Three Watches of the Night

The moon is used a lot in metaphors for enlightenment, but with the Buddha, it’s Venus that symbolizes his Awakening.

Siddhartha sat down and meditated through the three watches of the night. The first watch is from dusk to around 10pm; the second is from 10pm to 2am; the third is from 2am to dawn. His Awakening occurred during the third watch when he looked up and saw the morning star.

The three watches are decent metaphor for meditation as well. When we sit Samatha (tranquil abiding) meditation, subduing the scrambling monkey-mind is like dusk. The first watch involves a lot of effort. We’re constantly wrestling attention away from wandering thoughts and planting it back on our meditation object.

The longer we’re able to focus, the dimmer the sky gets. But there are still a lot of distractions up there. The first watch of the night is when most of the planets and the brightest stars are still romping around the sky. There’s Jupiter, Sirius, Capella, and Vega—all calling the eyes to them.

Instead, we’re resisting that call, and cloaking the mind in the shadows on the grass, on the space between stars.

During the second watch, the sky has changed a bit. The brighter celestial objects are setting and the sun’s rays are long gone. This is when we’re able to keep concentration going indefinitely with only peripheral thoughts, emotions, memories, visions, etc. fluttering about like here and there like shooting stars.

Sights, sounds, touch, etc. all seem to slowly fade. It’s sometime during this watch that we start moving through the jhanas. It’s as if the aurora borealis has made its way into the sky. It’s like the Milky Way stretching out overhead. Here we experience joy and pleasure that grow to mind-boggling degrees. It’s easy to get attached to them, so it takes a little work to get past the first three jhanas.

The fourth jhana is perfect equanimity and union with the meditation object. It marks the start of the third watch.

This is when we shift gears and start Vipassana (insight/mindfulness) meditation. This corresponds to the Buddha looking up at Venus. He saw the morning star with a crisp, clear, tranquil mind and was able to investigate its nature. He realized that all things are dependently arisen. He saw that, in that moment, the mind and eyes were coming into contact with a sight, and through that arose the experience: Venus. He realized that his feelings about the morning star, his word for it, his mood, and the fact that he even chose to look at it at all arose from sanskharas, cognitive habits crafted through desire and conditioning. He realized that he, himself, was the same way: a nexus of causes and conditions bundled together via perception and tied shut by habituated desire.

He saw that just as Venus rises and sets, all things have their rising and setting. He saw that it’s ignorance of impermanence and dependent arising that lures the aggregates into clinging to things and craving their presence or absence. He saw that this is what causes suffering, grief, and despair. So, he stopped, and he was free. The sun rose, the night was over, and he went on to share his freedom with others.

Daylight is dazzling to an immature mind. The sun and the full moon don’t reveal to us the way things are, they only shine more light on details that we inevitably misunderstand.

That’s why the sunset’s important, why we clear the way for nightfall. Then, when the sun rises again, the light is equally bright within and without. We’re no longer shadow people living in a sunlit world. We’re on the same page as the world that turns beneath our feet.

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