A common difficulty for newcomers to the Buddha’s teaching is in acquiring a comprehensive understanding of the course of practice laid out by the Buddha. The Buddha himself often gave specific teachings to individuals or groups, tailored to suit the specific needs of the audience. Thus, at first glance, it may seem that in order to put his teachings into practice, one must either pick and choose according to one’s preference or take the time to study all of the teachings and practice them all together. Since the latter is more or less impossible even for those who have the time, it is common to find Buddhists taking the former route, picking and choosing practices from the Buddha’s teaching based on personal preference.
As a result, many Buddhists come to have a lopsided understanding of the Buddha’s teaching and so too a lopsided practice – a practice lacking in certain aspects or deficient in certain qualities. For example, some meditators focus on tranquillity, neglecting to cultivate insight; others may focus on cultivating intellectual understanding and neglect the cultivation of tranquillity. Some Buddhists focus on charity and public service, while others focus on strict moral practice and austerity.
As a result, though all of these practices are designed to lead one closer to the goal of freedom from suffering, such practitioners may be unable to achieve the goal due to omitting other important, supportive aspects of the practice.
Putting aside the practice itself, the vastness of the Buddha’s teaching creates problems on a different level in terms of clearly understanding what it was the Buddha actually taught. If one is not able to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the Buddha’s teaching, one may give rise to misunderstanding, attributing qualities to the Buddha’s teaching that it doesn’t possess and denying its possession of attributes which it truly possesses. One may not understand how the Buddha’s teaching can lead to its goal, or even what that goal is in the first place. Beginners on the Buddhist path often find themselves confused or overwhelmed, and some may actually become disenchanted with the Buddha’s teaching, thinking it an impractical or even useless teaching due to their inability to see clearly what it was the Buddha actually taught.
Some may say that the Buddha taught people to just close their eyes and ignore the world around them, that he taught nothing about how to live one’s daily life. Even in the time of the Buddha himself, there were those who tried to pin various labels on him; in the Vinaya Piṭaka, for example, we find the Buddha confronted by a brahmin who accuses him of holding all sorts of extreme positions such as nihilism, self-torture, etc. In order to avoid such misunderstandings, it is important for Buddhist newcomers to obtain a comprehensive teaching; a teaching that covers all elements of practical Buddhism and provides a practice that is of use in all situations – a teaching that protects those who undertake it from all obstacles, challenges, and dangers on the path.
When undertaking the practice of Buddhist meditation, we have to remember that formal meditation practice is only one part of the Buddha’s teaching and only one aspect of our development on the Buddhist path. Certainly it is the most essential, since only through meditation practice will one be able to see reality as it is. We must also, however, be equipped to deal with the many distractions, diversions, and obligations not directly related to the practice of walking and sitting meditation.
In our daily lives, there are many challenges to our practice that we must face – for example, making a living, harmonizing with our environment, or tending to our physical health, to name a few. If we are unable to deal with the many various aspects of life and practice skillfully, our foundational practice of walking and sitting meditation will be incapable of bearing fruit, just like a fruit tree that needs support and care in order to grow to maturity. Once we understand how to incorporate the Buddha’s teaching into all aspects of life, our practice will progress smoothly, protected from external interruption.
One of the most comprehensive teachings given by the Buddha on practical development of empirical insight is found in the Sabbāsava Sutta, the discourse on “all of the taints”, or “all of the defilements”. This sutta is of great benefit even for new Buddhist practitioners, since it explains all of the various ways of removing unwholesome habits from the mind. As the title suggests, it claims to provide a comprehensive practice for ridding one’s mind of all channels by which unwholesomeness, and therefore suffering, might arise. This discourse, the second sutta in the Majjhima Nikāya, is recommended reading for all Buddhists serious in undertaking practice of the Buddha’s teaching in order to realize enlightenment for themselves, rather than just worshipping or venerating the Buddha as one who himself practised rightly.
In this sutta, the Buddha explained seven practices that are intrinsically important in mental development, including but not limited to the meditation practice itself. These seven practices form a comprehensive practice, providing one with the ability to conquer any and all mental defilements that exist in the mind. For those approaching the Buddha’s teaching for the first time, it is also useful in providing a comprehensive understanding of the Buddha’s teaching as taught by the Buddha himself. By studying this teaching, one will see that the Buddha did indeed give instruction in all aspects of spiritual development, leaving out nothing of importance to the cultivation of the spiritual path.
The subject of the discourse is how to rid oneself of the taints (āsava) – those qualities of mind that cause one to act or speak in a way contrary to one’s own best interest; the unwholesome tendencies and misunderstandings that exist in the mind and give rise to suffering for ourselves and for other beings. In Buddhism these are considered to be the only true source of suffering; Buddhism denies the belief that suffering can be caused by another. Even when we cause suffering for other people, it is understood that it is ourselves who will suffer from our own actions, due to subsequent feelings of guilt, anger, fear, worry, etc. – the person we hurt can only suffer if they react to our actions negatively.
The evil deeds we perform unto others can bring to them directly at most only physical suffering. Unless the victim suffers from defilements of mind themselves and thus becomes upset about our actions and speech, they will not suffer in the mind no matter what we do or say to them. In this way, we understand that it is defilements of mind alone that can cause true suffering.
In order to destroy all of the taints, the Buddha taught seven aspects of practice to be undertaken by a meditator. The most important aspect, of course, is the meditation practice itself, and this is where the Buddha begins, with the taints that are to be destroyed through seeing.
The core of the Buddha’s teaching is to see things clearly as they are. He taught us to look at the reality that presents itself to us at every moment and see it clearly for what it is. He taught us to find the truth for ourselves, rather than simply accept his teachings as a dogma, theory, or belief. The Buddha taught mostly practical methods by which his students could come to understand things as they are, rejecting philosophical speculation as useless diversions undertaken to no end. So, if we want to understand what it was that the Buddha taught in brief, it is to see things as they are.
More specifically, the Buddha taught how to clear up our blind faith and attachments in the things that we cling to as stable, satisfying, and controllable. It was not the Buddha’s intention that his students should come to learn everything; there is a famous story in the suttas where the Buddha, staying in a great forest, picked up a handful of leaves and asked the monks whether there were more leaves in his hand or more in the forest. He said that the leaves in the forest were like all of the things that he knew with his great wisdom, and the leaves in his hand were what he taught. This is because, as he said, most knowledge does not lead to true peace, happiness and freedom from suffering.
Nowadays it is common to read about new and exciting discoveries by the scientific community and the promise of future advancement based on this knowledge, to the assumed benefit of the human race as a whole. When one looks, however, at the ways people generally make use of this knowledge and even the actual reasons why it is valued, there doesn’t seem to be any greater purpose than the accumulation of material gain, often at the expense of other beings and even our own peace of mind.
If we look at the people who are said to benefit most from scientific advancements, we find that they are not more happy or content in general than people who live in poverty without much technological advancement at all. While it must be admitted that technology has brought a great empowerment to the human race, it is not at all guaranteed that humankind will use that power for its actual benefit. Knowledge alone cannot bring happiness or peace; only wisdom of how to use such knowledge in truly beneficial ways can accomplish such a worthwhile task.
The most important wisdom to attain, then, is that which allows us to become free from suffering. When we talk about “seeing” in the Buddha’s teaching, we don’t mean coming to see the truth about everything, but learning specifically about suffering and happiness and how they come to be. The Buddha focused his teaching on the building blocks of experiential reality because he saw that suffering comes about based solely on misunderstanding them. We practice insight meditation to understand the nature of experiential reality – how misunderstanding leads to bad habits and how bad habits and behaviours lead to suffering. When we come to see our moment to moment activities as they are, we will understand the difference between activities that are useful and those that are useless, and will thus be able to give up any and all habits that are a cause for suffering.
There is no use in running away from suffering nor in chasing it away; neither method is sustainable and both lead only to more stress and suffering. Simply seeing our experiences as they are, on the other hand, is the supreme method for becoming free from all suffering. This fact is easy to understand intellectually, for we must admit that if we could see clearly what wass to our benefit and what to our detriment, we would never knowingly engage in any activity that would lead to our detriment. Yet, in spite of all of our intellectual knowledge, we find ourselves drawn ever and again towards actions, speech and thoughts that serve to cause us more and more stress and dissatisfaction. Intellectual understanding can therefore never be enough to free one from suffering. In order to become truly free from suffering, we must come to see clearly and empirically from experience as to which states of mind lead to suffering and which do not.
To accomplish this task, we must bring ourselves to observe suffering as it is. Rather than run away from suffering or try to chase it away, we must do just the opposite. We must welcome our suffering as giving us the opportunity to learn about suffering in general. The problem is not that suffering exists, the problem is that we do not see it clearly. The ordinary person is as though blind or in a dark room, bumping into everything and causing great suffering and upset because they cannot see anything. Once they turn on a light, there will be no question of walking into a piece of furniture, wall, or door. Insight meditation is truly as simple as turning on a light. Once one sees clearly, one will have accomplished all that need be done to let go of craving, clinging, and suffering.
This is the first important aspect of a comprehensive practice, practising to see the truth as it is – not the whole truth, just the noble, useful, and beneficial truths of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Rather than looking everywhere for knowledge that serves no purpose, we should focus on what is truly useful and beneficial, giving up our pursuit of what is not. A person dedicated to becoming free from suffering should not think much about worldly affairs, speculations, or philosophy. One who desires to find true peace and happiness must dedicate themselves to seeing suffering as suffering and removing the wrong belief that clinging to anything will bring happiness. When we see clearly thus, there will be nothing that can bring us suffering – we will have conquered suffering with wisdom alone, as the Buddha taught.
All objects of the senses are a source of suffering for us if we cling to them. Many people, however, become indignant when they hear such a teaching. To many, the idea of letting go of the objects of clinging and attachment is terrifying as they feel that if they let go they will lose the happiness they have worked so hard to gain. It is precisely such terror, however, that show the truth of the Buddha’s teaching, illustrating as it does how the threat of losing the objects of one’s attachment leads one directly to suffering and distress.
In order to cultivate and maintain the objects of our desire, we must engage in endless labour to acquire them and, worse, must protect them jealously against danger from thieves, villains, and natural and unnatural disasters. Whenever we let down our guard in the slightest, we risk the loss of something cherished, something on which our happiness depends. In fact, even with the best of our efforts to guard and collect pleasant experiences, we must inevitably part with all that is dear to us, leaving nothing we can truly call our own apart from our eternally unsatisfiable desire.
The people, places and things we cling to as bringing us happiness are undeniably the very cause for all of our fear, worry, stress, lamentation and despair. While we are in contact with the beloved, we build up greater and greater attachment and strive harder and harder for more and more contact with them until we are inevitably forced to come to terms with our attachments when we lose what is dear to us. For some, it is this loss that leads them to question their belief in the merit of craving and clinging and decide to find a better means of seeking happiness. Some are not so lucky, dying in great anguish and despair due to never having come to terms with their attachments. Unable to see the truth of reality, such people are unable to end their lives in peace and are liable to continue their suffering after death, based on the power of their dissatisfaction.
Undeniably, the Buddha’s path is a radical departure from how most people live their lives. Often, the first thing a new meditator realizes from their practice is the immensity of the challenge in just seeing things as they are, due to the profound shift in outlook it requires. One who has never paid much attention to their mental well-being will live their life treating the mind much like a garbage dump, piling on more and more rubbish until it all begins to spill out in the form of evil thoughts, speech and deeds. New meditators are forced to see for the first time what all their craving and aversion have done to them, and they begin to realize for the first time why, in their endless pursuit for happiness, they never were truly happy for more than the briefest of moments.
If one is wise, one will surely take such a realization as a blessing and make a steadfast effort to root out all of the unwholesome tendencies in one’s mind. It is important for new meditators to understand how seeing the nature of suffering and its cause clearly in this way is actually to their greatest benefit, otherwise they may become discouraged, afraid to look closer at that which they have avoided for so long – their own mind.
Once we understand reality as it is, we will accept it as it is. We won’t wish for things to be other than what they are, for we will understand that such wishing is utterly useless. Once we see that the objects of our experience cannot possibly bring us true and lasting satisfaction no matter what we do, we will give up any concern for their appearance or disappearance, and live our lives in peace, happiness and freedom from suffering at all times, in any situation whatsoever. Once we are able to experience the full spectrum of reality objectively, without categorizing our experiences as good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable, then no experience will have the power to cause us even the smallest discomfort.
The most direct method for seeing things as they are is taught by the Buddha in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10), as in:
‘gacchanto vā gacchāmīti pajānāti’
“When walking, one fully comprehends: ‘I am walking’.”
When something arises, we observe it objectively, seeing it for what it is, simply reminding ourselves in an objective manner that “it is what it is”. For example, when we feel pain, we simply remind ourselves that it is pain; not good, not bad, not me, not mine, simply “pain”. This is the teaching that the Buddha advised in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta:
“dukkhaṃ vā vedanaṃ vedayamāno ‘dukkhaṃ vedanaṃ vedayāmī’ti pajānāti”
“When feeling a painful feeling, one knows clearly, ‘I feel a painful feeling.'”
We instruct meditators to remind themselves, “pain, pain, pain” for as long as the pain stays, as this will serve to inhibit judgement and disliking from colouring one’s perception. When one is clearly aware of the pain as simply “pain”, the aversion to the pain will be replaced with simple understanding of it as it is – pain and nothing more.
When thinking pleasant or unpleasant thoughts, we instruct meditators to simply recognize them as “thinking”. When moving the body – standing up, walking, sitting or lying down, even with the rising and falling of abdomen during breath, meditators are taught to simply remind themselves of the movements as they are, using a word or mantra to focus the mind on the essence of the experience. When you like or dislike something, you can remind yourself, “liking”, or “disliking”. When you feel tired, bored, worried, scared, confused or whatever, you can conquer the emotion in an instant if you can simply remind yourself of the essence of it, as “tired”, “bored”, etc. Simply looking at each state – mental, physical or emotional, and seeing it for what it really is, nothing more, nothing less, not judging it, but coming to understand clearly that it is no more than an existential phenomenon that arises out of nothing and ceases without remainder, is enough to free one from the power of all addiction and aversion, all suffering and stress.
Once one sees reality for what it is, recognizing what are the causes and what the effects, one will quickly clear out all garbage from one’s mind, all of the bad habits and behaviour from one’s being, recognizing for oneself that they lead only to one’s suffering. Intellectual knowledge can never do this for you; if you do not show yourself the truth through meditation practice, it will ever be mere belief with no lasting benefit.
Seeing things as they are is the first method the Buddha taught for the removal of taints. In theory, this method is enough to remove all unwholesomeness from the mind; the problem, as stated, is that meditation is not the only aspect of our lives; we must guard our practice from dangers and distractions of many kinds that come about as a result of the complexity of life. For this reason, there are six further aspects of practice that need to be cultivated by an aspiring meditator.
The second aspect one must cultivate is self-restraint. Some taints, some defilements of mind, can be conquered only by restraining oneself, guarding one’s senses – the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body and the heart. While ultimately the goal is to be able to open the senses and view all sensual objects simply as they are, it will not be possible to do so if one simply lets everything in at once. For a beginner meditator, when a pleasant object arises, craving will easily overpower their ability to recognize the object for what it is, and they will lose themselves in fantasy and desire, abandoning the present moment and the meditation practice. When one experiences something unpleasant, if one’s meditation practice is not mature, one will likewise be overwhelmed by defilements, quickly becoming frustrated and upset, losing one’s clear awareness just the same.
Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling and thinking – the whole of the universe is in these six experiences. If we can only come to understand them as they are, we will understand the whole of reality. The profundity of this fact alone should engender caution and respect for the task at hand. One may very well ask, if there is nothing more to be done than see things as they are, why have we not already attained enlightenment? We see, hear, feel and think constantly throughout our lives. What is it that has stopped us from seeing clearly all this time? It is precisely our lack of restraint and care in relating to these realities that stops us from seeing them clearly, and this is why restraint is so important.
Rather than relating to experience objectively, we tend to immediately judge and react to just about everything we experience. Pleasant experiences lead us to chase after them, unpleasant experiences lead us to become angry and upset. Both cause us to lose sight of the essence of the experience. For this reason, the Buddha taught that it is important for us to guard our senses carefully, only letting experiences in one-by-one, in a way that allows us see them as they are. A dedicated meditator should avoid sights, sounds, smells and tastes that one knows will give rise to lust and anger, only letting them in one by one, and only when one is well-guarded and ready to see them as they are. In order to progress in the practice, we must keep ourselves from indulging in pleasure or displeasure that will dull and weaken the mind, rendering it impotent in the cultivation of insight.
The Buddha likened sensual addiction to the sap in green wood that renders it unfit for lighting on fire. Only wood that is well-dried with all the sap removed can be lit and provide heat and light – which can be understood as metaphors for goodness and wisdom. When the mind is full of greed, anger and delusion, clear vision of things as they are is impossible and true goodness and wisdom are thus unattainable. For this reason, we must guard our senses day and night, not letting in the slightest thing that would take us off-guard and cause our minds to become sodden with defilements.
It is easy to see how cluttered one’s mind becomes after many years of leaving one’s senses unguarded, greedily devouring every sense pleasure one can find, never finding peace, never satiating the terrible masters of greed and aversion. New meditators will often lament that they were unaware of how sensitive the mind really is to experience. Had they known, they would have done more to guard their senses, indulging only in those activities that were conducive to true peace and contentment. For this reason, we encourage sense-restraint for everyone, even those living ordinary lives outside of a monastery or meditation centre.
Walking down the street, for example, one should imitate the behaviour of the Buddha himself, not letting oneself become distracted by the many exciting, stimulating things around, focusing instead on the single activity of walking. The Buddha is said to have had a peculiar habit called the elephant’s gaze; instead of turning his head to look at something, he would, like an elephant, turn his whole body, giving the object his full attention. If we wish to follow in the Buddha’s footsteps, we should always strive to give our full attention to one thing at a time, rather than seeking to take in everything at once. At the very least, taking in too many things at once will cause undue mental distraction, leading us to lose our focus on the reality of our experience. While it is true that ephemeral pleasure can be gained from seeking out pleasant objects of the sense, such seeking is antithetical to the attainment of true happiness. One should ask oneself: if I am truly happy, for what reason must I seek pleasure?
If we wish to find true happiness, we should strive to focus on what we are doing in every aspect of our everyday lives, rather than dreaming about what we would rather be doing, or what others are doing in the world around us. Rather than trying to find happiness in what we don’t have, which only leads us to develop habits of seeking, chasing, craving and clinging, we should try to find happiness with what we do have, so that we can be happy at any time, place, or circumstance. We should remember this in our daily lives and throughout our practice as Buddhist meditators, knowing that every sense pleasure we indulge in and every aversion we allow ourselves to cultivate will contribute to the soiling of the mind, rendering the cultivation of insight that much more difficult.
Guarding the senses is something we should take seriously. When we walk, we should focus on walking; when we stand, sit or lie down, we should likewise try to focus on that activity without letting our minds wander. Whatever we do during that day – speak, listen, work, drive, eat, drink, shower, even urinate and defecate, we should focus on what we are doing, not letting ourselves become distracted by what is being done around us. A person who guards their mind in this way will find themselves refreshed and alert, free from the exhaustion that besets one whose mind is given free reign to indulge in the objects of the sense – enslaved, rather, to the terrible masters of desire and aversion.
If we want to remain free from slavery to our wants and needs, we should try our best to limit entertainment and diversion and be content with a simple, peaceful life that is conducive to mental calm and insight. In order to progress towards true freedom, we must guard our minds at all times, letting in only the bare minimum of experience necessary at any given moment in order to facilitate the development of clear vision and wisdom. Once we have developed wisdom to see things as they are, such guarding will no longer be necessary; while we are still training, however, it must be seen as an essential aspect of our practice, until wisdom allows us to break free from the delusion that is the root cause of desire and aversion, and therefore suffering.
The third method by which to give up the taints is in making use of possessions – the material objects we partake of as a means of sustaining life. A Buddhist meditator should be content with the bare necessities of life; they should be able to see the difference between something that is useful and something that is merely desired. They should recognize the impossibility of satisfying one’s cravings for sensual pleasure and the danger in indulgence, and content themselves with very little in the way of physical consumption.
One who wishes to find true peace and simplicity must dedicate themselves to a simple and peaceful life, giving up luxury and the incessant pursuit of sensual pleasures. A meditator who is intent upon clear realization of the truth of reality must do their best to give up unnecessary possessions and indulgences, and learn to make use of their possessions in such a way as to avoid stimulation of craving and clinging.
The Buddha points out the fact, of course, that we cannot do away with physical possessions entirely – without food, for example, it will be impossible for us to carry out meditation for very long at all. Without sufficient clothing or lodging, our minds will be constantly distracted by the discomfort caused by the lack of protection. Without medicine when we are sick, our minds will be distracted by the intense suffering and disturbance of the illness.
We should not, therefore, think it wise to go entirely without these necessities of life. Nevertheless, even they may become hindrances on the path if we overindulge in them. Recognizing the fact that they are necessary, the Buddha pointed out the importance of proper use of the requisites; neither over-indulging nor forbearing to an excess. We must be mindful in our use of clothing, food, lodging and medicines, and try our best to limit our possessions to only those things that are necessary for living our lives in peace and comfort.
The Buddha laid out very specific guidelines on how to make use of one’s possessions simply for their purpose. He taught that when we make use of something, we should reflect on its proper use, that we may use it only as appropriate. Reflecting with wisdom on our reasons for using our necessities of life, we come to distinguish between those things that are truly necessary and those that are merely indulgences. We also train ourselves in making proper use of those material requisites that are truly necessary, not indulging in excess even in regards to them.
The first requisite we should reflect upon is our clothing. We should remind ourselves that we wear clothing simply for the purpose of covering our bodies and nothing more. When we recognize this as the sole purpose of clothing ourselves, then the clothes we wear will reflect this recognition, and our state of mind will remain clear and at ease. If, on the other hand, we think of clothes as for the purpose of sensual attraction, we will seek out clothes that make us attractive to others and our minds will be full of anxiety and stress in finding the perfect outfit, driven to distraction by the pleasure and conceit that comes from wearing beautiful clothing.
If we are not careful in keeping to the proper use of clothing, it will become a hindrance in our practice, leading us to craving, clinging, attachment and suffering, making practice of the Buddha’s teaching all the more difficult. If on the other hand we make use of clothing simply to cover the nakedness of the body, to keep ourselves warm or cool, to protect it from the sun, to protect it from the wind, to protect it from insects, mosquitoes and so on, then it can even serve to support one’s practice, protecting one from dangers both physical and mental.
The second requisite we should consider is food. Our food should also be useful, we should use food to remove the hunger, and eat those foods that will not give us indigestion. We should train ourselves to eat just the right amount so that we don’t feel bloated and yet are free from hunger. If we are mindful of when we have eaten enough, we can stop before we overeat and our meditation will proceed unhindered as a result.
Improper use of food is indeed a great danger to dhamma practice. There is a story of how King Pasenadi once came to listen to a talk given by the Buddha but was unable to focus on the Buddha’s words due to having eaten an immense amount of rice and curry just prior to his visit. The Buddha, commenting on the benefits of moderation, recited the following verses:
“manujassa sadā satīmato, mattaṃ jānato laddhabhojane. tanukassa bhavanti vedanā, saṇikaṃ jīrati āyupālayan”ti
“For one born human who is always mindful, knowing moderation in both food and gain, his suffering is lessened and he ages slowly, guarding his longevity.”
— SN 3.13, Doṇapāka Sutta
The king was impressed by these words and had his nephew learn them by heart and remind him of them every time the king ate. As a result, he was able to cut down his intake of food to a more moderate amount.
New meditators will be able to sympathize with the king while they learn to moderate their intake of food; they will find that while they are still unable to measure the proper amount, that they are subject to drowsiness when they overeat and fatigue when they under-eat. They are therefore encouraged to remind themselves every time they eat to do so meditatively, recognizing each experience objectively, that they may be clearly aware of their state of hunger, paying more attention to fulfilling the needs of the body than the desires of the mind.
Food plays an important role in our lives as Buddhist meditators; if we let our intake be guided by our tongue rather than our stomach, we will inevitably suffer both from the immediate effects of overeating and the long-term effects of disease. If we wish to progress quickly along the path, we must control our appetites, eating only once or twice per day during intensive meditation periods and only as much as is necessary to function in other circumstances.
We should also be mindful of the quality of our food. If we follow our tongues, we will eat food that is harmful to the body, while shunning food that is beneficial; we will cultivate both physical discomfort and mental discontent. It even happens sometimes that a meditator is unable to continue a meditation course because of their craving for things like delicious food. Such is the danger of attachment.
The third requisite is lodging. A proper dwelling place can have great benefit for a meditator; the Buddha extolled the virtues of a dwelling place in the Vinaya Piṭaka:
“sītaṃ uṇhaṃ paṭihanti, tato vāḷamigāni ca. sarīsape ca makase, sisire cāpi vuṭṭhiyo. tato vātātapo ghore, sañjāto paṭihaññati. leṇatthañca sukhatthañca, jhāyituñca vipassituṃ.”
“It wards off cold and heat, and beasts and creatures besides; reptiles too, and mosquitoes, and indeed the winter rains. Moreover, the most terrible wind and heat is vanquished as it arises. It is for the purpose of seclusion and the purpose of happiness; to meditate and to see clearly.”
— Cv 6.1, Vihārānujānana
If we make use of a dwelling place for these purposes, it will certainly be a boon for us in our practice. It is common, however, for people to possess dwellings that are totally unsuitable for the practice of meditation; large, luxurious houses with soft beds and seats and attractive sights in every room. We fill our dwellings with things that distract our attention, and so it is no wonder that we tend to have difficulty meditating at home, with a wide-screen television in one room, a surround-sound stereo system in another, paintings on every wall, and so on.
If our intention is to cultivate inner peace and understanding, we must devote ourselves to looking inwards. Every distraction that pulls us outwards will only serve to hinder our inner development. We must therefore be careful to choose an environment that serves to calm and stabilize our mind, rather than excite and distract it.
If possible, we should choose a simple dwelling place that is suitable for the practice of meditation, giving up luxury and comfort. If this is not possible, we should at least try to set up our living environment as best we can to support our practice. Soft, comfortable bedding, for example, may be eschewed for a simple mat on the floor, with the knowledge that the former may cause us to over-sleep, becoming lazy and indulgent.
Bedding and lodging should be for the purpose of seclusion and safety. It should be a place where we can carry out our meditation practice undisturbed by people and by nature, rather than a place where we can indulge in unwholesome clinging and craving. We should arrange our dwelling so that we have room to walk and a place to sit, and so that there is nothing distracting our attention from the practice. In this way, lodging can be a support for our practice, rather than a hindrance.
The fourth requisite is medicine. Medicine is important to help ward off sickness and the debilitating effects of sickness on the body, which can become a hindrance to the practice as well. Over-reliance on medicine (and especially medication), however, can have a profoundly negative effect on our minds, cultivating aversion to pain and discomfort, preventing us from having to face the difficulty posed by sickness.
Disease is an inevitable part of life. No one can finish their life without succumbing to deadly sickness of some sort, unless they die by some more unnatural means. Recognizing sickness as a fact of life, we should be careful not to become dependent on medicines as a means of curing all of our suffering. In the end, medicine alone will not be enough to achieve that goal.
The Buddha taught four kinds of suffering: dukkha-vedanā, dukkha-sabhāva, dukkha-lakkhaṇa, and dukkha-sacca. Dukkha-vedanā is suffering as a feeling. This is how most people understand suffering, and so they think that by simply avoiding painful, unpleasant feelings they can be free from suffering. Such people tend to live in great fear of sickness and are quick to seek out medicine, medication and even drugs to solve all of their physical ailments.
Dukkha-sabhāva means suffering as an existential reality. It means suffering is a part of life, something that cannot be avoided. Old age and death cannot be avoided; hunger, thirst, the need to urinate and defecate likewise cannot be avoided by anyone. A person who realizes this will tend to shy away from medicine as a cure to suffering and try instead to find a more comprehensive solution. This sort of person is naturally inclined towards meditation.
Dukkha-lakkhaṇa means suffering as an inherent characteristic of all arisen phenomena. Even pleasant experiences are unstable, uncertain, and therefore unsatisfying. Knowledge of this sort is true wisdom that can only come from meditation practice; it is outside of the realm of non-meditative understanding.
When a person tries to meditate for the first time, they will generally make an attempt to force their meditation to become stable, satisfying, and controllable. As they progress, however, they will come to see that nothing they experience is any of these things. They may even give up meditation entirely, thinking that it is the meditation itself that is responsible for the unsatisfactory state of affairs, instead of accepting the truth that all experience is impermanent, unsatisfying, and uncontrollable. Actually, it is not difficult to understand intellectually how nothing lasts for more than an instant, is therefore unable to satisfy, and thus clearly uncontrollable – it is merely our defilements of mind that confuse us into expecting things to be otherwise.
Once one is able to appreciate the inherent characteristic of suffering (i.e. inability to satisfy) in everything that arises, one will begin to let go of one’s craving for all things, preferring simply to watch and experience rather than react and control. Eventually, this becomes a habit and one makes a shift in one’s understanding with the sudden realization that everything whatsoever that arises has no ability to satisfy oneself. This is called dukkha-sacca – the truth of suffering.
A person who sees the truth of suffering for themselves is one who is free from suffering. They feel no displeasure at painful feelings; they are eternally at peace with themselves in all situations, because they have no misplaced expectations about how reality “should” be. They accept reality as it is, knowing that it could not possibly have been otherwise than it is. They seek out no satisfaction in health and well-being, so they find no reason to obsess about poor health and sickness. An enlightened being sees the body as something to care for appropriately as a matter of course, but is not at all concerned with its eventual fate.
If we obsess over anything, it will surely become a cause for great suffering for us. The body is something that most people are guilty of obsessing over to a great degree. Some people will actually go to the extent of having plastic surgery to make their body more satisfying to their minds. Others become addicted to pain-killers, seeking out stronger and stronger medication until finally they may commit suicide because they are unable to take the pain.
As Buddhist meditators who have come to appreciate the horror of addiction and obsession, we should take the Buddha’s advice seriously and use medicine only as is absolutely necessary to avoid debilitating sickness and disease that would otherwise hinder our ability to carry out objective observation of reality. As my teacher often reminds us, “you will sacrifice your wealth to save your body; you will sacrifice your body to save your life; you should therefore be willing to sacrifice your wealth, your body, and even your life to save your mind.”
Besides these four requisites, we should understand the Buddha’s advice as applying to all of our possessions. Whatever material objects we make use of, they should be only for the purpose of carrying out our lives in a way that leads us closer to understanding the truth; we should shun possessions that possess us – those things that lead us further from realizing the truth, catching us up instead in the cycle of craving, addiction and suffering.
All of the many tools we use, cars, telephones, computers and so on, are for some purpose. It is the purpose of each of them that should be reflected upon as a matter of course. What is the purpose of this object? Is it essential? Does its purpose lead me closer to enlightenment, or at least complement my practice? Or is it contradictory towards the aim that I am trying to reach and therefore a hindrance to my spiritual development?
There is no need to do away with all of our possessions, especially those that help us maintain proper livelihood. We must make use of those things that support us in the physical realm, but we must use them in the right way. Proper use of material requisites is the third way by which we do away with our defilements, and thus it is another important part of the comprehensive practice.
The fourth aspect of practice is in patiently bearing with those things that are unpleasant or difficult to bear. Certain experiences we meet with both in our practice and in our lives will be difficult to endure patiently; the natural tendency will be to avoid them at all cost. Heat, cold, hunger, thirst, even painful feelings that seem liable to take our lives away; all of these the Buddha said we must train ourselves to endure.
Certainly, everyone in the world wishes to be happy and avoid suffering at all cost. Unfortunately, it is never possible to completely escape unpleasant situations. A person who is constantly running away from unpleasantness, a slave to their partiality, will have little chance of attaining true peace in the face of these experiences. “Khanti paramaṃ tapo tiṭṭhikā” – “patience, forbearance, is the highest austerity (Dhp. 184).” Learning to interact objectively with reality rather than react based on partiality is the most difficult, yet most rewarding practice that there is. The Buddha made clear with his teachings that true understanding of reality can only come if we are able to endure difficulty rather than running from it.
The point is that a person who runs away from difficulty will become a person who does so habitually. Rather than looking closer to understand a situation clearly, whereby they would be able to see that every situation is nothing more than moment-to-moment experiences that are neither difficult nor dangerous, they will automatically deny the validity of the experience, compartmentalizing it as “unacceptable” as opposed to “acceptable”.
When one realizes that there is nothing to be gained from constantly running from difficulty, one will be forced to accept the only alternative and develop patience. Patience is what allows us to examine our problems objectively; it is thus what allows us to find true solutions to them. If one is never patient enough to examine one’s problems in detail, one will never see the truth about them.
Again, our ultimate goal is to see things clearly. In many cases all that is stopping us from seeing an experience clearly is the intensity of it, and our inability to bear with it long enough to see it for what it is. Teaching ourselves to bear with difficulty allows us to incorporate such experiences into our practice and come to see them clearly.
If we are patient, bearing with any discomfort that arises, we will find our minds opening up to a new realm of happiness and peace; we will find ourselves able to find comfort where there was before only suffering and stress. Without the cultivation of patience, experiences of heat, cold, hunger, thirst, painful feelings, or any uncomfortable experience would immediately lead to feelings of great distress and anxiety; as a result, we would be plagued by great suffering throughout our lives. Once we are actually able to face these experiences, coming to see them simply as phenomena that arise of their own accord and disappear without our consent, the self-identification and judgement will disappear and with them so will the stress and suffering.
When we are brave enough to face our worst fears, we will come to see that there’s nothing to fear at all, that the most horrific experience is still just an experience. As a result, there will be no experience that can cause us any suffering whatsoever. Patience is thus another important part of our practice, especially in terms of understanding the nature of proper meditation practice.
People often misunderstand meditation practice as being a pleasurable experience, wherein one is able to escape all of one’s problems. Meditation, it is thought, must be pleasant, stable, and calming at all times, free from difficulty and disturbance. When pain arises in meditation or when something comes to disturb one’s state of mind, a common assumption is that something is wrong and that one must find a way to “fix” the situation so it becomes pleasant and agreeable again.
All physical ailments – heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and even the most excruciating physical discomfort – are simply physical realities. They don’t have any bearing on one’s state of mind, and so they need not necessarily cause suffering if one is clearly aware of them as they are. Often, it is by facing such difficulties that true insight can arise.
A well-known Buddhist story is taught in the Satipaṭṭhana Sutta commentary about a monk named Tissa who left home as a rich man, relinquishing all of his wealth to his younger brother and ordaining under the Buddha to practice meditation in the forest. His younger brother’s wife, however, was so intoxicated by her new-found wealth that she became obsessed with the fear that the elder brother might return to reclaim it should he later find life as a monk unsatisfying.
In order to prevent such an event from occurring, she resorted to hiring a group of mercenaries to seek out Venerable Tissa and murder him in the forest. The villains she hired found Tissa meditating under a tree and told him of their aim. Tissa asked them to return in the morning, since he was engaged in intensive meditation and hoped at least to be able to practice one more night before being forced to end his practice forever.
The mercenaries refused, saying there was no way they could ensure that he wouldn’t run away. Tissa responded by picking up a large rock and breaking both of his legs where he sat. He asked them if this was insurance enough, and they acquiesced, most likely in shock and awe at his courage.
Tissa spent the entire night contemplating the pain and when dawn broke he had become enlightened. People without experience in insight meditation practice can’t understand how such a thing is possible – first to break one’s own legs in order to be able to continue practice and second to become enlightened while under such excruciating pain. Here is what Tissa himself had to say, as recorded in the commentaries:
“ubho pādāni bhinditvā, saññapessāmi vo ahaṃ. aṭṭiyāmi harāyāmi, sarāgamaraṇaṃ ahaṃ. evāhaṃ cintayitvāna, yathābhūtaṃ vipassisaṃ. sampatte aruṇuggamhi, arahattamapāpuṇiṅti.
“‘Breaking both legs, I will make you believe me; Vexed, ashamed am I of a death with lust.’ Thinking in this way, I came to clearly see reality. At the arrival of sunrise, sainthood I attained.”
— MN-a 10.2
Often it is only through adversity that we can cultivate the necessary mental fortitude to change our habits of clinging and craving. If one is constantly engaged in running away from certain experiences and clinging to others, one’s mind will never become settled enough to see things as they are. Likewise, if one is confronted only by pleasant experiences, never experiencing anything that would challenge one’s state of well-being, one will see no disadvantage in clinging to pleasant objects, cultivating partiality without seeing the danger that lies therein.
The practice of Venerable Tissa is fully in line with the Buddha’s teaching in the Sabbāsava Sutta, to bear with suffering even to the point that it might take away one’s life. If the only alternative is partiality, one had better save one’s mind than let the mind go to waste in favour of this decaying husk of a body.
If one is constantly running away from one’s ailments, one will never fully open up to objective reality and one’s practice will never succeed. In our practice of the Buddha’s teaching, we should strive to be open to even unpleasant situations, trying to simply see them for what they are instead of judging them as good or bad, me or mine. This is the fourth aspect of a comprehensive Buddhist practice.
The fifth aspect of practice is in regards to avoiding. Whereas most phenomena must be endured, there are indeed certain experiences that must be avoided. We can see from this that the Buddha did not require us to bear with every experience like an ordinary animal without any sense of judgement or reason.
The Buddha gives an example of a monk walking through the forest who comes upon a thorn bush blocking the path. If we were to believe that we must bear with every experience, never avoiding anything, one might think it advisable for the monk to walk right through the thorn bush and bear with the suffering and inconvenience that followed. The Buddha explained, however, that this is an example of something that should indeed be avoided as a matter of course.
If one comes upon a pitfall of any sort and one can just go around it, one should do the obvious thing and avoid it. Wild beasts, natural or unnatural disasters, dangerous situations, just about anything that poses a sincere danger to one’s life and limb, one should not think, “my karma will take care of me and if I’m meant to be killed, then let me be killed.” One’s life and physical well-being should indeed be guarded in such circumstances, rather than blindly trusting in one’s past good deeds or good luck to protect oneself.
One must be able to judge every situation carefully and decide wisely on the proper course of action. Certain experiences are unavoidable and some are harmless but unpleasant. Certain situations are neither unavoidable nor harmless and, whether they be pleasant or unpleasant, such situations should be avoided at all cost. An example that bears specific mention is in regards to people and situations that cause the arising of further defilement to the mind when we come in contact with them. Far greater than any danger to life and limb is the danger to our minds and so these should be avoided all the more.
We should avoid immoral social situations like bars, night clubs and drinking parties, for example, as well as people who engage habitually in drugs, alcohol and all sorts of sensuality. We should try our best to avoid people who by their very way of life are likely to be a cause for us to fall into immorality by associating with them.
We should avoid all things that are liable to endanger our practice, either physically or mentally. It is often the case that extended practice of meditation will force people to change their lives in many ways, changing their circle of friends, their lifestyle, and even their habits and routines. They will change naturally because they begin to see what is helpful and what is harmful, and so they will begin to avoid those things that are harmful to one’s spiritual development and peace of mind.
During intensive meditation practice, it is advisable to seclude oneself, staying away from people and things that will excite the mind; staying away from pleasant sights, sounds, and other experiences. If it is not possible to seclude oneself completely, one must at least avoid those activities that are sure to distract and defile the mind. We must strive to give up activities like watching movies, listening to music, and indulging in all kinds of entertainment, because without a doubt they will take away our mindfulness, taking us away from our practice.
One should never think it wise to bear with anything that is genuinely detrimental to one’s well-being, even in regards to people whom one has come to see as a friend, if they are set on a wrong course of action. Often the people and places we are most familiar with are cause for the greatest disturbance to our minds, since we tend to choose them based, not on wisdom and understanding, but partiality and delusion.
The Buddha was clear on this point – we should even avoid excessive contact with good friends and companions in the spiritual path in favour of our own spiritual development, as exemplified by the story of Attadattha Thera, a monk in the time of the Buddha.
It is said that when the Buddha announced his final passing away four months before, those monks who were still not free from mental defilement were at a loss as to what to do and went around fretting and worrying and speculating about the impending loss of their great teacher.
One monk, however, thought to himself, “here our wise and enlightened teacher is about to pass away forever and I myself am still not free from craving!” It were better, he thought, to strive ardent and alone to attain enlightenment before the Buddha passed away.
As a result, he avoided his companions in the holy life at all cost, dedicating himself to intensive meditation practice in solitude. The other monks, becoming aware of his unwillingness to engage in conversation or express concern about the Buddha’s passing, confronted him and brought him before the Buddha.
When the Buddha heard their complaint, he said that all monks should strive to be like Attadattha who, knowing what was in his best interest, took it upon himself to seek it out at all cost. He then taught a verse that appears in the Dhammapada:
“attadatthaṃ paratthena, bahunāpi na hāpaye. attadatthamabhiññāya, sadatthapasuto siyā”ti.
“Not for the benefit of another should one sacrifice one’s own benefit, no matter it be great. Clearly knowing what is of benefit to one’s self, one should set oneself intently upon attaining that benefit.”
— Dhp. 166
Even contact with true friends should be limited to what is truly beneficial – how much more so those who are enemies in disguise? If one comes to know that a friend is set upon the wrong path, one should consider whether they are amenable to advice and capable of change or not. If they are, one should support them by leading them towards what is good and right; if they are not, they should be avoided to the best of one’s ability, just as one would keep a distance from someone with a communicable disease.
We should avoid those things that will harm or hinder our practice, and especially those that will endanger our lives or our ability to continue our practice in any way. This is the fifth aspect of a comprehensive practice.
The sixth aspect of practice is abandoning. Finally, after explaining all of the things that need to be seen, guarded, used, born, and even avoided, the Buddha explains what must be abandoned. Buddhism teaches that all unskillful tendencies of mind must be given up for one to find true happiness and peace. In particular, this aspect of practice refers to the dispelling of unwholesome mind states as they arise, rather than giving heed to them.
It is not proper to think that one can simply sit still with eyes closed and claim to be meditating. It is not true that all states of mind are equal, all emotions equally valid. While one can harbour beliefs of this sort, in practice it is undeniable that certain mental activities lead only to further craving, clinging, suffering and disappointment. Such mental states should be given up even by a beginner meditator after making a firm resolution in one’s mind to pay them no heed, approaching them as just one more object of practice to recognize objectively and let go.
People who have never engaged in meditation practice tend to think that mind states like lust, pride, worry, doubt, even anger and hatred, can be useful and beneficial. They think that without these states one would be unable to obtain and possess the objects of one’s desire or ward off and dispel objects of one’s displeasure. The critical philosopher will notice that this is actually begging the question, i.e., the premise (that such mind states allow one to cling and reject) requires the conclusion (that clinging and rejection are good) for it to have any meaning. In truth, it is not enough to say that something allows us to fulfil our desires; we must be certain that our desires, once fulfilled, will truly bring us peace and happiness. If they won’t, we must reject them outright if we are to be true to our goal.
A meditator must make an ardent effort to do away with thoughts based on desire, ill-will, or delusion when they arise. Thoughts regarding sensual pleasure will only serve to sodden the mind if pursued; thoughts of anger will cause the mind to boil over like a pot of water over a fire, and delusion will cloud the mind like a room full of smoke. We must be quick to recognize such thoughts as they arise and grasp them objectively, rather than identifying with or clinging to them.
When we engage in fantasizing about things like romance, adventure, society, even food and possessions, it can bring great pleasure while we pursue the fantasy. Only once our mind becomes tired and worn out from the excessive mental activity will we realize how taxing it is on the system, and only over time will we gradually come to see how we have become addicted to illusion, preferring it over reality and falling into deeper and deeper depression whenever we are forced to face the imperfect reality around us. True happiness can only come in relation to what is real; fantasy and illusion dry up the mind like freshly cut grass, as the Buddha explained to a certain angel in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 1.10). The angel, seeing the monks living in great austerity and yet appearing to be quite happy and content, asked:
“araññe viharantānaṃ, santānaṃ brahmacārinaṃ. ekabhattaṃ bhuñjamānānaṃ, kena vaṇṇo pasīdatī”ti.
“For those in forests dwelling, peaceful ones living a life sublime, eating only a single meal, how does their colour shine?”
It seems that this angel had spent some time watching the monks meditate in the forest, and noticed how when they entered into absorption, their complexion became quite bright. Wondering how this could be possible without sensual enjoyment to keep them satisfied, the angel came to ask this question of the Buddha.
It is understandable that the angel should be so puzzled, being surrounded by sensual pleasure at all times such as human beings can only dream of. The thought of being without such pleasure must have been horrifying to the angel, who would have thought it impossible to be at ease without them, let alone appear as radiant as the monks did under the austere circumstances of their monastic life.
The commentary explains the monks’ radiance in technical terms, as:
“citte pasanne lohitaṃ pasīdati, cittasamuṭṭhānāni upādārūpāni parisuddhāni honti.”
“When the mind is clear, the blood becomes clear and derived matter that is dependent on the mind becomes purified.”
While such an explanation is perfectly valid, the Buddha offered a more poetic explanation to the angel, with the following verses:
“atītaṃ nānusocanti, nappajappanti nāgataṃ. paccuppannena yāpenti, tena vaṇṇo pasīdati”.
“For the past they do not mourn, nor for the future pine; they are nourished by the present, so does their colour shine.”
“anāgatappajappāya, atītassānusocanā. etena bālā sussanti, naḷova harito luto”ti.
“In pining for the future, or over the past forlorn, by this do fools wither up, just as green reeds once shorn.”
If we are able to let go of illusion and learn to find peace in what is real, here and now, we can be happy in any situation.
When we engage in anger and hatred, we may likewise feel a sort of pleasure in the adrenaline rush that comes from thoughts of violence and conflict. This pleasure blinds us to the fact that we are destroying ourselves from within, burning up with anger and aversion, becoming habitual in our reactions to negative stimuli. The Buddha once pointed out that when we are angry, we do to ourselves what our enemies could only wish, destroying both our physical and mental well-being to the delight of those who wish us harm.
Actually, both desire and aversion trigger chemical responses in the body, as do crying, laughing, and even yawning. It is therefore no wonder that such emotions are easily habit forming, causing both physical and mental addictions well-documented by experts in addiction research.
I once taught meditation to a professor at a large university in America whose main field of expertise was addiction. His interest was pertinent because he himself was on medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder. During our discussions he taught me many things about addiction, and I turned around and showed him how to use the Buddha’s teaching to understand empirically all the things he taught me on an intellectual level. His wife later came to tell me that he had remarked to her after the course that “he is a genius!” I am not a genius, of course, but I think it is fair to say that the Buddha was, because he was able to see through mere belief and intellect to actually understand how reality worked on a practical level.
This professor was subject to fits of violence towards his family out of hyperbolic concern for their safety and well-being. Through the meditation practice, he was able to apply what he had studied for so many years to overcome his attachments to his own thoughts and emotions. In many cases this is the true problem – not that we are angry or lustful, but that we misapprehend the emotions, forgetting all that we have learned and observed in favour of blind addiction and belief that there is a never-before-attained satisfaction waiting just around the corner. As the famous quote goes, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Delusion too can be incredibly intoxicating, blinding us as easily as greed or anger. One might say that greed and anger are in-and-of-themselves fairly benign; it is delusion-based mind states like self-righteousness and conceit that make them deadly, leading one to cultivate unwholesomeness and thinking it a virtue.
The Buddha said that he didn’t see any evil greater than holding steadfastly to wrong views. Just as a person who cuts themselves on grass or leaves due to an improper grasp of them, a person with wrong view will fall into great suffering due to their ignorance.
When a person likes or dislikes something, there may still be room to understand the dangers in reacting to it; when one believes it proper to like, dislike and even react violently in response to one’s partialities, this belief poses a much greater threat than any single emotion it might cultivate.
It is common in society for people to feel abused or mistreated by others and demand equal or even special treatment. We often rationalize our desires based on some perceived privilege we “deserve”. In the same way, we tend to rationalize our aversions with self-righteous thinking, as in, “I don’t deserve to be treated like that!” and so on. Such thoughts are only to our detriment, destroying respect and friendship and replacing it with fear and loathing.
A person who looks down upon others, expecting special treatment, demanding obedience or respect, will never truly be respected by anyone; they will only find themselves alienated from their fellow human beings as a result of their unpleasant behaviour. Likewise, a person who has low self-esteem will find themselves alienated through their clinging to thoughts of their own worthlessness. They will ever act in ways that are self-defeating and never succeed in accomplishing anything worthwhile including spiritual enlightenment.
All forms of self-appraisal are associated with attachment to self. We spend much of our time defining ourselves as some entity that we never experience but somehow imagine to be real and really “I”. Because such an entity is fixed in our minds irrespective of reality, it can only serve to hinder our investigation of the truth, giving us an atomic concept of ourselves, rather than one that can be broken down into what are really just impersonal, ephemeral experiences of no substance or significance whatsoever. In this way, we can see the danger of delusion towards our practice and our general state of well-being.
All sorts of negative mind states, when engaged in, will without question inhibit our ability to see clearly, and so should be shunned by ardent meditators, as per the Buddha’s advice in the Sabbāsava Sutta. It is important to understand that this does not mean reacting negatively to them; rather it means recognizing them quickly for what they are and staying within the realm of what is real, forbidding our minds to wander off into illusion, fantasy and blindness.
All unwholesome thoughts should be carefully observed and neutralized with objective recognition, as in “liking, liking”, “disliking, disliking”, or even just “thinking, thinking”. When we fantasize, we should recognize it as “fantasizing” or “dreaming”. When we dwell on unpleasant thoughts or harmful intentions, we should recognize them similarly. And when delusion arises in the form of self-righteousness, we should be quick to see it too as just another thought, to be followed at one’s own peril. This is what the Buddha meant by destroying or dispelling unwholesome thoughts.
The seventh and final aspect of practice by which we do away with the defilements that plague our minds, bringing us only stress and suffering as long as they persist, is through development. Specifically, the Buddha taught us to develop seven qualities in sequence, which he referred to as the seven factors of enlightenment (bojjhaṅga).
This aspect of practice is perhaps the most profound, as it defines the progression of practice from seeing things as they are to realizing true freedom from suffering. Through our practice of seeing the truth of all experience, we undergo a process of mental development that strengthens and fortifies our minds until we are finally able to break free from suffering and become enlightened for ourselves.
The first step in our progress, the first factor of enlightenment, is called “sati”. “sati” is a word that should be familiar to most Buddhists; unfortunately, however, it is often understood quite loosely, even incorrectly. Generally translated as “mindfulness”, it is usually taken to mean “awareness” or “alertness”, both of which are ostensibly positive qualities of mind. “sati”, however, means neither.
The word “sati” comes from a root (sara) that means to remember, or recollect. This root is used in the standard form of “going for refuge” to the Buddha, his teachings, and his enlightened disciples, for example: “buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi” – “I go to the Buddha as a saraṇa”. The word “saraṇa” is generally translated as “refuge”, which it can indeed mean. The word also means, however, “object of recollection”, i.e. something to recollect in times of difficulty.
Indeed, this is exactly what the Buddha encouraged us to do when we are in distress. He said, “maṃ anussareyyātha” – “you should recollect me”, because thoughts on the perfection of the Buddha would console us in times of despair. Similar practices exist in many of the world’s religions to bring faith and courage in times of difficulty – there is nothing particularly Buddhist about it.
From this explanation, though, we can see that the word “sati”, the very basis on which we are to build our practice, has something to do with calling to mind, or keeping in mind. The word sati is sometimes used to refer to recollecting events that have occurred in the past or foreseeing those that will happen in the future as well. In the context of the factors of enlightenment, however, it refers only to recollection of the present moment. What it really means is to call to mind the objective nature of the experience, eschewing all projection, extrapolation or judgement about the object.
According to the Abhidhamma, sati arises based on fortified recognition (thīra-saññā). Whereas ordinary recognition (saññā) is not enough to keep the mind in objective awareness, once we fortify or reaffirm this recognition, not letting the mind move beyond simple awareness of the object for what it is, our minds will penetrate the nature of the object to the core, dispelling all doubt as to its essential nature as something worth clinging to or not.
“sati” would therefore be better translated as “recognition”, and this is how it has been referred to throughout this chapter. “sati”, in the context of the bojjhaṅgas is the deliberate and sustained recognition that allows one to see the objects of experience as they truly are.
This explanation, which may seem a bit dry to the casual reader, is necessary to help us understand what the Buddha really meant in the Satipaṭṭḥāna Sutta, when he said, as quoted earlier, “when walking, one fully comprehends: ‘I am walking’.” It is clear that he did not mean that we should be aware that we are walking, since awareness is common to animals and ordinary humans alike. Simply recognizing that we are walking requires no meditative training whatsoever.
To “fully comprehend” (pajānāti), one must cultivate the mental quality of “sati” or fortified recognition (thīra-saññā) by reminding oneself of the essential nature of the experience, as in “walking”. Reminding oneself in this way of what one already recognizes is equivalent to arresting the mind’s natural progression into projection, judgement, clinging, seeking, building up, and finally suffering.
Another way of understanding this activity of fortifying one’s recognition is as a mantra, a traditional meditative tool that has been used for millennia by meditators both Buddhist and non. A mantra is used to focus the mind on an object, arresting the mind’s natural inclination to jump from object to object. It is traditionally used to focus on a conceptual object, something a meditator conjures up in the mind – a picture or a spiritual object like a god or angel.
A mantra can, however, be used in much the same way in order to fix the mind on a real object as well, be it a physical sensation, a feeling, a thought, or an emotion. This is one way of understanding the word “sati” in the context of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta; it is the use of a mantra to stabilize and fortify one’s bare recognition of an experience for what it is, allowing one to see clearly without prejudice or projection and thus remove any misapprehensions based on delusion or ignorance.
Once we cultivate sati, our minds will naturally incline towards observing the nature of phenomena; just as how a person who sees a tiger also sees its stripes, observation of the characteristics of every object of one’s experience is unavoidable for one who observes the experience objectively in this way. Through the cultivation of sati, one will be forced to see clearly the true nature of everything one clings to, as well as the result of such clinging. One will see that the objects of experience are universally impermanent, unsatisfying, and uncontrollable; one will see that clinging to such entities is akin to banging one’s head off of a wall – painful and utterly without purpose. This introspection-based knowledge is called “dhamma-vicaya”, and it is the second of the factors of enlightenment we are trying to cultivate as a means of destroying the taints.
In the beginning, a meditator may spend much of their time practising incorrectly as they gradually teach themselves the delicacy of true introspection. When they are in pain, they may say to themselves, “pain, pain, pain”, but neglect to put their attention on the pain itself – hoping irrationally that simply repeating the word is enough to make the pain go away.
Since the use of a mantra is to bring one’s attention closer to the object, such effort cannot help but fail miserably. Such meditators may become miserable in response, feeling like the meditation is useless, and may give up meditation entirely. Only through proper understanding of the goal of meditation will they realize that the problem lies more in their unwillingness to investigate the pain than in the pain itself.
Once the meditator turns their mind towards understanding the object as it is, they will find themselves much invigorated by the practice, uplifted at having done away with aversion and attachment to the objects of experience. Given the heavy weight of the defilements, one’s first experience of simply observing an object as it is and sticking with that observation can feel very much like one’s first breath of fresh air after being trapped for many years in a dark and stagnant dungeon.
This invigoration is called “viriya”, energy, and is the third factor of enlightenment that must be cultivated. This sort of energy is not the same as pushing oneself to practice beyond one’s limits or forcing the mind to stay with a single object; it is a natural result of seeing things as they are and cultivating one’s vision to a greater and greater degree of clarity, which in turn frees the mind of the weights and chains of defilements.
It must be understood, however, that simply removing the defilements of greed, anger and even delusion from the mind is not enough; as long as there is still ignorance, the defilements may still arise again in full force if we let down our guard. For this reason, we must cultivate this process as a habit, carving out a familiarity with objective observation in the mind until we can truly internalize what we are observing.
Once our minds become accustomed to observing in this way, there will arise the fourth factor of enlightenment, called “pīti” or rapture. Rapture is a phenomenon well-known in religious circles, though they may have other names for it. It refers to any mental state that catches one up, holding one in its grasp, making it difficult to break away.
Ordinary rapture is found in the rocking back and forth that can be seen to occur in meditators and religious devotees of many religious traditions. They may believe that it is a god or spirit that has taken possession of them; in actual fact, it is simply a product of one’s own habitual cultivation of a focused mind state, leading one to become stuck in the experience like a broken record.
In the context of the factors of enlightenment, rapture refers to the getting caught up by one’s introspection, something akin to an airplane taking off. During its taxi on the runway, the airplane’s travel is neither smooth nor steady. Once it reaches a critical velocity, however, it is lifted into the air and is able to travel smoothly without any obstacles.
Once one’s practice becomes habitual through intensive dedication, usually over many days or weeks of intensive practice, one will begin to feel as though little or no conscious effort is required to maintain the objective awareness. Some meditators may actually become negligent as a result, failing to continue their efforts to further refine their observation; they will then generally fall away from that state and have to begin again to cultivate the habit anew.
Just as a pilot must always be on the alert, adjusting the airplane’s trajectory when necessary to keep it on course, so too a meditator whose practice is progressing smoothly must never fail to keep up the practice of objective observation. If they are diligent in this way, they will find their minds beginning to quiet down naturally, becoming more amenable to clear observation and recognition. This quietude of mind is called “passadhi”, and it is the fifth factor of enlightenment.
With the cultivation of quietude, one’s mind will become focused. As one continues to apply oneself to the meditation, the mind will no longer jump chaotically from one object to another, and one’s observation will proceed with greater and greater ease as one’s focus becomes further and further developed.
In the Visuddhimagga, this process is likened to the taming of a young calf:
For this bhikkhu’s mind has long been dissipated among visible data, etc., as its object, and it does not want to mount the object of concentration- through-mindfulness-of-breathing; it runs off the track like a chariot harnessed to a wild ox. Now, suppose a cowherd wanted to tame a wild calf that had been reared on a wild cow’s milk, he would take it away from the cow and tie it up apart with a rope to a stout post dug into the ground; then the calf might dash to and fro, but being unable to get away, it would eventually sit down or lie down by the post. So too, when a bhikkhu wants to tame his own mind which has long been spoilt by being reared on visible data, etc., as object for its food and drink, he should take it away from visible data, etc., as object and bring it into the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty place and tie it up there to the post of in-breaths and out-breaths with the rope of mindfulness. And so his mind may then dash to and fro when it no longer gets the objects it was formerly used to, but being unable to break the rope of mindfulness and get away, it sits down, lies down, by that object under the influence of access and absorption. Hence the Ancients said:
154. “Just as a man who tames a calf Would tie it to a post, so here Should his own mind by mindfulness Be firmly to the object tied.”
The “lying down” of the mind refers to the focus that comes from sustained practice. Such focus is called “samadhi”, and it is the sixth factor of enlightenment.
With the development of proper insight, the mind will gradually lose all of its tendencies towards partiality. It will come to clearly see that all arisen phenomena are essentially the same – impermanent, unsatisfying, and uncontrollable; in short, not worth clinging to. As a result, one will become impartial and equanimous, viewing all experiences simply as they are without any judgement or dissatisfaction with any of them. This equanimity is called “upekkha”, and it is the seventh and final factor of enlightenment.
Once these seven factors have been developed to their utmost, the mind will gradually shift away from its attachment to objects of experience in favour of their cessation. With the repeated observation of the impermanence, suffering, and uncontrollability inherent in the objects of experience, one will eventually give rise to an unshakeable realization that all arisen phenomena must be thus – that there is no use whatsoever in seeking out an experience that is otherwise, since such a thing can never arise.
With the cessation of seeking, the mind will retreat from the world of arisen phenomena, entering into a state of non-arising, called nibbāna. Though such an experience may last for only a few moments, it will have a profound and irrevocable effect on the meditator’s psyche. They will find themselves never again able to cling to wrong views in regards to reality, the practice, or their own experiences.
A person who has realized nibbāna is akin to a common villager who has been brought up with all sorts of superstitions and beliefs and then goes off to the city to study the natural sciences. When they return, they will find themselves unable to accept their old superstitions in favour of the undeniable facts they have come to learn in their studies. A person who has seen the cessation of all things can never be convinced that there is something arisen that will never cease.
This realization is the culmination of Buddhist meditative practice. It is the aim of all of our efforts – the goal of our lives as Buddhists. Seeing this truth is the real duty of all beings; the one thing that will bring us to see the error of our ways, freeing us from all suffering and stress for eternity.
A person who has seen nibbāna for the first time has begun a final journey towards the end of suffering. Though they may still cling and reject out of habit, they are possessed of a constant, unwavering knowledge of the mistaken nature of their clinging. They cannot escape the truth that they have come to see, and so they will eventually, be it in a short or long time, come to the complete cessation of all craving, clinging and suffering.
This is the final aspect of a comprehensive Buddhist practice. As should be clear, each aspect of the practice complements the others, and it is only when they are taken up as a whole that one can be assured of attaining the goal for oneself in no long time.
This is what is taught in the Sabbāsava Sutta, the second sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya. This sutta is recommended reading for all Buddhists. I recommend that you take the time to read it for yourself, in order to better understand the essence of what I have tried to explain herein. It is my sincere wish that this teaching is useful for all of you, and that you are able to put what you have learned into practice, and as a result are able to progress in the Buddha’s teaching, that you all may realize for yourself true peace, happiness, and freedom from suffering.