Meditation and the Practice of
The eightfold path is an active one -- there is real
work to be done -- and the Buddha laid out a broad array of concrete tools and
practices to help the practitioner stay on course. The deliberate practice of
virtue (sila) ensures that one doesn't stray wildly off the path and into harm's
The practice of generosity (dana) helps erode the heart's habitual tendencies
towards craving and teaches valuable lessons about the motivations behind, and
the results of, skillful action (see kamma).
The cultivation of loving kindness
(metta) helps to undermine anger's seductive grasp.
The ten recollections
include practical methods to help alleviate doubt (recollection of the Buddha),
accept physical pain (recollection of the Sangha), maintain a healthy sense of
self-respect (recollections of one's past generosity and virtue), overcome laziness
and complacency (recollection of death), and moderate lust (contemplation of the
unattractiveness of the body). And there is much more.
The good qualities
that naturally emerge and deepen as a result of these practices not only smooth
the way for the journey to Nibbana; they also have the immediate effect of helping
the practitioner become a more generous, loving, compassionate, peaceful, and
clear-headed member of society.
There is thus no basis to the charge occasionally
leveled at Theravada Buddhism that it is somehow a "selfish" path. Each of these
methods helps strengthen, to varying degrees, the path factors of right effort,
right mindfulness, and right concentration. The meditation practices that utilize
the four frames of reference (or "foundations of mindfulness"), mindfulness of
the body, and mindfulness of breathing take this development a step further, by
balancing the twin qualities of tranquillity (samatha) and clear-seeing, or insight
As these qualities mature, and as the meditator becomes more
adept at applying the combined powers of samatha-vipassana to investigate deeply
into the nature of mind and body, even the most subtle flickerings of dukkha are
brought into exquisitely sharp focus. At the same time, the root cause of dukkha
-- craving -- is gradually brought into the light of awareness. Eventually, after
persistent practice, craving is left with fewer and fewer places to hide, the
entire karmic process that fabricates dukkha begins to unravel, the eightfold
path reaches its climax, and the meditator gains, at long last, his or her first
unmistakable glimpse of the Unfabricated (Nibbana).
experience, known as stream entry (sotapatti),
is the first of four progressive stages of Awakening, each of which entails
the irreversible shedding or weakening of some of the fetters (samyojana), the
manifestations of ignorance that bind a person to the cycle of birth and death.
Stream entry marks an unprecedented and radical turning point both in the practitioner's
current life and in the entirety of his or her long journey in samsara. For it
is at this point that any lingering doubts about the truth of the Buddha's teachings
fall away; it is at this point that any belief in the purifying efficacy of rites
and rituals evaporates; and it is at this point that the long-cherished notion
of an abiding personal "self" disappears.
The stream-enterer is said to be
assured of no more than seven future rebirths (all of them favorable) before eventually
attaining full Awakening. But full Awakening is still a long way off.
the practitioner presses on with diligence, he or she passes through two more
significant landmarks: once-returning (sakadagati),
which is accompanied by the weakening of the fetters of sensual desire and ill-will,
and non-returning (agati), in which these two fetters are uprooted altogether.
The final stage of Awakening -- arahatta
-- occurs when even the most refined and subtle levels of craving and conceit
are extinguished, once and for all.
At this point the practitioner --
now an arahant, or "worthy one" -- has finally arrived at the end-point of the
Buddha's teaching. With suffering, stress, and rebirth having all come to an end,
the arahant at last can utter the victory cry that was first proclaimed by the
Buddha upon his Awakening: Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done.
There is nothing further for the sake of this world. [MN 36] The arahant lives
out the rest of his or her life inwardly enjoying the bliss of Nibbana, secure
from the possibility of any future rebirth. Although language cannot describe
what, exactly, takes place when the arahant finally dies, the Buddha likened the
event to what happens when a fire goes out, having at last burned up all its fuel.
"The serious pursuit of happiness".
Buddhism is sometimes
naïvely criticized as a "negative" or "pessimistic" religion and philosophy. After
all (so the argument goes) life is not all misery and disappointment: it offers
many kinds of joy and happiness. Why then this pessimistic Buddhist obsession
with unsatisfactoriness and suffering? The Buddha based his teachings on a frank
assessment of our plight as humans: there is unsatisfactoriness and suffering
in the world. No one can argue this fact. Were the Buddha's teachings to stop
there, we might indeed regard them as pessimistic and life as utterly hopeless.
But, like a doctor who prescribes a remedy for an illness, the Buddha offers hope
(the third Noble Truth) and a cure (the fourth). The Buddha's teachings thus give
cause for an extraordinary degree of optimism in a complex, confusing, and difficult
world. One modern teacher summed it up well: "Buddhism is the serious pursuit
Theravada Comes West
Until the late 19th century, the teachings of Theravada were little known outside
of Southern and Southeast Asia, where they had flourished for some two and one-half
millennia. In the last century, however, the West has begun to take notice of
Theravada's unique spiritual legacy and teachings of Awakening. In recent decades,
this interest has swelled, with the monastic Sangha from the various schools within
Theravada establishing dozens of monasteries across Europe and North America.
In addition, a growing number of lay meditation centers in the West, operating
independently of the Sangha, currently strain to meet the demands of lay men and
women -- Buddhist and otherwise -- seeking to learn selected aspects of the Buddha's
The turn of the 21st century presents both opportunities and dangers
for Theravada in the West: Will the Buddha's teachings be patiently studied and
put into practice, so that they may be allowed to establish deep roots in Western
soil, for the benefit of many generations to come? Will the current popular climate
of "openness" and cross-fertilization between spiritual traditions lead to the
emergence of a strong new form of Buddhist practice unique to the modern era,
or will it simply lead to the dilution and confusion of these priceless teachings?
These are open questions; only time will tell. Fortunately, the Buddha gave some
very clear guidelines to help us find our way through the perplexing maze of purportedly
"Buddhist" teachings that are available to us today. Whenever you find yourself
questioning the authenticity of a particular teaching, heed well the Buddha's
advice to his stepmother:
The qualities of which you may know, 'These qualities
lead to passion, not to dispassion; to being fettered, not to being unfettered;
to accumulating, not to shedding; to self-aggrandizement, not to modesty; to discontent,
not to contentment; to entanglement, not to seclusion; to laziness, not to aroused
persistence; to being burdensome, not to being unburdensome': You may definitely
hold, 'This is not the Dhamma, this is not the Vinaya, this is not the Teacher's
instruction.' As for the qualities of which you may know, 'These qualities lead
to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to
shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment,
not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence,
not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome': You may definitely
hold, 'This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher's instruction.'
[AN VIII.53] The truest test of these teachings, of course, is whether they yield
the promised results in the crucible of your own heart. The Buddha presents a
challenge; the rest is up to you
Notes 1. Nyanatiloka Mahathera, Guide Through The Abhidhamma Pitaka (Kandy:
Buddhist Publication Society, 1971), pp. 60ff. [Go back] 2. Mahayana today includes
Zen, Ch'an, Nichiren, Tendai, and Pure Land Buddhism. [Go back] 3. A third major
branch of Buddhism emerged much later (ca. 8th century CE) in India: Vajrayana,
the "Diamond Vehicle." Vajrayana's elaborate system of esoteric initiations, tantric
rituals, and mantra recitations eventually spread north into central and east
Asia, leaving a particularly strong imprint on Tibetan Buddhism. [Go back] 4.
For more about the complex history of the many schools of Buddhism see The Buddhist
Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson
(Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997). [Go back] 5. Modern scholarship suggests
that Pali was probably never spoken by the Buddha himself. In the centuries after
the Buddha's death, as Buddhism spread across India into regions that spoke different
dialects, Buddhist monks increasingly depended on a common tongue for their discussions
of Dhamma and their recitations of memorized texts. It was out of this necessity
that the language we now know as Pali emerged. See Bhikkhu Bodhi's Introduction
in Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1999),
pp. 1ff, and n. 1 (p. 275) and "The Pali Language and Literature" by the Pali
Text Society (» http://www.palitext.demon.co.uk/subpages/lan_lite.htm; 15 April
2002). [Go back] 6. This description of the unified role of samatha and vipassana
is based upon the Buddha's meditation teachings that appear in the suttas (see
"One Tool Among Many" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu). The Abhidhamma and the Commentaries,
by contrast, clearly state that samatha and vipassana are two distinct meditation
paths (see, for example, The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation by H. Gunaratana,
ch. 5). It is difficult to reconcile these two views of samatha's role just from
studying the texts; any remaining doubts and concerns about meditation are probably
best resolved through the actual practice of meditation
Revised: Mon 24 March 2003 www.accesstoinsight.org/theravada.html