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Attending to the Deathless

Ajahn Amaro is co-abbot of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. He was born in England and trained in the Thai Forest tradition with Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho.

Attending to the Deathless

“When the heart is released from clinging,” said the Buddha, “then consciousness does not land anywhere. That state, I tell you, is without sorrow, afflication or despair.” Ajahn Amaro on abiding in the consciousness that is completely beyond conditioned phenomena—neither supporting them nor supported by them.

A great passage in the suttas (Anguttara Nikaya 3.128) presents an exchange between two of the Buddha's elder monks. Venerable Sariputta is the Buddha's chief disciple, the one most eminent in wisdom and also in meditative accomplishments. Although he had no psychic powers whatsoever, he was the grand master of meditators. The other elder disciple of the Buddha, Venerable Anuruddha, had spectacular psychic powers. He was the one most blessed with "the divine eye"; he could see into all the different realms.

The two disciples were an interesting mix. Sariputta's weakness was Anuruddha's great gift. Anyway, shortly before his enlightenment, Anuruddha came to Sariputta and said, "With the divine eye purified and perfected I can see the entire 10,000-fold universal system. My meditation is firmly established; my mindfulness is steady as a rock. I have unremitting energy, and the body is totally relaxed and calm. And yet still my heart is not free from the outflows and confusions. What am I getting wrong?"

Sariputta replied, "Friend, your ability to see into the 10,000-fold universal system is connected to your conceit. Your persistent energy, your sharp mindfulness, your physical calm and your one-pointedness of mind have to do with your restlessness. And the fact that you still have not released the heart from the outflows and defilements is tied up with your anxiety. It would be good, friend, if rather than occupying yourself with these concerns, you turned your attention to the deathless element." (By the way, the Pali Canon has a lot of humor in it like this, although it's rather similar to British humor and is sometimes easy to miss.) So of course Anuruddha said, “Thank you very much,” and off he went. Shortly thereafter, he realized complete enlightenment. This was very understated humor.

The point of their discussion, however, is really quite serious. As long as we are saying, "Look at how complicated my problems are," or "Look at my powers of concentration," we will stay stuck in samsara. In essence, Sariputta told his colleague, "You're so busy with all of the doingness and the effects that come from that, so busy with all of these proliferations, you'll never be free. You're looking in the wrong direction. You're looking out, looking at the meditation object out there, the 10,000-fold universal system out there. Just shift your view to the context of experience and attend to the deathless element instead."

All it took was a slight shift of focus for Anuruddha to realize: "It's not just a matter of all the fascinating objects or all the noble stuff I have been doing—that's all conditioned, born, compounded and deathbound. The timeless dharma is being missed. Look within, look more broadly. Attend to the deathless."

There are also a few places in the suttas (e.g., Majjhima Nikaya 64.9 and Anguttara Nikaya 9.36) where the Buddha talked about the same process with respect to development of concentration and meditative absorption. He even made the point that when the mind is in first jhana, second jhana, third jhana and all the way out to the higher formless jhanas, we can look at those states and recognize all of them as being conditioned and dependent. This, he said, is the true development of wisdom: the mindfulness to recognize the conditioned nature of a state, to turn away from it and to attend to the deathless, even while the state is still around. When the mind is concentrated and very pure and bright, we can recognize that state as conditioned, dependent, alien, and something that is void or empty. There is the presence of mind to reflect on the truth that all of this is conditioned and thus gross, but there is the deathless element. And in inclining toward the deathless element, the heart is released.

In a way it is like looking at a picture. Normally the attention goes to the figure in a picture and not the background. Or imagine being in a room with someone who is sitting in a chair. When you look across the room you would probably not attend to the space in front of or beside that person. Your attention would go to the figure in the chair, right? Similarly, if you've ever painted a picture or a wall, there's usually one spot where there's a glitch or a smudge. So where does the eye go when you look at the wall? It beams straight in on the flaw. In exactly the same way, our perceptual systems are geared to aim for the figure, not the ground. Even if an object looks like the ground—such as limitless light, for example—we still need to know how to turn back from that object.

Incidentally, this is why in Buddhist meditation circles there's often a warning about deep states of absorption. When one is in one, it can be very difficult to develop insight—much more so than when the mind is less intensely concentrated. The absorption state is such a good facsimile of liberation that it feels like the real gold. So we think, "It's here, why bother going any further? This is really good." We get tricked and, as a result, we miss the opportunity to turn away and attend to the deathless.

In cosmological terms, the best place for liberation is in the human realm. There's a good mixture of suffering and bliss, happiness and unhappiness here. If we are off in the deva realms, it's difficult to become liberated because it's like being at an ongoing party. And we don't even have to clean up afterwards. We just hang out in the Nandana Grove. Devas drop grapes in our mouths as we waft around with flocks of adoring beings of our favorite gender floating in close proximity. And, of course, there's not much competition; you're always the star of the show in those places. Up in the brahma realms it's even worse. Who is going to come back down to grubby old earth and deal with tax returns and building permits?

This cosmology is a reflection of our internal world. Thus the brahma realms are the equivalent of formless states of absorption. One of the great meditation masters of Thailand, Venerable Ajahn Tate, was such an adept at concentration that as soon as he sat down to meditate he would go straight into arupa-jhana, formless states of absorption. It took him twelve years after he met his teacher, Venerable Ajahn Mun, to train himself not to do that and to keep his concentration at a level where he could develop insight. In those formless states, it is just so nice that it's easy to ask, "What's the point of cultivating wise reflection or investigating the nature of experience? The experience itself is so seamlessly delicious, why bother?" The reason we bother is that those are not dependable states. They are unreliable and they are not ours. Probably not many people have the problem of getting stuck in arupa-jhana. Nonetheless, it is helpful to understand why these principles are discussed and emphasized.

This gesture of attending to the deathless is thus a core spiritual practice but not a complicated one. We simply withdraw our attention from the objects of the mind and incline the attention towards the deathless, the unborn. This is not a massive reconstruction program. It's not like we have to do a whole lot. It's very simple and natural. We relax and notice that which has been here all along, like noticing the space in a room. We don't notice space, because it doesn't grab our attention; it isn't exciting. Similarly, nibbana has no feature, no color, no taste and no form, so we don't realize it's right here. The perceptual systems and the naming activity of the mind work on forms; that's what they go to first. Therefore we tend to miss what's always here. Actually, because it has no living quality to it, space is the worst as well as the best example, but sometimes it is reasonable to use it.

Unsupported Consciousness

In the Theravada teachings, the Buddha also talked about this quality in terms of "unsupported consciousness." This means that there is cognition, there is knowing, but it's not landing anyplace; it's not abiding anywhere. "Attending to the deathless" and "unsupported consciousness" are somewhat synonymous. They are like descriptions of the same tree, from different angles.

In describing unsupported consciousness, the Buddha taught:

    Wherever there is something that is intended, something that is acted upon or something that lies dormant, then that becomes the basis for consciousness to land. And where consciousness lands, that then is the cause for confusion, attachment, becoming and rebirth, and so on.

    But if there is nothing intended, acted upon or lying latent, then consciousness has no basis to land upon. And having no basis to land, consciousness is released. One recognizes, 'Consciousness, thus unestablished, is released.' Owing to its staying firm, the heart is contented. Owing to its contentment, it is not agitated. Not agitated, such a one realizes complete, perfect nibbana within themselves. (Samyutta Nikaya 12.38 and 22.53)

The Buddha used a whole galaxy of images, similes and forms like this because they spoke to different people in different ways. In another passage the Buddha asked his disciples, "If there was a house with a wall that faced out towards the east and in that wall there was a window, when the sun came up in the morning, where would the shaft of sunlight fall?"

One of his monks replied, "On the western wall." The Buddha then asked, "And if there's no western wall, where would the sunlight land?"

The monk answered, "On the ground." Then the Buddha responded, "And if there's no ground, where will it land?" The monk replied, "On the water."

The Buddha pushed it a bit further and asked, "And if there's no water, where will it land?" The monk answered correctly when he said, "If there is no water, then it will not land." The Buddha ended the exchange by saying, "Exactly so. When the heart is released from clinging to what are called the four nutriments—physical food, sense contact (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch), intention and consciousness—then consciousness does not land anywhere. That state, I tell you, is without sorrow, affliction or despair" (Samyutta Nikaya 12.64).

Consciousness: Invisible, Radiant, Limitless

In several instances, the language of the Dzogchen tradition seems strikingly similar to that of the Theravada. In Dzogchen, the common description of the qualities of rigpa, nondual awareness, is "empty in essence, cognizant in nature and unconfined in capacity." A different translation of these three qualities is "emptiness, knowing and lucidity, or clarity." In the Pali scriptures (Digha Nikaya 11.85 and Majjima Nikaya 49.25), the Buddha talks about the mind of the arahant as "consciousness which is unmanifest, signless, infinite and radiant in all directions." The Pali words are viññanam (consciousness), aniddassanam (empty, invisible or signless, non-manifestative), anantam (limitless, unconfined, infinite), and sabbato pabham (radiant in all directions, accessible from all sides).

One of the places the Buddha uses this description is at the end of a long illustrative tale. A monk has asked, "Where is it that earth, water, fire and wind fade out and cease without remainder?" To which the Buddha replies that the monk has asked the wrong question. What he should have asked is, "Where is it that earth, water, fire and wind can find no footing?" The Buddha then answers this question himself, saying it is in "the consciousness which is invisible, limitless and radiant in all directions" that the four great elements "and long and short, and coarse and fine, and pure and impure can find no footing. There it is that nama-rupa (body-and-mind, name-and-form, subject-and-object) both come to an end. With this stopping, this cessation of consciousness, all things here are brought to an end."

Such unsupported and unsupportive consciousness is not an abstract principle. In fact, it was the basis of the Buddha's enlightenment. As the Buddha was sitting under the bodhi tree, the hordes of Mara attacked him. Armies were hurling themselves at the Buddha and yet nothing could get into the space under the tree. All the weapons and spears they threw turned into rays of light; the arrows that they fired turned into flowers that came sprinkling down around the Buddha. Nothing harmful to the Buddha could get into that space. There was nowhere for it to land. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, long and short, coarse and fine, pure and impure are all aspects of body and mind. They represent attributes of all phenomena. Yet none of them could find a footing. The Buddha was in a non-stick realm. Everything that came toward him kept falling away. Nothing stuck; nothing could get in and harm the Buddha in any way. To get a better sense of this quality of unsupported consciousness, it's helpful to reflect on this image. Also very useful are the phrases at the end of the passage just quoted, particularly where the Buddha says, "When consciousness ceases, all things here are brought to an end."

The Anatomy of Cessation

The concept of cessation is very familiar in the Theravada tradition. Even though it's supposed to be synonymous with nibbana, it's sometimes put forth as some event that we're all seeking, where all experience will vanish and then we'll be fine: "A great god will come from the sky, take away everything and make everybody feel high." I don't want to get obsessed about words, but we suffer a lot or get confused because of misunderstandings like this. When we talk about stopping consciousness, do you think that means "Let's all get unconscious?” It can't be that, can it? The Buddha was not extolling the virtues of unconsciousness. Otherwise thorazine or barbiturates would be the way: "Give me the anesthetic and we're on our way to nibbana." But obviously that's not it. Understanding what is meant by stopping or cessation is thus pretty crucial here.

I've known people, particularly those who have practiced in the Theravada tradition, who have been taught that the idea of meditation is to get to a place of cessation. We might get to a place where we don't feel or see anything; there is awareness but everything is gone. An absence of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, the body—it all vanishes. And then these students are told, "This is the greatest thing. That's what there is to look forward to." The teacher encourages them to put tremendous hours and diligence into their meditation. When one of these students told her teacher that she had arrived at that kind of state, he got really excited. He then asked her, "So what did it feel like?" and she said, "It was like drinking a glass of cold water but without the water and without the glass." On another occasion she said, "It was like being shut inside a refrigerator."

This is not the only way of understanding cessation. The root of the word nirodha is rudh, which means "to not arise, to end, check or hold"—like holding a horse in check with the reins. So nirodha also has a meaning of holding everything, embracing its scope. "Stopping of consciousness" can thus imply that somehow everything is held in check rather than that it simply vanishes. It's a redrawing of the internal map.

A story from the time of the Buddha might help to expand our understanding of what this means. One night while the Buddha was meditating, a brilliant and beautiful devata named Rohitassa appeared in front of him. He told the Buddha, "When I was a human being, I was a spiritual seeker of great psychic power, a sky walker. Even though I journeyed with great determination and resolution for one hundred years to reach the end of the world, I could not come to the end of the world. I died on the journey before I had found it. So can you tell me, is it possible to journey to the end of the world?"

And the Buddha replied, "It is not possible to reach the end of the world by walking, but I also tell you that unless you reach the end of the world, you will not reach the end of suffering." Rohitassa was a bit puzzled and said, "Please explain this to me, Venerable Sir." The Buddha replied, "In this very fathom-long body is the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world" (Anguttara Nikaya 4.45, Samyutta Nikaya 2.26).

In that instance the Buddha used the same exact formulation as in the Four Noble Truths. The world, or loka, means the world of our experience. That's how the Buddha almost always uses the term "the world." He's referring to the world as we experience it. This includes only sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, thought, emotion and feeling. That's it. That's what "the world" is—my world, your world. It's not the abstracted, geographical planet, universe-type world. It's the direct experience of the planet, the people and the cosmos. Here is the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the way leading to the cessation of the world.

He said that as long as we create "me and my experience"—"me in here" and "the world out there"—we're stuck in the world of subject and object. Then there is dukkha. And the way leading to the cessation of that duality is the way leading to the cessation of suffering. Geographically, it is impossible to journey to the end of the world. Only when we come to the cessation of the world, which literally means the cessation of its otherness or thingness, will we reach the end of dukkha, unsatisfactoriness. When we stop creating sense objects as absolute realities and stop seeing thoughts and feelings as solid things, there is cessation.

To see that the world is within our minds is one way of working with these principles. The whole universe is embraced when we realize that it's happening within our minds. And in that moment when we recognize that it all happens here, it ceases. Its thingness ceases. Its otherness ceases. Its substantiality ceases.

This is just one way of talking and thinking about it. But I find this brings us much closer to the truth, because in that respect, it's held in check. It's known. But there's also the quality of its emptiness. Its insubstantiality is known. We're not imputing solidity to it, a reality that it doesn't possess. We're just looking directly at the world, knowing it fully and completely.

So, what happens when the world ceases? I remember one time Ajahn Sumedho was giving a talk about this same subject. He said, "Now I'm going to make the world completely disappear. I'm going to make the world come to an end." He just sat there and said, "Okay, are you ready? The world just ended. Do you want me to bring it back into being again? Okay, welcome back."

Nothing was apparent from the outside. It all happens internally. When we stop creating the world, we stop creating each other. We stop imputing the sense of solidity that creates a sense of separation. Yet we do not shut off the senses in any way. Actually, we shed the veneer, the films of confusion, of opinion, of judgment, of our conditioning, so that we can see the way things really are. At that moment, dukkha ceases. There is knowing. There is liberation and freedom. There is no dukkha.

Is the Sound Annoying You?

If people were trying to meditate and wanted to shut the world out, Ajahn Chah used to give them a very hard time. If he came across a nun or a monk who had barricaded the windows of their heart and was trying to block everything out, he would really put them through it. He drew in one monk of this type as his attendant for a while and he would never let him sit still. As soon as he saw the monk close his eyes to "go into meditation" he would immediately send him off on some errand. Ajahn Chah knew that cutting yourself off was not the place of true inner peace. This was because of his own years of trying to make the world shut up and leave him alone. He had failed miserably. Eventually he was able to see this is not how to find completion and resolution.

Years ago, when he was a wandering monk, living on his own on a mountainside above a village, he kept a strict meditation schedule. In Thailand they love outdoor, nightlong film shows because the nights are cool compared to the very hot days. Whenever there was a party, it tended to go on all night. About fifty years ago, public address systems were just starting to be used in Thailand and every decent event had to have a PA going. It was blasted as loud as possible all through the night. One time, Ajahn Chah was quietly meditating up on the mountain while there was a festival going on down in the village. All the local folk songs and pop music were amplified throughout the area. Ajahn Chah was sitting there, seething and thinking, "Don't they realize all the bad karma involved in disturbing my meditation? They know I 'm up here. After all, I'm their teacher. Haven't they learned anything? And what about the five precepts? I bet they're boozing and out of control," and so on and so forth.

But Ajahn Chah was a pretty smart fellow. As he listened to himself complaining, he quickly realized, "Well, they're just having a good time down there. I'm making myself miserable up here. No matter how upset I get, my anger is just making more noise internally." And then he had this insight: "Oh, the sound is just the sound. It's me who is going out to annoy it. If I leave the sound alone, it won't annoy me. It's just doing what it has to do. That's what sound does. It makes sound. This is its job. So if I don't go out and bother the sound, it's not going to bother me. Aha!"

As it turned out, this insight had such a profound effect that it became a principle that he espoused from that time on. If any of the monks displayed an urge to try and get away from people or stimulation—the world of things and responsibilities—he would tend to shove them straight into it. He would put that monk in charge of the cement-mixing crew or take him to do every house blessing that came up on the calendar. He would make sure that the monk had to get involved in things because he was trying to teach him to let go of seeing meditation as needing sterile conditions—to see, in fact, that most wisdom arises from the skillful handling of the world's abrasions.

Ajahn Chah was passing along an important insight. It's pointless to try to find peace through nullifying or erasing the sense world. Peace only comes through not giving that world more substantiality or more reality than it actually possesses.

Touching the Earth

Sometimes when I use the example of the Buddha sitting under the bodhi tree, people still feel that this is a negation of the sense world. There is an intimation of condescension, a looking down on that. We become afraid when we hear people talking about dispassion towards the sense world as it can offend our habits of life affirmation.

The balance—and this is something we can experience for ourselves—is not in negation. It comes when we stop creating each other and allow ourselves to relax into a pure quality of knowing. In not fabricating the world, ourselves or our stories, there is a gentle relaxation and, ironically, we find ourselves far more attuned to life than ever. This cannot happen while we are busy carrying around "me and you" and "it's my life" and "my past" and "my future" and the rest of the world with all its problems. Actually, the result of this relinquishment is not a kind of numbness or a distancing but an astonishing attunement.

Buddhist cosmology and the stories of the suttas always have a historical, a mythical and a psychological element to them. When we talk about the Buddha under the bodhi tree, we sometimes wonder, "Was it actually that tree? Are we sure that he really sat beside the river Nerañjara near Bodhgaya? How can anyone know it was actually there?" The story goes that perhaps the Buddha did sit under a tree, or a Nepalese prince sat under a tree, and something happened (or stopped happening) somewhere in India a couple of thousand years or so ago. In other words, there are both historical and mythological aspects to the story. But the most crucial element is how this maps onto our own psychology. How does this symbolize our experience?

The pattern of the story is that even though the Buddha has totally penetrated the cycles of dependent origination and his heart is utterly free, Mara's army doesn't retreat. Mara has sent in the horrors, he has sent in his beautiful daughters, he's even sent in the parental pressure factor: "Well, son, you could have done a great job. You're such a natural leader, you would have made a great king. Now there's only your half-brother, Nanda, and he's a bit of a wimp, no good on the battlefield. Well, I guess if you're going to do this monk thing, the kingdom is going to go to rack and ruin. But that's all right, it's fine. You just do whatever you want to do. Just be aware that you're ruining my life; but don't worry, it's fine, it's okay."

The forces of allure, fear and responsibility are all there. Yet the Buddha doesn't just close his eyes and escape into blissful absorption. As the armies of Mara come at him, he looks straight at them and says, "I know you, Mara. I know what this is." The Buddha doesn't argue with Mara or give rise to aversion towards Mara. He remains undeluded; he doesn't react against what's happening in that moment. No matter what Mara's armies do, none can get into that space under the bodhi tree. All their weapons turn to flowers and incense and beams of light illuminating the vajra seat.

But even when the Buddha's heart is totally liberated, Mara still won't retreat. He says to the Buddha, "What right do you have to claim the royal seat at the immovable spot. I'm the king of this world. I'm the one who should be sitting there. I'm in charge here. I'm the one who deserves to be there, aren't I?" And he turns around to his horde, his army 700,000 strong, and they all say, "Yes, indeed, Sire!" "See," says Mara, "everyone agrees. I belong there, not you. I'm supposed to be the great one."

What happens then is that, just as Mara has called his witnesses to back him up, the Buddha calls on the mother goddess, Maer Toranee, as his witness. The Buddha reaches down to the ground, touches the earth and calls forth the earth mother. She appears and says, "This is my true son. He has every right to claim the vajra seat at the immovable spot. He has developed all the virtues necessary to claim the sovereignty of perfect and complete enlightenment. You do not belong there, Mara." The mother goddess then produces a flood from her hair and the armies of Mara are all washed away. Later they come back full of apologies, offering gifts and flowers and asking for forgiveness: "Terribly sorry about that, Mother. I didn't really mean it."

It's very interesting that Buddha thus did not become a fully enlightened, teaching Buddha without the help of the mother goddess and then, later, of the father god. It was Brahma Sahampati, the creator god, the CEO of the universe, who came and asked the Buddha to teach. Without those two figures, he would not have left the immovable spot and he wouldn't have started teaching. So, mythologically, there are some interesting little quirks to the tale.

The Buddha's gentle gesture of touching the earth is a magnificent metaphor. It is saying that even though we might have this enlightened, free space internally, it needs to be interfaced with the phenomenal world. Otherwise, there is no completion. This is why meditating with the eyes open is, in a way, such a useful bridge. We cultivate a vast internal space, but it is necessarily connected to the phenomenal world. If there is only an internal, subjective experience of enlightenment, we 're still caught. Mara's army won't retreat. The hassles are everywhere—the tax returns, the permits, the jealousies. We can see that they are empty, but they are still coming at us from all directions.

But in reaching out to touch the earth, the Buddha recognized, yes, there is that which is transcendent and unconditioned. But humility demands not simply holding to the unconditioned and the transcendent. The Buddha recognized and acknowledged that "There is the conditioned. There is the sense world. There is the earth that makes up my body and my breath and the food that I eat."

That gesture of reaching out from the transcendent is saying, How could fully engaging with the sense world possibly corrupt the innate freedom of the heart? This freedom cannot be interrupted, corrupted or confused by any sense experience. Therefore why not allow it all in? By openly, freely acknowledging the limited—needing to call the great mother to bear witness, for example—the unlimited manifests its full potential. If there is hesitency and the caution to keep the conditioned at bay, that betrays a basic lack of faith in the natural inviolability of the unconditioned.

Another phrase that expresses this same principle is cittam pabhassaram, akandukehi kilesehi, meaning "The heart's nature is intrinsically radiant; defilements are only visitors" (Anguttara Nikaya 1.61). It's pointing out the fact that the heart's nature is intrinsically pure and perfect. The things that appear to defile this purity are only visitors passing through, just wandering or drifting by. The heart's nature cannot truly be corrupted by any of that.

From Small Boat, Great Mountain: Theravadan Reflections on the Natural Great Perfection, by Ajahn Amaro. Published by Abhayagiri Monastery, 2003. Free copies of the book can be obtained from Abhayagiri Monastery or downloaded from their Web site:


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