day one : evening


April 22, 2017

Good evening and welcome to our retreat. It’s always a pleasure to be here meditating together with you. I hope the retreat is beneficial for everyone.

The theme of the retreat will be the five faculties: conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment. The Buddha taught these qualities as among the most important for attaining awakening. Not only that, he also noticed in his own practice that they would lead to success in whatever he would put his mind to. So they’re qualities useful in any attempt to do anything of importance in your life. Their primary focus is on the practice of meditation, but the first faculty, conviction, deals with how you view the world and how you live within the world. For that reason, it’s an aid in training your mind in all the aspects of the practice that surround meditation.

The five faculties are listed in the order in which they ordinarily develop. You begin with conviction because conviction deals with your views about what’s possible in terms of your self and of your world. In terms of the world, you’re convinced about what is possible and desirable to strive for. In terms of your self, conviction deals with what you believe you are capable of doing. In the Buddha’s teachings, we’re looking for a happiness that goes beyond anything we’ve known before, and so it’s important to have a sense of the world that allows for that happiness, and a sense of yourself as capable of finding it. Because this happiness is beyond the ordinary, you can’t know whether it’s possible until you’ve reached it, which means that the beliefs that help you reach it have to rank as a matter of conviction, and not of true knowledge. They become knowledge only when they’ve produced the desired results.

Building on conviction, you then put forth the persistent effort to develop within yourself whatever’s going to be skillful on the path and to abandon anything unskillful that will get in the way of the path.

Mindfulness is what remembers what’s skillful and what’s not skillful. It also remembers what to do with skillful qualities and unskillful qualities when they are present in the mind—and how to develop skillful qualities when they aren’t.

Concentration builds on persistence and mindfulness in that, when skillful qualities are fully developed, they lead the mind to a state of stillness and peace, together with a sense of deep inner well-being. The stillness then allows you to detect things in the mind that you can’t notice when it’s running around. The sense of well-being gives you the strength needed to nourish the mind in order to keep on the path.

Supported and nourished in this way, discernment then checks the results of what you’re doing to see how they can be improved. In this way, it then feeds back into the other qualities as well, strengthening your conviction, persistence, mindfulness, and concentration. In the Buddha’s image, the first four qualities are like the rafters you put up to support a roof, while discernment is the ridgepole that connects them all and makes them firm. The ridgepole relies on the rafters but it also ties them together so that they’re solid and tight.

These five qualities are also called strengths. The difference between “faculty” and “strength” lies in the intensity. The Pāli word for faculty, indrīya, is related to Indra, the king of the gods. When something is a faculty in the mind, it’s in charge. You can think of the mind as being like a committee. A strength is a strong member of the committee, whereas a faculty is someone who has taken over the committee and runs it.

When you think of the mind as a committee, it’s important to realize that each member of the committee consists of what the Buddha calls a bhava, or becoming. A becoming is an identity that you take on in a particular world of experience. This can refer to your identity as a human being in the physical world around us, or to the identities you assume within the thought-worlds of your mind. In fact, one of the Buddha’s discoveries was that the identities you assume in your thought-worlds will have an impact on the identities and worlds you assume after death.

Both the identity and your sense of the world depend on a desire. For example, if you want to have some lavender honey, the world that’s relevant to your desire centers on the place where lavender honey is available right now. From there it spreads to cover whatever is conducive to your getting the honey, as well as whatever’s getting in the way of your going there. At the moment, the monks sitting in front of you are an obstacle because you’re not going to get out of here until I’ve finished talking. So we’re a relevant part of that world. Your sense of identity in that world is composed largely of two things: your self as the consumer of the honey, and your self as the producer or provider of the honey. Your self as consumer centers on your stomach and your tongue. Your self as provider centers on whatever abilities you have that will get the honey: your body and, if there’s no lavender honey here in the monastery kitchen, your car and your wallet.

Other becomings will take other parts of you and make them important. Suppose, for instance, that you want to win an argument. Your stomach at that point is not important. Your brain becomes more central in terms of what you’re identifying with. And your sense of the world will focus, not on the lavender honey store, but on the people you’re arguing with and the topic you choose to argue about.

The basic principle in every becoming, though, is that your desire shapes both you and the world you experience.

In addition to desire, the Buddha saw—in the second knowledge he gained on the night of his awakening—that becoming is also shaped by two other factors: your views, which the Buddha equated with the way you pay attention to the world; and your actions, which he equated with your intentions. Your views are basically value judgments as to what’s worthwhile and what’s a good way to attain it. These then influence how you act, through the way you formulate intentions based on these views and act on them.

In acting on these intentions, we also change ourselves and the world in which we inhabit, both right now and on into the future. This means that we and our world are processes. Sometimes these processes achieve the results we want; sometimes they don’t. In other words, although the world is changeable, it’s not totally malleable. And the reason we suffer is because we don’t understand the patterns by which processes actually work.

For example, suppose you’re addicted to alcohol. You want to have the pleasure that comes from the alcohol but you don’t want the bad effects that come from being alcoholic. Sometimes you can connect cause and effect in your mind and learn from that fact, which helps in overcoming your addiction, but sometimes you don’t—which means you keep going back.

Now, the processes of becoming always entail suffering and stress. Unskillful becomings create blatant stress, but even skillful becomings create stress on a more subtle level. This means that your ability to gain awakening and to put an end to suffering will mean going beyond becoming altogether: going beyond your sense of your self and your sense of the world. However, to get there, you have to create good states of becoming. Why? Because the path requires developing, not just letting go. We need an environment that’s conducive to practice, along with a set of qualities in our thoughts, words, and deeds that lead to awakening. This requires that we also develop a sense of ourselves as capable of shaping ourselves and the world in the right direction, along with a way of nourishing ourselves on the path.

To develop all these things requires desire, the desire around which you build a world in which awakening is possible and a sense of self that’s conducive to achieving awakening. Because we want a happiness that goes beyond the ordinary, it requires that we develop skills that go beyond the ordinary as well. These skills consist of the five faculties which, because they are based on desire, are forms of becoming. They’re special forms of becoming, though, in that—in the course of developing these skills—they enable you to understand what the process of becoming is and how it works. They also teach you how to take the processes of becoming apart, so that you can get past unskillful becomings and then, when the time is ripe, go beyond all becomings altogether.

The reason we need to put the faculties in charge of the mind is because, when you make up your mind to practice, you find that the entire mind is not in full agreement. Some of the members of the committee are waiting to sabotage your practice so that they’ll be free to pursue other desires. So the question is: Who’s in charge here? Your moods? How can you trust them? They get you to do things and then they disappear. They’re like people who get you to break the law but then, when the police come to catch you, they run away. If you identify with these moods, you can’t even trust yourself, much less anyone else.

If you look outside for someone to trust, in terms of the beliefs you absorb from other people, whom do you trust to be in charge of defining your world? The media? The education system? The Internet? What do they know about how to go beyond aging, illness, and death?

This week we’re going to be looking instead at the Buddha as someone you can trust—someone who says that there is a way to go beyond aging, illness, and death, and who shows you how to do it. In particular, he gives you advice on how to develop the five strengths of conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment so that you put your wisdom in charge of defining who you are and the way you interpret the world in which you live. When these five strengths reach the point where they dominate the mind—in other words, when they become faculties—then you can trust yourself to act in your own best interest.

In addition to building on desire, these five faculties also deal directly with the other two elements that go into becoming: your views and the way you pay attention on the one hand, and your actions and intentions on the other. Two of the faculties, conviction and discernment, relate primarily to your views and to acts of attention. Three of them, persistence, mindfulness, and concentration, relate primarily to your intentions and actions.

All of them are based on heedfulness: the realization that because your actions make a difference between happiness and suffering, you have to be very careful about what you do. If you really love yourself and love others, you won’t do anything to harm yourself or to harm anyone else. You can’t just sit back and watch unskillful committee members take over the mind. You have to be proactive in strengthening the mind’s skillful members. Ultimately, the five faculties bring the mind to a happiness that has no need for desire, no need for becoming, so at that point, even the faculties get transcended. But to get there, we have to do the work of giving rise to these faculties in our thoughts, words, and deeds. That’s the purpose of our retreat.

The organization of the retreat will be like this: In the morning, we’ll have some short talks on meditation. In the afternoon, we’ll have more silence with at least one session devoted to questions and answers. There will be little slips of paper on which you can write questions that you can then place in the bowl here. In the evening, we’ll have talks on the five faculties. We’ll talk about the faculties in their standard order, but remember that in practice, they help one another along. So even though discussions on discernment don’t come until the end of the week, you’ll notice that we’ll have to bring discernment to developing the other faculties as well. And even though the faculties of mindfulness and concentration won’t come for several days, it’s good to have practical experience in developing them beforehand. So now we’ll meditate to give you the practical basis for understanding the more formal discussions when they come.


So. Find a comfortable position. Sit up comfortably straight, place your hands in your lap, face forward, and close your eyes.

And think thoughts of goodwill. Goodwill is a wish for happiness—a wish for true happiness, both for yourself and for other people. When we wish goodwill for ourselves and for others, we’re basically wishing that we and other people will understand the causes for true happiness and act on them. And this is a thought you can spread to anyone, even people who are doing unskillful things, very unskillful things, creating a lot of damage to the world. You’re basically wishing that they will stop and have a change of heart, which means that goodwill is something that you can spread to everyone without hypocrisy.

We think these thoughts at the beginning of the meditation because true happiness comes from within. It comes from developing the good potentials of the mind through the skills we master in meditation. This is why there’s no conflict between your true happiness and anyone else’s true happiness. So when you pose the thought in your mind, “May I be happy,” it’s not a selfish thought. The more you’re able to develop your own inner skills, the more you will have to offer to other people as well. This is why goodwill can be developed as an unlimited attitude.

So pose that thought in your mind for a few minutes: “May I be truly happy. May I come to understand the causes of true happiness. And may I be able to act on them.”

Now spread the same thought to others. Start with people who are close to your heart: to members of your family, and to very close friends. May they find true happiness, too.

Then spread the same thought out in ever-widening circles:

to people you know well and like,

to people you like even though you don’t know them so well,

to people you’re more neutral about,

and to people you don’t like.

Remember that the world would be a much better place if everyone could find true happiness inside.

Spread thoughts of goodwill to people you don’t even know. And not just people: living beings of all kinds, in all directions—east, west, north, south, above, and below, out to infinity. May we all find true happiness in our hearts.

Now bring your attention to the breath. The word “breath” here doesn’t mean just the air coming in and out of the lungs. It also means the flow of energy throughout the body, which exists on many levels. On the most obvious level, it’s the flow of energy that allows the air to come in and go out of the lungs. But it also includes the flow of energy in the nerves and the blood vessels, out to every pore.

So take a couple of good long, deep in-and-out breaths and notice where you feel the breath energy. If long breathing feels good, keep it up. If it doesn’t feel good, you can change the breath. There are two ways of changing it. One is to consciously experiment with different kinds of breathing: long, short, fast, slow, deep, shallow, heavy, light, or any combination of those. Try various ways of breathing to see what feels best for the body right now. When you’ve found a rhythm and texture of breathing that feels good, stick with it for as long as it continues to feel good. If the needs of the body change, then allow the breath to change in line with them. Try to be as sensitive as you can to learn the signs in the body indicating what way of breathing will serve it best.

The other way to change the breath is to consciously pose the question in mind, each time you breathe in: “What would feel really good right now?” And see how the body responds on its own.

If any thoughts not related to the breath grab your attention, just drop them and you’ll be right back at the breath. If the mind goes wandering off 10 times, 100 times, bring it back 10 times, 100 times. Don’t get discouraged. Just keep letting the thoughts go, letting them go. And you don’t have to chase them away. Even though a thought unrelated to the breath may appear in the mind, you can still feel the breath. Stay with that sensation.

Each time you return to the breath, reward yourself with an especially gratifying breath. That way the mind will be more and more inclined to keep coming back to the breath and more willing to stay there.

If there are any pains in the body, don’t focus on them. Focus instead on the opposite side of the body. That is to say, if there’s a pain in the back, focus on the front of the torso. If there’s a pain on the right, focus on the left.

When the breath gets comfortable, there’s a danger that you might start leaving the breath to follow the comfort, but that will destroy the foundation for the sense of comfort, which is your continued focus on the breath.

So to counteract that tendency, the next step is to breathe in and out aware of the entire body. And the first step in that direction is to survey the sensations of the breath in the different parts of the body, section by section.

Start down around the navel. Locate that part of the body in your awareness. Watch it for a while as you breathe in and breathe out to see what kind of breathing feels good there. If there’s any tension or tightness there, allow it to relax and dissolve away, so that no new tension builds up as you breathe in, and you don’t hold on to any tension as you breathe out. If it helps in dissolving the tension, think of the breath energy entering and leaving your body right at the spot where you’re focused, so you don’t have to create tension by trying to pull energy from anywhere else in the body. As the patterns of tension begin to dissolve away, try to notice if there are any more subtle patterns of tension, and allow those to dissolve away as well.

Now move your attention over to the right, to the lower right hand corner of the abdomen, and follow the same steps there. One, locate that part of the body in your awareness. Two, watch it for a while as you breathe in and breathe out to see what kind of breathing feels good there. And three, if there’s any sense of tension or tightness there, allow it to relax.

Now move your attention over to the left, to the lower left hand corner of the abdomen, and follow the same three steps there.

Now bring your attention up to the solar plexus, right at the tip of the breastbone, and follow the same three steps there.

Now bring your attention over to the right, to the right flank.

And then to the left, to the left flank.

Then bring your attention to the middle of the chest. Try to be especially sensitive to how the breath energy feels around the heart, and breathe in a way that feels soothing there.

Now bring your attention to the right, to the place where the chest and the shoulder meet.

And then to the same spot on the left.

Now bring your attention to the base of the throat.

Now bring your attention to the middle of the head. As you breathe in and out, think of the breath energy coming in and out of the head from all directions, not only through the nose, but also through the eyes, the ears, in from the back of the head, down from the top of the head, going deep, deep, deep into the brain, gently dissolving away any patterns of tension you may feel anywhere in the head: around the jaws, around the forehead, around the eyes, at the back of the neck.

Now bring your attention to the base of the neck, right at the base of the skull. As you breathe in, think of the breath energy entering there from the back and spreading down through the neck, down the shoulders, the arms, out to the tips of the fingers. As you breathe out, think of it radiating out from all those parts of the body into the air.

As you get more sensitive to these parts of the body, if you see that one side is holding more tension than the other, relax that side and try to keep it relaxed, all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out-.

And as obvious patterns of tension begin to relax in these parts of the body, try to become more sensitive to detect subtler patterns of tension that were obscured by the more obvious ones. Allow even the slightest tension that you can detect to relax.

Now, keeping your attention focused on the back of the neck, this time as you breathe in think of the energy entering there and then going down both sides of the spine all the way down to the tailbone. Then as you breathe out, think of it radiating out from the entire spine into the air. And again, if you notice that there’s more tension in one side of the back than the other, allow that side to relax. And try to keep becoming more and more sensitive even to the slightest patterns of tension in this part of the body. When you sense them, allow them to relax.

Now bring your attention down to the tailbone. As you breathe in, think of the energy entering there and going down through the hips, the legs, to the tips of the toes. And then as you breathe out, think of the energy radiating out from all those parts of the body into the air. And again, if there’s more tension in one side of the body there than the other, allow that side to relax. And keep it relaxed, all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out. As you’re staying here, try to become sensitive to ever more and more subtle patterns of tension so that you can dissolve those away, too.

That completes one cycle of the survey of the body. If you want, you can go through the body again to pick out any patterns of tension you may have missed the first time around. Keep this up until you’re ready to settle down.

Then choose any one spot in the body that seems most congenial or most interesting. Allow your attention to settle there and then to spread out to fill the whole body, so that you’re aware of the whole body breathing in, the whole body breathing out. As your awareness spreads, think of it as exerting no pressure at all on your body. It’s like the light of a candle in an otherwise dark room: The flame is in one spot, but the light fills the entire room. Or like the spider in the middle of a web: The spider is in one spot, but it’s sensitive to the whole web. Try to maintain this sense of centered but broad awareness all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out. Maintain this quality of awareness as long and as steadily as you can. Try to master it as a skill. Your attention will have a tendency to shrink, especially during the out-breath, so each time you breathe in and out remind yourself, “Whole body, whole body.” Allow the breath to find whatever rhythm feels best. Your duty is simply to maintain this centered but broad awareness.

There’s nowhere else you have to go right now, nothing else you have to do, nothing else you have to think about. This awareness is healing for the body and healing for the mind. It’s like a medicinal cream for curing a rash on your skin. For it to work, you have to leave the cream on the skin. If you put it on and then wipe it off, it can’t have any effect. This is why it’s good to develop this type of awareness for a long time. Because it’s still and all-around, it’s a good foundation for insight to arise. But don’t worry about the next step in the meditation, or when the insights will arise. They’ll arise as this quality of awareness matures. Right here. Give it time.


Before leaving meditation, remember that there are three steps to leaving properly.

The first is to ask yourself, “At what point in the meditation was the mind especially well-centered, still, and comfortable? Especially clear?” Then ask yourself, “Where were you focused at that point? What was your breath like? What had you been doing leading up to that point?” If you can remember these things, try to keep them in mind and see if you can apply them to the next time you meditate, to recreate the same conditions and get the same results. Now it may happen that you don’t get the same results, but that simply means that you need to be more observant the next time around. Gradually you’ll become more adept at noticing what’s worth paying attention to, and what’s not. It’s in this way that the meditation becomes a skill.

That’s the first step.

The second step is to think of whatever sense of peace or well-being you’ve felt during this session and dedicate it to others, either to specific people you know are suffering right now or to all living beings in all directions: May we all find peace and well-being in our hearts.

The third step is to remember that even though you open your eyes, you can still be aware of the breath energy in the body, as you get up, walk around, whatever you do: Try to stay as fully aware of this breath energy as continually as you can. It may be asking too much to try to focus on the in-breath and the out-breath all the time, but just try to be aware of the quality of the breath energy in the body, and release any patterns of tension that you may detect, as soon as they arise, in the course of the day. This way you provide yourself with a good foundation for observing your mind as you go through the day. It also provides you with a sense of being grounded in your daily activities. This helps build up the momentum of your practice.

See if you can maintain this full body awareness until the next time that you sit down to meditate. That way, the next time you sit down to focus on the breath, you’ll be right there.

It’s like keeping a dog on a short leash. When you want it to come, it’s right there. Otherwise, if you drop your awareness of the breath energy, it’s like keeping your dog on a very long leash. It will wrap the leash around other people’s legs, lampposts, trees—all kinds of things. When you want it to come back, you’ll have to unwind the leash, which takes a very long time. So try to maintain this awareness of the breath energy as part of your whole day.

And with that thought, you can open your eyes.

Are there any questions before we break for the night?

Q: Is effort the same thing as persistence?

A: They go together. We want an effort that can maintain itself and not get exhausted and so, as we’ll find, sometimes it will require a lot of effort and sometimes just a little bit of effort. But the consistency is the important part.

Q: How are the five faculties related to the noble eightfold path? Do they, for example, come at the beginning?

A: They’re actually a different way of expressing the noble eightfold path. Conviction is related to what’s called mundane right view, persistence is related to right effort, mindfulness is related to right mindfulness, concentration is related to right concentration, and discernment is related to the noble level of right view and right resolve. As we will see, conviction is also related to right speech, right action, and right livelihood as well. So the five faculties are simply another way of expressing the eightfold path.

Okay, we’ll break for the night. Did you receive the piece on maintaining silence during the retreat? We should have added a reference to screens: computer screens, telephone screens, iPad screens. Try to look at as few screens as little as possible, especially tomorrow. We will ask Bernard to announce the election results tomorrow night. Between now and then, try not to think about the election. Think instead of this story from the Canon:

King Pasenadi once went to visit the Buddha in the middle of the day, and the Buddha asked him, “What have you been doing today?” The king, very frankly, said, “Oh, the typical concerns of a person who is obsessed with power.” So the Buddha asked him, “Suppose that a trustworthy man came from the East, saying that there’s an enormous mountain moving in from the East, crushing all living beings in its path. Another trustworthy man comes from the South, saying that there’s another mountain moving in from the South. Another man comes from the West, same news. Another man from the North, same news: altogether, four mountains moving in from the cardinal directions, crushing all living beings in their path. Considering that human life is so hard to attain, what would you do?” And the king answered, “What else could I do? Just calm my mind and practice the Dhamma.” So the Buddha said, “I inform you, great king, aging, illness, and death are rolling in on you. So what should you do?” And the king said, “What else can I do? Calm my mind and practice the Dhamma.” So it doesn’t matter which politicians will be riding the mountains: The mountains are still moving in. So what should you do? Calm your mind and practice the Dhamma. Bonne nuit.