Seeing Beneath the Surface

By Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero

Bhikkhus, these seven perceptions or contexts, when developed and frequently practiced, are of great fruit and great benefit. They are included in the deathless and bring the deathless to its conclusion.

What seven?

1-The saññā (perception, context) of the non-beautiful,

2- the context of death,

3- the context of the loathsomeness of eating,

4- the context of non-delight in regard to the whole world,

5- the context of anicca,

6- the context of dukkha in anicca,

7- the context ofanattāin dukkha.

These seven contexts, when developed and frequently practiced, are of great fruit and great benefit. They are included in the deathless and bring the deathless to its conclusion.

1- When the context of the non-beautiful is developed and frequently practiced, it is of great fruit and great benefit. That is what I said and in reference to what, was it said?

When a bhikkhu becomes accustomed to the context of non-beautiful, and often lives with such an intent, his mind shrinks back, goes in the opposite direction and turns away from engaging in sexual intercourse, and either upekkhā or the counterpart, other shore (patikūla), gets established.

Just as a chicken’s feather thrown into the fire shrinks back and shrivels. In the same way, a bhikkhu whose mind is accustomed to the context of non-beautiful, and often lives with such an intent, his mind shrinks back, goes in the opposite direction and turns away from engaging in sexual intercourse.

If a bhikkhu whose mind is accustomed to the context of non-beautiful aims at sexual intercourse or does not have the counterpart established, he should know: “for me the context of non-beautiful is not developed, for me there is no difference in former distinction, for me there is no strong development.” In that way he knows.

If, when a bhikkhu becomes accustomed to the context of non-beautiful, and often lives with such an intent, his mind shrinks back, goes in the opposite direction and turns away from engaging in sexual intercourse, and either upekkhā or the counterpart gets established. He should know: “for me the context of non-beautiful is well developed, for me there is a difference in former distinction, for me there is a strong development.” In that way he considers.

Bhikkhus, when the context of the non-beautiful is developed and frequently practiced, it is of great fruit and great benefit. It brings the deathless to its culmination and conclusion…

An 7.49

The practice of asubha is about attending to the ugly context or non-beautiful side of a beautiful thing, rather than attending to something else that is ugly. You need to see through the beautiful thing to the other side of it, which is simultaneously present; otherwise the attraction to the beautiful will not be stopped. This is because the attraction to beauty is not in the beauty itself, but in how you perceive it.

Many people try to practice asubha by getting rid of the beautiful and replacing it with some other ugly thing. This approach treats the two as separate entities rather than recognizing the presence of both within the same phenomenon, and implies blaming the beautiful for any disturbance. But by doing so, you fail to see that the problem is actually in your attitude towards it.

The right approach is to attend to the beautiful things correctly when they arise; with the right attention, and discern their opposite side or counterpart that is implicitly present in the background. This way, you can see through the beauty and realize that it is just ‘less ugly’. Such a context then serves as a basis for the relinquishing of passion towards the beautiful.

Even if you are not currently engaging in sensual pleasure, as long as you maintain the view that pleasure is valuable, you are keeping the basis for future lust to arise. Only if you fully understand the danger in sensual gratification can you free yourself from sensuality once and for all. Developing the context of danger means discerning the implicit characteristics of what you are attending, with the chief characteristic being the danger. By discerning the implicit danger long enough, you will not need to maintain that context because it is not something that you create, but rather it is something that you uncover.

2-…When a bhikkhu becomes accustomed to the context of death, their mind draws back from attachment to life, and either upekkhā or the counterpart gets established…(continues as above)

The counterpart of life: death, is always present in that negative sense, even if you don’t attend to it. If you understand this, you will experience disenchantment with life, and it will be impossible for you to remain attracted to it. Passion towards life is not the product of life itself. It comes from thinking or having a view that life is in your control, from feeling like it will not end or will last forever, i.e ignoring the context of death. By removing these misconceptions, you remove the basis for passion towards life. You don’t need to seek out death or the possibility of death because it’s already here.

You also don’t need to deny life to remove misconceptions about it. It is the same principle as how you can ‘get rid of’ sensual thoughts indirectly: when a sensual thought arises, you must not welcome it or entertain it. And by enduring it long enough, the thought will eventually go away.

Similarly, you can free yourself from death by seeing the danger in life and thus indirectly removing the slightest passion towards it. By removing passion towards life, you remove the basis for death to apply to you any longer. Then, when this body falls apart, you will not be appearing anywhere else because you have severed any bond with the entire domain of saṃsāra.

3-…When a bhikkhu becomes accustomed to the context of the loathsomeness of eating, their mind draws back from craving for taste, and either upekkhāor the counterpart gets established…

When you eat, your default mode is to prioritize the pleasure of eating. You put taste first, even when you’re starving. You may not even realize that you’re doing this, but you are automatically eating out of pleasure rather than out of necessity. The evidence for this is the fact that you eat even when you are not hungry.

However, there is another side to eating: the fact that it’s something you have to do. It’s a necessity, not just a source of pleasure. When you take this necessity for granted and cover it up with delight in eating, you become picky and start preferring certain tastes over others. But no matter how much you prioritize taste and delight in food, cooking and recipes, the fact remains that you still need to eat – you are subjected to that physical need. Whether you enjoy your food or not makes no difference to that situation on which your life depends.

“Hunger is the foremost illness; Determinations are the foremost dis-ease. For one knowing this, as it really is; Nibbānais the foremost ease.”

– Dhp 203

This is a reminder that hunger is a significant affliction. By ignoring, or simply being unaware of the pressure and unpleasantness of being subjected to the necessity of eating, you end up putting the pleasure and taste first. But if you acknowledge the fact that food is a necessity that you must fulfill, then whether you’re starving or not, you can keep the context of why you need to eat in mind. Regardless of how enjoyable or unpleasant the eating experience may be, it still stems from the unpleasant fact of hunger which you are subjected to.

So by seeing the necessity of food as primary and taste as secondary, you can become dispassionate towards taste without trying to suppress it through various techniques. You can still taste something agreeable, but no amount of agreeable or disagreeable taste will disturb your mind or pervert the right order of putting first what is second and second what is first: taste always comes second to hunger. So if there is no need for food, you would not engage with it. And through recognising hunger as the foremost illness and that determinations (that determine our life – such as the necessity of food) as the foremost dis-ease, you can understand that Nibbāna, or the state of liberation, is the foremost ease.

4-…When a bhikkhu becomes accustomed to the context of non-delight in regard to the whole world, their mind draws back from the various beautiful things in the world, and either upekkhā or the counterpart gets established…

This context is developed by recognizing the danger of delight. The perception of non-delight is for the uprooting of the inherent delight or joy in regard to the world, senses and sense objects.

The word ‘delight’ refers to that subtle attitude of acceptance or looking forward to something; things that are pleasing and agreeable. Agreeable things are not a problem in themselves. The problem is you being unable to not delight in the prospect of pleasure. That is where the danger is.

And so, delight itself is what renders you blind to the inherent danger in being bound to delighting in agreeable and pleasant things. If you genuinely apprehend and recognise that danger, it is impossible to continue to delight in, or be attracted to those things.

‘Non-delight’ does not mean you must hate beautiful things. You simply do not take up the pleasure in them anymore. If something is agreeable, you acknowledge it as such, but there is no sense of taking up the pleasure i.e delighting. Similarly, if something is disagreeable, you recognize it as such, but there is no resistance to it.

Also, you can’t simply create a lack of delight out of thin air. The only way to practice non-delight is by intentionally preventing yourself from delighting. This involves contemplating and acknowledging the potential dangers that come with the things that bring you pleasure. By consistently cultivating such a state of non-delight over time, you won’t have to continually remind yourself of the dangers, because they have always been a natural part of those things. This is why freedom from those things is possible in the first place.

Merely saying no to pleasant sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches, doesn’t automatically grant you a true understanding of delight. You have the ability to restrain yourself and let go of non-essential experiences, based on understanding that the pleasure they bring can be detrimental. But there are certain things, such as eating, that you cannot completely avoid. Even the Buddha, during his time as a bodhisatta, attempted to starve himself in the belief that it would lead to ultimate freedom, and came to realize that this approach was incorrect. The issue was never the food itself: it is your attachment to the delight derived from it that binds you to the aimless wanderings of saṃsāra.

5-…When a bhikkhu becomes accustomed to the context of anicca, their mind draws back from acquisitions, honors, and fame, and either upekkhā or the counterpart gets established…

The counterpart to acquisition, ownership, honors, and fame is the understanding of non-ownership, the realization that possession is impossible—this is anicca. Anicca signifies change, but simply stating “everything is changing” lacks a personal connection. You need to perceive your own anicca: your experiences, ownership, body, senses, feelings, and life are all subject to change. If seeing anicca were to mean seeing a thing disappear, you would have to be dead to understand that life is anicca, but then that understanding would not be possible. Here lies the essence of the matter: recognizing that something is “subject to change” implies that the potential for change is inherent within it, even as the thing itself remains unchanged.

So, to grasp that things are subject to change and subject to suffering you should not wait for circumstances to transform before attempting to understand anicca. You need to seek understanding while things are still circumstantially stable and while your life is present. You want to comprehend that change is an inherent aspect, an intrinsic characteristic of anything that has arisen.

The nature of change reveals the nature of non-mastery, non-ownership, and the impossibility of control. While things are manifested, you can exert some level of influence and control. You have agency in your life at this moment. However, fundamentally, you will lose that influence when life itself decides to change—when you begin to experience the decline of your physical body or when you pass away.

Acquisitions, honors, and fame all contribute to the escalation of one’s sense of self. In the process of practice, a person initially focuses on eliminating the most obvious forms of conceit, such as sensuality and anger. However, as the practice deepens, one gradually relinquishes subtler acquisitions related to nationality, lineage, family, cultural affiliations, and so on.

Being popular is inherently desired and favored by people, while obscurity and insignificance is inherently disliked. This is what leads people to defensively react to criticism, even when there is no rational basis for it. Yet all of that concern around reputation and self-image is built upon the appropriation of those simple things that are so close that they are taken for granted: your feelings, your experience as a whole. So if one learns to recognise the impermanence of experience at this basic, intimate level, one will naturally develop a discerning mind that sees through any social pressures.

Rather than merely acknowledging the impermanence of things in general, right contemplation involves recognizing that our present experience arises from the functioning of our body and senses: these five aggregates. Despite having some agency in our actions and decisions, we fundamentally lack control over the changing nature of these aggregates. Our entire domain of control is intertwined with their impermanence, and when they change, our sense of control and the world we have constructed will be swept away. By recognising this through your present experience, you can understand that even what is currently within your control, is subject to change. And that’s enough: you don’t have to wait for external changes or seek ‘proof’ of impermanence in particular things. You simply need to refrain from unwholesome actions in regard to things, and based on this, discern that those things have impermanence (anicca) as their inherent nature, whether you want it or not. Diligently cultivating and maintaining that context would result in the complete fading away of acquisitions, dependence on honors, fame, and notions of conceit.

When you cultivate the understanding of anicca and let go of attachments, criticism from others will no longer upset your mind. You become unconcerned with what people think of you, whether their judgments are fair or unfair. The irrational fear of blame no longer distorts your perspective. The pressure to shape others’ perception of you, rooted in conceit, also dissipates. You come to realize that you cannot control others’ opinions. While many people grasp this concept intellectually, the true transformation occurs when you emotionally detach from the need for validation and are undisturbed by blame or criticism. You maintain clarity in understanding the intentions behind someone’s criticism and can objectively assess if there is validity in their points. If you were indeed wrong, you have no issue acknowledging and rectifying it, as you are not irrationally defending your own conceited ownership. Likewise, when baseless criticism arises, you recognize its absurdity, falsehood, or irrelevance. There is no pressure to correct or ensure everyone knows the truth. You remain grounded in your understanding and are free from the burden of rectifying the world to fit a particular perception.

6-…When a bhikkhu becomes accustomed to the context of dukkha in anicca, an acute context of danger becomes settled in him toward indolence, laziness, slackness, heedlessness, lack of effort, and unreflectiveness, just as one would have fear towards one’s executioner with a drawn-out sword…

The context of danger needs to be established: the context that change of an unfavorable kind can occur at any time. Once you recognise the weight of that situation, you will feel the discomfort which is inherent in the fact that your very being is not your own. In other words, if you recognise anicca correctly, you will be recognising the inherent discomfort of your situation – the dukkha will become apparent. And the clearer that context is, the more of a ‘sense of urgency’ will develop.

7-…When a bhikkhu becomes accustomed to the context of anattāin what is dukkha, his mind is devoid of I-making, mine-making, and conceit regarding this conscious body and all external objects; he has overcome all measurements due to conceiving, is peaceful and well liberated…

“Measurements due to conceiving” means what you conceive you appropriate. You are measured and defined by the things you appropriate (take as “mine”), such as your form, feelings, perceptions, intentions and consciousness. When those things change, you are thus affected. Removal of the conceivings on the other hand, means that whatever happens with the things you used to conceive will not affect you anymore. You will no longer be measured by it.