The Buddha’s Teachings on Mindfulness
By Gil Fronsdal
What should be done for his disciples out of compassion by a Teacher who seeks their welfare and has compassion for them, that I have done for you, Ānanda. There are these roots of trees, these empty huts. Meditate, Ānānda, do not delay, or else you will regret it later. This is my instruction to you. (MN 152.18)
The image that most universally represents Buddhism is that of the Buddha meditating. Without the Buddha’s awakening, there would be no Buddhism, and without meditation, there would be no awakening. Even as an awakened being, the Buddha is often depicted as spending a good portion of his days in meditation, i.e., doing the “day’s abiding” (e.g. MN 119.2). Eleven discourses report that his monastic disciples also spent the day meditating, waiting until the evening to visit the Buddha or other monks (e.g. MN 62).
The Middle Length Discourses seems to have a greater focus on meditation than any of the other four primary nikāyas (collections of suttas). The collection contains some of the most important and complete meditation instructions in the Pāli canon. Among the best known and most influential are the “Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness” (MN 10) and the “Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing” (MN 118).
One of the words most words closely connected to the Buddha’s meditation is sati, which is usually translated as “mindfulness.” But it may not be the best choice; the modern Western meanings of “mindfulness” may not be a good match for how sati is used in the suttas. In the following discussion, I will begin by avoiding using “mindfulness” and instead relying on the Pali word sati so we can better look at its meaning in a fresh way.
In the Middle Length Discourses the concept of sati is used in two broad, overlapping ways: the mental faculty of sati, and the practice of sati. The distinct role in the course of meditation of these two aspects of sati is often obscured because it is easy to conflate them.
The Mental Faculty of Sati
As a mental faculty, sati is one of the five mental faculties, or indriyas. Literally meaning “belonging to Indra,” the ruler of the Vedic gods, indriya is used in the Middle Length Discourses to refer to various human capacities that, like Indra, have some power over their sphere of influence. The five mental faculties are faith, energy, sati, concentration, and wisdom (MN 26.15).
To begin to understand the faculty of sati, it is useful to know that as a cognate of the verb sarati, meaning ‘to remember’, sati is associated with memory. What remembering and mindfulness have in common is the mental activity of holding something in awareness. This is most explicit in such passages as:
[One] possesses the highest sati and skill; [one] recalls and recollects what was done long ago and spoken long ago (MN 53.16).
In the note to this passage Bhikkhus Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi explain the relationship between mindfulness and memory by stating that “keen attentiveness to the present forms the basis for an accurate memory of the past” (n. 560). This is illustrated in the Buddha’s recollection (anu-[s]-sati) of his past lives while in a meditative state (MN 4.27) where sati involves ‘bringing to mind’ what happened long ago.
As is true with many terms, the discourses do not provide a detailed definition or explanation for the faculty of sati. Therefore to understand what this faculty is we have to rely on how the word is used in the suttas.
Overall the discourses give the impression that sati is an important faculty that a person possesses but not a mental activity a person intentionally engages in. the word sati, by itself, is rarely used with verbs that describe an intentional mental activity. Rather, sati is described as a state or faculty that one has or that is present in some way:
- One ‘possesses’ (samannāgata) sati (MN 27.17)
- One is ‘endowed’ with sati (satīmata; MN 56.29)
- One has ‘purity’ (pārisuddhi) of sati (MN 59.10)
- One is ‘established’ (upaṭṭhita) in sati (MN 4.17)
- One ‘abides’ (viharati) in sati (MN 38.30)
In the first three of these statements sati is something one has. In the last two it is a state within which one is. Nowhere in the text does the Buddha specifically instruct others to actively apply or do sati. However, there is a passage where the Buddha says he “arouses sati” in his monastic disciples (MN 21.7). While this may mean he instructs them to do sati, it could also mean that he evokes a state of sati in them.
Overall the discourses give the impression that sati is an important faculty that a person possesses but is not a mental activity a person intentionally engages in. In this sense the faculty of sati may be similar to the faculty of faith: while one can have faith and one can develop faith, faith is not something one does. The words sati and saddhā (faith) are both nouns referring to faculties one possesses or can be established in, not an activity one actively practices.
So when the Buddha instructs monastics to make effort to develop sati or to evaluate whether it is developed in them (MN 151.12), he is not telling them to engage in the activity of sati, rather he is telling them to engage in activities that strengthen the faculty of sati. This is why the Buddha explains the development of sati through activities other than sati itself. In other words sati is a result of other practices. This is most clearly evident in those passages where the Buddha first provides a list of practices to do and then explains that those practices are conducive to having sati (MN 107.3-11).
Given that the most common usage of the word sati is in the descriptions of the third and fourth jhāna, advanced states of meditative absorption, to understand what sati might be we also need to understand it in this context. In neither of these two meditative states is a person actively doing or applying mindfulness. Instead, sati is simply present.
Because of this, a better translation for sati than “mindfulness” might be “awareness”—a word I associate with a state of receptive attentiveness not requiring self-conscious effort. In this sense, “awareness” generally fits the various ways sati is used in the suttas better than does “mindfulness.” This also means that traditionally sati had a different meaning than how mindfulness is usually taught today, when it is used more as an active practice of directed attention; for example, when one chooses to be mindful of something or when one actively recognizes that which one is aware.
The overall impression from the suttas is that the faculty of sati as a capacity for being aware is an important mental state that is evoked or developed through particular practices. Because they set up or establish awareness, these practices can be called “practices of sati,” “awareness practices,” or “practices for establishing awareness.”
The Practice of Sati
If we look at the teachings of the Buddha, we see that the practice of sati involves more than the particular faculty of sati; it includes a combination of practices and faculties.
The distinction between the faculty of sati and practice of sati can be illustrated with an analogy. Someone who has the ability to walk may walk in many different ways. One way might be to train to go for a long hike, in which case the person’s practice of walking develops his or her faculty of walking: one’s ability to walk improves. The person’s walking practice may vary in frequency and intensity; it may involve walking fast and far enough to build stamina and strength. It may involve choosing to alternate between walking in hills and walking on flat land. In a similar way we have the ability to be aware. Particular forms of practice that involve more than simply being aware can strengthen this ability. This can include frequent and ardent attentional exercises, actively letting go of thoughts that obscure present moment awareness, and choosing helpful areas of life to focus attention.
The practice of Right Sati, the seventh factor in the Eightfold Path, is described accordingly:
What, friends, is right mindfulness? Here a monk abides contemplating the body as body, ardent, fully aware and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. He abides contemplating feelings as feelings, ardent, fully aware and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. He abides contemplating mind states as mind states, ardent fully aware and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. He abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects, ardent, fully aware and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. (MN 141.30)
Here sati practice involves contemplating four particular areas of experience, the body, feelings, mind states, and mind-objects. Second, it includes being ardent, fully aware and mindful. Third, it requires having “put away covetousness and grief for the world.”
In this quote, which is my translation, the word “awareness” serves as the translation of sati. Most English translations of this passage render sati as “mindfulness.” Regardless of how it is translated, the word is used to characterize how to practice observing. In other words, sati is not a practice; rather it is a manner of how to practice.
Other descriptions of the practice of Right Sati also explain it in terms other than mindfulness. In MN 117.9, for example, Right Sati is described as: “Mindfully one abandons wrong view, mindfully one enters upon and abides in right view: this is one’s right sati.” Here the activity associated with Right Sati is abandoning and entering. As an adverb, ‘mindfully’ characterizes abandoning and entering, it is not an activity itself. In this example, the practice of Right Sati is combined with the specific and active practices of abandoning wrong view and substituting it with right view. Here and elsewhere Right Sati is described by a set of activities or practices other than intentionally utilizing the faculty of mindfulness.
The “Discourse on Mindfulness of the Body” (MN 119) describes sati with the following passage:
As he abides thus vigilant, ardent, and resolute, his memories and intentions based on the household life are abandoned; with their abandoning his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated. This is how a bhikkhu develops sati of the body. (MN 119.4)
Here too sati is described as involving a set of other qualities and practices. It does not say that having these qualities and practices are the same as sati of the body, rather it says they are the way that sati of the body is developed. Again, sati is a result of particular activities.
The Buddha’s most important teachings on sati are found in a text popularly called the “Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness” (MN 10). The text contains no instructions to actively practice mindfulness or to direct mindfulness. In fact, given that sati is in the title of the text, the word sati is, surprisingly, mostly absent in the discourse. Instead of providing instructions in “doing” mindfulness, the text instructs us to do such intentional activities as observe, understand, relax, clearly comprehend, and review.
This gets more interesting when we consider the phrase commonly translated as “foundations of mindfulness”: satipaṭṭhāna. While sati can mean “awareness,” it is not clear what paṭṭhāna means. One of the primary choices is “establishing.” Satipaṭṭhāna thereby would be “establishing awareness,” and the full title of the text could be the “Discourse on Establishing Awareness.” The instruction given in the text is how to establish a heightened attentiveness or wakefulness through a variety of different practices, all of which should be practiced with ardency, clear comprehension, and awareness.
If sati is best translated as “awareness,” then sampajañña, the Pali word for “clear comprehension,” is a better fit for the English word “mindfulness.” This is because in contemporary mindfulness teaching “mindfulness” often involves clearly knowing what one is aware of. That is, when one is mindful, one clearly comprehends whatever is the focus of attention. In other words, in modern teachings, “mindfulness” often corresponds to the Buddhist concept of sampajañña, not sati.
When this clear comprehension / mindfulness (sampajañña), is combined with ardency, awareness (sati), and the observation of body, feeling tones, mind states, and mind objects, this set of practices can still be known as “mindfulness practice.” However, the designation comes from my proposed translation of sampajañña,, not that of sati.
Regardless of how we translate the ancient Buddhist words, the purpose of mindfulness practice is to establish a strong degree of awareness. This, in turn, can lead to a state that the “Discourse on the Establishing of Awareness” (MN 10) describes as “abiding independent, not clinging to anything in the world.” When awareness becomes strong and stable one can enter and abide in it in such a way that one can find freedom from what is known. The “Discourse on the Establishing of Awareness” ends by stating:
This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for overcoming sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of distress and grief, for the attainment of the practice, for the realization of Nibbāna— namely, the four ways of establishing awareness.
 The Middle Length Discourses contains a list of faculties which could be referred to as ‘sensing faculties’, i.e. the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind (MN 107.4).
 See also, MN 104.16 where Bhikkhus Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi translate sati as ‘memory’.
Reading the Middle Length Discourses
as a resource for chaplains
by Gil Fronsdal
“A being not subject to delusion has appeared in the world for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans.” (MN 12.63)
For Buddhists, the Buddha represents the pre-eminent example of spiritual care. Motivated by compassion, he dedicated himself for more than 40 years teaching for “the good, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans.” He did this by addressing both people’s inner, mental troubles and their outer, interpersonal conflicts. Representing all these troubles by the single concept of dukkha, most often rendered into English as ‘suffering,’ he unequivocally stated “I teach suffering and the cessation of suffering” (MN 22.38).
The bandit Anglulimala called the Buddha “The Sage of Great Compassion” (MN 86.6). Evoking powerful religious concepts of ancient India, the Buddha’s disciple Mahā-Kaccāna referred to his teacher in deeply religious terms by stating “he is vision, he is knowledge, he is the Dharma, he is Brahmā” (MN 18.12). At times the Buddha called himself a teacher (satthā) at other times he compares himself to a surgeon because he removes from people the poisonous arrow of craving (MN 105). By having the cure for existential ‘blindness’, elsewhere the Buddha compares himself to a doctor who cures visual blindness (MN 75).
In our own times we might refer to the Buddha more as a ‘chaplain’ than a doctor. Rather than curing people’s physical illnesses, he counseled people in matters of the heart (citta). As often is the case with chaplains, he addressed the great life issues of sickness, aging and death. He did this by offering an alternative to the religious concepts of his times through what we might call psychological guidance. He taught, counseled and guided people toward understanding the psychological roots of suffering and the way to uproot these roots. He pointed to the “liberation of heart through non-clinging.”
To understand how the Buddha functioned as a chaplain, it is useful to look at the list of five skills he stated that qualify a person to be a nurse to care for a patient. These are:
- Able to prepare medicine
- Knows the difference between what is beneficial and what is harmful
- Cares for the patient with a mind of loving-kindness
- Undisturbed by feces, urine, vomit, or spittle
- Able to instruct, encourage, inspire, and gladden the patient with talk about the Dharma
(The Numerical Discourses 5:124; p. 742)
The first quality is generally not the task of a chaplain, unless, of course, we consider that meeting with individuals and their suffering with them as a type of medicine. Items two to three describe some of the qualities of any good chaplain. The chaplain has a clear sense of how to talk and be with a patient in ways that are beneficial, and if that is not possible, how to avoid harm. The chaplain has the inner resources to maintain a mind of loving-kindness and compassion. The chaplain is able to stay equanimous and calm in the face of physical and psychological difficulties. The fifth item can also be understood as a quality of a good interfaith chaplain if the concept of “Dharma” is not limited the Buddhist Dharma. Perhaps if ‘spirituality’ or ‘truth’ were substituted for Dharma, this last skill could be applicable to the modern chaplaincy profession. For this purpose item five could be reworded as “Able to instruct, encourage, inspire, and gladden the patient through conversation and words connected to a patient’s own spiritual and existential orientations.”
A number of stories survive of the Buddha and his disciples attending to people who were sick or dying. These stories show how one could talk about the Dharma in these circumstances. When the Buddha visited his sick monastic disciples he recited the seven factors of awakening, i.e., mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. In doing this, he was helping experienced practitioners evoke healing mental states that they were well familiar with through their practice. The importance of evoking these states is highlighted when the Buddha, while ill, asked someone to recite these seven qualities to him.
In one sutta, when the Buddha learns that a monk is gravely ill he instructs Ven. Ananda to visit the monk out of compassion. The Buddha adds that the monk’s afflictions may subside if Ananda speaks to him about the “ten concepts,” ideas that were meant to help the sick monk loosen his attachments. These are:
- The impermanence of the five aggregates
- The non-appeal of the body
- The dangers in having a body
- Abandoning of unwholesome states
- The peace that comes from the fading of lust
- The peace of release, of nibbāna
- Non-delight clinging to anything in the world
- The impermanence of all conditioned things
- Practicing mindfulness of breathing
While some of these teachings may be most applicable to people who are already deeply familiar with the practices the Buddha taught, the story demonstrates one way in which the Buddha approached ministering to those who were sick.
Perhaps because different people are best instructed, encouraged, inspired and gladdened in different ways, the suttas depict a variety of ways to ‘minister’ to the sick. Also, at different times there may be different ways to support the same sick person.
The suttas contain three stories of Ven. Sāriputta visiting a very sick lay follower of the Buddha named Anāthapiṇḍika (literaly, “feeder of the poor”). In one visit Sāriputta reminded Anāthapiṇḍika of some of his good qualities, i.e., his confidence in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, as well as his practice of the Eightfold Path. With this reminder, Anāthapiṇḍika’s pains subsided. At another time when Anāthapiṇḍika’s pain was great, Sāriputta told him that when one has great virtue as well as confidence in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha one will not have fear of imminent death. Hearing this Anāthapiṇḍika reports that he has no fear.
Visiting Anāthapiṇḍika just before his death, Sāriputta offers a profound guidance in non-clinging. Perhaps as a kind of guided meditation, Sāriputta recites a comprehensive list of what one can let go of. This seems to lead Anāthapiṇḍika to a deep level of liberation, soon after which he died.
We see, therefore, that in a Buddhist context, in ministering to Buddhist practitioners, one of the important skills of a chaplain is knowledge of how to encourage, inspire, and gladden people with the Dharma. For this purpose, Buddhist chaplains should be deeply familiar with the many dimensions and aspects of the Dharma. One foundation for this familiarity is understanding the teachings of early Buddhism, for which the Middle Length Discourses provides a good introduction. In this text we find a great variety of perspectives on the Dharma, often presented in the context of particular situations and stories. Here we learn about spiritual care as offered by the Buddha and his disciples.
What you read in the Middle Length Discourses may not always be directly appropriate in many of situations a modern chaplain may encounter. Also, some of these Buddhist teachings may also not be in harmony with one’s own Buddhist teachings. Even so, the Middle Length Discourses is a window into how the founder of Buddhism approached spiritual care. I believe it is useful for a modern Buddhist chaplain to read this book and reflect on what ways these teachings can be applied in the service of spiritual caregiving. May this reflection lead to the welfare and happiness of all.
Quotes from the Middle Length Discourses
What should be done for his disciples out of compassion by a teacher who seeks their welfare and has compassion for them, that I have done for you, bhikkhus. There are these roots of trees, these empty huts. Meditate, bhikkhus, do not delay or else you will regret it later. This is our instruction to you.
– The Buddha (MN19.27)
You should train thus: ‘My mind will be unaffected, and I shall utter no evil words; I shall abide compassionate for his welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate.’
– The Buddha (MN 21.11)
You should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate. We shall abide pervading that person with a mind imbued with lovingkindness, and starting with him, we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with lovingkindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will.’
– The Buddha (MN 21.11)
Abandoning ill will and hatred, he abides with a mind free from ill will, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings; he purifies his mind from ill will and hatred.
– The Buddha (MN 27.18)
Compassionate and seeking their welfare, the Teacher teaches the Dhamma to the disciples out of compassion: ‘This is for your welfare, this is for your happiness.’
– The Buddha (MN 122.25)
 The Connected Discourses 46:14-15; p. 1580-1581.
 The Connected Discourses 46:16; p. 1581-1582.
 The Numerical Discourses 10:60
 The Connected Discourses 55:26; pp. 1816-1819.
 The Connected Discourses 55:27; pp. 1819-1820.
 The Middle Length Discourses 143; pp. 1109-1113.
The great value of mindfulness practice can be found in the ordinary activities of daily life. It is not necessary to engage in extraordinary pursuits to realize the full depth and breadth of Buddhist practice. Listening is one of the ordinary, daily activities that can serve as a powerful vehicle for cultivating mindfulness, insight, and freedom. Dharma practice is to develop the ability to “see clearly;” listening well is a way to do this. Through listening we can better appreciate what others are saying and gain greater self-understanding.
Imagine yourself standing in front of a great wall stretching far to the right and far to the left. In the middle is a closed door. You open the door, and step through. On the other side of the wall is a vast sky and a great panorama of mountains and valleys receding toward a far distant horizon. From this view you appreciate the great vastness and spaciousness of the world. Then you turn around and step back through the door to the other side of the wall. Standing on the other side you see that here is a vista of a vast ocean sprinkled with beautiful islands. In fact, on either side of the door there is an equally wide, large world to be explored and studied. Listening can be understood as the door between two vast worlds, the world outside of yourself and the world inside yourself. The first is what your ears can hear. The second is what is going on in your body, mind, and heart as you listen. To practice mindful listening is to reside in the doorway between these two worlds so you can be attentive and wise in both.
To listen well, it is helpful to distinguish listening from hearing. Listening is an active, deliberate activity while hearing doesn’t require any effort or intention. With a loud sound, no effort is needed to hear it. However, one might need to intentionally listen to identify the source of the sound. If we were to mime someone listening we might cup a hand behind one ear and lean in the direction of a sound. It is much more difficult to mime ‘hearing’ because hearing is not an activity we do, it is a mode of receptivity to whatever sounds that might occur. By having a clear distinction between listening and hearing we can then choose one over the other. Sometimes, it can be deeply relaxing to make no effort to listen except to rest in the hearing, especially with meditation, music, or sounds of nature. More often in daily life however, we either listen actively or not very well, for example, when we don’t fully listen to what others are saying.
One form of active listening is to listen mindfully, that is, with clear attention and interest. Listening mindfully is to intentionally bring greater awareness to the experience of listening rather than listening habitually or perhaps half-heartedly. To make it a mindfulness practice we also give priority to listening for the purpose of listening rather than letting another purpose dominate. We attend to listening in such a way that we both listen better and are aware of our attitude while listening.
The better your understanding of what goes on within you as you listen, the better you can understand the obstruction to listening well and what you can do to listen more mindfully. Mindful listening requires a willingness to put aside, at least temporarily, the agendas, preferences, opinions, and judgments that interfere with being able to listen well. At the same time, it can involve actively noticing the internal impact and response you have to what is heard. Then, you can choose to keep your focus on the different dimensions of what you listening to rather than easily wandering off in thought. Not only can you listen more carefully to the content of what someone is saying, you can notice their facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, and attitidude.
Without mindfulness, listening can sometimes be done with eagerness—even impatience—for someone who is talking to finish. An internal pressure to speak, or having anticipatory thoughts, can interfere with our full listening to what others are saying. In contrast, to listen mindfully is to be generous with our time; to live in the flow of time, each thing allowed its own time.
You know you are listening mindfully when you continue to listen after someone has stopped speaking. Listen to the silence. Or let the receptivity with which you listened become an additional occasion to notice what is happening within yourself or with the person to whom you are listening. Such a pause—even a two second pause—gives you time to digest what was said. It is also a time to discover what you want to say before you actually say it. Such self-awareness can protect you from saying things you later regret. The pause may also give others a chance to discover what is going on in their own minds and bodies.
Mindful listening is embodied listening. This means that you don’t just listen with your ears. You can feel the physical impact of what you hear. What sensations arise in the body in response to what is heard? What parts of your body get energized in the hearing? What gets tense, what relaxes?
Embodied listening includes assuming a posture that supports better listening. Perhaps sitting up straighter with the chest open. Perhaps turning toward the person who is speaking. It can be helpful to assume a posture or a gesture that indicates you are listening. Perhaps leaning forward slightly. Or nodding your head to the points the person is making. By being actively involved in listening we listen better. It also helps the speaker to know we are really listening.
A famous story from the Ramayana, an epic poem in the Hindu tradition, illustrates the power of careful listening. The story tells of Rama walking in the forest with some companions. When Rama starts hearing the faint whisper of a voice, he asks his companions if they can hear it. They say, “No.” Rama begins to walk toward the whisper. As he gets closer he recognizes it is his name that is being spoken, “Rama…Rama.” As the voice becomes louder, his friends still say they can’t hear it. Finally Rama comes to a large boulder from which the sound comes. He then places his two hands gently on the boulder. At this point the rock breaks open and inside is a person who has been stuck in the rock through a magic spell. By listening to the whisper he was able to discover what was locked up and then release it.
In this way, to listen mindfully is to give care in order to hear the faint whispers inside others and ourselves and to discover the significant thoughts, feelings, and desires that may be shy or overlooked. Once discovered, the quiet whispers then have the opportunity to be heard.
Listening—as all forms of active attention—is an intentional act, and as such is connected to our desires, emotions, attitudes, values, and preferences. Because of this connection it can be helpful to use the following questions to help explore your listening. You might take your time with each question, perhaps giving yourself a week to reflect on it before exploring the next one.
- What purpose motivates your listening?
- What concerns and desires influence your listening?
- Are there emotions coloring what you hear?
- How interested and attentive are you to what you’re listening to?
- When someone is speaking, how much are you listening to the person and how much are you engaged in your own thoughts?
- What expectations do you have when you listen?
- In different situations, you will have different answers to these questions. The answers may point to how to listen more attentively, with greater wisdom.
Mindful listening is a great way to cultivate greater mindfulness in daily life. Listening is always a present moment activity; when we listen we are present. When we listen actively and receptively we are developing the faculties needed for the practice of mindfulness. Practicing mindful listening is a foundation for the more difficult task of speaking mindfully. Until we have a strong capacity to stay mindful while we speak, it is good to remember the saying that “we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we speak.”
Anyone practicing mindfulness knows there are forces in the mind that can make it difficult to stay attentive to one’s present moment experience. Ranging from weak to very powerful, these forces hamper our ability to remain mindful, develop concentration and have clear insight. They pull our attention away from our efforts to meditate. Even with the best of intentions to stay focused, these forces can propel us into the world of pre-occupation and distracted thought.
Rather than reacting to these difficulties as being “bad,” “distractions,” or personal failings, it is important to be mindful of them. In that they are happening in the present, they can be a basis for cultivating greater awareness and wisdom. They can become part of the path of practice, rather than a detour.
It is important to investigate the forces of distraction and agitation carefully to understand their nature and how they work. It is easier to find freedom from something when we know it thoroughly. Ancient Buddhist stories tell of Mara, the Buddhist personification of temptation and distraction, approaching the Buddha. Each time Mara arrives, the Buddha simply says, “Mara, I see you,” and Mara flees. Recognizing Mara was effective in bringing freedom from Mara.
Of the many forces of distraction, five are traditionally identified as particularly important for people practicing Buddhist mindfulness and meditation. Known as the five hindrances, they are workings of the mind that can hinder our ability to see clearly and our capacity to develop a stable, concentrated mind. The hindrances are sensual desire; ill will; sloth and torpor; restlessness and worry and doubt.
As you can see, the list is actually made up of seven factors, but four are always paired. One explanation for the paired items is that they represent closely related physical and mental factors.
The first two hindrances are related by being opposite qualities. Desire and ill will are both forms of wanting, albeit in opposing ways. Desire wants to have something, whereas ill will wants to push something way. The third and fourth hindrances are similarly seen as opposing tendencies. They both involve levels of energy or vitality. Sloth and torpor are low energy states while restlessness and worry are high energy states.
The fifth hindrance, doubt, is not specifically connected with any of the other hindrances or distinguished into physical and mental aspects. This is because doubt is often entwined with any combination of the other hindrances and can cast its influence in many ways on our whole being.
The wisdom needed for working with the hindrances is discovered through mindfulness of them. This wisdom is acquired slowly, requiring much patience. It also requires an interest in studying the hindrances as they appear. Reading about the hindrances cannot substitute for the time and effort needed to understand how the hindrances operate. As each person has his or her own path through the hindrances, you will have to find yours.
It is best to respect the hindrances and their power. This is not to acquiesce to them, but rather it is a way to overcome their sway. Through developing one’s mindfulness, the hindrances begin to lose their power. With the growth of wisdom, equanimity, and concentration it is possible to be free from their influence.
It is also possible to be free of the hindrances themselves; they do not have to be present. One’s mind can be hindrance-free. Without the obscurations of the hindrances, such a mind can become clear, perhaps like a translucent pond in which everything is seen clearly.
Buddhism recognizes a hindrance-free mind as a beautiful mind. In fact, for some people this mind is one of the most beautiful experiences they know. Because all other forms of beauty are perceived through the mind, when the mind is clear and peaceful, what we perceive will be perceived within this clarity and peace. It is like having the light turned on after living in the dark for a long time: the marvel of sight becomes more wonderful than whatever is seen.
On the path to freedom, the primary function of a hindrance-free mind is to teach us about non-clinging. When the hindrances hinder it is because we are clinging to something. When the hindrances are absent we are then free of their accompanying clinging. By seeing the difference between clinging and non-clinging we learn that freedom is found in non-clinging. When this lesson is learned well, we understand that clarity, peace, beauty and other experiences on the path to freedom are not the point of the path; they are stepping-stones to more and more thorough degrees of freedom from attachment.
The milestones along this path are measured by release from attachments. In relationship to the hindrances this may begin with letting go of anger, discouragement, or dismay that they are present. A further step is giving up judging oneself negatively because of the hindrances. Another signpost is letting go of any belief that justifies the importance of the hindrances. The most significant milestones is being released, even temporarily, from the hindrances themselves.
With a strong enough experience of non-clinging we come to a fork in our path. One direction leads to more clinging, the other to freedom. As practice becomes deeper the path of freedom becomes more obvious. At some point it becomes clearly the easier path. When we are new to practice it is clinging that may be easiest, one day it becomes non-clinging. Freedom supports further freedom. It empties the mind of obstructions and agitation until, in the beauty of the mind’s clarity, we are free of ourselves.
This article is an excerpt from Gil’s new book, Unhindered: A Mindful Path Through the Five Hindrances, which can be purchased on Amazon.com. Click through the Recommended Books page on our website when making a purchase on Amazon, and help support IMC.
Buddhism teaches that personal practice and safeguarding our environment are closely connected. This is because both of these endeavors ask us to overcome the forces of greed, hate, and delusion. The intimate relationship between the world and ourselves means that when we properly care for ourselves we will care for the world, and when we do what’s best for the world, we benefit ourselves.
After his awakening, which took place as he sat outdoors underneath a tree, the Buddha continued to live and meditate in forests throughout his life. He explained that he did this for his own benefit and out of compassion for future generations. Because nature is a tremendous support for the path of liberation, the Buddha instructed his followers to meditate in nature.
Practicing mindfulness outdoors in nature cultivates a greater appreciation of the natural world. Building on this appreciation, a healthy respect for nature can come from understanding how dependent our lives are on the natural environment and how easily human activity can damage this support system. When the Buddha was alive, human impact on the natural world was evident mainly on a small, local scale. Today, the evidence of this interconnectedness is global—for instance, the greenhouse gases released through human activity in some parts of the world affect climates across the planet.
There’s an ancient Buddhist tale that tells of a mythic tree whose vast canopy provides shade and whose abundant fruit can be harvested freely by anyone. But when a greedy person stuffs himself with fruit and then breaks off one of the branches, the tree stops bearing fruit.
Another early Buddhist myth depicts an ideal world of abundance and ease that progressively falls into decay in response to the deteriorating ethics of the people who live there. The decline begins as people become greedy and continues with the gradual appearance of arrogance, lust, laziness, theft, lying, and violence.
These ancient myths no longer feel fanciful—they quite accurately represent our modern world. Rainforests have been clear-cut and the land can no longer support people living there. In some parts of the world the soil and water have become polluted with pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals, sickening nearby residents. The air in metropolitan areas is filled with smog, and children who breathe this pollution have higher rates of asthma and autism.
If we look closely, we can see that greed, hate, or delusion underlies all large scale human destruction of the environment. Greed drives exploitation of our natural resources, hate destroys vast lands through the ravages of war, and delusion perpetuates environmental harm when we don’t understand the impact our actions have on the natural world.
Of these forces, delusion (and its partner, indifference) is perhaps the most widespread and thus the most destructive. Even those of us with the best intentions can be blind to the effects our actions have, especially when the repercussions are out of sight, removed in space or time. For instance, large dams built in order to improve people’s lives have destroyed the watershed that sustained the very communities they were meant to serve. Cutting trees in the Himalayas in order to care for one’s family can have disastrous consequences when hundreds of thousands of people do the same thing. When farmers in Sumatra set fires to clear land, they neither know nor care much about the record air pollution that falls on Singapore as a result. One person thinks that his or her driving contributes a negligible amount of pollution, without considering what happens when that contribution is combined with the millions of cars driving in the same region. In the California Bay Area, for example, the smog from its 5 million cars kills trees in the Sierra Mountains, far out of sight of Bay Area residents.
Buddhism emphasizes the impact our individual actions have on our lives and the world around us, and it follows from this perspective that caring for the natural world begins with each of us. As practitioners on this path, it doesn’t make sense to ignore what we can personally do by relying on others to take responsibility for our environment. Instead we view our own actions as significant. Because of the staggering number of people now living on the earth—7 billion—the combined actions of many can either preserve vast ecosystems, or destroy them. If we fall into passive acquiescence in the face of environmental destruction, we give up our individual “response–ability”—our ability to respond.
Many of us can make the choice to consume fewer natural resources and to act out of compassion for the earth. Doing so doesn’t have to diminish the quality of our lives; it can increase it. We can choose to see reducing our carbon footprint not as an act of deprivation, but as an opportunity to gain the spiritual benefits of a simpler lifestyle. If the natural world is to be our teacher, as Buddhism suggests, maybe we can learn more by walking in a forest or a local park than by speeding by on the highway; perhaps we’re closer to the heart’s freedom when we sit undistracted in nature than when we’re plugged into our various electronic devices.
In each of our lives we’re presented with myriad opportunities to make small and large changes to reduce the negative impact we have on the natural world. When we make these changes as part of a spiritual practice, they support our spiritual growth. Contributing to the well-being of all of life can give joy and provide deeper meaning to our actions.
Still, as individuals we can’t make sweeping changes all by ourselves. Political action is needed to ensure that we all work together for sustainable usage of our natural resources. It takes public policies and laws to ensure that we all share in creating mass transit systems, reducing pollution, and protecting open spaces. History has shown that governmental action is needed as a safeguard against the nearsighted systems within which commercial and industrial interests often operate. Only governments have the ability to negotiate environmental agreements across many states and between nations.
So where does that leave us as Buddhist practitioners? When Buddhist practice is applied to our political efforts, generosity can be our motivation, goodwill and compassion our guide, and learning can replace our quick judgments. Guided by these wholesome qualities, political action can be passionate, energetic, and effective. Some people mistakenly believe that Buddhism, with its emphasis on equanimity, is incompatible with political action. But Buddhism doesn’t discourage political engagement. What it does discourage is divisive, hostile, and exclusively self-serving efforts at making political change.
There’s no doubt that human activity now challenges the health of our natural world more than at any other time in history. Unfortunately the damage to our environment has been increasing every year. If we are to reverse this trend, all but the poorest of us need to make changes in our lifestyle and patterns of consumption. Buddhism provides a way to embrace these changes as part of a path to freedom, peace, and compassion. Our ability to respond to these challenges is also our ability for spiritual growth. We can improve the quality of our environment while we deepen the capacity of our hearts.
In Buddhist practice, acquiring liberating insight goes hand-in-hand with mental cultivation. We cannot have deep insight without developing the mind, any more than a nearsighted person can see clearly without glasses. And we cannot benefit from insight without inner strength, any more than a hiker can climb a mountain without physical strength.
The three core insights of mindfulness practice are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self. Because of their importance, these “three characteristics” are often taught enthusiastically without reference to the mental development necessary to support them. Sometimes this leads to an excessively intellectual understanding where the “insights” become merely learned concepts rather than something directly understood or seen.
Overemphasizing the three characteristics can make Buddhist practice dreary, even discouraging. For someone whose life is falling apart because of radical social or personal change, being told that everything is impermanent can be disheartening or worse. For someone whose life is filled with unrelenting suffering, learning that all is unsatisfactory takes away all hope. And for someone whose confidence and self-identity has been stripped away or was never developed, the not-self teaching can put salt in a deep wound.
The insights are best supported by a variety of inner strengths. If we don’t already have these, it is useful to cultivate them. Paradoxically, the three strengths most needed are opposite in character from the three insights. The power of mental stability enables greater insight into impermanence; the potency of well-being provides the healthy context for insight into unsatisfactoriness; and the strength of confidence keeps us balanced when we are faced with the insight into not-self.
Stability, well-being, and confidence are cultivated through Buddhist practice. For example, meditation practice stabilizes the mind; practices such as generosity, ethics, and concentration are ways of cultivating well-being; and walking the path of practice is a way to develop confidence in our personal abilities.
Mental stability is related to calm, constancy, continuity, and commitment in practice. Deep, direct insight into impermanence cannot arise in an agitated, restless mind where a preoccupation with ideas, imaginings, or memories interferes with seeing clearly. In order to perceive change it helps for the mind to be still; inner stability allows peace in the midst of change. It keeps us from being easily buffeted in times of great social and personal instability.
The term “well-being” encompasses a host of positive emotions cultivated along the Buddhist path. They include the delight, contentment, joy, happiness, and rapture that arise as we practice the path. Many practices cultivate well-being. It can arise from practicing ethical integrity and by delighting in our own goodness and good actions. Even if we have acted unethically in the past, if we learn from this and resolve to do better, our resolve can be a reason to feel good about our self. Moreover, when we know we have nothing to hide, we experience what the Buddha calls the “bliss of blamelessness,” which allows for a deep relaxation.
Acting wisely on our generous impulses also promotes our own happiness. Giving to others weakens selfishness while helping develop a positive self-regard.
One of the important functions of meditation practice is to develop joy. While it certainly should not be expected all the time, sooner or later meditation should include joy. If it doesn’t, then this can be useful to discuss with a meditation teacher.
With well-being as a support, insight into the pervasive suffering and unsatisfactoriness of much of human life doesn’t have to be depressing or frightening. Rather, it can help us direct our attention and efforts to what is truly satisfying: spiritual freedom and compassion.
Not-self can be the most difficult insight because it can be destabilizing, even frightening. However, it can be a bit like learning to ride a bicycle. At first, one may be afraid and unsteady trying to keep one’s balance. Once one has become a strong, confident rider, the fear and uncertainty disappear.
Likewise, without confidence and personal strength, the insight into not-self can be quite disorienting and uncomfortable. When we feel confident and strong, we can experience this insight with equanimity.
Sometimes the teachings on not-self are interpreted to mean one should become self-effacing and humble. While it is certainly useful to overcome conceit, Buddhist practice also involves cultivating courageous strength. The personal strengths one cultivates on the Buddhist path include integrity, honesty, patience, kindness, resolve, wisdom, and confidence. With these as a foundation, the insight into not-self has the support needed to become a catalyst for releasing all self-attachments. The obvious benefits of such letting go of self-clinging can be seen most clearly when the mind is most still and happy. Letting go of clinging to self is then seen as a step further into peace and well-being rather than anything to be feared.
The path of insight and liberation does not leave us with nothing; it leaves us with the well-developed inner treasures of a steady, happy, and confident mind. When we see that this mind is, like everything else, impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self, it only adds to our peace and happiness.
“A wise person is motivated to benefit oneself, others, and both self and others.”
Some people live focused on benefiting themselves and those to whom they feel close. Some people are devoted to benefiting others, sometimes at the expense of themselves. To the Buddha, a wise person is someone who wishes for the good of all. Our lives are so interconnected that it is not possible to benefit oneself while neglecting others. And one can’t be of much benefit to others if one neglects oneself. The path of liberation the Buddha taught neglects neither oneself nor others; it is a path that lies at the intersection of oneself and the world.
One significant place to see how Buddhist practice balances caring for oneself and others is the Eightfold Path. Four of the path factors are practices aimed primarily at benefiting others. Part of the second factor, Right Intention, is to live motivated by goodwill and compassion for others. The next three factors, Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, are all concerned with being in the world so that our speech, action, and livelihood benefit others.
In the practice of speech the Buddha encouraged people to speak in ways that are truthful, reliable, and trustworthy and in a manner that “reunites those who are divided, promotes friendship, and speaks words that promote concord.” He also encouraged speaking about what is good and beneficial.
Right Action is defined as not killing, not taking what is not given, not engaging in sexual misconduct, and not lying. While just following these guidelines provides others with the gift of safety, the Buddha went further by saying that in living a life that doesn’t harm practitioners, one should “abide compassionate to all living beings.”
For many people, one’s livelihood is how one has the most impact on the wider social world. The practice of Right Livelihood aims at being thoroughly ethical in how one works and supports others. Exploiting or harming others through our work is antithetical to Right Livelihood.
While Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood are practices that benefit others, we also benefit when we practice them. One of the great sources of well-being and peace is a clean conscience. Our own ethical integrity can become a meaningful refuge.
The last three factors of the Eightfold Path—Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration—are usually understood to emphasize caring for oneself. All three factors focus on improving the quality of our minds and hearts. Right Effort involves learning to do those things that increase our wholesome states of mind. Right Mindfulness gives us the presence of mind to differentiate between the wholesome and unwholesome. Right Concentration brings calm, ease, and peace.
The wholesomeness and well-being that Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration bring is a wellspring for both self-care and care for others. It shows us how meaningful and beautiful the developed heart can become. It is knowledge that strengthens empathy and appreciation of others. This is probably why the Buddha often presented concentration practice as an approach for cultivating goodwill and compassion for others.
Caring for others and for oneself are not distinct from each other. When we benefit others we are benefited in return, not least because it strengthens wholesome qualities in ourselves. When we benefit ourselves through developing our integrity, hearts, and wisdom, we will inevitably benefit others. Conversely, if we harm others we will sooner or later see how this also harms us. Even if others don’t retaliate, we cannot escape our own conscience forever.
The Buddhist approach to living a wise life can be called “a life of mutual benefit.” By benefiting others we are benefited ourselves; by benefiting ourselves we are benefiting others.
However, some people may feel that any emphasis on benefiting oneself is selfish. The Buddhist response is that selfishness harms the person who is selfish. If we understand what brings and supports personal well-being, we will avoid being selfish. We will not pursue our own well-being at the expense of others.
In Buddhism, benefiting oneself is not the same as acquiring pleasure, status, or wealth. It is developing beautiful and wholesome qualities of heart. It is cultivating the kind of inner wellbeing, love, and peace that helps make how we are in the world as helpful for others as what we do.
For similar reasons, we would not want to benefit others if it harmed our self in any significant ways. How can we really touch the hearts of others if our own heart is being harmed?
A person focused on mutual benefit does not view life as a competition that only some people can win. Rather, one considers what is best for the greater good, something the Buddha described in the above quote as benefiting both self and others. This is not the greater good that sacrifices some for the welfare of the majority. It requires creatively seeking ways to improve the lives of all.
In practice, a life of mutual benefit does not mean that everything we do has to benefit everyone. It means that when we care for ourselves in healthy ways, we can be reassured that this is for the greater good. And when we care for others in healthy ways, this is for our own benefit as well. At different times, in different situations, we will act on different ends of the self/other spectrum.
At times it is appropriate, and even important, to care for oneself. Meditating every morning may be immensely helpful for the meditator. It can be as important a form of self-care as making sure one eats healthily, gets enough sleep, and keeps one’s body healthy. At the same time, daily meditation may prepare us to care for others in calmer, wiser, and more compassionate ways.
There are other times when it is appropriate to care primarily for others; their needs may be greater than our own. However, one task of mindfulness practice is to help us care for others without giving in to attitudes and reactions that are harmful to ourselves. It is important to learn how to benefit others without harming ourselves.
A life of mutual benefit embraces a wider perspective than any stance that supports conflict. Without shrinking from conflict, it searches for the common ground that can work for the common good.
To understand Dharma practice as a life of mutual benefit clearly places our practice within the context of our social life. Even if one spends long periods of time in mostly solitary meditation practice, there is always a social dimension to one’s practice. We don’t walk the path of liberation for ourselves only. We practice for the sake of all beings.
The Buddha’s teachings describe an accessible path to liberation. The ancient Buddhist metaphor of a path draws on the idea of a cleared passageway that allows one to move through an otherwise impassable forest. Just as a person brings his or her entire body along when walking on a path in the forest, so a spiritual practitioner enters the Buddha’s path by engaging all aspects of who he or she is. Yet while a physical path exists whether we walk on it or not, the Buddha’s path exists only in our engagement with it. We create the path with the activities of our minds, hearts, and bodies. Teachings about the Buddha’s path are simply maps indicating how we create the path as we go.
In one version of this path metaphor, the Buddha likens spiritual liberation to a long-forgotten, overgrown city deep in the forest. Just as it’s possible to reclaim and then inhabit this city once the path to it is found, it’s possible to live a liberated life when we discover and follow a path that will take us there.
Building on the metaphor of a forest path, the Buddha compared the forest’s dense undergrowth to the many mental and emotional obstacles that limit our freedom. We each have our own inner wilderness with its dangers and challenges, but we also have within us what it takes to free ourselves of these dangers.
Because both the path and the obstacles are found within us, the Buddha’s path requires us to take responsibility for our thoughts, attitudes, and actions. It builds on the principle that we can move towards liberation by disengaging from perspectives and behaviors that weigh us down and by replacing them with behaviors that lighten us and support us as we proceed.
The Buddha’s path to liberation—known as the Noble Eightfold Path—is made up of eight interrelated practices. The Buddhist name for each of these practices is prefaced by samma, a Pali word usually translated as “right” that can also mean “proper,” “complete,” and “in harmony.” When “right” is the translation, it’s useful to think of it as meaning “appropriate,” as when we speak of having the “right tool” for a particular task. Because the path is made up of practices rather than beliefs, “right” does not refer to truths we’re obligated to adopt or to moralistic judgments of right and wrong.
The first step on the Eightfold Path is Right View, a pragmatic perspective that guides us along the path itself. We can again make an analogy with hiking. Hikers in the woods practice “orienteering”—paying careful attention to details of their surroundings in order to find their way in the wilderness. They must first have some idea where they’re going so they don’t wander aimlessly and end up getting lost. But even when the compass points us to the destination, taking the most direct course may not be possible if it entails plunging over the steepest cliffs or into the densest, most overgrown parts of the forest. By knowing what to pay attention to, a hiker can “read” the forest and discover aspects that show the best way forward.
For the Buddha’s path, this orienting perspective—called Right View—is the practice of keeping an eye on our relationship to whatever we’re experiencing. Classically this is described as using the perspective of the Four Noble Truths. Rather then getting caught up in our opinions and abstract interpretations of what we are experiencing, in this approach we ask ourselves a series of questions: Do we feel any stress, discomfort, or suffering in how we’re relating to what’s happening or not happening? What is our contribution to this suffering? What are we clinging to that is contributing to the suffering? Right View includes the encouraging perspective that clinging and its resulting suffering can be brought to an end. It also orients us to the practices of the entire Eightfold Path as the easiest and clearest path to liberation from suffering.
Right View is not meant to be the only perspective from which to view our life. Other perspectives can be necessary for other purposes. However, in order to walk the Buddha’s path to freedom, Right View is an essential ingredient. It is the perspective needed to find the path and to stay on the path.
Practicing Right View does not require believing something we can’t know for ourselves. It does not rely on any supernatural or mystical beliefs. Nor does it require us to be ahead of where we are. Pursuing a path involves walking where we are on the path; we can’t walk on what lies ahead until we reach it.
The remaining practices of the Eightfold Path are Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. These seven have a mutually supportive relationship with Right View. On the one hand, Right View helps us distinguish between the intentions, speech, ethical actions, livelihoods, and mental states that cause suffering and the ones that alleviate it. On the other hand, as we practice the other factors of the Eightfold Path, Right View becomes easier and more effective to practice. The more we clear the path, the easier it is to find our way.
The potential for practicing the Eightfold Path lies within us. When we practice the factors well, they transform us. They have the ability to reduce and even end our clinging, attachment, fear, hatred, and delusion. When we do this thoroughly, the Eightfold Path is no longer something we have to walk. When we are free, there is nowhere we have to go to find freedom. When we live from our freedom, the eight factors are no longer practices; amazingly, they become the natural expression of liberation. The Eightfold Path becomes who we are.
Over the next eight months, Gil plans to write articles addressing each factor of the Eightfold Path. They will be posted on IMC’s website.
Anger is one of the most common human emotions and perhaps the most dangerous. Regardless of whether the anger is directed toward ourselves or others, it can be painful and cause a great deal of suffering. While the danger of mild anger may only be discomfort for the person who is angry, rage and simmering hostility can lead to significant pain and distress for ourselves and others. The danger of anger increases dramatically when it’s acted out: relationships can be ruined, enemies made, and people’s lives shattered with angry words or actions. It’s painful to be angry, and acting with anger easily produces more pain.
It seems that whenever I teach about overcoming anger, someone inevitably insists, “But isn’t anger sometimes appropriate?” The answer depends on the nature of the anger. If the anger involves hostility, then I hope it is never necessary. I hope we can always find a better way to accomplish what is needed than through aggression. If hostility is absent and the anger is a compelling frustration or the disapproval of an injustice or harmful behavior, then perhaps anger can be appropriate—provided it is acted on with wisdom and care. Yet even if anger is appropriate, it can all too easily be expressed in harmful ways. When anger is justified, it may not be necessary to become angry. We find our freedom by seeing we have a choice.
When we’re motivated to avoid the dangers of anger, it’s important to understand the anger and to learn how to work with it so it doesn’t drive our behavior. Because taming the flames of anger can be difficult, I offer seven approaches that can help. For the sake of remembering them, I refer to them by the acronym M.A.D.L.E.S.S.—Motivation, Attention, Dissipation, Learning, Empathy, Story, and Speaking/Sharing.
M stands for Motivation and involves understanding what lies beneath our anger. Motivation can be explored with the following questions: What purpose is the anger serving? What is the anger trying to accomplish? Is the anger an attempt to release pent-up frustration or to push away something uncomfortable? Does being angry involve wanting to change, reject, or rectify something? Does the anger have a wise goal or purpose? Might there be wiser motivations or wiser actions?
Taking the time to ask these questions begins an important process of stepping back from the anger and considering it objectively. Having distanced ourselves in this way, we can then examine our relationship to the anger. We can ask ourselves: Do I want to be angry? Do I want to allow the anger to provoke and motivate me? If what we want is freedom, then our motivation for freedom has to be greater than our desire to remain angry.
This brings us to the A in the acronym: Attention. This involves being mindful of our anger by clearly seeing what is happening emotionally, physically, and mentally. What thoughts and beliefs come with the anger? What is the subjective experience of being angry? How does it feel in the body? What is happening right now in the present? How much does past and future thinking affect the anger?
One of the important functions of mindfulness of anger is to learn how to allow the anger to exist without being caught up in it. This involves cultivating an awareness that provides either mental distance from the anger or a sense of spaciousness around it. It can help to learn how to feel the anger in the body while imagining the body as an open container in which our energies flow freely. We can feel the impulses to move or to speak without acting on them. Mindfully breathing while being aware of the anger in the body can be useful for giving “breathing room” to the anger. It can help us find a way to be aware of anger while being neither for it nor against it.
D stands for Dissipation. This is useful when we are so mad that we have trouble paying wise attention to our anger. Dissipation involves discharging the energy of anger so it doesn’t continue to harm us or cause us to act in ways we later regret. We can do this by going for a walk, exercising, taking a shower or a nap, or finding someone to talk to about the anger in a manner that calms us down. I have known people who’ve gone into the woods to be alone and then found a tree toward which they could safely express the anger.
Dissipation is not meant to be a way to forget the issue that caused the anger. Rather, it’s a way to diminish the intensity of the anger so we are not being pushed around by it. It’s also a way to become calm enough that we can Learn about the anger—which brings us to the L in M.A.D.L.E.S.S.
Anger presents us with an opportunity to learn something about ourselves. The presence of anger is a symptom of a disharmony or conflict that would be helpful to understand well. This can be done by reflecting carefully on what happened, including an honest consideration of our own contribution to getting worked up. For example, we can explore our own reactivity so that in the future we aren’t as easily triggered. Hopefully pride, embarrassment, resentment, or blame won’t interfere with the willingness to do this important investigation.
When learning about our reactivity in relation to anger, it’s helpful to consider that there are chain reactions within us. The anger may be the last link in a series of reactions, many of which have gone unrecognized. Three of the most common and underappreciated causes of anger are hurt, sadness, and fear. Taking the time to discover if and how these underlying emotions are present can change not only our relationship to the anger but also our relationship to the person or situation with whom we’re angry. Seeing how anger is a symptom of the underlying feelings can help us to address those root feelings without perpetuating a conflict or antagonism toward others.
When anger involves hostility, there are even deeper layers to uncover and explore. Perhaps the most important is selfishness. There is no hostility without some degree of self-absorption and ideas of “me, myself, and mine.” Listening to how often our speech and thoughts are self-referential can provide a useful way to understand the degree of our self-centeredness. Sometimes we may learn that anger arises when our self-identity is hurt or threatened. Hopefully becoming aware of our selfishness doesn’t become an additional reason to be angry. Such self-understanding is meant to be a step toward freedom and greater self-compassion.
The E in the acronym stands for Empathy—a quality that, while often absent when anger is present, can be evoked by searching for a fuller understanding of the people or situation we’re angry with. People seldom cause harm unless they are suffering themselves. Their meanness or negligence may have more to do with stresses they are living under than with the person they are hurting. Those who are ill, for instance, may anger easily because they have little tolerance for frustration. A bully may be smarting from an earlier humiliation. A boss may speak sharply because of the strain of being unable to care adequately for a dying parent. Or someone may exhibit anger as a way to compensate for insecurity.
Of course, understanding people’s inappropriate behavior is not the same as excusing it. Empathy might, however, allow us to soften our hard position toward them, perhaps even to let go of our anger. Realizing the other person has difficulties just as we do may help us to take their behavior less personally. And most important, this empathy may actually lead to a feeling of compassion: rather than lingering in our anger, we feel concern for the person’s well being. Working through conflict and disagreement becomes easier when there is empathy for the other party.
Related to empathy is Story, the first S in M.A.D.L.E.S.S. Anger often arises from an inaccurate story we tell ourselves. For instance, we might make up a story about another person’s intention. Or we imagine our anger will teach the other person a lesson, or that anger is necessary to prevent others from taking advantage of us. Investigating the story we have around the anger is a way to question what we may be holding on to and begin to consider if there are other ways of understanding.
One useful story to consider is that being angry may be causing us pain while having minimal or no effect on the other person. I have known people who did the cost/benefit analysis of anger and concluded that being mad was not in their best interest. They found that holding on to resentment was not worth the pain it caused them. Another useful story is to imagine that the circumstance that elicited the anger was designed as the perfect training opportunity for one’s path to freedom. The task then is to discover appropriate ways to take advantage of the opportunity.
If we find ourselves seeing conflict through the filter of a hard “me versus you” view, it might be interesting to find a realistic story that sees everyone as “us” or “we.” Is there an approach that considers what is best for everyone involved, not just “me”?
The last S in M.A.D.L.E.S.S. is Speak and Share. Overcoming anger is not a substitute for dealing with the conflicts we have. Rather, it opens the door to finding productive ways of discussing the conflicts with others, especially with those involved. Even if we have not overcome the anger, we can learn wise ways of speaking that don’t offend or threaten those we’re speaking to. Telling someone we are angry with them probably won’t create the best conditions for a fruitful conversation because the other person may feel criticized. If instead we explain how much we feel hurt by their behavior, the person may be given a chance to feel empathy for us and then be willing to have a constructive conversation.
And one of the most powerful ways of dealing with anger, especially when all else fails, is to share something with the person with whom you are angry—to give a gift. Gift giving can shift moods and relationships in many beneficial ways, some unexpected.
Learning to use the seven M.A.D.L.E.S.S. strategies helps us approach our anger with respect, as something that warrants our careful attention. These steps can become a path through anger to freedom. Not only does this path reduce the dangers we face; it also makes us safer to those around us.
Buddhist practice involves engaging in actions on a path to freedom and awakening. Action, in other words, is key. Reading about Buddhism is not the same as taking up the practice. If we learn about Buddhist practice but don’t change any of our behaviors, we won’t experience the benefits of the practice. Unless we actually take up the activity of mindfulness, mindfulness practice will have no role in our lives. If we decide we want to meditate but fail to actually do it, we won’t experience the fruits of meditation. Without acting on our best values, it would be as if we didn’t have those values at all. Buddhist practice is founded on the principle that our actions are consequential and we can choose actions that lead to greater peace, freedom, and compassion.
Despite this emphasis on action, Buddhism does put primary emphasis on two forms of non-doing: non-craving and non-clinging. The Buddhist path of liberation aims at the cessation of these two mental actions because craving and clinging are the conditions for the arising of dukkha, the Buddhist word for suffering, stress, and distress. When craving and clinging have ceased, not only does dukkha not occur, it is replaced by a deeply meaningful, timeless peace. And when we are no longer involved with craving and clinging, the heart has lots of space for wisdom and compassion.
Although it might sound paradoxical, non-action is also an important kind of action on the Buddhist path. Just as it’s important to understand which actions place us on the path of freedom, it is equally important to understand when non-action is called for. For some people this may be more difficult than learning to act—perhaps because it’s easier to believe we’re making a difference if we’re doing something. This difficulty may be particularly acute when it comes to our inner life, where the habits of behaving, thinking, and believing are often so deeply embedded that not only are they difficult to stop, they can seem natural or innate—part of our “hardware”—so that we don’t even recognize them as activities we have any choice over. A lifetime of doing, fixing, arranging, and controlling can be difficult to put to rest.
One of the foundational Buddhist practices of non-action involves refraining from acting on unethical impulses. The five ethical precepts are the most obvious examples of this practice. The precepts involve a commitment to not act on our intentions to harm others, steal, lie, engage in sexual misconduct, or become intoxicated. Commitment to these precepts is not always easy to adhere to because unethical impulses and intentions can be powerful. When they are, the non-action required may be quite active, requiring lots of inner strength to support our commitment to refrain.
Forbearance and patience are also important though less appreciated practices of non-action. Human life is filled with situations that frustrate our preferences, destabilize our equanimity, and evoke our ire. Because it is rarely beneficial to act—or react—when we are frustrated, unstable, or angry, practicing patience may be the best approach to avoid making a difficult situation worse. Such non-action is called forbearance when we also have to tolerate discomfort.
As most people who meditate know, meditation takes sustained effort. But from one perspective at least, it also involves a lot of non-action. With the body resting still, we are not engaged in the physical activities that characterize much of our lives. Similarly, by keeping our attention in the present moment, the meditative mind is not actively and intentionally involved in most forms of daily mental activity such as thinking about the past, the future, or fantasies. When we’re engaged in meditation, being preoccupied with expectations and goals and evaluating our progress are all counterproductive. So is criticizing ourselves for how “well” or “unwell” we’re meditating. Assuming too much active responsibility for our meditation can derail the relaxing, unwinding, and opening that support meditation practice. Mindfulness practitioners also learn that “selfing” is not helpful. Concerns with self-identity, self-justification, and self-aversion, are mental activities that meditators eventually learn to refrain from in favor of experiencing more peace.
People who practice meditation discover ever-subtler forms of non-action. For example, they learn that picking up a thought and getting involved with it is a mental action that isn’t necessary and needn’t be automatic. If the thought is not picked up, it can be left alone to fade away on its own. With mindfulness, we can develop the ability to choose which thoughts to engage with and which to avoid. In this way, non-action is an effective antidote for neuroses that result from being overly involved with thoughts. For some people, giving up the usual habits of mental activity is the most important lesson they can learn in meditation, partly because of the relief it brings and partly because it allows them to discover beneficial aspects of their inner life that had been hidden by all the doing.
Rather than directly solving our personal problems, non-action and meditation can help us to step away from our preoccupation with our problems, and this change in emphasis can sometimes make space for new solutions to arise or for the problem itself to diminish on its own. Some problems are better dissolved than solved. Some issues are seen more clearly when we aren’t ruminating about them.
But non-action isn’t always easy. It can require a lot of self-discipline and willpower when we’re in the grip of desires and fears. Not acting on addictive drives may be as difficult as it is beneficial. It can be hard to resist the impulse to stay up late watching TV or surfing the internet, but when we do, we can get a good night’s sleep and wake up ready for the workday ahead. For those who have strong cravings for addictive substances, the pull to indulge can be very powerful, but when they refrain, they may be able to hold on to a job or a marriage.
Even in more mundane situations, non-action has benefits. For people who are always quick to speak, sometimes at the expense of interrupting others, practicing non-action in conversation can be helpful and instructive. This might be as simple as waiting to speak until others are clearly finished. Or it can involve allowing moments of silence. Not acting on every impulse to speak is a way to respect others. It is also a way to allow for greater mindfulness of what’s happening in a conversation.
In lives of constant doing, periods of non-activity can serve as important intervals of rest, recovery, and discovery. When we’re perpetually busy we can easily lose touch with ourselves, how we’re feeling, and even our most important values. Not doing may be just the medicine for relieving stress or providing time to process unresolved feelings. Letting go of any attempt to accomplish or do anything but instead simply looking out the window or drinking a cup of tea may give the mind and heart a chance to reveal something important that has been overlooked or which we have not yet thought about. Non-action can be the seedbed for creativity and healing.
Non-doing is also a significant way of learning about ourselves. As we attempt to stop our usual activities, we discover the impulses that make stopping so difficult. In this way we learn where we are attached, and we learn about the emotions, impulses, and beliefs that keep us caught up. When we refrain from doing something we habitually do, we might get to see for the first time the cost the activity has had—sometimes over a lifetime. Finally, it may be only when we have ceased being active that we can see that we have more choices in how to act.
In deep meditation practice a time comes when it is helpful to let go of all intentional mental activity, even of mindfulness, concentration, and any other ways we are “meditating.” This can provide a profound sense of well being that is not dependent on getting what we want, avoiding what we don’t want, or any other efforts to “do” anything. It is a sense of well being that loosens the grip of our attachments.
It is possible to become free of clinging—this is what the path of freedom is all about. To find this path each person must find the right balance of action and non-action.
by: Gil Fronsdal
At the Insight Meditation Center, and soon, at the new Insight Retreat Center, we offer our residential retreats freely at no cost to anyone who participates. We do so because we believe Buddhist practice unfolds best in a field of generosity, gratitude, and goodwill. We also believe the freely given aspect of retreats exemplifies the remarkable inner freedom that Buddhism champions. By demonstrating an alternative to the dominant materialism and acquisitiveness of our culture, we hope these retreats inspire open- heartedness and open-handedness in the volunteers who put on the retreats, the donors who fund them, and the retreatants themselves.
When we offer a retreat we think of it as offering a gift to those who attend. This is one reason we use dana, the Buddhist word meaning “gift”, when we describe our retreats as dana retreats. The other reason we use dana to refer to our retreats is because all the support that allows us to put on a retreat has come as gifts. Dana Retreats are both gifts and gifted.
The staff and teachers who do the work of running the retreat do so as volunteers, providing the gift of their labor and time, so that others may experience the benefits retreats can provide. Because of this, retreatants often find themselves inspired knowing they are being cared for by the non-obligatory generosity of others. It is a kind of inspiration through which the benefits of retreat can sink in deeper.
Generosity, gratitude and goodwill thrive more easily when there is no pressure. We strive, therefore, to operate our retreat center well within our means. We are blessed by the many people who have been supporting our efforts.
In offering retreats freely we are happy that it removes a financial obstacle for some people. It frees us at IRC from having to administer scholarships and eliminates, for many people, the awkwardness of asking for a scholarship. Instead of having special scholarship fundraising efforts that benefit only some people, all our fundraising efforts go toward benefiting everyone who comes to retreats.
The majority of the financial support for our retreats and retreat teachers comes from the donations retreatants offer at the end of retreats. Retreatants are neither required to donate nor are there any dollar amounts suggested. But when they do make a donation their generosity is what allows others to participate in upcoming retreats. When people give knowing others will benefit, their giving can be a source of joy. Giving benefits the giver.
We could, of course, charge for our retreats. Not only is there is nothing inherently wrong with this, there is some wisdom in doing so. However, try this thought experiment: what difference would it make to you if you paid a required cost for a retreat prior to the retreat versus freely offering the same amount of money as a donation at the end?
While the clarity of knowing a set cost can have advantages, it doesn’t allow people to experience the joy of being generous. When people pay for something there is often a belief that they deserve something in return, an attitude that can get in the way of the personal work meditation requires. Because people don’t pay for our retreats, people are less likely to assign responsibility to others. Instead, people are more likely to feel gratitude that someone at a previous retreat offered the funds so they could attend the retreat.
Gratitude, in turn, can help people relax and trust, qualities that support meditation practice, and inspire people to do the inner work that meditation is about. Gratitude benefits the grateful.
It is a joy and privilege to support others to do the deep inner work that happens so well on retreats. Not only are we, at IMC, inspired to offer retreats, we are also inspired by the goodwill and generosity of the many people who support our retreat efforts. It takes a community to support awakening in each one of us.
by Andrea Fella
When we go on a residential retreat, we often hope that our meditation will result in a deepening of concentration: a quality of composure, collectedness, of settled attention.
But unfortunately, we can’t force concentration to happen! We can, however, support the conditions that allow it to arise. This simple fact has been really helpful for me to remember. In our meditation practice, we often bring along the cultural baggage of an “I’m going to do this” mentality, and sometimes that attitude can get in our way.
Concentration arises when awareness becomes continuous, whether continuous on a single experience like the breathing, or continuous on a flow of changing experience. We can’t force this continuity. We can, for short periods of time, forcefully hold our attention to experience, but this kind of attention usually results in brittle concentration that’s easily broken.
So a useful support for our practice is learning how to create a container that allows concentration to develop without being forced. This tends to result in a more stable concentration.
Relaxation is one of the important aspects of that container. Relaxation is actually one of the main supports for concentration! When I first started meditating, I thought that you had to force the mind to focus. The idea that one could relax to facilitate concentration did not penetrate my mind for quite a while. But relaxation is quite important.
Relaxation in meditation does not mean spacing out! The mind can be both relaxed and alert. Relaxation can take time. Different people need different amounts of time to allow the body and mind to relax in meditation. Relaxation of the body and relaxation of the mind are mutually supportive; when the body is relaxed, it’s much easier for the mind to relax.
We all need to find our own way to relax in meditation. For some people, starting with a relaxing body scan can be very helpful: consciously relaxing the muscles of the body in a systematic way. Once the body is relaxed, we see if we can relax the thinking mind. For others, meditating on ambient sounds can be helpful. Since we don’t control these sounds, turning our attention to them can sometimes allow the body and mind to relax very naturally.
Setting up a container of relaxed attention is an important framework for the meditation. Once you find a balance of relaxation and alertness, you can learn how to open this relaxed attention to experience: Either directing attention to a particular experience like the breathing, or becoming aware of a flow of experience: of seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, touching, and emotions and thoughts.
When we can learn how to attend to our experience and not lose the relaxation, the mind becomes malleable, and we can skillfully choose to direct the attention to support a deepening of concentration. At other times, we can get out of our own way, and allow the meditation to take its own course very naturally.
I encourage you to take the time to explore what it means for you to have a relaxed attention: first of all to learn simply how to relax the body and mind, and then to learn what it means to apply this relaxation to an alert attending to your experience.
Compassion is inextricably linked to the Buddhist practice of liberation. It can be the motivation for this practice as well as the result. As one’s inner freedom grows, one’s capacity for compassion increases; as one’s compassion increases, so does the importance of freedom. Liberation supports compassion and compassion supports liberation. They both benefit when they go hand in hand.
Compassion is a form of empathy and care that wishes for the alleviation of someone’s suffering. Known as karuna in Buddhism, this compassion is sometimes referred to as the “jewel in the lotus.” The lotus symbolizes the heart or mind that, with practice, blossoms into freedom, and the jewel represents the compassion appearing in the center of this blossom. The feeling of unfettered compassion is one of the most beautiful feelings a person can experience, providing valuable meaning and purpose to any human life. Its presence is sometimes celebrated in Buddhism as an inner wealth and source of happiness.
Given its importance, Buddhism doesn’t leave the manifestation of compassion to chance. We don’t have to passively accept how often and how strongly we happen to experience it. Instead, it’s possible to actively develop our feelings of compassion and remove the obstacles for our feeling compassionate.
Because people sometimes confuse compassion with feelings of distress, it is helpful to clearly distinguish these two. Compassion doesn’t make us victims of suffering, whereas feeling distress on another’s behalf often does. Learning how to see the suffering in the world without taking it on personally is very important; when we take it personally it is easy to become depressed or burdened. We can avoid taking it as a personal burden or obligation if we learn to feel empathy without it touching our own fears, attachments, and perhaps unresolved grief.
This means that to feel greater compassion for others we need to understand our own suffering. Mindfulness practice is a great help in this. With mindfulness, we can better see our suffering, its roots within us and the way to freedom from suffering; we can begin to cultivate both equanimity toward our suffering and release from its causes.
In this regard, it’s helpful to appreciate the great value in staying present, open, and mindful of suffering, both our own and that of others. We often need to give ourselves time to process difficult events and experiences and to let difficult emotions move through us. When immediate action is not required, staying mindful of suffering doesn’t necessarily require a lot of wisdom or special techniques. It mostly takes patience and perseverance. Relaxed mindfulness of our own suffering increases our ability to feel empathy for others’ difficulty and pain. It gives time for understanding and letting go to occur. By practicing to be free of habitual reactivity, we take the time to see and feel more deeply what is happening. This allows empathy to operate and for deeper responses to arise from within. In this way, compassion is evoked rather than intentionally created.
Some people are reluctant to actively cultivate compassion because they worry that it will be insincerely or artificially contrived. Others fear that it will make them sentimentally naive or prevent them from seeing others clearly or realistically—perhaps out of concern they will be taken advantage of if they are compassionate to others. Because efforts to be compassionate can be misguided, these concerns are worth keeping in mind. However, as there are healthy ways to increase our compassion, the concerns don’t have to inhibit our efforts to do so.
One effective way of developing compassion is creating conditions that make it more likely to occur. That is, rather than directly making ourselves more compassionate, we can engage in activities that make it more likely to appear naturally.
A condition for compassion is a sense of safety. It is easier to feel compassionate if we feel safe and very difficult when we don’t. Therefore, to develop a confident and compassionate life, it can be helpful to find appropriate ways to feel safe. Locking ourselves in our home may feel secure, but it’s not conducive to caring more about others. Learning how to be safe while in the world is more useful. So is using mindfulness practice to address some of the anxieties and self-preoccupations that make us more likely to feel threatened.
It is important not to feel obligated to be compassionate as this often leads to self-criticism and stress that interferes with the arising of a natural compassion. Buddhism doesn’t require us to feel empathy and care for others. It does say, however, that we have the capacity to be compassionate and that doing so is a wonderful asset to ourselves, to others, and to the practice of freedom. The focus can be on how compassion enriches us, not depletes us.
Some people are hesitant to cultivate compassion because they worry they will have to give up too much of themselves as they help others. Or they fear they will have to spend time with people they feel uncomfortable with. By knowing we are not obligated to be compassionate it may be easier for us to use our best wisdom and common sense to understand when acting on compassion is appropriate and when it is not.
Having confidence in our skill to respond to others’ suffering can also make it easier to feel compassion. If we feel helpless, too uncomfortable, or even threatened by the troubles others are facing, awareness of their suffering may add to a sense of personal threat. Developing skill has a lot to do with slow and patient training in such things as mindfulness, concentration, and letting go.
A way of strengthening compassion is to understand and then release what prevents it from arising. For example, tension and stress limit compassion. When we’re stressed, we’re usually too preoccupied for empathy to operate. However, when we’re relaxed, our capacity for empathy increases. People who cultivate deep states of calm often find it naturally opens their hearts to great capacities of compassion and love.
Selfishness and self-preoccupation also obstruct compassion by blocking the attention and sensitivity that is needed for compassion to arise. One benefit of letting go of selfishness is that compassion arises more easily.
We can also increase the amount of compassion we feel in our lives by setting the intention to do so. This can be quite specific, such as intending to be compassionate in a particular situation or toward a particular person—or it can be more general, as intending to be compassionate for this day or this week. When we consciously set this intention, we’re more likely to be reminded of and to think in terms of compassion. We will also notice compassionate thoughts and impulses that occur but which may otherwise be overshadowed by different desires and concerns.
Valuing compassion when it does appear can also strengthen it and make it more apt to arise in the future. We might consider and appreciate the benefits it can bring others as well as ourselves. Knowing the benefits can bring a sense happiness that in turn can make compassion more appealing. Compassion can be more appealing when we have seen how it can be a source of happiness and how it can be intimately connected with our inner freedom. Compassion for others can be a relief when we have spent too long pre-occupied with ourselves.
Another supportive condition is to deliberately reflect on compassion, perhaps stimulated by regularly reading and talking to others about it. Whatever we think about regularly can become an inclination. If we repeatedly think about love, kindness and caring for others, thoughts related to compassion are likely to appear more often.
Spending time with people who are compassionate can also help us. The people we see frequently often have an influence on us. Seeing compassion in others can inspire it in ourselves.
Finally, understanding how compassion is a form of love helps us recognize what a jewel it truly is. When it arises from inner freedom it is then connected to other beautiful capacities of our hearts. It can appear together with well-being, calm, clarity, and peace.
There is, in fact, a great deal we can do to make compassion a more central part of our lives. As compassion grows, our self-centeredness and clinging decrease, and liberation becomes easier. As we become freer, compassion becomes more readily available. To let compassion and liberation support each other is one of the most beautiful ways of training in the Buddhist path. It can be our gift to the world.
Many of the Buddha’s teachings focus, in one way or another, on the importance of action in a wise life. When he gave instructions on how to live, he emphasized the importance of choosing actions that benefit ourselves and others. To understand his instruction on action it helps to be familiar with the teachings that provide the context for knowing how to act.
For people on the Buddha’s path of liberation, understanding the relationship between action and karma is important. The central teaching the Buddha gave concerning karma is that our actions are consequential, and that it’s possible to act in ways that lead to beneficial consequences. This teaching is based on the understanding that we can know and choose which actions to engage in and which to refrain from in order to achieve peace and well being, and to avoid suffering. Rather than emphasizing past and future lives, as people often do when discussing karma, the Buddha’s teachings point to the importance of the present moment as the only time we can take responsibility for, and train in, the actions that bring freedom.
Because of the important role of karma, the Buddha emphasized being mindful of what we do rather than what we are—and here, we can think of ‘doing’ as encompassing mental activities as well as external actions. Instead of looking for some fixed, essential psychological state, inner nature, or spiritual essence, the Buddha focused on the dynamic psychological processes that are operating when we suffer. When we know enough about how our minds function we can begin to avoid those mental actions that cause suffering, and choose to engage in the mental trainings and skillful actions that place us on the path to liberation.
It’s sometimes said that the Buddha emphasized action over belief. In one sense this is true. When it came to the kinds of supernatural beliefs that underlie most religions, it appears that the Buddha had very little interest. However, he saw that belief is also a form of action, a mental activity, and so in that sense our beliefs are actions worthy of investigation. This means that in addition to investigating the truth or falsehood of a belief, it is possible to notice whether the act of believing is, in itself, helpful. In particular it can be useful to notice why we believe what we do. What is the intention behind our believing?
Another quality the Buddha emphasized in his teachings on action was faith—not blind faith in something that can’t be known, but a faith in those things that can be tested and verified through our actions. Until we see for ourselves the results of our actions, we are supported by a trust that there are activities that will lead us to happiness and protect us from suffering. When we see and experience the results of practice, this faith can become an unshakeable confidence—we have no doubt about what actions lead to inner freedom and peace.
The role of intention is also central to the Buddha’s teachings on action. Our intentions are a form of mental activity that have consequences for our mental life. It is the nature or quality of an intention that determines how it affects the mind. When we act on an intention that has suffering as part of it, more suffering results. For example, when we speak with hostility, not only is the act of hostility stressful in itself, it often creates the conditions for continued suffering for ourselves and others. Because greed, hatred and delusion all entail the suffering of clinging, actions motivated by these three intentions reinforce our clinging and so perpetuate the suffering of clinging. When we act on an intention that embodies freedom from clinging, the benefits of that freedom will strengthen within us. In this way, when we act on openhanded generosity, love, and wisdom—the opposites of greed, hatred, and delusion—we create mental conditions for happiness and further freedom.
This cultivation of beneficial states of mind is important; the Buddha advocated more than simply ridding ourselves of intentions that are based on clinging. The purity that comes from avoiding certain behaviors and intentions, while worthwhile, is not enough in itself to attain the highest goal of liberation, we have to see directly into the nature of our own suffering.
But because this direct seeing isn’t easy to do, the Buddha suggested engaging in specific actions to help the mind perceive the ways it grasps and suffers. Key among these are the practices of concentration, mindfulness, and letting go. The training in concentration helps keep the mind stable and focused on our present moment experience so that mindfulness can help us see more clearly. The more insight we have into the present moment, the better able we are to recognize the moments of choice in which we can choose more skillful actions. Training in letting go helps us let go of those behaviors that interfere with the further deepening of mindfulness. At times the only action needed is letting go of all other actions.
While the Buddha’s teachings on action may seem like instructions for staying in constant activity, they are actually instructions in those actions that lead to greater and greater peace. It’s the untrained mind that is always busy. A trained mind can experience profound rest. It’s the mind that understands skillful actions that can know freedom from all actions.
All of Buddhism flows from the Buddha’s awakening. This is so important that the title “Buddha”, meaning “One Who is Awake”, comes from bodhi, the Buddhist word for awakening. Often, because Buddhism is a path by which others may experience this awakening, this goal is what is emphasized in Buddhist teachings. In practice, however, for many Buddhist practitioners ‘going for refuge’ can involve a change of heart and mind as consequential as awakening itself.
There are two modern meanings of the English word ‘refuge’ that highlight the value of sarana, the Buddhist word for refuge. The first is a place where people can find safety from danger. The second is an area, like a wildlife refuge, set up to protect animals seen as valuable or endangered. In Buddhism, going for refuge includes both these meanings: it is a way of protecting ourselves from danger as well as safeguarding what is most valuable or beautiful within ourselves.
The practice of going for refuge is as ancient as Buddhism. It began with those people who, meeting the Buddha, were so moved that they spontaneously declared their dedication to him and his Dharma or teachings. In time, some of his disciples also experienced awakening. The community of those who awakened became the third refuge, the sangha. Together, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are known as the triple refuge. Because of the great value people find in them, these have come to be called the three treasures or the triple gem.
Sometimes the triple refuge refers to the historical Buddha, the Dharma he taught, and the Sangha of practitioners who have followed in his footsteps. This can be called the external refuge. Other times the triple refuge refers to inner qualities that give rise to a Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. As these are inner states or capacities we all have, this can be called the internal refuge.
The external refuge is important because it is difficult to rely completely on oneself. It is helpful to have the Buddha as an example of what is possible. Few people on their own can understand the full potential they have for spiritual transformation. Learning the Dharma teachings protects us from taking paths not helpful for our freedom and awakening. It can also save us from the difficulty of discovering for ourselves the practices and teachings that do help. Being connected to a Sangha is a way to learn from others who are on the path of practice.
The internal refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is what the Buddha referred to when he encouraged people to take refuge in oneself. In the last days of his life he said, “You should live being your own refuge with no one else as your refuge. You should live with the Dharma as your refuge with no other refuge.” The first sentence suggests each person must walk the path of practice for oneself; no one can walk it for us. The second sentence suggests that the Dharma is found in oneself, in one’s own capacities.
The internal refuge in the Buddha is our capacity to experience the peace of non-harming and non-attachment. It is the possibility of uprooting the fear, hate, delusion and greed that is the source of our suffering. It is our own ability to mature spiritually. To take inner refuge in the Buddha is to have confidence in our potential for spiritual growth and transformation.
The internal refuge in the Dharma can be described in many ways. One powerful way is to understand it as having non-harming as one’s refuge. The Dharma is not an abstract principle or reality. It arises from how we are and what we do. When we dedicate our lives to not harming, the Dharma flows through our lives, allowing us to practice with the Buddha’s teachings and to live harmoniously.
The internal refuge in Sangha encompasses our own capacity for goodness, such as our kindness, compassion and generosity. The path of non-harming and awakening does not depend only on our efforts to practice; we also need to be supported by those wholesome feelings, motivations, and attitudes that we are capable of but often overlook. To take inner refuge in the Sangha is to have confidence in our inner capacity for goodness, even when it may not be evident.
In relying on the triple refuge a person understands that the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are reliable. They can sustain us in difficult times. They encompass values, practices, insights, and realizations that not only protect us from self-destructive behaviors, they also help us to live wisely. They help bring forth the best qualities in our heart.
Some people look to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for refuge when what they had been relying on no longer supports them. Changes in work, finances, relationships, health, and society can be stressful when our well-being depends on these being a particular way. Sometimes when they realize that what they were expecting would bring them lasting happiness is not able to do so, when all else fails, they turn to taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Some people approach going for refuge as a firm, courageous, and enthusiastic commitment to a life based on spiritual freedom and compassion. It is a commitment that simultaneously energizes one to act in new ways while encouraging a deep relaxation. So many unnecessary things can be let go when one trusts that the Dharma path provides meaningful and profound support. Going for refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha protects us from danger as much as it nourishes the growth of what is most beautiful within us.
Going for refuge is a choice to orient oneself by what the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha represent. It could be as simple as “I now orient my life to being very careful with my speech so that my speech is honest.” It could be the dedication, “I will try to live without harming others.” For some, it may involve a radical, even revolutionary, change in how they live their lives as they dedicate themselves to the path of liberation, wisdom and compassion over all other possible dedications.