Buddhist practice is the practice of letting go; of thoughts, feelings, habits, opinions, even our sense of who we think we are. Unsurprisingly letting go and Buddhism are pretty much synonomous. Ajahn Chah famously said:
“Do everything with a mind that lets go. Do not expect any praise or reward. If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.”Ajahn Chah, A Still Forest Pool
As I reflect on different stages of my practice I can appreciate how important it is to cultivate this attitude of letting go all the time, while I can also see ironically I let go too soon in some places sending my practice backwords for a while. These weren’t terrible mistakes necessarily, they proved to be really useful learning points for me in the end. Learning how much is too much and how much is too little is one of the most important details to grasp if we want our practice to develop. And after all, the modus operandi of Buddhist practice is to learn by doing, by trial and error, so there was nothing lost by being taken off down the wrong track for a while.
But if Buddhism is about letting go then what is it that we should be holding onto, you might wonder? Everything has to go eventually; at the end of the path once nibbana is realised we are told to even let go of the training that got us there. The Buddha likened his teachings to a raft that carries us across a raging river; once we are on the other side it wouldn’t make much sense to pick up the raft and carry it with us on land. We don’t need the raft where we are now going, so we leave it behind. Keeping the raft is one mistake, but if we were to let go of the raft while we were still in the river this would be another mistake because we would never make it to the other side. In the Middle Way there are no absolute answers, only what is right in that moment in time. Some things are to be held onto, and some things are to be let go of, but the right response might be different at a different point in time. Practice, and the outcome of our practice, help us to understand if we have made the right decisions.
The classic example of letting go too soon is when people turn to the practice to help them with a difficult issue, they work hard to change the way they feel about it, and then once they feel better they loosen up on their practice. I know of someone who had tried mindfulness for a few weeks and said that they didn’t need to do it anymore because they felt better now. This is an extreme example, but it’s easy for even a more experience practitioner to forget that the reason we feel better about something is because of the conditions that our practice created, and that once we take those conditions away we will go back to where we started.
I had a slightly different kind of experience that I later realised was an example of letting go at the wrong point too. It happened while I was contemplating teachings around non-duality. The Hsin Hsin Ming captures the essence of these teachings beautifully, and makes it clear that there is nothing to be held onto anywhere in the mind:
Do not remain in a dualistic state; avoid such easy habits carefully. If you attach even to a trace of this and that, of right and wrong, the Mind-essence will be lost in confusion. Although all dualities arise from the One, do not be attached even to ideas of this Onehttp://www.mendosa.com/way.html by Seng-ts’an, Third Chinese Patriarch. Trans. by Richard B. Clark
As I examined what it meant to function in a non-conceptual way, I realised that even trying to have a peaceful mind was still operating in the realm of preferences and dualities; it was both grasping for pleasant feeling and it was a delusion, a misunderstanding of reality. So as I recognised my tendency to want to have peaceful meditations was actually unskilful, I worked on trying to not interfere with whatever was coming up in my mind, to go neither towards it nor away from it.
What I didn’t recognise at that point was the difference between acting with a kilesa and acting without one, so I just assumed that all actions must be fed by concepts, even the actions that seem to be positive ones. All concepts are not real, therefore I tried to let go of all of my actions.
My mind gave me the feedback on this approach very quickly; within a few days the inside of my mind was a complete mess. There was constant internal dialogue, stories that got bigger and bigger and more and more emotive, there was craving, meanness, and almost no mindfulness.
I was stressed and unfocused, which alerted me that something had gone wrong. I didn’t know why I needed to go back to being more disciplined with my mind, but I knew that it generally worked a lot better when I intervened to let go of thoughts and sensations as they came up, so I went back to that. My mind was calm and contained again within a few days, although at that point I didn’t really understand why.
While it is true that ultimately everything that we become conscious of in the mind is on some level a concept and should be let go of, this was (to paraphrase Ajahn Chah) right in fact but wrong in Dhamma at that point of my practice. Why was it wrong? I now know that by not being active with the contents of my mind I let go of tackling the kilesas, and clearly I had done it far too early because they were (and still are) still there. I already know that I have a kilesa or two in there for being lazy, so it is little surprise that I grabbed the opportunity to do less hard work with both hands.
It was an honest mistake though, and there is nothing incorrect or incompatible about the teachings on non-duality and letting go of concepts with the Theravadin approach, the same teachings on non-conceptuality appear throughout the Pali canon too. But I had used an aspect of an absolute teaching at the point when the work I was doing still needed to be firmly rooted in the conventional world.
Now there’s nothing wrong with learning from teachings from other Buddhist traditions, but we need to bear in mind that they aren’t necessarily crossing the river in the same place as our own tradition does. Used wisely, teachings from other traditions can show us another side of the same issue that can help us to develop a more complete understanding, but used without the right understanding they can nudge us off course. If I was practicing within a Zen tradition part of the teaching would be around helping me to not make those kinds of mistakes, but because I’m not there is no specific advice to keep me on track. When you know your own tradition well, then you know where the pit falls are and how to best avoid them.
Looking back on it I can see why it had such disastrous effects. I shouldn’t have left those thoughts and feelings unchallenged; it was because I didn’t fully appreciate that they were the result of impersonal processes that I still felt that they were something to do with ‘me’. Leaving the thoughts and feelings as they were maintained my state of delusion. I wasn’t ready to successfully let everything be because I still didn’t understand how it all worked; and I couldn’t leave those thoughts and feelings be because I still believed them to be real in some way.
My mind was still too full of delusions about reality for me to have taken my foot off the gas. My focus instead should have remained solidly on uncovering reality.
In Head and Heart Togther, Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests that if we set our intention to train in a way that creates a feeling of peace, and approach our task as looking for fabrications, or concepts, then we are less likely to make mistakes and are more likely to keep finding unreality and uprooting it. Not only that, this approach would alert us to the points where we were going off track; the lack of peace would be enough to tell us that there were still concepts present. Actually in the end it was the lack of peace in my mind that drew my attention to there being a problem, so I can understand why Thanissaro Bhikkhu highlighted it as a useful focus for our practice.
You can’t know what you don’t know, and I didn’t know quite what the fabrications were I was dealing with, but if I had set peace as my key intention then I might have not stumbled down that particular dead end.
There is no thing that is to be spared from your analysis of whether it is a concept or not, and if we diligently follow this approach then hopefully nothing will be missed. In the end, everything has to go, even the things that currently help us:
“…to fully achieve this peace, your discernment has to be directed not only at the mind’s fabrication of the objects of its awareness, but also at its fabrications about itself and the path it’s creating. Your sense of who you are is a fabrication, regardless of whether you see the mind as separate or interconnected, finite or infinite, good or bad. The path is also a fabrication: very subtle and sometimes seemingly effortless, but fabricated nonetheless. If these layers of inner fabrication aren’t seen for what they are…they can’t be deconstructed, and full Awakening can’t occur.”https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/freedomfrombuddhanature.html by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
So there are concepts that we need to hold onto while we are using them, like the concept of the path. If we let go of the path now we would stop practicing, but if we haven’t reached enlightenment yet then this would be a mistake. Even that pure, peaceful, shining mind that acts as the counterpoint to the kilesas is a concept too:
“When the conditions for the stains are gone, the mind becomes luminous again. But this luminosity is not an awakened nature…After this luminosity has been developed in the advanced stages of concentration, it’s abandoned once it has completed its work in helping to pierce through ignorance.”https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/freedomfrombuddhanature.html by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
So even though the luminous mind at some point will have to be given up, it still serves a very important function now and if we let it go now, which is essentially what I had accidently done when I let go of biasing towards a peaceful mind, then there is nothing to move towards when we are trying to get away from the kilesas.
If we set peace as our key objective then what guides us to know whether we should be letting go or holding on is the presence of peace of mind; but we need a lot of clarity of insight to know the difference between peace and just feeling good, or the difference peace and the absence of problems. That’s why whatever stage of the path we are at it is usually fair to say that we still need to hold on to following the practices diligently. When the time has come to let go we will know; not an intellectual knowing, or something that we will have to think about, but a clear vision that the work is done.
You can’t really target individual kilesas directly, like me trying to deal with the kilesa of grasping at peaceful meditation, until you have seen through their actions and there is nothing left that would reinforce them to you as real. Without the support of your mistaken ideas about them, the kilesas have no support and will not be able to persist. While you still believe that physical feelings are yours, that the body is you, that the thoughts that pop into the mind are your thoughts and that you should listen to them, then the kilesas can still pass themselves off as something that is a part of you. Treating thoughts and feelings as self reinforce the false reality of the kilesa, and make you think it is a ‘thing’ that has come from you, when really it is a completely impersonal process.
To tackle a kilesa directly you need all those insights about the nature of the mind and body to be in place, and to be certain that there is no self to be found in either place. Until all of that knowledge is established then you are always entering the fight with one hand, or both, tied behind your back, and it is no surprise that the outcomes of your battles against the kilesas are so hit and miss.
The graduated path of practice that the Buddha laid out relies not only on the development of skills and qualities like sila, mindfulness, and concentration, but also for key pieces of knowledge to be in place that will allow the progress to the next step to be made.
So you can’t tackle a kilesa head on until you have the knowledge that there is nothing about it that is self, but that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try. It is by the trials, errors, successes and failures that we have tackling the kilesas before we know how they really work that help us to understand our adversary better. Muddling through while we don’t really know what we are doing actually helps us to develop the knowledge that will eventually show us what is really going on.
The summary version is that the start of your practice is going to be hard because you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re going to make mistakes, but that’s okay because those mistakes are all part of the learning process. As long as you are not too hard on yourself when you go backwards, or can’t change a bad habit, and you listen to the advice of wise practitioners, then your blunders won’t do you any harm.
You might point out to me that this is perhaps a little contradictory to the issue I explored last week when I wondered if it was even possible to truly develop skills like mindfulness and concentration until much later down the line in our practice. On one hand it could be said that I was suggesting that we need to let go of trying to perfect our skills, but now I am implying that we need to not let go otherwise our skills will never be realised.
At the heart of this paradox is that both statements can be correct, and the fact that we are somehow to steer ourselves the right way down the path when don’t have a clear way of knowing which correct answer applies at any particular moment in time.
But for the stages of our practice where we don’t know how to make the right distinction, we have external guidance to steer our course – the three refuges, the noble eightfold path, and the five precepts. It’s little wonder then that the first stage of the Buddha’s gradual path is to work on the precepts. Their aim is to guide and modify our actions towards other people to learn how to behave in a more skilful way. Not killing, not harming, not stealing, not lying, not having inappropriate sexual relationships, and not getting wasted are really simple guidelines to help us to make choices that will take us away from being driven by the outputs of our kilesas. The Noble eightfold path then gives us more detail to work with, encompassing every aspect of our lives including our actions, speech, livelihood, as well as now directing our practice too through right view, right intention, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
So we don’t need to delay our practice until we have enough knowledge to not make mistakes, we just need to use the guidance we have been given which help us to not follow our kilesas until we get to the stage where we can recognise them for ourselves.
Does that mean we would need to let go of the Noble eightfold path and the precepts too at some point? In theory yes, but it isn’t something we need to spend time thinking about because the chances of any of us getting there are pretty remote. But I’m reminded of stories where once a monk or nun had acheived enlightenment they chose to remain living by monastic rules – they understood that they didn’t need to any more but they just did for the sake of helping to teach others. We shouldn’t assume then that just because we can let go of the practice that we will necessarily choose to do so. If you are freed from delusion and can act without kilesas, then it doesn’t really matter what you are doing, following training rules or not, because all of your actions will be skilful and do no harm either way.
For the rest of us though the work continues.