Meditation and the Threefold Trainings

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).

Concentration-Samadhi

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!

Insight-Prajna

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.

Mindfulness Trainings–Sila

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
compassion.
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

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Here Is the Pure Land. The Pure Land Is Here.

By  Sister Annabel

One day,  Queen Vaidehi asked the Buddha , “Is the place with no suffering very far away?” The Buddha replied, “No, it is not far away.” And then the Buddha taught the queen how to touch the land of Great Happiness in her own heart and in her own mind.

We talk about “the Pure Land.” In Sanskrit, the word is “Sukhavati. Sukha means happiness; vati means having: “The Place Which Has Happiness.” In the Chinese tradition, it is translated as the Pure Land, perhaps because of the nature of the writings about that place. These writings put us in touch with things we call pure. The Prajnaparamita writings were probably composed round about the same time as the Pure Land writing, and they say “No defiled, no immaculate.” And yet we talk about the Pure Land in Buddhism.

In the Pure Land, there are many kinds of wonderful birds. Let us think about a bird. The bird’s song sounds very pure, very beautiful. But we know the bird has to eat, and the food that the bird eats has waste matter, which we would consider impure. The sutra doesn’t tell us whether birds in the Pure Land eat or not. But if they do, there must be bird droppings in the Pure Land, which means that the Pure Land wouldn’t be quite so pure. Perhaps that is why the people who composed the Heart of the Prajnaparamita say, “No defiled” and “No immaculate.” We know that if there isn’t defiled, there can’t be immaculate.

To understand the teachings of the Pure Land, we need to understand about Buddhist psychology. We need to understand that the store consciousness contains all the seeds-seeds of purity and impurity, seeds of happiness and suffering. We need to learn skillful ways of touching the seeds of happiness and purity in us, particularly when we feel overwhelmed by impurity and suffering. The Buddha and other spiritual ancestral teachers have helped us find ways to touch the seeds of purity.

The Buddha gave teachings about places where there was a lot of happiness. He sometimes pointed to a city like Kushinagara, the city where the Buddha later passed away, and said that in former times, this place was a place of great happiness. He would describe how the people lived there in a lot of happiness. Probably some ancestral teacher put together the Sukhavati Sutras based on some of the things the Buddha had said about lands of great happiness.

The Sukhavati Sutras and the Avatamsaka Sutra may seem very strange when we read for the first time. We read descriptions of trees that have jewels for their leaves, flowers, and fruit, and descriptions of water with eight virtuous qualities- clarity, sweetness, purity, coolness, limpidity, etc. These descriptions are not for us to consider intellectually. We do not read the Pure Land Sutras or the Avatamsaka Sutra with an intellectual mind. But when we read them, the descriptions touch the seeds of purity in us. For instance, we do not see leaves of jewels on the  trees here. In autumn, the leaves here fall to the earth, decompose, and become one with the Earth again, whereas, a jewel doesn’t decompose. But actually, if we look deeply into it, a jewel comes from decomposed material, because the mineral realms are also made up of the plant realms. When we walk among the trees in the autumn on this planet Earth, we see the beautiful red and yellow colors like jewels shining in the sunlight. But sometimes, we don’t bring our mind to the presence of the trees, because we are lost in our worries or regrets. When we have been reading the Pure Land Sutras on a regular basis, then something in the depth of our consciousness knows that a tree is very precious, as precious as the most precious jewels. So whenever we meet a tree in mindfulness, we remember that it is precious, and we can be there with it in the present moment. And when we are really there in the present moment, we are already in the Pure Land.

There are different levels of belief in the Pure Land, and the highest level of Pure Land teaching is that your mind is the Pure Land, the Pure Land is available in your mind. The ancestral teachers put  together the Pure Land Sutras with a kind of wisdom that helps us be in touch, and helps us to have the deep aspiration to be in a Pure Land and also, to help to build a Pure Land.

In Plum Village, we often have to write assignments for Thay. One year, Thay gave us the assignment to write about the Pure Land that we wanted to be part of. He told us to give a very clear description. What kind of trees would be there? What kind of activities would there be? Everybody wrote about a slightly different Pure Land, so we know that there are hundreds of thousands of Pure Lands. In each of our minds, there is the Pure Land, and we can go about establishing the Pure Land. You may like to write about this also. It’s a very enjoyable assignment.

When we think about our own Pure Land, we have to come back to Queen Vaidehi’s question. “Lord Buddha, is there a place where there is no suffering?” Out of compassion, the Buddha said,  “Yes, there is.” Queen Vaidehi’s heartfelt aspiration to be in that place of no suffering came about because she  had suffered so much. If she hadn’t suffered, the idea of a place where  there is no suffering would never have occurred to her. So suffering and no-suffering go together, in the same way defiled and immaculate go together. They are not absolute realities; they are only relative realities. And sometimes the Buddha has to teach the relative truth in order to be compassionate, to help, and to encourage. And that is why the Buddha said there is a place where there is no suffering.

But we know that Queen Vaidehi would also want to help those who are suffering. In the Pure Land, we have many bodhisattvas. The great joy of being in the Pure Land is that we are near many bodhisattvas. And if a bodhisattva wants to help those who are suffering, there must be people who are suffering. Therefore, in the Pure Land, there are people who are suffering for us to help. When we wrote about our Pure Land in Plum Village, many of us wrote about how the bodhisattvas helped others. One person even had a hospital in the Pure Land.

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When you come to a Dharma talk, you feel very happy. Maybe you feel you are most happy when you are sitting and listening to the Dharma, because the Dharma is deep and lovely. It is beautiful in the beginning, it is beautiful in the middle, and beautiful at the end. In the Sukhavati Sutra, they say that in the Pure Land, you are always hearing teaching of the Dharma. But you don’t just hear the Buddha Amitabha- the Buddha Of Limitless Light, the Buddha who founded the Pure Land. You don’t just hear him giving teachings. You hear the birds giving teachings, you hear the trees giving teachings. Every time the wind rustles in the trees, that is a teaching of the Dharma; and every time the birds sing, that is a teaching of the Dharma. And when the people hear the wind rustling in the tree, they stop and remember the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the other teachings of the Buddha.

There is a song written by Thay in Vietnamese, and then translated into English and put to music: “Here Is the Pure Land.” I practice this song when I do jogging meditation. If I sing it in Vietnamese, then every syllable is one footstep. And I can also sing it in English and jog at the same time. It’s very wonderful to be jogging in the Pure Land.

The first words of the song are “Here is the Pure Land.” And the second sentence is “The Pure Land is here.” This is in the  tradition of the ancestral teachers. “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” We say things twice like that because our  consciousness receives the first word of a sentence as the most important word. So if we just said, “Form is emptiness,” our mind concentrates more on the word “form” than it does on “emptiness.” So we then say “Emptiness is form,” so our mind is equally concentrated on form and emptiness. In the same way, if we say “Here is the Pure Land,” our mind is more concentrated on the word “here.” And if we say “The Pure Land is here,” our mind is more concentrated on “the Pure Land.” So the words of the song allow us to be concentrated on both.

Watering the seeds of purity in our store consciousness helps establish a good balance between purity and impurity. We have the tendency sometimes to look on everything as being impure and we need to put the balance right. We practice watering the seeds of happiness for the same reason. We have the tendency to look on the planet Earth as a place of suffering, and we need to put the balance right by seeing the happiness also.

When the Buddha taught Queen Vaidehi, she asked him “If the Pure Land is not very far away, if it’s right here, how do I practice to be there?” The Buddha gave her a guided meditation in which she could touch the Pure Land. It’s a little bit like the guided meditation “Breathing in, I am a flower; Breathing out, I feel fresh.” He taught her to be in touch with the lotus flower in her own consciousness, the lotus flower blooming. He taught her to be in touch with the lake of the most clear, sweet water in her consciousness. In that way, she could begin by touching the seeds of happiness in her own consciousness. Then, when she was outside, walking in nature, she would also touch that world and feel happy.

Each of us has the capacity to build Pure Land a little bit in their own home, or by building a practice center, or by joining a practice center, or in their local Sangha. The local Sangha where we only meet each other once a week, or perhaps a bit more, is also a place where we can build Pure Land together. We can decide what kind of environment we can make. How can we arrange the sitting meditation hall in order to water the seeds of Right Attention in everyone who comes into the meditation hall?

The idea of attention in Buddhist psychology is quite important. It’s called manaskara in Sanskrit, and is one of the 51 mental formations. It’s one of the  first five mental formations, which we call “the universal mental formations.” Universal means that they are always occurring, they’re always there. We are always giving our attention to something. We know that we can give our attention in an appropriate way, or we can give our attention to what is inappropriate. So we have Appropriate Attention and Inappropriate Attention.

When we go into the town or turn on the television, we need to be very careful what we give our attention to. You may see newspapers with words and images on them, and even though you don’t stop to read them, if you give your attention to them, they can sometimes water the seeds in your consciousness that are not altogether wholesome. All kinds of information can flow into our consciousness through our eyes and our ears. We don’t have to intentionally  receive that information; it may still flow in. This is the meaning of universal mental formation (sarvatiaga); it is happening all the time.

So, we should make our environment a place where everything surrounding us helps nurture the best, the most refreshing things in us, things that can make us and other people happy. We can all do a little bit of this work-in our garden, in our home, in our school, in the place where we work. This is part of making a Pure Land.

Sister Annabel Laity is the Abbess of Maple Forest Monastery and Green Mountain Dharma Center in HartlandFour Corners, Vermont. This article is excerpted from a Dharma talk she gave in San DiegoCalifornia in September 2000.

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