We have been talking about the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path and have come to the last three. To briefly summarise, the first five are:
- Right View at the preliminary stage is the belief in the Law of Kamma
- Right Thought is connected with renunciation (from sensual pleasures), non-ill will and harmlessness.
- Right Speech is that of refraining from telling lies, instigation, vulgar speech and useless chatter.
- Right Action is refraining from killing, stealing and sensual misconduct.
- Right Livelihood is making a living without harming oneself or other living beings.
We now go on with the last three.
Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration
These last three are the factors and are related to meditation. Nevertheless they each can still be split into two levels, i.e. one which is applied in everyday life and the other applied during meditation.
There are four aspects to this:
- Effort to prevent akusala states of mind from arising — To achieve this one makes use of substitution, i.e. promote wholesome states of mind in order to prevent unwholesome states from arising
- Effort to cut off akusala states of mind that have arisen — If unwholesome states such as envy has arisen, one should practise mudita. Thus, although it is in the nature of people to feel anger towards an enemy and rejoice in his misfortunes, one should do the opposite instead and say ‘sadhu’ in the heart for his enemy’s good fortunes
- Effort to foster kusala states of mind — Actively cultivate wholesome mind states such as feelings of generosity, loving-kindness, patience, forgiveness
- Effort to nurture kusala states of mind that have arisen — Whenever a wholesome state of mind is present, one should do what one can to nurture it. However, one should exercise wisdom and know when to offer assistance and when to decline or postpone. For example, one should not offer assistance at the expense of one’s health, work responsibilities or family priorities.
At the level of meditation, one makes the effort to be aware of kusala and akusala mind states that arise. Not everyone has the time for meditation but with perseverance, one can make time for it and even a little time is better than none at all.
In the suttas, this is expounded in connection with the four foundations of mindfulness, i.e. contemplation of body, feelings, mind and mental objects.
- Contemplation of the body — We note all bodily actions such as walking, talking, washing dishes and so on — not only the in-breath and out-breath or rising and falling of the abdomen. There is nothing that cannot be noted.
- Contemplation of feelings — Feelings can be good, bad or neutral. During meditation, one can watch and note these feelings. At the everyday level when relating to others, one also experiences happy and unhappy attitudes. However, the one who meditates is better able to control the mind and be aware of such feelings when they arise. Thus this is a direct benefit of meditation. Some people have told me that after attending a 10-day retreat they become more patient and considerate and thus have improved work and family relationships.
- Contemplation of the mind — if one is able to note the mind then one can control it and not the other way around. Greed, anger and delusion if uncontrolled can bring harm to oneself and to others.
- Contemplation of mental objects — There are many aspects to this. One aspect relates to the five hindrances. If these become obsessive in one, then one can break one’s precepts in order to satisfy one’s desires. If one is angry and is aware of it, then one can direct one’s attention to the anger and replace the anger with metta. Unwholesome states of mind are conditioned by what one sees, hears, etc. and that is how defilements arise. If one is aware of the root of the defilement, then one can control oneself better. Meditation helps one to be aware of and note such mind states and to let go.
This refers to the jhanas of which there are four levels. Some yogis believe that one must attain the fourth level in order to become an arahant. I’m at present doing some research into this. In the suttas, the Buddha talks about the jhanas, but there seems to be no mention of a specific object that the mind is focussed on during jhana. There are references only to the characteristics of one’s state of mind and feelings during the jhanic experience.
In the Majjhima Nikaya there is a sutta, the Mahavedalla Sutta, which tells of a Q & A session between Ven Sariputta and Mahakotthika, one who has attained the fourth level of jhana. The latter asked, “What is jhana?”.
Ven Sariputta replied that when one attains the first jhana, one discards five things and obtains five other things.
One discards the five hindrances:
- Sensual desire
- Sloth and torpor
- Restlessness and remorse
- Vitaka — initial thinking
- Vicara — discursive thinking
- Piti — intense interest
- Sukha — happiness
- Ekaggata — one-pointedness of mind
In short, the scriptures describe the states of mind present in one during jhana, but does not specify the mind object. Let us now examine the issue.
When Right Concentration is present, is it vipassana jhana or samatha jhana?
Some vipassana teachers say that jhana can mean vipassana jhana, because in vipassana meditation, one can also overcome the five hindrances and the various jhana factors are also present. This is logical because one can be enlightened while listening to a dhamma talk. One is not in jhana at this time.
The Buddha, when he gives dhamma talks, does so in stages. He begins with dana and sila then talks about how this can lead one to the heavenly planes where one is happy but is still subject to the suffering of old age and death. Then he speaks of the disadvantages of sensual pleasures and the benefits of renunciation. When he sees, with his psychic power, that a person is free of the five hindrances and is ready to accept the Four Noble Truths, then only will the Buddha expound this. The person listening to the talk will then understand and obtain the “dhamma-eye”, which we are told means the first stage of enlightenment or sotapattimagga.
Cycle of Wisdom
The Path is thus a cyclical one. One begins with primary wisdom after learning about and practising the first five factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. He is inspired to practise and thus gains experiential knowledge when he obtains the last three factors of Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration. With this he is then able to better understand and improve his practice of the first five factors of Right View, Thought, Speech and Action.