Going Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors

Illumination or Elimination

Many people who go to a formal meditation retreat want to get something. That something might be relaxation, stress relief, a sense of community, simple silence or even some kind of illumination leading to special insight. There are many things to get out of a meditation retreat, but meditation isn’t so much about getting something, not even illumination, as it is about elimination. We are trying to eliminate the sense of self that keeps getting in the way of our happiness. It gets in the way by presenting a huge array of “goodies” for us to attach to: goodies like a happier relationship, better job, more money, a new car, bigger house, a new smart phone, the biggest, best and latest anything. It is little wonder that this world is sometimes called the “Candy Store World” or Saha World. The Sanskrit word saha means endurance and choices we feel we must make among the goodies is often hard for us to bear. Sometimes we attach to the stuff that we label “good.” That can be hard. We also attach to our aversions, the things we find unpleasant, even the things we love to hate. That can be harder. These attachments are a kind of prison for us. Prison implies a lack of freedom and punishment. In Buddhism, a prison is any situation we find unpleasant but cannot extricate ourselves from it. This is, of course, the result of our kamma. Through our mental activities and the things we do as a result we become responsible for its existence. That prison might a bad relationship, an unhappy work environment, or just not having the things we desire. Each thought that arises out of ignorance, attachment or aversion is called a self. We have many selves within our mind, as if it were run by a committee. Unfortunately, some of the members of the committee are not on speaking terms with some of the other members. Our many selves keep getting in the way of our escaping our prisons, because our selves keep wanting the things we don’t have while not wanting the things we do have.

This sense of not being freed comes about when we find ourselves oppressed by our aversions, our lusts and our fundamental ignorance, the three basic hindrances. In Buddhism we are taught that a high standard of moral conduct can erase the feeling of hatred for things we find unpleasant; the calm of skillful concentration diminishes our sensual lusts; and ignorance evaporates in the pristine light of understanding of the world. The “Path of Mindfulness” does all this; it is designed for the attainment of fullest inner freedom.

There are some Pali words that are very important to a deeper understanding of meditation, no matter what style or form of meditative practice you choose. They bring us to a deeper understanding of what it is that we are experiencing. For instance, if we understand papañca we might find some truth when the sewage of worldly concern causes run away “proliferation of thought” [papañca] showing us that the layer of culture, comfort and charm we take so much pride in is very thin and much less interesting than we usually assume. It lacks any real value. This is a kind of a magic show done with mental smoke and mirrors produced by the mind for the mind’s own entertainment. We are the willing and eager participants complicate in the fraud we perpetrate on ourselves. We are sometimes certain that what we want can only be found in spiritual environment and not the worldly one. We might feel that only in the environment of the spiritual marketplace can the vision of oneness [ekatta] of the enduring [dhuva] can be found by transcending the diversity [nanatta] of change [aniccata] be found. What we often desire is inward integrity, intactness, inviolability, based on the unyielding freedom of the mind from the influence of conditioned phenomena (dhamma), experiential events disguised as things — the things we have ourselves conditioned and fabricated to be this way or that way. The Path of Mindfulness is meant to lead us by showing us how to penetrate into the singleness of nature [ekasabhava] of the “Supreme Void” [Aggasuñña], Nibbāna, which is permeated with the “one taste” [ekarasa] of “liberation” [vimutti].

In mindfulness meditation we are not so much interested in becoming illuminated about the nature of the delicacies we think we want. It is really a matter of eliminating the sense of “I want this” and “I don’t want that” — eliminating the “I” in the equation of what we consider to be the gaining of happiness. This equation seems to say, “If I have this and not that then I will be happy.” On a blackboard a teacher might write,

(I + this) – that = my happiness.

Let’s say a forty-five year old fellow named Tom feels trapped in a job he doesn’t like. Tom is an salesclerk but wants to be a rock and roll star. Tom believes he would be happy if he were a star. His equation might look like this.

(Tom – salesclerk job) + rock star = Tom’s happiness.

Not only is this equation false, but we really don’t mean “happiness” at all. We mean “gratification” and gratification is high maintenance. It operates out of a sense of poverty or a lack of something we feel we “need” or “want.” Tom has something he does not want, his job but Tom is saying that he lacks something he needs that will make him happy, something he doesn’t have. Tom, like many of us, fixes his happiness on things outside of himself, as if he could not be the source of his own happiness.

Many of us would tell Tom to get over it. Tom doesn’t really want happiness. He wants gratification. Gratification doesn’t last long. Tom is attached to a dream to be a rock star and attached to the idea of having an unpleasant job. If Tom can eliminate his sense of a particular, the “I” pronoun in our personal equation, and drop the sense of poverty he feels, that is, the “want,” then freedom from attachment and aversion follows. This “process of elimination” leads us to “transcendent wisdom,” and this kind of wisdom can only come while we are practicing the Path of Mindfulness.

The Path of Mindfulness

This Path of Mindfulness allows us to reach the first stage of transcendent fulfillment. It is classically called “entry into the stream” and is our entrance on the path to the Goal — freedom from the pain that is born when we get in the way of our own happiness. Before we get a map to that goal there could be serious deviations in our journey. When we have a map our journey becomes much more sure.We still have to take the first step and all the other steps after that, but with a map we at least know where to go and how to get there. When we reach the point of stream entry we find ourselves at a place where we can catch the first direct sighting of the Goal.

The development of deep understanding and insight [vipassana] combines with calming tranquil concentration [samatha] each functioning in a balanced way as to not overshadow the other. Both gain uniformity of force. Through the overdoing of analysis there could be agitation. And indolence creeps in through too much of tranquillity.

Penetrating analysis is a principally intellectual activity and is the function of insight. Unqualified acceptance is fundamentally an intuitive process arising from the calm of concentration. The balanced yoking [yuganandhatthena] and careful not to let either the samatha or vipassana become overwhelming [anativattanatthena] a contemplative balance is reached. This is a genuinely middle way. It looks at any valuable knowledge or experience of the mind unwaveringly and goes straight to the heart of the matter, targeting the real, free from all biases. Mindfulness looks inside, it is also aware of what is outside. In this way we can transcend the narrow vision of a fragmented compartmentalized personality and the nebulous flaccidness of view of a drunken and fractured spirit. This is the smoke. The mirrors are what we are projecting on to the world we experience.

“Whatever is well said is the Word of the Buddha,” even when it is not his own words. The Buddha concedes truth wherever it is found and by whomever it is voiced. Mindfulness isn’t based on revelation, articles of faith, or vapid beliefs such as a omnipotent creator god, eternal soul, past lives, vibrations or other irrational extremes. This “Middle Path of Mindfulness” is a rational investigation of what is and what is not. Whatever is irrational is not the teaching of the Buddha. It is the teaching of an intoxicated runaway, although such ideas can be found in some “Buddhist” scriptures.

Living in a Virtual Reality

Virtual realities are often developed as an imagined environment for a game or interactive story. A virtual reality is an artificial environment that is created with software and presented to the user in such a way that the user suspends belief and accepts it as reality. On a computer, virtual reality is primarily experienced through three of the five senses: intellect, sight and sound. In life all the senses are involved: sight, sound, smell, taste, tactile sensation, and intellect.

We live in a virtual world in which all kinds of delusions and illusions constantly surround us bombarding us with data. Because of the Five Aggregates (khandhas) — form, feeling, perception, mental fabrication, and consciousness — we are constantly recreating our world. Our kamma, actions and experiences of the past acting in the present, allows us to recognize patterns which we call perceptions. We can only recognize patterns we already know. If we don’t know the pattern we cannot recognize what it is we are experiencing. We only recognize parts of it. The mind haphazardly fills in the blanks with what it already “knows.” The mind distorts the experience to fit into whatever box or category it understands. If we recognize only a few patterns we experience only a few things over and over again. We respond to them as if the pattern we see is the pattern that exists, whether it does or does not, either slightly distorted or grotesquely twisted. In other words, we only experience what we are conditioned to experience. The experience we are having is real but what we are experiencing is not.

When we are not paying attention we can be easily fooled into thinking what we think we are experiencing is true and permanent. In this approach to life we tend to see our opinions as hallowed, our biases and prejudices as accurate models of the way it is. These self-delusions happen when we are not paying attention, not skillfully investigating. Mindfulness allows us to see new patterns by altering our conditioning. Unfortunately, mindfulness on its own does not lead to any real knowledge. The best it can provide us is a little protection against some, but by no means all, of the mental effects of sensory contact (phassa). If we are unfocused, not investigating what is there, the mind won’t be able to give birth to any knowledge of the way things are. Left on its own, the mind will just recycle the old delusions, never developing or evolving into its full potential. The patterns will just repeat themselves.

It is important to train the mind to be aware of what is around you it helps us to avoid wandering aimlessly through the emotional mine field of pain and heartbreak — samsara, literally “the wandering through.” When we can really see things, any kind of things, for what they are then we can also see that there is nothing to do but let go. Letting go is the practice that leads us to sanity. We start out small letting go just a little, but letting go just a little yields only a little result. As we see results begin to occur we can let go a little more. A little more letting go leads to a little more sanity resulting. Letting go a lot yields a lot of results in this direction. It is called a “practice” for a reason. We are preparing to go through to the other shore — nibbana.

In the beginning of our mindfulness practice we try to avoid indulging ourselves in thoughts that are not beneficial to us. This is called relinquishment or renunciation (nekkhamma). It means to turn away from that which is not helpful and toward that which will benefit us. The Buddha refers to this as mature wisdom in the Pali Canon. One way to practice is to stop and see what is going on within us; to keep our mind focused on the formation, duration and fading away of moment to moment experience. That way we won’t be so easily entrapped by our desires and aversions. That’s a tall order for many of us. Our habit is to have an experience and just attach to it. If it is a pleasant experience, we attach to it. If it is an unpleasant experience we attach to our aversion of it. Attachment, that’s how operate. It’s the way of our social life. Magazines, TV, Movies, the Internet, social media, and even our friends and loved ones, persistently tell us that we need to be attached to something, relationships, sex, drugs, rock & roll, cars, vacations, everything we don’t have. Somehow merchandizers have learned how to use the universal trait of impermanence to ensnare us in our own lust. They know we will not be long satisfied with the worldly trinkets they are selling us.

The very fact of impermanence can make us afraid to let go. Out of fear and with bare white knuckles we clutch to everything we find pleasant and the aversion of everything we loathe. We can keep our thoughts on the topic of impermanence, stress and not-self and quiet the mind, limiting its labeling to only these topics. If we continue the way that we normally go we’ll just go on mislabeling things, misapprehending them, and continue suffering from mental myopia. It’s that stuff we attach to, pleasant and unpleasant, that keeps the mind hidden from itself — the true beauty of life hidden from us.

It is helpful to keep the mind focused on close observation of the labels and thoughts that appear in the mind. If we are honest with ourselves, and we seldom are, we’ll find that the thoughts and labels we think are so real and substantial are only sensations that appear and disband, constantly changing. They are an unreliable virtual reality that bears only superficial resemblance to life as it is. They are illusory. When we don’t make this effort we fall willing victim of thought formation. When on autopilot, the mind remembers, literally meaning “puts together again.” It puts together a fictitious past, based only partially on an abstraction of experience, and then fashions issues dealing with that only partially accurate memory that manifest in the present for the amusement and confusion of our mind. While quite entertaining, this constant reaching into the past is also quite painful. This preoccupation with illusory issues keeps our basic ignorance fed, fat, and happy. It loves a good delusion. Ignorance doesn’t care that all experiences are only momentary illusions. It wants to see them as permanent and very real events. When we are not watching and paying attention then there is no way for us to see through the magic show to the truth underneath it.

Ekayano ayam maggo This is the only way

Everything we experience is an event: a momentary arising and passing away. It is a mental property trying hard to disguise itself as a thing that exists autonomously outside of us. Mindfulness is a basic power, a defensive shelter and refuge for the mind. The part it plays in the transition from ignorance to knowledge depends on the properties of mind it works with.

There’s nothing more difficult than maintaining watch of the mind. The mind conditioned to wrong views and wrong opinions. This is what keeps mind hidden from itself. The Buddha gave us teachings so we can have knowledge of the mind and the many layers of consciousness and its intricacies. When we look into it deeply, we find to be empty — empty of any meaning in and of itself.

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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