Letters from Nina

by Nina van Gorkom | 1971 | 26,358 words

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Eight Letter

Jakarta, March 2nd, '83

March 2nd, '83.

Dear Susie,

In your last letter you asked a question about the difference between thinking of a reality such as hardness and direct awareness of it. Of course, there are questions which often preoccupy us. I will first quote from your letter:

I instantly want to locate hardness as arising in a particular spot. Just thinking, not direct awareness, but does thinking help us to understand more about hardness? Or can we only understand hardness at a moment of direct awareness, no locating or selecting? It seems that when we talk or think about hardness (or any nama or rupa) we immediately try to locate it. Maybe this is just the natural inclination; we think that we already know realities as they are. It seems that we have to refine our theoretical understanding of hardness... and then some moment of awareness, wherever and whenever it may be... just go on creating the conditions now.

There is thinking of realities and then another step has to be taken to immediate, direct, clear knowledge of them. We keep on wondering when this may happen and long so much for clear knowledge; we like to create the conditions for it.

First of all, before going more deeply into the steps which have to be taken, it may be useful to consider what our purpose is. Is there something wrong with our attitude? When we read the scriptures we notice that the Buddha reminded both monks and laypeople time and again of dana (generosity), of sila (morality), of samatha and of the development of right understanding of realities. People knew already that dana, sila and samatha were ways of kusala, but when they had not heard the Buddha's teaching they did not know that through the development of the eightfold Path the wrong view of self and all other defilements can be eradicated.

We have heard the Buddha's teaching and thus we may understand, at least in theory, that there are only nama and rupa, no self, and then, when we see that it is wrong to cling to a self, our purpose will be the eradication of clinging to self. We may realize that we often think of 'self' and that we will continue to be dissatisfied in life because of our clinging to 'self'.

Then we shall be more urged to grasp every opportunity to think less of 'I, I, I' , and thus we shall, more than we used to, also see dana, sila and samatha as means to be less selfish. When we give something away with generosity, we do not, at such a moment, cling to our possessions. If we hold on to what is 'ours' how can we become detached from the idea of 'self'? We may consider sila as a way of being more thoughtful to others, not wanting to hurt them. Sila comprises also helping others and paying respect to those who deserve respect. As to samatha, this is a means to cultivate wholesome thoughts and at such moments there are no selfish thoughts. When we are with other people we may remember to cultivate loving kindness and compassion. Or there may be opportunities to cultivate sympathetic joy when we rejoice in their good fortune. We cling to our body, but when we see a corpse we may realize that there are only rupas, empty phenomena, which do not know anything and do not belong to a self. We can then be reminded that also the living body consists of rupas which are impermanent and not self.

Studying the teachings and considering them is a necessary foundation for the development of vipassana. In studying the teachings we will understand more about the reality of sati (mindfulness) which is not self, and the reality of panna (wisdom) which is not self. Then we will be less inclined to just sit and wait for the arising of sati we are longing for. It is important to consider more our basic attitude, to get to know ourselves. Are we seeking ourselves, our awareness, our knowledge? We may think that we go the right way while we in fact keep on 'creating' conditions with an idea of self. The goal of the development of right understanding should be, from the beginning, to have less clinging to 'self'.

Sati and panna arise because of different conditioning factors. One condition is having listened to the right teachings, and this may have been also in former lives, although we do not remember that now. Moreover, accumulated dana, sila and samatha are conditioning factors. They are beneficial, since they can help us to become less selfish. We have to consider the teachings and practise them in daily life. We cannot fathom the many kinds of conditions which have to work together so that panna can be developed.

We were discussing about the step from theoretical knowledge to direct understanding which has to be taken. There is not just one step. It is a whole process of 'studying' characteristics of realities which appear now.

We may still try to 'select' the object of awareness, we may select hardness or visible object. We may keep on thinking about realities, and then the reality arising at that moment is thinking. When there is, for example, thinking about hardness, thinking experiences a concept. The reality of hardness is not directly known at that moment.

Do we know the reality of thinking? Is there thinking with lobha (attachment) or dosa (aversion)? We know so little about thinking, we do not even know whether there is thinking which is wholesome or thinking which is unwholesome. How much selfishness is there with our thinking?

We already discussed many times what should be known by panna: any reality which appears through one of the six doors. But it may still be difficult to realize this in the practice. When, for example, hardness appears, what should panna know and how do we know that there is panna? When hardness presents itself, it is experienced by body-consciousness and then most likely by lobha-mula-citta, but we do not even notice this. When we realize, 'There is hardness', there may be subtle clinging. It should be stressed that panna should know hardness as only a kind of rupa; it should know this with a degree of detachment. When panna grows there will be more detachment. In order to know the falling away of what is only a nama or a rupa a higher degree of detachment is needed. It cannot be known in the beginning.

'Without studying realities which appear panna cannot grow', Khun Sujin so often repeated. It is not one step from theoretical understanding to clear understanding, it is a long process of stumbling and falling, then realizing that you are wrong and beginning again. It is important not to forget that sati is not self and that panna is not self. That means, when it is the right time for sati it arises already, it is aware already of hardness, visible object or
whatever other object it may be. These moments are again conditions for the growing of panna which is not self, which arises when there are the right conditions for it. We may be able to admit the truth of: "it sees, it hears, it thinks". But can we also realize: "it is aware"? This may be hard, if we are honest, we like to do many things to arouse sati, to create conditions, and we cling to an idea of 'my sati'.

Should we then be passive, just lazy, since it is no use to try? This is a question which is often asked. Can there be study with awareness of the present moment also while we ask such a question? Then we would know more about our different cittas. This is the meaning of 'study': making an effort to understand what appears now, but at the same time realizing that there is no self who can make an effort. When we see the urgency of eradicating clinging to the self, it is a condition not to waste our life away with akusala. There will be many opportunities for different kinds of kusala. When there is an opportunity for reading the teachings we will use it, tomorrow there may not be time, better do it today. Or, if there is no opportunity for reading, there are so many living reminders around us of the truth of Dhamma. Our own defilements, decay, sickness and death. The world of the sixth doorways. We may have discussed many times about visible object, which is not a person or thing. We may be surrounded by what we believe are people, but sometimes there may be a short moment of realizing that what appears through the eyes is not a person, just colour or visible object.

In this context I like to quote from your letter:

'Dhamma is completely about life. It is so simple that we all miss it all the time. Seeing now. Too easy. And because there is no great verbalisation it doesn't fit into our definition of something to be understood. I was drawn to the Dhamma because it was so straight forward, no nonsense. It really makes sense.'

Yes, the Buddha spoke about the six doors and the objects to be experienced through the six doors. No long theoretical treatises, because he taught about realities which can be directly experienced. How do you like the following quotation about feeling: 'Feeling is that which feels' 1. It feels. That is all. The 'it' is very important though. Hard to detach from it, it is so much 'my feeling'.

We read in the 'Middle Length Sayings' I (no. 43, Mahavedallasutta) that Kotthita asked Sariputta:

'But what is intuitive wisdom for, your reverence?'


'Your reverence, intuitive wisdom is for super-knowledge, for apprehending, for getting rid of.'

'But how many conditions are there, your reverence, for bringing right understanding into existence?'

'There are two conditions, your reverence, for bringing right understanding into existence: the utterance of another (person) and wise attention. Your reverence, there are the two conditions for bringing wise attention into existence.'


Listening to the right Dhamma and wise attention, that is, wisely considering the Dhamma we have heard. Realities have to be 'studied' so that panna can grow. Panna is for 'getting rid of', getting rid of wrong view and the other defilements.

The other day the Burmese Ambassador said to me, while we were standing at a cocktail party: 'If you don't try, you will not reach nibbana.' Now, such an advice one may take in the wrong way or in the right way. There may be clinging to an idea of: 'I shall reach nibbana', and an idea of self who tries. No matter how hard one tries, there may not be conditions for attaining nibbana. It is not very fruitful to think too much of nibbana, also the Bodhisatta had to develop wisdom for innumerable lives before he became the Buddha. However, we can take such an advice also in the right way. Nibbana is the reality which extinguishes defilements and we should not forget that it is urgent to develop the way which eventually leads to it. If we do not begin to develop panna now, panna will never grow. (This is also the meaning of the following sutta in Kindred Sayings (II, Ch XVI, Kindred Sayings on Kassapa, par. 2, Careless), where Sariputta asks Maha-Kassapa in how far it is true that nibbana cannot be attained 'without ardour and without care'.

With Ardour is in Pali atapi, which word is also used time and again in the 'Satipatthana sutta', in connection with 'sampajano satima', which means: with understanding and mindfulness. As to 'with care', this is in Pali 'ottappa', fear of blame. We read:

When, friend, a monk thinks thus: Bad and evil states that have not arisen, were they to arise, would conduce to my hurt-- and no ardour is aroused, this is to be without ardour. So also when he thinks: Bad and evil states that have arisen if they are not eliminated, would conduce to my hurt,- or: - Good states that have arisen, were they not to arise,- or: - Good states that have arisen, were they to cease, these things would conduce to my hurt- and no ardour is aroused, this is to be without ardour.


And how, friends, is a man without care? When, in these four cases, he uses no care.

Thus it is, friend, that a man who is without ardour, without care, is incapable of enlightenment, incapable of Nibbana, incapable of the uttermost security.

And how, friend, is he ardent and careful? Even in each of these four considerations. Thus it is, friend, that a man who is ardent and careful is
capable of enlightenment, of Nibbana, of the uttermost safety.


If we understand that 'evil states' are bound to arise when there is no 'right effort' with ardour and care, there will be a sense of urgency to apply oneself to kusala and above all to be aware of realities which appear.

There may be awareness of visible object, but we may not be sure about the reality which experiences visible object. When visible object appears there sure must also be a reality which sees. We may remind ourselves of this and then there is thinking, but thinking is also a reality which can be known.

If we do not select objects of awareness and just continue being aware of whatever reality appears there will also be conditions for being aware of seeing as a reality which experiences visible object.

A question which is often asked is how one can be mindful in daily life, when one is busy with one's work and quite involved in it.

One may cling to long moments of sati, but it is right understanding which has to be developed, with the aim to detach from the self and later on from all realities. It would be better not to think so much of having awareness or having long moments of it, it is bound to be thinking with clinging. Khun Sujin often said, 'the test of the development of panna is in daily life.'

We have understood in theory about the development of understanding and now it has to be developed in daily life. If there is tiredness or boredom, we should know that these also are realities. We can never escape from nama and rupa in our life, they arise all the time.

You asked me whether there is a particular usefulness in my trips to Thailand and my visits to Khun Sujin. These are opportunities to meet friends and discuss Dhamma, and I find a good example of someone who practices Dhamma particularly inspiring and helpful. What I just said about not losing opportunities for the development of understanding and for other kinds of kusala, this is practised all the time by Khun Sujin. We can learn from her not to despise any kind of kusala and to use it as a means to decrease clinging to the self, because this is the goal. The events of Khun Sujin's daily life are so ordinary: shopping, playing scrabble with her sisters, taking her father out to luncheon and looking after him, watching the news on T.V. in the evening. This is daily life of a great number of laypeople, and right understanding can be developed no matter what one is doing. It can be practised, and this is proved. When someone needs a little encouragement or has a problem, even a problem in worldly matters, Khun Sujin is always ready to help and speaks the right words at the right time.

Long discussions about Dhamma may often be too theoretical. Khun Sujin's own example and just a few words about Dhamma are more helpful. But in between her duties , Khun Sujin has time for reading the scriptures and commentaries, and Sunday morning she spends preparing her radio talks. We can learn from her not to put off things if there is an opportunity to do them now, such as for example studying the teachings and being mindful of realities. 'We never know what will happen tomorrow, or even the next moment', she said. If we realize that each moment arises because of different conditions, and is completely different from preceding moments, and following moments, it will help us to have a greater sense of urgency to study the reality appearing at the present moment.

I listened to an old tape made in Sri Lanka and heard Khun Sujin say:

'Even one moment of awareness is very precious, like a penny. When pennies are saved, they can become a capital. People are always very impatient, they just want to attain now in this life. But what about the reality now? One may sit without any understanding.'

It is true that right understanding begins at this moment, how otherwise could it develop? When we watch T.V. , it is daily life, it is the same as meeting people in daily life. We may think 'This is Susie, this is Tadao', and then we should realize that such a moment is not seeing. One can prove this for oneself, consider such a moment and come to know the different characteristics of realities. If different characteristics are not clear yet, they can become clearer. All this is 'study', study of realities, different from the study of books.

Another example: one cannot hear words. The moment of 'hearing' words, understanding their meaning, is different from the experience of just sound.

Also this can be 'studied', again and again. Khun Sujin often said: 'Begin again, begin again, until it is clear, just develop it.' How many opportunities of study do we let go by? Reading is different from merely experiencing visible object. When we read we are quite absorbed in the story, there is a great deal of thinking. But there must also be moments of seeing, experiencing visible object. This is daily life. So you see that we have a long way to go in order to have clear knowledge of realities.

With metta,
Nina van Gorkom

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