Chapter One

Lessons from the Awakening

On the night of his awakening, the bodhisatta gained three knowledges that led to his total release:

• knowledge of his own past lives;

• knowledge of how all beings die and are reborn in line with their kamma (a word meaning “action,” better known now in its Sanskrit form, karma); and

• knowledge of how to end the mental qualities that he called āsavas, or effluents: tendencies that bubble up in the mind and flow out, leading to further rebirth. These tendencies are three: sensuality, becoming, and ignorance.

When these effluents were gone from his mind, the bodhisatta—now the Buddha—experienced the deathless, to which he later gave many names, the best known being nibbāna (nirvāṇa): unbinding. This was his awakening.

The fact that these knowledges led to the deathless was the Buddha’s guarantee of their truth—a guarantee that he couldn’t share with anyone else, aside from teaching the path of practice that had led him to an experience of the deathless, so that they could try that path and gain the same results for themselves.

All three of the knowledges taught the Buddha important lessons about what happens in the course of aging, illness, and death, and how best to train the mind so as not to suffer from these things. So it’s good to look at each knowledge in detail. As we will see, what was distinctive about the Buddha’s awakening was not only what he learned from these knowledges, but also how he interpreted and used what he had learned. He profited greatly from these knowledges because he persistently approached them asking the right questions.

He began his inquiry by focusing on the issue of what happens at death, as others had done before him. However, he was able to awaken to the deathless because he kept focused on the topic of what to do so as not to suffer from death, where previous meditators had allowed themselves to get sidetracked by other concerns. Here again, we can see how we owe the Dhamma to the bodhisatta’s unrelenting desire not to suffer from death ever again.

The First Knowledge

The first knowledge, of his own past lives, stretched back in time through many eons as the cosmos expanded and contracted, again and again. In the case of each lifetime, he knew his name, clan (species or level of being), appearance, food, experience of pleasure or pain, and the manner of his death.

The Buddha later illustrated this knowledge with a simile:

“It was as if a man were to go from his home village to another village, and then from that village to yet another village, and then from that village back to his home village. The thought would occur to him, ‘I went from my home village to that village over there. There I stood in such a way, sat in such a way, talked in such a way, and remained silent in such a way. From that village I went to that village over there, and there I stood in such a way, sat in such a way, talked in such a way, and remained silent in such a way. From that village I came back home.’”— DN 2

The fact that the bodhisatta gained this knowledge on the night of his awakening is sometimes dismissed as a mere holdover from his culture, on the assumption that everyone in India at the time believed in rebirth. But that assumption is false. The question of whether death was followed by rebirth or by annihilation was hotly debated at the time. Even among those who taught rebirth, there was disagreement as to whether you changed or stayed the same from one birth to the next. Some brahmans, for instance, taught that members of each caste would stay in that caste from one life to the next: Brahmans would always be brahmans; people in lower castes would always have to serve them; animals would always be animals for them to use.

The bodhisatta’s first knowledge indicated otherwise. He had changed radically from one birth to the next, taking on identities in many levels of the cosmos, not only on the human level, but also on levels much higher and lower. This had happened so many times, he later noted, that it would be hard for him to meet someone who had not been his mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, or son in the course of that long, long time (SN 15:14–19). Thinking of this, he added, was enough to give rise to a desire for release from the whole process.

The Second Knowledge

The bodhisatta’s second knowledge was knowledge of beings passing away and being reborn in line with their actions. The Buddha’s simile for this knowledge is this:

“It was as if there were a tall building in the central square (of a town), and a man with good eyesight standing on top of it were to see people entering a house, leaving it, walking along the street, & sitting in the central square. The thought would occur to him, ‘These people are entering a house, leaving it, walking along the streets, & sitting in the central square.’” — DN 2

This second knowledge was directly related to the first but, like the first, is sometimes dismissed on the mistaken grounds that it was simply a holdover from the culture in which the bodhisatta grew up. Both knowledges have also been dismissed as being irrelevant to the real essence of the Buddha’s awakening, which came in the third knowledge. This, too, is false.

Actually, the first two knowledges were intimately connected with the third. What the bodhisatta saw in his first knowledge inspired him to pursue a line of inquiry that led, step by step, through the second knowledge and then to the knowledge that brought about his awakening.

After he gained insight into his own previous lifetimes in the first knowledge, the next question was: If your identity changes from one life to the next, what determines the changes?

This, too, was a controversial issue in the bodhisatta’s time. Although those of his contemporaries who assumed rebirth gave many answers to this question, the most interesting ones were based, not on speculation, but on the meditative experiences of previous teachers. The Buddha later noted that he was not the first to gain knowledge of rebirth or of beings passing away and being reborn. Other teachers had gained those knowledges, too, but his second knowledge differed from theirs in two important respects: On the one hand, it was more extensive and detailed; on the other, he approached it asking different questions.

In terms of extension: Their knowledge stretched back at most 40 eons of cosmic expansion and contraction, whereas his stretched back for many more. For this reason, he was able to see larger patterns that they had missed.

For instance, he saw beings at the top levels of the cosmos whose lifespan lasted many hundreds of eons. As a result, he could see how even the highest gods passed away and were reborn, whereas people before him couldn’t. This showed him that none of the beings at the top were eternal supreme beings in charge of determining how the cosmos would evolve or who would be reborn where.

He also saw that there was no discernable beginning point for transmigration—or as he said at another time, that such a beginning point couldn’t even be conceived. The processes by which beings went from one lifetime to another had been going on for an immeasurably long time, serving no overarching purpose or divine plan.

In terms of detail: Some teachers, when gaining knowledge of this sort, saw cases where people did good and then in the following lifetime were reborn in a good destination, whereas other people did evil and in the following lifetime were reborn in a bad destination. As a result, those teachers taught the power of action as a deterministic rule. If you killed, stole, engaged in illicit sex, told lies, or took intoxicants, they said, your fate for the next lifetime was sealed: You’d have to go to a bad destination, such as hell or an animal realm. If you abstained from those activities, again, your next lifetime was totally determined: You’d have to go to a good destination, such as the human or the heavenly worlds.

Other teachers, though, on gaining this sort of knowledge, saw other cases where people did good and then, in the next lifetime, were reborn in a bad destination; and cases where people did evil and were reborn in a good destination. As a result, those teachers claimed that your actions were powerless to take you to a good or bad rebirth. Instead, they taught that rebirth was determined by a creator god, by impersonal fate, or by pure serendipity (AN 3:62).

The bodhisatta, however, was able to examine the actions of beings in much greater detail, and he found that a handful of actions was not enough to determine your next rebirth, but that your larger history of actions, both past and present, did play a role in determining the next rebirth. People who did good actions and were reborn in a bad destination either had done bad actions further in the past, or bad actions in the meanwhile before death, or—at the moment of death—adopted wrong view. Conversely, those who did bad actions and were reborn in a good destination either had done good actions further in the past, or good actions in the meanwhile before death, or at the moment of death adopted right view.

At the same time, when a person did a cluster of good actions in this lifetime and was reborn in a good destination, it wasn’t exclusively because of those actions. It was also through the combined effects of actions before and after that, along with the act of maintaining right view at death. Similarly, when a person did bad actions in this lifetime and was reborn in a bad destination, it was through the combined power of those actions plus previous and subsequent bad actions and the act of maintaining wrong view at death (MN 136).

As a result, the Buddha taught that actions tended to give results in line with their quality—skillful actions tended to give good results, and unskillful actions tended to give bad—but the way these tendencies interacted to produce results was so complex that you’d go insane if you tried to trace them all out. Still, the important lesson was that there was no need to trace them out anyhow: Just keep acting on right view and skillful intentions, and good results would be sure to come at some point or another.

The Third Knowledge

The Buddha’s autobiographical accounts of his awakening state that he went straight from the second knowledge to the third—knowledge of the ending of the effluents. This knowledge involved seeing the four noble truths and experiencing total release from birth, aging, and death.

The Buddha later described this knowledge as follows:

“It was as if there were a pool of water in a mountain glen—clear, limpid, & unsullied—where a man with good eyesight standing on the bank could see shells, gravel, & pebbles, and also shoals of fish swimming about & resting, and it would occur to him, ‘This pool of water is clear, limpid, & unsullied. Here are these shells, gravel, & pebbles, and also these shoals of fish swimming about & resting.’”— DN 2

“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, & bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I inclined it to the knowledge of the ending of effluents. I discerned, as it had come to be, that ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the way leading to the cessation of stress… These are effluents… This is the origination of effluents… This is the cessation of effluents… This is the way leading to the cessation of effluents.’ My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the effluent of sensuality, the effluent of becoming, the effluent of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’” — MN 4

The simile for this knowledge suggests that it was purely a matter of seeing the four truths, but SN 56:11 tells us that it also involved completing the duties appropriate to each truth: comprehending stress, abandoning its origination, realizing its cessation, and developing the path to its cessation.

The Buddha’s autobiographical accounts don’t explain how the second knowledge was related to the third, or why he succeeded in stepping from the second to the third when other meditators prior to him had failed.

Other passages in the Canon, however, give some idea of the steps in between. These steps are good to know, because they provide practical pointers for how anyone should approach issues related to one’s own birth, aging, and death.

The first point to note relates to the questions the bodhisatta asked of the second knowledge. There were meditators in his time who, seeing that beings were reborn on many different levels of the cosmos, became obsessed with the question of what in each being remained the same throughout the many changes of rebirth. Was there a self? Was there no self? One school in particular taught that the self and the cosmos were eternal and unchanging—your inner essence always stayed the same—and that any apparent changes were actually unreal. As the Buddha later noted, teachers in this school tended to get entangled in debate with those who argued, either on the basis of their meditative experiences or through logic, that the self was not eternal or didn’t even exist. He called the entanglements on both sides of this issue a thicket, a writhing, and a fetter of views (DN 1; MN 2).

As he saw it, all those meditators made the mistake of asking the wrong questions, such as: “Was I in the past? What was I in the past? Will I be in the future? What will I be in the future? Do I exist now? Do I not exist now? What am I?” Instead, the proper questions to ask concerned what to do to put an end to suffering (MN 2). Seeing the mistakes made by previous meditators, the bodhisatta didn’t let the second knowledge divert him from his original question: What could be done to put an end to birth, aging, and death?

On seeing the power of action in determining a person’s death and rebirth, he focused not on who was doing the actions, but on the nature of action itself. In particular, one point that he had seen in his second knowledge that previous meditators had overlooked in theirs—the power of one’s views at the moment of death to support or counteract the results of past actions—seems to have caught his attention. It would have suggested two things to him:

One, mental actions had the power to overcome the results of physical and verbal actions.

Two, the present moment was shaped not only by past actions but also, and more radically, by present ones. This is true not only at death, but also at any point in life.

These two realizations combined into one: a realization of the power of present-moment mental actions.

That’s why, in the third knowledge, he focused on mental actions in the present moment to see how they influenced birth, aging, and death, and to test whether that influence could be manipulated to bring birth, aging, and death to a halt. An important part of his inquiry was that he didn’t examine those actions in the context of who was doing them or where. After all, “who” and “where” are issues of becoming, which, as we’ve noted, is a sense of identity functioning in a world of experience. Once you commit to these terms, it’s hard to get out of becoming. Instead, the bodhisatta looked simply for causal relations among actions in and of themselves. This was a key not only to understanding those actions, but also to developing dispassion for them. That would bring them to an end.

As he later stated (SN 12:65), when he looked for the causes of aging and death, he traced them down through the following sequence of actions, called dependent co-arising (paṭicca samuppāda):

birth, which took place in states of

becoming—a sense of identity in a world of experience. This identity, as we’ve noted, can be either in the scale of the world at large—on the cosmic levels of sensual, form, or formless worlds—or on the same levels within the mind. In fact, as the Buddha discovered, becoming on the external scale came from becomings on the internal scale. These becomings were based on

clinging: desire and passion for any of the five aggregates of form, feeling, perceptions, thought-fabrications, or sensory consciousness. These aggregates could be clung to in any of four ways: in their role of fashioning sensual fantasies, views of the world, habits and practices, or doctrines of the self. These four types of clinging, in turn, were based on the three types of

craving (for sensuality, becoming, and non-becoming), which were based on

feeling—pleasure, pain, neither pleasure nor pain. Feeling was based on

sensory contact. Contact was based on

the six senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, bodily contact, and ideation. These senses in turn were based on having a conscious body, which the Buddha called

name-and-form. “Form” here covers the body as sensed from within, in elemental terms of energy, warmth, coolness, and solidity. “Name” covers mental acts: feelings, perceptions—the mind’s labels for things—intentions, acts of attention, and contact among mental acts and the body. Both name and form were dependent on

consciousness at the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. These acts of consciousness were dependent on acts of

fabrication, which included bodily fabrication, the in-and-out breath; verbal fabrication, directed thought and evaluation (your inner conversation, in which you focus on a topic and then ask questions and make comments on it); and mental fabrication, feelings and perceptions.

The bodhisatta went down this sequence of actions first by directly experiencing the action, then by looking for its origination, in other words, the internal act that was causing it. Then he looked for its cessation as its origination ceased, all the while following the path of practice that would lead to its cessation by developing dispassion for the action.

When he applied this way of looking to fabrications, fabrications ceased, causing the remaining actions in the sequence to cease as well. That was what opened the way to release into the deathless: an awareness beyond the six senses, an unconditioned truth, happiness, and total freedom from all the constraints of space and time.

This experience is what made him the Buddha, the Awakened One.

It also taught him many things. The most obvious lesson was that the sequence of causes leading to aging, illness, and death was very complex. Notice, for example, how often feelings and perceptions keep reappearing in the sequence. This creates many feedback loops among these actions. For our purposes, though, some of the Buddha’s most important lessons were fairly straightforward and direct.

• He noted that suffering first appeared in the sequence of dependent co-arising, not with birth, aging, or death, but with clinging. This means that aging and death don’t constitute suffering in and of themselves. They count as suffering only if they’re approached with clinging. Because the immediate cause for clinging is craving, the Buddha in his first discourse identified craving as the cause of suffering, and dispassion for craving as the cessation of suffering.

• To develop dispassion for craving, the bodhisatta’s way of looking at the sequence of actions leading up to craving—without reference to who was doing them or where—was precisely the right approach. That’s because views about the nature of the self and the world were two of the objects of clinging leading to becoming. If they formed the framework for the questions you asked in analyzing these actions, that would mean analyzing the actions from within the framework of a self-identity. That wouldn’t allow for dispassion to arise: Either you’d cling to these actions as you or yours if you wanted them to stay, or you’d try to push them away from you if you didn’t like them. In other words, you’d stay stuck in the double bind formed by craving for becoming and craving for non-becoming. Only by getting outside of the framework of “self” and “world” can you develop the necessary dispassion that allows for the sequence leading to suffering to cease on its own.

The Buddha had a name for this approach of fostering dispassion for the events leading up to craving by looking at the events in and of themselves: He called it seeing what has come to be as come to be (bhūtaṁ bhūtato passati). As we have already noted, this approach avoided the double bind by entirely avoiding the two main terms of becoming: (a) an identity in (b) a world of experience.

The Buddha saw that this approach also helped to undercut any concepts that would develop into any sense of “self” or “world.” If you stayed focused on the steps in the origination leading up to the experience of the six senses—which he equated with the world—the idea of the non-existence of the world wouldn’t occur to you. If you stayed focused on the passing away of those steps, the idea of the existence of the world wouldn’t occur to you. All you would see would be stress arising and stress passing away (SN 12:15). Watching that stress without reference to the existence or non-existence of any essence lying behind it, you’d see no reason to feel any passion for it. That’s one of the ways in which this mode of seeing can lead to dispassion and so to release.

• The Buddha also noted that the sequence leading to suffering didn’t begin with sensory contact. In other words, the road to suffering doesn’t begin with disagreeable sights, sounds, etc. Instead, it begins with actions in body and mind prior to sensory contact, which can lead to suffering even around pleasant sensory contacts. These prior actions include intentions, which the Buddha identified as the essence of kamma; attention, the way you frame questions to decide what’s worth paying attention to and what’s not; perceptions, the labels you apply to sensory contact; and the three types of fabrication, which the Buddha treated as synonymous with intention.

• Also, the Buddha noted that the relations among the actions in the sequence didn’t all necessarily happen in the present moment. In some cases, they included actions from the past. This is most obvious in the case of the six senses: Many of the phenomena you experience at the senses are not the result of what you’re doing right now. You might be thinking perfectly skillful thoughts, but negative phenomena can still come at you from outside. Still, those phenomena are directly related to your actions in that you should regard the six senses as the results of old kamma (SN 35:145). In other words, if you want to gain release, you have to see what comes through the senses as originating from your own past actions.

This raises an important point. Given that present intentions can play a role in at least two points of the sequence prior to this old kamma—at fabrications and name—your experience of your present kamma, regardless of whether you’re fully alert to it, forms a necessary precondition for your experience of your past kamma. There have to be intentions in the present moment for you to experience the results of old intentions at the senses.

That’s why release is possible. When present kamma ceases at the moment of awakening, your experience of the senses—past kamma as it would play out in the present moment—also stops. When the Buddha experienced this cessation, that was what guaranteed the truth of what he had learned about the power of actions in his previous knowledges: Present mental kamma is freely chosen, and it’s a necessary prerequisite for any experience of the world of the senses.

This is also why, when the Buddha taught meditation, he focused on understanding and developing dispassion for intentions in the present moment. And as we will see, this is precisely why this sort of meditation is an important part of preparing for death.

• In his later teachings, the Buddha noted that the proper contemplation of the sequence of events leading to craving fell into three steps: dispassion, cessation, and relinquishment. The reason for the first two steps is fairly obvious: Because the sequence of dependent co-arising is normally driven by your own passion for the actions in the sequence, the fact that you develop dispassion for them will lead to their cessation. When, through dispassion, you stop doing the actions, the subsequent actions will all cease.

The need for the further step of relinquishment, though, is not so obvious, but it has to do with the knowledge used to induce dispassion. Even though that knowledge avoids the terms of becoming, it still makes use of acts of intention, perception, and attention, which of course are sub-factors of “name” in dependent co-arising. Only when those skillful acts of intention, perception, and attention are also relinquished can the entire sequence come to an end.

As the Buddha later noted, awakening to the end of suffering can happen in stages. Some people, on experiencing the deathless, cling to the act of discerning it, which means that their relinquishment isn’t yet total. Still, the fact that they have seen the deathless cuts through a number of the mind’s fetters, guaranteeing that they will be reborn no more than seven more times, and never below the human level. Meanwhile, they will have to develop further concentration and discernment in order for their relinquishment to be all-around—to the point where they can develop the discernment that cuts through clinging to the deathless and to any lingering clinging to discernment itself.

This is why the Buddha later compared his path of practice to a raft that you bind together from sticks and branches on this side of the river to get to the other side. The sticks and branches stand for the factors in the sequence of action that, when used properly, can function as the path. While you’re crossing the river, you have to hold on tightly to the raft. But when you get to the other side, you have to let it go if you’re going to continue on your way.

• In seeing that the entire sequence of actions leading to suffering began with the arising of fabrications and ceased when fabrications ceased, the Buddha realized that he had affirmed the power of the mind: It wasn’t simply a side-effect of physical processes, as some of his contemporaries had claimed. It wasn’t a passive observer of the passing show. It was the motive force for all experience—or, as he later put it, “Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart” (Dhp 1–2).

The nature of this power was purposeful. This is why the sequence began with fabrication, which as the Buddha noted, acts “for the sake of” something (SN 22:79). The idea of doing something “for the sake of” something implies a desire to achieve an aim. It also implies a sense of means and ends, cause and effect: The act of fabrication is the cause or means, and the end to which it aimed is the envisioned effect.

This power can be used skillfully for a truly desirable purpose or unskillfully for a deceptively desirable one. If the power of the mind couldn’t be used for different purposes, its power wouldn’t be real, for it would make no difference. Seeing that it did make a difference—a vast difference—the Buddha was able to affirm not only that its power was real, but also that it could be used for the highest purpose: bringing suffering to an end.

By combining these two dualities inherent in the power of the mind—cause and effect, skillful and unskillful—the Buddha arrived at the framework for the insight that lay at the heart of his third knowledge, which he later called the four noble truths:

1) The suffering of birth, aging, and death—the deceptively desirable effect—consists of the five clinging-aggregates.

2) The origination of suffering—the unskillful cause of the deceptively desirable effect—is craving of three sorts: craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, and craving for non-becoming, or annihilation.

3) The cessation of suffering—the truly desirable effect—comes with dispassion for the three types of craving.

4) The skillful path of practice leading to that desirable effect consists primarily of acts of right perception, intention, and attention. Right perception and attention he identified as right view; right intention he split into right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration, yielding the noble eightfold path.

As we noted above, each of these four truths carries a duty: Suffering is to be comprehended until there is no passion, aversion, or delusion around it (SN 22:23). Its origination is to be abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed until it, too, can be abandoned.

Realizing that he had completed all four of these duties, the Buddha knew that he was now fully awakened. He had uprooted the causes for any further rebirth. Even though he would have to experience the aging, illness, and death of this, his last body, the mind would never have to suffer again.

The Causal Pattern

On the days following his awakening, the Buddha reflected again and again on the sequence of actions he had pursued in the third knowledge (Ud 1:1–3). From his awakened perspective, he added two more points to the sequence.

• First, noting that the sequence ended when he brought knowledge to the factor of fabrications, he added one more action to the beginning of the sequence leading to suffering: The fabrications that tend toward suffering are dependent on ignorance, not seeing things in terms of the four noble truths. It’s because of this ignorance that the mind misuses its power, fabricating experiences for the sake of happiness, without realizing that it’s actually creating suffering. Because the Pali word for ignorance, avijjā, can also mean lack of skill, this ignorance has a practical dimension, which is not abandoned until the duties with regard to the four noble truths have been fully mastered. In other words, you not only have to know about the four noble truths, you also have to know how to complete the duties related to them.

• The Buddha’s other addition to the sequence was in articulating the basic causal pattern underlying the relationships among all the factors in the sequence. He called the pattern “this/that conditionality” (idappaccayatā). The “this/that” in the name indicates that the causal factors are all events immediately present to your awareness—events you can point to directly as “this” or “that.” There’s no need to infer causal factors behind the scenes.

He expressed the pattern as follows:

[1] “When this is, that is.

[2] “From the arising of this, that arises.

[3] “When this isn’t, that isn’t.

[4] “From the cessation of this, that ceases.” —Ud 1:1

This formula is actually the intersection of two pairs of principles working together. The first pair, 1 and 3, describes causality in the present moment: “When this is, that is. When this isn’t, that isn’t.” The result arises simultaneously with the cause, and when the cause disappears, the result disappears immediately.

The second pair, 2 and 4, describes causality over time: “From the arising of this, that arises. From the cessation of this, that ceases.” The cause may appear and disappear at one point in time, but the result can come and go either right away or much later.

An example of the first kind of causality would be sticking your finger into a fire. You don’t have to wait until your next lifetime to experience the result. You’ll feel the pain right away.

An example of the second type of causality would be planting a seed in a field. You won’t get a mature plant immediately. It’ll take time, well after you stopped the action of planting the seed, and perhaps not even in this lifetime.

Sensory experience consists of the combination of these two principles. At any one moment in time, the results of some past actions will be ripening. Because actions can ripen at widely varying rates—think of corn plants and redwood trees—those results could be coming from many actions spread widely over time, ranging from earlier in this lifetime to many lifetimes ago. You also have your present actions—your present intentions—along with some of the results of those present actions.

This means that sensory experience is shaped to some extent by past actions, but also by present actions. In fact, the present actions are actually the most important ones to attend to because, as we’ve noted, the experience of present intentions is a necessary condition for experiencing the results of past intentions. Your present intentions shape how you’ll experience the results of past intentions as they ripen. Without present intentions, there can be no experience of any kammic results at all, present or past.

Also, the present moment is precisely where you have freedom of choice. Your past actions are like raw material for the present moment, and your present actions are the act of shaping that raw material into an experience. As when you prepare food: Past actions are like the ingredients, inedible in their raw form, that are currently available to you; present actions are your freely chosen decisions to turn those ingredients into food you can eat. The freedom of your choices, though, can either be expanded or limited by the range of your cooking skills. If you’re a skilled cook, you can make good food even out of bad ingredients. If you’re a poor cook, you can turn even good ingredients into a miserable meal.

The Buddha placed great importance on the fact that you have freedom of choice in the present moment. Without that freedom, he said, the idea of a path of practice to the end of suffering would make no sense: If you weren’t free to choose your actions, you wouldn’t be free to choose such a path. The range of choices available to you at any given moment may be limited by the opportunities provided by your past kamma, but you’re always free to choose a skillful course of action that will be conducive, one way or another, to the path to the end of suffering.

Our Lessons

Even though the Buddha’s primary focus on the night of his awakening was on the problem of death, we can draw lessons that apply not only to the problem of our own death, but also to problems of our own aging and illnesses. These lessons fall into three main groups: those based on what he saw, those based on what he did, and those based on what he deduced from what he had done.

What he saw. Because death is not the end, we have to prepare for death in such a way that, at the very least, good opportunities for rebirth will be available to us, and craving at the moment of death won’t pull us astray.

This means preparing for death in two ways. The first is through skillful acts in thought, word, and deed that will create openings for rebirth in the higher realms. The second is through training the mind in conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment so that it can have some control over its cravings and clingings, even in the face of pain and expulsion from the body. This, of course, means training in meditation. Because craving comes ultimately from fabrications done in ignorance, a primary focus of meditation will be to bring knowledge and skill to the processes of fabrication. When that skill is fully mastered, the processes leading to craving and suffering disband. Meanwhile, though, as we develop that skill through conviction, we take the factors that ordinarily would lead to craving and turn them into a path to the end of craving.

Because craving is immediately conditioned by feeling, one of the main functions of meditation will be to learn how to endure pain without succumbing to unskillful cravings. This means that meditation will be a good preparation not only for death, but also for the pains of illness.

The fact that consciousness and other mind states are not necessarily dependent on the body means that strength of mind does not have to depend on strength of body. This fact opens the opportunity for the mind to stay strong not only at the moment of death, but also when the body is weakened by aging and illness.

However, even though it’s wise to prepare for a good rebirth, the prospects for future suffering are still there even if you’ve lived a good life and learned to meditate tolerably well. Past bad kamma may interfere or distract you at the moment of death, a lapse in mindfulness may cause you to adopt wrong view, and even if you do make it to a good destination after death, there’s no guarantee that you’ll take a good rebirth when you later pass away from there. Even devas, at death, can fall straight to the lower realms.

For this reason, it’s wise to train the mind in how to watch mental and physical actions “as they have come to be”—in other words, without any reference to who is doing them or in what world, but simply as part of a causal chain of events. This can lead to a sense of dispassion for them, opening the way to a first glimpse of the deathless, which will guarantee that you won’t ever again be reborn in a lower level of the cosmos. It can further open the way to full awakening to the deathless, guaranteeing that you won’t ever have to be reborn at all.

What he did. For the sake of going beyond rebirth entirely, the bodhisatta showed how to use two frameworks in investigating the mind:

First, as in the first two knowledges, you look at actions in the context of self and world, to motivate yourself to want to develop skillful actions, confident that you are capable of doing so and will benefit when you do.

Then, when you’ve developed the factors of the noble eightfold path, and especially right mindfulness and right concentration, you adopt the second framework: You drop all reference to self and world—the narratives of your life, of who did what to whom—and look at mental and physical actions in and of themselves with the purpose of developing dispassion for them. This perspective keeps these processes from leading to craving, either for becoming or for non-becoming. When the terms basic to becoming don’t occur to the mind, dispassion for the whole process is easier to develop, and further becomings can be avoided.

The Buddha noted that the sequence of actions leading to craving can be cut at any point by bringing knowledge to that particular action and to its originating factors. In his meditation instructions, though, he tended to focus attention on two main areas: feeling, because it’s the factor in the sequence immediately prior to craving; and the factors of fabrication and name-and-form, because they lie at the beginning of the sequence, prior to sensory contact.

Right concentration is the ideal state of mind for observing both of these areas: The various levels of right concentration are defined, in part, by their feeling-tone, and they’re composed of the actions contained in the factors of fabrication and name-and-form. For example, you can pay attention to the in-and-out breath, intending to maintain your focus there, all the while using perceptions to direct your inner conversation around the breath. In this way, right concentration provides a stable foundation for watching these factors of name and form in action, in and of themselves, so as to give rise to dispassion for them. This is why meditation is a necessary tool for cutting through any unskillful states of becoming that might develop in the course of aging, illness, and death.

What he deduced. The fact that actions originating in the mind follow the double causal principle that the Buddha deduced from his awakening—this/that conditionality—is what makes preparation for aging, illness, and death both possible and wise.

• Because actions are real and give real results in shaping your experience, even at death and into future lifetimes, you have the power to approach aging, illness, and death with skill.

• Because your actions give results over time, you can act right now to prepare for your future aging, illness, and death.

• Because you’re free to choose your actions in the present moment, you can actually choose how to prepare. You’re not fated to suffer.

• Because those actions can give results right now, you can learn how not to suffer even as aging, illness, and death are happening right now.

In the case of illness, the double causal principle means that an illness might be the result of past actions or of present actions, or a combination of both. This means that in some cases—illnesses caused by present actions—meditation and/or medication can actually cure the illness by changing what you’re doing right now. In other cases—illnesses caused primarily by past actions—you may not be able to cure the illness, but you can still train the mind not to suffer from it.

As for death, your past actions may place limitations on the states of rebirth open to you, but if your state of mind in the present is strong, you may be able to overcome those limitations. At the very least, if you maintain right view and act on it, you can open the way to a good rebirth in spite of past bad kamma.

• Because your experience of the present depends on present actions, if you learn the skill of bringing all actions to cessation and relinquishment, you can escape all suffering and stress, and not have to be reborn at all.

That, in outline form, covers the main lessons that can be drawn from the Buddha’s awakening and applied to issues of your own aging, illness, and death. The remaining chapters in this book, drawing both on the Pali Canon and on the teachings of the Thai Wilderness ajaans, will provide more detail in how these lessons can best be mastered and put to good use.