Meditation is a cool means of transformation, and essential as part of our practice, but the Buddha offered much, much more.
Last night at a Dharma study group that I meet with on Skype, we looked at the Meghiya Sutta. Meghiya was an attendant of the Buddha, and one time when the two of them were together, Meghiya asked if he could go off and meditate in a lovely looking mango grove that he’d spotted when he was off on his alms-round. Meghiya had thought that the mango grove would be the perfect place to meditate.
The Buddha asked him to wait, though, since he would be left alone. Presumably he wanted the company, or might need Meghiya for some practical reason, or perhaps he thought it would benefit Meghiya to stay with him.
But Meghiya was very insistent about going off to meditate. He kept asking and asking (parents are very familiar with this!) and the Buddha eventually said (and I imagine him with a wry smile on his face), “Well, Meghiya, what can I say when you talk of practising meditation? Do what you think it is time for.”
Meghiya’s obsessing with the mango grove as a perfect place to meditate sounds like a kind of spiritual materialism. It’s like when you or I might get really excited because we have a new meditation app on our smartphone, or a new meditation bench; surely now our meditation practice will really take off!
So Meghiya goes off and has a terrible meditation. He’s assaulted by craving and ill-will. This isn’t surprising. He’d been craving to go off to the mango grove to meditate, and he took his craving with him. Of course that’s wat he experienced in meditation! And he’d been anticipating having a great meditation, and when we have expectations like that and they aren’t fulfilled, we tend to get frustrated and angry.
So he goes back to the Buddha and expresses his puzzlement about what’s gone wrong.
In response, the Buddha outlines five things that lead to the heart’s release (enlightenment). These are:
- Spiritual friends, good associates, and the companionship of good people.
- Being virtuous, keeping to one’s vows, practising ethical behaviour, seeing danger even in small faults, training oneself in the precepts.
- Being surrounded by talk that is serious and opens up the heart, that conduces to detachment, to dispassion, to calm, to understanding, to insight, to nibbāna.
- Being firm and energetic in abandoning what is unskilful and acquiring what is skillful, and being stout and strong in effort, not laying aside the burden of pursuing what is skillful.
- Being endowed with the penetrating insight that sees all things rise and fall, and leads to the end of suffering.
The Buddha makes it clear that this is a progressive list, and that spiritual friendship is the foundation of all the rest. So there’s a teaching here for Meghiya. Meghiya had become obsessed with going off and having great meditation experiences, but he hadn’t been a friend to the Buddha. He hadn’t taken the Buddha’s needs into account, and instead had followed the path of self-centered craving. Also, he’d been with the man who was arguably the greatest spiritual genius the world has ever seen. And what does he want to do? Go off and meditate in a pretty spot in the countryside! Talk about skewed priorities! Think of the opportunities that he had for learning in the presence of the Buddha. Think of the opportunities he had to transcend his craving-based desires by staying, and being helpful, and practicing lovingkindness, taking another person’s needs into account as well as his own.
It may not be obvious at first sight, but the Buddha’s five-point response is based on the well-known eight-fold path. Meghiya has been fixated on meditation, which corresponds to Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, the 7th and 8th factors of the path.
The Buddha counters with “virtue” (Right Action and Right Livelihood), “talk that is serious and opens up the heart” (Right Speech), being energetic (Right Effort), and insight (Right View and Right Intention). It’s as if he’s saying — sure, meditation is important, but it’s not enough. You need the other six factors of the path as well.
And the key to successfully practicing all the factors of the path is, perhaps surprisingly, friendship, or kalyana mittata. Getting enlightened, as I’ve said before, is a team sport. We need other people to inspire us and to support us, and we also need them in order to transcend our own self-clinging — something Meghiya had forgotten, and which we’d do well to remember, especially with the rise of the various “mindfulness-based” approaches that treat the practice of meditation in isolation from the other factors of the path.
To get a little bit meta, I should point out that this realization that the Buddha was bringing to Meghiya’s attention the rest of the eightfold path besides the meditation that he was fixated upon would not have arisen if it wasn’t for the fact that I was discussing the text with friends. It’s very unlikely that I’d have stumbled upon this myself, and it was only a stray question from one of the other group members that let me in this direction. So yay for spiritual friendship and “serious talk that opens the heart.”