This episode is a talk given by the Thai forest meditation master Ajahn Dtun Thiracitto and is titled “Not Veering off To The Left Or Right”. You can find the original translated text in the description below. Thanks go to Ajahn Dtun, Wat Boonyawad and the Katanyuta group of Malaysia, Singapore and Australia for making this teaching available for free distribution.
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Not Veering Off to the Left or Right
Tan Ajahn Dtun (Thiracitto) Māgha Pūja 2546 (2003)
This evening we’ve come together for the Uposatha (the recitation of the monks’ Pātimokkha rules). In the time of the Buddha, as we already know, Māgha Pūja was the day on which 1,250 arahants (fully enlightened beings) came together to hear a teaching of the Buddha without any prior notification or appointment. Such an extraordinary event happens only once in the lifetime of each Buddha, with the size of the gathering, whether it is greater or lesser in number, depending upon the pāramī (spiritual perfections) of each Buddha. That such a large number of arahants should come together without any prior appointment is something so extremely hard to find in this world.
In the past, those who gave up the household and family life, their work and responsibilities, left them behind so as to conduct themselves and practice in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha. The people of those times had a sense of purpose, practicing in order to go beyond suffering. Having put on the yellow robe, they had just one goal: to practice for the realization of Nibbāna within their own heart. They put their faith in the Lord Buddha and his teachings. Consequently, they have given rise to a lineage of arahant disciples, incalculable in number, extending into the present day.
There are those of us who still have kilesas (defilements or impurities) in our hearts, making it necessary to train and develop the mind - bringing about cleanliness and purity - by following the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha said: ‘When the Tathāgata has passed on, the Dhamma (the teachings of the Lord Buddha) and the Vinaya (the monks’ rules of discipline) will be your teacher.’ Therefore, as sincere and determined practitioners of the Dhamma, we must hold to the principles of Dhamma-Vinaya as our model, our guideline, because all arahant disciples have practiced according to Dhamma-Vinaya with no veering off to the left or to the right, nor doing anything out of the ordinary. When we wish to go beyond suffering, or realize Nibbāna, then we must have faith in the practice. In truth, taking up this yellow robe isn’t for seeking out wealth, respect or praise. Rather, it’s for realizing Nibbāna.
Everyone knows of the suffering of birth; and what then follows is completely full of suffering. When there is birth, a whole range of suffering follows: sickness, ageing and death; plus many other kinds, all of which create suffering in one’s heart, with no end to the journeying through saṁsāra (the perpetual cycle of rebirth, ageing and death). As a consequence, we must be heedful. The Lord Buddha once asked Ananda (his chief attendant) how may times a day he contemplated death, to which Ananda replied, ‘seven times’. For some disciples it was more than this, for others less. However, the Buddha said he himself contemplated death with each inhalation and exhalation; that is, he had constant mindfulness of every in- and-out breath, thus making him one who is truly heedful. And so in the days and nights that have passed by, have you given any consideration to death or not? Or have the days been allowed to pass by unproductively?
Having come to ordain as monks or novices, sometimes, after several years, it may happen that we find things rather habitual and so we always have to prompt and motivate the mind by looking for means to bring up the faith to put forth effort so as to give rise to sati (mindfulness), samādhi (concentration), and paññā (wisdom) within our hearts. If we do little practice, the defilements will dominate the mind, making it disheartened or too discouraged to go about the practice. The defilements are namely: lobha (greed), dosa (anger), and moha (delusion). They exist in the heart, making it distracted, causing it to think restlessly amongst a variety of worldly issues and affairs, all of which will harm the mind and keep one from being firm and secure in the robes. So we always have to create or look for ways to bring up faith and energy. Really the practice is, having given up the household life, family life, and our external work and duties, that one should have the determination to fight with the defilements. It’s not that we go fighting with others or everything in general, but rather we contend with the defilements in our own heart by having patience and perseverance with all the moods and emotions that frequently arise in the mind.
We already know that greed, anger and ill-will are defilements, so we must try to abandon them, try to let these moods and emotions go from the mind without keeping or holding such adverse mental states in our hearts. Even though we have defilements within our hearts, if we don’t have the mindfulness and wisdom to keep a watch over them, the heart will always fall slave to its emotions, being a servant to the defilements. The Lord Buddha, therefore, taught us to have mindfulness present so that we can remain within the bounds of Dhamma-Vinaya, having mindfulness watching over and tending to the heart right from the moment of waking. We endeavour to have mindfulness watching the mind, being present in every moment, knowing what the mind is thinking, whether it be good or bad.
Once we are aware that we are thinking about the past - things already experienced, no longer of any benefit - we then set up sati and establish samādhi so as to cut the thoughts off. When we have thoughts proliferating into the future - next month, next year - which are of no benefit, then we bring up mindfulness and develop concentration, cutting those thoughts out from the mind. When the mind is restless, distracted by all kinds of emotions and thoughts, it’s just the same; we bring up mindfulness and develop concentration to cut them off. We make our hearts have firm, solid mindfulness in the present moment; that is, to see the mind, its moods and emotions, and the objects of its awareness. If we don’t have mindfulness guarding over the mind, our thoughts will proliferate out to matters of no good, not giving rise to any benefit. The mind will dart off following the objects of its awareness, unable to see dukkha (suffering, discontent), dukkha’s cause, its cessation, or know the path of practice that leads to dukkha’s cessation.
The Buddha, therefore, taught us to practice sīla (virtue or correct morality), samādhi and paññā. We have Dhamma-Vinaya as our boundary. If we have restraint within the discipline, without transgressing or doing any wrong - not even in the minor offences - then this will be a cause of mindfulness becoming more constant. Our only duty is to watch the emotions and thoughts within the mind. When there’s free time, go and walk or sit in meditation, always developing samādhi. Know how to go against the defilements and how to endure things like the cold, the heat and all other forms of dukkha. We have to know how to go against our will when practicing. Just as Ajahn Chah would frequently say, ‘When you’re diligent, put forth effort; when you’re lazy, resist it with constant effort in the practice.’ So when we feel discouraged and slacken in our effort, we must look for ways to bring about faith and effort. Resolve to walk and sit in meditation everyday without fail. Have mindfulness and wisdom searching for any faults in our hearts, asking: ‘Why can’t I make my mind peaceful? When they can train monkeys to be tame, subdue the wildness in horses and elephants, why can’t I train my own mind to be peaceful?’ If we have mindfulness always attempting to take care of the mind, looking for ways to reflect upon any adverse mental states in order to remove them from the heart in each and every moment that dukkha arises, then the mind will, as a consequence, have firm, unflinching mindfulness in the present moment.
When one has free time one should always practice samādhi (concentration); work at it, really develop it. Then the peace of samādhi will arise in the mind. When we have sustained sati and samādhi, the mind will be quiet, concentrated, thus giving rise to joy and happiness. The equanimity of samādhi will arise, being free from emotions and thoughts of the past and future. Mindfulness is rooted in the present; there is peace and equanimity in the heart.
Outside of formal meditation, when the eyes see a form, be it animate or inanimate, it will give rise to feeling – sometimes of satisfaction, sometimes of dissatisfaction. We must have sati- paññā, mindfulness and wisdom, contemplating and seeing the impermanence of such emotions in order to make the mind impartial, centred in the present moment. Every moment that defilements arise, be it liking or disliking forms, sounds, odours, tastes, or bodily sensations - everything - we have mindfulness observing the emotions, perceiving whatever is present in the mind. We have to look for skilful means to contemplate and let the emotions of both satisfaction and dissatisfaction go from the heart, being impartial with sati established in the present moment. If we continually practice like this, our sati and samādhi will be sustained. For paññā to contemplate and let go of these emotions, we must bring the mind to a point of centre, to neutrality; make it peaceful due to samādhi and paññā.
Even though we contemplate like this, we’re not able to cut all the emotions and mental impressions off from the mind because today we see a form or hear a sound, giving rise to satisfaction or dissatisfaction; we contemplate this emotion, putting it aside or we can cut it off with samādhi. Tomorrow, however, we see a new form or hear a new sound, again giving rise to satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Therefore we must work at it every day to have the mindfulness and wisdom to reflect upon and remove these emotions from the heart, every day having mindfulness attending to the heart. Even so, all the emotions and mental impressions can’t be completely rooted out from the mind, only cut off temporarily. It’s like a tree and its branches. We take a knife and on Monday we cut
one branch, Tuesday another. Wednesday we cut off another and so on until Sunday. Come Monday again, the branch we previously cut has sprouted again. Likewise with Tuesday’s branch and so on. If we don’t uproot the tree it won’t die.
The emotions within our hearts are just the same. No matter if we have mindfulness contemplating, letting go of the emotions and the mind’s objects in every instant, tomorrow we will meet with forms again, hear sounds again, smell odours again, taste flavours again, the body will contact cold, heat, softness and hardness again. There will always be vedanā (feeling) arising in the heart. Consequently, the Buddha taught us to come back to contemplating in a way that destroys attachment and clinging to one’s body, for this is the cause, the origin of the greed and anger that arises in one’s heart. In meditation, therefore, once the mind is calm enough to be a base for contemplation, it’s essential that we take up the body for reflection. Sometimes in meditation, as soon as there is a degree of calmness, we may become aware of a variety of external things. We may have knowledge into past or future events, or happenings in the present, whatever, but it’s just peripheral knowledge; it’s not knowledge that will end the suffering in our hearts. So, sometimes, through meditation, we are able to perceive different things, but what’s of most importance is that we practice meditation in order to make the mind peaceful so that it gives rise to sati-paññā, the mindfulness and wisdom that can contemplate and abandon the defilements from the mind.
Sometimes, when the mind is quiet, we may see nimittas (mental images) that reveal the unattractiveness of the body, seeing visions of our body rotting, disintegrating, breaking into pieces; or maybe we see somebody else’s body in various stages of decomposition. If we see images of such a kind, we must have sati noting and contemplating them, seeing the impermanence and selflessness of our body or the bodies of others. Doing so will give rise to paññā, wisdom that sees the truth. It penetrates to the truth of one’s ownbody and that of others; seeing that they are impermanent and not self. Therefore, in meditation, once the mind is reasonably quiet, we then turn to investigating one’s own body. One can contemplate the thirty-two parts of the body, or the unattractiveness of the body, or maybe contemplate the four elements of earth, water, air and fire. Contemplate to see anicca, dukkha, anattā, the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness of the body; it is born, exists, and then ultimately breaks apart. This we must reflect on, over and over, making it clear in the heart. As a result, the mind lets go of its attachment to the body. If the mind doesn’t see the impermanence and selflessness of the body, it is unable to uproot its attachment towards the body.
Once the mind has been made peaceful, we then allow the mind to rest for some time in this calm state. Once it begins to think and proliferate again, we then take up the body for contemplation. Sometimes dispassion and rapture arise, or the mind may unify in samādhi. Contemplation and samādhi are practiced in alternation like this. Sometimes, having concentrated the mind, we then take up the body for contemplation; that is, we use samādhi to develop wisdom. Or sometimes when we determine to sit in meditation, we apply wisdom by taking up the body for contemplation in order to realize the truth; that is, using wisdom to develop samādhi: when we reflect and see the truth of our body, seeing that it is impermanent and without self, the mind may converge, becoming concentrated. This is what’s called applying wisdom to develop concentration, paññā to develop samādhi. These two approaches can be alternated depending upon each individual’s character. As a result, this samādhi will serve as a basis for sati and paññā while contemplating our own body, the bodies of others, and all material objects, seeing the impermanence and absence of self in everything.
Samādhi is also the basis for sati-paññā to contemplate the emotions within the heart. The mood may be one of greed or anger, attraction or aversion towards forms, sounds, odours, tastes and bodily sensations.
Sati and paññā contemplate, letting go of any attachment and clinging in the mind, little by little. In the beginning, a more coarse defilement that can be readily perceived is that of satisfaction: the taking pleasure in forms, sounds, odours, tastes and bodily sensations. Sati-paññā must contemplate and investigate any moods and emotions so as to free the heart from them. We then step up the practice of developing samādhi in order to have mindfulness and wisdom investigate within the body, seeing it more and more clearly.
With regards to greed, as monks we have already given up our external material objects. Actually, there’s not much to it, there just remains a more subtle greed towards the four requisites of a monk: robes, alms food, dwelling place, and medicines for sickness. While we still have this body, as monks we must depend upon these four requisites in order to go about the practice. Sati-paññā must reflect, seeing the truth that the robe is just the four elements - earth, water, air and fire - that come together for a short time only. The user’s body is just the same, comprised of the four elements. Likewise with alms-food, one’s dwelling place and medicines, they are just the four elements. Both the user and all four requisites are merely elements according to nature. We reflect like this so as to prevent the arising of defilements, not allowing desire for the four requisites - everything we depend on - to arise. All the arahants at the time of the Buddha, and the lineage of esteemed teachers that have passed down since then, all practiced without any concern for the four requisites. The requisites weren’t always in abundance. Sometimes there was only a small amount or even shortages, yet they only depended upon them for going about the practice. In the past, sometimes, there was little cloth. They would use discarded cloth, having no ambition to wear fine, delicate materials. They would make use of shrouds found in cremation grounds or thrown-out rags; taking the cloth, washing it, then sewing and patching it into a robe used solely for practicing Dhamma - just to cover the body. For alms they relied on three of four houses, getting just enough to eat for one day so as to practice Dhamma. They didn’t eat in order to have a bright complexion or a big, strong body. When making use of a dwelling, sometimes they would live under cliff over-hangs, in caves, at the foot of large trees, or in simple grass-roofed huts - just that much. Their dwelling was solely for protection against storms, wind, rain, and sun. All the arahants say that any dwelling that offers enough shelter so that in a storm one doesn’t get wet knees while sitting in meditation, then this should be considered a good, even excellent dwelling. The lodgings were used only for meditation and protection against the elements. They didn’t need a dwelling that was great in any way. Sometimes, the Kroobā Ajahns, the forest masters, in the course of their practice, gave no concern for medicines. They went and practiced in the forests, the mountains and caves. They were sometimes troubled by illness or the bodily elements were out of balance, so they would use their Dhamma practice as medicine by contemplating the painful feelings that had arisen. Using samādhi along with mindfulness and wisdom, they contemplated and analyzed the body, seeing that it was just merely elements of earth, water, air and fire. They contemplated to see that feelings are just a condition of the mind, but not the mind itself. The mind is one thing, the body another, and feelings yet another; they are separate, not interacting (this can be directly seen while in samādhi). The Dhamma medicine was all that they had.
In the past they didn’t have any abundance of the four requisites, yet our esteemed teachers could practice to make their minds know and see the Dhamma, or be the Dhamma, owing to their total determination and dedication. They sacrificed everything, even their own life, for their longing to know and see the Dhamma. We, as a consequence, should endeavor to have determination in the practice, abandoning greed from the heart. Once we have such determination we won’t have any worries or concerns, only using the four requisites with moderation, stepping up the practice of working to refine the heart, lightening and relieving it from greed, anger, and delusion. Then it is important to bring into our practice any general daily practices or any of the dhutangas (austere practices) that are suited to our character and of use in going against the defilements in the heart, so as to destroy these defilements.
When the heart still has anger, vengeance, ill will and displeasure within it, then everyday, we monks must cultivate mettā, a boundless loving-kindness towards all creatures. We develop the feeling that we will destroy this anger and displeasure, ridding the mind of it and not keeping hold of it, for this is a cause of suffering. If we have mindfulness and wisdom, and the intention to wipe out or abandon the defilements from the heart, then we will see that any defilement that has arisen in the heart is merely a cause for more suffering. And so we will look for a way to find the source of this suffering. We already know that anger is suffering, so we must cultivate kindness and forgiveness towards one another, not allowing anger to arise in the mind. Even though moods of anger and dissatisfaction will arise, it is our task to find a way to eliminate them or let them go from the heart as quickly as possible. Therefore, we must always be cultivating kindness and forgiveness towards one another. It’s important that we try to care for our own heart; there’s no need to go attending to the hearts of others. We just take care of our own, relieving it from greed and hatred, weakening the delusion toward the physical body and all the emotions that come into the heart. If we have sati-paññā, mindfulness and wisdom, frequently contemplating like this, then any thoughts or emotions will subside and weaken.
Once the mind is free from thoughts and emotions, we then develop samādhi. With continual practice, calmness will arise while in sitting meditation. When we break from sitting meditation, regardless of whether we’re standing, walking, sitting or doing some other activity, we maintain sati while performing our external duties. When we come to walk in meditation, the mind will be calm and concentrated due to having mindfulness and wisdom continually contemplating, removing any unwholesome or defiled emotions from the heart. When we’re finished walking meditation, whether we stand, walk, sit, or do something else, we have mindfulness caring for the heart. When we come to sit again in meditation, taking up one’s meditation object, the mind is empty of any emotions due to constant contemplation with mindfulness and wisdom. When we establish mindfulness upon the in-and-out breath, the mind will be calmed. Or when we bring mindfulness to the meditation word ‘buddho’, the mind will have firm, unwavering mindfulness and concentration. Every day we practice like this, no matter whether we are standing, walking, sitting, lying down, or doing something else; mindfulness and wisdom will arise in one’s heart in every posture. From the peacefulness of sitting meditation we continue making the mind peaceful while in walking meditation, or peacefulness may arise outside of formal meditation regardless of one’s posture or activity. Peacefulness will always be present in the mind. Mindfulness will see the emotions in the heart, enabling it to reflect upon them, constantly wiping them out or letting them go from the heart in each and every moment.
While contemplating the body - seeing its impermanence and lack of self - we must depend upon a foundation of samādhi, concentration. When the mind is unable to reflect and see the body as being foul, unattractive or consisting of elements, then we should establish sati and develop samādhi; every day really work at it, cultivate it in order to have the strength to calm the mind. Once the mind is quiet, then again try reflecting upon the body. If mindfulness and wisdom gradually see the body more and more clearly, then the mind will slowly let go of its attachment to one’s own body: greed and anger will diminish and delusion towards one’s own body will gradually weaken. Contemplation is alternated with developing samādhi, gradually removing attachment to one’s body, little by little, until one sees clearly that the body is only elements in accordance with nature. We see the body of the past, or that of the future, as being a natural condition: that having come into being it must ultimately break apart. We must have mindfulness knowing the present moment: knowing that the body is merely elements according to nature, thus letting any attachment go from the mind. When the mind relinquishes all attachment toward the body, then greed and anger will cease. Any delusion regarding the body and all material objects - that are merely elements in compliance with nature - will also cease. When seeing a form, it’s just a form. When hearing a sound, it’s just a sound. All phenomena are merely elements following nature: having come into being, they change and ultimately break apart - completely devoid of any self. The mind as a consequence, will be centered, without swaying to either extreme of attraction or aversion.
Once the heart lets go of its attachment toward one’s own body, the bodies of others and also all material objects, then peacefulness and tranquility will arise. This is happiness - true happiness - coming forth from the peace and calm of paññā, wisdom that has relinquished defilement in the initial stages: namely having ceded all attachment toward the body.
There are, however, defilements stemming from the subtle delusion that still remains in the heart. This is delusion towards: vedanā – feelings in the mind; saññā – memory; sankhārā – mental formations, involving thinking and imagination within the mind; and viññāna – consciousness or deluded clinging to the mind’s “knowing” as being the mind. To deal with defilements on this subtle level, it first requires that one has relinquished all attachments to materiality and form. In other words, one has relinquished all attachment to the body, enabling one to walk this stage of the path and further continue one’s contemplation. In truth, this stage of the practice is Arahatta-magga: contemplating the mind and Dhamma at the most refined level.
Once material form and the body have been let go of, all that remains is the subtle stage regarding the citta (the heart/mind) and the dhammas that arise within it. When delusion is still present in the mind, we must have mindfulness and wisdom contemplating its subtle emotions. The mind still has attachment for vedanā of the mind. Though there is happiness, with only a speck of dukkha, it’s all being experienced right here in this heart. The happiness in the heart is immense, while dukkha is almost imperceptible due to the mind having abandoned the more gross defilements. Sati-pannā must then contemplate the remaining refined defilements, seeing the impermanence of this happiness, or the dukkha of still having defilements in the heart. As for one’s memory, the mind deludedly clings to it as being the mind. Likewise with thoughts, the mind attaches to them, be they productive or not; there is thinking and conceptualizing about a variety of wholesome things, believing them all to be the mind.
The Buddha therefore taught us to contemplate the vedanā of the mind, seeing that it’s impermanent and devoid of self. Or we have mindfulness and wisdom contemplating: memory - seeing its impermanence and lack of any self; mental formations - seeing the fleeting nature of our thinking and conceptualizing, recognizing it’s all without any self; consciousness or knowing - seeing that it’s only a mode of the citta, but not the citta itself. Those who are practicing at this stage of the path use mindfulness and wisdom in their contemplation, gaining a broad understanding into the nature of feelings, memory, mental formations and consciousness. All the wise sages say that once contemplation has brought about this deep understanding, then one should turn the contemplation and investigation onto one’s own mind for it still has avijjā (fundamental ignorance)1 residing within it. Contemplate so as to destroy the mind’s attachment to its thoughts, for the mind will, as a rule, mistakenly cling to them believing that the formations that come out of the mind is the mind itself. The wise ones, therefore, teach us to destroy attachment within the heart - everything - with no remainder, keeping nothing in reserve. Contemplate so as to destroy the citta. Even the very thing that we cling to as being the citta, one’s heart or mind, must be scrutinized to see its impermanence and absence of any self. Contemplating the mind and contemplating the Dhamma are therefore subtle things.
When contemplating Dhamma, all dhammas that we know and perceive should be reflected upon, seeing that they are anattā - devoid of any self. ‘Sabbe Dhamma anattā’ti’ - all dhammas are not self. With contemplation and investigation, remove all attachment - everything - from the heart, hence giving rise to purity.
Therefore, in the beginning, all practitioners must practice Dhamma by staying within the limits of Dhamma-Vinaya. By holding to the fundamental ways of practice of the Buddha and all the arahant disciples as our role model, we won’t go straying off to the left or the right. If we practice in accordance with the Dhamma- Vinaya, following the teachings of the Buddha, then we will have no wish or expectation for material gain or veneration, nor for any of a host of external things available. Instead, we are resolute in our aspiration, giving up everything in the quest to go beyond suffering: the realization of Nibbāna. We are prepared to sacrifice our very lives in order to know and see the Dhamma, to have the heart be one with the Dhamma. All of our esteemed teachers have had hearts unwavering and resolute, not lax or discouraged with the practice like we are. We therefore have to constantly turn the mind around so as to give rise to faith and effort. Even though we are discouraged and struggling, we must have the determination to someday triumph over the defilements.
Actually, for those intent on the practice, there’s no need to go doing a great deal, just give your life to practicing Dhamma. If there is still breath and sensations in this body, then we will practice right until the very end without being disheartened. We give up our wealth, our life - everything - in order to know and see the Dhamma. Really the practice isn’t so difficult; it’s not beyond human capability. If it were something so difficult, the Buddha probably wouldn’t have taught us to develop ourselves in sīla, samādhi and paññā (virtue, concentration and wisdom), in order to gain clear insight and the realization of Nibbāna, thus bringing a final end to the greed, anger and delusion in our minds.
As a consequence, we should resolve to practice Dhamma every day. Don’t be discouraged or lazy. Even though there may be discouragement or laziness, we must go against this tendency and do the practice, for we depend upon the four requisites given by the laity. There has to be the awareness in one’s heart that we must apply ourselves to the practice, for our lives are unpredictable: once born, it’s not long before the body must break apart. Therefore, every day and night, we should resolve to practice the Dhamma, always having mindfulness and wisdom taking care of the heart, thus bringing about the peacefulness, tranquility and happiness that comes from sīla, samādhi and paññā.