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Buddha’s Words: The Mind

January 26, 2013
'Mind your head' by Swamibu via

‘Mind your head’ by Swamibu via

We naturally assume (and many teachers state) that cultivating the mind for concentration and wisdom will lead to an automatic form of morality.  When we are wise, we will simply know the best course of action in each situation.  Skillful means and ethical behavior comes naturally to the mind infused with wisdom.  Moreover, this wisdom can be cultivated through meditation – through the study of the mind itself.  By sitting on our ass day after day, we will magically gain insight and mental discipline.

Okay, sure.  Nice story.  It’s even a true story, but it’s kinda misleading.

In the Nikayas, the Pali discourses of the Tripitaka, the path does not start with concentration or wisdom and lead to morality.  The path of mastering the mind starts with moral discipline.  In this view of the path, enlightenment is learned from experience.  Some of that experience comes while we’re on the cushion, but the lion’s share actually comes from the activity of our daily lives.  We learn from our words and deeds as we interact with the world around us.  Because we start our practice as beings in the world and part of the world, we must start with how we deal with that world.

Which may be why Bhikkhu Bodhi starts Chapter VIII on Mastering the Mind, with a reminder that “Established upon moral discipline, the disciple takes up the practice of meditation…” (p. 257)  This moral discipline begins with the precepts and, for monastics, the vinaya or monastic code of rules.  The precepts for laypeople are generally five: non-harm, non-taking, non-harmful speech, no intoxicants, and no sexual misconduct.

However, Bhikkhu Bodhi does not stay on the topic of moral discipline, which has been covered in previous chapters of his book (IV, V, and VIIn the Buddha’s Words.  This chapter is dedicated to the cultivation of concentration, primarily through meditation, and a later chapter will focus on wisdom.  I will summarize his main points here briefly before returning to a point I would like to make.  As I myself am not a practiced meditator, I can do little more than summarize, though I will share a little experience.

Bhikkhu Bodhi starts with the basic distinction between samatha (sha-ma-tah) and vipassana, which he translates as serenity and insight.  These are commonly thought of as two types of meditation, but they are, in fact, two types of qualities meditation cultivates. Serenity liberates the mind from defilements such as ill-will and leads to the concentration which supports insight.  Serenity uses skills to steady, compose, unify, and concentrate the mind.  Insight uses skills to observe, investigate, and discern phenomena.  Insight leads one to see the true nature of phenomena resulting in ultimate liberation from samsara, or the cycles of suffering.  In the classical formulation, one cultivates serenity, then insight, but the suttas do include alternatives.

The second case of “presumably people with sharp intellectual capacities” who may cultivate insight first, only to reach an impasse.   At that point, she must return to the cultivation of serenity in order to provide a suitable base for higher stages of insight.  I have a suspicion that this method may work best for me.  When I meditate, I have a difficult time finding serenity, but I often realize powerful insights into my mind and life.  Of course, these insights can also be distracting, when I’m supposed to be following my breath in a traditional samatha meditation.  “These meditators must therefore return to the task of unifying the mind before resuming the work of insight.” (p. 258)  I guess this means there’s not getting out of it.

A third method is to develop serenity and insight together, consistently seeking balance.  The final and fourth method is described for those whose minds become obsessed by the teachings themselves to the point of agitation.  There are methods to aid “a person initially driven by such intense desire to understand the Dhamma that he or she cannot focus clearly upon any meditation object.”  I wonder if these methods may be helpful to others who suffer from obsessive thoughts of any kind?

Finally, “when a meditator achieves the appropriate balance, serenity and insight join forces to issue in the knowledge and vision of the Four Noble Truths.” (p. 259)

The sutta’s use many analogies to describe mental training, including removing impurities from water (SN 46:55), refining gold (AN3:100), and taming a wild animal (MN 20).  Perhaps the most well-known set of meditation instructions occur in the Satipatthana Sutta, or “Establishment of Mindfulness” Sutta, which is found in three of the Nikayas.  Bhikkhu Bodhi uses the version from the Majjhima Nikaya or Middle-Length Discourses (MN 10). “The Satipatthana Sutta does not recommend a single meditation subject nor even a single method of meditation,” Bhikkhu Bodhi points out.  The sutta instead discusses four objective domains for focus and investigation: the body, feelings, states of mind, and phenomena.

Although a progressive sequence is not prescribed, it is implied.  The first three stages focus on cultivation of serenity and the ability to focus unwaveringly on one’s contemplation object.  It is primarily in the final stage, the contemplation of phenomena, that insight is emphasized.

In the contemplation of phenomena, the emphasis shifts toward insight.  One begins by observing and overcoming the five hindrances.  The overcoming of the hindrances marks success in concentration.  With the concentrated mind, one contemplates the five aggregates and the six sense bases.  As contemplation gains momentum, the seven factors of enlightenment become manifest, and the development of the seven enlightenment factors culminates in the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths.  Knowledge of the Four Noble Truths liberates the mind from the defilements and thus leads to the attainment of Nibbana.  (p. 263-264)

Thus, the final goal of these meditative practices is Nibbana, liberation, enlightenment, freedom from suffering and the rounds of rebirth – worthy, lofty goals.  But let’s back up a minute.  Is this really why most people engage with the Buddhist path? Probably not.

That’s because most Buddhists in the world are laypeople and these practices are designed and intended primarily for monastics.  When Americans first traveled to Asia, they sought out the most renowned teachers and learned from them.  Those renowned teachers were monks (and nuns), who had dedicated their lives to the study and practice of Buddhism.  After all, you wouldn’t ask a tailor to teach you advanced calculus, would you?  No, you’d go to a professional mathematician.   What they learned, and subsequently returned with, was a monastic form of Buddhism.  These Americans (and others), didn’t go to the laypeople to learn Buddhism.

In fact, there are common meditative practices for laypeople.  Bhikkhu Bodhi points out,

Through the centuries the most popular meditation subjects among lay Buddhists have probably been the six recollections (anussati): of the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, morality, generosity, and the devas. (p. 261)

The first three are devotional and help encourage popular support for Buddhism.  The fourth, “meditation of moral discipline develops from one’s observance of the precepts, a practice aimed at self-benefit.”  The fifth, meditation on generosity cultivates altruism and social responsibility, while the final contemplation of the devas drives home the aspiration to a fortunate rebirth, “the fruits of one’s faith.” (p. 261)

Most Americans don’t want to become monastics.  But we aren’t satisfied with such simple devotional and “self-help” practices.  We want to have our cake and eat it to.  In fact, there’s been a lot of chatter on the interwebs lately about the “watering down” of Buddhist practice into “merely” a self-help formula, as presented in popular literature.  I agree that this is problematic because it neglects the true depth and goal of the religion.  However, it also runs the risk of denigrating a lot of very genuine Buddhists and their dedicated practices.

I believe we can be honest with ourselves about our goals.  We should aspire towards enlightenment, but we can be honest that in our busy lives as accountants, postal carriers, film makers, short order cooks, fathers, mothers, and children of aging parents, we may not have the time to dedicate to such intensive practices.  Given that reality, we need to take a hard look at what exactly is possible in our lives.

If we then decide that our meditation practice should primarily serve the goals of self-care and moral cultivation, I believe these are worthy goals in and of themselves.  They are not the ultimate goal.  The problem with “watered down, self-help” Buddhism is that it often neglects or ignores the ultimate goal of enlightenment.  If you know what the ultimate goal is in the long-term, but chose to focus on cultivating patience or restraint or kindness in the short-term then I see nothing in suttas to dissuade you.

It is for this reason, I would like to see lay practices which emphasize moral conduct more and meditative cultivation (particularly through expensive, intensive retreats) less.  Or, at least, meditation could be seen as an addition and support to moral practice among laypeople.  If this were the case, perhaps we would even see fewer of the recent scandals that have rocked many sanghas.  Personally, I find the moral failings of these supposedly “advanced” teachers very troubling.  Perhaps if we placed less emphasis on meditative attainment, we would not have been so quick to overlook such poor behavior.  This is just my speculation.

Of course, if you’re a Zen Buddhist, a Tantric practitioner, or otherwise, this formula may look very different. Bhikkhu Bodhi is writing from the Theravada perspective  which is most definitely gradual. I have tailored my remarks to that perspective.  I leave you with one thing on which I believe we can all agree, no matter our other positions.

[The Buddha said:] “I do not perceive even one other thing, O monks, that is so unwieldy as an undeveloped mind.  An undeveloped mind is truly unwieldy.

“I do not perceive event one other thing, O monks, that is so wieldy as a developed mind.  A developed mind is truly wieldy.

“I do not perceive even one other thing, O monks, that leads to such great harm as an undeveloped mind.  An undeveloped mind leads to great harm.

“I do not perceive event one other thing, O monks, that leads to such great benefit as a developed mind.  A developed mind leads to great benefit.

“I do not perceive even one other thing, O monks, that when undeveloped and uncultivated entails such great suffering as the mind.  The mind when undeveloped and uncultivated entails great suffering.

“I do not perceive event one other thing, O monks, that when developed and cultivated entails such great happiness as the mind.  The mind when developed and cultivated entails great happiness.”

(AN 1: iii, 1-4, 9-10)

PS – I realize I seemed to have skipped Chapter IV The Happiness Visible in This Present Life, so I’ll try to get back to it in the next few weeks.  I don’t know how that happened.  Clearly, I need more focus and concentration.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2013 1:32 pm

    I never knew there’s a word; “monastics”. Very insightful read, and I’m curious how this effects your architectural designs and the products you’ve created as an architect. I ask because If we ever build a house one day, would you be available to help design it?

    • January 29, 2013 8:35 am

      Technically, I not sure “monastics” is a word. At least, my spell check doesn’t like it, but it’s the only non-gendered word that covers both monks and nuns.

      And of course I can help design your house, but you may need a licenses architect as well depending on the size of the structure and the applicable laws in your area. Often houses are small enough not to require it, but you have to check.

      Personally, I think my Buddhist training will only enhance my designs because it makes me a better listener, more empathetic, more mindful, and thus better able to understand the client and listen to our joint creativity.

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