As the Mind Turns

August 9, 1958

Every person has both awareness and unawareness, like a doctor who has studied various diseases: He’s knowledgeable about the diseases he’s studied, but not about the ones he hasn’t. We human beings have both darkness and brightness. The darkness is unawareness; the brightness, awareness.

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The affairs of the world keep spinning around like a wheel. We who live in the world thus have both pleasure and pain in line with worldly conditions—the wheel of rebirth. Whenever we spin around and run into the cycle of pain, we feel that the world is really narrow and confining. Whenever we spin around and run into the cycle of pleasure, we feel that the world is wide and refreshing, an inviting place to live. This happens because we spin along with the world and so don’t really know the world as it actually is. Once we stop spinning, though, we’ll come to know the ways of the world and the true nature of the Dhamma.

Whenever we run along after the world, we can’t see the world easily. For this reason, we first have to stop running. Then we’ll see it clearly. If the world is spinning and we’re spinning too, how can we expect to see it? It’s like two persons running: They’ll have a hard time seeing each other’s faces. If one stops but the other is running, they can see each other somewhat, but not clearly. If they’re both running, they’ll see each other even less clearly. For example, if we’re sitting or standing still and someone sneaks up, hits us over the head, and then runs off, we’ll have a hard time catching him. In the same way, if we spin around or get involved in the spinning of the world, we’ll have even less chance of knowing or seeing anything. The Dhamma thus teaches us to stop spinning the wheel of rebirth so that we can know the world clearly.

When an airplane propeller or any bladed wheel is spinning, we can’t see how many blades it has, what shape they are, or how fine they are. The faster it spins, the less we can see its shape. Only when it slows down or stops spinning can we see clearly what shape it has. This is an analogy for the spinning of the currents of the world—the outer world—and for our own spinning, we who live in the world.

The outer world means the earth in which we live. The world of fabrications means ourself: our body and mind, which are separate things but have to depend on each other, just as the world and people, which are separate things, have to depend on each other. If we had a body but not a mind, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything. The same would be true if we had a mind without a body. So the mind is like a person dwelling in the world. The mind is the craftsman; the body, its work of art. The mind is what creates the body. It’s what creates the world.

The world is something broad and always spinning, something hard to see clearly. This is why the Buddha teaches us to stop spinning after the world and to look only at ourself. That’s when we’ll be able to see the world. We ourself are something small—a fathom long, a span thick, a cubit wide—except that our belly is big. No matter how much we eat, we’re never full. We never have enough. This stands for the greed of the mind, which causes us to suffer from our lack of enough, our desires, our hunger.

To see ourself or to see the world, the Buddha teaches us to survey ourself from the head to the feet, from the feet to the head, just as if we’re going to plant a tree: We have to survey things from the ground on up to the tips of the branches. The ground stands for the purity of our livelihood. We have to examine the ground to see if it has any termites or other pests that will destroy the roots of our tree. Then we have to add the right amount of fertilizer—not too little, not too much. We have to care for it correctly in line with its size. For example, how do we observe the five precepts so that they’re pure? How do we observe the eight, the ten, and the 227 precepts so that they’re pure? What things should we abstain from doing? What things should we do? This is called right livelihood.

If we attend too much to our physical pleasure, we tend not to give rise to virtue, like certain kinds of trees that are very healthy, with large branches and lush foliage, but tend not to bear fruit. If a person eats a lot and sleeps a lot, if he’s concerned only with matters of eating and sleeping, his body will be large and hefty, like a tree with a large trunk, large branches, large leaves, but hardly any fruit. We human beings—once our bodies are well-nourished with food—if we then listen to a sermon or sit in meditation, tend to get drowsy because we’re too well nourished. If we sit for a long time, we feel uncomfortable. If we listen to a sermon, we don’t know what’s being said, because we’re sleepy. This ruins our chance to do good. People who are too well nourished tend to get lazy, sloppy, and addicted to pleasure. If they sit in meditation, they tend to get numb, tired, and drowsy.

This is why we’re taught to observe the eight uposatha precepts as a middle path. We eat only during half of the day, only half full. That’s enough. This is called having a sense of moderation with regard to food. We don’t have to load up or compensate for missing the evening meal. We eat just enough. ‘I abstain from eating at the wrong time’: After noon we don’t have to turn to another meal, so that the heart won’t turn after the world. This is like giving just enough fertilizer to our tree.

‘I abstain from dancing, singing and ornamenting the body’: The Buddha doesn’t have us beautify the body with cosmetics and perfumes, or ornament it with jewelry. This is like giving our tree just the right amount of water. Don’t let the soil get water-logged. Otherwise the roots will rot. In other words, if we get attached to scents and to beauty of this sort, it’ll make us so infatuated that our virtue will suffer. This is like taking scraps of food and pouring them around the foot of our tree. Dogs will come to trample over the tree, chickens will peck at the leaves and flowers, and fire ants will eat into the roots, causing our tree to wither or die. All sorts of complications will come to hassle us.

‘I abstain from high and large beds’: When we lie down to sleep, the Buddha doesn’t have us use soft mattresses or cushions that are too comfortable, because if we have a lot of comfort we’ll sleep a lot and not want to get up to do good. The results of our concentration practice will be meager, and our laziness will grow rampant. This is like caterpillars and worms that burrow throughout the soil: They’ll keep whispering to us, teaching us all sorts of things until ultimately they tell us to stop doing good—and so we stop. This is like insects crawling up from the ground and eating into our tree, climbing higher and higher up until they reach the tiptop branches: the mind. Ultimately, when they eat the tips of the branches, the tree won’t bear flowers. When it has no flowers, it won’t bear fruit. In the same way, if we lack a sense of moderation in caring for ourself, we won’t be practicing right livelihood. If we don’t have a proper sense of how to nourish and care for the body, our conduct will have to degenerate. But if we have a proper sense of how to nourish and care for the body, our conduct will have to develop in the direction of purity, and the mind will have to develop along with it, step by step.

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The world has its highs and lows, its good and evil, and we’re just like the world. Our body—no matter how much we care for it to make it strong and healthy, beautiful and comfortable—will have to be good in some ways and to malfunction in others. What’s important is that we don’t let the mind malfunction. Don’t let it go branching out after its various preoccupations. If we let the mind go around thinking good and evil in line with its preoccupations, it won’t be able to advance to a higher level. So we have to make our tree have a single tip: We have to center the mind firmly in a single preoccupation. Don’t let your moods hold sway over the mind. We have to cut off the mind from its preoccupations with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations, leaving only a single mental preoccupation. Let a preoccupation with what’s good and worthwhile arise in the mind. Don’t let any of the forms of mental corruption arise.

Mental corruption means (1) greed for sights, sounds, smells, tastes, etc.; (2) ill will—focusing on this matter or that person as bad, and going from there to a desire for retribution, leading to a confrontation or to violence; (3) wrong views—seeing that doing good doesn’t lead to good results; for example, seeing that being generous, observing the precepts, or practicing meditation doesn’t make a person rich or happy, so that we stop doing good. We have to rid the heart of these three forms of mental corruption. When the heart is freed from corruption, it will have to enter mental rectitude, becoming a worthwhile mind, pursuing right action: in other words, meditation.

In practicing meditation, we really have to be true in our work if we want results. We have to be true in our body, true in our speech, true in our heart. Our body has to sit straight and unmoving in a half-lotus position. Our speech has to be silent, not saying a thing. Our heart has to be set straight and still, not flitting out after allusions to past or future. If we can be true in our work in this way, we’ll have to succeed and see results. If we’re slipshod and desultory, our work won’t succeed. This is why we’re taught,

anākulā ca kammantā etam-maṅgalam-uttamaṁ:

‘Activities not left unfinished are a supreme good omen.’

In practicing meditation, the mind is what gives the orders. In other words, we should have a base or a frame of reference, contemplating the breath so that it becomes refined—because the more refined something is, the higher its value. Our breath sensations are of five sorts:

(1) The first are the breath sensations that flow from the head down to the tips of our feet. (2) The second are those that flow from the tips of the feet to the head. These two sorts take turns running back and forth like a rope over a pulley that we pull up and down.

(3) The third sort are the breath sensations that flow throughout the body. These are the sensations that help ventilate the body, receiving our guests—the breath permeating in through the skin—and expelling the inner breath, keeping the pure, beneficial breath in the body and expelling the harmful breath out through the pores.

(4) The fourth sort is the breath in the upper abdomen, guarding between the heart, lungs, and liver on the one hand, and the stomach and intestines on the other. It supports the upper organs so that they don’t press down on the lower ones and keeps the lower organs down so that they don’t push up and crowd the upper ones. This sort of breath we have to observe in order to see in what way it’s heavy on the left or right side.

(5) The fifth sort are the breath sensations flowing in the intestines, helping to warm the fires of digestion, just as if we were steaming fish or other foods to keep them from spoiling. When our food is cooked, it can be of use—like the steam condensing on the lid of a pot—to enrich the blood that nourishes the various parts of the body. Whichever kind of nourishment should become hair, nails, teeth, skin, etc., the blood sends to those parts.

These breath sensations are always flowing in waves through the intestines to disperse the heat of digestion. When we eat, it’s like putting food in a pot on the stove and then closing the lid. If there’s no ventilation in the pot at all, and we simply add fire, it won’t be long before our stomach is wrecked and our intestines ruined, because we’ve closed the lid so tightly that no air can pass in or out, until the heat becomes too strong and burns our food to a crisp. Our body won’t get any benefit from it. On the other hand, if the heat is too low, our food won’t cook through. It’ll spoil, we’ll get an upset stomach, and again our body won’t get any benefit. These sorts of breath sensations help keep our digestive fires just right for the body.

If we look at these five sorts of breath sensations in the correct way, we’re sure to reap two sorts of results: (1) In terms of the body, those of us with many diseases will have fewer diseases; those of us with few diseases may recover completely. Diseases that haven’t yet arisen will have a hard time arising. (2) In terms of the mind, we’ll become contented, happy, and refreshed. At the same time, meditation can help free us from bad kamma because unskillful mental states won’t have a chance to infiltrate the mind. Our life will be long, our body healthy. If we keep developing our meditation to higher and higher levels, the four properties (dhātu) of the body will become clear and pure.

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If we practice meditation by keeping the breath in mind until the breath is refined and the mind is refined, the breath settles down to a stop and the mind settles down to be still, then we’ll be able to see our body and mind clearly. The body and mind will separate from each other, each existing independently—just as when outsiders don’t come entering in and insiders don’t go out. Awareness will arise within us as to how the body is functioning, how the mind is functioning. How has our body come into being? We’ll know. And where will it go from here? We’ll know where it came from, where it’s going—we’ll know it completely. What actions we did in our past lives that caused us to be born in this state, we’ll know. This is called knowledge of past lives.

2. The people and other living beings who’ve been our parents, brothers, sisters, relatives, and friends: Where have they come from? When they die, what sorts of pleasures and pains will they meet with? And where? We might be able to make contact with them and send streams of mental energy to help them. This is called knowledge of death and rebirth.

3. We’ll see that the body and mind are inconstant, stressful, and not-self, to the point where we become disenchanted with them. This will cause us to let go of the body and will free us from the fetters of attachment. These fetters include such things as attachment to worldly phenomena (loka-dhamma): When we let ourselves get pleased with gain, status, pleasure, and praise, it’s no different from the King of Death tying our hands up tight. Then when he gives a single lash with his whip—i.e., we suffer loss, disgrace, pain, and censure—we come tumbling right down.

Another kind of fetter is self-identification—attachment to the body, seeing it as ‘us’ or as an entity, which gives rise to misconceptions. Another fetter is uncertainty—doubts and hesitation, running back and forth, not knowing which way to go and ending up spinning around along with the world.

Once we know the ways of the body and mind, we’ll be released from these fetters. The mind will gain release from the body and shed the fermentations of defilement. This is called knowledge of the end of mental fermentation. The mind will gain liberating insight and flow into the current of Dhamma leading ultimately to nibbāna.

When we stop spinning along with the world, we’ll be able to see the world—our body—clearly. Once the mind stops, we can then see the body. For this reason, we should slow down the spinning of the body by distilling and filtering its properties, making them more and more refined; slow down the spinning of our words by keeping silent; and slow down the spinning of the mind, making it firm and still by centering it in concentration, thinking about and evaluating the breath. When the mind stops spinning after its various concepts and preoccupations, our words and body will stop along with it. When each one has stopped, we can see them all clearly. The mind will know the affairs of the body through and through, giving rise to liberating insight that will slow down the spinning of the wheel of rebirth. Our births will become less and less until ultimately we won’t have to come back to live in a world ever again.

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To practice meditation is one sort of food for the heart. Food for the body isn’t anything lasting. We eat in the morning and are hungry by noon. We eat at noon and are hungry again in the evening. If we’re full today, tomorrow morning we’ll be hungry again. We keep eating and defecating like this, and the day will never come when we’ve had enough. We’ll have to keep looking for more and more things to eat. As for food for the heart, if we prepare it really well, even for a little space of time, we’ll be full for the rest of our life.