The Sutra on the Four
Establishments of Mindfulness
- Mindfulness Of Body and Feelings.
© Thich Nhat Hanh
Today is the 19th of February and we are in the New Hamlet. We are studying the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. We know that the practice of awareness of the body and the mind is a very important one. Being aware of the whole body, and calming the functions of the body, is a very important practice in the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, because we know there are four breathings related to the body.
Breathing in and breathing out, recognising the length of the breathing, we are aware of the whole body and calming the body. In Pali, the word for whole body is Sarvakaya; it means all the parts of the body. Therefore, "being aware of the whole body", means first of all that we are aware of our body as a collection of different parts. Secondly, we are aware of the different parts of our body. We are aware of the different parts of the body separately. When we study the Four Establishments of Mindfulness we see this more clearly.
We are aware of our body when we stand, walk, sit and lie down. When we perform actions with our body, when we look deeply at the different parts of our body, we see that the basis of our body is the four elements--earth, water, fire and air. We see the nine stages of the dissolution of the body after the death of the body. When we are aware of our body, when we embrace and look deeply into our body, we can have insight. That insight is the insight of impermanence, no self and interbeing. The insight is that this body is not me. We should not be attached to this body and identify ourselves with this body, because if we do, we shall make ourselves suffer.
When we understand that, we can see that the practice in Plum Village follows the teachings of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness Sutra; whether we stand, walk, sit, lie down, or work, we are now practising the things the Buddha taught us in the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. All the exercises in the book of guided meditation, Blooming of a Lotus, are all intended for us to practice seriously the things which the Buddha taught in the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness and the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing.
Therefore, the last two breathings of the body--that is, the third and fourth breathings--are being aware of the functions of the body and calming the functions of the body. When we read the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness we understand more clearly what this means. We now know how we can be aware of the functions of our body and how we can calm the functions of our body.
In the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Buddha doesn’t go into detail teaching us to look deeply into the interbeing nature of our body, and the different things which make our body come into being, and the 32 parts of the body. However, the exercises in the third and fourth breathings, are meant to teach us to do that, when we talk about being aware of the body’s functions and calming the body’s functions. When we are able to take hold of our body in mindfulness, we begin to master our mind, and our body becomes one with us.
If the practice of mindfulness is still weak, our body is like a wild buffalo. Therefore, mindfulness is the herdsman and our mind is the wild buffalo. The buffalo trainer comes to the buffalo, and with the practice of mindfulness, the buffalo trainer gets to know the buffalo. After that, the buffalo trainer can sit or lie on the back of the buffalo. That is the image of the Ten Buffalo Training paintings: mastering the buffalo. At first, the buffalo is a separate entity from the one who masters the buffalo. Gradually, the buffalo trainer and the buffalo become one. And in the end the buffalo trainer is sitting on the back of the buffalo and singing. He can lie on the back of the buffalo and the buffalo can go wherever he likes. But if we are not able to master our body, it is very difficult to master our mind. Therefore, the practice of the Four Establishments begins with looking, observing the body in the body, taking hold of the breathing as we are in any position--sitting, standing, walking, taking hold of our body by mindfulness when we are bending down, when we are straightening up, when we are walking forward, and when walking backwards. It is a very important practice to be able to see the different parts of the body, smile to them, enjoy ourselves with them, to be able to see the different elements which make up the body.
There are people who say "when I practice, I just practice with my mind". This is because they have not yet understood what practice means. When you practice, you have to practice with your body. Your body is the object of your practice. We know that when we are not able to grasp firmly our steps and our breathing, we are not able to grasp our mental activities. Therefore, to be able to take hold of our steps and take hold of our breathing is to be able to take hold of and understand our mind. Then we will become the buffalo, and the buffalo will become us.
Therefore the Buddha often teaches us that his teachings are to master body and mind. We have to follow correctly the method of mastery, and then we can make peace with our body and with our mind. Once there was a horse trainer who had practiced for a while with the Buddha. One day at tea meditation, the Buddha asked him, "How do you master horses, how do you train them? Please tell me." And the horse trainer said, "Some horses like sweet things and so I give them what is sweet to eat; and there are some horses that like salty food and needed to be firm with, so I use strong methods. And with some horses you need to use both the sweet and the strong, there are three different ways." The Buddha smiled, and he said, "In the case that there is a horse to which you have applied these three methods already and have not been successful, what do you do? What if spoiling them doesn’t help and being strong with them doesn’t help, either?"
The horse trainer said, "In that case, I kill the horse. Because if I leave him in the herd with the other horses, he will influence the other horses, and that is dangerous." The horse trainer turned to the Buddha, and he said, "Lord Buddha, what do you do, how do you master your disciples? Because I see that in your community there are disciples who are easy to teach, and there are those who are difficult."
The Buddha replied, "I do the same as you do. There are disciples who I can be successful with by being sweet to them, and there are disciples who I need to be strong with, and there are disciples who need both."
Then the horse trainer said, "What if you are not successful with those three methods? What do you do with the disciple then?" The world-honoured one said, "I do the same as you." Then the horse trainer said, "What do you mean by that?" And the Buddha said, "That means I kill that disciple." "But, Lord Buddha, you practice the precept of no killing. How can you kill your disciple?"
The Buddha said, "Killing doesn’t mean killing with a sword. It means not allowing them to stay in the community anymore. If they cannot stay in the community, they cannot live their life as a monk or a nun, they are finished. So if having used the methods of being sweet and being strong, and being both sweet and strong, we are not successful, we have to ask the disciple to leave the community." And then the horse trainer understood what the Buddha meant by the word kill here. If you cannot be in the Sanghakaya anymore, if we have to leave the Sanghakaya, our life as a monk or a nun, our ideal as a monk or a nun, cannot be realised, and that is equivalent to being dead.
Naturally, in the Sanghakaya, there is compassion, love, and care. There is embracing, and the Sangha practices inclusiveness, not asking people to leave. But if the Sangha has done everything it can, and the monk or the nun has not done their best, then there is no other method but to ask them to leave. However, the energy of the Buddha and the Sangha is very great. According to the experience of the Buddha, if you can tame the most difficult horse, it will become a very good horse, the best horse.
It is the same with elephants. If you can tame an elephant, then that elephant will be able to go to war and do very well. So good elephant trainers and good horse trainers know what to do. Sometimes they have to use iron, sometimes they have to use a hammer, but that is not to punish the horse. It is to break the habit energy of the horse or of the elephant from when they were in the forest. With skillfulness, with lightness and with spoiling, the trainer can also master that elephant or that horse. Once they have been mastered, they will become very important elements in the Sangha.
If the horse trainer is determined, he will be patient and he will use all his methods in order to master this horse. To master does not mean to punish. It means to help that horse leave aside its wild habit energies.
It does not mean that the horse trainer is cruel when he has to use the hammer sometimes. The important thing for the horse trainer is not discipline, the important thing is patience, love and compassion. Wherever there is patience, there is love. If we are lacking in patience, then our love is not very solid yet. So as far as a difficult horse is concerned, we need more time for it. And when we are successful, that success will be very great. According to the Buddha, if we have patience, then we will be successful in nearly everything.
The Bamboo Forest master had many disciples. His best disciple was Phap Loa who was the second patriarch of the Bamboo Forest School. There was another disciple called Bao Phac, who was very loved by the Bamboo Forest master. Master Bao Phac was the teacher of the princess Nguyen Tran. He helped her to become a nun and to practice. Bao Phac was also often the attendant of the Bamboo Forest master, and he was there on the night when the Bamboo Forest master passed away.
The night when the Bamboo Forest master passed away on the mountain, there were only a couple of monks present. One was call Dharma Lamp, and the Bamboo Forest master told Dharma Lamp to go and find Master Bao Phac, because he knew he might not survive the night. When master Bao Phac was about to go, he had to cross a stream. But there had been a big storm, so he couldn’t cross the stream. He had to spend the night by the stream. Only when the water went down the next day could he cross and arrive in the Sleeping Clouds Hermitage. When he arrived, the Bamboo Forest master was still alive. Master Bao Phac was asked, "Why did you come late?"
And he said to Bamboo Forest master, "Because, the stream was so high I couldn’t cross." Then the Bamboo Forest master said, "If you have anything to ask, then ask it."
Master Bao Phac was the attendant of the Bamboo Forest master that night, and in the middle of the night, the Bamboo Forest master wanted to look out at the sky. That is what he wanted most of all--to look at the sky with the moon and the stars. Master Bao Phac opened the door of the Sleeping Clouds Hermitage, and when he opened the door, Bamboo Forest master looked and saw the sky with so many stars, and he asked, "What is the time?" Master Bao Phac said, "It is the midnight hour." Then the Bamboo Forest master said, "Then it is the time I have to go." Master Bao Phac asked, "Where are you going, late at night like this? Where do you want to go?" And the Bamboo Forest Master said, "All things are without birth; all things are without death. If you are able to understand this, all the Buddhas of the three times are with you. Nothing is born; nothing dies. If you can see that, then all the Buddhas are present before you, not coming from anywhere and not going anywhere." This means we go, but we don’t really go and we don’t really come. And having said that, he passed into nirvana. So Bao Phac was alongside the Bamboo Forest master when he passed into nirvana, and he was a very precious disciple--a loved disciple--of the Bamboo Forest master.
Tue Trung Tuong Si was the master of Tran Yung Tong. Bao Phac wrote a gatha for Tran Yung Tong, and this gatha shows he was already a monk of deep understanding. (Thay read this gatha in Chinese) This gatha was written in a book by Master Bao Phac to praise Tue Trung. The first two words mean 'the Vulture Peak', the next word means 'a person'. It means that the eminent master had made the ear of the Buddha his own, because here Vulture Peak means the Buddha. It means that the eminent master Tue Trung had been able to listen to and understand the Buddha--had the ear of the Buddha. The first word in the second line means, to swallow. "Ho" means Indian, the Chinese refer to Indian people as "ho". "Noh" means no hair on your head, and that means Bodhidharma, the Indian who had no hair. "Ti" means brain, to be able to eat the brain of Bodhidharma, Tue Trung was able to swallow the brain of Bodhidharma.
Tue Trung had the opportunity to have the ear of the Buddha and he was able to swallow the brain of Bodhidharma. That is the praising gatha of Master Bao Phac. The next line says after he had eaten until he was full, he handed it on to his descendants. When he was able to receive this very nourishing food, all the foxes were able to turn into lions. So animals like the fox they become lions. This is to praise Master Tue Trung. He has the ear of the Buddha and is able to swallow the brain of Bodhidharma. And he was full with theses things he gave them to his descendants, so that the foxes are able to become lions.
When he had the opportunity, in his own way, he would be silent or speak. He would speak out or be silent when the time was right. He knew whether he should speak out or be silent. The moon smiles in the autumn river. This is how I translated it into Vietnamese. If anybody wants to translate it again, they can:
The ear of the Buddha he holds in his palm
The brain of Bodhidharma he chews in his mouth
When he is full, he hands it on to his descendants
The foxes turn into lions straight away.
He speaks or is silent according to the
The reflection of the moon fills the autumn river
I like this gatha because of the foxes becoming lions. Thanks to the Dharma and the Vinaya of the Buddha, all the wild horses and the mad elephants can become very valuable elements. And if we have the ears of the Buddha, and the brain of Bodhidharma, then we are able to transform difficult situations; we don’t give up. If we have heavy habit energies, bad habit energies, we make destructive things in our family, in our daily life, we should not give up. We should not lose our faith. With the teachings of the Buddha, with the precepts, the Vinaya of the Buddha, if we take refuge, if we receive, accept and turn back in order to submit ourselves to these teachings, we will become a Dharma instrument of the Buddha, without fear. That is the meaning of the foxes become lions.
Among the Jataka Tales of the Buddha--that is stories of the former lives of the Buddha--there is a story which I read when I was a young child, and which moved me deeply. That is when the Buddha was a yaksha, in the Hell Realms, and the king of the Hell Realms was mistreating him. And then he saw the guardian of the Hell Realms mistreating another person, and in his heart, there was a feeling of compassion. He looked up and he said, "Why are you beating him? Why are you stabbing him? Why are you mistreating him like that?" And then the yaksha of the Hell Realms took a knife and stabbed the spirit that was the Buddha. So we see that that spirit, when the Buddha himself was a yaksha in Hell Realms, he had compassion for the other people in the Hell Realms who were being mistreated. He was not afraid to speak out, and so his life changed, and he was able to go out always in an upward direction, because as a yaksha in the Hell Realms he had hit the bottom. He could not go any lower.
I read that story when I was young, and I liked it very much. When we come to the very bottom, the very deepest place of suffering, we can still go up and up until becoming a fully awakened Buddha. Holding the Buddhas ear in his hand, chewing the brain of Bodhidharma in his mouth, he is able to hand this on to his descendants, and the foxes turn into lions.
The Buddha taught Master Rahula, the child and the disciple of the Buddha, very carefully. There was one day when Master Rahula was only seven or eight years old; he was afraid of being punished so he told a lie to Sariputra. And the Buddha said that to tell a lie is to break the precepts. The reason he told the lie was that he was afraid of being reprimanded, but once he told one lie, he had to tell another, because you have to find a way to hide what you have done. And so the Buddha once called Rahula to him, and he said to Rahula, "Bring a basin of water to me to wash my feet."
The Buddha did not wash his feet, but he took the basin of water and he poured almost all the water out leaving behind only a quarter of it. Then the Buddha said, "Rahula, someone who tells a lie loses all their wholesome roots." Then he turned the basin completely upside-down, and he said to Rahula, "Do you see that there is not another drop of water in this basin?" And then the Buddha said, "If we tell lies--we break the precepts--then there are no more good roots left in us, just as there is no water left in this basin. So even for fun, you should never tell a lie." After that Rahula didn’t tell any more lies, and he became one of the highest disciples of the Buddha.
The Buddha taught his disciples very carefully like that. When we are loved by our teacher and have our teacher’s trust, then we are happy, when we see our brothers and sisters we are very happy. Even though we have many favorable conditions, if our brothers and sisters do not have trust in us and our teacher does not have trust in us, then we cannot be happy. Because our brothers and sisters want to have faith in us, our teacher wants to have faith in us, but because we have not been careful, we have lost that faith, and we have to regain it in whatever way we can. When we have regained it, we will be happy again. Everybody in the Sangha knows that we feel very happy when we have the faith and trust of our brothers and sisters.
I don’t know about other places, but here, the Sangha is prepared to support and show love to us. And if we try for 20 days, we can reconstruct what we have destroyed, and we can regain the faith and trust of the Sangha. We have to earn that trust by our practice.
How does the practitioner remain established in the observation of the feelings in the feelings? Now we are in the field of the feelings. Whenever the practitioner has a pleasant feeling, he is aware: "I am experiencing a pleasant feeling." The practitioner practices like this for all the feelings whether they are pleasant, painful or neutral, observing when they belong to the body and when they belong to the mind. When there is a painful feeling, we know there is a painful
feeling. When there is a neutral feeling, we know there is a neutral feeling. Neutral is neither painful nor pleasant.
These three kinds of feelings can belong either to the material or to the spiritual--that is, either to the body or the mind. This means that a feeling can be physical or mental. It can be a pleasant feeling, a happy feeling, a pleasant physical feeling or, if it’s a pleasant feeling in the mind, we call it a pleasant mental feeling. And when we have feelings of pain, discomfort or neutral feelings, we should recognize whether they belong to the body or whether they belong to the mind.
There is something which we should remember regarding neutral feelings. Both in the Sutra and in the Sastra, the commentaries, the ancestral teachers say the painful, unpleasant feelings are easier to recognize than the neutral feelings. But in fact, neutral feelings are also easy to recognize. They are not suffering feelings and they are not happy feelings. And I have taught already that in us there is a river of feelings, and every drop of water in that river is either a suffering feeling or a happy feeling or a neutral feeling. Sometimes we have a neutral feeling and we could think we don’t have a feeling at all. But a neutral feeling is a feeling; it doesn’t mean the non-existence of feeling. Just as when we have a toothache, we have a feeling of pain, and when the toothache is no longer there, we think we don’t have a feeling anymore. But in fact when we don’t have a toothache, we have a neutral feeling. It is not a painful feeling, so it must be either a neutral feeling or a pleasant feeling. The feeling which manifests when we don’t have a toothache, we can call either a neutral feeling or a pleasant feeling. Actually, it can be a pleasant feeling. When we have a very strong toothache, we really wish that this toothache would stop. And we know that if we have a feeling once the toothache stopped, that would be very pleasant. So the thing we want here is a pleasant feeling; that is the end of the toothache. Therefore, a non-toothache is a pleasant feeling. To call it a neutral feeling is okay. It’s also correct to call it a pleasant feeling. In Plum Village, we usually say someone who practices mindfulness can change all neutral feelings into pleasant feelings. And in fact neutral feelings are the majority of our feelings.
For example: A father and son are sitting on the lawn in the spring. And the father is practicing mindful breathing, and he sees, How wonderful it is to sit on the lawn with the yellow flowers coming up, the birds singing, feeling fresh and happy, so he has pleasant feelings. But the child is bored. Therefore, he doesn’t want to sit with his father; he is in exactly the same environment as his father. The child has a neutral feeling to begin with, and at one point, that neutral feeling becomes an unpleasant feeling, a feeling of boredom, because he doesn’t know how to deal with this neutral feeling, therefore the neutral feeling becomes an unpleasant feeling. So he stands up and runs in the house to turn on the television. But his father is feeling very content sitting in that environment. That environment was not able to bring happiness to the son. Therefore, his neutral feeling became an unpleasant feeling, and then he wanted to run away from his unpleasant feeling. So he went into the house to turn on the television.
We are the same. When we don’t have a pleasant feeling and don’t have an unpleasant feeling, naturally we have a neutral feeling. But if we don’t know how to deal with or manage our neutral feeling, it will turn into an unpleasant feeling. However, if we know how to manage it, it will become a pleasant feeling. A pleasant feeling means a feeling of well being. When we have a very bad toothache, we will do anything to change that toothache feeling into a non-toothache feeling. And the non-toothache feeling would not be a neutral feeling in that case. Therefore, we should know that every neutral feeling, when held in mindfulness, will become a pleasant feeling.
As far as I am concerned, dwelling happily in the present moment is the most important practice. If we are skillful and clever, all of these neutral feelings will be turned into pleasant feelings--the birds singing, the flowers opening, the blue sky, and the eyes of a lover shining. Do not be disinherited and always going looking, searching for things. Come home and receive your heritage. To come home and receive your heritage means to light up the lamp of mindfulness so that the happiness and joy around you can nourish you. We only need to practice dwelling happily in the present moment and we have enough resources to benefit others. If we can live 24 hours a day in peace and happiness. We can do this anywhere, wherever we are.
Today we can live in happiness if we apply the practice of dwelling peacefully and happily in the present moment. We can say in the language of a merchant, that we have to have capital for ourselves, and then we can bring about profit for others as well. So when we have a neutral feeling, a pleasant or an unpleasant feeling, we need to use mindfulness to shine light on it. Because our mindfulness will embrace that feeling and we’ll be able to find out the basis of that feeling. In the Sutra it says we have to look deeply to see where our feeling comes from. Does it come from our body or from our mind? Whether it’s a pleasant or a painful feeling or a neutral feeling, they all have their foundation--their physical foundation, their psychological foundation or their sociological foundation. And when can look into our feeling we should be able to see the foundation, physical, psychological, or sociological. Looking further, we see what the conditions are which have given rise to this feeling. Naturally, this feeling could come from our physiology, from our psychology or our society. But if it did not have favorable conditions, this feeling would not have arisen.
So we have to look into the conditioned arising of a feeling and see the impermanent nature of our feeling. Even if it is a pleasant feeling, we should see its impermanence. And when we have seen the impermanent nature of this pleasant feeling, we will not be attached or caught in it. We will say, "Here is a pleasant feeling, but this pleasant feeling is impermanent." We should also be aware of the impermanence of an unpleasant feeling so as to not be caught in it. If it is an unpleasant feeling, we should see the physical, the psychological or the sociological root of this feeling--see the conditions which have given rise to this feeling. We say that this feeling is impermanent; and therefore, we are not attached to it. It’s only a feeling, and all feelings are impermanent. So do not be a slave to a feeling, because it will pass. If we know how to practice, we will be able to transform that feeling so we are not caught in it and we are not averse to it. It is the same with a pleasant feeling: we are not caught in it and we are not averse to that pleasant feeling. When we are eating a tangerine, we see that it is sweet and tasty, and we have a pleasant feeling, but we know that that pleasant feeling is impermanent. So if we have a tangerine, that is good, but if there is not a tangerine, it doesn’t matter. We can have pleasant feelings as we eat a tangerine, and we can have pleasant feelings when we are not eating a tangerine. So we are not caught in the pleasant feeling arising from eating a tangerine. We should not be afraid of pleasant feelings. Being afraid that, "Oh, today I have a tangerine to eat, but I don’t know. Tomorrow, will I have a tangerine?" If we have that kind of fear, then we are already caught in the pleasant feelings.
Some people say that you should not eat a tangerine if it gives you a pleasant feeling; you should be afraid of that pleasant feeling because it will make you suffer. We have to avoid both of these attitudes—not daring to have a pleasant feeling on the one hand, and being caught in a pleasant feeling on the other hand. On the one hand, we are caught in our pleasant feeling and on the other hand, we are afraid of our pleasant feeling. It is the same as far as unpleasant feelings are concerned,. On the one hand we are caught in our painful feeling, and on the other hand we are afraid of our painful feelings. We have to let go of both of these attitudes in order to be free. There are people who are attached to unpleasant feelings, maybe intentionally. When we see we are angry, sad or missing someone, we feel happy to have those kinds of feelings. That means we are caught in an unpleasant feeling. We look in order to see the impermanent nature of feelings, the interbeing nature of feelings, in order not to be caught in our feelings and not running away from our feelings. Then we are not afraid.
And that is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the feelings in the feelings, observation of the feelings from inside of the feelings or outside of the feelings. This means we look at our own feelings, but we can also look at the feelings of others. We look at our feelings in our feelings, and we look at our feelings and the conditions which have led to our feelings, whether those conditions are near or far, whether they come from our body, our mind, or our society. In the observation of the feelings from both the inside and the outside, the practitioner remains established in the observation of the process of coming to be of the feelings, of the process of dissolution in the feelings-- or both in the process of coming to be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, "There is a feeling here. Here is a feeling." That is what I call 'mere recognition'. The Sutra doesn’t use this term, but this is what it means--mere recognition. It means we are not caught in it and we’re not pushing it away. Or he is mindful that there is a feeling here, until understanding and full awareness come about. He just recognizes; he doesn’t go any further, so as to be caught or to push away that feeling. And so he remains established in the observation free, not caught up in any worldly consideration. That is the most important thing—the freedom of the practitioner--freedom as far as feelings are concerned, freedom as far as pleasant feelings are concerned. We are not caught in it, we are not afraid of it. If we look with clear vision, we will not be caught in a pleasant feeling; and we have the right to transform that feeling.
As far as the other is concerned, the other person may not see how wonderful this thing is; they may have a neutral feeling. But we are able to change that neutral feeling into a pleasant feeling. We breathe one time; we look at the blue sky. Others may feel this is not exciting, nothing very special, but for us it can become a very nourishing, pleasant feeling.
So to have the energy of mindfulness is very important. And the best thing is that we can keep our freedom whatever kind of feelings we have--neutral, pleasant, or unpleasant, we keep our feeling. That is how the practitioner remains established in the observation free--not caught up in any worldly consideration. He is mindful of the fact there is a feeling here. There is just a feeling here. We shouldn’t give too much importance to a feeling; we shouldn’t die because of a feeling. It is only a feeling. Why should it make us so afraid? Why should it make us so agitated? Why should it make us so infatuated? So he remains established in the observation free, not caught up in any worldly consideration. This is the most valuable thing for a practitioner--to keep our freedom. We cannot compare this freedom to anything else. It is the most valuable thing of a practitioner.
This section is also in the part which talks about the body. It also uses the same words. This is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the body in the body--observation of the body from the inside of the body or outside of the body, or observation of the body from both the inside and the outside. We can see within our body and we can also see outside of our body. That is, we can see the earth, the fire, the air and the water within our body and we can also see them outside our body. The practitioner remains established in the observation of the process of coming to be in the body and the process of dissolution in the body, or both the process of coming to be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, "Here is body," until understanding and full awareness come about. He remains established in the observation free, not caught up in any worldly consideration.
The monks learn this by heart, and they understand it and they bring it into their daily life. This practice is to nourish our freedom and to protect our freedom, because that freedom is the foundation of our happiness. That freedom is liberation--muksha. When we have a strong emotion like despair, fear, and hatred--these emotions burn us like flames of fire, and we think we will die. We cannot bear it. Like when there is a big storm blowing past, the trees feel and the grasses feel they will be blown down. When you have a great emotion, which shakes you, you suffer infinitely. That is an unpleasant feeling.
Look at the trunk of the tree, standing in the storm. If you look up at the top of the tree, you see the branches and the leaves tossing back and forth, and you know that at any moment they could be broken and fall. When we have a strong emotion, we are like a tree in a big storm. We think that maybe the best thing for us would be to die, and that would put an end to our painful feeling. Many young people commit suicide because they do not know how to deal with their feelings. They throw themselves under a train or into a river, or they take a gun and shoot into their heart, because they have no other method for dealing with those strong emotions than putting an end to their life.
I heard that the number of people who killed themselves in Europe--especially young people--is more than people who die from car accidents. Therefore we have to practice the method of grasping firmly, managing and dealing with our feelings, and share this with young people because there are young people who are in the storm of feelings. They tremble and suffer so much that they cannot continue to live. They think that the only way to put an end to their pain is to kill themselves.
The method of the Buddha is like this. We say, "This is only a feeling--only an emotion." Any emotion is impermanent: it comes, it endures and it passes. When we can see the impermanent nature of our emotion, then we are free. Pleasant feelings are the same; neutral feelings are the same. Whether because of body, society, or mind the storm has come. So we have to look at our feeling outside of our feeling. How has our body come about? How has our mind come about? What are the things outside of us, which have made this feeling, come about? That is what looking at our feelings from the inside and looking at our feelings from the outside means. We practice according to this in order to be able to see the conditions near and far which have given rise to them; and also to be able to say, "This is only a feeling."
Or he is mindful of the fact, "Here is feeling"; here is an emotion. So that feeling does not sweep him away or he doesn’t become a slave of that feeling. Because we are not only a feeling; we are much more than our feelings or emotions. Our emotions are only a small part of us, so why should we die because of that feeling? That feeling is born and exists with us for some time, so why should we die because of it? We should prepare our body and our mind so that when strong emotions come, we know how to deal with them. If we cannot bear it, it’s because we have not really practiced. We have not really undertaken the necessary training in the practice.
The method of Plum Village is that whenever we look at a tree, which is swaying around in the wind, we should not be too attentive to the top of the tree. Bring your eyes down to the trunk of the tree, and you feel more secure. Because when we look at the trunk of the tree, we see that it is being held by roots which go down very deep; it is very solid. And we feel differently; we feel the tree will be all right. But if we look up at the branches, we feel that they can be broken at any time.
Our person is the same as far as our body and our mind--we have roots going down deep. If we just look at our emotions, we feel very feeble, frail. But if we can come back to our roots, we will no longer be the victims of the storm. This solid part of our body is below our navel. When we feel a very strong emotion, we shouldn’t dwell in the area of our brain or our heart. We should not sway around in our thinking or our feeling. When we have a strong emotion, we should bring our attention down below our navel and dwell in that place. We should breathe in and breathe out, being aware of the rising and falling of our abdomen. Sitting, we are aware of our abdomen rising. Sitting, we are aware of our abdomen falling. We practice like this because the abdomen is the root of our body. At the same time, it is the root of our mind. The root of our mind is not the mind consciousness, but the deeper levels of the store consciousness.
So we should not allow this feeling to blow us around from on top. Instead we should come down to the trunk of our being, which is lower down. If we know how to sit solidly for 15 minutes, breathing in and out, and being aware of the rising and falling of the abdomen, that emotion will pass. We will be able to live again. We will smile and be able to say, "It was just a storm. And I was skilful in that storm, I was able to return to my root."
However if we drift around in our brain and feelings, we will die. Every storm has an eye. If we are swept into the eye of the storm, we shall die. We should not be in the center of the storm. We should breathe and go down into our body. We know that we have freedom; we have solidity; we have the energy of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas in us. This teaching on returning to the island of one’s self is very good. When we have agitation in body or mind, when we feel that we are frail and we can easily be broken, we have to take refuge in the island of ourselves.
The Buddha is mindfulness, shining light near and far. The Dharma is the breathing, guarding body and mind. Sangha is the five skandhas working together harmoniously. We have to take refuge in the Three Jewels, and then we are protected. If we allow ourselves to drift around on the surface of our thinking and our feeling, then we will die. We have to come back down into our body and take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life. I take refuge in the Dharma, the way of understanding and love. I take refuge in the Sangha, the community that lives in mindfulness. Every day, we practice taking refuge in these three so that whenever we feel suffering, isolation or loneliness we can return to that. I, in my life, have been through many storms, and I have always used this method. Because of that, no harm has come to me. These very strong emotions from our mind, from our feelings, like despair, cannot touch us because they are impermanent. They have their root, whether physiological, psychological or sociological. But in our body, we have the point below our navel. In our society, we have the Sangha. And in our mind, we have the practice. Therefore, there is nothing for us to fear.
That is the method to deal with the storms of life--a method called sitting in the lotus position and breathing into your abdomen. This method has saved many people. You only need to breathe 20 minutes or 30 minutes, and the storm will pass. You can continue as normal after that. But don’t wait until the storm comes to practice, because if you do, you won’t remember to practice, and you will die. You will be swept away. You should practice every day one time--20 or 30 minutes. If you can practice for 21 days, the practice will become natural. Then when the storm arises, you will have faith in the practice and you will be able to sit and practice without fear of being swept away. Your faith in the method of practice will be very solid once you see that it works. The more you practice it and it works, the more faith you will have.
If you have a niece, a nephew, a brother or sister, you can help them by saying: "Sit down with me. Give me your hand. See how you breathe in and your abdomen rises; you breathe out and your abdomen falls. Don’t be aware your feelings or your thoughts." Maybe that younger person’s mindfulness is not as strong as ours is but the strength of our mindfulness will help them, and after five or ten minutes they will be able to smile.
Let us sit together, mother and child, and breathe together. We should teach the child maybe two or three times. Then that young person will no longer do like the other young people who killed themselves when they have strong emotions. The reason they killed themselves is because they don’t know how to deal with their feelings. Therefore, we have to grasp firmly the practice in order to help people around us, especially the young people.
Therefore, this acupuncture-point below the navel is very important. We should know that this is the place where you can be rescued. You should return to that place. To practice taking refuge in the island of yourself every day is very precious. In sitting meditation or in walking meditation--you should practice this. When the waves of the ocean are very big, you should practice this. Especially we should know that our Sangha is the boat, the raft, the lifeboat. If we lose our Sangha, it would be a great misfortune in our life. By being with the Sangha, we have that security for our life. So we need our Sangha, we need our point below the navel, and we need our practice every day.
Today is the 22nd of February and we are in the Upper Hamlet.
We only have one more week left in this winter retreat. We are studying the sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, and we have just finished the section on mindfulness of the feelings in the feelings. Today we will study mindfulness of the mind and mental formations. We should know how to use the sutra on the four establishments of mindfulness. We should also remember that this sutra goes with the sutra on breathing like image and shadow; one helps the other. Being aware of the feelings in the feelings has four breathings in the Anapanasati Sutta. The first of these four breathings is experiencing the feeling of joy. The second is experiencing the feeling of happiness, the third is experiencing whatever feeling happens to be present, and the fourth is calming whatever feeling happens to be present. The fourth breathing reads "calming the mental formations". But here mental formations means feelings.
These four breathings can be divided into two parts. The first part is practicing nourishing our body and our mind with joy, awareness of joy and awareness of happiness; and the second part is embracing and healing and transforming the feelings of suffering. A practitioner needs to know how to nourish himself or herself with feelings of joy and happiness. We know that if we want to be nourished with happiness and joy, we need to be aware of those conditions which are favorable for our happiness and joy. When we can recognize these conditions which lead to happiness in our life of practice, then joy and happiness will arrive. Every day we should nourish ourselves with joy and happiness, if not, how can we go far on the path of practice? We must nourish ourselves with peace and joy. A day without peace and joy is a day without practice, and it is a betrayal of ourselves, of our ancestors and of our descendants. There should be no day without joy and happiness. The way to joy and happiness is to recognize the elements which are fresh, wholesome and wonderful in us and around us.
The second part is being aware of the mental formations. Mental formations here means "feelings". We should be aware of any feeling which arises. Joyful feelings, feelings of peace and happiness and feelings of pain and suffering. We should be aware of these unpleasant feelings; we should recognize them and embrace them. Recognizing and embracing them will show us their basis. Then we calm this feeling so that it doesn’t destroy us or oppress us. The practitioner knows how to do this. When we have an emotion of sadness, which leads to a feeling of pain, then we should know how to recognize it, embrace it, and calm it. If you don’t know how to do that, then you are not a real practitioner. You should ask your teacher and your sangha to help you do this. In the sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness it says very clearly that there can be awareness of joy in the body and awareness of joy in the mind. Awareness of happiness can be the awareness of spiritual happiness or it can be the awareness of physical happiness. Both of these can nourish us. Happiness in Pali is sukha, which means literally well-being. Well-being means a state where there is no suffering. It does not mean excitement or a great emotional happiness. Often we call the feeling of well-being a neutral feeling, but it can also lead to happiness and joy.
This mental formation, this feeling, which we have to be aware of, could be neutral, could be painful, could be pleasant, could belong to our body, could belong to our mind, to our spirit. We have to recognize all of them and call them by their true names. "Ah, hello, I know you are a physical feeling of well-being. I know you are a mental feeling of ill-being. I know you are a physical pleasant feeling. I know you are a mental pleasant feeling. I am here. I am ready to embrace and acknowledge you." And we are able to embrace this feeling and help it to be calm. We don’t need only to calm our unpleasant feelings. We need to calm our pleasant feelings, because our pleasant feelings can destroy us as well. If you go in search of sensual pleasures, that is a way of destroying yourself. So you need to calm your pleasant feelings as well as your unpleasant feelings.
When we recognize a feeling we don’t try to push it away or struggle with it or oppress it. Why? Because that unpleasant feeling or that pleasant feeling is yourself, and if you oppress it, if you discriminate against it, if you beat it, then you are being violent towards yourself. There is only one thing to do: recognize it and accept the truth, that this is an unpleasant feeling. This is an unpleasant feeling coming from my body; this is an unpleasant feeling coming from my mind. We should know whether this unpleasant feeling comes from our body or whether it comes from our consciousness. Sometimes we say it comes from our society, from our environment. But our consciousness, our perception, plays a very important role. Our environment can make us suffer or not, depending on our perception of our environment. Some people in the same environment will be smiling while we are suffering a lot. So most of our suffering comes from our perceptions. We could say that this suffering comes from our environment or from our society, but we should be aware that it largely comes from ourselves. Then we have to accept our feeling like a little brother or sister, or a little child. If our little brother or sister is suffering, or a child is suffering, we have to accept and embrace and help them get better. We have to recognize that this feeling is my little sister, is my child. Don’t say, "I’ve nothing to do with you. You’re not my child." When we can accept it, then our suffering will lessen by eighty percent. Only when we cannot accept it do we suffer a lot. Once we can accept it, then we suffer much less. When some sickness appears in us, our suffering is very great, because we cannot accept it. We say, "Oh no, I cannot accept that I am very sick." But when we can embrace it and accept it we will suffer much less. Our feeling will be only twenty percent of what it was. So we embrace the suffering in order to heal it. Once we have accepted it, it won’t harm us any more, and we will suffer less.
So we have looked at being aware of the body in the body, and being aware of the feelings in the feelings, and now we are looking at the section on being aware of the mind in the mind. How does the practitioner remain established in the observation of the mind in the mind? When his mind is desiring, the practitioner is aware, my mind is desiring. When his mind is not desiring, he is aware, my mind is not desiring. Desiring here is raga, which means attachment or craving. In the Dharmalaksana School, a school of Buddhist psychology, there are eighty dharmas and fifty-one objects of mind. This school studies the sign, the outer form of dharmas. Other schools are more interested in the inner nature, the basic nature of all dharmas as emptiness. So these different schools either talk about the nature aspect (svabhava) or about the phenomenal aspect (laksana) of dharmas. The Dharmalaksana School emphasizes more the phenomenal aspect. We will talk more about dharmas, objects of mind, when we study the fourth section of this sutra.
So when you have craving, when your mind is craving, you know you have craving in your mind. You recognize the presence of the mental formation which is called craving. When we don’t have this mental formation, we also recognize that the mental formation of craving isn’t there. When we recognize that it isn’t there, we have a feeling of happiness, because we know that whenever we have craving, we are being burnt as by fire. We are agitated. We go around in circles. We lose our freedom. So when we see within ourselves that the mental condition of craving isn’t there, we know we have the condition for happiness. Once we recognize the condition of no craving within us, then we have happiness. This is a wonderful method. No craving means that happiness is there. Sometimes we say "no craving" and we think that nothing is there. But in fact there is something there. There is freedom there, and when there is freedom there is happiness. There is no anger. The absence of anger means the presence of happiness, of compassion. The absence of anger is joy, just as the presence of love is joy, because these things make us happy.
So we should not be overwhelmed by normal ways of speaking. When we take something away, something else is there. When night isn’t there, day is there. When day is there, we are very happy. When day isn’t there, it doesn’t just mean there is no day; it means there is night. Night is wonderful too, because we can look at the stars and the moon, and be reminded of nirvana. Nirvana means extinction, extinction of affliction. Extinction of affliction means the presence of things which are not afflictions. It means that we have in us happiness in us. Joy and equanimity are there. In India there is a wonderful mountain, and people make caves in the mountain. They don’t have to build with stone and cement. They can just remove stones to make caves in the mountain. It’s the same with our awakening and our happiness. In order to have them we have to remove things which we don’t really need. We just need to remove our craving and our anger, and we will have so much happiness. Don’t think if I take it away there won’t be anything left. For example, we were talking to a young person, a young man. "Do you know anything about mathematics? I will remove your ignorance about mathematics." I will teach you mathematics but we speak of it as removing ignorance about mathematics. That is what the language means.
The spirit of Buddhism is like that. Awakening, liberation, are available, but they are obscured. We have to remove the thing which obscures them and they will manifest. When we read the sutras we see that. The sutras talk about removing the obstacles and not replacing them. But in fact when we remove the obstacles something is there which replaces them. In both these sutras we deal with feelings. In the second section of the sutra on the four establishments of mindfulness, we dealt just with feelings. They are the elemental formations. In this third section, we deal with all the other mental formations. The four establishments of mindfulness can be divided like this. The first establishment is the body. The second establishment is feelings. The third establishment is mental formations. And the fourth is perceptions. But feelings and perceptions are also two of the fifty one mental formations, leaving the forty-nine others grouped under the third establishment, of mental formations in general.
When we are practicing mindfulness we recognize, for example, that there is a mental formation of craving which has just arisen. We say, "Here is a mental formation of craving which has just arisen." Or we say it has already arisen and is operating in us. And we recognize it and accept it because it is us. It is a part of us. We are not going to fight against it, we are not going to hate it, because it is a part of us. This is a method of non-violence, which comes from the principle of non-duality. We are one with the mental formation. The mental formation is not our enemy. It is ourself and it is our duty to look after it. Many people think that meditation is a war, a struggle between good and bad, between the Buddha and Mara. But in the light of interbeing, rubbish makes flowers and flowers make rubbish. There is affliction and there is bodhi. Bodhi is not the enemy of affliction. Affliction is not the enemy of bodhi. If we don’t know how to look after our awakened nature it will become affliction. If we know how to look after our afflictions they will become awakened nature. That is what is meant by saying afflictions are the bodhi nature, are awakened nature.
The teachings of Buddhism are based on non-duality. When we have the insight of non-duality we will look into rubbish and not be afraid. "You are a rubbish bin. I am going to look after you." There’s nothing to be afraid of. This kind of acceptance helps us to suffer much less. And we say, "Ah yes, this rubbish is an inheritance from my parents, my ancestors; it is not my enemy. All I have to do is help it transform, and when I can transform it, it will make the life of my parents and my ancestors beautiful as well. It is something that my parents and ancestors were not able to do, and so now I can do it for them." So we do not feel ashamed. We suffer a little or we suffer not at all. Many times it’s as if we are gardening and we find a lot of rubbish and we put it in one place in the garden and then we look after it; we water it and it turns into earth. So we have to be like a good gardener. When we see rubbish we look after it, to turn it into compost.
This is the way we face our garbage, our rubbish. When there is craving, we see that this craving can come from our body, or it can come from our perception, or it could be an inheritance from our ancestors. And we have to accept this inheritance. We are aware of it, and we have to transform it. In the list of wholesome mental formations, the first one is alobha, meaning the absence of desiring. We all have this mental formation. We only just have to remove the mental formation of craving and the other one will be there, and we will feel very close to the Buddha. We will feel light, we will feel free. So there are wholesome and unwholesome mental formations. He is aware in the same way concerning a mind which is hating, a mind which is confused.
Unwholesome afflictions, afflictions
which bring suffering, which take away our peace and make us agitated, are called
klesha in Sanskrit. There are six basic afflictions and twenty secondary afflictions.
The first six are like the source. They are craving, hatred and anger, ignorance,
suspicion, views and pride. If you take the ray of light, a laser beam, and
shine it on to ignorance, the ignorance will dissolve. That is the laser beam
of understanding. Our wrong views, our suspicion, our pride -- they all contain
ignorance. So the important thing is to break up the ignorance with the light
of understanding, and then the affliction will transform. Mindfulness is the
energy which gives rise to the ray of light. Shine it on ignorance and affliction,
and they will dissolve.
He is aware in the same way concerning a hating mind, a confused mind, a collected mind, a dispersed mind, an expansive mind, a narrow mind, the highest mind, a concentrated and a liberated mind. Some masters explain the narrow mind as the mind which is attached to the realm of desire. They say when we are attached to the realm of desire, our mind is very small. There is no beauty. These teachers explain the highest mind as the mind which has distanced itself from the field of desires and come to the formless realm, but that is just a way of explaining. Many times, we see we have fallen low. There are days when we feel that our mind is small and narrow, we have not the capacity to love and to accept. We blame. We are angry. That is because our mind is narrow. But also, there are days when we can love everyone; we can accept everyone and feel light. We see we are our brother, our sister. We see we are the meditation student who has come to visit us, and that is the highest mind. If there is a highest mind, there must be a lowest mind. We have to recognize our mind. Today my mind is a low mind, a dull mind. We should see why our mind is like that today. We find the causes, whether they come from our body, from our mind. Sometimes we only have to sit next to someone and the highest mind is born. When we feel the highest mind is there, we feel happy, we feel well.
In The Sutra On The Full Awareness Of Breathing the Buddha gives four breathings for the mind. I breathe in and I’m aware of my mind; that is being aware of the activities of my mind. Then the Buddha teaches how to brighten these mental formations, how to make them happy, to gladden our mind, to gladden our mental formations. When there is a mental formation which is wholesome, we have gladness, we can have the warmth of the light of mindfulness to make that happiness greater. We embrace that with our mindfulness and our happiness increases, gladdening our mind more. So if our mind has a negative mental formation we shouldn’t just lie there and die because of it. We should not shrink inside of ourselves and allow ourselves to be oppressed by it. We shouldn't allow ourselves to be caught, to be crushed by it, we have to recognize it and then ask a sister or a brother to help us embrace and transform that mental formation.
The Buddha taught many ways to accomplish this. The first way is to "change the peg." When we have a negative mental formation of depression, sadness, despair, worry, craving, we know that this mental formation will bring us down. We should not leave it like that. We have Dharma doors given to us by the Buddha telling us what we can do. We can do this with the support of our brothers and sisters. The first method of changing the peg is like watching the television. If there is a very bad program, we shouldn’t just sit there and bear it; we should press the button to change the channel. And if all the channels have bad programs, we should turn off the television and do walking meditation. But in fact this television is in our mind, in our alaya consciousness, and we don’t actually press the button. We are a victim of the films that our alaya consciousness is showing us, so we change the peg. Everything in your store consciousness is there, you have everything, so why don’t you invite something up from there to gladden your mind? That is the way of changing the peg.
In England when we see our friend is worrying, when we think that our friend is caught in his worry, we say "A penny for your thoughts." We mean, "What are you thinking about?" We mean that we want our friend to get out of his thoughts. When you’re thinking this or thinking that, you’re looking at that particular channel, that particular film. "A penny for your thoughts" is a bell of mindfulness. When you see that your friend is caught in their thoughts, like in a trap, you can help them by saying "A penny for your thought. A penny for your feeling. A penny for your mental formation." We don’t want to know the secrets of that person’s mind. We’re not trying to find something out. We just see that that person is caught in their mental formations. So we come and say, "What are you thinking? Why don’t you do walking meditation with me?" You can use the expression "A penny for your feelings" to help each other. Or you can find another equivalent expression to help a friend in the practice to get out of that situation. And they will say, "Okay, I will get out of it. I will practice with you so that my mind is gladdened again."
What a waste, when the sun is shining, the weather is beautiful, to be caught in this mental formation. If a mental formation is very strong and we cannot change the peg, then we have to embrace it, to transform it, we cannot forget it. Maybe it disappears for a few minutes and then it reappears. For instance we invite up something outside, but it is soon replaced by our strong mental formation. All we can do then is to embrace, do walking meditation, and ask a brother or sister to help us with their energy of mindfulness, so we have more strength to embrace and deal with that mental formation. If we have a friend in the practice who has more energy, that person can do this for us. We should ask each other for help. We all have moments when we are low, and sometimes we need someone else whose energy is high to help us. Maybe a monk or a nun who’s only just been ordained has freshness, is able to do that. In the sutras this is called concentrating our mind, collecting our mind. We embrace our mental formation. Rather than pushing it outside we say, "Come here. I will look after you." Our mind and our body are fully concentrated on helping this mental formation, seeing what the reasons are, far and near, for it's existence. We cannot run away from it. This is the third breathing, awareness of our mind in the mind.
The fourth is breathing is liberating the mind which follows naturally after concentrating the mind. Again, there are many methods. A younger sister who just became a nun three or four months ago wrote to me about her practice. She had a boyfriend in the past, and whenever he was angry he would go outside and water the flowers in the garden and then he would go and buy ice cream. Sometimes when they were sitting together he didn’t dare to look at her. There came a time when she saw that she was attached. In the ordination ceremony she knew her father, her brother and her boyfriend were sitting in the congregation. She could see them in her mind’s eye but she did not dare to look at them. She knew that she was leaving them behind in order to become a nun. She saw clearly that if after becoming a nun she was to become attached again she would be betraying the people she had already left behind in order to be ordained as a nun. This insight which stayed with her for a couple of hours enabled her to let go of her attachment. I think somebody only twenty years old who has been able to look deeply and see that is already doing very well. We see that the person we love is in our heart and we see that we are going on the path, but we have to leave behind our loved ones, and if in our practice we get caught again, we get attached to somebody else, then we are not worthy of being a monk or a nun. To see that is already bringing us happiness.
We all have these elements of betrayal, and if we know how to use them, we can release ourselves very easily. How many people have supported us in our lives? Our ancestors, our family, our teachers, friends and many others. If we allow ourselves to be attached and caught, we are betraying all those who have supported us on our way to becoming a monk or a nun. So to be liberated is not something far in the future but is something we can do now by looking deeply. This younger sister did this on her own. If it had been more difficult she could have asked one of her sisters, but she didn’t need to do that. Some moments after she looked deeply and saw like that, she felt light in herself.
This is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the mind in the mind, the observation from inside of the mind or outside of the mind or the observation of the mind from both inside and outside. This means we embrace that mental formation and we look into it to see its basis. We call it by its name. This is craving, this is anger, this is pride, this is suspicion. Who do we doubt? We doubt ourselves. We doubt our teacher. We doubt people in the Sangha. We doubt the Dharma. We have to call doubt by its name, look into it, look deeply into it and look deeply outside of it. If we look into it, we will see outside of it. There is nothing which does not have its source and its release. This mental formation can come from our physiology, from our consciousness, from our mind, from old seeds, from our environment or our society. When we can see the underlying causes of that mental formation we know that it’s only natural for such a mental formation to be there. If our mind has been formed like that, quite naturally that mental formation will be there. We shall see: "If I had known how to look after my physical body, then this mental formation would not have arisen". If we eat too much, we give rise to feelings of craving, so eating with moderation is a method of practice. If we eat little in the evening and do not eat or drink things which excite us, that is not because we are being fussy about food. When we look from the outside of the mental formation we will discover the inner content of the formation. And if we look into the inner content we will find the causes outside for it.
The practitioner dwells established in the observation of the mind in the mind, observation of the mind from the inside or the outside. He remains established in the observation of the process of coming to be in the mind, and the process of dissolution in the mind, or both in the process of coming to be and the process of dissolution. We see how this mental formation has arisen, why it has arisen, and how it can be ended. Or, we see that thanks to my brother saying this, I have this mental formation. So we remember that the next time the mental formation arises, we will use the method of practice to be able to deal with it and then it will not arise any more. Or he is mindful of the fact, here is a mental formation, until understanding and full awareness come about. This is the bare attention, the mere recognition aspect. We call it by its true name. We do not condemn it, we do not hate it, we do not crave it, because sometimes we are caught as far as our wholesome mental activities are concerned, we are caught in them also. Our feelings, our pleasant feelings will catch us. If we are angry and there is a great deal of ignorance in our anger, someone may say to us: "You are wrong to be angry, the person you are angry with never did what you thought he did." You may see that your anger is completely unjust. But that does not mean to say that you can let go of it straight away. You are listening to music which is sentimental and over emotional, but even though you know this, you don’t dare to turn it off, you don’t want to turn it off, because you’re caught in it, caught in the suffering it brings you. Not only are you caught in things which are called pleasant feelings, you are also caught in what are called unpleasant feelings.
Whenever a mental formation arises, it exists and then it ends. There is a process. We have to respect that process. We are angry; we have been shown that the anger has no basis, but we still can’t smile. The other person says, "Smile, your anger is deluded!" but anger has already arisen; it can’t suddenly disappear. It takes time to come to an end, as with a fan. You say, "It’s very windy in here; turn off the fan." But after you have turned off the switch, the fan will continue to turn. The important thing is to remove the base of nutriment for our anger. When we have a feeling of anger or sadness, if we can see its roots, it may continue a little bit, but it won’t continue very long. And it doesn’t matter if it continues a bit because the root has been cut off and in two days it will have disappeared. With mere recognition that there is a mental formation here, until understanding and full awareness comes about, he remains established in the observation, free, not caught up in any worldly consideration. This is how to practice observation of the mind in the mind. When we read the sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness we remember that the Buddha has taught us to practice these four breathings and we take the light of these teachings to shine on the teachings on the four establishments of mindfulness, and then it’s very clear.
Now we go on to the fourth and last establishment, observing objects of mind in the objects of mind. Objects of mind are also called dharmas, and dharmas here means the objects of our mind. As far as perception is concerned we have eyes and the object of eyes is form. When form and eyes come together then there will be sight. With ears and sound, hearing. Nose, odor. Tongue, taste. Body, touch. With the mind, the object of mind is dharmas, objects of mind. There is sight, hearing, sense of smell, taste, sense of touch, and consciousness -- mind consciousness or thinking. So dharma here means the object of mind. The five sense consciousnesses -- eye consciousness, ear consciousness, etc. -- can operate separately but they can also operate in combination with mind consciousness. Sometimes when we look we can see, but we do not put our mind into it, and that is the eye consciousness working independently. When we are aware of what we are looking at, we have eye consciousness which is in combination with mind consciousness. For example, on our bicycle we may be thinking of the homework we have to do. Soon we have to give our homework to our teacher, so we are thinking about that. In that moment our eyes are keeping us from bumping into anything as we ride the bicycle, although our mind is somewhere else.
The mind consciousness also can work independently. If we are dreaming, for instance, our five other sense consciousnesses are not in operation. During a dream, our mind consciousness is working on its own, relying not on the sense perceptions but on information which exists in deeper levels of consciousness. When we are doing sitting meditation we can also use our mind consciousness alone. Or when we are doing mathematics, or when we are writing, we just use our mind consciousness.
If we imagine our mind consciousness as a circle, our five sense consciousnesses would be circles inscribed on its circumference. The circumference of the circle of mind consciousness would cut through each of the five sense consciousness circles, dividing the part of the sense consciousness which works independently from the part which works together with the mind consciousness. So when the mind consciousness works together with one of the five sense consciousnesses, the eye for example, that is represented by the part of the eye consciousness circle lying within the circumference of the mind consciousness circle. Just as our thoughts are dharmas, so also images, sounds, or other sense objects can be objects of mind, or dharmas. Form can be an object of mind. Scent can be an object of mind. Touch can be an object of mind.
Dharmas can be taken from the alaya consciousness or from outside. Mind consciousness can take its information through the five doors of our sense consciousness, as in our daily life. For instance we are walking on the road and we meet someone. We stop and think, "When did I meet that person? What’s that person’s name?" At that point the image of that person goes through our eyes and we are trying to look into our file to see how long ago that image was there before. We bring the two images together, compare them. So at every moment we are bringing together what comes from within and without. How do we know that a cat is a cat? Because there is a cat outside of us but also there is the image of a cat within us. And we know this is called a cat because we have the information of cat within us which helps us to identify the signal of the cat outside. The field of operation of the mind is very wide. All dharmas are there; all objects of mind exist because they come through the doors of the five senses or from information which is stored in our consciousness. All these things can be called dharmas.
When we discriminate the four establishments of mindfulness -- body, feelings, mind, objects of mind -- we see four different establishments. But in fact, even body is an object of mind; if we look deeply at the body in the body, it becomes an object of the mind. When we are looking at feelings, then feelings are the object of mind. When we are observing mind or mental formations, they become objects of our mind. Therefore, this division into four establishments is just to help us in our learning how to practice mindfulness. All these things, all establishments of mindfulness, are in fact objects of mind. A monk once asked how mind can be an object of mind. I said if we take our two fingers and rub them together, then the body is in touch with the body. The mind is the same. When we look into our body, our body is the object of our mind. When we look into form, form is the object of our mind. When we look into mental formations, the mental formations are also the object of our mind. So we see that the field of objects of mind is very great.
The fourth establishment of mindfulness, observing dharmas in dharmas, that is looking at objects of mind in objects of mind, is looking at an infinite field of perception, samjna. The word dharma here does not refer to the teachings the Buddha gave; it refers to phenomena, things. These phenomena can be physiological or psychological or physical. We can have a perception of the leaf, of the bell, of brothers, of sisters, a perception of our anger...all these perceptions are objects of mind. But all these perceptions can be erroneous. We have to look deeply to go beyond their erroneous nature. That is the aim of the fourth section, looking deeply into dharmas in dharmas. How does the practitioner remain established in the observation of the objects of mind in the objects of mind? First of all he observes the objects of mind in the objects of mind with regard to the five hindrances. When sensual desire is present in him he is aware. (The term objects of mind is used here, instead of dharmas. Hindrances are nivarana in Sanskrit.) Sensual desire is the first hindrance. The second is hatred and anger. Then dullness, then agitation, then doubt. These are the five obstacles. If these obstacles are not removed our looking deeply will not be deep and will not be successful.
Once we are attached with sensual desire we cannot do anything. Day and night it follows us. So we need to look into that attachment. Why should we, morning, noon, and night, have to be thinking about that thing? Someone who has not been able to overcome sensual desire cannot succeed at meditation practice. Therefore you have to look into the object of mind, which is the object of your sensual desire and see that in that object there is danger, hardship, and toxins which can destroy our beginner’s mind and take away our peace and joy. We cannot sit still, we cannot walk, we cannot breathe, because sensual attachment is following us. So we have to recognize first of all the object of our sensual attachment. By reading the sutras, listening to the teachings, and looking deeply into the dangers and hardships of our sensual attachment, we can uproot it.
When there is no sensual desire, he is aware there is no sensual desire. Someone who has had sensual desire and has suffered because of sensual desire, has taken all that suffering upon themselves. When they no longer have sensual desire, they feel this is the most wonderful situation of lightness. Our suffering because of our sensual desire has passed, and that is very beneficial. We only have to think of the time when we were caught in sensual desire to know the value of having no sensual desire. Look around you and you see people who are caught in sensual desire. You see how much they suffer. Once sensual desire begins to arise, he is aware of it. You have to say, "Yes, there you are, arising. Then I shall look after you." You will be in danger if you don’t know how to deal with sensual desire. When already arisen sensual desire is abandoned he is aware of it. How is he aware of it? How is he able to abandon it? Whenever it arises, he uses the methods of mere recognition and embracing to abandon it.
When sensual desire already abandoned will not arise again in the future, he is aware of it. Someone who has suffered, and has had direct experience of sensual desire, sees that sensual desire no longer attracts him in the least, and so he knows that this sensual desire will no longer arise. Those of you who are vegetarian may know that in the past, you thought certain dishes with meat were very tasty. If you couldn’t have had them it would have been difficult. But now, having been vegetarian for a long time, we look at others eating meat and we feel sorry for them and we wonder how we could ever have wanted to eat meat ourselves. We know clearly that we have lost the capacity to put meat in our mouths and eat it. We see how we were caught in sensual desire in the past. Now we have seen its basis and we know it will never catch us again.
He also practices like that with hatred and anger. Somebody who has hatred and anger cannot practice. So when we want to practice, we have to be able to remove our hatred and anger. Anger comes from our body as well as our mind. Compassion and love help us see the suffering of anger and hatred in another person, and our understanding is able to remove that hatred and anger. If we continue to carry anger and hatred in us we cannot do sitting meditation, we cannot do walking meditation, because they are still there.
The next hindrance is dullness and drowsiness. There are people who are always drowsy, but not because they don’t sleep enough. Some people’s drowsiness is a reaction because in the past their practice drove them beyond their abilities. So they developed the habit of falling asleep when they did sitting meditation. Now as soon as they sit down they begin to fall asleep. Or they close their eyes and dullness immediately comes. They may have slept six hours the night before, but still when they do sitting meditation they fall asleep. When we go to the different Zen centers we will see many people who do that. We have to find the reasons in our body and in our mind which have given rise to these habits. The body is trying to find a way to react because in the past it has been forced. It may take some people many months to learn again how to meditate, to transform this habit of falling asleep.
When we do sitting meditation we need a method to help our meditation to become very interesting. Meditation can be very interesting, we need a program of sitting meditation so we know what we are going to do. After we have brought our body and mind together for a few minutes and we feel peace and joy, we each have to know what exercise we are going to use. We have to know what we are going to look deeply at. If there is some problem that we need to resolve, we have to use our sitting meditation to do this. We also have to look at how we eat and drink. We eat and drink in such a way that our body is not heavy. In the meditation center they do everything they can to help us not to be sleepy. Sometimes they even use a stick. They come and stand before you and they place the rod on your shoulder, like a bell of mindfulness to help us wake up. Would you like us to have a rod to use in sitting meditation? While we are practicing looking deeply it is sometimes good to have that. When we practice walking meditation slowly, or less slowly, that is to help us not fall asleep in sitting meditation, since our blood circulates more when we walk than when we sit. We don’t make it too hot in the meditation hall, or too humid. We use the bell. There are so many things to help us deal with our sleepiness.
One of the difficulties of Plum Village in the summer is that people come who haven’t seen each other for a long time. So they stay up late at night talking and then their sitting meditation is not successful. Either they don’t come to sitting meditation because they haven’t slept enough, or when they do come, they fall asleep. When we chant the sutras we don’t feel sleepy, but we do feel sleepy when we do sitting meditation. That is why some people just like to chant the sutra and not do sitting meditation. But the sutra says not to be like a corpse when you do sitting meditation, because what good is that to the Dharma or to yourself? The important thing is that in our sitting meditation we have something to meditate on. In a Dharma discussion we can talk about dullness and learn from others what they do when they feel drowsy. The traditional way to practice when we feel drowsy is to bring our awareness up to the point of our nose and follow our breathing from there.
The next hindrance is agitation and remorse. There are two words here, agitation and remorse. We are not peaceful as we sit. We feel we want to stand up and walk around. The traditional way to practice with agitation and remorse is to bring our awareness and our breathing down to the navel, and that way we shall feel peaceful. Regret means we feel a guilt complex, if we have a guilt complex, we cannot do sitting meditation. We have to remove our guilt complex. We have to write to the other person; we have to resolve our conflict with the other person so that the guilt is no longer there. If the other person has passed away, we have to resolve the conflict with that person who is within us. We have to begin anew with that person in us and promise to that person that we will not treat anybody in that way again. Then quite naturally our guilt and regret will disappear. In our life we are clumsy. Sometimes unintentionally we make people suffer, and then regret follows us. If we do not have a method to transform that regret we cannot do sitting meditation. We cannot practice meditation.
Finally there is doubt. If we have doubt in our heart we cannot practice. We have to resolve this doubt by looking deeply, by going to that person or writing them, asking our teacher, our brother, our sister to shine light on us so we can overcome this doubt. He also practices like this with anger, hatred, dullness, drowsiness, agitation, remorse and doubt. We will continue on Thursday.
Today is the 26th of February, 1998. We’re in the new Hamlet, in the Winter Retreat. Today is the last dharma talk of this retreat, and after that we will be lazy for twelve, thirteen, or fourteen days. We will meet again on Thursday the 12th of March, and we will continue with the teachings of the Winter Retreat, which was called, "The Retreat on the Opening of the Lotus with a Thousand Petals". We will call the Spring Retreat the same.
When we practice looking deeply in order to offer guidance to another practitioner we need time, because our practice of this is not yet solid. As we continue to practice we shall improve, and our practice of offering guidance will be very good. When we sit at ease and we offer guidance to a brother or a sister, at the same time we are shining light on ourselves. As we offer guidance we need to be aware that the person to whom we are offering guidance is our sister or brother. We have to give all our love in order to practise that kind of offering guidance. We have to learn, because we are not good at it yet. We are just learning how to do it, we have only been learning for a couple of years. The more we practice the better we do it. We know that tomorrow we have the Pavarana ceremony and we will practise it according to the ancient tradition. We touch the earth before a monk or a nun, and we ask them to shine light (on our practice). In this ceremony we will not be able to go deeply into guiding each other as we might on another occasion. We continue to practise this ceremony as a way of continuing the outer form of the practice given to us by the Buddha. The Invitation Ceremony is a very important practice for us to do but it will not give us an opportunity to go deeply into our deep looking before offering guidance. So we will have to use another opportunity to do it more deeply, and it will help us all. If we can practice offering guidance for a year, then we will be good at shining light on others, and our own person will make progress because we will be shining light on ourselves at the same time.
Today we are going to learn more about the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. We are talking about mindfulness of the objects of mind in the objects of mind. First of all there are the objects of mind that I talked about in regard to the Five Hindrances, nivarana (Skt.), the Five Aggregates, the Twelve Ayatanas and the Seven Factors of Awakening. In the Agama of the Chinese canon, there are the five nivaranas, the Five Aggregates and the Seven Factors of Awakening. And in another sutra in the Chinese canon it just talks about the Seven Factors of Awakening as objects of mind.
We know that the objects of mind are also called dharmas, the objects of our perception. Dharma here also means the teaching of the Buddha. The Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Four Noble Truths, and the teachings of the Buddha are objects of mind, it is true; but in fact, "observing dharmas in dharmas means observing objects of mind. Thus the objects of mind are above all the objects of perception, that is, the Five Aggregates and the twelve ayatanas, which are the six organs of sense and the six objects of our senses. We know that the Seven Factors of Enlightenment have been added because the monks who transmitted this sutra thought that we should have some teachings of the Buddha in here. This is not an obstacle. But we should remember that dharmas here means the reality, the objects of our mind, not the teachings of the Buddha, such as the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eight-fold Path.
In the Pali version, objects of mind are first of all the Five Obstacles, which we studied last Sunday, and then the Five Aggregates, the twelve Ayatanas (the six organs of sense and the six objects of sense) the Seven Factors of Awakening, and finally the Four Noble Truths. Therefore, following the way of looking which we have had from the beginning, the objects of mind are in fact authentically the Five Aggregates, and the twelve Ayatanas. The obstacles also lie within these things. The Seven Factors of Awakening and the Four Noble Truths are teachings of the Buddha. Therefore the center of our observations here is the Five Aggregates and the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. The version we are studying here is taken from the Majjhima Nikaya and the Digha Nikaya. There is also another version, almost identical, except that it has been further developed, especially concerning the Four Noble Truths, which are spoken about at great length. Here they are only spoken about briefly. Therefore we see that the tendency to add more things is developed in the transmission of the sutras. So as far as I am concerned the real objects of mind are just the Five Aggregates and the twelve Ayatanas. And after that, the monks who were transmitting the sutra thought they would add some more things: the Five Obstacles, the Seven Factors of Awakening, and the Four Noble Truths. It doesn’t do any harm, it just makes the sutra longer. In the Digha Nikaya, the Four Noble Truths are developed even more. So let’s call this Version One.
And here is Version Two. This is the version in the Madhyama Agama in Chinese. It talks about only the Five Obstacles, the Twelve Ayatanas, and the Seven Factors of Awakening, and nothing about the Five Aggregates and the Four Noble Truths. We know that this version belongs to the Sarvastivada. The Third Version belongs to the Mahasanghika school. It does not talk about the Five Obstacles. They have already been addressed in an earlier part of the sutra. It also does not talk about the Five Aggregates or the Twelve Ayatanas, it only talks about the Seven Factors of Awakening.
In the First Version we see that the objects of mind are presented as the Five Obstacles and then as the Five Aggregates: form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. This is how it talks about the Five Aggregates: Such is form, such is the arising of form, such is the disappearance of form. (Form in Sanskrit is rupa.) Such is feeling, such is the arising of feeling, such is the disappearance of feeling. So there is nothing very special, just: here is the form, here is the feeling, here is the perception, here is the end of that form, here is the end of that feeling, here is the end of that perception. So that is the content of the five skandhas. There is nothing very special about that. And then there are the Twelve Ayatanas, the six sense organs and the six sense objects: here are the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. This is the arising of eyes, the arising of ears, this is the disappearance of eyes, the disappearance of ears, etc. We see in the field of these Twelve Ayatanas there is nothing very special, there’s just recognizing the Twelve Ayatanas. After that there are the Seven Factors of Awakening: "When the factor of awakening called mindfulness is present in the practitioner, he is aware that mindfulness is present. When mindfulness is not present, he is aware mindfulness is not present. He is aware when not yet born mindfulness is being born, and when already born mindfulness is perfectly developed." He is aware when mindfulness is present. When mindfulness is not present, he is aware mindfulness is not present. When am I am not mindful, and I am aware that I am not mindful, then I am mindful already. This approach is used for all the other factors of awakening: investigation of dharmas, energy, joy, ease, concentration, and letting go. Then he meditates on the Four Noble Truths: He is aware this is suffering as it arises, this is the cause of suffering as it arises, this is the end of suffering as it arises, this is the path which leads to the end of suffering as it arises.
These are the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the making of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path which leads to the end of suffering. Then there is the concluding paragraph, which is just the same as the concluding paragraph in observation of the objects of mind in the objects of mind with regard to the Four Noble Truths: Observation of the objects of mind from inside the objects of mind or outside the objects of mind, or observation of the objects of mind from both the inside and the outside. He remains established in the observation of the process of coming-to-be in the objects of mind, or the process of dissolution in the objects of mind, or both in the process of coming-to-be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, ‘There is an object of mind here,’ until understanding and full awareness come about. He remains established in the observation, free, not caught up in any worldly consideration. That is how to practice the observation of the objects of mind in the objects of mind. The version which we have in the new Chanting Book is a shortened version. We didn’t want it to be too long, but all the ideas, all the phrases of the sutra which are necessary are present in this version. We have taken out only the repetitions. Therefore, in this sutra there is nothing missing as far as the ideas are concerned.
Now we use the light of the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing to shine light on this section. And we see that the sutra, as it relates to the observation of the objects of mind in the objects of mind, is very clear. "I am breathing in and I can see and look deeply into the impermanent nature of all dharmas. I am breathing out and I can see the impermanent nature of all dharmas." This is taken from the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. These are the thirteenth and fourteenth exercises in that sutra. "I am breathing in and I am looking deeply at the non-desirable nature of all dharmas. I am breathing out and I am looking at the undesirable nature of all dharmas". It means that things are not worth our being attached to them, or running after them. It is because we have a wrong perception about things that we run after them. When we can see the real nature of these things we will not run after them; this is the non-desirable nature of dharmas. With the fifteenth breathing: "Breathing in I can see the cessation of all dharmas, the nirvana nature, the nirodha nature of all dharmas. I am breathing out and I am able to see the nirvana nature of all dharmas". That is the nature of not being born and not dying, not coming and not going, not many and not one, not increasing and not decreasing. This is the character, the nature of reality. This sixteenth breathing: "I am breathing in and I am letting go of all ideas I have concerning reality. I am breathing out and I am letting go of all ideas I have about reality". hat is called letting go. Because of these four breathings in the Sutra on the Mindfulness of Breathing, we can understand the section on looking deeply into objects of mind in objects of mind in the Satipatthana Sutra.
Why do we look into dharmas? It is to see the reality of things as they are. We have wrong perceptions concerning reality, and therefore in our perceptions we cannot see impermanence, nondesirability, cessation, and letting go with regard to all objects of mind. The word perception here is important (samjnana). Because of these wrong perceptions we are not able to see the real nature of reality, and therefore we are caught in reality and we suffer because of that. When we see the true faces of all objects of mind then we are able to let go. We should know that here cessation, or nirvana, nirodha, is the true nature, the true face of reality as it truly is. That is what nirvana is. Nirvana is reality which goes beyond ideas of birth and death, exists and does not exist, is still there and has gone away, comes and goes. That is the birthless, deathless reality which we are not able to realize because we have wrong perceptions. When we have laid aside our wrong perceptions we are able to realize nirvana, that is, the true face of reality. If we want to come to the real face of reality we have to get rid of our wrong perceptions of birth and death, or of ourself independent of other things which are not ourself. Therefore the aim of these last four breathings is the same as in the last section of the Satipatthana Sutra: to uproot our wrong perception, our afflictions. We uproot our afflictions by seeing the true nature of reality. That is the aim of observing objects of mind in objects of mind.
When we look at this piece of wood we have a perception concerning this piece of wood. This piece of wood is itself, and we do not really know what it's nature is. We just have an idea about this piece of wood, we only have an idea. Our perception of this piece of wood and this piece of wood itself, are very different from each other. Just as we have an idea of an atom, or we have a perception, an idea, about an atom. Our perception, our idea about an atom, can be very, very far from the real nature of the atom, because our idea contains a lot of wrong perceptions. The true nature of the atom is very different from our perception of the atom. Only when we practice looking deeply does this division between our idea and the reality disappear. Then there is only insight, there is only wisdom, which shows us the thing as it really is. When there is no more perception, then there is wisdom. When we have realized wisdom, we have put aside all our ideas and we are in touch with the real world, and all our afflictions such as attachment, craving, anger and despair are uprooted. Therefore we are free persons with much happiness.
An atom, for example, we see it as something very small. Now we talk about a grain of dust. We are looking at a grain of dust lying on the table, with no life in it. This piece of wood is the same. We say it is a piece of matter, something which has no space in it, but in fact it is full of space. The different atoms of the grain of dust and the atoms of the piece of wood each have a nucleus and there is energy flowing around this nucleus which we cannot see. We think that these atoms are just lying there without life in them. But our idea about these atoms in this piece of wood is very wrong. Physics tells us that our ideas and perceptions about things are completely wrong.
When looking at the sun setting we have the idea that the sun which is setting is the real sun. But in fact our idea of the sun is very different from the reality we see as a ball of fire. We don’t see the waves of fire in the sun, just as we cannot see the waves on the ocean from afar. Sometimes there are waves of fire in the sun which are hundreds of kilometers high. Our idea of the sun is very different from the reality of the sun. Just as our ideas about a grain of dust are very different from the grain of dust, and our perceptions of the sun are wrong perceptions, our idea of the sun is a wrong idea and we live our whole lives with these wrong ideas. That is why we suffer. Our suffering is so great because of our wrong perceptions. So we have to look at the dharmas in the dharmas and then we will see their true nature, and our wrong perceptions concerning them will dissolve. At that point our afflictions will be uprooted. Therefore the Buddha taught that all of our suffering comes from ignorance. Ignorance is the inability to see the reality of things as they are.
There is something which we should know in the Third Version of the Satipatthana Sutra. Although it only talks about the Seven Factors of Awakening as objects of mind, in the third version there is still the basis which we see in the Anapanasati Sutra. Therefore the comparative study of different sutras is very important. When the practitioner practises the first factor of awakening, mindfulness, he relies on the initial application of thought in destroying the unwholesome mind and abandoning the unwholesome dharmas. When he practices the other six factors of awakening: investigation of dharmas, energy, joy, ease, concentration and letting go, he also relies on applied thought, and relies on no craving. So when we come to this part, we don’t need to study much anymore. We just need to revise it. First of all, as far as the Five Aggregates and the Twelve Ayatanas are concerned (as form, feelings, perceptions, eyes, ears, nose, etc.), we have to look at them and see their non-permanent nature. Once we see their impermanent nature we begin to see the no-self nature, then we see the interdependent nature, and once we see the interdependent nature, we see the Buddha. Because the Buddha said: "The person who sees interdependent arising is the person who can see me."
We look into a flower and we see the flower is made of the sky, the clouds, the earth, space and time. And when we see that, we see the Buddha. We see ourselves, and we see we are made of our teacher, our father, our mother, our ancestors, our brothers, sisters, our vegetables, water, and all those things. When we see them in the light of interdependence, we see the Buddha. We see that we do not have a separate self. Therefore, we do not have permanence. When we see our interdependence we see interbeing, the empty nature that is the emptiness of a reality which is separate, and when we can see the basis of our reality, we see clearly that these aspects of reality are not the same as our wrong perceptions. Therefore our wrong perceptions disappear. We are no longer attached to things, we are no longer caught in things.
Suppose we are thirsty, and we see a pink glass of liquid. We are very thirsty and we want to drink it. People say: "Don’t drink that, it’s a very dangerous thing, it’s not good water, you will get sick if you drink that water." But we aren’t able to see why we should get sick from drinking this water, why this water will not relieve our thirst, but make us suffer. The other person has seen clearly that there has been poison put in this water, and they have seen people drink this water already, and that they have writhed around on the floor and died. And we hear that, but we have not seen those things. So we have to look deeply in order to see that this water has poison in it, and if we drink it we will die. Once we see that clearly, then we can let go of our desire to drink that water. If not, we will say, "Oh, this is good water, why can’t we drink it?" That is because we do not see the true nature of the water. The five objects of desire are the same; they make us suffer, they make us come into misfortune, they can lead us to death. So, it’s not enough to forbid ourselves to touch these things. We have to see their true nature and then we won’t want to touch them. So once we have seen impermanence, no-self, interbeing, then quite naturally we see the nondesirable nature of things; it’s not worth being attached to them. Then we can practice dwelling peacefully and happily in the present moment and not run after objects of desire.
Nirvana is to see that all things are not born and do not die. They are not existing and they are not non-existing. When we look into reality with the wrong perceptions that we have, we see birth and we see death, we see that things are or are not, and these ideas make us afraid because we desire them. Then we suffer because of our fear and our desiring. And now we look into all objects of mind, and we see that they are not born and they do not die. They do not really exist and they do not really not exist. They go beyond ideas of birth and death, existing and not existing. If we do not look deeply, we will see: "That is born, that dies, that really exists, that really doesn’t exist." But when we look deeply we see they dwell in nirvana, they are not really born, they do not really die; they just manifest and then lie latent. We have wrong ideas of birth and death, come and go; and we suffer because we have those ideas. Therefore, nirvana, when we understand it, is going beyond birth and death. If we have not truly understood the meaning of birth and death we will not really understand nirvana. Actually, what it means is not that we go beyond birth and death, but that we go beyond ideas of birth and death. Everything lies in nirvana. The plum blossom lies in nirvana, the cloud lies in nirvana. Its real nature is not born, does not die, is not existing, is not not-existing. In English we can say everything has been ‘nirvanized’ since the very beginning. Therefore we hear it said that nirvana, birth and death, are like the flowers we see in front of our eyes when our eyesight is not good. When we are deeply in touch with reality we see that even though this flower is very fragile it is not born and it does not die.
All dharmas, all objects of mind, from time immemorial, have as their nature, their true face, to dwell permanently in nirvana. They don’t need to enter into nirvana. Nirvana isn’t something that lies in space, that we can come to, have to wait for. Everything dwells in nirvana already. All things, from beginningless time, have always lain in nirvana. The True Nature of everything is nirvana already. So when we are looking for nirvana, when we say that we will enter nirvana, that means we do not know how to use the word nirvana. We think that nirvana is something in space or time, that we will be able to step into, but in our true nature we are nirvana already. Nirvana is the absence of all ideas, the absence of the idea: "exists" or does not exist, born or dies. We also have the phrase "All dharmas are without birth. All dharmas are without death." You are able to understand this. The Buddhas are always there before you, if you are able to see that all dharmas are without birth and without death.
In the beginning we hear the Buddha say, "Whoever can see the interdependent nature of things can see me. That person can see the Tathagata." But what is meant by interdependent origination? Go deep into it and you will see it is also nirvana. It is the coming together of so many causes and conditions in order to manifest as something, and when causes and conditions are not sufficient, then that thing has to lie latent. So all there is is the manifestation and the latency. There isn’t such a thing as birth and death. It is just the matter of appearing or failing to appear, not the matter of birth and death. And once you can see that, you can see interdependence, and at the same time you see no-birth and no-death. That is why the term "mere manifestation" used in Buddhist psychology is so useful, because it shows us that ideas of birth and death are wrong ideas. "Exists" and "does not exist" are wrong ideas. Therefore Nirvana, the reality and basis of things, means letting go of ideas: ideas about myself, ideas about my lifespan of sixty, seventy or eighty years, the idea that before that I did not exist, and then I existed, and then again I won’t exist. These are all ideas. In the Lotus Sutra it says that the lifespan of the Buddha is limitless. And when we look deeply we see that the life-span of a leaf is also limitless, and our own life-span is also limitless because we are objects of mind, and our basis is without birth, without death, without existence and without non-existence. When we see that, all our fears dissolve. Therefore, letting go is a practice. To let go is to let go of ideas, to let go of wrong perceptions. Our spiritual ancestor, Master Tang Hoi, used the word "phong-khi"….in talking about letting go. It means letting go. First of all, let go of the idea that "I am this body." Then let go of the idea that your life is only eighty or ninety years. That is to let go of the idea of lifespan.
In the Vajracchedika Sutra the Buddha tells us to let go of self, person, living being and lifespan. All other ideas rely on these four basic ideas and we have to let go of all of them as well. Therefore the last section of the sutra, this method of looking deeply at dharmas in dharmas, is to be able to discover the basis of reality, the nature of reality, the nondesirable, the impermanent, the nirvana nature of reality. When we have discovered that we can let go of all our wrong perceptions of reality, and then we are free persons. We will no longer suffer. And that is the highest point of practice.
The monks who transmitted this sutra added things like the Seven Factors of Awakening and the Five Obstacles. It isn’t really harmful, but it does mean that the real meaning of the sutra is somewhat hidden by these other things being brought in. The last part of the sutra reads: " He who practices the Four Establishments of Mindfulness for seven years can expect one of two fruits, the highest understanding in this very life, or if there remains some residue of affliction, he can attain the fruit of no return." Practising for seven years you can arrive. Let alone seven years bhikkhus, whoever practices the Four Establishments of Mindfulness for six, five, four, three, two years, or one year, or even six, five, four, three, two months, one month or half a month can also expect one of two fruits: either the highest understanding or the fruit of no return. So seven years is time, but people who have great willingness to practice don't need seven years, it is enough to have half a month. That is why we said that this path, the path of the Four Grounds of the Establishment of Mindfulness, is the most wonderful path, which helps beings realize purification, transcend grief and sorrow, and destroy pain and anxiety. The Bhikkhus were delighted to hear the teaching of the Buddha. They took it to heart and began to put it into practice.
We have a great fortune to be able to study the two sutras, the Anapanasati and the Satipatthana. These two sutras are the basis. These are sutras you keep under your pillow, always with you. It is very regrettable that some meditation practice centers do not allow these sutras to be studied. All places of practice should have these sutras. These sutras go together. Each shines light on the other, and they also show us how the monks and nuns and lay people practised during the time of the Buddha. In the time of the Buddha many people learned these sutras by heart. In the southern tradition, in the Theravada school, the monks still learn these two sutras by heart.
We have one more thing to learn concerning the morning liturgy of Wednesday, we will talk about The Transition Chant ("We are truly present") when we next meet on Thursday the twelfth.
I am now going to read the introductory words of a meditation master, concerning a sesshin in the Chinese tradition. Sometimes this lasts for 21 days. The way of practice in this tradition is to practice with koan or with meditation words. So compared with our sort of retreat it’s very different. I only have to read the introductory words, which are used when the retreat begins, for you to see the difference.
"This kind of Practice is called "the practice with all our self," to practice all the way. So it means we sit, and we sit with all our being." This retreat was practiced in the Cam Hung temple in Zhao, in China, and the master who was in charge was called Li Chu. He passed away in 1942. For meditation the meditation words (koan) were: "Who is the person reciting the name of the Buddha? Find that person." That was the subject of the retreat: "Who is the one who is reciting the name of the Buddha? Who is the one who is practicing sitting meditation?" This retreat began on the fifteenth of the tenth month, and ended on the twenty-seventh of the twelfth month. It’s also a sort of winter retreat. This retreat lasted for seven contiguous weeks in 1942.
Many people had to prepare for the retreat when many monks would come to practice. There was much busyness in preparation. When we read this we hear about the spirit of the practice which was very serious. "Today the temple has opened for the retreat, and therefore people are very busy, and outside the temple there are many people who are very, very busy. And this means that not only the people are busy, but all the dharmapalas and other species are also very busy." Are we busy before we begin the summer retreat? And the winter retreat? Yes, we are busy, but although we are busy we have the practice called dwelling peacefully and happily in the present moment, so our preparation is also a time of enjoyment. We are taught that we have to dwell in the present moment, and although we have many things to do when we organize a retreat, our busyness at that time is different from the busyness of other people. And the master says that, "not only the people in the temple are busy, but also the bodhisattvas and the Buddhas and the dharmapalas are also busy."
"So why should we make so many people busy? Actually the other species, like the dharmapalas, are even busier than we are. Do you understand what it means to have a retreat like this? Now you have heard how all the Buddhas, the dharmapalas and the bodhisattvas are very busy on our behalf. And you who have come here to practice during this retreat, you are always busy, but now you should work even harder. You should be even busier during this retreat. So you should understand that all the ancient monks of ancient times, they also practiced like this.
The matter of birth and death lies in our hands. Your body, your feelings and your mind lie in your own hands. From now on you don’t have to do anything during the retreat. It’s not important to join your palms or bow your head to each other. The only thing you have to do is meditate on the koan. You don’t have to ask each other anything. You don’t even have to light incense. You don’t even have to prostrate. These things are not important. The only important thing is to grasp the koan. And you don’t have to join your palms in front of the head of practice or in front of the monk or who leads the ceremonies. So if you get sick can you join your palms to the leader of the practice asking if you can rest? No, you can’t. If you ask nobody will dare to give you permission to rest if you are sick. You have to ask me, but I cannot give you permission. So if you are sick, what do you have to do? You just have to continue the retreat, you just have to do the sitting, whether you are alive, whether you are dead, whether you are sick. You have to keep sitting. So it’s okay if you die in this retreat, then we will take you out and bury you. That is the best way to resolve your sickness. So if you are sick you have to sit, you have to look deeply. If you die we will just have to put you in the coffin and leave you there until the end of the retreat and then we’ll go to bury you. You’re not allowed to smile, you’re not allowed to turn your head and look at someone else at any moment. What is more, during this time of retreat, whatever you are doing, whether you are going to the toilet or anything else, you cannot look at anyone, you cannot smile. If you do this you'll have to be beaten by the master of discipline, and if you are beaten many times then you may die, and then we will leave you until the retreat is finished and then we will bury you. Because if you are beaten you die during the retreat, we won’t have time to bury you. In past retreats people have died. So I will say that if you are very sick, and you feel that you are going to die, you cannot ask to rest. If you die, we will just leave you to lie there until the end of the retreat and then we will bury you. If you want to go out you have to ask permission of the leader of the discipline, and even if you have to go to the toilet we cannot let you go out of the meditation hall because nobody will open the door for you until the session is finished. So you have to understand there is nothing more to do than to go beyond birth and death."
So that is the introduction to the retreat. The monks practiced all year around, and when they entered the retreat only then could they hope to have a breakthrough. The master says if we put all our mind into resolving the koan, then we don’t need to go to the toilet, we cannot get sick, the only thing that is important is to give our mind to the koan.
At the beginning of our winter retreat, on the twenty-sixth of the eleventh month, I sent a message to the sangha of the four hamlets. Here is the letter to my disciples in the four hamlets:
"My Dear Disciples,
Now we have one more opportunity to live together, and be happy together, in the winter retreat, 1997-1998, to practice every day together for a whole month. We should be deeply aware of this happiness, and treasure it, knowing that it is not only our personal happiness, but also the happiness of hundreds of thousands of people who take refuge in our Sangha. Because of the presence of Chan Duc and Phap An in the Maple Forest Monastery, thanks to methods of communication which we have, we can also practice there in a very close way with Thay and the other members of the sangha. This morning, the twenty-sixth of November, on the first day of the retreat, the ceremony will be performed here and by Su Co Chan Duc in the Maple Forest Monastery. So we hope that during this retreat we will be able to make progress. And if anybody has anything they need to ask, or to share, please write directly to me, and I will listen deeply and do my best to find a way to resolve the difficulty. We rely on the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas to protect us during this retreat".
When we read these two different introductions to a retreat it is not to make a comparison, but to show that every teacher, is different and every teacher has compassion. If you hear the teachings of Master Lai Qua and you think that he doesn’t have compassion you are wrong. He has a lot of compassion, it is just that his method is different. He sees that this is the only opportunity for the monks who have come, and if they are lazy during that time then it will be lost. So he wants them to put all their heart into the practice, and although what he says sounds very harsh, there is compassion in it, so don’t think there is no compassion and love in his words. There is as much compassion in his words as there is in the letter that I wrote. The only thing is that our method of practice is different, because our method of practice here is the practice of dwelling happily in the present moment. Sometimes I think that I should invite Master Lai Qua to come here to help me a couple of days. And maybe he should invite me to go there for a couple of days. Father needs mother, and mother needs father. And that is why I tell you this, in order for us to be aware that although our two methods are different, the aim is still the heart of great compassion.
Today we are about to close our winter retreat, and tomorrow, according to tradition, we will have the ceremony of Invitation. After this we will stand up and recite the name of the Bodhisattvas, in order to show our gratitude to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who have given us their protection for the whole of this winter retreat. I will leave these introductory words of Master Lai Qua behind for you to re-read. You can post them in the Upper Hamlet, the Lower Hamlet and the New Hamlet.
These dharma talk transcriptions are of teachings given by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village or in various retreats around the world. The teachings traverse all areas of concern to practitioners, from dealing with difficult emotions, to realizing the interbeing nature of ourselves and all things, and many more.
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