The Big Picture
WHEREVER YOU LIVE—in a monastery, in a city, or on a quiet tree-lined street—you will always experience problems and difficulties from time to time. This is just the nature of life. So when you have problems with your health you shouldn’t say, “Doctor, there is something wrong with me—I’m sick”; rather you should say, “There is something right with me—I’m sick today.” It’s the nature of the human body to be sick now and again. It’s also the nature of the septic system to need pumping out when you don’t expect it, and it’s the nature of the water heater to sometimes break down. It’s the nature of life to be this way. Even though we struggle as human beings to try to make life go smoothly for ourselves and others, nevertheless it’s impossible to ensure that happens.
Whenever you experience any pain or difficulty, always remember one of the deep meanings of the word suffering: asking the world for something it can never give you. We expect and ask impossible things from the world. We ask for the perfect home and job and that all the things we work hard to build and arrange run perfectly at the right time and place. Of course, that is asking for something that can never be given. We ask for profound meditation and enlightenment, right here and now. But that’s not the way this universe works. If you ask for something that the world can’t supply, you should understand that you’re asking for suffering.
So whether you work or meditate, please accept that things will go wrong from time to time. Your job is not to ask for things the world can’t give you. Your job is to observe. Your job is not to try to prod and push this world to make it just the way you would like it to be. Your job is to 2 understand, accept, and let it go. The more you fight your body, your mind, your family, and the world, the more collateral damage you’ll cause and the more pain you’ll experience.
Sometimes, when we understand and stand back from our daily lives, we see the big picture. We see there’s nothing wrong with the monastery, nothing wrong with us, nothing wrong with life. We understand that it’s just the nature of the world to go “wrong”—that’s what the Buddha meant by the first noble truth of suffering. You work, struggle, and strive so hard to make your life just right—to make your home, your body, and your mind just right—and it all goes wrong anyway.
Understanding Suffering Is the Motivation for Practice
The contemplation of suffering, or dukkha, is an important part of true Buddhist practice. We don’t try to control suffering; rather, we try to understand it by investigating its causes. It’s an important point in our practice, because when most human beings experience suffering, they make the mistake of either running away from it or trying to change it. They blame the machinery for failing, but of course that’s just the nature of machinery. Things go wrong and we suffer. So we should change our attitude and stop fighting. When we stop fighting the world and start to understand the suffering, we get another response. It’s the response called nibbidā.
The response called nibbidā comes from understanding the nature of the body, the mind, and the world. You understand the nature of Buddhism, of setting up a monastery or a household, and of living together in a group. You know it’s going to be unsatisfactory and that there are going to be problems. You are wise enough to stop running away from those problems or trying to change them. You understand that problems are inherent in the fabric of saṃsāra. This was one of the great insights of the Buddha that prompted him to give his first teaching, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56:11).
When you realize that suffering is inherent in the fabric of saṃsāra, it 3 changes your reaction. It’s like having a rotten apple and trying to cut out the rotten parts so you can eat the rest. When you have wisdom, you see that the whole of the apple is rotten and that the only possible response is nibbidā—the rejection of the whole apple, revulsion toward it, turning away from it, and just throwing it away. You see that you don’t need that apple; you can let it go. It’s important to understand the suffering in this world, and it’s important to see how absolute that suffering and unsatisfactoriness is. It will never be under your control or within your power to sort it out and get it right.
When we contemplate and understand this, it gives us the motivation and incentive for practicing the path. According to the suttas, when the Buddha saw people getting old, getting sick, and dying, that was enough to prompt him to seek a solution to suffering (MN 26.13). He realized that it was also his own nature to get old, get sick, and die, that he had not gone beyond these things. That gave him the motivation to set out in search of an end to these problems.
Each of these three problems is your inheritance too. This is what awaits you in the future. This is something that’s certain: you will get old, get sick, and die. There’s nothing you can do about that. These are the facts of your existence, your human body, and also all other things. Everything will get old, disintegrate, and die—everything goes wrong and breaks down. The Buddha-to-be was wise enough to know that even with all his spiritual qualities and accumulated merit, he could not avoid that suffering. A different response was needed: to fully understand it.
In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta it is said that the first noble truth of suffering should be thoroughly understood (SN 56:11). In other words, you don’t try to overcome suffering, you don’t try to change it, you don’t try to make it all better or escape from it; you understand it. Difficult times are wonderful opportunities to sit down and face suffering, to understand it fully and not take the easy option of always running away.4
It’s the nature of most human beings that whenever suffering or problems arise, they have their escape routes: getting lost in fantasies, watching movies, surfing the internet, reading, chatting, having cups of tea or coffee, or just going for walks. What are we really walking away from? What are we going into those fantasies for? It’s our habitual response to the problem of things not being good enough, not being satisfactory. If you really want to get somewhere in life, monastic or otherwise, to become wise and free, the Buddha said you should understand suffering.
When you start to investigate you realize that we all experience suffering. In the Therīgāthā there’s the famous story of Kisāgotamī (Thī. 213–23). The Buddha’s strategy for moving Kisāgotamī away from the grief and suffering caused by the death of her son was to make it quite plain to her that other people die as well: the death of her son was not a solitary event in this universe but was connected to every other death. The Buddha wanted Kisāgotamī to understand the suffering called death. Death is natural; it is part of the fabric of things. It’s everywhere; you can’t escape it. So instead of trying to solve the problem by bringing her son back to life, the Buddha taught Kisāgotamī to understand the universality of the problem.
When we understand, we don’t just accept things, because that’s not good enough either. To think, “Just let it be, this is the way things are, so what!” is not the right response. When we really understand the problem of suffering, what we’re in for, what life is truly like, there’s only one natural response. It’s neither trying to escape nor accepting whatever comes; it’s nibbidā.
Nibbidā means disengaging. We turn away from this thing we call life. Trying to change things just gets you more involved in life, and accepting things also keeps you involved. Disengaging is the right response. Disengaging means you leave these things alone and you’re not concerned or worried about them. You just sit there and you don’t involve yourself in what you’re experiencing. By not involving yourself in what you’re experiencing, you stand back from life. It’s almost like rejecting it, the sort of rejection that makes things disappear.
You read in the suttas that the Buddha, out of compassion, knew how to dismiss people (MN 122.6). Sometimes people will engage in conversation5 because they have nothing better to do. I don’t like sitting around and answering questions hour after hour, particularly during a retreat. In any case, you don’t get answers about real Dhamma by asking questions. You get those answers by sitting still and stopping your thinking, not by encouraging it further. So when someone asks me a question, I try to make the answer as brief as possible. In this way I try to help people disengage from chitchat.
You should disengage from the things of the world in the very same way. Why be involved in all these things? Look at them and realize they just cause you suffering; they just make you tired and upset. Through nib-bidā all these sensory objects fade in importance.
“Not My Business”
When you contemplate life you come to realize that it’s completely out of control. And whatever is out of control is none of your business. That’s a wonderful little saying that I’ve used in my meditation and that I encourage other people to use as well. Whatever you are experiencing, in the monastery or elsewhere, say to it, “Not my business.” Whatever happens to the water supply, to people coming and going, to the food that is offered, to the weather, say to it, “It’s not my business.” It’s not your business to worry about what anyone else does or says to you; it’s their business, their kamma, nothing to do with you.
If you’re sensitive to other people’s words and allow them to hurt or bully you, you should remember the Buddha’s advice to his son Rahula—to be like the earth (MN 62.13). People urinate and defecate on the earth; they vomit on it and burn it. All sorts of rubbish gets tossed on the earth, but the earth never complains; it just accepts everything. People also do some beautiful things on the earth. They plant gardens or, even better, they build monasteries. But the earth doesn’t react no matter what happens to it.
So be like the earth. Whatever people say or do, be immoveable. If they praise you or blame you, it’s their business. There’s no need to be affected by another person’s speech, whether good or bad. When you have the attitude of “None of my business,” it will never upset you.6
It’s the same with the aches and pains in the body and with sickness. When you meditate, remind yourself they’re none of your business; they’re the body’s business—let the body look after them. Thinking like that is actually a powerful way of keeping the body healthy. It’s a strange thing that sometimes the more you worry about this body, the worse it gets. If you disengage from the body, sit still, and just allow the body to disappear, it tends to heal itself. It seems oftentimes when you try to control and organize things they only get worse, and it’s the same with your body. Sometimes, when you let it go and just relax, the body becomes so at ease that it heals itself. So just let go and forget about it.
I’ve known a lot of monks whose health problems disappeared through the power of their meditation. The first time I saw that was with Ajahn Tate. When I first went to Thailand in 1974, he was in the hospital with incurable cancer. They gave him the best possible treatment, but nothing would work, so they sent him back to his monastery to die. He died twenty-five years later. That’s one example of what happens when monks “go back to their monastery to die.” They go back and then live a long time. So you disengage from things—nibbidā arises—and the mind turns away. It’s had enough, it doesn’t even want to look at them anymore, and you find that they fade away.
This is the process you read about in the suttas, nibbidā leading to virāga, the fading away of things. When you regard something as none of your business, it fades away from your world. Consciousness doesn’t engage with it anymore; it doesn’t see, hear, feel, or know it. The way this works is as follows. Whatever you engage with is what takes hold in the mind—it’s where consciousness finds a footing and grows. You are building mental edifices. It’s very clear to me as a meditator that we create our own world. But when you disengage, you have no business there, and because you’re not interested in it, the whole thing just disappears from your consciousness. When you have nibbidā you’re really “un-creating” your world.7
Solving the Problem
How many times have you tried to solve “the problem”? You’ll be trying to solve it not just until you die but for many more lifetimes. Instead, understand that this world is just the play of the senses. It’s the five khandhas doing their thing; it has nothing to do with you. It’s just people being people, the world being the world.
Sometimes at our monastery you can see large flocks of cockatoos. They are very noisy. Some people say they don’t like the sound of cockatoos, but whether you like them or not, they still make the same noise, so why not disengage?
As a meditator I used to ask myself, “Why does noise disturb me?” Whether it’s the sound of a bird outside or somebody coughing or slamming the door in the main hall, why do I hear that? Why can’t I do the same as I do with my eyes, find some “lids” and shut my ears? Through contemplating sound and understanding how it works, it became quite clear that the only reason I heard it was because I went out to listen to it. There was an active engagement with the world of sound. That’s why it was disturbing. Ajahn Chah used to say that it’s not the sound that disturbs you; it’s you who disturbs the sound. That was a very profound saying, and it meant a lot to me. I used that to understand the nature of sound and why it’s so disturbing.
When someone calls you a pig, an idiot, or whatever, you don’t need to listen to it. We hear it because we’re interested in it; we engage with and are attached to the world of sound. But when we realize that sounds just come according to their nature, we get nibbidā. There are nice sounds, crazy sounds, and the sounds of the birds. Some birds sound sweet and some birds, like crows, sound terrible. But it’s not the fault of the crows; it’s just their nature. It’s the same in the monastery: some anagārikas are like crows and some are like nightingales; some monks speak beautifully, some speak terribly. It’s their nature, that’s all. It has nothing to do with us, and therefore we should disengage.
When we disengage from these things through nibbidā, they fade away. Suffering fades away when the cause of the suffering fades away. The sense world starts to disappear when we’re not so concerned with changing it. 8 When we disengage from it with nibbidā, we’re repelled by it and reject it. This is because nibbidā comes from seeing the world as it actually is. With it, we move in a different direction from the rest of the world.
The Messengers of Truth
Another way to look at this disengagement from the world is to regard it as a movement into the mind, our silent center. Sometimes you can see how the world of your home, the world of your friends, or even of Buddhism, can pull you out of your center. You can feel the pull. You’ve been pulled out like that your entire life, and what has it ever done for you? When people leave the monastery, it’s usually because of the opposite sex. Is that going to make them happy? Many years ago the title of the main feature of Punch magazine was “Advice for those about to be married.” The two center pages were blank except for the four letters “DON’T.” They had understood the suffering of marriage. Don’t think that you’re different, that you can escape the suffering because you’re special or wiser than others. It’s the arrogance of the ego to think that you’re better, that you can avoid the difficulties and problems that everyone else faces in life.
When I was young I too used to have fantasies. I learned to stop them from grabbing hold of me by following them to their logical conclusion. I would think, “Then what? Then what?” and I wouldn’t stop until I had the full picture. With fantasies such as falling in love, getting married, and riding off into the sunset, the “then what” took all the fun out of it, because the “then what” was just empty. There was no color, brightness, joy, or happiness anymore, because the “then what” would be whatever everyone else experiences. When the fun part dissipates and fades away, you’re back where you started. Moreover, you haven’t understood anything about life. You’re just trying to get by, to get a few moments of pleasure and happiness. In the end you’re just hurtling toward old age and separation from those you love. What’s the point? But if you follow the path of nibbidā, you’re wise. You’ve already experienced enough suffering, which means you have enough data to work with. Reflect on that suffering when you have difficulties and build up the nibbidā.9
During a retreat, you will have times when you get bored. If you’ve got aching legs or you’re just sitting there not knowing what to do—you don’t want to meditate, walk, or read, and you’re bored out of your skull—investigate boredom. If you investigate suffering, there’s no moment of a retreat that you can’t make use of, that you can’t exploit for your own personal growth and training. The training of the mind is not in controlling things but in understanding them. Look upon the difficulties and disappointments as devadūtas, the messengers of truth that come to teach you Dhamma. Ajahn Chah always called these things the Kruba Ajahns—the senior teachers. Kruba Ajahns don’t live in Thailand in some great monastery. That’s a fantasy Kruba Ajahn. The true Kruba Ajahn will be in your hut when you wake up in the morning and you’re so tired that you don’t want to get out of bed. Those Kruba Ajahns will be there when you’re sitting for long periods of time and getting absolutely nowhere. The real Kruba Ajahn will be there when you’re on retreat wondering how many days are left. When somebody doesn’t put the right food in your bowl, or you’re just about to get into deep meditation and a crow makes a loud noise, or whatever else it is that really disappoints and frustrates you—that’s an Ajahn. It’s to be contemplated, listened to, penetrated, and understood.
Moving toward Emptiness
When you understand the suffering in the world, you see the world as a load of rubbish. Because it’s rubbish you disengage. When you disengage, it fades away; that is, virāga happens. This is nature. You don’t have to make it fade away. It’s not done by choice or by will or by thinking, “Oh, I want to get rid of these people, these crows, these ants on the path, this cold that I feel.” You don’t want to get rid of anything. It’s just not your business anymore. When you truly know that it’s none of your business, the whole thing just fades and disappears. This is the deeper meaning of simplifying and renouncing one’s possessions. You don’t just renounce physical things but also your “mental possessions”—the old habits and grudges, the old ways of looking at things that you hang on to 10 and cherish. You abandon all the things that wear you down, that confine and limit you.
Most people are prisoners of their past. They identify with the past, regarding it as their self, their attā. Since they take themselves to be the past, it becomes their business, and they attach to it and suffer accordingly. But they don’t have to; they can let go of the past. The door of that prison cell is always open, and you can walk through it at any time. Don’t think that you have to work through the “issues” of the past—that’s just guilt. You can completely let go of all that, abandon it, and allow it to vanish if you have the guts to do so.
So using dukkha-saññā, the perception of suffering, ask yourself what the point is of holding on to your past. See it for what it is; understand that it’s suffering, disengage, and allow it to fade away. You don’t even think of your past anymore. When you understand that these things are suffering, renunciation happens as a direct result, and the deeper the understanding, the more they fade. Eventually they’re just not part of your repertoire anymore. You look at the world outside and it fades away; you sit in your hut and the whole world disappears. You understand that this is what meditation is all about. Meditation is the art of letting things disappear and fade, letting them vanish. It’s a movement toward emptiness.
One of the most important things that must fade for meditation to take off is thinking. Firstly you must understand thinking. You must objectify it and see it for what it truly is. Where does thinking get you? You will see that thinking is none of your business. When you understand thinking properly, you don’t try to control it through an act of will but you have nibbidā toward it. To use a simile from the suttas (e.g., MN 20.4), regard thinking as the carcass of a dead dog around the neck of your beautiful mind. Once you look at it in that way, you wonder why you are doing this to yourself. The automatic reaction is to throw it out, just as you would the carcass of a dead dog—rotten, dirty, smelly, and foul. This is what happens when you understand these things. You know they’re none of your business. You reject them, or rather rejection happens. You move in another direction—into the mind rather than out into the world.11
The Automatic Reaction
Nibbidā stops the āsavas, the outflowings of the mind. You know what it’s like: you’re sitting there in meditation doing nothing, and suddenly thinking starts flowing out—about what you’re going to do after the retreat, about your duties, or about the answer to some problem you’re trying to solve. The mind flows out from its center, and it’s this flowing out that’s called an āsava. Why does it flow out? It flows out because it’s interested in the world. It hasn’t seen the suffering of the world, it hasn’t understood it. When you haven’t understood the world outside, you think it’s your business—you think it’s fun, that you’re going to get something from your studies or from arranging all these things of the world. But when you disengage, all that fades away, and the āsavas—the outflowings—stop. The sense that the world is important disappears, because you understand it’s none of your business. When the world outside goes, past and future and thinking also disappear, and then your meditation takes off.
When you disengage from the outside, meditation just happens. It’s important to realize that you don’t make it happen. I don’t like it when people teach others to use willpower to watch the breath. It’s better to use wisdom power. Through wisdom you see that the world is suffering, and then you disengage, you get nibbidā. You can’t do anything else; it’s an automatic reaction. So understanding suffering and disengaging are the base that you always come back to. And the more you disengage the easier it is to meditate. When I say easier, it’s just that meditation happens, that’s all.
As you disengage from the world you go inside, and you’re in the present moment. You may be watching the breath, but as you come to understand it, you disengage even from the breath. You don’t try to control the breath or make it different. The breath comes in and goes out all by itself, and you realize the breath is none of your business. You get nibbidā toward it, too, and it fades away. According to the Buddha, watching the breath is part of body contemplation (MN 118.24). So when you see that the breath has nothing to do with you and you disengage from it, it’s really the remnants of the physical body and the five senses that fade and 12 disappear. That’s when you start to get into the deep stuff. Because the body and its five senses are gone at last, your meditation is deep, and you’re having a great time.
When you disengage from suffering, not trying to control the world, not trying to stay there, just letting things be, you get what you really wanted in the first place: peace and happiness. Why do people struggle with this world in their pursuit of happiness? Or do you think just going along with it is going to make you happy? That just makes you bored and dull, sometimes even depressed. Only the way of nibbidā leads to true happiness of the mind. You’re still and peaceful because so much has disappeared.
Only now can you fully appreciate that it was all just suffering in the first place. The five senses are suffering, this world is suffering. Speech and thinking are suffering. Monasteries are suffering, rain is suffering, study is suffering, and whatever you’re doing is suffering. Food is suffering. Everything is suffering. When you disengage and go inside to the place where Māra can’t reach, there’s a beautiful freedom from suffering. This is the way into the deep meditation states called jhāna: you disengage from the world; you don’t engage with jhāna. When you disengage from thinking, from the world and the body, jhāna just happens. It’s another automatic reaction, and it occurs when you understand that all of these things are none of your business.
I’ve been trying to keep this body of mine fit and healthy for a long time: I’ve been washing it, caring for it, and resting it. But when I meditate I say, “None of my business.” I just sit there and disengage completely. Even though I am the abbot, I disengage from my monastery and from everything else. When I go inside my cave, I’ve got nothing to do. I’m not my body, not my past or future. I just sit there and allow everything to fade, vanish, and go.
Disengaging like that, experiencing nibbidā, leads to virāga. Virāga in turn leads to upasama—stillness, calm, peace. It’s a beautiful thing to 13 know the true peace of mind where the whole world outside vanishes and you’re absolutely still. The mind is motionless and cannot connect with the body or with past and future. It’s motionless in time and motionless in space, and that stillness allows everything to fade away and disappear. Things only exist when there is some movement or agitation, because the senses only know things when they move. For the senses to know anything, they need comparison, they need contrast. When they’re still, the unity makes things fade: the whole world outside fades, the monastery fades, sounds fade, memories fade, past and future and thinking fade, and the body disappears.
When the body disappears and you experience stillness deep inside, it’s a jhāna state. In that jhāna state you’re disengaged from the world outside—the five senses have vanished. Sometimes this is called being “aloof” from the world of the five senses. In fact it’s more than aloofness; it’s complete disengagement, the complete ending of that world. Now you understand the meaning of vanishing, of things not being there anymore. Now you know what renunciation truly is. You renounce the world, and it’s so much fun, so peaceful. I say renouncing, but really you’ve done nothing. Disengagement has occurred through understanding the world, because the natural consequence of understanding is nibbidā. Things fade away, and you get a beautiful peace, the stillness of the mind.
Once you start to taste the stillness in the mind, it’s terribly addictive. It’s meant to be. It’s a good thing because the addiction of the mind to stillness is what’s going to drive you deeper toward nibbāna. The Buddha actually said that attachment to deep meditation can lead only to the stages of enlightenment (DN 29). You don’t have to be concerned or worried about the addiction to letting go. This is the pleasure, joy, and path of monastics. It’s their freedom. It’s an addiction that leads to more and more fading away and letting go. Nibbidā increases and it pushes you away from the world.
This is what it is to be a true monastic, a bhikkhu or bhikkhunī. Now you know why we follow this Buddhist path. You know how there can be these amazing people who walk this path, who disengage from the world and allow it to fade away. They spend hour after hour happily by 14 themselves, their “selves” actually disappearing. They go deeper and deeper inward, not because they move themselves inward but because they see that the suffering surrounding them is none of their business. They disengage, and things just fade and fade and fade away.
Understanding Is the Key
To meditate you don’t need to fix your mind on the breath, to deliberately let go of the past and the future, or to silence the thinking mind. Just contemplate suffering and understand it right now, through whatever you’re experiencing. Through that understanding you’ll find that the world disappears. The world in which you used to play will fade in importance; you won’t visit that playground anymore. The playground of the senses, of the past and future, of sex and dreams, will fade away. It happens not because you make it happen but because this is the natural reaction of the mind when it sees suffering. As all this fades away, meditation takes its place. You don’t become a meditator; meditation just happens. It’s a path, a route, and these are signposts on the journey, landmarks on the road to complete emptiness and cessation. It’s what happens when you disengage and let go.
The Buddha said suffering is to be fully understood. Whenever you experience any difficulties, problems, disappointments, or any mental or physical pain, please don’t reject it; understand it. Don’t just leave it alone: contemplate it and understand it so well that it fades, and you realize it’s none of your business. When it fades away, your engagement with the world outside will be broken, and you’ll start to engage with the inner world. You go in the opposite direction, not out into the world but into the mind. Eventually you also let go of the mind, experiencing complete cessation and nibbāna, and then you’ll be another arahant. What a wonderful thing that would be.
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- The Art of Disappearing
- 1 - The Big Picture
- 2 - Bringing the Mind into the Present
- 3 - Developing Mindfulness
- 4 - Medicines for the Mind
- 5 - Wisdom Power
- 6 - Pacification and the Insights that Follow
- 7 - Appreciating the Bliss
- 8 - Recognizing True Wisdom
- 9 - Happiness Comes from Disappearing
- 10 - Make This the Last Time
- 11 - Climbing the Pyramid of Samādhi
- About the Author