By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
You can expect certain benefits from your meditation. The initial ones are practical, prosaic things; the later stages are profoundly transcendent. They run together from the simple to the sublime. We will set forth some of them here. Your own experience is all that counts.
Those things that we called hindrances or defilements are more than just unpleasant mental habits. They are the primary manifestations of the ego process itself. The ego sense itself is essentially a feeling of separation — a perception of distance between that which we call me, and that which we call other. This perception is held in place only if it is constantly exercised, and the hindrances constitute that exercise.
Greed and lust are attempts to get ‘some of that’ for me; hatred and aversion are attempts to place greater distance between ‘me and that’. All the defilements depend upon the perception of a barrier between self and other, and all of them foster this perception every time they are exercised. Mindfulness perceives things deeply and with great clarity. It brings our attention to the root of the defilements and lays bare their mechanism. It sees their fruits and their effects upon us. It cannot be fooled. Once you have clearly seen what greed really is and what it really does to you and to others, you just naturally cease to engage in it. When a child burns his hand on a hot oven, you don’t have to tell him to pull it back; he does it naturally, without conscious thought and without decision. There is a reflex action built into the nervous system for just that purpose, and it works faster than thought. By the time the child perceives the sensation of heat and begins to cry, the hand has already been jerked back from the source of pain. Mindfulness works in very much the same way: it is wordless, spontaneous and utterly efficient. Clear mindfulness inhibits the growth of hindrances; continuous mindfulness extinguishes them. Thus, as genuine mindfulness is built up, the walls of the ego itself are broken down, craving diminishes, defensiveness and rigidity lessen, you become more open, accepting and flexible. You learn to share your loving-kindness.
Traditionally, Buddhists are reluctant to talk about the ultimate nature of human beings. But those who are willing to make descriptive statements at all usually say that our ultimate essence or Buddha nature is pure, holy and inherently good. The only reason that human beings appear otherwise is that their experience of that ultimate essence has been hindered; it has been blocked like water behind a dam. The hindrances are the bricks of which the dam is built. As mindfulness dissolves the bricks, holes are punched in the dam and compassion and sympathetic joy come flooding forward. As meditative mindfulness develops, your whole experience of life changes. Your experience of being alive, the very sensation of being conscious, becomes lucid and precise, no longer just an unnoticed background for your preoccupations. It becomes a thing consistently perceived.
Each passing moment stands out as itself; the moments no longer blend together in an unnoticed blur. Nothing is glossed over or taken for granted, no experiences labeled as merely ‘ordinary’. Everything looks bright and special. You refrain from categorizing your experiences into mental pigeonholes. Descriptions and interpretations are chucked aside and each moment of time is allowed to speak for itself. You actually listen to what it has to say, and you listen as if it were being heard for the very first time. When your meditation becomes really powerful, it also becomes constant. You consistently observe with bare attention both the breath and every mental phenomenon. You feel increasingly stable, increasingly moored in the stark and simple experience of moment-to-moment existence.
Once your mind is free from thought, it becomes clearly wakeful and at rest in an utterly simple awareness. This awareness cannot be described adequately. Words are not enough. It can only be experienced. Breath ceases to be just breath; it is no longer limited to the static and familiar concept you once held. You no longer see it as a succession of just inhalations and exhalations; it is no longer some insignificant monotonous experience. Breath becomes a living, changing process, something alive and fascinating. It is no longer something that takes place in time; it is perceived as the present moment itself. Time is seen as a concept, not an experienced reality.
This is simplified, rudimentary awareness which is stripped of all extraneous detail. It is grounded in a living flow of the present, and it is marked by a pronounced sense of reality. You know absolutely that this is real, more real than anything you have ever experienced. Once you have gained this perception with absolute certainty, you have a fresh vantage point, a new criterion against which to gauge all of your experience. After this perception, you see clearly those moments when you are participating in bare phenomena alone, and those moments when you are disturbing phenomena with mental attitudes. You watch yourself twisting reality with mental comments, with stale images and personal opinions. You know what you are doing, when you are doing it. You become increasingly sensitive to the ways in which you miss the true reality, and you gravitate towards the simple objective perspective which does not add to or subtract from what is. You become a very perceptive individual. From this vantage point, all is seen with clarity. The innumerable activities of mind and body stand out in glaring detail. You mindfully observe the incessant rise and fall of breath; you watch an endless stream of bodily sensations and movements; you scan a rapid succession of thoughts and feelings, and you sense the rhythm that echoes from the steady march of time. And in the midst of all this ceaseless movement, there is no watcher, there is only watching.
In this state of perception, nothing remains the same for two consecutive moments. Everything is seen to be in constant transformation. All things are born, all things grow old and die. There are no exceptions. You awaken to the unceasing changes of your own life. You look around and see everything in flux, everything, everything, everything. It is all rising and falling, intensifying and diminishing, coming into existence and passing away. All of life, every bit of it from the infinitesimal to the Indian Ocean, is in motion constantly. You perceive the universe as a great flowing river of experience. Your most cherished possessions are slipping away, and so is your very life. Yet this impermanence is no reason for grief. You stand there transfixed, staring at this incessant activity, and your response is wondrous joy. It’s all moving, dancing and full of life.
As you continue to observe these changes and you see how it all fits together, you become aware of the intimate connectedness of all mental, sensory and affective phenomena. You watch one thought leading to another, you see destruction giving rise to emotional reactions and feelings giving rise to more thoughts. Actions, thoughts, feelings, desires — you see all of them intimately linked together in a delicate fabric of cause and effect. You watch pleasurable experiences arise and fall and you see that they never last; you watch pain come uninvited and you watch yourself anxiously struggling to throw it off; you see yourself fail. It all happens over and over while you stand back quietly and just watch it all work.
Out of this living laboratory itself comes an inner and unassailable conclusion. You see that your life is marked by disappointment and frustration, and you clearly see the source. These reactions arise out of your own inability to get what you want, your fear of losing what you have already gained and your habit of never being satisfied with what you have. These are no longer theoretical concepts — you have seen these things for yourself and you know that they are real. You perceive your own fear, your own basic insecurity in the face of life and death. It is a profound tension that goes all the way down to the root of thought and makes all of life a struggle. You watch yourself anxiously groping about, fearfully grasping for something, anything, to hold onto in the midst of all these shifting sands, and you see that there is nothing to hold onto, nothing that doesn’t change.
You see the pain of loss and grief, you watch yourself being forced to adjust to painful developments day after day in your own ordinary existence. You witness the tensions and conflicts inherent in the very process of everyday living, and you see how superficial most of your concerns really are. You watch the progress of pain, sickness, old age and death. You learn to marvel that all these horrible things are not fearful at all. They are simply reality.
Through this intensive study of the negative aspects of your existence, you become deeply acquainted with dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of all existence. You begin to perceive dukkha at all levels of our human life, from the obvious down to the most subtle. You see the way suffering inevitably follows in the wake of clinging, as soon as you grasp anything, pain inevitably follows. Once you become fully acquainted with the whole dynamic of desire, you become sensitized to it. You see where it rises, when it rises and how it affects you. You watch it operate over and over, manifesting through every sense channel, taking control of the mind and making consciousness its slave.
In the midst of every pleasant experience, you watch your own craving and clinging take place. In the midst of unpleasant experiences, you watch a very powerful resistance take hold. You do not block these phenomena, you just watch them, you see them as the very stuff of human thought. You search for that thing you call ‘me’, but what you find is a physical body and how you have identified your sense of yourself with that bag of skin and bones. You search further and you find all manner of mental phenomena, such as emotions, thought patterns and opinions, and see how you identify the sense of yourself with each of them. You watch yourself becoming possessive, protective and defensive over these pitiful things and you see how crazy that is. You rummage furiously among these various items, constantly searching for yourself—physical matter, bodily sensations, feelings and emotions—it all keeps whirling round and round as you root through it, peering into every nook and cranny, endlessly hunting for ‘me’.
You find nothing. In all that collection of mental hardware in this endless stream of ever-shifting experience all you can find is innumerable impersonal processes which have been caused and conditioned by previous processes. There is no static self to be found; it is all process. You find thoughts but no thinker, you find emotions and desires, but nobody doing them. The house itself is empty. There is nobody home.
Your whole view of self changes at this point. You begin to look upon yourself as if you were a newspaper photograph. When viewed with the naked eyes, the photograph you see is a definite image. When viewed through a magnifying glass, it all breaks down into an intricate configuration of dots. Similarly, under the penetrating gaze of mindfulness, the feeling of self, an ‘I’ or ‘being’ anything, loses its solidity and dissolves. There comes a point in insight meditation where the three characteristics of existence—impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness— come rushing home with concept-searing force. You vividly experience the impermanence of life, the suffering nature of human existence, and the truth of no self. You experience these things so graphically that you suddenly awake to the utter futility of craving, grasping and resistance. In the clarity and purity of this profound moment, our consciousness is transformed. The entity of self evaporates. All that is left is an infinity of interrelated non-personal phenomena which are conditioned and ever changing. Craving is extinguished and a great burden is lifted. There remains only an effortless flow, without a trace of resistance or tension. There remains only peace, and blessed Nibbana, the uncreated, is realized.
[THIS BOOK ENDS HERE]
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (b. 1927) is a Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist monk. He is abbot of the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, US.
By Henepola Gunaratana
M. Smith, an Amazon reviewer, writes:
“Mindfulness in Plain English is one the very best books written as an introduction to mindfulness and Buddhist meditation. It is far more than simply in introduction to meditation. It is a masterfully explained ‘how to’ handbook, a nuts and bolts kind of map, that walks you through how to meditate and deal with the many typical obstacles which virtually all people deal with as they begin and progress. What sets this book apart from other leading books in this category, is that Bhante Gunaratana is from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, classicly trained and ordained in the form of practice he calls Vipassana, which places great emphasis on mindfulness. He explains, ‘Vipassana is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices. The method comes directly from the Satipatthana Sutta, a discourse attributed to the Buddha himself.’
“Bhante Gunaratana writes with a very engaging and relaxed style, which makes the book easy to follow and even humorous at times. He speaks with candor and right from the beginning he emphasizes that, ‘Meditation is not easy. It takes time and energy. It also takes grit, determination and discipline.’ But, then he goes on to emphasize that meditation should be rejuvenating and liberating, and in fact, that most seasoned practitioners have a good sense of humor, because the practice creates a calmness and relaxed perspective about life. The author’s explanations about key concepts is stated in a fresh manner, for instance explaining that the word ‘suffering’ in Buddhism needs to be thoroughly understood to realize that in the original Pali language it does not just mean agony of the body, but that it also means a sense of dissatisfaction that is typical of what all people deal with on a daily basis. He also emphasizes that Vipassana, unlike some other Buddhist traditions, ranks mindfulness and awareness right up beside concentration as a means to liberation. Thus a great part of the focus of meditation is a combination of concentration and mindfulness.”
This page was published on April 14, 2001 and last revised on June 10, 2017.