. The experience is the experience – it is what it is. All we try to do in the meditation practice is remind ourselves of this truth, setting ourselves in it, straightening our mind until it’s all our mind knows. It is what it is. That’s wisdom – realizing that all of the ideas we have about reality are false. All of our conceptions, the tags and labels that we put on things, they’re all false. That this could satisfy, that it is good, that it is bad, that it is permanent, that it is me, that it is mine – all of these are just concepts that take flourish only in our minds with no grounding in reality whatsoever.
Our possessions, our belongings, our friends, our families are all just concepts. Through meditation, we come to see reality as it is – we actually see the truth for ourselves. We see that the rain is just an experience of rain. Life is experience of life, death is experience of death. We see, and we know. We know clearly. “pariññāta” – the truth becomes completely understood. “pari” is a good word, it means “all around” like a circle. Our knowledge – our wisdom – must be like a complete circle. We have to know suffering completely as it is. Our knowledge of suffering has to be all-encompassing. This is what we gain from the practice; we come to see, not that our experiences are unpleasant or harmful to us, but that they’re useless.
Experiences are meaningless – they are not a source of true happiness or peace. Even when we attain enlightenment, we can still live with them and amongst them, experiencing them as usual, only we will never cling to them; we will stop trying to find happiness in them. Even intellectual analysis, views and opinions – all of this we will discard in favour of simple wisdom that knows reality for what it is.
All of our thoughts and ideas, beliefs and opinions – they aren’t wisdom. Wisdom is seeing that beliefs are just beliefs, views and thoughts are just views and thoughts. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking are what they are. This is simple wisdom, getting rid of all of the baggage that we carry and retaining only pure awareness of reality as it is. That’s what enlightenment is about, getting lighter. Enlightenment is not just turning on a light, it’s about giving up the weight. The Buddha said, “bhārā have pañcakkhandhā, bhārahāro ca puggalo (SN 22.22)” – the five aggregates are indeed a heavy burden, and it is us who have to carry them around. Once we stop clinging to them, reifying and judging them, only then will we find true wisdom and enlightenment.
Through the practise, our minds will become light and free. This is really all that the Buddha had to offer to us. The Buddha found perfect simplicity; he found perfect rectitude of mind – straightness. His mind became perfectly straight, so that he was able to cut through delusion like a knife. When your mind is crooked you can’t cut, you can’t point – you can only cling. When you purify the mind, nothing can cling to it; all experience will be like water off a lotus flower – even though the lotus grows surrounded by water and pelted by rain, it doesn’t ever become waterlogged. In the same way, the mind that sees things as they are is not affected by experience even when living an ordinary life in an ordinary world. This is the simple truth.