There are three ways to approach the Dhamma. One is by acquiring knowledge through study of the Buddha's discourses, trying to remember them as faithfully as possible. That is very useful for the propagation of the teaching through lectures and books.
Another way is through devotion, offering flowers and incense, reciting devotional verses, giving gifts and making merit. Generosity and meritorious action were highly recommended by the Buddha, but he didn't put any value on just being in the presence of monks and nuns.
Once there was a monk who was so enraptured with the Buddha that he never wanted to be out of his sight. When this monk became sick one day and was unable to see the Buddha, he became despondent. The other monks asked him why he was so unhappy. He explained that he was depressed because he could not see the Buddha, who then came to visit the sick monk and said to him: "What do you see in this vile form? There is nothing to see in that. Whoever sees me, sees the Dhamma, whoever sees Dhamma, sees me. "
The third approach to Dhamma, namely practice, has always been the one most highly recommended by the Buddha. He said a person with real reverence and devotion is one who lives according to the teaching. There are a number of steps to be taken when we approach the Dhamma through practice. The foundation would be moral conduct, meritorious actions, making good kamma. Without such a foundation, we do not have enough security within to be peaceful and at ease with ourselves, which are prerequisites for meditation.
This has sometimes been misinterpreted to mean that we should not meditate unless we have already complete purity of precepts and gained perfect mindfulness. But that doesn't follow, because it's meditation that helps us to gain mindfulness, and gives us insight into the efficacy of the precepts.
The next practice aspect is to guard our senses. This is frequently mentioned by the Buddha, so that it bears repeating and remembering. Without guarding our senses, we are always open to being tempted into wanting and craving, resulting in turmoil in the mind. Our sense contacts are triggers for lust and hate.
Our senses are so permanently engaged that we have lost sight of their impact, are taking all that for granted and think that's just the way it is. We also believe that what we see, hear, taste, touch, smell and think is really exactly as we are interpreting it. That's a fundamental error. Everyone experiences their sense contacts in an individual manner.
Here is an example: The food Westerners eat is considered baby food in Asia: food spiced in the Asian way appears like hellfire to the Western palate. Even such a basic necessity as food shows up as a completely opposite experience. We can infer from that, that we all live in our own world. People argue vehemently because they believe their world must be the right one and even kill each other because of unresolved differences.
The Buddha was often asked such a question as: "Is the world finite or infinite, eternal or not?" His answer was: "What is the world? The world is our sense contacts." When asked questions such as these, the Buddha always brought the questioner back to practice. When we know that the world we live in consists of our sense contacts, we have something to practice with. When we know that the world is eternal or not, what is there to practice with?
Our senses include thinking, which is an almost constantly operating faculty. At this moment, we have touch, sound, sight and thought contact. Four of our six senses are engaged. Because our senses have been at work all our lives we believe that is the only way life can be experienced, which creates our deep craving to continue in this form. There is danger in this craving, something most people are not aware of consciously. Subconsciously we all know about it, because that's where our fears originate. If we examine ourselves for a moment we will realize that we harbor many fears, all carrying different names. Some people are afraid of spiders or snakes, some are afraid of the dark, some are afraid of airplanes, others that their loved ones may die, or that they might lose all their money. All sorts of different names for exactly the same fear; the fear of losing one's identifications, the fear of unpleasant, painful sense contacts, ultimately the fear of annihilation. Yet losing this existence is a guaranteed outcome of being alive. It's just a matter of time.
These fears are caused by our attachment to our pleasant sense contacts, identifying with them and believing that apart from our senses there is no other reality. Naturally we want that to continue then. We take our unpleasant experiences in stride, expecting them to cease and the pleasant ones to arise again. If our unpleasant sense contacts are in the majority, then we say we are having a lot of dukkha. Or we might say: "I'm having a problem." As a matter of fact we are all having the same problem, namely that of not being enlightened. When we come to the realization that our sense contacts are very momentary and their inherent satisfaction a matter of opinion, we will find it easier to let go of them during meditation.
Meditation will only happen when the sense contacts, particularly the thinking, are suspended. If, for instance, the touch contact in the sitting position is recognized and attended to as unpleasant, the mind starts working on that. Remembering what someone said yesterday, last week or even ten years ago, can start the mind churning. This is all due to our attachment to our senses and our identification with them.
From all sense contacts feelings arise, there is no way that can be altered, but we can stop ourselves from reacting to such feelings, and believing that they belong to us. To get our meditation to a concentrated state, we must refuse to react to feelings arisen from sense contacts. The more we practice this in daily life, the easier it will be to become concentrated in meditation. We don't have to go along with this natural reaction of human beings. Meditative absorptions are supermundane and therefore require supermundane qualities in us. Whenever the Buddha described the way to Nibbana he included the meditative absorptions as part of the practice, to lead us to the inner realization of the Dhamma.
Guarding our senses is not only important in meditation, but equally valid in daily life. In a meditation course, where there isn't as much input as in ordinary situation, it is a little easier to protect our minds from liking or disliking what we see, hear, taste, touch, smell and think. In order to facilitate this, we need to practice hearing only sounds, without explaining to ourselves what it is we heard. When the mind starts telling its story about the sound, at least we will know what we are doing, namely investing sound with a reality which gives it importance.
The same applies to eye contact. If, for instance, we are looking at a bush, our mind will say: "Oh, a cinnamon bush; who planted it? I wonder if we can use it?" Or any number of other ideas. Instead of all this, we can look at that which we call "bush" and be aware that our eyes are touching upon a form and thereby stopping the mind from making up stories. If we can manage to do this once or twice outside of meditation, we can use the same method of handling sense input in meditation. When we guard ourselves against the mind-made details of sense contacts, we are in less danger of falling into greed and hate. We will find this a great help in becoming concentrated in meditation.
Our lives are governed by our senses, but we do not have to continue with that. It is not compulsory. Within the operation of our six senses, it is not possible to find continued and unadulterated happiness. If it were possible, we would already be blissfully contented, since we have been having sense input day after day, life after life. The answer does not lie in improving our sense contacts, even though most people do try that, but rather in improving our reactions, so that eventually equanimity becomes our mode of living. This is the promise the Buddha made to us, namely that we can get out of all dukkha, all problems, but not by having only wonderful sense contacts and not a single moment of unpleasantness. Such a thing has never been possible, not even when the Buddha himself was alive. But we can have moments when we are actually able to do just that. That one moment gives us the initial experience what it is like to be free, which is the only kind of freedom to be found in human life. There is no other. Anyone who understands the Buddha's explicit instructions, especially those who meditate, can practice in this manner.
The next step to be taken is mindfulness, accompanied by clear comprehension (sampajañña). Mindfulness is the mental factor of just knowing, clear comprehension the one of understanding. We need both. That too can and should be practiced in daily life. Mindfulness of the body was praised by the Buddha as leading to the "deathless," a synonym for Nibbana. When we watch our body's actions and realize that it can only follow the mind's instructions, this is our first step into insight. Usually we take mind and body for granted. Most people are more interested in their body than in their mind and are looking after the body very well. Very few people are looking after their mind.
Being aware of our body's movements gives us a chance to be alert without thinking, just knowing. Clear comprehension is our four-pronged mode of discrimination described previously.
We might think that such discrimination would slow us down unduly, that we won't be able to get our work done. Actually it has the opposite effect, because we will not do anything that is unnecessary. When we use mindfulness and clear comprehension again and again, they will become a habit, which will enhance our abilities to attain calm and insight. When we experience our mind ordering our body around, this is different from just knowing about it. We become intimately acquainted with our dual aspect of mind and body and can begin to investigate where is "me" in that. We may eventually find that "me" is our wish to be eternal, not to be annihilated.
Most people would like to experience calm, bliss and tranquillity in meditation. But those, whose minds are very active need to gain insight first in order to become calm. Those, whose minds are more peaceful in any case, find it easier to become calm first and gain insight later. A little calm creates a little insight and vice versa. In practice we work on both these aspects to give ourselves the best chance to develop both simultaneously. When we watch the breath going in and out of the nostrils, we try to achieve a calm and peaceful mind. When the mind strays to thinking, we first realize "I'm thinking," and then see the impermanent nature of each thought, and how it so often rolls along without any purpose. This is a valuable insight, because we can infer that our thoughts are frequently not to be believed, are unimportant, have no solidity and do not provide a secure foothold for us.
Without such an experience, we might continue to believe all our thoughts and try using them as solid foundations for our life. but when we see in meditation, that we can't remember what we were thinking from one second to the next, that belief is shattered, never to arise again. When we start doubting our thoughts, that doesn't mean we start doubting ourselves. It refers to doubting our views and opinions, which is a most valuable practice.
In the discourse on living-kindness (Karaniya Metta Sutta) an Arahat is described as being totally free from all views. What the Buddha expounded to us were his own experiences. Viewpoints are always based on our wrong assumption that there is a "me" and are therefore discolored by this underlying error. When we realize what our minds are up to, we will eventually stop having so many viewpoints and thereby let go of some of the mind's clutter. Most minds are full of ideas, hopes, plans, memories and opinions. Right and wrong are often based on culture or tradition and have no ultimate validity. They clutter up the mind and leave no space for a totally new outlook upon ourselves and the world.
An important step in this sequence is self-conquest, which the Buddha described as the way to Nibbana. As long as we react to our feelings created through sense contacts, we must admit that we are "reactors" rather than "actors," victims rather than masters. We like to think of ourselves as more exalted than that, yet when we observe reality, that is all we can find. As soon as we have overcome this habitual reacting, we have taken a step towards conquering ourselves.
We do not force ourselves into unpleasant situations, which we haven't learned to cope with yet, because the mind will again react negatively, which doesn't help us on the path. We need not sit in excruciating pain in meditation, but we need to observe our mind and its activity. This will assist us also in daily living when unpleasant feelings and dislike arise because of words we hear or sights we see. When we learn to accept things the way they are, self-conquest has taken place which releases us from views and opinions.
Dukkha arises from the fact that we don't like the law of nature, to which we are subject. We don't like our loved ones dying, we don't like physical pain or lack of appreciation, we don't like losing what we prize. If we could just accept the way it is it would go a long way towards looking at the world more realistically, with less passion, which is the way to freedom. Our passionate desires keep us in bounds.
When we have the opportunity to sit quietly and watch ourselves, new insights about ourselves may arise. We are the prototype of impermanence. But when our mind veers toward the past and starts rehashing old movies, it's time to turn it off. The past cannot be changed. The person who experienced the past, no longer exists, is only a fantasy now. When the mind strolls to the future, imagining how we would like it to be, we can let go by remembering the future has no reality either. When it happens, it can only be the present, and the person planning the future is not the same one, who will experience it. If we stay in this moment, here and now, during meditation, we can use that same skill in daily life.
When we handle each moment with mindfulness and clear comprehension, everything functions well, nothing goes amiss, our mind is content and inner peace can arise. Keeping our attention focused on each step on the way will eventually bring us to the summit.
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Two Faces of the Dhamma by Bhikkhu Bodhi