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Mindfulness: The Path to the Deathless
The Meditation Teaching of
Venerable Ajahn Sumedho


The Hindrances and their Cessation

As we listen inwardly, we begin to recognise the whispering voices of guilt, remorse and desire, jealousy and fear, lust and greed. Sometimes you can listen to what lust says: 'I want, I've got to have, I've got to have, I want, I want!' Sometimes it doesn't even have any object. You can just feel lust with no object, so you find an object. The desire to get something, 'I want something, I want something! I've got to have something, I want ...' You can hear that if you listen to your mind. Usually we find an object for lust, such as sex; or we can spend our time fantasising.

    Lust may take the form of looking for something to eat, or anything to absorb into, become something, unite with something. Lust is always on the look-out, always seeking for something. It can be an attractive object which is allowable for monks, like a nice robe or an alms bowl or some delicious food. You can see the inclination to want it, to touch it, to try and somehow get it, own it, possess it, make it mine, consume. And that's lust, that's a force in nature which we must recognise; not to condemn it and say, 'I'm a terrible person because I have lust!' -- because that's another ego reinforcement, isn't it? As if we are not supposed to have any lust, as if there were any human being who didn't experience desire for something!

    These are conditions in nature which we must recognise and see; not through condemnation, but through understanding them. So we get to really know the movement in our mind of lust, greed, seeking something -- and the desire-to-get-rid-of. You can witness that also -- wanting to get rid of something you have, or some situation, or pain itself. 'I want to get rid of the pain I have, I want to get rid of my weakness, I want to get rid of dullness, I want to get rid of my restlessness, my lust. I want to get rid of everything that annoys me. Why did God create mosquitoes? I want to get rid of the pests.'

    Sensual desire is the first of the hindrances (nivarana). Aversion is the second one; your mind is haunted with not wanting, with petty irritations and resentments, and then you try and annihilate them. So that's an obstacle to your mental vision, that's a hindrance. I'm not saying we should try to get rid of that hindrance -- that's aversion -- but to know it, to know its force, to understand it as you experience it. Then you recognise the desire to get rid of things in yourself, the desire to get rid of things around you, desire not to be here, desire not to be alive, desire to no longer exist. That's why we like to sleep, isn't it? Then we can not exist for a while. In sleep consciousness we don't exist because there isn't that same feeling of being alive anymore. That's annihilation. So some people like to sleep a lot because living is too painful for them, too boring, too unpleasant. We get depressed, full of doubt and despair, and we tend to seek an escape through sleep; trying to annihilate our problems, force them out of consciousness.

    The third hindrance is sleepiness, lethargy, dullness, sloth, drowsiness, torpor; we tend to react to this with aversion. But this also can be understood. Dullness can be known -- the heaviness of body and mind, slow, dull movement. Witness the aversion to it, the wanting to get rid of it. You observe the feeling of dullness in the body and mind. Even the knowledge of dullness is changing, unsatisfactory, not-self (anicca, dukkha, anatta).

    Restlessness is the opposite of dullness; this is the fourth hindrance. You're not dull at all, you're not sleepy, but restless, nervous, anxious, tense. Again, it may have no specific object. Rather than the feeling of wanting to sleep, restlessness is a more obsessive state. You want to do something, run here ... do this ... do that ... talk, go round, run around. And if you have to sit still for a little while when you're feeling restless, you feel penned in, caged; all you can think of is jumping, running about, doing something. So you can witness that also, especially when you're contained within a form where you can't just follow restlessness. The robes that bhikkhus wear are not conducive to jumping up into trees and swinging from the branches. We can't act out this leaping tendency of the mind, so we have to watch it.

    Doubt is the fifth hindrance. Sometimes our doubts may seem very important, and we like to give them a lot of attention. We are very deluded by the quality of it, because it appears to be so substantial: 'Some doubts are trivial, yes, but this is an Important Doubt. I've got to know the answer. I've got to be sure. I've got to know definitely, should I do this or should I do that! Am I doing this right? Should I go there, or should I stay here a bit longer? Am I wasting my time? Have I been wasting my life? Is Buddhism the right way or isn't it? Maybe it's not the right religion!' This is doubt. You can spend the rest of your life worrying about whether you should do this or that, but one thing you can know is that doubt is a condition of the mind. Sometimes that tends to be very subtle and deluding. In our position as 'the one who knows', we know doubt is doubt. Whether it's an important or trivial one, it's just doubt, that's all. 'Should I stay here,or should I go somewhere else?' It's doubt. 'Should I wash my clothes today or tomorrow?' That's doubt. Not very important, but then there are the important ones. 'Have I attained Stream Entry yet? What is a Stream Enterer, anyway? Is Ajahn Sumedho an Arahant (enlightened one)? Are there any Arahants at the present time?' Then people from other religions come and say, 'Yours is wrong, ours is right!' Then you think, 'Maybe they're right! Maybe ours is wrong.' What we can know is that there is doubt. This is being the knowing, knowing what we can know, knowing that we don't know. Even when you're ignorant of something, if you're aware of the fact that you don't know, then that awareness is knowledge.

    So this is being the knowing, knowing what we can know. The Five Hindrances are your teachers, because they're not the inspiring, radiant gurus from the picture books. They can be pretty trivial, petty, foolish, annoying and obsessive. They keep pushing, jabbing, knocking us down all the time until we give them proper attention and understanding, until they are no longer problems. That's why one has to be very patient; we have to have all the patience in the world, and the humility to learn from these five teachers.

    And what do we learn? That these are just conditions in the mind; they arise and pass away; they're unsatisfactory, not-self. Sometimes one has very important messages in one's life. We tend to believe those messages, but what we can know is that those are changing conditions: and if we patiently endure through that, then things change automatically, on their own, and we have the openness and clarity of mind to act spontaneously, rather than react to conditions. With bare attention, with mindfulness, things go on their own, you don't have to get rid of them because everything that begins, ends. There is nothing to get rid of, you just have to be patient with them and allow things to take their natural course into cessation.

    When you are patient, allowing things to cease, then you begin to know cessation -- silence, emptiness, clarity -- the mind clears, stillness. The mind is still vibrant, it's not oblivious, repressed or asleep, and you can hear the silence of the mind.

    To allow cessation means that we have to be very kind, very gentle and patient, humble, not taking sides with anything, the good, the bad, the pleasure, or the pain. Gentle recognition allows things to change according to their nature, without interfering. So then we learn to turn away from seeking absorption into the objects of the senses. We find our peace in the emptiness of the mind, in its clarity, in its silence.



Emptiness and Form

When your mind is quiet, listen, and you can hear that vibrational sound in the mind -- 'the sound of silence'. What is it? Is it an ear sound, or is it an outward sound? Is it the sound of the mind or the sound of the nervous system, or what? Whatever it is, it's always there, and it can be used in meditation as something to turn toward.

    Recognising that all that arises passes away, we begin to look at that which doesn't arise or pass, and is always there. If you start trying to think about that sound, have a name for it, or claim any kind of attainments from it, then of course you are using it in the wrong way. It's merely a standard to refer to when you've reached the limit of the mind, and the end of the mind as far as we can observe it. So from that position you can begin to watch. You can think and still hear that sound (if you're thinking deliberately, that is), but once you're lost in thought, then you forget it and you don't hear it anymore. So if you get lost in thought, then once you're aware that you're thinking again, turn to that sound, and listen to it for a long time. Where before you'd get carried away by emotions or obsessions or the hindrances that arise, now you can practise by gently, very patiently reflecting on the particular condition of the mind as anicca, dukkha, anatta, and then letting go of it. It's a gentle, subtle letting go, not a slam-bang rejection of any condition. So the attitude, the right understanding is more important than anything else. Don't make anything out of that sound of silence. People get excited, thinking they've attained something, or discovered something, but that in itself is another condition you create around the silence. This is a very cool practice, not an exciting one; use it skilfully and gently for letting go, rather than for holding onto a view that you've attained something! If there's anything that blocks anyone in their meditation, it's the view that they've attained something from it!

    Now, you can reflect on the conditions of the body and mind and concentrate on them. You can sweep through the body and recognise sensations, such as the vibrations in the hands or feet, or you can concentrate on any point in your body. Feel the sensation of the tongue in the mouth, touching the palate, or the upper lip on top of the lower, or just bring into the consciousness the sensation of wetness of the mouth, or the pressure of the clothes on your body -- just those subtle sensations that we don't bother to notice. Reflecting on these subtle physical sensations, concentrate on them and your body will relax. The human body likes to be noticed. It appreciates being concentrated on in a gentle and peaceful way, but if you're inconsiderate and hate the body, it really starts becoming quite unbearable. Remember we have to live within this structure for the rest of our lives. So you'd better learn how to live in it with a good attitude. You say, 'Oh, the body doesn't matter, it's just a disgusting thing, gets old, gets sick and dies. The body doesn't matter, it's the mind that counts.' That attitude is quite common amongst Buddhists! But it actually takes patience to concentrate on your body, other than out of vanity. Vanity is a misuse of the human body, but this sweeping awareness is skilful. It's not to enforce a sense of ego, but simply an act of goodwill and consideration for a living body -- which is not you anyway

    So your meditation now is on the five khandhas[6] and the emptiness of the mind. Investigate these until you fully understand that all that arises passes away and is not-self. Then there's no grasping of anything as being oneself, and you are free from that desire to know yourself as a quality or a substance. This is liberation from birth and death.

    This path of wisdom is not one of developing concentration to get into a trance state, get high and get away from things. You have to be very honest about intention. Are we meditating to run away from things? Are we trying to get into a state where we can suppress all thoughts? This wisdom practice is a very gentle one of even allowing the most horrible thoughts to appear, and let them go. You have an escape hatch, it's like a safety valve where you can let off the steam when there's too much pressure. Normally, if you dream a lot, then you can let off steam in sleep. But no wisdom comes from that, does it? That is just like being a dumb animal; you develop a habit of doing something and then getting exhausted, then crashing out, then getting up, doing something and crashing out again. But this path is a thorough investigation and an understanding of the limitations of the mortal condition of the body and mind. Now you're developing the ability to turn away from the conditioned and to release your identity from mortality.

    You're breaking through that illusion that you're a mortal thing -- but I'm not telling you that you're an immortal creature either, because you'll start grasping at that! 'My true nature is one with the ultimate, absolute Truth. I am one with the Lord. My real nature is the Deathless, timeless eternity of bliss.' But you notice that the Buddha refrained from using poetic inspiring phrases; not that they're wrong, but because we attach to them. We would settle for that identity with the ultimate, or one with God, or the eternal bliss of the Deathless Realm, and so forth. You get very starry-eyed saying things like that. But it's much more skilful to watch that tendency to want to name or conceive what is inconceivable, to be able to tell somebody else, or describe it just to feel that you have attained something. It is more important to watch that than to follow it. Not that you haven't realised anything, either, but be that careful and that vigilant not to attach to that realisation, because if you do, of course this will just take you to despair again.

    If you do get carried away, as soon as you realise you got carried away, then stop. Certainly don't go round feeling guilty about it or being discouraged, but just stop that. Calm down, let go, let go of it. You notice that religious people have insights, and they get very glassy-eyed. Born-again Christians are just aglow with this fervour. Very impressive, too! I must admit, it's very impressive to see people so radiant. But in Buddhism, that state is called 'saņņa-vipallasa' -- 'meditation madness'. When a good teacher sees you're in that state, he puts you in a hut out in the woods and tells you not to go near anyone! I remember I went like that in Nong Khai the first year before I went to Ajahn Chah, I thought I was fully enlightened, just sitting there in my hut. I knew everything in the world, understood everything. I was just so radiant, and ... but I didn't have anyone to talk to. I couldn't speak Thai, so I couldn't go and hassle the Thai monks. But the British Consul from Vientiane happened to come over one day, and somebody brought him to my hut ... and I really let him have it, double barrelled! He sat there in a stunned state, and, being English, he was very, very, very polite, and every time he got up to go I wouldn't let him. I couldn't stop, it was like Niagara Falls, this enormous power coming out, and there was no way I could stop it myself. Finally he left, made an escape somehow: I never saw him again, I wonder why?!

    So when we go through that kind of experience, it's important to recognise it. It's nothing dangerous if you know what it is. Be patient with it, don't believe it or indulge in it. You notice Buddhist monks never go around saying much about what 'level of enlightenment' they have -- it's just not to be related. When people ask us to teach, we don't teach about our enlightenment, but about the Four Noble Truths as the way for them to be enlightened. Nowadays there are all kinds of people claiming to be enlightened or Maitreya Buddhas, avatars, and all have large followings; people are willing to believe that quite easily! But this particular emphasis of the Buddha is on recognising the way things are rather than believing in what other people tell us, or say. This is a path of wisdom, in which we're exploring or investigating the limits of the mind. Witness and see: 'sabbe sankhara anicca', 'all conditioned phenomena are impermanent'; 'sabbe dhamma anatta', 'all things are not-self.'



Inner Vigilance

Now, as to the practice of mindfulness. Concentration is where you put your attention on an object, sustain your attention on that one point (such as the tranquillising rhythm of normal breathing), until you become that sign itself, and the sense of subject and object diminishes. Mindfulness, with vipassana meditation, is the opening of the mind. You no longer concentrate on just one point, but you observe insightfully and reflect on the conditions that come and go, and on the silence of the empty mind. To do this involves letting go of an object; you're not holding on to any particular object, but observing that whatever arises passes away. This is insight meditation, or 'vipassana'.

    With what I call 'inner listening', you can hear the noises that go on in the mind, the desire, the fears, things that you've repressed and have never allowed to be fully conscious. But now, even if there are obsessive thoughts or fears, emotions coming up, then be willing to allow them to become conscious so that you can let them go to cessation. If there's nothing coming or going, then just be in the emptiness, in the silence of the mind. You can hear a high frequency sound in the mind, that's always there, it's not an ear sound. You can turn to that, when you let go of the conditions of the mind. But be honest with your intentions. So if you're turning to the silence, the silent sound of the mind, out of aversion to the conditions, it's just a repression again, it's not purification.

    If your intention is wrong, even though you do concentrate on emptiness, you will not get a good result, because you've been misled. You haven't wisely reflected on things, you haven't let anything go, you're just turning away out of aversion, just saying, 'I don't want to see that', so you turn away. Now this practice is a patient one of being willing to endure what seems unendurable. It's an inner vigilance, watching, listening, even experimenting. In this practice, the right understanding is the important thing, rather than the emptiness or form or anything like that. Right understanding comes through the reflection that whatever arises, passes away; reflection that even emptiness is not-self. If you claim that you are one who's realised emptiness as if you'd attained something, that in itself is wrong intention, isn't it? Thinking you 're somebody who has attained or realised on the personal level comes from a sense of self. So we make no claims. If there is something inside you that wants to claim something, then you observe that as a condition of the mind.

    The sound of silence is always there so you can use it as a guide rather than an end in itself. So it's a very skilful practice of watching and listening, rather than just repressing conditions out of aversion to them. But then the emptiness is pretty boring actually. We're used to having more entertainment. How long can you sit all day being aware of an empty mind, anyway? So recognise that our practice is not to attach to peacefulness or silence or emptiness as an end, but to use it as a skilful means to be the knowing and to be alert. When the mind's empty you can watch -- there's still awareness, but you're not seeking rebirth in any condition, because there's not a sense of self in it. Self always comes with the seeking of something or trying to get rid of something. Listen to the self saying, 'I want to attain samadhi', 'I've got to attain jhana. That's self talking: 'I've got to get first jhana, second jhana, before I can do anything', that idea, you've got to get something first. What can you know when you read the teachings from different teachers? You can know when you're confused, when you're doubting, when you're feeling aversion and suspicion. You can know that you're being the knowing, rather than deciding which teacher is the right one.

    The metta practice means to use a gentle kindness by being able to endure what you might believe is unendurable. If you have an obsessed mind that goes on and chats away and nags, and then you want to get rid of it, the more you try to suppress and get rid of it, the worse it gets. And then sometimes it stops and you think, 'Oh, I've got rid of it, it's gone.' Then it'll start again and you think, 'Oh no! I thought I'd got rid of that.' So no matter how many times it comes back and goes, or whatever, take it as it comes. Be one who takes one step at a time. When you're willing to be one who has all the patience in the world to be with the existing condition, you can let it cease. The results of allowing things to cease are that you begin to experience release, because you realise that you're not carrying things around that you used to. Somehow things that used to make you angry no longer really bother you very much, and that surprises you. You begin to feel at ease in situations that you never felt at ease in before, because you're allowing things to cease, rather than just holding on and recreating fears and anxieties. Even 'dis-ease' of those around you doesn't influence you. You're not reacting to other's lack of ease by getting tense yourself. That comes through letting go and allowing things to cease.

    So the general picture now is for you to have this inner vigilance, and to note any obsessive things that come up. If they keep coming back all the time, then you're obviously attached in some way -- either through aversion or infatuation. So, you can begin to recognise attachment rather than just try to get rid of it. Once you can understand it and you can let go, then you can turn to the silence of the mind because there's no point in doing anything else. There's no point in holding on or hanging on to conditions any longer than necessary. Let them cease. When we react to what arises, we create a cycle of habits. A habit is something that is cyclical, it keeps going in a cycle, it has no way of ceasing. But if you let go, and leave things alone, then what arises ceases. It doesn't become a cycle.

    So emptiness isn't getting rid of everything; it's not total blankness, but an infinite potential for creation to arise and to pass, without your being deluded by it. The idea of me as a creator, my artistic talents, expressing myself -- it's an incredible egotistical trip, isn't it? 'This is what I've done, this is mine.' They say, 'Oh, you're very skilled, aren't you? You're a genius!' Yet so much of creative art tends to be regurgitations of people's fears and desires. It's not really creative; it's just recreating things. It's not coming from an empty mind, but from an ego, which has no real message to give other than that it's full of death and selfishness. On a universal level it has no real message other than 'Look at me!' as a person, as an ego. Yet the empty mind has infinite potential for creation. One doesn't think of creating things; but creation can be done with no self and nobody doing it -- it happens.

    So we leave creation to the Dhamma rather than think that that's something to be responsible for. All we have to do now, all that's necessary for us -- conventionally speaking, as human beings, as people -- is to let go; or not attach. Let things go. Do good, refrain from doing evil, be mindful. Quite a basic message.



6. Khandhas: the five categories through which the Buddha summarised the existential human being, i.e. the body (rupa), feelings (vedana), perception (saņņa), mental formations (sankhara) and the sense consciousness (viņņana). In simple terms, 'the body and mind'. [Back to text]

Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |


Updated: 3-5-2000

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