2021-04-02 Mindfulness of Breathing (68) Relinquishment as Generosity
3:11PM Apr 2, 2021
So we come in this series of talks to consider the final step of ānāpānasati, the sixteenth step of mindfulness of breathing. The way it's worded, in English, the most common translation is something like: "observing, relinquishment." "One trains: I will breathe in observing relinquishment. One trains: I will breathe out."
The word relinquishment translates a Pali word: patinissagga. This word has a double meaning. It means letting go, relinquishment. And it also means generosity, to give. And in some contexts in the teachings of the Buddha, it clearly means being generous. It's so nice, this passage. I'll read it to you:
"A noble disciple is someone who has come now towards the end of these sixteen steps. Noble disciples recollect, consider their own generosity like this: It is truly my good fortune and gain, that in a world of people obsessed with greed, I dwell, freely generous, open-handed, delighting in giving, devoted to charity, delighting in giving and sharing."
The expression "delighting in giving," the word giving is the same word as this final step in ānāpānasati of relinquishment. There is a letting go, a deep letting go, which is almost an act of choice. If for you in these last four steps of ānāpānasati, as we settle in, having gotten concentrated, quiet and still – then we come to a stage where it feels best to not be working on meditation anymore. We don't have to work. We just settle back and observe. We're observing. We're in the process of life – the flow of life – and just observing the transiency and the changing nature of moment-to-moment experience.
There's fading away of clinging, greed, and wanting. And that fading away happens up to the point where our greed and the hatred ceases and stops. And – wow – to have a qualitative experience with the stopping of these unhealthy movements of the mind and heart. "Wow, this is good; this is right; this is health. This is freedom and inner psychological freedom."
Then, knowing that, seeing that, having wisdom about that, and then saying, "I would like to be done with this. I no longer want to invest in these ways of being. I no longer believe in them. I no longer stand behind being greedy, hateful, resentful, complaining, jealous, or having any kind of annoyance or hostility that keeps me living in cynicism."
We don't do it punitively. It's not like we feel bad about ourselves. But now we know something much better. We're letting go of what is unwholesome. If you look carefully, read carefully the teachings of the Buddha, when he talks about what we let go of, he doesn't talk about letting go of things so much – hardly at all or if at all. We don't let go of our material wealth or of friendships or relationships.
What we're letting go of, what we're relinquishing, is our inner psychological states, things inside of us. They are clearly the ones that harm us – what the Buddha calls unwholesome, unskillful. He says that explicitly in one place: "If, when one gives away something, unwholesome mental qualities grow and wholesome mental qualities waste away – then I say one should not give away in this way."
The word giving away here is that word relinquishment. So the word 'give' captures the idea that it's an act of generosity.
I'll read it a different way: "If one relinquishes anything and then unwholesome mental qualities grow and wholesome mental qualities waste away, then I say, one should not relinquish in this way. But if one gives away, if one relinquishes something and unwholesome mental qualities waste away, and wholesome mental qualities grow, then I say – one should give away, one should relinquish in this way."
This is not blind relinquishment. It is not the blind letting go of something. We hear that we are supposed to let go, let go of everything. It's really that we're letting go of that which interferes with our betterment, interferes with the best qualities we have. We're letting go so that the better qualities of who we are can come forth. And we have a much clearer sense of what those are and what gets in the way.
What are the obstructions when we get quiet and peaceful? One of the most wonderful meditation instructions I received many years ago from the English bhikkhu, monk, named Ajahn Amaro, was when he said something like, "Set yourself at ease – and then notice what takes you away from that." That was the instruction.
No sixteen stages – that's so complicated. So just recognize: you set yourself at ease. I understood that to be whatever modicum of ease that is accessible. The simplest kind of softening and relaxing. But then the important part, the wisdom part, is to notice what takes you away from that.
And then consider: "Is it really worth it? Is it really for your betterment to lose whatever ease you have? It's through deepening the ease, pushing the ease, deepening that ease – coming to more ease and more ease – we get better and better recognition of the goodness that is here within us. To have better recognition of when it is an unwholesome direction or a wholesome direction in which we are going – when it's for our betterment or for the opposite.
When we come to the last stage of ānāpānasati, there is a real, deep relinquishment now. We are really ready to put something down, and be done with something – enough of this already. And even though we can't necessarily stop certain mental habits we have, or tendencies, it's a powerful movement to have made an inner choice, an inner turning and say, "I no longer stand behind this. I no longer believe in this kind of behavior."
We can do that without any aversion, hostility, feeling bad about ourselves. We can do it with joy, delighting in the word relinquishment – delighting in it. Now I'm going to move in a good direction. I know there's a better direction. And to know that deeply is one of the great gifts of this practice, great gifts of life, and it's inspiring.
Rather than seeing our inner foibles and inner old habits coming back, and feeling depressed or upset by it, there can be a stance or recognition: "Oh, here it is again. And now I get to practice. This is what practice is. I know what practice is about now. There's a direction, a movement, or a journey. Really, I know what freedom is. I know that this is not where it's at. And now I have an opportunity to practice with this." That is a fortunate thing.
Anyone who has the practice has good fortune. Anyone who has a practice is involved in a path of great goodness and benefit. And so to celebrate and delight in the fact you have a practice, more than being upset by the fact that one more time you got angry, irritated, greedy or something. Just keep turning it over to appreciating it, and looking for the generosity, goodness and delight in the possibility of being on a path of liberation, the freedom of letting go.
No matter where you are on the stages of ānāpānasati – these sixteen stages – each step of the way is good for itself, is good enough. In fact, the ancient commentaries, said that each step of the sixteen can be a complete step in itself. Each step contains within itself the path to all sixteen. So if you stayed at the first step of just breathing in long knowing your breathing in long – the other fifteen steps will follow along as you really settle in and just do that one thing, get concentrated doing that.
It doesn't matter, just the fact that whatever stage you're at, that's the right place for you. That's a good place. And that's where your delight, pleasure and joy can be – that you are so fortunate that you have a path. And this is your step now. This is your movement, your ability to practice.
The further you go, the more you'll understand what is wholesome. The more you understand what is wholesome, the more delighting in generosity, you can give away, and give up the unwholesome. I use words like "give up" in the original meaning, which is to offer something up on an altar. The original meaning of sacrifice: to make sacred. Or the original word of surrender, in the Latin I think, maybe in the French as well, the root of the word is also "to give something, give up."
We've come now to the end of the sixteen steps. The discourse on ānāpānasati has further things to say about this. What is most interesting for me about the next instructions of this – out of the sixteen steps – is how the fruit of the practice, the liberation of the practice, becomes more and more the basis for the practice. And how liberation becomes a basis for practice is the topic for next week.
So thank you for all this. And I can take a little bit of time for taking some questions if you'd like. And on anything really but if you'd like to ask about these sixteen steps or anything about this, I will try to do my best to track the questions if they come.
Q & A
Q1: Any additional advice on how ānāpānasati can be practiced in a relaxed, open way without turning it into a linear checklist? And I'm turning this as I sit.
I think that with every meditation practice we do, all these funny habits of the mind will come in and take over. Sometimes the practice starts becoming mechanical. Sometimes maybe a linear checklist, "Where am I?" Don't be discouraged by this, but learn to recognize it and then figure out a way to not do it. Sometimes I've done some similar things like I just backed off. I went back to the very beginning. Or just back, and not trying to do the practice of ānāpānasati, but just to open my awareness.
One of my great defaults for practicing, when it seems like nothing's really working, is to tell myself the word 'here.' I just say 'here.' It is not a command like to a dog. It's just the recognition: I'm here. And I say the word. Then I open my attention to just recognize what is here. Sometimes what I recognize is that my mind is out of control and spinning around: "Oh, here. This is what it feels like to have a spinning mind. Here. This is what it's like to be upset. Here. This is what it's like to be agitated." There's a generosity in that here – in that opening: "Oh, this is what it's like." Nothing has to be different. It's just a clear recognition of this. I'll do that for a while. Then at some point, things settle down. Or if I've gotten a mechanical or a checklist approach to practice, then I stop doing it, and then I can start fresh again.
A lot of thank yous. I appreciate them. It's very nice.
Q2: Is it to be expected that grief would come with disenchantment?
No, it's not to be expected. But it's pretty common. And so I think that sometimes when we do this practice, we realize that even when we let go of things we know are unhealthy – there can be grief too for the going away of something that's been our companion for a long time. Or there's grief around what we lost because we were caught up so long in some unhealthy way of being, and we have to grieve first before we can really move on.
There was a psychologist who did a lot of this practice. His take on all this is that the path to liberation is one continuous process of grieving. So it might have been true for him. It hasn't been true for me, but grief definitely can be an important part of this whole process. It is not to be pushed away, or to feel that it's unfortunate to be grieving. I did give a talk last Sunday on grief. A Sunday morning talk here. I talked about liberating grief – that might intrigue you if you didn't hear the talk.
Q3: Folds in the unfolding. Yeah.
Q4: What is the source of the excerpt you read about generosity today?
It's my own translation. All I have here is the reference. It's from the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. Chapter Six, sutta number twenty five.
It's very nice to read all these little comments and thank yous. It's really a wonderful thing to share this path and this practice together with all of us here.
Q5: Grief arises at unexpected times.
Yeah, for sure. Some teachers say that if you haven't had a good cry, you're probably not really on the path to liberation.
Q6: Can you please clarify again the relationship between sixteen steps of our practice off the cushion as well as while meditating?
Well, that's a good question. I generally don't think about this too much, about the sixteen steps in daily life. Because I spent much of my adult life meditating on my breathing and it's been the foundation of my meditation practice, it spills over into daily life where I'm frequently attentive to my breathing, or include my breathing in whatever I'm doing and awareness of it. It's been a great gift in my daily life to track and watch my breathing. When my breathing gets held, tight or constricted, and how it shifts and changes. Sometimes it's the first indication that I've gotten caught, stuck, reactive, or something. So just being familiar with the breathing and connected to it, and then being able to come back and relax the breath, and have an easeful breath as I go through my daily life has been beneficial in many, many ways. And whether I'm on any particular step of ānāpānasati in daily life, I don't really think about so much.
Q7: So the sixteenth step is open awareness?
Some people might experience open awareness with the sixteen steps, but I wouldn't want to identify the two together. Because letting go, the deepest letting go we do is just phenomenal absence. To give it any kind of description that it is something – even something like open awareness – diminishes it or misses the point a little bit.
Q8: What is the Pali word you said at the beginning, meaning generosity?
There are three different Pali words that mean both letting go or relinquishment. Translators often translate all three of them as relinquishment. But they also mean generosity. The one for this sixteenth step of ānāpānasati is patinissagga. Then there's cāga. Then there's vossagga. It's a wonderful thing to see this close association in Pali with letting go and generosity.
This is wonderful. I need to stop. Thank you all. We'll continue this exploration of ānāpānasati in the context of liberation next week, and I look forward to it.
Also, maybe I mentioned this, but I'm teaching two retreats coming up, that are not part of IMC, which might be interesting for you. They're at the same time, some of them so I'll be moonlighting one to the other. One is the San Francisco Zen center. I'm doing a interesting dialogue retreat. It's not a full retreat, but it's all day long. But it's, you know, a couple hours few hours a day, a few days of the evenings and the weekend. That's that kind of a lot of this dialogue between two of the senior teachers at San Francisco Zen center and myself on the harmony of Vipassana and Zen. And that starts on the 19th of April, and it'll be folded into the 7am sittings. So I'll do the first week and then Paul Haller and Fu Schroeder will do the other two weeks instead of me teaching this 7am. So you get a taste of the retreat just by coming here at 7am. And the other is, I'm teaching a retreat at Spirit Rock online for six days, starting April 25. That should be quite a lovely retreat. I love these online retreats. So okay, thank you.