Attending to the Deathless
by Ajahn AmaroAjahn Amaro is co-abbot of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. He was born in England and trained in the Thai Forest tradition with Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho.Attending to the Deathless
Â“When the heart is released from clinging,Â” said the Buddha, Â“then consciousness does not land anywhere. That state, I tell you, is without sorrow, afflication or despair.Â” Ajahn Amaro on abiding in the consciousness that is completely beyond conditioned phenomenaÂ—neither supporting them nor supported by them.
A great passage in the suttas (Anguttara Nikaya 3.12
presents an exchange between two of the Buddha's elder monks. Venerable Sariputta is the Buddha's chief disciple, the one most eminent in wisdom and also in meditative accomplishments. Although he had no psychic powers whatsoever, he was the grand master of meditators. The other elder disciple of the Buddha, Venerable Anuruddha, had spectacular psychic powers. He was the one most blessed with "the divine eye"; he could see into all the different realms.
The two disciples were an interesting mix. Sariputta's weakness was Anuruddha's great gift. Anyway, shortly before his enlightenment, Anuruddha came to Sariputta and said, "With the divine eye purified and perfected I can see the entire 10,000-fold universal system. My meditation is firmly established; my mindfulness is steady as a rock. I have unremitting energy, and the body is totally relaxed and calm. And yet still my heart is not free from the outflows and confusions. What am I getting wrong?"
Sariputta replied, "Friend, your ability to see into the 10,000-fold universal system is connected to your conceit. Your persistent energy, your sharp mindfulness, your physical calm and your one-pointedness of mind have to do with your restlessness. And the fact that you still have not released the heart from the outflows and defilements is tied up with your anxiety. It would be good, friend, if rather than occupying yourself with these concerns, you turned your attention to the deathless element." (By the way, the Pali Canon has a lot of humor in it like this, although it's rather similar to British humor and is sometimes easy to miss.) So of course Anuruddha said, Â“Thank you very much,Â” and off he went. Shortly thereafter, he realized complete enlightenment. This was very understated humor.
The point of their discussion, however, is really quite serious. As long as we are saying, "Look at how complicated my problems are," or "Look at my powers of concentration," we will stay stuck in samsara. In essence, Sariputta told his colleague, "You're so busy with all of the doingness and the effects that come from that, so busy with all of these proliferations, you'll never be free. You're looking in the wrong direction. You're looking out, looking at the meditation object out there, the 10,000-fold universal system out there. Just shift your view to the context of experience and attend to the deathless element instead."
All it took was a slight shift of focus for Anuruddha to realize: "It's not just a matter of all the fascinating objects or all the noble stuff I have been doingÂ—that's all conditioned, born, compounded and deathbound. The timeless dharma is being missed. Look within, look more broadly. Attend to the deathless."
There are also a few places in the suttas (e.g., Majjhima Nikaya 64.9 and Anguttara Nikaya 9.36) where the Buddha talked about the same process with respect to development of concentration and meditative absorption. He even made the point that when the mind is in first jhana, second jhana, third jhana and all the way out to the higher formless jhanas, we can look at those states and recognize all of them as being conditioned and dependent. This, he said, is the true development of wisdom: the mindfulness to recognize the conditioned nature of a state, to turn away from it and to attend to the deathless, even while the state is still around. When the mind is concentrated and very pure and bright, we can recognize that state as conditioned, dependent, alien, and something that is void or empty. There is the presence of mind to reflect on the truth that all of this is conditioned and thus gross, but there is the deathless element. And in inclining toward the deathless element, the heart is released.
In a way it is like looking at a picture. Normally the attention goes to the figure in a picture and not the background. Or imagine being in a room with someone who is sitting in a chair. When you look across the room you would probably not attend to the space in front of or beside that person. Your attention would go to the figure in the chair, right? Similarly, if you've ever painted a picture or a wall, there's usually one spot where there's a glitch or a smudge. So where does the eye go when you look at the wall? It beams straight in on the flaw. In exactly the same way, our perceptual systems are geared to aim for the figure, not the ground. Even if an object looks like the groundÂ—such as limitless light, for exampleÂ—we still need to know how to turn back from that object.
Incidentally, this is why in Buddhist meditation circles there's often a warning about deep states of absorption. When one is in one, it can be very difficult to develop insightÂ—much more so than when the mind is less intensely concentrated. The absorption state is such a good facsimile of liberation that it feels like the real gold. So we think, "It's here, why bother going any further? This is really good." We get tricked and, as a result, we miss the opportunity to turn away and attend to the deathless.
In cosmological terms, the best place for liberation is in the human realm. There's a good mixture of suffering and bliss, happiness and unhappiness here. If we are off in the deva realms, it's difficult to become liberated because it's like being at an ongoing party. And we don't even have to clean up afterwards. We just hang out in the Nandana Grove. Devas drop grapes in our mouths as we waft around with flocks of adoring beings of our favorite gender floating in close proximity. And, of course, there's not much competition; you're always the star of the show in those places. Up in the brahma realms it's even worse. Who is going to come back down to grubby old earth and deal with tax returns and building permits?
This cosmology is a reflection of our internal world. Thus the brahma realms are the equivalent of formless states of absorption. One of the great meditation masters of Thailand, Venerable Ajahn Tate, was such an adept at concentration that as soon as he sat down to meditate he would go straight into arupa-jhana, formless states of absorption. It took him twelve years after he met his teacher, Venerable Ajahn Mun, to train himself not to do that and to keep his concentration at a level where he could develop insight. In those formless states, it is just so nice that it's easy to ask, "What's the point of cultivating wise reflection or investigating the nature of experience? The experience itself is so seamlessly delicious, why bother?" The reason we bother is that those are not dependable states. They are unreliable and they are not ours. Probably not many people have the problem of getting stuck in arupa-jhana. Nonetheless, it is helpful to understand why these principles are discussed and emphasized.
This gesture of attending to the deathless is thus a core spiritual practice but not a complicated one. We simply withdraw our attention from the objects of the mind and incline the attention towards the deathless, the unborn. This is not a massive reconstruction program. It's not like we have to do a whole lot. It's very simple and natural. We relax and notice that which has been here all along, like noticing the space in a room. We don't notice space, because it doesn't grab our attention; it isn't exciting. Similarly, nibbana has no feature, no color, no taste and no form, so we don't realize it's right here. The perceptual systems and the naming activity of the mind work on forms; that's what they go to first. Therefore we tend to miss what's always here. Actually, because it has no living quality to it, space is the worst as well as the best example, but sometimes it is reasonable to use it.