In the presence of Nibbana
Developing Faith in the Buddhist Path to Enlightenment
One of the most meaningful stanzas in the Dhammapada is verse 372:
Natthi jhanam apannassa,
Panna natthi ajhayato;
Yamhi jhanan ca panna ca,
Sa ve Nibbanasantike.
"There is no Jhana without wisdom,
There is no wisdom without Jhana.
One who has Jhana and wisdom,
He is in the vicinity of Nibbana."
In the Vicinity of Nibbana
Right now, those who are Buddhist monks and nuns and those who are serious lay practitioners are in the vicinity of Nibbana . Being in this situation, you should recall that you are practicing in precisely the same way that men and women, young and old, have been practicing for the last twenty five centuries, and eventually you will achieve the same results. You are in the presence of Nibbana in the sense that we have taken up the practise that is conducive to Nibbana.
Sometimes it's hard to realise how close it can be. One doesn't realise that it's, as it were, just a slight turn of the head, or a slight change in the way of looking at things, which will open up the same truth which the Buddha saw; the same truth which Venerable Sariputta, Mahamoggallana, Mahakassapa, Ananda, Anuruddha, and all the great Arahants of the last twenty-five centuries have seen. It was there then, it is here now.
We should recall this frequently. Recall that there have been thousands, even tens of thousands of Arahants in the past, and that there will be many hundreds, even thousands of Arahants in the future. For this path is still available, and when the path is available, so are the fruits.
There is a book, which I haven't looked up for a long time now, called A Manual of a Mystic. This is an old treatise on meditation which was found in an obscure monastery in Sri Lanka many decades ago.1 Part of the meditation practice described there is just the above recollection, the recollection of all the Arahants who achieved the sublime bliss of Nibbana in the past. And now, here you are, embarked on the same journey, doing the same things, which must give rise to the same fruits. This was the promise of the Buddha. He said that this Dhamma. leads one way and one way only: to Nibbana. If you can get into the stream, it will sweep you all the way down to the sea.
Such recollections, done frequently, give rise to great joy, happiness, and confidence; they give rise to faith in this practice which we call Buddhism, the Dhamma.. This in turn gives rise to the energy so that we can have the will -- the sustained will -- to do what is necessary to transform that glimmer of faith into sustained realisation.
You are in the presence of Nibbana every time you open up one of the books of the Tipitaka and read the teachings of the Buddha. You are in the presence of Nibbana because there is just a thin veil between you and the Dhamma.. When the Buddha taught these teachings to monks like Venerable Bahiya (Udana 1:10), just the teaching was enough to give people of that calibre great insight, insight which closed the gap between them and Nibbana. They were not just in the presence of Nibbana; they had made that one step further into full realisation of Nibbana.
Venerable Bahiya and others like him probably never imagined that they were so close to such a marvellous and sublime state, yet they became great disciples of the Buddha. Indeed, when people look through the glasses of delusion, they can very often think: "How could one like me ever gain this sublime bliss of Nibbana? How could one like me ever attain a Jhana? How could one like me ever penetrate such a deep and profound Dhamma.?" But the Buddha said that you can! You can because you have already had enough confidence and faith to take up the brown robe of the Lord Buddha or to practise his teachings seriously as a lay person.
Lending an Ear
An important aspect of the path, in addition to virtue and good conduct, is the study of the Buddha's teachings. The Buddha put it very beautifully in his discourses: one lends an ear, bends the ear, listens with interest, and applies the mind, so that what one hears can enter deep within the mind, and it can settle there. As it settles, over the weeks, months, and years, it will grow and bear fruit. One day this fruit will be so sweet, it will be the fruit of Enlightenment.
As one lends an ear to the Dhamma., contemplating it, and allowing it to sweep over the mind like a beautiful breeze on a warm day, allowing it to soak in and to penetrate deep into the mind, it penetrates deeper than the thought, deeper than the intellect, far deeper than the fault finding mind, deeper than the familiar mind. The Dhamma. penetrates into that part of the mind that one has yet to know -- waiting there, waiting until, through the practice of meditation, one enters those very refined, beautiful, and subtle states of mind where these seeds of the Dhamma. are resting, waiting to bear fruit and waiting to give the bliss of Enlightenment.
One has faith and confidence because one knows that others have done this in the past. Sometimes people think that the great masters, the great monks and nuns of the old, were somehow supermen and superwomen. But many of them started off no different from most practitioners today. Sometimes the most unlikely candidates became the greatest saints. They took up the training to the best of their abilities; they persevered in their attempts to get hold of the mind and to calm it, to lead it to one pointedness, to stillness. Then one day, through the accumulation of all their learning, and of their reflections, and their small insights, they eventually succeeded in breaking through the barriers that separated them from their goal.
One Drop at a Time
The Buddha compares the practice of the Dhamma. to a pot filling up one drop at a time. There comes the moment when just one more drop falls into the pot, and then the pot overflows: the Dhamma. is seen. One never knows when the time for that last drop has arrived. The ordinary, unenlightened individual can never see this pot filling because it's in a part of the mind which he or she as yet has no access to -- but little by little it's getting filled. One day it will become completely full, and it will spill over into the mind as you know it now and then lead one to the source, into this innermost mind, which is usually hidden by the defilements and the hindrances. This is when one starts to see the source, which the Buddha called "the house-builder," the creator of birth and suffering.
So whether you are a monastic, or one with lay precepts, you never give up the effort and you never give up the training. This is a theme which runs throughout the Buddha's teachings. If one gives up the training in virtue, meditation, and wisdom, one has no chance of success. But if one continues with the training, if one continues following the Buddha's instructions, one will find that this training only leads one way. It leads to Nibbana.
This message is beautifully encapsulated in some of the best advice I ever got, given to me from a highly respected monk in Sri Lanka. It's a piece of advice which I always value and keep in mind. He told me that at the end of each day, it doesn't matter so much to what stage one has attained, or what you have achieved. What really matters is whether you have really practised to the limit of your ability that day -- whether you have really tried your best -- or whether you have been slack, and heedless, forgetting the Buddha's teachings, and forgetting one's faith that these teachings actually lead to Nibbana. If at the end of the day you look back and you know that you tried your best, then you are accumulating spiritual qualities, you are getting inwardly filled with these precious drops of water, and drawing closer to the goal. By continuing in this way, it will and must happen that Enlightenment will come to you as well. This reflection is a means of developing faith in the Buddha's teachings.
The Buddha not only encouraged faith using the metaphoric "carrot" -- the encouragement, incitement, and reassurance that this is a path which produces fruit; he also used "the stick.". The stick is just reflecting and wisely seeing the consequences of going the wrong way -- into the realm of craving and desire, of disappointment and frustration; into the realm of suffering; into realm of more births - - and uncertain births at that . Uncertain births produce uncertain results, sometimes with great suffering and great torment.
That is enough of a stick because it gives a sense of wholesome fear (Ottappa), the fear of the consequences of not continuing to make an effort, not continuing to walk this path, and not continuing to progress as far as your ability allows. It doesn't matter where you are on the path as long as you are stepping forward, as long as every day another drop falls, filling up that great jar inside yourself. If you are doing that, in the sense that you are walking the path that leads to Nibbana.
The Buddha and the Noble Ones always say that that path is the Noble Eightfold path -- the path of virtue (Sila), concentration (Samadhi), and wisdom (Panna). To walk the path of virtue means that you will not harm any living being. One dwells with a mind concerned with the happiness of all beings -- that softness of mind concerned with the welfare of all beings wherever they may be, including oneself. That virtue has to be perfected. It's not enough to have 90% virtue, 95% virtue, or even 99% virtue -- it must be fully purified; purified, first of all, by faith.
The Buddha said that virtue is the foundation of the path. Virtue is the ground on which rest the higher aspects and factors of the Eightfold path. If this part of the path is weak, if one takes liberties with one's virtue and one bends the rules, it's going to weaken concentration and create impediments to the arising of wisdom. Thus out of faith and trust in the Buddha's teachings, and in the teachings of all the great monks and nuns, one resolves in a place which is deeper than the defilements, "I shall uphold these precepts as if they were a golden casket full of jewels; I shall hold them up to my head; I shall value them and protect them. They are of the Buddha."
One famous meditation teacher used to make sure that the monks would look after their alms bowls by telling them to regard their bowls as the Buddha's head. One should regard virtue as what's on top of the Buddha's head, or even higher. One should hold it in such reverence and value it so much that one would not dare to deliberately go against any advice or pronouncement of the Lord Buddha. Eventually, as one develops greater concentration and wisdom, one's faith in the Buddha's teaching grows to the extent that you would not transgress these precepts even for the sake of life. It becomes almost impossible to do so. The mind values them so highly because they came from the Tathagata, because they lead to Nibbana and because, by empowering the mind to achieve concentration, they open up the door for wisdom to enter.
At first one just has ordinary confidence and faith. But with each realisation and with each deep insight, one's confidence and faith are transformed -- not into love or worship, but into something higher and deeper than that. They are transformed into an enormous respect for that which is the highest of all. As it is said in the Ratana-Sutta: "Na tena dhammena samatthi kinci" -- "There is nothing equal to the Dhamma. of the Buddha" (Sutta-Nipata, v.225). Once one realizes that it is more valuable than anything else in the whole world, one would never transgress in the realm of virtue, one would never hurt, devalue, or demean virtue.
As virtue becomes strong in the practitioner, concentration happens by itself. It happens simply because the mind becomes pure. Pure means free from defilements. It is actions which defile the mind, actions of body and speech, and also the thoughts which precede visible actions. The practice of virtue is getting hold of the mind which is being defiled by habitual patterns of unskilful reactions, the reactions of a crazy person, the reactions of a person who just cannot see. The mind is covered up with "grease" and "dust" so it can not really see its own welfare. The practice of virtue is the first shining and cleaning up of the mind, getting rid of the accumulated dust and grime of many lifetimes.
Those beings who walk in virtue, who speak and act kindly and wisely, seem, as it were, to have no hurt and harm in them. They radiate a beauty, a magnetic attraction, which comes from the inner happiness that they experience through their unblemished virtue. Each practitioner of this path should know that happiness, but it will only be known if it is pointed out. If a virtuous person takes the time to look into his or her mind, to turn the apparatus of perception inward, he or she will see that their virtue is very pure, the virtue of the Buddha, and thus will gain more faith and confidence in the Buddha's teachings.
On this path towards enlightenment one passes through different stages, and each of those stages brings its own happiness. These happy feelings are little confirmations that this path is leading in the right direction. They give encouragement, and one can ask, "If this is the happiness which I have achieved so far, what is the happiness which lies on the next stage?" Be warned, however, that the defilements make one turn away from that which is pure towards that which is impure. One should make a deliberate effort to notice that pure, subtle, and refined happiness born of an unblemished lifestyle, a life of harmlessness.
Maybe you consider your state of virtue not yet to be perfect. But enough perfection is there; enough days and hours are spent in pure livelihood, pure speech, and pure action, that you should notice the result is unblemished happiness inside. Turn to that; recognise it, and you will be affirm it. This will give you extra confidence in the Buddha's teachings about the mind and about the right practice of body and speech.
As one develops virtue and restraint born of virtuous conduct, one realises that the way to achieve perfection in virtue is by restraining the senses. As virtue and restraint born of virtuous conduct is developed, one realizes that the way to achieve perfection in virtue is by restraining the senses. One has to restrain oneself in speaking, looking, and listening. Why listen to every conversation around you? "What do they say? What are they doing?" It doesn't concern you. It's much more beneficial to turn away from the activities of people. One doesn't even look at what is happening outside; instead one looks and listens to the activities inside oneself. This is what is called restraint. Instead of the senses turning outside, the start to turn inside and "look" at their own activity.
As the senses become more restrained, one starts to experience one of the first stages of happiness born of peace. This is the happiness born of peace, the happiness born of restraint, the happiness born when the mind is starting to experience calm. The senses being quietened down; for one is guarding them. What are they being guarded from? They are being guarded from involvement in the world, which tends to excite and disturb our minds.
The Buddha said that if one practices sense restraint one will experience a very pleasurable, pure and beautiful result a quiet, peaceful, and settled happiness. Those who practice seriously, and particularly those who live in quiet places should be able to realise this delightful state of peace. One should reflect and notice that happiness.
One is following the Buddha's teachings by delighting in wholesome states of mind. It is only unwise and unprofitable to delight in unwholesome states, in the satisfactions of the world of the five senses. That is where the Buddha said one will find danger. But as for the peace and happiness born of pure virtue and pure sense restraint, delight in it, enjoy it, indulge in it, and celebrate it. Do it out of faith in the Lord Buddha.
Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension
In the gradual training sense restraint first gives rise to mindfulness and clear comprehension. Here the mind starts to feel its first experience of being in control, of being at the helm. Usually in our lives the senses are in control, and we have no freedom. As soon as there's a delightful object, straight away the senses go to it. When an attractive person of the opposite sex passes by, the eyes go in that direction. As soon as a nice smell drifts up from the kitchen, the nose goes straight to it. As soon as there is an interesting conversation or pleasant music, the ears go straight to it. The senses are in control, not the mind, not wisdom.
However, when one develops self-control and guarding of the senses, mindfulness finds room to grow. The mind acquires the power to know what is really going on, to direct the attention to that which is skilful and useful, and to resist getting lost in pointless entanglements and compulsive activities. When sense restraint gives rise to this mindfulness and clear comprehension, one starts to develop the foundation for the marvellous states of concentration where at last one sees the mind clearly for what it truly is.
Concentration and Insight: Whatever You Think It Is, It's Something Else
In the Suttas, we sometimes come across little phrases of great significance. One such phrase is: "Whatever you imagine it to be, it's always something else." 2 This is one of the most profound descriptions of the Dhamma. we can find. Whatever one conceives it to be, it's going to be something else. It is as true for Jhana and insight as it is for Nibbana itself. After having experienced one of these states, one realises how completely different the experience actually is from what you thought, read, and expected it to be.
The conceptual mind cannot reach these refined aspects of mind. All the concepts in the world are just built up of the bricks of one's worldly experience. How could such a crude and coarse apparatus as the conceptual mind reach these states? This is good to remember because it takes away one's trust and confidence in the conceptual mind. We tend to put far too much trust in our ability to conceive, so much so that we waste our time arguing about concepts, about who is right and who is wrong, instead of actually embarking upon the practice that will enable us to see and know the truth beyond concepts.
Out of faith in the Lord Buddha one's job and duty is to use that conceptual mind where it is appropriate, and drop it where it has no place, where it does not reach, and where it does not belong. Where it does not belong is in the realm of those states that are beyond the ordinary human experience (Uttari manussa Dhamma.): the Jhanas, the states of insight, and Nibbana. Here the conceptual mind has to be dropped.
But first of all, this has to be taken on faith -- faith in the teachings of the Buddha the Noble Disciples. What I mean by faith is that one values the teachings of the Buddha so much that one allows them to go inside of the mind. One day when one is close to concentration or insight, those teachings will come up to bear its fruit, and one will give up the conceptual mind.
That which creates conceptual entanglement is called diversification (Papanca), a coarser form of craving. Having given up Papanca, the mind becomes still and peaceful; one could say that the language of the self, the ego, is these thoughts and concepts and the only way one can be see this ego is first to make it shut up.
So one doubts this conceptual mind and instead one develops the mind of faith in the Buddha's teaching, which says that this path can only lead one way only. The conceptual mind might say: "I can't do it, it's too hard for me". But that's the talk of the ego getting scared, the talk of Mara,3 who is on the defensive, rattled by our progress on the path to Nibbana. Instead of believing in the conceptual mind, the mind of Mara, one trusts the word of the Buddha and the advice of the Noble Disciples. One puts aside those conceptional doubts, lets them go, and pushes them away. One goes beyond them, and finds that the Buddha was wise and enlightened: he did teach the Dhamma., and that Dhamma. works. This is especially clear when the mind becomes peaceful.
Push out the conceptual mind and arouse the mind of faith. Let go. Let go of the ordering, the assessing of the situation, and the thinking of what to do next. Let the Dhamma. take over; and let natural course of the practise take over. If you have been practicing virtue, sense restraint, and mindfulness, you have the basis for concentration; so let go and let concentration happen. Allow the mind just to concentrate, to revert to what we might call its natural state -- the seeking of satisfaction and comfort within itself rather than outside.
The mind then becomes self sufficient, self comforting, and self sustaining, so that the door from the mind to the five external sense is cut off, and the mind does not go out to the five senses. Instead it remains immersed in itself, in a radiant joy. One experiences this, one delights in it, and it is wise and good to delight in it. One has faith in the Buddha, who said that this is a delight has no underlying tendencies of craving and lust.
The Beginnings of Craving
Just as one leaves these states of concentration, one can experience the beginnings of craving, the beginnings of the mind which goes out to seek for satisfaction. As an arm reaches out for a cup of tea (or whatever it thinks to be joy), one sees how stupid this craving is. Craving has its measure of delight: the anticipation, the joy of activity, the doing, making, becoming, and controlling. But this is delusive joy. One sees craving going out, and one sees its results.
When one is developing insight based on these powerful states of concentration, something like craving, instead of appearing as an idea or concept, appears like an animal, emerging from the mind and going out. One sees this very clearly; also one can very clearly understand the dangers. The coarse mind can only see what is coarse and superficial. The subtle mind, however, can see the subtle.
One understands the very source and essence of craving: why it works, why the mind delights in it, and the consequences of that delighting. Then the mind can develop repulsion towards craving itself, repulsion to these "animals" which emerges from the mind and go out promising happiness and joy, but afterwards come back to bite and torment the mind. Craving is unfaithful to its promise; it promises delight, happiness, satisfaction, and contentment, but it only brings torment and disappointment. The refined mind can see this.
The refined mind can see where this craving first originates. It first originates in the delusion of "I" and in the delusion of "mine." It is the delusion of a "self" (Atta) which needs joy and satisfaction in the first place. This sense of self, this sense of "I" is the source of craving, and it's not going to be uncovered easily as it lies very deep within. One needs the powerful, refined, and subtle mind to be able to even come close to the source and meaning of self, or rather that which we take to be self. This is a very hard thing to see, but with faith and confidence in the Buddha's teachings and by following them, one comes closer and closer.
Once one sees the self, or rather that which is taken to be a self, then one can truly say that one is in the presence of Nibbana. One sees the self as just a mirage, which has deceived the mind for so many lifetimes. One "sees" this not as a concept, but as a very refined state that is very hard to describe to others. Language doesn't reach to these places.
Once that self is seen, the delusion is destroyed and the very ground from which craving originates is pulled away. Craving is then like a bird with no place to rest any more. It can still go flying in the sky, but it can't come back to rest on any branch or ground, and eventually it gets tired, and then it will die. Once the mind sees these things -- the Dhamma., the origination of all things, and where they lead to, the nature of the mind and the nature of delusion -- faith is transformed into wisdom. It is transformed into the experience of the Dhamma., into Enlightenment and powerful wisdom.
Many may wonder how anyone can gain such refined wisdom. But those who have faith in the Buddha know that there is a path, there is a way, by which human beings can gain this wisdom. That way is the Eightfold Path. From the very beginning to the end its not that long; it doesn't take that much time. One just needs patience and energy born of confidence.
If the energy comes from a sense of "self," it's not going to be very productive. If the energy one arouses comes from a sense of "me" and "mine," for instance, because you're ashamed of what you have done so far, and you want to do better, it won't be anywhere near as effective as it would be if it's comes from faith in the Buddha's teachings. If it's energy born of faith, it is not energy coming from the "self," it is energy coming from the Buddha. If it's faith in the Dhamma., or if it's faith in the Noble (Ariya) Sangha, it is energy born of the Dhamma., energy born of the Sangha the Ariya Sangha. If one hears a great discourse from the Noble Ones, it gives rise to faith, and that faith gives rise to energy. It is born from the Ariyas, from the Noble Ones. It is that energy, powerful and penetrative, that can arouse one to perfect one to make one's virtue spotless, that can perfect one's sense restraint, sharpen one's mindfulness, and to bring the mind to concentration.
"Whether you like it or not, it happens:" Whether you think that Jhana is the path to Nibbana or not, you get into Jhana. It's a natural part of the Eightfold path, and it happens by itself. Planning it or not planning it is just getting in the way and putting off its happening. The experience of Jhana comes naturally to a mind in which the hindrances are suppressed; in which faith has been developed, where purity of virtue has been developed, where sense restraint has been developed; in which mindfulness has been developed. Whether one likes it or not, whether one decides for it or not, the happiness ushered in by all these preparatory practices will naturally give rise to the beautiful Jhanas.
The Bliss of Enlightenment
The Buddha called the Jhanas "the bliss of Enlightenment." 4 They are not the true release of Enlightenment, but close enough in their affective qualities to give one a taste of freedom. These are also called freedom of the mind (Cetovimutti). They are the first real experiences of freedom for the meditator. One is getting a taste of what Nibbana truly is. The mind has calmed down, the defilements are gone -- though only temporarily -- and one experiences a mind without defilements, which is just "inside itself". One experiences contentment, a place where craving doesn't reach, where Mara is blindfolded.
The experience of these beautiful states that the Buddha described gives an indication of what Nibbana is like. Then one doesn't need to worry about faith anymore. The experience is there and, once there, the faith in the Buddha, Dhamma., and Sangha are "gone to greatness" (Mahagatta). If the meditator has that last bit of confidence to turn the attention where the Buddha said to turn it at such a time, he or she starts to uncover the mirage of self, that which one has always taken to be "me" or "mine." If one looks behind the screen at the source of the film, the light and the projector itself, the one begins to see the Dhamma.. As said earlier, one then starts to notice where the defilements originate from. The source of the hindrances, the mirage of the self, is uncovered. It is this delusion (Avijja) that is the root cause of suffering.
Entering the Stream
If you uproot the mirage of self, and see clearly with a mind beyond concepts, with the freed through the practice of the Eightfold Path, then will come with certainty the knowledge that one has entered the stream and is a Stream-winner, bound for Enlightenment. There is no way that this can be turned back, and that's why they say that from this stage faith in the Buddha, Dhamma., and Sangha becomes unshakeable. It becomes so powerful, tall, and great that there is no way in the world one might ever turn back.
Having realised the Dhamma., one can delight in it, delight in the achievement and in the uniqueness of the Buddha. With this realisation one really knows what the Buddha is. As the Buddha said, "One who sees the Dhamma., sees me. One who sees me, sees the Dhamma.." 5 That is a profound saying, and one needs to have actually seen the Dhamma. to understand its meaning. In other words, if one has truly seen the Dhamma., then one will value the Buddha, Dhamma. and Noble Sangha above all else. Confidence and faith in the Buddha reaches its peak and becomes an enormous source of joy, and happiness -- the bliss of pure confidence.
Faith is the source not only of energy but of happiness and delight (Sukha) too. And again, it's a delight and happiness from which there is nothing to be blamed or feared. It's a pool from which one can drink, where there is no pollution and nothing which is going to cause injury or illness. Thus faith is a powerful tool. It will take one from beginning to the end of this realm of Samsara and eventually set one free.
As I mentioned before, right in the beginning your faith may be weak and challenged by the defilements, but just notice, as you follow the Eightfold Path, how at each stage it gives rise to greater degrees of happiness. These experiences of happiness are real and are there to be turned to at any time if one can only notice them. They are like invisible companions that one takes for granted but often just doesn't notice. They will give increased faith that this practice works, and as that faith builds up, it will propel you along the path.
You are in the presence of Nibbana because you are practising the Noble Eightfold Path. Confidence in this truth might just enable the mind to accept that Nibbana is only hidden behind the thinnest of veils. You might just get the incentive to go beyond and achieve Jhana, achieve insight, and become one of the Noble Ones. Then you will realise that it wasn't all that difficult. Just go one step further behind the defences of the illusion of self.
1. Trans. By F.L. Woodward, ed. By Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids (London: Pali Text Society, 1982).
2. Yena yena hi mannanti tato tam hoti annatha. See, e.g., Majjhima Nikaya No. 113 (III 42 foll.).
3. "Mara ... is the Buddhist `Tempter' figure. ... He appears in the texts both as a real person (i.e., as a deity) and as the personification of evil and passions, of the totality of worldly existence and of death." Nyanatiloka Thera, Buddhist Dictionary (4th rev. ed.), (Kandy, Sri Lanka, Buddhist Publication Society, 1980), p.116.
4. Sambodhisukha. See, e.g., the Latukikopama Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya No. 66(I 454).
5. Samyutta Nikaya, 22:87 (II 120).