The root of suffering is what we call avijja — not knowing, or ignorance of the way things really are. This basic ignorance is one of not understanding our true nature. We suffer because of views and opinions, habits and conditions which we do not understand. We live our lives in a state of ignorance, not understanding the way things are.
If you listen to yourself very much you can sometimes hear such statements as, I should do this but I shouldn’t do that, I should be this way, I shouldn’t be that way,’ or that the, world should be other than it is, our parents should be this way or that way, and shouldn’t be the way they are. So we have this particular verb tense ringing through our minds because we have an idea of what shouldn’t be or should be. In meditation listen to that opinion within yourself of what should be and what shouldn’t be, just listen to it.
Our tendency is to try to become something, and so we set a goal, create an ideal of what we would like to become. Maybe we think society should be other than it is. People should be kind, generous, understanding, loving, there should be brotherhood and people shouldn’t be selfish. The government should have wise leaders, the world should be at peace and so forth. But the world is as it is at this moment in time and things are as they are. When we don’t understand this then we are struggling. So listen inwardly to yourselves, to the constant crying, ‘I am this way, I am not this way,’ and penetrate this ‘I am, I am not’ with awareness.
We tend to just react and take it for granted that all the ‘I am’ and ‘I am not’ is the truth. We create ourselves as a personality and attach to our memories. We remember the things we learned, we remember what we’ve done — generally the more extreme things; we tend to forget more ordinary things. So if we do unkind, cruel, foolish things then we have unpleasant memories in our lives, we feel ashamed or guilty. If we do good things, charitable things, kind things, then we have good memories in our lives. When you start reflecting on this, then you are going to be more careful about what you do and what you say, because if you have lived your life foolishly, acting on impulse out of desire for immediate gratification, or out of an intention to hurt or cause disharmony or exploit others, you are going to be faced with a mind filled with very unpleasant memories.
People who have led very selfish lives have to drink a lot, or take drugs, to keep themselves constantly occupied so that they don’t have to look at the memories that come up in the mind.
In the awakening process of meditation we are bringing awareness to the conditions of the mind here and now, just by being aware of this sense of ‘I am, I am not’. Contemplate the feelings of pain or pleasure the memories, thoughts and opinions as impermanent, anicca. The characteristic of transiency is common to all conditions. How many of you spent the day really investigating this in every possible way while sitting, standing or lying down? Investigate what you see with your eye, hear with your ear, taste with your tongue, smell with your nose, feel and experience with your body, think with your mind.
The thought ‘I am’ is an impermanent condition. The thought ‘I am not’ is an impermanent condition. Thoughts, memories, consciousness of thinking, the body itself, our emotions — all conditions change. In the practice of meditation you’ve got to be quite serious, brave and courageous. You’ve got to really investigate, dare to look at even the most unpleasant conditions in life, rather than try to escape to seek tranquillity, or to forget about everything. In vipassana the practice is one of looking into suffering; it’s a confrontation with ourselves, with what we think of ourselves, with our memories, and our emotions, pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent. In other words when these things arise and we are aware of suffering, rather than rejecting, repressing or ignoring this, we take the opportunity to examine it.
So suffering is our teacher. It’s teaching us, so we have to learn the lesson by studying suffering itself. It always amazes me how some people think they never suffer. They think, ‘I don’t suffer. I don’t know why Buddhists talk about suffering all the time. I feel wonderful, full of beauty and joy. I’m so happy all the time. I find life one fantastic experience, interesting, fascinating and never-ending delight.’ These people just tend to accept that side of life and reject the other because inevitably what delights us disappears and then we are sorry. Our desire to be in a constant state of delight leads us into all kinds of problems, difficulties and situations. Suffering is not just because of massive things like having terminal cancer, or losing someone you love; suffering can occur around what is very ordinary, like the four postures of sitting, standing, walking, lying down. Nothing extreme in that.
We contemplate the normal breath, and the ordinary consciousness. In order to understand, existence, we contemplate ordinary feelings, memories and thoughts rather than grasp hold of fantastic ideas and thoughts to understand the extremes of existence. So we’re not getting involved with speculation about the ultimate purpose of life, God, the devil, heaven and hell, what happens when we die or reincarnation. In Buddhist meditation you just observe the here and now. The birth and death that’s going on here and now is the beginning and ending of the most ordinary things.
Contemplate beginning. When you think of birth you think of ‘I was born’, but that is the great birth of the body, which we can’t remember. The ordinary birth of ‘me’ which we experience, in daily life is ‘I want, I don’t want, I like, I don’t like.’ That’s a birth, or seeking to be happy. We contemplate the ordinary hell of our own anger, the anger that arises, the heat of the body, the aversion, the hatred we feel in the mind. We contemplate the ordinary heaven we experience, the happy states, the bliss, the lightness, the beauty in the here and now. Or just the dull state of mind, that kind of limbo, neither happy nor unhappy, but dull, bored and indifferent. In Buddhist meditation we watch these within ourselves.
We contemplate our own desire for power and control, to be in control of someone else, to become famous, or to become someone who is on top. How many of you, when you find out someone is more gifted than you are, want to put them down? This is jealousy. What we have to do in our meditation practice is see the ordinary jealousies, or the hatred we might feel for someone who might take advantage of us, or annoys us; the greed or lust we might feel for someone who attracts us. Our own mind is like a mirror which reflects the universe and you watch the reflection. Before, we would take these reflections for reality so that we became entranced, repelled or indifferent to them. But in vipassana we just observe that all these reflections are just changing conditions. We begin to see them as an object rather than as a self, whereas when we’re ignorant we tend to seek identity with them.
So in practice we are looking at the universe as it is being reflected in our minds. It does not matter what anyone else happens to experience; one meditator will sit here and experience all sorts of brilliant lights, colours, fascinating images, Buddhas, celestial beings, even smell wonderful odours, and hear divine sounds, and think, ‘What a wonderful meditation, such brilliance came, “the radiance” — a divine being came like a radiant angel, touched me and I felt this ecstasy. The most wonderful ecstatic experience of my whole life…waited my whole life for this experience.’ Meanwhile the next one is thinking, ‘Why doesn’t something like that ever happen to me. I sat for a whole hour in pain with an aching back, depressed, wanting to run away, wondering why on earth I’d come to this retreat anyway.’ Another person might say, ‘I can’t stand all those people who have those silly ideas and fantasies, they disgust me, they just develop this terrible hatred and aversion in me. I hate the Buddha image sitting in the window, want to smash it. I hate Buddhism and meditation!’
Now which of these three people is the good meditator? Compare the one who sees devas dancing in heaven, the one that is bored, indifferent and dull, or the one full of hatred and aversion? Devas and angels dancing in the celestial realms are anicca, are impermanent. Boredom is anicca, impermanent. Hatred and aversion is anicca, impermanent. So the good meditator, the one who is practising in the right way is looking at the impermanent nature of these conditions.
When you talk to someone who sees devas and experiences bright lights, you start doubting your own practice and think, ‘But maybe I am not capable of enlightenment. Maybe I am not meditating right.’ Doubt itself is impermanent. Whatever arises passes away. So the good meditator is the one who sees the impermanent nature of bliss and ecstasy, or experiences dullness, experiences anger, hatred and aversion, and reflects on the impermanent nature of those qualities, when sitting, walking or lying down.
What is your tendency? Are you very positive about everything? ‘I like everybody here. I believe in the teachings of the Buddha, I believe in the Dhamma.’ — That’s a faith kind of mind. It believes, and that kind of mind can create and experience blissful things very quickly. You find that some of the farmers in Thailand, people who have hardly any worldly knowledge, who can hardly read and write, can sometimes experience blissful states, experience lights and see devas and all that, and who believe in them. When you believe in devas, you see them. When you believe in lights and celestial realms, you’ll see them. You believe that Buddha is going to save you, Buddha will come and save you. What you believe in happens to you. You believe in ghosts, fairies, elves, you don’t doubt those things, you find those things happening to you. But they are still anicca, impermanent, transient and not self.
Most people don’t believe in fairies and devas and think such things are silly. This is the negative kind of mind, the one that’s suspicious and doubtful, does not believe in anything. ‘I don’t believe in fairies and devas. I don’t believe in any of that kind of thing. Ridiculous! Show me a fairy.’ So the very suspicious and sceptical mind never sees such things.
There is faith, there is doubt. In Buddhist practice, we examine the belief and doubt that we experience in our mind, and we see that these are conditions changing.
I have contemplated doubt itself, as a sign. I’d ask myself a question like, ‘Who am I?’ and then I’d listen for the answer — something like,’Sumedho Bhikkhu’. Then I’d think, ‘That’s not the answer, who are you really?’ I’d see the struggle, the habitual reaction to find an answer to the question. But I would not accept any conceptual answer. ‘Who is it sitting here? What is this? What’s this here? Who is thinking anyway? What is it that thinks?’ When a state of uncertainty or doubt would arise I would just look at that uncertainty of doubt as a sign, because the mind stops there and goes blank, and then emptiness arises.
I found it a useful way of emptying the mind by asking myself unanswerable questions, which would cause doubt to arise. Doubt is an impermanent condition. Form, the known, is impermanent; not knowing is impermanent. Some days I would just go out and look at Nature, observe myself just standing here, looking at the ground. I’d ask myself, ‘Is the ground separate from myself?’ ‘ What is that, who is that who sees the ground?’ Is that ground with those leaves, are those leaves in my mind or outside my mind?’ ‘What is it that sees, is it the eyeball?’ If I took my eyeball out would it be separated from myself, taken out of the socket, would I still see those leaves? Or is that ground there when I’m not looking at it?,’ ‘Who is the one that’s conscious of this anyway?’ And sound. I did some experiments with sound because the objects of sight have a certain solidity like this room — it seems fairly permanent, you know, for today at least. But sound is truly anicca – try to get hold of sound and hold it.
Investigating my senses in this way — can my eyes hear sound? If I cut off my ears and ear drums, will there be any sound? Can I see and hear in exactly the same moment? All sense organs and their objects are impermanent, changing conditions. Think right now, ‘Where is your mother? Where is my mother right now?’ If I think of her in her flat in California it’s a concept in the mind. Even if I think ‘California is over there’, that’s still the mind thinking over there’. Mother is a concept isn’t it? So where is the mother right now? She is in the mind: when the word ‘mother’ comes up, you hear the word as a sound and it brings up a mental image or a memory or a feeling of like or dislike or indifference.
All concepts in the mind which we take for reality are to be investigated: know what concepts do to the mind. Notice the pleasure you get from thinking about certain concepts and the displeasure that other concepts bring. You have prejudices, biases, about race, nationality — these are all concepts, or conceptional proliferations. Men have certain attitudes and biases about women, and women have certain attitudes and biases about men: this is just inherent in those identities. But in meditation, ‘female’ is a concept, and ‘male’ is a concept, a feeling, a perception in the mind. So in this practice of vipassana you are penetrating with insight into the nature of all conditions, coarse or refined. Insight breaks down the illusions that these concepts give us, the illusions that they are real.
Now talking like this, people might question: ‘How do you live in this society then, if it’s all unreal?’ The Buddha made a very clear distinction between conventional reality and ultimate reality. On the conventional level of existence you use conventions that bring harmony to yourself and to the society you live in. What kind of conventions bring harmony? Well, things like being good, being mindful, not doing things that cause disharmony, such as stealing, cheating others, exploiting others. Having respect for other beings, having compassion, being observant, trying to help: all these conventions bring harmony.
So in the Buddhist teaching on the conventional level we live in a way that is to do good and refrain from doing evil with the body and speech. So it’s not as if we are rejecting the conventional world ‘I want nothing to do with it because its an illusion’- that’s another illusion. Thinking that the conventional world is an illusion is another thought.