Unawareness Converges, Concealing the True Dhamma, the True Mind
This Dhamma talk was given as an answer to a question posed by one of the more important senior monks of our day and age. The gist is as follows:
This was when I began to investigate into the converging point of the cycle of defilement—namely, unawareness. While I was investigating, I didn’t know that I was investigating unawareness. I was simply thinking, ‘What is this?’ There was an uncertainty right there, so I focused the mind there, directed my attention to investigate what it was, where it came from, where it was going.
It so happened I hit the right spot: I say this because I didn’t know that it was called, or what unawareness was. Actually, unawareness and its name are very different. We see its currents spreading out all over the world, but those are only its branches. It’s like trying to catch an outlaw: At first all we can catch are his henchmen. Whoever we catch is just a henchman. We don’t know where the chief outlaw is, or what he looks like, because we have never seen him.
We catch lots of his henchmen, closing in on him, encircling him. This is called laying siege to the outlaw. Our police force is very large and very strong. Each person on the force helps the others, so they have a lot of strength, surrounding the spot where the outlaw lies, catching this person, tying up that one. Ordinarily when they’re asked, outlaws won’t tell who their chief is. Whenever we catch an outlaw, we tie him up until no one is left inside our siege line. The last person left is the chief outlaw. The last person lies in a strategic place, because his henchmen have to guard him well on all sides so that no one can easily slip in to see him.
The henchmen keep getting captured one after another until we reach the cave in which the chief outlaw is hiding, and then we kill everyone in there. This is when we know clearly that the wily outlaw has been wiped out for good.
This is simply an analogy. To put it in other words, the mind’s involvement with anything is a branch of delusion. Regardless of whether the delusion leads in a good or a bad direction, it’s nothing but an affair of unawareness and the branches of unawareness, but actual unawareness itself doesn’t lie there. So the tactics for investigating it, if we were to use another analogy, are like bailing water out of a pond to catch the fish in it. If there’s a lot of water, we don’t know how many fish it contains. So we keep bailing out the water until it starts receding lower and lower. The fish gather together. Each fish, wherever it is, swims down deeper into the water. The water keeps getting bailed out, and the fish keep gathering together. We can see where each fish is going, because the water keeps receding until at last, when the water is dry, the fish have nowhere to hide, and so we can catch them.
Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations, together with the mental acts that intermingle with them: These are like the water in which the fish live. To investigate these things is not for the purpose of taking possession of them but for the purpose of killing defilement, in the same way that a person bails out the water, not because he wants the water but because he wants the fish. To investigate these things is not for the purpose of taking possession of them but for the purpose of knowing them, stage by stage. As soon as we know to a certain point, we are no longer concerned with that point. We know the things with which we are involved, as well as the fact that we are the one at fault for being involved, that our own misunderstanding is what deludes us into loving and hating these things.
At this point, the scope of our investigation keeps narrowing in, narrowing in, just as the water keeps receding. Whatever elements or khandhas we investigate, they are just like external things in general. There are no differences. On the material side, the elements are the same elements. The difference lies in the acts of the mind that display themselves—but we aren’t yet aware of them, so we go labeling things in line with them, which is still one of the branches of unawareness. But as our investigation seeps deeper and deeper into the central area, the more clearly we see the things that come to be involved with us, the more clearly we see the mind as it goes out to become involved each time—in the same way that the more the water recedes, the more clearly we see the fish.
As we investigate, the more clearly we see phenomena outside and inside the body, as well as our own mental concomitants (cetasika), then the more clearly we see the point where the chief culprit lies. As our investigation keeps closing in, the mind’s focus grows narrower and narrower. Its concerns grow less and less. The currents sent out by the mind grow shorter. As soon as it stirs itself to become involved with any object, we investigate both that object and the stirring of the mind as it goes out to act. We see both aspects. We see the causes and results on both sides, namely (1) the side with which the mind involves itself, the things with which it is involved; and (2) the one who becomes involved. Discernment keeps moving in, step by step.
When it moves in and reaches unawareness itself, meditators for the most part—if no teacher has warned them in advance—are bound to hold to that as their real self. This is because they have investigated and seen all things clearly in the heart, so that they are fully wise to those things and have let them go, with nothing remaining—but what is it that knows those things? This is what they take and cherish. This is termed unawareness converging, but it turns into their ‘self’ without their realizing it. The mind gets deluded there. The term ‘unawareness’ refers to this very delusion about oneself. Delusions about outside things are not matters of actual unawareness.
Because of our delusion about this, because of our delusion about that which knows all other things, we forget to investigate and pass judgment on what it is—because when the scope of the mind narrows, it gathers itself into a point. The point of the mind that appears at this stage is a radiant mind, bright, cheerful, and bold. All happiness seems to be gathered right there. What do these things come from? If you were to call them results, I’d have to admit that they are results. We could say that they’re results of the practice—if we aren’t deluded about this point. If we’re still deluded, these things are still the origin of stress. This is the central point of the origin of stress.
But if we’re meditators who are always interested in investigating whatever comes our way, we won’t overlook this. No matter what, we can’t help but become interested in investigating this point—because we have already investigated and understood all things of every sort to the point where the mind won’t make contact with them. If we take the mind out to investigate anything, it won’t make contact, because it has already had enough of that thing.
Now, every mental act that arises, arises from this point. Thoughts that form, form from this point. The happiness that appears, appears here. The happiness that appears undergoes changes we can see: This is what makes us begin investigating again, because this is a level in which we are very observant. When we observe the happiness, we see that it isn’t steady, for the happiness produced by unawareness is a conventional reality. Sometimes it gets tarnished a little—just a little—enough for us to know that it isn’t uniform. It keeps changing in that way, in line with its status as a refined phenomenon.
This is the point that we trust and believe in. Even those who practice with intensity and extreme interest will fall for this point and become attached to it if no one has explained it to them in advance. But even though we trust in it, we can’t help observing it if we are interested, because that’s all there is that attracts the heart. This is what causes us to be attracted to it, to be content with what appears. As long as we have been investigating, that’s the way it has been—to the extent that we don’t know what unawareness is—and so we believe that this will be nibbāna, this point that is bright and clear all the time.
‘All the time’ here means all the time for those meditators who are persistent in cleansing it and who aren’t entirely complacent in their trust for it, who are very protective of this point and won’t let anything touch it. Such people use a great deal of caution. As soon as anything touches that point, they will rectify it immediately.
But they don’t know what it is that they love and cherish. Even though that love and cherishing is clearly a burden, they don’t realize the fact at that moment. Only when enough time has passed for them to be ready to know will they become interested in investigating this point. ‘What is this? We’ve investigated everything of every sort, but what is this?’ Now the mind focuses in on that point. Discernment probes in. ‘What is this, for sure? Is it true yet or not? Is it awareness or unawareness?’ These doubts keep nagging at the mind.
But we keep on investigating and contemplating, using discernment without ceasing—because this is something we have never seen, never met with before—to see why we love it, why we are protective of it. If it’s something true, why do we have to love and protect it? Why do we have to care for it? To care for something is a burden, in which case this must be a hazard for the person who cherishes and cares for it, or something that shouldn’t be trusted—even though at that moment we still don’t know what it is, whether it’s really unawareness or not, because we have never seen how true awareness differs from unawareness, or how release differs from conventional reality. This is where discernment becomes interested in investigating.
Now, I’d say that this is something very elaborate and involved. If I were to describe it in line with how I investigated it, or to condense it so as to give the gist in a reasonable amount of time, I’d summarize quickly by saying whatever makes an appearance, investigate it. Whatever makes an appearance is a matter of conventional reality—I’m referring here to the refined phenomena that appear in the heart. Ultimately, even that very point with its brightness is the point of genuine unawareness. Focus down on it, using discernment. Just as all phenomena in general are simply phenomena, this nature is also simply a phenomenon in exactly the same way. We can’t latch onto it as being ‘us’ or ‘ours’—but our protectiveness shows that we hold to it as being us or ours, which is a mistake.
Discernment probes inward to see just what this is, as if we were to turn around to look at ourselves. We look outside and see the earth, the sky, the air. Whatever passes into our range of vision, we see. But if we don’t look back at ourselves, we won’t see ourselves. Discernment at this stage is very quick. It looks back and forth, back and forth, to see this last point or this last stage, and its investigation is just like its investigation of things in general. It investigates not to take possession of its object but simply to know its object for what it truly is.
When this disbands, it’s not like other things disbanding. When other things disband, they go with a feeling that we understand them. But this isn’t like that. When it disbands, it disintegrates in an instant, like a lightning flash. There’s an instant where it acts of its own accord—or you could say that it flips over. It flips over and disappears completely. When it disappears, that’s when we know that it was genuine unawareness—because once this has disappeared, nothing more appears for us to doubt.
What remains is nothing like it at all. It’s a pure nature. Even though we have never seen it before, when it appears in that moment, there is nothing to doubt—and that’s how the burden is all gone.
The word ‘I’ refers to this genuine unawareness. It means that this unawareness is still standing. Whatever we have been investigating has been for its sake. Whatever we say we know, this ‘I’ is what knows. Radiant? ‘I’m’ radiant. Light? ‘I’m’ light. Happy? ‘I’m’ happy. ‘Me,’ ‘I,’ they refer to this. This is genuine unawareness. Whatever we do is for its sake. Once it disintegrates, there is nothing more for anything’s sake. It’s all gone.
If we were to make an analogy, it’s like a water jar whose bottom has been smashed. No matter how much water we may pour into it, nothing stays in the jar. Everything that may be formed in line with the nature of the khandhas can still be formed, but nothing sticks because the vessel—unawareness, the chief culprit—has disintegrated. As soon as saṅkhāras form—blip!—they vanish. They simply pass by, disappearing, disappearing, because there’s no place to keep them, no one who owns them. The nature that realizes that nothing is its owner is a nature that has reached its fullness. It is thus a genuinely pure nature and no longer a burden that needs to be watched over or protected from danger ever again.
This unawareness is what has been concealing the true Dhamma, the true mind, all along. This is why we haven’t seen the true, natural marvelousness of the mind. For this reason, meditators who reach the stage of this pitfall latch onto it as something marvelous, love it, cherish it, are protective of it, and regard it as ‘me’ or ‘mine’: ‘My mind is radiant. My mind is courageous and brave. My mind is happy. My mind knows everything of every sort’—but this nature doesn’t know itself, which is why the Buddha called it genuine unawareness. Once we turn around and know it, it disintegrates. Once it disintegrates, it’s just like opening the lid of a pot: Whatever is in the pot, we can see it all. Only unawareness keeps the mind concealed.
This purity is a truth that lies beyond the truths of stress, its origin, its cessation and the path. It’s a truth beyond the four Noble Truths. Of the four truths, one pair binds, the other unbinds and stops. What do they bind and unbind? They bind the heart, or keep it covered; and they unbind the heart, or uncover it. They open up the things that cover it so as to reveal its purity in line with its truth. Its truth is already there, but the two truths of stress and its origin keep it concealed, just as the lid of a pot conceals whatever is in the pot so that we can’t see it. The path—the practice—opens it. The path and the cessation of stress open the pot so that we can see clearly what’s inside. Even though the purity is already there, it’s concealed by the first two truths and revealed by the truths that unbind. This is what is bound, this is what is revealed. Once it’s revealed, there are no more problems.
Both pairs of truths are activities. Both are conventional realities. The path and the cessation of stress are conventional realities. Once they have performed their duties, they pass. Stress and the origin of stress are also conventional realities. Once the two conventional realities remedy the two conventional realities, that pure nature is a nature that stays fixed.
What we see at that point is called release. Things are opened so that we see release, or natural purity. The burden of the task is ended right here. When the mind is pure, it doesn’t confer any titles on itself. As for external things, the worldly phenomena (loka-dhamma) connected with external things, they’re far away. The worldly phenomena that we used to say were good or bad, pleasant or painful in the heart, are no longer a problem once that point has disintegrated.
When we investigate to this level, it’s not wide-ranging. If we can derive an approach from the explanations given by a meditation master who has known and passed this stage, we can make quick progress—but it’s important that we not set up any expectations. Expectations are not the path. Whatever appears, keep investigating and understanding that point—each successive thing as it appears. That’s the correct path.
‘Unawareness’ refers to the nature I have just explained. That’s genuine unawareness. All other things are just its branches. Like a vine whose stem grows in one place but that creeps to who-knows-where: No matter how long it is, it keeps creeping and climbing. When we catch hold of it, we follow it in, follow it in, until we reach its stem. Here’s the stem. Here’s the root. Once we pull up the root, the whole thing dies.
In the same way, the branches of unawareness are many and long, so that when we actually reach unawareness, we don’t know what it is. But we investigate it. Discernment probes on in. Even though we don’t know that this is unawareness, our investigation is on the right path, and so unawareness opens up of its own accord, in the same way as when we eat: Fullness appears clearly for us to see step by step all on its own.
So to summarize the issue of whether unawareness is a factor of rebirth or a factor of kamma: It creates levels of being, it creates kamma relentlessly. These are both matters of the same cycle. It keeps creating levels of being within itself. The mind can’t lie still. It simply keeps creating being and birth all the time. It works at accumulating these things for itself, but for the most part it accumulates things that weigh it down constantly, making it sink to lower levels.
When people talk about destroying the wheel of kamma, this unawareness is what’s destroyed. Once this is destroyed, there are no more connections to create further levels of being and birth. Even though the things that used to be involved with us continue to become involved as they normally did, they pass by. They don’t seep in. They don’t set up house and move into this spot the way they used to. They simply pass by. And we know that this pure nature doesn’t connect with anything. We have seen the connections of the mind, step by step, and when we reach the level where it doesn’t connect with anything, we know.
As for knowing the question of levels of being and birth, as to whether or not we’ll be reborn, there is no need to speculate, because the present already tells us clearly that when there are no connections to levels of being and birth inside us, as we plainly see, there are no levels of being or birth to continue into the future. The factory has been destroyed, and there is no way it can rebuild itself. There is no way it can produce issues as it used to. The factory that produced suffering has been destroyed once and for all.
The phrase ‘khandhas pure and simple’ refers to this stage. The khandhas are khandhas pure and simple, without any defilements. If the mind isn’t defiled, the khandhas aren’t defiled. They are simply tools. If the central part—the mind—is defiled, each khandha follows it in being defiled. The body becomes a means for increasing defilement in the heart. Vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa all become means for increasing defilement in the heart. If the mind is pure, the khandhas for their part are also pure. Nothing is defiled. But if the mind is defiled, the khandhas are defiled all the livelong day. This is the way the truth is.
The creation of being and birth is a matter of the mind that keeps producing itself. It can’t stay still. A mind that has the cycle in charge of its work or supervising its work will have to keep itself spinning all the time. Whatever thoughts it spins are for the sake of creating being and birth. As soon as the cycle disintegrates, there is nothing to create being and birth any more.
Those whose minds have attained realization exclaim spontaneously in the heart to proclaim the Dhamma unabashedly to the world, saying that there are no more levels of being in which they are to be reborn—as when the Buddha exclaimed, ‘aneka-jāti-saṁsāraṁ…’1 because he knew right in the present that there was nothing creating itself. Goodness stayed in its own territory and didn’t seep in, didn’t mingle. Evil stayed in its own territory and didn’t seep in or mingle. They didn’t come running in. When we say that they didn’t come running in, it’s not that he forced them not to. It was simply their own nature. When these things come running in we don’t force them to. There’s simply a medium along which they run. When there’s no more medium, they disconnect of their own accord.
It seemed to me when I was investigating this—when unawareness disappeared—that there was a moment that let me know very clearly. It was a moment—an instant I hadn’t anticipated or expected. It was an instant that grabbed my attention. The instant unawareness disappeared was an instant in which it displayed itself, as if it flipped itself over into a new world (if you were to call it a world). It flipped in the flash of an eye and vanished in the same instant, although this wasn’t anything I had anticipated. I hadn’t intended for it to flip. It happened of its own accord. This is something very subtle that is impossible for me to describe correctly in line with the truth of that instant.
In practicing the religion, if we practice it really to gain release from suffering, there are two intricate points. To separate the attachments between the mind and the body: This is one intricate point; and then this second intricate point that was the final point of my ability. Other than that there’s nothing devious.
Once, when I went to practice at Wat Doi Dhammachedi, the problem of unawareness had me bewildered for quite some time. At that stage the mind was so radiant that I came to marvel at its radiance. Everything of every sort that could make me marvel seemed to have gathered there in the mind, to the point where I began to marvel at myself, ‘Why is it that my mind is so marvelous?’ Looking at the body, I couldn’t see it at all. It was all space—empty. The mind was radiant in full force.
But luckily, as soon as I began to marvel at myself to the point of exclaiming deludedly in the heart without being conscious of it—if we speak on the level of refined Dhamma, it was a kind of delusion; it was amazed at itself, ‘Why has my mind come so far?’—at that moment, a statement of Dhamma spontaneously arose. This too I hadn’t anticipated. It suddenly appeared, as if someone were speaking in the heart, although there was no one there speaking. It simply appeared as a statement: ‘If there is a point or a center of the knower anywhere, that is the essence of a level of being.’ That’s what it said.
That phenomenon actually was a point: the point of knowledge, the point of radiance. It really was a point, just as the statement had said. But I didn’t take into consideration what the ‘point’ was and so I was bewildered. Instead of gaining an approach from the warning that had appeared, I took the problem to chew over until I came to consider the part about the ‘point.’ That was what ended the problem. I then came back to understand clearly the matter of, ‘If there is a point or a center of the knower anywhere, that is the essence of a level of being.’ That was when I understood, ‘Oh—I see. The words “point” and “center” refer to just this.’ Before, I hadn’t understood. It really was a point. No matter how marvelous, it was the point of the marvelousness. It was a point there to be known. Once that disintegrated, there were no more points, because every point is a conventional reality. No matter how refined, each is a conventional reality.
This is why I am always teaching my fellow meditators: ‘Once you’ve reached that point, don’t be protective of anything. Investigate on in. Even if the mind should actually be demolished by that investigation, let it be demolished. Whatever is left to be aware of the purity, let it be aware—or if everything is going to be demolished so that there is nothing left to be aware of purity, then at least find out. Don’t be protective of anything at all.’ I say this out of fear that they’ll be protective of this thing. If they aren’t warned that forcefully, then no matter what, they’re bound to get stuck. All I ask is that they find out: ‘Whatever is going to vanish, let it vanish. Even if the mind is going to vanish from the power of the investigation, let it vanish. There’s no need to protect it.’ When investigating, you have to take it that far.
But there’s no escaping the truth: Whatever arises has to vanish; whatever is true, whatever is a natural principle in and of itself, won’t vanish. In other words, the pure mind won’t vanish. Everything of every sort may vanish, but that which knows their vanishing doesn’t vanish. This vanishes, that vanishes, but the one that knows their vanishing doesn’t vanish. Whether or not we try to leave it untouched, it keeps on knowing. But to try to protect it is tantamount to protecting unawareness, because unawareness is subtle. It’s there in the mind. To be protective of the mind is tantamount to being protective of unawareness.
So then. If the mind is going to be destroyed along with it, let it be destroyed. To make a comparison with slashing, slash right on down. Don’t let there be anything left. Let everything in there close up shop and leave. To take it that far is just right.
If you’re hesitant, then you are sure to get stuck at this level. That’s why you can’t let yourself be hesitant. You have to take the defilements all out. Whatever is going to vanish, let it all vanish. As for that which is in no position to vanish, it won’t vanish no matter what. To put it simply, it’s as if bandits had gotten into this house. If you’re protective of the house where the bandits are, then—Bang!—they’ll shoot you dead. So if you should burn the whole house down, then burn it down. If you let the bandits stay there, they’ll go on to destroy things that have more value than the house. So be willing to sacrifice the house. Set fire to it. This is called setting fire to unawareness. If the mind is really going to vanish, let it vanish.
But actually the mind doesn’t vanish. Only when you have burned that thing will you know: ‘Oh—the thing of value has been lying beneath the power of unawareness. Unawareness has had it covered.’ The instant unawareness vanishes, this other thing is revealed. Instead of vanishing too, it doesn’t vanish, but if you’re protective of it you’ll be stuck and will never get free.
The period when I was investigating this point was after Venerable Ācariya Mun had passed away. I really felt at the end of my rope. I couldn’t stay with my fellow meditators. I couldn’t stay with anyone at all. They’d get in the way. They’d spoil the fun of my internal efforts at investigation—because at that time the mind was really spinning. It had reached the level where it would spin and spin without stopping. At the time, I called it ‘spinning as a wheel of Dhamma (dhamma-cakka), not as a wheel of rebirth (vaṭṭa-cakka).’ It spun to release itself. It spun all the time. And as soon as it fully reached a state of enough, it stopped—completely and unexpectedly.
For a while, at first, I had been getting annoyed. ‘The more I’ve investigated this mind—and the more refined it has become—why has the burden, instead of growing lighter, become so heavy like this? And it doesn’t have any sense of day or night—why is it?’ I was getting a little concerned and annoyed. But even though I was annoyed, the mind didn’t let up. It kept spinning there, right before my eyes. It kept spinning, scratching, and digging, looking for things that I hadn’t yet known or seen. Wherever I was caught up at any point, it would keep digging and scratching its way away. As soon as it made contact, it would immediately latch on and stick with it. As soon as it understood, the matter would pass and disappear. The mind would then continue probing. Had Venerable Ācariya Mun been alive at that point, things would have gone more quickly.
This is why I have taught my fellow meditators that I’ll give them my all. If I can’t solve their problems, I’ll take them to a teacher who can. Those are the lengths I’ll go to—so that my fellow meditators can put their minds to rest. And for this reason, I’m not willing to have some of my talks recorded, because I let everything out. As soon as I’ve finished, the sound vanishes. I talk just for those who are there. People who didn’t understand those matters would think I was bragging. Actually, I speak in line with the truth and to encourage my students: ‘It has to be like this. You have to slash into it like this.’ That’s just how I put it. It’s as if I give myself as a guarantee so that my students can be confident that what I say isn’t wrong and so that they’ll feel inspired to apply themselves to the effort with strength and resilience. Other people, though, who didn’t understand my motives or anything, would think I was bragging. Instead of benefiting, they’d be harmed. Even if I weren’t harmed, they might be, so I have to be careful.
For this reason, on some occasions and with some people where I should really pull out all the stops, that’s what I do. Otherwise I can’t put my mind to rest about them. We really have to give and take. It’s as if we both open up and give it our all to the point where we keep nothing back, not even a cent. This is the way it sometimes is, on some occasions, but not always. It depends on the situation, how far we should go. If we go that far, then if other people listened in, they’d think we were crazy.
I myself, when listening to Venerable Ācariya Mun talk: If he’d take it that far, it’d go straight to the heart. For three days afterwards I would feel as if the leaves on the trees weren’t moving. The atmosphere would seem absolutely still. The power of his Dhamma blanketed everything—because the people listening were really intent on listening, the person speaking was really intent on speaking, and so they reached each other. As for us, even when we’re told, ‘This. This. It’s like this,’ we still don’t see. It’s like pointing out things to the blind—pitiful, when you think about it.
For this reason, wherever I am, if I haven’t bowed down to Venerable Ācariya Mun, I can’t lie down to sleep, no matter where I am. Even if I’m about to do walking meditation, I first face in his direction and pay him homage. If there’s a picture of him as a conventional focus, I pay homage to his picture. If there’s nothing, I take his virtues and form them into a convention to which I pay respect. His virtues will never fade for me. It’s as if he hadn’t passed away: a nature that stays like that, as if he were watching me all the time.
This is why all the Noble Disciples who have seen the principles of the truth of the Lord Buddha with their full hearts submit to him. That is, they submit to the principles of the truth that are principles of nature; they don’t submit to his person or anything like that. They submit in that the principles of the truth are now the same for them and will never fade. No matter how far they may be from him, that truth will never fade, because the truth is the same for all of them. Even though the Buddha may have entered total nibbāna more than 2,500 years ago, this is not a problem that has an impact on the truth appearing in our hearts. It’s simply the passage of conventional time or of the body—that’s all—but the principle of that truth is unmoving: always one who is pure. Whether alive or totally nibbāna-ed, it’s one who is pure.
This is a truth that is fixed. Those who know this principle of the truth all trust it in the same way, because the true Buddha, the true Dhamma, and the true Saṅgha lie in the heart. The heart truly pure is the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha in full measure, untouched and undisturbed by time or place, unlike conventional realities in general.
1. A reference to the Dhammapada, verses 153–54:
Through the round of many births
I wandered without finding
The house builder I was seeking:
Painful is birth again and again.
House builder, you are seen!
You will not build a house again.
All your rafters broken,
The ridgepole destroyed,
Immersed in dismantling, the mind
Has attained the end of craving.