Talk on Non-Self (Anattā)

November 2013

Ajahn Brahm uses the metaphor of a lotus flower to describe the path of meditation leading to enlightenment. He guides the listener inward, petal by petal, until reaching the very heart—the ultimate truth of non-self and emptiness. With his characteristic wit and wisdom, he reveals how all phenomena are impermanent processes devoid of a permanent essence. Though initially confronting, Brahm suggests this teaching contains the song of freedom itself, destined to liberate those who have heard it.

Morning talk on day 9 of a 2013 seminar at Jhana Grove Meditation Retreat Centre.



So today, another morning talk. I think it’s another talk tomorrow, isn’t it? Okay, tomorrow will be “What you do when you leave here” talk, but you haven’t left here yet. So you’ve got another full day to understand the dharma, and to get enlightened, and all this other stuff. And even if you do not get enlightened, at least you get close and understand something of what it’s like.


And just to try and continue a theme—you know, on this retreat I started teaching you how to meditate, and just all these little tricks for the meditation, and also just to how you do this by just letting go and not forcing the mind. And then, if you really let go, then things happen. There’s also some other little bits and pieces to include here, but most of this talk today is just more on the insight practices, because people did ask me some questions like that on dependent origination.


I’m going to put a lot into this talk, but I’m going to start just with one of the similes which I love, which explains the way of meditation, which is beautiful, and which would explain at last at the end of this retreat what aum mani padme hum really means. Because if it doesn’t work yet, it’s the way to time, it won’t work. And it’s a very wonderful simile for meditation, and it is complementary to Ajahn Shah’s simile which is sitting under the mango tree. You know what the two things you’re supposed to do under the mango tree? Sit still and just open up your hand. And I always interpret that open up your heart. And many of you have heard me say this simile before, but it’s good to remind you of it, of the simile of the thousand-petal lotus. Because aum mani padme hum, the aum and the hum are just words like we do in Namo, like Namo Tassa or Namo Buddhaya.It just means like homage to, like worship, respect to. So that’s what aum means. And that’s also what hum means at the end. And the two really active words are mani and padme. And as many Sri Lankans here would know, the word padme means Lotus. And mani is the word for a jewel. So all it means is: worship or homage to the jewel in the lotus.


And what—that’s what it means by words, but what does that really mean? Sort of in practice, what is that referring to? And this is a simile meditation called the thousand-petaled lotus. A lotus closes up at nighttime. And when the first light and warmth of the sun hit the outermost petal of the lotus, it warms up and opens out to reveal the next layer of petals inside the lotus. So they can receive the warmth and light of the sun. And they too open up to reveal the next layer of petals inside. And layer by layer the lotus opens up, getting deeper and deeper into the heart of the lotus.


Now, I’m sure you understand what this simile means. The sun, the light and the warmth of the sun, stands for: the light is mindfulness and the warmth is kindness. And the lotus is you. And the nice thing about the lotus simile, if ever you see a lotus closed up at nighttime or early in the morning before the sun comes up, it’s not a very promising flower. Now, the outside is not beautiful, it’s not that colored, it’s grayish or off-white. And it’s serrated and it’s coarse, it’s got no fragrance, it’s rough and tough—like you are—on the outside. Because you have to endure all of the problems and troubles of life: the sicknesses, the husbands, the wives, the bosses are going to work. You have to endure all of that. So the outside of you is like the outside petal of the lotus which has to take the wind and the dust and everything else. But when the first light of the sun comes, the lotus begins to open. And inside that unpromising outer sheath is these beautiful petals. And inside each one of you, believe it or not, is this whole series of ever-increasingly beautiful and fragrant and refined petals.


Even when I said I went to see prisoners in jail—on the outside they were rough and coarse, really rough. But as you open them up, you find all these incredible beautiful petals inside. And how do you open them up? With mindfulness and kindness. That is all you need to do. And with the simile of the lotus, the deeper you go, the more fragrant, the more beautiful, and even the more delicate are those petals. So in the simile of meditation you sit here, just being mindful, just being kind.


So whatever you’re experiencing right now, no matter how coarse it is—so you sit here just with your eyes closed, just being aware and kind to your body. Kind to your body means you just get into a nice posture. Now, you scratch what you need to scratch. You do whatever you need to do to make the body comfortable. And when the body is comfortable, that coarse part of the body vanishes. The lotus opens up. And the next area you see is, you know, this mind inside of your body. Now, this is figuratively speaking—you’re aware of your mental world. And the mental world is just so restless. It’s all over the place: thinking and planning and remembering all the pain of your past. And you’re just—you don’t do anything with it, you’re just aware and kind.


And then what happens? That first petal opens out to the second layer of petals, which is the nicer part of the lotus. When you go right into the middle, noise is going inside things as the petals open out. You go inside. So you go inside time. It’s right in the middle of time. That’s where you see the present moment. And that just opens up by itself. You’re just aware and kind, and then you’re just here in this moment. And then you’re just watching this moment.


One of the reasons why you can’t watch the moment, why the present moment disappears, is because you’re not kind to it. You may be still, but you haven’t got this opening the door of your heart, opening your hand, like Ajahn Chah said. So you’re beautiful kind to this present moment. No matter what it is, just be kind to it. Open the door of your heart, letting it be. And then the present moment opens up.


And the next layer—I haven’t told much about this, but it’s in the earlier books which I wrote—was stillness. Basically, right in the center of the now, you can’t say anything. All of your thoughts will stop when you get into the center of the present moment. Because if you examine, look back upon your thinking process, it’s all to do about plans or fears, all to do about what happened in the past, all to do with fantasies. When you’re actually right here in this moment, there’s nothing much you can say about it. You can say about what happened in a moment ago, but what’s happening here? If you really are here, you have no choice but to be silent.


So the lotus opens up just from mindfulness and kindness, from being in the present moment, to being silent. And you’re just aware and kind of that, you don’t do anything. And soon that silent layer of petals—and you’re getting some very beautiful petals now—that opens up. You know what comes up next? In the middle of that silence comes your breathing. I mentioned this before, because everything else fades away and vanishes and disappears because it’s not moving, and the breath is the last thing which is moving. It’s very difficult to stop your breathing.


An old story that many of you remember, my predecessor Ajahn Jagaro, and just over thirty years ago when we first came here, there was a guy invited to both of us to try out his flotation tank. He had just bought a flotation tank into Perth and he offered the monks to use it. And I was really interested in seeing how deep meditation you can get when you’re in this sensory deprivation chamber, which is totally black so you can’t see anything. You’re floating in salty water, so there’s no aches or pains in your body at all. There’s no pressure there. And it’s soundproof. And basically, you can’t hear anything, see anything, or feel anything. And I thought it was a great way to meditate.


But in the tradition we do have hierarchy, so he got to go there first. I didn’t mind, I was next in line, I wouldn’t have to wait for ages. But after he went in there, the next day somebody brought a copy of the newspaper to us where there was a big advertisement—this was the day after he used it—“Flotation Tanks as Used by Buddhist Monks.” Basically they’d exploited us. They’d say, “Oh, have a go in here” so they could use that as their marketing edge to actually get other people to use this stuff. So because we’ve been exploited, and not being told about this, Ajahn Jagaro told me, “No, Ajahn Brahm, you can’t have a go.” Ugh. Life is full of disappointments!


But I asked him what it was like in there and he said, “Yeah, you don’t feel anything, and there’s no sound from outside.” He said, “But what I heard all the time?” Huh-huh, huh-huhh, huh-huhh. He could hear himself breathing. And because there’s nothing else there, that was really loud and quite disturbing. Even if you cut out all the external sounds, there’s still what’s moving inside. And this is what happens when you open up this focus. That’s all that’s left. The last thing which is moving is your breathing.


And as I’ve mentioned to many of you—and you probably have noticed this yourself—if you decide to watch the breath, if I tell you to watch the breath go in and out now, what you’ll watch will never be a natural breath. You’ll be a bit forced, it’ll be a bit of a fake breath. But if the breath comes to you, you just let go and then the breath suddenly appears, then it’s always very, very calm and peaceful. It’s a natural breath. And this is the Rolls Royce method of meditation, if you can actually let go enough. The lotus opens up with this breath in there, and it’s quite nice. In fact, it’s usually—even at that stage it’s very delightful. If it’s not, just be mindful, be kind. And then lotus opens up, the next layer of petals is what I call the delightful breath. Just like the deeper you go into the lotus, the more fragrant are the petals and the more beautiful.


Remember: this is right inside of you, right now. You just need to open up. You get this delightful breath there, and you don’t do anything. Again, all you need—the whole process of meditation—is kindness, the light and the warmth of the sun. Now, your mindfulness and kindness, just being on whatever you’re watching, and then the delightful breath opens up. And inside? The nimitta, beautiful light comes up.


Many of you have been talking about the complicated nimitta. So, okay, let’s just have an extra layer of petals there. The delightful breath opens up and you’ve got this complicated nimitta, but it’s still nice. Nice scenery, beautiful colors, or whatever. What do you do? Just be mindful and kind. And that opens out, too, into the real powerful nimittas. Simple lights, beautiful, powerful, radiant. And again, the deeper you go, the more refined are the petals, the thinner they are. Now, the softer, the more beautiful, the more fragrant they are. Because you’re getting closer to the jewel in the middle of the lotus: the mani padme.


And what do you do with that gorgeous nimitta? Mindful and kindness, that’s all you need to do. Don’t forget the kindness. It’s one of the problems. As these meditation techniques have been used in psychotherapy, education, and goodness knows where else, they’ve taken the mindfulness, and it’s been quite effective, but they’ve left the kindness out of it. So, anyone in any profession which uses mindfulness, please bring the kindness back. Which is why I coined that word “kindfulness.” Put those two together and it’s far more powerful. This is the light and the warmth of the sun.


So there you are with this gorgeous nimitta. And people keep asking: what do you do? It’s the same as you’ve been doing from the very beginning. You’ve got to open this incredible lotus leaf up to see what’s inside of it. And the only way you do that is through awareness and kindness. You may add patience. But, you know, patience is there all the time. You can’t make these happen in your schedule. That’s not being kind to the process. You have just mindful, kind, and wait. And in the right time, the lotus leaf opens up.


In the middle of that incredible nimitta you get the first jhana. There you’re not aware of the light anymore, you’re aware of the bliss. It’s just like things open up, which is why sometimes people feel they’re falling into this beautiful light, or being enveloped by and going to a different state. And that would be like the first jhana. It’s so beautiful inside. And you’re so far away from the outermost petal. Now, that’s why you can’t feel the body, why you can’t hear sounds. You’re too distant from all of that. The body petals have opened up a long time ago.


So there you have incredible beautiful petals of a first jhana. And for those of you who maybe haven’t had a jhana yet, but, you know, you’ve studied about it, is an often question comes up to get to the second jhana: do you have to go through the first? Or I can just skip the first and go straight into the second jhana? This simile of the petals of a lotus answers those questions very simply, because the second jhana is always right in the middle of the first jhana. It’s like a special case of the first jhana.


So you’ve got the first jhana petals. You can’t do anything now anyway. All you are is mindful and kind, which has just been your habit for a long time. You can’t decide to do it. It’s just what’s there. And the mindfulness and the kindness opens up the first jhana. You’re going to the second jhana. Something disappears. And it’s the same from the second to the third. That opens up. It’s an incredible third jhana.


And a lot of times when you get to these stages, you think you cannot have anything more than this. This is the peak, the most peaceful, the most profound. You cannot even conceive there can be anything more than this. And the third jhana, just by itself with enough mindfulness and kindness, opens up and you get into a fourth jhana. Wow, it really blows your mind just how much more peace there can be than ultimate peace.


It’s just like anyone who’s done mathematics. I was always really fascinated, because at high school I always thought infinity was the highest number in the world. And in mathematics, it’s very easy proof to prove there’s a number infinitely bigger than infinity. And that’s why, if you know any pure mathematics, you see the ordinary infinity is called alpha null. And then you go alpha 1, alpha 2, alpha 3. Alpha 3 is infinitely bigger than alpha 2. And just what you think is infinity is not the biggest number in the world. There’s numbers which is infinitely bigger than that. Infinitely bigger than the number which is infinitely bigger than infinity. It just bends your mind, but it’s truth. You can actually prove it logically. You can’t find any fault in it.


Just like what you think is ultimate peace. That’s only the first jhana. There’s a peace which is infinitely peacefuller than the infinite peace of the first jhana. That’s the second jhana. So you’re really getting into some fascinating experiences here. And everyone is inside the one which you’re in right now. So this simile is also helpful. It’s helpful because it tells you what you’re supposed to be doing—which is basically nothing; just being mindful and being kind. It also tells you you don’t go on to the next stage of meditation, you never go on to another stage. You go in to the next stage. Wherever you are right now—wherever that is, whatever state of mind you’re in—the next stage is inside what you have now.


So you don’t get rid of this. You develop what you’re experiencing now. And so it goes inwards into the next stage. And that helps a lot of people, because people still ask: should I go to the nimitta or should I go to the breath? What should I do? Nothing! Let the mind decide. It will go in, or the leaves will open out again if it’s not ready. And this is a very good way of understanding a complicated transition for many meditators. At least they keep saying it is. They’ve got the breath, the delightful breath, and the nimitta comes up and it doesn’t last. Or they’ve got a nimitta there. They feel they can go to it or should they stay with the breath? What should they do? That’s like the delightful breath petals beginning to open up, they haven’t opened up fully. You can see the nimitta petals inside. Is it going to open up or not open up? Just let the lotus decide. Because sometimes it hasn’t got enough oomph of peacefulness to fully open. Only half opens. They can be aware of the breath and aware of the nimitta, but then the nimitta vanishes and it closes up. Not quite ready yet. Doesn’t matter, it will open up again. And if it is the right time, it will open up and the nimitta will be dominant and the breath will vanish. That’s just what happens. So you don’t have to do anything. Should I go here? Should I go there? No! Just continue on with the mindfulness and kindness.


So there you are in the incredible fourth jhana. Now, these are petals the like of which you’ve never seen before. That gossamer thing. Incredibly fragrant. Beautiful like you’ve never seen before. And I’m not just saying that trying to wind you up or anything, but that’s just what it’s like. And then, what do you do next? And then, from that fourth jhana, it opens up. In the special case, right in the center of that, you find the first of the immaterial attainments. Inside of that the second.


Now these petals are getting so thin. Actually, what’s happening is: your consciousness, your mind, is beginning to vanish. It begins to disappear. The third and the fourth. And then, inside of that last immaterial jhana, when that layer of petals opens up, inside of that, you see the jewel in the heart of the lotus. What’s right inside the center? What’s right in the middle? The essence. And you know what that is? You know what’s inside the jewel? What is the jewel in the heart of the lotus that is you? Do you want to know? Would you believe me if I told you? No, you wouldn’t. So I won’t tell you.


So back… it reminds me—oh, I can’t resist—it reminds me of the story of the Australian who went on a trek in the Himalaya Mountains. Have you ever been trekking in the Himalayas? Some people have been up there. He went trekking in the Himalaya Mountains. And being an Australian guy, being so really relaxed, he wasn’t keeping up with the rest of the group. He was taking a photograph here, a photograph there, and the group went on ahead. He took a wrong turning, and he got separated from the group and totally lost in the foothills of the Himalayas, in the Ladakh province. He was wandering around for hours. It was getting close to nightfall. And there are some dangerous animals up there, like bears. And he started realizing he was in big trouble. Fortunately, as it got reasonably dark, but not totally dark yet, he could see the flickering lights of the building in the distance. So he used that and aimed for it. And he reached it at nightfall. It was a monastery. There are not just Tibetan monasteries, there’s many Theravada monasteries over in Ladakh. He went to this Theravada monastery. And he checked in with the abbot; he said, “Yeah, people often get lost.” And he could stay the night there. And the abbot said, in the morning, after breakfast, “I’ll get one of the monks to take you to where the group is. We know the way. And you can catch up pretty easily.”


So he went to bed. But about midnight, he was woken up by this unearthly sound. It wasn’t just another sound of… he called it sound of music, but it was far more refined than music. It was so incredibly thrilling and blissful. He just lay there in bed, just listening to this, and literally tears of joy came out. His whole body thrilled with this supernatural sound. It lasted about five or ten minutes. And he didn’t know exactly how, but he went into this very, very deep sleep and woke up in the morning. And of course, they were waking him up, taking him to breakfast. They had to take him back to his group. And he said thank you to the abbot. And as he was saying goodbye to the abbot, he just asked him, “What was that sound last night? I heard around midnight.” And the abbot said, “Oh that, you heard that, did you?” He said, “Yeah, what was it?” And the abbot said, “Look, I’m terribly sorry, but I cannot tell you because you’re not a monk. Only monks can know the secret of that sound.” And the Australian, being Australian, said, “Oh, okay.” He got out his wallet: “A hundred bucks.” And the abbot said, “No!” “Okay, five hundred, I’ve got to know this.” And the abbot said, “Sir, I don’t care how much you give me, I cannot break that precept. Only monks can know what that sound is.” No matter how much he promised to send to that monk, the monk refused. So he had to go off.


And he went back, found his group, completed his tour, and he went back to Sydney. And when he was in Sydney, he just couldn’t get this music out of his head. You know how you obsess with things sometimes? Now this was obsessing big time. You know, when he was at work, he kept thinking of this sound. At nighttime, he kept thinking of this sound. He couldn’t have a social life. He went to a psychotherapist. And the therapist gave him all his mindfulness-based techniques. Nothing worked. And it was driving him crazy. So one year later he was back in that monastery, in the abbot’s office saying, “Look, I need to know the cause of that sound. It’s driving me absolutely crazy. I’m going out of my mind. I can’t do anything. I need to know the cause of that sound.” And the abbot said, “Look, with all the compassion in the world, I cannot tell you. I can only tell a monk.” He said, “Precisely. I’ve come here to be a monk. I’d do anything to find out this cause of this sound.” And the abbot said, “Just like in our monastery, it takes two years before you can become a monk. One year as an anagārika, one year as a novice, and then after two years you can become a monk.” So he said, “It’ll take two years.” And this Australian said, “I don’t care how long it takes, I’ll go crazy otherwise. So just ordain me.”


So he started as an anagārika, then as a novice. After two years was his ordination day. And after he ordained, the first thing he asked the abbot: “I’m a monk now. I’ve waited three years for this. Now please, what is that sound?” And the abbot said, “Okay, I can tell you now. But better than telling you, I’ll show you. Come to my room just before midnight, and I’ll show you.” And this guy was so excited. You know, this was what was driving him crazy for three years, and now he’s going to have his question answered. You can imagine the anticipation. So he was there about 11 o’clock, an hour too early. But, you know, he waited there. And when it came just about 10 to 12, or maybe 5 to 12, the abbot took him into the room.


And he drew aside a curtain behind which was an ancient door. Some of these monasteries have been there for centuries, 500, 1,000, 1,500 years. And this was a door from maybe the original time this monastery was built. And he got out this bunch of keys; ancient keys. And the first one was this wooden key, but it was made of such hard wood, it was just like iron. And he opened the wooden door, and he saw there was a cave, a long chamber, going out from this hidden door. And the abbot took him along. And then they came to a second door. And that second door was made of solid iron, hadn’t been open for years. And the abbot said, “Are you sure you want to see this?” He said, “Yes, I must.” So he got out the iron key and opened the iron door. And that’s when he started hearing the sound again. This time so much closer. And it thrilled him, his knees almost buckled with excitement. It was incredible.


“Are you sure you want to go on?” “I have to.” And then they came to the next door, which of course was getting much more valuable. This was made of solid silver. It would be worth a fortune if it was taken to a place like Australia and sold. And he opened that with the silver key. And it went down a little chamber. And the last door was this, as you would expect, a golden door encrusted with precious jewels, ancient and incredibly valuable. And behind there was the source of this incredible music. And you could hear it so clearly. And he knew there was only one door to go. And the abbot just asked him one more time, “Sir, what you will see on the other side is something supernatural. It will not just blow your mind, it will just really turn around everything you ever know about the world. Are you ready for this? Seriously?” And he thought, because this was not a light question, and he thought if he doesn’t see this now, he will regret it and he’ll be crazy for the rest of his life. If he does see it, he might go crazy. Nothing to lose. He said, “Open the door.”


And so the monk, the abbot, took out the golden key and opened the door. Wow! You know what was behind the door? I can’t tell you, because you’re not monks!


I apologize for winding you up. But I did enjoy it. If you haven’t heard that story before, the first time I told that story, when no one knew what it was going to end up as, they were howling with laughter afterwards.


But anyway, the jewel in the heart of the lotus. It would drive you crazy if you knew what it was. You would not understand it. You would not even admit it. Because that brings me to the answer to the jewel in the heart of the lotus. And now I go backwards or forwards to that great story of Ajahn Chah. When he would come to our monastery once a week, just the last year of his life, to have a sauna—we built a sauna for him. Sometimes, compassion and selfishness will get mixed up. Compassion because he wanted him to be healthy. But selfishness, if we built a sauna in our monastery, he’d have to come to see us. Which meant we’d get a talk once a week. Perfect! That was the plan from the beginning and it worked.


So he would come once a week to have his sauna, but he’d give us a talk first of all. And I mentioned, I think, last night that some of his talks were hopeless. Some of his talks were incredible. It was totally just uncertain whether it would be a really good one or not. On this day, a brilliant talk. It was so amazing that after he felt so inspired, everything was so clear. And I just thought: instead of going to help my teacher with his sauna, as other monks can do that, I was going to go behind the hall and just meditate quietly. He meditates for an hour and a half, two hours, and really deep, beautiful meditation, which happens when you get inspired. Inspiration is a great cause for deep meditation. If you’ve got your favorite talk, or a passage in the book which really gets to you, try playing that before you meditate. It really gives a huge lift of energy.


So I got a brilliant meditation. And when I came out afterwards, I decided to see if there’s anything I could do for my teacher. So I walked towards the sauna, Ajahn Chah was coming the opposite direction. We have to pass each other. And that’s when he stopped and stared. Now, sometimes a good monk does read your mind, but only when it’s worth reading. And that time, the rare opportunity, my mind was worth reading. It’s very peaceful, just come out of a beautiful meditation. There’s amazingly a feeling, you know, you know he’s doing this and you totally read everything because you’re so peaceful, so kind, and so just still. So, you know, you go right inside, you could feel that, and just reading my mind. And then he realized that I had a really nice meditation. So he decided to see if he could enlighten me. And he looked into my eyes with incredible strength. Now, some of these monks are so forceful when they need to use it. They’re just holding you there. “Brahmavamso!” You know, with force. That was my name. Ajahn Brahm is the shortened version. “Brahmavamso! Why?” That’s what he said. My answer was, “I don’t know.” I was stupid.


And the lovely thing with these great monks, when you’re stupid or you make a big mistake and make a fool of yourself, they just laugh their heads off. And he was laughing and laughing and laughing. You know, you don’t feel humiliated because, you know, this was a great man and he just felt so peaceful. So he was laughing and then he stopped laughing very suddenly. He looked at me again. “Brahmavamso, I will tell you the answer. If anyone asks you this question again, why? This is the answer.”


I always like to pause at this point. This is the answer to the question why. There’s nothing. There’s nothing. [???] And he looked at me and said, “Brahmavamso, do you understand?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “No you don’t.” And then he walked off. Oh, the wonderful time with your great master. He’s so open and so honest, so powerful. But of course, when you have an experience like that, you know, you don’t forget it. You know, I can actually visualize it now, and just the two time in who are with him. And now, the answer to the question why. There’s nothing. Do you understand? No, I don’t.


So that’s the jewel in the heart of our lotus. There’s nothing. There’s nothing. Do you understand? That’s why you just got to go into it. So that takes me on to this idea of non-self. We go so deep inside, inside our body and mind, to see what’s actually in there. You know, this is actually how it happens. Mindfulness and kindness creates a stillness that things vanish. The outermost layers, the outermost petals disappear one by one. They open up, they open up, they open up. Until you go to the jewel in the heart of the lotus. There’s nothing there. That’s the experience of non-self.


And sometimes—you can’t think that. If you start thinking about that, it’ll drive you crazy. You say, okay, Ajahn Brahm. Who gave the talk? Now, who came in here? Who taught this? It is too many questions because you need to go deep into the meditation to be able to see this. To see this no one there. Also—now, that’s the non-self. So what gets reborn then? Because Buddhists believe in rebirth. So how can you have sort of nothing there but still have this process of life after life? And some of you can remember some stuff from your previous life. How can that be if there’s nothing there? And that is precisely what the Buddha called about the process of dependent origination: how rebirth can happen without a soul? Because we call this a process, not a thing.


And to go back a little bit, there’s a very powerful teaching of the Buddha—which was hidden in many, many other teachings, but it was noticed by a very famous monk called Nagarjuna about 1,000 years after the time of the Buddha. And he used that to actually establish, basically to get Buddhism back into line with original teachings. It was called the Madhyamaka philosophy. Sometimes people think it’s Mahayana, but most people say, no, this is actually basic Theravada. And the essence of that particular teaching, it’s very refined. But he said: you can’t say there’s nothing at all. Don’t think that no-self means there’s nothing at all. Because an arising is seen. Things come into existence. The sound of my voice, the feeling in your body, an arising of phenomena is easy to see.


So you can’t say there’s nothing, nor can you say there is something. As soon as it comes, it vanishes away. You can’t say there is something, because the disappearance is seen. So the Buddha said: I teach the Middle Way. There’s another meaning of the Middle Way between existence and non-existence, which is the process. Cause and effect. Dependent origination. One thing causing another. But when it causes it, it doesn’t just come into existence, it passes away immediately, and another thing comes into existence.


And I think I’m not sure if I mentioned, if I did mention here, the simile which I came up with was the simile of the mango. You eat a mango and you have the seed. So instead of wasting the seed, you plant it in the garden. And a few years later, you get a mango tree and a new mango. And you eat that new mango. What went across from the first mango to the new mango? There is a cause and effect process. And you can see every connection there. You can see the seed. If you saw the seed underground, you can see it splitting and a little green shoot coming up from the seed. You can see the seed grow millimeter by millimeter every few hours. And you can see the time when it bursts through the top of the soil, so it can reach the sun. You can see it grow, grow, grow day by day. You can see the stem thicken and become wooden. You can see it become a sapling. You can see the sapling throw out branches and become a little tree. You can see the tree become more and more mature until it has lots of branches and lots of leaves. And you can see the time the little flowers come out, the first time it flowers. You can even maybe see just how it gets pollinated. And then you can see those little flowers, the bulb at the beginning of those flowers, begins to swell and the flowers get smaller and wither, and the bulb at the stem becomes fatter and fatter. And it’s a green mango. And you see after the days and weeks the green mango gets bigger, and it starts to yellow and redden. You’ve got a mango now.


You see every stage of that development. But you also know that there’s nothing in that first mango which is in the new mango. No molecules are the same. Nothing was there in the beginning which is there in the end. There’s a connection all the way through. This thing you may as well call a process; cause and effect. With nothing really there, no-self existing identity in there from the beginning to the end. A non-self: a process, not a thing.


So that’s why you all are your little processes sitting in front of me. Not things. So if anyone asks you; well, I’m just a process in development. That’s all I am. Not me. So! And that process, because it has a process, it can have an ending. That’s in non-self, the impermanence, the second of the three characteristics. People keep calling it impermanence. And everybody can understand impermanence. This retreat is about to finish. I always contemplate impermanence every time I have my lunch. I see that chip. It’s very impermanent. See, it’s gone! It doesn’t last long on my plate.


But is that really impermanence? Now, what really is impermanence? You know, in a people’s meditation practice I say it’s like sitting down by the lake and watching the ducklings, whatever’s down there these days. And watching the waves on the surface go up and down, up and down, rise and fall. That’s impermanence. That’s superficial impermanence. Because it will happen one day you’re sitting by that lake, watching the waves go up and the waves go down. And then something strange happens. Something really weird. The lake vanishes. There’s the ducks as well, four ducks. And all of the ground and the trees and the mountains behind, and the stars, or the sky above—all vanishes. It’s gone. That is impermanence. Things which aren’t supposed to vanish disappear.


Now that is the sort of impermanence which makes you enlightened. Rise and fall—yeah we all know that. You have good days and bad days. And all the days just vanish. Now they’re there. Where have they gone? This is the impermanence which I mentioned earlier with the tadpole and the frog simile. Things which have always been there, things which you’ve relied on, things which you’ve taken for granted, vanish. And it just shows you that these cannot be you. They cannot be relied upon. These two could go, and things which you always took for granted. Vanish and go. Poof! And that is the impermanence which creates stream-winner. And once returned, there’s a non-return, there’s an arahat.


And of course that’s scary stuff, because we think attachment is only to our money or to our body and other stuff. No, that’s the easy things to understand you’re going to have to let go of. But imagine attaching to other stuff which has always been there: what defines you, what you think you are. Your consciousness, your will. Even when your body vanishes many people get the heebie-jeebies.


I always remember the Singapore guy. He just started meditation and he came up to me. He was like, “I’ve got to go. I can’t stand this any longer. I’m freaking out.” I said, “Why?” “I was sitting there and my hands disappeared.” Oh, come on. If you’re freaking out at that, you’ve got no hope. You’re really going to freak out big time later on when your whole body goes—especially when your mind goes as well. There’s only small stuff and going. They come back again. The world comes back again.


But! You see it for what it truly is: the mirage of consciousness. That’s what they call it. The mirage is a perception. The consciousness they call it a magician’s trick. When the Buddha describes these five candors, all you know about this world. He describes your body as froth on a river. Little bubbles all stuck together. You prick one and it goes. There’s nothing there in this body of yours. And I like that, because if any of you ever studied theoretical physics, you come down to the plank level where he calls reality the quantum froth. You can’t say there’s anything inside of it. It’s just that’s the way they describe it. The quantum froth as the base of all existence. There’s nothing there. Just like the Buddha said.


And you’ve got this pleasure and pain. Joy and sadness. What is that? He called it like on a rainy day: a raindrop hits a puddle. Plop! And it’s gone forever. That’s like the very famous Scottish poet Robbie Burns: “Pleasures are like poppies spread. You pluck the flower, the bloom is shed.” Because these flowers are poppies. As soon as you take it out of the ground, the leaves fall off. Pleasures are like poppies spread. You pluck the flower and the bloom is shed. Or like the snowfall in the river. White for a moment and then gone forever. All the pleasures and happiness, but also the sadness and pain, are like that. Plop! And gone forever. It can never be captured. All those wonderful experiences of your life, they can never just be revisited. You always like to go back there, but they’re gone just like the snowfall in the river. Just like the Buddha’s simile of a plop in a puddle. Gone forever. People feel quite depressed when that’s about the pleasures of life. It’s very reassuring with the pain of life. The pain is just plop. It goes. It will pass. It has to. It’s the nature of it. So don’t worry about it. It will go. Whether you like it or not, whatever you do. Plop and it’s gone.


And then you had the perceptions. The perceptions: the way we look at things. This is a boy. This is a girl. This is Ajahn Brahm. I’m a stream-winner. I’m a non-returner. Whatever you perceive yourself to be. That’s where the Buddha called it a mirage: like seeing a pool of water on a hot road. It’s not a pool of water. It looks like that. It’s just the way the light is reflected because of the inversion created by the heat on the road. It looks like a mirror, a bit of water, but it’s not. It’s a mirage. And a mirage is something real there. You’re not imagining the light. You’re not imagining the rainbow. It’s there. Everyone else can see it. But it’s not the real thing. You are giving it a meaning it does not deserve. It’s a mirage.


And I like the Buddha saying to [???], when he said sex is a mirage. You take it to be pleasure because of your cultural conditioning, and you experience it as pleasure. But he said it’s not. It’s a huge irritation. And I like saying things like that because it’s so confronting. People say, “Ajahn Brahm, you’ve gone too far. Sex is pleasurable.” But we are willing to question everything: is it? And you ask neurologists. Apparently—I remember people gave me answers when I started talking like this—and apparently, people don’t know how they’ve done this. They put these gizmos on the brain while they’re having sex. And they’ve actually shown the parts of the brain which light up are the same as the pain centers. The truth, according to science, is: sex is painful. But am I convincing you? But because of your cultural conditioning, it’s a mirage. The perversion of perception: you look upon it as the greatest fun in the world. And the whole industry, the whole basis of much of the economy of the western world, depends on selling you that sex is fun. And the Buddha said: is it? Challenge everything.


Anyway, I like stirring people up. The perception is a mirage. And it gets to, this is the nicest one, the four kind of—this is thinking and will, especially thinking. He called it, the Buddha called it like this, this banana tree, which hasn’t got any core to it. But all our praise to Bhante Gunaratana. Not many people in the west know a banana tree, but they certainly know an onion. And the onion similie was absolutely just so perfect. That, you know, the venerable Gunaratana said that your thoughts are like an onion: when you peel it, it makes you cry. And you keep peeling it and peeling and peeling it, and there’s nothing in the center! It’s just all leaves, which can create a lot of pain in your eyes. And the best part of it—even the word “onion:” an onion, it goes on and on with an “I” in the middle. That’s so lovely! And that’s what your thoughts do. They go on and on because there’s an “I” in there somewhere; there’s a me. And that’s a lovely way to stop your thoughts. If you ever had a bit of non-self—it’s not my thoughts, it’s not my life, none of my business. It’s so easy for thoughts to stop when you take the center out of them: me. So that is your thoughts: an onion with no core to it. Or like the will, which I’ve been saying. The will does make you cry. There’s no core to it. You look inside, there’s nothing there. It’s not me doing the will.


And the last of the five candors: the consciousness—that was again the magician’s trick. And especially the magician’s trick of continuity. Thinking that it’s the same me which got up this morning. The same me which is going to have lunch in a few minutes. The same consciousness. It feels that way. But have you really seen it clearly? Is it the same consciousness this morning as is here now? Or different? What makes it feel the same? This is where the Buddha similes—of these five candors which make up a body and mind—they’re seen especially when these things vanish, and you know what they truly are.


And of course the last of those third characteristics: suffering. And the Buddha made it so clear in that first noble truth. It’s brilliant teaching. And a lot of times people look at these teachings and think they understand them. And the Buddha said: the reason why you’re not enlightened is because you haven’t understood the Four Noble Truths. You haven’t understood them fully and properly. Yeah, a lot of life is suffering. But there’s some parts of this life and world which you quarantine. So yeah, everything else is suffering, but this bit isn’t. And this is the problem why people aren’t enlightened. They reserve a little bit of the universe—what I call the ultimate retirement home—where you can live happily ever after, once you’re enlightened. And there’s people like that, you know? They want to go to “heaven.” Because in heaven, once you do the right things, you go to heaven, and you live happily ever after. This is the old Cinderella and Prince Charming myth. It’s just a boy meets girl, they go through lots and lots of troubles in life—that’s just Hollywood movies. They have to have sex, they have to have violence. They also have to have, in the end, they come together and they save the world (if you’re a superhero), you meet your girl, you live happily ever after. That is the myth. And we transfer that into religion. You go to the church, do all the right things, you go to heaven and live happily ever after. Or in Buddhism, you know: you do all the meditation, you give all the donations, you get enlightened, you live happily ever after.


Buddhism isn’t one of those “heaven” religions! It’s totally different. There is no happy ever after. Wherever you go, you’ll have happiness and suffering. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t have night without day. You can’t have youth without old age. You cannot have pleasure without suffering. In fact, all happiness ever is, is a pause between two moments of suffering. All suffering is, is a pause between moments of happiness. No more. Check it out.


So the only way there can be real peace, real happiness, is the ending of all this. Stopping. That’s where you understand what suffering truly is. Suffering is not having hay fever, or having a sore tummy, or not getting the food you like when you have lunch in a few minutes. Suffering is not, sort of, being argued with, or it’s not saying, “I don’t agree with this.” That’s not real suffering. The real suffering is being. Now I’m giving it to you full on: to be is to suffer. “To be or not to be, that is the question”—it’s not a question. The Buddha answered it a long time ago. Think about it: do you want to continue being? If you do, you’ll have to endure suffering. To be is to suffer. It’s called bhava-tanha, “the craving to be”—the last and most powerful of cravings. You’d rather be and suffer, than not be at all.


So, there is the jewel in the heart of the lotus. There’s nothing there. So, are you ready to open the lotus? No! Oh, no, thank you! I’m out of here. I’m not going to come to any of these retreats anymore! This is freaky. I want to be! I want to… suffer. So, this is actually just, you know, the three characteristics: anicca, dukkha, anattā.


Now, I don’t expect you to agree with this. If you did, enlightenment wouldn’t be profound. If you could understand it, then everybody would become enlightened. That’s why this is an incredibly deep and powerful thing. It just gets to you. And I say this to you because, yeah, you think this is a lot of rubbish. I don’t agree with that. I have all the counterarguments for this. But there’s something about this teaching which gets right inside of you, irrespective of all your logical arguments against it. In spite of all the fact that I don’t like this, I want to be. In spite of all of that, it has the taste of freedom. It smells of truth, even though you don’t like it. And that’s the problem for you. Once you hear it—I’m sorry, it’s too late. You shouldn’t’ve come here. It gets inside of you and you can’t get rid of it. That is why you will become enlightened. You will struggle and squirm, you will reject and say, “No, not me.” I’m sorry, it’s not up to you anymore. Sorry!


Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!

Ajahn Brahm

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