The Conventional Mind, the Mind Released

Once the mind has been well-cleansed so that it’s constantly radiant, then when we’re in a quiet place, without any sounds—for instance, late in the still of the night—even if the mind hasn’t gathered in concentration, we find that when we focus on that center of awareness, it is so exceedingly delicate and refined that it’s hard to describe. This refinement then becomes like a radiance that spreads all around us in every direction. Nothing appears to be making contact with the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and feeling at that moment, even though the mind hasn’t gathered into the factors of concentration. Instead, this is the firm foundation of the mind that has been well-cleansed and displays a striking awareness, magnificence, and sensitivity within itself.

With this type of awareness, it’s as if we weren’t dwelling in a body at all. This is a very refined awareness, pronounced within itself. Even though the mind hasn’t gathered in concentration, still—because of the refinement of the mind, because of the pronounced nature of the mind—it becomes a pronounced awareness, without any visions or images appearing at all. This awareness is preeminent exclusively in itself. This is one stage of the mind.

Another stage is when this well-cleansed mind gathers into stillness, not thinking, not forming any thoughts at all. It rests from its activity—its rippling. All thought-formations within the mind rest completely. All that remains is simple awareness—which is called the mind entering into stillness. Here even more so, nothing appears at all. All that appears is awareness, as if it were blanketing the entire cosmos—because the currents of the mind aren’t like the currents of light. The currents of light have their end, near or far, depending on the strength of the light. For example, with electric light, if the candlepower is high, it will shine for a long distance. If low, it will shine for a short distance.

But the currents of the mind aren’t like that. They have no ‘near’ or ‘far.’ To put it simply, there is no time or place. The mind can blanket everything. Far is like near. ‘Near,’ ‘far’: They don’t really apply. All that appears is that awareness blanketing everything to the ends of the universe. It’s as if all that appears in the entire world is this single awareness, as if there were nothing in our consciousness at all, even though everything still exists as it always has. This is what it’s like: the power of the mind, the current of the mind that has been cleansed of things that cloud and obscure it.

Even more so when the mind is completely pure: This is even harder to describe. I wouldn’t know how to label it, because it’s not something to be labeled. It’s not something that can be expressed like conventional things in general, because it’s not a conventional reality. It lies solely within the range of those who are non-conventional, who know their own non-conventionality. For this reason, it can’t be described.

Now, the world is full of conventions. Whatever we say, we need to use a conventional picture, a supposition, to make comparisons in every case. ‘It seems like this. It seems like that.’ Or, ‘It’s like this. It’s like that. It’s similar to that.’ For example, take the word, ‘nibbāna.’ Ordinary defilement—our ordinary mind—requires that we think of nibbāna as broad and spacious, with nothing appearing in it. But we forget that the word nibbāna, which is a conventional word, still has some conventionality to it. We might even think that there’s nothing in nibbāna but pure people milling around—both men and women, because they both can reach purity: Nibbāna has nothing but those who are pure, milling around to and fro, or sitting around in comfort and peace without being disturbed by sadness, discontent, or loneliness as we are in our conventional world so full of turmoil and stress.

Actually, we don’t realize that this picture—of pure men and women milling or sitting around happily at their leisure without anything disturbing them—is simply a convention that can’t have anything to do with the release of actual nibbāna at all. When we talk about things that are beyond the range of convention—even though they may not be beyond the range of the speaker’s awareness, even though they may be well within that person’s range—they can’t be expressed in conventional terms. Whatever is expressed is bound to be interpreted wrongly, because ordinarily the mind is always ready to be wrong, or continues to be wrong within itself. As soon as anything comes flashing out, we have to speculate and guess in line with our incorrect and uncertain understanding—like Ven. Yamaka saying to Ven. Sāriputta that an arahant no longer exists after death.

Ven. Yamaka was still an ordinary, run-of-the-mill person, but even though Ven. Sāriputta, who was an arahant, tried to explain things to him, he still wouldn’t understand, until the Lord Buddha had to come and explain things himself. Even then—if I’m not mistaken—Ven. Yamaka still didn’t understand in line with the truth the Buddha explained to him. As I remember, the texts say that Ven. Yamaka didn’t attain any of the paths and fruitions or nibbāna or anything. Still, there must have been a reason for the Buddha’s explanation. If there were nothing to be gained by teaching, the Buddha wouldn’t teach. In some cases, even when the person being taught didn’t benefit much from the Dhamma, other people involved would. This is one of the traits of the Lord Buddha. There had to be a reason for everything he’d say. If there was something that would benefit his listeners, he’d speak. If not, he wouldn’t. This is the nature of the Buddha: fully reasonable, fully accomplished in everything of every sort. He wouldn’t make empty pronouncements in the way of the rest of the world.

So when he spoke to Ven. Yamaka, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the details1—because it’s been so long since I read it—to the point where I’ve forgotten who benefited on that occasion, or maybe Ven. Yamaka did benefit. I’m not really sure. At any rate, let’s focus on the statement, ‘An arahant doesn’t exist after death,’ as the important point.

The Buddha asked, ‘Is the arahant his body, so that when he dies he is annihilated with the body? Is he vedanā? Saññā? Saṅkhāra? Viññāṇa? Is he earth, water, wind, or fire, so that when he dies he’s annihilated with these things?’ He kept asking in this way, until he reached the conclusion that the body is inconstant and so disbands. Vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa are inconstant and so disband. Whatever is a matter of convention follows these conventional ways.

But whatever is a matter of release—of purity—cannot be made to follow those ways, because it is not the same sort of thing. To take release or a released mind and confuse or compound it with the five khandhas, which are an affair of conventional reality, is wrong. It can’t be done. The five khandhas are one level of conventional reality; the ordinary mind is also a level of conventional reality.

The refinement of the mind—so refined that it is marvelous even when there are still things entangling it—displays its marvelousness in line with its level for us to see clearly. Even more so when the things entangling it are entirely gone, the mind becomes Dhamma. The Dhamma is the mind. The mind is Dhamma. The entire Dhamma is the entire mind. The entire mind is the entire Dhamma. At this point, no conventions can be supposed, because the mind is pure Dhamma. Even though such people may still be alive, directing their khandhas, that nature stays that way in full measure.

Their khandhas are khandhas just like ours. Their appearance, manners, and traits appear in line with their characteristics, in line with the affairs of conventional reality that appear in those ways, which is why these things cannot be mixed together to become one with that nature. When the mind is released, the nature of release is one thing; the world of the khandhas is another world entirely. Even though the pure heart may dwell in the midst of the world of the khandhas, it is still always a mind released. To call it a transcendent mind wouldn’t be wrong, because it lies above conventional reality—above the elements and khandhas.

The transcendent Dhamma is a Dhamma above the world. This is why people of this sort can know the issue of connection in the mind. Once the mind is cleansed stage by stage, they can see its beginning points and end points. They can see the mind’s behavior, the direction towards which it tends most heavily, and whether there is anything left that involves the mind or acts as a means of connection. These things they know, and they know them clearly. When they know clearly, they find a way to cut, to remove from the mind the things that lead to connection, step by step.

When the defilements come thick and fast, there is total darkness in the mind. When this happens, we don’t know what the mind is or what the things entangling it are, and so we assume them to be one and the same. The things that come to entangle the mind, and the mind itself, become mixed into one, so there’s no way to know.

But once the mind is cleansed step by step, we come to know in stages until we can know clearly exactly how much there is still remaining in the mind. Even if there’s just a bit, we know there’s a bit, because the act of connection lets us see plainly that, ‘This is the seed that will cause us to be reborn in one place or another.’ We can tell this clearly within the mind. When we know this clearly, we have to try to rectify the situation, using the various methods of mindfulness and discernment until that thing is cut away from the mind with no more connections. The mind will then become an entirely pure mind, with no more means of connection or continuation. We can see this clearly. This is the one who is released. This is the one who doesn’t die.

Our Lord Buddha—from having practiced truly, from having truly known in line with the principles of the truth, seeing them clearly in the heart—spoke truly, acted truly, and knew truly. He taught what he had truly known and truly seen—and so how could he be wrong? At first, he didn’t know how many times he had been born, or what various things he had been born as. Even concerning the present, he didn’t know what his mind was attached to or involved with, because he had many, many defilements at that stage.

But after he had striven and gained Awakening, so that the entire Dhamma appeared in his heart, he knew clearly. When he knew clearly, he took that truth to proclaim the Dhamma to the world and with intuitive insight knew who would be able to comprehend this sort of Dhamma quickly, as when he knew that the two hermits and the five brethren were already in a position to attain the Dhamma. He then went to teach the five brethren and attained the aim he foresaw.

All five of them attained the Dhamma stage by stage to the level of arahantship. Since the Buddha was teaching the truth to those aiming at the truth with their full hearts, they were able to communicate easily. They, looking for the truth, and he, teaching the truth, were right for each other. When he taught in line with the principles of the truth, they were able to comprehend quickly and to know step by step following him until they penetrated the truth clear through. Their defilements, however many or few they had, all dissolved completely away. The cycle of rebirth was overturned to their complete relief.

This is how it is when a person who truly knows and truly sees explains the Dhamma. Whether it’s an aspect of the Dhamma dealing with the world or with the Dhamma itself, what he says is bound to be certain because he has seen it directly with his own eyes, heard it with his own ears, touched it with his own heart. So when he remembers it and teaches it, how can he be wrong? He can’t be wrong. For example, the taste of salt: Once we have known with our tongue that it’s salty and we speak directly from the saltiness of the salt, how can we be wrong? Or the taste of hot peppers: The pepper is hot. It touches our tongue and we know, ‘This pepper is hot.’ When we speak with the truth—‘This pepper is hot’—just where can we be wrong?

So it is with knowing the Dhamma. When we practice to the stage where we should know, we have to know, step by step. Knowing the Dhamma happens at the same moment as abandoning defilement. When defilement dissolves away, the brightness that has been obscured will appear in that very instant. The truth appears clearly. Defilement, which is a truth, we know clearly. We then cut it away with the path—mindfulness and discernment—which is a principle of the truth, and then we take the truth and teach it so that those who are intent on listening will be sure to understand.

The Buddha taught the Dhamma in 84,000 sections (khandha), but they aren’t in excess of our five khandhas with the mind in charge, responsible for good and evil and for dealing with everything that makes contact. Even though there may be as many as 84,000 sections to the Dhamma, they were taught in line with the attributes of the mind, of defilement, and of the Dhamma itself for the sake of living beings with their differing temperaments. The Buddha taught extensively—84,000 sections of the Dhamma—so that those of differing temperaments could put them into practice and straighten out their defilements.

And we should make ourselves realize that those who listen to the Dhamma from those who have truly known and truly seen—from the mouth of the Buddha, the arahants, or meditation masters—should be able to straighten out their defilements and mental effluents at the same time they are listening. This is a point that doesn’t depend on time or place.

All the Dhamma comes down to the mind. The mind is a highly appropriate vessel for each level of the Dhamma. In teaching the Dhamma, what are the things entangling and embroiling the mind that are necessary to describe so that those who listen can understand and let go? There are elements, khandhas, and the unlimited sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations outside us, which make contact with the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and heart within us. Thus it is necessary to teach both about things outside and about things inside, because the mind can become deluded and attached both outside and inside. It can love and hate both the outside and the inside.

When we teach in line with the causes and effects both inside and out, in accordance with the principles of the truth, the mind that contemplates or investigates exclusively in line with the principles of truth has to know, step by step, and be able to let go. Once we know something, we can let it go. That puts an end to our problem of having to prove or investigate the matter again. Whatever we understand is no longer a problem because once we have understood, we let go. We keep letting go, because our understanding has reached the truth of those various things in full measure.

The investigation of the Dhamma, on the levels in which it should be narrow, has to be narrow. On the levels in which it should be wide-ranging, it has to be wide-ranging in line with the full level of the mind and the Dhamma. So when the heart of the meditator should stay in a restricted range, it has to be kept in that range. For example, in the beginning stages of the training, the mind is filled with nothing but cloudiness and confusion at all times and can’t find any peace or contentment. We thus have to force it to stay in a restricted range—for example, with the meditation word, ‘buddho,’ or with the in-and-out breath—so as to gain a footing with its meditation theme, so that stillness can form a basis or a foundation for the heart, so that it can set itself up for the practice that is to follow. We first have to teach the mind to withdraw itself from its various preoccupations, using whichever meditation theme it finds appealing, so that it can find a place of rest and relaxation through the stillness.

Once we have obtained enough stillness from our meditation theme to form an opening onto the way, we begin to investigate. Discernment and awareness begin to branch out in stages or to widen their scope until they have no limit. When we reach an appropriate time to rest the mind through the development of concentration, we focus on tranquility using our meditation theme as we have done before, without having to pay attention to discernment in any way at that moment. We set our sights on giving rise to stillness with the meditation theme that has previously been coupled with the heart or that we have previously practiced for the sake of stillness. We focus in on that theme step by step with mindfulness in charge until stillness appears, giving peace and contentment. This is called resting the mind by developing concentration.

When the mind withdraws from its resting place, discernment has to unravel and investigate things. Let it investigate whatever it should at that particular time or stage, until it understands the matter. When discernment begins to move into action as a result of its being reinforced by the strength of concentration, its investigations have to grow more and more wide-ranging, step by step. This is where discernment is wide-ranging. This is where the Dhamma is wide-ranging. The more resourceful our discernment, the more its investigations spread until it knows the causes and effects of phenomena as they truly are. Its doubts then disappear, and it lets go in stages, in line with the levels of mindfulness and discernment suited to removing the various kinds of defilement step by step from the heart.

The mind then gradually retreats into a more restricted range, as it sees necessary, all on its own without needing to be forced as before—because once it has investigated and known in line with the way things really are, what is there left to be entangled with? To be concerned about? The extent to which it is concerned or troubled is because of its lack of understanding. When it understands with the discernment that investigates and unravels to see the truth of each particular thing, the mind withdraws and lets go of its concerns. It goes further and further inward until its scope grows more and more restricted—to the elements, the khandhas, and then exclusively to the mind itself. At this stage, the mind works in a restricted scope because it has cut away its burdens in stages.

What is there in the elements and the khandhas? Analyze them down into their parts—body, feelings, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa—until you have removed your doubts about any one of them. For example, when you investigate the body, an understanding of feeling automatically follows. Or when you investigate feelings, this leads straight to the body, to saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa, which have the same sorts of characteristics—because they come from the same current of the mind. To put it briefly, the Buddha taught that each of the five khandhas is a complete treasury or complete heap of the three characteristics.

What do they have that’s worth holding on to? The physical elements, the physical heap, all physical forms, are simply heaps of the elements. Vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa are all mere mental phenomena. They appear—blip, blip, blip—and disappear in an instant. What value or substance can you get from them? Discernment penetrates further and further in. It knows the truth, which goes straight to the heart, and it lets go with that straight-to-the-heart knowledge. In other words, it lets go straight from the heart. When the knowledge goes straight to the heart, it lets go straight from the heart. Our job narrows in, narrows in, as the work of discernment dictates.

This is the way it is when investigating and knowing the path of the mind that involves itself with various preoccupations. We come in knowing, we come in letting go step by step, cutting off the paths of the tigers that used to roam about looking for food—as in the phrase from the Dhamma textbooks: ‘Cutting off the paths of the tigers that roam about looking for food.’ We cut them out from the paths of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body along which they used to roam, involving themselves with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations, gathering up poisonous food and bringing it in to burn the heart.

Discernment thus has to roam about investigating the body, feelings, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa by probing inward, probing inward along the paths that the tigers and leopards like to follow, so as to cut off the paths along which they used to go looking for food. The Buddha teaches us to probe inward, cutting off the paths until we have the tigers caged. In other words, unawareness, which is like a tiger, converges in at the one mind. All defilements and mental effluents converge in at the one mind. They can’t go out roaming freely looking for food as they did before.

The mind of unawareness: You could say that it’s like a football, because discernment unravels it—stomps on it, kicks it back and forth—until it is smashed to bits: until the defilement of unawareness is smashed inside. This is the level of the mind where defilement converges, so when discernment unravels it, it’s just like a football that is stomped and kicked. It gets kicked back and forth among the khandhas until it’s smashed apart by discernment. When the conventional mind is smashed apart, the mind released is fully revealed.

Why do we say the ‘conventional mind’ and the ‘mind released’? Do they become two separate minds? Not at all. It’s still the same mind. When conventional realities—defilements and mental effluents—rule it, that’s one state of the mind; but when it’s washed and wrung out by discernment until that state of mind is smashed apart, then the true mind, the true Dhamma, which can stand the test, doesn’t disappear with it. The only things that disappear are the things inconstant, stressful, and not-self that had infiltrated the mind—because defilements and mental effluents, no matter how refined, are simply conventions: inconstant, stressful, and not-self.

When these things disappear, the true mind, above and beyond convention, can then appear to its full extent. This is what’s called the mind released. This is what’s called the pure mind, completely cut off from all connections and continuations. All that remains is simple awareness, utterly pure.

We can’t say at what point in our body this simple awareness is centered. Before, it was a prominent point that we could know and see clearly. For example, in concentration we knew that it was centered in the middle of the chest. Our awareness was pronounced right there. The stillness was pronounced right there. The brightness, the radiance of the mind was pronounced right there. We could see it clearly without having to ask anyone. All those whose minds have centered into the foundation of concentration find that the center of ‘what knows’ is really pronounced right here in the middle of the chest. They won’t argue that it’s in the brain or whatever, as those who have never experienced the practice of concentration are always saying.

But when the mind becomes a pure mind, that center disappears, and so we can’t say that the mind is above or below or in any particular spot, because it’s an awareness that is pure, an awareness that is subtle and profound above and beyond any and all conventions. Even so, we are still veering off into conventions when we say that it’s ‘extremely refined,’ which doesn’t really fit the truth, because of course the notion of extreme refinement is a convention. We can’t say that this awareness lies high or low, or where it has a point or a center—because it doesn’t have one at all. All there is, is awareness with nothing else infiltrating it. Even though it’s in the midst of the elements and khandhas with which it used to be mixed, it’s not that way any more. It now lies world apart.

We now can know clearly that the khandhas are khandhas, the mind is the mind, the body is the body; vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa are each separate khandhas. But as for feelings in that mind, they no longer exist, ever since the mind gained release from all defilement. Therefore the three characteristics, which are convention incarnate, don’t exist in that mind. The mind doesn’t partake of feeling, apart from the ultimate ease (paramaṁ sukhaṁ) that is its own nature—and the ultimate ease here is not a feeling of ease.

When the Buddha teaches that nibbāna is the ultimate ease, the term ‘ultimate ease’ is not a feeling of ease like the feelings or moods of the mind still defiled, or the feelings of the body that are constantly appearing as stress and ease. The ultimate ease is not a feeling like that. Those who practice should take this point to heart and practice so as to know it for themselves. That will be the end of the question, in line with the Dhamma that the Buddha says is sandiṭṭhiko—to be seen for oneself—and on which he lays no exclusive claims.

Thus we cannot say that the mind absolutely pure has any feeling. This mind has no feeling. The term ‘ultimate ease’ refers to an ease by the very nature of purity, and so there can’t be anything inconstant, stressful, or not-self found infiltrating that ultimate ease at all.

Nibbāna is constant. The ultimate ease is constant. They are one and the same. The Buddha says that nibbāna is constant, the ultimate ease is constant, the ultimate void is constant. They’re all the same thing—but the void of nibbāna lies beyond convention. It’s not void in the way the world supposes it to be.

If we know clearly, we can describe and analyze anything at all. If we don’t understand, we can talk from morning till night and be wrong from morning till night. There is no way we can be right, because the mind isn’t right. No matter how much we may speak in line with what we understand to be right in accordance with the Dhamma, if the mind that is acting isn’t right, how can we be right? It’s as if we were to say, ‘Nibbāna is the ultimate ease; nibbāna is the ultimate void,’ to the point where the words are always in our mouth and in our heart: If the mind is a mind with defilements, it can’t be right. When the mind isn’t right, nothing can be right.

Once the mind is right, though, then even when we don’t say anything, we’re right—because that nature is already right. Whether or not we speak, we’re right. Once we reach the level where we’re right, there’s no wrong. This is the marvel that comes from the practice of the religion.

The Buddha taught only as far as this level and didn’t teach anything further. It’s in every way the end of conventions, the end of formulations, the end of defilement, the end of suffering and stress. This is why he didn’t teach anything further, because this is the point at which he fully aimed: the full level of the mind and of the Dhamma.

Before he totally entered nibbāna, his last instructions were, ‘Monks, I exhort you. Formations are constantly arising and ceasing. Investigate formations that are arising and disbanding, or arising and ceasing, with non-complacency.’

That was all. He closed his mouth and never said anything again.

In this teaching, which has the rank of a final instruction, how should we understand or interpret the word ‘formation’ (saṅkhāra)? What kind of formations does it refer to? We could take it as referring to outer formations or inner formations and we wouldn’t be wrong. But at that moment, we can be fairly certain that those who had come to listen to the Buddha’s final instructions at the final hour were practicing monks with high levels of mental attainment, from arahants on down. So I would think that the main point to which the Buddha was referring was inner formations that form thoughts in the mind and disrupt the mind at all times. He taught to investigate the arising and ceasing of these formations with non-complacency—in other words, to investigate with mindfulness and discernment at all times. These formations cover the cosmos!

We could, if we wanted to, analyze the word ‘formations’ as outer formations—trees, mountains, animals, people—but this wouldn’t be in keeping with the level of the monks gathered there, nor would it be in keeping with the occasion: the Buddha’s last moments before total nibbāna in which he gave his exhortation to the Saṅgha: the ultimate teaching at the final hour.

His final exhortation dealing with formations, given as he was about to enter total nibbāna, must thus refer specifically to the most refined formations in the heart. Once we comprehend these inner formations, how can we help but understand their basis—what they arise from. We’ll have to penetrate into the well-spring of the cycle of rebirth: the mind of unawareness. This is the way to penetrate to the important point. Those who have reached this level have to know this. Those who are approaching it in stages, who haven’t fully reached it, still know this clearly because they are investigating the matter, which is what the Buddha’s instructions—given in the midst of that important stage of events—were all about.

This, I think, would be in keeping with the occasion in which the Buddha spoke. Why? Because ordinarily when the mind has investigated to higher and higher levels, these inner formations—the various thoughts that form in the mind—are very crucial to the investigation because they appear day and night, and are at work every moment inside the mind. A mind reaching the level where it should investigate inner phenomena must thus take these inner formations as the focal point of its investigation. This is a matter directly related to the Buddha’s final instructions.

The ability to overthrow unawareness must follow on an investigation focused primarily on inner formations. Once we have focused in, focused in, down to the root of defilement and have then destroyed it, these formations no longer play any role in giving rise to defilement again. Their only function is to serve the purposes of the Dhamma. We use them to formulate Dhamma for the benefit of the world. In teaching Dhamma we have to use thought-formations, and so formations of this sort become tools of the Dhamma.

Now that we have given the khandhas a new ruler, the thought-formations which were forced into service by unawareness have now become tools of the Dhamma—tools of a pure heart. The Buddha used these thought-formations to teach the world, to formulate various expressions of the Dhamma.

The Dhamma we have mentioned here doesn’t exist solely in the past, in the time of the Buddha, or solely in the future in a way that would deny hope to whose who practice rightly and properly. It lies among our own khandhas and mind, in our body and mind. It doesn’t lie anywhere else other than in the bodies and minds of human beings, women and men. The defilements, the path, and purity all lie right here in the heart. They don’t lie in that time or period way back when, or with that person or this. They lie with the person who practices, who is using mindfulness and discernment to investigate right now.

Why? Because we are all aiming at the Dhamma. We are aiming at the truth, just like the Dhamma, the truth, that the Buddha taught then and that always holds to the principle of being ‘majjhima’—in the center—not leaning toward that time or this, not leaning toward that period or this place. It’s a Dhamma always keeping to an even keel because it lies in the center of our elements and khandhas. Majjhima: in the center, or always just right for curing defilement.

So please practice correctly in line with this Dhamma. You will see the results of ‘majjhima’—a Dhamma just right, always and everywhere—appearing as I have said. Nibbāna, the ultimate ease, will not in any way lie beyond this knowing heart.

And so I’ll ask to stop here.


1. See the Yamaka Sutta and Anurādha Sutta in Saṁyutta Nikāya 22:85–86).