THE EMPTY HUT

[ A Dhamma Journal ]

 
 

Why Buddhists Are Obsessed With Suffering
(and Why You Should Be Too)

What is the picture of your joyfulness, ease, and comfort over the past 24 hours? How does it compare with the tension, suffering, and discomfort you experienced? How aware are you of your experiential states, from the grossest level to the subtlest? These questions are the most important three questions you can ask yourself every day. In discovering the answers—what you know, what you don’t, and what you’re unsure of—you can begin to chart a course through the various factors that are constricting your freedom from painful reactions.    

 

Human beings generally tend to think of suffering as a significant experience of emotional and mental pain. Examples of this are severe illness, ongoing financial insecurity, or the loss of a valued relationship. However, instances of lesser suffering, including the large number of daily discomforts, inconveniences, or frustrations are not normally regarded as painful enough to warrant the label of suffering. In addition to this misclassification of the scope and depth of suffering is the common and tacit agreement within human culture that such daily occurrences should be tolerated because they are part and parcel of life: they are normalized. People do not see their impatience standing in the grocery store line or frustration with their electronic devices as important failures. However, that assessment is a misunderstanding that obstructs people from attaining their true potential for non-suffering.

 

Taken individually, instances of irritation or annoyance may not seem to be a big deal but taken as a whole, as parts of an ongoing and connected series of minor, middling, and major experiences of suffering, they are nothing short of bone-crushing. The whole picture of life, seen from a few feet away, up close, as well as in minute detail—on the level of pixelation of the picture, so to speak—is why Buddhists are obsessed with suffering. Life is not a series of major events, it is a cumulative and inter-related collection of around 2.7 billion moments (if we crudely equate a moment with a second). Your life is lived in each of these moments, whether you are aware of them or not.

 

Let’s talk about neurology and physiology. One instance of the suffering of impatience causes your body to release adrenaline, a stress hormone. Another similar instance can keep the momentum of stress strong or make it even stronger. If you encounter something triggering, your threshold for anger becomes much lower because your body is primed for action. This is a simple example of both how suffering is cumulative and of how ignorance of even a small instance of impatience can impact you.

Put simply, if you are inattentive and not directing your engagement with life towards the aim of non-suffering, your life will be infused with suffering. That suffering, and the lack of mindfulness of it on all its levels, is what stands between human beings and joy, ease, and true and timeless security. In fact, this basic state of primordial and unconditioned ease is what you are striving for by working, socializing, relaxing, eating, engaging in recreation, making love, producing children, or altering your emotional states through music, movies, or chemical substances. You are aiming for that which is non-suffering but your methodology seems to keep coming up short. Because it doesn’t release you from your predicament, you continue to engage in activities to distract yourself, to fill up your day, and to obscure your suffering from insecurity, boredom, or (goodness forbid!) being unproductive.

 

If we pull a random person out of the crowd, we would find that this person does nothing but attempt to not suffer. They work hard in order to have access to financial, physical, and emotional security, a form of circumstantial non-suffering. They eat well and exercise so as to be healthy, another form of circumstantial non-suffering. They listen to their favorite music, read books, or watch comforting, inspiring, or confronting movies to be at ease, to relax, or to develop emotionally and intellectually, as the case may be. When they eat out, they pick the food and beverage that would maximize their enjoyment, yet another form of non-suffering. Every sane and normal decision they make is their best effort to get the most out of the now, the day, and of their life and, more importantly, to minimize their suffering. 

 

This obsession with non-suffering is part of both our survival instinct and our refined intellectual discernment of suffering and non-suffering. Unfortunately, the common obsession with suffering and non-suffering does not go nearly far enough. Because people observe themselves and life on a somewhat gross level, their efforts are by and large patchy and lackluster and they allow suffering to continue to permeate most of the 2.7 billion moments of their lives. Most of this suffering escapes our untrained ability for mindfulness but its cumulative impact is evidenced by our impatience, anger, frustration, anxiety, stress, sadness, and depression.

 

The antidote to many of these negative and painful manifestations is the same medicinal process that remedies suffering: knowing that you suffer, knowing why you suffer, knowing that suffering is optional, and engaging in actions that bring you freedom at the core of your existence (and disengaging from actions and thought patterns that do the opposite). Unfortunately, you cannot bypass this process by remaining ignorant of your suffering because being unaware of suffering is not the same as non-suffering. The long string of annoyances, frustrations, and disappointments cast a pall over your life and manifests as a slow-moving fog of dissatisfaction and a strong urge to constantly ‘do something,’ a restlessness towards productivity that distracts you from the discomfort of your thoughts as they clash against reality.

 

In Buddhism, life is found in every moment and this very moment is the most precious part of your life. Therefore, even one instance of suffering is one too many and every missed opportunity for natural joy, relaxation, comfort, and the security of knowing that what you truly are cannot die, is one worth striving to remedy. The path is clearly described and true practice is simple and straightforward. It just takes determination and effort. You do not need to be religious, you need to be humane: humane towards yourself in wishing to be released from suffering. You do not deserve to suffer, not even in the most minor and subtle way, no matter who you are or what you have done. You deserve perfect freedom.

 

May you meet with great success in your noble endeavor!

 

EJH

The

Birth

of

Thought

 

23rd September, 2563 B.E. (2020 C.E.)

Life on earth is very old. It is almost as old as the planet itself. Around four billion years ago, the first single-celled beings emerged and for the billions of years that followed, life sustained itself by having one functional concern that superseded all others, survival for the sake of survival. This preeminent concern very quickly became an instinct. An instinct, which is distinct from thought, is an inherent, non-vocalized set of genetic instructions. This heritable information evolved to prize existence and continuity as paramount. 

The physicist Paul Davies stated that, “the laws of nature are such that they encourage matter and energy to develop in the direction of ever-greater complexity, ever-greater richness." So, as life continued to evolve, driven by survival as a self-justifying aim, human beings--highly-complex organisms--eventually emerged. Once a sufficient level of neurological organization occurred, billions of years of instinctive power were distilled into one very discrete, all-consuming, and fear-driven thought: “I.” The first conscious thought was born.

 

Consciousness arises once an organism reaches a certain level of complexity or organization, so said the Advaitist sage Nisargadatta. This complexity is a synergy of neurological functions that allow for a highly refined level of discernment culminating in an ability to see a distinction between that which discerns (the so-called 'I') and that which is discerned, culminating in a 'me and other' dichotomy. As such, ordinary consciousness is a process of refined awareness. The nascent human consciousness which bore the first thought had become able to conceptualize what it had formerly only known as dark and overpowering whispers of fear driving the need for human genetic material to survive. The birth of that world-making thought, the conceptual ‘I,’ set the separation of self and other into formal parameters and started a cascade of organized patterns of fear that we now call ‘thought.’

 

Almost all I-based thoughts are, at their inception, fear shapes. This even applies to the spiritual path where thoughts of practice and enlightenment coagulate as a response to the fear of suffering and the fear of non-liberation from suffering. In theistic religions, the pattern applies to thoughts of angering the divine or separation from the divine. Similar to fear-motivated thoughts connected with self-realization or salvation are creative and self-expressive thoughts whose intrinsic motivation can been seen clearly when they are prohibited, negated, or invalidated. Our desire for self-expression is an extension of our need to survive, even if it is vicarious continuity through our creations or the fame attached to our identity. Our most refined thoughts are a result of our fear of non-survival, either as individuals, as a species, or as life on earth, taken as a whole.

 

Millions of years into the evolution of humanity and fear still rules us. The problem presented by the birth of fear-motivated thought is particularly inconvenient in the endeavor towards the fruitful cultivation of meditation and mindfulness. Specifically, for fruition, a practitioner needs to abandon fear-motivated thought and cultivate impersonal-fearless thoughts. Such equanimous thinking is akin to wisdom and the development of patterns of wise thinking is the only antidote to the ignorance of fear-motivated thinking. Every time you want to be loved, nice, efficient, productive, memorable, impressive, or seen as worthy, you are allowing subtle fear-based thinking to drive your mind. In recognizing the nature of your thoughts as well as applying antidotes, your mind relaxes. By the same token, learning how to intentionally think thoughts that do not originate in fear, that are wise, that are non-suffering and that lead to non-suffering, the mind gradually offloads its old fearful patterns of thinking and takes on new patterns that are calming, stilling, and that in and of themselves are only a small leap away from Samādhi, or the dissolution of discursive thinking. A relaxed, aware, and fearless mind has a good chance to see through and beyond the veil of thinking.

When fear abates, thoughts become easier to abandon altogether because they then carry less self-sustaining energy; when fear dissolves, almost all thinking dissolves as well.

 

I recall reading that the spiritual master Adyashanti’s Zen teacher, Arvis Joen Justi, told him that if one goes to war with the mind, one would be at war forever. The profound wisdom in this statement invites a non-confrontational strategy. That is because compulsive and agitated thoughts cannot be relaxed and dissolved through aggressive thinking, including thoughts that see these patterns as unwanted. Instead, if we look to the Noble Eightfold Path, we see that the Buddha gave two modes of thinking that are conducive to gently disarming harmful thoughts. These strategies focus on developing thoughts based on Right Intention and Right View.

 

In Right Intention, the practitioner cultivates thoughts that are harmless, that are devoid of ill will, and that are conductive to renunciation of that which causes suffering. This is a training. Harmful thoughts are averted or recycled into wisdom, so too ill-will and covetousness for the world. At the same time, thoughts of good will, such as lovingkindness, compassion, empathetic/vicarious joy, and thought-based equanimity are intended, encouraged, engaged, and practiced.

 

Right View relates to the Four Noble Truths: the pervasiveness of suffering, why we suffer, the possibility of suffering’s cessation, and the path leading to that cessation. Each of these is a universe of wise, calming, and helpful thoughts; thinking that helps the mind become established in the possibility of release and in the knowledge that fear is contrary to our wellbeing; and that fearlessness is conducive to our wellness and ease. 

Both Right Intention and Right View allow the mind to synchronize with primordial reality, the non-suffering and unconditioned reality which just happens to not require our thoughts for it to ‘exist.’ It is the reality that existed before the birth of the first thought, which exists right now, and which will continue to exist well beyond the last thinker has thought the last human thought. To sync the ordinary mind with the qualities that naturally emanate from non-suffering is to deliberately think wise and insightful thoughts. Because the quality of these thoughts is refined and based on impersonal fearlessness, self-identity relaxes.

When the practitioner sits and there is nothing they want, nothing they wish for, nothing they regret, nothing of importance, nothing they need to think about, gaps begin to appear between thoughts.

When the practitioner sits and there is nothing they want, nothing they wish for, nothing they regret, nothing of importance, nothing they need to think about, gaps begin to appear between thoughts. With continued mindful fearlessness, these gaps widen until the gaps themselves become the main feature while the occasional errant thought becomes the exception. Thereafter, the skill and experience of the practitioner can develop to the point where all instances of thought, be they in meditation or ‘off the cushion,’ are secondary. In other words, your engagement of the world does not primarily rely on your thinking. Your primordial quietude uses thinking only when it is necessary to do so.

 

The main process obscuring the unconditioned mind is fear-motivated thinking. Departure from thinking aligned with Right Intention and Right View as well as any dissonant Kamma that results from this misguided thinking, reestablishes fear and weakens wisdom. Therefore, a practitioner working to actualize the Noble Eightfold Path needs to work on gently but consistently changing fear-motivated thoughts until their thoughts become impersonal, devoid of fear, and synced with their ultimate wellbeing. At that point, as the Mahayanist Lojong slogans state, the practitioner needs to, “self-liberate even the antidote.”

May you meet with great success in your noble endeavor!

 

EJH

 

6th September, 2563 B.E. (2020 C.E.)

There is nothing to hide behind when we are ordinary Buddhist householders. No ochre robes to project or identify with. No alms bowl to limit our greed. No shaved head and eyebrows to shield us against our vanity. No monastery to set us apart, at least physically, from the craving, aversion, and ignorance of the teeming and heartbreaking world. We are in the thick of it and there is no true refuge except for our own Dhamma practice and its fruits.

As householders, we have to work to survive. This we often do under pressure and at speeds that exceed the normal human capacity for maintaining Right Mindfulness and abiding by Right Speech. We have to manage interpersonal relationships with many people, most of whom have little idea about the delicate and titanic battle we are waging internally. And, we have to deal with the insecurity created by the mechanisms of the world that require us to work so very hard simply so that we may eat, have shelter, and gain access to medicine.

 

Though we are Buddhist householders who authentically take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha of Arahants, still we do not leave this ‘dusty’ household life. Some of us are too attached to the seeming comfort of the familiar to go forth. Some are confused between the two worlds of the home-bound and the home-less. Some, fully convinced of the futility of worldliness, look at the state of so many of the contemporaneous Buddhist monasteries and feel we can practice the Dhamma much more effectively in the household state, even with all the dust. And yet some of us are on our way to the sacred path of robes.

 

Regardless of the reason, we householders are on our own sacred path and we aim for the same prize of cessation as do monastics. Nevertheless, the capacity of householders has often been underestimated, even during the Buddha’s time. In the Anathapindikovada Sutta, Anāthapiṇḍika, the dying chief patron of the Buddha, pleaded from his deathbed with the venerable Sāriputta to provide more effective instructions to the laity. The venerable Sāriputta, having ascertained that Anāthapiṇḍika death was imminent, had just given him the following paraphrased teaching.

 

Do not cling, householder

To the six sense faculties

And do not attach your thoughts to them

Do not cling to the six sense objects

And do not attach your thoughts to them

Do not cling to the six types of consciousness,

To the six sense contacts,

To the six feelings,

To the six elements,

To the five aggregates,

To the four formless realms

Do not cling to anything that is

Seen

Heard

Sensed

Thought

Perceived

And investigated in the mind

And do not attach your thoughts to this.

 

After receiving these instructions, Anāthapiṇḍika wept and asked the venerable Sāriputta to give this teaching to other householders who are, “wasting away,” because they are not receiving such precise, prescriptive, and penetrating teachings. Indeed, these instructions are given with only one aim in mind and it is not the aim of piecemeal Dhammic progress or taking the 'edge off' Saṃsāra.

It is noteworthy, therefore, to compare these instructions to the Buddha’s description of the ultimate Buddhist aim as found in the, ‘First Discourse About Nibbāna’ (Udāna 8.1) where the Buddha states:

 

“There is that sphere, monks, where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air, no sphere of infinite space, no sphere of infinite consciousness, no sphere of nothingness, no sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, no this world, no world beyond, neither Moon nor Sun. There, monks, I say there is surely no coming, no going, no persisting, no passing away, no rebirth. It is quite without support, unmoving, without an object—just this is the end of suffering.” [emphasis added] 

 

Putting the two sets of teachings together, the venerable Sāriputta's instructions to Anāthapiṇḍika the householder and the Buddha’s description of nibbāna, we can see how the instructions given to a householder were intended for one for whom it is possible to attain the path and fruit of arahantship. This is the undeniable potential of the householder. In the introduction to his translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, Maurice Walshe says that there is no evidence in any of the suttas that householders cannot attain to the highest aim of the Buddhist path (Dīgha Nikāya translated by Maurice Walshe, p.27). It is certainly much more difficult due to the inordinate amount of distraction and the limitations of formal practice but, by the same token, that is precisely the reason the householder’s path has so much potential.

 

Perhaps that is the reason why during the Buddha’s ministry householders far eclipsed monastics in the sheer count of them attaining to the Noble Path, i.e. attaining to the minimum of Stream-Entry, the first echelon of enlightenment and the foothold of inevitable nibbāna. With the world such as it is in this 21st Century, the path to ultimate release is now paved with abundant negativity, affording near-endless opportunities to practice Right Wisdom, Right Conduct, and Right Awareness. There is no other path to traverse but this dusty and muddy path. It is well-fertilized and fertile.  

 

However, the matter is not so straightforward. Even with the ultimate potential possessed by serious and committed householders, two principal questions still need to be posed and answered: how much of this world do we immerse ourselves in and which tools do we use? These two questions are of equal importance and require non-truncated treatment.

 

Answering the second question first one would first have to reiterate that quintessential Buddhist caveat of, ‘it depends.’ Every practitioner is different, with specific intellectual faculties, a core personality malleable at its periphery, and particular spiritual strengths. Nevertheless, the Noble Eightfold Path is no less relevant to the householder than it is to the monastic. In fact, it is more urgent for the householder because the householder has less time and faces more dangers, in a worldly and practice sense.

The same challenges of pressure and stress that can undermine a householder’s path are golden opportunities to practice and there are so many more of them. They are complicated and seemingly unending. There is the potential of deep authentic practice in every instance when a householder’s mind is in reaction to the demands of the world. As such, the venerable Sāriputta's instructions afford an efficacious set of surgical tools which can be applied in every instant, be it formal and dedicated Right Meditation (Sammā Samādhi) practice or Right Mindfulness (Sammā Sati). I would argue that since the householder has much less time for Right Meditation than a monastic, Right Mindfulness, supported by the other seven spokes of the Noble Eightfold Path, needs to become the principle reliance for most.

The Satipaṭṭhāna practice, or the Foundations of Mindfulness, is king for the householder. The question of what does ‘Right’ mean in Right Mindfulness is one that a householder needs to expend very significant effort and time on. Not only is there a divergence of opinion on this pivotal practice but gaining an intimate understanding and cultivating a constant practice of Satipaṭṭhāna is the one and only path to nibbāna, according to the Buddha. One can start by reading the sutta itself, the commentaries, the sub-commentaries, the Vimuttimagga, the Visudimagga, the various worthwhile books written on the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and then listen, study, and carefully explore the various teachings on the sutta given by a plethora of venerable monks and accomplished laypeople.  

 

In finding an elucidation on the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta that satisfies the Buddha’s test of any Dhamma, namely the evaluation he prescribes in the Kalama Sutta, the householder immerses themselves in this practice until they are immersed in satipaṭṭhāna, drenched in satipaṭṭhāna, breathing satipaṭṭhāna in and out when riding to the peak of every instance of stress, every argument, every excitement and disappointment, and riding the curve down to circumstantial stillness and so on. There is nothing but Dhamma in such a life and there ought to be no difference between formal practice and informal practice: it is all formal and urgent. In instances when people do rely on Right Meditation as a motivator and/or a meaning-maker for their path, preparing for the next meditation commences the moment the meditation ends and, therefore, every instance of Right Mindfulness is seen as a cumulative positive preparation for the next engagement with the ‘sitting cushion.’ Whether a householder lives in dependence upon constant and uncompromising practice primarily or on formal practice punctuating their day, there is an indispensable need to cultivate a relentless and healthy obsession with practice.

 

In answer to the first question, how much of the world does a householder immerse themselves in, the answer is also, ‘it depends.’ The ancient potter Ghaṭīkāra, a reputed Anāgāmī or Non-Returner, could not escape the household life as he had to care for his blind parents. However, his engagement of the world was limited and, it seems, only up to the point where he could still maintain his livelihood as a potter and support his parents. He even had a sign in his pottery studio that invited people to take whichever pot they liked and to leave a fair quantity of good rice, beans, or lentils in its stead. Almost none of us householders would be able to do such a thing in this day but a relevant question is: how can we minimize and simplify?  

 

Indeed, the overall worldly strategy of the householder is to simplify as much as possible. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that simplifying our lives allows our Right Mindfulness to keep pace with our daily events as well as providing more time for formal practice. Reducing how much we do to the bare minimum to earn a living, help those who absolutely need us, save for a rainy day, and create adequate retirement savings is a good rule. The Buddha said that householders ought to spend less than they earn and aim for prosperity (see (b) Earning a Living). With prosperity comes generosity, peace of mind, and more opportunities for effective practice. The term prosperity is relative and needs to be understood in relation to what we need as householders, not what we want. 

 

For example, in Australia it is quite common for people to go on several vacations a year. This is understandable considering how hard they work and how much stress they endure. However, the money needed to relieve people of their stress is the same reason for their stress in the first place: working too hard to make enough money to pay for relief from the hard work. The humane way around—or through that—is to reduce one’s overall wants and having to buy fewer things means less stress and more opportunities for less suffering and the cultivation of the path to ultimate non-suffering.

 

The second reason for simplification has to do with our neurology. The language we find in the suttas is very simple, sometimes too simple for the conditioned mind to understand directly. My Mahayanist heart-kin, the Tibetan Buddhists, say that enlightenment is too simple for the mind to understand. An example of this can be the statement that our attachments cause us suffering because anything we attach to is impermanent. Most people would understand this statement intellectually but it is too simple to experience directly unless the mind itself clears and simplifies. This simplification needs to be so precise that all phenomena, internal and external, are seen on a binary level: suffering/non-suffering. That level of simplification is the doorway to a direct realization of the Four Noble Truths, that which the Noble Eightfold Path aims for.

Simplifying our day, our life, our non-essential activities, and our to-do lists allows the mind to de-complicate, especially when we are engaging in Right Mindfulness, Right Meditation, and paying heed to the instructions the venerable Sāriputta gave to the dying Anāthapiṇḍika. The simplified mind can see more and seeing more allows it to still and be transcended. Every Buddhist householder can engage in this process of simplification in a way that reduces not increases their anxiety. For those of us who are not worldly and not very practical, we can seek help from our wise monastic elders and householder friends. It may be a multi-year process but that is alright, so long as we are doing it earnestly and keeping our eye on the aim. 

 

In conclusion, I wish to sing the praises of the Buddhist householder, the householder who makes life possible for the monastics, whose path is pregnant with opportunity for right practice and profound insight, and who has full potential for liberation without remainder. It is a sacred path not only for what it makes possible for the path of others but for what it affords its practitioner: nibbāna.

May you meet with great success in your noble endeavor!

 

EJH

 

Mis-Meditation

Mis-Meditation

Mis-Meditation

2nd September, 2563 B.E. (2020 C.E.)

 

Missing the Simplest & Fastest Way of Stilling the Mind

There are two reasons why someone meditates. The first is that they are suffering and the second is that meditation is an expression of their liberation. The latter is the activity of buddhas and arahants and so is of little utility to discuss. The former, meditation due to suffering, be it to attain to a spiritual goal or for a remedial objective, is what concerns most of us. For the purposes of this article, we will be highlighting the practice of mis-meditation via its opposite, the preliminaries of meditation according to the Buddha's instructions. To do this, the article will attempt to follow the Buddha's more prevalent modus operandi of not disparaging that which leads to harm but of praising that which leads to benefit. 

During the time of the Buddha, almost 2,600 years ago, there were already various kinds of meditation in existence. When the Buddha set off on his quest to find an end to suffering, he first studied with Alara Kalama, who taught him his version of a meditation practice called jhāna. The Buddha quickly attained the same meditative level as Alara Kalama. Not convinced that he had attained his aim of freedom from all suffering, the Buddha then went on to study with Uddaka Ramaputta and finding that he already surpassed him in meditative attainment, the Buddha moved on. Melding what he had learned from others with his own methodology of trial-and-error, the Buddha rediscovered the human path to Nibbana

Once the Buddha began to teach his method, he focussed on a specific formulation of jhāna that prescribes successive degrees of tranquility, clarity, and understanding, both mundane and supramundane. This methodology culminated in Liberation through Knowledge and Vision: Nibbana. Apart from the concomitant abilities that accompany Nibbana, it is simply described as the end of thoughts and feelings that cause suffering. These, by implication, depend on the extinguishing of the root causes of suffering, including but not limited to belief in an inherent self (which I would argue extends to the Advaitist view of the Universal Self), all aversion, all craving, conceit (the habitual manifestation of the egoic dynamic), and ignorance.

 

The Buddha named this formulation of jhāna as Samma Samadhi, or Right Meditation. He exhorted his disciples to practice jhāna and identified it as the only way in which to understand and undertake the practice of meditation, the eighth spoke of the Noble Eightfold Path. Yet, we should see other forms of meditation, such as anapanasati, or awareness of breathing, and the Brahmavihara meditations--meditations on lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic/empathetic/vicarious joy, and equanimity--not as distinct from jhāna but as the first step on the nine-stepped path of jhāna. In the instructions of the first jhāna, the venerable Ajahn Sona of Birken Forest Buddhist Monastery equates the formulation, "applied and sustained thought," with applied and sustained focus on an object of meditation, such as the breath. Indeed, in the Girimananda Sutta, the Buddha gives instruction on the breath practice of anapanasati in which the successive stages of development have been equated to the successive jhānic levels.    

Those of us who have frequented modern Buddhist or other spiritual meditation centers have been recipients of various tactics and techniques to help still the mind, from the seven-point Vairochana posture to counting the breath to determinedly focussing on the sensations of breath entering and exiting the nostrils, as in the Vipassana method. But what the Buddha taught regarding stilling the mind in order to facilitate jhāna was quite different: five graduated techniques for the removal of distracting thoughts as they relate to the five hindrances. The five techniques differ depending on how stubborn the distracting thoughts are. The more powerful the distraction, the more energetic and coarse the technique.

 

After the Buddha's parinibbana, the venerable Ananda was asked if the Buddha praised all kinds of meditation. The venerable Ananda said that the Buddha only praised meditation that was free of the five hindrances. We may infer that these are meditations where the five hindrances are not entertained but quite energetically and intentional dealt with and removed, resulting in an aware tranquility that is the threshold to jhāna. If a meditator meditates without an effort to eradicate the five hindrances, then such a meditator engages in 'premeditation, out-meditation, and mis-meditation,' according to the venerable Ananda. To clarify, the five hindrances are thoughts that are the result of craving (kāmacchanda), ill will (byāpāda), sloth and torpor (thīna-middha - a dull and viscous mind), agitation and compulsion (uddhacca-kukkucca), and doubt (vicikiccha). 

The venerable Ajahn Brahmavamso says that, "Any problem which arises in meditation will be one of these Five Hindrances, or a combination. So, if one experiences any difficulty, use the scheme of the Five Hindrances as a 'check list' to identify the main problem. Then you will know the appropriate remedy, apply it carefully, and go beyond the obstacle into deeper meditation." (source

 

An example of the technique would be an instance when a meditator sits, walks, stands to lies down to meditate. As the meditator focuses on their breath, a thought arises of annoyance towards a neighbor who is being noisy. The meditator would identify this 'annoyance' thought as one of ill-will. In applying the methodology of the removal of distracting thoughts, the meditator would do one of the following, depending on what is most effective in that specific instance and in relation to the meditator's mental habits:

 

  1. The meditator should give attention to some other sign connected with what is wholesome;

  2. The meditator should examine the danger in those thoughts thus: 'these thoughts are unwholesome, they are reprehensible, they result in suffering;'

  3. The meditator should try to forget those thoughts and should not give attention to them; 

  4. The meditator should give attention to stilling the thought-formation of those thoughts;

  5. With their teeth clenched and their tongue pressed against the roof of their mouth, the meditator should beat down, constrain and crush mind with mind.

These five instructions deal with increasing levels of distractedness or with thoughts that are deeply ingrained. If we take the first instruction as applicable to our example, then the meditator, recognizing the thoughts towards their neighbor as ill-will, 'gives attention to some other sign connected with what is wholesome,' which in this case would be the antidote to ill-will: mettā, or lovingkindness. Unhindered by the agitation caused by their reaction to their neighbor's activities, the meditator is able to become more aware and more still.  

In cultivating such still awareness, the meditator learns both the general methodology of turning away from distraction as well as the specific antidote for each of the hindrances. Combined with the development of wisdom and of harmlessness--what is called ethical conduct--the meditator should have relatively unencumbered access to successive jhānic states, culminating in complete release. 

May you meet with great success in your noble endeavor!

 

EJH

 

Mettā-morphosis

Mettā-morphosis

26th August, 2563 B.E. (2020 C.E.)

Mettā: The Human Path to Superhuman Love

Nothing feels better than feeling good. Mettā, which has been translated as 'lovingkindness' and 'friendliness' is the epitome of feeling good. Lovingkindness feels good not because of what it adds to your experience but because of what it removes, which is ill-will. To practice it, you do not have to have a reason or an occasion, it's possible simply because you decide to practice it. You do not have to be in love or feel loved to radiate your Mettā. Most importantly you do not have to recognize the objects of your lovingkindness as good or deserving to engage in Mettā towards them. You engage in Mettā because you can and because it can actually help you develop towards the highest happiness: Nibbana, the blowing out of the fires of suffering.

The Buddha is said to have described Mettā as the best possible feeling for a human being to experience. This seems to be the case even for longtime meditators. When several advanced meditators, people who have meditated for upwards of 62,000 hours (that's equivalent to meditating for 12 hours a day for over 14 years) were the subjects of neurological tests in an experiment by Richard Davidson, their blissful brains become 700-800% more blissful when they contemplated a compassionate subject. Such is the effect of Mettā.  

On a relative level, Mettā is an experience of superior wellness: a self-justifying and self-perpetuating wellness that not only permeates its practitioner but also extends to everything in their internal or external field of perception. Mettā may require an intentional thought to kickstart it but it does not depend on ongoing thoughts. Importantly, it is not a practice that requires any preparation or prerequisites, other than the absence of debilitating PTSD which would make it neurologically less accessible. Mettā relies on the intention to be harmless, to seek one's own welfare and the welfare of others, and a few moments of stillness and quietude.

When instructing the ancient Kalama people in the practice of Mettā, the Buddha first spoke to them of cultivating a non-dogmatic clear mind that understood the three main sources of harm and suffering: craving, ill will, and delusion. He then instructed them as follows:

"Then, Kālāmas, that noble disciple, who is thus devoid of longing, devoid of ill will, unconfused, clearly comprehending, ever mindful, dwells pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with lovingkindness, likewise the second quarter, the third quarter, and the fourth quarter. Thus above, below, across, and everywhere, and to all as to himself, he dwells pervading the entire world with a mind imbued with lovingkindness, vast, exalted, measureless, without enmity, without ill will." (The Kalama Sutta, translated by the venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Mettā is a feeling that can cross over from the mundane and relative to the supramundane and the superhuman, or what may be termed as 'divine feelings.' On the absolute level, or the level of pure and primordial experience, Mettā is a state of intense joy and omniscient goodwill. As powerful and attractive as that might sound, it's not addictive because, strictly speaking, the ground of experience of absolute Mettā is...empty.  

It is perhaps for this reason that the Buddha said Mettā was a feeling that belonged to the Brahmavihara, the Four Divine Abodes, the others being Karuṇā (compassion), Mudita (altruistic or vicarious joy), and Upekkhā (equanimity). These latter three were also included in the practice the Buddha shared with the Kalamas.  

Mettā cannot be confined by the limitations of human perception and conceptualization; it is a truth in the sense of what Kant called a noumenon: 'a thing as it is in itself, as distinct from a thing as it is knowable by the senses through phenomenal attributes.' What the senses do experience of Mettā is its radiant spindrift and that in itself invites us to open up to experiencing it more fully, more heartfully, and beyond the relative.

The path to experiencing absolute Mettā is through the beautiful and meaningful path of relative Mettā, where we breathe in and out and extend our most unconditional feelings of lovingkindness to ourselves and others as is possible in that moment. We build each moment upon the preceding one and gradually over days, weeks, months, or years, as the case may be, we experience a little less of the relative and mundane Mettā and more of the absolute Mettā, the Mettā that is discovered on the non-dualistic and non-conceptual level. 

 

In this way it is both an aspect of the path-- as the Brahmavihara practiced with the Seven Factors of Awakening is said to lead to Nibbana--and also a quality of the awakened mind.

 

How does the unconditioned mind relate to the world when engaging in Mettā? With a simple unverbalized and unfabricated knowledge of 'okayness;' that things have always been fine and will continue to be just fine. There is abundant goodness, potential, and flexibility in all things.

 

As such, if the idea and practice of Mettā resonates with the reader, particularly if the reader is a practitioner who finds ill-will a major obstacle, peppering thoughts with Mettā is helpful. The reader can engage in sitting, walking, standing, or lying down formal Mettā practice daily and, in doing so, make their way, simple breath by simple breath, to the unsurpassable aim.

The Buddha's exemplary exhortation on Mettā, found in verse form in the Metta Karaniya Sutta, is as follows:

This is what should be done

By one who is skilled in goodness,

And who knows the path of peace:

Let them be able and upright,

Straightforward and gentle in speech,

Humble and not conceited,

Contented and easily satisfied,

Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.

Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful,

Not proud or demanding in nature.

Let them not do the slightest thing

That the wise would later reprove.

Wishing: In gladness and in safety,

May all beings be at ease.

 

Whatever living beings there may be;

Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,

The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,

The seen and the unseen,

Those living near and far away,

Those born and to-be-born —

May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another,

Or despise any being in any state.

Let none through anger or ill-will

Wish harm upon another.

Even as a mother protects with her life

Her child, her only child,

So with a boundless heart

Should one cherish all living beings;

Radiating kindness over the entire world:

Spreading upwards to the skies,

And downwards to the depths;

Outwards and unbounded,

Freed from hatred and ill-will.

Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down

Free from drowsiness,

One should sustain this recollection.

This is said to be the sublime abiding.

By not holding to fixed views,

The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,

Being freed from all sense desires,

Is not born again into this world.

(Sn 1.8 - PTS: Sn 143-152 - Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha's Words on Loving-Kindness, translated from the Pali by The Amaravati Sangha)

May you meet with great success in your noble endeavor!

 

EJH