Fundamentals of Buddhism


Our topic today is mental development. We are going to look at the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path that fall into the group known as mental development, meditation or Samadhi. We have spoken about how the steps of the path are interrelated and in this context it is particularly interesting to understand the position of mental development because standing as it is between good conduct and wisdom it is relevant and important for both of them. You may ask why this is the case. In fact sometimes people have said to me regarding the need for meditation: if one simply follows the moral precepts, is that not sufficient to lead a moral life?

I think there are several answers to this question. First of all, in Buddhism there is not only one goal. Besides the goal of happiness and good fortune, there is also the goal of freedom. If one wants to attain the goal of freedom, the only way that can be achieved is through wisdom. And in order to achieve wisdom one has to purify the mind, develop the mind through meditation. Even for the practice of good conduct, for the observance of moral rules, mental development is necessary. Why? Because it is relatively easy to follow the rules of good conduct when things are going well. If we have a good job, if we live in a stable society, if we earn sufficiently to support ourselves and our families, it is relatively easy to observe the precepts. But when we find ourselves in circumstances of stress, of instability, as for instance when we lose our job, when we find ourselves in a situation where lawlessness prevails, this is the point at which the observance of good conduct comes under attack. In this kind of circumstance, the only thing that can safeguard our practice of good conduct is mental development, strengthening of the mind, attaining control over the mind. In that way, mental development on the one hand serves as a safeguard of our practice and on the other hand it serves to prepare the mind to see things as they really are, to prepare the mind to attain wisdom which will open the door to freedom, to enlightenment. Mental development therefore has an extremely important role in the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path.

This emphasis on mental development is not surprising if we remember the importance of the role of the mind in experience in Buddhism. I remember a week before last, someone in the audience remarked that it seemed as though the mind was the most important thing in regard to the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. I remarked that this was a very significant and true statement. We find this very clearly in the Buddha’s own words. The Buddha has said that the mind is the source of all mental states, that all mental states are fashioned by the mind. It is also said that the mind is the source of all virtues, of all qualities. In order to attain these virtues, one must discipline the mind. Mind is the key to changing the nature of our experience. It was once said that if we had to cover the whole surface of the earth in order to protect our feet from being cut by sticks and stones, if we had to cover the whole surface of the earth with leather, this would be a very difficult undertaking. But by covering only the surface of our feet with leather it is as if the whole surface of the earth were covered with leather. In the same way if we had to purify the whole universe of greed, anger and delusion, it would be a very difficult task. Simply by purifying our own mind of greed, anger and delusion it is as if the whole universe were purified of these defilements. That is why in Buddhism we focus upon the mind as the key to achieving a change in the way we experience life, in the way we relate to other people.

The importance of the mind has recently been recognized by scientists, psychologists and doctors. Some of you may be aware of some of the techniques that are being used by medical practitioners in the west. A number of doctors have successfully employed techniques very similar to the techniques of meditation in order to help patients overcome chronic diseases and disorders. This is now a recognized fact within the medical profession. Not long ago I was told of a case involving the wife of a professor. Their family doctor has begun to use techniques of mental development to treat patients who are suffering from certain complaints. The lady was told that she would need an operation to correct a certain disorder. Alternatively, it was suggested that she practice this technique of mental development twice a day for a period of two months. Having practised this, it was found that she no longer required the operation. We can all understand the influence the mind has on our attitude by looking at our own experience. We know how we occasionally feel happy and have a positive attitude towards our activities, and when this happens we are efficient, we respond and we are able to carry out our activities in the best possible way. On other occasions when our mind is disturbed and depressed, we find that we cannot even discharge simple tasks efficiently. In this way, we can see how important the mind is in all spheres of activity.

There are three steps of the Noble Eightfold Path that are included in this mental development group and they are Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Together these three steps encourage and enable one to be self reliant, attentive and calm. First of all, in its most general sense Right Effort means cultivating a positive attitude towards our undertakings. We can call Right Effort enthusiasm as well. It means undertaking our tasks with energy, with a will to carry them through. It is said in one text that we ought to embark upon our tasks in the same way as an elephant enters a cool lake during the heat of the midday sun. With this kind of effort, we can then be successful in whatever we plan to do, whether in our career, in our study, or in our practice of the Dharma. In this sense effort is also related to confidence. It is a practical application of confidence. If we fail to put effort into whatever we do, we cannot hope to succeed. But effort must be controlled, must be balanced, and here we can recall what we said regarding the Middle Path, the strings of the lute, the overly tight string and the overly loose string. So effort should never become too tense, too extreme, and similarly, it should not become too slack, should not be abandoned. This is what we mean by Right Effort, a controlled, sustained, enthusiastic, cheerful determination.

Right Effort is defined as four fold. It is the effort to prevent unwholesome thoughts from arising. It is the effort to reject unwholesome thoughts once they have arisen. It is the effort to cultivate wholesome thoughts. It is the effort to maintain wholesome thoughts. This last is particularly important because it is often the case that even when we have succeeded in cultivating wholesome attitudes, all too often these are short-lived. Between them, these four aspects of Right Effort focus the energy of Right Effort upon our mental states in such a way as to reduce and eventually eliminate the number of unwholesome mental states that we entertain in our mind and to increase and firmly establish wholesome thoughts as a natural integral part of our mental states.

The second step of the Noble Eightfold Path that is included in the group of mental development is Right Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness is essential even in our daily life. This Buddhist teaching, in fact I would venture to say all Buddhist teachings, can be explained, can be exemplified with situations that belong to everyday life, that are familiar to all of us. In fact if you look at the Buddha’s own teachings, you will find that He always used examples that were familiar to his audience when teaching the Dharma. So here too in regard to mindfulness, we may do well to look at the importance of mindfulness in our ordinary mundane activities. Mindfulness is awareness or attention, avoiding a distracted and clouded state of mind. There would be many fewer accidents if everyone were mindful. So whether one is driving a car, or crossing a busy street, or doing accounts, whatever one is doing, that task would be more effectively carried out if one is attentive and mindful. It will increase one’s efficiency, productivity, and similarly it will reduce the number of accidents that occur due to inattention, due to the failure to be aware.

Specifically, in regard to the practice of the Dharma, mindfulness acts as a rein upon our mind. In this sense, if we consider how our mind normally behaves, we can see a need for a rein, a control upon our mind. A moment ago, there was a gust of wind which caused a window over here on my right to bang. I am sure that most of our minds immediately focussed upon that sound. Similarly, at almost every moment of our life, our minds are running after objects of the senses. The mind is never concentrated, or still. The objects of the senses may be sounds, or they may be sights. As you drive down the streets, your eyes may be caught by an attractive advertisement, your mind will be attracted to that advertisement. When you smell someone’s perfume, your mind will become entangled with that object. All these are the causes of distraction. So in order to control, to minimize this distraction, we need a kind of guard which can protect the mind from becoming entangled with objects of the senses, from becoming entangled in unwholesome thoughts. This guard is mindfulness.

The Buddha once told a story about two acrobats - master and apprentice. On one occasion the master said to the apprentice, "You protect me, and I will protect you. In this way we will perform our tricks and come down safely." But the apprentice said, "No master, that will not do. I will protect myself and you will protect yourself." In the same way we have to guard our own mind. Some people may say this is rather selfish. What about teamwork? But I think that is a fundamental misunderstanding. A chain is only as strong at its weakest link. A team is only as efficient as its members. A team of distracted persons who are incapable of discharging their own responsibilities will be an inefficient team. Similarly, in order that we can play an effective role in relation to our fellow beings, we must first guard our mind. Suppose you have a fine car. You will be careful to park the car in such a place so that it will not be hit by another motorist. Even at work or at home, you will occasionally look out of the window to make sure the car is all right. You will be sure to take it to the mechanic regularly. You will be sure to wash it regularly. In the same way all of us possess one thing which is far more valuable than any other possession. That one thing is our mind.

Recognizing the value of our mind, we ought to guard it. This is being mindful. This is an aspect of mental development which we can practise at any time and in any place. Sometimes I find people saying to me that it is extremely difficult to practise meditation, and often people are also somewhat afraid to practise meditation. By and large, they are thinking of concentration meditation or sitting meditation. But even if one is not prepared to practise concentration meditation, certainly Right Effort and Right Mindfulness can be practised without any fear of any adverse consequences. It simply entails being aware and attentive, watching your mind, seeing where it is going, seeing what it is doing. Just as when I am talking to you now, with one corner of my mind I can watch my mind, keep an eye on my mind. What am I thinking of? Is my mind on what I am saying to you, or am I thinking about what happened this morning, or last week, or what I will be doing tomorrow. I once heard a teacher saying that if you are making a cup of tea, Buddhism means making a cup of tea well, focussing, concentrating the mind on what one is doing. This is true no matter what one is doing - cleaning the house, going to school, or cooking. No matter what one is doing, one can practise mindfulness, the practise of watching the mind, of keeping an eye on the mind.

The practice of mindfulness traditionally has played an important role in Buddhism. At one place, the Buddha has called the practice of mindfulness the one way to achieve the end of suffering. Specifically, the practice of mindfulness has been developed to include four particular applications. These are application of mindfulness with regard to body - awareness of the positions of one’s limbs and so forth; mindfulness with regard to feelings pleasant, unpleasant or neutral; mindfulness with regard to moments of consciousness; and lastly mindfulness with regard to objects. These four stations of mindfulness have continued to play an important role in the practice of Buddhist meditation.

Let us go on to consider the third step, and that is concentration, or it is sometimes called meditation, or tranquillity. You will recall that we traced the origin of meditation all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilization. Concentration has nothing to do with frenzy, or torpor, or semi-consciousness. Concentration is the practice of focussing the mind single-pointedly on a single object. The object may be physical or mental. When total single-pointedness of the mind upon a single object is achieved through concentration, the mind is totally absorbed in the object to the exclusion of all thoughts, distractions, wavering, agitation, or drowsiness. This is the object of the practice of Right Concentration, to focus the mind single-pointedly upon one object. Most of us have had intimations of this state. Occasionally something approaching single-pointedness of mind occurs spontaneously when listening to a favourite piece of music, or watching the sea or sky. One may have experienced the moment when the mind rests single-pointedly, undistractedly upon that object, that sound or that form.

Concentration may be practised in a number of ways. The object of concentration may be a sight such as a flame, an image, or a flower, or it may be an idea, an immaterial thing such as space, such as loving-kindness. When one practises concentration, one repeatedly focuses the mind on the object. This eventually, gradually leads to the ability to rest the mind upon the object without distraction. When this can be achieved for a protracted period, then one has achieved single-pointedness. It is important to note that this aspect of mental development has to be practised with the guidance of an experienced teacher. This is because there are a number of technical factors that condition success or failure and they include posture, attitude, duration and occasion of practice. And it is difficult for anyone to get all these right simply by reading a book. Nonetheless, one need not become a monk to practise this kind of meditation, one need not live in a forest, and one need not abandon one’s daily activities. One can begin with relatively short periods, as short as ten to fifteen minutes a day.

When one’s ability in this kind of meditation is developed, it has two principal benefits. Firstly, it leads to mental and physical well-being, comfort, joy, calm, tranquillity. Secondly, it turns the mind into an instrument capable of seeing things as they really are. It prepares the mind to attain wisdom. When we talk about seeing things as they really are, we liken the development towards this ability to the development of specialized instruments in science through which we have been able to observe atomic particles and so forth. Had it not been for the development of the radio receiver we would not be aware of radio waves. Similarly, if we do not develop our mind through the cultivation of Right Effort and Right Mindfulness and especially single-pointedness of the mind, our understanding of the real state of things, of truth will remain an intellectual knowledge.

In order to turn our understanding of the Four Noble Truths from book knowledge into direct experience we have to achieve one-pointedness of the mind. It is at this point that mental development is ready to turn its attention to wisdom. It is at this point that we see the role of concentration in Buddhism. I touched upon this briefly when I spoke of the Buddha’s decision to leave the two teachers Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra and of His combination of concentration or meditation with penetrative insight on the night of His enlightenment. So here too, single-pointedness of the mind is not enough. It is similar to sharpening the pencil to write with, or the sharpening of the axe which we use to cut off the roots of greed, hatred and delusion. When we achieve single-pointedness of the mind, we are then ready to conjoin tranquillity with penetrative under-standing, meditation with wisdom.

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