Letters about Vipassana

by Nina van Gorkom | 1999 | 47,974 words

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Letter About Vipassana Vi

November 1, 1989

Dear Dhamma friends,

The development of satipatthana is the only way to know the truth of impermanence, dukkha and anatta. However, we all notice that mindfulness does not arise often and that nama and rupa do not appear as they are. We confuse all the different doorways and we do not realize nama as nama and rupa as rupa, we cannot distinguish them from each other. Khun Sujin said that we are so sick that we cannot walk. We know that the eightfold Path has to be developed, but because of our many defilements we cannot go along the Path. Khun Sujin reminded us that the wholesome qualities which are the "paramis", the perfections, must be developed together with satipatthana, they are like vitamins which will give us the strength to walk the Path. The Buddha when he was still a Bodhisatta developed the paramis for aeons. We all need the perfection of resolution (aditthana), which is the resolution to continue being mindful of the nama or rupa appearing right now. We know that the Path is difficult and that it will take many lives to develop it and therefore we need the firm resolution to continue on.

When we come to know more our akusala we will understand that defilements are deeply rooted. Akusala is like weeds which are deeply rooted and not easily pulled out. We need the perfection of wisdom; it is right understanding which can pull out the roots of lobha, dosa and moha. We need the perfection of energy or courage, viriya, so that we will not become downhearted when progress is slow. We should encourage ourselves to continue on with mindfulness of nama and rupa. We should listen to the Dhamma with patience and consider it carefully, so that we can develop understanding of realities in the situation of our daily life. We need the perfection of lovingkindness as a means to have kusala citta when we are with other people or when we think of them.

When there is metta we consider other people as our close friends, even when we do not know them, when they are strangers to us. We will think of ways and means to help them and to make them happy. It is natural that there are people we do not find sympathetic, but when there is aversion or anger we should consider that characteristic. Then we will see more clearly that aversion is useless and we can be reminded to develop metta instantly. In order to develop metta we need a refined knowledge of our different cittas, we need satipatthana. When someone else speaks unpleasant words to us we are likely to have resentment, but when we see the value of kusala we can gradually learn to refrain from retorting such words and to forgive him. Forgiving is a kind of generosity, it is like handing a gift to someone"

Sarah said to Khun Sujin that it is more difficult to develop metta when we are tired because then we are more easily irritated and annoyed. Although we see the value of metta we do not have enough confidence in kusala, we have no conditions for kusala at the moment we want to have it. Khun Sujin answered that the idea of self is in the way all the time. We attach too much importance to the way we feel. Tiredness is no reason to be angry, we should develop metta in order to think less of ourselves.

We need also the perfections of generosity, of sila and of detachment or renunciation (nekkhamma) in order to be less selfish and more considerate for other people's wellbeing. All the perfections should be developed, they are a necessary support for the arising of sati and panna in our daily life. We need the perfection of patience, when there is patience we do not mind it if understanding develops only little by little. There is conceit if we have an idea that we should be "somebody with great wisdom". We should follow Sariputta's example who compared himself with a dustrag, a useless rag without any value. If we do not consider ourselves "somebody", but rather a "nobody", it will prevent us from pretending, even to ourselves, that we are more advanced than we in reality are. We also need the perfection of truthfulness (sacca) to keep us on the right track. We have to be sincere, truthful to reality. Do we want to avoid being aware of akusala? We have to be aware of it in order to know our true accumulations. If we are not aware of akusala we will take what is akusala for kusala.

We need to develop the perfection of equanimity in order to learn to accept with kusala citta the vicissitudes of life. Praise and blame are only realities which arise because of their own conditions, in reality people are not the cause of praise or blame. When people do wrong to us we can develop metta if we see the value of metta. Instead of having aversion about people's bad points we will try to remember their good qualities. If they have none there can be compassion or there can be equanimity. There can be equanimity when we remember that the real cause of unpleasant experiences through the senses is not a person but our own kamma. We should carefully consider the different perfections and then we will be reminded to develop them in our daily life, they are needed in each situation. Khun Sujin said that while she prepares lectures for the radio she needs many perfections, such as metta, patience, energy and equanimity. When there is equanimity she does not feel hurt when people do not want to listen to her or when they criticize her.

The perfection of wisdom must be developed from life to life. We know that we should realize the difference between paramattha dhammas, namely, nama and rupa, and concepts. We know that the object of satipatthana are nama and rupa, not concepts. It is necessary to consider the difference between paramattha dhammas and concepts in detail, under different aspects, in our daily life. All such moments of considering are accumulated, they condition the growth of panna, so that one day, we do not know when, direct understanding of nama and rupa can arise.

When we see, we think that we are in this world, a world full of people, houses and streets. When we hear, we think that we are in this world, we hear people, animals, and cars. We think all the time of the whole wide world with everything in it. In reality there is only one moment of seeing and one moment of hearing. Seeing sees just that which appears through eyes, visible object, and then both seeing and visible object fall away. After that we think of a person or of the whole world, because sanna remembers.

There is only one moment of hearing and then both hearing and sound fall away, but we keep on thinking about what was heard, because sanna remembers. When we think of a person or of the world, the object of citta is a concept. As soon as we notice the shape and form of a person or a thing there is a concept of a whole. Even when we do not think of names we can still have a concept as object. When we perceive a pen we experience already a concept before we think about the name "pen". Children who cannot talk yet and who do not know the meaning of conventional terms which are used in language can experience concepts of a "whole". When they grow up they learn conventional terms so that they can name different things. They can then understand which person or thing is referred to. The English word "concept" (in Pali: pannatti) stands for the idea which is the object of thinking as well as the name or term used to denote such an idea .

We should not try to avoid thinking of concepts, even the arahat thinks of concepts because there are conditions for thinking. The arahat does not cling to concepts but we are still clinging. We have not eradicated "atta-sanna", the wrong remembrance of things as "self". We cling to the general appearance of things and to the details. When we cling to the image of a man or woman we do not know the reality which appears through the eyes, visible object, and thus we know only a concept, not a reality. We do not only like the general appearance of things, we also like the details. We are attached to the trademark of clothing, of cars. Someone wrote to me that conventional truth is still truth. He believes that citta, cetasika and rupa exist as constituents pertaining to an organized whole. Such a whole or entity which is constituted by paramattha dhammas is a living being or a thing. He thinks that when the particular discipline of vipassana is adopted paramattha dhammas can appear. However, when we suspend the perspective of vipassana and deal with the world in terms of ordinary means of transaction, conventional truth appears.

I think that we should not think in terms of the "discipline of vipassana" as being separated from our daily life. There are conditions to think of concepts, of "wholes", we need conventional terms in order to communicate with other people. We should lead our daily life naturally, but we can develop understanding of citta, cetasika and rupa in our daily life. One may believe that these are constituents of a whole, but where is that whole? It only exists in our thinking, it cannot be directly experienced. We think that we see people lifting their hands or walking, but in reality there are countless namas and rupas arising and falling away. So long as we do not realize the arising and falling away of nama and rupa, we cling to the idea that what appears are people, women or men, or this or that thing. We cling to the concept of somebody or something.

Khun Suiin writes in "A Survey of Paramattha Dhammas", in the section on "Concepts":

In order to know that concepts are not paramattha dhammas one should learn to discern the characteristics of the different paramattha dhammas which arise together. One should be aware of one characteristic at a time as it appears through one doorway at a time. In order to know the truth the arising and falling away should be realized of rupa which appears through one doorway at a time. Each rupa lasts only as long as seventeen moments of citta and then it falls away. Therefore rupa which arises has no time to stand, walk or do anything. During the time one lifts one's hand already more than seventeen moments of citta have passed. One sees people walking or lifting their hands but in reality the rupas which arise fall away immediately and are succeeded by other rupas. The rupa which is visible object appears to cittas of the eye-door process and then, after there have been bhavanga-cittas in between, there are many mind-door processes of cittas.

That is why one can see people walking or lifting their hands. Seventeen moments of citta pass away extremely rapidly. Thus one should consider what happens in reality. One should know that the rupa which appears at this moment through the eyes only lasts seventeen moments of citta and that it must fall away before sound can be experienced through ears. It seems that there can be hearing and seeing at the same time, but in between the moment of hearing and the moment of seeing there is an interval of more than seventeen moments of citta. The visible object which appears through the eyes and lasts seventeen moments of citta must have fallen away before the citta which hears arises.

It seems that there can be hearing and seeing at the same time, but these are different moments of citta experiencing different objects. rupas arise and fall away and succeed one another. Visible object appears through the eye-door and after there have been bhavanga-cittas in between it appears through the mind-door. Then there are many mind-door processes of cittas which think of concepts. That is why people who walk, lift their hands or move can appear.

We may have often heard that paramattha dhammas are not concepts and we may have repeated this for ourselves, but that is not enough. We should scrutinize our different cittas, in order to find out when the object of citta is a paramattha dhamma and when a concept. It depends entirely on conditions whether a paramattha dhamma appears and there can be awareness of its characteristic or whether there is thinking of a concept. There are long moments of being absorbed in concepts, but then sati can arise and be aware of thinking as a type of nama.

We are inclined to cling to a self who develops satipatthana and we want to hasten the arising of the stages of insight. If we have such desire it hinders the understanding of realities as anatta. The stages of insight can only arise when there are the right conditions for their arising, not because we try to direct their arising. Khun Sujin writes about mindfulness in "A Survey of Paramattha Dhammas", in the section on the "Stages of Insight":

Mindfulness is not easy and in the beginning it cannot often arise. The reason is that ignorance, clinging and all the other akusala dhammas have been accumulated for an endlessly long time in the cycle of birth and death. And also in this life, from the time we were born, defilements are being accumulated each day. When one correctly understands cause and effect of realities one knows that one needs great patience and perseverance in order to listen to the Dhamma, to study it carefully and to consider it. Only thus can one have understanding of the realities which appear through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, bodysense and mind-door. In this way the right conditions are being accumulated for the arising of satipatthana which can study with awareness the characteristics of the realities which are appearing. Thus realities can be known as they are. Through the practice one will directly understand the truth in accordance with what one has learnt and understood intellectually, namely that all dhammas, and thus also satipatthana and the eightfold Path, are anatta. Satipatthana can arise when there are the right conditions, that is, when maha-kusala citta accompanied by panna has arisen time and again so that panna can be accumulated. Then one will not deviate anymore from the right Path. One will not follow a practice which is other than being aware of, noticing and considering the nama-dhammas and rupa-dhammas which are appearing through the six doors.

We may pay attention to different realities and we may remember that seeing is nama, that it is different from visible object which is rupa. The direct experience of nama as nama and of rupa as rupa, without there being any idea of self is another step which has to be taken. Nobody else can show us exactly how the truth can be directly experienced, because panna develops according to its own conditions. There is seeing and we have learnt that seeing is nama but so long as panna has not eradicated the idea of self there is still an idea of self who sees.

When panna has developed to the degree that the first stage of insight, vipassana nana, arises, characteristics of nama and rupa appear clearly, one at a time, through the mind-door. Their different characteristics are clearly distinguished from each other. At that moment there is no idea of self who experiences and there is no idea of a "whole" or the world. There is "anatta-sanna", the perception of not-self, instead of "atta-sanna ", the perception of self. There are only nama and rupa appearing one at a time. If we really understand that there must be anatta-sanna at the moment of vipassana nana, we will not try to create conditions for the arising of vipassana nana, because then there is an idea of self. This would be counteractive to the development of vipassana.

When the moments of vipassana nana have fallen away, the world appears as before, as it used to appear, as a "whole" or a conglomeration of things, Khun Sujin explained. Thus then there is again atta-sanna. We may be surprised that realities appear as anatta only at the moment of vipassana nana, and that after that the world appears as usual, as a "whole". Has nothing changed? We may think that it is already an achievement to have reached the first stage of vipassana nana but it is not enough. The accumulated clinging to a self is very persistent, it cannot be eradicated by the first vipassana nana. One has to apply the knowledge one has gained at the moments of vipassana nana and go on developing understanding of all namas and rupas which appear.

It is only at the fourth stage of insight, which is the first stage of "principal insight", that the arising and falling away of nama and rupa can be realized. Now, at this moment, hardness appears and it falls away immediately. However, it is succeeded so rapidly by the next rupa which is hardness that it seems that hardness stays. Each reality is succeeded by a next one which is similar but not the same. Each reality appears only once in the cycle of birth and death and then it disappears, it never comes back. When we meet people who are dear to us we should not forget that seeing only sees visible object and that seeing and visible object only last for a moment and are then gone for ever. "Everything goes, goes, goes”, Khun Sujin reminded us. It comes and then goes forever. It is useful to reflect about impermanence, but it is not the same as directly experiencing the arising and falling away of nama and of rupa. When the first stage of "principal insight" has arisen, vipassana has become a "power" (bala).

When there is mindfulness of hardness now, knowledge of this characteristic is still coarse, there cannot be precise understanding of realities yet. There is no realization of each nama and rupa which appears one at a time, no realization of their arising and falling away. When insight has become a power it is unshakable. However, at the first stage of principal insight panna is not keen enough yet so that there can be detachment from realities. At the second stage of "principal insight", "Knowledge of Dissolution" (bhanga nana), panna turns more towards the falling away of realities and sees that they cannot be any refuge. Even when insight has become already a power its development should continue on so that there can be more and more "turning away" from nama and rupa.

We read in the "Path of Discrimination" (Treatise on Knowledge, Ch XXXIV, par. 455):

Insight power: in what sense is insight a power? Through contemplation of impermanence it is unshakable by perception of permanence...Through contemplation of dukkha it is unshakable by perception of pleasure...Through contemplation of anatta it is unshakable by perception of self... Through contemplation of dispassion it is unshakable by delight... Through contemplation of fading away it is unshakable by greed... Through contemplation of cessation it is unshakable by arising... Through contemplation of relinquishment it is unshakable by grasping, thus insight is a power.

It is unshakable, immovable and cannot be shifted by ignorance and by the defilements and khandhas that accompany ignorance, thus insight is a power.

This is insight as a power.

In order that insight can become a power, right understanding has to be developed of all realities which appear through the six doors. When we see what we do not know yet there can be a sense of urgency to continue on with sati-patthana. Gabi wrote to me that she had read Khun Sujin's "Stages of Insight" with great pleasure. She wrote:

This shows with great clarity how intricate the development of satipatthana is and how complicated it is. This does not discourage me at all, on the contrary, I enjoy it to take up time and again the scriptures and then I am reminded of the truth in my daily life. I am reminded that only paramatthas are real and everything else is only imagination.

In the commentary to the Theragatha, Canto XXXIV, Sukka, we read that Sukka had in many former lives listened to Buddhas, renounced worldly life, studied the Dhamma and explained it to others. In spite of her great knowledge of the Dhamma she did not attain enlightenment. In this Buddha era she listened to the Buddha and when she heard Dhammadinna preach she developed insight and reached arahatship. Once when she preached the Dhamma a deva who lived in a tree was inspired by her words and incited people to come and listen to her. Sukka, at the end of her life, declared her attainment in a verse. She called out her own name Sukka, which means: bright, lustrous. We read:

O Child of light! by light of truth set free
From cravings dire, firm, self-possessed, serene,
Bear to this end your last incarnate frame,
For you have conquered Mara and his host.

This story shows us that it takes aeons to develop panna. Even Sukka who listened to several Buddhas needed aeons to develop the perfections together with satipatthana. However, instead of wondering how arahatship could ever be achieved we can take note of the benefits of satipatthana even now. When we have learnt about the different types of cittas which arise and begin to be mindful of them we acquire a more refined knowledge of our different cittas through direct experience in daily life. For example, when we are talking and there is unpleasant feeling we can be reminded that there is aversion. When we see the disadvantage of akusala at such a moment we can abstain from unwholesome speech. Satipatthana conditions more wholesomeness through body and speech. We read in the "Commentary to the Dhammapada" (XXVI, 7, commentary to vs. 389, 390) about Sariputta's virtues. A Brahman wanted to test his patience and therefore tried to provoke his anger. When Sariputta walked for alms he went behind him and struck him violently with his fist in the back. Sariputta said "What was that?", and then continued on his way. When the Brahman became remorseful and asked forgiveness Sariputta forgave him and accepted his invitation to receive food in his house. Sariputta had no anger and he could forgive anything. When we read about Sariputta's generosity, humility and gentleness it can inspire us with confidence in the benefit of Sariputta. Sariputta leads to the fulfillment of all the perfections.

With metta
Nina van Gorkom

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