Buddha

The strange myopia of Buddhist teachings on suffering

woman having caesarian section

I wanted to draw attention to a strange myopia that affects many people who comment on the Buddha’s teachings about suffering.

In the four noble truths, the first truth is that of suffering (dukkha), and it’s described in the following manner:

Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the disliked is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.

Here the Buddha lists a number of occasions for suffering that arise in life. Some, like birth and death, don’t happen in our lives very often. Others, like sickness, are quite frequent. Some, like separation from what we like and being in the presence of things we don’t like take place multiple times in the course even of just one day.

The first instance of suffering that the Buddha gives is birth. It’s a natural place to start, perhaps.

What I find curious is that many, many writers on Buddhism interpret “birth is suffering” solely in terms of “being born is suffering.” This is a long-standing tradition. Fifteen hundred years ago, or so, Buddhaghosa, in his treatise, “The Path of Purification,” listed several ways in which birth is painful. He tells us it’s painful:

  • to be confined in a womb
  • to be physically jarred in the womb when your mother moves around
  • if your mother has a miscarriage
  • to be forced through the birth canal
  • to have your sensitive skin touched after you’ve been born

You’ll notice that this is all focused on the one being born.

Was your birth painful? I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember. Presumably it was traumatic at the time, but my brain wasn’t developed enough to commit the details to memory.

Now, would your mother say that birth was painful? Probably! She experienced much more pain than anyone else involved. Was it psychologically painful for her? Probably. It’s a worrying thing to give birth.

Was it painful for your father? Not physically, but he was probably anxious about the health of your and your mother.

Lots of other people were probably anxious too, and relieved when you were born, hopefully healthily.

The Buddha was of course born at a time and place where birth was much more dangerous than it is for most of us reading these words. His own mother is supposed to have died not long after he was born, presumably from complications of childbirth. In many parts of the world, death during or just after childbirth is still common. In fact both of my adopted children’s birth-mothers died this way.

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For me, the most bizarre part of Buddhaghosa’s list is the bit about miscarriages. To consider the suffering involved in such a thing and not give any thought to the experience of the mother is just bizarre.

Buddhaghosa remains an important influence on Buddhism to this day. A lot of Buddhist teaching is essentially what I call “warmed-over Buddhaghosa.” And so his myopia becomes the myopia of contemporary Buddhist teachers — or many of them, at least. Just today I listened to a teaching on suffering by a very talented contemporary teacher who explained “birth is suffering” as “being born is suffering.”

Probably because Buddhaghosa was a man who had lived all his life in cultures where men were the focus of attention, he just didn’t give much thought to the experience of women. And he was talking to men. But even those men had mothers and sisters who gave birth, so there’s a kind of misogyny, or at least myopic gender-bias, in operation.

Part of what’s going on here is how people tend to pass on presentations of the Buddha’s teachings in much the same way they had first learned them — including the mistakes and the myopic omissions. So you learn from a book or a talk that “birth is suffering” means “it’s painful to be born,” and that lodges in your brain. And then having learned what this, you stop thinking about the subject. You don’t reflect on it. You don’t compare it to the lived experience of people around you. It’s just a “factoid” that inhabits your brain, in some way isolated from everything else you know.

This lack of reflection on what the Buddha taught bothers me. Not connecting what the Buddha taught to your own lived experience (a teacher may not have given birth, but they’ve surely heard women say how painful it is) bothers me. And of course ignoring the painful experience of half of humanity bothers me. Aren’t empathy and compassion meant to be part of the Buddhist path?

Buddhism is about suffering, and responding wisely and compassionately to suffering. And yet most of the suffering around the topic, “birth is suffering,” gets ignored. That’s kind of weird.

Similar things can be said about death, although that’s a less gendered topic. There’s a form of myopia where “death is suffering” becomes “dying is suffering.” But it’s not just dying that’s painful. It’s painful to have a loved one die. It’s painful to think that one day they will die.

There are many other ways in which Buddhist teachings are passed on from generation to generation in a habitual, unreflecting way. In another article here I tackled a few recurring myths about the Buddha’s life. I’ve written about another mistaken teaching about suffering that is commonly passed on. I could write a book full of these.

All of these repeated misconceptions weaken and dull the teaching of Buddhism. The less teachers (and their students) are able to connect Dharma teachings to their lived experience and to the experience of others, the more abstract the teachings seem. They exist as the “factoids” I mentioned, floating in the mind, untethered to our real lives.

So the next time you hear a teacher talking discussing “birth is suffering” purely in terms of the suffering a fetus and baby go through, I’d suggest that you gently bring up the topic of all the others involved in birth who suffer in more significant ways — the mother above all. It might end up changing Buddhist culture in the west.

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Debunking seven myths about the Buddha

Some of the misconceptions about the Buddha are so common that you’ll find them in just about every book on Buddhism. The problem is that most of these books are merely rehashes of other books on Buddhism, so that misconceptions get passed on for decades and even centuries.

So here I’d like to debunk some myths about the Buddha. I’m not talking about myths like “The Buddha was a god” (he was a historical human figure) or that the Buddha was fat (that’s an entirely different figure, Budai, who was a Chinese monk). I’m going to debunk things that even many savvy Buddhists believe to be true because they’ve read them so often.

So here we go:

Myth #1: The Buddha Was Indian

The country of India didn’t exist at the time of the Buddha, of course, but when people talk about the Buddha being Indian they mean that he was born in a place that is now part of present-day India. However, he was born (according to tradition) in a town called Lumbini, which was in the Sakyan country. Lumbini is in present-day Nepal, not India. Of course the Buddha spent much of his life in what is now India, but he wasn’t Indian. He was Nepalese—or at least he was born in a part of the world that is now known as Nepal.

Myth #2: The Buddha’s First Name Was Siddhartha

In the scriptures the only name given to the Buddha is “Gautama,” which was his family name. We know the names of his father, mother, son, aunt, cousins, and so on, but we don’t know his own given name! This is a very odd omission, which is perhaps why in the later tradition he was given the name Siddhartha (Siddhatta in Pali). But there’s no evidence that this was actually the Buddha’s name.

As far as I know, the only places in the Pali scriptures where the Buddha is given the name Siddhattha are in some very late texts called the āpadānas, and other late texts like the Jātakas. Here’s a text, for example, where “Siddhatta” is being recalled by a monk who had been a crocodile in a past life when the two had met! These texts seem to have been added to the canon many, many centuries after the Buddha died.

Myth #3: The Buddha Was Born Hindu

There was no religion called Hinduism at the time the Buddha was born, and so it would be anachronistic to say that the Buddha was born a Hindu. There were many religious traditions that were around at that time. There was one common one that we call Brahminism, which was a hereditary sacrificial tradition based on ancient Indian texts called the Vedas. This is one of the traditions that evolved into contemporary Hinduism. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Buddha followed this Vedic tradition at any time in his life. In fact he probably didn’t. We know that the Sakyans argued that they were superior to the Brahmins, and so it seems unlikely that they followed their religious tradition.

There’s mention in the scriptures that in Kosala and Magadha (territories close to Sakya) there were “Brahmin villages.” According to Bronkhorst (“Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism”) there is evidence that Brahmins tended to cluster together in villages. I thought I’d at some point seen a reference to a Brahmin village in Sakya, although I haven’t been able to track that down. Whether or not there was such a village, the implication is that if Brahminism was present in Sakya it wasn’t ubiquitous and probably wasn’t the dominant religious tradition.

In one discourse a Brahmin talks about visiting the Sakyan capital, Kapilavatthu, and being shocked that brahmins were not honored there. It is “neither fitting, nor is it seemly, that the Sākyas, menials as they are, mere menials, should neither venerate, nor value, nor esteem, nor give gifts to, nor pay honour to Brahmans,” he complains. It’s all too easy for us to think that India is a Hindu country. Therefore it has always been a Hindu country. But in doing so we’re projecting the present (and a rough approximation of the present at that) into a very different past.

In the scriptures there’s simply no mention of the Buddha practicing any religion until after he left home and became a follower of first Alara Kalama and then Uddaka Ramaputta. These teachers were not followers of the Vedas. They seem to have rejected Vedic authority and ran forest renunciate communities based on seeking the truth through meditation. There were presumably philosophical aspects to Alara and Uddaka’s teachings, however, since the Buddha talks about having “memorized” them and having mastered “lip-recital and oral recitation.”

The Vedic tradition was not meditative, but involved rituals of sacrifice and purity in order to influence the gods. There’s no evidence, either, that the Buddha ever worshipped any of the Brahmins’ gods, which are now Hindu gods.

So there’s no evidence that the Buddha was ever a Hindu, or a follower of any tradition rooted in the Vedas, or a worshipper of Hindu deities.

Myth #4: The Buddha Was a Prince

The Sakyan territory was one of a number of republics in the north of the Indian subcontinent. These republics had no kings, and instead were governed by representatives of the people. Some of them may have been democratic, but as far as we know the Sakyans were governed by a council of the heads of the major families that lived there. The Buddha’s father was not a king, but more like a senator.

There are a few reasons why people might have later assumed that the Buddha was the heir to a kingdom. Even during the Buddha’s lifetime, the small republics started being swallowed up by neighboring monarchical kingdoms. After a few generations of being ruled by kings, people may have tended to assume that things had always been like that, and assumed that if his father had been a Sakyan ruler, he must have been a king.

But there’s also a tendency for religious traditions to want to see their founders as having had extraordinary lives and pedigrees, and it’s much more grand to say that the Buddha was the son of a king than heir to the head of one of the leading Sakyan families.

And in trying to obtain patronage from actual kings (who could make or break a religious tradition) it would have been a good PR move to say that your founder was also of royal stock.

I can think of one discourse where the Buddha is referred to as a prince, but it’s an odd one. The sutta is in two parts, the first—with the prince reference—being heavily mythological and narrated by some unknown person. The second part is a question from a disciple followed by a very practical response from the Buddha. There’s no reference in the second part to the Buddha being from a royal family. Given that historically the Buddha could not have been a prince, it seems likely that the mythological introduction was added later. Moreover, the word translated as “prince” is “kumāra”, which merely meant “boy.” The Buddha’s father isn’t referred to as a “king” here, so I assume it’s just habit that leads people to translate kumāra as “prince.” The term for a royal prince would be “rājakumāra”.

There’s another discourse, principally about the previous life of a mythical Buddha called Vipassi—see Myth #5—where the Buddha is portrayed as describing his parents as a king and queen. Again, this is at odds with the historical reality, and it’s interesting that once again we have a mythical context for this royal reference. And here again there’s a translation issue. The word for a royal king was “mahārājā,” while the Buddha’s father is called a “rājā” in this sutta. At the Buddha’s time the word rājā was (according to the Pali Dictionary) “primarily an appellative (or title) of a khattiya [member of the aristocratic warrior class], and often the two [khattiya and rājā] are used promiscuously.

Myth #5: The Buddha Saw Four Sights

Just about every book on Buddhism will tell you about the so-called Four Sights that prompted the Buddha to leave home on a spiritual quest. It goes like this: The Buddha was brought up in three palaces and not allowed to go outside. However, he insisted on going on a series of chariot rides to explore the capital, and saw 1) an old person, 2) a sick person, 3) a dead person, and 4) a beatific homeless wanderer. These Four Sights provoked a spiritual crisis, and so he left home in search to find a way to overcome suffering.

This story is certainly found in the scriptures. It’s even told by the Buddha himself. But he tells it about someone else! This is a tale that the Buddha tells about a legendary former Buddha called Vipassi. So these events are clearly not presented as something that happened to the Buddha himself. Sometimes people try to make sense of the story as it applies to be Buddha by psychologizing it: it was as if he saw an old person, sick person, and so on for the first time. But there’s no need to interpret this supposed episode from the Buddha’s life, since there’s no reason to think it ever happened.

The Buddha talks very movingly in one scripture about the spiritual crisis that provoked him to leave home:

I’ll tell you about the dreadful fear
that caused me to shake all over:

Seeing creatures flopping around,
Like fish in water too shallow,
So hostile to one another!
— Seeing this, I became afraid.

This world completely lacks essence;
It trembles in all directions.
I longed to find myself a place
Unscathed — but I could not see it.

Seeing people locked in conflict,
I became completely distraught.
[Attadanda Sutta]

This, in my eyes, is much more human and relatable than the legend of the four sights.

We know that the Buddha’s people, the Sakyans, had contentious relations with some of their neighbors, and there were battles over things like access to water for irrigation. They literally were like fish fighting over too small a quantity of water, and that may be what he was referring to here. It was probably this kind of strife that impelled the Buddha to leave home. He certainly didn’t see four sights in any literal way, although he did talk about how he saw through the “intoxication” of youth, wellness, and life, which correspond to the first three sights.

Myth #6: The Buddha Lived in Three Palaces

Although the scriptures have the Buddha talking about how in his youth he lived in three “palaces,” this almost certainly isn’t the case. Excavations of Kapilavastu show the dwellings there to have been rather modest. Sakya wasn’t a rich country, and there seem to have been no palaces. The word translated as “palace” (pāsāda) can mean anything from the residence of a king, to a building on high foundations, all the way down to a “raised platform.” The “palace” translation is probably shaped by the myth that the Buddha was from a royal family. In fact Bhikkhu Sujato translates pāsāda as “stilt longhouse,” which is historically and archaeologically more accurate, although admittedly less grand.

Myth #7: The Buddha Left Home In the Middle of the Night

Legends detail how the Buddha “went forth” in the middle of the night, tiptoeing through the sleeping concubines who were strewn over his harem so as not to wake them up. He left without saying goodbye to anyone—not even his father, step-mother, or his wife, who had a young child to take care of. How rude!

In the scriptures, however, he talks about how he said farewell to his parents. It’s less dramatic, but again more human and believable. We can’t know for sure, but he probably spent a lot of time talking over his desire to leave home.

When I was still young, black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life, having shaved off my hair and beard — though my parents wished otherwise and were grieving with tears on their faces — I put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness. [Mahasaccaka Sutta and Ariyapariyesana sutta.]

The reference to “parents” is interesting, since the Buddha’s mother is supposed to have passed away not long after giving birth to him. It could be that “parents” refers to his father and stepmother (his dad married his mother’s sister). Or it could be that the legend of the Buddha’s mother dying after his birth is just that—a legend.

Anyway, the story of the Buddha sneaking out in the middle of the night just doesn’t match with what’s in the early scriptures.

People Get Mad About This Sort of Stuff

When I’ve written about this kind of thing in the past I’ve ended up getting a fair amount of hate mail. Some Hindus don’t like it if you say there’s no evidence that the Buddha was ever a Hindu. Some Buddhists don’t like it if you say the Buddha wasn’t a prince, or in fact contradict anything they believe in. I get called names.

One of the emphases in the Buddha’s early teachings was not clinging to views. When we cling to beliefs, he pointed out, we end up disputing and fighting with each other.

It’s not that we shouldn’t have views, but that we should hold them lightly, not fight over them, and be prepared to change our views in response to new evidence. You might want the Buddha to have been a prince, for example, because that’s what you’re used to hearing. And you might get angry when you hear otherwise. But if the scriptural and historical evidence points in other directions then it’s wise for us to change our views.

If you found yourself getting indignant while reading this article, that’s a fair indication that there’s some clinging going on. That’s normal. But clinging leads to suffering. So let go. Adapt. You’ll be happier!

PS. Here’s an article by scholar Peter Harvey, called In Search of the Real Buddha, that covers some of the same ground and debunks some of the other mythology surrounding the Buddha.

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Insight is not enough

These days there’s an increasing interest in gaining insight — accepting the loaded word “gaining” for now.

On the whole this is a good thing. For a long time many in the West have been doubtful about whether awakening is a realistic goal. “Maybe we’re too messed up,” and “Maybe the modern world isn’t conducive to awakening,” were common doubts. As the years have gone by, however, more and more practitioners have had insight experiences, and this has been very encouraging for others. More people now think not just that awakening is possible, but that they personally are capable of it. This is great! How can there be a downside to this?

One thing I’ve been concerned about recently is the narrowness of the goal we set ourselves. The ultimate aim of practice is often seen purely in terms of having insights into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. And while those things are crucial to attaining the goal, simply having those insights doesn’t turn you into the kind of person that the Buddha suggested we should take as our ideal. The Buddha’s concept of the ideal individual is someone who not only has insight, but who is an all-round excellent human being.

In one conversation about the ideal person, the Buddha outlines qualities such as: having calmness; being free from craving; being free of attachment to preferences, being free from fear, anger, and pride; being restrained in speech; having no longings about the future and no regrets about the past; having honesty and transparency; being free from envy; having no disdain for others; refraining from insults; and not thinking in terms of being superior, inferior, or even equal to others.

Elsewhere the Buddha talks of this ideal individual very much in terms of gentleness, kindness, and compassion. He encourages us to be the kind of person who doesn’t act in ways that cause harm to others in any way, not even indirectly, if that can at all be avoided. He also encouraged us to be good friends to each other — see the Culagosinga Sutta, for example. And part of the Buddha’s conception of spiritual friendship was a heart-connection with the wise — a sense of devotion and reverence that opens the heart to being influenced by the good that lies in others.

Over and over again, the Buddha encouraged us to develop jhana — a pleasurable state of focused awareness and of joyful absorption in the present moment. Jhana is deeply nourishing, and is also an excellent preparation for insight — not just because it trains the mind in focused attention, but because it helps us to see our experience in terms of intangible qualities of energy and joy, and in so doing gives us more of a sense of the insubstantiality of ourselves.

These are the kinds of things that we should be thinking of as the purpose of our practice.

Inherent in the Buddha’s view of the goal is that it’s not just about losing the delusion of self, or even of “gaining” insight. It’s also about cultivating ethical, skillful qualities—especially positive emotions. This is why the Buddhist path is usually taught as starting with training in ethics, then in meditation (including the active cultivation of kindness and compassion), and only then, finally, culminating in the development of insight.

For a small number of people, insight experiences are upsetting or even devastating, leading to a loss of meaning, a sense of despair, and a depressing and anxious state of depersonalization. It’s clear that joy and compassion don’t inevitably follow on the heels of insight arising.

Cases where serious suffering arises as a consequence of insight are rare. I don’t personally know anyone for whom this has been more than a passing disorientation, after which the positive aspects of insight have revealed themselves. But in the cases I’ve heard of where some kind of insight experience has lead to long-term problems, it seems to me that there has typically been a narrow focus on mindfulness and insight, and a lack of emphasis on lovingkindness and compassion meditation, and usually no emphasis on jhana. Whether there’s also been a lack of emphasis on spiritual friendship, spiritual community, and ethics is something I don’t know. But I suspect that in some cases these things are lacking as well.

One of the benefits of modern neuroscience is that we now know that as we learn a new skill, the brain physically changes. Areas associated with that skill become larger, just as a muscle grows with exercise. The goal of practice doesn’t just involve a cognitive insight into impermanence or non-self, but requires that we strengthen our “muscles” of kindness and compassion. I’d encourage you, then, to develop these qualities on the cushion and in daily life. If we do that, then insight, when it arrives, is more likely to be an astonishing, liberating, and joyful surprise, and less likely to be a disorienting, upsetting, and painful shock to the system.

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Happy New Breath

woman in water

Every breath can be the beginning of a new year. One breath at a time can seem a long time for people in recovery. Many people are afraid to connect to the subtle sensations in the nostrils and on the upper lip, that we label as the breath. Connecting to the subtle sensations of breathing means we have to slow down and become aware of our body, thoughts and feelings.

Those of us with addictions are often trying to flee the body, feelings and thoughts. Instead of coming back to the body, we are trying to have out-of-body experiences, get high, have altered states, and not be in touch with everyday reality.

The Buddha taught the four foundations of mindfulness. The contemplation of the body, feelings, thoughts and mind objects (like hindrances, six senses, the five skandhas and the seven factors of enlightenment).

This is what the Buddha taught. He taught the practise of anapanasati to help us contemplate these four foundations. He taught us how to breathe again. This is the essence, the pulse of this practice. Inhaling and exhaling, aware of the length, and sensation of each breathing moment. Allowing breathing to soothe the body, to soothe mental formation, to liberate the heart, and relinquish all habits.

A whole lifetime passes in each breathing moment. What we do in each moment impacts the next. With every inhale there is an exhale until the last breathing moment.

The past connects to the present, and the present connects to the future. Just like the inhale and exhale. By having awareness of every breathing moment we can impact this flow of reality.

How many of us are aware of breathing? Have you ever tried to be attached to breathing? Attachment only arises when we have the difficulty of breathing. When we don’t inhale enough oxygen it causes us to choke, have asthma attacks, or struggling for another inhale and exhale.

When we experience excitement or upset, our bodies can contract, we interrupt the flow of breathing. Rarely do we experience the full capacity of inhaling and exhaling. We need to be aware that lack of oxygen to the brain and heart befuddles our mental states and at worse brain damage. On an emotional level when our brain and hearts do not receive enough oxygen, we strangle our hearts and mind, and cause damage to our whole body. Anger, hatred, ill will, and even obsessive love is the cause of emotional brain and or heart damage.

The Buddha teaches us to become aware of breathing, because this is the antidote to the poisons of the heart like, greed, hatred and delusion. The Buddha rediscovered the way through breathing.

You could ask yourself, “When did I stop breathing?”

Take some minutes to reflect on this question, perhaps repeating it to yourself several times. I stopped breathing the day my biological mother left me somewhere and never came back. As a 6 week old baby, I most probably learned to scream, kick, and cry, blocking the flow of air, hoping this would soothe my pain.

So let’s relearn breathing.

Inhaling, I know I am breathing in. Exhaling I know I am breathing out. Give it a go, ten minutes and see what happens.

Happy New Breath.

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Insight is not enough

flower

These days there’s an increasing interest in gaining insight. (Let’s just accept the loaded word “gaining” for now.) On the whole this is a good thing. For a long time many in the West have been doubtful about whether awakening is a realistic goal. “Maybe we’re too messed up,” and “Maybe the modern world isn’t conducive to awakening,” were common doubts.

As the years have gone by, however, more and more practitioners have had insight experiences, and this has been very encouraging for others. More people now think not just that awakening is possible, but that they personally are capable of it. This is great! How can there be a downside to this?

One thing I’ve been concerned about recently is the narrowness of the goal many people set themselves. The ultimate aim of practice is often seen purely in terms of having insight into non-self. And while that is crucial to attaining the goal, simply having insights doesn’t turn you into the kind of person that the Buddha suggested we should take as our ideal. The Buddha’s concept of the ideal individual is someone who not only has insight, but who is an all-round excellent human being.

In one conversation about the ideal person, the Buddha outlines qualities such as: having calmness; being free from craving; being free of attachment to preferences, being free from fear, anger, and pride; being restrained in speech; having no longings about the future and no regrets about the past; having honesty and transparency; being free from envy; having no disdain for others; refraining from insults; and not thinking in terns of being superior, inferior, or even equal to others.

Elsewhere the Buddha talks of this ideal individual very much in terms of gentleness, kindness, and compassion. He encourages us to be the kind of person who doesn’t act in ways that cause harm to others in any way, not even indirectly, if that can at all be avoided. He also encouraged us to be good friends to each other.

This is where we should conceive of our practice leading. This is the goal we should orient our lives around.

Inherent in the Buddha’s view of the goal is that it’s not just about losing the delusion of self, or even of gaining insight. It’s also about cultivating ethical, skillful qualities—especially positive emotions. This is why the Buddhist path is usually taught as starting with training in ethics, then in meditation (including the active cultivation of kindness and compassion), and only then, finally, culminating in the development of insight.

For a small number of people, insight experiences are upsetting or even devastating, leading to a loss of meaning and a sense of despair. These cases are rare, and I don’t personally know anyone for whom this has been more than a passing disorientation before the positive aspects of insight have revealed themselves. But in the cases I’ve heard of where some kind of insight experience has lead to long-term problems, there seems to have been a narrow focus on mindfulness and insight, and a lack of emphasis on lovingkindness and compassion meditation. Many meditation teachers have an habit of trying to ignore these potential problems, but fortunately they are being studied and hopefully we’ll learn more about them in time.

One of the benefits of modern neuroscience is that we now know that as we learn a new skill, the brain physically changes. Areas associated with that skill become larger, just as a muscle grows with exercise. The goal of practice doesn’t just involve a cognitive insight into impermanence or non-self, but requires that we strengthen our “muscles” of kindness and compassion. Developing insight removes certain barriers to the arising of skillful qualities and (often) to the dropping away of some of the grossly unskillful ones, but it takes effort to actually bring about growth.

I’d encourage you, then, to develop, on the cushion and in daily life, the qualities I’ve mentioned. If we do that, then insight, when it arrives, is more likely to be an astonishing, liberating, and joyful surprise, and less likely to be a disorienting, upsetting, and painful shock to the system.

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“The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” John Locke

get-out-of-jail-free

One of the most radical and attractive things about Buddhist ethics is that the rightness or wrongness of an action is not to do with some arbitrary set of rules developed by a deity, but is based on the intention behind the action.

If an action is fueled by craving, hatred, or delusion, then it’s considered to be unskillful, and if it’s not based on those qualities, but instead is based on qualities such as “renunciation” (which would include contentment and generosity), kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, then it’s considered skillful.

For this reason, Buddhism is often said to have an “ethic of intention.” This, however, can be misleading. What determines the ethical status of unskillful mental states, after all, is the results they produce! For example, in an important teaching the Buddha described how, before his Awakening, he came to recognize that there were some mental states that were skillful and some that were unskillful:

As he observed his mind, he noticed:

Thinking imbued with craving [or ill will, or cruelty] has arisen in me, and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, and does not lead to Awakening.

It’s because unskillful states of mind cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both, that they are unskillful.

The idea that Buddhist ethics is an ethic of intention sometimes acts as a “get out of jail free card” for certain Buddhists. For example, they repeatedly say things that give offense to others, and say, “Well, I didn’t mean to give offense. It’s your fault if you get offended. That’s your choice. It’s not something I’m doing.”

But there’s another important teaching in which the Buddha undercuts this argument. In talking to his son, Rahula, who had been ordained as a monk, the Buddha made the important point that we need to look at our actions, words, and thoughts before they arise and see whether we think they are likely to cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both. Further, we’re to look at the effects of our actions, words, and thoughts in retrospect, and to see whether they caused suffering. If they did, then we’re to consider what we did as unskillful.

The point that’s implicitly being made is that often we aren’t clear about our intentions. We want to see ourselves as good, and to be seen as good by others. We may therefore believe, or want to believe, that we don’t mean to cause offense, but if offense repeatedly happens then it’s likely that we have an unacknowledged desire to do so.

Because we’re deluded, we often don’t understand our own motivations. Sometimes we don’t even want to understand them. The Buddha’s teaching to his son helps us escape from the apparent paradox of a deluded mind trying to become aware of its own delusions. How do we become aware of unconscious volitions? By observing their effects. The results of our actions reveal to us our hidden volitions—if we’re prepared to look.

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Hiding from pain by pursuing pleasure

Fun fair long exposure Photo taken at the fun fair of Hoorn

There’s a famous teaching, the Sallatha Sutta, in which the Buddha discusses our suffering as consisting of “two arrows.” The first arrow is simply the unavoidable suffering that we all experience as a result of being human. We’re all going to experience loss, hurt feelings, physical pain, illness, etc. The wise person simply observes this pain mindfully. The unwise person responds to suffering through resistance: “Why is this happening to me? This is terrible!”

The Buddha called this reaction “grief, sorrow and lamentation,” and he pointed out that this was like responding to the first arrow with a second one! Our resistance to pain simply causes further pain—perhaps even more than we’d originally experienced. Every thought we have along the lines of “This is awful; I wish it would stop!” merely adds another stab of pain.

But the Buddha pointed our another unhelpful way that we commonly respond to pain. Many people skip this when discussing the Sallatha Sutta—probably because the Buddha didn’t offer an image to accompany this third form of suffering.

“Being contacted by painful feeling, he seeks delight in sensual pleasure. For what reason? Because the uninstructed worldling does not know of any escape from painful feeling other than sensual pleasure.”

Those with more wisdom know that the escape is, once again, mindfully bearing with the painful feeling until it passes. He or she “understands as it really is the origin and the passing away” of the discomfort.

It seems to me that the attempt to escape from underlying painful feelings (which are more likely to involve boredom, anxiety, or loneliness than physical pain) more often involves the pursuit than the experience of pleasure.

There may be pleasure involved when we attempt to hide from discomfort by bingeing on ice cream, indulging in a marathon session of “Orange is the New Black,” or having a few too many beers, but often there isn’t. In these cases it’s the pursuit itself that is the real distraction. That’s why these activities continue for so long. I sometimes find myself, late at night, restlessly clicking on a link to read “just one more article,” as if pleasure was just a webpage away. There’s little pleasure in this restive surfing, but much pursuit. It’s because stable pleasure isn’t found that we keep faring on.

For me, the creative escape from the fruitless pursuit of pleasure comes when I shift my attention from the screen in front of me to the unpleasant feelings in my body that are driving my behaviors. The moment I connect with my felt experience, it seems that an umbilical cord of emotional attachment between me and the computer is broken. Mindfully aware of my discomfort, I am now free to act in ways that are more truly in my best interests. I’ve stepped out of the “faring on” that is samsara—at least temporarily.

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When the Buddha quit

Portrait of Lord BuddhaThere’s a discourse in the Buddhist scriptures that’s long intrigued me, and which I think can be interpreted as giving an account of a time that the Buddha quit as head of the monastic community. The discourse itself seems confused and contradictory, which suggests to me that the monks who passed it on weren’t sure how to handle it, and may have tried to tone down what actually happened. On the other hand maybe I’m reading too much into this particular sutta. You can make up your own mind.

The discourse in question is the Cātumā Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya, 67). It tells of a time that the Buddha was on the outskirts of a town called Cātumā, when a large band of monks (500, which just means “a large number’) arrive, creating a great disturbance. The monks are headed by the Buddha’s two main disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna.

There were a few things that the Buddha seems to have particularly disliked, and one of them was noisy monks. After telling the monks that they are behaving like a bunch of raucous fishermen hauling in a catch, he dismisses them, saying that he doesn’t want them near him.

Some householders appeal to the Buddha, saying that these monks, some of whom were newly ordained, need his guidance. But the way they phrase their request suggests that the Buddha was being called back to guide the entire monastic Sangha, not just this group of 500:

Let the Blessed One delight in the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One welcome the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One help the Sangha of the Bhikkhus as he used to help it in the past.

There’s no mention of the 500 monks here, but of “the Sangha of the Bhikkhus.” And the Buddha is being asked to help them as he has in the past (odd if this is a group that’s just arrived). This isn’t conclusive, but it makes me think that the Buddha is being asked to walk back a decision a bit more drastic than merely “firing” one group of monks.

Adding to the mystery, the householders now receive backup, in the form of Brahmā Sahampati. This god is the same being who originally entreated the Buddha to teach after his Enlightenment, for the benefit of the many beings who had the potential for awakening. Now, here he is again, but this time intervening on behalf of just one group of monks. Again, there’s nothing conclusive here, but the first time we meet Brahma he’s stepping in for the benefit of all beings. Perhaps originally he was doing the same here.

The Buddha is persuaded. Or, as the sutta puts it, his “confidence is restored.” The monks are called back.

The Buddha first talks to Sāriputta, and asks him what he had had thought when the Buddha had “fired” the monks. He replied that he assumed that the Buddha would “abide inactive, devoted to pleasant abiding here and now.” And he’d thought he’d do the same. Basically, Sāriputta was glad that of the opportunity just to get on with his practice.

The assumption that the Buddha would “abide inactive” is an odd one if the sutta is to be read literally. Since only 500 monks out of (presumably) thousands have been dismissed, surely the Buddha would have plenty to keep him busy! Sāriputta too, as a chief disciple, would still have plenty of teaching and organizing to attend to. He was, after all, the “General of the Dharma” (Dhammasenāpati).

After reproaching Sāriputta for this selfish train of thought, the Buddha asks Moggallāna what his own thoughts had been. He replies that he’d too thought that the Buddha would “abide inactive”, but that he and Sāriputta would “lead the Sangha of Bhikkhus.” The Buddha approves of this.

This is odd as well. If the 500 monks are no longer followers of the Buddha, what sense does it make that Moggallāna decides he’s going to lead them? Is he going to have his own Order of Bhikkhus, independent of the mainstream monastic Sangha? Are these 500 monks now no longer the Buddha’s disciples but still somehow with the Sangha as disciples of Sāriputta and Moggallāna? Why would the Buddha approve of such a relationship? If your boss tells you that your underling has been fired, then it makes no sense for you to say you’ll keep managing him, or for your boss to approve of you so doing.

Again, I think this suggests that the Buddha had quit, quite literally, “the Sangha of Bhikkhus”—not the 500 noisy monks, but the whole shebang. Only then it would make sense for both Sāriputta and Moggallāna to assume that the Buddha would “abide inactive,” for Sāriputta to think that he’d do likewise, and for Moggallāna to assume that he (and Sāriputta) would step in as head of “the Sangha of Bhikkhus.”

The rest of the sutta is an apparently unrelated teaching about various temptations and dangers that Bhikkhus faced, which might tempt them to return to the household life. It has nothing to do with monks being noisy.

I can’t understand this sutta to be saying anything other than “the Buddha quit.” I can well imagine that this would be a difficult message for the reciters (and, later, scribes) who passed on the teachings to take on board. And so I suspect that what had actually taken place was toned down, so that it wasn’t the entire Sangha that was dismissed, but just 500 monks.

There’s a tendency to assume that the Buddha was perfect, and that therefore the kind of scenario I’m proposing couldn’t possibly happen. But the Buddha was far more human than some assume. How human it was for the Buddha, in his later years, to say “I spit on old age.” How human it was that the Buddha experienced self-doubt, in the form of a taunting Māra, at various times in his life, including when he was confined to bed and wasn’t able to teach or to be of use to his disciples. How human it was that the Buddha seemed to find noise physically jarring, as in this sutta, or that he got so annoyed by being misquoted.

I actually feel closer to the Buddha knowing that he was a vulnerable human being. I have respect for him, knowing that he faced, and worked with, challenges and difficulties. I take the fact of his Enlightenment to mean not that he was perfect and free from doubt and irritability, but that he was a big enough being always to overcome these challenges.

And I feel admiration for him, and gratitude too, thinking that he once quit and was open to being talked into resuming the headship of the Sangha.

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Pop Art Buddhas

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“Pop art,” Wikipedia tells us, “is an art movement that emerged in the mid-1950s in Britain and in the late 1950s in the United States … Pop art presented a challenge to traditions of fine art by including imagery from popular culture such as advertising, news, etc. In pop art, material is sometimes visually removed from its known context, isolated, and/or combined with unrelated material.”

For some reason I found myself using Google’s images search to look for Pop Art representations of the Buddha. There’s rather a lot of them out there, and I’ve included a few here, with links so that you can support the artists, if you’re so inclined. (None of these are affiliate links.)

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The Buddha’s radical path of jhana

Stone Buddha statueJhāna — a progressive series of meditative states of absorption — is a controversial topic in Buddhism. This should be rather amazing given that the Buddhist scriptures emphasize jhāna so strongly. In the Eightfold Path, Right Concentration is consistently defined as the four jhānas. The Buddha said things like “There is no jhāna for him who lacks insight, and no insight for him who lacks jhāna.” The jhānas are enumerated over and over again in the Pāli scriptures. They’re also implicit in teachings like the Seven Bojjhaṅgas, the 12 positive nidānas, and the Ānāpānasati Sutta, which mention various of the jhāna factors.

Despite the scriptural importance of jhāna, some teachers, like Thich Nhat Hanh, have argued that jhāna was something that the Buddha rejected, and that it was smuggled into the suttas after the Buddha’s death:

The Four Form Jhānas and the Four Formless Jhānas are states of meditational concentration which the Buddha practiced with teachers such as Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, and he rejected them as not leading to liberation from suffering. These states of concentration probably found their way back into the sutras around two hundred years after the Buddha passed into mahāparinirvāna. The results of these concentrations are to hide reality from the practitioner, so we can assume that they shouldn’t be considered Right Concentration. (Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, page 29)

The specifics of this objection are interesting because they contain some fundamental misunderstandings, and I’d like to explore in this article the topic of the relationship of the so-called “formless jhānas” (I’ll explain that qualification in due course) to the “jhānas of form,” and the role of these “formless jhānas” in the Buddha’s biography — specifically his training under Ālāra and Uddaka, and the Buddha’s later realization that jhāna was the “path to Awakening.”

First, there’s the assumption that Ālāra and Uddaka taught the Buddha the four jhānas. Now, the Buddha never mentions that he learned or practiced the jhānas with his two teachers. He says that he learned to attain the “sphere of nothingness” (ākiñcañña-āyatana — I prefer “no-thingness” as a translation) from Ālāra Kalama, and the “sphere of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasaññānāsañña-āyatana) from Uddaka Ramaputta. (Uddaka had apparently not experienced this himself, and was merely passing on Rama’s teaching).

“But,” many Buddhists will object, “if Ālāra and Uddaka taught the Buddha how to attain these spheres, then they must also have taught the Buddha how to attain jhāna, since these spheres are the seventh and eighth jhānas — part of the four ‘formless jhānas’ that follow on from the four ‘jhānas of form.'” (The first two “formless jhānas” are the sphere of infinite space and the sphere of infinite consciousness.) But this is the very error that I am keen to address.

The suttas never refer to any “formless jhānas.” What are nowadays called the “formless jhānas” are in fact never referred to as jhānas in the scriptures, but are referred to consistently as “āyatanas” or “spheres.” It’s only in the later commentarial tradition that the two lists are presented as one continuous list of “eight jhānas.” They should really be known as “formless spheres.”

Now this is important, because the four formless spheres are in fact not jhānas at all. Many meditators have discovered that it’s possible to experience these formless spheres without having first gone through the jhānas. There has been much confusion for some who have had such experiences, because the assumption that the āyatanas can’t be experienced without first having traversed the jhānas is so prevalent. I am in fact one of the many people who has experienced that confusion.

There are suttas in which there is reference to experiencing the āyatanas without first going through the jhānas. Most people would tend to assume that in these suttas the jhānas are assumed, without being mentioned explicitly, but there’s no need to make that assumption, and experience shows it to be false. Certain forms of meditation predispose to direct experience of the āyatanas. Suttas discussing the six element practice and the divine abidings show those meditations leading directly to the formless spheres. I don’t disagree that it’s possible to reach the āyatanas via the jhānas, but there are other ways.

The fact that it’s possible to reach the formless spheres without going through the jhānas helps us make sense of an important episode in the Buddha’s life. In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta the Buddha described how he intuited, prior to his enlightenment, that jhāna was “the way to Awakening”:

I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhāna, with rapture and joy born from seclusion, accompanied by initial thought and sustained thought. Could that be the way to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the way to Awakening.’

That’s a strong statement. The Buddha had not just a hunch, or an idea, but an actual realization that jhāna is the way to Awakening.

Now, many people have struggled to make sense of this episode. The Buddha had previously attained the seventh and eighth “jhānas” (in reality the third and fourth āyatanas) under Uddaka and Ālāra’s instructions, so how could a memory of first jhāna be so significant in pointing the way to Awakening? All sorts of explanations for this apparent contradiction have been made, but the simplest is one that may be least obvious: that the Buddha had not in fact previously explored the jhānas with Ālāra and Uddaka, and that he had explored the āyatanas through means other than by going through the jhānas. Confusion arises because we’re so conditioned by the commentarial belief that to enter the āyatanas we must first go through the jhānas, that we assume that the Buddha must have had experience of the jhānas.

I see the jhānas and the āyatanas arising in different ways. Jhāna involves paying more and more attention to less and less. In going deeper into jhāna we progressively “tune out” first our thinking, then the pleasurable sensations that arise in the body as we relax, and finally joy. This leaves only one-pointed attention on an object of attention, accompanied by a sense of great peace. Jhāna is a form of progressive simplification — more and more attention being focused on a smaller and smaller subset of our experience.

The āyatanas involve the opposite approach. Rather than “homing in” our attention so that it’s focused on less and less of our experience, we allow our attention to be all-inclusive, excluding nothing from our awareness. Speaking of my own practice, when I enter the āyatanas, what I do is pay full attention to all of my experience: that which arises from within (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations) and that which arises from outside (light, sound, space, etc.). I then maintain an awareness of both of these fields of experience, finding a point of balance of inner and outer. AS that balance is maintained, the mind becomes very still. At a certain point, the boundary between “inside” and “outside” is lost, and there is simply a single field of awareness. This process is speeded up if I consciously focus on the supposed boundary between inside and outside. In meditation this boundary is perceived to be very fuzzy, and in fact, the closer you look at it the less it seems to exist. Later, other distinctions are lost as well, and there is a loss of the sense that the body has a three dimensional orientation in space.

In the suttas, all of the entry points to the āyatanas have one thing in common: equanimity. The jhānas culminate in an experience of equanimity; having narrowed down our experience and brought the mind to a state of peace, we then broaden our experience once again and enter the formless spheres. (Or so I am told; I have never entered the formless spheres this way.) The fourth divine abiding is of course equanimity, which is also a springboard to an experience of the āyatanas. And the sutta describing the six element practice says that it beings the mind to equanimity and thus into the āyatanas. The formless spheres can be experienced from any meditation that brings about a state of tranquil equanimity.

The Buddha experienced the formless spheres to the furthest possible extent, but he didn’t manage to become enlightened by so doing. Instead, he intuited, jhāna was a more likely route to spiritual liberation. Why should this be? We can only speculate, but my sense is that the teachings of Ālāra and Uddaka explained the āyatanas in terms of unifying oneself with the wider universe. In the āyatanas, certain discriminative faculties — those that produce a sense of spacial separateness — are progressively shut down. (These faculties are a function of the brain’s parietal lobes, which become less active in non-dual meditation.) This sense of religious union would fit with pre-Buddhist views of there being an atman (Self) that is part of a larger “Brahman” (a cosmic reality). Ālāra and Uddaka may not have used those precise terms, but a sense of unity with the cosmos is a common religious trope, and it’s reasonable to assume that they saw that experience as the desired outcome of practice.

What does jhāna do? What is its function? It allows us to focus in exquisite detail on minute aspects of our experience. And that allows us to see that everything that constitutes the self — or what we take to be the self — is in fact an experience that is changing moment by moment. By repeating this minute examination of our experience, we come to the realization that there is no possibility of there being a separate self that needs to be unified with the cosmos.

The Buddha in fact was fond of saying:

I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering and stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.

Although we would often like the Buddha to be like a modern scientist, in some important respects he wasn’t. He didn’t seem particularly interested in what we would think of “cosmic” questions, and in fact saw them as distractions from the spiritual life. After all, at the Buddha’s time, when it came to questions of whether the universe was finite or infinite, had a beginning or was eternal, etc., there was no possibility of doing more than speculating. These cosmic topics are all matters that the Buddha thought of as being useless subjects for discussion. Rather than indulging in speculation, he preferred to put his attention onto matters where he could have knowledge arising from direct observation. In that regard he did, in an important sense, take a scientific approach. And his work was akin to that of a scientist who finds that in order to understand the nature of stars, we must look at how subatomic particles behave. The way to understand our place in the cosmos, the Buddha was suggesting, is to examine ourselves. And this is what jhāna allows us to do. Jhāna supports insight.

In the Buddha’s view, samatha (the cultivation of the jhānas) and vipassanā (the cultivation of insight) were not mutually exclusive or antagonistic activities, which is how they are sometimes seen today. In the Samaññaphala Sutta, for example, the Buddha describes the practitioner moving deeper into the jhānas and then, “With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision.” Jhāna makes it easier for the mind to observe impermanence through minute examination of our experience, and thus makes it easier for insight to arise. Conversely, insight also makes it easier for jhāna to arise, and so he says elsewhere, “There’s no jhāna For one with no wisdom (pañña), No wisdom for one with no jhaāna).” Samatha and vipassanā are complementary and synergistic.

If you want to know your place in the universe, it may seem intuitively obvious that you need to reflect on (or speculate on) the universe. So it was a radical departure on the Buddha’s part to withdraw from speculation on the universe, and to turn his attention inwards. It was also a radical departure for him to turn away from the experience of the formless spheres, which bring about a temporary sense of unification of self and cosmos, but which do not entirely remove our self-clinging. It was a massive leap of intuitive wisdom for the Buddha to arrive at the conclusion, “Jhāna is the way to Awakening.”

But why, having failed to gain insight through the āyatanas, should the Buddha have kept them as part of his teaching? Wouldn’t it make more sense to jettison the formless spheres and focus exclusively on the jhānas? I see two possible reasons for him doing this.

First, the assumptions that Ālāra and Uddaka made about the āyatanas (that they were an experience of a permanent self uniting with the universe) may have been the main reason that the Buddha didn’t find them conducive to insight, assuming, as is likely, that he’d picked up on the same assumptions. Stripped of those assumptions, experience of the formless spheres, he may have reckoned, may be more spiritually useful.

Second, the experience of the āyatanas, even if it doesn’t lead directly to insight, does a valuable job in changing our sense of self. Learning that our sense of self is malleable may not directly help us to lose our attachment to that self, but it does help us to loosen such attachments. There can be less grasping after something that is fluid and malleable rather than something that is solid. Experience of the āyatanas helps us to appreciate that our sense of self is not fixed, but can be dramatically different than it normally is. In my own experience, the altered states of self-perception that I experienced in the formless spheres did seem to have a bearing on my later experience of non-self.

A parallel is to be found in that way that experience of psychedelic drugs has brought many people to Dharma practice. Having had the experience that their “normal” sense of reality is just one possible configuration of their experience can lead some to wonder what other modes of perception there might be. Psychedelics have even been used experimentally to help treat anxiety and depression — conditions that tend to involve a very fixed sense of self — sometimes bringing about long-term positive change very rapidly.

So, the Buddha had no formal experience of the jhānas until shortly before his awakening. He had not been trained in the jhānas by Ālā ra and Uddaka, although he did have extensive experience of the āyatanas. The intuition that jhāna might be the way to Awakening was the beginning of a process whereby he began to explore his experience in minute detail, learning to observe its impermanence. And it was through this means that he became Awakened.

It’s time to lay aside the notion that the āyatanas are jhānas, and that they can only be experienced by traversing the jhānas. It’s time also to lay aside the very non-traditional notion that the samatha (cultivating the jhānas) and vipassanā (cultivating insight) are mutually antagonistic activities, and to recognize them as synergistic parts of one path.

And lastly, it’s time to recognize the radicalness of the Buddha’s decision to turn his attention away from meditations that lead to an apparent unity of the self with the cosmos, the radicalness of using jhāna to hone the mind into a powerful focused instrument, and even the radicalness of refusing to settle for the blissful and peaceful experiences that arise in jhāna, so that he could enter into a minute examination of the nature of his experience and find that there was, in a sense, no self there.

Rather than jhāna acting to “hide reality from the practitioner,” as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, it is jhāna that allows us to lay reality bare, so that we may attain awakening.

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