Anicca: Doing it with Sampajanna

Sampajanna - the constant thorough understanding of impermanence.

"If the term sampajanna is translated too concisely into English its meaning can be lost. It has usually been translated as "clear comprehension," "bare comprehension," etc.

“Superficially these translations appear to be correct .... The Buddha clearly emphasized the thorough understanding of anicca (impermanence) in all bodily and mental activities. Therefore, to understand the term sampajanna, we have translated it as: "The constant thorough understanding of impermanence." It is felt that this translation conveys more fully the precise meaning of the term used by the Buddha." [from here] I hope to lead up to this constant understanding of anicca by examining sampajanna starting from wisdom-in-action.

In this chapter I have already discussed the protection of the 4 dhamma comrades but I want to go into detail on one of these dhammas – I see it as a comrade for integration. More importantly we need to develop this comrade, sampajanna, throughout all of the tetrads, or we are at risk of reinforcing the ego with the joy and fruits that rise out of the first two tetrads. It is a risk if we are too linear with our development of MwB. Integrating mind, emotion and body is essentially the process of the first three tetrads – the first three foundations of mindfulness, and to do this we build the dhamma comrade of sampajanna.

The focus of sampajanna is action - doing, and we need to focus on action because of the way our instinctive conditioning has worked. The development of the survival instinct in us creates a separate ego or self, this self survives through separation, and it perpetuates itself through separation. This separation is hard to break down, and the work of breaking it down needs to begin early in our meditation work.

Integration works in two ways. Firstly we integrate the individual through integrating mind, energy and body by following our paths, Secondly we integrate our paths into the path of nature. Sampajanna is particularly important in the integration of the individual because it takes our focus away from the surviving ego and into action.

In separation we get stuck in our heads living in selves or intellectual egos, sampajanna breaks through this focussing on bringing wisdom into daily actions. It is as if the ego blocks wisdom from acting, if we are not careful new wisdom can “remain” in the intellectual ego as a new ideal. For clear comprehension what we learn as wisdom on the path has to be applied in daily life so sampajanna breaks through the conditioning that attaches to ego and ensures that the wisdom is applied to daily life. Sampajanna is the wisdom behind letting go of attachments, detachment cannot be theoretical it has to be applied otherwise the attachment has not been understood – sampajanna – in action.

The essence of integration of mind, energy and body is that there is no separation. Egos do not attach to these separately as khandhas but wisdom ensures that we follow our paths – do our paths – with our whole integrated being. Following our paths is integrated. And the following is integrated by the dhamma comrade of sampajanna by applying the wisdom in daily life.

When we examine the 4 dhamma comrades, at first glance there appears to be little emphasis on action but the teachings of the Buddha are concerned with what we do. So where is the “doing” in the 4 dhamma comrades? Mindfulness is developed through concentration in our inner work, and as a result we gain wisdom. But what is that other than attachments to sankhara if we do not apply them to daily life. This is wisdom-in-action or mindfulness-in-action, and is the ability to use what we have learned in daily life, that is the role of the dhamma comrade, sampajanna.

Buddhadasa describes the relationship between the 4 dhamma comrades like this:-

Sampajanna is often described as clear comprehension but what has to be understood with clear comprehension is that it is practical – it is a doing thing. Comprehension is getting it:-

If you get it you do it.
If you aren’t doing it you don’t get it.

What you do is the measure of your wisdom. If all the learning you get from meditation is left on the stool then there is no understanding because clear comprehension is practical. It is about your path making changes in daily life.

When we work through the first two tetrads esp the 2nd tetrad, we develop the power of piti and sukha. These are powers we use as conviction for following the path. But at this stage the path is powerfully present but so is the ego. With the power of the jhanas it is very easy for the ego to confuse this stage of limited awareness with the path, so we can delude ourselves that we are following out paths. What happens is that the ego claims these jhanas for itself, and deludes us that what the ego does is the path.

In my case this happened through what I know of as dabbling but which I can describe more accurately as spiritual eclecticism. With my upheaval came the delights of the jhanas (that I thought of as bells and banjoes). I knew that I was on the path because of the jhanas, but I did not develop any bhavana (mental development) that would develop my path. My ego flitted from one spiritual interest to another dabbling in this one a bit then that one. Fundamental to this egoic dabbling was the lack of daily committed meditation, and therefore I had not mechanisms for attaching and detaching ego. My spiritual eclecticism was in charge of my life for just over 20 years after I recognised the path, this ego took me into addiction whilst I was still dabbling on the spiritual path, and it was only when I began to focus on a particular path did I begin to address some of the egoic control. The studies I chose to focus on was Theravada Buddhism because the decision I made to focus happened in Thailand. In my studies I did look at other Buddhisms a little but gradually what I accepted became more and more focussed until I only studied Buddhadasa as with MwB.

But here’s the rub. That approach of study worked for me but it might not work for others. They must choose for themselves by studying with an appropriate teacher. The issue is not what is studied but the focus that is studying. That focus ends the dabbling, the mind becomes clearer and sharper piercing through the ego, and the tradition you work in helps you to follow your path. In the terms of this chapter there is nothing constant, the ego is not with you for life, and sampajanna can bring you back onto your path as it did for me.

In MwB talks of the 4 dhamma comrades as arising through the 4 tetrads. But what if the tetrads are not completed, will there be the protection of the dhamma comrades? What happens if the ego is left in charge of the jhanas as happened with me? Because we know the ego is present in anyone starting MwB it is necessary to develop protection early on. Such protection might not work without doing the 3rd tetrad but at least the student has been exposed to the protection, and the inner guide knows of it and can maybe break through the ego.

In Buddhism the first thing that is often done is to accept the lay precepts:-

The Five Precepts:
1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
3. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

So during the first two tetrads we can introduce the precepts, and begin to go through a process of sila-sampajanna. By this I mean bringing sila into your daily life. By examining each precept one-by-one, the student can decide what aspects of the precepts are done well, and how they can be improved in daily life. It is those improvements which are sampajanna. It is also important for the student to develop sila – moral integrity. For the path to develop the student has to know that their actions in daily life will be good, or their meditation will be disturbed by the doubts of unsure sila. Not only is sila a stable personal platform it is also the basis for a stable society as can be seen by an increasing move away from moral integrity in political leaders.

Once we get to the third tetrad sampajanna is much more active ingredient in letting go of attachments and therefore ending attachment to all the egos that arise form conditioning. For the intellectual ego of spiritual eclecticism we have sampajanna as:-

Attaching to intellect take a mindful moment and let go.
For anger let the anger arise take a mindful moment to focus on calm and then let the anger go.

This is the letting go of wisdom-in-action, of sampajanna.

Once we have sampajanna we know how to let go of attachments and that is the essence of the 3rd tetrad so let us look at attachment. Ego is not one thing but it is a collection of egos. Because there are so many egos it builds up and we think there is just one thing - ego. We will be looking at four aspects that create ego:-

Attachment 1 Desire – the 4 Noble Truths
Attachment 2 Attachment to khandha
Attachment 3 Attachment to Conditioning
Attachment 4 Anatta – attachment to self
As you might guess another word for ego is attachment, ego is a collection of egos, a collection of attachments. If we understand what attachment is we can begin to lose our collection of egos leaving us free to follow our paths. What prevents us from following our paths is quite simply we attach to egos through the conditioning of our childhood. As mature adults it would be natural for us to let go of this attachment and follow our paths, but in our society so few people are doing this because as a society we have become so addicted to our egos – to our attachments. Society’s addiction creates additional conditioning that makes it hard for adults to let go of their attachments. As a result of all this conditioning few people are following their paths.

The student has to learn to practice detachment – non-attachment using sampajanna:-

Detachment 1 – Detaching from old egos of desire and conditioning.
Detachment 2 – Not attaching to new egos of desire and conditioning.

This process of detachment has to happen throughout the time of following the path. Initially detach from all the old egos, then focus on not attaching to new egos; in meditation there is always detachment.

When it comes to ego I am very careful about my choice of words, I choose words that have as little ego or self as possible. For example I never use the word perfection as I feel the word “perfection” indicates the presence of ego. Always look for deceptive ways that there is arrogance or deceptive ways that the ego is seeking to continue to survive; look for such ways so that you can let them go – detach, not attach.

In following my path I try to do the best I can. There is no sense of perfection in what I do, all that I do is concerned with determination - trying to do the best I can. I am not concerned in saying how successful I am about whether I am doing the best I can, I just try to do the best I can. For me the effort is path, measuring the success, if any, is ego. If there is ever a feeling of perfection, if I ever feel that I am better than someone else, I meditate on humility – the humble heart, humility in the heart. And if it is still an issue I go out into nature (the source of my path) and learn to know my place again – learn my humble place. Being mindful and humble, these are the states of mind that we need to cultivate – mindful moments, humble moments. There are so few people on their paths but it is important to be humble, not to see ourselves as better. When we feel ecstasy or jhanas it is easy to feel better than others, we have to let that feeling go. If we are feeling better than others, let that feeling go – that is ego that is attachment.

There are words used to describe the path that I avoid. Buddhadasa describes the path as peace, following the path is peaceful. To me peace has no emotion, elation or ecstasy attached to it, life is just peaceful. Other teachers describe the path with words such as joy, happiness etc. For them there are two levels to these words – emotional and spiritual, and their paths are concerned with spiritual happiness or joy. In the pub people laugh and think they are enJOYing themselves but this is usually not spiritual it is usually escapist delusion with friends. Similarly in the pub these people are happy, again usually not spiritual but escapist delusion with friends. These are activities of ego, we think the pub has been fun before, we attach to the memory of fun, attach to the circumstances (conditions) when that fun occurred, and try to recreate those conditions. This is attachment to ego. The only “fun” is the peace of the path (what some other teachers describe as spiritual happiness or joy), even though attachment and ego try to tell you differently.

One of the attachments above (2) is attachment to khandhas. We need to have some understanding of khandhas before we begin any work on attachment. There are 5 khandhas:-

1 kaya – body
2 vedana – feelings
3 sanna – memories/perceptions
4 sankhara – mental processes
5 vinnana – consciousness

There are two things:-

1) the path or dhamma
2) the 5 khandhas.

This is something I hope the student will come to understand. Ego is an attachment to one of the 4 khandhas (kaya, vedana, sanna or sankhara). In daily life there are sensations/ayatana (from our 5 sense organs plus mind). These happen - we give them consciousness to let them happen, they rise and fall with our consciousness and we let them go. If we allow our consciousness to cling to them we form egos or selves that can cause us problems. We will study this more but basically we give consciousness to ayatana (senses and sense objects), and then let go. We use mindfulness to control this consciousness, and if we do not use mindfulness in this way, we develop problems concerning ego.

So we have to learn about detachment. Through our daily lives now and in the past we have given consciousness to ayatana that arise from our khandhas, and this has led to the formation of egos that has led to our conditioning. The third tetrad is concerned with learning how to end this attachment, so that we end ego and self just following our paths as nature intended – dhamma.

So meditation is concerned with mindfulness, humility and detachment. The student becomes mindful of conditioning that has created egos, and learns to let those egos go – doing it with sampajanna. As a result the path will be strengthened through increasing development of the 4 Dhamma Comrades including sampajanna.

So with our understanding of sampajanna let's take attachment a bit further, and throw in the natural law of paticcasamuppada. The first part of sampajanna is detachment from the already-formed egos that have been built up from the conditioning from birth. But conditioning is constant, and as a result we have to be aware that conditioning will give rise to new egos; this requires non-attachment. So we have awareness of the conditioning of new egos possibly arising, and the need for letting go if they do. This is the ongoing use of sila-sampajanna.

The natural law of causes and conditions is constant ie everything is impermanent as there is always causes and conditions. Where paticcasamuppada comes in is the recognition of the point of contact. As the senses give rise to conditioning there is a point of contact before that conditioning becomes attachment, and it is the constant application of sila-sampajanna at those points of contact that prevents attachment arising. Natural law is that there are always causes and conditions arising from ayatana (sense and sense objects),meaning that there is always impermanence. With constant conditioning there is always anicca; and with this thorough understanding of the impermanence of conditioning - natural law, sampajanna is required to end attachment initially and then is always required to prevent the arising of new attachments. This is why we can say that sampajanna is the constant thorough understanding of impermanence, and it is why for anicca we do it with sampajanna.

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