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The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness 2

The Noble Eightfold Path

This is the second of eight blogs that use notes from our ‘The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness’ course that we are presently running. Each session covers one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path and ends with some questions and practices that may help you make the subject more personally real – here is the second:

Right Intention / resolve / thought / aspiration

(Skt. samyak-saṃkalpa / Pali sammā sankappa)

This is a definition of Right Resolve given by the Buddha

“And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.”

So there are two aspects to Right Intention: the cultivation of renunciation and the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion. Let’s look at the second first:

Loving Kindness and Compassion

Like right view, this factor has two levels. At the mundane level, the resolve includes doing no harm (ahimsa) and refraining from ill will (avyabadha), which is to cultivate loving kindness, or unconditional friendliness, (metta) and compassion (karuṇā) towards all beings. This accrues good karma and leads to a good rebirth. This is what the Buddha said:

 Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Discourse on Loving-kindness, 

translated from the Pali by Piyadassi Thera © 1999

Translator’s Introduction

While the Buddha was staying at Savatthi, a band of monks, having received subjects of meditation from the master, proceeded to a forest to spend the rainy season (vassana). The tree deities inhabiting this forest were worried by their arrival, as they had to descend from tree abodes and dwell on the ground. They hoped, however, the monks would leave soon; but finding that the monks would stay the vassana period of three months, harassed them in diverse ways, during the night with the intention of scaring them away. Living under such conditions being impossible, the monks went to the Master and informed him of their difficulties. Thereon the Buddha instructed them in the Metta sutta and advised their return equipped with this sutta for their protection. The monks went back to the forest, and practicing the instruction conveyed, permeated the whole atmosphere with their radiant thoughts of metta or loving-kindness. The deities so affected by this power of love, henceforth allowed them to meditate in peace.

The discourse gets divided into two parts. The first detailing the standard of moral conduct required by one who wishes to attain Purity and Peace, and the second the method of practice of metta.

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“He who is skilled in (working out his own) well being, and who wishes to attain that state of Calm (Nibbana) should act thus: he should be dexterous, upright, exceedingly upright, obedient, gentle, and humble.

“Contented, easily supportable, with but few responsibilities, of simple livelihood, controlled in the senses, prudent, courteous, and not hanker after association with families.

“Let him not perform the slightest wrong for which wise men may rebuke him. (Let him think:) ‘May all beings be happy and safe. May they have happy minds.’

“Whatever living beings there may be — feeble or strong (or the seekers and the attained) long, stout, or of medium size, short, small, large, those seen or those unseen, those dwelling far or near, those who are born as well as those yet to be born — may all beings have happy minds.6.

“Let him not deceive another nor despise anyone anywhere. In anger or ill will let him not wish another ill.

“Just as a mother would protect her only child with her life even so let one cultivate a boundless love towards all beings.

“Let him radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.

“Standing, walking, sitting or reclining, as long as he is awake, let him develop this mindfulness. This, they say, is ‘Noble Living’ here.

“Not falling into wrong views — being virtuous, endowed with insight, lust in the senses discarded — verily never again will he return to conceive in a womb.”

There are many variations on specific loving kindness meditations – the prayer or aspiration that we use on the Eight Week Course –

May all beings know happiness and the roots of happiness

May all beings be free of suffering and the roots of suffering

This conveys both kindness in that it wishes for others happiness and compassion in that it wishes that others will not suffer.

Loving kindness and compassion are not entirely straight forward though. In Buddhism we talk of the ‘far and near enemies’ of a quality. The far enemy of kindness is its opposite -hatred, but the near enemy, more difficult to see, is attachment. Compassion, far enemy is cruelty, near enemy is pity. We also talk about ‘idiot compassion’ which expresses itself when what we believe to be compassion actually is non-beneficial despite appearing to be sweet and kind. (ie: “I’ll just be kind to myself and not meditate today because I don’t feel like it.” So friendliness and compassion CAN HAVE TEETH!

Finally to be balanced Mahayana Buddhism have made a big thing about wisdom and compassion working together in union. Wisdom reminds us of emptiness while compassion brings us into relationship. Each counters the others tendency to extreme.

Finally kindness and compassion are two of the four profound qualities that we try to cultivate in our practice called the “Four Brahma-viharas” – the Four Heavenly or Sublime Abodes:

Lovingkindness or unconditional friendliness (metta)

Compassion (karuna)

Sympathetic joy, or appreciation, for the good fortune of others (mudita)

Equanimity (upekkha)

Renunciation

Renunciation is the aspect of right intention that opens into the supra-mundane level of this path factor. Supra-mundane means it doesn’t just create good karma but it also creates wisdom and without wisdom, good karma, is not enough to achieve awakening. What is the wisdom? It is seeing how things really are – impermanent, not-self and suffering.

 The Power of habit – good and bad

The eight week course starts with the notion of making our automatic pilot more conscious so we can then make wise and skilful choices about what we want to encourage and what we don’t. Right Intention starts from exactly the same place – by making our intentions, thoughts, aspirations and resolutions conscious we can then choose between those that encourage ignorance, greed and hatred – the three poisons – and those that encourage wisdom, generosity and kindness. However there is a recognition that there is something deeply seductive about many of the bad habits and we just want to do them anyway. The Buddha when asked about this suggested reflecting on what we are really doing. Making ourselves uncomfortably conscious. Then our heart might begin to leap at the thought of renunciation as the means to be free of the pain and horror of being caught within choiceless, pain creating addictions.

Renunciation as free of addictions

For us a scary word often felt as something negative, deprivation, a bleak and austere life style. We can reframe this and get a feel of what is more truly meant by seeing it as the state of being free of addictions. Normally we think of addictions as something obvious – perhaps smoking or drinking – but with growing mindfulness the compulsive quality of our being becomes more apparent. Addiction to more harmless things such as food or exercise, daily habits, mental positions – being right, being humble, being mindful – being in control, having a particular life style or holding particular beliefs. The counter to this is being able to cultivate ‘wise restraint’ – being able to say “No – I’ll pass on this.” From this may come the greatest ease which is the ease of not wanting – if only for a few minutes!

Changing habit patterns and saying “No”

This can be done in different ways – a hard way and a soft way. The hard way is to get very strict and stiff about it and turn it into a rule or even a law. “I will do this and I won’t do that.”

This is very likely to ultimately fail – here think past diets – because it is an act of will power and this – like any thought – will inevitably change. The soft way is using the felt sense. Coming up against a craving we ask where in our body do we feel it and then, dropping the story line, we allow ourselves to feel it fully. Doing this we may begin to spot the three factors of existence. It’s transitory, entirely impersonal and it is actually causing suffering. Here we are not operating so much on maintaining a set rule as engaging with a process known via mindfulness. Insight into the three factors of existence, impermanence, not-self and suffering, is the supra-mundane level of renunciation.

The Unshakable Mind

Done in this way the mind becomes unshakable – not because it is a wall but because it is awareness. Resting in my awareness I see the arising of longing, desire and fear and am not moved from my seat of wisdom, generosity and kindness.

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The Three Factors of Existence

  • the early Buddhist description of ‘how things really are’ (adapted from Wikipedia):

Anicca (Skt. anitya) means “inconstancy” or “impermanence”. All conditioned things are in a constant state of flux. All physical and mental events come into being and dissolve. Human life embodies this flux in the ageing process and the cycle of repeated birth and death (Samsara), – nothing lasts, and everything decays. This is applicable to all beings and their environs, including beings who have reincarnated in deva (god) and naraka (hell) realms. This is in contrast to nirvana, the reality that is timeless and permanent and knows no change, decay or death.

Anatta (Skt. anatman) refers to the doctrine of “not-self”; that there is no unchanging, permanent Self or soul in living beings – as above, everything is in flux. Further more, there is also no abiding component nor essence in any phenomena. Belief in an enduring self is called in early Buddhism the ‘I am conceit’ and is seen as a source of suffering. And in later, Mahayana Buddhism, the absence of any enduring entity was logically extended to absolutely everything in the universe right down to the smallest particle. Everything is always changing and it is this quality of change that came to be called ‘emptiness’ (Skt. shunyata). What are things empty of? Any inherent or enduring existence. But being empty, always changing, means that given the right circumstances they can change for the better however stuck they may appear.

Dukkha (Skt. duhkha) means “unsatisfactoriness, suffering, pain”. Dukkha includes the physical and mental sufferings that accompany rebirth, ageing, illness and death. It also includes the dissatisfaction from getting what we don’t want or not getting what we want. Basically suffering arises from grasping at what can’t finally deliver happiness and not recognising what can. Dukkha is ignorance.

Questions for Contemplation

How do I feel about renunciation – have I any experience of saying “No” and it feeling good?

How do I control myself when I want to do self-destructive things? Begin to make this conscious – possibly by using the felt sense.

Do I have any sense of the slippery shadow side of kindness and compassion?

Do you agree with the analysis of the three factors of existence?