Notes on Talk Five
2015 Dhamma Talk Series

Pratyahara : The Dark Side of the Mirror

So to recap – in week one we started with the hardest sell – good behaviour (I still don’t want to say ‘morality’). It is always the start of a good spiritual practise, but not because someone says so. There are no rules from God to follow. It is up to you – certain behaviour will lead you towards stability, peace, quiet. And certain behaviour will lead you towards more stress, more greed, more holding on. It is just like that.

Week two was the higher behaviour – some kind of renunciate practises like getting up early in the morning every day, sleeping on the floor, or going without facebook for an hour a day.

Week three we looked at the nature of the world – it is vast and complicated, Maya. We can only find some general rules of thumb to predict it. In order to get to what is actually real, you have to bring the attention back to the body. We do a lot of body work in Buddhism – endless retreats, and hours of meditation watching the feet, watching the rising and falling of the abdomen, or contemplating the body in terms of its elements.

Week four continued this theme, with the breathing.

rojana-centerNow, we have a dichotomy: on the one side we have this Maya – a vast and often wonderful ‘world’ of thoughts, ideas, states of mind, countries, entertainments, relationships … and this includes religious ideas – they too are only constructs, manufactured frameworks of understanding.

On the other hand you have this simple breath. It does not seem like much.

Remember when Jack, of the beanstalk fame, takes the family cow to the market to sell? He trades it in for 5 beans. What do you think? Was it a good deal? Of course, his mother did not think so, and she sent him to bed with a clip round the ear, and no dinner. But any child would instantly know these beans are the key to the story.

This theme of story heroes gaining a secret weapon that is considered worthless in the eyes of the world, is not just a tool of drama. It is actually real.

And here we have this breath – that looks so worthless in the eyes of the world. But as you make much of it, it becomes more and more vital. During meditation you find that when you are with the breath, you are ‘present’ and alert. It is when the mind goes wandering off on to something else, that you feel you are in a dream world.

Say a sound arises. For a moment you forget the breath and your attention goes to thinking about the sound. You have various identifications with it. It reminds you of something else, and before you know it you have sat there for 10 minutes having completely forgotten the breath. That’s the dream world.

Staying with the breath, experience becomes more magical and vital. While the ‘world’ becomes something less and less enticing. In fact, it disturbs you. It loses it’s power to enthrall, to a good meditator. The two ends of the scale are starting to come together.

Remember the Yoga Sutras (YS) begin by saying that there is enlightenment. And that to get to it requires 2 things – practise and non-reaction. ‘Resting in that stillness’ is the practise. Dispassion is not attaching to anything at all.

Step two of YS stated

With bodily purification, one’s body ceases to be compelling, likewise contact with others. Purification also brings about

♦ clarity
♦ happiness
♦ concentration
♦ mastery of the senses
♦ self awareness

Clarity comes about because you know what the mind is doing.

Happiness, according to Buddhism, is also not the goal – it has the function of aiding concentration, because when the mind is happy it is not constantly reaching out for experience.

The ‘world’ gets traded in for the senses. The Buddha frequently said that the ‘world’ is the ‘senses’ and the ‘senses’ are the ‘world’. To a meditator, you see that you can only attend to one thing at a time. Your mind goes off one one track or another. This is where the feeling of a ‘world’ arises, but now it is not so vast and complicated. Remember last weeks quote?

Withing this fathom length body, is the world, the arising of the world, and the cessation of the world


if you have seen the arising of the world, you cannot say it is unreal
if you have seen the cessation of the world, you cannot say it is real

YS carry the same idea:

The sense of ‘I’ ascribes selfhood to pure awareness by identifying it with the senses. Attachment arises as a residue of pleasure. Aversion arises as a residue of suffering. 

Pure awareness in the YS is the key to the full realization. It is ‘pure’, but “appears to operate through the perceiving mind”.

The phenomenal world exists to reveal this truth. Once that happens the phenomenal world no longer appears as such; But for others, it will continue to exist as a common reality.

So since awareness is getting mixed up with the senses, it is necessary to withdraw the mind.

Now, some people do not like this idea. They like the heightened senses that we talked about previously. In fact, the more meditation you do, the clearer your senses will appear. But that is not the goal, or the practise – it is just a curious side show.

Step Five is:

When consciousness interiorises by uncoupling from external objects, the senses do likewise  and this is called withdrawal of the senses. 

Then the senses reside utterly in the service of realization.


For Buddhism, there are Six Senses.

This is only a model – a theoretical framework used to interpret experience. Don’t take it to be ultimate reality. We know for instance, there are more body senses – such as the vestibular sense, a sense of gravity, proprioception and many others. Even something like vision, comprises different senses – the eye’s rods and cones detect light/dark and colour respectively.

In Buddhism, we use a simple model of six senses:

  • Eye
  • Ear
  • Nose
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Thought

Why is ‘thought’ a sense? Well, how do yo know what you are thinking if you can’t sense it? While meditating you will experience thinking going on by itself. You might be busy watching the breath, and then check back briefly with the mind, and realise that, just like the ear is always hearing sounds, the mind is always thinking thoughts. You can sense it, and it goes on without you controlling it.

I have covered this topic many times, so in this particular talk, I wanted to focus on the question of why, more than how.


Which brings us to Samson.

Before he was born, he was heralded by angels – something quite rare in the Old Testament. This means he had 3 special rules to follow – never to touch alcohol, never to touch a dead body, and never to cut his hair.

At one point he takes a fancy to a philistine woman, and declares he will marry her. Despite advice not to marry into the clan of his enemy, he sets off. Along the way he is attacked by a lion (European lions were smaller than African versions). He rips the animal apart with ease, which impresses himself. Later, as he returns to the Philistines for the marriage ceremony, he finds a beehive full of honey in the lion carcass. He scoops the honey out and gives it to several people.Talking with his grooms, he offers them gifts of linen and garments, if they can answer a riddle.Out of the eater comes something to eat
out of the fierce comes something sweetOf course, they cannot answer the riddle, so they ask Samson’s new wife. She cries and wheedles, until eventually he tells her the meaning – the lion was the eater, and the honey was the thing sweet. She of course, immediately tells her relatives, and they solve the riddle.Samson is angry though, and proceeds to murder a bunch of people, stealing their belongings and paying he debt to the grooms with it.

This is a favourite scene of artists

Delilah is his third wife. She wants to know the secret of his great strength. He eventually tells her he can only be bound with fresh bowstrings that have not dried (drying many kinds of rope makes them tighter).She binds him that night, but in the morning, he breaks the bonds easily. Delilah is not happy that he lied. And not happy that she has no control over him. She wheedles more, and he tells her he can be bound only with new rope. Again though, she fails to bind him thus. The third night he tells her only if his hair is bound up in a bun will he lose his strength. Again it does not work. She cries and weeps for seven days.
Finally he tells her that he is strong only because his hair has never been cut.She lulls him to sleep with his head in her lap, and calls some Philistines to come and shave his head. Immediately on waking, he has no strength. His enemies jump on him. They do three things : They bind him, they blind him, and they take him to work on the grindstone at the mill.

So, the lion represents desire. Animals in story nearly always represent desire, but there are specific forms, such as doves, ants, bees, and others, that have a special role. The lion is the brute strength of desire. Samson is innocent (despite going on killing rampages!!! Only in the Old Testament!), which is symbolised by the uncut hair. So he easily overcomes the desire.

Bees represent spiritual aspirations, because they provide the most delectable substance in the food world  honey. (Imagine a society where sugar is a very rare commodity – honey would be liquid magic). But the bee can also provide a sting. Spiritual aspirations are like that – they can give you a joy if you are careful, but a sting in your conscience if you are not. Overcoming desire provides a spiritual consolation.

Samson reaps his reward without a sting!

samson and the donkey jawbone
Samson wields the jawbone

Before the Delilah story above he also has another encounter with animals – he allows himself to be bound and delivered to the Philistines. There he breaks his bonds and kills 1000 of them armed only with the jawbone of a donkey.

Of course, the donkey represents ignorance. Ignorance is the darker side of innocence.

So, Delilah wheedles Samson into revealing his secret, and he loses his power. The three things the Philistines do to him are key to the story. Remember – he has given in to desire. Desire has the nature that it binds you, it makes you blind to dharma, and it makes you work for it. Desire is always attachment to one of the six senses – to tastes, feelings, smells, sounds, visual forms, or ideas (the sixth sense is mind remember).

A meditator sees this directly. When you are watching the breath, you find attention wanders off – mostly it wanders onto thinking.

Take driving for instance – you can drive a long way lost in thought! It is not that the senses are not operating and you are reacting, it is only that the conscious attention is caught up with thinking. This is why people think they can text and drive!

Once attention has been lost, then you are blinded, bound and put to work (it’s tiring to think all the time).

The opposite is to maintain awareness in it’s pristine form.

The Buddhist sutras call this “guarding the sense doors”. The formula is quite straight forward. In theory! It can be tricky to practise.

Here’s the teaching in it’s raw form – I think you are all ready for the original teaching:

“And how does a noble disciple guard the doors of his sense faculties?

On seeing a form with the eye, a noble disciple does not grasp at its signs and features. Since, if he left the eye faculty unguarded, evil unwholesome states of covetousness and grief might invade him, he practises the way of its restraint, he guards the eye faculty, he undertakes the restraint of the eye faculty.

On hearing a sound with the ear …

On smelling an odour with the nose …

On tasting a flavour with the tongue …

On touching a tangible with the body …

on cognizing a mind-object with the mind, a noble disciple does not grasp at its signs and features. Since, if he left the mind faculty unguarded, evil unwholesome states of covetousness and grief might invade him, he practises the way of its restraint, he guards the mind faculty, he undertakes the restraint of the mind faculty. That is how a noble disciple guards the doors of his sense faculties.

Sekha Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 53

So, how is the story resolved?

Samson, blind and old, is led to the temple grounds for the amusement of the ignorant masses. They gather on the roof of a house to get a good look. Samson calls on God one last time, and his strength is returned.

He braces against the pillars of the gate, and brings the whole edifice down, killing all the people, and Samson too.


Story works in images – you are supposed to internalise an image. This is more powerful than simply understanding some words. It works on the unconscious directly.

In this case, the image of the house, strong and unassailable, is the house (or world) that you have built for yourself. See all those little thoughts and self identifications standing on it’s roof! What better image for the ego! When all those little ‘selves’ die, so does the ego. Which means Samson has to die before he can be reborn into something new. The Zen glass must be emptied, before you can fill it with something different.


This topic of ‘withdrawal of the senses’ is a little unpopular amongst certain groups of wannabe Buddhists. They do not like the idea of ‘not enjoying life’.

Partly it comes from a Mahayana idea, that sense desire is to be transformed into a thirst for enlightenment, rather than being something to shy away from. But I have noted that serious practitioners in Mahayana engage in 3 year ‘cave’ retreats, which involve a lot of simplicity and grounding of attention. You can’t get away from it – while attention is swimming around caught in the senses, it is not going to develop Zen. You have to empty the glass.

On the other hand, this is not a denial of the world, or it’s beauty. In Buddhism, the beauty is called ‘sobhana’ states – or ‘beautiful’ states of mind (note that things of the world are as they are, but it is the mind that is beautiful or not.

With some restraint, the Yoga Sutras say,

As intense discipline burns up impurities, the body and its senses become supremely refined.

This vividness of the senses, which you can easily experience with some practise, especially on a meditation retreat, is not the goal however. The only reason to apply attention to the objects of the sense specifically, is so that wisdom arises, and wisdom leads to detachment. Then awareness is seen as separate from the objects one is aware of. Indeed, one starts to see the awareness aspect in all objects too – where previously it was unnoticed.

So, the YS say:

The wise see suffering in all experience, whether from the anguish of impermanence, or from latent impressions laden with suffering, or from incessant conflict as the fundamental qualities of nature vie for ascendancy.

Chardonnay Shamans, who think they are getting enlightened in a wine bar, are missing the heart of the teaching. Experience can be viewed (according to Buddhism) as either attractive or not-attractive. There is merit however, in seeing experience as non-attractive, as it breaks attachment. When attachment is broken (even only in flashes), one can differentiate awareness from consciousness.

Unlike insights acquired through inference or teachings, this wisdom has as its object the actual distinction between pure awareness and consciousness

Well, everyone is free to follow their own path. The Buddha’s teaching was not a commandment. You do not get punished for not following it. It was simply a guide to Enlightenment, as are the Yoga Sutras. Both clearly point to a disentangling of attention from the senses. Both clearly say that consciousness (or pure awareness) becomes bright, dazzling and generates wisdom, when the restraint is developed.

It does not mean you can’t enjoy life, or that you are non-affirming of life. And for a beginner, you are only practising a short period of time each day. Later the pure awareness stays with you as a part of daily experience and can be brought into all activities. This happens quite naturally though. For the moment it is enough to just do your 20 minutes every day. Take your time, and enjoy it.

This topic continues in part 6, titled Baby, Baby Fish.