Fundamental View: Talk 8

Presented by the Buddha Center, Second Life on August 3 and 6, 2013

Talk 8

The Art of Meditation

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


Beefore we begin, I would like to briefly address a question I was asked last week about the relationship between nibbana and sangsara. I was asked whether one could “fall back,” as it were, from nibbana into sangsara. It is clear from the Pali Canon that nibbana is a qualitative change of state that cannot be reversed. The Tathagata, for example, is not reborn as a human being. There is no karmic factor operating based on which one could be reborn.

The person who asked me this question attributed this doctrine to Hanshan, a Chinese master. I promised to do some research into this question. There are in fact two Hanshans. There is Hanshan, a poet who lived in the 9th century, and Hanshan Deqing, a monk who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. Both Hanshans were iconoclasts. Deqing praised prominent monks who practised meditation and asceticism with no official Dharma transmission as having acquired “wisdom without a teacher.”Jiang Wu writes Hanshan questioned the value of Dharma transmission. He believed the enlightenment of the mind was more important than nominal claims of transmission.

I suspect the person who asked me this question was referring to Hanshan the poet, a somewhat mysterious figure. He held that a “nibbana” that does not include sangsara is an inferior, inadequate, incomplete, or insufficient state of partial realization, and that true or final nibbana includes sangsara by definition. Surely, one can fall back into sangsara from a realization that excludes sangsara, but such a realization is not nibbana. True nibbana includes sangsara, so how can one fall back into it? To answer in a suitably Zen way, one never left it. I hope that addresses the question adequately.

Buddhism is primarily a method of mental cultivation. The Buddha says there is nothing as unwieldy, harmful, and prone to suffering as an undeveloped mind; there is nothing as wieldy, beneficial, and prone to happiness as a developed mind. Mental development or self-cultivation entails two things primarily – serenity (samatha) and insight (vipassana). Samatha is often translated as “calm” or “tranquility.” The development of serenity leads to the stilling of lust, craving, or attachment and develops the mind. The development of insight leads to wisdom and the abandonment of ignorance, the root cause of the chain of cause and effect (paticchasamuppāda). The combination of serenity and insight leads to the realization of the Supermundane Eightfold Path, and thence to enlightenment itself.

The development of serenity and insight are the two essential requisites of the path. All spiritual methods or techniques, no matter how apparently complex, are ultimately reducible to either one or the other or some combination of these two. Ananda, the Buddha’s main disciple, identifies four possible combinations: serenity followed by insight, insight followed by serenity, the progressive alternation of serenity and insight, and a rather interesting one – anxiety or agitation, spontaneously resolved by the arising of serenity and insight through some sort of spiritual crisis. Bodhi glosses this crisis as a spontaneous arising of awakening. This concept may be compared with the great European mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff’s concept of the “shock” or Padmasambhava’s concept of the “leap” by which one achieves a fundamental change of state. Yehsua also cites such a state in the Gospel of Thomas.[1] Ananda declares these are the only ways to experience emancipation.

The Buddha identifies four types of person: one who gains internal serenity of mind but does not gain the higher wisdom of insight into phenomena; one who gains the higher wisdom of insight into phenomena, but not the internal serenity of mind; one who gains neither; and one who gains both. Thus, one should approach one who has developed the faculty or realization in which one is lacking for instruction on how to develop that realization. One who has developed both should establish himself in them, as well as applying himself to the further destruction of the taints (āsawas). The PED states that the taints consist of attachment to sensuality (kam), rebirth (bhaw), and ignorance (awijj). A fourth taint, which the PED translates as speculation or wrong view (ditth), was added to the list several centuries later by the commentaries.

In the context of memorizing the teachings, the Buddha identities sensual lust, ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, and doubt, as factors that disturb the equanimity of mind and so inhibit memorizing and, by implication, learning the teachings. These are the five hindrances. The hindrances disturb the mind and make it impossible to recognize its essential nature.

The Buddha compares the refinement of the mind to the process by which gold is refined. Gold is a metaphor for the inherent lucidity of sentience itself. Gold is washed, rinsed, cleaned, and finally melted, in a formula suggestive of European alchemy, explored deeply by C.G. Jung. The reference to melting is especially interesting. One of the popular notions about Buddhism is it is passive, but one finds references all through the Pali Canon to the cultivation of will and the development of energy as essential elements of the path. The Buddha himself was celebrated as a virile “bull of a man.” Here these metaphors are taken even further. If gold is the mind, what does melting the mind mean?  One finds a similar idea in the Tibetan concept of tumo or “psychic heat,” which is analogous to kundalini or even ch’i (qi).

Gold, originally brittle, becomes pliant, workable, and bright. The notion of mental pliancy is found all through the Pali Canon. It appears to refer to what used to be called “suggestibility.” Suggestibility is now better referred to as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, and neural processes. Neuroplasticity has replaced the older view that the brain is a physiologically static organ. This concept is analogous to the old notion of “human nature.” Neuroplasticity occurs on many levels, from cellular changes due to learning to large-scale changes involved in cortical remapping in response to injury. The role of neuroplasticity is widely recognized today in modern medicine.

For most of the 20th century, the consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively immutable after a critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by findings revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood. Decades of research have now shown that substantial changes occur in the lowest neocortical processing areas. These changes can profoundly alter the pattern of neural activation in response to experience. Neuroscientific research indicates that experience can actually change both the physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology) of the brain. The brain can, and does, change. The Buddha’s conclusions derived from meditative experience concerning neuroplasticity or “pliancy” are another remarkable example of how Buddhism anticipated current innovative scientific discoveries by over 2,000 years.

The Buddha says, “there comes a time when [one’s] mind becomes inwardly steadied, composed, unified, and concentrated. That concentration is then calm and refined; it has attained to full tranquility and achieved mental unification; it is not maintained by strenuous suppression of the defilements. Then, to whatever mental state realizable by direct knowledge he directs his mind, he achieves the capacity of realizing that state by direct knowledge, whenever the necessary conditions obtain.” The scientific precision of this statement is remarkable.

The Buddha refers to various mental powers or psychic abilities (iddhis). These abilities may be developed by means of meditation. They include bilocation, invisibility, levitation, passing unhindered through matter, travelling cross-legged through the sky, mastery of the body, clairaudience, clairvoyance, telepathy, and remembering past lives, both of oneself and of others. Yogis also attest these powers. Techniques to develop them were highly developed by the Tibetans in particular.

Whether one accepts these powers literally or as psychic experiences, the literature of parapsychology contains many accounts of similar experiences and abilities. It is difficult for Westerners to appreciate how far such powers may be developed, since there is nearly no culture for their development in our secular materialist society. Nevertheless, over the past hundred years, science itself has gone far beyond the materialistic description of the world.

It seems more cogent to accept the reality of psychic powers, at least provisionally, rather than reject them altogether as mere fabrications.[2] The Pali Canon enumerates specific individuals in the ancient sangha to whom the Buddha attributed such powers. Westerners tend to reject such abilities dogmatically, but are the reality of curved space, time dilation, atomic energy, multiverses, the quantum act of observation, strings, black holes, singularities, the big bang, the holographic universe, or artificial intelligence (AI) any less fantastic? All of these are commonplaces of 21st century science.

As an aid to meditation, the Buddha recommended attending to an image or “sign” that opposes the distraction. Evil, unwholesome thoughts, such as hatred, desire, and delusion, can be counteracted by concentrating on some sign connected with what is wholesome. In this way, the mind becomes steadied, composed, unified, and concentrated.

Bodhi gives examples of the kinds of signs the Buddha recommended in specific situations. For example, sensual desire can be counteracted by contemplating the unattractiveness of the body. Desire toward inanimate objects can be counteracted by contemplating impermanence (aniccha). Hatred toward living beings can be counteracted by contemplating loving kindness, i.e., the metta meditation. Hatred toward inanimate objects can be counteracted by meditating on the elemental nature of things. Delusion can be counteracted by studying the dhamma.

If, after meditating on these signs, the distraction persists, the Buddha recommends meditating on the danger inherent in the distraction. If one continues to be distracted, the Buddha recommends simply ignoring the distraction.  If the distraction continues, the Buddha recommends inquiring into its causes in an indefinite succession leading to subtler and subtler causes, culminating finally in quiescence. Finally, if the distraction continues, the Buddha recommends “crushing the mind with the mind,” or forcibly repressing the distraction through sheer force of will and determination. The Buddha says, “this monk is called a master of the courses of thought. He will think whatever thought he wishes to think and he will not think any thought that he does not wish to think.”

Similarly, no matter how people speak to you, the Buddha recommends remaining indifferent and responding to them with an altruistic mind. As in the metta meditation, one expands that intention outward from that individual to all individuals and ultimately to all living beings and thence to the whole world, even, to use the Buddha’s metaphor, “if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw.” Yeshua famously recommended plucking out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand in similar circumstances. (Short of advocating self-mutilation, I prefer to regard these as metaphors for the intensity of one’s concentration.)

For one who is on the path, the Buddha recommends contemplating the Tathagata, the Dhamma, the sangha, morality, generosity, and the dewas. One takes these things as objects of one’s concentrated meditation (samādhi). The qualities of the object of the meditation arise in the mind of the meditator, resulting in inspiration, gladness, rapture, calm, happiness, and concentration. Meditations on the Buddha and the dewas in particular became important practices within Tibetan Buddhism.

The Buddha declares the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to be the essential elements of the path that leads inevitably to nibbana. Each step, once acquired, is established in a progressive direction that cannot be reversed (the so-called “one way”). I follow Bodhi’s interpretation here. The path is negentropic, as distinct from the entropic nature of sangsara, which leads to ever-greater degeneration.

The four foundations of mindfulness are mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind, and phenomena, in an ascending arc that leads from the particular to the universal and from the gross to the subtle. Body corresponds to the element of earth, feelings to the element of water, mind to the element of air, and finally phenomena to the element of fire, i.e., the dynamic principle of kamma. Mindfulness of the body is established by means of seclusion, sitting, and cultivating awareness of the breath, the life force of the body reified in the Indian concept of self (the atta).

The Buddha emphasizes the importance of cultivating a global awareness of the entire body. Meditation is not a state of dissociation. Awareness may be extended to the posture, and finally to the comprehension of the three marks of existence – aniccha (impermanence or changeability), dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness), and anatta (no-self).

Attachment to the body is undermined by contemplating the anatomical unattractiveness of the body in respect of its constituents, viz.., hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones and marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine. The nine charnel ground meditations include contemplating one’s body in various states of decomposition. These contemplations include a bloated corpse, a corpse being devoured by animals, a desiccated skeleton, and finally a pile of bones in the process of being reduced to their elements.

The corpse meditations bear a striking resemblance to the Chöd cult of Tibetan Buddhism. The practitioner visualizes their own body and offers their flesh as the offering at a ganachakra, or tantric feast. Iconographically, the skin of the practitioner’s body represents surface reality or maya. It is cut from bones that represent the true reality of the mind stream.

Bodhi suggests these practices may involve visualizations of the body in the various states. However, there is no doubt the charnel ground contemplations were also practised by advanced Buddhist adepts in actual charnel grounds.

Contemplation of the feelings (vedanā) is simply being aware of the pleasurable or unpleasurable state of one’s feelings, without attachment. In contemplating the mind, the awareness of feelings is replaced with awareness of one’s own mental state.

Contemplation of phenomena involves awareness of phenomena in terms of the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six senses, the seven enlightenment factors, and the Four Supermundane Truths. This means being aware of attachment to phenomena, impermanence (aniccha), sense perceptions, one’s actual state of realization, and of suffering.

Recognizing the factors of enlightenment within oneself is included in the contemplation of phenomena because this refers to an objective recognition of the ontological status of one’s own realization. Realization is not subjective. It is classified as contemplation of phenomena rather than contemplation of mind. Enlightenment is not a subjective quality or state any more than the bliss or rapture of enlightenment is a “feeling.”

The Buddha states that the practice of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness over a period of seven years leads to stream entry. One either achieves final enlightenment immediately or is reborn in one of the Pure Abodes. From here, one attains enlightenment directly, with no more human rebirth. Rebirth in the Pure Abodes is the one rebirth in sangsara the Buddha says he had never experienced. To be reborn there means one is never reborn as a human being. The Buddha goes on to say something very remarkable:

Let alone seven years, monks. If anyone should develop these four establishments of mindfulness in such a way for six years … for five years … for four years … for three years … for two years … for one year, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or if there is a trace of clinging left, nonreturning. Let alone one year, monks. If anyone should develop these four states of mindfulness in such a way for seven months … for six months … for five months … for four months … for three months … for two months … for one month … for half a month, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or if there is a trace of clinging left, nonreturning. Let alone half a month, monks. If anyone should establish these four establishments of mindfulness in such a way for seven days, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or if there is a trace of clinging left, nonreturning.

This passage is repeated all through the Pali Canon. It directly contradicts the common assumption that enlightenment is an exceptional achievement that takes hundreds and thousands if not millions of rebirths to achieve. One finds this assertion repeated endlessly in the popular Buddhist literature. We have already alluded to the plentiful evidence, alluded to all through the Pali Canon, of householders achieving awakening, and even final emancipation, after a brief period.

The orthodox Therawadin interpretation of this fact is these were individuals who were associated with the Buddha in past lives. They were already advanced practitioners on the verge of awakening. Perhaps, but this quotation suggests this is not the whole explanation. The implication is clear. Establishing oneself in the four foundations of mindfulness leads to awakening at least after no more than seven years, but may result in awakening, and even final emancipation, almost immediately, if the karmic conditions are suitable.

There are examples in the canon of householders achieving final enlightenment within five days of “going forth.” The passage quoted is clear. Awakening is not the exclusive prerogative of a special elect of reborn prior associates of the Buddha. To repeat, “[i]f anyone [italics added] should establish these four establishments of mindfulness in such a way for seven days, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or if there is a trace of clinging left, nonreturning.”

Ananda’s Riddle

Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant, presents a riddle to the Buddha. This is a rare instance of an actual riddle in the Pali Canon. Of course, riddles became a popular pastime in certain sects of Zen Buddhism, the so-called koan.[3] In any case, the riddle is: Is there one thing that, when developed and cultivated, fulfills four things? And four things that, when developed and cultivated, fulfill seven things? And seven things that, when developed and cultivated, fulfil two things? It is curious that Ananda presents this riddle to the Buddha, and not the other way around.

The Buddha’s answer is that concentration by mindfulness of breathing is the one thing that, when developed and cultivated, fulfils the four establishments of mindfulness – body, feelings, mind, and phenomena. The four establishments of mindfulness, when developed and cultivated, fulfil the seven factors of enlightenment – mindfulness, discrimination, rapture, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. The seven factors of enlightenment, when developed and cultivated, fulfil true knowledge and liberation. Wisdom and emancipation are set against each other as co-determining factors, similar to the co-determination of consciousness and namarupa in the paticchasamuppada. The pre-eminent importance of wisdom in the realization of emancipation is emphasized.

The sequence 1, 2, 4, 7 is the first four numbers in a mathematical pattern called the lazy caterer’s sequence. More formally known as the central polygonal numbers, it describes the maximum number of pieces of a circle that can be made with a given number of straight cuts. It is interesting the one thing in the sequence is not the goal, but rather the means, mindfulness of breathing.

Mindfulness of breathing is the quintessential technique. Specifically prescribed for restlessness, Bodhi notes that the Nikayas recognize mindfulness of breathing as a technique of fundamental importance. The importance of the breath meditation is due to the pan-Indian association of the breath with the soul. Even though the Buddha repudiated the theological doctrine of a soul, he emphasizes the breathing meditation technique itself.

The Buddha declares that mindfulness of breathing is the essential meditation by which he attained enlightenment. Even after attaining enlightenment, during his 45-year teaching career, the Buddha continued to practise mindfulness of breathing in retreat. He uniquely refers to this technique as “the Tathagata’s dwelling.” It is significant that the Buddha continues this practice, even after becoming a perfected being. The development of mindfulness of breathing underlies all four establishments of mindfulness. It constitutes the universal underlying technique leading to the seven factors of enlightenment and thence to wisdom and emancipation itself.

The 31 planes of existence are also levels or stages of realization. There is no ultimate distinction in Buddhism between macrocosm and microcosm, the universal and the individual, ontology and psychology, reality and mind. The three realms of reality are referred to as the worlds of desire, form, and formless mind.

The form world is divided into four sets of three worlds and five Pure Abodes. These worlds are superseded by the four formless worlds. The form and formless worlds correspond to the four meditative states (the jhānas), followed by the realization of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and neither perception nor non-perception. Sometimes these are called the formless jhanas. Altogether, there are eight successive stages of realization.

The Bodhisatta achieved the realization of the state of nothingness under his first teacher, Alara Kalama. He realized neither perception nor non-perception under his second teacher, Uddaka. Although the jhanas are associated with the final step of the Supermundane Eightfold Path, Perfect Concentration, lay people are able to attain the jhanas. Thus, the Eightfold Path is not the prerogative of monastics.

The four jhanas are always referred to by number. The first jhana is the lowest. The first jhana corresponds to Mahabrahma with his minsters and retinue, a kind of divine kingdom. The king of this kingdom is Great Brahma. Great Brahma is a dewa originally from the next highest level who has been reborn in the brahma worlds due to loss of merit. Devolution is the fate that befalls all dewas. Some, perhaps most, human beings may have been dewas in previous lives.

One may simply regard Great Brahma as God. He is famous for his delusion that he is the creator of the universe. This idea is similar to the Gnostic view of Yahweh, the god of the Jews. The attainment of the first jhana is essentially equivalent to the Judaeo-Christian goal of reaching “heaven.” Residents of the Brahma realms are able to enter into our realm and interact with us. They are said to have visited and spoken with the Buddha at night. Communicating with dewas during long periods of seclusion is common in the Tibetan tradition.

The second jhana corresponds to three worlds of radiance.

The third jhana corresponds to three worlds of glory.

The worlds beyond the jhanas are split into two infinities, infinite space and infinite consciousness; nothingness; and the trans-dual. These are the Four Formless Worlds, consisting only of mind. This structure suggests the Cabalistic conception of Ein, nothingness; Ein Sof, limitlessness or infinite space; and Ein Sof Ohr, limitless light, followed by ten worlds of being (the sephirot). This diagram is called the Tree of Life (Etz Chaim). It is the fundamental ontological structure of the Jewish mysticism called Cabala. Modern Jews do not accept Cabala as Jewish any more than Christians accept Gnosticism or Muslims accept Sufism.

The first jhana is attained by withdrawing from sensual pleasures and unwholesome states. This state is still cognitive, combined with the rapture and happiness born of seclusion.

With further practice, the cognitive aspect of the first jhana disappears. It is characterized by the arising of confidence and unification of mind without cognition, and the rapture and happiness born of concentration. This is the second jhana.

With further practice, the quality of rapture disappears. Equanimity, mindfulness, and clear comprehension arise, accompanied by happiness in the body. This is the third jhana.

With further practice, pleasure and pain (i.e., of the body) and joy and displeasure disappear. This is characterized by the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is the fourth jhana.

With further practice, the perception of form, sensation, and diversity completely disappear. One enters into the realization of Infinite Space.  This is the first of the four formless worlds.

With further practice, the realization of the infinity of space disappears. One realizes that consciousness is infinite. This is the second of the four formless worlds.

With further practice, the realization of the infinity of consciousness disappears. One becomes aware there is nothing. This is the third of the four formless worlds.

Finally, with further practice, the realization of nothingness disappears. One enters a trans-dual state of neither perception nor non-perception. This is the fourth of the four formless worlds sand the highest samsaric state.

None of these states is identical with complete emancipation. Emancipation is beyond all of them.

[1] The Gnostic Society Library, The Gospel of Thomas Collection,  Logion 2,

[2] The Pali Canon refers explicitly to the creation of a “mental body,” commonly called the “projection of the astral body” or “lucid dreaming.” Most of these “psychic powers” can be experienced in an advanced dream or psychedelic state, to which they may refer.

[3] The koan may be regarded as a variation of the “pointing out” instruction in Dzogchen.