Letters about Vipassana

by Nina van Gorkom | 1999 | 47,974 words

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Letter About Vipassana Viii

the Hague,
June 29, 1991

Dear Robert,

You have understood that the eightfold Path the Buddha taught is the Middle Way. The Buddha said in Isipatana to the five disciples that two extremes should not be followed: devotion to sense pleasures and devotion to self-mortification (Kindred Sayings V, Maha-vagga, Book XII, Ch II). We may understand in theory that we have to follow the Middle Way, but when it comes to the practice doubts may arise. Should we do particular things in order to have more awareness and should we avoid things which seem unfavorable for the development of satipatthana? We may do wholesome deeds such as performing generosity in helping others, but still, attachment, lobha, aversion, dosa, and ignorance, moha, arise time and again, and sati seldom arises. We may become discouraged about our lack of progress. You have under-stood that satipatthana should be developed naturally, in daily life, but, as you wrote, you have doubts whether you should avoid certain situations.

You mentioned that you had doubts whether you should accept an invitation from your friends to go to the movies or whether you should stay home in order to study Dhamma. You feel that accepting is indulgence in pleasure. Nevertheless you find that, even while watching the movie, you would have the opportunity to face the present reality. I will quote from your letter:

Although I have at home the opportunity to study the Dhamma perhaps there will be a feeling of "my practice", "my sila", so that the benefits may not be high. Whereas if I would accept I would lose the study time but there is less chance of developing attachment to "my practice" and really just as much time to observe the present moment. Of course, as panna develops one may naturally not have any desire to see a movie and then one would decline anyway. I do, however, believe that there are more conditions for developing kusala cittas if one stays home. I guess that the answer to this is that the practice is not so much to accumulate many kusala cittas but rather to develop understanding which recognizes the different characteristics of all rupas and namas and sees them as anatta, including sati and panna.

The answer to this dilemma is that one never knows beforehand which type of citta arises at which moment, Kusala citta or akusala citta. Only the anagami, the person who has realized the third stage of enlightenment, will never indulge in sense pleasures. He will have no inclination to go to movies. For us it is different. Sometimes we will accept an invitation to go to the movies, sometimes we will decline and the cittas arising in both Cases can be kusala or akusala, nobody can predict that. We can also accept an invitation because of kindness, out of consideration for someone else who may not be able to go alone. How could one prescribe citta what to decide? Each citta arises because of its own conditions, it is anatta, beyond control.

Sometimes while watching a movie there can be mindfulness of realities but this depends on the accumulated understanding. There can be study with awareness of visible object, that which appears through the eyes. When we are absorbed in the story there is thinking of concepts. The thinking is conditioned by the seeing. When we stay home in order to study the Dhamma there may not be any awareness at all, how could it be planned? Perhaps we fall asleep or there may be distractions. As you say, there can always be attachment to "my practice", but this is a conditioned nama and it can be realized as such.

You have understood that our goal should not be merely the accumulation of kusala but rather the understanding of all realities, sati and panna included, as anatta. When we try to induce sati by doing particular things we will never see that it is anatta. Someone wrote that a teacher said to his pupils that there should be continuous mindfulness. However, this is not realistic. We cannot help seeing and hearing time and again, these cittas just arise, whether we want it or not. Seeing and hearing arise in processes of cittas and in these processes there are, shortly after seeing or hearing has fallen away, kusala cittas or akusala cittas, but most of the time akusala cittas. Often we may not pay attention to seeing or hearing, they just pass. Also the akusala cittas which arise shortly after seeing and hearing just pass, we do not notice them. Cittas arise and fall away very rapidly. Therefore it is hard to know whether the citta at this moment is kusala or akusala. You were wondering about the types of citta which arise when you are absorbed in a Dhamma subject. Nobody else can tell you, you have to find out yourself. When you study the Dhamma in order to understand realities there are kusala cittas but also akusala cittas are bound to arise.

When you study the Dhamma there are also seeing and hearing, and you have to find out whether there are kusala cittas or akusala cittas after seeing or hearing, which are vipakacittas, results of kamma. There is likely to be clinging to seeing, to visible object, to concepts we form up on account of what was seen. We believe that we do not particularly like what is seen, but we are still attached to all objects. We are attached to all the familiar things around us, to books, paper and pen, to the chair we are sitting in. However, when we study the Dhamma we can be reminded to be aware of whatever reality appears. Then we do not forget the goal of our study: to understand what appears now.

You write that you are inclined to slip off the Middle Way. We all do, so long as we are not sotapannas. I quote from your letter:

I am inclined to think, "Well, the accumulations to enjoy are there. I might as well indulge as long as I know it is not self doing it, just desire arising". But often I find that by going ahead and enjoying somehow there is little awareness and more attachment. On the other hand, by suppressing the desire such as by taking the eight precepts a feeling of discomfort may be present. But this has the benefit of marking the defilement in a clear way. Again, we cannot set any rule for citta what to decide to do at a particular moment. When we listen to the teachings and consider them we learn about kusala and akusala'. When we begin to be aware we come to realize that there are many moments of akusala we did not know of before we studied the Dhamma. We also learn about many different ways of kusala we had not thought of before. When understanding, panna, develops it will see more often the disadvantage of akusala and the benefit of kusala. When we give in to enjoyment and think, "It is not self", the thinking can be done with akusala citta but there can also be kusala citta. When there is no sati and panna we can use the thought of not self as an excuse not to develop kusala. On the other hand when sati and panna arise and there is awareness of desire as a conditioned reality, not self, the citta is kusala. You find that the eight precepts bring you discomfort. Nobody else can tell you to take them or not to take them.

We should find out what the cittas are like which decide to take them. Do we cling to our own kusala, do we want to be perfect immediately? You may find that you notice your attachment to a soft chair or a soft bed more clearly when you take the eight precepts, but what about attachment after seeing or hearing now? Should we not find out in order to have less ignorance? Sincerity is indispensable for the development of satipatthana. One has to be truthful with regard to the different cittas which arise, be they akusala or kusala. In order to know whether there is at this moment kusala citta or akusala citta we need sati-sampajanna, sati and panna.

There are different levels of sati-sampajanna, which is often translated as "clear comprehension". Knowing kusala as kusala and akusala as akusala is one level of sati-sampajanna. If one wants to develop kusala one has to know whether the citta at this moment is kusala or akusala. If sati-sampajanna does not arise it cannot be known. If one wants to develop samatha one needs sati-sampajanna which knows whether there is kusala citta with calm, conditioned by the meditation subject of samatha. Sati-sampajanna in vipassana realizes nama as nama and rupa as rupa, it realizes them as not self. Sati-sampajanna of vipassana is supported by the other levels of sati-sampajanna, by sati-sampajanna which realizes kusala as kusala and akusala as akusala, and which sees the disadvantage of akusala and the benefit of kusala. On the other hand, sati-sampajanna of vipassana supports all levels of kusala.

Sati-sampajanna can develop by listening to the Dhamma and by considering it, and then there will be a finer discrimination of kusala and akusala in our daily life. When we discuss satipatthana we have to discuss as well our different moments of akusala and kusala which arise in daily life. Satipatthana has to be developed along with all other kinds of kusala since the goal is the eradication of defilements. If we learn about nama and rupa but we neglect generosity we will keep on clinging to the self. It is difficult to develop generosity when a great deal of stinginess has been accumulated, but we should get to know our true accumulations. When we notice stinginess we do not like it, we have aversion about it. Or there is regret, kukkucca, about our akusala or about the kusala we omitted, and that is also akusala. When there is an opportunity for the arising of sati-sampajanna there is no aversion, no regret. Sati-sampajanna can realize the characteristic of stinginess as only a conditioned reality, a type of nama.

There can be more understanding of its conditions: it arises because it is so deeply accumulated. We do not want to be stingy, we may tell ourselves not to be stingy, not to speak words which express our stinginess, but stinginess still arises. We can learn from such situations. Instead of being discouraged sati-sampajanna can arise and see the disadvantage of akusala, and at that moment there cannot be aversion about it. There should be sati-sampajanna which realizes how often there is conceit in our relationship to others. We may feel displeased about what someone else is doing to us or saying to us. There is a kind of comparing, there is "he" and "me"; we wonder, "How can he do that to me." Then there is conceit, we cling to "our important personality". Conceit hinders generosity and metta. Can we forgive someone else easily? Forgiving is a kind of generosity, dana. It is "abhayadana", the wish that someone else is free from harm. We should more often consider the benefit of forgiving, it helps us to have less conceit.

We may be inclined to blame someone else, we may want to tell him off. However, when sati-sampajanna arises we will investigate our own cittas and then we will be less inclined to blame someone else . We read in the "Gradual Sayings" (Book of the Tens, Ch V, par. 4, At Kusinara) that the Buddha, while he was staying at Kusinara, said that a monk who desires to admonish another monk should do so after investigation of five conditions in himself and setting up five conditions in himself. We read that he should investigate whether he practices utter purity in body and speech, whether he has metta established towards his fellow monks and is free from malice. If not, people around him will say that he should practice these things himself. We then read:

Then again, monks, a monk who desires to admonish another should thus investigate: Am I or am I not one who has heard much, who bears in mind what he has heard, who hoards up what he has heard? Those teachings which, lovely alike at the be-ginning, the middle and the end, proclaim in the spirit and in the letter the all-fulfilled, utterly purified Brahma-life, have such teachings been much heard by me, borne in mind, practiced in speech, pondered in the heart and rightly penetrated by view? Is this quality manifest in me or not? Then, monks, if he be not one who has heard much...then folk are found to say to him: "Come now, let your reverence complete knowledge of the Sayings." Folk are found to speak thus.  We then read that the monk who desires to admonish another monk should investigate whether he is well trained in the discipline. As to the five conditions which he has to set up in himself we read:

(He considers:) Do I speak in season or not? Do I speak of facts or not, gently or harshly, do I speak words fraught with profit or not, with a kindly heart or inwardly malicious?

These five conditions he must set up in his own self. We can apply this sutta in daily life. When there is sati-sampajanna it can be realized whether these conditions are fulfilled or not. It is very difficult to fulfill them, and when we see that, we may rather refrain from admonishing someone else. When we really consider this sutta it can condition the development of sati-sampajanna which knows the disadvantage of akusala and the benefit of kusala. Then kusala citta can arise because it becomes one's nature. There is no need to impose rules upon oneself or to go to particular places in order to induce kusala. Someone wrote that one should try to put as much kusala in one's mind as one can. Then there could be an idea of self who is trying and one will certainly fail. The same person was in a meditation center and she was hoping that she, in that place, could have more metta. However, she noticed that she could not. It shows that realities are beyond control, anatta. It can be discouraging to see how little metta there is in a day. We used to take for metta what is only attachment. We were inclined to be kind to particular people only, not just to anybody we met But it is helpful to realize that often attachment and conceit hinder metta.

We should consider all kinds of kusala and akusala which arise in the situation of our daily life. You said that you used to separate your meditation life from daily life, but, as you know now, that is not the Middle Way. When we would just be sitting in a quiet room how could we know ourselves as we are in our daily life, in our work situation, in our relationship with others? We should be truthful and we should not pretend, even to ourselves, to be better than we really are.

The word meditation can create confusion. People associate meditation with going apart and trying to concentrate on something special. If one wants to cultivate calm to the degree of jhana one has to live a secluded life and one has to use a meditation subject of samatha in order to make calm grow. For the development of vipassana one does not need to go apart. One should develop it naturally, in daily life. One has to get to know one's real accumulations, one's defilements. If one does not develop understanding of whatever reality appears panna cannot grow. You asked what the difference is between panna in samatha and panna in vipassana

The aims and thus the methods to reach them are different. As regards samatha, even people before the Buddha's time saw the danger of sense impressions. They realized that seeing, hearing and the other sense impressions are often followed by defilements. Therefore they used subjects of meditation in order to reach jhbna, because at the moment of jhbna-citta there cannot be any sense impressions. By means of jhana defilements are temporarily subdued but not eradicated. The aim of Vipassana is the eradication of defilements through the wisdom which knows all realities as they are.

The object of vipassana is the nama or rupa which appears right now... The object is not a person, a body or another concept, it is a paramattha dhamma, a nama or a rupa. The meditation subjects of samatha can be concepts but they can also be paramattha dhammas such as the elements. However, the aim is not to realize them as not self, but the aim is to have less attachment to them. In Vipassana the object changes from moment to moment, since it is the reality appearing at the present moment. One never knows what will appear next. It is different in samatha since one has to develop calm with one subject of meditation in order to reach calm to the degree of jhana. One may not have the accumulated skill to develop calm to the degree of jhana. However, one can also develop calm in daily life, naturally, as the occasion arises. For example, when there is sati-sampajanna which knows the characteristic of metta, metta can naturally arise in daily life, without there being the need to think, "I should have more metta". There can also be a moment of satipatthana when one realizes for example metta as a conditioned reality, a type of nama which is not self. Moments of calm and moments of Vipassana can arise naturally in daily life, but it all depends on the sati-sampajanna. As we have seen there are different levels of sati-sampajanna and they are all beneficial.

In order to have right understanding of nama and rupa there should be awareness of whatever reality appears through one of the six doors. This is very difficult and therefore you wonder Whether in the beginning it would not be better to be aware of only what appears, for example, through the body-door. Should one not limit the object of awareness? You find that some suttas seem to suggest this. You quote the story of Pothila from the Dhammapada commentary (282, commentary to verse 282). A novice who was an arahat instructed the monk Pothila by way of a simile. If there are six holes in an anthill and a lizard enters the anthill by one of these holes, one could catch the lizard by stopping up five of these holes, leaving the sixth one open. Then he could catch the lizard in the hole by which he entered. In the same way should Pothila deal with the six doors of the senses; he should close five of the six doors, and devote his attention to the door of the mind. We then read that he was mindful of the body and began mind development. After hearing a stanza from the Buddha he attained arahatship. It was the following stanza:

From meditation springs wisdom,
From lack of meditation wisdom dwindles away.
He that knows this twofold path of gain and loss
Should so settle himself that wisdom may increase.

When wisdom has reached perfection one will not be shaken anymore by gain and loss and the other worldly conditions. What will happen if one tells oneself that one now will concentrate on only one doorway, such as the bodydoor? Then there would not be awareness of the reality which appears, but there is an idea of self who sets his mind on one object, who selects the object of awareness. He thinks of it and tries to concentrate on it. While he tries to control sati he will not know that each reality arises because of its own conditions, that it is beyond control. Some texts seem to stress the bodydoor, other texts emphasize feeling or other realities.

Why is that? This is only to remind us not to be forgetful of the realities which appear. When there is mindfulness of hardness which appears through the bodysense one should study it with awareness in order to know that it is only a kind of rupa, not "my body". There is also the nama which experiences the hardness, or the nama which feels. If one neglects nama which appears one will continue to cling to an idea of self who experiences objects. One should know that there is only an element which experiences, not self. The first stage of insight is knowing the difference between the characteristic of nama and the characteristic of rupa. Thus, both nama and rupa which appear should be studied with awareness. It depends on conditions whether there is more often awareness of hardness, of visible object, of feeling, or of any other reality. This is different for different people. However, we should not deliberately limit the object of awareness, we should not set any rule, because then there is desire and this hinders right awareness.

Eventually all objects appearing through the six doors have to be known. Pothila could not have attained arahatship had he been ignorant of some objects. Some people have the inclination to develop both samatha and vipassana. In the development of samatha one subdues attachment to sense objects. However, in order to develop insight there must be understanding of all namas and ruas which appear. At the moment of mindfulness of the objects appearing through the six doors there is "restraint of the senses" (indriya samvara sila). At that moment there is a "blocking" of akusala on account of what appears through the senses.

We may think that some suttas stress only one object as object of awareness, but it is important to read all texts. We read, for example, in the "Kindred Sayings" IV, Maha-vagga, Kindred Sayings on the Way, Ch III, Par. 9, Feeling) that the Buddha, while he was at Savatthi, said to the monks:

There are these three feelings, monks. What three? Feeling that is pleasant, feeling that is painful, feeling that is neither pleasant nor painful. These are the three feelings.

By the comprehension, monks, of these three feelings the ariyan eightfold way must be cultivated....

It is difficult to know the true characteristic of feeling, to know it as nama, different from rupa. Don't we confuse bodily feeling and rupa such as hardness which impinges on the body-sense? There is feeling all the time but we neglect awareness of it, we cling to feeling and take it for self. This sutta can remind us to be mindful of feeling. The following sutta (par.10) reminds us to be aware of the sense objects. We read that the Buddha explained to Uttiya about the "five sensual elements". The Buddha said:

There are objects cognizable by the eye, objects desirable, pleasant, delightful and dear, passion-fraught, inciting to lust. There are sounds cognizable by the ear, objects desirable... there are scents cognizable by the nose.., savours  cognizable by the tongue.., tangibles cognizable by the body, objects desirable, pleasant, delightful and dear, passion- fraught, inciting to lust. These, Uttiya, are the five sensual elements of which I spoke.

Now, Uttiya, it is by abandoning these five sensual elements that the ariyan eightfold way is to be cultivated. One cannot start with detachment from the five sense objects. This can only be achieved by right understanding which realizes theseobjects as they are. One has to begin to be mindful of whatever object appears through one of the six doors in order that understanding can gradually develop.

You asked how we can learn to discern the difference between nama and rupa, and in particular the difference between bodily phenomena and the experience of bodily phenomena, since that is so difficult. Is there again an idea of self who can select phenomena in order to be aware of them? We know that the difference between nama and rupa should be known but there should not be any selection of objects of awareness. We have ignorance of all phenomena. Do we know visible object as it is, seeing as it is, feeling as it is? When visible object appears there can be awareness of it so that understanding of it can be developed. Right understanding can realize it as rupa, different from nama. There can also be awareness of other objects which appear but we should not have the idea that after awareness of visible object there has to be awareness of seeing in order to realize the difference between nama and rupa.

There may be awareness of feeling or of sound, we cannot direct sati. It is the same when the first stage of insight knowledge arises, when the difference between the nama and the rupa, which appear, is clearly known. The objects of awareness are not necessarily seeing and visible object, or hearing and sound. They are any kind of rupa which appears and any kind of nama which appears, there is no selection of objects, there is no idea that they would have to appear in a particular order. When we worry about how we can know the difference between a particular kind of nama and a particular kind of rupa we are not developing understanding. Thus, there is no prescription one could follow so that one could find out the difference between nama and rupa. It all depends on the development of sati-sampajanna.

While we were in India Khun Sujin said that if one does not know the characteristic of sati it cannot be developed. On the other hand, only when sati arises can we know its characteristic. It seems like a vicious circle. Khun Sujin said time and again, "Develop it now". We were wondering how we could. The answer is that through the study of the teachings, through considering them, through asking questions, intellectual under-standing is gradually being built up.

This is the condition that there can sometimes be direct awareness of a reality which appears. We need patience to listen and consider again and again, we should have no desire for the arising of sati. Khun Sujin said: "If there is no desire for sati it will arise, I guarantee." Why do we discuss visible object time and again? In order to be reminded to study it with awareness. When we see we think immediately of the people and the things around us, and this is because we always did, we are so used to it. However, now we can change our accumulations, we can remember that what appears through the eyes is only visible object. There will again be thinking of people, but then we can remember that this happens because of what we used to do. In that way we will attach less importance to our thoughts. We need to discuss many realities, and then, without selection of particular objects, there will be conditions that gradually the nature of rupa and the nature of nama will become more evident. We may believe that it is sufficient to be aware of visible object just a few times in order to know what it is.

This is not enough. Visible object is in front of us but we are often forgetful of it. We do not have to think about it, it is there and it appears through the eyes. We cannot see sound, we can only see what impinges on the eyesense. There can be conditions to study with awareness nama and rupa, if we remember that it is beneficial to know that we do not see people, that it will help us to cling less to people. There is also the element which experiences visible object. It is not self, it is only a reality which experiences. We often lose opportunities to study the objects which are there, every day. We have to continue to study all realities which appear through all the doorways. There should just be awareness of the reality which appears, through one doorway at a time, and we should not think or worry about it whether it is nama or rupa. At the moment of worry or doubt there is no awareness,- the citta is akusala. We should know that enlightenment cannot be attained by developing satipatthana only during one lifetime. Awareness of realities is a new accumulation which is gradually acquired. We read in the "Gradual Sayings" (Book of the Threes, Ch XIV, par. 131, Fighting-man) that a fighting-man has three qualities: he is a far-shooter, a shooter like lightning and a piercer of huge objects. A monk who is worthy of respect should have these three qualities. We read:

Now, in what way is a monk a far-shooter?

Herein, whatsoever rupa... feeling... perception (sanna)... activity (sankharakkhandha)... whatsoever consciousness he has, be it past, present or future, personal or external to self, be it gross or subtle, mean or exalted, far or near, - everything in short of which he is conscious, - he sees it as it really is by right insight thus: This is not mine. This am I not. This is not for me the Self. That is how a monk is "a far-shooter".

The five khandhas, all conditioned rupas and namas should be realized as they are. We then read that the monk is a shooter like lightning when he understands the four noble Truths: dukkha, its arising, its ceasing and the Way leading to its ceasing. He is a piercer of huge objects when he pierces through the huge mass of ignorance.

If one wants to learn the art of shooting with bow and arrow one has to have endless patience and perseverance to learn this skill. Even so one needs great patience and perseverance to develop satipajthana. It has to be learnt without an idea of self who is training. The right conditions have to be there in order to be able to develop right understanding. The person who shoots from far and can hit the aim very precisely is like the person who has developed panna which has become so keen that it can realize the true nature of the reality which appears. Panna is as swift as lightning and it can pierce through the huge mass of ignorance. Since ignorance is mass accumulated for aeons it cannot be eradicated within a short time.

With metta
Nina van Gorkom

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