The topic this morning is pain. Pain is not one of the perfections. It is, however, a problem that everybody in the room is experiencing. If you understand how to deal with your pains, it’ll be easier to understand the Buddha’s teachings on discernment and right view. That’s because the teachings on right view deal specifically with how we create unnecessary suffering around pain, and how—if we can learn how to avoid fabricating ignorant thoughts and perceptions around pain—it’ll cause no suffering in the mind.
The first thing that you have to understand about pain is that some of it comes from your actions in the past—such as the way you’ve been using your body, the way you’ve been feeding it, the extent to which you have or haven’t been exercising it—but some of the causes for the pain are things you’re doing right now. These are things you can change, and in some cases changing what you’re doing can make the pain go away. But even if you can’t make the pain go away, there’s the question of the extent to which you have to suffer from the pain even when it’s present. Because what we’re aiming at is a state of mind that can be present to the inevitable facts of aging, illness, and death and yet still not suffer. So, the first line of business right now as we meditate is to learn how not to suffer around pain.
The ways to deal with pain are directly related to the Buddha’s instructions on how to use the breath as a topic for understanding feelings. There are four steps altogether.
The first step is to breathe in and out sensitive to rapture—and here the word “rapture,” pīti, can also mean fullness or refreshment.
The second step is to breathe in and out sensitive to pleasure or ease.
The third is to breathe in and out sensitive to mental fabrication, which means feelings and perceptions. The feelings here are feeling tones of pleasure, pain, or neither pain nor pleasure. Perceptions are the images or words you hold in mind by which you identify and label things. So, as I said, the third step is to be sensitive to these processes of mental fabrication.
The fourth step is to breathe in and out calming these mental fabrications.
Now, of the various forest ajaans, Ajaan Lee gives the most detailed instructions on the first two steps, and Ajaan Maha Boowa gives the most detailed instructions on the last two. Let’s look at what they have to say.
With regard to breathing in and out sensitive to rapture, Ajaan Lee recommends, when there are pains in the body, not to focus on the pains immediately. Focus instead on the parts of the body that you can make comfortable and refreshing with the breath.
As you try to give rise to feelings of rapture, it’s good to think of the different meanings of the Pāli term for rapture, pīti. When we translate it as “rapture,” it sounds like we’re trying to experience ecstasies, like Saint Theresa. In some cases, it actually can be that strong, but the term pīti can also mean refreshment or a sense of fullness, and for most people, that’s how we first experience this quality.
So, how do you breathe in and out sensitive to refreshment or fullness? One quick exercise is to find a spot in the body that’s especially sensitive—it might be the back of the hands, right at the diaphragm, or in the middle of the chest—and pay attention to that spot very carefully as you breathe in and breathe out. If there’s any sense of tension at all in that spot, disperse the tension. If you feel like you’re squeezing the breath out as you breathe out at that spot, stop the sensation of squeezing so that that spot can stay full even as you’re breathing out. If there’s any sense of pinching the breath or tensing up between the in-breath and the out-breath, allow the breath to dissolve that sense of pinching or tensing.
As you get so that you can maintain this sense of fullness while you breathe in and breathe out, and it feels pleasant, you can then think of the fullness and the pleasure spreading to the different parts of the body. You spread those feelings together with the breath energy. Now, we’ve already had some questions about what this breath energy is and how you sense it. Try another quick exercise. Hold your hand out in front of your body and keep your eyes closed. The sensations that let you know your hand is there: Those are breath sensations.
Now, sometimes as you breathe in and breathe out, there will be a sense of movement in the breath energy in different parts of the body. Other times, it will be still, but either way, it’s an energy. Hold that perception in mind. That’s the perception you’ll use in order to spread the breath energy, together with the fullness and pleasure, throughout the body.
There are different perceptions you can hold in mind to help you feel the sense of the breath energy moving. For instance, you can think of the body as being like a sponge: As you breathe in and out, the breath comes in and out through all the pores of the sponge. Another perception is that there’s a column of energy going down the middle of the body, and as you breathe in, energy comes in from the outside and goes into the column of energy, and as you breathe out, it goes out of the body in all directions from that column of energy. As you hold in mind the possibility that breath energy can do this, you will begin to sense that, yes, there is a movement.
Even though you use images to induce this sensitivity, that doesn’t mean that the energy is imaginary. It’s like telling a child that the world is round. As far as the child is concerned, the world doesn’t look round, so he has to imagine it as round. But as the child grows up, he begins to realize that, yes, the world is round. If you’re going to fly the quickest route from, say, Paris to Los Angeles, you have to fly over Greenland. If the world were flat, that wouldn’t work. But because the world is round, that’s the way you have to fly to save time. In the same way, you use your imagination to allow yourself to think that the breath energy does flow, and then as you get more and more sensitive to the body, you begin to realize that it actually does.
As you spread the comfortable sense of fullness along with the breath energy, you may run into pains. As I said, Ajaan Lee recommends that you not focus directly on the pain quite yet. Instead, keep your focus on the parts of the body where you can make the breath energy comfortable. This way, you give the mind a good foundation or a safe place to stay.
Then, when you feel secure in that good breath energy—accompanied by a sense of pleasure and fullness—the next step is to think of the energy radiating from the comfortable spot and going through the pain.
For instance, suppose you have a pain in your knee. Ajaan Lee recommends imagining the breath energy going down the leg and not stopping at the knee, but going through the knee and out the foot. If you think of the energy stopping right at the pain, that’ll reinforce the sense of tension around the pain, which is part of the problem. Maybe, when we were children, we sensed the breath energy moving through the body, and we were afraid that if it went through the pain it would spread the pain, so we subconsciously tensed up around the pain to stop it. But that actually makes the pain worse. So, to repeat, if there’s a pain in the knee, think of the breath energy going through the pain in the knee and then out the foot.
In some cases, you’ll find that the pain will actually go away. That’s a sign that the pain was caused by something you’re doing right now. In other cases, though, the pain will still be there, which is a sign that the pain is caused by something that you did before you sat here or simply by the fact that your body is not yet used to this posture. If you’re new to the meditation posture, there will inevitably be a period in which there’s pain in the legs as the blood is being blocked or being squeezed out of the part where the legs are folded. This forces the blood out of the main arteries into the capillaries. It’s as if there were a traffic jam on a main road, and the traffic has to go down through the small streets, where it gets even more jammed.
The difference with your body, though, is that if you keep forcing the blood through those capillaries by sitting in this posture again and again, the capillaries will eventually begin to expand. In other words, you’re turning them into new arteries. Streets can’t do this, but blood vessels can. If you have some patience with these kinds of pain, eventually they will go away over time as your body gets more adapted to the meditation posture.
You’ll notice that a large factor in making use of feelings of rapture and pleasure lies in the perceptions you bring to them, such as the image of the sponge or the column of energy, or of the energy being able to flow in different places and different directions. The same principle applies to feelings of pain. Your perceptions of pain play a huge role in the impact it has on the mind.
This brings us to the third and fourth steps in the tetrad, getting sensitive to mental fabrication and calming it. To sensitize yourself to how perceptions of pain may be affecting your mind, Ajaan Maha Boowa recommends that you ask questions about how you perceive the pain. For example, he says, suppose there’s a pain in your hip: Is the pain the same thing as the hip? Or are there two different kinds of sensations in the same place? In other words, the sensation of the body is one thing and the sensation of the pain is something else. Now, your rational mind knows that these are two separate things, but all too often in our direct experience of the pain, something in the mind says that the pain and the body have become one and the same thing. The pain has invaded the body, and you’re trying to push it out.
So here, to calm the perception, you have to change it. The body and the pain are two separate things even though they’re in the same spot. The sensations of the body are the four elementary physical properties of earth (solidity), water (liquidity), fire (warmth), and wind (energy), but the sensation of pain is none of these things. It’s as if it’s on a different frequency. We can make a comparison with radio waves going through the air. You put a radio in one spot, you adjust the dial to one frequency, and you get one station. If you adjust it to another frequency, there’s another station. You don’t have to move the radio to a different spot to get a different station, because the waves are all in the same place, and yet you can separate them out because their frequencies are different, and you’ve got something that can detect the difference. See if you can do the same thing with the sensations of the pain and sensations of the body in that one spot.
Another perception that might be playing a role in your experience of pain comes from the notion that we have to be responsible for our pains. In other words, right now you think you’ve got to warn the next moment in the future that there’s a pain right here. To correct that tendency, tell yourself, “I don’t have to tell the future. The future will find out on its own.” Otherwise, you use perceptions to keep sending a message from one moment to the next to the next, which stitches the pains together, adding to the pain and suffering.
A similar problem is when you’re sitting with some pain and you keep telling yourself, “I’ve been sitting with this pain for the past 15 minutes and the session’s going to last for another 25 minutes.” That’s 40 minutes of pain placed on top of one moment, and then, of course, the present moment will break down.
And here Ajaan Lee has a good image for problems of this sort: You’re plowing a field, and next to the plow you’ve attached a big bag. As the dirt falls off the plow, you put it in the bag. Of course, you’re going to get weighed down. So, simply get rid of the bag and let the pain fall off at the first moment. You don’t have to feel responsible for it; you don’t have to keep a record of it. Just stay with the sensation in the present moment.
Ajaan Maha Boowa notes that you can also ask yourself if the pain has a bad intention toward you. Your rational mind knows that the pain itself has no awareness, so it can’t have any intention to hurt you at all, but that perception may be lying around in your mind, the result of something you may have assumed about pain when you were a child, and it can still have an effect. So, try to bring it up into your conscious awareness by asking this question: “Does the pain mean to hurt me?” Then reason with any part of the mind that says, “Yes.”
Another series of questions you can ask about your perception of pain is this: “Is the pain one solid thing? Does it have a shape in your imagination or is it simply different moments of pain arising and passing way?” If you look very carefully, you see that it is made up of individual moments. So, try to drop the perception that the pain is solid or has a shape.
Then you look at those moments of pain and ask yourself: “As they appear, are they coming at me or are they going away?” If you have the perception they’re coming at you, that will make you suffer more from the pain. But if you can hold in mind the perception that as soon as they appear they’re going away, you’ll suffer a lot less.
Once, when I was in Singapore, I was taken to see a Chinese doctor to treat my back. He had me lie down on my stomach, and then he rubbed some oil in my back, at first gently, but then more and more roughly. Then he took out two bamboo sections that had been cut so that they were like whisks, and then he started beating on my back. My first thought was, “What bad kamma did I do to deserve this?” But because I couldn’t speak Chinese, I couldn’t ask him how much longer the treatment was going to last. So, I told myself I’d have to change my perceptions around the pain. I realized that if I could see the pains, as soon as they appeared, as going away from me instead of coming at me, I suffered a lot less. It’s like sitting on a truck facing backwards. As you go down the road, as soon as anything appears in your range of vision, it’s already going away from you. This perception can help make you suffer a lot less from the pain.
Another question Ajaan Maha Boowa recommends asking is, “Where is the sharpest point of the pain?” Then try to track it down. Or ask yourself, as you breathe in, “Which direction is the breath coming from as it goes through the pain? Can I switch the directions?” See what that does. The important thing, though, is that you show that you’re not afraid of the pain. You’ll find that even if you don’t change the direction of the breath, the spot of the most intense part of the pain keeps shifting around. This teaches you two lessons. One is that the pain is not as solid as you thought it was. The second is that as long as you keep at the questions about how you perceive the pain, the mind becomes a moving target. When you’re a moving target, it’s harder for the pain to hit you. If you just sit there and suffer from the pain, complaining to yourself about it, then you’re an easy target to hit. But if you make it your purpose to understand the pain, then you’re going to suffer a lot less from it.
This is precisely what the Buddha has you do. He says your duty with regard to pain is not just to endure it, and it’s not to make it go away. The duty is to comprehend it. You comprehend it by asking questions and being curious about it.
This requires that you be fearless of the pain, which requires in turn that you have a good foundation inside. This is why we first work to make the breath comfortable so that when the pain gets too intense for us, we know we have a comfortable place to retreat to. But as the Buddha said, if you really comprehend the suffering that you create around the pain, then you’ll find that you can locate the cause of suffering and abandon the cause. And the cause will be in the mind: right around the perceptions you have around the pain. When you find the mental act that causes the mind to suffer around the pain, you can drop it. That way, even though the pain may still be there, you don’t have to suffer from it. That’s the duty with regard to right view.
Ajaan Fuang told me a story about when he was a young monk. He was suffering from severe headaches that went on for months at a time. He tried Chinese medicine, Western medicine, Thai medicine: Nothing worked. Sometimes the headaches were so bad that younger monks arranged to stay with him at night to help look after him. One night, he woke up in the middle of the night. He sat up, and all the other monks were fast asleep. His first thought was, “Who’s looking after whom here?” But he thought, “Well, I’m not going to get any help from them.” So, he decided to meditate and he realized he had been trying to get rid of the headache, when the duty with regard to pain is to try to comprehend it. He focused on comprehending it and, as he told me, he got some of the most important insights in his meditation.
One of the insights you gain by trying to comprehend pain in this way is seeing the extent to which you’re making choices in the present moment that you normally are not aware of. In other words, the present moment is not simply given to you from the past. You’re also shaping it in the present moment as well. You come to see that if you shape it with ignorance, it’s going to cause suffering. If you shape it with knowledge, it becomes part of the path to the end of suffering. We suffer not because of our past kamma but because of our present kamma: what we’re doing right now. If you can see your present kamma clearly, you can get rid of the suffering with which you’re weighing your own mind down. And that’s the only suffering that places a weight on the mind.
One day, when a group of us were sitting at the monastery in California, Ajaan Suwat—my other teacher—pointed to the mountain across the valley and asked, “That mountain: Is it heavy?” Now you know, when an ajaan asks a question like this, it’s a trick question. So, nobody answered. He finally said, “Only if you try to pick it up is it going to be heavy. If you don’t try to pick it up, it may be heavy in and of itself, but it’s not heavy on you, and that’s all that matters.” In the same way, the suffering that we cause in the present moment is like picking up the mountain. If you stop creating that suffering, the other pains and disappointments in the world will not impinge on the mind. They may be heavy in and of themselves, but they’re not heavy on you. And that’s all you’re responsible for.
So, it’s important that you not be afraid of pain. But if you’re just getting started in meditation, don’t overdo your endurance. Don’t try to force your endurance too much. If the pain is so intense that you can’t focus on the breath, then very mindfully change your position. But if you find that you can stay with the breath in spite of the pain, then use the breath to create that foundation you need in order to understand the pain. And maybe you’ll gain some important insights of your own.
Q: In your instructions for meditation you advise us to imagine that we can breathe from the top of the head. I recoil greatly from this type of image. It’s a suggestion, isn’t it? Isn’t it an illusion? After all, when you meditate, don’t you see reality face-to-face? Thank you for your response.
A: Often, before you see something, you have to imagine that it’s possible. The reason I have you imagine these things is related to the fact that the way you perceive your body will have an impact on what you can actually do with your body. If you feel that there is no possibility that energy can flow in your head, then you will feel that there is nothing that you can do with the energy in your head. When I tell you that you can imagine that the energy can flow through the head, this opens up the possibility of doing something with that energy that’s already there. I say this just to open your mind to the possibility of something that is already there, so that you can do something skillful with the energy.
You can make a comparison with the ozone hole over Antarctica. For years, satellites were sending information about the ozone hole, but the computer program that analyzed the data threw out the information coming from the satellites, because the people who wrote the program couldn’t imagine that an ozone hole was possible. Only when they allowed themselves to imagine it could they accept the data.
Q: Could you say a little bit more about the topic of rapture?
A: The word rapture in Pāli, pīti, can mean refreshment and can also mean fullness. Some people experience it as a sense of intense satisfaction, just being in the present moment and not wanting anything else. In some cases, it’ll have some very strong manifestations. Some people find that their body starts moving. Some people feel that energy is flowing over the body in waves. Other people experience it in a much gentler form.
As you’re meditating, if you find that it’s getting too intense, find a spot in the body where the energy is milder and focus your attention there. Then let the sense of fullness go away. You might think of allowing it to spread out in all directions, with nothing to contain it. You might think of it going out the palms of your hands or the soles of your feet. It is a sign that the mind is settling down, but if you want to let your concentration get stronger, you have to get past that to a state of deep calm.
Q: On my very first retreat, on the second day I had a very strong experience of pīti, or rapture. In subsequent retreats it has gotten weaker, as has my concentration. I know I shouldn’t have expectations and I thought that I didn’t, but now I wonder if I’m doing something wrong in my meditation.
A: The intensity of the pīti is not a measure of your concentration. It’s like drinking a glass of water. If you’ve been walking across a desert for three days and you drink a glass of water, the intensity of the experience will be very strong. But if you’ve been drinking water every day and you drink another glass of water, it’s not that intense. So, maybe your body doesn’t need the pīti so much now. The important thing is not to measure your concentration by the pīti. Otherwise, you may tend to underestimate your concentration and then you throw it away, and so it won’t have an opportunity to develop.
When I was a young meditator, I thought a good meditation required having visions. I wasn’t having any visions, so I didn’t think I had any concentration. As a result, I didn’t nurture what concentration I had. I kept looking for something else. But once I realized that visions were not necessary, I learned to appreciate the concentration I had. When you appreciate it, you tend to it, and it has an opportunity to develop.
Q: Sometimes during meditation, my body seems to move on its own, in a circling movement. Is it normal? What should I do? Thank you.
A: This is a manifestation of rapture, and it is normal. When it happens, don’t encourage it, but don’t discourage it, either. Stay focused on your breath. The movement will give more energy to the body as needed and then it should stop on its own.
Q: I’ve been told that in vipassanā meditation, we should observe every sensation that occurs in the body and not control anything. If I’m controlling the rhythm of breathing in different parts of the body, isn’t that the opposite of what vipassanā meditation tells me to do? Could you say something about the sensation of electrical discharge in the body? Thank you.
A: There are two questions here. The easier one is the electrical discharge. As you open up the breath channels in the body, every now and then, when a blockage gets opened up, there will be a sense of an electric discharge. That’s nothing to be worried about.
Now about vipassanā: The object of vipassanā is to gain dispassion toward the fabrications with which we shape the present moment. There are two different ways of approaching vipassanā. One is just to try not to fabricate anything in the present moment. The other is to very consciously fabricate the present moment so that you can see the extent to which the present moment is fabricated, and the limitations on how far you can create pleasure and happiness through your fabrications.
In my experience, the problem with the first approach is that when you tell yourself not to control the present moment, a lot of the fabrication goes underground where you deny its existence. Also, when something really disturbing comes up in the present moment, you have no tools for alleviating it. We’re taking the second approach here because it does make you more sensitive to what you’re doing and it teaches you skills that you can use when something really disturbing does occur. If you look at the Buddha’s instructions on breath meditation—which are instructions on how to develop tranquility and vipassanā together—you’ll find that they involve consciously fabricating the breath in many different ways.
Tonight’s talk is on the perfection of discernment. For the Buddha, discernment starts when we honor our desire for true happiness. This means that discernment starts when we have genuine goodwill for ourselves. So, in tonight’s discussion, I want you to keep in mind that when we discuss right view, the right response to right view has to be motivated by goodwill.
Right view has two main levels—mundane and transcendent—and with each level of right view I will keep referring to the question: If you have goodwill for yourself, how would you best respond to what right view tells you on this level? The inclusion of goodwill in the discussion of discernment here follows the fact that the discernment factors of the noble eightfold path include not only right view, but also right resolve. And goodwill is one of the ways in which right resolve is expressed.
The role of goodwill in discernment starts with the questions that the Buddha says lie at the beginning of discernment: “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness? What, when I do it, will lead to long-term harm and suffering?” The discernment or wisdom here lies in realizing (1) there is such a thing as long-term happiness, (2) it’s better than short-term, and (3) happiness comes from our actions, so we have to understand the pattern by which actions lead to results. These questions provide the context for right view both on its mundane and on its transcendent levels. Right view on both levels gives further guidance to our desires for true happiness.
Notice that right view here deals with the nature of actions and not the nature of things. Sometimes we hear that we’re attached, say, to this clock because we think it has an inherent essence. Actually, though, we’re attached to it because we think that holding on to it will give us pleasure, and that it’s worth the effort to hold on to it—even if we know full well that it has no inherent essence. If we figure that it doesn’t give us any pleasure anymore, or that it’s not worth the effort, we throw it away, even if we think that it does have inherent essence. The issue then comes down not so much to the nature of things outside, but to the question of which actions we think are worth doing.
On the level of mundane right view, the two big issues are kamma and rebirth.
The lesson that comes from the Buddha’s teachings on kamma is that your actions come from your intentions, your intentions come from your mind, so your mind is the factor that shapes your life. This influence can come from the mind’s actions in the past or from its actions in the present moment or from the two combined. The mind is not just a by-product of physical processes. The mind is in charge. It is proactive and purposeful. In other words, it doesn’t simply respond to stimuli. It actually goes out looking for happiness. What we learn from mundane right view is which actions are skillful, actually leading to happiness, and which are unskillful, leading to suffering. If you bring goodwill to this knowledge, you have to remind yourself that if you desire true happiness, you have to develop honorable qualities of the mind that are harmless. The task of developing these honorable qualities is thus something eminently worth doing. Those are the lessons from the teaching on kamma.
The lessons from the teaching on rebirth are that consciousness as a process can survive the death of the body, and that the results of your actions can influence what you will experience in your future rebirths. This fact must be taken into consideration when you plan a course of action as to what’s worth doing. Some people say, “I don’t want to hear about future rebirths. I want to focus only on what I’m doing right now in my daily life.” In fact, though, you can’t separate the two issues. The decisions you’re making in your daily life will have an impact on your future lives, and this fact has to be taken into consideration when you’re trying to decide what’s worth doing right now.
Now, there are many things that will have to be abandoned at death, but certain qualities that are developed in the mind, whether good or bad, can carry over to future lives. If you bring goodwill to this knowledge, you realize that your life will be well spent if you devote it to developing the good qualities in your heart and mind that will carry over to the future.
There’s a story that relates to my family life. When I was a teenager, my family built a house. We hired an architect and played a large role in designing the house. My father was a carpenter, so he did some of the physical work on the house, too. He was very proud of the house. Several years later, we had to move, so we sold the house. Then, many years after that, my father said one day, “Let’s go see the old house.” We discovered that the new owners had changed a lot of the details and didn’t seem to be taking good care of the house. My father was not pleased.
As we were driving back home, he said, “You know, I have nothing to point to as an accomplishment in my life.” When I was young, he was a farmer, growing potatoes, and the government came and said, “You have to throw your potatoes away, otherwise the price of potatoes will fall too low.” After two years of this, we had to sell the farm. My father became a government worker, and he worked his way up the bureaucratic ladder until he was on the National Water Resources Council, which did a lot of work on water conservation. Then, Reagan became president and abolished the Water Resources Council, so my father took early retirement. After telling me all this again that afternoon, he concluded by saying that he had nothing to show for in his life.
I had two thoughts on hearing his story. One was, “Don’t I count for something?” The second thought was a reflection: If you try to make the meaning of your life dependent on things outside, it’s going to lead to disappointment because so many things outside are beyond your control. But if you can devote your life to developing good qualities of the mind, no one else can take those away from you. They’ll be yours for a long time to come. Your efforts in this area are never wasted, so those qualities are clearly worth the effort that goes into developing them. They are accomplishments that can give solid meaning to life.
That’s a lesson of mundane right view.
Transcendent right view gives further lessons as to what’s worth doing and what’s not. Transcendent right view is expressed in the four noble truths.
Let’s look at each of the truths one by one.
The first noble truth is that suffering is something we do. It doesn’t simply happen to us: We cling. Now, the word “to cling” in Pāli also means to feed. We suffer because of our feeding habits. Of course, “feeding” here doesn’t refer just to physical feeding; it also refers to mental and emotional feeding. In fact, our mental and emotional feeding are our most direct form of suffering, but any feeding habit is going to involve suffering.
This means that suffering is an active, not a passive, verb. We’re not just victims on the receiving end of suffering. We’re actually out there creating our suffering. If we had goodwill for ourselves, we would try to end this clinging. And in order to do that, we have to comprehend it. We have to understand how we go out and hold on to things, how we keep clinging to things, and why.
The lesson from the second noble truth is that the suffering comes from unskillful desires rather than from events or conditions outside. In other words, things outside can be pretty bad, but there’s no need for us to suffer from them. If you had goodwill for yourself, you would learn how to abandon your unskillful desires. This includes your craving for sensuality, which, as we’ve already explained, is your fascination with planning and fantasizing about sensual pleasures. This is why renunciation is one of the perfections.
The third noble truth is that a total end of suffering is possible through abandoning the cause. There is a state of mind that does not have to feed because it is totally independent, free from conditions. In the Buddha’s terminology, it’s “unfabricated.” And it’s true happiness, the ultimate happiness. Now this, of course, sets the bar for happiness very high. It presents a challenge. Basically, the Buddha asks: Are we going to content ourselves with sensual pleasures? Are we going to accept the messages of advertisers? They say that we’re going to be happy if we buy their product, and they’ve learned how to use our own desires against us.
Do you know the soft drink called Sprite? Did they have the Sprite commercial here that said, “Obey your thirst”? Are you going to content yourself with what your thirst orders you to do? Or are you going to honor your desire for true happiness? These questions require that we expand our imagination to include true happiness as a possibility. If you have goodwill for yourself, you’ll decide not to rest until you’ve realized that happiness for yourself.
The fourth noble truth is the path of practice, which involves virtue, concentration, and discernment—which, you will notice, are three of the perfections, if we count concentration as coming under renunciation. If you have goodwill for yourself, you’re going to develop these factors, which will require truth, endurance, persistence, and equanimity. This is why these are perfections as well.
Now, to develop the path requires a certain kind of passion, a passion for the practice. It requires a certain provisional clinging: You have to hold on to the practice for it to work. That type of clinging will be a necessary part of the practice. The Buddha gives the image of a raft. As you’re crossing the river, you have to hold on to the raft to get to the other side. When you get to the other side, then you can let go of the raft. Everybody likes to focus on letting go of the raft on the other side, and sometimes people like to make a show of letting go before they get there. But that doesn’t work. You have to bind together the raft from whatever is available to you, and then you hold on to it until it’s gotten you to safety.
The role of passion in motivating a path that will lead to the end of passion means that the path has to be a strategic one. And because some clinging is involved in developing the path, there will be some suffering in the practice. Anyone who has sat for an hour will know that mastering concentration involves some physical pain and mental discomfort. But this is suffering with a purpose, unlike the suffering caused by unskillful actions. This means that although we’re pursuing an unfabricated goal, we have to use fabrications to get there, because you can’t use nibbāna to attain nibbāna. This may be one of the reasons that the Buddha uses the image of a raft—something pieced together from branches and twigs on this side of the river—rather than of a nibbāna yacht coming to take you across the river. We don’t have to wait for a magical boat made of jewel-bearing trees that will take us effortlessly across the river—because there is no such boat. We have to fabricate the path from what we’ve got.
And notice that each of these four noble truths entails a duty: to comprehend suffering, to abandon the cause of suffering, to realize the cessation of suffering, and to develop the path. This is why right resolve is part of discernment, because you need resolve to perform and fulfill those duties. The Buddha doesn’t force these duties on you, but if you have goodwill for yourself, you’ll take them on of your own accord.
Notice also the role of cause and effect on both levels of right view. Suffering has a cause; the path to the end of suffering will lead to the end of suffering. The cause of suffering now is the same as it was when the Buddha was teaching; the path to the end of suffering is also the same. This means that the consequences of your search for happiness are determined by patterns of cause and effect that are constant. You can’t simply say, “I like my path better than the Buddha’s path, so I’ll follow the path I prefer.” Or rather, you can say that, but there is no guarantee that your path will get the same results as the Buddha’s. When we say that his path is a noble path, one of the meanings is that it applies to everyone. If something’s required by a noble path, and you have goodwill for yourself, you have to do it.
The Buddha gives an example of trying to get milk out of a cow. If you try twisting the horn, you’re not going to get any milk. You can try twisting more and more energetically, but you still don’t get any milk, and the cow will probably kick you. Now, you may decide, “Okay, I should stop doing this,” and when you do, you may come to the conclusion, “Hey, not putting in any effort is much nicer than making an effort.” But you still don’t get the milk. The more useful course of action is to find the right part of the cow to pull on. You test a few different places, and you finally find that when you pull on the udder, you get the milk.
In the same way, the Buddha said that if you adopt the wrong path, no matter how much effort you put into it, you’re not going to get the results. This is why the different factors of the path are called right: They actually give results, and the relationship to the path and its results is always consistent.
However, even though the pattern of cause and effect is always the same, it does provide some room for choice in the present moment. That’s actually part of the pattern: The present moment is not totally determined by the past. Your past actions provide you with the raw materials for fashioning the present moment and then, through your present intentions, you turn that raw material into your actual experience of the present moment. Your present intentions may often be conditioned by your past actions, but they don’t have to be. With every present moment, you are free to make a skillful choice. This is why, when we meditate, we focus on the present moment to see exactly how we’re fashioning the present moment from the raw material of our past actions. We’re not sitting in the present moment simply to enjoy the present moment. We’re trying to understand how we’re putting it together in an unskillful way, and how we can learn to do it more skillfully.
This is where the Buddha’s teachings on fabrication come in. He says there are three kinds: bodily fabrication, verbal fabrication, and mental fabrication. Bodily fabrication is the way you breathe. Verbal fabrication is how you talk to yourself, and then mental fabrication corresponds to feelings and perceptions.
When you’re practicing concentration, you’re engaging in all three of these fabrications: (1) The in-and-out breath is what you’re focusing on. (2) You talk to yourself about how you can bring the mind to the breath, how to make the breath more comfortable, and how to spread and maintain that sense of comfort throughout the body. (3) To maintain and spread those feelings of pleasure, you need a certain perception of the breath to help keep the mind focused on it and to aid in getting the best use out of the pleasure.
As you develop the concentration using these three kinds of fabrication, you become more sensitive as to how you’re engaging in them in the rest of your life as well. For example, when you’re angry, you breathe in a certain uncomfortable way, you tend to talk to yourself in ways that aggravate the anger, and you also have a perception in mind that the person you’re angry at is a monster or a fool. Now, if you want to continue the anger, you continue with those kinds of fabrications. But if you have goodwill for yourself and you want to get beyond the anger, you have to change them—and you can.
At the same time, you find that if you want to develop the perfections, you’ll have to fabricate them as well. For this reason, we’ll be talking about the role of these three fabrications as we continue our discussion of each of the perfections.
Now, the question sometimes comes up: Is the search for long-term happiness a selfish use of your discernment? And the answer is No. There are four reasons for that answer.
The first is that long-term happiness requires you to develop qualities of goodwill, compassion, generosity, and harmlessness. No stingy or abusive person has ever gotten to nibbāna.
The second reason is that if we go through life dissatisfied with our happiness, we tend to get frustrated and to take our frustration out on other people. At the monastery, we have a lot of hummingbirds. Hummingbirds feed off of nectar, usually the nectar from flowers, but they’ll also feed off of a mixture of sugar, water, and a pinch of salt. If we fill a feeder with sugar water, the hummingbirds will come to feed. We’ve been feeding them for many years. We have four large feeders, and most of the time we keep the feeders full. Every now and then, though, we forget. The feeders go empty, yet when the feeders are empty, the hummingbirds don’t attack us. They attack one another, as if to say, “You’re the reason why there’s no more nectar.”
As I watch the hummingbirds, I think of human beings. When things get bad, people attack one another, whether those other people are the real cause of the problem or not. If you can find a satisfactory happiness, and especially one that doesn’t require feeding, you’ll have no reason to attack anyone.
The third reason why the search for true happiness isn’t selfish is that we suffer because we cling and feed on things. As long as this feeding isn’t addressed, it’s going to taint all of our efforts to be unselfish. Years back, I heard a famous Dhamma teacher say that he didn’t want to live in a world where no one was suffering because he’d have no opportunity to be compassionate. Think about that for a minute. You need other people to suffer in order for you to be happy? It sounds unselfish on the surface, but it’s not. That’s the third reason.
The fourth reason is that you can’t be responsible for other people’s actions. In other words, you can’t go through life making other people happy, because their happiness will depend on what they do. So, you focus on where you are responsible, on your own actions, and in that way, you give a good example to others. If they’re willing to follow the example, that’s how they become happy.
When we think about the fact that discernment is a skillful strategy, we realize that we need some guidance from others on how to act strategically to achieve the desired goal. At the same time, we have to develop our own powers of perception to see these things for ourselves. This is why the Buddha says there are three levels of discernment:
• the discernment that comes from listening or reading,
• the discernment that comes from thinking, and
• the discernment that comes from developing qualities in your mind.
Ajaan Lee gives a good analogy for how these three levels interact. Say you want to learn how to weave a basket. The teacher can teach you how to weave, but the teacher can’t make your basket good. You have to follow the teacher’s instructions, but that won’t be enough to make a beautiful basket. You also have to look at your own work: how you weave the basket, and the basket that results. If the basket doesn’t look good, you have to think about what you can do to improve it. You keep observing and analyzing your actions and their results, and thinking about ways of improving your actions. Ultimately, the discernment becomes yours as you learn through practice how to develop skill in your own actions and how to consistently make beautiful baskets.
So, as I said last night, your discernment will give you some guidance as you develop the other perfections. But at the same time, as you develop the perfections, your discernment will become deeper and more profound. That way, what began as the Buddha’s discernment actually becomes yours.
Q: What exactly is dual thinking and how can one benefit from it?
A: Dual thinking is when you see the differences between two things, and you can pass judgment as to which one is better than the other. Now, some people think that dualistic thinking is bad, but there are a lot of areas in life where dual thinking is necessary. When you see that suffering is different from not suffering, the question is, “How do I stop suffering?” To do that, you have to begin seeing the difference between cause and effect, along with the difference between what’s skillful and what’s unskillful. That kind of dual thinking is very useful.
Q: The Buddha told us not to believe in things without verifying them for ourselves. We can see the results of our actions in this life, but as for the results of our actions in future lives, how can we believe them when we can’t verify them?
A: In this case, the Buddha would advise you to use what is called a pragmatic proof, which is that if you didn’t believe in the results of your kamma in future lives, how would you tend to act? If you did believe in the results of your kamma in future lives, how would you tend to act? Which belief would give rise to better actions?
In America, they have clubs that get together on the theme: Suppose that you only had one more year to live, how would you change the way you live your life? Some people find that it makes them much more heedful and responsible, and helps them cut away activities that merely clutter up their lives to no purpose. Several times, I’ve proposed that they have clubs on another theme, which is: Suppose you really believed in kamma and rebirth. How would you act? A person who attended a class at which I mentioned this idea one time told me a year later that he was really resistant to it, and so he asked himself why. He came to the realization that if he believed in kamma and rebirth, he’d have to act in a much more responsible way. That’s what’s called a pragmatic proof.
Q: Is there any scientific evidence for rebirth?
A: No. Is there any scientific evidence for no rebirth? No. But just because you can’t prove the issue scientifically either way doesn’t mean that you should be agnostic about it. Every time you act, you have to calculate whether the effort put into it will be worth the results obtained. And when you calculate the results, you have to go on an assumption: How far into the future will those results go? You can’t simply say, “I don’t know,” and leave it at that. You have to decide to take a position. The Buddha’s simply telling you that, based on his experience, and the experience of other noble ones, you’d be wise to assume that your actions will give results based on the quality of your intentions, and that those actions can keep giving results over many lifetimes. The Buddha never tried to prove rebirth but, as I said, he did offer a pragmatic proof: that if you believe in rebirth and you believe that your actions will have an impact on how you’re reborn, you’ll tend to act in a much more skillful way than if you don’t believe those things. In other words, it’s a good working hypothesis to take on. Now, you will find at awakening that you confirm the truth of these hypotheses, but until then, you have to go by the pragmatic proof.
Q: The five aggregates (khandhas) disband at the moment of death. So, what is the support for kamma to pass from life to life?
A: It’s important to realize that the five aggregates are not the definition of what you are. In fact, the Buddha never defines what you are. He says the question, “What am I?” is a question that you should put aside. And as for how kamma gets transmitted from one life to the next, the Buddha said that’s one of those questions that, if you pursue them, drive you crazy. So, all you have to know is that kamma can pass from life to life, and try to make the best kamma you can.
Q: What, in the view of the forest tradition, is rebirth and what actually is being reborn into a new life?
A: Rebirth happens on many levels. The process by which you create states of becoming—bhava—in your mind right now is the same process that will take you from this body to another body when this body dies. Basically, the process of becoming is that you start with a desire, then you get in touch with the world in which that desire might be relevant, and then you take on an identity in that world. Birth is when you move into that identity in that world. Now, the “world” here may be a world in your mind, but it can also be an outside world. The process is the same in both cases.
As for the question of what gets reborn, that was another one of the questions the Buddha never answered. It’s like asking: When you go from one dream to another, what moved from the first dream to the second dream? The question doesn’t make sense. The question that is important, though, is: How does that movement come about? It’s the important question because that’s something you’re doing and something you can learn not to do. Or, if you have to do it, you can learn how to do it skillfully.
Q: In Buddhism is there a god who controls kamma?
A: No, everybody in the Buddhist universe is controlled by kamma, even the gods.
Q: Could you please explain the wheel of saṁsāra? What comes before and what comes after?
A: Saṁsāra is not really a wheel. It’s a process of wandering on through states of becoming that the mind keeps creating. As the Buddha said, you cannot even conceive of the beginning point to the process, and the process is not going to end until you stop doing it. That’s what nibbāna is: You stop doing the process.
Q: Is there still consciousness after parinibbāna?
A: Yes, but it’s a consciousness that’s not related to any of the six senses.
Q: Dear Than Ajaan, I consider myself a Buddhist, yet I have little interest in going all the way. Despite considerable suffering in the past and now, I sometimes feel that a good rebirth would be okay. There is much in everyday life that provides meaning and contentment, and I try to do those things informed by Buddhist ideas and practice. I’m very interested in meditation, finding a deep, safe, inner refuge, but I’m not interested in nibbāna. So, can I consider myself a Buddhist really? Am I a pretender, a fraud? Do I want to have my cake and eat it, too? Deep thanks.
A: You can consider Buddhism as being like a table full of food and you’re free to take what you want. But I’ve noticed that the person asking this question is like 99% of most Buddhists, who are offered both processed cheese and real cheese on the table but want to take only the processed cheese. So, it’s perfectly fine to take whatever you find good from Buddhism, but don’t close your mind to nibbāna. You might want to give real cheese a try some time.
Q: The second question: Are all forms of everyday happiness a zero-sum process? I feel that there are several happinesses we have that don’t take away from anybody else’s happiness: for example, the joy I feel in my children, which is unconditional.
And the third question is: Not all pleasures are bad. Look at the effect it has on the mind. If it’s not unskillful, okay. So, if I don’t overindulge or sensualize, and if I approach activities of work, relationship, arts, science, music, sports, etc., treating them skillfully, what’s wrong with that? Especially with respect to sexual relations: If done with respect, not harming—i.e., with skillful means—isn’t it a good complement to the pleasures of jhāna?
A: Do you have a plant in France that has roots that are very invasive to other plants and foundations of buildings? Fig trees? Bamboo? You can see where I’m going. You can have your pleasures as long as you’re trying to not harm anybody. And some of these sensual pleasures actually are okay in combination with jhāna, but some of them are like fig trees and bamboo. If you plant bamboo right next to your house, the roots can eventually destroy the house. Or to return to the image of the buffet table, if you fill yourself up with processed cheese, there’s no room for the real cheese.
Q: As you get old, you lose your illusions, you lose your taste for a lot of things, and it’s very peaceful. Is there a point to cultivating disenchantment for these things so that you don’t verge on sadness?
A: A large part of wisdom lies in realizing that the things you no longer have a taste for were not really worth that much to begin with. The things that require you to be young in order to be capable of doing them are not necessarily all that good for you to be doing anyhow.
One of the purposes of contemplating dispassion is so that you can prepare yourself to think in these ways when old age comes. Most people I know feel that they’re getting old too early. I, for example, keep telling myself I’m too young to be old. But the body changes and it doesn’t ask permission to do so. So, it’s good to think about aging ahead of time. When you can think in this way, it helps clear your mind so that you can focus on what’s really of value: your ability to squeeze as much goodness out of your body and mind as you can, even as the body is beginning to fall apart.