The Dhamma Mirror
March 23, 2024

Years back, Ajaan Suwat was invited to give a retreat at a meditation center in Massachusetts, the purpose being to introduce the people there to traditions of the forest Thailand. I remember halfway through the retreat, the person who organized the retreat came to me and said, “Everybody’s been doing samatha, tranquility practice; now it’s time to switch to vipassana.”

I tried to explain to him that the forest tradition doesn’t make that clear a distinction between the two. You try to do the two of them together, because where are you going to learn insight? From getting the mind still. After all, “insight,” as far as the Buddha was concerned, was not a technique, it was a quality of mind that you’re trying to develop. You don’t wait until your concentration gets really strong, and you don’t wait until halfway through a retreat and say, “It’s time to switch.” If you’re paying attention to what you’re doing as you get the mind to settle down, that’s where the insight comes.

Look at the Buddha’s instructions on breath meditation. You discern short breathing, long breathing, you train yourself to breathe sensitive to the entire body, and then you calm bodily fabrication. Now, “bodily fabrication” there means the in-and-out breath. The question is: Why does he use a technical term when he could simply say, “Calm the in-and-out breath”? The reason is because he wants you to see the extent to which you’re actually fabricating the breath.

The same in the second tetrad: Learn how to breathe in and out sensitive to rapture in the body, breathe in and out sensitive to pleasure. These things don’t happen on their own. You have to observe what kind of breathing is going to make you feel refreshed, energized—that’s what’s meant by the rapture. What kind of breathing is going to be pleasant, easeful? You have to explore, and as you do that, you begin to realize that these feelings you’re giving rise to do depend on perceptions, and the two of them—perceptions and feelings—are fabricating the state of your mind. Then you try to calm that fabrication.

So you’ve got both the topics of tranquility—i.e., calming the mind, calming the breath—and the topics of insight: seeing things in terms of fabrication. It’s a matter of getting sensitive to what you’re doing. That’s where the insight comes, even with the five aggregates.

The Buddha’s analysis of suffering starts out with aging, illness, and death, being separated from what you like, being forced to stay with what you don’t like, not getting what you want. All these are things we know. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, despair—we know these things. But then he says, “What makes them all suffering, what makes them all stressful?” What they all have in common is five clinging-aggregates.

This is where the analysis gets unfamiliar. So you learn the names of the aggregates: Form is the form of your body. Feelings are feeling tones of pleasure, pain, neither pleasure nor pain. Perceptions are the labels you put on things, the images you hold in mind, that tell you what something is and what it means. Thought fabrications are intentions and your inner conversation. Then consciousness is aware of all these things.

You can learn the words, but where do these things happen? Actually, they’re happening all the time. You’re doing them all the time. And you’re going to see them clearly as you try to get the mind to settle down. Things that distract you are usually perceptions and thought fabrications, although sometimes they’re also feelings of pain. That’s three aggregates right there. If you learn how to comprehend them, you learn how not to get distracted by them.

For example, with pain. In the Buddha’s analysis of pain, it can be conjoined with lots of different things. It can be conjoined with certain perceptions, it can be conjoined with the way you talk to yourself, so when there’s a pain that’s disturbing you, ask yourself how you’re talking to yourself about it. The first thing to say is, “I don’t have to be there with the pain. It can have this part of the body, but I’m going to be someplace else.” If there’s a pain in your hip, you can focus on your knee or your chest, anyplace in the body where you can make the sense of the breath comfortable as it comes in, as it goes out.

So you’re talking to yourself about the pain in a new way, and you’re perceiving it in a new way, realizing you don’t have to go there, you don’t have to lay claim to that part of the body, and you don’t have to clamp down on the pain to keep it from moving.

Then, when you have a good solid foundation in a comfortable part of the body, you can look at the pain. First, see if you can think of that sense of comfort flowing in through the pain—as you breathe in, as you breathe out. Then you can focus directly on the pain itself, because one of the reasons why pain is so bad is because we’re afraid of it. We think we’re afraid of it because it’s so bad, but actually the fear can make it worse. Tell yourself, “I’m going to investigate this pain.”

And particularly, you want to see which perceptions you have around the pain that make inroads on your mind, such as the perception that it’s identical with the part of your body—the knee or the hip feels like it’s all pain. But is it? Part of your sensation of the hip is in the four elements of earth, water, wind, and fire—the solidity, liquidity, energy, warmth. Those things are not the pain. The pain is something else. Can you see the difference? Or where is the most intense point of the pain? Does it stay in the same place? Well, no. Chase it around for a while. Show it that you’re not afraid. As you do this, you begin to see that the way you perceive the pain, the way you talk to yourself about the pain, was a large part of the problem. So there you are: perceptions, fabrications.

As you learn how to take the distraction apart in terms of these things, it allows you to free yourself from them. You get hands-on experience with what the Buddha means when he says, “form, feeling, perception, thought fabrication, consciousness.”

The same goes for thought distractions. If you’re angry about something, you can ask yourself, “What are the perceptions you have around that? How do you talk to yourself around the anger? How are you breathing around the anger? Can you change the way you do things?” Talk to yourself in a way that’s still true, but is pointing out different things that make you see that the issue is not worth the anger. Or if it really is something really wrong, your getting angry about it is not going to help you see what should be done. This way, you begin to realize the extent to which you put your present experience together through these aggregates.

Even your sense of self is made out of these aggregates. So actually they’re closer to you than your sense of who you are. You experience them before you identify them as who you are. They’re the activities you’re engaging in. And you see them not only when you’re trying to deal with distractions, but also as you try to get the mind to settle down.

After all, you’re focused on the breath. What is that? Form.

Feelings—you’re trying to give rise to a feeling of ease, pleasure, refreshment.

Perception—what’s the image you have of the breath as it flows in the body? What image would be best, most conducive, to a sense of ease and well-being?

Thought fabrications—your intention to stay here, and then on top of that, your inner conversation as you talk to yourself about staying here with a sense of ease. Does the breath feel good? Yes. If it feels good, how do you maintain that? And as you maintain that, how do you get it to spread around the body so that it feels thoroughly saturated with this good breath energy?

And then consciousness is aware of all these things.

This is how you learn about these aggregates—by doing the path—because you encounter them as you’re doing it, and as you reflect on what you’re doing. That’s how you gain insight.

It’s not the case that tranquility practice is one thing and insight practice is something else. They’re qualities of mind. As I said, tranquility is the ease, calm, stillness that comes as you try to focus in, get the mind settled in. Insight is when you begin to see things in terms of fabrication, the way you put things together in the present moment, and how you can learn how to relate to those fabrications in a way where you can see their drawbacks, see where they can be made good but then how far does that goodness go? This is something we’re trying to pursue.

So it’s in doing the duty of the fourth noble truth that you do the duties of the first and the second. Ultimately, the ideal is that you end up doing the duty of the third as well. This is why Ajaan Lee, when he talks about awakening, doesn’t talk about seeing things in terms of the three characteristics. Instead, he talks about seeing them in terms of the four noble truths, because with the four noble truths, you have to reflect, “What am I doing?” The three characteristics don’t necessarily have you reflect in that way. Trees are inconstant. Buildings are inconstant. This sala we’re in right now, actually was built to be inconstant—impermanent. It was supposed to be just a quick sketch before we got some money to build a real sala. And here it is, thirty-some years later. Well, now we’re told that it’s going to be torn down in a couple weeks.

All those things are inconstant, but what does that tell us about us and what we’re doing? The four noble truths, on the other hand, point out the fact that the reason we’re suffering is because of something we’re doing. We’re not suffering because things outside are permanent or impermanent. If they were the cause, even arahants would suffer. It’s not the case that their form, feelings, etcetera, become permanent when they gain awakening.

You have to realize that the problem is the clinging. The clinging is what you’re doing, and you’ll see that clearly as you deal with distractions in concentration, and as you’re doing the concentration itself. This is why, when the Buddha introduced his son to the practice, one of the first images he used was a mirror. Just as you use a mirror to reflect on your face, you look at your actions to reflect on what’s going on in your mind—what you’re doing right now—because that is the problem.

So learn to reflect, notice what you’re doing and what you could do better as you try to get the mind to settle down. As you’ll see, this is a process of fabrication. The path is something fabricated. Stress, suffering—that’s fabricated. The cause of suffering is fabricated. It’s fabricated through your actions. So reflect. As the Buddha said, the Dhamma is nourished by committing yourself to the practice and then reflecting on what you’re doing.

Think about what a mirror meant back in those days: the means by which you could see things you ordinarily wouldn’t see. If you go through life without a mirror, you can’t see your eyes, you can’t see your nose, you can’t see your mouth. If you have a mirror, you can see things you wouldn’t see otherwise. Well, the Dhamma is like that. It helps you see things right close to you that you otherwise wouldn’t see.

Learn to use your actions as your mirror. That’s the Dhamma mirror. That’s when you see what you really need to see. When you see it, then you can do something about it.