Q: In meditation, sometimes you can be aware of each in-breath and each out-breath, and at the same time have thoughts that arrive and also commentaries on the thoughts. Does this correspond to different levels or types of awareness?
A: It’s good to think of this in terms of the image of the committee inside the mind. There are lots of different desires that haven’t yet gotten in line with the meditation, or they may be just old habits of the mind churning out thoughts. This is when it’s good to think of that technique of just ignoring the thoughts. Think of them as like a stray dog that’s coming around your house. If you feed it, it’ll keep coming back. If you don’t feed it, it goes away. It may whine a bit at first, but if you’re persistent in ignoring it, it’ll eventually go away. By paying attention to the thoughts, you’re feeding them, so just don’t pay them any attention.
Q: Is it the case that you are at a certain level of jhāna for a few moments or minutes, and then, because it’s not maintained, you’re again where you were before, which, if it is the case, means that you can taste even very briefly higher states of mind?
A: It is possible to reach the different states of jhāna for very brief moments, and sometimes when you attain them for a longer period of time, you realize, “I’ve experienced this before, if only briefly.” Sometimes, like the Buddha, you may think of a time when you were a child and your mind happened to be peaceful on its own. What we’re doing here, as we’re practicing the jhānas, is that we’re learning how to bring these experiences more under control so that we can then observe them more clearly. It’s only when we’re with them for a long period of time that we can understand how they’re fabricated. Otherwise, the peace seems like a bolt out of the blue: You don’t know where it’s coming from, and so you can’t understand it very well. It’s just very impressive, and it’s very easy to misinterpret what it is. So basically what we’re trying to do is learn how to be more intimately acquainted with the higher states of the mind.
Q: In certain teachings, it’s said that in the first jhāna the five senses are closed. This would correspond to what you said this morning was wrong concentration. So what is it?
A: The Canon is very clear on the point that the senses don’t have to close down in the four jhānas. However, it does describe states of right concentration where the five senses do close down, but those are the formless states, and even then it’s not necessarily the case that the senses close down. The difference between those states and the state of non-perception is that when you’re in them, you are very clearly aware of what your perception is, either the sense of space or the sense of knowing, consciousness, or the perception of nothingness. Even the state of neither perception nor non-perception is not totally devoid of perception. What I was talking about this morning has no perception at all. It’s just a blanking out.
Q: For Westerners, equanimity is often given a bad rap. It’s seen as kind of a sense of futility, a passive attitude, indifference, or even a weakness. Is this true? Can you give us some examples that would show that there is actually a noble, better understanding of this noble faculty?
A: Equanimity is basically accepting things that you realize you cannot change. And the reason why we have to accept them is because if we don’t, we waste a lot of energy trying to change things that we can’t. If you do develop equanimity toward those things, though, then you have the energy to change the things that you can.
For example, suppose that someone in your family has a serious illness. You have to accept that fact with equanimity, and then from there you try to see what you can do to help. The acceptance is what allows you to think clearly. If you’re upset or disturbed by the illness, sometimes you actually make the condition worse. So, we’re not talking about a general indifference to everything; we’re being more selective, knowing when to be equanimous and when to be more proactive. But you do have to develop the strength and ability to be equanimous about anything at all. For example, suppose the doctor gives you a diagnosis that you have three months left to live. The more time you spend being upset about that, the less time you have to live your last three months well. But if you can tell yourself, “This is part of being a human being. This happens to other human beings, so why can’t it happen to me?” then you can see, “What can I do for the next three months to get the most use out of them?” In this way, equanimity is not a foundation for non-action. It’s a basis for learning how to act wisely.
Q: How can upekkhā—which I’ve seen explained as a regularity of the mind—exist with the other three sublime abidings?
A: As I said earlier, the important point is learning how to use which attitude at the right time. If all you can think about is how much you want other people to be happy, and yet they refuse to act on the causes of happiness, you’re going to suffer. When you realize that other beings have the freedom to act on their own, then when you realize that their actions are beyond your control, you can focus on what you can control.
Q: Several years ago I took a retreat with a monk who claimed to be a forest monk. He said that he had paranormal, supernatural powers, and was able to know what people were thinking or what they were doing all the time. And he was able to track people down for a long time, thanks to his powers, even after they had died. I must admit that I felt a little afraid. What do you think? Is this kind of thing true?
A: Stay away. I would not trust any monk who makes claims about his powers. Part of the etiquette of actually having the powers and using them wisely is that you don’t talk about them.
Now, you have to wonder what this monk’s motivation was for telling you this. We do have biographies of the ajaans that describe the different powers they developed, but you have to understand—even in the case of Ajaan Mun, where there are lots of stories about his visions and things—that he would talk about them only with his students who were actually having the same experiences. He wouldn’t talk about them to anyone else. The reason he divulged them was for the sake of giving instruction in how to use the power properly. Beyond that, no one has any business talking about powers. And again, as I said at the very beginning, if people do make claims like this, stay away from them.
Q: Ajaan Mun has given evidence of contact with devas on many levels of spiritual development as well as the grand disciples of the Buddha. Is this a frequent phenomenon among the grand masters of Buddhism?
A: There are some arahants who have experiences of that sort, and there are others who don’t, but they’re still arahants. So it’s not a necessary part of the attainment. And it’s important to realize that Ajaan Mun, for example, had a particular rule of thumb: If he had a vision, no matter who it looked like it was coming from, he would ask himself, “What is the Dhamma lesson that can be learned from this vision? Does it fit in with what you already know of the Dhamma?” If it seemed to fit in with the Dhamma, he would put it to the test to see if it really did give good results. Only after testing it would he come to a conclusion about it.
So, the important point about a lesson is not who or where it comes from. It’s whether it actually works or not. In other words, you don’t trust everything you see. After all, even if it is an actual deva, there are many cases of ignorant devas. One of my favorite accounts about devas in the Canon is where a young monk is bathing in the river, and as he comes out and is drying himself, a female deva comes down from a tree and says, “Why are you wasting your time as a monk? Why don’t you enjoy sensuality and then become a monk when you’re old?” Which means that you can’t trust devas.
Q: In passing, you made a mocking remark about the publication of a recent neuroscience article showing the objective results of the effect of respiration through the nose on cerebral function. First question: Do you prefer cooking?
A: Sometimes cooking gives more reliable results than science. When you read a scientific article, you don’t really know how well the experiment was conducted. But with cooking, all you need to do is taste the results and you can judge for yourself whether it’s good.
Q: Second question: Don’t you think that science is a powerful and a formidable boost for inciting Westerners to practice, basically because they’ve proven something about the path?
A: Science is an unreliable friend. There are many cases where people do begin to come to meditation because of scientific articles, but there’s the question of which articles you can really trust. In America, the National Institute of Health, a government agency, gave a lot of grants for mindfulness experiments, and then after several years, they had someone do an analysis of the experiments that had been conducted using the grant money. The conclusion was that the experiments were all very poorly designed, the concept of mindfulness was too vague, and so the results were worthless.
Some experiments actually give the wrong impression of meditation. There are articles claiming that experiments have proven, for example, that mindfulness is really good for making soldiers more efficient killers. And I read recently of another experiment claiming that mindfulness is good for women but not so much for men. So what do you do with information like that?
Also, and most importantly, there is an awful lot that goes on in the meditation that cannot be measured physically. Awakening, for instance, doesn’t have any effect on the body, so it can’t be measured externally. So as I said, science can be sometimes a friend, but sometimes not a friend, so we have to treat it with care.
The other point that I want to make: I have some friends who teach vipassanā in America and they’ve said that people who come after reading scientific articles will often say, “We want to learn the technique, but don’t tell us anything about inconstancy, stress, and not-self. We don’t want to hear it.”
So, watch out for science.