Normally, illness is something we all have, but the type of illness where you can still do your work isn’t recognised as illness. It’s called the normal human condition all over the world. Yet really, when the body is in its normal state, it’s still ill. But people generally are unaware of this illness: the deterioration of physical and mental phenomena, continually, from moment to moment.
The way people get carried away with their thoughts and preoccupations while they’re still strong enough to work — that’s real complacency. They’re no match for people lying in bed ill. People lying in bed ill are lucky because they have the opportunity to do nothing but contemplate stress and pain. Their minds don’t take up anything else, don’t go anywhere else. They can contemplate pain at all times — and let go of pain at all times, too.
Don’t you see the difference? The `emptiness’ of the mind when you’re involved in activities is `play’ emptiness, imitation emptiness. It’s not the real thing. But to contemplate inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness as it appears right inside you while you’re lying right here is very beneficial for you. Just don’t think that you’re what’s hurting. Simply see the natural phenomena of physical and mental events as they arise and pass away, arise and pass away. They’re not you. They’re not really yours. You don’t have any real control over them.
Look at them! Exactly where do you have any control over them? This is true for everyone in the world. You’re not the only one to whom it’s happening. So whatever disease you have, it’s not important. What’s important is the disease in the mind. Normally you don’t pay much attention to the fact that we have diseases in our minds — in other words, the diseases of defilement, craving, and attachment. We pay attention only to our physical diseases, afraid of all the horrible things that can happen to the body. But no matter how much we try to stave things off with our fears, when the time comes for things to happen, no matter what medicines you use to treat the body, you can win only temporary respite. Even the people in the past who didn’t suffer from heavy diseases are no longer with us. They’ve all had to part from their bodies in the end.
When you continually contemplate like this, you see the truth of inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness correctly within you. And you grow more and more disenchanted with things, step by step.
When you give it a try and let go, who’s there? Are you the one hurting, or is it simply an affair of the Dhamma? Examine carefully and you’ll see that it’s not really you that’s hurting. The disease isn’t your disease. It’s a disease of the body, a disease of physical form. In the end, physical form and mental events are always changing, are stressful in the change, and are not-self in the change and stress. But you must focus on them, watch them, and contemplate them so that they’re clear. Make this knowledge really clear, and right there is where you’ll gain release from all suffering and stress. Right there is where you’ll put an end to all suffering and stress. As for the aggregates, they’ll continue to arise, age, grow ill, and pass away in line with their own affairs. When their causes and conditions run out, they die and go into their coffin.
Some people, when they’re healthy and complacent, die suddenly and unexpectedly without knowing what’s happening to them. Their minds are completely oblivious to what’s going on. They are much worse off than the person lying ill in bed who has pain to contemplate and so can develop disenchantment. So you don’t have to be afraid of pain. If it’s going to be there, let it be there — but don’t let the mind be in pain with it. And then ask yourself — right now: Is the mind empty of `me’ and `mine’?
Keep on looking in. Keep on looking in so that things are really clear, and that’s enough. You don’t have to find out anything anywhere else. When you can cure the disease or the pain lightens, that’s something normal. When it doesn’t lighten, that’s normal too. But if the heart is simply empty of `me’ and `mine’, there will be no pain within it. As for the pain in the aggregates, don’t give it a second thought.
So see yourself as lucky. Lying here, dealing with the disease, you have the opportunity to practise insight meditation with every moment. It doesn’t matter whether you’re here in the hospital or at home. Don’t let there be any real sense in the mind that you’re in the hospital or at home. Let the mind be in the emptiness, empty of all labels and meanings. You don’t have to label yourself as being anywhere at all.
This is because the aggregates are not where you are. They’re empty of any indwelling person. They’re empty of any `me’ or `mine’. When the mind is like this, it doesn’t need anything at all. It doesn’t have to be here or go there or anywhere at all. This is the absolute end of suffering and stress.
The mind, when it’s not engrossed with the taste of pleasure or pain, is free in line with its nature. But I ask that you watch it carefully, this mind when it’s empty, when it’s not concocting any desires for anything, not wanting pleasure or trying to push away pain.
When the mind is empty in line with its nature, there’s no sense of ownership in it; there are no labels for itself. No matter what thoughts occur to it, it sees them as insubstantial, as empty of self. there’s simply a sensation that then passes away. A sensation that passes away, and that’s all.
So you have to watch the phenomena that arise and pass away. You have to watch the phenomenon of the present continuously — and the mind will be empty, in that it will give no meanings or labels to the arising and passing away. As for the arising and passing away, that’s a characteristic of the aggregates in accordance with their normal nature — the empty mind simply isn’t involved, doesn’t latch on. This is the point you can make use of.
You can’t prevent pleasure and pain, you can’t keep the mind from labelling things and forming thoughts, but you can put these things to a new use. If the mind labels a pain, saying, `I hurt,’ you have to read the label carefully, contemplating it until you see that it’s wrong. If the label were right, it would have to say that the pain isn’t me, it’s empty. Or if there’s a thought that `I’m in pain,’ this type of thinking is also wrong. You have to take a new approach to your thinking, to see that thinking is inconstant, stressful, and not yours.
So whatever arises, investigate and let go of what’s right in front of you. Just make sure that you don’t cling, and the mind will keep on being empty in line with its nature. Maybe no thoughts are bothering you, maybe there’s a strong pain instead, or maybe some abnormal mood is developing — whatever is happening, you have to look right in, look all the way in to the sensation of the mind. Once you have a sense of the empty mind, then if there’s any disturbance, any sense of irritation, you’ll know that the knowledge giving rise to it is wrong knowledge. Right knowledge will immediately take over, and the wrong knowledge will disband.
In order to hold continuously to this foundation of knowing, you first have to exercise restraint over the mind at the same time that you focus your attention and contemplate the phenomena of stress and pain. Keep this up until the mind can maintain its stance in the clear emptiness of the heart. If you can do this all the way to the end, the final disbanding of suffering will occur right there, right where the mind is empty.
But you have to keep practising at this continuously. Whenever pain arises, regardless of whether it’s strong or not, don’t label it or give it any meaning. If pleasure arises, don’t label it as your pleasure. Just keep letting it go, and the mind will gain release — empty of all clinging or attachment to `selfness’. You have to apply all your mindfulness and energy to this at all times.
You should see yourself as fortunate that you’re lying here ill, contemplating pain, for you have the opportunity to develop the Path in full measure, gaining insight and letting things go. Nobody has a better opportunity than you do right now. People running around engaged in their affairs are really no match for you, even if they say their minds are disengaged. A person lying ill in bed has the opportunity to develop insight with every in-and-out breath. It’s a sign that you haven’t wasted your birth as a human being, because you’re practising the teachings of the Lord Buddha to the point where you gain clear knowledge into the true nature of things in and of themselves.
The true nature of things, on the outer level, refers to the phenomenon of the present, the process of change in the five aggregates. You decipher their code again and again until you get disenchanted with them, lose your taste for them, and let them go. When the mind is in this state, the next step is to contemplate it skilfully to see how it’s empty, all the way to the ultimate emptiness — the kind of emptiness that goes clearly into the true nature deep inside, where there’s no concocting of thoughts, no arising, no passing away, no changing at all.
When you correctly see the nature of things on the outer level, and it’s entirely clear to you, the mind will let go, let go. That’s when you automatically see clearly what lies on the inner level — empty of all cycling through birth and death, with nothing concocted at all — the emptiest extreme of emptiness, with no labels, no meanings, no clinging or attachment. All I ask is that you see this clearly within your own mind.
The ordinary emptiness of the mind is useful on one level, but that’s not all there is. True emptiness is empty until it reaches the true nature of things on the inner level — something really worth ferreting out, really worth coming to know.
This is something you have to know for yourself. There are really no words to describe it, but we can talk about it by way of guidance, because it may happen that ultimately you let go of everything, in what’s called disbanding without trace.
The mind’s point of disbanding without trace, if you keep developing insight every day, every moment, will happen on its own. The mind will know on its own. So don’t let the mind bother itself by getting preoccupied with pleasure or pain. Relentlessly focus on penetrating into the mind itself.
Do you see how different this is from when you’re running around strong and healthy, thinking about this, that, and the other thing? This is why there’s no harm in having lots of pain. The harm is in our stupidity in giving labels and meanings to things. People tend to reflect on the fleeting nature of life when someone else grows sick or dies, but they rarely reflect on the fleeting nature of their own lives. Or else they reflect for just a moment and then forget all about it, getting completely involved in their preoccupations. They don’t bring these truths inward, to reflect on the inconstancy occurring within themselves, with every moment. They do this and that, think this and that, say this and that, and so they lose all perspective.
When you practise insight meditation, it’s not something that you take a month or two off to do on a special retreat. That’s not the real thing. It’s no match for what you’re doing right now, for here you can do it all day every day and all night, except when you sleep. Especially when the pain is strong, it’s really good for your meditation, because it gives you the chance to know once and for all what inconstancy is like, what stress and suffering are like, what your inability to control things is like.
You have to find out right here, right in front of you, so don’t try to avoid the pain. Practise insight so as to see the true nature of pain, its true nature as Dhamma, and then keep letting it go. If you do this, there’s no way you can go wrong. This is the way to release from suffering.
First published in the August 2005 Buddhism Now.
Upasika Kee Nanayon (1901-1978) was born to a Chinese merchant family in Thailand and devoted her spare time to Dhamma books and meditation during her teens. In 1945 she joined her aunt and uncle in a small home near a forested hill and the three of them began a life devoted entirely to meditation. The small retreat they made for themselves in an abandoned monastic dwelling eventually grew to become the nucleus of a women’s practice centre that has flourished to this day. In the centre’s early years, small groups of friends and relatives would visit to give support and listen to Upasika Kee’s Dhamma talks. She eventually became one of the best-known Dhamma teachers, male or female, in Thailand.
The above is an excerpt from a book of Upasika Kee Nanayon’s talks, Pure and Simple, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Wisdom Publications, ISBN 9780861714926, 2005, and reproduced here by courtesy of the publisher.