Wisdom and Insight: What we “wake up” to
A Talk by Andrea Fella (IMC, October 6, 2009)
(Transcribed and lightly edited by N. Willis)
This is our third week of the introduction to Buddhist teachings. I wanted to begin with a short recap of what we’ve talked about for the last two weeks. Did everybody here get the course outline? Ok.
The Buddha said, “All that I teach is suffering and the end of suffering”. Essentially, all of the teachings of the Buddha can fit under this heading of suffering and the end of suffering.
Through the Four Noble Truths these teachings are explored in a little more detail. The truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering and the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering.
Each of these truths has an action associated with it. These are truths are not meant to just be believed – they’re meant to be acted upon. They are meant to be lived truths. So the Buddha said that truth of suffering should be understood, and the truth of the cause of suffering, the craving, should be let go of. Through the exploration of suffering, the Buddha teaches, “All that I teach is suffering and the end of suffering”: the exploration of suffering; the exploration of understanding suffering; and the exploration of the cause of suffering, which is the craving, the wanting things to be other than they are — by letting go of that wanting and completely understand the suffering (by this we mean really understanding how suffering comes to be – what the conditions and the causes are that bring it about). When we really understand suffering, we experience the end of suffering. If we let go of the cause of suffering, we experience the end of suffering. So in the understanding of suffering is its release.
To understand suffering and to let go of its cause, to let of the wanting – these aren’t simply things that we can sit down and do right off the bat. It takes mental training to be able to explore these things in our experience. When we first sit down and explore suffering mostly what we do is we bounce off of it. We’re not particularly interested in understanding it – we want to get rid of it.
So it takes some mental training to learn what it means to explore suffering. To learn what it means to let go of the cause of suffering. Because that letting go of the cause of suffering isn’t something that we do – it’s not just a question of saying, “Ok, I’m going to let go of this” – it’s more a process that unfolds as we observe the wanting itself. So we observe the suffering, and we observe the wanting. The main tool that the Buddha taught for this observation is mindfulness.
Three aspects of the Eightfold Path, effort, mindfulness and concentration, are the tools that allow us to explore suffering, and yo let go of the cause of suffering. Without these tools, of mindfulness, concentration and effort, the practice is only a mental exercise. It’s not a lived experience. The practice that the Buddha taught is a path of living, not something just to believe or think about. Instead, it is something actually to engage in, moment-to-moment in our lives.
So the path leading to the end of suffering, the fourth Noble Truth, is meant to be cultivated. We cultivate the qualities that support our exploration of suffering and the end of suffering. We cultivate the qualities of non-harming that I talked about last week: wise speech, wise action, and wise livelihood. And we cultivate the meditative ability to stabilize and be present for our experience in the present moment.
The promise of Buddhism is that if we cultivate these qualities, the qualities of ethical conduct and of mental cultivation, that this will lead us to a deep happiness, a happiness that is not dependent on the external circumstances of the world. It’s not dependent on conditions.
This is a description of the third Noble Truth: the ending of suffering. The happiness that is the goal, in a sense, of the Buddha’s path, is the ending of suffering. It’s often called ‘nirvana’, which is the Sanskrit term for ‘enlightenment’ or ‘freedom from suffering’, or ‘nibbana’ in Pali. Nibbana or nirvana.
The word ‘nibbana’ means something like ‘to go out’, ‘to cool’, as in a fire going out.
The most concise definition of “Nibbana” in the Buddhist texts is “The absence of greed, the absence of aversion and the absence of delusion.” These are three qualities I’ve been talking about a lot in these past two weeks – greed, aversion and delusion. We’ve talked about them in terms of understanding what’s skillful in our actions, what’s skillful in terms of leading us away from suffering: non-greed, non-aversion, non-delusion. When we act out of greed, aversion and delusion we tend to suffer, so the claim here is that the complete eradication of greed, aversion and delusion is enlightenment.
It’s not some mystical, magical state of bells and whistles and lights – it’s the absence of greed, aversion and delusion.
There are several texts that talk about Nibbana. This reading come from different sources, but I like the way they flow together. This gives a sense of the meaning of this word ‘Nibbana’.
“The extinction of greed, the extinction of hate, the extinction of delusion – this indeed is called Nibbana. Enraptured with lust, enraged with anger, blinded by delusion, overwhelmed, with mind ensnared, man aims at his own ruin, at the ruin of others, at the ruin of both, and he experiences mental pain and grief. But if lust, anger and delusion are given up, man aims neither at his own ruin, nor at the ruin of others, nor at the ruin of both. And he experiences no mental pain and grief. This is Nibbana, immediate, visible in this life, inviting, attractive and comprehensible to the wise. And for a disciple thus freed, in whose heart dwells peace, there is nothing to be added to what has been done, and naught more remains for him to do. Just as a rock of one solid mass remains unshaken by the wind, even so neither forms nor sounds nor odors nor tastes nor contacts of any kind, neither the desired nor the undesired can cause such a one to waver. Steadfast is the mind, gained is deliverance. This is peace, this is exquisite. The resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbana.”
The texts also give a number of similes for nibbana that, put together, make a nice poetic experience, so I’ll read this to you as well.
“The unfashioned, the end,
the effluent-less, the true, the beyond,
the subtle, the very-hard-to-see,
the ageless, permanence, the undecaying,
the featureless, non-differentiation,
peace, the deathless,
the exquisite, bliss, solace,
the exhaustion of craving,
the wonderful, the marvelous,
the secure, security,
the unafflicted, the passionless, the pure,
the island, shelter, harbor, refuge,
Perhaps these descriptions sound a little remote, hard to fathom, or not really relevant to our daily experience. The texts describe the process of waking up, of coming to the realization of Nibbana, of the eradication of greed, aversion and delusion, as a process. It’s not usually something that is said to happen in one moment – although it apparently did for the Buddha. But in general the texts describe a process that happens over a period of time.
There are said to be four stages of enlightenment. At each of these stages it is said that more and more things are let go of, from the aspects of greed, aversion and delusion. And more and more subtle layers of greed, aversion and delusion are let go of at each of these stages of enlightenment.
At the first stage of enlightenment, it’s said that doubt in the teachings is eliminated. Attachment to rites and rituals is let go of, attachment to believing that doing some action is going to free your mind. In fact the Buddhist teachings say that if you believe in rites and rituals, it’s actually an impediment to becoming free, because people engage in these rites and rituals with the idea of gaining something. In the time of the Buddha, rites and rituals were a very common way for people to express their spiritual practice. Bathing in the river Ganges, burning certain herbs, believing that this would free them. The third thing let go of at this stage is identity view, the belief that there is a person here, doing things, experiencing things. This one we’ll talk a little bit more about later.
In the second stage of enlightenment, there is said to be an attenuation of greed, aversion and delusion. Nothing particularly is released at the second stage of enlightenment.
At the third stage of enlightenment, it’s also said that sense desire and ill-will are eliminated. So any attachment to the sense world is released at the third stage of enlightenment. And yet there are still subtle desires and aversions remaining in the mind.
At the fourth stage of enlightenment, it’s said that subtle desires for meditative states are eliminated – and conceit, restlessness and ignorance are eliminated.
This aspects that I have described, of the things that are eliminated, are enumerated in a list called the Ten Fetters. These are the ten things that are said to tie us to non-release, essentially. To tie us to this wheel.
Yes, did you have a question?
Just the second stage of enlightenment? The second stage of enlightenment is basically just a lessening of greed, aversion and delusion. Nothing in particular extra is released. That’s what it says in the texts. This is all from the texts, what I’m saying – not from personal experience! (laughs)
The fourth and fifth fetters are sense-desire and ill will. The fourth and fifth fetters are eliminated at the third stage.
Sense-desire. Sense-desire and ill will. Those are eliminated at the third stage. It’s amazing to me that in the third stage of enlightenment, this letting go happens. You know, you can be pretty enlightened and still attached to sense-pleasure. So this is something for all of us to recognize – that we’re going to be attached to sense-pleasure for a while. It’s not a mistake if you’re still feeling like you’re attached to sense-pleasure! (laughs)
Yes, is there a question over here?
In the fourth stage – what, what are the ten things you..?
Ok. I’ll list the ten fetters.
The first three fetters are doubt, attachments to rites and rituals, and identity view. And they are released at the first stage of enlightenment. The fourth and fifth fetters are sense-desire and ill will. They’re released at the third stage of enlightenment. And the last five fetters are released at the fourth stage of enlightenment.
And these last five fetters are: two forms of subtle desire for meditative states – the desire for the form realm and the desire for the formless realm: some subtle meditative states. Then there’s conceit, restlessness and ignorance.
‘Conceit’ is the idea of comparison – that I am greater than, less than, or equal to someone else – and that includes this subtle notion that ‘I am’. Conceit basically includes this notion that ‘I am’. So even before the final awakening there’s still some sense that ‘I am’.
I like looking at this teaching because it really points out that this is a process. It’s a long process for most of us. It’s not something that happens like this. (clicks fingers)
There’s another analogy that’s given in the texts that I really love that is another way to look at the gradual nature of this awakening process. The Buddha talks about a ship that has been pulled up onto land for the winter, and the rigging on that ship, the ropes on that ship, are attacked by the sun, the sand, the wind, water and rain. They get soggy, they dry out. And slowly over time those ropes rot. And he compares the gradual rotting away of that rope to the way that the fetters are eliminated.
Day by day you’re not going to be seeing much change in how those ropes look. But very slowly over time they get worn away. And that’s the way the practice works. It’s a slow process over time. The application of our effort, our mindfulness and our concentration slowly acts like the sun, the sand, and the wind, on those ropes. It slowly wears away at our clinging, our holding to things of the world.
So with this process, over time, we gain more of an understanding of the first two aspects of the Eightfold Path – wise understanding and wise intention.
As I said last week, it’s said to be the Eight*fold* Path, so all of these aspects are folded on top of each other. We start the path with some understanding, a little understanding of suffering, and some impetus towards finding a way out of suffering, an impetus towards freedom. We start with some inkling of the notion that things can be different, that there is a different way of living our lives. Through engaging in the practice, we gain a little bit of wisdom, which adds more impetus to the process, which adds more wisdom, which adds more impetus to the process. And so we just keep going around in this process. It’s not a one-shot thing. It’s a long process.
And so over time, as we bring mindfulness to our experience, turn our attention to our present-moment experience, that’s how the wearing-away off these fetters happens. And we start to understand some of what the Buddha is talking about.
So we start to gain some wisdom. Today mostly I want to talk about some of the aspects of wisdom. What it is that we begin to understand as we engage in this practice.
There are several main ways that wisdom, or wise understanding, is defined in the Buddhist texts. It’s defined as understanding the Four Noble Truths. It’s defined as understanding what is skillful and what is unskillful. As I mentioned before, skillful actions are those that are associated with non-greed, non-aversion, non-delusion. Understanding how greed, aversion and delusion lead to suffering, and how non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion leads us out of suffering. That’s an understanding of what’s skillful and what’s unskillful.
Another way the wisdom is defined is as an understanding of karma – that causes and conditions create our experience. When we act out of greed, aversion and delusion, those causes lead us towards suffering. As we act out of non-greed, non-aversion, non-delusion, those causes lead us out of suffering.
With the understanding of how karma works, we begin to move in the direction that leads us away from suffering. I talked some about karma the first week. I talked some about skillful and unskillful actions both the first and the second weeks. The Four Noble Truths I’ve been talking about as we go along.
There are two more ways that wisdom, wise understanding, is approached.
One of those is an understanding of impermanence, suffering and not-self. This is the understanding of anicca, dukkha, anatta, three terms that, if you hang around here much, you will hear.
‘Anicca’ means impermanence. ‘Dukkha’ means suffering. ‘Anatta’ means not-self.
Another way wise understanding is defined is understanding how the whole process of suffering comes into being through a process called ‘dependent origination’. That topic I will save for next week. Today I’m going to mostly focus on anicca, dukkha, and anatta.
But before I go there, are there any questions? Yes.
I wonder why the Pali terms are used, because there evidently are good translations for those words, that we understand, and somehow adding the Pali term distances Americans, I think, English speakers, makes it seem like some far off, exotic, mystical something – which it really isn’t!
No, it’s not.
But interjecting those words – and I’ve heard all the teachers do it – I just wonder why it’s necessary.
Well, for dukkha in particular, the term ‘dukkha’ is usually translated as ‘suffering’, but that term, actually, doesn’t do justice to the term ‘dukkha’. There isn’t any one good word that translates ‘dukkha’.
The ‘kha’ of ‘dukkha’ means ‘wheel’, and the ‘du-‘ part means ‘bad’. So ‘dukkha’ means ‘bad wheel’. If you had a wheel that’s just a bit off-center, it’s going to roll a little bit off. Dukkha may not be complete suffering – it just feels like something is not right. So ‘dukkha’ encompasses the depths of suffering that we meet, all the way through to the very subtlest kind of just feeling that something’s not quite right. Dissatisfaction, dis-ease, uncomfortableness. So a lot of teachers like to use ‘dukkha’ because it has a broader meaning. And over time people begin to understand that term.
Regarding ‘anicca’, as far as I know, ‘impermanence’ is a pretty good translation (laughs). ‘Anatta’, well, that means ‘not-self’. I think even to get your mind around the concept of not-self is not easy (laughs). So I think partly the teachers use them because they’re just such common words in the Buddhist vernacular that they just have been brought in – like ‘nirvana’ has been brought in, in a sense.
I’ve heard ‘dukkha’ defined as ‘dissatisfaction’. That I really understand, that nothing is really satisfactory. But another thing I’ve noticed is, besides the Pali terms, I think there’s a repetition of the same word over and over – for example ‘skillful’, ‘arises’, ‘mindfulness’, so for example if a teacher can say, “Now what are you aware of, right this moment?” rather than, “What is your experience?”, because the more I hear “What is your experience?”, “What is your experience?” – pretty soon it becomes meaningless. I guess my point is – and I’ve said this to several teachers – change the words a little bit so we get it a different way. Anyway that’s kind of my general complaint. It’s not just the Pali, it’s also the constant repetition of the same terms without defining them.
Right, yes, I understand that, yes. Thank you for your feedback. Anyone else have any questions before I move on? Yes, in the back.
I’d just like to defend the Pali. Admittedly for some people it must be foreign, but on the other hand, there’s different attitudes – you hear stories, you go to Burma, and the teacher hides all the books so you just meditate all day. There are different strokes for different folks. In defense of the Pali – these terms are actually like constructs, and the more one hears the Dharma from different teachers, the more they become rich and nuanced. And saying, “Oh, that’s dukkha”, then the whole influx of teachings you’ve heard come into play, and it’s like, “Oh, yes”. There’s a lot in that term, and it becomes like a mantra.
Yes, I agree. Another thing is that different people translate these terms in different ways, and this becomes clear as you explore the teachings. For instance, one translator translates ‘dukkha’ as ‘stress’. So he uses ‘stress’ over and over again, that’s his translation for the term ‘dukkha’. Others use ‘suffering’. Some writers use ‘skillful’ and ‘unskillful’, others use ‘wholesome’ and ‘unwholesome’ for the Pali terms ‘kusala’ and ‘akusala’ respectively. So if you understand the Pali you begin to see, “Ok, that is what this person is talking about. When they’re talking about stress, they mean ‘dukkha'”. It gives you a bit of a window back into the original teachings when you learn a few of the selected Pali terms. And there are not that many, actually, that we use here. But there are some. And this set – ‘anicca’, ‘dukkha’, ‘anatta’, is definitely a set that we use. (laughs)
We’ll get used to it!
Anyone else, a question? Ok. There’s a couple of other pieces before I move on to talking about anicca, dukkha and anatta.
Each of these aspects of wise understanding – the Four Noble Truths; the understanding of what’s skillful and what’s unskillful; the understanding of karma; the understanding of anicca, dukkha, anatta; and the understanding of dependent origination – all of these serve a two-fold role for us in the practice. They serve as a framework through which we can begin to understand our experience. So we explore our experience using effort, mindfulness, concentration – and frame it through some of these wisdom teachings. For instance, last week I talked about applying wise attention to understanding the present moment. “This is suffering’; “This is the cause of suffering”; “This is the end of suffering”; “This is the path leading to the end of suffering”. Using the Four Noble Truths essentially as a framework for exploring our experience in the present moment.
We can do the same with impermanence, suffering, not-self. For example, you might use impermanence as a frame of reference through which to observe your experience. Consciously choosing to highlight when you notice things beginning and ending. Noticing change of seasons, reflecting on impermanence when something is broken or lost. We can consciously bring these reflections to our experience.
We can explore the landscape of our present-moment experience through these teachings, using them as frameworks for understanding. That’s why it’s called ‘wise understanding’.
These aspects of wise understanding also describe the insights that we experience as we engage in the practice. So we have insight into the Four Noble Truths. We have insight into karma. We have insight into impermanence, suffering, not-self.
It’s important to recognize the difference (between using the teachings as a framework for understanding our experience, and an actual insight).) For instance, perhaps we are engaging in an exploration of impermanence, consciously orienting our observation of experience around noticing impermanence. That conscious orientation towards that understanding is different from an insight into it. We can notice, “Yes, when I cut up my food and I eat it, the food disappears”. “When I break something, that thing is gone”. “When I use my gas in my gas tank, it’s gone; that’s impermanent”. We can reflect on those things. That’s different from having an insight into impermanence.
Insight is often accompanied by some kind of a feeling that what you’re experiencing is unexpected, or it’s a surprise. So you might for instance be paying attention to an emotion, bringing your attention to a feeling in your body, and noticing anger, for instance; bringing mindfulness to the present-moment experience of anger. And hanging out with it, over time, you might notice it disappear. You might actually be present when it vanishes and recognise in that moment that it’s kind of a shock: “Where is it now? It was here just a moment ago, and now it’s gone”.
So there’s a way in which an insight has a different quality to it. It feels different. So we have insight into the Four Noble Truths, insight into understanding what’s skillful and unskillful; insight into karma. These insights can be very deep, very profound, and life-altering. And often they are insights at a particular level of understanding. So we understand something about impermanence at a certain level, but maybe not all the way down to completely understanding that everything, absolutely everything, in the universe, in our experience, that everything is impermanent.
There’s a kind of layering around these understandings, so that as we explore these teachings, we gain some insight that prompts us to explore some more, and then we deepen our insight. It’s a process around letting go, a process around understanding and deepening into these insights.
When you say that insight has a felt sense…?
It seems to. I would hesitate to say that it always does. I can’t think of an instance where it doesn’t at the moment, but much of what I’ve experienced in the way of insight does have a sense, like the “Ah-ha!” effect (laughs). It’s the “Ah-ha – now I understand! It’s so obvious – how could I not have seen this!” kind of thing.
So anicca, dukkha, anatta. Impermanence, suffering, not-self. As we get instruction in mindfulness, these are the insights that come out of the mindfulness practice, these insights into impermanence, suffering, not-self. In fact the term ‘vipassana’, which is the Pali term for what we call insight meditation, ‘vipassana’, (pronounced sometimes as ‘wipassana’)- has two parts to it, the ‘vi’ part, and the ‘passana’ part. ‘Passana’ means ‘seeing clearly’ and ‘vi’ means something like ‘various things’. The commentaries say that the ‘various things’ that you see clearly are: impermanence, suffering and not-self. So the insights in insight meditation are oriented around these three aspects of experience.
As we engage in our mindfulness practice, the basic instructions of mindfulness practice are to pay attention to your experience, to notice what’s happening, to notice the kind of characteristics of your experience, and then to notice what happens to your experience. So we observe our bodily experience. For instance, you might observe pressure, vibration, heat, tingling, pulsing, or you observe emotions, you might observe anger, frustration and irritation. You observe thoughts. While observing thoughts you might notice that you see images as you think, or you might notice that you hear sound as if somebody’s talking to you, or as if you’re talking to yourself. This is getting familiar with observing the processes of the mind and body.
And then there’s the instruction about paying attention to what happens to your experience as you observe it.
So the first part of the instruction – noticing the present-moment experience – leads to a sharpening of mindfulness, a sharpening of the ability to see clearly. The second part of the instruction – noticing what happens to your experience – begins to introduce us to what might be called the general characteristics of our experience. The first instruction is pointing us to what might be called the specific characteristics of our experience – the specificity of seeing our thoughts as images or hearing as sound, the specificity of feeling pressure as a bunch of tingling and vibrating experience, or the specificity of feeling heaviness.
That first part is pointing us to the specificity of our experience; the second part to the general characteristics of our experience. And the general characteristics of our experience are threefold. They are impermanent, they are suffering, and they are not-self.
As we observe our experience in the present moment, these three characteristics start to become clear as actual understandings. It’s no longer a thought, it’s no longer an idea that something’s impermanent, it’s witnessed that it is impermanent. Deeply witnessed.
So impermanence, anicca. Everyone understands things are impermanent. This is not a surprise to people. But deeply understanding impermanence is not something most of us really connect with.
We do understand that people get old, they get sick and they die, but we feel “that’s not going to happen to me anytime soon”. The deep understanding of impermanence is a deep recognition that we are impermanent, that all of our experience comes and goes. At the ordinary level we can see this. Actually, a reflection on the ordinary aspect of impermanence can be very transformative. Reflecting daily on the fact that you will grow old, that you’re of a nature to age, that you’re of a nature to sicken, that you’re of a nature to die; reflecting regularly on that aspect of impermanence can be very transformative. There’s a lot of wisdom that can be gained through those simple reflections.
Then as we engage in a deeper exploration through mindfulness, we start to see that even at very subtle levels there’s not anything that’s permanent, and what we normally think of as solid, really here, when we start observing it with mindfulness, all of our experience just breaks up into tiny little bits. It’s just rapidly changing phenomena. As we move into a deeper state, or a more continual state of meditation, when mindfulness gets very, very continuous, we learn the truth of impermanence at a very deep level. It becomes very clear that there is nothing that lasts for more than a split second. This leads to insight and wisdom because when the mind clearly understands that nothing is permanent, it stops wanting to hold on to things that are just going to disappear.
So the deep experiencing of impermanence leads to this wisdom. It’s not simply seeing impermanence that is the point, it’s really the impact it has on the mind’s desire to cling. It has a very deep impact upon the mind’s desire to cling as the mind experiences just how rapidly things change.
The second aspect, dukkha – suffering, unsatisfactoriness, stress, dis-ease – this is a reflection of the fact that the experiences, the things that we grasp, the things that we try to hold on to, don’t actually make us happy. They don’t ultimately make us happy, in large part because they are impermanent. We think that things in the world will make us happy. We think that, “If I get that thing, if I arrange my world this way, if I fix things up in such-and-such a way, I will be happy”.
When those things change, when we’ve arranged something and then it falls apart, we suffer. We get something, we’re happy with it for a little while, and then it kind of wears off. It’s like, “Well, yeah, that car was great two years ago, but now it’s just my car, it’s not so great, it’s got a few dings in it, it costs a lot of money to maintain”. Actually, in many ways, we don’t really believe that this one thing will make us happy forever, but we do believe that somehow arranging our life such that we have one thing after another, that we arrange and fix and organize – that that will make us happy.
When we can’t do it, we suffer. We feel like we’ve failed, we feel like we’ve made a mistake, we feel like we’re wrong or bad or somehow something is wrong with the universe, because we haven’t been able to make our lives be just the way we want them.
So as we explore this, we start to understand that it is partly the wanting and the clinging that is what leads to the suffering. On a meditative level, as we begin to explore our experience in a meditative way, we really start to experience our suffering very directly, very clearly. We see not only the suffering, we also see how the mind contributes to it through holding on, through wanting things to be other than they are in this moment. We endlessly want things to be different. And in our meditative understanding of this, we see how our minds contribute to this, how our desire for things to be different contributes to our suffering.
Now this is not to say that we’re not supposed to try to change things. I really want to make sure that’s clear. This is not about saying we’re not supposed to try to change things. But what it is saying is what’s happening now is what’s happening now. Wishing it were some other way is suffering. That’s not to say we can’t act in a way to try to change the circumstances in the future.
A question came up last week about attachment to results, and understanding intellectually that attachment to results is a form of suffering, but not really understanding it deeply. So when we see things happening in our world that cause suffering – not only for ourselves, but for others – there are so many things in our society that do this – when we see that, we can make a movement towards change. We can try to engage in a skillful way, with skillful action, but without attachment to a particular outcome. It’s a kind of paradox in a way. We can move in a particular direction without attaching to it, without saying it has to be this way in the future. If we attach to a particular result in the future, if that result doesn’t come to pass, we will suffer.
So we can move in a direction – and in fact the whole of the spiritual practice is like this. We set our intention to move in a direction and yet we can’t attach to the outcome, we can’t demand that it be at a particular time in a particular way. It’s more of a journey. At each moment, making skillful choices. At each moment, choosing to act out of non-greed, non-aversion, non-delusion, as the way to maneuver towards freedom. But when, where, how it will manifest, we have very little control over that.
So, the practice to understanding suffering doesn’t mean that we simply sit there and sit in it. And it doesn’t mean that we cling to some view of how it’s supposed to be different.
When we meet our suffering in meditation, often we just meet it, we just sit with it, we just feel it, and there’s not much we can do about it. The second Noble Truth tells us to let go of the cause of suffering. Let go of the wanting – and yet, sometimes we can’t, sometimes we feel the wanting, we feel the holding, we feel the clinging, and we have no idea how to let go of it. Just no idea. So sometimes all we can to do is observe our suffering.
That exploration is part of our meditative practice — the understanding of what the experience of suffering is. We can’t just step around it – sometimes we have to feel it. That process itself, of feeling the suffering with mindfulness, without reacting to it, without judgment. These are some of the instructions for mindfulness: bringing mindful attention to our experience without reactivity, without judgment. Can we sit with suffering without reacting to it? This begins to educate us – it educates us towards making certain, more skillful choices. So, for instance – and I’ll try to keep this quick, because I want to get on to the third part – in observing an emotion like anger, if you observe it over time, you may at first just feel the pain of it, feel the pain of the anger, the suffering of the anger. And then over time, as you observe more and more, you might start to see patterns that lead you into anger. And as you start to see the patterns that lead you into anger, having spent time in the space of the suffering of anger, as the mind begins to see the triggers that lead you there, it begins to say, “Oh, I know where that’s headed. I won’t go there”. The mind begins to let go because the mind understands that it is headed towards suffering. So the exploration of suffering is a challenging but very important part of how the process unfolds for us.
You mentioned the three types of dukkha?
I don’t have time (laughs). I mentioned that in the first week, I think.
So in terms of the insight that happens for us around dukkha, as the mind deeply understands the suffering that results from clinging, when the mind sees it’s headed towards clinging, it realizes, “Oh, I’m not going to go there. I’m just not going to go there.” So the mind starts to let go of the clinging, because it understand the suffering that results from it, and the mind understands its own contribution to the suffering.
The third part – non-self. This concept is often hard for people to grasp. It’s a hard concept to get your mind around. But basically this teaching tells us that there is nothing in our experience that is stable enough, permanent enough, that exists, actually, longer than a split second, that can be called self.
What we think of as our self is a process. It’s a process of mind and body, flowing on, and in that process of mind and body flowing on, some thoughts come up about me and mine and I. Those thoughts essentially create the idea of self. So “self” is basically a thought. It’s an idea. It’s a belief. It’s not a thing – there is no thing there to call ‘self’. This points to the ephemeral nature of existence – everything we experience is in a process of flux. Like impermanence, there’s nothing substantial to pin anything down with. As anything comes into being it’s already vanishing, it’s kind of like mist, or vapor, there’s just nothing there. It’s like a magic show, an illusion created because we don’t see the rapidity of change. We attribute self to things because we don’t see how fast things are changing.
There’s a distinction in my own mind between impermanence and this teaching on not-self through the way that we relate to our experience. With respect to the insight around impermanence versus the insight around not-self: when we experience impermanence of things, we might have a sense of there being some – thing – that was there and is now no longer there. But when we have the insight into not-self, we realize at a very deep level that there’s nothing there. There actually is nothing there. There’s a process that’s happening, but there’s no ‘thing’. Sometimes people express a fear of anatta. “Yeah, impermanence I can wrap my mind around, but this teaching on not-self, that’s kind of frightening to me”.
Well, it’s not something that you have to sign up to, actually. You don’t have to believe it at all. One of the teachings that I love around this topic points to just paying attention to your experience. The teaching is found in a text called the Bahiya Sutta, in which the Buddha offers a teaching to an ascetic named Bahiya.
Bahiya came to the Buddha and asked him to teach him the teachings in brief. The Buddha responded, “This is how you should train yourself. In the seen will be only the seen. In the heard, only the heard. In the sensed, only the sensed. In the cognized, only the cognized. This is now you should train yourself.”
So the Buddha says just turn to your direct experience. Look at what is happening moment-to-moment. Seeing is a process. Seeing is happening. Hearing is a process. Sounds arising and passing away. Sensing – smelling, tasting, touching is a process. These things are arising and passing away. Thoughts, emotions, things cognized – these are processes. We see something, we identify it as a shape or a color or a form – that’s another process arising in the mind.
“In the seen is only the seen. In the heard is only the heard. In the sensed is only the sensed. In the cognized is only the cognized”. You might call this bare attention. Coming into present moment experience without adding ideas, opinions, beliefs or views onto experience. The Buddha went on to say to Bahiya, “When for you, in the seen is only the seen, in the heard is only the heard, in the sensed is only the sensed and in the cognized is only the cognized – then there will be no ‘you’ in terms of that. When there is no ‘you’ in terms of that, there is no ‘you’ there. When there is no ‘you’ there, you are neither here, nor yonder, nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of suffering”.
The Buddha pointed to this bare attention. He said pay attention to that. You don’t have to believe in not-self. When you really land in your present moment experience, you will see there is no ‘you’ in terms of that. There is no ‘you’ there. So you don’t have to believe this teaching. But I do encourage you to pay attention to your experience. Notice what you find in your experience.
So as we have these insights, as we gain in our wisdom, gain in understanding, our intentions start to come into line with our wisdom. So this is wise intention – that as we understand things though the actual insight, we move towards acting out of that wisdom. And this is wise intention.
Next week I’ll talk about dependent origination, which is another main wisdom teaching, and also I will talk about the kinds of qualities that result in our minds as we become more and more free. We’ve talked about non-greed, non-aversion, non-delusion. As we move more in that direction there’s a whole bunch of beautiful qualities that kind of come along for the ride, so next week I will also talk about those.