The Importance of Jhāna for Satipaṭṭhāna

POSTCARD#455 Bangkok: If mindfulness is like a light, meditation brightens that light. When I (the author) was a young monk at Wat Pa Nanachat in Northeast Thailand, I became quite peaceful by doing walking meditation in the hall. I would walk with my gaze on a spot on the concrete floor some two meters ahead. Then I had to stop. I couldn’t believe it, but the dull concrete surface began to open up into a picture of magnificent beauty. The various shades of gray and the texture suddenly appeared as the most beautiful picture I had ever seen. I thought of cutting out that section and sending it to the Tate Gallery in London. It was a work of art. An hour or two later, it was just a boring, ordinary piece of concrete again. What had  happened,  and  this  may  have  happened  to  you,  is  that  I  had  a  short  experience  of  “power mindfulness.” In power mindfulness, the mind is like a megawatt searchlight, enabling you to see so much deeper into what you are gazing at. Ordinary concrete becomes a masterpiece. A blade of grass literally  shimmers  with  the  most  delightful  and  brilliant  shades  of  fluorescent  green.  A  twig metamorphoses into a boundless universe of shape, color, and structure. The petty becomes profound and the humdrum becomes heavenly under the sparkling energy of power mindfulness.

What is happening is that the five hindrances are being abandoned. When they are gone the experience is like seeing through a windshield that has been cleaned of grime and dust, or hearing through ears that at last are unclogged of wax, or reflecting with a mind released from its fog. When you know the difference between power mindfulness and weak mindfulness as a personal experience, not a mere idea, then you will understand the necessity of jhāna prior to satipaṭṭhāna.

Jhāna generates “superpower” mindfulness. If power mindfulness is like a megawatt searchlight, then jhāna-generated superpower mindfulness like a terawatt  sun.

The Thousand-Petaled Lotus simile is used in this way because there are a thousand or so levels of reality to uncover. The practice of meditation takes many hours of sitting, uncovering many deep layers of delusion and wrong  ideas  about  yourself  and  the  world.  When  the  Buddha  taught  that  the  root  cause  of suffering  is  avijjā,  or  delusion,  he  did  not  say  that  it  would  be  easy  to  uncover.  Avijjā  is uncovered, as it were, in layers, like the opening of the lotus petals.

Recall that a lotus closes all of its petals at night. In the morning the first rays of the sun begin to warm the lotus. This is the trigger for the lotus to open its petals. It takes a long time, many minutes for the warmth to build up enough for the first layer of petals to open. Once the outermost petals are opened, the warmth of the sun can shine on the next layer of petals, and after a few moments of uninterrupted light they too open up. This allows the next layer to receive warmth the warmth and soon it opens up in turn. A thousand-petaled lotus requires a very strong sun sustained for a very long time to open every petal and reveal the famed jewel at its heart.

 In satipaṭṭhāna, the thousand-petaled lotus is a simile for this body-mind, that is, “you” – or whatever you like to call that which is sitting somewhere right now reading this page. The sun is a simile for mindfulness. You have to sustain power-mindfulness for a very long time on this body-mind to allow the innermost petals to open up. If the five hindrances are there, no insight happens, just as when there are clouds or mist, the sun cannot warm the lotus.

[Editor’s note: Here the author reviews the five hindrances, “obstacles that you will  meet  in  your  meditation  and  that  you  should  learn  to  overcome.” Key in: The Five Hindrances in the search box in the WordPress app. Then: The Second Hindrance, etc.] These  obstacles  to  deep meditation  are  called  in  the  Pāli  language  nīvarana.  Literally  that  means  “closing  a  door”  or “obstructing  entering  into  something,”  and  this  is  exactly  what  the  hindrances  do.  They  stop  you from entering into the deep absorption states, jhānas. They also obstruct or weaken wisdom and strengthen delusion.

These are the five hindrances in the usual order in which the Buddha lists them:

1. sensory desire (kāmma-cchanda)

2. ill will (vyāpāda)

3. sloth and torpor (thinā-middhā)

4. restlessness and remorse (udhaccha-kukkccha)

5. doubt (vicikiccā)

Basically, these five hindrances stand between you and enlightenment. When you know them, you have a good chance of overcoming them. If you have not achieved the jhānas yet, it means you have not fully understood these five hindrances. If you have gotten into such deep states, then you have overcome the hindrances. It’s as simple as that.

The Five Hindrances

1. sensory desire kāmma-cchanda – the compound kāmma-cchanda means ‘delight, interest, involvement with the world of the five senses. At the start of your meditation, place the mind beyond the reach of the five senses by returning to present-moment awareness [chapter 1, stage one, print copy, page 7]. Most if not all of our past and future is occupied with the affairs of the five senses. Through achieving present-moment awareness we cut off most of the kāmma-cchanda. [see also: silent present-moment awareness – stage two, print copy, page 11]

Continued next week, Friday 28th January 2022, with the review of the five hindrances

The last Three Steps

The Fourteenth Step: Reflecting on Fading Away of Things.

If reflections on anicca fail to work, there is virāga, the fading away of things—sometimes called dispassion. It has this dual meaning, but I usually prefer the meaning “fading away.” This is when things just disappear. You’ve seen many things disappear when you enter jhāna—some of which were so close to you that you assumed that they were an essential part of your identity. They are all gone in jhāna. You’re experiencing the fading away of your self.

The Fifteenth Step: Reflecting on Cessation

The third reflection after emerging from a jhāna should be on nirodha, or cessation. Something that was once there has now completely disappeared. It has ended, gone, and its place is now empty! Such emptiness can be known only in deep meditation. So much of the universe that you thought was essential has ceased, and you’re in a completely different space. Cessation is also the third noble truth. The end of suffering is called cessation. The cause of that cessation is letting go. You’ve actually let go. Dukkha, suffering, has ended—most of it anyway, 99 percent. And what’s left? What’s the opposite of dukkha? Sukha. The ending of suffering is happiness. That’s why you should reflect that these jhānas are the most blissful experience you’ve ever felt in your existence. And if you’ve got a little bit of wisdom or intelligence, you will see that the bliss arises because so much dukkha has ceased.

You experience happiness and you know the cause. Imagine that you had a migraine headache for many, many months and someone gave you a new medicine that had just been invented, saying it works for some but not for everybody. So you take it and find that it works for you. Your migraine has gone! How would you feel? You’d be high as a kite. You’d be blissed out! Sometimes you’d be crying with happiness. The ending of pain is happiness. Why is it that schoolchildren feel so happy when they finish their end-of-year school exams? It is because a lot of suffering has just ended. So often, the happiness in the world is just a measure of how much suffering preceded it. When you finally pay off the mortgage on your house, you feel so happy; all the pain of working for months and years to pay it off is gone.

The Sixteenth Step: Reflecting on Letting Go, Abandoning

The last of the reflections in the Ānāpānasati Sutta is on this beautiful word paṭinissagga, “letting go, abandoning.” In this context paṭinissagga is giving away not what’s “out there” but what’s “in here.” Many times people regard Buddhism as being unworldly, giving away what’s out there. But paṭinissagga is the letting go of the inner world, the letting go of the doer and even the knower. If you look very carefully, you’ll see that what has been happening in jhāna is not only letting go of the external world but also letting go of the internal world, especially letting go of the doer, the will, the controller. This insight gives rise to so much happiness, so much purity, so much freedom, so much bliss. You’ve found the path to the ending of suffering. That is how the Buddha described ānāpānasati. It’s a complete practice that starts with just sitting down in a quiet place, on a comfortable seat, mindful of what’s in front of you and just watching the breath. Step by step—in steps that you know are within your ability—you reach these profound and blissful states called jhāna. When you emerge from them, you have any one of these four things to contemplate: anicca, the impermanence or uncertainty of things; virāga, the fading away of things; nirodha, cessation of self; and paṭinissagga, letting go of all that’s “in here.” And if you reflect upon those things after the experience of jhāna, then something is going to happen. I often say that jhāna is the gunpowder and reflection is the match. If you put the two together, then there’s going to be a bang somewhere. It’s only a matter of time.

 May you all experience those beautiful bangs called enlightenment!

The Twelfth and Thirteenth Steps

The Twelfth Step: Freeing the Mind

The twelfth step in ānāpānasati is called vimocayaṁ cittaṁ, “freeing the mind.” Here, you have an experience that you might describe afterward in two different ways, depending upon your perspective. Either you find yourself sinking or diving into the nimitta, or the nimitta with its brilliant light and ecstatic feeling completely envelops you. You don’t do this. It just happens as the natural result of letting go of all doing.

You enter the jhāna through liberating the mind. The jhānas, the Buddha said, are stages of freedom (vimokkha) (DN 15,35). Vimokkha is the same word used to describe someone who is released from jail and walks free. You may know it from the Sanskrit moksha which has the same meaning. The mind is now free. That is, free from the body and the five senses. I’m not saying the mind is floating somewhere in an out-of-body experience. You are not located in space anymore, because all experiences of space are dependent on the five senses. Here the mind is free from all of that. You’re not at all sensitive to what’s happening with the body. You’re unable to hear anything, unable to say anything. You’re blissed out yet fully mindful, still, stable as a rock. These are signs of the mind being freed. This experience becomes one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful experience, of your life.

If you get a few of these jhānas, you usually want to become a monk or a nun. The world will have less attraction for you. Relationships, the arts, music and movies, sex, fame, wealth, and so on all seem so unimportant and unattractive when compared to jhānas and the bliss of the freed mind. But there is much more than just the bliss. There is also the philosophical profundity of the experience. When you’ve spent hours in a jhāna, you can call yourself a mystic, if you like. You’ve had an experience that in all religious traditions is called a mystical experience—something far from the ordinary. The Buddha called it uttari-manussa-dhamma (MN 31,10), something that surpasses ordinary human experience. He called it the mind “gone to greatness” (mahā-ggata). He also considered the happiness of jhāna so similar to enlightenment happiness that he named it sambodhi sukha (MN 66,21). It’s a place where defilements cannot reach. So this is where Māra—the Buddhist devil—cannot reach you. You’re awakened and free during this time.

So if you develop these stages, the first twelve steps of ānāpānasati, they will lead you into jhāna.

Emerging from a Jhāna

The last four steps in the Ānāpānasati Sutta relate to the meditator who has just emerged from a jhāna. After you emerge from your first experience of jhāna you can’t help but think, “Wow, what was that?” So the first thing you should do is review the jhāna. Investigate that experience, though you will struggle to give it words. Ask yourself, How did it arise? What special thing did I do? What did it feel like in jhāna? Why did it feel like that? How do I feel now? Why is it so blissful? All these reflections will give rise to deep insight.

You’ll find that the best two words to describe why jhāna happened are “letting go.” You’ve really let go for the first time. Not letting go of what you’re attached to, but letting go of the thing doing the attaching. You’ve let go of the doer. You’ve let go of the self. It’s a difficult thing for the self to let go of the self, but through these methodical stages you’ve actually done it. And it’s bliss.

So, having reflected on the experience, you either take up satipaṭṭhāna (the focuses of mindfulness) or just go directly to the last four stages of ānāpānasati.

The Thirteenth Step: Reflecting on Impermanence

The first reflection is on anicca, usually translated as impermanence but meaning much more than this. Its opposite, nicca, is the Pāli word used to describe a thing that is regular or constant. For instance, in the Vinaya a regular supply of alms food, say from a disciple who brings food to a monastery every Tuesday, is called nicca food (Vin II,4,4,6). When that which was once constant stops, that’s anicca. What’s important to reflect upon after the deep experiences of meditation is that there was something that was so constant that you never noticed it—this thing we call a “self.” In jhāna, it disappeared! Notice that. Noticing it will convince you of the truth of no-self (anattā) so deeply that it’s very likely to give rise to the experience of stream winning.

Continued next week: 14 January 2022

The Tenth and Eleventh steps

Book Link- Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook, by Ajahn Brahm

POSTCARD#452: Bangkok: Best Wishes to our readers for the New Year 2022. A page marker in a text going all the way back through time, half seen and distant. Sometimes I feel a deep part of me responds to the pre-language mystery then, the ceremony in the community and the stars and phases of the moon.

Continuing with our text: Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook, by Ajahn Brahm. Click on the link to get through to the Amazon page where you can buy the book, also a pdf version is available.

The Tenth Step: Shining the Nimitta

Two flaws of the nimitta may hinder further progress: the nimitta appears too dull, and the nimitta is unstable. To address these two common problems, the Buddha taught the tenth and eleventh steps of ānāpānasati: shining the nimitta and sustaining the nimitta. “Shining” is my expression for the Pāli term abhippamodayaṁ cittaṁ, literally, “giving joy to the mind.” The more joy there is in the mind, the more brilliant shines the nimitta. To enter jhāna, the nimitta has to be the most brilliant thing that you have ever seen, and of unearthly beauty.

Let’s look at why the nimitta can appear dull or even dirty. It is very instructive to recall that the nimitta is just a reflection of your mind. If the nimitta is dull, it means that your mind is dull. If the nimitta is dirty, then it means that your mind is defiled. There is no possibility for dishonesty or denial here, for you are face-to-face with the truth of your mind state.

It is here that the importance of sīla (moral conduct) becomes apparent. If the mind is defiled due to impure action, speech, or thought, then the nimitta, if it appears at all, will be dull and stained. If that is your experience, then spend some effort purifying your conduct beyond the meditation cushion. Keep the precepts faultlessly. Check your speech. The Buddha said that without first purifying sīla, it is impossible to purify samādhi (AN VII,61).

Generous, compassionate people with strong faith have what is commonly called a “pure heart.” From my experience teaching meditation, it is a general rule that such pure-hearted meditators are the ones who experience the bright nimittas. So in addition to keeping your precepts spotless, develop what is known as the pure heart.

However, sometimes even good-hearted people experience dull nimittas. Usually this is because their mental energy is low, maybe due to ill health or overwork. A skillful means of avoiding this problem is to spend some meditation periods developing the inspirational meditations, such as the reflections on the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. These should be contemplated until the mind becomes suffused with joy. Alternatively, if you are a very charitable sort of person, you could reflect on your past generosity and inspire yourself that way. The Buddha called this cāga-anussati. Or you can spend some time on mettā. Once the mental energy is raised to a level of joyful brightness, then you can return to ānāpānasati. Thus far, I have talked about techniques to shine up the nimitta before you even start ānāpānasati. They are, in fact, the most effective techniques. However, when a nimitta has arisen during meditation but appears dull, there are four ways of proceeding:

Focus on the center of the nimitta. Even in a dull nimitta, the center is brighter than the periphery. By gently suggesting to yourself to look at the center of the nimitta, the central brightness expands. Then focus on the center of that, and that is brighter still. By going to the center, then the center of the center, and so on, the dull nimitta soon becomes incredibly bright and often continues “exploding” in luminosity all the way into jhāna

Sharpen the attention in the present moment. Even though present-moment awareness was part of the preliminaries to ānāpānasati, it often happens that by this stage the attention is “smeared” around the present moment. Personally, I often find that a gentle reminder to focus more sharply in the present moment brightens the mindfulness and shines up the nimitta, abolishing any dullness.

Smile at the nimitta.

Remember that the nimitta is a reflection of your mind. So if the mind smiles, then the nimitta smiles back! It brightens. It may be that a residue of ill will (the second hindrance) is keeping the nimitta dull. Smiling is both gentle and powerful enough to overcome this subtle form of the hindrance. If you do not understand what I mean by smiling at the nimitta, go and look at yourself in a mirror, smile, and then take the mental part of that activity and repeat it in front of the nimitta.

Return to the beautiful breath.

Sometimes it is simply too early to go to the nimitta, and it is better to exert a gentle determination to remain with the beautiful breath a bit longer. Even if the nimitta comes up, when it is dull ignore it and return to the mental experience of the breath. Often when I do this, after a short time the nimitta comes up again a little brighter. I ignore it again. It keeps coming up brighter and brighter, but I keep on ignoring it until a really gorgeous nimitta appears. Then I don’t ignore it!

So these are the ways to “shine” the nimitta, polishing it, as it were, until it is brilliant, beautiful, and radiant.

The Eleventh Step: Sustaining the Nimitta

The second of the two flaws of the nimitta that hinder a deepening of the meditation experience is instability of the nimitta. It does not stay still but quickly disappears. In order to deal with this problem, the Buddha taught the eleventh step of ānāpānasati, samādahaṁ cittaṁ, literally “attentively stilling the mind” and here meaning “sustaining the attention on the nimitta.”

It is common that the first few times a nimitta appears, it flashes up for a short time and then disappears, or else it moves around in the mental field of vision. It is unstable. Usually, the bright, powerful nimittas remain longer than the dull, weak ones, which is why the Buddha taught the step of shining the nimitta before the step of sustaining the nimitta. Sometimes shining the nimitta is enough to sustain it—the nimitta becomes so beautifully radiant that it grabs the attention for long periods of time. However, even a brilliant nimitta can be unstable, so there are methods to sustain attention on the nimitta.

The insight that helped me to sustain the nimitta was the realization that the nimitta that I was seeing in my mind was just a reflection of the knower, the one watching. If the knower moved, so did its reflection, the nimitta. Like staring at your image in front of a mirror, if you move then so does the image. So long as you are moving, it is a waste of time trying to keep the image still just by holding the mirror still. It doesn’t work. Instead focus on the knower, that one who is experiencing this, and calm that into stillness. Then the image of this knower, the nimitta, will stabilize and appear motionless, gloriously constant.

Once again, it is usually fear or excitement that creates the instability. You are reacting too much rather than passively observing. Experiencing the nimitta for the first time is like meeting a complete stranger. Often, you are on edge because you do not know who they are or how they might behave. After getting to know them, though, you relax in their company. They are good friends, and you are at ease with them. The overreaction disappears.

Or it is like when as a child you first learned how to ride a bicycle. For the first few rides, you probably gripped the handlebars so tightly that, like me, your knuckles went white. And because I wasn’t relaxed, I kept falling off. I soon discovered, after many cuts and bruises, that the more relaxed I was, the easier it was to keep my balance. In the same way, you soon learn to  stop gripping the nimitta. You relax and discover that the more you ease off controlling, the easier it is to sustain the nimitta.

Another skillful means that I developed to stop controlling was to use the image of driving a car. When a bright nimitta comes up, I give it the keys and say, “You drive from here on.” I give it full trust, complete confidence.

I actually try to visualize my trust and give it over to the bright nimitta. I realize that the last residue of the doer, the control freak, still wants to spoil things. So I use this metaphor to help give up all control. This is the point where I stop. When I stop, the nimitta stops with me.

After sustaining attention on the nimitta a while, it becomes even more brilliant and very powerful. The signs of good nimittas are that they are the most beautiful colors you’ve ever seen in your life. For example, if you see a blue nimitta, the color is no ordinary blue but the deepest, most beautiful, bluest blue you’ve ever known. The good, or should I say “useful,” nimittas are also very stable, almost motionless. When you are experiencing a beautiful stable nimitta, you are on the edge of the world of jhānas, looking in.

Continued next week: January 7th 2022

The Eighth and Ninth Step

POSTCARD#451: Bangkok: Continuing with our text: Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook, by Ajahn Brahm. We would just like to say in passing, Happy Christmas to all our readers and Best Wishes for the New Year.

The Eighth Step: Calming the Mental Experience

It can often happen, at this and subsequent stages of the meditation  process, that the joy and happiness can become too exciting and therefore disturb the tranquillity. Because of this, the Buddha taught the eighth step of ānāpānasati as calming the mental experience of the breath. When new meditators, and old ones too sometimes, start to experience some bliss, they carelessly generate the “wow!” response: Wow! At last! Amazing!—and immediately their bliss walks right out of the door. They were too excited.

Alternatively, fear can arise alongside the bliss: This is too much for me! This is scary, I don’t deserve this – and again the bliss departs. The fear destroyed the tranquility.

So beware of these two enemies, fear and excitement, which can appear at this stage. Remember to keep calming the mental experience of the breath. The bliss is the happiness and joy born of peace, born of silence. Maintain the causes of that bliss. Remain in the stillness, otherwise the bliss will go away.

Ajahn Chah’s famous simile of the “still forest pool” helps us understand what’s happening here. Others  have  written  about  this  image,  but  not  in  full. This  is the way I remember Ajahn Chah explaining it. When he was wandering in the jungles and forests on what we call tudong in Thailand, he’d always try and find a stretch of water when late afternoon came. He needed water to bathe. After walking though the jungle, sweating from the heat and the exertion, if you don’t bathe in the evening you feel uncomfortably dirty and sticky all night. He also needed water to drink. For these reasons Ajahn Chah searched for a pool, a stream, or a spring somewhere in the forest. When he found one, he’d camp nearby overnight.

Sometimes after drinking and bathing and settling in, Ajahn Chah would sit in meditation a few yards away from the pool. He said that sometimes he used to sit so still with his eyes open that he would see many animals coming out of the jungle. They wanted to bathe and drink as well. He said they would only come out if he sat very, very still, because jungle creatures are timid and far more afraid of human beings than we are of them. When they emerged from the bushes they would look around and sniff to see if it was safe. If they detected him, they would just go away. But if he sat absolutely still, the animals wouldn’t be able to hear him. They wouldn’t even be able to smell him. Then they would come out and drink. Some would drink and play in the water as if he weren’t there, as if he were invisible. He said that sometimes he was so still that, after the ordinary animals came out, some very strange animals emerged, beings whose names he didn’t know. He’d never seen such extraordinary creatures before. His parents had never told him about them. These wonderful creatures came out to drink, but only if he was absolutely still.

This is a well-drawn simile of what happens in deep meditation. The pool or the lake is a symbol for the mind. At this eighth step of ānāpānasati you are just sitting before it and watching. If you give any orders you’re not being still. Beautiful creatures – nimittas and jhānas – will approach only if you’re absolutely still. If they come out to “sniff around’ and you say “wow!” they hurtle back into the forest and don’t come back again. If they come out and you look at them, even out of the corners of your eyes, they’ll know it and go away. You can’t move if you want these beings to come out and play. But if you’re absolutely still – no controlling, no doing, no saying, no moving, or anything else – nimittas come out. They look around and sniff the air. If they think no one is there, they come and play right in front of you. But if you move even an eyelid, they go away again. Only if you’re absolutely still do they remain. The ordinary ones come out first, then the very beautiful ones, and lastly the very strange and wonderful ones. These last are the amazing experiences that you have no names for, the ones you never imagined could exist because they’re so strange, so blissful, so pure. These are the jhānas.

This wonderful simile of Ajahn Chah’s is a measure of his wisdom, of his profound understanding of the mind. This indeed is how the mind works, and having that wisdom is a tremendous power. The extraordinary jhānas can  happen when you arouse joy and happiness in the mind, when you understand that this joy and happiness is not other than the mind experiencing the breath, and when you calm down the whole process of observing.

The Ninth Step: Experiencing the Mind

The ninth step of the Ānāpānasati Sutta describes a very important creature that comes to visit the still, silent mind—a nimitta. The step is called citta- paṭisaṁvedī, “experiencing the mind.” It’s only at this stage that you can truly say that you can know the mind. Some people have theories and ideas of what the mind is, and they try to test them out with scientific equipment. They even write entire books about the mind. But this is the only place where you can actually experience the mind.

The way you experience the mind is by a nimitta, which is a reflection of the mind. Remember the mind is that which knows. But is it possible for the knower to know itself? The eye is that which sees, but it can see itself when it looks into a mirror: it sees its reflection. The reflection you see in this stage of meditation, the nimitta, is a true reflection of the mind. You look into a mirror that has been cleaned of all the dust and grime on its surface, and now at last you can see yourself. You can only experience the mind directly through a nimitta or jhāna.

When a nimitta arises it’s so very strange that it’s next to impossible to describe. Language is built on similes. We describe something as hard like a brick, or soft like the grass. We always use similes from the world of the five senses. But the world of the mind is so different that language fails us. After your first experience of a nimitta you think, “What on earth was that?” You know it’s a real experience, but you struggle to find language to describe it. You have to use imperfect similes: it’s like a light, like a blissful feeling, sort of like this, sort of like that. You know it’s so completely different from any previous experience, but you have to somehow describe it to yourself. That’s why I keep on saying that you experience the nimitta sometimes as a light, sometimes as a feeling, sometimes as…a blob of Jell-O, or whatever. They are all exactly the same experience, but we give it different words. For many meditators, however, the mind flashes up very quickly and then disappears again. It’s like the animal coming out of the forest. It senses someone becoming excited and flees.

Some meditators have difficulty in seeing nimittas. They reach the stage of calming the beautiful breath and nothing happens. No light appears. They wonder what they are doing wrong. The following analogy may help.

Late one night, I stepped outside from my brightly lit kuti (monk’s hut) into the dense darkness of the forest. I had no flashlight. It was so black that I could not see anything. I remained still, patient. Slowly, my eyes became accustomed to the darkness. Soon I could make out the shapes of the tree trunks, and then I could look up and see the beautiful stars, the whole Milky Way even, glittering brilliantly in the night sky.

Experiencing nimittas can be like this. In the formless stillness when the breath seems to disappear, at first one can see nothing. Be patient. Do nothing but wait. Soon mindfulness will become accustomed to this “darkness” beyond its usual habitat (the room of the brightly lit five senses) and it begins to see shapes, dimly at first. After a while, the beautiful star-like nimittas may appear and, if one is still long enough, the best nimittas of all appear, like the brilliant disc of the full moon at night, released from the clouds.

Continued next week: 31 December 2021

The Fifth Sixth & Seventh Step

Experiencing Joy and Happiness with the Breath

POSTCARD#450: Bangkok: Continuing with our text: Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook, by Ajahn Brahm.

In the fifth step of ānāpānasati, you experience joy (pīti) along with the breath, and in the sixth step you experience happiness (sukha) along with the breath. Because joy and happiness are difficult to separate, and since they usually arrive together anyway, I will treat them as one.

As your unbroken mindfulness watches the breath calming down, joy and happiness naturally arise like the golden light of dawn on an eastern horizon. It will arise gradually but automatically because all your mental energy is now flowing into the knower and not the doer. In fact, you are doing nothing, only watching. The sure sign that you are doing nothing is the tranquillity of your breath. In the early hours of the morning it is only a matter of time until the horizon glows with the first light of day, just as when you remain still with the calm breath it is only a matter of time until joy and happiness appear in your mind. Mental energy flowing into the knower makes mindfulness full of power, and energized mindfulness is experienced as happiness and joy, (pīti-sukha).

If you reach step four and are continuously mindful of a very calm breath but see no happiness or joy, then my advice is: “Don’t panic!” Don’t spoil the natural process with your impatience. When you do anything at this stage you just delay, or even prevent, the arrival of happiness and joy. Instead just deepen the experience of the continuous calm breath. Are you fully aware of the peaceful breath, or have interruptions crept in? Perhaps the lack of progress is because you are not continually mindful of only the breath. Has your breath stopped growing calmer? Perhaps the breath isn’t peaceful enough yet. If so, give it more time. This is a natural process completely independent of you. When mindfulness rests comfortably on the breath without any interruptions, and the sensation of breath becomes calmer and calmer, then happiness and joy will always arise.

It helps if you are able to spot pīti-sukha early. To do this you have to be familiar with what you are looking for. The happiness and joy that are associated with tranquillity can start off as extremely subtle. It is like someone who prefers hard rock attending a performance of classical music by Mahler, and who can’t comprehend why the audience pays good money to listen to such stuff. They just don’t get it. Or like the person who usually eats at cheap diners going for the first time to a five-star French restaurant and not appreciating the cuisine because their palate is too coarse.

As you meditate more and more, you become a connoisseur of tranquil mind states and will naturally apprehend the arrival of joy and happiness at an increasingly early stage.

The fulfilment of these fifth and sixth steps of ānāpānasati is precisely the same as reaching the stage of full sustained awareness of the beautiful breath in my basic method of meditation. The beauty of the breath at this stage is my way of describing the experience of joy and happiness. The breath at this stage appears so still and tranquil and beautiful, more attractive than a garden in springtime, or a sunset in summer, and you wonder if you will ever want to look at anything else.

The Seventh Step

Experiencing the Breath as a mind object

As the breath becomes ever more beautiful, as the joy and happiness grow in quiet strength, your breath may appear to completely disappear. In Chapter two I described this as the breath dropping away from the beautiful breath leaving only the beautiful. I also gave the example of the Grinning Cheshire Cat (Alice in Wonderland), who gradually disappeared leaving only the grin’ to depict this event. This precisely describes the passage from stage five and sixth, experiencing joy and happiness with the breath to stage seven where the breath is known only as a mind object.

To clarify this transition, I invoke  the Buddha’s analysis of consciousness into the six sense bases (SN 35) – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and the mind base of knowing. In the early stages of meditation you abandon seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting to the point where  these four sense bases completely shut down for a while. Then you let go of most of the activity of the fifth sense base, touching, by focusing on the touch (physical sensation) of the breath to the exclusion of everything else. The sixth sense base, the mind, is operating throughout. As you pass into this seventh step. Touching, now shuts down to leave only the sixth sense base, the mind, to know the breath. You are now experiencing the breath through a new sense base. 

Imagine an old friend, fuzzy-haired and bearded, who usually goes around in ordinary old clothes. Then he is ordained as a Buddhist monk. When you first see him in the monastery, you probably won’t  recognize  him  with  his  bald  head  and  robes.  But  it  is  the  same  old  friend  regardless. He appears different in the new setting, that’s all. In the same way, your old friend the breath usually goes  around  dressed in the sensations of touch  and  is  recognized  mainly through the fifth sense base. In the seventh step of ānāpānasati, your breath has transcended the world of the five sense bases, in particular the fifth sense base, and is now to be known only through the sixth  sense,  as  a  mind  object.  This  is  why  the  Buddha  called  this  step  experiencing  the  citta- sankhāra, the mind object.

So if your breath seems to disappear at this stage, be reassured that this is meant to happen, and don’t go disturbing the process by searching here and there for the previous perception of the breath. Instead, when the breath seems to disappear, ask yourself what is left? If you have followed the instructions carefully, the breath will only seem to disappear after happiness and joy have been established, and so what is left is happiness and joy. Your mindfulness has to be subtle and still to recognise this fine object at first, but with the familiarity born of long experience, the insight will come to you that this subtle happiness and joy is your old friend the breath, only now experienced as a mind object.

If you are unable to remain with this mind object, it is because there was insufficient joy and happiness before you let the fifth sense base shut down. You should train in cultivating a very beautiful breath with heaps of joy and happiness before you let the fifth sense base shut down. Then you will have a stronger mind object to watch. However, with much practice, you will know what you are looking for at step seven, the mindfulness will be more deft at holding subtle levels of happiness and joy, and you will be able to let go of the fifth sense base earlier and still be able to hold the weaker mental object.

Continued next week: 24 December 2021

The Beautiful Breath

The essence of Buddhism is in the enlightenment of the Buddha. Many centuries ago in India, the wandering monk Gautama remembered a childhood experience of the first jhāna and realized that jhāna was the way to awakening (MN 36). He went to a quiet stretch of forest on the banks of a great river, sat on a cushion of grass under a shady fig tree, and meditated. The method of meditation that he used was ānāpāna-sati, mindfulness of the in and out breaths. Through this practice he entered jhāna, emerged, and quickly gained the insights of enlightenment. Henceforth he was called the Buddha.

The Buddha continued to teach ānāpānasati for the remainder of his life. It was the method that had given him enlightenment, the meditation practice par excellence, and he imparted that same method to all his disciples both in the monastery and in the city. The Anāpānasati teachings can be found in the original Buddhist texts as part of many suttas, but in particular as the Anāpānasati Sutta of the Majjhima collection (MN 118).

The Buddha described the practice of ānāpānasati as consisting of preliminary preparations followed by sixteen steps. The first twelve of those steps are instructions for entering jhāna, and the final four steps are instructions on what to do when you emerge.

The Preliminaries

A Quiet Place, a Comfortable Seat

Setting Up Mindfulness

You are now asked to set up mindfulness “in front of you.” To put something in front means to make it important. So this preliminary instruction is to establish mindfulness by giving it priority. Mindfulness is established by following the first two stages of the basic method of meditation in chapter 1—that is, through practicing present-moment awareness and then silent present-moment awareness. From what has been said so far, it should be obvious that when your attention is wandering through the past or into the future, you are not being mindful of what’s happening right now. Also, when you are thinking or even just noting, then your attention is on the words, not on the bare experience of now. But when you are silently aware of whatever it is that is happening now (right in front of your mind), then you have established the level of mindfulness required to begin ānāpānasati.

I have noticed that too many meditators go on to the breath too quickly, neglecting the preliminary instruction to establish adequate mindfulness first, and they run into trouble. Either they can’t keep the breath in mind at all or, worse, they tenaciously grasp the breath with so much willpower that they end up more stressed out than before they started.

The Sixteen Steps

The First and Second of the Sixteen Steps

Although the Buddha says to first experience long breaths and then experience short breaths, you do not need to control your breathing to fulfill the instructions. Controlling the breath produces only discomfort. Instead you are meant to observe the breath enough to know whether it is long or short. Even though this is not mentioned in the sutta, it is also fulfilling the instructions to observe the breath as neither long nor short, but somewhere close to the middle.

The reason for these instructions is that in the beginning you may find it uninteresting just to watch the feeling of air going in and out of your body, so this instruction gives you more to look at. It makes mindfulness of breathing more interesting. Sometimes I suggest to my students that at this stage they should notice which is longer, the in-breath or the out-breath. Is the gap between the inbreath and the next out-breath as long as the pause between the out-breath and the subsequent inbreath? Are the sensations of inbreathing the same as the sensations of out-breathing? This serves the same function as the Buddha’s instructions to experience long breathing and short breathing. It gives mindfulness more details to watch so it won’t get bored. Another method that belongs to this stage is to make a beautiful story around the in and out breathing. I suggest to my students to remember that the oxygen that they are breathing in is being constantly replenished by the plants in the gardens and forests. And that the carbon dioxide they are breathing out is the food of the same plants. So imagine that you are breathing in a precious gift from the flowers and the trees, and that you are breathing out an equally valuable gift to the green nature around you. Your breathing is intimately connecting you with all the vibrant vegetation. Such an uplifting way of perceiving your own breathing makes it more easy to follow.

In the Thai Forest Tradition they add a a mantra to the breathing. As you breathe in you think “Bud” and as you breathe out you think “Dho.”

These are the two syllables of the Buddha’s name (in Pāli nominative singular). Again, it serves to make the breathing easier to follow at this early stage.

‘The Sixteen Steps’ is continued next week 10th December 2021

Walking Meditation

Walking meditation is wonderful, especially in the early morning. Often when you get up early in the morning, in particular when you’re not used to getting up so early, you’re quite tired and the mind isn’t bright. One of the advantages of walking meditation is that you can’t nod off while you’re walking. So if you’re tired, walking meditation is very good to do. It brings up some energy, and also you can get very peaceful. Walking meditation was both praised and practiced by the Buddha. If you read the suttas (teachings in the Pāli canon), you find that the Buddha would usually do walking meditation in the early morning. He wouldn’t be sitting; he’d be walking. Many monks and nuns have become enlightened on the walking meditation path. It’s a very effective way of developing both calm and insight (but not to the extent of jhāna). For some monks that I know in Thailand, their main practice is walking meditation. They do very little sitting. They do a lot of walking, and many get tremendously powerful insights while they’re walking.

Another benefit of walking meditation is that it is especially suitable for those who have physical discomfort when sitting for long periods. If you find it difficult to sit in meditation because of pains in the body, walking meditation can be a very effective alternative. Don’t consider walking meditation as a “second-class” meditation. If you want to spend most of your meditation time this way, please do so. But do it well and do it carefully. See if you can develop the happiness born of serenity as you’re walking back and forth.

Setting Up Walking Meditation

Choose a clear, straight path between twenty to thirty paces long. This can be a corridor in a house, a path in the garden, or just a track on the grass. Use whatever is available, even if it’s a bit less than twenty paces long. If it’s comfortable to do so, walk without shoes, enjoying the contact of your bare feet on the ground.

Stand at one end of your path. Compose the mind. Relax the body and begin walking. Walk back and forth at a pace that seems natural to you. While you are walking, clasp your hands comfortably in front of you, and rest your gaze on the ground about two meters ahead. Be careful not to look around. If you’re doing walking meditation, it’s a waste of time to look here and there, because that would be distracting.

The Stages of Meditation Apply Here Too

The first four stages of meditation described in the first two chapters apply here as well. But in walking meditation attention eventually comes to rest on the feet rather than the breath. At first, aim to develop present-moment awareness, as in stage one. Use the techniques described there to reach the state of just walking, easily, in the here and now. When you feel that you have settled into the present moment, where thoughts concerning the past and future are absent from the mind, then aim to develop silent walking in the present moment. Just as described earlier in stage two, gradually let go of all thinking. Walk without any inner speech. Make use of some of the techniques described in chapter 1 to reach this stage of silent walking. Once the inner commentary has slowed to a bare trickle of inner speech, deliberately focus your attention on the feeling of movement in the feet and lower legs. Do so to the extent that you clearly notice every step on the path. Know every left step, know every right step—one after the other without missing any. Know every step as you turn around at the end of the path. The famous Chinese saying that the “journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step” is helpful here. Such a journey is in fact only one step long—the step that you are walking now. So just be silently aware of this “one step,” and let everything else go. When you have completed ten return trips up and down the path without missing a single left or right step, then you have fulfilled stage three of the walking meditation and may proceed to the next stage. Now increase the attention so that you notice every feeling of movement in the left step, from the very beginning when the left foot starts to move and lift up from the ground. Notice as it goes up, forward, down, and then rests on the ground again, taking the weight of the body. Develop this continuous awareness of the left step, and then similar smooth, unbroken awareness of the right step. Do this throughout every step to the end of the path. And as you turn around, notice every feeling in the turning-around procedure, not missing a movement.

When you can walk for fifteen minutes comfortably sustaining the attention on every moment of walking, without a single break, then you have reached the fourth stage of walking meditation, full sustained awareness of walking. At this point the process of walking so fully occupies the attention that the mind cannot be distracted. You know when this happens, because the mind goes into a state of samādhi, or attentive stillness, and becomes very peaceful.

Samādhi on the Walking Path

Even the sound of the birds disappears as your attention is fully focused on the experience of walking. Your attention is easily settled, content, and sustained on one thing. You will find this a very pleasant experience indeed. As your mindfulness increases, you will know more and more of the sensations of walking. Then you find that walking does have this sense of beauty and peace to it. Every step becomes a “beautiful step.” And it can very easily absorb all your attention as you become fascinated by just walking. You can receive a great deal of samādhi through walking meditation in this way. That samādhi is experienced as peacefulness, a sense of stillness, a sense of the mind being very comfortable and very

happy in its own corner.

I started my walking meditation practice when I was first ordained as a monk in a temple in Bangkok. I would choose a path and quite naturally, without forcing it, I’d walk very slowly. (You don’t need to walk fast, and you don’t need to walk slowly. Just do what feels comfortable.) I used to get into beautiful samādhi states during walking meditation. I recall once being disturbed because I’d been walking too long. I hadn’t noticed the time pass, and I was needed to go to an important ceremony. One of the monks had been sent to get me. I recall this monk came up to me and said, “Brahmavamso, you’ve got to come to a dāna” (an alms offering). I was looking at a space about two meters ahead. My hands were clasped in front of me. When I heard the monk’s voice, it seemed as if it came from a thousand miles away because I was so absorbed into my walking meditation. He repeated, “Brahmavamso, you have to come now!” It took me more than a minute to actually lift my gaze from the ground and to turn it around to the side where this senior monk was trying to get my attention. And as I met his eyes, all I could say was “What?” It took such a long time to get out of that samādhi and react at normal speed. The mind was so cool and so peaceful and so still. Many people who practice walking meditation for the first time say, “This is amazing. Beautiful.” Just slowing down gives you a sense of peace. You become calm just by watching the sensations as you walk. So walking meditation is another type of meditation that I suggest you experiment with.

Choosing the Right Meditation for the Right Time

Wherever you have choice you may also find confusion. Now that you have read about several different methods of meditation, which one should you choose? Master meditators who are about to begin meditating will first examine the state of mind that they are to work with. If they have been very busy, they know that they will be starting out with quite a coarse mind. So they may start with a simple letting-be meditation. Perhaps they see that their body is stiff, so they choose to do some walking meditation. When they see that their mind is not so rough, they take up present-moment awareness and then silent present-moment awareness. Master meditators know from experience when their mind is able to watch the breath or ready to begin mettā meditation. They know when to apply the finer tools such as full sustained awareness of the breath or of the beautiful breath. Meditation masters become so proficient in their craft that they know the right time to turn to the nimitta and how to polish it deftly until the mind enters jhāna. Thus a coarse mind straight from the busy office is transformed by the master meditator into the most beautiful, smooth, and radiant mind.

Sometimes meditation masters begin with a mind that is already cool and mindful. They examine their state of mind and quickly know that they can bypass present-moment awareness and silence and go straight to the breath or to mettā. They may even see that their mind is so joyfully at peace that they can easily begin with awareness of the beautiful breath. On rare occasions, master meditators realize that they already possess such a poised and powerful mind that they can arouse a nimitta within a few seconds and quickly enter a jhāna. Such are the skills of a meditation master.

On the other hand, inept meditators, in a rush of arrogance, don’t even take time to notice the coarseness of their mind and try to use mindfulness of the breathing from the very beginning. They waste much time and create many problems for themselves. So, please become familiar with the various types of meditation until you know when and how they should be used. Then every time you meditate, begin by examining the mind you have to work with, and you will understand which meditation method to use. You will become a doctor of meditation, diagnosing accurately before treating effectively.

Photo details: Buddha-Weekly-Sunrise_Dinajpur_Bangladesh-Buddhism.jpg

Text continued 2nd December 2021

Letting Be

POSTCARD#446: Bangkok: Continuing with Ajahn Brahm’s text: “Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond

Sometimes the best thing my mind needs at the moment is just to let things be. Basically, letting-be meditation is simply this second stage of breath meditation, just silent awareness of the present moment. It has to be silent, because to really let things be means you give no orders and have no complaints; you’ve got nothing to talk about. Letting be happens in the present moment. You’re aware of things as they appear right now, and you allow them to come in or stay or go, whenever they want. Letting-be meditation is like sitting in a room, and whoever comes in the door, you let in. They can stay as long as they like. Even if they are terrible demons, you allow them to come in and sit down. You are not at all fazed. If the Buddha himself enters in all his glory, you just sit here just the same, completely equanimous. “Come in if you want.” “You can go whenever.” Whatever comes into your mind, the beautiful or the gross, you stand back and let it be, with no reactions at all—quietly observing and practicing silent awareness in the present moment. This is letting-be meditation.

The Garden Simile

Many English men and women have gardens in their homes where they often spend many hours working. But a garden is to be enjoyed, not just to be worked in. So I advise my students that they should frequently go sit in their own garden and enjoy its great beauty.

The least adept of my students believe that they must mow the grass, prune the bushes, water the flower bed, rake the leaves, and get the garden perfect before they can sit down to enjoy it. Of course, the garden never is perfect, no matter how hard they work. So they never get to rest.

Mediocre students, on the other hand, refrain from work. Instead they sit in their garden and begin to think. “The grass needs mowing and the bushes should be pruned. The flowers are looking dry and the leaves really need raking, and a native bush would look better over there,” and so on. They spend their time pondering how to make their garden perfect rather than simply enjoying it. They too find no peace.

The third type of student is the wise meditator. They have done a lot of work in their garden, but now is their time for rest. They say, “The lawn could be mown, the bushes could be pruned, the flowers could be watered and the leaves raked—but not now! The garden is good enough as it is.” And they can rest a while, not feeling guilty about unfinished business.

Letting-be meditation is just the same. Don’t try to make everything perfect or tie up all those loose ends before you let things be. Life is never perfect and duties are never finished. Letting be is having the courage to sit quietly and rest the mind in the midst of imperfection.

Letting Be Can Become Quite Powerful

If your breath meditation or mettā meditation or any other type of meditation isn’t working, very often it’s because the foundation is incorrect. So just do the letting-be meditation. You can “sit out in the garden” and just let things be. Whatever is happening, that’s OK. Whatever you’re experiencing is fine—no preference, no choice, no good or bad, no argument, and no commentary. Just let things be. You can have a little bit of a inner speech, but only a commentary about “letting be.” Just be with what is. Just be with thoughts concerned with the meditation subject, but not about anything else. That way the meditation comes close to complete silent awareness of the present moment.

If I’m in pain, if I have a headache, stomachache, or some other ache, or if the mosquitoes are biting, I say, “Just let it be.” I don’t argue with it, don’t get upset about it. I just watch the feelings in my body as the mosquito pushes its nose into my flesh and itching sensations follow. “Just let things be.” If you’re lying in bed at night and you can’t go to sleep: “Let it be.” Or if there’s a pain that won’t go away: “Just let it be.” Just be with it. Don’t try running away. If demons have come into your room, you’re not going to push them out, but you’re not going to invite them to stay either. You’re just going to let them be. Letting be is the practice of equanimity.

Continued next week 26th November 2021