The Proliferating Mind


 by Ajahn Passano



A talk given at the Ottawa Buddhist Society in 2001

September 4, 2005

The problem of the mind is really its propensity to proliferate or add to things. At a certain level there’s really nothing wrong with the mind at all. It’s just what we keep adding to it. There’s a quotation of the Buddha in the graduated discourses where the Buddha states that the mind is intrinsically pure or intrinsically bright but it’s defiled by adventitious defilements. Defilements come in and out of the mind. They’re visitors to the mind. We keep getting caught up with the visitors. Part of meditation practice is to be able to separate and understand what is the actual nature of the mind itself and what are the visitors to the mind that we keep getting caught up in.

There was a bumper sticker going around California a few years ago which expresses it fairly well: “Having a wonderful time. Wish I were here.” It sort of says it all. On a certain level, even if we’re having a good time we’re not actually present. We’re not really there to appreciate it, or we’re comparing it to something else or some other experience. Practice is learning more clearly what are the moods of the mind. What is the actual quality of the mind on its own, when it’s not stimulated and proliferated on or not added to? This is something that Ajahn Chah talked about a lot in his teaching and training. It was something that was very important to him in his practice.

When he was training as a young monk, trying to meditate, he was getting himself tied up in knots. He had the opportunity to pay respects to a very well-known meditation master at the time, Ajahn Mun. One of the things that Ajahn Mun pointed out to him was to start to separate out and pay attention to what are the moods of the mind that come in and out and what is the mind itself. Notice what is the underlying quality of the mind when we don’t conceptually proliferate, when we don’t add to it or don’t cover it over. We won’t ever really understand what the fundamental nature of mind is until we pay attention to what comes in and out of the mind. Mindfulness is to apprehend what’s actually going on in the mind. Usually we’re so swept up in it, so caught up in it, that we don’t recognize what’s going on. Be attentive when we’re holding an opinion or a view - usually we’re not even aware that it is an opinion because we’re right, of course. Our opinion is right. Our view is right. “That’s the way the world is. This is how that person is. They’ve always been that way.” We carry on like that and believe in it and then wonder why we suffer all the time.

The Buddha pointed to three fundamental drives that tend to cause the mind to fall into proliferation. The first one is around sensuality: the seeking after sensual gratification, pleasure, comfort. It isn’t to say that being comfortable or experiencing that which is pleasant is wrong in some way. But it’s when the desire is there, then we lose our freedom. When we sense that we have to experience this or we have to get that in order to be happy, when we’re not happy on our own, then we’re overwhelmed by sensual desire. That’s what desire is. The mind is always compelled to seek something that’s more comfortable, something more pleasurable, something more gratifying. The whole nature of our economy is built on that. The advertising slogan for American Express is: take the waiting out of wanting. You know, they’re very successful. Canada pretty much functions like America. The society is driven by credit card debt. You can’t really stop working because you’ve got payments to make. There is that compunction to try to fulfill or gratify ourselves in some way. It covers many areas of our life.

It is important to make a distinction between experiencing that which is pleasurable and being driven by sensual desire. Because the development of pleasure is also fundamental to the Buddha’s teaching. In many of the Buddha’s discourses, there is a progression of mental states which are focussed around well-being. This quality of well-being in Pali is called pamojja and indicates a lightness of mind. A quality of well-being is the condition for a quality of joy or piti in Pali. The quality of joy is a condition for the establishing of tranquillity or passaddhi. The quality of tranquillity is a condition for the establishing of happiness or sukha. The establishing of happiness is the condition for samadhi or concentration of mind. All these very positive states of well-being culminate in samadhi or meditative firmness of mind. The Buddha repeats in many places that the happy mind is easily concentrated. So it’s important that we cultivate this quality of happiness or well-being. But it’s also important that we be attentive to what is the intention in the mind. If the happiness that we’re seeking is coming from, say, a desire for gratification and possessiveness or gain out of the material realm, then it just shatters and makes the mind unsatisfied.

The Buddha recognized the tendency of the human mind to proliferate and seek for gratification in the world around. He also recognized that happiness is essential. It’s important to be attentive to the quality of mind that is seeking happiness. Try to come back to a quality of relinquishment, of motivation which is circumspect and is grounded in these virtuous, wholesome qualities such as lovingkindness, compassion, and generosity. These are all qualities which lead to happiness. They need to be cultivated because they actually make the mind experience well-being which is what it wants. So often when we practice meditation, we go about it backwards. “If I really got my concentration together, then I’d be happy.” We really need to shift that and be attentive to: “How do I actually experience happiness in a settled and firm way?” When the mind is content and happy within itself, then it’s very settled and clear. We need to be attentive to the proliferating tendency of sensual desire and how we get caught up in it.

The second basic drive that the Buddha pointed to as proliferating the mind is very difficult to translate into English. Mana is usually translated as conceit, but it really means the tendency to establish the comparison of self. In the typical thoroughness of the Buddha, there is this wonderful description of what mana is:

Being inferior to somebody and considering that one is inferior, being inferior and considering that one is equal, being inferior and considering that one is superior; Being equal and considering that one is inferior, being equal and considering that one is equal, being equal and considering that one is superior; Being superior and considering that one is inferior, being superior and considering that one is equal, being superior and considering that one is superior.

Basically, any stand of self and comparison to others brings this sense of self-importance, or holding a self view. In some ways, one can be better or worse at something than others and its really not a problem. It’s just the way it is and it’s not a fixed thing anyway. The problem is in establishing a sense of self and looking around and worrying about: “Am I better? Am I worse? Am I equal?” We all know how that feels. That’s uncomfortable.

When we say that there shouldn’t be any establishing of self, does that mean there’s no personality, or no display of any particular differences? Well not really. Consider how it was at the time of the Buddha. All the great disciples had very different temperaments and personalities. Sariputta was this wonderfully wise being but was also very attentive to the affairs of the Sangha. He looked after his disciples in a very particular way. The Buddha said that Sariputta is like a nurse with his disciples and Maha Moggallana is like a mother. Sariputta will teach and train them until the point of stream entry, first level of enlightenment, and then he’ll let them practice on their own. Whereas Maha Moggallana will be with them, take responsibility for them, and really look after them until they attain arahantship. Different temperament. The Buddha wasn’t saying that one method was bad or anything.

In one discourse the Buddha praises Maha Kassapa for his compassion. The usual temperament that he displayed was an ascetic tendency, strictness in the dhutanga or ascetic practices. He was quite fierce. He criticised Ananda for wasting too much time. So the great disciples are not just floating around jelly-like without any kind of personality. They have very clear personalities. But not the need to compare: “Am I better? Am I worse? How am I shaping up? How am I looking?” That’s the addition that creates suffering and torments us

Be attentive to qualities which are appropriate for the path and meditative training such as: putting in effort, patience, wisdom, discernment, reflective investigation, restraint, loving kindness. But again, not to carry them around as a self. “Was I as kind as I should have been?” That’s where we create problems. We do something and then we worry about it. We get caught up in the judgments and give ourselves points all the time. It gets really complicated. That’s the way to suffer. It’s quite all right to even miss one’s shot and blow it. Really. There’s a wonderful scenario in a discourse where Sariputta and Moggallana come to pay respects to the Buddha and they bring their disciples with them. They meet up close to where the Buddha is and get into conversations which make a lot of noise. The Buddha notices the racket and says: “What’s this noise in the monastery. It sounds like a bunch of fishermen at the wharf.” He calls them in, reams them out, dismisses them all, sends them off. Their behavior was inappropriate, accepted as such, and then life goes on. Eventually they’re called in again to receive teachings from the Buddha. There was a recognizing of that which was unskillful as unskillful and making amends and a reestablishing in what was appropriate, but not having to carry it around. I’m sure that Sariputta and Moggallana weren’t going around and creating a whole lot of suffering about it. They probably taught and trained their disciples, admonished them, but didn’t make it a source of extraordinary suffering, not a source of complication. Just recognizing what’s appropriate and what’s the way to establish oneself consistently in that which is appropriate. Not creating a self. Not having to carry around this sense of me in comparison with others all the time. There is tremendous freedom in that because the mind isn’t proliferating. It isn’t creating problems where there aren’t problems.

The last drive which the Buddha pointed to as proliferating the mind is the tendency to views or opinions. The holding of a view. Obviously we have to have some sort of perspectives and views. The Buddha is concerned here about holding views like: “This is right. I’m right and everybody else is wrong.” “This is right and it has to be this way.” “This is true and good. Nothing else is.” It’s that very fixed quality of mind in terms of view and perspective which shuts out the nature of things as being a continuum of causes and conditions. On a certain level, we would love to simplify things and hold a view, e.g. “This is right. This is how it is. This is really true.” because it relieves us of having to take into account the nature of truth that everything is in its flux. How do you force it to stop? You can’t do it. One of Ajahn Chah’s consistent teachings that he continually pounded into our heads is the uncertainty of things. “This is not a sure thing.” The nature of the mind is to overlay our experience with a view. Particularly to try to make things a bit more certain, a bit more clear, a bit more secure. But in truth security comes from the ability to hold in consciousness the fact that everything is changing. Our view of things, however we view it, is going to be the way it is anyway. Rather than getting in the way with our clinging and preferences, we may as well just open up to all experience and be attentive so that we can apprehend it clearly.

These tendencies to proliferate the mind are what cause suffering. They’re the things that create difficulties. How do we work with that? Just being really attentive with that sense of: “What arises and what passes away?” “What is stable? What is unstable?” To start to be attentive to that. The unstable is what the Buddha described as agantuka in Pali, which means a visitor or guest. The defilements are visitors. We can only be attentive to what comes in and goes out of the mind if we have the quality of clarity and stillness. If the mind is reacting blindly, then it latches onto the moods and either piggybacks on them or runs away with them. It’s interesting how people will talk about meditation practice sometimes.

Some will say: “Well, my mind is always running off here and there. My mind just carries me away.” Usually what happens, if that’s the case, is that one is running after the mind and bringing it back over and over. It’s very tiring. If you just come back to establishing attention, that’s where the mind was anyway. Attention has shifted. The mood was impermanent, insubstantial. As soon as you establish awareness, that’s where your mind is. Experiment with that. When you think that your mind has got caught up in something over there, really feel that. Then be attentive to that quality of just being present. “Ah, here I am.” “The mind is right here.” As soon as you recognize that, the mood just passed already. You can recall it or you can get caught up in it again. But in that moment, there is that quality of presence and clarity right there. Be attentive to that quality of presence and nurture it.

The Buddha’s most fundamental teaching is the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering. Suffering is that quality of distraction, dissatisfaction, agitation, discontentment. When we’re attentive to that, then we can start to recognize: “Where did this come from?” It has a cause. It isn’t fundamental to the mind. Starting to investigate. “Well, what were the causes? It was that grasping after gratification. It was that view that I had. It was holding that sense of self so strongly. Oh, right. That causes suffering.” There is also the duty that is appropriate to each Noble Truth. Suffering is to be known and the cause of suffering is to be relinquished. It’s quite simple but if you start to pay attention, then you notice that what we try to do is to let go of suffering, or drop it, or annihilate it. As long as the cause hasn’t been seen clearly, then it’s not going to be dealt with properly. So, the suffering has to be known. That takes a certain directness of mind, courage and patience. Who wants to suffer? Nobody likes it. But as long as we haven’t really felt it and been present for it, then we don’t clarify the cause well enough. When we see and know suffering clearly, the cause becomes apparent. That’s what we can let go of. That’s what we can drop. If we want to annihilate something, then go to the cause.

The other part of the Noble Truths is the cessation or ending of suffering and then the path leading to the ending of suffering. We’re really good at paying attention to suffering. We’re not very good at paying attention to the ending of suffering. So start to take interest when suffering isn’t actually present or when suffering ends. If we were really suffering all the time, we wouldn’t be let out onto the streets. We wouldn’t be able to function. We don’t really take that much interest in the ending of suffering, but we should. We really need to. When there’s that quality of spaciousness, the quality of clarity, the quality of peace. Oftentimes we’ll fill it up with something else. When we sit in meditation and we want to be peaceful. Suddenly, the clouds part and we start to feel “Oh, wow. This is kind of peaceful.” and then the mind starts to look for something to grab onto or to fill it up with. “Peaceful” is usually too peaceful for us and not suffering is unfamiliar. We’re not used to it and so we just fill it up again. Notice how perverse the problem is. By not understanding it and by not being able to comprehend it clearly, we get really spun out. Pay attention to the ending of suffering. How does it manifest? How does it feel? That’s where you start to recognize that: “Oh, I can do something about this to bring about this feeling of non-suffering.”

Then there is a whole path to follow. There are qualities of training and establishing the mind in virtue and restraint, or in meditation and mindfulness, or wisdom and the circumspection of investigation. These are all supportive of non-suffering. As we start to pay attention to that, we become able to separate out the moods of the mind that just keep coming in and going out and the underlying fundamental mind which is still, knowing, clear and present. It’s there to be experienced at all times. If it weren’t - if it were something conditioned and had to be created all the time, then it wouldn’t be something that would be worthy of calling liberation. But because it is present and unconditioned, then it’s accessible. One of the qualities of the Dhamma that comes up in our chanting is: “To be experienced for each wise person for themselves.” The Dhamma is there. It can be experienced. There needs to be a certain wisdom and understanding there. That’s our path. That’s what we need to do.

I offer these words for your reflection this evening.



Source : http://www.abhayagiri.org


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