By Mahasi Sayadaw
Translated by Maung Tha Noe
A Word from the Translator
“The Fundamentals of Vipassana Meditation” is a series of lectures delivered by the VenerableMahasi Sayadaw during the New Year Holidays of the Burmese Era 1320 (1959). The lectures first appeared in book form in 1961, and have ever since enjoyed such popularity with the readers that they have run into several editions. This is their first English translation.
As the reader will see in the following pages, the lectures were addressed to lay listeners — people to whom the subtle points of Vipassana practice were totally new. As such, the Sayadaw took great pains to make his language plain, easy, direct and to the point. He led his listeners, stage by simple stage, from such basic facets as differentiation between calm and insight meditations to such intricate aspects of the Dhamma as reality and concept, process of consciousness and thought-moments, stages of progress in mind development and realization of Nibbana. The listener — or the reader in our case — begins with the very first lesson: what insight is and how it is developed. He is then instructed how to begin his work, how to progress, how to be on his guard against pitfalls in the course of his training and, most important of all, how to know when he “knows. “ He is thrilled, encouraged, and made to feel as if he were already on the path to bliss. Buddhism is a practical religion, a creed to live by — not just another system of metaphysical philosophy as most outsiders are wont to imagine it to be. It examines the ills of this sentient life, discovers their cause, prescribes the removal of the cause, and points the Way to the release from all suffering. Anyone desirous of liberation can walk along the Way. But he must make the effort to step and walk. No one will pick him up and offer him a free ride to Peace Eternal.
You yourselves must make the effort.
Buddhas only point the way.
Those who have entered the Path and
who meditate will be freed from
the fetters of illusion.
What then is the Way to liberation? The Buddha himself tells us in Satipatthana Sutta that there is but One Way — the Way of establishing mindfulness.It is this establishing of mindfulness that serves as the cornerstone of the whole system of insight meditation expounded and popularized by the Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw for over half a century.
Here one must not forget the fact that preaching Vipassana is quite unlike the preaching of any other aspect of the Buddha’s teaching, say, its moral or metaphysical portions. This most scholars versed in the scriptures can do. But Vipassana is something which only experience can convince. The Buddha himself (or, more correctly, the Bodhisatta) searched for the Way, found it, traversed it himself, and only then did he teach it to beings from his experience.
“Even so have I, monks, seen an ancient way, anancient road followed by the wholly Awakened Ones of olden times… Along that have I gone, and the matters that I have come to know fully as I was going along it I have told to the monks, nuns, men and women lay followers…”
The Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw, on his part, took up the Way pointed out to all of us by the Buddha, realized the Dhamma, and then spoke to his disciples from his experience. They, too, have realized the Dhamma. About this the Sayadaw says in his lectures,
“Here in the audience are lots of meditators who have come to this stage of knowledge. I am not speaking from my own experience alone. No, not even from the experience of forty or fifty disciples of mine. There are hundreds of them.”
One attribute of the Buddha’s Dhamma is that “it is a come-and-see thing (ehipassiko).” Millions came and saw it well over 2500 years ago. And today hundreds of thousands have come and seen it, and hundreds of thousands more will follow them, as we can see in the meditation centres the world over. It only remains to the aspirant after liberation to awake and join the multitude in their march. This book sets out the plan of the Way that lies ahead of him. It is, as the noted scholar in the foreword to the Burmese edition remarks, not the kind of book one reads for reading’s sake. It is to be his guide as he ventures from one stage of higher wisdom to another.
In translating this book, I have tried to reproduce in English all that the Sayadaw has to say in his Burmese lectures. But I have not attempted a literal translation. Nor have I turned out an abridged, free version. I have avoided repetitions so characteristic of spoken language, and have left untranslated all the mnemonic verses that accompany the revered Sayadaw’s lectures. Excepting these, I have kept the word of the Sayadaw intact, and every effort has been made to retain his simple, straightforward and lucid style.
For translation of the Pali texts quoted by the Sayadaw in his work, I have relied mostly on such noted scholars as Dr. Rhys. Davids, F. L. Woodward, I. B. Homer, Nyanatiloka, Nyanamoli and Pe Maung Tin, with modifications here and there. I must record my indebtedness to them.
Maung Tha Noe
Rangoon, 3 March 1981.
Today insight meditation needs no special introduction. Everybody is saying that it is good. The contrary was the case twenty years ago. People thought insight meditation was meant for monks and recluses and not for them. When we began preaching insight meditation, we had had a hard time doing so. The situation has changed now. Today people keep asking us to lecture on insight. But when we begin telling them the simple facts of insight meditation, they seem unable to appreciate them. Some even rise and go away. One should not blame them. They have had no grounding in meditation to understand anything.
Some think calm is insight. Some talk of insight meditation as nothing different from calm meditation. The insight meditation as preached by some people, though high-sounding in language, proves just impossible in practice. Their listeners are left in confusion. For the benefit of such people, we will talk about the elements of insight meditation.
Calm and Insight
What do we meditate on? How do we develop insight? This is a very important question.
There are two kinds of meditation: meditating to develop calm and meditating to develop insight. Meditating on the ten devices only gives rise to calm, not insight. Meditating on the ten foul things (a swollen corpse, for example), too, only gives rise to calm, not insight. The ten recollections, like remembering the Buddha, the Law and others, too, can develop calm and not insight. Meditating on the thirty-two parts of the body like hair, nails, teeth, skin — these too, are not insight. They develop only concentration.
Mindfulness as to respiration is also concentration-developing. But one can develop insight from it. Visuddhi-Magga, however, includes it in the concentration subjects and so we will call it as such here.
Then there are the four divine states, love, pity, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, and four formless states leading to formless jhanas. Then, there is the meditation on the loathsomeness of food. All these are subjects for concentration meditation.
When you meditate on the four elements inside your body, it is called the analysis of the four elements. Although this is a concentration meditation, it helps develop insight as well.
All these forty subjects of meditation are subjects for developing concentration. Only respiration and analysis of elements have to do with insight. The others will not give rise to insight. If you want insight, you will have to work further.
To come back to our question, how do we develop insight? The answer is: we develop insight by meditating on the five aggregates of grasping. The mental and material qualities inside beings are aggregates of grasping. They may be grasped with delight by craving in which case it is called “grasping of the sense objects” — or they may be grasped wrongly by wrong views — in which case it is called “grasping through wrong views.” You have to meditate on them and see them as they really are. If you don’t, you will grasp them with craving and wrong views. Once you see them as they are, you no longer grasp them. In this way you develop insight. We will discuss the five aggregates of grasping in detail.
The five aggregates of grasping are matter or form, feelings, perception, volitional activities and consciousness. What are they? They are the things you experience all the time. You do not have to go anywhere else to find them. They are in you. When you see, they are there in the seeing. When you hear, they are there in the hearing. When you smell, taste, touch, or think, they are there in the smelling, tasting, touching or thinking. When you bend, stretch or move your limbs, the aggregates are there in the bending, stretching or moving. Only you do not know them to be aggregates. It is because you have not meditated on them and so do not know them as they really are. Not knowing them as they are, you grasp them with craving and wrong view.
What happens when you bend? It begins with the intention to bend. Then come the forms of bending one by one. Now in the intention to bend there are the four mental aggregates. The mind that intends to bend is the cons-ciousness. When you think of bending and then bend, you may feel happy, or unhappy, or neither happy nor unhappy, doing so. If you bend with happiness, there is pleasant feeling. If you bend with unhappiness or anger, there is unpleasant feeling. If you bend with neither happiness nor unhappiness, there is neutral feeling. So, when you think of bending, there is the “feeling” aggregate. Then, there is perception, the aggregate that recognizes the bending. Then there is the mental state that urges you to bend. It seems as though it were saying “Bend! Bend!” It is the volitional activities. Thus, in the intention to bend you have feelings, perception, volitional activities and consciousness — all four mental aggregates. The movement of bending is matter or form. It is the material aggregate. So, the intention to bend and the bending together make up the five aggregates.
Thus, in one bending of the arm, there are the five aggregates. You move once and the five aggregates come up. You move again and there are more of the five aggregates. Every move calls up the five aggregates. If you have not meditated on them rightly and have not known them rightly, what happens we need not tell you. You know for yourselves.
Well, you think “I intend to bend” and “I bend”, don’t you? Everybody does. Ask the children, they will give the same answer. Ask adults who can’t read and write, the same answer. Ask someone who can read, the same answer still if he will say what he has in his mind. But, because he is well-read, he may invent answers to suit the scriptures and say “Mind and matter.” It is not what he knows for himself. Only inventions to suit the scriptures. In his heart of hearts he is thinking: “It is I who intend to bend. It is I who bend. It is I who intend to move. It is I who move.” He also thinks: “This I have been before, am now, and will be in the future. I exist for ever.” This thinking is called the notion of permanence. Nobody thinks, “This intention to bend exists only now.” Ordinary people always think, “This mind existed before. The same that have existed before am now thinking of bending.” They also think, “This thinking I exist now and will go on existing.”
When you bend or move the limbs, you think: “It is the same limbs that have existed that are moving now. It is the same I that have existed that am moving now.” After moving you again think, “These limbs, this I, always exist.” It never occurs to you that they pass away. This, too, is the notion of permanence. It is clinging to what is impermanent as permanent, clinging to what is no personality, no ego, as personality, as ego.
Then, as you have bent or stretched to your desire, you think it is very nice. For example, as you feel stiffness in the arm, you move or rearrange it and the stiffness is gone. You feel comfortable. You think it is very nice. You think it is happiness. Dancers and amateur dancers bend and stretch as they dance and think it is very nice to do so. They delight in it and are pleased with themselves. When you converse among yourselves you often shake your hands and heads and are pleased. You think it is happiness. When something you are doing meets with success, again you think it is good, it is happiness. This is how you delight through craving and cling to things. What is impermanent you take to be permanent and delight in. What is not happiness, not personality, but just aggregates of mind and matter, you take to be happiness, or personality, and delight in. You delight in them and cling to them. You mistake them for self or ego and cling to them, too.
So, when you bend, stretch or move your limbs, the thinking “I will bend” is aggregate of grasping. The bending is the aggregate of grasping. The thinking “I will stretch” is the aggregate of grasping. The stretching is the aggregate of grasping. The thinking “I will move” is the aggregate of grasping. The moving is the aggregate of grasping. When we speak of aggregates of grasping to be meditated on, we mean just these things.
The same thing happens in seeing, hearing, etc. When you see, the seat of seeing, the eye, is manifest. So is the object seen. Both are material things. They cannot cognize. But if one fails to meditate while seeing, one grasps them. One thinks the whole body with the eye is permanent, happy, self, and grasps it. One thinks the whole material world with the object seen is permanent, beautiful, good, happy, and. self, and grasps it. So the form eye and the form visible object are aggregates of grasping.
And when you see, the “seeing” is manifest, too. It is the four mental aggregates. The mere awareness of seeing is the aggregate consciousness. Pleasure or displeasure at seeing is the aggregate feeling. What perceives the object seen is the aggregate perception. What brings the attention to see is the aggregate volitional activities. They constitute the four mental aggregates. If one fails to meditate while seeing, one is inclined to think that seeing “has existed before, and exists now.” Or, as one sees good things, one may think “seeing is good.” So thinking, one goes after good and strange things to enjoy seeing. One goes to watch plays and films at the expense of money, sleep and health because one thinks it is good to do so. If one does not think it is good, one will not go to waste money or impair one’s health. To think that what sees or enjoys is “I”, “I am enjoying”, is to grasp with craving and wrong view. Because they grasp, the mind and matter that manifest themselves in seeing are said to be aggregates of grasping.
You grasp in the same way in hearing, smelling, tasting, touching or thinking. You grasp all the more to the mind that thinks, imagines and reflects as being the “I”, the ego. So, the five aggregates of grasping are none other than the mental-material things that manifest themselves at the six doors whenever one sees, hears, feels or perceives. You must try to see these aggregates as they are. To meditate on them and see them as they are — that is insight knowledge.
Knowledge and Freedom
“Insight meditation is meditating on the five aggregates of grasping.” This is in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha. The teachings of the Buddha are called suttas, which means “thread.” When a carpenter is about to plane down or saw off a piece of timber he draws a straight line using a thread. In the same way when we want to live the holy life we use the “thread” or sutta to draw straight lines in our actions. The Buddha has given us lines or instructions on how to train in morality, develop concentration and make become wisdom. You cannot go out of the line and speak or act as you please. Regarding the meditation of the five aggregates, here are a few excerpts from the suttas:
“Material shape, monks, is impermanent. What is impermanent, that is suffering. What is suffering, that is not the self. What is not self, that is not mine, that am I not, this is not my self. As it really comes to be, one should discern it thus by right wisdom.” — Samyutta Nikaya ii 19
You must meditate so that you will realize this impermanent, suffering, not-self material form is really impermanent, dreadfully suffering, and without a self or ego. You should meditate likewise on feelings, perception, activities, and consciousness.
What is the use of looking upon these aggregates as impermanent, suffering and not-self?
The Buddha tells us:
“So seeing all these things, the instructed disciple of the Aryans disregards material shape, disregards feeling.” — Samyutta Nikaya iii 68
He who realizes the impermanent, suffering, not-self nature of the five aggregates is wearied of material form as he is of feelings, perception, activities and consciousness.
“By disregarding he is passionless.”
That is to say, he has reached the Ariyan Path.
“Through passionlessness, he is freed.”
Once he has reached the Ariyan path of passionlessness, he has arrived at the four fruitions of freedom from the defilements, too.
“In freedom the knowledge comes to be ‘I am freed.’ “
When you are freed, you know for yourself that you are so. In other words, when you have become an arahat in whom the defilements are extinguished, you know you have become one.
All these excerpts are from Yad anicca Sutta and there are numerous suttas of this kind. The whole Khandhavagga Samyutta is a collection of them. Two suttas are especially noteworthy: Silavanta Sutta and Sutavanta Sutta. In both suttas the venerable Maha Kotthika puts some questions to the venerable Sariputta, who gives very brief but vivid answers. Maha Kotthika asks:
“What things, friend Sariputta, should be attended to thoroughly by a monk of moral habit?”
Note the attribute “of moral habit” in this question. If you want to practise insight meditation with a view to attaining the Path and Fruition and Nirvana, the least qualification you need is to be of moral habit. If you don ‘t even have moral habit, you can’t hope for the higher conditions of concentration and wisdom. The Venerable. Sariputta answers:
“The five grasping aggregates, friend Kotthika, are the things which should be thoroughly attended to by a monk of moral habit, as being impermanent, suffering, as a disease, as a boil, as a dart, as pain, as illness, as alien, as decay, as void, as not-self.”
What is the good of meditating like that? In answer the Venerable Sariputta goes on,
“Indeed, friend, it is possible for a monk of moral habit so thoroughly attending to these five aggregates of grasping” to realize the fruits of stream-winning.
So, if you want to be a stream winner and never to be reborn in the four lower states, you have to meditate on the five aggregates to realize their impermanence, suffering, and not-self nature. But that is not all. You can become an Arahat, too. The venerable Kotthika goes on to ask,
“What things, friend Sariputta, should be attended to thoroughly by a monk who is a Stream-winner?”
The Venerable Sariputta answers that it is the same five aggregates of grasping that should be thoroughly attended to by a stream-winner, as impermanent, suffering, not-self. The result? He moves on to Once-returning. What does Once-returner meditate on? Again the same five aggregates of grasping. He then becomes a Non-returner. What does the Non-returner meditate on? The five aggregates again. Now he becomes an Arahat. What does the Arahat meditate on? The five aggregates again. From this it is clear that the five aggregates are the things one has to meditate on even when one has become an Arahat.
What good is it to the Arahat by meditating so? Will he become a silent Buddha? Or, a supreme Buddha? No, neither. He will end his round of rebirths as an Arahat and enter Nirvana. The Arahat has no defilement left unremoved or uncalmed yet. All the defilements have been removed and calmed. So, he has nothing to develop in order to remove the defilements left unremoved or to calm those left uncalmed. Neither has he any moral habit, con-centration or wisdom yet to perfect. All the moral habits, concentration and wisdom that ought to be perfected have been perfected in him. So, he has no need to work for the perfection of what ought to be perfected, nor has he any need to increase those already perfected. The insight practice brings no such benefits to the Arahat.
One of the benefits the Arahat receives by meditating on the five aggregates is the happy condition in this world. Notwithstanding his being an Arahat, if he remains without meditation, disquiet and discomfort keep coming up at the six sense-doors, now here, now there. Here, disquiet does not mean mental distress. As the sense-objects keep coming up despite himself, he finds no peace of mind. That is all. Not to speak of Arahats, our meditators of today feel ill at ease to meet with the sense-objects, eager though they are on insight. As they return home from the meditation centre, they see this thing, hear that thing, get engaged in such and such business talks, and there is no peace at all. So they come back to the centre. To some, however, the disquiet does not last very long. Just four, five or ten days. Very soon the homely spirit gets the better of them and they are happy with their home life and set to household cares again. The arahat never returns to his old habits. If he meets with various sense-objects without meditation, only disquiet results. Only when he is absorbed in insight meditation does he find peace of mind. Thus meditating on the five grasping aggregates brings to the Arahat a happy condition in this world.
Again, as he lives in earnest meditation, mindfulness and comprehension of the impermanence, suffering and not-self keep rising in him. This is another benefit. The Arahat in whom mindfulness and comprehension keep rising is said to be in a chronic state of life. Such a one can enjoy the attainment to fruition at any time and for as long as he desires. For these two benefits — a happy condition in this world and mindfulness-comprehension — the Arahat lives in meditation.
The above are the answers given by the venerable Sariputta in Silavanta Sutta. The same answers are found inSutavanta Sutta too. The only difference is in the terms silavanta, “of moral habit” or “virtuous”, and sutavanta,“instructed” or “well informed.” All the other words are the same. Based on these two suttas and other suttas on the aggregate the dictum has been formulated: Insight knowledge comes from meditating on the five aggregates of grasping.
Now to come back to the grasping that rises through the six sense-doors.
When people see, they think of themselves or others as being permanent, as having existed before, as existing now, as going to exist in future, as existing always. They think of them as being happy, good, or beautiful. They think of them as being living entities. They think likewise when they hear, smell, taste or touch. This “touch” is widespread all over the body — wherever there is flesh and blood.
And wherever touch arises, there arises grasping. The bending, stretching, or moving of the limbs mentioned earlier are all instances of touch. So are the tense movements of rising and falling in the abdomen. We will come to this in detail later.
When one thinks or imagines, one thinks, “The I that have existed before is now thinking. Thinking, I go on existing,” and so one thinks of oneself as being permanent, as an ego. One also thinks the thinking or imagining as being enjoyable, as being very nice. One thinks it is happiness.
If told that the thinking will disappear, he cannot accept it. He is not pleased. This is because he is clinging to it.
In this way one clings to whatever comes through the six sense doors, as being permanent, as being happy, as ego, as self. One delights with craving and clings to it. One mistakes with wrong view and clings to it.
You have to meditate on the five aggregates that can cling or grasp.
The Right Method
When you meditate, you have to meditate with method. Only the right method can bring about insight. If you look upon things as being permanent, how can there be insight? If you look upon them as being happy, beautiful, as soul, as ego, how can there be insight?
Mind and matter are impermanent things. These impermanent things you have to meditate on to see them as they really are, as being impermanent. They rise and pass away and keep on oppressing you, so they are dreadful, they are sufferings. You have to meditate to see them as they are, as sufferings. They are processes lacking in a personality, a soul, a self. You have to meditate to see that there is no personality, no soul, no self. You must try to see them as they really are.
So, every time you see, hear, touch or perceive, you must try to see the mental and material processes that rise through the six sense doors as they really are. When you see, the seeing is real. This you must note seeing, seeing.In the same way when you hear, note hearing. When you smell, note smelling. When you taste, note tasting. When you touch, note touching. Tiredness, hotness, aches, and such unbearable and unpleasant sensations arise from contact too. Observe them: tiredness, hot, pain, and so on. Thoughts, ideas, may also turn up. Note them:thinking, imagining, pleasure, delight, as they arise.
But to the novice it is hard to observe all that come up through the six sense doors. He must begin with just a few.
You meditate like this. When you breathe in and out, the way the abdomen moves rising and falling is especially conspicuous. You begin observing this move-ment. The movement of rising you observe as rising. The movement of falling you observe as falling. This observation of rising and falling is void of the lingo of the scriptures. People who are not used to meditational practice speak of it in contempt: “This rising and falling business has nothing to do with the scriptures. It is nothing.” Well may they think it is nothing because it is not done up in scriptural jargon.
Theoretically, however, it is something. The rising is real, the falling is real, the moving air element is real. We have used the colloquial words rising and falling for convenience’s sake. In scriptural terminology, the rising-falling is the air-element. If you observe the abdomen attentively as it rises and falls, the firmness is there, the motion is there, the bringing out is there. Here, the “firmness” is the characteristic of the air-element, the motion is its property, and the bringing out is its manifestation. To know the air-element as it really is means to know its characteristic, property and manifes-tation. We meditate to know them. Insight begins with the determination of mind and matter. To achieve this the meditator begins with the matter. How?
“(The meditator) should…. seize by way of characteristic, function and so on.” — Visuddhi-magga ii 227
When you begin meditating on matter or mind, you should do so by way of either the characteristic or the property (function). “And so on” refers to the manifesta-tion (mode of appearance). In this connection the Compendium of Philosophy is quite to the point.
“Purity of view is the understanding of mind and matter with respect to their characteristics, function (property), mode of appearance (manifestation) and proximate cause.”
The meaning is this: insight begins with the analytical knowledge of mind and matter. In the seven purities, first you perfect the purity of morals and the purity of mind, and then you begin the purity of views. To achieve the analytical knowledge of mind and matter and the purity of views, you have to meditate on mind and matter and know them by way of their characteristics, property (function), manifestation and proximate cause. Once you know them thus, you gain the analytical knowledge of mind and matter. Once this knowledge grows sharper, you develop the purity of views.
Here, “to know them by way of their characteristics” means to know the intrinsic nature of mind and matter. To know “by way of property” is to know their function. Manifestation is their mode of appearance. It is not yet necessary to know the proximate cause at the initial stage of meditational practice. So we will just go on to explain the characteristics, function and manifestation.
In both the Path of Purity and the Compendium of Philosophy just quoted it is not indicated that mind and matter should be meditated on by name, by number, as material particles or as incessantly coming up processes. It is only shown that they should be meditated on by way of their characteristics, function and manifestation. One should take careful note of this. If not, one can be led to concepts of names, numbers, particles or processes. The commentaries say that you should meditate on mind and matter by way of their characteristic, function and manifestation, and so when you meditate on the air element, you do so by way of its characteristic, function and manifestation. What is the characteristic of the air-element? It is the characteristic of support. This is its intrinsic nature. It is the air element itself. What is the function of the air-element? It is moving. What is its manifestation? It is bringing out. Manifestation is what appears to the meditator’s intellect. As one meditates on the air-element, it appears to the meditator’s intellect as something bringing out, pushing, and pulling. This is the manifestation of the air-element. As you meditate on the rising-falling of the abdomen, all the firmness, moving, bringing out, become clear to you. These are the characteristic, function and manifestation of the air-element. This air element is important. In the postures and comprehension, contemplation of the body, Satipatthana–sutta, the commentator has laid emphasis on the air-element. Here is the Buddha’s teaching:
“Gacchanto va gacchami ti pajanati.“ (When he walks, he is aware “I am walking.”)
The Buddha is instructing us to be mindful of the form walking by noting walking, walking, every time we walk.
How knowledge is developed from meditating thus is explained by the commentator:
“The thought I am walking arises. This produces air. The air produces the intimation. The bringing forward of the whole body as the air-element spreads is said to be walking.”
The meaning is this: The meditator who is used to meditating — walking, walking, every time he walks realizes like this. First the idea “I will walk” arises. This intention gives rise to tense movement all over the body, which in turn causes the material body to move forward move by move. This we say “I walk,” or “He walks.” In reality there is no I or He that walks. Only the intention to walk and the form walking. This the meditator realizes. Here, in this explanation of the Commentary, the emphasis is on the realization of the moving of the air-element. So, if you understand the air-element by way of its characteristics, function and manifestation, you can decide for yourself whether your meditation is right or not.
The air-element has the characteristic of support. In a football it is air that fills and supports so that the ball expands and remains firm. In colloquial speech we say the ball is full and firm. In philosophical terms the air-element is in support. When you stretch your arm you feel some stiffness there. It is the air-element in support. In the same way when you press an air-pillow or mattress with your body or head, your body or head will not come down but stay high above. It is because the air clement in the pillow or mattress is supporting you. Bricks pile up as the ones below support those above. If the bricks below are not supporting, the ones above will tumble down. In the same way the human body is full of the air-element which gives support to it so that it can stand stiff and firm. We say “firm” relatively. If there is something firmer, we will call it “lax”. If there is something more lax, it becomes firm again.
The function of the air-element is moving. It moves from place to place when it is strong. It is the air-element that makes the body bend, stretch, sit, rise, go or come. Those unpractised in insight meditation often say, “If you notebending, stretching, only concepts like arms will appear to you. If you note left, right, only concepts like legs will appear to you. If you note rising, falling, only concepts like the abdomen will appear to you.” This may be true to some of the beginners. But it is not true to think that the concepts will keep coming up. Both concepts and realities appear to the beginner. Some people instruct the beginners to meditate on realities only. This is impossible. To forget concepts is quite impracticable at the beginning. You must combine concepts with realities. The Buddha himself used concepts and told us to be “aware ‘I am walking’ ” when we walk, bend or stretch. He did not use realities and tell us to be “aware ‘It is supporting, moving’,” etc. Although you meditate using the language of concepts like “walking, bending, stretching,” as your mindfulness and concentration grow stronger, all the concepts disappear and only the realities like support and moving appear to you. When you reach the stage of the knowledge of dissolution, although you meditate walking, walking, neither the legs nor the body appear to you. Only the movement itself is there. Although you meditate bending, bending, there will not be any arms or legs. Only the movement. Although you meditate rising, falling, there will be no image of the abdomen or the body. Only the movement out and in. These as well as swaying are functions of the air-element.
What appears to be bringing out or drawing in to the meditator’s mind is the manifestation of the air-element. When you bend or stretch your arm, it appears, something is drawing it in or pushing it out. It is plainer when walking. To the meditator whose concentration is grown sharper, by noting walking, right step, left step, lifting, putting forward, putting down, this moving forward as if being driven from behind becomes quite plain. The legs seem to be pushing forward of their own accord. How they move forward without the meditator making any effort is very plain. It is so good walking noting like this that some spend a lot of time in it.
So, when you meditate on the air element, you should know it by way of its characteristic of supporting, its function of moving, and its manifestation of bringing out. Only then is your knowledge right and as it should be.
You may ask, “Are we to meditate only after learning the characteristic, function and manifestation?” No. You need not learn them. If you meditate on the rising mind-and-matter, you know the characteristic, the function, and the manifestation as well. There is no other way than knowing by way of the characteristic, function, and manifestation when you meditate on the rising mind-and-matter. When you look up to the sky on a rainy day you see a flash of lightning. This bright light is the characteristic of the lightning. As lightning flashes, darkness is dispelled. This dispelling of darkness is the functions of lightning, its work. You also see what it is like — whether it is long, short, a curve, a circle, straight, or vast. You see its characteristic, its function, its manifesta-tion, all at once. Only you may not be able to say the brightness is its characteristic, dispelling of darkness is its function, or its shape or outline is its manifestation. But you see them all the same.
In the same way, when you meditate on the rising mind-and-matter, you know its characteristic, its function, its manifestation, everything. You need not learn them. Some learned persons think that you have to learn them before you meditate. Not so. What you learn are only concepts. Not realities. The meditator who is contemplating the rising mind-and-matter knows them as if he were touching them with his own hand. He needs not learn about them. If there is the elephant before your very eyes, you need not look at the picture of an elephant.
The meditator who is meditating on the rising and falling of the abdomen knows the firmness or laxity thereof — its characteristic. He knows the moving in or out — its function. He also knows its bringing in and pushing out –its manifestation. If he knows these things as they really are, does he need to learn about them? Not if he wants the realization for himself. But if he wants to preach to others, he will need to learn about them. When you meditate right step, left step, you know the tenseness in every step — its characteristic. You know the moving about– its function. And you know its bringing out — its manifestation. This is proper knowledge, the right knowledge.
Now, to know for yourselves how one can discern the characteristic and so on by just meditating on what rises, try doing some meditation. You certainly have some hotness, pain, tiredness, ache, somewhere in your body now. These are unpleasant feelings hard to bear. Concentrate on this unpleasantness with your intellect and note hot, hot, orpain, pain. You will find that you are going through an unpleasant experience and suffering. This is the characteristic of suffering — going through an unplea-sant experience.
When this unpleasant feeling comes about, you become low-spirited. If the unpleasantness is little, there is a little low-spiritedness. If it is great, then low-spiritedness is great too. Even those who are of a strong will have their spirits go low if the unpleasant feelings are intense. Once you are very tired, you can’t even move. This making the spirit go low is the function of unpleasant feeling. We have said “spirit”– the mind. When the mind is low, its concomitants get low too.
The manifestation of unpleasant feeling is physical oppression. It manifests itself as a physical affliction, something unbearable to the meditator’s intellect. As he meditates hot, hot, pain, pain, it comes up to him as something oppressing in the body, something very hard to bear. It shows up so much that you have to groan. If you meditate on the unpleasant feeling in your body as it rises, you know the undergoing of undesirable tangible object its characteristic, the waning of associated states — its function, and the physical affliction — its manifestation. This is the way the meditators gain knowledge.
You can meditate on mind, too. Mind cognizes and thinks. So what thinks and imagines is mind. Meditate on this mind as thinking, imagining, pondering, whenever it arises. You will find that it has the intrinsic nature of going to the object, cognizing the object. This is the characteristic of mind, as it is said, “Mind has the characteristic of cognizing.” Every kind of mind cognizes. The conscious-ness of seeing cognizes the object, as do the consciousness of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking.
When you work in collective, you have a leader. Consciousness is the leader that cognizes the object that appears at any sense door. When the visible object comes up to the eye, consciousness cognizes it first of all. It is then followed by feeling, perception, desire, delight, dislike, admiration and so on. In the same way, when the audible object comes up to the ear, it is consciousness that cognizes it first. It is more obvious when you think or imagine. If an idea comes up while you are meditating “rising”, “falling” etc, you have to note the idea. If you can note it the moment it appears, it disappears immediately. If you can’t, several of its followers like delight, desire, will come in succession. Then the meditator realizes how consciousness is the leader — its function.
“Mind precedes things.” –Dhammapada
If you note consciousness whenever it rises, you see very clearly how it is acting as leader, now going to this object now going to that object.
Again it is said in the commentary: “Consciousness has the manifestation of continuity.” As you meditate rising, falling, etc., the mind sometimes wanders away. You note it and it disappears. Then another consciousness comes up. You note it and it disappears. Again another consciousness appears. Again you note it and again it disappears. Again another comes up. You have to note lots of such comings up and goings away of consciousness. The meditator comes to realize: “Consciousness is a succession of events that come up and go away one after another. When one disappears, another appears.” Thus you realize the continuous manifestation of consciousness. The meditator who realizes this also realizes death and birth. “Death is nothing strange after all. It is just like the passing away of the consciousness I have been noting. To be born again is like the coming up of the consciousness I am now noting that has risen in continuation of the one preceding it”.
To show that one can understand the characteristic, function and manifestation of things even though one has not learnt about them, we have taken the air-element out of the material qualities and the unpleasant feeling and consciousness out of the mental qualities. You just have to meditate on them as they arise. The same applies to all the other mental and material qualities. If you meditate on them as they arise, you will understand their characteristics, function and manifestation. The beginner in meditation can meditate on and understand the mental-material aggregates of grasping only by way of these characteristics, function and manifestation. At the initial stage with the analytical knowledge of mind and matter and the knowledge by discerning conditionality, which are elemental in insight meditation, understanding that much is enough. When you come to real insight knowledges like the knowledge of investigation, you know the characteristics, impermanence, suffering, and not self as well.
The question now arises: What do we meditate on the grasping aggregates for? And, as regards time, what time do we meditate on, the past, the future, the present, or indefinite time?
What do we meditate for? Do we meditate on the aggregates of grasping for worldly wealth? For relief from illness? For clairvoyance? For levitation and such supernatural powers? Insight meditation aims at none of these. There have been cases of people who get cured of serious illnesses as a result of meditational practice. In the days of the Buddha persons who got perfected through insight meditation had supernatural powers. People today may have such powers if they get perfected. But fulfilment of these powers is not the basic aim of insight meditation.
Shall we meditate on phenomena past and gone? Shall we meditate on phenomena not yet come? Shall we meditate on the present phenomena? Or, shall we meditate on phenomena which are neither past, future, nor present, but which we can imagine as we have read about them in books?
The answer to these questions is: we meditate to not grasp and we meditate on what is arising.
Yes, people not practised in meditation grasp at the rising mind-and-matter every time they see, hear, touch, or become aware of. They grasp at them with craving – are pleased with them. They grasp at them with wrong views, as permanent, happy, as the I, the ego. We meditate in order not to let these graspings arise, to be free from them. This is the basic aim of insight meditation.
And we meditate on what is arising. We do not meditate on things past, future, or indefinite in time. Here we are speaking of practical insight meditation. In inferential meditation we do meditate on things past, future, and indefinite in time. Let me explain. Insight meditation is of two kinds, practical and inferential. The knowledge you gain by meditating on what actually arises by way of characteristic, function and manifestation is practical insight. From this practical knowledge you infer the impermanence, suffering and not-self of things past and future, things you have not experienced. This is inferential insight.
“The fixing both (unseen and seen) as one by following the object…” — Patisambhida
The Path of Purity explains this statement as follows:
“….by following, going after the object seen, visually determining both (the seen and unseen) as one in intrinsic nature: ‘as this (seen) one, so what goes as complex broke up in the past and will break up in the future also’.” — Visuddhi-magga
“The object seen”– this is practical insight. And “going after the object seen … determining both … in the past … in the future” — this is inferential insight. But here note: the inferential insight is possible only after the practical. No inference can be made without first knowing the present. The same explanation is given in the commentary onKathavatthu.
“Seeing the impermanence of even one formation, one draws the conclusion as regards the others, as ‘impermanent are all the things of life’.”
Why don’t we meditate on things past or future? Because they will not make you understand the real nature and cleanse you of defilements. You do not remember your past existences. Even in this existence, you do not remember most of your childhood. So, meditating on things past, how can you know things as they really are with their characteristics and functions? Things of the more recent past may be recalled. But, as you recall them, you think, “I saw, I heard, I thought. It was I who saw at that time and it is I who am seeing now.” There is the “I” notion for you. There can even be notions of permanence and happiness. So recalling things past to meditate on do not serve our purpose, You have grasped them and this grasping is hard to overcome. Although you look on them as mind and matter with all your learning and thinking, the “I” notion persists, because you have already grasped it. You say “impermanent” on the one hand, you get the notion “permanent” on the other. You note suffering, but the notion “happiness” keeps turning up. You meditate on not-self, but the self notion remains strong and firm. You argue with yourself.
In the end your meditation has to give way to your preconceived ideas.
The future has not yet come, and you can’t be sure what exactly it will be like when it comes. You may have meditated on them in advance but may fail to do so when they turn up. Then will craving, wrong view, and defilements arise all anew. So, to meditate on the future with the help of learning and thinking is no way to know things as they really are. Nor is it the way to calm defilements.
Things of indefinite time have never existed, will not exist, and are not existing, in oneself or in others. They are just imagined by learning and thinking. They are high-sounding and look intellectual, but on reflection are found to be just concepts of names, signs and shapes. Suppose someone is meditating, “Matter is impermanent. Matter rises moment to moment and passes away moment to moment.” Ask him: What matter is it? Is it matter of the past or the present or the future? Matter in oneself or in others? If in oneself, is it matter in the head? The body? The limbs? The eye? The ear? You will find that it is none of these but a mere concept, an imagination. So we do not meditate on indefinite time.
But the present phenomenon is what comes up at the six doors right now. It has not yet been defiled. It is like an unsoiled piece of cloth or paper. If you are quick enough to meditate on it just as it comes up, it will not be defiled. You fail to note it and it gets defiled. Once defiled, it cannot be undefiled. If you fail to note the mind-and-matter as it rises, grasping intervenes. There is grasping with craving — grasping of sense-desires. There is grasping with wrong view — grasping of wrong views, of mere rite and ritual, of a theory of the self. What if grasping takes place?
“Conditioned by grasping is becoming; conditioned by becoming is birth; conditioned by birth, old age and dying, grief, suffering, sorrow, despair and lamentation come into being. Thus comes to be the origination of this entire mass of ill.” — Majjhima Nikaya i 333; Samyutta Nikaya ii 1-2.
Grasping is no small matter. It is the root-cause of good and bad deeds. One who is grasped works to accomplish what he believes are good things. Everyone of us is doing what he thinks is good.What makes him think it is good? It is grasping. Others may think it is bad, but to the doer it is good. If he thinks it is not good, of course he will not do it. There is a noteworthy passage in King Asoka’s inscriptions: “One thinks well of one’s work. One never thinks evil of one’s work.” A thief steals because it is good to him to steal. A robber robs people because he thinks it is good to rob. A killer kills because he thinks it is good to kill. Ajatasattu killed his own father, King Bimbisara. He thought it was good. Devadatta conspired against the life of the Buddha. Why, to him it was good. One who takes poison to kill himself does so because he thinks it is good. Moths rush to a flame thinking it is a very nice thing. All living things do what they do because they think it is good to do so. To think it is good is grasping. Once you are really grasped you do things. What is the outcome? Well, it is the good deeds and the bad deeds.
It is a good deed to refrain from causing suffering to others. It is a good deed to render help to others. It is a good deed to give. It is a good deed to pay respect to those to whom respect is due. A good deed can bring about peace, a long life, and good health in this very life. It will bring good results in future lives, too. Such grasping is good, right grasping. Those who are thus grasped do good deeds like giving and keeping precepts and cause thereby to bring about good karma. What is the result then? “Conditioned by becoming is birth.” After death they are born anew. Where are they born? In the Good Born, in the worlds of men and gods. As men they are endowed with such good things as a long life, beauty, health, as well as good birth, good following, and wealth. You can call them “happy people.” As gods, too, they will be attended by multitudes of gods and goddesses and be living in magnificent palaces. They have been grasped by notions of happiness and in a worldly sense, they can be said to be happy.
But from the point of view of the Buddha’s teaching, these happy men and gods are not exempt from suffering. “Conditioned by birth are old age and dying.” Although born a happy man, he will have to grow into an old “happy” man. Look at all those “happy” old people in this world. Once over seventy or eighty, not everything is all right with them. Grey hair, broken teeth, poor eye-sight, poor hearing, backs bent double, wrinkles all over, energy all spent up, mere good-for-nothings! With all their wealth and big names, these old men and women, can they be happy? Then there is the disease of old age. They cannot sleep well, they cannot eat well, they have difficulty sitting down or getting up. And finally, they must die. Rich man, king, or man of power, dies one day. He has nothing to rely on then. Friends and relatives there are around him, but just as he is lying there on his death-bed he closes his eyes and dies. Dying he goes away all alone to another existence. He must find it really hard to part with all his wealth. If he is not a man of good deeds he will be worried about his future existence.
The great god, likewise, has to die. Gods too are not spared. A week before they die, five signs appear to them. The flowers they wear which never faded now begin to fade. Their dresses which never got worn-out now appear worn-out. Sweat comes out in their armpits, an unusual thing. Their bodies which always looked young now look old. Having never felt bored in their divine lives, they now feel bored. When these five signs appear, they at once realize their imminent death, and are greatly alarmed. In the days of the Buddha, the Sakka, (King of the gods) himself had these signs appear to him. Greatly alarmed that he was going to die and lose his glory, he came to the Buddha for help. The Buddha preached the dhamma to him and he became a stream-winner. The old Sakka died and a new Sakka was reborn.
It was lucky of him that the Buddha was there to save him. Had it not been for the Buddha, it would have been a disaster to the old great god.
Not only old age and dying “… grief, suffering, sorrow, despair and lamentation come into being.” All these are sufferings. “Thus comes to be the origination of this entire mass of ill.” So, the good life resulting from grasping is dreadful suffering after all. Men or gods, all have to suffer.
If the good life resulting from good deeds is suffering, had we better not do them? No. If we do not do good deeds, bad deeds may come up. These can lead us to hell, to the realm of animals, to the realm of ghosts. The sufferings of these lower planes are far worse. Human and divine life is suffering compared with the happiness of deathless Nirvana but compared with the sufferings of the lower states, human or divine life is happiness indeed.
Right grasping gives rise to good deeds. Likewise wrong grasping gives rise to bad deeds. Thinking that it is good to do so, some kill, steal, rob, do wrong to others. As a result they are reborn in bad bourn — in hell, in the realm of animals, in the realm of ghosts. To be reborn in hell is like jumping into a great fire. Even a great god can do nothing against hell fire. In the days of the Buddha there was a great mara-god by the name of Dusi. He was contemptuous of the Buddha and the members of the holy Order. One day he caused the death of an arahat. As a result of this cruel deed the great god died and was reborn in Avici hell. Once there he was at the mercy of the guardians of purgatory. Those people who are bullying others in this world will meet the same fate as that met by the great god Dusi one day. Then, after suffering for a long time in hell, they will be reborn animals and ghosts.
How grasping arises
So grasping is dreadful. It is very important too. We meditate to let this grasping not be, to put an end to it. We meditate not to grasp with craving or wrong view, not to grasp as permanent or happy, not to grasp as self, ego, the I. Those who fail to meditate grasp whenever they see, hear, feel or perceive. Ask yourselves if you don’t grasp. The answer will be too obvious.
Let’s begin with seeing. Suppose you see something beautiful. What do you think of it? You are delighted with it, pleased with it, aren’t you? You won’t say, “I don’t want to see, I don’t want to look at it.” In fact, you are thinking, “What a beautiful thing! How lovely!” Beaming with smiles you are pleased with it. At the same time you are thinking it is permanent. Whether the object seen is a human being or an inanimate thing, you think it has existed before, exists now, and will go on existing for ever. Although it is not your own, you mentally take possession of it and delight in it. If it is a piece of clothing, you mentally put it on and are pleased. If it is a pair of sandals, you mentally put them on. If it is a human being, you mentally use him or her and are pleased, too.
The same thing happens when you hear, smell, taste or touch. You take pleasure on each occasion. With thoughts the range of your delights is far wider. You fancy and take delight in things not your own, long for them, and imagine them to be yours. If they are your own things, needless to say, you keep thinking of them and are pleased with them all the time. We meditate to check such taking delights in and graspings. We grasp with wrong views, too. You grasp with the personality view. When you see, you think what you see is a person, an ego. Your own consciousness of seeing, too, you take as a person, an ego. Without a thorough insight knowledge we grasp at things the moment we see them. Think of yourselves and you will see for yourselves how you have got such grasping in you. You think of yourself as well as of others as an ego that has lived the whole life long. In reality there is no such thing. Nothing lives the whole life long. Only mind and matter rising one after another in continuation. This mind-and-matter you take as person, ego, and grasp. We meditate to not let these graspings with wrong views be.
But we have to meditate on things as they come up. Only then will we be able to prevent the graspings. Graspings come from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking. They come from six places — six doors. Can we cling to things we cannot see? No. Can we cling to those we cannot hear? No. The Buddha himself has asked these questions.
“Now what think you, Malunkya’s son? As to those shapes cognizable by eye, which you have not seen, which you have never seen before, which you do not see now, which you have no desire to see in future, — have you any partiality, any passion, any affection for such shapes?”
“Not so, my lord.” — Samyutta Nikaya iv. 72
What are those shapes you have not seen before? Towns and villages and countries you have never been to, men and women living there, and other scenes. How can anyone fall in love with men and women he or she hasn’t ever seen? How can you cling to them? So, you do not cling to things you have never seen. No defilements arise in respect of them. You do not need to meditate on them. But things you see are another matter. Defilements can arise — that is to say, if you fail to meditate to prevent them.
The same is true of things heard, smelled, tasted, touched, thought on.
Meditate Right Now
If you fail to meditate on the rising phenomena and so do not know their real nature of impermanency, suffering and not-self, you may relive them and thus let defilements be. This is a case of latent defilements. Because they arise from objects, we call them “object-latent.” What do people cling to and why do they cling to? They cling to things or persons they have seen because they have seen. If you fail to meditate on them as they arise, somehow or other grasping arise. Defilements are latent in whatever we see, hear, taste, etc.
If you meditate, you find that what you see passes away, what you hear passes away. They pass away in no time at all. Once you see them as they really are, there is nothing to love, nothing to hate, nothing to cling to. If there is nothing to cling to, there can be no clinging or grasping.
And you meditate right now. The moment you see, you meditate. You can’t put it off. You may buy things on credit, but you cannot meditate on credit. Meditate right now. Only then will the clingings not come up. Scripturally speaking, you meditate as soon as the eye-door process ends and before the subsequent mind-door process begins. When you see a visible object, the process takes place like this: First, you see the object that comes up. This is the seeing process. Then you review the object seen. This is the reviewing process. Then you put the forms seen together and see the shape or material. This is the form process. Last of all, you know the concept of name. This is the name process. With objects you have never seen before, and so you do not know the names of this, naming process will not occur. Of the four, when the first or seeing process takes place, you see the present form, the reality, as it rises. When the second or reviewing process takes place, you review the past form, the form seen — reality again. Both attend on reality — the object seen. No concept yet. The difference is between the present reality and the past reality. With the third process you come to the concept of shape. With the fourth you come to the concept of names. The processes that follow are all various concepts. All these are common to people not practised in insight meditation.
There are 14 thought-moments in the process of seeing. If neither seeing, hearing, nor thinking conscious-ness arises, life-continuum goes on. It is identical with rebirth-consciousness. It is the consciousness that goes on when you are sleeping fast. When a visible object or any such appears, life-continuum is arrested, and seeing consciousness, etc., arises. As soon as life-continuum ceases, a thought-moment arises adverting the conscious-ness to the object that comes into the avenue of the eye. When this ceases, seeing consciousness arises. When this again ceases, the receiving consciousness arises. Then comes the investigating consciousness. Then, the conscious-ness that determines whether the object seen is good or not. Then, in accordance with the determination reached, moral or immoral apperceptions arise violently for seven thought-moment. When these cease, two retentive resultants arise. Whenthese cease, there comes subsidence into life-continuum like falling asleep. From the adverting to retention there are 14 thought-moments. All these manifest as one seeing consciousness. This is how the seeing process takes place. When one is well-practised in insight meditation, after the arising of life-continuum following the seeing process, insight consciousness that reviews “seeing” takes place. You must try to be able to thus meditate immediately. If you are able to do so, it appears in your intellect as though you were meditating on things as they are seen, as they just arise. This kind of meditation is termed in the Suttas as “meditation on the present.”
“He discerns things present as they arise here and now.” — Majjhima Nikaya iii.227
“Understanding in reviewing the perversion of present states is knowledge in arising and passing away.” —Patisambhidamagga
These extracts from the Suttas clearly show that we must meditate on present states. If you fail to meditate on the present, apprehending arises from life-continuum. This consciousness arises to review what has just been seen. The thought-moments included are: apprehending conscious-ness, apperceptions 7, and registering consciousness 2 — a total of 10 thought-moments. Every time you think or ponder, these three types of consciousness and ten thought-moments take place. But to the meditator they will appear as one thought-moment only. This is in conformity with the explanations in connection with the knowledge of dissolution in Patisambhida-magga and Visuddhi-magga. If you can meditate beyond the apprehending, you may not get to concepts and may stay with the reality — the object seen. But this is not very easy for the beginner.
If you fail to meditate even at the apprehending, you get to form process and name process. Then graspings come in. If you meditate after the emergence of graspings, they will not disappear. That is why we instruct you to meditate immediately, before the concepts arise.
The processes for hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, are to be understood along similar lines.
With thinking at the mind-door, if you fail to meditate immediately, subsequent processes come up after the thought. So, you meditate immediately so that they may
not arise. Sometimes, as you are noting “rising, falling, sitting, touching” a thought or idea may come up in between. You notice it the moment it arises. You note it and it ends right there. Sometimes a wandering of the mind is about to arise. You note it and it quiets down. In the words of some meditators, “it is like a naughty child who behaves himself when shouted at ‘Quiet!’ ”
So, if you note the moment you see, hear, touch, or perceive, no subsequent consciousness will arise to bring about graspings.
“…. you will simply have the sight of the thing seen, the sound of the thing heard, the sense of the things sensed, and the idea of the thing cognized.”
As this extract from Malunkya-sutta shows, the mere sight, the mere sound, the mere sense, the mere idea is there. Recall them and only the real nature you have understood will appear. No graspings. The meditator who meditates on whatever arises as it arises sees how everything arises and passes away, and it becomes clear to him how everything is impermanent, suffering, not self. He knows this for himself — not because a teacher has explained it to him. This only is the real knowledge.
To arrive at this knowledge needs thorough work. There is no guaranteeing that you will gain such knowledge at one sitting. Perhaps one in a million will. In the days of the Buddha there are people who attained to the Path and Fruit after listening to a stanza. But you can’t expect such things today. It was then the Buddha himself who was teaching. He knew the disposition of his listeners very well. The listeners on their part were people of perfections. But today the preacher is just an ordinary person who preaches what little he has learnt. He does not know the disposition of his listeners. It will be difficult to say that the listeners are men and women of perfections. If they had been, they would have gained deliverance in the days of the Buddha. So we cannot guarantee you will gain special knowledge at one sitting. We can only tell you that you can if you work hard enough.
How long do we have to work? Understanding impermanence, suffering and not self begins with the investigating knowledge. But it does not come at once. It is preceded by purity of mind, purity of views, and purity of transcending doubts. To speak from the level of the present-day-meditators, a specially gifted person can achieve this knowledge in two or three days. Most will take five, six, or seven days. But they must work assiduously. Those who get slack at work may not gain it even after fifteen or twenty days have passed. So I will talk about working in earnest in the beginning.
Insight meditation is incessant work — meditate whenever you see, hear, smell, taste, touch or think, without missing any thing. But to beginners, to note everything is quite impossible. Begin with several. It is easy to observe the moving form in the rising and falling of the abdomen. We have already spoken about it. Note without a let-up rising, falling, rising, falling. As your mindfulness and concentration grow stronger, add the sitting and the touching and note rising, falling, sitting, touching.
As you note on, ideas may come up. Note them, too: thinking, planning, knowing. They are hindrances. Unless you are rid of them, you have not got purity of mind and will not have a clear understanding of mind-matter phenomena. So, don’t let them in. Note them and get rid of them.
If unbearable feelings like tiredness, hotness, pain, or itch, appear in the body, concentrate on them and note: tired, tired or hot, hot as they arise. If the desire arises to stretch or bend the limbs, note it too, desire to bend, desire to stretch. When you bend or stretch, every move should be noted: bending, bending, stretching, stretching. In the same way, when you rise, note every move. When you walk, note every step. When you sit down, note it. If you lie down, note it too.
Every bodily movement made, every thought that arises, every feeling that comes up, all must be noted. If there is nothing in particular to note, go on noting rising, falling, sitting, touching. You must note while eating or having a bath. If there are things you see or hear particularly, note them too. Except for the four-five-six hours you sleep, you keep noting things. You must try to be able to note at least one thing in a second.
If you keep on noting thus in earnest, you will, in two or three days, find your mindfulness and concentration quite strong. If not in two or three days, in five or six. Then, very rarely do wanton thoughts come up. If they do, you are able to note them the moment they come. And they pass away the moment you notice them. The object noted like the rising and falling and the mind noting it seem to be well-timed. You note with ease.
These are signs that your mindfulness and concentration have become strong. In other words, you have developed purity of mind.
Things Fall Apart
From now on, every time you note, the object noted and the mind that notes it appear two separate things. You come to know that the material form like the rising and falling is one thing and the mental state that notes it is another. Ordinarily, the material form and the mind that cognizes it do not seem separate. They seem one and the same thing. Your book knowledge tells you they are separate but your personal feeling has them as one. Shake your index finger. Do you see the mind that intends to shake? Can you distinguish between that mind and the shaking? If you are sincere, the answer will be No. But to the meditator whose mindfulness and concentration are well developed the object of attention and the awareness of it are as separate as the wall and the stone that is thrown to it.
The Buddha used the simile of the gem and the thread (D.i.72). Just as when you look at a string of lapis lazuli you know: the gem is threaded on a string; this is the gem, this is the string the gem is threaded on, so does the meditator know: this is the material form, this is the consciousness that is aware of it, which depends on it, and is related to it. The Commentary says that the conscious-ness here is the insight consciousness, insight knowledge, that observesthe material form. The lapis lazuli is the material form and the string is the consciousness that observes. The thread is in the gem as the insight awareness penetrates the material form.
When you note rising, the rising is one thing, the awareness is one thing — only these two exist. When you notefalling the falling is one, the awareness is one — only these two. The knowledge comes clear to you of its own accord. When you lift one foot in walking, one is the lifting, the other is the awareness — only these two exist. When you push it forward, the pushing and the awareness. When you put it down, the putting down and the awareness. Matter and awareness. These two only. Nothing else.
As your concentration improves further, you unders-tand how the material and mental things you have been noting keep passing away each in its own time. When you note rising, the form rising comes up gradually and passes away. When you note falling, the form falling comes up gradually and then passes away. You also find that the rising as well as the awareness passes away, the falling as well as the awareness passes away. With every noting you find only arising and passing away. When noting bending, one bending and the next do not get mixed up. Bends, passes away, bends, passes away — and thus, the intention to bend, the form bending, and the awareness, come and go each in its time and place. And when you note the tiredness, hotness, and pain, these pass away as you are noting them. It becomes clear to you: they appear and then disappear, so they are impermanent.
The meditator understands for himself what the commentaries say, “They are impermanent in the sense of being nothing after becoming.” This knowledge comes to him not from books nor from teachers. He understands by himself. This is real knowledge. To believe what other people say is faith. To remember out of faith is learning. It is not knowledge. You must know from your own experience. This is the important thing. Insight meditation is contemplation in order to know for yourself. You meditate, see for yourself, and know — this alone is insight.
Regarding contemplation on impermanence the commentary says:
“…. the impermanent should be understood.” “…. impermanence should be understood.””…. the discernment of the impermanent should be understood.” — Visuddhi-magga, i 281
This brief statement is followed by the explanation: “Here, ‘impermanent’ are the Five Aggregates.” You must know that the five aggregates are impermanent. Although you may not understand it by your own knowledge, you should know this much. Not only that. You should know that they are all suffering, all without a self. If you know this much, you can take up insight meditation. This understanding made by learning is given in Culatanha-sankhaya-sutta:
“If, 0 lord of devas, a monk has heard, ‘All states are not fit for adherence,’ he understands all the truth.” —Majjhima Nikaya i 318
To “understand” means to meditate on the mind-and-matter and be aware of it. It is the basic insight knowledge of Analytical Knowledge of Mind and Matter and the knowledge by Discerning Conditionality. So, if you have learnt that mind and matter are all impermanent, suffering and not-self, you can begin meditating from the analysis of mind and matter.
Then you can go on to higher knowledges like the Investigating knowledge.
“Understanding all the states, he comprehends all of them”
So, the least qualification required of a beginner in insight meditation is that he must have heard or learnt of the impermanent, suffering, and not-self nature of mind and matter. To Buddhists in Burma this is something they have had since childhood.
We say mind and matter are impermanent because they come to be and then pass away. If a thing never comes to be, we cannot say it is impermanent. What is that thing which never comes to be? It is a concept.
Concepts never come to be, never really exist. Take a personal name. It comes into use from the day a child is named. It appears as though it has come to be. But actually people just say it in calling him. It has never come to be, it never really exists. If you think it exists, find it.
When a child is born, the parents give it a name. Suppose a boy has been named “Master Red.” Before the naming ceremony the name Master Red is unknown at all. But from the day the boy is named people begin calling him Master Red. But we can’t say the name has come into being since then. The name Master Red just does not exist. Let’s find it out.
Is the name Master Red in his body? On his head? On his side? On his face? No, it is not anywhere. The people have agreed to call him Master Red and that is all. If he dies, does the name die with him too? No. As long as the people do not forget it, the name will live on. So it is said, “a name or surname never gets destroyed”. Only when the people forget it will the name Mastcr Red disappear. But it is not destroyed. Should someone restore it, it will come up again.
Think of the Bodhisatta’s names in the Jatakas: Vessantara, Mahosadha, Mahajanaka, Vidhura, Temiya, Nemi… these names were known in the times of the stories but were lost for millions of years until the Buddha restored them. Four asankkeyyas and a hundred thousand kalpas ago the name Dipankara the Buddha and the name Sumedha the recluse were well known. They were lost to posterity afterwards. But our Buddha restored them and the names are known to us again. They will be known as long as the Buddha’s teaching lasts. Once Buddhism is gone from earth these names will be forgotten too. But if a future Buddha were to speak about them again, they would become known again. So, concepts, names, are just conventions. They never exist. They have never been and they will never be. They never arise, so we can’t say they “pass away.” Nor can we say they are impermanent. Every concept is like that — no existence, no becoming, no passing away, so no impermanence. Nibbana, although it is a reality, cannot be said to be impermanent because it never comes to be or passes away. It is to be regarded is permanent because it stands as peace for ever.
Realities other than Nibbana — mind and matter — never were in the beginning. They come into being whenever there arise causes. After coming into being they pass away. So we say these realities of mind and matter are impermanent. Take seeing, for example. In the beginning there was no seeing. But if the eye is good, the object comes up, there is light, your attention is drawn to it — if these four causes concur, then there is seeing. Once it has risen, it passes away. No more of it. So we say seeing is impermanent. It is not very easy for an ordinary person to know that seeing is impermanent. Hearing is easier to understand. There was no hearing in the beginning. But if the ear is good, the sound comes up, there is no barrier, your attention is drawn to it — if these four factors concur, then there is hearing. It arises and then passes away. No more of it. So we say hearing is impermanent.
Now you hear me talking. You hear one sound after another. Once you have heard them, they are gone. Listen,sound, sound, sound. When I say so, you hear it, then it is no more. When I say sound, you hear it, then it is gone. That is how they come and pass away. The same is true of other psycho-physical phenomena. They come and go. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, bending, stretching, moving — all come and go away. Because they keep passing away, we say they are impermanent.
Of these, the passing away of consciousness is very clear. If your mind wanders while you are noting rising, falling,you note wandering. As you note it, the wandering mind is no more. It is gone. It has not existed before. It comes about just then. Then it is gone in no time at all when noted. So we say it is impermanent. The passing away of unpleasant feelings too, is obvious. As you go on noting rising, falling, tiredness, hotness, or pain, appears somewhere in the body. If you concentrate on it and note tiredness, tiredness, etc., sometimes it disappears completely, and sometimes it disappears at least for the time you are noting. So it is impermanent. The meditator realizes its impermanent characteristic as he notes its arising and passing away.
This realization of the fleeting nature of things is Contemplation of Impermanence. It comes from your own experience. Mere reflection without personally experiencing it is no true knowledge. Without meditating you will not know what things come up and what things pass away. It is just book learning. It may be a meritorious deed, but not real insight knowledge.
Real insight knowledge is what you know for yourself by meditating on things as they come up and pass away. Here in the audience are lots of meditators who have come to this stage of knowledge. I am not speaking from my own experience alone. No, not even from the experience of forty or fifty disciples of mine. There are hundreds of them. Beginners may not have such clear knowledge yet. It is not quite easy. But it is not too difficult to achieve, either. If you work hard enough as we instruct, you can have it. If you don’t, you can’t. Educational degrees, distinctions, honours — all are results of hard work. No pain, no gain. The insight knowledge of the Buddha, too, must be worked for.
As your concentration grows sharper, you will be able to see a great number of thoughts in one single act of bending or stretching of the limbs. You will see large numbers of thoughts coming up one after another as you intend to bend or stretch. The same number when you step. There arise a great number of thoughts in the twinkling of an eye. You have to note all these fleeting thoughts as they arise. If you cannot name them, just note “aware, aware.” You will see that there are four, five, or ten thousands arising in succession every time you note aware. Sometimes when the awareness is so swift, even the word aware is no longer necessary. Just following them with your intellect will do.
Now a thought arises, now the mind is aware of it; now another thought arises, now the observant conscious-ness is aware of it. It is like the saying “a morsel of food, a stroke of the stick.” For every thought that arises there is the observant consciousness to be aware of it. Thus aware, these arisings and passings away are made only too plain to you. The wandering mind that arises as you are noting the rising and falling of the abdomen is caught by the observing consciousness as an animal that falls direct into the snare or an object that is hit by a well-aimed stone. And once, you are aware of it, it is gone. You find it as clearly as if you were holding it in your hand. You find thus whenever consciousness arises.
When tiredness arises, you note tired, and it is gone. It comes up again, you note it again, and it is gone again. This kind of passing away will be made all the more clearer in higher insight. Tired, noted, gone; tired, noted, gone — they pass away one by one. There is no connection between one tiredness and the next. The same with pain. Pained, noted, gone; pained, noted, gone — each pain is gone at each noting. One pain does not mix with the other. Each pain is distinct from the other.
To ordinary people there is no interruption in tiredness or pain. It seems to tire or pain you continuously for a long time. In fact, there is no tiredness or pain for a long while. One tiredness and the next, one pain and the next, just very short pieces, very separate ones. The meditator sees this as he notes.
When you note rising, the rising comes up gradually and passes away by degrees. When you note falling, the falling comes up and passes away by degrees. Common people who are ignorant of this fact think of the rising and falling in terms of the absurd abdominal shape. So from their own experience they think the meditators too, will only be seeing the absurd abdominal shape. Some make accusations to this effect. Don’t speak by guess, please. Try and see for yourselves, let us warn. If you work hard enough, you will find out.
When you note bending, you see clearly how it moves and passes, moves and passes, one moves after another. You understand now the scriptural statement that realities like mind and matter do not move from place to place. Ordinary people think it is the same hand that moves, that has been before the bending, and that will be after the bending. They think the same hand moves inwards and outwards. To them it is ever-unchanging hand. It is because they have failed to see through the continuity of matter, the way matter rises in succession. It is because they lack in the knowledge to see through. Impermanence is hidden by continuity, it is said. It is hidden because one does not meditate on what arises and passes away. Says Visuddhi-magga:
“Because the rise and fall are not attended to, the characteristic of impermanence does not appear, as long as it is hidden by continuity.” — Visuddhi-magga xxi, 781
Since the meditator is watching every rising, all things mental and material appear to him as separate, broken pieces not as things whole and unbroken. From afar ants look like a line, but nearer you see the ants one by one. The meditator sees things in broken pieces so continuity cannot hide the fact from him. The characteristic of impermanence unfolds itself to him. He is no longer illusioned.
“But when the rise and fall are grasped and continuity is broken, the characteristic of impermanence appears in its true peculiar property.” — Visuddhi-magga xxi, 781
This is how you meditate and gain the knowledge of Contemplation on Impermanence. Mere reflection without meditation will not give rise to this knowledge. Once this knowledge is made become, those on suffering and not-self follow.
“To one, Meghiya, who has perceived impermanence the perception of not-self is established.” — Anguttara Nikaya iii, 169
How will you take what you very well know to be capable of rising and passing away to be self, ego, a being? People cling to the self because they think they have been the same person the whole life. Once it is clear to you from your own experience that life is but made up of things that rise and pass away incessantly, you will not cling as self. Some obstinate persons say that this sutta is meant for Meghiya alone. This is something that should not be said. We fear others will come up who will say what the Buddha said were meant for the people of his days, not for us who live today. But the statement is found not in that sutta alone. In Sambodhi sutta the Buddha says:
“To one, monks, who has perceived impermanence the perception of not-self is established.” — Anguttara Nikaya iii, 165
And, if one realizes impermanence, one realizes suffering, too. The meditator who realizes how things are rising and passing away, can see how the two events, rising and passing away, have been oppressing him. The commentary to Sambodhi sutta says:
“When the characteristic of impermanence is seen, the characteristic of not-self is seen, too, since when one of the three characteristics is seen the other two are seen too.”
So, it is very important to understand the one characteristic of impermanence.
In this connection let me tell you a story from my own experience as a preacher. It is about a meditator from my native village Hseipkhun in Shwebo district. He was none other than a cousin of mine. He was one of the first three persons to take up insight meditation in the village. The three of them agreed among themselves to work for a week first. They worked very hard. They had brought to the hermitage cigars and betel quids to be taken one each day. But when they returned from the hermitage they took home all the seven cigars and betel quids — untouched.
So hard did they work that in three days they attained the knowledge of rising and falling and were overjoyed to experience tranquillity and see brilliance around. “Only at this old age have we discovered the truth,” they spoke with great joy. Because they were the first to take up meditation I thought of letting them go with their joys and just told them to go on noting. I did not tell them not to note the joys. So, although they worked for four more days, they did not get any higher.
After a few days’rest they came again for another week of meditation. That cousin of mine then reached the stage of the knowledge of dissolution. Although he was noting rising, falling, sitting, he did not see the abdominal shape, and his body seemed to have disappeared, so he had to touch it with his hand to see if it was still there, he told me. And, whenever he looked or saw, everything seemed to be dissolving and breaking up. The ground he looked at was dissolving and so were the trees. It was all against what he had thought things to be. He began to wonder.
He had never thought such external, season-produced, gross material things like earth, trees, logs, etc, could be incessantly breaking up. He had thought they perished only after aconsiderable length of time. They lasted for quite a long time, he thought. Now, as insight knowledge gained momentum with meditation the rising and passing away of phenomena appeared to him of their own accord without his specially meditating on them. They were passing away, breaking up, there before him. It was all the reverse of his former beliefs. Perhaps his new vision was wrong. Perhaps his eye-sight was failing.
So he asked me. And I told him. The passing away and breaking up he saw in everything were true. As your insight grew sharper and quicker, things appear rising and passing away to you without your meditating on them. These are all true, I explained to him. Later on he again told me about his own findings as he progressed in insight. Today he is no more. He has long been dead.
When insight knowledge has grown really sharp, it will prevail over wrong beliefs and thoughts. You see things in their true light as impermanent, suffering, not-self. An uncultured mind or reflection without meditation cannot give you real insight into the nature of things. Only insight meditation can do that.
Once you realize impermanence, you see how they oppress you with their rising and passing away, how you can derive no pleasure from them, how they can never be a refuge, how they can perish any moment, so how they are frightening, how they are sufferings, etc.
“… ill (suffering) in the sense of fearful.”
You thought, “This body will not perish so soon. It will last for quite a long time.” So you took it for a great refuge. But now as you meditate you find only incessant risings and passings-away. If no new ones rise up for the mental and material things that have passed away, one dies. And this can happen any moment. To make a self out of these mental and material things that can die any moment and to take refuge in it is as dreadful a thing as sheltering in an old tumble-down house.
And you find that nothing happens as you desire. Things just follow their natural course. You thought you could go if you wished to, sit if you wished to, rise, see, hear, do anything if you wished to. Now as you meditate you find that it is not so. Mind and matter are found to be working in a pair. Only when there is intention to bend is there the form bending. Only when there is intention to stretch is there the form stretching. There is effect only when there is cause. Only when there is something to see do you see. If there is something to see, you can’t help seeing it. You hear, when there is something to hear. You feel happy only when there is reason to be happy. You worry when there is cause to worry. If there is cause, there is effect.
You cannot help it. There is no thing that lives and does what it desires. There is no self, no ego, no I. Only processes of arising and passing away.
To understand clearly is the most important thing in insight meditation. Of course, you will come across joys, tranquillities, bright lights in the course of your training. They are not important things. What is important is to understand impermanence, suffering and not-self. These characteristics are made clear to you as you just keep on meditating as explained.
Peace at Last
You make things clear to you yourself. Not believing what others tell you. If any of you beginners have not had such self-made knowledge yet, know that you have not reached that stage. Work on. If others can, you can. It will not take very long. The knowledge comes to you as you are meditating. Only when you know for sure that all are impermanent, suffering and not-self will you not cling to sense objects, as permanent, happy, beautiful, good. Nor will you cling to them as self, soul, the I. All the graspings are done away with. What then? Well, all the defilements are calmed by Aryan Path and Nibbana is realized.
“One who has no grasping does not long after things. One who does not long after things is calmed in himself.” — Majjhima Nikaya ii, 318
Whenever you meditate, you have no obsession with the object noted. So, no grasping arises. There is no grasping to what you see, hear, smell, eat, touch or be aware of. They appear to rise each in its time and then pass away. They manifest themselves as impermanent. There is nothing to cling to. They oppress us with their rise and fall. They are all sufferings. There is nothing to cling to as happy, good, or beautiful. They rise and fall as is their nature, so there is nothing to cling to as self, soul, or I, that lives and lasts. All these are made very plain to you. At that the graspings are done away with. Then you realize Nibbana through Ariyan Path.
We will explain this in the light of Dependent Origination and Aggregates.
“The stopping of grasping is from the stopping of craving; the stopping of becoming is from the stopping of grasping; the stopping of birth is from the stopping of becoming; from the stopping of birth old age and dying, grief, suffering, sorrow, despair, and lamentation are stopped. Thus comes to be the stopping of this entire mass of ill” — Majjhima Nikaya i, 337; Samyutta Nikaya ii, 1-3
One who meditates on the mental and material objects that appear at the six doors and knows their intrinsic nature of impermanence, suffering and not-self does not delight in them or cling to them. As he does not grasp them, he makes no effort to enjoy them. As he refuses to make an effort, there arises no karma called “becoming.” As no karma arises, there is no new birth. When there is no new birth, there is no occasion for old age, dying, grief, etc. This is how one realizes momentary Nibbana through insight path whenever one meditates. We will explain the realization by Aryan Path later.
In Silavanta sutta earlier quoted, the venerable Sariputta explained how, if a monk of moral habit meditates on the five grasping aggregates as impermanent, suffering, and not-self, he can become a Stream-winner; if a Stream-winner meditates, he can become a Once-returner; if a Once-returner meditates, he can become a Never-returner; if a Never-returner meditates, he can become an Arahant. Here, to realize the four Aryan fruitions of Stream-winning, Once-returning, Never-returning, and Arahatship means to realize Nibbana through the four Aryan Paths.
To get to the Aryan Path one starts with insight path. And insight path begins with the analytical knowledge of mind and matter. Then one arrives at the knowledge by discerning conditionality. Then, working on, one gains the knowledge of investigation. Here one comes to enjoy reflecting on things, investigating them, and persons of considerable learning often spend a long time doing so. If you do not want to reflect or investigate, you just keep on meditating. Your awareness now becomes light and swift. You see very clearly how the things noted arise and pass away. You have come to the knowledge of rising and passing away.
At this stage noting tends to be easy. Illuminations, joys, tranquillities appear. Going through experiences unthought of before, one is thrilled with joy and happiness. At the initial stage of his work, the meditator has had to take great pains not to let the mind wander this way and that. But it has wandered and for most of the time he has not been able to meditate. Nothing has seemed all right. Some have had to fight back very hard indeed. But with strong faith in one’s teachers, good intentions and determination, one has passed all these difficult stages. One has now come to the knowledge of rising and passing away. Everything is fine at this stage. Noting is easy and effortless. It is good to note, and brilliant lights appear. Rapture seizes him and causes a sort of goose-flesh in him. Both body and mind are at ease and he feels very comfortable. The objects to be noted seem to drop on one’s mindfulness of their own accord. Mindfulness on its part seems to drop on the object of its own accord. Everything is there already noted. One never fails or forgets to note. On every noting the awareness is very clear. If you attend to something and reflect on it, it proves to be a plain and simple matter. If you take up impermanence, suffering and not-self, about which you have heard before, they turn out to be plainly discernible things. So you feel like preaching. You think you would make a very good preacher. But if you have had no education, you will make a poor preacher. But you feel like preaching and you can even become quite talkative. This is what is called “the ideal Nibbana” the meditators experience. It is not the real Nibbana of the Aryans. We may call it “imitation Nibbana.”
“It is the immortality of the knowers.”
Training in meditation is like climbing a mountain. You begin climbing from the base. Soon you get tired. You ask people who are coming down and they answer you with encouraging words like “It’s nearer now.” Tired, you climb on and very soon come to a resting place in the shade of a tree with a cool breeze blowing in. All your tiredness is gone. The beautiful scenery around fascinates you. You get refreshed for a further climb.
The knowledge of the rising and passing away is the resting place for you on your climb to higher insight knowledge.
Those meditators who have not yet reached this stage of knowledge may be losing hope. Days have passed and no taste of insight yet. They often get disheartened. Some leave the meditation centre with thoughts that meditation is nothing after all. They have not discovered the “meditator’s Nibbana.” So we instructors have to encourage newcomers to the centre with the hope that they will attain to this knowledge at least. And we ask them to work to attain to it soon. Most succeed as we advise. Then they needn’t further encouragement. They are now full of faith and determination to work on till the ultimate goal.
This “meditator’s Nibbana” is often spoken of as amanusi rati –– non-human delight or superhuman enjoy-ment. You derive all kinds of delights from various things — from education, wealth, family life. The “meditator’s Nibbana” surpasses all these delights. A meditator once told me that he had indulged in all kinds of worldly pleasures. But none could match the pleasure he derived from meditation. He just could not express how delightful it was.
But is that all? No, you must work on. You go on with your noting. Then, as you progress, forms and features no longer manifest themselves and you find them always disappearing. Whatever appears disappears the moment you notice it. You note seeing, it disappears swiftly. You note hearing, it disappears. Bending, stretching, again it disappears swiftly. Not only the object that comes up, the awareness of it too disappears with it in a pairwise sequence.
This is the knowledge of dissolution.
Every time you note, they dissolve swiftly. Having witnessed this for a long time, you become frightened of them. It is the knowledge of the Fearful. Then you find fault with these things that keep passing away. It is the knowledge of tribulation. Then as you meditate on, you get wearied of them. It is the knowledge of repulsion.
“So seeing all these things, the instructed disciple of the aryans disregards the material shapes, disregards feeling.” — Majjhima Nikaya i, 137; Samyutta Nikaya iii, 68
Your material body has been a delightful thing before. Sitting or rising, going or coming, bending or stretching, speaking or working, everything has seemed very nice. You have thought this material body of yours to be a dependable and delightful thing. Now that you have meditated on it and seen that everything dissolves, you no longer see your body as dependable. It is no longer delightful. It is just a dull, tiresome business.
You have enjoyed both pleasurable feelings of the body and mental pleasure. You have thought, “I am enjoying,” “Ifeel happy.” Now these feelings are no longer pleasurable. They, too, pass away as you notice them. You become wearied of them.
You have thought well of your perception. But now it too, passes away as you notice it. You feel disgusted with it as well.
Volitional activities are responsible for all your bodily, mental and vocal behaviours. To think, “I sit, I rise, I go, I act,” is to cling to volitional activities. You have thought well of them, too. Now that you see them passing away, you feel repulsion for them.
You have enjoyed thinking. When newcomers to the meditation centre are told that they must not engage in thinking about things, but must keep noting, they are not at all pleased. Now you see how thoughts, ideas, come up and pass away, and you are tired of them, too. The same thing happens to your sense organs. Whatever comes up at the six doors is now a thing to disgust, to be wearied of. Some feel extreme disgust, some a considerable amount.
Then arise desires to be rid of them all. Once you are tired of them, of course you want to get rid of them. “They come and pass incessantly. They are no good. It were well if they all ceased.” This is the knowledge of desire for deliverance. Where “they all ceased” is Nibbana. To desire for deliverance from them is to long for Nibbana. What must one do if he wants Nibbana? He works harder and goes on meditating. This is the knowledge of reflection. Working with special effort, the characteristics of impermanence, suffering and not-self become all the more clearer to you. Especially clearer is suffering.
After reflection you come to the knowledge of indifference to formations. Now the meditator is quite at ease. Without much effort on his part the notings run smoothly and are very good. He sits down to meditate and makes the initial effort. Then everything runs its course like a clock once wound up goes on ticking of its own accord. For an hour or so he makes no change in his posture and goes on with his work without interruption. Before this knowledge there may have been disturbances. Your mind may be directed to a sound heard and thus disturbed. Your thoughts may wander off and meditation is disturbed. Painful feelings like tiredness, hotness, aches, itches, coughs, appear and disturb you. Then you have to start it all over again. But now all goes well. There are no more disturbances. Sounds you may hear but you ignore them and go on noting. Whatever comes up you note without being disturbed. There are no more wanderings of the mind. Pleasant objects may turn up but no delight or pleasure arises in you. You meet with unpleasant objects. Again you feel no displeasure or fear. Painful feelings like tiredness, hotness or aches rarely appear. If they do, they are not unbearable. Your noting gets the better of them. Itching pains and coughs disappear once you attain this knowledge. Some even get cured of serious illnesses. Even if the illnesses are not completely cured, you get some relief while noting in earnest. So for an hour or so there will be no interruption to your notings. Some can go on meditating for two or three hours without interruption. And yet you feel no weariness in body. Time passes unheeded. “It’s not long yet,” you think. On such a hot summer day as this it would be very fine to have attained this knowledge. While other people are groaning under the intense heat the meditator who is working in earnest with this knowledge will not be aware of the heat at all. The whole day seems to have fled in no time. It is a very good insight knowledge indeed, yet there can be dangers like excess of worry ambition, or attachment. If these cannot be removed, no progress will be made. Once they are removed, the aryan path knowledge is there to realize. How?
Every time you note rising, falling, sitting, touching, seeing, hearing, bending, stretching, and so on, there is an effort being made. This is the right effort of the Noble Eightfold Path. Then there is your mindfulness. It is right mindfulness. Then there is concentration which penetrates the object noted as well as remains fixed on it. This is right concentration. The three are called Concentration Constituents of the Path. Then there is initial application which, together with concentration, ascends on the object noted. It is the application of the concomitants on the object. Its characteristic is “lifting” of the concomitants to the object (abhiniropanalakkhana), according to the Commentary. This is right thought. Then there is the realization that the object thus attended is movement, non-cognition, seeing, cognition, impermanence and so on. This is right view. Right thought and right view together form the Wisdom Constituent of the Path. The three Morality Constituents, right speech, right action and right livelihood, have been perfected before you take up insight meditation — when you take the precepts. Besides, there can be no wrong speech, no wrong action, or no wrong livelihood in respect of the object noted. So whenever you note, you perfect the Morality Constituents of the Path as well.
The eight constituents of the Noble Path are there in every awareness. They constitute the insight path that comes up once clinging is done away with. You have to prepare this path gradually until you reach the knowledge of indifference to formations. When this knowledge grows mature and strong, you arrive at Aryan Path in due course. It is like this:– When the knowledge of indifference to formations has matured and grown stronger, your notings get sharper and swifter. While thus noting and becoming aware swiftly, all of a sudden you fall into the peace that is Nibbana. It is rather strange. You have no prior knowledge of it. You cannot reflect on it on arrival, either. Only after the arrival can you reflect. You reflect because you find unusual things. This is the knowledge of reflection. Then you know what has happened. This is how you realize Nibbana through the Aryan Path.
So, if you want to realize Nibbana, what is important is to work for freedom from clingings. With ordinary people clingings arise everywhere: in seeing, in hearing, in touching, in being aware. They cling to things as being permanent, as being happy, good, as soul, ego, persons. We must work for a complete freedom from these clingings. To work is to meditate on whatever rises, whatever is seen, heard, touched, thought of. If you keep meditating thus, clingings cease to be, the Aryan Path arises, leading to Nibbana. This is the process.
To Sum Up
* How is insight developed?
— Insight is developed by meditating on the five grasping aggregates.
* Why and when do we meditate on the aggregates?
— We meditate on the aggregates whenever they arise in order that we may not cling to them.– If we fail to meditate on mind and matter, clingings arise.– We cling to them as permanent, good, and as ego.– If we keep meditating on mind and matter, clingings cease to be.– It is plainly seen that all are impermanent, suffering, mere processes.– Once clingings cease, the Path arises, leading to Nibbana.
These then, are the elements of insight meditation.