Concentration Develops Right View
January 19, 2024

You probably noticed as we were chanting about the factors of the path just now that right view comes first. But you also have to remember that in the Buddha’s own quest for awakening, right view came after.

When he talks about how he got on the path, he says that right concentration came first. After having tried different ways that were not the path, he did learn some lessons from those ways. He learned one big lesson about sensuality—that if you’re going to train the mind, you have to get it past its fascination with sensual thoughts.

This is a deep-rooted tendency we have: When we’re looking for a little pleasure, we think about sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, thoughts of lust. We get really fascinated about these things. The mind leans in that direction whenever it has free time. That’s the direction it goes when it’s untrained.

We’re trying to train it in another direction so that its default mode is going back to the breath—and that does require that you see the danger in sensuality.

So the Buddha, after totally denying himself all kinds of pleasure, realized that the pleasure of right concentration was not going to be dangerous. That’s how he got on the right path. He was feeling his way toward right view. He may have had a general idea, but the specifics took time, and it’s going to be the same for us.

The Buddha gives that analogy of the path being like the continental shelf off of India: There’s a gradual slope and then a sudden drop. But it’s not as if the gradual slope is totally without obstacles. In some cases, your gradual slope is going to be different from his. It might have more canyons or seamounts.

To give another analogy, when you hear about right view, you get the basic outline. It’s like trying to find your way through Manhattan when you’re told that some of the avenues tend north and south, and streets tend east and west. But the question is: which street, which avenue? Where do you turn? Where do you not turn? You find that out by exploring.

It’s the same way with the meditation. We get a general idea of right view and then we try to get the mind into right concentration, so that we can learn more of the details. For example, right view tells us the cause of suffering is craving, three kinds of craving—for sensuality, becoming, not becoming. Where are we going to learn our lessons about those things as we try to get the mind into concentration? By focusing on the specifics.

A while back, I was asked if it’s enough just to know just general principles, such as that anger’s a bad thing or sensuality’s a bad thing. I said, “Of course not. You’ve got to know the specifics because that’s where the allure lies.” It’s not the case that sensuality in general attracts you. There are specific sensual pleasures that the mind tends to go for, and you’ve got to know where they go, where the mind goes, where those pleasures are, because that’s where you’re going to see your cravings.

As the Buddha said, you’ve got to see where is your craving focused. It’s not focused on sensuality in general or anger in general. Specific issues have their specific strips of Velcro, and if you’re going to shave off the Velcro, you’ve first got to find out where it is.

So as you try to get the mind to settle down, you’re going to run into distractions. Some of the distractions come from events outside, but the main ones come from within the mind itself. You’re sitting here very quietly, very still, you may be bothered by the fact there are other people in the room, but you learn how to put that aside.

Years back, we had someone who had spent most of his life as a meditator in hermetically-sealed environments. He came to the monastery, was meditating out in the orchard, and later complained about all the noise. I asked him, “What noise?” He said, “Well, the noise of the bugs going through the leaves. The noise of the wind going through the trees.” You have to ask yourself, “Why do you let that bother you?”

Now, your problems may not be the same as his, but we all have our specific problems, and in getting the mind to settle down, you’re going to have to run past those problems. Sensuality will be the big one: seeing exactly where your sensual cravings are focused.

Becoming is also another one, as you begin to notice that when you leave the breath, you go into another thought world. And in that world, it’s as if the breath doesn’t exist, as if the body doesn’t exist. You’re entirely someplace else. How did that happen? And what part of the mind wanted it to happen?

You’re not going to see the specifics until you try to get the mind still, until you fight the process of wandering off. You have to get really good at noticing when you’ve wandered off and you can drop the thought, pull out of the world as quickly as you can. Some of those worlds are really attractive; others are more random. But the question is: Why does the mind go for them? You’ve got to see that specifically.

Then there’s the really subtle issue of seeing craving for non-becoming, in other words, desiring to destroy those thought worlds: That’s going to create suffering, too. There’s stress there as well.

If you wait for the process of becoming to be fully formed, it is painful to get out. Even if you don’t like that particular world, you may have to struggle a lot to get out of it. You begin to realize that if you want to get out of the process entirely, if you want freedom from the process entirely, you’ve got to take another tack. You can’t just shoot down the thought worlds that have already arisen. You’ve got to figure out why they arise in the first place. What underlies them?

This is why the Buddha teaches us about dependent co-arising, because we have to look into the factors that come prior to craving if we want to understand how to stop the process before a state of becoming forms.

There’s a passage in the Canon where the Buddha talks about Ven. Sāriputta’s amazing ability to analyze his concentration while he was in it: very precise, seeing the different factors in the mind that go into getting the mind focused on a certain perception, on a certain feeling, and then in trying to maintain that perception, to repeat it again and again and again, and to repeat that feeling again and again.

A lot of the factors around that process are the factors of “name” in name-and-form. You’re sitting here in the form of the body. The breath is an aspect of form. As for the sub-factors of name, there’s going to be attention to your topic, your intention to stay, your perception that holds you here, the feeling of pleasure that you try to maintain, or the feeling of equanimity if you get deeper into concentration, and then contact among these mental events. These sub-factors all work together.

The thing is, you may not be able to see them all clearly in the same way that Ven. Sāriputta did, but still, they’re right here, they’re happening right here. And when we get the mind into concentration, we’re dealing directly on the level of these things. You see your intentions in action; you see your perceptions in action. As you’re focused directly on the feeling and the perception, your attention and intention are right there.

So get the mind quiet and you’ll be able to see these things a lot more clearly. Then, when you can learn how to develop some dispassion for them, that’s when you can undercut the whole process of craving that would go for sensuality, for becoming, or for non-becoming.

It’s in doing the concentration—starting with right effort, through right mindfulness, into right concentration—that you get to see the specifics of craving here. And that way, right view gets developed so that it’s not just a general idea you can talk about. You actually see these things in action: Yes, these movements of the mind for sensuality, becoming, and non-becoming really do create suffering. It may not be blatant suffering, it may just qualify as stress, but it’s the same sort of thing. And in getting more and more specific, right view becomes effective. You’ve learned actually where are the valleys and the canyons in your continental shelf, so that when the shelf drops away, you’re there. You’ve made it there.

Or to take on the analogy of finding a place in Manhattan: You know which street, which avenue. You know where you are. You know where the target is, the location you’re trying to go, because you’ve gotten there. You did the exploration that was needed.

So it’s here in getting the mind to settle down, and to be really good at keeping it here, that you’re going to see these things. We have this tendency to want to squeeze things to get fast results. But when you’re squeezing things, you’re not really attentive, you’re not really clearly seeing what’s going on. All you can see is where you want to go, or your pre-conceived notion of where you want to go. But it may turn out, in terms of that slope off of the coast of India, that there may be a canyon in between where you are and where you want to go. There may be weird animals on the floor of the ocean that you’ve got to work around. But they’re all worth knowing about, because it’s in the specifics that right view becomes a genuine part of the path.

We can know about it in general terms, but that doesn’t put us on the noble path yet. It points us in the general direction of the path, but we have a specific goal, and that’s going to require watching very carefully and specifically where we’re going, where we are.

When you stay right here, the things that you need to know will come right here, because they already are right here. It’s just that you have to be still enough to allow them to show themselves. That’s why the path is gradual, as you gradually develop your powers of discernment, based on training the mind to be quiet.

The image they give in Thailand is of being a hunter: If the hunter makes a lot of noise, moves around, shifting his spot again and again, the animals all run away. If the hunter wants the animals to come to him, he has to be very still.