Ven. Balangoda Anandamaitreya
(a Talk at Vedanta Centre Santa Barbara California
on July 19, 1996)
First of all I must thank Swamiji and the Vedanta nuns for inviting me to give a talk on this important occasion. The talk will be on “Meditation of Mindfulness” in practice. I will try to explain, from Buddhist point of view, mindfulness and its development.
When we think of mindfulness, first of all we must understand what unmindfulness is. There are so many things which are on the opposite side of mindfulness: lack of attention, carelessness, absent-mindedness, forgetfulness, negligence and neglect. So, in this way, we have to understand the harm that unmindfulness might bring to us, to our spiritual life as well, as to our daily life. From this way we can understand, little by little, the value of mindfulness.
For example, suppose there is some dirt in a dark corner of a house. The householder doesn’t care because, at first, there is very little dirt in that dark nook. Every day, gradually some more debris collects there. Even though sometimes he goes to that side of the house and sees, the dirt, he thinks, “Oh, this is very little. Some otherday I will clear it up”. But he doesn’t do anything about it. He attends to other works instead. Day by day this dirt collects. After some months, when he sees that it is a heap of dirt, he then begins to think that it would be very difficult to remove it all at once. “I will get somebody to remove it some day.”
A year passes. What happens? Suddenly the members of the house feel a little sick. Some strong odor comes from somewhere, but they are not so attentive to know from where it comes. So after awhile they get sick and have to see a doctor and receive treatment. For the time being, they get better. But again they get sick. They don’t know why, because they simply can’t find out the reason for the sickness. However, the thorough doctor discovers the cause of all the trouble: the heap of dirt has become a cradle of mosquitoes, cockroaches, and other harmful insects. Thus, at last they have to remove the whole amount of refuse. However, it is very difficult because there are many layers, due to the age of the debris. After it is removed and that part of the house is cleaned, all ill-health disappears.
That is the nature of carelessness: it becomes a cause of so much harm and danger, even to the body. Similarly, it is the case with our lives. Just as unmindfulness, with regard to our external environment, can bring us trouble, so ‘it’ is unmindfulness that can create serious problems in business affairs and trade, as well as in the affairs of state. However, unmindfulness plays still greater havoc with our inner life, if we are not cautious. “The failure to achieve full knowledge of one’s own nature is the worst and greatest loss,” said the Lord Buddha. In this connection, I will explain how the neglect of even a slight defect can bring great harm to oneself.
Sometimes a person may carelessly seek a fight. For fun he pretends to be rough. At the start it is fun and playfulness but later it becomes a habit. In short, he turns into a quarrelsome person. He doesn’t care. “These are simple things,” he may think. But, due to negligence, his behaviour becomes a habit. As habits leave some impressions in the dark nook of the mind, these impressions, lying dormant, cannot be rooted out, because he is not attentive. Instead, they grow slowly and develop into hindrances to spiritual development. They may also develop to such an extent that they become the source of crimes and acts of aggression.
Again, sometimes one may see a beautiful person of the opposite sex, and feel some kindness. He understands that he has a kind or loving feeling towards that person. Of course, love, kindness, and unselfishness are virtues. And this kindness brings both people together as friends to help each other in need. Kindness is a very good thing. But, little by little, due to carelessness, this kindness, or love, may turn into lust. At the start, it appears to be a virtue – very good quality of his heart. But due to unmindfulness, it turns to lust one day and impels them to live an immoral life together.
Sometimes a person may dislike a wayward person. He is not angry with him, but he doesn’t like the other person’s evil ways. This dislike for wayward people or their bad deeds is good, but if he is not mindful enough, gradually he will begin to get angry. At last there may arise within his heart some sort of hatred. Thus he may develop into a hot-tempered person. Dislike for bad people is good, but hatred or anger is not. One should not be angry with anybody – even for a wrong deed. Thus, if you are not careful you might be affected by anger.
Lust, hatred, jealousy, pride, and such other unwholesome states, arising in the heart, spoil one’s whole being. The original cause of all these defilements of the heart is unmindfulness, which is based on ignorance. On the other hand, if a person tries to be attentive at every step of his life, let alone mindfulness in higher religious practices, such attentiveness would undoubtedly lead to great success. If a child studies his lesson, with every word he must be mindful, otherwise some very important instructions may escape his notice. It is then that he can understand and incorporate everything perfectly. On one occasion the Buddha said, “Sati sabbatthika.” This means, “Mindfulness is advantageous in every activity.” On another occasion he said, “All successful practice could be expressed in one word; that is appamanda, which means, ‘vigilance’, or ‘mindfulness’”
Generally the Buddha advised his disciples, both monks and laymen, not to step beyond the boundary, and the boundary is mindfulness, which is to developed in four ways termed as four satipatthanas.
The four requisites necessary for every living being to maintain himself or herself are: a covering for the body, food and drink, a place to rest, and medical treatment. The Buddha advised his disciples to use these requisites mindfully. That is why Buddhist monks and nuns maintain silence when they use such requisites. When they don their robes, they should meditate: “I don this robe not to decorate the body or enhance my beauty, but just to cover my nakedness and keep it free from the effects of heat and cold and insects.” Similarly, when they eat, it is with the thought, “I take this just to remove my hunger and thirst and to keep my health in order to live a pure, religious life – never for the sake of enjoyment or to gratify my greediness. When they sit or lie down, they must muse on the purpose of sitting or lying down, thus: “I use this seat or bed to give me rest, to protect me from the effects of wind and heat and insects. The purpose of giving refreshment to the body is to continue my religious life successfully, and never for the sake of enjoyment.” And then, when they take some medicine, they have to be mindful of the purpose of taking medicine – that is, to remove ill health and to keep well. So, every moment, they have to be mindful.
In every activity we have to be mindful. Mindfulness applied to higher and higher practices will certainly give higher and higher results. When one keeps precepts, one should always be attentive that one does not break any rule. Thus, in observing precepts and in keeping vows, one must be ever mindful not to allow one’s thoughts to wander toward the objects of temptation. It is only when one is unmindful, that a rule or vow is broken.
Keeping precepts, or building a good character, is the foundation for the development of higher virtues. And for the sake of his inner development, a person of good character must practise meditation.
There are two types of meditation practices, as taught by the Buddha. One practice leads to ecstatic trances, reducing the grossness of the mind step-by-step, inviting more and more calmness, peace, serenity, and purity to the heart and mind. The other kind of meditation, not only brings peace of mind, but also opens the mind’s eyes to see perfectly the exact nature of oneself and others. In brief, it leads the aspirant to clear comprehension both the nature of the world and the nature of that which is beyond the world.
The first kind of mediation begins by fixing the mind on one point, which eventually leads it away from all tempting objects. There are forty objects of meditation, approved in the Buddhist system of meditation, one of which the expert meditation teacher chooses as suitable for the practitioner. For a beginner, the practice of fixing the attention on the spot where the breach touches the nostrils is recommended as being very fruitful. Starting with mindful attention on his breath, the aspirant has to rise in his practice, step-by-step, passing through the eight different grades of ecstatic trances. When he rises, at last, to the trance of extreme fineness of mind, wherein he feels his mind is neither conscious nor unconscious, he has come to the consummation of his concentration development. Throughout this practice, he must be mindful and attentive to the object on which his mind is fixed.
A person who has developed his mindfulness to such a level still has not yet attained to full freedom from suffering. He has only suppressed all mental defilements and their consequences. As a result of this kind of inner development, he is said to be reborn after death into a higher and finer state of life. He may live in this blissful state aeons of years, but would return to this gross plane of the world after the force of ecstasy (he has accumulated by means of his practice) is exhausted.
Now he has to practise the other line of meditation: the practice of vipassana. It is very easy for a person who has developed concentration and mindfulness to turn his channel to the practice of vipassana. Vipassana is the method of investigating the conditioned things of the world form various angles. It is the development of introspection.
The practitioner of this system must start with something conditioned. The most important and useful object of one’s search is oneself. The aspirant must first examine and mentally analyse his body. Any part of the body, he can examine and analyse how it has been formed and of what sort of things it consists. Applying his mindfulness at every step of this self-examination, the aspirant must analyse his entire body. Eventually he will realise that every part of his body is impermanent, subject to change, aging and disease and lacking any abiding substance. He will find that the entire body is just an aspect of nature, it is impersonal and does not belong to him. The body exists because of certain conditions and when these conditions ceases the body dies. This is the law of nature.
After analysing the nature of his body, the aspirant should examine his mind - how thoughts, images and emotions arise and pass away. If he keenly examines his mind, he will find that all mental states are yet faster in their momentary change than gross material states. The mind is impermanent, is the cause of suffering and dissatisfaction, and it is impersonal, lacking any abiding substance. He will see that “me” and “mine” are only concepts created by his thinking process.
When the aspirant comes to the culmination of this practice, he will see the exact nature of the conditioned world. At this state, he will also see its opposite side which is the Unconditioned, Unmade, the Real, and the Eternal. This is the end of his religious practice. At all these steps, mindfulness plays the prominent role. Without mindfulness, no success is to be expected.