Feeding the Mind

August 10, 1957

When water is subjected to the heat of the sun or the heat of a fire to the point where it has evaporated away, leaving just the dry kettle or pot: Can you say that that’s the end of the water? Actually, it still exists, simply that the heat has turned it into a vapor that has dispersed into the air. So you can’t say that the water no longer exists. It still exists somewhere else in another condition. The same holds true with the mind. When the body dies, the mind doesn’t die along with it. It simply moves to a new place in line with your good or bad kamma. The fact that it still exists in another condition: That’s what we mean when we say that it doesn’t die.

Still, when it’s subjected to a lot of fire, it degenerates. Just like the body: When the body is subjected to the fires of aging, illness, and death, it degenerates. When the mind is subjected to the fires of defilement—passion, aversion, and delusion—it degenerates. The more these three masses of flame burn away at the mind, the more it degenerates in terms of its goodness. It’s because we have fire burning the body and the mind from both sides, that they end up having to fall apart and going their separate directions. This we call the process of birth and death.

So if you want happiness, you have to train the heart to get rid of its defilements. Only then will you be done with birth and death. But if you were to ask where that place of no birth and no death is located, it would be hard to point out. Just like pointing at an albino elephant or water buffalo to get a blind person to look at it: It would be a waste of effort. In the same way, describing the place of no birth and no death so that an ignorant person would understand it is a waste of time. Only when you develop discernment will you understand where people go after they die, and whether or not there’s really a place of no birth and no death. This is because a person of discernment has an inner eye—the ñāṇa-cakkhu, or eye of knowledge. What this means is that he or she has seen the true Dhamma. That’s what gives such a person the ability to understand this issue. The Buddha said, “Whoever sees the Dhamma sees me.” In other words, when we see the Dhamma that doesn’t die, we’ll be able to see those who don’t die, what it is that doesn’t die. So when we reach the Dhamma that doesn’t die, we meet with the place that doesn’t die. As long as we haven’t met with that place, we have to keep practicing so as to give rise to the eye of the mind.

The problem is that even though most of us have clear eyesight, our minds are still dark and blurry. The Dhamma of the Buddha that we’re taught every day is like a lens for casting some light into the eye of the mind, so that we can feel our way along without falling into pits or wells. Even then, though, our minds are still blurry. This is why we have so many differing opinions: Our eyes are still blurry—but at least we’re not blind. We can still see vague shapes and shadows.

There’s a saying: samaṇāñca dassanaṁ etam-maṅgalamuttamaṁ. “Seeing a contemplative is the highest blessing.” What this means is that whoever sees a noble one—a stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner, or arahant—sees a grand auspicious sight. But you really have to see a genuine noble one for this to be true. So where are you going to look for a noble one? What sorts of features help you recognize a noble one? If you look at a noble one from the outside, there’s no way you can know for sure. The only way to know for sure is to practice the Dhamma so as to give rise to the qualities of a noble one within yourself. As long as you don’t have those qualities within you, you can’t see a genuine noble one. Your eyes are still blurry, so everything you see is blurry. Your mind is an ordinary mind, so everywhere you look, all you can see are ordinary people.

To help us see the truth in this way, the Buddha teaches three guidelines for practice:

1) mattaññutā ca bhattasmiṁ—having a sense of moderation in consuming food;

2) pantañca sayanāsanaṁ—delighting in seclusion;

3) adhicitte ca āyogo—being committed to the heightened mind, i.e. heightening the happiness of the mind.

With regard to the first guideline—having a sense of moderation in consuming food—there are two kinds of consumption: consuming food for the body and consuming food for the mind. Two sorts of food for the body should be avoided: anything that’s been obtained through bad kamma, and anything that doesn’t really nourish the body. When you avoid these two sorts of food, that’s called having a sense of moderation in consuming food.

As for food for the mind, there are three kinds:

1) phassāhāra, the food of sensory contact, i.e., the contact of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas as they strike against the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind;

2) viññāṇāhāra, the food of consciousness, i.e., awareness at the six sense doors; and

3) mano-sañcetanāhāra, the food of mental intentions, i.e., setting the mind on an object.

A person without a sense of moderation in food is like an ill person who doesn’t know what foods will aggravate his illness. He’s bound to have a short life and an early death. Not only that, he also creates burdens for the people around him: his parents, spouse, children, and relatives. They’re put to all sorts of trouble. When he dies, they have to find the money to pay for the funeral and make merit to dedicate to him. Before he dies, they have to pay for medical care. The doctors and nurses have to look after him until way late into the night, giving him medicine, cleaning up his urine and feces, all kinds of things. But if you gain a sense of how to look after yourself and are careful about how you consume your food, you’ll have few diseases. You yourself will be at ease, and the people around you won’t be burdened.

The five hindrances are like germs. If they get established in your heart, they’ll multiply and spread and eat away at your heart continually, to the point where your mind falls to such a low level that you can’t lift it up again.

The food of consciousness means the consciousness at the six sense doors that arises when sights strike the eyes, sounds strike the ears, and so forth. Pleasing sights are like sugar, molasses, or honey, which are sure to be teeming with ants, gnats, and flies. Disagreeable sights are like filth: In addition to carrying germs, they’re sure to attract all sorts of other bad things, too, because they’re crawling with flies and worms. If we don’t notice the ants, flies, and filth, we’ll go ahead and eat the food—and it will be toxic to our health. Like a person without any teeth who finds chicken bones in his food: He can’t chew them, so he tries to swallow them whole and ends up with his eyes bulging out of their sockets. If you aren’t discerning, you’ll gobble down the filth together with the worms and smelly parts, and the sugar together with the ants and flies.

So you have to pay careful attention. Before you eat, look to see what you can handle and what you can’t, what you have to be wary of and what you don’t. This is called having a knife and a chopping board for your food. When you examine things for yourself in this way, you’ll get to eat food that’s well prepared and cooked—not like a monster that eats things raw. If you don’t examine things, you’ll misunderstand what’s happening, thinking that good things are bad, and bad things are good. The mind won’t be clear about these things because you lack mindfulness and discernment. You’ll swallow toxic food right into your heart. This is called being very greedy, very deluded, because you’re careless in your eating, and this creates hazards for your heart.

The same holds true with the food of ear-consciousness. The sounds you like are like sugar or delicious sweets. The sounds you don’t like are food that’s rotten and spoiled. If you don’t use discernment, don’t use restraint, and don’t pay proper attention, you’ll end up eating food that’s all rotten and wormy. Whatever’s sweet you’ll swallow down whole, and all the ants, worms, and flies will go down with it. This will cause pain and trouble for your intestines, and turmoil for your heart. Your heart is already in poor health, and yet you go gobbling down things that are toxic. When this happens, no one can cure you but you yourself.

The same thing applies in the area of the nose, tongue, body, and mind. Whatever food you plan to swallow, you first have to pay careful attention, as monks do when they chant the passage for reflection before using any of the four requisites. At the same time, we have to reflect on whether the person bringing us these things suffers from wrong views and practices wrong livelihood as well. Otherwise, our own virtues will be compromised.

So we have to be firmly intent, using mindfulness to gain evidence, and our discernment to pass judgment. That way we’ll get to eat food that’s just and fair. Anyone who doesn’t use mindfulness and discernment is like an ogre that eats dead things, rotten things, and raw. Bones, wings, skins, and feathers: Everything you swallow right down, like a savage who doesn’t know any better.

Scientists nowadays are smart. They can take things you normally couldn’t eat and then distil and process them so that you can eat them, and they’re good for you, too. People without discernment, who allow themselves to get overcome with greed and hunger, will eat everything: wings, tails, bones, fins. The things they like get stuck in their hearts. The things they don’t like get stuck in their hearts. Wherever they go, it’s as if they have bones stuck in their throats. But if we have virtue, concentration, and discernment in our consumption of the food of consciousness, it’s as if we have a fire, a stove, and a knife to prepare our food the right way.

The next kind of food is the food of mental intentions. If we set our hearts on the wrong things, it can be toxic to us. If you sit here thinking about someone you hate or who makes you angry, telling yourself that if you meet that person you’ll have to say this or that, this is called setting your heart on the wrong object. If you set your heart on the right things, it will flow in the right direction. Forgetfulness and delusion won’t be able to arise. For instance, you can think about the virtues or the generosity you’ve practiced, or about your teachers. This is called setting your heart on the right object. The heart will begin to blossom. Just like the people in the time of the Buddha: When their hearts were inclined toward recollection of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha, they entered the refuge of the noble attainments. For this reason, we should incline our hearts toward the people or things that will cause our hearts to flourish and grow. This is what will give them the strength they need to gain release from the hindrances, which are like curtains of fog, or like worms that swarm over and eat away at the heart. This is what will give us the strength to shoot our way up to the paths and fruitions leading to nibbāna. In this way we’ll be good cooks for ourselves. But if we don’t know how to chop, boil, or fry our own food, we’ll have to eat it raw, just like a monster.

The third mouthful of food is the food of contact. Whatever sights come in by way of the eyes, whatever sounds come in by way of the ears, whatever smells comes in by way of the nose, and so forth, you have to be careful. Pay attention at all times to whatever will be of use, and avoid anything poisonous. Whatever will be meritorious or skillful, even if it may be painful, you have to endure and stick with it, as when you have to endure heat, cold, or rain in the practice. As for anything that will be unskillful, you have to shake it right off. The same applies to the ideas that make contact in the mind. When you can act in this way, good food will keep flowing in to benefit your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body, and will seep in to bathe your heart. You’ll be secluded from evil, secluded from defilements. Adhicitte ca āyogo: You’ll be committed to the heightened mind. Mind states heading to the level of the lower realms will disappear, and those of the noble ones will arise in their place. The mind will be in a firm steady state, heading straight for nibbāna. That’s how it gets beyond the reach of the fires that burn at the end of the eon.