The Prison World vs. the World Outside

Our mind, if we were to make a comparison with the world, is a perpetual prisoner, like a person born in jail who lives in jail, behind bars, with no chance to get out to see the outside world—someone who has grown from childhood to adulthood entirely in a prison cell and so doesn’t know what there is outside; someone who has seen pleasure and pain only in the prison and has never been out to see what kind of pleasure, comfort, and freedom they have in the outside world. We have no way of knowing what kind of happiness and enjoyment they have there in the outside world, how they come and go, how they live, because we are kept in prison from the day we are born until the day we die. This is a comparison, an analogy.

We have only the pleasure and pain that the prison has to offer, with nothing special, nothing obtained from the outside world so that when it enters the prison we could see that, ‘This is something different from the prison world—this is from the outside world, outside the prison;’ so that we could make comparisons and know that, ‘This is like this, that is like that; this is better than that, that is better than this.’ There is nothing but the affairs of the prison. However much the pleasure and pain, however great the deprivations, the difficulties, the oppression and coercion, that’s simply the way it’s been all along from the very beginning—and so we don’t know where to look for a way out or how to free ourselves. We don’t even know where the outside world is, because we have seen only the inside world: the prison where we have always been locked away, oppressed, starved, beaten, tortured, deprived. Even our bedding, food, belongings—everything of every sort—is like that of a prisoner in jail. And yet people like this can still live this way because they have never seen enough of the outside world to be able to make comparisons as to which is better, which is more pleasant, in order to feel inclined to search for a way out to the outside world.

A mind controlled by the power of defilement and mental effluents is like this. It has been imprisoned by various kinds of defilement for eons and eons. For example, in our present lifetime, the defilements that hold sway over the hearts of living beings have been with us since the day of our birth. They have kept us in continual custody, never giving us any freedom within ourselves at all. For this reason, we have difficulty imagining what sort of pleasure there could be above and beyond the way things are, just like a person who was born and has always lived in a prison.

What sort of world is the world outside? Is it a good place to visit? A good place to live? The Dhamma proclaims it loud and clear, but hardly anyone is interested. Still, there are fortunately some places where some people are interested. In places where no one proclaims it, where no one speaks of what the outside world—a mind with Dhamma in charge—is like, no one knows what the teachings of the religion are like. No one knows what the happiness that comes from the Dhamma is like. Such people are so surrounded by darkness, so completely drowned in attachment, that not even a single limb shows above the surface, because there is no religion to pull them out. It’s as if the outside world didn’t exist. They have nothing but the prison, the defilements, holding the heart in custody. Born in this world, they have only the prison as their place to live and to die.

A mind that has never known what could give it greater pleasure, comfort, and freedom than it has at present, if we were to make a different comparison, is like a duck playing in a mud puddle under a shanty. It keeps playing there: splat, splat, splat, splat, splat. No matter how dirty or filthy it is, it’s content to play because it has never seen the water of the ocean, of a river, of a lake or a pond large enough for it to swim and immerse its entire body with ease. It has known only the mud puddle that lies stagnant under the shanty, into which things in the shanty get washed down. And so it plays there, thinking it’s fun, swimming happily in its way—why? Because it has never seen water wider or deeper than that, enough to give it more enjoyment in coming and going or swimming around than it can find in the mud puddle under the shanty.

As for ducks that live along broad, deep canals, they’re very different from the duck under the shanty. They really enjoy themselves along rivers, lakes, canals, and ponds. Wherever their owner herds them, there they go—crossing back and forth over highways and byways, spreading in flocks of hundreds and thousands. Even ducks like these have their happiness.

What do they stand for?

They stand for the mind. A mind that has never seen the pleasure, the comfort, the enjoyment that comes from the Dhamma is like the duck playing in the mud puddle under the shanty, or those that enjoy swimming in canals, rivers, or lakes.

We at present have our pleasure and happiness through the controlling power of the defilements, which is like the happiness of prisoners in jail. When the mind receives training from the outside world—meaning the Dhamma that comes from the transcendent (lokuttara) Dhammas, from the ‘land’ of nibbāna on down, level by level to the human world, revealing every level, every realm—we find that those of us who are inclined, who are interested in the outside world, in happiness greater than that which exists at present, still exist. When we hear the Dhamma step by step, or read books about the outside world—about Dhamma, about releasing ourselves from the pain and suffering we are forced to undergo within our hearts—our minds feel pleasure and enjoyment. Interest. A desire to listen. A desire to practice so as to reap the results step by step. This is where we begin to see the influence of the outside world making itself felt. The heart begins to exert itself, trying to free itself from the tyranny and oppression from within, like that of a prisoner in jail.

Even more so, when we practice in the area of the mind: The more peace we obtain, then the greater the effort, the greater the exertion we make. Mindfulness and discernment gradually appear. We see the harm of the tyranny and the oppression imposed by the defilements in the heart. We see the value of the Dhamma, which is a means of liberation. The more it frees us, the more ease we feel in the heart. Respite. Relief. This then is a means of increasing our conviction in ascending stages, and of increasing our effort and stamina in its wake. The mindfulness and discernment that used to lie buried in the mud gradually revive and awaken, and begin to contemplate and investigate.

In the past, no matter what assaulted us by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind, we were like dead people. We held these things to be ordinary and normal. They never provoked our mindfulness and discernment to investigate and explore, searching for beginnings and ends, causes and effects. Even though these things had been our enemies for a long, long time, making their assaults both day and night, we were never interested.

Now, however, we develop an interest. When the heart begins to enter the current of the Dhamma in which it has been trained to the point of developing a basis for mindfulness and discernment, step by step, it is bound to see clearly both what is beneficial and what is harmful, because these things dwell together—benefits and harm—within this heart. The mind develops agility in contemplating and investigating. The heart develops boldness in its explorations. Seeing harm, it tries to remedy it. Seeing benefits, it tries to open the way for them; it tries to foster them in ascending stages.

This is called the mind gradually gaining release from tyranny and oppression—the prison—within. At the same time, it is gaining a view of the outside world, seeing what sort of world it is, seeing whether it’s like the prison that exists at present. Our eyes can see the outside world to some extent, can see how those in the outside world live, how they come and go—and what about us in the prison? What is it like to live overcome by defilements? How does the mind feel as we gain gradual relief from the defilements? We can begin to make comparisons.

Now at last we have an outside world and an inside world to compare! The happiness and ease that come from removing however many of the defilements we can remove, appear. The stress that continues as long as the remaining defilements still exert their influence, we know clearly. We see their harm with our discernment on its various levels and we try continually to remedy the situation without letting our persistence lapse.

This is when mindfulness, discernment, conviction, and persistence stir themselves out to the front lines: when we see both the outside world—however much we have been able to liberate the heart from defilement—and the inside world, where the defilements keep up their oppression and coercion. Before, we never knew what to use for comparisons, because we had never seen anything other than this. Because we were born buried in pain and suffering this way, no pleasure from the outside world—from the Dhamma—ever appeared to us.

What did appear was the kind of happiness that had suffering behind the scenes, waiting to stomp in and obliterate that happiness without giving a moment’s notice.

Now, however, we are beginning to know and see. We see the happiness of the outside, that is, of the outside world, of those who have Dhamma reigning in their hearts; and we see the happiness inside the prison, the happiness that lies under the influence of defilement. We also see the suffering and stress that lie under the influence of defilement. We know this all clearly with our own mindfulness and discernment.

The happiness that comes from the outside world—in other words, from the current of the Dhamma seeping deep into the heart—we begin to see, step by step, enough to make comparisons. We see the outside world, the inside world, their benefits and drawbacks. When we take them and compare them, we gain an ever greater understanding—plus greater persistence, greater stamina—to the point that when anything connected with defilement that used to tyrannize and oppress the mind passes our way, we immediately feel called upon to tackle it, remedy it, strip it away, and demolish it step by step through the power of mindfulness and discernment backed by persistent effort.

The mind will set itself spinning. When its awareness of harm is great, its appreciation of what is beneficial is also great. When the desire to know and see the Dhamma is great, when the desire to gain release is great, persistence will have to become greater in their wake. Stamina and resilience will also come in their wake, because they all exist in the same heart. When we see harm, the entire heart is what sees it. When we see benefits, the entire heart is what sees. When we try to make our way with various methods in line with our abilities, it’s an affair of the entire heart making the effort to free itself.

This is why these things, such as persistence, that are the mind’s tools, the mind’s support, come together. For example, saddhā, conviction in the paths (magga) and their fruitions (phala), conviction in the realm beyond suffering and stress; viriya, persistence, perseverance in gaining release for oneself step by step; khanti, stamina, endurance in order to be unyielding in passing over and beyond: All of these things come together. Mindfulness and discernment, contemplating along the way, seeing what is right and what is wrong, will come in their wake.

If we were to speak in terms of the principles of the formal Dhamma as expressed by the Buddha, this is called the path converging (magga-samaṅgī), gradually gathering itself into this single heart. Everything comes together: Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, all the way to Right Concentration, all come gathering into this single heart. They don’t go anywhere else.

Right Action: Our only right undertakings are sitting and walking meditation, because we have reached the stage of precision work where the heart gathers together. The mind is in a state of the path converging—gathering itself into a single heart.

Right View, Right Resolve: These refer to the concerns of discernment, always exploring the affairs of the elements, the khandhas, whatever appears or makes contact, arises and vanishes, whether good or evil, past or future, appearing in the heart. Mindfulness and discernment slash these things to bits step by step without bothering to waste time.

Right Action: On the level of the body, this refers to doing sitting and walking meditation, making the effort to abandon the defilements no matter what our posture. On the level of the heart, this refers to persistence within the mind.

Right Speech: We speak only of the Dhamma. Our conversation deals only with the topics of effacement (sallekha-dhamma), topics of polishing away or washing away defilements and mental effluents from the heart, telling what methods we can use that will utterly end the defilements: This is Right Speech.

Right Livelihood: When the heart feeds on any object that’s its enemy, this is called maintaining a wrong livelihood. Since the object is an enemy of the heart, the heart will have to be clouded. There’s nothing good about it at all. It has to lead to greater or lesser amounts of suffering and stress within the heart in proportion to the heart’s crudeness or refinement. This is called poison. Wrong livelihood. We have to correct it immediately. Immediately.

Any mental object that’s rightful, that leads to happiness, well-being, and ease, is a fitting preoccupation, a fitting food for the heart, providing it with peace and well-being. This is how Right Livelihood is maintained with Dhamma on the ascending levels of training the heart. As for Right Livelihood on the physical level, dealing with food or alms, that applies universally for Buddhists in general to conduct themselves in line with their personal duties.

Right Effort: What sort of effort? This we know. The Buddha taught four kinds of effort: (1) Try to be careful not to let evil arise within yourself. (2) Try to abandon evil that has already arisen. In being careful not to let evil arise, we have to be careful by being mindful. Using mindfulness in trying not to let evil arise means being alert to the mind that thinks and wanders about, gathering suffering and stress into itself. This is because thought-formations of the wrong sort are the origin of stress, and so we should be careful to guard against them. Don’t be careless or complacent. (3) Try to develop what is skillful—intelligence—so as to increase it step by step. (4) Try to safeguard the skillful things that have arisen so as to develop them even further and not let them deteriorate. All of these right exertions apply right within us.

Right Mindfulness keeps watch over the heart. Mindfulness and self-awareness keep constant track of its behavior and activities. Whatever makes contact by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, or body, if it doesn’t go into the heart, where does it go? The heart is an enormous place, always ready to be informed of various things, both good and evil. Discernment is what contemplates and deliberates. Mindfulness is what keeps vigilant, inspecting whatever comes in to engage the heart. Whatever the preoccupation, good or evil, mindfulness and discernment contemplate and are selective of what engages the heart. Whatever they see as improper, the mind will reject immediately. Immediately. Discernment is what makes the rejection.

Right Concentration: Our work for the sake of making the defilements quiet through concentration is steady and constant, to the point where the results appear as peace and calm in the heart, as a true place of rest without any distractions coming in to disturb the heart at that moment.

When entering concentration so as to relax the mind, in order to give strength to discernment in its continuing explorations, you should go ahead and really rest—rest in concentration. Enter the calm. Completely stop all thoughts and explorations in the area of discernment. Let the mind settle in and relax. It doesn’t have to think or contrive anything at all related to its work. Let the mind rest comfortably by giving it a single preoccupation. If the mind happens to be extremely engrossed in its investigations so that you can’t rein it in, use ‘buddho’ as a means to drag it in. Make the mind stay with ‘buddho, buddho, buddho.’ Even though the meditation word ‘buddho’ may be a mental contrivance, it’s a contrivance in a single focal idea. Contriving a single focal idea can cause the mind to settle down.

For example, if while we are repeating, ‘buddho, buddho, buddho,’ the mind flashes back to its work because it is engrossed in its unfinished business, we should repeat the meditation word even faster so as not to let the mind go back to its work. In other words, when the mind is at the stage where it is engrossed in its work, we could say—to put it in worldly terms—that we can’t let down our guard, although on this level it’s hard to say that the mind lets down its guard. To get nearer the truth, we should say that we can’t loosen our grip. To put it simply, we can’t loosen our grip. Otherwise the mind will jump back out to work. So at this point we have to be firm with our meditation word. Force the mind to stay with its single preoccupation —‘buddho’—as a means of reining the mind in. Repeat ‘buddho, buddho, buddho’ in really close frequency; then ‘buddho’ and the mind will become one. The heart will be firm and calm down, calm down, relaxing, relaxing, setting aside all its work. The mind will become cool and peaceful. This is Right Concentration.

When the time comes to rest, you have to rest like this for it to qualify as Right Concentration. When you’ve had enough, when you see that the mind has regained strength, then simply let go—that’s all—and the mind will spring immediately back to work. It springs out of oneness, of having a single preoccupation, and returns to being two with its work. At this point, the heart gets back to work without worrying about concentration while it is working. In the same way, when centering the mind for the sake of stillness, you don’t have to worry about your work at all.

When resting, you have to rest, in the same way that when eating you don’t have to do any work at all except for the work of eating. When sleeping, sleep peacefully. You shouldn’t be concerned with any work at all. But once you have begun work, you shouldn’t concern yourself with eating and sleeping. Really set your mind on your work. This is called doing a solid piece of work: work in its proper phases, work at the proper time, in keeping with events, ‘Right Action,’ work that doesn’t overstep its boundaries, appropriate work.

The practice of centering the mind is something you can’t neglect. In practicing for the sake of the heart’s happiness, the view that centering the mind, keeping still, serves no purpose is wrong. If someone is addicted to concentration, unwilling to come out and work, that’s improper and should be criticized so that he or she will get down to work. But once the mind has become engrossed in its work, concentration is a necessity in certain areas, at certain times. Ordinarily, if we work without resting or sleeping, we ultimately can’t continue with our work. Even though some of our money gets used up when we eat, let it be used up—because the result is that our body gains strength from eating and can return to its work in line with its duties. Even though money gets used up and the food we eat gets used up, still it’s used up for a purpose: for energy in the body. Whatever gets consumed, let it be consumed, because it doesn’t hurt our purposes. If we don’t eat, where are we going to get any strength? Whatever gets spent, let it be spent for the sake of strength, for the sake of giving rise to strength.

The same holds true with resting in concentration: When we’re resting so as to give rise to stillness, the stillness is the strength of mind that can reinforce discernment and make it agile. We have to rest so as to have stillness. If there is no stillness, if there’s nothing but discernment running, it’s like a knife that hasn’t been sharpened. We keep chopping away—chock, chock, chock—but it’s hard to tell whether we’re using the edge of the blade or the back. We simply have the desire to know, to see, to understand, to uproot defilement, whereas discernment hasn’t been sharpened by resting in stillness—the reinforcement that gives peace and strength in the heart—and so it’s like a knife that hasn’t been sharpened. Whatever gets chopped doesn’t cut through easily. It’s a simple waste of energy.

So for the sake of what’s fitting while resting the mind in its ‘home of concentration,’ we have to let it rest. Resting is thus like using a whetstone to sharpen discernment. Resting the body strengthens the body, and in the same way resting the mind strengthens the mind.

When it comes out this time, now that it has strength, it’s like a knife that has been sharpened. The object is the same old object, the discernment is the same old discernment, the person investigating is the same old person, but once we focus our examination, it cuts right through. This time it’s like a person who has rested, slept, and eaten at his leisure, and whose knife is fully sharpened. He chops the same old piece of wood, he’s the same old person, and it’s the same old knife, but it cuts right through with no trouble at all—because the knife is sharp, and the person has strength.

In the same way, the object is the same old object, the discernment is the same old discernment, the person practicing is the same old person, but we’ve been sharpened. The mind has strength as a reinforcement for discernment and so things cut right through in no time at all—a big difference from when we hadn’t rested in concentration!

Thus concentration and discernment are interrelated. They simply do their work at different times. When the time comes to center the mind, center it. When the time comes to investigate in the area of discernment, give it your all—your full alertness, your full strength. Get to the full Dhamma: the full causes and the full effects. In the same way, when resting, give it a full rest. Practice these things at separate times. Don’t let them interfere with each other—being worried about concentration when examining with discernment, or being preoccupied with the affairs of discernment when entering concentration—for that would be wrong. Whichever work you’re going to do, really make it a solid piece of work. This is the right way, the appropriate way—the way Right Concentration really is.

Once discernment has begun uprooting defilements step by step, the heart develops brightness. The lightness of the mind is one of the benefits that come from removing the things that are hazardous, the things that are filthy. We see the value of this benefit and keep on investigating.

What defilement is, is a weight on the heart. Our mind is like a prisoner constantly overpowered—coerced and tormented—by defilements and mental effluents ever since we were born. When we come right down to it, where is defilement? Where is being and birth? Right here in this same heart. When you investigate, these things gather in, gather in, and enter this single heart. The cycle of rebirth doesn’t refer to anything else: It refers to this single heart that spins in circles. It’s the only thing that leads us to birth and death. Why? Because the seeds of these things are in the heart.

When we use mindfulness and discernment to investigate, we explore so as to see clearly, and we keep cutting in, step by step, until we reach the mind that is the culprit, harboring unawareness (avijjā), which is the important seed of the cycle in the heart. We keep dissecting, keep investigating in, investigating in, so that there is nothing left of ‘this is this’ or ‘that is that.’ We focus our investigation on the mind in the same way as we have done with phenomena (sabhāva-dhamma) in general.

No matter how much brightness there may be in the heart, we should know that it’s simply a place for the heart to rest temporarily as long as we are still unable to investigate it to the point where we can disperse and destroy it. But don’t forget that this shining star of a heart is actually unawareness.

So investigate, taking that as the focal point of your investigation.

So then. If this is going to be obliterated until there’s no more awareness, leaving nothing at all—to the point where the ‘knower’ is destroyed along with it—then let’s find out once and for all. We’re investigating to find the truth, to know the truth, so we have to get all the way down to causes and effects, to the truth of everything of every sort. Whatever is going to be destroyed, let it be destroyed. Even if ultimately the ‘knower’ who is investigating will be destroyed as well, then let’s find out with our mindfulness and discernment. We don’t have to leave anything remaining as an island or a vantage point to deceive ourselves. Whatever is ‘us,’ whatever is ‘ours,’ don’t leave it standing. Investigate down to the truth of all things together.

What’s left, after the defilement of unawareness is absolutely destroyed, is something beyond the range to which convention can reach or destroy. This is called the pure mind, or purity. The nature of this purity cannot be destroyed by anything at all.

Defilements are conventional realities that can arise and vanish. Thus they can be cleansed, made to increase, made to decrease, made to disappear, because they are an affair of conventions. But the mind pure and simple—the phenomenon called a released mind—lies beyond the range to which any defilements, which are all conventions, can reach and destroy. If the mind isn’t yet pure, it’s a conventional reality just like other things, because conventional things have infiltrated it. Once they are entirely removed, the phenomenon of release is one that no defilement can any longer affect—because it lies beyond range. So what is destroyed?

Stress stops, because the cause of stress stops. Nirodha—the cessation of stress—also stops. The path, the tool that wipes out the cause of stress, also stops. The four Noble Truths all stop together. Stress stops, the cause of stress stops, the path stops, the cessation of stress stops.

But listen! What knows that ‘that stops’ is not a Noble Truth. It lies above the Noble Truths. The investigation of the Noble Truths is an investigation for the sake of this. Once we reach the real thing, the four Noble Truths have no more role to play, no need to be cleansed, remedied, or removed. For example, discernment: Now that we’ve worked to the full extent, we can let go of discernment, with no need to set rules for it. Both mindfulness and discernment are tools in the battle. Once the war is over, the enemy is wiped out, so these qualities are no longer at issue.

What’s left? Purity. The Buddha, in proclaiming the Dhamma to the world, took it from this pure nature. The doctrines of the religion came from this nature, and in the approach he used in teaching, he had to teach about stress because these conditions are directly related to this mind. He taught us to know how to remedy, how to stop, how to strive—everything of every sort—all the way to the goal at the end of the path, after which nothing more need be said. This is purity. The mind has come out to the outside world. It has left the prison and come to the outside world—freedom—never to be imprisoned again.

But no one wants to go to this world, because they have never seen it. This is an important world—lokuttara, the transcendent, a realm higher than other worlds—but we simply call it the outside world, outside of all conventions. We call it a ‘world’ just as a figure of speech, because our world has its conventions, and so we simply talk about it that way.

Think about escaping from this prison. You’ve been born in prison, live in prison and die in prison. You’ve never once died outside of prison. So, for once, get your heart out of prison. You’ll be really comfortable—really comfortable!—like the Buddha and his Noble Disciples: They were born in prison like you, but they died outside of the prison. They died outside of the world. They didn’t die in this world that’s so narrow and confining.

I’ll ask to stop here.