day three : evening

Conviction (2)

Tonight’s talk continues with the issue of conviction. You may remember from last night that we talked about how in the Buddha’s teaching, conviction functions as a working hypothesis as to whom to believe, what to believe, and what to do as a consequence. Last night we talked about the four factors leading to stream-entry as an expression of conviction. Tonight we’ll talk about the four factors that result from stream-entry, in other words, the qualities of a person who has attained the stream that leads to nibbāna. These, too, are expressions of conviction, in that a person of that sort has confirmed his or her conviction in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha. Confirmed conviction in those three things counts as the first three qualities of a steam-enterer. The fourth quality is that such a person has virtues that are appealing to the noble ones: unbroken and yet ungrasped at, leading to concentration [§4].

In the context of this list, the three dimensions of conviction are these: the people whom you believe in are the Buddha and the noble Saṅgha; what you believe in is the Dhamma; and what you do as a consequence is that your virtue becomes a natural expression, a natural part of your mind. You hold to the precepts, but you don’t define yourself or take any pride around your virtue.

In another context, when the Buddha talks about conviction, the “who” and the “what”—in other words, the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha—are reduced to conviction in the Buddha’s awakening: both what he awakened to and how he did it [§1].

What he awakened to is that there is a deathless happiness that can be attained through your own efforts. Now, this is something of a challenge to each of us, in the sense that he says that it is possible for you to do this, and you have to ask yourself: Do you want to live your life without trying to find that happiness for yourself? That’s the challenge.

How he awakened came through his understanding of human effort that he developed by abandoning unskillful actions in his own behavior and by developing skillfulness to the ultimate degree.

There’s an intimate relation in his teachings between knowing and doing. You learn about your actions, the power of your actions, by doing actions, by trying different things out. This is why the truths that he later taught are not just truths to contemplate or to argue about. They’re truths that carry duties telling you what to do if you want to put an end to suffering.

This is also why the Buddha gave autobiographical accounts of his awakening: to show what actions can do. Throughout his quest for awakening, he would ask himself, “I’m not gaining the results I want. What am I doing wrong? What can I change in my actions?” He was constantly experimenting like this. It was through these experiments that he finally gained his awakening. In telling us about these experiments, he was encouraging us to take an experimental attitude toward our own actions as well. We talked a little bit yesterday about what the Buddha was doing on the way to awakening in overcoming distracting thoughts in his mind. And in a very brief form, the remainder of the story is that he then put the mind into concentration, from the concentration he gained discernment, and from the discernment he gained the release of awakening.

So, tonight I’d like to focus on what he awakened to. One of his briefest expressions of his awakening is that first there was the knowledge of the regularity of the Dhamma, and after that there was the knowledge of unbinding.

What is the regularity of the Dhamma? It’s the pattern of how the power of action plays itself out in the world and also in the mind. After the Buddha put his mind into solid concentration, the first question that came to him was, “Is this my only lifetime or have there been lifetimes before this?” That was a hot question in his time. It’s not the case that everyone in India believed in rebirth. In fact, there was a lot of argument and controversy around the topic. So, as the Buddha said when he recounted his awakening, he began to realize that he could remember lifetimes going back many, many eons. It’s interesting, what he remembered about his lives—regardless of whether he was a human being, a heavenly being, an animal, or a being in the lowest realms: what his name was, what his appearance was, what he ate, his experience of pleasure and of pain, and how he died. That’s life: eat, pleasure, pain, die.

As I said, he remembered many, many thousands of eons of these lives. When explaining how long an eon is, the Buddha said to imagine that there’s a yoke floating in the ocean, and there’s a blind turtle living in the bottom of the ocean. Once every 100 years, it comes to the surface. The amount of time it will take the blind turtle to get his head through the yoke is one eon. It’s a long time.

However, the Buddha didn’t just stop at that knowledge, because that, on its own, didn’t lead to the end of suffering. The next question that came to him was, “Is this just me or does it happen to other people, too? And what is the mechanism that determines rebirth?” That led to his second knowledge, in which he saw all the beings in the cosmos dying and being reborn, from the lowest levels of hell and to the highest gods in the heavens. And all their rebirths were dependent on their actions, which were influenced by their views. Here we get back to the theme I mentioned the first night: your actions are intentions, and your views are acts of attention. These determine the levels of becoming in which you take birth.

The lessons he learned from this second knowledge are these: First, he saw the role of the mind in shaping this round of death and rebirth. We don’t simply act in worlds. Our actions actually create these worlds. Causality is responsive to the mind. We could say that the mind plays a role as a cause in creating worlds. Your consciousness is not just a by-product of material or physical laws. It’s an instigator. In particular, causality is responsive to two primary acts of the mind: intention and attention. These qualities can create a lot of havoc when they create unskillful states of becoming, but they’re also the qualities that are just right for developing skills, which is why they play a role in developing the skills of the path to the end of havoc.

However, causality is not totally responsive to your desires, because the nature of causality is such that if your views are wrong, they get you to create worlds of suffering. If they’re right, they get you to create worlds of relative ease. But even worlds of ease are marked by aging, illness, and death. Even the highest gods must eventually die. So mortality is built into the pattern.

This realization led to his further realization that the round is futile. It doesn’t really lead to anywhere. It just goes around and around.

Another realization was that there is no one in charge. Now at first, this insight can seem very disconcerting, especially if you’ve grown up in a culture that assumes that there’s a benevolent design in charge. But with reflection, you also realize that the Buddha’s realization can be liberating because it frees you to pursue your desire for true happiness. You don’t have to submit that desire to someone else’s plan for you.

Here again, though, the Buddha didn’t stop at this knowledge. His next question was, “Given the views and intentions that keep the process going, are there views and intentions that can put an end to the cycle?”

This is what led to the third knowledge, which is called the ending of the effluents. The effluents here are the defilements of the mind. They’re called effluents because they “flow out” of the mind and flood it with suffering.

This knowledge came in two steps. The first step is expressed in terms of the four noble truths. These are the views and intentions that can cut through craving and lead you to your first experience of the deathless. The next step is the actual ending of the effluents, the things that are still left in the mind after your first experience of awakening: sensuality, becoming, and the ignorance that keeps all of this going.

With the ending of that ignorance, the Buddha gained full awakening.

If we can stop here for one moment, we see that the overall pattern of his awakening follows the same pattern we should follow as we come to meditation, too. Even though we can’t remember many lifetimes of stories in our past, we still have a tendency to bring our personal stories into the meditation. That corresponds to the Buddha’s first knowledge. And notice that instead of going immediately to the present moment, he first took the larger view, in which he could see how small his narratives were in the context of the whole cosmos. Only then was he ready to come to the present moment. This is why we start the meditation with thoughts of goodwill for everyone, for all beings. In other words, think of infinity before you go to the present moment. Of course, the Buddha took his last step of focusing on the present moment farther than we normally do, but he also said that we all have the potential to do what he did as well. Throughout his telling of his story, he said that he was able to follow these steps to awakening because of qualities that he had in his mind but also qualities that we can develop, too: ardency, heedfulness, and resolution. In fact, that’s why he talked about his awakening: as a template for what we can do as well. We can make the regularity of the Dhamma work for us just as he made it work for him.

So that’s the regularity of the Dhamma.

Then there’s unbinding. The word unbinding means “going out,” in the way a fire goes out. The meaning of this term as the Buddha applied it to the mind comes from the way people in India at that time understood how fire worked. In their eyes, fire was sustained because it clung to its fuel; and because it was clinging to the fuel, it was actually trapped by the fuel. In English we say that something catches fire, and in India they actually took that literally, with the added point that fire was caught by the fuel because it was clinging to the fuel.

You probably know the story of the monkey in the coconut trap. There’s a little hole in the coconut shell, and they put something inside the shell that the monkey wants. The hole’s big enough for the monkey to slip its hand in, but once it grabs onto the object, it can’t pull its fist out. You can actually catch monkeys this way. If the monkey were to let go, it would be free. But it never lets go. The same with human attachment. We’re trapped because we won’t let go. Similarly, in the image of the fire letting go, the fire goes out because it lets go. Then it’s freed. This is the image that the Buddha uses to describe what happens to the mind in awakening. You’re trapped by your own clinging. You free yourself by letting go.

Now, in many ways the state of unbinding is indescribable. However, the Buddha did talk about it enough to show that it’s a worthy goal, and five aspects of unbinding stand out in his descriptions.

One, it’s a state of consciousness, but it’s not ordinary consciousness. It’s described as consciousness without a surface. The image the Buddha gives is of a beam of light. There’s a window on the east wall of a house, and a windowless wall on the west side. When the sun rises, where does the light beam enter? And where does it land? It enters by the east window and lands on the west wall. If there’s no wall, it lands on the ground. If there’s no ground, it lands on the water. If there’s no water, it doesn’t land. That’s the image for an awakened awareness. It doesn’t land anywhere. This is also called an unestablished consciousness and an unrestricted awareness. That’s the first aspect of unbinding. It’s an unestablished consciousness that lands nowhere.

The second aspect is that it is a truth. It doesn’t change, it’s not fabricated, and, as a result, in the Buddha’s words, it is undeceptive and it doesn’t waver. This aspect of unbinding is reflected in some of the names he gives for it, such as permanence, agelessness, undecaying, deathless, and truth. When he talks about nibbāna being noble, this is what he means: It doesn’t change on you.

The third aspect is that it is bliss—a really intense level of pleasure and happiness, although this bliss doesn’t count as a feeling. It’s a different type of bliss entirely. This aspect of unbinding is reflected in some of the other names he gives for it, such as exquisite, free from hunger, peace, security. He also calls it an island, a shelter, a harbor, refuge.

The fourth aspect of unbinding is that it’s freedom. It’s unbound in that it’s free from attachment, free from longing, free from craving.

And then the fifth aspect is excellence. In the Buddha’s words, it’s amazing, astounding, the ultimate, and the beyond.

So, even though unbinding, strictly speaking, is indescribable, the Buddha mentions these five aspects—true, free, blissful, excellent, object-less consciousness—to let you know that it’s a really good thing to go for. And how do we get there? By developing the five faculties, just as he did. This is what we’re working on right now. This is where our practice can lead.

Think about the implications of the Buddha’s awakening for a moment. We live in a world where someone has found this sort of freedom and happiness through his own efforts, and he says we can do it, too. He talks about this because he says he wants us to want this as well. So we live in a world where this is possible. Taking his story as a truth, being convinced by his story, creates a certain kind of world in which you can function for your own truest happiness.

To appreciate the impact of this vision of your self and the world, you can compare this account with other versions of the Buddha’s awakening that have appeared in Buddhist traditions over the centuries. Every time that the Dhamma was changed by other traditions, they also changed the story of the Buddha’s awakening. For example, there’s a Mahāyāna account in the Daśabhūmika Sūtra according to which the Buddha didn’t gain awakening under the Bodhi tree. Instead, all the Buddhas of the past consecrated him by beaming their powers into his head, after which he gained awakening up in the Pure Abodes. Only then did he create an emanation body that appeared to gain awakening back on Earth. That’s a Mahāyāna version. In a Vajrayāna version, recorded in the Caṇḍamahāroṣana Tantra, the Buddha actually gained awakening when he was back home in his palace, having tantric sex with a consort, and all the Buddhas of the past came to give him awakening. Only after that did the Buddha go out and sit under the Bodhi tree, pretending to practice austerities to gain awakening there because he thought some people would be impressed by that kind of example.

So both of those versions create a different world, one in which nobody gains awakening on his or her own. It requires other Buddhas from the past to do it for you.

Another version of the Buddha’s awakening is one we find now in what’s called secular Buddhism. This version says that the Buddha had no particular awakening experience at all. He simply contemplated and studied his life, coming eventually to the conclusion that there’s no one path for everyone, that we each have to be true to ourselves in deciding what way of life feels most appealing to us and gives us our greatest sense of meaning. In this version, there’s no deathless truth, no real freedom at all, just the freedom to choose your own path, but none of these paths go anywhere special.

So each of these stories, depending on which one we accept, colors our sense of the world that we live in and our sense of what we have potentially within us. If we accept any of these last accounts, we live in a world in which no one has ever gained awakening on his or her own. And in the secular example, there’s not even an awakening or an end to suffering.

However, if we have conviction in the Buddha’s awakening through his own power, it actually gives us more confidence in our own power to shape our lives. Among the implications of the earliest account of the awakening for our lives, four points stand out.

• The first point is that there’s more to us than just biological beings. We’re not totally conditioned by the laws of physics and chemistry. It is possible for us to know an unconditioned happiness.

• The second point deals with the power of our actions. We have the power to create the worlds in which we live. We also have the ability to go beyond those worlds by gaining awakening, based on qualities that we have in a potential form.

• The third point is that awakening is not relative to culture. In other words, awakening is not a matter of Asian or European culture. It stands outside of culture and so can act as a measuring stick for how we measure the goals of our lives. Ask yourself: What do you want out of life when awakening is possible? Just the BMW Chill, or something more?

• The fourth point is that true happiness can be found only through developing good qualities of the heart and mind. The goal is noble, and so is the path.

So when you think of these points, you can see why conviction, defined in its traditional sense, is a strength. It empowers us to have confidence in our ability to develop the qualities needed for true happiness. It gives us a world, it gives us a sense of who we can be in that world, that offers the hope for a genuine happiness that’s more than just long-term. It lies entirely outside of space and time, and yet can be touched from within.

Now this may be a different world from the one inhabited by the people around us, and sometimes that thought can deter us, can discourage us from fully taking on conviction in the Buddha’s awakening. But why should we let other people’s opinions place limits on us in this way? The Buddha states that we are not just prisoners of our culture. It’s in our interest to take advantage of the possibility that he has shown is open to all of us.

For example, the part of the Buddha’s teachings that most Westerners find hardest to accept is the teaching on rebirth. Now, the Buddha himself said he couldn’t prove it to you, however, he did say that it is a truth that we can find through our own practice. Even before we prove it for ourselves, we can see that if we adopt it as a working hypothesis, it actually makes us more skillful in our actions. You might take this as an experiment. Try to live your life for one year as if you really believed in rebirth. See what that does to your actions. You tend to get a lot more meticulous in what you do, and you tend to give more of yourself to doing good. That’s the kind of proof the Buddha would offer.

So. Those are the first three qualities of confirmed conviction—in other words, conviction in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha, gathered together and expressed as conviction in the Buddha’s awakening.

Now, someone who has gained the first stage of awakening also has a fourth quality which is, as I mentioned earlier, virtues appealing to the noble ones. Once you’ve confirmed for yourself that what the Buddha taught is true, that there is a deathless happiness attained by stepping outside of space and time, you see that the process of suffering has been going on for a long, long time. It didn’t start just with this last birth. And you realize that the things that have kept you from detecting this deathless were your own unskillful actions. As a result, from that point on, you would never intentionally break the five precepts ever again. However, because you see that there is no need for a sense of self in that experience of the deathless, and that it’s not created by the processes of becoming, you realize that you don’t need to create a sense of self around the skills you’ve already mastered: your virtues. As a result, you don’t exalt yourself for your virtue and don’t disparage other people who lack that level of virtue. In other words, you don’t need to create a sense of becoming around your virtues. This is why your virtues are appealing to the noble ones. However, because you still have to develop concentration and discernment further, there will be a lingering sense of “I am” surrounding those activities, which will be abandoned only when they complete their work and yield full awakening.

To conclude, think back on the three dimensions of conviction as they apply to this explanation of the factors of stream-entry. Who you believe in is the Buddha as an awakened one. What you believe in is the Dhamma, which teaches you that your actions do matter and that they have the potential for great happiness or for great harm—a Dhamma which, if you follow it, leads to a happiness totally free from harm, the same happiness the Buddha attained through his own actions on the night of his awakening. And then what you do as a consequence is that you hold to your virtues, you stick by them in a way that leads to concentration, but without defining yourself around them.

So even if you haven’t yet reached stream-entry, when you think about these dimensions of conviction, they imply that you try to be as scrupulous as you can about your virtues, again without exalting yourself or disparaging others. In observing your virtues in this way, you’re developing a good basis for mindfulness and concentration. That’s because you’re not tied up in regret or denial about having done harm in the past; otherwise, that kind of regret would actually place walls in your mind that would get in the way of your mindfulness, which is your ability to keep things in mind. The practice of virtue also helps you develop alertness—keeping close watch over your actions to make sure they’re in line with the precept—and ardency—giving your whole heart to doing this well—both of which are qualities central to mindfulness practice.

So it’s in this way that conviction is an important foundation not only for living a happy life but also for good, solid meditation, which will be our topic beginning tomorrow night.

Q: The fact that there have been many histories, stories about the Buddha’s awakening can be somewhat disturbing. If there are three stories, then two of them are false and maybe actually all three are false, and the truth is simply something else. Is this without importance?

A: No. When you look at the three stories, there are two things you want to evaluate. Start by simply looking at the way the stories were written down and how they’ve been passed down. The Theravāda version came much earlier and was written down much earlier than the other ones. You can tell by the style, the language, and also the content. The Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna versions assume the Theravāda version, but the Theravāda version does not assume the other two.

But more importantly, as the Buddha said, after 500 years, the notion of there being one true Dhamma was going to die. In other words, many versions would appear, and that fact would call every version into question. That’s the situation we’re in now. And so you have to ask yourself, if you want to choose one version over another: What inside you prefers that version, and is that a part of you that you can trust? This requires a lot of honesty. Then ask yourself further: If you take on any of these as a working hypothesis, what effect will it have on the way you lead your life? Which story will have the best effect? Those are the tests we have to apply to any Dhamma teaching.

Q: “The entire creation lives within you.” What does this sentence inspire in you?

A: It inspires a Yes and a No. On the one hand, yes, we do play a role in creating our experience of the world, our experience of our self, but on the other hand, no, we can’t just create anything we want. To begin with, you’re limited by the raw materials coming in from your past actions. Second, there are certain causal laws that force a particular result from a particular action. You can’t say, “I’m going to do what I want all the time and I’m going to get the results I want all the time.” Sometimes you do what you want but you don’t get the results that you want, which means that you have to learn from your actions as to what’s really skillful and what’s not—and also what’s really worth wanting and what’s not worth wanting.

Q: I’m not a Buddhist in the sense that I’ve not taken refuge and I’ve never followed any ritual. My inclination is more non-religious. Nevertheless, the Dhamma is in my heart. I don’t know how to say it otherwise. Could this become an impediment in my evolution in the practice of meditation?

A: You have to understand that taking refuge is not a ritual. There is a ritual for taking refuge, but that’s not the actual taking of refuge. What taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha means is that you want to take their example as a model for how you live your life, and you want to take their qualities and bring them into your heart. For example, the Buddha was a person of wisdom, compassion, and purity, and so you want to develop those same three qualities in your heart. When those qualities are in your heart, then you have a refuge inside, and that’s what really matters.