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The different forms of Buddhism can be understood by becoming familiar with the two major schools that arose out of the Buddha’s basic teachings:
The two major schools of Buddhism, Theravada and the Mahayana, are to be understood as different expressions of the same teaching of the historical Buddha. Because, in fact, they agree upon and practice the core teachings of the Buddha’s Dharma. And while there was a schism after the first council on the death of the Buddha, it was largely over the monastic rules and academic points such as whether an enlightened person could lapse or not.
Time, culture and customs in the countries in Asia which adopted the Buddha-dharma have more to do with the apparent differences, as you will not find any animosity between the two major schools, other than that created by healthy debate on the expression of and the implementation of the Buddha’s Teachings.
Theravada (The Teachings of the Elders)
In the Buddhist countries of southern Asia, there never arose any serious differences on the fundamentals of Buddhism. All these countries – Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, have accepted the principles of the Theravada school and any differences there might be between the various schools is restricted to minor matters.
The earliest available teachings of the Buddha are to be found in Pali literature and belongs to the school of the Theravadins, who may be called the most orthodox school of Buddhism.
This school admits the human characteristics of the Buddha, and is characterised by a psychological understanding of human nature; and emphasises a meditative approach to the transformation of consciousness.
The teaching of the Buddha according to this school is very plain. He asks us to ‘abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify our mind’.
These can be accomplished by The Three Trainings: the development of ethical conduct, meditation and insight-wisdom.
The philosophy of this school is straight forward. All worldly phenomena are subject to three characteristics – they are impermanent and transient; unsatisfactory and that there is nothing in them which can be called one’s own, nothing substantial, nothing permanent.
All compounded things are made up of two elements – the non-material part, the material part. They are further described as consisting of nothing but five constituent groups, namely the material quality, and the four non-material qualities – sensations, perception, mental formatives and lastly consciousness.
When an individual thus understands the true nature of things, she/he finds nothing substantial in the world.
Through this understanding, there is neither indulgence in the pleasures of senses or self-mortification, following the Middle Path the practitioner lives according to the Noble Eightfold Path which consist of Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Occupation, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. She/he realises that all worldly suffering is caused by craving and that it is possible to bring suffering to an end by following the Noble Eight Fold Path.
When that perfected state of insight is reached, i.e.Nibanna, that person is a ‘worthy person’ an Arhat. The life of the Arhat is the ideal of the followers of this school, ‘a life where all (future) birth is at an end, where the holy life is fully achieved, where all that has to be done has been done, and there is no more returning to the worldly life’.
Mahayana (The Great Vehicle)
The Mahayana is more of an umbrella body for a great variety of schools, from the Tantra school (the secret teaching of Yoga) well represented in Tibet and Nepal to the Pure Land sect, whose essential teaching is that salvation can be attained only through absolute trust in the saving power of Amitabha, longing to be reborn in his paradise through his grace, which are found in China, Korea and Japan.
Ch’an and Zen Buddhism, of China and Japan, are meditation schools. According to these schools, to look inward and not to look outwards is the only way to achieve enlightenment, which to the human mind is ultimately the same as Buddhahood. In this system, the emphasis is upon ‘intuition’, its peculiarity being that it has no words in which to express itself at all, so it does this in symbols and images. In the course of time this system developed its philosophy of intuition to such a degree that it remains unique to this day.
It is generally accepted, that what we know today as the Mahayana arose from the Mahasanghikas sect who were the earliest seceders, and the forerunners of the Mahayana. They took up the cause of their new sect with zeal and enthusiasm and in a few decades grew remarkably in power and popularity. They adapted the existing monastic rules and thus revolutionised the Buddhist Order of Monks. Moreover, they made alterations in the arrangements and interpretation of the Sutra (Discourses) and the Vinaya (Rules) texts. And they rejected certain portions of the canon which had been accepted in the First Council.
According to it, the Buddhas are lokottara (supramundane) and are connected only externally with the worldly life. This conception of the Buddha contributed much to the growth of the Mahayana philosophy.
Mahayana Buddhism is divided into two systems of thought: the Madhyamika and the Yogacara.
The Madhyamikas were so called on account of the emphasis they laid on the middle view. Here, the middle path, stands for the non-acceptance of the two views concerning existence and nonexistence, eternity and non eternity, self and non-self. In short, it advocates neither the theory of reality nor that of the unreality of the world, but merely of relativity. It is, however, to be noted that the Middle Path propounded at Sarnath by the Buddha had an ethical meaning, while that of the Madhyamikas is a metaphysical concept.
The Yogacara School is another important branch of the Mahayana. It was so called because it emphasised the practice of yoga (meditation) as the most effective method for the attainment of the highest truth (Bodhi). All the ten stages of spiritual progress of Bodhisattvahood have to be passed through before Bodhi can be attained.
The ideal of the Mahayana school, therefore, is that of the Bodhisattva, a person who delays his or her own enlightenment in order to compassionately assist all other beings and ultimately attains to the highest Bodhi.
Three Essentials In Practising the Teaching of the Buddha
1. Faith and Determination
2. Loving Kindness and Compassion
The philosophy expounded by the Buddha is very profound and broad. It is so broad and profound that sometimes ordinary people have difficulties in finding a right entrance into it. They do not know where to start. However, this does not imply that the Buddha’s Teachings are confusing or disorganised. On the contrary, Buddhism has very logical, well-reasoned and practical principles.
Wise men in the past commented that all the methods taught by the Buddha, whether the expedient or ultimate paths, serve the sole purpose of leading one to Buddhahood.
– Whether it is the path that leads one away from evil, and towards the right aspirations (the principle of the Five Vehicles)
– or the path that leads to disentanglement from worldly desires and to freedom (the principle of the Three Vehicles);
– or the path that turns one away from the practice of the Sravaka and Pratyeka-buddhas and redirects one to Mahayana thought (the principle of the one Vehicle);
The Buddha explained the paths to enlightenment in all these various ways for the benefit of sentient beings in all their corresponding variety. It is for this great reason that the Buddha appeared in this world.
From the stand point of one who wants to learn about Buddhism, it is important to understand that all the methods taught by the Buddha are in fact processes in the Bodhisattva’s practice. They are the Bodhi paths that lead to Buddhahood. Due to the differing conditions, causes, times and places into which we were born, the best ways towards Bodhi (Enlightenment) may differ for each of us. But if we try to seek the truth of nature through the various methods we will realise that there are no great differences in the teachings of the Buddha.
Three themes characterize all the teachings and encompass them as one coherent whole. These themes are as applicable to the practice of “One Vehicle” as they are to the “Three vehicles” and “Five vehicles”.
Thus, we call these themes the
“The Three Essentials in Practising the Teaching of the Buddha”.
1.1 The Three Essentials of Practice Defined
What are these Three Essentials of Practice?
As stated in the Sutra of Great Prajna they are;
– “To maintain mindfulness of supreme Bodhi (the mind of enlightenment),
– to centre oneself on compassion, and
– to learn the skilful means of emptiness (the wisdom of non-grasping or subtle intangibility)”.
The Great Prajna Sutra emphasizes the all-inclusive practice of a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva must learn all methods of practice, (which are in fact nothing more than the ways of cultivating goodness and wisdom). All these methods should comply with the Three Essentials, which are their foundation.
The ultimate aim of all practices is to attain perfection in these three virtues. Thus, these themes are in fact the heart of practising the Bodhisattva way. As the ancients said, “If we did not find the right direction of practice we would be wandering blindly around the eight thousand methods and teachings taught by the Buddha, just like walking in the darkness. If we could find the right direction of practice, the twelve divisions of the Mahayana Canon, would be as clear as ordinary simple conversation to us.”
1. Mindfulness of the heart of wisdom, or the Supreme Bodhi (wisdom of the Buddha), as the ground of faith and determination.
This is the perfect and ultimate merit of the Buddha that was attained through His enlightenment. Practitioners should contemplate always the wisdom of the Supreme Bodhi. One should have faith that the Buddha has attained the Supreme Bodhi and that the Supreme Bodhi may bring us the vision of splendour and boundless merits. Belief in the merits of the Supreme Bodhi arouses our determination and joy for it, and further inspires us to seek it out. In other words, appreciation of the wisdom of Supreme Bodhi meaningfully translates into our determination to attain perfect enlightenment.
2. Great Compassion.
Great Compassion may refer to sympathy or loving kindness and compassion in general, in a wider sense, it refers to loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.
To be compassionate is to have the mind intent upon relieving living beings from their miseries. To have loving kindness is to be intent upon giving living beings enjoyment and happiness.
All the practices of the Bodhisattva begin with the mind of loving kindness and compassion.
The mind of loving kindness and compassion is always first and foremost. As stated in the Sutra, “The status of a Bodhisattva is attainable through the mind of compassion, it is not attainable by merely meritorious deeds”. Without loving kindness and compassion, all virtues and wisdom will not comply with the practice of a Bodhisattva. Thus, the great mind of loving kindness and compassion is indeed the heart of the Bodhisattva’s practice.
3. Emptiness (The wisdom of non-grasping or subtle intangibility) as the wisdom of Prajna.
This is the wisdom of non-attachment and supreme emptiness. The wisdom of emptiness that was cultivated under the guidance of the compassionate vow (i.e. the Bodhisattva vow) will not be just a dull emptiness and still silence. It is a great skilful characteristic. By possessing this wisdom, the practice of loving kindness and compassion can be successful and hence lead us to the attainment of the fruit of Bodhi.
Thus, these three themes, the Bodhi vow, the Great Compassion and the Wisdom of Emptiness are the real essences of the path of the Bodhisattva.
1.2 The Three Essentials in the Superior Practice of the Bodhisattva
The great Bodhi vow, the Great Compassion and the great wisdom of the Bodhisattva are an extension of the purest practices of all humans and devas as well as the Two vehicles. Summarising the merits of all teachings, in terms of aims, humans and devas practice to become saints or to be reborn in heaven. They look forward to the worldly reality, beauty and virtue.
The practice of the Two Vehicles cultivates the mind to the extinction of worldly desire and Nirvana. It promotes the mind of leaving the deluded world. And the practice of the Bodhisattva emphasises the cultivation of the great Bodhi vow.
Loving kindness to living beings, in the practice of humans and devas, is aroused due to sympathy towards other living beings. In the practice of the two vehicles, it is the sense of universal altruism that gives rise to loving kindness.
In the practice of the Bodhisattva, it is the wisdom of emptiness (the realisation of Dependent origination, non-self and non-attachment) that gives rise to loving kindness.
In terms of the cultivation of wisdom, in the practice of human and devas, wisdom refers to worldly knowledge. In the practice of the Two Vehicles, wisdom is one-sided dogma In the practice of the Bodhisattva, it is the wisdom of non-discrimination in all aspects.
The response of the mind to the external environment varies among the three realms of practice. The mental activities involved are basically the activities of faith and determination, loving kindness and compassion, and wisdom. The distinction among the three realms is that practitioners in each realm practise them at different levels.
From the above analysis, it can be seen that the three main themes of the practice of the Bodhisattva are beyond all others, they encompass the practices of all virtues.
– The Embodiment of Dharma: Faith and Determination;
– Loving Kindness and Compassion;
– Wisdom: In Human and Devas Practice
To be a saint and to be reborn in heaven
Sympathy to living beings
In Two Vehicle Practice
To leave the deluded world
Sense of universal altruism
One-sided dogmaIn Bodhisattva Practice
The Bodhi vow
Mind of loving kindness and compassion
Wisdom of Prajna
As we begin practising the teachings of the Buddha, either as a lay person or as an ordained follower, we should learn the practice of the Bodhisattva as this is the only way to Buddhahood.
The real merits of the Bodhisattva are within these three themes. We should always reflect on ourselves: “Have I practised? Have I put effort into the practice of these three themes?” If not, how can we call ourselves a Bodhisattva? We should always remind ourselves to practice and to look upon the Bodhisattvas as our example.
2. A Comparison of the Confucian, Christian and Buddhist approaches to the Three Essentials
The main themes in the practice of the Bodhisattva way are faith and determination, loving kindness and compassion and wisdom. They constitute in fact a process of purification and improvement of the human mind according to its natural ability.
These have some similarity with the other worldly practices such as Confucianism and Christianity. However, the worldly practices or ideologies tend to cling to one aspect and regard that as the whole, or adopt one aspect and neglect the rest. Hence the practice becomes incomplete.
Confucianism, which represents the mainstream of Chinese culture in China, advocates the Three Virtues, namely knowledge, benevolence and bravery. It takes them as they become moral values for dealing with people and living life in society.
In brief, knowledge may be compared with wisdom, benevolence with loving kindness and compassion and bravery with faith and determination.
There is a saying in Buddhism, “Faith instils determination and determination instils diligence (right effort)”. With sincere faith we can arouse our greater determination. And with sincere determination, one will naturally become diligent and put right effort into practice.
In short, faith leads to determination and determination will lead to bravery and diligence. This is the development of energy from faith. Diligence and bravery are needed in all meritorious deeds, but it has to begin with faith and determination.
Confucianism over-emphasises the common relationship among human beings, and lacks inspiration. Hence, it is difficult to arouse sincere faith and determination in its followers. Without strong faith, the virtue of bravery cannot be fully expressed.
The concepts of “being wise”, “being the saintly”, “the Law of Heaven”, “the conscience”, and “the fear of Heavenly commands, fear of the saint and fear of commandments of the authority”, all weaken the cultivation of faith and determination.
The idea of bravery becomes “one who knows how to feel ashamed is close to being considered brave”. This ideology is difficult to spread among the general population, and the faith that arises from this ideology of “to be reborn in heaven” or “to attain Buddhahood”.
The Chinese nation which has long been under the influence of Confucianism is withering and becoming weaker each day. It has failed to arouse the virtues of bravery from faith, and the Chinese lack strong motivation and enthusiasm for life. From the view of promoting human nature or strengthening the Chinese nation, and cultivating of sincere and dedicated faith and bravery, this decline is something that the Confucianists should take note of.
Christianity (Catholic and Christian) conditions the contemporary culture and spirit of the West. It also has three main themes: faith, hope and love. Christians believe in the existence of God and because of their faith in God there is hope of a bright future for them. Because God loves us, we must in turn love others. Everything was created by God.
These teachings are of course very different to the teachings of Buddhism. However, in general, we may consider faith and hope to be equivalent to faith and determination in Buddhism, and love equivalent to loving kindness and compassion in Buddhism.
Although Christians claim that they have a rational belief in righteousness, it does not emphasise the virtue of wisdom in nature. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, their eyes brightened. This is the beginning of self-awareness and development of human knowledge. However, for the theist, this is a sin, and is the source of death. Teaching as such is shaken by the development and achievement of modern scientific cultures nowadays.
The Sravakas (the people who lived in the Buddha’s time and listened to his teachings personally) placed less emphasis on the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion. There were Sravakas who stressed faith and wisdom but there were none who stressed compassion.
This is just the opposite to Christian practice. Christians emphasise faith and love but lack wisdom. The Sravakas stressed faith and wisdom, but undervalued loving kindness and compassion. Both modes of practice are narrow and incomplete.
The practice of the Mahayana Bodhisattva, which puts great emphasis on the equal practice of all the three themes, is undoubtedly more complete.
Although the teachings of Confucianism are not complete, Their three virtues are closest to the practice of the Bodhisattva.
The Pure Land sect in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism (originated in India and completed in China) also has three main themes. They are: faith, determination (dedication) and practice. The order of faith, determination and practice delineates the process. From faith determination arises, and with determination, effort to practice arises.
When we say the words “to practice” most people interpret it as “practicing diligently” without the concepts of loving kindness and compassion or wisdom. Some Pure Land practitioners practice by chanting the name of the Amitabha Buddha but do not cultivate wisdom or compassion and loving kindness.
This type of person will have to wait for a long while before they can fulfil their wish to become enlightened and return to this world in order to relieve the suffering of the worldly beings. This is the result of the imbalance development and negligence of Mahayana philosophy in practice.
When the Pure Land sect spread to Japan, it immersed into its theistic tradition and changed itself into the “Truth” sect, promoting the ideology of rebirth with faith and determination. Even the chanting of the name was not important anymore. This is similar to the Christian doctrine, where those who have faith will be saved.
In short, other religions or ideologies do emphasise the Three Essentials in one way or another but not all. It is important for us to remember that, the main themes of the practice of the Bodhisattva are the completion and perfection in the cultivation of faith determination, wisdom, loving kindness and compassion.
3. Finding, entering and advancing in the Buddhist practice of the Three Essentials
1 Different ways of entering the practice
In the practice of the Bodhisattva, we should not emphasise one practice and neglect the others. However, as a beginner, one may find entrance through one (or two) of the gates.
Those who are interested in philosophy psychology or theoretical subjects may investigate the righteousness and profundity of the teaching and hence arouse an interest in learning the teachings of the Buddha. These are people who enter through the gate of wisdom.
On the other hand, those who are engaged in social welfare work and who are fond of rendering assistance to others, are close to the Buddha’s teaching on relationship with others. They praise and appreciate the loving kindness and compassion of the teaching of the Buddha and hence begin to practise them. These are people who enter through the gate of loving kindness and compassion.
In addition, there are others who admire the perfections of the Triple Gem, or who because of the special experiences that they have had with the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, decide to practice the teachings of the Buddha. These are people who enter through the gate of faith and determination.
Due to differences in the spiritual potential of living beings, beginners may find entrance through different ways.
In brief, people who have more greed may enter through the door of loving kindness and compassion. Those who have more hatred may enter through the door of wisdom and those who have a simple mind may enter through the door of faith and determination.
2 The importance of the balance practice in faith determination, loving kindness and compassion, wisdom – the Three Essentials
However, after beginning our Buddhist practice, we should not remain confined to studying and practising in a particular fashion permanently. Otherwise, there will be no improvement even after ten years or even twenty years of learning, and its consequent benefits will be poor.
We should understand that even in the practice of Two Vehicles, there are people who emphasise faith whilst the others emphasise wisdom. This is mainly due to differences in individual spiritual potential, and does not mean that such practitioners stay permanently in one stage of that they only possess either faith without wisdom, or wisdom with out faith.
Both the Nirvana and Pitaka Sutra state that “Faith without wisdom leads one to become more ignorant and wisdom without faith leads one to a perverted view. “If we rely on faith only and do not cultivate understanding and wisdom we will be unable to comprehend the Triple Gem and the methods that we are learning. In that case, the real benefits of the Dharma would be beyond us. For those who practice in this manner, in their minds, they believe Buddhism is no different to the worship of ghosts or Gods. It is just an ignorant faith-superstition. This kind of attitude is in fact very commonly found in the circles of Chinese Buddhists nowadays.
It is more dangerous for one to have wisdom without faith. The Nagarjuna Bodhisattva said that, “If we try to attain ‘emptiness’ without the foundation of faith and precepts, such a concept of ‘emptiness’ will be a perverted one.” This perverted view of ‘emptiness’ rejects the Truth of the Law of Cause and Effect. Such a mistake is made due to self-approbation and the lack of pure faith in the merits of the Triple Gem. The foolishness of superstition is less than the foolishness of perverted views. Perverted view may lead one to Hell. Thus, it can be seen that faith and wisdom must be practised together, neither should be neglected.
In the teachings of the Great Vehicle, there is a ‘superior Bodhisattva of Wisdom’, and a ‘Superior Bodhisattva of Mercy’. We should note the word “Superior”, which simply means that they have greater emphasis on those aspects. If there is only wisdom without compassion or compassion without wisdom, the practice cannot be considered the practice of a Bodhisattva. Both compassion and wisdom must be cultivated together. Even if one practises compassion and wisdom together, if the merits and determination of compassion are not strong enough, one will be anxiously seeking for self-salvation and the attainments of wisdom for oneself only, one deteriorates to a selfish practitioner (Hinayanist) and cannot attain perfect enlightenment.
If one’s mind of loving kindness and compassion is strong but weak in wisdom, in the process of practising the Bodhisattva’s way one may be defeated and become a “Defeated Bodhisattva”.
This is because the practice of the Bodhisattva cannot be successful without the skilful means of the wisdom of emptiness (wisdom of non-grasping). Thus, one may enter Buddhism through any one of the gates, however, if one is thinking of progressing and advancing further into the teaching and learning of the practice of the Bodhisattva, one must develop balanced strength in all these three areas, loving kindness and compassion and wisdom. These three areas of development will supplement each other and gradually lead the practitioner to a higher stage.
When one gains the profound wisdom of the Buddha, one is perfect in the practice of all three themes. This is the attainment of the great Bodhi or great Nirvana, in other words, Buddhahood. Some people think that it should be sufficient to just become expert in one theme, it is not necessary for one to learn all three together.
In fact, if one really becomes expert in one theme, one will naturally understand the interrelationship of the three and how they complement each other in order to lead one to completion. One theme may be used as the starting point of practice and its main focus. Looking deeply in this way one sees how each theme enfolds all the others at the same time. It does not imply that one is giving up the practice of the other merits.
We, who are practising the Bodhisattva’s perfections and aiming for the fruit of Buddhahood, should ask ourselves, are the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas incomplete in their practice of the three themes? Do they have faith without wisdom, or have wisdom without faith? Buddha means the perfection of all merits. Thus, those who are determined to learn from the Buddha, should look upon the perfect merits of the Buddha as their goal and strive forward diligently.
4. The role of the Three Essentials in mental development, practice and attainment
Those who sincerely develop the mind of Bodhi and make the effort to practise the perfection of the Bodhisattva, must equip themselves with the essentials of Mahayana practice, even though they may have inclinations towards certain aspects. The essentials are: faith and determination, loving kindness and compassion, and wisdom. Without the foundation of Bodhisattva teachings, one’s faith and determination will be similar to benevolence and knowledge in Confucianism; one’s loving kindness and compassion will resemble the faith and wisdom of the Sravakas; and one’s wisdom will be equivalent to faith and love in Christianity.
The only practice that can fully convey the Truth of Buddha’s teaching, and can become the supreme way of practice for human beings, in the practice of the Bodhisattva-the unification of faith and determination, loving kindness and compassion and wisdom. These three themes supplement each other and lead one to the attainment of perfection.
The three themes are the essentials and cannot be ignored or neglected. In the process of learning, there is a certain order of progress. One progresses from emphasis on one aspect to another according to their order until the completion of the course. To begin practice from the mind of a worldly person, we must know the order of practice. If we boast about perfection and completion, all these will be just empty words of mouth and reality will prove that our success is illusion.
The Order of practice
The sutras and abhidharma have given many explanations about the practices paving the Path of the Bodhisattva. Generally speaking, it can be divided into two smaller parallel paths:
– the Path of Prajna
– and the Path of Skilful Means.
The stages of the Paths are as follow:
– To begin the practice of the Bodhisattva, one must first develop the mind of Bodhi (mind of enlightenment).
– With the mind of Bodhi one can then step into the practice of the Bodhisattva. This is the stage that emphasises the importance of faith and determination.
– After the initiation of Bodhi mind, one progresses in practice. The practice of the Bodhisattva emphasises benefitting others. The accumulation of virtues and wisdom is not only for oneself. This is the stage that emphasises compassion.
– When one is equipped with virtues and wisdom, and balance in the practice of compassion and wisdom, one then attains the wisdom of equanimity and non-discrimination. This is the stage of Prajna (wisdom of emptiness).
The above are stages along the Path of Prajna. The realisation of the wisdom of emptiness in the Path of Prajna represents the development of the mind for the Path of the Skilful Means.
– This is the supreme mind of Bodhi. It is the unification of faith and wisdom-the pure attainment.
– From then on, the Bodhisattva put great emphasis on relieving the sufferings of all living beings and the adornment of a pure land. This is the practice of loving kindness and compassion with wisdom.
– At the stage of perfection, one realises the supreme Bodhi the wisdom of all wisdom.
The order of progress along the Path of Skilful Means includes the development of the supreme Bodhi mind, the practice and attainment of perfect wisdom. Together with the Path of Prajna, there are five stages. These are stages that a Bodhisattva must go through in the process of practice, and it is something that those who are practising the Path of the Bodhisattva should always bear in mind.
The Path of Prajna
To develop the Bodhi vow
To practice loving kindness and compassion
To attain the wisdom of emptiness
To abide with equanimity in faith and wisdom
The Path of Skilful Means
To develop a pure and joyful mind
To adorn and purify the pure land in all matters
To attain the perfect fruit of enlightenment
These two paths and five stages can be summarised into three:
– the first is the development of the mind,
– the middle three are the practice (the practice of compassion to wisdom in the Path of Prajna, and wisdom to compassion in the Path of Skilful Means),
– and the last one is the attainment of Buddhahood.
They are the stages of practice from worldly beings to Buddhahood, which is in fact the purification and improvement of the three virtues (three virtues of the Buddha, perfection in detachment, compassion and wisdom) to the state of perfection.
In summary, the worldly beings are ignorant, impure and full of desires. From the state of a worldly being, one arouses one’s faith and determination in pursuing Buddhahood, through the practice of loving kindness and compassion one progresses towards the attainment of the wisdom of emptiness. The wisdom of emptiness is also the Bodhisattva’s faith and determination (the pure mind of supreme joy). It is the unification of faith and wisdom.
With this faith and determination (no yet perfect), one continues the practice of compassion and loving kindness more broadly until one attains the perfect stage of wisdom. This is also the time when one’s wisdom, loving kindness and compassion, faith and determination attain perfection. The practice of the Bodhisattva is boundless and profound. For one to practice the perfection of Bodhisattva from the stage of a worldly beings, one must always hold on to these Three Essentials as the guiding principles of practice.
5. The Three Essentials and the recitation of the Buddha’s name, vegetarianism, and sutra chanting
The various ways of practice in the countless methodologies introduced by the Buddha boil down to the practice of the Three Essentials. They are very broad and profound.
Now, let’s discuss the expedient ways for a beginner.
To recite the name of the Buddha, to be vegetarian and to chant (to intone) the sutras are the main ways of practice for most Chinese Buddhists. They represent beginners steps along the Path of Bodhisattva.
1 Recitation of the Buddha’s name
The purpose of reciting the name of the Buddha is to arouse one’s faith and determination. A Bodhisattva’s faith and determination is the development of the Bodhi mind, and the maintenance of mindfulness on supreme Bodhi. The Buddha is the person who has realised the supreme Bodhi — the wisdom of all wisdom. He has majestic appearance and boundless power. He embodies all wisdom and incomparable loving kindness and compassion. Since his practice as a Bodhisattva, he has done countless meritorious acts benefiting others.
One should respect and admire the Buddha. The Buddha preaches the Dharma, and because of Dharma, the Sangha exist. Hence, the Buddha is also the embodiment of the Triple Gem. Thus we should look upon Buddha as our all encompassing refuge and ideal example at all times.
With respect and admiration for Buddha’s merits, and sincere appreciation of His kindness and compassion, one’s faith and determination to practice will be strengthened. This is the main purpose of the practice of “reciting the name of the Buddha”, and “praising the development of the mind of Bodhi”, advocated by many of the Mahayana Sutras.
We recite the name of the Buddha to remind ourselves of the virtues of the Buddha, the marks of the Buddha, the essence of the Buddha, and the pure land of the Buddha. Expanding the scope of this practice leads into practices such as paying respect to the Buddha, praising the Buddha, making offerings to the Buddha, repentance in front of the Buddha, rejoicing in the merits of the Buddha and encouraging the promotion and distribution of the teachings of the Buddha; these are the broader means of practising.
The Prajna-Paramita Discourse states the “The Bodhisattva enters into Dharma with strong and diligent faith (determination), and happily accumulates the merits of a Buddha. This is ‘an easy path’ that was specially introduced by the ‘Superior Faith Bodhisattva’ in the Mahayana Teaching.
This ‘easy path’ is also the expedient alternative to the “difficult path” (the Path of Prajna and Skilful means that emphasise wisdom and compassion). Thus, “The Commentary on the Ten Stages of Bodhisattva” written by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva states that: “A beginner should practice reciting the name of the Buddha, repentance, promotion of the doctrine of the Buddha and other methods as mentioned above, so that the mind may be purified and faith strengthened. Thereafter he may be able to go a step further into the practice of wisdom, loving kindness and compassion.”The Sraddhotpada Sutra also says that: “Beginners should learn such methods in order to strengthen their faith, as living beings are weak minded.”
By teaching them to “concentrate on the name of the Buddha”, this will help them to maintain and strengthen their faith so that they do not fall back.The main purpose of the practice of reciting the name of the Buddha is to initiate the faith and determination in those in whom they have not yet developed, and to strengthen and maintain faith and determination in those in whom they have. To recite the name of the Buddha is to recite with the mind. Also to remember the virtues of the Buddha whilst reciting with intense concentration is a skilful means of initiating one’s faith and determination. The normal practice of reciting by mouth is just a convenience among the conveniences, it is not the best way of practice.
To be vegetarian means not to eat meat. Vegetarianism is a tradition of Chinese Buddhism. It is not necessary for one to be a vegetarian in order to become a Buddhist. Theravada Buddhists in Sir Lanka and Buddhists in Tibet and Japan do take meat as an accepted part of their diet.
Some Chinese Buddhists thought that to be vegetarian is the Hinayanist practice, and not the teaching of the Mahayana. This is a great misunderstanding. In actual fact, vegetarianism is a practice specially advocated in the Mahayana teachings. This can be found in sutras, such as the Lankavatara, Nirvana and Angulimala Sutras.
There are various reasons for not eating meat, but the main reason is to cultivate one’s loving kindness and compassion. As the sutras say: “Eating meat nips compassion in the bud”. A Bodhisattva should always seek to benefit others and to relieve the sufferings of all living beings. If one is cruel enough to kill beings and eat them, then where is one’s mind of kindness and compassion?
The practice of the Bodhisattva emphasises the mind of compassion. Hence, the virtue of vegetarianism is certainly the conclusion of the Mahayana teaching.
3 Sutra Chanting
The chanting of sutras is also an expedient way of practice. Although the practice may have other purposes its main aim is to develop wisdom.
There are three stages in the practice of wisdom before the realisation of the true Prajna (the wisdom of enlightenment).
– thinking and analysing
These three stages of cultivating wisdom can also be classified into the Ten Righteous Practices (The Ten Ways of Devotion to the Buddha’s Teaching), namely:
– to copy sacred texts
– to offer places for keeping and maintaining sutras or Dharma writings
– to preach or give such exposition of Dharma to others
– to listed attentively to their exposition
– to read them
– to teach others about them
– to intone them
– to explain them
– to think and analyse them
– to practise them.
In this traditional schema, the first eight are practices of wisdom through hearing. Sutra chanting reminiscent of schools in olden days when one would intone the text before giving an explanation of it. After one intones the sutra one becomes familiar with it. Then one may eventually understand it or at least seek such an understanding. These are the expedient paths in practising wisdom through hearing.
4 Righteous practice of the Expedient Path
The most common methods of practice amongst Chinese Buddhist are the recitation of the name of the Buddha, vegetarianism (releasing lives) and chanting the sutras. These are in fact expedient steps for anyone who wants to begin the practice of the Bodhisattva. These are expedient measures that will strengthen one’s faith and determination, loving kindness and compassion, and wisdom as stated in the Mahayana teachings.
However, some people stress the merits of chanting the sutras whilst placing little value on the understanding of their meanings. In this case, the chanting will not expedite the development of wisdom.
On the other hand, those who advocate the practice of vegetarianism and the release of captive lives may emphasise their practice of these two methods but may not show loving kindness and compassion towards sufferings human beings or act to protect and help them. They only care about other living beings but neglect their calling to care for and protect human beings. This perversion of practice arises due to ignorance of the purpose behind true practice and cannot lead to the development of true loving kindness and compassion.
By comparison, reciting the name of the Buddha cultivates one’s faith somehow or other as the action reminds one about the virtues of the Buddha. However, the problem is that most followers incline towards superstitious acts whilst others are only seeking personal salvation. Thus it is very rare to have someone who will develop the Bodhisattva’s faith and determination in seeking attainment of Buddhahood and relieving the sufferings of all living beings through practising the recitation of the Buddha’s name.
Recitation of the name of the Buddha, vegetarianism and chanting the sutras are the supremely expedient practices on the path to the perfection of Bodhisattvahood. But due to the lack of enthusiasm in seeking wisdom and the lack of loving kindness and compassion, the practices are faith oriented. As a result, the full benefits arising from the skilful application of these expedient practices, cannot be fully expressed. This is the sad and source of deterioration in Chinese Buddhism.
Practising in this manner cannot be considered the practice of a Bodhisattva, nor can it reflect the greatness and beauty of the Dharma. Those who practice in this way will not be able to save themselves, let alone save the world. When we are practising the path of the Buddha and the Bodhisattva, we must understand clearly the aim of these expedient practices. We should not recite the name of the Buddha just for the sake of reciting; become a vegetarian just for the sake of becoming a vegetarian, or chant the sutras just for the sake of chanting. We should recite the name of the Buddha hoping to develop our faith and determination; become a vegetarian in order to strengthen our loving kindness and compassion; chant the sutras with the aim of developing our wisdom. These are methods of practice and their aim is to cultivate one’s faith and determination, loving kindness and compassion, and wisdom.
Thus, one who is sincere in practising the Teaching of the Buddha and is learning the Path of the Bodhisattva, should practise the recitation of the Buddha’s name in a righteous way and develop great determination and effort in seeking the attainment of Buddhahood and relieving the sufferings of all living being. From the practice of vegetarianism and releasing captive lives one should cultivate loving kindness and compassion and take part in social welfare activities that are of benefit to mankind. From the chanting of sutras one should go a step further into understanding their meanings, and hence develop wisdom.
In doing so, these expedient practices will fulfil their purposes and lay the foundations for one to progress along the Path of the Bodhisattva. These are only initial steps. There is still a long journey ahead. We should start here and strive forward in pursuit the boundless Teaching of the Buddha.
Translated by Neng Rong, edited by Mick Kiddle, Proofread by Neng Rong. (16-6-1995)
Mahayana Buddhism (The Great Vehicle)
By Gaurav Manandhar
Mahayana Buddhism, also known as the Great Vehicle, is the form of Buddhism prominent in North Asia, including China, Mongolia, Tibet, Korea, and Japan.
Mahayana is one of the main existing branches of Buddhism and the Sanskrit word “ Mahayana” means great vehicle.
The other existing branches of Buddhism are Theravada and Vajrayana but under some classification, Vajrayana is classified as a part of Mahayana Buddhism.
Mahayana refers to the path of Bodhisattva to attain the Enlightenment to help all the sentient beings from all sufferings and pain. This is called “Bodhisattvayana” or the “Bodhisattva Vehicle”.
Over the years, the Mahayana subdivided into more schools which practices different doctrines and spread from India to China, Tibet, Korea, Japan and thus became the dominant form of Buddhism . The people following and supporting Mahayana Tradition is around 53.2% of the total Buddhism practitioners and Theravada tradition is around 35.8% and Vajrayana tradition is around 5.7%.
There are many other traditions that follow the principle of Mahayana Buddhism . They are Zen, Chinese Chan, Pure Land, Nichiren, Tiantai, Vajrayana (according to some tradition), Tendai and Tibetan Buddhism.
The teaching of Mahayana is quite distinctive than that of Theravada. In Mahayana, bodhisattvas who are likely to manifest the great compassion postpone the final enlightenment to help and assist those beings still suffering from the cycle of rebirths. Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes interpreted as more devotional form of Buddhism since Buddha and Bodhisattva are greatly respected and worshiped.
The origin of Mahayana Buddhism is still quite a mystery, but there are some views about the origins of Mahayana. It states that Mahayana emerged as a separate school from another existed school Theravada. But some historical record shows Mahayana had been developing long before that.
“Traces of Mahayana teachings appear already in the oldest Buddhist scriptures. Contemporary scholarship is inclined to view the transition to Mahayana as a gradual process hardly noticed by people at that time.” Heinrich Dumoulin, Historian.
During the 1st Century BCE, the name Mahayana was found to distinguish the Mahayana tradition from Theravada tradition. Theravada was called “Hinavana” during the same century. These are the works of Buddhist monks who oppose the idea of attaining the Enlightenment by oneself and accused Theravada of being a selfish tradition.
During the time of early Mahayana Buddhism, the Mahayanists developed four major types of thought. They are:
– Buddha Nature
– Buddhist logic
The Mahayana is one of the three alternatives through which one can attain the state of Nirvana. The Mahayana emphasis is on postponing one’s liberation so that one may help, assist and guide all the sentient beings to the state of Nirvana.
According to Mahayana teachings, a high-level Bodhisattva possesses a mind of great compassion and wisdom.
“The most essential part of Mahayana is its emphasis on Bodhisattva ideal, which replaces that of the arhat, or ranks before it.” Ananda Coomaraswamy
According to Mahayana teachings and practices , six perfections are needed to Bodhisattva. They are:
– Perfection of giving or generosity
– Perfection of good conduct or behavior
– Perfection of Patience
– Perfection of vigor and diligence
– Perfection of Meditation
– Perfection of wisdom
Trikaya or Three Body Doctrine
The concept of Three Body Doctrine of Buddha is purely Mahayana concept. Mahayana Tradition believes that Lord Buddha have three bodies. They are:
It is also known as appearance body or material body of Sakyamuni Buddha .
Also known as Dharma body which refers that the eternal Dharma lies beyond all conceptions and dualities.
Also known as The Bliss or Enjoyment body in which Bodhisattva appears in a celestial realm.
Agamas is a collection of early Buddhist scriptures. There are five agamas in Buddhism and together they comprise Suttapitaka of early Buddhist Schools. The five agamas are:
1. Dirgha Agama – Long Discourses
2. Madhyama Agama – Middle-Length Discourses
3. Samyukta Agama – Connected Discourses
4. Ekottara Agama – Numbered Discourses
5. Ksudraka Agama – Minor Collection
Three Turning of Wheels of Dharma
The turning of Wheels of Dharma refers to understanding of a sutra of teachings of Lord Buddha which was originally devised by Yogachara School.
The three turning of Wheels of Dharma are as follows:
Consist of teaching of Four Noble Truths, other elements of Tripitaka (abhidharma, sutrapitika, and Vinaya). It is said to have taken place at Deer Park of Sarnath.
Second Turning mainly emphasis on emptiness and compassion. And these two elements form bodhicitta which is an epitome of Second turning. Second Turning is said to have taken place at Vulture Park in Bihar.
Third Turning mainly emphasis on Buddha nature and Tathagatagarbha doctrine. The third turning of Wheels of Dharma is said to have taken place in Shravasti and other Indian locations such Kushinagara.
MAHAYANA BUDDHISM BELIEFS
Mahayana Buddhists believe in a multitude of heavens, hells and descriptions of nirvana and have great reverence for Bodhisattvas “Buddhist “saints” on the verge of nirvana who stopped short of attaining it, so, like Buddha, they could teach their method to others.
Mahayana Buddhists believe that salvation is accessible to all those who have faith and regard their religion as a way of life that can be embraced by any one. They also enjoy philosophical discussion and intellectual gymnastics and enlist the help of female deities and magical forces and worship a pantheon of gods, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
Mahayana Buddhists see The Buddha as the sum total of everything there is; discount his historical personage; view his life on earth in magical and transcendent terms; and have Bodhisattvas and Buddhas that address issues important to ordinary people. The Supreme Buddha became an all knowing force that pervaded every part of the universe, like a creator God.
Mahayana Buddhism places an emphasis on the process of attaining nirvana through the purification of the consciousness and has been “expanded” to respond to the needs of local people it severed. It follows a number of mythologies and ontological doctrines. They see true reality as “Emptiness”; define ten stages which Bodhisattvas must pass through to reach Buddhahood; and see everything being connected by a kind of cosmic thread rooted in true reality.
Voidness and Three Types of Buddhahood
Mahayana Buddhism says that there are three aspects of Buddhahood, which it describes by regarding Buddha as having three bodies (trikaya):
1. Dharmakaya: Buddha is transcendent – he is the same thing as the ultimate truth;
2. Sambhogakaya: Buddha’s body of bliss, or enjoyment body;
3. Nirmanakaya: Buddha’s earthly body – just like any other human being’s body.
Dr. W. Rahula wrote: “There are three types of Buddha:
-Samma Sambuddha (a supremely enlightened one), who gains full enlightenment [by perfecting ten qualities and gaining the magical ability to teach] by one’s own effort alone
– Pacceka Buddha who is fully, independently enlightened but has not developed the Ten Perfections to a lesser degree than the Samma Sambuddha [and therefore is not skilled in showing others the way to enlightenment],
– the Savaka Buddha who is an arahant-disciple of a perfectly enlightened Buddha. The nirvana of the three types is exactly the same. The only difference is that the Samma Sambuddha has many more qualities (paramitas, paramis, or perfections) and capacities which are useful in teaching than the other two types.
“Some people think that the Voidness (Sunyata) discussed by Nagarjuna is purely a Mahayana teaching. However, it is based on the Buddha’s teaching of Impersonality (anatta) or no-self and Dependent Origination, both found in the original Theravada, Pali language texts.
On one occasion Ananda asked the Buddha, “People say the word Void. What is Void (Sunya)?” The Buddha replied, “Ananda, there is no self, nor anything belonging to a self in the world. Therefore, the world is empty.” This idea was used by Nagarjuna, who wrote the small remarkable book, Madhyamika Karika. Apart from the idea of Voidness, the concept of the “store-consciousness” in Mahayana Buddhism also has its seed in Theravada texts. The Mahayanists have simply developed it into a deep psychology and philosophy.”
Doctrine of Skillful Means
Skillful Means is regarded by some as the most important doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism. According to the religious scholar J.C. Clear: Skillful means refers “to strategies, methods, devices, targeted to the capacities, circumstances, likes and dislikes of each sentient being, so as to rescue him and lead him to Enlightenment. “Thus, all particular formulations of the Teaching are just provisional expedients to communicate the Truth (Dharma) in specific contexts.” “The Buddha’s words were medicines for a given sickness at a given time,” always infinitely adaptable to the audience’s conditions.”
Taigen Dan Leighton wrote: “Skillful Means, upaya in Sanskrit; fang-pien in Chinese; hoben in Japanese, is an essential concept in Mahayana Buddhism.
Skillful means, sometimes translated as tactfulness, expedients, or ingenuity, is the practice of applying awakening teaching to the diverse variety of students or practitioners.
Discussed in a number of Mahayana Buddhist sutras espousing the bodhisattva ideal of universal liberation, the Buddha’s application of skillful means accounts for the earlier teachings of the arhat ideal of individual self-purification. The Buddha teaches skillfully in a variety of modes recommending different practices and teachings, because suffering beings have various different capacities, and must be led to the path toward awakening through appropriate approaches.
“The idea of skillful means became crucial to the adoption of Buddhist ideas into China, and thereafter in all of East Asia. Skillful means is fully expressed and elaborated in the Lotus Sutra, probably the most influential Buddhist text in East Asia. Several colorful parables depict aspects of skillful means. In the parable of the burning house, a man comes home to find his house in flames and his children playing inside. When he tells them to flee the house they refuse, as they would rather play with their toys. The father finally entices them from the house with descriptions of many colorful carriages waiting outside. They exit to find only one ox cart, symbolizing the One Vehicle of Buddha’s Way that can carry everyone. The One Vehicle includes all the various skillful teachings for saving beings from the flames of worldly suffering. The sutra emphasizes that the father in the parable was not lying, as he lured the children from the burning house to save them.
“Another Lotus Sutra parable tells of a caravan leader encouraging those he guides with the vision of a phantom city in the distance. When they have rested after reaching this city, which represents the early idea of nirvana as escape from sufferings of the world, the caravan leader informs them that the true goal, the universal liberation of all beings, remains ahead, and they must now proceed.
“In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha uses skillful means based on his all-knowing eye that accurately discerns the capacities of different beings and the teachings that would benefit them. But in the Avatamsaka (Flower Ornament) Sutra, skillful means is one of ten paramitas or transcendent practices engaged in by all bodhisattvas, not only by fully awakened buddhas. These practices are often in a list of six, ending with prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom or insight. But the Avatamsaka offers four more practices beyond prajna, including upaya as one of the endless modes of liberative activity for use by all Mahayana devotees.
“The idea of many teachings and practices applied skillfully to the single aim of spiritual awakening is an appealing approach for a modern Western understanding of the sometimes confusing abundance of Buddhist schools. Moreover, skillful means might be a way of respecting the pluralism of all religious traditions in our contemporary global interconnectedness. All traditions may be equally respected for the value of their teachings as they apply to different peoples’ particular approaches to ultimate religious truth, and to primary principles such as kindness and compassion.
“Skillful means was historically the approach that allowed Chinese Buddhism to incorporate and make sense of all of the Indian Buddhist teachings. The various synthesizing Chinese Buddhist schools developed systems for classifying the whole range of teachings, called p’an-chiao in Chinese. However, the Chinese schools all used the idea of skillful means hierarchically, with their own favorite sutras at the pinnacle of their sectarian classifications, for example the Lotus Sutra for the T’ien-t’ai school and the Flower Ornament Sutra for the Hua-yen. Thus skillful means could be misused in a patronizing manner toward so-called “lesser” schools.
“Western practitioners sometimes have challenged the idea of skillful means as a slippery slope in which the ends justify the means. But the overriding importance of the bodhisattva practice of vow or commitment to benefit all beings, another of the later paramitas, informs any application of skillful means, and mitigates against any harmful activity except under the most urgent and unusual circumstances.
Manifestations of the Skillful Means
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The doctrine manifests itself in many ways. One key feature is that skillful means assumes the ends justify the means. More specifically in the context of Buddhism, the idea is that most people are such slaves to their desires and so beset by spiritual ignorance that they will never begin walking the Eightfold Path without being bribed, tricked, frightened, or otherwise motivated into doing so. Clever means, therefore, are necessary to persuade or cajole people into living their lives more in accord with Buddhist principles. Skillful Means take on a variety of forms depending on the sophistication and circumstances of those they are meant to help. In whatever form they may take, Skillful Means are intended as provisional stepping stones to be discarded after a person reaches a higher level of comprehension.
“Skillful Means are not only for persons at low levels of spiritual progress. Meditation and other techniques of advanced practitioners also qualify as Skillful Means. Because Buddhist enlightenment cannot really be described in words, even the Eightfold Path is a form of Skillful Means. Recall also that the Buddha’s first sermon was the first act of Skillful Means. Indeed, Buddhism itself is Skillful Means on a large scale. Buddhism, in other words, is a provisional set of teachings and practices to point seekers in the direction of nirvana.
“The doctrine of Skillful Means, for all practical purposes, authorizes telling lies if those lies serve noble ends. It is in this context that Buddhist preachers sometimes lectured to the masses about the realms of starving ghosts and hells. The idea was to frighten people into good (or at least better) behavior. Buddhism also developed heavens as Skillful Means, but there was a serious problem in describing heaven. If the idea is to use the reward of rebirth in paradise to lure people at low spiritual levels into better behavior, what sort of description would be appealing? How about, “If you live a morally upright life, you will be reborn into a place where you can sit on a lotus flower in a peaceful state of spiritual bliss for thousands of years?” Probably not. Or, what about, “If you live a morally upright life, you will be reborn in a paradise where you can be lazy, eat anything you want, get drunk every day, smoke pot to your heart’s content, have sex any time and any way you like, and beat anyone you don’t like to a bloody pulp?” In fact, a few descriptions of Buddhist heavens did take this sort of approach.”
Taigen Dan Leighton wrote: ““The practice of skillful means reminds us to listen to others respectfully, honor their differences, and recognize that others may have different needs and benefit from different teachings and practices. Following the model of the bodhisattva of compassion, we must not self-righteously cling to any particular method. We can learn various useful approaches, and as we learn to trust and respond with whatever is at hand, our skillfulness can develop.”
Wheel of Life and the Six Courses of Mahayana Buddhism
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The Six Courses (rokudo) is a foundational concept in Mahayana Buddhism. Here, we examine the Six Courses from three different but interrelated perspectives: (1) as skillful means, (2) as metaphysics, and (3) as psychological theory. The first perspective introduces a new doctrine; the second revisits the idea of karma as energy that drives the process of reincarnation. The third perspective reveals a distinctive characteristic of Buddhism, namely, its insights into human psychology. Because perspectives two and three are closely interconnected, we examine them both in the same section.
“The classic depiction of the Six Courses is a large wheel, a recurring symbol in Buddhism. The large wheel that describes the Six Courses is sometimes called the “Wheel of the Dharma” the “Wheel of Life,” the “Wheel of Truth,” or the “Wheel of Becoming.” Regardless of its name, the wheel represents the cosmos as a whole, and illustrates the doctrine of dependent origination.
“The wheel’s spokes create spaces for illustrating the Six Courses. The innermost circle features a snake, representing hatred or anger, a bird (usually a cock), representing lusts or desires, and a pig representing ignorance. Collectively known as the “Three Poisons,” the snake, bird, and pig feed on each other, propelling the wheel around and around. In more elaborate depictions, there is a second inner ring, dark on the right side and light on the left. The dark side features a human figure in the process of spiritual deterioration. The light side features people advancing toward nirvana. Simpler depictions usually omit this second inner ring. The “outermost ring” features twelve images representing: (1) ignorance, (2) karmic formations, (3) consciousness, (4) name and form, (5) the bases of consciousness, (6) contact, (7) feeling, (8) yearning or desire, (9) clinging or attachment, (10) becoming, (11) birth, and (12) old-age-and-death. These twelve items are linked with the Five Heaps in Buddhist doctrine and illustrate the doctrine of “dependent origination”. But we shall not be concerned with the outer ring here.
Our main concern is with the Six Courses (six different realms of existence). The top half of the wheel contains three relatively favorable realms: (left) warlike demi-gods; (center) deities and Buddhas; and (right) humans. The bottom three realms are less appealing: (right) beasts; (bottom) hells; and (left) starving ghosts. Arranged as a hierarchy, the realms would be, in descending order: 1) deities and Buddhas; 2) warlike demi-gods; 3) humans; 4) beasts; 5) starving ghosts, and 6) hells. In practice, many Buddhists were especially interested in the last two realms: starving ghosts and hells. We, too, will focus our attention on the bottom two realms. There are variations in the way these realms are depicted in Buddhist art. Some wheels contain only five realms, leaving out the warlike demi-gods. Others leave out the demi-gods and subdivide the realm of beasts into two, thus maintaining a total of six. Some depictions of the Six Courses take a form other than a wheel. This deviation from the wheel format is sometimes found in Chinese depictions, which are apt to show the Six Courses in a hierarchical array, usually next to what looks like a courtroom.
“Returning to the classic wheel depiction, within each realm, even the three on the bottom, there is a Buddha or bodhisattva to symbolize that anyone, even a sufferer in hell, can someday achieve enlightenment. Each realm contains subdivisions. The human realm, for example, usually depicts birth, old age, sickness, and death. That of hells depicts up to eighteen different varieties of hell (and even more sub-hells, or “places”). There are also different kinds of starving ghosts. The large, half-human creature holding the whole wheel is actually turning it. Interpretations of this creature differ, but we should think of it as karma powering the cycle of samsara.”
Skillful Means, the Six Courses and Buddhist Heaven and Hell
According to a selection from a much larger description of a classic Buddhist heaven, the “Heaven of Thirty-Three,” who main intended audience seems to have been males pursuing, or thinking about pursuing, formal religious austerities: There [in the heaven], celestial nymphs with their playfulness captivate the wearied minds of those ascetics who had, in their life on earth, decided to purchase Paradise by first paying the price in austerities. They are always in the prime of their youth, and libidinous enjoyment is their only concern. They can be used by anyone who has done the required meritorious deeds; and for the celestial beings no fault is attached to possessing them. They are in fact the choicest of all rewards of austerities.
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Meditate, fast, and live a life of simple poverty, because the heavenly nymphs are waiting to reward you after you die! This message might well be appealing to many men, but would it not be contrary to the whole spirit of Buddhist teachings and goals? Yes it would be contrary, and the same scripture quoted above goes on to describe a disciple named Nanda, who resumed his meditation after hearing about the heavenly nymphs “in order that he might win them one day.” But Nanda’s teacher warned him that the pleasures of paradise are only temporary, and “the day must come when the deities fall to earth” and wail in distress over the loss of their previous, pleasurable existence.
“Recognize that Paradise is only temporary, that it gives no real freedom, holds out no security, cannot be trusted, and gives no lasting satisfaction! it is better to strive for final release.” (Buddhist Scriptures, p. 224.) Because attempting to inspire better behavior by holding out a promise of heavenly delights was morally awkward and impractical, the typical emphasis in Skillful Means was on negative incentives, namely, starving ghosts and hells. Ghosts and hells were quite easy to describe–just look around at what goes on in human society.
Death and Judgment in Terms of the Six Courses
“In conceiving of the Six Courses as a form of Skillful Means, what actually happens at the time of death? In a typical description, a fiery cart manned by hideous-looking officials carries the deceased to the court of King Yama. King Yama was an infernal Chief Justice, whose court happens to be located adjacent to the realm of hells. The officials who go to pick up the dead convey her or him across a vast river and then into a waiting room. Why the waiting room? Because the court system has a vast backlog of cases pending, and it will be a while — several years perhaps — before King Yama and his secretaries get around to someone’s file. In the meantime, the deceased sits in the waiting room. There, s/he does not listen to piped in music but to the screams of those suffering in the various hells. Sitting there thinking about the past lifetime of sin and shortcomings, he or she might have no desire to get on with a speedy hearing.
“But all must have “their day in court.” And in all too many cases, after reading the thick file containing notations of every good and bad deed in the person’s lifetime, the infernal king finds little with which to be happy. Of course, should the good deeds outweigh the bad (metaphysically: a reduction in the karmic balance or burden), King Yama smiles and decrees that the person shall be reborn into a higher realm of existence than in the previous lifetime. This rebirth could be as a higher level of human being or even into one of the two realms higher than humans.
“For those, however, whose the bad deeds outweigh the good, rebirth into a lower realm is required. In relatively mild cases, the deceased might be reborn into a lover level of human society. For worse cases, rebirth as some sort of animal may be in order. For the worst sort of offenses, however (like neglecting to make generous donations to Buddhist temples!), hard time as a starving ghost or in one or more of the hells will be necessary to repay the cosmic debt. As the infernal king recites the list of offenses, the deceased might protest his or her innocence. “I didn’t do that! You’ve got the wrong person!” the defendant might plead. Justice will be done, however, thanks to a 100 percent effective video replay system, the “Soul Mirror.” Forced to face this mirror, the deceased sees all past offenses replayed before his or her eyes. There can be no denying one’s karmic debt, and the worst offenders are carted off to the realms of starving ghosts or hells to work off this debt for a few tens, hundreds or thousands of years–whatever is necessary. Once the debt is repaid, the person in question is reborn as a human to try it all over again.
“You should know that there are numerous variations in the ways this process of judgment might be described. The above paragraphs explain it in the simplest terms. In some versions, for example, the deceased endures ten trials by ten different “kings” of hell. Even here, however, the trial before King Yama and his soul mirror is the most important one. Regardless of the details, however, the basic idea of a judgment in an other-worldly courtroom is a consistent feature of the Six Courses as Skillful Means.”
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Starving ghosts have a grotesquely distended belly, but the rest of the body is emaciated. The neck and throat in particular is extremely thin. These creatures are wracked by a constant hunger and thirst that can never be satisfied. They roam the earth (but are normally invisible to ordinary people) constantly seeking things to eat and drink. In their desperation, they will consume nearly anything, even putrid material and excrement. These pathetic creatures are desperate for assistance and succor, but, being invisible, go unnoticed and ignored. The only creatures that notice the starving ghosts are various demons, who enjoy tormenting any ghosts they may encounter.”
“To better serve the purpose of frightening people into good behavior, Buddhists developed a list of specific varieties of starving ghosts. For example, there were Carrion-Eating Starving Ghosts. Those who were monks in a previous life but violated their monastic rules (by eating food intended for the needy, for example) are reborn as this type of ghost. They wander around graveyards, constantly seeking out rotten flesh and bones to eat. “Excrement-Eating Starving Ghosts” consist of those who refused to give donations to Buddhist monks out of greed. They constantly seek out feces and urine for their sustenance. Vomiting Starving Ghosts, in their former lives, were heads of households who denied food and other necessities to their wives and children out of greed, despite living well themselves. They are repaid by becoming ghosts whom demons force constantly to vomit. And there are many other varieties, each tied to a specific moral offense.
“As Skillful Means, a Buddhist might portray” the realms of Starving Ghosts and hells “as places “out there” into which a sinner falls. In fact, however, they are “in here,” that is, in our heads. Consider the grotesque appearance and life of a starving ghost. In terms of the Four Noble Truths, what is a starving ghost? It is the embodiment of desires, in all their ugliness. Through our desires, we make ourselves into starving ghosts, and we put ourselves into numerous hells.”
Hells in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: There were also many varieties of hell, each for a specific type of offense. One guilty of many offenses might have to spend time in several different hells before burning off enough acquired karma to be reborn as a person again. The whole realm of hell is a massive operation and requires a large staff of hell wardens and attendants to keep the place running and to ensure that residents stay on task. There are clients in need of being boiled in cauldrons, beaten and smashed with various types of objects, burned up by various types of flames, and so forth. This is hard work, but the dedicated staff is up to the task. Indeed, they seem to love their work, no doubt because they know they are making the cosmos a better place with each crack of the whip or swing of the iron rod.
“In both China and Japan, artists exhausted their creativity making detailed paintings and drawings of the hells. Buddhist monks would often display them to popular audiences (most members of whom would be illiterate) and describe the horrors of each hell in vivid detail. Did these monks really believe that specific places called hell really existed? Were these hells really part of proper Buddhist doctrine? As Skillful Means, yes; as literally real, external places to which one goes, no. In other words, at higher levels of Mahayana teaching, hells did not exist (nor did starving ghosts) as specific, separate entities. If portraying them as such would help frighten the ignorant masses into better behavior, however, it is the duty of the Buddhist clergy to help the masses by doing so.”
Specific hells exist for mothers who neglected their children, those who were corrupt government officials, anyone who killed a living creature on purpose, and enemies of the Buddhist religion, to name a few. The following is a description of the Hell of Shrieking Sounds, which is for Buddhist monks who tortured animals: “Many monks for such cause arrive at the Western Gate of this hell, where the horse-headed demons with iron rods in their hands bash the heads of the monks, whereupon the monks flee shrieking through the gate and into the hell. There, inside, is a great fire raging fiercely, creating smoke and flames. The bodies of the sinners become raw from burns and their agony is unbearable.”
The following excerpt is a description of several of the many hells from a tenth-century Japanese Buddhist work: “Outside the four gates of hell are sixteen separate places which are associated with this hell. The first is called the place of excrement. Here, it is said, there is intensely hot dung of the bitterest of taste, filled with maggots with snouts of indestructible hardness. The sinner here eats of the dung and all the assembled maggots swarm at once for food. They destroy the sinner’s skin, devour his flesh and suck the marrow from his bones. People who at one time in the past killed birds or deer fall into this hell. Second is the place of the turning sword. It is said that iron walls ten yojanas in height surround it and that a terrible and intense fire constantly burns within. The fire possessed by humans is like snow when compared to this. With the least physical contact, the body is broken into pieces the size of mustard-seeds. Hot iron pours from above like a heavy rainfall, and in addition, there is a forest of swords, with blades of exceptional keenness, and those swords, too, fall like rain. The multitude of agonies is in such variety that it cannot be borne. Into this place fall those who have killed a living being with concupiscence. Third is the place of the burning vat. It is said that the sinner is seized and placed in an iron vat, and boiled as one would cook beans. Those who in the past have taken the life of a living creature, cooked it, and eaten of it, fall into this hell.”
The following excerpt describes some of the activities of the hell wardens: “With a fish-hook the wardens pull [the sinner] out [of the great Caustic River], put him on dry land, and ask him: ‘What then, my friend, do you want now?’ And he answers: ‘I am hungry, Sir!’ On hearing this, they prize open his mouth with a red-hot iron crowbar, and push into his mouth a red-hot ball of copper, all afire, aflame, and ablaze. And that burns his lips, mouth, throat, and chest, and passes out below, taking with it the bowels and intestines.”
Rebirth in Mahayana Metaphysical, Psychological and Sexual Terms
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: It is also possible to interpret the Six Courses as a concrete image or metaphor for the more abstract process of karma-driven reincarnation. This interpretation would have greater appeal to persons at a relatively high level of religious sophistication. In this section, we illustrate the Six Courses as metaphysics by quoting extensively from Buddhist scripture. The following excerpts are all from a section called “Seeking rebirth,” which states that “if you [the recently deceased] still continue to feel a desire to exist as an individual, then you are now doomed to again re-enter the wheel of becoming.”
Along with the metaphysical teaching of karma, we also see another important dimension: the psychological. In this more sophisticated view, King Yama is actually one’s own mind: “You are now before Yama, King of the Dead. In vain will you try to lie, and to deny or conceal the evil deeds you have done. The Judge holds up before you the shining mirror of Karma [the Soul Mirror], wherein all your deeds are reflected. But again you have to deal with dream images, which you yourself have made, and which you project outside, without recognizing them as your own work. The mirror which Yama seems to read your past is your own memory, and also his judgment is your own. It is you yourself who pronounce your own judgment, which in its turn determines your next rebirth. No terrible god pushes you into it; you go there quite on your own. The shapes of the frightening monsters who take hold of you, place a rope round your neck and drag you along, are just an illusion which you create from the forces within you. Know that apart from these karmic forces there is no Judge of the Dead, no gods, and no demons. Knowing that, you will be free!
At first the recently deceased tries to delude himself or herself, denying the many evil deeds of the past life. But karma cannot be denied, and these deeds have set up desires in the person that propel him or her into a new rebirth and another round of misery. And it is all in the mind. There is really no external agent. We seek new births by our own deluded desires. By realizing the nature of this process, we can stop it. Notice that this passage offers a possible way out. In the visual depiction of the Six Courses, the Buddhist divinity within each realm symbolizes this way out. Notice also that in the view described here, we have returned essentially to the Four Noble Truths.
The process of rebirth continues as follows:
“If you have deserved it by your good deeds, a white light will guide you into one of the heavens, and for a while you will have some happiness among the gods. Habits of envy and ambition will attract you to the red light, which leads to rebirth among the warlike [demi-gods], forever agitated by anger and envy. If you feel drawn to a blue light, you will find yourself again a human being, and well you remember how little happiness that brought you! If you had a heavy and dull mind, you will choose the green light, which leads you to the world of animals, unhappy because [they are] insecure and excluded from the knowledge which brings salvation. A ray of dull yellow will lead you to the world of the ghosts, and, finally, a ray of the colour of darkish smoke will lead you into the hells.
As in the passage on the judgment cited above, this passage also ends with a possible way out: “Try to desist, if you can! Think of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas! Recall that all these visions are unreal, control your mind, feel amity towards all that lives! And do not be afraid! You alone are the source of all these different rays. In you alone they exist, and so do the worlds to which they lead. Feel not attracted or repelled, but remain even minded and calm!” [Conze, p. 231] Again, it is karma that causes the rebirth, but since karma is nothing but our desires, we have the power to extinguish it at any time and stop the process. We make our own destiny, and the Six Courses are all in our heads.
“The final passage we examine connects karma, psychology, and rebirth with the biological fact that sexual intercourse causes birth. The first half of the passage describes the powerful urge to be reborn within the newly deceased: “An overpowering craving will come over you for the sense-experiences which you remember having had in the past, and which through your lack of sense-organs you cannot now have. Your desire for rebirth becomes more and more urgent; it becomes a real torment to you. This desire now racks you; . . . whenever you try to take some rest, monstrous forms rise up before you. Some have animal heads on human bodies, others are gigantic birds with huge wings and claws. Their howlings and their whips drive you on, and then a hurricane carries you along, with those demonic howlings in hot pursuit. Greatly anxious, you will look for a safe place of refuge.”
It turns out that this place of refuge is in the sex act: “Everywhere around you, you will see animals and humans in the act of sexual intercourse. You envy them, and the sight attracts you. If your karmic coefficients destine you to become a male, you feel attracted to the females and you hate the males you see. If you are destined to become a female, you will feel love for the males and hatred for the females you see. Do not get near the couples you see, do not try to interpose yourself between them, do not try to take the place of one of them! The feeling which you would then experience would make you faint away, just at the moment when egg and sperm are about to unite. And afterwards you will find that you have been conceived as a human being or as an animal.”
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Some voyeuristic spirit of a recently deceased person sees a couple having sex and the passions build up uncontrollably. He or she then jumps in between the couple and ends up being reborn as their baby. Notice the underlined part. Again, the text reminds us that there is a way out of the process at any time, if only we rectify our minds by casting out the desires within them…Life is, after all, suffering. The Six Realms do indeed exist — inside our heads as psychological states. It is within each person’s power, therefore, to determine his or her own rebirth. The same goes for the attainment of nirvana, which is outside the Six Courses entirely. (Strictly speaking, Mahayana doctrine holds that the Six Courses are nirvana and nirvana is the Six Courses — but we need not concern ourselves with this matter here.)”
A Note to Readers.
Any book with a title like Why Buddhism Is True should have some careful qualification somewhere along the way. We might as well get that over with:
1. I’m not talking about the “supernatural” or more exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism—reincarnation, for example—but rather about the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy. That said, I am talking about some of Buddhism’s more extraordinary, even radical, claims—claims that, if you take them seriously, could revolutionize your view of yourself and of the world. This book is intended to get you to take these claims seriously.
2. I’m of course aware that there’s no one Buddhism, but rather various Buddhist traditions, which differ on all kinds of doctrines. But this book focuses on a kind of “common core”—fundamental ideas that are found across the major Buddhist traditions, even if they get different degrees of emphasis, and may assume somewhat different form, in different traditions.
3. I’m not getting into super-fine-grained parts of Buddhist psychology and philosophy. For example, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, a collection of early Buddhist texts, asserts that there are eighty-nine kinds of consciousness, twelve of which are unwholesome. You may be relieved to hear that this book will spend no time trying to evaluate that claim.
4. I realize that true is a tricky word, and asserting the truth of anything, certainly including deep ideas in philosophy or psychology, is a tricky business. In fact, one big lesson from Buddhism is to be suspicious of the intuition that your ordinary way of perceiving the world brings you the truth about it. Some early Buddhist writings go so far as to raise doubts about whether such a thing as “truth” ultimately exists. On the other hand, the Buddha, in his most famous sermon, lays out what are commonly called “The Four Noble Truths,” so it’s not as if the word true has no place in discussions of Buddhist thought. In any event, I’ll try to proceed with appropriate humility and nuance as I make my argument that Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.
5. Asserting the validity of core Buddhist ideas doesn’t necessarily say anything, one way or the other, about other spiritual or philosophical traditions. There will sometimes be logical tension between a Buddhist idea and an idea in another tradition, but often there won’t be. The Dalai Lama has said, “Don’t try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a better Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.” —Robert Wright
1 Taking the Red Pill
At the risk of overdramatizing the human condition: Have you ever seen the movie The Matrix? It’s about a guy named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), who discovers that he’s been inhabiting a dream world. The life he thought he was living is actually an elaborate hallucination. He’s having that hallucination while, unbeknownst to him, his actual physical body is inside a gooey, coffin-size pod—one among many pods, rows and rows of pods, each pod containing a human being absorbed in a dream.
These people have been put in their pods by robot overlords and given dream lives as pacifiers. The choice faced by Neo—to keep living a delusion or wake up to reality—is famously captured in the movie’s “red pill” scene.
Neo has been contacted by rebels who have entered his dream (or, strictly speaking, whose avatars have entered his dream). Their leader, Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne), explains the situation to Neo: “You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch—a prison for your mind.”
The prison is called the Matrix, but there’s no way to explain to Neo what the Matrix ultimately is. The only way to get the whole picture, says Morpheus, is “to see it for yourself.” He offers Neo two pills, a red one and a blue one. Neo can take the blue pill and return to his dream world, or take the red pill and break through the shroud of delusion. Neo chooses the red pill.
That’s a pretty stark choice: a life of delusion and bondage or a life of insight and freedom. In fact, it’s a choice so dramatic that you’d think a Hollywood movie is exactly where it belongs—that the choices we really get to make about how to live our lives are less momentous than this, more pedestrian.
Yet when that movie came out, a number of people saw it as mirroring a choice they had actually made. The people I’m thinking about are what you might call Western Buddhists, people in the United States and other Western countries who, for the most part, didn’t grow up Buddhist but at some point adopted Buddhism. At least they adopted a version of Buddhism, a version that had been stripped of some supernatural elements typically found in Asian Buddhism, such as belief in reincarnation and in various deities.
This Western Buddhism centers on a part of Buddhist practice that in Asia is more common among monks than among laypeople: meditation, along with immersion in Buddhist philosophy. (Two of the most common Western conceptions of Buddhism—that it’s atheistic and that it revolves around meditation—are wrong; most Asian Buddhists do believe in gods, though not an omnipotent creator God, and don’t meditate.)
These Western Buddhists, long before they watched The Matrix, had become convinced that the world as they had once seen it was a kind of illusion—not an out-and-out hallucination but a seriously warped picture of reality that in turn warped their approach to life, with bad consequences for them and the people around them. Now they felt that, thanks to meditation and Buddhist philosophy, they were seeing things more clearly.
Among these people, The Matrix seemed an apt allegory of the transition they’d undergone, and so became known as a “dharma movie.” The word dharma has several meanings, including the Buddha’s teachings and the path that Buddhists should tread in response to those teachings. In the wake of The Matrix, a new shorthand for “I follow the dharma” came into currency: “I took the red pill.”
I saw The Matrix in 1999, right after it came out, and some months later I learned that I had a kind of connection to it. The movie’s directors, the Wachowski siblings, had given Keanu Reeves three books to read in preparation for playing Neo. One of them was a book I had written a few years earlier, The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life. I’m not sure what kind of link the directors saw between my book and The Matrix. But I know what kind of link I see.
Evolutionary psychology can be described in various ways, and here’s one way I had described it in my book: It is the study of how the human brain was designed—by natural selection—to mislead us, even enslave us. Don’t get me wrong: natural selection has its virtues, and I’d rather be created by it than not be created at all—which, so far as I can tell, are the two options this universe offers.
Being a product of evolution is by no means entirely a story of enslavement and delusion. Our evolved brains empower us in many ways, and they often bless us with a basically accurate view of reality. Still, ultimately, natural selection cares about only one thing (or, I should say, “cares”—in quotes—about only one thing, since natural selection is just a blind process, not a conscious designer). And that one thing is getting genes into the next generation.
Genetically based traits that in the past contributed to genetic proliferation have flourished, while traits that didn’t have fallen by the wayside. And the traits that have survived this test include mental traits—structures and algorithms that are built into the brain and shape our everyday experience. So if you ask the question “What kinds of perceptions and thoughts and feelings guide us through life each day?” the answer, at the most basic level, isn’t “The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that give us an accurate picture of reality.” No, at the most basic level the answer is “The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation.”
Whether those thoughts and feelings and perceptions give us a true view of reality is, strictly speaking, beside the point. As a result, they sometimes don’t. Our brains are designed to, among other things, delude us. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Some of my happiest moments have come from delusion—believing, for example, that the Tooth Fairy would pay me a visit after I lost a tooth.
But delusion can also produce bad moments. And I don’t just mean moments that, in retrospect, are obviously delusional, like horrible nightmares. I also mean moments that you might not think of as delusional, such as lying awake at night with anxiety. Or feeling hopeless, even depressed, for days on end. Or feeling bursts of hatred toward people, bursts that may actually feel good for a moment but slowly corrode your character. Or feeling bursts of hatred toward yourself. Or feeling greedy, feeling a compulsion to buy things or eat things or drink things well beyond the point where your well-being is served.
Though these feelings—anxiety, despair, hatred, greed—aren’t delusional the way a nightmare is delusional, if you examine them closely, you’ll see that they have elements of delusion, elements you’d be better off without. And if you think you would be better off, imagine how the whole world would be. After all, feelings like despair and hatred and greed can foster wars and atrocities.
So if what I’m saying is true—if these basic sources of human suffering and human cruelty are indeed in large part the product of delusion—there is value in exposing this delusion to the light.
Sounds logical, right? But here’s a problem that I started to appreciate shortly after I wrote my book about evolutionary psychology: the exact value of exposing a delusion to the light depends on what kind of light you’re talking about. Sometimes understanding the ultimate source of your suffering doesn’t, by itself, help very much.
An Everyday Delusion
Let’s take a simple but fundamental example: eating some junk food, feeling briefly satisfied, and then, only minutes later, feeling a kind of crash and maybe a hunger for more junk food. This is a good example to start with for two reasons. First, it illustrates how subtle our delusions can be. There’s no point in the course of eating a six-pack of small powdered-sugar doughnuts when you’re believing that you’re the messiah or that foreign agents are conspiring to assassinate you. And that’s true of many sources of delusion that I’ll discuss in this book: they’re more about illusion—about things not being quite what they seem—than about delusion in the more dramatic sense of that word.
Still, by the end of the book, I’ll have argued that all of these illusions do add up to a very large-scale warping of reality, a disorientation that is as significant and consequential as out-and-out delusion.
The second reason junk food is a good example to start with is that it’s fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings. Okay, it can’t be literally fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings, because 2,500 years ago, when the Buddha taught, junk food as we know it didn’t exist. What’s fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings is the general dynamic of being powerfully drawn to sensory pleasure that winds up being fleeting at best.
One of the Buddha’s main messages was that the pleasures we seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more. We spend our time looking for the next gratifying thing—the next powdered-sugar doughnut, the next sexual encounter, the next status-enhancing promotion, the next online purchase. But the thrill always fades, and it always leaves us wanting more.
The old Rolling Stones lyric “I can’t get no satisfaction” is, according to Buddhism, the human condition. Indeed, though the Buddha is famous for asserting that life is pervaded by suffering, some scholars say that’s an incomplete rendering of his message and that the word translated as “suffering,” dukkha, could, for some purposes, be translated as “unsatisfactoriness.”
So what exactly is the illusory part of pursuing doughnuts or sex or consumer goods or a promotion? There are different illusions associated with different pursuits, but for now we can focus on one illusion that’s common to these things: the overestimation of how much happiness they’ll bring.
Again, by itself this is delusional only in a subtle sense. If I asked you whether you thought that getting that next promotion, or getting an A on that next exam, or eating that next powdered-sugar doughnut would bring you eternal bliss, you’d say no, obviously not. On the other hand, we do often pursue such things with, at the very least, an unbalanced view of the future. We spend more time envisioning the perks that a promotion will bring than envisioning the headaches it will bring. And there may be an unspoken sense that once we’ve achieved this long-sought goal, once we’ve reached the summit, we’ll be able to relax, or at least things will be enduringly better.
Similarly, when we see that doughnut sitting there, we immediately imagine how good it tastes, not how intensely we’ll want another doughnut only moments after eating it, or how we’ll feel a bit tired or agitated later, when the sugar rush subsides.
Why Pleasure Fades
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to explain why this sort of distortion would be built into human anticipation. It just takes an evolutionary biologist—or, for that matter, anyone willing to spend a little time thinking about how evolution works. Here’s the basic logic. We were “designed” by natural selection to do certain things that helped our ancestors get their genes into the next generation—things like eating, having sex, earning the esteem of other people, and outdoing rivals. I put “designed” in quotation marks because, again, natural selection isn’t a conscious, intelligent designer but an unconscious process.
Still, natural selection does create organisms that look as if they’re the product of a conscious designer, a designer who kept fiddling with them to make them effective gene propagators. So, as a kind of thought experiment, it’s legitimate to think of natural selection as a “designer” and put yourself in its shoes and ask: If you were designing organisms to be good at spreading their genes, how would you get them to pursue the goals that further this cause?
In other words, granted that eating, having sex, impressing peers, and besting rivals helped our ancestors spread their genes, how exactly would you design their brains to get them to pursue these goals?
I submit that at least three basic principles of design would make sense:
1. Achieving these goals should bring pleasure, since animals, including humans, tend to pursue things that bring pleasure.
2. The pleasure shouldn’t last forever. After all, if the pleasure didn’t subside, we’d never seek it again; our first meal would be our last, because hunger would never return. So too with sex: a single act of intercourse, and then a lifetime of lying there basking in the afterglow. That’s no way to get lots of genes into the next generation.
3. The animal’s brain should focus more on (1), the fact that pleasure will accompany the reaching of a goal, than on (2), the fact that the pleasure will dissipate shortly thereafter. After all, if you focus on (1), you’ll pursue things like food and sex and social status with unalloyed gusto, whereas if you focus on (2), you could start feeling ambivalence. You might, for example, start asking what the point is of so fiercely pursuing pleasure if the pleasure will wear off shortly after you get it and leave you hungering for more. Before you know it, you’ll be full of ennui and wishing you’d majored in philosophy.
If you put these three principles of design together, you get a pretty plausible explanation of the human predicament as diagnosed by the Buddha. Yes, as he said, pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied. And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure.
Natural selection doesn’t “want” us to be happy, after all; it just “wants” us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.
Scientists can watch this logic play out at the biochemical level by observing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is correlated with pleasure and the anticipation of pleasure. In one seminal study, they took monkeys and monitored dopamine-generating neurons as drops of sweet juice fell onto the monkeys’ tongues. Predictably, dopamine was released right after the juice touched the tongue. But then the monkeys were trained to expect drops of juice after a light turned on. As the trials proceeded, more and more of the dopamine came when the light turned on, and less and less came after the juice hit the tongue.
We have no way of knowing for sure what it felt like to be one of those monkeys, but it would seem that, as time passed, there was more in the way of anticipating the pleasure that would come from the sweetness, yet less in the way of pleasure actually coming from the sweetness.
To translate this conjecture into everyday human terms: If you encounter a new kind of pleasure—if, say, you’ve somehow gone your whole life without eating a powdered-sugar doughnut, and somebody hands you one and suggests you try it—you’ll get a big blast of dopamine after the taste of the doughnut sinks in. But later, once you’re a confirmed powdered-sugar-doughnut eater, the lion’s share of the dopamine spike comes before you actually bite into the doughnut, as you’re staring longingly at it; the amount that comes after the bite is much less than the amount you got after that first, blissful bite into a powdered-sugar doughnut.
The pre-bite dopamine blast you’re now getting is the promise of more bliss, and the post-bite drop in dopamine is, in a way, the breaking of the promise—or, at least, it’s a kind of biochemical acknowledgment that there was some overpromising. To the extent that you bought the promise—anticipated greater pleasure than would be delivered by the consumption itself—you have been, if not deluded in the strong sense of that term, at least misled.
Kind of cruel, in a way—but what do you expect from natural selection? Its job is to build machines that spread genes, and if that means programming some measure of illusion into the machines, then illusion there will be.
So this is one kind of light science can shed on an illusion. Call it “Darwinian light.” By looking at things from the point of view of natural selection, we see why the illusion would be built into us, and we have more reason than ever to see that it is an illusion. But—and this is the main point of this little digression—this kind of light is of limited value if your goal is to actually liberate yourself from the illusion.
Don’t believe me? Try this simple experiment:
(1) Reflect on the fact that our lust for doughnuts and other sweet things is a kind of illusion—that the lust implicitly promises more enduring pleasure than will result from succumbing to it, while blinding us to the letdown that may ensue. (2) As you’re reflecting on this fact, hold a powdered-sugar doughnut six inches from your face. Do you feel the lust for it magically weakening? Not if you’re like me, no.
This is what I discovered after immersing myself in evolutionary psychology: knowing the truth about your situation, at least in the form that evolutionary psychology provides it, doesn’t necessarily make your life any better. In fact, it can actually make it worse. You’re still stuck in the natural human cycle of ultimately futile pleasure-seeking—what psychologists sometimes call “the hedonic treadmill”—but now you have new reason to see the absurdity of it. In other words, now you see that it’s a treadmill, a treadmill specifically designed to keep you running, often without really getting anywhere—yet you keep running!
And powdered-sugar doughnuts are just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, the truth is, it’s not all that uncomfortable to be aware of the Darwinian logic behind your lack of dietary self-discipline. In fact, you may find in this logic a comforting excuse: it’s hard to fight Mother Nature, right?
But evolutionary psychology also made me more aware of how illusion shapes other kinds of behavior, such as the way I treat other people and the way I, in various senses, treat myself. In these realms, Darwinian self-consciousness was sometimes very uncomfortable.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a meditation teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, has said, “Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” What he meant is that if you want to liberate yourself from the parts of the mind that keep you from realizing true happiness, you have to first become aware of them, which can be unpleasant.
Okay, fine; that’s a form of painful self-consciousness that would be worthwhile—the kind that leads ultimately to deep happiness. But the kind I got from evolutionary psychology was the worst of both worlds: the painful self-consciousness without the deep happiness. I had both the discomfort of being aware of my mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Well, with evolutionary psychology I felt I had found the truth. But, manifestly, I had not found the way. Which was enough to make me wonder about another thing Jesus said: that the truth will set you free. I felt I had seen the basic truth about human nature, and I saw more clearly than ever how various illusions imprisoned me, but this truth wasn’t amounting to a Get Out of Jail Free card.
So is there another version of the truth out there that would set me free? No, I don’t think so. At least, I don’t think there’s an alternative to the truth presented by science; natural selection, like it or not, is the process that created us.
But some years after writing The Moral Animal, I did start to wonder if there was a way to operationalize the truth—a way to put the actual, scientific truth about human nature and the human condition into a form that would not just identify and explain the illusions we labor under but would also help us liberate ourselves from them. I started wondering if this Western Buddhism I was hearing about might be that way.
Maybe many of the Buddha’s teachings were saying essentially the same thing modern psychological science says. And maybe meditation was in large part a different way of appreciating these truths—and, in addition, a way of actually doing something about them.
So in August 2003 I headed to rural Massachusetts for my first silent meditation retreat—a whole week devoted to meditation and devoid of such distractions as email, news from the outside world, and speaking to other human beings.
The Truth about Mindfulness
You could be excused for doubting that a retreat like this would yield anything very dramatic or profound. The retreat was, broadly speaking, in the tradition of “mindfulness meditation,” the kind of meditation that was starting to catch on in the West and that in the years since has gone mainstream.
As commonly described, mindfulness—the thing mindfulness meditation aims to cultivate—isn’t very deep or exotic. To live mindfully is to pay attention to, to be “mindful of” what’s happening in the here and now and to experience it in a clear, direct way, unclouded by various mental obfuscations. Stop and smell the roses. This is an accurate description of mindfulness as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far.
“Mindfulness,” as popularly conceived, is just the beginning of mindfulness. And it’s in some ways a misleading beginning. If you delve into ancient Buddhist writings, you won’t find a lot of exhortations to stop and smell the roses—and that’s true even if you focus on those writings that feature the word sati, the word that’s translated as “mindfulness.”
Indeed, sometimes these writings seem to carry a very different message. The ancient Buddhist text known as The Four Foundations of Mindfulness—the closest thing there is to a Bible of Mindfulness—reminds us that our bodies are “full of various kinds of unclean things” and instructs us to meditate on such bodily ingredients as “feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.” It also calls for us to imagine our bodies “one day, two days, three days dead—bloated, livid, and festering.”
I’m not aware of any bestselling books on mindfulness meditation called Stop and Smell the Feces. And I’ve never heard a meditation teacher recommend that I meditate on my bile, phlegm, and pus or on the rotting corpse that I will someday be.
What is presented today as an ancient meditative tradition is actually a selective rendering of an ancient meditative tradition, in some cases carefully manicured. There’s no scandal here. There’s nothing wrong with modern interpreters of Buddhism being selective—even, sometimes, creative—in what they present as Buddhism. All spiritual traditions evolve, adapting to time and place, and the Buddhist teachings that find an audience today in the United States and Europe are a product of such evolution.
The main thing, for our purposes, is that this evolution—the evolution that has produced a distinctively Western, twenty-first-century version of Buddhism—hasn’t severed the connection between current practice and ancient thought. Modern mindfulness meditation isn’t exactly the same as ancient mindfulness meditation, but the two share a common philosophical foundation.
If you follow the underlying logic of either of them far enough, you will find a dramatic claim: that we are, metaphorically speaking, living in the Matrix. However mundane mindfulness meditation may sometimes sound, it is a practice that, if pursued rigorously, can let you see what Morpheus says the red pill will let you see. Namely, “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
On that first meditation retreat, I had some pretty powerful experiences—powerful enough to make me want to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes. So I read more about Buddhist philosophy, and talked to experts on Buddhism, and eventually went on more meditation retreats, and established a daily meditation practice.
All of this made it clearer to me why The Matrix had come to be known as a “dharma movie.” Though evolutionary psychology had already convinced me that people are by nature pretty deluded, Buddhism, it turned out, painted an even more dramatic picture. In the Buddhist view, the delusion touches everyday perceptions and thoughts in ways subtler and more pervasive than I had imagined. And in ways that made sense to me. In other words, this kind of delusion, it seemed to me, could be explained as the natural product of a brain that had been engineered by natural selection.
The more I looked into Buddhism, the more radical it seemed, but the more I examined it in the light of modern psychology, the more plausible it seemed. The real-life Matrix, the one in which we’re actually embedded, came to seem more like the one in the movie—not quite as mind-bending, maybe, but profoundly deceiving and ultimately oppressive, and something that humanity urgently needs to escape.
The good news is the other thing I came to believe: if you want to escape from the Matrix, Buddhist practice and philosophy offer powerful hope. Buddhism isn’t alone in this promise. There are other spiritual traditions that address the human predicament with insight and wisdom. But Buddhist meditation, along with its underlying philosophy, addresses that predicament in a strikingly direct and comprehensive way. Buddhism offers an explicit diagnosis of the problem and a cure. And the cure, when it works, brings not just happiness but clarity of vision: the actual truth about things, or at least something way, way closer to that than our everyday view of them.
Some people who have taken up meditation in recent years have done so for essentially therapeutic reasons. They practice mindfulness-based stress reduction or focus on some specific personal problem. They may have no idea that the kind of meditation they’re practicing can be a deeply spiritual endeavor and can transform their view of the world. They are, without knowing it, near the threshold of a basic choice, a choice that only they can make. As Morpheus says to Neo, “I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”
This book is an attempt to show people the door, give them some idea of what lies beyond it, and explain, from a scientific standpoint, why what lies beyond it has a stronger claim to being real than the world they’re familiar with.
2 Paradoxes of Meditation
I’m not supposed to tell you about my first big success at meditating. The reason is that there isn’t supposed to be success at meditating. As any good meditation teacher will tell you, if you talk about meditation in terms of success or failure, you’re misunderstanding what meditation is.
Here I must depart from orthodoxy. I wouldn’t advocate meditation if I didn’t think there was something people could achieve by it. And if people don’t achieve that something, well, that would constitute failure, right? As in: the opposite of success. Granted, it may be best for people who are meditating to not think about succeeding, but that’s because thinking about succeeding gets in the way of success! And, granted, if you do achieve meditative “success,” that may lead to a new frame of mind that is less caught up in the pursuit of success than your old frame of mind—less relentlessly focused on achieving certain kinds of distant material goals, more aware of the here and now.
In sum: you can best achieve success at meditation by not pursuing success, and achieving this success may mean caring less about success, at least as success is conventionally defined. If this sounds unbearably paradoxical, maybe you should quit reading here, because this won’t be the last time we find paradox in Buddhist practice or Buddhist teachings. Then again, there’s paradoxical stuff in modern physics (an electron is both a particle and a wave), and modern physics works fine. So you might as well keep reading.
Anyway, before I violate protocol by telling you about my first big “success” as a meditator, I have to commit another violation of protocol by noting what a naturally bad meditator I am. That you shouldn’t talk about how bad you are at meditating is a straightforward corollary of the axiom that there’s no such thing as succeeding or failing at meditating. And if I’m violating the axiom, I might as well violate its corollary, so here goes.
Suppose you ranked all the people in the world in terms of their likelihood of picking up mindfulness meditation easily—sitting down, focusing on the breath, and slowly sinking into a state of calm, dispassionate observation. At one end of the spectrum you’d have Bobby Knight—the college basketball coach famous for his red, furious face and for once flinging a chair onto a basketball court. At the other end you’d have, I don’t know, the Dalai Lama or maybe the late Mister Rogers. On this spectrum, I would be much closer to Bobby Knight than to the Dalai Lama or Mister Rogers. I’ve never thrown a chair onto a basketball court, but I threw a chicken leg at a dinner guest when I was four and a baseball bat at a brother-in-law when I was twelve.
Happily, my penchant for throwing things at people has waned with age, but the underlying volatility hasn’t entirely disappeared. And volatility doesn’t smooth the path toward mindfulness.
Why Buddhism Is True. The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment
by Robert Wright
get it at Amazon.com
The Foundations of Mindfulness: Satipatthana Sutta
The philosophy of Buddhism is contained in the Four Noble Truths.
The truth of suffering reveals that all forms of becoming, all the various elements of existence comprised in the “five aggregates” or groups of existence — also called the “five categories which are the objects of clinging” (pañc’upadana-kkhandha) — are inseparable from suffering as long as they remain objects of grasping or clinging. All corporeality, all feelings and sensations, all perceptions, all mental formations and consciousness, being impermanent, are a source of suffering, are conditioned phenomena and hence not-self (anicca, dukkha, anatta). Ceaseless origination and dissolution best characterize the process of existence called life, for all elements of this flux of becoming continually arise from conditions created by us and then pass away, giving rise to new elements of being according to one’s actions or kamma.
All suffering originates from craving, and our very existence is conditioned by craving, which is threefold: the craving for sense pleasures (kama-tanha), craving for continued and renewed existence (bhava-tanha), and craving for annihilation after death (vibhava-tanha). This is the truth of the origin of suffering.
The attainment of perfect happiness, the breaking of the chain of rebirths and suffering through the realization of Nibbana, is possible only through the utter extirpation of that threefold craving. This is the truth of suffering’s cessation.
The methods of training for the liberation from all suffering are applied by following the Noble Eightfold Path of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Living, Right Exertion, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration of Mind. The Noble Eightfold Path consists of three types of training summed up in: virtuous conduct (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (pañña). This is the truth of the way that leads to the cessation of suffering.
The prevalence of suffering and absence of freedom and happiness is due to man’s subjection to the three roots of all unskill and evil, and all unwholesome actions (akusalakamma), viz. lust, hatred and delusion (lobha, dosa, moha).
Virtuous conduct casts out lust. The calm of true concentration and mental culture conquers hatred. Wisdom or right understanding, also called direct knowledge resulting from meditation, dispels all delusion. All these three types of training are possible only through the cultivation of constant mindfulness (sati), which forms the seventh link of the Noble Eightfold Path. Mindfulness is called a controlling faculty (indriya) and a spiritual power (bala), and is also the first of the seven factors of enlightenment (satta bojjhanga). Right Mindfulness (samma-sati) has to be present in every skillful or karmically wholesome thought moment (kusalacitta). It is the basis of all earnest endeavor (appamada) for liberation, and maintains in us the sense of urgency to strive for enlightenment or Nibbana.
The Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Satipatthana Sutta, is the tenth discourse of the Middle Length Collection (Majjhima Nikaya) of the Discourses of the Enlightened One. It is this version which is translated in the present publication. There is another version of it, in the Collection of Long Discourses (Digha Nikaya No.22), which differs only by a detailed explanation of the Four Noble Truths.
The great importance of the Discourse on Mindfulness has never been lost to the Buddhists of the Theravada tradition. In Sri Lanka, even when the knowledge and practice of the Dhamma was at its lowest ebb through centuries of foreign domination, the Sinhala Buddhists never forgot the Satipatthana Sutta. Memorizing the Sutta has been an unfailing practice among the Buddhists, and even today in Sri Lanka there are large numbers who can recite the Sutta from memory. It is a common sight to see on full-moon days devotees who are observing the Eight Precepts, engaged in community recital of the Sutta. Buddhists are intent on hearing this Discourse even in the last moments of their lives; and at the bedside of a dying Buddhist either monks or laymen recite this venerated text.
In the private shrine room of a Buddhist home, the book of the Satipatthana Sutta is displayed prominently as an object of reverence. Monastery libraries of palm-leaf manuscripts have the Sutta bound in highly ornamented covers.
One such book with this Discourse written in Sinhala script on palm-leaf, has found its way from Sri Lanka as far as the State University Library of Bucharest in Rumania. This was disclosed while collecting material for the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, when an Esperantist correspondent gave us a list of a hundred books on Buddhism found in the Rumanian University Libraries.
Mindfulness of Breathing (Anapana-sati)
The subjects dealt with in the Satipatthana Sutta are corporeality, feeling, mind and mind objects, being the universe of right Buddhist contemplation for deliverance. A very prominent place in the Discourse is occupied by the discussion on mindfulness of breathing (anapana-sati). To make the present publication of greater practical value to the reader, an introductory exposition of the methods of practicing that particular meditation will now be given.
Mindfulness of breathing takes the highest place among the various subjects of Buddhist meditation. It has been recommended and praised by the Enlightened One thus: “This concentration through mindfulness of breathing, when developed and practiced much, is both peaceful and sublime, it is an unadulterated blissful abiding, and it banishes at once and stills evil unprofitable thoughts as soon as they arise.” Though of such a high order, the initial stages of this meditation are well within the reach of a beginner though he be only a lay student of the Buddha-Dhamma. Both in the Discourse here translated, and in the 118th Discourse of the same Collection (the Majjhima Nikaya), which specifically deals with that meditation, the initial instructions for the practice are clearly laid down:
Herein, monks, a monk, having gone to the forest or the root of a tree or to an empty place, sits down with his legs crossed, keeps his body erect and his mindfulness alert. Ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a long breath”; breathing out a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a long breath.” Breathing in a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a short breath”; breathing out a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a short breath.” “Experiencing the whole (breath) body, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself. “Experiencing the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself. “Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself. “Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself.
These are instructions given by the Enlightened One to the monks who, after their alms round, had the whole remaining day free for meditation. But what about the lay Buddhist who has a limited time to devote to this practice? Among the places described as fit for the practice of meditation, one is available to all: suññagara, lit. “empty house,” may mean any room in the house that has no occupant at that moment, and one may in the course of the twenty-four hours of the day find a room in one’s house that is empty and undisturbed. Those who work all day and feel too tired in the evening for meditation may devote the early hours of the morning to the practice of mindfulness of breathing.
The other problem is the right posture for meditation. The full “lotus posture” of the yogi, the padmasana, as we see it in the Buddha statues, proves nowadays rather difficult to many, even to easterners. A youthful meditator, however, or even a middle-aged one, can well train himself in that posture in stages. He may, for instance, start with sitting on a low, broad chair or bed, bending only one leg and resting the other on the floor; and so, in gradual approximation, he may finally master that posture. There are also other easier postures of sitting with legs bent, for instance the half-lotus posture. It will be worth one’s effort to train oneself in such postures; but if one finds them difficult and uncomfortable at the outset it will not be advisable to delay or disturb one’s start with meditation proper on that account. One may allow a special time for sitting-practice, using it as best as one can for contemplation and reflection; but for the time being, the practice of meditation aiming at higher degrees of concentration may better be done in a posture that is comfortable. One may sit on a straight backed chair of a height that allows the legs to rest comfortably on the floor without strain. As soon however, as a cross-legged posture has become more comfortable, one should assume it for the practice of mindfulness of breathing, since it will allow one to sit in meditation for a longer time than is possible on a chair.
The meditator’s body and mind should be alert but not tense. A place with a dimmed light will be profitable since it will help to exclude diverting attention to visible objects.
The right place, time and posture are very important and often essential for a successful meditative effort.
Though we have been breathing throughout our life, we have done so devoid of mindfulness, and hence, when we try to follow each breath attentively, we find that the Buddhist teachers of old were right when they compared the natural state of an uncontrolled mind to an untamed calf. Our minds have long been dissipated among visible data and other objects of the senses and of thought, and hence do not yield easily to attempts at mind-control.
Suppose a cowherd wanted to tame a wild calf: he would take it away from the cow and tie it up apart with a rope to a stout post. Then the calf might dash to and fro, but being unable to get away and tired after its effort, it would eventually lie down by the post. So too, when the meditator wants to tame his own mind that has long been reared on the enjoyment of sense objects, he should take it away from places where these sense objects abound, and tie the mind to the post of in-breaths and out-breaths with the rope of mindfulness. And though his mind may then dash to and fro when deprived of its liberty to roam among the sense objects, it will ultimately settle down when mindfulness is persistent and strong.
When practicing mindfulness of breathing, attention should be focused at the tip of the nose or at the point of the upper lip immediately below where the current of air can be felt. The meditator’s attention should not leave this “focusing point” from where the in-coming and out-going breaths can be easily felt and observed. The meditator may become aware of the breath’s route through the body but he should not pay attention to it. At the beginning of the practice, the meditator should concentrate only on the in-breaths and out-breaths, and should not fall into any reflections about them. It is only at a later stage that he should apply himself to the arousing of knowledge and other states connected with the concentration.
In this brief introduction, only the first steps of the beginner can be discussed. For more information the student may refer to the English translation of the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification, chap. VIII) by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli, or to Mindfulness of Breathing by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli, and to The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera.
The lay Buddhist who undertakes this practice will first take the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts; he will review the reflections on the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, transmit thoughts of loving-kindness (metta) in all directions, recollect that this meditation will help him to reach the goal of deliverance through direct knowledge and mental calm; and only then should he start with the mindfulness of breathing proper, first by way of counting.
The Buddhist teachers of old recommend that a beginner should start the practice by counting the breaths mentally. In doing so he should not stop short of five or go beyond ten or make any break in the series. By stopping short of five breaths his mind has not enough room for contemplation, and by going beyond ten his mind takes the number rather than the breaths for its objects, and any break in the series would upset the meditation.
When counting, the meditator should first count when the in-breath or the out-breath is completed, not when it begins. So taking the in-breath first, he counts mentally ‘one’ when that in-breath is complete, then he counts ‘two’ when the out-breath is complete, ‘three’ after the next in-breath, and so on up to ten, and then again from one to ten, and so he should continue.
After some practice in counting at the completion of a breath, breathing may becoming faster. The breaths, however, should not be made longer or shorter intentionally. The meditator has to be just mindful of their occurrence as they come and go. Now he may try counting ‘one’ when he begins to breathe in or breathe out, counting up to five or ten, and then again from one to five or ten. If one takes both the in-breath and out-breath as ‘one,’ it is better to count only up to five.
Counting should be employed until one can dispense with it in following the sequence of breaths successively. Counting is merely a device to assist in excluding stray thoughts. It is, as it were, a guideline or railing for supporting mindfulness until it can do without such help. There may be those who will feel the counting more as a complication than a help, and they may well omit it, attending directly to the flow of the respiration by way of “connecting the successive breaths.”
After the counting has been discarded, the meditator should now continue his practice by way of connecting (anubandhana); that is, by following mindfully the in and out breaths without recourse to counting, and yet without a break in attentiveness. Here too, the breaths should not be followed beyond the nostrils where the respiratory air enters and leaves. The meditator must strive to be aware of the whole breath, in its entire duration and without missing one single phase, but his attention must not leave the place of contact, the nostrils, or that point of the upper lip where the current of air touches.
While following the in-breaths and out-breaths thus, they become fainter and fainter, and at times it is not easy to remain aware of that subtle sensation of touch caused by the respiration. Keener mindfulness is required to keep track of the breaths then. But if the meditator perseveres, one day he will feel a different sensation, a feeling of ease and happiness, and occasionally there appears before his mental eye something like a luminous star or a similar sign, which indicates that one approaches the stage of access concentration. Steadying the newly acquired sign, one may cultivate full mental absorption (jhana) or at least the preliminary concentration as a basis for practicing insight.
The practice of mindfulness of breathing is meant for both mental calm and insight (samatha and vipassana). Direct knowledge being the object of Buddhist meditation, the concentration gained by the meditative practice should be used for the clear understanding of reality as manifest in oneself and in the entire range of one’s experience.
Though penetrative insight leading to Nibbana is the ultimate object, progress in mindfulness and concentration will also bring many benefits in our daily lives. If we have become habituated to follow our breaths for a longer period of time and can exclude all (or almost all) intruding irrelevant thoughts, mindfulness, self-control and efficiency are sure to increase in all our activities. Just as our breathing, so also other processes of body and mind, will become clearer to us, and we shall come to know more of ourselves.
It has been said by the Buddha: “Mindfulness of breathing, developed and repeatedly practiced, is of great fruit, of great advantage, for it fulfills the four foundations of mindfulness; the four foundations of mindfulness, developed and repeatedly practiced, fulfill the seven enlightenment factors; the seven enlightenment factors, developed and repeatedly practiced, fulfill clear-vision and deliverance.” Clear vision and deliverance, or direct knowledge and the bliss of liberation, are the highest fruit of the application of mindfulness.
Thus have I heard. At one time the Blessed One was living among the Kurus, at Kammasadamma, a market town of the Kuru people. There the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhu thus: “Monks,” and they replied to him, “Venerable Sir.” The Blessed One spoke as follows:
This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely, the four foundations of mindfulness. What are the four?
Herein (in this teaching) a monk lives contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief.
I. The Contemplation of the Body
1. Mindfulness of Breathing
And how does a monk live contemplating the body in the body?
Herein, monks, a monk, having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree or to an empty place, sits down with his legs crossed, keeps his body erect and his mindfulness alert.
Ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a long breath”; breathing out a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a long breath”; breathing in a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a short breath”; breathing out a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a short breath.”
“Experiencing the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself. “Experiencing the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself. “Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself. “Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself.
Just as a skillful turner or turner’s apprentice, making a long turn, knows, “I am making a long turn,” or making a short turn, knows, “I am making a short turn,” just so the monk, breathing in a long breath, knows, “I am breathing in a long breath”; breathing out a long breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a long breath”; breathing in a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing in a short breath”; breathing out a short breath, he knows, “I am breathing out a short breath.” “Experiencing the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself. “Experiencing the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself. “Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself. “Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself.
Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: “The body exists,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body.
2. The Postures of the Body
And further, monks, a monk knows, when he is going, “I am going”; he knows, when he is standing, “I am standing”; he knows, when he is sitting, “I am sitting”; he knows, when he is lying down, “I am lying down”; or just as his body is disposed so he knows it.
Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: “The body exists,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body.
3. Mindfulness with Clear Comprehension
And further, monks, a monk, in going forward and back, applies clear comprehension; in looking straight on and looking away, he applies clear comprehension; in bending and in stretching, he applies clear comprehension; in wearing robes and carrying the bowl, he applies clear comprehension; in eating, drinking, chewing and savoring, he applies clear comprehension; in walking, in standing, in sitting, in falling asleep, in waking, in speaking and in keeping silence, he applies clear comprehension.
Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body…
4. The Reflection on the Repulsiveness of the Body
And further, monks, a monk reflects on this very body enveloped by the skin and full of manifold impurity, from the soles up, and from the top of the head-hairs down, thinking thus: “There are in this body hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidney, heart, liver, midriff, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, nasal mucus, synovial fluid, urine.”
Just as if there were a double-mouthed provision bag full of various kinds of grain such as hill paddy, paddy, green gram, cow-peas, sesamum, and husked rice, and a man with sound eyes, having opened that bag, were to take stock of the contents thus: “This is hill paddy, this is paddy, this is green gram, this is cow-pea, this is sesamum, this is husked rice.” Just so, monks, a monk reflects on this very body enveloped by the skin and full of manifold impurity, from the soles up, and from the top of the head-hairs down, thinking thus: “There are in this body hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidney, heart, liver, midriff, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, nasal mucus, synovial fluid, urine.”
Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body…
5. The Reflection on the Material Elements
And further, monks, a monk reflects on this very body, however it be placed or disposed, by way of the material elements: “There are in this body the element of earth, the element of water, the element of fire, the element of wind.”
Just as if, monks, a clever cow-butcher or his apprentice, having slaughtered a cow and divided it into portions, should be sitting at the junction of four high roads, in the same way, a monk reflects on this very body, as it is placed or disposed, by way of the material elements: “There are in this body the elements of earth, water, fire, and wind.”
Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body…
6. The Nine Cemetery Contemplations
(1) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body dead one, two, or three days; swollen, blue and festering, thrown in the charnel ground, he then applies this perception to his own body thus: “Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it.”
Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-factors in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-factors in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: “The body exists,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body.
(2) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground, being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms, he then applies this perception to his own body thus: “Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it.”
Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body…
(3) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton with some flesh and blood attached to it, held together by the tendons…
(4) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton blood-besmeared and without flesh, held together by the tendons…
(5) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together by the tendons…
(6) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to disconnected bones, scattered in all directions_here a bone of the hand, there a bone of the foot, a shin bone, a thigh bone, the pelvis, spine and skull…
(7) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground, reduced to bleached bones of conchlike color…
(8) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground reduced to bones, more than a year-old, lying in a heap…
(9) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground, reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust, he then applies this perception to his own body thus: “Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it.”
Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: “The body exists,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body.
II. The Contemplation of Feeling
And how, monks, does a monk live contemplating feelings in feelings?
Herein, monks, a monk when experiencing a pleasant feeling knows, “I experience a pleasant feeling”; when experiencing a painful feeling, he knows, “I experience a painful feeling”; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling,” he knows, “I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling.” When experiencing a pleasant worldly feeling, he knows, “I experience a pleasant worldly feeling”; when experiencing a pleasant spiritual feeling, he knows, “I experience a pleasant spiritual feeling”; when experiencing a painful worldly feeling, he knows, “I experience a painful worldly feeling”; when experiencing a painful spiritual feeling, he knows, “I experience a painful spiritual feeling”; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling, he knows, “I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling”; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling, he knows, “I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling.”
Thus he lives contemplating feelings in feelings internally, or he lives contemplating feelings in feelings externally, or he lives contemplating feelings in feelings internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in feelings, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in feelings, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in feelings. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Feeling exists,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, a monk lives contemplating feelings in feelings.
III. The Contemplation of Consciousness
And how, monks, does a monk live contemplating consciousness in consciousness?
Herein, monks, a monk knows the consciousness with lust, as with lust; the consciousness without lust, as without lust; the consciousness with hate, as with hate; the consciousness without hate, as without hate; the consciousness with ignorance, as with ignorance; the consciousness without ignorance, as without ignorance; the shrunken state of consciousness, as the shrunken state; the distracted state of consciousness, as the distracted state; the developed state of consciousness as the developed state; the undeveloped state of consciousness as the undeveloped state; the state of consciousness with some other mental state superior to it, as the state with something mentally higher; the state of consciousness with no other mental state superior to it, as the state with nothing mentally higher; the concentrated state of consciousness, as the concentrated state; the unconcentrated state of consciousness, as the unconcentrated state; the freed state of consciousness, as the freed state; and the unfreed state of consciousness as the unfreed state.
Thus he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness internally, or he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness externally, or he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in consciousness, or he lives contemplating dissolution-factors in consciousness, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in consciousness. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Consciousness exists,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, a monk lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness.
IV. The Contemplation of Mental Objects
1. The Five Hindrances
And how, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in mental objects?
Herein, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances.
How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances?
Herein, monks, when sense-desire is present, a monk knows, “There is sense-desire in me,” or when sense-desire is not present, he knows, “There is no sense-desire in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen sense-desire comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen sense-desire comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sense-desire comes to be.
When anger is present, he knows, “There is anger in me,” or when anger is not present, he knows, “There is no anger in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen anger comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen anger comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned anger comes to be.
When sloth and torpor are present, he knows, “There are sloth and torpor in me,” or when sloth and torpor are not present, he knows, “There are no sloth and torpor in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sloth and torpor comes to be.
When agitation and remorse are present, he knows, “There are agitation and remorse in me,” or when agitation and remorse are not present, he knows, “There are no agitation and remorse in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen agitation and remorse comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen agitation and remorse comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned agitation and remorse comes to be.
When doubt is present, he knows, “There is doubt in me,” or when doubt is not present, he knows, “There is no doubt in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen doubt comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen doubt comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned doubt comes to be.
Thus he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects externally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in mental objects. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Mental objects exist,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances.
2. The Five Aggregates of Clinging
And further, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five aggregates of clinging.
How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five aggregates of clinging?
Herein, monks, a monk thinks, “Thus is material form; thus is the arising of material form; and thus is the disappearance of material form. Thus is feeling; thus is the arising of feeling; and thus is the disappearance of feeling. Thus is perception; thus is the arising of perception; and thus is the disappearance of perception. Thus are formations; thus is the arising of formations; and thus is the disappearance of formations. Thus is consciousness; thus is the arising of consciousness; and thus is the disappearance of consciousness.”
Thus he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects externally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in mental objects. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Mental objects exist,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five aggregates of clinging.
3. The Six Internal and External Sense Bases
And further, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the six internal and the six external sense-bases.
How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the six internal and the six external sense-bases?
Herein, monks, a monk knows the eye and visual forms and the fetter that arises dependent on both (the eye and forms); he knows how the arising of the non-arisen fetter comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen fetter comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned fetter comes to be.
He knows the ear and sounds… the nose and smells… the tongue and flavors… the body and tactual objects… the mind and mental objects, and the fetter that arises dependent on both; he knows how the arising of the non-arisen fetter comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen fetter comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned fetter comes to be.
Thus he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects externally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in mental objects. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Mental objects exist,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the six internal and the six external sense-bases.
4. The Seven Factors of Enlightenment
And further, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the seven factors of enlightenment.
How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the seven factors of enlightenment?
Herein, monks, when the enlightenment-factor of mindfulness is present, the monk knows, “The enlightenment-factor of mindfulness is in me,” or when the enlightenment-factor of mindfulness is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of mindfulness is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of mindfulness comes to be; and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of mindfulness comes to be.
When the enlightenment-factor of the investigation of mental objects is present, the monk knows, “The enlightenment-factor of the investigation of mental objects is in me”; when the enlightenment-factor of the investigation of mental objects is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of the investigation of mental objects is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of the investigation of mental objects comes to be, and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of the investigation of mental objects comes to be.
When the enlightenment-factor of energy is present, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of energy is in me”; when the enlightenment-factor of energy is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of energy is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of energy comes to be, and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of energy comes to be.
When the enlightenment-factor of joy is present, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of joy is in me”; when the enlightenment-factor of joy is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of joy is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of joy comes to be, and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of joy comes to be.
When the enlightenment-factor of tranquillity is present, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of tranquillity is in me”; when the enlightenment-factor of tranquillity is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of tranquillity is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of tranquillity comes to be, and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of tranquillity comes to be.
When the enlightenment-factor of concentration is present, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of concentration is in me”; when the enlightenment-factor of concentration is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of concentration is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of concentration comes to be, and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of concentration comes to be.
When the enlightenment-factor of equanimity is present, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of equanimity is in me”; when the enlightenment-factor of equanimity is absent, he knows, “The enlightenment-factor of equanimity is not in me”; and he knows how the arising of the non-arisen enlightenment-factor of equanimity comes to be, and how perfection in the development of the arisen enlightenment-factor of equanimity comes to be.
Thus he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects externally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating dissolution-factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-factors in mental objects. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Mental objects exist,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the seven factors of enlightenment.
5. The Four Noble Truths
And further, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the four noble truths.
How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the four noble truths?
Herein, monks, a monk knows, “This is suffering,” according to reality; he knows, “This is the origin of suffering,” according to reality; he knows, “This is the cessation of suffering,” according to reality; he knows “This is the road leading to the cessation of suffering,” according to reality.
Thus he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects externally, or he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating dissolution-factors in mental objects, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-factors in mental objects. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, “Mental objects exist,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, a monk lives contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the four noble truths.
Verily, monks, whosoever practices these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for seven years, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge (arahantship) here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.
O monks, let alone seven years. Should any person practice these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for six years… five years… four years… three years… two years… one year, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.
O monks, let alone a year. Should any person practice these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for seven months… six months… five months… four months… three months… two months… a month… half a month, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.
O monks, let alone half a month. Should any person practice these four foundations of mindfulness in this manner for a week, then one of these two fruits may be expected by him: highest knowledge here and now, or if some remainder of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.
Because of this it was said: “This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely the four foundations of mindfulness.”
Thus spoke the Blessed One. Satisfied, the monks approved of his words.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English
by Bhante Gunaratana.
THERE ARE several books on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Some of them are direct translations of the original Pali discourse of the historical Buddha, some explain the sutta in great detail with commentaries and subcommentaries, some are rich scholarly treatises. And if you are interested in improving your theoretical knowledge of meditation, any of these books can be highly recommended.
When I teach meditation I always try to make sure the listeners can receive the message easily and put it into practice even without a teacher around to consult; as always, my concern in this book is the actual practice, right here in our lives. And when I write, I strive to write everything in plain English. Meditation is becoming very popular these days for many good reasons.
Unfortunately, there are not enough accessible teachers to fully meet the demand of these burgeoning explorers. Some would-be students read good meditation books, some attend meditation retreats, and some listen to many good talks on meditation. After reading books on meditation, listening to talks on meditation, and attending meditation retreats, quite a number of students of meditation write me at the Bhavana Society with questions on matters they would like clarified. I thought of writing this book to answer some, not all, of the questions.
Of course, nobody can write one book or series of books answering all the questions people ask! And what’s more, as people delve more deeply, their enthusiasm prompts them to ask more questions. The present book is my humble attempt to answer some of the questions related to meditation.
I sincerely thank Ajahn sona, one of our students at the Bhavana Society, for his valuable help in getting this book started. I am grateful to Josh Bartok and Laura Cunningham at Wisdom Publications for making many valuable suggestions to complete this book and for shepherding it to completion, and to Brenda Rosen who contributed enormous time and effort to develop the manuscript.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
High View, West Virginia
THE FOUR FOUNDATIONS OF MINDFULNESS is a talk or perhaps a collection of talks said to have been given by the historical Buddha.
Mindfulness or insight meditation is based on the Four Foundations. Now very well known in the West, this comprehensive set of meditation topics and techniques is probably the preeminent style of meditation taught today in the Theravada Buddhist world. Mindfulness has also been the focus of my books. In Mindfulness in Plain English, I present a practical step-by-step guide to mindfulness meditation. If you are new to insight practice, this book is a good place to start. In Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, I show how mindfulness is used to progress along the Buddha’s eight-step path to happiness.
You could say that the Four Foundations are the details of the seventh step of the Buddha’s path. In fact, the last three steps—effort, mindfulness, and concentration, which we in the West call “meditation”—are all covered in the Four Foundations. In Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English, I explain the principles and techniques of deep concentration meditation. Concentration meditation or samatha is parallel and complementary to mindfulness meditation or vipassana, since the Four Foundations are the basis of all concentration.
Now, in this book, I write directly about the Four Foundations, the underlying principles of mindfulness practice. In simple and straightforward language, I share what the Buddha said about mindfulness in his instructional talks or suttas and how we can use these principles to improve our daily lives, deepen our mindfulness, and move closer to our spiritual goals.
The basic premise of mindfulness is simple. The body does many things without our awareness. When germs invade, our white blood cells attack the invaders without our knowledge. However, we can train ourselves to become aware of the things we do consciously with the body, such as walking, standing, talking, eating, drinking, writing, reading, playing, and other physical activities. We can also develop moment-to-moment awareness of our emotions, sensations, thoughts, and other mental activities.
Mindfulness trains us to do everything we do with full awareness. You may be wondering, “Why is full awareness important?” As anyone who tries mindfulness practice quickly discovers, the more aware we are of our actions and of the feelings, thoughts, and perceptions that give rise to them, the more insight we have into why we are doing what we are doing. Awareness allows us to see whether our actions spring from beneficial or harmful impulses.
Beneficial motivations include generosity, friendliness, compassion, and wisdom; harmful actions are caused primarily by greed, hatred, and delusion. When we are mindful of the deep roots from which our thoughts, words, and deeds grow, we have the opportunity to cultivate those that are beneficial and weed out those that are harmful. The Buddha is very clear that the primary aim of all his teachings is “the end of suffering.”Mindfulness helps us to recognize that beneficial actions bring peace of mind and happiness to our everyday lives.
They also help us progress on the Buddha’s path toward nibbana—liberation, complete freedom from suffering. Similarly, mindfulness teaches us that actions motivated by greed, hatred, and delusion make us miserable and anxious. They imprison us in samsara, the life-after-life cycle of repeated suffering.
When we practice mindfulness, before we speak we ask ourselves: “Are these words truthful and beneficial to me and to others? Will they bring peace, or will they create problems?” When we think mindfully, we ask: “Does this thought make me calm and happy, or distressed and fearful?” Before we act, we ask: “Will this action cause suffering for me and for others?” Being mindful gives us the opportunity to choose: “Do I want joy and contentment or misery and worry?”
Mindfulness also trains us to remember to pay attention to the changes that are continually taking place inside our body and mind and in the world around us. Normally, we forget to pay attention because the countless things that are happening simultaneously distract our minds. We get carried away by the superficial and lose sight of the flow. The mind wants to see what is next, what is next, and what is next. We get excited by the show and forget that it is, indeed, simply a show.
The Buddha taught: “That which is impermanent is suffering.” The truth of these words becomes clear when we simply pay attention. Eventually, the mind gets tired of moving from one impermanent thing to the next. Losing interest in the futile pursuit, the mind rests and finds joy. In Pali, the word for “to remember” is sati, which can also be translated as “mindfulness.”
Remembering is simply paying direct, non-verbal attention to what is happening from one moment to the next. Resting comfortably in awareness, we relax into things as they are right now in this very moment, without slipping away into what happened in the past or will happen in the future. Normally, because we do not understand, we tend to blame the world for our pain and suffering. But with sati, mindful remembering, we understand that the only place to find peace and freedom from suffering is this very place, right here in our own body and mind.
Memory is very natural to our body, almost automatic. Our hearts pump blood without our reminding them to do so. The mind can also be taught to act the same way. Training the faculty of mindfulness is like breathing oxygen continuously to remain alive. As mental events occur, mindfulness helps us see whether they hurt our mind and body.
We have the choice: Do we merely suffer from pain, or do we examine the pain to understand why it arises? If we ignore the causes, we continue to suffer. Living with awareness requires effort, but following the Buddha’s example, with practice anyone can master it. Mindfulness practice has deep roots in Buddhist tradition.
More than 2,600 years ago, the Buddha exhorted his senior bhikkhus, monks with the responsibility of passing his teachings on to others, to train their students in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. “What four?” he was asked. “Come, friends,” the Buddha answered. “Dwell contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, unified, with concentrated one-pointed mind, in order to know the body as it really is. Dwell contemplating feeling in feelings …in order to know feelings as they really are. Dwell contemplating mind in mind …in order to know mind as it really is. Dwell contemplating dhamma in dhammas …in order to know dhammas as they really are.”
The practice of contemplating (or as we might say, meditating on) the Four Foundations—mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind, and dhammas (or phenomena)—is recommended for people at every stage of the spiritual path. As the Buddha goes on to explain, everyone—trainees who have recently become interested in the Buddhist path, monks and nuns, and even arahants, advanced meditators who have already reached the goal of liberation from suffering, “should be exhorted, settled, and established in the development of these Four Foundations of Mindfulness.”
In this sutta, the Buddha is primarily addressing the community of bhikkhus, monks and nuns who have dedicated their lives to spiritual practice. Given this, you might wonder whether people with families and jobs and busy Western lives can benefit from mindfulness practice. If the Buddha’s words were meant only for monastics, he would have given this talk in a monastery. But he spoke in a village filled with shopkeepers, farmers, and other ordinary folk.
Since mindfulness can help men and women from all walks of life relieve suffering, we can assume that the word “bhikkhu” is used to mean anyone seriously interested in meditation. In that sense, we are all bhikkhus.
Let’s look briefly at each of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as a preview of things to come.
By asking us to practice mindfulness of the body, the Buddha is reminding us to see “the body in the body.” By these words he means that we should recognize that the body is not a solid unified thing, but rather a collection of parts. The nails, teeth, skin, bones, heart, lungs, and all other parts—each is actually a small “body” that is located in the larger entity that we call “the body.”
Traditionally, the human body is divided into thirty-two parts, and we train ourselves to be mindful of each. Trying to be mindful of the entire body is like trying to grab a heap of oranges. If we grab the whole heap at once, perhaps we will end up with nothing! Moreover, remembering that the body is composed of many parts helps us to see “the body as body”—not as my body or as myself, but simply as a physical form like all other physical forms. Like all forms, the body comes into being, remains present for a time, and then passes away. Since it experiences injury, illness, and death, the body is unsatisfactory as a source of lasting happiness.
Since it is not myself, the body can also be called “selfless.” When mindfulness helps us to recognize that the body is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless, in the Buddha’s words, we “know the body as it really is.” Similarly, by asking us to practice mindfulness of feelings, the Buddha is telling us to contemplate “the feeling in the feelings.” These words remind us that, like the body, feelings can be subdivided.
Traditionally, there are only three types—pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings. Each type is one “feeling” in the mental awareness that we call “feelings.” At any given moment we are able to notice only one type. When a pleasant feeling is present, neither a painful feeling nor a neutral feeling is present. The same is true of an unpleasant or neutral feeling. We regard feelings in this way to help us develop a simple non-judgmental awareness of what we are experiencing—seeing a particular feeling as one of many feelings, rather than as my feeling or as part of me.
As we watch each emotion or sensation as it arises, remains present, and passes away, we observe that any feeling is impermanent. Since a pleasant feeling does not last and an unpleasant feeling is often painful, we understand that feelings are unsatisfactory. Seeing a feeling as an emotion or sensation rather than as my feeling, we come to know that feelings are selfless. Recognizing these truths, we “know feelings as they really are.”
The same process applies to mindfulness of mind. Although we talk about “the mind” as if it were a single thing, actually, mind or consciousness is a succession of particular instances of “mind in mind.” As mindfulness practice teaches us, consciousness arises from moment to moment on the basis of information coming to us from the senses—what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—and from internal mental states, such as memories, imaginings, and daydreams.
When we look at the mind, we are not looking at mere consciousness. The mind alone cannot exist, only particular states of mind that appear depending on external or internal conditions. Paying attention to the way each thought arises, remains present, and passes away, we learn to stop the runaway train of one unsatisfactory thought leading to another and another and another. We gain a bit of detachment and understand that we are not our thoughts.
In the end, we come to know “mind as it really is.”By telling us to practice mindfulness of dhammas, or phenomena, the Buddha is not simply saying that we should be mindful of his teachings, though that is one meaning of the word “dhamma.”He is also reminding us that the dhamma that we contemplate is within us. The history of the world is full of truth seekers. The Buddha was one of them. Almost all sought the truth outside themselves. Before he attained enlightenment, the Buddha also searched outside of himself. He was looking for his maker, the cause of his existence, who he called the “builder of this house.” But he never found what he was looking for. Instead, he discovered that he himself was subject to birth, growth, decay, death, sickness, sorrow, lamentation, and defilement.
When he looked outside himself, he saw that everyone else was suffering from these same problems. This recognition helped him to see that no one outside himself could free him from his suffering. So he began to search within. This inner seeking is known as “come and see.” Only when he began to search inside did he find the answer. Then he said: Many a birth I wandered in samsara, Seeking but not finding the builder of this house. Sorrowful is it to be born again and again. Oh! House builder thou art seen. Thou shall not build house again. All thy rafters are broken. Thy ridgepole is shattered. The mind has attained the unconditioned.
The great discovery of the Buddha is that the truth is within us. The entire Dhamma that he taught is based on this realization. When we look inside, we come to understand the significance of the Four Noble Truths—the Buddha’s essential first teaching.
Where do we find suffering? We experience it within ourselves. And where is the cause of our suffering, craving? It, too, is within us. And, how can we reach the end of it, the cessation of suffering? We find the way within ourselves. And where do we develop skillful understanding, thinking, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration, the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path—the method for ending suffering? We develop all of these qualities within our own body and mind.
The roots of suffering are within us. And the method for eliminating suffering is within us as well. When we practice mindfulness, we follow the Buddha’s example and look inside. We become aware that our own greed, hatred, and delusion are the causes of our unhappiness. When we replace these poisons with generosity, loving-friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy, patience, cordiality, gentleness, and wisdom, we find the happiness and peace of mind we have been seeking. As I always remind my students, “The meditation you do on the cushion is your homework. The rest of your life is your fieldwork. To practice mindfulness, you need both.”
The other meaning of dhammas is simply “phenomena.”When we follow the Buddha’s advice and “dwell contemplating dhamma in dhammas,”we come to understand that each individual phenomenon within reality as we experience it, including physical objects, feelings, perceptions, mental activities, and consciousness, comes into being, remains, and then passes away. In the same way, the deep-rooted negative habits of the unenlightened mind that bind us to one unsatisfactory life after another, known as the fetters, are impermanent. With effort, each fetter—including greed, hatred, and belief in the existence of a permanent self or soul—can be recognized and removed.
In essence, the dhamma path is quite straightforward. We eliminate our harmful habits one by one and cultivate beneficial qualities based on our understanding of each of the Buddha’s teachings. In the end, the last fetter falls away, and we achieve liberation from suffering. So how do we get started with mindfulness meditation? I always recommend meditation focused on the breath as the best way to begin mindfulness training.
In Mindfulness in Plain English, I explain the basics of breath meditation and other essential mindfulness practices. Similar instructions for sitting meditation and walking meditation can be found in this book in the chapters on mindfulness of the body.
In the section that follows this introduction, I suggest ways to include the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta in a simple daily practice. While many people are drawn to meditation because of its wonderful benefits for relaxation, relief from stress and pain, and the general health of the body and mind, in the context of the Four Foundations, it’s important to keep another set of goals in mind.
With dedicated effort and regular practice, we can look forward to five significant spiritual accomplishments: First, meditation helps us become fully aware of what is going on in the mind and body here and now. All too often, we sleepwalk through our days, musing about the past or daydreaming about the future. Mindfulness teaches us to cut through the fog and bring our focus to the present moment.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English
by Bhante Gunaratana
get it at Amazon.com