At the End of One’s Rope
Wherever there’s the religion, it’s cool and peaceful. Wherever a person practicing the religion is lacking, it’s hot and troubled. If there’s no religion, the heart is as hot as fire. Whenever there’s the religion—mindfulness and discernment—investigating, looking after the heart, the heart is cool.
When we first begin suppressing the rebels in the heart, we suffer—because for the most part we’re defeated by them—but at least we still have the strength to fight with them. Even though we may lose out to them sometimes, it’s better than groveling before them in abject surrender with no way of putting up a fight at all.
The practice in the area of the mind falls into stages—and there are bound to be stages where it’s complicated and difficult. Especially at the beginning: It’s difficult in that we can’t see beginnings or ends, causes or effects. We don’t understand anything at all. When we take the rudiments of Dhamma we have gained from the texts or our teachers and put them into practice, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, this is when it’s very difficult. The desire to know and see is very strong, but the heart isn’t willing to comply.
This is one kind of anxiety I’ve been through myself. It overflowed the heart. To put it simply, it was as if the desire to see and know the Dhamma in the heart was ready to overflow its banks. But when practicing, the heart didn’t comply with the desire to know and see—and that had me upset and disappointed. Sometimes I’d be sitting and the tears would flow because of my self-recriminations: ‘You don’t have any potential to speak of. You’ve ordained simply to be a dead weight on the religion. Here you are sitting in meditation and can’t find a way in or a way out. You’re just sitting buried in a heap of suffering.’ The mind would think in all sorts of ways out of self-pity—that I was a hopeless case, that I didn’t have any potential to speak of, didn’t have the potential for the extraordinary levels of Dhamma, didn’t have any potential at all—total confusion!
Actually, my practice wasn’t yet right. I was aiming at the results—the income—without paying attention to whether I was doing the work right or wrong. The desire was strong, but when it wasn’t fulfilled, it caused suffering. Had I paid some attention to whether my practice was right or wrong, I might have come to my senses enough to have evaluated things, to have abandoned some of my bullheaded attachments, or to have cut back on my desires so that the suffering would have become lighter.
But whenever I’d meditate, whatever I’d focus on, all I wanted was to know and see the paths, the fruitions, and nibbāna in line with what I imagined them to be—heaven was like this, the Brahmā worlds were like that, nibbāna was like this. I’d imagine. Speculate. The desire was fierce. I wanted to know, to see, to gain release from suffering, but my practice wasn’t making any headway. All there was, was simple desire: I would simply sit wanting, lie down wanting, walk wanting, stand wanting. I’d sit in meditation—wanting—but the mind wasn’t working at its meditation. It just wanted. I’d be doing walking meditation, but the mind simply wanted—so much so that I’d forget what I was doing. I wasn’t getting any results because there weren’t enough of the causes that would bring about the things I aimed for, so how could I have reached the goal I aimed for? This is something I’ve been through. The work of meditation struck me as being more difficult than any other work.
I’d be meditating, ‘buddho, buddho, buddho,’ but the desire would always be getting in the way—because I wanted to know, I wanted the mind to be like this or that, and so I’d get engrossed in my desires and forget my work of meditation until I didn’t know where ‘buddho’ had gone. As a result, I didn’t get anywhere at all. I was constantly feeling dreary and disappointed. This is the way things always were in the heart.
But even so, this wasn’t anything compared to the stage at which the mind regressed. When the mind regresses, it’s really upsetting because you used to see results. You used to gain a sense of ease, mental stillness, and peace appearing clearly as a solid foundation in the heart, but now it’s deteriorated. This makes the heart really agitated—so much so that there is nothing to hold it in check. Luckily, though, in spite of my agitation, I didn’t retreat. I was simply determined to see things through. I wasn’t willing to retreat or to slacken my efforts.
The reason why the mind regressed and couldn’t make a comeback was the same sort of thing: desire, nothing mysterious. The mind wanted to know and see as it had before, but its work wasn’t coordinated or continuous. All there was, was desire. No matter how much you desire, it doesn’t give any results, because that would go against the principle of causality. If you don’t make the causes as complete as they should be, how can you expect to know as you want? You can’t. Sitting, I’d be agitated. Lying down, I’d be agitated. I’d go into the forest, into the mountains, when the mind had regressed, and nothing was any good at all. I couldn’t figure it out.
Of the anxieties I’ve felt in my life as a monk, the anxiety I felt during that period was the worst. I was agitated because of my desire to attain. I was upset because the mind had regressed and nothing I could do would bring it back. At first it had regressed just a little bit and then it kept regressing, regressing until it was all gone. Nothing was left, not one red cent. It was as if I had never meditated at all.
When I’d sit in this state, I was as agitated as if I were on fire—because of the desire. The disappointment that my attainments had floated away and disappeared, plus the desire to get them back: These two things came thronging in at the same time and so were really strong. Wherever I stayed was unsatisfactory and no help at all. Even though I was suffering, I would simply keep suffering. I didn’t know any way out. Even though I wanted, I would simply keep wanting. I didn’t know how to get my concentration back. All there was, was desire—regret for the things that had once appeared to my surprise and amazement but now were gone. There was nothing but disappointment filling the heart, nothing but simple desire, and it couldn’t bring back the Dhamma that had disappeared. Finally I came to feel despair—for everything. This was when the mind gave up on its desire.
As for the results I had wanted, well, I had wanted them for a long time. As for the suffering, I had suffered immensely because of the desires, but hadn’t gained anything from them. So now I wouldn’t have anything to do with them. I’d throw them all out. If I was going to know, I’d know. If not, so be it. All I was after was ‘buddho.’ Whatever the mind was going to think, I wouldn’t be willing to let mindfulness lapse. ‘Get with it, then. Can it really be that I’m not going to know? Whatever’s going to happen, I’m ready for it.’
As soon as I gave up on my desires, they were no longer so fierce, and so the suffering gradually lessened. I set my mind on my work. Wherever I was, I’d keep repeating, ‘buddho, buddho, buddho.’ It had always been a trait with me to be earnest: Whatever I’d do, I would really do it and wouldn’t just play around. Now I got to see this trait in action. I didn’t let up in my repetition of ‘buddho.’ Whether walking or doing my chores, I wouldn’t be willing to let it lapse. I’d keep making the effort. While sweeping the monastery compound, I would try to keep up my guard—until the mind let its work lapse for a moment. I was alert to the fact, and the mind got right back to work. ‘There. Now that’s the way it should be.’
After giving up its desires, the mind was no longer involved with the past. It stayed in the circle of the present and would do nothing but repeat or meditate on ‘buddho.’ Whether or not it would get any results would depend on what ‘buddho’ would grant. Finally the mind became still, and ‘buddho’ was no longer necessary, so I could let go of the meditation word at that moment—and at that point the mind was willing to settle down. Before, it hadn’t been willing.
When the mind had settled down in stillness, there was no need to repeat the word ‘buddho.’ All that remained was simple awareness—clear and conspicuous—so the mind stayed with that simple awareness. As soon as it withdrew, I would start pumping ‘buddho’ back in. I had no hopes, because I had already hoped in the past. I had no hopes for what would happen, no hopes for what the results would be. I had already hoped in the past, and it hadn’t given me any decent results at all. I had seen the harm of hopes—the sort of hollow, unreasonable hopes that won’t do the work and look only for the results.
So, now I was going to do nothing but work, nothing but work: repeating ‘buddho’ without letting up even for a moment. Once the mind had received proper nourishment and care, it became still—gradually more and more still, more and more steady, until it reached the level it had been before it had visibly regressed.
What was strange was that when it reached its old level, I still abandoned my hopes. ‘If it’s going to regress, let it regress. I’ve had enough of trying to resist it by using desire, which hasn’t served any purpose, not the least little bit. So, however the mind is going to regress, let it regress, but I won’t abandon “buddho.” I’m always going to keep at it.’
When it reached the day when it would normally regress, it didn’t regress! That made me a lot more sure of the causes. So I stepped up the causes—the repetition of ‘buddho’—even more, without stopping. I would stop only when the mind gathered in stillness. The mind became progressively more and more firm. Wherever I’d sit, it would be bright. Light. Completely clear. I was sure of myself: ‘Now it’s not going to regress.’ After one day, two days, one month, two months, it still didn’t regress.
Before, the mind would regress after two or three days. After two or three days it would come down with a crash, with nothing left to show for itself. I’d have to keep trying to care for it for 14 or 15 days before it would reach its old level, and once it got there it would stay just a day or two and then collapse in a flash, with nothing left at all. All that was left was dreariness and disappointment.
Now: ‘If it’s going to regress, let it regress. I’ve hoped in the past, and it hasn’t served any purpose. All I’m after is this, just this one thing: “buddho.”’
(Speaking of the suffering when the mind regresses, you really feel a lot of anguish, so much so that you’re ready to surrender. But I was lucky in one way, that the mind didn’t retreat. It was determined to see things through, which was why I was able to bear with it, able to stay. Had the mind become discouraged—‘It’d be better to stop’—that would have been the end of me. There would have been nothing more to tell.)
From then on, the mind kept progressing. Month after month, it became more and more stable, more and more firm. As for my meditation word, I wasn’t willing to let up on it. This kept up until the mind was always prominent.
That was when I let the meditation word go. In other words, the awareness of the mind was pronounced, and that was enough for the mind to depend on, so there was no need to rely on any meditation word for further support. The mind fully knew itself and could sustain itself. At this point I didn’t have to repeat any meditation word because the mind was prominent at all times. I would focus right there. Wherever I went, I focused right there. I knew right there, just as I had focused on ‘buddho.’ It could form a fine foundation for the mind. I was sure of myself that:
(1) This foundation had become progressively more and more stable until it was more stable than it had been the first time it had progressed and then regressed.
(2) As for focusing on awareness, when awareness was fully pronounced, I should focus on that without let-up, in the same way I had focused on repeating ‘buddho’ until the mind became more and more refined. This was a foundation for the mind on which I could depend.
From that point on, I really stepped up my efforts. The time I started sitting in meditation all night until dawn came from this point. I started to sit one night, focusing on in, focusing on in, and at first the mind had settled down because it was used to settling down. It settled down easily because it ‘had a good foundation.’ I kept focusing on in, and as long as no enormous pains arose, the meditation went quietly. But when I withdrew, a number of hours had passed, and a huge pain arose, to the point where I almost couldn’t bear it. The mind that had been quiet was totally overturned. Its ‘good foundation’ had collapsed completely. All that was left was pain filling the body—but the mind wasn’t agitated. Strange!
The body was so pained that it was quivering all over. This was the beginning of the hand-to-hand combat in which I was to obtain an important approach—when really severe pain arose unexpectedly that night. I hadn’t yet made up my mind to sit until dawn, you know. I hadn’t made any resolutions or anything at all. I was simply sitting in meditation as usual, as usual, but when the pain arose in full force: ‘Eh? What’s going on here? I’ll have to tackle this feeling so as to see results tonight!’ So I made a resolution in that very moment: ‘Okay, if the time doesn’t come to get up, I won’t get up. I’ll fight until the dawn of the new day. Tonight for once I’m going to investigate pain so as to understand it clearly and distinctly. If I don’t understand it, then even if I die, let me die. Let me find out. So dig down!’ This is when discernment really began to work in earnest.
I had never known, never imagined, never dreamed that discernment would become so sharp when it was at the end of its rope, when it was really cornered with no way out. Discernment really started spinning away. It went out digging, exploring, fighting, determined not to withdraw its troops in retreat. When I was at the end of my rope, discernment arose. This made me realize, ‘We human beings aren’t fated to be stupid forever. When we’re at the end of our rope, we’re sure to manage to find a way to help ourselves.’ So it was then: When I was cornered, overwhelmed by severe pain, mindfulness and discernment probed into the pain.
When pain arises in full force like this, it fills the entire body. At first it started in hot flashes along the backs of my hands and feet, which wasn’t much to speak of, but then when it really flared up into something big, the entire body was ablaze. All the bones, as they were connected, were fuel feeding the fire in every part of the body. It was as if the body were going to fall apart right then and there. The neck bones were going to come apart. Every bone was going to come apart from its connections. My head was going to fall off and hit the floor. When it’s pained, everything is on a par throughout the body. You don’t know where to hold it back enough so that you can breathe, because everywhere there’s nothing but a mass of fire—pain in full force.
When I couldn’t find a safe spot in which to place the mind, mindfulness and discernment dug down into the pain, searching for the spot where the pain was greatest. Wherever the pain was greatest, mindfulness and discernment would investigate and explore right there by ferreting out the pain so as to see clearly, ‘Where does this feeling come from? Who is pained?’ When they asked each part of the body, each of them remained in keeping with its nature. The skin was skin, the flesh was flesh, the tendons were tendons, and so forth. They had been that way from the day of birth, but they hadn’t been painful all along from the day of birth in the same way that they had been flesh and skin from the day of birth. ‘The pain has been arising and vanishing at intervals. It hasn’t been lasting like these parts of the body.’
I focused on down. ‘Each part of the body that’s a physical form is a reality. Whatever is a reality stays that way. Right now where is the feeling arising? If we say that all these things are painful, why is there one point where it’s really severe?’ So I separated things out. At this point, mindfulness and discernment couldn’t slip away anywhere else. They had to run along the areas that hurt, whirling around themselves, separating the feeling from the body, observing the body, observing the feeling, and observing the mind: These three are the important principles.
The mind seemed comfortable. No matter how much pain was arising, the mind wasn’t writhing or suffering or anything. But the pain in the body was clearly very strong. The nature of pain and of whatever defilements we have is that they join together. Otherwise the mind won’t be troubled or affected by the physical pain that’s really severe at that moment. So discernment kept digging down until the body, the feeling, and the mind were all clear, each in line with its individual truth.
The mind was what labeled the feeling as being this or that: This I could see clearly. As soon as this was really clear in this way, the feeling disappeared in a flash. At that moment, the body was simply the body in line with its reality. The feeling was simply a feeling and it disappeared in a flash into the mind. It didn’t go anywhere else. As soon as the feeling disappeared into the mind, the mind knew that the pain had vanished. The pain had vanished as if it had been snapped off and thrown away.
In addition, the body disappeared from my sense of awareness. At that moment, the body didn’t exist in my awareness at all. All that was left was simple awareness, because there was only one thing—awareness—and it was simply aware. That’s all. The mind was so refined that you could hardly describe it. It simply knew, because it was extremely delicate and refined within itself. The body had completely disappeared. Feelings had disappeared. No physical feelings were left at all. The body sitting right there in meditation had disappeared from my awareness.
All that was left was ‘simple knowingness,’ without any thoughts being fashioned about this or that. At that point, the mind wasn’t forming any thoughts at all. When it doesn’t form thoughts, we say that nothing at all makes the slightest move. The mind is fixed—firmly fixed in its own solitude. It’s a mind in its simple form, on the level of a mind centered in stillness—but mind you, this doesn’t mean that there was no unawareness.
Unawareness had infiltrated right there, because the mind hadn’t withdrawn from unawareness. The mind and unawareness were quiet together because unawareness didn’t get out to work. When discernment has it surrounded, unawareness shrinks in and hides out, quiet in the heart, like the sediment in the bottom of a water jar.
At that point, I began to feel amazed. There was no pain left. The body had disappeared. Only one thing hadn’t disappeared: an awareness so refined I couldn’t describe it. It simply appeared there. You couldn’t say anything else about it. The thing that simply appeared there: That was the great marvel at that moment. There was no motion in the heart, no rippling, nothing of anything at all. It stayed fixed and still like that until enough time had elapsed and then it moved. The mind began to withdraw and rippled—blip—and then was quiet.
This rippling happens on its own, you know. We can’t intend it. If we intend it, the mind withdraws. What happens is that the mind has had enough, of its own accord. When it ripples in a ‘blip’ like this, it’s aware of the fact. As soon as the ‘blip’ appears, it vanishes. After a moment it ripples—blip—again, and disappears in the same instant. Then the rippling gradually becomes more and more frequent.
When the mind withdraws after having fully settled down to its foundation, it doesn’t withdraw all at once. I could clearly see this at that moment. The mind rippled slightly: A saṅkhāra formed in a ‘blip’ and then disappeared before it had amounted to anything at all. It rippled—blip—and disappeared right then and there. After a moment it rippled—blip—again. Gradually it became more and more frequent until finally I came back to ordinary consciousness, to the ordinary level of the mind. I was aware of the body, but the pain was still gone. When the mind came back out, there was still no pain. It was still quiet until time came for the pain to reappear.
This is where I got my standard and my certainty. I realized that I had arrived at a basic principle in contending with pain: ‘So this is how it is. Pain is actually something separate. The body is separate. The mind is separate, but because of one thing—delusion—all three converge into one, and the whole mind becomes delusion, the whole mind is the one deluded. Even though pain may simply arise in line with its own nature, if we grab hold of it to burn ourselves, it’s hot—because our labeling makes it hot.’
After a fair while, the pain returned, so I had to tackle it again, without retreating. I had to dig on down, exploring again as I had explored before, but this time I couldn’t use the tactics I had used in investigating and remedying the pain the last time around. I needed fresh tactics, newly devised by mindfulness and discernment so as to keep up with events. It was pain just the same, but the tactics simply had to be pertinent to the moment. I couldn’t remedy matters by holding to the old tactics I had used to investigate and know in the past. They had to be fresh, hot tactics devised in the present to cure the present. The mind then settled down firmly in stillness as it had done before.
In that first night, the mind settled down three times, but I had to go through three bouts of hand-to-hand combat. After the third time, dawn came—the end of the final showdown using reason with real mindfulness and discernment. The mind was audacious, exultant, and had no fear of death. ‘However great the pain may be, that’s its own ordinary business. As long as we don’t enter in and load ourselves down with it, pain has no significance in the heart.’ The mind knew clearly that the body has no significance in terms of itself, in terms of the feeling, or in terms of us—unless the mind gives it a significance and then gathers in the suffering to burn itself. There’s nothing else that can come in and make the mind suffer.
Getting up that morning, I felt audacious in an extraordinary way. I wanted to tell Venerable Ācariya Mun of my knowledge and capabilities. This was because I felt daring in a way hard to describe. How was it that things could be so marvelous like this in a way I had never encountered before? Ever since I had begun meditating, nothing like this had ever happened. The mind had completely cut off all connection with any objects and had gathered within itself with real courage. It had gathered by investigating all around itself, which was why it had calmed itself inwardly like a thoroughbred. When it withdrew, it was still full of courage, with no fear of death at all, owing to its conviction that, ‘I investigated like this and this when pain arose. The next time it comes, I won’t fear it because it’s the same old pain. It’s pain with the same old face. The body is the same old body. Discernment is the same old discernment we’ve used before.’ For this reason, the heart felt no fear of death—so much so that it felt all sorts of things hard to describe. To put it in worldly terms, it was like defying someone right to his face, with no fear of pain or death.
See? When the mind is bold, it’s bold all the way. Daring all the way. It fights without retreating. ‘Okay, I’ll take you on.’ To put it simply and frankly, that’s just how it feels. When the time comes to die, ‘Okay, I’ll take you on.’ The mind doesn’t retreat. ‘When the time comes to die, where will death find any pain for us greater than this? There’s no such thing. The only pain is the pain in the khandhas. It can be great or small, but we know it here in the khandhas. No matter how much or how heavy the pain may be, it can’t outstrip our knowledge and capabilities. It can’t outstrip our mindfulness and discernment. Mindfulness and discernment are capable of keeping track of it all, as they have already known and removed it in the past.’ This is what made me feel really bold.
When the time would come to die, I didn’t see that there would be any problem, with mindfulness and discernment all around me like this. If the time came to die, then let me die. Birth and death come in a pair. You can’t separate death from birth so as not to die, because they are equal truths.
The next time around, I took on the pain again and knew in the same way. I kept on knowing in the same way and winning every time. Once I had given it all my strength in that way, there was never a day in which I’d say, ‘Last night I stayed up in meditation all night until dawn and didn’t get anything out of it.’ But any night in which the mind had difficulty investigating and settling down, I would come out feeling battered all over my body. I’d be all stiff and sore.
But as for getting tactics and strength of mind, I’d get them every time, until I no longer had any fear of death at all—and where would I get any fear? Death was something ordinary. In other words, discernment had analyzed down to ‘What dies?’ Hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, bones: They’re simply their original element—solidity, the earth element. Since when did the earth element ever die? When they disintegrate, what do they become? If we focus on down, we see that they return to their original properties. The water element returns to its original property. The wind and fire elements simply return to their own original properties. Nothing is annihilated. The elements have simply come together in a lump, and the mind comes in and animates it—this super-deluded one comes in and animates it, that’s all—and then carries the entire burden: ‘This is my self.’ It lays its claims: ‘This is me. This is mine.’ And so it rakes in every kind of suffering as if contracting for the whole mass, using those assumptions simply to burn itself, and nothing else.
The mind itself is the culprit. The five khandhas aren’t the culprits. They aren’t our enemies or anything. They simply have their own reality, but we make assumptions and carry then as a burden. This is why there’s suffering and stress. We manufacture it ourselves. These things don’t manufacture it for us. ‘There is nothing that comes and gives us suffering’: This is how the mind came to understand things. We are the ones who misconstrue things. We are the ones who suffer because we misconstrue things. This produces suffering to burn and trouble the heart. I could clearly see that nothing dies.
The mind doesn’t die. It becomes more pronounced. When we fully investigate the four elements—earth, water, wind, and fire—down to their original properties, the mind becomes even more pronounced and clear. So where is there any death? What dies? None of these conditions die. The four elements—earth, water, wind, and fire: They don’t die. And as for the mind, how can it die? It becomes more aware. More pronounced. More conspicuous. This doesn’t die, so why does it fear death? We’ve been fooled all along, fooled for eons and eons, for actually nothing dies.
Now, the word ‘fooled’ doesn’t mean that anyone intended to fool us. We’ve been fooled simply because of our own delusion—fooled into fearing death. Now we see: This is how the world fears death—from not having explored down to its truth, from not knowing what dies. Because look: Nothing dies. Each thing simply has its separate reality. I saw this clearly. The mind proclaimed itself by its very nature. I saw its marvelousness clearly, every time.
Even when the pain was as hot as fire in the body and seemed ready to reach the clouds, it would vanish clear away, with nothing left, due to the power of mindfulness and discernment; even the body would vanish from my sense of consciousness and wouldn’t appear at all. When everything disbanded completely as the result of my investigation, all that remained was simple awareness, as if floating in mid-space (although I didn’t make the comparison at the moment). It was completely empty, but the awareness knew clearly. There was only one thing. There was only one strange thing in the world: the heart.
Earth, water, wind, and fire made no contact with the heart. The heart thus had no sense of earth, water, wind, fire or any part of the body. All that remained was a solitary awareness, an awareness not involved with anything at all—an amazing awareness, coming from having investigated things with circumspection and then having withdrawn from them. Clear. Outstanding. Astounding.
Once the mind can be settled down like this—for no matter how many days or nights it may last—it has no sense of pain, that the body will fall apart, that it hurts here or aches there: no sense of any of this at all. And what would give it any sense of this? Time and place don’t exist in that mental state. This called to mind how the Buddhas, Pacceka Buddhas, and arahant disciples could enter the cessation of feeling and perception for seven days at a time. They could enter for as many days as they liked. If their minds settled down like this to the extent of not being involved with anything at all, leaving just plain awareness without any involvement with time or place, then they could sit for eons if they liked. Even if the body couldn’t endure, if it were to break apart, it would simply do so, without having any impact on this nature at all.
This was when my mind accepted—really believed in—the ability of those extraordinary people who enter the cessation of feeling and perception for so-and-so many days. If their minds reached this level without withdrawing back out to anything outside, then for days or months they wouldn’t have any perception of anything at all. Where would there be pain and pleasure in their bodies? There wouldn’t be any at all. They wouldn’t have any sense of the body. They wouldn’t have any awareness of feelings. All that would remain would be plain awareness. They could sit for eons, if they liked, as long as the mind was like this.
This made me believe in the stories of the Pacceka Buddhas who entered the cessation of feeling and perception. So I took this as a confirmation in my mind. Whoever says I’m crazy can go ahead and say so. They have mouths; we have ears. If we want to listen, we can. If we don’t, we can keep still. We are all free to have our opinions on this matter and that. No one has a monopoly on knowing and seeing!
Even though I didn’t sit for a long time, the state of mind that had grown still to that extent for a spell of time was enough to serve as confirmation of those who entered the cessation of feeling and perception for long periods of time, because it had the same characteristics: not involved with anything at all. The body would simply be a body. If it were to fall apart, if it couldn’t last—after all, the body is inconstant, stressful, and not-self—then it would simply fall apart without the mind’s being aware.
This is a level attained through mindfulness and discernment. It’s a level where discernment fosters concentration. The mind reaches the full extent of concentration like this because discernment has fully investigated down to causes and effects. It then gathers with courage and great refinement. Ordinarily, when the mind filled with just the power of concentration focuses and settles down, it is simply unmoving and nothing else. It isn’t as profound and refined as this. But the mind stilled through the power of discernment is refined each time. Once we have gone through hand-to-hand combat in this way to the point where we get results, the mind has to be absolutely quiet, just like this.
This was the basis, or the starting capital, for my courage; the primary seed for my firm conviction in the affairs of the mind. No matter how much anything else might be annihilated, this knowing nature would not be annihilated. I could see this clearly. I saw it clearly at the point when nothing else was involved in my sense of awareness. There was simply that single awareness and so it was very pronounced. I couldn’t really say whether this was on the level of concentration or of discernment. When the mind actually was that way, that’s how it was.
From that point on I kept at it. I kept investigating out in the area of discernment, ranging out widely, then circling back in again. As soon as I would understand, step by step, the mind would let go and circle inward in an ever-narrowing sphere, investigating the khandhas and elements, separating the khandhas and elements.
This is where it began to be ‘samuccheda-pahāna’—absolute relinquishment, arising from the investigation in the period that followed. As long as the investigation hadn’t been absolute, it would win out for only a period of time, just enough to serve as evidence and proof. It still wasn’t absolute relinquishment. But when discernment came to a really clear understanding while investigating, then it pulled out and severed all ties, step by step—severed things so that there were no connections left; severed them step by step, leaving just plain awareness.
The body (rūpa) was severed from attachment. Vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa were severed from attachment. Or you could say that the ‘heart’ was severed from ‘them.’ Things kept being severed until only awareness was left—in other words, the mind with unawareness buried inside it. So I probed on in, smashed things to bits, slashed them to smithereens with up-to-the-minute mindfulness and discernment. The mind of unawareness broke apart, and when the mind of unawareness broke apart, that was all!
That was when I came to know that all of the marvels I have mentioned here were simply an affair of unawareness. They had simply been a support, a way-station, a seed that had produced conviction step by step, but after that—if you were to say they were good, they were good; but if you’re aiming at the subtle Dhamma, this goodness is the goodness of unawareness. It’s not genuine goodness, not pure goodness. It’s goodness mixed with evil, with suffering and stress, because stress still has a chance to arise. We have to keep slashing in, slashing in until everything is smithereens in the heart. Whatever is a seed of anything counterfeit in the heart, wash it away, scrub it away, until nothing is left, and that’s all. The entire mind that is assumed to be ‘this’ or ‘that’ is all gone.
This is where the mind reaches absolute purity, where it reaches complete freedom from all conventional realities. That’s really ‘all’! It’s astounding. If it weren’t astounding, it wouldn’t be release from stress. This is a Dhamma apart—a Dhamma beyond conventions.
Whether what I’ve described here is difficult or not, consider it for yourselves. Sometimes I’d feel ready to pass out. Sometimes I’d feel as if the entire body were on fire. When the pain was really fierce, it seemed to fill the entire body. But ultimately I was able to pass through these things, to resolve them using mindfulness and discernment.
So if we put them to use, mindfulness and discernment are never at the end of their rope. We human beings aren’t fated always to be stupid, you know. When we come to the end of our rope, we’re sure to be able to save ourselves. Who should be willing to go under when we have the mindfulness and discernment to remedy things, or when there’s an opening through which we can escape, through which we can force our way out? Who would willingly be buried to death? We can’t help but manage to find a way out.
When the pain is so piled on that we can’t see any way to cure it other than using mindfulness and discernment to explore and find a way out, discernment doesn’t depend on this person or that. When the time comes for the mind to investigate when it’s cornered, it gathers its forces and manages to save itself.
The Buddha thus taught us to live in ‘crucial’ places—places where we’re cornered, at the end of our rope—where we live simply, so that mindfulness and discernment can work full steam ahead and see their own capabilities, rather than simply waiting for help from others. Time and place can help give rise to mindfulness and discernment. If we live in a scary place, mindfulness is strong. Discernment is sharp. Whatever we investigate, they are adroit and audacious. If we live in a comfortable place, we get lazy. We eat a lot and sleep a lot. This is the way it is with the mind. If we live in ordinary circumstances, we’re very lazy, very inert, very apathetic and listless. If we live in places that aren’t scary, we become heedless and revert to being complacent, to sleeping like pigs.
If we live in a scary place, we’re always alert. When we’re alert, we’re always self-aware, because alertness is what it means to be mindful. Mindfulness appears within us, always self-aware, always engaged in persistent effort. Whatever makes contact, we understand because we’re not complacent, because we’re always alert. This is why we’re taught to live in whatever places are appropriate, because they can give good encouragement or support to our persistent effort.
If we have comfortable huts in which to live—as we have here—everything cares for our every need. Food overflows our bowls. We’re flooded day and night with fruit juice, soft drinks, cocoa, and coffee. Main course dishes and desserts come pouring in from every direction. If we lack mindfulness and discernment, we lie clutching our food, like a pig lying next to its hay and then climbing up to lie on the chopping block. As for the Dhamma, we have no hope of winning it. Any meditation monk who is ‘clever’ in this way is bound to go under in this way without a doubt.
To have mindfulness and discernment, we have to think. However much of the necessities of life we may have, we must find tactics for keeping the mind in shape, to keep wary and uncomplacent like a deer wary of danger.
In places where you don’t have to be wary of food like this, the mind goes about thinking in another way to reform itself. There, where will you get an excess of anything? Everything is lacking. Insufficient. Some days you get enough alms to eat, some days you don’t. ‘This way there’s nothing to be concerned about, because you’ve been full and been hungry before. Even if you go without food for one or two days, you won’t die.’
This is how the heart deals with the problem, and so it isn’t concerned about food or anything else. If there’s nothing but rice, you eat rice—and you don’t see that you’re concerned about it. ‘After all, you’ve come to a place like this, so what’s wrong with eating whatever’s available? Where are you going to find anything to go with the rice? You’ve been fed rice ever since the day you were born, so what’s wrong with eating just rice? Can you eat other things without rice? If eating other things is really special, you’ve already eaten a lot of them, so why aren’t you ever full? You’ve come looking for the Dhamma, not for food. Why are you so worked up about your stomach? You’ve already eaten a lot, and yet nothing special has ever come of it. You’re looking for the extraordinary Dhamma, so what business do you have getting worked up about food? An expert in Dhamma isn’t an expert in eating.’ The mind deals with the situation in the flash of an eye, and the end result is that it isn’t concerned. This is how a meditation monk subdues himself—or in other words, subdues his greed for the necessities of life.
And as a result of correcting itself in the matter of eating or not eating, the mind keeps spinning. You sit in meditation without getting tired. With no food in your stomach, what is there to get drowsy about? If you don’t eat at all, you’re not drowsy at all and can meditate with ease.
This is a tactic in teaching monks to practice the Dhamma ‘rukkhamūla-senāsanaṁ’—under the shade of trees, in the mountains, in the forest, in lonely places where it’s scary—ahāra-sappaya, where the food is amenable. ‘Amenable’ here means that it doesn’t disrupt the body, that it isn’t harmful or toxic to the body; and that it doesn’t disrupt the mind as well. ‘Amenable food’ means nothing but rice sometimes, or just a little food, so that our meditation goes well. It’s amenable for those intent on the Dhamma.
But those of us who are intent on nourishing the stomach for the sake of the body can’t do this at all. Otherwise we’ll die—don’t say I didn’t warn you. Normally if we eat a lot, with nothing but good dishes to eat, then we sleep like pigs. How can this be amenable? It’s amenable for the defilements, not for winning the Dhamma. It’s amenable for the affairs of defilements and the affairs of pigs.
The term ‘amenable food’ has to refer to eating in a way that serves a purpose. To eat just a little serves a purpose: Wherever we sit in meditation, the mind is really solid. If we’re involved with concentration, the mind is solid. If we’re involved with discernment, it keeps spinning with much more agility than normal.
The Dhamma tends to arise in places where things are lacking, in difficult places where we’re cornered, at the end of our rope. It doesn’t arise where things are overflowing, where our needs are met. It doesn’t arise in comfortable places because we just get complacent. This is the way we tend to be.
The Lord Buddha lived in a royal palace—for how long?—and then left it to take up the homeless life. Who ever suffered more than he? ‘Buddha’—Awakening—tends to arise in situations like that. His disciples came from all sorts of families—the families of kings, financiers, landowners—listen to this—wealthy people. When they went out to become ‘sons of the Sakyan, sons of the victorious Buddha,’ how did they live? ‘If we’re going to die, then we die. We’re not going to worry or be bothered with anything at all except for the Dhamma.’ There! They gained the Dhamma in difficult places, just like the Buddha.
So which way are we going to take? The Buddha has already shown us the way. The Dhamma arises in that sort of place—in tight spots where things are difficult. The Dhamma arises from a heap of suffering. If there’s no heap of suffering, then mindfulness and discernment don’t arise. If we don’t think, we don’t gain mindfulness and discernment. The Dhamma doesn’t appear. If there’s a lot of stress, it’s a whetstone for discernment, which probes for clear insight into the affairs of stress. This way we can live through it and come out superlative people.
So then. Evaṁ.