Giving Rise to Discernment
by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, from Meditations: Forty Dhamma Talks
We meditate, developing mindfulness, developing concentration, and after a
while we begin to wonder, "When is the discernment going to come? When are
the insights going to come?" So it's instructive to look at the Buddha's
analysis of what gives rise to discernment. Mindfulness and concentration
are prerequisites, but there's more. And in searching for that "more," it's
especially instructive to look at two sets of qualities that the Buddha
said lead to Awakening -- the five strengths and the seven factors for
Awakening -- to learn their lessons on what gives rise to discernment,
what's needed for insights to arise. Otherwise you can meditate for twenty,
thirty, forty years -- as Ajaan Lee says, you could die and your body could
dry out on the spot -- and still not gain any discernment, because you're
lacking some of the proper qualities.
The five strengths -- a set of factors that culminate in discernment -- are
interesting because they start out, not with ideas that you've heard from
someone else in terms of what Buddhist discernment is about. They start
with the quality of conviction. Conviction in what? Conviction in the
principle of kamma. That's what it comes down to -- conviction in the
principle that our actions do matter. Some people have problems with the
teaching on kamma, but what exactly is the Buddha asking you to believe in
when he asks you to have conviction in kamma? First, action really is
happening -- it's not an illusion. Second, you really are responsible for
your actions. There's no outside force like the stars or some good or evil
being acting through you. When you're conscious, you're the one who decides
what to do. Third, your actions have results -- you're not just writing on
the water -- and those results can be good or bad depending on the quality
of the intention behind the act.
So the teaching on kamma puts you in charge of shaping your life. It's a
good teaching to believe in. And how does this relate to discernment? It
provides the basis for the questions you're going to ask to give rise to
discernment. And because the principle of kamma places a lot of emphasis on
the need to act on skillful intentions to get the good results you want,
the basic question becomes: How can you tell whether an intention is
skillful or unskillful?
Together with conviction you need the quality of heedfulness: the
realization that if you're not careful about your actions you can create a
lot of suffering for yourself and for those around you. Heedfulness is said
to underlie the development of the five strengths leading up to
discernment. It's the quality that makes sure you're going to pay close
attention to what you're doing, close attention to your intentions, close
attention to the results of your actions -- as in the passage where the
Buddha's instructing Rahula, his son. Before you do something, he tells
Rahula, ask yourself, "What's the intention here? Why am I doing this? Is
it going to lead to suffering or not?" Only if the intention looks good
should you act on it. Then, while you're acting, you check the results of
your action. After the action is done you check again, because while some
results are immediate, others are long term. So conviction in kamma focuses
your attention at the right spot and gets you asking the right questions.
Heedfulness gives urgency to your investigation. And the two of them
together lead to discernment.
The teachings on the seven factors for Awakening are similar. You start out
with mindfulness. The Buddha teaches you to be mindful of the body in and
of itself, feelings in and of themselves, mind states, mental qualities in
and of themselves. Why? So that you can be really clear on what your
actions are and what the results are. If you're concerned with other issues
-- as the Buddha says, "things in the world," things that other people are
doing -- you miss what you're doing. So you focus right here, get yourself
in the present moment, not simply because the present moment is a good
moment in and of itself, but because it's the only place where you're going
to see your intentions in action.
In this way, mindfulness puts you in a position to develop the second
factor for Awakening: the discernment factor, called "analysis of
qualities." The qualities here are qualities in the mind, mental states, in
the present. The food for this factor is appropriate attention to the
skillful and unskillful states arising in the mind. You pay attention to
the intentions you act on, trying to see what's skillful and what's not.
And again the test for judging whether your actions are skillful is by
their results: How much harm do they cause? How much happiness? Discernment
focuses on actions in terms of cause and effect, and works at developing
greater and greater skill in acting, greater and greater sensitivity in
evaluating and learning from the results of your actions, to the point
where your actions are so skillful that they lead to the Deathless.
This may sound unusual, for we're often taught that Buddhist discernment
focuses on seeing things in terms of the three characteristics:
inconstancy, stress, and not-self. We're taught to look for the
inconstancy, the impermanence of things, and then to see that if they're
inconstant they must be stressful; if they're stressful they must be not-
self. Well, those teachings have to be placed in context, and that context
is the act of judging the results of our actions. The three characteristics
are designed so that we don't content ourselves with only a middling level
of skillfulness. In other words, you might be skillful enough to have a
good job, a nice place to live, a good family life -- in other words,
ordinary, mundane wellbeing -- and a lot of people get satisfied right
there. Or you might get satisfied with a nice state of concentration. You
might be able to get the mind centered pretty much at will; things don't
disturb you too much. A lot of people stop right there -- it's good enough
This is where the teachings on the three characteristics kick in, in
judging the results of your actions: "Are they really satisfactory? Do they
give permanent, constantly dependable results?" Well, no. If they don't,
then you're setting yourself up for stress, suffering, disappointment.
You're setting yourself to latch onto things that aren't totally under your
control. In other words, they're not yours. You can't say, "Okay, body,
don't get old. Go back and get younger, the way you were, say, five or ten
years ago." You can't tell your painful feelings to turn into pleasure. You
can't arrange for only good and useful thoughts to come into your mind. The
purpose of the three characteristics is to keep you from getting
complacent. They help foster heedfulness, so that your standards for
judging your actions stay high. In judging the results of your actions,
you're not going to settle for anything that falls under the three
characteristics. You'll keeping trying to become more skillful in your
actions until you gain results that aren't inconstant or stressful, results
where self and not-self don't apply.
In modern culture it's considered psychologically unhealthy to set very
high standards for yourself. What does that do? It creates a society of
very middling people, mediocre people, people who experience a mediocre
level of happiness. The Buddha, though, was very demanding, first with
himself, and then with his followers. He said, "Don't satisfy yourself with
just ordinary, everyday wellbeing", because it's not well all the time.
When you set your sights, set them on something of more permanent value, what
he called "the noble search": the search for what doesn't age, doesn't grow
ill, doesn't die, for a happiness that doesn't change.
So the three characteristics in and of themselves are not the totality of
Buddhist wisdom, Buddhist discernment. They have to be placed in context,
the context of the question of skillfulness: "What are you doing? What are
your intentions? What are the results of your actions based on those
intentions? Are you content with them or do you want better?" The three
characteristics spur you on to be more demanding of yourself, saying, "I
want better than this. I've got this human life; what can I do to get the
most out of it?" And the answer should be, "I'm going to do the best I can
to find true happiness, something dependable, something to show for all the
suffering I've been through as I take birth, age, grow ill, and die."
So we should think about these issues as we meditate. We're not getting
into the present moment just to stop there. That would be like someone who,
after wading through a dense jungle, finally gets to a road -- and then
lies down on the road, forgetting that the road is there to be followed to
see where it leads you. When you get into the present moment, that's not
enough. You have to learn how to ask yourself the right questions about the
present moment, in particular, "What are your intentions right now, and
what results do they have? Where are they going to take you?"
Intentions just don't float in and out of the mind without leaving a trace.
They leave their mark. They do have results. Are you satisfied with the
results? If not, what can you do to get better results? Learning how to ask
these questions, the Buddha said, is what gives rise to discernment so that
your actions go beyond just the ordinary, mundane level. As he pointed out,
there are four kinds of action: actions that are skillful on a mundane
level, actions that are not skillful on the mundane level, actions that are
mixed, and then actions that take you beyond the mundane level, that open
you up to the Deathless and bring you to the end of action. That fourth
kind of action is what he says is really worthwhile. That's what's special
about his teaching. That's what's distinctive about his teaching. He
discovered that the principles of causality work in such a way that you can
bring yourself to the Uncaused by being as skillful as possible in what you
do. And the discernment that shows you how to act in those ways, that
detects what in your intentions is skillful and what's unskillful, what in
the results of your actions are satisfactory or not: That's what guides you
in the right direction.
You take your desire for happiness, and you take it seriously. It's not
that the Buddha condemns all craving. There's a passage where he says,
"There is a kind of craving that has good results -- the craving that leads
you away from repeatedly wandering on, the desire to get out of this
wandering, to discontinue this wandering." So you take that desire -- which
is what the expression of metta is all about, the desire for happiness,
both for yourself and other people -- and you add to it the conviction that
you can do things that lead to happiness. You take that desire, you take
that conviction, you put them together with a good dash of heedfulness, and
then you try to watch as skillfully as you can to see what you're doing.
Monitor the results of your practice and adjust them as necessary. These
factors all taken together are the recipe for the discernment that leads to
There's no one technique that can guarantee that you'll gain discernment,
just as there's no one technique that has a monopoly on giving rise to
discernment. The techniques are things that you use in your quest for
discernment, but your quest has to be informed by more than techniques. It
has to be informed by the right questions, by the right qualities of mind,
by the rigor you bring to your attention to what you're doing, by your
willingness to set the highest possible standards for yourself, your
unwillingness to settle for a happiness that falls under the three
That's how liberating discernment comes about.
November 12, 2002
A friend of mine once wrote a novel about a storytelling contest between
the gods of the Taoist heaven. In the course of the novel you read about
the gods conducting their story contest -- it's the male gods lined up
against the female gods, but there are traitors on both sides -- and you
also read the story they invent, alternating from one side to the next. The
story's full of all kinds of suffering: A young woman gets sold as a slave
to get her parents out of debt; her new master is a good person, but he
dies off pretty quickly; he's got an evil brother, and all kinds of
horrible things happen; there are floods, fires, suicides, lots of
injustice -- what makes for a great story but a miserable life. And then at
the very end of the novel Kuan Yin appears and tells the Taoist gods,
"Well, now that you've told this story, you're going to have to go down
there and live it." The last image in the novel is of the Taoist gods all
tumbling out of heaven down to the earth they've despised so much below. Of
course, Kuan Yin here represents what Buddhism did to China: It brought in
the teaching on kamma.
We're creating our lives. And even when the mind seems to be simply
spinning its wheels, it's not just idly spinning its wheels. It's creating
new states of being, new possibilities -- some of which are good, some of
which are not so good. You have to keep that principle always in mind as
you're meditating. You're not simply here innocently watching what's going
on without any responsibility for what you're experiencing. You're
responsible for your experiences -- through your actions in the past and in
the present moment. On the one hand, this sounds a little onerous because
nobody likes to take responsibility. On the other hand, though, it's
empowering. If you don't like the present moment, you can create a new
present moment because the opportunities to do so are endless.
We're not just consumers of experiences. We're also producers. We have to
keep this principle in mind as we go through the practice. Our training in
the precepts reminds us that we shape our life by the choices we make in
what we say and do. Our training in concentration teaches us that how we
approach the present moment is going to make a big difference in how the
moment is experienced. You can develop skill in the way you focus on the
breath, the way you adjust the breath, the way you develop sensitivity to
what's going on in the body. These are all things you do as a producer of
experiences, and you can learn to do them more and more skillfully to
create a sense of wellbeing in the present moment.
Even when there's pain in the body, even when there are other difficult
issues in life, you can create a still center for yourself. You don't have
to be a victim of what comes in from outside. You don't have to be a victim
of whatever comes welling up from within the mind. You have a role right
here, right now, in shaping things, and -- as you develop more mindfulness,
develop more alertness, as your powers of concentration get more and more
solid -- you have the tools you need to make that present experience a lot
The same principle holds true as we try to develop discernment. We're often
told that discernment consists of seeing things as inconstant; and because
they're inconstant, they're stressful; and because they're stressful,
they're not-self. Now, most of us in the West are used to consuming our
experiences. We don't buy a Ford Explorer. We buy the Ford Explorer
experience. We go to Yosemite for the Yosemite experience. If we take the
Buddha's teachings on discernment out of context and put them in our normal
consuming mode, what do they seem to say? They seem to say, "Life is short.
Experiences are fleeting. Grab as much pleasure as you can." And since you
can't hold onto things for too long before they change, you have to try to
embrace them, appreciate them, squeeze as much as you can out of your
experiences, and then be quick to let go before they start falling apart.
But that's okay because other experiences will come along, so that you
never run out of things to embrace. In other words the teaching seems to be
telling us how to be expert connoisseurs in consuming our experiences.
Taking the teachings out of context leads to other misunderstandings as
well. You begin to think, "If everything's impermanent, why spend all this
time trying to develop concentration? It's all going to end someday anyhow.
Why try to develop good qualities in the mind? They'll all come to nothing
eventually. Why don't we just accept what we've got and learn to enjoy
that?" But that's taking the teachings out of context.
When the Buddha taught the teachings of discernment, he started with
questions of, "What's skillful? What's unskillful? What can I do that will
lead to long-term happiness?" This is the first set of questions you're
supposed to ask to develop discernment. If you look at your normal patterns
of consumption, you begin to realize that a lot of them are very
unskillful: They lead to only short-term types of happiness. And you
realize it's not just the consumption, but it's also what you do to produce
these experiences that's unskillful. You find yourself acting on greed,
anger, passion, fear, just to get the experiences you want.
So to get out of that pattern you want to develop the skills that will make
your happiness more solid, longer lasting, less likely to turn on you and
eat you up. This is the type of discernment that underlies development in
terms of virtue and concentration. You refrain from the activities that
would lead to instant gratification but long-term regret, long-term
remorse. You develop qualities of mind that create a sense of greater
wellbeing that doesn't have to depend on outside stimuli, that can stand up
against any kind of outside situation.
Once you've developed these qualities, you take the process of discernment
a little bit deeper. Use that principle of inconstancy to ask, "Is there
anything that's not inconstant? Do I have to keep on producing, producing,
producing for the rest of eternity? Isn't there a type of happiness that
doesn't require that?" So you turn and look more carefully at the type of
happiness you're creating. Then you run into the question of, "Who's
consuming this? What is this consumer? What is this producer?" You begin to
see that the consumer is also made up of khandhas you've produced. And this
insight makes the whole process seem even more futile. Why would you want
to get involved in this process -- creating experiences for experiences to
enjoy? From this point of view, even long-term happiness isn't good enough.
Your powers of sensitivity have been sharpened. Your insight into the
process of production and consumption has gotten sharper as well. And when
you finally reach the point where you see that it's not necessary, you let
If you were only a consumer, it'd be easy enough to continue enjoying
things that are inconstant as long as you've learned to mind your manners
in how you embrace things -- hugging without grabbing -- but as a producer
there comes a point when you get tired of producing. You've had enough. You
see that all the effort going into producing is simply not worth it. That's
the insight that allows you to drop things, that allows you to let go.
And it's in that context that the teachings on the three characteristics
have their true meaning, play their true role. Like the storytellers in the
novel, we have to be careful about what we're creating because we're going
to have to live in what we create. Keep asking yourself, "Is this good
enough? Am I satisfied with what I'm creating?" -- because it's not an easy
task to stop creating. If it were easy, we wouldn't have to sit here and
meditate so hard. It's difficult and, whether we like what we're creating
or not, we keep on creating. That's the problem.
So as long as you're going to create, try to create as good a world for
yourself as you can, as good a world for the people around you as you can,
until you've developed the qualities where you can look into this world-
production activity in your mind, this factory that keeps churning things
out moment-by-moment-by-moment, to see if you can take it apart.
It sounds a little scary, but then the Buddha promises that once you take
these things apart, there comes a happiness that nothing that you've
created can ever compare to. This promise, together with the reality of
that uncreated, unfabricated level of happiness: that's what makes all this
work we're doing here more than worthwhile.
They tell us that the heart of the Buddha's Awakening was discovering the
principle of causality, how cause and effect work to shape your experience.
It sounds pretty abstract but it's actually directly related to what you're
experiencing right now. In other words, there's the result of past kamma,
there's your present kamma, and there's the result of present kamma. Those
are the three things you're experiencing at any given moment.
Of course when we start out, it all tends to be mixed together. It's just
experience. We don't see these patterns, we don't see the component factors
as separate and distinct, so things seem pretty random. But if you learn
how to look at what you're doing right now, you come to see that you're not
totally passive. The things you're experiencing are not just coming in at
you. There's an active side to the mind that goes out and shapes them, adds
a little here, takes away a little bit there. You're getting sensitive to
that aspect of the mind, to what you're doing right now. That's a large
part of the insight you need to gain in the meditation.
Most of us are like a man who goes storming into a room, acting in an
offensive way, and then later complains, "The people in the room seemed
awfully defensive, awfully unfriendly" -- as if he didn't have any impact
on the atmosphere of the room through his actions, through the way he
entered the room.
So how are you storming into the present moment? One way to find out is by
checking on the breath. Exactly what are you doing with the breath right
now? Is the breathing a totally passive, automatic process, or are you
doing something to the breath? Is there some level of the mind that's
making decisions? One way to find out is to make conscious decisions about
the breath, nudging it a little bit here, a little bit there. We're not
talking about making huge differences in the breath, just making gradual
changes in whichever direction seems most comfortable.
As you do this you begin to realize that your present experience of
pleasure or pain depends on decisions you're making right now. You begin to
get more sensitive to what the mind is doing, particularly in terms of its
perceptions and thought-fabrications, and how these relate to your
Perceptions are the labels you put on things. For example, you may
experience the body as something solid breathing in and breathing out.
Well, you can change that perception. See everything you sense in the body
right now as an aspect of the breath property. Look at it that way: every
sensation as a type of breath sensation. See what that does to your
sensation of the body, the way you relate to it, the way you evaluate it,
the way you breathe.
And then your thought-fabrications: Use them to ask questions. How about
breathing this way? How about breathing that way? And so you give it a try.
As you do this, you get a greater and greater sense of how much you really
are shaping your present experience. Then you can take this insight and
apply it to issues of pain, both physical pain and mental pain. Most of us
tend to think of ourselves as passive recipients, victims of a particular
pain attacking us. There doesn't seem much we can do about it. That's
because we have a habitual way of reacting to pain. Unless we can change
that habit, we're not going to see much improvement in the issue of why
we're suffering, of how we suffer.
But if you really look at a physical pain, you realize that while part of
it comes from something wrong with the body, another part comes from what
the mind is doing to manage the experience of pain: the way it paints a
mental picture of the pain, the way it latches onto that mental picture,
what it's doing to maintain the pain in a particular way or to move it in a
particular direction. That's going on all the time, yet we're not really
aware of how much we're contributing to our own pain. That's the big issue.
That's the first noble truth: the pain we're creating through our clinging,
craving, and ignorance.
To see these things, you have to be very, very sensitive to the present
moment and very sensitive to what your input is. This is why concentration
is so important, getting the mind really still so that it can see these
things very precisely. For instance, when pain arises we tend to miss the
fact that the mind is constantly labeling it, "Pain, pain, pain, pain,
pain." And in addition to the label of "pain" we sometimes paint a picture
of it to ourselves. That act of labeling, if there's clinging along with
it, contributes to the pain. And when you get really sensitive to the
movements of the mind -- and this requires getting the breath really still
so that it's not interfering with what you're seeing -- you see that
there's a constant repetition going on in the mind. Sometimes the labeling,
the clinging, and the repetition are so insistent that the physical cause
of the pain has long since gone. The act of clinging is the actual pain
you're experiencing now.
So when you learn how to see, "Oh, there's that mental label going again,
there it goes again, there it goes again": Can you stop it? See what
happens when you stop it, when you just drop it. You'll find that your
experience of the pain changes. That's when you gain insight into the issue
of what you're doing in the present moment, how you contribute to the shape
of your experience.
That's a lot of the meditation right there -- just sensitizing the mind to
what it's doing. Most often that's our big blind spot: what we're doing
right now. We're so conscious of what other people are doing -- "They did
this to me, they did that to me" -- but we're not looking at what we're
doing, which is why what they're doing causes us pain. Many times you can't
avoid what's coming at you from the outside -- it's past kamma -- but you
can avoid the unskillful ways you're reacting to it. Sometimes you find
that the way you're reacting to the situation feeds back into the
situation, influencing what those other people are doing and making the
situation worse. But even when that's not the case, you find that your
suffering really comes from the way you relate to the outside situation.
That's what the first noble truth is all about, clinging to the five
aggregates: clinging to the form of the body, clinging to your feelings,
perceptions, thought-fabrications, or consciousness. When you stop clinging
to these aggregates, then even though they're still impermanent and there
still may be some stress in them, it doesn't weigh on the mind. The bridge
has been cut so that it doesn't connect. You stop lifting things up, as in
Ajaan Suwat's image: The mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if
you're not trying to lift it up then it's not heavy for you.
So you've got to see where you're doing your heavy lifting and then try to
understand why. Only when you understand why you're doing things can you
really stop. Sometimes in the course of a meditation you can force yourself
to stop, but if there's no real understanding, then as soon as the mind
gets back to its old ways, it goes lifting things, picking them up,
carrying them around again. But if you look into why you're lifting these
things, what misunderstandings lie behind what you're doing, why you feel
that you have to carry these things around: That's a lot of the insight
It's an old habit, the way the mind contributes to things in the present
moment, particularly the ways it causes itself unnecessary suffering. We
think that an undercurrent of suffering is a necessary part of experience,
but it's not. When you see it as stress, when you see it as a burden and
you realize that it's not necessary, that's when you really let go.
So check on exactly where your clinging is right now, where you're
contributing to unnecessary suffering. Try to make the mind as still as
possible and then stay there to observe: "Is there still some stress here?
Is there still a sense of burdensomeness here? What else is going along
with that? Can you see any activity, any intention that's going along with
that stress?" And if you catch sight of that activity, that intention, you
It's almost invariably something you didn't realize you were doing,
something you were holding onto, in the sense of repeating it mindlessly.
Sometimes you're aware that you're holding onto the act of intention, but
you think you've got to hold on: "This is the core of my being, this is who
I am, this is the way my mind has to work." Well, it doesn't have to work
that way. Learn how to question those assumptions. Learn how to let go a
little bit. This loosens things up in the mind. The things you never saw
before, now you suddenly see.
This burden you create for yourself is totally unnecessary. What you
thought was necessary, the way things had to be: They don't have to be that
way at all. That's the whole message of the Buddha's Awakening: the
principle of causality we've been talking about. He applied it to see how
the suffering the mind experiences in the present moment is not necessary.
That's why the principle of causality was so important. He realized the
input he was putting into the present moment that was creating the
suffering and he learned to stop.
And what happened when there was no input in the present moment? As we
meditate we find that our input gets more and more and more subtle.
Oftentimes we're not even aware of any input. We tell ourselves that we're
sitting here perfectly peaceful, perfectly calm, nothing's going on, but
actually there's a lot going on in the mind that we're missing. It's in a
blind spot. When you begin to see that blind spot, begin to let go of
what's in there, that's when things open up, that's when the meditation can
really start making a radical change in the mind. A lot of the
relationships in your mind -- where you thought, "This is that way and
that's this way" -- you begin to realize are not necessarily so. And the
realization that they're not necessary: That's where the liberation lies.
So a continuity runs throughout the whole process of meditation from the
very beginning. If, while you're sitting here, the mind slips off, just
bring it right back. If it slips off again, just bring it right back again.
Even this much can make you more conscious of what you're doing in the
present moment. You get more conscious of how the mind has its blind spots
and you learn to make them more and more and more subtle, less dominant in
the mind. In other words, you try to cut through them as much as you can.
What happens, of course, is that they find more subtle ways to hide, but at
least you gain a measure of control over the mind and a greater sense of
what you're doing in the present moment.
That's crucial to the meditation. You keep applying that principle to more
subtle levels, for the same principle holds all the way through. It's just
that as you keep working on it, it requires more precision. But that's
something you can develop. After all, this is a skill. That's another one
of the Buddha's great discoveries. The ability to learn the path to
liberation is a skill you can master in the same way that you master other
skills: looking at the results of your actions, reflecting back on what you
did, and trying to adjust things so that they keep getting more and more
precise, more and more subtle, less burdensome to the mind.
Awakening isn't something that just drops on people without their being
aware of what they're doing. It's not an accident or something that comes
from outside. It requires that you get really sensitive to this teaching on
kamma: "I am the owner of my actions." You're acting right now, so be very
careful about what you do, in the same way that you'd be very careful about
building a fire, careful about sharpening a knife, careful about all the
other skills you need in life. It's just that, in dealing with the mind,
you need to be even more careful, even more precise. It requires more
subtlety. But this simple process of just getting more skillful in how you
relate to the present moment: That can take you all the way to Awakening.
And that right there is revolutionary.
The Six Properties
In English we have a very limited vocabulary for describing how the body
feels from the inside. We feel "tingly" or we feel "heavy." We have ants
crawling on our skin or butterflies in our stomachs. There are not that
many words, and nothing really systematic. This is where the Buddha's
teaching on the properties is helpful. It provides a systematic way of
categorizing the feelings you have in the body -- how the body feels from
the inside -- along with a sense of what you can do with those feelings.
This teaching also gives you a very clear sense of how much your present
input shapes the way you experience the body, and an immediate, very
visceral way of using that present input to balance things out, to make the
body an easier place in which to settle down.
The texts list the properties as six: earth, water, wind, fire, space, and
consciousness. It sounds like medieval chemistry. We'd do better though, to
look at these properties as ways of categorizing the sensations that make
up the way the body feels from the inside. The earth sensations are
feelings of heaviness or solidity; water would be cool sensations; fire is
of course warm; wind is the motion back and forth; space is the feelings of
emptiness; and consciousness is the property that's aware of all these
The theory behind these properties is that they get provoked. In other
words, as they get emphasized, as some incident strengthens them or kicks
them into action, they get stronger. On the external level, natural events
occur when the external properties get provoked. Floods come from the
provocation of the water property; huge fires or intense heat, from the
provocation of the fire property; huge winds, from the provocation of the
wind property. Interestingly, the texts also attribute earthquakes to the
wind property. This means that wind refers not only to the wind in the air,
but also to the motion down in the earth. Apparently earth was the only
property that wasn't provokable, on the external level at least, but it
would move when the wind property got into the act.
Whatever we may think of these concepts as ways of describing external
events, they're a very useful way of looking at internal events, at the
experience of the body as sensed from within. Classically, the internal
properties are used to explain disease. Giddiness or lightheadedness is a
sign of too much wind property, a sign that the wind property has been
provoked. With fever, of course, the fire property has been provoked. A
feeling of lethargy or heaviness in your limbs is a sign of too much earth
These are things you can play with in your meditation. That's where the
teaching really becomes useful, because it allows you to see how the way
you focus on the body has an impact on how you perceive the body, how you
actually sense the body. We think of sensations as being primary, the raw
material, the basic building blocks of experience, but there are conscious
decisions being made that precede the sensations. Look at the teaching on
dependent origination. Sankhara, or "fabrication" is way down there, prior
to the sensations you feel in terms of form, feeling, and so forth.
So how are you going to fabricate the body? If there are feelings of
tension in the body, sometimes that's a sign of too much earth property, so
you can think of the breath. This is one of the reasons we start with the
breath. It's the property that's most easily manipulated -- classically
it's called the kaya-sankhara, the factor that fashions the body. It's also
the property that most directly works through tension. Wherever there's a
sense of tension, focus on it and see if you can get a sense of gentle,
healing motion going through it. The potential for motion is there, simply
that the perception contributing to the tension has blocked it. So you can
consciously decide that you're going to perceive motion there. Give it a
chance to happen, and the potential for motion, the potential for movement
through that part of the nervous system, will get strengthened, will get
aroused -- which may be a better way of translating the word that I just
translated as "provoked." The breath-potential gets aroused. When your
awareness of the breath is aroused or heightened, it can move through that
sense of blockage.
When you're feeling giddy or manic, you can think of the earth property to
settle things down. If there's just too much frenetic energy in the body,
you can think of your bones being made of iron, of your hands and feet
weighing a ton. Wherever you have a sense of solidity in the body, focus on
that and try to magnify it. You find that your choice of the image you're
using, your purpose in choosing it, will really affect the way you start
sensing that part of the body. Then you can take that sensation and spread
it out, connecting it with other sensations of solidity in the body. The
potential for solidity is always there.
When you're feeling depressed and weighed down, think of lighter
sensations, of the breath giving a lift to the different parts of the body.
When you're hot, think of the water property. Focus on whatever sensations
in the body are cooler than the others. Really keep your focus right there,
and think "water, water" or "cool, cool." You'll find that other cool
sensations in the body will appear to your awareness. The potential for
them was waiting, simply that they needed the element of present intention
to highlight them.
When you're feeling cold, focus in on warmth. There will be some part of
the body that's warmer than the others, so focus in on it. Think of the
warmth staying there and spreading to other parts of the body where other
warm sensations will get aroused.
You can do this at any stage in the concentration, although it's most
effective when the breath is still. At that point the body feels like a
cloud of mist, little points of sensation, and each little sensation has
the potential to be any one of these four properties. When your sense of
the body is reduced to what the French would call pointillism, it's a lot
easier, simply with a thought, to emphasize either the heaviness or the
lightness, the movement, the warmth or the coolness of those sensations,
the sensation-potentials you've got there. This way you accomplish two
things at once. On the one hand you balance out the body. Whenever one type
of sensation feels too oppressive, you can think of the opposing sensation
to balance it out. On the other, you start seeing the role of present
intention in your awareness, in your experience of the present moment in a
very visceral way.
When things grow very still and balanced in terms of these four properties,
with this mist of potential sensations that can go in any direction, you
can also focus on the space between the points. Realize that the space is
boundless. It goes through the body and out in all directions. Just think
that: "infinite space." Stay with the sensation of infinite space that
comes along with the perception. The potential for it is always there; it's
simply that the perception arouses it. It's a very pleasant state to get
in. Things seem a lot less solid, a lot less oppressive. You don't feel so
trapped in the body.
Ajaan Fuang once had a student, an old woman, who started practicing
meditation with him when he was getting ready to leave Wat Asokaram. After
he left, she had to practice on her own for quite a while. One evening,
when she was sitting in meditation with the group in the meditation hall, a
voice came to her and said, "You're going to die tonight." She was a little
taken aback, but then she reminded herself, "Well, if I'm going to die, the
best way is to die meditating." So she just sat there and watched to see
what would happen as the body dies, to see what it would be like. There was
an actual sensation of the body beginning to fall apart. "All of the
various properties were going their separate ways," she said, "like a house
on fire. There was no place in the body where you could focus your
awareness and have any sense of comfort at all." So for a moment she felt
lost, but then she remembered, "Well, there's the space property." So she
focused in on the space property, and all that sense of the house on fire
suddenly disappeared. There was a very strong sense of infinite space.
There was always the potential to go back to the body. (This is something
you'll notice when you're at this point in your meditation: There are the
spots that could provide a potential for the form of the body but you chose
not to focus on them. Instead you focus on the sense of space in between
and all around. There's a sense of boundlessness that goes with it.)
When she came out of meditation, of course, she hadn't died. She was still
alive. But she had learned an important lesson, that when things get really
bad in the body you can always go to space. Even though it's not Awakening,
and it's not the unconditioned, still it's a lot better than being immersed
in turmoil along with the properties in the body.
So the properties provide a useful way of looking at the potentials in the
present moment. They also make it easier to get to that sense of awareness
itself that you read about so much in the writings of the Thai Ajaans. Once
you're with infinite space, drop the perception of "space" and see what's
left. There will just be a perception of knowing, knowing, knowing, which
takes its place. You don't have to ask, "Knowing what?" There's just
awareness, awareness, or knowing, knowing.
Once you've got everything divided up into properties like this, you've got
the raw materials for gaining insight. The terms of analysis may initially
seem strange, but once you get a visceral sense of what they're referring
to, you'll find them extremely useful. They not only give the mind a good
place to settle down in the stillness of concentration, but they also help
you gain insight into the way perception shapes your experience of the
body, shapes your perception of what's going on here in the present moment,
seeing how fabricated it all is. You've got potentials coming in from past
kamma, but you've also got the element of present choice, which becomes
extremely clear when you analyze things in this way.
When I first went to stay with Ajaan Fuang, he had me memorize Ajaan Lee's
Divine Mantra: six passages dealing with the different properties. For a
long time it seemed very foreign to me until one night I was chanting the
passage on the property of consciousness and I realized that it was
referring to the awareness that's right here. This awareness. Right here.
When this realization hit, it was as if a huge iceberg in my heart suddenly
melted. I wasn't dealing with some outside, foreign frame of thinking;
instead, it was something extremely direct, immediate, right here and now.
That was when I began to get a sense of why Ajaan Fuang had asked me to
memorize the chant, why he wanted all of his students to think about their
present experience in terms of the properties.
So keep this mode of analysis in mind. Try to get some sense of it as you
put it to use, and you'll find that it's extremely useful in the practice.
As with all of the Buddha's teachings, the importance of the teaching is
what you do with it, and what it does for you in helping to gain insight
into how stress and suffering are created in the present moment -- and how
you don't have to create them, if you pay attention, if you work at these
The mind has a basic habit, which is to create things. In fact, when the
Buddha describes causality, how experiences come about, he says that the
power of creation or sankhara -- the mental tendency to put things together
-- actually comes prior to our sensory experience. It's because the mind is
active, actively putting things together, that it knows things.
The problem is that most of its actions, most of its creations, come out of
ignorance, so the kind of knowledge that comes from those creations can be
misleading. For this reason, what you want to do in the process of
meditation is to back up, to get down as close to this process of creation
as you can, to see if there's a way to do it skillfully that leads to
knowledge, that leads you to a point that breaks through ignorance. And
that means, instead of building up a lot of things, you let things fall
apart so you can get down to exactly where these basic forces in the mind
are putting things together.
Now it so happens that when we bring the mind to the breath, we have all
these basic forces right here in their most elemental forms. The breath is
the factor that fashions the body. It's what they call kaya-sankhara or the
"physical putting-together." The breath is what puts life together in the
body. If it weren't for the breath here, things would start falling apart
Then there's verbal fabrication, vaci-sankhara, the act of putting things
in words. The two basic verbal sankharas are directed thought and
evaluation. And you've got those right here, too. You direct your thoughts
to the breath and then evaluate the breath: How does the breath feel? Does
it feel good? If it does, stay with it. If it doesn't feel good, you can
change it. This is about the most basic level of conversation you can have
with yourself. "Does this feel good or not? Comfortable or not? Yes. No."
And then you work with that. What are you working with? You're working with
mental fabrication, citta-sankhara, which covers feeling and perception:
feelings of pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain. And then
perceptions are the labels the mind gives to things: "This is pleasant.
This is painful. This is this and that is that."
When you've got the mind with the breath, you've got all of these things
brought together: the feelings that come with the breath, the perceptions
that label the breath: "Now the breath is coming in. Now the breath is
going out. Now the mind is like this. Now it's like that." The directed
thought and the evaluation are there as well, keeping you focused on the
breath and on evaluating the breath. So these things are all together. If
you stray away from here, you're usually straying away into distraction,
into the realm of further elaboration, in which you lose this basic frame
of reference and create a whole other one. It's what they call "becoming"
in the texts, when you create other worlds in the mind. Once you get into
those other worlds, you lose touch with the process of creation. You lose
touch with how becoming is brought together. So you've got to learn how to
take those worlds of distraction -- and the processes that form them --
The Buddha talks about various ways of dealing with distraction. Once
you've realized you've left your original frame of reference, you bring
yourself back. In other words, you remind yourself. In some cases, the
simple act of reminding is enough to disperse that other little world
you've created for yourself and come back to this one.
Other times you have to reflect actively on the drawbacks of that other
world, of the thinking that creates it, especially if it's thinking imbued
with lust, aversion, delusion, or harmfulness. You've got to remind
yourself, "What would happen if I thought about this for a while?" Well,
you'd create certain habits in the mind, and once those habits are imbedded
in the mind they lead to actions that can create all kinds of problems.
When you see the drawbacks of that kind of thinking, you say, "I don't need
that. I've had enough of that in my life." You drop it and come back to the
Other times you can consciously ignore the distraction. A little world
appears in your mind and you say, "I don't want to enter into that," but
for some reason it just doesn't go away. You realize the reason it's not
going away is because you're paying attention to it. Even if you don't like
it, paying attention to it is enough to keep it going -- like a tar trap.
You touch the tar with your hand and you get stuck. You try to pull
yourself loose from the tar with the other hand and you get both hands
stuck. Pull yourself off with your foot, your foot gets stuck. Bite the
tar, your mouth gets stuck. So the only way to deal with it is to not touch
it. In other words, don't pay attention to it. You know it's there, but you
just don't give it any mind. After a while, from lack of attention, it'll
A fourth way of pulling yourself back is to notice that when there's this
process of creation, when there are these little worlds you create in your
mind, an element of tension goes with them. Things would be a lot easier if
you didn't create these worlds, if you'd just relax whatever physical and
mental tension supports these things. So look for the tension. Once you can
locate it, just relax it. When you relax the tension, the thought goes
A fifth way, when none of these other methods work, is to tell yourself,
"Okay, I'm going to clench my teeth, press my tongue against the palate,
and I will not think about that other thing." In other words, just through
the force of your will you force it out of your mind. This is the method of
last resort: the one that's the least precise and works only as long as
your will power lasts. But sometimes it's the only thing that will clear
the air. If we were to compare these various methods to tools, this would
be the sledgehammer. It may be crude, but you need one in your arsenal for
cases when scalpels and Exacto knives can't handle the job.
So when one of these other little worlds gets created in your mind, you use
whichever of these methods work to let go of it and bring yourself back to
the most basic levels of the process of creation: the breath, directed
thought, evaluation, feelings, perceptions. Stay right on this level.
What do you do with them on this level? Well, you can create levels of
concentration in the mind. Concentration is a kind of creation, but it's a
creation that instead of obscuring the process of what's going on in the
mind actually makes it clearer. You create, but without leaving these basic
levels of your frame of reference. In other words, you put them to use in a
new way. You put feelings to use in a new way. You learn how to create a
feeling of pleasure from the breath so that the pleasure gets more and more
intense, more and more solid. Just the act of sitting here breathing gets
really refreshing. And if you stay with the feeling as a feeling, in and of
itself, it doesn't pull you off into other mental worlds. You stay right
here. It feels good right here.
So instead of feeding on the pleasure in an aimless way, you do it in a
systematic way. That way you can keep the mind with a sense of pleasure, a
sense of rapture, and it doesn't wander off. That's what the concentration
is all about. As it strengthens the mind, it gives direction to the mind.
It takes the desire for pleasure and puts it to good use. Once the mind
feels comfortable in the present moment, it's not going to wander off
anyplace else. It feels good right here. A lot more satisfaction comes from
the sense of ease right here than from the little bits and pieces of
satisfaction coming from the other worlds you can create with your mind.
Again, this is a process of creation, but it's a lot more skillful than
normal. It keeps things on a basic level where you're in touch with the
process. You don't lose sight of it. It's like the difference between
sitting out in an audience watching a play and being behind the stage.
Behind the stage, you see the actual play, but you also see what goes on
behind it. In that way, you're a lot less likely to get carried away by the
illusion of the play.
Now, of course, pain is going to come into your meditation as well.
Sometimes it's out-and-out pain. Other times it's more subtle. And again,
as with the pleasure, instead of thinking that you're on the receiving end
of the pain, a victim of the pain, you start putting it to use. The pain is
there for you to comprehend. That's what the Buddha said in his teachings
on the four noble truths: The task with regard to pain is to comprehend it.
Once the mind is solid enough and stable enough so as not to feel
threatened by the pain, it can analyze the pain on whatever level it may
be, searing pain or more subtle stress. As you comprehend the pain, you
start finding that you understand the mind a lot better, too. All the
little animals in the mind that tend to gather around pain: You begin to
notice who they are, what they are, and you realize, "That's not me. It's
just these thoughts that tend to cluster around pain." If you want to
identify with them, you can, but they're going to turn your mind into a
menagerie. They're going to create a lot of turmoil. And so you learn how
to let them go.
Even when you're focused on the pleasant levels of concentration, you'll
find that as you get more and more sensitive toward these various levels, a
subtle element of stress accompanies each one of them. Once you identify
where that stress is, you let it go. That takes you to a more subtle level
of concentration. You stay there for a while. In the beginning, you don't
notice the stress in the new level. It's like going into a bright room
where your eyes haven't yet adjusted to the light. At first you see nothing
but the dazzle. But if you stay there for long enough, your eyes begin to
adjust and you begin to notice, "Oh, there are shapes, there are forms,
there are things in this room that you can see."
It's the same as you go from one level of concentration to the next. Take
the stress of directed thought and evaluation, for instance. Once the
breath really feels full, really feels satisfying, you don't need to keep
evaluating it. You don't have to keep reminding yourself to stay with it.
You're just there, there, there, there, there with a basic perception. You
let go of the directed thought and evaluation, and Bong -- you come down to
a much deeper level.
You go through this step by step. You realize what an important role
perceptions play in this, the labels you put on things. You're constantly
labeling the breath. When the breath is still so that you can drop that
label, you begin to label the sense of space that's left, then the sense of
knowing that's left as you drop the label for "space," then all the way up
to the sphere of nothingness. That's still called a perception attainment.
It's based on the label that the mind puts on the experience that keeps you
So again, you're with these very basic, basic levels of creation in the
mind. When you start taking them apart, that's when things really get
interesting. Instead of building, building, building up, you're letting go,
letting go, letting go, bit by bit by bit. And then, of course, you're
getting attached to the new level you reach, but it's a good attachment.
Otherwise, you'd go floating off to other worlds. This attachment here, at
least, keeps you in the present moment where things can begin to open up.
And instead of elaborating on it, you keep applying the teachings of the
four noble truths and keep the questions basic: "Where is the stress here?"
This is especially important when you get to the level of infinitude of
consciousness or the infinitude of space. On those levels it's easy to
develop a sense that you've reached the ground of being from which all
things come and to which all things return. If you're not careful, you can
really start philosophizing on this theme, elaborating on it, getting into
all kinds of abstractions about the relationship between the absolute and
the relative, emanation -- all sorts of big, buzz-word issues. But they're
totally irrelevant to the real problem in the mind -- that there's still
stress here. If you're still stuck here, you haven't gone beyond, you
haven't reached the Deathless.
You've got to keep asking that same old basic question: "Where is there
stress here?" Look for it. See what you're doing that keeps the stress
going, see that it's unnecessary, and then let go. Ultimately you open up
to something totally unfabricated.
So instead of building things up that pull you away from the present, you
start by building up states of concentration in the mind. These are types
of fabrication, of course, but they're the type of fabrication that keeps
you within this frame of reference: the very absolute present. They don't
distract you into other levels where you lose touch with the basic building
blocks in the process of fabrication.
This is a basic pattern throughout the Buddha's teachings: Before you let
go of things, you first have to learn to do them skillfully, mindfully,
with awareness. The doing, the mastering of the skill, is what enables you
to know them. This brings us back to that basic principle we talked about
earlier: We wouldn't know anything, there would be no awareness at all, if
there weren't any doing in the mind. You have to learn how to do things
more and more skillfully until finally you can get to a level where the
mind becomes too sensitive to do anything. And at that point it opens up to
a totally different kind of awareness.
So you make use of what you've got. The Buddha noticed that all things
fabricated have an element of stress. But what are you going to do? How are
you going to get to the unfabricated? You can't use the unfabricated as a
tool because that would be fabricating it, and that's not its nature. You
learn how to use the process of fabrication in a more skillful way. You
divide things up into the four noble truths. There's stress, the
origination of stress, the cessation of stress, and the path. The path is a
process of taking things that are stressful -- these perceptions, these
feelings, these processes of creation -- and using them in a skillful way.
So you use fabrication to undo fabrication and then finally reach a point
where everything opens up to the unfabricated.
It's an extremely skillful path, a skillful approach. It takes the raw
materials that we've got around us all the time -- the activities that we
ordinarily use to create experience -- and teaches us how to use them in a
more skillful way. Getting down to basics. Keeping away from abstractions.
Once there's an abstraction in the mind, there's a new level of being in
there, a new frame of reference; it pulls you away from the present. A lot
of self-delusion comes through abstraction. A lot of opportunity for lying
to yourself comes through abstraction. So we keep things basic. We keep our
nose to the ground. Just look at the basic things we have: physical,
verbal, and mental fabrication. Learn how to put them to the proper use.
Use them more and more skillfully. Get more and more in touch with the
actual process of fabrication right here in the present moment. That's
where things open up.