MCTB Investigation of the Truth
Once we start to know what our objects are, what our actual reality is, then we can get down to the good stuff: knowing the truth of these things, called appropriately investigation of the truth, also called investigation of the dharma. Dharma just means truth. So, once mindfulness has made things a bit clearer we can know that things come and go, don't satisfy and ain't us. Hey, the Three Characteristics again! They are the truth, the sooner we understand this the better, and nothing helps us understand them like seeing them again and again.
Forgive this brief digression, but I am no fan of the popular term “mindfulness meditation,” as mindfulness is essential for both concentration practices (which lead to temporary bliss states) and insight practices (which lead to fundamental freedom). The crucial difference between these meditation practices is that insight practices also stress investigation of the Three Characteristics, whereas concentration practices emphasize stabilizing in the illusion of solidity and continuity while ignoring the fact that the sensations that make up this are all impermanent, etc. Thus, I hope that one day the modern meditation world drops this confusing term in favor of more precise language.
In addition to the categories of sensations mentioned above in Mindfulness, one could also consider consistent investigation of all sensations that seem to have to do with the direction and movement of attention, as well as investigating all sensations that have to do with questioning, wanting, the application of energy and even the individual sensations that make up the process of investigation itself. These are very interesting objects, as are “the hindrances.”
Traditionally, books on meditation spend a lot of time discussing the possible hindrances to meditation. I will not. The hindrances are an important topic, but they can easily begin to seem more ominous than they really are. Hindrances are just anything of which we were not mindful and of which we did not investigate the truth. Now that we know to be mindful and investigate the Three Characteristics of all moment-to-moment experiences, there will only be hindrances when we forget to do this.
If we do not forget to do this, there will be no hindrances. No phenomena are inherently a hindrance unless we do not understand them. If we did not understand at least one of the Three Characteristics of each of the sensations that make up a phenomenon, no matter what it was, it was a hindrance. Remember that the content of reality is not our concern in insight meditation, but the ultimate truth of the sensations that make up experiential reality is. So whatever seems to be in the way of your practice, remember that the experience of that moment is the practice and contains all the truth you could ever need! All phenomena are of the nature of ultimate truth. When we know deeply that these are all of the nature of ultimate truth, phenomena cease to be a fundamental problem.
The Buddha was a master of teaching through analogies that were easily accessible to those listening to him. I am certainly not in his league in this regard, and this will be clearly demonstrated by the analogy I am about to use for investigation. However, it has its points, and so after much consideration, I have included it here.
The Buddha gave his analogies names, and I have named this one “The Analogy of Shootin’ Aliens.” Bear with me here! Just about all of us in this day and age have at least seen if not played video games involving shooting aliens. As the game goes on, the aliens come in faster and faster, some taking multiple hits to kill them. Some of these games penalize us for wasting ammunition, causing us to really focus on exactly where and when these aliens are arising, so that we may shoot them exactly when they arise as efficiently as possible before they shoot us.
A few of you may already be thinking, “Get that bloody and violent analogy out of this book of holy wisdom!” The Buddha used many similar analogies; one that comes to mind has to do with a horse trainer (teacher) who kills horses that simply will not be broken (stops teaching unreachable students). Thus, you pansy critics can all drop dead.
Anyway, in this analogy the aliens are all of the little sensations that make up our experience. Shooting them is paying attention to them and seeing their true nature, perhaps with the aid of noting practice (like a gun with laser sight on it). The aliens shooting us is what happens when we do not see their true nature, as they become a hindrance, binding us on the wheel of suffering for the duration of our inability to shoot them. Some may even take us out of the game (cause us stop practicing entirely). The aliens that take multiple hits to kill are our big issues, those things that are difficult for us to break into their composite sensations. Being penalized for shooting wastefully is what can happen if we note sensations that we didn’t actually experience because we fell into repetitive, imprecise, mantra-like noting habits.
Further, the speed, precision and playful attitude required for video games is exactly like the feel of well-done insight practices. If you watch some kid playing a fast alien-shooting game, you will notice that they are really going for it. They are shooting very fast and definitely not thinking about anything but doing that. This is exactly the sort of dedication and passion that helps with insight practices.
When our mindfulness and investigation are on hair trigger, being aware of every little sensation that arises and passes, we are bound to win sooner or later. The motto, “Note first, ask questions later,” is just so helpful if we are to keep practicing precisely without getting lost in the stories. Again, off the cushion the stories can have some value if not taken too seriously. On the cushion, take no prisoners: “Note ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out!” This is seemingly extreme but actually very powerful and profound advice. Do not dismiss The Analogy of Shootin’ Aliens.
Where the Analogy of Shootin’ Aliens breaks down is that all these aliens want is attention and acceptance. They come to us so that we will greet them clearly and openly, but if we fail to do this they can get very troublesome. Their little alien hearts are being broken when we don’t get to know them as they are, so who can blame them when they get mischievous and try to trick us into paying more attention to them by causing trouble. Sure, it’s a bit childish of them, but we don’t always get to meet mature and well-adjusted aliens.
Thus, rather than killing our aliens by shooting them, we give them what they want by noticing or noting them. We don’t invite the pretty ones to stay with us forever, nor do we ignore the boring aliens. We don’t kick the ugly ones from our door either. Like a politician on the campaign trail, we extend a hand to all, say, “Hello!” and then quickly do this for lots of others. When we meet them, greet them, get to know, accept and even love them, they go away happy. I realize that I’ve just gone from being excessively violent to being excessively sentimental, but somewhere in there is what insight practices are all about.
I have already mentioned numerous possible exercises, perspectives and emphases that may be used when exploring our reality for the purpose of awakening, and I will continue to mention more as we go along. However, I recommend that the foundation of your practice be investigation of the Three Characteristics of the sensations that make up your reality. If you find it too complicated to try to investigate all Three Characteristics at once, then I recommend quick and precise investigation of impermanence. If this seems too difficult, I have found the simple practice of noting very quickly to be more than sufficiently powerful for gaining clear and direct insights into the true nature of things. Should you find that the numerous instructions and avenues of inquiry I present are too confusing, remember this paragraph and stick to these simple but profound practices. “When in doubt, note it out!”