To sit in meditation in a way that’s right on target, the mind has to be on the path. This means that it stays in the present, without tripping over preoccupations that it likes or dislikes. It’s established solely in the middle way. If it misses this target, it’s not on the path. It’s not in line with true meditation. No matter how much it meditates, it won’t get any results.
Like shooting a bird: If you don’t aim right on target, then even if you have 100 bullets you’ll never be able to hit the bird. But if you aim accurately right at the bird, a single bullet is all you need to bring it down right away. In the same way, when sitting in concentration or sitting in meditation, if the mind stands firm and tall in the path, you’ll meet with the truth of meditation—stillness—without having to waste a lot of time.
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The mind in concentration is like genuine silver—malleable and pure white—because nothing else is adulterating it. We can make it into whatever we want right away, without having to waste time placing it in a crucible and heating it to get rid of the impurities. The mind not in concentration is like imitation or adulterated silver: hard, brittle, and black, because it’s mixed with copper or lead. The more the impurities, the lower its value.
A pure mind is thus like genuine silver. The various perceptions that darken the mind are like the impurities that make the silver black, brittle, and dull. So if we let perceptions come in and get mixed up in the mind, the mind will have to take on the characteristics of imitation or adulterated silver. We won’t be able to find any purity in it at all. When this is the case, the mind will have no stillness.
But if we brush away the various perceptions and preoccupations adulterating the mind, it’ll become firmly established in concentration, in line with the factors of the path.
Once the mind turns into the path, we have to watch over it carefully, in the same way that we try to keep a road from washing out. We have to survey it continually to see where it’s wearing out. Wherever it’s wearing out, we fix it right away. If we don’t fix it immediately, and let it get riddled with potholes or wash away, it’ll be really hard to repair. When the mind is following the path, any hindrances that interfere are a break in the road. If we let it go like that and don’t hurry up to repair it, the break will get wider and deeper until the road turns into an ordinary piece of ground.
So while you’re trying to develop the path, if you let yourself be forgetful—if you let your mindfulness lapse, letting distractions into the mind—the state of mind that forms the path will immediately be destroyed. Your meditation will be spoiled, your concentration will be spoiled, the mind will return to its ordinary state and won’t be able to find the path to genuine goodness.
Being forgetful while you meditate can happen in three ways. The first is by bringing inside things out to think about. In other words, you grab hold of any lights or visions that may appear, and in this way your path washes out. The second way is by bringing outside things in to think about, i.e., abandoning your meditation object. The third way is by losing consciousness. You sit there, but it’s as if you were asleep. All of these things are called a washed-out path, like a road that washes out and is full of deep potholes.
To keep preoccupations out of the mind is to cut a path in the mind. To let outside preoccupations in is to let the path wash out. When the path washes out, there’s no way that insight or discernment will arise—just as when a road washes out, no cars or trucks can run along it. When concentration gets extinguished in this way, you can’t practice insight meditation. There’s nothing left but thoughts about insight, thoughts about concentration, thinking, guessing, groping in line with your old preconceptions. The virtues of your heart disappear without your realizing it. If you want to go back and start all over, it’s hard—like going back over a washed-out road.
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When mindfulness stays with the body, it’s called kāyagatāsati: mindfulness immersed in the body. In general, this refers to being mindful of the four properties: earth, water, fire, and wind. To pick out just one part, it refers to being mindful of the breath. This is also called kāyānupassanā satipaṭṭhāna: establishing mindfulness through contemplating the body. Mindfulness is the cause; alertness, the result. Or you could say that the breath is the cause, and a sense of comfort is the result.
When we have mindfulness and alertness in charge of us at all times, the body will always be awake. It won‘t get sleepy or drowsy. The hindrances won’t be able to come in, latch on, and eat away at the mind. It’s like a home where there’s always somebody awake by day and by night, without falling sleep. Thieves won’t be able to break in and disturb them.
When the mind and body are asleep, they open the way for various forms of Māra to come in and destroy our goodness in every way. For instance, the various demons of the aggregates will get into the body, making form abnormal, feelings abnormal, perceptions abnormal, fabrications abnormal, and consciousness abnormal. The various demons of defilement will sneak in and place poison in our body. In other words, as soon as mindfulness lapses, these demons will come in and force the mind to sleep. Then they’ll put more poison in our hearts: the five hindrances.
The reason the hindrances are called poison is because they make the mind dizzy and deluded. For example, sensual desire makes us deluded, infatuated with different objects. Ill will makes us angry and vengeful, hot and fiery so that our mind has no peace. It’s as if we fall into a living hell. Sloth and torpor make us discouraged. We don’t see the rewards of what’s meritorious and skillful, or of generosity, virtue, or meditation. This makes us sleepy, drowsy, and listless. Restlessness and anxiety make us distracted, irritated, and scattered. When this happens, uncertainty is bound to arise, so we grope around without any sense of what we can take as our standard.
All of these things are nothing but detriment. They’re all poisons and intoxicants. This is why they’re called the demons of defilement. When these things work their way into us, they’re bound to exert a lot of power and influence. They can pull our body out of the Buddha’s teachings; they can pull our heart out of the Buddha’s teachings, making us lazy, careless, and unreliable. We start living like duckweed, which simply rises and falls with the water, and is nothing more than food for turtles—ignorance—and fish—evil. When our mind hasn’t fathomed the qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha, it’s bound to be this way. It still lives with flocks of demons. Even though we practice, it’s just a show. We’re still far from the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha. We don’t count as close to them at all.
To be far means to be far away in terms of our behavior. For instance, if we don’t waken the body, don’t waken the mind, we don’t count as practicing the Buddha’s Dhamma. But if you’re mindful and alert, you’ll always be awake in body and mind. In other words, when your eyes are open, your mind is firmly established. When your eyes are closed, your mind is firmly established. Whatever job you’re doing—whether sitting, standing, walking, or lying down—the number “1” has to be in charge of your mind at all times. Don’t let it turn into the numbers 2, 3, or 4 at all. This is what’s called being genuinely established in the Buddha’s Dhamma, in line with the verse from the Canon:
Suppabuddhaṁ pabujjhanti sadā gotama-sāvakā
Yesaṁ divā ca ratto ca niccaṁ kāyagatāsati
Whoever is mindful, contemplating the body, always awake in the Buddha’s Dhamma by day and by night, is a genuine disciple of the Buddha.
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When you sit in concentration or in meditation, the mind has to penetrate straight into the truth if you’re going to get results. Don’t hit only the convention. We want genuine silver, but if there are imitation things adulterating it—if the copper has adulterated it up to 80 or 90 percent—that silver isn’t the silver we want.
There are two kinds of conventions: conventions in line with the truth and conventions not in line with the truth. An example of a convention is the way we’re sitting with our eyes closed here. If someone asks us what we’re doing as we’re sitting here, we say that we’re sitting in meditation. But this phrase, “sitting in meditation”: Is our mind still or not still? If it’s still, that’s a convention in line with the truth. We’re sitting in meditation. But if the mind isn’t still, if it flickers out after perceptions and preoccupations, that’s a convention not in line with the truth. You can’t really say that you’re sitting in meditation. What you’re doing is simply sitting with your eyes closed, that’s all. Simply sitting with your eyes closed isn’t sitting in meditation. The truth of the convention called “sitting in meditation” is sitting with a still heart, keeping the mind firmly established in a single preoccupation, without being distracted by other preoccupations. That’s the convention in line with the truth.
So now that we’ve come here intent on sitting in meditation, we should try to be on target with the truth of the convention. If we’re not on target with the truth of the convention, we’re just sitting with our eyes closed. No matter how many decades we keep this up, it’s not likely to serve any purpose.
When we meditate in line with the truth of the convention, we’ll meet with the truth as our reward. The results of our work will be right concentration. The silver put into our mold will be pure silver. We won’t have to trouble ourselves with having to get rid of the impurities. It’s 100 percent pure silver, so the impurities will fall away on their own. It’s the same when the mind is pure: The hindrances won’t be able to penetrate. Whatever work we do, no matter what, will be right action: clean and pure. Our words will be right speech, pure speech. Whatever we say, people will trust us. We’ll bring progress both to ourselves and to others. Our words will be good, with no drawbacks. When this is the case, our livelihood will advance in the right direction: right livelihood.
If the mind lacks a foundation in concentration, it’s like adulterated silver. If the adulterations are many, the silver will be black and brittle. Whatever shape you try to hammer it into, it’ll all break. It’s useless. It isn’t malleable. But if your mind is firmly established in concentration, it’s like genuine silver without any adulterations: bright, beautiful, white, and clean, something that other people love. You yourself will be happy, too, for the mind will be full and refreshed, in and of itself. When you live with other people, they’ll be refreshed as well. But if you‘re the type of person who’s always suffering, then when you live with other people, you make them suffer, too.
Suffering arises from the adulterations of our not being true. If we meet up with the truth of the Dhamma, it’s like finding a huge hunk of merit. And when we have an enormous hunk of merit in this way, we’ll have more than enough to eat for life. The goodness buried in our heart and mind is like a hunk of mineral buried in rock. If the mineral is more than the rock, with the passage of time it might be able to turn the whole rock into diamond. But if the mineral is only a small part of the rock, it may be no match for the rock and the dirt. It may get turned into whichever part is more.
If we have only a little bit of skillfulness and merit, it’s bound to be no match for our evil and unskillfulness. With the passage of time, the mind will all flow back down to its evil ways—in the same way that some people, even though they’re already 80 or 90 years old, have never been able to make anything of themselves in life. That’s because whatever they gain, they use it all up without setting anything aside to invest in the future. If you make merit but then throw it away, throw it away, when will you have enough to look after yourself? You‘ll have to be poor for life. If you have children and grandchildren, they’ll have to be poor, too, because they’re born into a poor family. If we’re rich in noble wealth, our children and grandchildren won’t be poor. We’ll have no difficulty if we keep on living, and no fear if we die. But if the good we do isn’t enough for our own mouths and stomachs, if we don’t have enough goodness to keep ourselves going, if we have nothing but evil to pass on to our children, we’re compounding our evil on two levels: the evil of being evil ourselves, and the evil passing evil on to them.