day two : morning

Foundations for Mindfulness

May 18, 2015

This morning, I’d like to give an introduction to the basic concepts of mindfulness and right mindfulness, and the preliminaries for developing right mindfulness.

The Buddha has a very useful definition of mindfulness. I’ll read you the passage from the Pāli Canon:

“And what is the faculty of mindfulness? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones is mindful, is endowed with excellent proficiency in mindfulness, remembering and recollecting what was done and said a long time ago.”

That’s the definition of mindfulness. The passage continues with the definition of the establishing of mindfulness:

“He, [the disciple,] remains focused on the body in and of itself, ardent, alert, and mindful, subduing greed and distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in and of themselves… the mind in and of itself… mental qualities in and of themselves, ardent, alert, and mindful, subduing greed and distress with reference to the world. This is called the faculty of mindfulness.” [§22]

Notice, in the definition of mindfulness, the importance of the words “recollecting” and “remembering.” The Buddha wants you to practice mindfulness as a faculty of the memory. He doesn’t define mindfulness as full awareness. He prefers that you have focused awareness. You’re here not just to be here in the present moment. You’re here in the present moment because there’s work to be done: You’re causing yourself suffering and you want to learn how to stop.

This fact is shown by a passage where the Buddha compares mindfulness to a person putting out a fire on his head or his turban. If your head is on fire, you don’t just sit there and watch it [§29]. You have to do what you can to put the fire out as quickly as possible.

Also, the Buddha doesn’t define mindfulness as bare attention. In fact, the Buddha doesn’t have any teachings about bare attention at all. Instead, he talks about appropriate attention. For him, attention is a matter of the questions you bring to the present moment. And your first order of business is to figure out what the skillful questions would be. For him, the questions are: “What is skillful? What is not skillful? How do you develop what is skillful? How do you abandon what is unskillful?” To remember these questions, and to bring them to bear on what you’re doing right now, is to be mindful. In fact, by keeping these questions in mind, you turn mindfulness into right mindfulness.

One of the Buddha’s most basic definitions of the function of right mindfulness is simply remembering that you have to develop the right factors of the path, from right view through to right concentration, and to abandon the unskillful or wrong factors of the path, from wrong view through wrong concentration [§26].

The Buddha illustrates this point with the analogy of a gatekeeper at the gate to a fortress on a frontier. The gatekeeper can’t just sit there and be aware of who comes in and goes out. There may be spies from the neighboring country who want to sneak in and destroy the fortress from within, so the gatekeeper has to know who to let in and who to keep out. Here’s the analogy:

“Just as a royal frontier fortress has a gatekeeper, wise, experienced, intelligent to keep out those he doesn’t know and to let in those he does know, for the protection of those within and to ward off those without, in the same way a disciple of the noble ones is mindful, endowed with excellent proficiency in mindfulness, remembering and recollecting what was done and said a long time ago. With mindfulness as his gatekeeper, the disciple of the noble ones abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless, and looks after himself with purity.” [§28]

Years back, I heard someone explain this image by saying that the gatekeeper doesn’t have to do anything: Simply the fact that the gatekeeper is at the gate scares the enemy away and keeps the enemy out. But that’s a mannequin gatekeeper, not a real one or a wise, experienced one.

In France do they have mannequin police? Where they put a mannequin dressed as a policeman in a police car? No? In America, because taxes are so low, they can’t afford to have real police at all the intersections where people tend to speed, so they’ve invented mannequin police. They park a police car on the side of a road where they want people to slow down, and they put a mannequin dressed as a policeman in the driver’s seat, to scare drivers into slowing down. It works the first time you drive past, but not after that.

At any rate, I don’t think the Buddha was recommending a mannequin gatekeeper. Our defilements are too clever to be fooled by that sort of thing. The gatekeeper has to be alert and mindful, to know who he should let in, and who he shouldn’t let in.

He also has to remember how to keep the bad people out.

As the Buddha pointed out, the causes of stress are of two sorts [§21]. With some causes you simply look at them and they go away. For example, you may have a desire that you know is stupid. The only reason it has power over the mind is if you’re not paying much attention to it. If you give it your full attention, you see how stupid it is, and it goes away. These are the causes of stress that go away by simply fixing your level gaze on them.

However, there are other desires that are not so obvious. You look at them and they don’t go away. Those are the ones you have to work against. The Buddha calls these the ones you have to “exert a fabrication” against. Later in the week, we will discuss what “exerting a fabrication” means. But for the time being, we can just remember that some causes of stress go away just by watching them, whereas others go away only when you work to counteract them. Bare awareness, in those cases, simply won’t work. This is one of the most important things you have to keep in mind. Otherwise, your gatekeeper won’t be able to keep all of the enemy spies out of your mind.

So these are the basic functions of right mindfulness: to remind you to act skillfully and to abandon unskillful behavior; to remind you of what’s skillful and what’s unskillful; and to remind you of what works and what doesn’t work in developing what is skillful and abandoning what’s not.

For example, while you’re sitting here meditating, you have to remember why you are here. If thoughts of what you’re going to do after the retreat come up, you remember that you should let those thoughts go because they’re not what you’re here for.

Second, you have to remember where you want your mind to be focused, and what to do while you’re staying there. If you find that you’ve wandered away from the breath, you remember what to do to get back to the breath.

Now in order to develop right mindfulness, the Buddha teaches a process that he calls the “establishing of mindfulness.” It’s a many-faceted process, which we will begin talking about tomorrow. Because it has so many facets, it will take several days to explain.

But the Buddha also lists the preliminary causes for giving rise to strong mindfulness [§30], and because the list is short, we can discuss it now. It consists of two factors: purified virtue and views made straight. “Purified virtue” here means not breaking any of the five precepts: not killing, not stealing, not having illicit sex, not lying, and not taking intoxicants. If you break any of these precepts and then you try to meditate, you will start remembering the times in the past when you have harmed people. Either you will feel regret for what you did or you will deny that what you did was wrong. Either way, you are putting a wall in the mind where you try not to remember. This makes it more difficult to be mindful. If your mind has many inner walls, you will find it very hard to observe what’s going on inside. However, if you have nothing in your behavior that you would regret or that you would deny, it opens the doors inside the mind, and in this way your mindfulness and alertness can get better and stronger.

As for views made straight, these basically come down to right view: understanding that the reason for your suffering comes from your own actions. Here again the Buddha describes two types of suffering. Some types of suffering simply happen because of the way the world is. The days are too hot or too cold; people die and get sick; you yourself will grow sick and age and die some day. These kinds of suffering are ultimately beyond your control. Fortunately, though, they don’t have to weigh down the mind.

But there is a second type of suffering that comes from craving and ignorance: qualities in the mind itself. This is the kind of suffering that actually weighs the mind down. Because you can learn to exert control over the qualities in the mind, this is the good news of the Buddha’s teachings: The suffering that weighs down the mind is the suffering over which you can gain control, and you can put an end to it. This means that if you focus on the suffering that you’re creating right now and learn how to put an end to it, no type of suffering will weigh down the mind. This is why you want to focus on your actions. If you solve the problem of your own unskillful actions, you’ve solved all the main problems in life.

Knowing this, having this right view, helps give focus to your mindfulness.

So when we talk about mindfulness as being a faculty of the memory, it doesn’t mean that we have to keep everything from the past in mind. What we have to keep in mind is the difference between skillful and unskillful actions, and what we’ve learned about how to bring our actions into the skillful side so that we can end the suffering that weighs down the mind.

In this way you see that the causes for mindfulness, virtue and right views, are actually closely related to kamma. The good kamma of having virtue helps to strengthen your mindfulness; having right view about kamma helps to give focus to your mindfulness.

Q: In the analogy of the gatekeeper, what is represented by the people outside and the people inside?

A: The people outside are of two sorts, friends and enemies. The enemies are the ones you have to watch out for. Enemies include any influences from outside that would be unskillful, as well as any of your own intentions that would also be unskillful. As for the people inside, those are the soldiers of right effort. You don’t want anyone coming in who would weaken your efforts.

Q:Must the guardian actively bring in certain people or keep them out?

A: Yes. The important thing is that he’s not a mannequin guardian. In other words, he’s not passive. He actively has to give rise to skillful qualities, and actively put an end to unskillful ones.

Q: We may think we have enough mindfulness, alertness, and ardency in the present moment, but it’s difficult to memorize even one page of a book of an author, so how do we improve our attention, mindfulness, and memory?

A: By focusing on your breath and just being very careful to bring yourself back to the breath every time you leave the breath. That, over time, strengthens your mindfulness and your alertness. At the same time, review the causes for mindfulness in your life: Are your precepts pure? Are your views about action right? If not, focus on bringing those causes into line.

Q: Concerning the five precepts, the first precept is for me the most important and I forbid myself formally not to kill any animal, even an insect, or to eat any animals. As for the fifth precept, I have more difficulties. Especially here in France, one likes to drink a good glass of wine every now and then, which in my case means almost every day. So this fifth precept: Does it concern getting drunk or is it a matter of totally renouncing the use of any kind of alcoholic beverage, even a “reasonable” dose?

A: Formally, it means total renunciation of alcohol, because it’s easier to say No entirely than it is to figure out the difference between a “reasonable” and an “unreasonable” amount. The more you drink, the more drinks seem reasonable. And as the Buddha said, we are already intoxicated with life, youth, and health. To add more intoxication on top of that, even just one nice glass of wine, is too much for the mind to absorb and still be skillful.

Also concerning the five precepts, the Buddha said the most important one is the fourth, against lying. That’s because when you give misinformation to people, it could have a bad effect on them for a very long time, even on into the next life.

Q: I would like to return to the question of wine. It was introduced as a problem of alcoholism, but there’s another dimension, the social dimension. How can one accept or refuse a little tiny glass of champagne among friends?

A: The best way to refuse a friendly gesture of this sort is to remember that traditionally the Buddha was considered to be a doctor, a doctor who treats the illnesses of the world, the illnesses of the heart and mind. I’m sure that even in France, people will not be offended if you refuse a glass of wine on the grounds that your doctor forbids it. So when someone offers you a glass of wine or even a demicoupe of champagne, tell him “My doctor says that I can’t have alcohol.” You don’t have to explain who the doctor is or exactly what illness the doctor is treating. Your friend won’t be offended.

Q: (Vin 3) I’m with my friends. On the table there is a Camembert, just right; fresh bread, crusty; a bottle of Pommard open, ready to be served. I consult my doctor. Will he prescribe a Coke Light?

A: Several points. One, your doctor is not an American capitalist. There are many things he could recommend that are better than Coke Light: San Pelligrino, Orangina, Schweppes Tonic, and many others.

Two, why do friendships need alcohol? Before you meet with your friends, spread lots of goodwill in their direction, and everyone will get along much better together, even without the Pommard.

Three, you already know what Pommard tastes like. That should be enough to satisfy your curiosity.

And finally, if you spent as much time thinking of skillful ways to avoid alcohol as you have been trying to think of skillful ways to drink alcohol, you probably would have made great progress along the path by now.

Q: What is illicit sex?

A: If you are married, it means having any sex outside of the marriage. If you are not married, illicit sex means having sex with a person married to someone else, with a person who is under-age, or with a person who has taken a vow of celibacy.

Q: A “particular relationship at a distance” is an exchange of e-mails with someone who is married. Is this a breaking of the third precept?

A: It doesn’t break the precept, but it puts a big crack in it.

Q: When you tell a lie, the perception of the world changes. It is necessary to remember what one has said to whom. Do you think the breaking of this precept would be a skillful way of developing mindfulness?

A: It would develop mindfulness, but it would be wrong mindfulness. It wouldn’t contribute to your progress on the path.