Breaking Life Down to Its Parts

The path to liberation, says Vipassana master U Pandita, is the precise breaking down of life as it unfolds – part by part, step by step, moment by moment.

By Sayadaw U Pandita

Photo by Zack Silver on Unsplash

Plunging into the Target

Mindfulness has to stick to the object of meditation. It has to reach it, and stick into it. There is a Pali phrase that describes this: okatittova pavattati. It means “plunging into the target.”

Mindfulness should be pakkandana, meaning “hastily speeding” or “hurriedly rushing” toward the object. As soon as an object arises, one has to note it hastily. It is necessary to use very good aiming and very good effort, since an object arises right now and it also vanishes right now. No sooner has it arisen than it disappears. So you have to catch up and follow it as closely as possible. Nothing else matters. There is no time for anything else, especially not for thinking. There is no time to ask why, what and how. Otherwise the mind will not reach the object but miss it.

Early on, mindfulness has no speed. But when it plunges into the object, some speed is gathered. For regular meditators, the speed of mindfulness gradually increases over the course of time. If you have gaps of unmindfulness, if you have the habit of taking little breaks and rests, you have to learn how to increase the continuity.

A meditator who tries honestly and respectfully to note each arising, whose preceding and succeeding moments of mindfulness are strong, will attain concentration and wisdom and will become able to note the object automatically. This especially happens at the time of the fourth insight knowledge-the direct knowledge of the arising and passing away of all objects.

A meditator who tries honestly and respectfully to note each arising, whose preceding and succeeding moments of mindfulness are strong, will attain concentration and wisdom.

When the momentum is very good, sati (mindfulness) is running to the target. Vitakka and vicara, the two concentration factors that aim the mind accurately and collect it into the object, will be present. And viriya, effort, is propelling the mindful awareness energetically until it reaches and sticks into the target.

The Pali description for this continuous momentum is pakkaditova pavattathi, which means “continuously rushing.” The syllable pa is the same as in satipatthana-it means “extraordinary.” There should be an extraordinary speed to the mindfulness. It should also be vusata, or outstandingly continuous. Then your mindfulness will not slip off, spread out or leave.

Extraordinary Effort

When the effort has a high quality, so does the mindfulness. With extraordinary effort, the mind will not slip off.

In the early phases of practice, the gross hindrances of desire, anger, sleepiness, restlessness and doubt have to be overcome by a determined effort. After that we can apply paggahita viriya, continuously uplifting effort. It is like lifting an object without lowering it again, without putting it back down on the ground. Then your effort will become paripuñña, fulfilled effort.

All of this describes busata sati, extraordinary mindfulness. The term in the Satipatthana Sutta for effort is atapa, urgent exertion. Our effort should not be cool or detached. If it is, our mind will shrink and congeal. It will become inactive, like butter in the refrigerator.

To soften butter, you need to apply heat. To make the mind pliable and workable, heat has to be applied. In that way, pliable mind becomes active.

In a cold mind, kilesas will arise. Tiredness and laziness, especially, will arise. Thina-middha, the hindrance of sloth and torpor, will come to block the wholesome path. Sloth will weaken and prevent wisdom from unfolding. To dispel sloth and torpor, sharpen the aim, accurately directing the mindfulness toward the object. That will open and refresh the mind. Effort is also very important, of course.

Yogis whose practice is in a shambles are the same yogis who practice in an easygoing, casual way. They experience the same thing every day. Their mind does not reach the object, and therefore nothing happens.

When one is physically active, it leads to tiredness. But not so the mind. When the mind is used a lot, it gets stronger, like a car battery that charges up when the car travels over the ground.

Yogis who look here and there, who think a lot or are not continuous, need to be pushed by their teachers. They need to be told, “Aim, focus! Don’t let your mind slip off! Please apply effort!” and so forth. Of a meditator practices in this way, momentum becomes outstanding. If a meditator’s practice is diligent, respectful and consistent, she or he will have top-quality mindfulness.

The Field of Defilement and the Field of Wisdom

Pakkandana pavattati, continuous rushing toward the object, means that you have good or even very good meditation. As soon as an object arises the meditator should attack and capture it in order to know its nature. Anupassana, contemplation, is only possible when rushing toward the object. Then wisdom can arise. If mindfulness is not there when the object arises, then wisdom cannot develop. Delusion, moha, instead will be there. The noting mind separates from the object and flies off restlessly. Then aversion, ill will, agitation and sensuous desire will arise.

People who lack mindfulness will not own their own body and mind (nama-rupa). Instead they are governed by the kilesas (defilements). In order to repossess one’s own body and mind, one needs to attack the arising objects with instantaneous awareness.

In texts the six sense doors are called bhumi, often translated as “fields” or “realms.” A bhumi is an area where something arises. The kilesa bhumi, the realm of defilement, is governed by the kilesas-and that is what weak meditators own.

To attack the objects at all six sense doors requires courage. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win. As you become more successful, wisdom arises. A respectful and diligent meditator possesses the pañña bhumi, the field of wisdom.

The gist of this is that if one does not observe with energetic mindfulness, the sense doors become a field of defilements. Whenever you miss the object, the kilesa bhumi arises intermittently. But if you closely attend to moment-by-moment experience at the six doors, then the series of insight knowledges will begin to arise.

If the mindfulness does not reach the target in time, then defilements emerge and there is no knowledge. Instead, ignorance is present in two ways: simple unknowing and perverted unknowing, which leads to wrong views and forms the kilesa field. Especially in those who do not contemplate objects carefully, there will be many wrong views about the nature of life. Others will come to know the nature clearly. Their lives will be pañña-bhumi, a field of wisdom.

The word bhumi means literally “virgin soil” — a place for trees to grow, or for human beings to stand on, or for animals and inanimate objects to be. Objects arising at the six sense doors are a field. The eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind are a field, but there is no soul involved.

The kilesa weeds grow in the field of the sense doors. They grow at all times except when we are asleep and absent. Our life becomes a kilesa forest, full of many weeds. When weeds take over and multiply it is not beneficial; it is ugly to look at and may be dangerous.

It’s like a plot of land that is overgrown. You must clear the soil and plant nice, useful and beautiful trees-hardwoods and the like. This adds to the value of the land.

Understanding How Experiences Arise

If you capture the object in your awareness, you end up in the pañña-bhumi, the realm of wisdom. But if you do not, then the defilements arise first and you go instead to the kilesa-bhumi, the realm of the defilements.

Take the example of hearing. The speaker talks, though he has no soul, and his sound waves are called the “striker element.” They strike the meditator’s ear sensitivity, though again there is no permanent self involved here. When there is contact with the receptor element, then hearing arises.

The experience of hearing consists of three elements: contact, ignition and feeling. The sequence goes as follows. First is contact. For contact, the ear must be present, there must be a sound, and there must be consciousness. All three of these converge in the moment of contact. Then comes the second element, known as ignition, when an experience of hearing occurs. Ignition is a mental experience, but again there is no entity inherent in the process. Finally there is some feeling-some pleasantness, unpleasantness or neutrality associated with hearing the sound.

The mind is malleable and “wieldy.”

If hearing occurs during a gap in mindfulness, then delusion and ignorance (avijja) are produced and there will be an array of kilesas. But when one comes to know the experience of hearing clearly, one will come to know the three elements of contact, ignition and feeling, and will understand the way that experiences arise. Mindfulness will see clearly that the sound waves are materiality. Or mindfulness may pinpoint the ear sensitivity, or the ignition element. It will understand that these are forms of materiality, while understanding that hearing consciousness, contact and feeling all are forms of mentality. Or perhaps more generally, it will see that the experience of hearing is simply a convergence of mind and matter, of sound and consciousness.

If one is aware of all these mental and material events, one will understand the nature of life. One will be staying in the pañña bhumi, the field of wisdom. One will be adding to the value of one’s life.

At the outset the meditator must forcefully align the mind with the objects of experience. Later on, at the time known as “the knowledge of arising and passing away,” no special effort is required. At that time there will also be a great faith in the practice, and the meditator will be disgusted by and afraid of having gaps in her or his practice. This is a form of moral shame and moral dread, hiri and ottapa. These two beneficial factors will arise, further helping the meditator to stay on track. The mind is malleable and “wieldy.” One resolves not to repeat past wrongdoings which one now remembers. One sits for long hours.

Then the field of our experience is clear and clean, and the owner of the field will be satisfied. Mental development, or bhavana, is a way of beautifying the mind, even as the owner of a field or plot of land endeavors to make it more and more beautiful.

The True Nature

Pañña means clear-cut, distinct, discerning knowledge. A dead-pure maxim is that only when one notes and observes the presently arising object will one see its true nature. The true nature can only be seen at the very moment-when seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling or thinking; when the abdomen is rising and falling due to the breathing process; when sitting down; when lifting, moving, and placing the foot due to the walking process; when turning around; when eating; when opening the eyes, et cetera.

All activities are included in this instruction to attend to the presently arising object. Awareness should strike only the objects arising in the present moment. Objects of the past are no more and are uncertain. Objects of the future have not arisen yet.

The Buddha never recommended what is uncertain. Imaginative yogis live in the past and future. They can meditate a month or two without special results, or even for years. They waste their time.

All presently arising objects need to be noted with full force and good aiming. When they are thus captured, one’s mindfulness becomes good and one is able to see clearly and exactly the nature of what is going on in one’s life. If one eats with awareness, for example, one comes to know the six tastes clearly and with certainty.

Every type of food has a flavor. So do the objects of observation. With direct observation, one comes to experience the four great elements in the body. What we experience directly as hardness, softness and roughness is the earth element. The water element is experienced as sensations of fluidity, flowing and oozing. Heat consists of the sensations of heat, cold, warmth and lightness. Air is movement and support.

Each of these elements has a specific quality, or rasa. They are also called sabhava, meaning that they are presently existing or presently arising. They did not exist in the past nor will they exist in the future; they only exist in the present moment. They are not mediated by concepts, but are seen in direct awareness in the present moment.


The Pali term nama-rupa means our mind and body. All of these presently arising objects of experience are our nama-rupa phenomena-our mind and body, also called our materiality and mentality. Each of these, materiality and mentality, has its own nature and quality that needs to be known by the meditator.

When we focus our attention on the breathing process at the abdomen, for example, if we have any notion that the abdomen is “rising” and “falling,” or if we see a mental image of the abdomen, or hold any type of mental notion of its shape, all of these are concepts, paññati. They are not direct experiences. Similarly, the beginning, middle and end of the rising and falling are not anything to look for. What has to be noted is the rising and falling in itself, not any beginning, middle and end!

When we focus our mindfulness directly on the breathing process at the abdomen, the flavor of its true nature, its sabhava-rasa, will be known directly as stiffness, hardness, motion, warmth and other sensations that occur in the present moment, without the mediation of concepts.

In order to know the true nature we must note and observe the mind-body process directly, at the very moment of its arising. Then we will see the paramattha-dhamma, the ultimate reality.

At the outset of one’s practice, the mind will often land on a concept, such as the notion of “rising” and “falling.” That is okay in the beginning. Tension, stiffness or movement in the rising can only be detected while this so-called “rising” is taking place. The experience of tension is materiality, or rupa. The knowledge of the tension is mentality, nama. Knowing either one of these directly is wisdom, pañña. Then we no longer see mind and matter as mixed up, but discern that they are two. We see a series of tensions in the so-called “rising,” and we also see a series of moments of knowing. Seeing in this way is wisdom.

A Line of Ants

When rising and falling occurs and you look at it superficially, you will see a concept. Special knowledge arises as the practice goes on, and the mind gets closer and closer to the object. More and more is known, and you will see your physical and mental experiences in a more and more detailed way.

It is analogous to a line of ants crossing the road. “Line of ants” is a concept. “Moving creatures” is still a concept. When we make out individual ants, this is like seeing the true nature. If you want to know the true nature of an object, you have to label and observe it, and then you will come to know it in an outstanding way.

When one respectfully, carefully, diligently and closely observes the act of sitting down, one observes a series of mental intentions and physical movements.

Let us take the example of sitting down. Nama and rupa are there, because sitting down is a series of mental and physical events. Without intention, there will be no sitting down, but does the intention to sit down correspond to an individual soul? No, it is nothing but a mental process that can be experienced directly. What about the material events of sitting down-the motion, heaviness, contact and so forth-do these material events prove the existence of a self? No! If we observe the process of sitting down as it takes place, a series of intentions and movements is all we see. If one does not observe it closely, one will take it as “I” am sitting down. This is wrong view.

When one respectfully, carefully, diligently and closely observes the act of sitting down, one observes a series of mental intentions and physical movements. This is pañña bhumi, the realm of wisdom. If one does not observe it then one will not know anything and one will land in kilesa bhumi, the realm of defilement and wrong view. It is as simple as that. Intention is the cause and movement is the effect. Without a cause, the movement will never take place. There is no supreme being involved, nor is there any concept of a self.

Meditators who do not practice like this will not know anything. In one minute, there are sixty moments of unknowing. In five minutes, three hundred. In an hour there can be 3,600 moments of not knowing anything. In many hours, a huge amount of confusion can arise, ascribing events to irrelevant causes. Instead, we should practice yata-bhuta-ñana-dassana—seeing in accordance with reality, seeing life as it is.

Cause and Effect

Meditators who respectfully and diligently practice, and capture the object when it is arising, will realize cause and effect within just a few days of practice. They will understand that there is no being involved. They will see that even the concept of “sitting down” is only a label, whereas what is happening is a stream of mental and physical occurrences.

Cause and effect is happening very fast. When one manages to catch an object in time, one will see mind and body, cause and effect, and the three universal characteristics-impermanence, suffering and non-self-and thus enter into the pañña-bhumi.

A meditator who is too slow will be in the kilesa-bhumi, because the defilements will arise first. It is sati, mindfulness, that should arise first. A slow, slack, easy-going yogi will be tormented. When that meditator encounters a greed-inducing, or a hate-inducing object then the respective defilements will arise. One should have no compassion for the defilements. The distinctively excellent yogi, the yogi par excellence, practices without compassion for the defilements.

“Who Can Untangle this Tangle?”

The Buddha said that 100% of suffering is based on the defilements. People get entangled and don’t know how to disentangle themselves. Social problems arise due to greed, hate, delusion, pride and conceit, jealousy and stinginess, moral shamelessness and moral fearlessness-that is, the lack of any inner hesitation and sensitivity before, during and after committing acts of selfishness, delusion and cruelty. If one acts on the defilements, then there are painful consequences, another form of suffering.

The Buddha talked so much about the defilements so that people would understand them. He also offered ways of curing the defilements, of freeing oneself from them. These methods are prevention through morality, suppression through concentration and cutting off, and cure through liberating insight. The Buddha’s advice was realistic and effective.

A deva once asked the Buddha, “Who can untangle this tangle?” The Buddha answered, “The bhikku.” Ordinarily the word bhikku is translated as “monk.” But the meaning of this word is not just a monk, and even a monk can be a monk only in name. Rather, a true bhikku is anyone who is filled with the six qualities.

The Six Qualities

The six qualities can be summed up in one main requirement-to see danger in samsara, the cycle of defilements. A true bhikku notices that when craving arises, one gets entangled and has no relief. Objects appear entangled in defilement, not as they really are. She or he also sees and understands that outer, social problems are caused by kilesa, defilement, and nothing else. The kilesas destroy beings and the beings don’t see it. Therefore a bhikku is one who wants to destroy the kilesas.

The six qualities are as follows:

  1. To be established in virtue.
  2. Patisandhi pañña, to have natural wisdom, present at the moment of birth.
  3. Nepakkha, discernment and mature discrimination. Before saying or doing something one reflects whether it is suitable or not.
  4. Atapa-viriya, urgent effort. The person applies strong effort, is willing to take risks and is courageous in the practice of developing the mind’s concentration.
  5. Concentration. Possessing concentration one will pass through the various insight knowledges and reach the path and fruit insights that uproot defilement.
  6. Wisdom, meaning the higher wisdom that is the result of the Buddha’s path.

The person who has these six qualities can disentangle the tangle.

The Kilesa Fires

Satipatthana gives us a guarantee that we can uproot and cure ourselves of all of our mental defilements and ailments once and for all. These methods are prevention, suppression, cure and cutting off. They correspond to morality, concentration and wisdom, the Buddha’s prescription to heal us of our suffering.

Tanha is the worst defilement. It is translated as “craving” or “thirst,” and it is experienced as an urgent, demanding, painfully insatiable desire. Out-of-control tanha is behind all drug use and drug addiction. People thirst for a good feeling; they crave to get high. In the sexual arena, tanha leads to heedless immorality that causes emotional and even physical damage to oneself and others.

Greed, anger and the mental defilements of pride and conceit are what lead the inhabitants of this world to invent and use weapons of mass destruction. Outer diseases and weapons are experienced only intermittently, but mental disease and suffering is experienced constantly. Everyone is affected by it.

Wanting, desiring, hoping, dissatisfaction, bewilderment and not knowing are all kilesas, mental afflictions. These mental afflictions cause burning and exhaustion; they are the kilesa fires. An ordinary fire can be prevented or extinguished relatively easily. The inner fires are harder. Most people don’t know how to keep from being burned.

Kilesa fires are burning all the time; only when we are sleeping are we spared. During our waking hours they are burning at the six sense doors at all times. Not knowing how to extinguish them, we suffer, we are burned. We are burned by tension, stress, depression and afflictions so painful they sometimes even lead to suicide.

In our times the afflictions of the mind are far more fearful than those of the body. Fire burns its own fuel and leaves an unclean residue. The kilesa fires stain and pollute the mind. When greed arises it leaves a darkness behind, and when anger arises it leaves a burnt stain.

Arahants, fully liberated ones, experience no more burning and no more suffering. Their minds are not stained; they are pure, clean and clear. For an ordinary person it is not easy to fathom the mind of an arahant.

There is a stage of meditative insight called sankharupekkhañana, meaning “equanimity about formations.” This is one of the last stages of insight, experienced just before the path and fruition consciousnesses arise and uproot the defilements forever. At the time of equanimity about formations, the mind is free from concepts, unentangled. There is only the true nature of the object and the mind. Objects appear as supple. When mindful noting is continuous, the mind becomes balanced, not greedy, hating or burnt. This is similar to the mind of an arahant, and in this stage the meditator develops faith in the existence of arahants.

Overcoming Afflictions

Any kind of exaggerated, habitual mental defilement turns us into a low human being who will not receive compassion from others. People who are afflicted by physical diseases usually do receive compassion. But a person whose mind is always darkened by anger, greed and wrong views lacks the distinct, noble, and outstanding characteristics of a human being. Such a person is more difficult to love, and it is more difficult for others to give them compassion and help. They fall below the status of a human being and others turn away from them. In this way, too, the mental afflictions are more harmful than mere physical illnesses.

If we are controlled by lust and delusion, we don’t see the disadvantages of our actions and we may take as good what is actually dangerous. However, if we do not allow our mental state to be torn down by lust and delusion, we can avoid dangerous behavior and understand what to do. Raga, lust, can lead to a kind of madness where we are not able to distinguish good and bad. As King Ashoka said, “Most people think that whatever they intend to do is good, and therefore they go ahead.”

There are three ways of overcoming an affliction:

1) Prevention: avoiding misconduct. You stop the transgression before it happens by means of sila, morality.

2) Cure: closely attending to objects as they arise. The deluded defilements cannot interfere when the mind is concentrated, moment to moment.

3) Uprooting: seeing clearly the nature of objects. The mind’s natural clarity prevails over the defilements; eventually the kilesas are uprooted by insight wisdom.

Stay away from the defilements by sustaining ethical behavior. By controlling oneself, others are protected.

When there is an infectious disease, you stay away. In the same way you stay away from the defilements by sustaining ethical behavior. By controlling oneself, others are protected. Moral shame is the cause of self-control-the inner sensitivity that leads us to avoid immoral behavior before it has happened. Or we may be motivated by compassion for others. Before doing something, we reflect, “Just as I do not want to be harmed by someone else’s behavior, in the same way I don’t want to harm someone else by my behavior.”

When one decides not to indulge in the transgressions, one’s integrity and dignity will rise, and others will also be inspired. We will be free of the four dangers: free of self-blame, free of censure by others, free of facing punishment by the authorities and free of the evil results that come from forming our acts with an evil intention. So even if we still have a few evil intentions, if we can avoid acting on them, we will avoid painful consequences in the future. How happy it is to be free from these four dangers, how wonderful to be able to think that others around us are not harmed!

All Beings Seek Happiness

All beings seek happiness of body and mind. He who seeks happiness by oppressing and tormenting others will not find happiness-neither now nor in the future, particularly in future lives. Those who refrain, and seek happiness by not oppressing others will find happiness in the future.

We should avoid any expression of the defilements as much as possible. When we refrain from all inappropriate behavior, our behavior becomes free from flaws, cultured, gentle and refined.

When the mind is cool, one is lovable. You can be called a distinguished human being, if you have morality.

But outer self-control is not quite enough. When an attractive object comes along, we still have covetous, adulterous thoughts. Morality alone cannot control unruly mental states. Powerfully difficult mental states eventually get control of us and will bring us to indulge them in outer behavior.

Only mindfulness can really deal with the kilesas. Mindful at every arising, we aim our awareness at the object. Staying closely focused on the object, the defilements have no chance to arise.

This is what we call the cure. With concentration our mind is cured of all its burning torment. Free from flaws and the burning kilesas, the mind is not agitated; instead, it becomes cool and lovable. Freed of the torments of the obsessive kilesas, the mind’s peaceful state is the basis for all genuine happiness.

Noble Path Insight

The cutting off of the defilements is done with wisdom. At every stage of insight knowledge, we get rid of wrongful beliefs. The first levels of insight cut off defilements on a temporary basis. As discussed above in the example of sitting down, we see that there is nothing more than a stream of mental and physical events-impermanent, incapable of producing lasting satisfaction, and not involving any lasting, essential self. As these insight knowledges gradually gain strength, our false beliefs and wrongful ideas are weakened. Finally we get to the point where the Noble Path insight is able to arise. This insight goes so deep that it cuts off defilements, so that they never afflict us again.

The first Noble Path insight cuts off what are known as the three fetters. The first fetter is personality belief. When it is cut off, we come to understand that there is no abiding, enduring, essential self within us. This understanding was foreshadowed in the insight knowledges about cause and effect, but now the understanding is much more profound and complete, affecting us at a fundamental level.

The second fetter is skeptical doubts, our tendency toward endless ruminations about the nature of reality, whether the Buddha’s methods of achieving wisdom are relevant and effective, et cetera. We understand for ourselves that sati, direct awareness, is the path that leads to wisdom, and that direct seeing can free the mind from its afflictions.

The third fetter is belief in rites and rituals. We understand that it is mindful awareness, rather than any outward procedure, that has the power to lead us to enlightenment.

Furthermore, the first Noble Path insight cuts off all the defilements strong enough to lead us into hell and other fearful states, such as rebirth in the animal realm.

How good this is, that we can cut off and prevent the suffering of mental affliction!

Sayadaw U Pandita

Sayadaw U Pandita

Sayadaw U Pandita Bhivamsa is the founder and abbot of Panditarama Meditation Center in Yangon, Myanmar.