Notes for talk seven in the 2014 dhamma talk series, You Don’t Even Need Yoga Pants. Each week during the Rains Retreat Series of Talks in Bangkok the notes will be published. If anything is mentioned during the session that needs clarification or links for further details, then it will be easily found.
There is an old story I remember. Something like this:
|There was once a king. He led his army to victory over his enemy. As the army invaded the opposing King’s palace, he told his soldiers they could keep anything they could lay their hands on. The soldiers went crazy – running all over the palace sticking post-it notes on all the expensive items. Just the King’s servant boy did not run about. The King turned to him and asked “Why are you not taking something of value? “The boy replied “I’m not so sure you are genuine in your promise.”The King reassured him “No – surely anything you can lay your hands on, I grant you.”Then the boy laid his hands on the King’s crown.
He did not get to keep the crown, but the King was impressed. He later adopted the boy, and after his demise, the boy did indeed become the next King.
Story is supposed to illustrate a principle or moral, in a way more graphic and memorable than simply stating the thought. In this case, it is reminding us to think about what is really of the highest value. Running around after pleasures of the senses is not a good life strategy. You don’t have to be a hermit dwelling beside a lake in an itchy robe. But sense pleasures are not what it is all about. The crown is the key to the kingdom.
DURING retreats in the past I’d always looked forward to the end of the retreat. That coming freedom…. You can get the food you want. Put your feet up. Sleep in your own bed. Watch a bit of TV. All with the afterglow from a Mindfulness retreat.
But when I moved to the monastery in Thailand, it hit me. This was it! There would be no rewarding freedom after the retreat. This is where I had to stay. It was a bit daunting.
But like anything, after a while you get used to it. You get used to anything. I have heard people get used to prison. To disability. To illness. I could get used to a monastery surely!
One of the hardest challenge, was sharing a room. The loss of that privacy was really difficult. And not being able to express myself to anyone fluently. Only the abbot spoke fluent English.
Anyway, twice a year we would have a meditation retreat. The whole temple would switch modes to facilitate the retreat. We all had jobs to do. We had to put up mosquito tents and sleep out under the trees. It took a few days to realise that all the Thai monks dutifully put up their nets, but never slept a single night under the trees. They would all return to their rooms at night! Except for the abbot – the 72 year old abbot, who would sleep in his net the way he told his followers to do!
But getting back to the topic – I saw one day something quite striking. It was a girl who had joined the retreat. She was sitting in her car. The engine was on, and the air-conditioning cooling her down. She was eating some junk snacks from her lap, while applying some make-up. And she had the radio on. Can you picture it?
She was pretty much stuffing her self with every possible sense pleasure she could, all at once! (I couldn’t blame her!) The call of sense desire is strong. Perhaps we need to live in an era when we have everything we really need, in order to seek something further. Perhaps we need a bit of peace, in order to stop and look around for the crown!
THE GOAL of meditation is enlightenment (or Englishtenment as one of my dictionaries has it!). It is known as the ‘Amata‘. This term means ‘Deathless’, or even ‘Immortal’, though of course, there is no way you can live for ever. It is something in your experience that does not change. It does not arise, and it does not cease. Some Saints and Sages around the world have come to experience this Amata. And of that number, some have taught to others how they too can come to the same experience.
This is what we are doing. Note that this is not a sense experience. It is not an idea, not a belief. You don’t have to worship it, nor believe any words in a book to get some payback in the clouds after you die.
Further, most people who hear about it will not be interested. Buddhism was never supposed to be a mass religion. It was not supposed to be a set of rules for living. Buddhism is a collection of teachings given by the historical Indian Siddhartha Gotoma to some followers under the trees in India. They were following him to the Amata.
Unfortunately this often gets lost. A simple teaching gets turned into a ‘religion’. It’s is easier, after all, to spend years learning Pali, Sanskrit, and ancient suttas, than it is to come back to this simple stark practise. A religion gets born, and then a whole battery of practises and superstition arise.
SUPERSTITION is an action that at one time makes sense. Then later the original context no longer applies, but the action continues. For example – did you ever see a dog in the carpark take a poop? See how it kicks its back legs afterwards? In the undergrowth this makes a kind of sense. They are tidying up after themselves. But on a concrete car park??? It no longer makes sense.
Can you imagine the puppy dog asking it’s mum why they kick their legs?
“it’s bad luck if you don’t”
Here’s another example you will have seen in Bangkok recently. Did you see the soldiers out in the coup? They set up posts around the city, with their green camouflage suits and bunkers. Think about it. The green camouflage is supposed to make them invisible in the jungle. But now they are in the city. No one I know questioned it.
You might point out that in the city they are trying to draw attention to themselves, unlike in the jungle. True – but is it not really just a habit? Something they did for a good reason, but now the context has changed.
There are lots of examples of people dong things just because they were taught to. And most of them are found in religion!
We keep the goal in mind – this Amata experience. Then we can still undertake rites and rituals, but knowingly. For example bowing to the Buddha image. If you do it for luck, or to improve your business, you miss the point. But if you do it as a daily dedication – a physical reminder to yourself to keep in mind the qualities that the statue represents, then we call that Upaya, or ‘skillful means’.
The War in My Head
When you sit meditation, the first thing you find is not peace and bliss. It turns out that Freud was right! You find out that your mind is out of control. Many people don’t like this – it is not what they were expecting! But we are not here to make you relaxed. We don’t care about reducing your blood pressure. Meditation should be about what is real. We don’t want to return to you some artificial enforced state of happiness.
What you come to experience is that there is a war in your head and you didn’t know it! This should be interesting. Why is it that when I sit and say to myself, ‘watch the breathing’, the mind has other ideas?
Freud was the first psychologist to base a whole theory and therapy on the basis that the mind is out of control. He identified that we have warring drives – the drive for instant gratification, for long term benefit, for sex, for ideals or by conscience. Even though many schools of psychology have moved on from Freud (and he himself constantly evolved his theories), there is lots of research showing just such conflict.
So the first set of insights you get (and it can take a long time to learn) is that you are not in control of your thinking. The mind goes on according to Karma (which really means ‘habit’). Just the kind of things you have given attention and interest to in the past, will arise in your thinking mind during meditation. The goal is not so much to try and stop this process, but to be aware of it. Being aware of it brings about wisdom.
The next set of insights comes soon after. You notice that the mind wanders away from the meditation without you knowing it. Yes, you have an awareness of the topic you are thinking about, so you are not unaware. However you are lost in the topic and have forgotten your meditation object.
For instance you watch the breathing. Because it is a repetitive task, your mind quickly figures it knows what to do without bothering the conscious mind with it. This is a normal process. Just like when you are walking down the street, you are not conscious of your feet movements. Sure, if something goes wrong, then your attention can go to your feet. But generally you can be walking or running without knowing your foot movements consciously. Your subconscious can run this job for you. In fact it can do the job better than ‘you’ can!
That is why when you walk along a plank on the ground there is no problem. But if you walk along a plank high up, with a deathly plunge on either side, suddenly it is very difficult to walk the plank! That is because your ‘concsious’ mind is doing it.
Note when you are ‘concsious’ and when you are ‘lost’ in something. Draw a distinction. It does not seem like much to worry about, but this is the ‘door to the deathless’. There is no other door. It is returning the mind to a wakeful state. It is disentangling your mind from the engaged state.
Here’s a couple of technical terms for this – it really helps to have labels for these things.
‘Bhava‘ (transl. ‘becoming’ or ‘being’, but really implies ‘active engagement) means engagement with something – when you get lost in it. For instance, you are busy making a potato salad. You are in the kitchen talking to yourself about the ingredients. Your mind is fully engaged with the activity, and it certainly seems very ‘conscious’. But with mindfulness, you can see these action occurring. You can see decisions arise in the mind, and ‘hear’ the voice talking to you.
Humans spend practically all their time in Bhava. Or Kamma Bhava (intentional engagement).
The path to the Amata lies in the ‘knowing’, in not letting the mind get lost or engaged in something. You are starting to wake up. Knowing yourself, is waking up, which is the meaning of the word ‘buddha’.
Once you can really identify when you are ‘present’ and ‘mindful’ and when you are in Kamma Bhava, then you can separate the mind from the content of the mind. Recall earlier we reflected on the sense desires? Well now, you have desire to keep awake, but it is not feeding one of the sense pleasures. There is a difference. You can apply energy and effort, without getting caught in sense desires. The mind is separating from the content.
The next set of insights relates to ‘awareness of awareness’ – you don’t need a meditation object like the breathing. You only need to be knowing, awake, aware. Meditation is getting more and more simple. It is nothing complicated. Tricky, yes, but no some complicated thing that requires lots of foreign languages, chanting, special uniforms or haircuts!
TO FINISH off, lets look at how your relationship to the world around you changes – after all, what use is a meditation practise if it does not change you in some way? We are here to learn something new, to change our bad habits, and to venture into a new world that is better than the place we leave behind.
Once you can rest in just being still, there is a peace that arises. There is a kind of healing taking place. It is in fact, a kind of surrender – according to Indian philosophy there are various routes to God: Bhakti (devotion) Jnana (understanding) Hatha (balance) Karma (selflessness) and Raja (force of Will) – there are other lists, but this is good enough for now. All of these lead to ‘surrender’. In Buddhism this word ‘surrender’ is vosagga.
'The terms 'seclusion' (viveka), 'dispassion' (viraga), and 'cessation' (nirodha) may all be understood as referring to Nibbana. 'MA explains the word vosagga, rendered as 'relinquishment' has the 2 meanings of 'giving up' (pariccaga) i.e. the abandonment of defilements, and 'entering into' (pakkhandana), i.e. culminating in Nibbana.'
Note, is it not surrender to some idea of a deity (in the Buddhist method). It is simply surrendering. Stopping still and being present without launching the consciousness into any kind of Bhava (action).
People come upon this state sometimes by chance, by accident (drowning and recovery) drugs or other means and insights. Once you touch it, then you are on the path. Nothing else will do. Of course, you might veer off, lose interest or explore other teachings, but you will keep coming back to this niggling insight.
As a meditator we set the conditions for this insight. We deliberately nurture it as best we can.
From this new perspective it becomes very clear how we get caught in Samsara – this cycle of endless becoming – the mind ‘loses’ itself all the time. It never returns home. After all it is more comfortable to be ‘lost’ in something. That is why video games sell. That is why we engage in romance, movies, food, reading … humans love to be engaged. But once you have the other perspective you can see how the mind gets attracted by things, and then lost. This is the ‘Satisfaction’ in things. The Pali word is Asada (a saa da). The Buddha said that if it were not for this satisfaction in sense pleasures, people would not be lost in the cycle of samsara.
The insight however, reveals the opposite aspect – the danger, or the misery, of being hoeplessly lost in things all the time. Unless you have developed the happiness that comes from the surrender aspect – the stillness of the mind, then this aspect of danger/misery is not apparent.
Movement covers it up. Just like the body. It is in constant distress. That is why we all shuffle and adjust our posture all the time. When we adjust to a new position it feels nice. That’s the pleasure. But it is a movement that hides the inherent suffering of the body.
So from the insights coming from stillness, we can see the danger or misery – the Pali word is Adinava (aa din ava). In Thai it is pronounced aa-tee-nop.
The last part of this insight is the ‘escape’ or ‘refuge’ – in the Pali it is Nisarrana.
Escape sounds a bit, well, escapist. But in reality it is the understanding through experience that there is a different place to rest the mind, other than the constant movement, grasping, and daze of Kamma Bhava – of being constantly engaged in action through the senses.
It is a place of silence and brightness, that gives total confidence. It is no disputable. You don’t need fancy scriptures. You don’t need to eat certain foods. You don’t have to give someone a yellow bucket. Meditation gets more and more simple. The stark reality of experience is the guide. It is not easy, but it is very simple. And you don’t even need yoga pants!