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Starting Out Small - A Collection of Talks for Beginning Meditators
Phra Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo
Translated from the Thai by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu


September 9, 1957

Clinging is the cause of all suffering and stress. It's what gives rise to states of becoming and birth. It's not at all safe. Whatever appears and takes shape is bound to create suffering. Just as when a person's money appears in a way that other people can see: there are bound to be thieves who will steal it away. When you have money, you're afraid if people see it. You're afraid even if they don't. In the same way, when people cling to the five aggregates as their self in this world, they suffer. When they die and go to the next world, they suffer still.

The clinging we feel has three kinds, or three time frames: past, present, and future. In each time frame there are five aggregates, which means that each of us has 15 aggregates. And when we have so many aggregates to carry around, it's no wonder we suffer. When we look ahead, we start wondering: "If I live until 60, 70, or 80, what's it going to be like? If I fall into poverty, what will I do?" When we think like this, we start worrying in all kinds of ways. If we think about good things, we get enthralled. If we think about bad things, we get disheartened. Some people think about bad things so much that they get really discouraged and despondent. That's because they cling to their thoughts and preoccupations. This is called having five heavy stones placed in front of us.

Then we turn around and look behind us: "When we die, what will happen to our children and grandchildren?" We might think of giving them part of the family fortune so that they'll be able to set themselves up in life. But then we think of how foolish they can be. "If they take our family fortune and gamble it all away, what will we do?" When we think like this, it makes us discouraged. Other times we think of our own good qualities, our children's good qualities, in the present, and it makes us happy. That's another five heavy stones. So altogether we have five stones in front of us, five stones behind us, and five stones in the present. Our right hand clings to physical phenomena, our left hand to mental phenomena. We hold on to form, feeling, perception, thought-constructs, and consciousness as our self. So we carry a burden in our right hand, a burden in our left hand, and more burdens placed on a pole over our shoulder. If we keep carrying these things around without ever putting them down, we'll meet with nothing but suffering. Then we grab onto the suffering so that we suffer even more, to the point where our faces are all contorted and our shoulders twisted out of shape.

This is why the Buddha had such compassion for us and taught us to cago patinissago, to relinquish and let go. Whoever doesn't put down the pole on his or her shoulder will never get away. If we can first let go of our thoughts of past and future, things will be somewhat lighter. If we're only carrying things in our hands there's some hope that we'll be able to keep going. In other words, if we don't practice concentration, keeping our minds still and away from the Hindrances, we're still carrying a pole over our shoulders with burdens in front of us and behind us, all because we can't let go of our thoughts of past and future. Thoughts of past and future are things we don't need to think about. Whether they're our own affairs, the affairs of our children or grandchildren, or our business or financial affairs: when we've come to meditate like this, there's no need to think about anything at all. Be intent on sitting still. Keep your body straight, focus on watching only the present -- the breath -- and light will appear. Even though your right and left hands are still holding onto physical and mental phenomena, at least you've put down both burdens that were on your shoulders.

As for the physical phenomena that are still heavy, that's because the King of Death keeps sprinkling poison on them. For example, our eyes: At first they are clear. Everything we see is sharp and bright. But then the King of Death sprinkles his poison in them, making them murky and dark, or giving us cataracts. So we have to go running to have our eyes examined, to get glasses for them, to put medicine in them, to go in for surgery. They make us suffer in every way, so that our tiny little eyes start weighing as much as a fist in the face.

As for our ears, at first they can hear all kinds of sounds. Then the King of Death comes and sprinkles his poison in them so that they start ringing or going deaf. We can hardly hear what other people are saying, we can't understand what they're getting at, and this makes us irritable. They say bad things, and to us they sound good. Or they say good things, and to us they sound bad. We get things right and wrong, and this gives rise to quarrels and disagreements.

The same with our nose. At first it's in good shape, but then the King of Death sprinkles poison in it, so that tumors and growths develop. We have to go looking for medicinal snuff and inhalers, or for doctors to zap the growths with electricity. Our nose starts smelling bad and disfigures our face.

As for the tongue, body, and mind, they pile us high with pain in just the same way. This is why we're taught, rupam aniccam: all physical forms are unstable and inconstant. If we get stuck on thinking about these things, it sets us on fire. Our skin and flesh grows flabby and wrinkled, our backs get bent, and as we grow older like this it's a burden both to our own hearts and to the hearts of our children and grandchildren. In addition, it's a burden in terms of the money we need to spend to look after ourselves.

Whoever holds onto unstable things as being his or her self will have to walk in an unstable way. Most of us tend to cling to the body and other physical things as being ours. Sometimes we cling to mental phenomena -- feelings, perceptions, thought-constructs, and consciousness -- as being ours. This is called carrying things in both hands. Still, it's better than carrying loads on a pole over our shoulder, for as long as our burdens are only in our hands we're able to sit or lie down. But if we have burdens on a pole over our shoulder, we can't sit down. We have to keep standing.

For this reason we should train our hearts to be peaceful and still -- in other words, to develop concentration. When the heart's tranquil and still, discernment will arise. When discernment arises, we'll understand our own birth: When we were born, we didn't bring along even a single tooth or piece of cloth. However we came is how we'll have to return. We won't be able to take a single thing along with us, aside from the good and evil that will take us to be reborn in good or bad destinations or that will send us to nibbana. People who can meditate in this way will become light and unburdened, for they'll be able to let go of what they're carrying in their hands. In that way they'll be happy, for they've received three jewels to adorn themselves. When they get to the other side, they'll be able to sell them for a good price. As long as they stay here, they'll have good things to dress up with. Whoever has the intelligence to practice letting go in this way will receive wealth that's of value everywhere -- like gold: No matter what country you go to, gold is recognized as having value. It's not like paper money, which is recognized only in your own country.

For this reason, when we can train the mind to let go -- so that it's released from holding on to the future, the past, and the present -- it's as if we've received an entire ingot of pure gold. We'll be happy at all times. But if we're stupid enough to hold onto things as our own, we'll set the mind on fire so that it won't know any peace.

This is why the Buddha has warned us: whoever clings to physical or mental phenomena, or to mental labels and thoughts, will have to be so burdened that they won't be able to get anywhere. Ultimately, they'll have to die stuck in the world, like the monkey stuck in a tar trap.

Whoever clings is said to be heavily burdened. As long as we're alive, we have trouble finding true goodness. When we die, we have heavy burdens lying in our way. This is why the Buddha teaches us to let go. Don't grasp onto thoughts of past, future, or present. Make the mind like water on a lotus leaf, which doesn't seep in. It reaches a quality that doesn't die, doesn't come back to be born in this world or any other. Free from suffering and stress, it reaches the highest, most excellent ease.

So we should all try our best to lighten our burdens.



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