STEPS ON THE WAY
There are three ways to approach the Dhamma. One is by acquiring
knowledge through study of the Buddha's discourses, trying to remember
them as faithfully as possible. That is very useful for the
propagation of the teaching through lectures and books.
Another way is through devotion, offering flowers and incense,
reciting devotional verses, giving gifts and making merit. Generosity
and meritorious action were highly recommended by the Buddha, but he
didn't put any value on just being in the presence of monks and nuns.
Once there was a monk who was so enraptured with the Buddha that he
never wanted to be out of his sight. When this monk became sick one
day and was unable to see the Buddha, he became despondent. The other
monks asked him why he was so unhappy. He explained that he was
depressed because he could not see the Buddha, who then came to visit
the sick monk and said to him: "What do you see in this vile form?
There is nothing to see in that. Whoever sees me, sees the Dhamma,
whoever sees Dhamma, sees me. "
The third approach to Dhamma, namely practice, has always been the
one most highly recommended by the Buddha. He said a person with real
reverence and devotion is one who lives according to the teaching.
There are a number of steps to be taken when we approach the Dhamma
through practice. The foundation would be moral conduct, meritorious
actions, making good kamma. Without such a foundation, we do not have
enough security within to be peaceful and at ease with ourselves,
which are prerequisites for meditation.
This has sometimes been misinterpreted to mean that we should not
meditate unless we have already complete purity of precepts and gained
perfect mindfulness. But that doesn't follow, because it's meditation
that helps us to gain mindfulness, and gives us insight into the
efficacy of the precepts.
The next practice aspect is to guard our senses. This is frequently
mentioned by the Buddha, so that it bears repeating and remembering.
Without guarding our senses, we are always open to being tempted into
wanting and craving, resulting in turmoil in the mind. Our sense
contacts are triggers for lust and hate.
Our senses are so permanently engaged that we have lost sight of
their impact, are taking all that for granted and think that's just
the way it is. We also believe that what we see, hear, taste, touch,
smell and think is really exactly as we are interpreting it. That's
fundamental error. Everyone experiences their sense contacts in an
Here is an example: The food Westerners eat is considered baby food
in Asia: food spiced in the Asian way appears like hellfire to the
Western palate. Even such a basic necessity as food shows up as a
completely opposite experience. We can infer from that, that we all
live in our own world. People argue vehemently because they believe
their world must be the right one and even kill each other because of
The Buddha was often asked such a question as: "Is the world finite
or infinite, eternal or not?" His answer was: "What is the world? The
world are our sense contacts." When asked questions such as these, the
Buddha always brought the questioner back to practice. When we know
that the world we live in consists of our sense contacts, we have
something to practice with. When we know that the world is eternal or
not, what is there to practice with?
Our senses include thinking, which is an almost constantly operating
faculty. At this moment, we have touch, sound, sight and thought
contact. Four of our six senses are engaged. Because our senses have
been at work all our lives we believe that is the only way life can be
experienced, which creates our deep craving to continue in this form.
There is danger in this craving, something most people are not aware
of consciously. Subconsciously we all know about it, because that's
where our fears originate. If we examine ourselves for a moment we
will realize that we harbor many fears, all carrying different names.
Some people are afraid of spiders or snakes, some are afraid of the
dark, some are afraid of airplanes, others that their loved ones may
die, or that they might lose all their money. All sorts of different
names for exactly the same fear; the fear of losing one's
identifications, the fear of unpleasant, painful sense contacts,
ultimately the fear of annihilation. Yet losing this existence is a
guaranteed outcome of being alive. It's just a matter of time.
These fears are caused by our attachment to our pleasant sense
contacts, identifying with them and believing that apart from our
senses there is no other reality. Naturally we want that to continue
then. We take our unpleasant experiences in stride, expecting them to
cease and the pleasant ones to arise again. If our unpleasant sense
contacts are in the majority, then we say we are having a lot of
//dukkha//. Or we might say: "I'm having a problem." As a matter of
fact we are all having the same problem, namely that of not being
enlightened. When we come to the realization that our sense contacts
are very momentary and their inherent satisfaction a matter of
opinion, we will find it easier to let go of them during meditation.
Meditation will only happen when the sense contacts, particularly
the thinking, are suspended. If, for instance, the touch contact in
the sitting position is recognized and attended to as unpleasant, the
mind starts working on that. Remembering what someone said yesterday,
last week or even ten years ago, can start the mind churning. This is
all due to our attachment to our senses and our identification with
From all sense contacts feelings arise, there is no way that can be
altered, but we can stop ourselves from reacting to such feelings, and
believing that they belong to us. To get our meditation to a
concentrated state, we must refuse to react to feelings arisen from
sense contacts. The more we practice this in daily life, the easier it
will be to become concentrated in meditation. We don't have to go
along with this natural reaction of human beings. Meditative
absorptions are supermundane and therefore require supermundane
qualities in us. Whenever the Buddha described the way to Nibbana he
included the meditative absorptions as part of the practice, to lead
us to the inner realization of the Dhamma.
Guarding our senses is not only important in meditation, but equally
valid in daily life. In a meditation course, where there isn't as much
input as in ordinary situation, it is a little easier to protect our
minds from liking or disliking what we see, hear, taste, touch, smell
and think. In order to facilitate this, we need to practice hearing
only sounds, without explaining to ourselves what it is we heard. When
the mind starts telling its story about the sound, at least we will
know what we are doing, namely investing sound with a reality which
gives it importance.
The same applies to eye contact. If, for instance, we are looking at
a bush, our mind will say: "Oh, a cinnamon bush; who planted it? I
wonder if we can use it?" Or any number of other ideas. Instead of all
this, we can look at that which we call "bush" and be aware that our
eyes are touching upon a form and thereby stopping the mind from
making up stories. If we can manage to do this once or twice outside
of meditation, we can use the same method of handling sense input in
meditation. When we guard ourselves against the mind-made details of
sense contacts, we are in less danger of falling into greed and hate.
We will find this a great help in becoming concentrated in meditation.
Our lives are governed by our senses, but we do not have to continue
with that. It is not compulsory. Within the operation of our six
senses, it is not possible to find continued and unadulterated
happiness. If it were possible, we would already be blissfully
contented, since we have been having sense input day after day, life
after life. The answer does not lie in improving our sense contacts,
even though most people do try that, but rather in improving our
reactions, so that eventually equanimity becomes our mode of living.
This is the promise the Buddha made to us, namely that we can get out
of all //dukkha//, all problems, but not by having only wonderful
sense contacts and not a single moment of unpleasantness. Such a thing
has never been possible, not even when the Buddha himself was alive.
But we can have moments when we are actually able to do just that.
That one moment gives us the initial experience what it is like to be
free, which is the only kind of freedom to be found in human life.
There is no other. Anyone who understands the Buddha's explicit
instructions, especially those who meditate, can practice in this
The next step to be taken is mindfulness, accompanied by clear
comprehension (//sampajanna//). Mindfulness is the mental factor of
just knowing, clear comprehension the one of understanding. We need
both. That too can and should be practiced in daily life. Mindfulness
of the body was praised by the Buddha as leading to the "deathless," a
synonym for Nibbana. When we watch our body's actions and realize that
it can only follow the mind's instructions, this is our first step
into insight. Usually we take mind and body for granted. Most people
are more interested in their body than in their mind and are looking
after the body very well. Very few people are looking after their
Being aware of our body's movements gives us a chance to be alert
without thinking, just knowing. Clear comprehension is our
four-pronged mode of discrimination described previously.
We might think that such discrimination would slow us down unduly,
that we won't be able to get our work done. Actually it has the
opposite effect, because we will not do anything that is unnecessary.
When we use mindfulness and clear comprehension again and again, they
will become a habit, which will enhance our abilities to attain calm
and insight. When we experience our mind ordering our body around,
this is different from just knowing about it. We become intimately
acquainted with our dual aspect of mind and body and can begin to
investigate where is "me" in that. We may eventually find that "me" is
our wish to be eternal, not to be annihilated.
Most people would like to experience calm, bliss and tranquillity in
meditation. But those, whose minds are very active need to gain
insight first in order to become calm. Those, whose minds are more
peaceful in any case, find it easier to become calm first and gain
insight later. A little calm creates a little insight and vice versa.
In practice we work on both these aspects to give ourselves the best
chance to develop both simultaneously. When we watch the breath going
in and out of the nostrils, we try to achieve a calm and peaceful
mind. When the mind strays to thinking, we first realize "I'm
thinking," and then see the impermanent nature of each thought, and
how it so often rolls along without any purpose. This is a valuable
insight, because we can infer that our thoughts are frequently not to
be believed, are unimportant, have no solidity and do not provide a
secure foothold for us.
Without such an experience, we might continue to believe all our
thoughts and try using them as solid foundations for our life. but
when we see in meditation, that we can't remember what we were
thinking from one second to the next, that belief is shattered, never
to arise again. When we start doubting our thoughts, that doesn't mean
we start doubting ourselves. It refers to doubting our views and
opinions, which is a most valuable practice.
In the discourse on living-kindness (Karaniya Metta Sutta) an Arahat
is described as being totally free from all views. What the Buddha
expounded to us were his own experiences. Viewpoints are always based
on our wrong assumption that there is a "me" and are therefore
discolored by this underlying error. When we realize what our minds
are up to, we will eventually stop having so many viewpoints and
thereby let go of some of the mind's clutter. Most minds are full of
ideas, hopes, plans, memories and opinions. Right and wrong are often
based on culture or tradition and have no ultimate validity. They
clutter up the mind and leave no space for a totally new outlook upon
ourselves and the world.
An important step in this sequence is self-conquest, which the
Buddha described as the way to Nibbana. As long as we react to our
feelings created through sense contacts, we must admit that we are
"reactors" rather than "actors," victims rather than masters. We like
to think of ourselves as more exalted than that, yet when we observe
reality, that is all we can find. As soon as we have overcome this
habitual reacting, we have taken a step towards conquering ourselves.
We do not force ourselves into unpleasant situations, which we
haven't learned to cope with yet, because the mind will again react
negatively, which doesn't help us on the path. We need not sit in
excruciating pain in meditation, but we need to observe our mind and
its activity. This will assist us also in daily living when unpleasant
feelings and dislike arise because of words we hear or sights we see.
When we learn to accept things the way they are, self-conquest has
taken place which releases us from views and opinions.
//Dukkha// arises from the fact that we don't like the law of
nature, to which we are subject. We don't like our loved ones dying,
we don't like physical pain or lack of appreciation, we don't like
losing what we prize. If we could just accept the way it is it would
go a long way towards looking at the world more realistically, with
less passion, which is the way to freedom. Our passionate desires keep
us in bounds.
When we have the opportunity to sit quietly and watch ourselves, new
insights about ourselves may arise. We are the prototype of
impermanence. But when our mind veers toward the past and starts
rehashing old movies, it's time to turn it off. The past cannot be
changed. The person who experienced the past, no longer exists, is
only a fantasy now. When the mind strolls to the future, imagining how
we would like it to be, we can let go by remembering the future has no
reality either. When it happens, it can only be the present, and the
person planning the future is not the same one, who will experience
it. If we stay in this moment, here and now, during meditation, we can
use that same skill in daily life.
When we handle each moment with mindfulness and clear comprehension,
everything functions well, nothing goes amiss, our mind is content and
inner peace can arise. Keeping our attention focused on each step on
the way will eventually bring us to the summit.
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