Tag: theravada

Laying the Foundation for Social Action

By AJAHN PASANNO * Art AUNG KYAW HTET  (Courtesy Thavibu)* 

From a Buddhist perspective, anything to do with other people can be considered social action: how we relate to the individuals close to us such as family or neighbors, to society at large, and to the world around us. The field of social action expands out, but it begins with ourselves and our relationships to others. The individual is at the core of all relationships between any parts of society. We must always return to that core, to recognize that our own actions affect other people and the society around us. This is simply the basic law of karma-anything we do affects ourselves and others. It’s not a matter of “me” and “society,” as if they were separate. There isn’t really any separation. The two are interrelated all the time.

What we bring to the society around us are simply our own qualities of mind, of heart, of being-our intentions and how they manifest in our actions. In order to understand our effects on society, we first have to understand ourselves, to see these qualities more clearly. The ability we have to help others, or to do anything to affect others, is dependent upon the clarity, intention, and integrity with which we live our lives. These things are inseparable. As such, the way we train ourselves is equally important to any actions we take outside ourselves.

In Buddhist practice, the training laid out for an individual begins with how one practices with others. This is sila, or virtue-not harming others, being honest in the way one deals with others, being trustworthy in one’s actions and speech. The practice of keeping the precepts is already social action. The precepts remind us of the ways our actions affect others. Oftentimes, people may think, Let’s get to the “real” stuff about Buddhism-the liberation, the enlightenment; keeping the precepts is just a social convention, just the basics. But this “basic” stuff has an effect. It is important. The Buddha recognized that our actions have effects for ourselves and for others.

While virtue concerns itself with actions and speech, the second aspect of the Buddhist training is meditation, or samadhi-a training of the mind and the heart, a clarifying of mindfulness, awareness, and composure. These are essential to cultivate. If we are going to take any social responsibility, it has to be done with an open heart and a clear mind. We must develop a standard for reflection. We can then start to ask, what are the effects of our words and actions? Sometimes people get enthused about social action and forget about the ordinary activities in life. How do I deal with my family? How do I deal with the people closest to me? Or even how do I answer the phone? What do I put into the universe when I am irritated or upset? These are very ordinary, everyday things, preparing the ground for how we relate to the world around us. Paying attention to these things is social action. Dealing with the circle of people around us is social action. It is not different.

From a Buddhist perspective, the next step is recognizing the quality of wisdom, or pañña. There are many different levels of wisdom, but seeing things as they truly are is its essence. With a reflective ability of the mind, we can begin to see things as they truly are and start to turn towards that. This is not simply gathering new bits of knowledge or being zapped with some sort of enlightened energy. It is a turning inward to be able to open to all the ways things truly are and allowing our lives to be guided by that wisdom. How does this affect myself? How does this affect others? What is the way to freedom and liberation? What is the way out of suffering and dissatisfaction for myself and for others? Wisdom is seeing the different ways we entangle ourselves in things and the different ways we can be free.

Virtue, meditation, and wisdom are tAung Kyaw Htet_Sun-kissed Novicehe tools we use in training ourselves in how to relate to the world around us. This training will help us to see the qualities that bring true benefit to our society-the qualities of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These are the Brahma viharas, or divine abodes. In a way, these can be considered a goal of social action: creating a way in which human beings should live. Loving kindness is the wish for another’s happiness; compassion is the wish to alleviate another’s suffering. Sympathetic joy is the happiness we feel in the success of another. And equanimity is the ability to stay centered in the midst of life’s ups and downs.

The quality of sympathetic joy is an interesting one in terms of social action. Its opposite is jealousy or envy. In many ways, envy is the foundation for competition and conflict. If a society is based upon competitive accumulation-like some societies we know-it can create conflict and a lack of appreciation and willingness to enjoy each other. Having come to the United States after living in Thailand for twenty-three years, the sense of competition here is very striking. In Thailand, there is a wide stratification in terms of socio-economic level and opportunity within society, but there is not a lot of envy or competition. People are often motivated to improve their economic lot, but they don’t resent those who already have wealth or privilege. Similarly, there is usually not a looking down on or shunning of those in economic difficulty or from a poor background. There is an acceptance that people have accumulated different tendencies and have different abilities.

This acceptance has imbued people’s consciousness. It is a sense of karma playing a role in people’s lives over many lifetimes, a feeling of “who knows?” This lifetime can change; in other lifetimes it might be different. Rebirth is an accepted part of how they perceive the world – it’s a long view on life. This takes away the edge of selfishness and competitiveness and brings a sense of appreciation for each other as human beings, a joy in each other’s happiness. By turning toward this quality of joy, we can draw on our wish to help others, to be of service.

Acceptance also brings the quality of equanimity, a non-reactive clarity that allows one to stay centered. Equanimity is not indifference. It is the ability to return to a place of stillness, to be non-reactive, and to weigh things carefully. This is an important quality especially when considering social action or social responsibility. Without equanimity, we can get drawn into our own reactiveness-our views and opinions. We can think that we’re always right, that other people are just a bunch of idiots. It’s easy to get turned around and out of balance. Not being drawn into the web of our views and opinions but being able to settle and reflect-to ask, what is the way of balance?-equanimity is essential in undertaking social action.

In the social action projects I have been involved in, the Buddhist perspective has taught me some important things. Take a particular project, like protecting the forests. The monastery in Thailand at which I was abbot was quite well-known, with a large community of monks, novices, lay men, and lay women practicing and training there. I thought it would provide a good balance to set up a more remote branch monastery. Our new location was right along the Mekong River. It was in one of the last forests in the province, and around that time, the area was made into a national park. But this was just a designation on the map, and it caused a lot of problems. The area was full of stumps. It was being logged, and many villagers had made their fields there.

The Buddhist perspective was very helpful. We couldn’t simply say, “These are awful, nasty people. The planet would be a fine sort of place if they weren’t doing this.” The reality was that they are doing this and that they are people just like us. They are trying to look after their families and to get ahead in the world. In order to do anything to protect the forest, we had to find ways to include them. How do you involve the people who are cutting down the forest? How do you include the merchants who are paying them? How do you include the civil servants who are taking the bribes to allow the cutting?

The teachings told us that problems come from people not understanding how they are creating suffering for themselves and for others. Problems and suffering come from desires and attachments. You can’t simply wish that away. You’ve got to work on the basic problems of bringing knowledge and education into their lives. Why were they cutting down the forest? Of course, they wanted to live comfortably, to look after their families. So, we had to find ways to provide for them. Otherwise, it would be like trying to build a wall to stop the tide from coming in. Good luck! It’s going to find a way. Instead, you have to think clearly and find ways to address peoples’ needs, to include them and bring them in. This takes time.

This understanding reflects our own personal spiritual practice. We’d all like to sit down, cross our legs, close our eyes, and become enlightened-just like that. Instead, we have to take the time to lay a foundation, to become patient and clear enough to develop the path in a comprehensive way. Just as the Buddha taught us the Four Noble Truths as the basis for our own practice-suffering, the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering-the same applies to social action. We’ve got suffering, we’ve got a problem. What are all the different causes of that problem? What kind of end can there be to that problem? If we haven’t understood the problem, we won’t be able to see the causes. And if we aren’t really clear about the goal we are working towards, we won’t really know what kinds of path to develop. It works in society the same way it works in our own practice. The more we reflect on and practice with those truths for ourselves, the more we are able to apply them in our life, in very ordinary situations, with our friends, with our family, at work, with different problems happening in the community. That is social action.

How can we work together to do this? With our project along the Mekong, we began by drawing in people affiliated with the monastery who were interested in helping. In a Buddhist society, the monastery is a foundation we could build on, a field for social action. Because the monastery is dependent on lay people to support it, there is a day-to-day connection with the neighboring society. It is a web of Aung Kyaw Htet_ Offering Rice to the Abbottsupport and interaction, so that when there is a problem in the community, we can easily recognize who is interested in helping. At first there were a few volunteers. When there was too much work for volunteers to do, we hired some people. Again, the money for their salaries came from offerings to the monastery from people in the community.

The forest project continued to grow. We even drew in people like the police. They had power, especially when it came to controlling who was taking logs out. Rather than getting into a confrontation with them, we asked how we could work with them. That was very easy at the time because one of the supporters of the monastery was the Deputy Superintendent of Police. He was a great resource for drawing in other honest police officers, who then had a few words with even more police officers and got them on our side. This takes time, it takes patience, it takes clarity. If you work in a confrontational way, it’s difficult to achieve this. By having a strong focus on one’s personal practice and integrity, by becoming more clear, centered, and pure-hearted in one’s intention for doing good, the more one starts to connect with other people. In terms of social action, this seems to be a magnet, drawing other good people. It gets its own momentum going. So far, the forest project is working.  And besides being successful in its own right, it has been adopted as a model for trial projects in other national parks in Thailand.

During one of the recent elections in Thailand, I saw a handwritten sign on the side of a building. It said something like, “The forces of corruption are given more power when good people retreat.” The “system” gains more momentum when we decide we don’t want to deal with it, that things are hopeless. With social action work, we have to be patient, discerning, equanimous. We have to be willing to try and to fail. We have to recognize that sometimes things will work and sometimes they won’t. And that they always work out in ways we may never have conceived. This is the same as returning to the foundation of one’s own practice: keeping the precepts; developing clarity, tranquillity, and peace of mind; establishing wisdom through reflective investigation; cultivating the qualities of kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These form the foundation that allows us to move out into the realm of social action.

Would you like to read more? You can download Ajahn Pasanno’s books for free on www.amaravati.org

Mindfulness Vs Concentration


Concentration and mindfulness are distinctly different functions. They each have their role to play in meditation, and the relationship between them is definite and delicate. Concentration is often called one-pointedness of mind. It consists of forcing the mind to remain on one static point. Please note the word FORCE.

Concentration is pretty much a forced type of activity. It can be developed by force, by sheer unremitting willpower. And once developed, it retains some of that forced flavor. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a delicate function leading to refined sensibilities. These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one. He notices things. Concentration provides the power. He keeps the attention pinned down to one item. Ideally, mindfulness is in this relationship. Mindfulness picks the objects of attention, and notices when the attention has gone astray. Concentration does the actual work of holding the attention steady on that chosen object. If either of these partners is weak, your meditation goes astray.

Concentration could be defined as that faculty of the mind which focuses single mindedly on one object without interruption. It must be emphasized that true concentration is a wholesome one-pointedness of mind. That is, the state is free from greed, hatred and delusion. Unwholesome one-pointedness is also possible, but it will not lead to liberation. You can be very single-minded in a state of lust. But that gets you nowhere. Uninterrupted focus on something that you hate does not help yo at all. In fact, such unwholesome concentration is fairly short-lived even when it is achieved–especially when it is used to harm others. True concentration itself is free from such contaminants. It is a state in which the mind is gathered together and thus gains power and intensity. We might use the analogy of a lens. Parallel waves of sunlight falling on a piece of paper will do no more than warm the surface. But the same amount of light, when focused through a lens, falls on a single point and the paper bursts into flames. Concentration is the lens. It produces the burning intensity necessary to see into the deeper reaches of the mind. Mindfulness selects the object that the lens will focus on and looks through the lens to see what is there.

Only mindfulness understands. Only mindfulness brings wisdom.

Concentration should be regarded as a tool. Like any tool, it can be used for good or for ill. A sharp knife can be used to create a beautiful carving or to harm someone. It is all up to the one who uses the knife. Concentration is similar. Properly used, it can assist you towards liberation. But it can also be used in the service of the ego. It can operate in the framework of achievement and competition. You can use concentration to dominate others. You can use it to be selfish. The real problem is that concentration alone will not give you a perspective on yourself. It won’t throw light on the basic problems of selfishness and the nature of suffering. It can be used to dig down into deep psychological states. But even then, the forces of egotism won’t be understood. Only mindfulness can do that. If mindfulness is not there to look into the lens and see what has been uncovered, then it is all for nothing. Only mindfulness understands. Only mindfulness brings wisdom. Concentration has other limitations, too.

Really deep concentration can only take place under certain specific conditions. Buddhists go to a lot of trouble to build meditation halls and monasteries. Their main purpose is to create a physical environment free of distractions in which to learn this skill. No noise, no interruptions. Just as important, however, is the creation of a distraction-free emotional environment. The development of concentration will be blocked by the presence of certain mental states which we call the five hindrances. They are greed for sensual pleasure, hatred, mental lethargy, restlessness, and mental vacillation. A monastery is a controlled environment where this sort of emotional noise is kept to a minimum. No members of the opposite sex are allowed to live together there. Therefore, there is less opportunity for lust. No possessions are allowed. Therefore, no ownership squabbles and less chance for greed and coveting. Another hurdle for concentration should also be mentioned. In really deep concentration, you get so absorbed in the object of concentration that you forget all about trifles. Like your body, for instance, and your identity and everything around you. Here again the monastery is a useful convenience. It is nice to know that there is somebody to take care of you by watching over all the mundane matters of food and physical security. Without such assurance, one hesitates to go as deeply into concentration as one might.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is free from all these drawbacks. Mindfulness is not dependent on any such particular circumstance, physical or otherwise. It is a pure noticing factor. Thus it is free to notice whatever comes up–lust, hatred, or noise. Mindfulness is not limited by any condition. It exists to some extent in every moment, in every circumstance that arises. Also, mindfulness has no fixed object of focus. It observes change. Thus it has an unlimited number of objects of attention. It just looks at whatever is passing through the mind and it does not categorize. Distractions and interruptions are noticed with the same amount of attention as the formal objects of meditation. In a state of pure mindfulness your attention just flows along with whatever changes are taking place in the mind. “Shift, shift, shift. Now this, now this, and now this.”

You can’t develop mindfulness by force. Active teeth gritting willpower won’t do you any good at all. As a matter of fact, it will hinder progress. Mindfulness cannot be cultivated by struggle. It grows by realizing, by letting go, by just settling down in the moment and letting yourself get comfortable with whatever you are experiencing. This does not mean that mindfulness happens all by itself. Far from it. Energy is required. Effort is required. But this effort is different from force. Mindfulness is cultivated by a gentle effort, by effortless effort. The meditator cultivates mindfulness by constantly reminding himself in a gentle way to maintain his awareness of whatever is happening right now. Persistence and a light touch are the secrets. Mindfulness is cultivated by constantly pulling oneself back to a state of awareness, gently, gently, gently.

Mindfulness can’t be used in any selfish way, either. It is nonegoistic alertness. There is no ‘me’ in a state of pure mindfulness. So there is no self to be selfish. On the contrary, it is mindfulness which gives you the real perspective on yourself. It allows you to take that crucial mental step backward from your own desires and aversions so that you can then look and say, “Ah ha, so that’s how I really am.”

In a state of mindfulness, you see yourself exactly as you are. You see your own selfish behavior. You see your own suffering. And you see how you create that suffering.

In a state of mindfulness, you see yourself exactly as you are. You see your own selfish behavior. You see your own suffering. And you see how you create that suffering. You see how you hurt others. You pierce right through the layer of lies that you normally tell yourself and you see what is really there. Mindfulness leads to wisdom.

Mindfulness is not trying to achieve anything. It is just looking. Therefore, desire and aversion are not involved. Competition and struggle for achievement have no place in the process. Mindfulness does not aim at anything. It just sees whatever is already there.

Mindfulness is a broader and larger function than concentration. it is an all-encompassing function. Concentration is exclusive. It settles down on one item and ignores everything else. Mindfulness is inclusive. It stands back from the focus of attention and watches with a broad focus, quick to notice any change that occurs. If you have focused the mind on a stone, concentration will see only the stone. Mindfulness stands back from this process, aware of the stone, aware of the concentration focusing on the stone, aware of the intensity of that focus and instantly aware of the shift of attention when concentration is distracted. It is mindfulness which notices the distraction which has occurred, and it is mindfulness which redirects the attention to the stone. Mindfulness is more difficult to cultivate than concentration because it is a deeper-reaching function. Concentration is merely focusing of the mind, rather like a laser beam. It has the power to burn its way deep into the mind and illuminate what is there. But it does not understand what it sees. Mindfulness can examine the mechanics of selfishness and understand what it sees. Mindfulness can pierce the mystery of suffering and the mechanism of discomfort. Mindfulness can make you free.

There is, however, another Catch-22. Mindfulness does not react to what it sees. It just sees and understands. Mindfulness is the essence of patience. Therefore, whatever you see must be simply accepted, acknowledged and dispassionately observed. This is not easy, but it is utterly necessary. We are ignorant. We are selfish and greedy and boastful. We lust and we lie. These are facts. Mindfulness means seeing these facts and being patient with ourselves, accepting ourselves as we are. That goes against the grain. We don’t want to accept. We want to deny it. Or change it, or justify it. But acceptance is the essence of mindfulness. If we want to grow in mindfulness we must accept what mindfulness finds. It may be boredom, irritation, or fear. It may be weakness, inadequacy, or faults. Whatever it is, that is the way we are. That is what is real.

Mindfulness simply accepts whatever is there. If you want to grow in mindfulness, patient acceptance is the only route. Mindfulness grows only one way: by continuous practice of mindfulness, by simply trying to be mindful, and that means being patient. The process cannot be forced and it cannot be rushed. It proceeds at its own pace.

Concentration and mindfulness go hand-in-hand in the job of meditation. Mindfulness directs the power of concentration. Mindfulness is the manager of the operation. Concentration furnishes the power by which mindfulness can penetrate into the deepest level of the mind. Their cooperation results in insight and understanding. These must be cultivated together in a balanced ratio. Just a bit more emphasis is given to mindfulness because mindfulness is the center of meditation. The deepest levels of concentration are not really needed to do the job of liberation. Still, a balance is essential. Too much awareness without calm to balance it will result in a wildly over sensitized state similar to abusing LSD. Too much concentration without a balancing ratio of awareness will result in the ‘Stone Buddha’ syndrome. The meditator gets so tranquilized that he sits there like a rock. Both of these are to be avoided.

The initial stages of mental cultivation are especially delicate. Too much emphasis on mindfulness at this point will actually retard the development of concentration. When getting started in meditation, one of the first things you will notice is how incredibly active the mind really is. The Theravada tradition calls this phenomenon ‘monkey mind’. The Tibetan tradition likens it to a waterfall of thought. If you emphasize the awareness function at this point, there will be so much to be aware of that concentration will be impossible. Don’t get discouraged. This happens to everybody. And there is a simple solution. Put most of your effort into one-pointedness at the beginning. Just keep calling the attention from wandering over and over again. Tough it out. Full instructions on how to do this are in Chapters 7 and 8. A couple of months down the track and you will have developed concentration power. Then you can start pumping you energy into mindfulness. Do not, however, go so far with concentration that you find yourself going into a stupor.

Right concentration develops naturally in the wake of strong mindfulness.

Mindfulness still is the more important of the two components. It should be built as soon as you comfortably can do so. Mindfulness provides the needed foundation for the subsequent development of deeper concentration. Most blunders in this area of balance will correct themselves in time. Right concentration develops naturally in the wake of strong mindfulness. The more you develop the noticing factor, the quicker you will notice the distraction and the quicker you will pull out of it and return to the formal object of attention. The natural result is increased concentration. And as concentration develops, it assists the development of mindfulness. The more concentration power you have, the less chance there is of launching off on a long chain of analysis about the distraction. You simply note the distraction and return your attention to where it is supposed to be.

Thus the two factors tend to balance and support each other’s growth quite naturally. Just about the only rule you need to follow at this point is to put your effort on concentration at the beginning, until the monkey mind phenomenon has cooled down a bit. After that, emphasize mindfulness. If you find yourself getting frantic, emphasize concentration. If you find yourself going into a stupor, emphasize mindfulness. Overall, mindfulness is the one to emphasize.

Mindfulness guides your development in meditation because mindfulness has the ability to be aware of itself. It is mindfulness which will give you a perspective on your practice. Mindfulness will let you know how you are doing. But don’t worry too much about that. This is not a race. You are not in competition with anybody, and there is no schedule.

One of the most difficult things to learn is that mindfulness is not dependent on any emotional or mental state. We have certain images of meditation. Meditation is something done in quiet caves by tranquil people who move slowly. Those are training conditions. They are set up to foster concentration and to learn the skill of mindfulness. Once you have learned that skill, however, you can dispense with the training restrictions, and you should. You don’t need to move at a snail’s pace to be mindful. You don’t even need to be calm. You can be mindful while solving problems in intensive calculus. You can be mindful in the middle of a football scrimmage. You can even be mindful in the midst of a raging fury. Mental and physical activities are no bar to mindfulness. If you find your mind extremely active, then simply observe the nature and degree of that activity. It is just a part of the passing show within.


You can purchase Mindfulness in Plain-English by Bhante Gunaratana on Wisdom Publication’s website: proceeds will support Bhavana Society‘s free retreats programming


Taking Stock of Oneself


Though in principle the Buddhist path leads straight and unerringly from bondage to freedom, when we apply it to ourselves it often seems to take a tortuous route as imposed by the twists and turns of our own contorted mental topography. Unless we have exceptionally mature wholesome roots, we cannot expect to approach the goal “as the crow flies,” soaring unhindered through the quick and blissful skyways of the jhanas and higher insights. Instead we must be prepared to tread the path at ground level, moving slowly, steadily and cautiously through the winding mountain roads of our own minds. We begin at the inevitable point of departure — with the unique constellation of personal qualities, habits and potentials that we bring with us into the practice. Our ingrained defilements and obstinate delusions, as well as our hidden reserves of goodness, inner strength and wisdom — these are at once the material out of which the practice is forged, the terrain to be passed through, and the vehicle that takes us to our destination.

Confidence in the Buddhist path is a prerequisite for persisting on this journey. Yet it often happens that though we may be fully convinced of the liberating efficacy of the Dhamma, we stumble along perplexed as to how we can apply the Dhamma fruitfully to ourselves. One major step toward reaping the benefits of Dhamma practice consists in making an honest assessment of one’s own character. If we are to utilize effectively the methods the Buddha has taught for overcoming the mind’s defilements, we first must take stock of those particular defilements that are prevalent in our individual makeup. It will not suffice for us to sit back and console ourselves with the thought that the path leads infallibly to the end of greed, hate and delusion. For the path to be effective in our own practice, we have to become familiar with our own persistent greeds, hates and delusions as they crop up in the round of daily life. Without this honest confrontation with ourselves, all our other pursuits of Dhamma may be to no avail and can actually lead us astray. Though we may gain extensive knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures, clarify our view and sharpen our powers of thought, invest so many hours on the meditation cushion and walkway, if we do not attend to the blemishes in our characters, these other achievements, far from extricating the defilements, may instead only go to reinforce them.

Yet, though honest self-assessment is one of the most vital steps in Dhamma practice, it is also one of the most difficult. What makes it so difficult is the radically new perspective that must be adopted to undertake an investigation of oneself and the dense barriers that must be penetrated to arrive at truthful self-understanding. In attempting to assess ourselves we are no longer observing an external entity which we can treat as an adventitious object to be evaluated in terms of our subjective purposes. We are observing instead the seat of observation itself, that most elusive center from which we gaze out upon the world, and we are doing so in a mode which casts all its motives and projects in a critical light. To enter this domain of inquiry is to run smack up against our very sense of personal identity, and thus to have to pierce the thick screens of delusion and blind emotivity which keep that sense of identity intact.

Normally, in subservience to our need to confirm to ourselves our uniqueness and irreplaceable importance, we proceed to construct mental pictures — indeed, a picture gallery — of what we imagine ourselves to be. The self-image that emerges from these pictures becomes simultaneously a mainstay which we cling to in order to maintain our self-esteem and a standpoint from which we orient ourselves toward others and launch our projects in the world. To secure its tenuous status the mind employs a variety of tactics “behind the back” of our conscious awareness. It throws up blinders which keep out disturbing information, it flatters us with fantasied projections, it drives us to manipulate people and situations in ways that will seem to validate our tacit assumptions about our virtues and identity.

All these projects born of the quest to substantiate our sense of identity only increase our suffering. The more we lock ourselves into the images we form of ourselves, the more we alienate ourselves from others and close off our access to liberating truth. Thence release from suffering requires that we gradually discard our delusive self-images through rigorous examination of our minds.

The venerable Sariputta, in the Discourse on No Blemishes (MN 5), stresses the role of honest self-assessment as a prerequisite of spiritual growth. He points out that just as a dirty bronze bowl, deposited in a dusty place and utterly neglected, only becomes dirtier and dustier, so if we fail to recognize the blemishes of our minds we will not make any effort to eliminate them, but will continue to harbor greed, hate and delusion and will die with a corrupted mind. And just as a dirty bronze bowl which is cleaned and polished will in time become bright and radiant, so if we recognize the blemishes of our minds we will arouse our energy to purify them, and having purged ourselves of blemishes we will die with an undefiled mind. The task of self-knowledge is always a difficult one, but it is only by knowing our minds that we will be able to shape them, and it is only by shaping our minds that we can liberate them.


Would you like to read more? You can find more writings by Bhikkhu Bodhi on www.bps.lkand on Buddhist Global Relief


Meditating on Non-Self

By SISTER KHEMA * Art U LUN GYWE (Courtesy Thavibu)* 

In Buddhism we use the words “self” and “no-self,” and so it is important to
understand just what this “no-self,” anatta, is all about, even if it is
first just an idea, because the essence of the Buddha’s teaching hinges on
this concept. And in this teaching Buddhism is unique. No one, no other
spiritual teacher, has formulated no-self in just this way. And because it
has been formulated by him in this way, there is also the possibility of
speaking about it. Much has been written about no-self, but in order to know
it, one has to experience it. And that is what the teaching aims at, the
experience of no-self.

Yet in order to experience no-self, one has first to fully know self.
Actually know it. But unless we do know what this self is, this self called
“me,” it is impossible to know what is meant by “there is no self there.” In
order to give something away, we have to first fully gave it in hand.

We are constantly trying to reaffirm self. Which already shows that this
“self” is a very fragile and rather wispy sort of affair, because if it
weren’t why would we constantly have to reaffirm it? Why are we constantly
afraid of the “self” being threatened of its being insecure, of its not
getting what it needs for survival? If it were such a solid entity as we
believe it to be, we would not feel threatened so often.

We affirm “self” again and again through identification. We identify with a
certain name, an age, a sex, an ability, an occupation. “I am a lawyer, I am
a doctor. I am an accountant, I am a student.” And we identify with the
people we are attached to. “I am a husband, I am a wife, I am a mother, I am
a daughter, I am a son.” Now, in the manner of speech, we have to use “self”
in that way — but it isn’t only in speech. We really think that that “self”
is who we are. We really believe it. There is no doubt in our mind that that
“self” is who we are. When any of these factors is threatened, if being a
wife is threatened, if being a mother is threatened, if being a lawyer is
threatened, if being a teacher is threatened — or if we lose the people who
enable us to retain that “self” — what a tragedy!

The self-identification becomes insecure, and “me” finds it hard to say
“look at me,” “this is me.” Praise and blame are included. Praise reaffirms
“me.” Blame threatens “me.” So we like the praise and we dislike the blame.
The ego is threatened. Fame and infamy — same thing. Loss and gain. If we
gain, the ego gets bigger; if we lose, it gets a bit smaller. So we are
constantly in a quandary, and in constant fear. The ego might lose a little
bit of its grandeur. It might be made a bit smaller by someone. And it
happens to all of us. Somebody is undoubtedly going to blame us for
something eventually. Even the Buddha was blamed.

Now the blame that is levied at us is not the problem. The problem is our
reaction. The problem is that we feel smaller. The ego has a hard time
reasserting itself. So what we usually do is we blame back, making the
other’s ego a bit smaller too.

BUR7215LIdentification with whatever it is that we do and whatever it is that we
have, be it possessions or people, is, so we believe, needed for our
survival. “Self” survival. If we don’t identify with this or that, we feel
as if we are in limbo. This is the reason why it is difficult to stop
thinking in meditation. Because without thinking there would be no
identification. If I don’t think, what do I identify with? It is difficult to come to a stage in meditation in which there is actually nothing to identify with any more.

Happiness, too, may be an identification. “I am happy.” “I am unhappy.”
Because we are so keen on survival, we have got to keep on identifying. When
this identification becomes a matter of the life or death of the ego, which
it usually is, then the fear of loss becomes so great that we can be in a
constant state of fear. Constantly afraid to lose either the possessions
that make us what we are, or the people that make us what we are. If we have
no children, or if they all die, we are no longer a mother. So fear is
paramount. The same goes for all other identifications. Not a very peaceful
state of living and what is it due to? Only one thing: ego, the craving to

This identification results, of course, in craving for possessing. And this
possessing results in attachment. What we have, what we identify with, we
are attached to. That attachment, that clinging, makes it extremely
difficult to have a free and open viewpoint. This kind of clinging, whatever
it may be that we cling to — it may not be clinging to motor cars and
houses, it may not even be clinging to people — but we certainly cling to
views and opinions. We cling to our world view. We cling to the view of how
we are going to be happy. Maybe we cling to a view of who created this
universe. Whatever it is we cling to, even how the government should run the
country, all of that makes it extremely difficult to see things as they
really are. To be open-minded. And it is only an open mind which can take in
new ideas and understanding.

Lord Buddha compared listeners to four different kinds of clay vessels. The
first clay vessel is one that has holes at the bottom. If you pour water
into it, it runs right out. In other words, whatever you teach that person
is useless. The second clay vessel he compared to one that had cracks in it.
If you pour water into it, the water seeps out. These people cannot
remember. Cannot put two and two together. Cracks in the understanding. The
third listener he compared to a vessel that was completely full. Water
cannot be poured in for it’s full to the brim. Such a person, so full of
views he can’t learn anything new! But hopefully, we are the fourth kind.
The empty vessels without any holes or cracks. Completely empty.

I dare say we are not. But may be empty enough to take in enough. To be
empty like that, of views and opinions, means a lack of clinging. Even a
lack of clinging to what we think is reality. Whatever we think reality is,
it surely is not, because if it were, we would never be unhappy for a single
moment. We would never feel a lack of anything. We would never feel a lack
of companionship, of ownership. We would never feel frustrated, bored. If we
ever do, whatever we think is real, is not. What is truly reality is
completely fulfilling. If we aren’t completely fulfilled, we aren’t seeing
complete reality. So, any view that we may have is either wrong or it is

Because it is wrong or partial, and bounded by the ego, we must look at it
with suspicion. Anything we cling to keeps us bound to it. If I cling to a
table-leg, I can’t possibly get out the door. There is no way I can move. I
am stuck. Not until I let go will I have the opportunity to get out. Any
identification, any possession that is clung to, is what stops us from
reaching transcendental reality. Now we can easily see this clinging when we
cling to things and people, but we cannot easily see why the five khandhas
are called the five clung-to aggregates. That is their name, and they are,
in fact, what we cling to most. That is an entire clinging. We don’t even
stop to consider when we look at our body, and when we look at our mind, or
when we look at feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness —
vedana, sañña, sankhara, and viññana. We look at this mind-and-body,
nama-rupa, and we don’t even doubt the fact that this is my feeling, my
perception, my memory, my thoughts, and my awareness of my consciousness.
And no one starts doubting until they start seeing. And for that seeing we
need a fair bit of empty space apart from views and opinions.

Clinging is the greatest possessiveness and attachment we have. As long as
we cling we cannot see reality. We cannot see reality because clinging is in
the way. Clinging colors whatever we believe to be true. Now it is not
possible to say “all right, I’ll stop clinging.” We can’t do that. The
process of taking the “me” apart, of not believing any more that this is one
whole, is a gradual one. But if meditation has any benefit and success, it
must show that first of all there is mind and there is body. There isn’t one
single thing acting in accord all the time. There is mind which is thinking
and making the body act. Now that is the first step in knowing oneself a
little clearer. And then we can note “this is a feeling” and “I am giving
this feeling a name” which means memory and perception. “This is the thought
that I am having about this feeling. The feeling has come about because the
mind-consciousness has connected with the feeling that has arisen.”

Take the four parts of the khandhas that belong to the mind apart. When we
do that while it is happening — not now when we are thinking about at-but
while it is happening, then we get a inkling that this isn’t really me, that
these are phenomena that are arising, which stay a moment, and then cease.
How long does mind-consciousness stay on one object? And how long do
thoughts last? And have we really invited them?

The clinging, the clung-to, are what make the ego arise. Because of clinging
the notion of “me” arises and then there is me, and me having all the
problems. Without me would there be problems? If there weren’t anyone
sitting inside me — as we think there is — who is called I or me or John,
Claire, then who is having the problem? The khandhas do not have any
problems. The khandhas are just processes. They are phenomena, and that is
all. They are just going on and on and on. But because I am grasping at
them, and trying to hold on to them, and saying: “it’s me, it’s me feeling,
it’s me wanting,.” then problems arise.

If we really want to get rid of suffering, completely and totally, then
clinging has to go. The spiritual path is never one of achievement; it is
always one of letting go. The more we let go, the more there is empty and
open space for us to see reality. Because what we let go of is no longer
there, there is the possibility of just moving without clinging to the
results of the movement. As long as we cling to the results of what we do,
as long as we cling to the results of what we think, we are bound, we are
hemmed in.

Now there is a third thing that we do: we are interested in becoming
something or somebody. Interested in becoming an excellent meditator.
Interested in becoming a graduate. Interested in becoming something which we
are not. And becoming something stops us from being. When we are stopped
from being, we cannot pay attention to what there really is. All this
becoming business is, of course, in the future. Since whatever there is in
the future is conjecture, it is a dream world we live in. The only reality
we can be sure of is this particular moment right now; and this particular
moment as you must be able to be aware of — has already passed and this one
has passed and the next one has also passed. See how they are all passing!
That is the impermanence of it all. Each moment passes, but we cling, trying
to hold on to them. Trying to make them a reality. Trying to make them a
security. Trying to make them be something which they are not. See how they
are all passing. We cannot even say it as quickly as they are doing it.

There is nothing that is secure. Nothing to hold on to, nothing that is
stable. The whole universe is constantly falling apart and coming back
together. And that includes the mind and the body which we call “I.” You may
believe it or not, it makes no difference. In order to know it, you must
experience it; when you experience it, it’s perfectly clear. What one
experiences is totally clear. No one can say it is not. They may try, but
their objections make no sense because you have experienced it. It’s the
same thing as biting into the mango to know its taste.

To experience it, one needs meditation. An ordinary mind can only know
ordinary concepts and ideas. If one wants to understand and experience
extraordinary experiences and ideas, one has to have an extraordinary mind.
An extraordinary mind comes about through concentration. Most meditators
have experienced some stage that is different then the one they are use to.
So it is not ordinary any more. But we have to fortify that far more than
just the beginning stage. To the point where the mind is truly
extraordinary. Extraordinary in the sense that it can direct itself to where
it wants to go. Extraordinary in the sense that it no longer gets perturbed
by everyday events. And when the mind can concentrate, then it experiences
states which it has never known before. To realize that your universe
constantly falls apart and comes back together again is a meditative
experience. It takes practice, perseverance and patience. And when the mind
is unperturbed and still, equanimity, evenmindedness, peacefulness arise.

At that time the mind understands the idea of impermanence to such an extent
that it sees itself as totally impermanent. And when one sees one’s own mind
as being totally impermanent, there is a shift in one’s viewpoint. That
shift I like to compare with a kaleidoscope that children play with. A
slight touch and you get a different picture. The whole thing looks quite
different with just a slight shift.

Non-self is experienced through the aspect of impermanence, through the
aspect of unsatisfactoriness, and through the aspect of emptiness. Empty of
what? The word “emptiness” is so often misunderstood because when one only
thinks of it as a concept, one says “what do you mean by empty?” Everything
is there: there are the people, and there are their insides, guts and their
bones and blood and everything is full of stuff — and the mind is not empty
either. It’s got ideas, thoughts and feelings. And even when it doesn’t have
those, what do you mean by emptiness? The only thing that is empty is the
emptiness of an entity.

There is no specific entity in anything. That is emptiness. That is the
nothingness. That nothingness is also experienced in meditation. It is
empty, it is devoid of a specific person, devoid of a specific thing, devoid
of anything which makes it permanent, devoid of anything which even makes it
important. The whole thing is in flux. So the emptiness is that. And the
emptiness is to be seen everywhere; to be seen in oneself. And that is what
is called anatta, non-self. Empty of an entity. There is nobody there. It is
all imagination. At first that feels very insecure.

That person that I’ve been regarding with so much concern, that person
trying to do this or that, that person who will be my security, will be my
insurance for a happy life — once I find that person — that person does
not really exist. What a frightening and insecure idea that is! What a
feeling of fear arises! But as a matter of fact, it’s just the reverse. If
one accepts and bears that fright and goes through it, one comes to complete
and utter relief and release.

I’ll give you a simile: Imagine you own a very valuable jewel which is so
valuable that you place your trust in it so that should you fall upon hard
times, it will look after you. It’s so valuable that you can have it as your
security. You don’t trust anybody. So you have a safe inside your house and
that is where you put your jewel. Now you have been working hard for a
number of years and you think you deserve a holiday. So now, what to do with
the jewel? Obviously you cannot take it with you on your seaside holiday. So
you buy new locks for the doors to your house and you bar your windows and
you alert your neighbors. You tell them about the proposed holiday and ask
them to look after you house — and the safe in it. And they say they will,
of course. You should be quite at ease and so you go off on your holiday.

You go to the beach, and it’s wonderful. Marvelous. The palm trees are
swaying in the wind, and the spot you’ve chosen on the beach is nice and
clean. The waves are warm and it’s all lovely. The first day you really
enjoy yourself. But on the second day you begin to wonder; the neighbors are
very nice people, but they do go and visit their children. They are not
always at home, and lately there has been a rash of burglaries in the
neighborhood. And on the third day you’ve convinced yourself that something
dreadful is going to happen, and you go back home. You walk in and open the
safe. Everything is all right. You go over to the neighbors and they ask,
“Why did you come back? We were looking after your place. You didn’t have to
come back. Everything is fine.”

The next year, the same thing. Again you tell the neighbors, “Now this time
I am really going to stay away for a month. I need this holiday as I’ve been
working hard.” So they say, “Absolutely no need to worry, just take off. Go
to the beach.” So once more you bar the windows, lock the doors, get
everything shipshape, and take off for the beach. Again, it’s wonderful,
beautiful. This time you last for five days. On the fifth day you are
convinced that something dreadful must have happened. And you go home. You
go home, and by golly, it has. The jewel is gone. You are in a state of
complete collapse. Total desperation. Depressed. So you go to the neighbors,
but they have no idea what has happened. they’ve been around all the time.
Then you sit and consider the matter and you realize that since the jewel is
gone, you might as well go back to the beach and enjoy yourself!

That jewel is self. Once it is gone, all the burden of looking after it, all
the fears about it, all the barring of doors and windows and heart and mind
is no longer necessary. You can just go and enjoy yourself while you’re
still in this body. After proper investigation, the frightening aspect of
losing this thing that seemed so precious turns out to be the only relief
and release from worry that there is.

There are three doors to liberation: the signless, the desireless, and
emptiness. If we understand impermanence, anicca, fully, it is called the
signless liberation. If we understand suffering, dukkha, fully, it is the
desireless liberation. If we understand no-self, anatta, fully, then it is
the emptiness liberation. Which means we can go through any of these three
doors. And to be liberated means never to have to experience an unhappy
moment again. It also means something else: it means we are no longer
creating kamma. A person who has been completely liberated still acts, still
thinks, still speaks and still looks to all intents and purposes like
anybody else, but that person has lost the idea that I am thinking, I am
speaking, I am acting. Kamma is no longer being made because there is just
the thought, just the speech, just the action. There is the experience but
no experiencer. And because no kamma is being made any longer, there is no
rebirth. That is full enlightenment.

In this tradition, three stages of enlightenment have been classified before
one comes to the fourth stage, full enlightenment. The first stage, the one
we can concern ourselves with — at least theoretically — is called
sotapanna. Stream-enterer. It means a person who has seen Nibbana once and
has thereby entered the stream. That person cannot be deterred from the Path
any more. If the insight is strong, there may be only one more life-time. If
the insight is weak, it can be seven more life-times. Having seen Nibbana
for oneself once, one loses some of the difficulties one had before. The
most drastic hindrance that one loses is the idea that this person we call
“I” is a separate entity. The wrong view of self is lost. But that doesn’t
mean that a sotapanna is constantly aware of no-self. The wrong view is
lost. But the right view has to be reinforced again and again and
experienced again and again through that reinforcement.

Such a person no longer has any great interest, and certainly no belief, in
rites and rituals. They may still be performed because they are traditional
or that are customary, but such a person no longer believes they can bring
about any kind of liberation (if they ever believed that before). And then a
very interesting thing is lost: skeptical doubt. Skeptical doubt is lost
because one has seen for oneself that what the Buddha taught was actually
so. Until that time skeptical doubt will have to arise again and again
because one can easily think: “Well, maybe. Maybe it’s so, but how can I be
sure?” One can only be sure through one’s own experience. Then, of course,
there is no skeptical doubt left because one has seen exactly that which has
been described, and having seen it, one’s own heart and mind gives an
understanding which makes it possible to see everything else.

Dhamma must have as its base the understanding that there is no special
entity. There is continuity, but there is no special entity. And that
continuity is what makes it so difficult for us to see that there really
isn’t anybody inside the body making things happen. Things are happening
anyway. So the first instance of having seen a glimpse of freedom, called
stream-entry, makes changes within us. It certainly does not uproot greed
and hate — in fact, they are not even mentioned. But through the greater
understanding such a person has, the greed and the hate lessen. They are not
as strong anymore, and they do not manifest in gross ways, but do remain in
subtle ways.

The next stages are the once-returner, then the non-returner, then the
arahat. Once-returner, one more life in the five-sense world. Non-returner,
no human life necessary, and arahat, fully enlightened. Sensual desire and
hate only go with non-returners, and complete conceit of self, only with

So we can be quite accepting of the fact that since we are not arahats, we
still have greed and hate. It isn’t a matter of blaming oneself for having
them: it’s a matter of understanding where these come from. They come from
the delusion of me. I want to protect this jewel which is me. That is how
they arise. But with the continued practice of meditation, the mind can
become clearer and clearer. It finally understands. And when it does
understand, it can see transcendental reality. Even if seen for one
thought-moment, the experience is of great impact and makes a marked change
in our lives.

Would you like to read more? You can find more writings by Sister Khema here