Having discussed the factors of moral discipline, or correct conduct (Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood), Bhikkhu Bodhi moves on to the three factors concerned with concentration — Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
In a wonderful text about the Noble Eightfold Path, this American-born Buddhist monk and scholar tells us:
Wisdom is the primary tool for deliverance, but the penetrating vision it yields can only open up when the mind has been composed and collected. Right concentration brings the requisite stillness to the mind by unifying it with undistracted focus on a suitable object. To do so, however, the factor of concentration needs the aid of effort and mindfulness.
Underlying and supporting Right Effort is the mental factor of Energy (viriya), which manifests in both wholesome and unwholesome forms.
The same factor fuels desire, aggression, violence, and ambition on the one hand, and generosity, self-discipline, kindness, concentration, and understanding on the other.
For us to direct this special energy toward the end of suffering, it must be guided by Right View and Right Intention — the first two elements on the Noble Eightfold Path. A newcomer to Buddhist thought should not allow this interpenetration of the elements of the path to cause frustration (this is me speaking, not Bhikkhu Bodhi); as each small concept becomes more familiar to us, and as we examine each one closely and patiently, the whole will integrate itself in time.
Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
The reason why effort is so crucial is that each person has to work out his or her own deliverance. The Buddha does what he can by pointing out the path to liberation; the rest involves putting the path into practice, a task that demands energy. This energy is to be applied to the cultivation of the mind, which forms the focus of the entire path. [My italics.]
Right Effort is divided into four Great Endeavors, which I have paraphrased:
- Prevent unwholesome states from arising
- Get rid of unwholesome states that have already arisen
- Evoke and encourage wholesome states
- Maintain and perfect wholesome states that have already arisen
Unwholesome states (akusala dhamma) are the three defilements (sometimes called the three poisons): greed, aversion, and delusion. These are what cause human suffering. Wholesome states (kusala dhamma) are those that contain nothing of the defilements and also lead toward liberation.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh helps us to understand the unwholesome states as seeds in our mind-store. He draws a big circle, then divides it into two halves with a wavy line. Now the circle looks like a yin-yang symbol. In the bottom half, he draws some little circles — these are the seeds. The top half is our conscious mind. The bottom half is the storage area of our mind (the subconscious, perhaps, but even more than that: memory, experience, and instinct are there as well).
The seeds in the mind-store are of two kinds: wholesome and unwholesome. Some of these seeds may never sprout (up in the conscious mind) in this lifetime, but many others will. The seed metaphor works beautifully with the idea of mental cultivation. In a garden we pull out weeds when they appear. We care for the good plants with water, light, and nutrients.
I may have overstepped by introducing Thich Nhat Hanh’s illustration, but it made a powerful impression on me. (You can see and hear it for yourself. Start at the 40-minute mark to go straight to this topic. See also a list of the 52 mental formations.)
Back to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s text: He introduces the Five Hindrances (pañcanivarana) that impede concentration:
- Sensual desire
- Ill will
- Dullness and drowsiness
- Restlessness and worry
These five mess up our minds — they prevent us from focusing on what is most important.They block our progress on the path. So, naturally, we need to train our mind to overcome these hindrances.
“Sensual desire” sounds like it means sex, but in fact it means all cravings related to any of our senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. If I feel hungry when I am sitting in meditation, I start to think about food. That is sensual desire, interfering with my Right Effort.
About “ill will,” Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
[It] is a synonym for aversion. It comprises hatred, anger, resentment, repulsion of every shade, whether directed towards other people, towards oneself, towards objects, or towards situations.
This is especially important because while meditating, we often encounter things that are unpleasant. Thoughts and memories about our past will sprout up, and while we must look at these and consider them, what we need to cultivate is the ability to do so without hatred, anger, resentment, or repulsion. That is part of our mind training.
I would point you to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s text for further explanation of the other three hindrances — all of which are familiar to everyone who has practiced meditation!
We must work diligently to overcome these, because
when the hindrances arise, they disperse attention and darken the quality of awareness, to the detriment of calm and clarity. The hindrances do not come from outside the mind but from within. They appear through the activation of certain tendencies constantly lying dormant in the deep recesses of the mental continuum, awaiting the opportunity to surface. [My italics.]
Contact with “sense objects” — that is, anything our senses can interact with — has a tendency to “stir up unwholesome states.” This is of course not only during meditation but all the time, while we are going about our day-to-day life.
[Sense objects] do this either directly, through their immediate impact, or else indirectly by depositing memory traces which later may swell up as the objects of defiled thoughts, images, and fantasies. As a general rule the defilement that is activated corresponds to the object: attractive objects provoke desire, disagreeable objects provoke ill will, and indeterminate objects provoke the defilements connected with delusion.
Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses how we can apply mindfulness and clear understanding to our encounters with sense objects. He compares an encounter without mindfulness to one in which mindfulness is applied:
One will grasp the sign of the object, explore its details, and thereby give the defilements their opportunity: on account of greed one will become fascinated by an agreeable object, on account of aversion one will be repelled by a disagreeable object. But when one applies mindfulness to the sensory encounter, one nips the cognitive process in the bud before it can evolve into the stages that stimulate the dormant taints.
This level of success is not easy to come by — but this is one of the outcomes of Buddhist practice. I think this description is a good indication of why our practice is called training the mind.
Bhikkhu Bodhi explains the various procedures for getting rid of an unwholesome state once it has arisen. For many such thoughts, this one will do the trick:
Instead of turning away from the unwanted thought, one confronts it directly as an object, scrutinizes its features, and investigates its source. When this is done the thought quiets down and eventually disappears. For an unwholesome thought is like a thief: it only creates trouble when its operation is concealed, but put under observation it becomes tame. [My italics.]
At the end of this section, Bhikkhu Bodhi turns to the wholesome states of mind, which are many, but which need our attention and cultivation to be able to grow and thrive. In particular, he says:
The Buddha lays special stress on a set called the seven factors of enlightenment (satta bojjhanga): mindfulness, investigation of phenomena, energy, rapture, tranquillity, concentration, and equanimity. [Further explanation is here.]
Those seven both lead to enlightenment and constitute enlightenment. Mindfulness, of course, is necessary for any part of this to work — and the next factor in the Noble Eightfold Path is, in fact, Right Mindfulness.
The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.