day one : evening


May 17, 2015

Good evening, and welcome to our retreat on the themes of mindfulness and kamma.

We’re here this week to learn some useful skills to deal with one of the most fundamental problems in life, which is that we all desire happiness, we keep acting on the desire for happiness, and yet we often cause suffering for ourselves and others through our own actions. The Buddha, after his awakening, focused his energies on helping us solve precisely this problem. As he analyzed it, he saw that there’s nothing wrong with desiring happiness. We simply don’t approach that desire with enough wisdom.

One of the most basic principles of wisdom is that we need to train our minds. You may have noticed that you can be living in good conditions and yet still suffer, and that you can be happy in spite of bad conditions. Your happiness and suffering both depend on the inner condition of your mind. And the Buddha discovered that the condition of your mind doesn’t have to be a random thing or left to chance. It can be trained through your own efforts. But your efforts have to be guided by wisdom. Two of the most important concepts that the Buddha used in his instructions on how to develop wisdom are mindfulness and kamma.

Unfortunately, these two concepts are often misunderstood. Kamma is misunderstood and, in the West, is generally disliked. Mindfulness is something that everybody likes even though they don’t understand it properly. So this week will be devoted to understanding these two concepts and the relationship between them so that we can get the most use out of them.

The concept of kamma is usually disliked because people believe it to be deterministic, teaching that your present experience is controlled by your past kamma, which is something you’re powerless to change. But as the Buddha pointed out, your present experience is shaped not only by past kamma but also by present kamma. In fact, your present kamma is more important than your past kamma in determining whether or not you suffer in the present. Present kamma deals with the way you shape your experience in the present moment. We are active beings, not passive. The mind takes an active and proactive role in shaping its experience from moment to moment.

It’s like fixing food. Our past kamma is like raw food, and our present kamma is like the act of fixing the food so that we can eat it. In fact, feeding is one of the central images in the Buddha’s teachings: Because we are beings, we need to feed both physically and mentally. To feed properly, we need to know how to fix our food well.

Another reason why people don’t like the idea of kamma—especially when connected with rebirth—is that they see that it’s something that can’t be proven, and so they’d rather just put the whole issue aside. But the question of how far the consequences of your actions go isn’t something that can be put aside. Every time we act, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we’re calculating the balance between the effort put into the action and the results we expect to receive. And as we make these calculations, we’re making assumptions about the future that can’t be proven: Do we have free will? Will our actions affect only this life, or will they go on into the next?

In presenting his teaching on kamma, the Buddha is giving us a set of assumptions—or working hypotheses—that will explain why it makes sense to follow a path to the end of suffering, and that will encourage us to act skillfully in all situations. We won’t know that these assumptions are actually true until we reach the first level of awakening, but we will see that these assumptions make us better, more responsible people in the meantime. Of course, some people would rather not make the effort to be more responsible, but the Buddha wasn’t interested in teaching them.

A third reason why people don’t like the idea of kamma is because they assume that the Buddha simply picked up the idea of kamma, unthinkingly, from what everyone in India believed at the time. This is not true. The questions of whether people actually are responsible for their actions, or kamma, and whether their actions actually shaped their experience, were hotly debated in the Buddha’s time. And the Buddha had a very distinctive way of explaining kamma, unlike anything else that had been taught in India—or anywhere else.

Two principles in his teaching on kamma were especially distinctive. The first is that kamma is intention [§4]. In other words, action is not simply a matter of the motion of the body. It’s a matter of the mind—and the intention that drives the kamma makes the difference between good actions and bad.

The second distinctive principle is that kamma coming from the past has to be shaped by kamma in the present before you can experience it. You actually experience your present kamma before you engage with the results of past kamma. Without present kamma, you wouldn’t experience the results of past kamma at all. The importance of your present kamma is the reason why we meditate. When we meditate, we’re getting more sensitive to what we’re doing in the present moment, we’re creating good kamma in the present moment, and we’re learning how to be more skillful in creating good kamma all the time, from now into the future.

Now, in learning to shape our present moment skillfully, it helps to learn lessons from other people who have learned through experience how to shape their kamma skillfully themselves. We also have to learn from our own actions, observing what we do and the results of what we do. Once we’ve learned those lessons, we have to remember them. If we learn them and then forget them, they’re useless.

It’s for this reason we need to develop mindfulness, or sati, which the Buddha defined as a faculty of memory: your active memory, the lessons you need to remember from the past about how to shape your experience skillfully in the present. There are people who explain mindfulness as bare attention or full awareness, but the Buddha wasn’t one of them. In his use of the term, mindfulness is your active memory, your ability to keep things in mind. So, as we discuss mindfulness in the course of this retreat, try to keep the Buddha’s meaning of the word in mind.

To practice right mindfulness, you combine mindfulness with two other qualities: sampajañña, which is to be alert to what you’re doing right now and to the results you’re getting from your actions; and ardency, ātappa, which means putting your whole heart into doing it well. You need to bring all three qualities together as you meditate so that your practice of mindfulness will be right, and will strengthen the next factor in the path: right concentration, samādhi.

As we meditate, we actually develop mindfulness together with concentration. Some people say that mindfulness practice is one thing; concentration is something else. But again, the Buddha was not one of those people. Mindfulness and concentration have to work together. Without mindfulness you can’t remember where to stay concentrated. Without concentration, your mindfulness gets very fuzzy and forgotten. So this week we will be learning to put mindfulness and concentration together, and also to bring kamma into the mix, because mindfulness and concentration are things we intentionally do. You can’t understand them properly or do them properly without understanding the principles of kamma.

You have to remember that you’re fixing food for the mind all the time: each time you breathe in, each time you breathe out. We tend to forget this, though, because we’re too intent on wanting to gobble down our experiences, whenever we can find them. We forget the lessons we’ve learned from the past. So we have to remember that we’re here fixing food for the present moment, and we want to eat well. How we do this will also influence what we experience in the future. Ultimately, we want to bring the mind to a place where it’s so strong that it doesn’t need to feed anymore at all.

This means that both mindfulness and kamma make reference to all three time frames. Mindfulness brings in what you’ve learned from the past and reminds you to focus on shaping things well in the present moment so that it will also have a good effect in the future. In the same way, the results of your past intentions come in from the past, providing the raw material for the food in the present; and as you fix that food in the present, it will have an influence on the food available to you well into the future.

This further means that the teachings on mindfulness and kamma work together. In fact, they’re inseparable. You can’t understand right mindfulness without understanding kamma, and you can’t develop skillful kamma for the purpose of release without developing right mindfulness.

That’s the main lesson of the retreat. If you’re in a hurry to leave and go home, you can leave now because you’ve learned the basic lesson. But to learn it as a skill will take some time. That’s why we’re here for a week—and why the retreat is being recorded, so that you can take the lessons home and continue working on them after the week is up.

My teacher used to recommend not teaching people until they had meditated. If they haven’t meditated, they won’t understand anything. So the first step in learning about mindfulness and kamma will be to meditate now. That way you’ll have some hands-on experience in focusing on your present kamma and in developing the three qualities of mindfulness, alertness, and ardency.


Get in a comfortable position. Sit up comfortably straight, place your hands in your lap, face forward, and close your eyes.

Think thoughts of goodwill. Goodwill is a wish for happiness—a wish for true happiness, both for yourself and for other people. When we wish goodwill for ourselves and for others, we’re basically wishing that we and other people will understand the causes for true happiness and act on them. And this is a thought you can spread to anyone, even people who are doing unskillful things, very unskillful things, creating a lot of damage to the world. You’re basically wishing that they will stop and have a change of heart, which means that goodwill is something that you can spread to everyone without hypocrisy.

We think these thoughts at the beginning of the meditation because true happiness comes from within. It comes from developing the good potentials of the mind through the skills we master in meditation. This is why there’s no conflict between your true happiness and anyone else’s true happiness. So when you pose the thought in your mind, “May I be happy,” it’s not a selfish thought. The more you’re able to develop your own inner skills, the more you will have to offer to other people as well. This is why goodwill can be developed as an unlimited attitude.

So pose that thought in your mind for a few minutes: “May I be truly happy. May I come to understand the causes of true happiness. And may I be able to act on them.”

Now spread the same thought to others. Start with people who are close to your heart: to members of your family, and to very close friends. May they find true happiness, too.

Then spread the same thought out in ever-widening circles:

to people you know well and like,

to people you like even though you don’t know them so well,

to people you’re more neutral about,

and to people you don’t like.

Remember that the world would be a much better place if everyone could find true happiness inside.

Spread thoughts of goodwill to people you don’t even know. And not just people: living beings of all kinds, in all directions—east, west, north, south, above, and below, out to infinity. May we all find true happiness in our hearts.

Now bring your attention to the breath. The word “breath” here doesn’t mean just the air coming in and out of the lungs. It also means the flow of energy throughout the body, which exists on many levels. On the most obvious level, it’s the flow of energy that allows the air to come in and go out of the lungs. But it also includes the flow of energy in the nerves and the blood vessels, out to every pore.

So take a couple of good long, deep in-and-out breaths and notice where you feel the breath energy. If long breathing feels good, keep it up. If it doesn’t feel good, you can change the breath. There are two ways of changing it. One is to consciously experiment with different kinds of breathing: long, short, fast, slow, deep, shallow, heavy, light, or any combination of those. Try various ways of breathing to see what feels best for the body right now. When you’ve found a rhythm and texture of breathing that feels good, stick with it for as long as it continues to feel good. If the needs of the body change, then allow the breath to change in line with them. Try to be as sensitive as you can to learn the signs in the body indicating what way of breathing will serve it best.

The other way to change the breath is to consciously pose the question in your mind, each time you breathe in: “What would feel really good right now?” And see how the body responds on its own.

If any thoughts not related to the breath grab your attention, just drop them and you’ll be right back at the breath. If the mind goes wandering off 10 times, 100 times, bring it back 10 times, 100 times. Don’t get discouraged. Just keep letting the thoughts go, letting them go. And you don’t have to chase them away. Even though a thought unrelated to the breath may appear in the mind, you can still feel the breath. Stay with that sensation.

Each time you return to the breath, reward yourself with an especially gratifying breath. That way the mind will be more and more inclined to keep coming back to the breath and more willing to stay there.

If there are any pains in the body, don’t focus on them. Focus instead on the opposite side of the body. In other words, if there’s a pain in the back, focus on the front of the torso. If pain on the right, focus on the left.

When the breath gets comfortable, there’s a danger that you might start leaving the breath to follow the comfort, but that will destroy the foundation for the sense of comfort, which is your continued focus on the breath.

So to counteract that tendency, the next step is to breathe in and out aware of the entire body. And the first step in that direction is to survey the sensations of the breath in the different parts of the body, section by section.

Start down around the navel. Locate that part of the body in your awareness. Watch it for a while as you breathe in and breathe out to see what kind of breathing feels good there. If there’s any tension or tightness there, allow it to relax and dissolve away, so that no new tension builds up as you breathe in, and you don’t hold on to any tension as you breathe out. If it helps in dissolving the tension, think of the breath energy entering and leaving your body right at the spot where you’re focused, so you don’t have to create tension by trying to pull energy from anywhere else in the body. As the patterns of tension begin to dissolve away, try to notice if there are any more subtle patterns of tension, and allow those to dissolve away as well.

Now move your attention over to the right, to the lower right hand corner of the abdomen, and follow the same steps there. One, locate that part of the body in your awareness. Two, watch it for a while as you breathe in and breathe out to see what kind of breathing feels good there. And three, if there’s any sense of tension or tightness there, allow it to relax.

Now move your attention over to the left, to the lower left hand corner of the abdomen, and follow the same three steps there.

Now bring your attention up to the solar plexus, right at the tip of the breastbone, and follow the same three steps there.

Now bring your attention over to the right, to the right flank.

And then to the left, to the left flank.

Then bring your attention to the middle of the chest. Try to be especially sensitive to how the breath energy feels around the heart, and breathe in a way that feels soothing there.

Now bring your attention to the right, to the place where the chest and the shoulder meet.

And then to the same spot on the left.

Now bring your attention to the base of the throat.

Now bring your attention to the middle of the head. As you breathe in and out, think of the breath energy coming in and out of the head from all directions, not only through the nose, but also through the eyes, the ears, in from the back of the head, down from the top of the head, going deep, deep, deep into the brain, gently dissolving away any patterns of tension you may feel anywhere in the head: around the jaws, around the forehead, around the eyes, at the back of the neck.

Now bring your attention to the base of the neck, right at the base of the skull. As you breathe in, think of the breath energy entering there from the back and spreading down through the neck, down the shoulders, the arms, out to the tips of the fingers. As you breathe out, think of it radiating out from all those parts of the body into the air.

As you get more sensitive to these parts of the body, if you see that one side is holding more tension than the other, relax that side and try to keep it relaxed, all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out.

And as obvious patterns of tension begin to relax in these parts of the body, try to become more sensitive to detect subtler patterns of tension that were obscured by the more obvious ones. Allow even the slightest tension that you can detect to relax.

Now, keeping your attention focused on the back of the neck, this time as you breathe in think of the energy entering there and then going down both sides of the spine all the way down to the tailbone. Then as you breathe out, think of it radiating out from the entire spine into the air. And again, if you notice that there’s more tension in one side of the back than the other, allow that side to relax. And try to keep becoming more and more sensitive even to the slightest patterns of tension in this part of the body. When you sense them, allow them to relax.

Now bring your attention down to the tailbone. As you breathe in, think of the energy entering there and going down through the hips, the legs, to the tips of the toes. And then as you breathe out, think of the energy radiating out from all those parts of the body into the air. And again, if there’s more tension in one side of the body than the other, allow that side to relax. And keep it relaxed, all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out. As you’re staying here, try to become sensitive to ever more and more subtle patterns of tension so that you can dissolve those away, too.

That completes one cycle of the survey of the body. If you want, you can go through the body again to pick out any patterns of tension you may have missed the first time around. Keep this up until you’re ready to settle down.

Then choose any one spot in the body that seems most congenial or most interesting. Allow your attention to settle there and then to spread out to fill the whole body, so that you’re aware of the whole body breathing in, the whole body breathing out. As your awareness spreads, think of it as exerting no pressure at all on your body. It’s like the light of a candle in an otherwise dark room: The flame is in one spot, but the light fills the entire room. Or like the spider in the middle of a web: The spider is in one spot, but it’s sensitive to the whole web. Try to maintain this sense of centered but broad awareness all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out. Maintain this quality of awareness as long and as steadily as you can. Try to master it as a skill. Your attention will have a tendency to shrink, especially during the out-breath, so each time you breathe in and out remind yourself, “Whole body, whole body.” Allow the breath to find whatever rhythm feels best. Your duty is simply to maintain this centered but broad awareness.

There’s nowhere else you have to go right now, nothing else you have to do, nothing else you have to think about. This awareness is healing for the body and healing for the mind. It’s like a medicinal cream for curing a rash on your skin. For it to work, you have to leave the cream on the skin. If you put it on and then wipe it off, it can’t have any effect. This is why it’s good to develop this type of awareness for a long time. Because it’s still and all-around, it’s a good foundation for insight to arise. But don’t worry about the next step in the meditation, or when the insights will arise. They’ll arise as this quality of awareness matures. Right here. Give it time.


Before leaving meditation, remember that there are three steps to leaving properly.

The first is to ask yourself, “At what point in the meditation was the mind especially well-centered, still, and comfortable? Especially clear?” Then ask yourself, “Where were you focused at that point? What was your breath like? What had you been doing leading up to that point?” If you can remember these things, try to keep them in mind and see if you can apply them to the next time you meditate, to recreate the same conditions and get the same results. Now it may happen that you don’t get the same results, but that simply means that you need to be more observant the next time around. Gradually you’ll become more adept at noticing what’s worth paying attention to, and what’s not. It’s in this way that the meditation becomes a skill.

That’s the first step.

The second step is to think of whatever sense of peace or wellbeing you’ve felt during this session and dedicate it to others, either to specific people you know are suffering right now or to all living beings in all directions: May we all find peace and wellbeing in our hearts.

The third step is to remember that even though you open your eyes, you can still be aware of the breath energy in the body, as you get up, walk around, whatever you do: Try to stay as fully aware of this breath energy as continually as you can. It may be asking too much to try to focus on the in-breath and the out-breath all the time, but just try to be aware of the quality of the breath energy in the body, and release any patterns of tension that you may detect, as soon as they arise, in the course of the day. This way you provide yourself with a good foundation for observing your mind as you go through the day. It also provides you with a sense of being grounded in your daily activities. This helps build up the momentum of your practice.

See if you can maintain this full body awareness until the next time that you sit down to meditate. That way, the next time you sit down to focus on the breath, you’ll be right there.

It’s like keeping a dog on a short leash. When you want it to come, it’s right there. Otherwise, if you drop your awareness of the breath energy, it’s like keeping your dog on a very long leash. It will wrap the leash around other people’s legs, lampposts, trees—all kinds of things. When you want it to come back, you’ll have to unwind the leash, which takes a very long time. So try to maintain this awareness of the breath energy as part of your whole day.

And with that thought, you can open your eyes.

Q: To be mindful, does this mean to be aware of your words, your acts, and their consequences?

A: No, mindfulness, or sati, is the ability to keep in mind what you should be doing. Developing alertness, sampajañña, means being clearly aware of your actions, your words, your thoughts, and their consequences, for the purpose of doing things skillfully. Vigilance or heedfulness is your motivation for wanting to be both mindful and alert.

Q: When you are in mindfulness, are you remembering and by this act soliciting the past, or are you firmly in the present?

A: With mindfulness, you are trying to bring only what you need to know from the past. Through the quality of alertness, you focus on the present. Try to bring the two of them together, so that you remember what you need to know from the past so as to shape the present moment well. Remember, too, that the present is not just given to you. It’s also something that you’re shaping in the present moment as well. Past kamma gives you the potentials for the present moment, but your present kamma is actually what shapes your experience from those potentials.

Q: Can we bring together mindfulness and “what knows” within us?

A: “What knows” within us is basically our awareness. That’s present all the time. Mindfulness is the ability to remember. It’s not always there or may be in the wrong place, which is why we have to train it. As for alertness, that’s particularly focused on our actions and their results. So in that way, alertness gives more focus to “what knows” inside.

Q: If you are being mindful when involved in an activity that completely absorbs you, when all thoughts go away, can this be created in the case of tossing a salad or also in the work of a sculptor or musician?

A: When you are totally absorbed in your action, that is called alertness. But there should also be somewhere in the back of your mind the question: What is the skillful way to do this? That would be mindfulness. And the effort to follow through with what is skillful would be ardency.

Q: Does there exist a right mindfulness and wrong mindfulness or good mindfulness and bad mindfulness?

A: Yes, you can have either good or bad mindfulness. An example of wrong mindfulness is if you’re planning to rob a bank and you keep the plans in mind as you go down to the bank. That’s wrong mindfulness.

Q: Watching the beauty of the sunset or enjoying sublime music: Can this also be a form of mindfulness?

A: It can be mindfulness, but it’s not necessarily right mindfulness. However, if you’re watching your mind in the course of, say, looking at the beauty of a sunset, and if you see that anything unskillful is coming up and you’re mindful to drop that, then that would be right mindfulness.

One evening at the monastery in Thailand, a monk visiting from Bangkok was commenting to my teacher, “Isn’t the sunset beautiful?” And my teacher told him, “Don’t focus on the sunset. Focus on the part of the mind that’s saying, ‘Isn’t the sunset beautiful?’”

Q: Could you be more precise about the message given to the monk by your master concerning the beautiful sunset? Is it a matter of distraction? Is it something that you should find of no interest at all?

A: Basically, as monks, we’re supposed to be training our minds, and so our first point of reference should always be the state of the mind in the present moment. There’s nothing wrong with beautiful sunsets, but you should make your experience of the whole thing more complete so that you can see whether it’s having a good or bad effect on the mind. In other words, you watch both the sunset and the mind watching the sunset. What you see from this larger perspective then gives you your instructions for what your ardency should do next. An important lesson in developing mindfulness and alertness is that important insights often can come if we look at the cracks in our mind states, when the mind leaves one object and goes to another. If you’re not looking for those cracks, then when you’re looking, say, at the sunsets or the flowers, or thinking about tomorrow’s meal, you’re going to miss those insights.

Q: Wasn’t the Buddha a joyous and light person?

A: Yes, after his awakening. Before his awakening, it was a different matter. As he once said, there were two qualities that allowed him to become awakened. The first was not being content with the level of skill he had reached. In other words, if he realized that there was something better, a more skillful way to act, he would go for it. The second quality was his determination that if he saw any unskillful qualities in his mind he would put them out, just as he would put out a fire on his head. Ajaan Suwat used to make a comparison with eating. When you are finished a meal, you can sit back and relax. But as long as you’re hungry, you have to do everything that you can to get food.

Q: Empathy, is this compatible with mindfulness and right resolve in the eightfold path?

A: Actually, empathy is a part of right resolve because part of right resolve is the resolve of not wanting to harm anyone, and empathy is a good antidote against any desire to do harm. This should then motivate your ardency to act skillfully with all your heart.

Q: Could you give a definition of the ideas of volition and diligence?

A: Volition is basically your will power, your desire to do something. Diligence, in English, is often translated as heedfulness, which basically comes down to the realization that there are dangers in life, but that, through our efforts, we can avoid those dangers. So we put effort into learning how to avoid the dangers, because as the Buddha said, heedfulness is the basis of all skillful qualities. This, too, is a motivating force for ardency.

Q: The idea of always wanting to put an end to suffering, does it prevent us from seeing the peace that is always there?

A: You can get a glimpse of a sense of peace every now and then, but those glimpses are very short. In other words, the peace is not always there. It’s fabricated, i.e., it depends on conditions. Because conditions can change, that kind of peace is not genuine peace. To experience genuine peace fully, you have to turn around and look at what you’re doing to cause suffering. Otherwise, your old habits will keep pulling you back.

Ajaan Lee has a nice analogy for this. He said it’s like salt water. Fresh water is there in the salt water, but you don’t get the fresh water simply by letting it sit. You have to boil the water to separate the salt from the water. Meditation—and in particular, the ardency in your meditation—is like boiling the water, so that you can separate the salt from the fresh water.