The Path leads to nirvana, to awakening, to the end of all suffering, to escape from the round of rebirth. Before that, the path leads to many intermediary attainments on the way, not only stages of awakening but also progressively to greater virtue, to the purification of mind from defilements with the development of kindness and compassion, to renunciation and to harmlessness, manifesting actions that benefit the world, to an increasing sense of serenity and well-being, to the easing of personal suffering, to impartiality and clear seeing, to the cutting away of delusions, views and conceptualizations that give rise to mis-perceptions, particularly the mis-perception of a separate self.
We are not yet in a position in this book to speculate what nirvana, awakening or escape from the round of rebirth means. However, this overall trajectory of Buddhist practice, carried to completion must lead to what we can provisionally view as the perfection of character in all of its significant aspects. The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s instructions or how to improve and ultimately perfect human character. It is, in short, the Path to the mastery of the skill of life.
The Buddha taught the Eightfold Noble Path (ariya aṭṭhangika magga) in his very first discourse, often called the Turning of the Wheel (Dhamma-cakkap-pavattana):
And what is that middle way? It is simply the noble eightfold path , that is to say,
(1) right view,
(2) right intention;
(3) right speech,
(4) right action,
(5) right livelihood;
(6) right effort,
(7) right mindfulness,
(8) right concentration.
That is the middle way discovered by a Perfect One, which gives vision, which gives knowledge, and which leads to peace, to direct acquaintance, to discovery, to nibbāna. (SN 56.11, numbers mine)
The word right here is normative, much as skillful and meritorious were normative when we discussed ethics. In fact, the development of a skill is an apt way to describe the development of character: we are developing the behavior, mental qualities and knowledge in order to produce certain results, and in general there is a right way and a wrong way of doing certain things in order to realize these results (or maybe a couple of right ways and an array of wrong ways). Without proper training in the right and wrong ways of doing things we might still be able to cook a meal, but not an appetizing one, we might be able to produce a teapot out of clay, but neither a beautiful nor a functional one, we might be able to accomplish life’s tasks and experience what life offers, but not with fulfillment and joy, nor without causing great harm to others. What we do in Buddhism is the same as what the potter does, except it is our characters, our lives, that we are shaping rather than clay.
The eightfold Path was divided in one of the discourses into three groups, a discourse delivered not by the Buddha but by a disciple, the awakened nun Dhammadinnā (MN44). The first two factors (view and intention) constitute the wisdom group, the next three (speech, action and livelihood) the ethics group, and the last three (effort, mindfulness and concentration) the concentration or mental cultivation group. In the second chapter of this book we discussed Buddhist ethics fairly comprehensively as the foundation of practice. Let me segue into the path proper by demonstrating how it naturally grows out of the practice of ethics. To begin with, three of the eight folds of the path form the ethics (sīla) group.
(3) right speech,
(4) right action,
(5) right livelihood,
These cover refraining from all evil and accomplishing good, which apply to verbal and bodily actions. Right Livelihood avoids employment that compromises the other two practices. The ethics group is bookended by factors of the wisdom and concentration groups that also relate directly to ethics:
(2) right intention,
(6) right effort,
Both of these have to do with upholding skillful or wholesome thoughts, right at the heart of purification of mind. Right intention is to understand and set the mind firmly in the direction of renunciation, kindness and harmlessness, the three classes of skillful thoughts we encountered in chapter two. Right effort is the continual process of cultivating skillful or wholesome intentions and discouraging the unskillful or unwholesome. Right intention belongs to the wisdom group of the path, along with right view, and right effort to the concentration or mental cultivation group, along with right mindfulness and right concentration. Together, in upholding purity of mind, right intention and right effort also underly accomplishing good and refraining from all evil.
This leaves three folds, in the wisdom and concentration groups:
(1) right view,
(7) right mindfulness,
(8) right concentration.
These function in support of the other five (ethical) factors in the Noble Eightfold Path. Right view lays out the fruits of karma, the relationship of suffering to craving, and the matrix of interrelated mental factors that produce karmic actions. Right mindfulness keeps us on task in all the factors of ethics, and right mindfulness and right concentration together extend the power of introspective examination, necessary for deep purification of the mind.
In summary, the Noble Eightfold Path, completing the gradual training, continues to be organized around ethics. Nonetheless, there is a limit to the ethical perspective: it is not a complete resolution of the woes of the world. Even if pure of intention, we nonetheless suffer: we suffer from sickness, old age and death, we still have lingering conceit and cling to results of our noble intentions, and so we suffer again. Ethics is directed toward easing the pain of samsāra for self and other, an existence that with growing wisdom reveals itself increasingly as a sham, and it does not represent release from the drama of life altogether … and yet, such release is possible, as illustrated in the Buddha’s awakening. What is striking is that the deepening of ethical foundations, particularly in working deeply with purifying the mind, seems to take us almost all the way to final liberation. The rest is an excursion made possible by the further development of wisdom. Let’s take up the factors of the Path in turn.
Right View (sammā diṭṭhi)
In order to make a ceramic object a potter needs to understand his materials and tools: the varieties of clay, how much water to add to the clay, how the clay behaves under pressure, what conditions will cause a pot to crack or explode in the kiln, what happens to clay at different baking temperatures, various types and properties of glaze, etc. Likewise, in order to fashion a life in the Dharma, we also must understand the body, the mind, the nature of the world we are embedded in, how thoughts are triggered, how actions are triggered, how our habit patterns evolve. For both, there is an appropriate understanding of the subject matter that will produce worthy results, alongside many unfortunate understandings that produce poor results. Both need right view. a very practical nuts-and-bolts right view about things we can put to use in our own direct experience. Some degree of right view is needed before we undertake any other aspect of practice.
The teachings that are given as right view at the beginning of the Path are enumerated in different ways. One discourse focuses on karmic actions, responsibilities to parents, rebirth and trust in the realizations of sages, and is reminiscent of the first two knowledges on the night of the Buddha’s awakening:
There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits and results of good and bad actions. There is this world and the next world. There is mother and father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are brahmans and contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves. (MN 117)
This particular account is often called mundane right view, or right view of the ownership of action (kammassakatā sammādiṭṭhi), with reference to the fruits of kamma, and much of it was discussed with regard to Buddhist ethics in chapter two. It is mundane, and limited, in that it seeks well-being within samsāra, that is, without the goal of liberation or full awakening.
In many places right view is described simply as the Four Noble Truths (cattāri ariyasaccāni); this is most standard.
- Suffering (dukkha), which is to be understood,
- The origin (samudaya) of suffering, which is craving and which is to be abandoned,
- The cessation (nirodha) of suffering, which is the cessation of craving and which is to be realized,
- The path (magga) to the cessation of suffering: Right view, right intention, right action, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, right, mindfulness and right concentration, which is to be developed.
The fourth truth, the path to the cessation of suffering, is the Path we are discussing in the present chapter. We have seen in chapter 2 that suffering is associated incidentally with unwholesome mental factors and that it has a role in the fruits of karma. Right view gives it a particularly prominent role in the Buddhist path as a factor that should be intimately understood in all of its manifestations. It is an indicator of much of what is going on in the mind.
The second truth attributes suffering to craving. Notice that both greed and hatred, which underly many unwholesome mental states, are forms of craving, a craving to obtain or to keep something desirable and a craving to rid oneself of, or to avoid, something undesirable.
The third truth can be personally verified, particularly with a very still mind: there is a point at which interest in something, however small, turns to craving and right at that instant stress and anxiety flood the mind: suddenly the world is a problem. The first three truths are really nuts-and-bolts descriptions of immediate experience.
The fourth truth is not so obviously related to the first three, since the recommended path mentions neither suffering nor craving, though from our study of ethics we can begin to appreciate how craving and suffering are implicated in unwholesome thoughts and actions. We find that the full understanding of all of these truths brings in the whole of the Dharma, and in this sense the Four Noble Truths by itself exhausts right view.
The formulation of the Four Noble Truths has been compared to a doctor’s evaluation. Suffering is the symptom, the origin is the diagnosis, the cessation is the prognosis and the path is the treatment. The Buddha uses this same basic formula with respect to other mental factors besides suffering and craving, as we will soon see, with the treatment in each case consisting of this same Noble Eightfold Path. For convenience, I will call this general formula in the discussion of these cases the four truths formula.
In other suttas, in particular in the Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta (MN 9), right view is described more exhaustively as involving knowledge of the following topics:
- Wholesome/skillful (kusala) and unwholesome/unskillful (akusala) volitional actions (kamma).
- Suffering, whose origin is craving,
- Aging and death, whose origin is birth,
- Birth, whose origin is becoming,
- Becoming, whose origin is attachment,
- Attachment, whose origin is craving,
- Craving, whose origin is feeling,
- Feeling, whose origin is sense contact,
- Sense contact, whose origin is the six-fold sense-base,
- The six-fold sense-base, whose origin is name-and-form,
- Name-and-form, whose origin is consciousness,
- Consciousness, whose origin is volitional formations,
- Volitional formations, whose origin is ignorance,
- Ignorance, whose origin is the taints,
- The taints, whose origin is (reciprocally) ignorance.
- The nutriments that sustain beings and support beings seeking birth, namely, physical food, sense contact, volition and consciousness, whose origin is craving.
The first topic also belongs to mundane right view. The remaining to transcendent right view, which puts the noble in noble eightfold path. The Buddha describes all of the remaining topics except the last in in terms of the four truths formula, providing the Noble Eightfold Path in each case as the appropriate treatment. The Path is a kind of universal elixir for all that ails us. Applying the four truths formula to the second factor on this list, suffering, gives us the four noble truths. For instance, applying it to the seventh, craving, gives us:
- Craving, …,
- The origin of craving, which is feeling …,
- The cessation of suffering, which is the cessation of feeling …,
- The path (magga) to the cessation of craving: Right view, right intention, right action, … .
It should be noted most of these factors, starting with aging and death and ending with ignorance, form a long series, in which one factor is the origin of the previously listed factor. This series is often grouped together entirely or in part as the chain of dependent co-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda). Overall, we have, under right view, the descriptions of a whole lot of factors, most of which are clearly mental, many of which will seem very obscure if the reader is encountering them here for the first time, but each of which is elaborated and related in the ways described here and in often in other different ways in many discourses of the Buddha. Together all of these descriptions constitute a highly sophisticated conditionally connected model of the workings of the human mind, on the basis of which the general human predicament that we call samsāra can be elucidated. The next chapter will attempt to gain some deeper understanding of dependent co-arising.
Each of these descriptions of right view seems to take a different swath across the Dharma. However, because the many teachings of the Dharma are conditionally interrelated, elaborating one generally implicates many others. In fact the Buddha stated that if we understand dependent co-arising, in particular, we understand the entirety of the Dharma.
Elucidation of right view. Buddhist development is a product of two intertwined components: understanding (pariyatti) and practice (paṭipatti). Practice is what brings understanding to life and understanding is useful only as a support for practice. We might think of understanding as the skeleton and practice as the flesh supported and given shape by that skeleton.
Right view is that skeleton. Right View, for Buddhist practitioner or would-be potter, begins with “book learning,” conceptually expressible knowledge conveyed from master to student or apprentice. It provides the orientation, the road map, the instructions, on the basis of which practice can proceed. It is relevant and needed only insofar as it sustains practice and the development of purity of mind and awakening. Right view is like a map of the terrain that we explore in our practice; it is not the terrain itself. It is important that right view ripens into a deeper understanding through tramping through that terrain. At that point our understanding is as much in our feet as in our heads.
This deeper knowledge or wisdom we develop is beyond the limits of conceptual understanding and will unfold with the experience of practice. Consider that most of the knowledge a master potter possesses has come from actually working with the clay, and is found in his fingers not in his head. Or consider the knowledge we put to use in riding a bicycle. Initially, in acquiring this knowledge, we were told, “To go forward, turn the the pedals in that direction, to turn right, move the handlebars in this direction,” but we learn not to lose our balance by “feel,” through experience. Buddhist practice is also like this: the role of right view may fade as intimacy grows with the domain it covers, to be replaced or supplemented by a “feel” for the workings of the mind.
With regard to view, I should mention that the Buddha is somewhat reluctant about having any views at all: they tend to be intellectually faulty and we tend to cling to views. For this reason the Buddha has chosen his views pragmatically and sparingly, as pointers and guides and as ways of undermining pernicious views we might otherwise hold. Dharma consists of views that can actually make a beneficial difference in support of practice. Speculative philosophy and views irrelevant to spiritual development are not Dharma. But even Dharma should not be clung to once it has outlived its usefulness, that is beyond awakening. The Buddha compares this mistake to building a raft in order to cross a body of water, then once on the other shore to be so pleased with the raft as to carry it hither and thither on ones back (MN 22).
The practice of right view. The initial practice of right view is its acquisition through listening to the wise expound the Dharma, reading books on the Dharma, considering what is conveyed, asking questions about what is uncertain, and so on.
“Endowed with these six qualities, a person is capable of alighting on the lawfulness, the rightness of skillful mental qualities even while listening to the true Dhamma. Which six?
“When the Doctrine & Discipline declared by the Tathāgata is being taught, he listens well, gives ear, applies his mind to gnosis, rejects what is worthless, grabs hold of what is worthwhile, and is endowed with the patience to conform with the teaching.” – AN 6.88
There is a wealth of Dharmic textual material available. But be aware that the Dharma comes alive with practice; the Dharma is inert if it remains in the head. A would-be potter does not read Pottery for Dummies then claim to be a potter. A would-be chef does not read The Joy of Cooking then claim to be a cook. A would-be explorer does not sit around reading National Geographic then claim great adventures. A would-be follower of the Buddhist path does not read this book then claim to be a stream enterer. Rather she needs to feel the clay between her fingers, to whip the eggs, to become intimate with suffering and craving and the rest in her own experience. Practice is very much an introspective project developed from its own perspective in each of the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. But beginning with Right View we can begin to identify the various factors and their conditions or origins in our own experience.
Reviewing the range of topics listed above, many will seem more obscure than others at this early point, but one in particular might appear unverifiable and is therefore bound to raise some modern eyebrows. That is birth, whose origin is becoming. Becoming is, briefly, the (delusive) development of the individual, with is own characteristic attachments, personal footprint, identity and aspirations. We can all see becoming directly (except for awakened people, for whom becoming has ceased), but at death it has a way of propelling itself – pop – into a new life. This is, therefore, re-birth. Unless we happen to have past memories of this process (and some few people do indeed report such memoriesi), we all have to wait for experiential verification of this phenomenon, hopefully for many years.
A note with regard to refuge in the Triple Gem: In the beginning many other Buddhist views will be obscure and complex, and therefore not immediately verified in our own experience. Although verification in our own experience is always encouraged, i.e., blind faith is discouraged, and verification leads to greater confidence in right view, it is important from the beginning that we be ready to accept Buddhist views with an open mind and heart, at least as working assumptions. Too much initial skepticism will inhibit coming to terms with the parts of things as they are that Buddhist doctrine points to. A degree of trust is necessary in this (and in all aspects of life), because of the incessant gap between the little we know and the great deal that we need to know just to function in the world. Even in the training of a scientist one taught particular viewpoints, but then invited to challenge these viewpoints if they seem untenable. So it is in Buddhism.
Right intention (sammā saṅkappa)
Right intention is also sometimes translated as right resolve or right thought. Right View and right intention together form the wisdom group within the Eightfold Path. If right view is the map, right intention is the compass that keeps us headed in the right direction. A potter, in crafting a bowl, not only needs to know about clay and glaze and potter’s wheel, he also needs to have an idea of what he hopes to produce. This is his right intention. For the potter right intention might be to make a bowls of exquisite elegance and beauty and at the same time of practical functionality. For the Buddhist Right intention is to fashion a character of highest virtue, one that embodies:
- Good Will
And what is right intention? Being intent on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right intention. (SN 45.8)
Elucidation of right intention. By golly, we’ve seen these three factors before, in fact in chapter 2. Renunciation is the principle factor of purifying the mind. Good-will is the principle factor of accomplishing good. Harmlessness is the principle factor of refraining from all evil. These factors also represent the three classes of wholesome or skillful thoughts recognized by the buddha-to-be in an earlier citation. These are all ethical values that will have been internalized through diligent practice of the gradual instruction. Right intention is a commitment to the wholesome intention, and thereby to meritorious deeds.
The practice of right intention. Renunciation, goodwill and harmlessness are not, for most people, an obvious set of qualities around which to orient their lives. For instance, one might think that the perfected character is wealthy, attractive, popular, fun-loving, sporty, and ever young, .. and, oh, enlightened. Or one might have come to Buddhist practice because of inner pain or one’s intention is to fix yourself and suffer less. Buddhism might not make us sporty, but it will ease our suffering, but only as a side effect of pursuing the right intention.
To develop right intention we continue to reflect on wholesome and unwholesome mental factors, the skillful and the skillful, as we began doing in chapter 2. In particular, we recall and observe the fruits of karma in our own lives and recall the following handy checklist as unskillful qualities arise in our minds:
1. They are grounded either in greed, in hatred or in delusion.
2. When they give rise to actions, those actions usually cause some degree of harm.
3. They give rise to mis-perception.
4. They cause personal suffering.
5. They subvert development along the Path.
In this way we come to realize that wrong intention is more trouble than it is worth. Renunciation in particular often comes slowly, such that the whole Path is sometimes called a path of renunciation, with progress at each stage associated with what has been let go of. Renunciation should not be forced, but comes naturally – much like children outgrowing toys – as we realize increasingly the costs of clinging to things and the poverty of the happiness they bring.
Here is a practical practice that is difficult to implement, but gives a feel for what it is like to take right intention as our guiding principle: Make everything you do a gift! This raises the question, moment by moment, what am I renouncing when I do what I am doing? Is there a sense of good-will behind what I am doing? Am I giving other beings freedom from fear of me?
Right Speech (sammā vācā)
The ethics group (sīla-kkhandha) consists of right speech, right action and right livelihood, representing exemplary conduct in the world. Each of these considers actions from the perspective of all three systems of Buddhist ethics: precepts, generosity and virtue.
It is important to appreciate how much emphasis he Buddha places on right speech. This is true in many of the Suttas and in the Vinaya, and this is probably why it comes as the very first in the ethics group. In is easy to think that speech is relatively harmless when compared to actions. We all know sayings like, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” and “Actions speak louder than words,” But consider that racism, sexism, nationalism and eventually war and ethnic cleansing all start with and are driven by many acts of wrong speech. We use speech as vengeance, to turn one person or group against another, to deceive and manipulate, and get people to buy things. Lying in particular undermines our trust in each other, which a society requires to function. In this modern age of mass communication right speech has become even more critical as it finds expression through so many media and the speech of each of us can easily reach mass audiences. Given a few advances in technology since the Buddha’s day, “Speech” now includes the written word, blogs, videos, radio broadcasts and maybe even pantomime. Speech can now also be passive; watching talk shows generally constitutes being a party to idle chatter.
Elucidation of right speech. The conventional five Buddhist precepts include an abstention from lying. The following are common in enhancements of the basic five:
- not to lie – “I have here in my hand the names of eighty communist sympathizers who have penetrated the State Department!”
- not to slander – “He’s got two wives and a bartender to support.”
- not to speak harshly – “You %&$(*@ jerk! Why don’t you learn how to drive?”
- not to chatter idly – “Well, we were already running late, and I was still trying get the top off the toothpaste, …”
The first three precepts here clearly bring harm, but the last, like the earlier precept concerning intoxication, most directly supports purification of mind, in this case controlling our tendency to restless and conceptual proliferation.
As most of us are aware, there is an art to speech. We can use it skillfully to involve others in desired results, to avoid offense and maintain interpersonal harmony, to inspire and instruct. The Buddha, the master communicator, has a lot to say about the art of speech. He gives particular attention to interpersonal harmony. A thorny situation in this regard that we all experience is, how to admonish someone, to correct what we perceive to be faults or errors on the part of another, without causing offense and in such away that the proffered advice is actually usefully accepted.
“O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who desires to admonish another should do so after investigating five conditions in himself and after establishing five other conditions in himself. What are the five conditions which he should investigate in himself?
“Am I one who practices purity in bodily action, flawless and untainted…?
“Am I one who practices purity in speech, flawless and untainted…?
“Is the heart of goodwill, free from malice, established in me towards fellow-farers in the holy life…?
“Am I or am I not one who has heard much, who bears in mind what he has heard, who stores up what he has heard? Those teachings which are good alike in their beginning, middle, and ending, proclaiming perfectly the spirit and the letter of the utterly purified holy life — have such teachings been much heard by me, borne in mind, practiced in speech, pondered in the heart and rightly penetrated by insight…?
“Are the Patimokkhas [rules of conduct for monks and for nuns] in full thoroughly learned by heart, well-analyzed with thorough knowledge of their meanings, clearly divided sutta by sutta and known in minute detail by me…?
“These five conditions must be investigated in himself. And what other five conditions must be established in himself?
“Do I speak at the right time, or not?
“Do I speak of facts, or not?
“Do I speak gently or harshly?
“Do I speak profitable words or not?
“Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious?
“O bhikkhus, these five conditions are to be investigated in himself and the latter five established in himself by a bhikkhu who desires to admonish another.”
— AN V (From The Patimokkha, Ñanamoli Thera, trans.)
The first set of conditions, to be investigated in oneself, are useful for dispelling any hubris that often accompanies admonition, and possibly to see matters from the admonishee’s perspective. The second set partly relates to the precepts discussed previously, but also serve to check one’s own intentions. Considering whether the present is the right time takes note of the circumstances in which the admonition is about to happen, for instance, whether the admonishee is a good or receptive mood. Reversing roles, the monastic code includes a rather important precept (Saṅghadisesa 12) that prohibits monks or nuns from being difficult to admonish, for instance, from being argumentative or conjuring up counter-admonitions, as many of us tend to do.
The following admonishes us to consider both consequences and intentions in assessing our verbal actions.
“Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?
“It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.” (AN 5.198)
With regard to idle chatter, the Buddha provides us with examples of topics of conversation to avoid, at least for monastics to avoid.
“Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to talking about lowly topics such as these — talking about kings, robbers, ministers of state; armies, alarms, and battles; food and drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, and scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women and heroes; the gossip of the street and the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity [philosophical discussions of the past and future], the creation of the world and of the sea, and talk of whether things exist or not — he abstains from talking about lowly topics such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue.” – DN 2
He also warned of our relentless tendency to cling to views, turn these to debate and to take pride in being right.
“Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to debates such as these — ‘You understand this doctrine and discipline? I’m the one who understands this doctrine and discipline. How could you understand this doctrine and discipline? You’re practicing wrongly. I’m practicing rightly. I’m being consistent. You’re not. What should be said first you said last. What should be said last you said first. What you took so long to think out has been refuted. Your doctrine has been overthrown. You’re defeated. Go and try to salvage your doctrine; extricate yourself if you can!’ — he abstains from debates such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue.” (DN 2)
Practicing right Speech. The ethics of speech is intimately connected with the practice of purification of mind, for the simple reason that thought is very close to speech; or as the Buddha phrased it, “thought is that which is about to break into speech” (MN 44). We can fairly accurately read off someone else’s intentions simply from which precept concerning speech is being violated. Lying involves gaining some kind of personal advantage in competition with others’ interests through deception, slander is a attempt to destroy someone’s reputation out of personal or general ill-will, idle chatter from restlessness in a fog of delusion. To encourage these forms of speech would be to encourage defiled thoughts. To restrain these tendencies provides a very good opportunity for insight into the mind and support from practicing purity of mind.
Modern times have produced new channels for speech or speech-like activities, such as situation comedies, talk shows, hate radio, crime dramas, war movies, soap operas, pundits propounding, cell phones aringing, ads enticing, thumbs agaming, Webs asurfing, email, texting, social media and crossword puzzles. The volume and vacuity of much of this content have put idle chatter off the charts. The degree of misrepresentation, stereotyping, deceit and swindle represents an unprecedented height of exposure to untruth. Examples of slander, harsh speech and more than occasional depictions of physical violence abound, which our children learn to emulate. It is imperative that we, as Buddhist practitioners, serious about the path, substantially limit our media exposure to specific elucidating kinds of content. Some modern Buddhist writers provide similar advice concerning modern media, but instead as a generalization of the precept concerning intoxication. This emphasizes the stupefying effect of much media, which also cannot be overemphasized.
With mindfulness, it should be possible to practice restraint, to stop at the point where thought turns to speech, whenever the thought is unwholesome. Particularly challenging are angry thoughts, which can overwhelm our discernment very quickly. Controlling such thoughts is generally difficult until we reach advanced stages of practice, but we can begin to control our speech through whatever strategy works best. For instance, never ever write an email in an angry frame of mind; if some issue needs to be addressed wait until the mind is calm, then address it with gentle words, at the right time. Face-to-face encounters that turn to anger might require that we quietly and abruptly leave the room to go simmer down, lest we utter something demeritorious.
The outer form of right speech can, on the other hand, become a mask for unwholesome intentions. The slick or suave among us can become very adept at speaking gently, without slander, in ways that seem to encourage harmony, but that can hide a nest of unwholesome intentions. Our persona can, in other words, create a disconnect between thought and speech that we should become aware of. The unskillfulness of our thoughts must be observed for themselves or revealed by our wrong actions. I suppose the opposite can also happen, in which under certain circumstances it is advantageous to create a harsh and slanderous persona, that might, however, hide a bouquet of wholesome intentions.
Right Action (sammā kammanta)
Bodily action is generally the most dynamic and visible form and therefore is of particularly prominent concern at the beginning of Buddhist practice. Our practice is all intentional action, either of body, speech or mind. The inverse is also true, that all intentional action is practice, since intentions produce karmic effects to which we are heir. Practice is therefore something we do all the time; there is no natural division between practice time and, say, fun time or work time. For this reason we should “see danger in the slightest fault” (MN 6). This requires the help of precepts, of understanding the consequences of our actions in the world and, particularly on the higher Path, close monitoring of the purity of our intentions and views in all circumstances. We have already learned a lot about right action in our discussion of ethics in chapter 2 as something that begins well before embarking on the Path. As we follow the Path we should give increasing concern to the karmic effects of our actions on the development of the mind.
Elucidation of right action. We might think of our karmic lives as a long series of densely packed choice points, at each of which we try freely to pick the most skillful alternative. Most of the time, however, we don’t feel like we are making choices, because we are simply following accustomed patterns as if on automatic pilot. This is the difference between intention and deliberation. To dedicate oneself to the Path is to live deliberately and to defy accustomed habit patterns when these are unskillful.
We wander, effectively, in what I will call a karmic landscape, heavily rutted where we have traveled over and over. Most worldlings tend simply to fall into the ruts without thinking. At any point they could veer to the right or to the left (this makes their choice intentional), but they generally simply follow the course of least resistance, and thereby make the operative habit patterns even deeper. The rutted landscape, representing our habit patterns, is the stuff of our individuated character. It is a metaphor for old karma, the cumulative conditioning of our past karmic decisions.ii Ethical Conduct, on the other hand, is deliberative: it tends to change our habit patterns with respect to actions of body, speech and mind, to veer out of the accustomed ruts, to the extent that these are unskillful, and through repetition to weaken and eventually obliterate the old unskillful ruts. Precepts, such as, “Do not take that which is not offered,” define clear points at which we make deliberate choices that will reshape the karmic landscape in this way. We can also say the same about conventional generosity, and also about ritual behavior; they are also deliberative in nature.
As we perform right actions, we shape our mental habit patterns along with our bodily habit patterns. As we repeatedly avoid harming others, the mind develops greater kindness. As we repeatedly offer material goods or work in behalf of others, the mind develops its capacity for renunciation. We experience the joy of these right actions themselves and we will experience the well-being of a properly intentioned mind in the future. If we make a practice of non harming of what are generally considered expendable pests (cockroaches, wasps, mice, and so on), we develop kindness towards even them.
A significant aspect of this tendency of the mind to follow the body is that certain bodily practices that produce no direct harm or benefit in the world can nonetheless develop the mind in wholesome or unwholesome directions. An example is bodily expressions of veneration for the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, which develop a receptiveness to the sources of Buddhist wisdom and also humility. An example from right speech is the avoidance of idle chatter, which works against the tendency of the mind to conceptually proliferate. Another example is a precept commonly observed by laypeople every quarter moon, and by monastics effectively always:
I undertake the rule of training to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, smartening with perfumes and beautifying with cosmetics.
This works against tendencies of self-gratification. Training the mind, and body, in a less dharmic context, through bodily actions but without worldly consequences seems to be also a primary functions of play, in kids, pups, calves, lambs, cubs and kittens.
The practice of right action. When we first begin to follow precepts, conventional generosity or even ritual, the regulation of our behavior in this way may feel restrictive, like we’ve fit ourselves uncomfortably into a box that affords little ability to move. Certainly our non-Buddhist friends will think that is what we’ve gotten our selves into. Remarkably, within a short while, if we have been practicing diligently, these practices will feel just the opposite: liberating. Certainly, most monastics seem to discover this sense of liberation in following hundreds of precepts. How can this be?
I think that the reason is that we had felt restricted to begin with, oppressed by the ever deepening ruts of our karmic landscape that kept us locked mindlessly in certain patterns of behavior, much of which was unskillfully dedicated to the fruitless search for personal advantage, and thereby painful. The practice of virtue gave us our first taste of liberation by lifting us out of our karmic ruts, by showing that there was no inevitability in our conditioning, that there is a different way of being in the world.
Moreover, as we practice that different way of being in the world, we get a clear picture of the intentions that had been driving out actions in the world. We hadn’t noticed those intentions while we are on autopilot, passively following the ruts wherever they lead, but as we regulate our behaviors we leave many of those intentions frustrated, we frequently leave some unconsummated impulse or agenda dangling. This is an opportunity for investigation. At one point we will see a bit of ill-will hanging unexpressed, and, peeling off of this, unmistakable stress, and maybe a potential victim that has just benefited as a consequence of our choice not to give expression to our ill-will. We thereby begin to see in what sense many of our thoughts and impulses are indeed unskillful, in fact dangerous, and how restraining them is quite appropriate. We become uncomfortable as we discover who we really are.
Our primary guides for right action, as well as for right speech, are those very intentions, and we become very mindful of them throughout the day. Those intentions have a kind of wisdom behind them, even the unskillful ones, insofar as they know who they are. The unwholesome ones are those wearing some degree of suffering – stress, anxiety, dis-ease, dis-satisfaction – like a shadow. They are not so wise to recognize that they also give rise to mis-perception and take us away from the path, and that when acted out will almost certainly cause someone harm, but we know this, that is, if we have read this book carefully up to this point. We also know that these are the intentions that are rooted in greed, hatred or delusion.
Once we become mindful of, and learn to recognize, our intentions faithfully, we can treat them with appropriate attention. First, we learn to abort an unskillful intention by not acting on it. For instance, when anger arises we do not yell, we do not throw things, we don’t do anything, until the anger subsides, which it will, at which point we can assess the situation more clearly and seek guidance from skillful intentions. Second, we learn to improve the quality of the intentions that do arise by controlling their conditions. For instance, if I avoid stressful activities, anger is less likely to arise. If I avoid the company of people who are drinking alcohol, I am less likely to have the impulse to do so. In this way we fully engage with the practice of purification of mind, our capacity for which will become quite refined indeed by the end of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Likewise, we learn to protect the purity of the mind even if there is no immediate danger that our unwholesome intentions would cause imminent harm in the world. For instance, we avoid playing violent video games or watching violent television programs, or listening to hateful speech, because we know that these activities will condition the mind in favor of intentions of anger and fear, scoring deep ruts in our karmic landscape. Likewise, channel- or Web-surfing may train the mind toward restlessness and discontent. Entertainments that excite lust will tend similarly to depurify the mind, even while not doing outward harm.
Right Livelihood (sammā ājīva)
Right livelihood is the third and final factor of the ethics group of the path. Including it as a whole factor of the path addresses a critical issue in pursuing the higher path of practice. This is that, once we choose a career, we might not have much choice left about what karmic actions we preform during our workday. Not only will we have substantially given up control of our practice, but, whether or not the boss is telling us to do them, our actions will still have harm or benefit and will shape or misshape our character and well-being. Therefore, it is important that we choose our livelihood with great care.
Elucidation of right livelihood. So, when is a particular livelihood right? We might begin by looking at the job description. Is each task mentioned consistent with right speech and right action and, while we are at it, conducive to wholesome thoughts? Does a task involve deceit? Does it involve killing or otherwise harming living beings? Does it entail taking what is not given freely? Does it involve or encourage misuse of sexuality?
The Buddha specifically points out the following as characteristic of wrong livelihood,
“scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, usury,” (MN 117)
which sound embarrassingly like conventional modern corporate business culture. It suggests that it would be a challenge to find right livelihood in sales or marketing, or in investment.
The Buddha also listed the following as livelihoods to be avoided (AN 5.177):
- Business in human beings. In the Buddha’s day this had to do with dealing in slaves and prostitutes.
- Business in weapons. This precludes hunting, fishing, soldiering (see SN 42.3 for more on this) or weapons manufacture.
- Business in meat. This precludes raising animals for slaughter, slaughter itself or selling meat.
- Business in intoxicants. This precludes tending bar, selling or producing alcohol, pushing drugs, growing opium, and so on. Modern allowances should be made for compassionate medicinal uses of intoxicants and poisons. On the other hand, Benedictine monks would not be able to brew beer if the Buddha had a say in the matter.
- Business in poison. This would include manufacturing pesticides and herbicides but also applying them to crops. This would include pest extermination.
Notice that these are broader than precepts in that they proscribe aiding others to violate precepts. To manufacture a weapon is not to kill directly, but certainly provides conditions for that. To sell someone a drink is to be implicated in intoxication even if one remains completely sober oneself. In this way, right livelihood reaches beyond the letter of the precepts, but then in the wrong livelihood one is repeatedly implicated over the course of one’s career.
Many of us are forced into wrong livelihoods because our options are limited and we need the income whatever work we can get provides. If we have debt or a family to feed, or own property or possessions that must be maintained and insured, we are forced into earning a certain level of income. Now, monastics have the great benefit of what might be called the ideal livelihood. First, in order to be ordained into the Saṅgha one must be quite free of conventional societal obligations: no wealth, no debt, no family to speak of. Second, one is entirely outside of the exchange economy. Third, one has relative autonomy in day-to-day affairs; rarely is there anyone else telling one what to do. The factor of right livelihood is clearly described with laity in mind who often must find a balance between obligations and livelihood options. Reducing obligations as much as possible, for instance, avoiding debt, is one way to realize a more favorable livelihood.
If a livelihood forces one to act habitually with greedy or cruel intentions, the character will develop to become more greedy or cruel. Consider that when you take on employment, your boss generally predetermines many of your choices from that point on. This means that your character will come more and more to resemble that of your boss.
Practicing right livelihood. The practice of right livelihood focuses primarily on understanding the consequences of our major life choices, the benefits and harm thereof. This assessment might occur at a young age, before choosing on a college major or embarking on a career plan. It might involve a reassessment of decisions already made. I used to write software, in what now seems like a previous life, sometimes under Defense Department contracts. One project involved an automated intelligent route planning some kind of small autonomous aircraft, whose description was highly redacted, but which everyone in our team agreed was some kind of weapon system. This ended up being a major factor for me in ending my high-paid high-tech corporate career to do what I do now. However, the radical redirecting of my career path would have been extremely difficult if I were not at a point in life in which my children were reaching adulthood and my family obligations were loosening up.
In these modern times it is probably particularly difficult to find a right livelihood. If one does not design weapons systems, one might work in marketing, trying to convince the public that ingesting some horrid concoction of petrochemicals, high fructose corn syrup and saturated fats will add zest to their lives. We often have little choice of livelihood simply because the economy offers few choices. Moreover, what is considered a respectable livelihood in our society may be quite a bit different from what is right livelihood in the Buddhist sense. Being a soldier, or a banker, investing in real estate, exterminating insects and pests or stretching the truth a little to make a sale might all be completely acceptable a particular culture or subculture. Furthermore, large modern enterprises typically distribute decisions in such a way that obscure ethical responsibility, and workers compensated through wages have little control over the product of their labor. We might be lucky to find a job at a retail store, in which we will be required to sell pesticides, booze, meat, and (especially in the USA) guns, with whatever scheming, persuading and hinting will close the sale. No religious exemptions are generally offered.
This raises an important question: If we are compelled by our boss to sell pesticides to a customer (and to convince him he needs two cans, where one would do), is it our bad karma? If our act of killing an enemy combatant is under orders of our commanding officer, are we breaking a precept? After all, if we don’t do it, someone else will, so aren’t we off the hook? The Buddhist answer is much like the decision of the Nuremberg Trial: we are not off the hook, orders are not just orders, we are still the heir of our own deeds. This accurately reflects how such actions effect the mind; for instance, combat veterans are known to commit acts of domestic violence at rates much higher than the general population. Issues in right livelihood in our modern times may create dilemmas and and lead to compromises; a right livelihood may be elusive for the practitioner who us unwilling to let his family starve.
Right Effort (sammā vāyāma)
Right effort is the workhorse of virtue or purity of mind. It continually encourages wholesome or skillful thoughts and discourages unwholesome or unskillful. It is like the work of a gardener.
We practice right effort when we bring “desire, work, persistence and intent to bear … (SN45.8):
“… for the sake of the non-arising of unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen…,
“… for the sake of the abandoning of unskillful qualities that have arisen…,
“… for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen…, (and)
“… for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, and culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen.”
The first is like the gardener keeping weeds from growing, the second like pulling weeds that have grown, the third like planting desirable seeds and watering them so they sprout, and the last like protecting and cultivating the existing desirable plants so that they thrive. Right effort works directly for purification of mind.
Elucidation of right effort. Right effort is ubiquitous in our practice since our practice should constantly in all our waking moments be concerned with ensuring that our karmic intentions are admirable and not ignoble. Right effort carries the practices of abandoning wrong view and entering into right view, of abandoning wrong intention and entering into right intention, of abandoning wrong speech and entering into right speech, of abandoning wrong action and entering into right action, of abandoning wrong livelihood and entering into right livelihood. (MN 117) The normative duality unskillful/skillful (akusala/kusala) is equivalent to that of wrong/right (sammā/micchā).
A variety of techniques are provided in the discourses for performing right effort. For instance, when an unskillful thought arises we can (MN 20):
- replace it with a different, skillful thought, like getting rid of a coarse peg with a fine one, or
- consider the downside of unskillful thoughts, which we will perceive like someone disgusted by the carcass hung round his or her neck, or
empty the mind, like a shutting the eyes, or
- step backward to the origins the unskillful thought, like instead of walking fast, walking slowly, or instead of walking slowly, standing, or
- subdue and beat it down with clenched teeth, like a strong man restraining, subduing and beating a weaker man down.
As a result of removing such unskillful thoughts, we are assured, “the mind will stand firm, settle down, become unified and concentrated.” This result points to the causal role of right effort in bringing the mind to concentration, that is, in supporting the last factor of the path. The final three factors of the path – right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration – constitute the concentration group (samādhik-khandha) of the path, often called the training in cultivation of mind.
A short list of five categories of mental factors are distinguished as particularly vexing when we desire to bring the mind to mindfulness and concentration, to experience it standing firm, settled down and unified. These are known as the hindrances (nīvaraṇa). Holding these at least temporarily at bey is necessary for a strong meditation practice.
- Lust. “Hubba-hubba.”
- Ill-will. “That darn %&$*@!”
- Sloth and torpor. “Zzzzzz.”
- Restlessness and remorse. “If only I had …, I know, I’ll …”
- Doubt. “What do I think I’m doing here anyway?”
These factors correspond roughly to greed (1), hate (2) and delusion (3-5). Subduing all of them for a period of time we produce a degree of seclusion from worldly concerns which is very conducive indeed to completive practice, particularly seated meditation. Notice that it is the unskillful factors that trouble us, that prevent the mind from settling. The mind overwhelmed with renunciation or overflowing with kindness is not the one hindered from moving on to the higher practices of mindfulness and concentration.
The practice of right effort. Right Effort provides the energy of practice. Every time there is resistance to right anything, then right effort is called for. If it is time to meditate and you are just to lazy, laziness is to be weeded out and ardency needs to be watered. If you really want to flirt with your neighbor’s wife, sensual passion is to be weeded, contentment with your own wife watered. Often the effort required is enormous; you may be dealing with ingrained habits or natural instinctive behaviors. In addition to the list of mental techniques involved in right effort provided above, you will probably discover some of your own, from changing your perspective or conceptualization of the situation to bringing the thought into the focus of attention until it dissipates of itself. There are a couple of useful modern books that bring together Buddhist teachings specifically on anger, which many of us identify as an area of personal weakness.iii
Right effort is a practice that we should engage in throughout your day. It should be there with every opportunity to avoid evil or accomplish good, but we should especially make a habit initially of monitoring our intentions; with every action we undertake we should be aware, quite frankly, of our motivations behind it, because that gives it its karmic quality. As we begin this practice, we might be embarrassed at how much unwholesomeness we discover, as a constant stream of factors such as anger, lust, deluded views, fear, stress, envy, jealousy, spite, restlessness, anxiety, arrogance and pride persists. It is important to accept this stream as a natural part of the untrained human condition, lest we feel guilty (guilt is just piling another unskillful thought – one rooted in aversion – on top of others). However, just this mindfulness has a way of wearing down our unskillful habit patterns over time. In addition to this, we discover targeted ways to remove the unskillful and cultivate the skillful. With persistence and time, the mind shifts remarkably. This is purity of mind.
Almost the entire thrust of the noble eightfold path up until this point is toward purity of mind through the ethical fine-tuning afforded by right effort. Our views, our intentions, our speech, actions and livelihood come into perfect alignment with our effort. However, right effort is not enough to clean the mind entirely of defilements, to end suffering or to reach final liberation, awakening. The reason is that there are even deeper defilements living at the darker level of latent tendencies, engulfed and held in place by ignorance. Until we can venture into these recesses and shine the light of wisdom, we can never awaken completely. In order to do this, the final practices of mindfulness and concentration are required.
Right Mindfulness (sammā sati)
Mindfulness is simply to remember what it is we are doing, fully cognizant of the present circumstances, it is to be on task, undistracted by what is not relevant to the task. It reminds us to apply precepts, to recognize our skillful and unskillful thoughts, to guard the senses at the right time. It is the nose in the little slot on the door of a speakeasy that demands a password. It is also the engine of insight.
Mindfulness is the conventional translation of Pali sati, and generally a pretty satisfactory translation. It conveys the qualities of being present and giving attention to detail. The word sati is a derivation of the root meaning memory, which is also an aspect of the English word mindfulness, as when we are mindful to rotate our tires at regular intervals. Many people think of mindfulness as awareness, but actually it is more a matter of filtering the awareness that is already there according to relevance. It is this aspect of mindfulness that connects it particularly intimately with wisdom group of right view and right intention.
And what is the faculty of mindfulness? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago. (SN 48.10)
This last passage then continues with a description of this monk’s practice of the foundations of mindfulness (sati-paṭṭhāna). In teaching the four foundations of mindfulness, the Buddha recommends the cultivation of mindfulness in attending to four specific topic areas of meditation that foster insight into the nature of experience, thereby turning right view into seeing things as they are. This is the standard passage that introduces the four foundations of mindfulness.
And what, monks, is right mindfulness? Herein, a monk dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief concerning the world. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings… states of mind in states of mind… phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief concerning the world. (DN 22, MN 10)
Contemplating the body in the body, etc. is to see directly without conceptual proliferation. Ardent is the energy we commonly associate with mindfulness. Clearly comprehending suggests a degree of investigation or evaluation, is where memory comes into play and is where insight and the development of wisdom occur. Western scholars are not inclined include cognates of a term to be defined (mindful) in the definition itself, but that is common in the early texts, and found here. Finally, putting away covetousness and grief concerning the world is suggestive of holding the hindrances at bey, thereby attaining a degree of mental seclusion conducive to contemplative practice, as described under right effort. Although mindfulness is something we can carry around all day, it is also something we can sit with under a tree in lotus posture as well.
Elucidation of right mindfulness. It is important to understand that what we practice and cultivate here is not any old mindfulness, but right mindfulness, just as we practice and cultivate not any old view, but right view, and just as we practice and cultivate not any old action but right action. Mindfulness is something we all have to an extent, usually to a widely varying extent, and it is generally there when we most need it and can even be further trained. It is there when a sniper is pulling the trigger that will neutralize what has some indications of being a possible enemy combatant. It is there when a cat burglar removes the famous gem with an adeptness that avoids setting off the alarm system. But this is not right mindfulness. Right mindfulness is the mindfulness that is implicated in every other path factor. Right mindfulness does not exist independently of the path.
First establish yourself in the starting point of wholesome states, that is, in purified moral discipline and right view. Then, when your moral discipline is purified and your right view straight, you should practice the four foundations of mindfulness. (SN 47.3)
Right mindfulness is a critical component of right effort, and both work in collaboration with right view.
Right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong action as wrong action, and right action as right action. … One tries to abandon wrong action and to enter into right action: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong action and to enter and remain in right action: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, and right mindfulness — run and circle around right action. – MN 117
This passage circles around right action but it is stated verbatim with each of intention, speech, view and livelihood replacing action in turn. Right view is the forerunner and with right effort and right mindfulness applied critically to the practice of each of the first five path factors. Right view is what we know, right effort is its present observance and right mindfulness is the present recollection of what is to be observed. Mindfulness is like a thermostat that keeps the temperature right.
There is a kind of art to clear comprehension. It is a kind of conceptual investigation, serves to develop wisdom or insight, but stays clear of intellectual reasoning. It is a matter of noting or verifying, sometimes as far as noting a conditioning relation between two factors. For instance, in contemplating feeling in feeling, one might note an instance of suffering, perhaps a twinge of anxiety, and note right before that a covetous thought, then recall the second noble truth. Feeling in feeling places a constraint on how far a thought might wander.
To see how mindfulness with investigation leads to wisdom and ultimately to awakening, and to see how concentration, our final factor on the path, plays a role in this, we turn to the seven factors of awakening (bojjhaṅga), which ties these together into a causal chain:
1. Mindfulness (sati),
2. investigation of experience (dhamma-vicaya),
3. energy (viriya),
4. delight (sometimes called rapture, pīti),
5. calm (passaddhi),
6. concentration (samādhi),
7. equanimity (upekkhā).
Mindfulness underlies the proper investigation of experience, which is according to appropriate attention (yoniso manasikāra), which we already encountered chapter 2, and in chapter 3 as a faculty of the stream enterer. Investigation, when ardently undertaken, requires energy, which is generally assumed to be a matter of right effort. Investigation in seclusion with energy tends to generate a feeling of delight. Delight (pīti) is a feeling of well-being and includes pleasure, but it is more energetic than simple pleasure, because it has a bit of excitement in it.
Nonetheless, the feeling of well-being lead to calm. This step is a kind of tipping point, since up to now the three previous factors of awakening have been energizing. Calm sets the conditions for concentration, the path factor we have yet to discuss. Higher states of concentration are accompanied by equanimity, or impartiality, which is very conducive to wisdom, and ultimately awakening.
One of the designated subjects of investigation in the foundations of mindfulness is the set of enlightenment factors itself. As our practice in mindfulness improves, we should be able, self-referentially, to investigate each of the enlightenment factors in turn and discover that they are indeed related conditionally. This is how right view, including trust in the Buddha’s views, turns to wisdom as we witness phenomena in our own experience.
The practice of right mindfulness. Right mindfulness is practiced in conjunction with any other path practice. For instance, right action requires mindfulness to note where we might break a precept or to note the arising of unwholesome motivations, before we respond appropriately. Right effort requires constant evaluation of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness. Ethical practices engage us constantly in mindfulness because they challenge us continually to recall what we are supposed to be doing. Ritual or routine tasks are opportunities for mindfulness: if you are cutting potatoes, see if you can put anything else out of mind that is not potato-cutting for the few minutes you are engaged in this task. In fact, make the task a little more challenging: try to cut the potatoes into pieces of equal size; if you drop your mindfulness the sizes will drop their uniformity.
Mindfulness becomes difficult when there is too much going on at once: when the kids are barking at you, the dog needs a ride to his piano lesson, the TV is trying to sell you something that is whiter than white, your cell phone is ringing and you don’t know how you are going to pay the mortgage. We live in a culture that actually discourages mindfulness: We love to multi-task and think that life is boring if a lot of things are not going on at once. We get addicted to the dispersed mind. This is not a Buddhist way of being, which is to relish simplicity. We love to drink alcohol, which disperses the mind so much we forget our cares, often while fostering new ones. Most of what we call modern conveniences are actually just ways to avoid being mindful. For instance, we have different buzzers that go off to remind us of something we would otherwise have had to be mindful about, such as fastening a seat belt. We think ritual or routine is boring in our culture. When we walk through a door our minds are already on the other side of the door in the car and down the street before we even touch the door.
We should try to neutralize these tendencies. Cultivating simplicity tends to reduce potential distractions, so we should not make too many commitments, not live beyond our means (have no debt), don’t own a lot of things. Generally low-tech demands more mindfulness then high-tech. We should give up our addiction to multitasking. If we are cutting potatoes in the kitchen, we should not listen to the radio. We should not leave the TV on all the time, nor talk on the phone while driving. Attending to the task at hand is being mindful.
The better part of right mindfulness is that associated with investigation and with the Dharma, the last specific topic of the foundations of mindfulness teachings. The Dharma invites investigation. Hearing the four noble truths we are compelled to investigate suffering in detail in our own experience, and craving, and how they occur together. We attend to rising and passing away of phenomena, and investigate the possible locus of a self. There is a proper way to investigate, which is through appropriate attention and not through philosophical speculation, which would invariably introduce factors not present in direct experience. Leave investigation at simple perception. This should be a major preoccupation on the path. This is particularly facilitated by practicing mindfulness under circumstances conducive to stillness of mind, which increases the power of mindfulness and the clarity of investigation. This takes us into the final practice of the path, right concentration.
Right Concentration (sammā samādhi)
The concentrated mind has a special stillness and clarity that is conducive, in fact necessary, for the final leg of the path to awakening.
Just as if there were a pool of water in a mountain glen — clear, limpid, and unsullied — where a man with good eyesight standing on the bank could see shells, gravel, and pebbles, and also shoals of fish swimming about and resting, … In the same way — with his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability — the monk directs and inclines it to the knowledge of the ending of the mental fermentations. (MN 39)
Non-Buddhist meditation methods typically develop concentration, optimally bringing the mind to a single point so that perception effectively stops, which is often experienced as profound and blissful. Right concentration is different: it is the natural extension of the path, and most immediately the natural extension of mindfulness with investigation into the calm abiding of a highly but not maximally concentrated mind. It is only through right concentration that the higher realizations and awakening are possible.
Elucidation of right concentration. Meditation comes in different forms, but it is not right concentration unless it derives from straightening views and intentions, from purifying virtue and from building on right effort and right mindfulness.
There are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort and right mindfulness. The unification of mind equipped with these seven factors is called noble right concentration with its supports and accessories. (SN 45.28)
Right concentration is consistently defined in terms of four stages of concentration called jhāna (almost nobody translates the Pali word, so it should be remembered).
And what is right concentration?
There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities — enters and remains in the first jhāna: delight and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by thought and evaluation.
With the stilling of thoughts and evaluations, he enters and remains in the second jhāna: delight and pleasure born of composure, unification of mind, free from thought and evaluation — internal assurance.
With the fading of delight, he remains equanimous, mindful and alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters and remains in the third jhāna, of which the Noble Ones declare, “Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.”
With the abandoning of pleasure and pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress — he enters and remains in the fourth jhāna: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This is called right concentration. (SN 45.8)
A table will clarify the logic behind the otherwise puzzling configurations of factors for the jhānas.
1st jhāna 2nd jhāna 3rd jhāna 4th jhāna
delight x x
pleasure x x x
unification x x
equanimity x xx
mindfulness . . x xx
Figure 2. Stages of concentration
The progression from jhāna to jhāna is consistent with the trend already evident in the seven factors of awakening: a trajectory from more energetic to less energetic. Recall that the jhānas take the place of concentration in this series.
For one of right mindfulness, right concentration springs up. (SN 5.25-6)
Each successive jhāna is produced from the preceding by the loss of the most energetic of four jhāna factors. The factors of thought and evaluation (vitakka-vicāra) are particularly energetic, having a discursive quality:
Thought and evaluation are the verbal formation, one breaks into speech. (MN 44)
The second jhāna and beyond, in which the discursive element is absent, is accordingly referred to as noble silence. The loss of these two factors together by the second jhāna necessarily shuts any tendency toward intellectual proliferation out of investigation. The factor of delight, also fourth of the seven factors of awakening, has too much energy for the very serene third and fourth jhānas. Even the quiet pleasure that initially accompanies delight is too energetic for the fourth jhāna.
Meanwhile, more serene factors accumulate to offset the loss of the the more energetic factors. Notice that mindfulness must in fact be present as a causal factor in the first jhāna, as a condition of concentration in the first place, though it is not explicitly reported in the early jhānas. Its mention in the higher jhānas suggests that it becomes stronger and very acute there. In this way, mindfulness and concentration are mutually supportive. It is important to bear in mind that evaluation, as a factor of mindfulness, continues unabated, even in the fourth jhāna.
A monk in each jhāna regards whatever phenomena connected with form, feelings, perceptions, fabrications and consciousness as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a disintegration, a void, non-self … (AN 9.36)
Jhāna is therefore not the state of extreme absorption common non-Buddhist traditions, which would cut off all conceptualization altogether. For instance, the Buddha praises Sāriputta for his talents in investigation in all jhānas,
Whatever qualities there are in the first jhāna … he ferrets them out one by one. Known to him they remain, known to him they subside… (MN 111)
He then makes exactly the same statement but with regard to second jhāna. third jhāna and fourth jhāna.
In summary, right concentration is the continuation of the practices of right effort and right mindfulness in a refined state of serenity and unification of mind. This telescoping of the three explains why the three together are called the concentration group. As our awakened nun Dhammadinnā put it:
Unification of mind is concentration, the four foundations of mindfulness are its themes, the four right efforts are its requisites, and any cultivation, development and pursuit of these qualities are its development. (MN 44)
Since right concentration depends on all the previous steps of the path, the mind as it enters concentration already inclines toward wisdom and virtue, toward viewing reality in terms of impermanence, suffering and non-self, toward renunciation, kindness and harmlessness, toward purification of the mind of unwholesome factors and toward wise consideration and mindfulness. Right concentration consolidates all of the path practices, and it is in that crystal clear state that practice really starts cooking, and to produce the delectable odors of wisdom.
There is no jhāna for one with no wisdom, no wisdom for one without jhāna. But one with both jhāna and discernment, he’s on the verge of nibbāna. (Dhp 372)
The practice of right concentration. In the mind’s typical worldly state thoughts come at us like a rushing river, like a fire hose or like a sand storm. Alternatively we can say that the mind jumps around from place to place like a monkey, like a basket ball or buzzes around like a swarm of gnats. Under such conditions we have little opportunity to observe our thoughts to get to know them, nor to observe and get to know what is happening in the world around us, for that gets lost in the deluge of thought. Likewise under such conditions we have little opportunity to respond appropriately to thoughts as required by many of the steps in the Path. Even when we seek out the forest pool, our thoughts for a time are like choppy water, stirred up by paddlers and power boats, that is, too agitated to permit us a view of stones, shells and shoals of fish in the murky depths.
Concentration requires right effort to the degree of holding hindrances at bey, and focused engagement in mindfulness as necessary conditions. A degree of seclusion and quiet are contributing factors as well as bringing the body into a state of calm, generally by assuming meditation posture. Right concentration requires the development of the whole Path, but I recommend early forays, before the Path is well developed, into simple concentration as a way to still our busy modern minds and to get a feel for the power of the concentrated mind.
A very simple mindfulness task is best suited for this: pick a meditation object and keep it your awareness centered there. The most common choice of meditation object is the breath or some aspect of the breath, as in the beginning stages of the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118). The awareness will inevitably wander in the early stages of your meditation career; you must be mindful to recenter it over and over. Because it aims at keeping the mind absolutely fixed, this exercise is rarely conducive to penetrating insights, but it does produce calm abiding, is typically quite pleasant, and has a therapeutic quality that is more effective than an evening cocktail for unwinding.
With adeptness in this simple meditation, you can progress to more subtle and complex topics of mindfulness, generally under the guidance of a meditation teacher. You will find that it is more difficult to reach concentration with some topics of mindfulness that require more investigation, but that this becomes easier with time. There is a kind of art in balancing the energy of investigation with the calm of concentration. Be aware that favoring deep levels of concentration over investigation carries a couple of dangers. First, one can become attached to the pleasure of concentration, which then becomes a self-serving impediment to progress on the path. Second, the intense serenity of concentration can mislead one into thinking one has reached some great attainment on the path, possibly even awakening, when it is nothing of the sort.
The Development of Wisdom
The Path begins with right view and right intention, which constitute the wisdom group. Yet wisdom is largely a product of right concentration, keeping in mind that right concentration has already folded in right mindfulness and right effort, along with the rest of the Path.
That one could fulfill the wisdom group without having fulfilled the concentration group that is not possible. (DN 18)
“Bhikkhus, develop concentration. A monk with concentration understands in accordance with reality.” (SN 22.5)
When right concentration does not exist, for one failing right concentration, the proximate cause is destroyed for knowledge and vision of things as they really are. (A.V.4.9-11)
The knowledges are for one with concentration, not for one without concentration. (AN 6.64)
Right view gives us a lot of material for investigation. Right concentration, in effect, transforms right views into wisdom.
When his mind is thus concentrated in concentration, is purified, bright, rid of blemishes, free of taints, soft, workable, steady and attained to imperturbability, he bends and inclines his mind toward knowledge and vision. He understands “this my body is material, made of four elements. … Just as if a man with good sight were to examine a beryl gem in his hand, saying ‘this beryl gem is beautiful, well made, clear and transparent, and through it is strung a blue, yellow, red, white or brown string.” In just the same way he inclines his mind to knowledge and vision … to psychic powers … understands the Four Noble Truths. (DN 2)
Why do we want to develop wisdom? A primary reason is that it is necessary to perfect the purity of mind, to perfect virtue. With limited wisdom we can still correct our conduct and habit patterns, but we cannot correct the most recalcitrant ways we have of mis-perceiving the world.
For instance – and this is the most important instance – most of us have this very pronounced view that we are a separate self, which is always an impediment to perfecting virtue. Most fundamentally, we misperceive the world because of a constant bias in favor of this needy self. Nonetheless, through the practice of ethical conduct we learn to behave toward others as if that self were barely there, by not stealing, by not harming, and so on. Through the practice of purification of mind we can mitigate the affective mental factors that manifest that self, the various forms of greed and hatred that arise in the self’s quest for personal advantage, and try to take control of our actions. Now, all of this will tend to loosen the iron grip of the self, but not eliminate it. Through the development of wisdom we get at the most recalcitrant views. Ultimately, the development of wisdom also underlies the goal of awakening, the final ending of all suffering, the deathless, nirvana, that transcend virtue and ethics.
In the next chapter we will deepen our understanding of right view to comprehend the conditional factors implicated in the arising of the deluded human condition and how these are broken up with the light of wisdom. In the final chapter we endeavor to explain the nature of the higher attainments, particularly complete awakening.
i.See many meticulously documented cases of children’s past-life memories by Ian Stevenson and his colleagues.
ii.Remarkably, we are each born with a thoroughly rutted karmic landscape, or equivalently a well-formed individual character, but typically with no memory of whose steps produced these ruts before we arrived.
iii.Chodrin (), Nhat Hahn ().