Knowledge & Vision

July, 1958

The parts of the body that ache, that are tense, painful, or sore—think of them as hoodlums or fools. As for the parts that are relaxed and comfortable, think of them as sages. Ask yourself: Do you want to live with sages or fools?

It’s not the case that the body will be painful in every part all at the same time. Sometimes our hand hurts, but our arm doesn’t hurt; our stomach aches, but our back doesn’t ache; our legs hurt, but our feet are fine; or our eyes hurt, but our head doesn’t hurt. When this is the case, we should choose to stay with the good parts. If we take up company with more and more good people, they’ll reach the point where they can drive out all the hoodlums. In the same way, when the mind is very still, the sense of comfort will become so great that we’ll forget about aches and pains.

The breath energy in the body is like a messenger. When we expand the breath—this is what’s meant by vicāra, or evaluation—mindfulness will spread throughout the body, as if it were going along an electric wire. Being mindful is like sending electricity along a wire; alertness is like the heat of the electricity that energizes us and wakes us up. When the body is energized, no pains will overcome it. In other words, we wake up the properties of earth, water, wind, and fire so that they get to work. The properties of the body will become strong and healthy, making the body feel comfortable and well. This is termed mahābhūta-rūpa. When this sense of mahābhūta-rūpa is nourished with breath and mindfulness in this way, it will grow and mature. The properties will grow quiet and mature, and become mahā-satipaṭṭhāna, the great frame of reference.

This is threshold concentration, or vicāra—spreading the breath.

In centering the mind, we have to put it on the middle path, cutting away all thoughts of past and future. As for worldly phenomena—gain and loss, status and disgrace, praise and censure, pleasure and pain—no matter how bad they may be or how fantastically good, we aren’t interested—because even when they really have been good, they’ve left us long ago; and as for the good lying ahead, it hasn’t reached us yet.

To feed on moods that are past is like eating things that other people have spit out. Things that other people have spit out, we shouldn’t gather up and eat. Whoever does so, the Buddha said, is like a hungry ghost. In other words, the mind is a slave to craving, which is like saliva. We don’t get to eat any food and so we sit swallowing nothing but saliva. The mind isn’t in the middle way. To think of the future is like licking the rim of tomorrow’s soup pot, which doesn’t yet have even a drop of soup. To think about the past is like licking the bottom of yesterday’s soup pot when there isn’t any left.

This is why the Buddha became disenchanted with past and future, because they’re so undependable. Sometimes they put us in a good mood, which is indulgence in pleasure. Sometimes they get us in a bad mood, which is indulgence in self-affliction. When you know that this sort of thing isn’t the path of the practice, don’t go near it. The Buddha thus taught us to shield the mind so that it’s quiet and still by developing concentration.

When a person likes to lick his or her preoccupations, if they’re bad, it’s really heavy. If they’re good preoccupations, it’s not so bad, but it’s still on the mundane level. For this reason, we’re taught to take our stance in the present. When the mind isn’t involved in the past or the future, it enters the noble path—and then we realize how meaningless the things of the past are: This is the essence of the knowledge of past lives. Old things come back and turn into new; new things come back and turn into old. Or as people say, the future becomes the past and the past becomes the future. When you can dispose with past and future, the mind becomes even more steadfast.

This is called right mindfulness. The mind develops strength of conviction (saddhā-balaṁ), i.e., your convictions become more settled in the truth of the present. Viriya-balaṁ: Your persistence becomes fearless. Sati-balaṁ: Mindfulness develops into great mindfulness. Samādhi-balaṁ: The mind becomes firm and unshaking. Paññā-balaṁ: Discernment becomes acute to the point where it can see the true nature of the khandhas, becoming dispassionate and letting go of the body and self so that the mind is released from the power of attachment. This, according to the wise, is knowledge of the end of mental fermentation.

To know where beings go and take birth is termed knowledge of death and rebirth. We become disenchanted with states of being. Once we know enough to feel disenchantment, our states of being and birth lessen. Our burdens and concerns lighten. The mind’s cycling through states of being slows down. Just like a wheel when we put thorns in the tire and place logs in the way: It slows down. When the mind turns more slowly, you can count the stages in its cycle. This is called knowing the moments of the mind. To know in this way is liberating insight. It’s awareness. To know past, future, and present is awareness.

*     *     *

The noble ones aren’t attached to activities—to acting, speaking, or thinking—in any way. When the processes of action fall silent, their minds are empty and clear like space. But we ordinary people hold on to speaking, standing, walking, sitting, lying down, everything—and how can it help but be heavy? The noble ones let go of it all and so are at ease. If they walk a long time, they don’t get weary. If they sit a long time, they don’t ache. They can do anything without being weighed down. The people who are weighed down are those who hold on.

*     *     *

Stress for ordinary people is pain and suffering. The stress of sages is the wavering of pleasure.

*     *     *

The breath of birth or of life is the in-breath. The out-breath, when there’s no in-breath, is the breath of death. Whether a person is to have the potential for a short or a long life depends on the in-and-out breath. Thus the breath is termed kāya-saṅkhāra, bodily fabrication. It’s the crucial factor in life. When you can catch hold of the breath, you can keep tabs on your own birth and dying. This is birth and dying on the obscured level. As for birth and dying on the open level, even fools and children can know it: ‘Birth’ means breathing, sitting, lying down, standing, walking, and so on. ‘Death’ means to stop breathing and to get hauled off and cremated. But birth and dying on the obscured level can be known only within. And not everyone can know them. Only those who still their minds can.

To focus on the breath this way is, at the same time, mindfulness of death, mindfulness of breathing, and mindfulness immersed in the body. Or you can call it ekāyana-magga—unifying the sense of the body into a single, direct path. Vitakka is to bring the topic of meditation to the mind, to bring the mind to the topic of meditation. Vicāra means to spread, adjust, and improve the breath carefully. The longer you keep at this, the more comfortable your going will be, just as when we work at clearing a road. The sense of the body will benefit in three ways, feeling light, cool, and comfortable. At this point, our meditation theme becomes even stronger, and the mind feels even greater ease and detachment, termed citta-viveka, or mental solitude. The sense of the body becomes more quiet and detached, termed kāya-viveka, or physical solitude.

*     *     *

The breath energy in the body falls into two classes. One class is called the ‘feminine breath,’ the gentle flow of energy from below the navel up to the head and out the nose. The other class is called the ‘masculine breath,’ the solid flow of energy from the ends of the feet up through the spine. Once you can focus on these breaths, don’t go against their basic nature. Be conscious of them when you go in to coordinate and connect them, and observe the results that come from spreading and adjusting the breath. As soon as things feel smooth and easy, focus in on the breath in the stomach and intestines, and the breath energy that acts as a sentinel between them, keeping them from rubbing against each other, like the cotton wool used to pack a stack of glassware to keep the glasses from striking against one another.

*     *     *

When the breath is quiet and the mind at ease, this is goodness in its greater form. When the mind is at ease but the body in turmoil, this is goodness in a lesser form. Let the mind settle wherever there’s a sense of comfort in the body, in the same way that we go to look for food in places where in the past we’ve found enough to eat our fill. Once the mind is full, rapture (pīti) arises. Pleasure (sukha) saturates the heart, just as salt saturates pickled fish. The mind will take on value. The sense of the body will become bright, clear, and cool. Knowledge will begin to see bit by bit, so that we can come to see the nature of our own body and mind. When this state of mind becomes stronger, it turns into ñāṇa-dassana—knowledge and vision.

Knowledge on this level comes from mindfulness, and vision from alertness. When the wavering of the mind stops, then craving for sensuality, for becoming, and for no becoming all stop. Pain and pleasure, let go of them. Don’t give them a second thought. Think of them as words that people speak only in jest. As for the truth, it’s there in the heart. If the mind still wavers and strays, there will have to be more states of being and birth. If sensual craving moves, it leads to a gross state of being. If craving for becoming moves, it leads to an intermediate state of being. If craving for no becoming moves, the mind will latch onto a subtle state of being. Only when we see this happening can we be said to know past, future, and present.

When this awareness is clear and full, the mind becomes dispassionate and loosens its attachments, coming to a full stop: the stopping of unawareness, the stopping of birth. This is why the Buddha felt no attachment for home or family, for wealth, servants, or material pleasures of any kind.