When we meditate, we let go of our present preoccupations. Normally the mind is always preoccupied with the various objects that the eye sees, the ear hears, the nose smells, the tongue tastes, and the body comes into contact with. But when we want peace of mind, we have to see these objects as coarse and gross. We try to let go of things that are gross, things that are sensual. We focus instead on things that are more refined and of more lasting value, step by step.
We keep on getting the mind to gather in stillness, keep on letting go of everything else. It’s like when we go to sleep: we have to let go of distracting thoughts, we have to stop thinking, have to cut those things away if we’re going to sleep in comfort. As long as the mind is in a turmoil over those things and can’t let them go, it won’t be able to fall asleep. It’ll have no sense of ease, won’t gain any strength. Even more so when we meditate: we have to cut away all our other preoccupations, let them all go, leaving only buddho.
Adjust your attitude so that you can find a sense of ease at the same time you’re repeating buddho to yourself. Don’t let yourself get bored or tired of the meditation. How do you develop a sense of ease? Through your conviction in what you’re doing. No matter what the job, if you can do it with a sense of conviction, a sense of respect for your work, you can keep at it continuously. Even if the sun is beating down and you’re all tired and worn out, you can keep on doing it. If you do it with a sense of desire (chanda) for the results, a sense of persistence (viriya), intentness (citta), and circumspection (vimaṅsā), you can keep on doing it without getting tired. When you do your work with this attitude, you can keep at it always.
This is why our teachers were able to live with a sense of contentment even when they were out in the mountain wilds. They put effort into their meditation with a sense of ease and wellbeing in the peace of mind they were able to maintain through restraining the mind with mindfulness. If their hearts were already inclined to stillness and seclusion, then as soon as the mind had developed its foundation, they were able to keep it going without any difficulties. It became automatic, and they were able to experience a sense of wellbeing — the stillness, the fullness, the brightness of the mind.
So adjusting the mind properly in this way is something very important for anyone who wants peace of mind. Keep reminding yourself to develop an attitude of conviction, and this will give energy and encouragement to your efforts. If your conviction, persistence, and mindfulness are strong, you’ll be able to win out over any restless, anxious, sleepy, or lazy states of mind. You’ll be able to win out over these things through the qualities of mind you develop.
The qualities of mind we’re developing are like strategic weapons. We develop mindfulness. We develop alertness. We pick out our one object of meditation — “This is what I’m going to fasten on” — and then we both keep it in mind and stay aware of it. When we refuse to let go of it, when we hold on tight to a single object, it becomes the quality called singleness of preoccupation. When this singleness of mind arises, it can cut through restlessness, cut through anxiety. It includes both mindfulness and persistence, and can keep the mind firmly gathered in one place.
When this singleness of mind arises, it turns into firm concentration. The mind gets more refined and can let go of everything else, step by step. This singleness is the refined part that holds through all the levels of right concentration. In the first level you have to have singleness of preoccupation in charge. Even though there’s also directed thought, evaluation, rapture, and pleasure, singleness of preoccupation has to be there. Directed thought and evaluation are the coarser parts of the concentration. You’ll know as the mind gets more refined because it lets go of them, leaving just singleness of preoccupation, rapture, and pleasure. Rapture is the coarsest of these three, so you let go of it, leaving just pleasure and singleness of preoccupation. Pleasure is the coarser of these two, so you let go of it, leaving just singleness of preoccupation and equanimity.
When the mind has a sense of steady equanimity, firm and unwavering … If you want to call it tender, it’s tender in that it doesn’t put up any resistance to the Dhamma, doesn’t resist the truth of things as they are. It doesn’t dispute. It’s willing to accept that truth. But if you want to call it tough, it’s tough in that it’s firm and unwavering. Normally, when things are soft and tender they waver and move when they’re struck by anything. But when the mind is tender in this way, it becomes tough instead. No one can fool it. It doesn’t waver, it’s not affected by anything. This is the nature of the mind in concentration. Why doesn’t it waver? Because it’s seen the truth. It’s full. It’s not hungry in any way that could make it waver, that could let it get tempted. It doesn’t want anything else. We human beings: when we have a sense of enough, we’re free.
For this reason, meditators need a solid theme that they can hold to. If you don’t know or haven’t studied much Dhamma, you can simply remember in brief that this body of ours is Dhamma. Every part of it is Dhamma. Conventional Dhammas, formulated Dhammas, all the way up to absolute Dhammas all can be found in this body. So we should pay attention to the body as it’s actually present right here. When we know our own body, we won’t have any doubts about other people, other bodies. So to give strength to the mind, we should repeat to ourselves any of the meditation themes dealing with the body so that the mind will settle down and come to rest.
If repeating buddho, buddho is too refined for you — if you can’t find anything to hold to, or don’t know where to focus — you can focus on the breath. It’s blatant enough for you to fix your attention on it — when it comes in, you know it’s coming in; when it goes out, you know it’s going out. Or if that’s too refined, you can focus on the 32 parts of the body. If you want to focus on hair of the head, repeat kesā, kesā (hair of the head, hair of the head) to yourself. You’ve seen head hairs, you can remember them, so fix the memory in your mind and then repeat kesā, kesā. For hair of the body, you can repeat lomā, lomā, and so on. Repeat the names of any of the 32 parts until your awareness gathers in with the repetition and settles down into stillness.
If you want, you can focus on any one of the bones. Repeat aṭṭhi, aṭṭhi. Where is the bone you’re focusing on? It’s really right there. What kinds of features does it have? It really has them — after all, you’ve seen bones before. You can remember what the big bones and little bones are like. So call them to mind, focus on them, and repeat their names so as to build a firm foundation for concentration and mindfulness in the mind.
Once your foundation is firm and steady from the practice of repetition, you move on to investigation, to insight meditation. You analyze these things to see them as aniccaṁ, or inconstant. Why does the Buddha say they’re inconstant? We want them to be constant. We don’t want them to change. The Buddha teaches us to let go of them, but we can’t let them go — because our views run contrary to the Dhamma. That’s why we can’t let go.
The word “let go” here means that we don’t hold onto them. Even though we still live with them, we just live with them, nothing more. Even though we make use of these things, we simply use them, nothing more. Even though we make the body move, it’s just movement. You have to keep this understanding in mind so that wrong views don’t overwhelm you. So that delusion doesn’t overwhelm you. As long as these things exist, we make use of them. After all, they’re here to use. The Buddha and his noble disciples all made use of these things without any thought of their being anything other than what they are — that they might be constant, that they might give rise to true pleasure, that they might be “us” or “ours.” We use these things in line with our duties as long as they’re here for us to use. When they change into something else, they change in line with their duties, in line with the laws of the Dhamma.
The Buddha thus taught us to familiarize ourselves with what’s normal in life: aging is normal, illness is normal, death is normal, separation from the people and things we love is normal. When we analyze them, we realize that they’re all going to have to leave us. They won’t stay with us forever. When even these five khandhas that we’re looking after all the time aren’t really ours, how can our children really be ours? How can our parents really be ours? How can our possessions really be ours? They’re all anattā: not-self.
We train and exercise our minds in this way until they’re adept in the same way that we memorize our lessons in school. Once they’re firmly imbedded in the mind, the mind won’t go against the truth of the Dhamma. It will believe the truth of the Dhamma, be inclined to follow the truth of the Dhamma. It won’t suffer, for it follows in line with the laws of truth. When we don’t struggle against the truth of the Dhamma, there won’t be any sorrow or distress when things change, for we’ve come to know and accept the truth.
So all we have to do is come and know the truth. It doesn’t lie far away. The things that will cure our sufferings, the most important things that will help us cross over birth and becoming, all come simply from making our knowledge of what’s truly here firm and unwavering so that it can push the mind, lift the mind, over and above any influences that might come to make an impact on it — so that it will gain release from defilement, release from sorrow, release from distress. The meditation we’re practicing here is simply for the purpose of knowing the truth as it actually is. As long as we haven’t yet reached it, we won’t see it. When we don’t see it, all we know about it is news: what we’ve read in books or heard on tapes or heard our teachers describe. That’s simply news. The mind hasn’t seen it. The ears have simply received it, the eyes have simply taken it in from books, but they’re simply passive receptors, holding it as labels and memories, that’s all.
The “reaching” has to be done by the heart. The heart is what reaches the truth. And once the heart has reached it, you don’t have to worry. It’ll be the heart’s own treasure. So we have to train the heart to be intelligent, so that it will gain true happiness, true release from danger, from suffering and stress. Practice so that your mind reaches it, so that it will see it. At the moment, it hasn’t gotten there yet. So far, it’s all only in your ears and eyes.
So we all have to put our hearts into the meditation. Focus on what’s truly here so that the heart will reach the truth — the noble truths. Whatever suffering or stress is here in your body and mind is all part of the dukkha sacca, the noble truth of stress. Whatever delusion, passion, or delight that depends on delusion — however much, whatever the object, within or without — is all samudaya sacca, the noble truth of the origination of stress. All the things that we like, that give rise to desire to the point of clinging: when we get them, we latch onto them. When we lose them, we look for them again. When we don’t have them, we suffer. This is what makes the mind travel through all the levels of being, great and small.
In the teaching on dependent co-arising, the Buddha said that it all comes from not knowing. We don’t discern contact, don’t discern feeling, don’t discern craving, don’t discern clinging, don’t discern becoming, don’t discern birth: all of this is called avijjā, or unawareness. So do you discern these things yet, or not? When sights strike the eye, day in and day out: is your mindfulness ready to handle them or not? Is your discernment up on the tricks of the defilements or not? If not, you have to be observant, to gather and restrict all your attention to what’s right here, for when defilements arise, they arise right here. If discernment is to see the defilements to the point of giving rise to right view, it’ll have to see and know right here.
If we gather and restrict our attention to what’s right here, we’re sure to know and see. If we want to be mindful and alert, we can’t do it anywhere else. Remember this point well, and put it into practice. When these words are spoken you hear them, but when you get up you forget them. Then when the time comes to meditate again, you don’t know what to pick as your theme of practice. You forget everything, throw it all away. So there’s nothing but “you” — no Dhamma to know, no Dhamma to see, no Dhamma to put into practice. It’s all “you” and “yours”: your body, and when the body is yours, feelings are yours, perceptions are yours, thought constructs are yours, consciousness is yours. So you get possessive of what’s yours, and there’s nothing left to be Dhamma. That’s why your practice doesn’t progress.
All progress has to come from a point of “one.” Once “one” is firmly established, then there can be “two” and “three.” If “one” is lacking, everything else will be lacking. Actually, when we separate things out, there is no “two” or “three.” When we don’t lump things together, there’s only “one.” Even groups of ten or twenty people are all made up of one person — that one person, this one person, that one person over there.
So in our practice we first have to establish “one” — this body of ours. What’s here in the body? We have mental events and physical phenomena: that’s two. Then there’s feeling: pleasure, pain, neither pleasure nor pain: that’s three. When we separate things out, there’s lots of them, but it’s all this one person, this one lump sitting here encased in skin. But when you analyze things out, you have hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin … Here it’s already a lot. Then you can analyze the eye, consciousness, forms. It’s a lot of things, but all one thing: one mass of suffering and stress. Nothing else. Just know this one thing until it’s all clear. You don’t have to know a lot of things, just this one body. Once you really see the truth, the mind will let go of its burdens. We suffer because we keep piling things on — “That’s us, that’s ours, that’s them, that’s theirs” — through the power of attachment, clinging to things, not wanting them to change. When the mind starts meditating by mentally repeating its theme, it can let things go for a while. You hold onto buddho or any of the other themes. You don’t take refuge in the body. You take refuge in buddho, buddho, until the mind settles down. That gives you a greater sense of wellbeing than you could get from these other things.
When you can let go even of this level of wellbeing, you’ll reach the real buddha. That’s where there’s purity, that’s where there’s true wellbeing, with no more need to go swimming through birth and death, no more need to torment yourself by having to sit and meditate like this again — because there will be nothing to torment, nothing to meditate on any more. When you let go of everything, there are no more issues.
So we meditate to give rise to the discernment that sees the drawbacks of things and lets go of them all. That’s when there are no more burdens, no more kamma. It sounds easy, but you have to let go of everything. If you haven’t let go of everything, there’s more kamma to do, more work to do. So we’re taught cāgo — renunciation; paṭinissaggo — relinquishment; mutti — release; anālayo — no place for the defilements to dwell.
So. Keep on meditating.