What’s Mindfulness Meditation For?

I saw this advertisement on my Facebook feed recently and did a double-facepalm.

People often assume that Buddhist meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, is a practice to calm the mind, attain peace and by extension happiness. Peace of mind and happiness are central to Buddhism, but it’s also important to understand how Buddhism approaches the issue, and where mindfulness meditation actually fits into that.

Buddhism approaches the issue of life from the perspective of dukkha, which is a Buddhist term for things like stress, unease, dissatisfaction, pain, strife, etc. It’s a pretty big term, but as mentioned in a recent post, describes a lot of things in life. Further, while some aspects of dukkha are just a part of life (you can’t control the weather for example), a lot of it is self-inflicted because we are infatuated with ourselves, and always expect things to go our way. When someone else gets promoted and we don’t, we get mad, jealous and resentful. Maybe they were the better candidate (objectively speaking), but we don’t see it that way because we naturally tend to see things from our self-centered world-view.

Or, we inflict dukkha on ourselves because we tend to indulge in things we shouldn’t, or we indulge in something without moderation. Chocolate is good. Too much chocolate will give you indigestion. This is not because we are necessarily stupid or anything. A lot of smart people still inflict a lot of dukkha on themselves. Instead, it’s because people want their happiness “fix” without realizing that there’s often a hidden cost. At the very least, you’ll get dissatisfied again and chasing happiness once more, but oftentimes there’s the upfront cost too that you had to do to get that “fix” in the first place.

This is why meditation alone won’t bring peace. Meditation will calm your mind, and give you some clarity, but if you still live a lifestyle geared toward chasing happiness (either physical gratification, or more cerebral/emotional gratification) you’ll be unhappy again soon. Ironically, using meditation to make you happy will just repeat the cycle of chasing after happiness, and when that fades, chasing after it again. It’s just another fix, but a more cerebral one.

The Buddhist approach to getting out of this endless cycle of chasing happiness, temporary gratification, sense of loss, and chasing again is to not get yourself in that cycle in the first place. This requires a kind of dedicated, lifetime training of the mind not to knee-jerk react whenever we encounter something we want (e.g. craving), or something we don’t like and want to avoid (e.g. aversion).

This training requires a kind of three-pronged approach:

  • Conduct – Buddhism spends a lot of time talking about personal conduct. This means curtailing the more egregious behavior we do, using guidelines like the Ten Wholesome Acts.1
  • Practice – Buddhism has a wide array of practices to help cultivate wholesome states of mind, and to help facilitate conditions to help continue following or advance along the Buddhist path.
  • Wisdom – This helps create the right frame of mind for the other two. Or, the other two help give rise to wisdom. They go hand in hand.

The nice thing is that these three things are kind of mutually reinforcing, so it’s best to start building all three of them.

Mindfulness meditation falls under “practice”, because the intention is to train your mind to be able to step back and think rather than react blindly to things you encounter. This can lead to happiness over time because you avoid self-destructive behavior (i.e. maintain conduct) and maintaining wholesome conduct does further and further create peace of mind, because you are not wracked with guilt, regret and such.

But mindfulness meditation is only a small part of the Buddhist path. It is a holistic path that covers many aspects, and if you don’t follow the path in entirety, you’ll only gain temporary benefits.

1 The Ten Wholesome Acts are:

  1. Abstain from destroying life
  2. Abstain from taking what is not given
  3. Abstain from sexual misconduct (adultery, abuse, etc)
  4. Abstain from false speech
  5. Abstain from slander
  6. Abstain from harsh speech
  7. Abstain from idle chatter (gossip, inappropriate conversations, etc)
  8. Abstain from greed
  9. Abstain from ill-will
  10. Abstrain from wrong views (e.g. view that don’t align with the Dharma)

The key with the Ten Wholesome Acts are to treat them like a gold-standard to work towards. You may not get them right the first time (or first hundred or so), but you keep at it. Like rehearsing for a play.

Crossing the Stream

Moraine Park RMNP

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi does a nice job explaining what the Buddhist path entails in this article:

Like any other stream, the stream of mundane existence inevitably flows in the direction of least resistance: downward. The task the Buddha sets before us is not the impossible one of reversing the direction of the flow, but the feasible one of crossing the stream, of arriving safely at the far shore where we will be free from the dangers that beset us as we are swept along by the stream. To cross the stream requires a struggle, not against the current itself, but against the forces that carry us down the current, a struggle against the defilements lodged in the depths of our own minds.

The Buddhist path isn’t meant to be a heroic struggle against the forces in the Universe, but rather a kind of slow, determined effort with a clear goal, and support when you need it when you find yourself slipping on the rocks, or feeling the pull of the currents.

P.S. Don’t cross the streams, though. 👻

What is the Point of Buddhist Practice?

Recently, I stumbled upon a great essay by the venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi here:

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_16.html

This is about the importance of self-transcendence, but one particular statement really hit home:

It is important to stress this transcendent aspect of the Dhamma because, in our own time when “immanent” secular values are ascendent, the temptation is great to let this aspect drop out of sight. If we assume that the worth of a practice consists solely in its ability to yield concrete this-worldly results, we may incline to view the Dhamma simply as a means of refining and healing the divided personality, leading in the end to a renewed affirmation of our mundane selves and our situation in the world. Such an approach, however, would ignore the Buddha’s insistence that all the elements of our personal existence are impermanent, unsatisfactory and not self, and his counsel that we should learn to distance ourselves from such things and ultimately to discard them.

It’s really easy to forget this point and lull ourselves into self-satisfaction when Buddhist practice brings a measure of peace and stability in our lives.  But that’s not exactly the point of Buddhism either.  People who use mindfulness meditation to get ahead in life, for example, will find that life is still ultimately unfulfilling in the long-run.

It’s like poker, where you find a technique to win money more consistently, but at the end of the day, you’re basically still gambling your life away.  Better to just stop playing poker.

Buddhism: Financial Advice from the Pali Canon

Hey all,

Hope you’re enjoying the spring weather (and the 3-day weekend if you live in the States).  I wanted to share an article online about managing finances the Buddhist way here:

https://www.urbandharma.org/udharma5/buddhisteco.html

This essay is a bit long, but does a great job outlining practical advice (summary: live within your means) while referencing important Buddhist sutras from the Pali Canon of the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

As I get older, and am now raising two kids, not one, I’ve had to make some adjustment in my life, including how I spend my money day to day. But while this is painful in the short-term, I’ve also come to realize that the alternative is a whole lot worse, so I am glad I am able to improve my financial situation now before it’s too late.

Enjoy!

Personal Financing: the Buddhist Way

Just a nice random little sutra I found in the Pali Canon I wanted to share: the Dighajanu Sutta (AN 8.54).  Here the Buddha is talking to a lay follower, who sought his advice about how to live a life of financial security and happiness.

The Buddha’s advice falls into four, simple no-nonsense categories:

  • Work hard and master an important skill.
  • Store the hard-earned wealth securely to avoid theft or loss.
  • Cultivate good friendships, avoid harmful friendships (that lead to debauchery, drunkenness, gambling, etc).
  • Live a balanced lifestyle; don’t spend beyond your means.

Further, the Buddha discusses how to ensure happiness and security in future lives:

  • Confidence in the Buddha and the Buddha’s teachings (i.e. the Dharma)
  • Living a life of wholesome conduct, including the Five Precepts.
  • Being generous toward others
  • Cultivating wisdom through the Buddha’s teachings.

The sutra finally ends in a nice verse (translation by Ven. Narada Thera):

Energetic and heedful in his tasks,
Wisely administering his wealth,
He lives a balanced life,
Protecting what he has amassed.

Endowed with faith and virtue too,
Generous he is and free from avarice;
He ever works to clear the path
That leads to weal in future life.

Thus to the layman full of faith,
By him, so truly named ‘Enlightened,’
These eight conditions have been told
Which now and after lead to bliss.

Pretty cool sutra.  Enjoy!

A Historical Look at the Pali Canon

Recently, I started reading a collection of essays on early Indian Buddhist history and archeology called Bones, Stones, And Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers On The Archaeology, Epigraphy, And Texts Of Monastic Buddhism In India by Professors Gregory Schopen and Donald S. Lopez Jr.  The book’s stated intention is to show how studies of early Buddhist history have a kind of Western-Protestant bias1 that relies mostly on textual evidence, even archeological evidence proves otherwise.  It’s been a surprisingly interesting read.

One of the topics addressed is the question of how Buddhist texts are evaluated by age and authenticity.

The Pali Canon, for example, is assumed to be the oldest source of Buddhist textual information, and the authors concede that point, but notice the dating (emphasis added):

We know, and have known for some time, that the Pāli canon as we have it—and it is generally conceded to be our oldest source—cannot be taken back further than the last quarter of the first century B.C.E., the date of the Alu-vihāra redaction, the earliest redaction that we can have some knowledge of… (pg. 23)

But immediately after, they warn readers that:

…and that—for a critical history—it can serve, at the very most, only as a source for the Buddhism of this period. (pg. 23)

Later on page 27, they further clarify that the most reliable date is from 29-17 B.C.E.  This is 400-500+ years after the historical Buddha lived.

The book later shows texts did exist in earlier times, but in a scattered form and not in a single canon.  For example during the time of King Aśoka (3rd century B.C.E.):

Although Aśoka in his Bhābrā Edict specifically enjoined both monks and laymen to recite certain texts, which he named, he nowhere in his records gives any indication that he know of a canon, or the classification of texts into nikāyas [divisions of texts used in the Pali canon]. (pg. 24)

Additionally, although the Pali Canon is the oldest known compilation, it that existed centuries after the historical Buddha, not every text or story in the Canon is necessarily the oldest.

The book illustrates a good example of this.  There is a particular story, found in the textual collections of the Mahāsāṇghika, Mahīśāsaka, Dharmaguptaka and in the Pali Canon which concerns the Buddha’s discovery of a stupa for his deceased disciple Kāśyapa. The book explains that all four versions are fairly consistent, though each one embellishes with literary cliches and such. However, seeing these four texts, one would assume that the fact they are pretty consistent would mean “the essential elements of this account must go back to a very old or presectarian stage of the tradition” (pg 28).

However, it turns out there is an obscure fifth source in the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya textual collection at Gilgit. In this version, which has much less literary “padding”, there is no mention of a stupa at all, just the relics of Kāśyapa. The authors postulate that this version is older than the ones found in other collections.

The four versions above are consistent, presumably, because they draw upon a later, more polished version of the story.

This applies to a lot of other things related to early Buddhist historical studies, but the point of this post is focused on the Pali Canon. There’s a general Western assumption that because it is the oldest, it is therefore more accurate than other Buddhist sources at understanding what the early Buddhist community was like, how they lived, etc.

But there’s a few problems with this:

  • The Pali Canon is centuries after the Buddha, so no living person who compiled the canon lived during the time of the Buddha, and cannot attest to whether the texts they draw upon are true or not. They rely on tradition just as much as other early Buddhist schools did.
  • The Pali Canon uses a lot of literary padding, similar to other compilations by other schools.  For example many sutras often end with the same stock ending (translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

    “Magnificent, lord! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has the Blessed One — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. We go to the Blessed One for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May the Blessed One remember us as lay followers who have gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.”

    Or just look at the repetitive nature of lists enumerated in the Pali Canon sutras. No natural human would talk this way, and so it’s obvious that the information was edited for easier recitation, compilation and memorization.

  • The book also shows in greater detail than can be explained here, that archeological evidence doesn’t always agree with what textual sources imply.  One big example cited by the book is the many examples of stupas that are erected at places like Bhāhut and Sāñci, using donations not by lay-people but mostly by monks, which implied monks did own at least some property despite textual sources implying they didn’t.

Essentially, what the book argues is that information from early Buddhist history and culture should be not exclusively drawn from textual sources, but must be weighed against other evidence, even when it bears some uncomfortable truths (such as monks/nuns owning property).  This rubs against the Western-Protestant cultural tendency toward sola scriptura (by text alone),² but it gives us a more rich and human-centric understanding of how people lived and practiced Buddhism in that era.

1 Another example here.

² In other words, just because a sutra says so doesn’t always mean it’s the final word.

Mindfulness Works

There are plenty of articles on the Internet explaining the benefits of meditation, including Buddhist mindful meditation, but I felt this article was particularly interesting, because it explains why the alternative (a wandering mind) can be harmful.  The idea is that the wandering mind builds up all sorts of anxiety and unease that may have no actual connection to real-life, but tends to take on a life of its own within our minds.  If left unchecked, this can make us suffer when there’s no need for us to.

Although I haven’t been very diligent about meditation in the past, I found this article made a lot of sense for me.  I found that when I get really worked up about something, it helps to stop and take a deep breath for a moment, and just take a moment to pay attention to whatever I’m doing.

Certainly better than the alternative… 😉