Monday, June 28, 2010

Not Forgetting to Guard the Sense Doors

In France, with plenty of time to spare, in between visits to mother in the nursing home. Ayya Khema has been keeping me company with 'Who Is My Self?: A Guide to Buddhist Meditation', one of the best Dharma books I have read in a very long time. In it, Ayya Khema interprets and explains in plain English the Potthapada Sutta, the Buddha's famous teaching about the true nature of the 'self', and the path to get there. 

I had read before about the importance of guarding the senses, but had not quite gotten it until I hit Ayya Khema's chapter on the topic. Guarding the senses seconds the five precepts, the first step along the path. It is followed by mindulness and clear comprehension. In my practice so far, I realize I have  been quick to jump over to mindfulness, not bothering with critical intermediate stop of guarding the senses. 

Ayya Khema elaborates on the following passage from the sutta:
'Here a monk, on seeing a visible object with the eye, does not grasp at its major signs or secondary characteristics. Because greed and sorrow, evil unskilled states, would overwhelm him if he dwelt leaving this eye-faculty unguarded, so he practices guarding it, he protects the eye faculty, develops restraints of the eye-faculty. . .  On hearing a sound with the ear, . . . on smelling an odor with the nose, . . .  on on tasting a flavor with the tongue, on feeling an object with the body, . . . on thinking a thought with the mind . . . He experiences within himself the blameless bliss that comes from maintaining this Ariyan guarding of the faculties. In this way . . . a monk is a guardian of the sense-doors.'

Using her down to earth feminine wisdom, Ayya Khema guards us against common misinterpretations:
Most of the time, this is misunderstood and wrongly practiced. It is taken to mean, not to look, not to hear, not to taste, not to touch. This is quite impossible. Our senses are there; we must look, hear, taste, touch, smell. Our mind refuses not to think, as we very well know from our meditation . . .
and explains what is really being said:
When the eye sees, it simply registers color and shape. All the rest takes place in the mind. For instance, we see a piece of chocolate. The eye sees only the brown shape. It is the mind that says: "Ah, chocolate! That tastes delicious - I want a piece!" Not to grasp at the major signs or secondary characteristics is to stop the mind from doing exactly that. 
We can practice this easily with anything we either very much like or very much dislike . . . 
. . .  
If we are easily swayed by what we see, the best thing to do is to recognize the sense-contact and stop the mind at the perception, the labeling. It is very hard to stop it before that. So, for example, if we see a person, or even think of a person, for whom we have hate or greed, someone we either dislike or long for intensely, we should practice stopping at the label, person friend, male, female. Nothing further. The rest is our desire. That is what is meant by guarding the sense-doors.
Our senses are our survival system. It is much easier to survive if we can see and hear than if we are blind or deaf. Most people assume, however, that the senses are there in order to provide them with pleasure. We use them in that way and become angry when they fail to do so. We then blame the trigger. If someone displeases us, we blame that person. It has nothing to do with the other person, who, like us, is made up of the four elements, has the same senses, the same limbs, and is looking, as we are, for happiness. There is nothing in that person that is producing displeasure. It is all in our own mind.  
Exactly the same applies when we think another person will provide us with pleasure . . . There is no reason to look to that person for pleasure or blame then for not providing it. All we have to do is see "person". Nothing more. There are so many "persons" in this world, why should we allow this particular one to arouse our syndrome of desire-distaste?
If we guard our senses, we guard our passions, which enables us to live with far greater equanimity. We are no longer on that endless seesaw; up, when we are getting what we want, down, when we are not, which induces a continual inner feeling of wanting something that just escapes us. Nothing that is to be had in the world, anywhere, under any circumstances, is capable of bringing fulfillment. All that the world can provide are sense-contacts - seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, and thinking. All are short-lived and have to be renewed, over and over again. This takes time and energy, and here again it is not the sense-contact itself that satisfies us. It is what the mind makes of it. Guarding the sense-doors is one of the most important things we can do, if we want to lead a peaceful, harmonious life, untroubled by wanting what we do not have, or not wanting what we do have. These are the only two causes of dukkha; there are no others. If we watch our sense-contacts and do not go past the labeling, we have a very good chance of being at ease.
Starting right now,  with sensation of heat in body, from hot summer day. If I am not careful, I can easily go into aversion mode, and make myself miserable. No, instead, I shall use the information from my senses and take right action, drinking some water. And leave it at that. Staying 'cool' . . .

I love you, Ayya Khema!


  1. Hi Marguerite - I hope you're enjoying your visit to France. It's a wonderful country. Paris is one of my favorite cities.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I definitely plan on putting this on my reading list. I am currently reading A Path W/ Heart by Jack Kornfield. It's a wonderful book and I suggest you check it out if you haven't done so already. Cheers!

  2. Thank you Nate. Yes, A Path with Heart is one of my favorites. I read it many years ago. It is on Spirit Rock's reading list for people starting on the path, along with several others you may be interested in as well, here in one of Spirit Rock's recent newsletter:

    I have also a list you may be interested in, in sidebar under Favorite Books

  3. Hi Marguerite,
    I'm sorry to hear of your mother's health problems, please accept my sincere condolences.

    I think the point you bring up with this post is such an important one; we many not have much control over what thoughts and feelings initially arise, but we have tremendous ability to choose which ones we follow and give energy to, and what those thus become.

  4. Thank you Go Sunim. Yes, it struck me how important this watch(wo)man function is. The sooner we catch the reactionary thoughts, the greater the chances to keep mind pure and heart at ease! I am certainly getting plenty of opportunities to practice as thoughts, emotions arise, seeing my mother's mind and body decaying before my eyes. I am so immensely grateful for gift of Dharma!

  5. Marguerite:
    Practicing with high temperature working several hours of the day (including the afternoon) outside in South-Central Arizona. Today it was ~110 F./ 45 C. Lots to be mindful with ! The mind becomes quite unruly at that temperature. Mindfulness keeps me sane, and shows what's really going on.
    Thanks for the post.

  6. Thanks for sharing, D! Nothing like the physical elements to ground us and 'force' a deepening of practice . . . Heat, sleepiness, pain, pleasure, . . . all doors to deep stillness, with the right understanding and effort.

  7. I don't quite understand one thing about this:
    "we see a piece of chocolate. The eye sees only the brown shape"

    But to survive, we MUST define it and not just acknowledge a "brown shape", no? We have to know that it is chocolate vs poo or poison or whatever else it might be. So if guarding the senses means just seeing the color and shape and not the signs or characteristics, how can we live like that? We wouldn't know what to do, what to eat, what not to eat, what to wear or not wear, etc on and on.

    1. Reply to Anonymous Nov 28 2010: Yes - that's right. But notice that the teaching is "a monk does not grasp at its major signs or secondary characteristics." DOES NOT GRASP. It depends on your thinking [not conscious] or reactions. For you "Chocolate" may not have grasping or aversion associated with it, for others it may. Just being aware of this process makes all the difference. Grasping is something we do - it's an action - we have to reach out and take hold of something [even though what we're reaching out for isn't actually "out there" but is created by our mind]. It may even feel like the object we're craving is somehow coming at us from outside - the feeling of being asailed or overcome by something we are addicted to. Being aware that what we "see" is mostly what we add by thinking or reacting can make a huge difference if we want to stop craving or desiring something.