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Food for Thought - An Inner Mainstay
 
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An Inner Mainstay

August 28, 1957

Normally, our hearts can hardly ever sit still. They have to think about all kinds of thoughts and ideas, both good and bad. When good things happen, we keep them to think about. When bad things happen, we keep them to think about. When we succeed or fail at anything, we keep it to think about. This shows how impoverished the mind is. When it thinks about things it likes, it develops sensual craving. When it thinks about things that are possible, it develops craving for possibilities. When it thinks about things that are impossible, it develops craving for impossibilities, all without our realizing it. This is called unawareness. It's because of this unawareness that we have thoughts, judgments, and worries that form the well-spring for likes, dislikes, and attachments.

Sometimes the things we think about can come true in line with our thoughts; sometimes they can't. While there's at least some use in thinking about things that are possible, we like to go to the effort of thinking about things that are out of the question. I.e., when certain things are no longer possible, we still hold onto them to the point where we feel mistreated or depressed. We keep trying to get results out of things that can no longer be. When our hopes aren't satisfied, we latch onto our dissatisfaction; when they are satisfied, we latch onto our satisfaction. This gives rise to likes and dislikes. We latch onto thoughts of the future and thoughts of the past. Most of us, when we succeed at something, latch onto our happiness. When we don't succeed, we latch onto our disappointment. Sometimes we latch onto things that are good — although latching onto goodness leaves us some way to crawl along. Sometimes we actually latch onto things that are clearly bad.

This is what made the Buddha feel such pity for us human beings. In what way? He pitied our stupidity in not understanding what suffering is. We know that red ants can really hurt when they bite us, yet we go stick our heads in a red ant nest and then sit around in pain and torment. What good do we get out of it?

When we see good or bad sights with our eyes, we latch onto them. When we hear good or bad sounds with our ears, we latch onto them. When we smell good or bad odors, taste good or bad flavors, feel good or bad sensations, or think good or bad thoughts, we latch onto them — so we end up all encumbered with sights dangling from our eyes, sounds dangling from both of our ears, odors dangling from the tip of our nose, flavors dangling from the tip of our tongue, tactile sensations dangling all over our body, and thoughts dangling from our mind. This way, sights are sure to close off our eyes, sounds close off our ears, odors close off our nostrils, flavors close off our tongue, tactile sensations close off our body, and thoughts close off our mind. When our senses are completely closed off in this way, we're in the dark — the darkness of unawareness — groping around without finding the right way, unable to go any way at all. Our body is weighed down and our mind is dark. This is called harming yourself, killing yourself, destroying your own chances for progress.

Thoughts are addictive, and especially when they're about things that are bad. We remember them long and think of them often. This is delusion, one of the camp-followers of unawareness. For this reason, we have to drive this kind of delusion from our hearts by making ourselves mindful and alert, fully conscious with each in-and-out breath. This is what awareness comes from. When awareness arises, discernment arises as well. If awareness doesn't arise, how will we be able to get rid of craving? When awareness arises, craving for sensuality, craving for possibilities, and craving for impossibilities will all stop, and attachment won't exist. This is the way of the Noble Path.

Most of us tend to flow along in the direction of what's bad more than in the direction of what's good. When people try to convince us to do good, they have to give us lots of reasons, and even then we hardly budge. But if they try to talk us into doing bad, all they have to do is say one or two words and we're already running with them. This is why the Buddha said, "People are foolish. They like to feed on bad preoccupations." And that's not all. We even feed on things that have no truth to them at all. We can't be bothered with thinking about good things, but we like to keep clambering after bad things, trying to remember them and keep them in mind. We don't get to eat any meat or sit on any skin, and yet we choke on the bones.

"We don't get to eat any meat:" This means that we gather up imaginary things to think about, but they don't bring us any happiness. A person who opens his mouth to put food in it at least gets something to fill up his stomach, but a person who clambers around with his mouth open, craning his neck to swallow nothing but air: That's really ridiculous. His stomach is empty, without the least little thing to give it weight. This stands for thoughts that have no truth to them. We keep searching them out, gathering them up, and elaborating on them in various ways without getting any results out of them at all, aside from making ourselves restless and distracted. We never have any time to sit still in one place, and instead keep running and jumping around until the skin on our rears has no chance to make contact anywhere with a place to sit down. This is what is meant by, "We don't get to sit on any skin." We can't lie down, we can't stay seated — even though our bodies may be seated, our minds aren't seated there with them. We don't get to eat any meat and instead we choke on the bones. We try to swallow them, but they won't go down; we try to cough them up, but they won't come out.

When we say, "We choke on the bones," this refers to the various bad preoccupations that get stuck in the heart. The "bones" here are the five Hindrances.

(1) Sensual desire: The mind gets carried away with things it likes.

(2) Ill will: Things that displease us are like bones stuck in the heart. The mind fastens on things that are bad, on things we dislike, until we start feeling animosity, anger, and hatred. Sometimes we even gather up old tasteless bones that were thrown away long ago — like chicken bones that have been boiled to make stock: The meat has fallen off, the flavor has been boiled away, and all that's left are the hard, brittle bones they throw to dogs. This stands for old thoughts stretching back 20 to 30 years that we bring out to gnaw on. Look at yourself: Your mind is so impoverished that it has to suck on old bones. It's really pitiful.

(3) Torpor & lethargy: When the mind has been feeding on trash like this, with nothing to nourish it, its strength is bound to wane away. It becomes sleepy and depressed, oblivious to other people's words, not hearing their questions or understanding what they're trying to say.

(4) Restlessness & anxiety: The mind then gets irritable and distracted, which is followed by —

(5) Uncertainty: We may decide that good things are bad, or bad things are good, wrong things are right, or right things are wrong. We may do things in line with the Dhamma and not realize it, or contrary to the Dhamma — but in line with our own preconceptions — and not know it. Everything gets stuck in our throat, and we can't decide which way to go, so our thoughts keep running around in circles, like a person who rows his boat around in a lake for hours and hours without getting anywhere.

This is called harming yourself, hurting yourself, killing yourself. And when we can do this sort of thing to ourselves, what's to keep us from doing it to others? This is why we shouldn't let ourselves harbor thoughts of envy, jealousy, or anger. If any of these five Hindrances arise in the heart, then trouble and suffering will come flooding in like a torrential downpour, and we won't be able to hold our own against them. All of this is because of the unawareness that keeps us from having any inner quality as a mainstay. Even though we may live in a seven- or nine-storey mansion and eat food at $40 a plate, we won't be able to find any happiness.

People without any inner quality are like vagrants with no home to live in. They have to be exposed to sun, rain, and wind by day and by night, so how can they find any relief from the heat or the cold? With nothing to shelter them, they have to lie curled up until their backs get all crooked and bent. When a storm comes, they need to scurry to find shelter: They can't stay under trees because they're afraid the trees will be blown down on top of them. They can't stay in open fields because they're afraid lightning will strike. At midday the sun is so hot that they can't sit for long — like an old barefooted woman walking on an asphalt road when the sun is blazing: She can't put her feet down because she's afraid they'll blister, so she dances around in place on her tiptoes, not knowing where she can rest her feet.

This is why the Buddha felt such pity for us, and taught us to find shelter for ourselves by doing good and developing concentration as a principle in our hearts, so that we can have an inner home. This way we won't have to suffer, and other people will benefit as well. This is called having a mainstay.

People with no mainstay are bound to busy themselves with things that have no real meaning or worth — i.e., with things that can't protect them from suffering when the necessity arises. A person without the wisdom to search for a mainstay is sure to suffer hardships. I'll illustrate this point with a story. Once there was a band of monkeys living in the upper branches of a forest, each one carrying its young wherever it went. One day a heavy wind storm came. As soon as the monkeys heard the sound of the approaching wind, they broke off branches and twigs to make themselves a nest on one of the bigger branches. After they had piled on the twigs, they went down under the nest and looked up to see if there were still any holes. Wherever they saw a hole, they piled on more twigs and branches until the whole thing was piled thick and high. Then when the wind and rain came, they got up on top of the nest, sitting there with their mouths open, shivering from the cold, exposed to the wind and rain. Their nest hadn't offered them any protection at all, simply because of their own stupidity. Eventually a gust of wind blew the nest apart. The monkeys were scattered every which way and ended up dangling here and there, their babies falling from their grasp, all of them thoroughly miserable from their hardship and pain.

People who don't search for inner worth as their mainstay are no different from these monkeys. They work at amassing money and property, thinking that these things will give them security, but when death comes, none of these things can offer any safety at all. This is why the Buddha felt such pity for all the deluded people in the world, and went to great lengths to teach us to search for inner quality as a mainstay for ourselves.

People who have inner quality as their mainstay are said to be kind not only to themselves but also to others as well, in the same way that when we have a house of our own, we can build a hut for other people to live in, too. If we see that another person's hut is going to cave in, we help find thatch to roof it; make walls for the left side, right side, the front, and the back, to protect it from storm winds; and raise the floor to get it above flood level. What this means is that we teach the other person how to escape from his or her own defilements in the same way that we've been able, to whatever extent, to escape from ours. When we tell others to practice concentration, it's like helping them roof their house so that they won't have to be exposed to the sun and rain. Making walls for the front and back means that we tell them to shut off thoughts of past and future; and walls for the left and right means that we tell them to shut off thoughts of likes and dislikes. Raising the floor above flood level means we get them to stay firmly centered in concentration, keeping their minds still with their object of meditation.

Once people have a house with good walls, a sound roof, and a solid floor, then even if they don't have any other external belongings — just a single rag to their name — they can be happy, secure, and at peace. But if your house is sunk in the mud, what hope is there for your belongings? You'll have to end up playing with crabs, worms, and other creepy things. Your walls are nothing but holes, so that people can see straight through your house, in one side and out the other. Even from four to five miles away they can see everything you've got. When this is the case, thieves are going to gang up and rob you — i.e., all sorts of bad thoughts and preoccupations are going to come in and ransack your heart.

As for your roof, it's nothing but holes. You look up and can see the stars. Termite dust is going to sift into your ears and eyes, and birds flying past will plaster you with their droppings. So in the end, all you can do is sit scratching your head in misery because you haven't any shelter.

When this is the case, you should take pity on yourself and develop your own inner worth. Keep practicing concentration until your heart matures, step by step. When you do this, you'll develop the light of discernment that can chase the darkness of unawareness out of your heart. When there's no more unawareness, you'll be free from craving and attachment, and ultimately gain Liberation.

For this reason, we should all keep practicing meditation and set our hearts on developing nothing but inner goodness, without retreating or getting discouraged. Whatever is a form of goodness, roll up your sleeves and pitch right in. Don't feel any regrets even if you ram your head into a wall and die on the spot. If you're brave in your proper efforts this way, all your affairs are sure to succeed in line with your hopes and aspirations. But if evil comes and asks to move into your home — your heart — chase it away. Don't let it stay even for a single night.

* * *

People who like to gather up thoughts, worries, etc., to hold onto are no different from prisoners tied down with a ball and chain. To fasten onto thoughts of the past is like having a rope around your waist tied to a post behind you. To fasten onto thoughts of the future is like having a rope around your neck tied to a door in front. To fasten onto thoughts you like is like having a rope around your right wrist tied to a post on your right. To fasten onto thoughts you don't like is like having a rope around your left wrist tied to a wall on your left. Whichever way you try to step, you're pulled back by the rope on the opposite side, so how can you hope to get anywhere at all?

As for people who have unshackled themselves from their thoughts, they stand tall and free like soldiers or warriors with weapons in both hands and no need to fear enemies from any direction. Any opponents who see them won't dare come near, so they're always sure to come out winning.

But if we're the type tied up with ropes on all sides, nobody's going to fear us, because there's no way we can take any kind of stance to fight them off. If enemies approach us, all we can do is dance around in one spot.

So I ask that we all take a good look at ourselves and try to unshackle ourselves from all outside thoughts and preoccupations. Don't let them get stuck in your heart. Your meditation will then give you results, your mind will advance to the transcendent, and you're sure to come out winning someday.


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