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Right Mindfulness Continued
The Establishment of Sensations
Now we move to the next establishment of mindfulness which is sensations. Sensations are the physical sensations we experience in our bodies. They can be caused by physical stimulus or mental stimulus. They can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We are still talking about awareness of the body but, by including the level of pain, pleasure, or neutrality in the sensation, we are adding another dimension to our focus than we had in the previous establishment of mindfulness. Also, because sensations can be caused by the mind as well as the body, that adds another dimension to our focus.
We all have habitual responses to pleasure and pain which conditions the way we experience ourselves and the world and the way we act. By becoming aware of sensations we can become aware of this conditioning and be free of it. Then our experience of ourselves and the world will be more open and alive and we can choose more clearly what will bring us happiness and not bring suffering.
I will tell some stories to illustrate my point. One time I was meditating and I had some pain in my leg, a cramp in my calf muscle, so I was experiencing a painful sensation. At first I just noticed it and went back to my breath. Then it started to hurt more. My mind started to react to it saying “oh this hurts, I should move my leg” and there was a little fear and sadness about it. Then the pain got a little worse and my mind became more insistent saying “this is stupid, you’re hurting yourself, you should move” and there was some panic.
So I was aware of that and just came back to my breathing and then I focused on the pain itself. I could distinguish between the pain and my mind’s mental and emotional reaction to it. I asked myself, “Is the pain really that bad? Am I really hurting myself?”. I came back to just focusing on the sensation of the pain. I could experience it as it was and not be caught up in my mind’s reaction to it. It was just a sensation happening in the present moment. I could feel that it was not going to hurt me so I could just stay still. Then my body and mind relaxed more and stopped worrying about it and I could just be with it. It was just a sensation. I felt very present and spacious and free.
So the pain actually helped me be present and went from being an unpleasant sensation to a neutral sensation. There are other times when I feel pain in my body while meditating and when I experience it clearly I can tell that “yes this will hurt me” so I change my posture but this is a clear response to a clear experience of what is going on instead of a habitual reaction to non-clear experience of what is going on.
One time I was driving in the car with my Mom and my niece from Texas to New Mexico. It was the second day of driving and we were all a little tired. We had decided to buy some food at a grocery store and then have a picnic in the car while we continued to drive. I was very hungry and I was driving and my mom was preparing the food in seat next to me. She had had some hand surgery earlier that month and so she was having trouble opening up the cheese dip. At the moment though I could not see her situation clearly. I was just feeling very hungry and tired and there was the food right before me so I had a lot of unpleasant sensations. In my mind I was thinking “Come on Mom! Open the damn dip! You need to be more strong! You need to be more assertive!” So then I said “just hold the dip and I’ll pull of the seal” and I reached over and gave a good manly tug and proceeded to pull the container out of my Mom’s hands and drop it on her lap and spill crackers everywhere. I apologized and then she explained to me about how her hands were fairly numb in the fingertips and how she just had a hard time doing things with her hands.
So my point is that based on my inability to just be with the unpleasant sensations my mind launched into a whole story about the inadequacy of my mom and went and acted in a clumsy and stupid way. I had had been just a little more patient, If I could have just experienced the unpleasant sensations without reacting to them I could have had a nicer lunch and enjoyed my mom’s company. If we can not be with unpleasant sensations then our mind will create all kind of stories about them and get us to act in unskillful ways.
Here is another story. I remember after being a monk for about a year I started to have this feeling of doubt come up. It wasn’t about anything in particular, it was just doubt for doubt’s sake. I could feel it in my belly. It was a shaky, weak, anxious, and tense sensation. An unpleasant sensation. I had to practice being with my breath and the sensation in my belly to keep my mind from reacting to it. If I didn’t practice I would get doubtful about everything from wether I should be a monk to just cleaning and cooking and talking to people. After about a year of being with this unpleasant sensation and not feeding it it gradually changed to a calm, strong, solid sensation and the doubt changed to confidence. I think the sensation came from when I was a baby and because he had been a monk for a year and practicing regularly it came up to be released.
We carry within our bodies all of our past experiences. When we follow the mindfulness trainings and mediate regularly wounds from our past will come up. They may manifest as unpleasant sensations and emotions. We may or may not have a clear memory of what caused the wound but that does not matter. The important thing is just to be with the sensations and not react to them. When we react to them we are just recreating the situation that caused us to be wounded in the first place. Sometimes the sensations and emotions can be very intense and painful. When they come up you should take refuge in your breathing and try and just stay with the physical sensations. That will help you stay grounded and not be overwhelmed. So if you have intense sadness coming up just breathe and focus on how it is manifesting in your body. Just stay with your body. If crying happens naturally then just let it happen. Let whatever emotions or thoughts that manifest come and go freely, try not to get caught up in them because that can leave you going around in circles and not really processing anything at a deeper level.
I read a book once called “Focusing” which was a therapeutic technique developed by a psychologist who did a lot of research on why some people got better with therapy and others didn’t. After looking at a lot of variables he found that the most important factor in wether a person succeeded or not was wether they could tune in physically to their situation. In other words, when they were experiencing some pain from their childhood, if they could tap into a clear felt sense of the experience and be with it that was the main thing that allowed them to heal. How smart they were, how much they talked about their problems, how much they knew about them intellectually, even how good the therapist was were all, were all secondary to being able to have a felt sense of their situation.
So through regular practice we can build our capacity to be with strong sensations and not be overwhelmed by them. This includes pleasant sensations as well as unpleasant sensations. I will talk more about this in next week’s blog.
The Four Establishments of Mindfulness
The next spoke in the noble eight fold path is right Mindfulness. Mindfulness is awareness. To be mindful is to be aware in the present moment of what is going on inside of yourself and in the world around you. The mind has the habit of being lost in thoughts about the past or the future or to be caught up in an obsessive way about something in the present. Right mindfulness is to train the mind so that it is in the habit of being in the present moment and aware of what is going on. In the sutra entitled “The Four Establishments of Mindfulness” the Buddha gave extensive teachings on mindfulness. I like to think of this sutra as providing both a map of what to be mindful of and specific practices to help us cultivate that mindfulness. This sutra is quite substantial so I will not give an exhaustive commentary on it here but I will try and say enough so that a good understanding of right mindfulness can be gained. There are a number of practices offered in the section on the body.
As the title of the sutra suggests, there are four main areas that a practitioner should cultivate mindfulness of, namely:
Mindfulness of the body
Mindfulness of sensations
Mindfulness of mind
Mindfulness of the objects of mind.
These four areas are what it is possible for a human being to be mindful of. In other words, when you are in the present moment, whatever it is that you are experiencing will be within one of these four areas. When you are able to clearly recognize what you are experiencing in the present moment then it is much easier not to identify with it and react to it. So this sutra is to help remove any blind spots that we might have based on our conditioning so that our innate awareness can manifest more fully.
Awareness of Breathing
The Buddha begins the section on mindfulness of the body with the practice of mindful breathing. Awareness of breathing is probably the most fundamental meditation practice that the Buddha taught. It serves as a foundation for all of the other practices. It is in the core of the Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan meditation schools as well. By being aware of the breath we can detach from our thinking and be in the present moment. The breath is a neutral object to be aware of, it does not stimulate craving or aversion so by being aware of it we can cultivate an open and accepting awareness. Once this awareness is established with the breath we can start to include more and more of our experience within our body and mind.
The following is a link to instructions on a specific awareness of breathing practice that I learned at Japanese Zen monastery while I was in college. I still use this practice regularly.
Awareness of the Body
The next practice the Buddha gives in the sutra is awareness of the body. Some commentators interpret this to mean the breath body and others interpret it to mean the physical body. Thich Nhat Hanh took it to mean the physical body so that is the way I learned it and it matches my experience. Basically when you become established in the awareness of your breathing your awareness will naturally spread more and more throughout your body. It is just a natural by-product of being in the present moment. So you are aware of your breathing and your body as one whole. Another natural result of being aware of your body and breath is that they will relax. Without trying to make it so your breath will become slower and deeper and your body will let go more and feel at ease. You will still want to maintain a good posture but you will be more relaxed. In fact the good posture along with the awareness of breathing is what helps you let go and relax more deeply.
Postures and Actions
Next the Buddha talks about awareness of the postures and actions of the body. The practitioner should be aware his/her body while sitting, standing, walking or laying down. In the monastery would there would be a session of walking meditation between two sessions of sitting meditation. We would breathe in and make a step with our left foot and breathe out and make a step with our right foot. We would walk around the meditation hall in a circle one or two times. I would continue counting my breath as we did this. Before we started walking and after we finished we would stand behind our meditation cushions for a few moments practicing awareness of standing. Before lunch each day we would also practice walking meditation as a group outside going at a more normal pace but walking in silence and being aware of our breath and steps. From time to time we would stop and look at a tree or a bird or a nice view. By paying attention to your steps and your breath you can detach from your thinking in the same way that you did while sitting. You can be more fully in the present moment and aware of the world around you. So being aware of your posture, whatever it happens to be, is a good way to be in the present moment and not caught up in your thinking. The Buddha goes on in the sutra to say that whatever action you are doing, be it eating, speaking, or even going to the restroom, you should be aware of your body. So if you are at the bank waiting in line or you are doing your dishes or you are walking in the supermarket you can use that time as a time for practice just by coming back to your breath and being aware of your body. By being aware of you posture you will also see how your posture can affect your mood and will naturally want to straighten up and let go of any tension.
In the next section of the sutra the Buddha gives a practice of going through each part of the body. This is a practice that you can do during sitting meditation or while laying down. Basically you become aware of your breathing and then go part by part from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. The way Thich Nhat Hanh taught it you say silently to yourself “Breathing in I am aware of the top of my head, breathing out I smile to the top of my head.” and then you move to the next part. When I do this practice I just say “top of head, relax.” I have also found it very useful to read a basic anatomy book to get an understanding of where the organs are and what their general function is so when I am saying “aware of spleen” for instance I know where to focus. This practice is very good at relieving tension in the body and for getting in touch with areas that you might not be aware of for one reason or another. In other words you might be desensitized to certain areas of your body and this practice will help open that area up. If this practice interests you and you really want to get into it you can go to a 10 day “Vipassana” course in the tradition of S.N. Goenka where the practice of body scanning is done at a very deep level.
The Four Elements
In the next section of the sutra the Buddha talks about being aware of the four elements in the body. Traditionally this means being aware of the sensations of heat and cold (fire), cohesion and fluidity (water), movement and stillness (air), and solidity and lightness (earth). In other words you are using these ranges of possibility to fine tune your awareness of the sensations of your body.
We know our body is made up of the four elements and this practice is to help us directly experience that as true. By being aware of the earth element within us as a direct experience we also become more aware of the earth element around us. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches a guided meditation where you say silently to yourself “aware of the earth element within me I breath in, aware of the earth element within me I breathe out” etc… for the rest of the elements and then you do the same thing for the four elements outside of you. When you do the fire element you can pay attention to the sensation of sunlight, when you do the earth element you can pay attention to what you are sitting on or a tree near you, when you do the water element you can be aware of the saliva in your mouth and the humidity in the air or sit by a river and look at the river. So by doing this you realize more and more how your body is interdependent with the world around it. The oxygen you breath in is coming from the plants around you and the plants are breathing in the carbon dioxide you breathe out. When you are walking the bones in your body are made up of the the earth you are walking on. This practice can help you be more deeply in touch with the world around you and at the same time let go of identifying with your body as a separate entity from the world around you. We know these things intellectually but doing these practices helps us to actually experience it.
Visualizing the Decomposition of a Body
In this section of the sutra the Buddha gives a practice on visualizing a corpse left in a charnel ground to decompose on its own. He describes nine stages of decay starting with the body being blue and bloated, then being eaten by animals, birds and insects, and gradually being reduced to bones and finally dust. After each of the nine stages the practitioner is to remind him/herself that his/her body will inevitably go through the same process at some point. This of course is a very grim thing to visualize and think about but the Buddha gave this practice to us out of compassion. We are so identified with the body that its immanent decomposition can seem like a far off and unreal thing. Our society has separated the reality of death from us to a large degree so we lose sight of the impermanence of the body and therefore lose sight of what it means to be alive. This practice is a strong medicine to cure us of that. Ideally it should leave one with a greater appreciation for life, a desire to make good use of his or her time, and ultimately help uproot the identification with the body.
At the end of each of these sections in the sutra, wether it is mindfulness of breathing, the body scan, the four elements, etc…, there is a common refrain where the Buddha gives some further points of reflection. First he says we should be aware of the object in the object, so if the object happens to be the breath we should be aware of the breath in the breath. I other words we should open fully to the experience and not separate ourselves from it in any way. Then he says we can be aware of the object inside of ourselves, outside of ourselves, or both inside an outside of ourselves. As I mentioned before for example we can be aware of the four elements within our body and outside of our body. Another example would be awareness of our posture as well as the posture of others. This may sound overly simplistic, why would we care about another person’s posture, but the point is to be aware of what is happening directly without the filter of our conceptual mind so this is encouraging us to practice that. The next point of reflection is to contemplate the origination and dissolution factors of a given object. So when we are aware of the body we can think of the food we have eaten today and try and be in touch with the experience of our body living on that food. The same can be applied to the air we are breathing, the heat of the sun, and the water we have drunk. The point here is to be in touch with the fact that this body is manifesting because of certain factors and if they are not there then this body will cease to manifest . So we are directly experiencing that our body is a conditioned phenomenon. I find this helps me to be more in touch with my body and the world around me and have more compassion for them while at the same time I feel more detached and less identified with my body and the world around me.
So this section on the body has a number of practices in them. I see awareness of the breath, general awareness of the body, and awareness of the postures and activities of the body to be fundamental and something I do all the time. I see the other practices as powerful and useful and definitely worth trying and if you are drawn to one or two of them in particular you should go into them in depth. I don’t think it is necessary to do all of them all of the time though as then you might be digging to many shallow wells and never hit water. I also highly recommend doing some form of yoga or tai chi as another way to increase your awareness of your body. As the title of the sutra suggests, our mindfulness can become more and more established in the body to where it is something that is happening naturally and without effort.
In the next blog I will talk about the second establishment of mindfulness.
The next spoke in the eight fold path is right effort. Right effort has four components to it.
When a negative mental formation arises in your mind consciousness, recognize it, don’t feed it, and let it go back down into the store consciousness.
When there are no negative mental formations arising in your mind consciousness, don’t do anything that will make them arise.
When a positive mental formation arises in your mind consciousness, recognize it and enjoy it for as long as it manifests.
When there are no positive mental formations arising in your mind consciousness, do something to invite one to manifest.
Just to review, the store (or ground) consciousness holds all of the mental formations in the form of seeds. When one of these seeds is watered by something we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or think, then it manifests as a mental formation in our mind consciousness. For example, think of your mother. Just by reading these words the mental formation of your mother manifests in your body and mind as an image, emotion, thought, etc…
Right effort is to recognize what is manifesting in your mind consciousness and act accordingly. So if anger or craving or some other negative formation is manifesting in your mind consciousness, your job is to recognize it and not feed it. Not feeding it means not acting on it with body speech or mind. Not acting on it with your mind means not identifying with it and actively thinking thoughts based on it. There is a difference between being aware of a thought and actively thinking a thought. There is a difference between experiencing an emotion and identifying with an emotion. When you fully experience something in the present moment there is no identification with it, there is just the experience that comes and goes in awareness. Meditation practice is about training yourself to be able to do just that. You learn how to experience physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts without reacting to them. Some mental formations are very strong and are hard not to react to. Through regular meditation you will increase your capacity to experience strong emotions without reacting to them. You may have deeply ingrained patterns that you are not even aware of. Meditation will help deepen your awareness and reveal this conditioning and allow you to let go of it.
This is a natural and organic process. Just by letting mental formations be in our awareness a process of transformation will take place. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about mindfulness (awareness) being like the sun, the light will penetrate a flower bud without any effort and cause it to open. In the same way negative mental formations will be weakened over time by being exposed to awareness and positive ones will be strengthened. Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say that in fact, negative mental formations are like the compost with which we make the flowers from. Being present with pain, loneliness, anger, and craving when they arise is how we cultivate a deep peace and happiness that is not bound by any conditions. So we should not judge or suppress any mental formation even though it may be unpleasant. Judging and suppressing is still reacting and feeding.
So right effort is mainly about recognizing and letting go. You can think of a farmer who wants to grow corn. He plows the field, plants the seeds, and waters the field. He has created the conditions for the corn to grow but it is up to the soil itself, the seed and the sunshine to actually grow the corn. You can also think of your own body and how it heals. If you have a cut you clean the wound and put on a band-aid but then it is up to your body to do the actual healing, it is beyond your control. In the same way, by experiencing what is happening in the present moment and not reacting to it, and by following the rest of the eight fold path we are creating the conditions for a process of transformation to take place. A process that naturally results in the increase of wisdom and compassion. To me this is literally the process of evolution.
The previous components of the path dealt with outward behavior, now with right effort we are dealing with the internal work or cultivation. In the next blog I will get into the nuts and bolts of meditation with right mindfulness.
The Four Noble Truths Part 3
The next spoke in the wheel of the noble eight fold path is right livelihood. The main question to ask ourselves here is whether or not the way we earn our living is causing ourselves and or others to suffer. The Buddha taught that a person should not earn their livelihood by selling meat, alcohol or weapons. There may have been some other ones, I can’t remember right now, but we can get the general idea from these examples. It is clear that the Buddha is asking us not to directly cause suffering through our work as well as not to provide the means for other people to cause suffering.
This brings up the issue of karma again. The law of karma is that we reap what we sew. Positive actions bring positive results and negative actions bring negative results. If we get angry at someone that anger is releasing toxins in our body and so even in the act we are suffering. Then, according to the law of karma, we have planted a seed of anger that will come back to us sooner or later. By acting on aversion we are also reinforcing the experience of being a separate self. So for all these reasons, not to mention that negative actions create a negative society, the Buddha is asking us not to generate negative karma.
We all need food clothes and shelter and some basic comforts and so we need a source of income. Depending our background, talents, the economy, and where we live we will have a range of choices to make in regards to our livelihood. So this teaching is asking us to try and choose in the direction of wisdom and compassion and not in the direction of craving and aversion. In other words, if you have the choice between two jobs and one pays a little better but the other one is more positive karma you should take the more positive one if you can afford it. You may have to simplify your life a little but your overall happiness and well being will be greater and you will move towards enlightenment more easily. You will also be helping to create a better world. If you have to take the less positive but better paying job then you you just have to be patient and stay open for a way to simplify your life and or change jobs. If you receive money from investments then you should do your best not to invest in companies that exploit their workers, waste natural resources, or pollute the environment.
So this is a question of priorities. If your goal is spiritual growth and enlightenment then you won’t care so much if you are not driving the fanciest car or wearing the most expensive clothes. The Buddha said that we should not be caught in money, sex, power and fame, too much fancy food, and too much sleep. It is not that any of these things are negative in and of themselves but if our life is about attaining these things and thinking our happiness will come from them then we are going to suffer. If money or fame comes along as a byproduct of our being interested in our work and generating positive karma then O.K. but we should not be fooled into thinking that they are worth pursuing as and end in and of themselves.
I think in America our society has a spiritual vacuum that has been filled with materialism. People don’t have faith in the spiritual path and so they look for comfort in sense pleasures. I think this is largely due to Christianity no longer providing a living spiritual path. By this I mean people not having access to genuine living saints whose presence and touch and inspire people and point out to them what the true purpose of life is. I think another factor is the environmental crisis and the sense that the earth is deteriorating so young people don’t have future that they can look forward to. The then is a pessimism and just looking to get high one way or another.
I think the spiritual vacuum and the environmental crisis are related. If people had faith in the spiritual path then they would not look for happiness through material consumption which is a big cause of the environmental crisis. Our jobs and our society would be based around spiritual development instead of material consumption. I think to a certain degree this was the case in Europe in the middle ages when unprecedented numbers of people became monastics and totally focused on spiritual growth. I think this fell apart however when science and art developed and the church could not adapt and keep up. Instead of a living spiritual tradition we were left with an empty form of rules for rules sake.
When I was in college I went to a Zen monastery near my school for a weekend retreat and the abbot talked to us about the precepts or ethical guidelines in Buddhism. He said that to follow the precepts perfectly is to be enlightened and to be enlightened is to follow the precepts perfectly. What he meant was that the behavior recommended by the precepts are a natural expression of the awakened mind and that someone who is enlightened would just follow them spontaneously without effort. I think this is very important to keep in mind. By following these behavior guidelines we can reduce the craving and aversion us and generate more awareness and equanimity. This will help our meditation grow deeper. Deeper meditation will help us become more aware of what behavior in our lives is causing us to suffer and we can modify our behavior even more. So there is a relationship between our actions and our meditation practice. They should support each other. If you only meditated and didn’t follow these guidelines you would not make much progress. If you only followed the guidelines but didn’t meditate you may not understand as much why you are following the guidelines.
In the next blog I will talk about the last three spokes of the eight fold path.
The Four Noble Truths
The Third Noble Truth
The third noble truth is the cessation of suffering. In the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra the Buddha defines the cessation of suffering as the following: “It is the complete cessation of that very thirst, giving it up, renouncing it, emancipating oneself from it, detaching oneself from it.” In the second noble truth the Buddha said that the cause of suffering was this thirst or craving and that it should be abandoned. Here in the third noble truth he is talking about the result that comes from abandoning craving which is the cessation of craving and therefore the cessation of suffering. As I mentioned in the second noble truth, our ignorance of our true nature is reinforced when we act on craving and aversion, i.e. when we act on craving and aversion we are reinforcing the sense of separation and painful loneliness that results from that. If we engage in the practice of abandoning craving, however, and act on wisdom and compassion instead, then the experience of separation is no longer being reinforced and it begins to weaken. Our ignorance of our true nature starts to subside. If this process is carried out steadily over a long period of time then, according to the teachings, our ignorance will eventually be uprooted and we will fully realize our true nature.
Let’s say a person is meditating and he thinks of someone at work that makes him angry. He is aware of his anger and is able to observe it without identifying with it and feeding it with his thoughts, he is able to go go back to just being with the unpleasant sensations, eventually the unpleasant sensations go back down. His anger has passed into cessation. Now let’s say this person is able to do this practice steadily over a long period of time both on and off the meditation cushion, both at home and at work with the very person that has made him angry in the past. Eventually his anger gets smaller and smaller until it just doesn’t come up any more, even if the very thing that made him angry in the past happens again it doesn’t affect him. So his anger has gone to a deeper level of cessation. Instead he feels a sense of contentment and peacefulness. He is able to connect better with his workmates and even have compassion for the ones that used to make him angry. It doesn’t mean he is a wimp and lets people walk all over him, on the contrary, he is more clear and sharp and able to assert himself strongly when need be but without being caught in ill will. So we can say that on this ground of peacefulness and contentment he is able to act with wisdom and compassion.
Now to take this example one step further, let’s say this man is able to abandon most of his craving and aversion when it comes up. When he meditates he is no longer reacting to the thoughts and emotions that come up, he is able to just be with them. As a result he feels a spaciousness and a peacefulness inside. He is no longer identifying with his thoughts and emotions. He starts to experience and underlying awareness or presence or stillness or silence. This presence has been there all along but because he was caught up in his thoughts and emotions he never really noticed it. As he continues to meditate on a regular basis this silence and stillness becomes more clear and vivid. This ground of being, this awareness is his true nature. It is not an object of thought like an idea that comes and goes in our head. It is not an object of the senses that can come and go either. It is not an object of awareness that can be perceived by a subject. In fact, the subject is a manifestation of the this awareness as well. So this awareness cannot be grasped by our minds but it can be experienced. When our craving and aversion cease, this is what is left over.
The Buddha goes on to say in the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra that this cessation of suffering should be realized. The Pali word for cessation is nirodha. It is another word for nibbana which in sanskrit is nirvana. The Buddha said that the mind inclines towards nibbana. The mind can not grasp it, it can only surrender to it. As we let go of craving and aversion on deeper and deeper levels this ground of being which is our true nature manifests more and more and ultimately uproots the ego, the identification with conditioned reality. That uprooting is not something we can cause to happen with our own will, we can only create the conditions that make it favorable to happen. Ultimately it is out of our hands. The uprooting of the ego is the cessation of suffering at its deepest level.
The Fourth Noble Truth
The fourth noble truth is the path which leads to the cessation of suffering. In the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra the Buddha defines this path as the following: “It is simply The Noble Eight Fold Path, namely right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.” In the eight fold path the Buddha gives practical instructions on how to live our life so that we may cultivate wisdom and compassion and overcome our ignorance, craving, and aversion. This is not a set of rules or commandments with a judgement of good or evil behind it. It is simply a set of guidelines for us based on the Buddha’s experience of what works and what doesn’t work in terms of spiritual development. It is out of the awareness that certain actions tend to cause suffering and should be avoided. Often it is actions that may provide some temporary high or relief but in the long run leave us worse off then when we started. It is up to us to give these guidelines a fair try and see for ourself if following them makes us happier or not. So with that in mind I will elaborate on the eight fold path.
The eight fold path can be seen as a wheel with eight spokes, each spoke being a part of the path leading to the center of the wheel. We should not look at the eight parts of the path as sequential but as simultaneous, i.e. we should be cultivating all aspects of the eight fold path at the same time. The first spoke is right view. This is also translated as right understanding and also right insight. In the beginning this means having an intellectual understanding of the four noble truths, i.e. having a conceptual understanding of the spiritual path and its goal. As we progress in our spiritual development then this understanding becomes more and more experiential until finally it culminates in the ultimate insight or wisdom of enlightenment. The second spoke is right thinking. I think a better translation for this though is right intention. In buddhism the intention behind our actions of body speech and mind is very important. It is the intention behind the action which sews the seed of karma. The importance given to intention can be seen in our modern legal system. A person convicted of first degree murder must face a much stiffer penalty than a person convicted of manslaughter. Through our daily practice we must try and cultivate more and more awareness of what the intention is behind our action. We must feel in our heart what the energy is behind the words we are about to speak or the physical action we are about to make. If we can do this well then we will not cause ourselves and others to suffer. We will not be caught up in an idea of what we should or shouldn’t do because often our idea may be in conflict with what is actually good for us. Right intention is always based on wisdom and compassion and not craving or aversion. .
The third spoke is right speech. Many buddhists include thought here as well as the spoken word. We can’t control the thoughts that pop up into our minds but we can control wether we actively engage in them or not. If we are getting caught up in thoughts based on craving and aversion then the practice is to let go of them. We should not try and suppress them or judge them as that will just create tension and more negativity, we just stop actively feeding them. If they are particularly strong we can gently think of something positive to counterbalance the negative energy. If we are having thoughts based on wisdom and compassion and we notice that these thoughts increase our sense of well being then we should allow ourselves to be nourished by the feelings that come up with those thoughts. With the spoken word we do our best not to engage in false or harmful speech. This includes lying, gossiping, and unfairly criticizing someone. We should speak in a way that brings happiness and well being. Our words should be at the right time and in the right place. There may be times when we have to speak very strongly to bring balance and harmony to a situation, so right speech is not always soft and gentle. As to the question of white lies, come people argue that we should never tell a lie even if it is a white one, others say it is o.k. to tell a white lie in order not to cause someone to suffer unnecessarily. For me the main thing is not to try and avoid some short term discomfort that will bring a greater disharmony in the long run.
The fourth spoke is right action. This includes not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct, and not ingesting intoxicants. Not killing first means not killing humans, then animals, then needlessly killing plants, and then needlessly wasting natural resources. In terms of not killing another human, obviously killing someone for personal gain will generate negative karma and so is not good to do. But what about a soldier or a police officer being asked to kill in the line of duty or a person killing in self defense or to save another person innocent person. These are all grey areas. Some teachers say you should never kill no matter what, and others say you should do what will prevent the most suffering in the long run. I remember Thich Nhat Hanh answering a question posed to him by a young man in the Israeli Army. He said if a terrorist came into a cafe and was about to kill many people there then he, the soldier, felt he had to kill the terrorist first. Thich Nhat Hanh said that yes, sometimes the situation called for drastic measures but only as a last resort. He also said that if you were someone who had a lot of wisdom and compassion you might see a solution to a situation that would not require killing. He also said that we should be looking at the bigger picture that is causing a terrorist to come into a cafe and try and do something to prevent the terrorist from getting angry in the first place and wanting to kill. As another example, Ammachi a contemporary saint from Kerala South India, once had her life threatened by her own cousin. The cousin was jealous of her growing popularity and one day pulled a knife on her and said he was going to kill her. She said that her body could be killed but that the Self (her true nature) could never be killed. The young man tried to stab her, she did not resist, but at the moment the tip of the knife touched her chest, the young man felt an intense pain in his own chest and fell down in agony. Ammachi went to visit him in the hospital later and forgave him. He died and was reborn and became her devotee.
Most of us are not faced with the decision to kill another human by our own hands but we do pay taxes to a government that kills in our name and we buy products or invest in companies that may have blood on their hands. We should be aware of the consequences when we cast a vote or spend a dollar. With regard to animals, the consumption of meat causes an immense amount of suffering to the animals that are raised and slaughtered and to the people who have to work in the meat industry. The meat industry also uses a tremendous amount of water, energy, and land to produce the meat and also generates an enormous amount of pollution. A diet with a lot of meat in it is also bad for your health. Just by becoming vegetarian a person can make a significant contribution towards restoring balance to the environment and generating good health in their own body. In ayurveda, the traditional Indian health science, it is said that eating meat increases the craving and aversion in a person. I have been vegetarian for over ten years now and I can say that I feel more healthy and peaceful in body and mind as a result and I feel good about not killing animals or needlessly damaging the environment.
Not stealing means not taking what belongs to others and being generous. We should not take something we don’t need for a short term gain. We should not over consume. We should not accumulate a lot of possessions that we don’t need. If we are content spiritually the we will not feel the need to fill in the hole by buying things. Our sense of happiness and well being will not depend on the kind of car we drive or clothes we wear. Of course we all need food clothes and shelter but we should know when we have enough and be content. It is a great happiness to live simply and not be weighed down with a bunch of stuff to look after. It is also good to keep moving in the direction of sustainability. If we are buying or building a house we should make choices that will result in less use of natural resources to maintain the house. There are a growing number of people in America who are building houses that cost little or nothing to heat and cool and use water very efficiently. I will write in a later blog about sustainable building.
Not engaging in sexual conduct traditionally means not committing adultery. Thich Nhat Hanh updated that to not having sex without love and a long term commitment. He also added not sexually abusing someone and doing our best to prevent others from committing sexual abuse. I would add to that not ingesting pornography. The point of this training is to help us have deep meaningful relationships that will bring us more fulfillment and happiness and not to act on lust which may provide some temporary pleasure but will leave us feeling empty and depleted. Ultimately no relationship will bring us the deepest level of fulfillment that we need, only spiritual realization can do that. In my opinion we all have to face a painful loneliness that is inside of us to progress spiritually and our relationships should support us in doing that.
Not ingesting intoxicants originally meant no alcohol but the tradition has gone on to include other intoxicants so now all narcotics would be included in this. Again these things my provide a quick and easy high and or a temporary relief from our suffering but we are left worse off than where we started. The happiness that comes from a pure body and mind and is deeper and more fulfilling. There may be a painful withdrawal period but if we stick to it we can reach a point where we naturally don’t want intoxicants.
I will continue in the next blog on the eight fold path.
The First Noble Truth
The first noble truth is suffering. In the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra the Buddha defines suffering as the following: “Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain grief, and despair are suffering,; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering–in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.” As I mentioned in the last blog, I like to categorize suffering into three areas namely: physical, emotional, and spiritual. The first two areas are obvious, the third is existential angst or a deep painful loneliness that can only be alleviated by spiritual awakening. I think when the Buddha says that the five aggregates of attachment are suffering he is including this spiritual suffering.
The Buddha described a human being as being composed of five aggregates or parts namely: form, sensation, perception, mental formation, and consciousness. Form is the physical body composed of the four elements of earth, air, fire, water, and ether or prana (a subtle energy or life force). Sensations are the physical sensations felt in the body caused by physical stimulus or emotions. They can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Perception in this context is not the act of perceiving with your senses but the cognitive act of recognizing something once it is experienced though your senses. You experience something with your senses and your mind compares it with its memory and then assigns a label to it such as “chair” or “dad” or “anger” or “something new I haven’t seen before but it looks like this”. Perception happens very quickly and is non-verbal. Mental formation is the common translation for the Pali word “samkara” (samskara in Sanskrit). It is also translated as “impression” and “volition”. Desire, anger, sadness, fear, happiness, compassion, and peacefulness are all mental formations. You hear something or see something or think of something and it causes a mental formation to manifest in your body and mind. Consciousness is the experience that arises from the contact between a sense organ and a sense object.
In Theravada Buddhism there are six different consciousnesses namely: eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, and mind consciousness. The mind is seen as another sense organ and its objects are thoughts and emotions. As the Buddhist tradition developed over time two more consciousnesses were classified namely: the afflicted consciousness and store or ground consciousness. Afflicted consciousness can be thought of as the ego, the experience of being a separate entity in time and space. The store or ground consciousness is where all of the mental formations are stored, developed, and come out from.
So what did the Buddha mean when he said that the five aggregates of clinging are suffering? This sounds on the face of it like a very extreme and negative statement. It sounds like he is saying that just to be a human being is suffering itself. Yes of course there is suffering in the world and for some people it is constant but for others there are times of contentment, pleasure, and happiness where no suffering is present. So what does he mean? In my opinion, I think what the Buddha is saying is that compared to enlightenment or spiritual realization, the experience of being a human being as we normally think of it is suffering. In other words, the greatest worldly happiness a person can experience in this life pales in comparison to the happiness of enlightenment. The greatest worldly safety and comfort we can secure in this life pales in comparison to the safety and comfort of enlightenment. As I mentioned in the last blog, an enlightened person is someone who has awakened from their identification with conditioned reality and realized the unconditioned reality. I think the experience of being these five aggregates is another way of saying identification with conditioned reality and therefore it is suffering when compared with realizing the unconditioned reality. This is not to say however that we should look upon conditioned reality with contempt. It is considered very fortunate in the buddhist tradition to be born a human being because it is in a human body that we can become enlightened and, as we shall see in the second noble truth, it is in overcoming our craving and aversion towards conditioned reality that we can awaken from our identification with it. So it is not to inspire contempt that the Buddha is pointing out the first noble truth but to broaden our horizon of what is possible.
The Buddha goes on to say in the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra that this suffering as a noble truth should be understood. Practically speaking that means recognizing the different forms of suffering when they manifest in our daily lives and being with them, not turning away from it or reacting to it but looking directly at it. I will talk more about this in terms of daily practice when I get to the fourth noble truth which is the eight fold path. When suffering has been understood at the deepest level that is enlightenment. This is why the Buddha said that when you understand one noble truth completely you understand them all. They inter-are.
The Second Noble Truth
The second noble truth is the cause of suffering which is craving. In the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra the Buddha says: “it is this thirst (craving) which produces re-existence and re-becoming, bound up with passionate greed. It finds fresh delight now here and now there, namely thirst for sense-pleasures; thirst for existence and becoming; and thirst for non-existence (self-annihilation).” In other teachings the Buddha groups craving with ignorance and aversion as one of three poisons which keep us bound to the wheel of birth and death. Aversion is in a sense another form of craving, it is wanting to get rid of something instead of wanting to attain something. Ignorance of our true nature is what provides the ground for the craving and aversion to arise. In his teaching on the 12 links of interdependent origination the Buddha describes in depth the second noble truth so I will go into that now.
The 12 Links of Interdependent Origination
The twelve links are:
1. Avija 2. Samkara 3. Vinnana 4. Namarupa 5. Salayatana 6. Phassa
7. Vedana 8. Tanha 9. Upadana 10.Bhava 11. Jati 12. Dukha
Avija is ignorance, samkara is mental formation and in this case volition, vinnana is consciousness and in this case re-linking consciousness, namarupa is the body-mind, salayatana are the sense bases, phassa is contact, vedana is senation, tanha is craving, upadana is grasping, bhava is becoming, jati is birth, and dukha is suffering. In your past life at the time of death, because you were ignorant (1st link) of your true nature the volition (2nd link) to survive and become something propelled you into your present lifetime through the relinking consciousness (3rd link). This gave rise to the body-mind (4th link) which gave rise to the sense bases (5th link) which gave rise to contact (6th link) with the outside world. This contact causes sensations (7th link) to arise which gives rise to craving (8th link) which you act on by grasping (9th link) which sews new seeds of karma in this lifetime and builds your karmic momentum until when you die there will again be the craving to exist which you will grasp causing you to become (10 link) your new form in your next birth (11 link) and then you will have to endure the suffering (12 link) that is inherent in conditioned reality.
So the 12 links can be seen as a description of the process of birth and death over three lifetimes and the engine that runs it. Different names are given for the different links depending on the past, present, or future lifetime being talked about but actually some of the links are different names for the same thing and some of the links are not re-named but are implied in other places of the chain. The 2nd link is volition and the 8th link is craving. Both are volition and both are craving. The 3rd link is re-linking consciousness and the 10th link is becoming. Both are the bridge consciousness between one life and the next. The 4th link is body-mind and the 11th link is birth, both are describing the manifestation of a new body mind. The 1st link, ignorance, is implied between the 7th link of sensations and the 8th link of craving. There are further implications that can be made but I will not go on for the sake of brevity.
So the link of craving is just one link in this chain and yet the Buddha states in the second noble truth that craving is the cause of suffering. Why did he single out this link? He said that craving, a volition, and the subsequent action of grasping is where the seed of karma gets sewn and it is here that a person can make a difference in the course of his our her life. Ignorance of our true nature is just as much a cause of this cycle of birth and death as craving but we can not willingly dispel our ignorance while we can exercise a certain amount of control over our craving and the subsequent action. When we identify with and act on craving and aversion we further entrench our identification with conditioned reality and therefore increase our ignorance of our true nature. On the other hand, when we experience pleasant or unpleasant sensations and do not identify with or act on the subsequent craving or aversion we weaken our identification with conditioned reality and therefore decrease our ignorance of our true nature. That is why the Buddha said it is the space between sensations and craving where we can drive the axe and break the chain. The other links of the chain are pretty much foregone conclusions that happen without our control. So craving, and aversion which again is another form of craving, is the active cause of suffering. The suffering of identifying with conditioned reality and the inherent pain that comes with that on the physical, emotional, and spiritual level.
Now what if you don’t believe in rebirth? I personally have never had a memory of my past lives but I am favorably disposed to the theory of rebirth being true because so many other things the Buddha and other realized masters have taught have rung true in my life. However, even if you are skeptical of the idea of rebirth you can look at these teachings on the 12 links in the context of your present life. Say for example you are at work and somebody speaks harshly to you (6th link contact). This causes unpleasant sensations to arise in you (7th link sensations). This causes anger in you and the desire to yell at the person (8th link craving). You act on the craving and yell at the person (9th link grasping). Once you decided to act and started yelling you sewed a karmic seed and set the wheel in motion of becoming (10th link becoming) an angry person and so you then were “re-born” (11th link birth) as an angry person and then you had to and will have to suffer (12th link suffering) the consequences of your actions. Now take the same story and play it a different way. You experience the unpleasant sensations and notice the anger and desire to yell come up but instead identifying with that and acting on it you keep your cool and just stay with the sensations letting yourself cool off. Then you act in a way that resolves the situation in a good way for all involved. You have still been reborn but this time it is as a happy person with less ignorance of your true nature. It is these mechanics of sensation, volition, and action that are the essence of karma and the process of increasing or decreasing our identification with conditioned reality. That is why the Buddha said that when you really start to see the 12 links in your life you start to see the Dharma or the Truth.
The Buddha goes on to say in the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra that this craving which is the cause of suffering should be abandoned. Practically speaking this means that we have to cultivate the capacity to be with pleasant and unpleasant sensations and not react to them out of craving and aversion but be present with them and act out of wisdom and compassion. The complete abandonment of craving at its deepest level is enlightenment or nirvana. Nirvana means the extinguishing of the flame of craving. I will talk about how we practice the abandonment of our every day craving and aversion which leads to the great abandonment when I discuss the 8 fold path.