Notes on ‘The Gatekeeper’

n’atti santipara.m sukha.m -there is no happiness greater than peace

nibbaana.m parama.m sukha.m – nibbana is the ultimate happiness.

Notes for the Dhamma talk "The Gatekeeper" at the Pharmaceutical Association of Thailand 30th September 2010

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Mindfulness/Absorption

Human being s love to be absorbed in something. The feeling of being with the body and mind without an object of attention to absorb into is uncomfortable. So people seek out some interesting conversation, book, music …. or if there is nothing available, just to sit thinking thinking … Take a look around a bus or a plane – everyone is either busy with something or else lost in a dream world.

The more interesting the absorption the better. The happier you are, in the conventional sense of the word.

By absorption is meant something to absorb or sink attention into. You lose awareness of yourself for a while, and only pay attention outside via the senses. TV is a great example. It is actually restful – studies show you burn fewer calories watching TV than by doing nothing at all.

By contrast, being ‘mindful’ you are aware of yourself as well as your action. If you are thinking, you know that you are thinking – not just what you are thinking about. If you are walking – you know that you are walking, rather than being absorbed in a line of thought. If you have desire, you don’t just know the object of desire, but are aware of the feeling of desire too – you know that you are ‘desiring’.

Meditation

You can see this process most clearly in meditation. The mind sticks with the object for a few brief moments, and then wonders off to something else. You don’t even realise that you have lost attention sometimes for 10 minutes or longer. At the point where you notice/remember that what you were doing – that is mindful. You bring your attention back to the object and then next you observe that 5 more minutes have passed and you were absorbed in some line of thinking.  Or a sound arises and you can’t stay with yourself – you have to pay attention, reach out with the mind, attention, liking/disliking and then thinking.

Being mindful you hear the sound but remain with attention on yourself, on your object. Though you can feel the pull of the sound (or thought, feeling in the body etc..) you keep awareness home.

Isn’t it interesting how the mind automatically slips away, always in search of some kind of absorption? The sitting practise is interrupting the mind all the time. Whatever you are getting absorbed in, interrupt the process, and take a direct look.

Getting Accustomed

This aspect of your experience that is awareness, is pointed out as something important. It is the main tool in Buddhism for generating wisdom. The teaching is, if you develop this tool, it will take you all the way to enlightenment. You develop it by paying attention to the feeling of awareness, by being mindful. When you pay attention and interest to something it grows.

Though it can feel a little uncomfortable at first (it can even make you feel short of breath), when you get used to it, being mindful is a very sweet way to be. It gets so that the awareness is much more real than being lost in lines of thought or other focus. Most people who have practised mindfulness feel that always being absorbed in something is more like a dreamworld in comparison.

It does not mean you can’t do anything – you can still read books, find conversations, watch a movie, go to work. But there is a new, unseen quality at work behind it all. People around will probably not notice much of a change as you carry on doing the things you always have done ….

It is something to be practised. If you think it through it might now seem too attractive, or the beauty of it will probably not be apparent.

It is also something real. There is no dogma here. You don’t have to believe anything. You are not jumping on an ideological bandwagon of some kind. Your views and opinions in fact, also come under the scrutiny of mindfulness. They are also to be observed.

The Gatekeeper

This is the metaphor the Buddha gave for the quality of mindfulness, which pertains to the third of the great (non-Buddhist) philosophical questions that are

  • what is the highest good
  • who am I
  • what should I do

The original, so you can see what these suttas look like, is:

A 7.63

Just as the royal frontier fortress has a gate-keeper — wise, experienced, intelligent — to keep out those he doesn’t know and to let in those he does, for the protection of those within and to ward off those without; in the same way a disciple of the noble ones is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering & able to call to mind even things that were done & said long ago. With mindfulness as his gate-keeper, the disciple abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless, and looks after himself with purity….

Just as the royal frontier fortress has ramparts — high & thick & completely covered with plaster — for the protection of those within and to ward off those without; in the same way a disciple of the noble ones is discerning, endowed with discernment leading to the arising of the goal — noble, penetrating, leading to the right ending of suffering. With discernment as his covering of plaster, the disciple of the noble ones abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless, and looks after himself with purity. With this seventh true quality is he endowed.

The gatekeeper metaphor is very sharp. The gatekeeper (or you might prefer the idea of the bouncer at a club!) does not have to worry about how things are going in the city. The tax policy, the criminal justice system, the transport system … all he does is keep watch on the gate. In the same way, you do not have to sort out your ‘ego’, or fix up your personality/character. You don’t need psychology. Afterall, deciding you are not perfect, and thinking up schemes to change into a new ‘you’ is more ego at the end of the day. All you need to is pay attention in the present moment. Let your neurosis, childhood, fears, and other character flaws look after themselves.

‘Who am I’ doesn’t really matter here. Your character will work itself out. And it becomes clear ‘What I should do’.

Yardstick

As for the phrase above ‘skillful’ and ‘unskillful’ – the pail word is ‘kusala’ and ‘akusala’, more usually translated as ‘wholesome’ and ‘unwholesome’.

Note that this is not good/bad or good/evil. Something that is ‘unskilful’ is what leads away from the goal, or away from the purification of mind. But that does not mean that it is wrong or evil. Watching a movie is not going to develop any wholesome quality, but it is not wrong. Reading a newspaper is not immoral in anyway, but it tends towards absorption, and leans away from mindfulness. It does not mean you cannot read newspapers – good meditators read and do things all the time. Other things may be ‘good’ but not necessarily ‘skilfull’ – you might be able to think of some such thing (social work for instance???). The point is that there is room for your own judgement. You have to decide for yourself based on you motivations what is kusala/akusala. The important point is not to rely just on thinking for such a judgement. Thinking is very flawed – the hijackers who flew planes into the Twin Towers genuinely thought they were doing something good and right, and that they would be getting a swift reward in heaven. Thinking is necessary, but not the best tool.

What other criteria is there for deciding what the Gatekeeper lets pass and what is rejected?

It is not a Buddhist teaching per se, but there are 3 ways to judge, all based on watching with mindfulness, rather than figuring things out with views and opinions.

1. The effects on the mind.

If you look carefully into the mind with meditation, you will likely come across some peaceful states as you watch the breathing. But quite quickly after that, the only things you see are the bad aspects of your ego-self. You see your defense mechanisms, neurosis, defilements (kilesa), endless obsessive thinking, dullness, greed/hatred/delusion and so on. Don’t worry – this is normal. All this stuff is in your head, but you never paid attention before.

When faced with a particular object  of attention – ask quietly does this line of thought or action tend to increase the maelstrom in the mind, or reduce it. Usually the answer is pretty clear.

2. The effects on the body

Every attachment in the mind has a corresponding tightness of the body. It is most easily felt in the face. If you are mindful you can feel the face muscles shifting with every thought.

But much deeper lines of stress lie in the body – shoulders, stomach, back, neck…. Actually as you learn to rest the mind free from sense desire, these knots of tension start to fall out. Often they take a long time and can be quite tormenting as the body unwinds. A skilled meditator can stop, take a few inner breaths, and let the body tell them if some line of thought, speech or action is leading towards peace and stillness or not.

3. Comparison with purity

If one is able to concentrate the mind, states of very beautiful stillness can be attained. Here the mind is coming together and unifying (ekabhava), and once it is free from desiring, and free to some extent from the other hindrances of agitation, doubt, drowsiness, and anger, the meditator can feel very happy. This stillness, purity or unification of mind is a good point of comparison for judging what is skillful or unskillful.

Right Efforts

Now the teaching on the Four Right Efforts should be quite clear.

The first two are

  • to abandon unwholesome states that have arisen
  • to prevent unwholesome states from arising

Note that this is working with one thing at a time. The Gatekeeper does not care where the states come from, or hunt through the past using psychological models. You stay besed 100% in the present moment, and only worry about what is there right in front of you.

This is useful to remember when dealing with negativity. Giving up smoking for instance is a big think – people can take years to get into the right place to do this. But with the Gatekeeper method, you only need to deal with what is right in front of you. A small desire …. and it is gone. Once you see the end of a desire, then even though the desire comes back again it will have lost some of its hold on you.

You can’t solve the problem of your childhood, of your family, of your work – but you can watch one thing at a time as it appears right in front of you. It takes a bit of trust to use this method rather than trying to figure out solutions to life’s problems.

The other two Right Efforts are

  • to arouse wholesome states that have not arisen
  • to maintain wholesome states that have arisen

Pretty simple teaching, but direct and effective if you are vigilant. You don’t have to change the world,  just be mindful.

A full breakdown of the Right Efforts however, is the topic of another talk….

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About Cittasamvaro

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One Response to Notes on ‘The Gatekeeper’

  1. steven parmenter says:

    Thank you for the summary Phra Cittasamvaro. I wasn’t at the Dhamma talk, but having read your notes I can see that you dissected Buddhist teachings and conveyed them in your characteristically accessible way.

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