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The Key to Liberation

by Venerable Ajahn Chah
(extracts from a recent publication)

The Buddha didn’t teach us to study the mind and mental factors in order to become attached to them, he taught simply to know them as aniccaµ (impermanent), dukkhaµ (suffering), anattå (not-self). The essence of Buddhist practice then, is to let them go and lay them aside. You must establish and sustain awareness of the mind and mental factors as they arise. In fact, the mind has been brought up and conditioned to turn and spin away from this natural state of awareness, giving rise to saøkhåra (thought formations) which further concoct and fashion it. It has therefore become accustomed to the experience of constant mental proliferation and of all kinds of conditioning, both wholesome and unwholesome. The Buddha taught us to let go of it all, but before you can begin to let go, you must first study and practise. This is in accordance with nature – the way things are. The mind is just that way, mental factors are just that way – this is just how it is. Consider magga (the Noble Eightfold Path), which is founded on paññå or Right View. If there is Right View it follows that there will be Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood and so on. These all necessarily involve mental factors which arise out of the knowing. The knowing is like a lantern. If there is Right Knowing it will pervade every aspect of the path, giving rise to Right Intention, Right Speech and so on, just like the light from a lantern illuminating the path along which you have to travel. In the end, whatever the mind experiences, it must arise from the knowing. If this mind didn’t exist, the knowing couldn’t exist either. These are the essential characteristics of the mind and mental factors.

All these things are mental phenomena. The Buddha taught that the mind is the mind – it’s not a living being, a person, a self, an ‘us’ or a ‘them’. The Dhamma is simply the Dhamma – it’s not a living being, a person, a self, an ‘us’ or a ‘them’. There’s nothing which is substantial. Whatever aspect of this individual existence you choose, whether it’s vedanå (feeling) or saññå (perception), for example, it all comes within the range of the five khandhas (aggregates). So it should be let go of.

Meditation is like a plank of wood. Let’s say vipassanå (insight) is one end of the plank and samatha (calm) is the other. If you were to pick the plank up, would just one end come up or would both of them? Of course, when you pick up the plank, both ends come up together. What is vipassanå? What is samatha? They are the mind itself. At first the mind becomes peaceful through the practice of samatha, through samådhi (firmness of mind). By developing samådhi you can make the mind peaceful. However, if the peace of samådhi disappears, suffering arises. Why does suffering arise? Because the kind of peace which comes through samatha is itself samudaya (the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering). It’s a cause for suffering to arise. Even though a certain state of peace has been attained, the practice is not yet finished. The Buddha saw from his own experience, that this isn’t the end of the practice. The process of becoming is not yet completely exhausted; the conditions for continued birth still exist; the practice of the Holy Life is still incomplete. Why is it incomplete? Because suffering still exists. He thus took up the calm of samatha and continued to contemplate it, investigating to gain insight until he was no longer attached to it. Such calm is one kind of saøkhåra and is still part of the world of conditions and conventions. Attaching to the calm of samatha means attaching to the world of conditions and conventions and as long as you are attached to conditions and conventions, you are attached to becoming and birth. That act of taking delight in the tranquillity of samatha is becoming and birth. When that restless and agitated thinking disappears through the practice of samatha, the mind attaches to the resultant peace, but it’s another form of becoming. It still leads to further birth.

The Buddha observed that his mind was conditioned in this way and reflected that the causes for becoming and birth were still present and the practice was still unfinished. As a result, he deepened his contemplation of the true nature of saøkhåras – because a cause exists, there is accordingly birth and death and these characteristics of movement back and forth in the mind. He contemplated this repeatedly to see clearly the truth about the five khandhas1. All physical and all mental phenomena and everything that the mind thinks, are saøkhåras. The Buddha taught that once you have discerned this, you’ll let them go, you’ll naturally give them up. These things should be known as they are in reality. As long as you don’t know things in accordance with the truth you have no choice but to suffer. You can’t let go of them. But once you have penetrated the truth and understand how things are, you see these things as deluding. This is what the Buddha meant when he explained that really, the mind which has seen the truth of the way things are is empty, it is inherently unentangled with anything. It isn’t born belonging to anyone and it doesn’t die as anyone’s. It is free. It is bright and radiant, free from any involvement with external affairs and issues. The reason it gets entangled with external affairs is because it’s deluded by saøkhåras and the very sense of self. The Buddha thus taught us to look carefully at the mind. In the beginning what was there? There was really nothing there. The process of birth and becoming and these movements of mind weren’t born with it and they don’t die with it. When the Buddha’s mind encountered pleasant mind-objects, it didn’t become delighted with them. Contacting disagreeable mind-objects, he didn’t become averse to them – because he had clear knowledge and insight into the nature of the mind. There was the penetrating knowledge that all such phenomena have no real substance or essence to them. He saw them as aniccaµ, dukkhaµ, anattå and maintained this deep and profound insight throughout his practice. It is the knowing which discerns the truth of the way things are. The knowing doesn’t become delighted or sad with things. The condition of being delighted is ‘birth’ and the condition of being distressed is ‘death’. If there is death there must be birth, if there is birth there must be death. This process of birth and death is vaÝÝa – the cycle of birth and death which continues on endlessly.

As long as the mind of the practitioner gets conditioned and moved around like this, there need be no doubt as to whether the causes for becoming or rebirth still remain; there is no need to ask anyone. The Buddha thoroughly contemplated the characteristics of saøkhåras and as a result could let go of saøkhåras and each of the five khandhas. He became an independent observer, simply acknowledging their existence and nothing more. If he experienced pleasant mind-objects, he didn’t become infatuated with them, but simply watched and remained aware of them. If he experienced unpleasant mind-objects, he didn’t become averse towards them. Why was that? Because he had discerned the truth and so the causes and conditions for further birth had been cut off. The conditions supporting birth no longer existed. His mind had progressed in the practice to the point where it had gained its own confidence and certainty in its understanding. It was a mind which was truly peaceful – free from birth, ageing, sickness and death. It was that which was neither cause nor effect, nor dependent on cause and effect; it was independent of the process of causal conditioning. There were no causes remaining, they were exhausted. His mind had transcended birth and death, happiness and suffering, good and evil. It was beyond the limitations of words and concepts. There were no longer any conditions which would give rise to attachment in his mind. Anything to do with attachment to birth and death and the process of causal conditioning, would be a matter of the mind and mental factors.

The mind and mental factors do exist as part of reality. They truly exist in conventional reality, but the Buddha saw that however much we know about them or believe in them, it’s of little real benefit. It is not the way to find real peace. He taught that once you know them, you should put them down, renounce them, let them go. Because the mind and mental factors are the very things which lead you to both that which is wrong and that which is right in life. If you are wise, they can lead you to what is right; if you are foolish they lead you to what is wrong. The mind and mental factors are the world. The Buddha used the things of the world to observe the world. Having observed the way things are, he came to know the world and described himself as being lokavid* – one who clearly knows the world.

The calm mind is like a resting place for the practitioner. The Buddha rested here as it forms the base from which to practise vipassanå and to contemplate the truth. At this point you only need to maintain a modest level of samådhi, your main function is to direct your attention to observing the conditions of the world around you. You contemplate steadily the process of cause and effect. Using the clarity of the mind, you reflect on all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations you experience, and how they give rise to different moods: good, bad, pleasant or unpleasant. It’s as if someone were to climb up a mango tree and shake the fruit down while you wait underneath to collect up all those that fall. You reject any mangoes which are rotten, keeping only the good ones. That way, you don’t have to expend much energy, because rather than climbing the tree yourself, you simply wait to collect the mangoes at the bottom.

This means that when the mind is calm, all the mind-objects you experience bring you knowledge and understanding. Because there is awareness, you are no longer creating or proliferating around these things. Success and failure, good reputation and bad reputation, praise and criticism, happiness and suffering, all come and go by themselves. With a clear, still mind that is endowed with insight, it’s interesting to sift through them and sort them out. All these mind-objects which you experience – whether it’s the praise, criticism or things that you hear from other people, or any of the other kinds of happiness and suffering which you experience – become a source of benefit for you. Because someone else has climbed up the mango tree and is shaking it to make the mangoes fall down to you. You can gather them up at your leisure. You don’t have to fear anything – why should you fear anything when it’s someone else who is up the tree, shaking the mangoes down for you? All forms of gain and loss, good reputation and bad reputation, praise and criticism, happiness and suffering, are like the mangoes which fall down to you. The calm mind forms the basis for your contemplation, as you gather them up. With mindfulness, you know which fruits are good and which are rotten. This practice of reflection, based on the foundation of calm, is what gives rise to paññå or vipassanå.

As a result of his experience, the Buddha taught that the practice has to develop naturally, according to conditions. Having reached this level, you allow things to develop according to your accumulated wholesome kamma2 and pårami3. This doesn’t mean you stop putting effort into the practice, but that you continue with the understanding that whether you progress swiftly or slowly, it’s not something you can force. It’s like planting a tree, it knows by itself the appropriate pace to grow at. If you crave to get quick results, see that as delusion. Even if you want it to grow slowly, see that as delusion also. As with planting the tree, only when you do the practice will you get the result. If you plant a chilli bush for instance, your duty is simply to dig the hole, plant the seedling, give it water and fertiliser and protect it from insects. This is your job, your part of it. Then it’s a matter of trust. For the chilli plant, how it grows is it’s own affair – it’s not your business. You can’t go pulling at it to make it grow faster. Nature doesn’t work like that. Your job is just to water it and give it fertiliser.

When you practice like this, there’s not much suffering. Whether you reach enlightenment in this lifetime or the next, is not important. If you have faith and confidence in the efficacy of the practice, then whether you progress quickly or slowly, can be left up to your accumulated good kamma, spiritual qualities and pårami. If you see it this way, you feel at ease with the practice.

Don’t give up the practice of samatha just because you have tried it a few times and found that the mind doesn’t get calm. That’s the wrong way to go about it. You really have to train yourself over a long period of time. Why does it have to take so long? Think about it. How many years have you let pass by without practising? When thoughts arise pulling the mind in one direction, you rush after them, when they start pulling it in another, you still rush after them with your mental proliferation. If you are going to try and stop the flow of the mind and make it stay still, right there in the present moment, a couple of months is just not long enough. Contemplate this. Think about what it might take to have a mind which is at peace with the flow of the different issues and events which affect it and is at peace with the mind-objects it experiences. When you first start to practise, the mind has so little steadiness that as soon as it comes into contact with a mind-object, it gets agitated and confused. Why does it get agitated? Because it’s under the influence of taøhå (craving). You don’t want it to think. You don’t want to experience any mind-objects. This not wanting is a form of craving. It’s vibhava-taøhå (craving for non-existence). The more you desire not to experience any agitation and confusion, the more you encourage and usher it in. ‘I don’t want this impingement, why does it come? I don’t want the mind to be agitated, why is it like this?’ That’s it – there’s craving for the mind to be in a peaceful state. It’s because you don’t know your own mind. That’s all. You persist in getting caught up with the mind and its craving, and yet it takes an incredibly long time before you realise where you are going wrong. When you think about it clearly, you can see that all this distraction and agitation comes because you tell it to come! There is craving for it to be otherwise; there is craving for it to be peaceful; there is craving for the mind not to be restless and agitated. That’s the point – it’s all craving, the whole mass of it.

Well, never mind! Just get on with your own practice. Whenever you experience a mind-object, contemplate it. Throw it into one of the three ‘pits’ of aniccaµ, dukkhaµ, anattå in your meditation and reflect on it.

Generally, when we experience a mind-object it stimulates thinking. The thinking is in reaction to the experience of the mind-object. The nature of ordinary thinking and paññå is very different. The nature of ordinary thinking is to carry on without stopping. The mind-objects you experience lead you off in different directions and your thoughts just follow along. The nature of paññå is to stop the proliferation, to still the mind, so that it doesn’t go anywhere. You are simply the knower and receiver of things. As you experience different mind-objects, which in turn give rise to different moods, you maintain awareness of the process and ultimately, you can see that all the thinking and proliferating, worrying and judging, is entirely devoid of any real substance or self. It is all aniccaµ, dukkhaµ, anattå. The way to practise is to cut off all the proliferation right at its base and see that it all comes under the headings of the three characteristics. As a result it will weaken and lose its power. Next time when you are sitting in meditation and it comes up, or whenever you experience agitation like that you contemplate it, you keep observing and checking the mind.

You can compare it with looking after water buffalo. There is a buffalo, its owner and some rice plants. Now normally, buffaloes like to eat rice plants; rice plants are buffalo food. Your mind is like the buffalo, the mind-objects which you experience are like the rice plants. That part of the mind which is ‘that which knows’ is like the owner of the buffalo. The practice isn’t really any different from this. Consider it. What do you do when you are looking after a water buffalo? You let it wander freely, but try to keep an eye on it the whole time. If it walks too near the rice plants, you shout a warning and when the buffalo hears, it should stop and come back. However, you can’t be careless. If it’s stubborn and doesn’t take heed of your warnings you have to take a stick and give it a good whack, then it won’t dare to go anywhere near the rice plants. But don’t get caught taking a siesta. If you can’t resist taking a nap, the rice plants will be finished for sure.

So there is this balanced way of practice which means you contemplate everything that you experience. Whatever you do, contemplate it thoroughly and don’t give up the work of meditation. Some people think that when the formal meditation ends, it all stops and they can take a rest, so they let go of their meditation object and stop contemplating. Don’t be like that! Keep reflecting on all that you experience. Whether you encounter good or bad people, rich or poor, important or unimportant, young or old, keep contemplating everything. See that it is all part of meditation.

Footnotes: 1. Khandhas: Groups or aggregates: from (r*pa), feeling (vedanå), memory and perception (saññå), thought formations (saøkhåras) and consciousness (viññåna). These are the five groups which form what we call a person.
2. Kamma: ‘Actions’, both wholesome and unwholesome actions of body, speech and mind.
3. Pårami: refers to the ten spiritual perfections: generosity, moral restraint, renunciation, wisdom, effort, patience, truthfulness, determination, kindness and equanimity.

Ajahn Chah

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