day five : evening

Present Kamma :
Learning to be a Good Cook

Last night we talked about past kamma. Tonight I’d like to talk about present kamma. So please meditate, because as you’re meditating, you’re doing kamma right now. These instructions will make a lot more sense if you’re looking at the mind in action as it meditates.

Present kamma is of two types. One is the kamma that you bring into the situation; the other is your immediate reaction to the situation. The more important of the two is the first one, because it involves the intentions with which you shape the experience to begin with. Remember the Buddha’s image of feeding: Our intentions are most often concerned with deciding where we’re going to look for food right now, and how we’re going to fix it. The Buddha’s instructions on present kamma are basically designed to teach us to become better and more observant cooks.

The first instruction of a good cook is to choose your ingredients well. In most cases, you have a wide range of ingredients to choose from. Of course, there will be some times when nothing but bad ingredients are forced on you. In other words, everything sprouting in your kamma field is bad. That will be the topic for tomorrow’s talk. Here we’ll focus on making the best use of a variety of things coming up in the present under better conditions: how to choose your ingredients when you have a choice, and how to learn some good skills as a cook to fix those ingredients well. These skills will then aid you during the times when all the ingredients forced on you are bad.

The main instruction in choosing your ingredients is to stay away from bad potentials if you can. This principle applies inside and out. There’s a story they tell of a martial arts master in China. His students were going to give a demonstration of their skills one day in a pavilion out in the forest. On the road to the pavilion was a donkey. The donkey had a reputation for kicking everyone who came past. So as the martial arts students were on their way to the pavilion, they decided, “Let’s test our martial arts against the donkey.” The first student took one stance, and the donkey kicked him across the road. The second student said, “You fool, that’s not how it’s done.” So he took another stance, but he, too, was kicked across the road. All the students tried their different stances, and they were all kicked across the road. So they realized, “There must be one more stance that the teacher hasn’t taught us yet.” So they hid behind the bushes on the side of the road to watch the teacher when he came, to see what stance he would take. When the teacher came along, he saw the donkey—and he walked ‘way around it. The stance that he hadn’t taught his students was this: If you can avoid bad potentials, avoid them. Focus on the good ones. That’s the main instruction with regard to the ingredients.

Now for your techniques. The Buddha talks about two sets of techniques as we approach the present moment. The first one comes in his description of dependent co-arising under the factor called “name” [§8]. These techniques include intention, attention, perception, and feeling, along with contact, which here means the interrelationships among the other four—as when you perceive an intention or pay attention to a perception. You can make use of any of these techniques or any combination of these techniques to fix your food in the present. In other words, you can change your intention, your attention, your perception, or your feeling as you approach a particular incident or a particular situation.

You can see this in action when you’re working with the breath. In terms of intention, you can change the place where you’re focusing, or your intention of what you want to do with the breath energy, and that will change your experience of the breath. In terms of attention, you can pay attention to the questions you’re asking about the breath. For example, if you ask yourself what would be a comfortable breath, the breath will change. When you change your perception with regard to the breath—for example, perceiving the breath as a whole body process, the energy flowing through the nerves and the blood vessels—that, too, will change your experience of the breath. The factor of contact among these things is what allows you to make these adjustments.

The same set of techniques applies to how you deal with pain in the course of meditation. Think back on the instructions I gave the other day on dealing with pain: If pain arises, you can change your intention from giving in to the pain to actively probing and questioning it. Your relationship to the pain will change depending on the perceptions you hold in mind and the questions about the pain that you pay attention to. If one set of perceptions and questions doesn’t work, try to think up another one.

Recall the Buddha’s instructions to Rāhula. If you see that an action is unskillful, you stop and then try another action. In this way, you’re developing your faculty of judgment. But it’s important to see that there are different kinds of judgment. Here we’re not exercising the judgment of a judge in a court who’s making a final decision of guilt or innocence. Instead, we’re exercising more the judgment of a craftsperson who’s looking at what he’s doing while he’s doing it. If he notices that he’s making a mistake, then he can adjust to correct for the mistake. In other words, you judge your meditation as a work in progress. In this way your powers of judgment become a useful part of the meditation.

Once you’ve learned how to develop these mental techniques toward your meditation, you can use the same principles to deal with situations outside. For example, if you have a difficult situation at work, first you ask yourself, “Is my intention here skillful? Am I paying attention to the right things? Is part of my problem the way I’m perceiving the situation? Can I change my perception of the situation?” In this way, you approach the situation as an experiment or as a work in progress. In the course of doing this, you begin to see many potentials in the situation that you may not have seen before.

The Buddha’s second set of descriptions of the skills that we apply to the present moment comes under the factor of fabrication, or saṅkhāra, again in dependent co-arising [§8]. There are three types of fabrication. The first is bodily fabrication, which is the breath. The second type is verbal fabrication, which is directed thought and evaluation. This is how we talk to ourselves. We direct our minds to a particular topic and then we evaluate it: asking questions about it, making comments about it. All of this is verbal fabrication. The third type of fabrication is mental fabrication, which is composed of perceptions and feelings.

These three forms of fabrication overlap somewhat with the factors under “name.” Both sets contain perception and feeling, and intention and attention are closely related to directed thought and evaluation. In fact, all three sorts of fabrications contain an element of intention. That’s how they’re related to present kamma. The three fabrications are a little broader in their range than the factors under “name” because they include the experience of the breath as a tool in shaping the present moment as well.

We see the three types of fabrication most directly as we’re engaged in breath meditation. The breath we’re focusing on is bodily fabrication. As we get more sensitive to it, we begin to see how our intentions are involved in the way we breathe. And we have freedom to choose different patterns of breathing. We’re also engaged in directed thought and evaluation of the breath. We’re applying our different perceptions to the breath, and we’re creating different kinds of feelings around the way we concentrate on the breath. These are all things we can choose to do one way or another.

If distracting thoughts come up while you’re trying to focus on the breath, you can use the different types of fabrication to release yourself from them as well. Remember, as I told you when describing the Buddha’s five techniques for dealing with distracting thoughts, the first requirement is that you establish the intention to get out of those thoughts. Otherwise, the techniques won’t work. Some of the techniques deal primarily with mental fabrication, as when you try to perceive a thought as undesirable. Others deal primarily with bodily fabrication, as when you try to relax the tension of fabrication surrounding the thought. At the same time, some of the techniques deal primarily with the factors under “name,” as when you turn your attention away from the thought and just let it be.

So as we engage in breath meditation, we’re becoming more sensitive to how we shape our present experience through these three types of fabrication, or through the factors of “name.” And we’ll find that there are some situations where kamma potentials coming in from the past make things difficult in the present moment, yet we can learn the different skills to work around them. Then, once we become more sensitive to these processes in our body and mind, we can start applying these skills to other situations in life.

You may remember that in one of the earlier talks during the retreat we talked about different ways you deal with the causes of suffering. Some causes of suffering go away when you just look at them; others require that you engage in what the Buddha calls, “exerting a fabrication” [§21]. And when the Buddha’s talking about fabrication in this context, he’s talking about these three kinds of fabrication.

For example, suppose that you’re feeling a strong sense of anger and you want to get over it. The first thing you do is to look at your breath. Usually when you’re angry, your breath is disturbed, which aggravates the anger. So, remember what you’ve learned to do with the breath in meditation: calm the breath down, breathe through any tightness you may feel in your chest or your abdomen, and in this way you begin to reclaim your body from the anger, which has hijacked it. You make the breath your own again. That’s bodily fabrication.

When the body feels calmer, it’s easier to think clearly about the situation. This is where you apply directed thought and evaluation. And you can start asking yourself, “What, in the long term, would be the most skillful thing to do in this situation?” In other words, you’re not going just by your emotions or impulses. You’re looking at the long-term results.

Finally, with mental fabrication, you ask yourself, “What perceptions are you holding in mind that are aggravating the situation? For example, do you perceive yourself as a victim? Are you carrying perceptions of other times when you were a victim? Can you change those perceptions?”

Another perception that’s a troublemaker when you’re angry is that, when passing judgment on the other person, you subconsciously perceive yourself as a judge in a court and you’re free to decide whether the person is guilty or innocent, without perceiving that the judgment will have any effect on you. But when you perceive that the consequences won’t touch you, you tend to get heedless. To prevent this, the Buddha advises changing the perception: Consider yourself as a person traveling through the desert. You’re hot, trembling, and thirsty. You see a small puddle of water in the footprint of a cow. You need the water, but you realize that if you try to scoop it up with your hand, you’ll make it muddy. So what do you do? You get down on all fours and you slurp up the water. Even though this is not a dignified position, it’s what you need to do.

In the same way, we sometimes need the perception that other people have at least some goodness to them, because that will nourish our ability to do good in response to them. The perception of their goodness is like water nourishing our own. And so even though we may be angry with the other person and we don’t feel in the mood to look at the person’s good traits because it hurts our pride, we should still realize that we need their goodness to nourish our goodness. Otherwise, if we see the entire human race as basically bad, it’s going to be very difficult to treat people well. If we look for their goodness, we benefit in being more inclined to act skillfully. This comes from applying a totally different perception to the situation.

This is one example of how you can apply these different kinds of fabrication or the instances of intention, attention, feeling, and perception to approach the present moment with strength and with clarity. That way you will be more likely to do the most skillful thing.

So the Buddha’s basic instructions are similar to what you would give to train a good cook: Choose your good ingredients if you can. Develop your skills so that even though you’re sometimes stuck with bad ingredients, you can create a good situation in the present moment, providing yourself with good food now, at the same time planting new seeds for good food into the future.

Q: Did I hear you say to look not for the weakest link in the factors of dependent co-arising for a way to dismantle the samsaric building system, but to use its strengths as an example of gravity as well as tighter chain systems such as nāma-rūpa-viññāṇa in terms of their potential for representing the whole, as in your scale invariance analogy?

A: No. Basically what you want to do when you’re dealing with dependent co-arising is to bring more knowledge to all of the factors, and this means knowledge in terms of the four noble truths. Try to see the various factors in terms of which noble truth they fall under, and then try to apply the right duty to them. In some cases, this will involve strengthening some of the skillful factors—such as strengthening skillful forms of fabrication—but it also means weakening some of the unskillful ones. It’s in the course of strengthening the skillful ones and weakening the less skillful ones that you will find the weakest links and be able to cut them with knowledge.