IN THE PRESENCE OF NIBBANA
DEVELOPING FAITH IN THE BUDDHIST PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT
Transcription of a Dhamma Talk by Ven. Ajahn Brahmavamso
NAMO TASSA BHAGAVATO ARAHATO SAMMASAMBUDDHASSA
"NATTHI JHANAM APANNASSA PANNA NATTHI AJHAYATO
YAMHI JHANAN CA PANNA CA SA VE NIBBANA SANTIKE"
This is one of my favourite verses in the Dhammapada, "There’s no jhana without wisdom, there’s no wisdom without jhana. One who has jhana and wisdom, he is in the vicinity of Nibbana". Right now, those who are Buddhist monks and nuns and those who are serious lay practitioners are in the vicinity of Nibbana. Being in this situation, you should recall that you are practicing in precisely the same way that men and women, young and old, have been practicing for the last twenty five centuries, and eventually you will achieve the same results. You are in the presence of Nibbana in the sense that you are walking the path that leads to Nibbana. Sometimes it’s hard to realize how close it can be. One doesn’t realize that it’s, as it were, just a slight turn of the head, or a slight change in the way of looking at things, which will open up the same truth which the Buddha saw; the same truth which Vens.Sariputta, Mahamoggallana, Mahakassapa, Ananda, Anuruddha, and all the great arahants of the last twenty-five centuries have seen. It was there then, it is here now. Recall this frequently. Recall that there have been thousands, even tens of thousands of arahants in the past, and that there will be many hundreds, even thousands of arahants in the future. For this path is still available, and when the path is available, so are the fruits.
There is a book called "A Manual of a Mystic". This is an old treatise on meditation which was found in a monastery in Sri Lanka many decades ago. Part of the meditation practice which is described there is just the above recollection, the recollection of all the arahants who achieved the sublime bliss of Nibbana in the past. And now, here you are, embarked on the same journey, doing the same things, which must give rise to the same fruits. This was the promise of the Buddha. He said that this Dhamma leads one way and one way only -- it leads to Nibbana. If you can get into the stream, it will sweep you all the way down to the sea. Such recollections, done frequently, give rise to great joy, happiness, and confidence, and they give rise to faith in this practice which we call Buddhism, the Dhamma. This in turn gives rise to the energy and the sustained will to do what is necessary to transform that glimmer of faith into the light of wisdom.
You are in the presence of Nibbana every time you open up one of the books of the Tipitaka. This is because there is just a thin veil between you and the Dhamma. In the same way, when the Buddha taught these teachings to monks like Ven.Bahiya, just the teaching was enough to give people of that calibre great insight, which removed the distance between them and Nibbana. They were not just in the presence of Nibbana, they had made that one step further - the full realization of Nibbana. In the Suttas there are many instances of monks and nuns who would never have imagined that they were so close to such a marvellous and sublime event, but still they became great disciples of the Buddha. Indeed, when people look through the glasses of delusion, they can very often think: " How could one like me ever gain this sublime bliss of Nibbana? How could one like me ever attain a jhana? How could one like me ever penetrate such a deep and profound Dhamma? " But the Buddha said that you can! You can because you have already had enough confidence and faith to take up the brown robe of the Lord Buddha or to practise his teachings seriously as a lay person.
An important aspect of the path is the study of the Buddha’s teachings. It is said very beautifully in the Buddha’s discourses: "one lends an ear, listens with interest, and applies the mind", so that what one hears can enter deep within the mind, and there it can settle. As it settles, over the weeks, months, and years, it will grow and bear fruit. One day it will be so sweet, it will be the fruit of enlightenment.
As you are doing the duty of lending ear to the Dhamma, contemplating it, and allowing it to sweep over the mind like a beautiful breeze on a warm day, it soaks in and penetrates deep into the mind. It penetrates deeper than the thinking mind, deeper than the fault finding mind, deeper than the familiar mind, into that part of the mind which you have yet to know. It’s as if it is waiting there, waiting until, through the practice of meditation, you enter those very refined, beautiful, and subtle states of mind where these seeds of the Dhamma are accessible, waiting to bear fruit and waiting to ripen into the bliss of enlightenment. Because you have seen this happen to others in the past, you have faith and confidence.
Sometimes people think that the great masters, the great monks and nuns of the olden times, were somehow supermen and superwomen. But many of the great monks and nuns started off as no different than most practitioners today. Sometimes the most unlikely candidates became the greatest saints. They were trying to get hold of the mind and to calm it, to lead it to one point, to stillness. They did the training to the best of their abilities, but more importantly, they persevered. Then one day, through the accumulation of all their effort, the accumulation of all their practice of virtue , the accumulation of meditation - sometimes modding meditation and sometimes meditation when the mind went all over the place - through the accumulation of learning, and through the accumulation of their reflections and small insights, they eventually succeeded.
There is the great simile of the pot filling up one drop at a time. There comes the moment when just one more drop causes the pot to overflow, and the Dhamma is seen. You never know when it’s going to be that last drop. The ordinary, unenlightened individual can never see this pot filling because it’s in a part of the mind which you have no access to yet - but it’s filling nonetheless. One day it will become full, and it will spill over into the mind as you know it now and lead you to the source, this innermost mind, which is usually hidden by the defilements and the hindrances. This is when you start to see the source which the Buddha called ‘the housebuilder’, the creator of birth and suffering.
So in the monastic life, or as a layperson who has taken the lay precepts, you never give up the effort and you never give up the training. This is a theme which runs throughout the Buddha’s teachings - if you give up the training in virtue, meditation, and wisdom, there is no possibility of success. But if you continue with the training, if you continue doing that which the Buddha suggested, it only leads one way - to Nibbana.
This was very beautifully encapsulated in some of the best words of advice I got from a highly respected monk in Sri Lanka, Ven. Nyanavimala. It’s a piece of advice which I always value and keep in mind: "At the end of each day, it doesn’t matter so much to what stage you have attained, or what you have achieved. What really matters is whether you have really practised to the limit of your ability that day, that you have really tried your best, or whether you have been slack, and heedless, forgetting the Buddha’s teachings, and forgetting your faith that these teachings actually lead to Nibbana." If at the end of the day you look back and you know that you tried your best, then you are accumulating spiritual qualities, these drops of water inside, and you are getting closer to the goal. By continuing in this way, it will and must happen that enlightenment will come to you as well. Reflecting in this way you are developing faith in the Buddha’s teachings.
The Buddha not only encouraged faith using the metaphoric ‘carrot’ - the encouragement, incitement and reassurance that this is a path which produces fruit -, but he also used "the stick.". The stick is just reflecting and seeing with the wisdom you already possess, the result of going the wrong way - into the realm of craving, disappointment and frustration, into the realm of suffering, into realm of more britle and uncertain lives often with great suffering and great torment. That is enough of a stick because it gives a sense of wholesome fear (otappa) - a fear of the consequences of not continuing to apply the effort, not continuing to walk this path, and not continuing to progress as far as your ability allows. It doesn’t matter where you are on the path as long as you are stepping forward, as long as every day another drop falls, filling up that great jar of merit you are accumulating inside yourself. As you do this you are in the presence of Nibbana, you are practicing the path which gives rise to Nibbana.
The Buddha and the Noble Ones always say that that path is the Noble Eightfold path - the path of virtue, concentration, and wisdom. At first, it should be followed out of faith. The path of virtue is that one will not harm any living being. One dwells with a mind concerned with the happiness of all beings - that softness of mind concerned with the welfare of all beings wherever they may be, including oneself. That virtue has to be perfected. It’s not enough to have 90% virtue, 95% virtue, or even 99% virtue - it must be fully purified. The Buddha said that this is all important, it is the foundation of the path. Virtue is the ground on which the higher aspects and factors of the Eightfold path rest. If this part of the path is weak - if one takes liberties with one’s virtue and one bends the rules - it’s going to weaken concentration and make wisdom almost impossible. Thus out of faith and trust in the Buddha’s teachings, and in the teachings of all the great monks and nuns, one resolves in a place which is deeper than the defilements: "I shall hold up these precepts as if they were a golden casket full of jewels; I shall hold them up to my head; I shall value them and protect them because they are of the Buddha."
One famous meditation teacher used to make sure that the monks would look after their alms bowls by telling them to regard their bowls as the Buddha’s head. You should then regard virtue as what’s on top of the Buddha’s head, higher yet. It’s so sacred and valued that you dare not deliberately go against any advice or pronouncement of the Lord Buddha. Eventually, you develop such concentration and wisdom that your faith in the Buddha’s teaching grows to the extent that you would not transgress these precepts even for life. It becomes almost impossible to do so. The mind will value them more than life because they came from the Tathagata, because they lead to Nibbana and because, by empowering the mind to achieve concentration, they open up the door for wisdom to enter.
At first one just has ordinary confidence and faith. But with each realization and with each deep insight one’s confidence and faith are transformed - not into love or worship because it’s something higher and deeper than that - but rather into an enormous respect for what is the highest of all. As it says in the Ratana-sutta: " Na tena dhammena samatthi kinci" - " There is nothing equal to the Dhamma of the Buddha". Once one realizes that it is more valuable than anything else in the whole world, one would never transgress in the realm of virtue, one would never hurt, devalue, or demean.
As virtue becomes strong in the practitioner, concentration happens by itself. It happens simply because the mind becomes pure. Pure means free from defilements. It is actions which defile the mind, actions of body and speech, and also the thoughts which come before the actions of body and speech. The practice of virtue is getting hold of the mind which is being defiled by habitual patterns of unskillful reactions, the reactions of a crazy person, the reactions of a person who just cannot see. The mind is covered up with grease and dust so it can not really see its own welfare. The practice of virtue is the first shining and cleaning up of the mind, getting rid of the accumulated grim of many lifetimes.
Those beings who walk in virtue, who speak and act kindly and wisely, seem, as it were, to have no hurt and harm in them. They have a beauty and attraction about them which comes from the inner happiness that they experience as a result of unblemished virtue. Each practitioner of this path should know that happiness, but it will only be recognized when it has been pointed out. If you take the time to look into the mind and turn the apparatus of perception until you notice that your virtue is very pure, the virtue of the Buddha, you should get more faith and confidence in the Buddha’s teachings.
On this path towards enlightenment there are stages, which one goes through, and each of those stages has its own joys. Those joys are little confirmations that this path is leading in the right direction. They encourage and reassure your faith: "If this is the happiness which I have achieved so far, what is the happiness which lies on the next stage?" Everyone should be warned however, that the nature of defilements is to turn away from that which is pure and just see that which is impure. You have to make a deliberate effort to notice that pure, subtle and refined happiness born of an unblemished lifestyle, a life of harmlessness. Maybe you consider your state of virtue not yet to be perfect. But enough perfection is there; enough days are spent in pure livelihood, pure speech, and pure action, that you should notice the result is unblemished happiness inside. Turn to that, recognize it, and it will be affirmed. It will give extra confidence in the accuracy and truth of the Buddha’s teachings about the mind and about the right practice of body and speech.
As virtue and restraint born of virtuous conduct is developed, one realizes that the way to achieve perfection in virtue is by restraining the senses. One has to restrain speaking, looking, and listening.Why listen to every conversation around you : "What do they say? What are they doing?" It doesn’t concern you. It’s much more beneficial to turn away from the conversations of the world, and to turn away from the activities of people, so you don’t even look at what’s happening outside. Instead one turns one’s eyes and ears, as it were, inside to see and hear the activities within. This is what is called restraint. The six senses are turned inside rather than always being pulled outside.
When you develop restraint of the senses, you start to experience one of the first stages of happiness born of peace. This is the happiness born of restraint, the happiness born of a mind starting to experience calm. You are guarding the senses, and they are being quietened down. What are they being guarded from? They are being guarded from involvement in the world which tends to excite and disturb the mind. Even if you still haven’t got much experience, you should at least practice this out of faith in Buddha’s teachings.
The Buddha said that if you practice sense restraint the result will be very pure and beautiful – a quiet, peaceful, and settled happiness. Those who practice seriously, and particularly those who live in quiet monasteries should be able to realize this. In a good monastery, especially a forest monastery, there is little to divert the senses, and sense restraint happens almost automatically. The joy that monastics experience is largely due to sense restraint. One should reflect and notice that happiness. It is a very delightful state of peace.
I want to point out again that to delight in wholesome states of mind is to follow the Buddha’s teachings. It is only unwise and unprofitable to delight in unwholesome states. The Buddha said it is sensory gratification in the world of the five senses that is dangerous. That is when delight and happiness should be feared. But the peace and happiness born of pure virtue and pure sense restraint, delight in it, enjoy it, indulge in it, and celebrate it. Do it out of faith in the Lord Buddha.
In the gradual training sense restraint is succeded by mindfulness and clear comprehension. Here the mind starts to feel its first experience of being in control, in power. The senses are usually in power, there’s no freedom - as soon as there’s a delightful object, one goes to it straight away. For men, as soon as a beautiful woman passes by, the eyes go in that direction. As soon as a nice smell drifts up from the kitchen, the nose goes straight to it, and as soon as there is an interesting conversation or pleasant music, the ears go straight to it. The senses are in control, not the mind, not wisdom.
However, once you develop control and guarding of the senses, mindfulness becomes possible. The mind has the power to know what is really going on, to direct the attention to that which is skillful and useful, and to resist getting lost in activities which just tangle it up rather than free it. When sense restraint gives rise to this mindfulness and clear comprehension, one starts to develop the foundation for the marvellous states of concentration where at last one comes to the mind, and one sees it clearly for what it truly is.
In one of my favourite suttas,the Sappurisasutta in the Majjhima Nikaya there is a little phrase which goes: "Whatever one conceives it to be, it is always something else." This is one of the most profound explanations of the Dhamma and some of its aspects which I can remember in my monastic life. It is as true for jhana and insight as it is for Nibbana itself. After having experienced one of these states, you realize how completely different the experience actually is from what you thought, read, and expected it to be. These refined aspects of mind cannot be reached through concepts that are built up of the bricks of one’s worldly experience - that’s why they are wonderful and marvellous. How could such a crude and coarse apparatus as the conceptual mind reach these states? This is good to remember because it takes away one’s trust and confidence in the conceptual mind. Many people put far too much trust in their ability to conceive; so much so in fact, that they argue about who is right or wrong based on this conceptual mind, and they think they are getting somewhere.
Out of faith in the Lord Buddha one’s job and duty is to use that conceptual mind where it is appropriate, and drop it where it has no place, where it does not reach, and where it does not belong. Where it does not belong is in the realm of those states of mind, which are beyond the ordinary human being (uttarimanussadhamma): the states of jhana, the states of realization, and Nibbana. Here the conceptual mind has to be dropped. First of all, this has to be taken on faith - faith in the teachings of the Buddha and the teachings of the Noble Disciples. What I mean by faith is that one values the teachings of the Buddha so much that they are allowed to go inside of the mind. One day when one is close to concentration or insight, that teaching will come up to bear its fruit, and one will give up the conceptual mind. That which is the coarser form of craving, called diversification (papanca), is calmed. Having given it up, getting beyond the veil, behind the cause of the problem, the mind becomes still and peaceful. One could say that these thoughts and concepts are the language of the self, the ego, and the only way this self can be seen is first to silence it.
So you doubt this conceptual mind and instead you develop the mind of faith in the Buddha’s teaching. The teaching says that this path can only lead one way, but the conceptual mind might well say: "I can’t do it, it’s not possible for me". This is the talk of the ego which is getting scared, the talk of Mara who is on the defensive, rattled by your progress on the path to Nibbana. Instead of believing in the conceptual mind, the mind of Mara, trust the word of the Buddha and the advice of the Noble Disciples. Turn aside those conceptional doubts, let them go, and push them away. Go beyond them, and find that the Buddha was wise and enlightened: he did teach the Dhamma, and that Dhamma works. Especially when the mind becomes peaceful one should push out the conceptual mind and bring up the faith mind. Let go of the ordering, the assessing of the situation, and the thinking of what to do next. Let the Dhamma take over, and let the practice take its natural course. If you have been practicing virtue, sense restraint, and mindfulness, you have the basis for concentration - let go and let it happen. Allow the mind to concentrate, to go to what one could almost call its natural state - the seeking of satisfaction and comfort within itself rather than seeking it outside. Becoming self sufficient, self comforting, and self sustaining, the door from the mind to the five external senses is closed and the mind is immersed in itself, in a radiant joy. As one experiences this, one delights in it, and it is wise and good to delight in it. One has faith in the Buddha who said that this is a delight, which has no underlying tendencies of craving and lust.
As the mind emerges from these states, one can see the first stirrings of craving, the mind which goes out to seek for satisfaction - just as an arm reaches out for a cup of tea or whatever it thinks to be joy. Often Buddhists think that craving is suffering, but craving also has its measure of delight: the anticipation, the delusive joy of activity, the doing, making, becoming, and controlling. One sees this stupid craving going out, and one sees its results.
When developing insight based on these powerful states of concentration, craving appears like an animal, emerging from the mind and going out. One sees this very clearly, and one can understand the dangers very clearly. The coarse mind can only see what is coarse and superficial. The subtle mind, however, can see the subtle and can understand the very source and essence of craving: why it works, why the mind delights in it, and the result of that delighting. Then the mind can develop repulsion towards craving itself, repulsion to this animal which emerges from the mind and goes out promising happiness and joy, but comes back to bite and torment the mind afterwards, unfaithful to its promise. Craving promises delight, happiness, satisfaction, and contentment, but it only brings torment and disappointment. This can be seen by the refined mind.
You can also see that craving first originates from the delusion of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. It is the delusion of a self which needs joy and satisfaction in the first place - so the sense of self is the source of craving. It’s not going to be uncovered easily as it lies very deep within. You need the powerful, refined, and subtle mind to be able to even come close to the source and meaning of self or rather that which we take to be self inside the mind. It’s a very hard thing to see, but with faith and confidence in the Buddha’s advice, and by following it, you come closer and closer until eventually you gain that profound insight.
When the self is seen, or rather that which is taken to be a self, then, truly, you are in the presence of Nibbana. The self is seen to be just a mirage, which has deceived the mind for so many lifetimes. This is seen, not as a concept, but as an experience so refined that it becomes very hard to describe to others - language doesn’t reach to these places. Once what was taken to be a self is seen, the delusion is destroyed and the very ground from which craving originates is taken away. Craving is then like a bird which has no place to rest anymore - it can still go flying in the sky, but it can’t come back to rest on any ground, and eventually it gets tired, and then dies.
When the mind sees these things, it sees the Dhamma: It sees the origination of all things and where they lead to. It sees its own nature and the nature of delusion. At that point, faith is transformed into wisdom, enlightening and powerful wisdom - the realization of the Dhamma.
Many may wonder how anyone can gain such refined wisdom. But those who have faith in the Buddha know that there is a path by which human beings can gain this wisdom, namely the Eightfold Path. From the very beginning to the end its not that long, if one has the patience and energy born of confidence and faith. If the energy comes from a sense of self, from a sense of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ - because you’re ashamed of what you have done so far, and you want to do better - it will not be anywhere near as effective as if it’s coming from faith in the Buddha’s teachings. Energy born of faith, not of self, is energy coming from the Buddha. If it’s faith in the Dhamma, its energy born of the Dhamma or if it’s faith in the Sangha, it’s energy born of the Noble Sangha. For example, if hearing a great discourse from one of the Noble Ones gives rise to faith, and that faith gives rise to energy, then that is energy born of the Noble Ones. It is that energy which is powerful, which can arouse one to perfect one’s virtue, to perfect one’s sense restraint, to make mindfulness just so sharp, and to bring the mind to concentration.
One of my favourite phrases is: "Whether you like it or not, it happens." Whether you think that jhana is the path to Nibbana or not, you get into jhana. It’s a natural part of the Eightfold path, and it happens by itself. Planning it or not planning it is just getting in the way. The experience of jhana is the result of a mind whose hindrances have been suppressed; of a mind where faith has been developed, where purity of virtue has been developed, where sense restraint has been developed, and where mindfulness has been developed. The happiness that comes about when the mind is developed in such a way whether one likes it or not, whether one decides to or not, naturally gives rise to these beautiful jhanas.
The Buddha called the jhanas ‘the releases of mind’ and ‘the happiness of Nibbana’. They are not the true release of Nibbana, but close enough in their affective qualities to give you a taste of freedom. It’s the first real experience of freedom, and you get a taste and an indication of what Nibbana truly is. The mind has calmed down, the defilements are gone - although only temporarily - and you experience a mind without defilements, which is just inside itself. You get an idea of contentment and of a state where craving doesn’t reach, where Mara is blindfolded.
Having experienced these beautiful states that the Buddha was describing - getting an indication of what Nibbana is like - you don’t really need to worry about faith anymore. The experience is there and, once there, the faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha becomes something which has gone to greatness (mahagatta).
When you achieve those states free from defilments, you just need that last degree of faith to turn the attention where the Buddha said to turn it at such a time. Turn away from the screen and look back at the source of the film - the light and the projector itself – and you start to uncover the mirage of self. This is where you see the Dhamma. You see where the defilements originate from, and where the hindrances have their source - the mirage of the self. It’s delusion you are uncovering. This is the root cause of all defilements, the beginning of the dependent origination. If you uproot the mirage of self by seeing clearly beyond concepts with a mind freed through the practice of the Eightfold path, then will come the certain knowledge that you have entered the stream and that you are bound for enlightenment. There is no way that this can be turned back, and that’s why they say that from this stage on the faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha becomes unshakable. It becomes so powerful, tall, and great that there is no way in the world that there is ever any turning back.
At this point one delights in the Dhamma and in the achievement and uniqueness of the Buddha. Having realized the Dhamma, one really knows what the Buddha is. ‘He who sees the Tathagata sees the Dhamma, he who sees the Dhamma, sees the Tathagata’. That’s a very profound saying, and one needs to actually see the Dhamma to understand its meaning. In other words, if one has truly seen the Dhamma, then one will value the Buddha, Dhamma and Noble Sangha above all else. Faith in the Buddha reaches its peak and becomes an enormous source of delight, joy, and happiness - the bliss of pure confidence. And again, it’s a delight and happiness from which there is nothing to be blamed or feared. It’s a pool from which one can drink, where there is no pollution and nothing which is going to cause injury or ill health. Thus faith is a powerful tool. It will take you from beginning to the end of this realm of samsara and eventually set you free.
As I mentioned earlier, right in the beginning faith may be weak and challenged by the defilements, but just notice, as one leads this holy life, how at each stage it gives rise to greater degrees of happiness. These happinesses are real and are there to be turned to at any time if one can only notice them. They are like invisible companions which one takes for granted but often doesn’t notice. As they are noticed, they will give increased faith that this practice works, and when that faith builds up, it will propel you along the path.
When you are practicing this path, you are in the presence of Nibbana. Confidence in this truth might just enable the mind to accept that Nibbana is only hidden behind the thinnest of veils. You might just get the incentive to go beyond and achieve jhana, achieve insight, become one of the Noble Ones and realize that it was not all that difficult. You need to go just one step further into the mind and one step further behind the defenses of the illusion of self.