Five Questions

When the lockdown began I was asked to give a weekly talk for National Prison Radio. I decided to adapt the text of my talk for a weekly newsletter for Buddhist prisoners. This was my talk on April 8th but this did not appear in a newsletter.


Good morning. It’s Ajahn Khemadhammo again.

First of all two of my favourite verses from the Dhammapada.

‘Mind precedes all things, mind is their chief, mind made are they. If you speak or act with an impure mind, then suffering follows as the wheel the hoof of the ox. Mind precedes all things, mind is their chief, mind made are they. If you speak or act with a pure mind then happiness follows like your shadow that never leaves.’

Since meditation plays such a central part in Buddhist training and the training and purification of your mind and I know that several of you are practising meditation, I thought this morning I would share with you some advice that I give my own students and which I have found helpful myself. What I suggest is that occasionally, once you have settled either to do walking meditation or sitting and have assumed a good and alert posture that you briefly ask of yourself these five questions.

So, let’s begin. Ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to do?’

You’re sat there on your cushion or standing very formally at one end of your meditation path, now what is it you are about to try and do? The answer that should come ought to be on the lines of, “I am trying to develop my mind, I’m trying to keep my mind on one thing. I am trying to concentrate and still my mind.” Something like that.

Next, for the second question, ask yourself, ‘For whom am I doing this?’

The answer to this one isn’t always a very comfortable one because generally we’re brought up to believe that we should put others first and although we often act selfishly, we don’t like to admit it. Nevertheless, the answer to this question has to be that you are doing this for you, for yourself. This isn’t necessarily selfish, rather it’s a sensible and wise thing to do. Look after yourself, then if you wish you might be able to look after others but if you don’t look after yourself you might not be much use to anyone, neither yourself nor anyone else.

Then we come to the question, ‘By what means?’

So now, what precisely is your meditation exercise? For a start, are you walking or sitting? In fact, you can practise meditation in any posture but generally it’s best to keep to one that maintains alertness, hence either walking up and down or in a circle, or sitting, preferably cross-legged and with a straight back. Usually we alternate walking and sitting. In the traditions within which I’ve practised the walking has either been very slow, up and down a relatively short path – ideal within a small cell – concentrating on being mindful of the precise details of each step; or the pacing up and down has been at a more natural rate and sometimes even quite fast, with the mind focussed either on the walking itself or on the internal recitation of a mantra word like ‘Buddho’. With sitting, again there are a variety of different things that you might concentrate on but by far the commonest is the breath. Known as Anapanasati, mindfulness of the in and out breath, it’s a practice that the Buddha himself used in the run up to his Enlightenment and it stretches across the traditions. I can even remember visiting Samye Ling, the famous Tibetan monastery in Scotland, just over fifty years ago and meeting there a young man who had obviously come to this exotic place expecting unusual and amazing esoteric experiences, only to be told to sit in the corner and watch his breath – he was very disappointed. Well, mindfulness of breathing does sound pretty mundane but when you try it you usually find it’s not so easy. You have to keep your mind on the breath, either at the nostrils or at the abdomen and whenever you notice your mind wandering, note and bring it back. The object is to build concentration and to make your mind still.

Now we come to the fourth question, ‘Against what resistance?’

It’s always advisable to know your enemies, to know what might oppose or hinder you. It’s especially the case when you are trying to develop and concentrate your mind, when you are trying to make your mind fit.

So, what are the likely resistances?

At a very mundane and external level you might have trouble keeping to a good posture and remaining still. I know that some of you have had motorbike accidents and injuries that trouble you and make it difficult to sit properly. I’m afraid you’ll have to experiment and do the best you can. Some of you might have a cell mate who can be a bit awkward and wants the tele on all the time or a noisy neighbour. Again, you’ll have to do your best but polite requests for a quiet time might work. I must say I have often admired the patience and resolve with which some of you who I’ve known have kept up your practice in the face of difficulties unimagined on the out.

Then there can be other more profound and important obstacles, and these come from within. The Buddha drew attention to five that are common and that together are known as the Five Hindrances. I should think everyone who’s taken up the practice of meditation has met at least one of these and possibly all five, although unlikely all at once. You may find yourself distracted by thoughts of comfort and pleasure, including, like the Buddha did, sexual temptation; or when you sit you might suddenly feel angry and irritated; then again you can find yourself bored, feelings of tiredness overwhelming you and even nodding off; or your mind is just buzzing and refuses to settle, and lastly, you may find yourself overcome with doubt. When any of these affect you, you will have to deal with them. Broadly, you can either suppress them or you can observe and investigate them.

Whatever your practice is, it’s important to be devoted to it and to keep at it and work through your difficulties. Don’t be like the man digging for water who hit a rock, gave up, started again somewhere else. Again, hit a rock, started again somewhere else. Hit a rock – and so it went on until he had a field full of shallow holes and no water.

Now for the last question, ‘In order to what?’

Where is all this leading, what is the ultimate purpose, what is your super objective? Why are you doing this?

The way this is answered can vary depending on your Buddhist tradition, but I would say you’re doing this to overcome greed, hatred and delusion, to purify your mind and to realise the secure peace of Nirvana.

May you and all beings be well and happy, may you all be free from all suffering, may you and everyone achieve that secure peace of Nirvana.