One of the monks asked a renowned Forest Ajahn: ‘What’s it like to see things as they really are?’ There was an understandable air of expectation in the room: to ‘see things as they really are’ (yathābhutam ñānadassanam) is the vision of the Awakened Mind. What mystical insight was about to be revealed?
‘It’s ordinary,’ said the Ajahn in his customary succinct and matter-of-fact way.
Bodhidharma, the legendary conveyor of the Ch’an transmission of Dhamma to China, had an exchange with the Emperor that was similar in tone. The Emperor, who had devotedly built temples and shrines throughout China, implored the Master, ‘What is the essence of the Holy Truth?’
‘Emptiness, no holiness,’ replied the sage.
Awakening is more of a deflation of the mind than a peak experience. That’s way it’s difficult to grasp. Actually, ‘emptiness’ – until you understand it as the non-clingable, signless quality of what arises – does give one something a little mystical to cling to. Perhaps the Emperor wasn’t ready for the really direct teaching. Subsequent Ch’an masters, who were teaching committed disciples, tended to either tell them to wash their bowls, or whack them with a stick. The point is that the closer you get to the Dhamma, the more directly it is attuned to, the more you know that appearances aren’t where it’s at. But when whatever arises is experienced as ‘just so’, then nothing is being made out of anything: just this is the Unconstructed, ‘atammayatā’, and the end to the conceiving, favouring and proliferations of the mind. Things are as they are, but the mind’s awareness is peaceful, clear and awake.
As indicated, the language to describe such fruition turns normal expectations inside out. Frequently awareness is said to be released through the ‘stopping’, or ‘cessation’ of consciousness. A related example, from the Pali Canon, is Bhikkhuni Patacāra’s experience of Awakening. Returning to her dwelling after a period of walking meditation, her realization occurred as she turned down the flame of her lamp:
Like the going out of a flame was the release of awareness.
No blazing light, but just the opposite. Is ‘Awakening’ some kind of coma? Well, this apparent paradox occurs because consciousness is not fully understood.
The activation of consciousness
Awareness as consciousness is the six-fold awareness that processes data through eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and thinking mind. In this set-up, mind-consciousness (manoviññāna, citta) is the awareness that is affected by the perceptions and feelings that arise from external sense contact, and also from of the internal (that is mind-) base. So, as we know for ourselves, the mind is always being affected, and is such it’s fluttering, on the run, or sliding from this to that. Now, maybe if all that flittering and chattering were to stop ... that would be a stilling of an activity rather than an annihilation of anything solid. Which is exactly the point. It also explains why the language of Awakening is distinctly unexciting and doesn’t get one’s pulses racing.
For Awakening whatever gets consciousness running has to be revealed, directly known and relinquished. And this relinquishment again isn’t an annihilation, but a letting go of the reactivity that keeps us spinning. It’s all in the mind. The mind base is the home of the impulses and psychological activities (citta-sankhāra), which stimulate consciousness for good or for bad. On investigation these activities of liking, disliking, of hesitancy or eagerness are seen as arising dependent on our attitudes and subjectively-based perceptions. We acquire these perceptual references over the course of time. Whether a taste is ‘delicious’ or music ‘pleasant, and what an arrangement of letters on a page ‘means’ – all gets learned from paying attention and assessing results – such as that forming words helps you to communicate with other humans, and that’s useful. This is how consciousness is activated and programmed. These activities, these sankhāra, are also called ‘formations’ in that through their activity an impression, a perception of ‘what’s out there’ gets formed. And not only that. Formations form and define a ‘me’, as lively, articulate, passionate, even-minded or dull. So the solidity of our world and our self is based upon activities and formations. And what if they stopped? In that freeing up, in things really being seen as they are, the world and the self neither exist nor don’t exist. They both arise dependently.
One point to emphasize is that the ‘me’ sense is a solidification of the sense of presence that is the resonance of consciousness. It takes form dependent on the perceptions and feelings that consciousness forms, infers and otherwise derives from sense-contact. When an architect looks at a building, he/she becomes an architect (that particular sense of self doesn’t arise as they eat a meal or watch TV). And in that mode, he/she sees something different from that which is seen by a thief. The individual bias, the acquired activity forms an impression both of the subject and the object.
Even more pertinent, when pain or displeasure touch the heart, ‘I’ get formed as the victim of that. With pleasure, I become the owner. Then I get defensive or acquisitive and act accordingly – instant kamma. Have you seen – or felt – who you become when guilt or fear gets into you? Or when compassion or joy touches your heart? ‘Being touched’ is a formation; contact/impression (phassa) is an activity that modifies and colours the sense of self. In this respect, I’m referring not so much to direct sensory contact or ‘impingement contact’ (patigha-phassa), but the impression that the mind makes of that contact, called ‘designation contact’ (adhivacana-phassa). This form of contact is the significant one: owing to the subjective flavouring of designation contact, different people find different sights, sounds, flavours, ideas, remarks and gestures delightful, repugnant, or neutral. Designation contact sets up the familiar pattern of how we experience the world; and the consequent perceptions and impressions guide what we will make impingement contact with in the future. So this is the key to how we react and create fresh action, or kamma, based on the blueprint of the past. (Only to discover that what was wonderful once becomes ‘same old thing’ the third time round.)
Amazingly enough, as if that detail of understanding consciousness wasn’t enough, the Buddha was able to go deeper and witness the various aspects of these sankhāra activities that accompany mind-consciousness. These mental activities, these citta-sankhāra, are: the subjective attention (manasikāra) that notices what ‘interests’ (or repels, or otherwise activates) me; the designation contact whose action is to ‘name’ an experience accordingly as ‘not as good as’, ‘wonderful’, and a long list of etceteras; and the psychological impulse, volitional twitch or ‘go for it’ intention (cetana) that rises up as a response. Combined with perception and mental feelings that they generate, attention, contact and intention make up what is termed as ‘name’ (nāma). The sting in this apparently neutral functioning is that when it gets infected with ignorance, the mind takes as real, substantial and potentially acquirable what in fact has been formed by consciousness. So that stirs consciousness into chasing it’s tail, motivated by either acquisition, aversion or delusion. Of which three, delusion is the one that is most constantly streaming in. The deluded consciousness imagines that the sense of presence which is its own resonance is some lasting, immaterial self that might acquire or be the unwilling recipient of what is passing through it. Seemingly inevitable and occasionally cute and endearing, it is this sense of self, with its restless need, that forms in the stream of name and feeds greed and hatred.
Name has weighed down everything
Nothing is more extensive than name.
Name is the one thing that has
All under its control
From where do the streams turn back?
Where does the round no longer revolve?
Where does name-and-form cease,
Stop without remainder?
Where water, earth, fire and air,
Do not gain a footing:
It is from here that the streams turn back
Here that the round no longer revolves;
Here name-and-form ceases,
Stops without remainder.
So … if, instead of creating fantasies and phobias, those streams were to stop …
Intellectually, it’s not difficult to repudiate delusion. As far as we can see, in the experienced Cosmos, there’s no such thing as a thing: from the stars and rocks on down to the oscillating cells in our bodies and our flickering thoughts, it’s all dynamic. How could there be a permanent self? But in all this movement, there’s one process that forms that apparent self. It's the lock of grasping. And that occurs in the citta-sankhāra when it’s infected by ignorance. In its psychic theatre of ‘me in here having things done to me by the world out there’, this 'mental activity' formulates perceptions and mental feelings – emotional complexes – that establish a ‘me’ in a stream of suffering and stress. From the sense of ‘me aiming to (or about to) get what I want’, ‘me being rejected’, ‘what am I going to do about…?’ issue powerful emotions of greed, impatience, depression, resentment, anxiety and the rest. Consequently the mind gets overwhelmed and loses clarity and presence. We may despair and blame our dissonances on the world, on others or on ourself, but in reality it’s all down to ignorance with regard to these activities/formations.
So … if this stress is the result of activities, how can I make those activities stop?
To elaborate on this end, the Canon, in the formula of Dependent Arising, presents how awareness is conditioned, and in its reverse sequence, how awareness is released. And as another paradox, it’s not a matter of me stopping anything.
With the complete and dispassionate fading of ignorance comes around the ceasing of the activities; with the ceasing of the activities is the ceasing of consciousness; with the ceasing of consciousness the ceasing of name-and-form.
Or to put it another way:
When ignorance isn’t active, the activities that bias awareness don’t come into play; when these activities stop (or don’t arise), the process of ‘naming’ or creating designations that solidify into apparently real things (=’form’) also stops.
The keynote is ‘dispassionate.’ Remember that intention is part of the nāma package that we’re looking to stop. In fact it’s a crucial piece. Although perceptions and feelings are the movers that get us jumping, intention (which steers attention) is what set up the basis to acquire them in the first place. Because we’re motivated to belong, be happy and get ahead, attention gets primed to reach out for the ‘feel good factor’ and register those perceptions and impressions that most immediately hit that button. Of course, these aren’t always the most useful in the long-term – but what gets sustained is that, although this one didn’t quite do it, there’s a perception out there, or in here, that will take me where I want to go. Have you ever heard the ‘If only this wasn’t happening…’ or the ‘It should be…’ or ‘She/I should be…’ ? Perpetually unfulfilled, that self is looking to fulfill its perceptual dreams. And alongside it runs its partner ‘This isn’t good enough’, which swells into ‘It’s not fair’ and goes viral with ‘There’s something wrong with me, I didn’t make it.’ So to quit suffering, you have to stop searching for the ‘right’ perception. And therefore, in meditation, rather than sustain perceptions even of formlessness and space, it’s wiser to relax the intention to acquire (or to assume one has acquired) anything. As one passage in the Canon indicates, even perceptions of realization are to be allowed to pass:
[Sariputta speaking]...I attained to samādhi of such a sort that in earth I was unaware of earth ... in this world ... in the world beyond I was unaware of it, and yet at the same time I was percipient …
One perception arose in me: ‘to end becoming is Nibbāna.’ Another perception faded out in me: ‘to end becoming is Nibbāna.’ Just as, friend, from a fire of splinters, one spark arises and another spark fades out, in such a way one perception arose: ‘to end becoming is Nibbāna’; and another perception: ‘to end becoming is Nibbāna’ faded out in me. Yet at the same time, friend, I consciously perceived.
These statements suggest that with Awakening, there is no sensed object. And yet when mind-consciousness is ‘stopped’ – turned back from the designation process of name-and-form, and relinquishing even the cognitive knowing of that state of ‘emptiness’ – it does offer clear vision.
So correct cultivation has to be in line with disengagement and dispassion, a moderation of intention that culminates in stopping and relinquishment. It’s a good reminder: relinquishment of intention is the mark of an ariyan; a mark whose significance is that when we meditate and loosen our conscious intentions most of us meet an arising of residual memories and impulses. To be able to relinquish intention and stay clear requires a training in emptying the mind of ‘me and mine.’
Personally, I find that very grounding. Dhamma practice isn’t bound by time, place or what arises. It’s a matter of meeting what arises; disengaging, softening and relaxing the reactive intention; and then widening the span of attention to include awareness of intention itself. Furthermore, if we widen to attune to how any contact affects the body (especially around the eyes, forehead, and solar plexus) it’s possible to relax and release things right there.
In the traditional context, many people had realizations outside of a formal meditation practice – but they all trained in applying the mind to what arises at any level. In a bygone age, that meant dealing with poor food, unheated crude dwellings, sickness, and rigorous routines with very little sensory distraction for the mind to go out to. See what that arises, meet it and release it at that point. In such cases, effort isn’t egotistical willpower, but an expression of what it takes to get through a day of hardship without psychologically cracking up. To enter and persist in such environments required a strong aspiration with the need to continually renew determination and patient endurance. The meditation technique was simple – like reciting ‘Buddho’ with each breath – because it was conducted within a training that cleared the Path by subjecting intention, attention and contact to a rigorous work-out.
And if the natural environment couldn’t work you over, then the teacher would. Ajahn Chah commented that his ‘technique’ was to frustrate his disciples. Marpa had Milarepa construct and demolish buildings as a practice. Most of the instructions of the Thai Forest Masters was on directing attention towards looking after the bowls, robes and kutis, cleaning the toilets, attending to Elders. And cultivating restraint around food, and looking at corpses – a lot. So it isn’t the object or the perception that counts in itself, but using them to restrain the outgoing impulses, and give attention in areas that challenge the notion of having things go one’s way.
The beauty of this is that it makes the practice universal. Appearances change, but practising with the pressures, and the designation impressions of ‘me suffering’, is still the heart of Buddha-Dhamma. Most of the work of the practice then is just about noticing what stimulates, alarms or otherwise pushes our buttons, and working with that. It’s about restraining the free-wheeling mind, turning away from sources of powerful attraction, checking the impulse and reactions, softening the ill-will and tension and widening into the body to release the energy of the activation. And more subtly, it’s about meeting and disengaging the ‘should be’s’. So: I walk up and down my meditation path feeling nothing special and practise staying with that; facing a group of school children and wanting to bring something into their lives that will withstand the floods of commercialism, I hold and relax with that; or, at a management meeting, I listen to the gloomy analysis of the monastery’s finances, without dismissing or panicking over that. Meet it, disengage from the script of it even as you widen to receive its wave – and let that move through you. Then trust what arises within when the self-impression passes. Investigate the dukkha of ‘how it should be.’ Because with unerring simplicity, release always comes down to cultivating the Four Noble Truths. Selfless clarity (vijja) spontaneously arises with their comprehension; what arises by itself after the release is the true guide.
And it’s nobody’s. The awareness that is liberated through such realization is just ‘aññā’ ‘the Knowing.’ It’s a knowing that has no subject, a development based on, but beyond, the mindful knowing and witnessing of what arises. At each stage of Awakening, as places where self-view congregates get freed, there is the Knowing, dispassionate and free from positions. And the Buddha constantly refused to make a self out of that.
A tangle inside, a tangle outside
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
I ask you this, O Gotama
Who can disentangle this tangle…?
Where name-and-form ceases,
Stops without remainder,
And also impingement and perception of form:
It is here this tangle is cut.
And to be even more pithy, there’s the conclusion of the brief exchange between the Emperor and Bodhidharma:
‘Then who is this who stands before me?’
‘Your Majesty, I don’t know.’
For accounts of Bodhidharma, see
Broughton, Jeffrey L. (1999), The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen, Berkeley: University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-21972-4
Pali Canon: see Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations in the Wisdom ‘Discourses of the Buddha’ series, or Ven. Thanissaro’s translations at www.accesstoinsight.org