The Way It Is
Feeling conditions desire
In the beginning of the practice, the paticcasamuppada is avijjapaccaya sankhara: ignorance conditions the kammic formations. Avijja is the ignorance of not knowing the Four Noble Truths. There is ignorance in any being who does not understand that there is suffering, the arising of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the Path leading to its cessation. Conversely the word for knowledge in this sense is vijja. Vijja is the knowing of the four Noble Truths: the insight into suffering, origin, cessation and Path.
When we haven't had insight into Truth, avijja, not knowing, conditions the sankhara. We create an 'I am'. The sankhara 'I am' is created and conditioned from that avijja. If you notice, the First Noble Truth does not say 'I suffer'; the First Noble Truth says, 'There is suffering; there is dukkha.' It's not saying that anybody suffers. However, we think we suffer, don't we? We think, 'I suffer a lot in this life...... He's a real sufferer....... She suffers all the time....... I've suffered a lot in my life. I wasn't born with the best kammic formations available on this planet and I've really had to suffer. Poor me!' But the suffering is what we create out of ignorance. And so the important point the Buddha made was that we should live in accordance with knowledge rather than ignorance.
This Buddhist practice is a way of knowledge, of knowing; it's all about knowing the truth. That's why I don't particularly feel sorry for anybody when they think they suffer a lot. I could say, 'Poor thing. I really feel sorry for you that you've had to suffer.' But this thinking you are suffering is not the position of knowing. Things have happened in the past, perhaps unfortunate occurrences, and then we think and indulge which carries it on in the present with all kinds of additional suffering. But when there's knowledge, insight, avijja, then we realise there's nobody to suffer. We see things as they are. Every human being has the ability to see clearly the way things are and not create suffering about it.
Now admittedly we've all experienced unfortunate things or done foolish things. This is just ordinary human experience, isn't it? When we're born anything can happen to us. The whole range of life's experiences from the most fortunate to the most unfortunate ones are all possible for us. That's the result of birth. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just the way it is. Birth in the human realm is risky - we can't be sure what we're getting into. It could be a real mess, or it could be a delight; or it could be sometimes messy and sometimes delightful, or one-quarter messy, three-fourths mediocre and no delightful things at all.
Being born in this human world into sensory consciousness, is like this: it's unstable, uncertain, it changes, and we cannot find any security within it. This is what we all have in common. From the most fortunate to the least fortunate human beings, we are all vulnerable, being in a shape and form that can be damaged, hurt and diseased. When we look at this side of our human existence then we don't feel the prejudices and strong views of race and class and sex and nationality and so forth. We're all brothers and sisters in old age, sickness and death.
Having been born, there's vi˝˝anna, consciousness, there's body, nama-rupa. There are sense organs - salayatana - the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind. There is phassa or contact with the sense objects; and there's vedana, feeling. This vedana is the result of birth and consciousness, and, in this sense, is applied to sensory experience, to the attractive, neutral and unattractive qualities. The experience of vedana through the eyes doesn't mean your eyes ache or hurt; it means that when you see beautiful flowers as attractive that the vedana of attraction is pleasant. There is also unpleasant or neutral feeling. Then that whole process will stimulate desire, grasping and becoming (tanha-upadana-bhava). We become what we desire. Now apply that to all the senses and their objects - to sound, smell, taste, touch and thought. Some of our thoughts are very pleasant; some are neither pleasant nor unpleasant, and some are unpleasant.
This is the sensitivity of these bodies; they're totally sensitive conditions; they're conscious and they feel. This is just the way it is. Some of you only want to be partially sensitive, don't you. You're frightened of being totally sensitive. You'd like to become only sensitive to nice things, and you'd like to pray to God and say: 'Oh God, please give me everything nice, only pleasant feelings, and please make everything beautiful for me. And never let me suffer, and let me always have success and happiness and beautiful people around me until I die.......' And that's the whinging human mind wanting only partial sensitivity.
The vijja or the insight knowledge is knowing the pleasant and neutral and unpleasant as they are. We're not asking for partial sensitivity any more, or for the best of the sensory experiences, but we are opening towards total sensitivity which includes all possibilities for pain, ugliness, unpleasantness. Avijja says: 'I don't want to lose my looks; I don't want to have any unpleasant experiences; I want to be happy'. That's avijja. Vijja says: 'There is suffering; there is the origin and the cessation, and there is the way out of suffering.'
So contemplate this 'I am' during this retreat, this 'I am' that cries and weeps and fears and desires. Why are we frightened? What are we frightened of and anxious about? It is the possibility of pain, isn't it? Of being physically harmed, diseased or emotionally exploited, or hurt in some way; being rejected, being unloved, being looked down on, getting cancer or Parkinson's disease....... 'I don't want that; I want perfect health....... I'm afraid I might have some terrible disease....... What if I have one of those heart attacks where for the next thirty to forty years I'm a kind of cabbage and the monks have to do everything, put me on the potty.......? I don't want that, I couldn't bear to be a nuisance or a burden to anyone.' 'I don't want to be a burden;' that's an English obsession, isn't it?
So the 'I am' is something to contemplate and observe because this is something that we're convinced is reality for us. For most human beings 'I am' is truth because of ignorance. And then it's very natural to want happiness and want to run away from pain. You see something beautiful, you grasp it, you want it. Something ugly - you want to get rid of it. That's the natural reaction on the sensory plane. If that's all there is to it, then you just have to try to get all the best you can and run away from all the bad, and there's no way out of it. It's each one for themselves - survival. The clever and the strong survive, and the stupid and the weak will be at the bottom, in the pits.
But the human being is equipped with a reflective mind; we can reflect and contemplate vedana. We can observe and contemplate what attraction is and what beauty is. We're not just dumb animals: we can actually watch ourselves wanting to grab, and possess the beautiful. We can observe and reflect on our aversion to anything ugly and unpleasant; and we can also contemplate what is neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
Our normal breathing is neither pleasant nor unpleasant; it's neither attractive nor unattractive. So that's why you have to pay attention to it, because if the breath were attractive it would attract you. I wouldn't have to say, 'Watch your breath' - you'd be watching your breath because it was so attractive!
Breathing is the most important physiological function, and the body does it whether we're aware of it, whether we're crazy or sane, or young or old, or male or female, or rich or poor, or whatever. Breathing is this way. It's neither exciting or interesting, nor is it disgusting or revolting. But as we concentrate, bring our attention to breathing of the body - what happens? Well, when I concentrate on my breath the mind goes tranquil, I feel tranquillised by being able to concentrate on the breathing of this body.
Anapanasati is boring to most people at first; just inhalation-exhalation, the same old thing. The breathing of the body is neutral vedana. When we do the meditation of sweeping through the feeling of the body, the pressure of the body sitting on the seats and the clothes touching the skin: that's neutral feeling. Then we can observe the vedana through the ear, the nose, the tongue, the eye, the body, the mind. And we start to see that's just the sensory realm, that's not a person, that's just the way it is. There's nothing wrong with that, nothing bad about it at all. Vedana is all right. There's just the pleasant and the painful and the neutral; they're just what they are.
However, to be aware of pleasure and pain and neutral vedana means that we have to bear it, to really accept it rather than just react to it. We reflect on it, contemplate it so that we really understand it. Now if we don't contemplate and have insight into vedana, then what happens is we just continue this process of paticcasamuppada - so we have desires, because vedana conditions tanha: desire. But with insight, we can actually break the habit. We can contemplate vedana. Then we begin to understand how desire arises: wanting the pleasure, not wanting the pain, and just ignoring the neutral.
A person that lives a very fast life has a life based on going from one exciting, thrilling thing to the next. When we think of really exciting lifestyles, what does it usually involve? It usually is full of frantic attempts to have fantastic sensual experience; to be always running about - because yesterday's fantastic sensual experience is boring. There's a need to have new sensual experiences, new romances and adventures, because anything gets boring when it's repeated. So samsara is the cycle, the endless running about looking for the next interesting thing, the next excitement, the next romance, the next adventure - the next, the next, the next ..... notice how insidious that is in our lives. Even in the monastic life, even in a meditation retreat we can still be caught up in trying to get onto the next thing; sitting here thinking about what we'll do after the retreat, or trying to find something to make our lives more interesting here at Amaravati.
What is interest? Things that are interesting are things that are attractive, and hold our attention. We want to be attracted by something. We want attractive things, pleasurable experiences, beautiful objects, beautiful music and sounds. They are interesting, they hold our attention, they please and fascinate us. And if an experience is unpleasant, we dread it. It can be a kind of hell-realm for most people, the idea of having to be in some place where there's nothing beautiful: dreary, boring people; gross and coarse and bad odours; men and women who have no culture; disgusting, foul, stinking evil brutes; pain, sickness....... That's what we dread, what we might end up with. It might happen that we get stuck in some miserable place. So we want to avoid and get rid of all of that and then try to get hold of the pleasant experiences as much as possible.
And yet most of our lives are neither pleasant nor painful vedana. When you contemplate most of your life, I'm sure that for most of you about 98% of your life has been neither pleasant nor painful. When I think of my life, about 2% has been highly pleasant and highly painful, and about 98% has been neither pleasant nor painful but just what it is. And yet that 98% of one's life can go by totally unnoticed, because we are so attached to the extremes of waiting for the next thing, longing and expecting and hoping, and then dreading and fearing those possibilities of not having any more pleasure, not having a good time. Well, just think of our day here at Amaravati or anywhere in the world. How much of it is really pleasurable or painful?
The Buddha advised us to bring our attention to the neither-pleasant-nor-painful things in life, because to accept and notice neither-pleasure-nor-pain means we have to be attentive and alert. Because if it's not attractive nor repulsive, it doesn't make us react. It doesn't stimulate our minds at all. So we have to bring our attention to it, be awake to it. That's why in meditation we sit, we stand, we walk, we lie down; four basic postures, normal breathing, things that are so ordinary but are not pleasurable nor painful. The practice of mindfulness is to bring our attention to vedana. But we're not attaching to neutrality either: we're not trying to attach to neither pleasure nor pain. So to study vedana we're not trying to live a neutral existence. But bringing attention to it means that we have to put effort to just sitting, standing, walking, lying down; being awake, being here and now. We have to pay attention, we have to learn to concentrate the mind.
Vedana conditions tanha. So what is tanha? This word is translated as desire. It's when you're not aware and alert to the way things are - then you want, or do not want.
Starting from the vedana, if it's pleasurable you want it, if it's painful you don't want it. Then there's a sensual desire - kama-tanha, wanting sensory pleasures, just going around eating and drinking and listening to music and just living a very distracted life of sensual delight. We all know that, don't we? Also we've all experienced bhava-tanha, desire to become - ambition. 'I want to become something. I want to become a success; I want to become enlightened; I want to become good. I want to become admired and respected.' Or, vibhava-tanha: desire to get rid of - that's a strong one, too. 'Let's get rid of all the unpleasant things, the bad thoughts, the bad feelings, the pain, the imperfections' - the desire to get rid of.
We can observe these three kinds of desires: we can observe and reflect on them because they're objects of the mind; they're mind objects, they're not the subject. Desire is not you, in other words. But it becomes a subject, it becomes you out of heedlessness, out of avijja. You grasp desire and you become the desired ..... 'I want this and I don't want that. I want to become a success, I don't want to become a failure. I've got to get rid of these faults.' So there's the grasping of desire, and then you become somebody who wants things or doesn't want things. And that's endless, isn't it? When we become a person who wants things and doesn't want things then it just goes on and on and on. There's always something we want, something we don't want. If we don't watch and observe this process then our whole life is just this cycle, this endless cycle of samsara going around and around, just wanting; becoming somebody who wants something, becoming somebody who doesn't want something. And then that, of course, conditions rebirth, jati. It conditions old age, sickness, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair - depression, misery; 'jara-maranam soka parideva dukkha domanassa upayasa'.
To be somebody who always has to be getting something or getting rid of something is such a painful way to live. Just contemplate: what is the real suffering in your life? When you think you've suffered, what is it that you suffered from? It's from being somebody who wants things or doesn't want things. We talk about the First Noble Truth, dukkha. We all have this suffering. When there's avijja then we suffer, our life is going to be a realm of suffering.
This is becoming very obvious in affluent Western Europe, in places like America and Australia, affluent societies where people get very much what they want and where suffering isn't the suffering of starvation and deprivation and brutality. But there's so much misery and suffering in affluent countries from what? Wanting and not wanting: because even when we get everything we want there's more we want and there are things that we don't want.
Just trying to satisfy all our desires and get everything we want is not the answer, is it? That's not the way out of suffering, because that process doesn't end until you see it, until you use vijja rather than avijja. So contemplate that, this wanting and not wanting; desire and the grasping of desire.
When you contemplate vedana, then you see that's just a natural way: the attraction and repulsion and neither attractive nor repulsive. It's just being sensitive. For example, these flowers in front of me are attractive to me right now. That's just the natural way of things. There's no desire in that. If I just contemplate at this moment: 'I don't want those flowers,' there's no desire; I don't want to get rid of them either. There's no wanting or not wanting, but they're still pleasing; their attractiveness is this way. That's the vedana. Or something ugly, something like these curtains. I find them ugly. Whenever I come into this room my mind says, 'Those curtains are ugly'. So one doesn't really want to look at them. Now I can be aware of the displeasure when my eyes contact those curtains without desiring to get rid of them; it's just awareness of their unattractiveness.
Or the wall, which is neither attractive nor unattractive, just a neutral wall. Now reflecting this way, you see that's just the natural way of things: attraction and aversion, neither attractive nor averse, just the vedana. Then the desire is what we add, like for those flowers: 'Oh, I really want those flowers, I want to have those flowers in my room, I've got to have those flowers!' Or the curtains: 'I wish they could get rid of those curtains - they really upset me!' One dwells on wanting to get rid of the curtains, wanting to grab the flowers, and of course, one doesn't even notice the wall unless something attractive or unattractive appears on it. And what about the space in the room? Space is neither attractive nor unattractive, is it?
So contemplate in this way. What is desire? When you're feeling pain in your body, if you reflect on the actual physical sensation of pain then you become aware of adding to that physical sensation with the desire to get rid of it. Notice the actual sensation that you have in the body and the aversion to it, the desire to get rid of the pain. Notice that the breath doesn't arouse desire. Maybe you have a desire to concentrate your mind, desire to become one who has samadhi or something like that: 'I want to become a person who can attain jhana.'
But the actual breathing is neither attractive nor interesting nor unattractive. For most people, the idea of attaining jhana is attractive; to become somebody who can get jhana is attractive. So we can go about doing anapanasati with that desire. Or, maybe you have a distracted mind - the mind wanders, it doesn't do what you want. You want it concentrated on the breath but every time you start it wanders off. And then you want to get rid of the distracted mind, you want to become someone who has a composed and concentrated mind, and not be someone who has a wandering, distracted mind. So there's vibhava-tanha, desire to get rid of the wandering, distracted mind by becoming somebody who has a concentrated mind and can attain jhanas.
This is a way of reflecting on desire. Desire for sense pleasure, desire to become, desire to get rid of. If we really contemplate and know vedana exactly through vijja, through mindfulness and wisdom, then we don't create desire. There's still the pleasure, the pain, the neither-pleasant-nor-painful, but things are as they are. This is the suchness, the way things are; it's the Dhamma, the Truth. So there's no suffering when things are as they are. Suffering is a result of desire-grasping-becoming (tanha-upadana-bhava). From there the sequence of paticcasamuppada goes to birth, ageing, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair (jati jara-mananam soka parideva dukkha domanassa upayasa). The whole sequence of misery follows from tanha-upadana-bhava.
So contemplate this theme of paticcasamuppada during this retreat. The desire to get rid of desire is still a trap of the mind, isn't it? Contemplation is not getting rid of, but understanding. This is the way of knowing, of vijja rather than avijja.