The Mechanics of Right Understanding for Transformative Insights
by Tuck Loon
Originally posted in our Dharma Discussion Whatsapp group
in my previous practise I was only called to note on a specific object without given any prior reflection. I was also being informed that intellectual reflection while meditating is a thinking process and thus does not assist in the maturity of insight. This idea was very deeply ingrained in me in the past and I remembered judging those practises that uses reflection as not beneficial, or even useless. Thus, my practise doesn’t come swiftly with any right information. Worst, any thinking or reflection of dhamma was shot down by the fixated view that “thinking” is wrong. This is one end of extreme I used to experience.
In my later years I met those with amazing knowledge of dhamma, particularly Abhidhamma, and found that their practises got impeded by their intellectual knowledge. They apply the knowledge blindly (either with delusion or craving) and thus doesn’t achieve a direct experience of what is taking place, including not noticing defilements are roaming at the background. These group is unaware of the error and many a times continue “applying” the knowledge, being blinded by the fact it is but just knowledge, but not insight. It is a “dead” dhamma, so to speak. Strangely enough tho you may try to point to them the presence of defilements, they will insist there was none. That is how tricky delusion can be. This is another end of extreme.
I used to wonder how can one comes to the middle way of both, giving up both extremes and dwell joyfully in the dhamma, instead of “devoid” of dhamma or “applying” the dhamma. More so, when this journey is being introduced to a total new beginner. It is the responsibility and duty of a guide or teacher to disseminate proper guidance to the students so that they do not get trapped in wrong perceptions which long term can be very difficult to undo.
Expounding the dhamma can be a very “risky trade.” The yogis can hear it wrongly, or the information given by the teacher is not covering all angles thus making the information incomplete for the yogi. Last weekend during a dhamma sharing session, a meditator told me that his teacher told him to notice things as they are. It is a nice phrase to have. But it was not elaborated further and hence the yogi applies it with concepts surrounding that phrase. He said “I am angry and I am aware I am angry, I am seeing it as it is, but the anger didn’t go away!” This is not what that phrase meant. There are already three errors found in that expression – not seeing anger as nature, associating the anger as mine, and wanting it to go away. This is the predicament that involves nearly every sincere yogi on this path. Education is not properly given.
With Sayadaw Tejaniya’s guidance only then did it dawned upon me that Education is primarily important in this journey of vipassana. The yogis MUST be correctly educated of the differences of mindsets that can possibly takes place in their minds so that they have a sound understanding of what their mind is doing while they are “doing” meditation. Education, or right information, makes them meditate correctly. Not instruction. Instruction many a times are blind. To understand is better then to be instructed. With craving around in most of our minds, instruction becomes a tool for craving to pursue result.
Without right education which is a kind of right information, the mind meditates from its own unwise view. On the other hand, without right information, the mind uses the dhamma knowledge to “apply” in the meditation. Both takes precedent because of not having a proper education of what bhavana or meditation is about. A proper education is rarely given to any yogis coming into the journey of meditation. Proper education will involves lots of sharing and pointing by the skilful guide which can be time-consuming and tiring, not to mention questions being thrown back to the teachers/guides which has to be answered skilfully. As Sayadaw puts it – my talking involves half of your journey.
It slowly dawned upon me that both situations that I gave earlier is due to the absence of not having Right Understanding (RU). Those who practise without right information is devoid of RU. Those with too much knowledge is coming from memory instead of RU. Information is just information if it is not elaborated for understanding to arise. It will remain just as a bookish knowledge. The Dhamma, when heard or read, was not wisely reflected deeply prior to the practise of what the Buddha really meant, and thus due to the immaturity of the mind in comprehending the information, those info, though can be right information, becomes merely a knowledge. It has not matured to an understanding. This knowledge becomes an impediment that blocks the practise when it is being “applied”.
The word “reflection” can be misconstrued if not being question what it really means. Many a times, from my observation, the word “reflect” tends to mean active thinking, which is not the case. Reflection is an EFFECT of understanding of what has being pointed out and understood and hence the yogi is observing the mind activities from that LENS. The meaning “understanding” is more like “being supported”, whereas “applying” is more like “using the knowledge” as a support. Hence, when there is awareness present, “reflection” is actually the process of being supported by right understanding of what is taking place, instead of trying to apply what one remembers. It is already an acceptable view in the mind instead of applying that view that has not being fully understood. One can recall it if there is a forgetfulness of that info, but one cannot try to impose that view.
Even the word “nature” introduced by Sayadaw Tejaniya is being given with understanding, with lots of explanation what it really means so that the yogis really get it with understanding, and not blindly. But many yogis doesn’t come with that understanding or common sense to ask further what it meant when they are unclear. I recalled a Japanese yogi approaching me during my last year retreat and asked why her “nature” word is not producing result. She asked how come when she apply the word “nature” to anger, the anger still persist! The teacher is giving sound understanding but the yogi took it as an “application”. They are trying to “practise” what the teacher is pointing.
The word “practise” can be a misconstrued word too and thus can be an impediment. Practise usually means repetition work. “Repeating” is a practise mechanism. Repeat tends to be a blind order as compares to understand why and what we are doing it. On the same note, mindfulness or awareness is not being “repeated”, rather “recall”. Hence awareness cannot truly be practised except to be recalled as and when we can, persistently.
Hence, in what context does the word “reflect” or “practise” comes from? From UNDERSTANDING. And because of that you are embarking from that understanding and reflecting on it. Not a mimicking process where understanding is absent. That is what right information is about. It becomes right when it is correctly understood.
Understanding is of twofolds:-
the mind learns to understand what is being shown or pointed out (better still if queries are being asked further to make the mind understand deeper), and
have a clear understanding that what is being heard or received cannot be “applied” point blank, so as not to interfere in the process of awareness.
If the information given is not being comprehended or understood properly, it will remain as just another information, blindly used in meditation. If the information is fully understood thru the skill of the teacher’s pointing and also the student questioning it over and over again to get it right, then only the information becomes a Right Understanding to the yogi. This Right Understanding becomes the basis for investigation in awareness. Right Understanding comes with Saddha, or confidence, since you understood what needs to be done and hence the action takes effect.
If a yogi does not get the information correctly, it will remain as another information and highly possible that the yogi will “apply” the info instead of investigate. The yogi may have the faith but it is not confidence as in Saddha. Hence, it is blind faith.
From the above you will notice that it is the right information coming thru the mind that is meditating. Without that it is just knowledge, a kind of blind faith, which usually is accompanied by delusion, that is meditating. There is no magic formula or special incantation towards final liberation except UNDERSTANDING, right from the beginning of the journey, beginning with understanding the information (sutamaya pañña), understanding through reflection (cintamaya pañña) and finally realisation (bhavanamaya pañña) as a new level of understanding for the mind. Thus, confirms the process of the Noble Eightfold Path, beginning with Right Understanding.
Education of the dhamma leads to Right Understanding. Education not in term of reading the dhamma but understanding the realities and the mechanics of the mind.