April 19, 2024

Tomorrow’s ordination is going to have two steps: what’s called the Going Forth and then the Acceptance.

The Going Forth is the step of becoming a samanera. It’s accomplished by taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. We say these things over and over again, so it’s good to stop and think about what they mean. Of the three, the most important is the Dhamma. Then the Buddha is important because he discovered the Dhamma and taught it. The Sangha is important because it helps keep the teachings alive.

As the Buddha said, you take the Dhamma as your refuge. You do that by practicing mindfulness, establishing the mindfulness in the right way. At the same time as you do that, you’re taking yourself as your refuge. As the Buddha explained, the reason we suffer is not because of things outside, things that other people are doing, it’s because of things that we’re doing—and we have to change. Change requires that we look very carefully at ourselves in detail, because we’re not suffering from generalities. The words of the teachings are expressed in general terms: the cause of suffering is craving, the suffering itself is clinging. You can know that and you can still suffer. To stop suffering, you have to know the details in your own awareness. Why do you crave? Why do you cling?

So we have to get down to the specifics. As with pain: There are many ways that we feel pain in the body, many ways that we feel pain in the mind. We know that we suffer from aversion toward the pain, but you can’t just tell yourself, “Well, don’t have aversion.”

Years back, a woman who had an autistic son came here to the monastery. He was becoming a teenager, and lust and anger were becoming real problems. If he got angry at somebody, he’s just hit that person right away.

She told me, “Tell him not to be angry.”

I said, “You can’t tell somebody not to be angry. The first step is to say, ‘When you get angry, this is what you do.’”

In his case, I told him to breathe calmly, and if there was any tension that was building up around the anger in his body, just let it disperse, so that he wouldn’t feel so compelled to have to act on the anger.

But that’s just symptom management. When you get down to the details when you’re angry—when you’re feeling averse to someone, and when you’re feeling averse to pain—exactly what are you doing that leads to that sense of aversion? How are you assembling your experience of pain? After all, it is something we assemble, Now, it’s not that we simply make it up. If there’s a pain in the body, there’s a pain in the body. In some cases you find out that’s because of the way you’re breathing, sometimes it’s because of the way you’re perceiving things, sometimes it’s because of the way you’re talking to yourself, what you’re paying attention to, how you’re paying attention, what your intentions are—lots of different things that can go into a specific pain, and also into why that pain makes inroads on your mind.

Perception is a big issue. You have to question your perceptions. Some of them go very deep, back to our pre-verbal days. Long before we were able to understand language, we felt pain and we had to deal with it. Our pre-verbal experience has shaped a lot of our attitudes toward pain, even as we become adults. When the pain seemed to be overwhelming, when you had no idea that it wasn’t going to last forever, when it seemed to be spreading around, and you felt that you had to contain it: A lot of the attitudes you developed then are still lurking around. When you feel that your body is the pain—in other words, the pain is in your knee—it’s right there, and it takes over your experience of the body. A lot of these attitudes are still buried there in the mind, and they can get provoked by different pains. So you’ve got to see the specifics: What right now is your perception of the pain?

The best way to do that is to ask specific questions, like, “Do you feel that the body and the pain are the same thing?”

Then you remind yourself, “They’re not.” Your experience of the body is of the four elements: earth, water, wind, and fire. The pain is something else. Often, though, it seems to get glommed on, especially to the earth, the solidity of the body. But you can ask yourself, “Can you not glom it on?” You’re the one who’s doing the glomming.

Or when you have a perception of a pain being right there, and it is a pain, do you have the perception that it’s got a bad intention toward you, that it’s meaning to attack you? Or that it’s coming at you? Can you perceive it as going away from you? It arises in moments and passes away in moments, again and again and again. Can you see each moment going away, going away, so that you don’t feel as if you’re the target of the pain?

You’ve got to look at the specifics of the perceptions. That requires that you calm down and have the right attitude: that you’re here to comprehend the pain. That, the Buddha said, is the duty of the first noble truth.

Now, for him, he’s talking about mental pain, but the mental pain, of course, can come from physical pain, and it’s largely based on how you construct your experience of that physical pain: how you perceive it, what images you have in mind, what intentions you have toward it, how you talk about it, what you intend to do about it. Try to make sure that your intention is not so much to blot it out, but more to keeping it from invading your mind or staying there. That’s a different intention entirely. Most of the time, we want it to either go away or we push it away or we run away from it. But can you tell yourself, it is possible to be there with the pain but not let it invade your mind?

What does it mean to invade your mind? That it’s going to take over your thoughts, it’s going to become the target of your thinking. Can you look off to the side a little bit to see what’s around the pain in terms of those perceptions, in terms of the conversations you have about it?

Remember, pain is classed as a kind of feeling, and when you look at dependent co-arising, feeling appears in several places: There’s the feeling that comes right after sensory contact, but there’s also the feeling that’s in the name factor under name-and-form. There it hangs out with intentions, attentions, perceptions, and feelings, and contact among these things in the mind.

It also appears in fabrication, where it’s hanging out with the way you breathe, the way you talk to yourself, and again with perceptions. All of this means that the factor that’s actually making the pain invade the mind right now could be any of its friends in the different factors of dependent co-arising. So there are lots of things you could look at, like the tendency we have to send messages from one moment to the next: “Watch out, there’s a pain here. Watch out, there’s a pain here. Watch out, there’s a pain here.”

That gives more reality to the pain, makes it steadier and more solid than it really has to be. What happens if you don’t send those messages? Part of the mind may say, “I can’t do that. If I don’t send the message, I’ll run into the pain and it’ll catch me by surprise and it might get worse.”

But at least be willing to try, to experiment, because sometimes that’s what’s keeping the pain oppressive: this repeated message you’re sending to yourself.

So you’ve got to get to the specifics, because as I said, you’re not suffering from generalities. You’re suffering from specific pains, specific events in the mind, specific perceptions, specific thought constructs. Only when you see the specifics will the Buddha’s more general terms and the cure actually work.

One of the cures, we’re told, is that if you see things as inconstant, stressful, not-self, you let go. But you can repeat that teaching over and over and over again, and yet you still don’t let go. It’s because you’re not seeing the specifics. When you see how you actually worsen the pain with a specific perception, then you can see, “That perception is something inconstant. You don’t have to continue with that perception. It’s stressful. Why hang on to it?”

When you start thinking in those terms, that’s when those three perceptions really get helpful.

So the problem is in the specifics, and the solution is going to be in the specifics, too. It’s only when we see the specifics that we can understand how the more general terms of the cure are actually helpful: where they apply, how to apply them so that you develop a sense of dispassion. You might not think that you’re passionate for the way you perceive pain, but when you think about it, we’ve built up all of these perceptions and ways of talking to ourselves around pain. We’re passionate for those things because we feel somehow they keep the pain under control, keep us alert to what’s going on, but maybe they’re part of the problem. Can you learn how not to be passionate for those perceptions, those mental habits?

As the Buddha said with regard to craving, it’s important to see precisely where it’s located. He raised the question one time, “Do you have any craving in things that you haven’t yet seen?” Notice the way he said that: “in things you haven’t seen yet.”

Your first response might be, “Yeah, there are a lot of things I haven’t seen that I’d like to see.”

But as he would say, “In that case, the craving is not in the things you want to see. The craving is in your thoughts about them, your anticipations about them, your perceptions.”

It’s when you can see where your craving is located that you can do something about it. And the same with clinging: You need to see precisely where the clinging is located, where there is passion for that particular event in the mind. Then you can do something about it. That’s when the teachings work, because you’ve got them focused right at the right space, the right event, the right moment in the mind.