The Quotable Ajahn Thanissaro

Licking Yourself Clean

Ajaan Fuang once said that meditators tend to be like little puppies. They go out and defecate and then come running to their mothers to have their mothers lick them off. They haven’t learned how to lick themselves off yet. So as a meditator you need to learn how to lick yourself off. If things don’t go well, learn how to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and then figure out what went wrong. Take responsibility for your meditation. Take responsibility for your insights. This is what the Buddha did. This is what every meditator has to do.

If you go to a teacher, saying you’ve had a certain experience, and the teacher identifies it as a level of jhana or a level of insight, can you be sure? Do you really want to hand those judgments over to somebody else? Or do you want to learn how to judge things on your own, so that you can trust yourself? If you let the other people do the judging, there’s always going to be an element of doubt: Do they know what they’re saying? At the same time, you’re absolving yourself of any responsibility. Discernment becomes their duty and not yours. That’s not a good attitude for a meditator to take. You’ve got to learn to look, to try a few things.

Buddhism is not a theistic religion — the Buddha is not a god — and so a person taking refuge in the Buddhist sense is not asking for the Buddha personally to intervene to provide protection. Still, one of the Buddha’s central teachings is that human life is fraught with dangers — from greed, anger, and delusion — and so the concept of refuge is central to the path of practice, in that the practice is aimed at gaining release from those dangers. Because the mind is the source both of the dangers and of release, there is a need for two levels of refuge: external refuges, which provide models and guidelines so that we can identify which qualities in the mind lead to danger and which to release; and internal refuges, i.e., the qualities leading to release that we develop in our own mind in imitation of our external models. The internal level is where true refuge is found.

Many people think that once the mind is in concentration you can’t let it rest there; you’ve got to do vipassana right away. Well, yes, you do need to develop insight, but before you get to the really subtle work of insight, you’ve got other issues in your life that you have to sort out first. There’s a tendency called spiritual bypassing, where people don’t want to face the big issues in their lives, so they use the meditation as an escape, an avoidance strategy, claiming that if they can solve the subtle issues of insight, that’ll solve their issues when they’re off the cushion. But you can’t really deal honestly with the subtle issues of inconstancy, stress, and not-self when you haven’t sorted through the blatant problems you cause in daily life.

This is one of the reasons why traditionally they didn’t have such things as meditation retreats. You went to monasteries. And in monasteries, there was time to meditate, but there were also other duties in the course of the day. There was work to be done. You had to interact with the other people in the monastery to at least some extent. And in the course of that work and those interactions, you learned a lot about the Dhamma: the Dhamma of generosity, the Dhamma of virtue, the Dhamma of patience, equanimity, goodwill — all these other virtues that are an essential part of training the mind.

The idea of creating meditation retreats came basically in the late 19th or early 20th century, the same time when the assembly line was invented, breaking jobs down into little tiny parts that you do repetitively. This approach to physical work was efficient and effective, so it became the model for a lot of meditation retreats and for the methods taught on those retreats. You take one method and you just apply it again and again and again. But a lot gets left out in that approach. It’s like exercising only one muscle in your body, so that the muscle gets strengthened all out of proportion to the rest of your body. And that can’t be healthy.

It’s better to think of meditation as a training for the whole mind, as exercise for the whole mind. You have to train the whole mind in all the virtues of maturity and heedfulness. In other words, you need to develop the ability to anticipate dangers, particularly dangers in your own behavior, and to figure out what you can do to prevent them.

Sometimes you read about teachers who turn out to be major disappointments. They do really horrible things to their students, and the students complain that they’ve been victimized. But in nearly every case, when you read the whole story, you realize that the students should have seen this coming. There were blatant warning signals that they chose to ignore. You have to be responsible in choosing your teachers, choosing your path. Once you’ve chosen the path that looks likely, you have to be responsible in following it, in learning how to develop your own sensitivity in following it. Because after all, what is the path that the Buddha points out? There’s virtue, there’s concentration, and there’s discernment. These are all qualities in your own mind. We all have them to some extent. Learning how to develop what’s in your own mind is what’s going to make all the difference. The Buddha’s discernment isn’t going to give you awakening; his virtue and concentration aren’t going to give you awakening. You have to develop your own. Nobody else can develop these things for you. Other people can give you hints; they can help point you in the right direction. But the actual work and the actual seeing is something you have to do for yourself.

Suppose that anger is interfering with your concentration. Instead of getting involved in the anger, you try simply to be aware of when it’s there and when it’s not. You look at the anger as an event in and of itself — as it comes, as it goes. But you don’t stop there. The next step — as you’re still working at focusing on the breath — is recognizing how anger can be made to go away. Sometimes simply watching it is enough to make it go away; sometimes it’s not, and you have to deal with it in other ways, such as arguing with the reasoning behind the anger or reminding yourself of the drawbacks of anger. In the course of dealing with it, you have to get your hands dirty. You’ve got to try and figure out why the anger is coming, why it’s going, how you can get it out of there, because you realize that it’s an unskillful state. And this requires that you improvise. Experiment. You’ve got to chase your ego and impatience out of the way so that you can have the space to make mistakes and learn from them, so that you can develop a skill in dealing with the anger. It’s not just a question of hating the anger and trying to push it away, or of loving the anger and welcoming it. These approaches may give results in the short run, but in the long run they’re not especially skillful. What’s called for here is the ability to see what the anger is composed of; how can you take it apart.

One technique I like to use — when anger is present and you’re in a situation where you don’t immediately have to react to people — is simply to ask yourself in a good-natured way, “Okay, why are you angry?” Listen to what the mind has to say. Then pursue the matter: “But why are you angry at that? ” “Of course, I’m angry. After all…” “Well, why are you angry at that?” If you keep this up, the mind will eventually admit to something stupid, like the assumption that people shouldn’t be that way — even though they blatantly are that way — or that people should act in line with your standards, or whatever the mind is so embarrassed about that it tries to hide from you. But finally, if you keep probing, it’ll fess up. You gain a lot of understanding of the anger that way, and this can really weaken its power over you.

In terms of the positive qualities like mindfulness, serenity, and concentration, it’s a similar sort of thing. First, you’re aware of when they’re there and when they’re not, and then you realize that when they’re there it’s much nicer than when they’re not. So you try to figure out how they come, how they go. You do this by consciously trying to maintain that state of mindfulness and concentration. If you’re really observant — and this is what it’s all about, being observant — you begin to see that there are skillful ways of maintaining the state without getting all tied up in failure or success in doing it, without letting the desire for a settled state of mind actually get in the way of the mind’s settling down. You do want to succeed, but you need a balanced attitude toward failure and success so that you can learn from them. Nobody’s keeping score or taking grades. You’re here to understand for your own sake. So this process of developing your foundation of mindfulness or developing your frame of reference is not “just watching.” It’s more a participation in the process of arising and passing away — actually playing with the process — so that you can learn from experience how cause and effect work in the mind.

The Steps of Breath Meditation

When the Buddha teaches breath meditation, he teaches sixteen steps in all. They’re the most detailed meditation instructions in the Canon. And the breath is the topic he recommends most highly, most frequently — because the breath is not only a place where the mind can settle down and gain concentration, but it’s also something the mind can analyze. It’s where all the insights needed for Awakening can arise — while the mind is being mindful of the breath, alert to the breath, and also conscious of how it relates to the breath.

In the later stages of breath meditation the emphasis is focused less on the breath than on the mind as it relates to the breath. In the beginning stages, though, the emphasis is on the breath itself, on using the breath to snare the mind and bring it into the present moment. In the first two steps you’re simply with long breathing and short breathing, sensitizing yourself to what long and short breathing feel like. Beginning with the third step, though, there’s an element of volition. You train yourself, and the first thing you train yourself to do is to be aware of the whole body as you breathe in, aware of the whole body as you breathe out.

When the Buddha describes concentration states, he doesn’t use images of single-pointedness. He uses images of whole-body awareness. When a sense of rapture and pleasure comes from the breath, he tells you to knead that sense of rapture and pleasure through the whole body, the way you would knead water into flour to make dough. Another image is of the rapture welling up from within the body and filling the body just like a spring of cool water coming up from within a lake, filling the entire lake with its coolness. Another image is of lotuses standing in a lake: Some of the lotuses don’t go above the water but stay totally immersed in the water, saturated from their roots to their tips with the stillness and coolness of the water in the lake. Still another image is of a person wrapped in white cloth, totally surrounded by the white cloth from head to foot, so that all of his body is covered by the white cloth.

These are all images of whole-body awareness, of a sense of rapture, pleasure, or bright awareness filling the entire body. That’s what you want to work on when you get to know the breath, because the type of awareness that allows insight to arise is not restricted to one point. When you’re focused on one point and blot out everything else, that leaves a lot of blind spots in the mind. But when you try to get a more all-around awareness, it helps eliminate the blind spots. In other words, you want to be immersed in the breath, aware of the breath all around you. One of the phrases they use for this — kayagatasati — is mindfulness immersed in the body. The body is saturated with awareness, and the awareness itself gets immersed in the body, is surrounded by the body. So it’s not that you’re up in one spot — say, in the back of the head — looking at the rest of the body from that one spot, or trying to block awareness of the rest of the body from that one spot of awareness. You’ve got to have a whole-body awareness, all-around, 360 degrees, so as to eliminate the blind spots in the mind.

Once you have this type of awareness, you work at maintaining it — although the “work” here is not like other work. You work at not moving your attention, at not letting it shrink. You work at not taking on other responsibilities. With time, though, the work becomes more natural, more second-nature. You feel more and more settled and at home. As the mind settles in, its usual nervous energy begins to dissolve. The body actually needs less and less oxygen, because the level of your brain activity begins to grow calm, and so the breath gets more and more refined. It can even grow perfectly still, for all the oxygen you need is coming in through the pores of your skin.

At this point the breath and your awareness seem to have melted into each other. It’s hard to draw a line between the two and, for the time being, you don’t try. Allow the awareness and the breath to interpenetrate, to become one.

You have to allow this awareness, this sense of oneness, to get really solid. Otherwise it’s easily destroyed because the tendency of the mind is to shrink up. As soon as we think, we shrink up the energy field in certain parts of the body to block them out of our awareness, which is why there’s tension in the body every time a thought occurs. This part of the body gets tense so you can think that thought; that part of the body gets tense so you can think this one, back and forth this way. It’s no wonder that the simple process of thinking takes a lot out of the body. According to some Chinese medical treatises, a person whose work is mental tends to use up energy at three times the rate of a person whose work is totally physical. This is because thinking involves tension in the body. And, in particular, thoughts that go off into the past or into the future have to create whole worlds for themselves to inhabit.

When we’re getting the mind concentrated, we’re thinking in a different way. In the beginning stages we’re still thinking, but we’re thinking solely about the present moment, observing solely the present moment, being alert and mindful to what’s going on here, so we don’t have to create worlds of past and future. This imposes less stress on the body. In order to maintain that present focus and not go slipping off to your old habits, you’ve got to keep your awareness as broad as possible. That’s what keeps you rooted in the present moment, all the way down to your fingers and toes. When your awareness stays broad, it prevents the kind of shrinking up that allows the mind to slip out after thoughts of past and future. You stay fully inhabiting the present. The need to think gets more and more attenuated.

When fewer and fewer thoughts interfere with the flow of the breath energy, a sense of fullness develops throughout the body. The texts refer to this fullness as rapture, and the sense of ease accompanying it as pleasure. You let this sense of easy fullness suffuse the body, but you still maintain your focus on the breath energy, even if it’s totally still. Eventually — and you don’t have to rush this — the point will come when the body and mind have had enough of the rapture and ease, and you can allow them to subside. Or there may be times when the rapture gets too overpowering, in which case you try to refine your awareness of the breath so that it can come in under the radar of the rapture, and you move to a level of total ease. Then even the ease — the sense of imbibing the pleasure — subsides, leaving you with total stillness.

After you’ve become settled in the stillness, you can start looking for the dividing line between awareness and the breath. Up to this point you’ve been manipulating the breath, trying to get more and more sensitive to what feels comfortable in the breathing and what doesn’t, so that your manipulation gets more and more subtle, to the point where you can drop the manipulation and just be with the breath. This allows the breath to grow more and more refined until it’s absolutely still. When things are really solid, really still, your awareness and the object of your awareness naturally separate out, like chemicals in a suspension that’s allowed to stay still. Once the awareness separates out, you can begin directly manipulating the factors of the mind, the feelings and perceptions that shape your awareness. You can watch them as they do this, for now the breath is out of the way.

It’s like tuning-in to a radio station: As long as there’s static, as long as you aren’t precisely tuned-in to the station’s frequency, you can’t hear the subtleties of the signal. But once you’re right at the frequency, the static goes away and all the subtleties become clear. When you’re tuned-in to the mind, you can see the subtleties of feeling and perception as they move. You can see the results they give, the impact they have on your awareness, and after a while you get the sense that the more refined that impact, the better. So you allow them to calm down. When they’re calmed down, you’re left with awareness itself.

But even this awareness has its ups and downs, and to get you past them the Buddha has you manipulate them, just as you manipulated the breath and the mental factors of feeling and perception. The text talks about gladdening the mind, steadying the mind, and releasing the mind. In other words, as you get more and more used to the stages of concentration, you begin to gain a sense of which kind of concentration your awareness needs right now. If it seems unstable, what can you do to steady it? How do you change your perception of the breath or adjust your focus to make the mind more solid? When the meditation starts getting dry, what can you do to gladden the mind? And as you’re moving from one stage of concentration to the next, exactly what do you let go that releases the mind from the weaker stage of concentration and allows it to settle in a stronger one?

When the Buddha talks about releasing the mind at this point in the practice, he’s not talking about ultimate release. He’s talking about the kind of release that occurs as you let go, say, of the directed thought and evaluation of the first jhana, releasing yourself from the burden of those factors as you move into the second jhana, and so on through the different levels of concentration. As you do this, you begin to see how much those levels of concentration are willed. This is important. Insight can come while you’re in concentration as you move from one stage to the next, as you notice out of the corner of your mind’s eye what you do to move from one way of experiencing the breath to the next, one level of solidity to the next. And you see how much this is a produced phenomenon.

This finally leads to the stages of breath meditation associated with insight. First there’s insight into inconstancy, both in the breath, but more importantly in the mind, as you see that even these stable, very refreshing levels of concentration are willed. Underlying all the refreshment, all the stability, is a repeated willing, willing, willing to keep the state of concentration going. There’s an element of burdensomeness there. Insight into inconstancy or impermanence has less to do with how you consume experiences than it does with how you produce them. You see all the effort that goes into producing a particular type of experience, and the question becomes, “Is it worth it? Isn’t this burdensome, having to keep making, making, making these experiences all the time?”

Then the problem becomes, “What are you going to do to let go of this burden?” If you don’t fabricate these states of concentration, is your only choice to go back to fabricating other kinds of experiences? Or is it possible not to fabricate any experience at all? All of our normal experiences from moment to moment to moment, whether in concentration or out, have an element of intention, an element of will. And now you’ve come to the point where that element of will, that element of intention, begins to stand out as an obvious burden. Particularly when you look around to ask, “Who am I producing this for? Exactly who is consuming this?” You come to see that your sense of who you are, who this consumer is, is difficult to pin down, because it’s all made out of the aggregates, and the aggregates themselves are inconstant, stressful, and not-self. This consumer is something produced as well. This gives rise to a quality the texts call nibbida, which can be translated as disenchantment or disillusionment. Sometimes the translation gets stronger: revulsion. In all cases it’s a sense that you’ve had enough of this. You feel trapped by this process. You no longer find any satisfaction here. You want to find a way out.

So you focus on letting go. According to the texts, first there’s a focus on dispassion, then a focus on cessation, then finally a focus on total relinquishment. In other words, in the final stage you let go of every kind of doing, every kind of volition, of the producer, of the consumer, of the observer, even of the perceptions and the thought-fabrications that make up the path. When the path-factors have done their job you can let them go as well.

All of this takes place right at the breath, at the point where the mind and the body meet at the breath. This is why the Buddha never has you totally drop the breath as your theme of meditation. Progress along the path comes simply from staying right here and growing more and more aware of what’s going on all around right here. You develop a more all-around awareness, not only all-around in the body, but also all-around in the mind. You see through the blind spots that allowed you to consume experiences obliviously, forgetting the fact that you had to produce them. It’s like watching a movie — two hours of lights flashing up on a screen — and then later seeing a documentary about how they made the movie. You realize that months, sometimes years of labor went into it, and the question becomes, “Was it worth it?” A few brief hours of empty enjoyment and then you forget about it — despite all the work, all the suffering that went into making it.

So when you look at all your experiences in the same way, seeing all the effort that goes into their production and asking if it’s worth it: That’s when you really get disillusioned, disenchanted, when you can really let go. You let go not only of perceptions or feelings as they come and go, but also of the act of creating these things. You see that this act of creating is all-pervasive, covers all your experiences. You’re always creating, either skillfully or unskillfully. There is constant production every time there’s an intention, every time there’s a choice in the mind. This is what begins to seem oppressive; this is what finally impels you to let go.

You let go of the producing, you let go of the creation, and the letting-go really opens things up. The mind opens to another dimension entirely: one that’s not made up, that’s not created, where there’s no arising or passing away. And that too is touched right here, although at that moment there’s no sense of breath, no sense of the body, no sense of the mind as a functioning, creating consumer or producer. When the Buddha talks about it, all his words are analogies, and all the analogies are of freedom. That’s about all that can be said when you try to describe it, but there’s a lot that can be said about how to get there. That’s why the Buddha’s teachings are so extensive. He goes into a lot of detail on how to get there, outlining all of the steps. But if you want to know what the goal is like, don’t go looking for extensive descriptions. Just follow the steps and you’ll know for yourself right here.

To be in jhana is to be absorbed, very pleasurably, in the sense of the whole body altogether. A very broad sense of awareness fills the entire body.One of the images the Buddha used to describe this state is that of a person kneading water into dough so that the water permeates throughout the flour. Another is a lake in which a cool spring comes welling up and suffuses the entire lake.

Now, when you’re with the body as a whole, you’re very much in the present moment. You’re right there all the time. As the Buddha says, the fourth jhana — in which the body is filled with bright awareness — is the point where mindfulness and equanimity become pure. So there should be no problem in combining mindfulness practice with the whole-body awareness that gets very settled and still. In fact, the Buddha himself combines them in his description of the first four steps of breath meditation: (1) being aware of long breathing, (2) being aware of short breathing, (3) being aware of the whole body as you breathe in and breathe out, and then (4) calming the sensation of the breath within the body. This, as the texts tell us, is basic mindfulness practice. It’s also a basic concentration practice. You’re getting into the first jhana — Right Concentration — right there, at the same time that you’re practicing Right Mindfulness.

This is why the consciousness of nirvana is said to be “without surface” (anidassanam), for it doesn’t land. Because the consciousness-aggregate covers only consciousness that is near or far, past, present, or future — i.e., in connection with space and time — consciousness without surface is not included in the aggregates. It’s not eternal because eternity is a function of time. And because non-local also means undefined, the Buddha insisted that an awakened person — unlike ordinary people — can’t be located or defined in any relation to the aggregates in this life; after death, he/she can’t be described as existing, not existing, neither, or both, because descriptions can apply only to definable things.

The essential step toward this non-localized, undefined realization is to cut back on the proliferations of consciousness. This first involves contemplating the drawbacks of keeping consciousness trapped in the process of feeding. This contemplation gives urgency to the next steps: bringing the mind to oneness in concentration, gradually refining that oneness, and then dropping it to zero. The drawbacks of feeding are most graphically described in SN 12.63, A Son’s Flesh. The process of gradually refining oneness is probably best described in MN 121, The Lesser Discourse on Emptiness, while the drop to zero is best described in the Buddha’s famous instructions to Bahiya: “‘In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.’ That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress.”

With no here or there or between the two, you obviously can’t use the verb “enter” or “reach” to describe this realization, even metaphorically. Maybe we should make the word nirvana into a verb itself: “When there is no you in connection with that, you nirvana.” That way we can indicate that unbinding is an action unlike any other, and we can head off any mistaken notion about getting “stuck” in total freedom.

The view “I have no self” is just as much a doctrine of self as the view “I have a self.” Because the act of clinging involves what the Buddha calls “I-making” — the creation of a sense of self — if one were to cling to the view that there is no self, one would be creating a very subtle sense of self around that view (see AN 4.24). But, as he says, the Dhamma is taught for “the elimination of all view-positions, determinations, biases, inclinations, & obsessions; for the stilling of all fabrications; for the relinquishing of all acquisitions; the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding.”

Thus it is important to focus on how the Dhamma is taught: Even in his most thoroughgoing teachings about not-self, the Buddha never recommends replacing the assumption that there is a self with the assumption that there is no self. Instead, he only goes so far as to point out the drawbacks of various ways of conceiving the self and then to recommend dropping them. For example, in his standard series of questions building on the logic of the inconstancy and stress of the aggregates, he does not say that because the aggregates are inconstant and stressful there is no self. He simply asks, When they are inconstant and stressful, is it proper to assume that they are “me, my self, what I am”? Now, because the sense of self is a product of “I-making,” this question seeks to do nothing more than to induce disenchantment and dispassion for that process of I-making, so as to put a stop to it. Once that is accomplished, the teaching has fulfilled its purpose in putting an end to suffering and stress. That’s the safety of the further shore. As the Buddha says in this discourse, “Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only stress and the cessation of stress.” As he also says here, when views of self are finally dropped, one is free from agitation; and as MN 140 points out, when one is truly unagitated one is unbound. The raft has reached the shore, and one can leave it there — free to go where one likes, in a way that cannot be traced.

From his introduction to MN 22 (Alagaddupama Sutta)

However, the actual practice enjoined by the Buddha does not place such a high value on altruism at all. In fact, he gave higher praise to those who work exclusively for their own spiritual welfare than to those who sacrifice their spiritual welfare for the welfare of others (Anguttara Nikaya, Book of Fours, Sutta 95) — a teaching that the mainstream, especially in Mahayana traditions, has tended to suppress. The true path of practice pursues happiness through social withdrawal, the goal being an undying happiness found exclusively within, totally transcending the world, and not necessarily expressed in any social function. People who have attained the goal may teach the path of practice to others, or they may not. Those who do are considered superior to those who don’t, but those who don’t are in turn said to be superior to those who teach without having attained the goal themselves. Thus individual attainment, rather than social function, is the true measure of a person’s worth.
From: Upasika Kee Nanayon and the Social Dynamic of Theravadin Buddhist Practice by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

So it’s a pretty radical, a very demanding teaching. The question is, “Do you want to be an adult or not?” There are lots of people out there who’d rather not be adults, who’d rather be infantilized. And there are lots of other people who enjoy telling them what to do, what to think. Even in Buddhist circles, you find various kinds of meditation where as they say, “Everything has all been thought out, everything has all been worked out, just follow the instructions. Don’t think, don’t add anything of your own.” It’s interesting to note that a lot of these methods also refer to the teaching on not-self as egolessness. Any sense of pride, any sense of independence is a bad thing in those meditation traditions. As one tradition would say, just be totally passive and aware, very equanimous, and just let your old sankharas burn away. And above all, don’t think. Or if you are going to think, they say, learn how to think the way we think. And they have huge volumes of philosophy you have to learn, to squeeze your mind into their mold, after which they promise you awakening.

But that doesn’t work. Awakening comes from being very observant in seeing things you don’t expect to see, developing your own sensitivities, your own discernment. After all, as the Buddha said, the issue is the suffering you’re creating. If you don’t have the basic honesty and maturity to see that, you’re never going to gain awakening no matter how much you know, no matter how much you study, no matter how equanimous you are. You’ve got to take responsibility. And you’ve got to be willing to learn from your mistakes. When the Buddha taught Rahula, he didn’t say, “Don’t ever make mistakes.” He said, “Try not to make mistakes, but if you do make a mistake — and it’s expected that you will — this is how you handle it, this is how you learn from it.” That’s teaching Rahula how to be an adult.
From: Adult Dhamma by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Published by Vimutta Fellowship Toronto

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