The Path

All of the Buddha’s teachings and their practice can be summed up in a mere eight factors –

I. Right View: seeing in line with the truth.

II. Right Resolve: thinking in ways that will lead to well-being.

III. Right Speech: speaking in line with the truth.

IV. Right Action: being correct and upright in one’s activities.

V. Right Livelihood: maintaining oneself in ways that are honest and proper.

VI. Right Effort: exerting oneself in line with all that is good.

VII. Right Mindfulness: always being mindful of the person or topic that forms one’s point of reference.

VIII. Right Concentration: keeping the mind correctly centered in line with the principles of the truth, not letting it fall into the ways of Wrong Concentration.


I. RIGHT VIEW. ‘Seeing in line with the truth’ means seeing the four noble truths –

A. Dukkha: physical and mental stress and discomfort.

B. Samudaya: the origin of physical and mental stress, i.e., ignorance and such forms of craving as sensual desire. Right View sees that these are the causes of all stress.

C. Nirodha: the ending and disbanding of the causes of stress, causing stress to disband as well, leaving only the unequaled ease of nibbāna.

D. Magga: the practices that form a path leading to the end of the causes of stress, i.e., ignorance (avijjā) – false knowledge, partial and superficial; and craving (taṇhā) – struggling that goes out of proportion to the way things are. Both of these factors can be abandoned through the power of the Path, the practices we need to bring to maturity within ourselves through circumspect discernment. Discernment can be either mundane or transcendent, but only through the development of concentration can transcendent discernment or insight arise, seeing profoundly into the underlying truth of all things in the world.

In short, there are two sides to Right View:

– knowing that evil thoughts, words, and deeds lead to stress and suffering for ourselves and others;

– and that good knowing, properly giving rise to good in our thoughts, words, and deeds, leads to ease of body and mind for ourselves and others. In other words, Right View sees that evil is something that good people don’t like, and that evil people don’t like it either. This is what is meant by seeing in line with the truth. For this reason, people of discernment should always act in ways that are good and true if they are to qualify as having Right View.

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II. RIGHT RESOLVE. There are three ways of thinking that will lead to well-being –

A. Nekkhamma-saṅkappa: resolving to shed the pleasures of the senses – which lie at the essence of the mental hindrances – from the heart and mind.

B. Abyāpāda-saṅkappa: resolving to weaken, dismantle, and destroy any evil in our thoughts. In other words, we try to shed from the heart and mind any thoughts of ill will we may have toward people who displease us.

C. Avihiṁsa-saṅkappa: resolving not to think in ways that aim at punishing or doing violence to others, or in ways that would lead to harm for other people or living beings. No matter how good or evil other people may be, we don’t give rein to thoughts of envy, jealousy, or competitiveness. We can shed these things from the heart because they are harmful to us – and when we can do ourselves harm, there is nothing to keep us from harming others.

In short, there are two sides to Right Resolve:

– the intention at all times to abandon any evil or distressing traits that defile the mind and cause it to suffer; the intention to remove ourselves from this suffering, because traits of this sort are a form of self-punishment in which we do ourselves harm;

– the intention to develop within ourselves whatever will give rise to ease, comfort, and pleasure for the mind, until we reach the point where peace and ease are absolute: This is classed as having goodwill toward ourselves. Only then can we qualify as having Right Resolve.

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III. RIGHT SPEECH. Speaking in line with the truth has four forms –

A. Not lying.

B. Not speaking divisively, e.g., talking about this person to that person so as to give rise to misunderstandings leading to a falling-out between the two.

C. Not speaking harsh or vulgar words, casting aspersions on a person’s family, race, or occupation in ways that are considered base by the conventions of the world.

D. Not speaking idly, i.e., in ways that are of no benefit to the listener – for instance, criticizing or gossiping about the faults of other people in ways that don’t serve to remind our listeners to correct their own faults;

or grumbling, i.e., complaining over and over about something until our listeners can’t stand it any longer, the way a drunkard grumbles repeatedly without saying anything worthwhile;

or speaking extravagantly – even if what we say may be good, if it goes over our listeners’ heads it serves no purpose;

or babbling, i.e., speaking excessively without any aim. Talking at great length without really saying anything serves no purpose at all and fits the phrase, ‘A waste of words, a waste of breath, a waste of time.’

In short:

– Don’t say anything bad or untrue.

– Say only things that are true and good, that will give knowledge to our listeners or bring them to their senses. Even then, though, we should have a sense of time, place, and situation for our words to qualify as Right Speech. Don’t hope to get by on good words and good intentions alone. If what you say isn’t right for the situation, it can cause harm. Suppose, for instance, that another person does something wrong. Even though you may mean well, if what you say strikes that person the wrong way, it can cause harm.

There’s a story they tell about a monk who was walking across an open field and happened to meet a farmer carrying a plow over his shoulder and a hoe in his hand, wearing a palm-leaf hat and a waistcloth whose ends weren’t tucked in. On seeing the monk, the farmer raised his hands in respect without first putting himself in order. The monk, meaning well, wanted to give the farmer a gentle reminder and so said, ‘Now, that’s not the way you pay respect to a monk, is it?’ ‘If it isn’t,’ the farmer replied, ‘then to hell with it.’ As a result, the gentle reminder ended up causing harm.

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IV. RIGHT ACTION: being upright in our activities. With reference to our personal actions, this means adhering to the three principles of virtuous conduct –

A. Not killing, harming or harassing other people or living beings.

B. Not stealing, concealing, embezzling, or misappropriating the belongings of other people.

C. Not engaging in immoral or illicit sex with the children or spouses of other people.

With reference to our work in general, Right Action means this: Some of our activities are achieved through bodily action. Before engaging in them, we should first evaluate them to see just how beneficial they will be to ourselves and others, and to see whether or not they are clean and pure. If we see that they will cause suffering or harm, we should refrain from them and choose only those activities that will lead to ease, convenience, and comfort for ourselves and others.

‘Action’ here, includes every physical action we take: sitting, standing, walking, and lying down; the use of every part of the body, e.g., grasping or taking with our hands; as well as the use of our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and feeling. All of this counts as physical activity or action.

External action can be divided into five sorts:

a. Government: undertaking responsibility to aid and assist the citizens of the nation in ways that are honest and fair; giving them protection so that they can all live in happiness and security. For example: (1) protecting their lives and property so that they may live in safety, freedom, and peace; (2) giving them aid, e.g., making grants of movable or immovable property; giving support so that they can improve their financial standing, their knowledge, and their conduct, establishing standards that will lead the country as a whole to prosperity – ‘A civilized people living in a civilized land’ – under the rule of justice, termed ‘dhammādhipateyya,’ making the Dhamma sovereign.

b. Agriculture: putting the land to use, e.g., growing crops, running farms and orchards so as to gain wealth and prosperity from what is termed the wealth in the soil.

c. Industry: extracting and transforming the resources that come from the earth but in their natural state can’t give their full measure of ease and convenience, and thus need to be transformed: e.g., making rice into flour or sweets; turning fruits or tubers into liquid – for instance, making orange juice; making solids into liquids – e.g., smelting ore; or liquids into solids. All of these activities have to be conducted in honesty and fairness to qualify as Right Action.

d. Commerce: the buying, selling, and trading of various objects for the convenience of those who desire them, as a way of exchanging ease, convenience, and comfort with one another – on high and low levels, involving high and low-quality goods, between people of high, low, and middling intelligence. This should be conducted in honesty and fairness so that all receive their share of convenience and justice.

e. Labor: working for hire, searching for wealth in line with the level of our abilities, whether low, middling, or high. Our work should be up to the proper standards and worthy – in all honesty and fairness – of the wages we receive.

In short, Right Action means:

– being clean and honest, faithful to our duties at all times;

– improving the objects with which we deal so that they can become clean and honest, too. Clean things – whether many or few – are always good by their very nature. Other people may or may not know, but we can’t help knowing each and every time.

So before we engage in any action so as to make it upright and honest, we first have to examine and weigh things carefully, being thoroughly circumspect in using our judgment and intelligence. Only then can our actions be in line with right moral principles.

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V. RIGHT LIVELIHOOD. In maintaining ourselves and supporting our families, expending our wealth for the various articles we use or consume, we must use our earnings – coming from our Right Actions – in ways that are in keeping with moral principles. Only then will they provide safety and security, fostering the freedom and peace in our life that will help lead to inner calm. For example, there are four ways of using our wealth rightly so as to foster our own livelihood and that of others, providing happiness for all –

A. Charity: expending our wealth so as to be of use to the poor, sick, needy, or helpless who merit the help of people who have wealth, both inner and outer, so that they may live in ease and comfort.

B. Support: expending what wealth we can afford to provide for the ease and comfort of our family and close friends.

C. Aid: expending our wealth or our energies for the sake of the common good – for example, by helping the government either actively or passively. ‘Actively’ means donating a sum of money to a branch of the government, such as setting up a fund to foster any of its various activities. ‘Passively’ means being willing to pay our taxes for the sake of the nation, not trying to be evasive or uncooperative. Our wealth will then benefit both ourselves and others.

D. Offerings (dānapūja): This means making gifts of the four necessities of life to support Buddhism. This is a way of paying homage to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha that will serve the purposes of the religion. At the same time, it’s a way of earning inner wealth, termed ariyadhana. A person observing the principles of Right Livelihood who does this will reap benefits both in this life and in the next.

The wealth we have rightfully earned, though, if we don’t have a sense of how to use it properly, can cause us harm both in this life and in lives to come. Thus, in expending our wealth in the area of charity, we should do so honestly. In the area of support, we should use forethought and care. The same holds true in the areas of aid and offerings. Before making expenditures, we should consider the circumstances carefully, to see whether or not they’re appropriate. If they aren’t, then we shouldn’t provide assistance. Otherwise, our wealth may work to our harm. If we provide help to people who don’t deserve it – for instance, giving assistance to thieves – the returns may be detrimental to our own situation in life. The same holds true in making offerings to the religion. If a monk has no respect for the monastic discipline, doesn’t observe the principles of morality, neglects his proper duties – the threefold training – and instead behaves in ways that are deluded, misguided, and deceitful, then whoever makes offerings to such a monk will suffer for it in the end, as in the saying,

Make friends with fools and they’ll lead you astray;

Make friends with the wise and they’ll show you the way.

Make friends with the evil and you’ll end up threadbare,

And the fruit of your evil is: No one will care.

Now, we may think that a monk’s evil is his own business, as long as we’re doing good. This line of thinking ought to be right, but it may turn out to be wrong. Suppose, for instance, that a group of people is playing cards in defiance of the law. You’re not playing with them, you’re just sitting at the table, watching. But if the authorities catch you, they’re sure to take you along with the group, no matter how much you may protest your innocence. In the same way, whoever makes offerings without careful forethought may end up reaping harm, and such a person can’t be classified as maintaining Right Livelihood.

In short, there are two sides to Right Livelihood:

– We should have a sense of how to use our wealth so as to maintain ourselves in line with our station in life, being neither too miserly nor too extravagant.

– We should give help to other people, as we are able, so as to provide them with comfort and well-being. This is what it means to maintain Right Livelihood.

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VI. RIGHT EFFORT. There are four ways of exerting ourselves in line with the Dhamma –

A. Make a persistent effort to abandon whatever evil there is in your conduct. For example, if you’ve given yourself over to drinking to the point where you’ve become alcoholic, spoiling your work, wasting your money and yourself, creating problems in your family, this is classed as a kind of evil. Or if you’ve given yourself over to gambling to the point where you’ve lost all sense of proportion, blindly gambling your money away, creating trouble for yourself and others, this too is classed as a kind of evil. Or if you’ve let yourself become promiscuous, going from partner to partner beyond the bounds of propriety, this can be damaging to your spouse and children, wasting your money, ruining your reputation, and so is classed as a kind of evil, too. Or if you’ve been associating with the wrong kind of people, troublemakers and debauched types who will pull you down to their level, this will cause you to lose your money, your reputation, and whatever virtue you may have. Thus, each of these activities is classed as an evil – a doorway to ruin and to the lower realms – so you should make a persistent effort to abandon them completely.

B. Make a persistent effort to prevent evil from arising, and use restraint to put a halt to whatever evil may be in the process of arising – as when greedy desires that go against the principles of fairness appear within you. For instance, suppose you have a ten-acre plot of land that you haven’t utilized fully, and yet you go infringing on other people’s property. This is classed as greedy desire, a path to trouble and suffering for yourself and others. Now, this doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to eat and live, or that you aren’t allowed to work and search for wealth. Actually, those who have the enterprise to make whatever land or wealth they own bear fruit, or even increasing fruit, were praised by the Buddha as uṭṭhāna-sampadā, enterprising, industrious people who will gain a full measure of welfare in this lifetime. Greedy desires, here, mean any desires that go beyond our proper limits and infringe on other people. This sort of desire is bound to cause harm and so is classed as a kind of evil. When such a desire arises in the heart, you should use restraint to put a halt to it. This is what is meant by preventing evil from arising.

Another example is anger, arising from either good or bad intentions that, when unfulfilled, lead to feelings of irritation and dissatisfaction. Such feelings should be stilled. Don’t let them flare up and spread, for anger is something you don’t like in other people, and they don’t like it in you. Thus it’s classed as a kind of evil. You should exert restraint and keep your mind on a steady and even keel. Your anger won’t then have a chance to grow and will gradually fade away. This is what’s meant by making a persistent effort to keep evil from taking root and sprouting branches.

Or take delusion – knowledge that doesn’t fit the truth. You shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Restrain yourself from making snap judgments so that you can first examine and consider things carefully. Sometimes, for instance, you understand right to be wrong, and wrong to be right: This is delusion. When right looks wrong to you, then your thoughts, words, and deeds are bound to be wrong, out of line with the truth, and so can cause you to slip into ways that are evil. When wrong looks right to you, your thoughts, words, and deeds are also bound to be wrong and out of line with the truth. Suppose that a black crow looks white to you; or an albino buffalo, black. When people who see the truth meet up with you, disputes can result. This is thus a form of evil. Or suppose that you have good intentions but act out of delusion. If you happen to do wrong – for example, giving food to monks at times when they aren’t allowed to eat, all because of your own ignorance and delusion – you’ll end up causing harm. So you should be careful to observe events and situations, searching for knowledge so as to keep your thoughts and opinions in line. Delusion then won’t have a chance to arise. This is classed as making an effort to exercise restraint so that evil won’t arise.

As for whatever evil you’ve already abandoned, don’t let it return. Cut off the evil behind you and fend off the evil before you. Evil will thus have a chance to fade away.

C. Make a persistent effort to give rise to the good within yourself. For example –

1. Saddhā-sampadā: Be a person of consummate conviction – conviction in the principle of cause and effect; conviction that if we do good we’ll have to meet with good, if we do evil we’ll have to meet with evil. Whether or not other people are aware of our actions, the goodness we do is a form of wealth that will stay with us throughout time.

2. Sīla-sampadā: Be a person of consummate virtue, whose words and deeds are in proper order, whose behavior is in line with the principles of honesty leading to purity. These are truly human values that we should foster within ourselves.

3. Cāga-sampadā: Be magnanimous and generous in making donations and offerings to others, finding reward in the fruits of generosity. For example, we may give material objects to support the comfort and convenience of others in general: The fruits of our generosity are bound to find their way back to us. Or we may be magnanimous in ways that don’t involve material objects. For instance, when other people mistreat or insult us through thoughtlessness or carelessness, we forgive them and don’t let our thoughts dwell on their faults and errors. This is called the gift of forgiveness (abhaya-dāna) or the gift of justice (dhamma-dāna). It brings the highest rewards.

4. Paññā-sampadā: Be a person of consummate discernment, whose thinking is circumspect and whose sense of reason is in line with the truth.

All four of these qualities are classed as forms of goodness. If they haven’t yet arisen within you, you should give rise to them. They will reward you with well-being in body and mind.

D. Make a persistent effort to maintain the good in both of its aspects: cause and effect. In other words, keep up whatever good you have been doing; and as for the results – mental comfort, ease, and light-heartedness – maintain that sense of ease so that it can develop and grow, just as a mother hen guards her eggs until they turn into baby chicks with feathers, tails, sharp beaks, and strong wings, able to fend for themselves.

The results of the good we have done, if we care for them well, are bound to develop until they take us to higher levels of attainment. For instance, when our hearts have had their full measure of mundane happiness, so that we develop a sense of enough, we’re bound to search for other forms of happiness in the area of the Dhamma, developing our virtue, concentration, and discernment to full maturity so as to gain release from all suffering and stress, meeting with the peerless ease described in the phrase,

Nibbānaṁ paramaṁ sukhaṁ:

Nibbāna is the ultimate ease, invariable and unchanging.

When we have done good in full measure and have maintained it well until it’s firmly established within us, we should then make the effort to use that good with discretion so as to benefit people in general. In short: Do what’s good, maintain what’s good, and have a sense of how to use what’s good – in keeping with time, place, and situation – so as to give rise to the greatest benefits and happiness. Whoever can do all of this ranks as a person established in Right Effort.

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VII. RIGHT MINDFULNESS. There are four establishings of mindfulness or frames of reference for establishing the mind in concentration –

A. Contemplation of the body as a frame of reference: Focus on the body as your frame of reference. The word ‘body’ refers to what is produced from the balance of the elements or properties (dhātu): earth – the solid parts, such as hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin; water – the liquid parts, e.g., saliva, catarrh, blood; fire – warmth, e.g., the fires of digestion; wind (motion) – e.g., the breath; space – the empty places between the other elements that allow them to come together in proper proportion; consciousness – the awareness that permeates and brings the other elements together in a balanced way so that they form a body. There are four ways of looking at the body –

1. Outer bodies: This refers to the bodies of other people. When you see them, focus on the symptoms of the body that appear externally – as when you see a child suffering pain in the process of being born, or a person suffering a disease that impairs or cripples the body, or a person suffering the pains and inconveniences of old age, or a dead person, which is something disconcerting to people the world over. When you see these things, be mindful to hold your reactions in check and reflect on your own condition – that you, too, are subject to these things – so that you will feel motivated to start right in developing the virtues that will serve you as a solid mainstay beyond the reach of birth, aging, illness, and death. Then reflect again on your own body – the ‘inner body’ – as your next frame of reference.

2. The inner body: the meeting place of the six elements – earth, water, fire, wind, space, consciousness – the body itself forming the first four. Center your mindfulness in the body, considering it from four angles:

a. Consider it as a group of elements.

b. Separate it into its 32 parts (hair of the head, hair of the body, etc.).

c. Consider how the mingling of the elements leads to such forms of filthiness as saliva, catarrh, blood, lymph, and pus, which permeate throughout the body.

d. Consider it as inconstant – it’s unstable, always altering and deteriorating; as stressful – it can’t last – no matter what good or evil you may do, it changes with every in-and-out breath; and as not-self – some of its aspects, no matter how you try to prevent them, can’t help following their own inherent nature.

The body, viewed from any of these four aspects, can serve as a frame of reference. But although our frame of reference may be right, if we aren’t circumspect and fully aware, or if we practice in a misguided way, we can come to see wrong as right to the point where our perceptions become skewed. For example, if we see an old person, a sick person, or a dead person, we may become so depressed and despondent that we don’t want to do any work at all, on the level of either the world or the Dhamma, and instead want simply to die so as to get away from it all. Or in examining the elements – earth, water, fire, wind, space, and consciousness – we may come to the conclusion that what’s inside is nothing but elements, what’s outside is nothing but elements, and we can’t see anything above and beyond this, so that our perception of things becomes skewed, seeing that there’s no ‘man,’ no ‘woman.’ This is what can lead monks to sleep with women and abandon their precepts, eating food in the evening and drinking alcohol, thinking that it’s only elements eating elements so there shouldn’t be any harm. Or we may consider the filthy and unattractive aspects of the body until we reach a point where things seem so foul and disgusting that we can’t eat at all and simply want to escape. Some people, on reaching this point, want to jump off a cliff or into the river to drown. Or we may view things as inconstant, stressful, and not-self, but if we act deludedly, without being circumspect in our discernment, the mind can become a turmoil. If our foundation – our concentration – isn’t strong enough for this sort of investigation, it can lead to a distressing sense of alienation, of being trapped in the body. This is called skewed perception, and it can lead to corruptions of insight (vipassanūpakkilesa), all because we aren’t skilled in training the mind. We may feel that we already know, but knowledge is no match for experience, as in the old saying,

To know is no match for having done.

A son is no match for his father.

So in dealing with this frame of reference, if we want our path to be smooth and convenient, with no stumps or thorns, we should focus on the sensation of the body in and of itself, i.e., on one of the elements as experienced in the body, such as the breath.

3. The body in and of itself: Focus on a single aspect of the body, such as the in-and-out breath. Don’t pay attention to any other aspects of the body. Keep track of just the breath sensations. For example, when the breath comes in long and goes out long, be aware of it. Focus on being aware at all times of whether your breathing feels easy or difficult. If any part of the body feels uncomfortable, adjust your breathing so that all parts of the body feel comfortable with both the in-breath and the out, and so that the mind doesn’t loosen its hold and run after any outside perceptions of past or future, which are the sources of the hindrances (nīvaraṇa). Be intent on looking after the in-and-out breath, adjusting it and letting it spread so as to connect and coordinate with the other aspects of the breath in the body, just as the air stream in a Coleman lantern spreads kerosene throughout the threads of the mantle. One of the preliminary signs (uggaha nimitta) of the breath will then appear: a sense of relief-giving brightness filling the heart, or a lump or ball of white, like cotton-wool. The body will feel at peace – refreshed and full. The properties (dhātu) of the body will be balanced and won’t interfere or conflict with one another. This is termed kāya-passaddhi, kāya-viveka – serenity and solitude of the body.

As for awareness, it’s expanded and broad – mahaggataṁ cittaṁ – sensitive throughout to every part of the body. Mindfulness is also expanded, spreading throughout the body. This is called the great frame of reference, enabling you to know how cause and effect operate within the body. You’ll see which kinds of breath create, which kinds maintain, and which kinds destroy. You’ll see feelings of breath arising, remaining, and disbanding; liquid feelings arising, remaining, and disbanding; solid feelings arising, remaining, and disbanding; feelings of warmth arising, remaining, and disbanding; feelings of space arising, remaining, and disbanding; you’ll see consciousness of these various aspects arising, remaining, and disbanding. All of this you will know without having to drag in any outside knowledge to smother the awareness that exists on its own, by its very nature, within you, and is always there to tell you the truth. This is termed mindful alertness in full measure. It appears as a result of self-training and is called paccattaṁ: something that exists on its own, knows on its own, and that each person can know only for him or her self.

4. The body in the mind: When the breath is in good order, clean and bright, and the heart is clear, internal visions may appear from the power of thought. Whatever you may think of, you can make appear as an image – near or far, subtle or gross, giving rise to knowledge or completely lacking in knowledge, true or false. If you’re circumspect, mindful, and alert, these things can give rise to knowledge and cognitive skill. If you aren’t, you may fall for the images you see. For example, you may think of going somewhere and then see an image of yourself floating in that direction. You center your awareness in the image and float along with your thoughts until you get carried away, losing track of where you originally were. This way you get engrossed in traveling through heaven or hell, meeting with good things and bad, being pleased or upset by what you see. As a result, your concentration degenerates because you aren’t wise to the nature of the image of the body in the mind.

If, though, you can think to restrain your train of thought and focus on the image as a phenomenon in the present, the image will return to join your primary sense of the body. You’ll then see that they are equal in nature. Neither is superior to the other. The nature of each is to arise, remain, and then dissolve. Awareness is simply awareness, and sensations are simply sensations. Don’t fasten onto either. Let go of them and be neutral. Be thoroughly mindful and alert with each mental moment. This level of sensation, if you’re adept and knowledgeable, can lead to knowledge of previous lives (pubbenivāsānussati-ñāṇa), knowledge of where living beings are reborn after death (cutūpapāta-ñāṇa), and knowledge that does away with the fermentations of defilement (āsavakkhaya-ñāṇa). If you aren’t wise to this level of sensation, though, it can lead to ignorance, craving, and attachment, causing the level of your practice to degenerate.

The image or sensation that arises through the power of the mind is sometimes called the rebirth body or the astral body. But even so, you shouldn’t become attached to it. Only then can you be said to be keeping track of the body as a frame of reference on this level.

B. Contemplation of feelings as a frame of reference: The mental act of ‘tasting’ or ‘savoring’ the objects of the mind – e.g., taking pleasure or displeasure in them – is termed vedanā, or feeling. If we class feelings according to flavor, there are three –

1. Sukha-vedanā: pleasure and ease for body and mind.

2. Dukkha-vedanā: stress and pain for body and mind.

3. Upekkhā-vedanā: neutrality, neither pleasure nor pain.

If we class them according to range or source, there are four:

1. Outer feelings: feelings that arise by way of the senses – as when the eye meets with a visual object, the ear with a sound, the nose with a smell, the tongue with a taste, the body with a tactile sensation – and a feeling arises in one’s awareness: contented (somanassa-vedanā), discontented (domanassa-vedanā), or neutral (upekkhā-vedanā).

2. Inner feelings: feelings that arise within the body, as when any of the four properties – earth, water, fire, or wind – change either through our present intentions or through the results of past actions, giving rise to pleasure, pain, or neutral feelings.

3. Feelings in and of themselves: feelings regarded simply as part of the stream of feelings. For example, pleasure, pain, and equanimity occur in different mental moments; they don’t all arise in the same moment. When one of them, such as pain, arises, focus right on what is present. If pleasure arises, keep the mind focused in the pleasure. Don’t let it stray to other objects that may be better or worse. Stay with the feeling until you know its truth: in other words, until you know whether it’s physical pleasure or mental pleasure, whether it results from past actions or from what you are doing in the present. Only when your mindfulness is focused in this way can you be said to be viewing feelings in and of themselves.

4. Feelings in the mind: moods that arise in the mind, independent of any object. Simply by thinking we can give rise to pleasure or pain, good or bad, accomplished entirely through the heart.

Each of these four kinds of feelings can serve as an object for tranquility and insight meditation. Each can serve as a basis for knowledge.

C. Contemplation of the mind as a frame of reference: taking as our preoccupation states that arise in the mind. The term ‘mind’ (citta) refers to two conditions – awareness and thinking. Awareness of thinking can cause the mind to take on different states, good or bad. If we classify these states by their characteristics, there are three: good, bad, and neutral.

1. Good mental states (kusala-citta) are of three sorts –

a. Vītarāga-citta: the mind when it disentangles itself from its desire or fascination with objects it likes or finds pleasing.

b. Vītadosa-citta: the mind when it isn’t incited or roused to irritation by its objects.

c. Vītamoha-citta: the mind when it isn’t deluded, intoxicated, or outwitted by its objects.

2. Bad mental states (akusala-citta) are also of three sorts –

a. Sarāga-citta: the mind engrossed in its affections and desires.

b. Sadosa-citta: the mind irritated or aroused to anger.

c. Samoha-citta: the mind deluded and ignorant of the truth.

3. Neutral mental states, which arise from being neither pleased nor displeased, or when mental activity (kiriyā) occurs without affecting the condition of awareness for good or bad – are called avyākata: indeterminate.

If we classify mental states according to their range or source, there are three –

1. Outer mental states: thoughts that run after perceptions of past or future, and may be either contented (this is termed indulgence in pleasure, kāmasukhallikānuyoga) or discontented (this is termed indulgence in self-affliction, attakilamathānuyoga).

2. Inner mental states: thoughts that arise within us with reference to the present, either right or wrong, good or bad.

3. Mental states in and of themselves: mental fabrication (citta-saṅkhāra) – the act of thinking arising from awareness, the act of awareness arising from thinking, taking such forms as consciousness, intellect, mindfulness, alertness, discernment, knowledge. Whichever one of these mental states may be arising and remaining in the present moment, focus your attention exclusively on it. For example, knowledge of a certain sort may appear, either on its own or as the result of deliberation; it may or may not be intended. Whatever arises, focus your mindfulness and alertness on it until you know the stages in the workings of the mind; knowing, for instance, which mental state is the intentional act (kamma), which the result (vipāka), and which mere activity (kiriyā). Keep focused exclusively on these states until you can see mental states simply as mental states, knowledge simply as knowledge, and intelligence as intelligence. Be thoroughly circumspect, mindful, and discerning at each mental moment until you are able to let go of all mental states without being caught up on what they are supposed to refer to, represent, or mean. Only then can you be said to be keeping track of mental states in and of themselves as a frame of reference.

D. Contemplation of mental qualities as a frame of reference: Mental qualities (dhamma) that can serve as bases for mindfulness leading to peace and respite for the mind are of three kinds –

1. Outer mental qualities, i.e., the hindrances, which are of five sorts –

(a) Kāmachanda: desire for the five types of sensual objects – visual objects, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations – which can cause the mind to become restless.

(b) Byāpāda: ill-will; stepping into a mood of discontent that arises from certain sorts of individuals or situations that, when we brood on them, cause the mind to focus on what we find displeasing until it becomes irritated and upset.

(c) Thīna-middha: drowsiness, torpor, dullness, giving rise to laziness, apathy, and discouragement.

(d) Uddhacca-kukkucca: restlessness and anxiety; thinking more than we want to or need; thoughts that go out of control, drifting further and further away until we may even lose sense of our own body. Thinking that has no order or bounds is sure to cause harm.

(e) Vicikicchā: doubt, hesitancy, uncertainty about issues dealing with the world or the Dhamma: doubt about certain individuals, about their teachings, about our own conduct and practices. This comes from not having enough mindfulness or alertness to keep the mind in check and from not knowing where the hindrances come from. We should realize that – to put it briefly – the hindrances come from concepts that allude to either the past or the future. So when we want to ward them off, we should let go of these concepts and focus our attention in on the present, and the hindrances will weaken away.

2. Inner mental qualities: The skillful mental qualities we should foster within ourselves are five, counting their component factors, and four, counting their levels, in other words –

(a) The first jhāna, which has five factors:

– Vitakka: directed thought focused on the object of the mind’s concentration, such as the breath.

– Vicāra: evaluating and adjusting the breath so that it becomes comfortable to the point where it spreads throughout the entire body; coordinating and connecting the various breath-sensations existing within us.

– Pīti: rapture, refreshment, fullness of body and mind.

– Sukha: pleasure, ease of body and mind.

– Ekaggatā: The mind enters into a single object, such as the breath; i.e., all five of these factors deal with a single topic.

(b) The second jhāna has three factors:

– Pīti: The sense of refreshment and fullness for body and mind becomes stronger, so that the mind abandons its directed thought (vitakka).

– Sukha: The sense of ease for body and mind becomes greater, so that it can relieve mental discomfort. This leads the mind to abandon its evaluating and adjusting (vicāra).

– Ekaggatā: The mind enters into a subtle and gentle level of breath, with a feeling of spaciousness and relief throughout the body. This subtle breath bathes and pervades the entire body, so that the mind becomes absolutely snug with its one object.

(c) The third jhāna: The singleness of the mind’s object becomes even more refined, leaving just a feeling of mental and physical ease, the result of steadying the mind in a single object. This is called ekaggatā-sukha: All that remains is singleness and ease.

(d) The fourth jhāna: Upekkhā – the breath sensations in the body are still, so that we can do without the in-and-out breath. The still breath fills all the various parts of the body. The four physical properties are all quiet and still. The mind is still, having abandoned past and future, entering into its object that forms the present. The mind is firmly focused on one object: This is ekaggatā, the second factor of the fourth jhāna. Mindfulness and alertness are present in full measure and thus give rise to mental brightness. When mindfulness is strong, it turns into cognitive skill (vijjā); when alertness is strong, it turns into intuitive insight (vipassanā-ñāṇa), seeing the truth of physical sensations (rūpa) and mental acts (nāma), whether near or far, gross or subtle, our own or those of others. This knowledge appears exclusively within our own body and mind, and we can realize it on our own: This is what is meant by the word, ‘paccattaṁ.’

3. Mental qualities in and of themselves. This refers to mental qualities of another level that appear after the above qualities have been developed. Intuitive knowledge arises, e.g. –

‘Dhamma-cakkhuṁ udapādi’: The eye of the mind, which sees in terms of the Dhamma, arises within one.

‘Ñāṇaṁ udapādi’: deep intuitive sensitivity, thoroughly penetrating. This refers to the three forms of intuitive knowledge beginning with the ability to remember previous lives.

‘Paññā udapādi’: Liberating discernment arises.

‘Vijjā udapādi’: Cognitive skill – clear, open, deep, penetrating, and true – arises within one.

These forms of knowledge arise on their own – not for ordinary people, but for those who have developed concentration. Discernment, here, refers to the discernment that comes from mental training and development, not to the ordinary discernment coming from concepts we’ve remembered or thought out. This is discernment that arises right at the heart. Cognitive skill (vijjā), here, is a high level of knowledge, termed pariññāya dhamma: thorough comprehension that arises within from having explored the four noble truths, beginning with stress (dukkha), which is the result of such causes (samudaya) as ignorance and craving. Knowledge arises, enabling us to cut the taproot of stress by performing the task of abandoning the cause. When this is done, stress disbands and ceases; the cause doesn’t flare up again: This is nirodha. And the knowledge that steps in to eliminate the cause of stress is the Path (magga), the way leading to release from all stress and suffering, made possible by the eye of the mind composed of –

ñāṇa-cakkhu: intuition as a means of vision;

paññā-cakkhu: discernment as a means of vision;

vijjā-cakkhu: cognitive skill as a means of vision.

This is the eye of the mind.

In short, we have: dukkha, physical and mental stress; and samudaya, the cause of stress. These two are one pair of cause and effect functioning in the world. Another pair is: nirodha, the disbanding and cessation of all stress, and magga-citta, the mind following the right path, causing the causes of stress – ignorance and craving – to disband. In other words, when the physical and mental stress from which we suffer is ended through the power of the mind on the Path, the mind is freed from all disruptions and fermentations, and doesn’t latch onto cause or effect, pleasure or pain, good or evil, the world or the Dhamma. It abandons all supposings, assumptions, wordings, and conventions. This is deathlessness (amata dhamma), a quality that doesn’t arise, doesn’t change, doesn’t vanish or disband, and that doesn’t fasten onto any quality at all. In other words, it can let go of conditioned phenomena (saṅkhata dhamma) and doesn’t fasten onto unconditioned phenomena (asaṅkhata dhamma). It lets go of each phenomenon in line with that phenomenon’s own true nature. Thus the saying: ‘Sabbe dhammā anattā’ – No phenomenon is the self; the self isn’t any phenomenon. All supposings and assumptions – all meanings – are abandoned. This is nibbāna.

All of this is called seeing mental qualities in and of themselves – i.e., seeing the higher aspect of mental qualities that arises from their more common side.

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VIII. RIGHT CONCENTRATION: the way to discernment, knowledge, and release. If we class concentration according to how it’s practiced in general, there are two sorts: right and wrong.

A. Wrong Concentration: Why is it called wrong? Because it doesn’t give rise to the liberating insight that leads to the transcendent qualities. For example, after attaining a certain amount of concentration, we may use it in the wrong way, as in magic – hypnotizing other people or spirits of the dead so as to have them in our power, or exerting magnetic attraction so as to seduce or dupe other people – all of which causes the heart to become deceitful and dishonest. Or we may use concentration to cast spells and practice sorcery, displaying powers in hopes of material reward. All of these things are based on nothing more than momentary (khaṇika) concentration.

Another type of Wrong Concentration is that used to develop types of mental absorption falling outside of the Buddha’s teachings and belonging to yogic doctrines and practices: for example, staring at an external object – such as the sun or the moon – or at certain kinds of internal objects. When the mind becomes steady for a moment, you lose your sense of the body and become fastened on the object to the point where your mindfulness and alertness lose their moorings. You then drift along in the wake of the object, in whatever direction your thoughts may take you: up to see heaven or down to see hell, seeing true things and false mixed together, liking or disliking what you see, losing your bearings, lacking the mindfulness and alertness that form the present.

Another instance of Wrong Concentration is when – after you’ve begun practicing to the point where you’ve attained threshold (upacāra) concentration – you then stare down on the present, focusing, say, on the properties of breath, fire, or earth, forbidding the mind to think; staring down, getting into a trance until the property becomes more and more refined, and the mind becomes more and more refined; using force to suppress the mind until awareness becomes so dim that you lose mindfulness and alertness and all sense of body and mind: Everything is absolutely snuffed out and still, with no self-awareness. This is called the plane of non-perception (asaññī-bhava), where you have no perception of anything at all. Your awareness isn’t well-rounded, your mindfulness lacks circumspection, and as a result discernment has no chance to arise. This is called Wrong Concentration, Wrong Release, a mental blank – no awareness of past, present, or future.

Another instance of Wrong Concentration is when we can give rise to momentary concentration, threshold concentration, all the way to the four jhānas, but aren’t adept at entering and leaving these levels, so that we focus in until only the property of consciousness is left, with no sense of the body: This is called arūpa jhāna. Bodily processes disappear, leaving only the four types of mental acts (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa), which form the four levels of arūpa jhāna, the first being when we focus on a feeling of space or emptiness. The mind attains such a relaxed sense of pleasure that we may take it to be a transcendent state or nibbāna, and so we search no further, becoming idle and lazy, making no further effort because we assume that we’ve finished our task.

In short, we simply think or focus, without having any finesse in what we’re doing – entering, leaving, or staying in place – and as a result our concentration becomes wrong.

B. Right Concentration: This starts with threshold concentration, which acts as the basis for the four jhānas, beginning with the first: vitakka, thinking of whichever aspect of the body you choose to take as your object, such as the four physical properties, starting with the in-and-out breath. And then vicāra: adjusting, expanding, letting the breath sensations flow throughout the body, and at the same time evaluating the results you obtain. For instance, if the body feels uncomfortable or constricted, adjust the breath until it feels right throughout the body. The mind then sticks to its single object: This is termed ekaggatā. When mindfulness enters into the body, keeping the breath in mind, and alertness is present in full measure, keeping track of the causes that produce results congenial to body and mind, then your sense of the body will benefit. Bathed with mindfulness and alertness, it feels light, malleable, and full – saturated with the power of mindfulness and alertness. The mind also feels full: This is termed pīti. When both body and mind are full, they grow quiet like a child who, having eaten his fill, rests quiet and content. This is the cause of pleasure on the level of the Dhamma, termed sukha. These factors, taken together, form one stage of Right Concentration.

As you continue practicing for a length of time, the sense of fullness and pleasure in the body becomes greater. Ekaggatā – interest and absorption in your one object – becomes more intense because you have seen the results it produces. The mind becomes steady and determined, focused with full mindfulness and alertness, thoroughly aware of both body and mind, and thus you can let go of your thinking and evaluating, entering the second jhāna.

The second jhāna has three factors. Ekaggatā: Keep the mind with its one object, the breath, which is now more subtle and refined than before, leaving simply a feeling of pīti, fullness of body and mind. The sensations of the body don’t clash with one another. The four properties – earth, water, fire, and wind – are properly balanced. The mind and body don’t interfere with each other, so both feel full and satisfied. The body feels pleasant (sukha) – solitary and quiet. The mind, too, feels pleasant and at ease – solitary and quiet. When you’re mindful, alert, and adept at doing this – entering, staying in place, and withdrawing – side-benefits will result. For example, knowledge of certain matters will arise, either on its own or after you’ve posed a question in the mind. Doubts about certain issues will be put to rest. As the sense of bodily pleasure grows stronger, the sense of mental pleasure and ease grows stronger as well, and thus you can let go of the sense of fullness. Awareness at this point becomes refined and so can detect a subtle level of the breath that feels bright, open, soothing, and spacious. This enables you to go on to the third jhāna.

The third jhāna has two factors, pleasure and singleness of preoccupation. The pleasure you’ve been experiencing starts to waver in flashes as it reaches saturation point and begins to change. You thus become aware of another, subtler level of sensation, and so the mind shifts to a sense of openness and emptiness. The breath grows still, with no moving in or out, full in every part of the body. This allows you to let go of the sense of pleasure. The mind enters this stage through the power of mindfulness and alertness. Awareness is tranquil and still, bright in the present, steady and independent. It lets go of the breath and is simply observant. The mind is still, with no shifting back and forth. Both breath and mind are independent. The mind can let down its burdens and cares. The heart is solitary and one, infused with mindfulness and alertness. When you reach this stage and stay with it properly, you’re practicing the fourth jhāna.

The fourth jhāna has two factors. Ekaggatā: Your object becomes absolutely one. Upekkhā: You can let go of all thoughts of past and future; the five hindrances are completely cut away. The mind is solitary, clear, and radiant. The six properties – earth, water, fire, wind, space, and consciousness – become radiant. The heart feels spacious and clear, thoroughly aware all around through the power of mindfulness and alertness. As mindfulness becomes tempered and strong, it turns into intuitive knowledge, enabling you to see the true nature of body and mind, sensations and mental acts, past, present, and future.

When this happens, if you aren’t skilled, you can become excited or upset. In other words, you may develop pubbenivāsānussati-ñāṇa, the ability to remember previous lives. If what you see is good, you may get pleased, which will cause your mindfulness and alertness to weaken. If what you see is bad or displeasing, you may get upset or distressed, so intent on what you remember that your sense of the present is weakened.

Or you may develop cutūpapāta-ñāṇa: The mind focuses on the affairs of other individuals, and you see them as they die and are reborn on differing levels. If you get carried away with what you see, your reference to the present will weaken. If you find this happening, you should take the mind in hand. If anything pleasing arises, hold back and stay firm in your sense of restraint. Don’t let yourself fall into kāmasukhallikānuyoga, delight. If anything bad or displeasing arises, hold back – because it can lead to attakilamathānuyoga, distress. Draw the mind into the present and guard against all thoughts of delight and distress. Keep the mind neutral. This is the middle way, the mental attitude that forms the Path and gives rise to another level of awareness in which you realize, for instance, how inconstant it is to be a living being: When things go well, you’re happy and pleased; when things go badly, you’re pained and upset. This awareness enables you truly to know the physical sensations and mental acts you’re experiencing and leads to a sense of disenchantment, termed nibbidā-ñāṇa. You see all fabrications as inconstant, harmful, stressful, and hard to bear, as lying beyond the control of the heart.

At this point, the mind disentangles itself: This is termed virāga-dhamma, dispassion. It feels no desire or attraction; it doesn’t gulp down or lie fermenting in sensations or mental acts, past, present, or future. It develops a special level of intuition that comes from within. What you never before knew, now you know; what you never before met with, now you see. This happens through the power of mindfulness and alertness gathering in at a single point and turning into āsavakkhaya-ñāṇa, enabling you to disentangle and free yourself from mundane states of mind – in proportion to the extent of your practice – and so attain the transcendent qualities, beginning with stream entry.

All of this is termed Right Concentration: being skilled at entering, staying in place, and withdrawing, giving rise to –

Right Intuition: correct, profound, and penetrating;

Right View: correct views, in line with the truth;

Right Practice: in which you conduct yourself with full circumspection in all aspects of the triple training, with virtue, concentration, and discernment coming together in the heart.

This, then, is Right Concentration. For the most part, people who have attained true insight have done so in the four jhānas. Although there may be others who have gone wrong in the practice of jhāna, we’ll achieve the proper results if we study so as to gain an understanding and adjust our practice so as to bring it into line.

This ends the discussion of Right Concentration.

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All that we have discussed so far can be summarized under three headings: Right View and Right Resolve come under the heading of discernment; Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood under the heading of virtue; and Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration under the heading of concentration. So altogether we have virtue, concentration, and discernment.