The last Three Steps

The Fourteenth Step: Reflecting on Fading Away of Things.

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

The Fifteenth Step: Reflecting on Cessation

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

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

The Sixteenth Step: Reflecting on Letting Go, Abandoning

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

 May you all experience those beautiful bangs called enlightenment!

The Twelfth and Thirteenth Steps

The Twelfth Step: Freeing the Mind

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

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

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

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

Emerging from a Jhāna

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

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

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

The Thirteenth Step: Reflecting on Impermanence

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

Continued next week: 14 January 2022