Archive for the ‘Eightfold Path’ Category

The Buddhist Child in a Nutshell

April 2, 2013

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, April 3, 2013

threewalnutsLast week I outlined a gradual course of practice beginning with the Refuges and generosity and ending with samadhi, a course that gives a much broader and well-rounded perspective on practice than we are generally used to in the west, but most of which is much more familiar in Asia, and in any case comes directly from the horse’s mouth. After my post appeared an astute parent recognized the implications this course might have for Buddhist education for children and emailed asking if I might post something about teaching Buddhism to children. I would like to begin this topic herewith.

First I should mention an unsettling aspect of most of Western Buddhism: We don’t know how to involve our kids! Western centers are notoriously child-unfriendly. This should be astonishing because Buddhism over the last 100 generations has always involved children, ever since Rahula, the Buddha’s son, became a novice monk at age 7. How hard can it be to get a handle on this?

Sometimes it is a matter of attitude. I have heard some Buddhist parents say that their intention is to let their kids grow up so that then they can make up their own minds whether to become Buddhists or not. Personally this viewpoint puzzles me; it seems presuppose that we are each endowed with a degree of rationality and free-thinking that can be preserved in a pristine state through childhood and then let loose on the world. A free thought is in fact a rare thing; I am not sure I’ve had one for weeks. The success of the marketing industry makes clear how impressionable each of us is, suckers and chumps from toddlerhood  for the most irrational of influences.

The best any father or mother could wish for her or his child is that he or she be exposed to the healthiest, most wholesome influences possible, those that are maximally conducive to the development of personal happiness, of kindness and compassion toward others, and of wisdom all around. We as initially non-Buddhist adults are generally drawn to Buddhism because we recognize that it has exactly these qualities, and then we find we must persevere against our own upbringings to realize these qualities in ourselves. Our children are already such  easy marks for the many offensive influences running through our society that there is a certain urgency about making the values, world view and wisdom of the Buddha an integral part of their upbringing.

CoreFlowerI think this puzzling aspect of Western Buddhism arises from a far too narrow focus in our practice and understanding of Buddhism. This narrow focus not only shuts our children out of participation but inhibits our own development as well-rounded Buddhists as well. The realization of this is my reason for writing the series/ebooklet on “Buddhist Religiosity,” to try to instill a richer, more complete and holistic sense of what Buddhism is … without sacrificing a smidgen of rationality, free thinking or wisdom in the process. As I have described in this series, well rounded Buddhism is like a flower, while much of Western Buddhism is like the stem of a flower, or maybe just the upper third of the stem. The stem, the Path proper, culminating in meditation practice, is the most intense practice and tends not to be a draw for children. The rest is fun and more interpersonal, and provides a strong support for the more intense practice also for adults.

I propose that I go through the gradual path to discuss how each point in turn can be developed in the young, and even in adults. Recall that the steps are as follows:

Refuge in the Triple Gem.

Development of generosity.

Development of virtue.

MeditatorFlowerThe heavens, that is, an understanding of the transcendent dimension of our life and practice.

The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions, that is, an understanding of the downside of samsara, the soap-operatic quality of conventional life.

The rewards of renunciation.

At this point the mind is already “ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright,” but we might continue with what Western Buddhists are most likely familiar with:

The Four Noble Truths.

Right View, Right Resolve.

Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood.

Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,Right Samadhi.

Next week I will write about children might develop awe for the awesome, for the Triple Gem, the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. I hope as we go through these points that parents post comments with their own ideas and experiences or confusion in working with these areas. I hope to focus on practical tips.

The Buddhist Path in a Nutshell

March 25, 2013

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, March 26, 2013

IntroBuddhaKutthi Sutta (Udana 5.3) mentions a gradual course of practice beginning with generosity that gives a much broader and well-rounded perspective on practice than we are generally used to in the west. I’ve been thinking about this since I began working on the “Buddhist Religiosity” project, since it emphasizes much that can be practiced in community and even by children, things that are implicit in Asia. By placing the Refuges at the beginning and expanding the Noble Eightfold Path at the end, the Path of Practice looks like this:

Refuge in the Triple Gem. This is the establishment of trust in the Buddhist way. The biggest problem in the West is the almost total absence of a technical Sangha in the West (the third gem). There are highly qualified teachers, but no uniformity of qualifications and many self-authorized teachers and popular bloggers in the mix with no agreement about who might stand in for Sangha … so we all do. The expressions of refuge are devotional but can be quite simple. Bowing should be learned as a fundamental practice the cultivates (and requires) humility.

Develop generosity, virtue. Traditionally these are at first learned in community. The characteristically Buddhist “economy of gifts” is traditional inspired by a dependent Sangha who also offer the Dharma for free. Western communities do well to approximate these conditions.

The heavens. This can be understood metaphorically as standing for the accrued benefits of practice. This can already be experienced through the practices of generosity and virtue and the idea of merit should be pointed out repeatedly from the beginnings of Buddhist education. “Heavens” should also be understood to include a realization of the transcendent dimension of our practice, that it has important implications beyond this fathom-length body and few decades of existence.

The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions. You would think people could learn these from watching enough soap operas, but we do not seem to. How we get ourselves so easily into trouble should be pointed out repeatedly from the beginnings of Buddhist education.

The rewards of renunciation. Renunciation can be experienced as the most meritorious part of generosity The importance of renunciation should be taught from the beginnings of Buddhist education, because it is not obvious to people. The Sangha if present should stand as examples of renunciation and its rewards for the broader community. Practices of simplicity should be encouraged, including “voluntary simplicity” for adults; people should experience a sense of relief from letting go of things. Because consumerism is so deeply instilled through the Western media, the amount of commercial media consumption should be mimimized.

The Sutta then states that when the mind is “ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright,” the following should be taken up. Most of the steps up to here can be assimilated in community without much instruction and are suitable for children as well as adults. From this point instruction and training are required from qualified teachers (traditionally Sangha).

The Four Noble Truths. With a body of experience in generosity, virtue and renunciation and the beginnings of an investigation of the dangers of clinging, the Four Noble Truths can be understood experientially. The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Noble Path, the Path proper, which contain the remaining points.

Right View. Aside from the Four Noble Truths the core teachings of the Buddha should lead to further investigation of experience. The Three Marks, Dependent Coarising, Karma, etc.

Right Resolve. Aspirations to practice kindness, compassion and renunciation should become firm.

Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood. These steps deepen generosity and virtue. They should be understood and practiced from the perspectives of precepts, being of benefit to others and cultivating positive states of mind.

Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,Right Samadhi. The cultivation of mind,virtue and investigation of the previous steps should be supercharged with the methods that turn the mind into a precise instrument of insight, serenity and virtue. In most Western practice almost all effort is centered here, leaving it unclear what it is that is being supercharged.

Sometimes in the West the Path is reduced to:

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Core Buddhism

January 25, 2013

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, January 26, 2013

Index to this series

Chapter 2. Core Buddhism

CoreFlowerThere is a Buddhism that shines through constantly through the various Buddhist traditions, a Buddhism visible first in the earliest scriptures and a common edifice behind the many often wild and perplexing guises appearing under the name “Buddhism.” In order to make sense of this, I am going to distinguish three related terms “Original Buddhism,” “Core Buddhism” and “Authentic Buddhism.” Imagine someone made up and told a story that was then retold many times, with different words and much retooling and embellishment of details, but keeping the basic story intact right down to the response to the punch line, we might say the “core” of the “original” story is preserved in any “authentic” retelling.

Original Buddhism is Buddhism as taught by the Buddha, and as formulated by the Buddha. It consists of two parts, the Dhamma and the Vinaya, the doctrine and the discipline. Generally the Pali Suttas, particularly the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas as well as the Suttanipata of the Khuddhaka Nikaya along with the equivalent Chinese Agamas are generally agreed by scholars to constitute the most reliable evidence of the original Dhamma. The Vinaya, the monastic code, is available in several traditions, the Pali Vinaya being the most easily available in English. Many will quibble endlessly about what is actually original, particularly since there are many contradictions and alternative interpretations in the texts transmitted to us, and clearly alterations. I have argued elsewhere that the resolution of these quibbles requires a recognition of the system that shines through when enough of the pieces are assembled, a recognition beyond the competence of pure scholars of Buddhism, but available to those who have entered deep into the path of practice to begin to see the Dhamma experientially.

Core Buddhism is a significant abstraction from Original Buddhism, a kind of eau de Buddhime. It is the system that shines through in Original Buddhism, but stripped of its particular formulation and stripped of extraneous elements of the ancient texts that are irrelevant to that system. This term serves as way to eschew the literalism lurking in original texts.

For instance it is safe to say that some form of mindfulness practice is a key functional element of Core Buddhism. This is formulated as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Original Buddhism, but the the quite distinctly formulated Zen method of meditation called Shikantaza in Japanese along with a set of off-the-cushion practices retain (I would argue, based on personal experience) its functionality. I therefore say both formulations maintain the same functional element of Core Buddhism and Zen is at least in this regard authentic Buddhism.

Also Original Buddhism was taught in a certain cultural context so it is inevitable that it will mention many elements that are not actually integral to Buddhism as a functional system. My own sense, for instance, is that the many devas, godly beings, who drop in on the Buddha in the early scriptures are such elements. Of course what it or is not Core Buddhism is subject to quibble at least as much as what is or is not Original Buddhism. For the most part I will describe Core Buddhism in terms of its intersection with Original Buddhism, but implicitly intend the qualification, “… or equivalent” at each step.

Finally, I refer to an Authentic Buddhism as any formulation of Buddhism that retains or even extends Core Buddhism, and thereby preserves the functionality or intention of Original Buddhism. A new authentic form of Buddhism might arise as Buddhism enters a new cultural space in which new ways of teaching are necessary to reach new ways of thinking. Naturally Original Buddhism is also the Original Authentic Buddhism. Other Authentic Buddhisms retool or extend Core elements of Original Buddhism or simply accrue extra elements, most particularly elements of religiosity. I hope this makes sense; these distinctions will be useful in coming chapters.

A Metaphor for Core Buddhism.

Buddhism is a flower. It is a system of interrelated inter-functioning parts that is much greater than the sum of the individual parts. Each part has a function and, regardless of whether or not you recognize at first what that function is, the whole flower would die if it were missing any major part. Here is in a nutshell how Core Buddhism would map onto the major parts of the flower:

  • The blossom of the flower is Nibbana (I will prefer Pali here, this is Nirvana in Sanskrit).
  • The stem that supports the blossom is Magga, the path, the instructions for practice and understanding, originally expressed as the Noble Eightfold Path, and leading to Nibbana.
  • The leaves androots are the Parisa, the Buddhist community, the roots are the Bhikkhu-Sangha, the monastic order of monks and nuns, actually a special role within the Parisa. They collect nourishment of sun, water and soil in order that the flower thrive.
  • The sun, water and soil that nourish the flower are the Triple Gem, respectively the Buddha, the Dhamma (Dharma), and the Sangha. They inspire and bend the mind in the proper direction.

Now, here is the same thing in more detail:


Blossom. This is Nibbana, the highest attainment of human character, liberation from suffering, liberation from the taints, perfect wisdom, virtue, enlightenment, awakening, all those good things. Notice that most religions seem to have the goal of liberation or salvation, often pertaining to a life beyond this one. Nibbana itself therefore has an aspect of religiosity, though other religions would understand salvation differently.

Stem. This is the Path of individual practice and understanding that leads to Nibbana. This is the most uniquely Buddhist part, and therefore the most distinct from religiosity. The stem is made of three strands, which are called Wisdom, Virtue and Mental Cultivation, each of which bundles two or three smaller strands. The underlying principle behind practice is loosening the entangling bonds of personal neediness, aversion and views. All the strands work together and, when taken up with conviction, energy and a sense of urgency, guarantee selfless progress. There is hardly anything like this in its practicality and sophistication in non-Buddhist religious traditions. Since this is the part of the flower that has the least to do with religiosity it will be the one I write about the least, even though it is the part the Buddha spoke of the most.

Leaves and roots. This is the community context, the community itself and community activities and also the locus of religiosity. The community is divided into to parts, lay and monastic, with clearly defined social roles, but a member of either can begin to ascend the stem.

Leaves. This is the Parisa,the Buddhist community, and its main component is the lay community. The main characteristic of the Buddhist lay community is that it is not explicitly organized nor commanded in any special way, but is rather inspired by the Triple Gem toward practice and understanding and toward a particular relationship with nuns and monks.

Roots. This is the Bhikkhusangha, the community of monks and nuns. Its main characteristic is that it is organized in very specific way, inspires the support of the lay community and in this way is able to sustain a rare lifestyle that is most conducive to Buddhist study and practice. It serves to produce Nobel Ones. The particular organization of the Bhikkhusangha is a primary teaching of the Buddha, the topic of the massive Vinaya. Although the lay community is not explicitly organized its behavior plays off of that of the Bhikkhusangha.

Nourishment for the Flower. Refuge is the part of Buddhist religiosity that allow the roots and leaves to absorb the nourishment of the sun, water and soil. Conviction focuses on the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These nourish the entire practice, and in fact the beginning of Buddhist practice is generally considered to be Refuge in the Triple Gem.

The Buddha reached an advanced understanding, a level of insight and knowledge that he knew would be very difficult for others to achieve. As a teacher he had to consider the process whereby others can reach that understanding, and recognized that it requires a combination of confidence in the teacher and teachings, and direct experience of what these are pointing out. Faith or trust (Pali saddha) is necessary put aside accumulated faulty notions and to open oneself completely to the light of the Buddha’s insight and its current embodiment. Veneration of the Triple Gem is an important psychological element in the development of the necessary trust.

The sun. This is the Buddha himself. Conviction in the Enlightenment inspires the community’s commitment to deeper practice. The Buddha stands an an example to emulate, an admiral friend, present at least in the accounts of his life and in the Dharma-Vinaya, his teachings and in those most shaped by his influence.

Water. This is the Dhamma, the teachings of the truth that the Buddha directly experienced and the instructions for perfecting the human character constitute the clean water that flows into every aspect of our Buddhist life and practice, carried by the soil through the roots into leaves and up into the stem, to inform our practice at every level on our way to Nirvana.

Soil. This is the Sangha. This represents the adepts, past present and future, who have gone far in the practice, perhaps not reaching Nibbana, but progressing at least far enough to discern it and to attain unshakable trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. The Sangha nourishes the community through its visible example, its direct experience and its teaching. Notice that the Sangha here is properly called the “Ariyasangha,” the Noble Ones, to distinguish it from the Bhikkhusangha, the institution that spins off Nobel Ones. The roots are buried deep in the soil, the monks and nuns have Sangha between their toes, and the soil is made rich by the many generations of roots, of leaves, of stems and of blossoms.

The Religiosity the Buddha Did Not Teach

The Buddha lived in a very religious culture, made use of much of what he saw around him and dismissed what he felt was useless or harmful. He made use of a range of such religious elements in crafting his own system of thought, not only to produce practice and understanding, but also to providing the proper context to inspire correct practice and understanding now and for generations to come. I hope the reader will gain a new appreciation by the end of this essay of what a carefully conceived and well-articulated system he crafted. Let us look for now at what he pared down.

In expressing reverence the Triple Gem Core Buddhism acquires something at least like worship. However it is not veneration toward an otherworldly being or force, but of things this-wordly: a remarkable person long deceased, of a set of teachings for and by humans and of real people who happen to embody those teachings completely in their own lives. Actually there may be irony intended in the frequent appearance of such otherworldly beings in the ancient discourses. Even higher deities, rather than demanding reverence for themselves, instead venerate those same things the good Buddhist does as higher than themselves, bowing before the Buddha and even the monks. The Buddha did on many occasions expect of others that they show proper respect for him, and actually required that monks and nuns not offer teachings if their audience shows disrespect for them. However there is little indication that the Buddha intended to become the center of a personality cult. He discouraged some of the more extreme forms of reverence he received, once telling an awe-struck follower (in the most literal sense of follower),

“Why do you want to see this foul body? If you see the Dhamma you see me.”

Nonetheless the Buddha did specify four significant places from his life as destinations for pilgrimage after he is gone.

The Buddha also advocated veneration for parents, teachers, the elderly and even monastics of other traditions, yet eschewed the prevailing caste system. Reverence was clearly part of his thinking.

Likewise limited ritual practices are current in Original Buddhism. Bowing is frequent as a gesture of veneration, as is circumambulation, for instance, “keeping the Tathagatha to his right.” Notice however these are no more than expressions. In contrast the Buddha spoke in no uncertain terms of the dangers of rites and rituals (silabbata), even classifying these as the third of the ten fetters to be abandoned on the Path. He did not have in mind ritual or conventionalized expressions, which like words are means of communication, and which would encompass many things very familiar to us in the modern world, like shaking hands or waving goodbye and saying “Ta-ta.”

Indeed what is absent from Core Buddhism is the attribution of some special hidden efficacy to rites and rituals, for instance making a sacrifice to to gain the good favor of a deity or asking a priest to make an incantation to produce some kind of future good luck or a favorable rebirth. This way of using of rites and rituals was rife in the Brahmanism of the Buddha’s day and did not gain the Buddha’s endorsement. Specifically he did not want the monks and nuns to become priests and forbade such intermediary roles along with astrology, numerology or other means of predicting the future, as well, by the way, of exhibiting paranormal powers such as levitation in the presence of the laity.

Trust or faith has a prominent role in Core Buddhism. Refuge in the Triple Gem is the immediate example, a trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. However this is far from blind faith and in fact much like the trust a student of science puts into her teachers, a science graduate student puts into the paradigm her teacher represents. This is, in other words, a trust that is subject to personal verification as the attainment and understanding of the Buddhist develops and as such it is a faith that is replaced gradually with knowing. It is helpful in this regard that the Buddha was very parsimonious in his teachings, giving nothing as an object of convictionor investigation that did not have a function in the Path.

Another feature of Original Buddhism that bears mentioning is that there are virtually no special practices or teachings of consolation as found in other religions, beyond perhaps the peace of mind that comes with Refuge. There is no appeal to an outside power or metaphysical view that makes everything OK, old age, sickness and death and the rest. There is a notion of salvation, Nibbana, but its attainment is a matter of mental development.

How Buddhist Religiosity Works

The operating principle of the leaves, the roots and the nourishment of the Triple Gem is … friendship! In particular it is admirable friendship (kalyanamittata in Pali), that which is possible from having Noble Ones among us to provide wise role models and instructors. The principle is to have the opportunity to hang with persons consummate in virtue, in generosity and in wisdom. The following dialog expresses in a rather striking way the critical importance the Buddha attached to this simple principle:

As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold Path. (SN 45.2)

Just as it benefits us to have artists and good plumbers among us it ennobles us to have saints and sages, adepts and arahants in our midst, the more the better. These Noble Ones are the Sangha mentioned in the Triple Gem, disciples of the Buddha who root their lives entirely in the Dhamma, have already been carried far aloft by the stem of the Path and are an inspiration and a resource for us all. It is through admirable friends that the meaning of the Buddha’s life and Awakening is revealed and through such admirable friends that the highly sophisticated teachings are clarified step by step to lead the instructling toward and up the Path toward Awakening. It is the Sangha, by recognizing what shines through the words, that the core of Buddhism is preserved in its full integrity. The Sangha is therefore the soil that provides not only the nourishment of water and mineral but ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not be carried away by the wind in the years to come.

The Ariya-Sangha arises from conditions and these conditions are secured by means of the Bhikkhu-Sangha. This is expressed approximately as follows,

And if these monks, Subaddha, live rightly, the world will not be empty of arahants.” – DN 16.

The world will be even less be empty of the Noble Ones, many of whom are not yet arahants, of sages and of admirable friendship. The Bhikkhu-Sangha is both a training ground and a dwelling place for the Ariya-Sangha, much like a university is both a training ground and a dwelling place for scholars. Without Noble Ones Buddhism cannot retain its integrity, and Noble Ones will be very few indeed without nuns and monks in the Buddhist community … or equivalent.

Let’s see how this works out for a young man, Aung Myint, born into a Buddhist family in a Buddhist community. First he will be taught even as a toddler to revere the Triple Gem, the sun, water and soil that sustains the Buddhist flower. The Buddha for him will exemplify certain values such as selflessness, virtue and serenity. The Dhamma is likely not to be readily accessible until he is moved to personal investigation outside of a few aphorisms like “Happiness comes only from within.” The Sangha, with which Aung Myint could well be in daily contact, will provide living examples of what it is to live deeply according to Buddhist principles, and of the joy and wisdom that emerges in such a life. Aung Myint lives among the leaves, as a part of the Buddhist community and supportive of the monks and nuns. He grows up with a mind bent toward Buddhist values and Buddhist aspirations. The Buddha once said,

Those who have joyous confidence in the highest, the highest fruit will be theirs. (AN 4.34)

He has noticed that people adopt a wide varieties of ways of life. He himself for a time thinks of marrying his cute neighbor Su Su and raising a family. But he learns what a problem life can be with no easy answers. He notices that the Noble Ones are more content and full of active goodwill than anyone else in spite of their utterly simple lives. This inspires him to follow the wise into the holy life, to forsake a personal footprint in favor of the selfless Path that blossoms in Nibbana. Aung Myint joins the monastic order and begins to study as a student of one of the sages, and from the root begins his ascent upward. Eventually he becomes one of the Noble Ones, in fact an arahant (to ensure this tale a happy ending).


This has been a brief sketch of the religious infrastructure implemented by the Buddha and its functions. In the next two chapters I will go into more detail concerning the two main components of this system, Refuge, including trust and admirable friendship, and Community, including its organized and unorganized components. After that I will discuss the ways in which this religious system has been modified in the many later Buddhist traditions, including through the incursion of features that the Buddha originally wanted to keep in check. However I will finally consider the ways in which the Buddha foresaw that the presence of Noble Ones, the adapts, the Sangha, would serve to preserve the integrity of Core Buddhism yet tolerate the many pressures toward variation within those traditions.

Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 12

January 30, 2012

Zen Meditation: the Prerequisites
First Quarter Moon Uposatha Day , January 31, 2012                            index to series

Today we begin looking at Zen meditation, or zazen (seated Jhana), and compare it point by point with the Buddha’s meditation as I have described it over the last weeks. I will try to follow the template I established two weeks ago to provide points of comparison.

This week: The Prerequisites!

Next week: The Techniques!

Prerequisites of Zazen.

Wisdom and Virtue. For the Buddha Samadhi depends on all previous factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, including the factors of Wisdom and of Virtue. This is also the case with Zen meditation, however each of these factors is treated differently in the Zen tradition. I mention the differences briefly.

First, Wisdom for the Buddhha begins with an intellectual understanding of the Dhamma. Traditionally Zen eschews intellectual understanding, and considers its tradition to be as Bodhidharma is reputed to have stated:

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to [one’s] mind
It lets one see into [one’s own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.

The Chinese seem to have been holistic thinkers, unlike the analytical Indians, and Taoism, which clearly influenced Zen, had a decidedly non-dualistic understanding of things, so the appeal of Bodhidharma’s words should not be surprising. However, from the teachings and references of the ancient Zen masters I’ve always had the impression that they were doing a lot of studying of words and letters on the sly. Dogen, by the way, disagreed with Bodhidharma and was a great proponent of words and letters.

A prominent feature of Zen discourse are koans, very concise thought-provoking passages that are probably unique in the world’s scriptural traditions. An example is:

Once, hearing the sound of wind in the chimes in the hall, Sogyanandai asked Kayashata, “Is it the chimes ringing or the wind ringing?”
Kayashata said, “It is neither the wind nor the chimes—it is just my mind ringing.”

Traditionally koans have been used for consideration independent of zazen, and can be seen as a means of developing understanding much as reading the suttas develops understanding. Their genius is that their intention is less in conveying a rote teaching as in involving the Zen student in an active process of exploration; they lead the student so far then let him on his own to figure out what is meant. In a good koan it is difficult or impossible to pinpoint in intellectual terms just what is meant; the koan pulls the student this way and that and sometimes forces the student to accept two mutually contradictory theses at the same time. Sometimes the meaning is found between the concepts. Here is another:

A monk asked Master Yunmen, “What does ‘sitting correctly and contemplating true reality’ really mean?”
Yunmen said, “A coin lost in the river is found in the river.”

There are a number of traditional Zen commentaries on koans, but these never provide concrete clarification, only hints and spin-off koans. Koans are generally very playful. This one, starring the same Chinese Zen master, seems to be mostly fun:

A monk asked, “What is the meaning of ‘All dharmas are the Buddhadharma’?”
Yunmen said, “Country grannies crowd the road.”
The monk said, “I don’t understand.”
Yunmen said, “Not only you. Many others don’t understand.”

The significance of the shift from sutta to koan in Zen is that it gives an additional way to weave Wisdom into meditation, in the guise of short phrases that can rest in the mind and begin to do their work in meditation. In the later history of Zen the koans actually became objects of meditation, especially in the Rinzai school.

Second, Virtue gets an unsolicited boost in East Asian Buddhism by the Confucian society in which it is embedded. Confucian ethics specifies behavior clearly in almost all circumstances as obligations of children to parents, parents to children, employers to employees, kings to subjects, and so on that regulate behavior in detail. This does not entail that Buddhist precepts are not also observed; in fact monastics follow the traditional Vinaya precepts in most of East Asia (no longer Japan) and additionally follow a second set of “Bodhisattva Precepts.” However there tends to be much less specifically Zen discussion of Virtue, perhaps because it is redundant in a Confucian society. Shohaku Okumura, one of my teachers from Japan, reports that he was surprised to find so little attention given to Virtue or ethics in American Zen centers. He then realized what the problem might be: Zen Buddhism came to America, but it left Confucianism behind. Western zennies may have some backfilling to do here.

The significance of of the Confucian system of ethics I think is that it blends seamlessly with a similar Confucian influence on the practice of mindfulness, as discussed below.

Delight and pleasure. This template heading reserves a place for how these might these be encouraged independently of meditation itself. I will only state that these are encouraged at least in meditation. Hongzhi admonishes us to “Roam and play in Samadhi.” Dogen describes zazen as, “the dharma gate of great ease and joy.”

Everyday Mindfulness. Buddhism seems to have tapped into a very rich resource in East Asia: Confucianism and perhaps a more general tendency to ritualize or regulate nearly all aspects of behavior. This blends ethics and etiquette. For instance, anyone who has practiced in a traditional Japanese Zen center in the West, will learn exactly how to hold the hands while walking in the area around the meditation hall, which foot leads in crossing the threshold, when to bow, which direction to turn, even how to place chopstick and spoon while eating. The entire Zen experience is infused with etiquette, ritual, right ways of doing things, and there are people at hand who will correct your mistakes. This is why I compare the Confucians with Victorian aristocrats, who for their part demand that their various forks and crystal drinking glasses be placed in a particular order, and who take care to wear attire appropriate to the current situation, be it theater, brandy and cigars or fox hunting.

Ritual is regulated behavior, and this is a bit different than the everyday mindfulness described in the Satipattana Sutta, which simply keeps the mind attentive to movements that are themselves presumably unregulated, for instance, knowing you are lifting your arm as you lift your arm because you want to close the window. Nevertheless ritual entails this same close attentiveness and reminds you to be mindful lest you mangle the minutiae.

Now Indian Buddhism was never without a level of ritual and etiquette, it is just not so pronounced. The Buddha notably declared clinging to rules and rituals as the third fetter, to be eliminated prior to stream entry, however his concern was with the assumption encouraged by the brahmins that these things had a kind of supernatural efficacy or ability to manipulate the deeper forces of the universe. He certainly encouraged etiquette and appropriate gestures of respect. In fact all the lesser rules of the Vinaya are essentially rules of etiquette.

A good source for the way conduct is regulated in the monastic context is Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community, which is in fact a rough rewriting of a much earlier Chinese text. It describes even how to do the various physical tasks involved in running a Zen monastery, such as cooking. I worked in the kitchen at Tassajara Zen monastery in California during a three-month practice period about ten years ago, and I can report that you can attain samadhi while chopping carrots! I have always regarded this ritualization of everyday tasks as typically East Asian, but was surprised more recently to find a large section of the Theravada Vinaya that has a very similar flavor, presumably representing the intent if not the very words of the Buddha. This section had to do with the duties of a junior monk to his preceptor and includes very detailed instructions about washing and drying robes, when to open and close windows, etc., for instance, to hang a robe over a horizontal rod always by reaching under and throwing it toward yourself, rather than over and away, and making sure the two lower edges of the hanging robe are not aligned. All of these have pragmatic motivations, like much of Japanese ritual. If Vinaya was not written on the cover of the book I was reading I would have thought I was reading Pure Standards. It seems the history of everyday mindfulness is deserving of further study.

Dogen is known to have emphasized repeatedly that zazen is the entirety of Buddhist practice. Famously, but not quite as famously, he also said that ritual conduct is the entirety of Buddhist practice. Which is it? I think the answer is that he conceived of zazen as ritual practice, as we will see, and ritual practice as something that encompasses Virtue, as the Confucians see it. We have to be careful in the West because we often think Dogen advocated abandoning Virtue in favor of meditation only, and whatever wisdom might emerge from that.

Effort but not striving. Here is another famous koan for you:

Once, as a monk named Mazu Daoyi was assiduously engaged in zazen, his priestly teacher Nanyue Huairang happened along and asked what he was doing.
“Zazen,” replied Mazu, “I am practicing seated meditation to become a Buddha.”
Huairang picked up a tile he found lying on the ground and began energetically rubbing it with a stone. Perplexed, Mazu asked why he was doing it; and Huairang said, “I’m polishing the tile to make a mirror.”
When Mazu asked whether that was possible, Huairang replied, “Is it possible to become a Buddha by practicing zazen?”

Dogens commentary on this koan is that the entirety of Buddhist practice (or literally what is “preserved in the bones and marrow of former Buddha’s”) is polishing a tile to make a mirror.

This koan naturally has to do with effort. Zen has a mixed history with respect to striving, or meditating with a goal in mind. It began as a “sudden enlightenment” school, in contrast to the Buddha’s gradualist approach. It has been suggested that the appeal of sudden enlightenment has to do with the social mobility of Chinese in contrast to Indians: their expectations tended to be higher. Americans would certainly fit into the Chinese pattern. Perhaps as a counterbalance there has been a strong trend to deemphasize sitting with a goal. Equating practice and enlightenment is one way this is done; it is something like Gandhi’s “Become the change you seek.” Soto Zen people are often critical of Rinzai zennies for being too goal-oriented. Twentieth Century Japanese Soto master Kodo Sawaki puts it quite simply:

Zazen is useless …

Then he adds, creating a nifty koan in the process,

… and until you fully realize that, zazen really is useless.

Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 11

January 22, 2012

Buddhism in the Land of the Chopstick
New Moon Uposatha Day , January 23, 2012                            index to series

The well-known late German Theravada monk Nyanaponika Thera wrote many years ago, I think in the Fifties or Sixties, in the Heart of Buddhist Meditation (p. 14):

Among the Mahayana schools of the Far East, it is chiefly the Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen that are closest to the spirit of Satipatthana. Notwithstanding the differences in method, aim and basic philosophical conception, the connecting links with Satipatthana are close and strong and it is regrettable that they have hardly been stressed or noticed.”

This seems to be the case to this day. But we can do something about this regrettable circumstance, or at least start to. I would like to shift gears this week. My intention in this series on Buddhist meditation has a strong historical aspect. So far I have tried to take a snapshot of Buddhist meditation at the time of the Buddha, that is, Buddha’s meditation, relying exclusively on the earliest Buddhist texts. I think a clear picture of the Buddha’s system has emerged. Particular passages in the suttas may be debatable, but overwhelmingly the suttas support a clear model, that makes systemic or functional sense, and that can be verified in practice.

Now, Buddhism spread in its early centuries over a large geographical area, coming under the influences and demands of exotic innovators and brilliant cultures, it evolved. I want to look at the ways meditation seems to have evolved to give us the daunting plethora of meditation methods. And to make it interesting, I would like to speculate about why it evolved.

Let me recount some history of Buddhist in China. I am not an expert in this history, so if any readers are, or are inclined to look things up, please post comments correcting my account or, more likely, enhancing it.

Buddhism began to enter China in the First Century A.D., so maybe six hundred years after the death of the Buddha. The primary influence came along the Silk Road through Central Asia, actually passing north of Tibet and into China. Buddhist merchants carried not only goods and Buddhist practices, but also monks, probably initially for good luck as caravans made the long and dangerous trip. Mahayana Buddhism did not yet exist as a recognizable school in India; this was about the time of the earliest sutras, such as the Prajnaparamita Sutras, that would one day be regarded as Mahayana. In the centuries that followed Northern India seems to have been a hotbed of innovation, producing much scholarship and literature. The Buddhist universities flourished, and philosopher-monks like Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu and Shantideva, were exploring and extending Buddhist philosophy, much like Western philosophers have been doing in a separate tradition over a similar span of time. Alongside this new sutras were being composed, and attributed to the Buddha. These tended to be much more colorful than the old ones, with a much richer mythology, and with new recurring easily befriended characters, like Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Samantabadhra.

Many Northern Indian influences trickled into China over the years and occasionally a Chinese pilgrim would make the journey to India to stock up on books. China was a highly literate land for its time and the Buddhists were eager to absorb as much as possible from India and to translate it into Chinese. Formidable translation project were set up. The best known translator was an Indian monk named Kumarajiva, who was originally captured in a Chinese raid in Central Asia in the Fourth Century, but stayed voluntarily in China for many years. The Sanskrit Agamas, corresponding to the first four Pali Nikayas (Sutta collections) were translated, along with philosophical works and Mahayana Sutras.

Now the primary indigenous cultural/religious influences in China were Taoism and Confucianism. Taoists were something like beatniks and Confucianists were more like Victorian aristocrats. The former seemed to be more accepting of Buddhism, and in fact much of the new Buddhist vocabulary, the Chinese translations of Sanskrit Buddhist terms, were adapted from Taoism. Both Taoism and Confucianism became strong influences in shaping Chinese Buddhism.

Schools of Buddhism in China formed for the most part by championing a particular Mahayana sutra. Early on in China four main schools of Buddhism stood out: Pure Land (based on the Amitabha Sutra), Chan (Japanese, Zen), Hua Yen (Japanese Kegon, based on the Flower Ornament Sutra) and Tian-tai (Japanese, Tendai, based on the Lotus Sutra). Zen was unusual in that people seemed to have trouble making up their minds about which sutra to champion, but the Diamond Sutra, whose topic is emptiness, stands out as a Chan favorite. Chan is particularly interesting for us because it is the “Meditation School.” “Chan” is short for “Channa,” which was a transliteration of Sanskrit “Dyana,” which corresponds to Pali Jhana, a word that we have seen quite often in this series. Chan spread, like most of the other schools, along with Taoism and Confucianism throughout the Land of the Chopstick, which includes Korea, Japan and Vietnam, where I think it is known as Son, Zen and Tien respectively. Of course its Japanese variant is best known in the West, particularly in America. I’ll call the entire school Zen, since that word is common in English. Many people do not realize that Thich Nhat Hanh represents the Vietnamese branch of Zen.

There are a number of challenges in tracing the evolution of meditation in East Asia. First, there are relatively few meditation manuals. This is not surprising, since one generally learns meditation under the tutelage of a teacher who can personalize it according to one’s own proclivities. I cannot recall any Indian Mahayana meditation teachings, for instance. One of the earliest works on meditation from China is the Mohe Zhiguan (Great Serenity and Insight) by early Tian-tai Master Zhiyi (538-597), written roughly about the time the Visuddhimagga was being composed in Sri Lanka. This very detailed and analytical work is said to have had some influence on the early Zen school.

However Zen itself has generally eschewed all things analytical or intellectual; its writings tend to be poetic. And rather than presenting doctrine directly it tends to dance around it in such a giddy and playful manner that you can barely tell what it is not saying. This inscrutible expository method spun off the well-known but poorly understood koan literature and is almost certainly due to a strong Taoist influence. We find various references to meditation in the historic Zen literature, but it tends to be more descriptive of experience than technique. Next week I will site some references.

We know that around 1100 AD a new innovation arose in Zen meditation in China, the use of koans as actual objects of meditation, which became all the rage within the Lin-Chi (Japanese, Rinzai) subschool school of Zen. The great poet of Zen, Master Hongzhi of the Tsao-Tong (J. Soto) subschool of Zen provided a more conservative counterpoint to this new innovation, writing some wonderful descriptions of samadhi which I will also cite.

Born in 1200, Dogen Zenji, the great Japanese Zen master, received his most significant training at the monastery where Hongzhi had been abbot a century before, and brought Soto Zen to Japan. Dogen also wrote some significant descriptions of Zen meditation, which have had more influence on the Western understanding of Zen meditation than anything other single source. I would like to cite some of what Dogen has to say as well.

Because I trained for years in Dogen’s Soto Zen tradition I am able to supplement his descriptions with my own experience according to how it has been taught to me. I will try to make use of (this modern understanding of) Dogen’s meditation as a snapshot for comparison with Buddha’s meditation. I have relatively little understanding of Rinzai koan-based meditation and would welcome it if anyone out there who does would attempt a similar comparative analysis.

Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 10

January 15, 2012

Summary of Buddha’s Meditation and Template for its Variants
Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day , January 16, 2012                            index to series

In the last weeks we looked at what the Buddha taught and described in the Suttas concerning meditation. This week we will summarize the main points in a way that also give us a means to catalog the variants of Buddha’s meditation, the daunting plethora of meditation practices within the broad Buddhist tradition that will differ in one or more of these points.

Prerequisites of Buddha’s Medititation.

The Buddha placed meditation clearly within the greater context of practice and understanding. Accordingly it presupposes or benefits from certain developments.

Wisdom and Virtue. The wisdom factors and the virtue factors of the Noble Eightfold Path precede those of meditation, so that you will begun to befriend the Dhamma, have learned about suffering and the ending of suffering, about the contingent nature of reality, and have begun reflecting on these things on the basis of your own experience, also so that you will have resolved to develop kindness and non-harming and a willingness to let go of personal advantage, so that you will also have begun to cultivate virtue in your deeds and words and established a lifestyle inclined to nonharming. In this way before meditation the mind is already inclined toward wisdom and virtue, so that meditation can meld wisdom and virtue along with serenity into a very refined kind of mind that leads to final liberation.

Delight and pleasure. These are factors (piti and sukha) developed in the Buddha’s method as critical to the entry into meditation and count as jhana factors. What counts here is spiritual joy, the explorer’s delight in possibilities and pleasure in experience. I mention them here because these may also be cultivated by other means to the benefit of meditation practice. Faith, or refuge in the Triple Gem, for instance, give these a boost.

Everyday Mindfulness. This is the mindfulness you carry with you through your daily tasks, not just on the cushion and with the intention of entering samadhi. This is covered in the Buddha’s method, rather seamlessly, but again I mention it here because this kind of mindfulness may also be cultivated by other means. Much of our daily mindfulness, for instance, is determined by the culture we live in; Western culture is often weak in this respect where multitasking and push-button “convenience” are pervasive. How we care for and order our surroundings, how well our mind stays with the doorknob as we open a door in front of us then close it behind us, are indicators of everyday mindfulness.

Effort but not striving. I did not include this in my description of the last few weeks, but it occurs to me that it can be an important factor in distinguishing certain variants from Buddha’s meditation. The most thrilling way to build a tall building is to build the top story first. It will indeed give an immediate sense of accomplishment, but is not very practical. Yet we are often tempted to do this in our meditation. Americans who begin a Tibetan practice, for instance, often want to jump right into the esoteric tantric practices before they’ve even gotten a chance to warm their cushions. This was not the Buddha’s way.

First, the Buddha advocated a gradual path.

Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch, in the same way this Doctrine and Discipline (dhamma-vinaya) has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual progression, with a penetration to gnosis only after a long stretch. – Ud 5.5

Furthermore, the Buddha emphasized in manny contexts that in establishing an appropriate foundation the next story seems to build itself. For instance, he famously stated that kalyanamitta, good spiritual friendship, is the entire path. This does not mean there is no goal or effort necessary once you meet the right inspiration, but that you will be inspired to set that goal and exert that effort; success on the path will follow (almost) inevitably in this way.

Just as, monks, when rain descends heavily upon some mountaintop, the water flows down along with the slope, and fills the clefts, gullies, and creeks; these being filled fill up the pools; these being filled fill up the ponds; these being filled fill up the streams; these being filled fill up the rivers; and the rivers being filled fill up the great ocean — in the same way, monks, … [I’ve omitted the first half of the sequence; the second relates to practice] suffering is the supporting condition for faith, faith is the supporting condition for joy, joy is the supporting condition for rapture, rapture is the supporting condition for tranquility, tranquility is the supporting condition for happiness, happiness is the supporting condition for concentration, concentration is the supporting condition for the knowledge and vision of things as they really are, the knowledge and vision of things as they really are is the supporting condition for disenchantment, disenchantment is the supporting condition for dispassion, dispassion is the supporting condition for emancipation, and emancipation is the supporting condition for the knowledge of the destruction (of the cankers). – Upanisa Sutta, SN 12.23

Methods of Buddha’s Meditation.

Removal of the hindrances. Lust, Ill-will. Sloth and torpor, Restlessness and remorse, and doubt are kept at bey.

Undistracted reflection on theme conducive to insight. This is never fixing the mind on one thing, but narrows the range of thought enough to induce samadhi.

The themes the buddha recommends tend to be centered in awareness of the body, but also include feeling, mind and dhammas. They are variously conducive to insight of:

Impermanence. These include the themes of breath, deportment, decaying corpses, feeling, consiousness, dhammas.

Suffering. For instance, feeling, five Hindrances, aggregates, the Four Noble Truths.

Insubstantiality. Including composition of the body, elements, decaying corpses, the aggregates, the sense-bases

Unattractiveness. For instance, decaying corpses, composition of the body, elements.

Mental factors. Focus on feeling, mind and dhammas also includes the wholesome and unwholesome, the factors of meditation itself, including concentration, mindfulness, investigation, discursiveness, and so on, as well as the arising of distractions.

Encouragement of active factors. These include spiritual delight, ardency and clear comprehension. These encourage investigation and discourage sluggishness and bedazement.

Adjusting and Balancing. These techniques provide way to respond to intruding distrations, to balance active factors like vipassana or investigation with still factors like samatha or serenity, to let go of factors or move into more intensive states of samadhi, and so on.

The Experience of Buddha’s Meditation.

Samadhi is the primary experience of meditation. I only consider two distinguishing aspects here:

Concentration is centered, not fixed. In fixed concentration the mind attaches unmovingly to a single meditation object into which the mind is absorbed. In centered concentration the mind itself seems to be unmoving, but experience comes and goes. Ther mind is pliant, open to everything that arises remains a while and falls, but what arises does not move the mind off center..

Investigation continues in samadhi. Mindfulness practice and investigation assume a subtler level in a stiller, more refined mind. Vipassana, seeing things as they really are, occurs in samadhi. This level of investigation is permitted because concentration is centered, not fixed.

Template for Considering Variants of Buddha’s Meditation.

What I hope to do in the coming weeks is to consider some variants of Buddha’s meditation in turn to see where they might differ from Buddha’s meditation and where they differ in what way they might actually be doing something equivalent by other means. Accordingly I propose the following template of points of possible variation. I am hoping this will provide a useful tool for asking critical questions about each of these variants (I don’t know yet, because I am doing this on the fly, but let’s see).

Prerequisites of a Variant of Buddha’s Medititation.

Wisdom and Virtue. How are these practiced?

Delight and pleasure. How might these be encouraged independently of mindfulness itself?

Everyday Mindfulness. Is there an independent basis for this?

Effort but not striving. Is this observed?

Methods of a Variant of Buddha’s Meditation.

Removal of the hindrances. What are the recommendations for this?

Undistracted reflection on themes conducive to insight. What are the opportunities for investigating impermanence, suffering, insubstantiality, unattractiveness and mental factors?

Encouragement of active factors. Are investigation and delight encouraged and how?

Adjusting and Balancing. What balances and movements are implemented during meditation?

The Experience of a Variant of Buddha’s Meditation.

Concentration is centered, not fixed. Is this the case always, sometimes or never?

Investigation continues in samadhi. How does investigation with a still mind occur?

Next week I will begin trying to discuss Zen meditation in these terms.

Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 9

January 7, 2012

Buddha’s Vipassana
Full Moon Uposatha, January 8, 2012
           index to series

Full Moon Uposatha Day index to series

Centered Samadhi. Last week I began discussing Buddha’s samadhi and today I would like to talk about serenity and insight (samatha and vipassana) as features of samadhi.

In the meantime, I hope you will read or have read the replies to last week’s post, in which Michael has introduced some interesting and helpful discussion. Michael also expresses some confusion with how I describe samadhi that is one-pointed as opposed to samadhi that is not one-pointed, and would like to backup here for a moment to address.

If you recall, I claim that the Buddha’s description of samadhi points to something that is not one-pointed. Now, most later variants of Buddha’s samadhi are either one-pointed or integrate one-pointedness one way or another into samadhi. Again, I don’t want to suggest thereby that the variants are “wrong;” Buddhism has shown an enormous capacity for adaptation and sometimes I daresay improvement. But this does mean that for most readers this will be an important distinction to consider. So let me repeat here how I responded in my reply to Michael, which seems to have been helpful. This will however not be the end of the issue, because we would like to examine how one-pointedness works in the variants. I am from now on using the term “centered” to contrast with “one-pointedness.”

One-pointed concentration can be described as absorption into the meditation object. The mind becomes narrowly focused so that taken to its logical conclusion the meditation object eventually becomes all of experience. Often that object itself will lose its dynamic nature, a pure unmoving mental image will stand for it.

In the experience of centered concentration the mind itself seems to be unmoving, but experience comes and goes. There is openness to everything that arises remains a while and falls, perhaps within the bounds of some theme, as in full-body awareness, but what arises does not move the mind off center. The mind is vast but unified in its function; it is vast in its awareness but unified in its undistractedness. “Free from desire and discontent,” is an accurate description of the centered mind; it is the mind that is not grasping after experience, just mindful of it.

Shankman’s book, Samadhi, is concerned with this very distinction within Theravada Buddhism. He cites evidence, as I have here, that the suttas intended centered concentration, but that the very influential but much later Visuddhimagga describes one-pointed samadhi.

It is important to recognize that centered samadhi is not a more distracted version of one-pointed samadhi. In practice distractions arise in each and and in each are ideally put aside. Purely centered samadhi without distraction is unified, in that the mind is exactly where it is supposed to be and reflects everything that arises appropriately. But more is going on. Although the experiences are quite distinct they are also related, and the practitioner attempting one type of samadhi may find herself spontaneously flipping into the other. Now on to samatha and vipassana.

Knowledge and Vision. Samadhi sits on a mat woven of wisdom and virtue and is itself the basis of the knowledge and vision of things as they really are and of the loss of all defilements. Here are some representative passages that attest to the function of samadhi, or jhana, in the Buddha’s system.

When right samadhi does not exist, for one failing right samadhi, the proximate cause is destroyed for knowledge and vision of things as they really are. – A.V.4.9-11.

Bhikkhus, develop samadhi. A monk with samadhi understands in accordance with reality. – SN 22.5

The knowledges are for one with samadhi, not for one without samadhi. – AN 6.64

A monk who develops and makes much of the four jhanas slopes, flows and inclines toward Nibbana.

There is no jhana for one with no wisdom, no wisdom for one without jhana. But one with both jhana and discernment, he’s on the verge of nibbana. – Dhp 372

I say, bhikkhus, that the knowledge and vision of things as they really are too has a proximate cause; it does not lack a proximate cause. And what is the proximate cause for the knowledge and vision of things as they really are? It should be said: samadhi. – SN 12.23

The Samadhi Sutta (AN 4.41) states that samadhi leads to:

      1. Pleasant abiding here and now,
      2. Knowledge and vision,
      3. Mindfulness and alerness,
      4. Ending of effluents.

The development of psychic powers through samadhi, like reading minds and being able to jump up and touch the sun or moon, are also commonly attested to in the suttas.

Samatha-Vipassana. Two features arise in samadhi that are particularly relevant to its primary functions, serenity and insight, also often known by the Pali words samatha and vipassana. Beware that sometimes the word vipassana is used as roughly equivalent to Buddha’s mindfulness, and samatha is used for samadhi. This is not the Buddha’s usage. There is a close relationship between mindfulness and vipassana, but they are also quite distinct: Vipassana involves the subtle refined pure mind of samadhi. Vipassana is also not a common word in the suttas, but taken along with its synonyms — nyana, dassana, yatha-bhuta-nyana-dassana, the last meaning literally ‘insight into things as they are’ — turns out to be a critical element of the Path.

These two qualities have a share in clear knowing. Which two? Tranquility (samatha) and insight (vipassana). When tranquility is developed what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And where the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned. When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned. – AN 2.30

Samatha and vipassana almost always go hand in hand in the suttas. In one sutta they are referred to as “two swift messengers,” that in a rather complex simile travel together. They are often hyphenated. A number of suttas discuss the need to keep the two in balance, for instance AN 4.94, 4.157. Sujato has an great metaphor for the need to conjoin them: He writes that if the goal is to cut down a tree, applying vipassana without samatha is like trying to do this with a razor blade. Applying samatha without vipassana is like trying to do this with a hammer. Applying both together is like trying to do this with an axe.

How do they work together? A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the simile of the still mountain pond. Because of the stillness (samatha) you can see (vipassana) all the pebbles and fish in the pond. It is actually a bit more elaborate than that. The following couple of paragraphs are my own explanation, and is perhaps still an approximation, but it allows us to make systemic sense of the buddha’s statements on samadhi and vipassana in functional terms. The human mind is a wonderful thing: we can perceive and reason at many different levels. However, it is at the same time flawed: it creates reality at the same time it observes or interprets it. To see things as they really are we need the mind, but it will also always try to introduce a bias, trying to fit reality into its own categories, distorting through the passions. My series on non-self discussed the mind’s tendency to misperceive whenever it perceives.

Now, generally we do not see the faults of the mind any better than the eye can see itself. Most people in fact think they have plenty of insight into how things are, and think they are unique in this regard, that is, they are surprised at how badly that insight is lacking in others. Teenagers are noted for this. Most people claim an uncanny ability to judge the intentions of others, who is right and wrong, fair and unfair. They think they understand the nature of reality, what is true, what exists, and what don’t They even claim great insight about abstract domains like politics and economics. They are very sure of themselves. This is for the most part this is the deluded mind at work. They usually cannot see the limits of their own minds. It is usually only in seeing that life does not add up that people turn to Buddhism. Buddha’s meditation overcomes the deluded mind.

In samadhi many mental processes begin to shut down or slow down one by one. Discursive thought disappears, intentionality becomes subtle, perceptions are much more grounded and the senses may even shut off. Each time one of these stages happens, reality changes, at least our perspective on reality. As we see more directly, at the same time we lose some of our faculties, like the intellect, that otherwise help us make sense of what we see, albeit in this faulty way. All of this is instructive because we learn the way the mind biases our perception and understanding and we are thereby better able to appreciate things as they are, to see beyond those biases. At the same time we are learning the nature of reality, we are learning the nature of the mind. We need to do these together. This is vipassana. Now to sustain vipassana we have to be vigilant not to shut down the mind completely, nor to lose that active curiosity or sense of exploration. We also cannot get too excited about our explorations either, because we begin to become distracted and pop out of samadhi altogether. For these reasons we need to balance samatha and vipassana.

One of the interesting things about the Buddha’s discussion of the jhanas is how little he favors one jhana over another. One might expect him to strongly advocate the ability to attain the fourth and highest jhana, and to remain or return there as much as possible. Now, abiding in one jhana rather than another involves studying the mind’s biases at a different level; I suspect he intended for us to practice each of the jhanas and return to each. And again, it is significant that he also permits the discursive mind in the first jhana. In sum, we can attend the flames of samadhi in order to move along two dimensions: jhana and samatha-vipassana.

Notice that vipassana involves retaining a certain degree of mental functioning, with discernment and a degree of intentionality, through all the jhanas. Intentionality in this subtle and refined mind is often expressed as “inclining the mind.”

When his mind is thus concentrated in samadhi, 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

Interestingly the states of jhana are figuratively referred to sometimes in the suttas as a kind of nirvana (e.g., AN 4:453-54). The Samadhanga Sutta(Factors of Samadhi Sutta, AN 5.28) describes the four jhanas as the first four of five factors of samadhi. It then describes the fifth factor as follows:

Just as if one person were to reflect on another, or a standing person were to reflect on a sitting person, or a sitting person were to reflect on a person lying down; even so, monks, the monk has his theme of reflection well in hand, well attended to, well-pondered, well-tuned by means of discernment. This is the fifth development of the five-factored noble right concentration.

When a monk has developed and pursued the five-factored noble right concentration in this way, then whichever of the six higher knowledges he turns his mind to know and realize, he can witness them for himself whenever there is an opening.

The idea seems to be that the mind has harnessed enormous power that is available with only slight effort. Today, in this electronic age, we would say that this power is “at your fingertips.” The Buddha offers three similes for wielding this power:

 Suppose that there were a water jar, set on a stand, brimful of water so that a crow could drink from it. If a strong man were to tip it in any way at all, would water spill out?

Suppose there were a rectangular water tank — set on level ground, bounded by dikes — brimful of water so that a crow could drink from it. If a strong man were to loosen the dikes anywhere at all, would water spill out?

Suppose there were a chariot on level ground at four crossroads, harnessed to thoroughbreds, waiting with whips lying ready, so that a skilled driver, a trainer of tamable horses, might mount and — taking the reins with his left hand and the whip with his right — drive out and back, to whatever place and by whichever road he liked; in the same way, when a monk has developed and pursued the five-factored noble right concentration in this way, then whichever of the six higher knowledges he turns his mind to know and realize, he can witness them for himself whenever there is an opening.

I speculate that the mind that has harnessed this kind of power led to the attribution of psychic power to it. Notice that mind like this is difficult to reconcile with one-pointed samadhi. For some practitioners of variant meditation practices it is assumed that samadhi is one-pointed, but that the yogi must leave samadhi for considerations of this kind. Aside from fact that leaving samadhi is never mentioned in this sutta or in any other as a prerequisite for vipassana, exercising vipassana with the clunky pre-samadhic mind is like trying to meld metal without fire or heat.

Samadhi as the Melder. Samadhi continues the two threads of virtue and wisdom that begin in pre-samadhic states. Wisdom begins with study and reflection of the Dhamma, for instance, the three qualities of existence (impermanence, suffering and unsubstantiality) and the Four Nobel Truths. It continues with Right Mindfulness, as the direct observation in the here and now of relevant themes are contemplated in a more disciplined, focused and present way. It then continues in samadhi in a highly refined state of mind that allows seeing beyond the biases of the mind itself, and this is vipassana. Similarly, virtue begins with behavior and continues with Right Effort, attending to the wholesome and unwholesome in the mind. The grosser unwholesome elements are largely excluded in the still mind of samadhi, yet intentions at a very refined level will arise and are subject to investigation also as vipassana. In this way samadhi is the foundation of ultimate liberation. (How exactly you get to final liberation is ineffable; just as you can develop the knowledge, exposure and other conditions that might enable you to appreciate a work of art or a piece of music, whether you “get it” in the end is up to you.)

Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 8

December 31, 2011

Buddha’s Samadhi: The Shape of the Flame
First Quarter Moon January 1, 2012
           index to series

In summary of last week, Buddha’s samadhi is at its core concentration, but it is not one-pointed concentration; it is broad. Its breadth is clear in the various descriptions of what factors give rise to Right Samadhi, most particularly Right Mindfulness, and of what factors are alive within Right Samadhi itself. It is also clear from the core function of Right Samadhi in the attainment of knowledge of vision of things as they really are, which would not come to fruition in one-pointed concentration.

Conditions for Right Samadhi. Last week I listeda variety of factors that the Buddha described as conditions for samadhi, by way of demonstrating that one-pointedness, which would be almost sufficient in itself, is not needed. Let’s look at these factors in a bit more detail, mostly because they are really interesting.

Systemically I see two functions for the broad conditioning of Right Samadhi: First, to weave wisdom and virtue into our meditation, and second, to displace one-pointedness. Both serve the larger functions of samadhi in promoting knowledge and view, and in ending the taints. To accomplish the first the entire Eightfold Noble Path prior to Right Samadhi is regarded as prerequisites for Right Samadhi, as stated in DN 18, MN 117, SN 45.28, etc. The mind thus prepared as it enters samadhi 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.

Mindfulness is most generally regarded as the most immediate condition for samadhi.

For one of right mindfulness, right samadhi springs up. – S.V.25-6

It is indeed to be expected … that a noble disciple who has faith, whose energy is aroused, and whose mindfulness is established will gain samadhi … – S.V. 225.23-28.

Seclusion, dispassion, renunciation, wise reflection, and of course good wholesome friends, are often mentioned. Right Effort is an especially critical factor, and in fact it is only with the stilling of the hindrances that samadhi arises.

As he abides thus diligent, ardent and resolute, his memories and intentions based on the household life are abandoned; with their abandoning his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness and concentrated. That is how a monk develops mindfulness of the body.– Kayagatasati Sutta MN 119

Now, the Buddha describes mindfulness in terms of attending to alternative themes. Some of these themes may arouse samadhi more readily than others; this can be determined through personal experience, and I venture to guess there will be considerable variation in personal experience. However, probably no theme is incapable of arousing samadhi. For instance,

a monk guards a favorable basis of samadhi which has arisen: the perception of a worm-infested corpse, the perception of a livid corpse. A II 17.1-6

Notice that perception of a livid corpse is unlikely to be a one-pointed contemplation, another indicator that one-pointedness is not a necessary condition for samadhi.

Elsewhere the transition from mindfulness to samadhi is viewed with finer resolution. The well known seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhangas) actually take us through a causal sequence from mindfulness to samadhi and beyond:

  1. mindfulness (sati)
  2. investigation of states (dhammavicaya)
  3. energy (viriya)
  4. delight (piti)
  5. calm (passadhi)
  6. concentration (samadhi)
  7. equanimity (upekkha)

Actually these various factors snowball and are all present in samadhi, equanimity coming to the fore in the higher jhanas as delight recedes. Delight is again particularly noteworthy in this sequence.

Constituents of Samadhi. Last week we considered concentration (ekaggata) as the essence of samadhi. In fact a variety of factors are present to varying degrees and sometimes absent. These need to be tuned in tending the fire of Right Samadhi, basically along two dimensions: jhana level and samatha-vipassana. Jhana in simple terms is the depth of concentration; the mind becomes stiller and more subtle and refined as one moves from first to second to third and finally to fourth jhana. The following are often listed as the factors of jhana used to describe this progression:

discoursive thought (vitakka-vicara)

delight (piti)

happiness (sukha)

singleness (ekaggata)

This progresses from gross factors to more refined factors. It may be surprising to find discoursive thought in this list, since we think of that as the opposite of meditation, but there it is. In fact it is the grossest factor that can be present in samadhi, but is only present in the first jhana. Discoursive thought is actually two factors, applied thought (vitakka) and sustained thought (vicara), having a thought and running with a thought. This is identified as discursive in this passage:

Applied and sustained thought are the verbal formation, one breaks into speech. -MN 44

Also, the second jhana and beyond, in which discursive thought no longer arises, is often referred to as Noble Silence.

Every meditator, I assume, is aware of the persistence discursive thought in meditation, but will notice that once the hindrances are removed, such as restlessness, it is a much more refined kind of discursive thought than our normal babbling. In fact it often represents some of the most creative and insightful forms of discursive thinking you will ever do, and commonly turns to the Dharma. It also plays a role in reviewing what we are doing on the cushion, adjusting our postures, clarifying our intentions for the sitting period, and of course following the contemplations of mindfulness. The Buddha could well have said that this is not yet samadhi and started counting the three jhanas after discursive thought has disappeared, yet he did not. This would seem to indicate that he thought of this factor as valuable and worth sitting with in itself.

Be that as it may, progressing through the jhanas is simply a matter of progressively losing the currently most disturbing factor at each stage. Losing discursive thought puts you in the second jhana, where the elation of delight becomes the dominant factor. Now delight is a crucial factor in developing the stillness of concentration in the first place. However at this subtle stage is becomes an impediment to yet deeper samadhi; it is the most disturbing of the remaining jhana factors.

Losing delight puts you in the third jhana, where the lift of happiness is the most disturbing factor. Losing happiness puts you in the fourth and highest jhana, in which singleness of mind remains. As jhana factors are lost is progressively higher jhanas they are replaced with inner composure, keener mindfulness and pure equanimity. Delight and happiness might not seem so disturbing prior to jhana, but when the mind becomes very subtle and refined these can be like acid rock or “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” blaring from a neighbor’s house.

One way I generally think of depth of samadhi — maybe this will help — is as different parts of the mind progressively shutting or slowing down. The more active parts have to do with formations, that is, intentions and complex thoughts. Then feelings and perceptions might begin to stop. However, you discover that the mind has many very subtle layers of intentionality, of thinking, of feeling, so it is very difficult to pin down what happens at what point. But that’s OK: you don’t need to. The Buddha’s description of the jhanas is actually a very brief and coarse outline; the Buddha certainly understood he did not have to devote a whole a basket of leaves to describing the ineffable realm we will each explore for ourselves in our own meditative experience.

Now, it is important to recognize that at least something we might call “thought” is present in all of the jhanas. For instance, MN 136 admonishes us to continue satipatthana practice in the second, third and fourth jhanas, but “without thought and examination.” So this must involve a non-discursive form of reflection, and intentionality, extending all the way to the deepest jhana. Also relevant here are the practices of suffusing the body with delight, happiness and equanimity discussed in previous weeks. In MN 111 the Buddha takes Sariputta as a model and says of him,

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…

He then makes exactly the same statement but with regard to the “second jhana,” the “third jhana” and the “fourth jhana.” In AN 9.36 we have:

A monk in each jhana regards whatever phenomena connected with form, feelings, perceptions, fabrications and consciousness as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an afflection, alian, a disintegration, a void, non-self …

AN 8.63 describes the contemplation of each of the brahmaviharas in each of the jhānas. Why isn’t all of this discursive thinking? I would say, because it is clear of purpose and extremely concentrated. Yet the mind is moving, perhaps subtly.

A question often arises in discussions of samadhi whether at some point the senses shut down, in particular whether there is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and bodily sensation in the different jhanas. Many meditators report this, but if they are engaged in some kind of one-pointed meditation practice their experiences are not relevant to this discussion. It nonetheless seems to be an individual phenomenon that does occur, but it is not a state to be worthy of development: In the Indriyabhavana Suttathe Buddha explicitly belittles a practice like this taught by the brahmin Parasiri:

[Uttara:] There is the case where one does not see forms with the eye, or hear sounds with the ear [in a trance of non-perception]. That’s how the brahman Parasiri teaches his followers the development of the faculties.”

[Buddha:] “That being the case, Uttara, then a blind person will have developed faculties, and a deaf person will have developed faculties, according to the words of the brahman Parasiri. For a blind person does not see forms with the eye, and a deaf person does not hear sounds with the ear.”– MN 152

On the other hand there is a reference in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta to the Buddha sitting in samadhi and failing to hear a lightning strike that killed two farmers and four oxen. In another passage Mogallana while sitting in meditation hears elephants plunging into the river and crossing it while trumpeting, to which the Buddha remarked that his samadhi was not fully purified. Brockhurst speculates that these are in fact “foreign intrusions,” that is, a non-Buddhist practice attributed to the Buddha, since similar qualities are attributed to the meditation of the Buddha’s two teachers, whose meditation the Buddha clearly rejects. Āḷāra Kālāma, for instance, did not perceive 500 carts going by.

Another account of these cases is available: Hearing a lightning strike or elephants splashing and trumpeting is actually a complex event that involves mental processes at several levels. First, there is impingement on the ear and arising of a sound experience in consciousness. Then there is a process of perception as to the nature of this experience. Then there is an inference as to the external source of the experience. Then there is the arising of interest in, or distraction by, the external source. If any of these processes fails to complete the whole event of hearing as described will not be fulfilled. It is not necessary that the senses themselves have shut down.

Next week we will discuss samatha and vipassana, two remaining and very critical features of Buddha’s samadhi.

Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 7

December 23, 2011

Buddha’s Samadhi: Concentration
New Moon Uposatha, 
December 24, 2012                  index to series

Mindfulness is the method of meditation, samadhi is the resulting experience of meditation. The analogy is the tending of a fire, and the fire itself as the result. You never know what samadhi is from any description, but practice the method and you shall see; samadhi is ineffible.

Nevertheless certain qualities of samdhi need to be highlighted because you need to be mindful of its proper shape. Again, this is like tending a fire: If the fire is for heating a house you want it to give off heat, but not too much, and to burn long and steadily. If the fire is for forging metal you probably want a small fire that you can bring to a very high temperature at critical times. Similarly, you want a samadhi that gives rise to knowledge and vision and to the ending of taints. To that end you need to be mindful of certain qualities of samadhi. For the next couple of weeks we will look at the qualities of Buddha’s samadhi.

Concentration. The word samadhi derives from ‘sam + ā + dhā‘ , which means ‘bring together’, or ‘collect’. The mind, left on its own, tends to be scattered, jumping from here to there, relentlessly churning, generally beyond control. Samadhi is a controlled state of mind, arising from mindfulness, in which the various factors of mind seem to run in a common direction, it is often translated as ‘concentration of mind’. Again, as the enlightened nun Dhammadinna states in the suttas:

Unification of mind, friend Visakha, is samadhi, the four foundations of mindfulness are the basis of samadhi, the four right kinds of striving are the equipment of samadhi, the repetition, development and cultivation of these same states is the development of samadhi therein. – MN 44, Cuḷavedalla Sutta

Now, a powerful technique in the absence of a match or lighter for getting a fire to flare up quickly is to use a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun unmovingly on a single point of easily combustible fuel. Similarly a means of producing the flames of samadhi quickly is to focus the mind unmovingly on a single point of experience. Fixing the mind in this way brings it under strict control, it produces an extremely narrow and very effective concentration of mind. The method here is what I called one-pointed mindfulness. The result is a one-pointed samadhi. Now, I pointed out in our discussion of mindfulness that the Buddha never ever seems to recommend one-pointed mindfulness. I want here to make the complementary point that the Buddha’s Samadhi is similarly not one-pointed. In one-pointed mindfulness experience is fixed an unmoving; in its pure form that one point is all that is happening. In contrast in Buddha’s samdadhi the mind is unmoving, or we might say centered, but vast and perceptive as experience flows past, around and through it. The Buddha’s samadhi is a state that is open but stable and unified, a middle way between being scattered and fixed.

This centered, but broadly aware and fluid basis for concentration is probably the most important point to understand about Buddha’s meditation. Most variants make at least some use of one-pointed mindfulness and one-pointed mind. When I teach meditation to beginners, for instance, I teach one-pointed focus on the breath, locating the point in the belly. This yields a fairly quick experience of concentration that gives the beginner confidence and inspires him to pursue meditation further, and that has many beneficial qualities by itself. But I also explain explain that it is inadequate as a basis for attaining knowledge and vision nor in ending the taints, nor attaining final liberation. As far as I can see the Buddha was very clear and consistent about this, … but he seems to have found no use for one-pointedness.

To underscore the point that Buddha’s meditation is not one-pointed, I list the evidence.

First, the suttas make no reference to a method of one-pointed mindfulness that would form a basis of one-pointed samadhi. I pointed this out a couple of weeks ago. I also mentioned on the other hand that there is a common contrary interpretation of Satipatthana and Anapanasati Suttas that alleges one-pointed mindfulness. This has to do with the interpretation of one word, parimukhaŋ in the Pali, which occurs in the phrase parimukhaŋ satiŋ upaṭṭhapeti. Satiŋ upaṭṭhapeti means ‘sets up mindfulness’; everyone agrees on that. Parimukhaŋ is alleged to refer to the experience of the in-and-out breath as it touches the nose or upper lip. Apparently the word derives from ‘mouth’, which would put it very roughly in the general vicinity needed, but mouth is not its normal interpretation. The on-line Pali Text Society dictionary provides the following entry:

Parimukha (adj.) [pari+mukha] facing, in front; only as nt. adv. ˚ŋ in front, before, in phrase parimukhaŋ satiŋ upaṭṭhapeti “set up his memory in front” (i. e. of the object of thought), to set one’s mindfulness alert Vin i.24; D ii.291; M

Under sati it also provides this interpretation:

parimukhaŋ satiŋ upaṭṭhāpetuŋ, to surround oneself with watchfulness of mind

Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out a use of parimukha in the Vinaya clearly conveys in front of the chest‘. It seems like a stretch to interpret it as referring to the point where the breath touches the nostrils or the upper lip. If the Buddha wanted to set up a fixed point of concentration we would expect him to provide a more less casual description of what that point is in any case.

Second, the suttas do not refer to one-pointed samadhi that I am aware of. The word ekaggata in Pali, used to describe concentration and equated with samadhi, is often translated as ‘one-pointed-ness’ but alternatively as ‘unified”. Now, eka means one, and agga can mean ‘point’, and ta means ‘-ness’. However agga means ‘point’ as of a knife and also means ‘peak’ as of a mountain, which is something that can be rather broad. And in fact the PTS dictionary defines aggata as follows:

Aggatā (f.) [abstr. of agga] pre– eminence, prominence, superiority Kvu 556 (˚ŋ gata); Dpvs iv.1 (guṇaggataŋ gatā). — (adj.) mahaggata of great value or superiority D i.80; iii.224.

There is nothing here to suggest a fixed very precise object of attention, only a prominence of a single theme.

Third, the suttas provide a sufficient basis for samadhi independent of one-pointed mindfulness. One-pointed mindfulness is a powerful means of inducing samadhi and then attaining deep levels of concentration. This raises the question, Is one-pointed mindfulness necessary for samadhi? Can you attain samadhi at all without it? The answer is “Yes.”

First, there are many yogis of greater authority than I who will answer affirmatively on the basis of personal experience.

Second, the Buddha gives a wide variety of other, unpointed, factors as conditions Right Samadhi, which collectively seem to put you over the top. In fact it is remarkable how many conditions he describes as underlying samdhi. These include faith, mindfulness, ardency, alertness, seclusion, peace and quiet, investigation, delight, pleasure, inner composure, tranquility, virtue, wisdom andall seven steps prior to Right Samadhi in the Noble Eightfold Path. This is not to mention sitting at the root of a tree in meditation posture.

Many of these conditions, aside from helping to induce samadhi, probably serve primarily to weave the qualities of wisdom and virtue into samadhi rather to induce a state of concentration, but I suspect that these conditions as a whole are intended to displace the necessity of one-pointed mindfulness.

Fourth, the suttas refer to many mental processes that occur even in deep states of meditation, i.e., in the higher jhanas, that according to experience would be shut down by one-pointed concentration. One-pointedness narrows the range of consciousness to such a degree that there is little room for much else to go on.

Yet in the Buddha’s samadhi “the repetition, development and cultivation of these same states [factors giving rise to samadhi in the first place] is the development of samadhi therein.” This means that the cultivation of Right Mindfulness, for example, continues in the jhanas. Furthermore, you are able to visualize delight, happiness and equanimity suffusing the body in all the jhanas, and to turn the attention selectively to an inspiring theme if the hindrances begin to intrude. You are able to “regard 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.” You are able to contemplate each of the brahmaviharas in each of the jhānas. You are potentially able to “ferret out one by one” whatever qualities arise in each of the jhanas and know them as they remain and know when they subside.You are able to “incline [your] mind toward realizing any state that may be realized by direct knowledge.” More about these things, including references, next week.

Fifth, one-pointed concentration would seem to inhibit the process of cultivation of insight, of vipassana. You will appreciate that many of these mental activities listed in the last couple of paragraphs support knowledge and vision. The reason that it is important that these activities occur in samadhi is that the mind in samadhi is highly refined, still and clear, qualitatively different from the clunky common mind we usually use to bungle about in the world. It is the mind that is capable of considering things as they really are in and of themselves, without the bias of passion, habit or preconception. It is a mind that is subtle, but not shut down.

The mind is not one-pointed because that would not support insight.

Assumptions in Presenting Evidence. Since the claim that Buddha’s meditation is not one-pointed is contrary to how many people practice Buddhism, let me reiterate my game rules in reaching these conclusions. I’ve used all three of the following methods in today’s post:

  1. We let the early suttas speak for themselves and try to read nothing into or out of them. This is not entirely reliable in itself because of the ancient history of these texts.

I have tried to represent the early texts faithfully. Although these ancient texts are often subject to debate and confusion, concerning meditation I find them surprisingly consistent when interpreted quite simply. Notice I am scrupulously avoiding the evidence of later texts often taken as authoritative, such as the Pali commentaries. Otherwise we have no way of distinguishing Buddha’s meditation from its variants, since most variants make some claim to purity of pedigree. There will always be pressure among those who, like me, practice a variant to read the variant back into the early texts.

  1. We see if a coherent system shines through, with its own internal logic. This is like the jig-saw puzzle in which confidence in the result is established in spite of missing or extraneous pieces.

I have been giving particular attention to this source of evidence, showing that the Buddha’s meditation has a brilliantly conceived internal logic, that all of the parts fit into a unified whole that functions to consolidate all of the rays developed in the initial five stages of the Noble Eightfold Path and progressively focus then toward liberation. Both wisdom and virtue, developed initially by other means, are combined to form the fuel of samadhi, the hyer-refined state of clarity and calm in which higher knowledge the loss of taints can be developed. This logic is surprisingly consistent with the simplest interpretations of the suttas as mentioned in (1).

  1. We see if the system and its parts work in practice.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If the system that seems to shine through in the texts fails to shine through on the cushion, then we need to reconsider what the texts say and what the underlying logic might be. If the same system shines through in both places, then we can be fairly confident are sitting on the bodhimanda (seat of enlightenment). I cannot verify the system that shines through in others’ practice; I need to ask each of you to do that for your own. I can report my limited experience of the various parts of the system I have described are quite consistent with the results of (1) and (2) above.

Next week we will look at the various factors of samadhi in more detail.

Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 6

December 17, 2011

Six Remarkable Features of Buddha’s Mindfulness
Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day                              index to series

Last week … er, two weeks ago, I provided an overview of Right Mindfulness as described in the Satipatthana Sutta and many other related suttas. Recall that mindfulness is essentially keeping something in mind. What and how you keep that something in mind is the heart of your meditation technique. Samadhi is the most significant part of your meditation experience. The Buddha defines four basic domains for applying mindfulness: body, feelings, mind or consciousness, and (mental) qualities. He provides specific exercises particularly with regard to body and more particularly breath. For each theme he admonishes us to practice as follows:

The bhikkhu contemplates the body in the body, ardently, with full comprehension, mindfully and putting aside covetousness and grief for the world.

… and as for “body” similarly to body for feelings, mind and qualities. He supplements this with some limited advice on dealing with distractions, and with encouraging certain mental factors like delight and happiness. He also suggests in a couple of the Pali suttas (but not the Agamas) giving special attention to the rising and falling of phenomena. Out of mindfulness stability of mind and ultimately samadhi arise.

This week I want to highlight six features that are particularly characteristic of the Buddha’s method. It will be interesting to see which of these carry over to the variants of the Buddha’s meditation.

Buddha’s Mindfulness is Fun. An Asian meditation teacher came to America for the first time to lead a retreat. Into the first day of the retreat he asked his American attendant about the meditators, “Why do they all look so grim?” Apparently before the Buddha’s time any pleasure was to be scrupulously avoided by the dedicated ascetic. Maybe we have a bit of the same attitude in this country: “No pain, no gain.”

The Buddha, while recognizing danger in sensual pleasures, found spiritual pleasures to be of a quite different quality. Recall that shortly before his awakening the Buddha was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree and spontaneously “entered and remained in the first jhana: delight and pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.” Then he thought,

Why am I afraid of such pleasure? It is pleasure that has nothing to do with sensual desires and unwholesome things. – MN 36

The meditation suttas make constant reference to delight (piti, what many translate as rapture) and happiness (sukka, what many translate as pleasure) as qualities of the early stages of meditation. “A pleasant dwelling in this very life,” “refreshing,” and other phrases are used as well. It sounds like fun to me.

Unlike in the case of fun things like wild parties, just singing in the rain, tango, chocolate truffles, practical jokes or scary movies, fun in the case of Buddha’s meditation is not primarily a goal, it is an enabling factor. Tuning into refined levels of pleasure makes one more aware of the refined levels of suffering, helps recognize the disadvantages of sensual pleasures, gives a place of rest in practice, and provides an early incentive to making practice a habit.

It is also a much different kind of fun, one that the uninitiated might perceive as boredom, but on close examination it is a much purer form of joyful happiness, untainted by stress, anxiety, fear and many other things that the uninitiated might not even recognize always accompanies wild partying, singing in the rain, and the others.

Sariputta gives us a somewhat enigmatic hint of the nature of spiritual pleasure:

Just that is the pleasure here, my friend, where there is nothing felt. – AN 9.34

Buddha’s Mindfulness is Being Present. “Being present” is indeed often taken to be almost synonymous with “mindfulness.” However, mindfulness does not logically entail being present. We might envision an inspirational speaker suggesting a mindfulness exercise such as, “Now, imagine the big bag of money you have charmed out of people in five years time. Rest your mind right there. Imagine how heavy the bag is, …” Or, “When you find your mind has wandered away from the daydream bring it gently back to the daydream.” Mindfulness could also involve contemplations of abstractions, like goodness or honor, and who knows where they are?

But the Buddha’s exercises are not generally like this; they are almost always very grounded in the present moment: almost every one takes a topic of current experience for contemplation, for instance, the breath, breathing in then out, the present posture, physical movements like carrying things, the composition of the body, current feelings, current states of mind, suffering or anxiety, and so on. In fact we are asked to attend to the rising and falling of phenomena as they occur for each of the four foundations of mindfulness. Distractions, on the other hand, tend to be thoughts about the past, such as regrets, or the future, such as plans and expectations. Elsewhere the Buddha admonishes us:

You shouldn’t chase after the past or place expectations on the future. What is past is left behind. The future is as yet unreached. – MN 131

Now, there are some peripheral exceptions in Buddha’s meditation; the Buddha does make use of certain visualizations of things that would not arise on their own. Metta meditation is generally like this; one imagines metta extending to an ever-widening circle of beings which must be brought to mind. The charnel ground contemplations ask us to consider that our bodies will be just like that at some future time. As we enter the jhanas we are asked in turn to imagine delight and happiness, happiness and equanimity suffusing the whole body.

Buddha’s Mindfulness is potentially a Wall-to-wall, 24/7 Activity. Sariputta and his best friend Mogallana were young ascetics and students of Master Sanjaya but were becoming disappointed with the results. One day Sariputta spotted another ascetic in the village on alms round and was astounded by his mindful deportment. It was Assaji, one of the first five disciples of the Buddha. Curious, Sariputta inquired as to Assaji’s background and both he and his friend were on their way to becoming not only arahants but the two foremost disciples of the Buddha. In Burma today monks leave the monasteries by the hundreds every morning as if to reenact Assaji’s alms round. It is beautiful to watch their calm composure, even that of the little novice monks.

The plot of the story of Sariputta’s introduction to Buddhism has undoubtedly played itself out in every generation since. An American ballet dancer was on tour in Japan and spotted a man at a train station not only of unusual attire but of remarkable deportment. Fascinated, she began following him around for a long time before she finally inquired as to who or what he was. He was a Korean monk. She ended up staying in Japan for many many years to study Zen. She is Dai-En Bennage, now abbess of a Zen center in Pennsylvania.

Mindfulness in manifold postures and activities, while walking, sitting or lying down, while lifting an arm, even while defecating, is characteristic of Buddhism prescribed right in the Satipatthana Sutta. It is not just something we do on the meditation cushion. And it gives rise to the characteristic Buddhist deportment. (The public perception of one’s deportment, by the way, will vary considerably, even among yogis of great attainment. Some of them have a natural flair, while others seem to come off as hopelessly klutzy or dumpy no matter how much mindfulness they internalize.)

Because mindfulness is an all-day and every-place practice in Buddhism, it entails an almost constant stillness and composure. The result is like hot coals, that retain their heat and provide warmth. But the flames of samadhi will then arise quite quickly and naturally with a log and a poke. Under controlled circumstances, such as that provided by your meditation cushion, samadhi will flare up.

Buddha’s Mindfulness Weaves Wisdom, along with Virtue, into Meditation. The sole function of mindfulness in many meditation traditions is to induce jhana, a serene state of mind. If this was the Buddha’s sole intent, he would not have given us such a wide variety of meditation subjects, nor asked us to consider them in a rather analytical way. He would not have given us mindfulness tasks that clearly relate to the training in Wisdom begun at the beginning of the Noble Eightfold Path, in particular observing experiences that bear on impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality and the aggregates of body, feelings, perception, formations and consciousness.

This is where the Buddha is at his cleverest and where the logic of his method shines forth. Consider: First the Buddha asks us to practice Wisdom through Right View and Right Resolve until the cows come home. Then he asks us to practice Virtue through Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood until we drop. This is prerequisite to meditation practice.

Without purifying view it is impossible to cultivate Right Samadhi – AN 6.68

When your virtue is well purified and your view is straight, based upon virtue, established upon virtue, you should develop the four foundations of mindfulness. – SN 47.15

Now the Buddha asks us to consolidate that mind of Virtue in Right Effort and that mind of Wisdom in Right Mindfulness and then to weave them together, … into a sitting mat. Here is where the weaving takes place:

The bhikkhu contemplates the body in the body, ardently, with full comprehension, mindfully and putting aside covetousness and grief for the world.

Next the Buddha will ask us to place samadhi on that sitting mat. In this way the beginning practices of Wisdom and Virtue will be able to continue but within the mind of samadhi, that is, with a hyper-refined, serene and keenly aware mind. This is like kicking our practices of Wisdom and Virtue into hyperdrive, and this will lead, if we keep at it, to the arising of higher knowledge, to the removal of all taints and to ultimate liberation. More about samadhi and beyond in coming weeks.

Buddha’s Mindfulness is Centered in the Body. Probably the most salient symbol in Buddhist iconography is the full-body posture of the Buddha in seated meditation. When I, along with perhaps most other Buddhist yogis, sit in meditation I am keenly aware I am emulating the posture of the Buddha (well, roughly: I never have been able to manage full lotus).

Mindfulness anchors the mind in any of a variety of subjects, mental and physical. Aspects of the physical body and particularly the entire body play distinguished roles. Of the subjects of mindfulness, the largest number have to do with the body: Breathing, types of deportment (standing, sitting, lying down, etc.), bodily activities (going forwards and backwards, looking straight ahead, away, bending and the stretching of limbs, eating, bathing, urinating, etc.), composition of the body (body parts, and elements), and decaying corpses. Mindfulness of the body is specifically treated in the Kayagata Sutta (MN 119). Among the body contemplations in- and out-breathing is particularly distinguished, the observation of the whole breath. Mindfulness of the breath is specifically treated in the Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118). This sutta recommends watching the breath while simultaneously attending to each of the other three foundations of mindfulness, so the breath functions as a kind of anchor which still permits other forms of mindfulness.

The Dhammapada tells us:

With mindfulness immersed in the body well established, restrained with regard to the six media of contact — always centered, the monk can know Unbinding for himself. — Ud 3.5

They awaken, always wide awake: Gotama’s disciples whose mindfulness, both day & night, is constantly immersed in the body. — Dhp 299

Also, the whole body in many suttas is visualized as a container in each stage of jhana respectively for a characteristic set of mental factors. For instance, the first jhana involves the following visualization:

He makes rapture and pleasure born of seclusion drench, steep, fill and pervade his body so that there is no part of his whole body unpervaded by the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. – MN 119, etc.

It is easy to appreciate how centering the mind in the whole body might provide a natural place for the mind to rest. The body provides the basic coordinates for relating to the physical world; it determines up, down, front, back, right, left, in the self and outside of the self.

Buddha’s Mindfulness is Never One-Pointed. The Buddha describes a simile for the four foundations of mindfulness (MN 125), that of binding a forest elephant by a rope to a post to break the elephant of its wide forest habits. Notice that the elephant still retains some freedom of movement, but within a limited range. One-pointed mindfulness would be like the more extreme measure of putting the elephant into a container or a cage so that he cannot ever turn around, much like animals are often treated in factory farms. Recall that the common technique of one-pointed mindfulness involves fixing the attention unmovingly on a single small object or point of meditation. This is not the Buddha’s mindfulness.

The Buddha offers us not fixed objects of meditation, but rather broader themes of contemplation. For instance, the breath is a process that involves much of the entire body. We consider the different forms of breath, and even what feelings and thoughts arise with the breath, but remain loosely teathered to the breath. We contemplate the mind as a whole, notice the state of the mind and become aware of whatever arises. We contemplate a rotting corpse from all aspects, then even consider that that will be us some day. And there is a logic to this: One-pointed mindfulness would do little for developing wisdom; awareness must be broad.

Nowhere that I am aware in the suttas of does the Buddha ever ask us to focus the attention more narrowly than this, not on a candle flame, not on the breath perceived at a particular point in the body such as the upper lip or even in the belly, not on an image fixed in the mind (nimitta), not on a colored disk. I suspect one-pointed mindfulness is entirely foreign to his method.

This last point will be a bit controversial, since much of Buddhist meditation is in fact one-pointed. However this is exactly one of the places where we need to distinguish Buddha’s meditation from its variants. Next week I would like to reflect a bit on my logic in making this distinction. Among other examples I will discuss the most likely counterexample to my claim that one-pointed mindfulness is outside of the Buddha’s method.