Coming Home

September 22, 1956

When you close your eyes while sitting in meditation, simply close your eyelids. Don’t try to close off your eyes like a person sleeping. You have to keep your optic nerves awake and working. Otherwise you’ll put yourself to sleep.

Think of your internal meditation object—the in-and-out breath—and then think of bringing your external meditation object—’buddho,’ awake, which is one of the virtues of the Lord Buddha—in with the breath.

Once you can focus comfortably on the breath, let the breath spread throughout the body until you feel light, supple, and at ease. This is called maintaining the proper quality in practicing concentration. To keep the mind fixed so that it doesn’t slip away from the breath is called maintaining the proper object. Being firmly mindful of your meditation word, without any lapses, is called maintaining the proper intention. When you can keep your mind fixed in these three component factors, you can say that you’re practicing meditation.

Once we set our mind on doing good in this way, things that aren’t good—nīvaraṇa, or hindrances—are bound to come stealing into the mind. If we call the hindrances by name, there are five of them. But here we aren’t going to talk about their names; we’ll just talk about what they are: (1) Hindrances are things that defile and adulterate the mind. (2) They make the mind dark and murky. (3) They’re obstacles that prevent the mind from staying firmly with the component factors of its meditation.

Hindrances come from external preoccupations, and external pre-occupations arise because our internal preoccupation is weak. To say that our internal preoccupation is weak means that our mind doesn’t stay firmly with its object. Like floating a dipper in a barrel of water: If it doesn’t have anything to weigh it down, it’s bound to wobble and tip. The wobbling of the mind is what creates an opening for the various hindrances to come pouring in and make the mind lose its balance.

We should make ourself aware that when the mind starts tipping, it can tip in either of two directions: (1) It may go toward thoughts of the past, matters that happened two hours ago or all the way back to our very first breath. Distractions of this sort can carry two kinds of meaning for us: Either they deal in terms of worldly matters—our own affairs or those of other people, good or bad—or else they deal in terms of the Dhamma, things good or bad that have happened and that we’ve taken note of. (2) Or else our mind may tip toward thoughts of the future, which are the same sort of thing—our own affairs or those of others, dealing in terms of the world or the Dhamma, good or bad.

When our mind starts drifting in this way, we’re bound to receive one of two sorts of results: contentment or discontentment, moods that indulge either in sensual pleasure or in self affliction. For this reason, we have to catch hold of the mind constantly and bring it into the present so that these hindrances can’t come seeping in. But even then the mind isn’t really at equilibrium. It’s still apt to waver to some extent. But this wavering isn’t really wrong (if we know how to use it, it isn’t wrong; if we don’t, it is) because the mind, when it wavers, is looking for a place to stay. In Pāli, this is called sambhavesin. So we’re taught to find a meditation theme to act as a focal point for the mind, in the same way that a movie screen acts as a reflector for images so that they appear sharp and clear. This is to keep external preoccupations from barging in.

In other words, we’re taught to meditate by focusing the mind in one place, on the breath. When we think of the breath, that’s called vitakka—as when we think ‘bud-’ in and ‘dho’ out, like we’re doing right now. As for the wavering of the mind, that’s called vicāra, or evaluation. When we bring vicāra into the picture, we can let go of part of vitakka. In other words, stop repeating ‘buddho’ and then start observing how much the body is affected by each in-and-out breath. When the breath goes out, does it feel easy and natural? When it comes in, does it feel comfortable? If not, improve it.

When we direct the mind in this way, we don’t have to use ‘buddho.’ The in-breath will permeate and spread throughout the body, along with our sense of mindfulness and alertness. When we let go of part of vitakka—as when we stop repeating ‘buddho,’ so that there’s only the act of keeping track of the breath—the act of evaluating increases. The wavering of the mind becomes part of our concentration. Outside pre-occupations fall still. ‘Falling still’ doesn’t mean that our ears go deaf. Falling still means that we don’t stir the mind to go out after external objects, either past or future. We let it stay solely in the present.

When the mind is centered in this way, it develops sensitivity and knowledge. This knowledge isn’t the sort that comes from studying or from books. It comes from doing—as when we make clay tiles. When we first start out we know only how to mix the clay with sand and how to make plain flat tiles. But as we keep doing it we’ll start knowing more: how to make them attractive, how to make them strong, durable, and not brittle. And then we’ll think of making them different colors and different shapes. As we keep making them better and more attractive, the objects we make will in turn become our teachers.

So it is when we focus on the breath. As we keep observing how the breath flows, we’ll come to know what the in-breath is like; whether or not it’s comfortable; how to breathe in so that we feel comfortable; how to breathe out so that we feel comfortable; what way of breathing makes us feel tense and constricted; what way makes us feel tired—because the breath has up to four varieties. Sometimes it comes in long and out long, sometimes in long and out short, sometimes in short and out long, sometimes in short and out short. So we should observe each of these four types of breath as they flow in the body to see how much they benefit the heart, lungs, and other parts of the body.

When we keep surveying and evaluating in this way, mindfulness and alertness will take charge within us. Concentration will arise, discernment will arise, awareness will arise within us. A person who develops this sort of skill may even become able to breathe without using the nose, by breathing through the eyes or the ears instead. But when we’re starting out, we have to make use of the breath through the nose because it’s the obvious breath. We first have to learn how to observe the obvious breath before we can become aware of the more refined breath sensations in the body.

The breath energy in the body, taken as a whole, is of five sorts: (1) The ‘sojourning breath’ (āgantuka-vāyas) continually flowing in and out. (2) The breath energy that stays within the body but can permeate through the various parts. (3) The breath energy that spins around in place. (4) The breath energy that moves and can flow back and forth. (5) The breath energy that nourishes the nerves and blood vessels throughout the body.

Once we know the various kinds of breath energy, how to make use of them, and how to improve them so that they feel agreeable to the body, we’ll develop expertise. We’ll become more adept with our sense of the body. Results will arise: a feeling of fullness and satisfaction pervading the entire body, just as kerosene pervades every thread in the mantle of a Coleman lantern, causing it to give off a bright white glow.

Vitakka is like putting sand into a sifter. Vicāra is like sifting the sand. When we first put sand into a sifter, it’s still coarse and lumpy. But as we keep sifting, the sand will become more and more refined until we have nothing but fine particles. So it is when we fix the mind on the breath. In the first stages, the breath is still coarse, but as we keep using more and more vitakka and vicāra, the breath becomes more and more refined until it permeates to every pore. Oḷārika-rūpa: All sorts of comfortable sensations will appear—a sense of lightness, spaciousness, respite, freedom from aches and pains, etc.—and we’ll feel nothing but refreshment and pleasure in the sense of the Dhamma, constantly cool and relaxed. Sukhumāla-rūpa: This sense of pleasure will appear to be like tiny particles, like the mist of atoms that forms the air but can’t be seen with the naked eye. But even though we feel comfortable and relaxed at this point, this mist of pleasure pervading the body can form a birthplace for the mind, so we can’t say that we’ve gone beyond stress and pain.

This is one of the forms of awareness we can develop in concentration. Whoever develops it will give rise to a sense of inner refreshment: a feeling of lightness, like cotton wool. This lightness is powerful in all sorts of ways. Hīnaṁ vā: The blatant sense of the body will disappear—paṇītaṁ vā—and will turn into a more refined sense of the body, subtle and beautiful.

The beauty here isn’t the sort that comes from art or decoration. Instead, it’s beauty in the sense of being bright, clear, and fresh. Refreshing. Soothing. Peaceful. These qualities will give rise to a sense of splendor within the body, termed sobhaṇa, a sense of rapture and exhilaration that fills every part of the body. The properties of earth, water, fire, and wind in the body are all balanced and full. The body seems beautiful, but again this isn’t beauty in the sense of art. All of this is termed paṇīta-rūpa.

When the body grows full and complete to this extent, all four of the elementary properties become mature and responsible in their own spheres, and can be termed mahābhūta-rūpa. Earth is responsible in its own earth affairs, water in its own water affairs, wind in its own wind affairs, and fire in its own fire affairs. When all four properties become more responsible and mature in their own affairs, this is termed oḷārika-rūpa. The properties of space and consciousness also become mature. It’s as if they all become mature adults. The nature of mature adults, when they live together, is that they hardly ever quarrel or dispute. Children, when they live with children, tend to be squabbling all the time. So when all six properties are mature, earth won’t conflict with water, water won’t conflict with wind, wind won’t conflict with fire, fire won’t conflict with space, space won’t conflict with consciousness. All will live in harmony and unity.

This is what is meant by ekāyano ayaṁ maggo sattānaṁ visuddhiyā: This is the unified path for the purification of beings. All four physical properties become mature in the unified sense of the body, four-in-one. When the mind enters into this unified path, it’s able to become well-acquainted with the affairs of the body. It comes to feel that this body is like its child; the mind is like a parent. When parents see that their child has grown and matured, they’re bound to feel proud. And when they see that their child can care for itself, they can put down the burden of having to care for it. (At this point there’s no need to speak of the hindrances any longer, because the mind at this point is firmly centered. The hindrances don’t have a chance to slip in.)

When the mind can let go of the body in this way, we’ll feel an inner glow in both body and mind, a glow in the sense of a calm pleasure unlike the pleasures of the world—for instance, the body feels relaxed and at ease, with no aches or fatigue—and a glow in the sense of radiance. As for the mind, it feels the glow of a restful sense of calm and the glow of an inner radiance. This calm glow is the essence of inner worth (puñña). It’s like the water vapor rising from ice-cold objects and gathering to form clouds that fall as rain or ride high and free. In the same way, this cool sense of calm explodes into a mist of radiance. The properties of earth, water, wind, fire, space, and consciousness all become a mist. This is where the ‘six-fold radiance’ (chabbaṇṇa-raṅsī) arises.

The sense of the body will seem radiant and glowing like a ripe peach. The power of this glow is called the light of the Dhamma (dhammo padīpo). When we’ve developed this quality, the body is secure and the mind wide awake. A mist of radiance—a power—appears within us. This radiance, as it becomes more and more powerful, is where intuitive liberating insight will appear: the means for knowing the four noble truths. As this sense of intuition becomes stronger, it will turn into knowledge and awareness: a knowledge we haven’t learned from anywhere else, but have gained from the practice.

Whoever can do this will find that the mind attains the virtues of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha, which will enter to bathe the heart. Such a person can be said to have truly reached the refuge of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha. Whoever can do even just this much is capable of reaching Awakening without having to go and do much of anything else. If we’re careful, circumspect, persistent, mindful, and discerning, we’ll be able to open our eyes and ears so that we can know all kinds of things—and we may not even have to be reborn to come back and practice concentration ever again. But if we’re complacent—careless, inattentive, and lazy—we’ll have to come back and go through the practice all over again.

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The reason we practice concentration is to disband the hindrances from the heart. When the hindrances are absolutely quiet, the mind can reach vihāra-dhamma—the inner quality that can form its home. We’ll then be able to gain complete freedom from the hindrances. Our future states of rebirth will be no lower than the human level. We won’t be forced to gain rebirth in the four realms of deprivation (apāya). Once the mind reaches its inner home, it’s capable of raising itself to the transcendent level, to the stream flowing to nibbāna. If we’re not lazy or complacent, if we keep persevering with our meditation, we’ll be able to gain release from the mundane level. If our mind gains the quality of stream-entry, we will never again have to be born in the realms of deprivation.

Stream-winners, if we were to explain them in really simple terms, are people whose minds are certain and sure, but who still have some forms of shoddy thoughts—although they would never dare let that shoddiness show in their actions. As for ordinary run-of-the-mill people, once they have a shoddy thought, it’s bound to appear in their words and deeds—killing, stealing, etc. Although stream-winners may still have some forms of shoddiness to them, they don’t act shoddy at all, like a person who has a knife in his hand when he’s angry, but who doesn’t use it to cut off anyone’s head.

Ordinary people usually can’t say No to their defilements. They usually have to act in line with their defilements as they arise. For example, when they feel strong anger they can’t bear it. They have to let it show, to the point where they can get really ugly and do things that fly right in the face of morality. Stream-winners, although they do have defilements, can say No to them. Why? Because they have the discipline of mindfulness embedded within them, enabling them to tell right from wrong.

When the mind wavers in a good direction, they’re aware of it. When it wavers in a bad direction, they’re aware of it. They see, hear, smell aromas, taste flavors, feel tactile sensations just like ordinary people, but they don’t let these things make inroads on the heart. They have the self-control that enables them to withstand their defilements, like a person who is able to carry a bowlful of water while running, without spilling a single drop. Even though stream-winners may be ‘riding a bicycle’—i.e., sitting, standing, walking, lying down, speaking, thinking, eating, opening or closing their eyes—the permanent quality of their hearts never gets overturned. This is a quality that never disappears, although it may waver sometimes. That wavering is what can cause them to be reborn. But even though they may be reborn, they’re reborn in good states of being, as human or heavenly beings.

As for ordinary people, they take birth without any real rhyme or reason, and they keep doing it over and over again. Stream-winners, however, understand birth. Although they experience birth, they let it disband. In other words, they have no use for shoddy impulses. They respond weakly to shoddy impulses and strongly to good ones. Ordinary people respond strongly to bad impulses and weakly to good ones. For example, a person who decides to go do good at a monastery—if someone then makes fun of him, saying that people who go to the monastery are old-fashioned or have hit rock-bottom—will hardly feel like going at all. But no matter how other people may try to talk him into doing good, he hardly responds. This is because the level of the mind has fallen very low.

As for stream-winners, no matter how many times shoddy impulses may occur to them, the goodness of nibbāna acts as a magnet on their hearts. This is what draws them to keep on practicing until they reach the end point. When they reach the end point, there can be no more birth, no more aging, no more illness, no more death. Sensations stop, feelings stop, concepts stop, fabrications stop, consciousness stops. As for the six properties, they also stop. Earth stops, water stops, wind stops, fire stops, space stops, consciousness stops. The properties, khandhas, and sense media all stop. There’s no concept labeling any of the khandhas. Mental labels are the media that let the khandhas come running in. When mental labels stop, there’s nobody running. And when everyone has stopped running, there’s no pushing and shoving, no colliding, no conversing. The heart looks after itself in line with its duties.

As for the properties, khandhas, and sense media, each is independent in its own area, each is in charge of its own affairs. There’s no trespassing on anyone else’s property. And once there’s no trespassing, what troubles will there be? Like a match left lying alone in a match box: What fires can it cause? As long as its head isn’t struck on anything abrasive, fire won’t have a chance to arise. This doesn’t mean that there’s no fire in the match. It’s there as it always was, but as long as it doesn’t latch onto anything combustible it won’t flare up.

The same is true of a mind that no longer latches on to the defilements. This is what is meant by nibbāna. It’s the ultimate good, the ultimate point of the religion, and our own ultimate point as well. If we don’t progress in the threefold training—virtue, concentration, and discernment—we won’t have any chance to reach the ultimate. But if we gather these practices within ourselves and advance in them, our minds will develop the knowledge and awareness capable of pushing us on to an advanced point, to nibbāna.

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Noble disciples are like people who realize that rain water is the vapor that heat sucks up from the salt water of the ocean and then falls down as rain—and so that rain water is ocean water, and ocean water is rain water. Ordinary run-of-the-mill people are like people who don’t know what rain water comes from. They assume that rain water is up there in the sky and so they deludedly wait to drink nothing but rain water. If no rain comes, they’re sure to die. The reason for their ignorance is their own stupidity. They don’t know enough to search for new resources—the qualities of the noble ones—and so will have to keep gathering up the same old things to eat over and over again. They keep spinning around in the cycle of rebirth in this way, with no thought of searching for a way out of this mass of suffering and stress. They’re like a red ant that keeps probing its way around and around the rim of a bushel basket—whose circumference isn’t even two meters—all because it doesn’t realize that the rim of the basket is round. This is why we keep experiencing birth, aging, illness, and death without end.

As for the noble ones, they see that everything in the world is the same old stuff coming over and over again. Wealth and poverty, good and bad, pleasure and pain, praise and censure, etc., keep trading places around and around in circles. This is the cycle of defilement, which causes ignorant people to misunderstand. The world itself spins—Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then back to the same old Sunday all over again. January, February, March, April, May, etc., up to November and December, and then back to January. The year of the rat, the ox, the tiger, all the way up to the year of the pig, and then back to the same old year of the rat all over again. Everything is like this, night following day, day following night. Nighttime isn’t for sure: Our daytime is other people’s nighttime, their daytime is our nighttime. Things keep changing like this. This is called the wheel of the world, which causes people with only partial knowledge to misunderstand and to quarrel.

When noble ones see in this way, they develop a sense of dispassion and don’t ever want to be born in a world again—for there are all sorts of worlds. Some worlds have nothing but cold, others nothing but heat—no living beings can be born there. Some have only sunlight; others only moonlight; still others, neither sunlight nor moonlight. This is what is meant by lokavidū.

For this reason, once we’ve learned this, we should take it to think over carefully. Whatever we see as worthy of credence, we should then use to train our hearts so that the paths and their fruitions will arise within us. Don’t be heedless or complacent in anything you do, for life is like dew on the grass. As soon as it’s touched by the light of the sun, it vanishes in no time without leaving a trace.

We die with every in-and-out breath. If we’re the least bit careless, we are sure to die, for death is something that happens very easily. It’s lying in wait for us at every moment. Some people die from sleeping too much, or eating too much, or eating too little; of being too cold, too hot, too happy, too sad. Some people die from pain, others die without any pain. Sometimes even when we’re sitting around perfectly normal we can still die. See that death has you surrounded on all sides—and so be earnest in developing as much goodness as you can, both in the area of the world and in the Dhamma.