Q: Concerning the hindrances to concentration, it seems that to drop an obstacle which obstructs the way for the mind to settle down, it is necessary to see it, understand it deeply, because the saṅkhāra is rooted deeply in the mind, so that it seems insight is essential and so supports concentration. You cannot drop something you have not seen and understood. It comes in by another door, so it’s not something you can just decide. It needs understanding and a lot of mettā to surrender and let go.
A: There are going to be levels of understanding as you try to get rid of the hindrances. To totally be beyond the hindrances requires that you do uproot them. But in order to get the mind to settle down, you need only a certain amount of understanding to clear them out of the way. They will come back eventually, but in the meantime, you’ve learned how to develop your powers of concentration a little bit further and deeper. It’s like dealing with a difficult and powerful enemy. Before you can totally defeat the enemy, you have to gather your forces together. And so, all you have to do in the meantime is just keep the enemy at bay, and then when your forces are gathered, you can attack. This repeats the point I was making this morning, which is that you develop your concentration and your insight together. The deeper your concentration, the deeper your insight, and they will help each other along.
Q: I have the impression that mindfulness constitutes a dam or an obstacle for your thoughts. When there’s this conscious presence, the mind is more and more serene. Is this right?
A: Getting the mind more serene requires all three qualities that we’ve been talking about, acting together. Mindfulness is what allows you to remember, “I should get out of this thought,” alertness is alerting you to what the thought is actually doing, and ardency is what actually clears the thought away. Their acting together is what calms the mind down.
Q: Two questions. First: In the directed thought or vitakka and evaluation, the evaluation seems to be very near to the factor of investigation, which is the second factor of awakening in the seven factors for awakening. Is it the same thing and, if not, how is it different?
A: It is the same thing. The word for investigation of qualities is dhammavicaya, the “vicaya” being very close to vicāra, which is evaluation.
Q: Second question: When there is this examination of evaluation, investigation, it gives rise to a number of discursive thoughts that, if they persist in showing themselves, lead to the practice of vipassanā. In order to include them more, rather than re-establishing the mind back into concentration, the mind then returns to the concentration afterwards. There is this back-and-forth rhythm.
A: Yes, this is a rhythm that goes back and forth between the thinking and the stillness, but you have to be careful about those discursive thoughts so that they don’t discurse too far. Because the purpose of this thinking is to ask yourself, “How can I get the mind to settle down more?” If the thoughts go too far afield, then they’re defeating the purpose of your meditation.
Q: For the Gelugpas [a sect of Tibetan Buddhism], the mental khandha is divided into nine levels. The extreme level cannot be attained with a support that moves, such as the breath. The breath is only a preliminary phase easier to attain because the rhythm of the breathing permits you to return to the object without a lot of effort. After this phase, then one concentrates more on a single point, a fixed point, and with a mental image that is much more difficult but allows us to develop further the intensity of the concentration. Or else one can stay without the object of mental concentration and the mind is no longer occupied with concentrating on one thing and then one can be directly in contact with the mind. As for your technique, it is very interesting for getting a greater sense of the body to communicate with the different levels of tension within it, but it is not the object of Buddhism. What do you think?
A: When we’re working with the breath, we’re working in the first level of the nine concentration attainments. Theravāda has nine levels, too, and the first one is just getting the mind to settle down. As you get into the deeper levels, the breath grows calmer, and when you get to the fourth level, the breath stops. The breath energy still fills the body, but the sense of the in-and-out breathing has stopped. From that spot, you then go to a sense of space, from space you go to consciousness itself. Beyond that, you go to the state of nothingness, then a state of neither perception nor non-perception, and then the final level, where there’s no perception or feeling at all. So the work we’re doing here is to establish a foundation. Only when the foundation is solid can you build up on the other levels. We’ll talk more about this tonight.
Q: How do you explain mindfulness to children, and what analogies can you offer to them?
A: Remember that there are three aspects to mindfulness—mindfulness, alertness, and ardency—and when you’re training your children, it’s good to train them in all three. Basically, mindfulness practice is a matter of stepping back and looking at yourself. The image the Buddha gives is of a mirror. Here, you can look at your actions: what you plan to do, what you’re doing, what you’ve done. And remind the child: “Take a couple of good long breaths before you decide what to do, especially if you’re feeling anger or fear. You want to step back, breathe through the body, and then ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to act on that emotion?’” Just that ability to take a little bit of space can make a lot of difference.
In addition to teaching mindfulness, there are three things you should teach children before they meditate, starting when they’re very young. One is gratitude for their parents and their teachers. The second is truthfulness. The third is respect.
And when you’re teaching mindfulness, also teach equanimity and patience. The various ajaans in Thailand noticed that their Western students lacked these two qualities in particular: equanimity and patience. You’ll notice, when you read some of the Westerners’ accounts of their time with their Thai ajaans, that the ajaans were teaching them almost as if they were teaching children, because in Thailand, patience and equanimity are taught to children when they’re very small. And so the ajaans had to back up and say, “We’ve got to start your education from the beginning.” The lack of equanimity and patience is a real problem in our culture because our culture doesn’t teach children to be patient. It teaches us to be more impatient, so we have to do something to counteract that tendency.
Q: Even though the technique is identical, is mindfulness the same when you are meditating in a hostile environment like the jungle or when you are in the secure comfort of a closed place?
A: There’s more of an edge when you’re practicing in the jungle. It’s more intense, there are more dangers, and as Ajaan Fuang would say, the teacher is stricter. While I’m sitting here, all I can do is just talk to you. I can’t hit you. But in the jungle, they bite. I can tell lots of stories about being with snakes, because snakes really do teach you good lessons.
For example, one thing that’s good to know when you’re in the jungle is that if you don’t move, snakes can’t see you. As far as they’re concerned, you’re a warm rock. Once I was meditating, sitting on a small board across a little ravine, only a few inches from the bottom of the ravine. When you’re meditating outside, you learn to interpret the sounds that you hear coming through the leaves and the grass. I thought I heard a snake sound, so I opened up my eyes and, sure enough, there was a cobra coming up the ravine. I realized I had to sit very, very still—because, as I said, the ajaans of the jungle are stricter over there. If I had moved, the snake wouldn’t have just criticized me. It would have bit me. So I stayed still, and it went right under me—and it was taking its time.
Another time, I was going into the bathroom. The bathrooms over there are just rooms with a toilet in the floor and with a little hole where the wall meets the floor for the bathing water to go out. I always knew that anything could come in and out of that little hole, so I was usually very careful to check when I went into the bathroom to see if anything had come in. But that day I was in a hurry. I opened the door and stepped on something soft, so immediately I jumped back. It was a cobra. Fortunately, the cobra had a little toad in its mouth, so first it had to spit out the toad before it turned to get me. In the meantime, I had gotten far away, and the toad was able to hop out the hole. So the toad and I saved each other’s lives.
In short, being in the jungle means that you have to be very mindful all the time.