Letters about Vipassana

by Nina van Gorkom | 1999 | 47,974 words

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Letter About Vipassana V

Dear Dhamma friends,

We are disturbed by aversion, dosa, which often arises in a day and we would like to get rid of it. We would like to have more patience in difficult circumstances and more loving kindness towards others, but kusala citta does not arise very often.

If we want to cultivate patience and lovingkindness, we should see the disadvantage not only of dosa but also of all other kinds of akusala. We find it unpleasant to have dosa, but dosa is conditioned by attachment, lobha. Our attachment to pleasant objects conditions dosa when we do not get what we want. There are many moments of akusala we overlook. We may notice that there is akusala citta when we act or speak in an unpleasant way, but there are countless moments of thinking which are akusala and these pass unnoticed. In which way do we think of others? When we do not think with wholesomeness, there are akusala cittas which think.

For example, when we notice someone who is dressed in a peculiar way we may find him funny looking, and there may be conceit. We compare him with ourselves, he does not conform to the way we think someone should dress. When there is conceit there is no lovingkindness. When we are annoyed about something which is very unpleasant we know that there is dosa, but we may not notice dosa when something is not quite as it should be.

Do we have kusala cittas or akusala cittas when we taste fruit which is overripe, when we see that there is a button missing, when we feel a little too cold or too hot? We find it very important how the "self" is feeling. We only want pleasant objects and we forget that seeing, hearing and the other sense-cognitions are produced by kamma. We cannot see kamma, it has been committed in the past, but nobody can change the result produced by kamma. If we do not accumulate kusala there will be evermore akusala accumulated from life to life.  when we notice that there are so few moments of lovingkindness, metta, in a day and so many akusala cittas we may become discouraged. However, there is no self who can prevent the arising of akusala and cause metta to arise immediately. 

Akusala citta as well as kusala citta are namas which arise because of their own conditions, they are beyond control. It depends on one's accumulated inclinations what type of citta arises at a particular moment. When there is through the study of the Dhamma more right understanding of the different characteristics of kusala and akusala there are conditions for more kusala. Through the Dhamma there can gradually be more wholesomeness in one's life. If we want to develop metta we must have a precise knowledge of its characteristic when it arises. When there is metta one is not selfish, one only thinks of the wellbeing of someone else. There is kindness without expecting anything in return.

Lovingkindness is one of the four "Divine Abidings", Brahma-viharas. The other Brahmaviharas are: compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. These are subjects of samatha or tranquil meditation. Through the development of samatha there can be temporary freedom from akusala. However, samatha cannot be developed without right understanding. Panna must know the characteristic of true calm which is kusala. When we hear the word samatha we may think that we have to go into seclusion in order to have concentration and that we should recite for example the "metta sutta". However, the development of metta is not a matter of trying to concentrate or reciting. Metta must be developed in daily life when we are with others, then we can come to know its true characteristic. Foremost is right understanding which knows the characteristic of metta when it appears.

We read in the scriptures about people who developed samatha to the degree of jhana, absorption, but we should know that not everybody is able to attain jhana. People who had accumulated great skill for jhana could attain different stages of jhana, but, as the "Visuddhimagga" (Ch XII, 7) states, jhana is extremely difficult and only very few people can attain it. One has to live in seclusion and many conditions have to be fulfilled in order to attain it. At the moments of jhana there are no sense impressions and the "hindrances" are temporarily subdued. The "hindrances" are: sensuous desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. However, through samatha defilements cannot be eradicated.

Through right understanding developed in vipassana defilements can be eradicated. We think of ourselves and others as persons, we cling to a concept of "self", but through vipassana we learn to see what we really are. There are only citta, cetasika and rupa which arise and then fall away immediately. When someone goes away or dies, we can think of a name, but also a name is forgotten soon. We read in the "Sutta Nipata" (on Decay, vs. 804-813):

As a man awakened from sleep no longer sees what happened in his dream, similarly one does not see a loved one who is dead. Those people who were seen and heard and called by their names as such and such, only their names remain when they have passed away.

When we are reborn there is another life and we are no longer "this person", but also right now there isn't "this person" who exists. We should often consider where our body now comes from. We have eyes and ears, but we cannot notice what causes eyesense and earsense. It is kamma performed in the past. The rupas which form up our body are conditioned by kamma, citta, temperature and food. We are seeing and hearing time and again. Seeing and hearing are cittas produced by kamma. They arise and then fall away immediately. When we think of other people we usually think of names. We should consider the difference between names and paramathadhammas, absolute realities, nama and rupa which can be directly experienced without having to name them. We live mostly in the world of our thoughts, we keep on thinking of stories about people, about their names, about concepts. However, in order to know the truth we should learn to be aware of realities as they appear one at a time through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, bodysense or minddoor. Then we will eventually be able to see realities as they are: impermanent, dukkha and anatta. When we look at a chair it does not seem to fall away. A chair is a concept we can think of, but it is not a reality. The characteristics of impermanence, dukkha and anatta can only be realized of paramattha dhammas, of namas such as seeing or hearing, and of rupas such as visible object or sound, which appear one at a time. There are many moments we think of concepts, but also thinking can be known as a conditioned nama, and in this way we will have less clinging to self.

Vipassana should be developed in daily life, it is right understanding of all realities which are in us and around us. The object of vipassana are paramattha dhammas as they appear one at a time through one of the six doors. The object  of samatha is one of the meditation subjects and the aim is to have true calm, temporary freedom from akusala. When metta is being developed not a paramattha dhamma but a person is the object. We can develop both vipassana and metta in daily life. There are many moments that we think of people and instead of thinking with attachment, aversion or conceit, we can learn to think with kindness. Metta is a reality and thus it can be object of mindfulness, it can be known as a kind of nama which is not self. Metta is one of the "perfections" (paramis) which should be developed together with satipatthana from life to life.

Through the development of metta we learn to be less selfish and thus also metta is, together with all the other sobhana cetasikas which are accumulated, a supporting condition for panna which can eventually eradicate the wrong view of self. Satipatthana conditions metta to arise more often. When there is awareness of the different cittas we learn to know their characteristics more clearly, we learn to know when the citta is kusala and when akusala. When metta arises and there is awareness of it we will be less inclined to take it for self. Samatha and vipassana can be developed naturally in our daily life and there is no rule about the moments they are being developed. If we think that we should first have moments of samatha in order to have more moments of satipatthana later on, there is wishing and this is akusala, it is not maha-kusala citta accompanied by panna

Someone wrote to me that the development of jhana would be beneficial for the development of vipassana. He wrote:

Jhana can provide a very strong basis of concentration serving the development of insight.
Though jhana is not strictly necessary to develop vipassana, it can prove very effective in suppressing the hindrances and thereby allows the development of insight to proceed with special strength and consistency. Jhana fulfils the factor of Right Concentration in the noble eightfold Path.

The factors of the eightfold Path must accompany right understanding of the eightfold Path in order to be a Path factor, and the object must be a nama or a rupa.

The factors of the eightfold Path are cetasikas which all assist the citta which develops right understanding of paramattha dhammas, of the reality appearing right now. When there is right understanding of the reality which appears there is also right thinking, vitakka, which assists right understanding, it "hits" the object which appears so that panna can penetrate its characteristic and know it as it is. There is also right effort, which is effort or energy to develop understanding of the object which appears, it strengthens and supports panna at that moment.

There is mindfulness of that object, otherwise there could not be development of panna.  There is concentration, samadhi, also, it is concentration on the paramattha dhamma which appears, just for that moment. As to the factors which are sila, they arise when there is an opportunity for them. When there is a moment of right awareness and right understanding the eightfold Path is being developed. One can also say, satipatthana is being developed, or vipassana is being developed. It is the same. The development of the eightfold Path is not a matter of developing concentration isolated from the other factors of the eightfold Path. When there is right understanding of a paramattha dhamma which appears there is already right concentration which arises naturally, because of conditions. At that moment right understanding is assisted by the other Path factors and there is no need to think of Pathfactors or name them.

When one would encourage people to develop jhana as a foundation for vipassana many misunderstandings will arise. People may not know what true calm is, they may not know what jhana is. They do not realize that the objects of vipassana and samatha are different. We read in the Visuddhimagga that jhana can be a base for the development of vipassana. However, we should stress again and again that this can only be so when there are the five masteries (vasis): mastery of adverting and of entering jhana at any time, at any place, resolving on its duration, emerging at any time, at any place and reviewing the jhana factors, at any time, at any place. Only then the jhana-citta can arise so naturally, that it is a reality of one's life and thus it can be object of awareness. It can be a proximate cause or a base for insight. But even those who have such skill cannot omit being aware of paramattha dhammas, namas and rupas appearing one at a time. The three characteristics of namas and rupas have to be realized, no matter one develops jhana or not.

We often read in the scriptures about people who developed jhana and insight and then attained arahatship. Also before the Buddha's enlightenment people developed jhana. The attainment of jhana is not specifically Buddhist, but the Buddha taught that one should not take jhana citta for self.  Therefore for those who could attain jhana the jhanacitta should be object of satipatthana. The Buddha spoke about jhana because he included everything in his teaching, for  completeness, for the beautifying of the teaching. He took account of all kinds of temperament.

I have noticed that people are inclined to stress concentration in the practice of vipassana, also when they do not intend to develop jhana first. They think that there must be a purified momentary concentration by suppressing the hindrances first and then there can be uninterrupted mindfulness.   However, defilements should be known as they are, as not self,
that is the only way leading to their eradication. Seeing should be known as only a nama, and also akusala citta which is likely to follow seeing immediately should be known as a kind of nama. Is there not time and again like or dislike of the different objects appearing through the six doors? Should these not be known as they are? We should not stay ignorant of the akusala arising on account of the objects appearing through the six doors. We read in the "Kindred Sayings" (V, Mahavagga, Kindred Sayings on the Way, Ch VIII, par. 7, Hindrances):

Monks, there are these five hindrances. What five? The hindrance of sensual desire, of malevolence, of sloth and torpor, of restlessness and worry and of doubt. These are the five hindrances.  It is for the full comprehension, realization, wearing down and abandoning of these five hindrances that the ariyan eightfold Path must be cultivated.

In the beginning there cannot yet be clear understanding of nama as nama and of rupa as rupa. Beginning is beginning.  Generally people cannot accept that, they want to stress exertion, volitional control, doing this or that special technique first, before developing awareness of nama and rupa.  Any reality appearing in daily life can be the object of satipatthana. From the beginning one should understand that seeing is anatta, it arises because kamma produces it, nobody can produce his own seeing. In its train there are immediately javana cittas which are either kusala or akusala, but mostly akusala. They have already arisen before one realizes it. They are beyond control, anatta. We have to begin now being aware of nama and rupa, they are not abstractions. We know that seeing sees, hearing hears, but what about this moment? We learn about processes of cittas, but do these not occur now?  Different things appear, but they could not appear if there were no cittas arising in processes. When we are fast asleep we do not know who we are or where we are, there is no house, no book , nothing appears. All these things appear as soon as we wake up. Realities appear already, we should not try to do anything about them. Some people say, "I had to break off my meditation because of sickness, stress of circumstances or work." No, when vipassana is being naturally developed in daily life one will not break off its development. I believe we should have more understanding of this moment, and then of a next moment, and that we should consider the intricacy of citta which is so variegated in the life of each one of us.  There is no use of thinking, "when will I attain this or that stage of insight or enlightenment", it depends on panna and the other sobhana cetasikas which have been accumulated, they can condition the arising of vipassana nana when it is the right time.

The writer of the letter thought that one should not say that realities are "beyond control" and that one should not say that it depends on one's accumulations whether kusala citta or akusala citta arises. He is inclined to stress volitional control. He said that, although one cannot have absolute control, there must be effort and a certain amount of control, otherwise one would be a victim of fate, one could not do anything.

Alan Weller wrote about this subject:

I think that time and again we need to be reminded of the uncontrollability of realities in order to develop awareness of whatever reality appears naturally. Otherwise there will be the idea of self having effort, energy, etc. When we hear the word uncontrollable it does not mean we are the victims of fate, but we have to carefully consider how to develop the Path. The understanding of the Dhamma is the condition for wholesomeness at different levels, not control. Each moment of being awake we accumulate either kusala or akusala. Considering the Dhamma more is the condition for accumulating more kusala, but that also depends on previous accumulation. It is better not to mind or care what reality is there, but just understand it. This is for me the subtlety of the teachings. It is so necessary to consider a lot in order not to be misled by desire or the idea of self.

The understanding of uncontrollability can help us to develop understanding and not to accumulate more ignorance. It can help us to be natural in our development of kusala. No matter how busy we are, kusala at whatever level can arise any time by its own conditions. This understanding can help us to be detached from our practice. We do not try. We can become patient with lack of results, with our akusala. The practice can become a very natural part of our daily life.  We do not limit it by thinking of a certain place or situation, or us making effort now and then. Confidence in the Dhamma, a sense of urgency, concentration, these are different realities which work by themselves. They grow as the understanding of the Dhamma develops. There is no one besides these realities. This moment is either kusala or akusala, a keener understanding will realize this more and more deeply and this will lead to turning away from akusala. If we do not understand this moment as akusala, we will accumulate akusala. Seeing or hearing without understanding is dangerous. We should find out whether this moment is akusala or kusala.

I learn to be more considerate in speech and actions, also as regards seemingly unimportant things, which are often overlooked in daily life, for example, not leaving dirty washing or cups around, since this is unpleasant for others. There are many examples like this so close at hand. Dhamma is in front of us all the time.

When I use the expression "beyond control" I do not mean a fate, I only want to explain that realities are anatta. People want to do so many things, instead of understanding realities just as they naturally appear. If one really scrutinizes oneself is there not an idea of "I do it, I want to make progress"? There must be, so long as we are not sotapannas, and this we need reminders all the time. There can be awareness even of such moments.

When I say that it depends on one's accumulations of kusala and akusala what type of citta arises I do not mean that we are in a hopeless situation. Accumulations are not something static, they change each moment. At each moment a new accumulation is added. This is hopeful, if there were no accumulation, how could we learn to have more metta, or how could satipatthana be developed? It is not true that nothing can be done. We should consider the Dhamma and study more, and verify what we read in our own life. Hearing the Dhamma conditions more kusala. However, some people may hear the Dhamma but it does not mean anything to them. Why? They have no accumulations for it.

If someone thinks that he is a hopeless victim of his accumulations and cannot develop understanding, it is a moment of thinking which is akusala. When he thinks, "I cannot", he thinks so because of his lack of understanding of conditions. When there is the development of right understanding it can understand this moment only. Dhamma is subtle and intricate, one really needs to consider it carefully. All moments of consideration of realities are accumulated, they are never lost. Thus understanding can grow and grow, until the time has come for direct awareness without thinking about realities. Then another step has been taken. Nobody can plan or control the arising of the stages of insight and enlightenment. Can we accept this or is there a secret resistance against this fact?  We want to control all the time. The wish to control leads one away from developing understanding naturally in daily life. Some people want to sit and concentrate first on breathing, or on rupas of the body they believe they can feel moving. One may be inclined to do something else first, everything else except knowing the present moment.

Thus it is understandable that some people like to stress volitional control more than panna.  Volition is like a supervisor of the accompanying cetasikas, but it supervises them only at that one moment that it arises together with them. It cannot call panna to come forward when there is no panna at that moment. There is kusala volition and akusala volition, and they are different all the time. They are conditioned by the accompanying dhammas and in their turn they also condition the accompanying dhammas. Volition is not a factor of the eightfold Path. Viriya is, but it is energy or courage for being aware and developing understanding of the reality which is appearing. It must arise together with right understanding of the eightfold Path in order to perform its function, and it prevents one from becoming disheartened about the development.

When we read about striving we should not think of striving in isolation of the other factors, just striving and everything will be all right. That is what some people may think, and then there is still an idea of self who controls, who strives, even though one says that one knows  that everything is anatta. It is by right understanding that accumulations can be changed. I am the frequent victim of my own accumulations, this is true, because I am not an arahat yet. But realizing this is already a beginning of a cure because one sees that akusala is not self, that it is a conditioned nama.

There should be a sense of urgency and striving, so much so that one does not delay being aware of the reality appearing now, even if it is unpleasant or even if it is akusala. Not going apart first, inducing calm first, suppressing akusala first. That is the right effort the Buddha meant, it is nothing else but effort for awareness right now. No excuses of being too busy with one's work, being tired or sick. No separation of "my meditation life" and my busy daily life. Right effort is only right effort of the eightfold Path if it is accompanied by right understanding of the eightfold Path and if the object is a nama or a rupa. What would be the use of the study of the Dhamma if it would not lead to the aim which is right understanding of realities, and this is the factor which conditions most of all the development of all kinds of Kusala.

One thinks that one can control but right understanding understands that realities cannot be controlled. One may be used to controlling, but one should remember that realities arise because of their own conditions. I think we should not become impatient or disheartened by lack of sati, lack of kusala. Gradually conditions can be built up for the growth of panna. Not by volitional control. Not by trying to make certain realities arise, special objects of awareness, or doing special exercises, instead of being aware naturally of realities which arise because of their own conditions. It does not matter if the reality which arises is a hindrance, it can be known as it is and then there is kusala citta, no hindrance.

When one has more understanding of paramattha dhammas one can read the suttas with more understanding. One reads about striving and self-control, but one will understand the deep meaning of what is said: that these are sobhana cetasikas arising because of conditions. The teachings can be most helpful in reminding us to cling less to an idea of self who can develop insight. We do not develop understanding, it develops.

With metta

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