Many friends come to practice Dhamma with me. I have seen some common problems that incur when they set out to practice. Some are afraid that they will not be able to practice Dhamma correctly if they are not with me. The Bangkok folks are more at ease because they know where to find me; however, my friends living abroad and upcountry are more concerned because of the distance. They asked for a brief guideline with clear instructions on how to practice Dhamma correctly so that when I am not around, they can still practice with confidence.
Some friends listen to my talks, but get confused and do not understand correctly. Some would apply advice that I have given others to their own meditation. This is often an inappropriate thing to do as the person I’m advising may be at a different stage of practice. The result of applying the answer to another’s question to oneself is no different from taking another patient’s medication. A related problem is that some of my friends have argued amongst themselves about appropriate practices by quoting my suggestions taken from different occasions and at different times.
I have therefore been requested to systematically put together all of my teachings on Dhamma practice in order to clarify any misunderstandings. I feel that there is a need for a brief Dhamma guideline to summarize the practices that I have suggested to my colleagues and friends. This is to clearly show the whole picture of Dhamma practice from the beginning onward, in order to avoid the above-mentioned problems.
1. To Understand the Scope of Buddhism
Friends who have little background in Buddhism need to know that Buddhism is not a medicine that cures all illnesses in the universe. It is not the only tool necessary to survive in society. Therefore if you are a college student, you do not need to quit college just to study Buddhism, because worldly knowledge is essential for everyone to lead a normal life in this world. A student of Buddhism needs to be well rounded in other fields of study as well. Do not misunderstand that Buddhism is the study of something other than suffering and how to be free from (mental) suffering. Buddhism is not limited to providing answers relating to superstition, fate, past lives, future lives, ghosts, angels and other mystical phenomena.
2. Tools for Practicing Dhamma
Those who already know the Buddhist teachings on suffering and how to end suffering have already been introduced to the tools for practicing Dhamma, which are mindfulness and clear comprehension (sati and sampajañña).
My advice for us is to be aware of the feelings that are happening in our mind. Some examples are feelings of doubt, greed, worry, happiness and sadness. This is the practice of being mindful, which is the tool to be aware of the objects of consciousness that arise.
We are all encouraged to be aware and not to get lost through the six sense doors, namely, the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body (tactile sense) and mind, of which most common are through the eye and/or the mind doors, getting lost in the world of thoughts or intently focusing on an object. By consistently being aware, not getting lost in thoughts or over-focusing, we can achieve clear comprehension, clarity of consciousness.
3. Foundations of Mindfulness
Once we have the tools or weapons for practicing Dhamma, the next step I would like to invite us to do is mindfulness practice or satipaṭṭhanā, which is to have clear comprehension of the body, feelings, mind, and/or mind-objects, depending on each individual’s natural tendencies. Examples of this are mindfulness of bodily movement while doing walking meditation and of the breathe in and out while doing sitting meditation. In the beginning, we can do concentration practice or samatha, focusing at the body in a relaxed way. Once focused, bodily movement and movement of the air when breathing in and out become just objects of meditation. We can see that they change constantly, cannot stay in one state and are not under our control.
Through this mindfulness exercise, the mind gains strength and clear comprehension. And when a mental object arises, the mind will automatically be aware. For example, when happiness, sadness, wholesome or unwholesome state arises, the mind will know, the same way it knows any physical object.
Once the mind becomes aware of the equanimity, all we have to do is continue to observe.
Once mindfulness, concentration and wisdom (or sati, samādhi, and paññā) mature, the mind will advance by itself.
Once we are proficient at observing mental phenomena or cetasika, we should continue with the practice. But those who prefer to be mindful of just physical objects can continue to do so at will.
For those who are good at knowing mental objects, continue with the exercise. Otherwise just observing physical object is also acceptable.
When the mind is continually aware of mental and physical objects, it will gain strength and insight. The mind will naturally react to these objects with content, discontent or indifference. Be aware of these feelings. These feelings will arise and fall away just like all other mental and physical objects we have been observing. The mind will then let go of these feelings and become equanimous. At first it might only experience this evenness for a short time. Once more skillful however, the mind will become equanimous more often and for longer periods, and it will eventually be aware of the equanimity itself. It will be able to distinguish the five aggregates or khandha, which make up the body and mind, in greater detail, seeing them distinctly as form, feelings, memory, mental fabrication and consciousness.
At this stage in mindfulness development, many practitioners often have one of these two reactions: some become bored and stop the practice, while others are unsure of what to do next, and again stop the practice in search for answers by using analytical thinking.
Actually once the mind becomes aware of the equanimity, all we have to do is continue to observe. Once mindfulness, concentration and wisdom (or sati, samādhi, and paññā) mature, the mind will advance by itself.
This concludes the brief guideline for the Dhamma practice.
4. Incorrect Methods of Mindfulness Practice
Even using the above guideline, when we start to practice Dhamma, we are often faced with many different problems resulting primarily from incorrect mindfulness practice.
For many of us, the more we practice, the more we divert from the goal. The main mistake is, instead of being mindful of things as they are, we tend to create a new object of consciousness and then get stuck in it.
This can happen when we think that our mind is too distracted and therefore need to do concentration practice first. We then do it incorrectly, instead of developing right concentration or sammā-samādhi, we develop wrong concentration or micchā-samādhi. We focus in on one object, letting the mind get absorbed and attached to it instead of just being aware with ease and comfort, and not getting lost or over-focusing.
With wrong concentration, the mind becomes attached to the object that it has fabricated. And once we progress from concentration to mindfulness practice, because of it’s attachment this mind will no longer be able to see the actual truth.
Another common mistake is, instead of being aware of whatever arises in a simple and natural way, many people force the mind to be alert, especially in my presence, thinking that this is mindfulness. Thus their minds become too tense and on-guard. This feeling is no different from a runner at the starting line.
The third most common hindrance is to practice Dhamma with craving, such as a need to show off and to gain praise and acceptance from friends, or a desire to be enlightened quickly. The more we want to excel, the more we try to accelerate the effort instead of allowing mindfulness and clear comprehension to develop consistently and naturally. (In actuality for Dhamma practice, to develop mindfulness and clear comprehension consistently and naturally all the time is the true meaning of accelerated effort.) When we practice with craving, the practice is strained. Though it may look like there is progress, the mind is not at peace. These three mistakes are what cause many of us to get lost in or attached to a mind-object, and mistakenly believe that we are fully aware when we are actually not. Many of us are now able to detect these mistakes and get back on course to just be mindful of things that appear at the present moment.
There is a funny story of one of my pupils whose mind was fixed to a mind-object. My suggestion was to be aware of this and free the mind by being aware of external objects, hoping that the fixed mind would loosen up. This young man was very troubled by this suggestion as he thought I meant to stop being mindful and let the mind wander off. Fortunately, he came back to clear the misunderstanding with me. Otherwise, had he mentioned this to the elder monks, I would have been expelled from the temple!
Actually, when a person becomes attached to a mental object, the mind already wanders off from being mindful. I tried to help the young man see that by over-focusing he was letting the mind wander off, in this case to the object of meditation.
Another problem that a few may face is to get lost in the side effects of meditation, such as getting lost in nimitta, or an inner vision of light, color, sound or even in bodily jerks and gyrations. When these conditions arise, some take pleasure in the experience while others the opposite. I have to guide them further to be mindful of these feelings. With repeated practice the mind will eventually become neutral, instead of unknowingly focus on these pleasant or unpleasant sensations.
The main mistake is, instead of being mindful of things as they are, we tend to create a new object of consciousness and then get stuck in it.
To avoid mistakes in practicing Dhamma, we must strictly adhere to the rule, which is to be aware of defilements when they arise, until eventually one day the mind gains wisdom and breaks free. If we practice Dhamma to satisfy our desire to know, to see, to become, to get, to stand out, to be famous or even to attain enlightenment, then the risk for getting off track is higher, all because the mind often times fabricates a new set of conditions instead of simply being aware of things just as they are.
We need to be observant of the mind. If for example it becomes weightier than the surrounding, then this means that the mind has unknowingly become attached to something. The natural state of the mind should not be heavy, but be the same as its surroundings. It feels heavy only because it is carrying the extra weight. Relax and look around. Everything we see around us, be it building, table, chair, tree, is not heavy because we are not carrying it. The mind, however, is sometimes heavy and other times light. This is because of clinging. The more we cling the heavier the mind becomes. It is this weightiness that causes the mind to appear separate from nature. This extra weight is created by the mind when it fails to notice the defilements.
Once the mind becomes proficient at being aware, observe further and see how it reacts to these external objects, whether with liking or disliking. Continue the practice until the mind becomes impartial to all objects of consciousness, until the inside and nature are of the same weight, until eventually there is no more weight to carry.
The Buddha taught that the five aggregates that we assume to be our body and our mind are heavy. Anyone carrying this weight will never find happiness. His Teaching is the absolute Truth. The five aggregates are truly heavy for those with the faculty to see.
7th January 2000