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Dec 31, 2011

Vipassana is to be with Reality, each Moment


What psychologists refer to as the "conscious mind" Buddha called this part of the mind the paritta citta (a very small surface layer of the mind). There is a big barrier between the paritta citta and the rest of the mind at deeper levels. The conscious mind does not know what is happening in the unconscious or half-conscious. Vipassana breaks this barrier of ignorance, taking you from the surface level of the mind to the deepest level of the mind where conditioning takes root. Vipassana practice exposes and removes the anusaya kilesa (latent mental defilements) that are lying at the deepest level of the mind.

Understand what Vipassana is and how it helps us in our day-to-day lives; how it helps us to come out of our misery, the misery of life and death.

How to live a life of peace and harmony? Siddhattha Gotama's full enlightenment enabled him to realize the truth of the way out of suffering: where misery lies, how it starts, and how it can be eradicated.

There were many techniques of meditation prevailing in India during Buddha's lifetime, as there are today. The Bodhisatta Gotama tried them all, but he was not satisfied because he found that he was not fully liberated from misery. Then he started his own practical research. Through his personal experience and effort he re-discovered this technique of Vipassana, which eradicated misery from his life and made him a fully enlightened person. He did not claim that he discovered Vipassana. He said the path of Vipassana was already there. Dhamma is timeless. A Sammasambuddha rediscovers Vipassana, when it becomes lost to humanity.

There are many techniques that give temporary relief from suffering. When you become miserable you divert your attention to something else. Then you feel that you have come out of your misery, but you are not totally relieved.

If something undesirable has happened in life, you become agitated. You cannot bear this misery and want to run away from it. You may go to a cinema or a theatre, or you may indulge in other sensual entertainments. You may go out drinking, and so on. All this is running away from misery. Escape is no solution to the problem. Instead, the misery is multiplying.

In Buddha's enlightenment he realized that one must face reality. Instead of running away from the problem, one must face it.

The Buddha found that all the types of meditation existing in his day consisted of merely diverting the mind from the prevailing misery to another object. He found that practicing this, actually only a small part of the mind gets diverted. Deep inside one keeps reacting, one keeps generating sa
khāras (deep-rooted mental conditioning or habit pattern of the mind) of craving, aversion or delusion. One keeps suffering at a deep level of the mind.

To clean the mind at the root level, the object of meditation should not be an imaginary object, it should be reality—reality as it is. One has to work with whatever reality has manifested itself now within, whatever one experiences within the framework of one's own mind-body.

In the practice of Vipassana one has to explore the reality within oneself—the material structure and the mental structure, the combination of which one keeps calling "I, me, mine." One generates tremendous attachment to this material and mental structure, and becomes miserable when things go against the wishes of this "I, me, mine". To practice the Dhamma path that the Sammasambuddha rediscovered, we must observe the truth of mind and matter. Their basic characteristics should be directly experienced by the meditator. This results in wisdom, the wisdom of experienced truth and without doubts.

Wisdom can be of three types: wisdom gained by listening to others, that which is gained by intellectual analysis, and wisdom developed from direct, personal experience. Before Buddha, and even at the time of Buddha, there were teachers who were teaching morality, were teaching concentration, and who were also talking about wisdom. But this wisdom was only received or intellectualized wisdom. It was not wisdom gained by personal experience. Buddha found that one may play any number of intellectual or devotional games, but unless he experiences the truth himself, and develops wisdom from his personal experience, he will not be liberated.

Vipassana is personally experienced wisdom. One may listen to discourses or read scriptures. Or one may use the intellect and try to understand: "Yes, Buddha's teaching is wonderful! This wisdom is wonderful!" But that is not direct experience of wisdom.

The entire field of mind and matter - the six senses and their respective objects - have the basic characteristics of anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering) and anattā (egolessness). Buddha wanted us to experience this reality within ourselves. To explore the truth within the framework of the body, he designated two fields. One is the material structure: the corporeal structure, the physical structure. The other is the mental structure with four factors: 1) consciousness; 2) perception; 3) the part of the mind that feels sensation; 4) and the part of the mind that reacts. So to explore both fields he gave us kāyānupassanā (observation of the body) and cittānupassanā (observation of the mind).

How can you observe the body with direct experience unless you can feel it? There must be something happening in the body which you feel, which you realize. Then you can say, "Yes, I have practised kāyānupassanā." One must feel the sensations on the body: this is vedanānupassanā (observation of body sensations).

The same is true for cittānupassanā. Unless something arises in the mind, you cannot directly experience it. Whatever arises in the mind is dhamma (mental content). Therefore dhammānupassanā (observation of the contents of the mind) is necessary for cittānupassanā.

This is how the Buddha divided these practices. Kāyānupassanā and vedanānupassanā pertain to the physical structure. Cittānupassanā and dhammānupassanā pertain to the mental structure. Know from your personal experience how this mind and matter are related to each other. To believe that one understands mind and matter, without having directly experienced it, is delusion. It is only direct experience that will make us understand the reality about mind and matter. This is where Vipassana helps us.



The Dhamma Hall of the Global Pagoda that enables thousands to benefit from practicing Vipassana as taught by the Samsammabuddha Gotama. This, the world's largest stone dome without any supporting pillars (in effect, a stupendous cave for meditation), can seat over 8,000 Vipassana students at a time in group meditation.
(Photograph from Afternoon Dispatch and Courier, June, 2011)

In brief, understand how we practice Vipassana during a residential 10-day course. We start with Anapana, awareness of respiration—natural respiration. We don't make it a breathing exercise or regulate the breath as they do in prāāyāma. We observe respiration at the entrance of the nostrils.

If a meditator works hard continuously (which means making continuous effort to objectively observe the natural breath, without lazily letting the mind wander in thoughts) in a congenial atmosphere without any disturbance, within two or three days some subtle reality on this part of the body will start manifesting itself: some sensations—natural, normal bodily sensations. Maybe heat or cold, throbbing or pulsing or some other sensations.

When one reaches the fourth or fifth day of practice (Vipassana is taught on the fourth day - namely, objectively observing the impermanence of bodily sensations), he or she will find that there are sensations throughout the body, from head to feet. One feels those sensations, and is asked not to react to them. Just observe; observe objectively, without identifying yourself with the sensations.

When you work as Buddha wanted you to work, by the time you reach the seventh day or the eighth day, you will move towards subtler and subtler reality. The Dhamma (universal laws of nature) will start helping you. You observe this structure that initially appears to be so solid, the entire physical structure at the level of sensation. Observing, observing you will reach the stage when you experience that the entire physical structure is nothing but subatomic particles: throughout the body, nothing but kalāpas (tiniest particles that the Buddha said cannot be divided further, the ultimate building block matter). And even these tiniest subatomic particles are not solid. They are mere vibration, just wavelets. The Buddha's words become clear by experience:

Sabbo pajjalito loko, sabbo loko pakampito.
The entire universe is nothing but combustion and vibration.

As you experience it yourself, your kāyānupassanā, your vedanānupassanā, will take you to the stage where you experience that the entire material world is nothing but vibration. Then it becomes very easy for you to practice cittānupassanā and dhammānupassanā.

Buddha's teaching is to move from the gross, apparent truth to the subtlest, ultimate truth, from o
ārika to sukhuma. The apparent truth always creates illusion and confusion in the mind. By dividing and dissecting apparent reality, you will come to the ultimate reality. As you experience the reality of matter to be vibration, you also start experiencing the reality of the mind: viññāa (consciousness), saññā (perception), vedanā (sensation) and sakhāra (reaction). If you experience them properly with Vipassana, it will become clear how they work.

Suppose you have reached the stage where you are experiencing that the entire physical structure is just vibration. If a sound has come in contact with the ears you will notice that this sound is nothing but vibration. The first part of the mind, consciousness, has done its job: ear consciousness has recognized that something has happened at the ear sense door. Like a gong which, having been struck at one point, begins vibrating throughout its structure, so a contact with any of the senses begins a vibration which spreads throughout the body. At first this is merely a neutral vibration, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

The perception recognizes and evaluates the sound, "It is a word—what word? Praise! Oh, wonderful, very good!" The resulting sensation, the vibration, will become very pleasant. In the same way, if the words are words of abuse the vibration will become very unpleasant. The vibration changes according to the evaluation given by the perception part of the mind. Next the third part of the mind starts feeling the sensation: pleasant or unpleasant.

Then the fourth part of the mind will start working. This is reaction; its job is to react. If a pleasant sensation arises, it will react with craving. If an unpleasant sensation arises, it will react with aversion. Pleasant sensation: "I like it. Very good! I want more, I want more!" Similarly, unpleasant sensation: "I dislike it. I don't want it." Generating craving and aversion is the part played by the fourth factor of the mind—reaction.

Understand that this process is going on constantly at one sense door or another. Every moment something or the other is happening at one of the sense doors. Every moment the respective consciousness cognizes; the perception recognizes and evaluates; the feeling part of the mind feels; and the reacting part of the mind reacts, with either craving or aversion. This happens continuously in one's life.

At the apparent, surface level, it seems that I am reacting with either craving or aversion to the external stimulus. Actually this is not so. Buddha found that we are reacting to our sensations. This unique, all-important realization was the enlightenment of Buddha. He said:

Sa
āyatana-paccayā phasso
phassa-paccayā vedanā
vedanā-paccayā ta
hā.
With the base of the six senses, contact arises
with the base of contact, sensation arises
with the base of sensation, craving arises.

It became so clear to him: the six sense organs come in contact with objects outside. Because of the contact, a sensation starts in the body that, most of the time, is either pleasant or unpleasant. Then after a pleasant or unpleasant sensation arises, craving or aversion start—not before that. This realization was possible because Buddha went deep inside and experienced it himself. He went to the root of the problem and discovered how to eradicate the cause of suffering at the root level.

Working at the intellectual level of the mind, we try to suppress craving and aversion, but deep inside, craving and aversion continue. We are constantly rolling in craving or aversion. We are not coming out of misery through suppression.

Buddha discovered the way: whenever you experience any sensation, due to any reason, you objectively observe the impermanent nature of it:

Samudaya dhammānupassī vā kāyasmi
viharati
vaya dhammānupassī vā kāyasmi
viharati
samudaya-vaya-dhammānupassī vā kāyasmi
viharati.
He dwells observing the phenomenon of arising in the body.
He dwells observing the phenomenon of passing away in the body.
He dwells observing the phenomenon of simultaneous arising and passing away in the body.

Every sensation arises and passes away. Nothing is eternal. When you practice Vipassana you start experiencing this. However unpleasant a sensation may be—look, it arises only to pass away. However pleasant a sensation may be, it is just a vibration—arising and passing. Pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, the characteristic of impermanence remains the same. You are now experiencing the reality of anicca. You are not believing it because Buddha said so, or some scripture or tradition says so, or even because your intellect says so. You accept the truth of anicca because you directly experience it. This is how your received wisdom and intellectual understanding turn into personally experienced wisdom.

Only this experience of anicca will change the habit pattern of the mind.

Feeling sensation in the body and understanding that everything is impermanent, you don't react with craving or aversion; you are equanimous. Practicing this with continuous objective awareness of anicca at the level of bodily sensations changes the habit of reacting at the deepest level. When you don't generate any new conditioning of craving and aversion, old conditioning comes on the surface and passes away. By observing reality as it is, you become free from all your conditioning of craving and aversion.

Western psychologists refer to the "conscious mind" Buddha called this part of the mind the paritta citta (a very small part of the mind). There is a big barrier between the paritta citta and the rest of the mind at deeper levels. The conscious mind does not know what is happening in the unconscious or half-conscious. Vipassana breaks this barrier, taking you from the surface level of the mind to the deepest level of the mind. The practice exposes the anusaya kilesa (latent defilements) that are lying at the deepest level of the mind.

The so-called "unconscious" mind is not unconscious. It is always conscious of body sensations, and it keeps reacting to them. If they are unpleasant, it reacts with aversion. If they are pleasant, it reacts with craving. This is the habit pattern, the behaviour pattern, of the so-called unconscious at the depth of the mind.

Here is an example to explain how the so-called unconscious mind is reacting with craving and aversion. You are in deep sleep. A mosquito bites you and there is an unpleasant sensation. Your conscious mind does not know what has happened. The unconscious knows immediately that there is an unpleasant sensation, and it reacts with aversion. It drives away or kills the mosquito. But still there is an unpleasant sensation, so you scratch, though your conscious mind is in deep sleep. When you wake up, if somebody asks you how many mosquito bites you got during the night, you won't know. Your conscious mind was unaware but the unconscious knew, and it reacted.

Another example: Sitting for about half an hour, some pressure starts somewhere and the unconscious mind reacts: "There is a pressure. I don't like it!" You change your position. The unconscious mind is always in contact with the body sensations. You make a little movement, and then after some time you move again. Just watch somebody sitting for fifteen to twenty minutes. You will find that this person is fidgeting, shifting a little here, a little there. Of course, consciously he does not know what he is doing. This is because he is not aware of the sensations. He does not know that he is reacting with aversion to these sensations. This barrier is ignorance.

Vipassana breaks this ignorance. Then one starts understanding how sensations arise and how they give rise to craving or aversion. When there is a pleasant sensation, there is craving. When there is an unpleasant sensation, there is aversion, and whenever there is craving or aversion, there is misery.

If one does not break this behaviour pattern, there will be continual craving or aversion. At the surface level you may say that you are practicing what Buddha taught, but in fact, you are not practicing what Buddha taught! You are practicing what the other teachers at the time of Buddha taught. Buddha taught how to go to the deepest level where suffering arises. Suffering arises because of one's reaction of craving or aversion. The source of craving and aversion must be found, and one must change one's behaviour pattern at that level.

Buddha taught us to observe suffering and the arising of suffering. Without observing these two we can never know the cessation of misery. Suffering arises with the sensations. If we react to sensations, then suffering arises. If we do not react we do not suffer from them. However unpleasant a sensation may be, if you don't react with aversion, you can smile with equanimity. You understand that this is all anicca, impermanence. The whole habit pattern of the mind changes at the deepest level.

Through the practice of Vipassana, people start to come out of all kinds of impurities of the mind—anger, passion, fear, ego, and so on. Within a few months or a few years the change in people becomes very evident. This is the benefit of Vipassana, here and now. In this very life you will get the benefit.

Make use of the teaching of Buddha at the deepest level. Don't just remain at the surface level of the teaching of Buddha. Go to the deepest level where your craving arises:

Vedanā paccayā ta
hā;
vedanā-nirodhā ta
hā-nirodho;
ta
hā-nirodhā dukkha-nirodho.
Sensations give rise to craving.
If sensations cease, craving ceases.
When craving ceases, suffering ceases.

When one experiences the truth of liberation—a stage beyond the entire sense fields—all the six sense organs stop working. There can't be any contact with objects outside, so sensation ceases. At this stage there is freedom from all suffering.

First you must reach the stage where you can feel sensations. Only then can you change the habit pattern of your mind. Work on this technique, this process, at the very deepest level. If you work on the surface level of the mind you are only changing the conscious part of the mind, your intellect. You are not going to the root cause, the most unconscious level of the mind; you are not removing the anusaya kilesa—deep-rooted defilements of craving and aversion. They are like sleeping volcanoes that may erupt at any time. You continue to roll from birth to death; you are not coming out of misery.

Make best use of this wonderful technique of Vipassana and come out of your misery, come out of the bondages and enjoy real peace, real harmony, real happiness.

May all of you enjoy real peace, harmony, real happiness.
May all beings be liberated.

---
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Dec 22, 2011

Experiencing Law of Cause and Effect with Vipassana practice

The Fully Enlightened Sammasambuddha went to the root cause of suffering, at the depth of the mind. He realized that between the external worldly object and mental conditioning of craving is the crucial missing link- vedanā (the impermanent bodily sensation to which the mind is actually reacting).

(from the original Dhamma article Vedanā in Paṭiccasamuppāda, Vipassana Newsletter, Vipassana Research Institute)

Paṭiccasamuppāda, or the Law of Dependent Origination, is fundamental to the teaching of the Buddha. Emphasizing its importance, the Buddha said:

Yo paṭiccasamuppādaṃ passati,
so dhammaṃ passati;
Yo dhammaṃ passati,
so paṭiccasamuppādaṃ passati.
1

One who sees the paṭiccasamuppāda sees the Dhamma.
One who sees the Dhamma sees the paṭiccasamuppāda.

Paṭiccasamuppāda explains that saṃsāra, the process of repeated existences, is perpetuated by a chain of interconnected links of cause and effect; it also reveals the method of breaking this chain and putting an end to the process. The Buddha said:

Taṇhādutiyo puriso,
dīghamaddhāna saṃsaraṃ;
itthabhāvaññathābhāvaṃ,
saṃsāraṃ nātivattati.
2

The man with craving as his companion has been flowing in the stream of repeated existences from time immemorial. He comes into being, experiences various types of miseries, dies again and again, and does not put an end to this unbroken process of becoming.

This is saṃsāra, the world of suffering, as explained by the Buddha. He further said:

Etaṃ ādīnavaṃ ñatvā,
taṇhaṃ dukkhassa sambhavaṃ;
Vītataṇho anādāno,
sato bhikkhu paribbaje.
3

Rightly understanding the perils of this process,
Fully realizing craving as its cause,
Becoming free from craving and attachment,
One should mindfully lead the life of detachment.
Such an approach, he said, will have great benefit-

Nandī-saṃyojano loko,
vitakkassa vicāraṇaṃ
Taṇhāya vippahānena,
nibbānaṃ iti vuccati.
4

Pleasure is the binding force in the world.
Rolling thought processes are its ever-changing base.
With the complete eradication of craving,
The state called nibbāna is attained.

These statements made by the Buddha describe the nature of saṃsāra, the state of suffering, and the nature of nibbāna, the state of final emancipation. But how can detachment be developed, and craving eradicated?

This is the practical aspect of Dhamma discovered by Siddhattha Gotama through practice of Vipassana, the realization that made him a Buddha. Out of infinite compassion, he shared this practical knowledge of liberation through the teaching of paṭiccasamuppāda.

According to this law of nature, twelve links form the wheel of becoming (bhava-cakka). They are:
  1. avijjā (ignorance)
  2. saṇkhāra (volitional activities)
  3. viññāṇa (consciousness)
  4. nāma-rūpa (mind and matter)
  5. saḷāyatana (six sense doors)
  6. phassa (contact)
  7. vedanā (sensation)
  8. taṇhā (craving)
  9. upādāna (clinging)
  10. bhava (becoming)
  11. jāti (birth)
  12. jarā-maraṇa (decay and death)
Dependent on avijjā arise saṇkhāra;
dependent on saṇkhāra arises viññāṇa;
dependent on viññāṇa arise nāma-rūpa;
dependent on nāma-rūpa arise saḷāyatana;
dependent on saḷāyatana arises phassa;
dependent on phassa arises vedanā;
dependent on vedanā arises taṇhā;
dependent on taṇhā arises upādāna.

Thus, this vicious circle of misery rolls on. In other words, the origin of each link depends upon the preceding one. As long as this chain of twelve causal relations operates, the wheel of becoming (bhava-cakka) keeps turning, bringing nothing but suffering. This process of cause and effect is called anuloma-paṭiccasamuppāda (direct Law of Dependent Origination).
Every link of anuloma results in dukkha, suffering, as a result of avijjā, which is at the base of every link. Thus, the process of anuloma clarifies the first two Noble Truths: dukkha-sacca, suffering, and samudaya-sacca, its origination and multiplication.

Our task is to emerge from the bhava-cakka of dukkha - through the practice of Vipassana meditation.
Explaining how to do so, the Buddha said that when any one of the links of the chain is broken, the wheel of becoming comes to an end, resulting in the cessation of suffering. This is called paṭiloma-paṭiccasamuppāda (the Law of Dependent Origination in reverse order) which clarifies the third and fourth Noble Truths, nirodha-sacca the cessation of suffering and nirodha-gāminī-paṭipadā-sacca, the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.

How can that be achieved? At which link can the chain be broken? Through deep insight, the Buddha discovered that the crucial link is vedanā. In the anuloma-paṭiccasamuppāda, he says 'Vedanā-paccayā-taṇhā'.

Vedanā is the cause of taṇhā, which gives rise to dukkha. In order to remove the cause of dukkha or taṇhā, one must not allow vedanā to give rise to taṇhā; in other words, one must practice Vipassana meditation at this crucial juncture so that avijjā becomes vijjā or paññā (wisdom). One has to observe vedanā, to experience and to comprehend the truth of its arising and passing away, anicca.

By Vipassana meditation, as one experiences vedanā in the proper way, one comes out of the delusion of nicca-saññā (perception of permanence) by the development of anicca-bodha or anicca-vijjā (the wisdom of impermanence) towards vedanā.

This is practiced by observing with equanimity the arising and passing away of vedanā. With anicca-bodha, the habit pattern of the mind changes. Instead of the earlier pattern of vedanā-paccayā taṇhā, through anicca-vijjā it becomes vedanā-paccayā paññā. As paññā becomes stronger and stronger, naturally saññā, and with it, taṇhā, becomes weaker and weaker.

The process of multiplication of suffering with the base of avijjā then becomes the process of the cessation of suffering, with vijjā as the base. As this process continues, a time comes when there is the complete cessation of vedanā as well as taṇhā-'Vedanā-nirodhā, taṇhā-nirodho.

This state of liberation is a state beyond mind and matter, where both vedanā and saññā cease. One can experience this for a few seconds, minutes, hours, or days when, according to one's own capacity, one becomes established in nirodha-samāpatti by practising Vipassana.

View of Dhamma Pattana Vipassana Centre, from atop the adjacent Global Vipassana Pagoda, Mumbai, India. Dhamma Pattana (meaning 'harbour of Dhamma') is one of over 160 Vipassana centres worldwide offering residential Vipassana courses where the Dhamma is shared in purity, without any fee or charges, including for boarding and lodging.

After the period of nirodha-samāpatti, when one comes back to the sensuous field of mind and matter, one again experiences vedanā. But now the whole habit pattern of the mind has changed, and continued practice leads to the stage where one does not generate aversion or craving at all because anusaya and āsava (the deep-rooted mental impurities) are eradicated. In this way, by the breaking of one link-vedanā, the whole process is shattered and the wheel of repeated existence is completely broken.

To progress on the path of Dhamma, one has to work at the level of vedanā because it is at this junction one changes the direction of the wheel of misery.

With vedanā starts the turning of the bhava-cakka, leading (because of avijjā) to vedanā-paccayā taṇhā, which causes suffering. This is the path, which ignorant persons (puthujjana) follow, since they react to vedanā and generate taṇhā.

However, from vedanā, the dhamma-cakka, or the wheel of cessation of suffering (dukkha-nirodha-gāminī-paṭipadā) can start to rotate, leading to vedanā-nirodhā, taṇhā-nirodho-the end of craving, as a result of anicca-vijjā or paññā, leading to the cessation of suffering. This is the path which wise persons (sapañña) follow by not reacting to vedanā, because they have developed anicca-bodha by the practice of Vipassana.

Many of the contemporaries of the Buddha held the view that craving causes suffering and that to remove suffering one has to abstain from the objects of craving. But this was only an apparent truth. The Buddha went to the root cause of suffering, at the depth of the mind. He realized that between the external worldly object and mental conditioning of craving is a missing link-vedanā (the impermanent bodily sensation).

Whenever we encounter an object through the five physical senses or the mind, a sensation arises; and based on the sensation, taṇhā arises. If the sensation is pleasant we crave to prolong it, and if it is unpleasant we crave to be rid of it. It is in the chain of Dependent Origination that the Buddha expressed his unique, immeasurably beneficial discovery:

Phassa-paccayā vedanā
Vedanā-paccayā taṇhā.
5

Dependent on contact, sensation arises.
Dependent on sensation, craving arises.

Therefore, the immediate cause for the arising of craving and suffering is not something outside of us but rather the sensations that occur within us. To free ourselves from suffering we must deal with this inner reality of sensations through Vipassana practice - i.e by maintaining perfect equanimity to sensations, instead of the earlier habit pattern of reacting to them with craving or aversion. This is the practical way to emerge from suffering.

By developing anicca-vijjā (the wisdom of experiencing impermanence at level of sensations) through Vipassana practice, we cut the knots of our misery and experience the true nature of Dhamma. Therefore, vedanā is the cause of our bondage when not properly observed; it is also the means of liberation when properly observed - by experiential understanding of the Dhamma, the law of paṭiccasamuppāda.
May all beings be happy,be peaceful, be liberated from all suffering.
--
Notes: (All references are from VRI edition)
1. Majjhima Nikāya 1.306
2. Suttanipāta 745
3. Ibid. 746
4. Saṃyutta Nikāya 1.1.64
5. Mahāvagga (Vinaya Piṭaka) 1
---------

Dec 10, 2011

Vipassana and making best use of life - and death

(The following was originally published in the Sayagyi U Ba Khin Journal and Vipassana Newsletter, as Dhamma article entitled 'What happens at Death' )
To understand what happens at death, let us first understand what death is. Death is like a bend in a continuous river of becoming. It appears that death is the end of a process of becoming, and certainly it may be so in the case of an arahant (a fully liberated being) or a Buddha; but with an ordinary person this flow of becoming continues even after death. Death puts an end to the activities of one life, and the very next moment starts the play of a new life. On the one side is the last moment of this life and on the other side is the first moment of the next life. It is as though the sun rises as soon as it sets with no interval of darkness in between, or as if the moment of death is the end of one chapter in the book of becoming, and another chapter of life begins the very next moment.
Although no simile can convey the exact process, still one might say that this flow of becoming is like a train running on a track. It reaches the station of death and there, slightly decreasing speed for a moment, carries on again with the same speed. It does not stop at the station even for a moment. For one who is not an arahant, the station of death is not a terminus but a junction from where thirty-one different tracks diverge. The train, as soon as it arrives at the station, moves onto one or another of these tracks and continues. This speeding "train of becoming," fuelled by the electricity of the kammic reactions of the past, keeps on running from one station to the next, on one track or the other, a continuous journey that goes on without ceasing.
This changing of "tracks" happens automatically. As the melting of ice into water and the cooling of water to form ice happens according to laws of nature, so the transition from life to life is controlled by set laws of nature. According to these laws, the train not only changes tracks by itself, it also lays the next tracks itself. For this train of becoming the junction of death, where the change of tracks takes place, is of great importance. Here the present life is abandoned (this is called cuti-disappearance, death). The demise of the body takes place, and immediately the next life starts (a process which is called patisandhi - conception or taking up of the next birth). The moment of patisandhi is the result of the moment of death; the moment of death creates the moment of conception. Since every death moment creates the next birth moment, death is not only death, but birth as well. At this junction, life changes into death and death into birth.
Thus every life is a preparation for the next death. If someone is wise, he or she will use this life to the best advantage and prepare for a good death. The best death is the one that is the last, that is not a junction but a terminus: the death of an arahant. Here there will be no track on which the train can run further; but until such a terminus is reached, one can at least ensure that the next death gives rise to a good birth and that the terminus will be reached in due course. It all depends on us, on our own efforts. We are makers of our own future, we create our own welfare or misery as well as our own liberation.


The Global Vipassana Pagoda as it was during construction circa 2003, and as it might be in the year 5500 A.D - in keeping with the universal law of impermanence: everything arises to pass away; nothing is permanent. Vipassana practice enables coping with this truth calmly every moment.

How is it that we are the creators of the tracks that receive the onrushing train of becoming? To answer this we must understand what kamma (action) is.
The healthy or unhealthy volition of our mind is kamma. Before performing any action at the mental, vocal, or physical level, whatever wholesome or unwholesome volition arises in the mind is the root of that action. The consciousness arises due to a contact at a sense door, then the sañña (perception and recognition) evaluates the experience, sensations (vedana) arise, then a kammic reaction (sankhara) takes place. These volitional reactions are of various kinds. How strong is the volition? How slow, deep, shallow, heavy or light? According to this the intensity of these reactions will vary. Some are like a line drawn on water, some like a line drawn on sand and some a line on rock. If the volition is wholesome, then the action will be the same and the fruits will be beneficial; and if the volition is unwholesome, then the action will be the same-it will give fruits of misery.
Not all of these reactions result in a new birth. Some are so shallow that they do not give any substantial fruits. Some are a bit heavier but will be used up in this lifetime. They do not carry over into the next life. Others being still heavier continue with the flow of life into the next birth, but they themselves do not give new birth. Nevertheless they can continue to multiply during this life and the next. Many kammas however, are bhava-kammas, or bhava-sankharas, those that give a new birth, a new life. Each one of these bhava-kammas (actions that give rise to the process of becoming) carries a magnetic force that is in tune with the vibrations of a particular plane of existence. The vibrations of a particular bhava-kamma will unite with the vibrations of the bhava-loka (world, plane) that has the same intensity, and the two will attract each other according to the universal laws pertaining to forces of kamma.
As soon as one of these bhava-kammas is generated, this "railway train of becoming" gets attracted to one or the other of the thirty-one tracks at the station of death. Actually these thirty-one tracks are the thirty-one fields of existence. They are the eleven kama lokas (realms of sensuality: the four lower realms of existence, and the seven human and celestial realms); the sixteen rupa-brahma lokas (where fine material body remains), and the four arupa-brahma lokas (non-material realms, where only mind remains).
At the last moment of this life, a specific bhava-sankhara will arise. This sankhara capable of giving a new birth will get connected with the vibrations of the related realm of existence. At the moment of death the whole field of thirty-one realms is open, so it depends on which sankhara arises as to which track the train of existence runs on next. In the same way a train gets shunted onto a new track, the force of the bhava-kamma reaction provides the push to the flow of consciousness into the next existence. For example, the bhava-kamma of anger or malice, being of the nature of heat and agitation, will unite with some lower field of existence. Similarly, one with the nature of mettā (compassionate love), having peaceful and cool vibrations can only unite with some brahma-loka. This is the law of nature, and these laws are so perfectly "computerized" that there is never any flaw in the operation.
At the moment of death, generally, some intense sankhara will arise; it may be either of a wholesome nature or an unwholesome nature. For example, if one has murdered one's father or mother, or perhaps some saintly person, in this lifetime, then the memory of this episode will arise at the moment of death. Likewise if one has done some deep meditation practice, a similar state of mind will arise.
When there is no such dense bhava-kamma to arise, then a comparatively less dense kamma will arise. Whatever memory is awakened will manifest as the kamma. For example, one may remember a wholesome kamma of giving food to a saintly person, or one may remember killing someone. Reflections on such past kammas as these may arise. Otherwise, objects related to the particular kamma may arise. One may see the plate full of food that was offered as dana, or the gun that was used to kill another. These are called the kamma-nimittas (signs).
In another case, a sign or a symbol of the next life may appear. This is called gati-nimitta (departing sign). These nimmitas correspond to whichever bhava-loka the flow is being attracted towards, such as the scene of some celestial world, or perhaps of an animal world. The dying person will often experience one of these signs as a forewarning, just as the train's headlight illuminates the track ahead. The vibrations of these nimittas are identical to the vibrations of the plane of existence of the next birth.
A good Vipassana meditator has the capacity to avoid the tracks leading to the lower realms of existence. He clearly understands the laws of nature, and practises to keep himself ready for death at all times. If he has reached an advanced age, there is all the more reason to remain aware every moment. What preparations are undertaken? One practises Vipassana, remaining equanimous to whatever sensations arise on the body and thereby breaking the habit pattern of reacting to the unpleasant sensations. Thus the mind, which is usually generating new unwholesome sankharas, develops a new habit of remaining equanimous. Very often at the time of death, if there are no very heavy sankharas to arise, habitual reactions occur; and as the new sankhara is being made, an old one from the storehouse might get stirred up onto the surface, gaining in strength as it arises.
At the approach of death, it is very likely that one will experience very unpleasant sensations. Old age, disease and death are dukkha (misery). They produce unpleasant sensations of a grosser type. If one is not skilful in observing these sensations with equanimity, then one will be likely to react with feelings of anger, irritation, maybe malice, which provides an opportunity for a bhava-sankhara of like vibration to arise. However, as in the cases of some well developed meditators, one can work to avoid reacting to these immensely painful sensations by maintaining equanimity at the time of death. Then, even those related bhava-sankharas lying deep in the bhavanga (seat of birth-producing kamma) will not have an opportunity to arise. An ordinary person will usually remain apprehensive, even terror-stricken at the approach of death and thus will give occasion for a fearful bhava-sankhara to surface. In the same way, grief, sorrow, depression, and other feelings may arise at the thought of separation from loved ones, and the related sankhara will come up and dominate the mind.
A Vipassana meditator, by observing all his or her sensations with equanimity, weakens the sankhara and thus does not allow it to arise at the time of death. The real preparation for death is this: developing a habit pattern of repeatedly observing the sensations manifesting in the body and mind with equanimity and with the understanding of anicca.
At the time of death, this strong habit of equanimity will automatically appear and the train of existence will link up with a track on which it will be possible to practise Vipassana in the new life. In this way, one saves oneself from birth in a lower realm and attains one of the higher realms, which is very important because Vipassana cannot be practised in the lower realms.
A meditator who is on the point of death is fortunate to have close relatives or friends nearby who can help maintain a good Dhamma atmosphere, free from lamenting and gloom; people who can practise Vipassana and generate vibrations of mettā, which are most favourable for a peaceful death.
At times a non-meditator will attain a favourable rebirth at the time of death due to the manifestation of wholesome bhava-sankharas such as generosity, morality and other strong wholesome qualities. But the special achievement of an established Vipassana meditator is that he enables himself to attain an existence where he can continue to practise Vipassana. In this way, by slowly decreasing the stock of accumulated bhava-sankharas stored in the bhavanga of his flow of consciousness, one shortens one's journey of becoming and reaches the goal sooner.
One comes into contact with the Dhamma in this life because of great merits one has performed in the past. Make this human life successful by practising Vipassana. Then whenever death comes, it will come with the experience of an equanimous mind, bringing with it well-being for the future.
N.B.: The analogy of a running train changing tracks should not be mistaken for transmigration, as no entity goes from one life to the next. Nothing passes to the next life except the force of the accumulated kamma sankharas.
May all beings be happy, be peaceful, be liberated from all suffering.
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