The Taste Is Release
April 20, 2024

At the end of every ordination, the preceptor gives a series of instructions to the new monk. It starts out with very practical issues: the four requisites the monk has to use. When you listen to the list, it reminds you of how much this really was a wilderness tradition in the very beginning. You’re to go for alms for your food, find old rags to stitch together to make your robes, live at the roots of trees, and take old urine as a medicine.

The instructions list other things that are a bit more luxurious that you’re also allowed, like huts and robes made of nice cloth. But when you don’t have the luxuries, this is what you fall back on.

The instructions then go into other practicalities, the four things that a monk should never do. If you do any of them, you’re no longer a monk. Having sex, stealing something that’s worth more of than a pada back in those days, which is probably about $100 now. Never kill a human being, never lay claim to any superior human states that you don’t really have. All very practical instructions.

Then the admonition ends with a passage to remind you of what this is all about, why we’re here, why we have a sangha, why we have a monastery.

And it’s interesting that the teachings in this part come from the last year of the Buddha’s life. It starts with what are called the four noble dhammas, saying that concentration nurtured by virtue is of great fruit, great benefit. Discernment nurtured by concentration is of great fruit, great benefit. When the mind is nurtured by discernment, it gains release from what are call the effluents, qualities that flow out of the mind, bubble up in the mind. and create a flood that can often sweep us away: sensuality, becoming, ignorance.

In other words, the instructions remind us that the whole point of this practice is freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from all the things we’ve been doing. That requires that we take a new view of our own minds. We can’t just go with whatever the mind wants to think about. because we realize that a lot of the flow coming out of the mind is pretty bad stuff. So we go back and work on our virtue so that our concentration will have great fruit and great benefit.

The Buddha is not saying that you can’t get the mind concentrated without virtue, but the kind of concentration you get would be pretty dishonest. It’d be built on disassociation, denial. When you sit down and get quiet with the mind, memories of things you’ve done in the past would come up. Sometimes you can remember some pretty bad things you did.

The more you stick with the precepts, though, the fewer bad things there are to remember. You have to have the right attitude to the bad things that you did do. You realize that you can’t go back and erase those things, and it’s not good to pretend that they didn’t happen. But you don’t want to dwell on them, and you don’t want to get remorseful. Just remember that this is a lesson you have to learn: Never do that sort of thing again. Then you spread thoughts of goodwill: goodwill for yourself, goodwill for the people you’ve wronged, goodwill for everybody.

But as for new things as you’re going through life day to day, you want to make sure you stick with the precepts. Otherwise, you start thinking about things you did that were unskillful and you start putting up walls inside. Either you’ve got an open wound or you’ve got the hard tissue of denial. Neither of those are comfortable places for the mind to settle down. All too often what happens in response to those wounds is that you close things off. You tell yourself it doesn’t matter, or it wasn’t really harmful. That puts up a wall—and if you’re trying to see things in your mind, you don’t want walls.

It’s also important that you have integrity inside because if the concentration is going to lead to discernment, you want it to be honest and you want the discernment to be honest as well. It’s very easy to make up all kinds of wise-sounding insights that are not the genuine thing. Real insights are those that help you see that you’ve been stupid—or, rather, you’ve acted in stupid ways, and you don’t need to act in those stupid ways anymore. Which is why awakening is a chastening experience.

To get the mind ready to see its own stupidity, you’ve got to give it a sense of well-being. This is why your discernment needs concentration to back it up. Otherwise it’s just not going to want to hear about what you’ve been doing wrong. So you learn how to breathe in ways that feel really good. When your mind doesn’t have walls inside, it’s able to be aware of itself all around the whole body, just sitting here breathing. Think of the breath as surrounding you.

We talk about watching the breath, which sometimes is unfortunate. It gives you the sense that you’re in one part of the body, close to your eyes, and you’re watching the breath someplace else, in another part of the body. So remind yourself, there’s breath in your eyes right now, too. So if you can think of the lens of your eyes focusing inside the lens, the eye is looking inside itself, you’re heading in the right direction. Then think of the body, the whole body, being bathed with the breath on all sides. Left, right, front, back, top, bottom: It’s all around. When there’s a sense of harmony in the body as you breathe in, as you breathe out, it provides the sense of well-being that you’re going to need. You feel well-nourished. At the same time, you get a sense of how you’re fixing your own food for the mind.

The Buddha talks about four kinds of nutriment. There’s physical food, which keeps the body going. Then consciousness has three kinds of nutriment. There’s contact at the senses, consciousness at the senses, and then your intentions. When you’re getting the mind concentrated, you’re learning to feed off of good, intentional food. You see how the mind has been fixing its own food for a long time through its other intentions. You get a sense that this is a lot better. And it’s important that you learn how to appreciate the food of concentration, because you’re going to use that appreciation to peel away your desire to go feeding off of other things. This is where discernment begins to get to work.

You have to ask yourself: The other things you’ve been feeding on—are they really worth the effort that goes into the feeding? Because you’re not only feeding, but you’re also fixing your own food inside: by the way you breathe, by the way you talk to yourself, by the feelings you focus on, and by the perceptions you keep in mind. These are the processes by which you fix your food. So it’s not as if the food just magically appears. You play a role in finding it and fixing it. The question is, is it worth the effort? A lot of insight is going to come down to seeing that you’ve been a lousy cook for your mind—feeding off of old scraps, eating off of road kill, whatever the mind gets fixated on.

But you also realize you can develop your skill inside as a good cook. You fix food that’s better and better. As you develop more and more of a taste for this food—and it does take time for this taste to develop—you find that this becomes your new attachment. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it said when you’re meditating you shouldn’t get attached to the pleasure of concentration. But as a Ajaan Fuang would always say, it’s a good attachment. You have to be crazy about the meditation in order to do it well. In other words, every free moment you have, try to be with a breath, try to observe your mind in the present moment. You might say you almost get addicted to it. When the mind is free, this is where it goes. That’s what you want.

When you have that kind of attachment, then the mind gets ready for the point where the discernment is going to tell you, “Well, even this is not good enough.” If you try applying that discernment when you’re not really attached to the concentration, it can destroy the concentration and make you not want to do it anymore. So get yourself attached. Learn to get really good at it. Then you can start analyzing it to see that if you really want to rest, you have to find something that’s not cooked, not fabricated, not put together. And where would that be? Pose that question in the mind. When the mind is ready, things will open up. You can’t determine ahead of time when it’s going to happen or what the insight is going to be.

There’s a passage in the Canon where monk goes around interviewing other monks who are arahants, asking them, “What did you focus on that led you to awakening?” One monk replies that he focused on the five aggregates, another that he focused on the six senses, another that he focused on dependent co-arising, and another that he focused on the six elements. The monk asking the question gets confused. Why are there so many ways of examining the mind?

The answer, of course, is that there are lots of different ways that people put their minds together, just as there are many kinds of food: Greek food, Lebanese food, Persian food, French food. It’s all food, but if you’re going to analyze it, you begin to realize that not only are the ingredients and techniques different, but even the thinking behind each cuisine is very different. Years back, when I was making a cookbook after my first time in Thailand, we were putting together recipes from different Asian countries, and I talked to someone who was an expert in Indian food. He said, basically, “Indian food is based on the principle that every food has a poison that you have to counteract with different seasonings, different spices.” Then I talked with someone who was an expert in Japanese food, and he said, “The Japanese attitude is that each food has its own particular strength, and you want to bring out those strengths.”

So: same ingredients, but put together in a different way, and also thought about in a different way. And it’s the same way with the mind. Each person puts his or her vision of reality, his or her vision of himself or herself put together in a different way, just as there are many different kinds of cooks and theories about cuisine. So the insight that’s going to open things up for one person may not work for another. What works for you is going to be an individual matter. Nobody can tell you ahead of time.

There’s the sad story of a Westerner who went to stay with the Ajaan Maha Boowa. He asked Ajaan Maha Boowa, “What meditation topic is going to lead me to awakening?” And Ajaan Maha Boowa said, ‘I don’t know.’ The Westerner took that to mean that Ajaan Maha Boowa didn’t know how to get awakening, so he left. But what Ajaan Maha Boowa was actually saying was, ‘Who knows what topic is going to be the one that opens things up for you, or exactly what kind of insight will make the difference? You have to experiment to find out.’ Still, though, the basic pattern is the same. You begin to realize you’ve been feeding on certain things that you’ve been cooking and you want to learn how to see that they’re not worth it. You want to get to mind to a place where it doesn’t need to feed. That’s when it’s free.

Years back, I was thinking about wandering through parts of Zion National Park, but as one of the rangers there told me, “You can’t eat the scenery.” In other words, you have to carry a lot of food along with you. Imagine what it would be like if you could eat the scenery. You wouldn’t have to fix you food. Everything would be already there. That can give you an idea of the kind of freedom you have when you don’t have to feed anymore and you don’t need to cook anymore. You can go anywhere. What is it the Buddha said? You’re released everywhere.

That’s what these noble dhammas lead to: Virtue leads to concentration that gives integrity, solidity, to your concentration. Concentration, when it’s all-around, allows you to discern things in the mind that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise when the mind is narrowly focused here, narrowly focused there. Then discernment helps you see that you’ve been feeding, you’ve been spending all your time fixing the food you eat, and it’s lousy food. Now, maybe some of that lousy food tastes pretty good, but still, there’s no end to it. You have a good meal today, but tomorrow morning you’re hungry again, so you have to fix some more. After breakfast tomorrow, you get hungry again, so you need food later on in the day. It goes around and around, around. It never ends.

But the Buddha is saying, there is a way to get so that you don’t need to feed, and that’s what brings us all to an end—and it’s absolute freedom. So think of that as a possibility. As I said, this is where the Vinaya is aimed. This is where the Dhamma is aimed. All the customs around what the monks should do, all the customs around how lay people are supposed to behave: They’re all aimed here.

As the Buddha said, the flavor of the Dhamma, no matter what, if it’s genuine Dhamma, is like the ocean. The ocean has one taste, no matter where you go. The Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic: They’re all salty. Whereas with genuine Dhamma, the one taste is release.