-By Venerable Nanissara, Myanmar
Six hundred and twenty three years before Jesus Christ, on the full moon day of May, in the Rupandehi district of the Kingdom of Nepal, at Lumbini in a lovely garden full of green shady Sala groves, Sakya Prince Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha, who would become the greatest religious teacher in the world, was born.
His father, Suddhodana, was the ruler of the Kingdom of the Sakyas; his mother was Queen Maya. Mauryan Emperor Ashoka visited this sacred birthplace of the Buddha in 239 BC. In commemoration of his visit, he erected a stone pillar. The inscription on the pillar testifies not only to the location of the Lumbini gardens but also to the birthplace of the Buddha.
The inscription reads as follows-'When King Devanan Priyadarsina Raja had been anointed twenty years, he himself came and paid respect to this spot because the Buddha Sakyamuni was born here.'
In 588 BC, on the full moon day of May, under a Bodhi tree growing on the bank of the Neranjara River near Gaya (now in modern Bihar, India), at the age of 35, Siddhattha Gotama attained Enlightenment. During the first watch of that wonderful night (Vesaka Punnima), the Blessed One acquired knowledge of his previous existences; in the second watch, penetrated the Law of Dependent Origination; and, finally, at sunrise, attained Omniscience. After this, he was known as the Buddha, 'The Perfect Enlightened One'. He was not born as a Buddha, but was a human being who became a Buddha by his own striving.
In 543 BC, on the full moon day of May (Vesaka Punnima), in the Sala grove Southwest of Kusinagar capital of the Mallas (in modern Uttar Pradesh, India), the Buddha, founder of the greatest religion, and the greatest teacher of all men and gods, passed into parinibbana (complete extinction), at the age of 80. When the Blessed One was entering into parinibbana, he addressed the assembly of bhikkhus saying- 'Brethren, now behold, I exhort you, decay is inherent in all conditioned things, but the Truth will remain forever! Work out your salvation and liberation with earnestness and diligence.' These were the last words of the Buddha.
When the Buddha thus entered nibbana, there arose, at the moment of his passing out of existence, a mighty earthquake-terrible and awe-inspiring; the thunder of heaven burst forth, and those of the bhikkhus who were not yet free from passion stretched out their arms and wept, some fell headlong on the ground in anguish at the thought-'Too soon has the Buddha passed away! Too soon has the Tathagata passed away from existence! Too soon has the Light of the World gone out! Too soon has the Eye of the World disappeared!'
The brilliant lamp was extinguished! But the lamp of the Dhamma, that is, the Buddha's teaching exists forever and will light the way of countless numbers of beings in our world across the stream of life and death to nibbana.
It has been twenty-five centuries since Siddhattha Gotama, the Sakya Prince who became the Buddha, passed away. But His Words, His Teachings, His Path, His Philosophy, His Discipline, and His Truths have not passed away. These Dhammas remain even now as the guide to life for innumerable beings.
Among the founders of religions, the Buddha is the only teacher who did not claim to be anything other than a human being. Other teachers claimed to be either God or his incarnation in different forms. The Buddha was a human being; he claimed no inspiration from any God or other external power. He attributed all his realisations, attainments and achievements to human endeavour and human intelligence. A man and only a man can became a Buddha, if he so wills it and endeavours after it. We call the Buddha a man 'par-excellence'. He was so perfect in his 'humanness' that he came to be regarded later in popular religion as 'super-human'.
The moral, philosophical, practical and ethical systems expounded by the Buddha are called the Dhamma, and are more popularly known as Buddhism. Strictly speaking, Buddhism is not a religion, in that it is not a system of faith and worship owing any allegiance to a supernatural Supreme Being. Buddhism is a course or way that guides a disciple, through pure living and pure thinking, to gain Supreme Wisdom and deliverance from all defilements. In Buddhism, there is no god or creator to be feared or obeyed. Instead of placing an unseen almighty God over man, the Buddha raised the worth of human beings. Buddha taught that man could gain salvation by self-exertion without depending on any god. If by religion we mean a system of deliverance from the ills of life, then Buddhism is the religion above all religions.
The foundation of Buddhism is the Middle Path. This avoids two extremes; one is the search for happiness through the pleasures of the senses, which is 'low, common, unprofitable and the way of ordinary people'; the other is the search for peace through self-mortification-usually in various forms of asceticism, which is painful, unworthy and unprofitable. The Buddha, having found both to be useless, avoided them and discovered the new way through his own experience. This is the Middle Path, which gives clear vision and knowledge that leads to calm, peace, happiness, insight, purification of mind and enlightenment, cessation of defilements, extinction of suffering, nibbana. This Middle Path is generally called the Noble Eightfold Path, because it is composed of eight categories, namely-
1. Right Understanding
2. Right Thought
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration
1. Right Understanding is the keynote of Buddhism. It is the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths. To understand rightly means Right Understanding-to see things as they really are. This understanding is the highest wisdom, which sees the ultimate reality and absolute truth. These realities and truths are within us, not outside ourselves. The path to freedom and purity has been well mapped by the Buddha and countless others who have walked upon it. This is the guide pointing the way to enlightenment. In the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Understanding stands at the beginning as well as at its end. A minimum degree of Right Understanding is necessary at the very beginning because it gives the right motivation to the other seven factors of the path and gives correct direction to them. In the beginning, Right Understanding deals with certain natural laws, which govern our everyday lives. One of the most important of these is the law of kamma, the law of cause and effect. Every action brings a certain result. When our acts are motivated by greed, hatred or delusion, then pain and suffering come back to us. When our actions are motivated by generosity, love or wisdom, the results are happiness and peace. If we integrate this understanding of the law of kamma into our lives, we can begin more consciously to cultivate and develop wholesome states of mind. The Buddha often stressed the importance of generosity. Giving is the expression in action of non-greed in the mind. The whole spiritual path involves letting go; non-clinging and generosity are the manifestation of non-attachment.
Right Understanding also involves a profound subtle knowledge of our true nature. In the course of meditation practice, it becomes increasingly clear that everything is impermanent. All the elements of mind and body exist in a moment and pass away, arising and vanishing continuously. The breath comes in and goes out, thoughts arise and pass away, sensations come into being and vanish. All phenomena are in constant flux. There is no lasting security to be had in the flow of impermanence. Deep insight into the selfless motive of all elements begins to offer us a radically different perspective on our lives and the world. The mind stops grasping and clinging when the microscopic transience of everything is realized, and when we experience the process of mind and body without the burden of self. This is the kind of Right Understanding that is developed in meditation through careful and penetrating observation.
2. Clear vision leads to clear thinking. Therefore, the second factor is Right Thought. Right Thought is free of sense desire, free of ill will, free of cruelty. This serves the double purpose of eliminating evil thoughts and developing pure thoughts.
The endless cycle of desire for sense pleasures keeps the mind in turbulence and confusion. Right thought means becoming aware of sense desires and letting them go. Then the mind becomes lighter. There is no disturbance, no tension, and we begin to free ourselves from selfishness and possessiveness.
Freedom from ill will means freedom from anger. Anger is a burning fire in the mind and causes great suffering to others as well. It is helpful to be able to recognise anger and to let it go. Then the mind becomes light and easy, expressing its natural loving-kindness. Thoughts free of cruelty and harmfulness are thoughts of compassion, feeling for the suffering of others and wanting to alleviate it. We should develop thoughts, which are completely free of cruelty towards any living being
3. Right Thought leads to Right Speech. How we relate to the world, to our environment and to other people depends upon our speech. The Buddha's teaching is a prescription for putting us into harmony with our surroundings, for establishing a proper ecology of mind so that we are in accord with others or with nature around us. The first aspect of relating to the world in this way is right speech. Right Speech means not speaking what is untrue, or using slanderous, abusive or harsh language, rather speaking words that are honest and helpful, creating vibrations of peace and harmony.
4. Right Speech must be followed by Right Action. This means not killing, minimising the amount of pain we inflict on other beings; not stealing, that is, not taking what is not given; and not committing sexual misconduct, which in the context of our daily life can be basically understood as not causing suffering to others out of greed or desire for pleasant sensations.
Although we are not always able to see the far-reaching consequences of each of our actions, we should take care not to create any disturbance in the environment but to emanate peace and gentleness, love and compassion.
5. Purifying his thoughts, words, and deeds at the outset, the spiritual pilgrim tries to purify his livelihood. Right Livelihood involves our relationship in the world. This means doing that kind of work for support and maintenance which is not harmful to others; not engaging in work which involves killing, stealing or dishonesty. There is a traditional list of occupations, which are considered unwholesome. It includes the work associated with harmful weapons, intoxicants and poisons and the work, which causes suffering to human beings and animals. The Dhamma is very active. Most human beings are dull in understanding, but wisdom and understanding have to be integrated into our lives. Right Livelihood is an important part of the integration-to make an art of life, to do what we have to do with awareness.
6. The next three steps on the path have to do primarily with the practice of meditation. The first of these is in many respects the most important-Right Effort. Right Effort is the energetic will to keep evil from arising, to get rid of such evil that has already arisen, to produce the good not yet arisen, and to develop the good that has already arisen. Unless we make the effort, nothing happens. It is said in the Abhidhamma that effort is the root of all achievement, the foundation of all attainment. If we want to get to the top of the mountain and just sit at the bottom thinking about it, nothing will happen. It is through effort of actual climbing of the mountain, by the taking of one step after another that the summit is reached.
But effort has to be balanced. Being very tense and anxious is a great hindrance. Energy has to be balanced with tranquillity. In our practice, we have to be persistent and persevering, but with a relaxed and balanced mind, making the effort without forcing. There is so much to discover in us, so many levels of mind to understand. By making effort, the path will unfold. We each have to walk the path with energetic will to solve the problems of our life.
7. Right Mindfulness means being aware of what is happening in the present moment. It is to be diligently aware of the activities of the body. It is to be diligently mindful with regard to the activities of sensations or feeling, perception, ideas, thoughts and mind. Mindfulness notices and attends to the flow of things-when walking, to the movement of the body. It observes the breath in-the breath out. Whatever the object is, mindfulness seeks to notice it, to be aware of it without grasping, which is greed; without condemning, which is hatred; without forgetting, which is delusion; just observing the flow, observing the process. Mindfulness brings the qualities of poise, equilibrium and balance to the mind.
8. Right Effort and Right Mindfulness lead to Right Concentration. The mindfulness of breathing is a very popular method for establishing concentration in the meditator's world. Concentration on breathing leads to one-pointedness of the mind and ultimately to insight, which enables one to attain enlightenment. The Buddha also practised concentration on breathing before he attained enlightenment. This harmless and fruitful concentration may be practised by any person, irrespective of religious beliefs.
The most important discourse ever given by the Buddha on mental development or mental culture (meditation), is called 'The Setting up of Mindfulness' (Satipatthana Sutta). The ways of insight meditation are given in this discourse. The discourse is divided into four main sections. The first section deals with our body (kaya); the second with our feeling or sensations (vedana); the third with the mind (citta), and the fourth with various moral and intellectual subjects (dhamma). It should be clearly borne in mind that whatever the form of 'meditation' may be, the essential thing is mindfulness, meaning awareness, attention and observation.
One of the most well known, popular and practical examples of meditation connected with the body is called the mindfulness or awareness of in and out breathing. For this meditation only, a particular and definite posture is prescribed in the text. For other forms of meditation given in this course you may sit, stand, walk or lie down, as you like. But for cultivating mindfulness of in and out breathing, one should sit according to the text-'cross-legged position, keeping the body erect and mind alert'. Place the right hand over the left hand. Eyes must be closed. Easterners generally sit cross-legged with body erect. They sit placing the right foot on the left thigh and the left foot on the right thigh. This is the full lotus position. Sometimes they sit in the half position, that is, by simply placing the right foot on the left thigh or left foot on the right thigh. When the triangle position is assumed, the whole body is well balanced. But sitting cross-legged is not practical and easy for westerners. Those who find the cross-legged posture too difficult may sit comfortably in a chair or any other support sufficiently high enough to rest the legs on the floor or ground. Assume any posture that is comfortably to you, keeping the back reasonably straight.
Your hands should be placed comfortably on your lap, and the right hand must be on the left. You must close your eyes. Keep the body still and steady, relaxed and easy, without being stiff, strained, cramped, shackled or bent over. Thus, seated in a convenient posture, at a quiet place, you should establish mindfulness. You should pay attention to the meditation object being mindful and alert, fixing the awareness on the tip of your nose. Breath in and out as usual without any effort or strain. Do not control or force the breath in any way, merely stay attentive to the coming of breath-in and the going of breath-out; let your mind be aware and vigilant of your breathing in and out. When you breathe you sometimes take deep breaths, sometimes not. This does not matter at all. Breathe normally and naturally. The only thing is that when you take deep breaths you should be aware whether they are long or short, in or out. In other words, your mind should be so fully concentrated on your breathing-that you are aware of its natural movements and changes. The important thing is not to move very often. Forget other things-your surroundings, your environment. Do not open your eyes and look at anything. It is very important to be patient.
Patience means staying in a state of balance, regardless of what is happening in the body. Stay easy, relaxed and alert. If we have a patient mind, all things will unfold in a natural and organic way. Being patient through all these experiences will help us to keep the mind in balance. Another thing for deepening meditation is silence. Much of the energy that is conserved by not talking can be used for the development of awareness and mindfulness. As with the meditation practice itself, silence, too, should be easy and relaxed. By keeping silent, the whole range of mental and physical activity will become extremely clear. Verbal silence makes possible a deeper silence of mind. Try to cultivate a sense of aloneness. To do this, it is helpful to suspend preconceptions about yourselves, about relationships, about other people. At the time of meditation, take time to experience yourself deeply. When we understand ourselves, then relationships become easy and meaningful. Concentrated efforts during the meditation on the development of moment-to-moment mindfulness will be directed towards one goal; the mind will become powerful and penetrating. During the meditation become very mindful of and notice carefully all your movements. The meditation deepens through the continuity of awareness.
When you are seated in a suitable place and in a suitable posture, you should establish mindfulness. You must pay attention to the meditation object, being mindful and alert, fixing the mind on breathing in and out. The in-breath and out-breath a group or a heap or a collection of physical phenomena. When you contemplate or observe or investigate in the body with mindfulness and knowledge, you can experience four material qualities. They are the elements of extension (earth); cohesion (water); heat (fire) and motion (air). When you stand up, your feet are touching the ground or floor. When you sit, the lower parts of your body are touching the carpet or floor. When you sleep, some parts of your body are touching the bed. There are many touchable parts on your body. Whenever you touch any part of your body with anything, you can experience the four qualities of elements.
Sometimes the touch will be soft or hard-this is the element of extension. Sometimes you will touch fluid with your body-this is the element of cohesion. Sometimes you will touch something hot or cold with your body-this is the element of heat. Sometimes you will touch air, wind or inflation of matter with your body-this is the element of motion (air). The material elements of our bodies are called 'great' because of their distributive power and constructive power. Our bodies are constituted of these four great primary elements. The earth, the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars are the same. It is these very elements, experienced in our body. The power of these elements is enormous. For a short period of time, the elements are in some kind of balance. Not realising the tremendous destructive power inherent in them, when they begin to get out of balance, they cause decay, the dissolution of the body, great pain and death.
There is also pain of the mind-depression, despair, anxiety, worry, anger, hatred, fear, lust, greed, desire, grief, sorrow, dissatisfaction, jealousy, separation from beloved ones, association with hated persons, etc, that cause suffering in the mind-body or mental-body.
How long will we remain ensnared in this cycle of rebirth and death, the suffering of this endless hurrying on, driven by ignorance and craving? Every morning we have to wake up and go day and night, looking for sense-objects. We are subject to colours, sounds, smell, tastes, touches, thoughts and sensations in endless repetition. You go throughout the day, you sleep at night and you wake up to be exposed to the same sense-objects, sensations and thoughts, over and over again.
Therefore, we have to give full attention, full-mindedness to the mental-body. We must observe the flow of sensation, feelings, thinking, knowing, etc. Whatever appears and disappears from moment to moment in the mental-body or material-body, you must examine the real thing carefully; observe with mindfulness; investigate with knowledge. When you do so constantly, the three characteristics of material-body and mental-body will become evident in your knowledge, that is to say you will see or know the three signs of mind and matter. They are always changing, not everlasting, and they are impermanent, suffering and egoless (soulless). After distinguishing these as materiality and mentality, you should contemplate these three characteristics to develop successive knowledge of insight until enlightenment is attained and absolute truth-nibbana is realized.
This is insight meditation which leads to insight wisdom, purification, higher supramundane wisdom, final liberation, real happiness, ultimate peace, cessation of suffering, absolute truth-nibbana.
Concentration meditation is the mental state of one-pointedness. It leads to mystic power and supernatural power. Insight meditation is the knowledge of wisdom, which penetrates the three characteristics of mind and matter. It leads to the highest wisdom, enlightenment, noble truth, absolute truth-nibbana.
In conclusion, the great benefit of mindfulness on breathing in and out should be understood as the basic condition for the perfection of clear vision, final liberation and purification of the mind. For this had been said by the Buddha, 'Bhikkhus, mindfulness of breathing, when developed and much practised, perfects the four foundations of mindfulness. The four foundations of mindfulness when developed and much practised, perfect the seven enlightenment factors, and the seven enlightenment factors when developed and much practised lead to clear vision and liberation'.
So, I wish fervently as follows-may all you brothers and sisters, who are willing to enjoy cessation of suffering, pain, sorrow and lamentation try and practise the foundation of mindfulness that gives real happiness, peace and cessation of all forms of suffering.
Thank you very much, my dear brothers and sisters.
Sitagu Vihara, Sagaing Hills, Sagaing, Myanmar