Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Shameless self-promotion

My book, The Attentive Mind Workbook:  Self-healing through Meditation, provides a complete introduction to meditation in the vipassana or insight tradition with a focus on dealing with mental suffering.  The book can be obtained from my website:  (attentivemind.ca/book) from Caversham Booksellers in Toronto (cavershambooksellers.com), or from major online booksellers (amazon.cabarnesandnoble.com, etc.).

The householder's path

In many religions, there is a distinction between the those who turn away from the world, the renunciate (monks and nuns), and the householder or layperson who remains very much in the world.  The renunciate is usually celibate and has few if any possessions, sometimes living in a community of fellow renunciates or living a solitary life in a hermitage or even a cave.  Often the renunciate depends on his community or laypeople for the necessities of life.  The householder typically has a family and possessions and works for a living.  Whereas the renunciate is devoted to praying, meditating and doing good works, the householder has many responsibilities for maintaining the "household" whatever it consists of.  In spiritual terms, the advantage of the life of the renunciate is the freedom to concentrate on reflection, study, meditation and other devotional activities.  The advantage of the life of the householder is having the opportunity to experience the simple pleasures of life, including the joys of family life, conjugal satisfaction and the enjoyment of other sensory pleasures (in moderation, of course).  The opportunity to practice meditation was open to the householder on a daily basis and during meditation retreats lasting a few days to months to years when they could practice in the manner of a renunciate.

The Buddha did not disparage the householder's path.  In fact, there are several examples in the scriptures of laypersons who achieved various stages of enlightenment including the full enlightenment of the arahant.  

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Opening to insight: Dukkha and suffering

The Pali term dukkha is frequently translated as "suffering."  However, many translators prefer the term "unsatisfactory."  But it appears that context may be very relevant to which translation is most appropriate.

The three marks of existence are impermanence (anicca), suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and non-self (anatta).  Everything is impermanent, and this is unsatisfactory.  No matter what we do, no matter how enlightened we may become, this characteristic of the impermanence of conditioned existence does not disappear.  Suffering is another matter.  This is evident by an examination of the Four Noble Truths.

The first noble truth is as follows:
"This is the noble truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha."

"Suffering" as a translation for dukkha seems to work here.  The second noble truth indicates that craving is the origin of dukkha.  Again, "suffering" as a translation for dukkha works.  We suffer in so far as we have craving for essentially anything that has to do with conditioned existence.  The third noble truths tell us that there is the possibility of the cessation of dukkha.  The fourth noble truth tells us that the path to the cessation of dukkha is the Noble Eightfold Path.  "Suffering" as a translation works well in these contexts.  However, while the suffering of an arahant, an enlightened one, may cease, the unsatisfactory characteristic of conditioned existence does not.  The difference is that the arahant, who is no longer subject to craving, need not suffer because of it.

I am not a Pali scholar and so must rely on the expertise of others.  As many Pali scholar's have argued, there is no satisfactory English equivalent for the word dukkha.  Translating it as "suffering" works in some contexts but not in others as does translating it as "unsatisfactory."

This is not a semantic quibble but affects how we think of what we are doing when we are meditating and following a spiritual path.  It is pessimistic and not reflective of the Buddhist view to say that suffering is a mark of existence and, by implication, inescapable.  It is more accurate to say that conditioned existence is unsatisfactory but that we need not cling to what is impermanent and be subject to craving; by following the path, we can escape suffering.

Opening to insight: The Foundations of Mindfulness

The Satipathana Sutta (translated as The Foundations of Mindfulness) provides instructions on different ways to meditate.  There are four references for establishing mindfulness:  body, feeling, consciousness and mental objects.  The most often quoted portion of the sutta is as follows:

"Here, bhikkhus [monks] , a bhikkhu lives contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending (it) and mindful (of it), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating the feelings in the feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending (them) and mindful (of them), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness, ardent, clearly comprehending (it) and mindful (of it), having overcome in this world covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects, ardent, clearly comprehending (them) and mindful (of them), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief."

A focus on breathing while meditating is a form of body contemplation.  The Mahasi technique is body focused.  One observes the rising and falling of the abdomen, noting other objects as they arise, and then returning to the rising and falling as the default object.  A focus on feeling involves being mindful of feeling tones associated with sensations: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings.  Contemplating consciousness involves being mindful of various mental states such as greed or lust, hate or aversion and delusion or ignorance.  The focus of meditation in contemplation of mental objects can be essentially anything but as seen through categories associated with Buddhist teachings such as the five hindrances, five aggregates and the six sense-bases.

Opening to insight: The five hindrances

The five hindrances are obstacles in meditation and in life.  They are manifestations of the three root defilements--greed, hate and delusion.

The five hindrances are sense desire, ill will; sloth and topor; restlessness, worry and remorse; and doubt.  The first two hindrances, sense desire and ill will, represent the forces of attraction and aversion that we can have towards sense objects and are manifestations of the defilements of greed and anger.  They are the strongest of the hindrances.  The other three hindrances are manifestations of delusion, usually in association with other defilements (Bodhi, 2010).  Although less toxic than the first two hindrances, they too obstruct meditative progress.  Restlessness, worry and remorse disquiet the mind and distract us.  Sloth and topor drain our energy and doubts saps our confidence in what we are doing.

In traditional explanations of these hindrances, the simile is employed of the mind being like water.  When sense desire dominates, the mind is like water that is dyed with many bright and alluring colors.  When ill will dominates, the mind is like boiling water.  When restlessness, worry and remorse dominate, the mind is like water churned up by the wind.  When sloth and torpor dominate, the mind is like a stagnant pond choked with weeds and algae.  When doubt dominates, the mind is like muddy water.  For each of the hindrances, the water is disturbed and it is not possible to see clearly through it.