Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: the remainderless fading and cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, and letting go of that very craving.

—Samyutta Nikaya 56:11

 This statement from the Buddha is a very clear and unambiguous declaration of what frees the mind. Can we even imagine a mind free of craving? We might resonate more easily with St. Augustine’s famous prayer: “Dear Lord, please make me chaste, but not yet.”

Some years ago, in reflecting on this third noble truth, I began to understand the Buddha’s words in a new and more immediate way. Rather than understanding the end of craving only as some far-off goal, as the end of the path in the distant future, or as some special meditative state to try to sustain, I understood it as being a practice to experience right now, in each moment.

When we explore directly, in our experience, the meaning of the Buddha’s declaration, we can see for ourselves how craving obscures the natural ease and openness of mind, and how in moments free of desire, wanting, and clinging, we can recognize the taste of happiness and peace. As a simple experiment, the next time you have some wanting or desire in the mind, investigate what the wanting feels like and then notice how it feels when the wanting passes away. Given the great law of impermanence, it always will.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, one of the great Tibetan Dzogchen masters of the last century, spoke frequently of recognizing the nature of mind—its empty, aware nature, free of any clinging to anything—for short moments many times. This can become a framework for understanding our own practice of letting go of craving: short moments, many times. As we do this, we learn to recognize and increasingly trust this place of ease.

Although there are different methods, vocabularies, and even metaphysical descriptions for the nature of ultimate freedom among the various Buddhist traditions, there is one common understanding of what frees the mind: liberation through non-clinging. This phrase is found throughout the Pali discourses and also in many of the teachings of the great Tibetan lamas and Chinese and Japanese Zen masters.

Patrul Rinpoche, a 19th-century wandering Dzogchen master of eastern Tibet, was much beloved by the ordinary Tibetans and known as “the enlightened vagabond.” He had some useful words about nonclinging in a teaching called “Advice from Me to Myself”:

Listen up, old bad-karma Patrul,
You dweller-in-distraction.

For ages now you’ve been
Beguiled, entranced, and fooled by appearances.
Are you aware of that? Are you?
Right this very instant, when you’re
Under the spell of mistaken perception
You’ve got to watch out.
Don’t let yourself get carried away by this fake and empty life.

Your mind is spinning around
About carrying out a lot of useless projects:
It’s a waste! Give it up!
Thinking about the hundred plans you want to accomplish,
With never enough time to finish them,
Just weighs down your mind.
You’re completely distracted
By all these projects, which never come to an end,
But keep spreading out more, like ripples in water.
Don’t be a fool: for once, just sit tight. . . .

If you let go of everything—
Everything, everything
That’s the real point!

Photographs by Caitlin Strom
Photographs by Caitlin Strom

Ways to Abandon Craving

So the question for us is how to experience and practice this noncraving and nonclinging, first on a momentary level and then, in the end, as the unshakeable deliverance of mind, the cessation of craving without remainder. We can practice and accomplish this in various ways, and different Buddhist traditions highlight one or another of these methods.

Focus on the drawbacks of conditioned experience.
Regarding the end of craving, the Buddha made a very obvious but often overlooked observation: When we focus on the gratification that comes from sense pleasures, desire increases. When we focus on the drawbacks of sense pleasures, craving diminishes. But how often, in the midst of our involvement with the world of sense objects, do we pay attention to whether we are further conditioning or deconditioning craving? This would be an interesting practice to bring to the world and see what we could learn from it.

We can decondition, relinquish, and abandon craving through an increasingly refined awareness of the three characteristics [impermanence, suffering, and non-self]. The more clearly we see the impermanence of all experience, the more we understand for ourselves the basic unreliability and ultimately unsatisfying nature of all phenomena. And through a sustained wise attention, we understand more deeply the selfless, impersonal nature of this whole unfolding process—that nothing lasts long enough to be considered “self.” These universal characteristics are the drawbacks, the dangers, the downsides of conditioned experience.

Happily, though, there is also an upside. It is precisely because impermanent, conditioned phenomena are unsatisfying that we are motivated to awaken. Seeing these characteristics clearly becomes the cause of and condition for liberation. The Buddha pointed to this very directly: “If there were no danger in the world, beings would not become disenchanted with the world. But because there is danger in the world, beings become disenchanted by it.”

It can be illuminating to watch our reactions to this teaching. How do we relate to words like danger, drawback, or disenchantment? Do they sound gloomy or fearful? Or, by helping us see things more completely, do they bring a sense of openness and relief? It’s especially helpful to understand the word disenchantment, because the Buddha often speaks of this as the precursor to awakening. Remember, disenchantment means to wake up from the spell of enchantment, to wake up from the dreamlike state of ignorance.

On a recent retreat, I had a revealing experience of how easily we fall under the spell of ignorance and how, in a moment, we can wake up from that spell. You are probably familiar with the experience of waking up in the morning and then, perhaps, slipping back into a dream state for a few minutes before waking again. This might happen just once or maybe several times before we’re fully alert. On this particular retreat, I was noticing that phenomenon very clearly. Then, later in the day, in times of walking meditation, I began to notice more clearly how often there is a thin layer of background thoughts, images, fragments of stories, floating like a thin layer of clouds across the mind. This stream of thoughts is really the hardly noticed but ongoing creation of the world we inhabit. And almost always the thoughts were self-referential in one way or another: memories, plans, likes and dislikes. What struck me forcibly at that time was that the experience of slipping into and out of these background thought worlds was the same experience of slipping back into a dream state after being awake. I realized that we are simply dreaming the self into existence. And I found that occasionally repeating that phrase during the day—“dreaming myself into existence”—reinforced the strong aspiration to stay awake and to notice more carefully the dream.

Notice how impermanence pervades our lives.
An increasingly refined awareness of the three characteristics leads to a disenchantment that frees the mind. Sometimes we’re aware of one or another of these characteristics on a macro level. For me, reading history has been a powerful reminder of the changing, insubstantial nature of all we take to be so vitally important in our lives. Recently, I read a biography of Genghis Khan, who created the Mongol Empire in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It was quite remarkable that this person who ruled most of Asia and even parts of Europe, whose word affected the lives of millions of people, is now just one more chapter in the rise and fall of empires, hardly thought about at all.

A deep reflection on this great truth of impermanence enlarges the context of our own experience and loosens the bonds of craving and attachment. It’s the difference between the roller-coaster emotions of a child, with their many highs and lows in even just one day, and equanimity and wisdom that adults (ideally) develop about changing life circumstances. In the early years of my practice, when I would be going through a particularly difficult time, I would often imagine myself six months or a year in the future and know that at that time I would hardly remember what I was currently going through. It definitely helped to lessen the intensity of the dramas of the moment.

In meditation, we experience the disenchanting truths of change, unreliability, and selflessness on much more momentary levels. We can see so clearly that whatever arises also passes away, and that the whole cycle happens very quickly. At first this insight is exhilarating; there is a refined perception of what is happening, and many of the factors of awakening are coming into balance for the first time. But then fear, and even despair, can arise as we look deeper and see the continual dissolution of both consciousness and its object. Everything seems to be crumbling away, leaving us with no place to take a stand. If we can stay mindful and balanced in our experience of this phenomenon, even when dissolving objects are not clearly discernible, we come to a profound equanimity, at which point the practice is going on all by itself.

One metaphor describing this process is of a person jumping out of an airplane in free fall. At first, there is tremendous elation in the experience. Then the person realizes that there’s no parachute and so feels intense fear and dread. But after some time, he realizes that there is also no ground. The fear dissolves, and then there is just the ease and balance of the ride.

Cut through identification with the knowing mind.

In the meditative process, sometimes all objects seem to disappear, and all that’s left is consciousness, the knowing mind. But care is needed here, because there can be a subtle attachment to this state, an identification with awareness itself. This becomes an interesting place of investigation: we can notice how easy it is to make a home of awareness and have a sense of self settle right in. Andrew Olendzki, a senior scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, expressed it this way: “Consciousness is not a thing that exists, but an event that occurs.”

The question then arises, how can we cut through this subtle identification with knowing, with consciousness? Different traditions use different methods. Mahasi Sayadaw, who described this state very clearly, reminded meditators to keep noting the knowing mind, until one goes beyond even knowing.

In some Tibetan and Zen traditions, another approach is used to cut through any identification with knowing: looking for the mind itself. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche would often instruct his students to look for the mind. Can you see it, taste it, touch it? When we look for it, there is nothing to find, and the not-finding is the finding. When we recognize that moment of not-finding, the mind’s empty, selfless nature is revealed.

There is a powerful Zen dialogue that illuminates this point. The dialogue takes place between Bodhidharma, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to China in the fifth or sixth century, and Daizu Huike, who was to become his dharma heir. Legend has it that Bodhidharma had meditated in a cave for nine years when Huike came to him for teachings.

Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.” To which Bodhidharma replied; “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.” Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.” Bodhidharma then said, “There, I have pacified your mind.”

When we look for the mind, there is nothing to find, and yet the capacity for knowing is there. In the not-finding, the mind is already pacified.

This is more than a witty Zen story. We can apply this wisdom at any time during the day, and perhaps especially when our minds are anxious, seeing that the empty, aware nature is always there, already pacified.

Photographs by Caitlin Strom
Photographs by Caitlin Strom

Nibbana: The Unconditioned

When the Buddha speaks of the end of dukkha, he is not simply talking about being in a good mood. The radical, uncompromising freedom of nibbana is not dependent on conditions being favorable; it’s not dependent on conditions at all. This deeper freedom, the end of craving, comes through a profound inner shift of understanding, in which the strongly held view of self is purified through the experience of what is unconditioned, unborn.

It’s not surprising that different Buddhist traditions, even within Theravada, express this experience in different ways. In many texts it is described as the cessation of conditioned consciousness. As practice matures, we reach a stage of perfect equanimity, where all the factors of enlightenment ripen. At this time, there are no cravings or yearnings, even for the next breath or the next moment of experience. There is not the slightest impulse toward either becoming or not becoming. As the mind settles into this perfect balance of noncraving, the flow of consciousness conditioned by changing objects suddenly stops. The mind then opens to and alights upon nibbana, the unconditioned, the unborn.

There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned. If, monks, there were no unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned. But because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned. (Udana 8.3)

These moments of consciousness that take nibbana as their object are called “path-fruition” (magga-phala, in Pali). The path moment, likened to a sudden flash of lightning that illuminates the sky, has the power to completely uproot certain defilements from the mind, so that they don’t arise again, and to weaken the defilements that remain. For this reason, the Buddha described nibbana in this way: “And what, Bhikkhus, is the unconditioned? The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion. This is called the unconditioned.”

The mind released.
The Thai Forest tradition describes the experience of the unconditioned from another perspective, which has some strong resonance with Tibetan and Zen teachings as well. In the teachings of some of the Thai masters, a distinction is made between the consciousness that is included in the five aggregates and that arises dependent on one of the six sense objects, and another kind of consciousness called citta, heart-mind. This consciousness, in its pure and unmodified state, is beyond the aggregates. It is called “the signless,” because it has no sign of impermanence or other signs by which it can be known. This is the mind free of any defilement.

Ajahn Maha Boowa taught about this consciousness when he speaks of the conventional mind and the mind released. The conventional mind is ruled by the tides of proliferating thought and conditioned by ignorance and craving. When these defilements disappear through mindfulness and wisdom, then the true mind, or the mind released, appears to its full extent. All that remains is simple awareness, utterly pure. The aggregates, or conditioned phenomena, still function according to their own nature, but they do not in any way affect the mind released. This mind, this pure awareness, does not partake of any feeling apart from the ultimate ease, the highest peace, which is its own nature. Ajahn Maha Boowa, like the Buddha, emphasized that the defilements, the path, and enlightenment are all right in the heart.

In several suttas the Buddha describes this experience of the mind released:

Consciousness without feature,
         without end,
     luminous all around:
Here water, earth, fire, and wind
      have no footing.
Here long and short
     coarse and fine
     fair and foul
     name and form
are all brought to an end.
With the cessation of [the activity of]
     consciousness
       each is here brought to an end.

(Digha Nikaya 11, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

This consciousness has no center or reference point of self; it is unsupported, unconditioned, unconstructed. It is described as the consciousness that makes no showing. The Buddha used a simple example to describe this unmanifest nature:

Just as if there were a roofed house or a roofed hall
having windows on the north, the south or the
east. When the sun rises, and a ray has entered by
way of the window, where does it land?”
     “On the western wall, lord.”
     “And if there is no western wall,
where does it land?”
     “On the ground, lord.”
     “And if there is no ground, where does it land?“
     “On the water, lord.”
“And if there is no water, where does it land?”
     “It does not land, lord.”
     “In the same way, where there is no passion for
nutriment of physical food . . . contact . . .
intellectual intention . . . consciousness, where
there is no delight, no craving, then consciousness
does not land there or increase. . . . That, I tell
you, has no sorrow, affliction, or despair.”

(Samyutta Nikaya 12.64, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

Think of how light lands on an object, even an object as insubstantial as air. Our ability to see the light, the radiance of it, depends on the object. But what happens when there is no object at all on which the light can land? The light then is unmanifest, unborn.

Beware the conditioned mind.
In these most subtle realms of pure awareness and ultimate ease, we must remember that great care is needed. We can mistake wonderful and refined states of mind for the mind released. Ajahn Maha Boowa describes his process of understanding and awakening:

This radiance is the ultimate counterfeit, and at that moment it’s the most conspicuous point. You hardly want to touch it at all, because you love it and cherish it more than anything else. In the entire body there is nothing more outstanding than this radiance, which is why you are amazed at it, love it, cherish it, dawdle over it, want nothing to touch it. But it’s the enemy king: unawareness . . . .

Once when I went to practice at Wat Do Dhammachedi, the problem of unawareness [ignorance] had me bewildered for quite some time. At that stage the mind was so radiant that I came to marvel at its radiance. Everything of every sort that could make me marvel seemed to have gathered there in the mind, to the point where I began to marvel at myself, “Why is it that my mind is so marvelous?” Looking at the body, I couldn’t see it at all. It was all space—empty. The mind was radiant in full force.

But luckily, as soon as I began to marvel at myself to the point of exclaiming deludedly in the heart without being conscious of it . . . “Why has my mind come so far?”—at that moment, a statement of dhamma spontaneously arose. This too I hadn’t anticipated. It suddenly appeared, as if someone were speaking in the heart, although there was no one there speaking. It simply appeared as a statement: “If there is a point or a center of the knower anywhere, that is an agent of birth.” That’s what it said.

This is a critical point worth repeating: as long as there is identification with anything, any sense of the knower, we are still bound by the conventional conditioned mind. Through our practice of mindfulness and wisdom, we keep deconstructing the sense of self, until only the ultimate ease remains. Although there are many different descriptions of the enlightened mind, there is one reference point of understanding that illuminates them all: the final uprooting of greed, hatred, and ignorance.

The third noble truth is the cessation of dukkha: “Realized is the unconditioned, achieved is the end of craving.”

This article first appeared in the Fall 2011 edition of Insight Newsletter, an Insight Meditation Society publication, available at dharma.org.

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