Monday, January 5, 2015

Buddhism: The Path of Calm and Insight

Amber Larson, Crystal Quintero, Dhr. Seven (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly; Ven. Thanissaro (Geoffrey DeGraff), The Path of Concentration & Mindfulness (Noble Strategy)
Eyes of Wisdom, Bouddhanath stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal (dreamynomad/
Many people say that the Buddha taught two different types of meditation -- mindfulness meditation leading to insight (and liberation) and concentration meditation serenity (and bliss). 

Mindfulness meditation, they say, is the direct path, while concentration practice is the scenic route one takes at one's own risk because it is very alluring and easy to get caught there, such that one might never get out. 

But this is not true.
  • [Pa Auk Sayadaw, a famous enlightened Burmese meditation master who has taught jhana and vipassana (meditative absorption and systematic contemplation) to tens of thousands of students -- monks, nuns, lay people of all traditions and levels of ability -- has never, not a single time, run into a case where a meditator got "stuck" in the bliss, rapture, joy, and happiness of deep samadhi, with the possible exception that one time while teaching Leigh Brasington in Barre, Mass., Leigh was reluctant to get off the effervescent rapture and move onto the more sublime states of equanimity -- reluctant but not "stuck" -- which he had become accustomed to having learned jhana meditation from the German Buddhist nun in Sri Lanka, Ayya Khema, who we are certain did not teach him to stay in the shallows of the full-body blissing out rather than moving progressively forward through the eight jhanas to more and more stillness and purity.]
But when we actually look at what the Enlightened One taught, the Buddha never separates these two practices. They go hand in hand. They are both parts of a single practice.

Jhana means "meditation"
The Buddha mountainside, Nokogiri Yama Buddha, Japan (Naren.K/Colorsimake/flickr)
Every time the Buddha explains mindfulness (sati) and its place in the path, he makes it clear that the purpose of mindfulness practice is to lead the mind into a state of right concentration (the Noble Eightfold Path factor of samma samadhi or samatha) -- to get the mind/heart to settle down and to establish a foundation where it can really experience stability, a home (or place-of-effort, kammathana, ground of work) where it can look at things steadily and see them for what they truly are.
Part of the "two practices" issue centers on how anyone understands the word jhana (Sanskrit dhyana, Japanese zen, Chinese ch'an, Tibetan...) nowadays, which is a synonym for right concentration. 

Many have heard that jhana, "absorption," is a very intense trance-like state that requires shutting out the rest of the world. It sounds nothing like mindfulness at all. But if we look in the Pali canon -- the ancient texts recorded in the exclusively Buddhist language -- where the Buddha describes jhana, that is not the kind of state he is talking about.

To be in jhana is to be absorbed, very pleasurably, in the sense of the whole body altogether. A very broad sense of awareness fills the entire body. Rapture in the first jhana feels like a lightness, an effervescence, a ebullience, like sparkling contented and floating, as opposed to our usual sluggish state of effort and exhaustion.
One of the images the Buddha uses to describe this state is that of a person kneading soap powder with water into a suffusing lather. Another is a lake with no inlets or outlets but fed by a cool spring welling up and suffusing it with fresh water.

When we are with the body as a whole, we are very much in the present moment. We are right here all of the time. As the Buddha says, the fourth jhana -- in which the body is filled with bright awareness -- is the point where mindfulness (bare awareness) and equanimity (unbiased calm) become pure.

This point is ideal for taking up the practice of successful mindfulness meditation. This is done by combining mindfulness practice with the whole-body awareness that has become very settled and still.

In fact, the Buddha himself combines them in his description of the first four steps of breath meditation:
  1. being aware of long breathing,
  2. being aware of short breathing,
  3. being aware of the whole body as we breathe in and out,
  4. and then calming [allowing it to settle] the breath within the body.
This, the texts tell us, is basic mindfulness-of-breath practice (ana-pana-sati). It is a basic concentration practice. One is arriving into the first jhana -- right concentration -- right here, at the same time that we are practicing right mindfulness (samma sati).

To see how right mindfulness and right concentration help each other in the practice, we can look at the three stages of mindfulness practice given in the Discourse on the Setting Up of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutra). Take the body as an example. The first stage is to keep focused on the body in and of itself, setting aside greed and grief regarding the world.
What this means is taking the body as a body (i.e., Four Elements, an impersonal mass exhibiting the various qualities of materiality -- hardness, cold, heat, support, and so on -- which one can become conscious of even to the point of entering jhana) without thinking about it in terms of what it means or what it can do in the world. It could be either good or bad looking. It could be strong or weak. It could be agile or clumsy -- all of the issues we tend to worry about when we think about ourselves. The Buddha says to set those issues aside.

Just be with the body in and of itself, sitting right here right now. We close our eyes -- and what do we have? There is the sensation of "bodiness" that we are sitting with. That is the first "foundation of mindfulness" or frame of reference. We stay with it. A meditator keeps bringing the mind, our attention, back to this sense of the body until it gets the message and begins to settle down.

In the beginning of the practice we will find the mind going out to grasp this or that, so one practice is to "note it" (noticing and mentally noting it) just enough to tell it to let go, return to the body, and hold here.

Then when the mind goes out to grasp something else, we tell it to let go, come back, and fix onto the body again. Eventually, however, we reach a point where we can actually gain hold the breath and not let go. We keep holding awareness on it. From that point on, whatever else happens to come into awareness is like something coming up and brushing the back of our hand. We do not have to note it. We stay with the body as our basic foundation of mindfulness, our frame of reference. Other things come and go, and we are aware of them, but we do not drop the breath and go grasping after them. This is when we really have established the body as a "foundation," a solid frame of reference.
As we do this, we develop three qualities of mind: One is mindfulness (sati, "bare awareness"), a term that means being able to remember, to keep something in mind. In the case of establishing the body as the first foundation of mindfulness, it means being able to remember where we are and what we are doing -- with the body -- and we do not let ourselves forget.

The second quality is clear comprehension, alertness (sampaja├▒├▒a), which means being aware of what is actually going on in the present. Be here now doing what we are doing. Are we with the body? Are we with the breath? Is the breath comfortable? Simply be clearly aware of what is actually happening in the present moment.

We tend to confuse mindfulness with clear comprehension, but actually they are two separate things. Mindfulness means being able to remember where we want to keep our awareness; clear comprehension means being aware of what is actually happening.

The third quality is ardency (atappa), which means two things. One, if we realize that the mind has wandered off, we bring it right back right when we become aware that it has wandered.
  • [There is no need whatsoever to berate it for having wandered off, which it has been in the habit of doing forever. Like a wild and unruly baby elephant brought out of the forest into a clearing and fastened to a post, the mind will pull and pull, trying to go back to wandering around in the brush. But eventually it will learn to hold still. Then it is ready to be trained, made useful, turned into a royal treasure capable of much useful work. We may prefer to let it run wild forever, but harnessing its power to useful work is a precious thing. The Buddha stated that he was aware of nothing so useful as a tractable mind.]
We do not let it wander off, sniffing after scents, sights, sounds, amusements, searching for sensual pleasures and constant distractions.

Two, when the mind is with its proper frame of reference, ardency means being as sensitive as possible to what is going on -- not drifting in the present moment, but penetrating more and more into the subtle details of what is actually happening with the breath or the mind.

When we have these three qualities focused on the body in and of itself, it cannot help but settle down and get really comfortable with the body in the present moment. That is when we are ready for the second stage of the practice, which is described as being aware of the phenomenon of arising (origination) and the phenomenon of falling away. This is a stage where we come to understand cause and effect as they happen in the present moment.

In terms of concentration practice, once the mind has been calmed and given time to settle down, we want to understand the interaction of cause and effect in the process of concentration so that we can have it settle down more solidly for longer periods of time in all sorts of situations, on the meditation cushion and off. To do this, we learn about how things actually arise and pass away in the mind, not by simply watching them, but by actually getting involved in their arising and passing away.

We can see this in the Buddha's instructions for dealing with the Five Hindrances to meditation, to concentration, to mindfulness, and to enlightenment:
  1. craving/desire, 2. ill will/annoyance, 3. sleepiness/lassitude, 4. restlessness/worry, 5. skeptical doubt
In the first stage, the Buddha says to be aware of the hindrances as they come and go. Some mistake this as an exercise in "choiceless awareness," where we do not try to will or aim the mind in any direction but instead simply sit and watch willy-nilly whatever comes into the mind.

In actual practice, however, the mind is not yet ready for that. What is needed at this stage is a fixed point of reference for evaluating the events in the mind, just as when we are trying to gauge the motion of clouds through the sky: We need to select a fixed point -- like a chimney or light pole -- at which to stare so that we can sense which direction and how fast the clouds are moving.

Free your mind. Enlightenment will follow.
The same with the coming and going of sensual desire, ill will, laziness, restlessness, and doubt in the mind: By maintaining a fixed reference point for the mind -- such as the subtle breath [not the gross heaving of the body during a breath, an inhalation-exhalation cycle, but rather the very subtle movement at the nostrils that is the breath instantaneously reflecting/mirroring whatever is going on in the mind -- if we want to be really sensitive to when the hindrances appear in the mind, getting in the way, and when the mind is temporarily freed of them.
Suppose that anger (ill will) is interfering with concentration. Rather than getting involved in the anger, we instead simply become aware of when it is there and when it is not. We look at the anger as an event in and of itself, as it comes and as it goes. But we do not stop there. The next step -- as we are still working to focus on the subtle breath -- is recognizing how anger can be made to go away.

Sometimes simply watching it is enough to make it go away. But sometimes it is not, and we have to deal with it in other ways, applying other antidotes, such as reasoning with the anger by reflecting on the drawbacks of anger. Then the mind naturally shrinks back from anger. In the course of dealing with it, we do not have to get our hands dirty or wrestle with it. By being calm, the anger is not working as a hindrance. By becoming angry that we are angry, that we are not meditating successfully, anger is already working, already serving to hinder the mind.

We can try to figure out why the anger is coming up, why it is falling away, how we can get it out of there, because we realize that it is an unskillful, unprofitable state. The ego becomes impatient wanting to push obstructions and hindrances away so that we can have the space to enjoy serenity, tranquillity, ease, and peace. It is clearly better to exhale and allow. To fight is fighting when it is much better to persevere.

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal.
To develop skill in dealing with anger, it will not happen by hating the anger and trying to push it away, being violent or harsh with it or ourselves. If we were, say, to love the anger and welcoming it with kindness and gentleness, we would already have displaced anger with kindness, harshness with gentleness, fighting with peace.

Our habits of greed, hatred, and delusion -- the roots of all bad karma -- are approaches that may give results in the short run. But in the long run they are not skillful. What is called for here is the ability to see what the anger is composed of so that we can take it apart.

Mind, sometimes you really p' me off.
One technique I like to use when anger is present and I'm in a situation where I do not immediately have to react to people, is simply to ask myself in a good-natured way, "Okay, why are you angry?" And I deeply listen to what the mind/heart has to say. Then I pursue the matter: "But why are you angry at that?" "Of course, I'm angry. After all..." "Well, why are you angry at that?" If I keep this up, tracing it like a relentless bloodhound, the mind eventually admits to something stupid, like the assumption that people shouldn't be that way -- even though they blatantly are that way -- or that people should act in line with my standards and needs rather than their own. Or what comes up is something the mind is so embarrassed about that it tries to hide it from me. But finally, if I keep probing like a precocious child relentlessly questioning a parent, it will fess up. One can gain a lot of understanding of one's habit of anger this way, and this can really weaken its power over us.

In terms of the positive qualities like mindfulness, serenity, and concentration, it is similar. First, we are aware of when they are present and when not. Then we realize that when they are it is much nicer than when they are not. So we figure out how they come, how they go. We do this by consciously maintaining a state of mindfulness and concentration. If we are really observant -- and being observant is what it is all about -- we begin to see that there are skillful ways of maintaining a state without getting tied up in failure or success in doing it, without letting a desire for a settled state of mind get in the way of the mind's settling down.

We do want to succeed, but we need a balanced attitude toward failure and success so that we can learn from them. Nobody is keeping score or taking grades, except perhaps ourselves. We are here to understand for our own sake. So this process of developing a foundation of mindfulness or developing a frame of reference is not "just watching." It is participating in the process of arising and passing away so that we can learn, from experience, how cause and effect work in the mind.

When I was in college
When I was in college, I tried to learn about clay. But you can't really learn about clay by watching it, by looking at it. We do not know clay until we become involved with it and actually try to make something out of clay. Then we learn.

It's the same with the mind: unless we actually try to make something out of the mind, try to get a mental state going and keep it going, we don't really know our own mind, its amazing ability and capacity. We do not know the processes of cause and effect within the mind. There has to be actual participation in the process. That way we can understand it. This all comes down to being observant and developing a skill.

The essence of developing a skill means two things. One, we are aware of a situation as it is given and, two, we are aware of what we put into it. When the Buddha talks about causation, he says that every situation is shaped from two directions -- the causes coming in from the past and the causes we are putting into the present. We need to be sensitive to both. If we are not sensitive to what we are putting into a situation, we will never develop any kind of skill.

As we are aware of what we're doing, we also look at the results. If something is not right, we go back and change what we have done -- keeping at this until we get the results we want. And in the process, we learn a great deal from the clay or whatever we are trying to deal with skillfully.

The same holds true with the mind. Of course, we could learn something about the mind by trying to get it into any sort of a state, but for the purpose of developing really penetrating insight, a state of stable, balanced, mindful concentration is the best kind of pottery we want to make with the mind. 
The factors of pleasure, ease, and sometimes even rapture that arise when the mind really settles down help us stay comfortably in the present moment, with a low center of gravity. Once the mind is firmly settled here, we have something to look at for a long period of time so that we can see what it is made up of.

In the typical unbalanced state of the mind, things are appearing and disappearing too fast for us to notice them clearly. But as the Buddha notes, when one gets really skilled at meditative absorption, at jhana, we can step back a bit and see what we've got. We can see, say, where there is an element of attachment, where there is an element of stress, or even where there is inconstancy within our balanced state.

This is where we begin to gain insight -- and when we practice systematically we can gain liberating insight (vipassana), as we see the natural cleavage lines among the different factors of the mind, and in particular, the cleavage line between awareness and the objects of awareness.

Another advantage to a mindful, concentrated state is that as we feel more and more at home in it, we begin to realize that it is possible to have happiness and pleasure in life without depending on things outside of ourselves -- people, relationships, approval from others, or any of the issues that come from being part of the world.

This realization helps pry loose our attachments to things outside of ourselves. Some people are afraid of getting attached to a state of calm. But actually it is very important that we get attached here, so that we begin to settle down and begin to undo our other attachments. When this attachment to calm is the only one left, we can begin to work on loosening it up as well.

Another reason why solid concentration is necessary for insight is that when wisdom comes to the mind, the basic unbearable or funny lesson we realize is that we have been foolish and deluded. We have held onto things even though we at some level have known better than to do so.

If someone were to try telling us that now, we would say, "You're foolish/deluded!" And that would be the end of the discussion. Nothing would get accomplished. But if we see it firsthand, we can do little but laugh. It's true; it's so clear now! That is the way of the mind and ego. When it has been well treated and shown the truth, provided with rapture and ease from concentration, it is ready to learn. It can accept criticisms without feeling threatened or abused or needing to strike back.

This is the role concentration plays in the second stage of mindfulness practice: It gives us something to play with, a skill to develop so we can begin to understand the factors of cause and effect within the mind. We begin to correctly see the mind as a flux of causes with their effects coming back at us. Our ideas are part of this flux of cause and effect, our emotions, our sense of who we are. And this insight begins to loosen our attachments to the whole process.

What finally happens is that the mind reaches a third level of mindfulness practice where it comes to a state of perfect equilibrium -- where we have developed a state of concentration, a state of equanimity to the point where we do not have to put anything more into it. In the Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutra this is described as simply being aware -- if we are using the body as our frame of reference, being aware that "There is a body," just enough for knowledge and mindfulness, without being attached to anything in the world.

Other texts call this the state of "non-fashioning." The mind reaches the point where we begin to realize that all causal processes in the mind -- including the processes of concentration and insight -- are like tar babies: If we like them, we get stuck; if we do not like them, we get stuck. So what are we to do? We have to get to the point where we are not contributing anything more to the present moment. We disentangle our participation in it. That is when things open up in the mind.

Sadly, many of us want to jump right in and begin at this level of not adding anything to the present moment. But it doesn't work that way. We can't be sensitive to the subtle things the mind is habitually adding to the present until we have consciously tried to alter what we are adding. As we get more and more skilled, we get more sensitive to the subtle things we never realized we were doing.

We reach a point of disenchantment (dispassion, equanimity), where we realize that the most skillful way of dealing with the present is to let go of all levels of participation that cause even the slightest bit of suffering in the mind. We start dismantling the levels of participation that we learned in the second stage of the practice, to the point where things reach equilibrium on their own, where there is letting go and release.

In summary
So it is important to realize that there are three stages to mindfulness practice and to understand the role that deliberate concentration practice plays in taking us through the first two. By aiming at right concentration, we develop the skills needed for understanding the mind. For it is in the process of mastering the skill of mindful concentration that insight arises. Just as we will not understand a wild animal until we have successfully herded one -- learning from our failures along the way -- we will not have a sense of all the cause-and-effect currents running through the mind until we have learned from our failures and successes in getting them to gather in a state of concentrated mindfulness and mindful concentration. When we have understood and mastered these currents, the currents of craving that cause suffering and disappointment and the currents of mindfulness and concentration that form the Path -- can we let them go and find freedom.

Edited by Wisdom Quarterly. Originally adapted from a talk given at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center and as part of the course "The Role of the Four Noble Truths" at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, February, 1996.

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