Monthly Archives: December 2007

Getting the knack

Getting the knack

   Buddha listed 10 fetters(see appended at the end of the article) in which a person need to overcome in order to gain liberation. Appended is also listed the 4 stages of enlightenment.

     Many people felt that when a person has entered the stream or in other words had become a saint there won’t be any sensual craving, ill-will etc.  A stream-enterer is one who has only removed the first 3 fetters. These 3 fetters together formed what is known as the "cognitive, understanding" fetters. What exactly are these and how insight meditation could facilitate the breaking of these fetters ?

      In the 12 links of dependent origination, also known as the wheel of life, Buddha spelt out why we continue to be reborned in samsara.  In order to break out of this cycle of rebirth we have to break one of these links.  Two links are normally used. The first is the link of ignorance and the practice to break this link is the meditation on emptiness. There are a number of variation on this meditation technique and it is not the intend of this article to get into it.  The sole objective of meditation on emptiness is to give rise to the insight of selflessness – this is known as the "liberating insight" or "wisdom realising emptiness".  Once this self-identity is broken the next 2 fetters follow in quick succession.

       The second link that is often used also, particularly by the zen practitioners, is the "name and form" or "rupa-nama" link.  Once we are able to break free of the hold of concepts – names and forms – we will also break free from self-identity. Because self-identity is nothing but a mind created concept that is so subtle that we believe that it is actually us. Again insight meditation trains the mind to break free from the perception skandha(heap) and therein lies our false self.

         We can see from the brief description above that insight meditation is indeed a very powerful method of breaking the 10 fetters. In order for us to use this method we need to gain a sense of what awareness is and what is detachment from the skandhas is.  Once this is gained we will slowly develop the "knack" for insight meditation and with practice we will start to break the fetters. If we do not drink tea how would we know what it tastes like. Without knowing what it is we continue to move around within the playground of our mind. 

         Alas I had been accused so often that since I do not practice vipassana as taught by Goenka or Mahasi Sayadaw I will never know what they are saying. When one "knows" what goes on in the mind one immediately know if a particular technique will work or not. It has nothing to do with books or borrowed phrases that I had often been accused of to diminish what I have said. I wonder why ?  Just consider what I say and don’t dismiss it as something coming from a theoretician with a big mouth. If what I say has no merit you will find out soon enough. I have nothing to promote, nothing to defend and certainly nothing to gain. If what I have to say is correct then you have everything to gain. If what I have to say is not correct, you have lost nothing.

         The Vipassana that is taught at the moment is like playing in the playground of the mind. We kept dancing around the cup of tea and kept telling ourselves "smoke, smoke,smoke….warm,warm,warm,warm……liquid,liquid,liquid" and we are so convinced that this is it.    This is not the "knowing" as Buddha meant it to be in the Satipathana Sutta. We kept projecting our thoughts, our knowledge on to the sense objects that arose within our consciousness and we kept chasing after it.  Access state of mind is when the person is able to hold on to a singular train of thought for a long time. It is termed access because it is the at the door step of the absorption mind state. The vipassana technique that is commonly taught today can only arrive at this access state. The advocates of this technique admitted it. However they argued that purification of mind can take place and this takes place through analysis with the mind. When there is sufficient purification of the mind there will then be purification of view. Can purification of the mind actually take place by using the mind ?  Let me explain this by way of an actual event.

        I often befriended even those who work in the lowliest of post in my work place. One day the cleaning lady was not present and when she returned to work the next day I asked if she was not well. She replied no but she was absent because she had to attend a course.  She said all the cleaners were taught how to clean and I laughed. I said that she could actually teach the teachers but she quickly added no. She actually learned quite a lot and one of the things she learned was how to clean up shit or vomit. She explained that if she used the mop to clean it up she would only be spreading the shit all over the place. She needed to go beyond her mop.

         The mind itself is already full of shit and to use the mind to clean itself up will only be moving all the shit around. And of course the mind being what it is it will be able to make a convincing argument that this nicely spread out shit looks a lot prettier.

          The analytical faculty of the mind is its ability to break a part a concept and idea or a system of thought. The belief that by breaking it apart we will then be able to see the parts and in seeing the parts we can then observe selflessness and hence purification will begin to take place. But what has the mind broken apart ?  It has only broken apart the fabrication of the mind and the result is a splintered fabrication of the mind.  The selflessness that is seen is actually another fabrication of the mind.

            The realisation of emptiness or selflessness of phenomena can never and will never arise within the mind. It can never come about through careful mental elaboration. It is not a state of mind that one arrived at through step 1, step 2, step 3 and then ah-ha we have arrived.  It is a state beyond the mind and it so engulfed and filled you that words and concepts suddenly disappeared. Because this state is so unfamiliar the peace that dawned on you is quickly replaced by fear. It is like finding yourself in a place where you understood nothing.  And in that moment you know what it is like to die a physical death. It is literally death.

           Insights can only start to arise when we start to move to the edge of our mind and how do we make the journey to this edge ?  If we use our mind to move to the edge we actually have an expanding edge. When we analyse we fragment the thoughts and what result from it is an expanded edge.  We have to thread gently to the edge and to do that we must first develop a particular "knack"  of noticing things without engaging what is noticed. What is noticed is already in the mind. Without engaging what is noticed is training us to disengage from our mind…a bit at a time. It is like traipsing through a mind-field(pun intended) without stirring it up.  There is really no techniques. You have to develop this "knack" and once you know what is meant and become proficient in it you will be blessed by glimpses after glimpses of life, people and events and these are the mundane insights. 

          Getting insights through relaxation are now being taught even in highly prestigious business schools. The reason is that through their research they found that business people get very good business insights and instincts when they are most relax.  Learning some meditative relaxation techniques such as progressive relaxation of muscles from toe to head is a great way to set the environment for vipassana.

              This "knack" can never be transmitted but hopefully by the sharing of what little  understanding I have we will get a glimpse, an inkling of what this awareness is all about.  No teacher can help you in this regard.  The spiritual path had always been a lonely one. Only we ourselves can travel it. How much do we want to gain liberation determines how much effort we will put into our dharma practice.

           One issue that often arose amongst buddhists is whether a person can "know" reality without words and concepts. When something happen on the outside our mind very quickly bring to bear our entire history – our prejudices, our hatred, our desires, our conditioning, our training and so on. What we see is not what actually is but our entire mind projections.

          When we know without knowing, that’s insight. When we know with knowing that’s historical baggages that came from our memory. There’s really no insight. We may be able to rearrange the facts and details and present it in a nice way but it is not insight. We may even at times fool ourselves that we are having insights when what we are perceiving is actually what we project onto our bodily sensations that was triggered by an external event.

           How then can we train our mind in such a way that when we look at a fact or an event we do not project our prejudices, our conditioning , our hatred and so on, on to the facts and events ? We can begin by using the sight sensation. A good way I found when I was sitting in shopping complexes waiting for my son or ex-wife to come was to look at the crowd walking pass.  If I just looked at the flow of traffic without any mental commentary, without any attraction, without having to chase after a particular sight because it is interesting or beautiful etc. If someone you knew walked by and immediately your mind says "ah auntie evelyn" – you have lost the state. That state of "looking" without engagement is your basic awareness.  You can even extend this to looking at very gruesome pictures, naked photos and neutral photos. You can do the same with food. Tasty, tasteless and unpleasant taste. If your mind says "yaks…that’s horrible", you have engaged and you have lost the state of basic awareness.

             The taoists understood this pristine awareness state very well and here’s a simple dialogue between Lieh Tzu and someone. He was asked , "Why do you value emptiness so much ?" and Lieh Tzu replied, "In emptiness there is no value. Value is not the name for it. Best be still, best be empty. In stillness and emptiness, we find where to abide; taking and giving, we lose the place."

              And from the Diamond-cutter sutra , "Give rise to a thought that abides nowhere." It was this statement that had caused Hui Neng to realise emptiness.        

             Once you have developed a "knack" , a familiarity with this basic awareness you can then use breath, body, feelings, perception etc. The thoughts that arise will abide nowhere and it will "die" a natural death.  This is the basis and the entire foundation of natural liberation as taught by Padmasambhava.  

            In the book "Natural Liberation: Padmasambhava’s Teachings on the Six bardos" by Karma-glin-pa, Padmasambhava, this basic awareness is used during sexual intercourse with a partner. This technique is very powerful in that purification takes place at the most basic level – the energetic level of our being. And it is a very quick path.The good teacher that revealed this natural liberation technique, together with a lot other techniques based on the same theme, same "knack" had given permission for everyone with good karma to practice it without any initiation.  He argued that those with the right kind of karma and/or merit will understand and appreciate the teachings and will practice it. Those without the proper merit or karma will look at the techniques revealed as "too simplistic" or "unrealistic" and will never get to benefit from these very useful teachings.


               May all find the peace of dharma.



Ten Fetters (samyojana)

  1. Self-identity beliefs
  2. Doubt
  3. Clinging to rites and rituals
  4. Sensual craving
  5. Ill will
  6. Attachment to the form
  7. Attachment to formless phenomena
  8. Conceit (mána, literally measuring-as measuring oneself and comparing to others)- (a subtle sense of self)
  9. Restlessness
  10. Ignorance (with regard to the Four Noble Truths)
    Four Stages of Enlightenment
    1. The Stream-enterer (sotapanna)-has eradicated the first three fetters; will be enlightened in Seven lives or less (cognitive, understanding)
    2. The Once-returner (sakadagami) has eradicated the first three & weakened the fourth and fifth (affective, emotional)
    3. The Non-returner (anagami) has eradicated the first five fetters
    4. The Arahat has eradicated all ten fetters. (transcendent-has eliminated attachment to altered states)

    Note: The first 3 fetters are cognitive (understanding), the next 2 are affective (emotional), the last 5 are Transcendent

Carpe Diem

Carpe Diem

Once Confucius had a student who seem to complain about everything and anything. Then one day while passing through a graveyard he called this student up and asked him to look at the graveyard. "Those people there have no more problems."

In the movie "Dead Poet Society" the teacher in trying to convince his students not to throw away their life in frivolity called the class togather round the portraits of some of the great men that had graduated from that school. A hush fell over the group and he asked them to listen intensely as to what these men were saying. When the silence was pregnant with anticipation the teacher gently whispered "Carpe Diem"…"Carpe Diem" – "Seize the day".  And he ended by saying that those great men are now "feeding the daffodils."

We live in or perhaps trapped in the world of our own making. Our own mundane and selfish concerns often filled our day. We often think that all these will bring us happiness. We strive for attention, to look pretty, to behave appropriately, to struggle for the next promotion and often stabbing others in the back to get at it etc.  When our precious little world is threatened or some how dented by the presence of another we do all we could to either diminish or remove the perceived threat. So we resort to rumour mongering, creative reframing of who the person is, add a little mud on the other person’s character etc. and we walk away feeling high and mighty.  In so doing we actually deny ourselves the opportunity to really know the person and in the process grow from it. We are comforted by the little prison that we create for ourselves.

Carpe Diem – can only take place if we learn to grow beyond our delusions. It is within these delusions that we conjure up images of the people we relate to.  We never really relate with another, not even our lover – a person that we had chosen to unite body, mind and spirit. What we relate to is our images of the person. The way we respond to sensory objects(including our mind objects) all depend on what we hold of the events and persons within our own mind. If it is someone we like it brought about a smile. If it is someone we despise we become upset and filled with ill-will.

    Some times when we realised that the person approaching wasn’t whom we had expected we felt silly.  We are all caught up in a emotional roller-coaster of our own making and think that we are actually sane and is able to hold all of these together.  

    In short our relationship with another is a relationship with our delusional images within our own mindstream. And these had been formed from our experiences, conditioning, past life, upbringing etc. 

    To truly seize the day we have to go beyond our delusions otherwise we would again be deluding ourselves that we had really lived a meaningful and useful life. The will to meaning is so strong within our own psyche that psychologists are convinced that it is a path towards happiness and mental well-being. Again these are social trappings and disguises that we create to dress up the prison of our mind.

    When we truly seize the day our whole consciousness, our whole being is totally immersed in it. It has no meaning nor does it seek meaning. In seeking the day is lost,  in getting we snuffed the life out of it. It is like trying to catch a bird and our life is needlessly consumed in the process. And when we managed to catch it, we would have snuffed out the life of the bird. In catching, flight is lost and we can only saviour the empty shell of a bird. And to us this is meaning and happiness.

      Can we go about our day without meaning or purpose ?

      Seize the day or before long we will all be feeding the daffodils as well.