Sharpening the Dull Mind

Insight meditation requires resources, like cut glass or a sharp knife. These resources will not be given to us from the outside, but have to be developed by ourselves. In that sense this meditation looks like pulling yourself up by your own hair. But it is possible to develop the mind, so as to cut our deep rooted opinions like a sharp knife.

This teaching, given by Sayadaw U Pandita December 28, 2015, was translated simultaneously from Burmese into English by U Pandita’s American translator Sayalay Daw Vajirañani. Later on it was transcribed (and translated into Dutch) by Guus Went, who attended this teaching as a yogi.

In previous days Sayadawgyi spoke about how among the large fields of observation that exist – kaya, vedana, citta and dhamma’s, the body, feeling, consciousness and other general activities – the most obvious one is kaya. And Sayadawgyi spoke about how the yogi’s need to give priority to kaya as instructed by the Buddha. Among the different types of kaya, or matter, there are those that are the basic building blocks, and there are those which depend upon the basic building blocks. So the fundamental building blocks are the ones that are easiest to see rather than the types of matter that depend on those. And those four are the four great elements: earth, wind, water and fire. So we start with these four, and among these four the easiest to see is vayo dhatu or the air element. Because it manifests as stiffness, tension, movement in our body. It’s what happens most of the time and it is the most obvious thing. So according to the principle in Vipassana the starting yogi should begin Vipassana practice with the object that is easy to see, evident.
So among all the different types of matter that there are, we give priority to the most obvious. And that means that when we are sitting, the abdomen rises and falls, and we observe this, using a label, and anupassana occurs, repeated observation of the object. So the essence of Vipassana or the basic elements that make up anupassana, repeated observation, are atapa, ardent effort, sati, samadhi and sampajañña, knowing. So among these ardent effort, atapa, is when we push the mind, so that we reach any newly arising rising and falling. When we do this, when we try to get the mind at the arising object each time, then one of the elements of kayanupassana is present.

Ardent effort

One cannot be casual about applying effort. One cannot be slow either. The mind has to be alert and quick and decisive, wakeful. And if one applies effort in this way, then one element of anupassana, repeated observation, will occur. With the application of effort sati sticks to the object, it arises automatically, and with sati collectedness of mind also arises automatically. There is no need to make it arise particularly. The mind falls collectedly on the object of observation and this is samadhi. In addition we have to apply the jhanic factor of focused aiming, so that the mind is able to connect accurately with the object. And if all these elements occur many, many times, then energy develops and the mind becomes clean.

Threefold purification

So initially we have purity of sila, sila visuddhi, and when the mind becomes pure this is citta visuddhi, purity of mind. If the pure mind becomes strong, then we come to see that the object being observed is one thing, and the knowing of it is another. And this is purification of knowledge, ditthi visuddhi. So while we are observing the object, our knowing becomes purified. And this is the start of Vipassana. It is not yet Vipassana knowledge, not yet true Vipassana knowledge. But it is the beginning, it is when the light begins to come.

Respectful, meticulous, and without a break

So why is it that it comes to be? It is because when one sits, starting with the rising and the falling, one makes respectful effort. One has respect for the practice in trying to observe the arising objects. So one has to work consistently, work meticulously, and without a break. The way one has to work is similar to when one tries to make a fire with two sticks. One has to always be working. And taking meticulous care to keep on working. This is sakkaccakiriya. Plus there is no time to rest. One cannot stop to take any rest, because if one does, the kilesa’s do not rest. So if we take a rest, the kilesa’s will come into the mind. So we need to also have application of effort all the time, which is anatita kiriya, to work without stopping. So in respect for the practice, meticulous care, and applying the method, applying effort without a break also need to be present, these three qualities. And understanding this: whatever object arises in one’s body, one should observe it with respect for the practice, with care and applying ardent effort and aiming all the time.


When effort is balanced, sati will arise automatically, samadhi will arise, and one will come to know for oneself the mind and matter that is within one. There won’t be any need to think what is it, or why is it, or how is it happening. As one observes, as one continues to observe, one will automatically know how things happen. So the knowledge arises due to the work that one is doing. And knowledge will not arise without application of effort. It won’t arise if one simply thinks about things. There is no way that it can. If sila visuddhi, purity of sila is not present, then citta visuddhi also will not arise. So that is why it is said that the yogi’s should observe all the time.

The yogi’s one and only job

One should put one’s attention on one’s body and observe the arising object with effort and aiming and this is the one and only job the yogi has, there is nothing else that is needed to do. So if one thinks that while one is here one is just going about trying another method, then one won’t get the benefit of the practice. So some yogi’s here have this idea of practicing other than the instructions. And Sayadawgyi is giving the Dhamma gift in accordance with what the Buddha taught as explained by the most venerable Mahasi Sayadaw with loving kindness and compassion. So if he is explaining the method and if one decides that one is going to work according to another method, while one is here, it amounts to just throwing away the gift Sayadawgyi is giving, the gift of Dhamma. So Sayadawgyi hopes that there are no such yogi’s here.

Rooted opinions

People who have never encountered the practice of Satipatthana Bhavana, who are strangers to it, or who are not yet familiar with it, they don’t yet see how, what is in our being, the mind and matter in our being are related as cause and effect. And therefore their initial beliefs have not yet been illuminated. Beliefs that there is a person, there is a person who has existed from the time of childhood up until now. And wanting to see good things, hear, smell, taste, touch good things. Seeing is good, hearing is good, thinking and sense experiences is good, and the belief that things happen because I want them to happen, that they happen as I want them to do. And on top of these beliefs attaching to the idea that there is a person, one also develops the belief in a soul, within this being there is a soul. And this soul is controlled by a supreme being, parama atta, Beings whatever movements, whatever one thinks, one does, these are because of the will of the parama atta, the supreme being. So these beliefs come into one’s mind. And also one thinks that things are beautiful. These are beliefs that come from the time we were young, they are beliefs that come from our past lifetimes. And they are quite firm, these attachments are quite firm. And until one practices and sees the true Dhamma, these beliefs cover over the way things really are. So we are working to try to know things the way they really are. To try to know the matter within us, to try to know the mind.

Special effort

And when we are trying to know things as they really are, we don’t need just ordinary effort. We need to have ardent effort, intense effort. One should not have any regard for one’s life or limb. One should not be afraid to experience pain. One should not be afraid that one is going to get sick, because of not sleeping enough. No one has yet died of doing the practice. And in fact people with poor health have overcome their problems, even people who were fatally ill, have overcome their disease and continued to live.

Faith, respect and continuity

So with faith in this, in the benefits that come from the practice, try! There must be faith, one has to have confidence that this works. And if one has faith and has decided that one is going to do the task, then there should be respect, respectful application of the practice, sakkaccakiriya, and there also should be continuity of practice, so that one noting is contiguous with the other. So that one noting follows the other immediately, sakkaccakiriya, meticulous care. And one should also work without a break, so if one applies the practice in this way, then samadhi and pañña, concentration and wisdom, will follow automatically. There won’t be any need to try to make these things happen. And so that the yogi’s will try to apply the practice, Sayadawgyi has started up today, by urging you in this way.

Not easy, but not impossible

So leave behind the idea of a past life, just think about this life. We have a human life and up until the present one has worked, worked together in education, worked to make a living, and spent a lot of time involved in sense pleasures. And not understanding oneself, thinking that this is the way things are, the way one sees things as permanent, seeing things as good, thinking that this happens because of my choice, because of my will. And in this lifetime this belief is very, very strong. We cannot use just ordinary forces to overcome this belief. And while we are trying to apply special forces to overcome this belief, if we look at what is happening and we say ‘oh, no results have come yet’, ‘this is not working’, ‘this is not right’. If we look at it like that and back off: that’s not correct. We need to be determined. The Buddha says that these beliefs need to be weakened, slowly removed, slowly and gradually.
So like that one has had the idea regarding one’s body and one’s life that it is permanent, it’s good, it’s controllable, it’s lovely, and hour by hour, second by second we have had this belief, so in one hour 3600 times has this belief been reaffirmed in our mind, hour after hour, day by day, month by month, year by year. These beliefs become very, very strongly ingrained, strongly entrenched. So the work to see this body as impermanent, not satisfactory, not having any inherent self, and not beautiful: this work is not easy to do. But it is not impossible. And when one understands the method and applies it, then it is easy to do.

Developing instruments

It is like when we need to use glasses and you have to see something but we cannot see otherwise. Or if we need to see something which is very small, we use a microscope or a magnifying glass, to enlarge things, so they appear to be much larger than they really are, ten times or so or whatever. So the glass needs to be ground, we have to put power in the glass, so that small things, very, very tiny things become visible and are seen easily. Meditation is for putting POWER into one’s mind. And only when this power is complete, we begin to see mind and matter and to develop knowledge stage by stage and finally to experience true happiness. So one needs to understand this.
In the world there are things which one cannot see with the naked eye. And when one is old, the eyes become weak. So in order to see things that we cannot see with our ordinary eyes, with the naked eye, we need to use things like glasses or a microscope or a magnifying glass. And if we use these, if the objects we are trying to see and the lens are properly placed, then we will be able to see the object. But it is only with the use of the glasses we can do this. And so too, in order to see in our body the very fine subtle things that one cannot see with our ordinary intelligence, we have to add power to our mind and it is like grinding the glass to be used in an instrument we need to make it the right power, we need to add enough power to it so we can see what we want to see. And so too in the mind we need to add the necessary power and develop them, develop the powers fully. And then we will be able to see. So meditation is for seeing the things inside of us which are very, very subtle and fine. And it is for adding power to the mind, so that one can see these things. So one must understand this and have respect for this idea. That is very important.
So in order to think that this body and this life, to think that it is not permanent when we have been thinking that it is permanent, to be able to see it as suffering, to see the body as suffering when we have been thinking about it as pleasant, to be free of the idea that there is a soul, to see our being as anatta, without a controlling self or soul, when we have thought of it as having a soul, to see it as it really is, as not being lovely, when we have been thinking of our body as a beautiful thing, in order to see in this way we need an instrument. We need some instruments and we need to use these instruments.

Which instruments?

So the Buddha said what these instruments are that we need to use. And there are first of all viriya, effort, second sati, mindfulness, third samadhi, concentration and fourth pañña, wisdom. And the Buddha said that we need to use these in order to see. So if they are weak, we need to develop them so that they are strong and if because of developing them they become strong, then it will like when one can see things that we aren’t ordinarily able to see when we use glasses, so too we will be able to see clearly. This is what the Buddha said.

Weapons and enemies

So for this we need to use viriya, sati, samadhi and pañña. We need to use these group of weapons in order to see ourselves as we are. The Buddha said that before the enemy arises we need to make our weapons and these are the weapons that we can use against the enemy, need to be developed. So the enemy within us are the kilesa’s, they have had the upper hand over us all our lives, and in order to conquer them we need to make weapons and we need to make them keen. Keen and effective. So our viriya needs to be keen, so that we ‘ll be brave. Only if there is viriya will there be sati. Sati also needs to be strong. Only with sati, will there be samadhi. Only with samadhi and accurate aiming so that the mind is accurately observing the object. So these things need to be developed. And when we do this, when we develop all these factors, so that there is viriya, sati, samadhi, accurate aim, then the mind becomes mature and strong. And at that time, because there is sati, the kilesa’s that would have arisen if sati were not present, have no chance, so at that time we are able to conquer the kilesa’s. So what this practice is, is revolution against the kilesa’s which have been like occupying enemy in our lives all this time.

Sharpening the weapons

So if you are going to use a knife, in the kitchen for example, to cut something, to cut fruit or to cut meat or to cut wood, the knife cannot be dull. One will not be able to use it if it’s dull. So a knife has to be sharp if one is going to cut. All one’s life the defilements have had the upper hand. And with the knife of the mind, with viriya, sati, samadhi, pañña, these factors like a knife have either not been there or they are dull. So one has to sharpen these factors, like sharpening our knife. If we sharpen a knife, we need to use a wetstone and we have to place the blade of the knife properly on the stone, we need to wet the surface of the stone and we need to drag the blade across the stone in the right way to develop the edge. So one has to do this again and again and as we sharpen the knife on the wetstone slowly the edge becomes sharp. So one needs to place the knife properly on the stone, in order to create the edge, the sharp edge, and one needs also to draw the blade of the knife over the stone again and again. And this is our job when we are trying to sharpen the knife.

The mind as a weapon

For the yogi one has to observe the arising object with effort, so that sati sticks to the object, sati and the mind, and so that the aim is accurate and one has to with accurate aim also it is though the mind rubs against the object, the mind has to stay with the object. Like rubbing against the object is one way so one has to note effectively in this way so that the mind actually rubs against the object. And if we do this, then the dull mind will become sharp. So it is the process of trying to sharpen the mind is a lot like trying to sharpen a knife. And because of the way one has to place the knife accurately and continue to draw the knife over the stone one cannot stop before the blade is completely sharpened. So when one’s aim is accurate, one has to aim accurately and one also has to apply effort to observe whatever object arises, and this is the yogi’s job. So if one doesn’t do this, if one doesn’t develop the mind in this way, then all one’s life the mind and knowledge are going to be dull. So one needs to keep the mind from getting dull. One needs to apply effort and aim accurately, every time there is an object to observe. So Sayadawgyi hopes that all of you will be able to sharpen your mind, sharpen your knowledge, so as to overcome dullness.