day seven : morning

Mindfulness of Dhammas II :
The Six Sense Media

May 23, 2015

Yesterday morning we talked about the dhammas as a frame of reference, focusing on two of the topics that are directly related to meditation practice: the five hindrances and the seven factors for awakening. In each case, these fall under the four noble truths. The five hindrances come under the cause of suffering, and the seven factors for awakening come under the path, which means the hindrances should be abandoned and the factors for awakening should be developed.

This morning I want to talk about another list of topics that’s useful in all situations. It’s the six sense media: the eyes and forms, ears and sounds, nose and smells, tongue and tastes, body and tactile sensations, and mind and ideas. All of these things are neutral, but when you hold this frame of reference in mind you particularly want to pay attention to see what kind of clinging is arising, related to the eyes and forms or the other sense media. This is a useful framework as you go through the day because it’s directly related to sense restraint.

Now, when we talk about sense restraint, it doesn’t mean putting blinders on your eyes and not looking, or putting earplugs in your ears and not listening. Instead, it’s a matter of paying attention to why you’re looking, and what happens as a result of your looking. For many of us, we think that sense objects provoke the mind, but as you look more and more closely at how you look at things, you begin to realize that often you’re looking for provocation. You want to provoke some lust in your mind, or some anger. This means that lust is doing the looking, or anger is doing the looking, and so they’ve taken over your eyes and ears to search for something to provoke them even further.

I’ll give you an example. At the monastery, one of the few opportunities the monks have to leave the monastery is when they go pick someone up at the airport. One of the monks once admitted to me that he would often volunteer to do this because it was his opportunity to look for beautiful people. At one point he realized that this was bad for his practice, so he decided to take a different tack: He was going to look for all the signs of aging at the airport, and when he did, he realized there were lots of signs of aging that he had never noticed before. They were there, almost everywhere, but he had missed them because he was looking for something else.

So, when you’re exercising sense restraint, you want to understand the act of looking or listening, etc., as part of a causal process. You do this to make sure that the way you look or listen, etc., is an exercise in skillful kamma in the present. In other words, you have to understand your intention for looking, what you’re paying attention to, and what perceptions you bring to things. For example, if you decide to perceive human beings as beautiful, you’ll find that it has one sort of impact on the mind. If you change your perceptions—for example, you imagine taking off the skin of every person you look at—it’ll have a different effect on the mind. This shows you again the power of kamma in the present.

This knowledge is especially useful for dealing with clinging as it arises.

Here it’s important to understand that there are four types of clinging. The first is sensual clinging, which, as we explained yesterday, is not just a matter of clinging to sensual objects. We actually cling to our sensual desires. An example, of course, is wine. Wine is grape juice that has gone bad. However, there are magazines about wine, books about wine, discussions of wine, attitudes about which wines make you look sophisticated or wealthy when you drink them, the attitude that it required a lot of merit to be born in France so that you can enjoy all the best wines in the world: All of this over spoiled grape juice. People are more attached to this kind of thing than to the wine itself. This is an example of sensual clinging.

The second kind of clinging is clinging to habits and practices. This refers to the feeling that you have to do certain things in certain ways regardless of what the consequences are. I’ll give you an example. There was a biologist in Austria who raised geese in his backyard. One year a mother goose had a baby goose and a few weeks later she died, so the orphaned baby goose began to imprint on the biologist. In other words, it regarded the biologist as its mother. Everywhere the biologist went, the baby goose would follow. As autumn approached, the biologist realized that he had to bring the goose inside, so one day instead of feeding the goose outside, he simply walked into the house. The goose, hungry, followed. But as soon as the goose got inside the house, it freaked out because it had never been inside a building before.

Now, the house was arranged so that the main hall ran from the door to a large window in the back. Halfway down the hall was a stairway that went up to the right to the second floor, where the biologist lived. When the biologist went in, he went up the stairs, but the young goose ran for the window, thinking that it could escape through it. When its owner called it, and it realized that it couldn’t get out the window, the goose turned around and then went up the stairs. That’s where it got to eat.

From that point on, every time the goose entered the house, it would go first to the window, turn around, and then head up the stairs. With the passage of time, the trip to the window got shorter and shorter until finally the goose would simply go to that corner of the stairway, shake its foot at the window, and then go up the stairs.

One evening the biologist came home late from work. The goose was very hungry, so as soon as the door was open, it ran in and went straight up the stairs. Halfway up the stairs, though, it stopped and started to shake all over. Then finally it went very deliberately down the stairs, over to the window, and then back up the stairs.

Many of us are just like the goose. In America, psychologists talk about listening to your inner child, but when you’re clinging to habits and practices—your habitual way of doing things—you’re listening to your inner goose. That’s the second type of clinging.

The third kind of clinging has to do with views: views having to do with the world, views having to do with yourself, views having to do with politics, all kinds of views. If you hold to them as being ends in themselves, thinking that simply having the view is a goal in itself or that it makes you a better person than other people with different views, that’s clinging to views.

The fourth kind of clinging is clinging to an idea of what you are: either that you have a particular type of self or that you have no self.

Now, of these four types of clinging, three of them actually have skillful versions. You can cling skillfully to skillful habits, to right views, and to skillful views of a sense of your self. In fact, these three kinds of skillful clinging are an essential part of the path.

When we’re practicing sense restraint, we’re trying to see if any of these four kinds of clinging are arising, because these are things that we feed on.

So as you go through the day, try to figure out what you’re feeding on as you look and listen, etc., to the sensory world outside. If you see that an unskillful type of clinging is arising, try to let it go. As long as you’re on the path and skillful forms of clinging arise, try to develop those. There will come a point when you want to abandon all forms of clinging, but that’s at the end of the path. In the meantime, try to foster skillful types of clinging as you go through the day.

The Buddha recommends perceiving mindfulness of your body—such as mindfulness of breathing—as a post, and sense restraint as a leash that ties you to the post. As long as you can make the body comfortable through the breath, you will be less likely to go looking for food through your eyes, ears, nose, etc. When you’re no longer so hungry, it’ll be easier to recognize instances of clinging as they try to take over your senses, and instead to let them go.

This is called bringing your life into the practice so that the whole life becomes part of the practice. That way, the practice isn’t done only when you’re sitting with your eyes closed or when you’re on a retreat. It’s done every time you look at something or listen to something. In that way, it can develop momentum.