In Mahasi Sayadaw’s book To Nibbana via the Noble Eightfold Path, he wrote,
At the beginning of the stage where concentration becomes strong enough for the mental hindrances to disappear, when purity of mind begins to arise, one comes to know, or see distinctly, the matter that is noted and the mind that notes. When one notes rising, one knows clearly that what rises is one thing and what notes the rising is another. When one notes falling, one knows that what falls is one thing and what notes the falling is another. In the same way when noting lifting, stepping, and putting down while walking, one knows clearly that what is noted is one thing and what notes is another. In this way, one distinctly knows the matter which is known and the mind which notes. And that knowing is not by imagining, but it is distinct and clear understanding through just observing without imagining.
Here Sayadaw described how a yogi comes to see mind and matter clearly. When you practice vipassana meditation, everything that is evident in the present moment is the object of meditation. The past and future are not here. However much you try to watch them, you will not see them clearly. And if you don’t see them clearly, you cannot see their characteristics. If you think of what will happen in the future, you are distracted. When you are distracted, you cannot note the present object clearly. If you do not see the present clearly, concentration and understanding cannot develop. That is why people can spend a lot of time, maybe days or weeks, and not make progress in their practice.
A past object cannot be observed. However much you may recall it to your mind, you do not see it clearly and cannot see its characteristics. As for objects that are to come, since they are not yet here, you cannot observe them, so you cannot understand their true nature. Only the object at the present moment lends itself to observation, investigation, or comprehending. And that object at the present moment includes your thoughts, emotions, sensations in the body, the rising and falling of the abdomen, breathing in and out, and so forth.
In vipassana practice, you make note of the objects that are evident in the present moment; you try to be mindful of these objects, in order to understand them fully. When you make note of rising or falling, for example, you do so to understand the rising movement and the falling movement fully, not to do anything with it. And when you note pain, it is not to get rid of pain, but to understand that pain fully.
Full understanding means understanding what the objects are, understanding that they are impermanence, suffering, and no soul. Full understanding includes removing or abandoning wrong notions regarding the object. When you first practice vipassana meditation, you try to be mindful of the object in the present. But in the beginning, your mind may not be on the meditation object alone. Your mind may wander here and there quite often. That is because your concentration is weak. You cannot keep the mind where you want it to be. It goes here and there.
But with perseverance and with patience, you continue on, and a time will come when your mind is only on the meditation object. Even if there is wandering, you can catch it right away. You will not be taken away by this wandering for ten seconds or for thirty seconds. You will be able to catch it right away. You may even be able to stop it before it occurs. That is possible with practice. When your mind can be on the meditation object most of the time, your mind is said to have gained concentration.
Every object is presented to you via the six sense doors. Although there may be different objects at different moments, the mindfulness or concentration is also always there on the side—in every moment. You have object A and then mindfulness of object A, object B and then mindfulness of object B, object C and then mindfulness of object C. When your mind can be on the main object only, you are said to gain what is called “momentary concentration.” When you gain the momentary concentration, you are said to gain purity of mind.
Purity of mind can be understood in two ways. Your mind is pure at that time because it is not contaminated by mental hindrances. Your mind is also pure because there is always mindfulness and concentration. It is not mixed with distractions. So pure can mean “without impurities” and pure can also mean “unmixed.” Your flow of mind is unmixed with distractions and you are always on the object. When your mind can be on the meditation only and does not wander, your mind becomes settled down, quiet. At that point, you begin to see the objects vividly and clearly. Before that time, although you may think you see the objects clearly, you do not see them clearly at all. But when mind becomes settled, when mind becomes concentrated, the objects manifest themselves to you vividly and clearly.
Mahasi Sayadaw spoke about right thought and right view. Right thought is the mental state that puts the mind on the object. Right thought does not mean thinking (in the usual sense). It is essential that there be a mental state that can take the mind to the object. Once the mind is on the object, right view understands the object clearly and correctly. These two mental states are important for the correct understanding of objects, for seeing objects as they are without any distractions.
Right thought takes the mind to the object, then right view understands the object, sees the object as it is. That comes only when your mindfulness and concentration become strong. When concentration becomes strong, your mind is free from mental hindrances and distractions. It resembles a glass of water in which the particles of dirt have settled down after being shaken up. When the particles settle down, the water becomes both clear and still. When it is still and without particles of dirt, you can see through the water clearly; when it is unsettled and full of dirt, you cannot see through it. In the same way, when there are mental hindrances in our minds, like desire, anger, and so on, our minds are dirty, contaminated. We cannot see objects clearly.
With practice our minds settle down and become clear. When a person has reached that stage—when the mind becomes steady and without mental hindrances, like a clear glass of water—he has achieved purity of mind. Sayadaw said that when purity of mind begins to arise, you see distinctly the matter that is noted and the mind that notes. There are no distractions and your mind is always on the object. Your mind is making notes: “Rising, falling, rising, falling.” Previously, you may have noted rising and falling, but you think the noting and the object are all mixed together. But now you see each of them clearly and distinctly. You see the one that makes notes and the other that is noted. It is important that you see these two things separately and clearly. Rising and falling of the abdomen is matter; it is made up of material properties. The thing that notes that matter is mind. So you see mind and matter arising and also disappearing simultaneously.
There is rising, there is the awareness of rising; then rising stops and falling begins. When there is falling, there is another mind that is aware of falling. At the moments of rising and falling, there is noting as rising and falling. You see these two things going on. At the moment of rising, there is rising, which is matter, and there is awareness, or noting, which is mind. Mind and matter go in pairs.
At every moment, what you see is just these two things: mind and matter. We could also call these the subject and the object—that which notes and that which is noted. You do not see a “person” or a “being.” We are so used to thinking in terms of “beings” and “persons” that it is very difficult to get rid of this notion. But when you see for yourself through practice that there are only these two things at this moment and no other thing, you come to realize that what we call a “being” or a “person” is just the combination of these two things, mind and matter. Apart from mind and matter, there is nothing we can call a “person” or a “being.”
It is like a car. You talk about driving a car. But in reality a car does not exist; only the parts exist. If you take the parts one by one, you lose the car, although there are still parts. If you put the parts in their respective places again, you get a car. What we call a car is nonexistent; what is truly existent is the parts. In the same way, we call ourselves a “being” or a “person,” but in the ultimate analysis there is no “person” or “being,” just mind and matter. We see this through our own experience, not because we have read a book or attended a lecture, not because we sat down and speculated. We see for ourselves through the practice of vipassana meditation that in every moment there are only two things going on: mind and matter.
Sometimes the one that is noted is also mind. Sometimes mind is noting the other mind. Sometimes mind is noting matter. What is noted may be different at different moments. For example, when you are making notes of rising and falling, you are noting the matter. Then your mind goes out and you see “going out, going out.” Now you are noting the mind. The thing that is noted can be either matter or mind. But the thing that notes is always mind. Even when your one mind is making note of another mind, there is always the physical base, which is dependent upon the mind. Mind can arise only in dependence upon our body.
Mind in human beings, in animals, and in some forms of celestial beings always depends on a physical base. If there is no physical base, mind cannot exist by itself. When one mind is noting another mind, that means they are depending upon a physical base, which is matter. When you walk, you make note of lifting, pushing forward, and putting down. Lifting the foot is matter and noting is mind. Pushing forward is matter and noting is mind. Putting down is matter and noting is mind. You see clearly at each of those moments that there are just two things going on: mind and matter, mind and matter, mind and matter.
When you see mind and matter in this way, you do not see anything over and above mind and matter. Then you have gained right view, an understanding of the objects as they are. You can only gain this through practice. And when you have gained right view, you are able to abandon the wrong notion that you are a “person,” a “being,” or an “individual.”
When we talk, we cannot avoid using these terms—“I,” “you,” “person,” or “being”—because we live in the conventional world. We have to use conventional terms for ease of communication. But in the ultimate sense there is no man, no woman, no being, no person—just mind and matter. Or if we expand it a little, we can say there are just five aggregates. We come to realize this through the practice of vipassana meditation, through constant observation of objects presented to us through the sense doors. When you reach this stage—seeing mind and matter clearly, and seeing that there is only mind and matter and nothing else—you have passed through the threshold of vipassana.
At that point, the practice of vipassana is very rewarding. Whereas before you did not clearly see the objects, now you pay close attention to the objects. By constant observation, through concentration, you discover that what you thought to be a discrete individual is actually just the combination of mind and matter. If mind is taken away from matter, and matter taken away from mind, one cannot function as a being. Mind and matter are like two persons: a cripple and a blind man. A blind man cannot go to his destination because he cannot see ahead, and the cripple cannot go because he cannot move. If a cripple gets on the back of a blind man and gives directions like “make right turn,” “make left turn,” or “go straight,” they can both reach their destination.
In the same way, mind and matter by themselves are without action. Mind cannot move and cannot speak, because it has no body. And the body without mind cannot do anything; it is like a log. But when mind and matter come together, when mind and body come together, they are called a “person,” and they can function. You come to realize this through your own experience, not from another person, not because your teachers taught you this. Vipassana knowledge is real knowledge that comes from within. It is the only real understanding or real wisdom.
Mind is that which notes the objects. The Pali word for mind, nama, means something that bends, something that inclines towards another thing. When you take an object in your mind, your mind goes to the object or bends to the object. That is what mind means. That which is noted, the rising and falling, has no cognitive power. They do not know anything; they are just matter. You come to know this through observation; you come to see objects as they are. After seeing what they are, you will also see that they come and go. They do not last. Through this practice, you can discover many things about yourself and many things about the objects that are presented to you. Without the discovery of what mind is and what matter is and how they are related, we cannot reach our destination; we cannot attain enlightenment.
We have to go through the stages of vipassana one by one. Some people may be able to go through these stages very fast, but no one can skip any of the stages.
We have three things: the known, the knower, and the knower of the knower. You have the material thing, which is the known. You have awareness of the material thing, which is the knower. And then you know the knower that is aware of the material object. You make all these discoveries through the practice of vipassana meditation. Without vipassana meditation, you cannot hope to see these realities of mind and matter. If we do not see the realities of mind and matter, we cannot hope to progress along this path. If we cannot make progress, we cannot gain the true understanding of the four noble truths. The ultimate aim of vipassana is to gain enlightenment, total purification of mind. Seeing mind and matter clearly is just the beginning of vipassana, but once we see them fully, the practice will carry itself toward that goal.
Adapted from teachings published in the Dhammananda Newletter.
Sayadaw U Silananda (1927–2005) was the spiritual advisor of the Theravada Buddhist Society of America and the founding abbot of the Dhammananda Vihara in Half Moon Bay, California. He passed away last August, at the age of seventy-eight. For more on his life, see Mahasangha News on page 87.