A talk given about ⅔ through
On our retreat the practice has been anapanasati in combination with sadhana plus, on the side, a little Just Sitting – though elements of Just Sitting are included in both sadhana and anapanasati. Both are really all-encompassing practices that can be employed to cover the whole system of meditation if we are steeped in them—and we are well steeped in them right now.
First, anapanasati offers a sequence of approaches that can create shamata and sometimes dhyana… that can establish mindfulness of the whole field of the body… that can be a way to connect deeply with the body and relax tensions it is holding, together with the past events and even underlying views of reality that cause us to hold the body in that way. Anapanasati helps us explore what feelings and sensations and emotions are arising in us, exploring all that within an overall context of mindfulness. It also gives a way to explore the quality of knowing, what it is to be conscious of something.
All this richness of direct sensate experience comes about simply through relaxing with the breathing in the body.
And that rich mindful experience is just the foundation, because the main practice, that all that shamata supports, is insight into the three lakshanas. In practical terms, it gets us exploring the quality of dispassion in relation to dukkha, and eventually starting to let go samsara.
I have been very happy with this Anapanasati, because it has been so reliable as a practice I can pick up wherever I am. If for example I’m feeling rather jangled and unsettled, the breathing helps soothe me down and then I’m quite soon back in concentration and mindfulness, and the impermanence again quite quickly becomes apparent. At least, that is after a week or so of regular practice.
I made quite a few discoveries, most of them seem quite obvious when I say them, but still I was pleased. For example, it became clear to me that of its nature, the breath won’t bear much distracted thought. I mean the aware breath. Maybe you notice that when you have a lot of strong thoughts, they control the breath, they create their own strong patterns of breathing. You can observe this in someone when they are dreaming and locked into a strong story. Their breathing becomes definitely patterned, sometimes quite forced; you can sometimes see this in a sleeping pet for example. But it’s different when awareness comes into the breath. It then won’t tolerate lots of thoughts. You can’t have those thoughts and at the same time be deeply, richly, aware of the shifting texture of the breath. It is only when the thinking relaxes and starts receding that it’s even possible to rest attention in the breath.
I found I could be confident in this. I only had to trust the feeling of the breathing, and sooner or later, my mind would start relaxing, my thoughts would be less hard and controlling, and my attention would flow more into the body and the breath. Then everything could relax and come alive.
That was the first, the body tetrad of the anapanasati series. Moving on to the second, I discovered that feeling is in some ways a pleasure in itself. Just having feeling, any feeling at all. I mean just to be able to feel—up to a point even if it’s painful—is a source of joy. It feels good just to feel. It simply feels right to, and that brings confidence. Even if the feeling’s not what I wanted, still I do want to be able to feel things, and I’m glad I do. And rather strangely, it is also as though the feelings themselves want to be felt. When they are, something special happens, a kind of positive feedback.
I realise from these observations that the whole thing, the whole business of feeling is alive with an intelligent life of its own, quite independent of the theoretical ‘me’ that generally manages to intrude itself.
And also, I discovered, not for the first time, that it is not wrong to seek out pleasure in the practice. It is easy to resist this idea, to think that doing so would be cheating somehow. But the anapanasati stages of experiencing pleasant feeling and happiness, pīti and sukha––they shouldn’t be dismissed like that. I tend to go, well there is no particular feeling of pleasure here! And really, that is actually how it is, and it would be wrong to try to create pleasure, it would be kind of hypocritical or pretending. But I suddenly recognised that it was a habitual attitude that prevented any pleasure. Even if there isn’t any pleasure, that’s not a reason not to create some. Honestly: pleasure is good. Pleasure is energy. And it is good to realise that the anapanasati instruction here is to actively seek out pleasure out and enjoy it as part of the practice. There is always something you can draw out, a bit hidden maybe. For me it would sometimes just be a slight pleasant tingle in my spine or at the top of my head. Simply acknowledging it and feeling that little bit of sweetness gave me a boost each time, and that is the idea. My resistance had been that this seemed like artificial, a kind self stimulation, I felt it was somehow narcissistic and even masturbatory. But that was just my confused view: the truth is that it really helps, a bit of stimulation. There can be a touch of dhyana coming out of that acknowledgment of pleasure and happiness. And even when there isn’t, pleasure is helpful — it brings confidence and energy. We need that.
Then moving on to the third tetrad, another discovery was that consciousness, being aware, knowing the mind and the senses, noticing awareness itself, also is inherently joyful in rather the same way. In the mind tetrad the instruction is to know the citta, gladden the citta, concentrate the citta, and liberate the citta. Apart from the last one, it all seemed slightly contrived, in rather a similar way to the Priti and sukha stages of the feeling tetrad. But then I realised that you need to enjoy being conscious of things, the organic feeling of that knowing, rather than seeing consciousness as something mechanical— like a camera, say. A cameral isn’t alive is it. But awareness is. Awareness is alive in its own right, in its own way, it has a life of its own. And my idea that it is somehow mine, or relates to some kind of assumed self, just obstructs the understanding. I also realised once again that we have to abandon this notion that the mind can’t know itself. This is a common fixed idea I have come across. People say ‘a sword can’t cut itself.’ Well, this one can. Of course the mind can know itself. Of course we can become aware of awareness. The mind is automatically self knowing, it’s part of its nature. We do it all the time without thinking and analysing it, self awareness just happens, it is part of the living quality of awareness.
So that kind of organic understanding makes awareness a lot more real and down to earth. Making the switch in the third tetrad to noticing awareness, soon triggers enjoyment and gladness, and that brings a natural deep concentration, like a mountain lake, filled by many mountain streams, and then the insightful awareness can come that all this rich consciousness is not me or mine… and there you are, liberating the citta.
Of course the fourth tetrad is where the real action is in the anapanasati, but once we have established the practice a bit, it can have this Avatamsaka quality of each jewel reflecting all the others at the same time. So once you know it, you just need to start in with the body tetrad, and already you can see some of the impermanent arisings and passings away of the liberation tetrad. Because it is all an experience, it is all happening in the mind, the third tetrad, awareness, is also everywhere. Feeling is everywhere, etc. And in the last stage you don’t stop being aware of the body, or the breathing, or the feeling, or anything, that is integral to the insight reflection and the direct penetration, too. It is all there all the time.
As you know the actual sequence is as follows: breathing in, breathing out, contemplating impermanence. Breathing in, out, contemplating
dispassion. Breathing in, out, contemplating cessation. Breathing in, out, contemplating letting go. By this stage you have a deep, experiential foundation of the arising and passing of the various phenomena of body feeling and mind. Now, contemplating that, watching that, experiencing that, you can notice how much there is still wanting and not wanting, still the pushing and pulling of desires, often very subtle and hidden, and sometimes really blindingly obvious. Spotting that pushing away of some experiences, and approving of others, we start seeing how controlled we are by habits, by our self made karma. This is yer actual dukkha. We are trapped in endless reconfigurations of deeply ingrained habit. Seeing this clearly, it is obviously a terrible thing. So if we ever see dukkha clearly, dispassion immediately arises. If we actually see it, we lose our fascination with whatever drives us, it no longer seems so great, so wonderfully ‘me’, so worth pursuing, and worth following. Before we really saw dukkha, the idea of dispassion, or losing interest, always sounded so boring, and, well, passionless. It never really sounded like anything worth having. Now, we see that it is absolutely the answer. It is what brings freedom. So we get into that, and that can be the entire practice from then on, every time. Because we realise that things come to an end. Cessation actually happens. The cessation of dukkha comes when we lose interest in what is drivig the dukkha. We realise cessation is real and that is exciting, so then we dwell as much as we can in dispassion and cessation, and letting go. Letting go really sums up the whole process there. Letting go of everything in our samsara.
So as we now know, there is a whole dharma project there in the anapanasati, it is a method that we can use in all kinds of ways. It is incredibly useful. In relation to that, the Just Sitting is also a way to do the same thing. We’ve not done a lot, collectively at least, of the Just Sitting. But the way it can work in this kind of context, it is like the anapanasati without the anapana, without the breathing. Well not without the breathing, ha ha, I mean without any special attention to the breathing. That is, the attention is given directly to the experience of body, feeling, and mind rather than via the breathing somehow. And also the liberation of letting go is there from the start, because, well, Just sitting is nothing but letting go. I had this experience I told you about yesterday of drinking coffee with Yashobodhi and eating warm krentenbollen, kind of raisin sultana buns, she’d just made, and then when we had nothing to say, going into a state of deep concentrated openness of heart and mind because it was so simple. There simply was no more to be said, our hearts were that full. The just sitting could be like that. There is nothing else but openness. Because when you have done the anapanasati in depth, there comes a point like in the Avatamsaka Sutra where everything, every experience, points you into letting go. There is no more to be done
in terms of setting up the practice. That has all happened and now it is just fully alive and it will keep going in some way wherever you are, whatever you are doing, so long as you keep up the desire to let go. You just see arising and passing away dharmas. And so when you just sit, there are rising and passing dharmas again, and when you just sit you just sit, you don’t try to do anything with those dharmas. You don’t even try to let them go. Because actually, as we also learn from the anapanasati, you don’t really need to do anything, because they always come to an end anyway. In Dzogchen or Mahamudra terms, dharmas ‘self liberate’. It is really reliable that they do. You can be totally confident that dharmas, even heavily habitual dharmas, will come to an end, so just let them do that and leave it there. So the Just sitting works like that in relation to the anapanasati, the anapanasati sets us up to just sit in self liberating dharmas.
With sadhana practice, it’s the same but the context is different because sadhana practice is so different. With sadhana practice, the Just sitting is called the Completion phase where you no longer visualise, you just sit in the awakened state, or in an attempt or a trial version of that. As for example when the Buddha has filled your body and the bodies of all sentient beings with blessings made of deep red nectar light and you just sit with their essence in your heart. That is a profound moment of Just Sitting as well, it is quite similar to the arising and passing away of dharmas but the element of inspiration comes in differently.
Anyway let me say a bit more about the sadhana practices, because that has turned out to be the other main component of our retreat. It’s been anapanasati and sadhana mostly, pretty much — at least that is what I’ve been teaching, not all of you will have been doing simply that. By sadhana I’m including the ritual, especially because the rituals have largely been sadhanas anyway. Sadhana is a kind of puja and puja is a kind of sadhana anyway. Sadhana consists of the Development phase and the Completion phase, with Just Sitting as it’s completion. The development phase consists of imagining you are in the presence of Awakening, some form of awakening. One of the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, or maybe some great teacher who is considered to have been fully awakened, or a dakini. The figure is either out there in front of you, or above you or you visualise that you have become them. These are just devices to get you to engage with the lived reality of awakening. You may believe that the figure actually exists somehow and this is a way to connect to them, or you may believe that this represents the energetic reality of awakening in a particular form that appeals to you, and that it actually exists, but the manner of their existence is inconceivable, just as all existence including our own is. It doesn’t matter too much what your view is of what is happening, though
what we believe always has an effect. In the case of neither of the views I just mentioned, is the figure going to make you awakened somehow. In every case in Buddhism, awakening has to come from an individual’s personal efforts. However meeting a Buddha is definitely going to help, even in imagination and putting oneself in the place of the Buddha, and imagining their state, is definitely going to help, by making something that can seem rather abstract, liberation from the klesas, much more concrete and embodied. It has been proved I gather that simply imagining yourself doing physical exercise has many positive effects, so I have no doubt that imagination can effect extremely powerful transformations.
At the moment we no doubt have some real experience of the liberation of the vimokshas, that come out of realising the nature of the three lakshanas: the signless liberation arising from seeing the nature of impermanence, and the wishless and the emptiness vimokshas arising from unsatisfactoriness and, well, emptiness. Emptiness is a liberation, not just a kind of vacuum or empty state. The sadhanas I think give some taste of Vimoksha. They also work with the immanent awakening called Buddha Nature, that is that each of us has awakening in us as a potential, simply because we are a living being, and that spiritual practice nourishes our intuition as to what that nature is within us, even right now, so with the right kind of training, and sadhana is a prime example, you can learn to discover these intuitions about what awakening means, and to trust them. This is a late Buddhist, Vajrayana method, just as sadhana itself is.
So you can see the contrast with the anapanasati method. The anapanasati brings you right to the nub of the matter — dukkha, unsatisfactoriness — and can introduce you to the liberations, with a lot of sincere practice in excellent conditions, in seclusion with no or very little distraction. It might take more than just one retreat, but not necessarily. But it can’t give you much of a taste of what is on the other side of all that letting go — the positive reality of it. That’s what sadhana is for. Well, it’s an eight century Indo Tibetan cultural method designed to do that, anyway.
When insight comes, it is very surprising what it is about. It is never what we imagined. We knew it was about there being no actual concrete self, etc., but what we never imagined was what that would actually be really about, in a positive lived sense. So when you do get that sense, that spiritual death, it needs to be applied in all situations because one little bit isn’t enough and you get stuck on that, normally. Sadhana is supposed to be a way to do that spiritual rebirth bit as well, by giving you ways to exercise realisation.
And I suppose that once you are into them, that is what all these practices enable.
So that’s a bit of an overview I hope, of the practices we have been doing so far, the anapanasati, the Just Sitting, and the sadhana. They were already familiar to some extent, now they are more so, I hope, and there is plenty of time to take them loads further.