The Way It Is
Everything that Arises
The Buddha said the origin of all suffering was ignorance - so it's important to consider what he really meant by 'ignorance'. Most human beings in the world live very much as if their habits, thoughts, feelings and memories are what they really are. They are not taking the time to look at their lives or not really having the opportunity to do so to watch and consider how these conditions operate.
What is a condition? The body that we're with, the emotions and feelings, the perceptions of the mind, conceptions and consciousness through the sense - these are conditions. A condition is something that is added, compounded, something that arises and passes away; it's not the uncreated, unborn, unoriginated ultimate reality.
Religion is what human beings use to try to get back to that ultimate realisation beyond the cycles of birth and death, the supramundane wisdom or lokuttara pañña=, and Nirvana or Nibbana is the experience of this transcendent reality. This is when we suddenly know the truth, not by studying the Pali scriptures or a Zen book, but through direct experience.
We generally conceive the truth as being some thing , Nibbana as being some peaceful state of mind or some kind of ecstatic experience. All of us have experienced some kind of happiness, so we like to conceive the Unborn, Uncreated, Unoriginated, as a happy experience. But the Buddha was very careful never to describe the Ultimate Reality or Nibbana - he never said very much about it. People want to know what it is, write books on it, speculate about the nature of Nibbana, but this is exactly what the Buddha didn't do.
Instead, he pointed to direct knowing of conditions that change, that which we can know through our own experience at this moment. This is not a matter of believing anyone else. It's a matter of knowing at this present moment that whatever arises passes away.
So we put forth that kind of attention in our lives - to be attentive and notice that whatever arises passes away; that whatever condition of your mind or body - whether it is a sensation of pleasure or pain, feeling or memory, sight, sound, smell, taste or touch, inside or outside - is just a condition.
It's important to reflect on what 'ignorance' really means in the sense that the Buddha used it when he called it the origin of all suffering. 'Being ignorant' means that we identify with these conditions, by regarding them as 'me' or 'mine', or as something that we don't want to be 'me' or 'mine'. We've got the idea that we've got to find some permanent pleasant condition, we have to achieve something, get something we don't have. But you can notice that desire in your mind is a moving thing, looking for something, so it's a changing condition that arises and passes away - it's not-self. The expression 'not-self' (anatta) is not some kind of mantra* you keep to get rid of things, but an actual penetration of the very nature of all desires.
(* a word or phrase endowed with spiritual significance. It is used as a focus of attention and reflection by repeating it many times in meditation.)
As you look carefully, very patiently and humbly, you begin to see that the created arises out of the Uncreated and goes back to the Uncreated, it disappears and there is nothing left. And if it was really you and really yours, it would stay, wouldn't it? If it was really yours where would it go, to some kind of storehouse of personality? But that concept and whatever you conceive, is a condition that arises and passes away. Any time you try to conceive yourself, any concept or memory of yourself as this or that is only a condition of your mind. It's not what you are - you're not a condition of your mind. So, sorrow, despair, love and happiness, are all conditions of mind and they are not all not-self.
Notice in your life when you suffer, feel discontent - why? It's because of some attachment, some idea of yourself or someone else. Someone you love dies and you feel sorry for yourself, you think of the good times you've had and dwell on that, creating more conditions of mind. Maybe you feel guilty because you weren't giving or loving all of the time - that's a condition of mind also. You have a memory, you conceive of them as being alive - but that very idea of a person is a perception of mind, it's not a person, is it? Remember someone who is alive, who you wish you could be with right now - that's a condition of mind. Or remember someone who's died, you'll never see them again - that's also a condition of mind.
Buddhist meditation is a way of looking at the conditions of mind, investigating and seeing what they are, rather than believing in them. People want to believe - when someone close to you has died, somebody has to tell you: 'Oh, they went up to heaven with God the Father, or they're living in the delights of Tusita heaven.' They say this so that you'll have a pleasant perception of mind - 'Well, now I know that my grandmother is happy up there in the heavenly realms, dancing with the angels.' Then somebody else says 'Well, you know, she did some pretty dreadful things, she's probably down in Hell, burning in the eternal fires!' So you start worrying that maybe you'll end up there too - but that's a perception of mind. Heaven and hell are conditioned phenomena. So - if you reflect back to ten years ago...that's a condition of mind that arises and passes away, and the reason that it arises is because I've just suggested it to you. So that condition is dependent upon another condition, memory is what we have experienced, and the future is the unknown.
But who is it that knows the conditions of the moment? I can't find it: there's only the knowing, and knowing can know anything that is present now - pleasant or unpleasant - speculations about the future or reminiscences of the past - creations of yourself as this or that. You create yourself or the world you live in - so you can't really blame anyone else. If you do, it's because you're still ignorant: The One Who Knows we call 'Buddha' - but that doesn't mean that 'Buddha' is a condition. It's not to say that this Buddha-rupa knows anything; rather that 'Buddha' is the knowing. So Buddhist meditation is really being aware, rather than becoming Buddha.
The idea of becoming Buddha is based on conditions - you think you're someone who isn't Buddha right now, and in order to become Buddha, you have to read books to find out how to become one. Of course, this means that you have to work really hard to get rid of those qualities which are not Buddha-like; you are far from perfect, you get angry, greedy, doubtful and frightened, and of course, Buddhas don't have this - because Buddha is that which knows, so they know better. Then, in order to become Buddha you have to get rid of these unBuddha-like things and try to get Buddha-like qualities such as compassion and all these kinds of things. And all these are creations of the mind! So we create 'Buddhas' because we believe in the creations of the mind. But they aren't real Buddhas. They're only false Buddhas. They're not wisdom Buddhas, they're just conditions of our mind.
As long as you conceive of yourself as being somebody who has to do something in order to become something else, you still get caught in a trap, a condition of mind as being a self, and you never quite understand anything properly. No matter how many years you meditate, you never really understand the teaching; it will always be just off the mark. The direct way of seeing things now - that whatever arises passes away - doesn't mean that you are throwing anything away. It means that you're looking in a way that you've never bothered to look before. You're looking from a perspective of what's here and now rather than looking for something that's not here. So if you come into the Shrine Room thinking, 'I've got to spend this hour looking for the Buddha, trying to become something, trying to get rid of these bad thoughts, to sit and practise hard, try to become what I should become - so I'll sit here and try getting rid of things, try to get things, try to hold onto things...' with that attitude, meditation is a really strenuous effort and always a failure.
But if instead, you come into the Shrine Room and are just aware of the conditions of mind, you see in perspective the desire to become, to get rid of, to do something or the feeling that you can't do it; or that you're an expert, whatever - you begin to see that whatever you're experiencing is a changing condition and not 'self'. You're seeing a perspective of being Buddha, rather than doing something in order to become Buddha. When we talk about sati, mindfulness, this is what we mean.
I am really shocked and amazed at many religious people - Christians or Buddhists or whatever - who seem to be ignorant regarding the practice of their religion. Few people seem to have any perspective on religious doctrine and belief and disbelief. They don't bother to find out. They are still trying to describe the indescribable, limit the unlimited, know the unknowable, and not many look at the way they are. They believe what somebody else has told them.
In Theravada Buddhism, monks will tell you that you can't get enlightened these days, there's no way you can even attain the first stage of stream-entry, the first stage of sainthood, that those days are past. They believe that enlightenment is such a remote possibility that they don't even put forth much effort to see that all that arises passes away. So monks can spend lifetimes reading books, translating Suttas, still believing that they're unenlightened and it's impossible to do it. But then what's the point of religion anyway? Why bother, if the ultimate truth is so remote, such an unlikely possibility? We just become like anthropologists, sociologists or philosophers discussing comparative religion.
Gotama the Buddha was one whose wisdom came from observing Nature, the conditions of mind and body. Now that's not impossible for any of us to do. We have minds and bodies, all we have to do is to watch them. It's not as if we have to have special powers to do that, or that somehow this time is a different time from that of Gotama the Buddha. Time is an illusion caused by ignorance. People in the time of Gotama the Buddha were not any different from the ones now - they had greed, hatred and delusion, egos, conceits and fears just like people nowadays. If you start thinking about Buddhist doctrines, different levels of attainment, you'll just get into a state of doubting. You don't have to check yourself with a list in a book - know for yourself until no condition of body or mind deludes you.
People say to me, 'I can't do all that, I'm just an ordinary person, a layman; when I think of doing all that, I realise I can't do it, it's too much for me.' I say, 'If you think about it, you can't do it, that's all. Don't think about it, just do it.' Thought only takes you to doubt. People who think about life can't do anything. If it's worth doing, do it . When you get depressed, learn from depression, when you get sick, learn from sickness, when you're happy, learn from happiness - these are all opportunities to learn in the world. Keep silently listening and watching as a way of life...then you begin to understand conditions. There's nothing to fear. There's nothing you have to get that you don't have, there's nothing to get rid of.