A. Awareness arises when there are conditions. We cannot make awareness arise at will; awareness is anatta. It would seem, therefore, that we cannot make an effort to have awareness. I know however that right effort, in Pali samma-vayama, is one of the factors of the eightfold Path. What is the characteristic of right effort?
B. Samma-vayama or right effort is the cetasika which is viriya or energy. The 'Visuddhimagga' (XIV, 137) states about viriya:
Energy (viriya) is the state of one who is vigorous (vira). Its characteristic is marshalling (driving). Its function is to consolidate nascent states. It is manifested as non-collapse. Because of the words 'Bestirred, he strives wisely' its proximate cause is a sense of urgency; or its proximate cause is grounds for the initiation of energy. When rightly initiated, it should be regarded as the root of all attainments.
Viriya is a type of nama but is it not true that we take it for self? There are different kinds of viriya. There is viriya which is akusala and there is viriya which is kusala. Viriya of dana, viriya of sila and viriya of samatha also have different qualities. The viriya which is samma-vayama (right effort) of the eightfold Path is different again.
Samma-vayama of the eightfold Path arises together with samma-ditthi (right understanding) and samma-sati (right mindfulness). When there is right mindfulness of nama and rupa, there is at that moment samma-vayama as well. In order to develop the wisdom which sees things as they are we have to continue to be mindful. Samma-vayama encourages one to continue to be mindful of all nama and rupa which appear.
A. You said that when samma-ditthi knows a characteristic of nama or rupa there is also samma-vayama at that moment. But when there is very little awareness should we not make an effort to have more?
B. If one tries to force awareness to arise and to catch the reality of the present moment, one does not know what sati is. It is true that right awareness should be cultivated, but this does not mean that one can force awareness to arise. It means that there should be right understanding of the characteristics of nama and rupa and of the Path. We should remember that right understanding is the first factor of the eightfold Path. When the citta which realizes a characteristic of nama or rupa is accompanied by right understanding, there is at that moment right effort as well; there is no 'self' which has to make an effort.
A. I have heard that the right effort of the eightfold Path is the effort of the 'middle way'. However it is very difficult to walk the middle way. If we make too much of an effort there is the notion of self again and if we make no effort at all we are heedless. I do not know how to walk the right way.
B. If we think in terms of making too much or too little effort, then we do not realize that right effort is nama and not 'self'. We should not confuse samma-vayama of the eightfold Path with what in conventional language we usually mean by 'effort' or 'trying'. Samma-vayama of the eightfold Path arises when there is mindfulness of nama or rupa which appears: it arises when there are the right conditions, not because of our desire for it.
We do not have to think of effort, because when there is right mindfulness there is at that moment samma-vayama as well.
A. I understand that effort in vipassana is different from effort in samatha. When there are akusala cittas we should make an effort to have kusala cittas. The person who develops samatha and the person who develops vipassana will make effort for kusala in different ways. Is that right?
B. The person who develops samatha concentrates on a meditation subject in order to eliminate akusala cittas temporarily. That is viriya of samatha; it is different from the samma-vayama of the eightfold Path. When one develops vipassana there can be mindfulness of the characteristic of whatever reality appears, even if it is akusala: thus the inclination to take realities for 'self' will decrease. At the moment of mindfulness there is samma-vayama of the eightfold Path as well.
It is important to know what one is developing: samatha or vipassana. Those who say that they are developing vipassana but do not want to be aware of akusala cittas are not on the eightfold Path. Most people are afraid of gross defilements, but they do not realize the danger of latent tendencies which are accumulated in the citta. Latent tendencies are dangerous; they are a condition for akusala cittas or akusala kamma to arise; they are the condition for us to be born again and again. Vipassana is the only way to eradicate latent tendencies.
A. You said that when there is samma-ditthi there is samma-vayama too with that citta, which is mindful of nama or rupa. That is all very well, but how can there be samma-ditthi in the beginning?
B. When we understand the right way of practice there are conditions for mindfulness to arise, and gradually there will be right understanding of realities. The more we realize our ignorance, the more we see that awareness is essential. There is no other way to have less ignorance, since right understanding of nama and rupa can only develop at the moment there is mindfulness of their characteristics as they appear through the six door-ways. Knowing this is a condition for mindfulness to arise more often, and then there is right effort as well.
Some people think that a few moments of awareness are enough to know realities such as seeing, hearing, colour or sound. They say that they can 'experience' nama and rupa. They may think that they know nama and rupa by direct experience, but they do not yet have a precise knowledge of their characteristics. They do not know the difference between the characteristic of nama and the characteristic of rupa. They do not know, for instance, the difference between the experience of sound, which is nama, and sound itself, which is rupa. They take sound for hearing and hearing for sound, because they are not sure whether the characteristic which appears is sound or whether it is hearing.
A. I think that I can experience the impermanence of seeing. I know that it has fallen away, because other phenomena appear, When, for instance, there is hearing it is clear that the seeing has fallen away.
B. You only know impermanence by way of thinking, not by the direct experience of realities. When people think of seeing they do not realize that there are countless cittas arising and falling away in different processes of cittas succeeding one another. If they have not cultivated right awareness to a high degree the impermanence of cittas cannot be experienced.
A. I realize that it is important to know impermanence by direct experience. So long as we have not experienced impermanence we take realities for self; we do not see them as they are. How can I ever be quick enough to know the impermanence of cittas?
B. This can never be known by a self who tries to take hold of realities. Only panna can realize the nama or rupa of the present moment.
A. What can be known by direct experience when one has only just started to develop insight?
B. There can be mindfulness of a characteristic which appears through one of the six doors. But there is not yet precise knowledge of nama and rupa. Someone told me that he assumed that everybody knew the difference between nama and rupa; for example, between the nama which experiences sound and the rupa which is sound. He was wondering how anybody could have doubts about it. Such a person does not know the difference between theoretical knowledge and the panna which knows realities from direct experience. Only when panna has been developed in vipassana can it have precise knowledge of the reality which appears at the present moment.
A. There are many phenomena arising at the same time. In what order should I be aware of phenomena?
B. It is true that there are many phenomena arising at the same time. For example, our body consists of many different rupas arising and falling away. The rupas which are solidity, cohesion, temperature and motion always arise together and fall away together. But only one characteristic can be experienced by citta at a time, because a citta can have only one object at a time. Thus when samma-sati (right mindfulness) arises with the citta there can be mindfulness of only one reality at a time. When we say that hardness appears or presents itself, it does not mean that only hardness arises and that there are no other realities arising at that moment. When we say that hardness appears or presents itself it means that hardness is the object which citta experiences at that moment. If there is sati with the citta, then sati has the same object as the citta. Then there is mindfulness of the characteristic of hardness and it is known as only hardness; it is not a person, not a thing, it is only a kind of rupa which is experienced through the door of the body.
It is beyond control what the object of awareness will be. There is no rule to say which phenomena and in what order there should be awareness. It depends on the sati as to which nama or rupa is the object of awareness.
Knowing realities by being mindful of them is not the same as knowing them in theory. When we read the suttas we notice that the Buddha continually spoke about knowing nama and rupa which appear through the six door-ways. We read for example in the Samyutta Nikaya (Salayatana-vagga, Kindred Sayings on Sense, Third Fifty, Chapter V, par. 146, Helpful) that the Buddha said to the monks:
I will teach you, monks, a way that is helpful for nibbana. Do you listen to it. And what, monks, is that way? Herein, monks, a monk regards the eye as impermanent. He regards objects, eye-consciousness, eye-contact, as impermanent. That pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling experienced, which arises by eye-contact - that also he regards as impermanent ... This, monks, is the way that is helpful for nibbana.
Would thinking about realities as being impermanent lead to nibbana? One cannot become detached from the concept of self merely by thinking. Only the panna which knows the characteristics of nama and rupa which appear at the present moment can have such a precise knowledge of realities that it sees them as they are. When we see things as they are we can really become detached from the notion of self.
People who mistakenly think that they know the truth already are not able to understand the real meaning of this sutta. Why would the Buddha time and again stress that the eye, seeing-consciousness and colour are impermanent? In order to remind people to be aware so that one day they would really see things as they are.
A. I find it difficult to know from experience the difference between the nama which experience sound and the rupa which is sound. How can I ever know the difference between nama and rupa unless I make an effort? Would it not be better in the beginning to ignore the difference between nama and rupa, such as hearing and sound, and rather know different characteristics of rupa which appear through the body-sense?
B. All nama and rupa which appear through the different doorways should be known. We should not select any particular kind of nama and rupa as object of awareness. That would not be the right path. Hearing should be known and sound should be known as well. If we only knew hearing it would seem as if the world were without sounds. If we knew only sound, it would seem as if there were no reality which could know sound. We cannot, however, have a deep knowledge of realities within just a short time. Even the first stage of insight-knowledge, which is knowing the difference between nama and rupa, cannot arise unless mindfulness is well established.
Do you think that for yourself mindfulness is well established; that you know many different namas and rupas appearing through different doorways; that you are not confused as to the doorway through which an object is experienced?
A. No, I certainly cannot say that.
B. How can there be a precise knowledge of realities when their characteristics are not yet known from direct experience, as they appear through the different doorways?
All these considerations help us to realize how little we know. People who wrongly assume that they know things as they are cannot develop wisdom. But when they see how little they know, wisdom can gradually develop.
When wisdom develops one starts to realize the difference between theoretical knowledge of realities and the panna which knows the characteristics of phenomena when they appear one at a time. One realizes that a few moments of awareness are not enough; that one needs to be mindful of nama and rupa countless times in order to be quite used to their characteristics. Then a more precise knowledge of nama and rupa can be developed. One realizes how important it is to be mindful and to develop insight; the eightfold Path is the only way to see things as they are.
A. We are unmindful very often. How can samma-vayama be developed, so that we might be less heedless?
B. The Buddha pointed out that it is a matter of urgency for us to develop mindfulness; he encouraged people to be mindful, at any time and no matter where they were. He pointed out many times the sorrows of past lives, of the present life and of the lives in the future if one has not made an end of rebirth.
In the 'Theragatha' (Vajjita, Canto II, 1668, Khuddaka Nikaya) we read about Vajjita who attained arahatship. The text states:
A traveller I these long, long ages past,
And round about the realms of life I've whirled;
One of the many-folk and blind as they,
No ariyan truth had I the power to see.
But now all shattered lies the endless way.
All future births abolished utterly,
Now comes never more rebirth for me.
We do not know how long we will be in this plane of existence nor whether we will be able to develop insight in the next plane of existence. When we read in the scriptures about birth, old age, sickness and death, and about the dangers of rebirth, we are reminded to be mindful, samma-vayama will develop; we do not have to think about making an effort.
Samma-vayama is an indispensable factor of the eightfold Path; it urges sati to continue considering the characteristics of realities and not to delay. Realities such as seeing, visible object, hearing, sound or thinking appear countless times during the day, yet there is no mindfulness. If there is no mindfulness now, will there ever be the wisdom which sees things as they are?
A. You say that thinking about the dangers of rebirth will remind people not to be heedless. I doubt whether it is helpful to be frightened by the thought of hell.
B. All of the Buddha's teachings are very valuable. That is the reason why we should continue reading the teachings. For different situations in our life we will find in the teachings the right words which will encourage us to be mindful. Often we are heedless and forgetful, but when we read about rebirth in hell it reminds us to continue being mindful. We should not be frightened by the thought of hell- that is akusala. But we should realize that only if vipassana is developed and enlightenment is attained will we escape the danger of an unhappy rebirth.
The more we see the extent of the defilements we have accumulated and are still accumulating, the more there will be a sense of urgency about developing the eightfold Path.