Still, Flowing Water
– Ajahn Chah
Okay, everyone, pay attention. Don’t let your mind focus on this person or that. Create the feeling that right now you’re sitting alone on a mountain or in a forest somewhere, all by yourself. What do you have sitting here right now? Just body and mind, that’s all, only these two things. Everything sitting in this physical lump here is “body.” “Mind” is what’s aware of sense impressions and is thinking in the present. These two things are also called nama and rupa. Nama refers to what has no rupa, or form. All thoughts and sensations, such as feelings, perceptions, thought-fabrications, and consciousness, are nama. They’re all formless. When the eye sees forms, those forms are called rupa. The awareness of forms is called nama. Together they’re called nama and rupa, or simply body and mind.
Understand that what’s sitting here in the present moment is just body and mind. Everything comes out of these two things. If you want peace, these are the only things you have to know. But the mind at present is still untrained. It’s dirty. Unclean. It’s not the primal mind. We have to train it by making it peaceful from time to time. We do this with pactice, to practice concentration is to give rise to knowledge, to give rise to discernment. Concentration is a firm intent, focused on a single object.
People come and say, “I try to sit in concentration, but my mind won’t stay put. They think their mind’s running around, but actually the only things that run are our impressions. For example, look at this hall here: “Wow,” you say, “it’s so big!” But the hall isn’t what’s big, just our impression of it. Actually, this hall is just the size it is, not big, not small, but we run around after our impressions of things.
Regarding meditating to find peace, you have to understand what this word “peace” is. If you don’t understand it, you won’t be able to find it. For example, suppose you brought a pen with you to the monastery today, one that you love, an expensive one that cost 500 or 1000 baht. And suppose that on your way here you put the pen in your front pocket, but later you took it out and put it somewhere else, like your back pocket. Now when you feel for it in your front pocket: It’s not there! You panic. You panic because you don’t see the truth of the matter. You get all upset. Standing, walking, coming and going, you can’t stop worrying about your lost pen. Your misunderstanding causes you to suffer: “What a shame! I’ve only had it for a few days and now it’s lost.”
But then you remember, “Oh, of course! When I went to bathe I put the pen in my back pocket.” As soon as you remember this you feel better already, even without seeing your pen. See that? You’re happy already; you can stop worrying about your pen. You’re sure about it now. As you walk along, you run your hand over your back pocket and there it is. Your mind was lying to you. Your pen wasn’t lost, but the mind lied to you that it was. You suffered because you didn’t know. Now when you see the pen and your doubts are gone, your worries calm down. This sort of peace and calm comes from seeing the cause of the problem: samudaya, the cause of suffering. As soon as you’re sure that the pen is in your back pocket, there’s nirodha, the cessation of suffering.
So you have to contemplate to find peace. What people usually refer to as peace is simply the calming of the mind, not the calming of the defilements. You’re just sitting on top of your defilements, like a rock sitting on the grass. The grass can’t grow because the rock is sitting on it. In three or four days you take the rock off the grass and it starts growing again. The grass didn’t really die. It was just suppressed. The same holds for sitting in concentration: The mind is calmed but the defilements aren’t, which means that concentration isn’t for sure. To find real peace you have to contemplate. Concentration is one kind of peace, like the rock sitting on the grass. You can leave it there many days but when you pick it up the grass starts growing again. That’s only temporary peace. The peace of discernment is like never picking up the rock, just leaving it there where it is. The grass can’t possibly grow again. That’s real peace, the calming of the defilements for sure. That’s discernment.
We speak of discernment and concentration as separate things, but actually they’re one and the same. Discernment is just the movement of concentration. They come from the same mind but go in different directions, with different characteristics, like this mango here. A small mango eventually grows larger and larger until it’s ripe. It’s all the same mango. They’re not different ones. When it’s small, it’s this mango. When it’s large, it’s this mango. When it’s ripe, it’s this mango. Only its characteristics change. When you practice the Dhamma, one condition is called concentration, the later condition is called discernment, but in fact virtue, concentration, and discernment are all the same thing, just like the mango.
Actually, in practicing the Dhamma, whatever happens, you have to start from the mind. Do you know what this mind is? What is the mind like? What is it? Where is it? Nobody knows. All we know is that we want to go over here or over there, we want this and we want that, the mind feels happy or sad, but the mind itself we can’t know. What is the mind? The mind isn’t “is” anything. We’ve come up with the supposition that whatever receives impressions, both good and bad, we call “heart” or “mind.” Like the owner of a house. Whoever receives the guests is the owner of the house. The guests can’t receive the owner. The owner stays put at home. When guests come to see him, he has to receive them. Who receives sense impressions? Who lets go of sense impressions? That’s what we call “mind.” But we don’t understand it, so we think around in circles: “What is the mind? What is the heart?” Don’t confuse the issue like this. What is it that receives impressions? Some impressions it likes and some it doesn’t. Who is that? Is there something that likes and dislikes? That’s what we call “mind.” Understand? Don’t go looking far away.
What is the mind? The mind is what receives or is aware of sense impressions. With some sense impressions there’s pleasure; with others there’s sorrow. The thing that receives impressions leads us to happiness and suffering, right and wrong, but it isn’t a thing. We suppose it to be a thing, but it’s really only awreness of name and form / body and mind.
People these days keep studying, looking to understand what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and evil, but they don’t know the concept of rightness-nor-wrongness. All they’re looking to know is what IS right and wrong: “I’m going to take only what’s right. I won’t take what’s wrong. Why should I?” If you try to take only what’s right, in a short while it’ll go wrong. It’s right in reaction to wrong. People keep searching for what’s right and wrong, but they don’t try to find what’s neither-rightness-nor-wrongness. They study about good and bad, they search for merit and evil, but they don’t study the point where there’s neither merit nor evil. They study issues of long and short, but the issue of neither long nor short they don’t study.
This knife has a blade, a back, and a handle. When you pick it up, can you lift only the blade? Can you lift only the back of the blade, or the handle? The handle is the handle of the knife; the back, the back of the knife; the blade, the blade of the knife. When you pick up the knife, you pick up all three parts together.
In the same way, if you pick up what’s good, what’s bad must follow. People search for what’s good and try to throw away what’s bad, but they don’t study what’s neither good nor bad. If you don’t study this, things never come to an end. If you pick up goodness, badness comes along with it. It follows right along. If you pick up happiness, suffering follows along. They’re connected. The practice of clinging to what’s good and rejecting what’s bad is the Dhamma of beginners. Sure, if you want, you can take just this much, but if you grab onto what’s good, what’s bad will follow. The end of this path gets all cluttered up.
We rest the mind to make it calm in order to become acquainted with what receives sense impressions, to see what it is. That’s why we’re told to keep track of the mind, to keep track of “what knows.” Train the mind to be pure.
To train the mind in the right way, to make it bright, to develop discernment: Don’t think you can do it by sitting. That’s the rock sitting on the grass. People jump to the conclusion that concentration is sitting. That’s just a name for concentration, but really, if the mind has concentration, walking is concentration, sitting is concentration — concentration with the walking, concentration with the sitting, the standing, the lying down. That’s the practice.
Some people complain, “I can’t meditate. It’s too irritating. Whenever I sit down I think of this and that, I think of my house and my family. I can’t do it. I’ve got too much bad kamma. I should let my bad kamma run out first and then come back and try meditating.” Go ahead, just try it. Try waiting until your bad kamma runs out.
This is how we think. Why do we think like this? That’s what we’re studying.
Let me give you an example. Suppose you have a pet monkey at home. It doesn’t sit still. It likes to jump around and grab hold of things. That’s how monkeys are. Now you come to the monastery. We have a monkey here too, and this monkey doesn’t stay still either. It jumps around and grabs things just the same, but it doesn’t irritate you, does it? Why? Because you’re acquainted with monkeys. You know what they’re like. If you know just one monkey, no matter how many provinces you go to, no matter how many monkeys you see, they don’t irritate you, right? That’s someone who understands monkeys.
If we understand monkeys then we won’t become monkeys. If you don’t understand monkeys, then as soon as you see a monkey, you become a monkey yourself, right? When you see it grabbing this and that, you think, “Grrr!” You get angry and irritated. “That damned monkey!” That’s someone who doesn’t understand monkeys. Someone who knows monkeys sees that the monkey at home and the monkey in the monastery are the same monkey, and so why should they irritate you? When you understand what monkeys are like, that’s enough. You can be at peace. If the monkey runs around, it’s only the monkey running. You don’t run around with it. You don’t become a monkey too. If it jumps in front of you and behind you, you don’t get irritated by the monkey — because you understand monkeys, and so you don’t become a monkey. If you don’t understand monkeys, you become a monkey — understand? This is how the mind grows calm.
We have to know sense impressions, observe sense impressions. Some are likable, some are not, but so what? That’s their business. That’s what they’re like. Just like monkeys. All monkeys are the same monkey. We understand sense impressions. Sometimes they’re likable, sometimes they’re not. That’s what they’re like. We have to get acquainted with them. When we’re acquainted with them, we let them go. Sense impressions aren’t for sure. They’re inconstant, stressful, and not-self. We keep looking at them in that way. When the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind receive impressions, we know them, just like knowing monkeys. This monkey is just like the monkey at home. Then we can be at peace.
Mind Like a Clear Pool
-Sogyal Rinpoche (founder and spiritual director of Rigpa, an international network of Buddhist groups and centers.)
The great strength of the Buddha-dharma is its practice. It is incredible what this wonderful practice can bring about. When I hear the teachings of the Buddha transmitted through the great masters, and when I experience their truth in my own heart through the little practice that I know, then I feel their tremendous blessing. What is extraordinary is that you can actually experience the truth of these teachings. It is not something that is just based on belief or faith; it is something you can taste and realize for yourself, here and now.
The great Zen master Suzuki Roshi said:
Our purpose is just to keep this practice forever. This practice started from beginningless time, and it will continue into an endless future. Strictly speaking, for a human being there is no other practice than this practice. There is no other way of life than this way of life.
From the basic teachings up to the highest, each teaching is like a jewel. Whatever path you follow, there is such a richness to each of them. Whether it be the Theravada, Mahayana, Zen, Vajrayana, Mahamudra, or Dzogchen, you just need to practice that one alone, and practice it fully and authentically. And the more you study and practice, the more you will understand the profundity of these teachings. As Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche often used to say: “The more and more you listen, the more and more you hear; the more and more you hear, the deeper and deeper your understanding becomes.”
Last year, His Holiness the Dalai lama spoke to a gathering of Buddhist teachers in the West. He said, “It’s important to know what Buddhism is. Buddhism is a mental training to eliminate the afflictive emotions. So it is only when our physical, verbal, and mental effort has this motivation that it is Buddhism.” He advised: “First, study what Buddha said, and then experiment and gain experience. From that will arise a conviction that the Buddha’s teachings do actually benefit you. At the same time, you realize that your mind cannot penetrate the deeper nature of reality by itself. From that will come an appreciation of the teaching of Buddha; out of that will come a sense of devotion.”
Now, when Buddha himself was asked to summarize his teaching, he said:
Commit not a single unwholesome action,
Cultivate a wealth of virtue,
To tame this mind of ours.
This is the teaching of all the buddhas.
To “commit not a single unwholesome action” means to abandon as much as possible all the unwholesome, harmful, and negative actions, which are the cause of suffering for both ourselves and the world.
To “cultivate a wealth of virtue” is to develop the positive, beneficial, and wholesome actions that are the cause of happiness, again for both ourselves and the world. As the great master Shantideva said:
Whatever joy there is in this world
All comes from desiring others to be happy,
And whatever suffering there is in this world
All comes from wanting pleasure for myself.
Most important of all, however, is “to tame this mind of ours.” In fact, the great teachers, like the Dzogchen master Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, often used to say that this one line captures the very essence, the very heart, of the teachings of the Buddha. Because if we can realize the true nature of our own mind, then this is the whole point of both the teaching and our entire existence.
For the mind is the root of everything. In the Tibetan teachings, it is called kun je gyalpo, “the king who is responsible for everything,” or in modern translation, “the universal ordering principle.” Mind is the creator of happiness and the creator of suffering, the creator of what we call samsara and the creator of what we call nirvana. As Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche used to say, “Samsara is mind turned outwardly, lost in its projections; nirvana is mind turned inwardly, recognizing its nature.”
And as the great master Padmasambhava, who brought the teachings of the Buddha to Tibet, said, “Do not investigate the roots of things; investigate the root of mind!” That is why I find these words of Buddha so inspiring:
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind.
And trouble will follow you…
Speak or act with a pure mind.
And happiness will follow you.
If only we were to remember this, keep it in our hearts, and keep our heart and mind pure, then happiness would really follow. The whole of Buddha’s teaching, then, is directed toward taming this mind, and keeping our heart and mind pure.
Taming the mind begins with the practice of meditation, where we allow all our turbulent thoughts and emotions to settle quietly in a state of natural peace. As Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche put it so wonderfully:
Rest in natural great peace this exhausted mind,
Beaten helpless by karma and neurotic thoughts
Like the relentless fury of the pounding waves
In the infinite ocean of samsara.
Rest in natural great peace.
How do thoughts and emotions settle? If you leave a glass of muddy water quite still, without moving it, the dirt will settle to the bottom, and the clarity of the water will shine through. In the same way, in meditation we allow our thoughts and emotions to settle naturally and in a state of natural ease.
The first practice on the Buddhist path of meditation is shamatha, “calm abiding” or “tranquility meditation.” Here we begin by focusing, lightly and mindfully, on the breath. The problem with us is that our mind is always distracted. When it’s distracted, mind creates endless thoughts. There is nothing that it will not think or do. Whatever thoughts arise, we let them sweep us away into a spiral of stories and illusions, which we take so seriously that we end up not only believing but becoming as well.
When we abandon ourselves mindlessly to distraction and too much thinking, when we lose ourselves in thought and invite mental problems and anguish, the antidote is mindfulness. The discipline of the practice of shamatha is to keep bringing your mind back to the breath. If you’re distracted, then suddenly, the instant you remember, you simply bring your mind back to the breath. Nothing else is necessary. Even to ask, “How on earth did I get so distracted?” is just another distraction. The simplicity of mindfulness, of continuously bringing your mind back to the breath, gradually calms it down, and the mind will settle, in the mind.
What is very important, as the masters always advise us, is not to fixate while practicing the concentration of calm abiding. That is why they recommend you to place only 25 percent of your attention on mindfulness of the breath. But then, as you may have noticed, mindfulness alone is not enough. While you are supposed to be watching the breath, after a few minutes you may find yourself playing in a football game, starring in your own film, or becoming enlightened! So another 25 percent should be devoted to a continuous and watchful awareness, one that oversees and checks whether you are being mindful of the breath. The remaining 50 percent of your attention is left abiding, spaciously.
Sometimes simply being spacious, on its own, is enough to calm our mind down. In shamatha practice, when we blend spaciousness with the focus of mindfulness, gradually the mind will settle. As the mind settles, something extraordinary takes place: all the fragmented aspects of ourselves come home, and we become whole. Negativity and aggression, pain, suffering, and frustration are actually defused. In this moment, we experience a feeling of peace, space, and freedom, and out of this settling comes a profound stillness.
As we perfect this practice, and become one with the breath, after a while even the breath itself as the focus of our meditation dissolves, and we find ourselves resting in nowness. This is the one-pointedness that is the fruition and the goal of shamatha—remaining in nowness and stillness.
Remaining in the nowness of shamatha alone will not cause us to evolve, nor can it lead to enlightenment and liberation. There is a danger that nowness will become a subtle object, and the mind that rests in nowness a subtle subject. As long as you remain in the domain of subject-and-object duality, grasper and grasped, the mind is still within the ordinary conceptual world of samsara.
Through the practice of calm abiding, then, our mind has settled into a state of peace and found stability. Just as the picture in a camera will sharpen as you focus it, so the one-pointedness of shamatha allows an increasing clarity of mind to arise. As obscurations are gradually removed, and ego and its grasping tendency begin to dissolve, the “clear seeing,” or “insight,” of vipashyana, begins to dawn. At this point we no longer need the anchor of remaining in nowness, and we can progress, moving on beyond our self, even, into that openness which is the wisdom that realizes egolessness. This is what will uproot delusion and liberate us from samsara.
As this “clear seeing” progressively deepens, it leads us to an experience of the intrinsic nature of reality, the nature of our mind. For when the cloudlike thoughts and emotions fade away, the skylike nature of our true being is revealed and, shining from it, our Buddha-nature, or bodhicitta, like the sun. And just as both light and warmth blaze from the sun, wisdom and loving compassion radiate our from the mind’s innermost nature. Grasping at a false self has dissolved, and we simply rest, inasmuch as we can, in the nature of mind, this most natural state that is without any reference or concept, hope or fear, yet with a quiet but soaring confidence—the deepest form of well-being imaginable.
When we connect with the purity of our inherent nature, our Buddha-nature, what is revealed is our fundamental goodness—the good heart. Kindness, compassion, and love simply exude. And the more you integrate the practice mindfully into your life, the more you will find that not only are you in touch with yourself but completely in touch with others also. You feel a sense of real oneness with them. There is no barrier standing any longer between you and them, nor even between you and yourself. You begin to understand others, you begin to see them as equal to you in every way, and when someone is suffering, your heart will go out to them.
Sometimes we do feel in touch with ourselves, with others, with the universe, and we really have the opportunity to experience a deep inner peace. As Ajahn Chah said:
Your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still.
Anyone who has had the good fortune to experience a little of this inner peace should resolve, there and then, to maintain it, not only for his or her own sake, but for the sake of the world. When you are in this state, what is extraordinary is that even though you may not do much, your very being can benefit others, even unintentionally, as long as you maintain that goodness and purity of mind and heart and being.
When you apply the teachings deeply in your life, you can begin to transform not only yourself but also the world around you. Things may look the same, but your motivation and your whole being are different. So your whole interaction with the world will be different. You may be able to make a tremendous contribution, through your actions, your words, or your very being. To practice like this is to become useful, and because you actually have the fruit of the practice within you, you can make a world of difference—even if it is only to one human being.
Q&A on Jhana States
– Leigh Brasington
Leigh Brasington, 55, has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1985 and is the senior American student of the German-born Theravada teacher Ayya Khema.
You have described the jhanas as being “the heart of the Buddha’s practice:’ How is it that they’re so little known to most practitioners these days? “I don’t know” is the short answer. They’re certainly all over the place in the suttas—they’re mentioned in about half of the suttas of the Digha Nikaya (The Long Discourses of the Buddha) and in about a third of the suttas of the Majjhima Nikaya (The Middle-Length Discourses). The Buddha defined Right Concentration as the practice of the first fout jhanas, so it would seem obvious they’d be known everywhere, but they’re not. It appears there was a split after the Buddha’s death concerning the importance of the jhanas, and that dispute continues to this day.
Why does jhana practice seem to have been on the losing side of this split? One thing I could speculate is that as the monastic community withdrew into the forest and began practicing the jhanas, they began taking concentration to deeper and deeper levels. There certainly is a human tendency to say “If you’re not doing it as well as I can do it, you’re not doing the real thing.” The view of extremely deep concentration was promoted by the Visuddhimagga, which gives the odds on a meditator learning all eight of the jhanas as one in one hundred million. Whereas if you look at the suttas, people are entering the jhanas all over the place.
So Westerners have never been much exposed to the jhanas. It’s not the practice that was brought to the West. What principally came here was the Mahasi tradition—Vipassana, or insight meditation—from Burma, and some of the Thai traditions. I’ve heard that just a small percentage of the monks in Thailand meditate. Now, of that small percent, how many are actually doing jhana practice?
My teacher, Ayya Khema, taught herself the jhanas, by reading the suttas and the Visuddhimagga. But she didn’t know if she was doing it right. So when she was in Sri Lanka, she began inquiring as to who was a jhana master with whom she could study. She eventually found Matara Sri Nanarama Mahathera and had an interview with him. She described what she was doing and asked, “Am I doing them right)” He said, “Yes. And furthermore, you must teach them. They are in danger of becoming a lost art.”
So even in a place like Sri Lanka, which considers itself the guardian of Theravada Buddhism, the jhanas are in danger of being a lost practice.
Is there much known about the pre-Buddhist history of the jhanas? They definitely existed prior to the Buddha—he learned jhanas one through seven from his first teacher, and the eighth from his second teacher. Anapanasati—watching the breath as a form of meditation—is believed to be five thousand years old. The Buddha came along twenty-five hundred years later, and certainly during the intervening years people had stumbled into these altered states of consciousness. It happens remarkably often. On most of the retreats I teach, a significant number of the new students have stumbled into one or more of these states. So, given two and a half thousand years of people practicing anapanasati, a lot of people presumably discovered these states, and by the Buddha’s time, they had systematized them in increasing order of subtlety of the objects.
It’s interesting to note that the Buddha first entered jhana as a child, while sitting under the rose apple tree at what was probably a plowing festival. And on the night of his enlightenment, the first thing he did was step through the jhanas. In the post-jhanic state of mind, in the last watch of the night, he penetrated the Four Noble Truths.
Do we know exactly what the Buddha was doing? We don’t know for sure exactly what the Buddha was practicing. There is a lot of dispute over how to define or interpret the jhanas. Perhaps the better question is, What’s a useful definition? Is there some level of jhana that people can actually learn and will help them in their spiritual growth) Hopefully, this is the level at which I am teaching.
What is your definition of the jhanas? I would define them as eight altered states of consciousness, each one requiring more concentration than the previous, and each one generating more concentration than the previous. The standard definition of the jhanas that’s found in the suttas, such as in the “Greater Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” describes the first four states, in very specific terms.The last four jhanas build on the fourth jhana and are referred to as the immaterial (fromless) jhanas.
Each jhana it’s factors.
– In the first jhana:
–initial attention on the meditation subject
–sustained attention on the meditation subject
That is, putting your attention on the object and keeping your attention on the object.
Then there is:
–physical sense of rapture, pleasure coursing through the body,
–an energetic release
–an emotional sense of joy
The first jhana, then, is a state where there is a release of this uplifting, pleasurable, physical energy accompanied by an emotional sense of joy and happiness that you can put and sustain your attention upon.
In the second jhana, Joy moves into the foreground, and initial and sustained attention fades, to be replaced by inner tranquility and oneness of mind. Consciousness becomes absorbed in rapture.
In the third jhana, the rapture—the physical component—disappears and the joy calms down to contentment. The concentration is becoming more refined, and there’s a spreading of contentment that is all-pervasive. It’s a state of wishlessness, a state of complete satisfaction.
The contentment that arises in the third jhana contains pleasure.
In the fourth jhana, the pleasure goes away and the mind becomes neutral. The suttas say that “with the abandoning of pleasure and pain—as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress—one enters and remains in the fourth jhana, which is beyond pleasure and pain, and purified by equanimity and mindfulness.” This is a state that’s very peaceful, very restful, very quiet, very still.
And the next four? The next four jhanas are further refinements of the concentration. The mind takes in more and more subtle objects until it reaches a state where simultaneously it has very little recognition of what’s happening, yet stable awareness remains. It is very concentrated.
You’ve said that these are naturally occurring states of mind. Do students come upon these states on their own? All eight jhanas, rarely. However, students do stumble into one or more of the first seven, surprisingly frequently. And a number of people report having experienced these states as children.
So how do the jhanas help us? The Buddha says that they are right concentration and, therefore, a cornerstone of the path to liberation. On the night of his enlightenment, after stepping through the jhanas, he described himself as having “a mind concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability.” This is the mind he then applied to the true knowledges. The purpose of the jhanas is to generate a mind that can most efficiently gain insight into the nature of things as they are. That’s why they’re important.
Jhana and insight, hand-in-hand
(Definition:Jhana is a meditative state of profound stillness and concentration in which the mind becomes fully immersed and absorbed in the chosen object of attention. It is the cornerstone in the development of Right Concentration.)
– The Buddha
There’s no jhana
for one with no discernment,
for one with no jhana.
But with both jhana & discernment:
one is on the verge of Unbinding.
Three Conscious Breaths
– Pema Chdren
One of my favorite subjects of contemplation is this question: “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” You know you will die, but you really don’t know how long you have to wake up from the cocoon of your habitual patterns. You don’t know how much time you have left to fulfill the potential of your precious human birth. Given this, what is the most important thing?
Every day of your life, every morning of your life, you could ask yourself, “As I go into this day, what is the most important thing? What is the best use of this day?” Awakened mind exists in our surroundings, but how often are we actually touching in with it?
What is the best use of each day of our lives? In one very short day, each of us would become more sane, more compassionate, more tender, more in touch with the dream-like quality of reality. Or we could bury all these qualities in habitual mind. Every time a habitual pattern gets strong, every time we feel caught up or on automatic pilot, we could see it as an opportunity to burn up negative karma. Rather than as a problem, we could see it as our karma ripening, which gives us an opportunity to burn up karma, or at least weaken our karmic propensities. But that’s hard to do. When we realize that we are hooked, that we’re on automatic pilot, what do we do next? That is a central question for the practitioner.
One of the most effective means for working with that moment when we see the gathering storm of our habitual tendencies is the practice of pausing, or creating a gap. We can stop and take three conscious breaths and the world has a chance to open up to us in that gap. We can allow space into our state of mind.
Before I talk more about consciously pausing or creating a gap, it might be helpful to appreciate the gap that already exists in our environment. Awakened mind exists in our surroundings — in the air and the wind, in the sea, in the land, in the animals — but how often are we actually touching in with it? Are we poking our heads out of our cocoons long enough to actually taste it, experience it, let it shift something in us, let it penetrate our conventional way of looking at things?
If you take some time to formally practice meditation, perhaps in the early morning, there is a lot of silence and space. Meditation practice itself is a way to create gaps. Every time you realize you are thinking and you let your thoughts go, you are creating a gap. Every time the breath goes out, you are creating a gap. You may not always experience it that way, but the basic meditation instruction is designed to be full of gaps. If you don’t fill up your practice time with your discursive mind, with your worrying and obsessing and all that kind of thing, you have time to experience the blessing of your surroundings. You can just sit there quietly. Then maybe silence will dawn on you, and the sacredness of the space will penetrate.
Whatever it is you are doing, the magic, the sacredness, the expansiveness, the stillness, stays with you.
Or maybe not. Maybe you are already caught up in the work you have to do that day, the projects you haven’t finished from the day before. Maybe you worry about something that has to be done, or hasn’t been done, or a letter that you just received. Maybe you are caught up in busy mind, caught up in hesitation or fear, depression or discouragement. In other words, you’ve gone into your cocoon of habitual patterns.
For all of us, the experience of our entanglement differs from day to day. Nevertheless, if you connect with the blessings of your surroundings — the stillness, the magic, and the power — maybe that feeling can stay with you and you can go into your day with it. Whatever it is you are doing, the magic, the sacredness, the expansiveness, the stillness, stays with you. When you are in touch with that larger environment, it can cut through your cocoon mentality.
On the other hand, I know from personal experience how strong the habitual mind is. The discursive mind, the busy, worried, caught-up, spaced-out mind, is powerful. That’s all the more reason to do the most important thing — to realize what a strong opportunity every day is, and how easy it is to waste it. If you don’t allow your mind to open and to connect with where you are, with the immediacy of your experience, you could easily become completely submerged. You could be completely caught up and distracted by the details of your life, from the moment you get up in the morning until you fall asleep at night.
One can get so caught up in the content of your life, the minutiae that make up a day, so self-absorbed in the big project you have to do, that the blessings, the magic, the stillness, and the vastness escape you.
The great fourteenth-century Tibetan teacher Longchenpa talked about our useless and meaningless focus on the details, getting so caught up we don’t see what is in front of our nose. He said that this useless focus extends moment by moment into a continuum, and days, months, and even whole lives go by. Do you spend your whole time just thinking about things, distracting yourself with your own mind, completely lost in thought? I know this habit so well myself. It is the human predicament.
“Yes, but…,” we say. Yes, but I have a job to do, there is a deadline, there is an endless amount of e-mail I have to deal with, I have cooking and cleaning and errands. How are we supposed to juggle all that we have to do in a day, in a week, in a month, without missing our precious opportunity to experience who we really are? Not only do we have a precious human life, but that precious human life is made up of precious human days, and those precious human days are made up of precious human moments. How we spend them is really important. Yes, we do have jobs to do; we don’t just sit around meditating all day, even at a retreat center. We have the real nitty-gritty of relationships — how we live together, how we rub up against each other. Going off by ourselves, getting away from the people we think are distracting us, won’t solve everything. Part of our karma, part of our dilemma, is learning to work with the feelings that relationships bring up. They provide opportunities to do the most important thing too.
As I said, our habits are strong, so a certain discipline is required to step outside our cocoon and receive the magic of our surroundings. The pause practice — the practice of taking three conscious breaths at any moment when we notice that we are stuck — is a simple but powerful practice that each of us can do at any given moment.
Just pause. Let it be a contrast to being all caught up. Let it be like popping a bubble.
Pause practice can transform each day of your life. It creates an open doorway to the sacredness of the place in which you find yourself. The vastness, stillness, and magic of the place will dawn upon you, if you let your mind relax and drop for just a few breaths the storyline you are working so hard to maintain. If you pause just long enough, you can reconnect with exactly where you are, with the immediacy of your experience.
You are on your way to whatever you need to do for the day. Maybe you are in your car, or on the bus, or standing in line. But you can still create that gap by taking three conscious breaths and being right there with the immediacy of your experience, right there with whatever you are seeing, with whatever you are doing, with whatever you are feeling.
Another powerful way to do pause practice is simply to listen for a moment. Instead of sight being the predominant sense perception, let sound, hearing, be the predominant sense perception. It’s a very powerful way to cut through our conventional way of looking at the world. In any moment, you can just stop and listen intently. It doesn’t matter what particular sound you hear; you simply create a gap by listening intently.
In any moment you could just listen. In any moment, you could put your full attention on the immediacy of your experience. You could look at your hand resting on your leg, or feel your bottom sitting on the cushion or on the chair. You could just be here. Instead of being not here, instead of being absorbed in thinking, planning, and worrying, instead of being caught up in the cocoon, cut off from your sense perceptions, cut off from the power and magic of the moment, you could be here. When you go out for a walk, pause frequently — stop and listen. Stop and take three conscious breaths. How precisely you create the gap doesn’t really matter. Just find a way to punctuate your life with these thought-free moments. They don’t have to be thought-free minutes even, they can be no more than one breath, one second. Punctuate, create gaps. As soon as you do, you realize how big the sky is, how big your mind is.
When you are completely wound up about something and you pause, your natural intelligence clicks in and you have a sense of the right thing to do. This is part of the magic: our own natural intelligence is always there to inform us, as long as we allow a gap.
Pause, connect with the immediacy of your experience, connect with the blessings; liberate yourself from the cocoon of self-involvement, talking to yourself all of the time, completely obsessing. Allow a gap, gap, gap. Just do it over and over and over; allow yourself the space to realize where you are. Realize how big your mind is; realize how big the space is, that it has never gone away, but that you have been ignoring it.
Find a way to slow down. Find a way to relax. Find a way to relax your mind and do it often, very, very often, throughout the day continuously, not just when you are hooked but all the time. At its root, being caught up in discursive thought, continually self-involved with discursive plans, worries, and so forth, is attachment to ourselves. It is the surface manifestation of ego-clinging.
Allow yourself the space to connect with the blessing of the sacred world.
…mind the gap with three conscious breaths.
What Green Tara Can Teach Us About Fear
– Marcela Clavijo
Marcela Clavijo (Ven. Ngawang Samten Drolma) began dharma study with Khenpo Pema Wandak in 1995. Five years later, she encountered her root guru, the 41st Sakya Trizin, and in 2003, she received novice ordination in Nepal. She lives in New York City.
Fear can be a paralyzing experience. It robs us of peace of mind and our sense of self-control, and it blocks our ability to achieve the positive things we set out to do. It is a disturbing, negative emotion, especially when caused by confusion about what can actually harm us and what it means to be safe. But fear is something we can aspire to understand and eliminate from our lives.
Tibetan Buddhism offers many methods for recognizing, overcoming, and ending disturbing emotions, including fear. Some are grounded in awareness of the body. Green Tara, who represents the aspect of a buddha that protects us from fear, also represents the energy winds of the body and breath. Tara’s influence is the capacity to act, to move through life, and accomplish our aims. Indeed, her name means “she who ferries across.”
Understanding the subtleties of energy winds and how they influence us helps us, in turn, to understand our experience. Energy winds affect our body, emotions, and the types of thoughts that circulate in our minds, and they give momentum to all sorts of habits of acting, speaking, and thinking. To get a sense of this dynamic is to understand how we can positively shape our experience.
For centuries, meditation masters have used techniques to direct and regulate those energies. And while some of these techniques may seem esoteric, they are based on a very straightforward premise: if you can feel your body, you are feeling energy.
The goal of the practices offered here is to create positive, constructive energy feelings in the body. They can be practiced by anyone experiencing fear, panic, anxiety, agitation, or worry. And they can be very helpful in calming us down during moments of crisis. They relax physical tension, soothe the nerves, and calm the mind when we are extremely frightened or worried, or when we begin to panic. Tara represents the air or wind element and as such she is associated with moving through obstacles; so when we apply these breathing practices, we begin to feel revitalized, our mental energy becomes clearer, and we’re able to overcome anxiety.
Depending on the circumstances, you may use one or all five steps in the following order:
1. Sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, with eyes closed, gently breathe in and out, counting your breaths, with one inhalation and exhalation counted as one breath. Focus on the bodily sensations of breathing—the breath entering the body, the abdomen expanding and then gently drawing in as the breath leaves the body.
This is key: most of us pull the abdomen in as we inhale and relax it as we exhale. But breathing that way compresses the body, creating tremendous physical pressure and emotional and mental confusion. Making this simple correction, so that we expand the abdomen on inhalation and allow it to gently collapse on exhalation, can work wonders on our emotional state. After you feel a little more settled, gradually return to activity, or continue to the next step.
2. With eyes half-open, loosely focused, and looking toward the ground, continue to count the breaths— this time with one exhalation, the pause at its end, and one inhalation counting as one breath. After a few cycles, focus on the sensation of sitting; feel the surface you are resting on, and the body touching that surface. When you begin to feel more stable and grounded, return to activity, or continue to the next step.
3. As you become aware of the circumstances—the story line—giving rise to your fear, notice that you may be feeling more tranquil. This is a good time to reaffirm your motivation or goal. Bring to mind your heart’s deepest desire. For example, if this were the last day of your life, how would you like others to remember you, and why? Become aware of these aspirations, while simultaneously maintaining awareness of the breath and the calming of your mind. Once you have become more tranquil and attuned to your aspirations, return to activity, or continue on to the next step.
4. Now look at your mind. This is actually very easy to do when you know how. Without forming words in your mind, see whether your mind is calm or agitated. Is it focused or scattered? Is it lethargic or wakeful? Notice that your mind comes into focus, like an object seen through the lens of a camera. Look directly into your mind like this for a brief moment, and then release the focus and relax. As clarity and a sense of ease develop, return to activity, or continue to the last step.
5. Finally, no longer counting breaths, sense your body breathing itself. Notice the flow of air and the gentle rise and fall of the body with each breath. Feel the breath as alive, as flowing energy and sensation throughout your entire body, and sense how all the energies of the body are moving smoothly and harmoniously.
These breath practices recharge our subtle body and release stuck energy and the smooth, dynamic flow that arises from within. This freedom from the grip of fear and stress is the lived experience of Tara. Our minds are complex and profound, and so are our problems. On a deep level— more subtle even than the body and breath—fear is often accompanied by confusion about some aspect of reality: we cling to the notion of an internal, independent “me” that should be able to control things, and an external, independent “other thing” that we should be able to control.
From the Buddhist perspective, both of these views lack inherent existence, as do our emotions. In fact, the basis of the techniques offered here is the truth of dependent arising and the absence of true existence. This is why our practice can temporarily subdue and permanently eradicate all negative emotions.
Life presents us with a constant stream of circumstances that threaten to cause anxiety, fear, even panic, so we cannot afford to wait: these techniques can be applied on the spot. As we practice, Green Tara makes her way into our hearts, protecting us as we befriend ourselves and learn to send positive energy through our bodies, as we move along with a calm mind, free from fear.
The Metta Sutta | Loving Kindness Chant
– The Buddha
(The Buddha gives this sutta, as an antidote, to a group of monks who are in fear.)
This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise, who seeks the good and has obtained peace. Let one be strenuous, upright and sincere, without pride, easily contented and joyous. Let one not be submerged by the things of the world. Let one not take upon oneself the burden of riches.
Let one’s senses be controlled. Let one be wise but not puffed up, and let one not desire great possessions, even for one’s family. Let one do nothing that is mean or that the wise would reprove.
May all beings be happy. May they be joyous and live in safety. All living beings, whether weak or strong, in high or middle or low realms of existence, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far, born or to be born, may all beings be happy. Let no one deceive another, nor despise any being in any state; let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another.
Even as a mother, at the risk of her own life, watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things, suffusing love over the entire world — above, below, and all around without limit.
So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world. Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, during all one’s waking hours, let one practice the way with gratitude. Not holding to fixed views, abandoning vague discussions, endowed with insight, freed from sense appetites, one who achieves the way will be freed from the duality of birth and death, and no longer create suffering for oneself or others.
Bhāra Sutta: The Burden
Pali CanonSN 22.22 PTS: S iii 25
Translation: K. Nizamis
At Sāvatthī… There the Blessed One said this:
“I will teach you, the burden, the bearer of the burden, the taking up of the burden and the putting down of the burden. Hear this.
“And whatt is the burden? That of which it should be said: the five clung-to aggregates. “Which five?
1.The form clung-to aggregate,
2. the feeling clung-to aggregate,
3. the perception clung-to aggregate,
4. the formative mental functions clung-to aggregate,
5. the sensory consciousness clung-to aggregate. This, monks, is called the burden.
And what is the burden-bearer? It is the individual person, who is this venerable one, of such a name, of such ancestry. This, monks, is called the burden-bearer.
“And what is the taking up of the burden? That which is this craving leading to rebirth, connected with delight and passion, finding delight here and there: namely,
– craving for sensual pleasure,
– craving for being,
– and craving for extinction.
This is called the taking up of the burden.
“And what is the putting down of the burden? That is this – release of craving,
– it is cessation by means of the absence of desire without remainder:
– the abandoning, the forsaking, the freedom, the non-attachment.
That is called the putting down of the burden.”
This said the Blessed One. Having said this, the Fortunate One, the Teacher, furthermore said this:
Ah, surely, the five aggregates are burdens,
And the individual person is the burden-bearer;
Taking up the burden is suffering in the world,
Putting down the burden is bliss.
Having put down the heavy burden,
Without taking up another burden,
Pulling out craving along with its root,
One is without hunger, fully extinguished.
Cetana Sutta An Act of Will
Pali Canon AN 11.2 PTS: A v 312
Translation: Thanissaro Bhikkhu
“For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May freedom from remorse arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.
“For a person free from remorse, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May joy arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that joy arises in a person free from remorse.
“For a joyful person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May rapture arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that rapture arises in a joyful person.
“For a rapturous person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my body be serene.’ It is in the nature of things that a rapturous person grows serene in body.
“For a person serene in body, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I experience pleasure.’ It is in the nature of things that a person serene in body experiences pleasure.
“For a person experiencing pleasure, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my mind grow concentrated.’ It is in the nature of things that the mind of a person experiencing pleasure grows concentrated.
“For a person whose mind is concentrated, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I know & see things as they actually are.’ It is in the nature of things that a person whose mind is concentrated knows & sees things as they actually are.
“For a person who knows & sees things as they actually are, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I feel disenchantment.’ It is in the nature of things that a person who knows & sees things as they actually are feels disenchantment.
“For a person who feels disenchantment, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I grow dispassionate.’ It is in the nature of things that a person who feels disenchantment grows dispassionate.
“For a dispassionate person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I realize the knowledge & vision of release.’ It is in the nature of things that a dispassionate person realizes the knowledge & vision of release.
“In this way,
– Dispassion has knowledge & vision of release as its purpose, knowledge & vision of release as its reward.
– Disenchantment has dispassion as its purpose, dispassion as its reward.
– Knowledge & vision of things as they actually are has disenchantment as its purpose, disenchantment as its reward.
– Concentration has knowledge & vision of things as they actually are as its purpose, knowledge & vision of things as they actually are as its reward.
– Pleasure has concentration as its purpose, concentration as its reward.
– Serenity has pleasure as its purpose, pleasure as its reward.
– Rapture has serenity as its purpose, serenity as its reward. Joy has rapture as its purpose, rapture as its reward.
– Freedom from remorse has joy as its purpose, joy as its reward. Skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, freedom from remorse as their reward.
“In this way, mental qualities lead on to mental qualities, mental qualities bring mental qualities to their consummation, for the sake of going from the near to the Further Shore.”
Anana Sutta: Debtless
AN 4.62 PTS: A ii 69
translation: Thanissaro Bhikkhu
“And what is the bliss of [making use of] wealth? There is the case where the son of a good family, using the wealth earned through his efforts & enterprise, amassed through the strength of his arm, and piled up through the sweat of his brow, righteous wealth righteously gained, partakes of his wealth and makes merit. When he thinks, ‘Using the wealth earned through my efforts & enterprise, amassed through the strength of my arm, and piled up through the sweat of my brow, righteous wealth righteously gained, I partake of wealth and make merit,’ he experiences bliss, he experiences joy. This is called the bliss of [making use of] wealth.
“And what is the bliss of debtlessness? There is the case where the son of a good family owes no debt, great or small, to anyone at all. When he thinks, ‘I owe no debt, great or small, to anyone at all,’ he experiences bliss, he experiences joy. This is called the bliss of debtlessness.
“And what is the bliss of blamelessness? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones is endowed with blameless bodily kamma, blameless verbal kamma, blameless mental kamma. When he thinks, ‘I am endowed with blameless bodily kamma, blameless verbal kamma, blameless mental kamma,’ he experiences bliss, he experiences joy. This is called the bliss of blamelessness.
“These are the four kinds of bliss that can be attained in the proper season, on the proper occasions, by a householder partaking of sensuality.”
Knowing the bliss of debtlessness,
& recollecting the bliss of having,
enjoying the bliss of wealth, the mortal
then sees clearly with discernment.
Seeing clearly — the wise one —
he knows both sides:
that these are not worth one sixteenth-sixteenth
of the bliss of blamelessness.