From all accounts, the world is going to go through a bad period: war, economic problems, insecurity of all kinds. Of course we’ve never really been all that secure. But apparently our insecurity is going to become much more obvious. It’s like a big storm coming through. When you know a storm is coming through, you’ve got to do what you can to hunker down, to withstand it, so that you don’t get blown away and the things around you don’t come crashing down on top of you. In a similar way, when life doesn’t go as you like, it’s like a storm coming onto the mind, and you need to develop your powers of resilience. If you compare your mind to a tree, you want to have deep roots, widespread roots, healthy roots, the kinds of roots that will keep the tree from getting blown over and killed.
Traditionally, the Buddha talked about roots for the mind. There are unskillful roots and skillful roots. The unskillful roots are greed, anger, and delusion. The skillful ones are lack of greed, lack of anger, lack of delusion. Unskillful roots are like rotten roots. They don’t hold your tree up and they don’t give you much nourishment. So those are not the roots you want to depend on. The roots you want to send out are roots based on non-greed, of non-anger, non-delusion. To cultivate skillful roots and starve unskillful roots we can practice this way:
– generosity nourishes the roots of non-greed,
– precepts (virtue) nourish the roots of non-anger,
– meditation nourishes the roots of non-delusion.
These are the activities that we have to engage in order to prepare, in order to withstand the storm—not just before the storm hits, but all the way throughout the storm. Being generous, observing the precepts, and meditating keep us strong, keep us from getting blown away. If your survival is accomplished without generosity, without virtue, without meditation, it’s not worth much. It’s not the sort of survival that keeps you healthy and well-nourished. It’s by nourishing the skillful roots that the health of the mind survives. It is nourished with its inner sense of well-being, truthfulness, self-honesty. You look at your behavior and there’s nothing you have to hide from yourself.
Practicing generosity is like sending good roots out, spreading abroad in all directions, so that you’re survival is not just for your own sake, but it helps other people well.
The same with the precepts (virtue): If you’re very selective about who you’ll treat kindly and who you won’t treat kindly, or there are circumstances under which you’re going to hold by the precepts, and other circumstances under which you’re not going to hold by the precepts, your roots cover a very limited range. But if you decide that under no circumstances are you going to break the five precepts, the Buddha says that you’re giving unlimited safety to unlimited numbers of beings. In return you get a share in that unlimited safety as well. So again your survival is not just a selfish thing. It’s not based on the kind of roots that are going to rot or dry out, or get pulled up easily, get blown away. These are healthy roots that spread out and keep you secure in the storm.
As for the deepest roots you need, those come from meditation. These are the roots that grow deep down in the mind. It’s through the meditation that you realize how your true well-being doesn’t have to depend on situations outside because you’ve found a source inside. Your tap root has gotten down that far. It’s tapped into something unconditioned.
When you’ve got a taproot that goes way down into the mind—in terms of concentration, in terms of discernment—you find a source inside that’s constant and nourishing. That’s the source that can sustain your well-being so that it doesn’t have to depend on anything else. In other words, your goodness doesn’t have to depend on outside conditions.
When in meditation and the mind finally settles down, you find that it’s like an onion: There are layers and layers and layers to its concentration. You peal them away, one by one. You don’t have to be in a great hurry to do this. Be gentle and spacious.
As you settle, the superficial layers of the onion begin to fall away. You get to deeper ones, and deeper ones, not because you’re jumping from one spot to another, but because you’re really staying right here, getting more and more solid right here. Then, after a while, there comes a point where the activities of observing the breath can be put aside because the breath has gotten as good as it can be. From there you work deeper and deeper, just by staying here, and settling in with more and more solidly. The whole body is saturated with the breath energy and is still. Your brain is using less and less oxygen all the time, so the need to keep pumping things in and out gets less and less. That way you eventually get to the point where the breath can seem to stop.
When this happens, you can see the mind clearly, because the movements of the mind become more obvious. You can start peeling away layers here as well. You get deeper and deeper inside, until ultimately you find, after the final peeling away—of the peeler—that’s when things open up to a new dimension.
The tap root has hit something that’s totally different from anything else it has nourished by before. But even if you don’t get that far, the sense of ease that comes from a concentrated mind, if you tend to it well, can give you the nourishment and well-being needed to sustain you. So if the wind blows outside, when the rain falls, when storms come, you’ve got something deep and solid that is the basis for the goodness of the mind, the well-being of the mind, the deep internal sense of calm you can depend on.
Through generosity, virtue and meditation your roots are deep, your roots are spread wide, and they’re healthy roots, nourishing roots. Those are the roots that enable you to weather the storm, because the worst thing that can get blown away is your goodness of mind, the well-being of the mind.
So have a very clear sense of where your true roots are, the roots that are going to keep you firmly anchored. The roots that are going to continue to nourish you no matter what the windstorms are. The roots that make it worthwhile to survive, to keep going. Survival in the sense of the goodness of the mind: That’s your primary survival.
So when you have a clear sense of what it means to survive in the true sense, and what the roots are that are going to sustain you, then you can access the resolve to face adversity. We always talk about the practice as one of letting go, letting go. Well, you do let go of the unskillful roots. But you hold on to your skillful roots, because they keep the vital connection to your inner unconditioned well-being alive.
Nourishing the Roots
For one who is virtuous, endowed with virtue, no deliberate volition need be exerted: “Let freedom from remorse arise in me.” This is the natural law, that freedom from remorse arises in one who is virtuous, endowed with virtue.
For one who is free from remorse, no deliberate volition need be exerted: “Let gladness arise in me.” This is the natural law…
For one who is gladdened, no deliberate volition need be exerted: “Let rapture arise in me.” This is the natural law…
For one filled with rapture, no deliberate volition need be exerted: “Let my body become tranquil.” This is the natural law…
For one tranquil in body, no deliberate volition need be exerted: “May I experience bliss.” This is the natural law, bhikkhus, that one tranquil in body experiences bliss.
For one who is blissful, no deliberate volition need be exerted: “Let my mind become concentrated.” This is the natural law…
For one who is concentrated, no deliberate volition need be exerted: “May I know and see things as they really are.” This is the natural law…
For one knowing and seeing things as they really are, no deliberate volition need be exerted: “May I become disenchanted.This is the natural law…
For one who has become disenchanted no deliberate volition need be exerted: “May I realize the knowledge and vision of deliverance.” This is the natural law…
Thus, one stage flows into the succeeding stage, one stage comes to fulfillment in the succeeding stage, for crossing over from the hither shore to the beyond.