The traditional spiritual path is virtue, then concentration, then wisdom. We begin with the ‘mundane’ path of virtue. We are learning first of all to tune in to our minds with a moral intention. Then, as we empty out the mind through concentration, we see that it becomes more and more wholesome. In this way we learn for ourselves, in our own experience, that everything that comes to interfere with our concentration during meditation, everything that arises automatically in the mind, is unwholesome. At this point there is no longer a need to discriminate on a moral basis.
Having seen this, we can add contemplation to concentration as a way to let go of all these states and to empty out the mind. Then we are not dependent upon concentration practise to keep the mind clear. Once we have developed, through contemplation, the stable perception of the automatic mind as unwholesome, the mind will become automatically self-clearing. Then we can apply our wholesome minds fully to other things. Developing wholesome perceptions of the world will then cut off at the root any tendency for the unwholesome to arise.
I hope this explains the connection between the two kinds of right mindfulness in the Buddha’s teaching – mundane and supramundane. Mundane right mindfulness is to see the wholesome or unwholesome nature of things, it is a moral discrimination. Supramundane right mindfulness contemplates the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self nature of things.
Many people who become interested in meditation, wanting deep, profound spiritual experiences, find they do not have the opportunity to practice for the many hours a day required to achieve these kinds of results. Some resign themselves to a lesser goal, or try to redefine enlightenment as something a little easier to achieve. Others look for a spiritual hack or short cut. In a previous article I pointed out how dangerous this can be. But you could say that there is an ancient and well-trodden, well defined spiritual short cut, we might call it the wisdom path. This can take you into the deepest states without you having to do long hours of concentration meditation. Just a little bit of calm will do. The wisdom path is one in which we learn to see the world in a different way, one that leads to letting go rather than the clinging to things which is the reality of the reactive and untrained mind. Wisdom is a way of seeing rather than a way of thinking so not a lot of intellectual study is required. The traditional way to learn it is to train with a teacher who has wisdom and naturally and gradually pick up their attitude and way of seeing over time. This is the most natural way to learn.
But if this way is so much quicker then why isn't everyone trying it?
The central contemplation is of the impermanence of everything we experience. So this is not complicated but it can take a while for it to really sink in. Nevertheless, the reality is that through such contemplation one is going against the stream of the modern materialist view completely. The student in the modern world can be taken gradually into a whole new relationship with the world around him or her, seeing the ultimate pointlessness of it all. Over time the shift can be very radical and the students will need to be willing to shift their life-style to fit the new view in order to progress. We have to act on the wisdom we develop for it to become established in us and not cause a conflict in the mind. So this path is not without sacrifice, but in the longer term this is the sacrifice of a lesser happiness for a greater one. In Asia, Buddhist Monasteries are there as a place to go, a refuge for those who begin to feel disenchanted with the fleeting nature of the pleasures of life – those who, perhaps like Mick Jagger, ‘can't get no satisfaction’.
One who sees impermanence will be inclined to change the priorities in life and abandon the worldly material gains which they at that point can see as not lasting; but this can also be a gradual path of simplifying life, one step at a time. This practice also combines very naturally with a practice of calming meditation. So as the student lets go, they find more time and space for meditation and this enhances their ability to see in a wise way, with a calm mind. Meditation becomes the way of smoothing out this path, calming down into a new life-style. And the results of this practice are not like the fleeting peace gained on a pleasant retreat but last for the rest of your life. In fact, if you believe in the Buddhist view of rebirth, what is gained of wisdom will follow you into your next life also – such an indelible imprint is made on the mind.
What this path requires most of all is the courage to take a very honest look at life. What lies in the way is really only our helpless addictions to the pleasures of the senses and our wish to hang onto a dream that sooner or later is going to let us down.
Mr. Façade was a peculiar bloke
Inside he was just made of smoke
Rising from the raging fire
Of his designer desire
His never ending task
Was to hang on to his mask
Poor Mr. Façade
One day, going for his designer stroll
He met Mr. Giving, who in contrast to him, had perfect self-control
Mr. Façade was intrigued.
‘I don’t wish to take your time,’ said Mr. Façade
‘You cannot take my time I am offering it to you,’ said Mr. Giving
and, little did he know, but all would be well
for Mr. Giving was as clear as a bell
“little Miss Triangle
can balance on the sun
just for fun
in the magic mind”
said Mr. Giving
“and if the mind turns nasty
like an abstract cat
the mouse can escape
without the aid of a single fact
just by being real,
naked to the world,
and not just a silly act”
asked Mr. Façade
('the messy body
of the maybe baby
feeling very silly
at that funny little willy?'
thought Mr. Façade
'am I going a bit crazy here?'
wondered Mr. Façade)
“No, to just be as real
as how you feel
that is being naked to the world
and it is a return to the wonder of the baby
here is no need to be the body
there are symbols
where mind and matter meet
there are stone circles
marking the mysteries of the past
there are monuments
made of poems and prayers
so that the truth will last”
said Mr. Giving
Mr. Giving was happy to see that Mr. Façade was smiling, pleasantly mystified.
This would be the beginning of a long and faithful friendship on the path to truth.
Establishing mindfulness of the body very calmly and fully has wide-ranging, transformative effects on the mind. Below is a set of tables in which these
effects are listed. The state and dynamics of the different aspects of the mind
are described with the body relatively absent (in the normal case of the
untrained mind) opposite the case where the body is fully present in the mind
(when mindfulness of the body is very clearly established).
Each row in the tables is a progression from the previous one representing
mindfulness practise (the domain in the left column) or its fruit (the right
column) going deeper and deeper.
There is a famous story in the Arab world about how goodness can turn to bad and badness to good. A very rich woman marries a very good man, approved of by her rich parents. He is the perfect caring and dutiful husband. After a few years the woman tires of him, however, he is no fun. She leaves him for another man who is rather wild and sensual. Then the lady has a terrible accident in which she becomes both deaf and blind. What then ensues is a shocking tale of how she is taken on a journey in which her first lover, very angry at having been deserted, seeks his revenge.
Throughout the awful life-threatening ordeal that ensues her life is heroically defended by her second lover, the wild party animal. Throughout this ordeal she, being unable to recognize who is doing what, assumes that it is the wild man who is torturing her and the good man who is trying to save her when, in fact, the reality is the other way around.
This story has a lot to teach us as practitioners of the Dhamma. We can assume that what we see as the good side of us or of others is wholly good and beyond evil. Or we can judge our bad side too harshly, assume that it is wholly bad and cannot be turned around. We can be very black-and-white about states of mind or form fixed views. The Buddha encourages us not to be blind like the lady in the story but to remain vigilant and not to attach to a view, to follow goodness and to turn away from evil wherever we might find it.
I offer this for your reflection
I have been thinking lately what I might say were the first origins of my own, individual spiritual path. I was brought up a Christian and admired my devout parents and grandparents for their goodness when I was child but I found the Christian teachings hard to understand or believe in. Then my first ever introduction to Asian spirituality came when I was thirteen years old. I used to go with a friend to a local park to play tennis. There were a number of public tennis courts in the park. My friend and I had booked a court for three o'clock and we were a little early. There were some benches where people waited for their turn and I found myself sitting next to an elderly lady who was also waiting, dressed in her tennis outfit and carrying her racket. I was immediately fascinated by the fact that such a thin, rather frail looking old lady was still able to play tennis at all.
I said, 'hello'.
I have a vague memory of her replying with a polite, rather refined, 'good afternoon'.
I remember nothing of the rest of our conversation which was unremarkable, it was simply in the manner of the 'do you come here often, isn't it a nice day' variety. I only remember being completely captivated by the look in her eyes. Her gaze was very bright and sharp and there was a depth there also which held a mysterious quality. She asked me if I would like a copy of a book that she had translated with a friend of hers from the Chinese. I readily accepted. She proudly signed it for me and we parted for the courts.
As I played tennis with my friend I occasionally looked over at the old lady in the court next to ours. She was playing with a younger woman and was remarkably quick and agile for her age.
When I left the park that day I did not think to say 'goodbye'. I thought I would see her again but I never did.
The book she had given me was a copy of the 'Tao Te Ching' by Lao Tsu. I have treasured this little book all my life, returning to it over and over again. It led me to take up T'ai Chi, my first meditation practice, in my early twenties. Still it remains a reference especially with regard to my engaged spiritual life picturing as it does, in a remarkably tangible and dynamic way, the relationship between conventional and ultimate reality. It is a remarkable teaching on how to flow with life.
It is remarkable to me now how much such a brief encounter with someone could end up profoundly changing the life of another person and underlines to me how much potential there is in meeting children of such an impressionable age. I sometimes think of her when I meet with children myself hoping I may be able to influence someone else the way she influenced me. I can remember her face to this day. In one way this was why I found myself immediately converting to Buddhism when I first heard about it four years later in a religious education class. I could see that Buddhism made sense and thought I could be good without needing to believe in anything – I could investigate the truth for myself in my own time, I thought. But there was also something in me that trusted the mysterious depth and obvious happiness and vitality of that old lady, Margaret Ault. There was something, especially in the latter qualities, that I simply could not doubt.
So I remember Margaret with great affection and gratitude. There is also nothing like acknowledging the help we have received from others on the path to help us to be humble, avoid conceit and make us willing to do the work necessary to try to help others in return.
I offer this for your reflection
For most people by far, the most prominent hindrance to spiritual practice – although not the most obvious one – is procrastination. Meditation is so often the thing that can wait until tomorrow. When did you last think, “I must just sit and do nothing”? Sure, sometimes we are desperate for quiet or space, yet the tendency is often to look for these outside of ourselves, which is of course easier – but less fruitful.
Often spiritual practice is the last thing on our list because it is considered to merely be the cream on the cake or the cherry on top; or in other words, usually in turning to spirituality, we are seeking to put a spiritual gloss on our lives; but this is just spiritual materialism and it is simply barking up the wrong tree, because all true spirituality has a renunciant flavour: It’s about letting go. Letting go of all the things that don’t really matter.
The traditional way to counteract this procrastination and instead seek a sense of urgency is to contemplate death. However many people getting nervous about this topic tell me, very hurriedly, “There’s nothing you can do about that!”
But in the light of our mortality we are drawn to re-examine our lives and see what really matters.
she wanted all the suffering to cease
and for there to be eternal love and peace
but the earth was sick and old
and there was trouble everywhere
on the ground, in the sea and even in the air
it seemed it was all just ready to burn
and she knew not where to turn
reaching out she prayed
she knew not why
placing her hand against the sky
her fingers opened wide
of course she could not hold the sky
but she found the sky held her
all the way inside
Father Sun and Mother Sky
had a child within her heart
that opened like a flower
and there she found love and peace
and also strength and power
I practised for about twenty years in lay life before I ordained, at age 36. The factors I found most important in order to maintain my practice as a lay person was the job I was doing and the company I was keeping.
In terms of my work, I chose to become a physiotherapist in order to be able to investigate body and mind and also to try to help people. So in other words my knowledge was always aimed at practical application; I saw the dangers of abstract theory and didn't get lost in it. I also specialised in my work and dug deeper as much as I could. I found that if I was doing the same thing over and over or considering the same thing in more and more depth, this was less exciting than seeking new challenges, but much more conducive to meditation. Moreover I worked a lot with the elderly to try to slow myself down and also found this very sobering. Today, looking back on these days, I think I would also have done a mindfulness course to take the practice even more into the workplace.
Another aspect was that in my work I was more and more faced by the fact that some people had huge problems and suffered very little, these were the ones with the strength of mind; others had small problems but suffered a lot, these were the ones without such strength. So working with the mind and teaching this to others made more sense than trying to solve their problems in themselves. And all I had learned about body and mind along the way of my career was to be equally of value in my monastic life, this time in the supporting role rather than in the lead.
In terms of company I sought out any kind of group I could find connected to eastern spirituality – yoga and T'ai Chi classes for example, and I developed a social life with the people I met there. The formal meditation practice was not so important to me at this time, it was a support to mindfulness and a way of relaxing, not much more than that. And T'ai Chi at that time was a very helpful aid to mindfulness of the body and also integrated well into my daily life. It took me years to appreciate how deep it could all actually go. Eventually I chose the monastic form as a way of committing myself more fully to the meditation practice.
Now I can regret not having got more into the meditation a bit earlier, but I was very energetic in my youth. I also look back and realise that I did help other people, I feel good about that, and it was all sowing the seeds for the deeper investigation of Dhamma that ensued. We have to start from where we are and try to bring that into our Dhamma path.
In modern societies the values of self expression and individual freedom become contrasted with those of traditional, conformist communities. Organised mainstream religion can be seen as the epitome of such old-fashioned oppressive culture. I am not sure about the other religions but in terms of Buddhism I would say that sometimes appearances are deceptive. The Dhamma warrior is the ultimate peaceful revolutionary. Never mind the Dhamma punks, even a lot of the mainstream places can provide shelter for those seeking to realise and express their Dhamma, there is no more potent form of self-expression than this. Also to find freedom from suffering, there is no more radical, blissful form of freedom than that. What is more for all this with being contained within moral boundaries is that we can have the freedom to pursue our goals in a situation where we are protected from the greed or hatred of others to some extent, and have the freedom from the trouble we would otherwise be creating for ourselves by acting out our own greed or hatred.
And what use was all that greed, anyway? If we admit that richer societies are no happier than some of the more enlightened poorer ones – it's quite the opposite – then the great materialist dream begins to fall apart. We just have to admit that rich societies are merely carried away with greed or the hatred of jealousy or frustration.