This episode is based on a talk given by esteemed forest meditation master Ajahn Maha Boowa and is titled The Work of a Contemplative. It was first publish as a A Forest Dhamma Publication in March 2011.
The full translated text and more information can be found on the Forest Path Podcast webpage.
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The Work Of A Contemplative
by Ajahn Maha Boowa
Here at Baan Taad Forest Monastery, we don’t practice in line with people’s wishes and opinions, but rather in line with the principles of Dhamma and Vinaya, the principles of Buddhism. We do this for the sake of the public at large who rely on the religion as a guiding principle in what is good and right, and who rely on the good and right behavior of monks and novices, the religious leaders for Buddhists at large. For this reason, I’m not interested in favoring anyone’s opinions over and above the principles of Dhamma and Vinaya that are the basis of Buddhist practice. If our minds start to bend under the influence of the views and opinions of any one person – or even of the worldly majority who have no limits or standards – then monasteries and the religion will come to have no limits or standards either. Monasteries that bend under the influence of the world, without any reasonable underlying support, will lack order and discipline. They will become monasteries that have no religious substance remaining in them at all. Those who seek things of real value to revere and respect – in other words, intelligent people – will be unable to find any substantial goodness that will have a hold on their hearts, because there will be nothing but worthless, counterfeit things filling the monasteries, filling the monks, the novices and the nuns, filling everything every- where. In homes as well as in monasteries, in the area of the world as well as the Dhamma, everything will get mixed into being one with what is counterfeit and lacking in any true value.
For this reason, we must keep things in their separate places. The religion and the world, even though they may exist side by side, are not the same thing. A monastery – whether it’s located in a town, outside of a town or in a forest – is not the same as a town. The people who come to stay there are not the same as ordinary people. The monastery has to be a monastic community. The monks have to be monastics with their own independent Dhamma and Vinaya that don’t rely on any particular individual. This is an important principle that can impress the hearts of intelligent people who are searching for inspiring principles of truth to revere and respect. I view things from this angle more than any other. Even the Buddha, our Teacher, viewed things from this angle, as we can see from the time he addressed Venerable Nagita.
When a crowd of people came to see the Buddha, shouting and making a big racket, he said, “Nagita, who is that coming our way, making a commotion like fishmongers squabbling over fish? We don’t aspire to this sort of behavior, which brings destruction to the religion. The religion is something to guard and preserve so that the world will find peace and calm – like clear, clean water well-guarded and preserved so that people in general can drink and bathe at their convenience. The religion is like clear, clean water, which is why we don’t want anyone to disturb it, to make it muddy and turbid.”
This is what the Buddha said to Venerable Nagita. He then told Venerable Nagita to send the crowd away, telling them that their manner and the time of day – it was night – were not appropriate for visiting the monks who live in qui- et solitude. Polite manners are things that intelligent people choose, and there are plenty of other times to come. This is a time when the monks want quietude, so they shouldn’t be disturbed in a way that wastes their time and causes them difficulties without serving any purpose at all.
This is an example set by our Teacher. He wasn’t the sort of person to min- gle and associate with lay people at all hours without any reasonable limits or rules – as though the religion was a distillery, and the monks and novices were distributing liquor so that the public could be drunk without ever sobering up for a day. Actually, the religion is medicine for curing drunkenness. Monks and novices are supposed to be doctors for curing their own drunkenness and that of the world. They’re not supposed to sell liquor and intoxicants to the point where they have no sense of shame.
Whenever people set foot in the monastery, we assume that they come in good faith – and so we compromise and end up making allowances until we forget ourselves and forget the Dhamma and Vinaya, neglecting proper monas- tic standards to the point where we destroy ourselves, the monastery and the religion bit by bit, day by day, until the whole lot turns to mud. Neither home dwellers nor monastery dwellers can find any principles to hold to. In the end, a lot of worthless stuff is accumulated in the monasteries because the minds of the monks and novices are overcome by defilements.
Because of that, each of us monks should reflect a great deal on these matters. Don’t see anything as having greater value than Dhamma and Vinaya, which are the major principles for uniting the hearts of Buddhist practitioners in confidence, conviction and peace. If the principles of Dhamma and Vinaya are lacking or deficient, the benefits received by Buddhists will have to be deficient in turn, until nothing remains to sustain their hearts. Even though the Buddha’s teachings fill the texts and copies of the Canon fill every monastery, the impor- tant essence that can inspire people to put their hearts into the practice for the sake of what is beneficial and auspicious doesn’t exist. This is something we can clearly see in the present age.
Monks and novices are important examples that can help the religion prosper and serve as a model to the people who become involved with it for the sake of all things meritorious and auspicious. If monks and novices are in- tent on behaving in line with the principles of Dhamma and Vinaya as taught by the Buddha, they are undoubtedly the ones who will preserve the good pat- tern of the religion and of the paths, the fruitions and Nibbana. People will take them as their standard – because there are still plenty of intelligent people left in the world. As for stupid people, even though they may overflow the planet, they have no fixed standards. When they feel pleased, they praise you. But, that praise merely comes from their stupidity and serves no purpose. When they feel displeased, they criticize you. That criticism serves no purpose, either for them or for you. If intelligent people praise you though, that can be taken to heart and benefits both parties. If they praise the Sangha, they praise it intelligently in line with the principles of truth. At the same time, those members of the Sangha who hold to reason can make themselves a field of merit for others, so that others too can benefit. When intelligent people criticize the Sangha, they have sound reasons which should be considered carefully. We who practice should make ourselves well aware of this point.
Wherever you go, don’t forget that you are a practitioner of the religion, a representative of our Teacher. You’re following the religion and proclaiming it through your practice. This doesn’t mean that you have to teach the public to understand the Dhamma. Just by practicing rightly, you become a visible example that can make them feel conviction in the religion from what they see. Even more so when you can explain the Dhamma correctly according to the principles of practice taught by the Buddha. This is all the more the right and proper proclamation of the religion that good people can trust in their hearts. In this way, the religion will flourish more and more in the hearts of Buddhists.
Wherever you go, wherever you stay, don’t forget these basic principles – moral virtue, samadhi and wisdom – which are the basis of our work as contemplatives. These are the essential principles of each monk’s work. This is when we become “Sons of the Sakyan, of the victorious Buddha.” This is how we become disciples of the Tathagata; not by merely shaving our heads and donning the yellow robe. That’s something of little significance that anyone can do. What’s important is behaving in line with our duties.
Moral virtue: We should be careful to maintain our precepts so that they are never broken or stained. We should be careful, using mindfulness and wis- dom in every activity. Whatever else may get broken, don’t let your precepts get broken, for they are the invaluable treasure of your status as a monk, something on which you can truly stake your life.
Samadhi: If calm and concentration have yet to arise, you should strive to train the heart and bring it under control, coming down hard on the unruli- ness caused by the power of the defilements, so that you can rein it in with the practice. Use mindfulness and wisdom to block the mind’s recklessness so that it settles down in peace and tranquility. This is our samadhi treasure as monks.
Wisdom is intelligence and ingenuity. Wisdom is useful in all places at all times. Always make use of wisdom, both in your internal and external activities.
Wisdom becomes especially important in your internal activities, when you’re investigating the various kinds of mental defilements. Wisdom and mindfulness should not be separated. They have to perform their duties together. Mindfulness keeps watch over the work that wisdom is performing. When mindfulness lapses, their work won’t accomplish its full aims. For this reason, mindfulness is a necessary quality that must always be kept fastened to your work.
These three duties constitute our work as contem- platives. Remember them and always take them to heart. Don’t be apathetic, or you’ll become a shameless monk who is callous to the fact that the world is always bowing down to you.
The word “wisdom” means our ability to investigate and unravel the various factors that become involved with us, both within and without. (And here, I have to ask forgiveness of the men and women interested in the Dhamma who fall under the condition I’m about to dis- cuss. Please reflect on my words in all fairness.) The physi- cal body: Usually it’s the body of the opposite sex that causes meditators the most problems. As the Dhamma says, there is no sight that’s a greater enemy to the mental state of a contemplative than the sight of the opposite sex. The same holds true for the voice, the smell, the taste and the touch of the opposite sex. These are the foremost dan- gers that contemplatives face, so we have to show greater care and restraint toward these sense objects than toward any others. Mindfulness and wisdom must come to terms with these important factors because they can cause more problems than any other aspect of practice.
Therefore, we should analyze the physical body with our wisdom so as to see it clearly. The words “the body of a woman” or “the body of a man” are merely names given in line with convention. Actually, the physical body is not a woman or a man. It’s simply an ordinary body just like ours, covered entirely with skin. If we look inside, there’s flesh, tendons and bones. That body, like ours, is full of filthy and repulsive things. No part of it is basically different from our own body. There is merely recognition in our mind that identifies “woman” or “man”. The words woman and man are deeply engraved within the heart, even though they merely represent suppositions that have no basis in truth.
The same is true with the voice: It’s just an ordinary sound, yet we rec- ognize it as the voice of the opposite sex and so it stabs deep into the heart – especially for those of us who are ordained – and goes clear through, to the point where we forget ourselves. The heart gets cut at the stem, even though we continue to live. The stem of the heart is torn, rotten and putrid, and yet we don’t die. Instead, we listen with pleasure to the song of our heart as it is being cut at the stem, without ever growing tired of it.
The smell: It’s an ordinary smell, just like ours, because it’s the smell of a person. Even if we bring perfumes and scents from the realms of the devas and Brahmas to rub down that body, the smell is the smell of those things, not the smell of a woman or man. So analyze this and make careful distinctions.
The touch of another body is no different from one part of our own body touching another part. Each of the parts is just earth, water, wind and fire, just like ours. We can’t perceive any difference. So we have to investigate clearly and make comparisons, comparing the sight, sound, smell, taste and touch of the woman or man with our own sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. There’s no difference in terms of the true principles of nature, aside from the mind mak- ing assumptions in line with its thoughts.
For this reason, we must use wisdom to unravel these phenomena. Don’t let suppositions of any kind be enemies that infiltrate and destroy your heart. Shake them off using wisdom, reducing them to the truth that these things are just sights, just sounds, just smells, just tastes and just tactile sensations, all of which pass by and disappear like other phenomena. This is without a doubt the right way to contemplate that gradually uproots our attachments and miscon- ceptions concerning these matters.
All the objects that you investigate in the world are changing, unsatisfac- tory and not-self. There’s nothing lasting to be found. All things arise dependent on other factors and then fall apart. Whatever the object: If it exists in the world, it has to fall apart. If it doesn’t fall apart, we will. If it doesn’t break up, we’ll break up. If it doesn’t leave, we’ll leave – because this world is full of leaving and separation through the principles of nature. So, investigate with wisdom in this way to understand them clearly before they leave us or we leave them, and then let them go in line with the truth. When we can do this, the mind will be at ease.
Samadhi refers to the stability and solidity of the heart, beginning with its small moments of stillness and peace, and progressing to the refined and stable levels of complete tranquility. If the mind isn’t trained, isn’t improved, isn’t forced with various tactics backed up by mindfulness, wisdom, conviction and persistence, it won’t be able to attain peace till its dying day. It will die in vain. It will die restless and confused, straying off into 108 different preoccupations. It won’t have any mindfulness or self-awareness. It will die without any prin- ciples or standards to hold to. It will die just as a kite whose string is cut floats wherever the wind blows. Even while still alive, the mind lives without any principles or standards, because of its absent-mindedness and heedless attitude and because it lacks any sense of reasonable purpose. It simply drifts. If we live simply drifting along without any good principles to ground us, then when we go, we’ll have to go simply drifting.
What purpose does drifting serve? What certainty can we have for our destination? So as long as we’re alive and aware, we should build certainty in our hearts by being strong and unflinching in matters of solid worth. Then we can be certain of ourselves both while we live and when we die. We won’t be upset or affected by life or death, by being separated from other people or our own bodies – something we all must meet with, because these things exist within us all.
It’s not the case that wisdom arises automatically on the heels of samadhi when the mind has been centered. Wisdom has to be exercised and trained to think, explore and investigate. Only then will it arise, with samadhi as its support. Samadhi on its own cannot turn into wisdom. It remains as samadhi. Samadhi merely refreshes and calms the mind. When the mind is content in tranquility, it doesn’t want to chase after distracting and confusing thoughts. We then take the tranquil mind and use it with wisdom to investigate and un- ravel various things, all of which are impermanent, unsatisfactory and without self-identity. All phenomena are filled with these same conditions, so use wis- dom to contemplate – from whatever angle most suits your temperament – by investigating these things with interest and with the desire to really know and see them as they truly are. Don’t simply investigate without any intention or mindfulness in control.
In particular, the meditation theme of unattractiveness is a good cure – a very good cure – for the mind obsessed with lust and passion. However strong the lust, that’s how strongly you should investigate unattractiveness until you can see the world with your own body and those of others as a cemetery of fresh corpses. Lust won’t have a chance to flare up when wisdom has penetrat- ed to the knowledge that the body is filled with repulsiveness. Who would feel lust for repulsiveness? Who would feel lust for things with no beauty? For things that are disgusting? This is one form of the medicine of unattractiveness, one of the prime medicines for curing the diseases of lust and craving. Once the mind has continually investigated unattractiveness to the point where it becomes so adept at contemplating the human body that it is able to visualize the body in whatever way it chooses, then the mind will converge to the level of unattrac- tiveness within itself. Seeing the pictures of unattractiveness it paints as being illusions, the mind will then let go of both sides: the side of unattractiveness as well as the side of attractiveness.
Both attractiveness and unattractiveness are memory associations coupled with the affairs of lust. Once we have investigated and fully understood both sides, the word “attractive” will dissolve and no longer have meaning. The word “unattractive” will dissolve and no longer have meaning. That which gives the meanings of attractive and unattractive is the mind or, in other words, memory. We are now wise to memory as being what recognizes things. Because we see the harm of these associations, memory will no longer be able to interpret in such a way as to make the mind grasp and be attached again. When this is the case, the mind lets go of both attractiveness and unattractiveness – or of beauty and ugliness. Until that happens, these perceptions are merely tools for training the mind with wisdom, because the wisdom needed to uproot them is not yet proficient enough to let go.
When wisdom is proficient enough to realize the causes and effects of both sides – both of attractiveness and unattractiveness – it can then turn around to know the function of memory that recognizes things as being attractive or unat- tractive. When wisdom clearly understands how memory functions and sees its harm, memory loses its power. The mind can see that memory is the real culprit. Attractive and unattractive objects are not to blame. The blame lies with memory’s interpretation of objects as being attractive and unattractive, which deceives us into becoming attached. This is where the mind’s focus starts mov- ing inward. As our investigation is drawn inward, the mind steadily lets go of attachments.
When the mind has reached this stage, then attractive and unattractive im- ages will appear in the mind without our having to focus on an external image. Images just appear in the mind. Even though the image appears in mind, we know clearly that the attractive or unattractive aspects of the phenomena that appear there come from memory. We know the image that appears in the mind, as well as the memory that recognizes it. Finally, the images in the mind vanish and memory – the interpretations – disbands. When the function of memory which used to fool us into seeing things as attractive and unattractive has dis- banded, nothing remains to deceive the heart. This is how unattractiveness is investigated in line with the principles of the practice. But, you won’t find this explanation anywhere in the texts. You’ll find the truth only if you search for it in the principles of nature that exist within the body and the mind – where the Four Noble Truths and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are located. You will find the things I’ve explained here only in the texts of your own heart.
Such is the nature of the body. We know clearly that every part of the body is simply a physical phenomenon. And what is there in these physical phenomena? All the parts – hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, marrow, spleen, heart, liver, membranes, kidneys, lungs, intestines, stomach, gorge, feces – are just physical phenomena, things separate from the mind. If we consider them as unattractive, who is it that gives them meaning, saying that this is attractive or that is unattractive? When did these things ever give themselves meanings? When did they ever say they were attractive or unattractive? They don’t speak for themselves at all. Whatever
their truth is, that’s how it’s always been in line with their nature from the very beginning – but they are unaware of their own meaning. What interprets their meaning is memory. The one that falls for their meaning is also memory, which originates from our deluded mind. Once we are wise to the tricks of memory, all these meanings disappear. Each phenomenon has its separate reality. This is what it means to be wise to mental phenomena.
Feelings refer to the sensations of pleasure, pain and indifference that arise from the body. The body is a phenomenon that has existed since before feel- ings arose. Pains arise, remain and then vanish. The body is the body. The pain is a pain. Each is a separate reality. Investigate and analyze them so as to see them for what they are – just a feeling, just a body – without regarding them as a being, a person, us or anyone else, ours or anyone else’s. The feeling isn’t us, ours or anyone else’s. It’s simply something that appears for a moment and disappears, in line with its nature. That’s the truth of it.
Memory means recognition and interpretation. Whatever it remembers – things near, far, past, present or future – vanishes immediately. It keeps vanish- ing – arising and vanishing, arising and vanishing – so how can we regard it as a self, a being, a person? Here we’re referring to using wisdom on the refined level, which penetrates inward according to the truth that is clear to the heart without our having to ask anyone else.
Thought-formation refers to thought and imagination: Forming good thoughts, bad thoughts and neutral thoughts. These formations constantly arise and vanish, arise and vanish. The mind cannot make any sense out of these thought-formations unless memory takes up where they leave off and turns them into issues. As for memory, we already know it clearly, so what essence can there be in thought-formations that are picked up and turned into long is- sues? They are only mental phenomena arising and vanishing in the mind. This is thought-formation.
Consciousness refers to the field of cognizance, that which takes note the moment external phenomena make contact, as when visual objects make contact with the eye and cognizance occurs. As soon as the object passes, this cognizance vanishes. No matter what phenomenon it takes note of, it’s always ready to vanish with that thing. What sense or substance can we get out of something so fleeting? How can we assume it to be us or ours?
The five components of personal identity have arisen and passed away continuously, moment after moment, from the day of our birth to the present. On their own, they have no real substance and it is impossible to find any. The mind’s interpretation of these phenomena is what lends them a semblance of personal reality. The mind clings to them as the essence of oneself, or as one’s own personal property. This misconception creates a self-identity that becomes a burden heavier than an entire mountain, a burden that the mind carries with- in itself without gaining any benefit. Pain and suffering are its only reward for a misconceived attachment fostered by self-delusion.
When the mind has investigated these things and seen them clearly with sharp, incisive wisdom, the body is known to be a natural phenomenon that is real in accordance with its own inherent physical qualities. It is not intrinsic to oneself and so it is no longer an object of attachment. Bodily feelings – pleas- ant, painful and neutral feelings that occur within the body – are clearly known to be real, but only within their specific domain. They too are relinquished. But wisdom is as yet incapable of seeing through the subtle feelings that arise exclusively within the mind. So pleasant, painful and neutral feelings that occur only within the mind are conditions that the mind continues to be interested in investigating. Although at this stage we are unable to understand the truth about them, these subtle feelings will be constant reminders always prompting the mind to examine them.
Put simply, as soon as wisdom sees through the mental components of personality, the mind lets go. If wisdom has yet to see through them, it holds on. Once wisdom has seen through them completely, the mind relinquishes them all because it sees that they are merely ripplings inside the mind that have no real substance. A good thought arises and ceases; a bad thought arises and ceases – it is all the same. Whatever kind of thought appears in the mind, it is just a configuration created by memory and thought that simply vanishes. There are no exceptions. No thought lasts more than an instant. Thoughts cannot be trusted because they do not last long enough to have any substantial meaning.
Having relinquished all attachment to personal identity, the mind at this level is exceedingly refined. But, although it has let go of everything else, it has yet to let go of itself. It remains permeated by a fundamental ignorance – ignorance about its own true nature. This basic delusion converges into a single point of focus. All of its external outlets having been cut off, it converges into the mind where it has no way to flow out. Delusion’s outlets are the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body, leading to sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations. Once mindfulness and wisdom are skilled enough to cut off these outflows for good, it’s left with no way out. Its external agents have been neu- tralized; all that remains is a subtle incessant vibration resonating within the mind. Being deprived of an outlet for its activities, delusion depends solely on the mind as its base. As long as wisdom is unable to thoroughly transcend it, delusion will appear as subtle feelings of satisfaction, subtle feelings of dissatisfaction and a radiance that is truly awesome and amazing. So the mind keeps focusing the investigation on those factors.
Every conventional reality – regardless of how refined it may be or how bright and majestic it may appear – invariably manifests some irregular symp- toms. These are sufficient to catch the mind’s attention and make it search for a solution. Both the very refined satisfaction and dissatisfaction that arise ex- clusively within the mind, and the truly amazing radiance that emanates from it, have their origin in delusion. But since we have never before encountered them, we are deluded into grasping at them when we first investigate this point. We are lulled sound asleep by delusion, which causes us to believe that the subtle feelings of satisfaction and the amazing bright radiance are our true es- sence beyond name and form. Oblivious to our mistake, we take this majestic mind complete with delusion to be our one true self.
But not for long. At this level, the powerful faculties of supreme-mindful- ness and supreme-wisdom are never complacent. They habitually keep scruti- nizing, investigating and analyzing back and forth all the time. Eventually they must realize the truth. They will notice the subtle feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction displaying very slight variations that seem out of keeping with that majestic radiance. Even though the dissatisfaction that manifests is ever so slight, it is enough to make us suspicious. Why does the mind have these vary- ing conditions? It’s never constant. The very slight irregularities observed in the amazingly bright radiance at the center of the mind show just enough fluctua- tion to allow mindfulness and wisdom to catch sight of them.
Once they are detected, mistrust arises, alerting wisdom that they should be investigated. So the quality of the mind’s awareness then becomes the fo- cus of the investigation. Mindfulness and wisdom concentrate on this know- ing point, trying to discover what it really is. They have already investigated everything of every sort to the extent that all other factors have been success- fully eliminated. But this awareness which is so bright and so amazing: what exactly is it? As mindfulness and wisdom continue focusing in, the mind be- comes the focal point of a full-scale investigation. It is turned into a battlefield for supreme-mindfulness and supreme-wisdom. Before long, they are able to destroy the fundamental delusion that appears so magnificently amazing and majestic, totally obliterating it so that not even the smallest trace of it remains within the mind.
When that nature which we believe to be so magnificent and amazing finally disintegrates, something that is impossible to describe arises in full mea- sure. That nature is absolute purity of mind. When compared to that state of purity, the deluded mind that we once held to be so superb resembles a pile of cow dung, and the nature that was concealed by it appears to be pure gold. Which is more precious, pure gold or mushy cow dung? Even a baby sucking its thumb can answer, so we needn’t waste our time and proclaim our stupidity by making comparisons.
This concludes the investigation of the mind. Upon reaching this level, the mind is cut off forever from birth and existence, severed completely from all manifestations of delusion and craving. When delusion is extinguished, con- ditioned phenomena – which give rise to pain and suffering – are also extin- guished. They have disappeared from the mind. Conditioned phenomena such as thoughts continue to function in their own sphere but they no longer cause suffering. They simply give form and direction to mental activity. Conscious- ness arising in the mind is a pure and simple consciousness that no longer pro- duces suffering. All sense media and the sense contact that they condition are just naturally occurring phenomena that exist according to their own intrinsic characteristics. They have no negative effect whatsoever on the mind that has successfully completed its task. This is the total cessation of the entire mass of suffering.
The mind is then free, vast and supremely empty, without limit and without bounds – totally expansive. Nothing encloses or obstructs it. All contradictions have been eliminated. When the mind knows, it knows only the truth; when it sees, it sees only the truth. This is true emptiness.
This concludes the work of a contemplative according to the principles of the Buddha’s teachings. From the time of the Buddha down to the present, these principles have remained constant. There are no deficiencies or excesses in the principles of the Dhamma taught by the Buddha that would make them unable to keep up with the tricks and deceits of the various forms of delusion. The Buddha’s teaching is called the Middle Way because it’s the Dhamma that is always appropriate for countering every sort of delusion to the point where no delusion remains. This is how you should understand the power of the Middle Way. The release from pain and suffering is something with a value that tran- scends all three levels of existence. What can we find in any of the three levels of existence that is more fantastic than the heart’s permanent release from all pain and suffering? When we understand this truth clearly, our efforts in the practice will advance steadily. We’ll be ready to die in the battle for freedom from the heavy burden of delusion.