Buddhaghosa

You are the child of all beings

A well-known Buddhist teaching explains that all (or at least most) beings have, at one time or another in the inconceivable past, been close family members:

From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration [saṃsāra]. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating and wandering on [literally “saṃsāra-ing”]. A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find. [Māta sutta]

A millennium or so later this was elaborated by Buddhaghosa into a reflective practice, so that we contemplate in detail how any person we’re feeling resentful of has, at some point in the past, as our mother, carried us in her womb, given birth to us, suckled us, and taken care of us. And as our father, this being has previously worked tirelessly and took great risks to provide for us, and even went to war to protect us.

The point of this practice is to eliminate ill will. Recognizing the debt we owe to others, we can think, “It is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that hinge upon a belief in rebirth, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each moment we die and are reborn.

This is what I think the Buddha had in mind, rather than literal rebirth, when he said in the Dhatu-Vibhanga Sutta:

Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long?

If there’s only a constant process of death and rebirth, moment by moment, then there’s no “thing” that can be born, age, or die. Thus there’s nothing to mourn or fear, or to long for.

If we look closely at our own moments of death and rebirth, we see that ultimately each one of them takes place not with us as an isolated unit, but as an inextricable part of a greater whole. Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth.

Each perception is the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, or even think of someone, a new experience arises and we change; in a sense, we die and are reborn with every contact we have with another being.

Right now, as you read these words, my thoughts are echoing in your mind, evoking new experiences. Each word gives birth to a new you that didn’t exist a moment before.

And since the constellation of experiences that is me arises in dependence upon many other beings, your reading this article right now connects you to everyone who has ever been in my life, everyone who has been in those people’s lives, and ultimately all beings who are or have existed.

And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers and fathers.

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Dealing with resentment (Day 47)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Resentment is seductive. We assume on some level that it’s going to help us, but it doesn’t. It just causes us pain.

This is something that just about all of us need help with.

1600 years ago, a compiler of and commentator on Buddhist texts called Buddhaghosa put together an extraordinary “tool kit” of ways to deal with resentment. I was recently looking at this guidance, which is part of Buddhaghosa’s encyclopedic work on meditation, The Visuddhi Magga, or Path of Purity, and thought it was so fresh, well thought-out, and relevant that it was worth restating some of what he had to say.

Twelve techniques for getting rid of resentment

1. Lovingkindness practice

This one’s pretty obvious — if you’re a meditator at least. You can simply call to mind the person you’re resentful of, and cultivate good will toward them. We have a whole section of this site devoted to teaching the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice, so I won’t say much about that here, except that it does work! When I first started practicing meditation I had a lot of problems with resentment, and I was often surprised by how quickly my anger and resentment toward someone would just vanish.

2. Reflect that resentment is never justified

Buddhaghosa suggests that we “reflect upon the saw.”

This one needs a bit of unpacking. There’s a “Simile of the Saw” in the early Buddhist scriptures, where the Buddha says that even if bandits brutally sawed a person limb from limb, “he who entertained hate in his heart would not be one that carried out my teaching.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what the provocation is, hatred is never justified. The mind can go “but … but …” as much as it likes, but hatred remains a negative emotion that destroys our happiness, causes suffering for others, and prevents us from experiencing peace.

Pretty much all of us, though, carry around the idea that there’s such a thing as “righteous resentment.” And we assume that hatred is justified. We tell ourselves stories about how bad the other person is, and this seems to make it natural for us to hate them. What we’re not doing is taking responsibility for our ill will. It’s our interpretation of other people’s actions that makes us hate them. We cause our own hate.

Don’t take the parable of the saw literally. Of course (unless you’re an advanced practitioner of superhuman stature) you’d experience hatred toward an aggressor who was torturing you. That wouldn’t mean that you weren’t a Buddhist — but it would mean that in the moment of hatred you would not “be one that carried out [the Buddha’s] teaching.” The point of the parable is simply to undermine the idea of “righteous resentment.”

Incidentally, some Tibetan monks and nuns who have been brutally tortured by Chinese security forces have avoided developing hatred toward their tormentors by means of compassion — reflecting that their torturers are building up bad karma for themselves.

3. Winning the real battle

Hot on the heels of the advice to reflect on the parable of the saw is an admonition to reflect that in developing hatred you’re actually giving a person who hates you what they want. (This is assuming that the other person hates you, which isn’t always the case.)

What does a person who hates you want for you? Bad stuff, that’s what. Buddhaghosa points out that hatred makes you ugly, causes you pain, destroys your good fortune, causes you to lose your wealth (or not to create any, perhaps because you’re distracted), detracts from your reputation, loses you friends, and leads to a bad rebirth. This is all bad stuff.

Someone who really hated you might wish all these things on you, and here you are doing them to yourself! You’re handing your hater victory. You’re doing him or her a favor. And by getting angry at an angry person, Buddhaghosa says, you become worse than them, and “do not win the battle hard to win,” which is of course the battle with yourself, to remain happy and unruffled.

So basically, we reflect here that true victory can’t come from getting angry at an angry person. That’s defeat. Victory comes from remaining calm, loving, and equanimous.

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4. “Accentuate the positive”

Buddhaghosa suggests that we think about something positive in the other person, so that you can “remove irritation.”

This works, too. Resentment doesn’t like complexity. When you bear in mind someone’s good points — even things (dammit!) that we admire — it’s harder to keep the resentment going.

5. Develop compassion

But if you can’t think of anything positive about the other person, or if they truly don’t have any positive qualities (although that’s almost impossible) then you should develop compassion toward them. In Buddhaghosa’s world view, a person with no redeeming qualities is bound for the torments of the hell realms, and is therefore worthy of our compassion. I should stress that in Buddhism the hells are not permanent and are not punishments — they are simply places where we are reborn for a while as a result of our actions. Buddhist hells are a kind of “fat farm” where we burn off our bad karma.

6. Notice how you’re causing yourself suffering

As Ann Lamott points out, resentment hurts us. Buddhaghosa offers many reflections along those lines:

If another person has hurt us, why should we then hurt ourselves? In your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness, so why not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable? If another person has done something we disapprove of, then why do something (like getting angry) that we would also disapprove of? If someone wants you to get angry, why give them the satisfaction? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself. The thing you got angry about is impermanent and in the past. So why are you angry now?

He’s kind of unrelenting, that Buddhaghosa.

7. Reflect that all beings are the owners of their karma

This is a common reflection in Buddhism: all beings create their own actions (kamma) and inherit the consequences of those actions. The other person may have done things that are unskillful, and those actions will cause them suffering. So what’s the point of you doing exactly the same thing, by acting out of the unskillful state of resentment? It’s like picking up a hot coal to throw at the other person. You may hurt them, but you’re definitely going to hurt yourself.

The other person, if they are angry with you, is causing themselves pain. It’s like, Buddhaghosa says, them throwing a handful of dust into the wind. They may be aiming at you, but it’s their eyes that will end up smarting.

Reflecting in this way we can untangle our respective lives. The other person’s faults, real or imagined, are no longer an occasion for us to exercise our own faults.

8. Reflect on exemplars of patience

Buddhaghosa goes a bit over the top with this one, devoting almost as much time on this method of dispelling resentment as he does on all the others put together. His approach is to remind us of various past lives of the Buddha, or jataka tales, as they’re called. These are mythological stories about the Buddha’s previous lives, as he developed the qualities of compassion and wisdom that led to his awakening.

I’ve found that being in the presence of someone who is very patient causes me to let go of my resentments. I had a good friend in Scotland who I never — not once — heard say an unkind word about anyone. Sometimes I’d be bitching about someone else, and my friend would just come in with some wise and kind word about the other person’s life that would put everything in perspective and leave me feeling a bit petty about having ranted. Even now, just calling that friend to mind helps me evoke a sense of patience.

9. Reflect that all beings have been your dearest friends and relations in a previous life

I’m not big on past lives, or in belief in rebirth generally, but if you do take that kind of thing seriously, then Buddhaghosa’s advice is to remember that because of the beginninglessness of time, every being — including those you get most pissed off with — have been your mother, father, brother, sister, son, and daughter. When that person was your mother, they carried you in their womb, suckled you, wiped away your snot and shit, and generally lavished you with love. And we can reflect, Buddhaghosa says, thus: “So, it is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being one of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that rely on assuming that rebirth is a reality rather than a myth, or perhaps a metaphor, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each reborn in every moment. Each moment we die and are reborn.

Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth. In fact, each perception is a kind of birth. It’s the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each contact that we have with another being is part of this process. Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, even think or someone, a new experience arises and a new being is born. So in this way, all beings that we have contact with are our mothers. Each being we have contact with in this moment helps give birth to the being that exists in this moment. And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers.

10. Reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness

You can reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness, and how you’ll deny yourself those benefits by indulging in resentment. What are the benefits? Well, it’s worth reflecting on that through examining your own experience, but here’s Buddhaghosa’s list, which comes from the scriptures: You’ll sleep in comfort, wake in comfort, and dream no evil dreams. You’ll be dear to human beings and to non-human beings. Deities will guard you. Fire and poison and weapons won’t harm you (although that seems unlikely, to say the least). More plausibly, your mind will be easily concentrated. You’ll be reborn in a pleasant realm (or at the very least the future you that arises will have more a pleasant existence than the being that would have arisen had lovingkindness not been a part of its previous existence).

Some of these are plausible. There is scientific research showing that there are health benefits, and mental health benefits, from practicing lovingkindness meditation. Friendly people generally seem to have a more pleasant experience of the world, with less conflict and more fulfilling experience of others. You’ll deny yourself these benefits if you indulge in resentment. Resentment is the saturated fat of emotions, clogging the arteries of our happiness.

11. Break the other person into tiny pieces

Mentally (not physically!) we can dissolve the object of our resentment into various elements, asking ourselves what exactly we’re angry with. Is it the head hairs, the body hairs, the nails, the teeth, etc? Is it the solid matter making up that person, the liquid, the gas, the energy?

This might seem a little silly. In fact it seemed silly to me, right up to the moment that I tried it. There had been resistance to the idea, because I thought, “Well, of course I’m not angry with any of those things, I’m angry with them — with the person as a whole. But setting that resistance aside, and just reflecting on the bits that make up a person takes you away from the thought of them “as a whole” and you temporarily can’t be angry with them!

As Buddhaghosa says, “When he tries the resolution into elements, his anger finds no foothold, like a mustard seed on the point of a needle.”

He’s right.

12. Give a gift

This one’s delightfully straightforward and earthy. If you give the other person a gift — especially something you value — then you break the dynamic of your resentment. You shake things up within yourself. You have to think of the other person as a human being with needs. You have to think about what they might like. You stop your mind from going around and around in the same old rut of complaining. You have to let go of your damned pride. You have to take a risk. You have to make yourself vulnerable.

And giving to the other person changes the dynamic of the relationship. If there’s mutual resentment, then you may shock the other person into seeing you differently.

Buddhaghosa points out that giving naturally leads to kind speech:

Through giving gifts they do unbend
And condescend to kindly speech.

Of course you may be thinking something along the lines of, “Wait! I hate this person; why on earth would I give them something?”

But that just brings up another question. Do you want to end your resentment?

Well, do you?

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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How to get rid of resentment

Ann Lamott, in her novel Crooked Little Heart, says that holding onto resentment is like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.

Resentment is seductive. We assume on some level that it’s going to help us, but it doesn’t. It just causes us pain.

This is something that just about all of us need help with.

1600 years ago, a compiler and commenter of Buddhist texts called Buddhaghosa put together an extraordinary “tool kit” of ways to deal with resentment. I was recently looking at this guidance, which is part of Buddhaghosa’s encyclopedic work on meditation, The Visuddhi Magga, or Path of Purity, and thought it was so fresh, well thought-out, and relevant that it was worth restating some of what he had to say.

Twelve techniques for getting rid of resentment

1. Lovingkindness practice

This one’s pretty obvious — if you’re a meditator at least. You can simply call to mind the person you’re resentful of, and cultivate good will toward them. We have a whole section of this site devoted to teaching the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice, so I won’t say much about that here, except that it does work! When I first started practicing meditation I had a lot of problems with resentment, and I was often surprised by how quickly my anger and resentment toward someone would just vanish.

2. Reflect that resentment is never justified

Buddhaghosa suggests that we “reflect upon the saw.”

This one needs a bit of unpacking. There’s a “Simile of the Saw” in the early Buddhist scriptures, where the Buddha says that even if bandits brutally sawed a person limb from limb, “he who entertained hate in his heart would not be one that carried out my teaching.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what the provocation is, hatred is never justified. The mind can go “but … but …” as much as it likes, but hatred remains a negative emotion that destroys our happiness, causes suffering for others, and prevents us from experiencing peace.

Pretty much all of us, though, carry around the idea that there’s such a thing as “righteous resentment.” And we assume that hatred is justified. We tell ourselves stories about how bad the other person is, and this seems to make it natural for us to hate them. What we’re not doing is taking responsibility for our ill will. It’s our interpretation of other people’s actions that makes us hate them. We cause our own hate.

Don’t take the parable of the saw literally. Of course (unless you’re an advanced practitioner of superhuman stature) you’d experience hatred toward an aggressor who was torturing you. That wouldn’t mean that you weren’t a Buddhist — but it would mean that in the moment of hatred you would not “be one that carried out [the Buddha’s] teaching.” The point of the parable is simply to undermine the idea of “righteous resentment.”

Incidentally, some Tibetan monks and nuns who have been brutally tortured by Chinese security forces have avoided developing hatred toward their tormentors by means of compassion — reflecting that their torturers are building up bad karma for themselves.

3. Winning the real battle

Hot on the heels of the advice to reflect on the parable of the saw is an admonition to reflect that in developing hatred you’re actually giving a person who hates you what they want. (This is assuming that the other person hates you, which isn’t always the case.)

What does a person who hates you want for you? Bad stuff, that’s what. Buddhaghosa points out that hatred makes you ugly, causes you pain, destroys your good fortune, causes you to lose your wealth (or not to create any, perhaps because you’re distracted), detracts from your reputation, loses you friends, and leads to a bad rebirth. This is all bad stuff.

Someone who really hated you might wish all these things on you, and here you are doing them to yourself! You’re handing your hater victory. You’re doing him or her a favor. And by getting angry at an angry person, Buddhaghosa says, you become worse than them, and “do not win the battle hard to win,” which is of course the battle with yourself, to remain happy and unruffled.

So basically, we reflect here that true victory can’t come from getting angry at an angry person. That’s defeat. Victory comes from remaining calm, loving, and equanimous.

4. “Accentuate the positive”

Buddhaghosa suggests that we think about something positive in the other person, so that you can “remove irritation.”

This works, too. Resentment doesn’t like complexity. When you bear in mind someone’s good points — even things (dammit!) that we admire — it’s harder to keep the resentment going.

5. Develop compassion

But if you can’t think of anything positive about the other person, or if they truly don’t have any positive qualities (although that’s almost impossible) then you should develop compassion toward them. In Buddhaghosa’s world view, a person with no redeeming qualities is bound for the torments of the hell realms, and is therefore worthy of our compassion. I should stress that in Buddhism the hells are not permanent and are not punishments — they are simply places where we are reborn for a while as a result of our actions. Buddhist hells are a kind of “fat farm” where we burn off our bad karma.

6. Notice how you’re causing yourself suffering

As Ann Lamott points out, resentment hurts us. Buddhaghosa offers many reflections along those lines:

If another person has hurt us, why should we then hurt ourselves? In your life you’ve had to give up many things that brought you happiness, so why not walk away from resentment, which makes you miserable? If another person has done something we disapprove of, then why do something (like getting angry) that we would also disapprove of? If someone wants you to get angry, why give them the satisfaction? You may make the other person suffer with your anger. Then again you may not. But you’ll definitely hurt yourself. The thing you got angry about is impermanent and in the past. So why are you angry now?

He’s kind of unrelenting, that Buddhaghosa.

7. Reflect that all beings are the owners of their karma

This is a common reflection in Buddhism: all beings create their own actions (kamma) and inherit the consequences of those actions. The other person may have done things that are unskillful, and those actions will cause them suffering. So what’s the point of you doing exactly the same thing, by acting out of the unskillful state of resentment? It’s like picking up a hot coal to throw at the other person. You may hurt them, but you’re definitely going to hurt yourself.

The other person, if they are angry with you, is causing themselves pain. It’s like, Buddhaghosa says, them throwing a handful of dust into the wind. They may be aiming at you, but it’s their eyes that will end up smarting.

Reflecting in this way we can untangle our respective lives. The other person’s faults, real or imagined, are no longer an occasion for us to exercise our own faults.

8. Reflect on exemplars of patience

Buddhaghosa goes a bit over the top with this one, devoting almost as much time on this method of dispelling resentment as he does on all the others put together. His approach is to remind us of various past lives of the Buddha, or jataka tales, as they’re called. These are mythological stories about the Buddha’s previous lives, as he developed the qualities of compassion and wisdom that led to his awakening.

I’ve found that being in the presence of someone who is very patient causes me to let go of my resentments. I had a good friend in Scotland who I never — not once — heard say an unkind word about anyone. Sometimes I’d be bitching about someone else, and my friend would just come in with some wise and kind word about the other person’s life that would put everything in perspective and leave me feeling a bit petty about having ranted. Even now, just calling that friend to mind helps me evoke a sense of patience.

9. Reflect that all beings have been your dearest friends and relations in a previous life

I’m not big on past lives, or in belief in rebirth generally, but if you do take that kind of thing seriously, then Buddhaghosa’s advice is to remember that because of the beginninglessness of time, every being — including those you get most pissed off with — have been your mother, father, brother, sister, son, and daughter. When that person was your mother, they carried you in their womb, suckled you, wiped away your snot and shit, and generally lavished you with love. And we can reflect, Buddhaghosa says, thus: “So, it is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being one of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that rely on assuming that rebirth is a reality rather than a myth, or perhaps a metaphor, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each reborn in every moment. Each moment we die and are reborn.

Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth. In fact, each perception is a kind of birth. It’s the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each contact that we have with another being is part of this process. Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, even think or someone, a new experience arises and a new being is born. So in this way, all beings that we have contact with are our mothers. Each being we have contact with in this moment helps give birth to the being that exists in this moment. And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers.

10. Reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness

You can reflect on the benefits of lovingkindness, and how you’ll deny yourself those benefits by indulging in resentment. What are the benefits? Well, it’s worth reflecting on that through examining your own experience, but here’s Buddhaghosa’s list, which comes from the scriptures: You’ll sleep in comfort, wake in comfort, and dream no evil dreams. You’ll be dear to human beings and to non-human beings. Deities will guard you. Fire and poison and weapons won’t harm you (although that seems unlikely, to say the least). More plausibly, your mind will be easily concentrated. You’ll be reborn in a pleasant realm (or at the very least the future you that arises will have more a pleasant existence than the being that would have arisen had lovingkindness not been a part of its previous existence).

Some of these are plausible. There is scientific research showing that there are health benefits, and mental health benefits, from practicing lovingkindness meditation. Friendly people generally seem to have a more pleasant experience of the world, with less conflict and more fulfilling experience of others. You’ll deny yourself these benefits if you indulge in resentment. Resentment is the saturated fat of emotions, clogging the arteries of our happiness.

11. Break the other person into tiny pieces

Mentally (not physically!) we can dissolve the object of our resentment into various elements, asking ourselves what exactly we’re angry with. Is it the head hairs, the body hairs, the nails, the teeth, etc? Is it the solid matter making up that person, the liquid, the gas, the energy?

This might seem a little silly. In fact it seemed silly to me, right up to the moment that I tried it. There had been resistance to the idea, because I thought, “Well, of course I’m not angry with any of those things, I’m angry with them — with the person as a whole. But setting that resistance aside, and just reflecting on the bits that make up a person takes you away from the thought of them “as a whole” and you temporarily can’t be angry with them!

As Buddhaghosa says, “When he tries the resolution into elements, his anger finds no foothold, like a mustard seed on the point of a needle.”

He’s right.

12. Give a gift

This one’s delightfully straightforward and earthy. If you give the other person a gift — especially something you value — then you break the dynamic of your resentment. You shake things up within yourself. You have to think of the other person as a human being with needs. You have to think about what they might like. You stop your mind from going around and around in the same old rut of complaining. You have to let go of your damned pride. You have to take a risk. You have to make yourself vulnerable.

And giving to the other person changes the dynamic of the relationship. If there’s mutual resentment, then you may shock the other person into seeing you differently.

Buddhaghosa points out that giving naturally leads to kind speech:

Through giving gifts they do unbend
And condescend to kindly speech.

Of course you may be thinking something along the lines of, “Wait! I hate this person; why on earth would I give them something?”

But that just brings up another question. Do you want to end your resentment?

Well, do you?

Read More

“The Meditator’s Atlas: A Roadmap of the Inner World” by Matthew Flickstein

The Meditator's Atlas

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What is the Buddhist Path? Can we become spiritually awakened through meditation alone, or do we have to take a more rounded approach? If we’re already free, why do we need to follow a path anyway? Looking for answers, Tejananda, long-term Buddhist practitioner and meditation teacher, follows The Meditator’s Atlas on a spiritual road trip to purification.

The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) is Buddhaghosa’s classic commentary on the way to full awakening. Buddhaghosa was a fifth-century Indian exponent of the Theravada or “Doctrine of The Elders” school. The Theravada bases its approach on the Pali canon which contains some of the earliest extant records of the Buddha and his teachings.

See also:

While it’s an invaluable resource for meditators, the Visuddhimagga is a huge tome and it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Matthew Flickstein’s “The Meditator’s Atlas” (formerly titled Swallowing the River Ganges and now totally revised) is a fairly short and clearly written commentary on the Visuddhimagga. It not only elucidates the nature of the path of insight according to Buddhaghosa, but also provides useful tools and meditations for every stage of that path, many of them based on the Satipatthana Sutta, the discourse on the foundations of mindfulness.

But what is the Buddhist path? In a telling passage right at the end of the book, Matthew Flickstein writes:

All paths, religions and spiritual practices are just more stories. There is ultimately nothing that we need to do or practice, since we are already free. And, again, the greatest freedom is freedom from the illusion that we are not already free – and all maps of the true spiritual journey lead us right to where we are.

So the question naturally arises “what stops us being where we are already?” Different Buddhist traditions have somewhat different approaches, different paths (including, naturally, the “path of no-path”) but all of them inevitably have to address the fundamental issue. We suffer because we unquestioningly believe that things are other than they actually are. This erroneous belief — delusion — leads us to fixate on what we take to be our “self” and we uphold this “self-view” by constantly engaging in stratagems of craving, grasping and aversion, and revulsion. The underlying delusion and these stratagems that arise from it — the “three poisons” — are what are preventing us from being “right where we are.”

Buddhaghosa outlines a “path of purification” leading to the eradication of the three poisons and the consequent realization of nibbana (nirvana). According to the author,

Although nibbana cannot be realized without having completed the purification process, nibbana does not arise as a result of the process. Nibbana is a self-subsistent reality that is not the result of anything. By following the path of purification, we merely eradicate the delusions and perceptual distortions that prevent us from discerning this ultimate truth.

The path –- and the book –- is structured round the fundamental “three trainings” of virtue, meditation and wisdom, subdivided into seven stages of purification. Acts that arise from craving or aversion — unethical behaviors of every kind – “sabotage the possibility of realizing the deeper states of spiritual purification.” Sitting meditation alone is not enough: “To reach the pinnacle of spiritual realization, we must align every aspect of our lives with that goal.” So the path begins with the purification of virtue (though it is never left behind). The author details the practice of the main precepts and the importance of “guarding the sense doors” against impulses of greed, hatred or delusion, while cultivating their opposites: generosity, loving-kindness and clarity of mind.

Then, “the purification of virtue manifests as states of mind unstained by thoughts or feelings of remorse.” This is the basis for the next stage, purification of mind, which is primarily about the cultivation of what the author (in common with many others) refers to as “concentration” of mind. It’s an unfortunate term, given possible connotations of furrowed brows; I think alternatives like “one pointedness,” “absorption,” or “integration” have much more helpful connotations. Nevertheless, whatever you call it, it’s a necessary quality, although, as the author points out, teachers differ greatly as to how much concentration is necessary for the cultivation of insight. Most of this section is, quite sensibly, devoted to one concentration practice –- mindfulness of breathing –- rather than the forty that Buddhaghosa outlines in the Visuddhimagga.

There are some useful observations in this section. For example, people sometimes comment that at a certain point the breathing “seems to disappear.” This can be taken as a “good sign,” or it can lead to anxiety and a loss of absorption. The author comments, “The reason we cannot perceive the breaths is because our concentration is not strong enough. If we keep our focus on the touch-point and make a concerted effort, we will be able to perceive the breathing process once again.”

A helpful emphasis of the book is that, although the author details the potential for deeper levels of absorption (jhana), he also brings out the potential for insight-cultivation on the basis of initial concentration. As he points out “unless we have an extended period of time to devote to the practice of serenity meditation, and have the proper environmental and teaching support, we face an extremely difficult challenge when we pursue the attainment of these jhanas.” If we believe that “insight meditation” can only be effective on the basis of extensive experience of the jhanas, we may hold back from insight reflections that we are perfectly ready for, and hinder our penetration into the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.

All paths, religions and spiritual practices are just more stories.

And it’s the path of insight (wisdom) that most of the rest of the book is about. The ways to insight that he describes are mainly around the contemplation of the impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless nature of body, feelings, consciousness and dhammas (“phenomena”). But he covers a lot of ground, including all the stages of purification, and a lot of approaches, including elimination of the five “hindrances,” walking meditation, balanced effort and mindfulness of pain. Particularly helpful are the exercises and practical hints he provides for approaching each area of practice. For example, in the area of mindfulness of pain, he recommends sitting completely still for long enough that pains begin to appear. The issue with pain, he writes, “more than the unpleasant feeling itself is the fear of being overwhelmed by the experience” which leads to mental and physical tightening, intensifying the unpleasant experience. By softening and settling into the painful feeling, he suggests, we begin to see through our misperceptions about it. “We will then be able to … discover that there is no pain in the knee, back or other location as such. The place in which we feel the pain actually keeps shifting from moment to moment. Further, … between pulsations of pain, there is the absence of pain.”

The exercises, reflecting the Path of Purification itself, are carefully and progressively structured. Of course, when reading a book such as this, it’s always a temptation to skip the earlier and apparently less exciting stages. This is one reason why a book alone is not really enough without access to personal teaching or mentoring –- exactly as most books on meditation emphasize. However, any degree of penetration into the truths of the Dharma can have a revolutionary effect –- including what here appear to be preliminary exercises. If there is any area that is given slightly short shrift, it’s the place of positive emotions such as loving kindness in the path of insight, which Buddhaghosa does cover in some detail. But to deal with that adequately may have needed a much longer book. Overall, The Meditator’s Atlas is a helpful adjunct for those already practicing within a sangha (the general approach sits quite harmoniously with that taught in the Triratna Buddhist Community, in which I practice) and a good overview of the path for those new to meditation.

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The purity of no-self

Diamond Are we fundamentally sinful beings? Or fundamentally pure? Or somewhere in between those two extremes? Even within the body of Buddhist teachings there is a variety of ways of looking at human nature. Buddhist scholar and practitioner Justin Whitaker tries to bring some clarity to the murky area of purity.

The notion of purification can be a puzzling one for the modern Dharma practitioner. Am I impure? Is there something, somewhere deep inside me, that is bad or wrong and must be gotten rid of? Such questions ruffle my brow, yet it turns out that they point to one of Buddhism’s fundamental teachings. Like many Westerners practicing the Dharma today, I was born into a Christian society and attended church for much of my youth. Also, like many others, I felt uncomfortable with teachings of sin and guilt and rejected this aspect of my upbringing. In turn I looked to humanism and eventually Buddhism for what I took to be a more open and optimistic outlook. So when the Buddhist notion of purification is raised, I tend to put on my skeptic’s hat.

What does Buddhism have to say about purification? On the one hand is the anecdotal but telling story from a friend of mine who lives in Malta. The island was recently visited by a reputable Tibetan Lama giving teachings on Powa (‘pho ba, the Tibetan teaching on conscious dying). As the story goes, , during a question-and-answer period, one of the students asked the Lama, “is the goal of Buddhism that we purify ourselves, to become pure beings?” The Lama immediately and vehemently replied, “Nothing to purify! Already perfect pure!”

 …one often hears that we are enlightened already; all we need to do is realize it!  

Throughout Mahayana Buddhism, which encompasses Tibetan, Ch’an, Zen, Korean, Vietnamese, and influences most Western forms of Buddhism, there is this teaching of fundamental purity. Deep within us is an undefiled purity – as the Lama said, ultimately we are, “perfect pure!” The Sanskrit term for this deep purity is the Tathagatagarbha, the “womb of enlightenment.” Based primarily on this doctrine, one often hears that we are enlightened already; all we need to do is realize it!

On the other hand there are many teachings in Buddhism that suggest that the spiritual life is a path. This path leads away from our current greed, hatred, and delusion (a.k.a. samsara), and guides us towards calm, equanimity, joy, and swift responsiveness to the needs and sufferings of all beings (nibbana, nirvana). Foremost amongst these teachings is the Visuddhimagga, the Path of Purification.

This massive tome, written in the 5th century by the Theravadin monk Buddhaghosa, describes the path of virtue or morality, concentration, and wisdom. It suggests that these steps are sequential, first one perfects morality, then concentration, and finally wisdom. From this teaching we may surmise that there really are things within us that need purification. We are, as beginners, defiled by our wrong views, our lack of mindfulness, and our immoral deeds. So in a sense we are impure.

There seem to be two different teachings here: one saying that we are pure and just need to wake up to that, and the other saying that we are impure and need to follow the path laid forth by the Buddha to attain purity or our own awakening. Which is right?

 The absence of self is not merely an absence, but a connectedness, a fullness beyond description.  

Without going into too much metaphysical detail, I think we can see that both are correct. Deep down, all of Buddhism affirms our purity because all of Buddhism affirms the teaching of no-self. Sin is not at our core, but neither is some sort of pure being, or any thing that we just need to uncover. At the core is no-core. Very Zen, right?

Yet no-self is not a teaching of nihilistic self-denial or an abrogation of our responsibilities. One influential Mahayana text, the Avatamsaka (Flower Garland) Sutra, provides us with a useful image for understanding this, that of a celestial jeweled net. When we look closely into any jewel in the net, what we find is every other jewel reflected; likewise the more deeply we look within, the more deeply we see our fundamental interconnectedness with everything. The absence of self is not merely an absence, but a connectedness, a fullness beyond description.

But around the core which connects us to all beings is “us,” with all of our bad habits, mistaken ideas, and (most nefarious of all in Buddhism) our very concept of self. Asmi-mana is the Pali phrase, the “conceit I-am.” It refers not to the everyday usage of the words “I am.” The Buddha himself used these. It refers instead to the very deep psychological clinging to a separate identity, like trying to look at a jewel in that net without seeing the others. But that is the way we start out in this world and on the Buddhist path, feeling quite separate, as if our jewel were somehow so far away from the rest. The First and Second Noble Truths of Buddhism affirm the craving and suffering that follow from this feeling of separation.

The Third and Fourth Noble Truths, the “good news” of Buddhism, tell us that suffering can be overcome and provide a path for us to follow. Undertaking the practices of the path allows us to live the wisdom of no-self, to bring this realization into the flesh. Having the understanding of our already enlightened nature can serve as a great comfort and inspiration to begin and stay on the path. But it cannot substitute the steps of moral development, mindful cultivation, and learned inquiry that we find throughout the history of Buddhism in every school and sect.

So, according to Buddhism, we are pure. Impurity is an illusion, so too is the illusion of our separateness – in fact the two are intertwined. Waking up to our interconnectedness, looking within and seeing only infinite reflected jewels; this is goal of the Buddhist path. Yet how often can one simply do this? More often, when we look within we see only a tangled mass of thoughts, images, memories, hopes, and desires obscuring our pure nature. So we embark on the path, our journey through the tangled mass to the purity of no-self.

Justin WhitakerJustin Whitaker holds a Masters degree in Buddhist Studies from Bristol University, England and is currently a Ph.D. student in Buddhist Ethics at the University of London. He has practiced in several Buddhist traditions and is currently practicing with the Western Buddhist Order through the internet with his friend and teacher, Achintya, in Bristol, UK. He lives near Washington DC with his fiancée and (not so) secretly longs to return to his home state of Montana. His personal blog is americanbuddhist.blogspot.com.

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