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Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English

1 The Concentration Path

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CHAPTER 1

The Concentration Path

HOW MUCH FAITH DO YOU NEED?

Though Buddhism is quite different from most religions, and is in some ways more akin to a kind of practical philosophy, the practices and teachings we will be exploring do come from a religious context, namely from Theravadan Buddhism. All you need to do is render the hindrances dormant. All religion depends on some kind of faith, which at heart is nothing more than the willingness to accept provisionally something without yet having proved or verified it for oneself. And this is true with this material as well. But you don’t have to be a Buddhist, in any religious sense whatsoever, to gain absorption concentration. Anybody can do it.

So, how much faith do you need? Do you need to convert to Buddhism? Do you need to abandon the tradition in which you were raised or the ideals to which you have deep commitment? Do you need to cast aside anything that your intellect or understanding of the world tells you is true?

Absolutely not. You can retain your current frame of reference and accept only what you are prepared to accept, a piece at time, and only what you in fact find helpful. Yet you do need some faith.

You need the same kind of faith that you need to read a good novel 2 or conduct a scientific experiment. You need “a willing suspension of disbelief.” I invite you to, as an experiment, put any automatic rejection you may have on hold long enough to see if this path works for you, to see if you yourself can verify what generations of people just like you have verified for millennia.

That temporary suspension of disbelief is all you need here—but even that is not easy. Our conditioned preconceptions are deep and often unconscious. We frequently find ourselves rejecting something without really inspecting that judgment, without even knowing that we have made a judgment. And indeed, this is one of the beauties of the concentration path that we’ll be exploring together. It trains us to look at our own minds, to know when we are judging and simply reacting. Then we can decide how much of that instantaneous reaction we wish to accept. You are completely in control of that process.

There is, of course, a snag. You need to be able to suspend your disbelief deeply enough and long enough to give concentration meditation a real, honest, best-effort try, and the deep results are not instantaneous. Do not expect that you can give this a half-hearted effort and two weeks later the heavens will open and the golden sun-beam of inspiration will pour down upon your head. This will almost certainly lead to disappointment.

We are dealing with the deepest forces in the mind, and epiphany is seldom immediate.

WHY DEEP CONCENTRATION IS IMPORTANT

There is no concentration without wisdom, no wisdom without concentration. One who has both concentration and wisdom is close to peace and emancipation.

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The wisdom referred to in this passage is of two varieties. First, there is ordinary wisdom, the kind that can be expressed in words, the kind we know with our ordinary minds. Then there is the wisdom of knowing things at the deepest level, a knowing beyond words and concepts. This book presents you with wisdom of the first kind so that you can seek and find the higher wisdom on your own.

To seek this deep understanding we must quest into the basic nature of the mind itself. In the following passage from the Pali scriptures, the Buddha speaks to his primary disciples and explains the nature of the mind, what makes it ill, and what we have to do to correct that.

This mind, O monks, is luminous, but it is corrupted by adventitious defilements. The uninstructed worldling does not understand this as it really is. Therefore, for him, there is no mental development.

This mind, O monks, is luminous, but it is free from adventitious defilements. The instructed noble disciple understands this as it really is. Therefore, for him, there is mental development.

In this passage, “This mind” is mentioned twice, once for the “uninstructed worldling” and once for the “instructed noble disciple.” Yet whether we are ordinary people or advanced meditators, we all have the same kind of mind. The deep mind is constant and luminous, but its light is not light as we ordinarily understand it. The mind, by its very nature, is not dark, murky, or turbulent. In its essential character, it has light; it is bright, filled with a shining, open, non-conceptual intelligence and a deep tranquility.

But all of us have something that keeps it from shining properly. A few of us succeed in removing what is referred to above as

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“adventitious defilements”—obscurations not inherent to the mind’s true nature—and gain “mental development.” In the sutta above, “mental development” refers to the deep concentration described in this book. Buddha says that the mind is luminous, but that uninstructed people do not know this. They do not know it, in short, because they do not practice concentration, and they do not practice concentration because they do not know that there is a pure and luminous mind to be experienced.

To achieve concentration we must remove something, and the class of things we must remove are called “defilements.” A “defilement” is a corruption, an adulteration, or a contaminant. It is something that muddies the mind. But it is also like a kind of mental toxin. It makes the mind sick. It gives rise to much suffering. But fortunately, these defilements are “adventitious,” added from the outside, not part of the deep mind’s basic structure.

So: these “adventitious defilements” are qualities of mind we must remove. To attain the benefits of mental development, we must learn what they are and how to get rid of them. This removal operates by cultivating mindfulness and leads to seeing the “luminous” character of the mind.

Sounds interesting, right?

It is.

Sounds like something good to do, right?

It is.

But it is tricky. There are lots of pitfalls along the way and there is plenty to know. But you’re holding the right book!

FOLLOWING THE BUDDHA’S EXAMPLE

After his enlightenment, the Buddha went to Banares and delivered his first discourse to a group of disciples known as the Five Ascetics. 5 These men knew him well. Indeed, they had been practicing self-mortification with him for six long years—until the Buddha realized the shortcoming of the ascetic path and set out toward the Middle Way. As he approached the Five Ascetics, they did not pay him any special respect. They simply called him “friend,” just as they had when he was one of them. They did not think he was anybody special. They did not know that he had attained enlightenment.

The Buddha told them of his attainments and that they might now learn from him; he told them outright that he had, in fact, attained enlightenment. They did not believe him. Seeing their skepticism, the Buddha asked them a question:

“Bhikkhus, have I ever said to you before that I had attained enlightenment?” “No, sir.” “So long bhikkhus, as my knowledge and vision of these Four Noble Truths, as they really are, in their three phases and twelve aspects, was not thoroughly purified, I did not claim to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment.”

The Buddha was forthright. He knew who he was and what had happened to him. The Four Noble Truths are the cornerstone of all his teaching. Each is understood and practiced in three phases. That constitutes what are called the twelve aspects. The three phases are theory, practice, and realization. You must first understand something as a theory. Then you put it into practice so that you actually experience it taking place. Then you realize, that is to say “make real,” the result. That is the process by which one verifies a theory as reality. In this usage, the word realization means both “understanding” and “final attainment.”

The Buddha employed this three-phase method when he uncovered the Four Noble Truths:

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The First Noble Truth is that suffering exists. The Buddha knew that suffering was real before he saw it deeply. That is the theory. Actually experiencing the nature of suffering was the Buddha’s practice. From his own meditation practice he came to know that suffering is real life and that it should be understood. The Buddha experienced suffering at all conceivable levels. And he learned how to work to overcome it. Finally, the Buddha’s realization became perfected. He knew he could end his suffering—and he did it.

The Second Noble Truth is that suffering has a specific cause. The Buddha understood the causes of suffering, exactly as they are, as a theory. His prior practice had led him to this intellectual understanding, but he had not yet realized it fully, experientially. When he did, the Buddha understood that the cause of suffering can be eliminated by eradicating its causes, by ripping it out by the roots. That was the Buddha’s practice. He actually did what he said should be done. He attacked the issue at its fundamental layer by eradicating the underlying causes. When he eliminated the causes of suffering fully, the Buddha gained his freedom. That constituted his realization.

The Third Noble Truth is that suffering actually does cease. In theory, the Buddha knew that there is an end to suffering somewhere. As he put this theory into practice, he understood that the end of suffering should be attained. He gained the full result of the cessation of suffering as his realization.

The Fourth Noble Truth is that there is a path that leads to the end of suffering. First the Buddha figured out in theory that the path exists. He figured out the steps he needed to take to gain liberation. He put the theory into practice in his own life. And as a result, he was able to clarify the path to liberation as his realization.

The point here is simple. You need to really understand each point of what you are doing, actually put each step into practice and actually personally see the full results within your own mind. Nothing less 7 will do the job—the ultimate job, the job of becoming free from suffering. Yet this kind of liberation requires full commitment, much work and much patience, and taking the process all the way to perfect realization.

The Buddha gave us the Dhamma, his teachings, so that we can practice. He himself gained the knowledge from his own practice. He did not just come up with an idea, rush out and tell it to the world when it was still just a theory. He waited until he had it all, the theory, the practice, and the full realization. The Buddha gave us a beautiful plan, just the way an architect draws a plan for a building. And, just as builders must diligently follow an architect’s careful plans in order to bring the building into being, we too must follow the Buddha’s plan to bring liberation into being.

The Buddha gave us a really good, detailed plan. You need to follow it exactly. Other people propose other plans—from the Buddha’s time right down to the twenty-first century—but they may not work; they have not been tested by generation after generation for two thousand years.

The Buddha’s plan even includes a guarantee: If you follow the instructions given in these discourses exactly, you can attain full enlightenment in as few as seven days. If you cannot get rid of all your defilements, you will attain at least the third stage of enlightenment within seven years.

It’s like an extended warranty. Of course, there are a few extra clauses and requirements in the contract, a few ways you can, regrettably, void the warranty. In order to for warranty to be valid, you must:

• Have faith and place that faith in the Buddha, who is free from illness and afflictions.

• Have adequate health and be able to bear the strain of striving. 8

• Be honest and sincere. Show yourself as you actually are to the teacher and your companions in the holy life.

• Be energetic in abandoning unhealthy states of mind and behavior and in undertaking healthy states.

• Be unfaltering, launching your effort with firmness and persevering doggedly in cultivating wholesome states of mind.

• Be wise. Possess wisdom regarding the rising and disappearance of all phenomena that is noble and penetrative and leads to the complete destruction of suffering.

This book will give you the theory, piece by piece, for how to do all those things. The practice and the realization are up to you. The Buddha reached this perfection of realization of the Four Noble Truths and attained enlightenment by combining concentration and mindfulness in perfect balance.

You can do the same.

THE JHANA ROADMAP

Traveling along the concentration path takes practice. We begin right here, in the world as we know it through our physical senses and our conceptual thinking. If you envision the concentration path as a roadmap, you could say that we all start in pretty much the same geographical region, but each in a slightly different location. That is because we are different personalities and we have accumulated different proportions of the “defilements” that need to be removed through our efforts. We start by performing slightly different cleansing actions, putting the accent on whatever is holding us back the most. Then as we go, our paths converge. What we are doing becomes more and more similar until we are traveling pretty much the same road.

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The beginning of the path lies in identifying and deactivating a class of things called hindrances. They are the gross aspects of our negative mental functioning and we can spot them easily. To do this we attain and move through special meditative states called the jhanas. I’ll introduce these in more detail in the next chapter, but for our purposes here it’s sufficient to note that in the higher jhanas we temporarily neutralize a class of things called the fetters. These are the more subtle factors in the mind that give rise to the hindrances.

Once we have temporarily removed the roadblocks, concentration becomes strong. Then we point it at certain very fruitful objects and look for the characteristics of those objects that lead to freedom.

This is not really as much of a 1-2-3 operation as it sounds. In fact we are doing many of these steps together. Success in each area permits further development in the other areas.

Way down the road, ever-strengthening concentration drops us suddenly into a new landscape. The world of the senses and thinking recedes and we experience four successive stages of joy, happiness, and ever-more subtle kinds of experience. These are the material jhana states. They are still on the map of our ordinary world, but just barely.

After that come four more stages that have almost nothing whatever to do with the world we know right now, through a mind that has not yet experienced such special meditative states. These are the immaterial jhanas. They are pretty much off the map of reality as we experience it now.

After that come states called the supramundane jhanas. They are, in an important way, clean off the continent of the familiar.

This is the road we will cover together in coming chapters.

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