In the Presence Of Nibbana


Developing Faith in the Buddhist Path to Enlightenment

Ajahn Brahmavamso

Bodhi Leaves No. 149, Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka


Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa
Homage to the Blessed One, Accomplished and Fully Enlightened.


One of the most meaningful stanzas in the Dhammapada is verse 372:

Natthi jhanam apannassa
Pagna natthi ajhayato
Yamhi jhanan ca pagnca
Sa ve Nibbanasantike

“There is no Jhana without wisdom,
There is no wisdom without Jhana.
One who has Jhana and wisdom,
He is in the vicinity of Nibbana.”

In the Vicinity of Nibbana

Right now, those of us who are Buddhist monks and nuns, and those who are serious lay practitioners, are in the vicinity of Nibbana. Being in this situation, we should recall that we are practising in precisely the same way that men and women, young and old, have been practising for the last twenty-five centuries, and eventually we too will achieve the same results. We are in the presence of Nibbana in the sense that we have taken up the practice that is conducive to Nibbana. Sometimes it’s hard to realize how close it can be. One doesn’t realize that all we have to do is turn our head, to make just a slight change in our way of looking at things, to open ourselves up to the same truth that the Buddha saw — the same truth that Venerables Sariputta, Mahamoggallana, Maha kassapa, Ananda, Anuruddha, and all the other great Arahants of the last twenty-five centuries have seen. It was there then, it is here now. We should recall this frequently. Recall that there have been thousands, even tens of thousands of Arahants in the past, and that there will be many hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of Arahants in the future. This path is still available, and when the path is available, so are the fruits.

There is a book called A Manual of a Mystic, an old treatise on meditation found in an obscure monastery in Sri Lanka many decades ago [1]. Part of the meditation practice described in it is just the above recollection, the recollection of all the Arahants who achieved the sublime bliss of Nibbana in the past. And now, here you are, embarking on the same journey, doing the same things, which must give rise to the same fruits. This was the promise of the Buddha. He said that this Dhamma leads one way and one way only: it leads to Nibbana. If you can get into the stream, it will sweep you all the way down to the sea.

Such recollections, done frequently, give rise to great joy, happiness, and confidence; they give rise to faith in this practice which we call Buddhism, the Dhamma. This faith in turn gives rise to energy, so that we can have the will — the sustained will — to do what is necessary to transform our initial glimmer of faith into sustained realization.

You are in the presence of Nibbana every time you open up one of the books of the Tipitaka and reads the teachings of the Buddha. You are in the presence of Nibbana because there is just a thin veil between you and the Dhamma. When the Buddha taught these teachings to monks like Venerable Bahiya (Udana 1:10), just the teachings alone were enough to give people of that calibre great Insight, Insight which closed the gap between them and Nibbana. They were not just in the presence of Nibbana; they had made that one step further intoNibbana, into the full realization of Nibbana.

Venerable Bahiya and others like him probably never imagined that they were so close to such a marvellous and sublime event, yet they became great disciples of the Buddha. Indeed, when people look through the glasses of delusion, they often think: “How could someone like me ever gain this sublime bliss of Nibbana? How could I ever attain a Jhana? How could one like me ever penetrate such a deep and profound Dhamma?” But the Buddha said that you can! You can because you already have the confidence and faith to take up the brown robe of the Lord Buddha or to practise his teachings earnestly as a lay person.

Lending an Ear

An important aspect of the path, in addition to virtue and good conduct, is the study of the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha put it very beautifully in his discourses: one lends an ear, bends the ear, listens with interest, and applies the mind, so that what one hears can enter deep within the mind and settle there. As it settles, over the weeks, months, and years, it will grow and bear fruit. One day this fruit will be so sweet, the fruit of Enlightenment.

As one lends an ear to the Dhamma, contemplating it, and allowing it to sweep over the mind like a beautiful breeze on a warm day, allowing it to soak in and to penetrate deep into the mind, it penetrates deeper than thought, deeper than the intellect, far deeper than the faultfinding mind, and far far deeper than the familiar mind. The Dhamma penetrates into that part of the mind that one has yet to know — waiting there, waiting until, through the practice of meditation, one enters those very refined, beautiful, and subtle states of mind where these seeds of the Dhamma are resting, waiting to bear fruit, waiting to give the bliss of Enlightenment.

One has faith and confidence because one knows that others have realized this in the past. Sometimes people think that the great masters, the great monks and nuns of old, were somehow supermen and superwomen. But many of them started off as no different from most practitioners today. Sometimes the most unlikely candidates became the greatest saints. They took up the training to the best of their abilities; they persevered in their attempts to get hold of the mind and to calm it, to lead it to one-pointedness, to stillness. Then one day, through the accumulation of all their effort, the accumulation of all their practice of virtue, the accumulation of meditations — sometimes nodding meditation and sometimes scattered meditation — through the accumulation of their learning, and of their reflections, and of their small insights, they eventually succeeded in breaking through the barriers that separated them from their goal.

One Drop at a Time

The Buddha compares the practice of the Dhamma to a pot filling up one drop at a time. There comes the moment when just one more drop falls into the pot, and then the pot overflows: the Dhamma is seen. One never knows when the time for that last drop to fall has arrived. The ordinary, unenlightened individual can never see this pot getting filled because it’s in a part of the mind to which he or she as yet has no access — but little by little it’s getting filled. One day it will become completely full, and it will spill over into the mind as you know it now and lead one into the source, into this innermost mind, which is usually hidden by the defilements and the hindrances. This is when one starts to see the source which the Buddha called “the housebuilder,” the creator of birth and suffering.

So, whether one is a monastic or one with lay precepts, one should never give up the effort, never give up the training. This is a theme that runs throughout the Buddha’s teachings. If one gives up the training in virtue, meditation, and wisdom, one has no chance of success. But if one continues with the training, if one continues following the Buddha’s instructions, one will find that this training leads in only one way. It leads to Nibbana.

This message is beautifully encapsulated in some of the best advice I ever got from a highly respected monk in Sri Lanka. It’s a piece of advice I always value and keep in mind. He told me that at the end of each day, it doesn’t matter so much what stage one has attained, or what one has achieved. What really matters is whether one has really practised to the limit of one’s ability that day — whether one has really tried one’s best — or instead has been slack and heedless, forgetting the Buddha’s teachings, and forgetting one’s faith that these teachings actually lead to Nibbana. If at the end of the day you look back and know that you have tried your best, then you are accumulating spiritual qualities, you are getting inwardly filled with these precious drops of water, and drawing closer to the goal. By continuing in this way, it will happen and must happen, that Enlightenment will come as well. This reflection is a means of developing faith in the Buddha’s teachings.

The Buddha not only encouraged faith using the metaphoric “carrot” — the encouragement, incitement, and reassurance that this path produces fruit; he also used the metaphoric “stick.” The stick is just reflecting and wisely seeing the consequences of going the wrong way — into the realm of craving and desire, of disappointment and frustration; into the realm of suffering; into the realm of more births — and uncertain births at that. Uncertain births produce uncertain results, sometimes with great suffering and torment. That is enough of a stick because it gives a sense of wholesome fear (ottappa), the fear of the consequences of not continuing to make an effort, of not continuing to walk this path, of not continuing to progress as far as your ability allows. It doesn’t matter where you are on the path as long as you are stepping forward, as long as every day another drop falls, filling up that great jar inside yourself. If you are doing that, then you are in the presence of Nibbana, in the sense that you are walking the path that gives rise to Nibbana.


The Buddha and the Noble Ones always say that that path is the Noble Eightfold Path – the path of virtue (seela), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (pagna). To walk the path of virtue means that you will not harm any living being. One dwells with a mind intent on the happiness of all beings — that softness of mind concerned with the welfare of all beings wherever they may be, including oneself. That virtue has to be perfected. It’s not enough to have 90% virtue, or 95% virtue, or even 99% virtue. One’s virtue must be fully purified, purified, first of all, by faith.

The Buddha said that virtue is the foundation of the path. Virtue is the ground on which rest the higher aspects and factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. If this part of the path is weak, if one takes liberties with one’s virtue and bends the rules, then it’s going to weaken concentration and create impediments to the arising of wisdom. Thus out of faith and trust in the Buddha’s teachings, and in the teachings of all the great monks and nuns one knows about, one resolves in a place which is deeper than the defilements, “I shall uphold these precepts as if they were a golden casket full of jewels; I shall hold them up to my head; I shall value them and protect them. These are of the Buddha.”

One famous meditation teacher used to tell his monk disciples that they should look after their alms bowls as if the bowls were the Buddha’s head. One should regard virtue as what’s on top of the Buddha’s head, or even higher. One should hold it in such reverence and value it so much that one would not dare to deliberately go against any advice or pronouncement coming from Lord Buddha. Eventually, as one develops greater concentration and wisdom, one’s faith and confidence in the Buddha’s teaching grow to the extent that one would not transgress these precepts even for the sake of life. It becomes almost impossible to do so. The mind values them so highly because they come from the Tathagata, because they lead toNibbana, and because, by empowering the mind to achieve concentration, they open up the door for wisdom to enter.

At first one just has ordinary confidence and faith. But with each realization and with each deep insight, one’s confidence and faith are transformed — not into love or worship but into something higher and deeper than that. They are transformed into an enormous respect for that which is the highest of all. As it is said in the Ratana-sutta: “Na tena dhammena samatthi kinci — There is nothing equal to this Dhamma” (Sutta-nipata, v.225). Once one realizes that the Dhamma is more valuable than anything else in the whole world, one would never transgress, damage, devalue, or demean virtue.

As virtue becomes strong in the practitioner, concentration happens by itself. It happens simply because the mind becomes pure. To become pure means to become free from defilements. It is actions that defile the mind, actions of body and speech, and also the thoughts which precede visible actions. The practice of virtue means getting hold of the mind which is being defiled by habitual patterns of unskillful reactions, the reactions of a crazy person, the reactions of a person who just cannot see. The mind is covered up with “grease” and “dust” so it cannot really see its own welfare. The practice of virtue is the first shining and cleaning up of the mind, wiping away the accumulated dust and grime of many lifetimes.

Those beings who walk in virtue, who speak and act kindly and wisely, seem to have nothing threatening or harmful about them. They radiate a beauty, magnetic attraction, which comes from the inner happiness they experience through their unblemished virtue. Each practitioner of this path should know that happiness, but it will only be known if it is pointed out. If a virtuous person takes the time to look.into his or her mind, to turn the apparatus of perception inward, he or she will see that their virtue is very pure, the virtue of the Buddha, and thus will gain more faith and confidence in the Buddha’s teachings.

On this path towards Enlightenment one passes through different stages, and each of those stages brings its own happiness. These happy feelings are little confirmations that this path is leading in the right direction. They give encouragement, and one can ask, “If this is the happiness I have achieved so far, what is the happiness that awaiting me at the next stage?” Be warned, however, that the defilements make one turn away what is pure towards what is impure. One should make a deliberate effort to notice that pure, subtle, and refined happiness born of an unblemished lifestyle, a life of harmlessness.

Maybe you consider your virtue to be as yet imperfect. But enough perfection is there; enough days and hours are spent in such a pure livelihood, pure speech, and pure action, that you should notice the result is an unblemished inward happiness. Turn to that; recognize it, and you will affirm it. This will give you extra confidence in the Buddha’s teachings about the mind and about right practice of body and speech.

Sense Restraint

As one develops virtue and the restraint born of virtuous conduct, one realizes that the way to achieve perfection in virtue is by restraining the senses. One has to restrain oneself in speaking, looking, and listening. Why listen to every conversation around you ? “What did they say? What are they doing?” It doesn’t concern you. It’s much more beneficial to turn away from the conversations of the world, to turn away from the activities of people. One doesn’t even look at what is happening outside; instead, one looks and listens to the activities inside oneself. This is what is called restraint. Instead of the senses turning outside, they start to turn inside and “look” at their own activity.

As the senses become more restrained, one starts to experience one of the first stages of the happiness born of peace, the happiness born of restraint, the happiness born when the mind is starting to experience calm. The senses are being quietened down; for one is guarding them. What are they being guarded from? They are being guarded from involvement in the world, which tends to excite and disturb our minds.

The Buddha said that if one practises sense restraint one will experience a very pleasurable, pure, and beautiful result — a quiet, peaceful, and settled happiness. Those who practise seriously, and particularly those who live and practise in quiet.places, should be able to realize this delightful state of peace. One should reflect and notice that happiness.

One is following the Buddha’s teachings by delighting in wholesome states of mind. It is only unwise and unprofitable to delight in unwholesome states, in the satisfactions of the world of the five senses. That is where the Buddha said one will find danger. But as for the peace and happiness born of pure virtue and pure sense restraint, delight in it, enjoy it, indulge in it, and celebrate it. Do it out of faith in the Lord Buddha.

Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension

In the gradual training sense restraint first gives rise to mindfulness and clear comprehension. Here the mind starts to feel its first experience of being in control, of being at the helm. Usually in our lives the senses are in control, and we have no freedom. As soon as there’s a delightful object, straightaway the senses go to it. When an attractive person of the opposite sex passes by, the eyes go in that direction. As soon as a nice smell drifts up from the kitchen, the nose goes to it. As soon as there is an interesting conversation or pleasant music, the ears go straight to it. The senses are in control, not the mind, not wisdom.

However, when one develops self-control by guarding the senses, mindfulness find room to grow. The mind acquires the power to know what is really going on, to direct attention to what is skillful and useful, and to resist getting lost in pointless entanglements and compulsive activities. When sense restraint gives rise to this mindfulness and clear comprehension, one starts to develop the foundation for the marvellous states of concentration where at last one sees the mind clearly for what it truly is.

Concentration and Insight: Whatever You Think It Is, It’s Something Else

In the suttas, we sometimes come across little phrases of great significance. One such phrase is: “Whatever you imagine it to be, it is always something else.” [2] This is one of the most profound descriptions of the Dhamma we can find. Whatever one conceives it be, it is going to be something else. It is as true for Jhana and Insight as it is for Nibbana itself. After having experienced one of these states, one realizes how completely different the experience actually is from what you thought, read, and expected it to be. The conceptual mind cannot reach these refined aspects of mind. All the concepts in the world are just built up from the bricks of one’s worldly experience. How could such a crude and coarse apparatus as the conceptual mind reach these states? This is good to remember; because it takes away one’s trust and confidence in the conceptual mind. We tend to put far too much trust in our conceive; so much so, that we waste our time arguing about concepts, about who is right and who is wrong, instead of actually embarking upon the practice that will enable us to see and know the truth beyond concepts.

Out of faith in the Lord Buddha, one’s job and duty is to use that conceptual mind where it is appropriate, and drop it where it has no place, where it does not reach, where it does not belong. Where it does not belong is in the realm of those states of mind that are beyond ordinary human experience (uttarimanussadhamma): the Jhanas, the states of Insight, andNibbana. Here the conceptual mind has to be dropped. But first of all, this has to be taken on faith — faith in the teachings of the Buddha and the Noble Disciples. What I mean by faith is that one values the teachings of the Buddha so much that one allows them to go inside the mind. One day when one is close to concentration or Insight, those teachings will bear fruit, and one will give up the conceptual mind. That which creates conceptual entanglement is called diversification (papanca), a coarser form of craving . Having given up papanca, the mind becomes still and peaceful; one gets beyond the veil, behind the cause of the problem. One could say that the language of the self, the ego, is these thoughts and concepts, and the only way one can see this ego is to first make it shut up.

So one doubts this conceptual mind and instead one develops the mind of faith in the Buddha’s teaching, which says that this path can lead in one way only. The conceptual mind might say, “I can’t do it, it’s too hard for me.” But that is just the talk of the ego getting scared, the talk of Mara, [3] who is on the defensive, rattled by our progress on the path toNibbana. Instead of believing in the conceptual mind, the mind of Mara, one trusts the word of the Buddha and the advice of the Noble Disciples. One puts aside those conceptual doubts, lets them go, and pushes them away. One goes beyond them, and finds that the Buddha was wise and enlightened: he did teach the Dhamma, and that Dhamma works. This is especially clear when the mind becomes peaceful.

Push out the conceptual mind and arouse the mind of faith. Let go. Let go of the ordering, the assessing of the situation, and the thinking of what to do next. Let the Dhamma take over; let the natural course of the practice take over. If you have been practising virtue, sense restraint, and mindfulness, you have the basis for concentration; so let go and let concentration happen. Allow the mind just to concentrate, to revert to what we might call its natural state — the seeking of satisfaction and comfort within itself rather than outside.

The mind then becomes self-sufficient, self-comforting, and self-sustaining, so that the door from the mind to the five external senses is cut off, and the mind does not go out to the five senses. Instead it remains immersed in itself, in radiant joy. One experiences this, delights in it, and it is wise and good to delight in it. One has faith in the Buddha, who said that this delight has no underlying tendencies to craving and lust.

The Beginnings of Craving

Just as one leaves these states of concentration, one can experience the beginnings of craving, the beginnings of the mind going out to seek satisfaction. As an arm reaches out for a cup of tea (or whatever it thinks to be joy), one sees how stupid that craving is. Craving has its measure of delight: the anticipation, the joy of activity, the doing, making, becoming, and controlling. But this is delusive joy. One sees craving going out and also sees its results.

When one is developing Insight based on these powerful states of concentration, something like craving, instead of appearing as an idea or concept, appears like an animal or a being emerging from the mind and going out. One sees this very clearly; also one can very clearly understand the dangers. The coarse mind can see only what is coarse and superficial. The subtle mind, however, can see the subtle. One understands the very source and essence of craving: why it works, why the mind delights in it, and the consequences of that delighting. Then the mind can develop repulsion towards craving itself, repulsion to these “animals” who emerge from the mind and go out promising happiness and joy, but afterwards come back to bite and torment the mind. Craving is unfaithful to its promise; it promises delight, happiness, satisfaction, and contentment, but in the end brings only torment and disappointment. The refined mind can see this.

The refined mind can see where this craving first originates. It first originates in the delusion of “I” and in the delusion of “mine.” It is the delusion of a “self” (atta) which needs joy and satisfaction in the first place. This sense of self, this sense of “I,” is the source of craving, and it’s not going to be uncovered easily as it lies very deep within. One needs the powerful, refined, and subtle mind even to be able to come close to the source and meaning of self, or rather that which we take to be self. This is a very hard thing to see, but with faith and confidence in the Buddha’s teachings, and by following them, one comes closer and closer.

Once one sees the self, or rather what we take to be the self, then one can truly say that one is in the presence of Nibbana. One sees the self as just a mirage, something that has deceived the mind for so many lifetimes. One “sees” this not as a concept, but as a very refined state that is very hard to describe to others. Language doesn’t reach to these places. Once that self is seen, the delusion is destroyed and the very ground from which craving originates is pulled away. Craving is then like a bird with no place to rest anymore. It can still go on flying in the sky, but it can’t.come back to rest on any branch or ground. Eventually it will get tired, and then it will die. Once the mind sees these things — the Dhamma, the origination of all things, where they lead to, the nature of the mind and the nature of delusion — faith is transformed into wisdom. It is transformed into the experience of the Dhamma, into Enlightening and powerful wisdom.

Many may wonder how anyone can gain such refined wisdom. But those who have faith in the Buddha know that there is a path, there is a way, by which human beings can gain this wisdom. That way is the Noble Eightfold Path. From the very beginning to the end it’s not that long; it doesn’t take that much time. One just needs the patience and the energy born of confidence. If that energy comes from a sense of “self,” it’s not going to be very productive. If the energy one arouses for one’s practice comes from a sense of “me” and “mine,” for instance, because we’re ashamed of what we have done so far and want to do better, it won’t be anywhere near as effective as it would be if it comes from faith in the Buddha’s teachings. If it’s energy born of faith, it is not energy coming from the “self,” it is energy coming from the Buddha. If it’s faith in the Dhamma, or if it’s faith in the Noble (Ariya) Sangha, it is energy born of the Dhamma, energy born of the Sangha — the Ariya Sangha. If one hears a great discourse from one of the Noble Ones, it gives rise to faith, and that faith gives rise to energy. It is born from the Ariyas, from the Noble Ones. It is that energy, powerful and penetrative, which can arouse one to make one’s virtue spotless, which can perfect one’s sense restraint, sharpen one’s mindfulness, and bring the mind to concentration.

“Whether you like it or not, it happens”: Whether you think that Jhana is the path to Nibbana or not, you get into Jhana. It’s a natural part of the Noble Eightfold Path, and it happens by itself. Planning it or not planning it is just getting in the way and putting off its happening. The experience of Jhana comes naturally to a mind in which the hindrances have been suppressed; in which faith has been developed; in which purity of virtue has been developed; in which sense restraint has been developed; in which mindfulness has been developed. Whether one likes it or not, whether one decides for it or not, the happiness ushered in by all these preparatory practices will naturally give rise to the beautiful Jhanas.

The Bliss of Enlightenment

The Buddha called the Jhanas “the bliss of Enlightenment.” [4] They are not the true release of Enlightenment, but close enough in their affective qualities to give one a taste of freedom. These are also called freedoms of the mind (cetovimutti). They are the first real experiences of freedom for the meditator. One is getting a taste of what Nibbana truly is. The mind has calmed down, the defilements are gone.– though only temporarily — and one experiences a mind without defilements, which is just “inside of itself.” One experiences contentment, a place where craving doesn’t reach, a place where Mara is blindfolded.

The experience of these beautiful states that the Buddha described gives an indication of whatNibbana is like. Then one doesn’t need to worry about faith anymore. The experience is there and, once there, the faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha are “gone to greatness”(mahaggata). If the meditator has that last bit of confidence to turn the attention where the Buddha said to turn it at such a time, he or she starts to uncover the mirage of self, that which one has always taken to be “me” or “mine.” If one looks behind the screen at the source of the film, the light and the projector itself, then one begins to see the Dhamma. As said earlier, one then starts to notice where the defilements originate from. The source of the hindrances, the mirage of self, is uncovered. It is this delusion (avijja) that is the root cause of suffering.

Entering the Stream

If one uproots the mirage of self, and sees clearly with a mind beyond concepts, with a mind freed through the practice of the Eightfold Path, then there will come with certainty the knowledge that one has entered the stream and is a Stream-winner, bound for Enlightenment. There is no way that this can be turned back, and that’s why they say that at this stage faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha becomes unshakable. It becomes so powerful, tall, and great that there is no way in the world one might ever turn back.

Having realized the Dhamma, one can delight in it, delight in the achievement and in the uniqueness of the Buddha. With this realization, one really knows what the Buddha is. As the Buddha said, “One who sees the Dhamma, sees me. One who sees me, sees the Dhamma” [5]. That is a profound saying, and one needs to have actually seen the Dhamma to understand its meaning. In other words, if one has truly seen the Dhamma, then one will value the Buddha, Dhamma, and Noble Sangha above all else. Confidence and faith in the Buddha reaches its peak and becomes an enormous source of joy and happiness — the bliss of pure confidence. Faith (saddha) is the source not only of energy but of happiness and delight (sukha) too. And again, it’s a delight and happiness from which there is nothing to be blamed or feared. It’s a pool from which one can drink, where there is no pollution and nothing to cause injury or illness. Thus faith is a powerful tool. It will take one from the beginning to the end of this realm of samsara and eventually set one free.


As mentioned before, right in the beginning your faith may be weak and challenged by the defilements, but just notice, as you follow the Eightfold Path, how each stage gives rise to greater degrees of happiness. These experiences of happiness are real and are there to be turned to at any time if you will only notice them. They are like invisible companions that one takes for granted and often just doesn’t notice. They will give increased faith that this practice works, and as that faith builds up, it will propel you along the path.

You are in the presence of Nibbana because you are practising the Noble Eightfold Path. Confidence in this truth might just enable the mind to accept that Nibbana is only hidden behind the thinnest of veils. You might just get the incentive to go beyond and achieveJhana, achieve Insight, and become one of the Noble Ones. Then you will realize that it wasn’t all that much, not all that difficult. Just go one step further into the mind and one step further behind the defenses of the delusion of self.


[1]. Trans. by F.L. Woodward, ed. by Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids (London: Pali Text Society, 1982).

[2]. Yena yena his maanti tato tam hoti anatha. See, e.g., Majjhima Nikaya No. 113 (III 42 foll.).

[3]. “Mara … is the Buddhist ‘Tempter’ figure. …. He appears in the texts both as a real person (i.e., as a deity) and as the personification of evil and passions, of the totality of worldly existence and of death.” Venerable Nyanatiloka, Buddhist Dictionary (4th rev. ed.), (Kandy, Sri Lanka, Buddhist Publication Society, 1980), p.116.

[4]. Sambodhisukha. See, e.g., the Latukikopama Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya No. 66 (I 454).

[5]. Samyutta Nikaya, 22:87 (III 120).


About the Author

Ajahn Brahmavamso is a British-born Buddhist monk, ordained in Thailand and trained under the famous Thai meditation master, Ajahn Chah. He is presently the abbot of Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery in Western Australia.


Four Noble Truths


This evening I want to talk about the Four Noble Truths (suffering, its cause, its ending and the path leading to its ending). Towards the end of any retreat, whether it is a three-month rainy season retreat or a shorter one, it’s worthwhile to bring the meditator’s attention to the core teaching of the Lord Buddha. Bringing the attention to this marvelous and profound teaching might be sufficient to take the meditator just that one step into full awareness, full knowledge and full realisation of the Dhamma. Thereby you might see what the Lord Buddha saw under the Bodhi tree. This will qualify you to enter the stream and to make the transition to the Noble Person (Ariya-puggala) – that is, seeing this very profound and powerful teaching of the Four Noble Truths. Obviously, it’s important to first know those Four Noble Truths theoretically, and each one of you here has that theoretical knowledge. I am going to try to build upon and deepen that knowledge in this talk.

Joy at Last�

As I was about to give this talk I brought to mind a well-known picture of my teacher, Ajahn Chah (a Thai meditation master), in his first monastery in England. In this picture, he has his arms raised above his head in imitation of a statue from another monastery. Beneath this statue it says, “Joy at last to know there is no happiness in the world”.

I’m going to start from there because so often in our practice and in our lives we are seeking for happiness in the world. We seek for happiness in so many areas and in so many ways, always seeking in the wrong place. Eventually we realise that not finding happiness in these places doesn’t mean there is something wrong with us. It doesn’t mean we are incompetent or hopeless. Insight will show us that there is no way anyone can find happiness in the place we were looking. The mind realises that the world can only be dukkha (suffering). The wise person, instead of being distressed by that suffering and wallowing in it, contemplates what the Lord Buddha says about suffering, the Four Noble Truths. That means, they seek to understand this whole process of suffering.

Sometimes the suffering can be raw, going deep into the bones, even deeper than the bones, right to the very source of what we think we are. It goes so deep and can cause so many problems. It’s such a relief to find out that this is par for the course, that there’s nothing wrong with this. This is the nature of the world. What do we expect?

Sometimes we go about with the false expectation that if we’re clever enough, if we’re smart enough, if we keep all the rules and do all the right things, somehow we can have a happy life. Sometimes we think everybody is happy but me. Often people in this monastery think, “I bet everybody in this monastery has experienced Jhana (meditative absorption) but me”. What we need to understand is that there is nothing special with us, and that as we practise in this monastery these are things which everyone has to deal with. Ajahn Chah said that when we first come to a monastery, when we first start to practise in the true way, we can expect suffering. We’re going against the stream, and we can expect to feel the pressure of the defilements just in the same way as when we go against the wind we can feel the force against our bodies. This is a sign we are getting somewhere.

Wisdom Power Better Than Will Power

You will find that when suffering arises, you have two options. You can either try to escape from the suffering or you can investigate it.

Ajahn Maha Boowa (a contemporary Thai meditation master) would only give talks when there was a special occasion to do so. I’m pretty sure that when I went to visit him as a young monk it must have been such an occasion because he asked one of his senior Western monks to translate for the visiting Western monk, which was me. Fortunately, I could already speak Thai so I understood perfectly what Ajahn Maha Boowa was saying. The story that he told – which I took for my own benefit – turned out to be very instructive for my whole monastic life.

He was talking about himself as a young monk in the time of Tan Ajahn Mun (Thai meditation master and ‘founder’ of the Thai forest meditation tradition). He was saying that once he had malaria and, instead of just laying in bed, in typical Ajahn Maha Boowa style he decided to fight it, to battle it and conquer it with his will. So he got off the floor, went out of his hut, got a broom, and started to sweep even though he was sweating and shaking. Tan Ajahn Mun saw him and told him off. Later that evening he gave a talk to the monks saying: “There are some people in this monastery who are born boxers and they haven’t changed”. He was of course alluding to Ajahn Maha Boowa who was a boxer when he was a layperson. Ajahn Mun said that’s not the way of Buddhism. He actually said it is the way of Hindu yogis. The way of Buddhism is to investigate suffering, not to fight it. Because if you fight you will find that you just get more and more suffering. Instead, use wisdom power rather than will power. Wisdom power is always much more effective because it’s coming from a good place. Will power, in nearly all cases, comes from ego, from self, and you cannot expect it to produce results if it’s coming from such an unfortunate source.

To use wisdom power means remembering the Teachings and looking at your experience in the framework of those teachings, the framework of the Four Noble Truths. The Lord Buddha taught that birth is suffering, old age, sickness and death are suffering. And all that goes in between is also suffering. In brief, life is suffering. So when suffering comes – as disappointment, as frustration, as loneliness or depression, or as wondering what you’re supposed to be doing – you’re seeing here a basic truth of nature which every human being, whether in a monastery or outside, must come across from time to time in their lives.

There are times when you don’t know what to do because the suffering is so bad. As Ajahn Chah used to say, “You cannot go forward, you cannot go back, you cannot stand still” – you don’t know what to do. This is a beautiful time. It is the time you can really understand what the Lord Buddha was talking about – about the suffering of life. The thing to do when suffering arises is to investigate. To investigate means to watch and to observe in silence. You have to watch without interfering, without getting involved, because if you get involved you’re not watching fully.

It requires courage and strength to stand your ground and just watch. One of the things you will see is that suffering passes, and it always passes into happiness. This is the play ofsamsara (the perpetual wandering from life to life), the play of night and day, the play of warmth and cold. It is the basic duality of experience. There is no escape from that in this realm or in any other realm. It will always follow you around, this duality of experience.

The Lord Buddha said that getting what you don’t want is suffering and not getting what you do want is also suffering. I often ask myself, “Just what do I want?” I use that as a mantra as I walk along the meditation path, or as I sit if my mind is restless. “What do I want?” I’ve been in this world long enough now – forty-eight years – and I have experienced much of this world. I wasn’t born in a monastery, and from all that I have experienced and seen, from all that I have known, I know there is not a corner of this world where I can find happiness [1]. By its very nature, sensory experience is going to be disappointing, and I know that if I ask for something the world can never give me, I will suffer. When I crave for something I cannot reach, I know I am just torturing myself more than necessary.

Putting Make-Up On The Mirror

Instead of craving for something else you learn to be content with what you have. When you talk about contentment you are talking about the Third Noble Truth. The Third Noble Truth is letting go of craving. Contentment is the letting go of wanting something else. It is learning to be at peace with what you have. This is where in this struggle – and it is always a struggle – you can be at peace. How can you be content when everything is going wrong? How can you be content when the body is on fire with pain? How can you be at peace and content when the mind is going crazy with so many thoughts? Even in these situations you can find contentment in letting go, letting go of the ‘controller’.

I gave a simile to some Thai’s last week. I gave this simile to the Thai ladies because some of them are very vain – you’ve all seen the way they dress up when they come to the monastery. I told them it’s just like when one sees oneself in the mirror, and sees this ugly person, but instead of actually doing something with one’s face, one puts make up on the mirror. One tries to make the mirror look good! Of course, it’s a complete waste of time. The mirror might look good for a while with all the make up on it, but when one walks somewhere else and sees another mirror one is back to square one again. Putting make up on the mirror is like trying to solve the ‘outside’ by craving instead of trying to solve the ‘inside’ through contentment.

For the last sixteen years I’ve worked hard – extremely hard, as many of you would know – trying to build up this monastery. It’s been a complete waste of time trying to make a perfect monastery, or even trying to make an adequate monastery, because it’s never good enough. The way that craving works, the Second Noble Truth, is to delude you into thinking that if you just try and do a little bit more, if you just strive harder, work harder for just one more day, then everything will be O.K. “I’ll just work another year and I’ll pay off my mortgage.” “I’ll just sit for one more retreat, that’s all I need, and I’ll get my Jhanas.” “There’s this one last course of medicine then I’ll be healthy again.” You might put off sickness for a while, but you’ll never escape it. It’s just the nature of the body. You might put off suffering for a while, but you’ll never escape it in that way. You’re just putting it off.

The Happiness And Suffering Of The Senses Are Just Contrast – That’s All

It is the nature of a human being to get suffering and happiness in roughly equal proportions. If we’re suffering now, it’s because of some happiness that we had before and lost. Happiness is no more than the end of suffering, just as suffering is no more than the end of happiness. We go around in this cycle throughout our lives.

This existential fact is why the Lord Buddha says in the First Noble Truth that the five aggregates (khandhas) that make up a human being are suffering. By their very nature they are suffering. So, if anyone comes for an interview with me and says she is having a terrible time, often I want to say, “Of course, what’s wrong with that?” Ajahn Chah used to say it’s like someone who goes into the army to become a soldier, and then goes on to complain about being shot at and being wounded. What do you expect when you join the army? That’s what happens. What do you expect when you become a human being? It’s suffering.

Sometimes in the world, people run away from suffering, they hide from it. You ask them how they are and they say, “I’m doing fine today”, even though they are going through divorces, psychotherapy, chemotherapy or the like. They keep on saying they are ‘fine’ because that is what we are supposed to say in this world. That’s what’s expected of us. If only people were really honest, you’d ask them how they are and they’d say, “I’m bloomin awful today – I’ve got a headache, I’ve got a stomach ache, the family is causing me all sorts of trouble, I feel rotten.” If most people were honest, that’s what they would say. If they really knew what was going on, that’s what they would say. There’s nothing wrong with recognising the suffering of existence. It’s being honest and having the courage to face up to the truth.

How many people do you know who are happy – really happy, really content? Not just people who say they are happy but people who really are happy. The only people I have ever seen in my forty-eight years of life who are happy are the Enlightened Ones (Arahants) whom I have had the good fortune to meet. Other than that, nobody! When you understand this you understand the First Noble Truth, that the very nature of life is suffering, and you understand it in the very deepest of senses.

We have this world of the five senses. When we analyse it in the way the Lord Buddha asked us to, we use wisdom to ask, “Well, what is this world anyway, this world is made up of sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, and mind?” When we analyse it in that way, we can see that what we see, hear, taste, and touch by their very nature are part of the duality of happiness and suffering. Even the food we get here which is so wonderful, after a while it’s not good enough. If we had rotten food here as I had in my first years of being a monk, after a while we would get to like it. It’s just contrast, that’s all. The happiness and suffering of the senses are just contrast.

I’ve known people who went to great restaurants, and because the food wasn’t quite up to the standard it was the week before, they got upset and complained. Whereas other people would be glad just to get anything to eat because they hadn’t eaten for days. With the same food, why is it that some people find it joyful and others find it full of suffering? Just contrast, that’s all!

Whatever you take to be happiness in the world is all of the same nature. Take sexual happiness, most of that is just the excitement of wanting beforehand. When that happiness is reached it becomes exhausted in no time. Sexual desire is basically a hunger, a thirst, a state of separation from what you want, and you take that to be happiness! What the Buddha said is suffering, you take to be happiness!

It’s craving you take to be happiness. But actually, the craving, the thirst, the stressing out to try and reach something that is always beyond your grasp, is suffering. Wanting is suffering. The trying to achieve what you want, the manipulating, the thinking, the planning, that’s all suffering.

How much time have you wasted in this rains retreat planning, manipulating and thinking about how you can get what you want? How much more freedom would you have if you had no wants at all and didn’t need to plan? When all the manipulation or craving is abandoned, can you understand the peace and contentment that will come then?

Pulling Out The Thorn

Often, when there is great pain in the body, or when there is great disturbance in the mind, a skilful meditator can just say ‘stop’! They can let go in a moment and stop fighting, stop craving, stop trying to control. But when you experience great pain you may think you are going crazy and fight even more. Ask yourself, what’s wrong with being in great pain or being greatly disappointed? The answer is, nothing is wrong. Such things are a natural part of life. They are unavoidable. So, let go of the ‘controller’.

When you let go of the controller and stop craving, a strange thing happens. The madness stops and the pain disappears. I had that happen to me with great pain once. Every monastic has to come across this sooner or later. Some just want to run away, but they know they can’t. It’s a case of wanting to go forward, but you can’t go forward, wanting to go backwards, but you can’t go backwards, wanting to stay still, but you can’t stay still. You don’t know what to do! You can’t go forward, you can’t go back, you can’t stay still – this is where you let go. When you do let go, you find out that half of the suffering was the fighting.

The Lord Buddha said there are two thorns which cause suffering in a human being (see SN,36,6). The first thorn is the thorn of the five senses which is physical suffering. The second thorn is the mental thorn. There’s the thorn of having sickness, having pain, and having to hear, see, taste, smell, and touch unpleasant things. Then there is the proliferation which goes around that, which is mental pain. It’s very important here to notice the physical pain – seeing what you don’t want to see, hearing what you don’t want to hear, and doing what you don’t want to do. And it’s important to recognise there’s not much you can do about that. For example, when I was a young monk I thought if I ever became an abbot, it would be fine because I could always do what I wanted to do. I could give all the orders, and I’d only give the orders I wanted to. Ironically, I found out that the more authority I had, the more of a prison I was in! I couldn’t just do what I wanted. I had responsibility. I was even more controlled by the situation than before. So in the end I realised I had to give up trying to control, trying to somehow make things different.

Let go, just be with the present moment. You will find out that if you can let go of the pain and allow it to be, the whole situation changes. The first time I did this as a monk in Thailand was with a toothache. As soon as I let go the pain disappeared. It was quite a remarkable event in my monastic life to see intense pain suddenly go – just through wisdom power. Ajahn Chah and other great monks, following the Lord Buddha, always taught the Third Noble Truth as a way to end suffering, that is to let go of craving. They kept on saying it again and again, but theory is never as powerful as practise.

If you really let go, the whole problem just caves in – it fades and disappears. This is a beautiful moment of insight. Not insight based on thinking or theory, but insight based on experience. For a moment you let go of suffering because you don’t fight. Thus the Second and Third Noble Truths are not just something to be thought about, written about, and theorised about, they are to be practised, especially the Third Noble Truth about letting go.

That is why in this monastery I have been teaching meditation aimed at letting go of the ‘controller’, particularly in deeper meditation when we can carelessly get too involved in trying to make the breath quiet or make some mental images (nimitta) appear and move it this way or that. What are we doing that for? – or rather, what’s doing it? As we look deeper and deeper into the problem, we might have enough wisdom and enough courage to let go. Every meditator who has ever come to me and said that they got into a deep meditation always says that it was because they let go of something – that ‘controller’, that ‘doer’.

You can only teach the Four Noble Truths deeply once a person has done a lot of meditation, because suffering, its cause, and the end of suffering, can only be seen through practise, through letting go of suffering. When you are meditating you are letting go of the world. You are letting go of one thorn, the physical thorn of suffering, for a short while, by going into the world of the mind.

Revulsion Towards This Thing We Call Existence

The Lord Buddha kept on saying that the five aggregates are suffering. I know some monks who say it is just attachment to the five aggregates that is suffering, not the aggregates themselves. You just chanted the Anattalakkhana Sutta (the Discourse on Non-Self; Mv,I,6,38-47), a very beautiful Sutta which does say quite clearly that it’s not just the attachment to the aggregates that is suffering: it’s form (rupa), this body itself, that issuffering, feeling (vedana) is suffering, perception (sa��a), consciousness (vi��ana) and mental formations (sankhara) are suffering. All formations are suffering (sabbe sankhara dukkha; AN,III,134).

If you see this, you get revulsion (nibbida) to these aggregates. Revulsion means that you see that the five aggregates are just a bunch of suffering. To really see it means that you get fed up, you get disinterested, you get repulsed from these five aggregates! Not just from one of them but from all five, especially the mental aggregates. Why do you always want to go out into the world and get more feeling, more sensations, and more experience? “Let’s go out and see a movie and get more experience. Let’s go out and get a wife, get a husband, and have children. You haven’t lived until you’ve had kids”, so people say. That’s stupid! That’s just getting more feeling to be worried about, to be concerned about, and to torture yourself with. The whole point of the practise of Buddhism as expressed in the Third Noble Truth is to try and let go of feeling, to try and let go of perception, to try and calm mental formations and to try and eliminate consciousness, to bring it all to an end.

Sometimes I get into trouble when I say that consciousness is suffering. I like to use the metaphor for consciousness of a television screen. When you really investigate it, you see that this is not one ‘television set’ with six different programs on it, ie. sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and mental phenomena, but it’s six completely different types of televisions with only one type of program on each. This is where you actually see what consciousness truly is. When there is consciousness there will be suffering. “Consciousness is the condition for suffering” (vi��ana paccaya dukkha), as is stated in the Sutta Nipata (734-735). If you know this, you know the danger (adinava) in consciousness, and then you get revulsion towards consciousness.

The world, life, no matter how you arrange it, always ends up in suffering. You get your share of happiness, then suffering, then happiness, then suffering, in whatever realm. Even if you get into the bliss of Jhanas it doesn’t last, you have to come out afterwards. You have a beautiful two-week retreat, and when you come out, you find your disciples are going up the wall and you’ve got work to do. No matter how high you get on your retreat, you’ve got to come down.

This is just the nature of life. So what we actually see when we use wisdom power is that wherever we go in the world, no matter what we do, ultimately all we have is suffering. Ajahn Chah used to tell the story of the mangy dog. It itches so much that it goes into the sun to try to get rid of the mange. It doesn’t go away, so it goes into the rain. The itch doesn’t go away, so it goes under a rock, into the forest, into the village, but of course, wherever it goes it always takes the mange with it. It doesn’t matter where we go in this world, or in other worlds, that suffering which we experience now will go with us. There is no escape in that way because suffering is inherent to human existence and even to the existence of the devas(heavenly beings).

Whether you get into Jhanas or you don’t, there is still suffering. After a while of looking at all the different aspects and all the different types of happiness to be found in the world – sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, even right up to the high meditative happinesses – you see that each one of them are by their very nature impermanent and are therefore conducive to suffering. After a while you realise what the Lord Buddha was saying: form is suffering, feeling is suffering, perception, mental formations, and consciousness are suffering – the whole caboodle is suffering.

When you truly see suffering, and that wherever you go suffering will be with you, then you get revulsion towards this thing we call existence. You find that whether it’s in the devarealms or in the hell realms or in the human realm, it’s just like the dog going to different places to get rid of the itch. It’s just that some realms hurt more than others, but all realms hurt. When the Jhana realms fall apart, there comes the hurt and pain. The higher the happiness you have, the more suffering there is when that happiness disappears. It’s like people in the world, the more they love someone, the more they suffer when that person dies. The more you love your existence in the great Jhana realms, in the higher deva realms(brahmaloka), the more suffering there is when that existence collapses and disappears. This is the nature of experience. After a while you realise that the whole purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to end suffering through the ending of birth – to find the cause for birth and to eliminate that cause.

Why Would You Crave For Suffering

As to this particular life you have now, you’re stuck with it. If you try to end it prematurely you just get another life, and you have to go through the whole thing all over again. That’s not the way to end life, through suicide. You end life through cutting off craving, cutting off the cause. If you investigate things according to Dependent Origination (Paticca Samuppada), you will see how rebirth occurs and what this process is that makes you go into another life in the future. You are already fueling that process now from the delusion of a self and from the delusion that there is some happiness somewhere in the world. You crave based on the lie that somewhere, some place, there can be happiness, there can be fulfillment, there can be what you really want. What you are really looking for in the world, “It’s over there somewhere”, so you think. For that reason you crave.

If you knew there is no happiness in the world – no place, no where – why would you crave? All sorts of craving would be taken away. If you really saw that “all formations are suffering” if you could actually understand and accept this fully, that would be the end of craving. Why would you crave for dukkha? You only crave for what you assume to be happiness. This ‘happiness’ has been burning you for lifetime, after lifetime, after lifetime.

When I ask myself what I really want, I always get the same answer. What I really want is more dukkha. “Stupid monk, shut up!” Seeing that you’re looking and searching for moredukkha, is a good way to end wanting. You actually see that the illusion (avijja) is that you think you’re going to get happiness. Again, if you see with clear understanding that what you really want is suffering, you can give up wanting. What do you want in the world anyway? What do you really want? What you are asking for is just more suffering. Let go!

Renunciation Leads To Peace

When you’ve been meditating, you find that the most happy times, the times when you’ve come closest to real happiness, are when you’ve been content. You find in your life that you can be happy with such a small amount. In fact, the less you have, the happier you can be. That’s why the path of renunciation and letting go overcomes craving. It’s the path of the Third Noble Truth – renunciation leads to peace.

Practise that principle in your life. Every time there is some suffering, that is where you have to renounce. What are you hanging onto anyway? Give up something, let go of something, be content. As soon as you are content the problem is solved. You don’t need to think about it, just be at peace with whatever happens. Who knows, maybe the mob has been hired to come and beat me up tonight. O.K., I can handle that. Whatever happens to you, if you know contentment, then you know the path to freedom from suffering.

This is the Third Noble Truth. Don’t just think about it, practise it – let go of craving. If ever there is a problem in your meditation or in your life, instead of trying other solutions to overcome suffering, try ‘The Third Noble Truth Solution’ – let go of something, let go of craving. Again, you’re craving for something, and that is causing suffering, so abandon it. Find out what you want, what you really want, and you’ll know what’s causing you to suffer. Give it up!

“I want to be healthy”, – give it up! Just be content being sick. “O.K. I’m sick. Let’s see how sick I can be!” That sort of attitude really gets Mara [2] worried. When you do things like that, the reply comes back, “Come on, don’t be stupid, you’ll get even more sick and it will hurt even more.” See how sick you can be. That’s the sort of contentment which goes in the opposite direction of craving. This is what release is.

Don’t Make Any Future Houses

“Blinded by illusion, fettered by craving”, we actually take up and create our ‘houses’ for the future (see Dhp,153-154). That creating a house for the future is bhava (literally ‘existence’). Its like when we are building huts here in the monastery; we have to build the hut before someone can move into it. We build our next existence in this life through illusion and craving. We are making the kamma (volitional actions) and creating the bhava for the next life. We’re just creating a house for the future.

That’s why you’ve heard – and it comes straight from the Buddha’s teachings – that for people who make great merit there is a heavenly mansion (vimana) already waiting for them in a heavenly realm. For those who are creating bad kamma the pots of boiling liquid are already being heated up for them, waiting for them to fall down into hell. You are already creating your house for the future.

If you really are a homeless one, an anagarika, you should not just sell your existing house in this world but make sure you’re not making any future houses for your fantasies, dreams, and hopes for some sort of happiness at some time in the future. Again, with those dreams and fantasies you’re actually creating the conditions, you’re building the house, building the state of existence where you’ll find rebirth. Don’t underestimate the power of the mind to create realms of existence. “Mind is the forerunner and mind is the chief” (Dhp,1-2). Mind is the main thing. The world exists in the mind. The mind can create whole worlds, whole universes, whole states of existence through illusion and craving.

The Lord Buddha kept on saying that because you’ve been fed up, because you’ve been depressed until you’ve gone crazy, because this thing has happened to you and because that thing has happened to you, you’ve cried more tears in all of your existences than the water in all the oceans of the world (SN,15,3). That’s a lot of tears you’ve shed and a lot of crying you’ve done. When are you going to stop filling up the oceans? When are your bones going to stop filling up the graveyards? When you see the Four Noble Truths, that’s when.

The Lord Buddha said that once you’ve seen the Four Noble Truths and seen the inherent suffering of life, you get revulsion coming up – this beautiful, wonderful revulsion, which does not seek for escape outside, but seeks for escape inside instead. You’re not like that dog with the mange trying to go somewhere else to get rid of the mange, and you’re not like a dog trying to kill itself to get rid of the mange. Instead you’re trying to be content with the mange, learning to live with rather than against. You find that when you can be content with the mange, the mange disappears. Through craving you’ve known suffering. From fully seeing suffering you get revulsion. From revulsion comes dispassion (viraga). Dispassion is the fading away of everything, things disappearing, going, ending. It is wonderful when you start to see things disappear, the whole world fading away and vanishing into emptiness. It’s marvelous to know things vanishing.

I remember as a young man travelling in the south of Mexico to a town called Oaxaca. It was the centre of the mushroom culture, but I wasn’t interested in mushrooms and I wasn’t taking them either, because I was already a Buddhist by that time. I remember getting a mental image (nimitta) while in a room and seeing the walls and the ceiling become like butter and just melt and disappear into nothingness. That was quite scary at the time. But it was just a sign that I was beginning to understand what perception is all about and allowing things to disappear, fade, and go empty.

All of this which you take to be real is an illusion. As the Lord Buddha said, this body of yours is just like froth on the river Ganges (SN,22,95). You poke it and there’s nothing really there. It’s not yours, it’s just a body. Just blood and bones made up of food. You look at feeling, and it’s just like a raindrop hitting a puddle. During my retreat – during one of the rainstorms – when I came to the end of my walking path under my verandah, there was heavy rain. There was a puddle there and there was froth on one side and little bubbles coming from the drips in the gutter. I thought to myself that this froth is just like my body, and the little bubbles caused by the drops of water hitting the puddle is all feeling is. Happy feeling,unhappy feeling, in between, pop! – and it’s gone; another one, and another one, and another one, completely uncertain and beyond my control. You know that sometimes you will feel happy and that sometimes unhappy, and there’s nothing you can do about it in this life. It’s just nature.

The More You Give Up, The More Happiness You Have

“Joy at last to know there’s no happiness in the world.” That means there is nothing wrong with you. When you actually understand this, you can let go of this building up of more worlds. When you understand it, then, in meditation, you make the world more and more simple. And how much more simple can you make it than by getting into a deep meditation where there’s hardly anything left? Sometimes you can get to the point where there’s only the breath left, and that’s the only thing left in the whole world. That’s pretty neat! Sometimes you can let go of the breath, and you’ve only got a mental image left, just a beautiful ‘light’ in the mind. It’s not going away and it’s completely stable. That’s beautiful! That’s probably the best bliss you’ve ever experienced. But go deeper and you get into Jhana which is complete, unchanging, completely satisfying, very simple, and really blissful.

It’s great to be able to reflect on the Jhanas. First Jhana is so much less than you had before. You’ve given up so much. There’s hardly anything of existence left, just this small little blip called First Jhana. You enter into Second Jhana, and there’s only half a blip left. You’re hardly there, and you can hardly say that you exist. You’re not doing anything. You’re like a rock, stable, still. There’s nothing much going on because you’ve given up so much. There’s just this last little vestige of consciousness remaining. You find that’s the most blissful experience so far. When you get into Third Jhana you’ve given up even more. You really get into this giving up business. You really get off on it. You really get off on renunciation(nekkhamma). You can’t wait to give up more: “How much more can I give up?”

You realise this is the path to liberation from suffering – letting go. You understand why – because deep down there is no one in here. When there is no owner, your possessions are free for anyone to take. When there is no owner nature can go right ahead and take your happiness and give you suffering, because you know it’s going to take your suffering and give you happiness later on. These things don’t belong to you.

All of our joys and depressions, our wisdom and craziness, don’t belong to anybody – it’s all just nature. That’s all there is. So we can let go and learn to live with it, because we know it’s going to change. Every time we get down, we know we’re going to get up again soon. Every time we get up, we know we’re going to get down again. It’s just the nature of us. That’s why we can smile when we’re down because we know it’s not going to last. That’s why we can be peaceful when we’re up because we know that’s not going to last either.

This is how to deal with suffering and to learn to let go of things – understanding that the more you give up, the more happiness you have. It takes time though; you’ve got to give yourself time to be able to do these things, you have to be patient. It’s a natural process and each one of you already has enough of a start. You’ve experienced enough suffering in this world; so don’t go looking for happiness in the wrong places, otherwise you will just find more suffering. Don’t be like the mangy dog. Just sit down and stay in one place, and watch the suffering just disappear all by itself without you doing anything. The best thing to do when you go through difficulties as a monk, as a nun, or as an anagarika, is just to stay still and not move.

Do as the Lord Buddha in the Bhayabherava Sutta (MN,4). If he was walking and fear came, he would carry on walking until the fear left and only then would he change to another posture. If he was sitting he wouldn’t get up, he would just stay there until the fear subsided. If he was lying or standing, it was the same. Let it be the same when you get any suffering in your life. Don’t change your position. What I am talking about here is don’t do anything different, just carry on, and I guarantee whatever suffering you experience will just disappear. You’ll find that suffering has got nothing to do with how you try and manipulate it. It’s got nothing to do with the monastery, with your body, with your health, with your age, or with whatever. That’s just what suffering does, it comes and goes all by itself.

Whatever you are, whatever you do, it’s the nature of suffering – it just comes when it wants to. Uninvited it comes, and it leaves without permission. It will go when it wants to go, not when you want it to go. In fact, the more you want it to go, the longer it will stay. It’s perverse like that. Actually, if you invite it in and allow it to stay, it can’t stand you any longer and it goes away. That’s the nature of suffering.

But it’s particularly important to know deeply that the five aggregates of themselves, even consciousness, are suffering. The less you are conscious of, the more peaceful you are.Jhanas are the highest happinesses you can experience until you let go completely and reach the attainment of cessation (nirodha samapatti) where there is no consciousness at all. The five aggregates just stop for a while. Once those five aggregates have stopped and you come out afterwards, you have to know – there’s no other way – that consciousness is suffering, perception is suffering, feeling is suffering, the body is suffering, mental formations are suffering, birth is suffering, and life is suffering. So when you suffer it just proves the Buddha was right. Also, you know that the more you can let go, the less suffering you have. That too just proves the Buddha was right again. If you can let go completely, you know the cause of all future suffering is finally overcome.

A Workman Waiting For His Wages

In the Anattalakkhana Sutta (Mv,I,6,38-47) the Lord Buddha says that from revulsion comes dispassion – when you get fed up with these five aggregates they start to fade. And from dispassion comes freedom (vimutti). You know from that freedom that you’re not building any more houses. You have completely abandoned everything. You know that birth is destroyed. You’ve just this life to live. You’re like a workman waiting for his wages (see Thag,1003). You’ve done your work, and you know there is no more existence in the future for you. That in itself is great happiness – to know that whatever suffering you have to experience between now and the dissolution of the aggregates (parinibbana) is just that much, and that’s the last of the suffering that you have to experience in samsara.

If you haven’t attained that or if you haven’t entered the stream, it means the suffering ahead of you in samsara is endless – life after life of going through the same old thing. But don’t blame anyone else for your suffering, and don’t blame yourself. It’s the very nature of existence. Just apply the Third Noble Truth of letting go or the Fourth Noble Truth of the practices of morality (sila), sustained attention (samadhi) and wisdom (pa��a). Keep precepts and you lessen suffering. Develop sustained attention, gentleness, persistence and stability of mind and you lessen suffering even more. Develop wisdom and you end suffering.

Joy at last!

Ajahn Brahmavamso
(taken from: “Dhamma Journal”,
Buddhist Society of Western Australia, July 2001)



[1] It is important to realise that although one speaks about the alternation of happiness and suffering in life, ultimately its all suffering. An experience you now perceive as happiness due to some previous suffering, may be perceived as suffering later on in comparison to an even greater happiness. Thus, in the broadest sense, all experience is suffering.

[2] “Mara�is the Buddhist ‘tempter’ – He appears in the texts both as a real person (ie. as a deity) and as the personification of evil and passions, of the totality of worldly existence and of death.” See: Nyanatiloka Thera, Buddhist Dictionary (4th Rev. Ed.), (Kandy, Sri Lanka, Buddhist Publication Society, 1980), p.116.

The following abbreviation system is used for Sutta references in this discourse:

Maha Vagga (Vinaya): (Mv, Section#, Chapter#, Paragraph#);
Majjhima Nikaya: (MN, Sutta#);
Samyutta Nikaya: (SN, Samyutta#, Sutta#);
Anguttara Nikaya: (AN, Nipata#, Sutta#);
Dhammapada: (Dhp, Verse#);
Sutta Nipata: (Sn, Verse#);
Theragatha: (Thag, Verse#).


Use Variety To Freshen Up Your Meditation


Note: This is Chapter Seven of the book: The Beautiful Breath: The Comprehensive, Step-By-Step Buddhist Meditation Instruction of Ajahn Brahmavamso, to be published in the future.



In this chapter I’d like to discuss some different types of meditation in order to increase the repertoire. I hope you’re getting the idea by now that in order to develop sustained attention and to get success in your meditation there needs to be a certain degree of entertaining the mind, giving it some joy, giving it some fun. You might find it very useful to try different types of meditation. It’s actually the same basic process, but you’re just using different objects to focus your attention on. By using different objects to focus your attention on, the mind avoids getting bored through always plugging away at the same object. This stops us getting sleepy as well. You’ll find a lot of sleepiness, a lot of sloth and torpor, comes from boredom when you’re always doing the same thing over and over again.

So in my own practice I like to cultivate a few different objects of meditation. I also teach others to do the same, especially when they’re doing a lot of meditation. Not only does this give the variety that keeps the mind’s interest, it also develops some different abilities of the mind which you’ll find helpful in attaining peaceful states. In this chapter I shall cover three different types of meditation: Loving-kindness (Metta), Letting Be or Letting Go, and Walking Meditation.

Loving-Kindness Meditation (Metta)

Metta is the Buddhist word for “loving-kindness.” It refers to the emotion of goodwill, that which wishes happiness for another. It embraces forgiveness, because Metta says: “The door to my heart is open to you. No matter who you are or what you have done, come in.” It is that kindness which does not judge and is given freely, expecting nothing in return. The Buddha compared Metta to a mother’s love for her child (Sn, 149). A mother may not always like her child or agree with everything it does, but she will always care for her child, wishing it only happiness. Such openhearted, non-discriminating kindness is Metta.

Metta meditation is that meditation which focuses the attention on the feeling of loving-kindness, developing that beautiful transcending emotion until it fills the whole mind. There are many methods for developing Metta meditation. Here is just one way. I’ll cover the basic principles with some instruction in this chapter. (A complete guided Metta meditation can be found in Appendix. This section and the appendix are intended to complement and reinforce each other, and I urge you to make use of both).

Begin with the first steps of the “Basic Method”, presented at the beginning of the book. Take the method only as far as stage one, Present Moment Awareness.

The way you then develop loving-kindness meditation is by choosing some object which you find easy to feel loving kindness toward. The simile I often use is that of lighting a fire. You need kindling to light a fire. One can’t put a match to a big log and expect the match to ignite that log. The log is far too big. So you have to find something which will take the flame easily, something which is easy to light. It could be some of the firelighters you get for barbecues, or paper, or straw — anything that takes the fire very easily will do. You build up the first flames of loving-kindness on that kindling and then later one can put on more solid pieces of wood. First of all one uses just twigs and then branches, then you can put big logs on that fire. It’s always the case that only when there’s a big roaring fire — really strong and very hot — only then can you put on the big “sappy logs.” The big sappy logs in this simile stand for your enemies. Sometimes for many of you, the biggest sappy log is yourself! When you find the fire of loving-kindness is very strong, you can put yourself on that fire, “dry out” and ignite the biggest, sappiest log of all.

Once the fire is strong, you can give loving-kindness towards even your worst enemies. It may surprise you that you can actually do this. You think of this person towards whom you’ve always had anger and wanted revenge, and you find that you are now in a mind state where you can actually love them, really give them goodwill. And you’re not playing around either. It’s actually happening! This is the result of the gradual process of development of this emotion called “loving-kindness”.

Now as to the “kindling”, this is where you use your power of imagination and visualisation together with your mental commentary. Here you encourage the commentary, but you keep your commentary just to a certain topic. You’re, as it were, “psyching yourself up” to develop loving-kindness towards a small visual object, an imaginary object. Don’t be afraid of imagination, because visualisation and imagination are tools of the mind that you can use to your benefit.

Keeping your eyes closed, imagine in front of you a small kitten or a puppy or a baby or whatever you find it easy to generate loving-kindness towards. (I personally like using a small kitten.) Imagine it to be abandoned, hungry, afraid, and in your mind open your heart to it. Take it up gently, in imaginary arms, and use inner speech to say: “May you not feel so afraid. Be at peace. May you be happy. I will look after you, be your friend and protector. I care for you. Whatever you do, wherever you go, my heart will always welcome you. I give you my love unconditionally, always.” Say those words inside (or similar one’s that you make up) with full meaning, even though it is to a being only in your imagination. Say them many times until you feel the joy of Metta arise in you heart like a golden glow. Stay with this exercise until the feeling of Metta is strong and stable.

Metta Includes Compassion

Loving-kindness includes compassion, so you can use compassion to generate Metta. You look at that imaginary being and focus on its suffering, real or potential. You see the fact that it is subject to pain — not just physical pain but also the mental pain of loneliness and rejection. You see how very vulnerable it is. When I do this with my little imaginary kitten I always think that there’s no one else in the whole world to look after that small being. If I don’t look after it, if I don’t take it in, I just imagine what sort of death that little being is going to have — cold, rejected, hungry, thirsty and sick. When I start to see the suffering (thedukkha), in that being and how it is so vulnerable to pain, then straight away it encourages compassion in me towards it. I want to protect and care for it.

As soon as that compassion, that sense of looking after the little being comes up, it’s very easy at the same time to have loving-kindness, (which is basically goodwill). Compassion is goodwill towards someone who’s suffering. In this instance it’s goodwill to ease the suffering of that imaginary being, and if its not suffering, to make its happiness even more delightful. I deliberately generate feelings of goodwill, of kindness, of compassion and of care.

All of these words are centering in on this concept of “loving-kindness”, and I enter into a commentary with myself at this time, just imagining what might happen to that being, imagining looking after it, saying words of kindness, of protection. I do imaginary exercises like getting eye contact with that little being. When you can actually contact the imaginary being’s eyes it becomes very emotional. Then I just keep on developing those images. I continue that commentary until such time that the loving-kindness towards that imaginary being is really, really strong.

You will find — at least I find anyway — that it’s so much easier to light a fire of loving-kindness on such easy kindling. First of all, my imaginary kitten is a lovely furry animal. It’s imaginary, so I can make it whatever I want. It’s young. If it were actually real even little kittens can sometimes be pests. But if it’s imaginary you’ve got full control over it to make it as furry, or as soft as you like. It purrs at the right time, and it doesn’t poo on your lap. So you can do everything you want, just to make it a very nice little being. It’s imaginary. You’ve got control over it.

Choose An Object You Can Relate To.

One person I know didn’t have much empathy towards little animals, nor did she like children. What she did was very innovative. She’d just been planting some small flowers in some pots in her house; so she just imagined a small plant in the earth. Just like the little kitten or the puppy, the plant is also a being that needs care and protection. She put all her motherly instincts, which she didn’t really have towards children, towards that little plant, nurturing it and just imagining it growing. When it was a young seedling, it was just so tender and so easily hurt and broken. It had a long way to go before it was a full fledged flower. She imagined herself nurturing it, protecting it, loving it, caring for it until such time that the little flower burst forth and repaid her kindness with this beautiful smile of a flower in bloom. She really “got off” on that. That was for her the first time that meditation actually seemed to work. It was the first time she wasn’t waiting for me to ring the bell. So this is another way of developing loving-kindness, instead of towards an animal or a human being, towards even a plant. And you can do that.

The point is, as long as you are nurturing this emotion and making it grow, you’re allowed to use your commentary, and it’s good to use it at this point to keep the fire burning. When you put a match to a piece of paper, you’ve got to blow; you’ve got to fan. You’ve got to keep it going. Sometimes you need two or three matches to get it alight. You work until the fire is going, and once loving-kindness is going, always remember to experience the warmth from time to time. So you’re working to get the fire going, but you’re also pausing now and again, to experience the result of your work. And as you see the result of your work, it gives you encouragement.

So you’re just using this imaginary “kindling” as a means to develop loving-kindness, to get it started. As you go along, quite naturally you’ll be aware of the feel of loving-kindness. When the flame starts to take and there’s a fire starting, you can feel its warmth. Loving-kindness when it gets started is a very pleasurable emotion. Once you start to feel its warmth, then you really get into it.

Now let go of the imaginary being, and imagine in its place a real person, someone very close to you emotionally, your best friend maybe. Choose someone to whom you also find it easy to generate and maintain loving-kindness towards. With inner speech say to them: “May you live in happiness. I sincerely wish you joy. I give you my love, without discrimination. You will always have a place in my heart. I truly care for you.” — or similar words of your own design. Use whatever arouses the warm glow of Metta in you heart. Stay with this person. Imagine they are right before you until the Metta glows bright and constant around them.

When the Metta glows bright and constant, let go of the image of that person. Substitute another close acquaintance, creating the feeling of Metta around them using your inner speech in the same way: “May you live in happiness�”

Next substitute a whole group of people, perhaps all of the people who are in the house you are in. Develop the caring glow of Metta around them, all in the same way. “May you all be happy and well�”

See if you can imagine Metta to be a golden radiance coming from a beautiful white lotus flower in the middle of your heart. Allow that radiance of loving-kindness to expand in all directions, embracing more and more living beings, until it becomes boundless, filling up all that you can imagine. “May all living beings, near or far, great or small, be happy and at peace�” Bathe the whole universe in the warmth of the golden light of loving-kindness. Stay there for a while.

Now imagine yourself, as if looking in a mirror at yourself. Say with your inner speech, with full sincerity: “I wish me well. I now give myself the gift of happiness. Too long the door to my heart has been closed to me; now I open it. No matter what I have done, or will ever do, the door to my own love and respect is always open to me. I forgive myself unreservedly. Come home. I now give myself that love which does not judge. I care for this vulnerable being called ‘me’. I embrace all of me with the loving-kindness of Metta�” Invent your own words here to let the warmth of loving-kindness sink deep inside you, to that part which is most frightened. Let it melt all resistance until you are one with Metta, non-limiting loving-kindness, like a mother to her child.

When you feel it is time to conclude, pause for a minute or two to reflect on how you feel inside. Notice the effect that this meditation has had on you. Metta meditation can produce heavenly bliss. Now imagine that golden glow of Metta one more time, originating from the beautiful white lotus in your heart. Gently draw that golden light back into the lotus, leaving the warmth outside. When the glow is a tiny ball of intense light in the centre of the lotus, gently close the petals of the lotus, guarding the seed of Metta within your heart, ready to be released again in your next Metta meditation. Open your eyes and get up slowly.


Now to recapitulate what we’ve covered so far: when you practice the above method of Mettameditation, it is helpful to use easy objects at the beginning. Again Metta meditation is like lighting a fire. You start by using some paper and kindling which easily takes the flame. Once that is alight, you put on some thicker sticks, and when these are burning well, you add some bigger pieces of wood. Eventually, once the fire is established, you can put on the big pieces of fuel. When the fire is roaring you can even put on a big, wet and sappy log, and there is enough heat for that to catch light and burn too. In this simile, the “big, wet and sappy log” stands for your “enemy,” someone you find it especially hard to forgive and be kind to. This enemy is often yourself. Once Metta has been established on the easy objects, though, you will be surprised at how even the “enemy” can “take the flame” of Metta. You find, in this way, that you can actually love your enemy.

A Softening of the Mind

Something is happening. It’s a softening of the mind. The mind is turning towards this emotion of love, goodwill and care. It’s becoming selfless, not so concerned with its own needs. It’s becoming more in tune with giving, with sharing with other beings in this universe. Emotion, when it begins to be generated like this, feels very beautiful, and as you develop it more and more, that happiness of the emotion of loving-kindness gets very strong. It gets to the point that it’s self-sustaining, like a fire is self-sustaining. When it’s got enough fuel, then that’s when you don’t need to keep on with the commentary of loving-kindness. You can actually just go to its warmth, just the feeling of loving-kindness.

The feeling is usually centered around your chest, around your heart region. At least with me it is. It’s a very pleasant physical feeling, and it’s a very pleasant mental feeling as well. It’s very joyful to actually give unconditional love to another being (even one that’s imaginary). It’s an unlimited loving-kindness, without any conditions on that love. You’re just going to love that being no matter what it does. That brings out the aspect of loving-kindness which is a complete embracing of that being, with full forgiveness, without any faultfinding. When there is full loving-kindness, the “faultfinding mind” is completely transcended and there’s the “accepting mind”.

Loving-kindness is a very useful emotion to develop in meditation. To repeat: if you can develop a little bit of loving-kindness meditation like this, then you’re softening the mind. You’re softening the heart and you find that there’s not so much faultfinding. You find there’s more embracing instead. Faultfinding is being critical, seeing part of the whole — especially the part that is wrong. Whereas loving-kindness embraces the wholeness of something. By accepting even an imaginary being like the little kitten or little puppy exactly as it is, you embrace forgiveness. This is acceptance. When you can develop this acceptance toward a little puppy or a kitten or a flower, you find that when you do other meditations, even the meditation on the breath, you can be much more accepting and not so critical of the process. You won’t be so faultfinding towards the moment. You’ll find you have much morecontentment. You’ll be able to embrace the moment as it is rather than being aware of so much that is wrong in the moment. The whole attitude of mind is changing. “The world is the world.” It’s what we add to the world that creates the difficulties. We can add the faults to the world or we can add acceptance to the world. It’s really up to us.

Looking at the World in a Different Way

Here we’re training the mind to look at the world in a completely different way. We can develop loving-kindness meditation so that we can regard the world through the emotion of loving-kindness, embracing and forgiveness. Because we can do that, we can also transfer that loving-kindness onto something like the breath. When we are watching the breath, we can watch it with loving-kindness, with full embracing. We nurture it just like that little seedling. (I find that if I can generate loving-kindness with breath meditation, it becomes a very, very powerful combination.) Loving-kindness avoids the faultfinding mind and gives us the ability to embrace the breath as it is, and the breath meditation is what’s going to take us into deep and peaceful states. The deep states of meditation, the Jhanas especially, are emotional states. They’re not intellectual states. If we want to develop those states we have to be able to trust in the emotions.

Sometimes I say a bit facetiously that Jhanas are feely-feely states like loving-kindness — feely, feely, feely! You’ve got to feel your way into these states, rather than think your way in. This is why, when you do loving-kindness meditation with the breath, you’re able to add that emotional sensitivity to breath meditation. You’re able to trust in that part of the mind that can feel and can delight in just the simple breath. So this is one of the reasons why it’s very handy to do Metta meditation, because it develops trust in your emotions.

Secondly of course, it gets rid of the faultfinding mind and especially the hindrance of ill will. As we discussed earlier in this section (as well as in detail in Chapter Four), ill will can be directed toward all sorts of people, but especially toward oneself. I have mentioned that it is one of the big hindrances to people attaining deep meditation. They simply don’t allow themselves to do it; or they’re too critical of themselves and therefore think they can’t do it, and this is very close to ill will. They think, “I lack self esteem”. Lack of self-confidence is right next door to ill will. So what loving-kindness does is to allow you to experience the very heights of meditation. It permits you to experience bliss, and it also gives you the confidence that you can achieve these things.

So often it’s the case that if a person thinks they can’t achieve, they won’t achieve. If a person even doubts whether they can achieve, they won’t achieve. Someone — you! — is putting the obstacle in front of yourself needlessly. So loving-kindness is like a form of encouragement. It frees you to achieve anything that is there to achieve in the world.

Again: ill will towards oneself is because of a lack of forgiveness towards oneself. That’s why near the end of a loving-kindness meditation, when the feeling is strong, you can “invite yourself into your heart”, as it were, and give yourself complete forgiveness. As it says in theMetta Sutta (Sn, 149), “� just as a mother loves her child, her only child.” This is what a mother does to her child. She loves the child, meaning she gives full forgiveness no matter what the child does in the world. She’ll always be the mother, and she’ll never abandon her child. Even animals can be like this. You know this when you’ve seen cats with kittens. The mother cat eats all of the kitten’s faeces. It licks the kittens and cleans them. The mother eats up all their dirt. It’s an amazing sort of sacrifice the mother makes for her children; that amount of forgiveness and tolerance. This is what we mean by loving-kindness — being able to accept, embrace and forgive everything. That’s the important part of Metta meditation.

We seek to develop that loving-kindness towards ourselves so completely that we reach the point where ill will is abandoned. Only then, when ill will is overcome can we give ourselves good will, can we wish ourselves well, can we allow happiness to come into us, and we can start to enjoy meditation. If there’s ill will there, it’s such a huge obstacle that it will come up at one stage or another of the meditation. It can sometimes come up towards the breath. It can sometimes come up towards the teacher. It can sometimes even come up towards your meditation cushion — “stupid cushion!”. All of that ill will is stopping you enjoying your meditation.

Loving-Kindness Is Very Beautiful

So loving-kindness meditation is very beautiful to develop, and you can develop it at any time. You don’t have to be sitting meditation. You can do it while you’re walking on the path. Develop loving-kindness in whichever way you can, but remember to try to develop it on simple objects first of all. Once more — imaginary objects are usually the best. Build it up until it’s really, really strong. When you have very, very strong loving-kindness, you can either turn to the breath if you wish (and you’ll find the breath is just so easy to watch); or if you want to, you can carry on with loving-kindness and take that into a Jhana.

Taking Metta into a Jhana.

What you should do to access Jhana through Metta, is be able to see the fire of loving-kindness without any fuel. (The fuel is like the kitten, the puppy, the dear person, etc.) Just have love. Metta is perceived as a power, as a fire or as a light — whatever way you wish to imagine it. However, now no person is giving out that Metta, and no being is receiving it. There is just disembodied loving-kindness, rather than it being aimed at anyone. If you start to focus on what loving-kindness actually is, rather than where it’s coming from or where it’s going to, then loving-kindness by itself, alone, becomes a very beautiful object of meditation. You become aware of just Metta because it’s a very beautiful object indeed! It’s inherently beautiful. Once it’s generated, once the fire is there, it’s not that difficult to sustain your attention on it, because it delights the mind.

However, one of the difficulties is that Metta without a sender or object is not that stable at first. But if you can stay with loving-kindness, it delights the mind. Try and calm the mind down and make it very peaceful and refined. Then that experience of loving-kindness itself will become your Nimitta. It will take you into a Jhana: a Metta Jhana. So developing loving-kindness is one of the ways into Jhanas. But as with all of these Jhanas, you have to simplify what you are aware of. It has to become a mental awareness, a mental object — not a physical awareness.

Another Approach, Doing Deep Samadhi First.

Another way of doing loving-kindness meditation applies if you’ve done a lot of breath meditation and got a deep Samadhi, not necessarily into Jhanas, but at least some degree ofSamadhi. Then you can take up loving-kindness. When you’ve already developed a degree of deep meditation or Samadhi and you take up loving-kindness, it’s so easy to do. If you’ve had a deep meditation and you start thinking about loving-kindness, you can spread it to the whole world so easily, because the mind is soft. You can work with the mind once its has done deepSamadhi. What Samadhi does to the mind is make it like a piece of clay. If clay is too dry, you can’t make it into anything. If it’s too wet and soggy, it just goes all over the place. But if there is just the right amount of water in that clay, you can turn it into all sorts of shapes. When there’s just the right amount of softness in the mind (as there is after deep meditation), you can turn it into anything. You can do beautiful loving-kindness meditation.

We used to do this chant in our monastery some time ago. It was the Four Divine Abidings (Brahmaviharas). We chanted the spreading of loving-kindness, (Metta) and then compassion (Karuna) and then sympathetic joy (Mudita) and then equanimity (Upekkha). We did this all in about five minutes. After one very nice meditation when we started doing this chant, I just got stuck on the first part (Metta) and I couldn’t go anywhere else. Just as soon as I started chanting, the mind was so workable, as it were, so easy to point towards whatever I wanted to, that as those words came up I was just immersed in loving-kindness. I couldn’t do anything else! I got stuck in loving-kindness, a really powerful loving-kindness as well. I never got to the second part of the chant.

This example shows what you can do with a mind that is well trained. You can really do loving-kindness meditation. I discovered from that experience that a lot of the loving-kindness I had done before was just messing around, scratching at the surface. So when you develop a very deep mind state on the breath meditation, it’s very good when you come out to do loving-kindness meditation and experience its power, experience its bliss. Direct it to all beings, and also include yourself. Because your mind has been empowered, loving-kindness is extremely strong, and it can really direct a lot of benefit towards yourself and towards other beings.

In Sum

So these are some of the ways of doing loving-kindness meditation, especially to: overcome the hindrance of ill will, be able to look at the breath kindly and to nurture the breath, give the mind something else to do so you’re not always doing breath meditation, and to get these very beneficial attitudes of forgiveness towards oneself and all other beings. This way one isn’t carrying around the faultfinding mind that sees all the mistakes in oneself, and in other beings, and in the world.

(To continue on with a “hands on” treatment of Metta, please turn to theAppendix. Enjoy!)

Letting Be, Letting Go Meditation

Another meditation object that I would like to discuss is the meditation on “letting be,” or “letting go”. This is one of the other meditations that I often practise. Sometimes instead of trying to watch the breath as my object, or taking loving-kindness as my object, I look at my mind and realise the best thing it needs at the moment is just to let things be. Basically, letting be meditation is just this second stage of breath meditation, just silent awareness of the present moment. It has to be silent, because to really let things go means you give no orders; you don’t have any complaints. If you really let things be, you’ve got nothing to say, nothing to talk about. “Letting be” happens in the present moment. You’re just aware of things as they’re appearing right now, and you allow them to come in. You allow them to stay. And you allow them to go whenever they want. Letting be meditation is like sitting here, and whoever comes in the door, you let them come in. They can stay as long as they like. If they are terrible demons, you allow them to come in and sit down. They can stay as long as they like, and you are not at all fazed. If the Buddha himself comes in all his glory, you just sit here, just the same, completely equanimous. “You can come in if you want.” “You can go whenever you want.” This is letting be meditation. Whatever comes into your mind, the beautiful or the gross, just stand back and let it be, with no reactions at all — quietly observing, practising silent awareness in the present moment.

The Garden Simile

I will now introduce the simile of “Just sitting out in the garden” to explain the letting be meditation more fully.

Many here in Australia have a garden at the back of their house and they often spend many hours working in their garden making it look beautiful. But a garden is to be enjoyed, not just to be worked in. So I advise my students that they should frequently just go sit in their “garden” and enjoy its great beauty.

The most stupid of my students decide that they must mow the grass first, then prune the bushes, water the flower bed, rake the leaves�..getting the garden perfect before they can sit down to enjoy it. Of course, the garden never is perfect no matter how hard they work. So they never get to rest in peace, except when they’re dead (R.I.P.)!

The second type of student also lacks wisdom. They decide not to do any work, but as soon as they sit out in their garden they begin to think. “The grass needs mowing and the bushes should be pruned. The flowers are looking dry and the leaves really need raking, and the nice native bush would look nice over there, and�..” When they are thinking how they can make the garden perfect they are not simply enjoying it. They find no peace.

The third type of student is the wise meditator. They have done a lot of work in their garden, but now is their time for rest. They say: “Even though the lawn could be mown, even though the bushes could be pruned, even though the flowers could be watered and the leaves raked�..Not now! The garden is good enough, natural even”. And they can rest a while, not feeling guilty in the midst of imperfection.

Letting be meditation is just the same. Don’t try and make everything perfect, tying up all those loose ends, before you let things be. Life is never perfect and duties are never finished. Don’t even think on how you can make this more perfect. Letting be is having the courage to sit quietly and rest the mind in the midst of imperfection, in spite of unfinished business. Let it be for now. The time for gardening work will come later.

Letting Be Can Become Quite Powerful

Letting be meditation can become quite powerful. If your breath meditation is not working, if Metta meditation doesn’t work, or you try any other type of meditation and it’s not working, very often it’s because you haven’t got the foundation correct. So just do the letting be meditation. You can just “sit out in the garden” and just let things be. Whatever is happening, that’s O.K. Whatever I’m experiencing is fine — no preference, no choice, no good, no bad, no argument and no commentary. “Just let things be.” You can have a little bit of a commentary inside but just the commentary about “Let be”, “Let things go”. Just be with what is; i.e. just be with the commentary that is about the meditation subject, but not about anything else. That way the meditation becomes close to complete silent awareness of the present moment.

You can use that meditation as I use it: if I’m in pain, got a headache or a stomachache or whatever other ache I have, or if the mosquitoes are biting. “Just let it be.” Don’t argue with it. Don’t get upset about it. Just watch the feelings in the body as the mosquito pushes its nose into your flesh followed by the itch that comes. “Just let things be.” Lying in bed at night and you can’t go to sleep. “Let it be.” Or there’s a pain that won’t go away. “Just let it be.” Just be with it. “Just let it be.” Don’t try running away. It’s like the demons have come into the room. You’re not going to try and push them away. You’re not going to invite them to stay either. You’re just going to let them be.

This is equanimity; this is the practice of letting be. And it is one of the other meditations that I do from time to time. It can be a useful addition to your repertoire.

Walking Meditation

Walking meditation is beautiful, especially in the early morning. Often when one gets up early in the morning, in particular when you’re not used to getting up early, you’re quite tired and the mind isn’t bright. One of the advantages of walking meditation is that you can’t nod while you’re walking. You don’t snore either! You’re awake because you have to be. So if you’re tired, walking meditation is very good to do. It brings up some energy, and also you can get very peaceful.

Walking meditation was both praised and practised by the Buddha. If you read the Suttas, (the teachings in the Pali Canon), you find that the Buddha would usually walk meditation in the early morning. He wouldn’t be sitting, he’d be walking.

Many monks and nuns became enlightened on the walking meditation path. It’s a very effective way of developing both calm and insight (but not to the extent of Jhana). For some monks that I know in Thailand, their main practice is walking meditation. They do very little sitting. They do a lot of walking, and many get tremendously powerful insights while they’re walking.

Another benefit of walking meditation is that it is especially suitable for those who have physical discomfort in sitting for long periods. If you find it difficult to sit meditation because of pains in the body, walking meditation can be very effective.

So please don’t look at walking meditation as a “second class” meditation. If you want to spend most of your meditation time this way, please do so. But do it well, do it carefully. See if you can develop that happiness born of serenity as you’re walking backwards and forwards.

Setting Up Walking Meditation

Choose a clear, straight path between twenty and thirty paces long. This can be a corridor in a house, a path in the garden or just a track on the grass. Use whatever is available, even if it’s a bit less than twenty paces long. If it’s comfortable to do so, walk without shoes, enjoying the contact of your bare feet on the ground.

Stand at one end of your path. Compose the mind. Relax the body and begin walking. Begin walking back and forth at a pace that seems natural to you. While you are walking, place your hands comfortably in front of you, and rest your gaze on the ground about two metres in front of you. Be careful not to look around. If you’re doing walking meditation, it’s a waste of time to look over here and look over there, because that would just distract the attention from the feet, where it should be.

The Stages of Meditation Apply Here Too

Do you remember the stages of meditation covered so carefully in the chapters on the basic method (Chapters Two and Three)? Well, the first four stages apply here too. But here attention eventually comes to rest on the foot rather than the breath.

At first, aim to develop present moment awareness, as in Stage one, described in Chapter Two, “The Basic Meditation: Part One”. Use the techniques described there to reach the state of just walking, easily, in the here-and-now. When you feel that you have settled into the present moment, where business to do with the past and future is absent from the mind, then aim to develop silent walking in the present moment. Just as in Stage Two as described in Chapter Two, gradually let go of all thinking. Walk without commentary. Make use of some of the techniques described in “The Basic Method” to reach this stage of silent walking. Thus you begin walking meditation by developing the same two initial stages as with sitting meditation.

Once the inner commentary has slowed to a bare trickle of inner speech, deliberately focus your attention on the feeling of movement in the feet and lower legs. Do so to the extent that you clearly notice every step on the path. Know every left step, know every right step � one after the other without missing one. Know every step as you turn around at the end of the path. The famous Chinese proverb of the “Journey of one thousand miles” is helpful here. Such a journey is in fact only one step long — that step which you are walking now. So, just be silently aware of this “one step” and let everything else go. When you have completed ten return trips up and down the path without missing one left step and without missing one right step, then you have fulfilled Stage Three of the walking meditation and may proceed to the next stage.

As the attention increases you notice every feeling of movement in the left step, from the very beginning when the left foot starts to move and lift up from the ground. Notice as it goes up, forward, down and then rests on the ground again, taking the weight of the body. Develop this continuous awareness of the left step and then similar smooth, unbroken awareness of the right step. Do this throughout every step to the end of the path. Then as you turn around notice every feeling in the turning-around movement, not missing a moment.

When you can walk for fifteen minutes or more comfortably sustaining the attention on every moment of walking, without a single break, then you have reached the Fourth Stage of walking meditation, full awareness of walking. At this point the process of walking so fully occupies the attention that the mind cannot be distracted. You know when this happens because the mind goes into a state of Samadhi (Sustained Attention) and becomes very peaceful.

Samadhi on the Walking Path

Even the sound of the birds disappears as your attention is fully taken up with the experience of walking. Your attention is easily concentrated on one thing, sustained on one thing, settled on one thing. You will find this a very pleasant experience indeed.

As your mindfulness increases, you get to know more and more of the sensations of walking. Then you find that walking does have this sense of beauty and peace to it. It becomes a “beautiful step”. And it can very easily absorb all your attention because you become fascinated and peaceful, just putting all your attention on walking. You can get a great deal ofSamadhi through walking meditation in this way. That Samadhi is a sense of peacefulness, a sense of stillness, a sense of the mind just being very comfortable and very peaceful in it’s corner of the world.

I started my walking meditation when I first ordained as a monk in a temple in Thailand. I would choose a path, and quite naturally, without forcing it, I’d walk very slowly. (You don’t need to walk fast; you don’t need to walk slow; just do what feels comfortable). I used to get into beautiful Samadhi states during walking meditation. I recall once being disturbed because I’d been walking too long. I hadn’t noticed the time pass, and I was needed to go to a ceremony in this temple in Bangkok. One of the monks had been sent to go and get me. And I recall this monk came up to me and said, “Brahmavamso, you’ve got to come to a Dana“. I was looking at a space about two meters in front. My arms were in front of me, and my hands folded. When I heard that, it was as if hearing it from a thousand miles away, because I was so absorbed into what I was doing. He repeated, “Brahmavamso, you have to come now”. It took me about one minute to actually lift my head from the ground and to turn it around to the side where this senior monk was trying to get my attention. And as I met his eyes, all I could say was “Pardon?” It took such a long time to get out of that Samadhi and actually do anything quickly. The mind was so cool and so peaceful and so still.

I hope you experience this peacefulness for yourselves when you try walking meditation. Many people I’ve taught walking meditation to for the first time have said: “Wow! This is amazing. This is beautiful”. Just slowing down, you get into peace. You’re getting into calm by just watching the sensations as you walk. So this is one other type of meditation that I am suggesting to you, giving to you to experiment with.

Choosing the Right Meditation for the Right Time

Sometimes people ask when one should do which meditation. How do you choose what to do? A first, you should experiment with doing different meditations at different times. Eventually you’ll develop the wisdom which knows what your mind is like and what your mind needs. Observing is the way to find out what type of meditation to do.

Sometimes your practice is like working with a piece of wood from the wood yard. You want to make some furniture, say a meditation stool. The first thing you do is to look at the piece of wood. Usually, it needs to be planed down initially, and then you apply the roughest grade of sandpaper, then a medium grade, then a fine grade of sandpaper. After that you get out a polishing cloth with some wax or some oil; or if you want to, you coat it with varnish instead. But if you use a cloth, you use it only at the end, after you’ve used the finest sandpaper and the wood is really smooth. Only then do you get the cloth out and polish it up. This way it ends up as this beautiful, shiny, smooth piece of furniture. But you have to examine the piece of wood first of all. If you get a piece of wood from the wood yard just freshly sawn with all of the burrs on it and you get the polishing cloth out straight away, you’re going to ruin a lot of polishing cloths. And you’re not going to make that wood smooth at all. In meditation this is like trying to go too deep too fast.

If you look at your mind and it’s really rough and coarse and you want to go straight onto theSamadhi Nimitta, then you’re wasting your time. You’ve got to get the “plane” and the “sandpaper” out first of all. Sometimes it is the case that you get a piece of wood from the shop that is just so smooth already, that all you need to do is to use the polishing cloth. Sometimes you may sit down on that cushion and the mind is already so peaceful that you don’t need to go through all the preliminaries. You just go straight onto the breath, straight onto the beautiful breath, sometimes even straight onto the Samadhi Nimitta! So you look at your “piece of wood” — your mind. The skillful meditator in you knows what it needs. If it needs loving-kindness, O.K., spend a few minutes doing loving-kindness meditation. If it needs some “letting be” meditation because it’s quite coarse, just “take it out to the garden” and let it be. You know what it needs by looking at your mind and by recognising the state of the mind. This is similar to the insight practice of meditation that I’ll say more about in the next chapter. You recognise the problems, and you know the solutions.


So these are just some types of meditation. There’s a whole range of other types of meditation that I could discuss, but this is enough to practise for now. Just to sum up: I talked about Metta meditation. (Please do some, it is very important and you’ll find it’ll help the other meditations that you do.) I’ve discussed “letting be” meditation. And I’ve discussed walking meditation. Hopefully these ways of practice will help you, as well as sitting meditation. Try them out; see how they go. Also see if they don’t spill over into your daily life with wonderful effects.

Whatever You Are Doing, Do It With Everything You’ve Got

I’ll finish this chapter with one last story. I was with a teacher in Thailand for over nine years, quite a famous teacher in the world of Buddhism. An Australian man told one of his teachings to me many years after the teacher, Ajahn Chah, had stopped teaching. I never heard these instructions myself.

The man had gone to visit Ajahn Chah in the north east of Thailand, which was a difficult place to get to. He made a special journey, and when he got to this place — some seven hundred kilometres from Bangkok — he found that Ajahn Chah was surrounded with people. The man was on the outskirts of these people trying to ask the questions which he wanted to ask of this wise old monk, but he found that there was no way he was going to be able to catch his attention. There were just too many people.

The man had arranged for a taxi to come back and pick him up later to take him to the station to get the train back to Bangkok — an all night journey. The taxi wasn’t going to come back for another hour. He knew he wasn’t going to see the teacher and ask his profound questions. He saw some monks sweeping the paths in the monastery and he thought, “Well I’ve come all this way, I might as well do something useful”. He picked up a broom and started to sweep. He was sweeping the leaves from the path when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around, and to his surprise and delight it was the teacher, Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah had seen this westerner coming and not having a chance to ask any questions, but unfortunately Ajahn Chah had only left the big group around him because he had another appointment himself. A car was waiting for him. So he just gave this young Australian man a very simple teaching. He told him, “If you are going to sweep, sweep with one hundred percent of what you’ve got”. Then he went away.

This man remembered this teaching that if you’re going to sweep, sweep with everything you’ve got. And he realised this was more than a teaching on how to keep the monastery clean. It was a teaching on how to live life. If you’re going to meditate, meditate with everything you’ve got; if you’re going to write a letter, write with everything you’ve got. If you’re going to brush you’re teeth, wash your car, take an exam, make that telephone call, speak with a person near you, give them everything you’ve got.

This is the way of Buddhist meditation. It’s not that hard! Try walking meditation; you’ll find it’s easy. Learn meditation on the breath, and you’ll find that easy too. Whatever you do in life: instead of doing it half-heartedly, quarter-heartedly or one-eighth-heartedly, give it everything you’ve got, and you will find that life will start to come together./.

Ajahn Brahmavamso
(“Dhamma Journal”, Buddhist Society of Western Australia, July 2001)


Guided Loving-Kindness (Metta) Meditation


When we practise meditation it benefits not only ourselves, it brings happiness to many others as well. The calmer and more peaceful we become, the more we can give to others. If there’s no peace in our hearts, how can we give peace to anyone else? So when it comes to practising compassion, meditation is one of the kindest things that we can do for others. If we’ve built up some beautiful energy through meditation, then it is time to share that energy with other beings, recognizing that there is a connection between us all. What we do in our own meditation and practise does have a profound effect on all other beings throughout the universe. So this is why I will now describe a guided loving-kindness meditation.

Because this is a guided meditation, it might be better to experience it as the spoken word rather than the written word. Therefore you may want someone to read the instructions to you or perhaps better yet to actually tape record your own guided meditation. When guiding, it’s important to pause from time to time, and good places to do this are indicated in square brackets throughout the text.

First of all, sit down comfortably in a quiet place, close your eyes and give permission to your mind to let go of all burdens. Allow your mind to let go of all past and future, remembering that you deserve some peace. Be kind enough to grant yourself the gift that is the present. Be now, be gently. Now be kind to your body making sure it’s comfortable. Being so careful, because that is what careful means, “full of care.” See to it that even little things like your toes are all cared for to make sure they are comfortable. Go through each part of the body, relaxing the body and offering it some gratitude, some thanks, for allowing you to sit meditation. Sometimes you may have been quite hard on your body, but now thank it for giving you the opportunity to be at peace. Let’s care for this body, show it respect. Relax the body into a soft state of ease so it becomes a fine vehicle for loving kindness meditation.

Take a few minutes just to experience the body and bring it to ease.


Now let’s do a little bit of breath meditation. Begin with this breath which is feeding you the oxygen which brings all this good energy into the body. Show gratitude for this breath as it brings all this energy in, giving light, giving warmth, and giving that energy to each part of your body. Imagine the breath coming in and bringing golden light to every part of your body and then taking out all the used gases. Giving out into the world, as someone said, as a gift for the flowers and the trees that take the carbon dioxide as food. Breathing in with gratitude, with care, and breathing out as a gift to nature. Breathing in and out naturally with a sense of kindness and warmth towards this breath, giving a sense of kindness and warmth and gratitude towards this present moment. This present moment is giving you so much happiness and wisdom. Say thank you, to “now”.


Give gratitude to silence, the place where peace resides, the place where that bliss of freedom bubbles up like a spring from the ground. Give gratitude to the cool, clear, refreshing water of stillness. Breathe in so gently, so warmly. Look upon your breath in that silence as if it were a child born of your own body, a part of you, something which you caress with your mindfulness, with softness, with warmth, with care. Trust in that loving attention of mindfulness as you once trusted as a young child in the arms of your mother. Be unworried, unconcerned for the future, just as if you were a baby in the arms of your mother — being walked backwards and forwards with the breath, backwards and forwards as the breath goes in and the breath goes out.

Pause for a while. Enjoy the breath.


Now we will begin the loving kindness meditation. Choose an object in the mind’s eye — imagining a baby, a small kitten, a puppy or whatever object you can bring up into your mind through imagination. Choose an object towards which you find it easy to generate feelings of warmth, of love, of care. As you visualise that being in front of you, imagine it has only one person in this world to look after it and to care for it — you. If it were not for you, that small baby, kitten or puppy would surely die – would die of hunger and cold, or a lack of love.

See if you can look that being in the eye, and give it trust, give it kindness, give it care. Say to that imaginary being, “I have kindness and love towards you. I will look after you, feed you, protect you and love you no matter what happens. I will always be there for you”. As you bring that small kitten, puppy or baby into your arms close to your chest, still keeping that eye contact, feel the small being giving you back love, trust, kindness. Using whatever words, ideas, commentary which you can bring up, generate more kindness and care, more love towards that small being, such as saying to that imaginary being: “The door of my heart is always open to you. No matter what you ever do I will never take away my love, my care. MyMetta is unconditional, unbounded with no limitations”.


You should now make that small being your very, very close friend. As you give that warmth, that Metta, that loving kindness — unbounded and unconditioned — to that small imaginary being, notice how it feels inside your own heart. When you give that love it creates this beautiful warmth, this golden light of loving-kindness. Just dwell on that imaginary being until that warmth and that flow of loving-kindness towards that kitten, puppy or baby is just so strong, as if that being is not imaginary at all but is real. Give it your wholehearted love, care and protection. “May you be happy and well forever. I truly care. Whatever you do, wherever you go, I will always give you my love.”

How does that golden glow of loving kindness towards another being feel inside? Pause for a while. Enjoy the feeling.


Now it’s as if that image of a kitten, puppy or a baby disappears and in it’s place is the image of somebody who is very close to you in life — it might be a husband or wife, a child, a parent or a close friend. Bring them up in front of you, imagining them in your mind’s eye, knowing that they too are fragile. Without your love and your care, they too will hurt, they too will suffer. So give the same warmth, kindness and unconditional love to this person whose life is very close to you. Say to them, “I care about you; I give you my loving kindness unconditionally. The door of my heart will always be open for you. No matter what you do I will never take away my loving kindness. I wish for your well-being and happiness. Your happiness is my concern, my life-long concern”. Give them that beautiful warm love. “May you really be happy; may you reach peace, reach Nibbana. May you be free from all suffering. If there is anything I can do to be of help in that quest, it is my privilege, my joy to help.”

As you give resolutions of loving kindness towards that person who is important in your life, who you are imagining in front of you, feel that golden glow in your heart. Feel the warmth of loving kindness. It’s as if you allow that golden glow to grow, to reach that person so close to you, to go all around them like a halo. Let the golden glow bathe them and give them energy, happiness and health. Stay with that glow. Say in your mind, “I wish you happiness and well-being; may you be at peace; may all suffering end for you.”


Now as you give that unconditional loving kindness towards your chosen person, allow that feeling of unconditional loving kindness to grow brighter and even more beautiful. Pause for a while. Just enjoy the feeling.


When you are ready, let go of the image of that person. Substitute another person you are close to. Repeat the process creating the feeling of Metta in the same way. Take as much time as you wish.


Now it’s as if that second close person has disappeared too. Without opening your eyes imagine a whole group of people, perhaps all the people in the house you are in. Develop the caring glow of Metta around them all. “May you all be happy and well�” See if you can imagine Metta to be a golden radiance coming from a beautiful white lotus flower in the middle of your heart. Give loving kindness to all the beings in your home (or other group), all the visible and the invisible beings. Give your loving kindness to all these fellow beings. Say to yourself: “I truly wish you all happiness and peace. The door of my heart in this moment and forever is always open to you; no matter what you ever do, you will always be my friends. I give my care to you, all my love, and my kindness. If there is anything I can do to ease your pain, it is my privilege to do so”. Bathe all the beings in your group in this increasingly splendid golden glow of loving kindness, “seeing” a halo around each person joining into a beautiful golden fire of care and goodwill and gratitude to all of them. As this golden glow of loving-kindness grows even greater, pause every now and again to feel what it’s like inside you.


As you give selfless love towards others, you find there is a beautiful warm peace inside your own heart, a silence, an energy.

Give that golden glow your attention once more and spread it out beyond the group you have chosen, to all the people in the city or town where you live. To all the people in your city or town today who are suffering, who know no peace, who are having arguments at home, who are lost and alone, never really appreciating or knowing love. Know their emptiness; fill it with your own love. Give that golden glow indiscriminately around the whole of the city or town. “May all these beings be happy and well. May they feel the same peace that I’m feeling now, and may they feel the same acceptance and security that I am feeling now. I give this golden light of love as a gift, to all beings in this city or town. May you all be happy and well. May you all be at peace. May you all have health and joy in your hearts.”

Pause again and enjoy the feeling. Savour it.


When you are ready, spread that golden glow wider and wider. Spread it to all the people in your home country. As it gets wider and wider, as it goes over the whole of this planet, it gets more beautiful. Say to yourself: “May all beings — human, animal and invisible — may all beings be happy. We are all friends in Samsara, in perpetual wandering from lifetime-to-lifetime; all beings are subject to old age, sickness and death just like me. I give you my happiness as a gift. I give you my love; the door of my heart will always be open to all beings. I wish you well. I wish you peace, sincerely, with all my heart. This moment is for you.”

Pause yet again.


Now direct your loving kindness towards the whole universe, telling yourself: “May all beings — great or small, invisible or visible — may all beings be free from suffering. May all beings realise the bliss of Enlightenment. May all beings know that ultimate happiness, selflessness, love, freedom and peace. This I give as a gift to all beings.”


As this beautiful golden glow spreads, notice how it feels inside — this unbounded, unconditional loving-kindness spreading over the whole universe. How does it feel inside you? How does it feel knowing that you are giving the whole universe that wonderful golden glow of love as you did to the images of people in your home, your best friend, a little kitten or puppy or baby?

Pause again.


When you are ready, put an image of yourself in front of you. Without opening your eyes, imagine you are watching in a mirror this person you have lived with since you were born, the one closest to you. Give yourself that golden glow. Say to yourself: “The door to my heart is open to me. I give myself my love, come inside.” Then say this to your own image, “I wish you all happiness and well-being; whatever faults you have I forgive. The door of my heart is open to me no matter what I have ever done.” Give unconditional love to this being inside, who we call “me.” Say to yourself: “I allow myself to be happy. I give myself permission to be free. May I be Enlightened. May I be at peace, free from all suffering.” Give yourself that beautiful warmth of love and kindness, indiscriminate, unconditional. Bathe yourself with the golden glow of Metta. Keep with that feeling of loving-kindness as long as you like. Enjoy it. Abide in it.


When you feel it is time to conclude, pause for another minute or two to reflect how you feel inside. Notice the effect that this meditation has had on you. Metta meditation can produce heavenly bliss.


Now imagine the golden glow of Metta one more time, arising from the beautiful white lotus in your heart. Gently draw that golden light back into the lotus, leaving the warmth outside. When the glow is a tiny ball of intense light in the middle of the lotus, gently close the petals, guarding the seed of Metta within your heart, ready to be released in your next Mettameditation. Now, when you are ready, open your eyes and get up slowly.



The Quality of Mindfulness


Note: This is Chapter Six of the book: The Beautiful Breath: The Comprehensive, Step-By-Step Buddhist Meditation Instruction of Ajahn Brahmavamso, which will be published in the future.


In this chapter, I want to explore “mindfulness ” in greater depth. Mindfulness is one of the controlling faculties (indriya) which creates success in meditation. If it’s not fully understood, and fully practised, one can waste a lot of time in one’s meditation. I will now explain the quality of mindfulness.

Setting Up the “Gatekeeper” Inside

I like to use the simile for mindfulness of a person who’s guarding a door or guarding a gate. The simile of the gatekeeper to describe mindfulness was used by the Buddha (AN VII, 63). For mindfulness is not just being aware, being awake, or being fully conscious of what’s occurring around you. There is also that aspect of mindfulness that guides the awareness on to specific areas, remembers the instructions and initiates a response. For example, suppose you were a wealthy person with a gatekeeper guarding your mansion. One evening, before going to the Buddhist Temple to practise meditation, you tell the gatekeeper to be mindful of burglars. When you return home, your loving kindness suddenly vanishes when you find your house has been burgled. “Didn’t I tell you to be mindful?”, you scream at the gatekeeper. “But I was mindful”, pleads the gatekeeper. “I gave attention to the burglars as they broke in, and I was clearly attentive as they walked out with your digital T.V. and state-of-the-art C.D. system. I mindfully watched them go in several times, and my mind did not wander as I observed them going out with all your antique furniture and priceless jewellery�”

Would you be happy with such a gatekeeper’s explanation of mindfulness? A wise gatekeeper knows that mindfulness is more than bare attention. A wise gatekeeper has to remember the instructions and perform them with diligence. If he sees a thief trying to break in then he must stop the burglar, or else call in the police.

In the same way, a wise meditator must do more than just give bare attention to whatever comes in and goes out of the mind. The wise meditator must remember the instructions and act on them with diligence. For instance, the Buddha gave the instruction of the 6th Factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, “Right Effort.” When wise meditators practising mindfulness observe an unwholesome state trying to “break in”, they try to stop the defilement, and if the unwholesome state does slip in, they try to evict it. Unwholesome states such as sexual desire or anger are like burglars, sweet-talking con artists, who will rob you of your peace, wisdom and happiness. There are, then, these two aspects of mindfulness: the aspect of mindfulness of awareness and the aspect of mindfulness of remembering the instructions.

In the Buddhist Suttas, the same Pali word “Sati” is used for both awareness and memory. A person who has got good mindfulness is also a person who has got a good memory, because these two things go together. If we pay attention to what we are doing, if we are fully aware of what we are doing, this awareness creates an imprint in our mind. It becomes easy to remember. For example suppose you’re in danger. Suppose you come very close to having a serious car accident. Because of this danger, your mindfulness would become extremely strong and sharp. And because of that sharpness of mindfulness in a potential accident, you would remember it very easily, very clearly. In fact, when you went back home to sleep that night you might not be able to forget it. It might keep coming back up again and again. This shows the connection between awareness and memory. The more you are paying attention to what you’re doing, the better you remember it. Again, these two things go together: awareness and memory.

If we have gatekeepers who have developed awareness, they will pay attention to the instructions that they are given. If they pay full attention to the instructions that are given, they will be able to remember them and act on them diligently. This is how we should practice mindfulness. We should always give ourselves clear instructions with full attention so that we will remember what it is we are supposed to be doing. The teacher’s job is also to give clear instructions to help us in guiding the mind. That is why I teach in very clear stages: stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, etc. When we make the training in meditation methodical, when each stage is very clear, then it becomes possible to give our “gatekeepers” clear instructions.

Instructing the “Gatekeeper”

At the beginning of the meditation when you start stage 1, you should remind yourself that there’s a gatekeeper inside — that which can be aware of what’s happening and can choose where to put that awareness. Tell that gatekeeper something like: “Now is the time to be aware of the present moment.” “Now is the time to be aware of the present moment.” “Now is the time to be aware of the present moment.” Tell the gatekeeper three times. You know that if you have to repeat something, you’re much more likely to remember it. Maybe when you were at school, if you couldn’t spell a word, you’d have to write it out a hundred times. Then you’d never forget it after that. This is because when you repeat something, it takes more effort. It’s harder to do. You have to force the mind a little bit more, and mindfulness has to become stronger. What’s easy to do doesn’t take much mindfulness. So make it a little bit difficult for yourself by repeating instructions such as: “I will be aware of the present moment.” “I will be aware of the present moment.” “I will be aware of the present moment”. Again, say that to yourself three times.

Now with the gatekeeper, like any other servant or worker, you don’t have to keep giving the same instruction every second or two. In this way of developing mindfulness just give that instruction to the gatekeeper three times at the beginning, then let the gatekeeper get on with the task. Trust the gatekeeper to know what it’s doing.

Instruct your gatekeeper in the same manner as you would instruct a taxi driver. You just tell them clearly where you want to go, then you sit back, relax and enjoy the journey. You trust the driver knows what they are doing. But imagine what would happen if you kept telling the driver every few seconds “Go slower� Go faster� Turn left here� Now go into third gear�Look in your mirror, mate � Keep to the left�” Before you completed a few hundred yards of your journey, the taxi driver would rebel, get angry and throw you out of the taxi. No wonder then, when meditators keep giving instructions to their gatekeeper every few seconds, their minds rebel and refuse to co-operate.

So just let the mind get on with the job of being in the present moment. Do not keep interfering with it. Give the mind clear instructions and then let go and watch. If you establish mindfulness in this way, with clear instructions, you will find that your mind is like everyone else’s mind. That is, once it’s given clear instructions, it’ll tend to do what it’s told. It will obviously make mistakes now and again. It will sometimes not go straight to the present moment immediately. Or sometimes it will go to the present moment and then wander off again. However, the instruction which you’ve given it will mean that as soon as it starts to wander off into the past or the future there is something which remembers. Mindfulness remembers the instructions, and mindfulness puts the attention back into the present moment. For you, the onlooker, it’s something that is automatic. You don’t need to choose to do it. It happens automatically, because mindfulness has been instructed in the same way that a gatekeeper, once instructed, does all the work. You don’t have to give any more instructions. You can just watch the gatekeeper do the work. This is trusting the mind, knowing the mind, knowing its nature and working with its nature.

I encourage you to play around with the mind and know its capabilities. One of the first things that I was told on my first meditation retreat as a student was that there is no need to set the alarm for getting up in the morning. (Actually I think we were getting up at five o’clock in the morning at that retreat. It was a “soft retreat”.) The Teacher said, just to determine the waking time, and to tell yourself before going to bed at night, “I’m going to get up at five to five.” (That was just five minutes before someone was going to ring the bell.) “Don’t set your alarms.” That was the first time I ever tried that. It worked every morning. I told myself very clearly and carefully as I went to sleep, “I will get up at five to five.” I didn’t need to look at my clock or ask, “Is it five to five yet?” I could actually trust the mind, and when I woke up and opened my eyes and looked at my clock, it was five minutes to five–give or take two minutes. It’s incredible how the mind works. I don’t know how it did it, how it remembered, but it did. It works in exactly the same way if you give clear instructions, if you program your mind: “Now is the time to watch the present moment.” ” Be in the present moment.” “Be in the present moment.” That’s all you need to do. Then you can let the mind do the work.

It’s also important when you’re instructing the gatekeeper to know not just what you’re supposed to be doing but also what you’re not supposed to be doingin other words to know the dangers on the path. It’s important to know the dangers as well as the goal because this enables the gatekeeper to know who is allowed in and also who is not allowed in. They need to be very clear about both types of “people”. It’s not enough to just have a list of who’s allowed in. If the gatekeeper hasn’t got a list of who’s not allowed in, then they could easily make mistakes.

The Gatekeeper at Stage One. Now in the first of these stages of meditation, Present Moment Awareness, the goal — who’s allowed in — is just anything in the present moment. It can be the sound of a bird. It can be the sound of a truck in the distance. It can be the wind going past. It can be someone coughing or banging the door. It doesn’t matter. If it is something happening now, then it is part of the present moment awareness. It can be the breath. It can be a Samadhi Nimitta. It can be a Jhana. That’s all part of the present moment. So be very clear of what’s allowed in, and welcome that.

Again, one should also be very clear of what’s not allowed in. What are the dangers to present moment awareness? Those dangers are any thought, any perception, any view of the past or the future. That is, any looking “back” or any looking “forward”. It’s important to know those dangers, to articulate them very clearly. Sometimes when I make my resolutions I actually include the danger in the resolution. “I’ll be aware of the present moment, but I’ll not go off into the past or the future.” “I’ll be aware of the present moment, but I’ll disregard the past or the future.” “I’ll be aware of the present moment, and I’ll disregard the past and the future.” Saying that to oneself, instructing the gatekeeper about the dangers as well as the goals, helps mindfulness do its task. What happens then is that when the dangers to that stage arise, mindfulness knows, “This is not what I’m supposed to be doing”. Mindfulness discards that past or that future thought or perception. This is what happens. As I have been stating, this is the nature of the mind if you program it properly.

The Gatekeeper at Stage Two. In the second stage of Silent Present Moment Awareness, one has the goal of silence in the present, and the danger is inner chatter, inner thought. So one should tell the mind that’s what it’s got to avoid; that’s the enemy; that’s the danger. You tell the mind very clearly at the beginning of that stage: “I’ll be silently aware in the present moment and will discard all inner chatter.” “I’ll be silently aware in the present moment. I will discard all inner chatter.” “I will be silently aware in the present moment and will discard all inner chatter.” That way you establish mindfulness. You give it a chance to work because you’ve instructed it very clearly.

The Gatekeeper at Stage Three. In the third stage, Silent Present Moment Awareness of the Breath, one instructs the mind three times to be aware of the breath in the present moment. “I’ll be aware of the breath in the present moment and will discard all other perceptions and thoughts.” What are the dangers? It’s everything other than the breath, which includes: the sounds outside, the feelings in the body, people coughing, thoughts about anything else, lunch or dinner, or whatever. Everything else other than the breath is a danger. So one should tell oneself: “I will be aware of the breath in the present moment and discard all other perceptions or thoughts.” “I will be aware of the breath in the present moment and discard all other perceptions and thoughts.” “I will be aware of the breath in the present moment and discard all other perceptions and thoughts.” Again, having told the mind very clearly both what it is supposed to be doing and not doing, you find you can let the mind do its work. One just looks on. When a thought other than the breath comes up, when you’re perceiving say the sound of a lawnmower outside, straight away the mind knows it’s not supposed to be doing this and it turns away automatically. One is training the mind in mindfulness. It’s fascinating to watch the mind when its well trained. It does what it has been told without having to tell it again. Because it’s already been told, it remembers the instructions. It knows what it’s doing and the meditation becomes smooth and has the appearance of effortlessness.

The meditation is not effortless though. You’re putting in the effort but at the right times, at the times when it’s really going to bear fruit. In just the same way as growing a tree. There are times when you put effort in and times when you let things be. You plant the seed in the ground. Then you water it and fertilise it. But most of the time, when you’re growing a tree, your job is just to guard it to make sure that nothing interferes with the process. The seed has got the instructions; it just needs to be given the chance. In the same way don’t keep interfering with the mind. Don’t keep prodding it and pushing it and telling it to do things, because otherwise after a while it will just rebel. “Leave me alone. Look, I’m trying to do my job. Get out of the way,” says the mind. And if you don’t leave the mind alone quickly, your meditation’s shot!

The Gatekeeper at Stage Four. In the fourth stage of the meditation, Full Sustained Attention on the Breath, mindfulness is to be told to be aware of the whole breath in every moment andnot to allow other things to intrude on this smooth, continuous awareness of the breath. “I shall be aware of the whole breath, continually and just disregard anything other than the breath in every moment.” “I shall be aware of the whole breath continually and disregard everything else.” ” I shall be aware of the whole breath continually and disregard anything else” If you instruct the mind very carefully and clearly, you’re giving mindfulness a chance. You only have to tell yourself the message three times at the beginning and just see what happens.

If you’ve got a very forgetful type of mindfulness, in other words if you give yourself these instructions and after one or two minutes you find you’re just drifting off to “Goodness knows where”, there are two possible reasons. One, you didn’t instruct yourself carefully or clearly enough as to what you’re supposed to be doing; or two, you really have got very weak mindfulness. If you really have weak mindfulness then every three or four minutes you should repeat the instructions. There’s no need to repeat the instructions every ten or fifteen seconds. Repeating of the instructions as often as that causes a disturbance in meditation, which never gives meditation a chance to work and which eventually just gives rise to restlessness and despair.

You should give yourself the instructions very carefully, and you’ll find you will remember them. So little by little you develop mindfulness. You will notice that this thing we call mindfulness starts off with a huge territory to be aware of: the present moment. There’s a huge amount of things you can be conscious of in the present moment. Then it’s developed and refined down bit by bit. Instead of anything in the present moment, it becomes that which is silent in the present moment, discarding all that belongs to chatter and thought. Then instead of just silence in the present moment, everything is discarded other than the silent awareness of the breath in the present moment, just awareness of the “in-breath,” and the “out-breath”. Then everything is discarded other than the full awareness of the breath, from the very beginning of the in-breath to the end of the in-breath, from the very beginning of the out-breath to the end of the out-breath.

Samadhi — Sustained Awareness on Just One Thing

The difference between Stage Three and Stage Four, awareness of the breath and full awareness of the breath, is that for awareness of the breath you just have to notice part of each in-breath and part of each out-breath . Once you’ve noticed part of the in-breath then the mind can go wandering off somewhere else, but it has to be “home” again in time to catch the next out-breath. Once it’s seen the breath going out, then it can go off again and observe otherthings, until it has to come home again to catch the breath going in again. Awareness still has places where it can go. It’s still got some “width”. It is tied to the breath, but on a long leash. You can, at this third stage, be aware of other things as well as the breath. But for full awareness of the breath you need to completely lock the awareness into the breathing and be aware of nothing else. That’s why that fourth stage is so important in this meditation. It’s where you really grab hold of your meditation object. You have continuous awareness with it. The awareness here is refined onto one small area of existence, just your breath. This is what we’re doing with awareness. We’re restricting it. Instead of allowing it to go all over the place, we’re focusing it in. And it’s with the focusing in of awareness, that awareness starts to become strong. It’s like using a magnifying glass to start a fire. It’s concentrating all the energies onto one thing. This ability to sustain the mindfulness, to sustain the awareness, to sustain the attention, is called Samadhi. A good definition of Samadhi is: “Sustaining your attention on one thing”. No need to call it “concentration”, because concentration misses so much of what is really important in the meaning of Samadhi.

Samadhi is the ability to sustain attention on one thing, and many people can do that in their lives. Take for example a surgeon performing an operation. I’ve talked with surgeons, and they tell me that sometimes they spend hours just on one operation. They’re on their feet all the time, but they say they never feel tired because they have to sustain their attention on the end of their knife, or scalpel. If they don’t, the patient might die. Just one little mistake, one lapse of mindfulness, and their patient can die. They can get sued or lose their jobs for killing their patients. Surgeons performing operations have quite a lot of Samadhi. They sustain their attention on what they’re doing. Standing there they don’t feel any pains or aches in their legs because all their attention is on the end of their knife. Surgeons can get into states of Samadhibecause they have to be right there in every moment. It’s difficult at first, but once they get used to it, it actually becomes very pleasant. There’s only one thing in the world that they’re concerned with — just this part of the operation which is happening now. This example tells us an important message about samadhi. The message is this: if it’s really important, you can do it.

Looking for the Dangers in the Meditation Object.

I like to teach Samadhi by urging the student not only to emphasise the importance of the meditation object at each stage, but as I’ve said before to combine this sense of importance with a wariness of the dangers to the meditation object as well. With each of the stages, always know the danger — the enemy to the goal of that particular stage. Again at Stage One the enemy is the past or the future. At Stage Two it’s inner chattering. At Stage Three observing things other than the breath. Whatever the enemy is, see if you can identify that as the danger to that stage of the meditation.

For example, if the enemy is the thinking mind, then the danger is insinuating thought which creeps up on you and then grabs hold of you like a python. Once the python has its coils around you, then you are lost. Remember that simile of the snake given in Chapter Five and be alert to the danger. As I also mentioned in that chapter, if you’ve lost quite a few points from your driving license in the last few months because of radar traps, you know that radar traps are a big danger to you. It means that when driving you become very mindful of the speed limits. If something is a danger to you, you become very mindful of it. Whatever it is that is taking away your success at meditation, identify it. Identify the main danger for you in each of these stages.

For example suppose you repeat to yourself three times, “I’ll be silently aware of the present moment and not get involved in thinking”. At the end of that you may want to become more precise and say to yourself, “The ‘snake’ I’ve got to be really concerned about is thoughts about food.” Whatever your particular “snake” is, keep a lookout for it. Be wary of it. If you instruct yourself at the beginning what your particular “snake” is and you instruct yourself clearly, intently, then you will find that part of your mindfulness throughout your meditation will always be on the lookout for that which is a danger to your success.

Many of the problems in meditation do not originate at the beginning of the meditation period. They creep into your meditation somewhere in the middle. I like to give the following little technique to new meditators. I tell them: “Just breathe in and breathe out three times and watch every breath. Just three breaths that’s all.” Now most new meditators can do that without any problems whatsoever. They can watch three breaths — breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out — with full awareness. Then I say: “Now just do that for not three breaths but three hundred breaths. Do it for a whole hour.” Of course they can’t do it. Why can we do three breaths but can’t do three hundred breaths? The reason is we can start out without any problems and with full awareness but we cannot sustain that awareness. These “snakes”, these problems, they creep in usually after we’ve begun meditation. When you begin meditation it can be very clear. Yet when the bell goes you may ask, “Wow, where did that hour go?”. You were snoozing, or you were just thinking about so many different things. You can start out watching the breath and you can finish up thinking about your holidays overseas. Somehow, somewhere the “snakes” come in. Or if you’d rather, the “radar trap” has got you. So you need to tell yourself what your main problem is and to “psyche yourself up” to do something about it.

If you’ve been meditating long enough, you know your problems, the things that you’ve really got to look out for. Psyche yourself up, by saying, “Look out for this one”. For example, if giving orders is your big problem, say, “Watch out for that one”. Really watch out for it. Then when you’re meditating, you’ll find that when an order is about to be given you will spot it coming. You sidestep the “snake” before it gets its coils around you. You slam on the brakes before the “speed camera” flashes. You’ve avoided it because you’ve seen it coming. This is where mindfulness starts to really kick in and become very sharp and very powerful. One learns to sidestep the dangers. You’ve given clear instructions, sidestepped the dangers, and the meditation really starts to become deep. Mindfulness then does become the controlling faculty of your meditation. It’s one thing to define what mindfulness is, but here are clear instructions on how to be mindful, how to set it up, how to program yourself so you are fully mindful.

Arousing Energy

Of course another factor needed for mindfulness is energy. In each of these stages you need energy, and the way that energy is aroused is by learning to put everything you have into what you’re doing now. Don’t keep any thing back for the next moment. It’s one of the mistakes which people make — especially with mental energy. They think, “Well if I really push myself hard now, if I put a lot of energy into this moment, I’11 have nothing left for the next moment”. It doesn’t work that way with the mind. You actually arouse energy. You initiate energy. The more energy you put into this moment, the more you have for the next moment, and the more you’ve got for the moment afterwards.

With mental energy you actually build up the force. With physical energy it is the opposite. You’ve only got a certain amount, a certain store of physical energy. So if you use some up now, you haven’t got as much for later on. With mental energy, there is a limitless store, and if you put a lot of energy into what you are doing right now, you’ll find the next moment, the next five minutes, the next hour or whatever, you’re really awake and very alert. You’re sharp because you’ve built up that energy. That’s why Ajahn Chah, my Teacher, used to say that whatever you’re doing put a hundred percent effort into it. If it’s listening to a talk, put one hundred percent effort into listening. If you’re sitting meditation, put one hundred percent effort into sitting. If you’re walking, put one hundred percent effort into walking. If you’re eating your lunch, put one hundred percent effort into eating your lunch. If you’re resting, put one hundred percent effort into resting. Really sleep as perfectly as you can. Whatever you do, put one hundred percent effort into it. Then you find that you build up energy. You’re awake, you’re alive. If, however, you think,” Oh, I don’t really need to put energy into this sit,” then you get dull. You don’t enjoy it so much.

Even put energy into eating your food when eating. See how much you can notice of what you are doing. Then you’ll enjoy it more! What’s the danger to mindfulness when you are eating food? Usually it’s thinking about something else. Then you don’t even know what you are putting into your mouth. No wonder so many people suffer from indigestion! Whatever it is that you are doing, know what you are supposed to be doing. Put full effort into it. Know the dangers and avoid those dangers.

Turning Up the Lights

As one builds up mindfulness and it gets very sharp, one realizes that one has been living in a world which has been very dim, with not many lights. As one gets more and more mindful, it’s like someone turns on the lights in the room, like the sun comes out and the surroundings become illuminated. That’s why being mindful becomes a very joyful experience. It’s very pleasant to be mindful because you see so much more of what’s around you. It’s like “spotlighting” reality. Reality really starts to open out to you. You not only see the colours; you see the shapes and the textures. You see everything there. It appears very beautiful and wonderful. That’s why when mindfulness really starts to get strong it generates a lot of happiness and bliss.

People who aren’t very mindful, who are dull, who cultivate dullness, who sleep a lot, develop depression. They live in a grey world. I went to England some years ago. Every time I go there, it’s in November, December, or January, and it’s so miserable then because it’s just so grey there. The sun is far in the south because it is wintertime. Only about nine or ten in the morning does it start to get light. By three or four in the afternoon it’s dusk again. Everything starts to get very dull, and often the clouds are all grey, and you’re in this drizzle, and all the buildings look grey. The street is grey. You look up at the sky, it’s grey. It’s grey from the top to the bottom. You look at the people there. What do they wear? They wear grey suits and overcoats. You look at the expressions on their faces, they’re grey too. You know what tea they drink? Earl Grey! Ha! Ha! It’s all grey. It’s very grey and miserable and depressing. That’s what a person with very little mindfulness is like. It’s like living in a sort of London in a perpetual winter. It’s just grey and miserable in the mind. There’s no sort of light. There’s no energy there. One doesn’t see very much.

Again when one has a lot of mindfulness it’s like going out into a garden in the brilliant sunshine. It’s energising, it’s beautiful. There’s a lot of energy and happiness there. If one can develop that mindfulness, that brightness of the mind, and then focus it on a small part of the world, then one sees deeply into the nature of that. The experience of bright and focused awareness is wonderful and amazing! You see much more beauty than you ever imagined.

So this is a useful simile for mindfulness: turning up the lights of the mind. One becomes more deeply aware because one actually starts to sustain mindfulness on one thing instead of letting mindfulness go all over the place. When that happens, mindfulness illuminates that object and builds up its own energy. One really starts to “see” into something very deeply and wonderfully!

Building Up the “Muscles of Insight”

This practice builds up the “muscles of insight”. Just take any object. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little fly walking on your robe or whether it’s a leaf on the bushes outside or whatever. Just stand there, or sit there, and watch that one leaf. Let mindfulness illuminate it until awareness gets so strong on that one little leaf that you see so much of what’s going on, on that little leaf. It’s not just a green leaf, it’s a whole world in there! Then you’ll understand the power of mindfulness. When you can sustain mindfulness on one thing, you will know how it illuminates and releases a lot of the beauty in that object. It becomes fascinating just how much you can see! How much interest, how much wonder, how much awe there is in just a tiny leaf! That’s where you start to play with mindfulness. You start to play with this power of mindfulness that is blissful and can see so deeply into things. But when you’re looking at a leaf, if you start wondering about what you’re going to have for dinner; then you can’t see very clearly into it. Or if you start looking into a leaf and you start getting dull, sinking into sloth and torpor, or if you’re wondering — “Are people looking at me? Do they think I’m somehow strange?” — then all those distracting thoughts will obviously break the spell and break the sustained attention. However, if you can sustain your attention on one thing, which is what you’re learning with this practice of mindfulness and meditation, then it’s amazing what you will see in the world. The world will start to open up and become very beautiful and very fascinating and very wonderful. And that’s just the world outside!

If one develops the ability to sustain mindfulness, to sustain attention on one thing for long periods of time, then one generates the ability to bore into something with insight and to see deeply into its nature. If you’re one of those persons who wants to discover some of the deep truths of existence, if you don’t want to just take it on faith from the books or from the teachers, if you want to find out for yourself, then this is how you find out. This is how to get enlightenment experiences. You develop this powerful mindfulness and point it at some interesting and rich sources of wisdom — especially at the mind. If you can sustain attention on your mind, “bore into it” as it were, then you will find a whole treasure chest of priceless jewels of deep insight.

So to summarise so far, this is the way of mindfulness: what it actually is, how to develop it and, in particular, how to set up mindfulness at every stage of your meditation. Give yourself clear instructions, know what you’re supposed to be doing. When you give yourself clear instructions and just sit back and watch the mind do its job, keeping you at your work, it becomes fascinating. That’s all you need to do.

Letting Go of the “Doer”

At times I’ve described this type of quiet meditation as letting go of the “doer” and sometimes that’s been quite confusing to some people. What do you mean “letting go of the doer”? This is what I mean. We do a little bit of doing at the right time, and then we let go and allow the doing to happen. Little by little we can let go of the “doer”. We can let go of all that chatter, all that ordering (which is ninety percent of the thinking mind), of always giving ourselves instructions, telling ourselves what to do, getting on our backs when we fail. Thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking! That’s one of the biggest problems for meditators, and this is how to overcome it. There’s time to think at the very beginning of each stage by giving ourselves clear instructions. Then we can let go because we see the mind doing all the work. We understand, we realise, we don’t need to say anything any more. We can be quiet.

The Different Levels of Mindfulness Revisited

As our meditation develops not only does the area which mindfulness covers get less and less and less, but mindfulness increases and gets sharper and sharper. One of the marvelous things about meditation is that, as we sharpen the mindfulness we find it has different levels. This is the final thing I want to discuss here about mindfulness, the different levels of mindfulness.

We actually find out that mindfulness of daily life is just so dull and useless for wisdom. It has got very little sharpness or depth at all. When we start developing meditation, we get sharper and more agile. By sharper and agile I mean we can sustain attention on very fine areas of existence, and the attention is very bright as well. However, as we develop the meditation deeper and deeper, we find we have to develop mindfulness to become ever more subtle, agile and sharp. As the meditator develops these different levels it happens so often that they lose the focus of awareness. For example if the breath is one’s object, one loses the breath, and often people ask why. What has happened here? What has happened is that the breath has become soft and subtle, but the mindfulness is still too coarse. It hasn’t been able to keep up with the development of the breath. If that’s happened, one should go back to the stage before. This can happen at any time, but especially when one has full-sustained attention on the breath at stage four.

Sometimes the breath disappears and a Nimitta can come up, but you can’t sustain thatNimitta. This is because the quality of mindfulness necessary to sustain a Nimitta has to be very refined, and you haven’t built up that level of refined mindfulness yet. So you have to go back to the stage before the Nimitta comes up. Go back to full awareness of the beautiful breath, which is a coarser object than the Nimitta, and let the mindfulness develop further on that. But if your mindfulness is fully developed at the fifth stage, when the Nimitta comes up, mindfulness can handle the more refined object. You will find as this mindfulness becomes more and more sharp and agile, it can sustain attention even on the most subtle objects. But first you have to learn how to sustain attention on the coarser objects. At each of these successive stages the mindfulness has a higher quality to it, far more agile and sharp than at the previous stage. To return to the simile of the mindfulness of the surgeon, the mindfulness required to hold a Nimitta is like the skill required of a surgeon operating on the brain, while the mindfulness required to hold the breath is like the skill required for peeling potatoes. You need quite a different refinement at the subtle level. If you move straight from peeling potatoes onto being a brain surgeon, you’re going to make a lot of mess. The same as if you move too quickly from the breath onto the Samadhi Nimitta. You’re going to lose it. You’re not going to be able to keep it there.

With development, you can experience immovable mindfulness. The mindfulness that is on one thing entirely — very clear, very sharp. It doesn’t move at all. The Buddha said this reaches its peak in the fourth Jhana. That’s the peak of mindfulness, where one has complete equanimity. You’re just fully aware of one thing, fully aware, unmoving. That’s as powerful as mindfulness can get. Once you know that type of mindfulness, then you know how ridiculous it is to think you can become Enlightened without Jhanas. Without such powerful mindfulness you can’t get the powerful insights. So you begin to realise for yourself what mindfulness can be, and the sort of mindfulness you need to become Enlightened. The powerful states of mindfulness, not the coarse ones, are the ones that will dig deeply into the nature of things.

So you can see that there are many different levels of mindfulness, and mindfulness isn’t just one little thing which is there in daily life and which is the same in deep meditation. Know that mindfulness has many different degrees of power, subtlety and penetration. There are many types of knives — blunt ones and sharp ones, some for peeling potatoes and some for operating on brains. That’s just like mindfulness.

This has been an exposition of what mindfulness means in Buddhism, in Buddhist meditation. Know how to develop it and how to make it very sharp and very agile and how eventually to generate that mindfulness which you can use to dig deep into the nature of your mind and uncover the beautiful treasures of “impermanence”, “unsatisfactoriness” and “non-self” (Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta). It’s amazing. You can say words like “the great treasures” of Buddhism and people think: “They can’t be treasures. How can ‘suffering’ be a treasure? How can ‘impermanence’ be a treasure? How can ‘non-self’ be a treasure? We want something really marvelous and uplifting like ‘beauty’, ‘transcendence’, ‘cosmic consciousness’, or ‘The essence of all being’.” This is why people don’t find the treasures, they don’t know what they’re looking for./.

Ajahn Brahmavamso
(“Dhamma Journal”, Buddhist Society of Western Australia, July 2001)


Meditation is The Heart of Buddhism


I want to talk in depth today about the nature of Buddhism. Very often I read in newspapers and books some strange things that are presented as Buddhism. So here, I will point out the heart of the real Buddhist teaching, not as a theory but as an experience.

What is Not The Heart of Buddhism.

Psychotherapy. I know that some people still think Buddhism is some form of psychotherapy, some way of applying wise attitudes or skilful means in order to live more at peace in this world. Indeed, in the rich storehouse of Buddhist teachings there are many things which do help people to live life with less problems. Using wise attitudes and compassionate intentions, Buddhism teaches an effective way of dealing with the problems of the world. When these Buddhist methods actually work, they give people faith and confidence that there really is something in this Buddhist path which is valuable to them.

I often reflect on why people come here to the Buddhist Society on a Friday evening. It’s because they get something out of this. What they get out of these teachings is a more peaceful life style, a happier feeling toward themselves and more acceptance of other beings. It is in that sense a therapy for the problems of life, and it does actually work.However that’s not what Buddhism really is, that’s only one of its side affects.

Philosophy. Some people come across Buddhism and they find it’s a marvellous philosophy. They can sit around the coffee table after I’ve given a talk and they can talk for hours and still not be close to enlightenment. Very often people can discuss very high-minded things; their brains can talk about and think about such sublime subjects. Then they go out and swear at the first car that pulls out in front of them on the way home. They lose it all straight away.

Ritual. Or instead of looking at Buddhism as a philosophy, many people look at it as a religion. The rituals of Buddhism are meaningful, and they shouldn’t be discarded just because one thinks one is above ritual. I know people are sometimes very proud, arrogant even, and think they don’t need any rituals. But the truth of the matter is that rituals do have a psychological potency. For example, it is useful in society when two people are going to live together that they go through some sort of marriage ceremony. Because in that ceremony there is something that happens to the mind, something that happens to the heart. There is a commitment made deep inside which echoes with the knowledge that something important has happened. In the ceremonies and rituals of death, all of those rites of chanting, reflection and kind words actually have a meaning for the people involved. It does help them to come to accept with grace the passing of a loved one. It helps them acknowledge the truth of what’s happened, that a final separation from that person has occurred. And in that acceptance they come to peace.

In the same way, at our monastery, in order to forgive another person and to let go of past hurt, a ceremony of forgiveness is often used. In the Catholic Church they have the ceremony of confession. The precise details of a forgiveness ceremony don’t really matter, but what is important is that forgiveness is given, by some physical means through some ritual or ceremony. If you just say, “Oh I’m sorry”, isn’t that a lot different from also giving a present, or a bunch of flowers? Or isn’t it different from going up to them and saying “look, what I did the other day was really unforgivable, but come out to dinner with me this evening”, or “here have a couple of tickets to the theatre”? It is much deeper and more effective when you weave a beautiful ceremony around forgiveness rather than just muttering a few words.

Even the ritual of bowing to a Buddha has a great meaning. It’s an act of humility. It’s saying I’m not enlightened and yet there is something that is beyond me which I am aspiring towards. It’s the same humility that a person has when they go to school, or university and they acknowledge that the lecturers and the professors know more than they do. If you argue with professors when you go to university, are you going to learn anything? Humility is not subservience, which denies the worth of yourself, But humility is that which respects the different qualities in people. Sometimes the act of bowing, if it’s done mindfully, is a ceremony, a ritual that can generate a great sense of joy. As a monk many people bow to me, and I bow to many others. There is always someone that you have to bow to no matter how senior you are. At the very least there is always the Buddha to bow down to. I enjoy bowing. When there is a monk who is senior to me, bowing is a beautiful way of overcoming ego and judging, especially when I must bow to a really rotten monk (the good monks are easy to bow to). This is a ritual which if done in the right way can produce so many benefits. At the very least, as I tell people at the monastery, if you do a lot of bowing it strengthens your stomach muscles and you don’t look fat! But it’s more than that.

So these Buddhist rituals are useful, but Buddhism is much more than that.

Meditation and Enlightenment.

When you ask what Buddhism really is, it’s a hard question to answer in a few words. You have to come back to this process of meditation because there is the crux, the fulcrum of Buddhism, the heart of Buddhism. As everybody who has ever come across the Buddhist teachings would know, the Buddha was a man who became enlightened while meditating under a tree. A few minutes ago you were doing the same meditation for half an hour! Why where you not enlightened? That enlightenment of the Buddha was actually what created this religion of Buddhism. It is its meaning, it is its centre. Buddhism is all about enlightenment; not just about living a healthy life, or a happy life, or learning to be wise and saying smart things to your friends around the coffee table. Again Buddhism is all about this enlightenment.

First of all you have to get some feeling or indication of what enlightenment actually is. Sometimes people come up to me and say “I’m enlightened”, and I sometimes get letters from people saying “thank you for your teachings, please know that I am enlightened now”. And sometimes I hear other people say of teachers or gurus “Oh Yeah, they are certainly enlightened” without really knowing what that means. The word enlightenment stands for some opening of wisdom, some understanding which stops all suffering. The person who hasn’t abandoned all suffering is never enlightened. The fact that a person still suffers means that they are yet to abandon all their attachments. The person who is still worried about their possessions, who still cries at the death of a loved one, who is still angry, and who is still enjoying the pleasures of the senses like sex, they are not enlightened. Enlightenment is something beyond and free from all that.

Sometimes when a monk talks like this he can very easily put people off. Monks seem like “wowsers” [1], as they say in Australia. They don’t go to the movies, don’t have any sex, don’t have any relationships, don’t go on holidays, don’t have any pleasures. What a bunch of wowsers! But the interesting thing which many people notice, is that some of the most peaceful and happy people you meet are the monks and nuns who come and sit here on a Friday evening and give the talks. Monks are quite different from wowsers, and the reason is that there is another happiness which the monks know and which the Buddha has pointed out to them. Each one of you can sense that same happiness when your meditation starts to take off.

Letting Go.

The Buddha taught that it is attachment that causes suffering and letting go is the cause for happiness and the way to enlightenment. Letting go! So often people have asked how do you let go? What they really mean is, why do you let go? It’s a difficult question to answer and it will never be answered in words. Instead I answer that question by saying “Now is the time to meditate, cross your legs, be in the present moment,” because this is teaching people what letting go is all about. Moreover, the final moments of the meditation are the most important. Please always remember this. In the last few minutes ask yourself, “How do I feel?” “What is this like and why?” “How did this come about?”

People meditate because it’s fun, it’s enjoyable. They don’t meditate to “get something out of it,” even though when you meditate there are a lot of good benefits to be had such as health benefits or reducing stress in your life. Through meditation you become less intolerant, less angry. But there is something more to it than that – it’s just the sheer fun of it! When I was a young monk that’s what made me become a Buddhist. It was inspiring to read the books but that was not good enough. It was when I meditated and became peaceful, very peaceful, incredibly peaceful, that something told me that this was the most profound experience of my life. I wanted to experience this again. I wanted to investigate it more. Why? Because one deep experience of meditation is worth a thousand talks, or arguments, or books, or theories. The things you read in books are other people’s experiences, they are not your own. They’re words and they might inspire, but the actual experience itself is truly moving. It’s truly earth shattering because it shatters that which you’ve rested on for such a long time. By inclining along this path of meditation you’re actually learning what letting go really is.

Acknowledge, Forgive and Let Go (AFL).

For those of you who have difficulty meditating, it’s because you haven’t learned to let go yet in the meditation. Why can’t we let go of simple things like past and future? Why are we so concerned with what someone else did to us or said to us today? The more you think about it, the more stupid it is. You know the old saying, “When someone calls you an idiot, the more times you remember it, the more times they’ve called you an idiot!” If you let it go immediately, you will never think about it again. They only called you an idiot at most once. It’s gone! It’s finished. You’re free.

Why is it that we imprison ourselves with our past? Why can’t we even let that go? Do you really want to be free? Then acknowledge, forgive and let go, what I call in Australia the “AFL Code” [2] – Acknowledge, forgive, and let go of whatever has hurt you, whether it’s something that somebody has done or said, or whether it’s what life has done. For instance, someone has died in your family and you argue with yourself that they shouldn’t have died. Or you’ve lost your job and you think without stop that that shouldn’t have happened. Or simply something has gone wrong and you are obsessed that it’s not fair. You can crucify yourself on a cross of your own making for the rest of your life if you want to; but no one is forcing you to. Instead you can acknowledge forgive and learn in the forgiving. The letting go is in the learning. The letting go gives the future a freedom to flow easily, unchained to the past.

I was talking to some people recently about the Cambodian community here in Perth and, being a Buddhist community, I have had much to do with them. Like any traditional Buddhists, when they have a problem they come and speak to the monks. This is what they have done for centuries. The monastery and the monks are the social centre, the religious centre, and the counselling centre of the community. When men have arguments with their wives they come to the monastery.

Once when I was a young monk in Thailand, a man came into the monastery and asked me “Can I stay in the monastery for a few days?”. I thought he wanted to meditate, so I said “Oh you want to meditate?” “Oh no”, he said “the reason I want to come to the monastery is because I’ve had an argument with my wife.” So he stayed in the monastery. Three or four days later he came up to me and said, “I feel better now, can I go home”. What a wise thing that was. Instead of going to the bar and getting drunk, instead of going to his mates and telling them all the rotten things that he thought his wife had done thereby reinforcing his ill will and resentment, he went to stay with a group of monks who didn’t say anything about his wife, who were just kind and peaceful. He thought about what he had been doing in that peaceful, supportive environment, and after a while he felt much better. This is what a monastery sometimes is: it’s the counselling centre, the refuge, the place where people come to let go of their problems. Isn’t that better than lingering on the past, especially when we are angry at something that has happened? When we reinforce the resentment, are we really seeing what’s going on? Or are we seeing through the perverted glasses of our anger, looking at the faults in the other person, focussing only on the terrible things they have done to us, never really seeing the full picture?

One of the things I noticed about the Cambodian community was that these were all people who had suffered through the Pol Pot years. I know of a Cambodian man whose wife had been shot by the Khmer Rouge in front of him, for stealing a mango. She was hungry so she took a mango from a tree. One of the Khmer Rouge cadres saw her and, without any trial, he pulled out his gun in front of her husband and shot her dead. When this man was telling me this, I was looking at his face, looking at his bodily movements, and it was amazing to see that there was no anger, there was no resentment, there was not even grief there. There was a peaceful acceptance about what had happened. It shouldn’t have happened but it did.

Letting go of the past is so we can enjoy the present, so the future can be free. Why is it that we always carry around the past? Attachment to the past is not a theory, it is an attitude. We can say, “Oh I’m not attached”. Or we can say, “I’m so detached I’m not even attached to detachment,” which is very clever, and sounds very good, but is a lot of old rubbish. You know if you’re attached if you can’t let go of those important things that cause you to suffer, that stop you being free. Attachment is a ball and chain, which you tie around your own legs. No one else ties it around you. You’ve got the key to free yourselves, but you don’t use it. Why do we limit ourselves so and why can’t we let go of the future, all the concerns and the worries? Do you worry about what’s going to happen next, tomorrow, next week, next year? Why do you do that? How many times have you worried about some exam or some test, or a visit to the Doctors, or a visit to the Dentist? You can worry yourself sick and when you get ready to go to the dentist you find they have cancelled your appointment, and you didn’t have to go anyway!

Things never work out as you expect them to. Haven’t we learnt yet that the future is so uncertain that it doesn’t bear worrying about? We never know what’s going to happen next. When we let go of the past and the future, isn’t that being on the path to deep meditation? Aren’t we actually learning about how to be at peace, how to be free, how to be content.

These are indications of what enlightenment means. It means seeing that many of our attachments are based on sheer stupidity. We just don’t need this. As we develop this meditation deeper, we let go more and more. The more we let go the more happiness and peace it gives us. This is why the Buddha called this whole path of Buddhism a gradual training. It’s the path that leads one on, one step at a time, and at every step you get a prize. That’s why it’s a very delightful path and the prizes get more delightful and more valuable the further you go. But even on the first step you get a prize.

I still remember the first time I meditated. I remember the room. It was at Cambridge University, in the Wordsworth Room at Kings College. I’d never done any meditation before, so I just sat down there for five or ten minutes with a few of my mates. It was only ten minutes but I thought “Oh that was nice”, I still remember that feeling. There was something that was resonating inside of me, telling me that this was a path which was leading somewhere wonderful. I’d discussed over coffee and over beer with my friends all types of philosophy, but the “discussions” had always ended in arguments and they never made me happier. Even the great professors at the university, who you get to know very well, didn’t seem happy. That was one of the reasons why I didn’t continue an academic career. They were brilliant in their field but in other ways they were as stupid as ordinary people. They would have arguments, worry and stress just like everyone else. And that really struck me. Why in such a famous university, where people are so intelligent, are they not happy? What’s the point of being clever if it doesn’t give you happiness? I mean real happiness, real contentment, and real peace.

Real contentment and peace.

The first person I saw who had real contentment and peace was Ajahn Chah, my teacher in Thailand. There was something about that man! I saw what he had and I said to myself, “I want that, I want that understanding, that peace”. People from all over the world would come to see him. Just because he was a monk didn’t mean that everyone was subservient, obsequious and always praising him. Some people would go and argue with him and try to catch him out or even shout at him. I remember a story about the first time he went to England with Ajahn Sumedho. He went on alms round in Hampstead and as he was walking on alms round, this was over twenty years ago, this young hooligan came up to this funnily dressed Asian and threw a punch at him just missing his nose. Ajahn Chah did not know this person was trying to miss. Then he tried to kick him and just missed. He was just trying to wind up this little Asian monk in funny clothes. Ajahn Chah didn’t know when he was going to be hit. He never did get hit, because he kept peaceful, kept cool and never got angry. Afterwards, he said England was a very good place and that he wanted to send all his senior monks over there to really test them out. As for Ajahn Chah, he had equanimity in practice.

It’s easy saying “I’m enlightened”, but then something happens like that and you run a mile. Another monk in Hampstead at the time was just going for a walk in the afternoon when he passed a pub. He didn’t realise at the time that there was a big soccer match between England and Scotland on that day. It had already finished and the Scots supporters where in the pub getting drunk. Around this period, there was a popular TV series about a Kung Fu monk who, when he was small, was called “grasshopper.” These sozzled Scots soccer fans looked through the window of the pub and said “Och it’s wee grasshopper,” and this monk took fright. These where big Scotsmen and they were very drunk. So he started running away, and they chased him all the way back to the Temple. “Wee grasshopper” was running for his life. He lost it. But the sort of practical letting go that Ajahn Chah did in Hampstead is something which gives you a sense that you are on the road to enlightenment.

A Gradual Path.

The Heart of Buddhism is a gradual path, one step after another step, and you do get results. Some people say you shouldn’t meditate to get results. That’s a lot of hogwash! Meditate to get results! Meditate to be happy. Meditate to get peace. Meditate to get enlightened, little by little. But if you’re going for results, be patient. One of the problems with Westerners is that when they make goals, they are not patient enough. That’s why they get disillusioned, depressed and frustrated. They don’t give their practice enough time to mature naturally into enlightenment. It takes time, maybe a few life times even, so don’t be in a rush. As you walk each step, there is always something you get out of it. Let go a little and you get freedom and peace. Let go a lot and you feel bliss. This is how I teach meditation both at my monastery and here. I encourage meditators to aim for these stages of letting go, these bliss states called Jhana.


Everyone wants to be happy, and the Jhanas are how you can achieve happiness, I mean real happiness, deep happiness. The only trouble is these states don’t last very long, only a few hours, but still they are very attractive. They arise through letting go, real letting go. In particular they arise through letting go of will, choice, control. It’s a fascinating thing to experience a deep meditation and understand how it comes about. Through such an experience you realise that the more you control, the more you crave because of attachments, the less peaceful you get. But the more you let go, the more you abandon, the more you get out of the way, the happier you feel. Now this is a teaching of something very profound, much deeper than you can read in a book or hear in a talk and certainly much more useful than discussing these things over a coffee table. You’re actually experiencing something. This is getting towards the heart of religion, that which people call mysticism. You’re actually experiencing it for your self. In particular you are letting go of this “controller,” this “doer.” Now that is the prime problem for human beings. We can’t stop messing things up. Very often we should just leave things alone but we can’t, we don’t. Instead we make a mess. Why can’t you just relax and enjoy yourself instead of always doing something?

It’s hard to stop in meditation, but the more you stop the more rewards you get, the more peace you get. When you let go in meditation, let go the will, let go of the control, when you stop talking to yourself, you get inner silence. How many of you are fed up yet with this racket that goes on inside your head all the time? How many of you sometimes can’t get to sleep at night when there’s no noise from the neighbours but there is something even louder between your ears. Yak, Yak, Yak, Worry, Worry, Worry, Think, Think, Think! This is the problem with human beings, when it’s time to think they can’t think clearly and when it’s time to stop thinking they can’t be at peace. When we learn how to meditate we get this sense of being more balanced, and we know how to let go. We now how to let go to the point where all thoughts disappear. These thoughts are just commentaries, they’re just descriptions. The difference between thought and reality is the difference between, say, reading a book about New York and going to New York. Which is more real? When you’re there, you smell the air, you feel the atmosphere, you sense the character, all of which are things you can’t write in a book. The truth is always silent. The lie is always with words.

When the Body Disappears.

Remember “con men,” “con women” as well. These con men can sell you anything! There’s one living in your mind right now, and you believe every word he says! His name is Thinking. When you let go of that inner talk and get silent, you get happy. Then when you let go of the movement of the mind and stay with the breath, you experience even more delight. Then when you let go of the body ,all these five senses disappear and you’re really blissing out. This is original Buddhism. Sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch completely vanish. This is like being in a sensory deprivation chamber but much better. But it’s not just silence, you just don’t hear anything. It’s not just blackness, you just don’t see anything. It’s not just a feeling of comfort in the body, there is no body at all.

When the body disappears that really starts to feel great. You know of all those people who have out of the body experiences? When the body dies, every person has that experience, they float out of the body. And one of the things they always say is it’s so peaceful, so beautiful, so blissful. It’s the same in meditation when the body disappears, it’s so peaceful, so beautiful, so blissful when you are free from this body. What’s left? Here there’s no sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. This is what the Buddha called the mind in deep meditation. When the body disappears what is left is the mind.

I gave a simile to a monk the other night. Imagine an Emperor who is wearing a long pair of trousers and a big tunic. He’s got shoes on his feet, a scarf around the bottom half of his head and a hat on the top half of his head. You can’t see him at all because he’s completely covered in five garments. It’s the same with the mind. It’s completely covered with sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. So people don’t know it. They just know the garments. When they see the Emperor, they just see the robes and the garments. They don’t know who lives inside them. And so it is no wonder they’re confused about what is life, what is mind, who is this inside of here, were did I come from? Why? What am I supposed to be doing with this life? When the five senses disappear, it’s like unclothing the Emperor and seeing what is actually in here, what’s actually running the show, who’s listening to these words, who’s seeing, who’s feeling life, who this is. When the five senses disappear, you’re coming close to the answer to those questions.

What you’re seeing in such deep meditation is that which we call “mind,” (in Pali it’s calledCitta). The Buddha used this beautiful simile. When there is a full moon on a cloudy night, even though it’s a full moon, you can hardly see it. Sometimes when the clouds are thin, you can see this hazy shape shining though. You know there is something there. This is like the meditation just before you’ve entered into these profound states. You know there is something there, but you can’t quite make it out. There’s still some “clothes” left. You’re still thinking and doing, feeling the body or hearing sounds. But there does come a time, and this is the Buddha’s simile, when the moon is released from the clouds and there in the clear night sky you can see the beautiful full disc of the moon shining brilliantly, and you know that’s the moon. The moon is there; the moon is real, and it’s not just some sort of side effect of the clouds. This is what happens in meditation when you see the mind. You see clearly that the mind is not some side effect of the brain. You see the mind, and you know the mind. The Buddha said that the mind released is beautiful, is brilliant, is radiant. So not only are these blissful experiences, they’re meaningful experiences as well.

How many people may have heard about rebirth but still don’t really believe it? How can rebirth happen? Certainly the body doesn’t get reborn. That’s why when people ask me where do you go when you die, “one of two places” I say “Fremantle or Karrakatta” that’s where the body goes! [3] But is that where the mind goes? Sometimes people are so stupid in this world, they think the body is all there is, that there is no mind. So when you get cremated or buried that’s it, that’s done with, all has ended. The only way you can argue with this view is by developing the meditation that the Buddha achieved under the Bodhi tree. Then you can see the mind for yourself in clear awareness – not in some hypnotic trance, not in dullness – but in the clear awareness. This is knowing the mind

Knowing the Mind.

When you know that mind, when you see it for yourself, one of the results will be an insight that the mind is independent of this body. Independence means that when this body breaks up and dies, when it’s cremated or when it’s buried, or however it’s destroyed after death, it will not affect the mind. You know this because you see the nature of the mind. That mind which you see will transcend bodily death. The first thing which you will see for yourself, the insight which is as clear as the nose on your face, is that there is something more to life than this physical body that we take to be me. Secondly you can recognise that that mind, essentially, is no different than that process of consciousness which is in all beings. Whether it’s human beings or animals or even insects, of any gender, age or race, you see that that which is in common to all life is this mind, this consciousness, the source of doing.

Once you see that, you have much more respect for your fellow beings. Not just respect for your own race, your own tribe or your own religion, not just for human beings, but for all beings. It’s a wonderfully high-minded idea. “May all beings be happy and well and may we respect all nations, all peoples, even all beings.” However this is how you achieve that! You truly get compassion only when we see that others are fundamentally just as ourselves. If you think that a cow is completely different from you, that cows don’t think like human beings, then it’s easy to eat one. But can you eat your grandmother? She’s too much like you. Can you eat an ant? Maybe you’d kill an ant because you think that ants aren’t like you. But if you look carefully at ants, they are no different. In a forest monastery living out in the bush, close to nature, one of the things you become so convinced of is that animals have emotions and , especially, feel pain. You begin to recognise the personality of the animals, of the kookaburras, of the mice, the ants, and the spiders. Each one of those spiders has a mind just like you have. Once you see that you can understand the Buddha’s compassion for all beings. You can also understand how rebirth can occur between all species – not just human beings to human beings, but animals to humans, humans to animals. You can understand also how the mind is the source of all this.

The mind can exist even without a body in the realms of ghosts and angels (what we call in Buddhism Devas). It becomes very clear to you how they exist, why they exist, what they are. These are insights and understandings which come from deep meditation. But more than that, when you know the nature of the mind then you know the nature of consciousness. You know the nature of stillness. You know the nature of life. You understand what makes this mind go round and round and round, what makes this mind seek rebirth. You understand the law of Kamma.

The Three Knowledges.

The First Knowledge. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, according to tradition he gained three knowledge’s. The first knowledge was the memory of past lives. When you get close to the mind, there are certain powers that come with that experience. The powers are no more than an ability, a dexterity with the use of the mind. It’s like the difference between a dog that has been running wild and a dog that has been well trained. You can tell the trained dog to go and pick up the newspaper. It wags its tail and goes and picks up the newspaper for you. Some people have got their dogs so well trained that they can actually pick up the telephone. Maybe they could answer the telephone as well, then that would really save you a lot of time!

When you get to these deep states of meditation often, the mind becomes well trained. One of the things which the Buddha did (and which you can do when you get into deep meditation) is tell the mind to go back to the past. What’s your earliest memory? Go back further and further and further. Monks who do this get early memories of their childhood. They even get memories of the moment they were born. Sometimes people say that when you’re born, you have no consciousness because the neuron’s aren’t developed yet, or something like that. But when you re-experience your birth, you know that that is just not true. When the memory of your own birth appears, it is just like you are there and you experience all feelings of that birth. Then you can ask yourself for an even earlier memory, and then you get back into your past lives. That’s what the Buddha did under the Bodhi tree. Through meditation you know rebirth, you know your own past lives. This is just what happens with the mind and you know how it happens. That was the first knowledge that the Buddha had.

The Second Knowledge. The second knowledge was to know how you are reborn. Why you are reborn. Where you are reborn. This is the Law of Kamma. Someone was showing me a book today which, unfortunately, we had for free distribution but which I hadn’t seen before. It had some really weird ideas in it about the Law of Kamma. I think what it said was that if you read one of the Suttas while you are lying on the ground, you will be reborn with a bad back, or something like that. Just stupid ideas! Kamma is much more complex than that and it depends mostly upon the quality of your intention. The movement of the mind itself is what determines the Kamma, not just the act, but why and where it came from. You can see this in meditation, but also you can see just how that mind gets fully liberated.

The Third Knowledge. The third knowledge was the ending of suffering. With understanding of The Four Noble Truths, you realise the Way and what enlightenment really means. It means freedom! The mind is liberated, especially liberated from the body, liberated not just from the suffering of the body but liberated from the happiness of the body as well. That means that there is no more inclination for sexuality, no fear of pain, no grief over the destruction of the body, no ill will and no fear of criticism. Why do people get worried about bad words that are said? Only because of ego. They take something to be themselves. Just imagine for a moment being free from all of those things. What would that be like, no fear, no craving, no need to move from this moment – In other words nothing missing, and nothing left to do, nowhere to go because you’re completely happy right here no matter what happens! This is what we mean by enlightenment. This meditation is the source of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the source of every person’s enlightenment.

There is no enlightenment without that meditation. This is why Buddhism is far more than a psychotherapy. It’s far more than a philosophy. It’s far more than a religion. It goes deep into the nature of being, and it is accessible to all people. You know how to meditate. Teachers are giving all the instructions free without any charge. Do you want to do it? Usually the answer is, “Maybe tomorrow but not today.” Never the less because the seeds have been placed in the mind, because the meditation has begun already, there is an interest. Already there is a sense of this enlightenment, a fascination for peace, and you will not be able to resist that path. You may be able to put it off for a while, maybe for lifetimes, but it’s a strange thing that, as someone said to me many years ago, “When you hear these teachings you can’t discard them.” You just can’t forget them. They aren’t telling you what to believe. They aren’t giving you a theory which is merely rational. But they are pointing you to something which you can understand and experience for yourself, and you get intuitions of this the deeper you go.

The Buddha was a very remarkable person, his peacefulness, compassion and wisdom, were legendary. There is something about enlightenment that is very attractive. In the same way there is something about freedom that you cannot ignore. That is why little by little, you will understand what Buddhism is all about. You won’t understand Buddhism from the books nor will you understand Buddhism from what I say. You’ll only understand Buddhism in your own experiences of peaceful meditation. That’s where Buddhism is taught. So have fun with your meditation and don’t be afraid of enlightenment. Get in there, enjoy it, and you will have no regrets.

That’s what Buddhism is. That’s its heart – meditation and enlightenment. That’s its meaning. I hope you can understand some of this. I can say no more because the time has gone. I’ll complete my talk now.


[1].Wowser: n. extreme puritan, kill-joy, teetotaller, spoil-sport.”The Australian Oxford Dictionary” (New Budget Edition). Herron Publications: West End, Qld. 1998

[2].The AFL code is also the acronym for the most popular form of football, ‘Aussie Rules’, in Australia.

[3].Fremantle and Karrakatta are the two main cemeteries/crematoriums serving the whole of Perth

Deep Insight


Deep Insight

Ajahn Brahmavamso

This article is a transcription of one of the talks given by Ajahn Brahmavamso during a 9-day meditation retreat in North Perth, April 1999.

This morning’s talk is the last of the major talks of this retreat and so it’s nice to talk about those things which really count. In other words, it’s about the practice of deep insight to find out the way of the mind, the way of the world, and also to be able to have such insight which can really change one’s way of looking at things and thereby change one’s life. So this is that deep insight we’re looking at, which is life-changing. And that’s the sort of deep insight which the Buddha was recommending and which forms the heart of this path.

When I talked in the last few days about the Eightfold Path, in some parts of the suttas there’s a Ten-fold Path. They add an extra two factors on the end. Did you know that? This is the hidden two factors of the eightfold path. We only give these secret teachings at the end of a retreat! They’re not really secret at all. The ninth factor is right wisdom, right understanding, samma-nyana, an understanding which is not just view, but which is a real deep seeing. The tenth factor is the perfect release – freedom, samma-vimutti. But it’s nice to add those two factors onto the end of the eightfold path. It’s as if the eightfold path is what you’re doing and the ninth and tenth factors are what happens as a result. By practicing the Eightfold Path you get that insight wisdom, samma-nyana, the clear seeing into reality. Seeing things as they truly are and not as they appear to be, or as we want them to be, but as they truly are. A result of that is the tenth factor – perfect freedom.

Those are two factors which need to be stressed in this eightfold path, or tenfold path, because they show that this eightfold path is what you do to get somewhere. And to get it through insight, through wisdom. But when people use that word “insight” they should really stress the word “in” – actually to see within, to see deep within, to see the source of things. Because so much of what people take to be “insight” is really “ex-sight”, and that’s why it excites you! It’s seeing outside somewhere. And that’s why it sort of stimulates the mind instead of settling it. If it really is true insight it makes you very peaceful and calm. So there’s a difference there and again, the main reason why people don’t get those deep insights is because their mind is not calm enough, not powerful enough to see deeply within themselves. And that’s why traditionally, in Buddhism, to gain that sort of insight we say the Five Hindrances [1] have to be overcome first of all. That’s the whole job of the Eightfold Path, if you like, to overcome the five hindrances, and to get the mind in that sort of state that it’s clear and it’s powerful, and it can discover insight. So the insight is the result of the Eightfold Path – and I’m talking about the big insight now.

And so to overcome those five hindrances that I’ve been talking about, you’ve seen very clearly in the last eight or nine days that there’s something you should know about – the hindrances, their power, and just how sneaky they are sometimes. Just when you think that you’re getting peaceful, sometimes a thought might come up, a desire, a wanting, and that’s a hindrance which stops you getting into deep meditation. Or sometimes a little bit of ill-will towards yourself which manifests as impatience – that’s a form of ill-will. And to see those and hindrances shows you how insidious and difficult are these hindrances to overcome. And to gain insight, all the teachers, all the texts, all say that without abandoning the five hindrances there’s no insight, there’s no wisdom. So that should be one’s preliminary job, to overcome these five hindrances. And the way those five hindrances are overcome is what I’ve been teaching here this week, the jhanas. Traditionally, they say that where the five hindrances are overcome is called upacara samadhi. They call it “neighbourhood concentration”, neighbourhood samadhi, where you’re just right next to jhanas but not fully in them. It’s like the entrance to this hall over here, you have to pass over the entrance, the neighbourhood, to come into this room. And also you have to pass over it as you go out. These are upacaras, neighbourhoods.

One of the mistakes which people make with understanding insight meditation, is that they think the neighbourhood as you go into jhana is a place where you should do insight. Just stop a bit short of jhana and try and do insight there. And that is one type of upacara, but that is a very difficult one and very unstable, because you’re not really quite sure whether those five hindrances have been overcome or not. You’re not really sure if you’re in that upacara samadhi where insight can truly happen because those hindrances are extremely sneaky at that stage, they can manifest just so easily. And also if there is a state just before jhana, because of the way of the mind it’s very unstable, and you can fall back so quickly. And that is why some people misunderstand, or fail to recognise, that there are two upacaras – there is the one on the way in to jhana and there is the one on the way out of jhana. In the same way you pass over the threshold of that door on the way in, and also on the way out. And of those two, it’s that upacara samadhi after jhana which has the qualities of being certain and long-lasting. Having trained yourself in this way, you know whatjhanas are, and you know that state just afterwards is what the texts call the upacara samadhi. And from your experience you will know that state lasts much, much longer, is much more stable, than any upacara samadhi just before you arrive. It’s because when you are experiencing the jhanas, when you’re right inside them, it’s as if the five hindrances have been completely knocked out and made unconscious. You’ve slugged them, and the longer you stay in that jhana, the deeper the slug! So much so that when you come out of the jhanas, they are still knocked out – unconscious, inactive. You’ve beaten them down. And very often if you spend a long time in a jhana they’re beaten down for a long, long time. And anyone who’s had a very nice meditation, especially a jhana, will know that the state afterwards, the happiness, the joy, lasts a long time, effortlessly, because you’re full of energy, clarity, power. And that is the state where insight can be found, where insight is made.

You have to be careful, sometimes, of that state after jhanas, because sometimes the experience is so powerful and so beautiful, and sometimes the hindrances are knocked out for days. Sometimes for days after you get a nice jhana, you have no desire for things of the world. Even the food on your plate you can take or leave and you don’t really care. And you have no sloth or torpor – you can sit until late in the night, get up early in the morning, you’re just so mindful, perfectly, hour after hour, day after day. There’s no ill-will that can come up: even if a mosquito comes you sort of welcome it – “please come and take some of my blood! Out of compassion for all the other people out there, come on take some!”. You get so much compassion because the mind is so high and full of joy. And sometimes people think that those states are full enlightenment.

You know, I wrote about it in that book “Seeing the Way” [2]. I had a nice meditation one evening and after that I just wasn’t tired at all. When I lay down to sleep I was so mindful that I didn’t really need to sleep. Just laying there on my side watching the breath gave so much happiness, was so peaceful. When I did go off to sleep, it was only for a very short time, and I woke up afterwards and immediately was just so mindful. Not like it was this morning – not “oh, here we go again! What shall we do, where am I?!” – but completely mindful in getting up and going to the hall before three o’clock, before the bell, and sitting meditation there and just going into nice samadhi all morning. It was great. And I thought “at last, this is it, oh great!”. And it’s nice to think you’re enlightened – it’s quite a nice way to start the day!

Some of you who know this story know what happened next… when I went on alms round I was just perfectly mindful, there were no defilements in the mind at all, it was just so clear. Until it came to the meal time. And meals are very good if you’ve got any defilements coming up, especially if it’s the only meal of the day and that’s all you’re going to get. And I was in a monastery in the north-east of Thailand, a very poor monastery away from the cities or towns, and usually we used to get the same meal every day, day after day. It was sticky rice and what they called rotten fish curry. And it was called rotten fish for two reasons – first of all it was fish which was pickled, caught during the rainy season and put in a jar and closed up and left to ferment. So it was like “ripe” fish. And it was also rotten because that was how it tasted! It was really awful stuff – you got sort of used to it but not really used to it. And so you’d have this every day – rotten fish curry with your rice, and that was all you had. But this one day it just happened after I became “enlightened”, somebody made us this pork curry (there was no vegetarian food in those places) as well as the rotten fish curry, and as soon as I saw this I thought “I’m going to have something nice to eat today”. And the abbot (I was second in line), this Thai monk, he took these really big scoops of this pork curry, huge scoops, and put it in his bowl. And I thought that was really greedy, but it didn’t matter because there was plenty left for me. But what he did next was, after taking out two huge scoops for himself (and he didn’t take any of the rotten fish curry – even he didn’t like it!)… he said “well, it’s all the same isn’t it, whatever curry it is, it’s just the four elements” and then he poured all the curries together and mixed them up. And I thought “if you really thought that, then why didn’t you mix them up before you took yours! Now I haven’t got any nice food today”. And I got really angry at this monk, really livid at him, thinking “how can you do this, taking away my nice meal. It’s not every day we get this nice pork curry. And you’re a north-easterner – I’ve come from the West, I’m not used to rotten fish, you should be used to rotten fish. Now you’ve mixed it all up!” And what stopped me from getting more and more angry was the thought “hang on, I’m supposed to be enlightened!” And that really makes you depressed, when you find out that you’re not enlightened after all. That spoiled my whole day!

But that’s what happens sometimes, because for many hours the defilements are just gone, and you’re just so clear and bright and you think “wow, this is it, this is the way it should be”. Perfectly clear and peaceful and light. But it’s not, it’s just samadhi experience. So, be careful sometimes that you don’t come back and say that you’re enlightened because little things like the hindrances will, sooner or later, when they’ve recovered, come up and will play with you again, take you around by the nose.

But the important thing with that upacara samadhi which is after jhana, that is the time to really get into deep insight, because your mind is powerful. The mind has energy, it has clarity, and the five hindrances aren’t there. This is the time when you can see what you don’t want to see, what you don’t expect to see, because all that wanting and all that expecting has been subdued. And you know it’s been subdued because you’ve gained that jhana. I think many of you know how expectations and wants are the very barriers which stop you getting those nimittas and entering samadhi. And so by training yourself to subdue those wants and expectations, those desires, they are knocked cold, they disappear, you enter jhana, and when you come out again they’re still not around. Because there’s no wanting, there’s no expectations, you can see what’s truly there rather than what you see or what you expect to see. That’s where deep insight arises. The expectations are as much a hindrance to jhanas as they are to insight. That’s why, when insight happens (this is one of the characteristics of it) it’ll always be something which you never expected. Quite different than what you thought it would be. That’s why it’s called an insight – you’re seeing something from a fresh angle, something new, something completely different.

However, there are ways of encouraging those insights to happen, especially after the jhanas. And the way to encourage them, in the words of the Buddha is to get the jhanas and then standing on that experience, develop the insights into anicca, dukkha, anatta. The three characteristics of impermanence, suffering and not-self. “Standing on that experience”, using that experience both as your power source and also as your data to investigate these three areas of reality. And those three areas, again, are impermanence (it’s wider than impermanence – I’ll mention more about anicca), suffering and not-self.

The impermanence, the first thing one can really watch, is the uncertainty of everything. Because one of the meanings of nicca, the opposite to anicca, is something which is certain, which is regular, something you can rely upon. So the opposite means that things which are there will suddenly disappear, unreliable, irregular. And it’s interesting contemplating that word, aniccaunreliable, because how often do we seek for something to rely upon in this world. Some little place of security, something we think is always going to be there for us to come home to, either physically or mentally. Some sort of refuge, inside the mind or inside the world, a place of safety or a thing of security. What anicca is doing is saying that all of “that” is insecure, is insubstantial, is irregular, and you cannot rely upon it. The tendency of the human being is maybe to admit that a lot of the world is unreliable but to seek some sort of secure place, or secure person or secure mind state, which you think is secure and is always going to be there. That’s why some people look for partners in the world, someone you can rely upon, someone who’s always going to be there for you, a soul-mate. But all soul-mates eventually disappear, they go, they too are unreliable, as you find out when you marry one!

But not only that, but people also rely on places and things, the little hide-aways, the nice little houses, the little nests. And even those are unreliable. Eventually they will disappear as well. But we also have the little nests inside of our minds, some little place that we rely upon. But even that, anicca, when it gets in there, reveals that even that is insecure. That’s why anicca, when you see it clearly, is quite frightening. It brings up the feeling of complete insecurity. There’s no place where you can stand. No place where you can sit down. Everything is always changing. And because of the fear which arises when one starts to look at anicca, it means that unless you’ve got the powerful mind-states of jhanas or post-jhanas, you’ll never be able to pass through that fear and see through to reality. There’ll always be some part of existence you’ll think is secure, reliable, permanent. And that’s why we aren’t enlightened.

Sometimes we think it’s not very nice to realise insecurity, but it’s wonderful to realise the truth of insecurity for two reasons. One, because when you know you haven’t got a home (in all senses of that word), then you can be like a bird, you can fly everywhere. Every place is a tree where you can rest for a while. You’ll never think that you own that particular tree, that “that’s mine and the other birds should keep out”. You can share. Two, it also means that when you realise that all these things are completely changing, then when they do change, when they do disappear, when things alter, you’re never surprised. You realise that this is actually the truth of things, that their insecurity is actually a freedom. Security is like being in prison, being bonded to something. So after a while, one gets quite a sense of release with insecurity, a sense of being able to fly and being able to go where one wishes rather than being bound down.

And so this is what happens when we look at anicca, it gives us a sense that all this is coming and going, that there’s nothing which is stable, no place that we can rest on. But in particular, theanicca which is going to discover the third aspect of the three characteristics of existence, anatta, that is the anicca which is very difficult to apply. That’s anicca which applies to the one who sees anicca. Sometimes to see the one who’s seeing is just so difficult – it’s like trying to catch an eel, it’s so slithery and slippery. As soon as you catch it it’s slipped away again. Or it’s like a dog trying to catch its tail. The self trying to see the self. And this is why seeing anicca in the doer and the seer is just so hard to do. This is, again, one of the reasons why we can’t do this is because we don’t want to do it, we don’t like to do it, we’d rather not see the insubstantiality of everything. It’s just too frightening, it’s just too challenging, it’s just cutting too deep. So the only way that can actually happen is if after a good meditation, which is just so peaceful, and we’re so happy and joyful, that that happiness and joy overcomes any fear and we can go so deep into insight.

In the same way, and you’ve heard me tell you this before, the only way you can be open to hearing things you don’t want to hear, to criticism for example, is when you’re in a good mood. If you’re in a really good mood and you’re really high, then I can tell you anything which is wrong with you, even personal things, and you don’t mind. That’s why I tell people who are in relationships with husbands and wives, if there’s something very difficult you have to tell your partner, some criticism which you think they might not really take very well, then take them out to dinner, dress up really nicely, take them out to a really nice dinner, give them the very best food, what they really like, and then, when they’re on the last course, when they’re really nice and happy, all soft and smiley, you can tell them anything and they’ll accept it. You can give all sorts of criticism, which is personal or otherwise, and because they’re happy and relaxed, they can listen, they don’t feel challenged. But if you tell them when they’ve just come home from work after a hard day, then “that’s it, I’m calling the lawyers, this is divorce!” This is what happens because when you’re feeling happy and when you’re feeling relaxed, you’re more open to seeing or hearing what you don’t want to hear or see.

In the same way, when you’ve had a good meditation, everything’s nice and peaceful, you’ve got so much happiness, then you’re much more open to seeing those insights which you would normally never allow yourself to contemplate. There’s no-one here. Life is suffering. Everything is impermanent. Those are challenging. Take the suffering of life. This goes completely against the grain. “Life is beautiful. Life is a bowl of cherries. Life is out there for you to enjoy. Go out and experience. If you can’t actually go there, then get a video on it”. There’s so many ways to enjoy yourself in this world – they’ve even got virtual reality now. Soon, you’ll be able to get virtual jhanas! Just put on this little mask, push a button, and all these beautiful nimittas will come up and lead you into virtual jhanas! So you don’t have to sit on the floor and waste all these nine or ten days, just do it in half an hour at a virtual reality store. I’m sure that someone will try that one of these days. But that’s not the way it works. We’d like to have it the easy way, but sometimes it takes a lot of giving up and letting go. But actually to see suffering is to see something that, by its very nature, we don’t want to see.

I was talking about perceptions the other day, actually right throughout the retreat. There was a very fascinating experiment done, I think it was at Harvard, to examine the way the mind perceives things, where they flashed images up on the screen. They got a few volunteer students to sit and see what was going on, with a notepad by their side. First of all they flashed these images up so fast that there wasn’t really time to understand them – they were just a flash on the screen. And they asked these students to write down what they perceived. And all they could see was, like, a flash of light – that’s all. Then they increased the exposure on the screen, from one-hundredth of a second to, say, two-hundredths of a second. They still only saw a flash. And they kept on increasing the time of exposure on the screen incrementally until there was a flash there and they could catch something, they could perceive something, then they could write down what it was. And they kept on increasing it until they could see it more clearly and write down what it was. Some very interesting things happened when they kept on increasing the exposure more and more and more. At a very early exposure length, when they thought they understood what was there, they continued writing the same thing, kept on seeing it in exactly the same way. One example was when the actual photograph was a bicycle on the stairs going up to one of the lecture halls. One of the students perceived it as a ship. It’s quite easy to do this because it was only shown very quickly, and perception just grasps something and they said it was a ship. The interesting thing was that as the exposure time was increased, incrementally, he still said it was a ship. And at times, when every person who was exposed at that particular length would say it’s a bicycle on the stairs, they would still see it as a ship. The old perceptions had imprinted themselves on the mind they actually saw that image according to their old views. And it took them a really long exposure on the screen to change their old ideas and say “it’s not really a ship, it’s a bicycle on the steps going to a lecture hall”.

What was interesting there was how, through the perceptions that we have, we form these really strong views, which make us see the whole world to conform to those views, even though they’re completely wrong. That’s why it’s so difficult to catch the illusions of self, the illusions of suffering, the illusions of anicca. We need to have that strong exposure, not just for a second but for long periods of time, to see that we’ve been seeing it in the wrong way. It’s not a ship after all, it’s just a bicycle on the steps. It’s not a self after all, it’s just a process. Life is not such a bowl of cherries, life is a bowl of rotten eggs!

And the other interesting thing about this experiment, is that they found that images which were repulsive, which were abhorrent, took people much longer exposures to see them as they really are. One of the images they showed on the screen was of two copulating dogs. And that took the longest of all the images for them to figure out what it really was. The reason was because they didn’t want to see that – that was repulsive. If it had been an image of, like, a beautiful model, they would have seen that in a few seconds. But they didn’t want to see it and therefore they didn’t want to see it. And that was really fascinating because that was reinforcing what the Buddha’s been saying for, like, twenty five centuries. That with the hindrances operating, we only see what we want to see. We don’t see what’s real. And sometimes the exposure need to be so long and right in front of our face before we truly admit what’s going on in the world.

But with suffering, this is the problem – we don’t want to see suffering, therefore we don’t see it. We live in a fantasy world, that life is happy, that you get married and you’re happy ever after. You get the perfect relationship. I remember one lady kept on telling me, no matter what I said to her about Buddhism, she said “I know he’s out there somewhere – the perfect man for me. It’s just that I have not met him yet. I don’t know where he is, but I know he’s out there somewhere”. And she was in her late forties and she still said stupid things! People live in fantasy land most of the time – not real at all. Or the people that think that if you get the right medicines then you never need to die, and that aging is something that is healable, curable, something which is not necessary. All these ideas, the fantasies which people have, are just not being real.

So when we start looking at the truth of dukkha, we have to be very courageous to see that. Not just courageous, but we have to be very sneaky as well. And again, this is why we do something like the jhana meditations, because we feel so happy, so peaceful (like the husband or wife who’s been taken out by their partner to a beautiful dinner), and the feeling’s so rested, so at peace, that we’re actually open to seeing or hearing what we don’t want to hear, what we didn’t want to see. That’s how you sneak up on dukkha, and you can finally accept it. There’s one particular area ofdukkha which we don’t want to see – at least we think that we’re happy. That’s why when you go home from this retreat, doesn’t matter how much suffering you have on a retreat, when you go home again you say it was really worthwhile, it was really good. Because you’d look like such a fool if you said it was really terrible, full of suffering, that you spent all this money on this. Even on retreats where you have to go through a lot of physical pain, you get conned into saying that it was a lot of pain but that you discovered something wonderful. If you didn’t say that you’d be really embarrassed that you’d been wasting this time.

It’s the same as when you go on holiday. Everyone who goes on holiday, when they come back afterwards and their friends ask “how was it?”, they say they had a wonderful time. Even though you’re lying through your teeth. Even though you had a terrible time. Because it makes you sound so foolish if you say you had a terrible time going through customs, the hotel was rotten, it rained all the time, that you had arguments with the person you went with… you’d feel such a fool! And also it’s just not done, it’s not our custom. Everyone knows that when you come back from a holiday you say you had a really wonderful time. Everyone knows that you write a postcard to your friends saying “having a wonderful time, wish you were here”. No-one says “having a rotten time, wish I was back home!” So sometimes just be careful of the ways that we lie.

We don’t face reality because of our social conditioning. It’s the same as if you go to a funeral. I’ve been giving funeral services for a long time. Even for me, it took many years to get up the courage to tell a joke at a funeral service. You know that I like telling jokes. Because it’s not done to tell jokes at funeral services. You can do it at some other time, any other time, but the one time you’re not meant to tell a joke is when there’s a stiff in the coffin! It’s being disrespectful, isn’t it? But actually when I did get the courage to do it, all the people said “Thank you so much. It made us feel good and the person who died was always telling jokes and they would have really appreciated that one.” I’m sure I could hear the coffin rattling as they were laughing!

But we have these taboos which are incredibly difficult to break. One of those taboos is facing up to that life is suffering. That’s a taboo that people don’t want to recognise. And that’s why you have to creep up on it and find that all this world is all suffering. You know the taboo of looking at a sunset or beautiful flower and, it’s really challenging to say that all flowers, even the most beautiful flower, is suffering. People think you’re just crazy or you’re weird, or you’ve been a monk too long, and you should come back into the real world! It’s a taboo – flowers are beautiful, everyone knows that. The sunset is so wonderful, the mountains, the forests…

To challenge that is very difficult to do. So this is where you do need to have that ability to go against preconceived notions which go so deep inside of you, you wouldn’t believe just how deeply they are embedded in you. And the most deeply embedded notion is not the idea that “life is happiness”, but that “you are”. That’s the deepest notion which is the hardest one to eradicate, theanatta, that “I am”. And that view is just so tricky, so slippery, it’s just like trying to shoot a bird a million miles away through the eye with an arrow. It’s just so tricky to see this self, this “me”. And this is why the Buddha gave, not just the jhanas to give the mind power, and to be able to see what it doesn’t want to see, but he also gave the four satipatthanas, as a way of not wasting time, to be able to focus on the four areas where the illusion of self really hangs out. Because there’s many places where you might try to look for the illusion of self, but the four main areas are therupa, your body, vedana, the feelings, citta, the mind which knows, and the mental objects, dhamma, especially the doer, will. Those are the four areas. And so, having heard a teaching like thesatipatthana, having practiced the Eightfold Path, when the mind is in jhanas and it comes out afterwards see if you can remember to employ the satipatthana, especially for one purpose and one purpose only: not to see anicca, but to see anatta, not-self. That is the deepest, most fundamental block which is stopping you from being enlightened, which stops you being free.

One of the ways which I practice myself, and teach other people to practice, is to ask yourself a question. Not “is there a self?”, that’s just too philosophical. But to ask yourself: –“What do I take to be my self? Who do I think I am? Who do I perceive I am? What is this “me” I assume to exist?” When you ask that question, whatever comes up as an answer, challenge it. Am I this body? I look in the mirror each morning and smile “there I am again”. Is that me, this body? Sometimes we’re very sophisticated intellectually and we think “of course I’m not my body”. On the thought level we might say that, but when we get sick or we’re dying we realise that that’s just superficial wisdom. It hasn’t gone deep enough. We are still attached to our body. We still think it’s ours.

The Buddha gave a test to see if you really are attached to these things, whether you think they’re “mine”. This is a story of when he was walking with some monks in the Jeta Grove and he pointed out some twigs and leaves on the ground and he said “Monks, what would happen, how would you feel if some people came along and collected all these twigs and leaves and put them into a big heap, and then set fire to them all? And then once the fire had died down, they took all the ashes and threw them to the four winds until they were completely dispersed. What would your reaction be if they did that?” And the monks said “Nothing, because these things aren’t ours, they don’t belong to us. They’re just sticks and leaves, that’s all”. “Very good”, said the Buddha, “Now monks, what would happen if the lay people took all of you and put you in a heap and set you on fire, until you’re just ashes, and then threw those ashes to the four winds, would you be upset? Would you be really worried?” And according to the texts, I don’t know if they really meant this but they certainly knew the right answer, the monks replied “No, no, we wouldn’t be at all worried!” And the Buddha asked “Why is that monks?” And they said “Because this body isn’t ours, it’s nothing to do with us, it’s not me or mine.”

Now that’s a test to see if you really see this body as a self, whether you’re willing to let it go or not. That’s why, when we say, look at the body in the four satipatthanas, don’t run over that too quickly, don’t just say “I’ve done that one already, I know this body isn’t me or mine, it’s just bones, it’s just flesh, I’ve seen that in the documentaries, I’ve seen that in the photographs.” Be careful, because you’ve been living with this body so closely for so many years, there’s a little sneaky attachment which has gotten in there, and you really think that this is you. And that gets challenged through old-age, sickness and death. And if you tremble at sickness or pain, if you tremble at the thought of old-age or death, you still need to do some more body contemplation.

So, when a big jhana happens, and then afterwards, say “what do I take myself to be?” Look at this body and see those little attachments, even though they might be stupid, they were something that you could not see because you did not want to see it. And eradicate, completely, the idea that the body is yours or you. It’s just nature, it just belongs to nature, you’ve got nothing much to do with it.

The second thing, about vedana, the sensations, don’t take them too lightly. It’s just as obvious that this isn’t me. Every time you have happiness, or pain, do you automatically think “this is my happiness, this is me feeling it”? If you do, again you haven’t seen the truth of anatta. After jhanas, look closely at this whole play of vedana, and you see it’s just like the play of light and shadows, cast by the trees and the leaves. Where there’s light there’s no shadow, where there’s shadow there’s no light. As the leaves move in the wind, as the sun goes over, what was light is now shadow and what is shadow is now light. What is pain is now pleasure. What was beauty is now ugliness, what was ugliness is now beauty. This is the play of vedana, it’s no more than that. Seeing that means, if you see it fully through the power of jhanas, that you’ve done the second satipatthana and you are completely detached. Detached means that there is no-one holding on to the vedana, the pleasure or pain.

Remember, a lot of people think that attachment is all about what’s out there. The cause of attachment is not so much what’s out there, it’s what’s holding on inside. The claw, I call it. It’s a claw inside which keeps on going outside into the world and attaching to particular things. No matter how many times you put things down, you let go, and let go and let go, you’ll never be able to end attaching until you see that claw and cut it off. It’s the claw which needs to be looked at, seen, and eradicated. That’s the only way to stop attaching once and for all. And that claw is the illusion that all these things belong to us, especially vedana. To see that this is just the play of nature. In the same way that a person who understands why there is light and why there is shadow under a tree realises that it’s nothing to do with them. They leave the light and shadow alone, knowing that if they prefer one or the other then soon it will change. If you prefer suffering or if you prefer happiness, it doesn’t matter, it’ll just change and then go it’ll go back again. Up and down, coming and going, that’s pleasure and pain in life. So after the jhana, you do the second satipatthana, you investigate this vedana, seeing it as it truly is, not as you want it to be, realising it’s completely out of your control no matter how wise, skilful or powerful you are. The idea of getting just pleasant vedana and avoiding the unpleasant, you see, is a complete impossibility, it goes against nature, it cannot be done. So you give up, you let go.

Also, one of the deeper places where a person thinks they exist (and I’ve already mentioned this) is the will. And that’s part of the fourth satipatthana, the doer, the chooser. That’s a very hard thing to see. You can see its results, with all of the controlling, the disturbing, which has been going on for the last nine days, caused by this thing – the doer. But even so, it’s so hard to give this thing up. Even so, that you know that letting go is a way into jhana, but you can’t somehow achieve that letting go, you can’t do the letting go. And once I describe it that way it’s obvious why you can’t “do” the letting go… you have to allow it to happen. The biggest problem that people have with the jhanas is that they try and “do” it, they try and control it, they try and will it, they try and steer their vehicle into a jhana. You’ve got to have your hands completely off the steering wheel. In fact, you’ve got to dismantle the steering wheel before you get into jhanas. There’s an entry fee to jhanas, something you have to give up at the door, and that’s “you”. A lot of people would like to go into jhanas but they’d like to be there at the same time. They want to take the doer in there, to have control. And that’s why they can’t get in. That’s why it takes “something” to get into a jhana. You see the beautiful jhana in there but you want to take “you” with you. And you can’t. So after a while, you leave “you” outside and go in and have fun. Then you realise just how “you”, the doer, has been such a burden, such a terrible companion for you, causing all kinds of pain and suffering. That’s what the Buddha called “the house-builder”.

Once you’ve been in a jhana you’ll never trust this doer so much again. You never trust that within you which is, even now, trying to do something, think something, say something, control something. That doer, to see that is not you, is completely caused, arises and passes away according to natural laws,. If you can see that then you’ve got a very powerful insight. Half, fifty percent, of the illusion of self is then completely gone, and life becomes so much easier. You can flow with things rather than always controlling them, because you haven’t got faith in the doer any more. You can let go.

The last place, which is hard for a person to see, is the consciousness itself, the mind. This mind which a lot of people talk about, which I talk about a lot, to actually see it in its purity is very, very difficult. You see it in jhanas. What’s important after having a jhana is having known what the citta is, the mind. What the Buddha talked so much about in the suttas, having seen that then to apply the satipatthana. Reflect on the mind and ask yourself “is this me?” That which knows, that which is hearing this, which feels all the aches and pains in the body, which sees the sights around, which sees the flowers and the sunsets, that which sees and experiences. “Is that what I take to be me?” And look at this whole process of consciousness, the screen on which experience is played out. Like the television simile which I gave yesterday. A television is a screen on which all these images from all these channels are played out. When we’re looking at the images we cannot really be noticing the screen. When it’s just images there, the screen has disappeared. We’re just focussing on the images. When the five senses are playing around, that’s all we see. We cannot see the screen on which all these images are being played out.

In jhanas, you see the screen, and also you start to see the screen dismantle itself. The screen which we call consciousness begins to disappear. Higher and higher in the jhanas, more of the screen goes, until in the last of the jhanas, nirodha – cessation, is the cessation of the screen. Consciousness is now gone. To see the consciousness going is a very powerful experience. According to the suttas, anyone who experiences that state, the cessation of consciousness through these jhanas (I don’t mean the cessation of consciousness through going to sleep at night!), when you emerge from that state you’re either a non-returner or a fully-enlightened Arahat. There are only those two possibilities. Because having see the cessation of consciousness itself, you will never, ever, it’s impossible, to be able to take that as a self, as a me. You’ve seen that thing, the thing we were talking about yesterday, the claw (that’s a good simile which I should have mentioned yesterday… you know the “thing” in the Addam’s family, the hand, always grabbing onto things? That’s attachment. That thing is attachment), consciousness or the doer, is not you, it cannot be. And the last citadel of the illusion of self is broken into, seen to be empty, and then you know that that which you took to be a self for so long was just an empty process, that’s all.

That insight into anatta is the insight which arises in a stream-winner, entering the stream. It’s the insight which sees that you have taken something to be the self, something to be me or mine for so many years, and you just could not see it before but now you can. That’s what insight is. And again that insight is very beautiful and wonderful, because once you realise that there’s no-one here then the whole idea of nibbana being just a flame going out, never scares you any more. Instead of being something completely stupid and awful, something you’re not really interested in at all… because after all, what’s the point of being enlightened if you’re not there to enjoy it? What’s the point of just snuffing out and going? There’s too many things to do in the world! Too many things to achieve, too many things to experience. But the idea of nibbana as just snuffing out, going out, only makes sense and become attractive, becomes the obvious thing, only when one sees the truth of not-self. There’s no-one here anyway. That which you take to be you is just an illusion. Once you see that then that is the insight, the powerful deep insight, upon which all the subsequent insights which lead to the higher states of enlightenment are based. This is what one should be doing, this is the purpose of jhanas, the purpose of all those reflections.

To ask yourself, “What do I take to be me? Who do I think I am? What do I perceive, think and view of myself?” in terms of the four satipatthanas. The afterwards you become enlightened. And if you think, those people have had happiness or jhanas or nimittas during this retreat, if you think that’s happiness, then wait until you get into a nice, powerful, enlightenment insight. That’s much more happiness. So the best is yet to come.

So that’s insight, and what’s actually happening, through the factors of the Eightfold Path you get samma-nyana, the correct deep insights, and samma-vimutti, freedom.

Ajahn Brahmavamso
Perth, April 1999

[1] Five Hindrances: sensual desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness, and doubt.
[2] Seeing the Way – Buddhist Reflections on the Spiritual Life. Amaravati Publications, U.K., 1989

Fourfold Focus on Mindfulness



Ajahn Brahmavamso

NAMO TASSA BHAGAVATO ARAHATO SAMMASAMBUDDHASSAoOoMore has been said about the practice of Satipatthana than about any other meditation practice by Buddhist teachers of today… except by this monk! So in this Dhamma article I will keep up with the trend by presenting some practical observations on this most misunderstood of Lord Buddha’s Teachings.

Those of you who have been “sitting around” Buddhist Centres for a while have probably heard some teachers claim that the fourfold “Focus of Mindfulness” (my translation of “Satipatthana”) [1] is the “one and only way” to the goal of full Enlightenment! Although this is an impressive sales pitch for the teaching, it is neither a true translation of the original text nor consistent with what the Lord Buddha said elsewhere. The very phrase (“Ekayana Magga”) which is mistranslated as “one and only way” occurs again in the l2th Sutta (discourse) of the Majjhima collection where it unmistakably means a “path with only one possible destination”. Many different paths can share a common destination. In fact, the “one and only path” is the Lord Buddha’s description, not of Satipatthana, but of the Noble Eightfold Path:

“Of all Ways, the Noble Eightfold Path is the best.
This is the only way, there is none other for the purity of insight”

Dhammapada verses 273 and 274 (abridged)

Thus, the “only way” to Enlightenment, as all Buddhists should know anyway, is the Noble Eightfold Path. The fourfold Focus of Mindfulness constitutes only a part of this Path, the 7th factor. Jhanas are the 8th factor and there is also Right View, Right Intention, Right Effort and the three factors of Right Virtue. Each of these eight factors are necessary to achieve the goal of full Enlightenment. lf any were redundant, then the Lord Buddha would have taught a 7-fold path, or a 6-fold path etc. So, in your practice of Buddhism, please keep in mind that all eight factors of the noble Eightfold Path should be cultivated as the “one and only way”.Now the fourfold Focus of Mindfulness method as taught by the Lord Buddha, is a very advanced practice. So advanced that the Lord Buddha said that if anyone should develop them in the way He described for only seven days, then they would achieve full Enlightenment or the state of non-returner. Many meditators reading this may have gone on such a retreat for nine days or even more and not yet fulfilled this most lofty of the Lord Buddha’s promises. Why not? Because, I suggest, you were not following the Lord Buddha’s instructions.

If you want to practise the fourfold Focus of Mindfulness in the way that the Lord Buddha said leads so rapidly to Enlightenment, then certain things are required before you begin. The essential preparations are in short, full cultivation of the other seven factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. Or, as the Lord Budda said in the Anguttara collection (‘Nines’, Suttas 63 and 64), one should maintain the five Precepts (the longer the better), abandon the five Hindrances [2] and then practise Satipatthana.

These vital prerequisites are actually stated by the Lord Buddha in His two discourses on the fourfold Focus of Mindfulness, as “Vineyya Loke Abhijjha-Domanassam” (please forgive me quoting Pali. It is the only way I can make this important point). This phrase is usually translated as “having put away covetousness and grief for the world”, or something similar. Such translations mean so little to meditators that they ignore this instruction altogether, and thereby miss the bus! In the time of the Lord Buddha, the monks, nuns and lay disciples would have understood the phrase to mean “after having abandoned the five Hindrances”! The authoritative commentaries to the two Satipatthana Suttas taught by the Lord Buddha both clearly state that “Abhijjha-Domanassam” (sorry for the Pali again!) refer precisely to the five Hindrances. Elsewhere in the recorded Teachings of the Lord Buddha, “Abhijjha” is a synonym for the first Hindrance, “Domanassam” is a synonym for the second Hindrance, and together they stand, in Pali idiom, as an abbreviation for all five. This then means that the five Hindrances must be abandoned first before beginning any of the Focus of Mindfulness practices. It is, in my not-so-humble opinion, precisely because meditators attempt to practise the Satipatthana method with some of the Hindrances still remaining that they achieve no great or lasting result.

It is the function of Jhana practice, the ultimate factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, to abandon all of the five Hindrances long enough to gain BIG Insight. For example, in the 68th Sutta of the Majjhima collection (“Nalakapanna”), the Lord Buddha stated that for the meditator who does not attain to Jhana, the five Hindrances together with discontent and weariness invade the mind and remain. Only when one does attain to Jhana do the five Hindrances together with discontent and weariness not invade one’s mind and remain the way the Lord Buddha said it is.

Any meditator who has experienced the powerful Jhanas would know through that experience, and what happens after, what a mind without any Hindrances is truly like. The meditator who hasn’t known Jhanas does not realise the many subtle forms Hindrances can take. They may think that the hindrances are abandoned but, the truth is, they just don’t see them and so do not get great results in their meditation. This is why Samatha practice which cultivates Jhana is part of the Satipatthana teaching and why it is misinformation to call Satipatthana “pure Vipassana”. Even my teacher, Ajahn Chah, said over and over again that Samatha and Vipassana, “calm and insight”, go together and are inseparable as the two faces of a coin.

Having patiently completed the necessary preparations, the meditator sustains their mindfulness on one of the four focuses: their own body, the pleasure and pain associated with each sense, the mind consciousness and, fourthly, the objects of mind. When the Hindrances are gone and one can sustain one’s powerful and penetrating attention on these four objects, only then is it possible to realise that deep in our psyche, far deeper than the veil of intelligent thinking, we have been assuming a Self. We have been assuming that this body is “me” or “mine”, that pleasure or pain has something to do with me, that the mind which looks on is our Soul or something close, and that the objects of mind such as thought or volition (the ‘chooser’) is a Self, me, or mine. In short, the purpose of the fourfold Focus of Mindfulness is to instruct one what to do when one has emerged from a Jhana, to uncover the deeply disguised delusion of a Soul and then see what the Lord Buddha saw, the Truth of Anatta.

This is not an easy thing to do, but it can be done, and it can take only seven days. That is if one follows the Lord Buddha’s instructions, follows them and takes no short cuts.

Ajahn Brahm
(From: Newsletter, July-October 1997,
Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Perth, Australia)