Archive for November, 2009

It is quite easy to mistake the Buddha’s encouragement to lead a virtuous and moral life with the call to blindly adhere to a religious codex or engulf into some form of social trend setting crusade.

Nothing could be further from the experiential truth 🙂 and the pragmatic path of removing the burden – which is exactly where awakening leads us to. When the Buddha spoke about the “(virtuous) habit” (lit. meaning of sila)  what  it seems that he had in mind was again a very personal experience which everyone who listened to him would be able to replicate. Sila was not  supposed to be an intellectual exercise nor a meaningless religious ceremony either.

This is the important part: Done properly, a virtuous habit develops a power of its own. A tangible power of purity which you can feel yourself – as if you can almost touch it.

Please take a moment and think about that. And take yet another…

Did you ever “feel” virtue?

Now, the question would be: Can someone “feel” virtue? But our answer must be “yes” in the same way as we can feel “metta”! In terms of metta we usually know about the benefits of being friendly to our friends, family and neighbours. But what about the benefits of some experiencing and “tasting” purity? What does purity stand for? Isn’t it a gauge about the strength of concentration and wisdom in terms of body and speech? But rather than listing gazillion of quotations where the Buddha praised various forms of virtue, I’d rather invite you to an experiment (see below).

This is the background: Because, in a very similar manner as we can supercharge our meditation practice by moving it into all four postures we can improve our entire life if we understood what the Buddha really implied when he spoke so highly about the five trainings rules of virtuous conduct. The training of re-enforcing positive decisions is truly a powerful tool on the path to Nibbana. A true preliminary to any meditation effort!

If we think in theistic/religious terms (and for most people that’s about the same thing), however,  then we might regard the precepts formulated by the Buddha as mere “rules”, “regulations”, “lip service”. We might simply view them as a garment, which many teachers recommend to us but they are not as “fascinating” as “studying” the Dhamma or “doing meditation” – yes, they almost appear in the eyes of mainstream Buddhism as least import (though the Buddha let his path start with sila).

But sila, practiced correctly, can develop an almost magical power. Something almost devine (i.e. < deva) and beautiful. Below you will find a simple exercise for you to try out and experience for yourself  how the simple but repeated practice of sila could be understood as an entrance towards the path of  jhanic joy.

The experiment.

It is an odd phenomenon, that if we put our mind to something – and stick with it – that the amount of success seems directly correlated to the amount of perseverance we were willing to come up with. Really odd 🙂

The stronger the perseverance the more astonishing the results. Whilst most of us take this for more or less granted as some kind rule/wisdom of life, an even greater advantage can be gained if we use this power of determination for our mental development. This is at the core: When the mind (messing with life all the time) suddenly gets narrowed down and focused, amazing things seem to happen.

And this is how the exercise goes:

Every morning, immediately after getting up, make a mental note of all the five precepts. Go through them, one by one, but with full attention and awareness. Do NOT let this become a ritual – so you will have to rephrase them in your own words – which might be different from one day to the other. Just make sure that you do a determination, using the power of determinations (adhiṭṭhāna). At the same time, do not spend too long on this. Just make it a quick but precise walk through.

Then, every night, right before you fall asleep, rehearse those five precepts. Go through them one by one and ask yourself: Did I keep the first precept, did I take any life?” etc.

Now, it is important to listen to yourself, when you do the nightly reflection. Do not fall into self-pity, remorse, regret, guilt etc. This is like a meditation training. You know that it does not help (quite the opposite!) if you feel guilty that you lost your concentration. Your concentration will then be gone even longer :-). So just renew your effort and keep going. **

Fast forward: After a couple of days you will see some astonishing things occur. First of all, during the day, your mind will remind you once you get close to the border of crossing/breaking on of your training rules. This is no problem, as it is good to see and experience how that feels and how the mind reacts when that happens.

But, in case you succeed, then you will almost feel a rush – this feeling of success when (especially facing obstacle) one is able to pull through and keep a promise / follow a set determination almost seems to supercharge the mind. Its ability, desire, strength to act accordingly in the next repetition of that obstacle will be stronger, even more powerful. *

So, in the same way as you tend to a seedling, if you are careful about your five precepts, you can see and feel how this particular tandem of powers: determination and bodily and vocal purity gets stronger by each day you implement them.

My guess is, that after about one to two weeks you too will be able to feel this amazing inner strength which comes from practicing the sila.

Now imagine, you would not have built your meditation practice on this foundation. What a missed opportunity that would be 🙂


* It is interesting to observe, that the Buddha formulated his “precepts” as five training rules (sikkha-pada). Whenever he gave his disciples a task to elevate their behavior he used a stock phrase with the verb “sikkhati” (sikkhitabbam) which was employed in the following way: ” i will do XYZ” iti, evam … sikkhitabbam” which could be translated as: thinking/determining : “I will do XYZ” (so), in this way … you have to train yourself.

Just three random examples:

Tasmātiha, sāriputta evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ  ‘paccavekkhitvā paccavekkhitvā piṇḍapātaṃ parisodhessāmā’ti – evañhi vo, sāriputta, sikkhitabba’’nti.

And therefore, o Sariputta, thus you have to train: “Having reflected over and over [on the proper motivation after receiving alsm] we will purify our almsround”  thus namely you, o Sariputta, have to train youself.  [=>applied to a form of sila]

Tatrāpi te, phagguna, evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ ‘na ceva me cittaṃ vipariṇataṃ bhavissati, na ca pāpikaṃ vācaṃ nicchāressāmi, hitānukampī ca viharissāmi mettacitto, na dosantaro’ti.

And then you, Phagguna, have to train yourself: “Not will my mind be affected (changing), and not will I express myself in bad speech, I will dwell with compassion and a mind of friendliness, no illwill inside of me.” [=> applied to a form of samatha]

‘‘Tasmātiha te, gahapati, evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ – ‘na cakkhuṃ upādiyissāmi, na ca me cakkhunissitaṃ viññāṇaṃ bhavissatī’ti.

Therefore, householder, you have to train yourself: “I will not take up sight, and not will I have any (re-)cognition based on sight.” [=> applied to a form of vipassana]

We can see the close relationship between a training in determination, precursor to mental training as such, and again the utilization of “iti” as implying some form of mental note/marker to direct (keep) and/or renew the minds attention to a certain object. So at this point, one could argue that the Buddha encourages using mental determinations for all three facets of the path: sila (“i will train myself thus”), samadhi (“light, light”) and wisdom (“this is not myself”).

** Similar exercises are used in various Buddhist traditions. One example here.

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Bhikkhuni Ordination

ajahn21Regarding the current Bhikkhuni ordination excitement in Ajahn Chah’s Sangha and the resulting “excommunication”  (LOL) of Bhikkhu Brahmavamsa, the following Dhammapada verse came to mind:

Other’s faults are easy to see
yet hard it is to see one’s own,
and so one winnows just like chaff
the faults of other people, while
hiding away those of one’s own
as crafty cheat the losing throw. Dhp. 252

When such a great number of contemporary monks show such a plain disregard for even the most basic precepts (think 10 sīla etc…), it seems almost like a joke that they would so vehemently oppose Bhikkhuni ordination pointing towards the Vinaya and tradition.

Personally, I yet have to meet any dedicated practicing monk who was absolutely against reinstating the Bhikkhuni ordination. Never met anyone who would dispute the Buddha’s decision to allow women to enter the order and find a spiritual home.

BTW, as Bhikkhu Bodhi made the case, legally it should be no problem at all – and practically speaking: The Ayya Khema tradition in Germany and several other female meditation centers in Sri Lanka perform Bhikkhuni ordinations for more than 10, 20 years now.

However, now that the Bhikkhunī Sangha has been reconstituted in Sri Lanka,
there is no longer any justification for using ordination by a Sangha composed solely of bhikkhus. If any woman wants to receive bhikkhunī ordination in the Theravāda tradition, she should receive training as a sikkhamānā and eventual bhikkhunī ordination in Sri Lanka itself. No doubt, in time the opportunity for bhikkhunī ordination will also spread to the West. [link]

My biggest wish would be that we do not just see women in robes or Bhikkhuni titles on conference papers but Arahant nuns,

very much like these:

Four times, five, I ran amok from my dwelling,
having gained no peace of awareness,
my thoughts out of control.
So I went to a trustworthy nun.
She taught me the Dhamma:
aggregates, sense spheres, & elements.
Hearing the Dhamma,
I did as she said.
For seven days I sat in one spot,
absorbed in rapture & bliss.
On the eighth, I stretched out my legs,
having burst the mass
of darkness.        Uttama Therī, [Thig.3.2]

On the topic: Bodhi Aranya

>>Invitation to Meditate<<

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The triangulation of Samādhi

Sometimes, when we study literature about Buddhist meditation, it can seem very technical and … almost artificial. One of the great benefits of having such a structured and methodical approach to mental cultivation can become a hindrance on the path- exactly at the point where we lose sight of the fact that whatever we do study, learn and discuss was born out of someone’s meditation practice f o r   t h e   s o l e  purpose of getting us exactly there: a step ahead in our own meditation practice.*

Take for example the so called “5 factors” of  jhāna (or dhyāna or Chan or ZEN) meditation. While the Theravada tradition has  c o n s e r v e d  the Buddha’s early recognition of certain mental or psychological changes occurring when one endeavours into deeper states of concentration it is false to believe that jhāna or concentration meditation is something like a gearbox with five wheels. Even if commentaries and scholastic books sometimes evoke that picture, the process of concentration is something much more fuzzy but (unlike a blueprint in a book) something real! **

The Buddha was a master in the art of observation. As such, it was easy for him to expound his insights in new terms and similes in order to guide his disciples (forest hermits, monastery monks and lay people alike) to the same experiences.

However, quite in contrast to the scholasticism and mental proliferation which the “Buddhist philosophy” very soon after his demise was struck with (think ‘Abhidhamma’ and the natural human tendency to roam in thoughts***) the Buddha himself was quite emancipated from his own concepts.

After all, he being freed from the confinements of names and forms did not mistake signs for “real things”.

And so, to come back from our initial observation about the four jhāna, it is no wonder, that we find a healthy variety of descriptions, by the Buddha himself, for the deeper states of concentration.

In the following few examples we can peek back through time and picture a lively meditation tradition, from whichexperiential insights and experiences shaped the concepts and ideas of centuries of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy to come.

For the current day meditator it might be beneficial as well to see, how the various definitions given by the Buddha about the same deep concentration states allow a certain “triangulation”: Seeing the Buddha as a meditation teacher with alternate descriptions on samādhi might help us to gain confidence about our own experiences and findings. Some descriptions might fit our experience closer than others. We only need a couple of matches to take a step back and suddenly see our own path match the Buddha’s path.

Exhibit A – The most frequent definition:

Just a link. Please read here if you are not familiar with the standard definition of the Jhānas.

Exhibit B – What keeps you away from deeper concentration states (Moggallāna-Saṃyutta):

kāmasahagatā saññāmanasikārā samudācaranti. … vitakkasahagatā saññāmanasikārā samudācaranti. … pītisahagatā saññāmanasikārā samudācaranti … sukhasahagatā saññāmanasikārā samudācaranti.

On the way to the first jhāna Ven. Moggallāna had “encountered perceptions and attention of things related to the sensual pleasures”. Then, in the first jhana on his way to the second jhana, he encountered “perception and attention of thought related” things. Eventually it was bliss which disturbed him and finally even the attention towards happiness (sukha) was keeping him back from moving on.

Exhibit C, the Buddha on the jhanas in a verse (from Snip, v. 1112-3)

‘‘Pahānaṃ kāmacchandānaṃ, domanassāna cūbhayaṃ;

Thinassa ca panūdanaṃ, kukkuccānaṃ nivāraṇaṃ.

‘‘Upekkhāsatisaṃsuddhaṃ, dhammatakkapurejavaṃ;

Aññāvimokkhaṃ pabrūmi, avijjāya pabhedanaṃ’’

The giving up of desire for sensual pleasures as well as giving up melancholy

The removal of tiredness, and the removal of the hindrance of worrying

The cleaning of equanimity and witnessing/mindfulness, the putting a Dhamma-thought as a for-runner

(This) I proclaim the realization of freedom, the destruction of delusion.

(This, BTW, was the entire Buddhist training path in 4 verses 🙂 – there are summaries of the Tipitaka, after all and the Buddha came up with the most precise ones…

And here the next free-style reference on the jhānas, this time from the Nidāna-Saṃyutta:

saddhūpanisaṃ pāmojjaṃ, pāmojjūpanisā pīti, pītūpanisā passaddhi, passaddhūpanisaṃ sukhaṃ, sukhūpaniso samādhi, samādhūpanisaṃ yathābhūtañāṇadassanaṃ, yathābhūtañāṇadassanūpanisā nibbidā, nibbidūpaniso virāgo, virāgūpanisā vimutti…

Based on trust is confidence. Based on confidence is bliss. Based on bliss is stilling. Based on stilling is happiness. Based on happiness is absorption. Based on absorption is seeing and knowing as it has become. Based on seeing and knowing as it has become is weariness. Based on weariness is  disenchantment. Based on disenchantment is freedom.

By now it is easy to see the pattern: On the one end is kāma or desire for sensual pleasures. On the other end of the scale is samādhi,  upekkha – a clear (samsuddha) calm observing (upekkha) and alert mind.

We have a period of kāma (normal life), then refined vitakka (a mental topic you apply yourself too, your meditative theme). After that we encounter first pīta some blissful experience followed by sukha (a deeper happiness) culminating in deep neutral observing concentration.

At this point, you are might want to look for dozens of more very interesting references. Just fire up your CST4 and type in the following search string:

pīti* sukha* samādhi*


But, lets get practical, shall we?

First, pick your favorite meditation theme, for instance a simple personal thought of loving kindness: “may all beings be well and happy”. Next, stick to this meditation topic, don’t change it every day or week.

Next, commit yourself to that single, simple mental thought of focus and try to glide on it, like a bird in the sky would on a current of rising warm air.

Finally, check your progress against some of the way pointers given by the Buddha above, triangulate yourself 🙂 or just send me an email, 🙂

Idaṃ vuccati nekkhammasukhaṃ pavivekasukhaṃ upasamasukhaṃ sambodhasukhaṃ, āsevitabbaṃ, bhāvetabbaṃ, bahulīkātabbaṃ; ‘na bhāyitabbaṃ etassa sukhassā’ti vadāmi. MN 66

This is called a happiness of renunciation, a happiness of solitude, a happiness of peace, a happiness of awakening. It has to be practiced, it has to be developed, it needs to be repeated frequently. “Do not fear this happiness”, I say. MN66


* see Snip, v. 331, (one of my favorites):

Viññātasārāni subhāsitāni, sutañca viññātasamādhisāraṃ;
Na tassa paññā ca sutañca vaḍḍhati, yo sāhaso hoti naro pamatto.
Well spoken words have understanding as their essence
And what you heard and understood – it all has concentration as its essence.
But neither knowing nor learning grow,
For that man who is superficial and negligent.

** It more likely resembles the cultivation (bhāvanā) of a seedling or the flight of an eagle.

*** Snip once more, v. 1115 – “Nandisaṃyojano loko, vitakkassa vicāraṇaṃ” – (Sense) delight is the world bondage, and  thought is its roaming around.

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