Fire Escapes

April 7, 2016

A rainy night like this forces your attention inside. If you send your mind out, you run into the rain and the cold, so you bring it back in. Try to inhabit your body fully. Think of your awareness as having a shape like the body and that it fills every part of your physical body. You’re aware in your toes, you’re aware in your legs, you’re aware in your hips, torso, your head, your arms, everything. You fully inhabit this space.

And how do you know this space? You know it through the breath energy. There’s the in-and-out breath but then there are also the more subtle energies that flow throughout the body, throughout the nerves and the blood vessels, out to every pore. See how fully you can inhabit the space defined by the breath. Back into it. Feel it all around you.

This helps to pull you away from your concerns about things outside: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations. If you can inhabit this space with a sense of well-being, you ask yourself: Why go out?

The mind may come up with its reasons. But when you examine those reasons, you see that a lot of them have little real substance. They may be convincing if you glance at them—and this is how you often fall for a lot of things happening in the mind: A glancing idea comes in and then it’s gone. You pick up something out of it, something that has you intrigued, and you wonder what you missed. The thought seems more impressive and more convincing than it would if you were able to look at it full on.

So, try to be full on with your body right now. You realize that if there’s going to be any happiness, any really solid happiness, you’ve got to find it in here. As the Buddha said, the problem of suffering is here. But the solution is also here. The end is here.

Someone once asked him about how big the universe was. And the Buddha replied that you could spend your whole life—even if you had an amazing ability to stride great strides—you could go for a hundred years, and you’d still never get to the end of the universe. You would die first. But the end of the universe, in terms of the suffering of the universes of all your becomings, he says, can be found in here. You don’t have to go out there.

So, stay in here. Get to know this space really fully. The end of suffering is to be found in this fathom-long body. That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be found in your liver or stomach. It means that your awareness right here, your awareness that fills the body right here, is where there will be an opening to something that’s beyond the universe.

This explains one of the ironies of the practice: We’re told that the body is on fire with aging, illness, and death, and yet this is where we’re told to center ourselves. You might think that if you could somehow get out of the body, that would be the end, but it’s not. You’d become a wandering spirit. But if you stay right here where this awareness is, things will begin to open up.

This is where the fire escape is. In fact, what we’re doing right now as we’re practicing right concentration is learning about this fire escape.

One of the terms for right concentration is “jhana,” which is related to the verb jhayati, which means to be absorbed but also means to burn with a steady flame, like the flame of an oil lantern.

When you think of the fire of your senses—the fires in the eyes, in the ears, in the nose, in the tongue, in the body as they engage with the outside world—there’s a different verb for that kind of burning. It’s the burning of a wood fire, where the flames leap up and lick out and flicker all over the place. As they leap around, they cast strange shadows on the wall. They create all kinds of misunderstandings at the same time that they’re burning, burning, burning away. Whereas if you have the light of an oil lantern or an oil lamp, the flame is steady. And when the flame is steady, you see things clearly. You can even read by it.

So try to make your mind steady right here. Turn the fire of the senses from a flickering fire into a clear, steady one. Find a spot in the body where it feels good, where the breath energy feels nourishing: calming when you need to be calmed, energizing when you need to be energized. Get a sense that the energy is as still as possible, your mind is as still as possible, and that’s when you can read things clearly inside.

In particular, you start reading the instructions for the fire escape. Some of those instructions come in what the Buddha taught, but often the instructions are right here. All you have to do is to apply what the Buddha calls appropriate attention. You’re looking for where there’s stress—and particularly where the stress comes and goes—and asking yourself, “What am I doing at the same time that the stress comes? What I am doing at the same time that it goes?”

You begin to notice that there are certain actions in the mind even as the mind is getting still. In fact, it’s because the mind is getting still that you can see these subtle actions more clearly. The majority of the mind is still, but there’ll be a little flickering here and there. And you want to notice to what extent that flickering is related to the stress coming and going. If you see that the flickering and the stress come and go at the same time, then you look further. What is that? What did the mind do just then? What kind of perception appeared? What kind of thought appeared? What kind of intention? Where was it going? And what can you do to let go of it?

Now, there are two ways of letting go. One is letting go for the time being, and the other is a letting go that goes deeper. For that deeper letting go, you have to start looking more carefully at what the allure of the perceptions is. Why do you want to get engaged in them? Then, when you see the allure, you can also start looking at the drawbacks. Given that the perception adds to the level of stress in the mind, is it worth going with?

When you can contemplate this in a way that allows you to see that the allure is not worth it, that’s when you gain the escape: first from the flickering flames, and then from the steady flame of jhana itself.

So there’s a map right there: right in your own mind. Of course your directions for how to read the map come from what you’ve learned about what the Buddha had to say.

In fact this is a common image throughout the texts: that the Buddha’s giving us escape instructions. There’s a sutta where a man comes to see Ven. Ananda and asks for a door to the deathless, “Where do you find the door to the deathless?” And Ananda starts giving him a list, citing the different levels of right concentration: the four jhanas, the four brahma-viharas, and three of the formless states. Then he explains how to analyze each of these states so that you can go beyond even the steady flame of concentration, to an experience of the deathless: the going-out of the flames. So the man ends up with eleven doors, which he compares to eleven escapes from a burning house.

There’s some overlap in the list. The four brahma-viharas are another way of getting the mind into jhana, because even with them, you have to practice developing concentration with directed thought and evaluation, without directed thought and evaluation, with a sense of pleasure, with a sense of rapture, with a sense of equanimity. In other words, you take these attitudes through the jhanas. The three formless attainments—infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness—build on the fourth jhana. Even though they’re formless, they’re all right here. Where do you experience them? You experience them right where you’re experiencing the body right now.

See that the breath gets really, really refined. Your mind gets very still, and all the energy channels in the body get connected up so that there’s less and less of a need to breathe air in from the outside. Whatever oxygen exchange needs to happen will happen at the skin. And when your mind is really still, the brain isn’t using that much oxygen, so you don’t feel a need to breathe at all. It’s not that you’re trying to stifle the breath or stop it. It just falls silent on its own as things get connected up.

As you can maintain that state and stay balanced there, you begin to notice that your sense of the edge of the body—where the body ends and outside space begins—begins to dissolve. You realize that, with the movement of the breath still, the only thing holding your sense of the shape of the body is just a perception. If you can drop that perception of the form and stay right here—you don’t go anywhere else—you begin to sense the body as a mist, as a cloud of little sensation drops. Then you see that it’s easier to focus, or more quiet to focus, on the space between the drops. And then you sense that there’s no limit to that. That’s what they mean by infinite space. It’s not that you go out and check the edge of how far it goes out toward infinity, but simply that you don’t sense any limit to it.

So it’s all right here. And this, too, is one of the fire escapes, because this, too, you can analyze to see what perceptions in this state still disturb the mind. What’s their allure? How can you let that allure go by comparing it to the drawbacks?

We’re finding a fire escape here in the midst of the fire. You don’t have to look anywhere else. As for all the Dhamma teachings that have nothing to do with the fire escape, you can just let them go.

I was given a lecture a while back by someone who was quoting an academic, saying that to teach that there’s a right Dhamma and a wrong Dhamma is a very dangerous thing. The analogy the person gave was that the Dhamma’s like a map. Everybody’s Dhamma is like a different map. And as we all know, all maps distort reality to one extent or another, so there’s no one true map, no one map that corresponds to all of reality. We have to accept the fact that everybody’s map is full of distortions, and no one’s is really right.

But that’s a false analogy. What the Buddha’s giving is instructions on how to find the fire escape. You can go anywhere in the world, any hotel in the world, and the maps to the fire escapes are all the same. Regardless of the culture, regardless of how fancy or unfancy the hotel: It’s all the same sort of information. And the maps all serve the same purpose. They don’t have to tell you how the hotel was built or what’s in the walls or what’s in the foundations. All they have to tell you is where you go to get out. That type of information is all very standard, and it’s presented in a simple, standard way so that it’s useful when you really need it. The maps tell you just the information you need to know for that one purpose, and that’s all.

And there can be good and bad maps, right and wrong maps, to the fire escape. Some diagrams could put you in a dead-end corner where you’d be consumed by flames or asphyxiated by the smoke. Others take you to a door where, when you open the door, it drops for fifty feet. So you want to avoid those maps. But other maps effectively show you the way to safety. Those maps are right for their purpose.

What we’ve got here is the map of the noble eightfold path, the map about right concentration and its seven supports, its seven requisites. In addition, there are instructions on how to use right concentration, how to analyze what’s going on in the concentration, so that we can begin to understand how the mind puts suffering together and how we can start taking it apart.

That’s the map to the fire escape. That’s how you get out of the fire. That’s all you need from the map.

So it’s all right here. And there’s a right way and a wrong way of trying to get out of right here. One very wrong way is to tell yourself, “I’m going to stay here forever, so learn to see that the flames are beautiful.” If you believe that, you’re going to get engulfed.

So realize that we’re in a burning building—this house of the body we have here, these burning senses. But the escape lies within. It lies in learning how to separate things out. You have the body here, you’ve got the breath here, but also the awareness here. And for a long time during the practice of concentration, it’s going to seem like they’re one. But as you begin to see that your sense of the body is something you’ve put together out of different sensations—and you don’t have to keep doing that—that allows you to maintain the awareness right here without feeling confined by the body. And then you can analyze the feeling of space, or your perception of space, so that you’re not confined by anything at all, not even the perceptions that hold you in concentration.

So everything you need is right here. The escape is right here. But to find the escape, you also have to understand what you’re doing that keeps setting fire to the mind, and to learn how to stop that. And there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing that.

This is why, when you gain instructions in the Dhamma, you look at the people who are giving the instructions. When scholars say that there’s no right or wrong Dhamma, you look at how well they are practicing. They’re just reading the books. And for them, reading the books is enough. That’s a sign of something really wrong right there. It’s as if they didn’t have the problem of suffering, or that they don’t recognize they have the problem of suffering, or that they don’t take any interest in the idea that maybe there could be an end to this, even though that’s what the best texts are all talking about. Are those the kind of people you want to follow?

You look at the ajaans. They might not have the degrees, they may not be as widely read, but they take the Buddha seriously: that suffering is a big problem but there’s a way out. That’s what the four noble truths are all about. They’re not just four interesting statements about suffering. They’re an announcement that this is the big problem in life and here’s the solution.

So it’s up to you how much you want to benefit from that teaching, how much you want to benefit from that announcement. But if you are looking for an escape, this is where you’re going to find it.