day seven : morning

Questions of Action

April 28, 2017

There were a couple of answers that I gave to some questions yesterday that I was not totally satisfied with. So, I’d like another chance.

You probably know the story about Ajaan Chah in England. There are several versions of the story. The version I like is this: After a Dhamma talk, he asked if there were any questions. One woman said, Yes, she did have a question. It was a question she had asked of many teachers and had never gotten a satisfactory answer. The question was this: “After a person attains nibbāna, does that person still exist or not?” And Ajaan Chah said, “Well, this is a question that we don’t usually answer, but I’ll try to explain why.” There was a candle burning right next to him, and he said to the woman, “Do you see the flame of the candle? As long as it’s burning, we can talk about its color, its shape, its temperature. But then when we put it out”—and then he put out the flame of the candle with his fingers—“now can we talk about the shape and the color of the flame?”

She said, “No.”

He said, “In the same way, after someone has attained nibbāna you can’t really describe them.” Then he asked her, “Does that answer satisfy you?”

She said, “No.”

So he said, “Well, in that case, I’m not satisfied with your question.”

That’s not the case here. The questions you asked were perfectly fine. My answers were not satisfactory. So here’s my second chance.

It’s important to remember from the very beginning that we as Westerners, when coming to Buddhism, come with questions and understandings that are shaped by our culture. Because of our background, we think religion is all about what the universe is, who created the universe, what are we, and what is our place in the universe. And even if we’re no longer Christian or Jewish or whatever, we still have many of these questions in the back of our mind. But in the case of Buddhism, though, those are not questions that the Buddha addressed. His main question was, “What are we doing that’s creating suffering and how can we stop?” And so the questions here are not so much about what we are or where we are, they’re about what we’re doing.

When the Buddha first taught the Dhamma to his son, Rāhula, the initial lesson was all about action. You could actually say that this was how he taught mindfulness to his son. He told Rāhula, “Whenever you intend to do something”—and this could be in body, in speech, or in mind—“ask yourself, ‘What results do you expect from the action?’ If you anticipate any harm, either to yourself or to others, then don’t do it. If you don’t foresee any harm, you can go ahead and do it. If, while you’re doing the action, you see any harm coming from the action, then you stop. If you don’t see any harm, you can continue. When the action is done, then look at the long-term consequences. If you see that you did cause harm, go and talk it over with someone you trust on the path and see what advice you get from that person as to how not to repeat the mistake. Then, from that point on, resolve not to repeat that mistake. If you realize that you did not cause any harm, however, take joy in that fact and continue training.”

Notice that this is all about action, and it’s training in the three qualities we bring to mindfulness practice. You hold in mind the fact that you don’t want to cause any harm and you remember past mistakes so that you don’t repeat them. That’s mindfulness. Then you keep watching your actions and their results, as well as the intention behind them. That’s alertness. And then finally you try your best not to cause any harm and to continue developing in the training. That’s ardency.

This is all about your actions. The Buddha focuses on this issue in this passage not simply because he was teaching a child. The emphasis on actions is the central theme all the way through his teachings. He was preparing his son for all the higher teachings.

For instance, there’s another passage where he talks about how to develop your concentration, and he recommends the same sort of process. You look at the state of mind that you’ve developed and try to notice where there is still some disturbance in it. Then ask yourself, “What perception am I holding onto that’s causing that disturbance? Can I change that perception so that it has a less disturbing effect on the mind?” And if you find that there is something that you can change, then you do it. Then, as the mind settles down to a deeper level, let it stay there for a while and allow yourself to enjoy that state, at the same time noticing that it’s now empty of the disturbance that was there before. Then, when the mind is refreshed, you can ask yourself, “Is there still some disturbance here? What am I doing to cause that?” In this case, the action would be a perception, and the act of holding onto that perception. When you can drop the perception, you’ll move to a state of concentration even more empty of disturbance.

As you keep repeating this process, you develop your concentration deeper and deeper. At the same time, you’re gaining more and more insight into the workings of the mind.

So this is the theme you see running all the way through the Buddha’s teachings: You try to be sensitive to what you’re doing, trying to notice what you’re doing that’s creating unnecessary stress or disturbance, and then you drop that if you can. There’s nothing in here about what the universe is, where the universe came from, what you are, what your consciousness came from, and where it’s going. In other words, the questions the Buddha recommends asking are not about things. They’re about actions.

This is one of the reasons why his vocabulary about actions is so precise. To us, it may sound like a lot of intellectualization, but it’s precise with the purpose of making us more sensitive to what we’re doing. It’s like the vocabulary they teach to professional tasters. They’re taught a vocabulary of very, very precise distinctions in smells and flavors, much subtler than ordinary people would use. The professional tasters all say that with that vocabulary, they become more and more sensitive to flavors and smells.

So when we hear the Buddha describing all these different actions in the mind, it’s for us to start looking at our actions with more sensitivity as well. Because that’s what the problem is. The problem is not who we are or where we are, it’s what we’re doing. In fact, our sense of who we are and where we are is an action itself. That’s what they mean by the process of becoming. We create our sense of the world, we create our sense of who we are, and because of that, we suffer. If we can learn to look clearly and precisely at the action of creating our sense of who we are and where we are, then we can learn how to do it more skillfully to the point where we no longer have to suffer from that. This is why the Buddha would have you put aside questions of where we’re coming from or where we are, or questions of our original awareness or the ground of our being. The focus is on, “What are you doing right now?”

For example, when you’re in concentration or trying to get into concentration, it’s good to be sensitive to what you’re doing that’s getting in the way of the concentration and ask yourself, “Can I simply stop doing that?” Sometimes you’ll see that the actions getting in the way have to do with your idea of who you are or what the world is like. If you can drop those, the mind will calm down. Then, once the mind has calmed down, you find yourself at a particular level of concentration. Once you’re able to settle there and enjoy it, you can ask yourself, “Is there still some disturbance here? What am I doing to cause that disturbance? Can I stop doing that?” In this way, as I said earlier, you deepen your concentration. No matter what level of concentration you’re at, these are the basic questions you ask.

And, at the same time that you’re developing your concentration, you’re also developing your insight. The question sometimes comes up, “How much concentration do I need before I can do insight?” And the answer is, “Whatever level of concentration you have, you use that to notice, ‘Where is there stress in the mind right now and what am I doing to cause it?’” If you can identify the cause and let go of it, you gain some insight. As your concentration deepens, the questions you ask and the answers you come to will become more and more subtle, more and more profound, which means that the question of how much concentration you need in order to do insight should always be answered, “Whatever concentration you have now,” simply that the insight you gain will become more and more profound as the concentration deepens.

So the process of meditation is not simply one of getting the mind still. It also involves knowing which questions to put aside and which questions to ask. The questions that we’re used to—“What is the nature of the world? What is the nature of my self? What is my relationship to the world?”—are questions that the Buddha says to put aside.

Now, for many of us coming from the West, that doesn’t sound right, but it’s good to give the Buddha the benefit of the doubt: to learn his vocabulary for actions and to ask the questions he does have you ask about what you’re doing, what you can learn from what you’re doing, and how you can learn how to act more skillfully, so that you can actually act in a way that leads to the end of suffering.

And you do that step by step.