2021-02-04 Mindfulness of Breathing (25) Similes for Samādhi
5:10PM Feb 4, 2021
We've taken a little bit of a pause in moving through the next steps of the 16 steps of mindfulness of breathing. To really look a little more deeply at a particular way in which the mind works – the use of imagination in the mind.
I'll talk a little more specifically about the Buddha's use of this word 'imagination.' I've read sometimes people say that there's no Pali word for 'imagination,' but there actually is. It's a translator's choice, but I think there's a good argument. I'll talk about it tomorrow, and the words that have to do with it. They also relate to this idea of self and not-self, which is so important in Buddhism.
For today, I want to pause and look at imagination as a preparation for next week, when we start looking at the mind more carefully, what goes on in the mind, and mental activity. To create the right conditions for supporting investigation, and a deeper letting go in the mind is part of the function of the earlier parts of ānāpānasati, mindfulness of breathing. The more sense of well-being that can come in meditation, the easier it's going to be to really work with the mind.
I've told this story many times, but I love this story. When my son was in kindergarten, once a week they would play with beeswax. When it was time for them to play, the wax had been sitting up on the shelf. It would usually be in the form of whatever animal they made the week before. But it would be hard, and being hard, it would be brittle. The only thing you can do with it would be to break it. Little animal legs could be broken off easily enough for something.
What they would be instructed to do every week would be to put the little piece of wax between the palms of their two hands, and just hold it there while the teacher told a story. By the time the story was over, the warmth of their hands had softened the beeswax or whatever kind of wax it was. Then they could make these beautiful, little animal figures or whatever it was they made. But you had to have the warmth to soften it.
The same thing with the mind and the heart. In order to make it into something beautiful, to move it towards freedom, it helps to soften it and warm it up. The good feelings, the calmness, the joy, the happiness, the well-being, the contentment, the calmness that we sit in are all creating the right conditions to begin softening the mind. So the mind can be more pliable, flexible, and malleable in the best possible way, and the healthy mind, the healthy functioning of the mind can operate smoothly and easily.
On the way to doing that, the cultivation of these deeper states of well-being that come in meditation, the mind is actually used to do that. The mind is always being used. The mind is being used to apply and sustain the attention. But it can be used, supported by the imagination.
The Buddha uses a lot of similes. Rather than thinking about them as being active and intentional uses of imagination, when we sit down to meditate, it's more like we learn those similes and internalize them well enough, so they're in the background of the mind. So the mind associates meditation with those similes in a natural way. The similes create a positive view or orientation that supports us to be present.
Now it's very easy to have lots of imagination, which is not so helpful. We can carry a lot of unconscious and conscious associations, bias, fears, and projections onto our experience. It's creating an unhealthy or unsupportive environment for our practice.
The simple imagination – "I'm a lousy meditator, I can never do this." – is also kind of an imagination. It's an idea or thought that creates a certain atmosphere, which in extreme forms is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you're completely preoccupied by the idea that you cannot meditate, then you probably can't because of that preoccupation.
There's also fear. There's fear of what's going to happen, if I open my heart in meditation, relax, and really feel what's here. There might be some good reasons to have some caution. But to have chronic anxiety, and then vague, imaginary ideas of why or what's going to happen is not really supportive for the process of deepening in meditation. We have to be wise about that anxiety and caution – and not feel bad about having it. It's there for a reason. But we want to work with it and find another way of being.
When the Buddha offers all these similes, he's seeding in the mind imaginary associations, which then begin to create a different atmosphere for what we're doing and what meditation is about. Whether we bring up these imaginations actively or we just let them sit there in the background, both of those are supported by really knowing these similes, knowing these imaginary scenarios.
This comes particularly into play with deepening of concentration in what's called jhānas, deepening states of absorption. That really settling in and really being present in a clear, continuous way. Almost like there's a state shift: "Oh, now I'm here. I'm present. It's clear, I'm here."
The Buddha doesn't give a lot of prose descriptions of these states. He describes them a little bit. But to really get a feel for what the Buddha is talking about, he provides similes. Many a time he describes what they are, and then follows up with a simile for each of these four absorptions. The similes – if you can feel your way into it and let it live in the feeling or sense of it, or almost imagine that you are the simile in some way, then something begins to be an atmosphere and a context is being formed. An association that awakens something inside of us that's not the imagination, but rather, the felt sense of what the Buddha's pointing to.
The imaginations for these similes for deep states of concentration, where there's a lot of well-being, three of them use water as part of the simile. Often in the symbolism of the Buddha, water represents the mind, and perhaps the clarity of the mind or the awareness itself of the mind. I think awareness maybe more than the mind. We're getting a sense of how to work with awareness, how to relate to awareness, or how to notice qualities or aspects of awareness as we settle into the practice.
There are four of these. I want to read the similes for you. Maybe you could let it sink in for you, and imagine that you can feel this with your body or feel it inside.
The first one begins with a simile that in the modern world maybe we would associate with making dough with flour. Where you sprinkle water onto the dough, and knead the water in until all the flour is moist. In the ancient world, it has to do with taking a certain kind of soap powder that they had, and making that into a ball.
"Just as a skilled bath person or a bath person's apprentice heaps bath powder in a metal basin and, sprinkling it gradually with water, kneads it until the moisture wets one's ball of bath powder. Soaks it, and pervades it inside and out, yet the ball itself does not ooze. So too, a practitioner makes the joy and happiness born of seclusion drench, steep, fill, and pervade this very body, so there's no part of one's whole body unpervaded with the joy and happiness born of seclusion."
Here there's awareness, in my kind of description, that comes along with joy and happiness. We're sitting in meditation, and there's feelings of well-being. Then one gently kind of kneads it, massages it, spreads it, or expands it through the whole body. So no part of the body is not moist with this goodness of joy and happiness.
It implies that there's an engagement with the process. Not just opening and allowing well-being there, but in a certain kind of way, gently, lovingly, maybe each time we breathe, opening and filling, opening, stretching, letting it kind of ooze or letting it spread through the body. There's a little more active involvement. This is where the mind is a little more involved in staying there – stay present, be with it, work on the breath, the in-breaths and the out-breaths.
As the mind gets stiller and quieter, there's no more kneading. No more work is needed to stay present. No work is needed to spread anything or cultivate it. So the next level of absorption:
"Just as though there were a lake whose waters welled up from below, and it has no inflow from east, west, north or south, and would not be replenished from time to time by showers of rain."
So there are no streams flowing in from any direction into the lake from the top. It's only an upwelling of a spring from below.
"Then that cool fount of water flowing up in the lake would make the cool water suffuse, fill, completely fill, and pervade the lake, so there's no part of the whole lake unpervaded by the cool water. In this way, one suffuses and fills and completely fills and pervades this very body with a joy and happiness born of samādhi. No part of the body is unpervaded with joy and happiness born of samādhi."
The third absorption:
"Just as in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses, some lotuses that are born and grow in the water thrive immersed in the water without rising out of it, and cool water suffuses, fills, completely fills, and pervades these lotuses to their tips and their roots, so that there is no part of all these lotuses unpervaded by cool water. So one experiences happiness in the same way, one experiences happiness with the body that the noble ones describe: One abides with happiness of one who is equanimous and mindful. One suffuses, fills, completely fills, and pervades this very body with happiness. No part of the body is unpervaded with happiness."
So the joy has stopped, which is more active and energetic, and now it's just happiness.
The final one is:
"Just as though a person were sitting covered from the head down with white cloth, so that there's no part of one's whole body not enclosed by the white cloth. So one suffuses, fills, completely fills, and pervades this very body with mental purity, mental clarity. No part of the body is unpervaded with mental clarity."
The idea of being surrounded by a white cloth so no part of the body is not touched by this white color is that there's no outside stimulus anymore, and there's no clear, defined body anymore. You can't quite see it, but it's there. It's covered. There's softness to it – the soft, clean, cloth that touches it everywhere.
So we go from working the joy through the body to feeling the joy as being a very peaceful, quiet lake, with whatever we experience, floating in this stillness of awareness, happy awareness. To becoming so quiet and still that the body begins to recede. It's very peaceful, safe, quiet, equanimous, and characterized by a kind of mental purity, mental clarity, or cleanliness.
This is the closest we get to the Buddha really describing these states of concentration. I don't know if they mean something for you, or whether they evoke some imagination for you. But if they evoke your imagination, then these are things to take in and internalize in a certain way.
Some people memorize these descriptions, and then they're in the background for the mind to kind of perfume itself or perfume meditation with the association. Associations which might be a lot better than some of the other ways in which your imagination is influencing your experience.
Thank you. May your joy and happiness have a chance, have the opportunity to spread, pervade, and soak your whole body. Don't get so distracted that you don't allow your well-being, happiness, and joy a chance to really be felt and experienced in this body that we have.