Questions & Answers

…. In the frames of reference that we’re practicing, we’re taught to reflect on the food we eat, the other necessities of life we use, to see that they’re simply things for us to depend on for a short while. Don’t grow attached to them. You can choose the things you buy and store up for your use, but the mind should keep reflecting that they fall under the three characteristics. They’re uncertain. When we want to use these things for our benefit, we should look after them but we shouldn’t let ourselves suffer when they deteriorate and change.

Question: Sometimes, when I’m meditating to relax and settle the mind, the desire for results gets in the way. What should I do to keep my intention pure so that desire doesn’t become an obstacle?

Ajaan Suwat: This desire is a form of craving. It really is an obstacle. Craving is something the Buddha taught us to abandon. If the desire serves a purpose, you should go ahead and desire. But if it doesn’t, you should focus on what will get results. In other words, you should act without desire. Even when there’s no desire, you can still act. You want to gain awareness, of course, so the task in front of you is to focus your awareness on a single object. When your meditation object appears to your awareness, you should focus on staying there with it in a single spot. As you stay there longer and longer, the mind will grow still and refined, all on its own. That’s because stillness comes from being mindful — simply from being mindful without lapses of forgetfulness — and not from desire.

Tell yourself: this is a task you have to do with mindfulness, discernment, and correct awareness. You don’t have to depend on desire. When you do the work correctly, the results will come on their own.

Question: When doubts arise in the mind, are they of any help in the practice?

Ajaan Suwat: As long as the level of discernment called ñāṇa-dassana — knowledge and vision — hasn’t yet arisen within us, we’re all bound to have doubts. But if we simply sit there doubting, it doesn’t serve any purpose. When doubts arise, we should study and practice so as to give rise to knowledge. If we can’t give rise to knowledge on our own, we should go ask those who know, teachers with correct knowledge. If we practice correctly, the things we wonder about will appear, and that will be the end of our doubts. For instance, the questions you’re asking are all an affair of doubt. When you get a correct answer, you gain knowledge that helps unravel your doubts — and in this way doubts serve a purpose, in that getting answers to your questions can resolve your doubts on some levels.

(After a series of questions on political issues)

Ajaan Suwat: The issues of the monks’ life are very subtle. The Buddha laid down rules forbidding us from even talking about these things, so I’d rather not go into these matters in detail. My main concern is what I can do so that you can depend on yourselves to attain peace and happiness of mind. That’s what concerns me: how each of us can learn how to depend on ourselves, so that our minds are solid and don’t waver in line with events, so that we can look after ourselves in a way allowing us to escape the dangers of the sufferings arising within us. Every person has suffering, and every person is only one person. There’s nobody who’s two. If each of us looks after our one person, without oppressing anyone or harming anyone, there would be no problems. The problem is that we don’t look after ourselves, and expect help to come from outside. That means that we abandon our responsibilities, and that’s why there’s injustice in the world — oppression, corruption, inequality. If every person were to listen to the Buddha’s teachings and be responsible for him or herself, we’d see that everyone else is just like us. If we curse them, they’ll curse us back. If we show them respect, they’ll show us respect in return. This is why we shouldn’t oppress them or harm them. We should treat them with justice, because if there are things that we don’t like having done to us and yet we go do them to other people, it creates dangers for ourselves. When we can see these dangers, we should look after our own behavior. Then these dangers won’t exist. This is the basic principle at which the Buddha’s teachings aim. And this is why monks aren’t involved with worldly affairs. We have to study this principle until we understand it, and that way there will be no oppression.

Question: I have two questions about rebirth. The first is: what is it that gets reborn?

Ajaan Suwat: When you were born, do you know what it was that got born?

Question: No.

Ajaan Suwat: If you don’t know, how is it that you were still able to be born? What led you to be born?

(A moment of dead silence)

Question: My second question has to do with channeling spirits. There seem to be a lot of people in America who are interested in contacting spirits, to the point where books have been written, giving advice on how to get in touch with spirits in this way. What does Buddhism have to say about this?

Ajaan Suwat: Buddhism for the most part teaches us to be mindful so as to get in touch with ourselves. This is because the unawareness (avijjā) that gives rise to fabrication and suffering is an unawareness concerning our own minds, and it lies within our own minds, too. So Buddhism teaches us to learn about our own minds, and not to get involved with spirits or people who channel spirits, because that sort of thing doesn’t serve any purpose, can’t help us give rise to the awareness that will put an end to our defilements.

Question: When I leave meditation and go walking outside or have work to do, I sometimes have to use a lot of thought. How can I be mindful and think at the same time? Where should I focus mindfulness? What techniques do you recommend?

Ajaan Suwat: When we begin meditating we want mindfulness so that it’ll keep our body and mind still and at peace, but the body has to keep changing positions — sitting, walking, lying down. The way to practice, given in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, is that when we sit, we’re alert to how we’re sitting. When we walk, we’re alert to the fact that we’re walking, and we walk in a composed way. Don’t let the mind be mindful of anything outside its proper bounds. Keep it within bounds, i.e., within the body. Be alert to the way you step, place your foot, all your various movements. If you can stay aware of these things, you’re on the right path.

Or if you don’t focus on the body, focus on the mind. Be alert to whatever mood or preoccupation is arising in the present. Love? Hatred? Is it focused on visual objects? Tastes? The past? The future? Then notice which preoccupations serve no purpose, and tell yourself not to focus on things that serve no purpose. Focus only on things that do serve a purpose. When the mind settles down, be alert to the fact. Give yourself a sense of pleasure, satisfaction, and peace in the present. When you do this, you’re practicing in line with the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta as a way of training your mind to gain concentration. Then when you sit in meditation, focus the mind on more refined levels of stillness — for the sitting posture allows you to be less concerned about keeping the body in position. When you’re standing or walking, you have to pay more attention to maintaining your posture.

Question: I’ve had some practice in developing good will and compassion, but I don’t know how to develop empathetic joy. Do you have any suggestions?

Ajaan Suwat: Empathetic joy is a feeling of happiness at the good fortune of others. When other people are happy or gain wealth, we wish them well. We aren’t jealous or envious of them. This is a quality we develop to get rid of the defilement of envy. When other people gain good fortune, we practice feeling happy for them. If we suffer from the defilement of envy, we can’t stand to see other people doing well in life. We get jealous because we feel we’re better than they are. This is why the Buddha taught us to develop empathetic joy.

Question: Is there any technique for developing empathetic joy?

Ajaan Suwat: The technique is to spread this thought to people in general: “If anyone is suffering, may they experience happiness. As for people experiencing happiness, may they maintain that happiness. May they not be deprived of the good fortune they’ve gained, the wealth they’ve gained, the status they’ve gained, the praise they’ve gained, the happiness they’ve gained. May their happiness increase.” We’re not jealous of their happiness and we don’t try to compete with them in underhanded ways. The Buddha’s purpose in teaching empathetic joy is so that our minds won’t be consumed with envy over other people’s good fortune. When we feel no envy toward others and can train our hearts to reach stillness using this theme as our preoccupation, then we’ve completed our training in empathetic joy. The phrase we repeat when we chant every day — “May all living beings not be deprived of the good fortune they have attained” — that’s empathetic joy.

Question: When I meditate on my breath, I notice that at the end of the in-breath there’s a brief rest. The same thing happens at the end of the out-breath. As time passes, this momentary rest grows longer and longer, and is very comfortable. Is this the right way to practice?

Ajaan Suwat: When we’re mindful, we get to see things we’ve never seen before, we experience things we’ve never experienced before, in a way that we’ll never forget. A mind that has never experienced peace and stillness will come to experience peace and stillness. A mind that’s never been aware will come to be aware. This is part of correctly following the right path: you begin by getting the mind to enter a subtle level of concentration. You should continue what you’re doing, but don’t get complacent. If your concentration isn’t yet solid, it can deteriorate. So you should tend to the mind that’s at stillness and keep it there. Remember how you got it there. Keep practicing continually, and you’ll find that there are even more refined levels of the still mind. There are levels even more refined and pleasurable than this. So don’t content yourself with stopping just there. See if you can make the stillness and sense of comfort even more refined.

It’s like walking up the stairs to your house. The stairs have five steps: the five levels of jhāna. The first time the mind reaches a subtle level of stillness is the first step. When you haven’t yet started climbing the stairs, you should content yourself with getting to the first step. But when you’ve reached the first step, you shouldn’t content yourself simply with the fact that you’ve gotten up off the ground and stop right there — for the first step isn’t your house. So you should remind yourself of the fact that it’s not your house, you haven’t yet reached shelter, and then look for the second step. When you’ve reached the second step, you should remind yourself that you still haven’t reached shelter, so you have to take the next step.

In the same way, when you’ve reached a subtle level of stillness and experienced just this level of pleasure and ease, you should ponder this ease to see that it’s not yet constant. It can still change. There are still higher levels of ease. Today you’ve gotten this far; the next step will be to keep moving up until you reach genuine ease.

What I’ve explained so far should be enough for today. Talking a lot can get you confused, for you’re still new to this training. Your memory can handle only so much. Like students just beginning their studies: if they study a lot of advanced material and stuff it into their brains, it won’t all stay there.

It’s the same when we practice meditation. Your mindfulness and discernment can take only so much. Listen to just a little bit and then put it into practice, so as to strengthen your mindfulness and discernment, so as to strengthen your concentration. In that way you’ll be able to take in more refined levels of Dhamma. At this stage I want you to stop listening and to go back to look at your mind: is it willing to accept the training? Is it able to follow it? Or is it still stubborn? If the mind isn’t yet willing to accept and follow the training, reason with it until it is. Get the mind to reach what you’ve been hearing about, so that it sees the results clearly within itself. Your knowledge on this level isn’t knowledge from the mind. It’s knowledge from concepts. As for the mind, it hasn’t yet taken these things in. If, when you meditate, you find that your mind is still restless and distracted, unwilling to do what you want it to do, that’s a sign that it hasn’t yet accepted the teachings. So you have to reason with it over and over again.

If, on the other hand, you can remember only one concept but can train the mind so that it can take in the truth of that concept, then learning about concepts serves a purpose. If the mind isn’t willing to take in the truth of that concept, then knowing concepts doesn’t serve any purpose.

So I’ll ask to stop today’s question-and-answer session here.