Monthly Archives: April 2012

Seeking Inner Peace

One of the main teachings in Buddhism is how we deal with the problems and adversities we are faced with in everyday life – by understanding and preventing their causes. We are usually accustomed to looking towards outward circumstances for the reasons we have such difficulties in our life, but with the application of techniques such as meditation – Buddhist teaching urges us to look inwards. Most of our feelings of alienation and dissatisfaction are the result of negative states of mind we encounter throughout our lives, namely: anger, sense-desire, and ignorance. Buddha also taught us how to overcome and eliminate these negative states of mind by understanding and applying the Noble Eightfold Path while developing more positive states of mind such as compassion, generosity, virtue, wisdom, etc.

There is all of this talk about this thing called “inner peace”, and how it is the real source of lasting happiness. If inner peace is referring to a calm, stilled mind – then yes, this is pretty close to the truth. For example, when the mind is agitated – then it does not matter how peaceful our outward circumstances are. Alternatively, if the mind is calmed and at peace then one may be able to encounter any amount of outward difficulties without the least bit of disturbance.

Of course, you can find inner peace right where you are by letting go, taking a step back, and realizing that everyone, everywhere suffers the hardships of life – although for others it may be more or less. Or, perhaps you could simply try looking at it from another perspective. This may not actually be as easy as it sounds, for it will require all of your reasoning skills to look at your situation as objectively as possible.

For example, think of someone you don’t like at all. You might think of them as having nothing but negative qualities. On the other hand, think of someone you absolutely love or adore. You might perceive them as having 100% positive qualities – or as being near perfect. However, neither of these views are grounded in reality. If a friend, whom you think of as having 100% good qualities, purposely does something that hurts you – you will suddenly become aware that they are not 100% perfect. Likewise, if someone you dislike sincerely begs you for your forgiveness, then you will become aware that they are not 100% bad, after all. Therefore, this tendency we have to see our situation as completely negative or positive is only due to our own perception based on our own mental projection, rather than due to the true nature of our situation.

Once someone asked Nanao Sakaki, the Japanese poet who saw Hiroshima and was a leading personality of Buzoku (“The Tribe”, a counterculture of 1960’s and 70’s Japan), “How do we survive nuclear catastrophe?” He simply stated, “No need to survive. No need to survive hell either. Wherever you are, that can be the pure land.”

Perhaps this is a bit more straightforward. If you wish to transform your life and attain “inner peace” you must first learn to transform your mind. Suffering, stress, problems, anxieties, anguish, worries, unhappiness, and pain all exist within the mind; they are all unpleasant feelings, which are part of the mind. Through controlling and purifying our mind we can stop them once and for all. In Buddhism, this is achieved by examining, understanding, and applying what is known as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

To quote the Dhammapada:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

The Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön also offers this heartfelt advice in her book When Things Fall Apart. She explains that sometimes, in order to have inner peace, the point isn’t necessarily to overcome the problems – but to have a deeper understanding of them, and to act accordingly.

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”


The Ten Recollections as Practical Tools for Meditation

In a previous post I explained that samma-sati, as the seventh step of the Eightfold Path, is called “right mindfulness” as it refers to discerning phenomena as they truly are, in and of themselves, while staying ardent, alert, and mindful while putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. Anussati means recollection, contemplation, mindfulness, meditation, etc. There are ten anussati (recollections) which are used as practical tools to counter any particular challenges or unskillful states of mind we may come across in meditative practice. However, technically speaking, only seven of these are really “recollections” (anussati) – because three of these are actually types of mindfulness (sati) practice.

The Ekadhammapaei says if these recollections are developed, they will invariably lead to “weariness, cessation, appeasement, realization and extinction.” These recollections and mindfulness practices highlight the roles that memory and thought play in training our mind. Sati, as mindfulness, is an active function of our memory as it refers to the ability to keep something in mind, such as certain intentions or thoughts, to induce the mental states of confidence and well-being which are necessary for developing concentration, tranquility and insight. This is to incline the mind, once tranquility and insight have been sufficiently developed, towards the deathless or “consciousness without feature”.

The Mahanama Sutta says that the recollections can be developed “while you are walking, while you are standing, while you are sitting, while you are lying down, while you are busy at work, while you are resting in your home crowded with children.” Therefore, these meditative tools can be practiced and developed anywhere and at any time.

The ten recollections and mindfulness practices can be summarized as follows:
1. Recollection of the Buddha (Buddhanussati)

2. Recollection of the Dharma (Dhammanussati)
These first two recollections induce a sense of confidence (pasada) in the teachings and practice set forth by Buddha.

3. Recollection of the Sangha (Sanghanussati)
The recollection of the Sangha can induce a sense of confidence (pasada) in the teachings and discipline set forth by Buddha, and in one’s own ability to follow the practice.

4. Recollection of one’s own virtues (silanussati)

5. Recollection of one’s own liberality (caganussati)

6. Recollection of the devas (devatanussati)
These last three recollections induce a sense of confidence (pasada) in one’s ability to follow the teachings and discipline of the Buddha. The joy and confidence induced may help bring the mind to concentration and cleanse it of fermentations and defilements. This is performed as an adjunct to mindfulness practice. For example, by cultivating the virtue, generosity, and other qualities attributed to the devas – our mind can become more focused, as we gain a better sense of the Dharma, and a sense of the joy that is connected with it. It is when we have become “joyful” that “rapture” arises. It follows that when we are rapturous that the body grows calm. When our body, and more importantly our mind, is calmed – there is pleasure. And it is when there is this sense of pleasure that our mind becomes more easily concentrated.

7. Mindfulness of in-and-out breathing (anapanasati)
Of all of the themes regarding meditation taught by the Buddha, mindfulness of in-and-out breathing is treated in the most detail. Mindfulness of in-and-out breathing and mindfulness immersed in the body are the two primary themes for developing tranquility and insight leading to strong concentration in terms of the jhanas (or meditative absorptions). The development of these jhanas gives added power to tranquility and insight in leading the mind to release.

8. Mindfulness of death (maranassati)
Mindfulness of death is meant to evoke a sense of samvega – that is, an anxious sense of urgency in which the ordinary intoxication with life will either grow weaker or be entirely abandoned. This involves understanding the dangers and futility of human life, with all of its fermentations and defilements, with a sense of urgency in finding a way beyond such limitations. This further induces a quality of heedfulness in approaching Buddhist practice, which is basic to all skillful endeavors. For example, when one considers that: “I am not the only one subject to death, who has not gone beyond death. To the extent that there are beings – past and future, passing away and re-arising – all beings are subject to death, have not gone beyond death”, and this is often reflected upon, that the factors of the path will become apparent. This can inspire us to stick with the path, developing and cultivating it until the fetters are abandoned, and latent tendencies are destroyed.

9. Mindfulness immersed in the body (kayagatasati)
Mindfulness of in-and-out breathing and mindfulness immersed in the body play complementary roles on the path. There is also much overlap between the two, such as the first four steps of breath meditation are also listed as techniques in mindfulness immersed in the body. Mindfulness immersed in the body, such as its aspect as contemplation of the unattractiveness of the body, can take on strong fermentations that in some cases do not respond to the tranquil concentration induced by mindfulness of in-and-out breathing.

However, if mindfulness immersed in the body does induce strong feelings of disgust and revulsion which may cause the mind to respond in very unskillful ways, the practicing mindfulness of in-and-out breathing again can help dispel such feelings – by replacing them with a refreshing feeling which may helps keep the mind remain more skillful. Therefore, these two practices in mindfulness work together to keep the mind balanced and on course.

10. Recollection of peace or stilling (upasamanussati)
Once the mind has been brought to a developed state of tranquility and insight – and is even able to discern the pleasures of jhana as inconstant, stressful, and not-self – recollection of stilling is prescribed by the Buddha so that the mind will not simply keep focused on the drawbacks of fabricated experiences. This is achieved by inclining the mind to the property of deathlessness: the exquisite peace regarding the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving – that is, dispassion, cessation, Nirvana.

Spiritual Materialism and Cherry Picking

These days, it’s common to see someone spend tons of money on their new spiritual knick-knacks, or the self-help books from the “New Age section”, and “spiritual” lectures. People often pick and choose from many different traditions, leaving out anything they deem problematic or challenging. In essence, they end up with a shallow “spiritual” practice that is nothing more than justification for their already well-established, preconceived notions.

The controversial Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa called this “spiritual materialism”. In his book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism he stated that:

“Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively. There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism.”

Now, I have already talked a bit on the relationship between Buddhism and other faiths. It is also well known that the Buddha taught everyone, regardless of caste, race, gender, etc. The Dharma places a higher value on a person’s ethic and virtue rather than what family or caste one was born into. Buddha stated in the Vasala Sutta that, “not by birth is one an outcast; not by birth is one a brahman. By deed one becomes an outcast, by deed one becomes an brahman.” That being said, did Buddha ever really teach that all religious paths are beneficial? Do they all lead to the same destinations, and bear the same results? Well, the analytical answer to these questions can be found in the Silabbata Sutta, where Ananda states:

“When — by following a life of precept & practice, a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth — one’s unskillful mental qualities increase while one’s skillful mental qualities decline: that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitless. But when — by following a life of precept & practice, a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth — one’s unskillful mental qualities decline while one’s skillful mental qualities increase: that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitful.”

Actually, in the Sakka-pañha Sutta, the deva-king Sakka directly asked the Buddha, “Dear sir, do all priests & contemplatives teach the same doctrine, adhere to the same precepts, desire the same thing, aim at the same goal?” The Buddha replied:

“No, deva-king, not all priests & contemplatives teach the same doctrine, adhere to the same precepts, desire the same thing, aim at the same goal.”

“Why, dear sir, don’t all priests & contemplatives teach the same doctrine, adhere to the same precepts, desire the same thing, aim at the same goal?”

“The world is made up of many properties, various properties. Because of the many & various properties in the world, then whichever property living beings get fixated on, they become entrenched & latch onto it, saying, ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ This is why not all priests & contemplatives teach the same doctrine, adhere to the same precepts, desire the same thing, aim at the same goal.”

So it is obvious that the Buddha did not teach that, despite what some so-called “New Age gurus” would have you believe, all religions are the same. Not all teachings and practices are suited for everyone. In Buddhist Culture, The Cultured Buddhist, Robert Bogoda points out that:

They therefore err who say that all spiritual paths lead to the same summit and that the view from the top is identical for all. The reason is simple: the Buddha saw the true nature of things clearly and completely with his own independent supramundane insight — his perfect enlightenment — and so his teaching is an exact reflection of reality, while other religious teachers had only an imperfect view of reality, with eyes dimmed by various forms and degrees of ignorance (avijja).

This, however, does not imply that Buddhism is intolerant of other religions. Neither the Buddha nor his followers ever imposed his system of thought or his way of life on anyone who would not accept it of his or her own volition. Acceptance was a purely voluntary matter. Even if accepted, how much of it one should practice is one’s own responsibility. But regardless of one’s personal inclinations, the universal moral laws operate objectively — action being followed by due reaction, deeds by their fruits. The Buddha merely reveals the laws of life, and the more faithfully we follow them, the better it is for us, for then we act according to the Dhamma.

A lot of people quote the Kalama Sutta as being some sort of justification for picking and choosing from whatever tradition they want. Although it is clear that the Buddha was advocating free inquiry and critical analysis, what the Buddha was suggesting is that, of course, we shouldn’t simply follow spiritual traditions simply because they are traditions. However, we also shouldn’t just blindly follow our own preferences simply because it seems logical and resonates with us. Instead, every view, tradition, belief, etc. should be tested by the results they yield, and to further protect us from any of our own bias and limitations, they must be checked by the experiences of already well-established masters and those who are considered “wise”. Only after we have realized that, “these things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness”, we should “enter on and abide in them”.

Spending a lot of money on spiritual material or cherry-picking from various religious traditions may seem easier at first, but we are essentially only feeding our “ego” when we do so. Instead, we should critically analyze every tradition – and even our own opinions, and put them all to the test. Only after such testing by practice and seeing the results for ourselves should we ever consider settling for any tradition. It’s perfectly okay to not belong to any tradition, and to test each of them out for many years before ever committing to one. In fact, that would be much better than just “diving in” into any tradition simply because of its outward attractiveness, or following any teacher simply because of their charisma. That is exactly how people end up in cults, and end up being even more confused than when they initially began their spiritual journey. So take your time – there is no need to rush anything. The Dharma is open to all, but ultimately you will have to find that out for yourself – on your own.

Bodhisattvas: The Buddhas-to-Be

In my last post, I talked about the different stages of awakening culminating in the realization of arahantship. Therefore, this post will be discussing the bodhisattva idea in Buddhism. Prior to his enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha often referred to himself as an “unawakened bodhisatta”. The Jataka Tales also recount stories of the previous lives of Shakyamuni Buddha as a bodhisattva. Therefore, the bodhisattva (Pali: bodhisatta) basically refers to a “Buddha-to-be”, as it literally means “perfect wisdom/enlightenment (bodhi) truth (sattva)”. There are currently some well known bodhisattvas like Maitreya (who will be the next Sammasam Buddha), and especially in Mahayana such as Guan Yin, Ksitigarbha, Manjusri, etc.

The Bodhisattva is primarily motivated by bodhicitta (literally ” awakening mind”) which is the wish to attain Buddhahood in order to benefit all sentient beings who are trapped in Samsara (cyclic existence). There are two types of bodhicitta. They are aspiring or relative bodhicitta in which the practitioner works to free all beings from bondage and suffering, and engaging or absolute bodhicitta in which the practitioner clearly sees that the bondage and suffering are illusory and never existed in the first place.

Therefore, in Mahayana, the bodhisattva is compassionately dedicated to assisting all sentient beings in achieving complete Buddhahood – the highest state of enlightenment. This means that the bodhisattva doesn’t practice only for their own enlightenment, but rather for the enlightenment of all. Out of compassion, the bodhisattva remains in this world of ignorance, illusions/delusions, sickness, and death while experiencing what everyone one else experiences until all sentient beings are liberated. In short, the bodhisattva has delayed their entrance to Nirvana (liberation) and thus remain in Samsara (the cycle of life and death) by taking the Bodhisattva Vow to achieve enlightenment as quickly as possible so that they can teach Dharma until all have awakened to enlightenment and can enter Nirvana. The Bodhisattva Vow is:

Ordinary-beings are innumerable, I vow to liberate them all
Defilements are endless, I vow to eliminate them all
Buddha’s teachings are unlimited, I vow to learn them all
The ways of enlightenment are supreme, I vow to achieve them all

Also, in Mahayana, the bodhisatta progresses through ten stages, or bhumis. Bhumi literally means “ground” or “foundation”, as each bhumi represents a level of attainment which also serves as the basis for the next one. Also, a bodhisattva can choose either of three paths to help sentient beings in the process of achieving Buddhahood. They are King-like Bodhisattva, or one who aspires to become Buddha as soon as possible and then help sentient beings in full fledge; Boatman-like Bodhisattva, one who aspires to achieve Buddhahood along with other sentient beings; and Shepherd-like Bodhisattva, one who aspires to delay Buddhahood until all other sentient beings achieve Buddhahood. Bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara and Shantideva (among others) are believed to fall under the latter category.

Kosho Uchiyama explains the Mahayana view in What is a Bodhisattva? as:

“A bodhisattva is an ordinary person who takes up a course in his or her life that moves in the direction of buddha. You’re a bodhisattva, I’m a bodhisattva; actually, anyone who directs their attention, their life, to practicing the way of life of a buddha is a bodhisattva. We read about Kannon Bosatsu (Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva) or Monju Bosatsu (Manjushri Bodhisattva), and these are great bodhisattvas, but we, too, have to have confidence or faith that we are also bodhisattvas.”

Yet, Ven. Ajahn Chah once commented, “Do not be a bodhisattva, do not be an arahant, do not be anything at all. If you are a bodhisattva, you will suffer, if you are an arahant, you will suffer, if you are anything at all, you will suffer.” However, this has more to do with not getting caught up in self-identity and views.

The Stages of Awakening

In Buddhism, panna (Skt. prajna) refers to the wisdom that is based on a realization of dependent origination, the Four Noble Truths and the three marks of existence. It is also listed as the sixth of the six paramitas in Mahayana. Panna is the wisdom that is able to extinguish afflictions and bring about bodhi.

Bodhi, buddhi, and Buddha all come from the verbal root of buddh which literally means to be awake, become aware, to notice, to know or understand, etc. Buddhi refers to intelligence or the intellect, and bodhi is awakening, knowing, or enlightenment. Bodhi is attained when the Four Noble Truths are fully grasped, and all karma has reached cessation. According to Mahayana sutras, if a person does not aim for bodhi, one lives one’s life like a preoccupied child playing with toys in a house that is burning to the ground. With bodhi, one may realize Nirvana.

In order to “wake up”, we have to stay mindful. It is with this mindfulness that we keep the mind grounded in the present moment for the purpose of awakening. The desire for awakening is not such a bad thing, because it is a desire which brings about the cessation of dukkha (stress, suffering, etc). Awakening is the destination, the “other shore”, and mindfulness keeps our focused attention on the path towards awakening – rather than being distracted from it.

The development of mindfulness is fourfold as it involves contemplation of the body, contemplation of feelings, contemplation of the mind, and contemplation of mental qualities/mind phenomena. This leads to investigation and eventually a sharp analytical knowledge of the Dharma, which will bring about the mental qualities or properties of energy or persevering effort and happiness/joy/rapture. Of course, this leads to the calm and tranquility of the body and mind. With this, one develops a concentrated mind which sees things as they really are, resulting in equanimity. This equanimity is neutrality, or a mental equilibrium rather than indifference.

There are basically eight levels of awakening, corresponding to the four pairs of noble disciples:
1. The path of stream-enterer (Sotapanna)
2. The fruition of stream-entry
3. The path of once-returner (Sakadagami)
4. The fruition of once-returning
5. The path of non-returner (Anagami)
6. The fruition of non-returning
7. The path of arahantship (Arahatta)
8. The fruition of arhahantship

The first stage of Sotapanna literally means “one who enters the stream”, with the “stream” referring to the Noble Eightfold path. The sottapanna will realize arahantship within seven lifetimes, as they have “opened the eye of Dharma” (dhammacakkhu) and will never be reborn as anything lower than a human. There have been various accounts, as a result of present kusala kamma (wholesome actions), of many lay disciples (upasaka and upasika) realizing stream-entry. Lay Buddhists can also be very serious practitioners and teachers of the Dharma. It just isn’t as easy of a path as those who practice as a renunciate monk or nun. Ordaining as a monk or nun simply means placing oneself in the best environment and circumstance for practice and awakening.

The Sakadagami is one who will only be reborn as a human one more time. Both the Sotapanna and the Sakadagami have abandoned the first three fetters of identity view, doubt, and ritual attachment; however, the Sakadagami has weakened lust, hatred and delusion to a greater degree. Thus the once-returner has fewer than seven rebirths, but only one more of which is human before rebirth in higher planes.

The third stage is the Anagami, literally “one who does not come”. Having overcome the five lower fetters – including ill will and sensuality, the Anagami does not return to the human world – or any lower world, for that matter. Instead, they are reborn in the highest realms of Rupadhatu called “Saddhavasa” or “Pure Abodes”. It is here that the Anagami attains arahantship and Nirvana. An Arahant is a fully enlightened being who has abandoned all ten fetters (including lust for material rebirth, lust for immaterial rebirth, conceit, restlessness and delusive ignorance) which binds all beings to cyclic existence. Therefore, they will never be reborn in any plane or world since they have completely escaped Samsara.

The monks and nuns who aspire for arahantship are called Bhikkhus (or Bhiskus) and Bhikkhunis (or Bhiksuni), respectively. These almsmen and almswomen are dedicated practitioners and teachers of the Dharma. They stand for alms, but do not ask for alms. They don’t even handle money. However, lay disciples of the Buddha are called Upasaka and Upasika, or householders. Lay Buddhists still very much live within the sensual world, and are therefore subject to rebirth in the rounds of Samsara (cyclic existence). Therefore householders are not expected to follow the Vinaya (code of monastic discipline) and practice as renunciate Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

There have been lay Anagamis and Arahants listed in the Suttas. However, there are far more monks and nuns mentioned that have realized full awakening. This is because the life of the monastic is more conducive to the practice and discipline required for the realization of full awakening.

Giving Up Everything?

Although Buddha did leave his entire kingdom, and family, when he renounced the world as an ascetic in search for enlightenment – he did not leave them all behind for good. After his enlightenment, both his wife and son joined the Sangha (Community) as a bhikkhuni (nun) and bhikkhu (monk), respectively – as did most of his family. In fact, Buddha’s son has his own short sutta, naturally called the Rahula Sutta. It was Buddha’s maternal aunt, Mahapajapati, who not only raised Buddha when his mother (Queen Mahamaya) died a week after his birth – but she also became the very first bhikkhuni.

Buddhism is a “gradual instruction” (anupubbi-katha) which utilizes “gradual training” (anupubbi-sikkha) on the path of enlightenment and Nirvana. Therefore, penetrating enlightenment doesn’t occur for the untrained and unprepared mind, but only after a long, gradual progression through many stages. In my post Smells Like Nirvana, I explained that the stage of “renunciation” is simply “giving up” or “letting go of” the more familiar, conditioned forms of happiness for a more noble, pure, unconditional and lasting form of happiness – that is, Nirvana. This release of sense-desire can be seen as “going against the stream” of our intrinsic cravings.

Therefore, “renunciation” is not necessarily about the “giving up of everything”; rather, it is about realizing that they will pass away. In fact, the Buddha’s last words are said to be, “All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness (presence of mindfulness)!” Therefore, Buddhism is really about realizing the true nature of all phenomena, and renouncing the conditioned forms of happiness for something even more noble and pure.

However, in the Tapussa Sutta, Ven. Ananda and Tapussa the householder went to the Buddha saying that since householders “indulge in sensuality, delight in sensuality, enjoy sensuality, rejoice in sensuality” that the path of renunciation seems like “a sheer drop-off” and is contrary to the popular opinion of most people. The Buddha goes on to explain meditative practice can only truly begin when one appreciates the value of true “renunciation”:

“So it is, Ananda. So it is. Even I myself, before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened Bodhisatta, thought: ‘Renunciation is good. Seclusion is good.’ But my heart didn’t leap up at renunciation, didn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace. The thought occurred to me: ‘What is the cause, what is the reason, why my heart doesn’t leap up at renunciation, doesn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace?’ Then the thought occurred to me: ‘I haven’t seen the drawback of sensual pleasures; I haven’t pursued [that theme]. I haven’t understood the reward of renunciation; I haven’t familiarized myself with it. That’s why my heart doesn’t leap up at renunciation, doesn’t grow confident, steadfast, or firm, seeing it as peace.’

“Then the thought occurred to me: ‘If, having seen the drawback of sensual pleasures, I were to pursue that theme; and if, having understood the reward of renunciation, I were to familiarize myself with it, there’s the possibility that my heart would leap up at renunciation, grow confident, steadfast, & firm, seeing it as peace.’

“So at a later time, having seen the drawback of sensual pleasures, I pursued that theme; having understood the reward of renunciation, I familiarized myself with it. My heart leaped up at renunciation, grew confident, steadfast, & firm, seeing it as peace. Then, quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities, I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation…”

The Hatthaka Sutta compares the path of renunciation to getting a good night’s sleep:

“Always, always, he sleeps in ease: the brahman totally unbound, who doesn’t adhere to sensual pleasures, who’s without acquisitions & cooled. Having cut all ties & subdued fear in the heart, calmed, he sleeps in ease, having reached peace of awareness.”

Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day! Today marks the 42nd anniversary of the modern environmental movement which began in 1970. The founder of Earth Day was the then U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, who proposed the first nationwide environmental protest “to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.” According to the California Community Environmental Council in Santa Barbara, “The story goes that Earth Day was conceived by Senator Gaylord Nelson after a trip he took to Santa Barbara right after that horrific oil spill off our coast in 1969. He was so outraged by what he saw that he went back to Washington and passed a bill designating April 22 as a national day to celebrate the earth.”

In The Buddhist Attitude Towards Nature, Lily de Silva points out that:

“Prior to the rise of Buddhism people regarded natural phenomena such as mountains, forests, groves, and trees with a sense of awe and reverence. They considered them as the abode of powerful non-human beings who could assist human beings at times of need. Though Buddhism gave man a far superior Triple Refuge (tisarana) in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, these places continued to enjoy public patronage at a popular level, as the acceptance of terrestrial non-human beings such as devatas and yakkhas did not violate the belief system of Buddhism. Therefore among the Buddhists there is a reverential attitude towards specially long-standing gigantic trees. They are vanaspati in Pali, meaning ‘lords of the forests.’ As huge trees such as the ironwood, the sala, and the fig are also recognized as the Bodhi trees of former Buddhas, the deferential attitude towards trees is further strengthened. It is well known that the ficus religiosa is held as an object of great veneration in the Buddhist world today as the tree under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment.”

Also on this day, back in 1954, the United Nations put into force the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees which guaranteed asylum to those persecuted in their homelands on account of their ethnicity, religion, or political opinion.

Are We Alone?

The image of Brahmajala, or Indra’s Net, is used as a metaphor to describe the unimpeded interpretation of the entire cosmos. At each interval of this net there is a luminous gem which not only mirrors the other gems, but also all of the multiple images that are reflected in them as well – ad infinitum. Therefore Indra’s Net represents a chiliocosm, or countless universes which comprise the greater multiverse.

In the Kosala Sutta, Buddha explains that there are other world systems with other suns, other planets, and other beings on them. The Buddha explains that these world systems will deteriorate or “devolve” and die out, while new ones are in the process of evolving. Therefore there are many different worlds, in many different solar systems, and to think that we are the pinnacle of evolution in the entire universe would be very egotistical.

In fact, throughout the suttas there are many “planes”, “realms”, or “worlds” (loka) of existence into which beings can be subjected to in Samsara. These different realms can be interpreted either as literal planes of existence, or as allegorical depictions of the mental states which people may experience throughout their life. These realms can range from the dark realms of hellish torment (niraya) to even the five Pure Abodes (suddhavasa), which are accessible only to non-returners (anagami) and arahants.

However, existence in any of these realms is impermanent – there is no concept of an eternal heaven or hell. Beings are born into a particular realm according to both their past karma/consciousnessness and their karma/consciousnessness at the moment of death (cuti-citta or “dying-consciousness”). Once their karma is finally exhausted, they will pass away, and their consciousnessness will be reborn once again in the corresponding realm.

The realms of existence are usually grouped together into three distinct “worlds” themselves (Triloka):
1. The Immaterial World (arupa-loka). This realm consists of the four realms which are accessible to those who pass away while meditating in the formless jhanas.

2. The Fine-Material World (rupa-loka). This realm consists of the sixteen realms of the devas, who experience extremely refined degrees of mental pleasure. These realms are accessible to those who have attained at least some level of jhana and who have thereby managed to (temporarily) suppress hatred and ill-will. The devas are said to possess extremely refined bodies of pure light. The highest of these realms are the five Pure Abodes. The Fine-Material World and the Immaterial World together constitute the “heavens” (sagga).

3. The Sensuous World (kama-loka). This realm consists of eleven realms in which both pleasurable and non-pleasurable experience is dominated by the five senses. Seven of these realms are considered favorable destinations, and they include our very own human realm as well as several deva realms. The lowest realms are the four destinations of asuras, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell-beings.

The bhavacakra or samsara-cakka, is variously rendered in to English as the “wheel of life, becoming, rebirth, etc.” The Buddha actually never really compared this process to a wheel, but this simile is found in the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) and in the other commentarial literature. In the Visuddhimagga, Acariya Buddhaghosa commented that:

“It is the beginningless round of rebirths that is called the ‘wheel of the round of rebirths’ (samsara-cakka). Ignorance (avijja) is its hub because it is its root. Ageing-and-death (jara-marana) is its rim because it terminates it. The remaining ten states [of the dependent origination] are its spokes because ignorance is their root and aging-and-death their termination. Herein, ignorance is unknowing about suffering and the rest. And ignorance in sensual becoming is a condition for formations in sensual becoming. Ignorance in fine-material becoming is a condition for formations in fine-material becoming. Ignorance in immaterial becoming is a condition for formations in immaterial becoming. Formations in sensual becoming are a condition for rebirth-linking consciousness in sensual becoming. And similarly with the rest.”

The picture of the bhavacakra on this post is an illustration which is often seen within Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries. It is a graphical portrayal of karma, the kilesas, dependent origination and the six realms of becoming, with the wheel of becoming being held by Yama, the lord of death, as a fierce figure representing impermanence. The lowest of the six realms are the hell realms (niraya), which are regions of severe affliction and torment where evil actions receive their due atonement. There is also, of course, the animal kingdom which is where the stress/suffering (dukkha) of brute force and herd/pack mentality prevails. Next is the realm of hungry ghosts (petavisaya), which are beings afflicted with strong desires that they can never satisfy. For example, they may always be “starving to death” because their necks are so small that they could never swallow anything. Next is the human world, with its familiar balance of happiness (sukha) and stress/suffering (dukkha), virtue and ill-will. Then comes the world of the asuras, or “demi-gods”, who are titanic beings completely obsessed by jealousy and egotism. Finally, there are the heavenly realms which are inhabited by the various devas, or celestial beings.

It is easy to see how these different realms are metaphors for the various psychological states of the mind. If these realms are taken literally, one may wonder how – if all conditioned things are impermanent and not-self, there is rebirth. Simply put, there is no fixed, permanent, abiding entity which experiences rebirth. The principle of rebirth states that karmic influence (kammavega) perpetuates the cyclic existence of suffering and stress called Samsara. Although rebirth may appear to be a continuing process which lasts for an inconceivably long time, there is an end to the process of becoming. The process of rebirth is not permanent. When the afflictions (kilesa) of ignorance (avijja, lit. “unawareness”), delusion (moha), lobha (greed, covetousness, etc), aversion (dosa), conceit (mana), etc. is uprooted and Nirvana is attained, there is no more future becoming.

What is Your Original Face?

In Case 23 of the Mumonkan, Hui Meng (Jp: Emyo) is jealous that Hui-neng (Jp: Eno; the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism) has received the robe and bowl of their master, and chases him through the mountains trying to take the robe and bowl by force. Hui-neng places the robe and bowl on the ground and invites Hui Meng to come over and take them. However, Hui Meng finds that they are way too heavy to even lift up. Overwhelmed with shame, he asks to be given the teaching instead, and Hui-neng responds, “Without thinking of good or evil, in this moment, what is your original face before your mother and father were born?”

What is being asked here is what is the “original face” or “primordial self” – that is, who are you really, before carrying any extra baggage like ideas, beliefs, feelings, or etc.? This means when notions of body, mind, self, etc. drop away – your “original face” will appear. Just because, as a product of causes and conditions, “you” and whatever you think makes you, well, “you”, may seem “empty” of an inherent existence – that doesn’t make it any more meaningless or shallow. Or more meaningful, for that matter. Mumon commented that,

You describe it in vain, you picture it to no avail,
Praising it is useless, cease to worry about it at all.
It is your true self, it has nowhere to hide,
Even if the universe is annihilated, it is not destroyed.

That is why it is futile to rationalize your “original face”. As I pointed out in my post Not-Self and the Three Seals, what is usually considered a “self”, “soul”, “I” or “mine” is simply a byproduct of various aggregates. All conditioned phenomena, including us, are in a state of constant flux and without any inherent existence. Furthermore, in the Sabbasava Sutta, Buddha explains that to either affirm or deny a self is a “thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views” which further binds one to further suffering and stress”.

Let’s say, for example, you try to intellectualize your “original face” as simply genetic inheritance. If that were so, consider epigenetics. Basically, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity that don’t involve any alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation. Simply put, your genes are shaped in part by your ancestors’ life experiences. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material called the “epigenome” on top of, and just outside of, the genome. It is these epigenetic “marks” that tell your genes when to switch on or off, causing heritable effects in people. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like the quality of air you breathe, the food and drink that you will consume, the stresses you experience, etc. can make an imprint on the genes that are passed from one generation to the next. Everything you do and experience can even affect your grandchildren – as much as you are affected by the diet and experiences of your own ancestors.

This could be likened to an example of karma-vipaka (as “action and result” or “cause and effect”) on the genetic level, in which your own life is influenced by the genetic inheritance from your ancestors – and the decisions you make and actions you take will also affect your descendants. There still is no inherent self to be found there, as it is still just the result of causes and conditions.

So, what was your original face before your parents were born? Obviously, there is no fixed “answer” to this question. In fact, this koan is supposed to put an end to any form of over-intellectualization, in favor of a more experiential understanding. This means that your “original face” is something that you have to come to terms with, and understand through your own practice. It may seem like all of this talk about seeing your “original face” really shouldn’t require much effort, but it requires us to look inward, in places that we are not accustomed to. When Hui-neng asked Hui Meng this koan, Hui Meng was covered in sweat, crying and bowing as he asked, “Is there or is there not any other (deep) significance (in Zen) than your secret words and teachings a minute ago?” The patriarch answered, “What I have told you is no secret at all. Once you have realized your own true self, the depth (in Zen) rather belongs to you!”

In the Fukanzazengi, Dogen wrote,

“Therefore, put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest. If you want such a thing, get to work on such a thing immediately.”

The Powers of Meditative Absorption

Buddha encouraged everyone to engage in sati (or mindfulness), which is to develop a full awareness of the present moment – an awareness of one’s thoughts, actions or motivations. Samma-sati, as the seventh step of the Eightfold Path, is called “right mindfulness” and it means to discern phenomena as they truly are, in and of themselves, while staying ardent, alert, and mindful and putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. The eight step, samma-samadhi, is “right concentration” as it refers to jhana (or dhyana), which is meditative absorption. Buddha also refers to them again at his parinibbana (Skt: parinirvana; i.e. total release, total unbinding, complete liberation, etc).

In Buddhist meditation, there are Five Hindrances (Nivarana) that are the major obstacles to concentration:
1. Sensual desire (Pali: kamacchanda; Skt: abhidya) as obsessive craving and indulgence in the senses.
2. Ill will, enmity, hatred, or anger (Pali: vyapada; Skt: pradosha) directed towards others.
3. Torpor/lethargy/dullness and laziness/indifference/boredom (Pali: thina and middha; Skt: styana and middha) with little to no concentration at all.
4. Restlessness and worry/anxiety (Pali: uddhacca and kukkucca; Skt: anuddhatya and kaukritya) as the inability to focus or calm the mind.
5. Doubt, skepticism, indecisiveness, vacillation, or a lack of trust or confidence without the wish to cure it, etc. (Pali: vicikiccha, Skt: vichikitsa) which is more like the common idea of cynicism or pessimism rather than open-mindedness.

What most people think of as “Buddhist meditation” refers to “bhavana” which literally means “calling into existence” or producing, as it is an aspect of development and cultivation. For example, metta-bhavana is often translated as the “meditation of loving-kindness”. As you can probably tell, bhavana is usually used in compound form, such as: samadhi-bhavana (development of concentration) and its two qualities of samatha-bhavana (cultivation of tranquility) and vipassana-bhavana (development of clear insight); citta-bhavana (development of mind or cultivation of heart); kaya-bhavana (development of the body); metta-bhavana (development/cultivation of loving-kindness); panna-bhavana (cultivation of wisdom); etc. In the context of the eighth step of the Eightfold Path, “right concentration” and “meditation” specifically refers to samadhi-bhavana and the jhana factors.

Samadhi-bhavana is the development and cultivation of concentration or one-pointed meditation. It involves an intense focusing of consciousness. There are four developments of samadhi, which are:
1. Jhana (Skt: dhyana), or meditative absorptions
2. Increased alertness
3. Insight into the true nature of phenomena (knowledge and vision)
4. Final liberation (Nibbana)

The Visuddhimagga identifies three different types of samadhi:
1. Momentary concentration (khanikasamadhi)
2. Access concentration (upacarasamadhi)
3. Fixed concentration (appanasamadhi)

The Gopaka Moggallana Sutta actually points out that the Buddha never recommended all types of samadhi, either. Any which promote, support, or intensify the five hindrances are obviously not wholesome and are therefore not suitable for development. One may also develop “intuitive powers” (abhinna or siddhi) with samadhi, including the ability to display psychic powers, clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy, recollection of past lifetimes, and the knowledge that does away with mental effluents. However, Buddha often warned that these should not be allowed to distract one from the path of freedom from suffering. In fact, in the Kevatta Sutta, Buddha explains why he is “horrified, humiliated, and disgusted” with the “miracles” of psychic powers, telepathy, etc. They often backfire, as someone might think that one is just simply engaging in cheap magic tricks. So, instead of inspiring any kind of conviction, such displays only increase doubt.

Samatha-bhavana calms the mind by focusing it on a suitable object (kasina) in order to develop one-pointed concentration and positive emotions. There are ten external kasina meditation objects that are described in the Suttas. It is typically a circular or hemispherical colored device or disc, with the particular color, properties, dimensions and medium often specified according to the type of kasina. The earth kasina, for instance, is a disk in a red-brown color formed by spreading earth or clay (or another medium producing similar color and texture) on a screen of canvas or another backing material. However, these are often practiced in tandem with anapanasati (i.e. air kasina – that is, mindfulness of breathing, or mindfulness of the in-breath and out-breath – as mentioned in the video above) and the development of the four brahma-viharas (sublime abodes) which are metta-bhavana (development of loving kindness), karuna-bhavana (cultivation of compassion), mudita-bhavana (development of sympathetic joy), and upekkha-bhavana (cultivation of equanimity).

Vipassana-bhavana builds upon the calmness, focus, and positive emotions of samatha-bhavana with the observation of things such as parts of the body, feelings, thoughts and emotions (mental objects), and etc. in a detached manner. This develops an awareness of the impermanence, interconnectedness, and the contingent nature of our experience with the contemplation on impermanence, the six element practice, and contemplation on conditionality. Samatha-bhavana usually precedes and prepares for vipassana-bhavana, and they both are necessary factors of the Noble Eightfold Path as Right Mindfulness (samma-sati) and Right Concentration (samma-samadhi).

The jhanas refer to eight states of consciousness that can arise during periods of strong concentration. Jhanas are a natural meditative state of profound stillness and concentration in which the mind becomes fully immersed and absorbed in the chosen object of attention. They are the cornerstone in the development of Right Concentration. The eight jhanas are:
1. “Detached from sensual objects, o monks, detached from unwholesome consciousness, attached with thought-conception (vitakka) and discursive thinking, born of detachment (vivekaja) and filled with rapture and joy (sukha) he enters the first absorption.
2. “After the subsiding of thought-conception and discursive thinking, and by gaining inner tranquility and oneness of mind, he enters into a state free from thought-conception and discursive thinking, the second absorption, which is born of concentration , and filled with rapture and joy (sukha).
3. “After the fading away of rapture he dwells in equanimity, mindful, clearly conscious; and he experiences in his person that feeling of which the Noble Ones say, ‘Happy lives the man of equanimity and attentive mind’; thus he enters the 3rd absorption.
4. “After having given up pleasure and pain, and through the disappearance of previous joy and grief, he enters into a state beyond pleasure and pain, into the 4th absorption, which is purified by equanimity and mindfulness.
5. “Through the total overcoming of the perceptions of matter, however, and through the vanishing of sense-reactions and the non-attention to the perceptions of variety, with the idea, ‘Boundless is space’, he reaches the sphere of boundless space and abides therein.
6. “Through the total overcoming of the sphere of boundless space, and with the idea ‘Boundless is consciousness’, he reaches the sphere of boundless consciousness and abides therein.
7. “Through the total overcoming of the sphere of boundless consciousness, and with the idea ‘Nothing is there’, he reaches the sphere of nothingness and abides therein.
8. “Through the total overcoming of the sphere of nothingness he reaches the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception and abides therein.”

Rupa Jhana
There are 4 stages of deep concentration which are called the Rupa Jhana (Fine-material Jhana):
1. Pleasant Sensations – This is attained when the mind is focused on the meditation object to reduce and eliminate the lower mental qualities that are called the five hindrances (sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry and doubt) and promote the growth of five jhana factors (applied thought [vittaka], sustained thought [vicara], joy [piti], happiness [sukha], one-pointednesss [ekkagata]). Only the subtlest of mental movement remains, and the ability to form unwholesome intentions ceases. Therefore, in this stage, bliss appears.
2. Joy – The second jhana is entered when you reduce and eliminate the two initial factors of the first jhana itself (applied/directed thought and sustained thought). Therefore, the three remaining jhana factors are rapture, happiness and one-pointedness. In this stage, all mental movements completely cease and there only remains bliss. The ability to form wholesome intentions ceases as well, as one acquires complete confidence.
3. Contentment – To enter the jhana of contentment, you must reduce and eliminate the third initial factor of the first jhana itself (rapture), while the two remaining jhana factors one still possesses are the happiness and one-pointedness. Three additional components are also acquired (equanimity, mindfulness and discernment).
4. Utter Peacefulness – To attain this jhana, you must reduce and eliminate the fourth initial factor of the first jhana itself (happiness) and replace it with another jhana factor (equanimity/neutral feeling), while the two remaining jhana factors still possessed are the neutral feeling and one-pointedness. In this stage, you will enter a state of supreme purity, indifference to everything, and pure consciousness.

Arupa Jhana
Beyond the four jhana lie four higher attainments in the scale of concentration, usually referred as the Arupa Jhana (Immaterial/formless Jhana). The immaterial jhanas are designated as:
5. Base of boundless space – One enters this jhana by remaining in the utter peacefulness state and then shifting attention to the boundaries of one’s being. You focus your attention outward as if you are watching yourself from above. You may feel like you are floating above your body at first. You put your attention on your body so that it feels like you are filling the room. This is expanded further and further so that you fill your whole neighborhood, city, country, continent, and then to space itself. You find yourself in this huge expanse of empty space.
6. Base of boundless consciousness – This jhana is attained by realizing that the infinite space one occupies includes one’s consciousness. So you shift your attention to infinite consciousness instead of infinite space. You may feel “at one” with all nature and existence, but do not be fooled, this is not full enlightenment. Concentration is further increased and there is still one-pointedness of mind.
7. Base of nothingness – This jhana is entered by realizing that the content of the infinite consciousness is basically empty of any permanent nature. We also realize that there is no “thing” either. There is nothing in the universe that has any permanent essence to it. We realize that everything is in constant flux.
8. Base of neither perception nor non-perception – One attains this jhana by letting go of the sense of no-thingness, and entering a very natural, calm place. In this jhana there is very little recognition of what is happening, but you are also not totally unaware of what is happening. There is such a peaceful state and you have gone beyond the duality of perception nor non-perception that it is easy to be fooled that you have experienced full enlightenment. But there is still more to do.

When the limits of perception have been reached, you may realize that less mental activity is actually much more conducive to a calm and peaceful state. You will enter a state of the “cessation” of feelings and perceptions, where mental fermentations are reduced to the finest and most subtle degree. Someone in this state may even appear to be unconscious, or in something like a very deep sleep. There have been reports of those in this state having a much lower heart rate, at about 20 to 40 beats per minute. Of course, this is most certainly not full enlightenment, although it does bring one closer full awakening.

It is better to first master the first four jhanas, before going into the immaterial jhanas. There are five ways of mastering jhana:
1. Mastery in adverting is the ability to advert to the jhana factors one by one after emerging from the jhana, whenever you want, wherever you want, and for as long as you want.
2. Mastery in attaining is the ability to enter upon jhana very quickly.
3. Mastery in resolving is the ability to remain in jhana for exactly as long as any predetermined length of time.
4. Mastery in emerging is the ability to emerge from jhana quickly and without any difficulty.
5. Mastery in reviewing is the ability to review jhana and its factors with retrospective knowledge, immediately after adverting to them.