A Dhamma article by Ajahn Amaro – Mindfulness is the Path to the Deathless

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A reflection offered by Ajahn Amaro on 27 March 2016, during the Winter Retreat at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery

Today is Easter Sunday according to the western European calendar. According to Christian mythology this is the day Jesus rose from the dead, however, the very word ‘Easter’ itself points to the fact that its symbolism reaches beyond the Christian stories.

The east is where the sun rises. The birth of the light of the world happens in the east. This time of the year, spring is the reawakening of the land. Flowers come out, leaves start budding and life comes back into the world. Animals start pairing off, building nests. It’s the time of life being reasserted, coming out of the dark into waking, living form. We have the imagery of Easter eggs and even the word ‘oestrogen’ is associated with this time. There are many mythic stories associated with it too. Ēostre was a Northumbrian Goddess of the dawn, way back in the ancient past. So, we have images of dawn, east, springtime, birth … as well as the imagery of the story of Jesus.

The Buddha also used the image of breaking out of the shell for someone who has developed the appropriate spiritual qualities. His simile is of a mother hen, with eight or ten or twelve eggs, and whether she wishes it or not, the chicks will develop in the natural way. Eventually, when they are ready, they peck their way out of the shells; they break free from the boundary of the shell to come into a waking, living, active life. The mother doesn’t have to wish it. If the conditions are there then the chick will break through. These are all symbols, stories that point to that experience of being encased, enclosed in a state of death or darkness, and then emerging into freedom, into light, into the living world.

In Buddhist symbolism, the shell represents ignorance, avijjā, not seeing clearly. And when wholesome, skilful qualities have accumulated, then the mind breaks through ignorance, breaks through self-conceit: ‘I’m so special; I’ve got so many problems; I’m so good; I’m so bad …’. It breaks through the shell of all the ‘I am’s.’ And, according to these images, having broken through the shell there is the experience of freedom, independence.

One of the most significant teachings the Buddha gave in this area is what you might call the motto of Amaravati. When the monastery first opened, this theme was used by Luang Por Sumedho over and over again: ‘Mindfulness is the path to the deathless. Heedlessness is the path to death. The mindful never die. The heedless are as if dead already.’[Dhp 21] Over and over again, Luang Por Sumedho would use this as a topic. It’s one of the reasons why this monastery is called Amaravati, the Deathless Realm.

In Jesus’s story you have him dying on the cross and being reborn, emerging from death to eternal life. But in the Buddhist symbolism it is a different picture. When there’s heedlessness, it is as if we are dead. It appears as if there is birth and death because the mind attaches to the born and dying. We don’t create the deathless. It is not something that can be lost or gained, it is awakened to, it is realized. And through its realization it is recognized that birth and death are just appearances, just a seeming. It is like the sun appearing to rise and appearing to set. It only does so because the earth is spinning. If the earth didn’t spin, the sun would appear to sit in the same place all the time. Birth and death appear to be happening, because of the mind’s attachment to sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. Being a good person, a bad person, success and failure, healthy and sick, gaining and losing; because of the mind’s attachment to all these births and deaths, it seems like we are being born and we’re dying.

As Luang Por Sumedho said over and over again: ‘There is nobody being born, nobody dying. It’s just conditions of mind that are changing. There is no person truly being born, no person who really dies.’ And this doesn’t just apply to a unique being like Jesus; none of us are really born, no person really dies. Because of the mind’s attachment to the world of perception, thought, feeling, memory, attachment to the four elements of the material world, it seems that way. It is very convincing.

The path of insight, the path of investigation, helps us to examine the nature of experience. What seems to be ‘me being born, moving around in that world out there, and who will die one day,’ when it is examined closely it’s recognized that the world is happening here, in our field of experience. As the Buddha said: ‘That whereby one is a perceiver of the world, and a conceiver of the world, that is called “the world” in this Dhamma and discipline. And what is that whereby one is a perceiver of the world, and a conceiver of the world? The eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, the mind …’[SN 35.116] The world is the world of our experience. It’s our mind’s construction of the world. That is what is experienced. And that is born, takes shape and dissolves, moment by moment. The sounds of these words, the feelings of the body, moods of irritation, enthusiasm, alertness, sleepiness, comfort, discomfort, these are patterns of consciousness, organic patterns of change, arising, taking shape, dissolving. That is the world. There is no other world we can meaningfully speak about. We can only talk about the world of our own experience. Even if we use machines and devices to measure them, those patterns will still all appear only within the sphere of our perceptions.

When we take a statement like: ‘There is nobody born, there is nobody who dies, only conditions of mind that change,’ it is not to be believed or rejected, but to be picked up and explored. There is hearing the sound of my voice, hearing the sound of a plane flying overhead, hearing the sound of a bird… hearing. We say the sensation is ‘in my body, in me’; the sound of the plane is ‘outside me’. But they are both experienced in the same place. The bird is in the tree. The plane is high in the sky. But they are both known here in the mind.

The world is in the mind, the world we experience is woven by our mind; it is woven into being – arising, passing away – moment by moment. But that which knows the world, that which is the lokavidū – the knower of the world – what is that? Where is that? It is the most real thing there is, this quality of knowing, yet it has no shape, no form. It is not a person, it does not begin or end, it is not here or there. It is totally real but completely intangible. How mysterious. But when the heart is allowed to embody that quality of knowing, awakened awareness, then that is the realization of the Deathless, the Unborn and Undying itself. That which knows the born and dying is not the born and dying. That which knows inspiration is not inspired. That which knows regret and pain is not pained. That which knows suffering is not suffering. This is why liberation is possible.

When the Buddha said that ‘… the mindful do not die’, he did not mean that the body of a mindful person is never going to stop breathing and rot away. No. The Buddha’s body died, just like anyone else’s. When he said that the mindful never die, it meant that when the mind is awake it is not identified with the born and the dying. It is akāliko, timeless, ajāta, unborn, amara, undying. It is outside of the realm of time, individuality and space; not definable in terms of time, personality, location: ‘There is neither a coming nor a going, nor a standing still. Neither progress, nor degeneration. Neither this world, nor the other world.’[Ud 8.1] It boggles the mind: our familiar perceptions are formed in terms of here and there, inside and outside, mine and yours, progress, degeneration. But this quality of Dhamma itself – of which this awareness, this knowing faculty is the primary attribute – it is indefinable, unlocatable. As Luang Por Chah would ask: ‘If you can’t go forward and you can’t go back and you can’t stand still, where can you go?’ All that can be done is to let go of those habits of identifying with being a person who is here in this place and passing through time. When the mind lets go of time, individuality, location, then that puzzle is solved.

‘The heedless are as if dead already’ – as if dead, even if their bodies are still breathing, moving around, talking, feeling, seeing, tasting, touching. This is because the mind is attached to the born and the dying. Therefore the Deathless, the Unborn, the Undying, the Timeless, is invisible, intangible, and doesn’t seem like any thing.

‘The heedless are as if dead already’ – as if dead, despite having the appearances of life. It is a startling image that the Buddha uses here; just because the body is breathing, that doesn’t mean anything. When the mind breaks through the shell of ignorance it is breaking through the customary perceptions of: ‘Me being a person who has come from somewhere, who has got to do something to become something else in the future.’ As Luang Por Sumedho used to say over and over again: ‘To think “I’m an unenlightened person who’s got to do something now to become enlightened in the future,” is to begin in the wrong place.’ It’s starting from where you are not.

Instead, we change the paradigm to: ‘Here is the awake mind knowing the Dhamma, knowing the way things are – knowing this sound, this feeling, this mood, knowing hope and regret, dullness, aloneness, conflict, discomfort. Knowing this.’ And in that gesture of knowing, awakened awareness – the Unborn, the Undying – is realized, is manifest, is embodied. But as soon as the thinking mind jumps in and says, ‘Aha, I am the Unborn, I am the Deathless! That’s what I am!’ That’s just the conceiving mind creating an ‘I am’ and short-circuiting the realization. The way of relinquishment, of non-owning, non-possession, non-identification, is atammayatā – not creating a ‘this’ to be or a ‘that’ to identify with.

The simple gesture of non-identification, non-grasping moment by moment, is how immortality is achieved. Not ‘me’ going on forever, but ‘me’ being seen as transparent, the ‘me’ being seen as not-self. The awake, knowing mind is always here; this is the refuge. It is up to us to take this refuge, to abide here, to embody it; the challenge is to not be fooled by the compelling qualities of the sense world and our life story, but rather to break through the shell, to wake up. Then there is freedom, independence, life and light.