Sutra on Four Establishments of Mindfulness

Breathe!

by Sister Annabel Laity Before I came to Plum Village I had been practicing in India with the Tibetans, a meditation called tonglen. In this practice, when you breathe in, you take all the suffering of the world on yourself and when you breathe out, you breathe out all your joy for the sake of the world. I was ill while I was in India. When I first became sick, my teachers told me that it would be very good to meditate in order to breathe in all the suffering and breathe out all my joy. In fact, I did not have any joy to breathe out. However deeply I looked, I could not find it. Although this meditation helped me concentrate on my breathing and grow accustomed to bringing my mind back to my breath, the part about suffering and joy was not very useful. When I was well again, I met another teacher and explained my difficulty. He said, "Why do you bother to distinguish between suffering and joy? The two are the same." That put me in a little more difficult place, because I did not really understand what this meant.

When I came to Plum Village, Thay asked me, "What have you been practicing?" I said, "I've been trying to practice to see that suffering and joy are the same thing." Thay looked at me with compassion and said, "I think that you need to come back to yourself and nourish the joy in yourself. I do not think you have enough happiness to do that kind of meditation." Then every day, Thay would ask me, "Are you happy?" And I had to look deeply to see whether I was happy. I saw that if I can't say "yes," then I am not a very happy person. Although the seeds of happiness were in my consciousness, they had not been watered for a long time and therefore were not manifesting. Thay said, "Please do the kind of meditation that nourishes you, and when you are properly nourished with joy and happiness, you will be able to breathe out your joy and help other people." I had to do that kind of meditation for three or four years. I concentrated on nourishing the seeds of joy and happiness in myself. In my sitting and walking meditation, I could not breathe in all the suffering anymore, but I could breathe in the compassion of my teacher and myself for my own suffering. When I felt nourished by my teacher's compassion and my compassion for myself, I could breathe out joy.

I practiced mouth yoga diligently. Mouth yoga is the practice of the half smile. I made myself smile every half hour, whether there was anything to smile about or not. It was a revelation to me. Everything I thought was so important no longer seemed important at all. I lived in the practice center, and every day the practice center penetrated me imperceptibly, just as when you walk in the mist and imperceptibly your clothes become wet. Our habit energies of sadness and despair are strong and they do not vanish overnight. They gradually cease to manifest with so much strength, and they give more space to the seeds of joy.

One morning I sat on my bed to drink a cup of hot water. That is sitting meditation, because while you are sitting, you are mindful and concentrated. Outside you could still see the stars, but it was beginning to grow light. Unintentionally I began to experience my ignorance. I felt as if I were walking through veils of mist. As I passed through one veil, I encountered another. However I knew that the sun was there too, although I could not see it. Wisdom and ignorance were present together. I knew that awakening can happen at any moment, in any place. You only have to practice and awakening is there. Habit energies can be overcome now by the practice of being truly there in the present moment. At that moment I was awakened about my ignorance. I knew and felt my ignorance and wrong perceptions deeply. So awakening was not the absence of ignorance, but awareness of the nature of ignorance.


 

 

The sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness includes some exercises on mindfulness of the body. One exercise that helps us feel less lonely and cut off is the meditation on the four elements. In the Chinese version, there are six elements; in the Pali, there are four. Those elements are earth, water, fire, and air. (The Chinese version adds space and consciousness.) The Buddha says that all these elements are in your body; they are the basic constituents of your body. And you should meditate first to see those different elements supporting your body. Then, you meditate to see those four elements working to support life everywhere, not just your body. Gradually, you see the oneness of your own life and the life of everything around you, so that you are not afraid to die. You know that those elements which support this little body support all others' bodies and somehow, there isn't such a thing as death because the elements continue to support life anyway. This is a very beautiful meditation.

You begin by saying, "Breathing in, I see the earth element in me." Certain things in you are more solid than liquid—your bones, nails, tendons, excrement, flesh. Here you can see the earth element.

If you touch with your mindfulness everything in your body that is quite firm, then you are touching the earth element in you. And then, breathing out, "I smile to the earth element in me." Next, "Breathing in, I see the water element in me." And everything liquid in your body is the water element in you—your urine, your blood, your saliva, your perspiration. There is a lot of water in every part of your body. You are seventy percent water. And then, you see the water element outside of you—the rain, the sea—and you feel the oneness of all life.

You may decide, "Today I will just do the meditation on the earth element." And throughout the day, you are aware of the earth element in you and the earth element all around you. You base your concentration on the earth element for the whole day. Another day, you can meditate on the water element. When you're walking, you feel the water in your body and the water around you. Focusing on the air element, you see that the air in your body and the air outside are one. Of course the air is another thing which loves us and which is so essential for our lives. When we get caught up in worrying about unnecessary things, we can always look up and see that the air is there allowing us to breathe, and we know that there is nothing to worry about. Especially if we're in a beautiful place where the air is good, we can feel supported by the air outside of us as we feel it coming into our lungs.


If I were to write out of my experience the recipe for nourishing happiness, I should write:

To nourish happiness, smile often; walk and breathe in mindfulness many times every day in order to touch the present moment deeply; have a kind teacher and spiritual friends living with you or near you so that you can visit them often; read or listen to beautiful and meaningful teachings which you can put into practice straight away; and have the beauty of nature, its sights and sounds, penetrate you daily.

On October 4, 1999 Sister Annabel, True Virtue, was installed as Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma

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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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