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.
Neti-neti is a Sanskrit expression that translates to “neither this, nor that” or “not this, not this.” This expression is used in Hinduism, mainly in Jnana yoga and in Advaita Vedanta (non-dualistic spiritual practice). Neti-neti is a form of analytical meditation that helps the individual understand the nature of brahman (absolute reality) by first understanding what is not brahman. A “neti-neti search” is one of the key elements of Jnana yoga practice. It is an exercise in negating rationalizations and other distractions from the non-conceptual meditative awareness of reality. Yogapedia: In Jnana yoga and Advaita Vedanta, “neti-neti” may be a chant or mantra. It is an 8,000-year-old practice that takes the focus away from all disturbances, so the practitioner may find the stillness in every movement and the formless in every form. Neti-neti meditation helps to identify all things of the world which are not the atman (the real), thus negating the anatman (the unreal). When it’s adapted for the modern world, including neti-neti meditation in one’s yoga practice, neti-neti helps the practitioner realize that they are not actually the things that they normally identify themselves with (personalities, thoughts, feelings or jobs), nor are they merely their roles (parents, partners, friends or siblings) in life. In this way, neti-neti can also be interpreted as “beyond this, beyond that.” Source: https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/5325/neti-neti
POSTCARD#472: As the stillness of the knower calms that which is known, the bliss that was the central feature of the first three jhānas changes again when one enters the fourth jhāna. Only this time it changes more radically. Sukha completely disappears. What remains is an absolute still knower, seeing absolute stillness.
From the perspective of the fourth jhāna, the bliss of the previous jhāna as a residual movement of the mental object, and an affliction obscuring something much greater. When the bliss subsides, all that is left is the profound peace that is the hallmark of the fourth jhāna. Nothing moves in here, nothing glows. Nothing experiences happiness or discomfort. One feels perfect balance in the very center of the mind. As in the center of a cyclone, nothing stirs in the center of the mind’s eye. There is a sense of perfection here, a perfection of stillness and of awareness. The Buddha described it as the purification of mindfulness, just looking on (upekkhā sati pārisuddhi) (DN 9,13).
The peace of the fourth jhāna is like no other peace to be found in the world. It can only be known having passed though the experience of the previous three jhānas. That passage is the only way of later confirming that the unmoving peace that one felt was indeed that of fourth jhāna. Furthermore, the state of fourth jhāna is so very still that one remains on its plateau for many hours. It seems impossible that one could experience the fourth jhāna for any less time.
Though pīti and sukha have both ceased in the fourth jhāna and all that is left is the perfection of peace, such an experience is later recognized, upon reviewing, as supremely delightful. The perfect peace of the fourth jhāna is seen as the best bliss so far. It is the bliss of no more bliss! This is not playing with words, trying to sound clever and mystical. This is how it is.
Summary of the Fourth Jhāna
Thus the fourth jhāna has the following features:
1. The disappearance of sukha;
2. An extremely long-lasting, and unchanging, perception of the perfection of peace, reached only through the lower three jhānas;
3. The same absolute rocklike stillness, and absence of a doer, as in the second and third jhāna;
4. The complete inaccessibility from the world of the five senses and one’s body.
The Buddha’s Similes for the Four Jhānas
The Buddha would often describe the experience within the four jhanas by evocative similes (e.g.; MN 39,15-18;77, 25-28). Before explaining these similes, it is helpful to pause and clarify the meaning of kāya, a key Pāli word used in all the similes. Kāya has the same range of meanings as the English word “body.” Just as “body” can mean things other than the body of a person, such as a “body of evidence,” for example, so too kāya can mean things other than a physical body, such as a body of mental factors, nāma-kāya (DN 15,20). In the jhānas the five senses do not operate, which means that there is no experience of a physical body. The body has been transcended. Therefore, when the Buddha states in these four similes, “so that there is no part of his whole kāya unpervaded (by bliss and so on),” this can be taken to mean “so that there is no part of his whole mental body of experience unpervaded” (MN 39,16). This point is frequently misunderstood.
The Buddha’s simile for the first jhāna is a ball of clay (used as soap) with just the right amount of moisture, neither too dry nor too wet. The ball of clay stands for the unified mind, wherein mindfulness has been restricted to the very small area created by the “wobble.” The moisture stands for the bliss caused by total seclusion from the world of the five senses. The moisture that completely pervades the clay ball indicates the bliss that thoroughly pervades the space and duration of the mental experience. This
is later recognized as bliss followed by bliss, and then more bliss, without interruption. That the moisture is not in excess, and so does not leak out, describes how the bliss is always contained in the space generated by the wobble, never leaking out of this area of mind-space into the world of the five senses, as long as the jhāna persists.
The second jhāna is likened to a lake with no external entry for water but with an internal spring that replenishes it with cool water. The lake represents the mind. The complete absence of any way that water from outside can enter the lake describes the inaccessibility of the mind by any influence from outside. Not even the doer can enter such a mind in this jhāna. Such hermetic inaccessibility is the cause of the rocklike stillness of the second jhāna. The internal spring that supplies the cool water represents ajjhattam sampasādanam, the internal confidence in the bliss of second jhāna. This internal confidence causes complete letting go, cooling the mind into stillness and freeing it from all movement. The coolness stands for the bliss itself, born of samādhi or stillness, which pervades the whole mental experience, unchanging throughout the duration of the jhāna.
The third jhāna is described by the metaphor of a lotus flower that thrives immersed in the cool water of a lake. The lotus represents the mind in the third jhāna. Water can cool the petals and leaves of a lotus but can never penetrate the lotus, since all water rolls off. The coolness stands for sukha, and the wetness stands for pīti. So like the lotus immersed in water, the
mind in the third jhāna is cooled by sukha but is not penetrated by pīti. The mind in the third jhāna experiences only sukha. In the third jhāna, the mind continues to experience a rocklike stillness, never moving outside, just as the lotus in the simile always remains immersed within the water. Just as the cool water causes the lotus to thrive, so the bliss of the third jhāna sustains the mind therein. Once again, just as the cool waters in the simile pervade the lotus with coolness from its roots to its tips, so the unique bliss of the third jhāna pervades the whole mental experience from beginning to end.
The fourth jhāna is likened to a man draped from head to toe in a clean white cloth. The man represents the mind, while the cloth represents the perfect purity of equanimity and mindfulness that is the hallmark of the fourth jhāna. The mind in the fourth jhāna is stainless, spotless as a clean cloth, perfectly still and just looking on, purely and simply. This absolute purity of peacefulness pervades the whole body of mental experience, from the start to the end, just as the white cloth completely covers the man’s body from head to toe.
Such is the meaning of the four similes for jhāna, as I (the author) understands them.
POSTCARD#456: Bangkok: The suttas say that one practices satipaṭṭhāna “having temporarily abandoned the five hindrances.” That means that a prerequisite for the practice of satipaṭṭhāna is the abandoning of the five hindrances first! MN 68,6:“not attaining a jhāna, the five hindrances invade one’s mindand remain. Attaining a jhāna, the five hindrances do not invade the mind and remain.”) Anyone whohas experienced a jhāna knows that after emerging, one’s mindfulness is so powerful and so easy tosustain. This is the result of the five hindrances being absent.
Editors note: Continuing from last week with our review of the Five Hindrance, please note 1. sensory desire kāmma-cchanda was included there, but for convenience’s sake we have included it here also.
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]
2. ill will (vyāpāda).
The usual understanding of this second hindrance is anger toward another person. But it is more likely to be toward yourself or even toward the meditation object.
Ill will towards yourself can manifest as not allowing yourself to bliss out. There are many people who have deep guilt complexes. This is mostly a Western trait because of the way most of us have been brought up. Guilt and punishment are inseparable in our culture and in our minds. Punishment may be denying ourselves some kind of pleasure, happiness or freedom. People in the West just keep on seeking punishment. It’s crazy!
Goodwill Toward Yourself
Give yourself a break, do some loving-kindness meditation [Page 34 Print copy. Key in: Loving Kindness in the WordPress search box]. Say to yourself, “The door to my heart is open to all of me. I allow myself happiness. I allow myself peace. I have goodwill toward myself, enough goodwill to let myself become peaceful and to bliss out on this meditation.”
3. sloth and torpor (thinā-middhā)
I’m sure we know it all too well through our experience of meditation. We sit in meditation and don’t really know what we are watching, whether it’s the present moment, silence, the breath, or whatever. This is because the mind is dull. It’s as if there are no lights turned on inside. It’s all gray and blurry.
Making Peace with Sloth and Torpor
The most profound and effective way of overcoming sloth and torpor is to make peace with the dullness and stop fighting it! When I was a young monk in the forest monasteries in Thailand and became sleepy during the 3:15 A.M. sitting, I would struggle like hell to overpower the dullness. I would usually fail. But when I did succeed in overcoming my sleepiness, restlessness would replace it. So I would calm down the restlessness and fall back into sloth and torpor.
The Knower and the Doer
It took many years to understand what was going on. The knower is the passive half of the mind that simply receives information. The doer is the active half that responds with evaluating, thinking, and controlling. The knower and the doer share the same source of mental energy. Thus, when you are doing a lot, when you have a busy lifestyle and are struggling to get on, the doer consumes most of your mental energy, leaving only a pittance for the knower. When the knower is starved of mental energy you experience dullness.
4. Restlessness and Remorse (udhaccha-kukkccha)
The main component of this hindrance is restlessness of mind. But first let me briefly address the matter of remorse. Remorse is the result of hurtful things that you may have done or said. In other words, it is a result of bad conduct. If any remorse comes up in meditation, instead of dwelling on it, you should forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. The wise are not people who never make mistakes, but those who forgive themselves and learn from their mistakes. Some people have so much remorse that they think they can never become enlightened.
Whether we find joy or not depends on the way we train our perception. It’s within our power to change the way we look at things. We can look at a glass of water and perceive it as very beautiful, or we can think of it as ordinary. In meditation, we can see the breath as dull and routine, or we can see it as very beautiful and unique. If we look upon the breath as something of great value, then we won’t get restless. We won’t go around looking for something else.
That’s what restlessness is, going around looking for something else to do, something else to think about, somewhere else to go—anywhere but here and now. Restlessness is one of the major hindrances, along with sensory desire. Restlessness makes it so hard to sit still for very long.
Contentment is the opposite of a fault finding mind. You should develop the perception of contentment with whatever you have, wherever you are, as much as you can. Beware of finding fault in your meditation, that thought is the very cause of restlessness. It doesn’t matter how the meditation is going, be absolutely content with it and it will go deeper. If you’re dissatisfied with your progress, then you’re only making it worse. So learn to be content with the present moment. Forget about jhānas, just be content to be here and now, in this moment.
Watch the silence and be content to be silent. If you’re truly content, you don’t need to say anything. Don’t most inner conversations take the form of complaining, attempting to change things, or wanting to do something else? Or escaping into the world of thoughts and ideas? Thinking indicates a lack of contentment. If you’re truly contented, then you’re still and quiet. See if you can deepen your contentment, because it is the antidote for restlessness.
5. doubt (vicikiccā)
Doubt can be toward the teaching, about the teacher, or toward yourself.
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.
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 rather than think “Is this a jhāna”, ask yourself, “Which of the hindrances is this?”
[Below are the five hindrances in the usual order in which the Buddha lists them:
POSTCARD#445: Mettā meditation softens the mind and turns it toward care, goodwill, and acceptance. You become more selfless, less concerned with your own needs and more willing to peacefully interact with others. The emotion that is mettā feels delightful and pure. As you develop it repeatedly, it soon remains constant in your heart. You become a compassionate person, and your kindness is a source of joy to all beings and to yourself.
Mettā enables you to embrace another being just as they are. Most people find this impossible because of their fault-finding mind. They only see part of the whole, the part that is flawed, and refuse to accept it. Loving-kindness, on the other hand, embraces the wholeness of something and accepts it as it is. Through the practice of mettā meditation, you find yourself becoming less conscious of the faults in yourself and other beings, and more able to embrace them just the way they are. This ability to see the beauty in an object and ignore its flaws is a powerful aid to all types of meditation. To sustain your attention in the present moment, for example, you must accept the way things are now, embracing this moment and not being critical. When you persist in finding faults in the present moment, you will find you cannot remain there.
It is possible to combine mettā meditation with breath meditation. When you begin stage three, awareness of the breath, you observe your breath with loving-kindness. You think something like “breath, the door of my heart is open to you no matter how you feel, no matter what you do.” You will soon be looking at your breathing with compassion, embracing it as it is instead of finding fault. By adding mettā to the process of awareness, you have no expectations, since the breath seems more than good enough. Because of loving-kindness, you soon feel this attractive warmth toward the breath that brings joy to every in-breath and out breath. It becomes so nice to watch your breath that in a very short time you have reached stage five, the beautiful breath.
Taking Mettā into Jhāna
Jhānas are emotional summits and not intellectual heights. You cannot think your way into a jhāna, you can only feel your way in. To succeed you require familiarity with your emotional world, enough to trust in it silently without any controlling. Perhaps this is why female meditators seem to enter jhāna more easily than males. Mettā meditation trains everyone to become more at ease with the power of emotions. Sometimes you may cry during mettā meditation, even weep uncontrollably. If so, let it come. On the path to nibbāna we all have to learn to embrace the intensity of the purest emotions, and the jhānas are the purest of all. Therefore mettā meditation makes jhāna more accessible. You can even take mettā meditation directly into jhāna. When you have reached the stage described above where you are radiating this limitless golden glow of loving-kindness throughout the whole universe, drenching every sentient being with the immense power of your boundless love, then take the next step. Forget about all beings and ignore where the power is coming from. Focus your attention instead on the experience of mettā in itself. This step often happens automatically with no decision coming from you. The meditation object is being simplified, freed from the perception of separate beings. All that remains in your mind is what I call disembodied mettā, similar to the disembodied grin of the Cheshire Cat in the simile in chapter 2. You experience this as a blissful sphere of gorgeous golden light in your mind’s eye. It is a nimitta. It’s the mettā nimitta.
A nimitta that is generated through mettā meditation is always incredibly beautiful, only sometimes it isn’t so stable. Excitement is the usual problem. However, its nature is so alluring that you cannot resist hanging out with such intense bliss. Thus, in a short time the brilliant golden mettā nimitta becomes still and you fall into jhāna. This is how mettā meditation takes you into jhāna.
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#436: Bangkok: I don’t need to describe sloth and torpor in detail, because I’m sure we know it all too well through our experience of meditation. We sit in meditation and don’t really know what we are watching, whether it’s the present moment, silence, the breath, or whatever. This is because the mind is dull. It’s as if there are no lights turned on inside. It’s all gray and blurry.
Making Peace with Sloth and Torpor
The most profound and effective way of overcoming sloth and torpor is to make peace with the dullness and stop fighting it! When I was a young monk in the forest monasteries in Thailand and became sleepy during the 3:15 A.M. sitting, I would struggle like hell to overpower the dullness. I would usually fail. But when I did succeed in overcoming my sleepiness, restlessness would replace it. So I would calm down the restlessness and fall back into sloth and torpor. My meditation was like a pendulum swinging between extremes and never finding the middle. It took many years to understand what was going on.
The Buddha advocated investigation, not fighting. So I examined where my sloth and torpor came from. I had been meditating at 3:15 in the morning, having slept very little, I was malnourished, an English monk in a hot tropical jungle – what would you expect! The dullness was the effect of natural causes. I let go and made peace with my sleepiness. I stopped fighting and let my head droop. Who knows, I might even have snored. When I stopped fighting sloth and torpor it did not last all that long. Moreover, when it passed I was left with peace and not with restlessness. I had found the middle of my pendulum swing and I could observe my breath easily from then on.
Dullness in meditation is the result of a tired mind, usually one that has been overworking. Fighting that dullness makes you even more exhausted. Resting allows the energy to return to the mind. To understand this process, I will now introduce the two halves of the mind: the knower and the doer. The knower is the passive half of the mind that simply receives information. The doer is the active half that responds with evaluating, thinking, and controlling. The knower and the doer share the same source of mental energy. Thus, when you are doing a lot, when you have a busy lifestyle and are struggling to get on, the doer consumes most of your mental energy, leaving only a pittance for the knower. When the knower is starved of mental energy you experience dullness.
At a retreat I led in Sydney a few years ago, a retreatant arrived late from her high-stress job as an executive in the city. In her first sitting that evening her mind was almost as dead as a corpse. So I gave her my special teaching on how to overcome her sloth and torpor: I told her to rest. For the next three days she slept in until dawn, went back to bed again after breakfast, and had a long nap after lunch. What a brilliant meditator! After three days of no fighting, giving hardly any mental energy to the doer but letting it flow to the knower, her mind brightened up. In another three days she had caught up with the rest of the group in her progress through the stages. By the end of the retreat she was way ahead and one of the star meditators of that retreat.
The most profound and effective way to overcome sloth and torpor is to stop fighting your mind. Stop trying to change things and instead let things be. Make peace not war with sloth and torpor. Then your mental energy will be freed to flow into the knower, and your sloth and torpor will naturally disappear.
Giving Value to Awareness
Another method for overcoming sloth and torpor is to give more value to awareness. All Buddhist traditions say that human life is valuable and precious, especially a life like this one where you have encountered the Buddha’s teachings. Now you have the opportunity to practice. You may not realize how many lifetimes it has taken and how much merit you’ve had to accumulate just to get where you are now. You’ve invested lifetimes of good karma to get this close to the Dhamma. Reflecting like this means you will incline less to sloth and torpor and more to bright awareness.
The path of meditation sometimes comes to a fork in the road. The left path leads to sloth and torpor while the right path leads to bright awareness. With experience you will recognize this fork. This is the point in meditation where you can choose between the alley to sloth and torpor or the highway to mindful stillness. Taking the left path you give up both the doer and the knower. Taking the right path you let go of the doer but keep the knower. When you value awareness you will automatically choose the right path of bright awareness.
Sloth and Torpor and Ill Will
Sometimes sloth and torpor is the result of ill will, the second hindrance. When I used to visit Australian prisons to teach meditation, I would often hear the following prison proverb: “an extra hour of sleep is an hour off your sentence.” People who don’t like where they are will try to escape into dullness. In the same way, meditators who easily get negative will tend to drift into sloth and torpor. Ill will is the problem.
In our monastery in Thailand we would meditate all night once a week. During those all-night sittings, sloth and torpor would regularly conquer me an hour or two after midnight. Since it was my first year as a monk, I reflected that less than twelve months previously I would spend all night at parties, rock concerts, and clubs. I recalled that I never experienced sloth and torpor when listening to the music of the Doors at 2 A.M. Why? It became clear that when you are enjoying what you are doing then you don’t tend to get sloth and torpor, but when you don’t like what you are doing then sloth and torpor comes in. I did not like those all-night sits. I thought they were a stupid idea. I did them because I had to. I had ill will, and that was the cause of my sloth and torpor. When I changed my attitude and put joy into the all-night sittings, making them fun, then sloth and torpor rarely came. So you should investigate whether your sloth and torpor is the result of an attitude problem—the attitude of ill will.
When I was a lay Buddhist I attended a Zen retreat in the north of England. It was very early in the morning, and the meditation hall was freezing cold. People had their blankets around them. When you meditate with a blanket anywhere close to you, you tend to get sleepy. The teacher was walking up and down with a big stick, and the fellow next to me who had started nodding got hit. Everyone’s sloth and torpor suddenly disappeared right then. We only needed one person to get hit and that was enough. The problem was that the fear that woke me up remained with me, preventing further progress. Experience teaches that you can’t generate wholesome states like peace and freedom by using unwholesome methods like fear or violence.
In the old forest tradition of northeast Thailand, monks would meditate in dangerous places such as platforms high in the trees, on the edge of cliffs, or in jungles full of tigers. The ones who survived said they got good meditation, but you never heard from the monks that didn’t survive!
Continued next week 17 September 2021, with the remaining two hindrances: restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca) and doubt (vicikicchā)
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.
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