Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part Four

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, April 11, 2011

To recap the discussion of previous weeks, the recalcitrant sense of self is a fabrication that gives rise to a vast structure of additional fabrications, emotions and intentions and behaviors that together cause us and others huge problems. We are considering the Noble Eightfold Path from the perspective of undermining or eating away this whole tangled structure, like a wooden bridge, each of the steps eating away, termite-like, at some crossbeam manifestation of the sense of self. We have considered so far the two Wisdom termites, named Right View and Right Resolve, and the three Virtue termites, who call themselves Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Remaining are the termites of the cutivation of mind: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

The Termite of Right Effort.

Our task is like that of a gardener, one pulls out the unskillful weeds and waters the skillful flowers, shrubs, vegetables and herbs and thereby give the desired shape to the garden. Right Resolve and Right Effort are the bookends to the Ethical Conduct Group. Right Resolve is the outline of how we conduct ourselves in the world, selflessly, with kindness and with compassion. Right Speech, Action and Livelihood are our proper verbal and physical activities. Right Effort drops down to the level of intention, the mental qualities we bring into our activities. These mental factors, like the actions they may give rise to, are sorted in terms of skillful and unskillful.

Unskillful thoughts emanate from the self. You can tell because they are implicated in all the problems we have seen are caused by the fabrication of self. They result in unvirtuous behavior when we listen to them. They distort our perception of reality, ultimately entangling us in samsara. They are stressful or even painful, and even destroy our health. Most important for our concerns, they reaffirm and strengthen the hold of the self. Unskillful thoughts are those rooted in the infamous Three Poisons in Buddhist doctrine, Greed, Hatred or Delusion, and are bad news.

The Termite of Right Effort eats unskillful thoughts. He eats the ones that are already there, sometimes reemerging from force of habit. He even gets ahead of the game by eating the conditions that would otherwise allow new unskillful thoughts to arise. He even shores up skillful thoughts that do not come from nor reaffirm the self, the skillful thoughts that unskillful thoughts seek to displace, and even cultivates conditions that encourage skillful thoughts. This is a very busy termite, we hope at work continuously throughout the day.

Suppose Skipper has some cookies on his desk, receives a phone call and is gazing out the window while focused on the call. Lust arises in you for one of his cookies. That sense of lust is unskillful. It is a form of greed that arises from the self’s search for personal advantage, that arises when the self is presented with a new resource. If you listen to this unskillful thought you might steal Skipper’s cookie, thus depriving him of what is his and failing to live up to standards of virtue. The intention to steal is another unskillful thought. You begin to scheme and justify, “He won’t notice that one is missing. Besides I gave him a drink of water once and he owes me. And I’ll go on a diet next week, for sure.” You are now entangled in a thicket of unskillful thoughts. Then if you actually steal a cookie you will reinforce a habit pattern that will lead to more greed in the future that will entrench the self even further.

How do you know when a thought is unskillful? There is an easy way, once you learn to recognize suffering (dukkha) as it arises. You will be surprised how ubiquitous suffering is when you start looking, even when you think you are having fun. Unskillful thoughts are almost always tinged with suffering. Before spotting the cookie you might be quite happy, having not a care in the world. Then you spot the cookie, the unskillful thought arises and you have a problem: You don’t have the cookie. As you review your alternatives you can hardly stand not having that cookie, you become anxious and restless. That is suffering, the mark of an unskillful thought, and you discover how deep that suffering goes. That is out-of-sync-edness, the gap between our stake in formations and the way the world really is. You will experience this with thoughts characterized by restlessness, agitation, conceit, jealousy, guilt, pride, greed, miserliness, thoughts of revenge, envy, grumpiness, anger, hatred, rage, sorrow, fear, bias, delusion, stubbornness, narrow-mindedness, torpor, complacency, affection, lust, and so on. Contrast these with thoughts of generosity, renunciation, loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity, pliancy, stillness of mind, mindfulness, and so on.

Right Effort belongs to the cultivation of mind, or meditation group because it deals with the purification of thoughts. In a sense it covers the some ground as the virtue group but at a more refined level, at the level of thought rather than the visible manifestations of the self in speech and bodily action. Because it seeks purity of thought it belongs to the cultivation of mind or meditation group rather than to the virtue group. However, unskillful thoughts tend to give rise to unvirtuous, that is harmful, visible behaviors. So, when your thoughts feel unskillful, have the tinge of stress, that is a red flag that you are about to do something you will later regret. And when you are doing something you discover to be harmful, that is a good indication that your thoughts have slipped into the realm of the unskillful. With virtue and with Right Effort joy and peace grow in the mind.

The Termite of Right Mindfulness.

Right Mindfulness is still more refined than Right Effort. Whereas the latter sorts out the various thoughts that arise or might arise throughout the day, Right Mindfulness keeps the mind in a rare place, generally defined in terms of a specific harmless mental or physical task, where only skillful thoughts are allowed entry, and in particular where the self is a stranger. Mindfulness is briefly to remember what it is you are doing, it is staying on task or taking up a new task at the proper time. It is not a simple quality that emerges in the mind, like serenity, awareness or concentration, but rather something the mind engages in actively, a learned skill. In fact it underlies almost any other skill, inside and outside of Buddhism. For instance cooking requires mindfulness so that food does not burn and all ingredients are added at the right time. Following the Precepts requires mindfulness lest you steal, squash or molest without thinking. The opposite of mindfulness is distraction, the mind becoming detached from the task at hand, going off on its own. It requires keeping the mind to some degree fixed.

Right Mindfulness (notice that most of the last paragraph was about mindfulness without the “Right”) is the basis of meditation practice. Classically it is to maintain some object in focus in the mind, to keep on top of this task, an object that will not thereby involve itself causally with unskillful thoughts or unvirtuous actions. The Buddha’s instructions are to keep the mind there, “ardent, clear comprehending,” and “independent not clinging to anything in the world,” “having subdued longing and grief for the world.”

The most familiar example of Right Mindfulness is following the breath. For instance, you discover the movement accompanying your breathing in the belly. This will take ardency, because your mind will wander in an instant otherwise. You feel the whole process of the breath, clear about whether it is long or short, deep or shallow, noting the beginning of the in breath, the middle and the falling away, then the same for the out breath. All those things of te world that want to occupy your attention you just put aside. Of course it rarely goes smoothly, even for experienced meditators, so you need to give attention to the causal factors according to which such a mindfulness exercise can succeed, for instance, through stabilizing the body with an erect non-moving posture, through stilling the unskillful thoughts most likely to lead to distraction through Right Effort, either before beginning the exercise or whenever mindfulness wanes and the object of meditation is lost. Aside from the breath, among the other objects of mindfulness are decaying corpses, the variety of body parts, feelings as they arise and fall, the mind or awareness itself, principles of doctrine, or even the arising of unskillful thoughts.

In Zen meditation, called zazen in Japanese, there is a tendency to take the task at hand, to which mindfulness adheres, as a physical task rather than as a mental one. This has led some Zen teachers to state that zazen is not meditation, that it is something you do with the body than with the mind, that it has no object upon which to focus. All agree, however, as far as I can see, that zazen has to do with mindfulness. For instance, shikantaza, the common Soto Zen form of “meditation,” and possibly at the historical root of Zen practice in China, means literally “just sitting.” An advantage of wrapping mindfulness around physical tasks is that all physical tasks become opportunities for zazen: just as you have just sitting, you have just walking, just eating, just pealing potatoes. Ritual activities, for instance, offering incense or bowing, present particularly fruitful opportunities for mindfulness practice.

The key zazen is in the “just …,” in the shikan-, part which we prefix to our tasks. This expresses independence or seclusion, detachment from the distractions of the world. For instance, just pealing potatoes means not thinking about payday or listening to music at the same time. For this reason the mind is very much involved, and in fact Right Effort is a useful preparation. What seems to happen, in fact, is that the focus of the mind settles on the (movement of) the physical objects involved in performing the task at hand, that is, the knife, the feet, the posture, the stick of incense, and more importantly on mindfulness itself, on the mind’s task of staying on task. The result is something akin to what the Buddha called Watching the mind (cittanupassana), the third of the four foundations of mindfulness, with the encouragement to do this throughout the day. I find it fascinating how closely Zen stays to the intent of the Buddha but in a radically different conceptual framework, generally one that wastes no words. I speculate that the difference in this case is that China at the time Buddhism arrived, was a very formal ritual Confucian culture and shikan-[task] harnessed the energy of existing practices in the service of Buddhist attainment.

How does the Termite of Right Mindfulness chew away at the supports that help sustain the sense of self. Right Mindfulness takes us into an active domain of thought and action in which the self has no currency. We take a task that itself is independent of self-centered concerns, an arbitrary mental task, a ritual activity or a duty in which the self has no obvious stake. Then we put our attention fully on that task and do not allow the pursuit of personal advantage. This is a domain which frustrates the self’s interests, schemes and views and in which the self’s stress, anxiety, unvirtuous impulses and samsaric trouble-making find no home. With Right Mindfulness, joy and peace grow even stronger in the mind.

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