2021-04-08-Mindfulness of Breathing (72) Independence, Freedom, Ending
3:00PM Apr 8, 2021
In these, now over seventy, talks and guided meditations, we've gone through a particular discourse of the Buddha: the discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing –mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out. At the heart of it are these very simple –almost like Cliff Notes – instructions on Mindfulness of Breathing.
The text goes on, and there is more teaching the Buddha gives, building on or extending these sixteen steps of mindfulness of breathing, which also represents the development and growth – the onward-leading nature of this practice. As we do this practice, something gets born inside, begins to unfold, or express itself. There are a variety of things. Some of those things are called the Seven Factors of Awakening.
The way it's presented in the text, it isn't so much that we practice the Seven Factors of Awakening, but that we recognize them. In other places, the Buddha is quite explicit that for some of the factors of awakening, the very recognition of them is the nourishment, the food that allows them to keep growing.
There is an organic growth that happens as we start to learn how to give ourselves over and trust the process of being aware of our breathing, of being present – not caught up in our thoughts, distractions, and preoccupations. We learn to be with ourselves in a caring way. And so the Seven Factors of Awakening develop.
They're called factors of awakening for two reasons. One reason is that they lay down the foundation, or the conditions, upon which awakening can happen. The word Buddha means "the one who's awake." It comes from the Pali word for awake. Buddhism, in a sense, can be translated into English as 'awake-ism.' This is an 'ism' that has to do with liberation, with freedom of mind, of heart – in such a way that something wakes up: some kind of awareness.
When a person has a first taste – a first glimmer – of what awakening, liberation, is – so much so that it gets their attention. It's really: "Oh, this is central! This is really what practice is about. This is the center. I want to make this the center of my life. Nothing else is as important. Even the tremendously valuable love and compassion I have for others. Nothing compares to freedom." Freedom allows for love and compassion to be clean and supportive for everyone, including ourselves.
So we have the first taste of what's described in English as "entering the stream." Literally, the language in the Pali is "entering the current"– of the river. If we can stay in the current, it will carry us all the way to liberation. Learning to recognize that current – and learning to stay in it and be carried by it – then becomes part of the practice after this first glimmer.
The text of the discourse on the Seven Factors of Awakening ends with a little section that has a lot of ellipses. It's not really spelled out all the way. It's very short. I think it's really easy for people reading the text to just skip over it, to not see it. Earlier, it talks about how the Seven Factors of Awakening arise out of the practice of mindfulness.
Then, it goes on to talk about how those Seven Factors of Awakening come into play, develop, keep growing, and support us after awakening. Now, they are based on something. I'm going to give you my adaptation of the Pali words. If the Pali words are translated literally into English, I think they don't mean as much for an English speaking audience. But the value – the fullness – of these words can be closer to what, in English, is their best sense. That would be that, now, they're based on a sense of independence.
Someone who has entered the stream – entered the current – is said to be "independent in the Dharma." Now they know what the Dharma is for themselves. They know. They don't need more books or teachers, or anything. They just know. And they know what the practice is about. So they're independent. There is independence. They are based in independence.
It's based on freedom – a sense of real freedom. We're no longer in bondage or entangled in things. There's a sense, a feeling, of freedom. And there is a sense that for all our suffering, attachments, clinging, and conceits, there is stopping. There is a phenomenal ending that has happened, and that is always here.
These three qualities: independence, freedom, and a kind of ending, are usually translated into English as we've seen them. One is translated into English as 'seclusion.' Another as 'dispassion' or the fading away of clinging. And the third is 'cessation.' Those last two – fading away or dispassion, and cessation are in the Ānāpānasati Sutta, steps fourteen and fifteen.
Now, these qualities are available. We have experienced a degree of independence, freedom, stopping – cessation – that is memorable. Now it is ever-present in some way. It's not as if we're always aware of it, but it's right there sitting on our shoulder or close by.
In the guided meditation, I talked about silence, stillness, and spaciousness always being here in some fashion. Once we have a really clear and powerful experience of those, there may always be some sense that they are ever-present as well. When love is associated with these qualities, then some people say that: "Yes. Love is always present." When they are all together – giving a sense of real peace – then peace is always present.
With awakening, some quality of that awakening remains available or is recognizable. Then it becomes a basis for doing the practice further. Now we know what practice is about. Now the idea is that we want to practice in harmony with that. We want to practice in that spirit or in the attitude of that. So, if part of it is independence and seclusion, we want to practice it so that awareness itself has a feeling of being independent from what it knows and from what we're aware of. We're not entangled or caught in it.
If we want to recognize how to be free – where the freedom is in awareness. There's no freedom in clinging, wanting more, and expecting. There's no freedom in reacting: "Oh, this is terrible. I'm a bad meditator. This shouldn't be here. This is embarrassing."
Of course, there are all these ways in which we're still not totally free. There are all kinds of things that arise and bubble up. The mind gets busy and distracted, and difficult states of mind might arise. But it is possible, at some point, that in spite of those, we won't get tricked by them. We won't get pulled into them. We stay independent of them. We stay free of them. We're not caught and entangled. They still arise but, because we are independent and free of them, there is a disinclination to not identify with them as in: "This is who I am."
Then, there's this last quality of something ceasing. Something has stopped. One of the things that's stopped is preoccupations, beliefs, and attachments to ideas of self – ideas that tend to bring conceit and self-concern.
This stopping of self-preoccupation, self-concern, and self-consciousness happens – not totally – but we have some flavor, some feeling, a taste of that. And we let that be part of mindfulness as well. Mindfulness is not entangled, or caught up in being self-conscious or self-critical. There's a clear sense that awareness itself is free of the self- concern, self-preoccupation, or self-identity kinds of things we do.
Mindfulness then has a very different quality. Mindfulness becomes more of an expression of the Dharma moving through us, than as something where we are identified as the doer, or the agent of it. The degree to which we're an agent is more as the enabler. We get out of the way. We allow awareness to be there.
And we notice – in this field of freedom and independence – that something has stopped. There is space for everything. That's why I like to think that, in Buddhism, we give liberation to everything else. Everything becomes liberated from our entanglement and concern. Saying that "I am liberated" doesn't really make sense anymore. It doesn't make sense to say, "I am liberated. I'm free."
Over and over again, as we've seen in the suttas – the teachings of the Buddha – the ultimate goal is described in terms of a kind of negation. Liberation is a negation of being entangled, being in bondage. We are free now. Seclusion or independence is perhaps liberation from being dependent in an unhealthy way. Or being claustrophobic in the middle of all kinds of concerns.
Cessation, the ending of something, is an ending of suffering, of clinging. There is a strong tendency for the Buddha to repeatedly define the ultimate goal of practice as taking us toward an absence – not as the presence of something.
If he talks about the presence of something, the most he seems to do is to talk about it in terms of peace. What I think is beautiful about this is that, even with the experience of liberation – a palpable feeling of freedom, independence and the absence of suffering – when we are free, there is no inclination to make it into something. We don't make it something we hold onto, or say that it is the presence of something.
Even asserting the presence of something is a way of grasping and clinging. There's an uncompromising attitude of: "Just trust letting go. Being free. The mind not clinging to anything." In doing that, there is a beautiful way in which there may be a nourishing stillness, silence, spaciousness. Maybe that is interpenetrated with love, compassion, care, and wisdom. It's not being frozen or disconnected. But it's not exactly the same as being connected either. It's being free.
So the practice of ānāpānasati ends this way. It ends with the reference point of practicing based on the qualities of awakening itself. That is, in some ways, available for everyone well before becoming liberated.
In fact, that is often what Dharma teachers are trying to do when they say: "Practice non-reactively, with nonreactive awareness. Practice, non-judgmental awareness. Practice open awareness." What they are doing is trying to get at the qualities of awakening that are already there. So we grow into it. It grows, develops, and comes to fulfillment.
And finally, don't worry so much about this path of practice. The only thing to be concerned about, and happy about, is exactly the place where you are in your practice. That's the place where practice and the Dharma unfold. Be content and happy. Discover awareness of where you're at, not where you think you should be.
So thank you. We'll have one more talk tomorrow on this topic. Maybe for this next day, you can look around and see if you've been overlooking things like silence, stillness, spaciousness, independence, freedom, and cessation – endings. See if you can be nourished by that and supported by it. Thank you.