Q: When I observe my breath as given in the instructions, I have the sense that I’m controlling it. This doesn’t seem natural. What advice could you give me?
A: The mind is always controlling the breath to one extent or another, but a lot of the control is sub-conscious. Here we’re trying to bring this aspect more into your consciousness. As you become more conscious of it, the first thing you do is that you will probably mess it up. But as you get more sensitive to what actually feels good, then your sense of control actually becomes more refined and more skillful. As Ajaan Fuang once said, you’re always going to be controlling your breath until your first stage of awakening, so you might as well learn how to do it well.
Q: Do you believe there is a luminosity of the mind when it’s relieved from its defilements or its obscurations?
A: There is that luminosity.
Q: Would that also mean that there is not just the neutral mind, as I believe I understood from you yesterday? Wouldn’t it imply that there is something deeply, profoundly of a good nature or positive nature in our being?
A: Not necessarily. The fact that the mind is luminous doesn’t mean that it’s good or free from suffering, and it also doesn’t mean that it’s free from the potential to become darkened again. The luminosity is a feature of concentration. There’s a teacher in the forest tradition, Ajaan Mahā Boowa who, unlike some of the other ajaans, was very explicit in describing what he experienced in meditation. Some of the more interesting passages in his teachings deal with just this issue: the luminosity of the mind. He says that the luminous mind still contains ignorance, and to get past that you have to be able to see that the luminosity itself is a kind of defilement of the mind. The Buddha also talks about the various kinds of luminosity that can appear in the mind—different colors from red, yellow, blue, to white—and the white luminosity is the highest. But it, too, contains inconstancy, and so it’s still not free from defilement. So we still have the potential for good and bad even in the luminosity, in spite of the luminosity. It’s only when we get past the luminosity that we find what’s really worthwhile in the practice.
Q: Can you give a simple explanation of the unborn and undying nature of all phenomena?
A: There is only one thing that’s unborn and undying, and the Buddha said it’s not a phenomenon. It’s what we called the other night “consciousness without surface.” A simple explanation of that is that it simply exists. It has nothing to do with cause and effect, it’s outside of space and time, but you can actually access it by developing concentration and discernment. Now exactly why you’re able to do that, the Buddha never explained. All you need to know is that you can.
Q: So how can you explain this phenomenon, the phenomenon of having a body that does get born and does die with this awareness that is not born, that does not die?
A: Again, you can’t explain why it’s there. Either one. You can explain why the body is born and dies, because there are things in the mind that are born and die, there are causes in the mind that give rise to a body that is born and dies. But as for the connection between this aspect of the mind that’s born and dies, and the unborn, undying aspect of the mind, there’s no explaining it. It’s one of those questions the Buddha never addressed. But he did explain how you can reach that second dimension, and that’s all that matters.
Q: One wants to attain nibbāna, the absolute peace, the ultimate, the perfect absorption. Does that mean that life as it is does not suit you?
A: You look at life around you and you see a lot of aging, illness, and death. You see a lot of people making a lot of effort to attain things and then they’re taken away from them. You find people so upset with their lives that they kill themselves. In other words, you look at the sufferings in life, and you see things constantly fading away, fading away, being stripped away, and you ask yourself, “Isn’t there something better?” That’s why we go for nibbāna. So, the answer to this first question is Yes, but if you look at the issue in another way, you can see that the possibility for nibbāna is also part of life. And that’s what actually gives brightness to life.
Q: The next question is: If someone is happy with his or her passage through life with its pains and its joys and is not discontent to come back, is not unhappy at the idea of coming back, would that person not be a true Buddhist?
A: Most Buddhists are actually like that. They say, “I’ll take my time.” The question is: How much more pain do you want before you’re ready to go for the end of pain? And that’s a question each of us has to answer for him- or herself. The Buddha never pushed anybody to nibbāna. He just said it’s here, and here’s your opportunity. You’re never sure when that opportunity will come again. But it’s up to you to decide.
Q: Why are we on Earth?
A: Because we want to be. Each of us has different purposes for wanting to be here, and those purposes keep changing over time. You can look at that fact in a way that’s discouraging, but it can also be liberating: You can actually make up your mind to go for one good goal and you have the right to go for that goal. As Ajaan Fuang used to say, “Nobody hired us to be born.” So we have the right to do with our lives what we want.
Q: Is it not that we are here through our multiple passages to experience what we are not, in other words to see anicca and anattā for the purpose of gaining awakening?
A: The purpose of gaining awakening is something you take on yourself. It’s not a universal given. Someone once asked the Buddha, “Is everybody going to go to awakening? Or half the world? Or one-third of the world?” And the Buddha refused to answer. So Ven. Ānanda, who was there at the time, was afraid that the person might get upset with the Buddha for not answering, so he pulled the person aside and he gave an analogy. He said, “Suppose there’s a fortress. It has one gate and a wise gatekeeper. The gatekeeper goes around the fortress and sees that, aside from the gate, there’s not a hole in the wall, not even one big enough for a cat to go through. So he doesn’t know how many people will go into the fortress, but he does know that whoever’s going to go into the fortress will have to go through the gate. In the same way, the Buddha doesn’t know how many people will choose to go for awakening, but he does know that everybody who’s going to go to awakening has to go by this path.” The reason he doesn’t know how many people will reach awakening is because we all have freedom of choice, and he doesn’t know how many people will choose to go to awakening. It’s up to us.