Beginning Concentration

§ When we practice breath meditation, we’ve been given methods for warding off the various Hindrances that will destroy the good results of what we’re doing. We’re told to focus on the in-and-out breath and to keep mindfulness in charge, together with the meditation word, buddho, buddho, in and out with the breath. If you want just to think buddho, you can, but it’s too light. Your awareness won’t go deep. It’s the nature of shallow things that dust and dirt can blow in easily and fill them up quickly. As for deep things, dust and dirt can’t easily blow in. In the same way, when the mind is deep, it isn’t easily affected by preoccupations.

So when you simply focus on buddho, buddho, it doesn’t carry much weight. It’s like taking a knife and slicing away at the air. You don’t feel much of anything because there’s nothing for the knife to strike against. But if you take the same knife and use it to slice away at a stump or any other object, you’ll feel that your hand has more weight and your arm gains strength, able to ward off any enemies that may threaten you.

This is why we’re taught to focus on a single spot so that the mind will gain strength, solid and steady in a single preoccupation. Take as your target any of the meditation objects in the basic list of forty. Your mind will gain strength; your mindfulness will mature into Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

§ Buddho is the meditation word. Being mindful and alert to the in-and-out breath is the actual meditation. Once the mind is in place you can let go of your meditation word. The meditation word is like bait. For example, if we want a chicken to come our way, we scatter rice on the ground. Once the chicken comes for the rice, we don’t have to scatter any more.

§ Being mindful, remembering to stay with the breath, is one thing. Alertness—examining the breath sensations that flow throughout the entire body, knowing whether the breath feels constricted or broad, shallow or deep, heavy or light, fast or slow—is something else. Together they form the component factors of meditation.

§ The in-and-out breath is like the wick of a candle or a lantern. Focusing mindfulness on the breath is like lighting the wick so that it gives off light. A single candle, if its wick is lit, can burn down an entire city. In the same way, mindfulness can destroy all the bad things within us: defilement, unawareness, craving, and attachment. Mindfulness is the consuming fire of the practice.

§ Being mindful of the breath is like casting a Buddha image inside yourself. Your body is like the furnace, mindfulness is like the mold. If mindfulness lapses, the bronze will leak out of the mold and your Buddha image will be ruined.

§ Letting mindfulness lapse is like getting a hole in your clothes. Letting it lapse again is like getting a second hole. If you keep letting it lapse, it’s like getting a third, fourth, fifth, and sixth hole in your clothes until ultimately you can’t wear them.

§ There are three ways in which mindfulness lapses. The first is by bringing inside things out to think about. In other words, you grab hold of any lights or visions that may appear, and in this way your path washes out. The second way is by bringing outside things in to think about, i.e., abandoning your meditation object. The third way is by losing consciousness. You sit there, but it’s as if you were asleep. All of these things are called a washed-out path, like a road that washes out and is full of deep potholes.

To keep preoccupations out of the mind is to cut a path in the mind. To let outside preoccupations in is to let the path wash out. When the path washes out, there’s no way that insight or discernment will arise, just as when a road washes out, no cars or trucks can run along it. When concentration gets extinguished in this way, you can’t practice insight meditation. There’s nothing left but thoughts about insight, thoughts about concentration, thinking, guessing, groping in line with your old preconceptions. The virtues of your heart disappear without your realizing it. If you want to go back and start all over, it’s hard—like going back over a washed-out road.

§ The mind in concentration is like genuine silver, malleable and white because nothing else is adulterating it. We can make it into whatever we want, easily and quickly, without having to waste time placing it in a crucible and heating it to get rid of the impurities. The mind not in concentration is like imitation or adulterated silver: hard, brittle, and black, because it’s mixed with copper or lead. The more the impurities, the lower its value.

A pure mind is thus like genuine silver. The various thoughts that darken the mind are like the impurities that make the silver black, brittle, and dull. So if we let thoughts get mixed up in the mind, we turn the mind into imitation silver. We won’t be able to find any purity in it at all. When this is the case, the mind will have no stillness. But if we brush away the various thoughts and preoccupations adulterating the mind, it will become firmly established in concentration, in line with the factors of the path. Once the mind turns into the path, we have to watch over it carefully, in the same way that we try to keep a road from washing out. We have to survey it continually to see where it’s getting rutted or forming potholes. Wherever it needs repairing, we fix it right away. If we don’t fix it immediately, and let it get full of potholes or wash away, it’ll be really hard to repair. Once the mind is following the path, any Hindrances that interfere are a break in the road. If we don’t hurry up and repair it, the break will get wider and deeper until the road turns into an ordinary piece of ground.

So while you’re trying to develop the path, if you let yourself be forgetful—if you let your mindfulness lapse, letting distractions into the mind—the state of mind that forms the path will immediately be destroyed. Your meditation will be spoiled, your concentration will be spoiled, the mind will return to its ordinary state and won’t be able to find the path to genuine goodness.

§ While we’re sitting in concentration, if our mind doesn’t stay with the body in the present, it’s as if we’ve earned some food but don’t watch over it. Dogs and cats are bound to come and eat it. The dogs and cats, here, are the five Hindrances—sensual desire, ill will, torpor & lethargy, restlessness & anxiety, and uncertainty—that we like to keep as our pets. As soon as our back is turned, they’re going to sneak in and eat up our food—the happiness and inner worth that we should have received from our practice.

§ Being lost is better than being asleep. Being aware, even if you have defilements, is better than being absent-minded. If you know you have defilements, you can work to end them. A person who’s not aware is dead.

§ If your mind doesn’t stay in one place, it’s like standing on a lawn: If you stand in ten different places, the grass will grow in all ten places, because first you stand here for a while and then go stand there for a while and then go stand over there. If you don’t stay long in any one place, grass will grow everywhere. But if you really stand still in one place, how will the grass grow there? No grass will be able to grow on the spot where the soles of your feet are standing. In the same way, if your mind stands firm in one place, always mindful of the in-and-out breath, no Hindrances or defilements will be able to arise.

§ The path we’re following is a short-cut. It’s a path worn smooth. Following a smooth path means that there are no weeds growing on it, no obstacles in our way, no need to stop here and there and slow down our progress. The reason we don’t yet know how to follow this path is because we don’t know how to walk. We walk like people in general all over the world: going forward, turning back, looking left and right. This is why we keep running into one another all the time, falling down, and then picking ourselves back up. Sometimes, even when nobody runs into us, we stagger. Even when nobody trips us up, we fall. Sometimes we get lazy and lie down to rest. Sometimes we stop to look at things we meet along the way. This way we never get to the goal because we aren’t really intent on walking. We wander here and there without following the path.

So we have to learn a new way to walk, the Buddha’s way. What is the Buddha’s way? The Buddha’s way of walking is to walk like a soldier. Soldiers don’t stagger back and forth the way we do. They walk standing up straight, staying in place, stamping their feet on the ground. This way they don’t get tired, because they don’t have to go far. If we were to walk in place for three hours, the grass beneath our feet would be flattened out. Any grass that tried to grow in its place wouldn’t be able to get above ground level.

It’s the same with the work we’re doing right now, being mindful to focus on the breath. If we’re really intent on it, focusing our attention solely on the breath without letting it wander off and disappear, all the various Hindrances—thoughts of past and future, good and bad—won’t be able to reach in to touch us. All the Hindrances, which are like grass, will have to be flattened out. No evil, unskillful thoughts will be able to appear in the heart. When this is the case, the mind won’t have to follow the paths to deprivation, and instead will keep following the path that goes higher and higher. This is called following the path worn smooth, in line with the Buddha’s way.

§ Practicing meditation is like digging a diamond mine. The body is like a big rock; mindfulness is like a shovel. If you don’t really dig—i.e., if you dig little shallow holes here and there, instead of digging away at one place—you can dig for a month and yet get no deeper than your knees. But if you’re really intent on digging away at one place, the hole you dig will keep getting deeper and deeper until you get down to the rock. Now, when stupid people hit the rock, they throw down their shovels and run away. (This stands for people who practice meditation but can’t endure feelings of pain.) As for intelligent people, when they meet up with the rock, they keep chipping away at it until they get past it, and that’s when they find the valuable diamond that lies on the underside of the rock. If it’s a diamond seam, they won’t have to work again for the rest of their lives.

§ Gems and diamonds that are really valuable lie deep, so we’ll have to dig deep if we want to find things of value. If we don’t go far beneath the surface, we’ll end up with dirt and sand that sells for only five cents a bushel.

§ When we’re true in what we do—when we don’t stop or grow lax or give up—the results, even if they show up slowly, are bound to be great. The fact that they are all growing at once is what makes them slow. It’s like a tree with lots of branches to protect itself and give lots of shade. It’s bound to grow more slowly than a banana tree, which has only one stem and gives good fruit, but is exposed to lots of dangers. Some people get results quickly; others more slowly. The slower people shouldn’t compare themselves or compete with the quick ones. The quick ones shouldn’t compete with the slow ones. It’s like polishing boards and mirrors. Polishing a mirror so that you can see your reflection in it doesn’t take all that much talent, because the nature of the mirror is already reflective. But to polish a board so that you can see your reflection in it, even though it may take a long time, is a sign of real expertise.

§ In keeping the mind pure, we have to cut away perceptions so that they don’t stick in the heart. It’s like looking after a white sheet that we spread on our bed. We have to watch out for the dust or insects that blow in on the wind and land on the sheet. If we see any dust, we have to take the sheet and shake it out. Wherever there are any stains, we have to launder it immediately. Don’t let them stay long on the sheet or else they’ll be hard to wash out. If there are any insects, we have to remove them, for they may bite us and give us a rash or keep us from sleeping soundly. When we keep looking after our sheet in this way, it will have to stay clean and white and be a comfortable place for us to sleep.

The dust and insects here are the Hindrances that are the enemies of the heart. We have to look after our heart in just the same way that we look after our bedding. We can’t let any outside perceptions come in and stick to the heart or nibble at it. We have to brush them all away. That way the mind will become calm, free from distractions.

§ Once you cut off thoughts of past and future, you don’t have to worry about the Hindrances.

§ When you think about things outside, you have to choose carefully what you’re going to think about. Think only about good things and not about things that will cause harm. When you think about things inside, though, you can think about anything: good or bad, old or new. In other words, mindfulness and alertness can handle whatever comes their way. It’s as if we have our curry in a pot that’s tightly covered, where no flies can get to it. Whether it’s bland or salty, it’s all safe to eat.

§ “Thinking about” is long. “Thinking of” is short. You have to focus them both into one when you’re making the mind still. “Thinking of” means that you focus on a single preoccupation. “Thinking about” means that you examine and evaluate, to see that when you arrange the causes a certain way, what results do you get: good or bad?

§ If you look with both of your eyes you won’t be able to see your target clearly. If you want to see it clearly you have to look with one eye, in the same way that when people shoot a rifle or an arrow, they use only one eye to aim. If you make your mind one with its object, you’ll be able to see things clearly within yourself in just the same way.

§ You have to practice concentration in all four postures. When the body sits, the mind sits with it. When the body stands, the mind stands with it. When the body walks, the mind walks with it. When the body lies down, the mind lies down with it. If the body sits but the mind stands, or if the body walks and the mind sits or lies down, that’s no good at all.

§ The six elements in the body are earth, water, fire, wind, space, and consciousness. You have to keep familiarizing yourself with them until they become your friends. They’ll then tell you their secrets and won’t put you in chains or throw you in prison.

§ The mind is like a child. Mindfulness is like an adult. The adult is responsible for looking after the child and taking good care of it. Only then will the child eat and sleep properly, without crying and making a fuss. You have to give the child good food to eat, by focusing the mind on the qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha. Then you have to give it four big dolls to play with: the properties of earth, water, fire, and wind in the body. When the child is well-fed and has dolls to play with, it won’t run outside and get into mischief. If you let it go wandering outside, all kinds of dangers can happen. But if it stays in the house, even though there are some dangers, they’re not all that serious. You have to teach the mind how to play around in the elements of this body: a cubit wide, a span thick, a fathom long. That way it won’t get into trouble. Once the child gets tired of playing, it will lie in its crib. In other words, the mind will settle down in jhāna, the resting place of sages. That way the mind will gather into oneness.