Contemplation and Awareness

by Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero

Discerning the background

Thaniyo: In terms of contemplating the 32 parts of the body, how do you do that correctly? You actually cannot see your brain, your lungs, intestines, etc. And when you think about it, when you want to contemplate your brain, your lungs, etc, then what is there is actually an idea, a thought. So actually now I’m attending that thought, and then I’m picking up the signs of those things.

Nyanamoli: Yes, that’s the difference there. The only way people who approach this, the only way they would know how, is through attending—in other words, they would be attending that thought as if that’s really attending to your brain, which you can’t. So, the only way to see these body parts correctly, in the relevant contemplation manner, is indirectly, without attending to them directly as objects of your attention. You are to discern them as that-because-of-which you are here living, attending to things.

That’s the difference between doing the body contemplation rightly and wrongly. Wrongly is basically just repeating these parts, visualizing them and thinking that that somehow equates to understanding them. It might provide you an initial kind of reduction of sensual craving, because you never think about those things, but very soon you’ll get used to it and it’ll become meaningless because you can’t see those things directly. That’s why in paṭiccasamuppāda the saḷāyatana (the six-sense base) is the ultimate indirect, it’s the ultimate peripheral. It’s the ultimate that-because-of-which-there-is-the-world-for-you, that because of which you are the perceiver, you are the conceiver of it. That’s why when the Buddha describes the six-sense base, it’s described in that almost external, medical manner—the fleshy eye, the nose and so on—because that’s the closest you can see it. You can’t see it directly: you cannot attend to your eye, you can only attend to the object.

But that’s not the eye because of which you see things. You are misconceiving it, thinking that that’s the eye because of which you see things. You start assuming that you can attend that because of which your attention is there. You have to stop trying to attend the eye, the nose, and start discerning it as a basis, as a physical basis for the world to exist for you. In the same sense, you can be attending to a cup, attending to a table, attending to the image of your brain, but you’re just regarding these things as overly objectified objects of your attention. In a way, they have something in common—they’re all material. But you don’t want to regard your brain just as you regard a cup, because a cup is insignificant to you—you want to discern that that objective brain that you’re thinking about is the reason for your subjectivity, because of which you’re able to attend to the idea of the brain in the first place.

Thaniyo: So, I have to keep reminding myself of that?

Nyanamoli: Well, you might have to initially, to remind yourself to recreate the right order of things—so that you can dwell on it—but after a while, you don’t have to: it will be enough just to remember it, because you will know how to look indirectly. You will know how to see things without having to look at them.

People might misunderstand when I mention ‘the simultaneous presence’. They might end up thinking it’s like two things at the same time, momentarily present in front of you. But when I say ‘simultaneous presence’—and that is the way the Suttas talk about it—it’s basically two things that are present on two different levels. It doesn’t mean they are there equally present at the same time for a second or two, and then you must catch them both at the same time. It is not like that, because you are just trying to catch one thing. You can divide it into a million sub-parts—your attention is still looking at that foreground of an object.

But when we talk about the simultaneous presence, we are saying it endures: the peripheral endures. For example, you have an image of your brain, but you don’t overly attend to it as a random object in the world of which you tell yourself “This body is not mine.” It is not like that, but you have to see that image of the brain without misconceiving it, and then you start discerning that this is the closest you can get to that which your life actually depends upon, that form. The closest you can get is through these images of the brain, lungs, heart, blood, and so on. You realize all of them stand for that, because of which you are conscious here living this life, but you can’t possibly enter that brain in the way of accessing it through your perception, or anything like that. Why? Because it precedes it. But you can know that the image of the brain that you have on that peripheral level is that because of which you’re able to be present here and now, and attend to these various other things that arise. In other words, when you stop thinking about the brain, your knowledge that that’s the order of your experience—meaning you’re undermined by the matter—doesn’t change.

That’s what I mean when I say it’s simultaneously present. You don’t have to keep thinking about it. You can actually forget about it, but rightly. It would basically constitute rightful forgetfulness, which is when your forgetfulness does not induce avijjā anymore. You don’t have to keep thinking—it’s impossible to keep thinking about everything all the time.

Thaniyo: That makes sense since you can’t really think “Brain… brain… brain” all the time.

Nyanamoli: Exactly, because you just keep forcing it into the foreground, and then you fail to see what the peripheral is, which means you have now overly misconceived the brain and you’re making it into an object of your perception, which it is impossible for it to be. The eye cannot see itself.

Let me say it like this: for example, you think about the brain rightly, peripherally. You discern the image of the brain, meaning you recognize there is the brain in here because of which my experience still exists, and then you stop thinking about it. And then three hours later you think about it again, and it’s important here to introduce the attitude if you have to—eventually, you will recognize it as such. It’s important, when three hours later you think about the brain again, you recognize that it’s the same brain that has been here this whole time. The fact that you forgot about it did not make it not there.

The same applies with moods or feelings. For example, you have a present mood arisen—it’s sort of agreeable, but then you start attending to more particular things, and of course you don’t go around thinking how agreeable your day is. But then, later on, four or six hours later, you look back and you remember it again—that it was agreeable. It’s the same mood. And that’s what I mean when I say you have to let it endure. That means that when you bring it back, you don’t make it yours, but you recognize it as it has been enduring on its own. That’s how you start discerning the simultaneous principle I’m talking about. Simultaneous in the sense that the general mood—the general notion of the matter being there—for example, in the contemplation of the body—it’s been there enduring on its own, whether you thought about it or not. So, when you do remember, you will eventually stop giving priority to the thought “I remembered this” and “I’m attending to this” and “I’m practicing this”—you will just find it. It’s simultaneously present with everything else you do, when you don’t attend to that. It’s the necessary basis, basically, for your action, for your choice, for your attention.

Thaniyo: So, we should develop the domain, the background. So, one wants to develop it but in the process of that, he forgets about it.

Nyanamoli: You develop it by learning how to discern that it’s already there.

Thaniyo: Sure, but then…

Nyanamoli: Then you have to forget about it.

Thaniyo: After a minute?

Nyanamoli: After a minute, that’s fine. Then when you remember it, you want to abandon the attitude of “I must restart this practice because I forgot about it.” Instead of that, you want to develop recognition and think: “Oh, yes, it’s still there.” That’s pretty much the crucial difference that I’m talking about. Many people say “Be here now… be present… just feel… just this, it’s just like that” and whatnot, but it all revolves around just telling yourself: “Come back to the present moment, come back to the present moment.” You want to recognize that when you come back to the present moment, you can only do so because it was there enduring beforehand.

Then you realize you can’t forget about it even if you want to. You’re responsible for your own ignorance, because you’re responsible for the attitude of thinking you have to hold it in front of you and that’s the only way for it to exist. You forget about it after a minute, then you remember it after five minutes, and then you think “Oh, crap! I forgot about it. I must do it again now,” as if you are the one who does it to begin with. It is not like that! Each time that attitude arises, you include that attitude in your mindfulness as well because it’s not rooted in you, but it’s rooted in the enduring background.

That’s what the mind is—the ultimate background, citta nimitta. That’s why it is said: “He knows the mind as exalted or as shrunk or as depressed or as elated.” These states that people almost automatically appropriate are your state of mind. As such, it endures. Five days later, you remember it again. The only reason you can remember it, is because it’s still there enduring to some extent. And what will that do, this kind of practice of mindfulness? Well, you can’t be treading water with it. If you keep doing it, it is forcing you basically to shift the center of your experience from your sense of self into the background of things, and even the actual things that you’re attending to, because you realize that they’re there because of the background, you start squeezing your own sense of self out. There is no room for it in the experience because whether you look at the background, or whether you’re attending to the foreground, you realize this can be done only because these things endure on their own, beforehand.

Therefore, stop worrying about not forgetting, but instead start focusing on discerning whenever you remember and don’t misconceive whenever you remember. And the most fundamental misconceiving is the idea “mine”, meaning that “I am” here, at the center—not this thing that I remembered because of which I am in the first place.

Thaniyo: If I understand correctly, whatever I attend to, at any given time, that must induce a remembering of the way things are.

Nyanamoli: Well, you don’t even have to say it like that, but you can just say: “Whatever I attend to, just be aware of what I’m doing.” Include yourself in that picture. And where that sense of self is, that’s already where the background is. Instead of feeling that each time you remember, you must restart the practice and then hold it as long as you can. Then you drop that whole attitude of trying to remember but instead, whenever you remember, even if it’s once a day, you still don’t think: “Oh, now I remembered, I must hold it.” Instead you should think: “I remembered it, it’s already there, arisen beforehand. Not mine, not for me, not myself. It cannot be mine.” And that automatically affects everything else within that background, within that peripheral.

It’s going to take time to see that because now the emphasis is on what you attend to—that’s what matters. In practice you are thinking: “I’m attending to this, I’m attending to this,” and then you forget and try to remember it again. But that is not the way, because the only reason you can attend to anything is because it is there given as an option, which means it exists on the peripheral, where the possibilities exist.

Things are genuinely impermanent, and cannot be owned, and cannot be controlled. But you can’t see that because you depend on telling yourself that things are genuinely impermanent, cannot be owned and so on. You can attend to all sorts of things, but that thing is still there on its own, that’s the important bit. That’s how you shift it onto the phenomenon that has arisen and is enduring, not onto you attending it. That’s how you place yourself second basically. And when the sense of self is second, it’s not a sense of self any more. To have the sense of self it is has to be always the first, the master.

Thaniyo: Then I might start thinking about other things.

Nyanamoli: If you start thinking about other things, you use the same principle of allowing your mind to get established on the significance of that peripheral, and then let it go. Let your mind think about other things.

Basically, establishing that significance would create that enduring context. But you don’t have to keep thinking “this is the context”, because it’s there. You just let it endure. And then you might wonder what to do then. You don’t do anything. You let your mind think. Just make sure it doesn’t go into sensuality, ill-will or cruelty. That’s it. That’s all you have to do. Just prevent it from going there. If it doesn’t want to go there, you don’t have to do anything. That’s how you make your own sense of self redundant.

Thaniyo: What about doubt?

Nyanamoli: That’s also how you go beyond doubt. If your mind is established on the peripheral—upon the nature of an enduring phenomenon—no amount of active movements of your mind, all of that is secondary to that enduring significance that you’ve established, so you can’t doubt it. You can doubt what you’re attending to, but the background of your attention is that which you cannot attend to, and you cannot doubt that if you start discerning it. If you keep confusing it and thinking that you can attend to the background of your attention—in the same sense you think you can see the eye because of which you see—then you’re still affected by doubt.

That’s what Ven. Ñāṇavīra was talking about when he wrote about the self-identity of a self-enduring phenomenon that people confuse with their own self-identity. The identity of that thing is still there, it’s still the same thing. In that sense, you are responsible for establishing your mind correctly, only to let it go and allow that establishment to endure. If done rightly it will endure. That’s how you enter jhānas.

That’s why it was said in the suttas that a monk doesn’t think “I am entering the jhāna now”, or “I will enter the jhāna.” But he sets up his mind, he sets up the right significance, and then the mind gets established upon the theme of jhāna. And that’s why, while that theme is enduring, all that is implied is the phenomenon of the fact that nothing that is taken as ‘mine’ can be owned. Yet it’s the reason because of which you are there in the first place. If you establish your mind like that, then you won’t be able to think—for as long as such a phenomenon is enduring—“I’m doing this and that” because it’s not rooted in you anymore—it’s rooted in a proper foundation, which is the foundation of the inaccessible matter: the five aggregates that cannot actually be owned.

Thaniyo: How do we know if the knowledge is developed sufficiently enough?

Nyanamoli: Dispassion is the sign, dispassion is the result.

Thaniyo: Then is one always aware of the background?

Nyanamoli: Sure, because that’s not something you attend to.

Thaniyo: But then one is always aware of the background.

Nyanamoli: Yes, whatever that background is at the time. Hence, the arahant is always mindful.

Thaniyo: It doesn’t have to be a specific background.

Nyanamoli: No, for as long as people think mindfulness is what you attend to, then they can’t comprehend how an arahant can be always mindful and not be a robot at the same time. There is always something enduring, for as long as these aggregates don’t break apart. That’s what the Buddha meant when he said: “Or he develops mindfulness to the extent necessary for final knowledge.” Exactly, to the extent. All the things that were implied in the perception of the beating heart, that’s not in your control—yet it determines your whole life simultaneously while you’re alive—you can go further within the same perception: What is the characteristic? What are the nimittas of that significance of my beating heart? It’s not in my control. So, my sense of control fundamentally depends upon the greater domain of non-control, of that which is inaccessible to my control. That’s nothing other than anicca. So, you develop the perception of impermanence correctly. This thing cannot be owned, cannot be appropriated, cannot be controlled, it’s impermanent.

Thaniyo: Everything that is experienced?

Nyanamoli: Yes, the universal characteristics are the most universal. But as I said, sometimes the mind just won’t be getting established upon it because it’s too subtle and it got too distracted or whatever, so you bring it down. That’s why the Buddha had such a varied range of different approaches. Looking at a dead corpse for example. On some days that will not be necessary because it will be enough just to think about the phenomenon of non-control and it will be fully establishing dispassion, renunciation, relinquishing, and everything else. But on other days it might be necessary. Either way, you’re developing the same principle.

Thaniyo: So, to know that you’re developing correctly—when you’ve actually got somewhere in development— is the sign of dispassion always there?

Nyanamoli: If the mind is properly established… Why? Because again you have shifted the emphasis from me and I, onto the enduring phenomenon that exists on its own. So even when disagreeable things arise, it becomes inconceivable to become involved in a personal manner. It’s just like knowing: “The wind blows, the branches fall, the sun shines, the heart beats, people shout abuse at you.” It’s on the same level. That’s why the Buddha listed these as elements to be endured—enduring the malicious speech, the hurtful speech and so on.

Thaniyo: So, with the breath, breathing is always there—intention to breathe, to be more specific. But I can sit now and play with my breath.

Nyanamoli: OK. But you want to know it. Like now, for most people, because they’re so concerned with what they attend to, even the people who try to practice, breath is pretty much peripheral in regard to their other actions. The breath goes into the background.

But if you bring the breath into the foreground, as in if you think “I’m sitting here, breathing in, breathing out…”, you don’t do it in the sense of thinking you are going to be attending to this every second. You bring it to the foreground so that you will see the background of breathing. For most day-to-day experience, breath is in the background. And here you can establish significance by asking yourself if you will be alive if the breathing stops? If your airways get blocked? No. So, you could establish the same principle as we just did—of dispassion, relinquishment, non-control, not-self—by seeing the background of your breath. Or you can think: “Why don’t I refine it further and start seeing the background of the actual act of breathing?” And that’s how the Ānāpānasati Sutta goes where it says: “Knowingly he breathes in, knowingly he breathes out.” And you see, actually it is not like: “I’m breathing in, I’m breathing in, I’m breathing in” while inhaling and then, “now I’m breathing out, breathing out, breathing out” while exhaling. That is not how it is said there! But rather, he’s breathing in, breathing out, and he knows it, which means now he’s discerning an even more general background to that, because that’s what’s in front of him. He puts his mindfulness to the fore, as the sutta says. No matter what he thinks, what matters is knowing the background of that doing. That’s how you establish mindfulness of the breathing. Mindfulness is basically synonymous with background, so when you say mindfulness, you say background. You can call mindfulness of breathing as the background of breathing.

Thaniyo: What is that background of breathing?

Nyanamoli: Well, fundamentally it comes down to the knowledge of action, any action, because breathing is an action; that would be if you fully discerned it. But initially what it will be as the background of breathing is the knowledge of breathing and of the necessity of breath, the necessity of the body.

When I say the necessity of those things it means you are not necessary, these things are necessary. It’s like narrowing down the field of your concern. Don’t get distracted by “I must do this and that”. That’s why the Buddha said: “When you develop this, that body you’re discerning there is that body, the body among the bodies,” which means it’s the body that stands for the phenomenon of the body at the time. So, you use your breathing as a natural confinement for the concern of your thought, and you become mindful of it properly when you start discerning the background of that confinement. But, as I said, you discern the confinement because breathing is already there, whether you attend to it or not—you certainly don’t make a mechanical method out of it, thinking: “I’ll watch my nostrils… watch my nostrils…”. There you don’t discern a background, but you’re actively looking away from it, while you’re actively trying to focus on what’s in front of you.

Thaniyo: So, what about this example of when you learn something like 2 + 2 equals 4. You know that now, so every time you look at 2 + 2—

Nyanamoli: The knowledge is there. Imagine the same principle applied to the universal nature of experience. Whenever you look at anything that has arisen, you see its cessation. That’s the insight of the sotapanna: “Whatever has the nature of arising…”. It doesn’t say “whatever has arisen in front of me is impermanent.” “Whatever has the nature of arising” means it’s already a peripheral knowledge. The nature of a thing is something you cannot attend to. You can discern it based on things you’re attending to. So, you discern that whatever has the nature of arising, for that reason has to cease.

Thaniyo: What is the sign of “arisen”?

Nyanamoli: Cessation. Because of its arising, not because it’s going to disappear, but because it has arisen. So, whenever things arise for you, which is for as long as the five aggregates exist, you see impermanence.

That’s why arahantship is irreversible, Right View is irreversible. You cannot forget that, because everything contains it. That’s why it’s such a general statement—because that’s the most accurate way you could say it. “Whatever has the nature of arising, has the nature of ceasing.” That’s it.

Thaniyo: So that significance, that sign, is always there because whatever is manifested is always there.

Nyanamoli: Exactly, that is its nature. That’s why the dhammā are the phenomena, and then the Dhamma, as in the Teaching, is the nature of the phenomena. The phenomenology, literally—the knowledge of the phenomena. So, whatever has the nature of manifestation, has the nature of this teaching of the Dhamma, the nature of impermanence and so on.

In practice, you look at the breath, you contemplate the body so as to keep discerning this nature of manifestation clearer and clearer. It’s already there on its own, manifested. You’re not creating it by attending to it, you can only attend to it because it’s already there enduring. You cannot create anything from nothingness and bring it into being because you are the result of it. Your attention is already secondary to it, structurally, not in the sense of a sequence like 1, 2, 3. It’s all within the same arisen basis of the present form, paired with consciousness that you cannot step outside of. Any movement you make within it, is strictly within it. If you try to attend to that, it would require you to step outside of it and see it as an object, but that’s inconceivable. And if you keep doing it, it’s because you’re misconceiving that you can do it. You want to discern these universal characteristics of things, not by your attending to them and thinking they exist only when you attend to them. And that’s how you uproot your sense of self. You can’t step outside of yourself or the five aggregates, but you can certainly stop misconceiving them, and that can be done only from the inside.

On sensuality

Thaniyo: There is a Sutta from AN 4:181: “How is a bhikkhu a long-distance shooter? Any kind of form whatsoever, past, future, present, whatever—a bhikkhu sees all form as it really is with correct wisdom.”

Nyanamoli: Yes, so shooting the peripheral discernment. For example, within the significance of the heart you can discern even further: what is a more refined significance than this beating heart already implied, which is the significance of earth, water, fire, air. Significance of impermanence, non-control. So, if a bhikkhu is a long-distance shooter, it means he doesn’t even have to go through, for example, establishing the significance of the heart to discern these other more refined significances—his mind is already developed to the level of discerning refined significances in whatever has arisen. And these refined significances—refined signs—are the impermanence, four great elements, etc.

Thaniyo: The Sutta goes further: “And how is a bhikkhu a sharpshooter?”

Nyanamoli: He goes for the significances that are fundamental to freedom from suffering basically.

You would arrive at that through contemplating the independence of the four great elements, your dependence on it, etc. You would eventually drain away any conceit, any misconceiving, which will result in freedom from suffering. Or if you shoot precisely, you go straight for freedom from suffering, because that’s already implied.

Thaniyo: Because that’s like the most general recognition. Whatever has arisen, will cease, and you develop that.

Nyanamoli: That’s also what it means to be paññavimutti. One who’s liberated through wisdom because he discerns only things relevant to liberation. He doesn’t develop all the jhānas and everything else, but discerns the right things to the sufficient extent.

Like now when you speak about it, it will be quite an abstract thing. But the only reason it’s abstract is because the mind hasn’t been developed in regard to that abstraction, so start developing it. Start discerning it in arisen things that endure for you, in front of you, throughout your daily life—because these things are there. They will remain abstract for as long as you don’t see them as they are—so you abstract them, literally.

Thaniyo: And then the Sutta goes further: “And how is a bhikkhu one who splits a great body? Here, a bhikkhu splits the great mass of ignorance. Possessing these four qualities he’s worthy of offerings. And how is a bhikkhu skilled in places? He’s virtuous, seeing the danger in the slightest fault…”

Nyanamoli: That’s also where you see the danger—it’s in that peripheral. The danger is in the background—the danger is the implication of what’s in front of you. The danger is the context that you create. A puthujjana doesn’t see the danger in sensuality, but if he starts thinking about it, discerning it, he’ll get to see it because it is actually dangerous. That’s how you can see the danger in the slightest fault, and not become neurotically obsessed about every little thing that’s in front of you, fearing it—because that’s not where the danger is. That’s like the simile of the beautiful, tasty beverage: you can’t see the poison in it, but you know it is there—which means ultimately the danger of sensuality is rooted in the background, and can never come in front of you and be seen in the same manner as you see an object of your senses.

That’s why people are intoxicated with sensuality, despite the experience always proving that it’s actually painful—you only regard things as real if they’re the things that you can see through your senses, usually. So, you want to discern it. And that danger, as I said, never leaves the peripheral, never becomes something you can see with your eyes. You still see the beautiful object, but now you have fully understood and fully discerned the danger.

You have to know that poison is there, and you have to stop ignoring the fact that poison is there—and then you get to see that whatever is beautiful, you fully understood it as being dangerous, that ‘this will kill me’. But you can’t see the poison and you can’t extract it and then say, “look, this is the poison! See?”. Because that would then imply that other things you can see don’t have that poison. Poison is actually in everything you see, hear, smell, taste, touch. Everything that’s agreeable contains that poison because it’s agreeable. You could think that the agreeability of things is what poison is. But that in itself is not dangerous, is it? What’s dangerous is you carelessly ingesting the poison. You carelessly welcoming the agreeability, delighting in it, saying ‘yes’ to it.

Thaniyo: So, the danger is not the result.

Nyanamoli: No, exactly. The danger is that significance of it. If you take it, then danger befalls you.

Thaniyo: We’d usually think that danger of sensuality comes only if you overindulge.

Nyanamoli: No, no, no, that’s basically on the level of perception. I suppose someone who’s completely unrestrained has to start rounding it up in such a crude manner.

Such kind of reflections that a complete assutava puthujjana will have to go through in order to begin, but that’s not the danger. That’s why the Buddha would say you’re not free from sensuality until the danger becomes apparent. And the danger does not become apparent if, for you, to even get a sense of danger, you need to go through the motions of repeating how dissatisfying sensuality actually is, and so on—that’s on the level of rationalizing.

It can help somebody who has absolutely no ground for practice, but you want to go way beyond that—you want to be able to get to the point where seeing the agreeable equals knowing the danger. That’s why the Buddha said knowledge is secondary to perception, but you can equally have perception without knowledge being present there. So, knowledge is not in perception, which means you can’t perceive the knowledge, but you can know that which you perceive at the same time.

In the case of a cup or drink in front of you—you’re drinking it and it’s very good; people told you it’s healthy. People told you it’s going to prolong your life and cure cancer, and it’s amazing. But then somebody comes and tells you that it’s actually going to kill you, going to shorten your life. See, both could be right, meaning you don’t know which one is right; but the fact that it’s been placed in doubt that it’s good for you is actually enough for you to back off from it. You think that it is better not to take any chances. Perhaps you don’t need a longer life, because it might even actually shorten it. Let alone if it actually becomes apparent that the second guy was right and it will kill you quicker, it will ruin you. But that which is in front of you hasn’t changed—your experience of it is still the same.

Thaniyo: So, it might harm you.

Nyanamoli: The fact that you don’t know for yourself whether it’s good for you—that’s already dangerous. And if you start thinking like that, the danger will become apparent—the danger that is actually there—but you can’t see that until you arrive at it, which means you can’t know that for yourself.

You have to take it on trust that sensuality is dangerous, and start regarding it as such and, because it is dangerous, your way of regarding it will eventually mirror how it is and you’ll get to understand it.

And now, the peripheral of that perception of sensuality is the knowledge of the danger. It’s the significance of the danger, it’s the implication of the danger.

Thaniyo: But if you don’t have the knowledge of the danger, what are you looking for?

Nyanamoli: Well, first if you don’t discern the phenomenon of sensuality, you’re not going discern the background of the danger. In the same sense mindfulness of breathing is like a confinement that represents all the other actions you do in your life on account of your breathing, but then you’re not doing that confinement. You want to discern the background of that confinement. Then that makes everything inferior to that even clearer. So, in the same sense, you want to discern the extent of sensuality in order to discern the background of the danger. That’s why the Buddha would always start by saying: “The gratification of sensuality has been understood, the danger has become apparent.” He wouldn’t say that the danger has become apparent, and then he understood. But by understanding the extent of sensuality, by understanding its gratification, then the background of that, the danger, becomes clear. But not before you understand the extent of physical pleasures, craving for physical pleasures. And you can only understand the extent if you start looking for it. And the gratification of sensuality is not in the particular engagement of this sensuality, it’s in the background of your particular engagement.

There are obviously kinds of sensuality that you cannot be mindful of—the ones that take the mind too far out, such as non-celibacy, killing, lying, stealing. You abandon that; but now you have to eat. Within that, you’re going to get pleasant tastes in your mouth. And then you might think: “Oh, I must spit this out because it’s too pleasant.” In that case you don’t see the gratification: you fear everything, you’re spitting out the object, but that’s not what sensuality is. Sensuality is your attitude in regard to the object you’re attending to. If all you do is attend to things, you’re never going to see your attitude in regard to it. Now that you live restrained, you’re not breaking vinaya rules, you see the danger in the slightest fault. Then when you encounter agreeable things that are a basis for sensuality, that’s when you start looking for the background to it. You allow it to arise while the taste is in your mouth. The Buddha didn’t say “spit out the food!” But he said we should eat mindfully, meaning eat while you’re aware of the background of your pleasant taste. Don’t get absorbed in the pleasant taste. And try to not get absorbed by the pleasant taste by focusing on other things, or twisting their tongue to avoid the taste and whatnot. No, that’s equally on the same footing as where the taste is. You want to just know the background of the pleasant taste—that’s already clarifying the extent of gratification. The clearer the extent of the perception of gratification becomes, the clearer the significance of the danger. Hence, the gratification became clear, the danger has been seen, has become apparent, and then the way out from sensuality and gratification is automatic.

So, first, you have to be restrained, not giving in to distraction. If you intentionally give in to sensuality, you can’t establish that mindfulness, because your intention has already distorted it—it’s already inverted, perverted. But if agreeable things that are a base for sensuality come to you, without your intention necessarily being rooted in seeking the pleasure in them, that’s where you start discerning the peripheral, that’s where the gratification of sensuality becomes clearer. That’s why sila has to come first, it’s just not optional. But the problem is when people see that sila comes first and then believe that after it comes the denial of anything pleasant, even if it’s not sought by you; that becomes the next attitude. They think: “This taste is way too nice, so I only eat things that I hate.” But you’re basically misconceiving sensuality. You think sensuality is in the actual taste, and you think that by avoiding taste, you avoid sensuality. No, you just obscure it further.

Thaniyo: If you were free from sensuality, you would be what?

Nyanamoli: You’d be an anagami. If you don’t have the right view, you could be free from sensuality and then you would need very, very little instruction to get the right view because you’ve already done 80% of the work: 80% of the fundamental existential distractions which are the senses. That would have been tamed and surmounted and understood.

Thaniyo: Because if you see things, knowing that whatever has arisen, the background is “it will cease,” and then you turn your mind to what is the extent of sensuality…

Nyanamoli: Exactly, you see the same principle. And also those who don’t see that principle, but have seen the sensuality, they have removed pretty much the sole reason for not seeing impermanence.

Virtually, sensuality is the main reason because it results in distraction and everything else. So, you have removed that, you have understood that, you’ve developed your mind in regard to it. You have seen the peripheral of that domain, you’ve seen the danger in it, and then you just need somebody to tell you what the impermanence of phenomena is, and you would immediately go straight to anagami, or even arahant because you’ve already done all the work.

Thaniyo: So, you’re saying that the danger of sensuality is being pulled in the foreground.

Nyanamoli: Yes. See, all that is accurate, but you want to see that not as a statement that you made, but actually see it coming from that sensuality. But in order to see it, you have to be clarifying that understanding, even those statements, for yourself. The more you clarify it, the more of the significance is being clarified. And then you will get to recognize it. But the fundamental danger in sensuality is exactly that: you cannot remain not pulled, not distorted by the foreground. You cannot.

You’re only free when you surmount the danger. You’re only free when you surmount ignorance. So, if you don’t surmount it, you’re not free. And that’s the danger of saṃsāra. Not free means saṃsāra.

Thaniyo: Am I not then seeing the danger in sensuality, if I see that?

Nyanamoli: Well, you’re seeing it to some extent, sure, but you want to see that to the point where any desire toward it has faded away—towards sensual enjoyment—, and it will fade away when the perception of danger—that background implication, significance of danger—is developed to the extent necessary, whereby no matter how much you get distracted, you’ll never, ever go back to the point of being so distracted that you actually want sensuality.

In the same sense of when you vomit food that you ate, you’ll never ever get so hungry to eat that stuff that’s mouldy and filthy and mixed with soil. It’s just not perceived as edible anymore. That’s how far you want to go. Where sensuality has ceased to be perceived as worthy of engagement, where it’s actually the opposite. Non-engagement is what’s worthy, non-engagement is what freedom is for you. Engagement is death for you, results in death, implies death. It makes you liable to death. Literally, you wouldn’t be killed if somebody comes and shoots you in the head. That’s not death. Death is sending your mind back down to the senses. That’s how you get killed. Because if you take your mind away from the senses—you surmount sensuality—even if somebody comes and shoots you in the head, you are not killed. So that’s why the Buddha said that those who are not mindful—those who are not properly established upon the peripheral background discernment of that significance—they’re as if already dead.

Thaniyo: Because if you see the extent of sensuality, then you know very well when you step into it.

Nyanamoli: Yes, it cannot be done accidentally. It’s always a choice. If you’re aware of the background, you’re aware of being about to make a choice. You’re aware of the possibilities to choose, which means you realize you’re already responsible; you’re already choosing the direction of sensuality even before you directly engage with it.

Thaniyo: So, basically seeing the choice of sensuality is also seeing the extent of sensuality.

Nyanamoli: Sure. Seeing the extent of sensuality, seeing the background of sensuality. Discerning gradually the significance of it. Taking responsibility for the choice. That’s another approach to the same thing.

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