By Jack Lawlor
Our local Sangha consists of people from all walks of life, and many ethnic and religious backgrounds and age groups. When we host a potluck meal, the diversity of backgrounds and tastes is plain to see—and delicious to enjoy! For almost nine years—each of the nearly 500 times we have convened—we have regularly enjoyed one particularly good, spiritual meal: sitting and walking meditation together. While many practices help establish mindfulness and bring us together as a Sangha, meditation is perhaps the most important. We offer periodic instruction in meditation, and “veterans” as well as newcomers thrive on it.
People sometimes ask Thay how we might make our meditation practice “deeper.” On occasion, he reframes the question to ask how we might make it more “genuine,” in a way that liberates us from compulsive behavior, enabling us to look and listen deeply, understand, love, and act appropriately. Thay’s approach to meditation is based on the Buddha’s two primary texts on meditation: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing and Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. Thay discusses these sutras in Breathe! You Are Alive and Transformation and Healing. A genuine approach to incorporating meditation into our lives can be understood in terms of the traditional Threefold Trainings in Buddhism: concentration (samadhi), insight (prajna), and the Mindfulness Trainings (sila).
Conscious breathing is an exercise in concentration. This simple practice can mend the aching dispersion we often feel—a dissonance between what our body is doing and what our mind is doing, as well as between our spiritual aspirations and behavior. We follow the breath, and if a thought or feeling arises, we recognize it, accept it, smile to it, and gently let it go. We return to the breath. The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness describes how this simple practice can sometimes result in the experience of joy. I believe that this joy arises, in part, from experiencing that we are more than our emotions and thoughts, that these emotions and thoughts have causes and conditions that are impermanent, and that we have the ability, the freedom, to be responsive to them rather than reactive. A verse from Tsuchiya Fumiaki puts it this way:
At long last my heart calms down as evening comes,
And in the Four Directions I hear fresh springs.
The Buddha taught that consistent practice takes us beyond the periodic experience of joy to the consistent experience of happiness, which covers us from head to foot like a robe, or a good Midwestern overcoat!
Many people aspire to insight and understanding. Insight meditation is intentionally more inclusive. We remain centered in the breath while continuously aware of one other phenomenon—a sensation in the body, a feeling, a thought, or our surroundings. For example, following the breath is a form of meditating on the body. We are not sitting in the high-tech control tower of our mind observing what our lowtech body is doing. We are the breathing. It’s the difference between watching your hand rub the surface of the carpet and focusing your attention into the sensation at your fingertips. Our attention penetrates and merges with what is observed. Once centered in the breath, we have the capacity to merge our bare attention in this way into the rest of our body, our feelings, and the world around us. We have a calm, direct experience of the fluid, impermanent and interrelated nature of all that exists. This is the experience of Zen Master Yamada Mumon:
Is the moon I?
Or am I the moon?
I cannot tell.
This autumn moon is so clear, so quiet.
The experience goes beyond notions and concepts, opening the way to understanding, compassion, and the ability to love and to serve. Thay explains that “seeing and loving always go together. Seeing and loving are one. Shallow understanding accompanies shallow compassion. Great understanding goes with great compassion.”
The practice of conscious breathing thus develops a gentle, fluid concentration. Not rigid concentration, but one that is alive and at ease. The practice of insight, in turn, deepens our concentration and breaks through the bonds of conceptual thought and our tendencies to judge and categorize, as we experience firsthand the myriad causes and conditions of this impermanent world. The practices of concentration (samadhi) and of insight (prajna) are not competing schools of meditation. They complement each other and take us along the path to understanding together, like the right and left wings of a bird. Many newcomers want to leap immediately into deep, profound insights on impermanence and interbeing. “Why do we need to develop concentration?”
Intellectually, it is not especially difficult to grasp what the Buddha and Thay are teaching. But we can see, listen, understand, and love much more deeply from a mind that is centered, at ease, and peaceful.
Suppose you want to see Jupiter. A friend tells you that the planet’s largest moons are off to one side this evening, making Jupiter appear enormous. The Earth’s moon is rising and you fear its light will interfere with your view. Racing along the highway to a hill above the city, you know you can’t get a clear view of the planet from a telescope hastily mounted on your dashboard. If you’re anxious when you reach the hilltop, your nervousness and haste will jiggle the tripod, and Jupiter will appear jumpy and blurred in your scope. If, however, as evening approaches, you prepare mindfully to view the titan, setting up your tripod carefully and using the telescope with calm and ease, you will see Jupiter clearly. When the moon lights the night sky, obscuring Jupiter, you can embrace the moon as your friend, not resent it as a competitor.
The Tao Te Ching asks, “Who can be still until the mud settles?’ Experiment. You may find that stillness, anchored in conscious breathing, is a consistent, reliable foundation for insight. When I rush into my favorite wetland, carrying my small kayak, I can journey through the reeds to a beautiful glacial lake and not see many turtles, frogs, or fish. They are there, but I miss them because my own “mud” hasn’t settled. I consistently find that sitting and walking meditation before I embark guarantees the presence of wildlife. Rooted in conscious breathing, practicing drifting boat meditation, I discover a rich world along the reedy banks—beneath me, above me, surrounding me. My practice of deep looking enhances conscious breathing, and my sense of self and other dissolves into sheer seeing, sheer listening, sheer being.
The simple practice of conscious breathing can become our good friend during a retreat, where we are isolated from many temptations that feed our habit energy. But when we return home, our cravings and desires can easily be stimulated once again. It is more challenging to practice simple conscious breathing, much less insight meditation, when we return home. That is why the Third Learning in Buddhism—the Mindfulness Trainings—and consistent Sangha practice are so important.
The Mindfulness Trainings are lifelong teachers in the art of stopping—samatha. We must stop compulsion and habit if we sincerely aspire to develop mindfulness and insight. We must learn to rest, content with the present moment. If we pursue every compulsion and desire that arises during the day, we will be exhausted. How can we then reasonably expect to find calm and insight during the twenty minutes spent atop our black cushions? It is like trying to view Jupiter through a delicate telescope with someone tugging on our sleeve, or trying to see the rich life beneath the surface of a clear lake while paddling our kayak at high speeds. We need to learn to let go of our cravings, desires, and compulsions. With time and experimentation, wholehearted attention to the Mindfulness Trainings can help genuinely transform our behavior and enhance our meditation.
We are social beings. Our ability to enjoy sitting meditation and deepen our understanding of the Mindfulness Trainings is enhanced when we practice in a consistently available, local Sangha. I have seen people’s faces transform with time in the context of Sangha practice. Frowns and tension lines relax and soften in the company of good spiritual friends who share the simple practices of sitting and walking meditation, and who explore release from aversion and compulsion through group study of the Mindfulness Trainings. Active lay people have the capacity to cultivate the Threefold Trainings. Local Sanghas can develop ways to make this possible.
The interaction of the Threefold Trainings is beautifully affirmed in the insight verse of Lieu Quan, a Vietnamese Zen master who lived during the time of George Washington and founded the school of Zen in which we now practice:
The Great Way of Reality
is our True Natures pure ocean.
The source of Mind penetrates everywhere.
From the roots of virtue springs the practice of
Precepts, concentration, and insight—
the nature and function of all three are one.
The fruit of transcendent wisdom
can be realized by being wonderfully together.
Maintain and transmit the wonderful principle
in order to reveal the true teaching!
For the Realization of True Emptiness to be possible,
Wisdom and Action must go together.
Dharma Teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, practices with Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois and leads retreats in the midwestern United States