Questions & Answers

Question: I understand that Tibetan monks use visualization when they meditate. Have you ever used visualization in your meditation?

Ajaan Suwat: Visualization of what?

Question: I’m not really sure. Maybe of the unattractiveness of the body?

Ajaan Suwat: Visualization, if it’s done in the proper way, can be useful. If it’s done in the wrong way, it can lead to delusion. The process of visualization, in the language of the Dhamma, is called saṅkhāra, or fabrication. The Buddha taught us to be wise to the true nature of fabrication, that it’s inconstant and undependable. When we know this truth, we don’t get attached to the things that arise. When knowledge arises and we don’t get attached to it, then we don’t get deluded by it. That’s when it can be useful.

One of the principles of the Dhamma is that if you visualize anything in your meditation, you should visualize only things lying within you, so that you see physical fabrication in the body and mental fabrication in the mind in line with their true nature. For example: at present you’re not yet old, but you’re taught to visualize yourself as growing old in the same way you’ve seen other people grow old. Remind yourself that as the years pass, you’ll have to age in just the same way. Aging is stressful. Your eyes won’t be able to see as clearly as when you were young. Your ears won’t be able to hear in the same way as when you were young. It’ll be painful to sit down, to stand, to walk. There will be all kinds of obstacles. So now, before you grow old, you should accelerate your efforts at developing goodness so that it will be a refuge for the heart when old age comes. In other words, accelerate your efforts at practicing the Dhamma and training the mind to find peace.

One of the ten recollections (anussati) taught by the Buddha is recollection of death. When you see other people dying, other animals dying, you should reflect on the fact that you will have to die just like everyone else. Repeat the word maraṇaṁ, maraṇaṁ (death, death) in the mind and look at yourself: you’re going to have to die for sure. As you reflect maraṇaṁ, maraṇaṁ, it may happen that as your mind grows still, a vision of your own death will appear within you. If your mindfulness is good and you have your wits about you, then the more clearly you see death in this way, the more the mind will grow still with an even greater sense of wellbeing. As you watch death clearly, seeing the body decay, concentration grows even stronger. If you visualize death so that you can see it clearly, you’ll realize that there’s nothing to be gained by growing attached to the body. When you see the truth in this way, you’ll see that your past greed for things served no real purpose. The anger you’ve felt in the past: what purpose did it serve? You’ll see that greed, anger, and delusion are stressful and serve no purpose — for ultimately, we’ll have to let go of everything that comes along with them. You’ll see that this sense of peace and ease in the mind is what serves a real purpose. When the mind is at peace in this way, it doesn’t want anything else. All it wants is peace, and that’s enough.

I’ll tell you a story. It’s time you listened to something light for a change, so that you won’t be so tense and grim. It’s important that you first let yourself relax. Once Ajaan Funn, my teacher, was wandering through the forest in Baan Phyy district, Udorn Thani province, and stopped to spend the night not far from a certain village. He saw that it was a congenial place and so stayed on there to practice meditation. A woman living in the village would often come in the morning to give him alms, and then again in the evening to hear his Dhamma talks. Ajaan Funn taught her to meditate, something she had never done before. It so happened that she was afraid of ghosts. Wherever she went, she was afraid of ghosts, and so she never went anywhere alone. Especially at night, she was really afraid. When Ajaan Funn taught her to meditate, she didn’t want to, because she was afraid that she’d see a corpse or a ghost. On following days, Ajaan Funn asked her how her meditation was going, and she couldn’t answer him because she hadn’t meditated. After a while she began to feel embarrassed: “He keeps teaching me to meditate and yet all I do is hold onto my fear of ghosts.” So she decided, “Whatever may happen, I’m going to meditate.” So she started to meditate.

At first she simply focused on repeating the word buddho as she watched her breath come in and out. As her mind began to relax, it began to drift a bit and a vision arose: she saw a corpse lying stretched out in front of her. When she saw the corpse, she began to feel afraid. Then the corpse moved in so that it was lying on her lap. With the corpse on her lap, she couldn’t get up to run away. And that’s when she remembered her buddho. She wanted buddho to come and help her. So she kept thinking, buddho, buddho, more and more intensely. As she was doing this, one part of her mind was afraid, the other part kept recollecting buddho, buddho, until the corpse disappeared from her lap and turned into herself. That was when she had a vision of her chest bursting wide open. Her heart was bright, very bright. In the brightness of her heart she could see all kinds of things. She could see what other people were thinking, what animals were thinking. She knew all kinds of things and felt really amazed. From that point on her fear of ghosts disappeared. Her heart grew peaceful and at ease.

The next day she went to see Ajaan Funn. Ajaan Funn was sick with a fever, but he forced himself to get up to greet her and give her a Dhamma talk, as he had on previous days, just as if he wasn’t sick at all. After the talk, she immediately said to him, “Than Ajaan, your heart isn’t bright and blooming at all. It looks withered and dry. You must be very sick.” Ajaan Funn was surprised: “How does she know the state of my mind?” But he had noticed that her manner was different from what it had been on previous days. She was very composed and polite. She had bowed down very politely; her words had been gentle and very respectful. When she commented on his heart that way, he wondered, “Does she really know the state of my mind?” So when she returned to the village, he forced himself to sit and meditate to the point where the fever broke and went away. His heart grew peaceful, bright, and at ease. The next day, when the time came that the woman would come, he decided to play sick in order to test her. When she arrived, he didn’t get up to greet her and stayed lying down as if he was sick. After she bowed down, she sat to meditate for a moment, and then said, “Why, your lotus” — meaning his heart — “your lotus is really blooming!” That was when Ajaan Funn realized that she was really meditating well.

From that point on, she could come in the evening without the slightest fear of ghosts or spirits. And she continued to meditate well. Her mind never deteriorated. To tell the truth, she had never studied in school and didn’t know much of the Dhamma, but because of her respect for Ajaan Funn, when he taught her to meditate she followed his instructions. Whether it was because of her past merit or what, I don’t know, but she gained peace of mind, developed her discernment, and was able to know her own heart and the hearts of other people. So those of you who have come here to meditate: don’t underestimate yourselves, thinking that you won’t gain anything or come to any insights. Don’t be so sure! If you keep up your efforts and practice correctly, it might very well happen that you’ll gain insight. If things come together properly, the day will come when you know, when you see the Dhamma. It could very well happen.

So keep up your efforts. After the retreat is over, when you go back home, keep using your mindfulness to keep watch over yourself. In your comings and goings, keep training your mindfulness as you do while you’re here, as a means of maintaining the state of your mind through practicing restraint of the senses. This will develop your mindfulness and give it power. That way, you’ll find that things go more smoothly when the time comes to train the mind to be still.

Are there any other questions?

Question: I’m finding that my mind is beginning to settle down somewhat in my meditation, and I’m surprised at the sense of comfort and ease that comes when it does settle down.

Ajaan Suwat: A sense of ease arises when there’s peace and calm. Stress and suffering arise when there’s no peace and calm. These things always go together. You can observe in yourself that whenever the mind isn’t at peace, when there’s a lot of disturbance and turmoil, there’s a lot of stress and suffering as well. When there’s only a little disturbance, there’s only a little stress and suffering. When there’s a lot of peace, there’s a lot of ease. If you’re observant, you’ll notice that wherever there’s peace, there’s also a sense of comfort and ease.

You can compare it to a nation at peace, with no war, no strife, no conflicts, no crime. That nation will have the sense of ease that comes with being at peace. If a family lives in harmony, with no quarreling, that family will have the sense of ease that comes with being at peace. If the body is free from disease, strong enough to be used for whatever work you want to do, it’s called a body at peace, and has the sense of ease that comes with being at peace. If the mind isn’t disturbed by the defilements that would put it into a turmoil, it’s at peace in line with its nature. Even nibbāna is peace — a peace that lasts and can never be disturbed. That’s why nibbāna is the ultimate ease.

Question: When I meditate and see the changes in my body and mind, there seems to be one part of the mind that’s simply the observer, which doesn’t change along with the things it watches. When I catch sight of this observer, this sense of awareness, what should I do next?

Ajaan Suwat: One part of the mind is fabrication. As for this sense of awareness itself, this is very important. We should try to know fabrications in line with their true nature. These things are inconstant, and so we should know their inconstancy. These things change and grow. When they appear, we should know that they’re appearing. When they disappear, we should know that they’re disappearing. When we know the appearing and disappearing of fabrications, we’ll realize: before we didn’t understand fabrications, which was why we felt desire for them. We thought they would make us happy. But fabrications are inconstant. They arise and change in this way and so serve no real purpose at all. We’ve struggled to acquire them for a long, long time, but have never gained enough happiness from them to satisfy our wants. But when we train the mind so that our sense of awareness knows in this way, we gain a sense of peace, happiness, satisfaction. This sense of happiness doesn’t involve any struggle, doesn’t depend on anyone else at all. When we experience this sense of peace and ease, we’ll gain discernment and insight. We’ll see the sense of peace and ease coming when our discernment is wise to the nature of fabrications and can cleanse the mind so that it feels no greed for fabrications. The mind then becomes clean and pure.

Question: Is this sense of awareness the self? Here we’re taught that there is no self, and so I’m confused.

Ajaan Suwat: Don’t be in a hurry to label this sense of awareness self or not-self. The discernment that makes us aware of every aspect of fabrication will tell us on its own in line with the truth. It’s the same as when you fix food. As you’re fixing it, don’t ask what the taste is like or where it resides. At that moment you can’t tell where the taste is. But once you’ve fixed it and eaten it, you’ll know the taste and where it lies. In the same way, this issue of self and not-self is very refined. When you’ve practiced until you’ve reached that level, it’ll be clear to you in the same way that the taste of food is clear to you when it touches your tongue. You know immediately, for the nature of these things is to know on their own.

Our job at present is to know the process of fabrication as it appears in the body and mind. We shouldn’t let ourselves be deluded by the fabrications of the body. We should know their true nature. The same holds true with the mental fabrications, issues of good and bad, that affect the mind: we shouldn’t be deluded by them, shouldn’t fall for them. When we’re wise to them and can’t be fooled by them, we’ll gain the discernment that puts an end to suffering and stress because we’re no longer misled by what fabrication keeps telling us.

For instance, when the eye sees a beautiful form, a form that we’ve liked in the past, we tend to fall for it. We want it. This greed of ours creates a disturbance, defiles the mind all over again. When the ear hears a beautiful sound we’ve liked, that we’ve fallen for in the past, the process of fabrication will make us like it again. Greed arises, desire arises, the mind gets disturbed all over again. When a good smell comes into the nose, we fall for it. When the tongue touches a flavor we like, we fall for it again. When our mindfulness and alertness aren’t up on what’s happening, we like these things. We fall for them. We search for them. This is what gives rise to craving in the mind: the origination of suffering and stress. And so we suffer.

For this reason, our discernment has to be fully aware of this aspect of fabrication as well. Once discernment is trained, then when we see a form, hear a sound, smell an aroma, taste a flavor, we can recall that these things are fabrications. They’re inconstant. When fabrication is inconstant, the pleasure that comes from fabrication is undependable. We shouldn’t get carried away by the pleasures that come from those fabrications. Otherwise, when they change, we’ll keep experiencing pain again and again until those fabrications have disappeared. When they disappear, we struggle to gain them again, come into conflict with other people again, fall out with them, quarrel with them, develop animosities, develop bad kamma with them — all because we’ve fallen for fabrications. So we have to reflect on the fact that fabrications are inconstant. We shouldn’t latch onto them, grow attached to them, or fall for them so much.

Question: Just now while I was meditating I had this feeling that the body was simply sitting there on its own, breathing all on its own, and the mind seemed to be something separate. It separated out for a moment, and then came back into the body. When the mind separates out in this way, is it the first step in contemplating the body?

Ajaan Suwat: There wasn’t any pain, was there?

Question: No, no pain at all. It was as if the body didn’t have to rely on the mind. It kept breathing on its own, while the mind was something separate.

Ajaan Suwat: That’s because your mindfulness was good. You weren’t holding onto the body. You were able to let go, so that feelings weren’t making contact with the mind. This is the way it always is with a quiet mind. A quiet mind like this is a really good thing to have. This is why monks out meditating in the forest, when they grow sick, don’t suffer, and can instead find a great deal of bliss. They take their illness as a means of developing mindfulness, reminding themselves that it’s not-self, and so they shouldn’t latch onto it. The mind is the mind; the feeling is not-self. When you repeat the notion, not-self, not-self, and then investigate the feeling, taking it apart, you can keep investigating until the mind grows quiet and at ease, with no suffering at all. The body grows light. The mind grows light, with a great deal of happiness. You begin to marvel and gain conviction in the practice, because you’ve seen a happiness that has arisen from within your very own heart. Suffering stops, even though the body may still be sick.

So we should keep making an effort at training the mind, using various techniques to look after it so that it’ll settle down and be still. That way we’ll gain the strength that will help us when pain and discomfort arise in the heart. We’ll have our hideout — for when we stay with this sense of stillness, we’ll have an excellent hideout from danger.

When meditators go wandering through the forest, their teachers usually have them stay in places that are scary. If there’s a place where tigers are known to frequent, the teachers will have their students go stay there. There are cases where meditators have gained mindfulness, gained concentration, gained rapture and ease, all from their fear of being eaten by tigers. But you have to be brave. Even though you may be afraid, you have to be brave at the same time. If you’re simply afraid and run away instead of meditating, it won’t accomplish anything. There are quite a few meditation masters who, when they heard tigers closing in on them at night, grew so afraid that they couldn’t bear it. There was no way for them to escape, because it was nighttime, and they were staying in a place where ….

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