Are You Not Getting Expected Results from Meditation?

Revised December 1, 2017; January 27, 2023

Some people try to attain Nibbānic bliss by trying to “give up all attachment to this world” in their minds during meditation. However, until one’s mind truly realizes the dangers of this world (the rebirth process), the mind cannot give up those attachments.

  • One has to attain at least the Sōtapanna stage by “seeing the true nature of this world” before one’s mindset becomes amenable to “giving up”.  This is the hardest part to understand.
  • Even before that, one needs to get rid of the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi, as discussed below.

1. During the time of the Buddha, there was a bhikkhu named Poṭhila, who was well-versed with deep Dhamma concepts and was a well-known teacher; he had developed abhiññā powers as well but had not attained even the Sōtapanna stage. His dēsanas (discourses) were deep and only those at the Anāgāmi stage (at least the Sōtapanna stage) could follow them and get to Arahanthood. One day he went to see the Buddha, paid respects, and told the Buddha that he had been a Dhamma teacher during the times of several earlier Buddhas too, and helped many to attain Nibbāna (Arahantship).

  • The Buddha asked him whether he had attained any magga phala, and Bhikkhu Poṭhila admitted that he had not. The Buddha just commented: ”Thucca Poṭhila,” and turned his attention to other matters; tuccha (pronounced “thuchcha”) in Pāli and Sinhala means despicable or “lowly.”

2. So, bhikkhu Poṭhila, who had expected praise from the Buddha for helping others, realized that he needed to work on his own salvation before helping others. He strived by himself and could not make any progress; he was trying very hard to “give up all attachments”, following the instructions he gave others. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not succeed.

  • When he sought help from other bhikkhus, they were reluctant to become his teacher because everyone knew he was very knowledgeable in Dhamma. Eventually, he went to this very young Arahant (well-known for his teaching abilities) and sought help. The young Arahant agreed to help only if bhikkhu Poṭhila agreed to carry out everything as instructed, and Poṭhila agreed.
  • The young Arahant decided to use an unusual kammaṭṭhāna (instructions). He took Poṭhila to a large area covered by mud and asked him to wade into the mud and keep going until he told him to stop. Poṭhila started wading in the mud and kept going until he was told to stop when the mud was up to his chin; he could barely move because the mud was heavy.

3. The Arahant told him, “if someone is stuck in the mud like that, any knowledge about cleaning oneself by taking a bath is not going to help. One needs to get out of the mud first”.

  • Then he asked Poṭhila to come back. Poṭhila had difficulty moving since he was up to his chin in thick and heavy mud. While dragging himself out of the mud with great difficulty, Poṭhila realized what the young Arahant was talking about. It is not possible to get out of mud until one realizes that one is stuck there, and getting out of mud requires sheer willpower. Similarly, he had not realized that he was stuck at a much lower moral level; he needed to cleanse his mind first.
  • The “giving up” part comes with a mind that has removed the wrong visions (micchā diṭṭhi) and excessive greed for sensual pleasures. These cannot be removed just by reading or listening to them.
  • The account of bhikkhu Poṭhila at “Dhammapada Verse 282” and “Poṭhila the Empty-Head.”

4. Of course, one can remove some of it by reading, listening, and contemplating the validity of the Buddha’s reasons, especially on micchā diṭṭhi. One has to realize that kamma (or one’s actions) are likely to have their results either in this life or the next, and thus the rebirth process must be valid. The remaining types of micchā diṭṭhi are also related to kamma and rebirth. The ten types of micchā diṭṭhi are discussed in “Micca Diṭṭhi, Gandhabba, and Sotāpanna Stage.”

5. The simile can be made even better by looking at what happens to ants stuck in honey. Here unlike mud, the sensory pleasures are appealing, and there is no incentive to get out. Those ants stuck in the honey would not even try to get out because they are too busy enjoying it. Even when they are barely stuck and can move out of honey, they would not because they like the taste of honey. Like that, any living being, whether a human or even the lowly worm, likes to indulge in sensory pleasures and thus gets stuck.

  • And even when one realizes that one needs to get out of “the honey pot,” it is hard, at least initially.
  • For that, one needs to see the perils of staying in this rebirth process, where birth in the lower four realms will lead to unimaginable suffering. Even if one can strive to be born in higher realms, that will not last long. This is “anicca“: no matter how hard we try to find refuge in the 31 realms, it is impossible to do so in the long run.

6. With much effort, Poṭhila slowly made his way up to the waist level and started feeling the lightness of being free of mud. He could now move faster too. He felt relief when he was out of the mud and was asked to go and take a shower. Now, cleaning up with soap could be done; but while stuck in the mud, there was no use for soap and water. Just like that, the profound Dhamma he had memorized was useless to him while he was still stuck in the mud.

  • Eventually, when one comes out of the mud, that is like the Sōtapanna level. One is still covered with mud, i.e., one still likes to enjoy sensory pleasure. But now one knows one needs to shower, use soap and shampoo, and remove all that mud.

7. What Poṭhila was doing was to give discourses on profound Dhamma that could help an Anāgāmi attain Arahanthood. Most of those who benefited from bhikkhu Poṭhila’s discourses were, ironically, Anāgāmis. Poṭhila was reciting the Dhamma without real comprehension, but those who benefited could comprehend the true meanings. After that kammaṭṭhāna, Poṭhila was able to attain the Sōtapanna stage and soon became an Arahant.

(By the way, one cannot attain the Sōtapanna stage by taking instructions from an Anariya, i.e., one who had not attained at least the Sōtapanna stage. But once one attains the Sōtapanna stage, one can learn by himself or from anyone else and get to the higher stages. This is why it was only Sotāpannas or above (mostly Anāgāmis) who could benefit from bhikkhu Poṭhila’s discourses).

  • I believe this actual incident involving bhikkhu Poṭhila highlights a very important point. No matter how much one reads on deep concepts of Dhamma, it is hard to get the idea to sink in unless one’s mind is purified to a certain extent. It is critical first to break through the heavy fog of being covered by many wrong concepts and strong attachments. When one breaks through that initial “wall of resistance,” it is easier to comprehend more profound concepts; see “Lōbha, Dōsa, Mōha versus Raga, Patigha, Avijja. “

8. One needs to make progress systematically. Just like it is impossible to learn high school math without learning basic addition/subtraction, one MUST understand the basic concepts first. Suppose one is engaged in killing, stealing, sexual misbehavior, lying, gossiping, getting “drunk” with alcohol, drugs, power, beauty, money, etc. In that case, it is impossible to calm the mind to a basic level. And this is the hard part. One is stuck in the mud (more like honey because it feels good to be stuck there).

  • And while stuck in the mud (or honey), no matter how much meditation one does, it is not possible to get LONG TERM relief. One may be able to go to a meditation retreat and be away from all those “honey-filled” attractions and enjoy some sense of calmness, but that goes away soon after coming back to “real life” with all those temptations.
  • One needs to slowly work through the mud (or honey, because that is how it initially seems). This is the HARDEST part. No matter how much one READS, that will not make much difference until one sets up the stage for the mind to see reality.
  • By the way, this is also why those who meditate on “there is no self” (there is no ‘me’) cannot make any progress either. One needs to comprehend the “pointlessness in striving to accumulate material things for oneself” first. If one could tell a full-blown lie, hurt someone else, sexually misbehave, etc., then isn’t that done to gain something for “me”?

9. Here is a rough step-by-step I would recommend (this is, of course, not for everyone; just for those who know they are stuck in honey):

A. If one is hurting others for sensory pleasure, that should be stopped first. It is double jeopardy; one is “getting stuck” due to excessive greed and suffering the consequences of harming others. One is getting attached to “pleasurable things” and accumulating bad kamma by hurting others.

  • For example, if one is killing animals for fun (sport), stealing valuables from others, having sexual relationships with other married people or young children, planning to hurt someone (even for retaliation), or spreading rumors about someone to get some pleasure out of it, getting drunk and verbally/physically abusing others, all those would be included here.
  • Such immoral activities are the worst and are called “pāpa kamma.” Both lōbha and dōsa (dvēsha) are involved here, and one’s mind is said to cover with ignorance (mōha); see,  “Lōbha, Dōsa, Mōha versus Raga, Patigha, Avijja“.
  • Thus someone in this stage is deeply in mud up to the chin.

B.  One notch lower is being capable of doing things (of course not always) with EXTREME greed, even if it does not hurt others directly; here, one is only up to the waist to shoulder level in mud. These are usually the things one does to seek “perceived happiness” by going to extremes.

  • When one cannot get “high enough” with alcohol, one tends to try drugs because one has been “de-sensitized.” We all know of many movie stars etc., who get into this trend and end up committing suicide because nothing at the end can bring more pleasure to a highly “de-sensitized” mind.
  • Another indication of extreme behavior is living beyond one’s means. This is, of course, relative. If one lives in a small (but comfortable) house and wants to move into a bigger house by stretching one’s resources, that is a sign of extreme greed. If one is already living in a mansion that one has inherited or earned, and there is no financial burden, then there is nothing wrong with that since that will not burden the mind. However, in general, the fancier the item is, whether a house, car, or anything else, it usually takes more time and effort to “maintain.” Inevitably, that leads to a higher stress level.
  • Such extreme greed could also lead to actions of hate when someone else gets in the way. Then one may do “pāpa kamma” here as well; actions of hate may get one into more trouble.

It is not possible to discuss all possibilities, but one should be able to figure out many such cases. No one else can decide these for anyone. Only each person knows about one’s status of mind. However, any sensible person can make judgments for oneself but not for others.

C. If one is at stage A or B above, one should read those posts in the “Moral Living and Fundamentals” section. It could be helpful to read those as one progresses and see that one understands more things than previously. This is hard to explain but it is true. A clear mind sees things much more quickly.

  • Those in stages A or B should read posts #1 through #3 below.

D. Once one gets to the B stage, one should start reading the “Key Dhamma Concepts” posts and learn and comprehend anicca, dukkha, and anatta.

This is the real key step to getting started on the next stage. Once one gets some traction, there is nothing to hold back someone from attaining the Sōtapanna stage. It had been hard for hundreds of years only because the correct concepts were hidden. Once one gets some traction, one can start doing any of the bhāvanā.

  • As Carl Sagan said, “..think about all those emperors and kings who committed unmentionable atrocities to have a sense of superiority and power for maybe 50 years. They are all gone”; see, “The Pale Blue Dot……..“. Even though Dr. Sagan did not know, that is another way to state what anicca is.
  • All those emperors and kings will be stuck in the animal or lower realms for billions of years. On the other hand, a peasant who lived within his/her means and led a moral life could live in a dēva/Brahma realm for billions of years.
  • The main point here is that there is no point in trying to seek sense pleasures or accumulate wealth for 80-100 years maximum because, in the end, we will not be able to KEEP ANYTHING to our satisfaction. We may have a billion dollars, but if our bodies are worn out, will we be able to get ANY sensory pleasure? Will we be able to keep any part of our bodies to our satisfaction? Many try to “beat the aging process” by using temporary fixes such as botox, but any such effect will also be temporary.
  • It is impossible to grasp the meaning of anicca, dukkha, and anatta if one is stuck in mud or honey.

E. When one comes out of the mud and starts walking (with mud on the body), that is like the Sōtapanna stage. Now one does not need anyone’s help, even though that can help expedite the process; one can figure things out by oneself.

  • Many know many suttā by heart or Abhidhamma concepts, but nowhere near the Sōtapanna stage.
  • We must understand that Buddha Dhamma is not about JUST LEARNING concepts (even though learning plays a big part); it is all about using what is learned to purify the mind. As the mind becomes clear, one will start seeing reality better. In the Buddha’s days, illiterate people could learn Dhamma just by listening and even attained Arahanthood.

E. The final stage is to realize that even birth in such deva/Brahma worlds will be temporary. At some point in the future, they will commit some bad deed and end up in the four lower realms for a long time; that is just the nature of this world, where sense pleasures can lure anyone to commit bad actions. But there is no point in talking about that stage until one gets above the A and B stages and becomes a Sōtapanna.

F. The series of posts that I am writing on the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta goes through this process, too, from stage A. Therefore, it may be a good idea to read those posts from the beginning. The first introductory posts are full of Pāli words but go through them briefly even if you do not fully understand. They WILL become clear later, if not now.

  • When one starts following the Path, one is bound to break the trend occasionally. A child learning to walk will fall many times. Many people get discouraged when they do an immoral act occasionally, but to realize that one made a mistake and that it bothers one’s mind means one HAS MADE PROGRESS. That is why one needs to have the perseverance to get back up with renewed determination. Just like a child WILL learn to walk, one WILL get better with time.

G. Of course, I do not know the level of each person coming to the website. Only each person knows where he/she is relative to the above steps.

  • If one genuinely can purify one’s mind and comprehend anicca, dukkha, and anatta, that is all it takes to attain the Sōtapanna stage.
  • There is material ranging from the basic to very advanced levels, and even more, will be posted in the future. This is for completeness and to ensure that any scholar or interested person can gauge the depth of Buddha’s true teachings.
  • Some people start comprehending Dhamma and start enjoying finding further details; no other type of “pleasure activity” can match the “enjoyment of Dhamma.” Buddha Dhamma is the ultimate “book of nature”.
  • Furthermore, reading widely on different topics will help build sadhhā (faith), which is NOT blind faith but faith built on understanding. When one sees how little modern science knows compared to the Buddha, it helps build faith. And paññā (wisdom) and sadhhā grow together.

Next, “1. Introduction to Buddhist Meditation“, ……….


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