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An Overview
The Practice of Virtue
The Development of Insight
An Overview

Section 4: Mechanics of the Mind

Guarding of the Doors
One phrase you will hear many times in the discourses of the Buddha is, "He guards the doors of his sense faculties". This is a very important phrase and should be understood in great detail. What does he mean by guard the 'doors' of the sense faculties? What does he mean by the 'sense faculties'? Why did he use this phrase? The simplest interpretation is that a person undergoing training should not become 'lost' in sense perceptions. In other words we wouldn't walk down the street gawking at flashing lights and billboard signs, or as they say in North America, ‘veg out in front of the tube.’ This all comes under the category of training our behavior through restraint of the sense faculties, however, as we will see it has a deeper significance.
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Habitual Stimuli
When a person lets go of restraint and indulges in one of the senses, they become dominated by that sense and become addicted to habitual stimuli. It is interesting to note that indulgence does not lead to satiation of desire, but instead has the effect of deadening the sense that is over-stimulated. This leads to a blind repetitive effort to fulfill a desire that is moving further and further away from our grasp. Because of this we are less and less aware of what is entering the mind by way of that given sense perception. Thus we become lost in the cycle of more and more stimulation being needed to produce less and less pleasure. Because of this the Buddha would exhort his disciples to control their senses and to exert their energy to be aware of sense stimuli.
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Inner Plane
In order to understand this process of restraint on the internal plane it is necessary to go into deeper analysis of what is occurring. The ancients have said: "The eye does not see visible objects because it has no mind, the mind does not see because it has no eyes." However, when there is an outward stimulus, eye sensitivity as a physical base and wakefulness at the mind door, then one is said to be aware of the object by sight. I know that sounds very technical, but the ancients put it that way for a very good reason. Let me give you an example of the problems that might arise if it were not analyzed in this degree of detail. We as human beings have a tendency to project our inward experience onto outward phenomena. In this way we lead ourselves to believe that outward objects have an inherent nature. We do this in accordance with the responses the stimuli produce in our mind. For instance, if the sight of the female form produced lust in a man and he projected his experience onto the outer world, then he would be inclined to attribute unwholesome qualities to the object, not to his mind. It is this projection onto the object that has led us into some very strange places in our religious thinking, such as seeing the naked human body as sinful or bad. However, in Buddha Dharma it is stated that if the mind is purified, or free of lust and desire, the object is seen as what it is. In this case it would merely be registered as a human form subject to old age, death and decay ­ not something desirable, not something to be lusted after, seeing it without attachment or aversion. In other words, by guarding the mind door we do not unconsciously grasp the sign or impression of the feminine form as desirable. It is this grasping or aversion to an object, which arises in the mind that, produces karma and drives us into blind becoming.
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The Sign
Every object experienced by the unenlightened mind has varying degrees of intensity and at a certain level produces a sign. Returning to our example of the female form, this sign or mental perception is an image arising at the mind door. It is perceived as beautiful, voluptuous, soft, desirable, etc. We should understand that this first impulse of desirability is the basis for the defilement. In order to be free of grasping or fixating on particulars, such as the way a woman smiles or laughs, we should merely see what is present in a functional sense, the same way we would register the presence of a table or chair. This is what is meant by, 'guarding the sense doors'. In other words, we are watchful and aware of the impact and first impression of any stimuli coming from one of the senses. This watchfulness or mindfulness takes great calm and clarity and cannot be cultivated by one who is weak in their determination.
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The Training
So let’s look at how the training would proceed. First off, one would practice avoidance. When the sense object, in this case the sight of the female form, produces a strong attraction, we would avoid the object in a physical sense. We would break the captivation by averting the eyes. We would not frequent places where the feminine form was blatantly used as a sexual object to lure our attention. Secondly, we would ask the question, 'Why is this particular object producing this particular effect on consciousness?' When we see that the object arouses us merely because we have been programmed by our genes to procreate, we should begin to train our mind to be free of that impulse. We must continue in this training until the object no longer arouses the habitual and unconscious response. If we no longer automatically act out this instinctual attraction then we are developing the discipline. Training ourselves in this way, we gradually give up projecting our mental state onto the object of perception. We have used as an example an object of attraction, but this process can also be examined from the point of view of an object that we had an aversion to. This is how the practice of virtuous behavior can purify the mind.
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An Example
A wonderful example is given in the ancient commentaries. It seems that the elder Maha Tissa, who dwelt in Cetiyapabbata and was on the road to Anuradhapura to ask for alms, passed a woman who had quarreled with her husband. She was all dressed up and tricked out like a celestial nymph and on her way to a relative's home. Seeing the elder on the road and being of a low mind, she laughed a lewd laugh. The elder wondered “What was that?”, looked up and found in the bones of her teeth the perception of foulness. Because of this he attained Arahatship.

When he saw her teeth he kept in mind his first perception, that of bones, and because of the previous work he had done the sign of foulness appeared.

Sometime later, her worried husband came upon the elder and asked, "Venerable Sir, did you by any chance see a woman come this way?" The elder replied: “Whether it was a man or a woman that went by, I noticed not - only that on this high road there goes a bag of bones.”

If we analyze this story and read the commentary on it, we find the elder was practicing the meditations on the impurities of the body, or what is referred to in the text as the asubha meditations. When he saw the woman's teeth, the mental image or nimita (which is a sign that arises in consciousness when there is absorption on the object), was the first impression that arose in his mind. Because he remained clear and recognized this first impulse as it arose at the mind door and because he did not respond to it with attraction or aversion, the habitual thought process was not set in motion. In this way he attained access jhana, the first level of absorption. This happened because he had developed the preliminary work. While he stood there he reached the first jhana; he then made that the basis for insight. This he augmented until he attained each level of the Path. In this way, one after another, he reached the destruction of all of the defilements. Because the elder was focused (and remained focused) on his meditation with the mind door ‘well guarded,’ he was able to recognize the sign when it arose. If he had not been diligent in his guarding of the mind door, he would have been caught in a state of desire or aversion. If desire had arisen then the state of covetousness would have followed. If aversion had arisen, a state of resentment and ill will would have followed. Instead, the mind was clear and apprehended the mental sign before it became an impulse of attraction or aversion at the mind door. Focusing upon that he was able to attain jhana, the Paths until finally attaining Arahatship.

In order to fully understand what occurred in the elder's mind at the moment of his attainment it would be necessary to analyze that moment of consciousness using the javana process as described in the Abhidhamma. Since it is out of the range of this book to undertake that task we will only refer to it in passing.

One might ask at this point: How does this apply to the average person? Is it necessary to have practiced meditation for a long time to be able to recognize the signs as they arise in consciousness? The answer is yes. Without a highly developed meditative life it is virtually impossible to experience the momentary arisings of the mind. Fortunately for us we can approach it in a different way.

In the Abhidhamma it is stated that different objects will have varying degrees of power to affect the mind. Different karmic proclivities within each individual determine this. Nevertheless, some signs have a universal quality. For instance, an image that would be powerful on all minds would be that of a large truck barreling towards us out of control. Because the organism recognizes this as a potentially life threatening situation, the impact of the image on the mind would have great intensity. On the other hand, if we are walking down the street and see a fleeting image of a naked human form, depending on how the mind is conditioned there may arise lust in consciousness. Different stimuli will trigger lust in different individuals due to previous karma. The idea here is that because of our previous associations some images or sense perceptions will make a greater impression upon consciousness than others.

Now to go back to a practical level, how do we train our minds? Each of us knows when lust, greed, hatred and dullness are present in consciousness and we must train the mind by first recognizing these gross manifestations and recognizing what produces them. Which images or sense perceptions produce lust in consciousness; which images or sense perceptions produce greed in consciousness; which ones produce hatred; and finally, which ones produce dullness or delusional states. To begin the work of training the mind we must first recognize the states of mind, label them and name them.

In conjunction with this recognition, the Buddha defined four right efforts in relationship to training the mind. The first effort is to abstain from the unwholesome now in the present. The second is to take steps to avoid the unwholesome in the future. The third is to recognize the wholesome in the present. The fourth is to take steps to ensure that the wholesome will arise in the future.
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