This article is part of Trike Daily’s Sutta Study series, led by Insight meditation teacher Peter Doobinin. The suttas are found in the Pali Canon, which contains some of the earliest Buddhist teachings. 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 Hawk (Sakunagghi Sutta), the Buddha offers a compelling parable to illustrate the importance of practicing right mindfulness. The Buddha didn’t simply teach mindfulness. He taught right mindfulness. In practicing right mindfulness, the dharma student makes an effort to keep her mind on specific objects: the four foundations of mindfulness (or the four establishings of mindfulness, according to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation). If we’re able to do so, we’ll move toward a true happiness in our lives. But if we don’t keep the mind in these places, the Buddha teaches, we’ll be bound to suffer.
The Buddha makes this point by telling the story of a quail who lives in a field with “clumps of dirt all turned up.” As long as she remains in this field, her “proper range,” she’s safe from predators, including the hawk. One day, however, the quail wanders outside the field, and, sure enough, the hawk swoops down and captures her. The quail laments her “bad luck,” remarking that if she’d stayed in the field of turned up dirt, the hawk “would have been no match for me in battle.” The hawk disagrees, and, to make his point, he deposits the quail back in the field. The hawk circles and swoops down. The quail, in turn, conceals herself behind a large clump of earth. And, sure enough, the hawk smashes into the dirt and dies.
The moral of the story is that we shouldn’t wander into what isn’t our “proper range.” The Buddha tells us: “In one who wanders into what is not his proper range and is the territory of others, Mara gains an opening, Mara gains a foothold.” Mara, in Buddhist lore, is the personification of unskillful qualities: desire, aversion, and delusion.
The Buddha goes on to say that the five strings of sensuality are “not your proper range.” Sensuality in this context refers to the grasping after sense pleasure. The sense experiences that the mind registers as “agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, enticing,” the Buddha indicates, are “linked to sensual desire.” In other words, it’s our tendency to crave these experiences, to chase after them, to want to hold on to them.
The strings that hang from the five sense pleasures represent their “clingable” nature. It’s as if these pleasurable experiences have strings attached to them; and our tendency is to grasp after these strings.
This is an important point. In the Buddha’s teachings, sensuality is not the pleasurable experience; it’s the grasping after the experience. Our problem is found in the way we relate to this experience, in our desire. The Buddha says:
The passion for his resolves is a man’s sensuality,
not the beautiful sensual pleasures
found in the world.
The passion for his resolves is a man’s sensuality.
The beauties remain as they are in the world,
while the wise, in this regard,
subdue their desire.
Our happiness, the Buddha teaches, depends on what we do with our minds.
It’s up to the dharma student to examine her relationship to sense pleasure. What is she doing with her mind? Does she let her mind wander off, outside its “proper range?” Does she put herself in a position in which she’s likely to grasp after the strings of sensuality? Does she let her mind become preoccupied with certain sense pleasures? What are the consequences? Is she going into dangerous territory? Is she putting herself at the mercy of the hawk?
Nowadays, of course, the different technological forms provide much of the sense pleasure that we’re apt to indulge in: the television, computer, laptop, smartphone, and so on. The Internet offers a vast array of pleasurable experience, all manner of images, movies, music, words, delivered at a moment’s notice, wherever we are. These technologies provide all kinds of ways to wander outside our “proper range” and into the “territory of others.”
When we wander outside our proper range, “Mara gains an opening.” We suffer. We become caught up in desire and aversion—wanting the various sense pleasures, displeased and dissatisfied when we don’t have what we want. We don’t live in the present moment. And, accordingly, we’re liable to act in unskillful fashion. We find ourselves cut off from the heart.
The dharma student’s proper range is the four establishings of mindfulness: the body, the feeling tone of the body, mind states, and various mental qualities. This is where the dharma student is asked to put her mind. It all begins with the body. First and foremost, in practicing right mindfulness, we learn to keep the mind on the body by putting our focus on the breath.
The body is our proper range. During his 45 years of teaching the dharma, the Buddha was very clear about this. If we can learn to keep the mind on the body, he said, we’ll find freedom from suffering, we’ll be able to know true happiness. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says:
They awaken, always wide awake:
whose mindfulness, both day & night,
is constantly immersed
in the body.
The dharma student, following the Buddha’s instructions for right mindfulness, makes a wholehearted effort to keep her mind on her body. She doesn’t let her awareness go wherever it pleases. She’s proactive in her efforts to keep her mind on the breath and body. Her efforts are purposeful because she wants to avoid suffering and she wants true happiness. She’s aligned with her purpose—and motivated, as the sutta infers, by a sense of urgency—as she remains mindful of the breath and body. As the Buddha notes, the dharma student, practicing right mindfulness, is “ardent, alert, & mindful.” In maintaining alertness, the dharma student notices when she begins to wander outside of her proper range. She recognizes the movement in her mind suggesting that she should pick up the smartphone to check her emails, for example.The dharma student is ardent and makes a wholehearted effort to keep her mind in her “ancestral territory.” She stays with the body and the other establishings of mindfulness and doesn’t give in to her inclinations to grasp after sense pleasure, to succumb to Mara.
In offering the parable of the hawk and the quail, the Buddha is making an emphatic point. We should keep our mind in good places; we shouldn’t let it go wherever it would like to go. As the Buddha explains, there’s danger in wandering outside our proper range. The Thai ajahns [teachers] often talk about the danger involved in putting our mind in problematic places. We don’t typically hear Western dharma teachers use strong words like “danger” in describing the consequences of having an untrained mind. But to be certain, there is significant danger in not taking care of the mind, in craving, in grasping after sense pleasure. The danger, of course, is not physical, but mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual.
If we wander outside our proper range, we’ll suffer. On the other hand, if we remain in our proper range, if we practice right mindfulness, if we keep the mind on the body, we’ll come to know true happiness in this life.
For Peter Doobinin’s previous sutta studies, take a look at the Thana Sutta, Yoga Sutta, Nava Sutta, Lokavipatti Sutta, Cunda Sutta, Samadhanga Sutta, Nissaraniya Sutta, and the Gilana Sutta.