Sacred geometry

Talk Five: Samatha, Nibbana and the Emptiness of Perception - The Relationship Between Concentration and Insight

As we learn to develop concentration in meditation, samatha (calm, tranquility) is also developed, and together these qualities become a powerful means for deep insight and a source of profound well-being. This progressive series of talks, guided meditations and instructions explores in some detail the art of concentration, primarily through different ways of working with the breath and the body to open to deeper and deeper levels of calmness, presence and joy.
Date12th August 2008
Retreat/SeriesThe Art of Concentration (Samatha Med...


Two evenings ago, I spoke, as part of the talk, about the inner critic. I'm quite aware, and maybe you are, too, that just because one devoted a quarter of a talk to it one evening doesn't mean that it's going to disappear. So oftentimes that's a structure that's been around a long, long time. Decades, maybe. A retreat like this can bring it up, and sometimes certain talks can bring it up. We can find the inner critic very alive, very well, very healthy, doing its job with impeccable aplomb, and it's really there. I know that, for some of you, with the talk last night, it brought it up. I know that for some of you just engaging in this kind of practice brings it up. Perhaps some of what I say tonight, again, it will meet that place, or it will be around. Can that just be okay? Can it just be okay that it's around? There it is, doing its thing, doing its thing very well, and it's just part of what's going on. It's just okay that it's there. Perhaps another part of the being is listening, and is perhaps hearing some truth in what's being said. And it's just okay. It's just okay that the inner critic is there. Some part may be listening and shelving pieces for later. Some of what I say tonight is not in the realm of experience of actually anyone who is listening, and that's okay. I'm putting it out there partly because I want people who are interested to know what's available. I think that's important. And partly because there's actually a thread of one insight -- one insight that has a thread from the most mundane, everyday, obvious thing, all the way to final liberation. I kind of want to draw that thread out.

[2:56] What I actually want to talk about tonight is the relationship of samatha and insight, the relationship of concentration and insight. Now, usually, or for the most part, the most common thing that we hear about this relationship is that concentration, samatha, calming the mind, is a kind of preparation for insight. So you spend some time, a little time, or a lot of time, calming the mind, concentrating the mind, and then you take that mind that's more calm, that's more clear because of that calmness and that concentration, and you start applying it to insight meditation, applying it to trying to notice everything that's going on in one's life and experience, and understand that experience. The calmness and the clarity are what prepares and enables the insight. That's absolutely true, and it's fine, no problem with that.

But there's actually much, much more to it than that. This is what I want to go into. Not only is it a preparation, but one finds that a mind of calm, a mind of some degree of samādhi, is like the best soil for the seeds of insight to take root in. Some of you have been on retreat before, and you're on retreat and you notice -- you have some insight about a personal difficulty, a personal pattern, a personality pattern, or a more impersonal insight like impermanence or whatever. And it seems so clear: "Aha! Got it. I've got it now." And then the retreat ends, and one goes home, and sometimes it stays, but sometimes it just -- "What happened to that insight?" We seem to have lost access to it, or it has lost its power to actually feel like it changes our life in any way. One of the incredibly important and potent things about samādhi practice is that it nourishes the soil, in a way, so that seed of insight can actually really grow and take root really deeply in the being, in a way that insights really begin to change the heart and the life of a person. And those insights stay. They stay in a way that's accessible.

[5:39] Some of the relationship between concentration and insight I've already touched on, so I'll just briefly go through them again.

(1) Confidence. We talked about that at some point, that slowly, slowly with samādhi, we get a sense of confidence in ourselves, in our capacity to be happy and to feel well, and a confidence in our practice. That comes slowly. That's an indispensable part of insight: I know that I can be happy without whatever.

(2) As I also said before, it gives us leverage to let go of perhaps what isn't that helpful to be attached to. There's a real sense that we have some place from which we can kind of pry open or pry loose many of our attachments. Really, really important.

(3) Faith comes. I mentioned that last night. Slowly, slowly, faith comes -- in the teachings, in the path -- that they really do lead where they're supposed to lead. A juice comes into the practice, a sense of juice, a sense of well-being that's incredibly nourishing for the journey, for the path.

(4) Over time, with samādhi practice, the mind also loses its infatuation with what's called papañca, this kind of addiction to complicating everything and building huge difficulties and complications around things. The mind just begins to be less and less interested and infatuated with that process.

(5) More contentment comes into the life, gradually. All this is part of what I would call a larger aspect of insight -- 'insight' being that which frees.

(6) More able and willing to explore renunciation and the impacts that has, as I touched in the opening talk, on climate change, etc., and all that.

(7) There's an easier understanding of all this Buddhist teaching about not-self, anattā, which can seem so mysterious. That actually begins to come clear through the samatha practice itself. We begin to experience times, moments, periods, when the self is very much in abeyance, very much less built up and less strong. This is something I'm going to come back to in this talk.

(8) The mind also gets very malleable over time. We're able to use the mind in a lot of different creative ways, particularly in meditation. We talk about insight meditation, but it's actually not one technique -- it's a whole range of approaches. The mind just gets able to approach in different ways, and to manoeuvre in different ways, to be used in different ways.

(9) And, this I'll also go into, slowly, slowly, as the samādhi deepens, we actually -- something in the being is more open to hearing about what the Buddha talked about when he talked about cessation, and cessation of the world, or going beyond the world, which can sound so abstract and unappealing. There's something in there that we're actually more able to hear that.

[9:05] That was sort of a little review. What I mostly want to explore tonight is what we touched on this morning: the nature of perception. There's something about perception and samādhi which is really, really key, and understanding the way the mind, first of all, builds problems. We build problems, and following that, even more thoroughly, more deeply, we actually build everything. I'm going to go into this. There's something about samādhi and understanding this building process. When the Buddha was enlightened, he uttered a spontaneous poem. I can't remember it exactly, but he basically says, "Housebuilder, you've been seen." Some of you will recognize, "Housebuilder, you've been seen. Your ridgepole has been shattered, your rafters scattered," or something.[1] He's seen completely through this building process, and that's how he described his awakening: I understand all this building that we human beings do. I understand it in a way that I can actually put it down. So that's this thread of insight that I was talking about. It goes from the most, in a way, obvious, mundane, all the way to awakening. It's one thread.

So, we're in our day, wherever we are. We find ourselves in a bad mood, or we are anywhere -- here on a meditation retreat, or anywhere -- and there's physical pain, arising from whatever cause. Or we are perceiving another person, either someone that we know or someone that we don't know, and we're perceiving them in a -- "They're a really terrible person. They're really stupid. They're really this or that." We're perceiving them in a certain way. The Dharma question, "How am I compounding that perception?" -- this ends up being one of the deepest Dharma questions. How am I compounding, first of all, this suffering, and secondly, this perception? I have a pain in the body; there's a number of Dharma questions that are really important. The first one is more basic. It's "Am I aware of it?" I'm in a bad mood. Do I know I'm in a bad mood? Or am I just kind of subjecting those around me to it and myself to it? Am I aware of it? Can I be with it? That's part of the first Dharma question. "Am I aware of it, and can I open to it?" But the second Dharma question, "How am I compounding it?" Or, better put, "How is the mind compounding it? How is the mind building it and adding to it?" This question, pursued, takes one all the way to complete awakening. That's the question that needs to be answered.

[12:10] So when we come to samatha -- some of you are beginning to get an inkling of this already -- we see that in the samatha process*,* what the mind is doing is it's actually not building, or it's building less. It's building less problem. It's building less, generally. People have pointed this out in groups -- there's something actually authentic about that. When we build things up, there's something a little inauthentic about that. I'm sort of building up some view or some perception of another person or perception of myself or perception of a situation. It's actually inauthentic. There's something very authentic about not building, not engaging in that process. You could say samatha is an act of not building, or the non-action of building. We're in a relationship with a partner, friend, spouse, mother, child, whatever, and we blow up about something. How often, afterwards -- we get in such a tangle with the person, and in oneself in relation to what's going on -- and then a little time goes by, and afterwards you think, "Was that even really necessary, what just happened between us? The way I got my knickers in a twist about all that? Was that even really real?" Do you ever have that experience?

Some years ago, a work retreatant was describing a difficulty. I can't actually remember what it was precisely, but a difficulty. There was a lot of stuff, a lot of agitation around with the difficulty. She would also experience periods of calm. So I suggested to her at one time, "When there's the calmness, when there's relative samatha there, how about dropping in some thoughts about the difficulty? Just deliberately bringing it up and dropping it in like little pebbles into this pond of calm, and seeing what happens. And perhaps there can be some clarity from the calmness to actually seeing one's way in this difficulty more." But what happened was she came back and said, "When I thought about it, when I dropped it in, nothing happened." Nothing happened. Dropped the pebble in, hardly any ripples. Certainly no big tsunami. What's going on here? Is there something that's not present in a state of samatha which actually is needed to build a problem and build some agitation? Unless we go in and out of that experience and see this over and over, it will just remain theory. We need to see it and feel it for ourselves and go, "Okay, something is going on here." People have reported in the groups that they're beginning to get a sense that the samatha is not a denial of our emotions. And it's not a turning away from or running away from. Someone was saying, beginning to get a glimpse, "Oh, this emotional difficulty -- it's that I'm just not feeding it somehow with my attention when I'm with the samatha." It's a different understanding of what's going on. It's not clear at first. It takes time for this to reveal itself, to become clear.

[15:49] As the samatha deepens, as the samādhi deepens -- I think I mentioned this -- the sense of the self gets kind of weaker. The self -- we take it so for granted, "This is my self, and this is who I am, this is my story," etc. As one goes more and more into samādhi, we realize that whole structure of self just quietens. It's like the house just gets smaller or something, less built up. We're not building up the self and the self-definition. The whole big story and problem of the self is not being built up so much, as the samādhi deepens. That's something that's actually happening as the samādhi deepens.

Another thing that's happening is that, you could say, the world is not so built up. There's a kind of fading of what we might call 'the world' -- 'the world' meaning the world of our experience, this -- everything that we see, our emotions, inner and outer world actually gets quieter. The self and the world begin to fade a little bit. That's an inherent factor of samādhi; it's one way of describing what samādhi is, in fact. And then there's a lot of insight in this, as this happens, to whatever degree -- even just a little bit, or a lot, or a tremendous amount, whatever. Who am I when I'm not spinning the story? Who am I then? Who am I when I'm not thinking, when it goes that deep? Who am I when even the body has dissolved? I tend to identify with this body, and with this story, and with my emotional content and my thoughts, but who am I when all that gets quiet, and then it comes back, and then it gets quiet again, and then it comes back, and it gets quiet? What's real? Who is the real me -- the quiet one or the noisy one?

[17:58] And people have touched on this too: even as the self gets a little bit quiet, we jettison a little bit of our story structure and the kind of things that define us, there can be fear there. We're losing our familiar bearings, our familiar scaffolding which holds our sense of identity and reality in place. There can be fear there. I said at one point that it's a kind of acquired taste. One really gets to feel comfortable and reassured and safe and trusting in this fading. That's gradual. One can go at the pace that one wants and ease into it and really be okay with that. But the fear is pretty common as part of that process. We need to understand this -- at a certain point, there's actually more to samādhi than the nice feeling and feeling a bit calm, which is great and really nourishing and everything, and I've been emphasizing that, but we need to understand something much deeper that has to do with insight. We need to understand this connection. Sometimes the self is like this, big and noisy and uglglggh, a raging ogre of whatever. And sometimes the self is very, very refined, and very quiet, or just normal, and sometimes it's barely there at all -- and also the world, the world of our experience. We need to understand this, and understand the building process -- what the Buddha calls "dependent origination." That's wrapped up with our experience and understanding of samatha.

When the Buddha described the jhānas -- I talked about the jhānas last night -- he used a very, at first it's a very odd-sounding phrase, but he said, "These are perception attainments."[2] At first that sounds like, "Why is he calling it that? Why doesn't he call it 'capacities of consciousness' or 'far-out states' that you can get into or whatever?" He's very, again, very precise -- perception attainments. This is what I want to really explore in the talk. Going back to a little bit what I said last night with the jhānas, the first jhāna -- and even this comfortable feeling we're beginning to have, suffusing and spreading that comfortable feeling a little bit in the body -- the usual sense of the body that we have, the usual experience of the body, which is "Here I have toes, and they're very sharply defined, and I end here," etc. -- that all begins to get a little more amorphous, a little more open, fluid, less defined. And the body, the experience of the body comes to be this pleasant feeling. My perception of the body becomes a pleasant feeling. And then, as the jhānas deepen, my perception actually of the body still becomes happiness. It's almost as if the body has become happiness, and then the body has become peacefulness, and the body has become stillness. They're increasingly refined perceptions of the body. Again, this actually takes quite a lot of doing it to see what's going on -- it's not an obvious way of looking at it at first. This is, again, one of the strokes of genius of the Buddha; sometimes it's just completely unbelievable, radically different insight.

[21:35] Very briefly -- the fourth jhāna is actually not the end of the story. There are actually four more, some of you know, very briefly described. Fourth jhāna, nothing but stillness there. The body is kind of dissolved in the stillness. Very, very refined sense of the body. That also can begin to get even more refined, until all that's left is space. There's no perception of solidity anywhere -- not here or out there. Even if one has one's eyes open, does it with eyes open, it's like you're not really perceiving any solidity or forms anywhere. It's called "the realm of infinite space." That's really all there is -- one is absorbed and kind of dissolved in that infinite space. Tremendous sense of freedom in it, also a very mystical sense of oneness.

I'm just going to go very briefly through these. That deepens again, and one passes beyond the space, and all there is is an infinitely pervading consciousness. So some of this is really on the edge of what we, without a lot of meditation experience, what one might be able to imagine. There's nothing but consciousness. Nothing but consciousness, just knowing. An incredibly beautiful, mystical experience. Even that deepens, and the consciousness fades, and there's nothing but a sense of nothingness. One is just -- it's the realm of nothingness. One is just totally struck and kind of dissolved in nothingness. There's just nothingness. That's the seventh one. Even that one -- it goes beyond even that, and enters the realm of what's called "neither perception nor non-perception." This is really on the edge of language. When there's nothing, the mind is still perceiving a sense of nothing. It's very extremely refined, extremely subtle. There's not even a sense of perceiving movements of mind or any factors of mind or anything like that. Then one's gone to the edge of perception; it's like the mind isn't making anything or nothing at that point. It's almost just the most possible refined thing, and one is, in a way, struck by this inability of the mind to -- you know, "Is it a perception, or is it not a perception?" Incredibly refined.

[24:11] Just briefly as well -- in the fifth jhāna, there's a really mystical sense of oneness. There's a kind of -- all the physicality in the universe is kind of one substance. One really sees that in one's heart in a very deep way. In the sixth jhāna, infinite consciousness, it's all one mind. So all this, all this stuff, is kind of just the play of one mind. That becomes a very real, almost palpable perception. These are, if one repeats them, incredibly, deeply transforming, long-term.

Now, all samādhi, and all jhānas -- whether it's jhāna or not, all samādhi is a kind of relief and release. When there's samādhi, we've actually been released from something. There's a kind of relief at that release. There's a relief, even if one's a little bit scared at first, one gets used to it, and there's a relief at letting go of the story. There's a relief at letting go of the agitation. There's a relief at letting go of the hindrances. When one has completely let go of the hindrances, that's also the first jhāna, but the Buddha also talked about them as stages of release and relief. That's true of even non-jhānic samādhi. There's a real spectrum here: relief and release, and with that, a sense of freedom. So again, this isn't something one picks up on at first, but in one's state of calm, on this retreat, even, when it feels calm, just having a look sometimes -- is there not also a little bit of a sense of freedom there? One's actually been freed from something and released from something.

If we talk about the jhānas, in each state, something fades. Something fades from awareness. So the hindrances fade first. And then, in the second jhāna, thought fades. In the third jhāna, rapture fades. Before, even pre-jhānic, like I said, the story has begun to fade, etc., emotional agitation has begun to fade. There's just a kind of gentle continuum of things fading. Once you've got to, say, the fifth jhāna, the infinite space, what's faded is materiality, solidity, form. And one keeps going until, in the nothingness for instance, thingness -- the thingness of things -- has faded from experience. One no longer is perceiving things. One no longer is in a world of things. That's gone. Which is wonderful. But there's also insight there.

Again, please see this all as a continuum. I am talking about the jhānic level of things, but it's also operating just at a level of more relative, everyday calm. There's insight here, and there's a kind of freedom that happens afterwards, with time, that comes from that insight. One begins to see, on a retreat like this, or in one's practice, hindrances. And then they go, and there's calmness. Then there's hindrances, and then there's calmness. One learns, over time, somehow, like I said when I was talking about them, they're not that believable. They're not kind of, somehow, that real. One begins to get a sense, for instance, that that negative emotion, that pain in the body, even, that doesn't actually have to be there. It doesn't have to be there. One is moving in and out of a negative agitation, say, or hindrance, or whatever, or physical pain. Moving in and out, an insight begins to drop: that actually doesn't have to be there. It doesn't have to be there. It's not actually a given. It's not something that's an independent reality. One begins to get a sense how the mind is actually fabricating it, how it's actually fabricating emotional difficulty, hindrances, even physical pain. How it's actually fabricating, as one goes deeper and deeper into this, solidity, thingness, etc. All of that. One begins to get a sense that it's actually fabricated.

[28:56] There are also, with samatha -- and I'm not sure, perhaps you might have even noticed a little bit so far -- but certainly as one goes into the jhānas, etc., there are kind of after-images of jhānic states, sometimes. Let's take the peacefulness of the third jhāna, or it could be just the calmness that one's in now. One goes into that state, and one emerges, and then one goes for a walk or a cup of tea or a wander on the front lawn or whatever it is. It begins -- sometimes it seems as if that peacefulness is imbued in the universe. It's almost as if the actual reality of the universe is peacefulness. It washes over everything. Everything speaks of peacefulness -- I think I said that last night. One goes in and out of this, in and out, in and out, in and out, and soon -- or at some point -- our notions of reality begin to get questioned. How is the world? Is it peaceful or is it not? What is actually the reality here? Similarly with, let's say, taking it even deeper, the space -- one goes in and out of perceiving a sense of solidity and not perceiving a sense of solidity so much that it undermines one's given and unquestioned assumption in the solidity of things. One has gone in and out so much that that perception begins to be undermined. In Dharma language we say the perception is "empty." It's not actually a real thing. It's empty. I perceive the solidity, and of course it's real on one level, but one begins to see it's something the mind is actually giving to experience. This takes time. It takes a lot of doing samādhi and other practices and a lot of kind of going in and out.

Please remember, it's one thread of insight I'm talking about. I'm ping-ponging from different levels and depths, but I'm talking about one thread, from the everyday, most common, all the way to the deepest. It takes time to absorb this. It takes time to realize its significance as well. At first it seems like, "Well, okay, sure." And I'm not sure even now as you're listening, maybe you're, "Yeah, I can kind of see that, okay." I really don't know. But maybe. And it would certainly be possible that a person listens that way. It takes time to realize: this is of massive, massive, massive significance.

[31:37] There was another work retreatant a while ago. She was doing some samatha practice as part of her work retreat, and she was beginning to experience some well-being in the body, and being able to spread that, etc. Then she sat a group weekend retreat, and she was sitting, and there was leg pain. She got into some real knee pain or in her hip or something. They were doing a different kind of practice, and then suddenly in the middle of a sitting she remembered what she'd been doing with the well-being and spreading it. She just started to remember the well-being -- just to remember it -- and then the leg pain went. What replaced it was a sense of well-being. She was enjoying that. But then she thought, "Am I cheating?" "I'm not being with what is," is what she came and told me. "I'm not being with what is." This notion of being with what is, being with things as they are, is such a central one in the Dharma, but as I'm sure I've said already on this retreat, there's actually much more to it than that. There's much more than meets the eye here. So she could have said, "Well, you know, things are impermanent." That's what we hear all the time, isn't it? Things change, so, sure, there was leg pain, and then it changed, and I had an insight into impermanence; I saw that things change.

But actually something else was going on, and it was, I would say, a much deeper potential insight than the insight into change. Sure, things change, and it's important to see that, and that's a very important level of insight meditation. But the more important insight is that our perceptions are what the Buddha calls "dependent arisings." They depend -- what we perceive in the body, out there, in our minds, in so-called reality -- depends on our mind state. It depends on factors in the mind. That's actually a potentially extremely deep insight, and in a way, a lot more significant than the insight into change, which is still important of course.

[33:46] So any thing, external, so-called, or internal, any pain even -- physical, mental, emotional, whatever it is -- the Tibetans have a way of saying that emptiness means it doesn't exist from its own side.[3] It takes the mind to kind of see it one way or another. It doesn't exist from its own side. It's empty. The perception is empty. We talked about this, this work retreatant and myself, and she was kind of like, "Whoa! I don't know if I'm ready for that." And it was interesting, and I probably just left it or whatever. She was here for quite a while. It was interesting just to notice how, over time, she would forget that. I would prod her a little bit, or she would remember by herself, and she would forget it again. She would forget its significance, and remember it, and forget it. Her initial reaction was, "I don't know if I'm ready to go near that kind of questioning of reality." But even then it was like, this forgetting -- my point is that it actually takes time. It may sound like, "Hmm, there's not much ... Okay, all right," or "It's just too weird," or something. It takes a lot of time to absorb this and to actually realize its significance.

So at first, samatha (concentration, calmness) and vipassanā (insight meditation) seem like two different things. I know for some of you who have done insight meditation before, you come on a retreat like this and one thinks, "Wow, I'm really doing something different now." As it goes deeper, we begin to see that the samatha feeds the vipassanā. The samatha feeds the insight, and the insight actually feeds the calmness, feeds the concentration. They're mutually reinforcing, and actually they begin to blend into each other. They only seem different at first. One of the ways I particularly like to sort of describe insight meditation is that what insight meditation is is actually learning, or developing -- put it this way -- developing ways of looking that bring letting go, or developing ways of letting go, or developing ways of looking that bring freedom. To me that's what insight meditation is, more than a kind of 'just being with what is,' although of course that can be part of it.

[36:26] This morning, one of the things I dropped out there was, "Here's some unpleasantness. Here's some pain in the body, some pain. What happens if I notice my reaction to it and I begin to work with just relaxing that aversion?" When there's unpleasantness, there's going to be aversion. What happens when I relax that aversion? One of the things that happens is the suffering begins to drain out of the experience. But another thing that begins to happen is the mind calms down. Samatha comes. Another thing that's part of that samatha, wrapped up in that samatha, that can happen, is the unpleasantness begins to fade. The actual unpleasantness begins to get less unpleasant. If I take as one of my insight meditations or ways of looking, I'm just contemplating the impermanence -- "I'm looking and seeing change, over and over, change, change, change. I'm only interested in seeing change" -- that, too, should actually and does lead to samatha. There's a calming of the mind when one does that. There is a letting go, and correspondingly, there's a kind of quietening of what was difficult, a change in the perception.

I'm running through these very quickly and just throwing out possibilities, but another one is regarding things as 'not me or mine.' They're 'not my self.' So something comes up and -- someone was saying in an interview today, "Oh, it's just that character again. It's just that voice in my head. It's almost like seeing it's not me, it's not mine." Well, you can do that with everything. You can do that with body sensations, thoughts, mind states, moods, the whole spectrum of experience -- it's just 'not me, not mine.' It's just something that's passing through. It's just something that's happening. Again, as one does that, there's a calming, and there's a change in the perception of things. They actually begin to fade a little bit.

[38:40] So if we think about what is it that builds experience, and particularly builds suffering, well, let's go back to a more -- again, I said ping-ponging different levels now -- let's go back to a more mundane level. How often do I rope my story in or start cycling my story, the story of my life and my future and my past, in a way that's actually compounding and building suffering? How often does that happen? Are you familiar with doing that? Or identification. It's like, when I, "This is a leg pain, and it's my leg pain, and I bet no one else has leg pain here." Somehow the self is identified with it, and that process of identification builds. It builds the experience, and it builds the suffering. Again, if I'm reacting to something, if I'm aversive to what's unpleasant, it's building the experience and building the suffering. And these kind of factors can be woven so subtly -- in fact, they are woven so subtly -- in our attention. Sometimes we can feel, "I'm just being mindful of this pain. I'm just being with my emotion of grief. I'm just being with my fear." But there are factors that are hidden, wrapped up in attention, that are actually exacerbating, compounding, building the thing. One of the agendas of insight meditation is to begin seeing what they are, and being able to let go of them.

I threw out another funny one this morning. I don't know if anyone picked it up or not. This business of dicing tofu and carrots -- did anyone try that? Okay. You may have found -- I don't know -- you may have found it actually had quite an impact. I don't know. Of course, one could be coming out of aversion, but the mind -- one begins to see, if I dice it up in the mind, actually, the solidity, the sense of this pain being lodged in the shoulder or whatever it is, it can actually just free up, and suddenly it's not there, or it just dissolves a little bit. What's happening? The mind is making something solid. The mind is glomming something together; it's gluing something together. That's one way of defining what a mind is -- minds are what glom things together. That's what minds do. The thing is, we don't realize it. We think the mind is here receiving experience. The mind is actually fabricating -- this is the Buddha's words -- 'fabricating' experience and 'concocting' experience by glomming things together. [laughter] I'm not sure why it's funny, but anyway. It's not an English word [glomming]? Gluing things together, sticking things together, fabricating things, building things, sticking bits of plasticine. That's what -- 'glomming' is really a plasticine word. Do you have plasticine? Hard word. Okay. Sticking bits of plasticine together -- that's what the mind does. We take what it then perceives as a reality. Inner or outer, we take it as a reality. One can see, as one does that, dices things up, samādhi can come. And again the perception changes.

[42:41] Or things I've thrown out, again, in the retreat -- just staying with the pleasant, staying with the pleasant, not getting pulled in with the attention to the unpleasant. Here's another one -- can't actually remember if I said it -- you've got an area where it's either unpleasant or actually you're not really sure what it is. But something is going on there in the body. Something is going on, and you're kind of looking -- someone actually shared this in a group -- something is going on. You're looking at it. Is it pleasant, or is it unpleasant? And in a way, one way of seeing that is that there are different frequencies going on at the same time. There's a kind of pleasant frequency and an unpleasant, and they're kind of mixed. One can develop the skill, develop the art, of fine-tuning the radio tuner, and tuning in on the pleasant. What happens? This perception that was sitting on the fence of pleasant or unpleasant actually goes into the pleasant. Or, sometimes, if you really develop this skill, even when it's unpleasant you can begin to see something as pleasant. There's something about attention and perception, that actually attention is building things. The mind attending to things is actually gluing, glomming, things together.

Just briefly: if one holds that reflection in one's mind, over and over, and just keeps looking at things, and kind of saying, "You're glommed together. You're glommed together. You don't really -- you're something that my mind is putting together." Or, you could shorthand that and just say, "You're empty. You're empty. You're empty." That's an insight way of working. It's a very deep insight way of working. What happens is the mind ends up perceiving no thing, nothing, and ends up in the seventh jhāna. One could go further and say, "It's just a perception. It's just a perception." Even the perception of nothingness is just a perception. And then one will, again, using an insight way of working, end up in neither perception nor non-perception. Samatha feeds insight, and insight feeds samatha. They're actually inextricably linked, inextricably woven together.

[45:09] So the Buddha has this word nibbāna. In Sanskrit, nirvāṇa. He said that's the goal of the path, that's why we're practising -- the end of suffering. One of his descriptions of nibbāna is sabbasaṅkhārasamatha, which the translation means "all fabricated things calmed," the calming, the quieting, of all fabricated things. In a way -- again, it takes a lot of -- I'm sort of explaining, pointing at a direction here that it takes a lot of samatha to actually begin to see this -- there's something that starts with just coming back to the breath, letting go of the story, letting go of the story. One's actually fabricating less, in a process that just -- fabricating less, fabricating less, and things and the self and the world get quieter and quieter, and as we go through the jhānas, etc., things and the world and the self are getting quieter and quieter, all the way to the neither perception nor non-perception, and then even more, to sabbasaṅkhārasamatha, to nibbāna, to what the Buddha calls the cessation of perception. He says, "That dimension should be known where vision stops and the perception of form fades, where hearing stops ..." Everything of our six senses -- internal mental perceptions as well -- that fades, and one is not fabricating any perceptions any more.[4] He calls this nibbāna, or the Deathless, the Unconditioned, the Unfabricated. And he says:

There, I declare, is no coming, no going, no stopping, no passing away, and no arising. It is not established. It is without foundation. It continues not. [It doesn't even exist in time.] It has no object. It is without support. This indeed is the end of suffering.[5]

[47:31] One has gone completely beyond the realm of what the conventional mind can know, to the Unfabricated. Or you could say that the mind is not fabricating -- and at that point it's not even fabricating itself, because mind is also something fabricated. Sometimes the Buddha described this as "awareness without an object." Awareness has gone beyond kind of seeing anything at all or making any object at all, even an object of nothing or nothingness.[6] The Buddha says this is complete release. The awareness has been completely released from having to grasp on or hold on to objects.

Building turns out to be absolutely inherent, an inherent part of perception. It's inherent in perception. There's something incredibly radical here. When the Buddha had his awakening, it was something so radical, what he awoke to and what we can awaken to as human beings. As human beings, we can awaken to that. There are, in a way, there are worlds of experience, and one begins to see, "I can fabricate, or I do fabricate worlds. I can fabricate a nightmare world. I can involve my story and my pain and the way I see things, and I build that up. I fabricate a world that is a nightmare. I can fabricate the everyday, conventional world that everyone would agree on. And I can fabricate less and less." In a way, the jhānas are still fabricated, but they're less fabricated. In a way, the jhānas and these realms of infinite space, etc., are fabricated worlds, but they're less fabricated. One can go beyond fabrication. One sees that even space and time, and the sense of the past and the future and even the present moment -- which gets so much weight in spiritual teachings -- even the present moment is something fabricated, the sense of a now, the present moment. Things that we take so for granted, space and time -- what more fundamental things can there be to our experience? We begin to see: those, too, are fabricated.

[50:02] So, yes, we enjoy our calmness and our sense of well-being, whatever that is and however that deepens. But there's something much more significant, and that's that we need to understand, slowly, slowly, we need to understand our deep meditation experiences. If we have an experience of well-being or bliss or joy or oneness, there's something that needs to be understood there. Otherwise we're not milking it to the full. It can be just an experience that the mind wants to get back. It's just an experience; we haven't understood something there. The mind might want to get it back, and it actually doesn't even know how to get it back, because it hasn't understood this process. So at first, the samatha, to whatever degree and including all the jhānas, at first it seems like one is really fabricating a lot -- one is flapping and really putting in the effort in meditation, really huffing and puffing, and then you've got this calm, this comfortable feeling, and you're holding it there and holding it there. It's a lot of fabrication, a lot of work. And eventually it moves to what I was talking about last night, where it's actually -- they're just kind of there, these states of calmness, deeper and deeper states of calmness. And they're kind of frequencies that exist all the time. That's the sense of them. And you can just tune in. The middle sort of period is they feel like they're unfabricated; they feel like you're tuning into different aspects of reality. And then the third sort of spiralling of that, or rather, the other level of the spiral as it comes back, is that then you actually understand how they're fabricated, even when they appear to be just tuning the dial; it's a much more subtle and deep understanding.

We can feel sometimes in meditation, "I'm just being. And I'm not going to do anything. I don't like doing in meditation. I like just being." And that's a very valid and very beautiful way of practising. But it turns out, at a whole other deeper level, to be a bit of a myth. It's a bit of a myth. Actually any moment of experience involves some doing. Now, it still could be a very useful kind of strategy at times, to just drop all the doing, and just be. But it turns out that it's a bit of a myth, or a lot of myth, actually. What it turns out is that the mind produces experiences that it then consumes. It produces experiences that it then consumes, and produces and consumes, and produces and consumes, and produces and consumes. It just does that non-stop. It does that non-stop. And then the Buddha comes along, and he says, first of all, do you know that's going on? And second of all, is that really that nice? Is that really what we want to be doing -- producing and consuming, producing and consuming? Or is there something actually a bit burdensome about always producing and consuming experiences, even lovely experiences? What might happen if the mind stopped doing that? What would that be? That takes a lot of skill, and that's a whole spectrum that I've been talking about.

[53:42] When we talk about emptiness in the Dharma, in a way, emptiness is a very -- there are a lot of different levels or depths to which one can understand that. But there's something about the samatha, and kind of going deep, and for some people who want to, going deep in this particular avenue, that actually unfolds a very deep understanding of emptiness, a very deep understanding of this fabrication process. And it comes in a way that it can really be -- it's an understanding that can really be lived, and it's really liveable.

So sometimes, you know, we might read or hear about or read a text, and it talks about this Unfabricated, this Unconditioned, this passing beyond the world, or this cessation of perception. And it sounds horrific. It sounds like completely bleak. "Why would anyone want to get involved in that, for heaven's sake?" Something about the samatha, again, is that it's a progressive unfabricating. One sees, "Oh, it's nice not to fabricate a little bit. If I can fabricate a bit less, that's even nicer. And that's even nicer, and that's even nicer." It kind of allows that movement towards what the Buddha's calling nibbāna or the Deathless. It allows that to be basically not horrific, not frightening for the mind. It's okay at a very, very deep level, that the world of our experience is actually empty. It's really okay.

The Buddha said an arahant, a completely enlightened being -- one of his definitions is "someone who has understood perception."[7] Someone who has understood perception -- which doesn't sound that kind of glamorous, really, or sexy, but that's how he put it sometimes -- and understood the cessation of perception, going beyond time, beyond space, beyond the now, beyond a notion of awareness. So there's something in all this that actually has very, very deeply to do with truth, to do with fundamental notions of reality and what is true. What is real? In the Dharma, the primary question is "What is leading to suffering, and what's not?" But wrapped up with that question is "What is actually real?" What is really real? What is reality? Am I suffering over something that's actually not real? That's what emptiness means; that's the point of emptiness, to realize that something that I may be suffering over is not as real as it might seem. What is real, and what is not fabricated? What is not concocted, not glommed together, not built? Is there even something that's not fabricated? For some people, these are going to be burning questions -- passionately alive, deep, driving questions in one's life. They're fundamental to our existence as human beings. What is actually real?

[57:05] Going back to that thing -- is samatha escapism? Well, because of everything that I've said, actually, in a way, it's completely the opposite. It's a journey towards what's actually real, and more and more real, you could say, and a letting go, progressively, of what's less real, or what's more fabricated, more huffed and puffed and built up. So this understanding of the Buddha, this understanding that the Buddha points to, is totally radical. It's totally radical. It turns our notions of everything upside down. The Dharma stands everything on its head. The Buddha says, the world, it's not that it exists, and it's not that it doesn't exist. It's what he calls the Middle Way.[8] There's something very, very subtle to understand here about how things dependently arise, how they are fabricated. In this understanding is freedom. It's in that understanding that freedom comes. In a way, you could say, again, it's one insight, one insight, from our most everyday -- we've just had an argument with our friend, with our spouse, with our partner, whoever, with our boss -- there's an insight at that level, that as I say, there's a thread running all the way to awakening, to nibbāna.

There's a beautiful poem by Rumi, just to finish, called "Wean Yourself." Is that an American word? "Wean Yourself."[9] It's beautiful. Listen.

[58:54--59:56, poem]

There's something in the samatha process, very, very deeply, that weans us. We wean ourselves off our attachments. We actually wean ourselves off attachments, progressively, off the samatha itself. We pass beyond to a hunter of more invisible game. In that is indescribable freedom that actually is available to us as human beings.

  1. Dhp 154. ↩︎

  2. AN 9:36. ↩︎

  3. For a discussion of things being "empty of existing from their own sides" by the Tibetan master Tsongkhapa, see Elizabeth Napper, Dependent-Arising and Emptiness: A Tibetan Buddhist Interpretation of Mādhyamika Philosophy Emphasizing the Compatibility of Emptiness and Conventional Phenomena (Boston: Wisdom, 1989), 323. ↩︎

  4. SN 35:117. ↩︎

  5. Ud 8:1. ↩︎

  6. Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ; see DN 11, MN 49. ↩︎

  7. SN 22:39--42, Sn 4:2. ↩︎

  8. SN 12:15. ↩︎

  9. Rumi, "Wean Yourself," in The Essential Rumi, tr. Coleman Barks (Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books, 1997), 70--1. Archived at, accessed 3 Nov. 2020. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry