Chapter Nine
Reflection
 
 
 

 

All I want is the truth46
 

John Lennon

 
hungry for the truth
 
EVERYTHING THAT WE HAVE LEARNED about meditation comes together in reflection.
 
As we've seen, the method of insight meditation is `reflection within tranquillity'.  We first gain access to a good state of concentration, and then use the dhyana factors of initial and applied thought to reflect on some aspect of ultimate reality.
 
In order to reflect undistractedly, our thought must be supported by the two basic qualities of concentration and positive emotion.  This also means, of course, that it needs the support of the conditions which make them possible: we must have a life-style that is conducive to meditation, a regular meditation practice, a continual concern for the development of awareness, and plenty of practical experience in engaging with the heights and depths of our mind.  Above all, we must really want to know - we need to feel a kind of hunger for the truth.
 
 

When hearing the Dharma you must be like deer listening to
the sound of music; when thinking about it, like a man from the north
shearing sheep; when making it a living experience, like a man getting
drunk; when establishing its validity, like a yak eating grass hungrily;
and when you come to possess its fruition you must be free from clouds
like the sun.
47
 

Gampopa

 
 
the nature of thought
 
We also need some specific ideas on which to reflect.  We need a modicum of basic understanding - at an intellectual level - of the nature of reality.  These, broadly, are the conditions for reflection.  If we are well grounded in the conditions for samatha, and have some knowledge of the Dharma, then our reflection will bear mature fruit.
 
As background information, it may also be useful to understand something about the nature of thought, how we can develop the capacity to reflect, the different levels of reflection, and the way these levels can work together in a deepening process of insight.
 
kinds of thought
 
associative thinking
 
Mindfulness of thoughts (the fourth of the Foundations of Mindfulness - touched on in Chapter Three) can be an interesting practice.  It is especially interesting to see the way one thought leads out of another.  You have to be quite sharply concentrated to catch the changes, but sometimes you can trace the stages of your thinking from this thought, now, right back to its source.
 
It is rather like the way some conversations go.  You start off talking with a close friend about something that happened to you last week, and by the time ten minutes have gone by you are both sounding off on what appears to be a completely disassociated topic.  After this has gone on for another ten minutes, one of you wonders `Now, how did we ever get on to talking about that?’ - and you may not be able to remember.
 
The same thing is constantly happening in the mind.  Perhaps you are sitting in meditation, not really very concentratedly, and you gradually become aware that you are thinking about how to make a particular kind of sandwich.  In your imagination, you've been in the kitchen, making that sandwich - thinking about the best way to make that kind of sandwich - for at least five minutes! Where did that thought come from?
 
You think back, and try to see the chain of connections that produced that line of thought, and you remember that some time ago - in fact it was quite soon after you sat down for the meditation session - you heard the late-afternoon chimes from one of the local ice cream vans.  You know this one well - it repeats, ad nauseam, a single phrase from `Eine Kleine Nachtmusik'.  Sometimes you find this profoundly irritating.  But you didn't this time - and it also seems that ice cream wasn't the immediate occasion for you to start thinking about food.  But it was the chimes that set your chain of distracted thoughts going.  So what were the thoughts? Yes - of course - it’s spring now, and this is the first time you have heard the chimes this year.  You remember now - your thoughts were ranging far, far away.  You went back to a former springtime, years ago when you were very young indeed, and you had afternoon tea with one of your aunts.  What a strange old lady she was! Anyway  you thought about that for quite a long time, and it was only then you started mentally making the sandwich.
 
Is our mind always so chaotic? Well, of course the degree of chaos may vary from person to person, but this `associative' style of thinking is the way our minds seem to work quite a lot of the time.  Often, of course, we form our ideas quite deliberately.  But the majority of ideas come into our mind unbidden, and usually through some kind of association.  This happens all the time, not only when we are day-dreaming.
 
It is natural for the mind to chase mental objects, and to associate one mental object with another.  The associations of ideas that we make are often very interesting from a psychological point of view.  Very often the most creative and original ideas arise through this kind of associative thought - it’s how Einstein conceived his theory of relativity, for example.
 
directed thinking
 
The other kind of thinking is what we usually mean by the word `thought’ - it’s the kind that we deliberately create and direct, as when we are planning our day, or working out some problem.  We have a more or less definite purpose in mind - we are trying to keep our mind on a particular subject and are looking for a conclusion.  Or we may be looking for the implications or ramifications of a certain idea - asking ourselves what something means.  In all this deliberation we employ logic (often it's our own personal kind of logic).  We may or may not jump to premature conclusions, make rash generalizations, or avoid obvious truths.  We may succeed, or fail, in thinking an issue through towards its most satisfactory solution.
 
Most of us spend a relatively small proportion of our thinking time in directing our thoughts.  And even when we do, our directed thinking is often strongly influenced by associative thoughts - we often just direct our attention to a certain topic, and from there our thinking method is one of associating ideas; we simply bring our attention back to the main issues from time to time.
 
Generally, this seems a fairly healthy way of proceeding, since it acknowledges the place of unconscious `lateral' thought processes.  But the conclusions to which we come do matter.  The clarity of our reasoning is a certain measure of our development - we must be alert to the dangers of vague, woolly thinking.
 
Ideas are important.  From where we are at the moment, what we have is a notion of spiritual development.  It's mostly an idea, and only partly a reality.  We need to transform abstract ideas like this into concretely experienced realities.  This is why so much spiritual practice is concerned with deepening one's experience, becoming mindful of what one is actually doing, what is actually happening.  That's the practice - but there's also our view.  We always have views - of some kind - about what we are doing, and like everything else in us, our views need periodic reassessment and change.  The ideas, the `operational concepts' of Buddhism, provide an essential framework for our practice.  They give guidelines as to why we do what we do.
 
reflection
 

Wisdom is a butterfly and not a gloomy bird of prey

 
W.B.  Yeats

 
Reflection is the process of increasing clarification of views - particularly, in this context, views that relate to the path of liberation.  We may reflect on any topic that catches our mental eye, and different revisions of the same idea may continue to turn over in our minds for weeks, and perhaps many years, afterwards.  But there is always some reference to `the nature of things’ - to the great unsolved mysteries of existence.
 
Such deeper references may be subconscious, a part of the associative nature of the mind.  It may be that we don't really know why a certain topic interests us.  But one day, maybe years later, we may see that it is deeply connected to the fundamentals of our existence.
 
For example we may find ourselves often thinking about the phenomenon of violence.  We may be inclined to be fascinated by the military posturings of the different world powers, perhaps both excited and appalled by the media reports of conflicts and wars.  Our reflection topic here is `War and Peace’ - as Tolstoy's must also have been for many years before he compiled his great collage of human experience.  With a certain amount of self-knowledge, we may wonder what possibilities there are for peace in a world made up of immature, confused beings more or less like ourselves.  Turning to our immediate experience, we may marvel at the multitude of conditions for both peace and war that we set up in our own attitudes towards others, and that they set up towards us.  Or we may simply reflect on peace, and on the possibilities of human potential.
 
There is an ocean of such topics, issues that can never be brought to easy `conclusions’ - they will always be rich topics for reflection, to be turned over and over again in the mind.
 
musing on the flickering coals
 
There is a `musing' type of reflection that is a close relative of the associative type of thought.  It's as though we are sitting by a warm fireside on a frosty winter's night, gazing into the flickering coals of our thoughts and ideas.  Or it's like looking out of the window on a long train journey, our eyes taking in both the changing scenery and the reflections in the glass, our mind elsewhere.  The window is just a medium - it’s just somewhere to rest the eyes, something to keep the senses occupied while the thinking mind engages in deeper concerns.  Our inner eye wants to observe the ideas as they arise of themselves, and as they disclose previously unseen layers of meaning.
 
deliberation
 
It may be a good idea to work some of these spontaneously arising ideas into some kind of shape.  In other words, reflection may usefully be employed in a directed way too - we may deliberately choose some object of contemplation and think it through.  Deliberate thinking may be very calm and cool, like a surgeon's scalpel.  But sometimes we may need to seize on our ideas hawk-like, challenging them and testing them.  Sometimes we may even need to force ourselves, reluctantly, to face obvious conclusions.
 
It is essential to do this - though the slow, musing, butterfly-like aspect also needs to be allowed space in our reflections.  To live up to its name, reflection must include both activity and receptivity, musing and deliberation.  Indeed, the word reflection implies a two-way relationship between subject and object.
 
levels of insight
 
Reflection thus involves listening to our thoughts - gazing into the fire, or at the reflections in the window - as well as directing them with clarity and purpose.  Reflection, as a method of gaining insight into deeper truths, seems itself to possess a many-sided nature.
 
Buddhist teaching distinguishes three separate phases of deepening of insight.  There is a listening phase when we take in information, a reflection phase when we digest the implications of that information, and a meditation phase when we take the process deeper towards full realization.
 
(1) listening
 
We do not always realize the extent to which our ability to learn is dependent on attitude.  A traditional Buddhist model for `listening’ - taking in new information - is to be like a clean, empty receptacle, ready and waiting for some important spiritual teaching.
 

Not to listen is the defect of a pot turned upside down;
not to bear in mind what you have heard is that of a pot with a leaky
bottom; to be affected by [negative emotion] is that of a poisonous
pot.
 
When you listen to the explanation of the Dharma, you
must listen to the voice of him who explains it without the perceiving
faculty of your ears straying to some other sound.  When you do not
listen in this way, it is as if juice is poured on a pot with its
opening down, for, though your body is present in the teaching room,
you do not hear a single word of the Dharma.
 
When you do not bear in mind the Dharma  though
the words have reached the perceiving and hearing faculties, it is
as if juice is poured into a pot with a leaky bottom - however much
you may pour, nothing will remain there; and however much of the Dharma
you may have heard, you do not know how to instil it into your mind
and how to take it to heart.
 
When you hear the explanation of the Dharma, but listen
to it with  thoughts affected by the five [mental] poisons
48
not only will the Dharma not become beneficial to your mind,
it will even turn into its very opposite, and this is like healthy
juice poured into a poisonous pot.
49

 
Gampopa

 
`Listening' here may refer to any medium of communication - for example reading counts as `listening'.  In fact, books are likely to be a major source of information.
 
Perhaps a more accurate expression, then, is `absorbing information'.  If we want to absorb some new information, it helps if we take an active interest in it - if we actively listen.  The verse quoted shows that the traditional expectation for listening to, or `hearing', spiritual teaching (suta-maya panna) is more than just having one's aural sense functioning at the same time and place as the teaching is delivered.
 
The same considerations can apply in the realm of learning.  If we are to learn, it's important that we are prepared to put aside our immediate emotional reactions to new material - for listening really means understanding the material, not merely as we `hear' it, but as it is actually taught.  In order not to be a `poisonous vessel', it is necessary to be mindful of emotional responses - otherwise what we understand to have been said may be quite different from what was actually intended.  It is easy to filter what a speaker or writer is saying through our own immediate reactions.  If we don't like the sound of a particular example or turn of phrase, it can distort the meaning for us.  So if the writer's meaning is unclear to us, we should ask what he or she was intending to say.
 
(2) reflection
 
Sometimes, when we have absorbed a new idea, it gets under our skin and just won't let us go.  We keep thinking about it, and the more we think and consider and reflect, the more clearly we understand it.
 
This is reflection proper (cinta-maya panna).  This stage of insight is about deepening our understanding of ideas that we have already heard.  A good way of expressing it is making ideas your own - it’s the art of digesting received ideas into the body of your own thinking.
 
To a certain extent, reflection goes on in us naturally, because often we cannot help thinking about the implications of certain ideas.  However, if we leave reflection up to our natural impulses, we will only consider those topics which naturally occur to us, and possibly miss important topics.  We may also be too uncritical in our thinking.
 
putting time aside
 
So deliberate reflection is also important.  The principal method of doing this is to recall a topic and simply turn it over in the mind.  You can do this at any odd moment, but it's a good idea to put aside time specifically for reflection.
 
When you have some free time - half an hour or even twenty minutes may sometimes be sufficient - don’t automatically reach for a book.  Resolve to use this time solely for reflection.  Put everything else aside, sit in a comfortable chair, and relax.  Tune in to your thoughts.
 
Thoughts go through our minds all the time, so we may consider that there is no need to stop doing other things in order to think.  But though it is possible to do two, three or even four things at a time, it is not always the most effective way of conducting ourselves.  Certainly our thought will benefit greatly from being given some time to itself.  Often the reason we waste so much of our meditation time in thinking is because we don't provide any other mental space for it.
 
So don't hesitate to spend time in this way.  It isn't a waste of time or an indulgence - giving a little time to the activity of thinking could make a huge difference, not only to the quality of your life, but also to your relationships with others.
 
To some extent reflection is a human need - it’s a faculty that wants, as it were, to be exercised.  It may be that many emotional problems are made worse - or even caused - by lack of reflection.  If you always squeeze your thinking in between other external activities of life, or last thing at night before you fall asleep, you may be fostering a keen inner sense of frustration (not to mention insomnia).
 
Don't feel that it's pretentious to put time aside for thinking, just because you're no great intellectual.  Reflection is not about self-importantly `thinking great thoughts'; it's about using a human faculty – thought - to deepen your awareness of what it means to be a human being.  It's something every human being has deep in his or her nature.
 
topics for reflection
 
Think about what is going on in your life and the lives of others, think about your spiritual development, think about issues that have arisen recently.  Try to work out more clearly what you think about them - and also, think about the world situation.  Think about life and death, love and will.  Think about potential, about actions and consequences.
 
The Tibetan Buddhist tradition lists a number of `preliminary foundations’ - topics of reflection that are very effective in galvanizing an interest in spiritual growth.
 
For example, there is our potential for Enlightenment.
50 The historical Buddha and many other practitioners of his teachings all gained a state of complete spiritual freedom.  Anyone can do this by making an appropriate effort.  Then there is the preciousness of human life.  Sometimes human existence may be difficult and frustrating, but we are also uniquely free, especially if we have all our physical and mental faculties available.  We are even more fortunate if we are living in a part of the world where we have not only heard about Buddhism but have the political freedom to practise it openly.  There are many situations in the world where there is very little freedom of choice, where the main consideration has to be finding very basic necessities.  Do we really understand how lucky we are? Then there is the fact that we live in a universe characterized by impermanence.  Nothing can last very long, not even our own bodies.  From this it seems clear that life is basically unsatisfactory.  It certainly isn't possible to find any lasting satisfaction, though there may be temporary compensations - which don't really compensate for the unsatisfactory nature of things, but keep us happily(?) distracted from reality.  This is the situation we are all in, and - like impermanence - it’s a fruitful topic for reflection.  The fact that actions have consequences is a very profound and mysterious theme indeed, one that seems bottomless in its depth of potential for reflection.  Then there is the need for spiritual friends - think of all the people who have helped you gain your present perspectives on life.  Where would you be without their influence? And where would others be without your influence? It's worth reflecting on the benefits of liberation - the sheer value of growth and development.  The more you think about the possibilities for growth, the more appreciative and positive will be your response towards it.  Positive emotion itself is a valuable topic for reflection, together with what is perhaps the supreme positive emotion, the motivation towards Enlightenment for the sake of all beings, or Bodhichitta.  It is on the basis of the stirrings of Bodhichitta (literally, `enlightenment-mind') that one conceives the desire to commit oneself to the Buddhist Path, and grow towards the state of Buddhahood.
 
All these topics will bear almost endless reflection.  You may relate to them easily or with difficulty - difficult emotional responses are par for the course, since the implications of all these topics are so vast - but nevertheless the deepening process of reflection will benefit your mind to an immeasurable extent.
 
our reflections get reflected back to us
 
Introspective reflection is not the only way of bringing to maturity the ideas we have taken in - interaction with others can also have a ripening effect.  Discussing a topic such as one of these `preliminary foundations' with a friend can often have far more of a galvanizing effect than thinking it through quietly at home.  It's interesting to see how much it is possible to disagree on such themes - and discussion might often reveal levels of much-cherished unclear or wishful thinking that we would probably never see on our own.  Then we can go home and think about it all, again! Thus discussion makes a very good support for reflection - it can lead our thinking on from reflection to further reflection.  Spontaneous discussions after dinner, or over the washing up, can sometimes be very useful.  But more formal discussion groups, or study groups, may be even more valuable if they are arranged on a regular basis.  Perhaps you could organize a weekly get-together with some like-minded friends, either using your own choice of material, or agreeing on a more experienced study leader whom all of you respect.
 
Sometimes it is said that we only learn deeply about something when we start teaching it.  If we know a topic well, teaching can be an excellent support for our reflection.  Teaching is a way of intensifying our understanding, because when we teach, we have to account for our ideas.  For example, if we have been studying Buddhism for some years it may be useful to start assisting with - or leading - study groups, or giving short talks.  The feedback we get from these efforts will show us the gaps in our understanding.  We'll see more clearly the extent to which we have really made the teaching our own, and to what extent it is still just theory.
 
sowing dharma seeds
 
Reflection sooner or later yields its own crop of ideas, and these fruits of our intellectual labours will, in turn, seed further ideas.  We'll return again and again to these `seed' ideas in our further reflection.
 
Seeds like this are the ideal object of reflection in the vipassana sense.  It is not enough merely to have a bare, undigested idea of a topic like `impermanence' or `shunyata'.  We need a Dharma seed - an idea that has developed numerous facets of meaning for us.  The more we reflect on the Dharma, the more Dharma seeds will emerge for us, and the more genuine topics we shall have for vipassana meditation.
 
(3) meditation
 
The third level of insight is bhavana-maya Panna - or vipassana meditation, as explored to some extent in Chapter Five.  However, some other aspects of its nature may be clearer now that we have gone into its basis in thinking and reflection - now that we have seen the way that thinking and reflection are just as necessary, as preliminaries to insight meditation, as samatha meditation.
 
the varieties of dharma seeds
 
There are other kinds of Dharma seeds in addition to conceptual ideas like impermanence.  Many forms of vipassana meditation employ symbols, mantras, and `seed-syllables'.  In the same way as a meaningful concept, this more symbolic type of Dharma seed contains a great deal of previous reflection.
 
This aspect of Buddhist meditation apparently remains something of a mystery to some meditators.  For example mantras like Om Mani Padme Hum have become widely known in the West.  But since mantras are often repeated many times in meditational and devotional practices, they are sometimes wrongly seen as embodying a merely mechanical approach to spiritual development.  The point of repetition, however, is the same as that of repeated reflection - the meaning of the mantra needs to penetrate beneath the surface of the conscious mind before deep transformation can take place.  Of course, there will always be people who practise in a mechanical way - we probably do it ourselves from time to time - but properly speaking a mantra becomes a Dharma seed in the same way as a concept.  For example the mantra just quoted may encapsulate, symbolically, a great deal of reflection on the Enlightened qualities of friendliness and kindness.  It is the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
 
germinating dharma seeds
 
An experienced practitioner of Buddhist meditation, one who seriously reflects on the Dharma, will have many Dharma ideas, ideas regarding the ultimate nature of things, growing in his or her mind.  Since it has no defined conceptual meaning, apart from general associations such as compassion, a mantra is a very useful peg upon which to hang a particular family of ideas, understandings, and mini-insights.  The same principle also applies to all the many kinds of symbolic representation found in most traditions of Buddhist meditation - the visualized Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, for example.  For the practitioner they can come to represent the potential living reality of Enlightened wisdom and compassion in a way that mere words cannot.
 
deepening insight
 
All these symbols are Dharma seeds that are continually maturing in significance within the meditator's mind.  For someone who is practising vipassana meditation regularly, reflection feeds into insight meditation, the results of which feed back into further reflection, initiating a spiral process of continually growing insight into reality.
 
the process of insight
 
We can now see how the system of the three levels of insight (Pali panna, Sanskrit prajna) works together as a whole.  Reflection is its central core, absorbing whatever information it has `listened' to by continually winding round the idea, turning it upside down and inside out in a quest for its inner meaning, then from time to time it tackles that inner meaning - at a word-transcending level - in meditation.  Finally it allows the fruits of that work to nourish even deeper reflections.
 
creating conditions for insight
 
Like meditation itself, all three levels of insight require certain conditions in order to be fully effective.  Most of these have already been alluded to, but it's worth collecting them all together.
 
Perhaps the most important condition is our sense of motivation, the `hunger for truth' that was mentioned at the start of this chapter.  Unless we strongly want to gain insight, it won't happen.
 
Then there is discussion and debate with like-minded friends.  This will focus your mind on the issues involved.  In discussion, it is important to try to understand what another person is trying to say as well as what they seem, to you, to be saying.  It is also important, for you, to express your own ideas.
 
It is important to exercise the intellect and nourish it with good quality material.  Remember the analogy of the child who if not fed properly will just eat junk food - the mind naturally wants to take in ideas, so use discrimination in what you choose to give it.  Reading is a precious gift - contact with great minds, through literature, is invaluable.  Use the opportunities that you have to read whatever good literature, ancient and modern, takes your interest.  Study some Dharma on your own as well as in study or discussion groups.
 
Read the books you find most valuable again and again.  What was said just now about mechanical repetition was not meant as a suggestion that repetition has to be mechanical.  On the contrary, repetition is vital.  Reading and re-reading the works you love - in a receptive way, with an attitude of desiring to learn - will take understanding deeper.  As a general principle, when we encounter anything for the first time we do so at a relatively superficial level.  We rarely fully understand every aspect of an idea the first moment we encounter it.
 
The condition that will tie all these conditions together - and enable us to focus our energies in one-pointed reflection - is the practice of mindfulness.  Mindfulness acts as a support to the development of insight in the same way as it supports concentration in meditation.  If we continually maintain a breadth of awareness - of body, feelings, emotions, and thoughts - we may then more easily focus on our most important thoughts in deep reflection, and so form the Dharma seeds that may flower, later, into fully matured insights.
 
solitude
 
Everything that was suggested earlier as a condition for meditation will also aid the whole process of listening, reflecting, and meditating.  But there is one very immediate condition that we also need to provide.  Taking our thoughts deep requires a certain measure of inner solitude.
 
My own teacher once wrote the following advice to a young poet.  To produce meaningful poetry, a writer needs to spend long periods of time in reflection.  After stressing the importance of mindful preparation for writing poetry - in terms of awareness of the external world, your own inner feelings and responses, and sensitivity towards other people - Sangharakshita compares reflection to the fire in which one smelts the gold ore of the unrefined poem (or, as we can also say, the unrefined insight).  This crude gold ore is to be melted, he says, in the crucible of solitude.
 
 

Without some degree of solitude reflection is impossible,
and without prolonged reflection no great work of art was ever brought
forth.  The poet needs solitude as the lungs need air.
By solitude is meant not so much physical loneliness as
inner isolation, for the time being at least, from all that does not
directly concern the process of poetic creation.
Physical withdrawal from normal human activities and interests
can be included in the definition of solitude only to the extent that
the latter is dependent on it.  In the urbanized and industrialized
societies of the present age this is with increasing frequency the case. 
Without withdrawing externally from the hurry and bustle of modern life
the poet may not be able to find the internal solitude necessary
for the progress and perfection of his work.
51

 
Sangharakshita

 
Reflection provides a context for our practice of Buddhism.  If we reflect often, our understanding will remain in touch with the `flavour' of Dharmic ideas, and will always be ready to take them further.  All our experience will be seen in the light of the Dharma, and so, when the meaning of the Dharma is with us all the time, we will obviously tend to put the Dharma more into practice.
 
 

Just as, monks, the mighty ocean is of one flavour, the flavour
of salt, even so, monks, this Dhamma is of one flavour,
the flavour of release.
52

 

Gautama Buddha