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 Nava Sutta (The Ship), the Buddha describes the goal of the path as the “ending of the effluents.” It’s a good way to think about what dharma practice is about. As human beings we’re subject to a variety of experiences: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily sensations, mental impressions (thoughts, emotions). None of these experiences—whether pleasant or unpleasant—is a problem; our “problems” manifest in the effluents, the ways we add on to experience, the ways we oppose and pursue experience, the ways we corrupt experience, the ways we take what is and turn it into something else.
The dictionary defines effluent as “something that flows out or forth; outflow.” The effluents are what flow out of the mind: our unskillful thinking and the unskillful actions that follow. Effluents can also mean sewage. Our tendency, we could say, is to take our basic human experience and pollute it, defile it, give rise to a discharge of sewage. Strong words perhaps, but when we look at what’s coming out of the mind, we’re hard-pressed to disagree.
The effluents are our painful thinking, our narratives, our unskillful ways of relating to our human experience. The Buddha was interested in learning how to relate skillfully to his position as a human being. What he learned is something that we can learn as well. But how? How can we make the most of our precious time in this human realm? How can we bring an end to the effluents?
As the sutta puts it, the ending of the effluents comes from knowing and seeing. In other words, from wisdom—not the wisdom acquired by reading books or listening to talks, but rather the wisdom that comes from our own clear seeing. Herein we come to an understanding that lies at the heart of sutta and the Buddha’s teachings: we reach our goals by attending to root causes. We don’t simply eliminate the effluents after the fact, any more than we’d eliminate pollution by simply draining the water in a stream. To effectively eliminate pollution we need to cut off its source, address its causes. In order to end the effluents, we aim to develop the causes that will bring about their ending.
We end the effluents through knowing and seeing—specifically knowing and seeing our clinging. In the sutta, the Buddha delineates the five clinging-aggregates, form, feeling tone, perception, fabrications, and consciousness—the five ways we cling when we’re clinging to our experience of body and mind—and we learn to see the drawbacks of our clinging. It’s from this clinging that the effluents pour forth. When we take what is—a sensation, a mental movement—and we grasp onto it, we produce effluents. When we see clearly into our clinging, we become disenchanted with it, and, in turn, we become more inclined not to cling. When we stop clinging, the effluents cease to flow.
That clinging leads to suffering is not a lesson unique to the Nava Sutta. Rather, this sutta is notable for its emphasis on the way we let go—slowly and through great effort.
As we begin to learn that clinging is the linchpin, we begin to “wish” to end clinging and the effluents. But, as the sutta teaches, this wishing is not enough. Put another way, we can’t simply “let go.” It doesn’t work like that. It’s certainly not what the Buddha teaches. Letting go, the Buddha tells us, will come when we “develop” wisdom. In the sutta, he lists the practices that comprise “developing”: “The four frames of reference, the four right exertions, the four bases of power, the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors for Awakening, the noble eightfold path.” Letting go of clinging occurs when we develop these elements of the path, sometimes referred to as the “wings to awakening.”
We develop these wings to awakening, in large part, in the service of cultivating concentration. Specifically, the Buddha’s concentration, known as jhana. By developing this concentration through a meditation practice, we’re able to achieve the wisdom that will bring about the ending of the effluents. This schema represents, of course, an integral cause-and-effect relationship in the Buddha’s dharma: the development of concentration leads to the development of wisdom, which leads to release from suffering, the ending of the effluents.
We could say that the development of concentration through the practice of mindfulness of breathing is the “hard work” of dharma practice. It is where the lion’s share of the time and effort is applied.
In the Nava Sutta, the Buddha offers some wonderful metaphors to describe the “work” of concentration. First, he gives the example of the hen and her eggs. In order for her eggs to hatch, for her chicks to be born, the hen must sit on the eggs to incubate them. She must do the work, put in the time and effort. It’s the only way she’ll achieve the desired results. Simply wishing for the eggs to hatch won’t do it; she has to sit on them.
As far as hens and eggs go, this may seem quite obvious; but when it comes to dharma practice we may fail to appreciate the laws of cause and effect; we may want our effluents to cease, our suffering to diminish, and yet we’re not putting in the work, we’re not sitting on our eggs.
Simply wishing for things to happen won’t make them happen. Simply talking about the dharma or listening to dharma talks online won’t bring about an end to the effluents. It’s a path of action. Again and again, in his teachings, the Buddha’s emphasizes this. This is important to embrace in today’s modern technological culture. We’re not so accustomed to being proactive, to putting determined effort into developing causes. In our culture, we’ve come to expect quick results—without having to put in much hard work. We click an icon on the computer, and, voilà, we have results. We instantly receive all manner of sense experience, information, stimulation; with a few clicks, we’re able to purchase nearly anything, and it’ll be delivered the next day. We’re not used to making slow steady effort, the sort of effort the hen makes.
Determination, patience, and equanimity are some of the qualities we must develop if we’re going to bring about an end to the effluents. We need to learn to sit on our eggs, knowing that eventually our chicks will hatch.
In the second metaphor, the Buddha describes how, when a carpenter uses an adze (a tool similar to an axe), he can’t discern the wearing away of the wooden handle; however, he knows that the wood is very slowly wearing down. It’s the same with dharma practice. When we meditate, at first we may not be able to see results, but gradually we’ll realize that things have changed, that the wooden handle has worn down. After using his adze many times, the carpenter can detect the changes in it with his naked eye; after making determined effort to develop concentration, the dharma student begins to realize that the effluents have lessened. They’ve been lessening all along, but very gradually and almost imperceptibly. Now he’s able to detect results.
It’s difficult for students in their early years of dharma practice; they’re often not able to see the changes that are taking place, the way concentration and wisdom are developing, the way the effluents are losing their power. After we’ve practiced for a number of years we’re more able to see our progress. And we move forward, confidently, knowing that if we continue to put in the work, the effluents will subside.
Lastly the Buddha provides the metaphor of the ship—for which the sutta is named. After being at sea for six months, the ship is retired for the winter, and as it sits on the shore, its stays “wither & rot.” A ship’s stays are the ropes supporting its masts. Weathered by the long time at sea, moistened during the rainy winter, these ropes disintegrate. So it is with our clinging, our thinking informed by aversion and desire, our unskillful action; little by little, as we develop the causes, the ropes that bind us wither and rot. And we are free.