The top 10 posts in this section describe the fundamentals of Buddhist meditation. The rest of the posts in this section are on possible meditation subjects and can be used to clarify unresolved questions, and to gain samādhi. The first 11 posts should be followed in that order, at least initially.
1. Let us go back to the example of the abandoned well. Now we have done a decent job of cleaning the dirty water that had been there for a long time, i.e., we have reduced at least some of the main immoral acts, the BIG EIGHT.
- Now we need to make sure that things do not fall into the well while we try to make the water even more cleaner; if there is no barrier around it, when it rains mud water can fall into the well. As with the well, we need to make sure that we keep those BIG EIGHT out of our minds as much as possible. This is ‘sila” (pronounced “seela”) or moral living.
2. In order to make sure that we will not drift back to the old ways, we need to cultivate moral mindfulness (“sati“): we need to be on the “lookout” for any temptations to break the BIG EIGHT. But there is a catch that most people do not comprehend: bad habits and cravings or “gathi/āsavas” that we have are not only from this life, but possibly from previous lives as well.
3. Again, we can use the old water well as an example: When we drained the water out of the well, the well starts filling up with water from underground fresh water oozing through cracks (from underground aquifers) which is pure.
- However, if there is a of rotten stuff at the bottom of the well that had been there for a long time, then that pure water gets contaminated. Our bad habits (gathi/āsavas) are like the dirt at the bottom of the well.
4. The water in the above well will now look relatively more clear if it is undisturbed, i.e, when we let the water to settle down. This is effectively what we do in breath meditation or any such samatha meditation. When someone is abstaining from the BIG EIGHT, it is relatively easy to calm the mind by going to a quiet place, closing the eyes, and then focusing one object, say the breath.
- Such meditations are anāriya meditations; they provide only temporary relief. One could also get into anāriya jhānas this way, with lots of practice, especially if one could live a secluded life. Ancient yogis who lived moral lives and stayed away from other humans in forests could attain higher jhānas.
- What happens here is that the five hindrances are kept SUPPRESSED. It is like the rotten stuff kept undisturbed at the bottom of the well.
- If one takes a long pole and stir the well, those contaminants start coming up.
5. In the same way, when someone comes out of the quiet place, one gets “disturbed” with external sense stimuli (i.e., when a particularly strong sense object is presented). For someone with a lot of lust, it could be a picture of an attractive person. If someone has a lot of hate towards another, then hateful thoughts can come to the surface just by someone mentioning that person’s name.
- This “bubbling up of bad stuff to the surface” is called “anusaya“. To stop such anusaya, those gathi/āsava need to be removed (gradually).
- These terms are explained in, “Gathi (Gati), Anusaya, and Āsava“.
- This is why people who have a very calm and peaceful experience at a meditation resort come back to regular hectic life and see that experience fade away gradually. That is because it WAS a temporary solution. What we have in mind here is a more permanent solution. But this approach takes a bit more time.
5. So, how do we really clean the well? It is not enough to let the gunk to sink back to the bottom; we need to remove the gunk that has accumulated at the bottom of the well. There could even be toxic things down there. Thus it takes an effort to remove all those. Once those are removed, there is nothing down there that can contaminate the fresh water coming out. When the well fills up we only need to make sure that things do not fall back in to contaminate the well.
- Similarly, what we need to do with our minds is to remove the bad habits (gathi/āsavas) that have been accumulated over countless past lives and reinforced in this life. If we have hate in our minds, that hate can triggered easily. This is why some people are prone to “flare-ups” than others. If we have extreme greed, we can be tempted easily to act immorally for sense satisfaction through any of the six senses.
- Even though the main ones are greed and hate, there are uncountable number of combinations (when included with ignorance). That is why we see uncountable number of habits/personalities/tendencies in different people. No two persons are alike, even identical twins.
5. Looking at the five hindrances, the main culprits are of course, greed, hate, and vicikicca (the particular set of things one has a liking for, which can be things liked or disliked). The other two help bring out these: the “lazy mind” will not take any effort to suppress bad thoughts; the “dispersed mind” is too dispersed to be focused, to think clearly. All these are intimately connected to the habits (gathi/āsavas).
- By the way, if one can remove all the gathi/āsavas, that is when one attains Nibbana. The Buddha realized the “āsavakkhaya nana” just before attaining the Buddhahood. āsavakkhaya is “āsava“+”khaya” or removing the temptations; “khaya” is the getting rid of “san“; see, “What is “San”? – Meaning of samsāra (or Samsara)“.
- Here we are trying to remove some easily removable less potent habits, and at least try to reduce the big ones. The good news is that we can EXPERIENCE the relief or “cooling down” or “niveema” each time we either remove a small bad habit or lessen the severity of bigger ones. We don’t have to remove ALL bad habits/cravings in order to experience the “cooling down”.
6. After making a commitment to abstain from the BIG EIGHT as much as possible, we need to sort out our bad habits.
- Make a list with little things on the top and more serious things towards the bottom. We all have greed and hate; those are the “big ones”; what we need to do here is to try to remove easily identifiable smaller bad habits; for example, explosive temper, stinginess, seeking too much sense pleasures (i.e., being addicted to alcohol, drugs, even excess eating).
- It is important to get rid of the ones at the top (the easy ones), and that will provide incentive to continue. If one tries to tackle the big ones straight away, one might get discouraged and give up the whole effort.
7. Of course, focusing on the BIG EIGHT is very important. If one is engaging in killing animals for pleasure (e. g., fishing), then that needs to be stopped if one is serious about meditation. If one is making a living by stealing from others, that needs to be stopped. If one is engaged in sexual activities with other married people, that needs to be stopped, etc.
- Those are common sense things too. If one looks at one’s actions and see that it can cause harm for oneself AND/OR others, then one needs to seriously start thinking ways to initially reduce and eventually to stop such actions.
8. There are several posts on habits and gathi/āsavas; you may want to find and read them. And contemplate on those ideas. An English discourse on this topic is given in the post, “How Are Gati and Kilesa Incorporated into Thoughts?“.
- As I emphasized at the beginning, one has to make an effort; even the Buddha could only show the way. We need to examine what he suggested, think through to make sure they make sense. Then the mind gets on-board, especially when it starts seeing the benefits, even small benefits.
- The key is to get started; when one accomplishes even a small goal that provides the fuel to go further.
9. One could and should use the “four bases of mental power (satara iddhipāda)” in accomplishing these goals. Tackle one goal at a time. As you accomplish more and more goals, the iddhipāda (chanda, citta, viriya, vimansa) will grow as well. These are the critical factors that the yogis used to cultivate mundane (anāriya) jhānas and gain extraordinary mental powers too.
- Chanda is the desire to achieve the goal. Citta is the determination one makes and the viriya is the effort that one puts in to get it done. Vimansa is careful examination of the benefits of breaking the habit and the possible repercussions of keeping the habit. As the four iddhipāda grow (with accomplishment of more and more goals), the vimansa faculty grows in particular; this is a facet of wisdom (panna).
10. In trying to remove any bad habit, it is essential to look at the negative repercussions or bad consequences (called ādeenava or ādinava) from that activity. Let us take the bad habit of getting into a rage as an example:
- Think about the unpleasant feeling of getting “heated up” in a moment of rage. Of course, at the moment of rage one may actually enjoy it: In extreme cases, this is why there are people dead with 30-40 stab wounds, when all it takes to kill a person a couple of stabs; such is the danger of getting into a rage. One feels bad about it only later, and then it is too late.
- Even worse are the samsāric consequences: If rage becomes a dominant characteristic of one’s personality, it is possible that this is what will be grasped at the moment of death and a birth of a “similar kind” could result, i.e., birth in a burning hell (this is the principle of paticca samuppāda: “pati+ichcha” leading to “sama+uppāda”).
11. Let us take a few examples to see how some bad habits can be tackled:
- Many people have bad temper (which could develop in to hate) which is a result of vyāpāda. Yes. This is a samsāric habit, and unlike many other habits, this one is hard to control when triggered. This is one that needs to be dealt with when the anger is absent. The best is do the mettā bhāvanā. We will use the āriya mettā bhāvanā later. For now, one could close the eyes at a quite time, and sincerely say, “May all beings be free of suffering, free of ailments, free of anger, and be happy”. If you have a particular person that you are not in good terms, repeat with his/her name. We cannot remove the anger in the mind of that person. We can only remove the anger within ourselves. Do this a couple of times a day and if you do it sincerely it will give results (for YOU to have a peace of mind).
- If you are a person with cravings for sense pleasures (I do not mean necessities), your mind is likely to be frequently seeking such things. Try to cut down on such activities, and also try to do more giving. Donate to charities, give a few dollars to a homeless person. All these will make you feel better; this is called piti (“preethi” in Sinhala or joy).
- Also, when you simplify your life, the burden on your mind will be less, and you will get a different kind of joy than that from sense pleasures; this is “niveema” or “cool down”, or nirāmisa sukha; see, “Nirāmisa Sukha”.
- Alcohol or cigarette addiction is another example. Instead of trying to stop such a habit “cold turkey”, it is better to cut down gradually. But one MUST have the discipline (the importance of cultivating the iddhipāda comes here) to stick to the plan, and not go back. It also helps to find a replacement activity at that time (taking a less potent drink or chewing a gum, etc). One of the four iddhipāda that is essential here is citta or determination.
12. Now we are at a point where I can introduce the real ānāpānasati bhāvanā that was described by the Buddha.