previous page The Island ~ an excerpt next page

  From the preface to The Island:

What is presented here is an attempt by Ajahn Pasanno and myself to put together a small compendium of these ‘essence teachings’ of the Buddha, as they appear in the Pali Canon and have been conveyed by the lineages that rely upon them (the Thai forest tradition in particular), in the hope that they will be of benefit to those who rejoice in the liberation of the heart. All the other references that are made herein, whether drawing on Thai forest meditation masters, modern science, classical literature, Northern Buddhism or whatever, are made solely to help illustrate the meaning of the Pali – it is the faith of the editors that the Buddha’s words can speak for themselves and this work has been compiled with that intention.

~ Ajahn Amaro

The following excerpt has been adapted from Chapter 12:
Knowing, Emptiness and the Radiant Mind
By Ajahn Pasanno & Ajahn Amaro

There are a variety of terms used in Pali that refer to the quality of awareness or knowing; sometimes the particular usage is dependent on the coarseness or refinement of that state, sometimes it is indicating a particular attribute it has, and sometimes the choice of word seems solely stylistic.

The Buddha regularly employed a speaking style of setting forth a variety of terms and allowing the meaning to arise from the whole constellation. An obvious case in point comes in the Buddha’s first teaching, the Discourse on the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dhamma; herein he describes his awakening to each of the aspects of the Four Noble Truths with the words:

‘Vision arose, understanding arose, wisdom arose, knowing arose, light arose ...’ (Cakkhum udapadi, ñanam udapadi, pañña udapadi, vijja udapadi, aloko udapadi.)
~ Samyutta Nikaya 56.11
Where are you going?

Of these five terms, the middle three are most often used to refer to awareness, particularly in its transcendent mode. Having said this, one should also qualify the usage of the word ‘pañña’ (wisdom, discernment) – in many instances it refers more to a mundane quality of intelligence rather than to anything higher.

When it is conjoined with the adjective lokuttara (supramundane, transcendent), especially in the ancient Commentaries, it then automatically rises to the same level as ‘ñana’ and ‘vijja,’ together with another term not mentioned in this list, ‘añña’ – usually meaning the understanding gained by those who have realized enlightenment.

There are a number of other words and phrases which point to the same area of mind but which carry various other colourations of meaning; these are such words as sati (mindfulness), sampajañña (clear comprehension), appamada (heedfulness), paññacakkhu (the eye of wisdom), yoniso-manasikara (wise consideration), dhamma-vicaya (investigation of states of experience) and vimamsa (intelligent reviewing).

In the forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism, particularly as it has been practised in Thailand in the last hundred years or so, a great primacy has been given to the quality of awareness itself – it is seen as the sine qua non of both the path and the goal of the spiritual life.

Certainly, in the monastic life, considerable emphasis is given to purity and precision in ethical discipline, and the austere dhutanga practices are encouraged. For the lay community, a similar stress is placed on the need for moral integrity, as well as the practices of devotion and generosity. In Buddhist training, however, the development and practice of awareness is firmly at the centre of things for those who are intent on liberation. Numerous masters have emphasized repeatedly that it is this very quality, in its role at the core of insight meditation (vipassana), that frees the heart.

We have grouped these three qualities – knowing, emptiness and the radiant mind – together for this chapter as the environment of pure awareness is cultivated through a realization of emptiness, and then embodies that characteristic as a result of its perfection. Radiance is another of the principal qualities that manifests as that knowing is purified.

These three attributes weave through each other and are mutually reflective and supportive. In a way, they are like the fluidity, wetness and coolness of a glass of water: three qualities that are distinct yet inseparable. It is because of the inseparability of these three, and the continual overlapping of teachings referring to each of them, that they are being investigated together here. As the reader will discover, each of the passages lends itself to individual contemplation – contemplation that will slowly reveal many layers of meaning and interrelationship. Sometimes one teaching will seem to confirm another, at other times they might seem to contradict – this is the flavour of Buddha-Dhamma.

It is always up to the individual to take the teachings, apply them, bring them to life and then discover how they mesh via direct knowledge, rather than forcing them to align, in Procrustean conformity, with favoured presuppositions and habit patterns: ‘Is the mind empty or is it full of light? Is wisdom the light or the emptiness? Both? Neither?’ Ajahn Chah once said: ‘We call the mind empty but actually it’s full of wisdom, maybe that’s it!’

It’s never a matter of trying to figure it all out, rather we pick up these phrases and chew them over, taste them, digest them and let them energize us by virtue of their own nature.

The voyage
‘One who wishes to reach the Buddha-Dhamma must firstly be one who has faith or confidence as a foundation. We must understand the meaning of Buddha-Dhamma as follows:
‘Buddha: the One-Who-Knows (poo roo), the one who has purity, radiance and peace in the heart.
‘Dhamma: the characteristics of purity, radiance and peace which arise from morality, concentration and wisdom.

‘Therefore, one who is to reach the Buddha-Dhamma is one who cultivates and develops morality, concentration and wisdom within themselves.’
Heading towards the island
~ Ajahn Chah, Fragments of a Teaching in Food for the Heart pp 43–44

Buddha-wisdom is the ultimate subject; Dhamma is the ultimate object; the field of their interplay is supremely bright; all these elements are empty of self. Enlightenment, liberation, depends on the recognition of the radical separateness of awareness – ‘the one who knows’ as Ajahn Chah would phrase it – and the world of the five khandhas. Having said that, it’s also crucial to note that the phrase ‘the one who knows’ (‘poo roo’ in Thai) is a colloquialism that has different meanings in different contexts. It can be used (at one end of the spectrum) for ‘that which cognizes an object,’ to (at the other end) ‘supramundane wisdom.’ Most often it is used in simple concentration instructions, where the meditator separates awareness from the object and then focuses on the awareness. The separate awareness of full awakening is of a different order altogether.

A comparable model that Ajahn Chah often used to illustrate this area is that of the relationship of mindfulness (sati), clear comprehension (sampajañña) and wisdom (pañña) to each other. He would liken these three to the hand, the arm and the body respectively: sati, like the hand, is simply that which picks things up, cognizes them; sampajañña, like the arm that enables the hand to reach for the desired objects and move them around, refers to seeing an object in its context, seeing how the object relates to its surroundings; pañña, like the life source which is the body, is the seeing of things in terms of anicca-dukkha-anatta – uncertainty, unsatisfactoriness and not-self. The hand and the arm have their functions but without the body they are powerless.

Training the heart to rest in these various dimensions of knowing, and desisting from entanglement in any aspect of the khandhas, seems to be the central method of many teachers. For example:

‘The heart knowing the Dhamma of ultimate ease sees for sure that the khandhas are always stressful. The Dhamma stays as the Dhamma, the khandhas stay as the khandhas, that’s all.’
~ Ajahn Mun, The Ballad of Liberation from the Five Khandhas, ll 180–86
(Thanissaro Bhikkhu trans.)
‘When you see that Dhamma, you recover from mental unrest. The mind then won’t be attached to dualities. Just this much truth can end the game. Knowing not-knowing: that’s the method for the heart. Once we see through inconstancy, the mind-source stops creating issues. All that remains is the Primal Mind, true and unchanging. Knowing the mind-source brings release from all worry and error. If you go out to the mind-ends, you’re immediately wrong.’
~ ibid, ll 408–21

The relationship of this quality of awareness to the conditioned realm is embodied in Ajahn Chah’s analogy of oil and water, an image he used very often.

‘This is the way it is. You detach. You let go. Whenever there is any feeling of clinging, we detach from it, because we know that that very feeling is just as it is. It didn’t come along especially to annoy us. We might think that it did, but in truth it just is that way. If we start to think and consider it further, that, too, is just as it is. If we let go, then form is merely form, sound is merely sound, odour is merely odour, taste is merely taste, touch is merely touch and the heart is merely the heart. It’s similar to oil and water. If you put the two together in a bottle, they won’t mix because of the difference of their nature.

‘Oil and water are different in the same way that a wise person and an ignorant person are different. The Buddha lived with form, sound, odour, taste, touch and thought. He was an arahant (Enlightened One), so he turned away from rather than toward these things. He turned away and detached little by little since he understood that the heart is just the heart and thought is just thought. He didn’t confuse and mix them together.

‘The heart is just the heart; thoughts and feelings are just thoughts and feelings. Let things be just as they are! Let form be just form, let sound be just sound, let thought be just thought. Why should we bother to attach to them? If we think and feel in this way, then there is detachment and separateness. Our thoughts and feelings will be on one side and our heart will be on the other. Just like oil and water – they are in the same bottle but they are separate.’
~ Ajahn Chah, The Training of the Heart in Food for the Heart, pp 157–8 (adapted)

Upasika Kee Nanayon was another of the great teachers of the 20th century in Thailand. She was distinguished not only by her incisive wisdom but also by her uncompromising approach to Dhamma practice and teaching. She describes the quality of awareness as:

‘An inward-staying unentangled knowing, all outward-going knowing cast aside.’
~ Upasika Kee Nanayon, An Unentangled Knowing, p 33, (Thanissaro Bhikkhu trans.)

In the employment of such terms as ‘the one who knows,’ it is important to understand that this is a colloquial usage and in no sense is some kind of ‘true self’ or ‘super-entity’ implied – it’s merely a convenient figure of speech. If we start looking for ‘who’ it is that is aware we rapidly end up in a tangle.

When we speak or think about the quality of awareness there is also a subtle danger of the mind trying to cast it into the form of some kind of immaterial thing or process. The word ‘awareness’ is an abstract noun, and we get so used to relating to ordinary objects through conceptualizing about them that we allow the habit to overflow; thus we can end up conceiving awareness in the same way. The heart can be aware but to try to make awareness an object, in the same way that we would a tree or a thought, is a frustrating process. Ajahn Chah’s most common phrase in warning against this was to say:

‘You’re riding on a horse and asking, “Where’s the horse?”’
~ Ajahn Chah, in Venerable Father, Paul Breiter, p 154

Or Ajahn Sumedho’s favourite:

‘Just like the question “Can you see your own eyes?” Nobody can see their own eyes. I can see your eyes but I can’t see my eyes. I’m sitting right here, I’ve got two eyes and I can’t see them. But you can see my eyes. But there’s no need for me to see my eyes because I can see! It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? If I started saying “Why can’t I see my own eyes?” you’d think “Ajahn Sumedho’s really weird, isn’t he!” Looking in a mirror you can see a reflection, but that’s not your eyes, it’s a reflection of your eyes. There’s no way that I’ve been able to look and see my own eyes. But then it’s not necessary to see your own eyes. It’s not necessary to know who it is that knows – because there’s knowing.’
~ Ajahn Sumedho, What is the Citta?, Forest Sangha Newsletter, Oct. ’88

This very type of error is the reason why it’s perhaps wiser to use a term such as ‘knowing’ instead of ‘transcendent wisdom’ or ‘awareness.’ As a gerund it is a ‘verb-noun,’ thus lending to it a more accurate quality of immanence, activity and non-thingness. The process of Awakening not only breaks down subject/object relationships, as we have already discussed, it also breaks down the very formulation of ‘things,’ in order to speak more accurately of ‘events being known in consciousness.’ Some years ago Buckminster Fuller published a book entitled ‘I Seem to Be a Verb’; more recently, and more expansively, Rabbi David Cooper published ‘God is a Verb’ – both of these being attempts to counteract the flood-tide of formulation of reality as ‘things’ that the untrained, conditioned mind is prone to generating.

To round things off, here are some words of Ajahn Chah that encompass some of these themes.

‘About this mind ... in truth there is nothing really wrong with it. It is intrinsically pure. Within itself it’s already peaceful. That the mind is not peaceful these days is because it follows moods. The real mind doesn’t have anything to it, it is simply (an aspect of) Nature. It becomes peaceful or agitated because moods deceive it. The untrained mind is stupid. Sense impressions come and trick it into happiness, suffering, gladness and sorrow, but the mind’s true nature is none of those things. That gladness or sadness is not the mind, but only a mood coming to deceive us. The untrained mind gets lost and follows these things, it forgets itself. Then we think that it is we who are upset or at ease or whatever.

‘But really this mind of ours is already unmoving and peaceful... really peaceful! Just like a leaf which is still as long as no wind blows. If a wind comes up the leaf flutters. The fluttering is due to the wind – the ‘fluttering’ is due to those sense impressions; the mind follows them. If it doesn’t follow them, it doesn’t ‘flutter.’ If we know fully the true nature of sense impressions we will be unmoved.
‘Our practice is simply to see the Original Mind. We must train the mind to know those sense impressions, and not get lost in them; to make it peaceful. Just this is the aim of all this difficult practice we put ourselves through.’
~ Ajahn Chah, Food for the Heart, p 41 §
previous page
next page

©The Forest Sangha Newsletter |  site map |  privacy statementcontact us | back to top