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The Vipassana Path out of deep suffering

by Sayagyi U S.N. Goenka

(Adapted from a discourse to Vipassana students in California, USA, on 26 August, 1986. First published in the Vipassana Research Institute 'For the Benefit of Many', a compilation of Dhamma talks and answers to questions from Vipassana students.)

To benefit from best fruits of Dhamma, become established in Vipassana and progress on the path. To progress on the path of Dhamma it is absolutely essential for you to practice Dhamma (Vipassana); to practice Dhamma, understand Dhamma.

If you do not practice Vipassana and merely develop attachment to it - taking it as another dogma, cult or an organized religion - then Dhamma is no longer Dhamma for you. When you understand Dhamma in its true practical nature - its deep essence through Vipassana practice - then the outer shell has no importance.

To understand what is Dhamma, understand what is silā (wholesome life) and why it should be practiced; understand what sammā-samādhi (right concentration) is, and why this type of samādhi should be practiced; understand and practice real paññā  (wisdom gained from one's direct experience).

The Buddha taught people the way to understand at the experiential level why they should observe silā. At the intellectual level one may understand, "I should not do this, it is unwholesome. I should do that, it is wholesome". And yet in daily life, one keeps performing unwholesome actions. One of the ancient scriptures points this out, saying:
Janami dharmam, na ca me pravrittih; Janami adharmam, na ca me nivrittih.

I know very well what is dharma and yet I cannot follow it.
I know very well what is contrary to dharma, and yet I cannot abstain from it.

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A Buddha discovers the actual way for people to abstain from unwholesome actions - to realize what actually happens when you kill, steal, commit adultery, lie, or consume alcohol or drugs.

Going deep inside, you start to understand, "I cannot kill anybody unless I generate negativity in my mind-anger, hatred, ill will, animosity, some negativity or the other". And you also realize, "as soon as I generate negativity in my mind, nature starts punishing me. I become miserable then and there". Realizing this universal truth the Buddha said,
Idha tappati, pecca tappati. 

You start suffering now and you continue to suffer in the future.

The seed of the unwholesome action that you have planted makes you suffer here and now, and it will grow and give very bitter fruit in future too.

The Buddha gave a simile: If you take a rope and twist it repeatedly the rope will become tighter and tighter. Every time you break silā you twist that rope further, and you become tense deep inside.

The tendency to react in the same way becomes a habit, and you twist it again and again; thus your misery continues to grow.

He said that, quite possibly, at the surface level of the mind you do not know that you are creating tension inside. How does it happen that you are unaware of this?

If you look at a burning ember covered by a thick layer of ash, it appears as if the charcoal is not burning, as if there is no fire. In the same way, ninety-nine percent of your mind is burning and the one percent at the surface might be distracted by enjoying this or that sensual pleasure. Because you have not seen the deeper reality within, you do not know that you are burning.

Deeper reality of suffering through unwholesome actions

Every time you break silā you justify it, and at the surface level you feel perfectly all right. You say to yourself, "I killed that fellow because he was bad". Or you may say, "Why should he have that? What was wrong with my taking it? I'm quite happy now." Or else you say, "I had sexual relations but I didn't harm anybody; it was not a rape, we both consented. What is wrong with that?" Or again you say, "I took only a little glass of wine and I didn't get intoxicated. What was wrong with that? After all, when I'm in society somebody offers me a glass of wine and by accepting it I am not disturbing the peace and harmony of society, I am helping it. Everybody's happy".

A Buddha will compassionately smile at this ignorance of the reality within. Such people experience false 'happiness ', with the layer of ash covering the truth. They are not aware that they are burning deep inside, and that they keep giving fuel to this burning. Every time you break any silā you are giving more fuel to this fire and you become more miserable. This cannot be understood by arguments or discussions. Only when you go deeper through Vipassana practice to experience the reality of sensations of suffering, you realize that every vocal or physical action that breaks the law of nature instantly causes harm to yourself.

Going deeper you also see that as you start performing wholesome actions, either physical or vocal, the fire burning inside dies down and you start feeling peaceful. The Buddha said, Idha nandati, pecca nandati, katapuñño ubhayattha nandati. Because you are cultivating a mental habit pattern of generating peace, harmony, and real happiness, this mental state continues. All actions, either physical or vocal, made with the base of a pure mind cause happiness - not the happiness of that small layer of ash covering a burning ember, but happiness at depth of the mind.

Samādhi is concentration. How should you concentrate? And why should you concentrate in this particular way? This was the enlightenment of the Buddha: Sammā-samādhi must be a samādhi that leads to paññā. and its object must be the reality pertaining to your own body and mind.

What is known in the West as the conscious mind is actually a tiny part of the mind. The part of the mind called the unconscious or the half-conscious keeps feeling bodily sensations and reacting to them. The surface part of the mind is like the layer of ash covering the burning ember: You can play with this and put some ice there so that you feel as if the burning has ceased and that you are perfectly happy. If you meditate using verbalization, it is only the conscious mind that is verbalizing; the deep unconscious has nothing to do with it. Likewise it is the tiny part of the mind, the conscious mind that visualizes, or imagines, or gives some suggestion, or plays some intellectual or emotional games. The mind deep inside has nothing to do with all this, and yet you feel as if you are peaceful.

When you go to a cinema, bar or theatre, you divert your agitated surface level of the mind mind and enjoy sensual pleasures. When you intoxicate your surface mind with alcohol or drugs, again you forget your misery for some time. In the same way, when you intoxicate your mind with different kinds of meditation, you forget your misery. You forget the red-hot charcoal that is burning deep inside.

Deeper reality of cause and effect

The enlightenment of the Buddha was to go to the depth and understand the law of cause and effect. He understood that whenever one reacts with craving or aversion, misery follows; this is the law of nature. He investigated why one reacts in this way.

At the apparent level it feels as if you react to things outside. Whatever you see, hear, smell, taste, touch or think that is pleasant, it seems that you react to that sensory contact with craving. Similarly whatever unpleasant contact you have at any of the sense doors, it seems that you react to it with aversion. That is true, but only at the surface level. There is a missing link that you cannot understand without practicing Vipassana. You do not react to the external objects coming in contact with the respective sense doors; you react to the sensations within your body caused by the contact. When the sensation is pleasant, you react with craving; when the sensation is unpleasant, you react with aversion. If this link is missing you are not working at the depth of your mind, you are simply working at the surface.

People who work only with the conscious or surface part of the mind fool themselves, while it does not actually help them. You have to go to the depth, limit your attention to your own mind-and-matter phenomenon, and observe the interaction taking place there. The so-called unconscious mind deep inside is constantly in contact with the bodily sensations. Mind and matter are so interrelated that every moment anything that happens in the mind influences the body, and anything that happens at the physical level influences the mind.

The Buddha was the first person in this era (there were many Buddhas before who re-discovered Vipassana) to find out this truth, and with compassion and goodwill to place it before people, Look, this is the law. Understand this law with your own experience, and come out of your misery.

Someone might forget this truth and say, Whether I go to this or that teacher the meditation is the same. I would reply, "If the guru teaches you to feel bodily sensations and develop equanimity towards them, then it is the same. It doesn't matter whether it is called Vipassana or not, whether it is the teaching of the Buddha or anyone else. But if the guru does not teach you to work like this, and still you say, 'his teaching is the same', you are harming yourself because you are forgetting your bodily sensations, to which you keep reacting with craving and aversion".

This ash that covers the truth inside must be removed. Any object of meditation that increases this ash is not a useful object of meditation; any object of meditation that removes the ash and makes us aware of the misery inside is helpful.

This is the First Noble Truth: "Look how much burning is going on, how much tension there is". This can only be experienced when you start feeling sensations within the body. Every bodily sensation is a misery because out of ignorance you react and generate suffering. How can this be stopped? How can the mind that is so enslaved by this habit pattern be freed from slavery?

It can only be done by Vipassana practice; intellectual discussions, debates, or accepting the truth at the devotional level will not help. These can give us guidance and show us how we should work, but then we actually have to work. Those who want to progress on the path of Dhamma have to understand what Vipassana meditators are doing and the real reason why we work in this way.

Of course you should not despise others. Those who teach meditation techniques that work only at the intellectual level are also helping people; at least the conscious mind is purified to some extent and this is helpful. But for your own work understand that liberation will only come when you go to the root cause of misery. Unless you eradicate the root of the misery, you can't eradicate your misery.

Working hard to change harmful habit patterns of the mind

Dhamma is so simple and yet people have made it so complicated. There cannot be anything simpler than Dhamma. It has been made complicated by adding this or that philosophy, this or that belief. Just practice; don't make it complicated. Those who have made it complicated have harmed themselves and harmed others. You have the true path but it's a long path. To change the habit pattern of the mind takes time; but a beginning has been made with Vipassana practicing. Even if you have taken one 10-day Vipassana course, a good beginning has been made. Make use of this and start to de-condition the mind at the deepest level.

As you go deeper in your Vipassana meditation by practicing all the five silās, you will start understanding that any breakage of silā increases the ash on the surface of the mind, and simultaneously increases the burning inside. So realize the truth of burning, the misery within. Don't be deluded by this surface ash, by this small part of the so-called conscious mind.

Also understand that only by daily practice of Vipassana can you benefit from Dhamma. 

If you take one 10-day Vipassana course, or even many Vipassana courses, you will be helped but only to a small extent. Even if you take one course every year but if you do not practice Vipassana daily (minimum of one hour each, morning and evening), the harmful habit patterns of your mind cannot be changed; and those blind habit patterns have to be changed. 

Every time you practice Vipassana, you change harmful habit patterns little by little, you de-condition your mind little by little, until you reach the stage where the mind is totally unconditioned; all the past habit patterns of impurities are eradicated.

For this, you have to work seriously. You have this wonderful facility here, and you have made good use of it.

Once Dhamma starts growing, it keeps growing and nobody can stop it. Grow externally and a large number of people will benefit. Grow internally and deep inside you will benefit. If you yourself do not benefit and you only think of benefiting others, it won't work.

Develop in Dhamma for your own benefit and for the benefit of others; for your own welfare and for the welfare of others; for your own liberation and the liberation of others.

Bhavatu sabba mangalam!
May all beings be happy!
original article : The Essence of Dhamma , Vipassana Newsletter, Nov 15, 2005.
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