|Forest Sangha Newsletter||April 1992|
We long for brightness of mind and brightness of the heart. These are attractive qualities that are sometimes difficult to find in contemplative life. Normally, of course, brightness and lightness of heart and clarity are associated with things that we can get high with - singing, dancing, dressing up to look attractive, or intellectual stimulation. Our renunciant life isn't so interesting; it doesn't have such powerful stimulation in it, so the mind can get really dull and dreary. Yet the brightness of the Buddha, the brightness of the awakened mind, is far more radiant than the brightness of the people in the advertisements on TV, or singing, dancing, looking glamorous or having brilliant ideas. We call the brightness of the awakened mind 'unconditioned' because it's not conditioned by the situation, experience, time, place, age, sickness, health and so on. The possibility of Buddhist practice is to experience a brightness, a radiance that's not just dependent upon circumstances and conditions.
This Dhamma and training is not based upon attachment to conditioned things but on the renunciation of hankering and longing for things in the world - for situations, for being influential, for having fine material things and so on. We put these aside. We may use such influence and possessions that we have skillfully, but we don't base our lives on them. However, the mind remains preoccupied with conditions because of our instinctive nature to seek objects, any objects: the fundamental conditioning process is of attachment to an object. When we have beautiful, pleasant things we feel beautiful and pleasant; interesting things, we feel interested; and so there is that instinctive movement towards some sort of object or another.
Mindful attention tends towards the unconditioned because it's not being conditioned by what we are doing or by the mood we're in. It operates independently...
When we meditate, we are inclining towards things that may be calm, but they are not necessarily bright. After a while, many of the meditation objects, such as the breath, seem rather dreary; at best, they give us calm, if we have fine concentration. The breath is something that we don't normally associate with as an object of attention; it doesn't have the graspable successes and pleasures that we can get out of thinking or doing things. Then again, the highs we can derive from activities are cut back in monastic life: much of one's training is in cultivating restraint with regards to activities and speech. We prune them, in order to use them upon what needs to be done, so that our energies are reined in and directed. We do this not because activities are by themselves harmful, but because we tend to attach to them. Then there is no unconditioned life in our responses, they are conditioned in worldly ways.
Going forth, the holy life, is essentially a life of faith in which we don't hold on. We give ourselves; we offer to serve, we go forth - and because of that, we are uplifted. We are willing to take up the training. We take up the burden of dependence. This is very important for development in the holy life. If that going forth and giving is not constantly remembered and refreshed, there is no uplift. We just lodge and gradually drift and flounder until we sink into a stagnant state or a whirlpool.
Whether sitting in meditation or chanting, or attending to the simple things that we do in the monastery, we try to keep that quality of trained attention clear. That's where we get brightness of mind. We can say that mindful attention tends towards the unconditioned because it's not being conditioned by what we are doing or by the mood we're in. It operates independently, entailing a rising up and an application - more through a positive attitude of mind than through a great deal of effort.
In the teaching on mindfulness of breathing - Anapanasati Sutta [Middle Length Sayings, 118]- the Buddha asks us to attend to what is conditioning the mind, then to steady the mind, so that the perceptions are not running out of control and we are able to notice what is in the mind. Then, from that, gladdening the mind, concentrating the mind, freeing the mind - this is the sequence.
So to brighten the mind, first of all, we have to really experience what is occupying and affecting it, not in a passive way whereby we just get dumped upon by the mind's moods but actually going forward to open up to some of the mind's kamma; the passions or the moodiness of it.
The Satipatthana Sutta [Long Discourses, 22] encourages us to know that the mind with greed is the mind with greed, the mind with fear is the mind with fear, the mind with joy is the mind with joy. This is insight. Being with greed is an accurate insightful description because the mind itself is not greed, hatred or delusion. The mind is not actually any object or state. The mind is by its nature bright, radiant, knowing. What we call 'mind' is the function of knowing and recognition. These are the fundamentals of mind. Greed is not mind, worry is not mind, fear is not mind - these are mind-objects or mind-states that visit and accompany mind when it is unfulfilled by awareness.
So the mind can be associated with these things, visited and pestered by them. It is only when we get right up close to them, putting aside the sadness, the hankering and the covetousness that comes from wanting to be or have a particular mind-state that we notice the knowing of these things. We can know the complaining of the mind.
This life, as we all know, is frustrating to our feelings and perceptions. We don't get what we want, things do not go according to our feelings and perceptions. And we can complain about it or feel dislocated by it, but actually, it must be that way. There is nothing really wrong, but it is this very rubbing against our feelings, perceptions and assumptions of what is convenient, comfortable or normal that brings us to realise the mind which is beyond feeling and perception. That is why we undertake this training - we can't just learn transcendence through an effort of the will. We have to train our whole life to work around to it: to do things independently of feelings and perceptions. In this way we find a mind that can operate independently of objects.
The Anapanasati Sutta talks about contemplating impermanence, dispassion, and cessation - cessation of the grasping that is the foundation of 'self'. In this teaching, freedom from conditions is based upon being able to understand, and witness conditions as impermanent, and to experience dispassion and the cessation of identification with them. Now when we are looking at the conditions of the mind - whether they are vigorous or dull - these three signs become very important. By applying them we realise the brightness that is the faculty of awareness independent of conditions. You could say that this brightness is right at the beginning of the Path, whether your mind is tranquil or not.
What obstructs this natural brightness of mind is the grasping at mind objects. When meditation seems to 'go well', when it's not just hours of backache and drivel, it gets to be really pleasing. Then there is tranquillity and some of the rapture - after many years of struggling with the gnashing of mental states, they settle down and the mind starts to purr - then you really want to hold the mind and stroke it forever.
This is when the defilements of insight arise - things like joy, happiness, determination, energy, and knowledge. These are called the defilements of insight - not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with them, but because of the tendency to hang onto them as objects. They are blameless objects, hard-won objects, but still objects. And on the other hand there are the times when you find your mind has to be full of unpleasing objects, like making decisions, figuring things out, resolving problems and soon. But all objects are impermanent things that that one has to recognise with dispassion: much as one would like to be some of them and have them forever, they are not self.
Another sign which is mentioned in the Anapanasati Sutta is abandonment. This abandonment is a cultivation of self-relinquishment, where, having dispelled the influence of the five hindrances, we can be equanimous with whatever mind-objects the world brings. We don't identify with, approve or reject mind-objects. This is different from the cultivation of tranquillity, which can lead to a sense of attachment to peaceful states of mind. With tranquillity you don't have complete freedom; there is always the possibility of being disturbed by things changing. And things are always changing - especially when you live a homeless life.
Living as a samana in relationship to the world, dependent upon and available to all kinds of people, means that there are a multitude of mind-objects coming in. So even without our own obsessive mind-objects there are other people and external situations to respond to. Then abandonment is the ability to relinquish that sense of distaste for mind-objects, the preference for some over others, or the need to create them.
So in insight we aim for the most complete freedom; and for this we cultivate the recognition of impermanence, dispassion, cessation, and abandonment. We cultivate those as modes of being, as ways to work with body-mind as it is now, with this experience. So we are feeling, rather than clinging to the quality of the feeling, be it pleasant or unpleasant, whether we approve of it or not. We focus in this way so that we can step back from the aversion or the fascination, and open our attitudes towards our experience.
These cultivations can bear great fruit in our life, as they bring about a kind of selflessness, a humility that makes us available to deal with whatever conditions come up. Not out of a sense of dogged duty but because we gradually realise that whenever we rise up to conditions we feel this sense of uplift. Even if it is just doing the washing up, we feel this definite movement in the mind - it is not just 'O.K.' or 'I can't get out of it' or even 'Well, I suppose I ought to', but a real inclination towards objects, an uplifting from the heart.
We find then that brightness can arise from any object. The mind can be trained to notice things that the ephemeral surface of things is flickering. It all seems intensely personal but actually covers a universal truth, a stillness that we can experience. Herein is the brilliance of the mind, released from the khandhas, from perceptions and feelings, and from the memories and habits that we assume constitute the 'real world'.
It is wonderful how the world changes when we move towards it. When we open awareness towards beings as they are rather than cling to our perceptions of personalities with desire, insecurity or jealousy, we see in people a universal quality. This is the awareness of 'Sangha', of that in humanity which inclines towards goodness, towards gentleness, and towards truth.
Initially as a meditator much of my drive in meditation practice was to want to get away from it all. But in training as a bhikkhu, strangely enough, there has been a going towards those very situations that bring up my instinctive wish to get away. And in going towards, in abandoning self, I found that I could go towards what is beautiful, to where the perceptions and the assumptions and the habits cease. There, a great sense of warmth, vibrancy and vitality arises. And with that, the whole situation changes.
During my last year at the Buddhist Society Summer School I found that I really enjoyed it, whereas when I first went there I used to dislike; all that chit chat, sitting around talking about Dante and Plato and drinking tea. I wanted to be doing the real practice - to be still, to sit up straight and lock into samadhi.
I used to go with Ajahn Sumedho, and I would get disappointed because he would be quite happy talking to people. He was totally at ease with it all, but I would be thinking, 'Oh, come on, let's get out, I'm restless, let's get into something serious.'
Then I discovered over the years of going forth to conditions that I lost that ugly feeling in the mind; and for the last couple of years I've really enjoyed it. I can now chat, drink tea, wander round looking at roses and flowers and feel totally at ease with it all.
It's because the most dependable brightness of the mind is not that of conditions but of the attitude that you bear towards conditions. The mind can go forward towards things, not out of greed but in the spirit of abandonment of one's views. Then I've found a kind of brightness and a lovely quality behind everything. All the conditions arise supported by and lead into an unconditioned, something that is always bright and beautiful in life.
So it seems to me that the experiences of contemplative life are a kind of test, because as you get through one experience, then sooner or later something comes up that you haven't quite resolved your feelings about. You think, 'Oh, I don't like that.' You think that the unpleasantness you experience is caused by people or things out there; and that it shouldn't be that way. After a while you begin to realise that the pain is because of your own perception and view.
The objects, the successes and failures are impermanent and can cease. Grasping can be abandoned. Life will always be unsatisfactory as long as one doesn't see the mind as distinct from its states, moods and feelings. And to see that one needs faith and the willingness to go towards objects, towards the negative; to embrace and even rejoice in the quality of being aware of the dreariness of mental states.
And you'll be surprised how that act of faith, that real going forth will melt these seemingly dense mind states that we become encumbered with.
So I offer this for your reflection.