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“There are, O monks, these four lights. What four? The light of the moon, the light of the sun, the light of fire, and the light of wisdom. Of these four lights, the light of wisdom is supreme.”
~ The Buddha
AN 4:143

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Dhamma Articles

Do It Yourself

Bhante Gunaratana

The Venerable Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant, spent twenty-five years with the Buddha serving him. The Buddha asked him several times to strive hard and attain enlightenment. He had known all the Dhamma and theories of meditation. However, as he enjoyed serving the Buddha and other fellow bhikkhus, he neglected his own attainment of enlightenment until finally a great pressure came from the 499 Arahants assembled to hold the first Buddhist council. They insisted that he should attain enlightenment before the designated date for the council planned for the third month after the Buddha’s passing away.

Buddha had already said: “Monks, meditate. Don’t be heedless. Don’t let your mind be filled with defilements. Don’t weep and wail saying: “This life is full of trouble, full of misery, full of pain, full of agony.” The mind not developed through the practice of mindfulness meditation creates tension, anxiety and worry. Don’t keep crying and repeating the same mistakes. You cannot run away from reality. Life is not rosy. It has ups-and-downs and bumps all over. These are facts we face every day.

The practice of mindfulness meditation is similar to the shock absorbers in a car. If the shock absorbers are not good, you will see how difficult it will be when you drive. This vehicle of ours - the body and mind, this combination - is full of such difficult moments. There is no place to run away from them. Even if you go to the moon (not an impossibility these days), still you will go with your body and mind filled with all kinds of impediments still existing in the mind. You cannot leave them here and go over there. They follow persistently and doggedly wherever you go, and they keep bothering you, day and night. Most people experiment with three solutions.

They perceive the problem is “over there, in the world.” Therefore, they think that by correcting the world, trying to solve society’s ills, they can solve their problems. They wish to make the environment “proper, beautiful” and free from problems. Only then can they live happily. So they get engrossed and, sometimes, even obsessed, in trying to straighten out society. Of course, the desire to improve society’s ills, itself, is commendable. They see suffering and become compassionate and then act. They may keep themselves fully occupied trying to correct the society’s ills. They might think that they keep themselves out of trouble without realizing that they actually are forgetting their own nagging problems. They continue to have their own pains and suffering unattended primarily because they do not have time for themselves. These people are very compassionate, understanding, ready to render their service to the society selflessly or without any reward from the society. We read many wonderful accounts of many such noble persons who at the expense of their own attainment of enlightenment dedicate their lives to the society. External activities might hinder solving one’s own problems.

Although we live in society with people, each one of us has a little world of our own, views about the world, our own perception and understanding of the world. Each follows his or her perceptions, and views of the world. We may sometimes think that all the problems we experience are generated from the outer world. Therefore, we turn our energies to the world believing involvement in doing something to correct society will solve our problems.

The second line of thinking which people pursue to solve their problems is to think that there is no problem at all. They believe that everything is imaginary. They think: “I exist by myself, I am most important, and I am all alone, and nothing else matters to me.” The third way to solve personal problems is to run away from our problems.

We may receive temporary solace, temporary comfort thinking either the problem exists over there in the external world or it does not exist, or diverting our attention to something, ignoring that there is a problem, or running away from the problem.

The real solution lies in none of these methods. The real solution, according to the Buddha’s teaching, is to discover a way to purify the instrument, the agent, which makes the world happy or unhappy, peaceful or miserable, pleasant or painful. That which creates problems and suffering for everybody. This instrument is our mind. Purification of this mind is one of the purposes of mindfulness meditation.

As we all know, all our thoughts, words and deeds originate in the mind. Mind is the forerunner. All conditions which we experience are mind-made. They are created in the mind, directed and led by the mind. Mind puts them into action. “All actions are all led by the mind: mind is their master, mind is their maker. Act or speak with a defiled state of mind, then suffering follows like the cart-wheel that follows the foot of the ox. All actions are all led by the mind; mind is their master, mind is their maker. Act or speak with a pure state of mind, then happiness follows like a shadow that remains behind without departing.” (Dhammapada 1-2)

The analogy of the ox pulling the cart is most appropriate to illustrate our problems. The ox pulling the cart does not enjoy pulling the cart. He is not happy with this burden; it is not a pleasure. This poor bull pulling the cart has a terrible time. The whole burden of the cart is on his shoulders, and he will be in pain. The bull would have done better if he had not been born a bull. The condition of the bull is compared to the condition of ignorance, and stupidity - not seeing the truth as is. An unenlightened life is full of ignorance and given to defilements of all kinds. Therefore, an unenlightened person committing thoughts, words, and deeds with impure minds suffers very much like the bull who always suffers by pulling this heavy cart. On the other hand, when we speak or do something with a pure mind we feel happy, and have no regrets, no pain, no suffering following us.

Our purpose in life is to improve ourselves everyday and become happy. We do many things to gain happiness. However, most of the things we do to gain happiness may generate unhappiness, pain, suffering and trouble because our minds are not pure. It is the pure mind that can generate happiness, not the impure mind. Therefore, the first purpose of practicing meditation is to purify our mind; that generates peace and happiness.

The second purpose of meditation is to overcome sorrow and lamentation. When a meditator begins to see the truth he or she can bear and conquer sorrow and lamentation caused by impermanence.

The third purpose is to overcome suffering and disappointment caused by greed and hatred.

The fourth purpose of meditation is to tread the wise path, the correct path which leads to liberation from grief, sorrow, disappointment, pain and lamentation. This is the path of mindfulness - the only path that liberate us from suffering.

The fifth purpose of meditation is to liberate ourselves completely and totally from mental pain and defilements and to free our minds from greed, hatred and delusion.

These five purposes are very noble purposes. All other purposes of meditation may be overlooked because none of them is capable of generating these results making us really peaceful and happy by eliminating our problems. We don’t try to ignore or avoid them but mindfully we face and tackle them as they arise in our minds.

Certain people simply want to meditate without having any background knowledge of meditation. They think knowledge of the theory of meditation is an impediment. This attitude can be compared to the attitude of a traveler who wishes to go to a definite destination - let us say Washington DC. The traveler has great confidence in his ability and believes his confidence alone is sufficient to get him there. This person may have a vehicle - a car. Then, getting into the car, sitting behind the steering wheel, he starts to drive. However, there has been no preparation for the journey. There is no knowledge of the roads or the conditions of the roads or of the weather. He hasn’t even consulted a map. All he has is a car and confidence and some experience in driving. The car may carry a sufficient quantity of gas, oil, and other items, so, the traveler gets into the car and starts driving. He may be on the road for a long time spending a good deal of money on gas, time and energy. Indeed, driving will lead him somewhere, but not necessarily to his destination. A wise driver, on the other hand, studies the map in detail, determines the detours, and may ask others who are more experienced.

If the driver wishes to go to Washington DC and if there is a place called Washington DC, the driver will find it. Similarly, we need to have a goal in meditation. We want to reach this goal and realize our purpose. And we do need some guidelines. We do not necessarily need a great deal of philosophical and speculative theory. The guidelines are road signs to follow so that we will know (not guess) if we are heading in the right direction. Certainly confidence is necessary, but in itself, is not sufficient. In addition, we need understanding and knowledge of the theory.

Then what is meditation? How do we reach this goal of purifying the mind, overcoming grief and lamentation, overcoming pain and disappointment, treading the path leading to liberation from pain, suffering and samsara - this world of birth and death?

There is a way to attain it. When we refer to “the Way” it may turn many people off. They might think the speaker is trying to sell something and trying to deprecate everything in the world, and say “If this is the only way, we are not prepared to buy it.” Now, when you wish to go to Washington DC, there are a number of ways to get there. Flying is the quickest way these days, of course. In other times, we would use a car or boat, or only our two feet. Whatever the means of transportation, we have to cover a specific distance to arrive in Washington DC. What is essential is that we get there - whether by slow or fast means. Therefore, “the Way” means “The Way of Mindfulness” that transverses a certain distance or area to realize our destination.

This way of Mindfulness does not, however, lie in a geographical area or in space. It is in our own mind. We have to do certain things. That doing is also “the Way”—the way to cultivate our minds to accomplish this journey. Cultivating the mind means practicing mindfulness. When no mindfulness is present, when we are unmindful all the time, we are entrapped by “red herrings.” We are caught in all kinds of confusion. We don’t understand things as they really are. To enable us to get to our destination, we need a clear understanding of where we are. Clear understanding is born from mindfulness. No matter what else we do or other practices we engage in they have their own purposes and goals. We learn that they do not purify the mind.

The very word meditation means cultivation. We know what we mean when we say, “We cultivate a land.” We know that there has to be a land and some means of cultivating it. We have to do certain things, such as cutting down the trees to clear the land, remove weeds and other things, and till it over and over and fertilize it. Then we can plant seeds and nourish it and grow certain crops. Similarly in the practice of meditation, we need to mentally cultivate the mind. We do not need to sit in one place just waiting for something to happen. We may wait indefinitely, or for a very long time, without anything happening. We might say that we have spent so much time in meditation. Sitting in one place doing nothing is not meditation. And also simply watching our breath all the time is inadequate and insufficient. Of course, mindfulness of breath is an important part of meditation. Simply watching the breath without any mindfulness may be called the practice of tranquillity meditation, however, it is not Right Concentration without mindfulness. We begin, however, with watching our breath. This meditation which is totally distinct to Buddhism is called Vipassana meditation or Insight meditation. There are guidelines for the practice of Insight or Vipassana meditation. These guidelines are given in the Sutta called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

These Four Foundations of Mindfulness are: Mindfulness of the Body, Mindfulness of Feeling, Mindfulness of the mind and Mindfulness of Mental Objects. We will explain them in turn.

Let me take the first part - Mindfulness of the Body. Mindfulness of the body is divided into six sections. The first of them is Mindfulness of breathing. Now, why is the breath included in the mindfulness of the body? The breath is a part of our body. This body, as we know it, is made up of four basic elements: the element of extension (solid parts), the element of cohesion (the liquid part), the element of heat (radiation) and the element of air (oscillation or movement). Therefore, when we try to practice mindfulness of the body we begin with the mindfulness of the breath which is the element of air.

In this meditation, we do not dwell upon some imaginative fairy land. We are not trying to induce self hypnosis. We are not trying to discover the hidden, mystical elements of the universe. We are not trying to become absorbed in the whole universe. We are not trying to become “One” with the whole universe. All these are interesting words. We are trying to use this personality of ours: our own body and mind. We watch mindfully this body and mind and their activities, we investigate them because they are what we carry with us wherever we go. This body and mind is our laboratory. All we have to work with is there—the raw material, chemical substance, gases, heat, air, water, extension—all are there. It is in this body, in this personality that we find all this. My laboratory is my body and mind. I always try to watch them within me. I cannot work in your laboratory. You have to work in your own laboratory. Most of us forget our own laboratories and try to get into somebody else’s laboratory. We try to see what so-and-so is eating, what so-and-so is doing, whom so-and-so is associating with, where so-and-so is going, what so-and-so is reading, how much money so-and-so has, etc. We always forget our own laboratories. We may never know what is in this laboratory within ourselves. We, in this practice of Insight meditation, become introspective, mindful and careful to watch what is happening here in this mind and body in the present moment. That is what Vipassana meditation is all about; methodical investigation in the laboratory within ourselves.

©2000 Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

The real solution, according to the Buddha’s teaching, is to discover a way to purify the instrument, the agent, which makes the world happy or unhappy, peaceful or miserable, pleasant or painful. That which creates problems and suffering for everybody. This instrument is our mind.