There are lots of people who are ashamed to talk
about their own defilements but who feel no shame at talking about
the defilements of others. Those who are willing to report their own
diseases — their own defilements — in a straightforward manner are
few and far between. As a result, the disease of defilement is
hushed up and kept secret, so that we don't realize how serious and
widespread it is. We all suffer from it, and yet no one is open
about it. No one is really interested in diagnosing his or her own
We have to find a skillful approach if we hope to
wipe out this disease, and we have to be open about it, admitting
our defilements from the grossest to the most subtle levels,
dissecting them down to their minutest details. Only then will we
gain from our practice. If we look at ourselves in a superficial
way, we may feel that we're already fine just as we are, already
know all we need to know. But then when the defilements let loose
with full force as anger or delusion, we pretend that nothing is
wrong — and this way the defilements become a hidden disease, hard
to catch hold of, hard to diagnose...
We have to be strong in fighting off defilements,
cravings, and illusions of every sort. We have to test our strength
against them and bring them under our power. If we can bring them
under our power, we can ride on their backs. If we can't, they'll
have to ride on our backs, making us do their work, pulling
us around by the nose, making us want, wearing us out in all sorts
So are we still beasts of burden? Are we beasts
of burden because defilement and craving are riding on our backs?
Have they put a ring through our noses? When you get to the point
when you've had enough, you have to stop — stop and watch the
defilements to see how they come into being, what they want, what
they eat, what they find delicious. Make it your sport — watching
the defilements and making them starve, like a person giving up an
addiction... See if it gets the defilements upset. Do they hunger to
the point where they're salivating? Then don't let them eat. No
matter what, don't let them eat what they're addicted to. After all,
there are plenty of other things to eat. You have to be hard on them
— hard on your "self" — like this... "Hungry? Well go ahead and be
hungry! You're going to die? Fine! Go ahead and die!" If you can
take this attitude, you'll be able to win out over all sorts of
addictions, all sorts of defilements — because you're not pandering
to desire, you're not nourishing the desire that exists for the sake
of finding flavor in physical things. It's time you stopped, time
you gave up feeding these things. If they're going to waste away and
die, let them die. After all, why should you keep them fat and well
No matter what, you have to keep putting the heat
on your cravings and defilements until they wither and waste away.
Don't let them raise their heads. Keep them under your thumb. This
is the sort of straightforward practice you have to follow. If
you're steadfast, if you put up a persistent fight until they're all
burned away, then there's no other victory that can come anywhere
near, no other victory that's anywhere near a match for victory over
the cravings and defilements in your own heart.
This is why the Buddha taught us to put the heat
on the defilements in all our activities — sitting, standing,
walking, and lying down. If we don't do this, they'll burn
us in all our activities...
If you consider things carefully, you'll see that
the Buddha's teachings are all exactly right, both in how they tell
us to examine the diseases of defilement and in how they tell us to
let go, destroy, and extinguish defilement. All the steps are there,
so we needn't go study anywhere else. Every point in his doctrine
and discipline shows us the way, so we needn't wonder how we can go
about examining and doing away with these diseases. This becomes
mysterious and hard to know only if you study his teachings without
making reference to doing away with your own defilements. People
don't like to talk about their own defilements, so they end up
completely ignorant. They grow old and die without knowing a thing
about their own defilements at all.
When we start to practice, when we come to
comprehend how the defilements burn our own hearts, that's when we
gradually come to know ourselves. To understand suffering and
defilement and learn how to extinguish defilement gives us space to
When we learn how to put out the fires of
defilement, how to destroy them, it means we have tools. We can be
confident in ourselves — no doubts, no straying off into other paths
of practice, because we're sure to see that practicing in this way,
contemplating inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness in this way at
all times, really gets rid of our defilements.
The same holds true with virtue, concentration,
and discernment. They're our tools — and we need a full set. We need
the discernment that comes with Right View and the virtue that comes
with self-discipline. Virtue is very important. Virtue and
discernment are like our right and left hands. If one of our hands
is dirty, it can't wash itself. You need to use both hands to keep
both hands washed and clean. Thus wherever there's virtue, you have
to have discernment. Wherever there's discernment, you have to have
virtue. Discernment is what enables you to know; virtue is what
enables you to let go, to relinquish, to destroy your addictions.
Virtue isn't just a matter of the five or eight precepts, you know.
It has to deal with the finest details. Whatever your discernment
sees as a cause of suffering, you have to stop, you have to let go.
Virtue is something that gets very subtle and
precise. Letting go, giving up, renouncing, abstaining, cutting
away, and destroying: All of these things are an affair of virtue.
This is why virtue and discernment have to go together, just as our
right and left hands have to help each other. They help each other
wash away defilement. That's when your mind can become centered,
bright, and clear. These things show their benefits right at the
mind. If we don't have these tools, it's as if we had no hands or
feet: We wouldn't be able to get anywhere at all. We have to use our
tools — virtue and discernment — to destroy defilement. That's when
our minds will benefit...
This is why the Buddha taught us to keep training
in virtue, concentration, and discernment. We have to keep fit in
training these things. If we don't keep up the training as we
should, our tools for extinguishing suffering and defilement won't
be sharp, won't be of much use. They won't be a match for the
defilements. The defilements have monstrous powers for burning the
mind in the twinkling of an eye. Say that the mind is quiet and
neutral: The slightest sensory contact can set things burning in an
instant by making us pleased or displeased. Why?
Sensory contact is our measuring stick for seeing
how firm or weak our mindfulness is. Most of the time it stirs
things up. As soon as there's contact by way of the ear or eye, the
defilements are very quick. When this is the case, how can we keep
things under control? How are we going to gain control over our
eyes? How are be going to gain control over our ears, nose, tongue,
body, and mind? How can we get mindfulness and discernment in charge
of these things? This is a matter of practice, pure and simple...
our own affair, something by which we can test ourselves, to see why
defilements flare up so quickly when sensory contact takes place.
Say, for instance, that we hear a person
criticizing someone else. We can listen and not get upset. But say
that the thought occurs to us, "She's actually criticizing me."
As soon as we conjure up this "me," we're immediately angry and
displeased. If we concoct very much of this "me," we can get very
upset. Just this fact alone should enable us to observe that as soon
as our "self" gets involved, we suffer immediately. This is how it
happens. If no sense of self comes out to get involved, we can
remain calm and indifferent. When they criticize other people, we
can stay indifferent; but as soon as we conclude that they're
criticizing us, our "self" appears and immediately gets involved —
and we immediately burn with defilement. Why?
You have to pay close attention to this. As soon
as your "self" arises, suffering arises in the very same instant.
The same holds true even if you're just thinking. The "self" you
think up spreads out into all sorts of issues. The mind gets
scattered all over the place with defilement, craving, and
attachments. It has very little mindfulness and discernment watching
over it, so it gets dragged every which way by craving and
And yet we don't realize it. We think we're just
fine. Is there anyone among us who realizes that this is what's
happening? We're too weighted down, weighted down with our own
delusions. No matter how much the mind is smothered in the
defilement of delusion, we don't realize it, for it keeps us deaf
There are no physical tools you can use to detect
or cure this disease of defilement, because it arises only at
sensory contact. There's no substance to it. It's like a match in a
matchbox. As long as the match doesn't come into contact with the
friction strip on the side of the box, it won't give rise to fire.
But as soon as we strike it against the side of the box, it bursts
into flame. If it goes out right then, all that gets burned is the
matchhead. If it doesn't stop at the matchhead, it'll burn the
matchstick. If it doesn't stop with the matchstick, and meets up
with anything flammable, it can grow into an enormous fire.
When defilement arises in the mind, it starts
from the slightest contact. If we can be quick to put it out right
there, it's like striking a match that flares up — chae — for
an instant and then dies down right in the matchhead. The defilement
disbands right there. But if we don't put it out the instant it
arises, and let it start concocting issues, it's like pouring fuel
into a fire.
We have to observe the diseases of defilement in
our own minds to see what their symptoms are, why they're so quick
to flare up. They can't stand to be disturbed. The minute you
disturb them, they flare up into flame. When this is the case, what
can we do to prepare ourselves beforehand? How can we stock up on
mindfulness before sensory contact strikes?
The way to stock up is to practice meditation, as
when we keep the breath in mind. This is what gets our mindfulness
prepared so that we can keep ahead of defilement, so that we can
keep it from arising as long as we have our theme of meditation as
an inner shelter for the mind.
The mind's outer shelter is the body, which is
composed of physical elements, but its inner shelter is the theme of
meditation we use to train its mindfulness to be focused and aware.
Whatever theme we use, that's the inner shelter for the mind that
keeps it from wandering around, concocting thoughts and imaginings.
This is why we need a theme of meditation. Don't let the mind chase
after its preoccupations the way ordinary people who don't meditate
do. Once we have a meditation theme to catch this monkey of a mind
so that it becomes less and less willful, day by day, it will
gradually calm down, calm down until it can stand firm for long or
short periods, depending on how much we train and observe ourselves.
Now, as for how we do breath meditation:
The texts say to breathe in long and out long — heavy or light — and
then to breathe in short and out short, again heavy or light. Those
are the first steps of the training. After that we don't have to
focus on the length of the in-breath or out-breath. Instead, we
simply gather our awareness at any one point of the breath and keep
this up until the mind settles down and is still. When the mind is
still, you then focus on the stillness of the mind at the same time
you're aware of the breath.
At this point you don't focus directly on the
breath. You focus on the mind that is still and at normalcy. You
focus continuously on the normalcy of the mind at the same time that
you're aware of the breath coming in and out, without actually
focusing on the breath. You simply stay with the mind, but you watch
it with each in-and-out breath. Usually when you are doing physical
work and your mind is at normalcy, you can know what you're doing,
so why can't you be aware of the breath? After all, it's part of the
Some of you are new at this, which is why you
don't know how you can focus on the mind at normalcy with each
in-and-out breath without focusing directly on the breath itself.
What we're doing here is practicing how to be aware of the body and
mind, pure and simple, in and of themselves...
Start out by focusing on the breath for about 5,
10, or 20 minutes. Breathe in long and out long, or in short and out
short. At the same time, notice the stages in how the mind feels,
how it begins to settle down when you have mindfulness watching over
the breath. You've got to make a point of observing this, because
usually you breathe out of habit, with your attention far away. You
don't focus on the breath; you're not really aware of it. This leads
you to think that it's hard to stay focused here, but actually it's
quite simple. After all, the breath comes in and out on its own, by
its very nature. There's nothing at all difficult about breathing.
It's not like other themes of meditation. For instance, if you're
going to practice recollection of the Buddha, or buddho, you
have to keep on repeating buddho, buddho, buddho.
Actually, if you want, you can repeat buddho
in the mind with each in-and-out breath, but only in the very
beginning stages. You repeat buddho to keep the mind from
concocting thoughts about other things. Simply by keeping up this
repetition you can weaken the mind's tendency to stray, for the mind
can take on only one object at a time. This is something you have to
observe. The repetition is to prevent the mind from thinking up
thoughts and clambering after them.
After you've kept up the repetition — you don't
have to count the number of times — the mind will settle down to be
aware of the breath with each in-and-out breath. It will begin to be
still, neutral, at normalcy.
This is when you focus on the mind instead of the
breath. Let go of the breath and focus on the mind — but still be
aware of the breath on the side. You don't have to make note of how
long or short the breath is. Make note of the mind staying at
normalcy with each in-and-out breath. Remember this carefully so
that you can put it into practice.
The posture: For focusing on the breath, sitting
is a better posture than standing, walking, or lying down, because
the sensations that come with the other postures often overcome the
sensations of the breath. Walking jolts the body around too much,
standing for a long time can make you tired, and if the mind settles
down when you're lying down, you tend to fall asleep. With sitting
it's possible to stay in one position and keep the mind firmly
settled for a long period of time. You can observe the subtleties of
the breath and the mind naturally and automatically.
Here I'd like to condense the steps of breath
meditation to show how all four of the tetrads mentioned in the
texts can be practiced at once. In other words, is it possible to
focus on the body, feelings, the mind, and the Dhamma all in one
sitting? This is an important question for all of us. You could, if
you wanted to, precisely follow all the steps in the texts so as to
develop strong powers of mental absorption (jhana), but it
takes a lot of time. It's not appropriate for those of us who are
old and have only a little time left.
What we need is a way of gathering our awareness
at the breath long enough to make the mind firm, and then go
straight to examining how all formations are inconstant, stressful,
and not-self, so that we can see the truth of all formations with
each in-and-out breath. If you can keep at this continually, without
break, your mindfulness will become firm and snug enough for you to
give rise to the discernment that will enable you to gain clear
knowledge and vision.
So what follows is a guide to the steps in
practicing a condensed form of breath meditation... Give them a try
until you find they give rise to knowledge of your own within you.
You're sure to give rise to knowledge of your very own.
The first thing when you're going to meditate on
the breath is to sit straight and keep your mindfulness firm.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Make the breath feel open and at ease.
Don't tense your hands, your feet, or any of your joints at all. You
have to keep your body in a posture that feels appropriate to your
breathing. At the beginning, breathe in long and out long, fairly
heavily, and gradually the breath will shorten — sometimes heavy and
sometimes light. Then breathe in short and out short for about 10 or
15 minutes and then change.
After a while, when you stay focused mindfully on
it, the breath will gradually change. Watch it change for as many
minutes as you like, then be aware of the whole breath, all of its
subtle sensations. This is the third step, the third step of the
first tetrad: sabba-kaya-patisamvedi — focusing on how the
breath affects the whole body by watching all the breath sensations
in all the various parts of the body, and in particular the
sensations related to the in-and-out breath.
From there you focus on the sensation of the
breath at any one point. When you do this correctly for a fairly
long while, the body — the breath — will gradually grow still. The
mind will grow calm. In other words, the breath grows still together
with the awareness of the breath. When the subtleties of the breath
grow still at the same time that your undistracted awareness settles
down, the breath grows even more still. All the sensations in the
body gradually grow more and more still. This is the fourth step,
the stilling of bodily formations.
As soon as this happens, you begin to be aware of
the feelings that arise with the stilling of the body and mind.
Whether they are feelings of pleasure or rapture or whatever, they
appear clearly enough for you to contemplate them.
The stages through which you have already passed
— watching the breath come in and out, long or short — should be
enough to make you realize — even though you may not have focused on
the idea — that the breath is inconstant. It's continually changing,
from in long and out long to in short and out short, from heavy to
light and so forth. This should enable you to read the breath, to
understand that there's nothing constant to it at all. It changes on
its own from one moment to the next.
Once you have realized the inconstancy of the
body — in other words, of the breath — you'll be able to see the
subtle sensations of pleasure and pain in the realm of feeling. So
now you watch feelings, right there in the same place where you've
been focusing on the breath. Even though they are feelings that
arise from the stillness of the body or mind, they're nevertheless
inconstant even in that stillness. They can change. So these
changing sensations in the realm of feeling exhibit inconstancy in
and of themselves, just like the breath.
When you see change in the body, change in
feelings, and change in the mind, this is called seeing the
Dhamma, i.e., seeing inconstancy. You have to understand this
correctly. Practicing the first tetrad of breath meditation contains
all four tetrads of breath meditation. In other words, you see the
inconstancy of the body and then contemplate feeling. You see the
inconstancy of feeling and then contemplate the mind. The mind, too,
is inconstant. This inconstancy of the mind is the Dhamma. To see
the Dhamma is to see this inconstancy.
When you see the true nature of all inconstant
things, then keep track of that inconstancy at all times, with every
in-and-out breath. Keep this up in all your activities to see what
What happens next is dispassion. Letting go. This
is something you have to know for yourself.
This is what condensed breath meditation is like.
I call it condensed because it contains all the steps at once. You
don't have to do one step at a time. Simply focus at one point, the
body, and you'll see the inconstancy of the body. When you see the
inconstancy of the body, you'll have to see feeling. Feeling will
have to show its inconstancy. The mind's sensitivity to feeling, or
its thoughts and imaginings, are also inconstant. All of these
things keep on changing. This is how you know inconstancy...
If you can become skilled at looking and knowing
in this way, you'll be struck with the inconstancy, stressfulness,
and not-selfness of your "self," and you'll meet with the genuine
Dhamma. The Dhamma that's constantly changing like a burning fire —
burning with inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness — is the Dhamma
of the impermanence of all formations. But further in, in the mind
or in the property of consciousness, is something special, beyond
the reach of any kind of fire. There, there's no suffering or stress
of any kind at all. This thing that lies "inside": You could say
that it lies within the mind, but it isn't really in the mind. It's
simply that the contact is there at the mind. There's no way you can
really describe it. Only the extinguishing of all defilement will
lead you to know it for yourself.
This "something special" within exists by its
very nature, but defilements have it surrounded on all sides. All
these counterfeit things — the defilements — keep getting in the way
and take possession of everything, so that this special nature
remains imprisoned inside at all times. Actually, there's nothing in
the dimension of time that can be compared with it. There's nothing
by which you can label it, but it's something that you can pierce
through to see — i.e., by piercing through defilement, craving, and
attachment into the state of mind that is pure, bright, and silent.
This is the only thing that's important.
But it doesn't have only one level. There are
many levels, from the outer bark to the inner bark and on to the
sapwood before you reach the heartwood. The genuine Dhamma is like
the heartwood, but there's a lot to the mind that isn't heartwood:
The roots, the branches and leaves of the tree are more than many,
but there's only a little heartwood. The parts that aren't heartwood
will gradually decay and disintegrate, but the heartwood doesn't
decay. That's one kind of comparison we can make. It's like a tree
that dies standing. The leaves fall away, the branches rot away, the
bark and sapwood rot away, leaving nothing but the true heartwood.
That's one comparison we can make with this thing we call deathless,
this property that has no birth, no death, no changing. We can also
call it nibbana or the Unconditioned. It's all the same
Now, then. Isn't this something worth trying to
break through to see?...