Mental development and meditation

Mental development is the third of the threefold clas­sification of wholesomeness. Mental development includes tranquil meditation as well as the development of insight wisdom. The first way of wholesomeness, generosity, and the second way of whole­some­ness, good moral conduct, can be performed also without understanding of the cittas which arise, of kusala and akusala. For mental develop­ment, however, under­standing is necessary. The under­standing which arises in mental development is of different degrees, as we will see.

The study of the Buddha’s teachings, the Dhamma, and the explaining of it to others are included in mental development. When one listens to the explanation of the Dhamma and reads the scriptures, one learns what is kusala and what is akusala, one learns about kamma and its result and about the ways to develop wholesome­ness. One learns that realities are impermanent, suffering, dukkha, and non-self, anattā. In order to develop under­standing of the Dhamma, one should not only listen, one should also carefully consider what one hears and test its meaning. Explaining the Dhamma to others is included in mental development. Both speaker and listener can bene­fit, because they can be reminded of the need to verify the truth of the Dhamma in their own life. Understanding acquired through the study of the Dhamma is the founda­tion for tranquil meditation and insight meditation which are also included in mental development.

Tranquil meditation^[In Pāli: samatha.] and insight meditation^[In Pāli: vipassanā] have each a different aim and a different way of development. For both kinds of meditation right understanding of the aim and the way of development is indispensable. In tranquil meditation one develops calm by concentrating on a meditation subject in order to be temporarily free from sense impressions and the attachment which is bound up with them. Insight meditation is the development of direct understanding of all realities occurring in daily life. The goal of insight meditation is the eradication of wrong view and all other defilements. Insight or insight wisdom is not theoretical understanding of mental phenomena and physical phenomena, it is understanding which directly experiences the characteristics of realities.

There are many misunderstandings with regard to the word "meditation". Some people want to meditate without understanding what meditation is, what its object and its aim are. Meditation is seen as escapism, a way to be free from the problems of daily life. One believes that when one sits in a quiet place and concentrates on one object one can become relaxed and free from worry. Relaxation is desirable, but it is not the aim of mental development.

As regards tranquil meditation, this is the development of calm. It is essential to have right understanding of what calm is. True calm has to be wholesome, it is freedom from defilements. As I explained before, akusala citta can be rooted in three unwholesome roots: attachment, aversion and ignorance. These roots have many degrees, they can be coarse or more subtle. Kusala citta is rooted in the wholesome roots of non-attachment and non-aversion and it may be rooted as well in wisdom or understanding. In order to have right understanding of one’s cittas one should investigate them in daily life. Otherwise one may take for kusala what is akusala. It is generally believed that if there is no aversion, no annoyance, there is calm. One should know, however, that when there is no aversion there is not necessarily kusala citta. There may be a subtle attachment to silence and then there is akusala citta, no calm. Calm is among the wholesome mental factors arising with each kusala citta. For example, when there is generosity and when there is good moral conduct, there is also calm. At such moments there are no attachment, aversion and ignorance, the citta is pure. The moments of kusala citta, however, are very rare, and soon after they have fallen away akusala cittas arise. Since the moments of calm arising with the kusala cittas are so few, the characteristic of calm may not be noticeable. The aim of tranquil meditation is to develop calm with a meditation subject. Only when there is right understanding of the difference between the moments of akusala citta and of kusala citta can calm be developed.

Even before the Buddha’s time there were wise people who saw the disadvantages of sense impressions and the clinging to them. They were able to develop calm to a high degree, even to the degree of absorption^[In Pāli: jhāna.]. Absorption is not what is generally understood as a trance. At the moments of absorption only the meditation subject is experienced and sense impressions such as seeing or hearing do not occur. The citta with absorption is of a plane of consciousness which is higher than the sensuous plane of consciousness, that is, the cittas of our daily life which experience sense objects. At the moments of absorption there is a high degree of calm, one is not infatuated with sense objects and defilements are tempo­rarily subdued. There are different stages of absorption and at each subsequent stage there is a higher degree of calm. However, by absorption defilements cannot be eradicated. After the moments of absorption have fallen away, there are seeing, hearing and the other sense impressions again, and on account of them defilements arise again. Even if one has not accumulated the inclination and skill for the development of a high degree of calm, it is still useful to have some general knowledge about its development. This will help one to eliminate misunderstandings about tranquil meditation and insight meditation. It will help one to see the difference between these two kinds of meditation.

For tranquil meditation it is essential to have a keen understanding of the characteristic of calm and of the way to develop calm with a suitable meditation subject. The Path of Purity (Chapters IV-XII) describes forty meditation subjects which can condition calm. Among the meditation subjects are disks (kasinas), recollection of the excellent qualities of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the enlightened disciples, meditations on corpses, mindfulness of death, loving-kindness, mindfulness of breathing. A meditation subject does not necessarily bring about calm. Only when there is right understanding of calm and the way to develop it, calm can grow. Moreover, it depends on a person’s inclinations which meditation subject is suitable for him as a means to develop calm. It is generally believed that calm is developed by means of concentration. It should be known, however, that there can be right concentration and wrong concentration. Concentration is a mental factor which accompanies each citta. As I explained before, there is one citta arising at a time, but each citta is accompanied by several mental factors which each perform their own function while they assist the citta in experiencing an object. Each citta can experience only one object and it is concentration or one-pointedness which has the function of focusing on that object. Thus, concentration can be kusala, akusala or neither kusala nor akusala. When concentration accompanies akusala citta it is wrong concentration. If one tries very hard to concentrate there may be attachment to one’s practice, or there may be aversion because of tiredness, and at such moments there is no calm. If there is right understanding of calm and of the way to develop it, there is also right concentration without there being the need to try to concentrate. It is right understanding which has to be emphasized, not concentration.

Mindfulness of breathing is generally believed to be an easy subject of meditation, but this is a misunderstanding; it is one of the most intricate subjects. If one tries to concentrate on breath without right understanding of this subject there will be clinging instead of calm. Breath is a bodily phenomenon which is conditioned by citta. It can appear as hardness, softness, heat or pressure. Those who want to develop this subject and have accumulated conditions to develop it have to be mindful of breath where it touches the tip of the nose or the upper-lip. However, breath is very subtle, it is most difficult to be mindful of it. The Path of Purification (VIII, 208) states:

For while other meditation subjects become clearer at each higher stage, this one does not: in fact, as he goes on developing it, it becomes more subtle for him at each higher stage, and it even comes to the point at which it is no longer manifest.

We read further on (VIII, 211):

But this mindfulness of breathing is difficult, difficult to develop, a field in which only the minds of Buddhas, "Silent Buddhas" ^[A Silent Buddha is an Enlightened One who has found the Truth all by himself, but who has not accumulated excellent qualities to the extent that he can teach the Truth to others.], and Buddhas' sons are at home. It is no trivial matter, nor can it be cultivated by trivial persons. In proportion as continued attention is given to it, it becomes more peaceful and more subtle. So strong mindfulness and understanding are necessary here.

"Buddhas’ sons" are the Buddha’s disciples who had accumulated great wisdom and who were endowed with excellent qualities. Thus, this subject is not suitable for everybody.

We cling to breath since our life depends on it. Breathing stops when our life comes to an end. When this subject is developed in the right way, it has to be known when there is clinging to breath or to calm; it has to be known when there is akusala citta and when kusala citta. Otherwise it is impossible to develop calm with this subject. It is difficult to know the characteristic of breath, one may easily take for breath what is not breath. Following the movement of the abdomen is not mindfulness of breathing. Some people do breathing exercises for the sake of relaxation. While one concentrates on one’s breathing, one cannot think of one’s worries at the same time and then one feels more relaxed. This is not mindfulness of breathing, which has as its aim the temporary release from clinging. Mindfulness of breathing is extremely difficult and if one develops it in the wrong way, there is wrong concentration, there is no development of wholesomeness. For the development of this subject one has to lead a secluded life and many conditions have to be fulfilled.

Does one have to lead a secluded life for the development of all meditation subjects? There are different degrees of calm and if one has accumulated the inclination and capacity to cultivate a high degree of calm, even the degree of absorption, a secluded life is one of the conditions which are favourable for the attainment of it. However, only very few people can reach absorption, as the Path of Purification states. Even if one has no inclination to develop a high degree of calm there can be conditions for moments of calm in daily life. Some of the meditation subjects, such as the development of loving-kindness, can be a condition for calm in daily life. It is felt by some that for the development of this subject one has to be alone and one has to concentrate on thoughts of loving-kindness. The development of loving-kindness is not a matter of concentration but of right understanding. Loving-kindness can and should be developed when one is in the company of other people. It has to be clearly understood when there is unselfish kindness and when there is selfish affection. Moments of loving-kindness are likely to be followed by moments of attachment. Right understanding of one’s different cittas is indispensable for the development of this subject, as it is for the development of all subjects of meditation. The Path of Purification (IX, 2) explains that in order to develop loving-kindness one should consider the danger of ill-will and the advantage of patience. It states that one cannot abandon unseen danger and attain unknown advantages. Thus we see again that right understanding is emphasized. We may dislike someone and we may be impatient about his behaviour. When we see the disadvantages of unwholesome thoughts there may be conditions for thoughts of kindness instead. That person may not treat us in a friendly way, but we can still consider him as a friend. True friendship does not depend on other people’s behaviour, true friendship depends on the kusala citta. When we feel lonely, because we miss the company of friends, we should investigate our own citta. Is there loving-kindness with the citta? This point of view can change our outlook on our relationship with our fellow­men, and as a consequence our attitude can become less selfish. Loving-kindness can be extended to anybody, also to people whom we do not know, whom we pass on the street. We tend to be partial, we want to be kind only to people we like, but that is a selfish attitude. When there is true loving-kindness there is impartiality as well. We tend to think of others mostly with akusala citta, with cittas rooted in attachment or aversion. When we learn, however, what loving-kindness is, there can be conditions for whole­some thoughts instead, and then there is calm. Calm can naturally arise when there are the right conditions. When one tries very hard to have thoughts of loving-kindness in order to induce calm there is attachment instead of true calm which has to be wholesome. Thus, this is not the way to develop the meditation subject of loving-kindness.

Not all meditation subjects are suitable for everybody. There are meditation subjects on corpses in different stages of decay, but for some people such a subject can condition aversion instead of calm. Recollection on Death is a meditation subject which can condition calm in daily life. We are confronted with death time and again, and instead of sadness we can reflect with kusala citta on the impermanence of life. We can be reminded that even at this moment our body is subject to decay, constituted as it is by physical phenomena, elements, which arise and then fall away. In the ultimate sense death is not different from what occurs at this moment.

Is it necessary to develop calm before one develops insight? Some people believe that when the mind is calm first, it will be easier to develop insight afterwards. It should be remembered that tranquil meditation and insight meditation have each a different aim and a different way of development. Tranquil meditation has as its aim to be free from seeing, hearing and the other sense impressions, in order to subdue clinging to sense objects. Insight meditation is the development of direct under­standing of all realities of daily life: of seeing, hearing and the other sense impressions, of sense objects and also of the defilements arising on account of them. In this way the wrong view of self and all other defilements can be completely eradicated. Tranquil meditation should not be considered a necessary preparation for the development of insight. The Buddha did not set any rules with regard to tranquil meditation as a requirement for the development of insight. Individual inclinations are different. It depends on one’s accumulated inclinations whether one applies oneself to tranquil meditation or not. People in the Buddha’s time who had accumulated great skill developed calm even to the degree of absorption. In order to attain enlightenment, however, they still had to develop insight, direct understanding of realities, stage by stage. They had to have right understanding also of the citta which attained absorption in order not to take absorption for "self". There were many people in the Buddha’s time who attained enlightenment without having developed a high degree of calm first.

The aim of tranquil meditation is the subduing of defilements, but, even when absorption is attained, they cannot be eradicated. When there are conditions, akusala cittas arise again. In the development of insight any reality which appears, no matter whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, kusala or akusala, is the object of under­standing. Defilements should be understood as they are: as realities which arise because of their own conditions and which are not self. So long as defilements are still considered as "self" or "mine" they cannot be eradicated. The development of insight does not exclude calm, there are also conditions for calm in the development of insight. When defilements are eradicated stage by stage there will be more calm. When defilements are completely eradicated there is no more disturbance by akusala and this is the highest degree of calm.

The development of insight which is included in mental development, is the development of direct under­standing of realities, of the mental phenomena and physical phenomena of our life. The development of calm could be undertaken also by people before the Buddha’s time. Absorption was the highest degree of kusala which could be attained before the Buddha’s enlightenment. The develop­ment of insight however, can only be taught by a Buddha. He taught the truth of impermanence, suffering, dukkha, and non-self, anattā. What is called a person or an ego is only a temporary combination of mental phenomena and physical phenomena^[Mental phenomena and physical phenomena are called in Pāli: nāma and rūpa.] which arise and then fall away immediately. Through the development of insight there can be the direct experience of the truth and the eradication of defilements at the attainment of enlightenment.

When, however, understanding of realities is only theore­tical, the truth of impermanence, dukkha and anattā is not grasped; there is still clinging to concepts and ideas of persons, the ego, the world. As I explained in chapter 3, there are two kinds of truths: the conventional truth and the ultimate truth. Conventional truth is the world of people and of the things around us, the world of houses, trees and cars, thus the things we have always been familiar with. When we study the Buddha’s teachings we learn about ultimate truth. Ultimate realities are mental phenomena, cittas and their accompanying mental factors, and physical phenomena. Nibbāna is an ultimate reality but this can only be experienced when enlighten­ment is attained. Seeing is an ultimate reality, a citta which experiences visible object through the eye-sense. Seeing can only arise when there are eye-sense and visible object, it arises because of its own conditions. The same is true for hearing and the other sense impressions. There is only one citta at a time which experiences one object. After seeing, hearing and the other sense impressions there are kusala cittas and akusala cittas. Kusala cittas with generosity may arise, or akusala cittas with attachment, aversion or stinginess. All these realities arise because of their own conditions. There is no self who can control these realities or cause their arising. They arise just for a moment and then they fall away immediately. Because of ignorance we do not grasp the true nature of realities, their nature of impermanence, dukkha and non-self. Ignorance covers up the truth. Insight, the direct under­standing of realities, is developed in order to eliminate ignorance and wrong view. Direct understanding of realities is different from theoretical understanding, but theoretical understanding is the foundation for direct understanding.

The object of insight, of direct under­standing, is ultimate truth, not conventional truth. Conventional truth are concepts which are objects of thinking. For example, after seeing we think of the shape and form of a person or thing. That is not seeing, but thinking of concepts. A concept is not real in the ultimate sense. Ultimate realities have each their own characteristic which is unchangeable, and which can be directly experienced when it appears. Seeing is an ultimate reality, it has its own characteristic. It is real for everybody. Its name may be changed, but its characteristic cannot be changed. Anger is an ultimate reality, it has its own characteristic which can be experienced by everybody. In order to be able to develop direct understanding of ultimate realities it is essential to know the difference between ultimate realities and concepts. One does not have to avoid thinking of concepts, because the thinking itself is an ultimate reality which arises because of its own conditions and which has its own characteristic. Thus, thinking can be the object of understanding when it appears. Every reality which arises because of conditions can be the object of direct under­standing. Since concepts are not real in the ultimate sense and do not have characteristics which can be directly experienced, they are not objects of direct understanding.

How can direct understanding be developed? There has to be mindfulness or awareness^[In Pāli: sati] of the reality appearing at the present moment in order that direct understanding of it can be developed. There are many levels of mind­fulness. It is a wholesome mental factor which accom­panies each kusala citta. It is heedful or non-forgetful of what is wholesome. When there is mindfulness, the opportunity for wholesomeness is not wasted by negli­gence or laziness. Mindfulness prevents one from committ­ing unwholesome deeds, it is like a "guard". There is mindfulness with generosity, with good moral conduct, and with the development of calm. In the development of calm there is mindfulness of the meditation subject, so that calm can develop. When insight, the direct under­standing of realities, is developed, there is mindfulness which is non-forgetful, aware, of the reality appearing at the present moment: a mental phenomenon or a physical phenomenon. At the very moment of mindfulness direct understanding of that reality can gradually develop. Thus, when there is mindfulness with the development of insight, the opportunity for the investigation of what appears at the present moment is not wasted.

Mindfulness and understanding are different realities, they are mental factors which each have a different function while they arise with kusala citta in the development of insight. Mindfulness is non-forgetful of the reality appearing at the present moment through one of the six doorways, but it does not have the function of understanding that reality. Understanding investigates the true nature of the reality which appears, but in the beginning it cannot be clear understanding. It is merely learning and studying the characteristic of the phe­nomenon appearing at the present moment. It develops very gradually, there are many degrees of understanding. The moment of mindfulness is so short, it falls away immediately. In the beginning mindfulness and under­standing are still weak and thus one cannot be sure what their characteristics are.

Mindfulness in the development of insight is aware of one object at a time, either a mental phenomenon or a physical phenomenon. It is aware of an ultimate reality, not of a concept such as a person or a thing. The whole day there is touching of different things, such as a chair, a plate, a cup, a cushion. Usually there is thinking of concepts, one defines the things one touches, one knows what they are used for. When one has learnt about ultimate realities and there are conditions for mindfulness, however, it can be aware of one reality, such as hardness or softness appearing through the bodysense. At that very moment there can be a beginning of right understanding of that reality: it can be seen as only a physical reality, an element, arising because of conditions. One may touch a precious piece of chinaware, but it should be remembered that through touch the reality of hardness, not the china­ware, can be experienced. Hardness is tangible object, it is an ultimate reality which has its own characteristic. When there is mindfulness of that reality there is no attachment. When mindfulness has fallen away, there may be moments of thinking of that piece of chinaware, there may be thinking with attachment. Attachment to pleasant things is real, it does not have to be shunned as object of mindfulness. In order to develop understanding of ultimate realities it is essential to know when the object which is experienced is a concept and when an ultimate reality.

Mental phenomena and physical phenomena appear time and again. Through the bodysense hardness, softness, heat and cold can be experienced. They have their own characteristics and when mindfulness arises it can be directly aware of them. It can be verified by one’s own experience that hardness is only a physical element, no matter whether it is in the body or in the things outside. Direct understanding of ultimate realities will gradually lead to detachment from the idea of "my body" and "my mind", from the idea of self. Through earsense sound is experienced. One usually pays attention to the origin or the quality of sound, one pays attention to the voice of someone or to music. At such moments there is thinking of concepts. When there are conditions for the arising of mindfulness, it can be aware of the character­istic of sound, a physical phenomenon which can be heard. It appears merely for a moment and then it falls away. Sound does not belong to anyone, it is merely an element, non-self. Is it helpful to know this? Knowing that even the sound of music one enjoys is only a physical element seems very prosaic. One can enjoy the pleasant things of life, but in between there can be a moment of developing under­standing of ultimate realities. Sound is real, hearing is real, enjoyment of music is real, they are all realities which can be known as they are: impermanent and non-self.

Different objects can be experienced through one door­way at a time. Hearing experiences sound through the ears. Seeing experiences visible object or colour through the eyes. Hearing cannot see, seeing cannot hear, there is only one citta at a time. There is no self who sees or hears, the seeing sees, the hearing hears. Through the develop­ment of insight one can verify that there is no self who coordinates seeing, hearing and all the other experiences. In the ultimate sense life is one moment of experiencing an object. When we are thinking of a person or a thing, we have an image of a "whole", and then the object at that moment is a concept. At the moment of mindfulness, however, only one reality at a time, appear­ing through one of the six doorways, is the object.

A mental phenomenon knows or experiences something, whereas a physical phenomenon does not experience anything. It is essential to learn the difference between these two kinds of phenomena. We tend to consider body and mind as a "whole", as a person or self. When there is mindful­ness of one reality at a time, we learn that there are only different mental elements and physical elements arising and falling away. When sound appears there is also hearing, the experience of sound. Sound and hearing have different characteristics. Sound does not experience any­thing, whereas hearing experiences an object, the object of sound. When visible object appears there is also seeing, the experience of visible object. Visible object does not experience anything, whereas seeing experiences an object, visible object. When there is mindfulness it is aware of only one object, either a physical reality or a mental reality. Each citta experiences only one object, and thus when mindfulness accompanies the citta, it can be aware of only one object at a time. It is very difficult to distinguish sound from hearing and visible object from seeing. Only when insight, direct understanding of realities, has been developed, physical realities and mental realities can be distinguished from each other. So long as there is confusion about the difference between what is mental and what is physical, there is still an image or a concept of a "whole". When there is no precise under­standing of one reality at a time, its arising and falling away, its impermanence, cannot be directly understood.

There is no self who can choose the object of awareness or who can direct mindfulness to such or such object. Mindfulness is non-self, it arises because of its own condi­tions. It is unpredictable of what object mindfulness will be aware: either a mental reality or a physical reality. The characteristic of mindfulness cannot be understood by theoretical knowledge, by describing its nature. Only when mindfulness arises can one know what it is. It arises when there are the right conditions. The right conditions are: listening to the Dhamma as it is explained by someone with right understanding, and studying and considering Dhamma. Theoretical understanding of ultimate realities and remembrance of what one has learnt are a necessary foundation for the development of direct understanding. If one has expectations about the arising of mindfulness, if one tries to concentrate on realities, or tries to observe them, there is clinging to an idea of self who can direct mindfulness, and this is counteracting to the arising of mindfulness.

In the beginning one is bound to take for mindfulness what is not mindfulness but thinking. When one thinks, "This is attachment", there is no direct awareness of the characteristic of the reality which appears. There can still be a concept of "my attachment". Then attachment is not understood as a conditioned reality which is non-self. When one reality appears through one of the six doors, there can be a moment of investigation or study of its characteristic, and that is the beginning of understanding of its true nature, its nature of non-self. At such a moment there is mindfulness, mindfulness of the reality appearing at the present moment. Even one extremely short moment of mindfulness and investigation of an ultimate reality is beneficial, because in that way mindfulness and under­standing can be accumulated. Then there are conditions for their arising again later on and in that way direct understanding can grow.

Direct understanding of realities can develop only very gradually. There are different stages of insight, and in order that these stages can arise, understanding has to become very keen. The first stage of insight is the stage that the difference between the reality which is mental and the reality which is physical can be clearly distinguished. As I explained, this is difficult, since one tends to confuse realities such as seeing and visible object or hearing and sound. The arising and falling away, the impermanence of realities, can be penetrated only at a later stage of insight.

All the realities of one’s daily life, also defilements, can be the objects of direct understanding. Defilements can eventually be eradicated when they are are understood as they are: as non-self. If one tries to change one’s life in order to create conditions for insight, or if one tries to suppress defilements in order to have more awareness, one is led by clinging and this is not the right way. One should come to understand all realities, the mental and physical phenomena which naturally arise in daily life.

The development of insight, of direct understanding of realities, is very intricate and there cannot be an imme­diate result when one begins to develop it. Is it worth while to begin with its development, even though it takes more than one life to reach the goal? It is beneficial to begin with its development. Theoretical understanding does not eliminate delusion when there is seeing, hearing and the other experiences through the senses and the mind-door. On account of the objects which are experienced there is bound to be attachment, aversion and ignorance. If there is at least a beginning of the development of direct understanding we will be able to verify that our life is one moment of experiencing an object through one of the six doors. When there is seeing, its characteristic can be invest­igated. It can be understood that it is only a mental reality arising because of its own conditions, not a person or self. It sees what appears through eye-sense. When visible object appears it can be understood that it is only a physical reality, appearing through eye-sense, not a person or thing. All realities appearing through the six doors can be understood as they are, as non-self. Through direct understanding of realities wrong view about them can be eliminated.

We read in the Kindred Sayings (IV, Kindred Sayings on Sense, Third Fifty, Chapter 5, §152, Is there a Method?), that the Buddha spoke to the monks about the method to realize through direct experience the end of dukkha:

"Herein, monks, a monk, seeing visible object with the eye, either recognizes within him the existence of lust, malice and illusion, thus: I have lust, malice and illusion,' or recognizes the non-existence of these qualities within him, thus: ÔI have not lust, malice and illusion.' Now as to that recognition of their existence or non-existence within him, are these conditions, I ask, to be understood by belief, or inclination, or hearsay, or argument as to method, or reflection on reasons, or delight in speculation?"

"Surely not, lord."

"Are not these states to be understood by seeing them with the eye of wisdom?"

"Surely, lord."

"Then, monks, this is the method by following which, apart from belief a monk could affirm insight thus: 'Ended is birth, lived is the righteous life, done is the task, for life in these conditions there is no hereafter.' "

We then read that the same is said with regard to the experiences through the doorways of the ears, nose, tongue, bodysense and mind. The development of under­standing of all that is real, also of one’s defilements, is the way leading to the eradication of defilements, to the end of rebirth. This is the end of dukkha.