This article is part of Trike Daily’s Sutta Study series, led by Insight meditation teacher Peter Doobinin. The suttas, found in the Pali Canon, comprise the discourses the historical Buddha gave during his 45 years of teaching. Rather than philosophical tracts, the suttas are a map for dharma practice. In this series, we’ll focus on the practical application of the teachings in our day-to-day lives.
In the Leading to Escape sutta (Nissaraniya Sutta), the Buddha describes five elements of training the mind, saying, “These five properties lead to escape.” When we become developed in these five aspects through mental training—which releases us from clinging to sensuality, ill will, harmfulness, forms, and self-identification—we can find freedom from suffering.
The first training entails finding an escape from sensuality, which we accomplish by cultivating a disenchantment with it. Here, sensuality refers to the pursuit of sense pleasure. It’s important to understand that the Buddha isn’t teaching us to find escape from sense pleasure in and of itself, but rather from the manner in which we chase after and crave it. We train the mind so that it “doesn’t leap up at sensuality” and sees the benefits of renunciation instead.
We cultivate disenchantment through the skill of heedfulness, which we practice by paying attention to our actions (see the Course of Action Sutta). We look closely at what we’re doing, what our experience is like, and what the consequences of our actions are when we engage in the pursuit of sense pleasure. We examine our actions when we’re craving delicious food. We investigate our experience when we’re watching television, Netflix, YouTube, and so on. We study the body and mind when we’re fixated on our smartphones.
While observing our actions, we look to see whether they are leading to suffering or to true happiness. Is it skillful to be planted in front of the computer screen, scrolling the Internet for hours on end? Is it useful? Is it in our best interests?
The Buddha describes what it’s like when we become “dis-joined” from sensuality. We’re released from the effluents (see the Ship sutta). That is to say, we don’t get carried away by currents of thinking pertaining to our sense pleasures. We don’t engage in narratives about how we’re going to procure them, what it’s going to be like when we do, or what it felt like when we indulged in them in the past. We’re released, the Buddha says, from the “torments” and “fevers” that accompany these desires.
It is interesting to note that the Buddha says the released dharma student “does not experience that feeling” of torment. Likewise, we are asked to understand our experience on a felt level. Insight—meaning the insight that will lead to an end to suffering—occurs when our understanding transcends intellectual understanding. In cultivating disenchantment with sensuality, we’re asked to know on a felt level what it is like when we’re grasping after sense pleasure, and, equally, we’re asked to discern the feeling that accompanies the letting go of sense pleasure.
The second facet of mental training involves the cultivation of disenchantment with ill will. Ill will encompasses a range of mind states, including aversion, anger, resentment, malice, and hatred. Practicing heedfulness, we look at our actions, speech, and thoughts that are informed by ill will. We pay attention to when speak harshly or angrily to our partners, children, parents, or friends. We remain heedful of our thoughts of resentment toward coworkers or derogatory thoughts about people we see on the train, on the street, or in the supermarket. We also examine our body and notice the feeling of dis-ease that arises whenever we act with ill will. By paying attention in this way, we recognize the drawbacks of these actions.
As we cultivate disenchantment with ill will, we develop thoughts and actions informed by lovingkindness (Pali, metta). As dharma students, we seek to take actions driven by lovingkindness, actions in support of the wish for true happiness that we have for others and ourselves.
Attending to the third property that leads to escape, we train ourselves to develop a mind that doesn’t “leap up” at harmfulness. By harmfulness, we’re referring to the intention to act—and the actions that may follow—in a way that will cause harm to others and ourselves. Actions we take that cause harm may be blatant or subtle. This includes our speech. The Buddha urges us to make an ardent and resolute effort to pay attention to what we say. It’s a crucial part of mental training because, as the Thai meditation teacher Ajaan Fuang liked to say, “If you can’t have any control over your mouth, how can you expect to have any control over your mind?”
The training includes cultivating “harmlessness,” which comprises actions informed by compassion. In developing compassion, we seek to help others, and ourselves, find freedom from suffering.
In the fourth practice, we relinquish our enchantment with “forms.” Forms are sense objects, including sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and bodily sensations as well as mental states like anger, sadness, and so on. As dharma students, we learn to see that when we cling to forms, we suffer. Clinging might entail trying to hold on to a certain form, like a pleasant sensation in the body or resentment toward an acquaintance. And it might entail trying to get rid of certain forms, like unpleasant sensations or painful emotions.
In cultivating disenchantment with forms, we discern the insubstantial nature of sense objects. We recognize that these objects are impermanent, inconstant, unreliable, and unsatisfactory.
Over time, the mind no longer “leaps up at forms.” We don’t give them so much weight or look for happiness in them. In turn, we learn to look beyond forms in an effort to know true happiness. The Buddha suggests that in seeking escape from forms, we put our emphasis on the “formless.” We might think of the formless as the state of awareness. In putting our emphasis on the formless, we’re simply aware of forms. Instead of becoming involved with them, chasing after pleasant forms and pushing away unpleasant ones, we “rest” in our awareness of these forms. Meditation enables us to separate out awareness and the forms we’re bringing awareness to. Ajaan Fuang said that meditators should learn to step back from forms and remain established in “awareness itself.”
The fifth element of mental training concerns “self-identification.” It’s critical to understand what the Buddha means by this. He’s not referring to the notion of having a self. The Buddha insisted that we should put aside the question of whether there is a self. Instead, in letting go of self-identification, we’re asked to let go of any identification with the experiences of body and mind. We accomplish this important task by looking at our experience, and, in the process, looking to see whether there’s a self to be found in it. Is there a self in the throbbing sensation in the knee? Is there a self in the feeling of anxiety arising in the chest? Do these experiences belong to us? Do we own them? Or are these experiences—the sensations, emotions, and so on—merely arising out of conditions and coming, changing, and going?
As we investigate the various experiences of body and mind, there is, as the Buddha explains, a “cessation of self-identification.” Which is to say, we move from “I am seeing” to just “seeing.” We move from “I am thinking” to “thinking.” We shift from “my thoughts” to, simply, “thoughts.”
When we’re “disjoined” from self-identification, we’re no longer afflicted by the “torments & fevers” that result when we identify with the experiences of body and mind. You might try, right now, to see what it’s like to abandon self-identification. Try saying to yourself, “I am reading this,” and see what it’s like. See what it feels like in the body. Then try saying, “reading,” and see what that’s like. Perhaps, in this little exercise, you’re able to see what it’s like when you let go of your identification with an experience.
Each of us has the ability to train the mind. It takes work, but if we put in the effort over the long haul into paying attention to our experiences of body and mind, we can make the kind of escape the Buddha talks about in this sutta. We can reach the place he describes in concluding the teaching, the place at which we’re no longer obsessed by the “delight” in sensuality, ill will, harmfulness, forms, and self-identification—where we are free from suffering.