Excerpts from “The Path to Peace: A Buddhist Guide to Cultivating Loving-Kindness” by Ayya Khema
There’s no need to be busy. We should of course fulfill our obligations and responsibilities. The Buddha always gave guidelines in that direction. But to be overly busy cannot possibly bring peacefulness. It cannot bring contentment. It cannot bring a heart full of love; it cannot bring a heart that can actually bring the mind to meditation. So, we should check our activities and see which ones are totally unnecessary. And we should see whether, with the activities that we do, we are not only trying to escape our own suffering (dukkha) but also trying to prove something to ourselves and others—that we are somebody. The more we try to prove that we are somebody, the less we have a chance to become nobody. And that’s what nirvana is all about. It doesn’t sound appealing to some people, because they haven’t had enough dukkha yet. When we’ve had enough dukkha with the somebody, we can actually appreciate the fact that there’s only one way to get out of dukkha, and that’s being nobody.
We have the wealth of absolute truth, of immeasurable love and compassion—the whole wealth of the universe within us. It’s just waiting to be discovered. But within the hustle and bustle of morning-to-evening activity, we’ll never manage to find it. It’s like a golden treasure that is lying within us, that we can actually touch upon through the quiet mind. Anyone can do it, but they’ve got to become quiet. And we’ve got to stop trying to be something special. Only then can we get at it, and then, having found it, we can share it. That’s what the Buddha did. He shared it for forty-five years. With a few thousand people. And today we’re sharing it with five hundred million. That’s the value of enlightenment.
So, we have that treasure. But if we really get busy, we have no way of unlocking that treasure chest. Unlocking it takes time, and it takes the quiet mind, the contented mind, the satisfied mind. It needs the mind which knows that there is something to be found far beyond anything at all that we can ever find in the world. And then we will make an attempt at checking out what is really necessary to do.
Whatever we do out of compassion is well done. And this should be our checkpoint: what am I doing out of compassion, and what am I doing in order to assert that I am really here and to let as many people know about it as possible, and what am I doing in order to get out of my dukkha to keep busy? But whatever I do out of compassion, that is what we should pursue.
Ayya Khema (1923–1997) was an international Buddhist teacher, and the first Western woman to become a Theravada Buddhist nun. An advocate of Buddhist women’s rights, in 1987 she helped coordinate the first conference for the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women in Bodh Gaya, India.
Excerpts from “A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life” by Jack Kornfield (1993)
When Buddhists speak of emptiness and of no self, what do they mean? Emptiness does not mean that things don’t exist, nor does “no self” mean that we don’t exist. Emptiness refers to the underlying nonseparation of life and the fertile ground of energy that gives rise to all forms of life. Our world and sense of self is a play of patterns.
Any identity we can grasp is transient, tentative. When we are silent and attentive, we can sense directly how we can never truly possess anything in the world. Clearly, we do not possess outer things. We are in some relationship with our cars, our home, our family, our jobs, but whatever that relationship is, it is “ours” only for a short time. In the end, things, people, or tasks die or change or we lose them. Nothing is exempt.
We encounter another aspect of the emptiness of self when we notice how everything arises out of nothing, comes out of the void, returns to the void, goes back to nothing. All our words of the past day have disappeared. Similarly, where has the past week or the past month or our childhood gone? They arose, did a little dance, and now they’ve vanished, along with the twentieth century, the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, the ancient Romans and Greeks, the Pharaohs, and so forth. All experience arises in the present, does its dance, and disappears. Experience comes into being only tentatively, for a little time in a certain form; then that form ends and a new form replaces it moment by moment.
As we open and empty ourselves, we come to experience an interconnectedness, the realization that all things are joined and conditioned in an interdependent arising. Each experience and event contains all others. The teacher depends on the student, the airplane depends on the sky.
When a bell rings, is it the bell we hear, the air, the sound on our cars, or is it our brain that rings? It is all of these things. As the Taoists say, “The between is ringing.” The sound of the bell is here to he heard everywhere—in the eyes of every person we meet, in every tree and insect, in every breath we take…
When we truly sense this interconnectedness and the emptiness out of which all beings arise, we find liberation and a spacious joy. Discovering emptiness brings a lightness of heart, flexibility, and an ease that rests in all things. The more solidly we grasp our identity, the more solid our problems become. Once I asked a delightful old Sri Lankan meditation master to teach me the essence of Buddhism. He just laughed and said three times, “No self, no problem.”
Jack Kornfield was trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma, and India, and holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He is a psychotherapist and founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and the Spirit Rock Center. His books include Seeking the Heart of Wisdom and Still Forest Pool.
Image: Giant Buddha statue under construction at the Khai Nguyen Pagoda in Son Tay, on the outskirts of Hanoi, Vietnam, on May 18, 2019
Essentially what counts about our life is our kamma (karma), that is, our actions of body, speech or mind. And kamma means you have a choice: you can act wisely now rather than react compulsively. Reactions are generated by contact – that is something touches the heart. When we notice or are struck by something – it could be something seen, remembered, tasted, imagined – then something vibrates and there’s perception. Perception is the solidification of the immediate impression arising in consciousness; the light goes on, there is meaning, true or false. Then comes the reaction, the volitional quality, or cetanā – and when the mind engages with that, there is kamma.
Training is about putting a micro-pause or attentiveness, between the perception and the reaction, or, between the mental reaction and any engagement with it. And it’s also good to challenge perceptions before they land, or as they arise. So, you establish the perception of impermanence: ‘This is going to change.’ And the perception of the unattractive: ‘This too loses flavour and breaks down.’ Then there are perceptions based on goodwill: ‘Just like me, they are enriched by kindness.’ And when we practice recollection, we establish perceptions based upon awakening: ‘Freedom from suffering is possible.’ In this way, you’re changing your life right now in terms of how and when the mind jumps.
Notice: What are the most habitual jumps? Habitual reactions are about how we repeatedly jump; the ingrained impressions and reactions that become ‘myself’. ‘I’m always like this, I see things this way, I tend to mistrust, or be apprehensive, or urgent, or dismissive, or…’ Then pause; wait a minute. Check. Do you have to jump, right now? Come out of the obsessive rut.
The Guanyin of Nanshan is a 108-metre statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin, sited on the south coast of China’s island province Hainan near the Nanshan Temple of Sanya.
Guanyin is the Chinese translation of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who chose to stay on earth as accessible examples for Buddhist faithful to follow. Originally depicted as a male or gender-neutral entity able to take on thirty-three manifestations, Avalokiteśvara is a compassionate savior who hears the woes of humankind, regardless of age, gender, or social class.
However, in imperial China, Guanyin became increasingly cemented as a female figure. Similar to the Virgin Mary, Guanyin became a popular intercessor for humanity to understand divine salvation. While there are a few different names to refer to this Bodhisattva, there are even more different forms that Guanyin can take when appearing to sentient beings in order to guide them away from suffering.
Traditionally, China was a very patriarchal society; a system reinforced by Confucian principles which put pressure on women to obey their husbands and give birth to sons (instead of daughters). As a result, women were generally the ones asking for Guanyin’s help in order to achieve these goals. In addition, it was thought that a woman must commit to one man for her whole life (even after his death), therefore it seemed more appropriate for a woman to worship a deity in female form. In this way, Guanyin starts to take on more feminine qualities such as kindness and grace and, in female form, she is seen as more accessible to women.
It is believed that Guanyin is androgynous or perhaps without gender. According to the Mahāyāna sūtras, it makes no difference whether Guanyin is male, female, or genderless, as the ultimate reality is in emptiness (Skt. śūnyatā). Guanyin can take the form of any type of God including Indra or Brahma; any type of Buddha, as well as any gender male or female, adult or child, human or non-human being, in order to teach the Dharma to all sentient beings.
[Excerpts from an article by Loch Kelly in “When am I?” :Tricycle : September 08, 2015. The writer explains something about the present moment that’s held my attention for a long time, vis-à-vis the concept of present moment awareness as in “Postcards from the Present Moment” : dhammafootsteps.com]
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Now is considered the “timeless time” that includes the three relative times of past, present, and future. We know not to get caught in the past or the future, but in order to be in the Now, we also have to let go of the present. The Now is not confined by relative clock time, yet it is also not pure timelessness. The Now is the meeting place of timeless spacious awareness with the relative world and its conventional time. The Now does not come and go, but includes everything all at once. When we’re aware of being in the Now, present moments come and go, like ripples and waves in the ocean of awake awareness.
We cannot enter present moments because they move too fast and change continuously. Contemporary Tibetan Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche says, “If you examine even the present moment carefully, you find that it also is made up of earlier and later moments. In the end, if you keep examining the present moment, you find that there is no present moment that exists either.”
One of the great insights we can get from mindfulness meditation practice is that each moment of experience arises and passes. Having a direct experience of this impermanence, from observing awareness, helps us let go of the attempt to calcify any single moment of time, to try to make something stable that is not. When we really get a feeling for the coming and going of moments, it helps us break the illusion of a solid, separate self, which gives us relief from suffering.
The present time is not the Now. When Gampopa, an 11th-century Buddhist teacher, said, “Don’t invite the future. Don’t pursue the past. Let go of the present. Relax right now,” he was pointing to the fact that trying to locate yourself in any of the three relative times, including the present, can cause suffering – it’s not always a benefit to strive to be in the present. While working as a psychotherapist, I saw that the distinguishing feature of clinical depression is feeling stuck in the present. As one client said, “It feels like there is only this present, unbearable pain and no hope of it changing.”
The most important thing to know is that we are always already in the Now—however, we are not always aware of being in the Now. You can only know the Now from awake awareness. Many of us have experienced being in the Now when we were “in the zone” or in a panoramic flow state, but we can’t be aware of being in the Now from our everyday, ego-identified state of mind. We can shift through the door of the Now into awake awareness, or when abiding in awake awareness, we can begin to notice the feeling of being in the Now. The purpose of clarifying and distinguishing the Now from the present and present moment is for us to be able to shift into being in the Now and know we are here.
From Shift Into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-hearted Awareness, by Loch Kelly.
POSTCARD#438: Bangkok: Doubt can be toward the teaching, about the teacher, or toward yourself. Regarding doubt toward the teaching, you should have enough confidence by now to know that some beautiful results come from practicing meditation. You may have experienced many of them already. Allow those positive experiences to strengthen your confidence that meditation is worthwhile. Sitting in meditation, developing the mind in stillness, and especially developing the mind in jhānas are all tremendously worthwhile and will give you clarity, happiness, and understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.
With regard to teachers, they are often like coaches of sports teams. Their job is to teach from their own experience and, more important, to inspire students with words and deeds. But before you put your confidence in a teacher, check them out. Observe their behavior and see for yourself if they are practicing what they preach. If they really know what they are talking about, then they will be ethical, restrained, and inspiring. Only if teachers lead by example—a good example, that is—should you place your confidence in them.
Self-doubt—which thinks, “I’m hopeless, I can’t do this, I’m useless, I’m sure everyone else who practices meditation, except me, has got jhānas and is already enlightened”—is often overcome with the help of a teacher who inspires and encourages you. It’s the teacher’s job to say, “Yes, you can achieve all of these things. Many other people have achieved them, so why not you?” Give yourself encouragement. Have confidence that you can achieve whatever you want. In fact, if you have sufficient determination and confidence, then it’s only a matter of time before you succeed. The only people who fail are those who give up.
Doubt can also be directed toward what you are experiencing now: “What is this? Is this jhāna? Is this present-moment awareness?” Such doubts are hindrances. They are inappropriate during meditation. Just make the mind as peaceful as you can. Let go and enjoy the peace and happiness. Afterward, you can review the meditation and ask, “What was that? That was really interesting. What was happening there?” That’s when you’ll find out whether or not it was a jhāna. If while meditating the thought “Is this jhāna?” arises, then it cannot be jhāna! Thoughts like that can’t come up within these deep states of stillness. Only afterward, when you review those states, can you look back and say, “Ah, that was a jhāna.”
If you get into any difficulty in your meditation, stop and ask yourself, “Which of the hindrances is this?” Find out what the cause is. Once you know the cause, then you can remember the solution and apply it. If it’s sensory desire, just take the attention away from the five senses little by little and apply it to the breath or the mind. If it’s ill will, do some loving-kindness. For sloth and torpor, remember “give value to awareness.” If it’s restlessness and remorse, remember “contentment, contentment, contentment” or practice forgiveness. And if it’s doubt, be confident and be inspired by the teachings. Whenever you meditate, apply the solutions methodically. That way, the obstacles you experience won’t create long-term barriers. They’re things that you can recognize, overcome, and move beyond.
Preview of next week’s text:
“All the Hindrances emanate from a single source. They are generated by the control freak inside of you that refuses to let things go. Meditators fail to overcome the hindrances because they look for them in the wrong place. It is crucial to success in meditation to understand that the hindrances are to be seen at work in the space between the knower and the known. The hindrances’ source is the doer, their result is lack of progress, but their workshop is the space between the mind and its meditation object. Essentially, the five hindrances are a relationship problem.”
POSTCARD#434: Bangkok: In this chapter and the next I will explain in detail the five hindrances, obstacles that you will meet in your meditation and that you should learn to overcome. 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, or jhānas. They also obstruct or weaken wisdom and strengthen delusion. So if one is going to say anything in Buddhism about the enemies to meditation, one can say that the five hindrances are Public Enemy Number One. They stop people from becoming enlightened, and it’s precisely for this reason that understanding these five hindrances and overcoming them is crucial. When you don’t fully understand them, you cannot overcome them. Some teachers fail to explain the hindrances clearly enough, especially the hindrances that are very subtle. These refined hindrances prevent you from getting into deep meditation. If you do not even try to identify them and surpass them, then they will hold sway over your mind. You will be obstructed from enjoying the bliss of the mind and from developing the great insights of enlightenment. 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 Buddha named the five hindrances as follows: sensory desire (kāma-cchanda), ill will (vyāpāda), sloth and torpor (thīna-middha), restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca), and doubt (vicikicchā). This is the usual order in which the Buddha lists them, and this is the order in which they will be presented here, too.
The First Hindrance—Sensory Desire, Kāma-cchanda, is first on the list of hindrances because of its importance. It is the major obstacle preventing one from entering deep meditation. Few meditators fully understand its scope. It is not just sensory desire as that term is commonly understood. First of all, the Pāli word kāma means anything pertaining to the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Chanda means to delight in or agree with. Together the compound kāma-cchanda means “delight, interest, involvement with the world of the five senses.” For example, when we are meditating and hear a sound, why can’t we simply ignore it? Why does it disturb us so? Many years ago in Thailand the local villages surrounding our monastery held a party. The noise from the loudspeakers was so loud that it seemed to destroy the peace in our monastery. So we complained to our teacher, Ajahn Chah, that the noise was disturbing our meditation. The great master replied, “It is not the noise that disturbs you, it is you who disturb the noise!” In the above example kāma-cchanda was the mind getting involved with the sound. Similarly, when your meditation is interrupted by a pain in your legs, say, then it is not the pain that disturbs you but it is you who disturb the pain. If you had been mindful, you would have seen your awareness go out to your body, becoming interested in sensations again. That was kāma-cchanda at work. It is difficult to overcome kāma-cchanda because we are so attached to our five senses and their affairs. Whatever we are attached to we find impossible to release. To understand this attachment it is useful to examine the connection between our five senses and our body. It is commonly claimed that the five senses are there to protect our body, but insight will tell you the opposite: that the body is there to provide a vehicle for your five senses to play in the world. You will also notice that when the five senses disappear so does your body. Letting go of one means letting go of the other.
Abandoning Kāma-cchanda Little by Little
You can’t simply decide to let go of the five senses and the body through a single effort of will. The abandoning of kāma-cchanda in meditation is achieved little by little. You start by choosing a comfortable, quiet place in which to meditate. You may sit on a chair if it is more comfortable for you, remembering that even the Buddha sat on a chair sometimes. When you first close your eyes you will be unable to feel much of the body. In the same way that it takes a few minutes to see when you go out from a well-lit room into the dark, so it takes a few minutes to become sensitive to your bodily feelings. Thus the final adjustments to our body posture are made a few minutes after closing our eyes. Indulging kāma-cchanda in this way will subdue it for a while. Your body will feel comfortable and the five senses satisfied, but not for long. You must use this initial freedom to start placing the mind beyond the reach of the five senses. You begin with present-moment awareness. Most if not all of our past and future is occupied by the affairs of our five senses. Our memories are of physical sensations, tastes, sounds, smells, or sights. Our plans are likewise filled with five-sense business. Through achieving present moment awareness we cut off much of kāma-cchanda.
The next stage of meditation is silent present-moment awareness. In this you abandon all thought. The Buddha identified an aspect of kāmacchanda that is called kāmavitakka, meaning thinking about the five-sense world. For the new meditator, the most obvious form of kāma- vitakka is sexual fantasy. One can use up many hours, especially on a long retreat, with this type of kāma-vitakka. This obstacle to progress in meditation is transcended by realizing, through insight or faith, that total freedom from the five senses (i.e., jhāna) is more ecstatic and profound than the very best of sexual experiences. A monk or nun gives up their sexuality not out of fear or repression, but out of recognition of something superior. Even thoughts about lunch belong to kāma-vitakka. They disturb the silence. And few meditators realize that noting bodily sensations, for example thinking to oneself “breath going in” or “hearing a sound” or “feeling a stabbing pain,” is also part of kāmavitakka and a hindrance to progress.
Lao Tzu, the great Taoist sage, would allow one student to accompany him on his evening walk, as long as the student maintained silence. One evening, as they reached a mountain ridge, the student remarked, “What a beautiful sunset.” Lao Tzu never let that student accompany him again. When others asked why, the master explained, “When that student said, ‘What a beautiful sunset,’ he was no longer watching the sunset, he was only watching the words.” That is why you have to abandon noting, for watching the words is not being mindful of the thing it tries in vain to describe. In silent present-moment awareness it is as if the world of the five senses is confined in a cage, unable to roam or create any mischief…
Editor’s note, the five senses confined in a cage; this is the end result, so how did we get there? I found it easier to reorder the sequence of events in this part of Ajahn’s teaching on the method for abandoning kāma-cchanda little by little. I broke it down to the simple directives, getting rid of unnecessary words. The following is what I comprehend the teaching is today at the time of writing. Please refer back to the original for anything I might have missed, page 32 – 33 print copy.
First, settle into meditation posture, some adjustments are made a few minutes after closing the eyes. Indulging kāma-cchanda in this way will subdue it for a while. Your body will feel comfortable and the five senses satisfied, but not for long. You must use this initial freedom to start placing the mind beyond the reach of the five senses. Begin with present-moment awareness. Our past and future are occupied by the affairs of our five senses, memories physical sensations,. Through achieving present moment awareness we cut off much of the kāma-cchanda multi-purpose affairs.
The next stage is where we abandon all thinking about the five-sense world. Using present moment awareness we can choose to focus our mindfulness on a small part of the five-sense world to the exclusion of the rest. You focus your mindfulness on the physical sensation of the breath, paying no attention to other sensations in your body, nor to sounds and so on. The breath becomes the stepping stone from the world of the five senses over to the realm of the mind. It is as if the world of the five senses is confined in a cage, unable to roam or create any mischief.
When you succeed in full sustained attention on the breath you will notice the absence of any sound. For a period your mind was impervious to any sound. You also notice that your body had disappeared, that you could not feel your hands, nor did you receive any messages from your legs. All that you knew was the feeling of the breath. Some meditators become alarmed when parts of their body seem to vanish. This shows their strong attachment to their body. This is kāmacchanda at work, hindering progress in their meditation. Usually you soon become familiar with the fading away of bodily sensations and start to delight in the wonderful tranquility beyond their reach. It is the freedom and joy born of letting go that repeatedly encourages you to abandon your attachments.
Soon the breath disappears and the awesome nimitta fills your mind. It is only at this stage that you have fully abandoned kāma-cchanda, your involvement in the world of the five senses. For when the nimitta is established, all five senses are extinguished, and your body is out of range. The first and major hindrance has now been overcome and it is blissful. You are at the door of the jhānas. This is the method for abandoning kāma-cchanda little by little.
POSTCARD#432: Bangkok: Welcome again to our analysis of Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. We rejoin the text on page 20 ( print book layout ) and Ajahn is saying: “We are passively observing the beautiful breath in the moment, and the perception of “in” (breath) or “out” (breath), or the beginning, middle, or end of a breath, disappears. All that remains is the experience of the beautiful breath happening now. The mind is simplifying the object of meditation and the breath is experienced in the moment, moving beyond the duality of “in” and “out” whilst the beautiful breath appears smooth and continuous, hardly changing at all… see how smooth, beautiful, and timeless the breath can be! See how calm you can allow it to be – take time to savor the sweetness of the beautiful breath – ever calmer, ever sweeter.”
Only “the Beautiful” Is Left
“Soon the breath will disappear, not when you want it to but when there is enough calm, leaving only the sign of “the beautiful. The story of the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is an eerily accurate analogy for the meditation experience. Alice is startled to see the Cheshire Cat sitting on a bough of a nearby tree and grinning from ear to ear. Like all the strange creatures in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat has the eloquence of a politician. Not only does the cat get the better of Alice in the ensuing conversation, but it also suddenly disappears and then, without warning, just as suddenly reappears.”
Alice said,“… I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy!”
“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.
“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!”
Just as the Cheshire Cat disappeared and left only its grin, so the meditator’s body and breath disappear, leaving only the beautiful. For Alice, it was the most curious thing she ever saw in all her life. For the meditator it is also strange, to clearly experience a free-floating beauty with nothing to embody it, not even a breath. The beautiful, or more precisely the sign of the beautiful, is the next stage on this meditation path. The Pāli word for “sign” is nimitta. So this next stage is called “experiencing the beautiful nimitta.”
Experiencing the Beautiful Nimitta
“This sixth stage is achieved when one lets go of the body, thought, and the five senses (including the awareness of the breath) so completely that only a beautiful mental sign, a nimitta, remains. This pure mental object is a real object in the landscape of the mind (citta), and when it appears for the first time, it is extremely strange. One simply has not experienced anything like it before. Nevertheless, the mental activity we call perception searches through its memory bank of life experiences for something even a little bit similar. For most meditators, this disembodied beauty, this mental joy, is perceived as a beautiful light. Some see a white light, some a golden star, some a blue pearl, and so on. But it is not a light. The eyes are closed, and the sight consciousness has long been turned off. It is the mind consciousness freed for the first time from the world of the five senses. It is like the full moon—here standing for the radiant mind, coming out from behind the clouds—here standing for the world of the five senses. It is the mind manifesting —it is not a light, but for most it appears as a light. It is perceived as a light because this imperfect description is the best that perception can offer.”
For other meditators, perception chooses to describe this first appearance of mind in terms of a physical sensation such as intense tranquility or ecstasy. Again, the body consciousness (that which experiences pleasure and pain, heat and cold, and so on) has long since closed down, so this is not a physical feeling. It is just perceived as being similar to pleasure. Although some meditators experience sensations while others see light, the important fact is that they are all describing the same phenomenon. They all experience the same pure mental object, and these different details are added by their different perceptions.”
The Qualities of a Nimitta
“One can recognize a nimitta by the following six features: (1) it appears only after the fifth stage of the meditation, after the meditator has been with the beautiful breath for a long time; (2) it appears when the breath disappears; (3) it comes only when the external five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch are completely absent; (4) it manifests only in the silent mind, when descriptive thought (inner speech) is totally absent; (5) it is strange but powerfully attractive; and (6) it is a beautifully simple object. I mention these features so that you may distinguish real nimittas from imaginary ones.”
“Sometimes when the nimitta first arises it may appear dull. In this case, one should immediately go back to the previous stage of the meditation, full sustained attention on the beautiful breath. One has moved to the nimitta too soon. Sometimes the nimitta is bright but unstable, flashing on and off like a lighthouse beacon and then disappearing. This too shows that the meditator has left the beautiful breath too early. One must be able to sustain one’s attention on the beautiful breath with ease for a long, long time before the mind is capable of maintaining clear attention on the far more subtle nimitta. So you should train the mind on the beautiful breath. Train it patiently and diligently. Then when it is time to go on to the nimitta, it will be bright, stable, and easy to sustain.”
“The main reason why the nimitta can appear dull is that the depth of contentment is too shallow. You are still wanting something. Usually you want the bright nimitta or you want jhāna. Remember—and this is important—jhānas are states of letting go, incredibly deep states of contentment. So give away the hungry mind. Develop contentment on the beautiful breath, and nimittas and jhānas will happen by themselves. Put another way, the nimitta is unstable because you, the doer, just will not stop interfering. The doer is the controller, the backseat driver, always getting involved where it does not belong and messing everything up. Meditation is a natural process of coming to rest, and it requires you to get out of the way completely. Deep meditation only occurs when you really let go. This means really letting go—to the point that the process becomes inaccessible to the doer.”
“A skillful means to achieve such profound letting go is to deliberately offer a gift of confidence to the nimitta. Very gently interrupt the silence for a moment and whisper, inside your mind, that you are giving complete trust to the nimitta, so that the doer can relinquish all control and just disappear. The mind, represented here by the nimitta before you, will then take over the process as you watch. You do not need to do anything here, because the intense beauty of the nimitta is more than capable of holding your attention without your assistance.”
“Be careful here not to start asking questions like “What is this?” “Is this jhāna?” “What should I do next?” which all come from the doer trying to get involved again. Questioning disturbs the process. You may assess everything once the journey is over. A good scientist only assesses the experiment at the end, when all the data are in. There is no need to pay attention to the shape or edges of the nimitta: “Is it round or oval?” “Is the edge clear or fuzzy?” These are all unnecessary queries, which just lead to more diversity, more duality of inside and outside, and more disturbance. Let the mind incline where it wants, which is usually to the center of the nimitta. The center is where the most beautiful part lies, where the light is most brilliant and pure. Let go and just enjoy the ride as the attention gets drawn right into the center, or as the light expands and envelops you totally. Let the mind merge into the bliss. Then let the seventh stage of this path of meditation, the jhāna, occur.”
POSTCARD#431: Bangkok:Hello and welcome again to our study group of Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. This time it begins with request for help with a perceptual difficulty I found in the last two paragraphs of last week’s study on the breath. The two paragraphs are presented under the sub-heading as follows:
Stage Four: Full Sustained Attention on the Breath (page 16 print copy)
“The fourth stage occurs when your attention expands to take in every single moment of the breath….”
The text goes on with a wonderfully detailed analysis of the breath as it’s going through a complete cycle. Maybe it’s my 24/7 headache that’s pushing me to take short cuts all the time, but I think that what Ajahn is saying here is these are the collected moments of the breath in all their stages and describing a number of breaths, not just one. The presentation is as if it were being shown in slow-motion. If the camera was shooting in ‘real time’, I would have to control my breath for as long as it takes to read the text describing the stages of the breath in its whole cycle, for say, 30 – 45 seconds. Then, without a break, to move on to the next breath cycle for the same duration. Is it possible? Is this how it seems to you? If someone could help me with this I’d be very grateful.
Now returning to our summary and analysis of the text. This where the meditator is asked to notice the following:
“Actually “you” do not reach this stage, the mind does. The mind does the work itself. The mind recognizes this stage to be a very peaceful and pleasant place to abide, just being alone with the breath. This is where the doer, the major part of one’s ego, starts to disappear. One finds that progress happens effortlessly at this stage of meditation. We just have to get out of the way, let go, and watch it all happen. The mind will automatically incline, if we only let it, toward this very simple, peaceful, and delicious unity of being alone with one thing, just being with the breath in each and every moment. This is the unity of mind, the unity in the moment, the unity in stillness.”
The Beginning of the Beautiful Breath
“The fourth stage is what I call the “springboard” of meditation, because from it one may dive into the blissful states. When we simply maintain this unity of consciousness by not interfering, the breath will begin to disappear. The breath appears to fade away as the mind focuses instead on what is at the center of the experience of breath, which is awesome peace, freedom, and bliss.”
“Now as I will explain further in the next chapter, when the breath disappears, all that is left is “the beautiful.” Disembodied beauty becomes the sole object of the mind. The mind is now taking the mind as its own object. We are no longer aware of the breath, body, thought, sound, or outside world. All that we are aware of is beauty, peace, bliss, light, or whatever our perception will later call it. We are experiencing only beauty, continuously, effortlessly, with nothing being beautiful! We have long ago let go of chatter, let go of descriptions and assessments. Here the mind is so still that it cannot say anything. One is just beginning to experience the first flowering of bliss in the mind. That bliss will develop, grow, and become very firm and strong. And then one may enter into those states of meditation called the jhānas.”
“I have described the first four stages of meditation. Each stage must be well developed before going on to the next. Please take a lot of time with these four initial stages, making them all firm and stable before proceeding. You should be able to maintain with ease the fourth stage, full sustained attention on the breath, during every moment of the breath without a single break for two or three hundred breaths in succession. I am not saying you should count the breaths during this stage; I am just giving an indication of the approximate span of time that one should be able to stay in stage four before proceeding further. In meditation, as I indicated earlier, careful patience is the fastest way!”
The fifth stage is called Full Sustained Attention on the Beautiful Breath.
“When one’s full attention rests easily and continuously on the experience of breathing with nothing interrupting the even flow of awareness, the breath
calms down. It changes from a coarse, ordinary breath to a very smooth and peaceful “beautiful breath.” The mind recognizes this beautiful breath and delights in it. It experiences a deepening of contentment. It is happy just to be watching this beautiful breath, and it does not need to be forced.”
‘“You”’ do not do anything. If you try to do something at this stage, you will disturb the whole process. The beauty will be lost. It’s like landing on a snake’s head in the game of snakes and ladders—you must go back many squares. From this stage of meditation on, the doer has to disappear. You are just a knower, passively observing. A helpful trick at this stage is to break the inner silence for a moment and gently say to yourself: “calm.” That’s all. At this stage of the meditation, the mind is usually so sensitive that just a little nudge causes it to follow the instruction obediently. The breath calms down and the beautiful breath emerges.”
POSTCARD#423: Bangkok: Excerpts from “Parami, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods” by Ajahn Sucitto. Click on the link for Wiki Bio Ajahn Sucitto
Ajahn helps us discover and overcome difficulties in confronting negative self-views when clearing the ways that lead to holistic kindness. Also called loving-kindness, it is mettā in Pali, maitrī in Sanskrit; and synonyms for benevolence, friendliness, amity, good will. With the support of other pāramī; Generosity, Morality, Renunciation, Patience, Truthfulness we can emerge from the negative overwhelm of self-view and experience this sense of grace, of receiving compassion that is greater and more boundless than any of one’s personal attributes or efforts – the divine (or sublime) abiding (brahmavihāra).
The ability to generate mettā depends on both willingness and capacity. These may be in short supply. Those who have experienced sustained abuse can find it very difficult to experience kindness for themselves or for others; those who have not had the secure presence of goodwill can be subject to the insecurity that leads to attachment to views and becoming. Our capacity can also be limited by how we’re being affected in the present. Although conditions are always changing, when the mind is affected by visitors such as fear, worry, guilt and passion, it easily becomes fixed in that state. If the visitor is anger, then the mind becomes bristling and volcanic. If the visitor is remorse or guilt, the mind becomes an eddy that chases itself and sinks down. So we need to develop strengths and skills to stop being overwhelmed by these fixating forces.
Hence there’s a requirement to develop pāramī. Generosity and morality are foundations for fellow-feeling. And with renunciation, we practise letting go of the sense of covetousness and selfishness, the ‘me, me, me’ attitude. That, too, is a basis for kindness. With renunciation, we start to let go of the need to be successful or the need for status, and look into the props we use to support our self-image and emotional well-being, which include material things, stimulation, busyness, status and praise. When we start to let go of some of those props, then we notice the blank patches in the mind, where there’s a raw need to be stimulated, and we notice the consequent restlessness. These blank patches
indicate where we must begin filling our emotional body with well-being. The first three perfections — generosity, morality and renunciation — make well-being possible because when one is generous and virtuous, there is self-respect. Because of that good kamma, we have emotional brightness in which the mind can extend itself to other beings in empathic rather than grasping ways. Hence we get fuller and richer in ourselves and can let go of a few more props. As the fear and the need disappear, discernment gets clearer, and we can see where we need to work. This means we begin to recognize where fearful, self-defensive boundaries occur in our lives. Beyond these boundaries we collapse or get incoherent, and in maintaining them we contract or get volcanic. But with the pāramī, we see what affects us at the edge of our sense of self, and then we find the energy to work into that sensitive place.
Extending the mind into sensitive places takes us into the turbulence that the boundary has been created to contain. Often there are emotions and energies that have been pushed aside or repressed, and they lie dormant in the field of consciousness, for as long as we keep busy or can control what’s going on. But outside of that — when things go wrong, or somebody or something pushes our buttons, or when we meditate — old senses of being intruded on or pushed around or rejected can get activated. Then what arises are generally forms of fear, grief or rage. Somebody has invaded our space; we have been denied or pushed out of warmth. There are of course personal versions of these stories, but those are the basic messages of the turbulence out of which need and depression, anxiety and resentment boil up. And with these, the first intention is of patience, then truthfulness, plus the resolve of kindness. Hold the centre, soften, widen, include it all. Sustaining these intentions — no matter what — leads to the settling and crossing over.
Patience is essential because sometimes it can take a long time staying at the edges before things shift. Truthfulness is required to acknowledge: ‘This turbulence, this sense of intimidation is not him, her, them or me. It’s actually that affect and response.’ So it is: often in our lives we find ourselves going through the same emotional scenarios and the same wounded, ‘dumped on’ experiences — just with different characters doing the dumping or irritating. First you assume, ‘It’s him or her.’ Then you might think ‘It’s me, it’s my weakness.’ But is this really true? You can spend ages attributing causes anywhere you choose along the self-other boundary, but that doesn’t release the pain. Instead you need the resolve to stay with it, to get to the truth behind the self-view. As
you let go of all the discriminations and positions, your mind widens to include it all. This is where the latent tendency that is holding the self-other boundary gets released.
As a Dhamma practice, we sustain and deepen the intent of kindness, irrespective of the various identities and shadow forms that arise in awareness. That’s enough. We establish clear awareness and sustain kindness in the moment where impressions occur and where responses arise. It’s not about conjuring up any great feelings of emotional warmth, but a process of staying in touch, of not blaming oneself or others, and of not going into the past to rehash old issues. The ‘staying at’ that point of the hurt, ill will and pain then begins to carry the awareness across to compassion (karunā) and transpersonal wisdom. Karunā is the kindly eye on the helplessness of our suffering. When we experience this without blame or defence or struggle, compassion arises. And it arises irrespective of the identity or value of the wounded being. Compassion sweeps over judgments of others or ourselves. It knows how terrible it is for anything – even a mass murderer, tyrant, or poisonous snake – to be trapped in pain. When entering into this sphere of compassion, it is not a matter of doing anything, blaming or feeling sad about it, or wishing it were different. Instead, it is about entering that place where one touches the pain directly. Then, through staying in the hurt where the mind can’t do anything, has no remedies, ideas or
philosophies, it comes out of the position of ‘me.’ The small, localized state of mind opens out of the default self-and-other sense into the Great Heart. The non-doing of such a heart has powerful effects. Instead of trying to conjure it up (and feeling frustrated if ‘it doesn’t work,’ or ‘I’m not good enough’), we let the healing happen by itself. Then there is a sense of grace, of receiving compassion that is greater and more boundless than any of one’s personal attributes or efforts. Truly this is called a divine (or sublime) abiding (brahmavihāra). And through contemplating the selfless nature of
this abiding, the mind lets go — not only of ill-will, but also of the push of becoming and self-view. This is the shore of the Beyond.
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