“…the Venerable Ananda said to the Blessed One, “Venerable sir, here a bikkhu is practicing thus: ‘It might not be, and it might not be mine; it will not be, and it will not be mine. What exists, what has come to be, that I am abandoning.’ Thus he obtains equanimity. Venerable sir, does such a bhikkhu attain Nibbana?”
— From The Island
I’ve been reading The Island by Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro and I’ve learned so much. The passage above was found in a section of the book that discusses stream entry and this section is talking about non-attachment to various states (the Buddha goes on to answer Ananda by saying that the monk who gains equanimity by this method may attain Nibbana IF they don’t get attached to the state of equanimity!). I found three or four variations of this “practice” in that chapter and it got me thinking — what an interesting version of “Neti-Neti” and if a ‘bikkhu [was] practicing thus’ perhaps this set of phrases could be used to push deeper into the states of mind that arise in meditation (see the recent post – Going Beyond Apparent Stillness).
I decided to give this meditation a try. I sat on the cushion and settled in. I started with the basic breathing meditation as found in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: focussing on the breath and noting ‘breathing in short’, ‘breathing out short’, ‘breathing in long, breathing out long’, ‘breathing in mindful of the entire body’, etc. until I felt quite steady and grounded. And then I began…
“It might not be, and it might not be mine; it will not be and it will not be mine…” At first the “might not” didn’t seem right. I could intellectually understand the “will not” because all things are impermanent, so whatever is arising in experience eventually will cease to be and saying “… it will not be, it will not be mine” is a simple direct reminder of this — so what’s up with the “might not”? I didn’t trouble myself too much with it, but simply continued on. *
“What exists, what has come to be, that I am abandoning.” Now if there ever was a powerful phrase, pointing at absolute release — this might be it. I’d put it right up there with “Gate, gate! Paragate! Parasamgate, Bodhisvaha!” from the Heart Sutta or “From the first, not a thing is” which was Hei Neng’s first teaching. When using this phrase, the object of attention – whatever is arising – is noticed; is identified as having ‘come to be'; and is released. Several things stood out for me in this simple formula: one is that it can be applied to literally anything including internal processes and states that are otherwise hard to work with, another is that it contains the seeds for showing us that anything that has arisen is based on conditions (I started including the phrase “…due to causes and conditions” in my mind), and the final important step is the release that is not a judgement or rejection, it is an open handed letting go — a non-clinging: abandonment.
So how did it work out? It was like peeling an onion… with a machete! As I mentioned, I’d already taken some time to settle the mind so the body was still and without obvious pain or tension. The focus was on the breath and thoughts. The thinking mind became the first target for the practice at hand. Any mental formation was greeted with “It will not be, it will not be mine. What exists, what has come to be, that I am abandoning.”
The thinking mind is conditioned upon having a body and a brain – impermanent conditions. This thinking mind will not always be mine. It is unreliable as an ultimate refuge. I hold the intention [here on the cushion, in the safety of my practice at least…] to abandon it. Now, this didn’t just turn off my mind like a switch. It was a process of working with the thoughts, seeing them as thoughts, seeing them as dependent, conditioned and impermanent, and then allowing myself to be less attached to them. Allowing myself to imagine them as ‘other’, as ‘not mine’ and imaging a time when the conditions will not be present to support those thoughts. That day will come. What then?? Why not find out now? Giving oneself the permission to ‘abandon’ that which arises is the action-item. It allows for not only the idea of release, but the actual releasing.
Releasing the verbal thoughts didn’t extinguish them all together. But it did quiet them for the most part, leaving me sitting, focussed on the breath, quietly aware and concentrating. The next up was a sense of “seeing” or “looking” within the mind. I have a sense that when I’m focussed on thoughts or sensations or just about anything, that awareness is a kind of “looking at” with a directional attribute, or a sense of I’m-here-focused-on-that-there. This directional attention was the next to meet the phrases. I had similar results – not a complete abandonment of this sense of looking, but at least some exploration around loosening my grip on it, my identification with it. Imagining it’s cessation and seeing what remains. Consciousness itself. I become aware of being conscious. “This may not be, this may not be mine. This will not be, this will not be mine. That which exists, that which has come to be, that I am abandoning.. ” And so it was that I began to explore the cessation of consciousness itself. Would I pass out? Would I die? What lies beyond consciousness?
Consciousness is one of the five aggregates that compose an individual. It is on the list with Form, Perception, Feeling, and Mental Formations. It is one of the things to be ‘seen through’ or realized as impermanent and empty of self. Once upon a time, my insight into mindfulness of the present moment and the cessation of thought (or getting out of my own way) had me thinking that pure consciousness was equivalent to Buddhanature. I later discovered that consciousness, even if it is perfectly present in the moment, is still something to which clinging brings suffering – it is something that ultimately needs to be released. Why hold onto something, identify with something, identify AS something that is surely going to cease? And, what happens if you DO let it go?
There is a zen saying, “Die while alive and be completely dead. Then do whatever you will, all is good!” Perhaps this peeling of the onion all the way down to zero is what they meant. So, here I was… abandoning consciousness… abandoning “this life”, which is also conditioned, limited, impermanent, right? This whole life. Being un-attached to this very life.. that’s pretty huge. So what happened when I applied the phrases to consciousness itself and this life-as-I-know-it? A lot of focus, concentration and a bit of brightening – the kind of brightening akin to a light or glowing in the mind. The word, “radiance” comes to mind, but that would be overstating the experience a bit.. but then again, it was my first time playing with these phrases. Maybe I was onto something.
Getting up from the cushion, I felt as if I’d seen the true nature of impermanence. I had an insight into impermanence. That radiant glow stayed with me, if only as a memory and reminder of something that was beyond ‘this life’ and perhaps pointed to something beyond the cycle of life and death itself.
Now, this may sound unbelievably grandiose for a blog post, but after all– isn’t this what we see written in the sutras? Isn’t the clinging to the five aggregates the very thing that keeps us stuck to the wheel of becoming, the cycle of life and death? Isn’t this practice of buddhism meant to wake us up to this clinging.. to make us see the attachments clearly.. to get us to realize the implications of the attachments and to LET GO? The buddha says that all he taught was suffering and the end of suffering – liberation. Putting the buddha’s methods into practice, sincerely and persistently, and practicing letting go very explicitly — why be surprised when insights arise that point to the nature of liberation and freedom?
* I still don’t have a clear understanding of the “might not” phrases. On one hand, they question the existence of the phenomena at hand in the present tense, so that makes them different and potentially more powerful than the “will not” phrases. It may very well be that I simply haven’t penetrated the deeper meaning — perhaps I’m still approaching it intellectually and haven’t yet had the insight necessary to fully grasp the meaning.