My understanding, which is shared by Bhikkhu Bodhi and is mentioned in Ajahn Brahmali’s talks, is that they function together like individual strands that, bound together, make up a single rope (the path). Sure, you need all the factors, but it isn’t really a “Step one, get Right View and forget about the other steps,” is it? It’s a collection of elements all working in harmony and exerting influence. You’re working on all of them at the same time. Regarding the three characteristics, they are all true of all dhammas all the time. I don’t think we can, based on an explanation in a text, tell people, “You couldn’t have experienced anatta because you didn’t say you first experience anicca and dukkha.” I don’t think the path, as it’s practiced and experienced (in contrast to how it’s laid out in a pedagogical manner in a text) is that clear cut. But to each their own.
WHEN CALM ARISES,INVESTIGATE THE BODY
Sometimes we may think, “Ohhh, why is it that everyone around
me seems so sure of themselves and free of doubts, but I’m filled
with them?” It’s because though our wanting to see the Dhamma has
come about through a lot of listening and studying which is a form of
wisdom, it causes us to expect certain results. It’s a constant struggle
that gives rise to restlessness. We want so much to achieve.
Luang Pu Chah would say to put it aside for now. Just leave it alone
at this point. It’s just like a glass filled with water: we have to pour
the water out before we can put drinking water in. If the glass is filled
with water already, the drinking water can’t go in, it will overflow. In
the same way, if we think we know everything then the Dhamma
can’t enter our heart. So at first we need to reduce diññhimāna
(conceited opinion). This is really important in the way of practice
Luang Pu Chah taught.
Luang Pu Chah’s style was to lead by example and to do as he taught.
Sometimes we might be careless and think critically of him, letting
our sense of self come up in the mind. But when we continue the
practice we would admit, “Who am I to criticise him? I can’t keep up
Maybe we have good samādhi. In those days when my samādhi was
good, pīti would arise. I could get to upacāra samādhi. My mind was
cool and at ease; no mental disturbances would enter. Entering states
of calm was really easy. I thought, “There’s no need to investigate
the body, I’ll go straight to the mind.” I didn’t want to contemplate
the body, I just wanted to go straight to the mind, straight to the
So I went and saw Luang Pu Chah. He quickly pointed out to me,
“Right now are you peaceful?” Right then I was nervous and
trembling because I was with Luang Pu Chah. The peace the heart
previously had before totally vanished and I couldn’t even pull
myself together. I was flooded with delusion. Then this delusion
answered that, yes, I was calm. But all it was doing was taking the
state I experienced one hour ago and using that as an answer.
Looking back at it I wasn’t in the present moment at all; I just took a
previous state and brought it up as an answer.
But Luang Pu Chah knew that this was just delusion talking. He said
to go back and keep investigating the body over and over. This really
stuck in my mind. Keep investigating the body, right here in this
physical mass of saïkhāras.
Still I thought, “Hmm, why does Luang Pu Chah keep having me
investigate this body when my mind is so calm? All I want to do is
delve into this mind.” I wanted the fast track to nibbāna. But later,
the deeper levels of samādhi that I had been experiencing subsided.
That’s how it goes, down, down, down, until it’s like we have no
samādhi at all. We have to go back and carefully tend to the mind
anew. We have to re-establish samādhi in the heart.
And this is really hard. It’s a real struggle, step by step, inch by inch.
Contemplating death, walking caïkama, sitting in meditation, keeping
the mind with the parikamma as much as possible. Slowly but surely
it gets better, step by step. And when it gets better, it’s better than
before. There’s more power and sati-paññā than there was before.
Getting in and investigating the body as asubha, as filthy, seeing the
body as more and more unattractive, the heart experiences greater
levels of pīti. As we see the unattractiveness of the body, the heart
goes into deeper levels of happiness. The more we see the body as
unattractive, the greater the peace becomes. It functions back and
forth like this.
If in the past we saw this body as attractive, its outer appearance as
beautiful, then the heart wasn’t radiant, it was engulfed in darkness
and overrun with kilesas. But if we see the body as something not
beautiful, then the heart becomes beautiful. It becomes bright and
luminous, because it sees the truth. It’s as if the heart flips over and
experiences true peace. It becomes calm and still.
Investigate hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin. When
they are refined and broken down we can see them as elements. Just
elements, earth, water, fire and air. Separate the whole mass out and
analyse them as anattā . If we pull them all apart and see them as
anattā , then the heart comes to peace.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Pursue it to the end and try to find a
self. Separate all the elements and see them as they really are.
Understand and know what these elements are like. Take a look inside.
Where is the earth? Where is the water? Where is the fire? Where is
the air? Really look closely.
In and out, back and forth, round and round. Split, divide and analyse
them from the angle that they are just elements. Here’s the earth,
here’s the water, here’s the fire, here’s the air. Investigate down
inwards…what’s in this body? Poke and prod at it right here. Pick it
up and analyse one part.
Today just focus on the water element. What is the water element like
in this body? Investigate just this one part. “Is this water a person or
self?” Review and reflect upon it like this. Water is just water isn’t it?
Is the water outside us a person or self? So why is the water inside
this body a person or self then? How is that so? Is it really a being or
person? Investigate this thoroughly and clearly. Bile, phlegm, pus,
blood, spit, grease, urine. Investigate them one by one, closely, back
and forth all through the water element until we see the whole mass
joined together as anattā . Our heart will become at ease, like a
weight has been lifted, because we have seen the truth.
We keep on investigating, looking at it over and over again, until we
feel that its intensity has faded and become flat, until the
investigation becomes stale. Then investigate another part of the
water element. Change it around often and bring it back to the start
and go again.
Investigate the earth element as well, the hair of the head, hair of the
body, nails, teeth, skin. What are they like? What does the earth element
appear like? How does it change appearances? In the end, what does it
end up like, where does it go to and where does it come from? Why is it
in this state now? In the past was it the same? Investigate back
and forth, over and over, until it falls apart and is reduced to its
The food that we consume is just elements as well. How does it
enhance and supplement us? Look at it—the earth adds to the earth,
water adds to the water, fire to fire, wind to wind.
Investigate right at earth, water, fire and air, right here, this mass of
four elements. Over and over, in and out, right down to the finest
details, and then build them up again in fine detail. Do this for clear
seeing and understanding. This is wisdom that comes about through