The Dawn of the DhammaSucitto Bhikkhu

click image for large viewArt Frame - Chapter 7

Chapter 7

The Third Noble Truth:
Letting It All Go

Idam kho pana bhikkhave … cago patinissaggo mutti analayo.
Bhikkhus, there is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering.
It is the complete fading away and cessation of this desire;
its abandonment and relinquishment; the freedom from and discarding of it.

Having highlighted the origin of suffering, the Buddha goes on to speak about its cessation. The way that the Buddha presented his teaching was to describe how to do it; his description of the results was much more sparing, at least in the Theravadin recension of his words. This teaching is like a tool-box that is offered to someone who wants to do the job and considers it worthwhile. It’s not a teaching one finds immediately inspirational. One result, and perhaps even the purpose of such an approach, is that it doesn’t arouse a lot of desire—you are not promised something in the future that is painted in such rosy terms that you get greedy and ambitious for it. In some ways, the presentation is rather daunting—plenty of talk about suffering and hindrances, not much about joy and bliss. But you have to want to practice from a very realistic perspective, and be prepared to go through some hard work and to develop some skills; it needs more than an immediate inspirational high to take you across. This is a fair approach—it identifies the root of the obstruction, and how to remove it. If you need to hold onto something, maybe this isn’t the way for you; if you want to follow it, be prepared to give up a lot and to bring forth your own energy.

One aim of these paintings is to enhance the meaning, rather than to dilute the message. Here the frame has become a smooth circle, the symbol of wholeness and fullness. The color within it is blue—the cool, spacious color. Within the circle sits a cross-legged bloated but radiant being. Cessation does not come about through wanting to become more joyous and wise or more attractive and popular. It is an expansive realization that is itself joyous and wise. It comes into being through giving up the mind-held images that we feel we need to be. The personal image portrayed here doesn’t arouse a desire to become like that, but it may arouse in the heart a certain recognition of letting go.

This is a traditional Thai image, called “Phra Sankaccayana,” which is a symbol of good fortune and benevolence in the Universe that comes about through personal relinquishment. The story goes that Phra (Thai for “Venerable”) Sankaccayana was a bhikkhu at the time of the Buddha who was very handsome and had acquired a lot of magnetism through mind-cultivation. He was an Arahant, an enlightened being, but his personal attractiveness was stimulating some rather unenlightened interest in the hearts of many of the ladies of the area. This monk felt embarrassed that he should be receiving such attention, and he didn’t think it was very helpful to the womenfolk either, so he decided to bloat himself up in order to look like a slob. And here he is in this painting, demonstrating letting go, and helping to induce it in others. There’s a message there for those of us who feel we need to have charisma, a good image, and hordes of devotees to confirm our enlightenment.

Sometimes you meet teachers and sages who have a lot of personal charm. Sometimes they are wise and trustworthy, sometimes they are not. People make a lot out of the personal magnetism that a teacher may have. This has led to several disastrous incidents when some famous sage or another has been discovered salting away unaccounted millions in a Swiss bank account or seducing fourteen-year-old girls. My experience of sages is very limited, but I have met monks in Thailand who said little, looked small and insignificant, or were homely and garrulous, and yet exemplified a life of great purity, kindness and insight, even if they couldn’t give rousing talks. Incidentally, in Theravada, monks and nuns are not supposed to talk about their attainments. Some people say it’s because we don’t have any, but it’s really to prevent the arising of a cult based upon a personality. That would be detrimental to their practice. Even if the monk or nun is a very wise being, statements about their attainments would draw more attention to the personality than to the practice, and there is a natural inclination in that direction anyway. Most disciples at some time want to emulate their teacher, but this need not be encouraged. It’s a process everyone has to go through (suffering a lot on the way), until there is the realization that there are no real role models. You have to work with your mind and habits, and the way Truth expresses itself through you.

In Buddhist monasticism, it is the Vinaya (the Code of Conduct) that provides the standard for personal behavior, not the teacher’s personality or wishes. This creates a communally-held level of modesty, trustworthiness and community consciousness, in which no-one is out to prove they are or aren’t anything. You learn to give up the desire to become somebody, and also the desire to drop out of it all and become nobody. Ideas about oneself or one’s position are checked by this way of life. Rather than conceiving oneself as a teacher or as incapable of giving talks, there is the encouragement to explain the teachings of the Buddha in the best and most authentic way that you can, if asked to do so.

We’ll talk more about the practice in the next phase of the Sutta; I’d just like to point out here how easy it is to mistake “abandonment” for “getting rid of.” Maybe the words are nearly the same in English; but having been told about Vibhavatanha, desire for nonexistence, as a powerful originator of suffering, one should be careful about the desire that wants desire not to exist. In the reality of spiritual practice, there is a great difference between abandonment as a state of not holding onto desire, and aversion to the existence of desires. Desire will always be experienced as a constriction of the mind around some object, to either have it or to repress it, whilst abandonment of desire is an equanimous, malleable and gentle mode of mind. Abandonment opens to the present; and the here and now is not within the realm of desire. Desire operates on the possible realization of what is not here, now. Annihilation attempts to suppress desire; whereas in the here and now, there is the experience of the mind at rest from desire. This is cessation.

Sometimes the desire to get rid of is disguised as non-attachment. In this guise, it causes a certain stiffness and defensiveness of manner—“Don’t bother me”—or a tendency not to face up to what is going on and learn from it. The other extreme of the desire to get rid of is wanting to be involved in everything and to solve everybody’s problems for them. Getting caught up in the desire to solve everyone’s problems is agitating and oppressive too, even if one is not consciously trying to become the great savior.

Some of these forms of desire are subtle and snag people whose intentions are generally good. Trying to get rid of other people’s problems can have the same contradictory effect as trying to get rid of your own. Both well-intentioned aims go astray when they affirm that problems actually belong to us. That is, by concentrating on them in a negative way, we unconsciously affirm their reality and lose perspective. We feel ourselves to be flawed, rather than recognize the impersonal and changeable nature of flaws. What is essential is to affirm and encourage the non-problematic side of the mind—the experience of non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion. This is a Path of self-reliance. However tirelessly, compassionately and skillfully they teach, Buddhas only point the Way: our own stumbling feet have to do the walking. We can help by encouraging the wisdom and purity of the mind rather than by identifying with the weaknesses.

The practice goes deep, and as has been pointed out, the roots of suffering are in viewpoints and attitudes existing beneath the level of conscious activity. As we saw in the discussion of Dependent Origination, the sense of self, the “I am,” is the wrong view arising from ignorance which then conditions compulsive activity in terms of that self. Whenever we try to get rid of self, we unwittingly reinforce it. For example, if we believe that compulsive habits and desires are “me” or “mine,” we may feel we are this kind of a person who has a lot of weaknesses, and has to do a lot to get rid of them in order to become enlightened or to be a true disciple of the Buddha, and so on. We believe that to get results, we have to do something. We assume that giving up and abandonment are always about doing something with body, speech or mind. This attitude can foster real greed for renunciation practices, or great resolutions. And these can strongly increase our sense of identity!

If we think that we don’t need to work on our minds, we also miss the mark. We know suffering arises. We can observe the careless habits of self-view which perpetuate the suffering. We should not take these habits personally, but practice with attention to realize the purity of being that does not create them. Patient effort is needed. This means a renunciation of the wish for progress as well as a dispassionate acceptance, not an approval, that what we are experiencing is the way things are right now.

That kind of abandonment gives a fine edge and confidence to the mind. Such stability is likened to a threefold Refuge, the Triple Gem, constituting Buddha—the quality of dispassionate attention; Dhamma—the way it is; and Sangha—the resolute practice. They, rather than the desire to become or get rid of anything, are the guides of the mind through the haze of unknowing.

Rather than attainment in terms of progress towards cessation, it would be more accurate to talk of purification—not in a puritanical sense or in terms of righteousness, but likened to the purity of water. The metaphor of purity provides a more helpful direction and determinant of good practice. It’s not about adding things to one’s self-image, or about gaining something that is not already here. It is about losing, not winning; about losing the conceit and the greed and the doubt and the delusions that prevent one from seeing things as they really are and living in accordance with the Truth. The Buddha said his teaching was for those with little dust in the eyes; what is needed, then, is a cleansing, not more makeup.

As the practice of cessation matures, the mind realizes “stream-entry”—a pleasing metaphor. Stream-entry is the beginning of being completely composed upon the Path. With that level of clarity, one no longer has the instinctive need to hold onto the body and its image as one’s self. Rather one treats it wisely as a part of nature. Similarly, you’re not looking at someone else’s physical image as an expression of their enlightenment—or lack of it. With stream-entry, there is no longer any doubt that the Path is based on purity of body and speech, and leads to fruition. Doubt about the connection to the foundation of practice through the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha does not arise. With this mature understanding also comes a more balanced attitude regarding the use of techniques, conventions and practices: one can use them sensibly, avoiding the extremes of either slavishly following them or rebelliously rejecting them.

If the Path is cultivated to the point of the cessation of self-view, the desire to become something else is completely irrelevant, and so it is forgotten. What is involved is a lightening of the heart, not an intensification of one’s self-preoccupation, opinions and convoluted reasoning to justify objectionable conduct. The Path is straight and clear, of one quality in its outward form and its inner essence, without paradox, noble, uplifting, beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, beautiful in the end.

When suffering fades out, when desire is relinquished, what is left, what is present? There is the cessation, the rest from desire. Stewing away with some hankering or desire is not our fundamental nature. Yet we have to train the mind to attend to those peaceful spaces, however momentarily they may be experienced. To experience this—even briefly—to get a real taste, gives one the confidence that there is, now, no suffering.

Bhikkhus, this mind is luminous, and it is only defiled by transitory defilements. (Anguttara Nikaya: [I], Ones, VI)

Non-suffering is our true nature; it’s not something that has to be added. And that is what the cultivation of the Eightfold Path is about—it is a way of bringing the mind’s undistorted nature into full consciousness. That cultivation is broad as well as sharp, peaceful as well as energetic, as the next section of the Sutta points out.