I hear there are people spreading the story that samsara is to blame for our
suffering: this is not true: In reality we are to blame for samsara.
Each year when Asalha Puja arrives we take time to consider anew the foundation teaching of our tradition; that is, the Four Noble Truths. On this day, the full moon of the seventh month, known as Asalha, we recollect how the Buddha gave the ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma’. This monumental event took place at the conclusion of several weeks spent dwelling in the bliss of the liberation that he had attained as he sat under the Bodhi tree in Bodhagaya.
Immediately following his awakening, the Buddha thought, “This understanding of Truth that I have arrived at is too profound for beings caught in the confusion of sense desire. It would be pointless to attempt to communicate this to anyone.” Maybe during those weeks of bliss he had pondered on the predicament of countless beings suffering from a lack of clear direction in their lives because, by the time he was ready to start talking again, he had decided that he would teach what he had seen.
But whatever his motivation, we are fortunate that he was inspired to ‘turn the wheel’ and offer to his close friends, the pancavaggiya bhikkhus, the fruits of his radical awakening. Here we are, more than two thousand five hundred years later, and the vehicle he set in motion is still carrying beings along the Way. This evening, I hope your contemplation on these timeless Truths will deepen our personal appreciation of how to apply them in our lives.
Before looking in detail at particular aspects of these Truths, let’s first consider an overview. Notice how the Discourse is presented in the form of a diagnosis. This fits with what we know about the Buddha’s style of teaching and one of the names he was given, the Great Physician. In keeping with the classical formula used by doctors in India at the time he presented his analysis in four parts: dukkha – he first identified the illness as suffering, or struggle; samudaya – he then pointed out the casue, in this case craving; nirodha – he indicated the possibility of freedom from the illness, or liberation; and finally, magga – he prescribed the way of arriving at that freedom, the Noble Eightfold Path.
The pattern of presenting the condition as a disease was noticed by the earliest Western scholars and translators of Buddhism; however, this doesn’t mean to say that the medicine was actually applied. And as with any remedy, if it isn’t taken then the benefit doesn’t manifest. Accordingly, although this teaching has been heard by many people over a long period of time, there is still a lot of confusion about it. But there are also many who have recovered from their disease. Our careful investigation of these Truths tonight is one way of taking the medicine.
Let’s also remember the situation in which the Buddha’s offering was made. Clearly the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Timeless Law wasn’t just a casual conversation that happened to take place one afternoon over tea. When he first decided that he would teach he sought out those who had previously taught him. It is noteworthy that foremost in his heart was a sense of gratitude towards his previous mentors. Compare this with tendencies we might have to reject some of those who supported our initial attempts to seek awakening. The Buddha’s example inspires us to hold dear all our teachers, therapists, guides and companions.
Informed by his penetrating wisdom, the Buddha eventually selected a particular group of monk friends because he knew they were ready to hear what he had to say. They were ripe to receive this direct and uncompromising presentation of reality.
In our scriptures there are many recorded instances of these particular teachings being given and they always took place when the time was right and listener ready. Often teachings encouraging generosity or instruction on right livelihood or advice on how to find a sense of personal well-being were given before imparting the teachings on the Four Noble Truths. This demonstrates that to address the most fundamental matter of an individual’s relationship to suffering, the right conditions must be in place. We need to be feeling confident already about our aspirations on the Way; we need to already be feeling good about ourselves.
Another point worth noticing is how, prior to written material being mechanically produced, words carried more power than we are used to these days. A sacca vacca was a ‘truth statement’ or an ‘utterance of truth’, and when this kind of utterance was made by a wise being it carried, or channeled, tremendous energy. To hear such an utterance could in itself be empowering – even liberating. The Buddha’s declaration about the true nature of life did in reality re-open the great Way to freedom. And right mindfulness of suffering (dukkha) is this Way.
It should not be thought that, because this teaching focuses intensely on dukkha, there can be any justification for assuming a negative disposition towards life. Exactly the opposite is the case. In summarizing his teachings, the Buddha said, “I teach two things: struggle and the complete ending of struggle.” He is pointing out a Way of realistic aspiration towards freedom. This is a Way of meaningful contemplation which actually begins with hearing and understanding these teaching on the Four Noble Truths. We ponder on them until they settle and become firmly established in our hearts.
THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH
May we assume, the, that we all feel ready to move on to consider the First Noble Truth? This says, ‘Life is suffering.’ This might sound like a strange thing to say as one of the founding statements of a world religion, but it was said because it is true. And it is eternally true. That is what ariya sacca or ‘Noble Truth’ means.
A more literal translation of the first Noble Truth is, ‘All aspects of conditioned reality are in a state of stress,’ which is subtler than ‘Life is suffering’; but from where most of us enter the Way the less subtle message is more useful.
It needs emphasizing that this is not a value-judgement on life. It’s the same as saying, ‘bees sting’. Knowing that bees sting determines how we relate to bees, it doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with bees. Likewise, the First Noble Truth makes an observation about conditioned reality that helps determine our relationship to life.
Regrading this point, I recall one night when I was living at Wat Pah Pong, the monastery where I received upasampada (acceptance into the monastic Sangha). The teacher ascended the Dhamma seat and began his evening talk to the gathering of several hundred monks, nuns and lay folk by saying, “You don’t have to feel embarrassed about the fact that you are suffering. We all suffer.” I felt a great sense of relief. I was being reminded that suffering is a shared predicament and not just ‘my’ unfortunate problem. I suppose I had been holding to the expectation that he would say I shouldn’t be suffering if I were practicing properly. But no, here in the Buddha’s teaching we are told that acknowledging the pain we experience is the first and most important thing to be done in life. It is the first true thing that needs to be said. Acknowledging this fact is the entrance to the Way beyond the frustration of limited existence.
This statement glaringly contradicts a lot of what we, particularly in our Western culture, hold to be true. But the Buddha said from the beginning that he was offering a reality-teaching, not a message of consolation. We can find strength in realizing that our willing acceptance of the presence of struggle in our lives is the first step on the path of awakening to reality. Admitting the struggle is the spiritual path, not some unfortunate obstruction to it.
In the beginning this acceptance is a process of mental consideration and then, little by little, it becomes a feeling appreciation; we start to find ourselves more directly in touch with our own body/mind experience of feeling limited or tethered. We have a fresh perspective on it. Now we become conscious of the sense of imprisonment.
That which initially might appear to be a negative judgement of the conditioned world on further inspection is seen to be a simple but powerful insight into what we already knew but were afraid to admit. We already knew we were suffering but we felt it to be some kind of an indictment against us. AS the insight of non-resistance to ‘struggle’ begins to sink in, our whole life changes and frustrations take on a different appearance. They are no longer enemies to be conquered; they are entranceways to a path of valid inquiry.
As more individuals become aware of the brilliance of this insight, the commonly held views in our culture will change. This is one reason why I’m so positive about promoting Buddhist teachings in society. These teachings can influence the character of our world. Isn’t it the case that society is shaped by the hearts of individuals in that society? Our world, so fraught with intense struggles on all levels, with the apparent intransigence of the parties involved, is the predictable consequence of the views that we hold. The chronic denial of the actuality of our inner pain creates the poison that spills out into the world and hurts the planer and beings living on it. Hearing about the Four Noble Truths offers real hope of addressing, with awareness, the root of the struggles.
THE SECOND NOBLE TRUTH
Having begun to accept the reality of our struggle we find an enthusiasm for discovering what is actually taking place. We are inspired to ask, “Is this all there is to it? Is life just a bad joke? Isn’t there more to life than this?” And this leads us to the Second Noble Truth. Here are the Buddha instructed us to look backwards, or further inwards, for the casue of the struggling. We need to find out why we feel so caught up in the pushing and pulling of our inner and outer worlds. Now that we are not compulsively running away from it, we can investigate and see if there is something that we are doing that is contributing to the drama. So far, we have let go of the assumption that this is all happening to us, that we are mere victims; this new understanding already makes practice much more interesting.
I hear there are people putting around the story – they call it the Buddhist story – that something called samsara is to blame for our suffering. When they are having a hard time over something they say, “Well this is samsara. What else do you expect?” This is a mistake.
What is the meaning of this world samsara? The Buddha used it to refer to beings caught in the delusion of an incessant cycling through a process of birth and death as it appears to take place in our minds. He discovered that this is how things appear to be, but this apparent reality is a distortion of awareness, a trick or perception. He encouraged us to observe how, when a contraction of awareness occurs around any mental impression that arises, then a ‘being’ is born in that moment. If for example the impression is a pleasing memory, with this contraction or grasping taking place, the thought, “I am happy” takes root – a ‘happy being’ is born. And as with all that is born, this ‘happy being’ will die.
Nobody is saying there is anything wrong or inappropriate about all this, but we need to see this process if we want to live in freedom. We need to see that we are responsible for this grasping. If we are to apportion blame anywhere, then in truth it is us who are to blame for samsara.
The Buddha, while still a walking, talking human being, was free from the suffering of samsara because he had gone beyond all grasping. For him samsara didn’t exist. Our task then is to observe, with feeling-awareness, how this process takes place. We are involved in a feeling-investigation of reality as it happens, which is different from investigating our feeling about some aspect of reality. Here we are equipping our capacity for discernment with full feeling-awareness so as to know for ourselves the precise movement that creates the personal experience of suffering. Blaming an idea like samsara for our suffering is not much different from blaming our parents or the stars. We need to be engaged in solving this struggle with insight, not projection.
Seeing the part we are playing in this drama and how we have the authority to inhibit the habit of contraction doesn’t mean that the nature of existence changes – it does not mean that life ceases to hurt. What changes is how we relate to this nature. When, with right understanding, the impulse to grasp at desire it restrained, then desire no longer appears as the demon we thought was responsible for our unhappiness.
Although the formula of the Four Noble Truths states that desire is the immediate casue of our suffering, it further points out that ignorance regarding the nature of desire is the root casue of the problem. When we understand the way of bees we don’t go too near them and neither do we have to get rid of them. And so with desire, when our hearts are rightly informed, we learn how to live with desire without being stung by it.
As long as we grasp at desire, then the inherent nature of desire, that is, ‘wanting’, will become our nature. Or at least it will appear to become so, and we will struggle endlessly to be free from the pain of it by striving for gratification. But gratification of sense desire is not the same thing as the satisfaction our hearts are looking for. If we understand this fully then ‘letting go’ frees us from the agonizing sense of being a victim of desire.
When I lived at Ajahn Thate’s monastery there was a tradition of reciting the Evening Puja in Pali and in Thai. Commenting once on the section chanted in praise of the qualities of an arahant Ajahn Thate said, “Translating the word arahant as ‘One far from defilements’ is completely wrong. He or she is not far from defilements at all but right up against them. However the difference is that an arahant knows how not to grasp hold of them!”
So whether we experience ourselves as being bound to suffer or not depends on how we take up life. Speaking about the teaching he gave, the Buddha said it was like a snake: if we were to pick up a snake directly behind the head there wouldn’t be a problem; if we were to take it by the tail then it would turn around and bite us. How we hold an experience is the point. And we become aware of how we are holding by way of our feeling-investigation of life.
These first two insights into Truth re-educate our hearts and minds in a manner that reverses the previous conditioning that caused us to fight frustration. As these insights begin to function in support of our aspirations on the Way, we have another chance to examine the path our life is taking and indeed that which it has taken thus far. Previous struggles that have not been fully lived through and remain lodged in our bodies and minds can be re-inspected; they take on fresh meaning. The wisdom of the Way means we can translate everything that has ever happened in terms of practice.
Those who have been around me have probably noticed the difficulty I have with sitting on the floor for any length of time. This is mainly as a result of a motorbike injury that I sustained when I was nineteen. At the time, the accident appeared to be a total disaster. A head-on collision with a car caused serious damage – to me and the bike. Not wearing a helmet was a pretty unintelligent thing to do and I was lucky to wake up at all which, fortunately, I later did, in hospital. It was a financial disaster as the bike was borrowed and the insurers of the car I hit sued me. The incident contributed to the breaking up of the community in which I was living and coincided with my best friend’s being drafted into the U.S. military. He wasn’t going to go to Vietnam, but he had to return to the States and he married another of my close friends so she could go with him.
However, that incident and the forced period of convalescence gave me an opportunity to stop and assess what I was doing and where I was going. It also happened that somebody sent me a book which effectively reconnected me with inner aspects of myself that all the busyness and excitement of my life had obscured. When I reflect on that time I am unable to recall anything very much in my outer life other than that book that would have affirmed those aspects. Regrettably it is rare to find wise men and women who can guide us through such periods of intense struggle.
However, the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths can serve well in this area, by introducing us to the wisdom of receiving our struggles as a message to awaken to life in a more open and honest way. I count myself fortunate to have had the encouragement at the right time to turn inward consciously and find how to be with myself in my distress.
As soon as I became mobile again I moved away from the situation I was in with all the personal history that had been made there, and immediately encountered a world with new friends and contacts. Soon I was practicing yoga, disciplining my eating and not long after left on a journey overseas where I found the Buddhist monastic lifestyle and the opportunity that brought me, most gratefully, here. That motorbike accident and the testing that it put me through was not a disaster, although it appeared to be so at the time. Being able to sit comfortably on the floor for hours is not a guaranteed ticket to liberation anyway. Neither is a teaching on the Four Noble Truths, but our contemplation of these Truths is like studying a map, a map that offers reliable guidance for travelling through the trying terrain of life.
The teaching on the Third Noble Truth isn’t a solution to our problems, but a statement about the relativity of them. It says: “There is an unconditioned reality which is inherently free from all sign of stress”. In speaking of this the Buddha used the word nirodha, which means cessation – that is, cessation of the ‘apparent reality’ which deluded us into believing that grasping and struggling for well-being was the right way. Here, we are told, is a state that is perfectly characterized by self-existent well-being. From the perspective of the realization of this state, no further search is necessary; there is no need. Any impulse to identify with a conditioned sense of need is undone by the knowledge that ‘all conditioning is just so’. There is no one to blame for our suffering. The perception of ‘somebody’ is seen in the clear light of Dhamma.
This statement of the Third Noble Truth poses a problem for those who study this teaching as an intellectual exercise. The word cessation, or another word, nibbana, or extinguishing, produces an impression of loss and, generally speaking, we are all in this for gain. Hence the Buddha’s hesitation to talk about it. We are seriously addicted to being somebody doing something about our problem and we find it troubling even to face the idea of its coming to an end. We are so used to trying to fix ourselves that even to imagine a state of self-existent well-being can appear threatening.
So we don’t try to imagine it. When we go for refuge to Dhamma, we are aspiring on the Way out of a faith in perfect adequacy; and that state of perfect adequacy is utterly unimaginable from an unawakened perspective. The only things we can ever imagine are a rehashing of the past. We can never imagine anything totally new. As long as we are still believing in the mirage of ourselves as somehow inherently inadequate or flawed, we can’t possibly imagine the state of liberation. But this doesn’t mean that it is unrealizable. Because awakening is a realistic possibility ‘for those with but little dust in their eyes’, the Buddha did decide to teach about it. Opening our eyes to what is in front of us is something we can do about our predicament.
It is useful to remember the story of the turtle trying to explain to the fish how pleasant it is to take a walk along the beach. Of course, the fish only has access to the reality of water so to even attempt to describe the activity of a totally different realm is useless. To try could even be disheartening. Accordingly, the Buddha taught skills for applying awareness in the reality in which we are present. Dhamma takes care of the rest.
The first two Noble Truths offer us a new awareness of how we relate to the present experience of struggle and now the third Noble Truth gives us a vision to help us look further. It is important that we have this vision of liberation to believe in. The Dalia Lama recently commented in conversation with a gathering of Western Buddhist teachers, “Without Enlightenment, why would we bother with all this practice? Have sex, alcohol, relax!” Without a goal that accords with Dhamma, all our effort is just a management exercise: we are merely dealing in a realm of things that we think should or shouldn’t be the way they are. But with this vision we are able to work with an appreciation that there are causes for everything that happens; there are no mistakes, and it’s up to us to learn to see deeply into the reality of the present experience.
Some may feel worried about believing in something that we can’t be sure about and think, “Doesn’t that contradict what the Buddha said about now blindly believing?” We should notice that disbelieving the existence of some particular reality is still a kind of believing. If we don’t know from our experience that something is not true, we need also to be careful not to blindly dismiss it. For those seeking the Way, the Third Noble Truth points to a profound mystery and invites us to wonder. This is letting go of our commitment to predictability. So rather than acting out of blind belief we choose to embrace the mystery in full awareness of our aspiration to live in this faith.
And as to whether, when we arrive at this liberation, life will somehow be boring or we won’t know what to do with ourselves, well, the experience didn’t cause the Buddha any problems. He and his enlightened disciples have in fact generated tremendous benefit and we are still receiving the fruits of their realization.
THE FOURTH NOBLE TRUTH
When we discover an appreciation for the potential manifest in these teaching we find ourselves at the beginning of the Way, or magga. The Eightfold Path is both the Way to liberation and the expression of a commitment to that Way. The eight aspects of this Noble Path are: right view (samma ditthi), right intention (samma sankappa), right speech (samma vacca), right action (samma kammanta), right livelihood (samma ajiva), right effort (samma vayama), right mindfulness (samma sati), right concentration (samma samadhi).
The profundity of the Buddha’s articulation of the Way cannot be overstated and I am hesitant to offer only a brief interpretation here. But I do feel it is worthwhile examining these eight aspects however brief. Tonight’s consideration is not an in-depth presentation of all aspects of the Four Noble Truths but an attempt to support and stimulate our own personal consideration of these various factors. It is through such consideration that these teachings can inform the manner in which we live our lives.
The opening portion of the Eightfold Way, that is, right view and right intention, is about our inner work. The middle portion – right speech, right action and right livelihood – is about outer work. Then the last portion, of right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration, is again about inner work. Notice how in this depiction of the outer expression of our lives is contained and would thereby be shaped by the inner reality. Being aware of this image can help us keep our priorities balanced: it may indicate the proportion of attention we ought to give to the inner and outer aspects of our lives. We can each consider this for ourselves.
When considering this teaching, I like to consider ‘right’ as referring to the quality of attention that we give to an object. Understanding right view is not merely about finding the best philosophical stance. It is also about perspective. It is about how we actually hold our views. Yes, the ‘view’ of suffering, its causes and its cessation is offered as a correct representation of reality, but like the snake, if we pick these teachings up wrongly then they turn against us. It is out of wrong holding that religious fanaticism is born. So we are asked to ponder on these factors of the Eightfold Path not as absolute doctrines but as objects of contemplation. And as with all our practice the appropriate approach to this is, with no straining. This is definitely not just about trying to be ‘right’. Our view, even if believe in the Four Noble Truths, is wrong view if we are heedlessly grasping at an idea. Our view is right when it is pure view; that is, purified of the pollutants of grasping.
The factor of the Path mentioned following on from right view is right intention, samma sankappa. This is the link between our views and the next three factors of speech, action and livelihood. The domain of views addresses our underlying perspectives on life, while the factor of intention can be considered as referring to how the thinking and perceiving which arise out of these views in turn condition our actions. It serves to connect our basic assumptions with our active participation in life.
The guidelines given in the scriptures offer instruction on the cultivation of three specific mental attitudes: renunciation (nekkhamma), non-aversion (avyapada) and harmlessness (avihimsa). We are encouraged to investigate and see how paying attention to these aspects of our mental world generates the kind of intention in our hearts that translates as action which accords with the Way.
It is sometimes said that all we have to do is be sure we are acting out of good intention. I disagree with this attitude. If he had accepted the idea that good intention was enough, then the Buddha would have stopped with just the first two factors, but he didn’t. He knew we needed clear guidance, so he went on to elaborate on what a life lived in accordance with the Way looks like.
These next three factors which comprise the middle section of the Eight-fold Path could be said to be about cultivating skillful means. This includes both the development of specific skills and an awareness of the how we relate to them.
In my opinion we all have a responsibility to study the classical teachings on these matters as well as whatever other supports may be available, so as to learn how to act and speak both wisely and compassionately; that is, in ways that lead to increased freedom from suffering for oneself and others. We should be aware that the consequences of not honoring this responsibility become greater the further we progress on the path.
The precepts about speech and action and the instruction on which forms of livelihood are suitable and which are not, seen from one set of assumptions, might be thought to be a criterion for determining who is a Buddhist and who isn’t. But I prefer to think that what is required to be a Buddhist is simply for someone to know that hey want to be free from suffering – this way everyone is included. Happy Buddhists are those whose investigations have led them to conduct themselves in a manner that accords with inner and outer freedom. I would rather not see these teaching used as determining factors for who is in and who is out. We already have too much of that. If we approach these pointers with an interest in finding what works, then our natural intelligence will protect us and will also protect others. When there is this kind of interest we don’t have to depend on rules.
The texts tell us that for any of these factors to be considered as right, they must be associated with the first factor or right view. What kind of speech would arise out of right view? Bringing careful attention to matters of communication readily reveals causes and effects in this area. For instance, we see how any kind of deceitful speech doesn’t accord with freedom from suffering. Speech with intent to deceive increases confusion. Straight talking with interest in benefiting the other does accord. Timely speech, kindly speech and speech motivated by the wish to increase understanding are all in harmony with the Way.
The Buddha highlighted right speech as an area deserving of careful attention because he saw directly the power of it. When we speak out of kindness we have the power to heal; when we speak out of malice we can injure.
Speech is kamma (action) made by way of voice and physical activity is kamma made by way of body. Right action is about being alert to the fact that what we do with our bodies affects the world in which we live. Again this applies to both inner and outer dimensions of our lives. Careless action creates disturbances that have repercussions far into the future. We need to be aware of how much energy we put into ignoring these consequences.
As our ability to manipulate the material world becomes more and more sophisticated, there is an increasing risk that we will use it blind ourselves to the results of our actions. I’m told that children from the city visiting farms are sometimes shocked to find that milk comes out of great big beasts. They thought it came out of cartons! Only a few decades ago, when we went to the toilet we would have been more aware of the result of our actions: it didn’t disappear in a flush of fragrant blue water! In peasant cultures, people are more naturally aware of what happens if they act ‘wrongly’; in our time someone can commit a crime and be in another town or even another country within an hour or two. Serious crimes are being committed all the time on the Internet and nobody knows what to do about it. So we need to be careful about how we relate to the convenience of technology; not allowing it to confuse us about actual causes and effects.
Training in the skill of right action also involves accountability. In the domain of our inner work we are primarily accountable to ourselves. In the domain of outer work we need to know that we are willing to be accountable to others. And this applies however long we might have been in the training. As a new monk I heard that, while already a leader of a sizeable monastic community, Ajahn Chah once lost his temper and threw a spittoon at a novice. The Ajahn made absolutely sure he knew for himself, and that the community knew, that he stood to account for his heedlessness: he put himself on a fast for a week.
If we can see that we are willing to be accountable for our actions, I would say that could be called cultivating responsible, considered action, or right action. This kind of work leads to integrity and brings with it an appreciable sense of self-respect.
Right livelihood is taking responsibility for our actions in a specific domain: that of our interaction with the resources of the material world. It’s about finding a balance of energy which means we can feel quietly and honestly at ease about what we give and what we take from the outer world.
The injunction that dealing in weaponry is wrong livelihood is only one indication of the importance of finding out what is suitable. But this is nevertheless still an injunction. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that morality is a totally relative matter. From the perspective of his far-reaching wisdom the Buddha knew that certain intentional actions lead to specific painful results. So, regardless of any argument based on economics or politics, dealing in arms is an inappropriate way to make a living. The effort being made will generate unwholesome results for the dealer, whatever the outer appearance. In this consideration of right livelihood we are called upon to own the consequences of our involvement in perpetrating imbalance, or furthering balance, as the case may be. Again, we want to see if we are willing to stand accountable, this time for our lifestyle.
The closing section of the Eight-fold Path is concerned with establishing and maintaining inner balance. The teaching on right effort directs our attention to how we engage with our experience. This is a problem area for us so long as we aren’t able to abide in non-judgmental awareness. It is not possible to examine the quality of effort we make when our awareness is distorted by excessive willfulness. I personally took a long time before finding any clarity around this one. Eventually, I settled for an understanding that right effort in my case meant doing the best I could and watching to see where my effort missed the mark. This attitude was a lot less judging than others I had attempted to apply and so bore fruit.
When we apply well-cultivated awareness to this area we readily recognise for ourselves how in some situations we need to be assertive and in others we need to yield. Hence we see that agility is one aspect of right effort. It means we can move and adjust according to what is required. It is the opposite of rigidity, which causes us to make brittle and often insensitive responses. With the ease of agile attention we can flow with conditions. Sometimes we need to protect something wholesome: at other times what is required is a decisive dismissal or throwing out of something unwholesome. There are times when we know we need to make effort to develop a particular wholesome quality in which we are deficient, and at other times what is called for is a strengthening of our spiritual immune system; building defenses against the growth of unwholesomeness.
Instruction on right mindfulness asks that we cultivate the right quality of mindfulness and that we know how to apply it to the right object. The Pali word for mindfulness, sati, has as a root meaning ‘remembering’. Our work here is to generate a presence of attention in this moment here, now. The suggestion from right view is that we remember to be present for any element of struggle in our experience of this moment and see into its causes. For example we could be mindful of any number of sense objects that might be manifesting at any given time. For our practice to be productive in terms of releasing compulsive grasping, we must train the faculty of mindfulness to attend to that which is most relevant.
Inspiration has a big part to play in this training. As we study the teachings and engage in Dhamma dialogue (dhammasakaccha) our interest is quickened and our attention directed towards the right objects of mindfulness. That is, we are prompted to remember, at the time we need to remember, to look at what we need to look at in order to let go. Traditionally, students of Dhamma would set time aside tot listen to recitation of suttas to find this kind of inspiration. We can still do this but, as the Buddha himself advised, we need to know what we are listening to. There is a cultural tradition thtat assumes that just to hear the teachings recited, even in a language that is not understood, brings benefit. I’m not sure what the benefit is besides patient endurance. Remember, the cultivation of sati is the point, not the form.
Some years ago I lived with a young monk who was passionately committed to observing the noble and ascetic practice of not lying down to sleep, (nesajjik’anga vatta) which is aimed at developing a powerful form of mindfulness. In fact this austere practice (dhutanga) means not lying down at all and there are few who succeed in keeping it. It is very challenging and if we don’t get it right then it can create problems. So this particular monk only managed to develop the ability to sleep in all postures, even standing up! He reluctantly put aside this austerity when his teacher told him that practice without sati wasn’t practice at all. Talking about the value of mindfulness, Ajahn Chah used to go even further in saying that to the degree we are without sati, we are without sanity. We can see from this the emphasis that needs to be given to mindfulness.
Usually, when this subject is discussed, the idea arises of our having to attain to extraordinary, lofty states. Along with this idea comes the sense that we either gird ourselves up for the challenge and aspire with all we’ve got for the heights of jhana or ‘absorption’, or alternatively we quietly despair, thinking that there is no way we could reach such a goal with the kind of fickle minds we have. Both of these attitudes are fine; they arise out of the type of effort we have been making so far.
Now we receive the gift of an opportunity to simply observe, free form judgement, the perfectly understandable struggle in which we are involved. We remember that heedlessly taking sides is not the Way. Pretending that we don’t have sides is not the Way either. But the process of expanding awareness beyond the limitations with which we are familiar to include all sides delivers us into a state of focus and clarity.
For some this type of concentration can be more readily sustained. The quality of concentration we might arrive at through willfully suppressing distracting tendencies of mind is dependent on the application of a function of our minds that has often been over-used. Whenever we apply will we are inclined to over-apply it. It is true that we do need to exercise and discipline will, but for many of us it is more important to learn to relax our trying and, by way of a path of contemplation, come to accommodate all tendencies of mind in vast awareness.
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t practice focusing on our meditation object, but I do want to support the right kind of focusing. If we force ourselves to attend to something that we are not genuinely interested in, then it is only a matter of time before we resent ourselves for being so unkind. Not that we will see it like that. Most likely we will become bored and think that the mediation object or the system is not suitable for us. Maybe we will become disheartened and give up, which would be a pity if all that is wrong is our approach.
If we can get interested in what we are doing then focus comes naturally. In formal mediation practice we should try to hold our object as we would hold something we really valued and cared about – as we would hold a child. So, in cultivating right concentration we need to exercise great care and kindness in seeking our way.
TAKING UP THE VISION
The effort we make as we gently but consciously engage our way of contemplation nurtures a new life – a spiritual life that is born out of a commitment to the Middle Way. The being that lives this new life is nobody’s being; it belongs to the Way itself. This being is equipped with the skills of attention and interest in reality. The previously distracting tendencies of our conditioned nature now form the landscape along the Way on which we travel. Maybe we will still wander off the path but the impulse towards freedom draws us back. The clarity of the vision of right view acts as a beacon from which our hearts can take direction.
The teaching of the Four Noble Truths re-forms our attitude to life and its struggles; it helps clear up the distortions of our mistaken views. Taking up the vision of self-existent well-being, we are inspired to work, inwardly and outwardly, until our involvement in all of life falls into a perceivable harmony with this present moment. The Way that has been shown us is that which is beneath our feet. We know now what to do to move on.