day six : morning

Mindfulness of Dhammas I :
Noble Truths, Hindrances,
& Factors for Awakening

May 22, 2015

For the past three mornings we’ve been talking about the first three frames of reference: the body in and of itself, feelings in and of themselves, and mind states in and of themselves. Today we’re going to start talking about the fourth frame of reference. The Pāli word for this frame of reference is dhammas. In English we translate it as mental qualities. And what we have under this topic are five different lists of mental qualities.

It’s important, when trying to understand this frame of reference, to remember that all dhammas come under the four noble truths. The four noble truths are a list under this frame of reference—the most important list—but they’re not just a list of names or things. They provide a framework that you apply to your experience, one that divides experience into four categories: suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Each category has a duty, which means that each truth is not just something to know about, but it’s also something that you have to put into practice. For example, (1) if you see suffering, you try to comprehend it, which means trying to understand it to the point of dispassion. (2) If you see that something is a cause of suffering, your duty is to abandon it. (3) If you see the cessation of suffering happening, your duty is to realize what’s going on. All too often, when craving ceases, we don’t pay attention to the fact that the suffering coming from the craving also ceases. We’re more interested in moving on to the next craving. So the duty with regard to the third noble truth is not to move on to the next craving, but to look for the cessation of suffering as the craving ceases. (4) If you see that some quality is part of the path, your duty is to develop it. For instance, if a moment of concentration arises, you don’t just let it pass. You try to maintain it and help it to grow [§27]. In each of these cases, the truth assigns a duty, which is the responsibility of ardency to carry out.

As for other lists of dhammas, they all fall under these four categories. As Venerable Sāriputta once said, the four noble truths contain all of the other dhammas in the same way that the footprint of an elephant can contain the footprints of all other animals that walk on land. This means that when you see where any of the other members of the other lists of dhammas fall in the scheme of the four noble truths, you know which duty to apply to them. For example, today we’re going to be talking about two of the lists mentioned under the fourth frame of reference: the five hindrances and the seven factors for awakening. The hindrances are a cause of suffering, so they are things to be abandoned. The factors for awakening come under the path, so they’re qualities to be developed.

In this way, each list is a framework for understanding what you should be doing. It’s a guide for your ardency. This means that you don’t just watch things arise and pass away. When something arises, you try to recognize where it fits into one of these lists. And then you can know what duty you have with regard to it: to try to make it arise more, or to try to make it pass away and not come back.

Last night we talked about the different ways you can shape your experience in the present moment, and you can apply those techniques both to the hindrances and to the factors for awakening. For example, remember the list of qualities that came under the factor of name: perception, feeling, attention, and intention. When a hindrance arises, the first thing you need to do is use perception: You need to perceive it as a hindrance. This is because we rarely perceive these things as hindrances. Instead, we tend to perceive them as our friends. When sensual desire arises, you very rarely say to yourself, “Oh, what a hindrance!” You say, “Hey, I like this. This is a friend.” Whatever the desire says is worthy of desire, you tend to agree: “Yes, this really is desirable.”

So, the first step in getting out of this tendency is to perceive, “Yes, this actually is a hindrance.” That’s so that you don’t fall for its lies. Once you perceive that it is a hindrance, you pay attention to it in terms of the four noble truths. That’s an act of appropriate attention.

Then you remember your intention, which is to gain concentration. You remember your intention to stay with the path. This requires mindfulness.

Once you’ve recognized that the desire is a hindrance, then you try to take it apart. Approach it first as a problem of bodily fabrication. How are you breathing while you’re entangled in this hindrance? Can you change the way you breathe? Remembering to ask this question will enable you to reclaim your breath. Once you’ve reclaimed your breath, you can view the hindrance with a little more detachment.

Then you can approach the hindrance through verbal fabrication. In other words, you try to evaluate why you like this hindrance, and then you try to think of its drawbacks. For example, with sensual desire, the Buddha says that we’re not so much attracted to sensual objects. We actually enjoy the desire—the thinking and planning in anticipation of the object—more. You can see this in action. Suppose you decide you want to go over to Moustiers for some pizza. You can spend two hours here in the meditation hall deciding which kind of pizza you want and thinking about how good the pizza will be. When you actually get to Moustiers, the actual amount of time that you spend eating the pizza is probably only about ten minutes. Excuse me, that’s how we eat in America. Here it would take half an hour, but that’s still less than the two hours you spent thinking about it.

But suppose that the pizza place is closed. You can take it in stride. You tell yourself, “That’s OK, the ice cream places are open.” As long as you can find something else to desire, you’re perfectly fine. But if someone were to tell you you’re not allowed to desire pizza or any other food at all, then you would really rebel—which shows that you’re attached more to the desire than to the pizza. It’s good to reflect on that fact: Why are you so attached to planning for future sensual pleasures? What do you think you get out of it?

When you reflect on your desire in this way, it’s called thinking about the allure: trying to find exactly what gratification you get simply in thinking about sensual pleasures. What do you think you’re gaining from engaging in that kind of thinking? The Buddha compares it to a dog chewing on some old bones that offer no nourishment at all. But as Ajaan Lee says, we like the taste of our saliva, so we keep on chewing anyhow.

The next step is to evaluate the drawbacks of the sensual desire. The drawbacks of pizza are not so bad, but think about what someone described yesterday as a “particular relationship.” Those have lots of drawbacks. Our culture—and this applies both to France and to America—tells us that sensual desires are good, and we very rarely want to think about their drawbacks. But if you don’t think that sex has drawbacks, go to a divorce court. I don’t know about France, but in America divorce court is the most dangerous court in the entire court system. They actually need two or three bailiffs per court: A bailiff is an armed policeman stationed in the court who enforces peace in the court. Each divorce court has to have two or three bailiffs, where other courts can get by with only one. Do they do that in France, too? No? Maybe that tells you something about America. But it does point out the fact that there are a lot of drawbacks to sexual relations. When they turn sour, they can easily turn violent. If sex were totally good, no one would feel bad over the sex they had in the past with a person who later betrayed them. The wonderful nature of sex would more than compensate for the later disappointment.

You can also think of all the stupid things you’ve done in the past because of sexual desire. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll be able to find some way for realizing that the sensual desire you’re feeling has drawbacks that far outweigh the gratification, and that you’d be much better off focusing on the breath to let the mind gain a sense of inner peace and calm instead.

This contemplation of the allure of the desire and the drawbacks of the desire will require you to figure out which way of thinking about and evaluating these issues will be most effective for your mind. In this case, again, your intention has to be strong. If your intention is strong enough, these techniques should be able to get you past the hindrance.

So these are some of the ways that you can use your knowledge of fabrication to deal with the hindrances.

Another example would be dealing with restlessness and anxiety. In this case, you have to ask yourself, “Why am I drawn to this type of thinking? Why do I want to worry?” Part of your mind may insist that it doesn’t like to worry, but the fact that you keep coming back to the worry means that another part, which may be more hidden under denial, gets some satisfaction out of worrying. Often when you’re worried about the future, that part of your mind tells you, “If I worry about this enough, I will be able to take care of the situation. If I don’t worry, I’m being irresponsible.” But you have to remember that you really don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. What you do know is that if you waste your energy worrying, you’ll have less energy to deal with problems when they actually arise—whether they’re problems you anticipate or problems you never anticipated. What you will need when a problem actually comes will be more mindfulness, more alertness, more discernment. When you think about this, you realize that you’d be better off meditating in order to develop those qualities. This is another way in which you use mental and verbal fabrication to get yourself past the hindrances.

A similar principle applies to the factors of awakening. First you have to perceive them as your friends here on the path, pay attention to them in a way that helps to develop them, and maintain your intention to keep on developing them to make them grow stronger. Actually, when you’re abandoning the hindrances, you’re already developing the first three factors for awakening: mindfulness; analysis of qualities, which is a factor of discernment; and then persistence, which is the same thing as ardency. The remaining four factors for awakening are rapture, calm, concentration, and equanimity.

Now, you may have noticed as we’ve been meditating this week, we’re already using the three kinds of fabrications to develop these qualities. In other words, breath, which is bodily fabrication; directed thought and evaluation, which are verbal fabrications; and perception and feelings, which are mental fabrications. By directing your thoughts and perceptions to the breath in a way that creates feelings of pleasure, you’re fostering all the factors of awakening.

Now, as you develop the factors for awakening, you have to bring them into balance, because some of the factors are active and others are passive. The active factors are analysis of qualities, persistence, and rapture. The passive ones are calm, concentration, and equanimity. If your mind is out of balance, you have to take a good look at it to see which side needs to be strengthened. The image the Buddha uses is of trying to start a fire. If the fire is too weak, you add more fuel. If the fire is too strong, you pour some water or ashes on it. In the same way, if your mind is too sluggish, you want to develop the more active factors: analyzing what’s going on in the mind, putting in some effort to raise your level of energy, and trying to develop an energizing sense of rapture. It’s not the time to develop the passive factors. Otherwise, that would be like putting water on a weak fire. It would put the fire out.

If your mind is too active, you try to develop the more passive factors: calm, concentration, and equanimity. If you develop the active factors at a time like that, it’s like putting more fuel into fire that’s already too strong.

In developing each of these factors, the Buddha says that it’s important to apply appropriate attention in every case. For example, if you’re feeling doubtful, he encourages you to develop analysis of qualities, which means that you look for qualities at work in your mind and try to identify them as either skillful or unskillful. As you learn to divide things into these two terms, you begin to see more clearly what’s happening in your mind, along with the results that arise from what’s happening, and that can get rid of some of your doubts about how to proceed.

Another example would be rapture. A frequent question is how to give rise to rapture, and the Buddha gives a very vague answer: There are potentials for rapture in the body, so you pay appropriate attention to them. That doesn’t give you much to work with, but from personal experience I’ve found that there are certain parts of the body that have a nice pleasant feeling, nothing particularly impressive, but if you can locate them and give them some space, they can develop a sense of fullness, which is one of the manifestations of rapture.

For example, experiment right now. Focus your attention on the area at the back of your hands. Try to relax that part of the body and be very careful to keep that part of the body relaxed all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out. Don’t put any pressure on it at all. After a while, that part of the body will gain a sense of fullness. The blood is allowed to flow into all the vessels there. Once you sense that fullness, allow it to spread up your arms and into your torso, ideally into your heart, and then you’ll have rapture. Now in your case, your beginning spot may not be at the back of the hands, but if you survey the body often enough, after a while you’ll find your own spots. This is an example of using perception, attention, and intention to give rise to and to strengthen the factors for awakening.

So, in summary, when the Buddha’s talking about using dhammas as a frame of reference, it’s not simply a matter of watching these things arise and pass away. Instead, he’s giving you a framework for understanding your duty with regard to ardency so that you can know what to do with these events in the mind: encouraging the skillful ones to arise and grow, and getting the unskillful ones to pass away and not return. This is how you use these lists of dhammas as part of the path.

We’ll continue with this frame of reference tomorrow because it contains two more lists, which are the sense media and the clinging-aggregates.